Saturday, April 4, 2009

# 97 -- Tom Kelley

Tom Kelley

Tom Kelley didn't manage the Twins to 2 World Series wins. Tom Kelly did. It's hard to find much information on Tom Kelley beyond what we can see on the back of this card. He signed with the Indians before the draft, but made it to the big leagues for a few appearances in May of 1964, but spent most of the season in the Eastern League. He tore up AAA in 1965 (16-3) and pitched well in 4 late-season starts, so things were looking up.

He's with the Indians all of 1966, but can't crack the rotation, pitching out of the bullpen about once a week and getting about 1 start a month. Then in 1967 and 1968 he's hardly pitching anywhere. That could mean 2 things in the late 60's -- arm trouble or military service. Usually, when there's an empty year and the player was in the armed forces, Topps would put a line for that.

Tom had shoulder surgery. He had 12 AA starts in 1968 and in 1969 floated between A and AA ball. Then he's released. The Braves pick him up in 1970 and put him in AA where he flourished for the first half. But he couldn't get it done at Richmond in the second half. Things aren't looking good for Tom.

Then it came back. 1971 and 1972 were Tom's 2 best season. He was a swing man in between the rotation and the bullpen and he pitched well in 1971. He went back down in 1972 and then the bottom dropped out in 1973. He struggled in the minors through 1976 when he packed it in. It looks like he had recurrence of the arm troubles. I always hate seeing that in someone who has a promising start like Tom did in 1965. The fact that he fought through the arm troubles for about 10 years tells me how much he really loved baseball.

That Rawlings glove Tom's wearing looks a lot like the Bobby Grich model I bought in 1972 when I had need for a new glove (that story will come some other time). I used that glove until about 1995 when I had to break down and buy a new one to play softball. I don't know if there was still an original string left in that glove. I had a grandpa that had a lot of leather around the house and he'd restring it when I broke one. When I got that glove, I thought it was really cool how it had the hole in the back to stick out my index finger. Since Bobby Grich debuted in 1971, I really doubt Tom's wearing the same glove I had, but it's kind of neat to see him wearing it.

Friday, April 3, 2009

# 95 & 96 -- Strikeout Leaders

NL Strikeout Leaders

Tom Seaver 289
Fergie Jenkins 263
Bill Stoneman 251

There's Tom Seaver again. He's the only player in either league to appear on all 3 League Leader cards. Jenkins, Blue, Wood and Lolich were all on 2 of the 3. Joe Torre, Willie Stargell and Hank Aaron made 2 of the 3 hitting cards. Nobody in the AL made even 2 of the 3 League Leader cards.

I've also written about Jenkins and want to leave something for his regular card. He was as solid and steady as they came in that era. Once again, the names down the Top Ten on the NL card read like a Hall of Fame invitation list -- Sutton, Niekro, Marichal, Carlton, Gibson. And then Clay Kirby shows up again.

So does Bill Stoneman. If a Montreal Expo falls in the woods with no one around does it make a sound? If you pitch 2 no-hitters for the team in Parc Jarry, did it happen? Bill was pretty well unknown until he helped build a winner in Orange County. Other than 1971-72, Bill was a pretty lackluster pitcher, with a career ERA of 4.08. Most of his career highs in good categories came in 1971. It was by far his highest strikeout total, win total and his only season above .500 (barely) at 17-16. Although he had his flash here, he was a better executive than pitcher.

AL Strikeout Leaders

Mickey Lolich 308
Vida Blue 301
Joe Coleman 236

Quite a gap here between 2nd and 3rd. What you don't see are the 4 20-game winners for the Orioles, with Dobson and Palmer showing up on down the line. Just goes to show when you have an outstanding defense, you don't have to strike everyone out.

If Blue hadn't slowed down the stretch, he'd have likely won the strikeout race. I remember Lolich as a big guy and when he retired he had over 2800 strikeouts, which was a lot, considering Walter Johnson held the record then at 3,509. When he retired for good at the end of the 1979 season, he was #7 on the all-time strikeout list, but was #5 entering 1979, with a couple of guys named Seaver and Ryan passing him that year. Pretty good career.

Joe Coleman ends up on this card. He and Lolich were the Tigers pitching rotation in 1971-72. Coleman was a little less a workhorse than Lolich, only getting to the 280 innings mark. He only topped 200 strikeouts from 1971-1973 and then tailed off.

