The 1968 Baseball Winter Meetings

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Note: This article was originally published at TheNationalPastimeMuseum.com in December 2017 and is reprinted here by permission.

 

Like the rest of the country, baseball was sailing through troubling waters in 1968. In the view of many observers, baseball had been overtaken by professional football as the national sport, especially with young people. It was the now sport of their grandfathers, but lacking in the excitement and violence offered up on Fall afternoons in the NFL.

Baseball’s biggest problem, though by no means the only one, was the alarming dominance of its pitchers – or, if you prefer, the alarming ineptitude of its hitters. This trend had been dismissed as a fluke a few years earlier but had instead gotten steadily worse. How bad was it? A full 21% of all major league games were shutouts in 1968. The American League hit .230 (the venerable Yankees managing .214). No-hitters, long shutout streaks, batters hitting below .200, pitchers with ERAs below 2.00 – none of this was unusual, or special, any longer.

Baseball was getting hammered in the press, who concluded that baseball needed on-field changes, but that its management was so dysfunctional and inept, with two leagues that operated without regard for the other, that nothing was ever done. “It would be terrible for us to continue on whistling through the graveyard and ignore what is happening,” said Cleveland president Gabe Paul.

The 1968 major-league winter meetings were held at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco from Sunday, December 1 through Saturday, December 7. Surprisingly many, baseball acted in dramatic ways.

Most people focused on the Rules Committee meeting, at which significant changes to the playing rules were agreed upon: beginning in 1969 the pitchers’ mound would be 10 inches above the height of the plate, rather than 15 inches, and the strike zone would be reduced to encompass the top of the knee to the armpit, instead of the bottom of the knee to the top of the shoulder.

Most baseball people seemed to be crossing their fingers. “All this stuff is trial and error anyway,” said Atlanta general manager Paul Richards. “If it works, let’s do it.” Dodger manager Walter Alston was less optimistic. “The good hitters are still going to hit and the rotten hitters are still going to strike out.”

Of importance to record keepers and historians, if not to the game on the field, baseball also created the first official “save” rule. Writers had been using the term informally for years, and the Sporting News had created a rule (which they regularly modified) several years earlier, but in 1969 the save would be part of the official record for the first time.

The rule would credit a “save” to a reliever who entered the game with a lead and held that lead until the end of the game, provided he did not earn a “win.” The rule would also allow a pitcher to get a save without finishing the game if he was removed for a pinch-hitter or pinch-runner – in such a case, the official scorer could choose from among multiple eligible candidates. This original save rule remained in place through 1973, and all 1969-1973 saves in the record book reflect this rule.

The American League also agreed to try some experimental rules in spring training: the use of a permanent pinch-hitter for the pitcher; a permanent pinch-runner who could be used anytime; and the automatic awarding of first base on an intentional walk. “These tests,” said AL President Joe Cronin, “will be made at the discretion of the president.”

For most fans, the winter meetings are about trades. In the biggest deal of the meetings, one that would have large ramifications over the game for the next several years, the Baltimore Orioles traded infielder-outfielder Curt Blefary and minor-leaguer John Mason to the Houston Astros for left-handed pitcher Mike Cuellar, infielder Enzo Hernandez, and minor leaguer Tom Johnson. In the end, the only piece that mattered was Cuellar, who became an anchor for the great Orioles staffs over the next several years.

Houston had deemed Cuellar expendable despite three good seasons, and had wanted to trade him for a hitter. They had tried to get Jesus Alou from the Expos (which also would have been a terrible trade). Baltimore, on the other hand, had a surplus in the outfield – Earl Weaver had taken over as Orioles manager in July and had given Blefary’s job to Don Buford. Blefary, the 1965 American League Rookie of the Year, had not been happy about it, and the Orioles decided to cash him in. They would soon be one of history’s great teams.

Meanwhile, per longstanding tradition the players union held their annual meetings in the hotel, which led to a fair bit of drama. In September, MLBPA Executive Director Marvin Miller had advised the players not to sign their 1969 contracts until a new pension agreement — replacing one expiring on March 31 — was reached. The clubs’ pension contribution had traditionally been tied to World Series and All-Star Game television revenue, and baseball had recently signed a new lucrative TV deal, which included additional revenue for two brand new League Championship Series. Understandably, the players wanted to share in this new bounty.

Once he arrived in San Francisco, Miller was told that the owners were too busy to meet with them (as they had been too busy in Mexico City a year earlier). After their Wednesday board meeting, Miller held a press conference and read off the names of dozens of players, including such luminaries as Mickey Mantle, Roberto Clemente, Bob Gibson, and Willie Mays, who had agreed not to sign their 1969 contracts without a pension agreement in place.

The owners claimed this was all just a ploy. “A negotiating tactic,” said John Gaherin, the owner’s chief negotiator, “but it is not conducive to a healthy climate for a settlement.” (The players held firm for three months, until a favorable pension accord was finally reached in late February.)

But the most dramatic act of the meetings took place on Friday the 6th, when the owners fired Commissioner William Eckert three years into his seven-year contract. The owners wanted a new commissioner who would provide bold and imaginative leadership, traits that Eckert clearly did not have.

The owners claimed they were looking for a complete restructuring of the game, changes that would rid baseball of the squabbling between the leagues that had plagued it for years. They wanted someone like Pete Rozelle – who was overseeing the merger of the NFL and AFL and achieved more cooperation between the two leagues in a few months than the baseball’s leagues had achieved in more than 60 years of co-existing.

Mike Burke of the Yankees, one of the “Young Turks” who was angling for change, thought baseball needed to deal with the fact that it was losing popularity. “We recognize our problem. It’s the attitude of the public at large that baseball is not with it, that it’s not as contemporary as football, hockey and basketball, the contact sports. It’s an attitude that exists and we’ve got to decide what to do about it. We need strong, courageous, intelligent leadership.”

There were no discussions on a replacement – Eckert was fired on the final day of the meetings – but a committee was formed to consider ways to restructure the game. What many wanted was less league autonomy, the start of a unification process that would take 30 years to complete.

The 1968 Winter Meetings were one of the most important ever. The news included new rules changes, the axing of a commissioner, and more dramatic — and ominous – rumblings from the players. The year ahead would include four new expansion teams, league championship playoffs, and a year-long celebration of their centennial.

The first step in solving a problem is recognizing that you have a problem. Baseball had taken the first step, but there were many more ahead.

 

The 1967 Baseball Winter Meetings

 

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Note: This article was originally published at TheNationalPastimeMuseum.com in December 2017 and is reprinted here by permission.

 

Fifty years ago baseball used its annual multi-day winter meetings as a place to get things done. In the days before email and cell phones, and in the very early days of primitive “conference calls,” these meetings were the best opportunity for all of baseball’s owners and general managers to meet face to face, to make decisions on their business, to debate rules changes, to consider franchise moves, or to negotiate trades.

Then as now, there were many different meetings – league meetings, marketing meetings, rules committee meetings, meetings for the minor leagues, and many more – along with the informal get-togethers between teams to discuss trades. In the 1967 National League meeting, Astros president Bill Giles suggested that each club select a candidate for a “Miss Baseball” beauty contest. It was a different time.

The 1967 major-league winter meetings were held in Mexico City from Sunday, November 26 through Saturday, December 2.

The most pressing matter was expansion.

The offseason had been launched just after the World Series when the American League granted permission to Kansas City Athletics owner Charlie Finley to move his team to Oakland. Finley had tried to relocate several times before, and in 1964 the American League had threatened to expel him from the league unless he signed a four-year lease in Kansas City. He did so, but now the lease was up and he wanted out. His fellow league owners, the only people who mattered, reluctantly agreed.

When Kansas City civic officials threatened legal action, the American League hastily announced plans on October 18 to add new teams in 1969 in both Kansas City and Seattle. The National League was caught off guard, having believed that the two sides had an agreement to work together on any future expansion or relocation plans. Instead, the American League had placed a team just across the bay from the National League’s San Francisco franchise, and also in Seattle, considered a plum baseball city.

The telling point is that the leagues of this period largely operated independently. The AL had also jumped the gun on expansion in 1961, angering the NL, which expanded a year later. Then-commissioner Ford Frick was powerless to stop any of it, though he did extract a promise that future expansions or franchise moves would be worked out between the leagues. Several years later new Commissioner William Eckert was equally powerless. The AL was expanding, and that was that.

At their meeting in Mexico City, the National League “unanimously, if grudgingly” voted to expand by two teams by 1971, two years after the AL. “We were hoping they would expand at the same time as us,” said AL president Joe Cronin, “and maybe they will yet, but there is nothing we can do about it if they don’t.” He was right about that.

In the 1990s expansions, major league baseball awarded franchises to ownership groups, after considering local markets and ballpark plans. In the 1960s, the leagues first chose the city, and then scrambled to find an owner and a place to play.

The National League received entreaties from representatives of Milwaukee, San Diego, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Buffalo, Toronto, Montreal, and Denver. San Diego, considered a strong choice, had already lured longtime Dodger executive Buzzie Bavasi to sign on as one of its owners. Bill DeWitt, a former executive with several clubs, was working with the Buffalo group.

At their own 1969 league meeting, the AL awarded its Seattle franchise to Pacific Northwest Sports, Inc., a group led by Pacific Coast League president Dewey Soriano, his brother Max, and Bill Daley, former board chairman of the Indians. The group said that Sicks’ Stadium, longtime home of the Seattle team in the Pacific Coast League, could be temporarily expanded to 30,000 seats and that construction on a new stadium would begin by 1970.

