Card Corner: Ed Kirkpatrick and Johnny Briggs: 1973 Toppsby Bruce Markusen
September 06, 2013
In almost all of the Card Corners presented in this space, I’ve concentrated the discussion on the one player who is clearly featured on the card. Well, allow me to depart from that strategy this time around, thanks to the wonderful 1973 card of Ed Kirkpatrick, who is seen just moments after removing his facemask in pursuit of a foul pop-up.
If we were to slide the photographic image just a few notches to the right, this could just as easily be the 1973 card of Johnny Briggs. The muscular Brewers outfielder, seen to the right of Kirkpatrick, has just fouled off a pitch from an unknown Royals pitcher. As Kirkpatrick eyes the foul ball, Briggs is attempting to uncoil himself from the twisted position that hitters often find themselves in after batting a ball in a less than desirable way.
It’s a great shot, with surreal lighting, an interesting juxtaposition between the burly Kirkpatrick and the muscular Briggs, and that feeling of the unknown: will Kirkpatrick be able to make the play, or will Briggs live to see another pitch during this epic at-bat? Whatever the outcome, I became curious to learn more about both of the players featured here.
Over the next three seasons, Kirkpatrick failed to gain traction as a catcher/outfielder with the Angels. He split each of those seasons between Southern California and the minor leagues, as he struggled to live up to the promise of his Hawaii numbers. He did gain some notoriety in September of 1965, when he slammed into Kansas City Athletics “catcher” Bert Campaneris, who was in the process of playing nine positions in a game. Taking no mercy against Campy, Kirkpatrick bowled him over, igniting a fight that would land Campaneris in a hospital bed.
It was not until 1966 that the Angels, now known as the California Angels, gave Kirkpatrick a relatively fulltime commitment to playing time. Spending the entire season in California and splitting his time between the outfield corners and first base, Kirkpatrick hit nine home runs and drew 51 walks. Unfortunately, the rest of his numbers were fairly horrid. He batted .192 and slugged .327. Those statistics would land him back in the minor leagues in 1967.
Other than eight hitless plate appearances with the Angels, Kirkpatrick spent all of the season in the minors, but with three different parent teams. His stock fell so low that the Angels loaned him out to the Phillies’ and the Mets’ organizations.
The Angels gave him one last look in 1968, but when he hit one home run in 161 at-bats, they felt little regret in leaving him available for the expansion draft. The new Kansas City Royals took notice and selected Kirkpatrick, with the idea of making him a corner outfielder.
The years in California produced mostly disappointment for both the Angels and Kirkpatrick, but he did leave the team with something else in tow: a nickname. He had come to be known as “Spanky,” a reference to the popular character from the Our Gang television series that is better known today as The Little Rascals. Slightly overweight to begin with, Kirkpatrick always seemed to be playing with his shirt hanging out from his pants. The rumpled look, along with his facial appearance, reminded some Angels teammates of Spanky McFarland, and a new nickname was born. All that was missing was the presence of Alfalfa, and Darla, and the evil Butch.
Joining the Royals for their inaugural season of 1969, Kirkpatrick became the first left fielder in the franchise’s history. He also played in right field and behind the plate, and rather remarkably, made 24 appearances in center field. With his below-average speed, Spanky became one of the slowest center fielders in history. But he hit with power, producing 32 home runs combined over his first two seasons in Kansas City.
After strong seasons in 1969 and ‘70, Kirkpatrick saw his power numbers fall off over the next three summers. Yet, he remained a valuable player because of his versatility, his willingness to take walks, his toughness, and his all-out hustle.
The 1973 season would mark his final appearance in a Royals uniform, not so much because of anything Kirkpatrick did wrong but because Kansas City saw a chance to add a front line pitcher. So the Royals packaged Kirkpatrick with utilityman Dirty Kurt Bevacqua, sending them to the Pirates for veteran right-hander Nelson Briles and young infield prospect Fernando Gonzalez.