I'm in the camp of those who think we baby pitchers too much these days. However, I also look at guys like Coleman and Stoneman and see something to support the current mindset. Both of those guys had high water marks in innings and then fell off the table dramatically. I can't remember if they had arm trouble, but I know back then guys were afraid to say they hurt. I would suspect there were a lot of guys that tried to gut it out and pitch through it, but needed some rest or medical attention, didn't seek it and were never the same. I also think some of the problem today (in addition to pitchers not having the arm strength) is that I recall guys like Gibson, Seaver, Catfish Hunter, Jenkins, etc. threw a lot of fastballs, but didn't rely on the sliders and splitters that are used more frequently now. Some of that may be that with the balls, bats, ballparks and batters being juiced today, the pitchers can't get by with just fast balls, but those other pitches put more stress on the nerves and tendons in the joints. I don't know the answers, but I wish we could get back to the days when pitchers could start 38-40 games a year and were wusses if they only went into the 7th inning.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

# 93 & 94 -- Pitching (Wins) Leaders

NL Wins Leaders

Ferguson Jenkins 24
Steve Carlton 20
Al Downing 20
Tom Seaver 20

For some reason the category of "wins" becomes "Pitching Leaders." I suppose the real reason the games are played is to win them, not just hold the other team down on runs or strike out the other batters. Ferguson Jenkins put together another banner year in Wrigley Field and was rewarded with his Cy Young award. He'd finished 2nd and 3rd before despite this being his 5th of 6 consecutive 20 win seasons. The rest of his numbers may not have been the best around, but what Fergie did was just win. He only had 2 no-decisions in 1971 and left trailing in both of those.

This is the only leader card with more than 3 leaders on it because there was a logjam at 20 wins. There were some pretty big names there, too. This was Steve Carlton's first really big year, actually surpassing Bob Gibson in wins. As a St. Louis Cardinal fan, I don't have much else to say, because Carlton would become a fixture on the leaderboard.

We've already mentioned Tom Terrific. Let me say a little more. In the 20 games he won, the most runs he allowed in any of them was 2. He had 8 other starts where he allowed 2 earned runs or less and 5 of those were losses. Therefore, if he'd won all of his starts where he allowed 2 earned runs or less -- not exactly asking a lot from the Mets' lumber -- he'd have been 28-5.

When I say "Al Downing" you say _________. Let's hear it. "715" However, he was more than that. He'd been a fireballing lefty with the Yanks, but had arm trouble, bounced around a couple of years and finished up 1970 going 2-10 with the Brewers. Looked like he was headed for retirement. The Dodgers picked him up and he won 20. His stats neutralized to 16-11 and he never again won 10 games, but he finished 3rd in the Cy Young in 1971. He had a little more run support than Seaver.

AL Wins Leaders

Mickey Lolich 25
Vida Blue 24
Wilbur Wood 22

There were 10 different pitchers winning 20 games in 1971, 4 of them from the Orioles. We don't see as many 20 game winners anymore because (1) the best pitchers only start 34-36 games now and (2) pitchers don't stay around long enough in the game and the decision goes to the bullpen. In 1971, we had guys posting some big win numbers, but let's look at their numbers.

Mickey Lolich finished 2nd to Blue in the Cy Young. He started 45 games, completed 29 and threw 376 innings, finishing 25-14. That means he had more decisions than pitchers have starts now...and he still had 6 no-decisions. 1971 was Mickey's biggest year in terms of wins, innings and strikeouts. He could have really had a big year, because he lost his last 3 starts and still finished with 25 wins. It's not like he was out of gas, either, because threw complete games losing 3-2, 3-2 and 2-1. With a little luck here and there, we could be talking about Lolich instead of Denny McLain as the last 30 game winner.

Vida Blue did kind of run out of gas at the end of the year. That's to be expected, however, because this was his rookie year and he threw over 300 innings. He entered September 23-6, but his last 6 starts had 1 win, 2 losses and 3 no-decisions. In fairness, he didn't go long in most of those games, so the A's could have been trying to cut down on his innings late in a year they won the pennant by 16 games over the Royals.

