Card Corner: 1973 Topps: Graig Nettles

The art of airbrushing reached its heights (and perhaps its depths) during the 1970s. When a player moved from one team to another during the winter months, the Topps Company faced the problem of finding an updated photograph showing the player in his new uniform. Topps usually turned to airbrushing, which involved re-touching the original photograph with new colors, logos, and uniform designs.

Airbrushing reached the extremes of absurdity with Graig Nettles’ 1973 Topps card. After the 1972 season, the Indians traded Nettles to the Yankees. In response to that transaction, Topps chose a 1972 action shot of Nettles, while he was still playing for the Indians, taken during a game at the old Metropolitan Stadium in Minnesota. Unfortunately, this particular Topps artist apparently had little knowledge of baseball uniforms. Forced to brush in the colors of the Yankees’ road uniform, the artist came up with a strange bluish hue, instead of the traditional gray the Yankees have long featured.

The airbrushed blue on the helmet and the stirrups is also the wrong shade of blue. It’s a light blue, so light that it’s almost purple, instead of the traditional Navy blue used by the Yankees. The Yankee blue is so dark that it looks black, particularly from a distance. With the lighter blue in full bloom here, the card takes on something of a surreal, alternate reality appearance.

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Showing further unawareness of the design of the Yankees’ road uniform, the artist decided to borrow from the home uniform, drawing the famed interlocking “NY” logo onto the front of the jersey. The artist apparently did not realize that the road jersey features the words “New York” spelled out in block print. So what we have is a rather odd mixing and matching of home and road uniforms for the game’s most traditional team.

Yet, I must admit that I like it. The “new” uniform is attractive and intriguing. Heck, the interlocking “NY” looks better than “New York.” Maybe the Yankees should feature the “NY” on both the road and home version of their uniforms. It will never happen, but it wouldn’t be a bad change at all.

The Nettles card is so unusual that I could easily spend a whole column focused on the card itself. But that would be giving short shrift to a fascinating subject like Nettles. A young Nettles provided intrigue right from the start, because of a decision by his mother. According to Graig’s father, it was Nettles’ mother who came up with the idea for the unusual birth name of “Graig.” She initially wanted to name him Greg, but she hated the longer version of that name, “Gregory.” So she found a way around that convention by calling him Graig; once others realized the unusual spelling of the name, they would be discouraged from trying to lengthen it to Gregory. Mothers know best.

Long before Nettles played for the Indians and the Yankees, he actually debuted with another major league franchise. In 1965, the year of the first major league draft, the Twins took Nettles with their fourth-round selection. Choosing not to sign early, Nettles did not make his minor league debut until the spring of 1966.

The Twins assigned Nettles to Single-A Wisconsin Rapids, where he played third base and showed immediate power. He hit 28 home runs, an especially impressive total for a youngster playing his first year in professional ball.

Nettles’ rookie season earned him a promotion to Double-A in 1967. This time, Nettles struggled with the transition. His slugging percentage fell under .400. Though he was somewhat overmatched and a full two levels away from the major leagues, the Twins decided to give him a late-season cup of coffee. Nettles came to bat three times, swatting one hit.

In 1968, the Twins moved Nettles up to Triple-A Denver. It might have seemed that the Twins were rushing his development, but Nettles responded beautifully to the challenge. He also adjusted to a new position, as the Twins, concerned about his fielding at third base, gave him a look in the outfield. Given a new position and his first taste of Triple-A pitching, Nettles could have been overwhelmed, but he hit .297, slugged .534, and earned a midseason promotion to Minnesota. Appearing in 22 games, he played five different positions for the Twins, including first base and all three outfield slots.

When Nettles arrived at Minnesota’s spring training camp in 1969, the Twins had no idea that they now possessed one of the game’s great defensive third basemen, at least for the future. They listed him as an infielder/outfielder. In other words, the eventual Gold Glover was presently a utility man.

