Card Corner: 1972 Topps, Jim Maloneyby Bruce Markusen
November 16, 2012
I’ve been trying to come up with a name to describe the kind of card represented by Jim Maloney’s 1972 Topps entry. Maloney, courtesy of the old Topps trick of the upturned hat, is shown as property of the Cardinals, even though he actually never pitched for the St. Louis franchise. In fact, he didn’t pitch for anyone in 1972, as his career came to an end.
So what should we call a card that shows a player with a team for which he never played? Should we call this an anomaly card? Or an incongruity card? No, those terms are not quite right.
How about a discrepancy card? That might be a better word. Let’s go with that, at least until something better comes along. Whatever we want to call it, the 1972 Topps set actually had two such Cardinals in that category, Maloney and veteran outfielder Art Shamsky. Also shown with an upturned cap so as to obscure the logo and colors of the Mets, Shamsky never actually appeared in a game for the Cardinals either.
Whenever I see a card of Jim Maloney, I am always reminded of his relative anonymity. He was a standout pitcher of the 1960s, but was virtually forgotten by the time I started following baseball in the early 1970s. No one talked about Maloney in the '70s, or the '80s for that matter. The first time I remember his name even being mentioned was the 1990s. And I’ve never written about him, not since becoming a writer about 13 years ago. Well, it’s time for that to change.
In 1959, Reds scout Bobby Mattick signed Maloney, a solidly built, 6-foot-2 right-hander, to a $100,000 contract. The Reds put him on the fast track to the major leagues and watched him make his major league debut one year later.
Only 20, Maloney was clearly not ready. He struggled in his first two years before settling in during the 1962 season. He then found stardom in 1963, winning 23 of 30 decisions while posting an ERA of 2.77.
Maloney pitched well again in 1964, but the end of the season brought an episode of controversy. With the Reds tied for the National League lead on the final day on the season, a story circulated that manager Dick Sisler asked Maloney to face the Phillies. According to the story, Maloney said no, forcing Sisler to turn to John Tsitouris, who ended up being routed by Philadelphia. The Reds lost the pennant to the Cardinals.
For years now, Maloney has insisted that the story is false. He says that Sisler wanted Tsitouris to pitch because he matched up better against the Phillies. Maloney says that if he had been asked, he definitely would have taken the ball. “They [the Reds] made the call,” Maloney told the Cincinnati Enquirer. “I never said I wouldn’t pitch.”
Given the number of innings Maloney pitched in the 1960s, it’s hard to believe that he would have turned down the opportunity to work an important game. Actually, he had just one weakness: He didn’t always know where his pitches would go. In 1963, he led the National League with 19 wild pitches while also issuing 88 walks. In ‘64, he was only slightly better, with 16 wild pitches and 83 bases on balls. And then in '65, he allowed a monstrous total of 110 walks.
Control would remain a concern for most of his career, but Maloney counteracted that with a devastating fastball. Clocked at 99 miles per hour in 1965, Maloney’s fastball often overpowered National League hitters. He threw so hard that he drew praise from Dodgers ace Sandy Koufax. When asked to list the hardest throwers in the National League, Koufax picked Bob Gibson, Bob Veale, his Dodgers teammate Don Drysdale and Maloney. Koufax put Maloney at the top of the exclusive list.
In addition to his rapid fastball, Maloney featured a very good curve ball. He used those pitches to hurl two no-hitters in the 1960s (a third no-hitter was taken away when MLB revised its rules, stipulating that no-hitters broken up in extra innings would no longer count).
The first gem came on Aug. 19, 1965, against the Cubs, who featured Billy Williams, Ernie Banks and Ron Santo in the middle of their lineup. The 1-0 decision over Larry Jackson required extra work, in part because the game lasted 10 innings, and in part because of Maloney’s wildness. He walked 10 batters that afternoon at Wrigley Field. That volume of walks, combined with 12 strikeouts, forced Maloney to throw 187 pitches that day. Such a total would be incomprehensible in today’s game, but it happened more than occasionally in the 1960s, a low-scoring era when pitch counts and pitch limits were terms that had not come into use—or belief.
The 1965 season also marked the finest year of Maloney’s career. Logging 255 innings, he put up a career-best 2.55 ERA, won 20 games, and completed a career-high 14 games.
Maloney remained an effective pitcher through 1969, when he hurled his second no-hitter. On April 30, he faced the Astros at Crosley Field. He had better control that day, but still walked five in clamping down a young Houston lineup. Maloney’s fastball was off the charts that day, powerful enough to help him strike out 13 batters.
The second no-hitter became a source of controversy when Astros manager Harry Walker charged Maloney with throwing a “grease ball.” Though a bit miffed by Walker’s charge of cheating, Maloney did his best to be diplomatic. “I have no answer for him,” Maloney told Bob Hertzel of the Cincinnati Enquirer. “He can say whatever he wants to say. It’s funny. There’s never any mention of any mystery pitches when you get knocked out of the box. It’s only when you pitch a good game.”
