Card Corner Plus: Eight Who Left Us

(via Michelle Jay)

The end of an old year can be a difficult time, especially when we consider those we have lost over the last 12 months. The same holds true for baseball fans with a sense of history; as we approach the New Year celebration, I find myself thinking about the players who have died, in many cases players I remember vividly from their days on the field. Just how can it be that a player who was once so vital and strong, at the height of athletic achievement, succumbs to the effects of old age and illness? The answer, of course, is the human condition, but it’s still a question I find myself asking over and over.

That is one way to look at the deaths of ballplayers we once saw play. But rather than dwell on feelings tinged with sorrow and mourning, I prefer to look at the end of the year as a celebration of what these players have accomplished, the fond memories they have left us, and the passion for our great game they continue to stir, even months and years after their departures. Even in death, these players continue to re-energize our interest and our fandom.

Like most years, 2018 did not spare us. The list of significant contributors who have died is a long one. In December alone, we experienced the tragic loss of Luis Valbuena and Jose Castillo in a car accident that appears to have been arranged by a pack of robbers. We also heard of the passing of Alan “Dirty Al” Gallagher, one of the more colorful figures from the 1960s and ’70s. There is no way to properly address in this space all who have passed away in 2018, but there are at least a few who had a personal impact on me, and a few who we can remember through a selection of their baseball cards.

Two Hall of Famers died in 2018. The first was Red Schoendienst, who left us on June 6, at the age of 95. (At the time of his death, Schoendienst was the oldest living Hall of Famer.) A standout second baseman for the Milwaukee Braves and St. Louis Cardinals, he later became a manager, one who always seemed to offer a calm, guiding hand. With his pale features, Schoendienst always looked older than he was on his cards, as if he was already in his 60s, particularly his 1968 Topps card. In reality, he was only 45 at the time the card came out, still very young for a manager but far wiser than most of that age.

Unlike many managers of that era, Schoendienst was not a driving taskmaster; he was well liked and respected by his players, who responded by winning one World Series for him and advancing to another. He was a voice of reason, which perhaps explains why he once turned down an offer from Charlie Finley to manage the Oakland A’s in 1977. That was likely a good choice by Schoendienst on two fronts. Not only was Finley difficult to work for, but he had already gutted the franchise by that point, leaving the A’s in a state of disarray that would not begin to improve until the later arrival of Billy Martin.

Willie McCovey, who died on October 31, was the second Hall of Famer who passed away. Of all of his cards, I’ll remember him best for his 1973 Topps selection, which shows him coupled with Johnny Bench in an afternoon game at Candlestick Park. (I’m not sure who the outfielder is in the background, but it could either be Ken Griffey Jr. or Bobby Tolan, which only adds to the strong mix of talent here.) I’m not sure if anyone has ever done a study of the “most WAR assembled on a baseball card,” but this card just might win such award.

McCovey is also the answer to a question I’ve posed to dozens of pitchers I’ve interviewed over the years. Typically, I’ll ask pitchers from the ’60s and ’70s to identify the hitter who most intimidated them. Almost to a man, the response to the question is McCovey, followed soon after by Willie Stargell. With his massive build, powerful arms, and disciplined approach to hitting, Big Mac often proved a nightmarish experience for pitchers, especially right-handers. No one enjoyed facing McCovey — and for good reason.

Oscar Gamble, who died on January 31, was a poor man’s version of McCovey, a platoon performer and role player, but still an important contributor during a well-traveled career. Right-handed pitchers feared Gamble, particularly when he played at Yankee Stadium, with its inviting porch in right field. An outgoing man with an ability to turn a phrase, Gamble also became a cultural phenomenon, thanks to his record-setting Afro and stylish off-the-field manner of dress, which helped establish new fashion standards for players in an era when short haircuts and conservative clothes gave way to a new look.

With Gamble, it would be too easy to select his 1976 Topps Traded card, which shows his enormous Afro bulging out from underneath an airbrushed New York Yankees cap. Instead, I’ll go with a lesser-known but a personal favorite of mine. It’s a shot from 1983 Fleer that shows Gamble rhythmically waggling his bat, which he used as a timing mechanism, while assuming his trademark crouch in a game at Yankee Stadium. Gamble was always a far more scientific hitter than he was given credit for, and certainly one of the most distinctive.

Another distinctive hitter was Wally Moon, who used an inside-out swing to take advantage of the short left-field porch at the old Los Angeles Coliseum. Moon, who passed away on February 9, won the Rookie of the Year as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals, but is probably best remembered for his contributions to the world champion Los Angeles Dodgers of 1959 and the subsequent Dodgers teams of the early 1960s. In addition to his power, Moon was a remarkably disciplined hitter. He typically drew more walks than strikeouts, and led the National League with a .434 on-base percentage in 1961.

