Card Corner: 1972 Topps: Ken Singletonby Bruce Markusen
October 19, 2012
I would contend that no one has worn a uniform better than Ken Singleton. As seen on his 1972 Topps card, his jersey drapes his upper body neatly. His pants (at least the top of them) are neither too tight nor too baggy. Players in the early 1970s often wore their uniforms blousy, at least until the polyester double knits came into vogue, but Singleton has committed no such fashion infraction.
Singleton helps the fashion cause with his tall, athletic build. Whether it was early in his career with the Mets or during his prime-time years with the Orioles, Singleton never displayed an ounce of fat. He was six feet, three inches tall and about 215 pounds, just about the perfect build for a corner outfielder. Lean and muscular, that’s how Singleton rocked the look throughout his career.
Ironically, it was a baseball uniform that would cause Singleton major difficulty later in the summer of 1972. More on that bizarre story later in our program.
Even diehard Mets fans might not have many memories of Singleton playing in New York. That’s because he played only two seasons for the Mets, and had the misfortune of missing out on the 1969 world championship. The 1970 and ‘71 seasons are simply not as embedded for Mets fans; that happenstance of history places Singleton deeper into the Mets’ fog of recollection.
At one time, Singleton was a highly regarded Mets property. In 1967, he was taken in the first round of the January draft, third overall behind two players who never made an impact, Alec Distaso and Michael Flanagan. Singleton was a hometown product. A native of Mount Vernon in Westchester County, he played sandlot baseball against Rod Carew and other future greats in the Bronx. He played games at Babe Ruth Field, located within in the shadows of Yankee Stadium, and often heard the nearby cheers when one of the Yankees hit a home run. The only destination more perfect than the Mets would have been the Yankees.
In 1967, the Mets assigned him to Winter Haven of the short-season Florida State League, where he put up decent numbers and earned a 1968 promotion to full-season Class-A ball in the California League.
By the end of the ‘68 season, he had climbed to Triple-A Jacksonville, but was overmatched by the pitching. So the Mets sent him to Double-A Memphis in 1969. He played well there, earned a promotion to Triple-A Tidewater in 1970, and tore up the league so heavily—putting up an OPS of 1.216—that the Mets brought him up in mid-season. Singleton hit so well in the minors that one of the New York baseball writers put pressure on the Mets to finally promote him. The Mets did, and he would never see the minor leagues again.
Singleton held his own as a rookie, with his .360 on-base percentage a testament to his disciplined hitting style. Duly impressed, the Mets made him their platoon right fielder to start the 1971 season. The switch-hitting Singleton played against left-handed pitching, alternating with 1969 hero Art Shamsky. But Shamsky was an old 29, fell into a terrible slump, and lost the job fulltime to Singleton, who hit 13 home runs in 298 at-bats and reached base 37 percent of the time. The Mets appeared to have their right fielder of the future.
Then came the tumultuous season of 1972, when this Singleton card was issued. The Players’ Association went out on strike, delaying the start of the season. The strike seemed like an inconsequential matter when the Mets heard the news of Sunday, April 2. Beloved manager Gil Hodges, having completed a round of golf during the strike, collapsed and died from a massive heart attack. A grieving organization named Yogi Berra as his replacement.
Three days after the tragedy, at a time when Mets fans wanted nothing more than to be distracted from the loss of Hodges, the Mets announced a major trade. Given the chance to acquire star right fielder Rusty Staub, the Mets decided they could not pass up the offer. So they sent a package of three players, which included Singleton, first baseman Mike Jorgensen and shortstop Tim Foli, to the Montreal Expos for Staub.
The trade would help the Mets in the short term, as Staub became a huge component to their unlikely pennant-winning season of 1973. But as with many trades, the long-term effects would turn out much differently. The Mets wouldn’t fully realize the significance of the trade until the late 1970s, when Singleton forged his finest seasons while playing in the American League.
Success did not come to Singleton immediately. The 1972 season was a season of fits and starts. Singleton put up a good on-base percentage (.363), but he hit only 14 home runs as the everyday right fielder. His base running was atrocious. Although Singleton was not fast, he tried to steal 15 bases, but was caught 10 times. Furthermore, his defense in left field was lacking. Going back to his days as a minor leaguer, scouts had questioned Singleton’s range and agility. The Expos now understood why scouts harbored those concerns.
