When Topps introduced action cards in 1971, it created what eventually would become known as the Internet practice of baseball card “sleuthing.”
Prior to ’71, all player cards featured posed photographs of players, usually taken during spring training workouts or prior to actual games. But once Topps made action cards part of its increasingly diversified format, it created fodder for card collectors of future generations. We, as full-fledged baseball nerds, would become motivated to discover when a photograph was taken. Was it possible to pinpoint an exact game, and perhaps even an exact inning or moment, when a photograph was snapped? We realized that often it could be done, but it would take a little bit of research, some “sleuthing,” if you will.
Some general principles apply. In most cases, you need to be able to see two players on the front of the card to be able to pin down a specific date of a game. If you have two players, ideally one from each team, your chances of solving the mystery go up significantly. If you cannot see two players on the card, it then becomes crucial to figure out the ballpark where the “action” took place, especially if the featured player is wearing a road uniform. In those cases, the ballpark will give away the opponent.
The next principle involves the year. Generally, especially with Topps cards, photographs show game action from the previous season. So if you have a 1971 Topps card featuring an action shot, it’s likely that the photo was taken during the 1970 season. Now there have been occasions when Topps had to resort to showing game action from two, or three, or even four years earlier, but those tend to be rare. Changing uniform styles can often give us clues to the season. This method can be particularly helpful with cards from the early 1970s, when most major league teams switched from button-down flannel uniforms to pullover polyester. What most teams wore in 1970 and ’71 became very different in 1972 and beyond, simply because of changes in material and jersey style.
With all of this serving as a scene setter, let’s get to one of my favorite cards, and prime fodder for some baseball card sleuthing. It’s from 1972 Topps, the year I started collecting cards. (For some reason, I wasn’t interested in 1971 Topps at the time, perhaps because I was only six years old.) In 1972, Topps decided to showcase and highlight its action cards by putting a bright red frame around them, highlighted by the words “In Action” near the top of the card. Contrary to what I believed at the time, these cards weren’t meant to highlight just the stars and superstars of the day. Topps basically included action shots of any player it could find, and that included backup catchers like Bob Barton and Pat Corrales and journeyman pitchers like Jerry Johnson and Clay Kirby.
Topps also included a few veterans who were past their prime, players like Curt Blefary and Jose Pagan, now finishing their careers as bench players. Another was Tommy Davis, a onetime star and two-time batting champion whose career was nearly ended when he badly fractured his ankle sliding into second base in 1965. By the time this photo was taken, Davis was with Oakland, still a decent role player, but no longer a star. He filled in as a platoon first baseman and outfielder, and also became an accomplished pinch-hitter.
Davis’ card gives us not only a look at him playing first base, but also a cameo by a player who appears to be Horace Clarke of the New York Yankees. Taking an aggressive lead, Clarke appears to be breaking toward second base while Davis holds him on intently. With two players on the card, and the original Yankee Stadium providing the backdrop—with its right field wall in plain sight—we have plenty of material to use in our efforts at sleuthing. So let’s begin.
First, we need to confirm that the players in question are indeed Davis and Clarke, if only because players can be misidentified on their cards from time to time. As someone who is familiar with baseball in the early ’70s and has seen dozens of photographs of each man, I know that these players are Davis and Clarke. There is no mistaken identity here, no doubt at all.
Second, we need to place the year. We know that a 1972 card is likely to feature a photograph from 1971, and not 1972 itself. Actually, there’s no way that this card could represent a game from 1972. (Nor could it be a spring training game since Yankee Stadium is clearly the venue.) By Opening Day in ‘72, the A’s had switched their uniforms to solid-colored polyester, with tops that were either green, gold or white. Davis is clearly wearing the old style sleeveless uniform, which is made from flannel. Even more significantly, Davis did not play for the A’s at all in 1972; he was rather surprisingly released prior to the season. (More on that later.) That gives us confirmation that the photo must be from 1971, or possibly earlier.
