Card Corner: 1972 Topps: Blue Moon Odomby Bruce Markusen
July 13, 2012
Action photographs don’t always show ballplayers at their best. The action cards in the 1972 Topps set provide clear examples of awkward embarrassment, whether it’s Pat Corrales losing his balance and falling to the ground, or Darrell Evans jumping straight up on a ball hit way over his head, or Roberto Clemente twisting his neck in anguish over a bad call.
On this card, John Odom, better known as “Blue Moon,” looks as if he’s struggling to complete a cartwheel. Actually, he’s concluding his pitching delivery in an uncomfortable way. One more frame later, and we might have seen Odom end up on his backside.
After his playing days, Odom endured a series of struggles, including debt, drug use, severe depression and a jail term for threatening his second wife with a gun. In 1985, police arrested Odom for selling a gram of cocaine to a fellow employee at the Xerox Corp. (Odom denied the charge of dealing drugs, but did not deny using cocaine.) During the trial, a depressed Odom held his wife, Gayle, at gunpoint while keeping police outside his house for six hours. The incident ended without casualty, but a jury later convicted him on two counts of selling cocaine. Disgraced and embarrassed, John Odom spent 55 days in a county jail.
Odom’s time behind bars represented rock bottom for a young pitcher who had shown such promise after signing with the Kansas City A’s in 1964.
Right from the start, Odom became a source of intrigue, largely because of his nickname. Contrary to urban legend, Odom was not dubbed “Blue Moon” by A’s owner Charlie Finley, but was given the moniker much earlier in his life. “Back in fifth grade in football practice,” Odom explained, “a guy named Joe Morris started calling me ‘Moonhead.’ I really didn’t like that. [He said] ‘I’m calling you that because your face is round. We can’t call you ‘Yellow Moon’ [because of] your complexion. So we’re gonna call you ‘Blue Moon.’ ”
With that round face, Odom might have looked vulnerable and somber, but he had few doubts about his abilities. That confidence may have been fueled by his speedy major league arrival in 1964, at age 19 just three months after his graduation from high school. “Blue Moon Odom came up as a very brash young fellow with a great arm,” said Jack Aker, a reliever with the A’s from 1964 to ’68. “He’s a fellow that went right to the major league mound, not a bit afraid, not a bit nervous.”
Aker recalled an incident at Yankee Stadium, when a teammate pointed out Whitey Ford, who was to face Odom the next day. At that point, Odom yelled at Whitey, “Hey tomorrow, Whitey, it’s gonna be you and me dealin’ in the sun!” The next day, the Yankees rocked Odom, limiting his time in the sun and sending him to an early shower.
During the 1969 season, Odom engaged in a feud with another well-known left-handed pitcher. The incident began when Odom disparaged the Cleveland lineup, predicting he could shut out the Indians any time he faced them. The boast prompted some harsh words from Indians ace Sam McDowell. “You tell Blue Moon that I want a piece of his action when we get to Oakland,” McDowell told Cleveland reporter and intermediary Russell Schneider. When a writer relayed the remarks to the Oakland clubhouse, Odom belittled McDowell’s intelligence. “Sam’s dumb,” said Odom bluntly. “If I had his stuff, I’d win 25 games a year. He don’t have no kind of brain. Why? He’s just dumb. He don’t know how to pitch.”
Odom may have been feeling particularly frisky because of his recent run of success. Still only in his early 20s, he was at the peak of his career, good enough to make the All-Star team in both 1968 and ‘69. He made the cover of The Sporting News in 1969. But then came a series of elbow problems, which forced Odom to go under the knife in 1970.
The A’s expected that Odom would miss the first three months of the 1971 season, but he beat the prognosis by two months. In May, the A’s activated Odom from the disabled list. He pitched well in his first start, allowing two runs in six innings against the Royals. “I feel better now than I’ve felt in two years,“ Odom told the Associated Press. “I’m beginning a new life—pitching without that pain.”
Odom would continue to pitch well in 1971, giving the A’s a capable No. 3 starter behind Vida Blue and Catfish Hunter. But the strain of pitching 141 innings after elbow surgery left Odom with a dead arm by season’s end. The A’s decided the best strategy would be to make Odom unavailable for the Championship Series against the Orioles.
Odom’s name fell out of the mainstream until the New Year. On Jan. 6, he became involved in a strange—and nearly tragic—incident, in which he attempted to prevent a burglary near his mother’s home in Macon, Ga. Odom’s first wife, Perrie, had noticed three young men trying to enter one of the neighboring houses. She phoned both the police and her husband, who was working at a liquor store four blocks away. Odom grabbed a gun that he kept in his car and made his way to the neighbor’s home. Odom actually passed the youths on the street when his wife signaled to him that they were, in fact, the perpetrators.
