Card Corner Plus: 1974 Topps: The Offbeat Life of Cesar Tovar

Cesar Tovar had a strange and mysterious life.

Cesar Tovar had a strange and mysterious life.

Cesar Tovar’s 1974 Topps Traded card epitomizes a substantial portion of his career and life. He was a journeyman infielder and outfielder who was traded or sold four times, released twice, loaned one time, and signed as a free agent once. A baseball vagabond, he was good enough to be a valued member of some very good Twins teams in the 1960s, but not so good that he couldn’t change teams five times over the last five years of his career.

Tovar’s “traded” card also provides us with another example of Topps’ airbrushing skills. In the original photograph, Tovar is almost certainly wearing the maroon colors of the Phillies, but they have been obliterated by the blue color scheme of the Rangers in an effort to make his team current and up-to-date. As is often the case, the airbrushed blue is so bright as to appear fluorescent, giving the card a surreal feel and look. The word “surreal” is a most appropriate description for Tovar’s personality and life off the field; he was one of the more unusual characters, albeit likeable ones, to grace the fields of the 1960s and 70s.

Then there is the unusual positioning of Tovar’s head. His head is cocked upward and to the left, as he looks wistfully into the distance, almost as if he is oblivious to the presence of the Topps photographer. What could Tovar be thinking? Given his transient ways, his never-ending journeys, and his unpredictable life off the field, Tovar could be thinking about practically anything. That’s just the kind of guy that he was.

Tovar Topps Traded--1974Tovar’s professional journey began in 1960, when the Reds signed him out of Venezuela and assigned him to Geneva of the NY-Penn League. Only 18 and struggling to adjust to American culture in upstate New York, Tovar batted a mediocre .252. For his second season, the Reds demoted him to Missoula of the Pioneer League, where he was more comfortable and elevated his average to .304 while displaying surprising power (12 home runs).

The Reds were so impressed that they bumped him up to Seattle of the Pacific Coast League at season’s end, giving him a two-game cameo at the Triple-A level.

In 1961, the Reds sent Tovar back to the NY-Penn League, where he was far readier than the first time around. Not only did he hit .338, but he drew 105 walks and popped 19 home runs, a stunning total for a tiny middle infielder. He also stole 88 bases, making him a quadruple offensive threat who could hit, draw walks, hit with power, and run the bases with abandon.

Not surprisingly, Tovar moved up to the Class-B Carolina League in 1962, and his performance continued to impress. Though he didn’t match any of his outrageous NY-Penn League numbers, he did bat .329, convincing the Reds that he was ready for a full taste of Triple-A ball in 1963.

Tovar would play three solid seasons at Triple-A, but not all as a member of the Reds’ organization. With a young Pete Rose entrenched in Cincinnati, and with other good second base prospects in the pipeline, the Reds loaned Tovar to the Twins for the 1963 season. He returned to the Reds’ organization in 1964, making heads turn in spring training with his slight build and overwhelming speed. The Reds began referring to him as “Mighty Mouse,” a fitting moniker for a player who stood 5-foot-5 and weighed no more than 155 pounds.

Strangely, the Reds traded him after the 1964 season, despite his contributions to a league championship team in San Diego. They sent him back to the Twins, this time for keeps, in a deal for a middling left-handed reliever named Gerry Arrigo. The Twins actually wanted Tommy Helms, but “settled” for Tovar. It was a bizarre turn, but it would turn into an absolute steal for the Twin Cities franchise.

Tovar made the Twins’ Opening Day roster in 1965, playing some at second base, shortstop, third base and center field. But he didn’t hit much, so the Twins sent him back to Triple-A in May, where he remained until a September call-up, too late to be eligible for postseason play.

With nearly another season of minor league ball under his belt, the Twins brought him back to Minnesota in 1966. That’s when Minnesota manager Sam Mele moved him into a super-utility role, playing him almost every day (for a total of 134 appearances), but at different spots in the infield and the outfield. Tovar couldn’t really call himself a starter at any one spot, and he didn’t wow anyone with his .260 batting average, but his ability to make contact, steal 16 bases, and provide adequate defense at second base and in the outfield made him valuable. He also showed a knack for scoring runners from third with less than two out; he led the American League with seven sacrifice flies.