Here's workhorse Wilbur Wood again. He only had 42 starts and didn't get his first win until May and went into the All-Star break 9-5. He had less run support than Tom Seaver and didn't get wins in 10 starts where he gave 2 earned runs or less.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

# 91 & 92 -- ERA Leaders

NL ERA Leaders

Tom Seaver 1.76
Dave Roberts 2.10
Don Wilson 2.45

Tom Seaver finished 2nd in the 1971 Cy Young balloting. As you can see, he won the ERA title by quite a large margin over Dave Roberts and Don Wilson. As we go through the rest of the pitching leader cards I'm wondering how he didn't win the Cy Young, or at least finish a little closer to Fergie Jenkins. His record is what got him. He was only 20-10. He had career highs in complete games (21), strikeouts (289) and ERA (1.76). His neutralized stats worked out to 24-7 with a 2.06 ERA. I'll get to Jenkins later.

Well, where the NL West wasn't well represented on the hitting leaderboards, its well-represented on the pitching leaderboards. Only the Braves don't have a Top Ten ERA pitcher and I'm a little surprised that the hapless Padres have 2 in the Top 10. Dave Roberts had his best year in the big leagues, and was rewarded with a 14-17 record for the Padres. He was sent to the Astros in 1972 and started winning games. Neutralizing his 1971 stats would have gotten him a 20-9 record. If the Pads had started league average pitchers instead of Roberts and Clay Kirby I wonder how much worse they would have been than 61-100.
AL ERA Leaders

Vida Blue 1.82
Wilbur Wood 1.91
Jim Palmer 2.68
1971 was the year of Vida Blue. Vida won everything (except the All-Star Game and his LCS start), including the hearts and minds of America's baseball fans. Who wouldn't like the stylish young man with the big windup and memorable name wearing the wild green & gold uniforms?

Wilbur Wood was a big story. He went from 21 saves in 1970 to 334 innings in 1971. He took that knuckleball to the hill for 15 starts on 2 days rest. Five of those starts came down the stretch in September. If the Red Sox threw Tim Wakefield out there like that when they were 20 games out, they'd be ridiculed for harming him. In 1972 the Sox threw him out there even more.

Jim Palmer was a distant 3rd in the hunt. Two of the other Oriole 20 game winners made the Top 10, but Mike Cuellar didn't. If Dave Roberts and Clay Kirby were the surprise names on the NL list, there's no doubt that Mike Hedlund is the surprise name on this list -- and this is after him missing 1970 with the Hong Kong Flu.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

#89 & 90 -- Home Run Leaders

NL Home Run Leaders
Willie Stargell 48
Hank Aaron 47
Lee May 39

The top end of the NL Home Run Leaders is certainly impressive, but there's something a little unusual about this card. I'll see if anyone can guess it and give an answer later. This tied for Hank Aaron's high water mark for season home runs with 47, and it's not enough to win the home run title. Willie Stargell's 48 was an incredible number. Nobody had hit that many in the NL since Willie Mays hit 52 in 1965 and nobody would hit that many until George Foster hit 52 in 1977.

Reggie Cleveland of the Cardinals had kind of a tough year here. Stargell got him for 3 homers, Aaron for 1 and Lee May for 2. The most anyone gave up to this Big Three was Aaron hitting Claude Osteen 4 times. May hit 3 homers in only 7 at bats off Bob Johnson of the Pirates.

Aaron really put the move on Willie Mays in 1971. At the beginning of the year, Mays led Aaron in the Race to 715 by a 629 to 592 margin. However, by the end of the year Aaron narrowed the gap to 646 to 639. Aaron took over 2nd place from Mays on June 10, 1972 with his 649th homer off Wayne Twitchell of the Phillies. By the end of 1972 Aaron was ahead 673 to 654 and, while Mays was almost done, Aaron still had a 40 homer season and 82 more homers left in the tank.

AL Home Run Leaders
Bill Melton 33
Norm Cash 33
Reggie Jackson 32

Frank Howard and Harmon Killebrew had been dominating this category in the AL for years, each of them putting up numbers in the mid-40's, but each was slowing down. Reggie Jackson makes his 2nd appearance on the HR Leaders card and it wouldn't be his last. However, just like the NL card, there wasn't a lot of depth in sluggers. In the NL, 27 homers would be good enough to make the card back and Bobby Murcer's 25 was enough here. The 1997 Rockies would have had 5 guys on this list.

