A new year is upon us, as is a new year of Topps retrospectives. Forty years ago, I started to collect baseball cards. I remember the first trip I took to Pickwick’s Stationery Store in Bronxville, N.Y., where I purchased my first pack of cards on a spring afternoon. The first card out of the pack was a ‘72 Dave Cash, looking like a bit an of outlaw as a member of the world champion Pirates. Little did I know that Cash was from Utica, N.Y., where I would live for eight years.
The 1972 set has come to be my favorite set of cards, in part because it was the first set I collected, but for other reasons, too. I came to love the psychedelic colors that outlined each card, along with the stars to the sides of the team name. But the biggest reason for my affinity has always been the action cards that the 1972 set featured. For the first time, Topps designated certain cards as “action” cards, which gave them a special meaning in the mind of this seven-year-old baseball fan.
Over the coming year, I’ll be spotlighting some of those action cards, along with the regular issue cards, which generally consisted of portraits, profiles and posed shots. Some of Topps’ best photography was in evidence with this set. I’ll be discussing the artwork, along with some of the memorable players featured in 1972, some of them stars and some of them interesting bit players and journeymen.
Let’s begin our ride with one of those journeyman. At first glance, he looks a bit odd. That neck is awfully long. On a peculiar level, that protracted neck is what first comes to mind when I think of Eddie Brinkman. No photograph better illustrates this than his 1972 Topps card. It’s a wonder he was never nicknamed “The Giraffe.” Sportswriter extraordinaire Tom Stanton, noticing Brinkman’s long neck and small head of hair, has called him “The Turtle.” Turtles have long necks and small heads without hair, so I guess that’s a pretty accurate assessment.
It might be accurate to characterize “Steady Eddie” as the diametrical opposite to Walt “No Neck” Williams, the journeyman outfielder who played for the Colt .45s, White Sox, Indians and Yankees. Of all the players in the history of the game, Williams may have the shortest neck ever; his head looked as if it had been placed directly onto his collar bone, on a level completely even with his shoulders. In an intriguing oddity that seemingly only baseball can produce, Brinkman and No Neck Williams were actually teammates with the 1975 Yankees. It makes you wonder if any free-thinking photographer took a picture of the two standing side by side.
At six feet, 170 pounds, Brinkman had the look of a beanpole and was nicknamed “Wimpy.” While with the old Washington Senators, Eddie roomed with Frank Howard, the 6-foot-8, 270-pound gentle giant who was nicknamed “The Capitol Punisher.” Much like Brinkman and Williams, Brinkman and Howard provided a strange contrast. (In spite of their physical differences, Wimpy and The Punisher became close friends.)
Of course, talk of turtles, giraffes, giants and no necks is fairly trivial. What kind of ballplayer was Eddie Brinkman? He was the prototypical shortstop of the 1960s and early ’70s, when teams gladly gave up offensive prowess for middle infielders who could handle the defensive responsibilities of the job. As a fielder, Brinkman was simply terrific. He had excellent range to both sides, sure hands, and a howitzer of an arm that allowed him to field a ball deep in the hole, pivot, and then fire a strike to first base. When Brinkman made his standard over-the-top throw, he had no equal. He wasn’t exactly smooth, but he had a unique style with his long legs and arms. Whether it was gobbling up ground balls or firing arrows to first base, Brinkman was a blast to watch.
Of all the shortstops of his era, I would argue that defensively, Brinkman was second only to Baltimore’s Mark Belanger. Nicknamed “The Blade” because of his long, tall physique, Belanger epitomized the slick-fielding shortstops of the pre-free agent era.
Let’s see what TotalZone has to say about the Brinkman/Belanger comparison. Over his 14-year career as a shortstop, Brinkman comes up with a TotalZone rating of 77, which is very good. Belanger, in contrast, comes in at a whopping 238. (That is almost exactly the rating of the great Ozzie Smith, whose TotalZone was 239.) So the gap between Belanger and Brinkman is much greater than what I remembered. More than anything, I think that’s a tribute to the underrated brilliance of Belanger.
Let’s take a look at some other shortstops whose careers spanned the late 1960s and early ’70s. According to TotalZone, they all fall in line behind Belanger and Brinkman, with a key member of the Oakland A’s coming in third, just after Steady Eddie.
Alley, who was a complementary player on the ’71 Pirates, comes in much higher than I would have thought; Michael and Metzger come in much lower. All in all, I think it’s safe to say that Brinkman was a poor man’s version of Belanger. And there’s no shame in that.