“Hey, I want to talk to you,” Odom called out to the young men. One of the robbers turned around to face Odom, asking him, “What for?” Almost simultaneously, the youth pulled out a .38 caliber pistol and fired three shots. Two bullets struck Odom, one in the neck, and another in the side of the chest. Odom returned fire with his own gun, but missed hitting any of the young men. “I was thinking I never would pitch again after that first shot,” Odom told the AP. “After the second shot, I thought it was all over.”
Thankfully, it wasn’t. Medics rushed Odom to the Medical Center of Georgia Hospital, where he received treatment for three days. Fortunately, each gunshot had passed through Odom’s body while causing only minimal damage.
By spring training, Odom was ready to pitch. Fully recovered from his wounds, he threw the ball harder than he had in the last two seasons. The liveliness of Odom’s pitches gave the A’s hope that he had overcome his chronic elbow troubles.
Although Odom didn’t make his first start until early May, he quickly emerged as one of the American League’s most effective pitchers. Odom successfully regained the good, moving fastball that he had featured prior to his elbow problems. “He’s one of the few guys I’ve ever seen in baseball that could not throw a ball straight, which was great,” said Aker.
Odom even had difficulty throwing the ball straight on pickoff attempts. In a 1968 game against the Washington Senators, Odom had tried to pick off the speedy Ed Stroud three times. Odom hit Stroud, first baseman Danny Cater, and umpire Larry Napp in succession.
Control problems aside, Odom actually seemed to benefit from his 1970 elbow surgery, which forced him to improvise and add other pitches to his repertoire. In 1971, when he could not throw his fastball with its same level of pre-surgical pop, he had worked diligently at developing a change-up and improving his breaking ball.
Now adept at the art of pitching and equipped with a more deceptive motion, Odom pitched well enough in 1972 to earn some support for Comeback Player of the Year honors. He won 15 games and lost only six, while spinning an ERA of 2.50.
Unlike 1971, Odom had retained enough arm strength to make Oakland’s postseason roster. It was during the Championship Series that Odom made headlines, but not just for pitching. In a decisive Game Five, Odom pitched well through five innings, but labored with his breathing and left the game early. In the postgame clubhouse, Vida Blue joked that Odom had “choked,” which nearly fueled a fistfight between the two pitchers.
More controversy arrived during the World Series against the Reds. Manager Dick Williams inserted him as a pinch-runner in Game Five as the A’s trailed by a run in the bottom of the ninth. (Odom was such a fast runner that he made more than 100 pinch-running appearances in his career.)
With Odom representing the tying run at third base, Bert Campaneris came to the plate. Falling behind in the count 0-and-2, Campy weakly punched a short pop-up down the right field line, not far beyond the first base bag. Joe Morgan, with the best angle toward the ball, drifted into the spacious foul territory of the Oakland Coliseum. About 10 feet past first base, Morgan called off Tony Perez, and with his back to home plate, guided the ball into his glove for the inning’s second out.
Even though Morgan made the catch only a few feet behind the bag, third base coach Irv Noren shouted for Odom to run home. Springing from third base, he began an all-out dash for home plate. Stumbling momentarily on the wet grass, Morgan fell to one knee, propped himself back onto his feet, and then threw a strike to catcher Johnny Bench, who blocked the plate and applied his glove to Odom as he crossed home.
Home-plate umpire Bob Engel called Odom out. Enraged by the call, Odom immediately yelled at Engel. He then sprung himself from the dirt and bumped into the umpire. In a controversial decision that would upset the Reds, Bowie Kuhn elected not to suspend Odom for the final two games of the Series, but issued only a $500 fine against the volatile pitcher.
As he sat at his locker, bandaging his bleeding right knee, Odom refused to answer questions from the media. After showering, the angry pitcher finally agreed to talk. “I was safe,” Odom insisted an interview with United Press International. “I know I was.” Television replays showed otherwise. Engel had made the right call.
The point soon became irrelevant, as Odom and the A’s went on to win the Series in seven, completing an upset that was made more impressive by the absence of an injured Reggie Jackson.
In many ways, the 1972 season represented the high point of Odom’s career, both in terms of individual and team success. The A’s would repeat in 1973, but Odom would endure a horrific season. He lost his first five decisions, then won a game, but then dropped three more to lower his record to 1-8. Williams demoted him to the bullpen.
As Odom languished in relief, rumors swirled that the A’s wanted to trade him. One report had the A’s offering Odom and outfielder Angel Mangual to the Red Sox for Reggie Smith, but Boston turned down the trade.