His manager, Billy Martin, liked Nettles, but saw him as a backup to veteran sluggers Bob Allison in left field and Harmon Killebrew at third base. So Nettles broke camp as an insurance policy at two positions and as a left-handed bat off the bench. When the aging Allison struggled badly at the start of the season, Nettles received more playing time, but he failed to take advantage. Though he did hit seven home runs in 225 at-bats, he batted a paltry .222, slugged only .373, played rarely against left-handed pitching, and spent too much time away from his natural position of third base.

If there was a bright side to be found, it was the Twins’ ability to win the inaugural American League West race, giving Nettles an early sampling of postseason play. He delivered a hit in his one at-bat, but the Twins lost in three straight games to the power-packed Orioles.

After the season, Nettles lost an ally in Martin, who had also been his manager at Triple-A Denver but was now being fired in response to a fistfight with pitcher Dave Boswell and a verbal dispute with owner Calvin Griffith. Nettles’ own struggles removed him from being an untouchable prospect and made him into a trade commodity. That winter, the Twins included Nettles in a package with center fielder Ted Uhlaender, and pitchers Dean Chance and Bob Miller, sending them to the Indians for Luis Tiant and veteran reliever Stan Williams. The trade would improve Minnesota’s pitching, but it would also remove a natural successor to Killebrew at third base.

On a personal level, the trade prevented Nettles from playing with his younger brother, Jim Nettles, who would make his debut for the Twins in 1970. But on every other front, the trade would turn out to be the perfect career break for Graig. Since the Indians had no one blocking his path at third base, manager Alvin Dark immediately made Nettles his starting third baseman, playing him against both right and left-handed pitching. Dark ignored scouting reports that indicated Nettles was a subpar fielder, instead believing his own eyes. Nettles responded with a wonderful season, highlighted by 26 home runs, 81 walks, and some of the finest fielding at third base that the Indians had seen since the Ken Keltner Era.

With the range of a shortstop, ultra soft hands, and a sidearm throwing style that produced unusual accuracy, Nettles began to draw comparisons to the American League’s elite fielders. No one was quite ready to put him on the same level as Brooks Robinson, at least not yet, but Nettles had at least entered the conversation.

At 25 years of age, Nettles looked like one of the building blocks to a franchise desperate for success after the struggles of the 1960s. Or so it seemed. After hitting a career-high 28 home runs and slugging .435 for the Indians in 1971, Nettles regressed in 1972. The Indians’ new manager, Ken Aspromonte, often pinch-hit for Nettles when he faced left-handed pitchers in crucial situation. Nettles didn’t appreciate the lack of confidence.

Nettles’ disappointing third season in Cleveland made him expendable. So Indians GM Gabe Paul included him in a blockbuster deal, sending Nettles and backup catcher Gerry Moses to the Yankees for a package of catcher/first basemen John Ellis, infielder Jerry Kenney, and a pair of outfielders, Charlie Spikes and Rusty Torres.

Normally a shrewd trader, Paul had executed one of his worst deals. But there has long been speculation that Paul knew exactly what he was doing. With rumors swirling that Paul was headed to New York to work as George Steinbrenner’s new general manager, many have speculated that Paul intentionally steered Nettles to the Yankees. In other words, Paul purposely made a bad trade, knowing that it would benefit his future team. Of course, such speculation is impossible to prove, but the conspiracy theory has been floated for decades now.

Nettles replaced the light-hitting Celerino Sanchez as the Yankees’ regular third baseman. Although Nettles’ OPS of .720 matched his disappointing production of 1972, it represented major improvement over the likes of Sanchez and Kenney. Nettles hit 22 home runs and drew 78 walks and played defensively like his 1960s predecessor, Clete Boyer.

Nettles had a similar season in 1974, a year in which he was caught using a bat filled with pieces of “superballs.” The incident occurred in a September 7th game against the Tigers. Nettles lined a single to left field, but the top of his bat fell off, allowing the pieces of rubber to leak onto the playing field. Home plate umpire Lou DiMuro called Nettles out; for his part, Nettles pleaded ignorance, claiming it was the first time he had ever used the bat.