Almost all of Moon’s Topps cards are noteworthy, if only because of his celebrated eyebrows, which were as thick as a pile of weeds and continued like an oil pipeline, with no break in the middle. His unibrow was evident on many of his cards, but perhaps best showcased on his 1966 Topps selection. For this I’m sure Moon endured his share of teasing from teammates, but his unique look certainly made him memorable for young collectors of 1950s and ’60s cardboard.

A name like Moon can also make a player stand out. So can a name like Moses. Though he was primarily a backup catcher during his career, Jerry Moses will always remain memorable to me because of his 1973 Topps card. It’s a classic action shot of a catcher, outfitted fully in his position’s regalia, awaiting a throw that will not arrive in time to nab the runner, Mark Belanger of the Baltimore Orioles. It’s also a case of subtle deception, with the red stripes of Moses’ 1971 uniform (when he still played for the California Angels) wiped out so as to create the effect of a Yankees road uniform. It’s one of the best shots from 1973 Topps.

I knew relatively little about Moses’ backstory when I learned of his passing in late March; it motivated me to learn more. I found that Moses was a very popular player with the Boston Red Sox in the late ’60s and early ’70s, beloved by teammates, and a man who devoted much of his post-playing days to charitable causes, including the Jimmy Fund. A backup catcher on the surface, Moses turned out to be a lot more in terms of his real life contributions. His former Red Sox teammates have made it clear that he will be badly missed.

Bruce Kison was another player who gave us a memorable baseball card—and a whole lot more. His 1980 Topps card is probably my favorite; it’s a clear shot of Kison wearing those wonderfully gaudy Pittsburgh Pirates uniforms during the franchise’s 1979 championship season. Kison, who died in June after a struggle with cancer, is seen in his trademark pitching position, slightly hunched over as he intently picks up the sign from his catcher. It’s a classic shot of Kison, the man with the baby face who carried a mean streak to the mound.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Kison was one of the most intensely competitive pitchers of his era. His detractors called him a “headhunter” because of his habit of hitting opposing batters with inside fastballs, but his many supporters (who far outnumbered his critics) praised him for his extreme desire to win, his old school approach to pitching, and his passionate love of the game. In his later years, he became a respected coach and scout, lauded for his ability to teach and evaluate talent. That’s the Kison I’ll prefer to remember.

Like Kison and Moses, Rusty Staub was loved within the game. Tragically but poetically, Staub passed away on opening day, leaving many saddened on a day that traditionally instills feelings of warmth and nostalgia. He was an extraordinarily popular player in Montreal and New York, two of his many stops along a well-traveled career that bordered on Hall of Fame greatness. Some have called him a true baseball renaissance man because of his love of wine and food, but he was also a virtuoso at the plate, a remarkably studious player who took a measured approach to hitting, analyzed opposing pitchers, and believed in using the entire field to his advantage.

Rather famously, Staub chose not to sign with Topps in the early 1970s, with his holdout explaining his absence from cards in 1972 and ’73. Apparently Staub was unhappy with the compensation he was receiving from Topps, leading to the dispute. But he returned to the Topps fold in 1974, with a beautiful Shea Stadium shot that epitomizes his trademark look in uniform: no undershirt, no long sleeves, and only bare arms, regardless of the weather. With his left hand on his hip and with a slight look of dissatisfaction on his face, Staub exhibits his unhappiness with the home plate umpire. Generally a gregarious and upbeat sort, Staub rarely fought or argued with umpires; he used a quieter and more subtle approach in pleading his case.

Off the field, Staub did extraordinary work raising money for two charities that he held close: the widows of police and firefighters, and children in underprivileged families in need of food.

Staub was a onetime teammate of Bob Bailey, who carved out the peak of his career in Montreal. Bailey, who was suffering from diabetes and died in early January, was a onetime bonus baby who never quite lived up to his scouting reports during his early years in Pittsburgh and Los Angeles. There’s also a tendency to remember Bailey for his last stop, with the Boston Red Sox, when he was overweight and past his prime. His last at-bat came in the famed 1978 tiebreaker game against the New York Yankees, when Goose Gossage overpowered him with a series of fastballs. With his slowing bat, Bailey simply could not catch up to prime time Goose.

I’ll prefer to remember Bailey from the middle of his career, when he found his way with the expansion Expos. Responding well to advice and instruction from Gene Mauch, Bailey became a feared power hitter in 1970, when he posted a slash line of .287/.407/.597 and might have received some MVP support on a better team. His 1973 season was also very good, when he hit 26 home runs and put up an OPS of .868. That’s the year that my favorite Topps card of Bailey came out; with his dark features and leaner build, the ’73 version of Bailey looks much more like the player that I recall from the early years of my fandom.

