Editor’s note: SABR Baseball Cards welcomes new member F. Scott Wilkinson with the eighth of his ten articles on the 1972 Topps set, now celebrating its 50th anniversary. Click here to start the series from the beginning. The current post shares some of the stories and numbers behind the players on the cards.
I have explained many times that I am, by Profession, a Gambler—not some jock-sniffing nerd or a hired human squawk-box with the brain of a one-cell animal. No. That would be your average career sportswriter—and, more specifically, a full-time Baseball writer.”
—Hunter S. Thompson
While curating the 1972 set to completion I was led through a wonderful treasure trail of baseball lore as familiar, long-forgotten, esoteric, and heretofore unknown and infinitely interesting historical tidbits and statistics bubbled up via innumerable online rabbit hole searches…
“Stormin’ Norman” Cash (#150) never wore a batting helmet during his career and admitted years later to using a corked bat when he won the American League batting title in 1961 with an average of .361 (1961 was also the year when Roger Maris hit his 61 home runs. Hmm.). In 1960 he became the first American League player to not hit into a double play all season. In 1961 he became the first Detroit Tiger to hit a home run out of Tiger Stadium. In 1973 he took a table leg to the plate with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning of Nolan Ryan’s second no-hitter, but was not permitted to use it. He popped out using a bat instead.
Ron Fairly “Obvious” (as he was known to some Seattle Mariners fans when he provided color commentary for them from 1993-2006), (#405), holds the record for most career home runs (215) of any major league player who never reached 20 home runs in a season. (He hit 19 once—at 38 years old—and 17 twice.) I loved listening to Ron – he really knew the game because he’d seen so much during his 48 years in baseball (including 21 years as a player and three World Series titles with the Dodgers in 1959, 1963, and 1965) but was still prone to saying things like “You’ve gotta score runs if you wanna win ball games”.
Similarly, Milt “Gimpy” Pappas (#208) was the first pitcher to reach 200 wins (209 total) without ever winning 20 games in a season (later joined by Jerry Reuss (#775), Frank Tanana, Charlie Hough (#198), Dennis Martinez, Chuck Finley, Kenny Rogers and Tim Wakefield). On September 2, 1972, Pappas famously lost his bid for a perfect game when he walked pinch-hitter and 27th batter Larry Stahl (#782) on a full count. Legend has it that the pitch Milt threw on the 1-2 count should have been called strike three. Then he threw two sliders just off the plate and didn’t get a break from umpire Bruce Froemming, even with Stahl’s iffy check swing on ball four. Pappas was happy to have the no-hitter but never forgave Froemming for the call(s).
Dock “Peanut” Ellis (#179), ever the free spirit, did Pappas one better by allegedly tossing a no-hitter on June 12, 1970 while under the influence of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and Benzedrine. Another time (May 1, 1974), Ellis became so frustrated with static and intimidation from the Big Red Machine that he set out to bean every Cincinnati batter he faced. He hit Pete Rose, Joe Morgan and Dan Driessen in succession then (unintentionally) walked a ball-dodging Tony Perez to force in a run. After throwing two pitches at Johnny Bench’s head he was pulled by manager Danny Murtaugh with a line of 0 IP, 0 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 0 K. On the plus side, Dock got the start on September 1, 1971 when the Pirates fielded MLB’s first ever all-Black and Latino starting lineup and beat the Phillies 10-7. The Pittsburgh batting order for that long overdue contest: Rennie Stennett (2B), Gene Clines (CF), Roberto Clemente (RF), Willie Stargell (LF), Manny Sanguillen (C), Dave Cash (3B), Al Oliver (1B), Jackie Hernandez (SS), Dock Ellis (P).
Editor’s Note: All nine players can be found on the Pirates in the 1972 Topps set.
“Beltin’ Bill” Melton (#183) was the first White Sox player to ever lead the American League in home runs (with 33 in 1971) but he missed most of the 1972 season after herniating two discs in his back while trying to break his son’s fall from their garage roof. Familial love triumphed, but Melton’s power was permanently sapped and he never again hit more than 21 homers in a season. Always a liability at third base his play there declined even further and before long he was Harry Caray’s whipping boy. Poor Bill retired at 32 after his 1977 season playing for Cleveland when he had 154 plate appearances and 0 home runs.
Relief pitcher Joe Hoerner (#482) sported a 2.99 ERA over 14 years and held all-stars Bobby Bonds (#711), Johnny Callison (#364), Tommy Harper (#455), Ed Kranepool (#181), Joe Pepitone (#303) and Bill White to a collective batting average of .070 (5 for 71). Even better, he held Hall of Famers Hank Aaron (#299), Ernie Banks (#192), Reggie Jackson (#435), Willie Mays (#49), Bill Mazeroski (#760), Tony Perez (#80), Willie Stargell (#447) and Carl Yastrzemski (#37) to a collective batting average of .101 (9-89).
