Friday, February 15, 2019

Following in his Footsteps

This is obviously not a real 1984 Kirby Puckett card - I finally caved and bought one of the ACEO customs off eBay. It's not bad, actually, card stock is thin compared to 1984 Topps, but it's on par with recent card issues.

The post today is all about the guys that followed in Kirby's footsteps. Puckett was a franchise player, a Hall of Fame talent with World Series heroics in two different Fall Classics.

Puckett was a 6 time Gold Glove winner - and was the Twins' primary Center Fielder from his rookie season of 1984 up through the 1993 season. Reaching his mid thirties but still providing average and power at the plate, the Twins made the difficult but wise decision to move him to Right Field where he could still make impact plays covering a smaller piece of Astroturf.

Replacing a 6X Gold Glove winner would not be easy, and the transition was not particularly smooth. In 1994, they tried Alex Cole. He certainly was fast, stealing 29 bases, but he wasn't nearly the hitter Puckett was.
Matt Lawton was not a Center Fielder by trade, but the Twins did try him there over 100 times during his 7 seasons in Minnesota. Ultimately, he would replace Puckett in Right Field instead of in Center.
Rich Becker was the primary Center Fielder in 1995 through 1997 for the Twins. He had a decent glove and a roughly league average bat. He had a really promising 1996 season, but ultimately he couldn't hit lefties and wasn't able to stay healthy.
In 1998, the Twins went old school, adding veteran Otis Nixon, who was 39, but looked about 65 (as he did for most of his career). As much as he looked like a senior citizen, he ran like the wind. He swiped 37 bases for the Twins, in what would be his second to last season in the big leagues.

More than anyone else on this list, Torii Hunter went the longest way towards "replacing" Kirby Puckett. He was drafted by the Twins in 1993, the same year that Puckett was transitioning from Center to Right. Hunter made his debut in September of 1997, pinch running for Paul Molitor. It would be 1999 before he was up to the big leagues as the Twins' everyday Center Fielder.

Hunter's defense was outstanding, probably a step above Puckett in center. He was a nine time Gold Glove winner, including every season for Minnesota from 2001 to 2007. His bat was a work in progress early in his career, but he developed bat on ball skills and power mid way through his career. He never really cut down on strikeouts, but the league would catch up to him in that regard and strikeouts would be less of an issue for everyone. Hunter actually has an intriguing if tough case for the Hall of Fame. 350+ homers, nearly 1,400 RBI, 2450+ hits, 9 Gold Gloves, 5 All Star appearances. He never finished higher than 6th in MVP voting, and he never played in a World Series, so that will probably keep him out of serious consideration. 

When Hunter left via free agency in 2008, the Twins were better prepared with a few first round draft picks.

Carlos Gomez was a Mets draft pick, but the headliner for the Johan Santana trade to come to the Twins. He would be the Twins' main CFer for 2008 and 2009. He hit for the cycle in a game in 2007, cementing his place as a dynamic talent. He was blazing fast then, and already had that swagger and style that rubbed some old fogeys the wrong way. He would be traded after the 2009 off season for JJ Hardy of the Brewers.

Denard Span was ready to fill in, and would be the #1 option in CF for 2010 and 2012. The lefty hitting leadoff man had a little bit of pop in his bat and played solid defense, if not as flashy as Gomez (or Hunter).

Sandwiched in between the two Span seasons was Ben Revere in 2011. Revere was, like his CF prospects before him, a terror on the basepaths and an excellent defender. In 2012, he would play most games in RF with Span in Center, though Revere seemed to be the faster of the two. Both Span and Revere would be traded for some much needed pitching depth the following year.

The Twins had year another first rounder waiting in the wings, the switch hitting phenom Aaron Hicks. He was the primary CF in 2013 and 2015, with a trip back to the minors to re-tool his swing mixed in. Hicks had a breakout season in 2017-- for the Yankees. Hicks may have been rushed to the majors, and his swing dissected and scrutinized in the media. At one point he ditched switch hitting altogether, only to go back to it later in the 2015 season. He's held his own in a loaded Yankees' lineup, and for a Twins team that was starved for power in recent years from the outfield, losing Hicks for catcher John Ryan Murphy does sting a little.

It stung a lot less starting in 2016 when Byron Buxton came up. More on him later.