The American League owners also heard presentations from four groups hoping to land the Kansas City franchise, and promised to decide between them in January. One of the leading contenders was Ewing Kauffman, president of Marion Laboratories, who, unlike the other Kansas City groups, wanted to buy the entire team with his own money. (Kauffman ultimately was chosen, and became a model owner.)

The AL also established some details of its expansion draft, to be held in October 1968. Each of the new clubs would be able to select three players from each existing AL team (a total of 30 players for both Kansas City and Seattle) at a cost of $175,000 per player. The clubs were also required to pay $100,000 to join the league, bringing their initial expenditures to $5.35 million each. In addition, the new clubs would also be required to begin contributing to the player pension fund immediately, but would not be allowed to share in the TV deal for three years.

Like all expansions in all major sports, it was a major cash grab for the existing owners.

Meanwhile, team representatives met to discuss ways to speed up the games, which were now taking an alarming 2:37 on average. Umpires were asked to ensure that mound conferences between the pitcher and catcher be curtailed, that batters run back to the plate after a fouled bunt attempt, and that pinch-hitters be on the bench when the previous batter completed his time at bat, which would eliminate a pinch-hitter from running in from the bullpen. More interestingly, teams were asked to use golf carts to bring relievers in from the bullpen. The Yankees had long refused to use them, but said they will now comply.   A committee of general managers and managers was formed to explore other rules to speed up the game. Spoiler: they did not solve the problem.

Per tradition, the Major League Players Association held their annual meetings in Mexico City as well, with player representatives of all 20 teams present. Drama ensued when Executive Director Marvin Miller was told that the owners’ Player Relations Committee would not have time to meet with them. The union had made numerous proposals to the owners several months earlier (on what would become the very first Basic Agreement) and negotiations had been slow. “We were told further discussion would be needed in Mexico City,” said Miller. “The only reason the players are here is to conclude the negotiation.”

A few years earlier the players would have wagged their tales and returned home, but the 1966 hiring of Miller had changed the game. He held a press conference to lay out the state of the negotiations. The owners claimed to be surprised at the misunderstanding, and claimed that it was much ado about nothing. Atlanta general manager Paul Richards was more pointed: “Somebody’s lying. And I don’t think it’s the owners. If this guy continues these kinds of antics we might just have to get in the gutter with him.”

At their own press conference, player representatives announced that Miller had been given a new contract, through 1970, signaling that the owners could not avoid dealing with their controversial leader. The owners agreed to meet with the players in a couple of weeks back in New York.

At this point, the owners could have learned that the players should be taken seriously as a determined group who wanted a seat at the table and would continue to push until they got it. Instead, the owners went on with the misguided confidence that they retained the whip hand.

The two most pressing issues facing baseball at the end of the 1967 Winter Meetings were the need to finalize expansion plans in each league, and the need to continue and complete negotiations with the player’s union on what would be the first-ever Basic Agreement. Both issues seemed likely to conclude soon.

 

Oh Canada! (1992 World Series)

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Note: This article was originally published at TheNationalPastimeMuseum.com in October 2017 and is reprinted here by permission.

 

Twenty-five Octobers ago, baseball’s World Series finally made it north of the border, when the Toronto Blue Jays took on the Atlanta Braves in the Fall Classic. Canadian teams had been knocking at the door for many years – the Montreal Expos got to the final game of the NLCS in 1981 and competed for a string of division titles, while the Blue Jays had lost three ALCS’s (1985, 1989, 1991). But until 1992 the World Series had always been an all-USA affair.

Not only were the Blue Jays been a perennial contender (11 straight seasons of 85 or more wins starting in 1983), they had also become an economic behemoth in the game, causing national pundits to wonder how the Red Sox and Yankees would be able to compete with the Blue Jays in the AL East.

The reason for the optimism – or pessimism, if you were any of the other teams – was the 1989 opening of Skydome in June 1989. The first of what became a stadium boom in the game, Skydome was hailed as an engineering marvel with its retractable roof, and featured an adjoining hotel and prepaid luxury suites. Despite not moving in until June, the Blue Jays set an all-time attendance of 3.375 million that season, which they shattered the next year before going over 4 million for three years. The Yankees and Red Sox, meanwhile, were playing in aging stadiums without the luxury boxes that began sweeping the nation.

While the Blue Jays had broken through in the 1980s with a great crop of home grown players (Dave Stieb, Tony Fernandez, George Bell, and others), by 1992 general manager Pat Gillick was using his revenue advantage to field a lot of veteran stars: Roberto Alomar, Dave Winfield, Joe Carter, Jack Morris, and mid-summer pickup David Cone were all acquired as ready-made stars.

The Blue Jays opponents in the World Series were the Atlanta Braves, who had lost a classic Series to the Twins the previous year, but had just won a thrilling five game series over the Pirates. While a Toronto victory would be a first for Canada, an Atlanta victory would be a first for a team from the American South. The Braves were younger, and more homegrown – David Justice, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Ron Gant had all debuted in the majors as Braves in the last few years. Winners of 98 games, 7 more than the Blue Jays, the Braves had to be considered a slight favorite.

The first game, played on Saturday, October 17 in Atlanta, started with Jimmy Carter throwing out the first ball. After the ex-president took his seat, the game turned into a pitching duel between Tom Glavine and Jack Morris (the hero of the 1991 series against the Braves as a Twin). With the Brave fans deafening America with their Tomahawk chop, the Blue Jays struck first on a solo homer by Joe Carter in the fourth. The fans were quiet for a few innings, or until Braves catcher Damon Berryhill hit a three-run homer off Morris in the sixth for a 3-1 lead that held up. For Glavine, it was a four-hit masterpiece, in a game that took just 2:37 to play.

On Sunday night the Braves looked like they were going to go up 2-0, as John Smoltz took a 4-2 lead into the eighth. The Blue Jays put together a run on a Dave Winfield single but still trailed 4-3 heading to the ninth. The Braves handed the ball to Jeff Reardon.

The Braves’ closer for most of 1992 had been Alejandro Pena, but they acquired the veteran Reardon from the Red Sox on August 31 specifically for this situation. He had 353 career saves (second all-time) when they got him, then he won three games and saved three more in September.

But in Game 2, Reardon did not get the job done. After walking pinch-hitter Derek Bell, he faced another pinch-hitter, Ed Sprague, who took Reardon over the left field wall. Suddenly it was 5-4, a lead the Blue Jays held in the bottom of the ninth. The series was tied.

After a day off, the first World Series game on Canadian soil took place on Tuesday night, a matchup of two youngsters: Toronto’s Juan Guzman and Atlanta’s Steve Avery. It was another great pitcher’s duel with hits difficult to come by. Avery was especially impressive, and he took a 3-hitter, and 2-1 lead, into the eighth. That lasted one batter, when Kelly Gruber homered down the line in left to tie things up.

With the game tied, Avery came back out in the ninth and gave up a leadoff single to Alomar. After three pitching changes, a steal, and bunt and two intentional walks, Reardon allowed a long single by Candy Maldonado on an 0-2 pitch for the ballgame. If one were to look for a single reason for the Braves relative lack of success in the post-season in the 1990s, you might settle on their problems with late game relief during most of that run. Reardon, their closer for the past six weeks, had failed in two straight games.

Game 4 was another pitchers duel, this one a battle of lefthanders: Jimmy Key and Tom Glavine. The two were very similar pitchers, Glavine a bit better and a bit more durable, enough to get him 305 wins and a plaque in the Hall of Fame before he was through. But Key won 186 games himself, and enjoyed many excellent seasons with the Blue Jays and Yankees.

The Blue Jays struck first, on a 3rd inning home run by Pat Borders, their light hitting catcher, and they made it 2-0 on an RBI single from Devon White in the 7th. Key had a shutout into the eighth, when he allowed a leadoff double, a bunt single and a ground ball to make the score 2-1. Blue Jay Cito Gaston turned to his bullpen to get the last five outs, and Duane Ward (the winning pitchers in Games 2 and 3) and Tom Henke finished it up quickly.

Time of game: 2 hours, 21 minutes.

Toronto now just had to win one game, and for Game 5 put the ball in the hands of Jack Morris, who had earned a reputation as a World Series hero. In the 1984 World Series, for the Tigers, he threw two outstanding complete game victories. In 1991, for the Twins, he had pitched two very good games (a win and a no-decision) before throwing a legendary 10-inning shutout to clinch the title. Morris had pitched well four days earlier in the Game 1 loss. The Blue Jays were understandably confident that they would wrap things up at home.

Neither Morris nor John Smoltz looked particularly sharp early, and the two teams reached the fifth knotted at 2-2. In the top of the 5th the Braves broke it open, with two singles, a double, an intentional walk, and a Lonnie Smith grand slam. The score was suddenly 7-2, and Morris was out of the game. Neither team scored again, so the series moved back to Atlanta, with Toronto still holding a 3-2 edge.

Game 6 was another great pitcher’s duel, David Cone against Steve Avery. After the teams traded runs early, Toronto outfielder Candy Maldonado homered in the fourth to make the score 2-1, and it stayed that way until there were two outs in the ninth.

Toronto’s end of game mastery had been playing out as scheduled. Duane Ward had cruised through the eighth, and the seemingly invincible Tom Henke looked ready to do the same. But after a leadoff single, a bunt, and fly ball, he allowed a two-out two-strike ground single to Otis Nixon and we had our first extra inning game of the series. Braves owner Ted Turner, and his girl friend Jane Fonda, were among the thrilled spectators.

