The 1973 Topps set was not the first to introduce action cards to the hobby, although it sometimes feels that way. The 1972 set was actually the pioneer, but the 1973 set put action cards on the same pedestal as posed and profile shots. The action card became so prominent in 1973 that Topps realized it could never go back to the styles it produced in the 1950s and ’60s. Action, action, and more action would have to be included in each succeeding set.
For those who collected in 1973, the Bobby Bonds card represented one of the pinnacles of the Topps set. Not only does it show the athletic outfielder doing his best to elude a tag in either a rundown or a pickoff attempt, but it also features a cameo appearance by another certified star of the era. Willie Stargell, who is playing first base after being switched from his usual post in left field, is begging for the ball to be thrown to him. The card leaves us wanting to know more. Was Bonds able to make it back to first safely? Or did Stargell slap a tag on him at the last moment? I’m guessing that Bonds was safe, but given that the Pirates and Giants played four day games at Candlestick Park in 1972, we might not ever know the answer.
More importantly, finding two stars on one card provided a boon to a young collector like me. Bonds was near the height of superstardom in 1973. Though he was coming off a bit of a down performance in 1972, he would bounce back with 39 home runs, 43 stolen bases, a league-leading 131 runs scored, and a career best OPS of .900. At 27 years of age, Bonds looked to be on a direct path to the Hall of Fame.
Having Stargell on the card made this a double bonus. Coming off a season in which he placed third in the MVP voting, Stargell would put up his best year in 1973. He led the National League in home runs, RBIs, slugging and OPS. Stargell also happened to be my favorite active ballplayer. My hero, Roberto Clemente, had died at the end of 1972, putting Stargell in the top spot on my own personal trophy case. To put it mildly, what could be better than having two players like Stargell and Bonds on the very same card, and in action, no less?
While it’s tempting to write an essay about Stargell, I have to remind myself that this is Bonds’ card, so the emphasis should be on him. He was signed by the Giants in 1964, just one year before the institution of the major league draft. It soon became obvious to Giants management that he had enormous talent. When he started the 1968 season by hitting .370 for Triple-A Phoenix, the Giants realized that he needed to come to the major leagues pronto. Not disappointing in his first impression, Bonds delivered a grand slam as his first big league hit.
Given a full season in San Francisco in 1969, Bonds really went to work. He blasted 32 home runs, stole 45 bases (in 49 attempts), and drew 81 walks. He sometimes struggled with curve balls, but he could turn around anyone’s best fastball. He also played the hell out of right field, with the appropriate level of arm strength and the range of a center fielder.
Bonds performed at such a high level that he drew comparisons to one of his veteran teammates, a fellow named Willie Mays. A number of players have been compared to Mays over the past 45 years—players like Eric Davis with the Reds, the late Glenn Burke with Los Angeles, and Cesar Cedeno in Houston come to mind—but only one actually played on the same team with Mays. It’s difficult enough to deal with the burden of such an unfair comparison, but it must have been doubly tough for Bonds to do so while sharing the same clubhouse and dugout with Mays himself. Some comparisons are unjust; this one was downright cruel.
Remarkably, Bonds did not shrink under the spotlight of such a comparison. To the contrary, he displayed such an immediate combination of athleticism, pure power, and on-field instincts that some fans were convinced they were watching the “new Mays” and the “old Mays” at the same time.
By 1970, the Giants had arguably the best outfield in baseball, with the venerable but productive Mays in center, the ultra-talented Bonds in right, and promising young switch-hitter Ken Henderson in left. All three men hit with power, Bonds and Henderson posed legitimate base stealing threats, and all three had the agility to play center field. The Giants’ outfield had become the envy of both leagues.
The trio remained in place until early in 1972, when Mays showed visible decline, asked to be traded, and gave way to a young Garry Maddox. An outfield of Bonds, Henderson and Maddox had all the makings of long term staying power in San Francisco. Later on, Gary Matthews replaced Henderson, helping the Giants sport the fastest outfield in the major leagues.
By the middle of the 1973 season, when Bonds was named MVP of the All-Star Game, some sportswriters were beginning to refer to him as the best player in the game. That was high praise, given the simultaneous presence of players like Joe Morgan, Pete Rose, and Stargell in the National League, and stalwarts like Reggie Jackson, Amos Otis and Carl Yastrzemski in the American League.