These guys spread it around some. Jim Slaton gave up 3 homers to Melton and Reggie took Steve Kline long 3 times, but Cash didn't hit more than 2 off anyone.

I would have thought that Melton's 33 was the lowest total for a home run leader in a non-strike season. I would have been wrong. In fact, there were 3 seasons in the 1970's where the AL home run leader topped out at 32. We think about the AL being the hitting league now, but in the 60's and 70's, the NL was the superior hitting league.

Melton was the first White Sox player to lead the league in homers with his 33 in 1971. He really had to put on a late run to win the title. On September 28, he only had 30 homers. That same day Cash hit his last 2 and Jackson hit his last one to put both at 32. However, Melton went long twice on the 29th off Jim Slaton and his 33rd the next day off Bill Parsons. He never came close to the home run leaderboard again. He was injured in 1972 and never really recovered.

We all know Reggie's story. For Norm Cash, this may be the most homers he hit in a season in which he didn't cork his bat. He had great seasons in 1961 and 1962, but he's admitted to corking. Oops.

Monday, March 30, 2009

#87 & 88 -- RBI Leaders

NL RBI Leaders

Joe Torre 137
Willie Stargell 125
Hank Aaron 118

AL RBI Leaders

Harmon Killebrew 119
Frank Robinson 99
Reggie Smith 96

Here we start seeing more of the AL stars down the depth chart, but the NL still dominates. There were only 5 guys with 100 RBI seasons in 1971. Think about that. Last year the Mets had three 100 RBI guys and the Orioles had two 100 RBI guys. I didn't know that. Those two teams that didn't make the playoffs had as many as the entire major leagues did in 1971. At the All-Star break Josh Hamilton had 95 RBI in 2008. That would have been 1 short of getting him on this League Leader card. Times have changed.

The NL guys show the top vote getters for the MVP. Joe Torre won, but Stargell and Aaron finished right behind. The voting wasn't really very close and it's interesting to examine it. Aaron had a "consistent" year with good numbers all the way across. Stargell's power numbers were out of this world, but his batting average was "only" .295. Torre had the great batting average, led the league in RBI, but only hit 24 home runs, the same as 2008's Jayson Werth or J.J. Hardy (hardly MVP candidates). However, batting average and run production mattered more than power and being in the playoffs, so Torre won. If the voting were held today, the fact that the Pirates beat the Cardinals for the division and Stargell hit more homers would have cinched the MVP for him.

Lucky for Topps that Rusty Staub didn't finish in the top 3. I wonder how they'd have handled that since they had a licensing issue with him and didn't produce a card of him from 1971-1973?

The AL again shows the dominance of pitching. Only Killer topped 100 RBI, although Frank Robinson was at 99. However the Top 10 goes all the way down to 86. If a top player in the middle of a lineup today came up with 86 RBI, it would be seen as a down season. But there's no doubt the 11 names on the AL leaders card back were some of the league's top guys (except for Reggie Jackson, who was missing with only 80 RBI).

# 85 & 86 -- NL Batting Leaders & AL Batting Leaders

NL Batting Leaders

Joe Torre .363
Ralph Garr .343
Glenn Beckert .342

AL Batting Leaders

Tony Oliva .337
Bobby Murcer .331
Merv Rettenmund .318

In 1971, the NL hit .252 and the AL hit .247. That was when I started following baseball and to a certain degree, things from the 1970's are ingrained in my head as the way things ought to be. A car ought to cost about $5,000. A house should cost about $25,000. A meal at McDonald's, well, that was a luxury in the mid-1970's, not an everyday occurrence. Before I go sounding like one of those "we walked through the snow uphill both ways" kind of guys, I take my kids to drive throughs a lot more than I went to them when I was a kid.

However, it's still ingrained in my head that the average baseball game should be a 4-3 game. That's changed and I don't like it. Another thing that's ingrained in my head is .363. When I see Joe Torre, I don't think "World Series Manager" or "He just wrote a book" or even "He has a magic touch. He tamed Manny Ramirez and look what happened to A-Rod when Joe left New York." Nope, when I think of Joe Torre, I think .363 because I was a Cardinal fan as a young baseball fan and I know Torre hit .363 to win his batting title in 1971.