In 1975, Nettles elevated his play to an All-Star level. Driving in 91 runs, he led the American League in sacrifice flies. The following summer, Nettles emerged as an MVP candidate. Taking advantage of the short right field porch at the newly remodeled Yankee Stadium, he led the league with 32 home runs, slugged .475, and threw in 11 stolen bases for good measure.

He also became involved in another controversy. This one occurred on May 20, in the midst of a nasty brawl between the Yankees and the rival Red Sox. During the melee, Nettles body slammed Boston left-hander Bill Lee, separating his shoulder in the process. Nettles claimed that it was an accident that occurred in a “mob scene,” but Lee never forgave Nettles for what he did.

In 1977, Nettles managed to avoid controversy as he reached his peak at the late age of 32. Other than perhaps Thurman Munson and free agent pickup Reggie Jackson, Nettles was arguably the most important member of the Yankees’ starting nine in 1977. Overshadowed by the circus-like threesome of Jackson, manager Billy Martin, and owner George Steinbrenner, Nettles quietly and efficiently put together what may have been his finest season. Achieving career highs with 37 home runs and an OPS of .829, Nettles also secured the Gold Glove Award for his brilliance at the hot corner. He placed an impressive fifth in the American League MVP race.

Though Nettles played exceptionally well, he developed a strong and fast dislike for the Yankees’ prized offseason acquisition. “The best thing about being a Yankee is getting to watch Reggie Jackson play every day,” Nettles said one day. “The worst thing about being a Yankee? Getting to watch Reggie Jackson play every day.”

As the season wore on, Nettles couldn’t resist making further cracks about Jackson. He took a sarcastic shot at Jackson’s tendency to pile up strikeouts. “If Babe Ruth were alive today, he wouldn’t be able to bat cleanup [for the Yankees],” Nettles said one day. “He didn’t strike out enough. I guess I’m not able to bat cleanup because I don’t strike out enough.”

Political correctness and diplomacy rarely invaded Nettles’ world. In an age when publicly spoken comments did not often result in sanction, Nettles sometimes ventured into the areas of race and ethnicity. According to Sparky Lyle’s provocative book, The Bronx Zoo, Nettles made a crack about one of the Indians players during pregame workouts. “I never saw a player with his address on his uniform,” Nettles said out loud to one of his teammates while pointing to Indians first baseman Wayne Cage, a large African-American man. It was the kind of racially charged remark that would have landed Nettles in big trouble in today’s world, but it hardly drew a second thought in the 1970s culture that swirled around the Yankees and baseball in general.

Nettles didn’t restrict his brand of humor to his words. He also enjoyed playing practical jokes on unsuspecting teammates. Typically, Nettles executed the prank and then exited the scene quietly and quickly, earning the nickname “Puff” for the way that he disappeared—like a puff of smoke.

Nettles managed to remain in the background, despite his tendency for causing trouble. He also remained an All-Star, a Gold Glove winner, and an MVP candidate in 1978, helping the Yankees win their second straight world championship. He was never better than in Game Three of the World Series, when he robbed Reggie Smith, Steve Garvey, and Davey Lopes of surefire hits with acrobatic plays at third.

After a decline in 1979, Nettles became a platoon player for new manager Dick Howser in 1980. He split time with Eric Soderholm and Aurelio Rodriguez, but returned to everyday duty during the strike-shortened season of 1981. No longer an elite player, he still contributed with his left-handed power and sure handed fielding through the end of the 1983 season.

Nettles’ decade-longer stretch in pinstripes came to an end in the spring of 1984, when advance notice of Nettles’ upcoming book, Balls, founds its way onto the desk of George Steinbrenner. “The Boss” soon read excerpts in which Nettles severely criticized his employer. Not taking kindly to the cross words, Steinbrenner ordered that Nettles be traded as soon as possible. Prior to Opening Day, the Yankees sent Nettles to the Padres for what amounted to 50 cents on the dollar, which happened to be left-hander Dennis Rasmussen and a player to be named later.

The trade turned out to be a stroke of fortune for Nettles. The Yankees were now an also-ran, but the Padres were primed to win the National League West on the way to their first appearance in a World Series. Nettles batted only .228, his lowest average since 1969, but he provided power, defense, and leadership to a Padres team skippered by Dick Williams. Nettles was exactly the kind of hard-edged, fundamentally sound player that Williams loved.

