Card Corner: 1973 Topps: Mike Epsteinby Bruce Markusen
October 04, 2013
This card has long struck me as poetic. Mike Epstein, with a grimace on his face and his arm outstretched, awaits the throw as the anonymous California Angels baserunner makes a particularly long stride toward the first base bag. Notice how the Angels baserunner is extending both of his arms in such an exaggerated fashion, with his right wrist curled, almost as if he’s executing an elaborate dance step. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a baserunner move like that; it’s almost swanlike in appearance.
When I first saw this card, I assumed that the Angels runner was trying to beat out a ground ball that he had just hit, but then I noticed the position of the first base line behind Epstein. The positioning of the line tells us that that the runner is actually hung up between first base and second base, and not between home plate and first base. The unknown runner must be trying to return to the base after a fly ball has been caught.
With that cleared up, there is still some mystery surrounding the card. The identity of the Angels runner is unclear; at least it was at first. We know that he is white, so that rules out Bob Oliver, Sandy Alomar, Leo Cardenas, Vada Pinson, Leroy Stanton and Mickey Rivers. Based on the build of the player, we can probably rule out Ken McMullen, too.
While we appear to have found the answer to the identity of the Angels baserunner, there was a certain amount of mystery to the Oakland first baseman in question, Mike Epstein. He was such a highly touted player when he first signed but never became the superstar that some had anticipated. His career also ended early and suddenly, raising questions of just how it all unraveled for this talented left-hand power hitter.
Epstein became eligible to sign with a major league organization in 1964, just one year before the major leagues adopted an amateur draft. That stroke of fortune allowed Epstein to choose his first baseball destination. He came to an agreement with the Orioles, who outbid several other teams, including the hometown Yankees. Given New York City’s ethnic breakdown, the Yankees would have loved reeling in a highly touted Jewish player who was born in the Bronx before moving out to California. But they missed out on Epstein, not only in 1964 but also through several ill-fated trade attempts in the late 1960s.
As a well-developed college player, Epstein was more than ready for the minor leagues. A year after signing, the Orioles assigned him to Stockton of the California League, where he blasted 30 home runs and batted .338. Winning the league’s MVP, Epstein caught the attention of one of the league’s rival managers, the ever-quotable Rocky Bridges, who was so impressed by Epstein’s power that he called him “Superjew.” While not politically correct, the memorable nickname stuck with Epstein for the rest of his career.
The next season, the O’s bumped him up two levels, all the way to Rochester of the International League. Epstein batted .309, drew 94 walks, and compiled an OPS of .999 to win Minor League Player of the Year honors. He did so well that the Orioles called him up late in the summer, giving him a brief six-game trial in September.
Epstein made an immediate impression on reporters, not so much for his play, but for his manner of speech. With a large vocabulary and a particularly high IQ, Epstein did not give the usual answers to sportswriters’ questions. Some writers tabbed him as an “intellectual,” setting him apart from most other players.
It was obvious that Epstein was intelligent and well-spoken. It was also obvious that he had mastered the minor leagues, but the Orioles faced a quandary: where to play him? The O’s already had Boog Powell, also a left-handed slugger and a good one, at first base. In order for Epstein to play in Baltimore, he would have to switch to the outfield. During spring training in 1967, sportswriter Milton Gross asked Orioles manager Hank Bauer what he planned to do with Epstein. “How the hell do I know what I’m going to do with Epstein?” snapped Bauer, never known for his diplomatic way of dialogue. “That’s what we’re down here to find out.”
In the early going, Bauer used Epstein as a pinch-hitter and backup first baseman. But it was obvious that the Orioles had too many first basemen, with neither capable of playing the outfield in an acceptable fashion. So the Orioles demoted Epstein to Rochester, but he refused to report, instead going home to California. Understandably upset with the young slugger, the O’s decided to make a trade, swapping Epstein and pitcher Frank Bertaina to the Washington Senators for hard-throwing left-hander Pete Richert.
The trade provided Epstein with a much needed break. In contrast to the Orioles, the Senators needed both a first baseman and a left-handed power hitter. Senators manager Gil Hodges installed Epstein at first base and added him to the middle of the lineup, where he provided a complement to right-handed power bats like Frank Howard and Ken McMullen.
