Card Corner: Topps’ top 60 and Reggie Smithby Bruce Markusen
November 26, 2010
For some reason that could be explained pnly by a good psychiatrist, I have long been fascinated with the “other” players that appear on a baseball card. I think this trend began in 1972, when I collected John Ellis’ “In Action” card and noticed that he was being held on at first base by the great Harmon Killebrew. I had hoped that Killebrew’s presence would add some monetary value to what is otherwise deemed a common card, but sadly, that never seemed to happen.
In 1973, Oakland A’s shortstop Bert Campaneris set some sort of unofficial record when he began to show up on multiple cards for other players, including Bob Oliver, George Scott, and the wonderfully named Rich Hand.
Thus was born my motivation to determine the identity of these secondary players, if we can call them that. I became a fan of “sleuthing” cards, so that I could complete an imaginary caption in my mind. Sometimes it is obvious who the other player is. On a few occasions, the player’s number is fully evident, making it easy to determine the player through a quick Internet search. And in some cases, the player can be seen only partially, making the search process more complicated, or reducing the process to a mere guessing game.
With all that, we come to Reggie Smith’s 1983 Topps card. At the time, only a few fans might have been able to readily identify the other player in the picture. But now, in retrospect, the identification is an easy one.
The player is Hall of Fame second baseman Ryne Sandberg; at the time of the picture, Sandberg was a rookie third baseman for the Chicago Cubs. (He would make the fulltime move to second base in 1983.) Sandberg is seen making a calm, unhurried return to first base on a pickoff attempt by a San Francisco Giants pitcher, with Smith taking the throw. I think it’s safe to say that Sandberg gets back to the base safely and without incident, unless Smith decides to deliver an unexpected Judo chop to Ryno’s neck.
Sandberg and Smith are not the only familiar features on the card. The other is the iconic background of old Candlestick Park, notable for its chain-link fence running along the outfield. I know Candlestick long had its critics, mostly because of the ice-chilling winds that blew through the stands during night games, but I’ve always thought the park looked good on cards, in photographs and on television broadcasts. Unlike the cookie cutter stadiums in Cincinnati, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Candlestick Park retained a distinctive look through much of its history. When the Giants abandoned artificial turf and reinstituted grass in 1979, Candlestick again became one of the more attractive major league parks—at least from a distance.
The background provided by Candlestick and the presence of a Hall of Famer help make this an attractive card. But let’s not overlook the featured player, who only adds to the appeal and charm of the card. Reggie Smith was one of the most underrated players of his era, a period that stretched from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s. Of those players not in the Hall of Fame, Smith was one of the best of that era, a player who falls only one, maybe two notches shy of Cooperstown consideration.
He came to the national forefront in 1967, emerging as the starting center fielder for the “Impossible Dream” Red Sox. The switch-hitting Smith hit 15 home runs and stole 16 bases, finishing a distant second to Rod Carew in the American League’s Rookie of the Year balloting. Smith became a star for much of the next six years in Beantown, culminating in his 1971 season, when he hit 30 home runs and led the league in both doubles and total bases.
Smith’s performance became more impressive in light of the racial pressures faced by an African American playing in the Boston spotlight. Some Red Sox fans sent him racist hate mail; others decided to express their dislike in person, throwing batteries from the right field bleachers.
In 1973, Smith achieved his best OPS as a Red Sox—.913—but he also missed more than 40 games due to injury. Frustrated by Smith’s injuries, and perhaps influenced by the difficult relationship between Smith and the Boston fans, the Red Sox traded him to the Cardinals after the 1973 season, ostensibly for Bernie Carbo, also a talented outfielder but not nearly the all-around star of Smith’s ilk.
Switching from center field to right field, the intensely competitive Smith enjoyed playing in the National League, with its more aggressive style of play. Smith put in two highly productive seasons, but a glut of outfield talent convinced the Cardinals to make an ill-fated trade; they sent Smith to the Dodgers for the scintillating triumvirate of veteran catcher Joe Ferguson and minor leaguers Bobby Detherage and Fred Tisdale.
The trade represented the steal of the century for Dodger Blue. Even though he now had to play half of his games in a hitter’s graveyard like Dodger Stadium, Smith forged the two best seasons of his major league career. Resisting the notion that players fade in their 30s, the 32-year-old Smith put up age-defying numbers in 1977. He reached career highs in home runs (32) and walks (104), led the National League with a .427 on-base percentage, and achieved a career-best OPS of 1.003. Led by Smith, the Dodgers claimed the National League pennant and came within two games of winning the World Series.
Smith played so well for the Dodgers that he unwittingly sparked a clubhouse fight involving two of his teammates. Ace right-hander Don Sutton made news when he publicly proclaimed Smith to be the most valuable player on the Dodgers, not the more highly acclaimed Steve Garvey. When Garvey heard about the remarks, he took exception and confronted Sutton. Garvey and Sutton ended up wrestling each other in the Dodgers‘ clubhouse.
Smith’s performance dipped in 1978, but only by a small margin. His OPS of .942 represented the second best of his career, and his 29 home runs and 12 stolen bases helped the Dodgers win their second consecutive pennant, putting Smith in his third World Series. All along, he continued to play deftly in right field, where he owned one of the game’s most powerful outfield arms.
Over the next three seasons, Smith’s body finally began to show signs of age. Wracked by a serious of injuries to his wrist and shoulder, Smith managed to play in only 201 games over that span. Now 36 years old, Smith left the world champion Dodgers as a free agent, signing a one-year contract with the rival Giants. It turned out to be a wise move for the Giants, who moved Smith to first base, where he shared time with Darrell Evans (another underrated player) and the defensive-minded Dave Bergman. Though no longer a star, Smith enjoyed a solid season. He hit 18 home runs, reached base 36 per cent of the time, and slugged a respectable .470.
The Giants wanted to bring Smith back for another season, but they faced competition from the Yomiuri Giants of the Japanese Leagues, who had nearly signed Smith the previous winter. Yomiuri outbid San Francisco, reeling in Smith with a lucrative long-term contract and making his 1983 Topps card somewhat irrelevant.
Unfortunately, the money amounted to the only good thing about the deal. Smith’s personality did not fit what he considered a regressive Japanese culture. Almost immediately, he clashed with his coaches. When he missed time with injury, fans ridiculed him with the label of “Million Dollar Benchwarmer.” Smith struck out too much for Japanese tastes, earning the nickname, “Giant Human Fan.” A few fans even taunted him with racial epithets.
The situation first reached a boiling point in August of 1983, when Smith put his jersey on backwards, and then ran onto the playing field backwards. Smith’s show of protest enraged his coaches, who ordered him to leave the field. Later that month, the Hiroshima Carp threw repeated up-and-in pitches to Smith, who then rebuked the players and coaches on the Carp bench.
In spite of all the culturally fueled nonsense, Smith put up terrific numbers for Yomiuri, hitting 28 home runs in 263 at-bats and pushing the Giants to the pennant. Smith remained with Yomiuri through the next season, when age and injuries finally caught up with the 39-year-old slugger. The season reached its nadir when a gang of fans assaulted Smith and his son in response to Smith punching a Hanshin Tigers fan a day earlier. At the end of his Far East tenure, Smith referred to the Japanese Leagues as “50 years behind the times.”
It’s been 27 years since Smith’s final Topps card was produced. Ryne Sandberg and Candlestick Park produced some of the conversation about the card, but ultimately, it all came back to the featured player on the card. The story of Reggie Smith, a winning player through and through, might have been the most intriguing of them all.
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.