Although Nettles was on the verge of turning 40, he remained the Padres’ starting third baseman for two more seasons before drawing his release in the winter of 1986. Playing his final two years in Atlanta and Montreal, Nettles served as a part-time first baseman, third baseman and pinch-hitter before finally stepping aside at the age of 43.

Yet, Nettles wasn’t completely done. He competed in the short-lived Senior League as a player/manager (where he was a teammate of brother Jim) before returning to the Yankees’ organization as one of Stump Merrill’s coaches in 1991. Nettles held out hopes of succeeding Merrill as Yankee manager, but that would never come to pass. Instead, Nettles was fired by the next manager, Buck Showalter, who felt that Nettles had been disloyal to Merrill by repeatedly badmouthing him during his coaching tenure.

For the second time in his Yankee career, Nettles’ outspoken tendencies had caught up with him. For the most part, he has remained out of baseball since then, a sad development given Nettles’ intelligence and his experience in playing for so many winning teams. He still makes an occasional appearance in Cooperstown, but his public sightings have become far too infrequent.

We need to see and hear more from Nettles. He has a lot to tell us, whether it’s about the superballs in his bat, or the body slamming of Bill Lee, or that strange, surreal card from 1973 Topps.

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Comments

  1. Carl said...

    I missed the “the following summer” at the start of that sentence.  I retract my previous comment except for the “Great article” part.

  2. Paul G. said...

    I managed to see Graig play towards the end of his career.  IIRC, he hit a home run at Yankee Stadium, not sure off who.  It was a big thrill, but then again I was a little kid so everything was a thrill.  Also, despite his Mom’s best efforts, my Dad still referred to him as “Graigory,” especially when he did something well.

    Graig’s son Jeff played for many years for the independent Somerset Patriots.  Saw him play several times.  He’s arguably the best player in the history of the Patriots on a combined quality/quantity measure, given that he played for them for 9 seasons and hit 154 home runs.  I saw him play in person several times.  Good bat with his Dad’s power, but I sense he got his glove from his mother.  The Patriots were selling a double bobblehead doll that featured both father and son, which was pretty cool.  Not sure if it is still available anymore.

  3. Jim said...

    I’m not sure about the comment on the Yankees trade of Nettles as accepting “50 cents on the dollar”. Dennis Rasmussen had a few pretty good years as a starting pitcher and Nettles’ replacement Mike Pagliarulo filled the position pretty well for a time.

  4. Dan Jeffers said...

    I watched the loaded bat game on TV in Detroit.  It was the second game of a Saturday doubleheader.  In an earlier at-bat, Nettles had homered for the only run of the game and their was some outcry that that home run should be disallowed.  The Tigers were bad that year and had one the first game 8-3, so it was frustrating to have a near-miss at a doubleheader sweep, especially amidst speculation he had used the same bat on the home run.  Here’s the box score of game two:

    http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/NYA/NYA197409072.shtml

  5. Michael Caragliano said...

    Every time I see that card, I think it looks like a Yankees uniform from 1912, which had the oversized NY logo on it. I think that if you’re just glancing at it, the lower stands look like the old Yankee Stadium, which had one more year to go before being remodeled, so the guy touching up the photo took the creative license that Metropolitan Stadium and Yankee Stadium looked enough alike to make a home uniform—but then, where are the faux pinstripes? There’s so much wrong with this card that makes it Exhibit A for bad airbrushing.

    I had a chance to meet Nettles before a radio show a few years ago, and even though he was there to talk primamrily about his Yankee years, his best story was about playing in the initial Midnight Sun game with the Alaska Goldpanners. The great thing about Nettles is that you think of about a hundred different quips that are atributed to him, and you still don’t scratch the surface. My favorite is the Sparky Lyle quote after the Yankees picked up Goose Gossage: “He went from Cy Young to sayonara.”

