As hard as it is for me to believe, I started collecting baseball cards 40 years ago. (Yes, I am becoming old.) To celebrate the anniversary, along with a set that collectors now consider iconic within the hobby, I’ll be spotlighting certain Yankee players from the 1972 Topps collection here in 2012.
For some reason, Topps chose yellow as its baseline color for Yankee cards. Yellow has never been part of the team’s color scheme; it has always been Navy blue and white, with some red thrown into the old Yankee Doodle hat logo. But yellow is what Topps selected, making that the color of memory for the ‘72 Yankees.
As with all of the regular issue ‘72 cards, Yankee players appeared in photographs that were either portraits, profiles, or posed shots. Topps did issue some “In Action” cards for a few Yankees, including Thurman Munson, Johnny Ellis, and Fritz Peterson, and we’ll tackle some of those throughout the year. But our emphasis will be on the regular issue cards, which were photographed at the original Yankee Stadium, various American League ballparks, or at the Yankees’ spring training site inFt.Lauderdale.
So let our tour of 1972 cards begin, with a player who is not often remembered for being a Yankee. Felipe Alou’s card shows him wearing the Yankees’ road uniform in a ballpark that may or may not be Anaheim Stadium. The photo, which is slightly out of focus, shows Alou finishing a practicing swing while giving the cameraman a serious stare. As posed shots go, it is classic Topps.
For those who recall Alou as the manager of the Expos and Giants, it’s easy to overlook just how good a player he was throughout the sixties and early seventies. The native Dominican was one of those five-tool players we hear so often about, but rarely get to see. In his prime, he hit with legitimate power, ran well enough to steal 10 to 12 bases a year, batted in the .280 to .290 range, and possessed enough arm and range to play all three outfield positions. Alou wasn’t quite a Hall of Famer–he was a couple of notches below that–but he was a damned fine ballplayer.
The peak of his career came in 1966, when he played center field for the Atlanta Braves and led the National League in hits, runs, and total bases. With a career high 31 home runs and an OPS of .894, Alou placed fifth in the league’s MVP voting.
By the time that he joined the Yankees early in 1971, Alou was no longer that same player, no longer in his prime. But he was still serviceable, a good role player who gave the Yankees depth in the outfield and at first base. The Yankees acquired him on April 9 of that season, just four days after the opening of the season. They acquired him from the Oakland A’s, who had deemed him valuable enough to be their Opening Day starter in left field.
In truth, Alou had been the center of trade rumors from the latter days of spring training through the first week of the regular season. There had been talk that the A’s might send him to the Brewers for some infield depth, but the Yankees apparently made Charlie Finley an offer that he felt was superior to what was presented by the Brewers. The Yankees sent Finley two pitchers, right-hander Ron Klimkowski and left-hander Rob Gardner. They were two decent middle relievers, but neither was expected to play a huge role with the Yankees in 1971. In fact, Gardner had been sent out to Triple-A Syracuse just before Opening Day.
The consensus of scouts maintained that Finley had not received enough value in return for Alou. The Oakland players knew that they would miss Alou, one of the most well-liked and respected players throughout the major leagues. A’s captain Sal Bando had once offered Alou the highest of praise. “He’s one of the greatest men I’ve ever met in baseball,” Bando told Ron Bergman, the A’s’ beat writer. “You think a man who’s been around as long as he has would pace himself a little. But he embarrasses you the way he hustles.” Yankee management was simply thrilled to have acquired a veteran leader and professional hitter.
Though there had been rumors of a possible trade, the timing of the deal—just a handful of days into the regular season—caught Alou by surprise. He had just moved his wife and children into an Oakland apartment, where they were scheduled to stay for the entire ‘71 season. Those plans would have to be scrapped, but the Yankees graciously gave Alou the necessary time to move his family out of the Oakland apartment and make new accommodations in the New York metropolitan region.
When Alou finally reported to the Yankees a few days later, he found an interesting way to find something positive in being traded from Oakland to New York. It involved the simplicity of his uniform. “At least I know this is the uniform I’m going to be wearing everyday,” Felipe told the New York Times in referring to the traditional home Yankee pinstripes. “Out there, I didn’t know which [A’s] uniform to wear when. We had one uniform for the first game of a doubleheader and another for the second. Once I put on the wrong uniform.”
Indeed, the A’s led both leagues in the number of uniform combinations. On some days, the A’s wore Kelly green uniforms with gold undershirts. Then there were games when they donned white jerseys (wedding gown white, as Finley called it) and pants with green sleeves. On other days, they wore Fort Knox gold uniforms with green undershirts. Life would be much simpler with the Yankees: pinstripes at home and standard gray on the road.
Five days after the trade, on April 14, Alou made his Yankee debut wearing the pinstripes. He started in right field at The Stadium against Tigers left-hander Mickey Lolich. Alou went just 1-for-5 that day, but he made the one hit memorable–a solo home run that was part of an 8-4 victory over Detroit.
