Summer of ’74 Project #4 – Larry Lintz

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1974 Topps #121, signed via TTM

Larry Lintz could fly. His speed was always his most prominent virtue as a ballplayer, from growing up in Oakland to his debut season in the Expos chain as a marginal prospect, it was his wheels that got him noticed. Before the 1972 season, his second as a pro, the Expos put him a week-long “thievery school” in spring training, an elite camp for the team’s fastest men. Lintz proved a most apt pupil and, with Quebec of the Eastern League, swiped a record-setting 96 bags in just 107 attempts in 1973.

A year later, Lintz debuted in Monteal. While he never really developed his bat, he was patient at the plate and proved himself as a versatile and steady middle infielder. By the time this card was in circulation in early 1974, it seems unlikely that many kids got too excited over the diminutive (5′ 9″) speedster’s cardboard debut. He was a marginal player on a .500 club. Nor did it seem Gene Maunch and his Expos knew quite what to do with Lintz. He didn’t see regular playing time until mid-May. He got sporadic starts at 2B and SS, filling in for the just-as-youthful Jim Cox and Tim Foli, and was Montreal’s most often-used pinch runner. By season’s end, Lintz had stolen 50 bases, the fifth most in NL, while only being caught seven times. His 88% success rate was the highest in the league.

Lintz was, by this point, an interesting statistical study. While he drew a decent number of walks, his batting average was low. Despite his great speed, he had a startlingly spare number of extra base hits. He was steady in the field, but not flashy – meaning he was probably underappreciated without the benefit of advanced stats. Take away the jets and Lintz was no one’s idea of anything but a bush-leaguer… but no one could stop thinking about that speed.

In that same summer of ’74, back in Lintz’s hometown, Charlie O. Finley was in the midst of one of his most talked-about experiments. Herb Washington, a world-class sprinter, appeared in 92 games for the A’s, despite having no background in baseball. He appeared exclusively as a pinch-runner, scoring 29 runs and swiping 29 bags. He was, however, caught stealing 16 times, essentially negating any value his speed provided. But that off-season, the Montreal brass began to think of Lintz as their very own Herb Washington – one that knew the game and knew the science of the stolen base. Despite the big ideas they got from the ’74 season, they never put the grand plan into use. Lintz’s 1975 with the Expos was nothing all that different from his ’74, and a mid-season trade to the Cardinals didn’t result in him being used in any revolutionary ways. But after the ’75 season, the A’s traded for Lintz and turned him into their Washington 2.0. In 1976, LintzĀ  batted just 4 times, but scored 21 runs and stole 31 bases – a stat line that undoubtedly had its roots in that weird summer of 1974. Lintz played another year with the A’s and appeared in three games as a pinch runner with Cleveland in 1978 before retiring. He finished with 128 career steals and a stolen base success rate of 77.11% – a higher career mark than Bert Campenaris, Jackie Robinson, or Lou Brock.

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Summer of ’74 Project #3 – John Hiller

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1974 Topps #24, signed via TTM

I’ll admit, before I mailed this card out, I had no idea who John Hiller was. But one of the great joys of this blog is getting to know these players and their careers. And I’m quite glad I got to know John Hiller. A few facts: Hiller is a native Canadian; he threw 128 innings, in starts and relief, for the 1968 AL Champion Tigers; that same year, he was nicknamed “Ratso” after the Dustin Hoffman character in Midnight Cowboy because, at the time, he was walking with a limp; also that same year, he threw nine, four-hit, shutout innings at the Yankees after entering a game in the 8th inning (the game was eventually declared a tie after 19 innings); he missed the 1971 season after suffering THREE heart attacks in one day; in the seven years after returning from his heart attacks, he posted an ERA+ of 161 – which was significantly better than the seven year PEAK of SANDY F’ing KOUFAX; Hiller’s career ERA+ is 134 – 26th highest of all-time and better than Greg Maddux, Roy Halladay, Koufax, Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver, or Whitey Ford.

