Card Corner: 1973 Topps: Tom McCraw

A clever action shot, taken from an interesting angle, can absolutely make a baseball card. One of the best examples of this can be found on Tom McCraw’s 1973 Topps card. Not only does the photographer give us a good look at the finish of McCraw’s swing, but he also catches McCraw’s leg at a point where it is lifted above the ground, so that it appears that McCraw is actually stepping uphill. Hitting a baseball is hard enough, but trying to hit uphill, well that just seems unfairly tough.

The angle of the photograph also allows us a full frontal view of the Indians’ road uniform worn in 1972. I love the block-lettered “Indians” written in bright red against the backdrop of a simple gray uniform, given just the right amount of accessory in the form of two red stripes running down the pant legs. It’s simple, but it’s attractive, just the right combination of vivid color against the dignified gray. Why did the Indians abandon this uniform after only one season? It is better than anything they’ve worn since.

Still, there’s more to this card. Given the gray color of the jersey and pants, we can surmise this was a road game for the Indians in 1972. But I cannot tell the identity of the catcher, not even the identity of the uniform he is wearing. So where was this picture taken? The background indicates either County Stadium in Milwaukee or Metropolitan Stadium in Minneapolis, two ballparks from eras gone by, but I could be wrong.

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I have good memories of McCraw as a player. We used to call him “Quick Draw McCraw,” after a similarly named cartoon character from the late fifties and early sixties. Who remembers the horse/sheriff “Quick Draw McGraw,” and his trusted sidekick, “Baba Looey?” Ah, good memories.

Childhood silliness aside, there is plenty of more pertinent information to be found about Tom McCraw. A product of Venice High School in Los Angeles, McCraw signed with the White Sox as an amateur free agent in 1960. The Sox assigned the 19-year-old to Class-D Clinton of the Midwest League, where he held his own with eight home runs and a .286 batting average. The following summer, he moved up to Class-C ball, where he pounded 11 home runs, slugged .507, and batted .327 as an everyday first baseman.

McCraw performed so well at Idaho Falls that the White Sox jumped him all the way to Triple-A in 1962. His power numbers fell off at Indianapolis, but he batted .328 to lead the American Association in hitting. Even more significantly, he compiled an on-base percentage of .408. He stole 17 bases and also improved his fielding, cutting his error total in half, from 22 to 11.

Those numbers probably should have earned him a spot on the White Sox’ Opening Day roster in 1963, but Chicago decided on some more seasoning. He put up a so-so first half performance for Indianapolis, but the Sox gave him the call in early June when starting first baseman Joe Cunningham broke his collarbone. Manager Al Lopez showed confidence in McCraw, playing him against both lefties and righties, but he struggled against southpaws and didn’t make up for the deficiency against right-handers. For the season, he hit only .254 with six home runs. The only bright spot came on the bases, where he swiped 15 bases in 19 attempts.

Lopez changed McCraw’s role in 1964. Opting to go with veteran Moose Skowron as part of a platoon at first base, Lopez turned to McCraw as a part-time player and utilityman. Lopez played him some at first, but also gave him time at all three outfield spots, figuring that his speed would come in handy as a flychaser. McCraw’s hitting numbers remained almost identical to his rookie season, but his versatility made him a more valuable commodity off Lopez’ bench.

After a similar season for McCraw in 1965, the White Sox brought in a new manager in Eddie Stanky. “The Brat” decided to return McCraw to his first base role, but he batted only .229, hit five home runs, and slugged a paltry .329. Even his 20 stolen bases came at a cost, as he was thrown out attempting to steal 11 times. McCraw was clearly not an everyday first baseman, at least not for a club fancying itself as a contender.

Yet, the White Sox stayed with McCraw. Stanky liked McCraw, whom he ranked as the No. 1 baserunner on the team. The manager kept him in the regular lineup in 1967 and watched him show more power (11 home runs) and maintain his speed (24 steals) while continuing to lag in both batting average (.236) and on-base percentage (.288). That season also saw McCraw put together the best single-game performance of his career. On May 24, McCraw hit three home runs against the Twins, and narrowly missed a fourth when a long fly ball was caught at the warning track.

McCraw assembled another typical season in 1968, but he did something unusual in legging out 12 triples. He also had an eventful time on defense. On May 3, he committed three errors in one inning to tie an American League record. McCraw was error-prone, but he also displayed fantastic range at first base that summer, as he led the league in assist, chances, and double plays.

In 1969, McCraw tore a ligament in his knee during the spring. Gail Hopkins moved into the starting role at first base; when McCraw returned, he became a utility player. Playing more sparingly, he lifted his batting average to .258. That was the good news. Conversely, his power and speed diminished badly, as he hit two home runs and stole just one base.

McCraw regained some of his power and speed in 1970, but a .273 on-base percentage curtailed much of his usefulness. The Sox began shopping McCraw and finally found a taker late in the spring of 1971. They sent him to the Washington Senators for speedy outfielder Ed Stroud.

