Monday, May 30, 2011

A Day to Remember

Today is Memorial Day, a day where we need to remember the sacrifices others have made on our behalf. While many like to trumpet how those brave men and women died for our freedoms, I say we just need to remember them. They were the kids down the street, our cousins and people we went to high school with.

This man was serving in the Navy during World War Two:

Card #257 -- Yogi Berra and Coaches, New York Mets

As a gunner's mate, he participated in shuttling troops to the Normandy beachhead on D-Day.

Of course, he returned to resume a Hall of Fame career as one of the finest catchers to play the game. He was elected into the Hall of Fame in 1972, as well as having his uniform number retired by the Yankees. He also became the Mets' manager that year, after the sudden death of Gil Hodges in the spring. In 1973, he called the shots for a team that came all the way from last place to the World Series. He would remain at the position until 1975 and then went back over to the Bronx to become a coach there.

Roy McMillan is the only coach shown here who wasn't a member of Gil Hodges' staff. 1973 was his first season with the team as a coach; he had played with the team as a shortstop from 1964-'66 while winding down his career. When Yogi was fired in 1975, McMillan was his interim replacement until Joe Frazier took over. McMillan died in Texas in 1997.

Joe Pignatano was a former Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodger who was tagged to play with the Mets in their disastrous inaugural season. He finished his career as only a '62 Met could aspire to: his final at-bat saw him hit into a triple play. He became a coach under Hodges in Washington and joined him with the Mets in '68 and he stayed with them until 1981 as a bullpen coach. He was known for growing a vegetable garden in the bullpen at Shea Stadium.

Rube Walker was a backup to Roy Campanella in Brooklyn, but might be better known as the last card from the '55 Dodgers Rocky Dennis needed to complete his team set in the film Mask. After retiring as a player, he became a minor league manager before moving onto a major league coaching staff. He was the pitching coach in New York, where he mentored Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan and Jerry Koosman. He was with the team from 1968 through 1981, working with several mangers. Walker died of lung cancer in 1992.

Eddie Yost was also in the Navy during World War Two. After Uncle Sam let him return to the ballfield, he became one of the most consistent players for the Washington Senators in the 1950s. He was known as "The Walking Man" due to his ability to draw a base on balls. He bagam coaching while he was still a player for the 1962 Angels and moved to Washington under old teammate Mickey Vernon. When Gil Hodges became the Mets' manager in 1968, Yost moved with him and served as the team's third base coach until 1976. He went to Boston, where he coached through 1984.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Another Sad Passing

Sadly, this pitcher passed away this week from cancer:

Card #48 -- Paul Splittorff, Kansas City Royals

Paul Splittorff pitched in Kansas City between 1970 and 1984. Although he was rarely considered to be the ace of the staff, he was the epitome of consistency and ended up with the franchise record for wins when he retired. Nearly 30 years later, he's still the record holder despite young guns on the team like Bret Saberhagen and David Cone.

As a Yankees fan, it was hard to like Paul Splittorff. Every year between 1976 and 1978 and again in 1980, the team had to go through the Royals in the playoffs to make the World Series. Since he was a left-handed pitcher, he usually was effective against the Yankees because they tended to use a lot of left-handed hitters to take advantage of Yankee Stadium's dimensions. In those four postseason series, Splittorff pitched against the Bronx Bombers six times and never lost against them.

Rest in Peace.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Put it Right There...

Here's a player who was much better known for the glove he's showing here than for his bat. However, he made his bat count in 1981 when the Dodgers squared off against the Yankees in the World Series for the third time in five years:

Card #59 -- Steve Yeager, Los Angeles Dodgers

This is Steve Yeager's rookie card. He made his big league debut in August of '72 and backed up Joe Ferguson behind the plate. However, he became known for a wicked throw to second against would-be base stealers and eventually won the starting job. He became well-regarded for his defensive prowess and ability to call a game from behind the plate. The Dodgers won four pennants during his time there and he was a big piece of the puzzle in each of those seasons.

However, he was also known for his weak offense. However, in 1981 he had an amazing Series (for him, anyway) against the Yankees. He only hit .286 but his hits were timely, including a homer that beat Ron Guidry in game 5. His efforts gave him a share of the Series MVP award that year.

After that, Yeager was relegated to backing up Mike Scioscia and stayed with teh team through teh end of 1985. He finished up in Seattle for the 1986 season.