We interrupt this top prospect career to bring you a bunch of guys just filling in as needed. In 2014, when Hicks was demoted to AAA, Utility man Danny Santana ended up with the most games in CF for the Twins. It was a strange and frustrating season in the Twins' outfield, with infielders making the best of bad situation trying to cover more ground than they ever had to before. The Twins would draft Buxton right after that. After winning a Gold Glove (and the Wilson Defensive Player of the Year award) in 2017, Buxton played in just 28 games for the Twins in 2018. With Buxton battling injury and hitting slumps, he was marooned in Rochester with the Twins AAA affiliate when he was healthy enough to play. It meant that RFer Max Kepler would slide over to Center for much of the year. Ryan LaMarre a journeyman minor leaguer, Zack Granite a rookie with injury woes of his own, and Jake Cave (who doesn't have a Twins Card yet) had to pick the remaining innings in center in 2018.

But THIS is what the people are hoping for in 2019! Buxton was at one point the #1 Overall prospect in baseball, drawing comparisons in AA to Mike Trout at the same point in his career. Buxton has had a similar career arc so far to Hunter and Hicks, though Buxton already has shown better numbers at the plate (at times), and is clearly a defensive wizard. His defense alone makes every pitcher better, helping the team even when he's not hitting. The motto for the Twins' outfield with Buxton, Kepler, and Eddie Rosario is "Nothing falls but raindrops." Twins fans are looking forward to the next footsteps from the most promising talent the Twins have seen in Centerfield since Kirby.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Happy Ellis Valentine's Day




Happy Valentine's Day.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Dave Winfield, Greatest Minnesota Athlete?

Dave Winfield tips his cap after getting his 3,000th hit off of fellow Hall of Famer and birthday buddy Dennis Eckersley. He became the 19th member of the 3,000 hit club, and he did it in Minneapolis, just a few miles from Saint Paul, where Winfield grew up.

Winfield was a superstar Pitcher and Outfielder in college at the U of Minnesota- MVP of the 1973 College World Series. He was also a very good basketball player, and was drafted to play in the NBA (and the ABA), but chose baseball instead. He was also drafted by the Minnesota Vikings, though he did not play football in college at all. If you're keeping count, that's 3 different sports and 4 professional leagues that all drafted Winfield.

San Diego Padres - 1973 - 1980

The Padres selected Dave with the 4th overall pick in 1973. The teams that passed on him (The Rangers, Phillies, and Brewers) would probably want another chance in hindsight. The Brewers ended up with Robin Yount at #3 Overall, so not a bad choice either. Winfield went straight from the College World Series to the Draft to San Diego. Even though he was a Pitcher first in college, the Padres were more intrigued at thought of him playing everyday and used him in the outfield right away. He never pitched in the big leagues, a missed opportunity if you ask me! His bat did not develop instantly, though he had flashes of brilliance from the beginning. Unfortunately for the Padres, Windfield would hit free agency just as he was reaching his peak, entering his age 29 season. In 1979 he had a fantastic year, leading the NL in RBI, OPS+, Total Bases, and Intentional Walks.

Totals with the Padres above

New York Yankees 1981 - 1990

Winfield became baseball's highest paid player in 1981, the biggest free agent of the off-season and George Steinbrenner's most wanted. Winfield would join Reggie Jackson in the outfield for just one season, and it was shortened by a Player's Strike.  They would get all the way to the World Series, though Winfield's bat would slump at the worst possible time. In the 1981 World Series, Winfield hit just .045, getting just one hit in the 6 game series. Despite a .350 average in the Divisonal playoffs to propel the team to the Series in the first place, Steinbrenner only cared about the World Series struggles.
He had a tremendous season in 1982, hitting a career high 37 homers and winning a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger to go with his 6th straight All-Star appearance. In 1984, he and teammate Don Mattingly completed for the batting title all season long. Winfield finished with a career high .340 average, but was ultimately 2nd to Donnie Baseball. The public feud between Steinbrenner, which could be traced all the way back to signing Winfield (Steinbrenner thought the contract was for a smaller amount than it actually was), began to boil over in ugly ways. Steinbrenner hired a private investigator to find dirt on his slugging outfielder, but all he got for his troubles was a temporary ban from baseball. Winfield had a serious back injury in 1989 which threatened to end his career. Steinbrenner finally traded him mid-way through the 1990 season.

Winfield's Career totals following his Yankees' tenure.

California Angels - 1990 - 1991

Winfield returned to Southern California, and continued to rack up extra base hits. He reached the 400 home run mark while in an Angels uniform, and gave the team 263 hits in 262 games. He was the 1990 Comeback Player of the Year, re-starting his career after missing the entire 1989 season.

Whew, the print is getting smaller, y'all. Career Totals through Padres/Yanks/Angels seasons.

Toronto Blue Jays - 1992

Winfield had hit for power, hit for average, stole bases before his back injury, and won 8 gold glove awards. One thing that had eluded him was playoff success. As a free agent in 1992, Winfield came to the Toronto Blue Jays, who had just missed the playoffs the year before. The addition of Winfield ignited the offense and the fan base. Early in the 1992 season, Winfield was giving an on field interview and asked the crowd to be more vocal and support the young team. "Winfield Wants Noise" became a rallying cry in the SkyDome that season, and his bat provided plenty of thunder on his own. In the 1992 World Series, Winfield became "Mr. Jay" after Steinbrenner's insulting "Mr. May" nickname following the 1981 World Series struggles. Winfield hit a game 6 game winning 2-run double to clinch the first World Series victory for a Canadian team.

That stat sheet is filling up, check it out, 2,866 career hits!

Minnesota Twins - 1993 - 1994

Big Dave was coming home! Winfield joined forces with Bloomington MN kid Kent Hrbek and Twins legend Kirby Puckett to try to bring another World Series victory to the Twin Cities. The team fell short of the playoffs, finishing with a rough 71-91 record. It was disappointing to say the least as the team had finished 90 - 72 in 1992, seemingly just a piece or two away from a playoff run. The starting pitching, which had been a strength in 91 and 92 had a serious free-fall. The top four starters all had ERAs over 4.00. Winfield did his part offensively, even at the age of 41, with 21 homers and 76 RBI as a DH. Things were not looking much better in 1994, the team was again doing just fine offensively, but the pitching was suspect again. The team looked to move Winfield, and traded him to Cleveland near the August waiver deadline. Of course, there was no baseball being played that August, the player's were again on strike. The return for Winfield would not come to the Twins until the off-season, but he had officially been traded.

Career totals through 1994

Cleveland - 1995

Winfield joined Eddie Murray with an otherwise young and hungry Cleveland team. Not hungry were the Minnesota Twins, who completed their trade for Winfield in exchange for a nice dinner. The Cleveland GM took the Minnesota GM out for dinner, and picked up the tab, thereby finishing the trade for Winfield. No, really! In 1995, Winfield played the final 46 games of his career, while dealing with a rotator cuff injury. He would end up missing Cleveland's playoff run, and would retire following the season.

Final MLB Career Stats

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Loaded With Potential - The 1986 Topps Traded Set

Here it is! In my opinion, the 1986 Topps Traded set is the best of the cardboard box sets. Maybe not in monetary value, or design prowess, but to me this is the set with the most excitement! The rookie class in the set is second to none, and any set with myth/man/legend Bob Walk is a keeper.

The Hall of Famers in the set are of the grizzled veteran variety, though when the set came out, I'm sure most baseball fans and analysts would be shocked that these were the only three guys. Niekro was still tossing his knuckleball, Seaver was maybe not as Terrific as he once was, but still an excellent veteran pitcher. Dick Williams is a Hall of Famer for his managerial career, which included the "Impossible Dream" Red Sox of 1967, 2 World Series Titles in Oakland, turning the Expos from and expansion team to a playoff contender, and taking the Padres to their first World Series in 1984.

On to the Rookies! Bonds may still be joining the three Hall of Famers someday, he is the All-Time leader in Home Runs, Walks, Intentional Walks, and won 2 batting titles, 7 MVPs, went to 14 All-Star games, 8 Gold Gloves, and 12 Silver Sluggers. Bobby Bonilla will get his last paycheck from the Mets in 2035, part of a unique contract structure that is worth reading about. Jose Canseco, of course has been covered at length on this blog and others. The Oakland great probably could have been in the Hall as well if not for the Steroid controversy swirling around him. Bo Jackson may have been the most hyped of all. A Football Superstar and Baseball prodigy, Bo was an athlete without a peer in 1986.

He played just 53 minor league games before being called up to the Royals, and would only return for injury rehab stints in later years. Probably no other player in the 80s was filled with so much potential for greatness, and the hip injury he sustained as a Raiders running back robbed him and fans of a promising baseball career. Jackson has no regrets, however, and his comeback in Chicago and with Angels proved just how remarkable his determination and strength was.

This set was so loaded with rookies, there's a whole crop of just 1st basemen / future 1st basemen!

This post doesn't even include guys like Todd Worrell, Milt Thompson, Pete Incaviglia, Dan Plesac, who had solid MLB careers.

Just one Twins player in the set, so you know I'm not playing favorites - they'll get the star treatment in next week's post on the next year's traded set. Pastore was a long time Cincinnati Reds pitcher, joining the team in 1979. '86 was his final season in the big leagues.

Some of my favorite pictures from the set. Technically, that's a Jim Leyland rookie card, as the Pirates were his first managing gig. I just heard a fun anecdote about Franklin Stubbs on an MLB Network clip. Mark DeRosa was talking about Michael Brantley, and mentioned that his swing reminded him of Garrett Anderson, very smooth and fluid mechanics. DeRosa went on to say one of his minor league hitting instructors was Franklin "Ticket" Stubbs, and that Stubbs told DeRosa that he needed to have a love song playing in his head at the plate, so his body could move to the right rhythm to hit.

Oh No! Poor Claudell has the dreaded "airbrushed pinstripes" treatment from Topps. He'd go on to have some of the best seasons of his career in the Bronx, though, so he got the last laugh.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Glue Guys - The 1988 Topps All-Star Rookie Team

Here they are - the Topps All-Star Rookie Team, selected "by the Youth of America" following the 1988 season and featured in the 1989 Topps set. 

I have completed the run of these up through 2018, specifically all regular issue cards that bear the All-Star Rookie Trophy.

Outfield - Dave Gallagher
Cleveland (A.L.) 1987; Chicago (A.L.) 1988 - '90; Baltimore (A.L.) 1990, California (A.L.) 1991, 1995; New York (N.L.) 1992 - '93; Atlanta (N.L.) 1994; Philadelphia (N.L.) 1995.

Journeyman. That's Dave Gallagher to a T. He'd already been through two organizations before getting his first shot at a full MLB season in 1988. He came up to the White Sox in May after burning up the minors with the Vancouver Canadians, hitting .336 with 4 homers in 34 games. He became the White Sox starting Center Fielder and stayed in that role for the rest of 1988. He hit .303 for the season with 15 doubles and 5 homers. Gallagher came back in 1989, playing in 161 games for the ChiSox, a career high. He was again penciled in as the everyday CF, though he did play both corner spots as well as needed. He rapped out 160 hits including 22 doubles in 1989, and played sterling defense, leading all AL center fielders with a .994 Fielding pct. In 1990 he started the year with an injury but would find himself passed in the depth chart by the blazing quick Lance Johnson. He would ultimately play for 8 different teams in his 9 year MLB career. 

Dave's Rookie Card is in the 1988 Donruss "The Rookies" set, and he also had cards in Fleer and Score's 1988 Update sets.

Outfield - Cecil Espy
Los Angeles (N.L.) 1983; Texas (A.L.) 1987 - '90; Pittsburgh (N.L.) 1991 - '92; Cincinnati (N.L.) 1993.

Stuntman. Cecil Espy would start his career as a base stealing barn burner, and in later years would find a second life as a situational pinch hitting threat. Espy was drafted in 1980, and made his MLB debut at the age of 20 as a late season call-up with the Dodgers in 1983. It would take him 5 seasons in the minors before getting his first full season of MLB action in 1988 for the Texas Rangers. In 1982 at Single A Vero Beach, Espy stole 74 bases in 131 games. He was regularly stealing 40, 50 bags a year in the minors each year while climbing the minor league ladders in Los Angeles and Texas orgs. He had been hitting in the .270s or so in the minors until 1987, when he hit .302 at AAA OK City to go along with 46 steals, making the case for his call up. In his first full season in 88 he stole 33 bases for the Rangers, then 45 steals in his Sophomore season. He would still struggle to hit MLB ptiching consistently, and ended up at AAA Buffalo for the Pirates in 1991. He hit .312 in AAA, and wound up right back in the big leagues, this time as a 4th outfielder and pinch hitter. Espy's last play as a Pirate was infamous - he misplayed a Terry Pendleton liner in right field that would prove to be the beginning of a rally that culminated in the Pirates being bounced from the 1991 NLCS. He would also play a season in the Mexican League in 1996 for Oaxaca.

Cecil's Rookie Card is in the 1988 Topps Traded set Card #36T

Outfield - Jay Buhner
New York (A.L.) 1987 - '88; Seattle (A.L.) 1988 - 2001

Bone.  Jay Buhner was shipped off to the Mariners in exchange for power hitting DH/1B Ken Phelps, and the angst is revisited to this day on re-runs of Seinfeld.  Even when that episode aired, it was early in Buhner's career, he had a long way to go to show the short sightedness of the swap.

Buhner would hit 40 or more homers in 3 straight seasons at his peak, including an All-Star nod and a Gold Glove award. He would hit over .300 in the playoffs in his career, including 8 big flies. His rookie season with Seattle was not especially impressive, but he would go on to a long career as the a fan favorite in Seattle. He was a fixture in Right Field, where the Mariners would host Buhner Buzz Cut nights, encouraging fans to shave their heads for tickets. He finished with 310 homers and 958 RBI over 15 MLB seasons. He's a member of the Seattle Mariners' Hall of Fame.

Buhner's Rookie Card is in the 1988 Topps Traded set Card #21T

Second Base - Ron Gant
Atlanta (N.L.) 1987 - '93; Cincinnati (N.L.) 1995; St.Louis (N.L.) 1996 - '98; Philadelphia (N.L.) 1999 - '00; Anaheim (A.L.) 2000; Colorado (N.L.) 2001; Oakland (A.L.) 2001, 2003; San Diego (N.L.) 2002.

HE WAS SAFE! Just kidding, he was totally out. In the 1991 World Series, both the Twins and the Braves had gone from Worst to First. Last place finishers in 1990, league champions in 1991. For the Braves, getting there was thanks in no small part to Ron Gant. Gant went from being the team's future 2B, to leading the league in errors and being sent back down the the minors to learn a new position in the outfield. He responded well to the demotion by coming back to the big leagues with a vengeance in 1990. He was a 30/30 club member in 1990 and 1991 - hitting over 30 homers and stealing over 30 bases. In his Rookie All-Star season, he hit 19 homers and stole 19 bases as a second baseman. He would miss the entire 1994 season due to a broken leg while driving an ATV, but again he would overcome the adversity and return to the big leagues with a fantastic All-Star season for the Cincinnati Reds. He would move around both leagues after his comeback, finishing his career with 321 homers, 243 steals, and 1,008 RBI. He would play in a pair of World Series with the Braves, and would be bounced from the playoffs by the Braves in two other seasons. 

Ron's rookie card is in the 1988 Topps Traded Set, Card # 39T

Short Stop - Walt Weiss
Oakland (A.L.) 1987 - '92; Florida (N.L.) 1993; Colorado (N.L.) 1994 - '97; Atlanta (N.L.) 1998 - '00.

Weiss was an unlikely Rookie of the Year - he didn't hit for average, he didn't hit for average, he didn't hit lefties, he didn't hit righties.... you get the point. But defensively at Short, Weiss had few peers. It didn't hurt that he was part of a Rookie of the Year dynasty in Oakland, following in the footsteps of the Bash Brothers. His defense was so good that the A's traded away Alfredo Griffin to allow him to play everyday as a rookie. His defensive metrics were respectable throughout his career, he was 5th in the AL in Fielding pct and 3rd in Range Factor in 1988. Despite the reputation as a great fielder, Weiss never won a Gold Glove, ironically this was probably more about his poor hitting than his defense. Fairly or not, many Gold Glove winners could also hit a bit, especially in the late 80s / early 90s. After a mini dynasty in Oakland including a 1989 World Series victory, Weiss was traded to the expansion Florida Marlins before their inaugural season. He would also play several seasons with the expansion Colorado Rockies early in their history and later became the Rockies' manager. Weiss made his only All-Star appearance in 1998 with the Braves.

Walt's Rookie Card is in the 1988 Topps Traded set, Card #126T

Right Handed Pitcher - Tim Belcher
Los Angeles (N.L.) 1987 - '91; Cincinnati (N.L.) 1992 - '93; Chicago (A.L.) 1993; Detroit (A.L.) 1994; Seattle (A.L.) 1995; Kansas City (A.L.) 1996 - '98; Anaheim (A.L.) 1999 -'00.

