Friday, March 30, 2012

The Closer

His moustache makes its first appearance on a baseball card here. It hasn't yet sprouted into its full handlebar glory yet, but that was right around the corner:

Card #84 -- Rollie Fingers, Oakland A's

During Spring Training in 1972, Reggie Jackson showed up to camp sporting a beard. As a result, several of his teammates grew their own facial hair as a way of getting him to cut it or else have management step in when enough was enough. However, owner Charlie Finley saw it as a way of promoting the team and went crazy with it. He held a "Moustache Day" where fans could get in free if they had one, and offered his players an incentive for the best facial hair. Catfish Hunter and Ken Holtzman sported great facial hair...but Rollie Fingers waxed his into an 1800s-styled handlebar, winning the prize and beginning a look he maintains to this day.

Fingers was well-known for that handlebar, but his place in baseball history shows him as one of the forefathers of the specialized relief pitcher role that has become so important to clubs over the last 50 years. The ironic thing is that he was sent to the bullpen early in his career as a member of the A's because he was uneven in the rotation. At the time, the starter was expected to carry the team through nine innings and a reliever was ready in case things got out of hand (with occasional exceptions, like Hoyt Wilhelm and Roy Face). Fingers excelled quickly in his new role, and manager Dick Williams saw the potential of having a strong "closer" on hand to keep things close in the late innings as the arms began to get tired.

There was still the occasional starting assignment, but Fingers was the A's main closer by 1971. He stayed in that role through the team's "dynasty" period, where they won their division each year from 1971-'75. He joined the San Diego Padres as a free agent after the '76 season and was named the Relief Man of the Year in three of his four seasons there. After the 1980 season he was traded twice, ending up with the Brewers in 1981. That season, he won the A.L. Cy Young Award as well as the MVP award. After sitting out the 1983 season, he returned to the Brewers for two more years to finish his career. In just over a decade, Fingers went from being assigned to the bullpen as a demotion to defining the way a relief pitcher should be used.

He was offered a contract to play for the Reds in 1986, but was told that he would have to shave his moustache off in accordance with the rules established by team owner Marge Schott. His response was classic: "Well, you tell Marge Schott to shave her St. Bernard, and I'll shave my moustache." He was a second-ballot Hall of Fame inductee, getting his plaque in 1992. He was only the second enshrinee who was a relief pitcher, after Wilhelm.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Not the Guy From "F Troop"

While another person with the same name was gracing the "boob tube" as the captain of a misfit cavalry unit, this guy was playing in the White Sox' outfield:

Card #445 -- Ken Berry, California Angels

This Ken Berry did go on to an acting role as well, playing a fan in the 1988 film Eight Men Out, after he served as a consultant for the producers of that movie.

As a member of the White Sox from 1962-'70, Berry was a well-regarded defensive outfielder, earning a place on the American League's All-Star team in 1967. He was mainly a centerfielder, but moved over when Tommie Agee played for the team. He won a Gold Glove award for them in 1970, his last season there. Traded to the Angels after that season, he continued as a regular player in the outfield and earned a second Gold Glove in 1972. 1973 would be his last year as an everyday player, as well as his last in California. He would be traded to Milwaukee for the '74 season and spent the first half of '75 in Cleveland.

Berry worked as a coach and a minor league manager in several organizations since his retirement.

Monday, March 26, 2012

This Ain't John Wayne, Pilgrim...

This guy holds the all-time career record for home runs from a player born in Utah:

Card #304 -- Duke Sims, Detroit Tigers

Duke Sims also hit the last ever home run in "old" Yankee Stadium, before its mid-70s renovation. That was at the tail end of the '73 season, when he was a member of the Bronx Bombers and playing against the team shown on his '73 Topps card.

Sims was signed by the Indians in 1959 and first came up to the club in 1964. He was up and down a few times, but had become the team's regular catcher by 1968. He was also the regular catcher for "Sudden" Sam McDowell during that period and was valued for his defensive capabilities. That said, he was no slouch with the bat, getting a .340 on-base percentage despite his lifetime .239 batting average.

After 1970 he was traded to the Dodgers for two players (Alan Foster and Ray Lamb), but was waived in 1972. Despite joining the Tigers in August of '72, he managed to be featured in the correct uniform for his card in 1973 (although he was shown as a Dodger behind the plate on Glenn Beckert's photo that year). Late in '73, he was traded to the Yankees and then finished with the Rangers in 1974.

