Name: Louis Victor Piniella
Position: Left fielder
Born: August 28, 1943 (Tampa, FL)
Yankee Years: 1974-84
Primary number: 14
Yankee statistics: 1,037 G, .295/.338/.413, 178 2B, 20 3B, 57 HR, 110 wRC+, 9.3 rWAR, 8.6 fWAR
Thanks to the Iron Horse, “Lou” was already an iconic name in Yankees history when a Tampa native named Louis Piniella first put on the pinstripes in 1974. No one would ever confuse their personalities, but the one trait they shared was a fierce dedication to winning. After an uneven start to his time in the majors, Piniella did quite a bit of winning with the Yankees, helping them secure back-to-back titles in the ‘70s while becoming a fan favorite as “Sweet Lou,” and setting the stage for an impactful post-playing career as well.
Minor league journeyman
Piniella came by his athletic talent naturally, as he was born in Tampa in 1943 to former All-State center Margaret Magadan and semipro pitcher Louis Piniella Sr. Margaret also played softball on boys’ teams, and her nephew, Dave, also eventually became an accomplished big leaguer. It should come as no great shock to those already familiar with Piniella that his parents were fiery competitors as well, so the apple didn’t fall from the tree there.
Lou naturally played his share of baseball growing up, but he initially leaned closer to his mother’s preferred sport. He was an All-American at Jesuit High School and once scored 54 points in a game, a Tampa record that stood for nearly 40 years, per his SABR bio. A falling out with his high school baseball coach only pushed him closer to basketball and he attended the University of Tampa on a scholarship — one which fell apart after a busted ankle.
Piniella pivoted back to baseball and soon caught Cleveland’s attention. He was signed in June 1962, just a few years before the MLB Draft would have made him a potential pick. He was a couple months shy of 19 when he signed, and it took him six long years with five different teams before becoming a major-league regular.
Piniella was not in Cleveland’s organization for long; after one year at .270/.292/.428 in 70 games with the Class D Selma Cloverleafs, he was selected by the Washington Senators in a November draft similar to the Rule 5 draft. He was promoted to Class A and hit .310 with a .465 slugging percentage in 143 games for the Peninsula Senators of Hampton, Virginia, but again he was sent away after just one season (albeit with another interrupted by National Guard service).
Dealt to the Orioles as a player to be named later for righty starter Buster Narum, Piniella actually made his MLB debut in early September of that year since the Orioles needed an outfielder for a few games. As a pinch-hitter, he grounded out to second base in his first at-bat on September 4, 1964 against the Angels. It would be four years until his next MLB plate appearance.
The 21-year-old split time between the Florida Instructional League and the Double-A Elmira Pioneers in ‘65, then found himself traded yet again during the next spring training. Piniella returned to Cleveland in a deal for unspectacular catcher Camilo Carreon, and he reported to Triple-A Portland. He languished there for three years, only receiving one September call-up in ‘68 despite hitting .303/.336/.434 for Portland from 1966-68. Cleveland management simply seemed uninterested in giving Piniella a chance.
When Lou finally was called up in September ‘68, he made just six plate appearances with no success. Looking back on those frustrating days, Piniella recalled “I had real good years [there], but every time I reported for spring training, they’d send me back to the minors. I was really getting disgruntled.”
At age 25, Piniella decided that he would quit baseball if he was not selected by any of the teams in the expansion draft; he was done dealing with the Cleveland organization. Fortunately, Piniella was taken by the Pilots in mid-October of ‘68, which meant he might stay in the Northwest, where he was well-known and liked for his feats in Portland. Piniella’s time with the Pilots and eventually-iconic angry antics on the field led to him ironically being nicknamed “Sweet Lou,” as noted by pitcher Jim Bouton in his famous book, Ball Four.
Piniella the Pilot was not meant to be, though. Near the end of spring training on April 1st, Piniella was sent away for the fifth time in his young career, this time to the Royals in exchange for outfielder Steve Whitaker and pitcher John Gelnar.
Piniella was again irked to be dealt, but Royals GM Cedric Tallis (who later served in that position with the Yankees) assured him that if he showed he could play, he’d start for the expansion club. Former Yankees great and KC manager Joe Gordon agreed, noting “We think Piniella can help us a lot, and certainly we needed more right-handed punch.” The Hall of Famer’s confidence would be rewarded.