Jim Grant (#111) was dubbed “Mudcat” by a coach in the minor leagues and never really liked the nickname, but he eventually came to embrace it. He then went on to become the first Black pitcher in the American League to win 20 games in a season (going 21–7 for the Twins in 1965) and later in life wrote a book, “The Black Aces: Baseball’s Only African-American Twenty-Game Winners”, about all 12 (now 15) of the Black 20-game winners in the MLB history. Mr. Grant won the 1972 Mutton Chop Award too.
Jim “Cakes” Palmer (#270) won 20 or more games eight times, never gave up a grand slam or back-to-back home runs, is the only pitcher in major league history to win a World Series game in three decades (1960s, 1970s, and 1980s), was the winningest pitcher of the 1970s (186), is the only man to have played in all six of the Baltimore Orioles’ World Series appearances (1966, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1979, 1983), and has the fourth lowest ERA (2.856) of all starting pitchers who began their career after the advent of the live ball era in 1920 (I’m counting on Clayton Kershaw continuing to stay near his current career ERA of 2.49, otherwise Palmer would be third). Not too shabby!
Bob “Gibby” Gibson (#130) had ring fingers longer than middle fingers, which must have given his grip and pitches something extra. He was so dominant in 1968, with an unheard-of-for-the-live ball-era ERA of 1.12 that MLB lowered the pitching mound five inches (from 15” to 10”) after the “Season of the Pitcher” was over. “Hoot” was so respected (feared?) that Hank Aaron (#299) had this classic bit of advice for Dusty Baker (#764) when Baker was a rookie in ’68:
Don’t dig in against Bob Gibson, he’ll knock you down. He’d knock down his own grandmother if she dared to challenge him. Don’t stare at him, don’t smile at him, don’t talk to him. He doesn’t like it. If you happen to hit a home run, don’t run too slow, don’t run too fast. If you happen to want to celebrate, get in the tunnel first. And if he hits you, don’t charge the mound, because he’s a Gold Glove boxer. I’m like, “Damn, what about my 17-game hitting streak?” That was the night it ended.
If you look deeply enough into every one of these historical snapshots you come to appreciate the oddball one-off players with fleeting one or two year big league careers – guys like Al Severinsen (#274), Stan Swanson (#331), and Ron Cook (#339). They even look like they were in over their heads.
You begin to realize how many players had short, undistinguished pro careers or spent most of their time in the minor leagues, even though they had to have been damn good baseball players. Here are some other examples:
- Screwball pitcher Aurelio Monteagudo (#458) began his career in 1961 and by 1972 had pitched 101 innings in MLB, with a record of 1-5 and ERA of 5.35. He actually never played for the Brewers or anywhere in MLB after the Angels in 1973, but soldiered on in AAA (Mexico and Edmonton (PCL) until 1983.
- Billy Wilson (#587) began his career in the minors in 1962 at age 19 and spent seven years there before breaking in with the Phillies in 1969. By 1972 he had pitched 179 innings in the big leagues and had a 7-11 record.
- Mike Ferraro (#613) began his minor league career in 1962 at age 17 and by 1972 had a MLB resume of 119 at bats, a .160 batting average and 0 homers. He was done at age 28 after spending 1973 season in Syracuse (IL) and Tacoma (PCL).
- Paul Doyle (#629) debuted for the Braves as a 29-year-old rookie in 1969 after beginning his career in the Detroit Tigers’ farm system in 1959. It took him ten years and five different organizations to realize his big-league dreams, but 1972 was his last year in the league. This card has Paul looking like he knows he’s going to get the hook.
- Eventual Hall-of Fame manager Tony LaRussa (#451) began playing minor league ball in 1962 and by the start of the 1972 season had accumulated 176 major league at bats, a .199 average and 0 home runs. After one pinch-running appearance in 1973 (where he scored on a bases loaded walk-off walk!), his career as a major league player was over.
There were also scads of players who had longer and more productive careers…somewhat pedestrian, but all with enough of a skillset to give them lasting value – guys like Vic Davalillo (#785), Ted Kubiak (#23), Darrel Chaney (#136), Merv Rettenmund (#235), Manny Mota (#596) and Rudy May (#656).
Some of these guys were darn good players. Davalillo made an all-star team (1965), earned two World Series rings (’71 Pirates and ’74 Athletics) and won a gold glove (1964). Manny Mota, an all-star in 1973, was a pinch-hitting legend, with a career batting average of .304, though he ‘only’ managed 1149 hits over a 20-year career. Rudy May earned an ERA title in 1980 (2.46) and won 152 games during his 16-year career…while also losing 156. Rettenmund batted .318 in 1971—third highest in the AL that year. Kubiak spun his Mendoza Line utility infielder role into three World Series titles with the Oakland A’s (1972-74). Chaney only had a .217 career average over 2113 at bats, but hung in there for 11 years and got his World Series ring with the Reds in 1975.
These guys played full time for only for a few years, if that—otherwise they stuck around, riding the pine, waiting for another chance as the years trickled by. And there were so many other players in the same position, hanging in there for their next at-bat, start, relief call, mop-up job, pinch-running shot – anything – for a chance to make an impression.