After his retirement, Sims spent one year as a manager in the White Sox' farm system.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Post/Card #300

With this post, there have been 300 cards featured in this blog. While not yet halfway through the set, it is still a milestone. And this milestone post shows a player who had just completed a phenomenal season in 1972:

Card #300 -- Steve Carlton, Philadelphia Phillies

The picture shows Steve Carlton being congratulated after one of his 27 wins that season. However, the catcher's helmet obscures his head. Number six belonged to both John Bateman and Tim McCarver that season (the two catchers were traded for each other during the season), so it could be either of them.

What makes Carlton's 27 wins that season truly impressive is that the Phillies only managed 59 wins all season. That accounted for 46 percent of the entire team's wins, still a record for all pitchers since 1901. He also led the league with 30 complete games, 310 strikeouts and a 1.97 ERA. He also won the first of his four Cy Young Awards and the Hickok belt, awarded to the top athlete among several sports between 1950 and '76.

1972 had also been the first year that "Lefty" spent in Philadelphia. He came up to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1965 and was a member of the World Series-winning 1967 club. However, he was known to be difficult at contract time because he knew he was worth more than the team wanted to pay him. Carlton was a no-show in 1970 during contract talks, but rebounded the next year to win 20 games. When he grumbled over his salary for 1972, he was traded to the Phillies in exchange for Rick Wise. At the time, it was seen as an even trade, but is now seen as a very lopsided deal after the records began racking up.

Carlton stayed in Philadelphia through 1986, helping that team to five division titles and two World Series. He was the ace of the team, steamrolling his way to more than 300 career victories and (temporarily) breaking the all-time career strikeout record. By 1984, Carlton began showing his age but was still a mound presence. After being traded to the Giants in '86, he bounced from them to the White Sox, Indians and the Twins fairly quickly before retiring after 1988. There was little debate about his Hall worthiness, and he was a first-ballot inductee into Cooperstown.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

More "New Guys"

Let's feature another of the multi-player rookie cards in the final series of the 1973 Topps set. Here are three up-and-coming pitchers, presented in alphabetical order:

Card #612 -- Rookie Pitchers

For Steve Lawson, this would be his only card. In fact, when this card was issued, his major league career was already finished. He was drafted by the A's in 1969 but stayed in the minors until he was dealt to Texas as the "player to be named later" in the Ted Kubiak trade midway through the 1972 season. He stayed with the parent club for the rest of that season, getting into 13 games as a reliever. That was a change for Lawson, who was a starter as he made his way through the bush leagues. He went back down in 1973, spending two more years before giving it up.

With Bob Reynolds, this wasn't really a rookie card. This card marked his third appearance with as many teams. In 1971, he was on a card featuring three pitchers, all of whom had the same last name. In 1972, he was the only player correctly identified on a card featuring three Brewers. He pitched for six different major league teams from 1969 through 1975, with the Orioles being the only one that saw him stay longer than one season. He also pitched for Baltimore in the 1973 and '74 ALCS. He went to Mexico to pitch in 1976 and spent '77 in Japan.

Brent Strom is also a true rookie here. His first card is airbrushed to reflect his trade from the Mets to the Indians after the '72 season. Prior to his major league career, he played ball at USC, where he was part of two College World Series championship teams. 1973 would be his only season with the Tribe. After not pitching anywhere in 1974, he resurfaced in '75 with the Padres and remained there through 1977. An elbow injury limited his effectiveness, but he remained in the minors until 1981. Strom has been a well-taveled coach and instructor since his retirement.

Interestingly, none of these pitchers had a winning career record in the majors.

Monday, March 19, 2012

A Man Called Skeeter

While his nickname "Skeeter" was probably derived from his Tennessee birthplace, this pitcher had a crazy nickname during the three years he played in Japan:

Card #373 -- Clyde Wright, California Angels

During his first season in Japan, Clyde Wright was about to get yanked during the first inning with two on and nobody out. As the manager walked to the mound, Wright stubbornly refused to give up the ball and then threw it hard into his team's dugout. The tactic was seen as disrespectful by the Japanese fans and critics, who called him "Crazy Righto" after the incident. Which is really funny, considering the photo above clearly shows he's a left-handed pitcher.

Before his career in Japan, however, Wright spent a decade in the majors. He came up with the Angels in 1966 and pitched a complete-game four-hitter against the Twins during his first game. By 1970, he taught himself the screwball and enjoyed his best season, going 22-6 and throwing a no-hitter. 1973 would be his final season with the Halos; he spent 1974 with the Brewers and '75 in Texas. His three-year career in the Far East began in 1976, as he was only the second white American-born player (Davey Johnson was the first) to play for the Yomiuri Giants in over a decade.

In 1977, Wright -- along with fellow expatriate players Roger Repoz and Charlie Manuel -- decided to take on several East German hockey players in a fight while visiting a club. That didn't end well for them. After retiring, Wright opened up about his battle with alcohol and has participated in community outreach on that topic. His son, Jaret Wright, was a pitcher from 1997-2007.

