Sunday, November 30, 2008

#104 Checklist 2nd Series

Checklist 2 by you.
Here's another breather in the form of a checklist. As you can see, someone filled in the boxes front and back in pencil, and then went back and erased the pencil...but only on the front. How odd. The featured stars in the second series are Hall of Famers Bill Mazeroski, Frank Robinson, Al Kaline, Brooks Robinson (at #150), Roberto (or "Bob") Clemente, Hank Aaron, and Willie McCovey. Talk about an impressive checklist! You've also got Gil Hodges, Ron Santo, Luis Tiant, and Roger Maris. The big Hero Number goes to National League MVP Ken Boyer at #100.

For those keeping tabs, I have now completed 39.8% of this second series (35 of 88). We are catching fire, and I will continue posting more cards at about the same pace established in the past few months!
Checklist 2 (back) by you.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

#97 Pedro Gonzalez

Pedro Gonzalez by you.
Utility player Pedro Gonzalez is in an abnormally deep crouch. It's probably for the best that we can't see his hands; this is a family blog. You may also notice that there's a chunk of paper missing from the back of the card down below. This is a common affliction for cards of a certain vintage. Back in the day, Ultra-Pro sheets and toploaders were unheard of. This poor card was probably pasted into a scrapbook somewhere, and then painfully extracted at a later date.

Pedro Gonzalez was one of the first major leaguers to hail from the Dominican Republic. He signed with the Yankees in 1958, at age 21. He was a strong hitter at every stop in the minor leagues, including an Eastern League-leading .327 average at Binghamton in 1960. After batting .307 at Richmond in 1963, he finally got the call to New York. Pedro struggled, hitting .192 in 14 games.

1964 proved to be Pedro's best season with the bat in the majors, as he batted .277. Splitting time at five positions, he committed only three errors in 66 games. He appeared in only one game in that Fall's World Series, popping out in his only at-bat. The following year, he appeared in seven games in pinstripes before being traded to the Indians for first baseman Ray Barker. He hit .254 overall with five home runs and 39 RBI. Cleveland used him almost exclusively at second base in his three years with the club; though he was slick defensively, he had little power and his average dipped to the .230 neighborhood in 1966-1967. The following season, he transitioned to managing in the Mexican League. He later spent a dozen years at the helm of the Braves' rookie-level Gulf Coast League team.

Fun fact: An Internet search turns up an incident in September 1965 as Gonzalez' lasting place in baseball. Incensed by two straight brushback pitches from Tigers pitcher Larry Sherry, Pedro charged toward the mound with his bat and took a few swings. He apparently hit Sherry on the arm before things were broken up. American League President Joe Cronin fined Pedro $500 and suspended him for the remainder of the season.
Pedro Gonzalez (back) by you.

Friday, November 28, 2008

#87 Nelson Mathews

Nelson Mathews by you.
Outfielder Nelson Mathews is the first Athletics player I've posted in a while. He's posed while wearing a batting helmet, a rare sight in this set. The #5 on his sleeve is front and center, one of the more distinctive features of the unique A's uniforms. You can also see a teammate in the background. Based on the positioning of the number on the anonymous fellow's back, I'd say that it's in the thirties, rather than an outright #3.

A tall (6'4"), thin outfielder out of Columbia, Illinois, Nelson Mathews stayed close to home by signing with the Cubs for a $25,000 bonus in 1959. His offensive performance was uneven in four years of minor league play, though he did lead the Texas League in 1961 and the Northwest League in 1962 in triples. The latter year represented a breakout for the youngster, as he hit .368 with 54 extra-base hits for the Wenatchee (WA) Chiefs. Based on these numbers and a successful September with the big league club (.306 with 13 RBI in 15 games), he finally appeared to have spot on the Cubs roster after receiving the briefest of looks in 1960 and 1961.

Former Cubs first baseman and manager Charlie Grimm, who was a coach for the team during Mathews' time in Chicago, liked what he saw in the outfielder, likening his fielding to that of Yankees Hall of Famer Earle Combs. Unfortunately Nelson couldn't quite hit like Combs, at least not in 1963. Though he spent the whole season in the majors, the 21-year-old received just 155 at-bats, batting a paltry .155 (what an unwelcome coincidence!). The Cubs washed their hands of him that December, trading him to the Athletics for pitcher Fred Norman.

1964 would be Nelson's only season as a major league regular. He hit .239 with 14 home runs and 60 RBI. His 27 doubles were second-best on the team , trailing the duo of Wayne Causey and Rocky Colavito (tied with 31 each). He led the American League in the dubious category of strikeouts, whiffing 143 times. As Kansas City's everyday center fielder, he showcased the pluses and minuses of his range, leading the league in both putouts (381) and errors (13). In 1965, Mathews was supplanted in the starting lineup by veteran Jim Landis. Despite hitting .212 overall and only coming to bat 184 times, Nelson's seven triples placed seventh in the A.L., five behind co-leaders Bert Campaneris and Zoilo Versalles. At age twenty-three, when most players are just getting their start in the majors, Nelson Mathews was playing his final game.

Nelson's name would come up again thirty years later, when his son T. J. made his debut with the St. Louis Cardinals as a righthanded pitcher. He would go on to have an eight-year career, winning 32 games and saving 16 with a 3.82 ERA. He's best known as one of the three players traded from St. Louis to the A's for slugger Mark McGwire. He was coached in St. Louis by Dave Duncan, who in 1964 was briefly a teammate of Nelson Mathews!

Fun fact: Nelson's first big league home run was a first-inning grand slam off of Stan Williams, giving Cubs starter Bob Buhl all of the support he would need in a 5-0 win over the Dodgers.
Nelson Mathews (back) by you.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

#85 Willie Smith

Willie Smith by you.
You are face-to-face with the lantern-jawed Willie Smith, a versatile athlete from Alabama. He originally signed with the Tigers in 1960, and split his time between the pitchers' mound and the outfield. He proved skilled at both, posting a 14-2 record and a 2.11 ERA at Syracuse in 1963. He also hit .380 in 79 at-bats, prompting Detroit to call the 24-year-old up in June and again in September. The following April, Willie was traded to the Angels for pitcher Julio Navarro. His new team used him as a pitcher and pinch hitter, and he compiled a 2.84 ERA in 31 and two-thirds innings, mostly in relief. But the Halos were so weak offensively (.242 team batting average) that by mid-June they switched Smith to the outfield. Although he was hitting in the .230s at that time, his bat caught fire with more regular playing time. He finished the season at .301 (only one other Angel topped .300) with 11 home runs and 51 RBI. He was also in the top ten in the league with six triples.

1965 saw "Wonderful Willie"'s average drop to .261, but he was still a reliable power source, climbing to fourth in the A.L. with nine triples to go along with career highs of 14 HR and 57 RBI. He was entering the dark ages as a hitter, however. The following season his playing time was more than halved as he hit .185 and homered once. It was back to the minors for much of 1967, when Smith's contract was purchased by Cleveland. After another poor start in 1968 (.143), the Indians traded the outfielder to the Cubs. In part-time duty with Chicago, he turned things around with a .275 batting mark and five longballs. 1968 also saw Willie make a few cameos on the mound. In seven and two-thirds innings, he allowed two hits, one walk, and no runs. Not bad for a guy who hadn't pitched in a major league in four years.