Much like the Royals, the Pirates used Spanky as a jack-of-all-trades utility player and grew to love his toughness, his willingness to compete, and his desire to back up teammates. That latter quality was never more evident than during a 1974 game against the Reds. After Pirates right-hander Bruce Kison brushed back Davey Concepcion with a fastball, Cincinnati right-hander Jack Billingham retaliated by throwing a fastball into Kison’s ribcage. The plunking ignited a bench-clearing soiree, which included Kirkpatrick. During the Pier Six brawl, Reds manager Sparky Anderson accidentally stepped on Kirkpatrick’s foot. Not realizing that it was inadvertent, Kirkpatrick delivered a strong right, knocking the Reds skipper to the ground. Just like that, Spanky had decked Sparky!
While the Pirates appreciated the team-oriented Kirkpatrick, they also had so much talent that his playing time began to diminish. Everywhere Kirkpatrick looked, he saw first-rate players ranked ahead of him. At first base, Willie Stargell and Bob Robertson provided roadblocks. In the outfield, there was the batallion of Richie Zisk, Bill Robinson, Al Oliver and Dave Parker. And at catcher, a position that was becoming more difficult for him to play, there was Manny Sanguillen.
By June of 1977, it was apparent that Kirkpatrick needed a change of scenery. So, at the June 15 trading deadline, the Pirates made a deal, sending Spanky to the Rangers for aging shortstop Jim Fregosi. The Rangers hoped that Kirkpatrick would regain his stroke with more consistent playing time, but when they failed to see immediate results, they re-routed him later that summer. The Rangers traded him to the Brewers for a young Gorman Thomas.
After a sluggish completion to the season, the Brewers brought Kirkpatrick back for spring training, but did not like what they saw. Prior to Opening Day, the Brewers released Kirkpatrick. He then signed a minor league contract, played out the season in Triple-A, and then called it quits when no major league teams showed interest.
Three years after his retirement, Kirkpatrick was involved in a horrific car crash. The accident resulted in a blood clot to his brain, putting him into a coma. For a long while, it appeared touch and go that he would survive. After nearly six months, he finally regained consciousness.
The accident caused him to lose some of his motor skills, forcing him to rely on the use of a wheelchair. Physically, Kirkpatrick wasn’t quite the same, but he worked hard to regain as much strength as he could , all the while maintaining his usual upbeat nature and his sense of humor. Living in Glendora, Calif., Kirkpatrick gained the admiration of his community, the residents coming to respect him for his spirit and his courage. They named an award after him, recognizing recipients who provided outstanding service to youth athletics.
Remarkably, Kirkpatrick managed to live a solid 30 years after that nearly fatal car crash. When he finally passed away in 2010, it was because an unrelated malady, throat cancer, took his life. But by then, he had more than established his reputation as the consummate survivor.
Johnny Briggs has also done his own brand of surviving over the years, in some ways that are different than Kirkpatrick, but in some that are similar. A product of Paterson, N.J., Briggs would have loved nothing better than to sign with the Mets. Briggs heard that the Mets were about to make an offer one night in October of 1962, but their scout was delayed in arriving at the Briggs home. A scout for the Phillies appeared that same night and made a preemptive offer. Briggs took the offer from the Phillies, who loved Briggs‘ speed, strong throwing arm, and left-handed swing.
Making his professional debut the following summer, Briggs hit 21 home runs and slugged an even .500 for Bakersfield in the Single-A California League. Under ordinary circumstances, such a performance would have bumped Briggs up to Double-A ball the next spring. But Briggs had signed as a bonus baby, which mandated that he be promoted to Philadelphia by Opening Day of 1964, or be lost to another team in a special draft. So the Phillies rushed the 20-year-old to the big leagues in 1964, even though he was clearly not ready to face major league pitching. Limiting his at-bats mostly to pinch-hit appearances, the Phillies also used him as a utility outfielder, as he filled in at all three defensive slots.
The Phillies expanded Briggs’ role in 1965, making him their platoon center fielder. Miscast in the middle of the outfield, he struggled defensively and didn’t show much with the bat either. A .236 average and four home runs in 229 at-bats likely had the Phillies wondering whether they had done irreparable harm to their young prodigy.
It was also in 1965 that Briggs became involved in a controversy, but through absolutely no fault of his own. One day at the ballpark, Phillies outfielder Frank Thomas began calling Briggs “boy” over and over again. The soft-spoken Briggs said nothing, but Dick Allen, his best friend on the team, became enraged. Allen came to his teammate’s defense and exchanged words with Thomas. Later in the day, Allen and Thomas grappled near the batting cage. Thomas swung a bat at Allen, striking him in the shoulder.
