An undated photo of Larry Walker during batting practice with the Colorado Rockies.
Larry Walker grew up in Maple Ridge, British Columbia, the youngest of four sons to Mary and Larry Walker Sr. Larry Sr. had been a talented young baseball player with the team that is now the Vancouver Canadians. Larry Jr. played hockey and was a goaltender for 13 years. His teammates included childhood friend Cam Neely, who went on to a Hall of Fame career in the National Hockey League (NHL) with the Vancouver Canucks and the Boston Bruins. Walker ido tryouts for the Regina Pats of the Western Hockey League, Walker gave up on his dream.
Early Baseball Career
Walker then turned to baseball, but without any career aspirations. As he told Sports Illustrated in 1993, “In Canada, as a kid, we’d play 10 baseball games a year. Fifteen, tops… Baseball just wasn’t big. The weather was against it. Nobody ever played baseball thinking about making the major leagues. It was just a game, just something to do.”
Walker managed to make a team in Vancouver that played a 72-game season. Despite his relative inexperience, he hit with enough power to make the Canadian National Junior Team. Scouts for the Montreal Expos discovered him at a national training camp in Saskatchewan and signed him for a nominal bonus of US$1,500. To prepare for his first season in pro baseball, Walker played for a fast pitch softball team that was sponsored by a local bowling alley.
Walker played his first minor-league season with the independent Utica Blue Sox in 1985. Unable to hit anything but fastballs, he finished the season with a slash line of .223/.297/.307 and two home runs in 62 games. He likely would have been released, but hitting coach Ralph Rowe, impressed with Walker’s hand-eye coordination and overall athleticism, convinced the Expos to send him to the short-season Florida Instructional League. In 1986, Walker blossomed with the West Palm Beach Expos, hitting .283/.423/.540 in 38 games. He followed that with a slash line of .289/.387/.623 and 29 home runs in 95 games with the A-level Burlington Expos later that year.
In 1987, when he was 20 years old and playing with the AA Jacksonville Expos, Walker won his first Tip O’Neill Award as Canada’s best baseball player of the year. (See also Tip O’Neill.) He finished that season with 26 home runs, 24 stolen bases and a slash line of .287/.383/.534 in 128 games.
Walker was sidelined for the entire 1988 season due to a knee injury that required major surgery. In his first season back, he hit a respectable .270/.361/.421 with 12 home runs and 36 stolen bases in 114 games with AAA Indianapolis.
Career with Montreal Expos
Walker made his Major League debut with the Montreal Expos on 16 August 1989, starting in right field against the San Francisco Giants. He walked three times in the game and got his first hit against pitcher Mike LaCoss. In his 20-game cup of coffee with the Expos that year, Walker hit an anemic .170/.264/.170. However, in 1990, his first full season with the Expos, Walker hit .241/.326/.434 with 19 home runs and 21 stolen bases in 133 games. He finished seventh in Rookie of the Year voting.
Walker’s MLB career blossomed in the second half of the 1991 season, when he was the best hitter in the National League. In 72 games after the All-Star break, he hit .338 with 21 doubles, 10 home runs and 41 RBI. He also played 39 games at first base and four in centre field that season. In 1992, he won his first Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards as the best defensive and offensive player, respectively, at his position (right field). That season overall, Walker hit .301/.353/.506 with 23 home runs and 18 stolen bases in 143 games. He became the first (and is the only) Canadian player to be named the Expos’ player of the year. He also made his first All-Star Game appearance and finished fifth in voting for National League MVP.
Walker’s star continued to rise in 1993. He recorded his first 20/20 season (at least 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases) and won his second Gold Glove. In 1994, he played first base for most of the season because of a rotator cuff injury he sustained to his right (throwing) shoulder. Though his shoulder required surgery after the season, Walker still hit a sizzling .322/.394/.587. He tied with Craig Biggio for the league lead in doubles with 44.
The 1994 season started out well for Walker and the Expos. They were one of the best teams in the league and were favoured by many to win the World Series. However, the season was suspended on 11 August because of a labour dispute between the players’ union and the league’s owners. The Expos’ record of 74–40 was the best in the Major Leagues that year.
