Card Corner: 1973 Topps: Wes Parker

This is classic 1973 Topps. The card company spent a good amount of time at Dodger Stadium in 1972, compiling action shots for its new set, which featured a record amount of in-game photography. Taken from somewhere along the first base dugout, this photo shows Wes Parker doing what he does best: playing first base with the kind of attention to detail that Keith Hernandez would resurrect later in the decade.

His first baseman’s mitt extended toward first base, Parker is doing his best to hold on Phillies baserunner Greg Luzinski. Of course, we might ask the question as to exactly why he is holding on the man known as “The Bull.” Luzinski was never known for his fleet baserunning, not even in the early stages of his career; in 1972, he stole exactly zero bases. For some reason, Luzinski made four attempts at stealing a base that summer. We can only guess that all four fell woefully short.

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But Parker was not one to leave any possibility to chance. If there was even the slightest hint that Luzinski might be feeling frisky on the bases, and just might try to surprise the Dodgers catcher and pitcher that day, Parker likely would have wanted to minimize even his small chance of success.

Little did I realize when first looking at Parker’s 1973 Topps card that this would be the last Topps card of his career. I didn’t even know that Parker had no intention of playing in 1973. When I later found that Parker had retired, I wondered why. He was only 32. He was still a supreme defensive first baseman. And he batted a respectable .279 in 1972. Why would a player the caliber of Wes Parker call it quits when he was still a name-brand first baseman who was only two years removed from a .319, 111-RBI season? It made no sense.

So why did Parker retire in 1972? Let’s explore that story, but let’s begin chronologically in assessing the baseball life of the gentlemanly Mr. Parker.

After signing with the Dodgers out of Claremont McKenna College in 1963, the switch-hitting Parker reported immediately to Santa Barbara of the California League, where he hit .305 and earned a late-season promotion to Double-A Albuquerque. He hit a lusty .350 with the Dukes, impressing the Dodgers to the point where they brought him to Los Angeles the following spring.

Although Parker was an accomplished first baseman, the Dodgers already had Ron Fairly in a starting role. So they made Parker a utility player, using him as a backup outfielder at all three spots and as a defensive caddy at first base. He appeared in 124 games, but accumulated only 240 plate appearances. He showed little power, with a scant three home runs, and batted a mediocre .257.

After the season, the Dodgers assigned Parker to the Instructional League, where he could work on his hitting and prepare for an expanded role. The Dodgers moved Fairly to the outfield in 1965, clearing first base for Parker. The move also set the stage for some history. The Dodgers debuted an infield of Parker, Jim Lefebvre, Maury Wills, and Jim Gilliam, the first all-switch-hitting infield in major league history.

On a non-historic level, Parker put up Triple Crown numbers that looked paltry: a .238 batting average, eight home runs, and 51 RBIs. But a deeper look at the numbers reveals some value. Parker drew 75 walks to lift his on-base percentage into the .330s, led the league in sacrifice hits with 19, and stole a surprising 13 bases.

Parker was hardly a star, but he did play a subtle role for the Dodgers, who won the National League pennant and earned a World Series berth against the Twins. Although Parker was only 25, he performed admirably in his postseason debut. Playing all seven games against a tough Twins pitching staff that featured Mudcat Grant, Jim Kaat, and Camilo Pascual, he batted .304, drew three walks, and hit his first World Series home run. Parker was now a nationally known name, and more importantly, a member of a world championship squad.

In his follow-up to the World Series, Parker showed his first evidence of having any real power. He hit 12 home runs in 1966, while sacrificing none of his ability to hit for average. In fact, he batted .253, a 15-point improvement over the previous year.

For the second straight season, Parker and the Dodgers advanced to the World Series. This time Parker faced a difficult Orioles pitching staff, one that was even more imposing than Minnesota’s. He batted .231, walked only once, and did not hit a home run, as the Dodgers lost in four.

The next two seasons brought Parker disappointment. With OPS marks of .704 and .626, Parker’s production took a tumble, as it did with most hitters during an era dominated by pitching. Parker hit only eight home runs total over the two seasons, as the Dodgers fell out of contention in the National League. The only consolation could be found in the Gold Glove Award voting; Parker finally received credit for his defensive superiority, winning back to back Gold Gloves.

As offense in general began to enliven in 1969, so did Parker’s game. He batted .278, walked 56 times, and hit a career-high 13 home runs. In addition to winning his third straight Gold Glove, he even received some support in the MVP vote for the first time in his career.

With Parker’s popularity rising and his good looks putting him in demand, he took advantage of an opportunity away from the game. Offered the chance to appear on a popular sitcom, Parker filmed an episode of The Brady Bunch. In the episode that aired in January of 1970, the character of Greg Brady develops an intense crush on his math teacher, Miss Linda O’Hara. Greg, not knowing that she is engaged, allows the distraction to affect his performance in math class.

