Thursday, September 25, 2008

#511 Ron Locke

Ron Locke by you.

As we close out this five-pack from John, we take a look at Ron Locke. This young lefty was born in Rhode Island, making him one of seventy-one major leaguers to hail from the tiny state. There's some surprising quality among the Rhode Island-born, including Rocco Baldelli, Gabby Hartnett, Paul Konerko, Nap Lajoie, Davey Lopes, and Clem Labine. Who'dathunkit?

Locke had a rapid ascent to the bigs, signing with the Mets as an amateur free agent in 1963 and burning up the New York-Penn League with and 18-8 won-lost record, 249 strikeouts, and a 2.94 ERA. The very next year, he was toeing the rubber in Shea Stadium. He started just three times in twenty-five games in New York, with a respectable 3.48 ERA. Despite his gaudy strikeout totals in the minors, he whiffed only 17 batters and walked 22 as a Met.

As quickly as Ron's major league career had begun, it was over. I couldn't find an explanation, but he was back in the minors in 1965, and spent the next five years bouncing between AA and AAA in the Mets organization. I did track down a firsthand account of Ron from a friend who describes him as a "hard throwing and hard drinking son of a gun". We should all hope to be remembered as such.

Fun fact: In Ron's lone major league win (2 ER on 5 H and 3 BB in 7 IP), he defeated Don Larsen, best known for tossing the only perfect game in World Series history.

Ron Locke (back) by you.

Monday, September 22, 2008

#209 Pittsburgh Pirates Team Card

Pirates Team Card by you.
Back with the penultimate selection from John, which is suprisingly the first Pirates card I've received. It's also the second team card, following the Cubs. The 1964 Pirates finished tied for sixth in the ten-team National League, equaling the Dodgers with an 80-82 mark. Sadly, the current incarnation of the Buccos would kill for a won-lost record like that. They played their home games at Forbes Field, which was two ballparks ago. The boys in black and gold did score twenty-seven more runs than they allowed, indicating that they were the victims of a little bad luck.

The Pirates batted .264, good for third in the league. Their 54 triples topped the senior circuit, compensating for a sixth-place rank in home runs (121 total). Of course, the star of the team was right fielder Roberto Clemente, who led the way with a .339 average (best in the NL), 95 runs scored, and 87 RBI. Other above-average performers were catcher Jim Pagliaroni (.295), first baseman Donn Clendenon (.282), third baseman Bob Bailey (.281), and left fielder Jerry Lynch (.273, 16 HR). Oh, and there was a second-year outfielder/first baseman named Willie Stargell who paced the team with 21 home runs. He and Clemente would play in the All-Star Game. Catcher Smoky Burgess and second baseman Bill Mazeroski were also selected, but did not play. Maz and Clemente gave Pittsburgh two Gold Glove winners.

Manager Danny Murtaugh's team had a middle-of-the-pack pitching staff; their 3.52 ERA placed them seventh in the league. Bob Veale was the standout amongst the group, winning 18 with a 2.74 ERA (eighth in the N.L. in both categories). In his first full season as a starter, he topped the loop in strikeouts (250), but also in walks allowed (124). Al McBean was the fireman in the bullpen, winning eight and saving twenty-two more (second in the league behind Houston's Hal Woodeshick) with a 1.91 ERA.

In 1965, Harry "the Hat" Walker, a former NL batting champ, would take over at the Pirates' helm and guide the team to two straight years with 90-plus wins. But they wouldn't return to the postseason until 1970, when Murtaugh celebrated his return with an Eastern Division title, beginning a run of five playoff appearances in six years. Pittsburgh would be World Champions in 1971 and 1979, both times at the expense of my Orioles in seven-game thrillers. Bah.
Pirates Team Card (back) by you.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