Hiller worked primarily as a reliever and spot starter. In 1973, as the fireman on an 85-win Tigers team, he set a major league record for saves in a season (38) and recorded what the Hardball Times ranked as the second-greatest relief pitcher season of all-time. That year, he finished fourth place in both the AL Cy Young and MVP voting. And it was on one of the Tigers’ trips to Milwaukee that season that his picture on this card was taken. That was teh same year the Tigers (more specifically Billy Martin) and the Brewers had a minor beef over a comment Martin had made while the Brewers were ahead of his Tigers in the standings. I wrote a short piece on that for my Brewers history blog, if anyone is interested.

The Summer of ’74 would not be as kind to the Tigers at ’73, and the club sputtered to a 72-80 mark, their worst finish since 1960. But Hiller remained sharp. Working exclusively out of the bullpen, he finished 52 of the 59 games he entered. Oddly enough, he actually registered more wins and losses than saves. He tallied a 17-14 mark (the most decisions ever for pitcher with zero starts) with only 13 saves – a testament more to the erratic play of this Tigers than his presence on the mound. Although he did not start, he was an highly-effective rubber arm in the ‘pen. He made nine appearances that season of more than three innings – including five games of five innings or more – each an act of blasphemy by today’s standards. He was also an all-star in ’74, but didn’t play in the game.

He remained one of the best bullpen arms in the AL for the next half-decade, but mostly on second-division Tiger clubs. He retired after the 1980 season as the Tigers all-time leaders in saves and the last of the ’68 World Series team still active.

Summer of ’74 Project #2 – Clyde Wright

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1974 Topps #525, signed via TTM

This was actually a card that I had gotten signed well before I started this 1974 project. My true cardboard love has always been the Milwaukee Brewers and the bulk of my TTM requests go out to current or former Sudsmen. I think I got this card signed in 2014… I also think I had confused Wright with David Clyde when I sent it… but anyway. Wright played just a single year with the Brewers, although he was also featured as a Brewer in the 1975 set. Milwaukee traded for Wright just after the end of the 1973 season, enough time for Topps for paint a horrifying blue cap on his head and try to pass him off as a Brewer. At least they used a picture that leaves Wright looking sufficiently mortified.

Wright was the prize return for the Brewers in ten-player deal that sent two-time All Star catcher Ellie Rodriguez and four others to the Angels. Pitcher Skip Lockwood also went to the Angels in the deal. Lockwood had been the last member of the 1969 Seattle Pilots still active with the Brewers. The Brewers had high hopes for the big deal. After the swap, Brewers GM Jim Wilson told the Milwaukee Journal, “We this with this deal we’ve got a chance to be a real contender and truly make a run for it next year… this could put us over the top.”

It was certainly a rosy assessment for a 74-win team that had just acquired a soon-to-be 33-year-old pitcher with a roughly league-average ERA the previous two seasons. The Brewers hoped that Wright would be able to return to his 1970 form, when the lefty won 22 games, threw a no-hitter, and finished 6th in AL Cy Young voting.

Wright was penciled in as the Brewers #3 starter for 1974. He started out hot, opening with a 3-0 record and a 1.38 ERA through the first few weeks of the season. He leveled off quickly and by the middle of the summer had become little more than a rubber-armed innings-eater on a Brewers team that – somehow – had remained in contention in a weak AL east. On July 16, after an 8-inning 4-earned run win over the Twins, the Brewers sat just two games behind the front-running Red Sox. Albeit with a 46-44 record (which actually would have good enough for a part of first place in the NL East).

That sunny Tuesday after would be a high point for the Brewers and Wright in 1974. The Brewers won just seven of their next 25 and finished in 5th place, 15 games out of first. Wright appeared in 14 more games that year (some in long-relief), going 1-9 with a 5.56 ERA. He finished the year with career-high ERA and became the first (and still only) Brewer to lose 20 games. That December, the Brewers traded Wright to the Rangers for right-hander Pete Broberg. Wright pitched one unremarkable season for Texas before being released. Wright later pitched in Japan, where he gained a reputation as a bit of loose cannon. Early in his first season there, he refused to hand over the ball when his manager removed him from a game, instead firing it into the dugout and retreating to the clubhouse. After three years in Japan, during which he developed a drinking problem, Wright ended his professional career. He finally got clean in 1979 after his wife threatened to leave him. Clyde’s son, Jaret Wright, pitched for five teams between 1997 and 2007, and started two World Series games for the Indians as a rookie.