Bailey was known for his smarts and level-headed nature. He was a classy man, too. On one occasion, an opposing player took a potshot at Bailey’s hitting skills. “If Mauch can make a hitter out of Bailey,” the player told a Montreal writer, “I’ll kiss him at home plate on Bat Day.” Bailey refused to respond in anger. Instead, he waited for some time to pass, and then, when he was asked about the insulting comment, he simply said, “You know, at the time he made that remark, the way I was swinging the bat, he wasn’t too far wrong.” That was Bob Bailey.

Bailey and these other seven prominent baseball figures all left a distinct impression on me. Of course, there were many other notables who died this year, including Tony Bartirome, Bob Barton, Ed “The Glider” Charles,  Tony Cloninger, Billy Connors, Steve Kline, Dave Nelson, Marty Pattin, Frank Quilici and Lee Stange. Each one had an impact on me, some small and some more sizable, but they all contributed tangibly to the baseball community. Each one leaves a hole, but we can take some consolation in knowing that others will step up to take up the slack.

For me, this is one of baseball’s great redeeming features. Its fans and followers can celebrate the legacies of those who have passed, while looking with hope toward a new year that will bring another series of accomplishments. Baseball suffers when its heroes leave us, but as a whole, the game always finds a way to live on.


Bruce Markusen has authored seven baseball books, including biographies of Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda and Ted Williams, and A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, which was awarded SABR's Seymour Medal.
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Da Bear
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Da Bear

“(I’m not sure who the outfielder is in the background, but it could either be Ken Griffey Jr. or Bobby Tolan, which only adds to the strong mix of talent here.)”

Junior was so prolific as to be outfield-ready in a big-league game by 3 years old? Who knew!

GoNYGoNYGoGo
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GoNYGoNYGoGo

Wonderful article, as always, Bruce. Bobby Tolan was a lighter skinned African-American man while Ken Griffey Sr was darker skinned. I would suspect that is therefore Tolan. Further, Griffey Sr. did not come up until August 1973, so very unlikely he would be pictured on a 1973 Topps card. As for highest WAR card ever, I thought of two: 1) 1962 Managers Dream card picturing Mays and Mantle as the subjects with Aaron, Banks and Elston Howard I the background. 2) 1971 Buddy Harrelson card with Buddy Harrelson, Nolan Ryan, Ken Boswell, either Joe Morgan or the Toy Cannon, and… Read more »

johnforthegiants
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johnforthegiants

I’d also guess Tolan. Aside from the reason you mentioned, Tolan played much more than Griffey that year (501 PAs vs. 92). It might also have been Cesar Geronimo, who was not significantly lighter than Tolan, but I think it’s likely that the player is in right field, which was Tolan’s position, rather than center, which was Geronimo’s. All three of them threw left-handed, as the player in the picture seems to.

87 Cards
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87 Cards

If you’ll spot me the premises that the McCovey card was snapped in 1972 and that the mystery Red is in right-field, I can eliminate Tolan as the RFer.

Willie Mac played four games against the Reds in 1972 at Candlestick Park, mercifully all day-dames. Tolan did not appear in any of McCovey’s ABs.

If McCovey had glanced into RF on those occasions he would have seen César Gerónimo (Sep. 10 games 1 & 2 ), Joe Hague (all the way on June 29), then Hague and Gerónimo (June 28, Geronimo came in for innings 7-8-9).

ILoveRainbowDash
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ILoveRainbowDash

Not to mention Fred Caligiuri, who pitched in that famous double-header to close out the 1941 season and was the last living pitcher to get a decision against Lefty Grove. He lived to be 100 years old.

johnforthegiants
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johnforthegiants

Any idea who the umpire is in the McCovey card?

87 Cards
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87 Cards

I will take a swing at the question. Extending my assumptions on the right-fielder questions, the four plate umpires in play were Harry Wendelstedt, Paul Pryor, Tom Gorman and Frank Pulli. The umpire in the photo appears to be putting a new baseball in play and to be positioning as a right-handed thrower. The empty left-hand suggests so. All measurements from B-R Bullpen: Gorman, a 5″11″ 175 lbs ( former Giant pitcher, was a lefty; the remainder were rightys: Pryor( a former MiLBer) is documented in B-R. I saw a video of Pulli in the 1978 Series toss a ball… Read more »

manormachine
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manormachine

I love these articles. Two questions: do these cards come from a personal collection or do you pull the images off Google?

And how do you organize your collection?

Dewey Ever
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Dewey Ever

Author, author — Such a great article. Really nice card selections. I remember all these guys and I’m sure I got my hands on that Willie McCovey card in ’73. Great details about the Gerry Moses card, and the stuff about Bob Bailey. Zimmer said Bailey would win 6 games for the Red Sox when they picked him up in 1978 — lol, just one of those key nails Zimmer put in the coffin of that team. Pretty sure that “6 games” quote was the inspiration for Bill James’ Win Shares concept — which has morphed into WAR and is… Read more »