Card Corner: 1972 Topps: Bobby Tolanby Bruce Markusen
June 29, 2012
Just once I would like to see a major league hitter step up to the plate wearing a windbreaker. I suppose there might have been a pitcher or two who has batted while wearing a jacket, but I can’t ever recall seeing it happen in 40 years of watching major league ball. Granted, the hitter who would stand in the batter’s box wearing a windbreaker would likely find his arm movements restricted by the jacket, but it would look awfully cool, now wouldn’t it?
In posing for his 1972 Topps card, Bobby Tolan not only give us the windbreaker look, but he also provides a sneak peek at his very distinctive batting stance. Tolan always positioned his hands so ridiculously high above his head that it made you wonder how he could have possibly put the bat into hitting position quickly enough to reach a big league fastball. I can remember two other players who hit out of a similar position—they are Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski and the ageless but now retired utility infielder, Craig Counsell—but I think Tolan earns the prize for holding his hands the highest of anyone.
Whatever my recollections of his name or his batting stance, there’s no doubt that Tolan was a very fine hitter in his prime. He originally signed with the Pirates in 1963, but as a first baseman, not an outfielder. Known for their willingness to sign and promote African-American players, the Pirates appreciated Tolan’s supreme athleticism, sprinter’s speed, and ideal baseball body. But the Pirates lost him after only one minor league season; he was selected in the now-extinct first-year draft by an astute Cardinals organization, which also recognized the large array of talents Tolan possessed.
Wisely, the Cardinals took full advantage of Tolan’s speed by moving him from first base to the outfield. Tolan advanced quickly in the Cardinals’ system. In both 1964 and ’65, he hit above .290, stole 30-plus bases, and showed occasional power. At the end of the ’65 season, the Cardinals decided to give him his first taste of major league pitching, but he was clearly not ready. He was only 19, the same age as Bryce Harper is today, but not as fully developed in his skills. Tolan hit a paltry .188 in a late-season look-see and headed back to Triple-A to start the 1966 season.
A fast start to the new season brought Tolan back to St. Louis by May of 1966. Yet, he continued to struggle at the plate, necessitating another return ticket to Triple-A Tulsa.
It would not be until 1967 that Tolan would gain some traction in St. Louis.
With veterans Lou Brock, Curt Flood and Roger Maris solidly in place as starters, manager Red Schoendienst turned to Tolan as his No. 4 outfielder. Playing as a backup to Flood in center and Maris in right, and also providing occasional relief to Orlando Cepeda at first base, Tolan became a decent contributor in a backup role, giving the Redbirds a dose of speed and a dash of power. He played well enough to remain on the roster all summer, and into the World Series against the Red Sox. Tolan did not play much in the Series, but still earned a ring when the Cardinals claimed the championship.
Tolan remained a backup on the ‘68 Cardinals, but his production fell off, as he continued to show an alarming lack of patience at the plate (drawing only 13 walks in nearly 300 plate appearances). Still, Tolan earned another berth on a World Series roster, as the Cardinals dropped a crushing seven-game affair with the Tigers.
By now, the Cardinals had grown frustrated with Tolan’s failure to improve both his hitting and baserunning, the latter problem evident in his mediocre stolen base rate. Though he was still only 22, the Cardinals questioned whether he would ever develop into a fulltime outfielder. So just a few days after the World Series ended, the Cardinals traded the potential of youth for the known quantity of a proven veteran. They sent Tolan and sidewinding reliever Wayne Granger to the Reds for Vada Pinson, a onetime star coming off his worst major league season as a regular. Coincidentally, Pinson was one of the players Tolan had admired as a young fan.
Sometimes a change of scenery can be the best remedy for a struggling player, and that was certainly the case with Tolan and the Reds. Starting in both right field and center field, Tolan moved into the Reds’ everyday lineup, often finding himself in the two-hole, batting behind Pete Rose and in front of a young Alex Johnson. Tolan’s play exploded, as he pounded 21 home runs, stole 26 bases, and posted an OPS of .821. About the only flaw in Tolan’s game was his continued tendency toward free-swinging; he walked only 27 times in 152 games.