    For what it’s worth, Bruce, you mentioned Eric Soderholm. I think Nettles was the one who coined the term “Soderholm’s Disease”. As I recall the story, Soderholm made an error in a loss early in his Yankees stint, then got almont panicky in the clubhouse after the game worrying about when George Steinbrenner would come storming into the clubhouse to rip the players. After that, whenever Nettles saw somebody getting antsy after a game expecting The Boss to get angry, Nettles would say, “Looks like another case of Soderholm’s Disease.”

  6. Carl said...

    Great article about one of my all-time favorite Yankees. 

    However, in 1975 the Yankees played at Shea Stadium as the old Yankees Staium was being re-modeled.  The 32 Homers Nettles hit in 1975 were at Shea, not Yankee Stadium.

  7. Bruce Markusen said...

    Barry, Wayne Cage was/is a large African-American man. By implying that Cage was living in “a cage,” it is pretty clear to me that the insinuation is that he is animal-like, or more specifically gorilla-like.

    To my way of thinking, that is a comment that clearly has racial overtones to it.

  8. Mike said...

    Great article, except for (or maybe because of) the Wayne Cage assumptions you’ve made.

    Going by the response you made to Barry (“it is pretty clear to me”,“To my way of thinking”), you are the one thinking racially here.  Darn lucky that Sparky Lyle wasn’t Japanese, or you might have built another racial-insensitivity case over the Cy Young/Sayonara comment.

    The problem here is that you wrote a very good article about a man but extrapolated a comment you took to be racist to stir things up. That’s where you hung yourself; you thought enough of Nettles’s supposed racism to mention it in passing, but not enough to make it a focus of the article, or—as someone with a soul and no agenda might do—refrain from writing about the man at all, if for no other reason than to avoid passing the Wayne Cage story along.

    But you wrote it.

    Rich Meltzer’d call you a whore like all the rest.  I’d concur.

    Still…great article.

  9. littlelucas said...

    When I read the comment concerning Cage I assumed it meant cage as in jail. Perhaps the comment was made in regards to being an intimidating thug like figure that you would assume would be in jail?????

  10. Jeff Katz said...

    Nettles had a long history of racial comments. Reggie Jackson after getting into a brawl with Nettles after the pennant clinching playoff win v. Oakland in 1981, told Dick Young – “I haven’t liked the dude for 10 years. I’m tired of this ######-nigger ####.”

  11. Bruce Markusen said...

    Mike, I’d be curious to hear your interpretation of the Nettles comment. If it’s not a racial insinuation, then what is it? What is Nettles getting at?

  12. Paul G. said...

    Big huge guy (6’4”, 250) with “Cage 17” on his back.  Let’s pretend that Wayne Cage is white.  Does the witticism still work?  Yes.

    This does not exclude a racial element to the comment, obviously.  Whether it was intended or not, and, if so, whether it was meant to be light-hearted or malicious, is only something Graig can say.  I’ll leave it at that.

  13. Ralph C. said...

    I believe Nettles still holds the record for most defensive double plays by a third baseman, 54 in 1971.  In the 1980 AL Championship series he actually hit an inside-the-park home run.  He also, at least at one time, had or tied the record for most chances by a third baseman in a World Series without an error.  He led th AL In home runs with 32 in 1976. 

    I met him at a card show in upstate NY in 1994, I think that was the year.  He signed my copy of his book.  I told him that “I always drafted him first in Strat-O-Matic”.  He just gave me a strange look..but it was true that I did!

    When Alex Rodriguez came to the Yankees, it was Nettles who worked with him at third base.

    I like Nettles.

  14. Joe Dimino said...

    Great article Bruce.

    One note, Nettles wasn’t platooned in 1980. He made 37 starts v LHP and 48 v RHP. He missed most of the second half with Hepatitis which was the cause for his reduced playing time.

  15. Barry said...

    Why is the remark to Wayne Cage about “wearing an address on his uniform” racist?  What does that comment by Nettles even mean?

  16. Marc Schneider said...

    Mike,

    It seems to me you are the one with the agenda. You seem to have gone out of your way to accuse Bruce of an agenda and, then, you call him a whore.  Very nice.

