Card Corner: Topps’ top 60 and Joe Rudi

I aggressively collected baseball cards in 1973, but for some reason, I never got my hands on Joe Rudi’s Topps card. I discovered it years later, when I had returned to collecting after a college-induced drought from the hobby. A first glance at the card brought a favorable reaction. I’ve always like cards with the horizontal or landscape layout, especially when they feature multiple players. Furthermore, the card depicts one of my favorite players from the era.

Then I looked more closely. As the middle player in the photograph, Rudi seemed unusually stocky. A further examination produced the following conclusion: That’s not Joe Rudi at all; it’s Gene Tenace. As a matter of fact, Rudi isn’t any of the three Oakland A’s players shown on the face of the card.

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The Topps photographer thought the man in the middle was Rudi, who is being congratulated by two teammates after hitting a home run against the California Angels. The player who is being congratulated is Tenace, who has just hit one of his five regular season home runs in 1972. Tenace would hit four more in that fall’s World Series against the Reds, completing the transition from obscure backup catcher to nationwide star.

So how did this happen? The confusion of Tenace being mistaken as Rudi is actually quite understandable, given that almost all of the A’s players had grown mustaches during the 1972 season, in direct response to Charlie Finley’s promise to give them $300 bonuses in return. With the A’s in full “Mustache Gang” mode, some of the white players on the team began to look like one another. From a distance, it would be fairly easy to confuse the two players, especially with their jersey numbers not visible from this vantage point.

Now that Tenace has been identified, let’s move on to the two other players shown on that 1973 Topps card. Identifying them becomes a bit more problematic, in part because neither was a particularly well-known player—certainly not as well known as a Tenace or a Rudi—and in part because the A’s used 47 different players in 1972.

Yet, a faithful Internet reader who wrote me several years ago came up with some answers to this card’s riddles. The reliable reader informed me that the photograph for the Rudi card must have been taken during a Sunday afternoon game at the Oakland Coliseum, because Sunday afternoons were the only time the A’s wore their all-white uniforms during the regular season.

More specifically, he determined that the photograph was taken on June 25, 1972, when the A’s hosted the Angels in a doubleheader at the Coliseum. Batting in the bottom of the second of game two, Tenace ripped a three-run homer against Angels left-hander Rickey Clark, scoring Bill Voss, who had singled, and Sal Bando, who had walked.

Voss is the player pictured on the left of the card, offering Tenace a congratulatory handshake. And who in the world, you might ask, is Bill Voss? A journeyman outfielder acquired only five days earlier from the Brewers, Voss was in the midst of a stretch of games in which manager Dick Williams used him as Oakland’s starting right fielder. (Voss wouldn’t last the season in Oakland, as he was traded to the Cardinals on Aug. 27 for the more accomplished Matty Alou.)

As for the other player on the card, the one giving Tenace a pat on the backside, I first thought it was starting pitcher Blue Moon Odom, who pitched eight shutout innings that day in earning a 6-0 victory. Actually, it is not Odom, but utility infielder Marty Martinez, the on-deck hitter and Oakland’s starting second baseman that day. Like Voss, Martinez didn’t last much longer with the A’s, traded to the Rangers less than one month later as part of the deal that brought Don Mincher back to the Bay Area.

As for the mistaken identity of Tenace over Rudi, it doesn’t make the card any more valuable than most other common cards from the 1973 set. Still, it’s an intriguing error involving a well-known player like Rudi, who was an All-Star left fielder, a terrific defensive outfielder, and a major contributor to Oakland’s three consecutive world championships. To make matters more interesting, Topps didn’t catch the mistake until well after the card set had been issued. So if you’re looking for a 1973 Topps card that actually depicts Joe Rudi, you’re not going to be able to find it, not even amongst the playoff or World Series cards that were issued that year.

In a way, it was fitting that Topps missed out on having Rudi on a card. At the time, Rudi was generally regarded as one of the game’s most underrated players, overshadowed by more vocal teammates like Bando, Reggie Jackson, and Vida Blue.

Rudi had overcome considerable odds just to make the major leagues. As a high school star in Modesto, Calif., Rudi impressed a horde of professional scouts until he suffered a badly broken hand on a pitched ball. Only one scout—Don Pries of the Kansas City A’s—continued to show interest in him, even setting up medical treatment for Rudi’s injured hand. Rudi rewarded Pries’ loyalty by signing a 1964 contract with the A’s.

The A’s originally signed Rudi as a shortstop but quickly realized that, at 6-foot-2, he was too gangly and awkward for the position. They immediately made him an outfielder, but then tried him at third base. That move proved treacherous, as evidenced by Rudi’s 14 errors in 32 games for Daytona Beach. The A’s finally settled on Rudi as an outfielder, but lost him on waivers to the Indians. After one season in the Cleveland chain, he returned to the A’s in a trade for veteran outfielder Jim Landis.

The A’s assigned Rudi to Modesto, his hometown, where he rejuvenated his hitting while playing for one of the great teams in minor league history. In 1966, Rudi batted .297 with 24 home runs for the California League champions. The Modesto Reds featured a dozen future major leaguers, including Rudi, Jackson, Rollie Fingers, and Dave Duncan.

