Card Corner: 1973 Topps: Ken McMullen

Odd photographic angle from below. Check. Upturned cap, with no logo visible. Check. Excellent view of the nostrils. Check. Long, thick sideburns. Check. A tuft of chest hair visible above the top of the jersey. Check. (Hey, this was the decade of strange fashion habits, both on and off the field.)

Everything is in perfect place to remind us that this is a classic Topps card, vintage early 1970s. Even the back of the card gives us a clue to the time period, as we learn that the ballplayer in question “works in a service station in the off-season.” A ballplayer working in a service station! To bring that point home, a small cartoon shows McMullen, in full uniform, holding a nozzle to a gas pump. Front and back, all of these characteristics make this an intriguing card.

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But the subject matter is worthwhile, too. Much like Leo Cardenas, the last man we profiled in this space, Ken McMullen has become an unknown to baseball fans of the new millennium. McMullen wasn’t a Hall of Famer, never made an All-Star team or won a Gold Glove, and didn’t have Oscar Gamble’s Afro. But he was a good, solid player, and his story, which includes a poignant family tragedy, is worth learning.

After signing with the Dodgers late in 1960 for a reported bonus of $60,000, McMullen made his professional debut the following summer. Showing an unusual level of discipline for a teenaged rookie, he drew 107 walks while also hitting with good power in the Class-A California League.

The Dodgers were so impressed with his discipline and power that they pushed him up two full levels in 1962, sending him all the way to Triple-A and the American Association. Although he struck out 124 times, he hit a respectable .282 for Omaha, while swatting 21 home runs. Late in the year, the Dodgers rewarded the 20-year-old with a promotion to the majors and a momentary cup of coffee.

The 1963 season began promisingly with Topps issuing McMullen’s rookie card, a set made made more notable by the inclusion of Pete Rose‘s. McMullen opened the 1963 season as the Dodgers’ third baseman, but he struggled so badly that he went back to Triple-A. He also split the following season between the minor leagues and Los Angeles, but he continued to flail against major league pitching. Perhaps concerned that they had done damage to McMullen by rushing him, the Dodgers decided to cut bait; they sent McMullen, slugger Frank Howard, and lefty reliever Pete Richert to the Washington Senators as part of a seven-player blockbuster that brought veteran left-hander Claude Osteen to Los Angeles.

With less established talent than the Dodgers, the Senators immediately made McMullen their starting third baseman. It was a good situation for a young player; McMullen responded to the opportunity by hitting 18 home runs and putting up a respectable OPS of .737 in his first full season of playing time. He also did better-than-average work with the glove, putting up a solid TotalZone number of 9 while taking part in 29 double plays. Four of those double plays came in a game against the Orioles, as McMullen set an American League record by starting four twin killings that day.

In 1966, McMullen’s hitting suffered, as he struggled against the adjustments of American League pitchers. In his second-go-round in the AL, his batting average fell 30 points to .233 and his home run total dropped to 13. After another mediocre season in 1967, he showed significant improvement the next summer, despite it being the Year of the Pitcher. With his walk total jumping from 46 to 63, his strikeout rate dropping like an anvil, and his home run total reaching a career-high of 20, he emerged as one of the better hitting third basemen in the league.

McMullen drew praise from one of the game’s loftiest sources when none other than Mickey Mantle told a reporter that McMullen is “the most underrated player in the league.” Coming from an iconic Hall of Fame talent like Mantle, the praise must have felt as satisfying to McMullen as a selection to the All-Star Game.

McMullen performed ever better in 1969, when he posted the best numbers of his career. He hit 19 home runs and collected 87 RBIs, while drawing 70 walks and lifting his on-base percentage to .349. His defensive play also shined, as evidenced by a TotalZone rating of 16. With his sure hands and his strong throwing arm, McMullen become a rock solid fixture at third base. He continued to show good range, too, as he led the American League in total chances for the third straight summer. As well as McMullen played on the field, he also established himself as the team’s leader in the clubhouse. His work ethic and character made him a role model for other Senators players.

At 27, an age when many players put up their best seasons, McMullen had peaked. So it should not have been that surprising that his play fell off in 1970. What was surprising was the trade that uprooted him early in the season. Seeing a chance to acquire two young hitters for the price of one, the Senators traded him on April 27, sending him to the California Angels for fellow third baseman Aurelio Rodriguez and onetime bonus baby outfielder Rick Reichardt. The trade was not popular with the Senators players, who would come to miss McMullen’s presence in the clubhouse. Nor was it good news for the Washington media, who had come to appreciate McMullen as a friendly and articulate voice of reason.

