Card Corner: 1972 Topps, Tito Fuentes

There’s little doubt that Tito Fuentes was one of the most acrobatic players of the 1970s. His 1972 “In Action” card confirms that claim. In what might be described as almost operatic fashion, Fuentes is trying to secure an errant throw on an attempted play on the runner at second base. Based on the distance between Fuentes’ glove and the baserunner, it’s doubtful that Fuentes actually registered an out on the play, but the degree of effort and athleticism is impressive.

The long distance viewpoint of the photograph, coupled with the crumpled posture of the baserunner, prevents us from making a reasonable guess as to who the runner might be. There looks to be some blue in the runner’s uniform, so perhaps it’s a member of the Mets, or the Dodgers, or the Cubs. Or maybe the color is black, indicating the Braves. I think he’s wearing a No. 6 on his back (is it Clete Boyer?), but I can’t even be sure of that. There just isn’t enough visual evidence to hazard a reasonable guess as to the identity of this opposing player. So we’ll have to leave that puzzle for another day.

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There is no mystery as to the site of the Topps photo. Fuentes is wearing the home whites of the Giants, so the game is obviously being played at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, with the artificial turf of that era plainly evident. (Candlestick Park featured artificial turf from 1970 to ‘78 before the Giants switched back to natural grass in 1979.)

Fuentes made his debut at Candlestick Park roughly a decade earlier, when the Giants still played on grass and when the ballpark had an open configuration in the outfield. The Giants signed Fuentes out of Cuba in 1962, making him one of the last Cubans to join a major league organization before the American embargo against Castro effectively ended (at least for awhile) the baseball trail between the island and the United States.

At the age of 18, Fuentes was a raw talent, but the Giants loved his speed, quick feet, powerful throwing arm, and defensive versatility. As a minor leaguer, he played both shortstop and second base. When the Giants brought him to the major leagues toward the end of the 1965 season, he played both spots, but mostly shortstop. He made five errors in 18 games at short, giving the Giants some pause as to whether that was his proper position.

Fuentes became involved in controversy during his late-season call-up. On Aug. 22, Juan Marichal clubbed the Dodgers’ Johnny Roseboro in the head with his bat, triggering a full-scale brawl.

Fuentes, who was in the on-deck circle, entered the middle of the skirmish, brandishing a bat as he approached the main combatants and Dodgers ace Sandy Koufax. Fuentes held the bat like a baton, but did not swing it at any of the Dodgers. Willie Mays pulled his teammate away from the center of the scrum before Fuentes could change his mind and do some damage with the bat.

In 1966, Fuentes appeared in 133 games, making him a fulltime player, but he continued to split his time between second base and shortstop. A right-handed hitter, he showed some offensive potential, hitting .261 with nine home runs, but displayed an alarming lack of discipline at the plate.

Fuentes flopped badly in 1967. He drew a few more walks, but his batting average dropped to .209 and his on-base percentage and slugging percentage both plummeted under the .300 marks. Fuentes hit so poorly that the Giants approached him about becoming a switch-hitter, as a way of gaining the platoon advantage against each pitcher and better utilizing his speed.

Fuentes agreed to the change, and spent the 1968 season working on his switch-hitting at Triple-A Phoenix. Unfortunately, his season amounted to only 28 games; he missed most of it with injury.

So it was back to Triple-A to start the 1969 season. As he had done in limited time in 1968, Fuentes responded beautifully to the switch-hitting experiment. In 42 games, he batted .340, reached base nearly 40 per cent of the time, and even slugged over .400. Fuentes’ performance earned him a midseason promotion to San Francisco.

By now, the Giants had a solid if unspectacular second baseman in the feisty Ron Hunt. So they moved Fuentes to the left side, where shortstop Hal Lanier and third baseman Jim Davenport gave the Giants little offensive punch. (For the season, Lanier and Davenport would combine to hit two home runs.) Fuentes split time between short and third base, a position where he had exactly five games of minor league experience. He batted .295 with an on-base percentage of .350, giving the Giants a boost of line drive hitting and speed.

In 1970, Fuentes’ role changed. The Giants inserted Alan Gallagher as their everyday third baseman, so Fuentes now provided them with depth at the up-the-middle positions. He backed up Hunt at second and Chris Speier at shortstop. And like all of the Giants infielders, Fuentes had to make the adjustment from grass to artificial turf as the Giants adopted the new playing surface at Candlestick Park.

Impressed by Fuentes’ ability to provide speed and offensive life off the bench while filling in at multiple positions, the Giants made a major change prior to the 1971 season. They traded Hunt to the Expos, clearing the way for Fuentes to become the everyday second baseman. For the first time in his major league career, Fuentes had one position all to himself.

