Card Corner: 1973 Topps: Bob Baileyby Bruce Markusen
October 18, 2013
Other than the squinting of the eyes caused by staring into the sunlight, the Topps photographer has caught Bob Bailey at just the right moment in his career. It is 1973 (or sometime in 1972, if we are to be technically accurate), just before Bailey starts to put on the extra weight that would hamper him in his later years with Cincinnati and Boston. The photograph comes during the middle of his major league peak, after he endured the early growing pains that made him such a disappointment with the Pirates and Dodgers.
Looking lean and tough wearing the road grays of the Montreal Expos, the man nicknamed “Beetle Bailey” (in deference to the comic strip of the same name) is carrying the confidence that comes with being an accomplished big league slugger. He has the look of a man who is serious about what he does. Simply put, he looks the way a major league player should look when posing for the camera.
At the age of 18, Bailey reported to Asheville of the Sally League. The Pirates played him at shortstop, where he struggled defensively, making 27 errors in 71 games. At the plate, Bailey showed some pop, good footspeed, and some plate discipline, but his .220 batting average against Class-A pitching showed that he had plenty of room for growth as a hitter.
In spite of his obvious troubles, the Pirates decided to bump him up two levels in 1962, sending him all the way to Columbus of the Triple-A International League. The Pirates apparently knew what they were doing. Showing no ill effects against a higher grade of pitching, Bailey put up remarkable numbers, particularly for a 19-year-old who had hardly mastered the lower minors. He batted .299, walloped 28 home runs, drew nearly 100 walks, and reached base over 40 per cent of the time. “He’s got everything,” Pirates general manager Joe Brown told the Pittsburgh Press. “I don’t see how he can miss.”
The Pirates also helped his cause by moving him from shortstop. Realizing that he lacked the athleticism to play the middle infield, Bailey played the majority of his games at third base, where his range and footwork found a better and more appropriate home. Bailey still showed himself to be error-prone, but he was far better suited to third base than he was to shortstop.
Bailey hit so well in the International League that the Pirates rewarded him with a late-season call up to Pittsburgh. He didn’t hit much in a 14-game trial, but the Pirates believed that they had found their third base successor to Don Hoak.
The Pirates made Bailey their Opening Day third sacker in 1963, but he responded poorly to the challenge. Though he played in all 154 games, he hit only 12 home runs, struck out 98 times, and batted a mere .228. His defensive play, low lighted by 32 errors, drew criticism for being stodgy and ham-handed. All in all, it was a bad rookie season for a young player whom some had prematurely ticketed for the Hall of Fame.
So in his second full summer in Pittsburgh, the Pirates split Bailey’s time at third base with veteran Gene Freese, while making him something of a super-utilityman. He appeared at all three outfield positions and also played shortstop. Bailey hit better, improving his batting average by nearly 60 points and his OPS by nearly 50 points, but he remained something of an enigma. Expecting him to become a third hammer in a middle of a lineup that already featured Roberto Clemente and Donn Clendenon, Bailey instead took on the appearance of a secondary player.
In 1965, he hit an Opening Day home run against Juan Marichal, but otherwise took a step backwards. He increased his walks, but most of his other offensive numbers either flattened out or took a tumble. Although he played more games at third base than he had the previous summer, his fielding showed almost no improvement.
Ironically, Bailey’s last season with the Pirates would be his best. Injuries limited his playing time, but when he did play, he hit well. With a career-best 13 home runs, a respectable .279 batting average and an OPS of .807, Bailey seemed to be on the right track. Furthermore, he was still only 23, still plenty young enough to evolve into stardom.
The Pirates didn’t see it that way. Though Bailey had exhibited some promise, he still ranked as a major disappointment who had failed to justify the bonus he had initially received. In December, the Pirates saw a chance to improve both their team speed and their infield defense by making a major trade with the Dodgers. The Pirates sent Bailey and light-hitting shortstop Gene Michael to Los Angeles for onetime National League MVP Maury Wills. It was a short-sighted deal; Wills was about to turn 34 and was light years away from being the dominant, game-changing baserunner that he had been during his Dodgers hey day.
A native of Long Beach, Bailey was thrilled with the trade that sent him home to Southern California, but in actuality, the move would do little to help him. In Pittsburgh, he had the chance to work with people like Mickey Vernon and Harry Walker, noted for their ability as hitting instructors. In moving to the Dodgers, he would now have to grapple with one of the game’s toughest hitting environments: Dodger Stadium. With its high mound, difficult sight lines, challenging dimensions, and heavy night air, Chavez Ravine provided little comfort to a power hitter like Bailey.
Predictably, Bailey struggled with the Dodgers. After beginning the season as the Opening Day left fielder, he settled into a utility role. Bailey provided some versatility, with his ability to play third base, shortstop, first base, and the outfield, but did little with the bat. He hit a meager .227 with only four home runs in 116 games.
In 1968, Bailey put up nearly matching statistics. He batted .227 again, reaching base only 30 per cent of the time, and exhibiting little power. He proved less versatile, as the Dodgers gave up on using him in the outfield.
In a demonstration of how far his stock had fallen, the Dodgers left him unprotected in the upcoming expansion draft, but none of the four new teams picked him. Shortly after the draft, the Dodgers sold him to the Expos for a pittance. It was time to begin anew with an expansion team north of the border.