Maloney’s no-hitter might have drawn additional publicity if not for what happened the next day. That’s when the Astros’ Don Wilson, a dynamic right-hander in his own right, turned the tables on the Reds, pitching a no-hitter. So on back-to-back days at Crosley Field, two pitchers had thrown no-hitters, one for each of the two combatants.
In terms of quality, Maloney showed no drop-off in 1969. But his volume of innings did fall substantially, from his usual 220-plus range to 179. That became a cause for concern for the Reds. “We can’t win the pennant with Maloney pitching less than 250 innings,” said Sheldon “Chief” Bender, the Reds’ director of player personnel. “We have to get some way to get him out to the mound and make him realize he’s going to have to pitch with pain.” (Imagine Bender making such comments in today’s game.)
Bender’s remarks must have been particularly galling to Maloney, considering that he had pitched most of his career with chronic pain in his shoulder. Yet, they were simply a continuation of the whispers that had always followed him, questions about whether he was really hurt. As much as any pitcher in the 1960s, Maloney had repeatedly taken the mound with soreness in his shoulder and arm. How quickly Bender, and others, had forgotten.
Given Maloney’s accomplishments, not only in putting up huge innings totals but in throwing no-hitters and near no-hitters throughout the 1960s, the question becomes obvious: Why has he become such a forgotten figure?
First, he pitched at a time when a number of pitchers dominated the game, in part because of changes in the strike zone and the birth of several pitcher-friendly ballparks. As good as Maloney was, others were better, like Koufax and Drysdale with the Dodgers, Gibson in St. Louis, Juan Marichal and Gaylord Perry in San Francisco, the Indians’ Luis Tiant, Denny McLain in Detroit, Jim Kaat in Minnesota, and perhaps even Mel Stottlemyre with the Yankees. Of that group, five are Hall of Famers, while Tiant and Kaat would be borderline selections. Maloney has never been seriously regarded as worthy of Cooperstown.
Maloney also had the misfortune of playing for also-ran teams in Cincinnati. Other than 1961, at a time when Maloney had not yet become a star, and 1970, when his prime had passed, the Reds did not visit the postseason during Maloney’s tenure. The Reds had not yet achieved national prominence as “The Big Red Machine.” If they had won a pennant or division title during Maloney’s peak, then he might have received some postseason recognition.
Then there is the issue of Maloney’s longevity. As well as he pitched from 1963 to 1969, he had virtually no success beyond those years. That’s because in his second start of the 1970 season, when he was only 29, he ruptured his left Achilles tendon while running out a ground ball. He missed most of that season. When he did return, he made a few relief appearances before being given one start, which turned into a disaster. Reds skipper Sparky Anderson left Maloney off the Reds’ postseason roster.
The injury to his left foot appeared to rob him of his fastball. Concerned by his lack of velocity when he returned, the Reds that winter sent Maloney to the Angels for a wild young left-hander named Greg Garrett.
The Angels hoped that a winter of rest and rehab would restore Maloney’s power. It did not. After he pitched effectively in a relief appearance, the Angels gave him two starts early in 1971. He was hit hard in his first start, then lifted with a sore arm after only two-thirds of an inning in a start against the Orioles.
After a 10-day layoff, he returned to pitch two scoreless innings of relief. That would be his last effective appearance. The rest of the way, he interspersed relief roles with starting assignments, missed all of July with a sore arm, and returned to pitch badly almost every time out. To make matters worse, Maloney had to endure a summer with the team that became known as “Hell’s Angels,” with controversies involving Alex Johnson, Chico Ruiz and Tony Conigliaro swirling at every turn.
Over the winter, the Angels released Maloney. The next day, the Cardinals announced that they had signed him to a spot on their 40-man roster. If Maloney pitched even reasonably well in spring training, he would likely make the Opening Day roster.
As it turned out, Maloney and several other Cardinals veterans would struggle in the spring. On April 4, 1972, the Cardinals announced a purge of three brand name players. They had unconditionally released Shamsky, who had been acquired from the Mets during the winter; veteran reliever Stan Williams, who had pitched well for St. Louis in 1971; and Maloney. So by Opening Day, three Topps cards featuring Cardinals had become obsolete.
Maloney signed a minor league contract with the Giants, agreeing to pitch for their Triple-A affiliate in San Francisco. He pitched well in the Pacific Coast League, but when no major league team showed interest by the June 15 trading deadline, he called it quits at the age of 32.
At first, Maloney seemed to enjoy a smooth transition to the real world, as he became a successful car dealer. But in reality, his life began to unravel. He became an alcoholic. By the mid-1980s, his wife divorced him.
Thankfully, Maloney has found some inner peace. Now a recovering alcoholic, he is married for a second time. He’s enjoying retirement after serving as the director of Fresno’s Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Council.
It sounds like Maloney’s life has become fulfilling, whereas it was not in 1972. Forty years later, it probably doesn’t matter much to Maloney that his Topps card has become a curiosity.
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.