Friday, July 30, 2010

Not Your Normal Background...

While 1970s style is often interesting in an unintentionally funny sort of way, some of the color schemes seen during the decade were flat-out hideous. I give you the following example:

Card # 461 -- Mike Corkins, San Diego Padres

The San Diego Padres may have worn the ugliest major league uniforms of the early 1970s. Whoever thought that having jerseys match the colors of household appliances was likely sampling from a bad stash. On the other hand, they weren't using the other major 1970s stove/refrigerator/washer/dryer color, avocado...

By the way, this is definitely a 1972 road uniform, as the Padres adopted a cap in '73 that incorporated a gold/yellow color on the cap behind the "SD" logo. An example of the new cap can be seen below in a picture from Nate Colbert's '74 Topps card:

We know Corkins is wearing a road uniform, since their home jerseys said "Padres." I just want to know where the picture was taken. The brick wall in the background isn't something that often shows up in baseball cards, nor is the garbage can seem below Corkins's right elbow (i know it's on the left, but that is his right elbow).

Mike Corkins was both a starter and reliever for the Padres and played at least part of their first six seasons as a team, but the only two full seasons he spent with the club were 1972-'73. He never finished any season with a winning record. However, he'll be remembered by some fans for two reasons: his first major league game was mentioned in Jim Bouton's Ball Four and he threw the pitch that gave Willie Mays his 600th home run. And how timely is it for me to mention a 600th career homer?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Three New Yorkers and an Iowan...

While that sounds like the beginning of a joke, the coaching staff shown on this card consists of three native New Yorkers (Manhattan, Brooklyn and Buffalo) and one from Keokuk, Iowa:

Card #449 -- Ken Aspromonte, Cleveland Indians Manager

There are some familiar faces on the card. Aspromonte had been a player during the late 1950s and early 1960s, but Warren Spahn and Rocky Colavito were stars of the same era. The younger collectors of 1973 may not have known the names, but their older brothers and fathers were certainly familiar with them.

Brooklyn-born Ken Aspromonte played for seven different major league teams between 1957 and 1963. His younger brother Bob was a player during the same period. Among the teams was the Cleveland Indians, a team he would manage between 1972 and '74. After his third straight losing season, he was fired and never managed another team. Aspromonte's cap on this card is airbrushed, despite having managed the Tribe in '72. It appears the shirt in the picture is the Indians' 1971 home jersey, which means his cap would have been blue in the original photo.

New York City native Rocky Colavito played from 1955 and '68 and began his career with the Tribe, where he was a fan favorite. He was known to be a long ball threat, with eleven consecutive 20-homer seasons. After being traded to Detroit in 1960, he was popular enough to be brought back to Cleveland five years later.

While Colavito was very good, Warren Spahn was a Hall of Fame pitcher. One of the finest left-handers the game has known, he won more games (363) than any pitcher since 1930. His career began in Boston, where fans were known to chant, "Spahn and Sain, then pray for rain." Moving with the Braves to Milwaukee, he was perhaps the best overall pitcher of the 1950s and seemed to get better with time. He led the National League in victories each season from age 37 through 40 and tossed no-hitters at 39 and 40. Spahn finally retired at 44 and passed away in 2003.

The one coach many fans didn't recognize was Joe Lutz. Despite a short stint with the St. Louis Browns in 1951, he went on to become the first foreign-born manager in the Japanese professional baseball league in 1974. Lutz passed away in 2008.

Monday, July 26, 2010


All through these entries, I've mentioned a number of times how Topps could be ridiculed for the choice of some of the game-action shots they used for their 1973 baseball cards. Here's one that may not seem all that great at first but eventually grew on me:

Card #376 -- Frank Duffy, Cleveland Indians

Against a dark background, Tribe shortstop Frank Duffy is jumping out of the way of a sliding Oriole baserunner. To the left of the picture, a small part of an umpire -- or another fielder -- begs the question about why Topps couldn't crop the photo or airbrush that out. As for the sliding Oriole, the image of eating the infield dirt or the too-ample gluteus maximus might not be overly appealing, but with dust spreading and Duffy leaping, this is actually a great shot when you look at it again. The darkened background gives the image a great contrast.