Smith started the 1969 season with a bang for the Cubbies. On Opening Day at Wrigley Field, he stepped to the plate in the bottom of the eleventh with one out and Randy Hundley on first base and walloped a walkoff two-run homer to erase a 6-5 Phillies lead. The Cubs were in first place and would stay there for 129 days, but ultimately blew a lead that was as large as nine games in mid-August. The Amazin' Mets chased the Bruins down and ultimately left them eight games back. Willie hit .246 with nine homers in his last semi-productive season. After hitting .216 in 1970, he finished his big league career the next year as a Red. Not ready to call it a career, the outfielder spent 1972 and 1973 in Japan, hitting .259 with 29 dingers for the Nankai Hawks. Following his playing days, Willie returned home to Anniston, Alabama and volunteered at youth baseball camps. He passed away nearly three years ago, reportedly due to a heart attack. He was 66 years old.

Fun fact: According to an obituary, Smith was the first of four Willies to hit an upper-deck home run at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. The others, of course, were Hall of Famers Stargell, Mays, and McCovey.

Willie Smith (back) by you.

Monday, November 24, 2008

#76 Sam McDowell

Sam McDowell by you.
Check out the scowl on "Sudden" Sam McDowell's face as he unleashes an imaginary fastball toward some unlucky hitter! To the best of my recollection, this is also the first card from the set in which you can pretty clearly identify another player in the background. A quick check of the Indians' 1964 roster shows #17 as...Chico Salmon? That doesn't seem right. There's a chance that it could be a 1963 photo, in which case Mike de la Hoz was #17. That's more likely once you look at this suspiciously similar 1964 Topps card. But enough of that.

Towering over most of his peers at 6'5" and more than 200 pounds, Sam McDowell did most things hard and fast. Signed by the Tribe before his 18th birthday, the native of nearby Pittsburgh made his Indians debut in 1961, at the end of his second pro season. He struck out batters by the handful, but wallked nearly as many. That probably contributed to his tentative grasp on a roster spot; Sam did not spend a full season in the bigs until 1965. He started to put things together in 1964, when he went a combined 19-6 at Portland and Cleveland and posted a 2.70 ERA in the majors.

The following year was a memorable one for Sam. The 22-year-old was an All-Star (the first of six selections for him), going 17-11 with 14 complete games and a league-best 2.18 ERA. He also led the A.L. with an absurd 325 strikeouts (not to mention 132 walks and 17 wild pitches). Despite topping the Junior Circuit in K's again in 1966 (225) as well as shutouts (five), McDowell dropped to nine wins. After being unseated by Boston's Jim Lonborg for 1967's strikeout title (by a 246-236 margin), he returned to the top of the league in whiffs in 1968 (283) and 1969 (279). Sam also posted a miniscule 1.81 ERA in 1968, placing him as runner-up to teammate Luis Tiant. The southpaw's win totals were gradually climbing back to the heights of 1965, and he set a new career high with 18 victories in 1969. But the best was just around the corner.

1970 was McDowell's finest all-around year on the mound. He went 20-12 with 19 complete games, a 2.92 ERA, and 304 strikeouts. It was the fifth and last time he led the league in K's, with all five crowns coming in a six-year span. He was rewarded by The Sporting News, which named him Pitcher of the Year.

After following up with a down year by his own standards (13-17, 8 CG, 192 K, 3.40 ERA, 1.46 ERA), Sam found himself as one half of a challenge trade. He was sent to the Giants for fellow All-Star pitcher Gaylord Perry. The Indians would soon find that they had gotten the better of the deal; Perry won 72 games in three-and-a-half years in Cleveland and then netted them Jim Bibby, Rick Waits, Jackie Brown, and $100,000 in a trade with Texas. McDowell, sadly, was already running out of gas. He won just 11 games with an ERA near 4.50 before San Francisco cut their losses and sold him to the Yankees in June 1973. The lefty had a mediocre 29-game stint with the Yankees before coming home to Pittsburgh in 1975. Then 32 years of age, he posted a 2.86 ERA in 34 and two-thirds innings (mostly in relief) as a swan song to his career.

Sam McDowell was a force to be reckoned with in his prime, which helped him to 141 career wins and 103 complete games. He struck out 2,453 total batters, and his ratios of 8.86 K/9 IP and 7.03 H/9 IP are each still ninth-best all-time. Of course, a more disciplined approach may have lengthened both his peak and his career as a whole. He did top the league in walks allowed on five occasions, and in wild pitches thrice. It's also been said that his considerable appetite for alcohol hastened his decline. After his career ended, the drinking worsened, costing him his family. In the early eighties McDowell, deeply in debt, managed to rehabilitate. He repaid his creditors, earned a degree in sports psychology and addiction from the University of Pittsburgh, and found work as a counselor for the Rangers, Blue Jays, and eventually for the Major League Baseball Players' Alumni Association. He remarried in 2001 and started a retirement community in Florida for ex-players.

Fun fact: The character of Sam Malone, the alcoholic ex-Red Sox pitcher played by Ted Danson on the popular sitcom Cheers, was based on Sam McDowell.

Bonus fun fact: Sam played one-third of an inning at second base and two-thirds of an inning at first base in 1970, as manager Alvin Dark switched back and forth between the lefthander and righty Dean Chance. In the former instance, he even recorded a putout, taking a throw from third baseman Eddie Leon to force Frank Howard at second!
Sam McDowell (back) by you.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

#45 Roy McMillan

Roy McMillan by you.
Check out the designer frames on veteran shortstop Roy McMillan! Though you surely wouldn't hit a man with glasses, you're obviously not a National League pitcher. Roy placed in the top ten in hit-by-pitch five times in the N.L. in his 16-year career. That's gotta sting.

Texas-born Roy McMillan signed with the Reds in 1947 and served a four-year apprenticeship in the minors before debuting with Cincinnati at age 21. After struggling to hit in his first season (.211), the young shortstop showed improvement in 1952. He cracked 32 doubles (third-best in the N.L.), added seven home runs, and drove in 57. It would be a career trend for Roy: low batting average, but decent pop - particularly by shortstop standards. It would be his glove that made him a valuable starter, though. In 1954, he set a record (since broken) by turning 129 double plays. From 1957-1959, he won Gold Gloves in the first three years they were awarded. The late Fifties were kind to McMillan, as he also made back-to-back trips to the All-Star Game in 1956 and 1957. 1956 brought personal bests in RBI (62) and walks (76), and the following year he hit a career-high .272. The latter year he was caught in the crossfire of a controversy, as Reds fans stuffed the ballot box to place Roy and six teammates in the starting lineup of the Midsummer Classic. The league intervened, removing Wally Post from the team and Gus Bell from the starting lineup. McMillan and the other four Redlegs remained in the starting nine.

In December 1960, after a decade in Cincinnati, Roy was on the move. The Reds traded him to the Milwaukee Braves for Juan Pizarro and Joey Jay. His three-plus seasons up north were unremarkable, though he set a new personal best with 12 home runs in 1962. In May 1964, after getting into just eight games in the first month of the season, the shortstop again found a new zip code. He was dealt to the sorry Mets for pitcher Jay Hook and a player to be named later. The end was near for McMillan; in his three years in New York, he failed to post a slugging percentage or an on-base percentage above .300. For his career, he batted .243. Five years after his retirement, he was elected to the Reds' Hall of Fame.

Roy stayed in baseball after hanging up his glove, coaching and managing in the Mets' organization from 1967-1969 before returning to Milwaukee as a Brewers coach from 1970-1972. He served as interim manager for two games, splitting decisions while bridging the gap between Dave Bristol and Del Crandall. It was back to the Mets as a coach in 1974. The following year, team brass fired manager Yogi Berra with the club in third place at 56-53. Again, McMillan was installed at the helm. The Mets continued to tread water, going 26-27 under the interim skipper and staying put in third. He was not brought back for 1976, but did spend 1977-1980 managing in the Twins organization, winning a league championship with the A-level Visalia Oaks in 1978. Roy passed away in 1997, ten years after being selected to the Texas Baseball Hall of Fame.