In his early years, Fuentes had drawn criticism in San Francisco for his showboat tendencies. But once he became the regular second baseman, it didn’t take long for Fuentes to become a fan favorite. He played well, and with flamboyance and flair.

Upon arriving at home plate for each of his at-bats, Fuentes tapped the plate with the handle of the bat and then flipped the bat into the air, catching it before it fell to the ground. When Fuentes swung and missed (which didn’t happen often), he would spin around completely and flip his bat into the air in baton-like fashion.

Fans responded favorably to Fuentes’ machinations. While at the plate, they serenaded him with chants of “Ti-to, Ti-to.” When he reached base, Giants fans chanted “Go, Go,” hoping Fuentes would attempt to steal a base. Fans particularly enjoyed the acrobatic way he leapt out of the way of hard-charging runners on double play attempts. Fuentes likely had more “hang time” than any second baseman in the game.

He was also one of the most talkative players of his era. While on the basepaths, he chatted so much with opposing players that he earned the nickname “Parakeet.” Some of his words were memorable. He once told a reporter about headhunting pitchers, “They shouldn’t throw at me. I’m the father of five or six kids.”

Fuentes carried his flamboyance off the field. Priding himself on his appearance, Fuentes loved to wear expensive suits, particularly red ones with large lapels. He wore eight rings—one for each of his non-thumb fingers—some of which he designed himself. On the field, he wore as many as a dozen chains around his neck, including one that carried a large tooth. And he loved to wear headbands, which he sometimes wrapped around his cap and helmet, much to the chagrin of National League officials.

Given his outgoing personality and his resplendent style of play, Fuentes emerged as one of the most colorful players of the 1970s. While some players bristled at being described as “hot dogs,” Fuentes embraced the label. By his own measure, Fuentes placed himself second among the game’s leading hot dogs, behind only the Phillies’ Willie Montanez and just ahead of the Cubs’ Jose Cardenal.

In the early 1970s, Fuentes backed up his hot dog reputation with his play on the field. In 1971, he hit .273, stole 12 bases in 14 attempts, and helped the Giants win the Western Division title.

One of Fuentes’ signature moments took place that season. On the day the Giants clinched the National League West, Fuentes’ son was born. He decided to name the boy “Clinch.” “That’s right, his name is Clinch,” Fuentes later explained to Jim Hawkins in The Sporting News. “He was born Sept. 29, 1971, the day we clinched the pennant… If we had made it to the World Series and he had been born then, I was going to name him W.S.”

Fuentes further celebrated the birth of his son in the postseason, as he clubbed a home run in the National League Championship Series against the Pirates. As much as Fuentes helped the Giants win Game One of the series, he couldn’t stop the Bucs from winning the series in four games.

Fuentes continued his development in 1972. He stole 16 bases and more than doubled his walks total (from 18 to 39). He also continued to flash above-average range at second base.

Yet, there were problems. For his two seasons as a starter, Fuentes’ on-base percentage barely surpassed .300. Defensively, he showed good range and a nifty ability to turn double plays with Speier (they led the league in DPs). But he also made a ton of errors, the most of any National League second baseman. In particular, he struggled on balls hit right at him.

Then came the renaissance year of 1973. Fuentes tightened up his fielding, committing only six errors in 160 games and setting a National League record for the best fielding percentage by a second baseman. Offensively, he drew a career-high 45 walks, drove in 63 runs, and scored 78 runs. Earning some support for league MVP honors, Fuentes appeared to have arrived at the age of 29.

Yet, the graph did not continue to point upward. A back injury in 1974 sapped Fuentes of what little power he had, affected his running game, and limited him to 104 games of general ineffectiveness. Worried that the back injury would be chronic, the Giants traded Fuentes and minor league reliever Butch Metzger to the Padres for a younger second baseman, the talented but enigmatic Derrel Thomas.

Thus began the vagabond stage of Fuentes’ career. He had one decent year and one bad season in San Diego, prompting the Padres to let him test free agency. Fuentes signed a bargain basement contract with the Tigers, and turned into the bargain of 1977. Even at the advanced age of 33, not to mention facing the difficulty of adjusting to a new league, he reached career highs in batting average (.309) and OPS (.745) and pounded out 10 triples.

Unfortunately for him, the Tigers desired a youth movement. Needing to make room for top prospect Lou Whitaker, the Tigers sold Fuentes to the Expos in January of 1978. Expos GM Charlie Fox, who had managed Fuentes in San Francisco and loved his attitude and enthusiasm, jumped at the chance to acquire Tito at such a small price. “I’ve never seen a player go all out like Fuentes for every ball hit in his direction,” Fox told Ian MacDonald in The Sporting News. “I’ve seen few players stay and fight every pitch better than Fuentes. That’s a player.”

Fox felt that Fuentes could take over everyday duties at third base while providing backup to middle infielders Dave Cash and Chris Speier, his former double play partner in San Fran.

