On the heels of Nick’s suggestion, I thought I’d take a stab as well. If you’re one of the blog’s more avid readers you may recall I’ve already done two pieces on “Uncommon Commons,” the first on Ohtanian Texas League pioneer Dave Hoskins and the second on football player-artist Ernie Barnes. At present my cards of Hoskins reign supreme over the tens of thousands of commons in my collection, so much so that they get their own shelf in my memorabilia room.
Neither Hoskins nor Barnes will be the subject of this post, however. More in line with the spirit of the “Favorite Common” series, I’ll highlight a favorite common or two from my formative years as a collector, long before I had ever heard the names Dave Hoskins and Ernie Barnes.
Having come of age as a collector and fan in late-1970s Los Angeles, I went to bed each night with the transistor radio glued to my ear, faithfully tuned to the play calling and commentary of Vin Scully, Ross Porter, and Jerry Doggett on KABC 790. You’d be forgiven for not noticing from the outside, but inside Dodgerland there was a great chase afoot as dramatic and legacy defining as Mantle, Maris, or Aaron’s pursuit of Ruth.
The great Manuel Rafael Mota Geronimo (SABR bi0), whose full name was sometimes used by Scully out of reverence, was on the verge of becoming baseball’s all-time Pinch-Hit King! With every plate appearance came the question of whether he’d pull one hit closer to the immortal (or at least centuries old sounding) Smoky Burgess.
Many fans today know Scully’s famous call of Kirk Gibson’s pinch-hit home run in the 1988 World Series. From my memory, perhaps faulty but not wholly unreliable, that radio call was every Manny Mota at-bat in the year of our Lord 1979 as well as half the times Manny could have come up and didn’t.
So yes, your VCPs, Standard Catalogs, and Beckett Monthlies might regard Mr. Mota as a common, but I am here to correct the record. In Greek mythology some gods assumed common form, but this was 1979 Los Angeles, not 2000 B.C. Athens, and Mr. Mota’s assault on immortality made his 1978 and 1979 Topps cards anything but common in my collection.
Mota had entered the 1979 season with 132 pinch hits, a dozen short of the record. With roughly six months of baseball to play, barring whatever type of injuries befell pinch-hitters, Manny would need to average two hits per month to tie Burgess and of course just a hair over that to claim the crown for his own. Sure Ty Cobb once banged out 67 hits in a single month, but old Ty had the advantage of everyday play and competed against inferior talent. Let’s call it a wash, shall we?
Sure enough, Manny Mota began the season on perfect pace to match Burgess. Two hits in April followed by two hits in May. One one occasion each month, Mota drew a dreaded base on balls, the record chasing equivalent of a prom date with your cousin. Forgive us for we did not yet know walks would someday be hallowed above even RBIs among baseball savants, meaning at the time that the only response our amygdalas could produce was, “Pitch to the man, you bum!”
I don’t normally use this blog to shame anyone, but here are the bums in question. A pox on both your houses, Frank Riccelli and Mike Tomlin!
With two months of the season in the books, Mota’s average was a “Peachy” .364, but then came his dreaded June swoon and a slowing of Manny’s assault on Burgess. Only one hit in five at-bats prompted the question: Like Aaron in ’73, would Mota fall just short of the mark and be forced to carry its full burden into the off-season?
As it turns out, not a chance! Channeling Kobe’s final game, it seemed every time a Dodger hitter stepped to the plate in July it was Mota. I remember his plate appearances that month as 100 though the record books now tell me they numbered a mere dozen. Perhaps I’m counting all the times Scully wondered aloud whether Mota might be making his way to the bat rack.
“And look who’s coming up…”
Still, 12 at bats for a pinch-hitter is like a million for anyone else. Mota made the most of his trips to the plate, connecting for four hits and closing out the month with 141 pinch-hits. With two full months remaining, there was little doubt Mota would soon claim the crown.
Hinting at the role Fate had played in his career, Number 11 came to the plate 11 times in August. His first four times up resulted in three singles against only one out. He was now batting .375 on the season. More importantly, his career total for pinch-hits was now 144. The man was Ty Cobb meets Tie Burgess.
As was the way in ancient Sparta, there were now two kings. This we expected. What we didn’t expect was that the diarchy would drag on as long as it did.
As hot as August began, a rash of cool summer nights followed:
- August 9: ground out
- August 12: ground out
- August 16: sacrifice bunt
- August 20: ground ball double play
- August 24: line out
- August 25: fly out
- August 28: strikeout
The wear of the season had caught up with Mota. While everyday hitters could match Manny’s hitless streak and barely blink an eye, they also cycle through seven plate appearances every two games. For Mota, the drought represented a full one eighth of the baseball season, which is quite an o-fer for a .375 hitter!
The Dodgers gave Mota the rest of the month off and didn’t call his number again until the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, at home against the Cubs. Leading off the bottom of the eighth inning on September 2, 1979, Manny Mota replaced Ken Brett in the Dodger lineup. On the mound for the visiting Cubs was card-in-every-pack northpaw Lynn McGlothen, who held a 1-2 count on Mota.
On the next pitch…history was made, or in the immortal words of Topps, “Basehit to Rightfield Does It!”
The king is dead. Long live the king! Let the history books (or at least the SABR Baseball Cards blog) show that this common was no common common but a common who one day ruled them all.
A couple years back I was staying with a friend in the Bay Area, and he brought out his old baseball cards. Seeing my reaction to his 1970 Manny Mota card, he was kind enough to give it to me. The front featured a beautiful image of Mota waiting his turn at bat, ready to deliver his trademark single to right. His gaze seemed affixed beyond the mound or batter’s box, almost heavenward, as if to let the baseball gods know, “Yeah, I got this.”
Flip the card over, however, and I’m actually thankful that I didn’t have it back in 1979.
“Considered by many to be the best #4 outfielder in the NL, Manny proved his value to the Dodgers in 1969 with timely hitting.”
As a kid who listened to Vin Scully more than his own parents and teachers, I saw Mota as a superstar. It had never once crossed my mind that Mota might have simply been the fourth best outfielder for a lot longer than most players, many of whom eventually became the third, second, or even first best. I was cheering a prize for bench warmers all those games, all the while thinking I was witnessing the toppling of the Bambino.
Who was Manny Mota then? Was he an immortal carving out his own slice of baseball’s record book or was he a glorified bench warmer? I prefer to remember him as the former, not just because it’s how I experienced him at the time but because such a portrait inspires me in my own life.
In so many parts of life, we are not the stars, the best, or even in the top three. We are the helpers, the ones who wait their turns, and the ones who much rejoice in small victories. We fail more than we succeed, and we don’t always know when our next opportunity will come, if at all.
We aren’t Hank Aaron or Mike Trout (unless one of them is reading this column…HOLY SMOKES!!!), and nobody will ever collect our baseball cards. Still from our benches there are glories and gratitude as we aspire humbly not to be heroes to millions but on a good day, to those around us, a Favorite Common.
Author’s note: Manny Mota fans and baseball fans in general might enjoy W.P. Kinsella’s short story, “The Night Manny Mota Tied the Record.” It’s in “The Essential W.P. Kinsella,” among other places.