Editor’s Note: This article was written by Bruce Markusen. You can find Bruce on Twitter at @markusen_s.
George Scott last played a major league game during the 1970s, but he is one of those players not likely to be forgotten anytime soon. One of his teams, the Red Sox have certainly not forgotten. They have announced that April 4 will be George “Boomer” Scott Night at Fenway Park.
Whether it was his unusual build and girth wrapped tightly in polyester, his colorful choice of neckware, or his own quirky use of the English language, Scott made an impression on anyone who followed the game in the 1960s and seventies. And it seems only fitting that an offbeat character like Scott would somehow produce one of the strangest baseball cards that the Topps Company has ever produced.
Fifty years ago, Topps produced a set of cards that was visually striking, filled with action, and replete with unusual camera angles. The simple design of the 1973 cards, which were hallmarked by a colored silhouette corresponding to the player’s primary position, allowed the photography plenty of space to breath. The use of both traditional horizontal framing and the contrasting landscape view made for variety within the set.
As much as vintage collectors have developed a strong liking for the 1973 set, some of the choices that Topps made in arranging the cards remain a source of mystery. In a general sense, the most obvious question is this: Why were so many action shots taken from so far away, in some cases seemingly hundreds of feet separating the camera from its target? And then there are more specific questions. For example, why does Steve Garvey’s card, which depicts him at the end of a home run trot, show us more of Dodgers teammate Wes Parker, who blocks part of Garvey’s face and body from our view?
Other questions persist. Why did Topps show Dick Green, an excellent defensive second baseman, booting a ball in a photo that was at least two years old? And why was Luis Alvarado’s action shot taken at such a low angle that we are given full view of the parking lot at the White Sox’ spring training ballpark in Sarasota? (If you look close enough, you can spot a 1972 Chevy in the lot.)
In some cases, the answers to these questions can be found in Topps’ inexperience at including action shots on its cards. The company had only begun the practice of featuring color action photography with its 1971 set. Topps also had a limited library of photographs, perhaps attributable to the relatively small number of photographers on the payroll. It appears that Topps so badly wanted to include as many action images as possible in its 1973 set that it sometimes settled for something less than ideal photographic art.
Of all the unusual 1973 Topps cards, the one that remains the most puzzling to me is the card issued for the aforementioned George Scott. We know that Scott, playing for the Brewers, is the featured player on the card. He is stretching to receive a throw at first base. We also can see clearly that Oakland’s Bert Campaneris is the player sliding feet-first into first base, trying to beat the tag from Scott. There is no mistaking the identity of those two players, though it does prompt us to ask why Campaneris appeared as the “other player” on so many 1973 Topps cards? (See the 1973 cards for Bob Oliver and Rich Hand as evidence of that.) The proliferation of Campaneris in 1973 Topps, however, is a question for another day.
No, the real mystery has to do with the background of this card. When you look at the outlines of Campaneris and Scott against the stands down the first base line at the Oakland Coliseum, something doesn’t look quite right. The photo doesn’t look natural; it appears to have been altered in some way. More specifically, it looks like Scott and Campaneris have been superimposed onto the ballpark stands in the background. In a similar way to the use of bluescreen technology in films, it appears that two different photos have been pasted together to create a surreal look for the Scott card.
If it seems unlikely that one photo has been superimposed over the other, take a second look at the fans seated in the stands. Under normal circumstances, the fans would be looking directly at first base, to see if Campaneris makes it back safely. But these fans are looking in a variety of directions, most of them observing right field or center field. These fans appear to be watching another game altogether, and certainly not the one in which Scott and Campaneris are involved.
So why exactly would Topps do this? What would be the point of making such a radical change to the card? Some card aficionados have told me that the background stands in the photograph are not from the Oakland Coliseum, where this game was played, but are actually from County Stadium in Milwaukee.
As one fan posted at The Hardball Times in 2011: “The background wall sure looks like Milwaukee’s County Stadium. The playing field looks like it could be from Oakland’s Alameda Stadium. (Looks like too much foul territory for Milwaukee.)
“The wall angle looks strange in relation to the playing field.
“When blown up it appears that there is a blue line along George Scott’s back like he was pasted on to the background picture.”
These are all reasonable points. But why would Topps do this? One theory is that Topps did not want to use a photograph that showed the many rows of empty seats at the Oakland ballpark, so they took a shot from a busier County Stadium to give the card a busier look.
It seems like an awful lot of work to obtain a relatively minor goal, but it’s the best explanation I’ve heard. Whatever the actual reason, which has likely gone to the grave with famed Topps executive Sy Berger, the card is certainly unusual in appearance. And that is most appropriate for a player like George Scott.
Long before he became a member of the Brewers, Scott came up in the Red Sox’ organization. It’s hard to believe in retrospect, but as a minor league player in 1963, Scott actually played 24 games at shortstop before finally being moved to the infield corners in ’64. It was also during Scott’s minor league days that he experienced one of the worst incidents of his career. One day, several of his teammates came to his hotel room dressed as members of the Ku Klux Klan. They apparently intended it as a prank, but understandably, Scott took it otherwise.
In 1966, Scott attended spring training camp with the Red Sox. He surprised just about everyone by making the team and beating out Joe Foy for the starting third base job. (In an interesting twist, it was Foy who would eventually come up with the nickname of “Boomer” for his teammate.)
One week later, the Red Sox switched Scott to first base, where he would spend the majority of time that summer. For the season, Scott would hit 27 home runs and place third in the Rookie of the Year voting.
