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Card Corner–The Sad Story of Leon Wagner


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.

Card Corner–Billy “The Halo” Cowan


Billy Cowan was once described as the “epitome of a fringe ballplayer.” That characterization was dead solid perfect in assessing the journeyman outfielder and onetime Yankee, who bounced from the Cubs to the Mets to the Milwaukee Braves to the Phillies to the Yankees to the Angels during an eight-year career that spanned from 1963 to 1972.

Cowan was never close to being the best player on any of his teams, never an All-Star, and will certainly never make the Hall of Fame. Yet, he receives more autograph requests through the mail than most journeyman outfielders of similar vintage—if only because of his comical 1972 Topps card. Opting to have some fun with Cowan, the Topps photographer lined his head up perfectly within the confines of the old halo at Anaheim Stadium, now known as Angel Stadium of Anaheim. At the time, the ballpark still featured a large halo at the top of a tower within the perimeter of the ballpark. (I may be wrong, but I believe that the halo is now featured in the stadium’s parking lot.). One thing I’ve always wondered about the Cowan card is whether the outfielder was actually aware of what the photographer was doing. It certainly looks like the photographer intentionally set up the photo so that Cowan’s head was right in the middle of the halo, but I’m not sure that Cowan realized that. Either way, Cowan has maintained his sense of humor about it—along with his willingness to sign the card when it’s sent to him in the mail.

The 1972 card, by the way, was the last one issued for Cowan, who played in only three games—all as a pinch-hitter—before drawing his release. While the Angels contended that Cowan was no longer a useful player—after all, he was 0-for-3 as a pinch-hitter and had struck out 41 times against only seven walks in 1971—Cowan felt differently. Once labeled by The Sporting News as the “Clarence Darrow of the clubhouse,” Cowan filed a grievance against the Angels through the Players Association, claiming that the release occurred for reasons other than baseball ability.

As the Angels’ top pinch-hitter in 1971, Cowan contended that California had cut him loose because of his active role as the Angels’ player representative, which was like being branded with a scarlet letter at the time of major collective bargaining friction between the players and owners. Like Cowan, three other player representatives for the Angels had also been relocated, with infielders Jim Fregosi and Bobby Knoop sent packing in trades and catcher Bob “Buck” Rodgers demoted to the minor leagues. The Angels, like the 23 other teams in existence at the time, dared to strike at the tail-end of spring training, delaying the start of the 1972 regular season—and perhaps influencing the eventual end of Cowan’s major league career.

Thankfully, the end of that career didn’t come before the manufacture of one of the quirkiest cards in Topps’ history. If for no other reason, Billy Cowan, fringe ballplayer, will be remembered for that.

Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for MLB.com and can be reached at bmarkusen@stny.rr.com.

Card Corner–Dock Ellis


The world of baseball lost one of its most colorfully eccentric characters on Friday, when former Yankee Dock Ellis died from liver failure. A mere 63 years of age, Ellis managed to pack more “living” (both good and bad) into those years than most of us could have done in a hundred and 63 years.

The following are excerpts from my original manuscript on the 1971 Pirates, a team that featured Ellis as one of its most central figures. We’ll miss you, Dock.

The veteran right-hander certainly possessed the repertoire of a winning pitcher: a fastball that ran away from right-handed hitters, a sinking fastball, an effective but sparingly used breaking ball and a tenacious mindset. In one of his 1970 regular season starts, Ellis had demonstrated all of his talents at their peaks. On June 12, he had forged a no-hitter against the San Diego Padres, overcoming eight walks, a hit batsman, and several bases-loaded situations. His lone post-season start also showcased his occasional brilliance. In a playoff game against the Reds, Ellis concluded his season with nine innings of shutout pitching, before falling to fatigue and giving up three runs in the 10th to lose the game—and the series.

While Ellis possessed many talents, his resume also carried several red flags. The owner of a fragile right arm, Ellis [in 1970] had missed six weeks in August and September with elbow soreness, which cast some doubt on his health heading into the new season. Ellis had also proven to be a source of controversy. He had criticized the Pirate coaching staff for a failure to detect an unnatural change in his pitching motion and had feuded off and on with Pittsburgh-area writers. More significantly, Ellis possessed a dark side that had not been fully revealed to the public; the 26-year-old pitcher was using a variety of drugs. As he would disclose many years later, he had pitched his no-hitter against the Padres under the severe influence of LSD. Ellis had also taken prescription drugs Benzedrine and Dexamyl within two hours of his masterpiece at San Diego Stadium.


Just a few weeks earlier, Ellis had made headlines by predicting that he would not be selected to start the All-Star Game. Ellis had reasoned that with American League manager Earl Weaver likely to select the sizzling Vida Blue as his starter, baseball’s powers-that-be would want at least one white pitcher starting the midsummer classic in Detroit. “They wouldn’t pitch two brothers against each other,” Ellis told a reporter from the New York Times. Ellis also offered a secondary reason for a possible snub. “Sparky Anderson [the National League manager] doesn’t like me.”