Fun fact: Roy hit two home runs off of Joey Jay and one each off of Jay Hook and Juan Pizarro; he victimized all three pitchers that he was traded for at various points in his career.

Roy McMillan (back) by you.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

#24 Embossed: Diego Segui

SEGUIG by you.
Here's an interesting diversion from the base set. It also kicks off a batch of sixteen cards that I received from reader Ed, who gets his pick of my Orioles doubles just as soon as I have them all sorted. Younger collectors might not realize that Topps has been doing inserts for so long, but it's true. The card you see above is part of a one-per-pack insert set that comprised 72 cards in total. Each of the 20 MLB teams had three or four players in the set with the exception of the Senators (two) and the Indians (five).

These are pretty gaudy by any standard, featuring a profile portrait of the player completely embossed in gold. The American Leaguers had blue borders, and the National Leaguers had red borders, which were a bit rougher on the eyes. Dayf, the Cardboard Junkie, recently picked up a Lee Maye Embossed to complete his Braves team set; you can see it here. The backs of the cards are nearly blank, save for the card number and copyright info in a box at the bottom.

Of course as you can see, my Embossed card does have an extra special touch on the back. Someone attempted to trace Diego's head from the front to the back, with...mixed results. He looks like some sort of half-moose hybrid. An odd detail I noticed on the front is just how prominent they depicted Segui's Adam's apple. That thing's just kind of hanging there. I'd go into more detail about his career, but his base card is sitting in the queue to be posted in the coming weeks and I don't want to use up my material.

So what do you think - should I try to complete this set along with the base cards? I'm definitely interested in collecting the four Orioles: Brooks Robinson, Milt Pappas, Boog Powell, and John Orsino.

SEGUIGB by you.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

#552 Julio Gotay

Julio Gotay by you.
We can all thank our lucky stars that Julio Gotay didn't come along a few decades later than he did. As things stand, we've been spared the obnoxious spectacle of ESPN blowhard Chris Berman dubbing him Julio Gotay "It On the Mountain". But I digress. Gotay makes it back-to-back Halos this week; he's just been traded from the Pirates in early 1965, hence the bare head and the sleeveless jersey with the black and gold piping.
Like our last featured player (Vic Power), Julio was a native of Puerto Rico. Apparently he had a superstitious fear of crosses. After brief trials in 1960 and 1961, he became the Cardinals' starting shortstop in 1962. The 23-year-old hit an unproductive .255 - he had just fifteen extra-base hits in 369 at-bats and drove in 27 runs. In the offseason, he was dealt to Pittsburgh in the trade that brought All-Star shortstop Dick Groat to St. Louis.

The Pirates did not seem to have any real use for Gotay, giving him four at-bats in seven total games over a two-year span. Just before the card above was produced, they liberated the shortstop, trading him to the Angels for mediocre outfielder Bob Perry. Julio saw action in a whopping 40 games during his lone season in California, batting .247. Next it was off to Houston, where he would actually be a useful reserve for three seasons.

Julio had his best season with the bat in 1967, compiling a .282 average in 77 games as an Astro. He hit .248 and .259 in the two years that followed to finish his ten-year career with a .260 average, 6 home runs, and 70 RBI in 389 games.

On July 4, 2008, a few weeks after being hospitalized for treatment of prostate cancer, Julio died of respiratory failure. The Gotay family baseball legacy is carried on by infielder Ruben Gotay. Ruben is Julio's nephew, and has played for the Royals, Mets, and Braves in his four big league seasons.

Fun fact: Julio set an Astros record by hitting safely in eight straight at-bats from June 18-20, 1967. Filling in for Joe Morgan, who was on military leave, he doubled in his last at-bat against Phil Niekro on the 18th, went 5-for-5 on the 19th, including four safeties off of Bob Gibson an RBI single to send the game to extra innings, and a single and a double (following a hit-by-pitch) on the 20th. Not a bad way to start your week!
Julio Gotay (back) by you.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

#442 Vic Power

Vic Power by you.
Ah, Vic Power, one of the greatest baseball names there ever was. Sure, his single-season high was 19 home runs, placing him behind such notable sluggers as Mike Bordick and Davey Johnson, but power is not just about four-base hits. It's a lifestyle. No one embodied that lifestyle, particularly on the diamond, like Vic Power. I like to think of his name as a rallying cry for Vics everywhere: "Vic POWER!".

Victor Pellot Pove grew up in Puerto Rico, and honed his skills playing for the San Juan Senators (or Senadores) in his early twenties. In 1949, he moved to mainland North America and played for a professional team in Quebec. Wikipedia (yeah, I know) suggests that French-Canadian fans snickered at Vic's name (he went by Pellot, his father's surname). There's no sourcing, of course, but my crack Internet research leads me to believe that "pelote", the French word for "ball", could have easily been a source of amusement for the terminally immature. So it was that he began going by his mother's maiden name, "Pove", which was roughly translated to the English "Power". Sheesh, talk about getting bogged down in linguistics.

Vic soon caught the eye of Yankees scouts, who signed him in 1951. The notoriously slow-to-integrate pinstripers seem to have been put off by the unapologetic nature and sharp wit of the young first baseman. During his first season in their organization, he reportedly entered a restaurant and was informed that they did not serve colored people. He replied, "That's OK, I don't eat colored people. I just want rice and beans." Despite hitting .331 with 109 RBI in the minors in 1952, Power was not invited to the major league camp the following Spring. The writing was on the wall, and indeed New York traded him to the Athletics as part of an eleven-player deal in December of 1953. A popular rumor has the Yanks deciding to dump Vic because he had been dating a white woman.

Whatever the circumstances, Power was finally a big leaguer in 1954, at age twenty-six. In the last season for the woeful A's in Philadelphia, he became the club's first Puerto Rican player. But it wasn't until they moved to Kansas City that the first baseman truly announced himself as a force. 1955 would hold up as the finest performance of Vic's career - he was an All-Star and a top-ten vote getter in the MVP race. He hit .319 with 61 extra-base hits and 76 RBI. Despite a dip in power the following season, his batting average stayed strong at .309 and he returned to the All-Star Game. Following a disappointing 1957, the A's shook things up in June 1958 by trading Power and Woodie Held to Cleveland for Roger Maris and two other players. The newest Indian responded by finishing the season at .312 overall with a personal-best 37 doubles and league-leading 10 triples. He also won his first Gold Glove.

Vic Power attracted lots of attention with his flashy play in the field. At the time, it was unheard of to catch the ball one-handed at first base, and it quickly became his calling card. Of course, now we take it for granted that this style of play increases flexibility and range, but Vic was instrumental in redefining his position. He was also an All-Star in two of his three full seasons with the Tribe, combining his doubles power with batting averages in the high .280s and continuing his slick work with the leather.