#202 Leo Burke

Leo Burke by you.
Card number three from John features utility man Leo Burke, the pride of Hagerstown, Maryland. Before I go on, I should note that he is not the same Leo Burke who wrestled in the U.S. and Canada for several decades. He got his start with the Orioles, who signed him in 1957 as an amateur free agent out of Virginia Tech. Leo had September callups with the Birds in 1958 and 1959, going a combined 7-for-21. He resurfaced in 1961 with the expansion Los Angeles Angels, but saw action in only 25 games over two years. He got more playing time in 1963, but hit .194 while splitting the year between St. Louis and the Cubs. Burke finally seemed to settle in with the Cubbies in 1964, playing a career-high 59 games and batting .262. He played at least one game at first, second, and third bases, and even had a game behind the plate, but his 18 games in right field were the lion's share of his defensive assignments. He was a frequent pinch hitter that year, going 10-for-34 for a .294 clip. After just 12 games played in 1965, Leo's big league career came to an end. He had made two appearances in consecutive days as an emergency catcher, but the Bruins saw the writing on the wall and called up an actual catcher from the minors and demoted Burke. He never made it back.

Fun fact: What the heck, let's go for it. With Yankee Stadium closing tomorrow, it's worth noting that Leo Burke hit well in the House That Ruth Built in a small sample size (24 at-bats): .333 AVG, 1.010 OPS, 2 HR, 7 RBI. Oh, and he hit one of his nine career homers off of Sandy Koufax. Well done, Leo.

Since this post was shorter than the past few, I have a few more notes on the progress of the Great 1965 Topps Project. First, I met Boog Powell this morning and got him to autograph his 1965 card, #560. You can see the scan and read the story here. Also, I've now completed over 10% of the 598-card set, with more coming. With that in mind, I'll be posting a checklist soon for the benefit of anyone who's just curious or thinks they can help me fill some needs. Thanks for reading, commenting, and sending cards!
Leo Burke (back) by you.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

#103 Harvey Kuenn

Harvey Kuenn by you.
The next card from John features professional hitter and all-around badass Harvey Kuenn (pronounced "keen"). In keeping with our recent theme of award winners, he started his career in Detroit with a bang by winning A.L. Rookie of the Year honors in 1953. The twenty-two-year-old shortstop batted .308 for a dismal Tigers team and made the first of eight consecutive All-Star Teams. He would also top the .300 mark in eight different seasons, ranking in the top ten in batting average on seven occasions (including a league-leading .353 mark in 1959). He was an excellent contact hitter, known for hitting off of his front foot and spraying the ball to all fields. Kuenn didn't walk a lot, but struck out even less. In each of his first ten years in the majors, he placed in his league's top five for most at-bats between strikeouts. His other notable blank ink marks include four separate turns as league leader in hits, and three years as the top doubles hitter.

After seven excellent seasons in Detroit, Harvey was part of a controversial "challenge trade", heading to Cleveland for popular slugger Rocky Colavito. Many Tribe fans were incensed, and the more superstitious types point to this trade as the linchpin for the Indians' world championship drought (1949-present), bemoaning the Curse of Rocky Colavito. Thought the newest Indian hit .308 and was an All-Star in 1960, the club dealt him to the Giants after just one season. They received pitcher Johnny Antonelli and outfielder Willie Kirkland in return. Kuenn's decline began in San Francisco, as he batted .280 during his four-plus years by the Bay. However, he did exceed a .300 average for the final time in 1962, batting .304 and helping the Giants reach the World Series, where they fell to the Yankees in seven games. Harvey appeared in just three games and mustered only one hit in twelve at-bats.

After spending 1965 and 1966 as a part-time player, Harvey Kuenn called it a career. If Wikipedia is to be believed, he spent the final two weeks of the 1971 season on the Brewers' active roster in order to qualify for his pension. Obviously, he did not appear in any games. That was also the year he joined Milwaukee's coaching staff; he would serve as their interim manager for a few games in 1975. Over the next few years, he was stricken with myriad health problems, including heart and stomach surgeries and eventually an amputation of his right leg below the knee due to a blood clot. Remarkably, he returned to coaching just six months after the amputation.