The hero of the game, and the story of the series, ended up being the 41-year-old Dave Winfield. In his long outstanding career, Winfield had played in one previous World Series, with the 1981 Yankees, and his 1-for-22 line had caused Yankee owner George Steinbrenner to mock him as “Mr. May.” Eleven years later, Winfield hit .290 with 26 home runs for Toronto, and was back in October. In the first five games and ten innings, Winfield had managed just four singles in 21 at bats, a .190 clip.

In the top of the 11th, the Blue Jays got two runners on with two outs in front of Winfield, facing left-hander Charlie Liebrandt. After working the count to 3-2, Winfield smoked a two-run double down the left field line for a 4-2 lead. The Braves did not go quietly, scoring a run and putting the tying run on 3rd before finally succumbing.

The Blue Jays, and Canada, had their first championship. They would go on to repeat in 1993, putting themselves at the very center of the baseball world.

 

Lou Brock in the Series (1964-68)

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Note: This article was originally published at TheNationalPastimeMuseum.com in October 2017 and is reprinted here by permission.

 

At the 1964 baseball trading deadline (June 15 in those days), the St. Louis Cardinals made a six-player deal with the Cubs, a trade that really boiled down to swapping pitcher Ernie Broglio for outfielder Lou Brock. This deal remains famous as one of baseball’s all-time great swindles even as modern analysts have chipped away at Brock’s claim to greatness. He was not a very good defensive player, he did not walk much for a leadoff man, etc.

While he was actually playing, Brock was most famous for two things. First, he led the league in stolen bases nine times, despite not really being given a green light until he got to St. Louis at age 26. Stolen bases are not as championed as they once were (Who led the NL in steals in 2016? Wrong, it was Jonathan Villar), but in Brock’s era the stolen base crown was a valued accomplishment.

Second, Brock was a great post-season player on one of the era’s iconic teams. That remains undeniable, though perhaps less well known.

By 1964 the Cardinals had been a good team for several years, but were sitting at just 28-31 when they acquired Brock. The Cardinals desperately needed an outfielder, and GM Bing Devine and manager Johnny Keane coveted speed. The game was getting faster, especially in the National League, and the Cardinals were falling behind the times.

“None of us liked the deal,” admitted first baseman Bill White years later. “We lie and say we did, but we didn’t like that deal. In my opinion, Lou had a lot of talent, but he didn’t know anything about baseball. He might steal a base if you were up ten runs or down ten runs. But somehow, when he came to us, he turned everything around.”

Keane told Brock that he would play left field every day, that he would not be asked to bunt, and that he should steal bases anytime he thought he could make it. In pitcher Bob Gibson’s words, “Presto, we were transformed.”

Obviously there were other factors, but the Cardinals won their first four games with Brock and the team seemed to stabilize immediately. Batting second behind Curt Flood, Brock hit .348 with 42 extra-base hits and 33 steals in 103 games to finish out the season. And the Cardinals sprinted to a shocking pennant, benefitting from a September swoon by the Phillies.

In his first World Series game, the 26-year-old Brock singled and scored in the first and added a two-run double in the eighth to help lead the Cardinals to a 9-5 victory over the Yankees. After three hitless games, Brock closed out the series with seven hits in the final three contests, including a long home run off Al Downing in Game 7. For the series, Brock finished 9-for-30 (.300) with two doubles and a home run. Surprisingly, he attempted no steals against Yankee catcher Elston Howard, surely an accident of timing and circumstance. Such is the life of a base stealer.

The Cardinals won the 1964 World Series, and the acquisition of Brock quickly became accepted as the key in the club’s ascension. GM Bing Devine was fired in August, before their big surge, but still won the Executive of the Year award based in large part on his June trade for Brock.

The Cardinals dropped back to the pack in 1965 and 1966, while Brock cemented his stardom. He stole 63 bases in his first full year in St. Louis, the first Cardinal to swipe more than 50 in the 20th century. The next year he stole 74 and led the league for the first time.

Maury Willis deservedly gets most of the credit for bringing the stolen base back to baseball, and he led the league in steals for six straight years beginning in 1960. Starting in 1966, Brock took over.

After great trades for Orlando Cepeda and Roger Maris in 1966, the next year the Cardinals rolled to an easy pennant, by ten and a half games. On a team filled with stars – Cepeda, Flood, and Tim McCarver had big years – Brock was one of the biggest, hitting .299, leading the league in runs and steals, and even hitting 21 home runs.

Then he took over the World Series against the Red Sox.

In the first game Brock delivered four singles and walk, two steals, and two runs scored in a 2-1 Cardinal victory. Jose Santiago pitched an otherwise brilliant game for Boston, but he could not keep Brock off the bases and it was the difference in the game.

The Red Sox – specifically Jim Lonborg – managed to keep Brock off the bases twice in the series, in Games 2 and 5, and Boston prevailed both times. In the other five games, Brock accumulated 12 hits, and – with considerable help from Bob Gibson’s three complete game victories – the Cardinals won in seven games.

Brock hit .414 in the series, with four extra base hits, a Series record seven steals (in seven attempts), and a reputation in New England as a royal pain.

In 1968 the Cardinals rolled again, winning the NL pennant easily, with Brock having another big year. In the Year of the Pitcher, Brock led the league in doubles, triples, and steals, and finished sixth in the league in total bases.

In the World Series, the Cardinals third in five years, they would face the Detroit Tigers. All of the pre-series hype focused on the matchup between the two ace pitchers: the Tigers’ Denny McLain, baseball’s first 30-game winner in 34 years, and still the most recent; and the Cardinals’ Gibson, whose 1.12 ERA and 13 shutouts were the best totals in more than 50 years. They were scheduled to face off at least twice, and theoretically three times.

If there was a secondary story, it was Lou Brock, who had hit and run at will against the Red Sox the previous year. The Tigers catcher, Bill Freehan, was the game’s best, but the Tigers knew that their best hope was to keep Brock off the bases.

The first game was the Bob Gibson show (5-hit shutout with 17 strikeouts), and Brock contributed a home run and a stolen base to the cause. He managed a hit, a walk and two steals in a losing cause in Game 2.

In the third game, another Cardinal victory, Brock was on base four times on three singles and walk and stole three bases in four attempts. Brock led off Game 4 with a home run to right-center off McLain, and later tripled and doubled (immediately stealing third) in an easy 10-1 victory. Brock’s seventh steal tied the Series record that he had set the previous year, and it only took four games. The Cardinals were one win away.

Game 5 proved to be the turning point, and Brock played a pivotal role – though not one he wanted to play.

He led off the game with a double of Mickey Lolich, igniting a three-run rally and putting the championship in sight. So far, so good.

With the score still 3-0, Brock singled to start the third but when he tried to steal his eighth base, Freehan gunned him down. Coincidence of not, Brock never stole again in the rest of the series. In the fifth, he doubled, his 11th hit of the Series in just the fifth game. But when Julian Javier followed with a single, Tiger left fielder Willie Horton threw Brock out at home.

Although the Tigers had not stopped Brock from getting on base, they had managed to stop him on the bases twice. And when they put together rallies in the fifth and seventh innings, it was enough to secure a 5-3 victory to push the Series to Game 6.

Brock played little role in the final two games, both Tiger victories. His lone hit in the sixth game came when the Tigers had built a 13-0 lead, a lead that proved sufficient.

In the Game 7, Brock singled to lead off the sixth in a game that was still scoreless. Surely, this was the biggest moment in the series, as all observers waited to see what he was going to do. What he actually did was … get picked off by Mickey Lolich. In fact, with two outs Curt Flood singled, and Lolich picked him off too.

In the following half inning, the Tigers got the three runs that proved to be decisive, and they ultimately won the clincher, 4-1. Lolich was the big star of the series, with three victories, and he was particularly praised for controlling Brock on the basepaths in Games 5 and 7.

For the 1968 World Series, Brock hit .464, tying a record with 13 base hits (still the record), tying a record with 24 total bases, and tying his own record with 7 stolen bases.

Although Brock played another 11 seasons, he never made it to the post-season. He won several more stolen base titles, eventually setting both the single season and career records, and surpassed 3000 hits in his final season. Considering that he never really got the chance to play his game until he was 26, it was a remarkable career.

But when Brock’s career his accessed, it seems right and proper that his excellent World Series record, including a .391 batting average, with 13 extra base hits in 21 games, be part of his resume and his legacy.

 

New Horizons (1957 World Series)

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Note: This article was originally published at TheNationalPastimeMuseum.com in October 2017 and is reprinted here by permission.

 

As the 1957 baseball season dawned, baseball fans in New York City could be forgiven if they had taken to think of the World Series as their very own event. In the recent decade (1947-56), there had been 58 World Series games played, and 48 of them had taken place in New York, including 36 of the past 38. Think about that.

Growing up in the 1970s, I was fed stories and books about this Golden Age, generally from adults or writers who had grown up in New York in this period and considered this the game’s zenith, the best time to grow up, to love the game, a team, a city, a neighborhood. And maybe it was. For them. If you grew up in Pittsburgh or Boston, maybe you’d have a different take.

If 1957 marked the end of the Golden Age for New York baseball, the final year of their three-team hegemony, one could argue that it marked the beginning for the rest of the country.