Toward the end of the episode, Parker makes an unexpected appearance as himself; he is revealed as O’Hara’s boyfriend and fiancée. If there is any solace for Greg, who lives in Southern California with the rest of the Brady clan, it is the opportunity to meet Parker, one of his Dodgers heroes. Parker promises to give Greg two tickets to Opening Day, but only if he can pull off an “A” on his next math test.

Although Parker uttered only a few lines at the end of the episode and appeared on camera for less than a minute, his cameo became an iconic moment in Brady Bunch history. Aired repeatedly in 1970s reruns, Parker’s cameo also became the subject of much conversation among baseball fans. Growing up in Westchester County, my friends and I often brought up the Parker appearance, usually with some level of laughter and whimsy.

Perhaps spurred on by his moment of Brady Bunch fame, Parker put up a career season in 1970. In actuality, Parker credited much of his improvement to working with former Brooklyn Dodger Dixie Walker. Attending the Dodgers’ spring training camp, Walker helped Parker eliminate the uppercut in his swing, instead emphasizing a more level approach.

Walker’s work emphasized some of the efforts that Tommy Lasorda had made with Parker during the previous spring. “Dixie Walker came to camp,“ Parker said many years later. “He worked with me like Tommy had and finally, after weeks of practice, the results were amazing.”

Indeed they were. Playing in a league-leading 161 games, the durable Parker also led the NL with 47 doubles. Despite hitting only 10 home runs, he surpassed the 100-RBI mark, completely uncharacteristic for a singles hitter like Parker. His batting average also exceeded his previous high by 41 points, as he placed fifth in the National League MVP voting. In a season featuring career years for so many National League players (Dick Dietz, Dodgers teammate Billy Grabarkewitz, Cito Gaston, Jim Hickman, and Ted Savage also come to mind), Parker’s increased production was as stunning as anyone’s.

Opposing players took notice of Parker’s transformation as a hitter. “You used to be able to get Wes out without throwing him a strike,” Joe Torre, playing with St. Louis, told Sports Illustrated. “He had a lot of blind spots, and he would swing at bad pitches. He’s different now. He’s a good hitter. Good hitters ride out the slumps and don’t panic—they don’t change everything around and get so messed up they can’t do anything. Wes has that kind of confidence.”

Sadly, Parker’s improved offensive production did not last. Over the next two years, which turned out to be his final seasons in the big leagues, Parker’s hitting returned to its previous level. He hit in the .270s each year, walked more than he struck out, and won his fifth and sixth Gold Gloves. While he was nowhere near an All-Star level, he was still a competent player and a terrific defender at first base. Members of the Los Angeles media had good reason to call him “Mr. Steady.”

At the very least, Parker would have qualified to be a backup first baseman, a defensive caddy to the up-and-coming Steve Garvey, whom the Dodgers were about to switch from third base to first base because of continuing problems with his throwing. (Ironically, Parker disliked Garvey to the extreme. Wes considered his young teammate self-centered and insincere, a phony to put it bluntly. It was an opinion that would eventually be shared by other teammates, including Don Sutton.)

So what happened to Parker? Why did he retire at the tender age of 32? Well, there appear to have been several factors at work. First, as Parker has often stated, he had grown tired of the major league lifestyle, the constant travel, the repeated night games, and the generally long hours that needed to be put in at the ballpark. Parker felt there was more to life than spending afternoons and evenings at Dodger Stadium.

Second, Parker had become disenchanted with the Dodgers’ recent struggles. Admittedly spoiled by LA’s appearances in the 1965 and ‘66 World Series, he did not like the idea of going through a rebuilding process with too many unfamiliar faces.

A third factor may have provided Parker with additional incentive to step aside. Parker was one of the few players who did not see eye to eye with Marvin Miller, the head of the Players Association. Although he was the Dodgers’ player representative, Parker did not like the direction of the association, which was becoming more stringent in its demands of ownership and had decided to strike at the outset of the 1972 season.

Still, there may have been more to it than that. Parker was one of four Dodgers who reportedly voted against the strike in ‘72. Knowing this, Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley became concerned about a lack of unity among his players. He wanted to rid himself of the four players (Billy Grabarkewitz, Jim Lefebvre, and Bill Singer have been rumored to be the others) who had voted against the union strike. Both Grabarkewitz and Singer departed in a trade with the Angels, while Lefebvre was released. It’s possible that O’Malley did little to discourage Parker from his retirement plan, rather than have him return to a fractured clubhouse. Additionally, Parker may have been reluctant to rejoin teammates who resented him for his anti-strike stance.

