Check out these cool 1961 Golden Press cards at The Virtual Card Collection. I found them through another dope site, Paris LF.
Bookmark this one–Paris LF–it’s a keeper.
Check out these cool 1961 Golden Press cards at The Virtual Card Collection. I found them through another dope site, Paris LF.
Bookmark this one–Paris LF–it’s a keeper.
Four prominent members of the 1979 Yankees have passed away over the years. I’ve written extensively about three of them—Thurman Munson, Bobby Murcer, and Jim “Catfish” Hunter— in this space. All three were beloved players, though for very different reasons. I have hardly written anything about the fourth player. It’s about time to end that practice.
Jim Spencer has become a forgotten link to the late 1970s. When he died in 2002 from a heart attack, there was barely a mention in the New York newspapers, like the Daily News and the Post. There might even be a few longtime Yankee fans who are surprised to hear that Spencer is deceased. His passing created little fanfare, even for those who grew up with the Yankees during the Bronx Zoo years.
No one ever remembers Spencer fondly as part of the late seventies run of pennants and world championships, just like no one remembers Jay Johnstone or Gary Thomasson. I guess that’s the fate that befalls old platoon players or bench guys; the more time that goes by, the less and less they seem to become pertinent. That natural human tendency to forget overshadows the fact that Spencer could provide decent production in a part-time role. Did you know that he led the 1979 Yankees in OPS with a mark of .970? I certainly didn’t. In just 295 at-bats, Spencer clubbed a career-high 23 home runs. It’s too bad that Spencer couldn’t have timed that performance to occur in 1978, when it would have felt far more relevant as part of a world championship contribution. Limited by injuries in 1978, Spencer came to bat only 166 times, rendering him a footnote during that memorable summer and fall.
When Deron Johnson died in 1992, the notion of baseball mortality really started to hit me. Oh, I had already been assaulted with the tragic mid-career losses of Roberto Clemente and Thurman Munson, but their deaths had occurred while I was still a child, when I still didn’t fully appreciate life and death. By the time that Johnson died, I was 27 years old and working fulltime. Here was a guy I remembered well from my earliest days watching baseball. Deron was strong, sizeable, and seemingly unconquerable.
A burly right-handed slugger who won the National League’s RBI title in 1965 with the Cincinnati Reds, Johnson died in the spring of ‘92 while still employed as the batting coach of the California Angels. Johnson, only 53, had been diagnosed with lung cancer the previous June. After the diagnosis, Johnson asked the Angels’ beat writers not to mention his illness in print. He continued to coach while carrying an oxygen task with him. For those player and coaches who knew him, such toughness was typical of Johnson. Even after he became too ill to coach, he continued to refuse hospitalization and treatment because he wanted to live out his remaining days at home. Once again, for those who knew him, such a decision typified a family man like Johnson.
Throughout his career, Johnson struck a gruff, intimidating pose. (Like Alex Karras in Blazing Saddles, he once punched a horse, which had kicked him.) In reality, Johnson was a soft touch, a likeable man who developed a close rapport with teammates, and later as a coach, with his hitting pupils. Johnson was so well liked, by both players and front office types, that the Philadelphia Phillies once dealt him to the Oakland A’s as a way of helping him earn a World Series ring. Phillies president Paul Owens received only minor league utilityman Jack Bastable, a non-prospect who would never make the majors, in return from the A’s. Owens could have held out for more, but he wanted to send Johnson to Oakland, where he would have a better chance to play in his first World Series.
Nearly 30 retired major leaguers will congregate at Doubleday Field in Cooperstown on Sunday for the first Hall of Fame Classic. The list of ex-Yankees who will participate includes Mike Pagliarulo, Kevin Maas, Phil Niekro, Jim Kaat, and Lee Smith. In the latest installment of “Card Corner,” we take a closer look at the man known as “Knucksie.”
Like fellow Hall of Famers Harmon Killebrew, Brooks Robinson and Billy Williams, Phil Niekro exudes gentlemanly class. Frankly, Leo “The Lip” Durocher was wrong when he said, “Nice guys finish last.” Some guys, like Niekro, might have played for a lot of last-place teams, but 318 career wins and a permanent residence in Cooperstown hardly qualify as “finishing last.”
During my tenure as a full-time employee at the Hall of Fame, I had the privilege of engaging Phil Niekro in several casual conversations and a few formal interviews. Whether Phil was in front of a microphone or not, he always behaved the same way. He didn’t like talking about himself—I never heard him brag about anything—but preferred steering credit in other directions.
On a Saturday night in Cooperstown in 2006, I watched Niekro behave in his typically dignified fashion. Along with several other retired ballplayers, Niekro was taking part in a roundtable discussion about the game in the Hall of Fame’s Grandstand Theater. As he sat next to his beloved brother Joe, who would pass away unexpectedly only three weeks later, Phil expressed only words of fond praise for his two-time teammate with the Braves and Yankees. “To get to play with your best friend, that’s an experience,” Phil said that evening. “I wish all brothers would get a chance to have that experience.”
In just over a week, nearly 30 retired major leaguers will come to Cooperstown to participate in the inaugural Hall of Fame Classic. The group will feature several former Yankees, including a fairly prominent and well-traveled pitcher from the mid-1980s.
One of my favorite old ballplayers, the late Pat Dobson, liked to invent new baseball jargon and give out quirky nicknames. He labeled former Yankee Dennis Rasmussen as “Count Full Count,” a reference to the tall left-hander’s tendency to throw too many pitches to each batter. The words “three and two” often accompanied Rasmussen’s struggles with opposing hitters.
Like many of those full counts, Rasmussen took a twisted career path to the Bronx. At one time a top prospect in the California Angels’ organization, Rasmussen came to the Yankees as the player to be named later in the deal that sent Tommy John to the West Coast. The deal, which took place after a dismal 1982 season, made good sense for the Yankees. Firmly in rebuilding mode, the Yankees had unloaded an aging John in exchange for a young left-hander of considerable promise. In the 1980s, however, the Yankees often turned their back on rebuilding at a moment’s notice, reverting back to a win-now philosophy whenever possible. So less than a year later, the Yankees sent Rasmussen to the Padres as the player to be named later for veteran right-hander John “The Count” Montefusco. In other words, they acquired “The Count” for “Count Full Count.”
Wait, there’s more. In the spring of 1984, the Yankees once again reversed course on Rasmussen. Graig Nettles infuriated George Steinbrenner with revelations in his new book, Balls, which angered The Boss so much that he traded his veteran third baseman during spring training. Steinbrenner sent Nettles to the Padres for a package of two prospects: the infamous player to be named later and, you guessed it, Dennis Rasmussen.