Career with Colorado Rockies
The financially strapped Expos were unable to re-sign Walker, now a superstar, when he became a free agent before the 1995 season. He was signed by the Colorado Rockies of the National League in April 1995. Walker’s batting average topped the .300 mark (.306) for the second straight year and the third time in four years. His 36 home runs, 72 extra-base hits and .607 slugging percentage were second in the National League. He finished seventh in MVP voting.
Walker’s 1996 season was interrupted when he sustained a clavicle injury during a game in Denver. He had been having a good season, including a stretch where he set the National League record for consecutive extra-base hits with six. In only 83 games, he hit an impressive .276/.342/.570 with 18 home runs and 18 stolen bases.
Walker bounced back in 1997 with the best season ever recorded by a Canadian in Major League Baseball. In 153 games, he hit .366 and led the National League in home runs (49), on-base percentage (.452), slugging percentage (.720) and total bases (409). He was also second in the league in batting average (.366) and third in RBI (130). He came within four hits and 10 RBI of winning the first Triple Crown (most home runs, most RBI, and highest batting average) in 60 years. His 409 total bases were the 18th best in baseball history and the most in the Major Leagues since Stan Musial had 429 in 1948. Walker also became only the third player ever to record at least 200 hits, 40 home runs and 30 stolen bases in a season. In addition to his third Gold Glove, second Silver Slugger and second all-star selection, Walker became the first Canadian and only the third player born outside the US to win the National League MVP award. He received 22 of 28 first-place votes.
Great controversy arose at the end of 1997 when Walker, despite his record-setting year, failed to win the Lou Marsh Trophy as Canada’s athlete of the year. It went instead to race-car driver Jacques Villeneuve, who also received the Lionel Conacher Award for Canada’s male athlete of the year. Walker complained at the time, saying, “I got beat by a machine.”
Walker underwent elbow surgery before the 1998 season and was plagued by injuries that year. Despite that, he became the first Canadian-born player to win a batting title since Tip O’Neill won the American Association title in 1887. Walker hit .363, including a remarkable .402 after the All-Star Game, in which he appeared for the second-straight year. He also recorded an on-base percentage of .445 and a slugging percentage of .630 and won his fourth Gold Glove.
At spring training in 1999, at the age of 32, Walker signed a contract extension that would pay him more than US$12 million in each of the next six years. He won his second batting title as he hit .379, including .461 at home, believed to be a Major League record. He also led the National League in on-base percentage (.458) and slugging percentage (.710) and hit 37 home runs. A second MVP award was within his grasp. However, he finished the season with only 127 games after undergoing season-ending surgery to repair frayed cartilage in his left knee.
In 2000, Walker played in only 87 games as a result of elbow problems that ultimately required surgery for a second time. Still, he became the all-time Canadian hits leader with his 1,448th hit, surpassing Jeff Heath (1936–49). He also surpassed Heath’s RBI total of 887 with a huge home run into Coors Field’s upper deck on 17 July. Walker finished the 2000 season as Canada’s all-time leader in hits, home runs, RBI, doubles and runs scored.
In 2001, Walker won his third batting title in four years, hitting .350 with 35 doubles, 38 homers and 123 RBI. He also made his fifth and final all-star appearance and won his sixth Gold Glove.
Career with St. Louis Cardinals
In 2004, at the age of 37, Walker asked to be traded to a contending team. He was dealt to the St. Louis Cardinals partway through the season. He had a strong season at the plate, hitting .298/.424/.589 between both teams. He played in only 82 games due to injury but was healthy in the post-season. He hit .310/.398/.760 in 15 playoff games before the Cardinals were swept by the Boston Red Sox in the World Series.
In 2005, at age 38, Walker hit a robust .289/.384/.502 in 100 games with St. Louis. However, his slash line in nine post-season games was an anemic .158/.271/.211. The Cardinals were eliminated in the National League Championship Series and Walker retired from professional baseball.
Larry Walker continued to be involved in baseball as a coach. He worked as a part-time instructor with the St. Louis Cardinals from 2006 to 2008 and served as a coach for Team Canada at the World Baseball Classic in 2009, 2013 and 2017. He was also the first-base coach and hitting coach for Team Canada when it won the gold medal against the United States at the Pan Am Games in both 2011 and 2015.
Characteristics and Achievements
Don Baylor, the Colorado Rockies’ manager from 1993 to 1998, called Walker “the most talented player I’ve ever had. He never misses the cutoff man, he never throws to the wrong base; he has speed, power and intelligence. All you have to do is write his name down in the lineup and he’ll take care of the rest.”