Epstein batted only .229 over the balance of 1967, but he did reach base 33 per cent of the time while hitting nine home runs. The Senators felt they had a star in the making.
Reporting to training camp early in 1968, Epstein proceeded to lose 20 pounds, putting himself in the best shape of his early career. But the weight loss didn’t help him against left-handed pitching. He batted .219 and slugged only .333 against southpaws, hurting his overall numbers and limiting his playing time. He showed little improvement over his first season in Washington, as his OPS fell by four points during the Year of the Pitcher.
With his career at the crossroads, the Senators made a move that would benefit Epstein, along with just about every hitter on the team. The Senators hired Ted Williams as manager, thereby bringing the game’s leading hitting guru to the Capitol City.
As usual, Williams preached patience while employing a scientific approach to hitting. Epstein took well to the instruction, raising his batting average to .278 while walking 85 times and launching 30 home runs, more than triple his previous best power production. Epstein played so well that he received some back-of-the-ballot support for American League MVP.
At 26 years of age, Epstein seemed on the verge of stardom. What could possibly go wrong? Well, his batting average, walks, and home runs all fell off in 1970. At times, he clashed with Williams, whose strong personality matched Epstein’s. His final OPS of .815 was certainly respectable, but it was more indicative of a good player than a superstar.
A poor start to the 1971 season doomed Epstein in Washington. In early May, the Senators finalized a blockbuster trade with the Oakland A’s. The deal sent Epstein and left-handed reliever Darold Knowles to the A’s for a package of veteran first baseman Don Mincher, backup catcher Frank Fernandez, and left-hander Paul Lindblad.
Oakland owner Charlie Finley, who doubled as the team’s general manager, was thrilled with the acquisition of the 28-year-old Epstein, who was nearly five years younger than Mincher. Epstein loved the trade, too. In coming to Oakland, he was moving closer to family and friends who lived throughout California. He was also joining a team on the rise, while departing a Senators team that had become a consistent doormat.
Perhaps dampening the positive feelings, a reporter soon asked Epstein how he would react to platooning with the A’s. In the past, Epstein had battled with Ted Williams over this same issue. Though Williams liked Epstein, he didn’t believe that he could hit lefties well enough to play every day. “Even in 1969, when I had my best year, I didn’t face left-handers,” Epstein told Arnold Hano of Sport Magazine. “In 1970, the same story. I’d get hot and then they’d throw a left-hander against us, and I’d sit on the bench and cool off… It was discouraging.”
Under his new manager, Dick Williams, Epstein shared time with veteran Tommy Davis, but didn’t seem bothered by the arrangement. He enjoyed a torrid start to his career in green and gold, highlighted by a memorable two-game stretch on June 15 and 16. Playing against his former team, the Senators, Epstein tied a major league record by homering in four consecutive at-bats over a two-day span.
The four home runs represented the peak of the season. Tempered by a poor finish to the regular season, Epstein hit 18 home runs and posted an OPS of .805 with the A’s. Epstein struggled so much in September that Williams decided to bench him for much of the American League Championship Series. Epstein came to bat only five times during the three-game sweep at the hands of Baltimore.
Epstein presented a strange defense of his second-half performance. “You can’t expect superstar statistics from someone not making superstar money,” Epstein informed The Sporting News. “I’m just an average ballplayer trying to do his job. Why do people expect me to hit 40 or even 30 home runs a year? I’ll hit 20.”
As Epstein and his family celebrated the Thanksgiving holiday, he considered quitting the game. His second-half slump and Williams’ decision to bench him against Baltimore preyed on his mind. Deciding that mental and physical fatigue had caused his late-season problems, the 235-pound first baseman embarked on a strict weight-reducing program.
After losing 30 pounds during the winter, Epstein reported to spring training weighing 205 pounds, the lightest weight of his career. The weight loss paid dividends during the first half of the season. In early June, Epstein embarked on a home run tear, cementing his favor with the manager. Then, on June 17, Epstein hit a weak pop fly in a game against the Indians. Frustrated by his poor swing, Epstein failed to run out the pop-up. Furious over Epstein’s lack of hustle, Williams pulled him from the game immediately.