Summer of ’74 Project #1 – Dick Green

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1974 Topps #392, signed TTM

The main idea behind creating Summer of ’74 was to commemorate my quest to get as many of my 1974 Topps baseball cards signed as possible. I’ve been collecting TTM (through the mail) autos for several years now, but to focus specifically on a single set like this is new for me. Many of the players I will be soliciting for this project are guys that I am not all that familiar with, so I am hoping that in doing the blog I can get to know them and their careers and find out what they were up to when these were brand-new and sharp-cornered, way back in the Summer of ’74.

Dick Green was a prototypical middle-infielder for his time: an undersized hard-ass with a slick glove and below-average bat. He broke in with the Kansas City A’s in the midst of back-to-back 100+ loss seasons and was just one of three holdovers (Blue Moon Odom and Bert Campaneris were the others) from the bottom-out days in KC still with the team in ’74. Green’s best season came in 1969, as the A’s began to emerge as a contender in the newly-created American League West. He batted .275 with 12 homers that year and got a smattering of MVP votes. As Oakland’s most-regular second-sacker in 1974, he struggled at the plate, even by his own standards. Two different stints on the DL held him out of all but five games in April and May and he faded badly down the stretch, hitting just .106 in September as the A’s clinched their fourth straight division title.

But “The Little General” came up big with the glove in the ’74 World Series. Green helped to turn three double plays and executed a perfect relay throw in game 5 to nail Bill Buckner as he tried to advance to third base in the top of the eighth inning. Buckner led off the inning with his Dodgers down by a run and laced a gapper off Rollie Fingers that CF Bill North misplayed. He was making for third when Green fired a peg to Sal Bando to nail him. Instead of having the tying run 90 feet away with the heart of the Los Angeles order coming to bat, the Dodgers went quietly and – an inning later – the A’s celebrated their third straight world title.

Although Green went hitless in the series, and 2-22 overall in the playoffs, he was given that year’s Babe Ruth award as the postseason MVP. Both Charlie O’Finley and Reggie Jackson cited his glove as the biggest reason the A’s were able to complete the three-peat.

Green was only 33 years old after the 1974 season and his play in the Series had brought him praise from across the baseball world. But that offseason, the A’s lost ace Catfish Hunter to free agency and Green felt that the A’s glory days were now behind them. After threatening to retire (and sometimes announcing his retirement, as he had around the time this card was actually issued) for years, he informally informed the club he would not return for the 1975 season and was officially released at the start of that year’s spring training.

As a note specific to the card in question, there is some debate as to the identity of both of players featured on this card. You can read more about it here, but it seems very certain the Oakland player on the card is not actually Dick Green. Note that the player on the card is clean-shaven and that Green wore a mustache between the 1972 and ’73 seasons. There is no consensus on who the Oakland player really is – or who the sliding player is, or what team he plays for, or if the picture was taken in Oakland or not.

I tried to figure it out for myself. Per the Dressed to the Nines uniform database, that is a 1973 Oakland road uni. The only AL teams that did not have stripes on their home sleeves that year were Boston, Detroit, the White Sox, and Yankees. Our mystery #14 disqualifies every one of those teams. Boston had red numbers, the Tigers had player names, the White Sox had red numbers, and the Yankees had a sleeve patch. But could the patch be obscured? That black wall in the background could be a patch of Yankee Stadium I’s outfield fence, as seen here. No so fast. #14 for the Bombers that year was Ron Swoboda. And that ain’t Ron Swoboda.

I’m damn stumped. Any ideas?