During the spring of 1967, Tovar’s toughness became evident to the Twins. With the Twins and the A’s scheduled to play in his native Venezuela, Tovar would not let a dental procedure prevent him from playing. Despite having two of his teeth pulled the previous day, Tovar refused to miss the start of a spring series being played in his hometown of Caracas. The Twins penciled him in at shortstop as a replacement for starter Zoilo Versailles; Tovar did not disappoint. “My jaw is sore, but I’ll play,” he told The Sporting News. “I wouldn’t miss this for anything. I played for Missoula, Mont., one night after having a tooth pulled at 4 p.m., so this won’t bother me.”

Tovar didn’t play a lot of shortstop for the Twins in ‘67, but it was one of six positions where he would make appearances that summer. Although he had no one position to call his own, he played every day somewhere–and I mean every day. In fact, Tovar played in all 164 games for the Twins that summer (including a couple of tie games that were suspended), leading the American League in games played.

Tovar’s offensive numbers lacked an overwhelming tinge, as he hit only .267, but he did steal 19 bases, reached base 13 times on hit-by-pitches, and laid down 13 sacrifice bunts. He became the glue to the Twins, doing little things in advancing base runners while playing every position on the field except for first base, catcher and pitcher. Tovar made such an impression that he actually picked up a vote for American League MVP, preventing Triple Crown winner Carl Yastrzemski from taking the MVP unanimouly. Keep in mind that Tovar didn’t feel that he deserved the vote, but it did reflect a respect that some writers had for his speed, versatility, and value to a winning team.

One of the odd characteristics of Tovar’s game involved his willingness to get hit with pitches. The little man known as “Pepi” liked to crowd the plate, and didn’t shy away from inside fastballs. As one unnamed American League opponent later told The Sporting News: “The blankety-blank is always moving around, crowding the plate, lunging at the ball, twisting his feet—trying to get hit.”

For Tovar, being hit with a pitch became an art form. When hit with a ball, he seemed to take special pride, often showing off the corresponding bruise to teammates and beat writers. He might not have weighed 160 pounds soaking wet, but he was solid and muscular, and felt that his ability to withstand fastballs cemented his toughness.

Tovar would lead the league with 17 hit-by-pitches in 1968, but that told only a small portion of his efficiency in the Year of the Pitcher. Lifting his average to .272, he nearly doubled his stolen base output (to 35) and put up an OPS of .698, a highly respectable number for that pitching-dominated era. He also made history by matching the pioneering efforts of Bert Campaneris; on Sept. 22, Tovar played all nine positions in the Twins’ game against the A’s, matching what Campy had done for the Kansas City A’s three years earlier. While Campy was basically a shortstop, Tovar was a legitimately versatile player who could play three infield and three outfield positions, making his accomplishment seem more real in the eyes of some.

Yet, Tovar’s milestone came with a touch of comedy. Because of his slight build, he looked rather ridiculous when he took his place in the game as a catcher. Dwarfed by the standard-sized chest protector and shin guards, Tovar looked like a Little Leaguer suiting up on a sandlot. His appearance in the oversized equipment drew howls of laughter from the Twins’ dugout.

Tovar’s stunt, the brainchild of Twins owner Calvin Griffith, would gain him some notoriety, but his play on the field had yet to reach its peak. That would occur over the next three seasons, from 1969 to 1971. In ’69, Tovar played for a new manager in Billy Martin. The two had become friendly in 1963, when Martin was working for the Twins as a minor league instructor. Playing for Martin, Tovar became a major contributor to the Twins’ effort in winning the first American League West title. Martin employed Tovar as his primary center fielder, but also used him at third base, second base and the outfield corners. Tovar batted .288 and reached career highs with 45 stolen bases and 11 home runs.

It wasn’t just Martin who liked Tovar. Teammates and writers enjoyed his happy-go-lucky personality, his constant smile (which revealed the trademark gap between two of his front teeth), and his boundless enthusiasm. Tovar had a generous side, too. At the end of each season, he would box up dozens of balls, bats and gloves and ship them to his native Venezuela. He claimed that he was using the equipment for his winter workouts, but as the late Twins beat writer Bob Fowler once told me, Tovar was hiding the truth. He was targeting the equipment for underprivileged children in his native Caracas. He simply wanted the kids to have bats, balls and gloves that they otherwise would have lacked.

