It is cards like this 1973 Topps classic that make me wonder what exactly is said between Topps cameramen and ballplayers during their film shoots. Do the Topps photographers instruct players as to how they would like them to pose on the sidelines? Or do the players themselves have the final say over how they are hold their bats and their gloves in trying to look athletic in front of the camera lens? And how often do these conversations end up in shouting matches with both sides unable to come to agreement over the best way to represent a player on a baseball card?
Let’s speculate as that might have been said between the Topps cameraman and Cubs outfielder Jose Cardenal during a road game in 1972, when this photograph was likely snapped. “Bunt the ball, Jose,” the cameraman might have shouted in encouragement to Cardenal as he sought the proper pose for his 1973 baseball card. That might have been an odd instruction to utter to someone like Rico Carty, Jim Ray Hart, or Bobby Bonds. Those guys were noted for their slugging ability and were rarely called upon to lay down a sacrifice bunt.
In contrast, Cardenal was a skilled bunter who could handle the bat with dexterity. He could do just about everything at the plate, from lashing line drives into the gaps to hitting an occasional home run at County Stadium or Wrigley Field or Busch Stadium.
At the start of his career, Cardenal did everything well on the playing field. Signed by the Giants as an amateur free agent out of Cuba in 1960 (he was one of the last players to leave Cuba before Fidel Castro tightened restrictions), he put huge numbers at Double-A El Paso in 1963. He hit 36 home runs, stole 35 bases, and slugged an otherworldly .617, to lift his OPS to 1.011. He seemed so promising as a minor leaguer that it’s somewhat startling he ended up settling for a vagabond career that saw him make stops in St. Louis, Milwaukee, Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, and Kansas City.
Simply put, Cardenal was a coveted prospect with five-tool talents. Some scouts, including a few in the Giants’ organization, loved Cardenal’s combination of speed, arm strength, and power. Unfortunately, the Giants of that era also had a bevy of good young outfielders. Some, like Bonds and Hart, worked their way through the system and became stars in San Francisco. Many others, like Cardenal and Leon Wagner and Matty Alou, fell though the cracks and had to find their way in other organizations.
The Giants compounded the situation by doing a poor job of evaluating their outfield prospects. In particular, they didn’t handle their Latino players particularly well at the time. It’s quite possible that the Giants regarded Cardenal as a “hothead;” that was a common stereotype of Latino ballplayers in the 1960s and 70s.
There was at least one incident in which Cardenal showed his temper. According to a story told by fellow author Dan Epstein, Cardenal took the issue of retaliation very seriously. While playing for the Giants’ affiliate at El Paso in the early 1960s, Cardenal found himself being thrown at repeatedly by rival pitchers. He believed that the frequent knockdowns and beanball attempts were motivated largely by the dark color of his skin and his Cuban heritage.
One pitcher, in particular, threw at Cardenal with annoying regularity. So Cardenal decided that the next time he faced the pitcher, he would come to the plate prepared, by carrying a switchblade in his sock. When the pitcher promptly hit him with a pitch, Cardenal bent down, picked out the switchblade, and began chasing the guilty moundsman. As soon as the pitcher saw the blade, he turned around and headed straight for center field. With Cardenal in hot pursuit, the pitcher ran all the way to the center field warning track and hurdled himself over the outfield wall!
While it’s impossible to prove whether incidents like this may have soured the Giants on Cardenal, it’s probably impossible to know whether his temper was the tipping point in the Giants’ decision to trade him. Whatever the Giants’ reasoning, they ended up making a deal in November of 1964. They sent Cardenal out of the league but kept him in the state by trading him to the California Angels for a fringe back-up catcher named Jack Hiatt. It was a puzzling trade at the time; it’s downright confounding in retrospect.
The trade to the American League not only gave Cardenal a chance to play more regularly, but it also gave him the opportunity to play head-to-head against his cousin, Kansas City A’s shortstop Bert Campaneris. In a rather remarkable coincidence, Cardenal became the first batter to step in against his cousin when Campy moved to the mound as part of Charlie Finley’s nine-positions-in-a-day stunt in 1965.