As well as Bonds was playing, he drew criticism on two counts. He struck out excessively, particularly for a leadoff man, leading the league in that unwanted category in 1969, 1970 and 1973. (In today’s game, strikeouts are excused, perhaps to a fault, but in the 1970s they carried a stigma of ineptitude and failure.) Bonds also had a tendency to loaf on routine ground balls and pop-ups. The latter point became such an issue that Clemente felt motivated to talk to Bonds in 1972. Clemente, playing in his final season, stressed to him the importance of playing hard at all times.
Off the field, another concern persisted. Bonds enjoyed life in the fast lane. He drank and smoked—and did both heavily. There were also unsubstantiated rumors of illegal drug use.
Bonds admitted to drinking, but absolutely denied the whispers of drug use. “I have never in my life messed with any kind of drug,” Bonds told the New York Daily News. “I never fool with it and I never will.”
Bonds’ shortcomings, alleged or otherwise, did not become a major issue with the Giants until the 1974 season. That summer he clashed with manager Charlie Fox, a no-nonsense sort. Fox became angry when Bonds decided not to take either infield or batting practice one day. The two exchanged hostile words, though Bonds claimed he and Fox quickly moved past the episode.
When Fox lost his job in midseason, some speculated that Bonds had won a reprieve. He had not. With his offensive numbers slipping, Giants management believed that Bonds’ hard way of living and partying was taking its toll. So the Giants did something that had been considered unthinkable as recently as 1973: They traded Bonds to the Yankees for Bobby Murcer.
According to the consensus of baseball scouts, the Yankees won the blockbuster trade. Giants fans loathed the decision to trade Bonds, who was more talented, more athletic, and more dynamic than Murcer. Yet, the fan base in New York held the opposite viewpoint. Yankee fans loved Murcer; they regarded Bonds as an interloper.
In spite of the less-than-receptive greeting for him at Shea Stadium (where the pinstripers were playing during the renovation of the original Yankee Stadium), Bonds played well during the first half of 1975. He picked up enough votes in the fan balloting to earn a starting role on the American League’s All-Star team.
A development in August changed the tenor of Bonds’ season. The Yankees fired Bill Virdon as manager and replaced him with Billy Martin. Bonds, with his tendencies not to run out batted balls and to miss the cutoff man on throws from the outfield, was not the kind of player Martin liked. Martin demanded constant effort and unfailing attention to fundamental baseball. Predictably, Bonds and Martin would clash.
The inevitable headbutting occurred on Aug. 17, when Bonds failed to make a catch in right-center field against Kansas City. The misplay resulted in an Al Cowens triple, leading to the go-ahead run for the Royals. Martin felt that Bonds didn’t give his best on the play and immediately removed him from the game, replacing him with journeyman Rick Bladt. Bonds spent the remainder of the game in the dugout, exchanging glares with Martin.
In spite of the feud, Bonds put up a 30/30 season for the Yankees. He also impressed the Yankees by playing hurt, hobbled by a torn ligament in his knee. Then, after the season, Bonds was charged with drunk driving. According to some observers, that incident (his second arrest for driving under the influence) cemented his fate in New York. General manager Gabe Paul, who had previously jumped at the chance to acquire Bonds, now decided to trade his star outfielder. He sent Bonds to the Angels for a package of speedster Mickey Rivers and right-hander Ed Figueroa.
On the surface, this appeared to be a favorable move for Bonds. Playing in Southern California, with a more laid-back fan base and media contingent than what he had endured in New York, figured to help. The Angels also made him a fulltime right fielder, where he was a more comfortable defender than in center field.
His new manager certainly appreciated him. “I consider Bobby Bonds one of the six best players in baseball,” Angels skipper Dick Williams told Dave Anderson of The New York Times. “You don’t usually get a player of that quality in a trade, but we did.”
With his manager and his team fully in his corner, the scenario for Bonds looked good, but a preseason hand injury limited his effectiveness, grew worse as the season progressed, and eventually forced him to shut down his season in August. For the first time since his rookie season, he played in fewer than 100 games. Still, the Angels remained patient with Bonds, and watched him flourish in his second season with California. He drove in a career-high 115 runs, ripped 37 home runs, stole 41 bases, and lifted his OPS to .862.
