Willie Clay Upshaw | 1B | 1978, 1980-1987
Willie Upshaw was born April 27, 1957, in Blanco, Texas. The Yankees picked him in the 5th round of the 1975 amateur draft out of high school. The Tigers picked Lou Whitaker earlier that round, so Upshaw was the second-best player in that round. With the Yankees having Chris Chambliss at first base, Willie so the Yankees didn’t have a place for him. The Jays picked him up in the Rule 5 draft in 1977, and he had to stay on the team for that season.
His rule 5 season was terrible like most rule 5 players are their first season. He hit just .237 with 1 homer and 17 RBI in 95 games. With John Mayberry playing first base, most of Upshaw’s playing time came in left field though he did play a few games in center. In 1979 he spent the whole season in the minors. In 1980 he got 61 at-bats, and the strike-shortened 1981, he got into 61 games and hit .171 in 111 at-bats. Amazingly enough, this was enough to earn him the full-time first base job. Early in 1982, the Jays traded John Mayberry to clear a spot for Willie.
Getting to play every day worked for him. Playing in 160 games, he hit 21 home runs, with 75 RBI and a .267 average. In 1983 Willie had his best season, becoming the first Jay to drive in 100 runs with 104, hit 27 homers, scored 99 runs, and hit .306/.373/.515. He was 11th in MVP voting, Lloyd Moseby got some votes too. It was likely the best offensive season from any Jay up to that point in their history. He finished 6th in the league in slugging average and 8th in Runs, 8th in RBI.
In 1984 Willie dropped off some with only 19 home runs and 84 RBI off a .278/.345/.464 season. Once again, he received MVP votes, finishing 16th in the voting, the highest of the five Jays who got votes. He had almost the same season in 1985, hitting .275/.342/.447, except for the one big year he was a Lyle Overbay type. He would have been better at the top of the order instead of an RBI spot.
1985 was the first time the Blue Jays made it to the playoffs. Upshaw didn’t help much in our seven-game loss to the Royals, hitting just .231/.286/.308.
Upshaw’s last couple of seasons with the Jays were small steps down in production. 1986 he had just 9 home runs hitting .251/.341/.368. He started the season in the cleanup spot of the order, but in June, he moved lower in the order, but he often hit in the two spot over the last couple of months. He had 78 walks and 23 steals just being caught 5 times. In his last season with the Jays, 1987, some of his power returned, he hit 15 home runs. But his on-base dropped. He hit in every spot of the lineup except cleanup.
After the season, with Fred McGriff ready to take the first base job, Willie was sent to the Cleveland. He played just one season there. From there, Upshaw went to Japan and played two seasons. He had a pretty good ten-year career in the major leagues.
Pat Gillick, working for the Yankees, signed Upshaw after he was drafted. Then, as GM of the Blue Jays, Pat choose him in the Rule 5 draft. Bob Elliot tells a story of how hard it was on Gillick to trade Upshaw to Cleveland, who he “thought the world of”.
When Willie retired, he was the career leader in homers (123) and RBI (528) among players with the last name starting with a ‘U’, but Justin Upton and Chase Utley passed him.
Upshaw was the start of a run of really excellent first basemen for the Jays. Fred McGriff, John Olerud, and Carlo Delgado got us through to 2004.
Bill James has him listed as one of the best-looking players of the ‘80s (I think I’m the wrong one to judge) and had him as the 104th best first basemen of all time in his New Historical Baseball Abstract, but that was many years ago. He was a good defensive first baseman, covered more ground than most, had an excellent arm (for a first baseman), and was good at the 3-6-3 double play.
He always got off to a fast start early in the season. Career he hit .282/.369/.525 in April. If you are going to have a hot month, make it the first month of the season.
Upshaw wasn’t a player I appreciated at the time. I kind of thought he would have been better served with a right-handed batter to platoon with (though he didn’t have huge splits). And his defense wasn’t appreciated, but then it is hard to grade defense at first. Since he threw left-handed, he couldn’t play the other infield positions, though he was athletic enough. It took until he was 26 before he put together a good season and he seemed to age quickly, he was out of the majors by 32.
Upshaw became a hitting coach in the Jays’ minor league system and was the first base coach for the San Francisco Giants in 2007. He spent a few years as manager of the Bridgeport Bluefish of the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball. His son, Chad Upshaw, was a tight end with the Carolina Panthers.
Willie Upshaw’s place among Jay batting leaders:
Batting Average (>2000 PA) 26th .265
On Base % (>2000 PA) 21st .336
Slugging Average (>2000 PA) 28th .426
Games 8th 1115
Runs 10th 538
Doubles 16th 177
Triples 4th 42
Home Runs 18th 112
RBI 12th 478
Walks 10th 390
Stolen Bases 17th 76
Intentional Walks 4th 46
Sac Bunts: 9th, 27
There is a little feature on Upshaw on YouTube, I don’t know where it came from, it looks like something from TSN. Most of the fun of it is seeing a young Bobby Cox and Tom Cheek talking about Upshaw.