As with many of their hitting acquisitions, the Senators held out hope that their manager, Ted Williams, could help revive McCraw’s career. It didn’t happen, at least not right away. In fact, he hit a career-low .213 while showing no increases in his slugging ability.

One of the few highlights of his season occurred on May 17, and it was one best classified as bizarre. Playing against the Indians, McCraw hit a 250-foot pop-up to short left field. Shortstop Jack Heidemann, left fielder John Lowenstein, and center fielder Vada Pinson all converged on the ball, resulting in a three-way collision. With the three defenders sprawled on the outfield grass, McCraw circled the bases for one of the shortest inside-the-park home runs in history.

McCraw also made news on the last day of the season, when he played in the Senators’ final game in Washington. He picked up the final hit for the Senators, and also made the last out when he was thrown out stealing to end the bottom of the eighth inning.

As with the rest of the franchise, McCraw appeared ready to move with the team to Texas. He reported to spring training camp in Florida, but came to bat only four times in exhibition play. McCraw sensed that he was being phased out by Williams. Just before the Players’ Association went out on strike, the Rangers sent him and journeyman outfielder Roy Foster to the Indians for outfielder Ted Ford.

Although McCraw’s tenure in Washington ended after one unproductive season, he emerged as a more knowledgeable player. McCraw better understood the craft of hitting after being exposed to the teaching of Williams. “Ted taught me the mental side of the game,” McCraw told USA Today many years later. “That was his greatest influence on me as far as becoming successful at what I do. He opened up the mental side to me.” McCraw would put that new approach to good use over the latter stages of his career.

The trade to the Indians paid early dividends. Over the first two months of the 1972 season, McCraw hit .348, which placed him among the top 10 hitters in the American League. He drew raves from his new manager, Ken Aspromonte. “I don’t know where we’d be today if it weren’t for Tom McCraw,” Aspromonte told Russell Schneider, the Indians’ correspondent for The Sporting News. “Tommy has been a lifesaver for us in more ways than one.”

Aspromonte praised McCraw‘s all-round game. “He’s a hustler. He can bunt and is good on the hit-and-run. Tom gets on base a lot, too.” Aspromonte also suggested that McCraw might be the best defensive first baseman in the American League.

As well as McCraw played over the first half of the season, he could not sustain his performance. His hitting tailed off badly over the summer, falling to .258 by season’s end. On the plus side, he walked almost as often as he struck out, while providing a solid backup to Chris Chambliss at first base and the trio of Alex Johnson, Del Unser, and Buddy Bell in the outfield.

More twists awaited McCraw in 1973. For the third straight season, he came to spring training with one club, only to break camp with another. Very late in the spring of 1974, the Indians traded him to the Angels for veteran shortstop Leo Cardenas. Becoming the first DH in the history of the Angels, McCraw put in a good season and a half as a productive utility outfielder for California, but in the middle of the 1974 season, he found himself on the move again. This time, the Angels sent him back to Cleveland in a straight cash deal.

McCraw did not play frequently for the Indians in his second go-round, but when called upon, he did well, putting up an OPS of .791 in 1974. After the end of the season, the Indians hired Frank Robinson, making him the first African-American manager in major league history. The Indians wanted to have an African American on the coaching staff, so they turned to McCraw, who had developed a reputation as a counselor to young players and had been considered by some as a candidate to become the first black manager. But they felt McCraw could still play, so they made him a player/coach for the 1975 season.

Although a role as a player/coach required double the work, McCraw embraced his new position. “I love it,” McCraw told The Sporting News. “The part I like best is the teaching. That’s why, at least for now, I have no managerial ambitions. I don’t think a manager can be a teacher. He’s too busy. He’s got to be an organizer with the coaches doing the teaching.”

McCraw excelled as a teacher, but he also played well on the occasions that Robinson called on him. By June, he was hitting .275 with a .362 on-base percentage. Unfortunately, the Indians ran into a catching shortage in mid-June. They needed a backup catcher, so they signed veteran backstop Bill Sudakis off the waiver wire. Needing the roster space, the Indians felt they had no choice but to deactivate McCraw. He remained as the first base coach, but his career as a player was over.

Though he didn’t hit for much average or power, McCraw managed to stay in the majors for 13 seasons, mostly as a versatile backup who could play first base and all three outfield positions. He was a baseball rarity: a first baseman who could steal bases. On three occasions, he stole 20 or more bases, an impressive feat for a semi-regular player.

In a statistical curiosity, McCraw batted for higher averages over his final four seasons than he had in the previous four. Those 1971 sessions with Ted Williams made McCraw a better hitter at the tail-end of his career than he was during his theoretical prime.

McCraw approached his new role as a hitting coach with the passion of a Williams. At a time when few hitting instructors worked with film or videotape, McCraw began to assemble a film library that displayed the hitting technique of players like Frank Robinson, Rod Carew, and Carl Yastrzemski. McCraw used those films in working with young Indians hitters.

