Card Corner, 1972 Topps: Steve Huntz and the ‘72 White Sox

I must admit this right away. Steve Huntz is the most obscure ballplayer I have ever featured in a column or article. There’s just no way around that. I imagine that most fans, even many of the diehards who frequent The Hardball Times, have never even heard of Steve Huntz. The few that have heard the name likely know virtually nothing of his struggles to play in the major leagues. But the man did play in the major leagues, which puts him one step up on me.

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I certainly knew little about this long-lost utility infielder until I began researching him and his 1972 Topps card. Perhaps his most impressive major league highlight occurred on Aug. 17, 1971, as he hit two home runs against a darned good left-handed pitcher, the Tigers’ Mickey Lolich.

As obscure as Steve Huntz was—and likely still is outside of family and friends—I’ve always remembered his name. A stranger could have come up to me in the late-1990s at the Hall of Fame and asked, “Have you ever heard of Steve Huntz?” And I would have honestly said yes, not because I have such a great memory, not because of his two-home run game, but because of his distinctive 1972 card. This card always sticks with me; it’s the card of the guy who is wearing the wrong helmet.

A switch-hitter, Huntz is clearly posing as a right-handed hitter for the Topps photographer. But he is wearing a helmet that should be used by a left-handed hitter, which in this case covers the ear that is facing the catcher and not the pitcher. (That might help a hitter in case the catcher makes an errant return throw to pitcher, but does little in protecting the batter’s front temple against a 92-mile-per hour fastball.)

I figure there must be one of two reasons that Huntz did this. Perhaps he decided to have some fun with the photographer prior to one of the White Sox‘ 1971 road games, when the photo was likely taken. Maybe he thought it would be comical, and memorable, to wear the wrong helmet. After all, Huntz was not a household name. What better way than to make himself a bit more distinctive on his Topps card?

While that’s a plausible scenario, I’m more likely to choose the second possibility. With a gritted expression of annoyance on his face, Huntz does not look particularly pleased or enthused to be posing for the Topps cameraman. Perhaps, in taking a hurried pose as a right-handed hitter, Huntz mistakenly picked up the wrong helmet, the batting helmet that he normally used as a left-handed batter. Maybe he was a natural right-handed hitter, so out of instinct, he chose to pose from that side of the plate, without even realizing that he was wearing the helmet with a left-handed hitting flap. This theory would explain the irritated look on his face, as if he were saying, “Do we really have to take this photograph NOW?”

Huntz’ aggravated disposition likely did not improve during the 1972 season. In actuality, the White Sox had traded him to the Dodgers during the winter, along with veteran left-hander Tommy John, in the deal that brought Dick Allen to the Windy City. So Huntz didn’t actually play for the White Sox in 1972. He didn’t play for the Dodgers, either. Stuck in the minor leagues all summer long, Huntz toiled for the Dodgers’ Triple-A affiliate at Albuquerque, where he batted .258 with 88 walks, a .374 on-base percentage and 18 home runs.

As he lingered at Triple-A, Huntz missed out on one of the most memorable summers in the history of the White Sox franchise. Just two years after the Sox had bottomed out at 56-106, a new brain trust of manager Chuck Tanner and GM Roland Hemond oversaw one of the decade’s great resurgences.

Expected to be an also-ran in a division dominated by the A’s, the Sox actually took over the AL West lead in late May. They did so again in mid- and late-August. The White Sox fell off eventually in September, settling for a respectable record of 87-67. They finished only five and a half games behind the A’s, even though the gap in talent was more like 15 to 20 games.

The ‘72 Sox survived two major injuries, one to starting third baseman Bill Melton and another to No. 4 starter Bart Johnson. Melton, the second best power hitter on the team, suffered a ruptured disc in his back and missed all of July, August, and September. The injury forced the Sox to turn to journeyman Ed Spiezio (the father of Scott), a good fielder who lacked power preferred at the hot corner.

Johnson missed the entire season with a knee injury suffered during the winter; he tried to pitch at Triple-A, where he muddled through the summer before finally undergoing season-ending surgery in September. Without the hard-throwing Johnson, Tanner tried to rely on a three-man rotation as much as possible.

With Tanner and mastermind pitching coach Johnny Sain pulling the strings, the durable Wilbur Wood served as the bulwark of the rotation. Armed with a baffling knuckleball and a large waistline, Wood made a whopping 49 starts, with 26 of them coming on two days’ rest.

Wilbur the Workhorse not only kept his ERA at 2.51, but he also won 24 games as the anchor of the staff. He was buttressed by 21-game winner Stan Bahnsen, who was stolen from the Yankees in the Rich McKinney heist. Journeyman Tom Bradley emerged as a surprising No. 3 starter; the ex-Giant pitched the best ball of his career in winning 15 games and posting a 2.98 ERA.