Friday, March 16, 2012

No Relation...

This player was the son of another baseball player, who might be mistaken for a legendary racecar driver:

Card #247 -- Del Unser, Cleveland Indians

Del Unser was the son of Al Unser, who isn't related to any of the three racecar drivers in a family dynasty. Instead, he was a catcher for the Tigers and Reds during the World War II era and later seved as a coach and scout. As for Del Unser, he was a pretty good player in his own right, spending 15 seasons with five different teams.

Coming up with the Senators in 1968, he remained with the team until they were finished in Washington. But rather than move with them to Texas, he was traded to Cleveland for the '72 season. By the time 1973 rolled around, Unser was actually a Phillie despite what his card said. Apparently, the move was made too late in the process for Topps to give the assignment to its airbrush artists. After that, he moved every 2-3 years, joining the Mets and Expos before returning to the Phillies, where he was part of the 1980 World Series Champions.

Now for the thing I really wanted to say...

Unser's card above exhibits what collectors refer to as a miscut. With miscut cards, it goes beyond simply being off-center: part of an entirely different card shows up as well. When caught in the factory, miscuts were pulled from production and thrown away. This one, however, made it into the pack. While collectors tend to discount them and severely discount their value, some hobbyists see the older miscuts as "clues" that help them determine where a card was on a printing sheet in order to determine why certain cards are harder to find in top condition than others. In that case, they tell a story and are pretty noteworthy.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Before Letterman...

When I was a young collector, this pitcher was a "LOOGY" (a left-handed, "one-out" guy) who was being ridiculed by David Letterman about his weight:

Card #129 -- Terry Forster, Chicago White Sox

In this picture, Terry Forster is shown fairly early in his career (he came up with the White Sox in '71 and turned 22 just as the '73 season was beginning), but he -- like many of us -- underwent "the battle of the bulge" as he approched middle age. As a person who showed up on the early days of cable when WTBS wasn't yet known as "The Superstation"...playing for what called itself "America's Team," it was pretty noticeable. In fact, Letterman would refer to him on several occasions in his late-night monologue as a "tub of goo."

When he came up with the White Sox in the early 1970s, he was a fire-throwing phenom who was perfectly suited as a closer. The problem was, he came up at the same time as Rich Gossage, who was also a superb reliever. As a result, the two pitchers' save totals would jump around from year to year until 1976. In that season, skipper Paul Richards came up with the idea that both Forster and Gossage should be moved to teh starting rotation. It ended up being disatrous and both pitchers would be shipped to Pittsburgh the following year.

Forster went to the Dodgers in 1978 as a free agent. During his five seasons in Los Angeles, he went to the World Series twice and faced against Gossage both times. He was on the winning team in 1981. He went back on the free agent market after the '82 season and landed in Atlanta, where he caught the eye of Letterman's writing staff. He remained there until 1985 and spent one last season with teh Angels in '86 before retiring.

He seemed to take the attention about his weight in stride. He appeared as a guest on Letterman's show, and later recorded a novelty song called "Fat is In." Take that, Richard Simmons!

Forster was also a very good hitter. He collected 31 hits in his career and finished with a .397 average for his career. Not only was he used as a pinch-hitter several times in his career, he only struck out nine times.

Monday, March 12, 2012

"Silent George"

This guy earned the nickname "Silent George" from his habit of not talking with reporters:

Card #13 -- George Hendrick, Oakland A's

He isn't nearly as quiet today, in his position as the first base coach for the Tampa Bay Rays. But as a player, he just kept his mouth shut while the media was around. He was also the first player to wear his pants down around his ankles, helping to usher in a uniform style often derided by the "old schoolers" who prefer the stirrup socks worn several years ago.

Hendrick had other nicknames as well: he was also called "Jogging George" and "Captain Easy" due to what his critics claimed was a lack of running out plays. However, he was a major leaguer for almost two decades and a key member of several teams. As you see in the card above, he was a member of the Oakland A's during their 1970s dynasty, but was traded to Cleveland in the Ray Fosse deal just before the '73 season began. He remained with the Tribe through '76 and then spent two seasons in San Diego. In 1979, he began a stint in St. Louis that is probably where most fans remember him. He was an important cog in that team's outfield in 1982 as the Cardinals won the World Series. When they returned in '85, they may have been able to use him; however, Hendrick went to the Pirates and then to California that year and finished his career with the Angels in 1988.