Now firmly ensconced in New York, Rasmussen finally made his Yankee debut later that season. Rasmussen brought an amply supply of natural talent to the Bronx, including an above-average fastball, a full repertoire of four pitches, and a dandy pickoff move that foreshadowed Andy Pettitte. He showed some of that promise as a rookie, despite an elevated ERA, by striking out 110 batters in 147 innings and winning nine of 16 decisions. After an up-and-down sophomore season, Rasmussen broke through the fence completely in 1986. Emerging as the ace on a mediocre Yankee staff, Rasmussen went 18-6, logged 202 innings, and kept his ERA a respectable 3.88. At 27, he appeared to be solidifying himself as a legitimate front-of-the-rotation starter.
Rasmussen also made people take notice because of his height. At six-feet, seven inches, Rasmussen was one of the game’s tallest pitchers in the years before Randy Johnson’s arrival. He looked even taller to me, like he was about six-foot-nine, perhaps because he had a bit of awkwardness in his delivery to the plate. His height was either a blessing or a curse, depending on your perspective. Scouts love tall pitchers, especially southpaws. Yet, some scouts believe that pitchers taller than six feet, five inches can have inherent problems. With long limbs and multiple moving parts, tall pitchers sometimes have difficulty keeping their mechanics in order. Rasmussen was not immune to that concern.
Perhaps the Yankees factored his height into the equation the following season, when they decided to trade him. Rasmussen pitched poorly throughout the summer, with an ERA approaching five, causing the Yankees to wonder whether his awkward mechanics and lack of an overpowering fastball would doom him to mediocrity. Whatever the reason, the Yankees traded Rasmussen to the Reds for Bill Gullickson in late August, losing four inches of height in the transaction.
In spite of my seeming obsession with his height, that’s not necessarily the first thing to come to mind when I recall the onetime Yankee. Instead, I’ll always remember an incident from the 1980s, when Rasmussen hit Jorge Bell of the Blue Jays with a pitch. Bell was furious with Rasmussen over what he considered an intentional infraction. After the game, Bell unleashed a tirade against Rasmussen, repeatedly referring to him as “she.” Bell’s intent was clear; he was questioning Rasmussen’s manhood. Whether Rasmussen had meant to hit Bell or not, it was a stupid and chauvinistic reference to make, especially when he made it over and over. Then again, those were the kind of comments that Bell made during a career of mouthing off with the Jays and the White Sox.
With Rasmussen scheduled to come to Cooperstown in just over a week, I’m debating whether to bring up the incident with Bell and find out Rasmussen’s reaction to it. Rasmussen might look at the episode nostalgically, emphasizing the comedic nature of the often volatile Bell. Then again, Rasmussen might think I’m as big a jerk as Bell often was during his career. Perhaps I should stick to the safe side on this one.
Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Throughout the new month, I’ll profile some of the former Yankees who will be coming to Cooperstown on June 21 to participate in the first-ever Hall of Fame Classic. The list of Yankee old-timers scheduled to play at Doubleday Field includes Phil Niekro, Lee Smith, Dennis Rasmussen and Kevin Maas. In the first installment, we take a fond look at the career of the man affectionately known as “Kitty.”
Jim Kaat has not thrown a meaningful pitch in more than a quarter of a century, but I can still see that pitching motion in my mind today. The photograph from his 1980 Topps card brings it all back: a delivery featuring virtually no windup and the smallest of leg kicks, accompanied by a mechanical precision. It’s no wonder that Kaat’s career lasted a marathon of 25 seasons with hardly a stay on the disabled list.
Like Bert Blyleven and Tommy John, “Kitty” is part of a contingent of longtime starters who fell just short of the 300-win club but remain on the cusp of election to the Hall of Fame. Unlike Blyleven, I’ve never given Kaat a vote in any of my mythical Hall of Fame elections, but I would not exactly shed a tear if he somehow joined the elite in Cooperstown. Though never really dominant and hardly an overwhelming collector of strikeouts, Kaat achieved a high level of successful longevity, fulfilling at least one of the requirements of Hall of Fame enshrinement.
As a pitcher, Kaat enjoyed two careers. The first spanned from 1962 to 1975, when he carved out a niche as a durable and effective starter for the Twins and White Sox. Over the course of his long tenure as a starter, I came to know Kaat for three attributes. First, he loved to throw the quick pitch, often catching hitters off guard by throwing without a windup. Second, he was a skilled and highly conditioned athlete who could run and hit better than most pitchers. (In 1973, Topps issued a card for Kaat showing him batting—not pitching—in a game for the Twins.) And third, Kaat could field his position like no other moundsman. With catlike reflexes that reinforced his nickname of Kitty, Kaat snared a record 15 Gold Gloves.
Forgive Gene Michael if he looks a little dazed in his 1969 Topps card. He’s shown as a member of the Yankees, even though he’s wearing the colors of the Pirates, a team that he hadn’t played for since 1966. Somehow Topps could not find a picture of Michael with either the Yankees or the Dodgers, the team that actually traded him to the Yankees.
Now that I’ve thoroughly confused you, I can tell you this without hesitation: Michael’s move to New York, which coincided with the start of the 1968 season, helped change his career for the better, more subtly in the short term and quite significantly over the long haul.
At one time traded for Maury Wills, Michael had fallen into disfavor with the Dodgers because of his lack of hitting. After the 1967 season, the Dodgers dealt him to the Yankees, where he would eventually replace Tom Tresh as the starting shortstop. Like many shortstops of the era, Michael couldn’t hit worth a damn, but he could field the position with a smooth alacrity that the Yankees hadn’t seen since the prime years of Tony Kubek.
It was during his Yankee years that Michael established a reputation as the master of the hidden ball trick. With the runner at second base thinking that the pitcher already had the ball, Michael would blithely move toward him and then place a tag on the unsuspecting victim before showing the ball to the umpire. It’s a play that major leaguers occasionally pull off in today’s game, but Michael did it with a stunning degree of frequency, at least five times that have been documented. Considering that the hidden ball trick relies on heavy doses of surprise and deception, it’s remarkable that Michael was able to execute it more than once or twice. He was that good at it.