Yeager was the inspiration for a plastic "turkey neck" used under the catcher's mask when a bat broke in 1976 and sent several splinters into his throat. While that seems like a sensible idea, it's worth mentioning that the bat belonged to teammate Bill Russell and he was standing in the on-deck circle at the time of the accident.

His cousin was famed aviator Chuck Yeager. He was also known for embracing the L.A. lifestyle. When he was married on the steps of City Hall, sitting Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley was his best man.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Toy Cannon

According to the legend, Jimmy Wynn was called "Toy Cannon" because he was small (5' 8") but made a big "pop" with his bat. Here he is swinging his bat in the on-deck circle of another team's field:

Card #185 -- Jim Wynn, Houston Astros

Those Astros road grays really stood out because of the contrast those orange sleeves gave them. No wonder they went on to the multi-colored unis a few years later.

This may be one of the first cards to show a batting donut, invented by former Yankee Eltson Howard about a decade before that. Since most photos used on cards before 1973 were posed shots, there wasn't a lot of images of batters actually standing in the on-deck circle. However, note that I used the word "maybe" because I'm not in a place where I can pull out my cards to verify that. If there is an earlier card with one, let me know in the comments section.

In 1973, Jimmy Wynn had spent his entire major league career in Houston, dating back to 1963 when the team was still known as the Colt .45s. Starting at shortstop (probably also due to his smaller stature), he moved to center by the end of his rookie year and became a fixture at that position for over a decade. He was a power hitter, but playing home games in the Astrodome -- which had longer fences -- may have masked his career numbers. He was also known for having a sharp eye and walked often.

1973 would be Wynn's last season with the Astros. Traded to Los Angeles, he helped them win a pennant and earned Comeback Player of the Year honors. However, a shoulder injury in 1975 limited his effectiveness and he was moved to left. In 1976, he played in Atlanta and split '77 as a DH between New York and Milwaukee.

Because he played in a era known for low offense and played for so long in a low run-scoring park, Wynn is sometimes pointed out by "numbers" guys as a player who may have had a legitimate shot to become a Hall of Famer had he played somewhere else.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Before There Was Cal...

Here's a player whose name I always pronounced wrong until later on:

Card #253 -- Mark Belanger, Baltimore Orioles

Since Belanger was no longer an everyday player when I first got into baseball, I never had the opportunity to hear an announcer pronounce his name. Therefore, I always wanted to say "BELL-in-jur" rather than the correct "Bah-LAN-jur."

At first glance, this photo appears to have been taken during the 1970 World Series against the Reds. However, closer inspection of the colors reveals an Indians uniform, so Belanger's trying to turn a double play against Jack Brohamer.

Before Cal Ripken, Jr. came along, Mark Belanger owned the all-time Orioles records at shortstop. He was their regular at the position between 1965 and '81. While the back of this card mentions Belanger had already won two Gold Glove awards, he would go on to win another in '73...and every year from then until 1978. In fact, second baseman Bobby Grich also won a Gold Glove from '73-'76 and Brooks Robinson earned them at third through '75. That was a solid infield, one that ended up helping the Orioles get to the postseason several times.

Belanger was another in a long line of "good field, no hit" shortstops. His career .228 average is the third-lowest all-time among players with over 2500 at bats. Despite those anemic numbers, he was actually quite successful against Nolan Ryan and Bert Blyleven, two pitchers who struck out an awful lot of batters at the time.

During his playing days, Belanger was active with the union, even sitting at the negotiating table in 1981 (which may have helped lead to his '82 season in Los Angeles). He would serve as a liaison for the MLBPA after his retirement. Sadly, Mark Belanger died in 1998 of lung cancer.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Choked Up

The title for this entry refers to the way Dick McAuliffe is holding the bat in this picture:

Card #349 -- Dick McAuliffe, Detroit Tigers

That's an interesting action shot. A close-up that excises the pitcher, catcher and umpire. Considering the number of photos used in the 1973 Topps set that include half a team in them (and are sometimes horizontally oriented), it's odd that the company cropped this photo in such a manner.

At the time, Dick McAuliffe had been with the Tigers since 1960. He was the starting shortstop until 1966 and moved over to second in '67. He was a key player for the Tigers in their Championship season in '68, going the full season without hitting into a double play. 1973 would be his final year in Detroit, though, and he was traded to the Red Sox after the season.

