Card Corner Plus: Three Departures

(via Michelle Jay)

For fans of baseball in the 1960s, the summer has not been kind. We’ve lost a number of notable players, including Pumpsie Green, the man who finally integrated the Boston Red Sox under enormous pressure, and Ernie Broglio, an underrated pitcher who is unfairly best remembered as the man once traded for Lou Brock. Three other pitchers from that era also have passed on, one of whom gained fame in popular culture not for his pitching, but for his writing. The deaths of the other two pitchers were given little attention in the media, but they were also memorable players, in part because of their appearance but also for far more substantial reasons.

The first departure took from us a cultural icon, Jim Bouton. As a pitcher, he was known as “Bulldog,” a tribute to his competitiveness, but it was as a writer that he truly made his mark. Bouton’s Ball Four, which he co-authored with Leonard Shecter and was first published in 1970, remains my favorite baseball book. It’s one I have read and re-read, at least three or four times from cover to cover, and a volume I have used as reference material on countless occasions. It’s a nearly perfect book, well-written, funny, insightful, and fast-paced. Other than Bouton’s unfair characterization of Elston Howard (something I’ll have to delve into in a future article), I love pretty much everything about Ball Four.

In particular, I’ve long enjoyed Ball Four because Bouton didn’t focus just on the stars but told us so much about journeyman players, too.  Maybe that’s because the team on which he played—the 1969 expansion Seattle Pilots—consisted mostly of journeyman types, but Bouton still chose to dig deep on players whom we knew mostly from their baseball cards. Bouton provided many insights about numerous players and coaches—from Curt Blefary to Tommy Davis to Don Mincher to his manager, Joe Schultz. We learned much about the colorful likes of Gene Brabender, Steve Hovley, and Fred Talbot, bringing those characters to life in a way no baseball authors ever had done previously.

Thanks to Bouton, the Seattle Pilots became more than just a one-year franchise that moved on to Milwaukee the following spring. The Pilots live on perpetually—as does the game as it was played and lived in 1969.

Ironically, Bouton did not appear on a Topps baseball card in 1969—or any year after that. His last appearance for Topps came in 1968 when he was still a member of the New York Yankees. The photo on the card shows off Bouton’s handsome features; it’s no wonder he made appearances in film (The Long Goodbye) and television (the short-lived series that was based on Ball Four.)

When Bouton was taken in the expansion draft by the Pilots, Topps seemingly gave up on Bouton, almost as if the Pilots were somehow not a real team. Or maybe Topps didn’t think Bouton would make the Pilots’ roster. Even in 1970, Topps again excluded Bouton, despite the fact that he spent the entire season in the major leagues, first with the Pilots and then the Houston Astros. Did the impending release of his controversial book play a part in that omission, or did Bouton, an independent sort, choose not to give Topps permission to use his image that season? I haven’t been able to pin down the answer, but I suspect either of those reasons could have been a factor.

In retrospect, Bouton’s absence on cards in the latter stages of his career mattered little. He made sure to stamp a permanent legacy with the publication of Ball Four, a book that revealed what the game was really like in the clubhouse, in the dugout, and in the bullpen—in contrast to the flowery book portrayals of the 1940s and ’50s. His follow-up books, while not as iconic as Ball Four, were also well done, full of humor and joy, and sadness, too, including the tragic story of the death of his daughter in a car accident.

To say Jim Bouton will be missed is the understatement of the summer. Thankfully, all of his wonderful writing remains with us—demanding to be read again and again.

Two days after Bouton succumbed to vascular dementia at the age of 80, a lesser-known pitcher passed on. Joe Grzenda, the consummate minor league and major league journeyman, died at 82. For much of his career, Grzenda was an obscure player, a one-time phenom who hurt his arm early on and made 19 stops through various farm systems before bouncing around with six big-league clubs in the 1960s and early ’70s. He was perhaps best known for his rail-thin appearance, which was fueled by smoking three packs of Lucky Strikes a day, along with lots and lots of coffee. He was nicknamed “Shaky Joe” because he always seemed to be nervously in perpetual motion, putting down cigarettes, picking up another cup of coffee, and working at a frenetic pace on the mound.

That is a vivid image, but it only scratches the surface of Grzenda’s career. In 1964, he pitched for the Birmingham Barons of the Southern League. That team became the first integrated ball club in the history of Birmingham, a city that had been plagued by the infamous Checkers Rule, which prohibited black and white athletes from doing just about anything together, including checkers. Grzenda pitched well out of the bullpen for those history-making Barons before being called up to the Kansas City Athletics in midseason.

Five years later, Grzenda played a key role as a reliever for the Minnesota Twins, who emerged as the first champions of the American League’s West Division. Grzenda became a reliable left-hander for first-year manager Billy Martin, helping solidify a bullpen that also featured Ron Perranoski and Bob Miller.