After being let go by the Indians in the early 1980s, McCraw moved on to other teams, including the Giants, Orioles, Mets, Astros, and Nationals. Having developed a strong friendship with Frank Robinson, McCraw worked for the Hall of Famer with four different teams. McCraw knew that he could communicate directly with Robinson, his onetime teammate with the Angels. “I’m honest with him, and he’s honest with me,” McCraw told USA Today. “He’s a demanding guy to work for, trust me… He knows I won’t sugarcoat anything. Ultimately he’s the final voice and will make the decisions, but when he asks me something, he knows he will get an honest answer.”

McCraw’s passion became evident to me during his tenure as the Mets’ hitting coach. One spring training in Port St. Lucie, I had a chance to interview McCraw; it remains one of my favorite baseball talks ever. He was friendly and respectful in his manner, clear and cogent in his theories.

During our conversation, McCraw revealed one of his favorite mantras. It went like this: “If you’re not hitting at least 20 home runs a season, you’re not a home run hitter.” I’ve never forgotten that saying, largely because there’s a lot of truth to it.

Talking to McCraw for just a few minutes made me believe that I could hit in the major leagues. This guy is a good hitting coach, I thought to myself. Many of the Mets hitters agreed. McCraw became especially popular with the Mets during the summer of 1996, when Todd Hundley, Bernard Gilkey, and Lance Johnson all enjoyed career seasons. Later on, when it was reported that McCraw had become a lame duck as hitting coach and would be fired at the end of the season, several of the Mets players complained loudly to the New York media.

McCraw has dealt with much adversity since his firing by the Mets, including a bout with prostate cancer and a series of unsubstantiated rumors that charged him with falling asleep in the dugout while serving as the Nationals’ batting coach.

Through it all, McCraw has survived. He has learned from some of baseball’s best minds, from Al Lopez to Ted Williams to Frank Robinson, and has passed that knowledge on to younger generations. He has done what everybody should strive to do in baseball—and that’s to give a little back.

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Comments

  1. Bill McKinley said...

    I was a fan of McCraw when he came up with the CWS. Never understood why it took him so long to blossom. Hadn’t realized the influence Ted Williams might have had in that. Thanks for the story.

  2. BlftBucco said...

    @ Stuart,

    That is the first thing I thought of when I saw who Bruce was writing about.  I remember watching that gameshow as well.  I remember that Tom and his wife did not win on the show.  Was the show named Gambit?

  3. dennis Bedard said...

    Once again, a great piece.  Couple of points.  First, that might be a spring training game.  Check out the metal barricade.  Even back then, I don’t remember any team having those makeshift dividers.  Second, the Quick Draw McGraw comparison is right on the money.  When I first heard of McCraw in 1967 when the White Sox were in the thick of the pennant race, I thought the papers spelled his name wrong because of my familiarity with the animated horse.  Amongst my generation, the name “McGraw” was instantly recognizable as the cartoon figure.  Even to this day, the name McGraw brings back memories of eating Sugar Smacks on Saturday morning and watching TV,  And thanks for mentioning Baba Looey.  Another almost forgotten 60’s sidekick.

  4. salvo said...

    Good call on Baltimore; the orange knee pad on the shinguard supports that as does the black catcher, who could be Elrod Hendricks.

  5. salvo said...

    If this game was a regular-season game, it’s probably May 28, 1972, the only Cleveland-at-Baltimore day game in which McCraw got a plate appearance and Elrod Hendricks caught.

    And Don Baylor—-whose 1973 card does indeed have the same fans in the background as in McCraw’s card—-played as well, going 3-for-4.

  6. Stuart Yancy said...

    @BlftBucco – that sounds right – it was some sort of
    Blackjack type game and I remember them not winning as well.

  7. Stuart Yancy said...

    I love these posts about old baseball cards.  I remember Tom McGraw being on one of the game shows hosted by Wink Martindale (if memory serves).  He’s also mentioned in one of Ron Luciano’s books.  Mr. McGraw is a very interesting player.

  8. whitesox67 said...

    I love watching McCraw growing up following the White Sox. He was part of a nucleus that I loved following: McCraw, Ward, Agee, Hanson, Buford, Horlen, Peters, John, and my favorite, Ken Berry.

    Thanks for the thoughtful and thorough research.

  9. mikeschach said...

    this reminds me of the amazing tidbit that I first saw in Sox: From Lane and Fain to Zisk and Fisk: by Bob Vanderberg – which also appears in the above link. It was a great sense of frustration to see Sox players start to hit as soon as they were traded. No need to wonder why they were so hitless…

    “…He told me a lot of things including how he never really had a plan when he was hitting. The Sox in those days never had a hitting coach. McCraw told me he never really knew what to do until he got to Washington when Ted Williams was managing. He asked Williams for hitting help one time and Ted told him that his swing was fine, it was his mental approach that was all screwed up Tommy went up there for so many years looking for a curve ball instead of sitting on the fastball. Williams told him that if a pitcher has a good curve that you’re not going to hit it anyway so look fastball. McCraw said he really felt bad because had he known that, he could have helped the Sox a lot more. If you look at his career when he was in Washington he started hitting in the .280’s, .290’s.”

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