On the eve of the 1962 season, Power joined the Twins via another trade; pitcher Pedro Ramos was the outgoing Minnesota player. Again looking to make a good first impression, the first baseman was selected as the team's standout player of the year on the strength of a .290, 28 2B, 16 HR, 63 RBI stat line. After a decent encore in 1963, the 36-year-old showed his age the following year. In June, with his average at .222 and yet to hit a longball, Vic was traded to the Angels as part of a three-team deal. After batting .249 with 3 home runs in 68 games in L.A., he was shipped to the Phillies in September. You may be wondering why the card above has an Angels pennant and logo, in that case. As it so happens, the Halos reacquired Power in November, allowing Topps to use a photo of him that they'd ostensibly taken in the summer of '64. By that time, he was completely unable to live up to his name, stroking just nine extra-base hits in 197 at-bats in 1965. When the Angels released him the following April Fool's Day, it was a wrap for Vic Power. He carried a .284 batting average for his career.

The four-plus decades since Vic's career ended have cemented his legacy as one of the trailblazing Latin American players in Major League Baseball. He moved back to his native Puerto Rico and instructed future major leaguers such as Roberto Alomar, Jose Oquendo, Jerry Morales, Willie Montanez, and Jose Cruz, Sr. In 2005, just months after sharing memories of his career in the American documentary Beisbol, 78-year-old Vic Power succumbed to cancer.

Fun fact: Vic is one of 11 players to steal home plate twice in a game, having performed the feat on August 14, 1958. His first swipe gave the Indians a 9-7 lead in the eighth inning. After the Tigers tied the game in the ninth, Power stood on third in the bottom of the tenth with the bases loaded, two outs, and Rocky Colavito at bat. He took advantage of pitcher Frank Lary's struggles, breaking for home and catching him unaware with the game winner!
Vic Power (back) by you.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

#414 Al Lopez

Al Lopez by you.
I am a big fan of this pose, which Topps photographers used to great effect for several managers (Sam Mele and Chuck Dressen among them) in this set. Really, it's surprising that no one thought of it sooner. Pitchers posed in their windup or follow-through. Batters posed in a batting stance. Fielders posed bent at the waist, glove out in front in anticipation of a grounder. So why shouldn't managers pose with a hand cupped to the mouth, shouting instructions to their charges?

Al Lopez had as long and colorful a career in baseball as anyone. He broke into the major leagues as a 19-year-old catcher with the 1928 Brooklyn Dodgers, and played nineteen seasons, retiring from the 1947 Cleveland Indians. He set a record for games caught (1,918), which was broken four decades later by Bob Boone. In 1930, he hit the last-ever "bounce home run"; the following year, balls that touched the field of play and then bounced into the stands were scored as ground-rule doubles. He was a two-time All-Star, and twice hit over .300 in a full season.

Lopez found his true calling as a manager. From 1948-1950, he helmed the Indianapolis Indians, taking the Pirates' AA affiliate to the postseason in all three years and winning the Junior World Series in 1949. Cleveland hired him in 1951, and he was an instant hit, leading the Tribe to three straight 90-plus-win seasons. In each of those years, the club was the runner-up to the dynastic Yankees. But 1954 was a season for the ages. Led by a dominant starting rotation of Early Wynn, Mike Garcia, Bob Lemon, Art Houtteman, and Bob Feller, the Indians won a then-record 111 games (against just 43 losses) to interrupt New York's run of dominance. Regrettably, Cleveland ran into another New York team in the World Series. Willie Mays introduced himself to the world as the Giants swept the Indians in four straight. After two more second-place finishes behind the Yanks, it was time for Lopez to move on.

Al took over the White Sox in 1957, but found himself in a familiar position: looking up from second place at the pennant-winning Yankees. After more of the same the next year, he guided the Pale Hose to the top in 1959. The "Go-Go Sox" won 94 games but succumbed to the Koufax/Drysdale Dodgers in six games in the World Series. Chicago couldn't build any momentum in the ensuing years, finishing third, fourth, and fifth from 1960-1962. Led by young stars such as third baseman Pete Ward and pitcher Gary Peters, the White Sox vaulted back into contention in 1963, winning 94 but finishing 10 and 1/2 games back of (who else?) the Yankees. The next year the Sox were even better, notching 98 victories. Despite winning their last nine games, they finished a heartbreaking second, only one game behind the...Bronx Bombers. 95 more wins in 1965 were not enough to overcome the surging Twins, who won 102. Lopez walked away from managing, only to return for a brief and unsuccessful stint at the end of 1968 and beginning of 1969.

Al did have quite an impressive run as a manager, never finishing a full season with less than 85 wins. He won 1410 games and lost 1004, for a .584 winning percentage. His pennant-winning teams in 1954 and 1959 were the only clubs from 1949-1964 to interrupt a staggering string of Yankee league titles. On the strength of his managerial record, Lopez was enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1977. He lived to the ripe old age of 97, passing away in 2005 shortly after his White Sox won their first World Series in nearly a century. He had been the last living player of the 1920s.

Fun fact: In 1954, Al Lopez Field was dedicated in the former catcher's hometown of Tampa. It was razed in 1989, and the spot where it once stood is now the south end zone of Raymond James Stadium, home of the NFL's Buccaneers.
Al Lopez (back) by you.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

#413 Hal Reniff

Hal Reniff by you.
Allow me to introduce you to reliever Hal Reniff, who was nicknamed "Porky" for what I feel are obvious reasons. What's more, he has V.A.H. (Visible Armpit Hair) in the above photo. Despite this unfortunate picture, he was an effective reliever in the 1960s for the Yankees.

A local hero in Warren, Ohio, Hal signed with the Yankees shortly after graduating from Chaffey High School in 1956. He struggled until his fourth year in organized baseball, when he won 21 games for Modesto with a 3.19 ERA. He would not reach those heights again, but after two more reasonably strong years in the minors, he made it to New York in June 1961. He would be used exclusively in the bullpen as a big leaguer. Although Reniff struggled with his control (31 walks in 45 and 1/3 innings), he fooled enough batters to post a 2.58 ERA. He was not used in the Yanks' World Series win over the Reds.

After missing most of 1962, his true sophomore effort was a good one. Reniff led the 1963 Yankees with 18 saves, while pitching to a 2.62 ERA. While the Yankees were swept by the Dodgers in the World Series, the righthander was impressive, allowing just one walk in three scoreless innings. Another strong year (6-4, 9 SV, 3.12 ERA) finished with another World Series loss in 1964. Hal saw just one-third of an inning of work against the Cardinals, allowing two hits before Pete Mikkelsen bailed him out.

Hal spent only three more seasons in New York, even though his earned run average never exceeded 3.80. In 1967, his final year in the bigs, he was acquired by the Mets in midseason. But the Yankees, having reacquired the portly pitcher in the offseason, kept him at AAA Syracuse from 1968 through 1972, when he finally called it quits at age 34.

According to the B-R Bullpen, Hal Reniff dabbled in acting post-baseball. The Internet Movie Database has a few listings for a Hal Reniff, and I can't imagine it's a very common name. He passed away in Ontario, California in 2004 at age 66.

Fun fact: Hal's first major league win came on August 6, 1961. The Twins and Yankees were tied at six in the 13th inning when he got the call from the dugout. He pitched three scoreless innings before Yogi Berra scored Bobby Richardson with a groundout in the bottom of the 15th.

Hal Reniff (back) by you.

Friday, November 14, 2008

#320 Bob Gibson

 Bob Gibson by you.
Oh yeah, now we're talking! When Rick offered me this card, he warned me that the condition was somewhat rough. Considering that it's A) forty-three years old and B) Bob Freaking Gibson, I was more than happy to accept it.

Bob was born Pack Gibson in Omaha, Nebraska. He was named after his father, who died before his son's birth. Despite a childhood in which he endured asthma, rickets, pneumonia, and a heart murmur, the young Gibson became adept at both basketball and baseball. He earned a basketball scholarship to local Creighton University, and after signing with the Cardinals in 1957 (for a $3,000 bonus) he delayed his baseball career to play with the Harlem Globetrotters. It was there that Bob earned the nickname "Bullet". He thrilled fans with his backhanded dunks, but his desire for legitimate competition led him back to baseball.

