Card Corner: 1972 Topps, Beltin’ Bill Meltonby Bruce Markusen
November 30, 2012
The consummate slugger, Bill Melton hit 33 home runs for the White Sox in 1971, putting him in the American League lead, just ahead of Norm Cash and Reggie Jackson. Yet his 1972 Topps card shows him trying to check his swing in a game against the Yankees. Judging by the position of his hands and the bat, Melton was unsuccessful in checking the swing, so it would appear that this pitch resulted in a swinging strike. That was not a typical event for Melton in 1971, given that he struck out only 87 times, a low total for a pure slugger.
Melton’s 1972 Topps card also shows us the White Sox’ memorable uniforms from the early 1970s: the bluish gray road colors augmented by the red trim. And then there are those incredibly huge numbers on the backs of their jerseys. Those numbers were an announcer’s dream; they could seemingly be spotted a half a mile away with the naked eye. The Sox’ numbers might have been the largest in history, with the possible exception of the Phillies’ old uniform numbers from the 1960s. Whether the White Sox or the Phillies, they’re so big that they seem out of place, but they sure did do the trick in being easily visible to broadcasters, writers and fans.
As on many 1972 action cards, we see another player present on Melton’s card. The opposition is provided by the Yankees, the site is Yankee Stadium (where so much of Topps' photography took place), and the catcher is none other than Thurman Munson (as evidenced by the telltale red chest protector). For awhile there, Munson led the league when it came to making guest appearances on other players’ cards. After all, Munson was a workhorse catcher; if the photograph involved the batter or runner near home plate, the odds were strong that the Yankees captain would make a cameo.
All of the above material is pertinent to the story of the card, but most of it ignores the primary subject matter of the card, Bill Melton himself. At the time of the card’s release, Melton was one of the game’s premier power hitters. Fresh off his home run crown, he and the newly acquired Dick Allen were expected to anchor the middle of the lineup for Chicago. So let’s look at how Melton reached this stage of his career.
Melton was one of the last vestiges of a bygone era. He signed with the White Sox as a free agent in 1964, the last year before baseball went to an amateur draft. In other words, Melton could consider other offers before signing with the White Sox.
Based on his first two minor league seasons, the White Sox might have wished that Melton had signed elsewhere. He showed little power playing as a second baseman (of all positions) in rookie ball in 1964, and then struggled to hit for either average or power as an outfielder in 1965. He did not begin to establish himself until 1966, when he was assigned to Fox Cities of the Midwest League. He hit .284 with 12 home runs, offering the White Sox a glimpse at his power potential.
Receiving a promotion to the Double-A Southern League, Melton reverted to his earlier struggles. He hit .251 with nine home runs in a full season, while making a shaky transition to third base, where he committed 29 errors. Based on the pure numbers, Melton seemed like far less than a top prospect. “When I was in the minors,” Melton later admitted to sportswriter Jerome Holtzman, “I was so bad in so many things I never thought I’d make it.”
Perhaps to his own surprise, the White Sox promoted Melton to Triple-A Hawaii in 1968. He started the season there before receiving a promotion in late May to Chicago. He appeared in 17 games with the White Sox and didn’t hit much before being loaned to the Yankees organization, which resulted in him playing a half-season at Syracuse. Between the two minor league stops in Hawaii and Syracuse, Melton played well, reaching base 34 per cent of the time while hitting 15 home runs. He also showed improvement defensively, especially during his stint in Syracuse, where he committed only two errors in 32 games.
Melton’s performance in Syracuse convinced the White Sox to bring him back to Chicago in September. He hit much better in his second Chicago stint, lifting his season OPS to a more respectable .717.
The Sox saw enough from Melton to make him their starting third baseman over journeyman Pete Ward, who had hit 15 home runs but batted only .215 in 1968. Melton would easily surpass those numbers in 1969. Playing 157 games, Melton hit 23 home runs, far more than he had ever hit in any minor league campaign. He drew a respectable 56 walks and compiled an OPS of .759, which was certainly passable for the era. Though he continued to grapple with his fielding, Melton convinced the White Sox that they had found their third baseman of the present and future.
