Card Corner: 1972 Topps: Ken Singleton

I would contend that no one has worn a uniform better than Ken Singleton. As seen on his 1972 Topps card, his jersey drapes his upper body neatly. His pants (at least the top of them) are neither too tight nor too baggy. Players in the early 1970s often wore their uniforms blousy, at least until the polyester double knits came into vogue, but Singleton has committed no such fashion infraction.

Singleton helps the fashion cause with his tall, athletic build. Whether it was early in his career with the Mets or during his prime-time years with the Orioles, Singleton never displayed an ounce of fat. He was six feet, three inches tall and about 215 pounds, just about the perfect build for a corner outfielder. Lean and muscular, that’s how Singleton rocked the look throughout his career.

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In posing for the Topps photographer at old Shea Stadium, Singleton even has the good sense to put his left sleeve forward so that the nifty Mets skyline logo is in full view. And then there’s the uniform itself. I’ve always liked the Mets’ traditional home uniform, with its thin blue pinstripes and a small dash of orange used around the lettering, the numbering and the logo. All in all, Singleton looks like a ballplayer should, whether we’re talking the mod style of 1972 or the contemporary look of 2012.

Ironically, it was a baseball uniform that would cause Singleton major difficulty later in the summer of 1972. More on that bizarre story later in our program.

Even diehard Mets fans might not have many memories of Singleton playing in New York. That’s because he played only two seasons for the Mets, and had the misfortune of missing out on the 1969 world championship. The 1970 and ‘71 seasons are simply not as embedded for Mets fans; that happenstance of history places Singleton deeper into the Mets’ fog of recollection.

At one time, Singleton was a highly regarded Mets property. In 1967, he was taken in the first round of the January draft, third overall behind two players who never made an impact, Alec Distaso and Michael Flanagan. Singleton was a hometown product. A native of Mount Vernon in Westchester County, he played sandlot baseball against Rod Carew and other future greats in the Bronx. He played games at Babe Ruth Field, located within in the shadows of Yankee Stadium, and often heard the nearby cheers when one of the Yankees hit a home run. The only destination more perfect than the Mets would have been the Yankees.

In 1967, the Mets assigned him to Winter Haven of the short-season Florida State League, where he put up decent numbers and earned a 1968 promotion to full-season Class-A ball in the California League.

By the end of the ‘68 season, he had climbed to Triple-A Jacksonville, but was overmatched by the pitching. So the Mets sent him to Double-A Memphis in 1969. He played well there, earned a promotion to Triple-A Tidewater in 1970, and tore up the league so heavily—putting up an OPS of 1.216—that the Mets brought him up in mid-season. Singleton hit so well in the minors that one of the New York baseball writers put pressure on the Mets to finally promote him. The Mets did, and he would never see the minor leagues again.

Singleton held his own as a rookie, with his .360 on-base percentage a testament to his disciplined hitting style. Duly impressed, the Mets made him their platoon right fielder to start the 1971 season. The switch-hitting Singleton played against left-handed pitching, alternating with 1969 hero Art Shamsky. But Shamsky was an old 29, fell into a terrible slump, and lost the job fulltime to Singleton, who hit 13 home runs in 298 at-bats and reached base 37 percent of the time. The Mets appeared to have their right fielder of the future.

Then came the tumultuous season of 1972, when this Singleton card was issued. The Players’ Association went out on strike, delaying the start of the season. The strike seemed like an inconsequential matter when the Mets heard the news of Sunday, April 2. Beloved manager Gil Hodges, having completed a round of golf during the strike, collapsed and died from a massive heart attack. A grieving organization named Yogi Berra as his replacement.

Three days after the tragedy, at a time when Mets fans wanted nothing more than to be distracted from the loss of Hodges, the Mets announced a major trade. Given the chance to acquire star right fielder Rusty Staub, the Mets decided they could not pass up the offer. So they sent a package of three players, which included Singleton, first baseman Mike Jorgensen and shortstop Tim Foli, to the Montreal Expos for Staub.

The trade would help the Mets in the short term, as Staub became a huge component to their unlikely pennant-winning season of 1973. But as with many trades, the long-term effects would turn out much differently. The Mets wouldn’t fully realize the significance of the trade until the late 1970s, when Singleton forged his finest seasons while playing in the American League.

