Jim Rivera was Pete Rose before Pete Rose.
Rivera, born Manuel Joseph Rivera, was all about hustle. His style of play was eccentric. And he was certainly controversial.
"Jungle Jim may not have the fattest average in baseball, but he gives the fans a show with his daredevil running and sliding, his terrific fielding, and clutch hitting," said Chicago White Sox general manager Ed Short, according to the profile about Rivera on the SABR website. The same article contains this quote about Rivera's playing style, attributed to a reporter: "He runs in the outfield like a deer, on the bases like an express train, and he throws like a rifle."
John Hoffman, a Chicago Sun-Times sportswriter, gave Rivera the "Jungle Jim" nickname after seeing him flap his arms to wave off fellow outfielders on fly balls. Adding to his eccentric style, Rivera was sliding into bases headfirst long before it was cool.
The 29-year-old, 6-0, 196-pound left-handed hitting outfielder hit .352/.420/.553 during the 1951 season for the unaffiliated Seattle Rainiers with 20 HR and 112 RBIs. He also stole 33 bases. The ‘51 Pacific Coast League MVP led the league in hits (231), doubles (40) and runs scored (135). He was second in batting, stolen bases and triples (16). And he finished third in RBIs. The Rainiers went on to win the league championship that season.
In a 1985 interview on the Media Burn website, Rivera was asked about the pension he receives each month and it led to an interesting answer that got to the heart of the way he felt about the game.
After saying he got a pension check every month, he said, "I wish ‘em all luck," referring to modern players. "You've got to get what you can because you don't last as long as a golfer or a tennis player. They last thirty years, but in baseball, if you're there ten years you're lucky. So I think whatever they can get, they ought to get it. But they should give something back to baseball, and at least try to hustle a little bit more."
"Is that what you gave back to baseball?" the interviewer asks.
"That's all I had to give," Rivera said. "I wasn't a great hitter or a great fielder, but I was a good hustler. I loved the game. That's part of it. People see you play - especially kids, they want to be like you."
If you have a chance, read the article about Rivera on the SABR website. It includes information about him growing up in an orphanage between the ages of six and sixteen, learning to box and then learning to play baseball. It also touches on his years of military service, a five-year prison sentence, the controversy that surrounded him in the game afterward, and of course, more about his playing days.
One interesting aspect of the article is about how Rivera ended up in the PCL. It says when Rogers Hornsby was the manager of the Seattle club in ‘51, he approached Rivera about joining the team. Seattle purchased his rights and he went on to win the MVP his first season in the league, putting up the aforementioned stats.
His impressive ‘51 season landed him a contract in the big leagues with the Chicago White Sox, who traded him to the St. Louis Browns, who traded him back to the White Sox in ‘52. He spent ten years in the major leagues, that also included a stop with the Kansas City Athletics. Over his MLB career, he hit .256/.328/.402 with 83 HR and 422 RBIs. He also stole 160 bases. He led the American League in triples (16) in 1953 and stolen bases (25) in 1955, finishing second in stolen bases six times.
Recently, CBS Sports ran a funny story on its website about Rivera's response to getting JFK's illegible autograph on a baseball that includes this quote from Rivera about President Kennedy's handwriting that ran in a 1963 Chicago Tribune newspaper story: "What kind of garbage college is that Harvard, where they don't even teach you how to write? What kind of garbage writing is this?"