Getting to the major leagues is a dream for most young men; hitting a home run in their first time at bat is an even greater fantasy. Les Layton, a former outfielder for the New York Giants who made both of those scenarios a reality in his 1948 debut, passed away March 1, 2014 in Scottsdale, Ariz. He was 92.
Layton was eager to contribute to the Giants in his 1948 rookie campaign, but manager Mel Ott only used Layton once within the first month of the season, filling in as a pinch runner during an early season game in Boston.
“I had a hard time,” Layton said in a 2008 interview with the author. “The Giants had so many outfielders. Bobby Thomson was coming on; Sid Gordon was there as was Willard Marshall.”
Twenty-five games into the season, on May 21, 1948, Ott finally summoned Layton to the plate as a pinch-hitter in the 9th inning against Chicago Cubs left-hander Johnny Schmitz.
“I can remember it now,” he said. “They told me to grab a bat, get up there, and hit one, and I did! It went on top of the roof in the Polo Grounds in left field.”
As Layton quickly circled the bases, he expected a hero’s welcome from his teammates. When he returned to the bench, the silence was deafening.
“I came back in the dugout and nobody said a word,” he said. “They didn't say, 'Nice going,' or anything, and then suddenly they all broke out in rapture.”
At the time he was only the 15th player in the National League to ever hit a home run in his first major league at-bat.
His role as a pinch-hitter produced another statistical oddity. His first four major league hits went for the cycle, all happening in four different parks. Layton’s first four career hits in order were a home run (New York), a triple (Cincinnati), a double (Pittsburgh) and a single (Chicago).
By the end of June, Layton was batting .350 strictly as a pinch-hitter, and Mel Ott finally inserted him into the starting lineup after Thomson and Whitey Lockman suffered minor injuries. He started eight games in a row at the beginning of July, going 10-33, which also included his second (and last) major league home run. Once the starters returned to full strength, Layton was relegated to pinch-hitting duties for the remainder of the year.
“Mel Ott called me aside later on when he was managing in the Coast League and apologized for not being able to play me so much,” he said. “The old timers that were making the money were the ones that had to play.”
Layton finished 1948 with a .231 batting average in 91 at-bats. With the emergence of Don Mueller and the arrival of Monte Irvin in 1949, there was no place for Layton on the Giants roster.
The Giants sold him to the Cubs, who sent him to Los Angeles in the Pacific Coast League. It was the best experience of Layton’s career.
“I spent three years in the Coast League with Los Angeles,” he said. “I enjoyed that more than anything else. I got to play every day."
Layton stayed in the minor leagues through 1954, serving as a player-manager for the Wichita Indians his last season.
After leaving professional baseball, he went to work for Boeing for 18 years as a production engineer, a trade he studied while at the University of Oklahoma. While at Boeing, he played for their semi-pro baseball team, the Boeing Bombers. He helped to lead them to a championship at the prestigious National Baseball Congress tournament in 1955.
The World War II veteran retired to Scottsdale with his wife Barbara. When I caught up with Layton in February 2008, he was trying to move forward from her death a few months earlier.
“I lost my wife in December and it’s pretty lonely out here,” he said. “We were married 62 years. I'm not a pretty good cook. I'm learning. You miss having her around, somebody to talk to. It's a whole different ballgame.”