Winding down his career in 1974, he began the '75 season managing one of the Red Sox' minor league clubs but would be called up late in the season to help the team's push toward the postseason. He didn't make the postseason roster that year and retired.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Another Cub Fan Favorite

In 1969, the entire Chicago Cubs infield was named to the National League All-Star team. Two were slated to be starters...third baseman Ron Santo and this shortstop:

Card #285 -- Don Kessinger, Chicago Cubs

Don Kessinger spent 11 seasons in Wrigley Field, including the magical but ultimately frustrating 1969. He was the archetypal "good field, no hit" infielder that seemed to be so prevalent during that era. His hitting prowess was so weak, when Leo Durocher took over the Cubs in 1966 he suggester Kessinger try becoming a switch-hitter to improve his chances. He responded with a .274 season and became the team's leadoff hitter for several years.

The back of this card mentions Kessinger reaching two milestones during 1972. He played in his 1,000th game and knocked out his 1,000th hit during the season. That would be about the halfway point for both marks, as he ended up with just over 2,000 games and just under 2,000 hits. However, those final years weren't spent in Wrigley Field. As the Cubs began shedding the remnants of their 1969 squad, Kessinger was traded to the Cardinals after the 1975 season.

He would return to the Windy City in 1977. This time, however, he was sent to the team that played in Comiskey Park. In 1979, he was briefly the White Sox' player/manager. During his tenure, the White Sox had to forfeit the second game of a doubleheader on July 12 because the fans rioted during a "Disco Demolition Night" promotion hosted by area DJ Steve Dahl. The events weren't his fault, but he is still the last manager of an American League team to forfiet a game.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Miles Away From "Les Parc"...

This photo definitely wasn't taken at Jarry Parc (or, in its French pronunciation, Parc Jarry), the original home of the Montreal Expos:

Card #41 -- Tom Walker, Montreal Expos

Of course, he's in his road grays, which means he wouldn't have been there anyway. It's pretty certain he's not standing in a major league stadium, however. The Expos trained at West Palm Beach through 1972, but this photo could have been taken anywhere in Florida. Since he was born and raised in Tampa and played his first two minor league seasons in Miami, Walker likely feels right at home.

It appears Walker is standing in the same field as Ron Hunt did when he posed for his photo. The pictures were likely taken on the same day.

1972 was Tom Walker's first year in the majors. He was a relief specialist -- what is called a "setup man" today -- and posted a 2-2 record over 45 games and 75 innings. He was a starter for at least part of his time in the minors, as the back of this card mentions a 15-inning no-hitter for Dallas/Ft. Worth in 1971. He did start a few games for Montreal in 1974, before they gave up on him and traded him to Detroit. After a season with the Tigers and another with the Cardinals, he was back in Montreal to start the 1977 season. However, he was waived mid-season and claimed by the Angels. He only made it to the mound for California once: for two innings in relief during a disastrous 10-4 drubbing at the hands of the Twins (and his former skipper Gene Mauch). He went back to the minors and finished his career there.

His son is Neil Walker, the current second baseman for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

No Need to Make Fun of This Cleveland

Spring training photos are often neat because of the way they feature palm trees or appear to be taken inside a municipal park. I can't get over the way it seems like this guy's pitching in front of a hospital:

Card #104 -- Reggie Cleveland, St. Louis Cardinals

Reggie Cleveland has a name that should have seen him spend at least some time in a Tribe uniform, he never had to bother calling Municipal Stadium home. Seeing as how the Indians were a laughingstock at the time, that may have been a good thing for his career. He managed to pitch against the Indians after 1973, after he was traded to the Red Sox. That trade resulted in this "headline" on the back of his '74 Traded card: Cleveland Travels to Boston.

He spent the rest of his carrer pitching in the American League. He was part of Boston's 1975 pennant-winning team but missed their meltdown in '78 after Texas bought him early in the season. He was then traded to Milwaukee after that season and pitched for three years with the Brewers. He was done when he was released before Spring Training in 1982.

Cleveland was born in Saskatchewan, Canada. His son Jonathan was a member of the Canadian Olympic swim team in 1988.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Goin' to the Archives...

