Saturday, February 28, 2009

#49 & 50 -- Willie Mays & "In Action"

Willie Mays

There is not enough that I could say about Willie Howard Mays. Even though we spell our last names different, I was disappointed as a kid to be told that we weren't related. If you ever saw me play baseball, there would be no question.

It's hard to name one person as the Greatest Player of All Time. This debate came up when Bonds was putting up great numbers in the early part of the decade, but the consensus was still that until some great hitter could get on the mound and win 100 games, the nod has to go to Babe Ruth. After Babe Ruth, there's quite a debate. This guy is one that figures prominently.

Talk about 5 tools. Could he hit for average? Lifetime .302 average brought down considerably by his last few years, but he was a good .320 hitter for the bulk of his career in a tough hitters park. Could he hit for power? 660 home runs with a year of his prime spent serving his country. That number places 3rd on the legitimate home run list (with Griffey at 611 and Thome at 541 unlikely to catch him). Could he run? Stolen bases are not the only criteria, but 338 career stolen bases are good. He went 30-30 twice when that stat meant something, missing by 4 homers of being the first 40-40 man in 1956, 8 years before Canseco was born. Could he field? His range factor was consistently above the league average for center fielders. He could get a jump on a ball. Please remember his catch in the 1954 Series rather than the misjudged fly ball on the track in the 1973 Series. Could he throw? In 1955 he had 23 assists and by 1959 guys stopped running on Willie. The only thing said to be better than his catch in the 1954 Series was his throw into second that kept Larry Doby at third.

He had some pretty impressive minor league numbers, as you can see on the back of his card. He only hit .393 in 455 at bats overall. But look at his numbers in 1951 in St. Paul. You might have a guy hitting .477 after 4 or 5 games on a very occasional basis, but that was Willie's batting average after 35 games. Of course, he'd already been playing in the Negro Leagues, so going to the minors was probably a step down for him. If he hadn't essentially missed all of 1952 and 1953, I think there would be no question but that he would have had 700 lifetime homers. If that were true, Hank Aaron wouldn't have passed him until sometime in 1973. Would Willie have tried to play in 1974 at that point? Who knows? Probably a good thing because he didn't have much left. In 1973 he hit .211 with 6 homers. He had an OPS+ of 81, the only time since his rookie year it dipped below 120 for a full season. Sadly, it was time to go.

I only got to see Willie play once. It was in the 1973 All-Star Game in K.C. I'll never get tired of thanking my dad for taking me on a bus trip to see that game. Sparky Lyle struck him out as a pinch-hitter in the top of the 8th. He was in a Met uniform. Didn't matter, because I'd gotten to see Willie Mays play. I took my son to our local minor league park when it opened to a capacity crowd in 2005 and made sure he was sitting on my shoulders (as a 10 year old....) on the outfield berm so he could see Stan Musial throw out the first pitch. I hope my son looks back on that moment someday the way I look back on having had a chance to see Willie Mays play in person.

I'm glad they gave Willie a good "action" card. One of the things he was known for was hustling and I love the shot. It looks like he's gone from first to third on a single and is sliding just because he wants to. Even at this age, I'm sure Willie could outrun any throw from the outfield not made by Roberto Clemente. If you can't tell, I idolized Willie Mays. It's been a little more difficult as he's gotten older, had the Bally's "scandal" in the 80's and been in a position of having to defend Barry Bonds lately. If you look at this entire set, you're going to find my favorite ballplayers are going to be Willie, Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente, Lou Brock and Bob Gibson. Here's to you, Willie!

Friday, February 27, 2009

#47 & 48 -- John Ellis & "In Action"

John Ellis

John's pose is neat. It's a little different than what we usually see. However, he doesn't exactly look like he's holding Lou Brock or Freddie Patek on. He looks more like he's displaying the stance when he would have to hold on someone like Mickey Lolich or Wilbur Wood. He's standing more comfortable than stretched out to take the throw and slap on a tag.