Once Parker opted to leave the Dodgers as a player, he joined the Reds’ broadcast team for the 1973 season. But Parker still had a hunger to play the game. To the surprise of many, he signed a contract to play in the Japanese Leagues, where he hooked on with the Nankai Hawks. He played well in his lone season in Japan, hitting .310 with 14 home runs, but called it quits for good after the 1974 season.

With baseball finally out of his system, Parker took acting classes and began to pursue roles in Hollywood as a follow-up to his Brady Bench debut. In the 1970s, he made guest appearances on shows like Emergency! (the precursor to ER), the short-lived Matt Helm, McMillan and Wife, and Police Woman. He also appeared as himself on Simon and Simon, starred in a new Norman Lear series called All That Glitters, took roles in several TV films, and made one feature film appearance before leaving the Hollywood scene in the mid-1980s. For awhile, he worked with a televised religious ministry

In recent years, Parker has done some voice work for video games, but hasn’t made a film or TV appearance since 1985. Still, he has interest in the industry, as evidenced by his personal collection of rare films and vintage movie posters.

In some ways, Parker has come full circle by coming back to baseball. In 2007, he made some news when he was selected to the all-time Rawlings Gold Glove team, beating out Keith Hernandez for first base honors. In 2009, Parker rejoined the Dodgers as a member of their legends bureau. He also made a memorable speaking appearance at the 2011 SABR Convention in Long Beach, California.

In many ways, Wes Parker has been a renaissance man, as evidenced by his interest in acting and his collection of films and memorabilia. But Parker is a smart man, too, and the smartest renaissance men eventually come back to baseball.

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Comments

  1. Dennis Bedard said...

    Parker was probably setting Luzinski up for a pickoff.  The Bull was slow to get to second but probably just as slow jumping back to first on a pickoff throw.  Parker was the perfect poster boy for the mid 60’s Dodgers:  great defense and no offense.  Those teams were almost 100% Koufax driven.  That they went into an era of mediocrity after he retired proves the point.  As for Garvey, he grated on my nerves just watching him and his then wife acting like some high school prom couple all over my TV set.  I really enjoyed when it all came tumbling down a few years later.  Too bad for the fans that he was never managed by Billy Martin.  He would have at least have had something in common with Dave Boswell.

  2. bucdaddy said...

    during an era dominated by pitching.
    —-
    Well, they did have the rules in their favor, plus 15-inch mounds to throw from and new, expansive ballparks like Dodger Stadium to pitch in. Several of them were terrific, of course—Koufax, Marichal, Gibson and the like—but of course there are terrific pitchers in every era.

    I don’t mind that you call it an era “dominated by pitching” as long as younger readers are clear that it doesn’t mean all the best pitchers ever pitched in the 1960s.

    Good article, as usual.

  3. dennis Bedard said...

    “Koufax, Marichal, Gibson, and the like.”  There were no pitchers in the 60’s who were “like” the three mentioned.  They were in a class by themselves.  In fact, and this is purely anecdotal and based on raw prejudice in favor of those 3, but I wonder if the notoriety of the decade as a “pitcher dominated” would have been differently interpreted if they had never played.

  4. Marc Schneider said...

    One thing to remember is that the strike zone had been enlarged in the early sixties following Roger Maris’ record season as owners thought home runs were becoming too easy.  This had a lot to do with depressing hitting over the next several years.  The mounds were a factor but those had not changed; the strike zone had. 

    As for only the star pitchers being dominant, I remember that in 1968, Pat Jarvis of the Braves had an ERA under three.  It wasn’t just the stars that dominated; remember that Mike McCormack won the Cy Young in 1967.  And Gibson’s ERA went up substantially (although still low) after the mound was lowered (and I suspect the strike zone changed) following 1968. Three pitchers would hardly be enough to depress offense as much as happened in the sixties.

    As for holding on Luzinsky, you would hold him on not because you feared him stealing but to prevent him from getting a big jump on a ground ball.

  5. BlftBucco said...

    I ran into Parker around 1987 when he was selling baseball memorabilia at the old King of Prussia baseball card show near Philadelphia.

    I remember getting the most stunning photograph of Roberto Clemente that I had ever seen.  The stories that he told about Roberto were great.

    Seemed like a really cool guy.

  6. BobDD said...

    “dennis Bedard said…
    “Koufax, Marichal, Gibson, and the like.”  There were no pitchers in the 60’s who were “like” the three mentioned.”

    Perhaps Fergie Jenkins, Hoyt Wilhelm, Jim Palmer, Don Drysdale, and Whitey Ford.  Warren Spahn even won 20 games three times in the 60’s.  Jim Maloney?  Sam McDowell?  Phil Niekro?  Jim Kaat?  Other 20 game winners in the 60’s include Tom Seaver. 

