Topps Time Machine — Destination 1972

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Who remembers Walt Williams?  If you do, you probably can’t help but insert his nickname here — “No Neck.”  I’ve been killing some time recently going back to the days of my youth by leafing through old baseball card albums and shoe boxes that used to be prominently stored in my boyhood closet (in fact, when I remember those days of the early ’70’s, there was a curious dichotomy between the complete chaos of all things strewn about my bedroom, and the meticulous system of order I had put in place to properly classify my baseball cards).

As I look through these cards today I find it fascinating to compare and contrast the reactions I have now versus those I recall having had as a kid. The ballplayers captured back in the 1972 Series were all 20 to 30 years older than I was, and today those same stars, benchwarmers and solid major leaguers are all 20 to 30 years younger than I am.  Circle of life, or something?

So when I look today, I fondly recall the uber-cool nickname of Walt “No Neck” Williams, but I can’t help but find it puzzling why no one took a look at Ed Brinkman’s 1972 Topps card and began calling him Ed “Long Neck” Brinkman.  Or Ed “Two Necks” Brinkman.  In fact, if I was either the Tigers or White Sox GM back in the day (by the way, to this day I consider being the General Manager of a major league baseball team to be the absolute most desirable profession going — something current-me has in common with 7-year-old-me), I most certainly would have orchestrated a trade to add one to the other, or maybe for each other, just for the “neck comparison.”

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I mean, come on, take a look at Brinkman!  Missed opportunity all around back in ’72. And while on the subject, Brinkman actually had a well above-average career, spent mostly with the Senators and Tigers, with a plus glove and occasional pop as well (14 HR’s in ’74).  What happened to those days when the shortstop was an automatic out?  I kind of miss those slick fielding, choke-up-the-bat and hope-for-the-best shortstops of the early-’70’s.  In my preferred division, the NL East, at that time the starting short stops included our beloved Buddy Harrelson, Don Kessinger in Chicago, Dal Maxvill for the Cards and Larry Bowa for the Phils.  Over in the NL West you had Roger Metzger in Houston and Sonny Jackson in Atlanta.  Punch and Judy’s all around.

Slot that skinny guy into the 8-hole in the order and pencil in a .225 average with 2 homers and 37 RBI’s over the course of 500+ AB’s and call it a day.  No Cal Ripkens or A-Rods back then, and there was something that felt right about that if you ask me.

But I digress.  Flipping through those ’72’s, there seems today to be so many untold backstories dying for a caption practically jumping out of the staged batting stances and defensive ready positions that the Topps photography teams used for their shoots in the early ’70’s.  For instance, let’s start with poor Lee May for a second.

In 1970 he was an anchor in the middle of the order for the initial version of the Big Red Machine. He absolutely mashed NL pitching and helped lead the Reds to the World Series (in Sparky Anderson’s first year as Reds manager), where they lost to a scary good Orioles team. In 1971 he followed that up by finishing third in the NL in round trippers during what was a down year for nearly all of his Reds teammates.  They finished under .500 and May was basically the only guy who didn’t take a notable step back in his stats.

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So how do the Reds reward him?  Yup, they traded him.  And didn’t just trade him, but sent him to what at that time was a hopeless outpost of desperation — Houston. Now full disclosure here — the Reds got Joe Morgan in return for May and Tommy Helms (another above-average middle infielder back in the day), but he wasn’t Joe Morgan the Hall of Famer at that point in his career, so you really can’t blame Lee if he was a bit bewildered when the Topps team arrived on the scene that spring.

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If that expression on poor Lee May’s face doesn’t say “you traded me where???” then I don’t know what does.  And in classic Topps style, I’m pretty sure that the Astros logo on Lee’s helmet was painted in by the team back at the lab.  Yup, Lee May.  To his credit he kept on hitting, even in the Astrodome in front of crowds of 11,000 or so, but it was never the same for ole Lee.

A couple of others I found funny.  Take a look at the expression on Bobby Valentine’s face here.  In the spring of ’72 he was being touted as the next great Dodger, and everyone had high expectations (including I’m sure Bobby V) for what he would accomplish in Dodger Blue.

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As sure as Lee May looked to me like he was about to burst into tears in his 1972 Topps card, the inimitable Bobby V is clearly announcing himself to the world in his card (by the way, I was always a fan of the “backhand reach” pose that Topps frequently used with middle infielders) with his best “Hey, look at me!” smile.  With the benefit of 45 years of history now at our disposable, what we can say with certainty is that the baseball world was getting an early glimpse at someone who would go on to distinguish himself as one of MLB’s biggest horse’s asses, first as a player and later as a manager (and yes, he got us to the 2000 series, but he also put on a fake nose and mustache in the dugout once, too — defense rests).

Not to be outdone, Billy Martin’s 1972 Topps offering speaks volumes.

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Take a close look at Billy’s left hand resting on the bat.  Yup, he’s flipping Topps (and I suppose both 7-year-old me and 50-something-year-old me) the bird!  And again, armed with the benefit of the historical rearview mirror, we just know that’s no accident. While Bobby Valentine’s shit-eater of a smile only foreshadowed years of all-about-me, smartest-guy-in-the-dugout narcissism, Martin’s middle finger salute simply confirmed what all who had witnessed both his playing and managerial career to date in 1972 already knew — he was one of the all-time great jackasses of the game.