His final moments in the limelight came in 1982, when he again took over at the helm of the Brewers following Buck Rodgers' firing. His powerful team, which became known as "Harvey's Wallbangers", won their games at a 63% clip (72-43) and held off the late-charging Orioles in a thrilling season-ending series in Baltimore. They then rallied from a two-game deficit in the ALCS to top the Angels and advance to the franchise's first (and to date, only) World Series. Playing without closer Rollie Fingers, the slugging Brew Crew dropped a seven-game series to the pesky Cardinals. After the team slid to fifth place in 1983, Kuenn was replaced by Rene Lachemann and settled into a scouting consultancy. He was only fifty-seven when he passed away in early 1988.

Fun fact: Kuenn was unfortunate enough to make the final out in two of Sandy Koufax's four no-hitters. In 1963, he hit a comebacker to the Dodger pitcher. In 1965, he struck out swinging, the last of six consecutive Cubs that Koufax punched out to secure a perfect game. Incidentally, the latter game was the last time that Chicago has been held hitless.
Harvey Kuenn (back) by you.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

#65 Tony Kubek

Tony Kubek by you.
The hits just keep on coming. This is the first of five cards that were graciously sent my way by reader John. On the heels of 1965 MVP Zoilo Versalles, we have another award winner: 1957 American League Rookie of the Year Tony Kubek. Like Zoilo, Tony's ascent to the major league level was rapid; he earned a spot as a Yankee regular at the age of twenty-one. Splitting his time amongst third base, shortstop, and the outfield, he was named the league's top rookie on the strength of his .297 batting average. The youngster saved his best for the postseason; though New York was bested in a seven-game World Series by the Milwaukee Braves, Kubek hit two home runs in a Game Three victory. At the time, he was just the second rookie to perform the feat (following another Yankee, Charlie Keller, in 1939). Only two other players have done it in the ensuing five decades: St. Louis' Willie McGee (1982) and Atlanta's Andruw Jones (1996).

Tony would eventually entrench himself at shortstop for the Bronx Bombers, where he was an above-average defender and one-half of a solid double-play combo with second baseman Bobby Richardson. From 1958 through 1961, he was named to three All-Star squads in four seasons. Incidentally, his finest year may have been 1960, when he placed eleventh in MVP voting but did not make it to the Midsummer Classic. That year he reached personal highs in home runs (14) and RBI (62) while batting .273. In October, while playing in the third of his six World Series (in a nine-year career!), Kubek suffered a traumatic moment. In the bottom of the eighth inning of Game Seven, Kubek was injured by a bad-hop ground ball off of the bat of Bill Virdon. It struck him in the throat and Virdon was credited with a single. The Pirates would rally for five runs to take a 9-7 lead in a game they would win 10-9 on Bill Mazeroski's dramatic ninth-inning home run. The Yankee shortstop would prove reluctant to talk about the play in the coming years.

Regrettably, Kubek's career would be cut short by a back injury in 1965. He was forced to retire when he was just twenty-nine. However, the ex-Yankee found his calling as a color commentator, most famously for NBC's Game of the Week. He held that position for twenty-four years, pairing with play-by-play men including Jim Simpson, Curt Gowdy, Joe Garagiola, and Bob Costas. He also worked eleven World Series and did local broadcasts for the Blue Jays and Yankees at different times. He was not one to withhold his personal opinions. Most notably, on the broadcast of Hank Aaron's record-breaking 715th career home run, he blasted commissioner Bowie Kuhn for his conspicuous absence. Kubek has been retired from announcing for the past fifteen years, citing a desire to spend more time with his family, as well as a growing disenchantment with the business of the game.

Fun fact: After socking two home runs in his third-ever World Series game, Kubek failed to hit another round-tripper in thirty-four more Fall Classic contests.
Tony Kubek (back) by you.

Monday, September 15, 2008

#157 Zoilo Versalles

Zoilo Versalles by you.

The third and final card from Max features the man who may be the most unlikely MVP ever, shortstop Zoilo Versalles. He's also the only player in this set with a first named beginning with "Z". (Don Zimmer and Jerry Zimmerman have the only two Z surnames.) The Cuban-born infielder was first called up to the big leagues by the original Senators as a nineteen-year-old. He would become a fixture in the team's lineup after they moved to Minnesota, reaching double digits in home runs in four consecutive years (no small feat for a shortstop in the 1960s). Zoilo would make his first of two All-Star teams in 1963, and reached base in all three plate appearances. He also picked up a Gold Glove that year.