    Other lesser pitchers, but with multiple 20 win seasons in that decade:  Dean Chance, Mel Stottlemyre, Joey Jay, Mike Cuellar, Dave McNally, Gaylord Perry, Camilio Pascual, and Denny McLain.

    Quite the decade.  I agree with your top three, though many will say Jenkins should be in the big four, but then you’ll start hearing from the fans of Chance, Drysdale, McLain, Palmer, Ford, Wilhelm and the like.

    As a teenage fan back then, I found the fading offense frustrating.  BTW, in my somewhat spotty memory, the rotation that appeared early on to be to the 60’s what Cleveland was to the 50’s was thought to be Cincinnati: Maloney, O’Toole, Purkey, Ellis, and Jay – but four of them had shortened careers for one reason or another (Purkey faded and was traded), or the Reds would have been the dominant team.  Nice memories though one and all.

  7. littlelucas said...

    I would always get Wes Parker confused with Fess Parker from the Daniel Boone TV show. As a 5 year old kid I actually thought they were the same person for a while.

  8. Dennis Bedard said...

    What separated Gibson, Marichal and Koufax was fear.  Most players dreaded facing them.  I remember a story Hank Aaron told to a rookie about how to act after hitting a home run off of Gibson: don’t run too fast around the bases because he will take it as an act is showmanship and drill one through your midsection next time you are up.  But on the other hand, don’t run too slow because he won’t like that either and you will get beaned too. Not exactly words of inspiration!

  9. littlelucas said...

    Or blind. Duren had those coke bottle thick glasses that made you question his eyesight. I saw on several occasions where his first couple warm up pitches upon entering the game thrown all the way to the backstop. Talk about intimidating!!!!!!!!

  10. Dennis Bedard said...

    Very funny.  Duren was feared because hitters never knew if he was drunk or sober.  I would have let the comment go unrequited as most of us old timers would have gotten the humor but there are many readers here who know nothing about the strange career of the once Yankee hurler.

  11. bucdaddy said...

    Gibson on the mound was the scariest thing I’ve ever seen. IIRC, he’d drill a batter for fussing in the box too much too. It was his mound and his game, and it would be played at the pace he wanted it, which was fast,* and woe upon you if … well, when I think of guys stepping out of the box today, fiddling with their gloves and doing walkabouts and trying to disrupt the pitcher’s timing, sometimes I think of Gibson. He didn’t even want McCarver to come to the mound.

    *—I think I remember a few times with Gibson pitching when the radio broadcast would come back from commercial break, which I’m pretty sure were shorter than they are now, and the count would already be 0-1 on the batter. Maybe 0-2.

  12. Yehoshua Friedman said...

    Apropos Duren, he was wild and had eyesight problems, but he turned it into a shtick. Those warmup tosses to the backstop were designed to make the batter wonder where the hell the ball was going to go.

  13. BobDD said...

    Despite the reputation multiple commenters refer to with Bob Gibson, he is only tied for 79th all-time in hit batters, more than 50% behind such modern era pitchers as:  Randy Johnson, Jim Bunning, Don Drysdale, Bert Blyleven, Nolan Ryan, Tim Wakefield, and Roger Clemens.  Are memories off, or was Gibby so effective at intimidation that he did not have to put deed to intent near as often?

  14. Jabbaknight said...

    I just finished reading a book about the ‘75 Reds called “The Machine”, and it had a Bob Gibson story about his last batter faced in his career, Pete LaCock of the Cubs, and LaCock hit a grand slam off of him. 

    “But with Gibson, there’s always one more story.  Many years later, he was pitching in an old-timers game.  And Pete LaCock was playing too.  LaCock stepped up to face Gibson, who was well into his fifties.  Gibson stared him down and promptly hit LaCock in the back with a pitch. 

    Ow, Bob, what gives?  LaCock asked.

    I’ve been waiting for years to do that, Gibson said.”

  15. scott said...

    O’Malley “wanted to rid himself of the four players … who had voted against the union strike.”

    I’m not doubting you, but why would an owner want to get rid of players who, by not being on the union’s side, would appear to be on management’s side?  I know there’s a big difference between not supporting a strike and being pro-management, but still…. in that rough union vs MLB era, and especially when talking about “The O’Malley”, it seems he would want to keep them.

    Or is it just my flawed reasoning getting in the way?

  16. Herb Smith said...

    In the early ’70′s, players who played ten years became eligible for a pension. It seems crazy that Parker would quit after 9 years, especially when he had a perfectly solid final year, including winning a Gold Glove.

  17. Speed S Fry said...

    I knew Wes Parker as a kid he’s a little older than me he was very good at sports( baseball )I used to see him and his younger brother at dodger games . Wes was a good hitter not great but still good and man could he play defense nothing got by him. At that time that what the dodgers were all about pitching and defense an Parker was a great fit for L.A.

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