After baseball spent five decades with 16 teams in the same 11 cities, the Boston Braves broke the logjam with their move to Milwaukee in 1953. For their first six years in Wisconsin, the Braves had the highest attendance in the major leagues, until they were finally topped by another transplant – the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Braves, coincidentally or not, also became a very good team immediately upon landing in Milwaukee. The final Boston Braves team (1952) featured Warren Spahn, a couple of promising youngsters in Eddie Mathews and Lou Burdette, and a lot of veterans on their way out. Their 64 wins were 32 fewer than the Dodgers.

In 1953, Spahn (23-7, 2.10) and Mathews (47 homers) took big steps forward in their new homes, while youngsters Bob Buhl and Joe Adcock joined a suddenly young core. The Milwaukee Braves vaulted all the way to 92 wins, and finished second.

The next year they added Henry Aaron. That went well. The National League of the 1950s was loaded, as every team seemed to have a superstars or two. In 1956 the Braves lost the pennant on the final weekend of the season to the last great Brooklyn Dodgers team.

The 1957 Braves won the National League rather easily, winning 95 games to outpace the Cardinals by 8. Three superstars – Henry Aaron (44 homers, 166 OPS+), Eddie Mathews (32 homers, 154 OPS+), and Warren Spahn (21-11, 2.69) – led the way, all having their typical season. The Braves had two other good starters (Lou Burdette and Bob Buhl). Aaron and Mathews were most of the offense – no other Brave scored or drove in 70 runs – but manager Fred Haney cobbled together a few platoons and employed a deep bench.

The Braves opponent in the World Series, surprising no one, was the Yankees. The American League was filled with weaklings and sad sacks for the entire decade of the 1950s, and only a great year from the Indians in 1954 and a fluky 1959 Yankees off-year (allowing the White Sox to sneak in) kept the Yankees from winning 16 pennants in a row (1949-1964). The 1957 club won 98 games and took the pennant by eight.

The Yankees won the pennant every year by having better players than everyone else. In 1957, this included the league’s best player (Mickey Mantle, who hit .365 with a 221 OPS+), three-time MVP Yogi Berra (24 homers), underrated star Gil McDougald (120 OPS+ and great shortstop defense), and a large cast (Bill Skowron, Hank Bauer, Tony Kubek) of solid contributors. Whitey Ford missed several weeks with a sore shoulder, but manager Casey Stengel always managed to find a handful of people to give him 20-30 solid starts. In 1957, he got this out of Tom Sturdivant, Bob Turley, Johnny Kucks, Don Larsen and Bobby Shantz, who were plenty good enough to win another pennant.

With the middle three games scheduled for Milwaukee, the series included off days after Games 2 and 5. This seems perfectly normal to the modern fan, but this schedule had not yet become standard practice. In the previous 10 World Series (6 of which were New York affairs), there were no scheduled off days. (Weather problems created off days in 1951 and 1956). But in 1957 these off-days would allow the Braves to use just three starters, with Spahn ready to start three times, and mitigate the Yankees pitching depth advantage. The schedule had no effect on Stengel, who used five different starters in the World Series in 1955 and 1956, and would again this year.

In Game 1, a Wednesday afternoon at Yankee Stadium, Ford outdueled Spahn 3-1 in a battle of aces. The Yankees, per habit, pecked away at Spahn relentlessly before breaking through on Bauer’s RBI double in the fifth and Andy Carey’s run-scoring single in the 6th. That chased the Braves’ best pitcher, and Ford had the runs he needed, finishing with an impressive five-hitter.

Perhaps reacting to Ford’s gem in Game 1, Stengel went with Shantz, his other lefty, in Game 2. This time the Braves scored four runs in the first four innings, highlighted by a long Aaron triple in the second and Johnny Logan home run in the third. Burdette allowed seven hits and three walks, but went the distance for a 4-2 victory to knot the series.

The scheduled off-day, Friday October 4, is more famous today for the Soviet Union’s launch of the Sputnik satellite. After a day for America to lick their wounds, the World Series came to Milwaukee for the first time on Saturday. Unfortunately for the home crowd, the real Bronx Bombers showed up. Tony Kubek, the second batter of the game, got things started by homering off Bob Buhl, Mantle homered in the fourth, and Kubek capped the scoring with another homer, a three-run blast, in the seventh. The Braves knocked Turley out with three hits and four walks in the first two innings, but all that just amounted to one run. The final was 12-3, and the Yankees had a 2-1 series lead.

Spahn was back on the hill for Game 4, this time facing Tom Sturdivant. Casey Stengel never shortened his pitching staff in the post-season – he gave his pitchers at least four days of rest in the regular season, and gave them the same in October, Whitey Ford included.

The Braves got to Sturdivant with four runs in the fourth, all of it coming on a three-run homer by Aaron and a solo shot from Frank Torre. This looked to be plenty for the great Spahn, who entered the ninth with a six-hitter and a 4-1 lead.

After retiring Bauer and Mantle, needing just one more out, Spahn was touched with singles to Berra and McDougald and then a stunning three-run home run from Elston Howard to tie the game. Just like that. Things got worse in the tenth, when the Yankees moved in a front when Bauer singled in Kubek, who had tripled.

Now the Yankees were three outs from a 3-1 series lead.

In the bottom of the tenth, Haney called on Nippy Jones to pinch-hit for Spahn against Tommy Byrne. The first pitch was a curveball and inside which past Berra to the backstop. Umpire Augie Donatelli called it a ball, but Jones retrieved the ball and showed it Donatelli, who found shoe polish and agreed that it had struck Jones’ foot. A few minutes later a run-scoring double from Logan tied the game, and a walk-off two-run homer from Mathews off Bob Grim sent the happy Braves to their dressing room. The Series was tied again.

Game 5 matched Burdette, the star of Game 2, against a well-rested Ford, the star of Game 1. Ford was once again brilliant, allowing just six singles over his seven innings, with a lone run coming when the Braves managed three of them in a row in the sixth – Mathews, Aaron, and Adcock. This proved the only run of the game, as Yankees poorly spaced their seven singles — in seven different innings. Burdette did not allow a walk in his brilliant 1-0 shutout.

The series returned to New York with the Braves needing to win one of two.

The Braves sent Bob Buhl out again for Game 6, and he struggled for the second time in the series. He wriggled out of trouble in the first and second, but finally allowed a two-run homer to Berra in the third. There were three more solo home runs in the game, two by the Braves (Torre and Aaron), but a final decisive one from Bauer in the 7th. Bob Turley went the distance in the 3-2 victory, setting up a winner-take-all Game 7.

The Braves were delivered a big blow when Warren Spahn came down with the flu and was unable to pitch. Having committed himself to three starters, Haney handed the ball to Burdette, who had shut out the Yankees three days earlier. The Yankees countered with Larsen, who had won Game 3 with 7 1/3 innings of great relief, and, of course, had thrown a perfect game in the Series the year before.

Remarkably, Burdette threw another seven-hitter, and another shutout, and the Braves four-run third inning was plenty of offense in a relatively easy 5-0 win. The Yankees only real rally came in the ninth inning, when their three singles were still not enough to get a run across. Burdette finished with three complete games wins, allowing just two runs.

The Milwaukee Braves, just five years after leaving Boston as a poor down-trodden ballclub, were the most popular team in America (with attendance figures to prove), and the best. After eight years, the championship belt finally left the city of New York, and traveled all the way to Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

 

The Unexpected Hero (1968 World Series)

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Note: This article was originally published at TheNationalPastimeMuseum.com in October 2017 and is reprinted here by permission.

Has there ever been a World Series in which the two biggest stars in the game were the starting pitchers in Game 1 (and potentially Games 4 and 7)? I maintain that it happened just once – appropriately enough, in 1968. The Year of the Pitcher.

As it happens, this was first World Series. I had become a fan that summer, and still recall my sadness listening to the final Red Sox game on the radio and realizing that I would have six months to wait for the next one. I was nearly 8, and the pattern of my baseball life had begun. Delaying the off-season just a bit, there was this World Series thing so I figured I might as well watch.

The 1968 World Series pitted the AL champion Tigers and the NL champion Cardinals.  There were no playoffs — the regular season ended up Sunday and the series started on Wednesday afternoon.  All games took place in the afternoon.  I had to rush home from third grade to see the five weekday games.  I rooted for the American League.

The story of the 1968 baseball season was tremendous pitching or, if you prefer, terrible hitting. There were countless individual pitching achievements—no-hitters, shutout streaks, strikeouts—but the two biggest baseball stories, and baseball stars, were McLain and Gibson. The two men could not have been more different: McLain was brash and cocky, craving his new-found attention. Gibson was all glare, and didn’t seem to care if anyone liked him (though his teammates did).

McLain became the first pitcher in 34 years to win 30 games, accomplishing this feat on national TV with Dizzy Dean (the last to accomplish the feat) calling the game for NBC. Gibson “only” won 22 games, because he generally pitched in a five-man rotation and did not always get the run support afforded McLain. At the end of May Gibson’s pitching record was 3-5 despite a 1.52 ERA. Taking matters more or less into his own hands, in the months of June and July he won all 12 of his starts, each a complete game, eight of them shutouts, and posted a 0.50 ERA.

Both teams won their pennants easily, allowing for several weeks of Gibson vs. McLain anticipation. Gibson was properly considered the better pitcher and his team the series favorite – the Cardinals were defending champs, and Gibson had dominated the Red Sox three times the previous October. But McLain’s wins were legitimate – he put up a 1.96 ERA over 41 starts and 336 innings.