1965 would be a career year for Versalles. In addition to picking up a second All-Star nod and Gold Glove, he would be named the American League's Most Valuable Player. He led the circuit in runs scored (126), doubles (45), triples (12), extra-base hits (76), and total bases (308). He was also third in stolen bases (27). Of course he also hit just .273 with 77 RBI, making his selection for the award somewhat questionable by modern standards. By comparison, teammate and runner-up Tony Oliva hit .321 with 16 home runs and 98 RBI. Of course, both players were instrumental to a great year for the Twins, who lost the World Series to the Dodgers in a seven-game classic made notable by two Sandy Koufax shutouts in a three-game span. Zoilo played well, leading the team in every major offensive category in the series.

Most of the denigration of Zoilo's MVP award has come in hindsight and is based on his stunning and immediate decline from age 26 onward. After all, his performance in 1965 was impressive, particularly in an era more geared towards pitching. In 1966, his average fell by 24 points, his extra-base-hits plummeted by more than half, and he even stumbled on the basepaths (10-for-22 stealing). The following year was unprecedented in its awfulness: his OPS (combined on-base and slugging percentages) was .530. By comparison, Barry Bonds' on-base average ALONE was .529 in 2003. After three more miserable seasons in which he bounced from Los Angeles to Cleveland (by way of San Diego) to Washington to Atlanta (by way of a Mexican League team), his twelve-year career was history.

Fun fact: Zoilo's 1961 Topps rookie card features one of the most amusing errors in baseball card lore. He's identified as "Zorro" Versalles. Apparently his nickname was Zorro, but Beckett classifies the card as an uncorrected error. Either way, I like it.

Zoilo Versalles (back) by you.

Friday, September 12, 2008

#105 Chico Salmon

Chico Salmon by you.
Here's the second card from Max, outfielder Chico Salmon. Chico was born Ruthford Eduardo Salmon in Panama. Ruthford? I think I would have gone by "Chico" as well. To look at his Wikipedia and BR Bullpen pages, you would think that his life was shrouded in mystery; there's precious little there. Even his transactions list is very cloak-and-dagger. Originally signed by the Senators in 1959, he bounced from Washington to San Francisco to Detroit to Milwaukee between 1960 and 1963. All three moves are listed as "unknown transactions". In October 1963, the Braves sent him to Cleveland in a trade that was actually documented! Wouldn't you know it, he was acquired for a Player to Be Named Later (who eventually became Mike de la Hoz).

Apparently Chico was deeply afraid of ghosts, well into his adult years. During his childhood, he was traumatized by stories about spectres wafting in through open windows and keyholes. As a result, Salmon refused to sleep with the lights off until a stint in the army forced him to confront his fears!

Though Chico hit a solid .307 in his rookie season with the Indians, he was never more than a utility player during his nine-year career. But he could be counted on in a pinch to fill in all over the diamond, and saw significant time at every infield position and the corner spots in the outfield. That's how he earned the nickname "Super Sub". Oddly enough, he didn't have a great reputation as a defender. One Orioles teammate quipped, "If Chico's hand get any worse, we'll have to amputate". The Panamanian spent the second half of his career in Baltimore, arriving just in time for the team's three straight World Series trips (1969-1971). He contributed with the bat, swatting .297 in his first year in orange and black and bashing seven home runs in just 172 at-bats the following year. After his career ended in 1972, Salmon worked as a scout and spent much of his time coaching amateur teams in his home country. He passed away unexpectedly in 2000 after suffering a heart attack.