Duffy's playing career spanned the decade. From 1970-'79 he played for four different teams and at every infield position but will be best remembered as the Indians' regular shortstop from 1972-'77. He was an excellent fielder, which made up for the fact that he only hit .233 during his Tribe tenure. 1973 would be his finest season with the glove, leading the American League with a .986 fielding average.

The title is "Airborne!" because of the photo on the card, but perhaps "Semper Fi" would be a more appropriate expression. The back of Duffy's card features a cartoon explaining that he was a member of the U.S. Marine Corps. More specifically, it says he is a member of the U.S. Marines. Any leatherneck will tell you that there is no such thing as an ex-Marine.

Friday, July 23, 2010

One Shining Moment

There's nothing like looking at a picture and getting interested enough to do a little research. You never know what you might learn:

Card #564 -- Mike Thompson, Texas Rangers

The palm trees and signs in the background are obvious signs the picture was taken during spring training. While there are some spring training shots in the 1973 Topps baseball card set, most are regular season games from 1972 (and a small number from '71). However, the reason Topps used a posed spring training photo is spelled out on the back of Thompson's card: he spent the entire '72 season in Texas' AAA affiliate in Denver. His only major league experience had come in '71 when the Rangers were still known as the Washington Senators, so using a '71 photo would be impossible without giving more work to the airbrush artists.

Interestingly, Thompson never played a major league game in a Texas Rangers uniform. When this card was making its way into packs midway through the summer, he was playing in St. Louis after being sent there as the "player to be named later" from a deal made before the '73 season began. He would appear in two games for the Cardinals late that season but not getting any decisions. In the first game, he started but was pulled from the game without retiring a single batter.

On the back of the card, there's a short description of Thompson's first (and at that time, only) victory during his '71 tour with the Senators. Looking at Thompson's lifetime stats shows that it would remain his only win despite several tries through 1975. He ended up with a 1-16 lifetime record. This card would be Thompson's first appearance in a Topps set; he managed to appear on another in 1976 but had already played his final big league game by then.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Big Train

Among the specialty subsets of the 1973 Topps baseball set was a run of All-Time record holders. While issuing cards of long-retired legends is rather commonplace with today's baseball sets, they were still a leap of faith in 1973 because the kids who collected cards then weren't exactly thrilled to pull a black-and-white card of some old player they couldn't see play.Still, it was a great chance for young fans to learn about the rich history of the game.

Card #478 -- Walter Johnson, All-Time Strikeout Leader

At the time this card appeared, Johnson had been out of baseball for 46 years and dead for 27. However, the record books still showed his stature as one of the game's best pitchers. While this card shows he was still the all-time strikeout king, he was the runner-up on the list of total victories and had the most shutouts. Walter Johnson was one of the five members of the first Hall of Fame induction class in 1936.

Johnson surpassed Cy Young as the all-time strikeout king in 1921, which meant that he had been the leader for more than half a century. The back of the card mentions the All-Time top 10 through '72. The only active player on the list was Bob Gibson, with 2,786. However, another decade would drastically rearrange that list. Johnson's record would fall when three pitchers surpassed him during the 1983 season. First, Steve Carlton surpassed his total, then Nolan Ryan and Gaylord Perry. After 62 years as the leader, Johnson was suddenly fourth. Today, he's ninth on the all-time list.

Monday, July 19, 2010

I've Got a Beef Here!

Sometimes, you can look at something and know exactly what it is without much effort. In that case, what you see here is definitely a Topps baseball card. The picture combines a game-action shot with airbrushing:

Card #656 -- John Ellis, Cleveland Indians

The look on Ellis's face just says, "Sir, I don't believe I completely concur with your assessment." Or something a lot more direct and less polite. The A's baserunner, on the other hand, is dusting himself off and remaining out of the discussion.