When Wood, Bahnsen and Bradley weren’t finishing games, they could confidently hand the ball off to two high-powered young relievers in Terry Forster and Goose Gossage.

As well as those five pitchers performed, they all ranked behind another teammate in total value. On a team filled with light and mediocre hitters like Walt Williams, Pat Kelly and Rich Morales, on a team whose second leading power hitter had 12 home runs, the White Sox had exactly one offensive star.

The Sox’ most valuable performer, not to mention the American League MVP, could be found at first base. Dick Allen, pilfered from the Dodgers in the Huntz-John blockbuster, carried the team as much as any one player can carry an offensive attack. Allen led the league in home runs, RBIs walks, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS. He compiled an OPS of 1.023, especially impressive in the final season before the adoption of the DH.

Allen was especially dominant at Comiskey Park. Of his 37 home runs, 27 flew out in Chicago. Of his 113 RBIs, 83 of them came in games at home. Given that level of production, it’s no wonder that the White Sox went 55-23 at Comiskey Park, the best home record in franchise history. It’s also little surprise that the ‘72 White Sox became one of the most beloved clubs the South Siders have ever watched.

But let’s get back to Huntz. A defensive-minded infielder who could play shortstop, third, or second, he didn’t play in the majors in either 1972 or 1973, as he continued to pile up games at the Triple-A level. For his career, he played over 1,000 games at Triple-A (or the equivalent about seven full seasons) with most of them coming in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League.

Huntz did resurface one more time in the major leagues. After three continuous seasons of minor league ball, Huntz finally made it back in 1975, when he climbed his way onto the roster of the Padres. Huntz hit a career-low .151 that season—his last as a major leaguer.

There was no Topps card of him wearing those hideous brown-and-yellow double knits of the Padres, though he did make it onto a 1976 SSPC card, his final card as a player. On that card, he is once again shown wearing a left-handed hitter’s helmet, with his bat resting on his left shoulder. Four years later, Steve Huntz got it right.

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Comments

  1. Craig Tyle said...

    I remember Huntz for two reasons—(1) my brother was a big Padres’ fan, so I knew everyone who played for the Padres in the 70’s and (2) I think he was on a Cardinals’ rookie card in the ‘67 or ‘68 set (maybe with Danny Breeden?), among my very first cards.

  2. MikeS said...

    I don’t remember Huntz but I remember Wilbur Wood.  Growing up as a White Sox fan he was my first favorite player.  probably because he was always pitching whenever my dad took us to a game.

  3. Paul said...

    Steve Huntz aside, I would have to disagree that the White Sox “pilfered” Dick Allen from the Dodgers.  Granted, he gave them a solid couple of seasons, but Tommy John won 87 games over six seasons in LA.  With the talent they had waiting in the wings I’d say the trade worked out pretty well for the Dodgers.

    Love your writing Bruce!

  4. Jim G. said...

    I imagine another possible scenario with the photographer. Huntz, posing by the batting cage, was in the midst of batting practice and was working on his lefty hitting (with the correct helmet). You’ll notice he has a lefty batting glove, as well. The photographer pulls him aside to take the shot and had him pose righty because the flap made for a distracting shot from the left. Hence the reversed shot. Huntz is probably irritated that some photographer interrupted his batting practice.

    Great article, Bruce!

  5. Marc Schneider said...

    I love stories about obscure players like this. Being on a baseball card is a piece of immortality.  I wonder if he sits around and tells his kids or grandkids about the two home runs off Mickey Lolich.

  6. Ralph C. said...

    A great article, Bruce (as usual).  Has anyone ever written a book about these kinds of players?  If not, it would be a book I’d like to read.  If the book could include an interview or quotes from the players about their careers, that could be neat, too. 

    If a book like that hasn’t been written, there’s probably a reason.  I wonder, though, in these days of electronic publishing, someone wouldn’t just put a book together, anyway. 

    Just a thought.

  7. Bruce Markusen said...

    Ralph, I would love to make a book out of these. One of the obstacles is getting permissions to use the images from Topps. That would be a key.

  8. Andy R said...

    I was looking through some old issues of Sporting News from after the ‘68 expansion draft for the Expos and Padres- people were saying that the Cardinals lost too much bench depth in the draft, but the team said that things would be okay as they were able to protect Steve Huntz- must have been valued pretty high at the time…

    Great article, Bruce!

  9. Steve Treder said...

    Bruce, as one who has attempted to receive publication permissions from Topps, all I can tell you is that they are not readily forthcoming.  Frankly I think they’re nuts; I think using baseball card images as illustrations in baseball-history books would be something that would stimulate interest in the cards, and thus enhance their value and that of the prestige of the brand.  But apparently not.

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