Hank Aaron’s appearance this week on The Late Show With David Letterman not only brought as hearty a series of laughs from baseball’s real all-time homer champ as I’ve ever heard him produce, but it also added one of those delightful footnotes to history. Letterman claimed that the day Aaron homered off Jack Billingham of the Reds to tie Babe Ruth’s mark of 714 at Riverfront Stadium in 1974, he was in the crowd. There’s no reason to doubt it: that was the year between Letterman’s career as a tv weatherman and the start of his comedy writing and performing.
Hank was there to provide the briefest of plugs for Topps’ celebration of its 60th year in baseball cards (he presented Letterman with a one-of-a-kind card in the style of the 2011 set, complete with a diamond in it – 60th being the ‘Diamond Anniversary’). For the sake of disclosure, Topps is paying Mr. Aaron to do the publicity, and for the sake of further disclosure, I’m an unpaid consultant for Topps as well.
They did not discuss two of Aaron’s more interesting cards. Obviously the portrait on the 1956 card here is the young Henry. But who is that sliding into the plate, an “M” on his cap and nothing on his uniform?
Correct. It’s Willie Mays sliding home, his uniform doctored to kind of look like a Braves’ jersey. There’s no special value to that mistake, because they never corrected it. In fact I don’t know if it’s considered a mistake – I think “fudge” is a better term.
The “Lefty Gibson” card is seldom seen and thus reproduced here in full:
If you can imagine this, Topps prepped its first series of 1968 cards in the winter of ’67-68 and not only did Gibson succeed in this stunt, but so did Seaver, who had tried it while posing for his very first card.
Each got all the way to the printer’s proofs level – just a handful of sheets printed. Then the Topps Copy Editor had his apoplectic attack and replaced both the Gibson and Seaver lefthanded pitching poses with nice tight portraits.
For years Topps has taken the rap for the mistake – there have even been understandable suggestions of an ethnic slur implied by the screw-up. In fact, it wasn’t entirely the company’s fault. In the winter of 1967-68, the newly-powerful Baseball Players Association was squeezing Topps into dealing with it, rather than on a player-by-player basis. Topps, which theretofore had been able to sign guys for a down payment as low as a dollar, resisted. The MLBPA promptly forbade its members for posing for Topps during Spring Training, and in fact throughout the entire regular season, of 1968.
Thus, guys who changed teams in ’68 or the ’68-69 off-season are shown hatless in old photographs in the first few series of the 1969 set. But 1968’s rookies for whom Topps had no photo? It had to get them in the minor leagues (the Topps files were filled with photos of nearly every Triple-A player in 1968), or buy shots from outside suppliers. At least a dozen images in the ’69 set, including Reggie Jackson and Earl Weaver – and “Aurelio Rodriguez” – were purchased from the files of the famous Chicago photographer George Brace. Somebody at Topps should’ve known, but the original Rodriguez/Garcia goof appears to have been Brace’s.
Incidentally, eight years later Garcia got his own card under his own name, in the Cramer Sports Pacific Coast League Series. By this point he was the trainer of the Angels’ AAA team in Salt Lake City. The biography on the back makes reference to the 1969 Topps/Brace slipup.
Gil McDougald confirmed, many years after the event, that his retirement from baseball after just ten major league seasons, owed in large part because of his loss of his sense of joy after the Herb Score incident in 1957. The vision – and career – of the lefthanded pitcher with the greatest start in baseball history would never be the same after he was struck by a line drive near the eye. McDougald was physically uninjured, but he was the man who hit the ball, and psychologically, he never really got over it.
It’s generally presumed that
when Warren Spahn dueled Juan Marichal for 16 innings at Candlestick Park on
July 2, 1963 (before losing 1-0 on a one-out Mays homer), it started Spahn’s
rapid decline (6-13 in ’64, 7-16 in ’65). In fact, through that loss, Spahn was
11-4 that season. He would go on to win 12 of his last 15 decisions to finish
at 23-7. Whatever led him downhill, it wasn’t the marathon against Marichal.
Let me preface this by saying that I fondly remember Harry Chappas of the White Sox, 5’5″ cover boy of Sports Illustrated (who was told to claim he was only 5’3″), and the day that the legitimately 5’4″ Freddie Patek slammed three homers and a double at Fenway. Baseball is still the sport where height matters least; Patek was on four division winners and two All-Star teams and was as tough as they come.
great Mets’ broadcaster Bob Murphy reported this anecdote during the 1967
season. On July 25th at Candlestick Park, the Mets and Giants were
scoreless in the bottom of the third. Jesus Alou and Bobby Etheridge singled,
then Willie Mays lined a sure two-base hit, scoring Alou. But as Etheridge
chugged in to third, Mays stopped at first. He explained later that he’d done
so deliberately, so that the Mets wouldn’t walk clean-up man Jim Ray Hart to
pitch instead to first baseman Jack Hiatt. Hart promptly hit a three-run homer
off Jack Fisher. The Giants won, 5-4.