He didn't have competition. The Roadrunner had a great year and came up 20 points short. Glenn Beckert had a career year, hitting .341 and I thought (wrongly so) that would happen every year. As you read down the top 10 on the card back you see an All-Star team with names like Cleon, Sanguillen, Clemente, Aaron, Brock and Staub. However, despite there being 3 Hall of Famers down the line, the 3 faces on the card are Torre, Garr and Beckert. Two of them got there with by far their career best in batting average (Garr hit .353 in 1974).

The AL card shows that the AL was not a hitters league. Now there's nothing wrong with Tony Oliva, Bobby Murcer and Merv Rettenmund. However, there were only 6 guys that hit .300. Wow. Of course, the AL had all kinds of pitching. The A's and Orioles alone had all kinds of talent. I'm amazed that there was only about a 5 point difference in league batting average.

Tony O was a great player and if he hadn't torn up his knee, he'd be in the Hall of Fame. He was kind of the Billy Williams of the AL, but he just didn't have the longevity. He beat out Bobby Murcer, who was unfairly saddled with the "Next Mickey Mantle" expectations. Murcer had a great career, but he, nor anyone else that's played in the Yankee outfield in the last 40 years has been "The Next Mickey Mantle." Even though they finished 6 points apart, there wasn't a real batting race. Oliva hit .350 most of the year, but tailed off considerably the last month (he hit .217 in September) and Murcer was solidly in the .330's all year.

But there's no depth in the AL top 10. Rod Carew got his mail delivered in the AL Top 10, but there were no other Hall of Famers. Amos Otis and Roy White were solid players, but I don't think I ever knew that the recently deceased Ted Uhlaender ever finished Top 10 or that he even played enough to qualify.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

#84 -- Vince Colbert

Vince Colbert

Nice Spring Training shot of Vince with the Arizona mountains in the background. Vince was not related to Nate Colbert of the Padres. He'd cracked the rotation in 1971 as a spot starter at least and did reasonably well, even though he had a high walk rate. Vince was with the Indians part of 1972, but when he was 1-7 by the end of July, the Indians handed him a ticket to Portland, where he went 1-6. Ouch. He got 3 games in September and that was it for his big league career.

As the late Paul Harvey would say, there's a rest of the story that might explain why he plummeted so fast. Ken Aspromonte took over as the manager in 1972. According to an exceprt about Vince in the book "More Tales From the Tribe Dugout," Aspromonte wanted Vince to pitch at 190 pounds. He'd been around 215 to 220. He had to crash diet to lose 30 pounds, but he also lost the steam on his fastball, which was no longer in the low 90's. He looked so good at 190, he got tested for anemia. He was just never the same and the Indians gave up on him.

After the season the Indians sent him to the Rangers and in Spring Training of 1973 the Rangers sent him back (for Alex Johnson). He pitched at AA in San Antonio most of 1973, doing well with an 8-1 record and 3 saves. But when you're 27, spent most of the last 3 years in the big leagues and you can't crack the AA rotation on a regular basis, some guys decide to pack it in. Vince made it up to the AAA team for a time, but wasn't pitching regularly or terribly well, and that was a career.

I'd like to know more about Vince's basketball career. The cardback says he scored 29 in a half once. OK. What were the circumstances? Was this a state championship game or was it against weaker competition. I did see that Vince, a Washington DC native, was inducted into the College of Eastern Utah Hall of Fame in 1995. He was first team all-conference in baseball and basketball and won trophies in track. He was also the first black player recruited to East Carolina and is 2nd to former Pittsburgh Pirate reliever Bob Patterson in major league wins by ECU Pirate alums.

Vince did well against Hall of Famers. Brooks Robinson was 1/12 and Hall of Fame position players as a whole only hit .200 against Vince. The best batting average by a Hall of Famer was Jim Palmer going 2/3. Although he isn't a Hall of Famer, Frank Howard was an imposing figure at that time, but he went 0/16 against Vince.

Check out this link to his high school yearbook picture. It shows he's married with a son and 2 grandchildren and is a detective in security at Cleveland State. I did find a photo where he was recognized as a baseball/basketball letter winner at ECU and a recent photo from his Hall of Fame induction in Eastern Utah. He still looks like he's got a competitive edge, doesn't he?

I didn't know much about Vince when I started researching this post (at 2:30 AM), but I've learned a lot and glad I did. So, in honor of Vince's favorite song, according to his high school yearbook, this goes to Mrs. Colbert for her big leaguer: