Billy Martin baseball card

First in a series.

I just pulled out a bunch of my old baseball cards. I was fortunate enough to not have them thrown out by my mom in some year’s spring cleaning. So I have all of them and they’re in excellent shape considering almost all of them are over forty years old. And now you get to enjoy them, too, because an occasional blog post about them will be useful when I:

a) can’t think of anything else to write about, or

b) am too irritated to write about politics, or

c) all of the above.

Detroit Tigers 1974 team photo
Detroit Tigers 1974 team photo (Topps #94)
Detroit Tigers 1975 team photo (Topps #18)
Detroit Tigers 1976 team photo (Topps #361)

I have the Tigers cards from my peak collecting period (about 1973 through 1976) sorted in alphabetical order, so I’ll feature them that way so it doesn’t seem like I’m favoring or slighting anyone. I’ll add some comments about each card in the style of one of my favorite books, The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book. Along with Jim Bouton’s Ball Four, which I discovered at about the same impressionable age, the baseball card book taught me that the players I idolized were just regular people, good and bad, living a vagabond life playing the same game we were playing in our neighborhood’s vacant lot. Well, they were playing it better than us, of course. Most of them, anyway.

(The team card from 1975 gives you an indication how seriously the Tigers took their jobs that year. Check out the first two players from the left in the second row. They’re chatting with each other, looking down and away from the camera. I mean, we couldn’t even concentrate on the photographer for a couple minutes, guys? Or maybe it was the photographer’s fault. Who takes a baseball team picture when their caps are completely shadowing their faces? Doesn’t anyone around here know how to do their damn job?)

Let’s start with the managers in my collection. In addition to the cards from the early to mid-seventies, I also have some from the sixties and even a few from the fifties. I’m not that old, I was just a shrewd card trader back in the day. A friend of mine had an older brother who he’d “inherited” a collection from. I was never sure if the inheritance had been authorized or not, but I figured it wasn’t up to me to determine how hot the goods were. I traded duplicates from the 1974 cards to get these older cards because my friend wanted to complete his set. I got some pretty good ones, too; I’ll probably feature them now and then. I have a lot of days when I can’t think of anything to write, actually.

Bob Scheffing baseball card
Bob Scheffing 1962 Topps #134

So first we have the 1962 card for Bob Scheffing, who managed the Tigers from 1961 to mid-1963. He took over a sixth-place team and in ’61 they battled the Yankees for the A.L. pennant until the final weeks of the season. Bob was known as “Grumpy,” and you can kind of see why from this card. He may have been trying to remember what position Purnal Goldy played. They slid back in ’62 and got off to a lousy start in ’63, so he was fired and replaced by Chuck Dressen.

Chuck Dressen baseball card
Chuck Dressen 1966 Topps #187

Chuck finished the 1963 season, then managed the team through mid-1966. He missed some games in 1965 due to a heart attack. His overall record with the Tigers was 221-189, and he’d probably have kept managing them except he suffered a second heart attack in May, got a kidney infection, and died of another coronary on August 10. The back of this card notes that “Chuck is one of baseball’s senior members” and that “experts feel that Chuck’s ’66 Tigers will be in the thick of the A.L. pennant fight.” Many of the players who eventually won the 1968 World Series came up to the team when Chuck was managing, and many of them gave him a lot of credit for molding them into major leaguers.

This miscut card (Lou Brock is the Cardinal on the lower eighth) also features Chuck’s fairly grumpy (bemused? surprised?) expression. Manager cards in the sixties and seventies usually featured very serious looking older men who no doubt were spending every minute of their days working to improve their charges. Baseball was very serious then.

The 1966 season has to be one of the worst seasons ever for coaching deaths. After Dressen fell ill, third-base coach Bob Swift took over and the team won 32 of their next 57 games. But Swift was losing weight and when he got checked out, it was discovered he had terminal lung cancer. Frank Skaff then finished the season, in which the Tigers had an 88-74 record, good enough for third place despite having two managers die in the same season. Sadly, neither Swift nor Skaff ever got their own manager card. Swift died on October 17.

Next up is Billy Martin. Billy was probably the most entertaining manager the Tigers have had during my lifetime. The former Yankee infielder was the personification of “scrappy,” both as a player and as a manager. His exploits as the manager of the Yankees were more famous, of course: He was hired and fired five times by Yankees owner George Steinbrenner over the course of fourteen years. Billy’s hobbies included fighting with his own players and punching people in hotel bars. No one went after umpires like Billy. If you were on his good side – and most players were – he’d fight anyone for you. If you weren’t, as Reggie Jackson wasn’t, you watched your back in the clubhouse and even in the dugout.

When Billy was fired by the Tigers near the end of the 1973 season, one year after making the American League Championship series with a team of older veterans from the ’68 team, one of the local TV stations (I think it was WJBK but don’t quote me on that) produced a special looking back at his rather brief time in Detroit. How many fired managers get tribute shows? Billy did.

Billy’s 1972 card is somewhat famous because he appears to be giving the finger to the photographer or someone near the photographer. Check his left hand on the bat. That’s probably one of the subtlest offenses Billy ever committed. Billy’s 1973 card is interesting in that he’s almost smiling. Also, one of his coaches, Joe Schultz, isn’t named on the front of the card. Schultz was the manager of the 1969 Seattle Pilots who only played one year in the Pacific Northwest before moving to Milwaukee to become the Brewers in 1970. Joe’s most popular curses were “sh*tf*ck” and “f*cksh*t,” according to the aforementioned Jim Bouton in Ball Four, which was a diary of that 1969 Pilots season. Schultz took over from Martin when he was fired in August of 1973 and finished the season 14-14 in what was his last baseball managerial gig, though he stayed with the Tigers as a coach through the end of 1976.

Ralph Houk baseball card
Ralph Houk 1974 Topps #578

Finally, we have “The Major,” Ralph Houk. Oddly, after firing Martin in 1973, Tigers’ owner John Fetzer and General Manager Jim Campbell turned again to the Yankees for their next field leader. Houk had very successfully managed the Yankees from 1961 to 1963, averaging over 100 wins each season and winning two of three World Series. He moved to the general manager’s role in 1964, turning the club over to Yogi Berra (partially because the Yankees management was afraid Berra would go manage another team if they didn’t give him the chance). Berra’s 1964 team went to the World Series but lost to Johnny Keane’s St. Louis Cardinals, four games to three. So naturally, Houk fired Berra after only one season and replaced him with… Johnny Keane, who resigned from the Cardinals. New York, New York, it’s a helluva town.

Houk took over from Keane in 1966 and managed the Yankees for eight more years of decline, seasons in which they finished tenth, ninth, and fifth, and then, starting in 1969 with the six-team Eastern Division, fifth, second, fourth, fourth, and fourth. Finally he – and new owner George Steinbrenner – had had enough. Houk resigned after the 1973 season and then signed to be new Tigers manager two weeks later.

Which sort of explains why in this picture he’s wearing Yankee pinstripes and an oddly airbrushed olde English “D” on his cap. (That’s a pretty big “D,” Ralph!) We didn’t see that large a logo on the cap until the unlamented 2018 “big logo” experiment, which also gave us the “unified D” logo on the home jersey. At least we didn’t add pinstripes, I guess.

Houk was called “The Major” because he’d actually joined the Army Rangers during World War II and rose to the rank of major. He was a genuine war hero, awarded the Silver Star with an Oak Leaf Cluster, the Bronze Star with an Oak Leaf Cluster and the Purple Heart.

His Tigers tenure lasted from 1974 through 1978. His record over five seasons was 363-443 for a .450 winning percentage. He managed four more successful seasons with the Red Sox from 1981 to 1984 before hanging up his spikes for good.