Although this is an awesome picture of the aftermath of an umpire's on-field ruling that wasn't exactly well-received by the fielder, a couple of things look odd in the picture. First, Ellis is in the infield, clearly not catching as the position icon shows. Secondly, he doesn't appear to be wearing a major league uniform. That's because Ellis had spent all of 1972 with the New York Yankees before being traded to Cleveland in the deal that sent Graig Nettles to The Bronx. The Yankees road uniform has had the "NEW YORK" airbrushed off, red, white and blue piping has been painted around the edges and his stirrup sock have been painted red. The teammate to his left (behind the umpire) has a small part of his hat and stirrups airbrushed the same red color. While it looks bad, it's actually a better job by Topps than how they showed Nettles in his own new uniform for '73.

While looking through Ellis's game logs on, it appears he didn't play against the Oakland A's on the road at all that season. However, in 1971 he played two August games at first base in Oakland. Therefore, it appears this picture was from that year. In 1973, he would become the very first designated hitter in the Indians' history. Remaining with the Tribe until the end of the 1975 season, he was traded to Texas where he would remain until 1981.

Friday, July 16, 2010

"Ya Gotta Believe..."

Scattered throughout the 660 cards and five series of 1973 Topps baseball cards are pictures of each of the 24 teams then in the majors.

Here's one of those beloved teams:

Card #389 - New York Mets Team Card

While the 1969 Mets were tagged as "The Miracle Mets" what the team did to reach the '73 World Series was even more miraculous. While some of the guys who won the '69 Series were still with the team (Seaver, Koosman, Harrelson, Grote, Kranepool, McGraw), it was still a different group of players with different strengths. Among the new faces were fresh faces like Jon Matlack and John Milner, as well as veterans like Rusty Staub, Ray Sadecki and Willie Mays. Gil Hodges, who managed the '69 team, had passed away in '72. Yogi Berra would take his place. He's very noticeable in the photo, right in the middle of the second row.

For much of the 1973 season, the Mets regained the role of underachievers their fans remembered from most of the 1960s. Beginning with a strong start and in first place after 20 games, some key injuries took their toll. By July 26, they were in last place in the National League East. On August they were 12 games below .500. With only 44 games left, it looked hopeless for the team. However, they went out and played like winners and played like they were on fire for the rest of the season. When they finally broke even (77-77), it was with a sweep of the Pirates that overtook them for first place. The team never let go of that top spot and finished 82-79. Despite the naysayers pointing out that they actually benefited from a weak division, that fact that they still won after being that far out is still a notable feat.

However, to get to the World Series, the team was going to have to get past the Cincinnati Reds. The Big Red Machine were winners of 99 games in '73, had been to two of the previous three Series and were loaded with talent. Playing their role as underdog well, the Mets took the series to the full five games and a dramatic sixth-inning rally won the final game. A game three brawl between Pete Rose and Buddy Harrelson underscored just how competitive the two teams were in the series.

After reaching the World Series in an unlikely fashion, the Mets managed to take a 3-2 lead against the defending champion Oakland A's but couldn't pull out another miracle. Despite losing the Series in seven games, the New York Mets were one of the best baseball stories of the entire 1973 season.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The New Skipper

There's a rule of thumb about managers: better players don't necessarily make better managers. Here's a card showing a rookie manager who had never appeared in the majors as a player:

Card #593 -- Jack McKeon, Kansas City Royals Manager

1973 was McKeon's first year as a major league skipper. He was 42 years old and had been a catcher during his playing days but never rising above B-level (or AA in today's structure) ball. After hanging up his spikes for good in 1959, he worked as a scout and coach. When he joined the Royals organization in 1969, he managed their AAA farm club to two championships in his four years and was moved up to the home club. The Royals posted the best record of their short history in '73, but McKeon was fired in '75. He would later lead the A's, the Padres (where he was also the GM) and the Marlins. As GM, he built the Padres team that won the 1984 National League pennant and broke the hearts of Cub fans everywhere. In 2003, he was hired to manage a sub-.500 Marlins team and led them to a World Series win over the heavily favored New York Yankees. Though he retired from managing in 2005, McKeon still works in the Marlins' front office today.