The hidden ball trick epitomized Michael’s intelligence. He had little obvious talent, possessing no power, average speed, and an overall gawkiness that came with his rail-like frame of six feet, two inches, and a mere 180 pounds. Yet, he was surprisingly athletic, enough to have starred as a college basketball player at Kent State, where his lean look earned him the nickname of “Stick.” As a major league shortstop, he made up for his lack of footspeed and arm strength with good hands and quick feet, and by studying the tendencies of opposing hitters and baserunners. How good was Michael defensively? I’d call him a poor man’s Mark Belanger. Like Michael, Belanger was tall and thin, and overmatched at the plate. But Belanger was arguably the best defensive shortstop of his era, so it’s no insult to put Michael in a slightly lower class of fielders.
Michael served the Yankees well as their starting shortstop from 1969 to 1973, but age and injuries began to catch up with him in 1974. At the age of 36, Michael received his unconditional release. He eventually signed with the Tigers, where he played sparingly in 1975, before being returned to the unemployment line. In February of 1976, Stick signed with the dreaded Red Sox, but he could do no more than earn a minor league assignment. In May, the Red Sox released Michael, who never did appear in a game for Boston.
With his playing career over, Michael quickly embarked on his second life in baseball. George Steinbrenner, remembering him as one of the original Yankees from his first year as ownership, gave him a job as a coach. From there Stick became a front office executive and then a two-time Yankee manager, serving separate stints in 1981 and ’82. Like all Yankee managers of that era, Michael was fired. He left the organization to manage the Cubs, where he clashed with his new boss, Dallas Green.
After a brief respite from the reign of Steinbrenner, Michael eventually returned to the Bronx. In 1990, the Yankees, by now a struggling team and a near laughingstock, made one of the most important moves in franchise history. They hired Michael as general manager. I was working as a sports talk show host at the time; I remember being very critical of Michael, who seemed unwilling to pull the trigger on big trades. Well, Michael knew a lot more about constructing a ballclub than I did. He set out to rebuild the Yankees’ farm system, while resisting the temptation to trade what few prospects the organization had for quick-fix veterans.
Under Michael’s stewardship, the Yankees drafted or signed the following players: Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, and a fellow named Mariano Rivera. That’s probably enough of a testament to Michael, but let’s consider that he also signed Wade Boggs and Jimmy Key as free agents.
When Michael did decide to make a trade, he made a splash. In November of 1992, Michael executed one of the most pivotal moves for the franchise’s future. He sent Roberto Kelly, one of the team’s two young center fielders, to the Reds for Paul O’Neill. It was a controversial deal, to say the least. Kelly was two years younger than O’Neill, a good player certainly, but one who was already 30 and had appeared to reach his ceiling. Michael knew what he was doing. He realized that Kelly, who lacked patience at the plate and passion in the field, was not as good a player as Bernie Williams, the team’s other center fielder. He also sensed that the fiery O’Neill could blossom as a left-handed hitter at Yankee Stadium playing for Buck Showalter. Stick was right on both counts.
With those vital pieces in place—including a catcher, a shortstop, a right fielder, a starting pitcher, and a closer—Michael left a championship nucleus for Bob Watson and Brian Cashman when he stepped down as Yankee GM in 1995.
Dazed and rejected no more, Stick Michael proved himself to be a pretty smart guy.
Bruce Markusen can be reached at email@example.com.
No, this man will not be the next catcher signed by the Yankees. As much as the Yankees’ catching corps has been overwhelmed by injuries, they’re not that desperate. Close, but not quite.
Contrary to appearances, Larry Haney was not a left-handed throwing catcher. It only looks that way in this 1969 Topps card. In contrast to the way that Hank Aaron and Dale Murphy achieved baseball card glory by being featured in reversed negative photographs, Haney earned only a momentary glimpse of trading card fame. In 1957, Topps released an Aaron card that showed the eventual home run king in a left-handed batting pose. And then in 1989, Upper Deck issued its Murphy card with a similarly wrong-handed pose, again the result of the photo negative being accidentally reversed.
Haney never received as much attention as either of these more celebrated cases, in large part because of his mediocre status as a good-field, no-hit backup catcher. There might have been another factor at play here, as well. Some collectors might have thought that Haney was trying to gain some notoriety by intentionally wearing a left-handed catcher’s mitt and pretending to play the position with the wrong hand. Yet, a conversation with former Topps president Sy Berger, who visited the Hall of Fame several years ago, revealed otherwise. Topps simply made a mistake in its photo processing; Mr. Haney had nothing to do with the “error.” In fact, the 1969 card features the same photo that was used by Topps in the 1968 set. Only that time Topps had the image right.
In many ways, Haney was the Jose Molina of his era. A lifetime .215 hitter with no power, Haney excelled at the defensive side of the game. For his career, he threw out 39 per cent of opposing basestealers. The Oakland A’s thought so much of Haney’s catching skills that they acquired him three different times, including twice during their world championship run from 1972 to 1974.
Originally signed by the Orioles in 1961, Haney played sparingly in three seasons for the Birds. After being taken in the 32nd round of the 1968 expansion draft by the Pilots, Haney appeared in only 22 games for Seattle, but did stake two claims to fame in the Great Northwest. He hit a game-winning home run in his first major league game. Later on, he set a Pilots team record for catchers by committing two errors in one game. Such uncharacteristic defensive pratfalls probably played little influence in the Pilots’ decision to trade him on June 14, 1969 (just before the old trading deadline), as they shipped the veteran receiver to the A’s for second baseman John Donaldson. From there, Haney went to the Padres’ organization (but never actually donned the lovely brown and yellow of the Pods), then came back to the A’s, spent a brief time with the Cardinals, came back to the A’s yet again, and finished his career with the Brewers in 1977 and ’78. Long since retired as a player, Haney worked for years as a scout for the Brewers—who used to be the Pilots, the same team featured on that 1969 Topps card.
Coincidentally, Haney was involved in another card error, albeit of a different kind. His 1975 Topps card displays an in-action photograph of an Oakland catcher awaiting a throw at home plate, but it’s not Haney in the picture. It’s actually former A’s catcher Dave Duncan, who had long since been traded away to the Indians as part of the George Hendrick-Ray Fosse swap.
So for a guy who had a mostly unremarkable career as a backup catcher, that’s two significant error cards. At least the card collectors will never forget Mr. Haney.
Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for MLB.com. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This was the other “Massacre.” Most Yankee fans remember the celebrated “Boston Massacre,” that remarkable four-game sweep of the Red Sox during the heat of the 1978 AL East pennant race. The other massacre took place 35 years ago, had nothing to do with the rival Red Sox, and involved nearly half of the Yankees’ pitching staff in 1974. And it remains a matter of debate to this day.
