When Topps airbrushed photos for its cards in the 1970s, the company usually applied the artwork to portraits or posed shots. It’s relatively easy to airbrush the uniform colors and caps of a single player who is featured on a card. But the situation became more complicated when Topps decided to airbrush action shots, particularly those who featured other players within the frame of the picture. There is no better example of that than Tommie Agee’s 1973 Topps card.
When this photo was taken during the 1972 season, Agee was still playing for the New York Mets. He’s the one on the far left. The other players pursuing the pop fly are the right fielder, Rusty Staub, and the retreating second baseman, Ken Boswell. None of these players played with the Astros in 1972, but when the Mets traded Agree after the 1972 season, Topps had to spring into action. With no photos showing Agree wearing the red and white colors of Houston, Topps decided to airbrush this action shot, which meant including the other players in the process.
While Agee is the focus of the card, it’s interesting to note that Staub did not belong to the Astros in 1972 or ‘73, but he did play for the franchise from 1963 to 1968. Similarly, Boswell did not play for Houston in 1972 or ‘73, but he would eventually become a member of the Astros, in 1975. So perhaps we should call this card “The ghosts of Astros past, present and future.”
There is one other oddity about this card. It is the only card in the 1973 set that shows Staub. He did not have a regular issue card with Topps that year, or in 1972 for that matter. The reason? At the time, Topps negotiated contracts individually with each of the players projected to be part of its new set. Staub chose not to sign a contract with the card company for two full years. He would not reappear on a regular issue Topps card until the 1974 season.
Staub and Boswell give us plenty of side material to work with, but Agee is the player I find the most intriguing. We tend to remember Agee for his days with the Mets, but he began his career in the Indians’ organization. Signing with the Tribe as an amateur free agent in 1961 and receiving a tidy bonus of $60,000, he made his major league debut the following season. Called up in September at the age of 20, he accrued 14 at bats, hitting .214.
The late season recall marked the start of four consecutive cups of coffee for Agee. From 1963 to 1965, he made brief appearances, playing in no more than 13 games and hitting no better than .167. That last cup of coffee actually took place with another organization; after the 1964 season, the Indians traded Agee and Tommy John to the White Sox as part of a complicated three-team deal that also involved the Kansas City Athletics and returned Rocky Colavito to Cleveland.
It would not take long for the Indians to regret the trade. After a 1965 campaign that was delayed by a broken hand and then split between Chicago and Triple-A, the White Sox made him one of their starting outfielders in 1966. The Sox thought so much of Agee that they put him in center field, moving the already defensively excellent Ken Berry to left. Though Agee was built like a fireplug at five feet, 11 inches and 195 pounds, he covered the outfield from gap to gap.
Now more mature at 23, Agee took full advantage of his new opportunity. On Opening Day, Agee clubbed a memorable home run against tough right-hander Dean Chance. For the season, he hit 23 home runs and stole 44 bases, thereby becoming the first player in White Sox history to reach 20 homers and 20 steals in the same season. He also played such splendid defense in center field that he took home Gold Glove honors. He also won the Rookie of the Year, beating out a class of first-year players that included Dave Johnson and the “Boomer,” George Scott. The award voting proved to be no contest, as Agee swept all 16 first-place votes. He also received strong support in the American League MVP race, placing eighth in the annual sweepstakes.
If there was a flaw to Agee’s game, it was his ability to make contact. He struck out 127 times, becoming especially vulnerable to right-handed pitchers with good breaking balls.
Pitchers took advantage of the holes in Agee’s swing in his second full season. Despite coming to bat nearly 100 fewer times, he piled up 129 strikeouts in 1966. His batting average fell from his rookie high of .273 to .234. He reached base only 30 per cent of the time while compiling a meager slugging percentage of .371. Even in a pitcher’s era, those marks were clearly unacceptable for a power-hitting outfielder.
Agee’s appearance in the All-Star Game was just about the only bright spot in a season that epitomized the sophomore jinx. He hit very poorly after the All-Star break, with just four home runs after the Midsummer Classic. The White Sox were so disappointed in Agee’s performance that they decided to cut bait with their slick-fielding center fielder; after the 1966 season, the Sox sent Agee and spare infielder Al Weis to the Mets for a four-player package headlined by two-time batting champion Tommy Davis and veteran pitcher Fat Jack Fisher.