Now it is possible that the photo could have been taken in 1970. Clarke played for the Yankees that entire season, while Davis joined the A’s via trade on June 23 and remained with them until Sept. 15, when he was traded away to the Chicago Cubs. Here’s the pertinent question: did the A’s play at Yankee Stadium sometime between June 23 and Sept. 15, 1970?
A check of the A’s’ game logs in 1970, courtesy of Baseball-Reference, will provide the answer: yes. On July 16 and 17, the A’s traveled to New York to play a three-game series which included a doubleheader. On July 16, in the first game of the twin bill, Davis started the game, but in right field, not first base. He was then replaced for late-inning defense. So it could not have been that game. In the nightcap, Davis again appeared, but only as a pinch-hitter. So cross off that one, too.
On July 17, Davis again played against the Yankees, but only as a pinch-hitter. He made no appearances at first base or any other position. The A’s did play one more game that weekend against the Yankees, but Davis did not appear at all.
A further check of the game logs shows that the A’s did not return to New York for the rest of Davis’ duration with them in 1970. So we can rule out the possibility that the Topps photograph was taken during the 1970 season.
That means that the photo must have been taken in 1971. But when? Once again, we return to the game logs from Baseball-Reference.
The A’s traveled to Yankee Stadium twice in 1971. In mid-August, they played a three-game set at the Stadium, but Davis did not appear at first base in any of the games.
The other trip to New York had taken place in late May, when the A’s traveled to Yankee Stadium to play a three-game series, beginning with a doubleheader on May 31. Based on the process of elimination, this must be the series that produced the photograph for Topps. (If not, we’re in trouble.)
Indeed, in the first game, we see that Davis did play first base for the A’s. Furthermore, Clarke played second base for the Yankees, batting leadoff.
Did Clarke reach first base in that game? Yes. In the bottom of the second, he drew a walk against Catfish Hunter.
Clarke and Davis also played in the nightcap of the doubleheader, with Clarke reaching base four times. In the bottom of the first and the bottom of the third, he drew walks against Odom. And then he did the same in the bottom of the fifth. That’s three walks for Clarke, a player who was never known for being very patient at the plate. Then, in the bottom of the seventh, Clarke added a single, this time against reliever Bob Locker.
Without question, Topps took the photograph of Davis and Clarke during this doubleheader on May 31. Can we pin it down any further? Unfortunately, that doesn’t appear possible. If we look more closely at the card, it appears that the photo was taken on a cloudy day, or perhaps during the twilight hours. A check of the Baseball-Reference summary indicates a cloudy day in the Bronx, with the first game starting at 1 p.m. and the nightcap starting at 4. Twilight in May on the East Coast doesn’t usually begin until much later in the evening, so my guess is that this photo was taken under cloudy skies and not during twilight. Without the sun as a guide, it’s impossible to know whether this play was photographed during the first game or the second game of the doubleheader.
There is perhaps one other clue that we can use. A look at the card shows Clarke making a break for second base. Perhaps he stole a base that day. After all, Clarke reached base five times during that doubleheader. But alas, he did not steal a single base. Another dead end.
So that’s likely as far as we can take this. The photograph is from May 31, 1971, either in Game One or Game Two of the doubleheader. For what it’s worth, the A’s lost the first game, 5-3, before bouncing back to take the second game, 6-3. Davis had a very nice afternoon, going 3-for-4 in the first game, followed by a 2-for-5 effort with two RBIs in the nightcap.
That’s the nuts and bolts of solving the mystery of when this photograph was taken by Topps. But there is a lot more to the story of Davis in 1971 and ’72. By 1971, Davis had become a journeyman role player, rendered so because of that broken ankle that sapped him of most of his power and forced him to hit off his front foot.
After bouncing around with the Seattle Pilots and Houston Astros in 1969, Davis found a temporary home with the A’s, who purchased him in June of 1970. Davis spent most of ’70 with the A’s before being sold to the Cubs. After they released him over the winter, Davis rejoined the A’s, signing with them in the latter days of spring training in 1971.