Strangely, there was another problem in 1972. During the spring, Singleton developed a strange rash. Red bumps broke out over his body everywhere. The red bumps began to appear in spring training with the Mets, prior to the trade. They persisted after the trade to Montreal. “They were driving me mad,” Singleton told sportswriter Bob Stevens. “I took about 100 allergy tests. Nothing was determined. I’d still break out… I couldn’t play. They had to bench me.”
Mystified by the cause, Singleton finally found an answer. He noticed that the red bumps disappeared after he left the ballpark. He finally realized that the root of the problem was actually his uniform. The Mets and the Expos were still using the old fashioned flannel uniforms, which were causing a reaction on Singleton’s skin.
To solve the problem, the Expos fitted him with a set of double knits, which were becoming all the rage around the major leagues. So while his teammates wore the old style uniform, which looked a dull white, Singleton sported the double knits, which glistened.
His game began to glisten during his second season north of the border. In 1973, the Expos moved him to right field, where he seemed more comfortable. He strengthened his throwing to the point where he led the National League with 18 outfield assists. But it was his offensive game that exploded. He walked a staggering 123 times and led the league in on-base percentage. He reached a career high with 23 home runs. His OPS of .904 indicated his full arrival.
Or so it seemed. His power, his walks, and his batting average all fell off significantly in 1974. Frustrated by Singleton’s personal recession, the Expos panicked and made one of their worst trades ever. They sent Singleton and serviceable right-hander Mike Torrez to the Orioles for an over-the-hill Dave McNally, one dimensional speedster Rich Coggins and a minor leaguer named Bill Kirkpatrick. Just as the Expos had thanked the Mets, the Orioles thanked the Expos.
Freed from the artificial turf, the cold, and the difficult winds of Montreal‘s Jarry Park, Singleton flourished in Baltimore. Earl Weaver, recognizing Singleton’s ability to draw walks, made him the O’s leadoff man. In his first season, he hit .300 and placed 10th in the American League MVP voting.
“I never realized what baseball was really like until I came here from Montreal in 1975,” Singleton told the Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J. years later. “With the Expos, losing was ingrained and guys were only interested in personal statistics.”
With the Orioles, priorities were much different. “The first day I joined the Orioles in Miami [for spring training], Brooks Robinson put his arm around me and said, ‘You don’t have to do it all by yourself here. Everybody pulls together.’ ”
Energized by new surroundings, Singleton put together a huge quartet of productive seasons from 1977 to 1980. He put up OPS marks of .945 and .938. He received MVP consideration every year. Teaming with fellow switch hitter Eddie Murray, Singleton gave the Orioles a formidable heart of the order while creating matchup nightmares for opposing managers. At one point, Weaver called Singleton the steadiest player in the game.
The only bump in the road came in 1977. Singleton played the entire year with bone chips in his elbow. Smartly, he kept the injury quiet so that opposing teams would not take full advantage of his throwing deficiency. Even with the bone chips, he hit a career-best .328 and slugged .507. Yes, it is possible to play hurt.
Singleton was never more important to the Orioles than he was in 1979. He blasted a career-high 35 home runs, walked 109 times, and drove in 111 runs. Those numbers placed him second in the MVP voting, as the Orioles won the AL East on their way to a World Series appearance against the Pirates.
After the 1981 season, Singleton suffered an off year, then bounced back in 1983, but fell off the map in 1984. There was certainly no shame in that. He was now 37, a time when many sluggers were forced into retirement. He became a free agent, received little interest, and decided the time was right to step aside.
As with much of his career, Singleton handled his retirement with smoothness and class. That was no surprise, considering the exemplary way with which he conducted himself inn New York, Montreal, and Baltimore. Singleton’s role model behavior earned him the Roberto Clemente Award, given to the major leaguer who best exemplifies the humanitarian nature of the late Pirates great.
Singleton made an easy transition to his post-playing career. Pleasant and well spoken, he slid into the broadcasting booth for the Orioles. In the late 1990s, he joined the Yankees, becoming one of the analysts for the YES Network.
In due time, Singleton has become one of my favorite announcers. Unlike many ex-players, he is not restricted to color man duty. He is just as comfortable executing play-by-play, making him more versatile than any other Yankee announcer. He understands the importance of Sabermetrics, but also understands how difficult the game is. Yet, at the same time, he is willing to criticize players for boneheaded gaffes or lack of effort. He is not there to be friends with the players. He calls the game evenly, accurately, and fairly.
As a resident of Cooperstown, I’m fortunate to have the chance to meet a number of retired players, whether they be Hall of Famers or not. Ken Singleton is one I’ve not had the chance to meet yet. Based on what I know of him, I hope that opportunity comes in the near future.
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.