“FENWAY'S BEST PLAYERS”
James Edward "Pete" Runnels occupies a place in Boston Red Sox history as a stalwart, versatile infielder who learned how to hit from possibly the greatest hitter of all time. He parlayed his tutelage from none other than Ted Williams into two American League batting championships and lost a third title on the last day of the 1958 season to his former teacher.
Runnels was born January 28, 1928, in the logging town of Lufkin, Texas, about 120 miles northeast of Houston. His family, which went by the last name of Runnells, called him "Little Pete" after his father, and the nickname Pete stuck with him throughout his life. Football reigned in most small Texas towns on Friday nights and basketball was popular too, but organized baseball was harder to find. Pete played football (quarterback) and basketball (guard) at Lufkin High School and only played sandlot baseball in the summer.
Upon high school graduation in 1945, Runnels joined the Marines and played more baseball in the service. Once he was discharged in 1948, the Texas native attended a semester at Rice Institute (now Rice University) in Houston, but he still had an itch to play baseball. St. Louis Cardinals Manager Eddie Dyer lived in Houston at the time and advised Pete to stay in college. Upon seeing Pete's determination, however, Dyer invited him to try out with the Cardinals during spring training in 1949. In 1950 Runnels was promoted to the Class B Texarkana Bears of the Big State League, where he "cooled off" to the tune of a .330 average for the Texas-based team. Runnels' hitting exploits gained the attention of the Washington Senators, who purchased his contract for $12,500 and sent him to the Chattanooga Lookouts in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he hit .356 during the first half of 1951. Desperate as always for bats, the hitting-poor Senators club promoted him to the show in mid-season that same year. Pete never returned to the minors after his promotion. He played for Washington until 1958, mostly at shortstop and second base.
Red Sox Manager Pinky Higgins recommended trading for Runnels, and owner Tom Yawkey gave the OK. On January 23, 1958, only 30 years old, Runnels went to Boston for Norm Zauchin and Albie Pearson. It would turn out to be a one-sided deal. Zauchin exited the big leagues early in 1959, and Pearson, though he was named A.L. Rookie of the Year in 1958, was traded to the Baltimore Orioles during the 1959 season. The Red Sox, meanwhile, reaped large dividends from the lopsided trade. In his five years with Boston, Runnels never hit below .314. Furthermore, his versatility in the field made up for his lack of speed. Though he was not known to cover an immense amount of territory, he played all four infield positions for the Sox and led the A.L. in fielding at second base in 1960 and at first base in 1961.
Throughout that first 1958 season with the Red Sox, Runnels was neck and neck for the A.L. batting title with Williams. As the season drew to a close, the Red Sox went to Washington for a final four-game series, and Runnels led Williams by two tenths of a percentage point in the batting race. Williams had been on a tear, hitting .403 over his last 55 games of the season. With two games to go, the men were virtually tied. In the third game, Pete tripled the first time up while Ted walked. The next time up, they both singled. In their next at bats, both homered. Pete was thinking to himself, "What do I have to do to beat this guy?" Unfortunately, that home run was Runnels' last hit of the season, as he went hitless in the final game. Williams, however, got two hits in the last game and wound up winning the crown with a .328 average, while Pete came in second place with a .322 mark. But any sense of deflation was short-lived, as Runnels was named the A.L. Comeback Player of the Year for his efforts.
Runnels always regarded that batting race as the highlight of his career. "Wasn't he capable?" an admiring Runnels said of Williams. But batting championships also proved to be in Pete's future. Without the competition from Williams, Runnels would go on to win the batting championship in 1960 by hitting .320 and again in 1962 by hitting .326.
Major league baseball finally came to Houston in 1962, as the Colt .45's became the first expansion team in Texas. Pete expressed a desire to return to his home state to play, and Yawkey granted him his request. On November 26, the Red Sox traded Runnels to Houston for slugging outfielder Roman Mejias.
Runnels was inducted into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame in 1982 and the Red Sox Hall of Fame in 2004. His career .291 average is higher than many of those in Cooperstown.