“FENWAY'S BEST PLAYERS”
Pete Runnels was born January 28, 1928, in the logging town of Lufkin, Texas, about 120 miles northeast of Houston. 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, Pete 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. He was invited to try out with the Cardinals during spring training in 1949 and was signed.
In 1950 Pete was sent to the Class B Texarkana Bears of the Big State League, where he hit for a .330 average for the Texas-based team. His hitting exploits gained the attention of the Washington Senators, who purchased his contract 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 Mike Higgins recommended trading for Pete, and owner Tom Yawkey gave the OK. In January 1958, only 30 years old, Pete was traded to the Sox. The Red Sox reaped large dividends from the trade. In his five years with Boston, Pete 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, Pete was neck and neck for the A.L. batting title with Ted Williams. As the season drew to a close, the Red Sox went to Washington for a final four-game series, and Pete led Ted by two tenths of a percentage point in the batting race. 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. Unfortunately, that home run was Pete's last hit of the season, as he went hitless in the final game. Ted, 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 Pete was named the A.L. Comeback Player of the Year for his efforts. Pete always regarded that batting race as the highlight of his career.
Without the competition from Ted, Pete 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. In November 1961 the Red Sox traded him to Houston for slugging outfielder Roman Mejias.
After his playing days were over, Runnels returned to the Red Sox as a coach for the 1965 and ’66 seasons and was named interim manager for the last 16 games of the 1966 season when Billy Herman was fired. The Sox hired Dick Williams for their “Impossible Dream” season in 1967, while Runnels retired from baseball at age 38 after the 1966 season.
Runnels returned home to Pasadena, Texas, where he expanded his outside business interests, owning a gas station and a sporting goods store, and was the operator of Camp Champions, a summer camp program in Marble Falls, Texas.
Pete was inducted into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame in 1982 and the Red Sox Hall of Fame in 2004.
Pete Runnels passed away after a heart attack felled him on a golf course on May 20, 1991, at age 63, in Pasadena, Texas.