During the late hours of Friday night, April 26, Yankees president and general manager Gabe Paul agreed to a massive seven-player trade with the Indians. Paul sent four of his pitchers—right-handers Fred Beene, Tom Buskey and Steve Kline, and flaky left-hander Fritz Peterson—to Cleveland for first baseman Chris Chambliss and right-handers Dick Tidrow and Cecil Upshaw.
Considering that the Yankees used a ten-man pitching staff in April of 1974, the idea of giving up four hurlers and receiving back only two did not go over well in the Yankee clubhouse. “I can’t believe this trade,” said outfielder Bobby Murcer, who normally did rock the boat so noisily but was visibly upset with Paul for losing confidence in a team that was a mere half-game out of first place. Other veteran Yankees joined in the chorus of disapproval. “You don’t trade four pitchers,” said senior staff member Mel Stottlemyre. “You just don’t.” The most outspoken of the Yankees, Thurman Munson, offered one of his typically blunt pronouncements in assessing the deal. “They’ve got to be kidding,” said Munson, who now had more work to do in familiarizing himself with two new pitchers.
A majority of Yankee fans seemed to agree with the public opinions expressed by the team’s leaders. Hundreds of angry fans flooded the team’s switchboard with calls of complaint. When Chambliss, Tidrow, and Upshaw made their first appearances at Shea Stadium (the Yankees’ temporary home), they received a barrage of boos from a group of not-so-adoring fans. Clearly, Chambliss’ great mutton chops did not appease the Yankee faithful.
Members of the New York media also joined in the refrain. Why did the Yankees surrender so many pitchers in one trade? Why would they give up Buskey, who had been named the team’s outstanding rookie during spring training? And why did they trade for a first baseman when they really needed a second baseman? The 1974 edition of the Yankees struggled to find a middleman. They had started the season with an aging Horace Clarke but would eventually purchase mediocrities Sandy Alomar and Fernando Gonzalez. Neither would provide an answer at second base; that would have to wait until Willie Randolph’s arrival in 1976.
The all-encompassing criticism of the Chambliss trade did not bother the Yankees’ president and GM. Paul had already achieved a comfort level in making trades with the Indians, the organization that he had previously run. Over the past two seasons, Paul had made direct deals with Cleveland for Graig Nettles and Walt “No-Neck” Williams, while also adding ex-Indians Duke Sims and Sam McDowell. “I think we got an outstanding first baseman in Chambliss,” Paul said proudly. “[He’s] a fellow who could be our first baseman for ten years.”
Chambliss would eventually solidify the Yankees at first base—and clinch the American League pennant with a Championship Series-ending home run in 1976—but he flopped badly in 1974. In 400 at-bats, Chambliss batted only .243 with a mere six home runs. He reached base less than 29 per cent of the time and slugged .343. If anything, Chambliss’ poor performance might have cost the Yankees the AL East title, as they fell just two games short of Earl Weaver’s Orioles.
Chambliss was the headliner acquired in the “Friday Night Massacre,” but it was another player who would bring more immediate dividends to New York in 1974. Right-hander Dick Tidrow, one of the most versatile pitchers of the seventies, made 33 appearances for the Yankees that summer, including 25 starts. His ERA of 3.87 was not particularly good for that era, but he did log 190 innings, pitched five complete games, and represented an improvement over the fading Fritz Peterson. For what it’s worth, Peterson, Kline, and Beene all flopped for the Indians that summer, leaving Buskey’s good work in relief as the sole salvation of the deal from Cleveland’s standpoint.
While the long-term benefits of adding Chambliss and Tidrow are undeniable—both became important complementary pieces to the Bronx Zoo dynasty—the questions about 1974 lead to a much murkier answer. Would the Yankees have won the AL East in ’74 if they had not executed the “massacre?” Without Chambliss, the Yankees might have given a longer look to top prospect Otto Velez, a power-hitting first baseman-outfielder who was buried at Triple-A Syracuse. As Steven Goldman and other historians have pointed out, Velez may have been more productive than Chambliss in the short term. And with Buskey in the bullpen, the Yankees would have had a set-up reliever just as capable as the sidearming Cecil Upshaw, who helped out Sparky Lyle in the late innings.
It’s a tough call. Maybe Munson, Murcer, and Stottlemyre were right about the Friday Night Massacre. But, then again, they were only right for 1974.
Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for MLBlogs at MLB.com.
This week’s “Card Corner” has no connection to the Yankees. In fact, this man may be the most obscure player ever profiled in this feature. But he was important to us as kids in 1974, if only because he had such a weird name. And he has become a record-breaker among major league players.
As young fans growing up in Westchester County, we found it both foolishly fun and humorously cruel to repeat the quirky names of certain ballplayers over and over. One of those players was Paul Schaal (pronounced PAWL SHAWL), one of the few big leaguers whose last name rhymed with his first. Along with Lu Blue, Mark Clark, Don Hahn and Greg Legg, Schaal must have taken his share of verbal abuse about that as a child.
A couple of other intriguing facts come to mind when thinking about Paul Schaal. He was the Kansas City Royals’ last regular third baseman before a fellow named George Brett burst onto the major league scene. A certified Hall of Famer and the owner of the most attractive batting swing of the late 20th century—I’ll put him just ahead of Ken Griffey, Jr. in that regard—Brett made most Royals fans forget all about Schaal. Still, Schaal was not a bad ballplayer. Schaal was certainly a better player than most of the third sackers the Yankees were trotting out at the time, an illustrious group that included Bobby Cox and Jerry Kenney. While with the LA and California Angels in the mid-1960s, Schaal established a reputation as one of the game’s finest fielding third baseman. One member of the Angels even called Schaal the equal of Brooks Robinson, generally regarded as baseball’s most divine defensive third baseman of all-time.
Offensively, Schaal showed promise as a youngster, until he was hit in the head by a pitched ball during the 1968 season. The injury left the Angels understandably worried about his future, so they left him exposed in the expansion draft that winter. As one of four new teams entering the major leagues, the Royals snapped up Schaal, hoping that he would recover fully from the beanball incident.
After initially clashing with Royals skipper Charlie Metro, Schaal settled in nicely as KC’s cornerman. In 1971, he used remarkable patience at the plate, walking 103 times to formulate a .387 on-base percentage, while playing in every Royals game that season. He slumped to a .228 average in 1972 before rebounding to hit .288 with eight home runs the following season. Unfortunately, Schaal’s game fall off badly in 1974, prompting a trade back to California, where he finished out his career with the Halos. In the meantime, Mr. Brett staked permanent claim to Kansas City’s “hot corner.”