Both teams had other, if less celebrated, weapons. The Tigers offense hit 185 home runs, by far the most in the majors, and was led by Willie Horton, Norm Cash, Bill Freehan, Al Kaline, Dick McAuliffe and Jim Northrup. The pitching after McLain was serviceable, with Mickey Lolich and Earl Wilson pitching well enough for the offense to win most of their starts.

The Cardinals did not have the firepower of the Tigers – Orlando Cepeda (16) and Mike Shannon (15) were the only players who managed more than six home runs – but the team led its league in triples and was second in doubles and stolen bases. St. Louis relied on speed on the bases, and excellent starting pitching. In Nelson Briles, Ray Washburn and Steve Carlton, the Cardinals had much better options outside of the three potential Gibson-McLain games.

And so it began.

In the opener in St. Louis, Bob Gibson was as good as any pitcher has ever been, throwing a five-hit shutout and striking out a World Series record 17 men. McLain wasn’t awful – he allowed three runs in the fourth on two walks and two singles, and left for a pinch hitter in the sixth. But the story was Gibson, who threw a masterpiece people are still discussing 50 years later.

As overmatched as the Tigers offense looked in Game 1, they came back the next day and waltzed to an 8-1 win behind Lolich’s six-hitter. Detroit hit three long home runs off Briles, including one by Lolich himself (the only one of his professional career). In many ways this was the biggest game of the series, as the Tigers had been so thoroughly dominated you might wonder if they would just pack it in. Instead, we now had a series.

Unfortunately, the Motown optimism lasted just one game. After a day off, the series moved to Detroit, and the Cardinals won decisively, 7-3. Playing against type, St. Louis managed 13 hits off five Tiger pitchers, including three-run homers by McCarver and Cepeda. Down 2-1 in the series, it was lost on no one – least of all the television announcers – that the Tigers were now going to have beat Gibson, either in Game 4 or (if things got that far) Game 7. How likely was that?

Gibson and McLain went back to the mound for Game 4, and the results were even more one-sided. The Tigers managed to score a run – on a Northrup home run – and struck out “only” 10 times, but the Cardinals chased McLain in the 3rd on the way to a 10-1 rout. Among the 13 hits there were six for extra bases, including a Gibson home run off Joe Sparma. The Cards were a game away from becoming the first NL team to win back-to-back World Series in 60 years.

Game 5 took place on Monday afternoon, and the Cardinals opened the contest with three runs off Lolich in the top of the first. Despite base runners throughout the game, those three runs would be all Lolich would allow, and the Tigers managed to scrape together two runs in the fourth and three in the 7th to prevail 5-3. The series would return to St. Louis, with the Cardinals needing to win one of two.

Tiger manager Mayo Smith’s most famous post-season decision was electing to play outfielder Mickey Stanley at shortstop, filling a gaping hole in the club’s lineup. But Smith made another gutsy move that likely had a bigger impact on the outcome of the series. Trailing 3 games to 2, Smith decided to pitch McLain in Game 6 on just two days rest, and (if necessary) Lolich, also on two days rest, against Gibson in the finale. McLain had pitched poorly twice and was likely dead tired after 43 starts over six months, so accelerating his schedule seems extreme by the standards of a latter era. On the other hand, he wouldn’t have to face Gibson.

As it happened, the Tigers scored two in the second and ten in the third (including a Northrup grand slam) and cruised to a 13-1 victory. McLain was great, allowing 9 singles and no walks but he had the benefit of cruising for the last seven innings. Caveats aside, he had his series victory.

The 1968 World Series came down to Game 7, Gibson against Lolich, both men having won twice already. This may seem an unusual bit of fortune for baseball, but the precise thing had happened a year earlier, when Gibson faced the Red Sox’ Jim Lonborg, who, like Lolich, had won Games 2 and 5.

In 1968, Gibson began Game 7 like he had pitched in Game 1, retiring the side in the first three innings while striking out five. Lolich was less spectacular, allowing an occasional base runner, but neither team could manage even a single run through six innings. At this point, Gibson had allowed 1 run in 24 innings in the series.

After two harmless Tiger outs in the top of the 7th, ground singles by Cash and Horton gave the Tigers something that looked suspiciously like a rally. And all of a sudden Jim Northrup hit a screaming line drive to deep center field that Curt Flood could not run down, and when the dust settled Northrup was standing on third with a two-run triple. Many people have suggested that Flood misjudged the ball but the ball was really crushed, and hit directly over his head. Flood was a great center fielder, but not great enough on this play. Freehan doubled down the line and, just like that it was 3-0 Tigers.

The Tigers scored again in the eighth, and that was more than enough for Lolich. In fact, he came within one batter of a shutout before allowing a harmless home run to Mike Shannon to make the final score 4-1. With the victory, the Tigers became just the third team in history to come back from a 3-1 World Series deficit.

The 1968 World Series was anticipated because of the historic pitching matchup between Bob Gibson and Denny McLain, a matchup that ended up being somewhat of a dud. Gibson was fantastic, faltering only after 24 innings of otherworldly pitching, living up to his billing as the best in the game. McLain, soundly routed in both head-to-head games, ironically ended up on the winning side.

And it was the unheralded Mickey Lolich, unmentioned in all the pre-series hype, whom McLain could thank for his cherished World Series ring.

 

A Series To Remember (1980 NLCS)

 

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Note: This article was originally published at TheNationalPastimeMuseum.com in October 2017 and is reprinted here by permission.

I am here to sing the praises of the 1980 NLCS. All five of the games are on YouTube, and I recommend visiting (or revisiting) all of them. The games were spectacular, and the baseball is nearly unrecognizable to a modern fan. There were 16 bunts – two of them for singles – and just one home run. There were six triples, and only 56 strikeouts by both teams. The ball was constantly in play, and the games were decided by defenders and base runners.

The two combatants were the Philadelphia Phillies and the Houston Astros. The Phillies had lost three straight NLCS in 1976-78, and had not reached the World Series since 1950. They had the best player in the league, third baseball Mike Schmidt (48 home runs and a 171 OPS+) and the best pitcher in the league, Steve Carlton (24-9, 2.34 ERA). The Phillies won the division by a single game, beating the Expos 2-of-3 the final weekend.

 

In the West, the Astros entered that weekend with a 3 game lead over the Dodgers, and promptly lost them all in Dodger Stadium before winning a one-game playoff, also in LA, on Monday. The Astros were a more balanced team – their best players were outfielders Jose Cruz, Cesar Cedeno, and Terry Puhl. They had been devastated by a tragic stroke suffered by ace pitcher J.R. Richard in July – he was out for the season and, it turned out, his career was finished.

The series also featured baseball’s two most famous players – Phillies first baseman Pete Rose and Astros pitcher Nolan Ryan. Though still considered a team leader and spiritual inspiration, Rose had a terrible season — .282 with one home run. Ryan, signed for a record deal in the previous off-season, was better than that (11 wins with a 3.35 ERA in the world’s best pitcher’s park) though not yet earning his lofty contract.

 

Game 1, Tuesday October 7

The series was best-of-5, starting on Tuesday in Philadelphia. The Phillies had Monday off, while the Astros played Game 1 the day after their playoff on the other side of the country.

Game 1 was the most ordinary contest, so we shall not dwell on it. The Astros scratched out a run in the third, then Carlton and ace reliever Tug McGraw shut them down for a 3-1 victory. The key hit was 2-run homer from slugger Greg Luzinski.

 

Game 2, Wednesday October 8

Ryan got the call, facing Dick Ruthven. The game followed a similar pattern, with the visitors cobbling together a run in the third (walk, bunt, single), before doubles by Schmidt and Luzinski and a single by Maddox gave the Phillies a 2-1 lead after four. At this point it seemed inevitable that the star-laden Phillies would make quick work of the series.

The Astros tied the game in the 7th when Ryan drew a two-out walk and scored on a Puhl double that reached the wall in right center. Ryan expended a lot of effort hauling around the bases – a good relay would have had him at the plate – and lasted only three batters in the seventh (single, bunt single, bunt sacrifice) before his bullpen got out of the jam. Both teams scored in the eighth – the Astros on a Cruz single, the Phillies on a Garry Maddox single – and the game remained 3-3 after nine.

The Astros put up four runs in the top of the 10th – their typical collection of ground singles and bunts punctuated by a Dave Bergman triple, and the Phillies single run in the bottom half made the final score 7-4.

 

Game 3, Friday October 10

After a day off, the series moved to Houston for the first post-season game ever held indoors, the Phillies’ Larry Christenson against 20-game winner Joe Niekro. Not surprisingly, runs proved difficult to come by. Meaning: impossible. Although both teams got runs in scoring position a few times, the game was scoreless in the bottom of the 11th when Joe Morgan led off with a triple off the right field wall off McGraw. Morgan, limping the entire series with a bad knee, also had a big double off McGraw in Game 2. After two intentional walks, Denny Walling won the game with a shallow fly ball.

It is a challenge, 37 years after the events, to convey just how tense all of these games were. Each team relied on singles and doubles, and bunts to get a run or two at a time. And the crowds – at both stadiums, but especially indoors in Houston – created a cacophonous soundtrack to every pitch.

The Astros were one win away.

 

Game 4, Saturday October 11

Houston sent Vern Ruhle to the mound to try to close out the series, facing the great Carlton. The Astros managed single runs in the third and fourth, and Carlton departed after walking three men in the sixth. After seven innings the Phillies were down 2-0, six outs from elimination, and had not scored a run in 18 innings.

Before we continue, let’s revisit the craziest play of the series, of most any series, which probably had no effect on the outcome.