As a Rookie, Belcher was a pleasant addition to the Dodgers' rotation, helping the team make the playoffs and ultimately win the World Series. He won 2 NLCS games and one game in the World Series. In his second season, he would lead the National League in Shutouts (8) and finished 6th in the Cy Young Voting. Belcher was part of a trade that brought Eric Davis to the Dodgers and from that point on he became a nomadic pitcher, never spending more than a season or two in any spot. For his career, Belcher was almost exactly league average, finishing above .500 with a 146 -140 career record. He won 15 or more games 3 times.

Tim's Rookie Card is in the 1985 Topps Set, card #281 

First Base - Mark Grace
Chicago (N.L.) 1988 - '99; Arizona (N.L.) 2000 - '03

The 3 time All-Star and 4 time Gold Glove winner was synonymous with Cubs baseball in the 90s. He hit .308 and had over 2,200 hits and 1,000 RBIs as the Cubs' First Baseman, and was the NL leader in doubles in 1995 with 51. Cubs fans were sad to see him go to Arizona, but I would be shocked if they weren't also extremely happy for him in 2001 when he won his only World Series championship, even though it wasn't on the Northside. Grace had 144 hits as a rookie, just shy of .300, and walked more than he struck out. He would have a great eye at the plate throughout his career, finishing with a .383 on base percentage. Not bad for a 24th round draft pick!

Mark's rookie card is in the 1988 Topps Traded set, Card # 42T

Third Base - Chris Sabo
Cincinnati (N.L.) 1988 - '93, 1996; Baltimore (A.L.) 1994; Chicago (A.L.) 1994; St. Louis (N.L.) 1995.

Sabo beat out Mark Grace for the 1988 NL Rookie of the Year, mixing power speed and defense. Sabo stole 46 bases as a rookie, hit .271 with 11 homers and 40 doubles. He wasn't expected to even make the roster out of Spring Training that year, but Reds' Manager Pete Rose saw a little of himself in Sabo's hustling play. He was not used as the starter for a good portion of the 1989 season, but like Ron Gant, he would return he next year with big numbers. The Reds cruised to a pennant in the National League thanks to Sabo's home run power, hitting 25 homers to go with 25 steals and 38 doubles. He would follow that up with an even better 1991, making his 3rd All-Star team in 4 years. The injury bug bit him again in 1992, and Sabo would find himself looking for part time roles with teams for the next few years. He was a bit of a late bloomer, coming up as a 26 year old rookie, but his first four years were right up there with guys like Josh Donaldson and Corey Koskie (both guys who would lose time to injury).

Sabo's Rookie card is in the 1988 Topps Traded Set Card # 98T

Catcher - Damon Berryhill
Chicago (N.L.) 1987 - '91; Atlanta (N.L.) 1991 - '93; Boston (A.L.)  1994; Cincinnati (N.L.) 1995; San Francisco (N.L.) 1997

Backup Catchers need love too! Damon Berryhill was not a backup at first, the primary catcher for the Cubs in 1988 and in their playoff run of 1989. He hit .259 as a rookie, which is good enough to make the Topps All-Star Rookie squad! In game 1 of the 1992 World Series, Berryhill smashed a game winning 3 run homer for the Braves, leading them to victory over the Blue Jays. After a pair of seasons with Atlanta, he would bounce around the league and like many journeymen catchers, he would find himself as a manager following his playing career. Most recently, he was the AAA manager for the Gwinett Stripers in 2018, and was the 2015 PCL manager of the year.

Damon's Rookie Card is in the 1988 Topps Traded set, Card # 15T

Left Handed Pitcher - Paul Gibson
Detroit (A.L.) 1988 - '91; New York (N.L.) 1992 - '93; New York (A.L.) 1993 - '94, 1996

Gibson's big glasses may not seem intimidating, but he didn't mind people underestimating him. As a rookie in 1988, Gibson was used out of the bullpen and struck out 50 batters in 90 innings and held opponents to a .240 average. He racked up 1.3 WAR out of the bullpen that season, and would be used often in the next few seasons as a lefty specialist. He wasn't a big strikeout pitcher, but he rarely allowed homers and kept his walk rate low throughout his career. Following his pitching days, he became a scout, and also opened a pitching academy, graduating major leaguers like Pete Munro and John Lannan. 