Well, that was the plan. The Expos took Fuentes to arbitration, where he lost his case. Upset over his salary, Fuentes reported late to spring training. Even after arriving in Florida, he remained upset. With his attitude no longer exemplary, the Expos ended up releasing Fuentes. In the matter of a few weeks, Charlie Fox had devolved from ecstatic to disillusioned.

When no major league teams showed interest, Fuentes settled for a contract with the Mexican League. He hit very well over half a season, prompting a tryout from the Yankees, who already had Willie Randolph playing second base. The Yankees gave him a quick look and said no, ostensibly because they felt they needed power from their second baseman. That explanation made little sense; Fuentes had never hit more than seven home runs in a season, so why did the Yankees give a punch hitter like Fuentes a tryout in the first place?

Frustrated by the Yankees’ dalliance, Fuentes finally found a taker. The lowly A’s, who had started the season surprisingly well but were on their way to a 93-loss campaign, signed Tito in the hope that he would represent an upgrade over the immortal pairing of Mike Edwards and Steve Staggs. Fuentes appeared in 13 games, but didn’t hit a lick, compiling an obscene OPS of .322 in 45 plate appearances. Except for a brief flirtation with the ill-fated Inter-American League in 1979, the end of the line had arrived.

Luckily, we still have Tito Fuentes in baseball today. With his outgoing personality and ability to talk non-stop, he is a natural doing Spanish language broadcasts for the Giants, a job that he has performed continually since 2004. The acrobatics are gone, but all these years later, the Parakeet is still chirping.

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Comments

  1. Jim G. said...

    I vaguely remember Tito when he was with the Tigers. I was just getting into baseball then. He was a fan favorite there, too. I also remember his ‘78 card having a big TITO headband over his Tigers’ cap. Classic.
    Great job Bruce!

  2. Jim G. said...

    I also wonder if he would have made more money with his “losing” salary on the Expos than he did with his subsequent gigs. My guess is yes.

  3. Michael Caragliano said...

    I’d be inclined to assume it’s a Met, since the Mets got into a unusually high amount of the 1972 In Antion cards (no fewer than 11 Mets got an In Action shot, but not a single Oriole and only one Dodger, for instance).

    Great mention about the headbands, Bruce. They appear on no fewer than three different Topps cards (1974, 76 and 77), and he even wrote “Tito” on one of them. As a kid, I used to get his name mixed up with Tito Puente; until my grandfather set me straight, I thought, “Wow, cool, he’s a baseball player AND a drummer!”

  4. Asa Lasky said...

    As a Giant fan in L.A. (just born that way, I guess) Tito was my role model.  I thought of myself as the 11 year old Jewish Tito Fuentes.  Though it made my little league coach (former major leaguer Al Silvera!) apoplectic, I would do the Tito bat flip as much as I could get away with without getting benched.  Never could get any of my friends or family to go along with calling me Tito though!  Though I only barely understand a few words of Spanish, I often listen to an inning or two of his broadcasts.  Great story – Thanks

  5. Andy R said...

    Chris Speier and Tito Fuentes were the Giants’ double-play combination for the ‘71 Giants. I remember on grounders up the middle, if Fuentes got to it first, he would flip it to Speier to make the throw to first. It may have been done before, but it sure impressed me as a 16-year-old…

  6. DrBGiantsfan said...

    I remember Tito Fuentes as simultaneously one of my favorite players and one I was most frustrated with.  My parents moved away from Northern California in 1972.  Back in those days it was a lot harder to follow your favorite team if you did not live in the local area.  I could sometimes get broadcasts that would fade in and out at night.

    Anyway, I had completely forgotten how good he was in 1973.  I have always remembered the 1971 season as the high water mark of his career.

    Thanks for the Memory Lane moment.

  7. G H Wolf said...

    Another great post, Bruce. I remember Fuentes’ 1974 card with the orange head band around his cap. There was another card which depicted him and his cap around which he placed his head band with “Tito” written on it.
    I think you are right that the player sliding is Clete Boyer of the Braves. The Braves had a patch of the “Brave” on the upper arm/bicep/shoulder of their uniforms. Though it is difficult for me to tell, it appears like that is such a patch. Johnny Callison with the Cubs, Steve Garvey (Dodgers) and Al Weis with the Mets all wore 6.

  8. Bob said...

    It was not Clete Boyer. Clete had problems with the curfews and rules established by Luman Harris so he left the Braves and went to Japan during the 1971 season.

  9. Bruce Markusen said...

    You are correct, Bob. Boyer played in only two games at San Fran in 1971 and did not slide into second base in either one. He didn’t bat in one of the games and hit a home run in the other.

  10. Detroit Michael said...

    My recollection is that the Tigers didn’t think much of Fuentes’ defense, one reason that he lasted just a year in Detroit.

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