Yes, Topps has been known to use old photos from time to time, but this picture looks a little bit odd:

Card #516 -- Danny Walton, Minnesota Twins

Walton was traded to the Twins after the 1972 season, so obviously he didn't have a picture available in his new uniform. For '72, he was mired in the minors at Syracuse. His last major league experience had been with the Yankees in 1971...but wait...the picture shows him in front of that familiar Yankee Stadium facade but wearing a gray jersey. Therefore, the picture most likely shows him with the Brewers, the team he played with in 1970-'71.

Danny Walton never really managed to catch on anywhere as a regular player. He would spend the entire 1973 season in Minnesota but only managed to play in 37 games for them. After that, he was back and forth between the majors and minors through 1980 (except in 1978, when he went to play in Japan). He was constantly on the move as well, going from Minnesota to the Dodgers in 1976, returning to the Astros -- where he debuted in 1968 -- in 1977, to Japan, back to the minors for '79 and finally getting into ten games for the Rangers in 1980 before hanging it up.

Along the way, he wore nine different uniform numbers, never taking one to a new team.

Friday, May 6, 2011

50 Big Ones

Willie Mays hit 52 home runs in 1965. Cecil Fielder hit 51 in 1990. In the 24 seasons that made up the interim, only one person managed to reach the 50-homer mark in a single season. It wasn't Reggie Jackson or Mike Schmidt, it was this guy:

Card #399 -- George Foster, Cincinnati Reds

He knocked 52 round-trippers in 1977. A performance like that today might have fans claiming he was cheating, since he never hit more than 29 before that season and only topped 30 once more afterward.

In 1973, however, George Foster was still a part-timer on a Reds team that was loaded with talent. In the '72 NLCS, Foster scored the run that won the playoff after coming in as a pinch runner. In 1973, he only appeared in 17 games. Used mainly when an outfielder went down with an injury (like Bobby Tolan did in 1971), Foster was an impact player that couldn't land a regular role with the team. In '74, when Tolan was traded away, Ken Griffey was placed in the outfield instead.

However, Sparky Anderson decided to move Pete Rose to third base and Foster was given the chance to show he could contribute as an everyday player. The team ended up winning the next two World Series titles. No, I'm not suggesting that move directly led to the titles, but Foster was a very big cog in the Big Red Machine during those years. Even as the team declined as its players left or retired, Foster was still a workhorse. He was an All-Star every year from 1976-'79 and the leagues MVP in '77, the year he hit those 52 homers.

In 1982, he was traded to the New York Mets. By that time, he was still a gamebreaker, even though his skills had eroded. He was a valuable veteran presence as the team built itself into one of the best teams in baseball. Sadly, the year that the Mets were able to win the World Series, Foster wasn't able to join them in the clubhouse. The Mets had released him in August. He then played for the White Sox for a month before being released again.

While not a Hall of Fame caliber player, there's little doubt that George Foster could flat-out play the game.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Cub #1

The title of this post has a double meaning. Not only was Jose Cardenal wearing uniform #1 for the Cubs, he also led the team in batting, doubles and stolen bases. Here is the man named Cubs Player of the Year for 1973:

Card #393 -- Jose Cardenal, Chicago Cubs

While he appears to be squaring for a bunt, Cardenal may simply be sneaking up on the camera. He gained a reputation for imaginative excuses. He was known to watch for bugs in the Wrigley Field ivy during long stretches of games. He once asked to sit out a game and told Whitey Lockman that crickets in his hotel room had kept him up all night. Another time he claimed his eyelid was stuck open.

Something tells me that if Jose Cardenal hadn't been a decent outfielder -- he definitely was -- some team might have kept him specifically for the comic relief.

Cardenal played for nine different teams between 1963-'80. After his playing career was finished, he became a coach. From 1996-'99, he won three World Series Rings (something he never managed as a player) as a member of the New York Yankee coaching staff.

Monday, May 2, 2011

A Small Cloud of Dust

While the cloud of dust at his feet looks a little neat, it could indicate he has just thrown his pitch into the dirt:

Card #636 -- Rick Clark, California Angels

For Rick Clark, it was a metaphor for his major league baseball career. Though this card appeared in Topps' final series in 1973, he was done with the big leagues and never played at all that year. He was purchased by the Phillies before Spring Training began and spent the entire season at the AAA level.

Clark's Wikipedia entry is exactly one sentence long. The back of this card features more information about his career than that. Although he won 12 games as a rookie in 1967, his record after five partial seasons was 19-32. That may have marginalized him a bit.