At 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds, Melton was built like a block of granite. His physique prevented him from becoming a smooth fielder, but it allowed him to hit with jaw-breaking power. Enormously strong, Melton often muscled balls over the wall, with his power running from left-center to right-center field.
Melton also impressed his teammates with his approach to the game. “You had a serious one in Bill Melton,” former White Sox catcher Ed Herrmann told me in 2011. “He was very serious, took the game very seriously.”
Given his passion for the game, the 1970 season would test Melton. The season began precariously, as Melton committed 12 errors in his first 24 games. The newly installed artificial turf at Comiskey Park had Melton vexed. “That rug has got me psyched [out],“ Melton told The Sporting News. “I just can’t handle it. Those balls just whiz by.”
The last of those 12 errors, however, had nothing to do with the turf, or Comiskey Park. On a relatively routine pop-up at Baltimore‘s Memorial Stadium, he lost the ball in the lights at the last moment. The ball caromed off the heel of his glove and into his face, breaking his nose. Melton was knocked unconscious for a minute or two before being taken off the field on a stretcher. “There was blood coming out of both nostrils,” Orioles first baseman Boog Powell told Jerome Holtzman, “and it was coming out of his mouth, too.”
The injury forced Melton to the sidelines. When he returned to the lineup, he found himself in a new position: right field. Perhaps bothered by the switch, he endured a tough stretch, as he struck out in 11 consecutive at-bats over the course of four games.
The season could have devolved into disaster, but Melton rebounded. A new manager, Chuck Tanner, came aboard in midseason and eventually moved Melton back to third base. After a tough July, he hit 15 home runs in August and September to finish the season with 33. That figure was sixth best in the American League that summer, but represented a single-season franchise record for the White Sox.
Melton’s home run capabilities, along with his last name, put him in position to receive a nifty nickname. It was a relatively simple one, but it became an easy and fun way for White Sox fans to refer to him. If you liked alliteration, you could have called him “Beltin’ Bill,” but if you preferred a rhyme, you could have gone with “Beltin’ Melton.” Either way, Melton was developing a bit of a cult following in Chicago.
That following would only grow in 1971. The White Sox moved Melton back to third, the position he preferred. For the first time, he made the All-Star team. The young right-handed slugger put up his best season. He hit .269, reached base 35 per cent of the time, and drew 61 walks, all career highs to date. More significantly, he slugged .492, particularly impressive for a pitcher’s park like Comiskey. Melton became so important to the White Sox that for the first time in his career he received small consideration for the MVP, placing 13th in the sweepstakes.
Melton also engaged in an inspiring home run battle with Detroit’s Cash and Oakland’s Jackson, two players with more established reputations. Entering the final day of the season, the three men found themselves in a tie, each with 32 home runs. Melton eliminated any possibility of a shared home crown. Tanner made him the leadoff batter to maximize his number of at-bats. In his second turn at bat, Melton found a fastball from Milwaukee’s Bill Parsons to his liking, launching it into the left field stands. The last-day home run gave him the crown and tied the single-season franchise record he had set just one year earlier.
Unfortunately, only two months later, Melton became involved in a frightening incident. He fell from the top of an eight-foot ladder while putting shingles on his patio roof. “My four-year-old son, Billy, was on the roof, and I went up to get to him,” Melton explained to The Sporting News. “I reached out to grab him and at that instant I sneezed. I lost my balance and I couldn’t grab on to anything because I was holding Billy. I fell right on my tailbone.”
Young Billy was fine, but the older Melton was not. He ruptured two discs in his back. As the 1972 season progressed, the discs cut into his sciatic nerve, causing great pain. The condition hurt his home run stroke and ultimately shortened his season, forcing him to miss more than 100 games. He finished with seven home runs.
With a healthy Melton supporting American League MVP Dick Allen, perhaps the Sox would have given the A’s an even stronger run for the AL West title. As it was, the Sox finished only five and a half games behind the eventual world champions.