While Schaal never achieved much more than temporary stardom with the Royals, he has managed to become one of the most successful of ex-ballplayers in his post-playing days. After owning a chain of pizza shops, Schaal went into the unrelated field of chiropractics. (From pizza to ‘practics.) Schaal became Dr. Schaal, which sounds an awful lot like Dr. Scholl, the foot doctor. But it’s Dr. Schaal, practicing back specialist. The good doctor now runs the Schaal Health & Wellness Center in Overland Park, Kansas, and is considered an expert in network spinal analysis. As the doctor’s website points out, “At Schaal Health Center, we use Young Living Essential Oils daily to diffuse the air with their therapeutic aromas.” As a child of the seventies, that sounds pretty good to me.
Here’s something else that you might find interesting about Paul Schaal. He has been married nine times. (That’s got to be a record for a major leaguer. Nine times!) It would be most appropriate for Paul Schaal to be interviewed on CNN by Larry King. How great would that be?
For too long now, we in the media have referred to the Yankees of 1965 to 1974 as representatives of the “Horace Clarke Era.” The team’s starting second baseman for much of that period, Clarke has come to symbolize the mediocrity of those Yankee clubs. Seen here in his final Topps card (vintage 1974), Clarke was viewed as an inadequate player, symptomatic of a team that was inadequately built to win any pennants or division titles during that ten-year span.
The criticism of Clarke has run on several different levels. Too much of a free swinger, he didn’t draw enough walks. He didn’t have great range at second base, especially toward his backhand side. He also didn’t turn the double play well.
To some extent, the criticisms are all true. He never coaxed more than 64 walks in a season and usually finished below the 50-mark. Defensively, he paled in comparison to two other Yankees, predecessor Bobby Richardson and successor Willie Randolph. On double plays, Clarke bailed out early and often. Instead of pivoting at the bag, he sometimes jumped out of the way of runners while holding onto the baseball.
Those critiques provide only a partial view. The switch-hitting Clarke stole bases, bunted adeptly, and usually hit for a respectable average (at least for that era), which would have played acceptably as the eight-hole or ninth-place hitter. The Yankees made the mistake of using Clarke as a leadoff man because he looked and ran like a tablesetter. That was their mistake, not his. In the field, Clarke had his shortcomings, but for a guy who supposedly lacked range, he did lead the American League in assists six times. Part of that might have been attributable to having a sinkerballer like Mel Stottlemyre on the staff, but it’s also an indication that Clarke had pretty good range to his left.
Was Clarke a top-notch player? Of course not. But I would say that he was better than mediocre. (The Yankees of that era, like Clarke, were also better than advertised. Just look at the records of the 1970 and 1974 teams.) I think the Yankees could have won a division with a second baseman like Clarke, if only they had been better at other positions, like third base (prior to Graig Nettles’ arrival) or right field. If you want to find the real reasons why the Yankees so often struggled during those years, you need to look no further than the revolving doors at those slots. The Yankees had substantially weaker players at third base (Cox, Kenney, Sanchez) and right field (Kosco, Swoboda, Callison). It’s just that none of the third basemen or right fielders lasted long enough to become targets of the critics.
Putting aside the issue of talent evaluation for a moment, Clarke was an intriguing player to follow, especially for a young fan like me. Clarke came attached with a cool nickname. He was called “Hoss,” raising memories of Dan Blocker’s iconic character from Bonanza. (Bill White, in particular, loved that nickname. “Hosssss Clarke,” he liked to say with flourish.) Clarke also had an intriguing background. He was one of the few players I can remember who hailed from the Virgin Islands. So that made him a little bit different from your run-of-the-mill player. Then there was Clarke’s appearance. He wore very large glasses, the kind that became so horribly fashionable in the early 1970s, really round and overly noticeable. On the field, Clarke not only wore a helmet at the plate; he sported one while patrolling second base. I haven’t been able to figure out exactly why he did that. It may have had something to do with his fear of being upended on double-play takeout slides. Several years ago, Darren “Repoz” Viola of Baseball Think Factory asked former Yankee broadcaster Bob Gamere why Clarke wore the helmet at second base; Gamere explained that it may have stemmed from a 1969 incident in which Clarke was hit in the head with a ball, but he wasn’t completely certain. Whatever the reason, the helmet made Clarke a distinctive landmark on the middle infield.
For all of those reasons, and for being a quiet guy who rarely complained, Hoss Clarke was a likeable guy. He was also a decent ballplayer. So let’s stop vilifying the man who was once booed during pre-game introductions on Opening Day at the old Yankee Stadium. Let’s stop raking the man that one New York writer repeatedly referred to as “Horrible Horace.” I’d prefer to call him “Helpful Horace.” Let’s go with that instead.
Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for MLBlogs at MLB.com.
We need something to laugh about, something that can deliver some amusement. The first nine days of the new season have brought us too much tragedy, beginning with the senseless death of the Angels’ Nick Adenhart and continuing with Monday’s dual losses of Harry Kalas and Mark “The Bird” Fidrych. So this week’s “Card Corner” is just for fun, as we spin the time machine back to 1976, the year The Bird made baseball childlike and naïve.
A few years ago, Sports Collectors Digest held a contest to determine the funniest sports trading card of all-time. This 1976 Topps card, featuring Kurt Bevacqua, some scary-looking calipers, and one enormous piece of bubble gum, finished second in the periodical’s sweepstakes. (The first-place finisher borders on the X-rated, so I opted not to include that in this article; we need to keep it clean at The Banter.)
In baseball’s more innocent time, players took time to participate in the official Bubble Gum Blowing Championships of 1975. The championships were sponsored by the Bazooka Gum Company and overseen by “gum commissioner” Joe Garagiola, who was NBC’s lead play-by-play broadcaster at the time. Each major league team held an individual contest, with winners advancing to the championships. In fact, almost all of the then-24 major league teams submitted a representative, except for the Pirates and Tigers, whose players apparently had little skill in the field of bubble-blowing. (It’s hard to believe Fidrych didn’t qualify here.) Here’s a look at the complete list of participants, which included three Hall of Famers and a few cool nicknames:
As a young baseball fan growing up in the 1970s, I liked and admired Willie Stargell so much that I was once motivated to do something very foolish: at the age of nine, I stole his elusive 1974 baseball card from my next door neighbor’s house. (I’m not sure why I became so infatuated with the 1974 card; I actually liked the 1973 card a lot more, since it was an action shot, showing a massive Stargell stretching to receive a throw at first base ahead of the arrival of Philadelphia’s Del Unser. I also preferred the 1973 card of Bobby Bonds, which features an unexpected appearance by Stargell, who is attempting to retire Bonds in a rundown play. Two stars on one card, yes!)
