Card Corner: 1973 Topps: Fred Norman

Four features stand out on Freddie Norman’s 1973 Topps card, three that are rather obvious and one that requires a bit more observance. First off, those Padres uniforms from the 1972 season are some of the most obnoxious monstrosities known to man. I like the color yellow when blended with other colors, but when bright yellow is the overriding color, encapsulating both the jerseys and the pants of the uniform, and it is then complimented by brown as the trim color, the effect is overwhelmingly gaudy, garish, and grisly.

Second, the Padres of 1972 were not exactly box office world-beaters. Those aren‘t fans dressed in solid red outfits down the left field line. Every one of those red seats is empty, without a single exception. The ‘72 Padres won only 58 games, lost 95 times, and finished dead last in the National League West. In so doing, they drew only 644,000 fans to San Diego Stadium, the 11th worst figure among the 12 National League teams. There wasn’t much incentive to come out and watch the Padres, not when they had only two capable hitters in Nate Colbert and Leron Lee and no headline pitchers on a staff filled with the Clay Kirbys and Ed Acostas of the world.

Next on our agenda, we can see one of Norman’s Padre teammates on the card. He is quite clearly the third baseman, though I am not certain of his identity. My guess would be the versatile Dave Roberts, who played more games at third base than anyone else on the team but was also capable of playing just about any position on the field except for center field. If it’s not Roberts, my next guess would be Dave Hilton, the highly touted infielder who was once the first overall pick in the amateur draft. I don’t think that the player in question is either Dave Campbell or Fred Stanley, who also put in appearances at third base for the ‘72 Padres.

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The fourth observation, which requires the closest inspection, has to do with Norman’s front foot, or his right foot, to be more precise. Take a close look at that foot, which is covered in a brown shoe. The end of his foot appears to be cut off. For some reason, his toes are obliterated from the picture, as if his right foot were a clubfoot, like that of the former NFL place-kicker, Tom Dempsey. I have no idea why that is; to my knowledge, Norman had nothing wrong with either of his feet.

Norman certainly had nothing wrong with his left arm. Though the young Floridian was listed at five-feet, eight inches and 155 pounds, which some regarded as a detriment, scouts weren’t as obsessed with pitchers’ heights as they are in today’s game. More to the point, the scouts loved Norman’s electric fastball. Led by an aggressive new owner in Charlie Finley, the Kansas City Athletics signed Norman as an amateur free agent in 1961, gave him a large bonus, and thought so highly of him that they assigned him to Double-A Shreveport of the Southern Association. Norman was clearly not ready for such a lofty assignment. The epitome of a wild, young left-hander, he walked 64 batters in 53 innings and saw his ERA soar to 5.70.

Realizing that Norman needed to be brought along more slowly, the A’s sent him down to Lewiston of the Class B Northwestern League in 1962. He pitched reasonably well and earned a midseason promotion to Binghamton of the Eastern League. Lured by his live left arm, the Athletics, desperate for headline pitching, rushed him to the big leagues later that season.

The following summer, Norman set an Eastern League record by striking out 258 batters in 198 innings for Binghamton. Given the pitch limits on young pitchers in the game today, it is a record that will likely remain untouched.

After terrorizing Eastern League hitters, the A’s gave him another brief look late in 1963, this time as a starter. Bad idea. Norman pitched brutally, with an ERA of 11.37 representing a large blemish on his early major league resume.

Having completely mishandled Norman, the A’s traded him that winter, sending him to the Cubs for a young outfield prospect named Nelson Matthews. Foolishly, the Cubs included Norman on their Opening Day roster and watched him flop in five starts and three relief appearances. A record of 0-4 and an ERA of 6.54 convinced the Cubs that Norman needed to return to the minor leagues.

For the most part, Norman struggled as a minor league hurler, as he tried to curb his control and command problems. It was not until 1966 that he started to excel; pitching for Dallas-Fort Worth of the Double-A Texas League, he won 12 games and lowered his ERA to 2.73. The Cubs then gave him a late-season cameo in Chicago, as he made two appearances out of the bullpen.

Norman made the Cubs’ Opening Day roster in 1967. On April 21, he made his season debut against the Pirates and struck out the side in recording a scoreless inning of relief. But that didn’t seem to matter much, given his strained relationship with the Cubs’ manager. “Leo Durocher was the manager and we didn’t hit it off too well,” Norman said years later in an interview with Sports Collectors Digest. “He didn’t like me and I kinda didn’t care a whole lot about him, either. I was just there, the 10th pitcher. I pitched one inning and struck out [Willie] Stargell, [Donn] Clendenon and [Roberto] Clemente, but I guess that wasn’t enough.”

