Card Corner: 1972 Topps: Jim Roland

More than any other 1972 card, this one takes me back to my first summer at Badger Camp.

Located in Westchester County, Badger Camp is a summer camp for boys and girls that features an amazing array of activities, from archery to diving to judo to yoga to swimming to softball. Beginning in the summer of 1972, my parents sent me to that camp every year through 1977. I often resisted going to the camp (my stated preference was to play on my own in my neighborhood), but my parents would have none of it. Of course, they were right.

It was at Badger Camp where I really honed my interest in baseball. My father had already groomed me to be a fan of the game; it was the sport that he loved first and foremost, and he taught me to value it above all other sports. But at Badger Camp, I learned even more about the game.

Each of our assigned groups was named after a major league team, so one year I was part of the “Braves” and another year I became part of the Yankees. Many of my friends there were baseball fans, as were the counselors who kept us in line. Baseball ran first and foremost at the camp; if you couldn’t talk baseball, you couldn’t keep up with the latest conversations.

Some of our talks centered on important and serious events, like Hank Aaron’s chase of the home run record, or Frank Robinson becoming the first black manager, or Danny Frisella dying in a dune buggy accident.

And then there were trivial items. I can remember debating with one of the counselors the merits of obscure players like Maximino Leon, who was briefly a relief ace for the real Atlanta Braves. One of the counselors told me that he felt sorry for Leon, who was the fireman for a bad team. Who would want to be a fireman for a second-division ballclub, considering that there are very few opportunities to save games? Man, we learning about baseball at an early age.

Some of the kids in the camp were even more rabid fans than me. One kid claimed that every week he memorized the batting average of every player from the Sunday newspaper. We tested him once by asking what Marty Perez, a utility infielder and part-time shortstop, was batting as of that Sunday. Sure enough, the kid nailed Perez’ batting average on the nose. Not Tony Perez, but Marty Perez! Amazing!

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So what does any of this have to do with Jim Roland? Well, I remember seeing Roland’s card at the camp that summer, the summer of ‘72. I can’t recall if I had the card or if one of the other kids had the card, but I do remember thinking, “I like that card—and I want it.”

It was one of the high-numbered cards (No. 464) issued by Topps, so it must have come out in July or August, late in the summer. I thought it was cool that Roland was wearing his windbreaker under his Oakland vest.

Besides, it looked Roland was having a blast, laughing loudly and mugging wildly for the Topps cameraman. Even though it was a posed shot taken on the sidelines, it was an unusual and fun card, the way that baseball cards should be.

Based on this card, Roland appeared to enjoy himself in the major leagues. He began his career in the Twins’ organization, where he emerged as a heralded prospect.

Roland had a good, crisp fastball that he threw in the low nineties, along with a hammerhead overhand curve. That arsenal allowed him to put together his highlight moment as a Twin.

It came on May 19, 1964, against the Yankees. Roland pitched 12 innings in stopping the Bombers, 7-2, at Yankee Stadium. He faced a total of 50 batters, kept Mantle and Maris in check, and scattered eight hits over a dozen innings of work.

Yet, long-term success eluded him. “He had good stuff,” the late Twins’ beat reporter, Bob Fowler, told me in a 1990s interview. “He was just one of those guys who for some reason, never put it all together. Of him, we could say this about a zillion other players, you know, ‘He never reached his full potential for whatever reason.’ Good stuff. But just for some reason it just didn’t click.”

Although Roland had two plus pitches, he struggled with his control. (In another one of his best performances, he shut out the White Sox on only three hits but issued a grand total of nine walks.) A minor league starter in Minnesota‘s organization, Roland was also affected by pitching for a deep Twins staff.

With so much good starting pitching, thanks to people like Jim Kaat, Mudcat Grant, Camilo Pascual, and Jim Perry, the Twins moved Roland to the bullpen. That’s where he pitched, mostly in middle and long relief, for the better part of his Twins tenure.

As a member of the Twins in 1967, Roland became part of a baseball oddity that was more coincidental than it was remarkable. He was one of six pitchers named Jim to land on the Twins’ Opening Day roster, setting some sort of unofficial baseball record. The other Jims were the aforementioned Kaat, Grant, and Perry, veteran left-hander Jim Merritt, and an obscure southpaw named Jim Ollom.

After reporting to spring training in 1969, Roland received a reprieve when he was traded to Oakland, a young up-and-coming team that needed some depth to its pitching staff. The A’s gave him a career-high 39 appearances; Roland responded by assembling his best season, as he compiled a 2.19 ERA while winning five of six decisions in long relief.

Roland continued to pitch effectively in 1970, though a late-season stint on the disabled list limited his appearances to 28. Unfortunately, Roland developed a nerve problem in his pitching arm. The problem grew progressively worse, further limiting his ability to pitch.

Although Roland looks to be in good spirits on his 1972 Topps card, it would turn out to be a tough season. He would make only two appearances for the ‘72 A’s before being sold to the Yankees in late April. The Yankees called on him 16 times, but the nerve problem continued to make him ineffective. On August 30, the Yankees traded him to the Rangers for veteran right-hander Casey Cox. Roland struggled in five appearances before the season came to an end.

At 29, Roland was done. He would never pitch in another professional game, either major league or minor league, ever again.

Unable to continue pitching because of his arm trouble, Roland found success in another calling. He turned to the field of sporting goods, where his positive personality enabled him to become an effective salesman and sales consultant. He also shared his baseball expertise with coaches and young athletes in his native North Carolina. He pursued these interests with zeal until retiring in January of 2010.

Sadly, Roland’s retirement was forced by a yearlong struggle with cancer, which claimed his life two months later at the age of 67.

Nationwide, fans remembered Roland for his willingness to fulfill autograph requests, which he faithfully sent through the mail. Friends and fans in his home of Shelby, NC, remembered Roland for his general compassion and generosity, traits that he continued to exhibit during those last few months as he battled cancer. Somehow, in looking at his Topps card, I am not surprised that he was that kind of man.

Though I never had the chance to meet him, I am grateful to Jim Roland, too. Thanks to his 1972 baseball card, I have another good memory from Badger Camp, when I truly became a fan of the game.

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Comments

  1. Frank Bartus said...

    What a wonderful recounting of a fine person first and a good baseball player we admired. As a lifelong twins fan (since ‘62) it is fun when a Twins players gets such recognition. thanks

  2. Paul said...

    Bruce, I had Mr. Roland’s 1972 card, and used to look at it and his teammates’ Ron Klimkowski and Mudcat Grant’s 1972 cards and think to myself, boy those A’s relief pitchers look like fun guys!

    Thanks for the update.  RIP Mr. Roland.

  3. EG said...

    Bruce, thanks again for another column rooted in a hobby that many of us enjoyed so much growing up.  Thanks to ebay I have gotten back into collecting 60s and 70s cards, making each one of your columns more meaningful to me.  Have you considered creating a Card Corner e-book?

  4. Joe Pilla said...

    Bruce,
    Your series of Topps card tributes is not unlike your summation of Jim Roland: full of compassion and generosity. This seems especially so with the players with “ordinary” major league careers.
    Nowadays, our obsession with using numbers (whether on the field or financial) to understand players tends to discount their humanity.
    I’m grateful that, when you write about the players captured in the cards, you recognize that they’re not just WaRs or stars, but people, too.

  5. Dennis Bedard said...

    Great article.  I was an avid fan in that era.  I think there was more talent in the late 60’s/early 70’s than any other.  The effects of racial segregation were nil and black players flourished.  I love stories about players who almost made it.  Look up Billy Rohr.

  6. Tubbs said...

    Great article, Bruce. Interestingly enough Roland is also wearing a windbreaker in his 1971 Topps card. I always felt sorry for Roland, Rick Monday, Curt Blefary, Mudcat Grant & some of the others guys that were on the ‘71 A’s but missed out on the ‘72-‘74 dynasty. I see Roland didn’t get to pitch in Oakland’s ‘71 ALCS loss to Baltimore. Aside from a few pics from an SI article & one or two from Getty & Corbis, there are surprisingly few pics from the ‘71 ALCS that I have been able to find. Also, I have never been able to find a pic of Mustache Day in ‘72.

  7. Bruce Markusen said...

    To pick up on Joe’s point, one of the things I find most interesting about players from the 1960s and seventies is that they are more similar to us as fans than players of more recent vintage. These guys didn’t make huge money; they had to work jobs in the winter, and they had to find employment after their baseball careers in order to survive.

    There are exceptions, of course, but most of the players from this era are down to earth, accessible, and willing to talk. There doesn’t exist that separation that we see between today’s players and the fans.

  8. Dennis Bedard said...

    Thanks for the comment Bruce.  For more insight on the petdestrian nature of being a big league player way back when, read Halbersam’s 1949 about the Yankees/Red Sox race.

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