Three coaches are shown from McKeon's staff and perhaps the most significant is Charlie Lau, the hitting instructor instrumental in developing George Brett as a superior major league batsman. His book The Art of Hitting .300 is still highly-regarded. Cancer claimed Lau in 1984.

Galen Cisco's major league career included stops in Boston and New York (where he was one of the original 1962 Mets) and ended during the Royals' first season in 1969. After serving as the pitching coach in Kansas City, he served in the same capacity with several other teams. With the Toronto Blue Jays in the early 1990s, he helped the team win back-to-back World Series titles.

Like McKeon, Harry Dunlop was a catcher who never made the majors as a player but was nevertheless able to enjoy a long career as a coach. Many of those seasons were spent with McKeon. As a player, he caught a three no-hitters in 14 days, one of which saw 27 strikeouts in nine innings, something that had never happened in a professional game before.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Not-Quite-Hidden Ball Trick

While Topps' 1973 baseball card set was marked by a large number of game action shots, there were still photos used that had a player posing for the photographer. For instance, here's Jim "Catfish" Hunter in front of a completely empty stadium:

Card #235 -- Jim Hunter, Oakland A's

While Hunter obviously isn't playing in a game or in front of any fans, there's still a part of me that wishes I could tell him that it's okay to let go of the ball. Nobody's around to take it away.

Despite the photographic evidence of a balk, "Catfish" was in his peak years at the time this card was pulled from a wax wrapper along with nine others and a stick of gum. 1973 was the third of five consecutive seasons where he won 20+ games. His 21-5 record that year gave him a league-best .808 winning percentage, yet he also surrendered more homers (39) than any other American League pitcher in '73. He wasn't overpowering like Nolan Ryan; he didn't strike out a lot of batters but he didn't walk a whole lot of them either. Relying on pinpoint precision and control while on the mound, he was the undisputed ace of the World Series champion team.

There are several legends about why his nickname was "Catfish" and many are false. His nickname was given to him by Oakland owner Charley Finley after the boss decided his young pitcher needed a flashy identity. While Hunter wasn't exactly fond of the tag, it fit perfectly on a team that had other pitchers with nicknames like Blue Moon and real ones like Vida and Rollie. When the free agency era began in earnest, Hunter signed with the New York Yankees after the 1974 season and helped contribute to another three-year pennant winning team there before retiring after the '79 season.

While Hunter's overall record doesn't look like it's worthy of induction into the Hall of Fame, he was voted into the Cooperstown shrine in 1987. Though his era of dominance was rather short, he was one of the elite pitchers of baseball from 1971-'75. He pitched a perfect game and earned five World Series rings. Bothered by diabetes during his playing career, he began developing symptoms of ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease) later in life and died on September 9, 1999 after falling down stairs at his home. He was 53 years old.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Brushback

In 1973, Willie Davis was a veteran player who had patrolled the Dodger centerfield for more than a decade. He had played in three World Series (winning two of them) and had been a speedy baserunner and dependable performer who rarely missed the chance to play. Worthy of respect, right?

Maybe not. Look at this shot:

Card #35 -- Willie Davis, Los Angeles Dodgers

What did Willie do to somebody at Topps that deserved this? While brushbacks are a part of the game, what reason would somebody have to show somebody getting a close shave?

The catcher is either Tim McCarver or John Bateman, as both wore #6 for the Phillies in 1972 (and were traded for each other midway through the season). As a Dodger regular, determining which catcher would be tough. Since Davis is wearing his home uniform, it would depend on which '72 homestand against the Phils produced this photo. In the series from May 1-3, it would have been McCarver (who only caught the May 3rd contest). If it was the 3-game series of July 21-23, the catcher would be Bateman.

1973 would be the last year Davis played for the Dodgers. Traded to Montreal at the end of the season, he would go from team to team for the rest of his career, even coming out of retirement in '79 after two years away to give it one more shot with the California Angels.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Not Leaving in a "Hough"

Some stay, some don't. Some hold on for what seems like forever while others come and go. That's the way it is with pitching prospects. Whether it can be attributed to overuse, less attention to pitch counts back then or whatever, hurlers are often the hardest players to gauge future potential. Take the three guys:

Card #610 -- 1973 Rookie Pitchers

Among these three players, two were actually making their first appearance on a Topps card.