I always remember John as a guy who got moved around a lot. He was almost always playing a lot at DH and then he alternated between catcher and first base. He had a couple of good years in the middle of the 70's for the Indians. Still, no matter how well he played for them, he was going to be known as the main guy they got for Graig Nettles. The Yanks built a lot of their late 70's team using the Indians as a farm system. They got Nettles for Ellis (and others) after 1972 and got Chris Chambliss and Dick Tidrow for a declining Fritz Peterson and some assorted stale bullpen arms.

John's career ran into problems when he left Cleveland. If I remember correctly he had some injury problems and had trouble staying on the field. That's too bad because he had a strong bat and was a good option as a part time DH/1B.

One interesting fact I got on John was that his first big league homer was an inside the parker to center in Yankee Stadium (the old one, before the 1974 renovations). There was a lot of area out there, and I think the ball either must have caromed off one of the monuments, fell in the outfield drain that Mickey Mantle tore up his knee on or Angel centerfielder Jay Johnstone fell down. John was not fleet afoot. He had a career record of 6/16 in stolen bases (including going 3/3 in 1980) and hit into a lot of double plays.

John only played 2 home day games against the Twins in 1971 where he would have reached first to be held on by Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew in the "action" card. Based on the stats above, I guess Harmon was holding him on as a courtesy since John had exactly zero stolen bases at that point in his career. One of those games was April 24 where he was 1-1 with 4 walks (Gene Michael was hitting behind John, so I don't think they were pitching around him) and the other was a July 21 Wednesday afternoon getaway game where he singled late off Jim Kaat. I'm going for the July game because he doesn't have sleeves.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

#45 & 46 -- Glenn Beckert

Glenn Beckert

Glenn put up solid minor league numbers, but his chance to play did not come because he wowed the Cubs' management into fitting him in over the prior incumbent. Sadly, Ken Hubbs died in a plane crash during the off-season after 1963. The 1964 second baseman was a revolving door of guys that couldn't get the job done, so they moved Beckert over from short. They got a good second baseman that made 4 All-Star teams from 1969-1972. That Cub infield was pretty strong in the late 60's, featuring Ernie Banks, Beckert, Don Kessinger and Ron Santo. That was definitely the Cubs' strength.

Glenn here was coming off the best year of his career, hitting .342. It was also his best year of OPS+, but that stat of 108 being your career best is far less impressive than his batting average. He didn't walk, strikeout or hit for any power, so what you got out of the batting average was what you were going to get.

Glenn's career went into a nosedive. After 1973 the Cubs overhauled the team. Beckert went to the Padres for outfielder Jerry Morales. Glenn didn't put up the numbers in San Diego, splitting time at second with Derrel Thomas. He was released in April 1975 and that was it.

The action card isn't any great shakes. He's finishing off a practice swing in Candlestick. Normally a practice swing when you're not even at bat shouldn't be part of an "action" card, but he sure put a lot of effort into that practice swing. Perhaps that kind of effort in the on deck circle at making sure you follow through properly is what leads to a guy hitting .342. I guess it's not as cold in Candlestick as it usually is during the summer because he's got regular T-shirt sleeves instead of the shimmering plastic windbreader showin in his regular card.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

#43 & 44 -- Rick Wise & "In Action"

Rick Wise

When you talk about good hitting pitchers, Rick Wise is one that comes up. He’s the only person to ever hit 2 homers while pitching a no-hitter. Not much drama about who the star of the game was that night, but he wouldn’t have predicted a great game as he said he was weak from just getting over the flu. We should all be so sick. It should have been his second no-hitter. He lost his first on what he says was a poor scoring decision. Jeff Torborg was credited with an infield hit on a roller to short that the shortstop bobbled.

Otherwise, he was a league average pitcher. He was a 19 game winner for the Red Sox team that went to the 1975 World Series and had a ringside seat for Fisk’s game winning homer. Unfortunately for Rick, he's always going to be best remembered in Missouri for going 17-17 in 1972 instead of 27-10. When the Cardinal brass got sick of Steve Carlton, the Phils gave up Rick to get him. Not Rick's fault, but he was given shoes too big to fill.