Rookie of the Year and a new challenge
The first game in Royals history was a scintillating 4-3 victory in 12 innings, and Piniella set the tone for the season with a four-hit game against the Twins, who went on to capture the inaugural AL West crown. Like most new teams, the Royals struggled in their first year and lost 93 games, though they finished five games ahead of the soon-to-be bankrupt Pilots team that sent Piniella away.
Piniella was a few years older and less heralded than his rookie competitors, but that did not stop him from hitting .282/.325/.416 with 21 doubles, 11 homers, and a 105 wRC+. BBWAA writers were impressed, and at the end of the season, Piniella was named the AL Rookie of the Year, beating out three other competitors by a few votes.
Now established as a big leaguer, Piniella was a Royal for the next four seasons, which turned out to be bizarre given the clash of team success and Piniella’s personal success. When Piniella excelled in ‘70 and ‘72 with a 109 and 136 wRC+, respectively, the Royals were under .500. When Piniella struggled in ‘71 and ‘73 with disappointing negative-WAR seasons, the Royals had their first two winning seasons.
The contrast was most apparent in the ‘72 and ‘73 campaigns. The former was likely Piniella’s finest year, as he played in a personal-high 151 games and hit .312/.356/.441 with an AL-best 33 doubles. He finished second to Twins Hall of Famer Rod Carew’s .318 for the batting title, was worth 3.7 fWAR, and was named an All-Star for the only time in his career. The Royals were a mediocre 76-78, but the next year was their best yet, as rookie manager Jack McKeon (a future Piniella managerial foe) had them in first place in mid-August over the defending World Series champion Oakland A’s thanks to a 70-51 start. The team wilted down the stretch and went 18-23 to finish six games behind the A’s, but it was an impressive season of contention for a recent expansion team. Yet Piniella had one of the worst years of his career, ending with a .250/.291/.361, 76 wRC+ dud with an ugly -2.4 fWAR.
Seeking an opportunity to buy low, Yankees GM Gabe Paul offered veteran reliever Lindy McDaniel to the Royals for Piniella and righty pitcher Ken Wright (who was a non-factor). Although underrated at the time, it turned it to be one of Paul’s brilliant moves to rebuild the mediocre Yankee teams of the early ‘70s to champions in just a few years.
Like the relatively quiet trades to acquire Graig Nettles, Chris Chambliss, and Willie Randolph, the Piniella deal brought a terrific pay-off at merely the cost of a reliever. Additionally, Piniella’s decade as a vagabond was over; he stayed in a No. 14 Yankee uniform for the next 15 years.
A championship player
Piniella continued his pattern of up-and-down years during his first two seasons with the Yankees under manager Bill Virdon. He struck up a close friendship with catcher and eventual captain Thurman Munson, and he rebounded from his awful ‘73 to hit .305/.341/.407 with 26 doubles and a 114 wRC+ in ‘74, a three-win season by WAR. The Yankees contended for the AL East and even held first place for most of September, but the Orioles passed them and took the division by two games over the 89-win Yankees.
The next year was a disaster for Piniella, who hit .196/.262/.226 with a 38 wRC+ and -1.7 fWAR in an injury-plagued season. Virdon was fired around the end of July and replaced by the fiery Billy Martin, who Piniella would later describe — to the astonishment of absolutely no one — as a managerial mentor.
For the next three seasons, Piniella finally ditched his annual inconsistencies and hit .309/.351/.450 with a 127 OPS+ over 333 games as the Yankees finally returned to the playoffs after a 12-year drought with three consecutive division titles and AL pennants.
The ferocious Piniella frequently found himself in the middle of the action for, whether it was through terrific home run robberies in the World Series ...
... or bench-clearing brawls with Carlton Fisk and the Red Sox.
In one of Piniella’s most memorable Yankees moments, he was stuck in sunny right field (he normally played left) at Fenway Park during the one-game playoff for the AL East crown in ‘78. Boston had the tying run on first base in Rick Burleson, trailing 5-4 with one out in the ninth and Hall of Fame Yankees closer Goose Gossage on the mound.
Jerry Remy hit a flare to right in front of Piniella, who was blinded by the sun and had no idea where the ball was. He stuck out his glove and somewhat miraculously had the ball bounce into his glove.
Burleson did not move to third though, as he appeared confused and Piniella’s throw to third was right on target, so he stayed at second. A fly ball by Jim Rice to right field in the next at-bat might have scored Burleson with the tying run if he had been on third, but the lead was preserved and the Yankees won (thanks to Piniella’s predecessor on this countdown).