Showing promise in his first two seasons with the Angels, including a 16-home run season in 1966, Cardenal then flopped in his third year, prompting a trade to the Indians for infielder/outfielder Chuck Hinton. Cardenal played two seasons by the lake but couldn’t lift his OPS out of the .600 range. Disappointed in his output, the Indians traded him back to the National League, sending him to St. Louis for veteran star Vada Pinson.
The Cardinals, playing half of their games on the expansive artificial turf of Busch Stadium, seemed like an ideal fit for a fast flychaser like Cardenal. (He also became “Cardenal the Cardinal,” creating all sorts of marketing possibilities.) With Cardenal in center and Lou Brock in left field, the Cardinals featured speed galore in the outfield. Cardenal put up a .775 OPS in 1970, but the marriage between Cardenal and the Cardinals didn’t last. After a season and a half, the Redbirds dealt Cardenal to Milwaukee as part of a five-player deal that brought back young middle infielder Ted Kubiak.
Cardenal played dismally during a half season with the Brewers. It would not be until his next stop that Cardenal would find some long-term stability. After the 1971 season, the Cubs packaged right-hander Jim Colborn with two lesser players and sent them to the Brewers for Cardenal. Grouping him with Billy Williams (left field) and Rick Monday (center field), the Cubs formulated one of their best outfields in years, consisting of a Hall of Famer in Williams and two players with the speed to cover center field in Cardenal and Monday. Cardenal would remain a fixture in front of the Wrigley Field ivy for six seasons. On a more cultural level, he would also develop his trademark king-sized Afro during his halcyon days in Chicago.
In each of his first four seasons with the Cubs, Cardenal put up an OPS of over .800, including two seasons in which he received small consideration for league MVP. In 1973, he led the Cubs in batting average and emerged as the team’s player of the year. Two years later, he batted a career-high .317 and also drew a personal best of 77 walks. An underrated player, Cardenal became one of the National League’s better corner outfielders.
Then came Cardenal’s decline phase. With the Cubs realizing that the 33-year-old Cardenal could no longer play every day, they traded him to the Phillies after the 1977 season. He struggled as a bench player with Philly, found himself traded to the Mets in the middle of a doubleheader, and endured two more half-seasons of utility play with the lowly Mets before enjoying a last hurrah with the 1980 Royals. Signed off the waiver wire in late August, Cardenal batted .340 in 53 at-bats and then delivered a pinch-hit in the ninth inning of Game Six of the World Series. Even though his hit against Tug McGraw ultimately didn’t matter in a Royals loss, it did allow Cardenal to leave his major league career on a high note.
So why did Cardenal, a solid ballplayer who hit for a decent average, ran the bases aggressively and smartly, and played all three outfield positions to a capable level, find himself suiting up in nine different uniforms over a journeyman 18-year career? Two factors may have been at work. First, Cardenal didn’t hit with the kind of power that he had flashed as a prospect in the Giants’ system. Satisfied with spraying the ball from alley to alley, he never hit more than 17 home runs in a single season.
Second, Cardenal may have aggravated some of his teams with his behavior, which was either quaint or bizarre, depending on your perspective. Some of his managers considered him moody, though that could have resulted from racial and ethnic misunderstanding. A free spirit with an odd sense of logic, Cardenal did frustrate his managers and front office bosses with his quirks and habits. Some of those habits damaged his reputation, while others were flat-out harmless, but all of them made Cardenal one of the great characters of 1960s and 70s baseball.
Let’s consider a few of the eccentricities that made Cardenal one of the game’s memorable figures:
*Playing in the 1960s, Cardenal preferred his uniform pants remarkably tight in an era when most players opted to wear their flannel uniforms loose and baggy. According to the late Seattle Pilots right-hander Fred Talbot, who was quoted in Ball Four, Cardenal once sat out three straight games in winter league play for an odd reason: he could not find pants that were tight enough around his legs. And yes, in case you’re wondering, that does sound like something straight out of a Seinfeld episode.