Yet, it was a trade that almost didn’t happen. It’s not particularly well known, but the White Sox nearly dealt Agee somewhere else, in a trade that would have pre-empted the Mets’ acquisition of the young, athletic outfielder. At one point, Agee was supposed to have been sent to the Red Sox in a blockbuster deal—a one-for-one swap involving Hall of Fame outfielder Carl Yastrzemski. The White Sox and Red Sox came close to completing the headline-making trade, but Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey balked at the last minute, unwilling to give up Yaz, one of his favorite players. Yawkey’s veto prevented the Red Sox from making what would have been one of the worst trades in their franchise’s history.
The trade to the Mets set up a reunion for Agee, who was now teammates with Cleon Jones. The two had grown up as close friends in Mobile, Alabama; in fact, they were born only five days apart. The reunion with Jones would represent just about the lone positive development of Agee’s first season in New York. In the Mets’ very first spring training game, Agee was hit in the head with an errant Bob Gibson fastball, never a fun proposition. The beanball affected him all summer long.
Though installed as the Mets’ starting center fielder, Agee hit miserably. He endured a 0-for-34 slump in April, matching the 1962 futility record set by Don Zimmer and putting himself in a cavernous early season hole. He would hit only five home runs in nearly 400 plate appearances. He walked only 15 times while striking out 103 times, a ghastly ratio for an everyday outfielder who was expected to help offensively. With an on-base percentage of only .255, Agee put up an OPS of .562. It was the Year of the Pitcher, but clearly not the year of Agee.
To their everlasting credit, the Mets did not give up on Agee. Gil Hodges kept Agee as his starting center fielder and leadoff man. The manager’s confidence paid off. In early April, Agee became the first and only player to hit a home run into Shea Stadium’s upper deck, as he victimized Montreal’s Larry Jaster with a mammoth 480-foot home run. (The Mets later marked the appropriate spot at Shea Stadium by putting Agee’s No. 20 on the railing where the home run landed.) It was one of the 26 home runs he hit that season. He also roamed center field at Shea Stadium with speed and precision, providing the Mets with a lynchpin to both their offense and their defense. Clearly, he was their best all-around position player.
Agee’s performance took a further step up during the World Series. With the Series tied at a game apiece, the Mets and Orioles prepared for a critical Game Three. In the fourth inning, with runners at first and second, Baltimore’s Elrod Hendricks laced a ball deep toward left-center field. Shading Hendricks toward right field, Agee ran an estimated 40 yards, made a backhanded stab of the ball, and snared it in the edge of the webbing of his glove. Catching the ball near the 396-foot sign in left-center field, Agee saved two runs from scoring.
Agee wasn’t done. In the top of the seventh, the Orioles loaded the bases with two outs, bringing Paul Blair to the plate. Blair slashed a line drive toward right-center field, the ball seemingly ticketed for a two-base hit. Agee tracked the ball with a full-out sprint before diving headlong. As he belly flopped onto the edge of the outfield grass, Agee grabbed the ball before it landed on the warning track. This time he saved three runs from being scored, which would have brought the Orioles within a run and put the tying run in scoring position.
After the game, Agee assessed the two miraculous catches. “The first one was harder,” Agee told Lowell Reidenbaugh of The Sporting News. “Because I had to reach across my body and catch it backhanded. I thought I had the second one all the way, but the wind caught it and it dipped suddenly, so I had to dive for it.” For his part, Gil Hodges thought the second catch was the more difficult of the two, going so far as to call it the greatest play he had ever seen in the World Series.
At the plate, Agee did additional damage. Leading off the bottom of the first, he had blasted a bomb of a home run to center field, victimizing one of the game’s toughest right-handers, Jim Palmer. Spearheaded by Agee’s all-around performance, which Sports Illustrated called the greatest single effort by a center fielder in World Series history, the Mets took Game Three on their way to a five-game Series win over the favored O’s.