Gibson's Rookie card is in the 1988 Donruss "The Rookies" set, as well as the '88 Fleer update set 

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Lovably Losing - The 1956 Topps Chicago Cubs Team Set

One of the fun things about a completed set is deciding how you want to organize it. I have the 1956 Topps set in a binder, sorted by team, in the same order that the teams finished in the 1955 Standings. In 1955, the Chicago Cubs finished in 6th place in the National League with a 72-81 record.

The Cubs were in the thick of the pennant race for the first half of 1955, but the second half saw the team fade to 6th place. It was the final season for play-by-play announcer Bert Wilson, known for catchphrases like "I don't care who wins as long as it's the Cubs!" and "Bring on the Bears" when the Cubs' chances for the pennant had begun to fizzle out. Wilson was hired to be the Reds TV announcer starting in 1956, but he passed away from heart failure in the off-season. Despite a team that was largely unchanged from the 1955 club, the Cubs would slip to last place in the National League in 1956.

1955 was the team's 40th in Wrigley Field, and their 80th in the National league. Their dynasty from the 1900s was now a distant memory, and it had been a decade since their last pennant. There was reason to be optimistic for the future, however, with their superstar short stop just beginning to blossom. Unfortunately for the Cubs, they would not finish in first place again until 1984.

The Cubs' best hitter in 1955 was that aforementioned superstar Shortstop, Ernie Banks. Banks was signed by the Cubs to be Gene Baker's roommate a couple years earlier. Baker had been signed from the Kansas City Monarchs, with Banks taking his place as the Monarchs' regular shortstop. A couple years later, it would be Banks and Baker making their Major League debuts together in 1953.

In 1955, Banks crushed 44 homers and drove in 117 runs while playing every game of the season. He led the National League in extra base hits and made his first All-Star Game. He would become a first ballot Hall of Famer, 2 time NL MVP, with over 500 career homers. He was "Mr. Cub" from the very beginning.

The pitching staff was fairly uneven in 1955, led by Bob Rush, who went 13-11 with a 3.50 ERA. Rush led the National League in FIP, which is a measure of pitching independent of fielding. He had a microscopic walk rate, and was stingy about giving up homers, and had decent strikeout totals for the season.

Rush was a two time All-Star for the Cubs (1950 and '52), and did so despite losing 20 games in 1950. Rush would move on to the Milwaukee Braves in 1958, and pitched in the World Series in a losing effort against the Yankees.

The Cubs added the future Hall of Famer Monte Irvin to the team for the 1956 season. He had spent the previous 7 seasons with the New York Giants, cementing his place as a great hitter and outfielder. 1955 would be his last major league season, playing whenever his balky ankle allowed. Over 111 games, Irvin hit .271 with 15 homers and 50 runs batted in.

Irvin was considered by many of his contemporaries and by current historians to be the best outfielder in the Negro Leagues in the 1940s, and executives in both leagues considered him one of the best suited to break the color barrier, in talent and in temperament. He would join the Giants in 1949, and along with Willie Mays they would carry the Giants' offense to pennants in '51 and '54, the second of which also resulted in a World Series victory. Irvin was selected to the Hall of Fame in 1973 by the Negro Leagues Special Selection Committee. His Negro Leagues career with the Newark Eagles also included a championship in 1946 and a pair of batting titles.

The 1955 Cubs' hitters finished last in the league in strikeouts (the most), and last in walks (the fewest). Thanks to Ernie Banks and several players reaching double digits, they did rank 5th in home runs.
Hank Sauer had a down year, hitting just .211 with 12 homers. The offense didn't really get going, which put a great deal of pressure on the pitching staff.

Sam Jones, who would win 20 games in 1959, lost 20 in 1955. He did toss a no-hitter in May, however, becoming the first African-American to pitch a no-hitter in the majors. The team's closer, Hal Jeffcoat, would be traded to the Reds for 1956 for Hobie Landrith, a reserve catcher that the Cubs hoped could provide an upgrade in a starting role over Harry Chiti.

Bob Speake had a nice season for the Cubs as a reserve in 1955, hitting 12 homers, essentially platooning with the 38 year old Hank Sauer. Speake would be back in the minors for 1956. The Cubs were finding their groove as the lovable losers in the mid 50s - a place they would stay for decades to come.