    I recall that Nettles was known to make anti-semitic comments.  I think his reputation as at least someone that had racist tendencies has been pretty well established. As a matter of fact, that’s one of the first things I think of when I hear about Nettles.  I admit, though, that the Cage comment was not obvious on its face but it only took a second to see the implication.

  17. Marc Schneider said...

    Tubbs,

    Good comment.  I agree that Nettles should at least get a look at the HOF.  As you say, he would hardly be the only person in the HOF whose behavior would be frowned upon today.

  18. Tubbs said...

    Great article, Bruce.  I find Nettles’ career very interesting as I feel his right on (what I view as) the Hall of Fame border. His 390 HRs, longevity, and excellent glove-work at third are impressive while his low .248 batting average seemingly negates him as a HOF candidate to many. His BB Ref WAR is 68 and he also played for a memorable Yanks team that won back-to-back World Series. Some of the other stuff also hurts him: using the speedballs, the uncalled act of thugery on Bill Lee, and of course the racist/anti-semitic comments that would not be tolerated nowadays. I realize there are plenty worse people in the HOF and I don’t want to get sidetracked on that but regardless Nettles’ HOF candidacy should get another look. He was overlooked on the last Expansion Era Veterans Committee ballot.

  19. Tubbs said...

    Thanks Marc and I must agree with John C. The only remaining path to the HOF for Nettles and those other players mentioned is the Expansion Era ballot. The Historical Overview Committee that selected the candidates for the last Exp Era ballot dropped the ball by not selecting Nettles and Darrell Evans last time.  The hitters chosen were Ted Simmons, Steve Garvey, Dave Concepcion, Rusty Staub, & Al Oliver. Sabermetric stats have come to the forefront since these players were originally on the BBWAA ballot. By using BB Ref WAR & WAA none of these candidates were nearly as strong saberwise as Nettles or Evans:
    Simmons (50.2 WAR, 18.9 WAA), Garvey (37.6, 6.5), Concepcion (40.0, 8.2), Staub (45.8, 7.4), Oliver (43.2, 11.5)

    Nettles (68.0, 32.8), Evans (58.5, 24.0)…and also overlooked…Bobby Grich (71.0!!!!, 43.5!!!!)

  20. Carl said...

    All,

    Before the gates of Cooperstown get too wide open:

    1) Nettles is hurt because his last 3 years were pretty terrible and in an attempt to reach 400 HRs became perceived as a compiler (not too dissimilar from Tommy John).
    2) Nettles’ OPS+ is 110, pretty far below HoF standards.
    3) Darrell Evans is another over-looked very good player, but he has 10 less WAR than Nettles, was only a 2-time AS and had several years as a DH, further hurting his chances.
    4) Grich – very overlooked and is hurt by the fact that 20% of his career WAR value is from defense.  Also, so much of his career w Whitaker, White, Randolph, Money so that he often wasn’t the best 2B in the league.
    5) Dwight Evans – should be angry that Rice got in and he did not.

  21. John C said...

    Nettles would be a serious HOF candidate if he were playing today, with sabermetrics having gone mainstream and being extensively used by teams. Nettles did many things well, but they were things that weren’t valued by traditionalists. If I had a vote, I’d vote to put both him and Darrell Evans, a very similar player, into the Hall of Fame, but you’d have a hard time selling that to a traditionalist. Same thing with Bobby Grich and Dwight Evans, who should be there too.

  22. ajnrules said...

    There need to be a Graig Nettles film with Matthew Perry as Nettles. I always thought those two look so much alike.

  23. Tubbs said...

    Saber-friendly candidates Dwight Evans & Keith Hernandez are eligible for this Fall’s 12-member Expansion Era ballot, as is Dave Parker, a much less saber-friendly candidate with strong traditional stats. It will be interesting if each make the ballot & to see how much support they draw. A voter can select up to 5 of the 12 candidates but with strong candidates Bobby Cox, Joe Torre, Tony Larussa, and controversial holdover Marvin Miller also eligible to be on the ballot, it will be difficult for anyone else to draw enough support to be elected

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