While Durocher didn’t like Norman, the Dodgers had other feelings. They took notice of Norman’s performance against the Pirates. Five days later, the Dodgers acquired Norman in a straight-up trade for minor league right-hander Dick Calmus.

Realizing that Norman had been mishandled badly by both the Cubs and Athletics, the Dodgers assigned the raw left-hander to Spokane of the Pacific Coast League. They started him every fourth day. But by June, he came down with shoulder tendinitis, which badly affected his velocity.

No longer a power pitcher, Norman would spend the better part of the next two and a half seasons pitching in the PCL and the Texas League, refining his control and working on his mechanics.

Norman began the 1968 season on the disabled list of Albuquerque, the Dodgers’ top affiliate in the PCL. When he returned, he pitched under the guidance of manager Roger Craig, who helped teach him to throw a slider.

The work with Craig paid off in 1970, when the Dodgers finally promoted him at the start of the season. Working exclusively out of the bullpen, he appeared in 30 games and put up an ERA of 5.23. Frustrated that their patience had paid few dividends, the Dodgers placed him on waivers in late September and watched the Cardinals place a waiver claim on him. Although the transaction is still officially regarded as a waiver claim, Norman believes the Dodgers arranged for him to go to St. Louis as part of a trade that would be announced just a few days after the season: the deal sending Dick Allen to the Dodgers for second baseman Ted Sizemore, catcher Bob Stinson, and Norman. “I found out I was the third guy in that trade,” Norman told Sports Collectors Digest.

Norman made one appearance for the Cardinals before the season came to an end just a few days later. In 1971, Norman went back to the minor leagues, where he pitched for Triple-A Tulsa. That’s where his manager, a certain Hall of Fame left-hander named Warren Spahn, taught Norman how to throw the screwball. It was a pitch that would eventually make Norman a success in the major leagues.

In 1972, Norman made the Cardinals’ Opening Day roster as a left-handed reliever, but he pitched badly in four April outings. It was back to the minor leagues for the perennially disappointing Norman.

Then came the first of two trades that would change the fortunes of Norman’s career. On June 11, the Cardinals packaged Norman with young outfielder Leron Lee, sending them to the Padres for right-handed pitcher Al Santorini.

Norman would not spend another day in the minor leagues. The Padres, an expansion team that had entered the league only two years earlier, immediately made him a part of their starting rotation and reunited him with Roger Craig, by now the Padres’ pitching coach. With Craig there to remind him to use his slider and screwball, the Padres watched him put up an ERA of 3.32. He won only three of 15 decisions, but the Padres understood that the record was a reflection of the poor run support coming from a popgun offense.

The lack of run support would continue into the start of the 1973 season. Norman lost seven of his first eight decisions while putting up an ERA of 4.28. Still, several National League contenders called Padres GM Buzzie Bavasi about Norman. The Giants and Astros both wanted him, but they were outbid by the Reds, who were not fooled by the win/loss record or the ERA. The Reds parted with two minor league prospects, outfielder Gene Locklear and right-handed pitcher Mike Johnson.

Norman was glad to be joining the “Big Red Machine,” but the trade put him through an episode of culture shock. “Back then I had a mustache and long hair, and of course, there was none of that on the Reds,” Norman recalled in an interview with writer Scott Lauber. “I get a call from manager Sparky Anderson, and he says, ‘You know those locks you got? That’s got to go. And you know that thing above your lip? That’s got to go, too.’ That was my welcoming to Cincinnati.”

The welcoming also supplied him with a lineup that featured Johnny Bench, Tony Perez, Joe Morgan, George Foster, and Pete Rose, which translated into a great deal more run support than he had received in San Diego. The Reds also played excellent defense, highlighted by the brilliant double play tandem of Morgan and Dave Concepcion, the hallmark catching of Bench, and the rangy center field play of Cesar Geronimo.

Though Norman no longer threw a blazing fastball, he had mastered the slider and the screwball, the latter making him effective against right-handed pitching. In need of help for their rotation, the Reds viewed Norman as a capable No. 3 or No. 4 starter.

The Reds also liked Norman’s competitive streak. While he lacked size and power, he was the kind of pitcher who fought hard on days when his command abandoned him. He knew how to mix his pitches, keep hitters off balance, and throw to the corners. And with the Reds supplying a more potent offense than the Padres, those qualities were enough to keep Norman on the high side of the ledger.

