September 28, 2015
Rennie Stennett – Seven Hits (photo from Associated Press)
There’s nothing more sacrosanct in baseball than a seemingly unbreakable record. Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, Hack Wilson’s 191 RBIs in a single season, Cy Young’s 511 career victories — each name and number has become emblazoned on the collective imagination of baseball fans. But there are some baseball records — just as unlikely to be surpassed — that rarely get mentioned, that are forgotten or consigned to the trivia bin.
One of those took place 40 years ago at Wrigley Field in Chicago, where a now-obscure Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman named Rennie Stennett smacked seven hits in one nine-inning baseball game — a single-game feat far rarer than hitting for the cycle or even slugging four home runs. A feat, in fact, unequaled in baseball’s modern era (and matched only once before that, in 1892). And Stennett didn’t even play the whole game.
Getting seven hits in one game demands a serendipitous combination of skill and circumstance.
Stennett, a 24-year-old fan favorite from Panama, did not expect to be in the Pirates’ starting lineup on Sept. 16, 1975. And in contrast to his teammate Dock Ellis, who had pitched a no-hitter while high on LSD five years earlier, it was not because he was in a psychedelic haze but because he was nursing an injured ankle. Earlier that day, the 160-pound speedster had popped two York Peppermint Pattie candies for breakfast in a joking bid to keep Willie Stargell from raiding his plate at the training table (a favorite pastime of the 225-pound slugger). It proved to be all the fuel he would need.
Come game time that afternoon, Stennett was in his customary leadoff position and wasted no time, smacking a double off Cubs starter Rick Reuschel. Stennett singled for his second hit of the game later that same inning as the Pirates jumped to a 9-0 lead. The second baseman was not your customary leadoff hitter, but rather a free swinger in the vein of many Pirates hitters, including the legendary Roberto Clemente. And Stennett was not letting many balls go by that afternoon.
Of course, getting seven hits in one game is rare for good reason: It demands a serendipitous combination of skill and circumstance. For one thing, just getting to the plate seven or more times generally requires your team to beat the bejesus out of the other team’s pitchers. And Stennett benefited from the most lopsided shutout in Major League Baseball history as the Pirates’ famous “Lumber Company” of sluggers pounded the Cubs with a 24-hit barrage in a 22-0 victory in front of 5,000 distressed fans at Wrigley. As Stennett collected his third hit, a single in the third inning, the Pirates’ win probability chart — a graphic depiction of one club’s probability of winning at each point in the game — already looked as insurmountable as the Sears Tower.
Getting to seven hits also requires that your manager leave you in the ballgame — hardly a given when a high-scoring affair is as lopsided as the contest in Chicago that day. By the time Stennett had collected two more hits in the fifth inning — a double and a single, taking him to five for the game — the Pirates were leading 17-0, and Pittsburgh manager Danny Murtaugh had started pulling starters like Stargell from the game.
Most of all, though, getting seven hits calls for a seriously good hitter who is seriously “in the zone.” Numerous batters have stepped up to the plate seven or more times in a high-scoring ballgame, but only Stennett came away with seven hits. He singled in the seventh inning for his sixth hit, and then tripled in the eighth inning for his seventh, at which time Murtaugh pulled him for pinch runner Willie Randolph. All told, Stennett went 7-for-7 with two doubles, a triple and four singles — and he did it off five different Cubs pitchers. “I felt that day, if I made contact, it was going to fall in somewhere,” Stennett later told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “I could feel it the whole day. Didn’t matter who was pitching.”
Rennie Stennett’s baseball fortunes took a turn for the worse two years later in August 1977, when the second baseman, who was leading the league in hitting with a .336 average, broke his leg trying to stop his slide into second base on a double-play ball. Stennett, just 26, was never quite the same ballplayer.
In the four decades since then, Stennett has coached teams in Panama and worked at baseball camps in Brazil as well as the occasional Pirates fantasy camp. And he can still enjoy something more than just the occasional golf game or playing with his grandkids in Boca Raton: His own slice of baseball immortality.