In 1971, Grzenda joined the Washington Senators, where he became a favorite of another prominent manager, Ted Williams. Grzenda emerged as a leader on the pitching staff, helping young hurlers like Pete Broberg as they acclimated themselves to life in the major leagues. “Joe came to my aid, calmed me down,” an appreciative Broberg once told a writer for The Scrantonian.

At the end of that 1971 season, Grzenda became a footnote to a historic game. Played at RFK Stadium in Washington, it was the final game in the history of the Senators, who were on the verge of relocating to Arlington, Texas. Called upon to pitch the ninth inning of a game the Senators led, Grzenda retired the first two batters before facing Horace Clarke. As Clarke stepped into the box, fans began to storm the field, furious over owner Bob Short’s decision to move the team. The ensuing riot caused the umpires to call the game and award a forfeit victory to the New York Yankees, while Grzenda and the rest of the Senators ran for their lives.

Grzenda never did have the chance to record the final out of the Senators’ last game. But in 2005, when the Washington Nationals played their first game at RFK Stadium, they invited Grzenda back to the stadium and allowed him to participate in pregame ceremonies. Given a ceremonial ball in the dugout, Grzenda made his way on to the field and handed the ball off to President George W. Bush, who then threw out the first pitch. It was a nice moment of glory for a player who had long been unheralded.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Grzenda last appeared on a Topps card in 1972, the year I started collecting cards. It’s a nice shot of Grzenda, who looks like he’s put on some weight after appearing so unpleasantly thin on many of his earlier cards. It’s also a classic shot from Topps, a photograph that shows a player with an upturned cap as he looks upward. I guess there’s some symbolism there, a player near the end of his career looking to the skies, wondering what the next destination might be. For Grzenda, it was a long life spent working for a company called Gould Battery—lots of time deer hunting, hiking around a lake in his home of Covington Township, Pennsylvania, and enjoying time with his family.

After the deaths of Grzenda and Bouton came the news of another passing. On July 19, I was scrolling through Facebook when I first read about the death of Don Mossi. A left-hander with a rubber arm, Mossi had a highly successful run as a reliever and starter during the late 1950s and the first half of the ’60s, but his death was not reported by a mainstream news outlet until several days later.

Nicknamed “The Sphinx,” Mossi last appeared on a Topps card in 1966, with this close-up photograph of him wearing the colors of the A’s giving prominent coverage to his large ears and long, curving nose. Much has been made of Mossi’s rather unusual looks, dating back to the publication of The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading, and Bubblegum Book, which poked fun at his physical appearance.  I suppose the book’s description of Mossi was funny in its time, but the repeated takedowns of Mossi have grown a little tiresome, to the point of simply being cruel.

While Mossi was not blessed with handsome features, he was blessed with a live left arm. In 1954, he joined the Cleveland Indians as a rookie, helping to form a devastating bullpen combination with right-hander Ray Narleski. That late-inning tandem, buttressed by Mossi’s 1.94 ERA, helped the Indians win 111 games on the way to a runaway American League pennant.

Equipped with a good fastball and curve, Mossi remained a key cog for the Indians in 1955 and ’56 before starting to slip over the next two seasons. That led to Narleski and him being traded together, sent to the Detroit Tigers in a deal for Billy Martin. The Tigers converted Mossi from the bullpen to the rotation and watched him pile up 228 innings while winning a career-high 17 games in 1959. He would remain an effective and durable starter for most of the next four seasons before finishing up his career with the Chicago White Sox and the A’s in 1964 and ’65, respectively.

While it’s fairly common for career-long starters to undergo successful conversions to the bullpen, relatively few full-time relievers have made the later-career transition to starter with the effectiveness Mossi did. With his fastball losing speed, Mossi smartly added a change-up to his repertoire, making him a three-pitch pitcher who also had pinpoint control. Even in his final season, he pitched capably for the A’s out of the bullpen, to the point that Charlie Finley mailed him a contract, but Mossi decided to leave the game at the age of 36.

I’d like to think Mossi had the last laugh on those who mocked him so relentlessly. He lived until the age of 90, a long life that would probably be the envy of most. Beginning in the year 2000, he enjoyed retirement in Idaho, where he spent most of his time camping, hunting, and working in the garden. He also spent plenty of time with his family, including three children and 12 grandchildren—a pretty fine legacy he leaves behind.

In terms of baseball, Mossi, Grzenda, and Bouton all contributed substantial legacies to the game, even if Bouton was the only one of the three to receive the credit he deserved. Their baseball cards stir up nice recollections of the 1960s, especially for those old enough to have seen them pitch.

I’ll always have good feelings when I think about Bulldog, Shaky Joe, and The Sphinx.

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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The Duke
2 years ago

I assume grzenda’s photo was shot like that to avoid the need for airbrushing.

Jim bouton should be in the hall for what he accomplished. While not quite in the same league as number 42 or curt flood, his book changed baseball forever. It’s still a must read

2 years ago

The thing I was always scared of is to be accused of cheating. With service, that fear is not there no more. Thanks for sending original essays, and this one was so good in particular! Like the quality of your writing and fast responses.