Success did not come to Singleton immediately. The 1972 season was a season of fits and starts. Singleton put up a good on-base percentage (.363), but he hit only 14 home runs as the everyday right fielder. His base running was atrocious. Although Singleton was not fast, he tried to steal 15 bases, but was caught 10 times. Furthermore, his defense in left field was lacking. Going back to his days as a minor leaguer, scouts had questioned Singleton’s range and agility. The Expos now understood why scouts harbored those concerns.

Strangely, there was another problem in 1972. During the spring, Singleton developed a strange rash. Red bumps broke out over his body everywhere. The red bumps began to appear in spring training with the Mets, prior to the trade. They persisted after the trade to Montreal. “They were driving me mad,” Singleton told sportswriter Bob Stevens. “I took about 100 allergy tests. Nothing was determined. I’d still break out… I couldn’t play. They had to bench me.”

Mystified by the cause, Singleton finally found an answer. He noticed that the red bumps disappeared after he left the ballpark. He finally realized that the root of the problem was actually his uniform. The Mets and the Expos were still using the old fashioned flannel uniforms, which were causing a reaction on Singleton’s skin.

To solve the problem, the Expos fitted him with a set of double knits, which were becoming all the rage around the major leagues. So while his teammates wore the old style uniform, which looked a dull white, Singleton sported the double knits, which glistened.

His game began to glisten during his second season north of the border. In 1973, the Expos moved him to right field, where he seemed more comfortable. He strengthened his throwing to the point where he led the National League with 18 outfield assists. But it was his offensive game that exploded. He walked a staggering 123 times and led the league in on-base percentage. He reached a career high with 23 home runs. His OPS of .904 indicated his full arrival.

Or so it seemed. His power, his walks, and his batting average all fell off significantly in 1974. Frustrated by Singleton’s personal recession, the Expos panicked and made one of their worst trades ever. They sent Singleton and serviceable right-hander Mike Torrez to the Orioles for an over-the-hill Dave McNally, one dimensional speedster Rich Coggins and a minor leaguer named Bill Kirkpatrick. Just as the Expos had thanked the Mets, the Orioles thanked the Expos.

Freed from the artificial turf, the cold, and the difficult winds of Montreal‘s Jarry Park, Singleton flourished in Baltimore. Earl Weaver, recognizing Singleton’s ability to draw walks, made him the O’s leadoff man. In his first season, he hit .300 and placed 10th in the American League MVP voting.

“I never realized what baseball was really like until I came here from Montreal in 1975,” Singleton told the Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J. years later. “With the Expos, losing was ingrained and guys were only interested in personal statistics.”

With the Orioles, priorities were much different. “The first day I joined the Orioles in Miami [for spring training], Brooks Robinson put his arm around me and said, ‘You don’t have to do it all by yourself here. Everybody pulls together.’ ”

Energized by new surroundings, Singleton put together a huge quartet of productive seasons from 1977 to 1980. He put up OPS marks of .945 and .938. He received MVP consideration every year. Teaming with fellow switch hitter Eddie Murray, Singleton gave the Orioles a formidable heart of the order while creating matchup nightmares for opposing managers. At one point, Weaver called Singleton the steadiest player in the game.

The only bump in the road came in 1977. Singleton played the entire year with bone chips in his elbow. Smartly, he kept the injury quiet so that opposing teams would not take full advantage of his throwing deficiency. Even with the bone chips, he hit a career-best .328 and slugged .507. Yes, it is possible to play hurt.

Singleton was never more important to the Orioles than he was in 1979. He blasted a career-high 35 home runs, walked 109 times, and drove in 111 runs. Those numbers placed him second in the MVP voting, as the Orioles won the AL East on their way to a World Series appearance against the Pirates.

After the 1981 season, Singleton suffered an off year, then bounced back in 1983, but fell off the map in 1984. There was certainly no shame in that. He was now 37, a time when many sluggers were forced into retirement. He became a free agent, received little interest, and decided the time was right to step aside.

As with much of his career, Singleton handled his retirement with smoothness and class. That was no surprise, considering the exemplary way with which he conducted himself inn New York, Montreal, and Baltimore. Singleton’s role model behavior earned him the Roberto Clemente Award, given to the major leaguer who best exemplifies the humanitarian nature of the late Pirates great.