Back problems often become chronic, and they did for Melton. Back pain and stiffness followed him for the rest of his career, preventing him from ever again topping 21 home runs.
Before the onset of back problems, Melton had become an extraordinarily popular player in Chicago. He also gained enough recognition nationally to make the cover of Sports Illustrated in March of 1973. He bounced back that summer, hitting 20 home runs with 75 walks.
When the back problems badly affected his play in 1974, in particular his defense at third base, he started to become the target of Chicago fans and media. The offseason acquisition of Ron Santo had created a third base logjam and an especially awkward situation for Melton when the Sox moved Santo to second base. Some Chicago fans felt that Santo should play third, with Melton slotted to DH.
Melton especially drew the ire of White Sox broadcaster Harry Caray, who often railed against Beltin’ Bill for his fielding problems. For all the accusations leveled at Caray for being a homer, he could be exceedingly critical of struggling players on the home team. In some cases, as with Melton, it became a Caray obsession, to the point where it wounded the veteran third baseman.
The situation worsened in 1975. Fans at Comiskey Park booed his children during a father-son day at the ballpark. Caray continued to rail against him. Melton called an informal press conference, in which he ripped into Caray for his continued on-air tirades. Caray pointed to Melton’s sinking batting average and his fielding troubles. Later on, Caray would describe Melton as having the “heart of a canary.”
By the end of the 1975 season, Melton’s average fell to .240 and his home run output dropped to 15. Although he was still only 29, the Sox were so concerned about his diminishing power and persistent backaches that they decided to part ways with the best home run hitter in franchise history. That winter, they sent Melton and onetime pitching phenom Stunning Steve Dunning to the California Angels for veteran first baseman Jim Spencer and speedy outfielder Morris Nettles.
With the Angels, Melton’s physical appearance changed considerably. With his straight hair permed, and with a mustache now in place, Melton looked much different. The change of appearance and change of scenery, though, did little to aid Melton. Becoming a combination DH/first baseman/third baseman on a team that was hardly rife with talent, Melton failed to beat out Tony Solaita at first, Ron Jackson at third or an aging Tommy Davis at DH. The Angels needed power, but Melton couldn’t supply it; he hit only six home runs in 341 at-bats and batted an embarrassing .208. His OPS fellow to a career-low .628.
To make matters worse, Melton clashed with a new manager in Dick Williams, whose dictatorial style rubbed the veteran infielder the wrong way. Other Angels players joined Melton in rebellion. “We constantly defied him,“ Melton told the Associated Press in describing the waning days of Williams’ regime in California. “We’d break every rule we could. There were 25 guys wanting to kill him. I guess they just had enough.”
The bad relationship between Melton and Williams culminated in a nasty shouting match on the team bus. As it turned out, neither man would last long in Southern California. Williams was fired in midseason. Melton would depart that winter. With Melton’s trade value at a career low, the Angels could pry only journeyman right-hander Stan Perzanowski in a deal with the Indians.
Melton settled for backup duty in Cleveland, which featured good players at the three pertinent positions: Andre Thornton at first base, Buddy Bell at third base and Rico Carty at DH. Playing strictly in a utility role, Melton hit a mere .241 and failed to hit a single home run in 133 at-bats. He did not play at all in September.
At the end of the season, Melton became a free agent. When no one came calling, the 31-year-old Melton called it a career.
Melton left the game for awhile, working with his father in the manufacturing of skateboard wheels before eventually becoming a real estate agent in California. In the 1990s, he returned to baseball, joining the marketing department of the White Sox. From there he made a transition to the broadcast booth, working with WGN. Since 2005, Melton has worked as an analyst on Sox broadcasts for Comcast Sportsnet Chicago.
Although Melton’s career was short-circuited by his back problems, he has found longevity in the broadcast booth. He has overcome his battles with legends like Williams and Caray, and has discovered a means to stay in the game while also enjoying a rebirth in Chicago. Like so many who played in the era of 1972 Topps, he has found a way to survive.
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.