Struggling, Odom became a non-factor as the A’s won the division title. They then took a two games-to-one lead over the Orioles in the American League playoffs. Odom pitched well in his one ALCS appearance, as he usually did in the postseason, but became involved in controversy after Vida Blue and Rollie Fingers coughed up a 4-0 lead in Game Four. Rather than accept a difficult defeat gracefully and look forward to a decisive fifth game, Oakland players stewed over what might have been. “We had them by the nostrils and we let them get away from us,” a disgusted Fingers said out loud in the clubhouse.
Although Fingers was speaking to no one in particular, his next-door locker mate, Odom, felt Rollie was directing his comments toward Vida Blue as a way of placing blame for the defeat. “You shouldn’t be talking,” Odom snapped at Fingers. “If you don’t give up that home run [to Bobby Grich], we don’t lose the game.” Fingers yelled back at Odom, escalating the latest shouting match in the Oakland clubhouse.
Ultimately, the histrionics didn’t prevent the A’s from repeating as world champions. Odom made two relief appearances as the A’s held off the Mets in another seven-game World Series.
The 1974 season brought a managerial change to Oakland. Replacing an exasperated Dick Williams (who was fed up with Finley’s meddling), Alvin Dark surprised some observers by promising Odom the fourth spot in the starting rotation. Despite his horrid pitching numbers of 1973, including a 5-12 record and an ERA of 4.49, Odom remained part of the front line pitching plan.
Unfortunately, the plan did not remain in place for long. Odom made two ineffective starts before being pulled from the rotation. He spent most of the season in the bullpen, where he pitched creditably, but usually in the unglamorous role of long relief.
Odom then made headlines that fall, as the A’s advanced to play the Dodgers in the World Series. After the A’s worked out at Dodger Stadium prior to Game One, Odom approached Fingers in the clubhouse and made mention of Fingers’ recent marital problems. “… A lot of guys on the team have been ribbing him about it,” an anonymous teammate explained to sportswriter Phil Pepe. “I guess he got fed up. About three weeks ago, he made an announcement. He’d had it with the cracks. No more. Cut it out, or he’ll whip some butts.”
Fingers’ teammates had abided by Fingers’ decree, until Odom decided to test the waters. In response, Fingers threw his right fist at Odom, sending him sprawling into a shopping cart that doubled as a bat rack. Odom retaliated by ramming his head into Fingers’ chest, pushing him backward into a locker. Fingers suffered a cut to his head, while Odom twisted his ankle, jeopardizing his availability for the start of the Series.
Fingers and Odom, good friends before the exchange of fists, quickly shook hands in an effort to put the fight behind them. Both tried to minimize the fight and the injuries. According to the New York Daily News, Odom called the fight “nothing to get excited about it.” And much like the controversies of years past, the incident had little effect on the A’s, who claimed a third consecutive world championship.
While the A’s were continuing to win, Odom had seen his role diminish. With his fastball lacking power and movement, and his control erratic, he pitched brutally in his first seven appearances for the A’s in 1975. Oakland had seen enough.
On May 20, the A’s sent Odom, who was still only 30, and $15,000 in cash to the Indians for two veteran starters. The deal netted the A’s Jim Perry and former Washington Senators ace Dick Bosman.
When Odom heard about the trade, he beamed about the prospects of performing in Cleveland. “I always wanted to pitch for a black manager,” Odom said, referring to Frank Robinson in an interview with Sport magazine.
As soon as Odom arrived in Cleveland, his state of giddiness changed. Figuring that he would lose about $8,000 in potential playoff and World Series money pitching for the also-ran Indians, Blue Moon asked the front office to raise his salary by that figure. Not surprisingly, the Indians refused to give the struggling Odom any more money. Odom pouted, infuriating Robinson, so general manager Phil Seghi dumped Odom on the Braves in exchange for journeyman reliever Roric Harrison. Odom and the “Launching Pad”—Atlanta Fulton County Stadium—became a bad mix as he dropped seven of eight decisions with the Braves.
Blue Moon enjoyed one last hurrah in 1976. After being traded to the White Sox for catcher Pete Varney at the June 15 trading deadline, Odom made unusual history. Starting for Bill Veeck’s White Sox, Odom combined with Francisco Barrios to hurl a no-hitter against his former A’s team. In pitching the first five innings, Odom tight-roped his way through nine walks, but managed to escape with a share of the no-hit gem.
That was perhaps his lone bright spot wearing the 19th century uniforms of the White Sox. For the year, he finished with an ERA of 6.75, prompting his release in January of 1977.
I‘m happy to say that Odom has rectified many of his personal problems in later years. Fully retired, he now spends much of his time playing in benefit golf tournaments as part of the effort to raise money for the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association.
Now that he’s past perhaps the most difficult stage of his life, Odom has also grown to appreciate his nickname, which gives him a strong, positive identity in retirement. “I used to hate that name,” Odom says, “but now I love it. I’m known all over the world as Blue Moon now.”
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.