After Bake McBride and Manny Trillo led off the fourth with singles, Maddox hit a soft line drive back to Ruhle who, according to home plate umpire Doug Harvey’s initial ruling, trapped the ball. Ruhle threw to first for the apparent out. Art Howe, the first baseman, believed that Ruhle caught the ball and ran down to tag second base for (if Howe was right) a triple play. After Harvey conferred with his first base umpire Ed Vargo, he changed his call to a catch by Ruhle. So, triple play!

Not so fast. The six umpires conferred with NL president Chub Feeney, sitting in the first row puffing a big cigar, and changed their call again. Satisfying no one, the new ruling was double play – a catch, but McBride, who had reached third at the time second base was tagged, was ruled safe at second because (according to Harvey) he had been unfairly confused by the original call. The entire delay took 14 minutes. Both teams protested the game. Larry Bowa’s ground ball unceremoniously ended the inning.

The Phillies finally broke through with four singles and a fly ball in the eighth, scoring three runs and taking the lead. They kept that lead into the ninth, but the Astros tied it up again with (what else?) a walk, a bunt, and single by Terry Puhl. For the third straight game, we were going to the tenth inning.

The Phillies bats broke through quickly, with run scoring doubles by Luzinski and Trillo and a 5-3 lead. A few minutes later, the crazy game ended. The Phillies dropped their protest, and Feeney (who had made the ruling) denied the Astros’.

 

Game 5, Sunday October 12

Fittingly, the series went to the final game. The Astros had Ryan on the hill, squaring off against 22-year-old Marty Bystrom, who made his big league debut in September and won five games in the pennant race but had not pitched in 12 days.

Houston got the crowd roaring in the first when Jose Cruz, fabulous all week, laced a run-scoring double down the right field line. Philadelphia came right back in the second on a single by Bob Boone that plated two runs, and it stayed 2-1 through five.

In the bottom of the sixth, Denny Walling led off with a fly ball off the glove of Greg Luzinski for a two-base error. Alan Ashby singled him home, chasing Bystrom. Tied again, and it stayed that way when Ryan retired the Phillies in the seventh.

In the bottom of the inning the Astros broke through against Christenson, starting with a single from Puhl (.526 in the series), a sacrifice, a walk, another single, a wild pitch, and a triple from Art Howe. This made it 5-2 Houston, the crowd was unhinged, and Nolan Ryan went to the mound with six outs to go.

Nolan Ryan brought a lot of skills to battle over his spectacular career, but he sometimes struggled fielding his position. This affected him in Game 2, and it affected him again now. After Bowa led off with a bloop single past the shortstop, Boone hit a ground ball off Ryan’s glove (a tough chance, but usually a double play ball). Greg Gross bunted for another hit, loading the bases, and Pete Rose worked a walk on a full count, driving in a run and finishing Ryan’s night. After a ground out and a single tied the score, a Manny Trillo triple made it 7-5 and now the Phillies needed six outs.

Tug McGraw, who pitched in every game of the series, came in once again to nail it down. Except, no.

The Astros put together four singles, capped by the great Cruz, to tie the game again. ABC’s announcers – Keith Jackson, Don Drysdale and Howard Cosell – had been exclaiming all weekend that they had never seen games like this before, one after the other. Still, no resolution in sight.

Neither team scored in the ninth, giving us a fourth straight extra-inning games. The Phillies broke through with doubles by Del Unser and Garry Maddox in the top of the 10th to take an 8-7 lead, and the Astros, finally, could not answer in the bottom half.

When you hear grumpy people grousing about all the strikeouts and home runs today, the lack of singles and triples and defense and base running, this series is what they are talking about.

The games were spectacular.

 

Now Pitching: Pedro Martinez (1999 ALDS)

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Note: This article was originally published at TheNationalPastimeMuseum.com in October 2017 and is reprinted here by permission.

 

Although it seems like baseball’s Division Series round began just a few years ago, we have already had 88 of them. How many do you remember? Many baseball fans can tell you who played in the 2002 World Series (or the 1952 World Series), but remembering the four 2002 Division Series might be a more challenging task. It’s like knowing the history of the NCAA basketball regional finals.

That said, those 88 series have involved many memorable games and performances. The one we will be remembering today took place on October 11, 1999 at Cleveland’s Jacobs Field, and pitted the Red Sox and Indians in the rubber match of a five game series.

The 1999 Cleveland Indians featured one of the greatest offenses of all time. Featuring such talents as Roberto Alomar, Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, Kenny Lofton, David Justice, and Harold Baines, the team scored 1009 runs, the only team since 1950 to top 1000. Their pitchers were comparably serviceable, but how good did they have to be?

The Red Sox, on the other hand, featured two top-flight stars — pitcher Pedro Martinez and shortstop Nomar Garciaparra — and a group of veteran reclamation projects and young hopefuls. The team finished 9th in the league in runs scored, an unusual showing for a Red Sox team, especially one in the post-season.   But the team’s league best ERA was nearly all Pedro – in fact, he was the only pitcher to qualify for the ERA title.

Although Martinez had a marvelous career, filled with dozens of awe-inspiring performances, he was never more marvelous than he was during the 1999 and 2000 seasons, when batter after batter was reduced to a head-shaking prop on SportsCenter. The numbers – 41-10 with a 1.90 ERA and 597 strikeouts in 430 innings – are ridiculous even before considering Fenway Park and the inflated offenses of the period.

Watching Pedro’s undersized frame break off 125 pitches a game, be they 98 mph fastballs, knee-buckling curves, or head-shaking changeups, was both exhilarating and terrifying for Red Sox fans, in those pre-2004 “When is the other shoe going to drop?” days. As great as he was, he couldn’t possibly hold up, could he? He actually missed chunks of both seasons, managing only 29 (mainly incredible) starts in each year. His Mona Lisa might have been a 17-strikeout one-hitter in Yankee Stadium on September 10, 1999. But there are many candidates.

Somehow the 1999 Red Sox won 94 games, finished four games behind the Yankees, and nabbed the AL Wild Card spot and a date with the Indians, winners of their fifth straight AL Central title. The Red Sox were underdogs, but knew they would be favorites in Pedro’s starts.

That thin hope last four innings, which is how long it took Pedro, leading 2-0, to leave the game with a pulled muscle in his back, just below the right shoulder blade. (Ugh.) Cleveland came back to win the game, 3-2, then cruised to an 11-1 victory the next day. Bret Saberhagen, the Red Sox Game 2 starter, had pitched quite well in 1999 around two trips to the disabled list, but was no match for the Indians wrecking crew.

Just when everyone in New England had given up, the Red Sox won the next two games in Boston. On Saturday, they backed (Pedro’s brother) Ramon Martinez (whose sore arm limited him to just four regular season games) with a six-run 7th and a 9-3 victory. That was just a warm-up for their 23-7 romp on Sunday, highlighted by 24 hits. Improbably, the series returned to Cleveland, knotted at two games apiece.

The Game 5 starters were a rematch of the Game 2 blowout: Charles Nagy and Bret Saberhagen, both pitching on three days rest. For the Indians, this was according to plan. For the Red Sox, this was an adjustment to Pedro’s injury.

In FOX’s pregame show, Steve Lyons questioned the “pulled muscle” diagnosis, suggesting that Pedro had actually injured his shoulder and should be shut down for the year. Alternatively, Keith Olbermann reported the Pedro had warmed up earlier in the day and might be able to pitch an inning or two if needed. Facing a team of All-Stars on their home turf, even this seemed hardly seemed enough.

Garciaparra, the Red Sox’ other superstar, got the Red Sox started by blasting a two-run homer to deep center in the first, but the Indians struck back with three in the bottom half (including a 477-foot bomb from Jim Thome) and two more in the second. Just like that, Saberhagen was done, and the Indians led 5-2. Derek Lowe, essentially the Red Sox only trustworthy reliever, had already pitched 6 1/3 innings in the series but was needed in the second inning.

The first huge moment of the contest came in the top of the third. The Red Sox scraped together a run and had runners on second and third with one out and Garciaparra at the plate. Suitably alarmed, Indians manager Mike Hargrove chose to walk the star to face the decidedly less alarming Troy O’Leary. Oddly enough, O’Leary hit Nagy’s first pitch, a high curve ball, over the right field wall for a grand slam and a 7-5 lead. To say the least, this was a shocking turn of events.

The Indians were so disheartened that they scored three run in the bottom of the third, including another monster Thome home run to deep center, to retake the lead. Right about the time Thome got back to the dugout, the television cameras provided us with the sight of Number 45 kicking the dirt in front of the bullpen mound.

“Pedro Martinez starts to loosen for the Red Sox,” Joe Buck intoned on the FOX telecast.

Lowe got through the third inning, though he was obviously spent.

The Red Sox got a John Valentin sacrifice fly in the top of the fourth, tying the game at 8. As the inning ended, Pedro Martinez, clad in his navy blue warmup jacket, took the long walk from the centerfield bullpen to the pitcher’s mound. How much he could approximate the Real Pedro was an open question.

It took Pedro a while to get going. He did not appear to have a good fastball early on (topping out at 91 in his first inning), and instead had to make due with his incredible curve ball and historic changeup.

The second huge moment of the game came in the bottom of the fifth, the game still tied. After Manny Ramirez drew a one-out walk, nearly getting hit in the head with the 2-1 pitch, Jim Thome, with two monster home runs in the game so far, strode to the plate. After falling behind 3-0, Pedro, seemingly oblivious to the gravity of the situation, got two called strikes and then blew Thome away with a middle-middle fastball for his first strikeout. A minute later he got Harold Baines for his second. For the first time, it dawned on everyone that the Real Pedro, not some desperate Hail Mary, was on the mound.