The Angels felt that McMullen represented an offensive upgrade over Rodriguez, and he did, at least in terms of power and production. Although he hit only .232, he contributed 14 home runs and collected 59 walks for the Haloes.

Finding a comfort level in California, McMullen hit a career-best 21 home runs in 1971. He also exhibited durability by appearing in 160 games, all but two of them as a third basemen. He was one of the few points of stability for the Angels that hellish summer, as a troubled Alex Johnson feuded with management, Chico Ruiz brandished a gun in the clubhouse, and Tony Conigliaro’s vision deteriorated to the point of forcing his retirement.

Then came McMullen’s strange season of 1972. McMullen hit only nine home runs and slugged a paltry .369, but his OPS fell by only three points. Somewhat remarkably, he actually received a vote in the MVP balloting, putting him in a tie with the far more celebrated trio of Brooks Robinson, Reggie Smith, and Bill Freehan. Perhaps the single vote was a tribute to his fielding, which remained top notch, though not at the level of Robinson.

Even as the Angels played out the string of a dismal season, McMullen continued to work hard. With fewer than 20 games to go in the endless summer, he came to the ballpark early to take extra batting practice and continued to take infield practice, day after day. “Some players don’t like to take infield at this time of the season because they are tired,” McMullen told Dick Miller of The Sporting News. “I take ground balls every day. I think it’s important. Playing conditions change.”

Other players recognized McMullen’s work ethic, along with his subtle talents. In a poll conducted by The Sporting News, American League players voted McMullen the third-best third basemen in the league, behind only Robinson and Sal Bando.

That level of appreciation would not keep McMullen with the Angels. After the season, Angels general manager Harry Dalton included him in the blockbuster trade that sent staff ace Andy Messersmith to the Dodgers for a massive package that brought back Frank Robinson, hard-throwing right-hander Bill Singer, and a promising young shortstop/outfielder named Bobby Valentine. McMullen was now back with the Dodgers, his original big league team.

The trade explains why Topps, in creating his 1973 card, used a photo of McMullen with an upturned cap, and both his cap logo and jersey lettering obscured from sight. If there was a bright side to the trade, it allowed McMullen to stay in Southern California, while simply relocating his office from Anaheim Stadium to Dodger Stadium. But there was a major downside to the cross-town deal. McMullen now faced a logjam of young talent at third base, with both Steve Garvey and Ron Cey considered top prospects at the position.

With the sore-armed Garvey moving to first base, McMullen started the season at third base, but an injury during the first week forced him to the sidelines. Cey took over at third, played extremely well, and took over the job permanently, relegating McMullen to a rarely used backup role. Appearing in only 24 games at third base, he settled for work as a defensive caddy and pinch-hitter. He batted only 85 times, an extremely low number for a 31-year-old player who was used to playing every day.

That first season in Los Angeles became more troubling, for far more substantial reasons. That summer, during a routine medical examination, McMullen’s wife Bobbi was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her ongoing pregnancy only complicated matters. Not wanting to jeopardize the health of the unborn child, Bobbi chose to delay chemotherapy treatments until after she had given birth. It was a courageous and noble decision, as she allowed the cancer to spread to better the chances for the child.

“I thought hard about quitting,” Ken told Maury Allen of the New York Post. “She didn’t want me to do that. She didn’t want to change anything.”

After the season, McMullen spent the winter at home with his wife, his newborn child, and their two other children. But her condition worsened. Reporting to spring training, he knew that she might not have much time.

On Opening Day, Bobbi McMullen died. She was only 30.

After Bobbi’s death that spring, the Dodgers wore black armbands as a tribute. McMullen took a leave of absence to spend more time with his three children, all of whom were preschool age. “I took off a few weeks to get the kids straightened away,” McMullen told the New York Post. “Then I went back to work. I had to make a living. There was nothing else I could do.”

Friends and relatives took turns babysitting, allowing McMullen to return to the Dodgers. Yet, he found little consolation at the ballpark, where he remained a little-used bit player. Employed almost exclusively as a pinch-hitter, McMullen played in 44 games and accrued only 60 at-bats. Yet, he rarely complained, never made any demands of the Dodgers to trade him, and generally did well in the difficult role of pinch-hitting.