Fun fact: Chico has a perfect 1.000 batting average in World Series play. He appeared in two games of the 1969 series as a pinch runner, failing to score as the Mets shocked the O's. But in 1970, he pinch-hit for pitcher Tommy Phoebus in the fifth inning of Game Two with the Birds trailing 4-1. Chico singled and would later score the first of five Baltimore runs in the frame. Moe Drabowsky entered the game in the bottom of the inning, displacing Salmon. The Orioles won 6-5 and went on to dispose of the Reds in five games. That pinch single was Chico's final appearance in postseason play, but he made it count.
Chico Salmon (back) by you.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

#14 Len Gabrielson

Len Gabrielson by you.
This is the first of three cards I received in a trade with Max. He was also generous enough to send along some great Orioles cards for my ever-growing collection, which was a pleasant surprise! The next time I go to the post office, I'll be sending some Mets cards his way.

What we have here is Len Gabrielson, a second-generation ballplayer. His father, Len Sr., played just five games for the dreadful 1939 Phillies. His son had a much better go of it, sticking around for parts of nine seasons. Signed by the Braves out of the University of Southern California in 1959, Len would get a brief taste of The Show in 1960, appearing in four games as a twenty-year-old. He'd be back to stay in 1963, which isn't to say that he would stay in Milwaukee. The young outfielder became something of a journeyman, pinballing amongst five teams in four years (1964-1967). He posted a career high by batting .293 in 1965, including a .301 mark after the Cubs shipped him to San Francisco in a five-player deal. Chicago received Harvey Keunn, who we'll be taking a look at in the coming weeks (hint, hint).

But Len's carousel stopped in Los Angeles, where he was a valuable part-timer for the Dodgers for the final four seasons of his career. In 1968, the Year of the Pitcher, Gabrielson lead his team with 10 home runs. It was the lowest team-leading total for the Dodgers in the Los Angeles era (1958 onward). He also batted .270, well above the team's overall average of .230.

Fun Fact: Len's 1968 team-leading home run total of 10 might be pretty low, but he made them count (scroll down to 1968). Three of the ten were hit off of Hall-of-Fame pitchers Juan Marichal, Tom Seaver, and Fergie Jenkins. He also homered off of Nellie Briles, Steve Blass, Milt Pappas, and Larry Jackson, who were no slouches. In fact, the pitchers that Len took deep that year averaged 158 career wins - and that's including Darcy Fast, who was 0-1!

P. S. : Check out the awesome cartoon on the card back. It's the Baseburglar!
Len Gabrielson (back) by you.

Monday, September 08, 2008

#427 Bob Saverine

Bob Saverine by you.
Today we put utility player Bob "Rabbit" Saverine under the microscope, a player who would be traded to the Astros in April of 1965 for former World Series history-maker Don Larsen. Pity poor Bob; as the stats on his card back show, he was unable to duplicate his decent minor league batting performance once he got to the majors, which probably contributed to his fairly brief career. Discounting his short stints in 1959 and 1962, the Connecticut native lasted just four years in the bigs. While with the Senators in 1966, he set a dubious American League record by going 0-for-12 in a double header against the Orioles. He was 0-for-7 with two strikeouts in the first game, and 0-for-5 with one strikeout in the nightcap (which must have seemed like an improvement!). To compound the frustration, the Sens dropped both games to the O's by one-run margins.

But there were some highlights to Bob's career, to be fair. He logged time at six different defensive positions, and wasn't a slouch at any of them. He played twice as many games at second base as he did at any other position, but also held down all three outfield positions, third base and shortstop. In 49 career games at short, he made just two errors. Saverine also turned in his best hitting performance as a major leaguer in the only season in which he got semi-regular playing time. In 120 games for Gil Hodges' 1966 Senators, he batted .251 with 19 extra-base hits and 54 runs scored. Maybe he just needed a manager who believed in him.

Fun fact: Bob scored the only run in the Orioles' win over the Athletics on September 12, 1964. He entered in the bottom of the eighth as a pinch runner for catcher John Orsino, who had doubled. Saverine advanced to third on a bunt and touched home on a Jackie Brandt sacrifice fly. The game was a rare duel of one-hitters, with Frank Bertaina gritting out the win and Bob Meyer taking the hard-luck loss.
Bob Saverine (back) by you.

NOTE: I have three more cards waiting for scans, and (believe it or not) eighteen cards making their way to me through the mail. So now that I'm back in the habit of posting regularly, there should be no shortage of updates for the next few weeks!