Piniella hit .286/.290/.333 over 29 playoff games from 1976-78. He was no home run hitter, but he had an uncanny knowledge of the batter’s box. Teammate Ron Guidry explained it well when discussing Piniella’s walk-off single in Game 4 of the ‘78 World Series: “Lou was one of those hitters that you just love listening speak about hitting. I remember in about the second or the third inning, Lou told Munson ‘If I have to face [Bob Welch] out of the bullpen, he always throws me high fastballs away. If we need something, he’s in, and you’re on base, the first ball that I see is going to right field.’”
True to his word, Piniella got that high fastball from Welch and drove in the winning run, knotting the series at two games apiece. “Sweet Lou” was certainly a vital part of those two-time championship Yankee teams.
One career ends and another is born
Piniella had a tough season in ‘79 as his play declined somewhat and he lost his close friend Munson to an airplane crash on August 2nd. He was one of the eulogists at Munson’s funeral and gave an emotional speech: “We don’t know why God took Thurman away from us. Nobody really knows that, but we all know that as long as all wear Yankee uniforms that Thurman will never be too far from us. He’ll be right with us.”
On the field, Piniella remained surprisingly productive as a part-time player from 1981-84 as his career wound down in his late thirties. Piniella hit .295/.346/.428 with 39 doubles, 14 homers, and a 117 OPS+ in 710 plate appearances over those four seasons. There wasn’t a ton of pop left in the bat, but he still belted a pair of homers in postseason play against Milwaukee and Oakland as the Yankees won their fourth pennant with Lou in 1981.
Piniella’s bat remained hot in the World Series with a .438 average in 16 at-bats. This time, though, Tommy Lasorda’s Dodgers finally got the Yankees’ goat, beating them in six games.
In June 1984, Piniella resigned himself to retiring, as a chronic shoulder problem had finally felled him at age 40. Despite not being given a serious shot in the majors until the year he turned 26, he still played 18 years in The Show, tallying 1,705 hits (305 of which were doubles), an even .300 average, and a rock-solid 105 wRC+.
Although Piniella’s career on the field was over, the Yankees weren’t about to let his baseball mind walk away. He was already in a player/coach role for skipper Yogi Berra as the hitting coach, and once Piniella hung up the playing spikes, he became the first-base coach as well with former teammate Roy White moving up to the front office.
Piniella stayed on as hitting coach through the next year and a half (and a managerial change in early ‘85 to old mentor Martin) before owner George Steinbrenner decided to take a chance. Martin was fired after the ‘85 season despite a 97-win year because of a fight with pitcher Ed Whitson, so Steinbrenner needed a new manager. He picked Piniella even though he had no previous managerial experience.
As Aaron Boone and others over the past decade have proved, such nascent managers can be a risky proposition, but it was the start of something special for Piniella. He guided the ‘86 Yankees to a 90-win season and second-place finish, 5.5 games behind the eventual AL champion Red Sox.
Piniella already had the respect of his clubhouse from both his pure acumen and his playing days, and he amused fans with a continuation of a trend from his time on the field: his fiery temper.
The Yankees won 89 games in ‘87 but finished fourth behind the Tigers that year, so Steinbrenner decided to bump Piniella up to the GM position and bring back Martin to manage. Piniella had a short stint at GM, as Steinbrenner fired Martin yet again midway through the ‘88 season for what would be his final time. Piniella replaced Martin in the dugout but only had a 45-48 record the rest of the way. As he was wont to do those days, Steinbrenner could not accept the fact that it was perhaps Piniella’s dismal pitching staff’s fault for the mediocre finish, and he was fired in favor of Dallas Green.
There was talk of offers from the Mariners and Blue Jays to manage, but Steinbrenner would not release Piniella from his personal services contract in the ‘89 season, so Lou split time in the broadcast booth and as an occasional hitting instructor. Steinbrenner offered him the managerial reins yet again after firing Green in mid-August, but Piniella had quite enough of managing under “the Boss,” so he declined. Despite countless rumors over the next few decades (especially during Joe Torre’s later years), he never again served as Yankees manager. Piniella went 223-193 across two and a half seasons, ultimately flourishing elsewhere.*
*One could technically lump Piniella in with Fred McGriff, Jay Buhner, Doug Drabek, and other ‘80s figures who Steinbrenner got rid of while they were still prospects (in a sense).