Much to the pitcher’s surprise, Anderson announced that Ellis would start and would indeed face Blue in Detroit. Anderson denied that Ellis’ comments had, in any way, swayed his decision. “His 14-3 record and the fact that he hasn’t pitched since last Tuesday is what forced me to choose him,” Sparky told the New York Times, while defending Ellis’ outburst against him. “I think everybody has a right to say what he wants.”

In response to his outburst, Ellis received a number of angry letters from fans, who criticized him for being so presumptuous about Anderson. Ellis also received at least one positive letter—which came from the major leagues’ first African-American player of the 20th century. “I don’t mind those [negative] letters,” Ellis told The Sporting News, “but there was one letter I was particularly pleased with. Jackie Robinson wrote me a letter of encouragement. I met him last April in New York, and then I received this letter from him.”

On Tuesday, July 13, just hours before the start of the All-Star Game, Ellis offered no apologies for his recent remarks doubting the possibility of African-American pitchers starting the national pastime’s showcase game. “When it comes to black players, baseball is backwards, everyone knows it,” Ellis told a reporter from the New York Times. “I’m sort of surprised that I am starting, but I don’t feel my statements had anything to do with it.” Ellis also seized the opportunity to complain about the lack of endorsements for black athletes, compared to the commercial opportunities given to white players. A reporter asked Ellis if he had received any endorsement offers in light of his brilliant pitching in the first half of the season. “Aw, man, c’mon,” Ellis said incredulously. “Come to me for endorsements?”

Later in the season, Ellis would complain that black players received less attention from the media and less promotion from the front office than white athletes of similar ability. Ellis brought up several examples from the Pirates’ own roster. “Bob Moose and I are the tightest,” Ellis told Phil Musick of Sport magazine, “but when he came up, he was a phenom. Richie Hebner, he was Mr. Pie Traynor. Why don’t they publicize black players like that?”

Throughout his life, Ellis had bristled at racist treatment. During his first spring training in 1964, Ellis said he had argued or fought with seven different teammates who had used ethnic slurs in conversing with him. Seven years later, such instances of face-to-face racism still bothered Ellis, but he had learned to use restraint. During the 1971 season, Ellis and a black friend visited a high school that had been affected by racial divisions. On the way to the school, a police officer called out to the two men, referring to them as “boys.” “That’s where I’ve changed,” Ellis told Sport Magazine. “Three years ago, I would’ve jumped on the cop’s chest. But all I did was to correct him.”

Ellis, who would eventually be featured on the cover of the August 21st issue of The Sporting News, had emerged as one of the National League’s most dominant pitchers—and one of its most intriguing personalities. While some black players shied away from public discourse of their own Afrocentric world views, Ellis reveled in such discussions. In an article in Sports Illustrated, Ellis explained the significance of his daughter’s Swahili name, Shangaleza Talwanga. Ellis, one of three black pitchers on the Pirates at the time, explained that it meant “everything black is beautiful.” In the Pirates’ clubhouse, Ellis enjoyed listening to loud music that he labeled “funky.” On the field, when preparing to take his at-bats during games he pitched, Ellis donned a fuzzy batting helmet, which he referred to as “velvetized.”

At times, though, Ellis’ behavior bordered on the bizarre. Two years later, in perhaps his most celebrated incident, Ellis would walk out onto the field before a game against the Cubs wearing a head full of hair curlers. “I think the big thing with him when he come out on Wrigley Field with the hair curlers,” recalls Richie Hebner, “is that when he did that, other than surprising a lot of people at Wrigley Field, it surprised a lot of guys on the Pirate team. When I saw it, I said, ‘What the hell is this?’ ” Commissioner Bowie Kuhn reportedly conveyed his unhappiness over the hair curler episode to Bill Virdon, who by now had succeeded Danny Murtaugh as the Pirates’ manager. Virdon, relaying the commissioner’s message, told Ellis to cease his practice of wearing the curlers on the field. “Look, Dock,” Virdon said, “I don’t care what you wear, but the front office doesn’t like it, the umpires don’t like it, and if you’re not careful, you’re going to get fined.”

Bob Robertson recalls his own involvement in the hair curler episode. “[The manager] comes to me and says, ‘Go out and ask Dock why he’s got those curlers in his hair?’ So I did. And I think, if I can remember correctly, Dock said, ‘That’s me. Those are my curls.’ And that was about it. So I went back and told [Virdon] and that was the end of that stuff.” Much to Virdon’s delight, Ellis would not wear the hair curlers on the field again.


Card Corner–Joe Pepitone

  They don’t make ballplayers like Joe Pepitone anymore. I’ll leave that up to you, the reader, to decide whether that is something good or bad for our great game.