Bonds and the Angels should have been a perfect match; a long-term marriage seemed distinctly possible. But there was the matter of baseball’s new free agent system. Bonds had just one year left on his contract. Concerned that they might lose him without any compensation, the Angels traded Bonds to the White Sox for a package that included a young Brian Downing.
White Sox owner Bill Veeck loved the idea of having Bonds, the kind of talent who could draw fans to Comiskey Park. Yet, Veeck knew that he had no chance to sign Bonds to a multi-year contract. So when the White Sox played badly out of the gate and fell out of contention in the American League West, Veeck sent Bonds packing. For the fourth time in five seasons, Bonds was on the move. This time he headed south, joining the Rangers in exchange for 23-year-old outfielder Claudell Washington and journeyman flychaser Rusty Torres.
The Rangers managed to acquire Bonds’ signature on a new contract, but soon regretted that they did, dissatisfied with what they considered his indifferent play. During a 1978 game in Texas, Bonds misplayed a routine fly ball, prompting a vicious response from an anonymous Rangers executive. “If it had been V-O and water,” the executive remarked about Bonds, “he wouldn’t have dropped it.”
Not surprisingly, the Rangers traded Bonds that winter, sending him and a young Len Barker to the Indians for hard-throwing reliever Jim Kern and utility infielder Larvell Blanks. A package of “Emu” and “Sugar Bear” seemed awfully light for a player of Bonds’ pedigree.
Bonds became a popular player in Cleveland, but his advisor, a lawyer named Rod Wright, told him to take advantage of a contractual right and demand a trade. That infuriated Gabe Paul, by now the president of the Indians, who accommodated Bonds by sending him to the Cardinals—and back to the National League for the first time since 1974—in a deal for right-hander John Denny and speedy center fielder Jerry Mumphrey.
Although Bonds had gained favor with Cleveland fans, he did not curry support with all of his teammates. Center fielder Rick Manning, who played alongside Bonds, blistered him during the spring of 1980. “He had his mind on [the game] only about 20 games a season. I’d rather play with a guy who tries every game,” Manning told The Sporting News. “Bobby wouldn’t hit the cutoff man if he were King Kong.”
Manning also had little regard for Bonds’ smarts on the field. “I thought Bobby was a dumb base stealer. He was the only guy who could steal 34 bases and get thrown out 30 times. Every time we needed a clutch steal, he never got it done.” Actually, Bonds had stolen 34 bases while getting caught 23 times, but it was still a terrible rate of success.
Manning’s negative assessment ran in contrast to the positive reviews that Bonds had received from his teammates over the years. Most of his teammates had praised Bonds for his upbeat nature, his sense of humor, and his willingness to help younger players.
By now, Bonds was 34 and showing some signs of slippage. Years of living in the fast lane appeared to be taking a toll. In 1980, his performance fell off drastically with the Cardinals. After a dismal season in St. Louis, the Redbirds released him. The Rangers signed him to a minor league contract before selling him to the Cubs. A 45-game look on the other side of Chicago ended in another release. The Yankees then signed him to a minor league contract in 1982 and gave him a look at Triple-A Columbus, where he batted a bleak .179. The Yankees released him, marking the end of his playing career.
The unceremonious finish to Bonds’ career, along with his vagabond ways from 1975 to 1981, left his reputation tarnished. Fortunately, Bonds did something to correct the image. Having learned lessons from people like Willie Mays, he passed that information on as a respected hitting coach, first with the Indians and then with the Giants, where he worked directly with his son, Barry.
Bonds was eventually fired by the Giants, which angered Barry. Then came the news in 2002 that Bobby Bonds had fallen seriously ill, with both a brain tumor and lung cancer, the latter the likely result of years of smoking. In August of 2003, a gravely ill Bonds, sitting in a wheelchair, visited Pac Bell Park one final time to watch his son play in person. Three days later, Bobby Bonds died, his body giving out at the too-young age of 57.
There’s a certain sadness that comes with remembering Bobby Bonds. His career was too short; his life ended too soon. He will likely never make the Hall of Fame.
But Bobby Bonds also brings a smile. Those who saw him play, like me, will remember one of the most dynamic players of the last 45 years. At his 1973 peak, he might have been the best player in the game. Surely, that is worth something.