Ken Reitz, 'Zamboni' at third for Cards, dies

April 1st, 2021

Ken Reitz, an 11-year big leaguer and an All-Star who spent the majority of his career in St. Louis and was nicknamed “Zamboni” for his deftness at third base in scooping balls off the artificial turf at Busch Stadium, died on Wednesday at the age of 69.

“On behalf of my dad and my family I’d like to thank the Cardinals organization for allowing my father to live out his dream,” Brett Reitz, his son, said in a statement shared by the club. “Also Cardinals fans for the endless support over the years. The only thing my dad loved as much as his family was baseball. He ate, slept and breathed baseball, and truly loved the city of St. Louis and the Cardinals. The loss of ‘Grandpa Kenny,’ as his six grandkids called him, is heartbreaking. He will be truly missed.”

The Daly City, Calif., native was an eight-year mainstay in the Cardinals’ organization on the field and stayed connected with it past his playing career. Reitz made his big league debut in 1972 and became the full-time replacement at the hot corner for Joe Torre in ’73, when the future Hall of Fame manager shifted across the diamond to first base.

Reitz was lauded for his defense, becoming the first National League third baseman to start 150 games at third and commit fewer than 10 errors in a season, which he did twice -- first in 1977 (nine) and then again in ’80 (eight).

Both those campaigns were after Reitz had already locked up a Gold Glove in 1975, doing so in an infield that featured 21-year-old Keith Hernandez at first base (before any of his 11 Gold Gloves) and Hall of Famer Ted Simmons behind the plate.

Reitz led the NL in fielding percentage as a third baseman six times over the span of nine seasons from 1973-81, including his final time, as a Cub, in ’81. He probably would have earned more Gold Gloves had he not played in the same era as Phillies Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt.

Reitz was awarded with a starting nod in the 1980 All-Star Game, after he hit .282 through the first half of the season. He went 0-for-2 in the game and finished the year with a .679 OPS.

He was impassioned about his defense. After one off night, when Reitz made two errors, he proceeded to douse his glove in lighter fluid and light it aflame, a story he told local St. Louis high schoolers to kick off a tournament at Alton (Ill.) High School, according to local paper AdVantage News.

Selected in the 31st round of the 1969 Draft out of Jefferson High School in Daly City, Reitz played the first four seasons of his career with St. Louis, was traded to his hometown Giants on Dec. 8, 1975, and then returned to the Cardinals almost exactly a year later, on Dec. 10, 1976.

Those nomadic days of early December continued, as on Dec. 9, 1980, Reitz was part of the package that the Cardinals sent to the Cubs in exchange for future Hall of Fame closer Bruce Sutter -- one of the most impactful trades in Cards history. Reitz would play a season with the Cubs and Pirates before signing once again with the Cardinals in July 1983, though he was limited to the Minor Leagues. Reitz would play three more Minor League seasons -- one with the Rangers’ Double-A affiliate in 1985 and two more for the unaffiliated San Jose Bees from ’86-87.

Reitz appeared in 1,344 Major League games, 1,100 of which were with the Cardinals, while batting .260 with 548 RBIs. All told, his professional playing career extended to 2,008 games. He played in more than 11,000 innings in the field as a big leaguer.