After the ‘89 campaign, Piniella again received managerial offers, and this time, Steinbrenner finally let him go. Piniella was hired by the Cincinnati Reds to manage them a few months after then-manager Pete Rose was banned from baseball for gambling. He rallied the talented group though, and they went from 75-87 and franchise disarray in ‘89 to 91-71, a wire-to-wire NL West championship. They dispatched the Pirates in the NLCS for Cincinnati’s first pennant in 14 years and won the Fall Classic in a stunning sweep over the star-studded A’s, making Piniella a World Series champion manager.
Although Piniella got back to the playoffs six more times, he never returned to the World Series. The Reds underachieved in 1991 and Piniella left Cincy after ‘92 amid a feud with owner Marge Schott.
Piniella was a hot name on the managerial market, and Seattle picked him to oversee an up-and-coming team led by Ken Griffey Jr. He presided over the Mariners’ most successful period in their woebegone history, guiding a team that had never experienced success to four of their only five playoff appearances in franchise history. Piniella was named AL Manager of the Year in 1995 and 2001, captured three AL West titles, and won an AL-record 116 games in 2001. Seattle’s 1995 ALDS victory over Piniella’s old Yankees remains one of best playoff series in MLB history, and he was inducted into the Mariners Hall of Fame in 2014.
Again though, Piniella could never quite get Seattle to the World Series. They lost in the ALCS three times, first to the 1995 Cleveland powerhouse and then to the 2000-01 Yankees. Bronx fans made Piniella eat crow in the latter LCS after he guaranteed a return to Seattle for Game 6, which never happened.
Piniella left Seattle of his own volition, wanting to return home to Tampa to better help his family. A trade was worked out that sent All-Star outfielder Randy Winn to Seattle in exchange for Piniella becoming the new manager for the Devil Rays. He was glad to be back in the area, but the baseball was dreadful. Not even Casey Stengel could’ve made anything of this sorry group, and Piniella left Tampa Bay after three bad years that were “highlighted” by a 70-win, fourth-place season in 2004 (the franchise’s first).
After a year off, Piniella found his way back into a dugout for one final run, this time with the Chicago Cubs. Under Lou, they won back-to-back NL Central titles in 2007-08, somehow marking the first time they had made the playoffs in consecutive years in a century. The Cubs won a league-best 97 games in ‘08, earning Piniella another Manager of the Year honor. They couldn’t get it done in October though, as Chicago was swept out of the Division Series in both years — first by the Diamondbacks and then by the Dodgers. Piniella would abruptly called it a career in late August of the 2010 season. His mother was ailing and he knew that he had to quit then to maximize the time remaining with her.
Piniella retired with 1,835 victories, 14th-most in MLB history at the time (now 17th). He trails only Tony La Russa, Bobby Cox, Joe Torre, Dusty Baker, Bruce Bochy, and Terry Francona among all skippers who began managing in the past 50 years. Piniella missed induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame as a manager by just one vote in 2018. He’ll have another chance this December, as he is one of eight candidates on the Contemporary Baseball Era ballot. If Piniella earns at least 12 of the 16 possible votes, then he’ll be enshrined in Cooperstown next July at age 80.
Although statistics aren’t particularly fond of him, there’s no denying that Piniella was a big part of some of the greatest teams the Yankees have ever seen. He was an emotional leader of those ‘70s clubs and came up big in crucial moments. Piniella was one of my dad’s all-time favorite players for a reason. It’s almost trite to say at this point in baseball discourse, but we’re not all robots here. We do factor in these intangibles when making our respective lists, and that’s how someone like Piniella can land in a Top 100. “Sweet Lou” is a more than worthy inclusion, and we salute him.
Staff rank: 89
Community rank: 76
Stats rank: N/A
2013 rank: 95
This biography has been repurposed from an original version that ran in 2013.
Chass, Murray. “Piniella Rejected Steinbrenner Offer,” New York Times, 21 Aug. 1989. (link)
DiFonzo, John. SABR Bio
MLB Network. “Prime 9: Piniella Moments.”
“Piniella Retiring Due to Torn Rotator Cuff,” Daily Times, 14 Jun. 1984. (link)
Sharp, Eric. “Anita Piniella says Lou Deserved Award,” The Evening News, 26 Nov. 1969. (link)
“Royals Make Trade to Get Bat Power,” The Nevada Daily Mail, 2 Apr. 1969. (link)
“White Sox, Yankees Oust Managers,” The Los Angeles Times, 8 Oct. 1988. (link)