Bob certainly rose to the top of the National League like a bullet, spending just one season at AAA Omaha before breaking camp in 1959 with St. Louis. After two seasons with mixed results in the majors, the 25-year-old righty showed signs of things to come in 1961 with a 13-12 record, 10 complete games, and a 3.24 ERA. He developed a reputation as a fierce competitor, known for refusing to smile at the ballpark and for brushing back hitters to assert his ownership of home plate. He was surly even with his teammates, forever earning my admiration for telling his catcher Tim McCarver that "the only thing you know about pitching is that you can't hit it".

Gibson's career is almost monotonous in its excellence. He was an eight-time All-Star, and struck out 200 batters nine times. He was always getting better; his win totals increased each year from 1960 to 1966, topping out at 21 (he missed significant time in 1967 with a broken leg). In 13 straight seasons, he completed 10 or more games. Bob dominated in every facet of the game, even winning nine straight Gold Gloves between 1965 and 1973. He was even used as a pinch hitter on occasion; his career average was .206 with 24 home runs and 144 RBI. Bob Lemon was the only other post-World War II pitcher to bat .200 with 20 HR and 100 RBI, and he started out as a third baseman!

Any conversation about Bob Gibson's skills begins and ends with his ridiculous 1968 season. 22 wins, 9 losses. 28 complete games, 13 shutouts. 47 consecutive scoreless innings, and two runs allowed in a span of 92 innings. 198 hits and 62 walks in 304 2/3 innings for an absurd 0.85 WHIP. His 1.12 ERA is a live-ball era record. Toss in 268 strikeouts for good measure, and you have the National League Cy Young Award winner AND Most Valuable Player. 1968 is widely known as the Year of the Pitcher, but you could cut to the chase and call it the Year of Gibson. Major League Baseball lowered the height of the pitching mound the following year to increase offense, and #45 of the Cardinals was a big reason for that.

As fantastic as Gibson was in the regular season, he was on another plane in the World Series. His first postseason exposure came in 1964, and he was immediately up to the task. After faltering in the ninth inning of an 8-3 Game Two loss, he roared back to pick up complete-game wins in Games Five and Seven. For the Series he struck out 31 in 27 innings and took home MVP honors. But Bob's work in 1967 dwarfed the 1964 Fall Classic. Having just returned in early September from a broken leg, he allowed three total Red Sox runs in three complete game victories. 14 hits allowed vs. 26 strikeouts. Two-for-two, MVP-wise. Back for a third World Series in 1968, Gibson put an eye-popping capper on his monster season. In Game One, he struck out 17 Tigers to set a Series record. Game Four was a five-hit, ten-strikeout, 10-1 complete game victory. In Game Seven, Mickey Lolich outdueled him in a 4-1 Tigers win. But Bob added eight more K's to set a World Series record of 35. For his postseason career: 7-2, 8 CG, 1.89 ERA, 92 K/81 IP. Wow.

Gibson kept plugging along into the mid-1970s, but showed signs of weakness at age 38 (11-13, 3.83). The following season (1975), he hit the wall: 3-10, 5.04. His right knee hampered by nearly 4000 innings of wear and tear, he retired with 251 wins, 255 complete games, a 2.91 ERA, and 3,117 strikeouts (he was the first National Leaguer to whiff 3,000). In 1981, he was a first-ballot selection for the Baseball Hall of Fame.

In the 1980s, Bob was a pitching coach for the Mets, Braves, and Cardinals. He's also worked for St. Louis as a special instructor, and never lost his mean streak. During an All-Star Old Timers' Game in 1992, Reggie Jackson hit a home run off of him. In the following year's game, the 57-year-old righthander brushed Jackson back from the plate with a close pitch!

Fun fact: Gibson no-hit the Pirates in 1971, striking out ten batters in an 11-0 laugher. It was the first no-hitter in Three Rivers Stadium, and the first in any Pittsburgh ballpark in more than six decades.
Bob Gibson (back) by you.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

#221 John Tsitouris

tsitouris by you.

Let's talk about the robustly-eyebrowed, even more robustly-chinned John Tsitouris, shall we? After the in-depth profiles I've provided in recent entries, I'm a bit ashamed to admit that there's a dearth of information readily available about today's subject, other than the fact that he is of Greek ancestry. Of course, the name is a bit of a giveaway, I'd say.

John, a North Carolina native, signed with the Tigers in 1954 fresh out of high school. He made his major league debut three years later, earning a win in relief despite being the only one of four Detroit pitchers to allow a run. That November, he was sent to the Athletics in your standard 7-for-6 trade. Notable players involved in the deal included Gus Zernial and Billy Martin, both of whom were acquired by the Tigers. Between 1958 and 1960, Tsitouris pitched sparingly in K.C., topping out with 10 starts (24 games total) in 1959. He won 4, lost 3, and posted a pedestrian 4.97 ERA. In January of 1961, the Reds obtained the righty from the A's, but left him in the minors for the entire season. It looked like his career had stalled out at age 25.

1962 was a turnaround year for John. He won 13 games in the Pacific Coast League, and Cincinnati gave him a shot in September. He pitched progressively better in each of four games, culminating in a season-ending five-hit shutout of the Phillies. Having a secure spot on a major league roster at last, Tsitouris enjoyed a career year in 1963. He rode his curveball (and the rumored occasional spitter) to a 12-8 record that included eight complete games and three shutouts, including a two-hitter and three-hitter in his final two starts, both against St. Louis. His strong 2.97-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio was key to a 3.16 ERA and 1.07 WHIP.

Despite appearing in a career-high 37 games (24 starts) in 1964, John's performance dipped a bit from the previous year. He went 9-13, saved two games, and posted a 3.80 ERA. He also struck out 145 batters, a career-high total that placed him a distant second behind Jim Maloney for the team lead. The following year Tsitouris slipped in a major way, with a 6-9 record and a lofty 4.95 ERA for the Reds. That was essentially the end of his time in the major leagues, as the Reds used him in just six games from 1966 through his final year of 1968.

Fun fact: John's lone shutout in 1964 was one of the more notorious games of an unbelievable pennant race. On September 21, the Reds stood six-and-a-half games behind the first-place Phillies. Tsitouris and Phils starter Art Mahaffey traded zeroes for five innings before Cincinnati's rookie outfielder Chico Ruiz stole home with two outs and Frank Robinson batting in the sixth. It proved to be the only run of the game, as John six-hit the Phillies while striking out eight. It marked the beginning of a ten-game losing streak that doomed Philadelphia's pennant hopes.
tsitourisb by you.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

#180 Bob Allison

Bob Allison by you.
I'm not sure what Bob Allison is looking at in this photo, but he seems perturbed by it. Maybe it's Harmon Killebrew modeling his Lucille Ball costume for Ladies' Day at the ballpark. Just try and get that image out of your head...

Missourian Bob Allison was a two-sport athlete at the University of Kansas, playing both baseball and football. He signed with the Senators in 1955, and was an underwhelming hitter until 1958, when he batted .307 in his second try at AA and earned a late-season trial in D.C. The Sens saw enough to give him an Opening Day start the following year. All Bob did in his first full season was hit 30 home runs (sixth in the A.L.) and nine triples (league-best). Unbelievably, he was third on his own team in four-baggers, behind Jim Lemon (33) and Harmon Killebrew (42). This would be the pattern for his career: lofty home run totals that trailed Killebrew each year. The first-year center fielder was named to the All-Star team, and was selected as A.L. Rookie of the Year by a fairly comfortable margin over pitcher Jim Perry and outfielder Russ Snyder.