Fortunately, my neighbor Hank Taylor—the older brother of one of my best friends, Alec—knew about my infatuation with the Pittsburgh Pirates’ slugger and quickly confronted me about the pilfered card. Feeling humiliated at being caught and guilty over what I had done, I returned the stolen item. As I look back at that incident today, I’m tempted to make the following conclusion: in a strange and indirect way, Willie Stargell taught me a simple but important lesson about how it was wrong to take things that didn’t belong to me.
Prior to Bucky Dent’s 1978 home run against the Red Sox, I have to confess I wasn’t the man’s biggest fan. Although Dent was reliable defensively, he had ordinary range and rarely made spectacular plays. He also seemed to regress as a hitter each year, to the point that former WPIX sportscaster Jerry Girard came up with one of the best lines I’ve ever heard delivered on the nightly news. As Girard narrated Yankee highlights one night, he blurted: “There’s Bucky Dent, with another line drive to the catcher.” My father and I chuckled over that crack for days.
For most of the latter half of the 1970s, I wanted the Yankees to replace Bucky Dent with one man: Toby Harrah. I think George Steinbrenner shared that same dream, because every summer we Yankee fans in Westchester heard rumors that the Yankees were working on a deal for Harrah, the starting shortstop for the Rangers. One summer day, while we were eating lunch at Badger Camp—yes, I spent summers at a place called Badger Camp, and I’m embarrassed to admit it—we exchanged some conversation on a particularly hot Harrah rumor. I can’t remember the exact names, but I think the deal would have sent Dent and one of the lesser starting pitchers (Dick Tidrow?) to Texas for Harrah. Heck, it sounded good to me, since the pitcher wasn’t named Guidry, Figueroa, or Hunter.
I didn’t much care that some people regarded Toby Harrah as a subpar defensive shortstop. I preferred to obsess about another fact: the man could hit. He reached the 20-home run mark three times with the Rangers, usually hit .260 or better, annually achieved double figures in stole bases, and drew a ton of walks (though I didn’t know that much about on-base percentage at the time). Even though the Rangers moved Harrah from shortstop to third base in 1977, largely because of knocks against his range and reliability, I figured he could make the switch back. As long as Harrah could play shortstop reasonably well—you know, better than Bobby Murcer once did—I was going to be satisfied. So I kept dreaming that Steinbrenner and the Yankees’ GM at the time (Gabe Paul, followed by Al Rosen) would do whatever they could to get that deal done.
As I avidly followed baseball in the early 1980s, some of my favorite ballplayers did not happen to play for the Yankees. One of those players was Billy Sample. He was playing for the Rangers at the time, a team with which I’ve never had any kind of affiliation. Sample wasn’t a star. He was a pretty good ballplayer, though, a speedy defensive left fielder who stole bases, hit for a decent average, and launched an occasional longball. In other words, he was a role player, one who had to overcome the stigma that comes with being five feet, nine inches tall. I’ve always liked role players, in part because they have to struggle—just like us. Little comes easy to them, but they find a way to contribute in tangible and important ways.
One winter day in 1984, I was doing some broadcasting for WHCL, the radio station for Hamilton College in Clinton, NY. As I was preparing my afternoon sports report, I noticed a transaction on the AP wire. It involved the Yankees. They had made a wintertime trade, sending an over-the-hill Toby Harrah to the Rangers—for Billy Sample. Yes!
I immediately began to think of what role Sample might play for the Yankees in 1984. Left field looked like the logical destination, perhaps in a platoon with the elder Ken Griffey. You see, the Yankees collected outfielders in the early 1980s the way that Adrian Monk collects phobias. Only stars played every day in the Yankee outfield back then, Hall of Famers like Dave Winfield and Rickey Henderson. A player like Sample, a complementary role player, appeared destined to platoon in pinstripes.
Even so, a timeshare in left field looked appealing to Sample, who was glad to be out of Texas, a team that had lost 92 games. He also looked forward to playing for a new leader in Yogi Berra, a man with a reputation for being the consummate player’s manager. Unfortunately, no one could have anticipated that Berra would manage the Yankees for a mere 16 games in 1985. An early managerial changeover brought the worst of possible successors for Sample—the fourth pinstriped tenure of Billy Martin.
Hank Aaron has made news on several counts this month. He turned 75 years of age, attracting scores of celebrities to a birthday party held for him in his native Georgia. The Hall of Fame has announced that it will open the “Hank Aaron Records Room” this spring. Additionally, Aaron has commented publicly on Barry Bonds, taking the high road in saying that the ex-Giants slugger should be considered the all-time home run king in spite of mounting evidence that he used steroids during his days in San Francisco.
Thirty five years ago, Aaron completed his own assault on the home run mark. Steroids were not an issue at the time, but reports of death threats and some unfavorable comparisons to Babe Ruth filled the newspapers. In spite of those roadblocks, Aaron remained poised as he stood on the edge of rewriting the game’s record book.
On Monday night, April 8, Aaron and the Braves hosted the Dodgers at Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta. Given the grand possibilities of the evening, NBC Television decided to provide a special broadcast of the game, even though the network did not feature regular Monday night telecasts at the time. Moments before Braves right-hander Ron Reed threw the game’s first pitch, National League umpire Lee Weyer took a look at the crowd of 53,755 fans, a record for the ballpark, and remarked, “I’m glad I’m here. History might be made tonight.”
Braves manager Eddie Mathews inserted Aaron, his left fielder and former teammate, into the cleanup spot, behind Darrell Evans and ahead of Dusty Baker. In the bottom of the first, veteran left-hander Al Downing, a former Yankee and a onetime 20-game winner, took to the mound for the Dodgers. He immediately produced a sense of disappointment for the capacity crowd, as he retired Ralph “The Roadrunner” Garr, Mike Lum, and Evans on three consecutive groundouts. Any record-breaking theater would have to wait until the second inning, at the earliest.
After impatiently watching the Dodgers go down in the top of the second, Atlanta fans anticipated the first head-to-head matchup of the night. Leading off against Downing, Aaron drew a walk. He came home to score on a double by Baker, assisted by Bill Buckner’s error in left field. Interestingly, when Aaron touched home plate, he broke Willie Mays’ record for the most runs scored in National League history, a record almost entirely overlooked in the midst of media and fan attention surrounding Hank’s home run pursuit. (The connection between Aaron and Mays has become especially noteworthy because of the growing rivalry that has developed between the two men. Each summer, Hall of Fame officials are careful to sit Aaron and Mays apart from each other during the annual induction ceremony.)