The game stayed 8-8 through six because Sean DePaula, pitching the game of his life but destined to be a footnote in the drama, matched Martinez with three hitless innings.

The Red Sox finally broke through in the top of the seventh. With a runner on second and one out, Hargrove once again elected to walk Garciaparra intentionally. After all, it worked so well the last time. Once again, O’Leary hit the first pitch over the right field wall for an 11-8 lead.

To be honest, the rest was just a coronation. As formidable as the Indians hitters were, no one believed anyone could score three runs off THIS Pedro Martinez.

They did not. In fact, they didn’t get a hit. Martinez finished up with six innings of no-hit baseball, striking out eight. The Red Sox tacked on another run in the ninth when the Indians finally decided to pitch to Garciaparra with a runner on second, and he drilled a double off the left field wall. Perhaps having proven his point, Hargrove then walked O’Leary.

The final was 12-8. Pedro Martinez, who we all thought was injured and unavailable, shut down one of the greatest offenses in baseball history in what was, at that point, the biggest game of his life.

The victorious Red Sox, bruised and battered as they were, advanced to the ALCS, where the World Champion Yankees were waiting.

 

 

Great Topps Monopoly 10: Conclusion

Note: This article was originally published at TheNationalPastimeMuseum.com on June 9, 2016 and is reprinted here by permission.

ARMOUR PART10 1957 ClementeRoberto

Way back at the beginning of this series I boldly proclaimed that before I wrapped up I was going to crown the best card set of Topps’ monopoly years, and I have not yet done that. Before I do, I wanted to pass along a few points you should consider before you inevitably disagree with me.

  1. When I conducted an informal survey last fall, there was nothing even close to a consensus, and most people selected a card set that was a big part of their childhood, perhaps even the very first set they collected. This is not a criticism—the success and continued popularity of older baseball cards are tied to our memories of being a kid and learning and falling in love with the game. It is only natural that our earliest card sets hold the most power over us.
  2. I like all 25 of these sets, including the one you think I am neglecting. There are beautiful (and unattractive) cards in each of these sets.
  3. They are just baseball cards. Lighten up!

If you have read the previous articles of this series, you already know some of the things I value about cards. I kept (and still keep) my cards loose (not in albums), sorted them by team, and used them to learn about players and organize lineups and pitching staffs. So the back of the card is important—not only the content, but also the readability. I did not like cards that were airbrushed—I would prefer the player be shown with his former team rather than Topps’ attempt to draw a fake hat or (even worse) uniform.

ARMOUR PART10 1968 ClementeOliva

I liked a card front that drew your eyes to the color photo, and not to the border, and I liked the team name to be large and color-coded. I liked some subsets (All-Star cards, World Series cards, multiplayer cards) more than others (boyhood photos, team cards, season highlights).

I wanted Topps to change their designs every year, to try new things, understanding that some of the innovations would not take. Importantly, I reserve the right to like changes that break some of the rules above. As Justice Potter Stewart might have said, I can’t tell you what a great baseball card is, but I know it when I see it.

As a start, I will mention a card set I did NOT choose: the set that meant the most to me as a kid. I was eight years old in 1969, and it was the year I really went over the moon for baseball. I love the designs of the front, and I love the designs of the back. So why shouldn’t that be the pick?

ARMOUR PART10 1969 BrockLou

 

Unfortunately, I decided I needed to apply a bit of objectivity to the process, and I simply could not ignore that 37 percent of the 1969 base cards were either hatless or had an airbrushed hat, and that several dozen photos were recycled from the previous year or earlier. If this set was allowed to simply submit its best 50 samples, it very well might have won. But when you look at the entire body of work, as much as it hurts me, I can’t get there.

Here, therefore, are Topps’ 10 greatest card sets from their monopoly years.

#10 – 1963

ARMOUR PART10 1963 BanksAaron

In 1963, Topps switched to the white card stock that they used for eight years. The card back was basically perfect, but I did knock the set down a few notches for the blurry, black and white secondary photo they put on the front of the base cards (not shown on this multiplayer card). Topps had a great group of subsets in this era but were using floating heads on their leader and rookie cards, which also hurts their final ranking.

 

#9 – 1976

ARMOUR PART10 1976 BlylevenBert

This is a difficult ranking to settle on, since Topps matched a fantastic card front with a dull and hard-to-read card back. I finally decided that if I maintained my strict standards for the back I would be left with nothing from the 1970s.

 

#8 – 1966

ARMOUR PART10 1966 YastrzemskiCarl

Besides being the golden age for card backs, this was also the golden age for crisp color photography. By the early 1970s, Topps was switching to more action shots and also more candid still shots (the player might be just chilling near the dugout, looking askance). In 1966, there were a lot of beautiful posed shots under clear blue skies.

Over his long career Carl Yastrzemski was featured on 24 Topps base cards (1960 to 1983) and several other leader and All-Star cards. I am fairly sure that this is the only time the photographer ever caught him smiling.

 

#7 – 1961

ARMOUR PART10 1961 MathewsEddie

After a few years of experimentation, Topps put out a card with the photograph as the dominant element. The set is hurt by the new expansion teams and all of their hatless photos, but there are some fine subsets included. Many of the head-shot portraits—like Luis Aparicio, Al Kaline, and Mickey Mantle—are simply gorgeous photos.

 

#6 – 1956

ARMOUR PART10 1956 MinosoMinnie

This was the last of the larger-sized cards that Topps introduced in 1952. I might dock them a bit for only having one year worth of statistics, which is perhaps unfair—Topps did not invent the multiyear card back until 1957. The backs are actually wonderful. Baseball cards, at bottom, should be made to appeal to kids, and these are great on that score.

 

#5 – 1971

ARMOUR PART10 1971 DavisWillie

This is a difficult and very personal ranking. There might not be a card set that I most enjoy looking at, and I think the card fronts are perfect—Topps’ pinnacle. The backs, as I have explained, are not, and card backs are generally very important to me. Ultimately, I decided to go with my heart.

 

#4 – 1965

ARMOUR PART10 1965 HowardElston

If you had asked me a year ago, or five years ago, or anytime in the past 20 years, about my favorite card sets I doubt this one would have been mentioned. It was before my time, and I had gradually put a set together without the enthusiasm I had for other years. But the past few months have not been all fun and games—I have been studying these sets, comparing the backs, comparing all of the various subsets, determining how many cards are altered or hatless. I just tried to use as much objective criteria as I could. The more I did this, the more this set kept coming up roses, and I kept looking at them and thumbing through my stacks, and finally I decided that it was a pretty awesome effort by the folks at Topps Chewing Gum, Inc.

 

#3 – 1970

ARMOUR PART10 1970 HowardFrank

I know a lot of people don’t appreciate the grey border, especially when compared with what came along the next two years. Me, I love it without reservation. And I also consider this a major return to normalcy for Topps after all the problems they had with uniforms and players over the previous two years. If you judge a set by how many superstars had great cards, the 1970 set earns this high grade.

 

#2 – 1957

ARMOUR PART10 1957 Dodgers

For the first time, Topps used color photography on the front of the card, and they took advantage of this by having the photo stretch nearly from corner to corner. Beautiful cards throughout were made especially great by the wonderful backdrops of Yankee Stadium and Ebbets Field. This could easily be No. 1. My complete sets only go back to 1964, and there is no set I would more like to own than this one.

 

#1 – 1967

ARMOUR PART10 1967 GibsonBob

If you read this series from the beginning you might remember that these were the first cards I ever bought. Therefore, you might be thinking, my selection of this set at No. 1 is just pure nostalgia, in a “I got to see all the cool bands” sort of way. In my defense, I was just six years old and did not even collect half of the cards that summer. If I had chosen to put the thumb on the scale it would have been for 1969, which I collected all summer long and has a big pull on me to this day.

I could give a lot of reasons why this set deserves its ranking, though it is undeniable that many of what I consider “tastes” could have been set in place that summer. I have always preferred sets with the team name as the dominant element, a colorful easy-to-read back, cartoons, poses where I can see and learn the player’s face. If I had begun collecting in 1972, I might have grown up preferring gauche borders, wide camera shots, blurry images with faces obscured by shadowing. But I didn’t, so here we are.

Someday I will likely have to start making a plan to divest myself of my old cards. When I do, this will be the last set to go.

*****

The closest thing I ever had to a “hang out” location, like the bar in Cheers or the barbershop in the Andy Griffith Show, was a baseball card shop in Reading, Massachusetts, called “Bill’s Place.” Most every Saturday morning for a few years around 1990 I would get up, do a few chores around the house, and then head to Bill’s for a few hours of baseball talk with Bill and a few other regulars. Bill was a generation older than me, but a friend to all who walked in. This was the absolute peak of the national card craze, but Bill avoided both the frenzy and the crash. He stocked newer cards to get people into the store, but most of his customers were old loyalists who wanted to talk about Jackie Jensen while they rifled through old card boxes. Sometimes I bought a few things, sometimes I didn’t.

Sometime in early 1992 I decided that I had too many baseball cards. There were several new sets coming out every year by this point, and the whole thing was getting exhausting. I worked out a deal with Bill: I gave him all of my post-1980 sets (about 40 in all, more than 25,000 cards) and he gave me $2,000 in store credit. In my subsequent shopping spree, I selected 15 cards, including beautiful 1957s of Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Ted Williams.