Singleton made an easy transition to his post-playing career. Pleasant and well spoken, he slid into the broadcasting booth for the Orioles. In the late 1990s, he joined the Yankees, becoming one of the analysts for the YES Network.

In due time, Singleton has become one of my favorite announcers. Unlike many ex-players, he is not restricted to color man duty. He is just as comfortable executing play-by-play, making him more versatile than any other Yankee announcer. He understands the importance of Sabermetrics, but also understands how difficult the game is. Yet, at the same time, he is willing to criticize players for boneheaded gaffes or lack of effort. He is not there to be friends with the players. He calls the game evenly, accurately, and fairly.

As a resident of Cooperstown, I’m fortunate to have the chance to meet a number of retired players, whether they be Hall of Famers or not. Ken Singleton is one I’ve not had the chance to meet yet. Based on what I know of him, I hope that opportunity comes in the near future.

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Comments

  1. Larry Lensak said...

    Back in the very early 70’s our high school had a faculty vs. the stars charity basketball game. Many of the young Met and Yankee players were there, including a young Ken Singleton. After the game all the kids were trying to get autographs as the players were leaving. We saw Singleton bolt for his car and a couple of us chased after him. We thought he was going to jump into his car and take off. But as soon as he got to his car he sat on the hood laughing – and then sat there until he signed everything put in front of him, talking baseball with us for a good half hour. One of those things you don’t forget.

  2. Bob said...

    I loved Ken, as a kid—kinda the way I loved Amos Otis. They just seemed so overlooked.

    Didn’t Ken reach base via hit/walk 12 straight times? Nice legacy, since it’s the MLB record. Later tied by The Big Hurt? Am I right?

    But as far as 1972 Topps? Clemente. The card. It’s so… contemplative, so…

    Bruce: favorite Topps set is… ‘75, right? Split cards, and, in retrospect, very nice rookie collection. Brett, easy. Yount, of course… But who’s the OTHER guy?

  3. KJOK said...

    Nice article.

    One factual correction:

    “Freed from the artificial turf, the cold, and the difficult winds of Montreal‘s Jarry Park..”

    Jarry Park did not have artificial turf.  It wasn’t until 1977 with Olympic Stadium that there was fake turf in Montreal.

  4. kds said...

    Your first two paragraphs remind me of a story told by Bill James in the New Bill James Historical Abstract.  When he was writing the original Historical Abstract he assigned to his wife the job of looking through photographs and picking the best (and worst) looking players for each decade.  She picked Singleton as one of the best looking for the 1970’s.  Singleton saw this and wrote her a thank you note.  Certainly a class act.

  5. Michael Caragliano said...

    I get to engineer for visiting radio once in a while at Yankee Stadium. The visiting radio booth is next door to the YES booth, and you’re right about Ken being a nice guy and a solid broadcaster, Bruce. You can look through the window into the adjacent booths, and three hours before the game, when I’m setting up my equipment, if Singelton’s calling the game he’s in the YES booth, doing his prep of the game notes, and if he sees you through the window he’ll wave a hello with a smile, even though he doesn’t know you.

    Ken Singleton is part of a great (well, maybe not-so-great) what-if for Mets fans. The Mets traded another outfield prospect, Amos Otis, a little before they traded Singleton. They passed on Reggie Jackson with the #1 pick in the ‘66 draft. Imagine, for a second, how the Mets would have fared in the ‘70’s with a Singleton/Otis/Jackson outfield.

  6. Bruce Markusen said...

    KJOK, you are correct, Jarry Park had grass, no turf.

    Out of curiosity, did you ever go to a game there? I’ve always been curious what that ballpark was like.

  7. KJOK said...

    No Jarry Park is one that I missed.  By the time I had a trip to Montreal in the early 1990s Jarry Park was long gone.

  8. Bruce Markusen said...

    Bob, my favorite set is 1972 Topps, in part because that is the year that I started collecting.

    And yes, I am planning on doing something with regard to the Clemente card, which is one of my all-time favorites.

  9. Duke said...

    I had Ken Singleton in my cab in Boston in 1976, so I’ve met him.  You’ll enjoy it if yo get the chance; he’s a very pleasant person.

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