1960 was the final season for the original Washington franchise, and it was a down year for Allison, whose home run total was halved from his rookie effort. But he did walk 92 times, proving that he had quickly earned the respect of pitchers league-wide. He bested that total in 1961 with the freshly-relocated Twins, accepting 103 free passes. Bob also boosted his longball total to 29 and drove in 105 runs. He would nearly equal those numbers in 1962, before returning to the ranks of the All-Stars in the following two seasons. He reached career highs in home runs (35 in 1963) and batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage (.287/.404/.553 in 1964).

Though Bob started to decline in 1965 (.233 with 23 HR), the Twins remained strong as a club, storming to 102 wins and a World Series date with the Dodgers. L.A. won in seven games, and Allison had only two hits. But one of those hits was a two-run homer that helped Minnesota win Game Six 5-1.

After a broken hand abbreviated his 1966 campaign, Bob pushed back with two more 20+ home run seasons in 1967 and 1968. He was phased into a bench role for the last two years of his career (1969-1970), and his postseason woes continued. The Twins won the first two A.L. West titles, but were swept both times by the East Champion Orioles in the ALCS. Allison went a combined 0-for-10. He had a career to be proud of anyhow: in 13 seasons, all with the same franchise, Bob hit 256 big flies - one every 19.7 at bats. In the outfield, he had solid range and a strong arm. Though he wasn't a prolific base stealer, he was feared on the basepaths.

In his post-baseball life, Allison became general manager of Coca-Cola's Twin Cities marketing division. In his later years, he contracted ataxia, a neurological disorder. He passed away in 1995, at age sixty. The University of Minnesota named their Ataxia Research Center after him.

Fun fact: As you might imagine, Bob had many trivia-worthy longball feats. On July 18, 1962, he and Harmon Killebrew became the first teammates to each hit a grand slam in the same inning. The following year, he hit three round-trippers in one game. In 1964, he teamed with Tony Oliva, Jimmie Hall, and Killebrew to hit back-to-back-to-back-to-back home runs in one inning - the eleventh inning at that!

Bob Allison (back) by you.

Monday, November 10, 2008

#158 Dick Sisler

SISLER by you.
This happy camper is Dick Sisler. If the surname sounds familiar, it's probably because his father was George Sisler, the Hall of Fame first baseman and .340 hitter. Baseball was truly a family affair, as Dick's brother Dave was a big league pitcher from 1956 through 1962. Another brother, George Jr., was an executive in the International League (AAA) for several years.

Dick's own playing career was interrupted by World War II, and he didn't make his major league debut until 1946. He split his time between first base and the outfield for the Cardinals, Phillies, and Reds. Sisler's best effort came in 1950, when he hit .296 with 29 doubles, 13 home runs, and 83 RBI for the N.L. Champion Phillies. For his career, he was a .276 hitter in eight seasons. After his playing career ended, Dick got into managing, helming both the AA Nashville Vols and the AAA Rainiers.

In 1961, Dick joined the Reds' coaching staff under manager Fred Hutchinson. Unfortunately, Hutchinson was diagnosed with chest cancer months before the start of the 1964 season. He stayed on as manager while undergoing chemotherapy, but the treatment and constant travel proved too draining. When he stepped down on August 13, coach Sisler was promoted to replace him. (This made Dick half of the first father-son managing duo in major league history.) At that time, Cincinnati was in the thick of the pennant race at 60-49, four games back of the Phillies in third place. The team seemed to tread water down the stretch, and a loss to the Cubs on September 15 dropped them to fourth, eight-and-a-half games back. But Sisler's charges caught fire, winning nine straight beginning on September 2o to vault into first place. The Reds' stay at the top was short-lived; after three days in the catbird seat, the club lost four of their last five to finish heartbreakingly short. All told, they went 32-21 under the interim manager and placed one game behind the eventual World Champion Cardinals. To compound the pain in Cincinnati, Fred Hutchinson lost his battle with cancer shortly thereafter.

Dick was retained for the 1965 season, and the Reds were again competitive, staying within five-and-a-half games of first place all season long and pulling into a tie atop the National League standings with a September 1 doubleheader sweep of the Braves. However, Cincinnati again faded at the end, sliding down to a fourth-place finish at 89-73, eight games behind the Dodgers.

Sisler was not brought back for a third year as Reds' skipper. His replacement, Don "Jeep" Heffner, went 37-46 before being supplanted in midseason by Dave Bristol. Dick, meanwhile, returned to coaching, first with the Cardinals (1966-1970) and later with the Padres (1975-1976) and Mets (1979-1980). He also served as an instructor in the Cards' organization. He passed away at age 78 in late 1998 after struggling with pneumonia.

Fun fact: On the last day of the 1950 season, Sisler clinched the pennant for the Phillies with an opposite-field three-run homer in the tenth inning against the Dodgers. The heroic feat earned him a mention in Ernest Hemingway's novel The Old Man and the Sea.
SISLERB by you.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

#146 Ron Hansen

Ron Hansen by you.
Time marches on with Ron Hansen, whom the Orioles signed right out of high school in Nebraska. After a solid debut season in pro ball (.289, 84 RBI), the nineteen-year old had a shot to crack the Baltimore roster in 1957. Unfortunately, he slipped a disk in his back and missed the entire season. After brief callups in the following two years, Ron was finally installed at shortstop in Charm City for 1960. At 6'3" and 200 pounds he was an unconventional player at his position in the days before Ripken and A-Rod; he definitely had a more powerful bat than most of his contemporaries. That was certainly the case in his first full year, as he hit 22 home runs to lead the Birds. Hansen also hit a serviceable .255, though 69 walks boosted his on-base percentage to .342. For his efforts, he was named to the All-Star team and was a near-unanimous selection for A.L. Rookie of the Year (teammates Jim Gentile and Chuck Estrada each received one first-place vote).

Ron's power declined appreciably in his sophomore season (12 home runs), but he did lead A.L. shortstops in double plays. He didn't have a chance to reverse his fortunes in 1962, as he hit just .173 in 71 games in a season cut short by military service. While serving as a Marine in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Hansen reinjured his back. This brought his Oriole career to an inglorious end, as he was one of four players dealt to the White Sox in the offseason trade that brought his replacement, Luis Aparicio, to Baltimore.

Ronnie stayed reasonably healthy in Chicago, playing at least 144 games in four out of five seasons. 1964 represented the only year in which he performed on a level equal to his award-winning rookie season: .261, 20 home runs, 68 RBI. However, he remained willing to take walks, and still had double-digit homer power throughout his time in the Windy City. He was also frequently among the league leaders in assists and double plays turned. In February of 1968, the Pale Hose sent him to Washington in a six-player trade. That summer, the Sox would reacquire the shortstop for Tim Cullen, who they had just acquired in the earlier trade! During his brief time in D.C., Hansen put his name in the record books as the only player to turn an unassisted triple play between 1927 and 1992.

Back in Chi-town, Ron settled into a backup role, though he didn't settle for long. He spent one-and-a-half years with the White Sox, two more with the Yankees, and a final few months in Kansas City before bowing out in 1972. He's proven to be a baseball lifer; after coaching in Milwaukee and Montreal for much of the 1980s, he's spent the ensuing years as a scout with the Yankees and Phillies.