By the time that Topps issued this card as part of its 1968 set, Pepitone had established himself as arguably the most colorful character in the history of the Yankee franchise. That was certainly a tall task of grand proportions, given the precedence of former oddball Yankees like Frank “Ping” Bodie, Lefty Gomez, and manager Casey Stengel.

Considered a can’t miss-prospect who was fully capable of playing all three outfield positions and first base, Pepitone first reached the major leagues in 1962, joining a Yankees team that featured a conservative front office and a staid approach to playing the game. Pepitone’s flamboyance ran counter to the Yankee way. Incredibly vain, he arrived at spring training flashing a new Ford Thunderbird, bragging about his new boat, and wearing a new sharkskin suit. When the young star didn’t hustle during the regular season, he was greeted with angry catcalls from his veteran teammates, reminding him not to “mess with their money.” They were referring to their almost annual World Series shares, which they felt would become threatened if Pepitone’s lack of hustle continued.

Off the field, Pepitone’s love of the fast lane reflected the lifestyle preferences of established Yankees like Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford. Yet, there was something different about Pepitone’s way, which was less discreet, less subtle, and far more palpable. In perhaps his most blatant indiscretion, Pepitone occasionally didn’t show up for games, leading to speculation that he was being pursued by bookies for unpaid gambling debts.


Card Corner–Johnny Ellis

Sometimes a baseball card encompasses more than just the main player featured within the borders of its photograph. That actuality has influenced one of the habits of the hobby that I particularly enjoy—“sleuthing,” or trying to figure out the identities of the other players on the card, whether they are in the background or off to the side of the card.


In some cases, trying to identify background players is difficult, because of the fuzziness of the photograph or the awkward angle provided by the camera. In other situations, it’s much easier, and on rare occasions, a collector might come to the realization that the “other” player is actually much more famous than the featured player. That is certainly the case with this 1972 “In Action” card of John Ellis (No. 48 in the set), a traveling-man catcher and first baseman who was probably best known for serving as Thurman Munson’s backup in the early 1970s. This card could just as easily have been chosen as the action card for Harmon Killebrew, who happens to be the “other guy” in the photograph—the Twins’ first baseman who is holding Ellis on during an afternoon game at the old Yankee Stadium, sometime in 1971. A member of the 500-home run club and one of the game’s quietly nice guys, “Killer” earned baseball immortality when he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1984.

Coincidentally (or perhaps not), Killebrew was already featured on another one of the 1972 “In Action” cards, so there was no need to create another action photo for the Twins’ slugger. Still, it’s interesting that Topps cropped the photograph in the way that it did, making “Killer” just as prominent as Ellis on the facing of the card. Did Topps do this intentionally, because of Killebrew’s status as a star, or was it merely an accident? I honestly have no idea, but I do know that this 1972 Johnny Ellis carries no extra value because of the incidental presence of one of the greatest sluggers in the game’s history. This card is worth about the same amount of money as most common cards of 1972’s lower-numbered series, no more and no less. Still, it’s a fun card to have, especially when you can procure a picture of a Hall of Famer at the far more reasonable price of a journeyman.

Ellis might have settled for journeyman status, but he started his career as a popular player in the tri-state area who was once ticketed for stardom at a time when the Yankees badly needed such a quality. As a late 1960s contemporary of Munson, Ellis was actually regarded as an equal prospect by some scouts. In fact, some targeted Ellis, and not Munson, as the heir apparent to the long line of great Yankee catchers that had recently halted after the decline and trade of Elston Howard.


Card Corner–The Other A-Rod

Although his name can be found right below that of the already-legendary Alex Rodriguez in reference books like Total Baseball, he has been mostly forgotten since his playing days ended in 1983. That’s more than a bit sad, partly because the original “A-Rod” left such a distinct impression on me—first as an opposing player and then during a late-career turn with the Yankees.

Aurelio Rodriguez couldn’t hit like today’s more well-known “A-Rod,” but he was one of the most graceful defensive third basemen of the 1970s. Rodriguez had the range of a shortstop and the throwing arm of a right fielder; along with his smooth hands, those skills combined to form a delightful package at the hot corner. In fact, I’ve never seen an infielder with a stronger arm than Aurelio. (A list of such arms would have to include recent infielders like Shawon Dunston and Travis Fryman or current-day players like Rafael Furcal and Troy Tulowitzki. All terrific arms, but all a notch below that of Rodriguez. ) That cannon-like right arm, which Ernie Harwell often described as a “howitzer,” made him a treat to watch during his many stops with the White Sox, Orioles, Yankees, Padres, Tigers, Washington Senators, and Angels.

A product of Cananea, Mexico, Rodriguez struggled with English during his early major league career with the Angels. As Rodriguez once said without bitterness, he knew only three words of English during his first ten days with California. “Ham and eggs” became a frequent refrain, resulting in a less-than-balanced diet for the young Rodriguez.


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