In 1970, Agee proved that his world championship efforts were no fluke. In fact, he hit even better, compiling a career best .286 average and an OPS of .812. His season included a 26-game hitting streak and a game in which he hit for the cycle. He also stole 31 bases, giving Hodges’ Mets a much needed dose of speed. And he won his second Gold Glove Award.
At 28 years old, Agee appeared to be in his prime. Then came an injury-plagued 1971 season. Limited to 113 games, largely because of an injured knee, he still hit .285 and stole 28 bases, but his power numbers fell off badly. The following summer, Agee’s overall game tailed off badly. Affected by an injured muscle in his rib cage, he hit .227 and saw his slugging percentage fall below .400. Even his defensive play suffered.
Agee’s contributions to the world championship in 1969 and his popularity with New York fans could not make him a Met for life. After that disappointing ‘72 season, the Mets shopped the injury-prone Agee. There were also rumors, unsubstantiated but still existent, that the Mets felt Agee and Cleon Jones spent too much time together, to the point that they had created a clique within the Mets’ clubhouse.
Whatever the exact reason, general manager Bob Scheffing proposed a blockbuster seven-player deal that would have sent Agee, pitchers Gary Gentry and Danny Frisella, and another player to the Cubs for outfielder Rick Monday, veteran right-hander Bill Hands, and a third player. Scheffing was ready to make the trade, but Cubs manager Whitey Lockman reportedly called the deal off at the last minute.
Scheffing instead made a trade with Houston, sending Agee to the Astros for outfielder Rich Chiles and tall pitching prospect Buddy Harris. Although the Mets might have been justified in trading a declining Agee, it remains baffling that they received so little in return for the talented center fielder.
While the Mets claimed that they considered Chiles a legitimate candidate for their vacant center field position, the words of an unnamed Astros official provided less optimism. “He might help as a pinch-hitter,” the Houston official told The Sporting News, “but don’t expect him to play every day.”
Chiles did little for the Mets, but Agee also struggled in Houston, where he found the Astrodome an even more difficult hitting environment than Shea Stadium. He also had to adjust to playing in left field, since the Astros already had the supremely talented Cesar Cedeno in center. Over the first half of the season, Agee showed some power, but all other aspects of his game fell off. On August 18, the Astros gave up on Agee, sending him to the Cardinals for the meager return of utility infielder Dave Campbell.
Agee did little for the Cards over the final six weeks of the season. He hit only three home runs, batted .177, and found himself on the bench. At the winter meetings, the Cardinals dealt him to the Dodgers for veteran reliever Pete Richert.
Although Topps printed a 1974 traded card that showed Agee wearing Dodger Blue, he failed to make his way to Los Angeles for Opening Day. On March 26, in the midst of spring training, the Dodgers released Agee. Even though he was only 31, no one put in a claim. He was forced to retire, at an age when many players still found themselves near their peak.
Agee chose to leave the game completely, but he remained popular with Mets fans who recalled the era of the late 1960s and early 70s. He kept in touch with his fans by making regular charitable appearances and conducting numerous baseball clinics for children. He also made a memorable appearance as himself on an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond.
Yet, there was more than baseball to Agee’s life. A smart businessman, he opened up a bar near Shea Stadium and became a successful insurance executive in his post-playing days. Unfortunately, he also struggled with his weight and developed a heart condition.
On January 22, 2001, Mets fans had to endure one of the saddest days in the history of the Mets. They learned that Agee had suffered a massive heart attack while leaving his New York City office. Shortly thereafter, he died at Bellevue Hospital. It was the same cause of death that had taken his manager, Gil Hodges, who had passed away during the spring of 1972. Agee was only 58, which made the news all the more unbearable to Mets fans.
Although Agee played only a handful of his 12 seasons with the Mets and didn’t start or finish his career with the franchise, he had become a lasting symbol of the team’s unexpected success in 1969. Other quality center fielders have followed him in Mets pinstripes, including Lee Mazzilli, Mookie Wilson, and Lenny Dykstra. All became popular with New York fans, but none more so than their first standout in center, Tommie Agee.