As a baseball card collector, I had retired from the mania and speculation and chase cards and gimmicks and 10 sets per year. Instead, I had cast my lot with an earlier age, when Topps created 600 cards a year for school kids to trade on the playground.

I still buy baseball cards now and then, but they arrive in the mail one or two at a time. It’s not what it was—I no longer have the excitement of opening a wax pack and seeing cards I have never laid eyes on before.

But once in a while I can take down my 1970 set, look over my stacks for the Orioles and Reds, and remember the lineups they used in that year’s World Series. And suddenly I am back in fifth grade, without a care in the world.


Thank you to The Topps Company for granting us permission to use images of their cards in this series.

 

Great Topps Monopoly 9: Competition

Note: This article was originally published at TheNationalPastimeMuseum.com on June 2, 2016 and is reprinted here by permission.

ARMOUR PART09 1976 AaronHank

 

Although Fleer had failed its legal challenges to Topps in the 1960s it continued to keep its hands in the baseball memorabilia game, selling team stickers or cards honoring past World Series with bubblegum in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1975 Fleer asked Topps permission to market stickers or stamps of current players. When Topps refused, Fleer filed suit against both Topps and the Players Association to try to break the monopoly. In its suit, Fleer claimed that it could not compete in the bubblegum market without the ability to include baseball cards with its product.

The litigation took several years to play out, but in 1980 a federal court found for Fleer, ordering the players union to issue at least one additional group license for 1981. In the event, both Fleer and Donruss, another gum company, joined Topps in 1981, helping to usher in an explosion in card sets, and card popularity, that lasted a bit more than a decade. An appeals court overturned Fleer’s victory late in 1981, but the two upstarts simply replaced their gum with stickers or puzzle pieces, and the monopoly was finished.

I am getting a bit ahead of my story here, but by 1990 there were five major card companies and a dozen card sets being put out every year. Instead of kids riding their bike to the store with a quarter and riding home with 25 cards, monied adults were buying cases filled with tens of thousands of cards and putting them in their basement to save for their retirement. There were sports card stores in every strip mall and price guides in every bookstore. Kids were no longer “playing” with their cards; they were putting them in albums or in hard plastic cases. As the cards had no more intrinsic value than they had when they were being sold for a penny, the crash of the baseball card bubble in the early 1990s seemed inevitable.

But that is not our story. When we left off last time, the Topps monopoly still had five more years to run.

1976 (660 cards)

ARMOUR PART09 1976 BrettGeorgeFront  ARMOUR PART09 1976 BrettGeorgeBack

In the spring of 1976 I sent a check off to Renata Galasso, a New York hobby dealer who advertised in the baseball magazines of the period. I recall that I paid about $15, plus postage, and she returned to me a complete set of 1976 Topps baseball cards. I believe I bought a few packs of cards in the spring just out of habit, but for the most part I had finally chosen the simpler (and less expensive) option. A downside is that I had no doubles (extra copies of cards), but I knew no other 15-year-old baseball card collectors to trade with anyway. Trying to complete a card set by buying card packs all summer is, all things considered, an insane endeavor.

I have heard it said that even people who collected cards in this period have a hard time telling the card sets apart starting about 1976. Personally, I quite like the 1976 front design—a nice clean card with the photo extending nearly from corner to corner other than the position silhouette and name/team graphic at the bottom. The backs of the cards were informative if you had great lighting. (I am going to stop complaining about the dark card stock, a Topps staple for 20 years.) Topps uses a cartoon on the back, but it highlights a random piece of baseball trivia, unrelated to this particular player.

ARMOUR PART09 1976 RiceJimOne of the great things about the 1976 cards for us Red Sox fans was seeing the first cards of Jim Rice and Fred Lynn. Collectors today are doubtless protesting, “Hold on there. They both had Rookie Cards in 1975!” But again, I cannot stress enough how lame those four-person cards were for someone who used his cards the way I did. The 1976 Lynn and Rice cards were real cards, with real photos and backs. To me, those will always be their first cards. The rest of you can believe what you want.

In one of the 1976 subsets, Topps produced cards for an all-time All-Star team. There were two pitchers, making a total of 10 cards. All but one of the players played before World War II—Lou Gehrig, Rogers Hornsby, Pie Traynor, Honus Wagner, Ted Williams, Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Mickey Cochrane, Walter Johnson, and Lefty Grove. The selections were fairly standard for the time; Sabermetrics had not yet downgraded Traynor, and casual histories (then and now) rarely recognize more recent greatness.

 

ARMOUR PART09 1976 GambleOscarTraded

Topps also put out a Traded subset, as they had in 1974, putting the 44 cards in packs starting in midsummer. Since I had already bought my set, I did not get around to acquiring these cards until years later. Like the 1974 Traded cards, all are airbrushed, and some of them (like the Oscar Gamble) show up in articles that mock old Topps cards. As someone who loves old Topps cards, I am less amused

 

1977 (660 cards)

ARMOUR PART09 1977 SchmidtMikeFront  ARMOUR PART09 1977 SchmidtMikeBack

By the time these cards came along I was 16 years old, finishing my junior year of high school, and my card collecting was something I kept on the side of my life, something I paid attention to when I had nothing else to do. My social life was not exactly thriving, and my high school peers knew me as someone who followed sports of all kinds. I was, for example, the “smart” kid who nearly overslept the SATs because I was up late watching a West Coast NBA playoff game. But as much as I might be a go-to guy for conversations about the Red Sox or Bruins, it’s not like I was bringing my baseball cards into school to show my friends. I wasn’t “hiding” anything, but they had become something like nostalgia for my fading youth.

ARMOUR PART09 1977 FidrychMark

The 1977 cards again used a white border and a color-coded team graphic. The design seemed a little less elegant than the previous year for some reason, and the backs again used the green-grey pattern with a cartoon for a baseball fact unrelated to the player. Topps had two more expansion teams to deal with, giving their airbrush artists more work to do and the rest of us some cringe-worthy cards to deal with.

 

1978 (726 cards)

ARMOUR PART09 1978 RyanNolanFront  ARMOUR PART09 1978 RyanNolanBack

Topps put out another white-border special in 1978, though they made the design cleaner and the photo larger than the previous year. And the back, despite the grey card stock, may have been Topps’ best since 1970. I do not remember too much about collecting these cards—perhaps I was too busy graduating from high school and being the most popular kid in my hometown or something.

ARMOUR PART09 1978 GarveySteve

In recent articles I have mentioned my fondness for the All-Star subset Topps used from 1958 to 1962 and again from 1968 to 1970. These teams were not related to the annual All-Star Game—they were Topps’ choices (or the choices of The Sporting News in some seasons) looking ahead to the season. Topps never went completely back to the full subset, but they did designate players as All Stars in some years. In 1974, they had a smaller subset that put two players on a card (for example, Joe Morgan and Rod Carew as the two All-Star second basemen). Starting the next year they put the All-Star designation on the player’s base card, a feature of the Topps set for the next several years.

Rod Carew was designated an All Star in each of these seven seasons (1974–80), while Johnny Bench and Joe Morgan were so named six times. Carew had also been named in 1968 through 1970 and likely would have been in the intervening years had Topps not dropped the habit for a few years.

 

1979 (726 cards)

ARMOUR PART09 1979 SmithOzzieARMOUR PART09 1979 SmithOzzieBack

The first time I ever entered a card store was the summer of 1979 in the neighborhood outside Fenway Park. By this time I was no longer particularly passionate about the latest card series put out by Topps, but I was increasingly interested in my childhood collection. A decade earlier there were still ads in The Sporting News inviting you to buy baseball cards from older Topps sets for three cents apiece. Any card. You want a 1961 Mickey Mantle? OK, but its going to cost you three cents, plus postage, and there might be a 10-card minimum. You might have to pay three cents for Willie Mays too.

By the mid-1970s, there were hobby magazines, a few card shows around the country, and dealers trying to BUY your cards. The good news is that I could buy some of the cards I had never been able to acquire back in my misspent youth. The bad news is that the cards were no longer three cents.

ARMOUR PART09 1979 OtisAmos

The 1979 Topps set seemed to fit in with all of the other Topps sets of the era—a white border with a new variation on the three constant design elements (name, team, position). The addition of the Topps name to the front could have been a harbinger of the coming end to their primacy in the hobby.

 

1980 (726 cards)

ARMOUR PART09 1980 JacksonReggieFrontARMOUR PART09 1980 JacksonReggieBack

Topps’ final card issue of the era is another white-bordered, grey-backed special, and there is little to add at this point beyond the images. One decided improvement is that the cartoon on the back related to the player on the front, as opposed to just a piece of baseball trivia.

ARMOUR PART09 1980 PiratesStars

I mentioned earlier that I always appreciated the multiplayer Rookie Stars subset, especially starting after Topps went away from the “floating heads.” In 1973 Topps decided to stop putting out one or two cards for each team (“Red Sox Rookie Stars”) and instead group the players by position (“Rookie Outfielders”). They also dramatically reduced the number of such cards. As someone that always kept his cards sorted by team, this posed a problem. I basically had to put the cards in their own separate stack. Topps reversed this decision in 1979 and put out exactly one such card per team (with three players per card). In 1980 Topps boldly referred to the players as “Future Stars,” a stature not all of them would merit.

 

Thank you to The Topps Company for granting me permission to use images of their cards in this series.

Next week: I wrap up the series with a look back at the 10 greatest card sets of the great Topps monopoly.