Tolan remedied that malady in 1970. He more than doubled his walks, lifting his total to 62. He led the National League with 57 steals and batted a tidy .316, good enough to merit a few votes for the league’s MVP Award. He continued his fine play in the postseason, hitting a home run in Game Two of the playoffs and driving in the game-winning run in Game Three. Tolan also added a home run during the Reds’ World Series loss to the Orioles. At the age of 24, Bobby Tolan had become a legitimate star.
The Reds believed that they had the true successor to Pinson in center field. While Tolan did not have as much power as Pinson in his prime, he had more speed, more range, and arguably a better swing. All was well in center field in Cincinnati.
Or so it seemed. During the winter, Tolan decided to play some wintertime basketball, violating a clause in his Reds contract. Much like Jim Lonborg (skiing accident) before him and Aaron Boone (basketball) after him, the postseason activity cost Tolan dearly. While playing a benefit exhibition game, Tolan completely tore his Achilles tendon, a severe injury for any player but a particularly devastating one for an outfielder who relied on his speed. Even before the 1971 season had begun, Tolan’s season had ended. More alarmingly, Tolan had placed his career in jeopardy.
So at the time his 1972 Topps card was being distributed, the Reds already knew that they would receive nothing out of Tolan that season. The Reds were not pleased. Featuring arguably the most conservative organization in the game, Reds management, led by the no-nonsense Bob Howsam, was furious that Tolan had violated a specific clause in his contract that prohibited him from playing basketball in the winter.
With Tolan out for the season, the Reds turned to Plan B, which involved moving 22-year-old George Foster to center field. Foster could hit with power, but he had defensive skills far better suited to playing left field, and was clearly overmatched in center. The backup options were even less desirable: journeymen outfielders Buddy Bradford and Ty Cline. With a major hole in center field, and little production coming from their light-hitting middle infielders, the Reds finished a disappointing fourth in the NL West. Reds management placed much of the blame for the bad season at the feet of the injured Tolan.
Although Tolan had little defense for the poor judgment he had shown in playing offseason basketball, he went to work in an effort to recover from an injury that had essentially ended the careers of other players. To his credit, Tolan dove full bore in his rehabilitation, working to strengthen his injured heel and his legs. Stunning some skeptics, he recovered sufficiently to return to the Reds in time for Opening Day, which had been delayed by the players’ strike.
Tolan played 142 games in 1972, remarkable for a player returning from an Achilles tear. But he did more than just play, as he regained a good portion of his former production. He batted a respectable .288, drove in a career-high 88 runs, and most incredibly, stole 42 bases. Tolan played so well that he earned National League Comeback Player honors and also staked claim to the Hutch Award, given to the player who best exemplifies the fighting spirit of former major league manager Fred Hutchinson.
Tolan played in his fourth World Series that fall, as the Reds took on the upstart Oakland A’s. He stole five bases against Oakland, but he made a key error in Game Seven, leading to a critical run and an eventual loss to the A’s in a memorable seven-game classic.
No one could have known it at the time, but the 1972 season would represent Tolan’s last hurrah in a Reds uniform. Though he was still only 26, and had regained a good deal of his speed after from the Achilles injury, his career would begin to fall into tatters.
The 1973 season turned into an epic disaster for Tolan. He had the worst offensive season of his career, as his batting average floundered in the low .200s. He lost his job in center field, eventually moving to right field to make room for Cesar Geronimo. His performance affected his attitude, resulting in several squabbles with Reds management, which was still angry with him for blowing out his Achilles tendon.
Specifically, Tolan had an aching back that precipitated many of the problems. The Reds’ director of player personnel, Sheldon “Chief” Bender,” ordered Tolan to report for an early morning appointment with a doctor. Tolan complained to Bender about the earliness of the appointment, igniting a clubhouse shouting match between the two men. Tolan then missed the scheduled appointment.
The Reds fined him $200 for insubordination and abusive language, and $100 for missing the appointment. They also tried to place him on the disabled list, but National League president Chub Feeney ruled that Tolan was not sufficiently injured. Tolan remained on the active roster, but still found himself on the bench, having lost his position in right field to a young Ken Griffey. Tolan responded by filing a grievance against the Reds through the Players’ Association. (In retrospect, Tolan has claimed that he was legitimately hurt, but that the Reds didn’t believe him and forced him to keep playing that season while injured. The bad back may have manifested itself in Tolan’s poor play.)