The Twins fired Martin over the winter, but Tovar performed even better for new manager Bill Rigney in 1970. Hitting .300 for the first time at the major league level, Tovar again reached double figures in home runs and compiled a career-best OPS of .798. He ran wild on the bases, stealing 30 bags while leading the league with 36 doubles and 13 triples.

In 1971, the Twins shifted Tovar from center field to left field. His power disappeared (only one home run) and his stolen base efficiency dropped, but he still managed to lead the league with 204 hits, lifting his batting average to a career-best .311. He reached base 35 per cent of the time, making himself one of the best tablesetters in the league.

Tovar once again switched positions in 1972, this time moving to right field, where he had enough arm strength to do a passable job. Unfortunately, his offensive skills showed significant decline at the age of 31. He batted only .265, hit a mere two home runs, and stole only 21 bases. Concerned that he was aging fast, the Twins decided to shop him at the winter meetings. On Nov. 30, the Twins sent him to the Phillies for three players: pitchers Ken Sanders and Ken Reynolds and minor league slugger Joe Lis.

The Phillies hoped Tovar would fill a hole for them at third base, but he struggled during spring training. His batting woes in Grapefruit League drew barbs from his teammates, who razzed him good-naturedly about his lack of hitting and fielding. Slugging first baseman Deron Johnson could be heard saying, “Pepi, what is it you do good? So far you haven’t shown me a thing.”

Without missing a beat, Tovar supplied a confident comeback. “Johnson,” Tovar said in his heavy Spanish accent, “you just wait until the bell rings. Then Pepi will show you a thing or three.”

Although Tovar promised to turn on the hitting once the regular season began, his bat never came around. He soon lost the third base job to a youngster named Mike Schmidt, who batted only .196 but did hit 18 home runs. Tovar’s punchless batting average (.268), his complete lack of home run power, and his difficulty adjusting defensively to artificial turf turned him into a huge disappointment in Philadelphia. He also clashed with manager Danny Ozark, whom he felt had reneged on a promise to keep him as the starting third baseman. Once the season ended, the Phillies began shopping Tovar.

Meanwhile, Billy Martin had resurfaced as a manager in Texas. Almost instantly after becoming manager, Martin informed his general manager: “Get me Cesar Tovar.” To the surprise of no one, the Rangers did just that at the winter meetings, acquiring him for the bargain basement price of cash—and cash alone.

The reunion with Tovar, one of his favorite players from his days in Minnesota, thrilled Martin. “I wanted Tovar for many reasons,” the skipper told Rangers beat writer Merle Heryford. “The little guy can beat you so many ways—his bat, his feet, his brains, his hustle.”

Martin did recognize that Tovar was no longer capable of playing the infield very well, so he made him a fulltime outfielder for the Rangers. He used him in center field, as well as the outfield corners. Rejuvenated by the reunion with Martin and energized by the hot weather in Texas (“When weather gets hot, I get hot. Always.”), Tovar hit .292 with 47 walks, giving him an on-base percentage of .354.

Tovar also gained some notoriety for a strange habit he had picked up: carrying a dog whistle around his neck in center field. Tovar had a ready explanation. “I blow the whistle, “Tovar told the AP, “because I do not wish to collide with Mr. America (right fielder Jeff Burroughs).” Given Burroughs’ solid 205-pound frame, Tovar’s rationale actually made sense.

Another one of Tovar’s habits was a bit more scandalous. By the time that Tovar had joined the Rangers in 1974, rumors circulated that he had three different wives in three different countries. The rumor was reported by author Mike Shropshire, in the entertaining (and often comedic) book Seasons in Hell, about the early years of the Rangers’ franchise. Considering Tovar’s outgoing personality and unpredictable nature, the story of the three wives seemed believable to some people in the Rangers’ organization.