There are identifiable guys in the background. From Baseball Almanac's roster page that shows numbers from 1971, I can tell that the guy on the left (#37) is Billy Wilson. The guy on the right is a minor leaguer (doesn't look old enough to be a coach), because the Phils didn't have any numbers in the 50's on their active roster. The guy in the middle is a future Hall of Famer that looks like is receiving a wedgie from Wilson. My hint is that he could slap a contempt citation on Wilson for that disrespecful act now. That pitcher is Senator Jim Bunning.

The "action" card is pretty good, given what we've seen so far. It was taken on a sunny day in Candlestick, and there's a pretty full house. Of course the Giants won the West in 1971. Rick pitched there twice. He got beat 6-0 on August 18, but that was a Wednesday with an attendance of only 10,000, so I don't that that was the game. I'm going for the first game of a June 6 doubleheader where Rick threw a 3 hit shutout with 9 K's to win 1-0. It's good to see the subject of the "action" card also be a good day for the ballplayer.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

#41 & 42 -- Tommy Davis & "In Action"

Tommy Davis

Tommy is kind of in between careers here. Tommy got off to one of the best starts to a career you’ll ever see with the Dodgers. He won the batting title in 1962-63 and had 153 RBI in 1962. Anybody starting to think about Albert Pujols. Unfortunately, Tommy bunged up his ankle breaking up a double play in 1965 and he was never the same. He could still hit, but he couldn’t take a spot in the field. He bounced around – Mets, hitless wonder White Sox, Pilots, Astros then to the A’s and Cubs a couple of times each. He also had a reputation of not being a hard worker, and is quoted as saying, “The lazier I feel, the better I hit.” In 1971 he must have felt pretty lazy because he hit .324 for the A’s in 79 games. They were trying to hide him at first base, but it’s hard to keep a guy around that makes 3 errors at first base in 35 games.

It looked like he was done, as the A’s released him at the end of Spring Training 1972. I'm sure that coupled with the strike caused more than a few anxious moments for Tommy. He didn’t catch on with anyone until the Cubs signed him in July. They kept him for 6 weeks and then traded him to the Orioles. Tommy has a look in his regular card that he remembers the guy that played for the Dodgers in the early 60’s and he knows he can do it, but he can’t stay in the field enough to get regular at bats. He seems a little sad to me.

The Orioles must have made the trade in August 1972 knowing about the rule change on the horizon because Tommy Davis was made to be a DH. The Orioles installed him as their DH and he hit .306 with 89 RBI. He was the regular DH from 1972-75 and was one of the best early DH’s. The O’s released him after 1975, when he was still hitting .283, but they didn't have a regular DH after that. Tommy tried to hang on, but he was released in Spring Training by the Yankees and played for the Angels and Royals, but hit an empty .265 without any homer or doubles power. It was the end of the line, but he had quite a career.

With the advent of box scores on the internet it's sometimes possible to pinpoint where in a particular game a photo is taken. On the action card, I can't get any closer than the date. Tommy's wearing a road uniform and the only time he played first in Yankee Stadium in 1971 was a doubleheader on May 31. It's hard to make out the runner, but it looks more like Roy White than Horace Clarke.

With all the stars the A’s had at this time (Reggie, Catfish, Bando, Rudi, Campaneris, Fingers, Blue, etc.) they give an “in action” card to on older player winding down. That’s kind of nice, and two of those guys listed got "action" cards, but Tommy didn’t really get much action in 1972 between the Cubs and Orioles.

Monday, February 23, 2009

#39 & 40 -- Bob Barton & "In Action"

The only year Bob was a semi-regular player was 1971. His OPS+ was a lofty 94, by far the highest of any season in which he had more than 10 plate appearances. His .250 average for a team that hit .233 was 5th for players that had 300 at bats. It was by far his best year. His competition for the spot came from rookie Fred Kendall (.171) and Chris Cannizzaro (.190). The good times stopped rolling when Bob got off to a bad start in 1972 and the Padres put Fred Kendall in to catch regularly.