*Tight pants were just one of Cardenal’s habits. He became legendary for concocting strange excuses for an inability to play. In addition to his preference for skin-tight pants, there were bizarre eye injuries and nighttime distractions created by thoughtless crickets. In 1972, Cardenal claimed that he couldn’t see properly. The reason? He had woken up with his eyelid and his eyelashes stuck to his eyeball. “I woke up and my eye was swollen shut,” Cardenal explained to a reporter. “My eyelashes were stuck together. I couldn’t see, so I couldn’t play.”
On another occasion, Cardenal told Cubs manager Jim Marshall that he couldn’t play in a 1972 spring training game because some particularly loud crickets had kept him up the entire night. Marshall didn’t believe him, but gave the veteran outfielder the day off. When it came to odd excuses not to play, Cardenal was the Chris Brown of the 1970s.
*Unlike many Latino players of his era, Cardenal spoke English well enough to give him a comfort level with reporters. Sometimes, his ability to handle interviews translated into too much irreverence for some people’s liking. When teammate Rick Monday rescued an American flag from two migrant workers in a celebrated 1976 game, drawing praise from most corners of the game, Cardenal became one of the few players to react with a level of derision. He sarcastically wondered whether Monday would be regarded as much of an American patriot as President Lincoln or George Washington.
*Cardenal became well known for sporting one of the game’s largest Afros. In fact, other than the celebrated Oscar Gamble, no one had an Afro the height or girth of Cardenal’s. As a result, Cardenal required caps and helmets that were appreciably larger than his head size—somewhere in the Bruce Bochy/Hideki Matsui range.
*According to his Philadelphia teammate, Pete Rose, Cardenal corked bats blatantly during his days with the Phillies. Rose says he could plainly hear the “sounds of the drill” in the Phillies’ clubhouse, as Cardenal plied his woodwork to a variety of bats. Rose claimed that he used one of Cardenal’s corked bats in batting practice, but never in an actual game.
In spite of his reputation for offbeat behavior that defied logic, Cardenal remained in the game as a coach. He went on to enjoy a long career, winning respect for his knowledge of baserunning and outfield play. After a stint coaching with the Reds, Cardenal joined Joe Torre’s staff with the Yankees. Employed as the team’s first base and outfield coach, he more than earned his salary by providing some sage guidance during the 1996 World Series. With the Yankees holding onto a 1-0 lead in the ninth inning of Game Five, the Atlanta Braves threatened to tie the score—and possibly win the game. As Chipper Jones led off third base and Ryan Klesko took his lead at first base, Luis Polonia stepped into the batter’s box against Yankee closer John Wetteland. Moments before the at-bat, Cardenal noticed that Paul O’Neill was out of position in right field. From his position in the Yankee dugout, Cardenal waved frantically at O’Neill, motioning him to move several steps toward right-center field.
Surely enough, Polonia swatted a Wetteland delivery toward the right-field alley, high and far, but short of home run distance. Racing toward the wall, O’Neill finally caught up with the drive, barely snaring it in the webbing of his glove.
If Cardenal had not moved O’Neill several feet toward the gap, Polonia’s drive would have eluded him. At the very least, Jones would have scored, tying the game. Although it’s not a certainty, Klesko very possibly would have scored from first, giving the Braves a dramatic come-from-back victory. Who knows what the rest of the Series might have held in store for the Yankees, who ended up completing a dramatic comeback in six games.
Although he was a widely respected member of Torre’s staff, he eventually ran into a contract dispute with the Yankees. Cardenal left New York, becoming a coach with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays before rejoining the staff of the Reds. From there, he hooked on with the Nationals as a senior advisor to the general manager, a position that he held until 2009, when the Nats decided to cut him loose.
Cardenal is out of baseball now, a sad development for a man who has been so intertwined with the game as a prospect, journeyman player, colorful character, seasoned coach, and front office advisor. I’d like to think that a faithful baseball lifer like Cardenal would always have a job in the game until he had decided that enough was enough, but I guess that’s just not realistic within the corporate structure of baseball.
Even at the age of 69, I’d wager that Jose Cardenal could still get himself down in a crouch, square his body toward the pitcher, and give us a good bunt, just like he once did for the Topps cameraman.