Over the balance of the 1973 season, Norman won 12 of 18 decisions, posted an ERA of 3.30, and fit in beautifully as the fourth starter behind Jack Billingham, Ross Grimsley, and Don Gullett. With a strong bullpen and a powerhouse offense, the Reds won 99 games on their way to claiming the National League West.

Norman emerged as a remarkably consistent pitcher for the Reds. From 1973 through 1978, he put up ERAs in the range of 3.14 to 3.70, while winning 11 to 14 games, making roughly 25 starts, and also filling in out of the Cincinnati bullpen.

In 1975 and ‘76, the Reds won consecutive division titles, league pennants, and world championships. After good performances in the regular season, Norman did not pitch particularly well in the World Series, as evidenced by an ERA of 6.10 in 10 innings, but his postseason failures did not hurt the Reds, who defeated the Red Sox in seven games in 1975 and pummeled the overmatched Yankees in four games in 1976. Like the rest of the Reds, Norman picked up a pair of World Series rings.

Even as the Reds faded from dominance in the late 1970s, Norman continued to contribute. In 1978, he raced out to a 10-3 start, but was bypassed for the All-Star Game because the Reds already had four All-Star representatives from their starting lineup.

After another solid season in 1979, the 36-year-old Norman became a free agent. The Reds, taking a passive approach to free agency, watched him sign with the Montreal Expos. Pitching mostly out of the bullpen for Dick Williams, struggled in 48 games and then retired at season’s end.

With his playing days behind him, Norman worked for a few seasons as a minor league coach with the Reds before leaving the game for good. He then opened his own business, running a garbage removal service in the Los Angeles area.

Forty years after its publication, Fred Norman’s 1973 Topps card stands as a testament to the changing fortunes of baseball. One day, you’re pitching in ghastly all-yellow uniforms in front of thousands of empty seats masquerading as fans. Three years later, you’re playing for one of the greatest teams in history, the legendary Big Red Machine. In the end, all of the fits and starts to his career, and all of those fragmented minor league seasons paid off for Fredie Norman.

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Comments

  1. Marc Schneider said...

    Obviously, the Reds making Norman cut his hair and lose his moustache turned his career around because everyone knows that hippies can’t play baseball!  smile

  2. Tom Hill said...

    Regarding the “front foot” issue in the photo, I believe Norman’s front foot appears shorter because it is turned slightly “closed” towards the 1B line, as part of his pitching mechanics.  Note how more of his yellow sock (ankle area) is visible than you would expect than if his front foot drove straight towards home plate.  This shows that his ankle has also rotated (with his foot) towards 1B.  Note contrast with the sock on his back foot, which is evenly divided by the brown stirrup, showing this foot is moving directly towards home plate.

  3. Cliff Blau said...

    To be fair, Hilton was the first pick in the January 1971 primary draft, which consisted mainly of people who weren’t considered to be good enough to be drafted out of high school.  Also, the Padres attendance was actually the 11th best, or second worst, that year.

    It was 1971 when Norman started the season with St. Louis and was traded to San Diego.  The following year, set the MLB record for the highest percentage of wins being shutouts, 66.7% (minimum five shutouts).

  4. salvo said...

    “…no headline pitchers on a staff filled with the Clay Kirbys and Ed Acostas of the world.”

    OK, I’ll give you Ed Acosta, but Clay Kirby, especially heading into 1972, was one of the more exciting young pitchers in the league.

    As a 23-year-old, Kirby won 15 games in ‘71 and was second in the NL in K/9, third in H/9, fourth in Ks (231), and in the top 10 in ERA and pitchers’ WAR.

    His last three starts of 1971 are incredible: a complete-game one-hitter with 10 K’s/1 BB; then the FIRST FIFTEEN INNINGS of a 21-inning game during which he allowed one run while striking out 15 (game score=109, hasn’t been one higher than 105 since then); then a 10-inning CG in which he allowed 1 run while striking out 11.

    He wasn’t as good in 1972, but still, as a 24-year-old on a 55-win team he did pretty well, winning 12 games with a 3.13 era and again finishing in the top 10 in H/9, K/9 and Ks.

  5. bucdaddy said...

    “He wasn’t as good in 1972 …”

    I think I see why. That’s 34 innings over three games at the end of a meaningless season. A manager would get tarred and feathered for that with a great young arm today. And deserve it.

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