Walker’s exceptional, all around athleticism made him one of the best “five-tool” players in the game. As the New York Times’ Tyler Kepner wrote, Walker “combined hitting, slugging, running, fielding and throwing as well as any player in his generation.” He finished his career with a slash line of .313/.400/.565. He is one of only 19 players with a minimum of 5,000 plate appearances to reach a career batting average of.300, an on-base percentage of .400 and a slugging percentage of .500. His .565 career slugging percentage ranks No. 12 all-time, ahead of such players as Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron.
Walker is one of 20 players to win a batting title at least three times and one of 40 players to record 2,000 hits, 300 homers, 1,000 runs, 1,000 RBI and 400 doubles. He was the first Canadian-born player to reach the 2,000-hit plateau. Walker’s career wins-above-replacement (WAR) value is 72.7, per Baseball Reference. That ranks him 86th all-time and 10th among right fielders, as per the JAWS system. It also ranks him ahead of 19 outfielders already in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Honours and Inductions
Larry Walker was inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 2007, as well as the BC Sports Hall of Fame and Museum and the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 2009 and the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame in 2011. On 17 January 2020, the Colorado Rockies announced that they would retire Walker’s No. 33 before a game against the St. Louis Cardinals at Coors Field on 19 April 2020. Walker is only the second Rockies player, after Todd Helton, to have his number retired.
Despite Walker’s statistics, numerous awards and all-star appearances, he proved to be a controversial selection for the Baseball Hall of Fame. He was only elected to the Hall on his tenth, and final, year on the ballot. In 2015, his fifth year of eligibility, he received just 11.8 per cent of the vote — well below the 75 per cent needed for election. It was a widely held opinion that Walker’s nine-and-a-half seasons in Colorado, where the high altitude gives hitters an advantage over the rest of the league, skewed his offensive statistics.
On closer inspection, however, that argument proved to be oversimplified. As the New York Times’ Tyler Kepner argued, “To be sure, Walker benefited from Coors Field, where he hit .381 with a .462 on-base percentage and a .710 slugging percentage. But his career road totals are excellent (.278/.370/.495), and when he won the National League’s Most Valuable Player award in 1997, Walker had a better OPS on the road than at home. His career road OPS, .865, is equal to or better than those of George Brett, Ken Griffey Jr., Reggie Jackson and Willie Stargell, all first-ballot Hall of Famers. Walker has more stolen bases (230) than all of those players, in addition to winning seven Gold Gloves.” Jack Etkin of Forbes also noted that less than a third (31.1 per cent) of Walker’s 8,030 career plate appearances were at Coors Field.
For his part, Walker seemed sanguine on his odds of being inducted. “I never dreamed of playing baseball in the major leagues,” he told Sportsnet on 10 January 2020. “I played for 17 years and was on the ballot for 10 years, so to me that’s an accomplishment.” On 21 January 2020, Walker secured 76.6 per cent of the vote (a margin of only six ballots) from the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. He became the second Canadian player, after Ferguson Jenkins, elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
See also: Maclean’s Article: Larry Walker (Profile).
- Gold Glove (Right Field), National League (1992)
- Silver Slugger (Right Field), National League (1992)
- Player of the Year Award, Montreal Expos (1992)
- Gold Glove (Right Field), National League (1993)
- Gold Glove (Right Field), National League (1997)
- Silver Slugger (Right Field), National League (1997)
- Most Valuable Player, National League (1997)
- Player of the Year, Colorado Rockies (1997)
- Gold Glove (Right Field), National League (1998)
- Lou Marsh Trophy (1998)
- Lionel Conacher Award (1998)
- Best Major League Baseball Player, ESPY Awards (1998)
- Gold Glove (Right Field), National League (1999)
- Silver Slugger (Right Field), National League (1999)
- Player of the Year, Colorado Rockies (1999)
- Gold Glove (Right Field), National League (2001)
- Gold Glove (Right Field), National League (2002)
- Inductee, Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame (2007)
- Inductee, BC Sports Hall of Fame and Museum (2009)
- Inductee, Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum (2009)
- Inductee, Colorado Sports Hall of Fame (2011)
- Inductee, (US) National Baseball Hall of Fame (2020)