The move to Montreal turned into the break of Bailey’s career. His new manager,
Gene Mauch, switched him to first base, where his lack of range did not matter as much as it did on the other side of the diamond. Bailey did not put up huge numbers, and he missed about a month with a hairline fracture in his ankle, but he regained some of the batting stroke he had displayed in his final season in Pittsburgh. He hit nine home runs and posted an OPS of .756. At the very least, he was on his way.
Mauch, one of the game’s best teachers and instructors, helped Bailey resurrect his career. A huge believer in Bailey, Mauch demoted veteran Donn Clendenon (Bailey’s onetime teammate in Pittsburgh) in order to make room for Beetle at first base. When Clendenon left town in a trade, he fired a parting shot at Mauch and Bailey. “If Mauch can make a hitter out of Bailey,” said Clendenon, “I’ll kiss him at home plate on Bay Day.” The soft-spoken, easygoing Bailey deflected Clendenon’s remarks with grace, but he must have seethed over such an insult.
With Mauch fully in his corner, Bailey enjoyed his bust-out season of 1970. Though he did not have a regular position in the field (splitting his time between third base, first base, and left field), he found a stable role in the middle of Mauch’s lineup. In an August game against the Astros, Bailey displayed the kind of raw power the Pirates had once enviosined. Playing at the cavern-like Astrodome, Bailey belted a long home run to left field, planting the ball in the fourth deck of the indoor stadium. “That’s the biggest home run I’ve ever seen,” Mauch told the Montreal Gazette while comparing Bailey to one of his former stars in Philadelphia. “Oh year, bigger than anything Richie Allen ever hit.”
That home run epitomized the breakout season of Bailey’s career. He blasted 28 home runs (more than double his previous high), slugged .597 and put up an OPS of slightly better than 1.000. For the first time in his career, he drew more walks than he collected strikeouts. At the age of 27, Bob Bailey was now one of the National League’s most feared hitters.
Although Bailey would never achieve those numbers again, he remained a dangerous and productive hitter through the 1974 season. In 1973, he hit 26 home runs. The following summer, he drew 100 walks. He also settled in as the Expos’ regular third baseman, succeeding the brief reign of Coco Laboy.
It was not until 1975 that Bailey began to show signs of slippage. With his waistline expanding and his bat speed slowing, he became susceptible to high-end fastballs. A broken bone in his hand also limited him to 106 games.
Concerned that Bailey, now 32, was hitting the inevitable downhill slope of his career, the Expos decided to make a trade at the 1975 winter meetings. They sent him to the world champion Reds for talented but enigmatic right-hander Clay Kirby.
Once again the baseball gods shined on Bailey. No longer able to handle an everyday position, Bailey moved into a bench role for the “Big Red Machine,” baseball’s best team. Playing as a pinch-hitter and backup left fielder and third baseman, Bailey did good work at the plate. An .884 OPS in 141 plate appearances made him one of the league’s most productive bench players, while also giving him his first chance to play on a team heading to the postseason.
Unfortunately, Bailey would not actually play in a playoff or World Series game. Given the Reds’ preponderance of talent and the quick way with which they disposed of the Phillies and the Yankees in the postseason, there was no chance for Bailey to appear on the October stage. That was the proverbial bad news, but it didn’t prevent Bailey from earning his first World Series ring when the Reds swept the Yankees in the Fall Classic.
When the two-time world champions fell out of contention in 1977, they decided to cut bait with their aging bench star. In late September, the Reds traded him to the Red Sox for minor leaguer Frank Newcomer. Bailey appeared in only two late-season games as the Red Sox fell short to the Yankees by two and a half games in the tight American League East.
Bailey returned to the Red Sox for the 1978 season. He hit four home runs in 94 at-bats as a part-time DH and pinch-hitter, but his batting skills had almost completely eroded. On October 2, the Red Sox played the Yankees in a one-game tiebreaker to decide the AL East. Sox manager Don Zimmer called on Bailey, the potential tying run, to pinch-hit in the late innings against Goose Gossage. Significantly overweight, his bat slowed to a crawl, Bailey was overmatched against The Goose. He struck out on three pitches, in what turned out to be his final major league at-bat.
At 35, Bailey was done. With the Red Sox eliminated, he slid into retirement.
After his playing days, Bailey became a minor league manager and hitting instructor in the Expos’ system before moving into the time share business. I didn’t hear much about him for many years, until I happened to be watching a Yankees’ Old-Timers’ game, sometime in the early 1990s. I was stunned when I saw Bailey step up to the plate; his weight had ballooned massively, leaving him well over 300 pounds.
I became a little concerned about Bailey’s health that day, but some 20 years later, he’s still with us, still giving interviews about his playing days. A humble man who remains willing to poke fun at himself for his fielding foibles, he is nonetheless pleased with his legacy as a player. While his career was considered a disappointment by some who remember the hype attached to him at the beginning, he has no regrets about what transpired in Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Montreal and his other ports of call. Feeling fortunate to have played in the major leagues for nearly two decades, he believes that he gave it his all, leaving him with no disappointments.
“I loved it,” he once told the Long Beach Press-Telegram, “every day of it.” Hey, if you loved a job that you did pretty well for 17 years, there is no reason for any regrets at 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.