Dick Williams, who took over as Oakland’s manager in ’71, he came to trust Davis. In an early April game, the A’s trailed Kansas City, 4-3, in the bottom of the ninth. With runners on first and second and two out, Williams called on Davis to pinch hit. Davis proceeded to hit a line drive toward the left-center field gap, scoring Dick Green to tie the game and Steve Hovley with the winning run. For a team that had lost three of its first four games to start the season, the comeback win provided a huge boost to the team and its new manager.
That game-winning hit helped convince Williams to use Davis as his top pinch-hitter. Succeeding fully in the role, Davis eventually clawed his way into a platoon at first base with Mike Epstein. By season’s end, Davis had come to bat 219 times, compiling a team-best batting average of .324 with 42 RBIs. Davis was even more effective as a pinch-hitter, tuning up pitchers with a .464 batting average, including 13 RBIs on 12 hits. Time and time again, Davis delivered clutch hits with men in scoring position, giving Williams a major weapon in the late innings.
Unfortunately, Davis’ brilliance as a pinch-hitter and platoon first baseman did not cement his status with the A’s in 1972. Over the winter, owner Charlie Finley mailed Davis a contract offer that called for a raise of only $3,000. Davis felt he had earned more.
During spring training in 1972, Davis continued to hit well, putting up a batting average of .563. Then came the stunning news of March 30. On that day, the A’s gave Davis his unconditional release.
Why did it happen? Finley claimed that the condition of Davis’ fragile knees prevented him from playing a position in the field. Davis knew that was a lie; he had played 35 games at first base and 16 times in left field in 1971. Furthermore, even if he couldn’t play the field, he could still hit, making him a dangerous pinch-hitting option for Williams.
No, the real reason had to do with Davis’ choice of friends. He was too close to Vida Blue, the winner of the Cy Young Award in 1971, but a spring training holdout in ’72. Davis was also the man who had introduced Blue to his agent, Bob Gerst. When Blue refused to sign his contract for ’72 and remained out of camp, Finley decided to make Davis his scapegoat. Finley never said this publicly—if he had, players union head Marvin Miller would have come down with the hammer against him—but Oakland insiders knew exactly what was going on.
When reporters approached Davis about his release, Davis did his best to be philosophical. “If that’s the reason they cut me,” Davis told the New York Times, “there’s nothing I can do about it. If it is [the reason], it’s very childish.” It was also technically against the rules, but almost impossible to prove from the perspective of the Players’ Association.
Years later, Davis was less diplomatic about the Finley decision. “He wanted a scapegoat; he didn’t want to get rid of Blue, but he wanted to show how strong he could be,” Davis said during a lengthy interview with Black Sports magazine in 1974. “When he found out I was the one who introduced [Blue] to a gentleman who represents me. Now the only reason I introduced them… I just though he needed representation. He asked me if I knew anybody.”
The timing of Davis’ release could not have been worse. So late in spring training, with teams looking to reduce their rosters to the 25-man limit, Davis could not find a job with another team before Opening Day. The impending strike, which wiped out the first eight days of the season, also complicated matters. “I figure I had a job, hitting for Oakland and maybe playing sparingly… the next thing I’m out of baseball. It was a bad feeling!” Davis said in the interview with Black Sports.
Davis would eventually find work with the Cubs, but not until July 6, with nearly half of the season having passed him by. Davis would last little more than a month with the Cubs, who sold him to the Baltimore Orioles in August. Given the lateness of his initial signing, Topps would not include Davis on a card in its 1973 set, leaving him in baseball card limbo until 1974.
So there you have it, the story of Tommy Davis in 1971 and ’72, and the resolution of any mystery behind his 1972 Topps card. Clearly, this is a lot of information, all of it spurred on by an “In Action” card. I guess that’s one of the things I love about cards, particularly action shots. They motivate you to research, find answers (even to relatively trivial questions), dispute myths, research some more, and ultimately learn.
In a way, I guess we can say that Topps created a monster with these action cards. But I would argue that it is a good monster, after all.
References & Resources
- Black Sports
- The New York Times
- Tommy Davis’ player file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library