Atlanta fans, however, had little interest in watching Aaron score a run after a walk. They wanted the run to come via the home run and were unhappy that Downing did not give Aaron a pitch to hit. After all, most fans were not only anticipating the possibility of a record being broken, but nervous as well. There was no guarantee that “The Hammer” would deliver that night; yet many fans had tickets only to that game.
In the fourth inning, Aaron came to bat again. With the Braves trailing 3-1, two men out and a runner on first, Aaron patiently watched Downing’s first pitch, a change-up in the dirt. Ball one. Now behind in the count, Downing threw Aaron a slider. The pitch was low, but down the middle, perhaps a strike if he let it go. Aaron did not. Using his classic top-hand swing and follow-through, Aaron lifted the pitch deep toward left-center field. The ball had only moderate height, typical of Aaron, who rarely hit towering fly balls. As the ball carried, left fielder Bill Buckner and center fielder Jimmy “The Toy Cannon” Wynn raced in the direction of the warning track, converging just a few feet from the outfield wall. Placing his arms on top of the wall, Buckner tried to prop himself higher, above the boundary of the fence. Young and spry at this early stage of his career, Buckner saw his valiant attempt fall well short. Both Billy Buck and The Cannon watched the ball land in the glove of relief pitcher Tom House, who was standing in Atlanta’s bullpen.
Two overly enthusiastic fans accompanied Aaron on his tour around the bases. Security forces must have cringed at the site of the intruders, but they carried neither weapons nor ill intentions. (They would, however, have to spend a memorable night in an Atlanta jail before eventually becoming friends with the new home run king.) By the time Aaron had reached home plate, his entourage of followers and well-wishers numbered nearly a dozen, mostly Braves’ teammates and coaches. Aaron’s swarm of notable teammates included Baker (who had been kneeling in the on-deck circle), future Mets manager Dave Johnson, and Frank Tepedino, a former Yankee who would gain fame in later years for his role as a New York City fireman during the tragic day of September 11.
The umpires temporarily halted the game, allowing for an understated on-field ceremony that lasted a modest 11 minutes. During the proceedings, Aaron spoke to the crowd at Fulton County Stadium. “I’m happy it’s over,” Aaron said of his grueling chase of Ruth’s record, once thought unreachable by baseball historians. “Now I can consider myself one of the best. Maybe not the best because a lot of great ones have played this game—[Joe] DiMaggio, Mays, Jackie Robinson… but I think I can fit in there somewhere.”
Even 35 years later, few fans would argue with Aaron’s humble assessment.
Bruce Markusen, who once had the privilege of interviewing Henry Aaron, writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for MLB.com.
Thirty five years ago, baseball fans bided much of their time by obsessing over Hank Aaron’s pursuit of a record once deemed unbreakable—the all-time home run mark owned by Babe Ruth. Although many fans expressed support of Aaron’s continuing run at Ruth’s record, there were also those who clearly did not want him to succeed. As a black man who had started his career with the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro Leagues, Aaron received numerous pieces of mail from people who resented him because of his race. Some of the letters were downright vicious; others implied or dictated threats on his life.
When people found out about the angry and hateful notes, Aaron started receiving a greater number of positive letters. In 1974, Aaron noted that he had received over 900,000 the previous year; “the overwhelming majority” of the mail supported his quest to overtake Ruth’s record. Still, the negative notes bore watching because of their menacing tone and direct threats of bodily harm.
The FBI began reading and confiscating the negative letters, which could best be characterized as “hate mail.” The bureau began investigating some of the letters, as a way of determining whether real dangers to Aaron’s life existed. The Braves, gravely concerned about Aaron’s safety, hired two off-duty Atlanta police offers to serve as personal bodyguards. Lamar Harris and Calvin Wardlaw would attend each of Aaron’s game from the stands, observing the stands and the playing field area for potential perpetrators. Wardlaw equipped himself with a .38 Smith-Wesson detective special in the event that Aaron faced an immediate threat of violence during the game.
During his three seasons with the Cleveland Indians, Oscar Gamble’s big hair made for quite a sight at Municipal Stadium and other American League ballparks. According to former Hall of Fame senior researcher Russell Wolinsky, fans frequently serenaded Gamble with chants of “BO-ZO!” in tribute to the popular TV clown of the 1960s and 1970s who featured a similarly large tuff of hair. Clearly, political correctness was far less in fashion than it is today.) By the end of each game, Gamble was usually left with a particularly bad case of “hat hair,” with his Afro suffering severe indentations from both cap and helmet.
Gamble’s oversized hair posed another problem. He could rarely complete a turn around the bases without his helmet falling to the ground, while long chases after fly balls in the outfield would similarly result in the unintended departure of his cap from his head. Caps and helmets simply didn’t fit over his Afro, the largest of any player in the major leagues and one that rivaled the hairstyles in the American Basketball Association. (For those who remember Darnell “Dr. Dunk” Hillman, Gamble’s Afro was nearly as massive and majestic as the one grown by the former ABA standout.) The “problem” reached such extremes in 1975 that Gamble held a contest in which he asked Indians fans for recommendations on how to wear his hats. “We’re open to all suggestions, except a haircut,” Gamble informed Cleveland sportswriter Bob Sudyk.
As much notoriety as Gamble (seen in his 1976 and 1979 Topps) accrued for his “head piece,” he acquired a colorful reputation for additional reasons during his journeyman career in the major leagues. Recognized as the flashiest dresser on the Indians, Gamble once wore a pair of red, white, and blue plaid slacks, accentuated by red elevator shoes. Gamble was also one of the few major leaguers who could claim ownership of a disco. He opened up the establishment in 1976, turning over the day-to-day operations of the disco to his brothers.
Throughout the year, we’ll be spotlighting cards from the 1974, 1979, and 1984 seasons, with an emphasis on former Yankees, but an occasional reference to non-Bombers, too. In this week’s lid lifter, we’ll examine one of the most famous error cards in the history of baseball memorabilia.
In 1979, the Topps Company produced this iconic Bump Wills card, featuring the switch-hitting second baseman as a member of the Blue Jays, even though he was clearly wearing the uniform of the Rangers. In fact, the Rangers never traded Wills to the Blue Jays, not at any time before or during the 1979 season.