Fun fact: The same week that Hansen turned his triple play, he also struck out in six consecutive at-bats. On August 1, he walked his first time up against Tigers pitcher Pat Dobson, and broke his skein in the fourth inning by hitting a grand slam. The next day he was traded to the White Sox - talk about an eventful week!
Ron Hansen (back) by you.

Friday, November 07, 2008

#131 Johnny Keane

Johnny Keane by you.

On to the next batch of cards, a ten-spot that was donated by reader Rick, who collects vintage cards from the 1960s and 1970s and prefers graded. More power to him - it would be a boring hobby if everyone was interested in the same things!

We haven't had a manager card for a while. This crusty customer is Johnny Keane, brand-new skipper of the Yankees. But it was a long, winding path to the top for the former minor-league shortstop. A St. Louis native, Keane played in the Cardinals' farm system but never got to the majors. A beaning caused a head injury that hastened the end of his playing career, and in 1938 the 26-year-old got his managerial start at the very bottom, managing the Cards' Class D team in Albany, Georgia. In his two years with the Travelers, he won two league championships, and he was on his way.

Keane gradually climbed the ladder in the Cardinals organization, spending 17 years plying his trade at outposts such as Mobile, New Iberia (Louisiana), Houston, Rochester, Columbus, and Omaha. His cumulative won-lost record was 1,357-1,166. He won four league titles, and took a dozen teams to the postseason. In 1959, St. Louis finally promoted him to the big-league coaching staff, a job he held for two-and-a-half seasons. On July 6, 1961, with the club languishing in fifth place at 33-41, manager Solly Hemus was fired and the 49-year-old Keane was tapped to replace him. He sparked the Cards to a 47-33 finish, which wasn't enough to pull them out of fifth place. Still, the team announced that Johnny would return for 1962.

Keane developed a reputation as a taciturn leader, but his fair treatment of young players paid dividends. Under his watch, the likes of Bob Gibson, Tim McCarver, Bill White, Curt Flood, and Lou Brock blossomed into valuable pieces of the Cardinals club. A mediocre 84-78 record in 1962 was a stepping stone to success; the following year, the Redbirds surged to 93 wins, playing runner-up to the 99-win Koufax/Drysdale Dodgers. That season set the stage for one of the more memorable efforts by a Cardinals team.

In spite of their talent-rich roster, Keane's Cards muddled through the spring and summer of 1964 and found themselves in fourth place on August 23, some 11 games behind the Phillies. On that day, St. Louis lost to the Giants, 3-2 in 10 innings, lowering their record to 65-58. Frustrated owner and brewing magnate August A. "Gussie" Busch, Jr. began cleaning house, possibly with the encouragement of recently-hired consultant Branch Rickey. Most of the prominent members of the team's front office were fired or forced to resign. Though Keane was spared, word leaked out that Busch had undertaken secret negotations with Dodgers coach Leo Durocher to replace the current skipper at season's end.

What happened over the course of the next month-plus was remarkable. St. Louis caught fire, winning 28 of their final 39 games (including eight straight at the end of September) to leapfrog three teams and win the National League pennant. The Cards spent five days in first place all year long; they were the final five days of the season. They finished one game ahead of the Phillies and Reds, and three ahead of the Giants, in a truly epic race. In the World Series (St. Louis' first since 1946), the Cards met the dynastic Yankees, who had likewise gone on a 28-11 closing run to vault past the Orioles and White Sox. It was a tense, back-and-forth affair, but the Cardinals emerged victorious on the strength of McCarver's bat (.478, 5 RBI) and Series MVP Gibson's arm (2-1, 3.00, 31 K/27 IP). But there was another surprise in store before the ticker-tape was even swept up.

When the Cardinals announced a press conference, most expected the team to announce a contract extension for Johnny Keane. Instead, the manager handed Busch and new general manager Bob Howsam his letter of resignation, which he had actually written in mid-September. Instead of hiring Durocher as previously rumored, St. Louis chose former infield Red Schoendienst as the new field boss. The runner-up Yankees scored a coup by hiring the man who had just beaten them, having rewarded first-year manager Yogi Berra for his 99-win debut by firing him in the blink of an eye.

Johnny started at a disadvantage in New York, inheriting an aging, brittle team. His strident approach was rejected by many Yankee veterans, and he often felt such pressure to win from day-to-day that he would press injured players into action too soon, causing them to miss even more time in the long run. As Jim Bouton put it in Ball Four, he was "willing to sacrifice a season to win a game". The 1965 Yankees fell to sixth place (77-85), and the following year lost 16 of their first 20 games. Keane was an easy scapegoat, and was fired and replaced by general manager Ralph Houk. In December of 1966, the ex-manager took a scouting job with the Angels. Just a month later, he died of a heart attack. Johnny Keane was 55 years old. Attesting to the morbid wonders of the Internet, you can see pictures of his gravesite here.

Fun fact: Johnny shares a November 3 birthday with Ken Holtzman, Dwight Evans, and Hall of Famer Bob Feller.
Johnny Keane (back) by you.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

#423 Jesse Gonder

Jesse Gonder by brotz13.

Let's bring a close to this round of cards from Max with Mets catcher Jesse Gonder, who appears to be wearing his cap in the "flat breezy" style that has recently come back into vogue with the likes of George Sherrill, Chad Cordero, and others.

Jesse first made his mark at McClymonds High in California, as a teammate of future major league stars (and fellow Reds) such as Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson, and Curt Flood. He was a 1955 signee of the Cincinnati Redlegs (yes, they modified their name during the Communist scare), a hellacious hitter who topped .300 with six different minor league clubs but couldn't break through at the major league level. His lack of defensive prowess (along with a notorious dearth of speed) was a likely culprit: in 250 career major league games behind the plate, he allowed 46 passed balls - nearly one every five games! In 1960 he joined the Yankees organization, which certainly didn't help; he was blocked at the major league level by a couple of guys named Elston Howard and Yogi Berra. After 19 at-bats in two trials in the Bronx, Jesse was traded back to Cincinnati. After tearing up the Pacific Coast League in 1962 (.342, 116 RBI), the then-27-year-old catcher finally got to spend an entire season in the majors. He hit .313 in limited at-bats with the Reds, who dealt him to the lowly Mets in July. Receiving more extensive playing time in New York, Jesse hit .302 and was selected as a Topps All-Star Rookie.

In 1964, the Mets gave Gonder the lion's share of work at catcher. In 131 games, he hit .270 with 7 home runs and 35 RBI. On a team that hit a collective .246 and had only two players exceed 11 homers, his bat was an asset. But his suspect glove became too much to ignore, and he lost the starting job to Chris Cannizzaro the following year. A midsummer trade sent Jesse to the Braves, and he slumped badly afterward, finishing at .209. Claimed by Pittsburgh in 1966, the journeyman provided pop off of the bench, clubbing seven home runs in 160 at-bats. He couldn't maintain his production the next year, though; a .139 mark in 36 at-bats brought an end to Jesse's big-league career at the age of 31.

Post-baseball, Jesse spent over two decades driving buses for Golden Gate Transit in the Bay Area before retiring in the mid-1990s. He passed away in 2004, at the age of 68. You can find some insightful quotes from him here.

Fun fact: Jesse hit 26 home runs in his MLB career. Nine of them (34.6% of his total) were off of Hall of Fame pitchers: three each off of Don Drysdale and Bob Gibson, a pair against Gaylord Perry, and another versus Juan Marichal!
Jesse Gonder (back) by brotz13.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

#360 Orlando Cepeda

Orlando Cepeda by brotz13.