In 1975, Tovar’s on-the-field play fell off, as the Rangers began to use him more and more as a DH. He did gain some attention by breaking up Catfish Hunter’s no-hitter in May, marking the fifth time in his career that he had broken up a no-hit bid in the late innings. But the late-inning heroics were only a temporary fix. When Martin was fired in midseason, Tovar’s eventual departure was sealed. On Aug. 31, the Rangers sold him to the pennant-contending A’s in a waiver deal.

The A’s wanted Tovar in part to light a fire under Campaneris, their starting shortstop who had slumped in 1975. Tovar didn’t hit much for the A’s, but he did return to the postseason for the first time since his days in Minnesota.

After struggling through much of the 1976 season, Tovar was released on Aug. 25. Less than a week later, he resurfaced with the Yankees, who were being managed by—you guessed it—Billy Martin. The 35-year-old Tovar didn’t have much left, hit only .154, and drew his release in December.

Tovar’s major league days might have been over, but he still wanted to play. So he signed on with the Mexican League for the next two seasons before joining the Caracas franchise of the ill-fated Inter-American League in 1979. Tovar hit well for Caracas, but when the Inter-American League went up in flames in midsummer, Tovar’s playing days in Organized Ball finally ended. He would, however, continue to play in the Venezuelan Winter League until 1986, finally retiring at the advanced age of 46.

After his retirement, Tovar became manager of the Venezuelan team in the 1990 World Cup and then worked as a coach in his native country. In 1991, he encountered heart trouble, which seemed to be the direct result of his heavy smoking. But I rarely saw Tovar’s name in the media until the summer of 1994. That’s when I learned that Tovar had died, shortly after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He was only 54.

When I heard that Tovar had passed away, I became motivated to learn more about him. I was familiar with his name, but knew little of the details of his career and life. The more I discovered about him, the more intrigued I became.

I’m still intrigued. It was an unusual life he led, even a strange one at times, and one that had its share of mystery.

And I suspect that Cesar Tovar enjoyed almost every minute of it.

 

Sources: The Sporting News; Cesar Tovar’s biographical file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library

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Comments

  1. Leonardo Aranguibel said...

    Beautiful piece! Thank you very much for it. 15 years ago I found by pure chance Max Nichols, the sportswriter who gave that famous lonely MVP vote to Tovar in 1967. He was kind enough to explain his vote to me, through his daughter Kelley -a colleague of mine by then- and I wrote a piece about it, including his fascinating letter with the explanation. Yes, Tovar was quite a character!

  2. Dennis Bedard said...

    Great piece again Bruce. His name had an almost rhythmic quality to it, each name having two syllables ending in “ar.” He was somewhat similar to another Hispanic infielder on those mode 60′s Twin teams, Zoilo Versailles. I grew up near Boston and remember the one vote he got for MVP. Funny, I never understood why but then again, I never could figure out how Versailles actually was voted MVP in 1965 with mediocre numbers. I wonder how he and Zoilo got along on those teams, being the only Hispanic players on the Twins. For some reason, guess it was the era, I thought of Tovar every time I watched a Batman episode with the Joker, Cesar Romero. I am curious if any readers can identify the stadium Tovar’s picture was taken. I cannot.

  3. Wayne Howk said...

    Looks like it could be the press box & upper deck at Candlestick…
    Excellent story again, Bruce. I am always looking forward to your articles. Any chance they will show up more often… we miss getting to read you every week!
    Thank you for your fine work.

  4. Neil said...

    Very nice. In those days the Reds had Cesar Tovar, Pete Rose, Giraldo “Chico” Ruiz and Tommy Harper as second basemen in their minor league system. The days of B, C and D classifications. Tovar was extremely versatile, very underrated and a hustler. Played every year in the Venezuelan League (winter ball) where he was extremely popular and a crowd favorite.

  5. Steely Glint said...

    What you should have written:

    “Tovar finished 2nd to Yastrzemski in the 1967 MVP voting.”

  6. Rich Klein said...

    Tovar would lead the league with 17 hit-by-pitches in 1968, but that told only a small portion of his efficiency in the Year of the Pitcher.

    I always thought Bill Freehan led the league in HBP iin 1968 with 24. Last time I checked 24 > 17

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