So what happened here? In 2002, former Topps president and baseball card icon Sy Berger visited the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown for a 50th anniversary celebration of Topps baseball cards, giving me the opportunity to ask him directly about the reasons behind the Wills “error.” According to Sy, he had received a call from a friend after the 1978 season, telling him that Wills was about to be traded from the Rangers to the Blue Jays as part of a major trade. Although the trade had yet to be announced, the friend assured Berger that it was a “done deal.” Convinced that he had a scoop and figuring that he could release an accurate and updated card ahead of the curve, Berger instructed his production people to attach the name “Blue Jays” to the bottom of the Wills card.
After producing the card during the winter of 1978, Topps issued it to the public in March of 1979, which was then the time that Topps typically released its cards. Unfortunately, like many trade discussions, the Bump Wills trade turned out to be nothing more than rumor. The Rangers kept their hard-hitting second baseman, who remained in Texas for three more seasons before finally being dealt—not to the Blue Jays, but to the Cubs—after the 1981 campaign.
With the trade to Toronto falling through, Topps was left mildly embarrassed. Once Opening Day rolled around and Berger realized that no trade was going to take place, Topps decided to correct the error and release a revised and corrected card, this time showing the name “Rangers” at the bottom of the card. As a result, there are two 1979 Bump Wills cards in circulation. The corrected “Rangers” version is considered the more valuable, since fewer of those cards were produced, making it scarcer than the “Blue Jays” version. The only thing scarcer might be Berger’s relationship with his friend, who had clearly given him some misguided information and had ceased becoming a source of knowledge for the Topps Company.
Although Wills never played for the Yankees, he did have a rumored connection to the team in the early 1980s. After the 1982 season, several reports circulated that the Yankees were seriously considering a blockbuster trade that would have sent Willie Randolph to the Cubs for Billy Buckner. Such a move would have filled a major need at first base (where the Yankees realized that 33-year-old John Mayberry was over-the-hill), but would have created a large void at second base. According to one hot rumor that winter, the Yankees were prepared to replace the departed Randolph with the faster Wills, a free agent who had played out the final year of his contract with the Cubs. The additions of the two former Cubbies would have given the Yankees a hyperactive offensive infield of Buckner, Wills, Roy Smalley at shortstop and Graig Nettles at third base, but the reconfiguration would have created more than a few misadventures defensively. In addition to Smalley’s shortcomings, Wills’ range had started to diminish, while Buckner’s knees were beginning to give him trouble before they would undergo a complete breakdown in Beantown.
Despite the rumors, Wills never did make his way to the Bronx. Finding no offers to his liking from any major league team, including the Blue Jays, Wills took his talents to the Japanese Leagues. That didn’t stop Topps from producing another Wills card in 1983—one that had him right back in Chicago!
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball and writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for MLB.com.
This has been a miserable week for baseball. Here at Bronx Banter we lost a talented young wordsmith in Todd Drew, who passed away after a short but intense battle with cancer at the age of 42. From the ranks of major league baseball, former manager Preston Gomez never recovered from injuries suffered in a terrible car accident last spring and died at age 85. And former big league reliever Frank Williams, who had fallen into an existence as a homeless alcoholic, died from a heart attack at the age of 50.
For three years in the late 1980s, Williams was virtually unhittable as a side-arming reliever with the Giants and Reds. But then came arm problems, along with a host of personal problems after his playing career ended. Williams’ death reminds me too much of the story of another former major leaguer who had lapsed into a life of homelessness. Five years ago, this noted ex-outfielder spent his final days in the streets of Los Angeles. As with Frank Williams, few in the mainstream media seemed to take notice.
Ever colorful, Leon Wagner (seen here in his final Topps card from 1969) was an enormously popular player with both the Los Angeles Angels and the Cleveland Indians. Nicknamed “Daddy Wags,” a self-imposed nickname that tied into the clothing store he owned, he began his big league career with the Giants and Cardinals before finding a niche in Southern California. In 1962, Wagner hit 37 home runs with 107 RBIs for the Angels, earning him a fourth-place finish in the American League MVP sweepstakes. After hitting 26 home runs in 1963, the Angels traded him to the Indians for slugging first baseman Joe Adcock and pitcher Barry Latman. Wagner played four seasons for the Tribe before wrapping up his career with the Giants and White Sox in 1968. In 12 major league seasons, Wagner hit 211 home runs, batted .272, and compiled 669 RBIs. Off the field, the well-dressed Wagner concentrated his efforts on operating a clothing store that bore the colorful slogan, “Get Your Rags at Daddy Wags.”
After his playing days, Wagner found day-to-day life to be a struggle, partly because he had made little money in baseball’s pre-free agent era and partly because he lacked a college degree. With movie producers intrigued by his high cheekbones and general good looks, Wagner dabbled in acting, appearing in an episode of The Man From U.N.C.L.E, and in two feature films, including the controversial Negro Leagues picture, The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings. Yet, he did not enjoy long-term success in Hollywood. Wagner later became severely addicted to drugs, which cost him most of his money and left him in debt to others. Stricken with poverty and left without a home, Wagner ended up living in an old car and then a small electrical shed—located next to a dumpster—where his lifeless body was found in January of 2004. Alone at the end, he was 69 years old.
I didn’t realize how good a player Wagner was until I looked at his career statistics in the days after his death. Having always heard stories about Wagner’s fielding faux pas in the outfield and his flaky personality, I had regarded him as sort of a clownish journeyman—and nothing more. Boy, was I wrong. In 1961 and ’62, he slugged .500 or better, making him one of the few bright spots on the expansion Angels. From 1961 to 1963, Wagner averaged 31 home runs and 99 RBIs, at a time when those figures still meant something. Four times in his career, he received votes for the MVP Award. Simply put, he was one of the American League’s best left-handed power hitters during the early sixties, strong enough to hit home runs in any of the league’s spacious ballparks. If only he had received a chance to play regularly before his 26th birthday, Wagner might have put up some numbers that would have made him a borderline candidate for the Hall of Fame.
Off the field, Daddy Wags was much more than a clown; loved by teammates and fans alike, he sincerely enjoyed talking to people, even if he did brag a little bit too often about his batting prowess. He loved to hit, he found joy in playing the game, and he always seemed willing to give something back to his fans. It was no wonder that he was given the nickname, “The Good Humor Man,” during his tenure with the Angels.
As with Frank Williams, I only wish that good fortune had accompanied “Daddy Wags” more often during his days after baseball.
Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for MLBlogs at MLB.com.