Tolan’s general discontent showed itself with opponents, too. As the Reds prepared to play a game at Dodger Stadium, Tolan shouted at veteran outfielder Willie Crawford. The two had been friends since playing high school ball together, and Crawford was simply trying to offer his help during a difficult time, but Tolan challenged him to a fight.
Later in August, Tolan left the team for two days without permission. When he returned from AWOL status, he was sporting a beard, violating the Reds’ strict policy against facial hair. Sparky Anderson reminded Tolan of the rules, and the outfielder responded by shaving the beard. But several weeks later, he started sprouting the beard again.
Tolan also began refusing to take part in either batting or fielding practice. In addition to alienating management, he was now an outcast among his teammates. By late September, the Reds had seen enough; on Sept. 27, Reds management suspended him for the balance of the season, including the playoff series against the Mets.
Tolan would never again play for the Reds. That winter, Cincinnati traded him to the Padres for young right-hander Clay Kirby. While with the Padres early in 1974, Tolan learned that he had won his grievance against the Reds. An arbitrator demanded that the Reds repay him the $300 they had fined him. But that wasn’t sufficiently good news for Tolan. He demanded that the Reds publicly apologize for “slandering” him, but Cincinnati management refused to grant that wish.
The trade to San Diego marked the beginning of the vagabond stage of Tolan’s career. Whereas he had established himself as a star with the Reds, he was no more than an average player with the Padres. He was simply unable to regain his 1972 comeback form, and fell well short of the All-Star levels he had established in 1969 and ’70. After two mediocre seasons in Southern California, the Padres gave him his unconditional release. Unemployed for the first time since his pro debut in 1963, Tolan signed a bargain basement free agent deal with the Phillies.
Tolan hit .261 as a part-time outfielder for the Phillies, who advanced to the National League Championship Series before losing to Tolan’s former team in Cincinnati. But a terrible start to the 1977 season resulted in his release. Tolan cleared waivers and signed with the Pirates, but continued to struggle with a sub-.200 batting average and was allowed to become a free agent at season’s end.
For the second time in his career, Tolan found himself at the crossroads. When no major league teams showed interest, he opted to take his wares to the Far East, where he signed with the Nankai Hawks After an unhappy season in Japan and with no other option to turn to, Tolan signed with the renegade Inter-American League, profiled in this space last week. When the league blew up three months into its existence, Tolan took to the unemployment line. Surprisingly, he received a call in late summer from the Padres, who added him as a backup outfielder. But he hit only .190 in 25 plate appearances and drew his release in mid-October.
Though he was only 33, Tolan’s playing career was over. Just as he had started his career at the early age of 19, his major league days had ended too prematurely.
Fortunately, the Padres liked Tolan. When they hired Jerry Coleman as manager for the 1980 season, they offered him a job on their coaching staff, which he held through 1983. During the 1981 strike, the Padres reassigned Tolan to work with their young hitters at their Class-A affiliate in Walla Walla. It was there that Tolan became the first hitting coach for a young outfielder named Tony Gwynn.
Tolan is now retired from Organized Baseball, though he still coaches a perennially successful collegiate summer league team in Houston. Even away from the major league scene, he has still become attached to controversy, even though he had no direct involvement in the original incident. In late 2008, his 23-year-old son Robbie, a minor league player at the time, was shot by a policeman in his own driveway in Bellaire, Tex. The bullet punctured the younger Tolan’s lung, before lodging in his liver. The injuries caused by the bullet essentially ending his professional career.
The officer, who is white, had misidentified Robbie Tolan as having stolen a car. Robbie was unarmed throughout the incident and broke no law. The Tolans argued that Robbie had been a victim of racial profiling and took the police department to court, but a jury decided that the shooting was justified. Later on, a judge dismissed the Tolans’ civil lawsuit against the officer.
I’ve heard Tolan discuss the incident with interviewers. Well spoken and reasoned in his arguments, Tolan has persuaded me that his son was an innocent victim in the matter, and likely would have escaped injury if he were white. I wasn’t there, but Tolan’s account of the incident is convincing.
Unfortunately, much like his struggles with the Reds, the situation with Tolan’s son ended unfavorably. It should have come out better, just like I keep thinking that a career plagued by injury and controversy should have come out better, too.
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.