Other players like George Culver (#732), Moe Drabowsky (#627), and Jay Johnstone (#233) were there almost more for their humor and hijinks than their baseball ability. Apparently there’s always been a place for funny in the big leagues.
To wit, Culver had a a mediocre nine year career (48-49 and a 3.62 ERA) and Drabowsky wasn’t much better over 17 years, finishing with a record of 88–105, 54 saves, and a 3.71 ERA. Johnstone stuck around the majors for a full 20 years, platooning in the outfield and pinch-hitting, managing 1254 hits and a .267 career average. Though known more for their antics than their play, Johnstone did have some shining postseason moments with the Dodgers, as did Drabowsky with the Orioles, and they each earned two World Series rings.
So what did these jokers actually do for kicks? Well…apparently Drabowsky had a penchant for making prank calls from bullpen phones and pulling startling stunts with props like snakes and fireworks – you can imagine. Maybe his finest achievement was a “hot foot” he gave Commissioner Bowie Kuhn during the Orioles’ 1970 World Series celebration. Now that takes chutzpah. Tellingly, in his legendary book “Ball Four,” Jim Bouton wrote “There is no bigger flake in organized baseball than Drabowsky”.
Johnstone was a fellow hot foot enthusiast who pulled gags like placing a soggy brownie in Steve Garvey’s first base mitt, cutting the crotch out of Rick Sutcliffe’s underwear, locking manager Tommy Lasorda in his office during spring training, and nailing teammates’ spikes to the floor. Sounds like fun!
Meanwhile, Tommy John (#264) had this to say about Culver: “George didn’t get into a lot of games, but he held a vital role as team comic. His antics kept guys loose and kept us in a good frame of mind. When they [the 1973 Dodgers] released him…it upset the chemistry of the team. We couldn’t believe it. It was like cutting out our heart”.
Behold Johnstone and Culver doing their best to seem serious…but doesn’t it look like Moe D. is just itching to give someone a hot foot?
As interesting as the also-rans are, we mostly end up studying and thinking about the heroics of players who made the biggest impressions during their careers—the all-time greats. One, Gaylord Perry (#285) was ‘only’ 134–109 when he entered the 1972 season at 33 years of age. How did he win another 180 games and make the MLB Hall of Fame? Well, he started by posting his career high wins total in 1972, going 24–16 and winning the first of two Cy Young awards, then he kept on tossing Vaseline balls until he was 44 years old.
Another was Willie “Stretch” McCovey (#280), who in his prime was called “the scariest hitter in baseball” by none other than Bob Gibson. McCovey retired as the second most prolific left-handed home run hitter of all time (tied with Ted Williams with 521, second to Babe Ruth) and held the record for intentional walks in a season (45) for 33 years after breaking the record by a full 12 walks. “Willie Mac” is one of 31 major leaguers who played in four decades (1959–80), but he never quite got over the fact that second baseman Bobby Richardson snared his frozen rope line drive to end the 1962 World Series. On the occasion of his being elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1988, when asked how he would like to be remembered, McCovey replied: “As the guy who hit the ball over Bobby Richardson’s head in the seventh game.”
The very best players just never stop burning to win, eh?
Part of an ode to baseball and the early 1970s in general, and to the Topps Company and the special 1972 set specifically. Thanks for the memories, Topps—both the old ones and the new ones. Apologies for the pronounced wordiness, but the 50th anniversary of the set warrants indulgence.
Dedicated to my sports-loving mom, Caroline B. Wilkinson, who never threw my cards away, and to all the players from the 1972 Topps Series, especially those who passed during the writing of this article: Henry Aaron, Dick Allen, Ed Armbrister, Glenn Beckert, Larry Biittner, Hal Breeden, Lou Brock, Oscar Brown, Horace Clark, Gene Clines, Billy Conigliaro, Chuck Dobson, Paul Doyle, Ed Farmer, Ray Fosse, Bill Freehan, Bob Gibson, Jim Grant, Grant Jackson, Bart Johnson, Jerry Johnson, Jay Johnstone, Al Kaline, Lew Krausse, Angel Mangual, Mike Marshall, Denis Menke, Lindy McDaniel, Roger Moret, Joe Morgan, Phil Niekro, Bob Oliver, Don Pavletich, Ron Perranoski, Juan Pizzaro, J. R. Richard, Mike Ryan, Tom Seaver, Richie Scheinblum, Rennie Stennett, Bill Sudakis, Don Sutton, Tony Taylor, Dick Tidrow, Bill Virdon, Bob Watson, Stan Williams, and Jim Wynn.
Special thanks to Baseball-Almanac.com, Baseballhall.org, Baseball-Reference.com, and Wikipedia.com for kindly compiling and sharing their vast treasure troves of data.
Extra special thanks to Jason Schwartz and Nick Vossbrink for their timely encouragement and warm welcome into the SABR community.
Much gratitude to prince of a man Mr. Larry Pauley, who gave this project direction when there was none.