Hendrick began his coaching career during the 1990s. Since Joe Maddon does most of the talking for the Rays' staff, I still don't know if he's softened up on his icy relationship with the writers.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Epic Sideburns

Behind the very 1970s-styled sideburns, there's not a lot of information about this guy on the regular Internet databases:

Card #92 -- Jerry Bell, Milwaukee Brewers

Jerry Bell played his entire major league career with the Milwaukee Brewers. He was drafted by the Seattle Pilots during their only season in 1969, and then stayed with the organization after they relocated to Milwaukee. Primarily used as a reliever at first, he was moved to the regular starting rotation in 1973.

1973 would be the only season where Bell would stay with the parent club for the entire year, and was also the only season where he didn't end up getting a winning record. That said, his 9-9 mark gave him a .500 winning percentage...which was better than his club managed that year.

He was known for having decent control and was excellent at placing his pitches. However, he was out of the game after 1974.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012


I just realized that there hasn't been a Hall of Famer featured on this blog since last August. Yikes! Let's remedy that little issue today with this legend:

Card #370 -- Willie Stargell, Pittsburgh Pirates

Here's a picture of Willie Stargell, waiting on a throw to put out Terry Harmon at first. Billy DeMars is the Phillie's first base coach.

Yesterday would have been Stargell's birthday if he was still with us. He was a beloved figure in Pittsburgh (where he played his entire career) as well as elsewhere, thanks to his skill, his affable manner and his memorable quotations. When asked what it was like to hit against Sandy Koufax, he said, it was like "trying to drink coffee with a fork." That's not to say that he was afraid to take his place in the batter's box; he crushed the first home run out of Shea Stadium in 1964, hit the longest homer out of Three Rivers Stadium as well as the longest out of Montreal's Olympic Stadium (and also Veterans Stadium in Philly) and hit the first homer to travel completely out of Dodger Stadium. He enjoyed that distinction so much, he did it a second time as well in 1973.

Also in '73, he led the National League in both homers and doubles, hitting more than 40 of each. That was a rare occurrence, especially in an era where the offensive numbers were lower than normal. In all, he belted 475 home runs even though he retired with what was then the all-time record for strikeouts by a batter. Even during the twilight years of his career, he was still showing up to play. In 1979, he was the leader of a Pirates team that followed its destiny to win the World Series. The team chose the Sister Sledge hit "We Are Family" as their song, and he was called "Pops" to show exactly where he hit into that family. That year, he was the MVP of both the NLCS and the World Series, as well as a co-MVP of the National 39 years old.

Beginning in the late 1970s, Stargell handed out embroidered stars to his teammates for excellent plays, and they were placed on the old-style pillbox hats the team used then. Those stars would remain a part of the Pirates' look until he retired in 1982. He would be elected to the Hall of Fame in 1988, the first time he was eligible for induction.

Sadly, a stroke sidelined Stargell for good in 2001.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Two-Year Bender?

There really isn't a lot of information about this guy on the regular reference sites devoted to baseball players:

Card #617 -- Rich Chiles, New York Mets

He's airbrushed into his Mets uniform due to the fact that he had been with the Astros from 1971-'72. His tenure with the Mets was short; he was with the team for the first couple of weeks of 1973 and spent the rest of the season in Tuscon as a minor leaguer. His next time in the majors would come in a mid-season callup to the Astros in 1976, followed by a stint in Minnesota from 1977-'78.

What is interesting is that he has no stats at all listed for 1974 and '75. Baseball-Reference says he was signed by the Padres for '74 but doesn't appear to have played anywhere. He seems to have taken the entire 1975 season off. He doesn't appear to have played in Japan, or served in the military, or joined a monastery, or went off on an extended bender or anything.

After his retirement, Chiles went back to run his family farm near Davis, California. He was a cousin of Hall of Fame player George "Highpockets" Kelly.

Friday, March 2, 2012

A Man Called "Nellie"

For those of us who grew up in the 1970s, "Nellie" was the first name of that blonde-haired brat on Little House on the Prairie. It was also the first name of this guy, even if Topps wanted to show his real name instead:

Card #303 -- Nelson Briles, Pittsburgh Pirates

Nellie Briles pitched for five different teams during a 14-year career. He managed to pitch in three World Series (two with St. Louis, and one with Pittsburgh) and was on the winning squad in 1967 and '71. With the Cardinals, he was among the team's better hurlers from 1967-'69, winning double digits each year including 19 in '68, but a slump in 1970 led to him being traded to Pittsburgh. He responded by helping the team win the World Series the next year.

He remained in Pittsburgh for three years. His final five seasons were spent with three teams: the Royals, Rangers and Orioles. He became a broadcaster after retiring and eventually worked in the Pirates' front office. Sadly, in 2006 he suffered a fatal heart attack during an alumni golf tournament in Orlando.