Alou’s arrival in New York also created confusion for us young Yankee fans. We assumed that his name was pronounced “feh-leep ah-lew.” We didn’t realize that you had to pronounce the final “e” in his first name, making it “feh-leep-ay.” For some reason “feh-leep ah-lew” sounded right. But we were wrong, as we often were with the pronunciations of Latino ballplayers.
Alou would become a semi-regular for the Yankees in ‘71, at first playing right field, then moving to first base. He played 56 games in right field, 42 games at first base, and even filled in 20 times in center field. At 36 years of age, he was hardly a force–he powered only eight home runs and slugged a mere .410–but he did hit .289 with an on-base percentage of .334. Under ideal circumstances, he would have been a platoon player for a strong contender, but at 82-80, the Yankees needed him to take on a more prominent role.
With his speed diminishing, the Yankees reduced his outfield role, making him a platoon first baseman with Ron Blomberg. They hoped that Alou could produce at his 1971 level, but one year older, his play continued to fall off. He played only 120 games, his lowest output since his 1969 season with the Braves. He hit only six home runs as his slugging percentage fell below .400. By now it was obvious that Alou could no longer play every day, and might not even be able to help in much of a bench role, but the Yankees brought him back for 1973.
Though Alou’s skills were waning, the Yankees appreciated his demeanor and attitude. When a reporter asked manager Ralph Houk whom he considered the team leader, the skipper thought for a moment before responding, “I’d say Felipe.” In terms of fundamental and professionalism, no one on the Yankees matched Alou. “Felipe plays every day like a pro,” Houk told Yankee beat writer Jim Ogle in 1973. “Have you ever seen him make a mistake? I’m talking about judgment, not [physical] errors. Everyone makes errors, but Felipe doesn’t do the wrong thing very often. Have you ever watched Felipe go down the line, then take the turn at first base on a hit to the outfield? If there is even the slightest bobble, he’s on his way to second.”
Alou’s 1973 season with the Yankees would provide an intriguing twist. The Yankees had made a wintertime deal, sending journeyman Rob Gardner (who had since rejoined the team) and Rich McKinney to the A’s for right fielder Matty Alou. For the first time since 1964, the Alou brothers would play as teammates, just as they had done with the Giants. In fact, withSan Francisco, all three of the Alous—Felipe, Matty, and Jesus—had played together in the same outfield. (The three would have a reunion of sorts in 1973. When the A’s, featuring Jesus Alou, came to Yankee Stadium for a series in 1973, photographers made sure to snap shots of the three brothers together. One of these photographs would become the basis for an SSPC baseball card in 1978.)
Three specific memories stand out for me from the Yankees’ 1973 season. That was the year that George Steinbrenner assumed control of the franchise. That was the spring that Mike Kekich and Fritz Peterson announced the trade of their wives, children, and family pets. And that was the year that the Alous, reunited after a nine-year absence, became two of the notable faces of the Yankee franchise.
The Yankees made Matty their starting right fielder. They put Felipe back at first base. Facially, they looked somewhat alike, which created confusion for some Yankee fans. But for me, it was easy to tell them apart. Felipe wore glasses; Matty did not. Felipe was tall and batted right-handed. Matty was short and batted from the left side.
Matty hit well and fielded well, but it was strange that the Yankees used him, a singles hitter with virtually no power, to bat third instead of leadoff. Felipe struggled, his play falling off even further after the decline of 1972, and he lost the first base job. Interestingly, the Yankees replaced Felipe with Matty, who moved to first base despite being only five feet, nine inches tall. Felipe eventually made some starts in right field, mostly against left-handed pitching, as he platooned with Johnny Callison. But Felipe just couldn’t hit anymore. At age 38, he had lost most of his batting skills.
When the Yankees fell out of contention that summer, the front office felt it was time to move out some of their past-their-prime veterans. So they released Callison. A few weeks later, they decided it was time to cut ties with the aging Alous. On September 4, the Yankees announced two separate but related transactions. They sold Matty to the Padres. They also sold Felipe on waivers to the Expos. It was only fitting that the brothers would depart New York on the exact same day.
Felipe Alou batted .208 in 20 games for the Expos, who sold him to the Brewers after the season. Alou batted three times with Milwaukee, without a hit, and then drew his release. And thus came to an end a 17-year career in the big leagues.
Alou would never return to the Yankee organization. But he and the Yankees nearly enjoyed a reunion of sorts in 1994. Alou, by now the manager of the Expos, was leading his team to the best record (74-40) in the National League. In the meantime, the Yankees led the American League East. Then came the strike. If not for the labor/management conflict canceling the rest of the season and the World Series, it’s quite possible that Alou would have met the Yankees in the Fall Classic.
Like so many possibilities in baseball, it just never did come to pass.
[Photo Credit: Attic Insulation]