For Jimmy Freeman, this would be his only Topps card. Brought up at the end of the 1972 season when the Braves expanded to a 40-man roster, he went 2-2 in six starts but had a high ERA. He would begin '73 at Richmond for further development and was brought back up to the majors in June for another chance. Unfortunately, he was sent back down after July and never returned to the majors.

Charlie Hough (pronounced "Huff") had already appeared on a '72 Topps card but would be around for many more. A reliever with the Dodgers who was converted to a starter once he went to Texas in 1980, he was known for a nasty knuckleball delivery. He would pitch in 25 seasons before retiring with the Florida Marlins in 1994. He and Rich Gossage were perhaps the last two active players from the 1973 Topps set in the majors.

Shown on the first of three Topps cards through '76, Hank Webb only pitched in two major league contests during 1973. After shuttling between the Mets and their AAA club at Tidewater for the next two seasons, he finally got the chance to join the Mets' starting rotation in '75. He didn't work out, however. He would finish his major league career with a short stint for the Los Angeles Dodgers in late '77. The first game he pitched for the Dodgers that year, he was relieved on the mound by Charlie Hough.

Monday, July 5, 2010

How Much Time Do You Need?

It's no secret that Topps seemed to pay a lot of money to its airbrush artists. Sometimes, however,it seems they may have been better off just paying a freelance photographer a few bucks to update a player's picture at some point during the season. Take this card, for instance:

Card #173 -- Hal Breeden, Montreal Expos

The airbrush job is quite colorful. It isn't a bad job, just noticeable. Assuming the original photo of Breeden had him in his former Chicago Cubs uniform, it should be pointed out that he had been traded to the Expos at the beginning of the 1972 baseball season. Therefore, Topps had the entire year to update his photo.

While it's true Breeden spent half the '72 season playing for his new team's AAA club in Virginia, he still managed to reach the parent club after the All-Star break and played in 42 games with them. Twice, he played in series at Shea Stadium, just a short distance from Topps' corporate headquarters. Perhaps the card company wasn't impressed enough to think he'd still be playing in Montreal for 1973, but they seem to have no problem getting him to sign a contract with them.

1973 would be Breeden's finest year in the majors. He appeared in more than 100 games, often as a late-innings replacement or pinch hitter. He was on a power tear, hitting 15 home runs (in five seasons, he only notched 21 of them); however, it was also the only one of his five seasons to see him hit better than .250. He would remain with the Expos (and on Topps cards) until 1975.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Not to Be Forgotten

With this blog, I've often poked fun at some of the things that have appeared on 1973 Topps baseball cards. However, with some things, levity isn't appropriate. For instance, let's look at this card for a moment:

Card #50 -- Roberto Clemente, Pittsburgh Pirates

Taking his place at the plate, in front of Mets catcher Jerry Grote, Roberto Clemente needs no introduction.

When Topps planned its first series of 1973 cards, it was right after the '72 season had ended. Clemente had just notched his 3,000th hit as a major league player and was already on a certain course toward his plaque in Cooperstown. Sadly, on December 31, 1972, fate intervened. While flying emergency supplies to victims of an earthquake in Managua, Nicaragua, the plane carrying Clemente crashed in the ocean near Puerto Rico shortly after takeoff.

Since the first series of Topps cards had been designed and Clemente had already been included, it was too late to pull his card or make an "In Memoriam" card like they did for Ken Hubbs in '64. As collectors pulled his card from wax packs that spring, they were sadly aware that Clemente was no longer around and that the list of statistics on the back seemed brutally final. It was similar to my own experience in '79 when a Thurman Munson card appeared in a pack I bought just days after his plane crash.

On March 20, 1973, a special election was held for the Baseball Hall of Fame after Clemente's five-year waiting period was waived. He was inducted that summer, the first Latin American player to be enshrined. His name and memory are still revered among baseball fans, and every year MLB's Roberto Clemente Award (originally known as the Commissioner's Award) is given to a player deemed to be an excellent citizen.