Friday, September 05, 2008

#49 Orioles 1965 Rookie Stars: Curt Blefary and John Miller

Orioles 1965 Rookie Stars by you.
This is the first of two cards that I received back in June (yep, I'm that far behind) from Butch, a distant relative by marriage who is himself a big sports fan and has the most amazing collection I've ever seen in person. He was generous enough to help me fill some holes in my Orioles inventory, and in the case of the card above, it serves a purpose for this blog as well!

This is my first two-player Rookie Stars card from this set, a format that Topps used from 1964 through 1971. Prior to this, they'd used a four-player design, with players from multiple teams on one card. In 1972, they switched to three players, all on the same team. A few teams still had two per card, though.

As for the "star" designation, Topps was batting .500 on this card. Curt Blefary would win the 1965 Rookie of the Year award in the American League while splitting time between the corner outfield sports in Baltimore. He beat out Angels pitcher (and future O's teammate) Marcelino Lopez for the honor by slugging 22 home runs, the first of three consecutive years of 20+ roundtrippers. Though he batted only .260, Curt's on-base percentage was a whopping .381 thanks to his 88 walks. He proved to be a patient and discerning hitter, finishing his eight-year career with more walks than strikeouts.

Though Blefary put together three solid years with the Birds, there were cracks in the foundation. After logging time in the outfield and at first base early in his career, Hank Bauer and Earl Weaver stuck him at catcher for 40 games in 1968. He was behind the plate for Tom Phoebus' no-hitter against the Red Sox, but he wasn't thrilled with his status as a defensive nomad. In a year dominated by pitchers, trying to learn a demanding new position certainly didn't help Curt. His .200 batting average was a career low, and his RBI total was half of what it had been the previous year (though he did log 100 less at-bats). It would prove to be his final year in Baltimore, as he was sent to Houston as the centerpiece of a deal that brought Mike Cuellar to Birdland. The trade was great for the O's, but not so much for Blefary. He spent one year as an Astro before being flipped to the Yankees for Joe Pepitone. Injuries and ineffectiveness soon hastened the end of the Brooklyn native's career; he didn't hit above .221 in his final three seasons (1970-1972), as he bounced from the Bronx to Oakland to San Diego.

After a long illness, Curt Blefary passed away at the age of 57 in January of 2001. His wife honored his wishes by having his ashes scattered on the site of Memorial Stadium in Baltimore. Though much of the old structure had been demolished by then, the Babe Ruth Museum supplied the home plate used during the 1991 farewell season at the park for a ceremony on May 24, 2001.

Fun fact: Former O's teammate Frank Robinson often made Blefary the butt of his jokes. It was Robby who coined the nickname "Clank" for Curt, based on the robotic futility of his defensive play. When the team bus drove past a landfill, Frank reportedly urged the driver to stop, "so Blefary can get a new glove". A few years later, when the Birds were steamrolling the competition in the A.L., then-Yankee Blefary told a reporter that "they're not Superman". Frank, Moe Drabowsky, and others conspired to greet their ex-teammate on the field prior to New York's next visit to Baltimore, at which time they unbuttoned their jerseys to reveal blue t-shirts with the Superman emblem on their chests.

As for John Miller...he's not even the most well-known John (or Jon) Miller in Orioles history. He was a hometown boy, at least. Miller got a few peeks at the big leagues before turning in a pretty good rookie campaign in 1965. In sixteen starts from late June through October, he went 6-4 with a 3.18 ERA. Unfortunately, he faltered the following season, posting a losing record (4-8) with a 4.74 ERA while splitting time between the bullpen and the rotation. After just two relief appearances in 1967, his contract was purchased by the Mets. For whatever reason, he never made it back to the majors. According to the Baseball-Reference Bullpen, he served as a firefighter after his baseball career ended.

Fun fact: Miller gave up only twenty home runs in 227 innings in his career. However, seven of those longballs were hit by Washington Senators - that's over one-third of his total! The next-highest team total was three by the Indians.
Orioles 1965 Rookie Stars (back) by you.