Only a couple more.  This seemingly harmless Dave Duncan card contains a jewel for those interested in obscure statistical anomalies.  Duncan was an above-average catcher with some pop for several great A’s teams, including their first World Series winner in 1972. However, he is perhaps best known for becoming one of the game’s most esteemed pitching coaches following the conclusion of his playing career, primarily working his magic on championship staffs managed by Tony LaRussa in Chicago, Oakland and St. Louis.  But for baseball wonks like yours truly, here’s what caught my eye:

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In 1969 Dave Duncan recorded 127 AB’s for the A’s and hit .126.  Really?? He hit .126 and stuck around for over 120 AB’s??  Today he doesn’t last more than 10 games with that stat line, but back then the catchers were in the lineup for their gloves/arms and for the pitchers.  So you could appear in more than a third of your team’s games (58 in 1969 for Duncan) and not hit a lick.  Wow, not sure why this strikes me as amazing, but it does.

While on the subject of those great A’s teams of the early ’70’s, was there a cooler pitcher (heck, was there a cooler Major Leaguer) than Vida Blue?  From his name itself (kudos to his parents for coming up with “Vida”), to his off-the-hook 1971 stats as essentially a rookie (only 312 IP, 24-8 record with a 1.82 ERA and 8 shutouts, not to mention 301 K’s) that earned him both MVP and Cy Young awards, the guy was just bad ass.  Plus he could hit reasonably well for a pitcher and chose to run off the mound at the end of the inning during a time when starters always walked back to the dugout (shout out to Mel Stottlemeyer who also ran as I recall — I’m sure there are others, but I just remember Vida Blue and Mel).

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And yes, this is the 1971 Topps (my personal favorite by the way, for those awesome black borders), and even though a year prior to my 1972 Time Machine destination, it just had to make it into this post for the peace sign (or at least what I like to think today was a peace sign).  Vida is still kicking around the Bay Area these days, primarily as a community ambassador for the Giants, with whom he resurrected his career in the late-’70’s, and he is roundly revered by all as simply a great guy, but to me he will always be an A’s starter with that peace sign in the air. Yup, so cool.

Last note from the Time Machine.  It’s interesting what memories get jogged loose when stepping back in time to another era.  Who remembers Cleo James?

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Guessing this may be a darn small fan club.  Most of us baseball fans have that one game they remember that got them hooked.  Mine was on June 23, 1970 (thanks once again to Baseballreference.com for taking a random memory and finding the exact game when it took place), when the Mets were in the process of winning an exceptionally exciting afternoon tilt in extra innings against the Cubs, 12-10.  My memorable moment took place in the 5th, when the Cubs erased an 8-5 Mets lead with a rally that included a speedy Cleo James racing around from first on a Randy Hundley double to tie things at 8.

It was a bang-bang- play at the plate and as the ump signaled safe I raced off screaming to my parents about the injustices of my Mets losing a BIG lead (more foreshadowing here Mets fans about what my future as a diehard would so frequently feel like) and that the WORST PART was that the Cubs player who tied the game was CLEON JAMES.

Not the at-the-time clean shaven Cleon Jones of the Mets, but a faster, cooler Cleon who was part of the hated Cubs (did every team have a “Cleon” I wondered?), and who had just ruined my afternoon! I’m not sure which was more frustrating to me at the time, the loss of the lead or the patronizing way my parents tried to tell me I must be mistaken about the identity of the Cub who had scored.

There surely could not be another Cleon in the league, let alone one with the last name “James,” so similar to our Cleon’s, they explained to me. Try as I might, all I got was that “isn’t he cute” reaction that made me want to start kicking grownup shins with reckless abandon.  The fact that the following morning’s Star Ledger sports column and recap vindicated me (sort of, since his name was Cleo, not Cleon) did little to ease the pain.  At least the Mets had come back and won in extras. And I was hooked as a Mets fan and remember that sequence to this day.

Fast forward to May 1, 1972, somewhere near Madison, NJ.  My friend Roddy’s birthday party (he was a year younger than me and also a fledgling card collector and baseball fan, although through some bad decision-making ended up a fan of the Yankees) included a “colored peanut scavenger hunt” with peanuts painted colors spread around Roddy’s yard to be collected by the dozens of party attendees, with corresponding points allotted for the various colors, and totals to be tallied at the end (of course anyone reading knows the real reason for the hunt was so the kids would be tired and sleep on the car ride home).  Being a year older than most of Roddy’s other friends counted for a lot at that age, and somehow my peanut colors added up to the most points.

To this day I remember my Aunt Alida smiling at me as she came outside with the prize (she had a great smile, my Aunt Alida), saying “I had a feeling you might win something today” before tossing me one of those super, three-pack, clear plastic covered Topps packages. This was the Magnus Opus for us card collectors, and what made those “three-packs” particularly awesome was the whole see-through thing, meaning you could get an idea of which ballplayers were waiting for you inside those plastic vaults.  And on top of that first sleeve, there in all his glory, was Cleo James.  Still have the card above, and will always have that memory.

If you are sitting on any old cards and have some time to kill (or maybe a mood that needs to be turned around), I recommend getting into that Time Machine and seeing where it takes you.  Nothing but good destinations await.

 

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