The following season produced a more pleasant environment for Briggs. Platooning with Jackie Brandt in 1966, Briggs made a breakthrough in his third season. He raised his batting average to .282, clubbed 10 home runs, and slugged .490. The Phillies now had a player in Briggs.
Regrettably, Briggs would never match his .871 OPS from that season during his Phillies tenure. Over the next three seasons, he failed to bat higher than .254 and only once reached double figures in home runs. Those numbers became less palatable as he moved from center field to left field. After a fitful 10-game start to the 1971 season, the Phillies decided to part ways. They sent Briggs to the American League, to the Brewers, for a pair of minor leaguers (catcher Pete Koegel and pitcher Ray Peters).
The trade worked wonders for Briggs’ career. In his first at-bat with the Brewers, as he swatted a home run. With the Phillies, manager Frank Lucchesi, a strong advocate of platooning, had benched Briggs against most left-handers. With Briggs now splitting his time between first base and left field, the Brewers gave him a chance to play more regularly, against both left-handers and right-handers. Over the balance of the ‘71 season, Briggs responded with 21 home runs, 71 walks, and an OPS of .845. The Milwaukee fans quickly grew to like the Philadelphia castoff.
Comfortable with a new team, he became close friends with fellow outfielder Dave May. He also developed good relationships with players like Tommy Harper, Ron Theobald, and Ellie Rodriguez. Enjoying an expanded role in Milwaukee, Briggs put up similar numbers in 1972. Playing more often in left field than at first base, he again hit 21 home runs, while forging an OPS of .801.He also took on a new look, growing his hair out and his sideburns bushy and long. Briggs took on a distinctive look among his Brewers teammates.
In 1973, Briggs added some new dimensions to his game. He put in some time as a designated hitter, as the Brewers took advantage of the new American League rule. More impressively, Briggs added the stolen base to his repertoire. He had always run well, but had never learned how to steal bases. That changed in ‘73; he stole 15 bases, complementing his power output of 18 home runs. He also demonstrated a far better understanding of the strike zone; with 87 walks, a career high, his bases on balls total exceeded his strikeouts for the first time in his career. For his efforts, he received a 10th-place vote in the MVP race.
Briggs’ power and patience remained good in 1974, setting the stage for a strange 1975 season. Over his first 28 games that spring, Briggs batted .297 and put up an OPS of .879. He appeared primed for the best season of his career. But the Brewers wanted to improve their outfield defense. So one day before the June 15 trading deadline, they sent Briggs to the Twins for Bobby Darwin, a strikeout prone right-handed hitter who was off to a terrible start for Minnesota. The trade made virtually no sense from the Brewers’ perspective.
The deal also had the reverse of the Midas touch on Briggs. His batting average fell to .231. He hit with little power. About all he did well was draw a large number of walks, which provided some value, but hardly made up for the other deficiencies.
The Twins were disappointed with Briggs, but they waited until February of 1976 to release him. The release came just before spring training, strange timing to say the least.
With his release coming so early, it figured that another major league team would come calling. Even though Briggs was only 31, no one was willing to give him more than a minor league contract. So Briggs took his wares to the Japan, where he played for the Lotte Orions. Like a lot of American players, he flopped in the Far East. It didn’t help him when he ate some spoiled food in Japan and developed parasites, cutting short his lone season abroad. He eventually moved to Delaware, where he and Dave May played together in a semi-pro baseball league.
Much like Ed Kirkpatrick, Briggs has battled serious health problems in his post-playing days. He has struggled with cancer, the disease forcing surgeons to remove much of his stomach. He also lost his good friend, Dave May, to cancer and diabetes earlier this year.
But also like Kirkpatrick, Briggs has succeeded in educating youth. Returning to his native Paterson, Briggs worked for many years as the city’s sports director. His work as an athletic educator, conducting clinics and serving as a goodwill ambassador, has made him a quiet hero. Paterson hasn’t named any awards for Briggs, but it has named its local PONY League ballpark for the ex-Brewer and Phillie.
They might not have realized it in 1973, when their lives intersected on a baseball card, but Johnny Briggs and Ed Kirkpatrick had a lot more in common than one of those iconic Topps action shots from the early 1970s.
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.