Yet, Rudi struggled badly in major league trials from 1967 to 1969, failing to hit higher than .189. The A’s believed that his sweeping, uppercut swing and his insistence on trying to hit home runs hurt his development. In 1970, Rudi reported to spring training and met a new hitting coach, the legendary Charley Lau, who convinced him to change his approach at the plate. Rudi responded by hitting .309 in 350 at-bats.

In 1971, the A’s traded their established left fielder, Felipe Alou, to the Yankees for two uncertain pitchers. That made room for Rudi to become a fulltime player. As the second-place hitter behind Bert Campaneris, Rudi led the A’s in sacrifice bunts and consistently deployed his most effective offensive weapon—driving the ball to right field. Rudi’s ability to execute the hit-and-run helped create repeated first-and-third situations for the A’s.

Furthermore, Rudi had greatly improved his defensive play. Rudi had shagged fly balls daily under the direction of manager Bob Kennedy, who supplied the young outfielder with an assortment of line drives and bloopers. Rudi had also received assistance from the legendary Joe DiMaggio, who became a coach when the franchise moved from Kansas City to Oakland. After frequently butchering balls hit to him in the outfield corners, Rudi evolved into an above-average flychaser in 1971. Rudi also lengthened a below-average throwing arm by embarking on a series of weight training exercises designed to strengthen his shoulder.

By 1972, which coincided with Oakland’s first of three consecutive world championships, Rudi had grown into a Gold Glove caliber left fielder. Though his arm was no more than average, and his foot speed slightly below par, Rudi excelled at reading the bat off the ball, getting good jumps, running direct routes, and catching anything he could reach. He also consistently hit the cutoff man with his throws, which delighted his infielders.

Rudi’s defensive brilliance was never more evident than in Game Two of the 1972 World Series. With the A’s protecting a two-run lead in the ninth inning, Rudi robbed Denis Menke of a seemingly certain extra-base hit by making a leaping grab against the left field wall. The play helped preserve a victory for the A’s, who would go on to upset the Reds in a hard-fought seven-game classic.

Emerging as one of Oakland’s key players during their dynastic run, Rudi put up OPS numbers of better than .800 in two of three seasons, as the A’s reigned supreme from 1972 to 1974. But like many of the A’s’ best players, Rudi left the Bay Area as a free agent after the 1976 season. He signed a contract with the Angels, put in a one-year stint with the Red Sox, and finished his career with a brief return to Oakland in 1982.

After his playing days, Rudi coached briefly with the A’s, but has generally kept a low baseball profile while living in the Northwest. Several years ago, Rudi sold his working ranch to former Oakland player and teammate Carney Lansford. Rudi now lives in Baker, Ore., where he is a real estate agent. (Yes, I would buy a house from this man.)

Rudi is still regarded as one of the game’s good guys, which explains his nickname, “Gentleman Joe.” Rudi is such a nice guy that it probably didn’t upset him when he learned that his actual picture never made it onto his 1973 Topps card.

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Comments

  1. Jim G. said...

    Bruce, What a great article! I used to own that card, and it was a favorite, but I never caught the error. As I look at it, of course it’s Gene Tenace! Hilarious!

  2. gdc said...

    As kids we were actually aware of Rudi before he became a star because my brother had a card (maybe ‘69 with the names in a circle) with a face shot and said something like “that guy is ugly”.  I imagine he looked better with the mustache.

  3. Lindell A.C. said...

    great story about the Rudi card!…I am a Tiger fan and have always heard that one time a bat boy stood in for a photo which was later issued as the card for Aurelio Rodriguez….anybody out there know if there is any truth to that?

  4. Michael Caragliano said...

    Considering the layout for the ‘73 set, I’d be surprised if Rudi is the only such mistake they made that year. 1973 was only Topps’ third go-around with game-action photos; game-action was so revolutionary that the legendary 1972 set had a 72 card In Action subset, which weighted too heavily on the Mets, yet some teams had only one, or even no, players at all- but I digress. They tried resurrecting the In Action concept in 1982 (one of the first sets I can remember putting together), but by then, the novelty had worn off.

    Anyway, Topps had some interesting In Action shots in those early years (see the 1971 Ken Boswell and Dal Maxvill, where the Whitestone Bridge, located about three miles from Shea, pops up in BOTH cards), but considering how much better the camera technology is today, it’s easy to see how something like the Rudi gaff slipped past the Topps people. Eveything is distant- the only In Action ‘73 I can think of off the top of my head taken from the waist-up is Hank Aaron, fielding a pop-up. Still, for every quirky or distant-looking shot, there are some real gems. I think Topps had the In Action concept down to a science by 1975; the trade-off was that Topps stopped issuing any horizontal “regular” cards for the next fifteen years.

    One other theory: I’ve wondered how much having the monopoly on the baseball card market spurred Topps to take this step. For instance, 1957 was the second year Topps had the market to itself, and they released the classic “standard size” cards with their first ever use of full-color photos. By 1971, when Topps now had a generation of kids behind them buying baseball cards, maybe the action photos were a necessary prod to keep the next generation buying.

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