The 1972 season brought a rollercoaster of emotions, especially when news came down that terrorists had murdered several Israeli athletes during the Olympic Games in Munich. In a praiseworthy gesture, Epstein and teammates Ken Holtzman and Reggie Jackson wore black armbands in tribute to those who had been slain.
On the field, Epstein did good work as the team’s first baseman. He hit 26 home runs, greatly cut down on his strikeouts, raised his walks, and compiled an OPS of .866.
In terms of on-field performance, the A’s were generally pleased with Epstein. But there were problems off the field. Prior to one game, Epstein approached Reggie Jackson, the team’s player representative, about obtaining some complimentary tickets for an upcoming game. Jackson asked Epstein whom he intended to give the tickets to, reminding him that he could only provide passes for family members, not friends. “It is none of your business,” Epstein snapped at Jackson.
Angry words followed, before giving way to the throwing of fists by the two strongest men on the A’s. Jackson, taut and muscle-bound, proved no match for the hulking Epstein. According to witnesses in the clubhouse, Epstein floored Jackson with his first punch. Down went Jackson.
Another incident occurred during the World Series, as the A’s faced the challenge of the “Big Red Machine.” Managing the late innings of Game Two, Dick Williams decided to replace the weak-fielding Epstein with a better defender in Mike Hegan, so as to protect a two-run lead. Hegan executed a great diving stop on a hard-hit grounder by Cesar Geronimo, helping to preserve the victory, but Epstein hated being taken out of a World Series game. On the team flight, Epstein approached Williams and told him to never again to take him out of a game under similar circumstances. The two men, both of whom had been drinking, exchanged heated words over the next few uncomfortable moments.
Although the A’s ended up winning the World Series, Epstein had done major damage to his relationship with Williams. That uneasiness may have led to the transaction of November 30, when Charlie Finley traded Epstein to the Rangers for right-handed reliever Horacio Pina.
Everyone had a theory as to why the A’s would deal a productive Epstein for a little-known reliever from a last-place team. Epstein himself felt it was because of his clubhouse fight with Jackson, the team’s resident superstar. Others felt it was his battle with Williams over playing time. Finley had a different explanation, claiming that he had been forced to trade Epstein in order to make room for Gene Tenace, whose injured shoulder would limit his ability to catch and force the A’s to play him at first base.
Whatever the reason, Epstein was now a Ranger. But not for long. Epstein lasted 27 games in Texas, didn’t hit a lick, and found himself heading back to California, this time in a trade with the Angels. The Rangers sent Epstein, catcher Rick Stelmaszek, and right-hander Rich Hand to California for Jim Spencer (the man featured on his 1973 Topps card) and right-hander Lloyd Allen.
The Angels made Epstein their starting first baseman, hoping desperately that he would provide a left-handed compliment to Frank Robinson. Epstein didn’t. He batted .215 with only eight home runs in 91 games.
Epstein remained the Angels’ starting first baseman through the spring of 1974, but his swing continued to lag. With his average sitting at .161 on May 4, the Angels released the left-handed slugger. Even though Epstein was only 31 years old and just two years removed from a fine season with a world champion, no one else offered him a contract. Finley expressed some interest, but then backed off. Epstein’s career had come to an end.
It’s always been something of a mystery to me why Epstein couldn’t find another suitor at the age of 31. Did his bat speed slow to an unmanageable level at an unusually young age? Or was he blackballed because of his temperamental reactions to his managers? I honestly don’t know.
Some 40 years later, it doesn’t seen to matter. After a brief and unsuccessful stint as a minor league manager, Epstein has found success as one of the country’s leading hitting instructors. Thanks to his intelligence, his clear way of speaking, and his patience, his “rotational” hitting system has helped a number of young hitters.
Back in 2004, Epstein brought his hitting instruction to Cooperstown as a participant in a special Jewish baseball weekend. I had heard that Epstein was running a camp at the Clark Sports Center, but I was a bit hesitant to interview him, if only because I had heard that he could be moody and temperamental. Much to my surprise, he was approachable, enthusiastic and even complimentary toward me. At the end of the interview, he made a point of saying that he liked my questions and my interviewing style. That’s the kind of reaction that writers don’t often receive from their interview subjects.
I guess that’s why I always have good feelings whenever I take a gander at Mike Epstein’s 1973 Topps card.
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.