After the season, the Red Sox hired Dick Williams as their manager. Rather surprisingly, Williams announced that Scott would have to beat out another promising young hitter, Tony Horton, for the first base job. Rather than complain, Scott became determined to take a more intelligent approach at the plate. He outplayed Horton in the spring, winning the job once again. But his expanding waistline did become a concern for Williams, who benched him several times throughout the summer. (Williams also ordered two other Red Sox, Foy and pitcher Jose Santiago, to lose weight.) Though often listed at 205 pounds, Scott was much larger than that for most of his career, sometimes playing at 230 to 240 pounds.
Despite his battles with weight, Scott hit well. The so-called “sophomore jinx” had little effect on his performance, as he put up an OPS of .839. He also played first base with an agile grace that defied his size, winning the first of his eight Gold Gloves. Scott’s all-round play helped the Red Sox win the American League pennant in a harrowing race that came down to the final day of the season. The Red Sox then came within a game of winning the World Series against the more experienced Cardinals.
In 1968, Scott became one of the victims of the Year of the Pitcher. He started the season in a horrible slump and showed little improvement over the course of the summer. At one point, he lost the first base job to Hawk Harrelson, who was in the midst of a career season. Incredibly, Scott would finish the year with a .171 batting average and only three home runs in 124 games.
Scott then reported to winter ball, where he received the wisdom of his manager at Santurce, Frank Robinson. The future Hall of Famer worked with Scott on his mental approach to the game. Scott also sought out hitting advice from Roberto Clemente, a mainstay on the Santurce team.
Perhaps aided by the counsel of Clemente and Robinson, Scott played better in 1969, hitting 16 home runs while raising his average to .253. After another decent season in 1970, he bust out with 24 home runs, won his third Gold Glove, and even received some consideration in the American League MVP race.
Scott now seemed entrenched at first base. But then came the news of October 10. That day, the Red Sox announced a blockbuster trade, the deal sending sent Scott, pitchers Jim Lonborg and Ken Brett, and outfielders Billy Conigliaro and Joe Lahoud, and catcher Don Pavletich to Milwaukee for a return that included All-Star outfielder Tommy Harper and right-handers Lew Krausse and Marty Pattin.
In his first season with the Brewers, Scott made a good adjustment from Fenway Park to County Stadium. He hit 20 home runs and added the surprising dimension of speed to his game, stealing a career-best 16 bases in 1972.
With the Brewers, Scott became a recognizable sight around the American League. With his massive body draped in Milwaukee’s form-fitting uniform, Scott looked unusual to say the least. And then there was his decision to play first base while wearing a batting helmet, a habit that sprung from an incident in which road fans threw objects in his direction. That incident convinced Scott that he should wear a helmet, both at bat and in the field, for the rest of his career.
From 1972 to 1975, Scott emerged as a star in Milwaukee, while also becoming extraordinarily popular with the fan base. In 1975, he put together his best season, hitting a career-high 36 home runs and leading the league with 109 RBIs. Scott also led the league in total bases.
After a downturn in 1976, Scott clashed with Brewers general manager Jim Baumer and eventually requested a trade—which he received at the December Winter Meetings. The Brewers traded Scott and outfielder Bernie Carbo to the Red Sox for Cecil Cooper, a younger player who would take the Boomer’s place at first base.
Scott received a warm welcome from the fans in Boston. While a number of black players, like Reggie Smith and Tommy Harper, had struggled against racism in Boston (both from the city and the franchise), Scott seemed to receive better treatment. He also enjoyed a resurgence at the plate, hitting 33 home runs and slugging an even .500. With Scott deepening the middle of the Red Sox’ order, the team won 97 games while finishing second to the rival Yankees.
Given the size of the Boston media market, Scott became more well known as one of baseball’s most colorful characters. He showed off his own distinctive brand of the language; one of his favorite terms was the word, “taters,” his preferred name for home runs. He also gave a nickname to his first baseman’s mitt, calling it “Black Beauty.”
With his generally jovial nature, Scott became a favorite interview target of Boston writers and broadcaster. One day, a reporter asked him about the distinctive necklace that he wore during games; it featured an array of shells and beads. Scott told reporters that the necklace was made from “second basemen’s teeth.” That answer became Scott’s calling card for the rest of his career.
After a poor 1978 and a slow start to the 1979 season, Scott saw his second tenure in Boston come to an end. Two days before the June 15th trading deadline, the Red Sox traded him to the Royals for outfielder Tom Poquette.
Scott’s play did not improve in 1979. A slump in April and May dragged into June. And then on June 13, just two days before the trading deadline, the Red Sox parted ways. They sent Scott to the Kansas City Royals for outfielder Tom Poquette. Scott struggled at Kansas City’s spacious Kauffman Stadium. He hit only one home run for the Royals before being released in August.
After nearly two weeks of unemployment, Scott found a job with an unexpected team, the Yankees, who were playing out the string during a disappointing season. Scott hit well for the Yankees, putting up an OPS of .840. It seemed like Scott’s performance might earn him a return to the Yankees in 1980, but the team opted to sign another free agent, the younger Bob Watson, to take the role of right-handed hitting first baseman and DH.
In the meantime, the Rangers expressed interest in signing Scott and using him as a utilityman. Scott wanted no part of that, so he ended up settling for a contract in the Mexican League, where he became an offensive force over the next two season. He later became a player/manager, before becoming a fulltime manager at the minor league level.
Sadly, Scott’s health suffered in his later years. He put on a tremendous amount of weight, at one point tipping the scales at over 400 pounds. Diagnosed with diabetes, Scott’s health continued to decline. In 2013, he passed away at the age of 69.
I remember hearing the news of Scott’s death and how it seemed to remind me and other fans of just how much time had passed since the days of baseball in the 1970s. It was a colorful and rich time for the game, an era that in some ways was symbolized by a player like Scott. No one in the game looked like him, and no one talked like him.
George Scott was as unique and wonderfully offbeat as that 1973 Topps card.