I never knew Bob had a place in baseball history, especially with these numbers. However, Bob had a profound place. Marvin Miller was negotiating with the owners over the reserve clause. The owners were arguing that the reserve clause, which kept a player from being a free agent, protected players. Miller responded with “What about Bob Barton?” Miller was wondering how the reserve system protected a player like Bob Barton who’d been a 3rd string catcher with the Giants for 5 years and was getting nowhere. The owners had no response. That helped convince Miller that the reserve clause was worth fighting over. So put Bob Barton up there (but quite a bit lower on the page) with Curt Flood, Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally as heroes of free agency.

Topps made 72 “in action” cards for 1972, 12 in each of the 6 series. If I were a Topps card executive as this was being considered, I would look at this as a way to get more cards in of players that baseball fans wanted to see. That’s why we had Carl Yastrzemski and we’ll see Willie Mays, Bobby Murcer and Johnny Bench. You also need to get in someone from every team. However, why in the world were there 5 Padre “in action” cards? This would average 4 cards per team and the Pads weren't exactly the team you'd think to go over the average.

We’ll see Clay Kirby, Clarence Gaston, Nate Colbert and Ollie Brown coming up to go with Bob. I understand Nate Colbert as he was unquestionably the star of the team. Gaston and Brown were solid and Kirby was their top starter. I do not know why they have an “in action” card of Bob Barton. I’ll have the same question when we get to Pat Corrales of the Reds. Johnny Bench’s backups rarely saw any “action.” The “action” on this card is certainly questionable as it looks like he’s just chased a foul ball to the screen and is lingering to look at the attractive young lady or a kid eating ice cream in the third row. The best part of the card is the security guard. How often do you see that guy in the picture? Based on how tough he looks, I don't think they're expecting Colonel Ike Dubaku to be perpetrating any hijinks in the stadium today.

About the only other comment about Bob is that 1/3 of his 9 career homers came off Hall of Famers (Gaylord Perry, Phil Niekro and Ferguson Jenkins).

Sunday, February 22, 2009

#37 & 38 -- Carl Yastrzemski

Carl Yastrzemski

If Rico Petrocelli is a Red Sox hero, here's a guy who's in the Red Sox Pantheon of Gods. He’s a Hall of Famer, but on a back field in Spring Training in the main card. I think at this time the Red Sox were in Winter Haven, FL. (They shouldn’t complain….when Babe Ruth played for them, Spring Training was in Hot Springs, AR. Of course, that may have been so Mr. Ruth could play the horses.) Looks like the same dumpy place Rico Petrocelli was, without the other player in the background.

Yaz looks young on the main card. I remember him more from the mid-70's when he'd gotten the older and harder look to him. The card pose is the classic batting stance, which I like. The only complaint about the card is the cartoon on the back. If it's talking about him leading the league in assists, why does it show him making a catch? Would it have been too difficult to draw an infielder tagging a guy with the ump in the background making an out sign with the infielder having a word balloon saying something like, "Thanks, Carl!!"?

During a stretch in the late 60’s, Yaz was as good as anyone in the League. He was hitting .300 in 1968 when no one else in the AL could. He was hitting 40 homers when the mound was high and pitchers ruled. He was also the best defensive left fielder of his day and was remarkably consistent at the plate.

OK, the photo on the action card isn’t horrible. Looks like Yaz has smoked one on a hit and run. Is that Munson behind the plate? It looks like he's got dark Yankee colors, but that could also be Billy Freehan of the Tigers or Ray Fosse of the Indians.

Think about Yaz’ career. He replaced Ted Williams in left field for the Red Sox. How does it go replacing a legend? Ask Gene Bartow when he was at UCLA or Bobby Murcer following Mickey Mantle into centerfield. Sometimes no matter how great you are in your own right, it'll never be good enough.

Yaz was one of the few that could follow a legend. Then, Jim Rice replaced him in 1975, as Yaz moved to DH and play 1B until 1983. Just think, from about 1939 until 1986 the Sox had 3 regular left fielders and all of them were dominant MVPs during their career (Mike Greenwell was looking good to extend this. For a while). And now, they’re all in the Hall of Fame.