I meant to write this up yesterday, but I allowed the election coverage to consume me. Now that we can all exhale and move on with our lives, check out this awesome card of "Cha Cha", also known as Orlando Cepeda. This is our first solo Hall of Famer in this set, following an awesome AL RBI Leaders card. Orlando is staring intently off-camera with bat poised and forearm muscles tensed and ready to strike. If you mess with the Baby Bull, you get the horns.

Orlando Cepeda was a second-generation baseball player; his father Pedro was a great hero in their native Puerto Rico and was known as "the Bull", hence the nickname "Baby Bull" for the younger Cepeda. Orlando signed with the Giants as a teenager, and announced himself as a 20-year-old in 1958. His .312 average, 38 doubles (tops in the NL), 25 home runs, and 96 RBI (tied with Willie Mays for team-best) made him the unanimous choice for National League Rookie of the Year. He avoided the sophomore slump, improving in most offensive categories (.317-27-105) and making the first of six straight All-Star teams. Cepeda was a monster in 1961, batting .311 with a league-leading 46 homers and 142 RBI. He placed second to Frank Robinson (.323-37-104 for the pennant-winning Reds) in the NL MVP vote.

Undaunted by his near-miss for league honors, Orlando kept on rolling in 1962 (.306-35-114), this time teaming with Willie Mays to lead the Giants to their first World Series since 1954. Unfortunately, the Baby Bull was just 3-for-19 as the Yankees outlasted San Francisco in seven games. After performing at his usual high level in 1963 and 1964, the powerful first baseman had a disastrous 1965. A knee injury limited him to 33 games, and brought to an end an incredible stretch in which he placed in the NL's top ten in home runs and RBI for each of his first seven years (he had also been a top ten hitter for average in each of his first six years - his .304 in 1964 missed out by .002). Annoyed by his slow recovery, the Giants traded Cepeda to the Cardinals for pitcher Ray Sadecki early the following year; it was a move they would soon regret.

After a merely decent (by his standards) first season in St. Louis, Orlando owned the NL in 1967: .325 average and .399 on-base percentage (both career-highs), 37 doubles, 25 home runs, 111 RBI (NL-best). It's important to remember that this was a season dominated by pitching; over in the AL, only four batters reached .300. Cepeda was the runaway choice for NL MVP, collecting all 20 first-place votes and more than doubling the point total of teammate and runner-up Tim McCarver (yep...Tim McCarver). The Redbirds won 101 games and outlasted the "Impossible Dream" Red Sox in a seven-game World Series. Orlando again struggled badly in the postseason, hitting just .103 (3-for-29) with a single RBI, but this time his teammates picked him up. Those October hitting woes carried over to the following season, however. He hit a career-low .248 with 16 home runs and 73 RBI, which was still above league average in what came to be known as the Year of the Pitcher. St. Louis repeated as NL champs, but dropped the World Series to the Tigers in seven. Cepeda finally got untracked a bit, hitting .250 with a pair of homers in the Fall Classic. The following March brought an end to his time in red and white, though; the Cards pulled a classic challenge trade, sending their slugger to Atlanta for catcher/first baseman Joe Torre.

Cepeda's first go-round with the Braves brought incremental improvements, as he contributed to the first-ever NL West champions. Despite his 5-for-11, 3-RBI effort in the playoffs, the Mets swept Atlanta in three games. But 1970 was another year to remember, individually. The 32-year-old slugged 33 doubles and 34 homers, again driving in 111 while batting .305. He again couldn't keep his momentum, playing only partial seasons in 1971 and 1972, including a three-game run with Oakland in July of the latter year.

Used strictly as a designated hitter, Orlando had a last hurrah with the second-place Red Sox in 1973. His .289-20-86 line got him some nominal MVP consideration, but Boston released him the following spring. After an inglorious 33-game cameo in Kansas City, Cepeda was released at season's end and retired with a .297 average, 379 home runs, and 1,365 RBI.

A 1975 arrest and 1978 conviction on drug possession charges (he had imported cannabis from Colombia) led to a five-year prison sentence. Cepeda spent ten months in jail, and served the duration of the sentence on probation. This incident may have caused the Baseball Writers' Association of America to turn a blind eye to his considerable achievements on the field, as his Hall of Fame eligibility came and went. In 1999, the Veterans' Committee finally chose Orlando as the second Puerto Rican to be enshrined in the Hall (following Roberto Clemente).

Fun fact: Orlando hit three home runs in his first three at-bats on July 26, 1970, all coming off of unfortunate Cubs starter Bill Hands. The third was a fifth-inning grand slam that gave the Braves a 7-2 lead. The Baby Bull added a ninth-inning RBI single, bringing his RBI total to seven in an 8-3 win for Atlanta.
Orlando Cepeda (back) by brotz13.

Monday, November 03, 2008

#293 Los Angeles Angels Team Card

Angels Team Card by brotz13.
No time to sit and ponder tomorrow's election thingy, we've still got a backlog of cards to post, with more on the way from Max, who I am hereby dubbing the Patron Saint of The Great 1965 Topps Project. So let it be said, so let it be done. This blood-red card would probably have been more apt on Halloween, but it'll have to do today. It features an out-of-focus photo of Bill Rigney's Los Angeles Angels.

As you can see, the Halos brought up the rear of the first division with a middling 82-80 record, 17 games behind the AL champs from New York. But in the big picture, that's pretty good for a fourth-year franchise that had lost 91 games in 1963. The Angels actually gave up a few more runs (551) than they scored (544), but it was a close call. They were the second-class citizens of Dodger Stadium, drawing just over 3/4 of a million fans. By contrast, the 80-win Dodgers drew 2.2 million, best in the majors by nearly one million fans!

The Angels were a pitching team with a hitting problem, placing eighth out of ten teams in average (.242), ninth in on-base percentage (.303), and dead last in slugging (.344). The load-bearers on offense were veteran first baseman Joe Adcock (21 home runs) and young shortstop Jim Fregosi (team-leading 49 extra-base hits, 72 RBI, and 72 walks). Fregosi was a fan selection to the All-Star Game for the first time in his career. Other bright spots among Angel batters were outfielders Willie Smith and Jimmy Piersall, who each batted over .300. Smith actually entered the season as a two-way player before the offensively-deficient Halos pulled him off of the mound and anointed him their everyday left fielder!

As I mentioned, pitching was the strength of the Los Angelenos in 1964. They had a formidable young threesome at the top of the rotation, with former Oriole farmhand Dean Chance turning in a season for the ages. The 23-year-old led the A.L. in wins (20), ERA (1.65), complete games (15), and shutouts (11). He finished just 10 strikeouts short of a pitchers' Triple Crown, was selected as an All-Star, and was the runaway choice for the Cy Young Award (there was still just one award given for the entire major leagues). He was complemented by Fred Newman (13-10, 2.75) and Bo Belinsky (9-8, 2.86 in 22 starts). The bullpen was just as solid, with none of the top five relievers posting an ERA above 3.85. Closer Bob Lee (6-5, 1.51 ERA, 19 saves) led the way. The Angels' league-leading 28 shutouts played a major role in their 2.91 club ERA, which was second-best in the A.L.

Despite some promising young stars, the Angels never did get anywhere, wallowing in mediocrity until the free agency era delivered the likes of Bobby Grich and Don Baylor to Anaheim. The club won their first West Division title in 1979 under recently-retired shortstop Jim Fregosi (how about that?), but waited until 2002 to reach - and win - their first World Series.
Angels Team Card (back) by brotz13.