Another season of pinch-hitting ensued in Los Angeles in 1975. McMullen then went to spring training with the Dodgers in 1976, only to draw his release in early March.

Now 33 years old, McMullen found his career on the precipice. He remained unemployed for most of spring training, before finally finding a job just prior to the start of the season. McMullen latched on with Charlie Finley’s renegade A’s; Finley loved to bring in brand name veterans near the end of their careers, so Mac was a natural fit.

Signing with the A’s brought him the first bit of good news. The second came in late May, when McMullen remarried. With some order restored to his life, McMullen accepted his role in Oakland. Becoming a full-fledged utility man, McMullen proceeded to lead the league with nine pinch-hits.

With the A’s losing a cache of their stars to free agency that winter, McMullen seemed like a good bet to return to Oakland in 1977. With the only other third base options being the light-hitting duo of former second baseman Tommy Helms and minor leaguer Tommy Sandt, McMullen appeared to have the inside track as Sal Bando’s successor. When A’s beat writer Ron Bergman asked him if he expected the fans to give him a hard time replacing Bando, McMullen provided an interesting response. “Who knows how the fans will react?” McMullen told Bergman. “Some of those fans on the third base side [of the Oakland Coliseum] were pretty vocal.”

The fans never had a chance to taunt McMullen, who didn’t even make it to spring training. A few days before reporting, he surprisingly found himself on the move again, this time sold to the Brewers. Splitting his time between DH, first base, and third base, McMullen hit five home runs in a spare part role, including a two-run pinch-hit home run in his final at-bat.

That turned out to be a triumphant swansong. The Brewers released him that winter. After 16 years, his playing career had come to an end.

McMullen has remained active since his retirement. He created an annual fundraising golf tournament to benefit youth. He has also operated his own baseball camp. In the late 1980s, he and former Brewers right-hander Jim Colborn succeeded in bringing a minor league team to Ventura County in California, though the franchise lasted just one season before being sold. McMullen has also done considerable work for the Dodgers’ Legends Bureau, participating in fantasy camps and serving as a community liaison.

I imagine that a number of Dodgers fans have found McMullen to be the friendly, engaging man that so many of the writers and his teammates encountered during his playing days. Working his way through one of the more difficult tragedies faced by an active ballplayer, he refused to give up the game, or his good character.

That’s why it’s easy to root for a man like Ken McMullen.

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Comments

  1. Rob Miller said...

    This is a great piece.  Really enjoy the stuff on guys who were big contributors back in their days but who are no longer on the radar.  Thank you.

  2. Dennis Bedard said...

    Great post Bruce.  I never knew of his wife’s death.  A real class act.  He and Eddie Brinkman were a very decent left side of the infield.  As to his trade to the Dodgers, I don’t think it “brought back” Frank Robinson to the Angels.  He only played for the Angels once.  Harry Dalton was Robinson’s GM at Baltimore so there was a reunion of a sort.

  3. Shaun in Juneau said...

    great article Bruce, I love to see these posts about names I remember, some like Ken mostly from baseball cards.

  4. Paul E said...

    “I took off a few weeks to get the kids straightened away,” McMullen told the New York Post. “Then I went back to work. I had to make a living. There was nothing else I could do.”

    Strange, but I believe these were pretty much the same words (and sentiment) spoken by 3B Frank “Home Run” Baker after his wife’s passing ~ 1920.

    Great article, as always, Bruce.

  5. jka said...

    Remember McMullen from the time he first came up with the Dodgers….good man, good ballplayer.

    Always hated this type of baseball card, though….you always wanted to see the player in the team colors, and you always felt sort of cheated when you got this kind of generic-style card.

  6. Philip said...

    Nice job, Bruce.

    Not sure, but it’s possible the service station McMullen worked at in the off-season was his dad’s.

    According to baseball-Reference.com, McMullen made $50,000 from the Angels in 1972 (and $40K+ in each of the previous two years).

    That’s nothing like today’s salaries, of course, or even that of the late 70s once free agency started.

    Unfortunately for McMullen, free agency started a few years too late for him and he got stuck with the Dodgers and behind Ron Cey when he should have been somebody’s starting third baseman for at least another two or three years.

    Of course, McMullen did the right thing and he was able to spend time with his kids in the off-season. A ballplayer only has so many years to maximize his earnings and after his career’s over there’s a lot of uncertainty. We sometimes forget that they have families, too.

    Paul’s correct. Baker also had the additional hardship of having two young daughters contracting scarlet fever, which had killed his wife.

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