As with Belanger, Brinkman’s weakness became evident every time he took a bat in his hands. He just couldn’t hit. Brinkman usually struggled to hit no more than .220, and did so with little power. He wasn’t a particularly good bunter or hit-and-run man, so he really couldn’t help you play small ball either. So Brinkman just choked up on the bat, a good five to six inches from the knob in his later years, and tried to punch the ball somewhere.
The major blip on Brinkman’s screen took place in 1969 and 1970, when Ted Williams managed him with the Senators. Williams convinced Brinkman to take more pitches, while batting coach Nellie Fox tinkered with his swing. Fox convinced Brinkman to use bats with fat handles, choke up several inches, and try to spray the ball to all fields. Brinkman responded with two respectable seasons, batting .266 and .262. He also reached career highs in walks with 50 and 60, respectively.
Unfortunately for Brinkman, the improvement didn’t stick. After the 1970 season, the Senators traded Brinkman, slick-fielding third baseman Aurelio Rodriguez, and young right-hander Joe Coleman to the Tigers for Denny McLain and three other players. While with the Tigers, and with Williams and Fox no longer around to monitor his swing, Brinkman’s hitting regressed.
Yet the trade did have its benefits, both for Brinkman and the Tigers. The trade united Brinkman with Billy Martin, the Tigers’ manager and a man who saw some of himself in the scrappy, defensive-minded Brinkman. Martin loved Brinkman (who was a popular and congenial player to begin with), to the point where he played him almost every game, rarely giving him a day off. In 1972 and ‘73, Brinkman led all American League players in games played, an unusual achievement for a middle infielder.
Brinkman also won his first and only Gold Glove under Martin. That happened in 1972, a year in which Brinkman hit .204. Even with such a low average, Steady Eddie played in every game, scooped up everything in sight, won over the Gold Glove voters, and incredibly, placed ninth in the AL Most Valuable Player vote. With Brinkman at short, anchoring a very reliable defensive infield that also featured Rodriguez, Dick McAuliffe and Norm Cash, the Tigers squeezed by the Red Sox, winning the American League East title by half a game.
Two years later, Brinkman reached another pinnacle when he hit 14 home runs. That kind of power came out of the blue, considering that “Wimpy” had never hit more than eight homers in a single season.
The 1974 season represented Brinkman’s last as a regular shortstop. With his defensive play slipping, the Tigers made a trade on Nov. 28, sending Brinkman to the Padres as part of a package for declining slugger Nate Colbert. That very day, the Padres rerouted Brinkman to the Cardinals for three pitchers: Sonny Siebert, Rich Folkers and Alan Foster.
The dual trades marked the beginning of a strange odyssey that would continue in 1975. Brinkman started at shortstop on Opening Day in St. Louis, but the Cardinals soon realized that he didn’t have the range to play on the artificial turf of Busch Stadium. So on June 4, the Cardinals traded him and young right-hander Tommy Moore to the Rangers for an aging Willie Davis. The deal reunited Brinkman with Billy Martin, by now gone from the Tigers and the manager of Texas.
Brinkman played in exactly one game for the Rangers. Nine days after acquiring him from St. Louis, the Rangers sold Brinkman to the Yankees. It was as if the Yankees knew that Martin would soon be coming to New York, too. In August, the Yankees hired Martin, marking the third union of Brinkman and “Billy the Kid.”
Brinkman remained with the Yankees through spring training in 1976, but he had little left in the tank, either with the bat or the glove. Just before the start of the 1976 season, the Yankees released him, denying him the chance to play for the eventual American League champions.
After his playing days, Brinkman turned to coaching, first with the Tigers and then the Padres. He also managed in the minor leagues. In the 1980s, he joined Tony LaRussa’s staff with the White Sox. Given his sense of humor and willingness to spend time teaching the game, Brinkman was a natural at coaching.
Sadly, Brinkman died in 2008, after a brief battle with lung cancer. He was relatively young, 66, and still had plenty to give to the game. He died in Cincinnati, the same city in which he was born. In fact, Brinkman’s teammates at Cincinnati’s Western Hills High School included a fellow named Pete Rose.
And guess who the team’s biggest star was? It’s wasn’t Rose; it was Brinkman. As the Western Hills coach said of Rose at the time: He’s “a good ball player, (but he’s) not a Brinkman.”