Card Corner: 1973 Topps: Graig Nettlesby Bruce Markusen
July 12, 2013
The art of airbrushing reached its heights (and perhaps its depths) during the 1970s. When a player moved from one team to another during the winter months, the Topps Company faced the problem of finding an updated photograph showing the player in his new uniform. Topps usually turned to airbrushing, which involved re-touching the original photograph with new colors, logos, and uniform designs.
Airbrushing reached the extremes of absurdity with Graig Nettles’ 1973 Topps card. After the 1972 season, the Indians traded Nettles to the Yankees. In response to that transaction, Topps chose a 1972 action shot of Nettles, while he was still playing for the Indians, taken during a game at the old Metropolitan Stadium in Minnesota. Unfortunately, this particular Topps artist apparently had little knowledge of baseball uniforms. Forced to brush in the colors of the Yankees’ road uniform, the artist came up with a strange bluish hue, instead of the traditional gray the Yankees have long featured.
The airbrushed blue on the helmet and the stirrups is also the wrong shade of blue. It’s a light blue, so light that it’s almost purple, instead of the traditional Navy blue used by the Yankees. The Yankee blue is so dark that it looks black, particularly from a distance. With the lighter blue in full bloom here, the card takes on something of a surreal, alternate reality appearance.
Yet, I must admit that I like it. The “new” uniform is attractive and intriguing. Heck, the interlocking “NY” looks better than “New York.” Maybe the Yankees should feature the “NY” on both the road and home version of their uniforms. It will never happen, but it wouldn’t be a bad change at all.
The Nettles card is so unusual that I could easily spend a whole column focused on the card itself. But that would be giving short shrift to a fascinating subject like Nettles. A young Nettles provided intrigue right from the start, because of a decision by his mother. According to Graig’s father, it was Nettles’ mother who came up with the idea for the unusual birth name of “Graig.” She initially wanted to name him Greg, but she hated the longer version of that name, “Gregory.” So she found a way around that convention by calling him Graig; once others realized the unusual spelling of the name, they would be discouraged from trying to lengthen it to Gregory. Mothers know best.
Long before Nettles played for the Indians and the Yankees, he actually debuted with another major league franchise. In 1965, the year of the first major league draft, the Twins took Nettles with their fourth-round selection. Choosing not to sign early, Nettles did not make his minor league debut until the spring of 1966.
The Twins assigned Nettles to Single-A Wisconsin Rapids, where he played third base and showed immediate power. He hit 28 home runs, an especially impressive total for a youngster playing his first year in professional ball.
Nettles’ rookie season earned him a promotion to Double-A in 1967. This time, Nettles struggled with the transition. His slugging percentage fell under .400. Though he was somewhat overmatched and a full two levels away from the major leagues, the Twins decided to give him a late-season cup of coffee. Nettles came to bat three times, swatting one hit.
In 1968, the Twins moved Nettles up to Triple-A Denver. It might have seemed that the Twins were rushing his development, but Nettles responded beautifully to the challenge. He also adjusted to a new position, as the Twins, concerned about his fielding at third base, gave him a look in the outfield. Given a new position and his first taste of Triple-A pitching, Nettles could have been overwhelmed, but he hit .297, slugged .534, and earned a midseason promotion to Minnesota. Appearing in 22 games, he played five different positions for the Twins, including first base and all three outfield slots.
When Nettles arrived at Minnesota’s spring training camp in 1969, the Twins had no idea that they now possessed one of the game’s great defensive third basemen, at least for the future. They listed him as an infielder/outfielder. In other words, the eventual Gold Glover was presently a utility man.
His manager, Billy Martin, liked Nettles, but saw him as a backup to veteran sluggers Bob Allison in left field and Harmon Killebrew at third base. So Nettles broke camp as an insurance policy at two positions and as a left-handed bat off the bench. When the aging Allison struggled badly at the start of the season, Nettles received more playing time, but he failed to take advantage. Though he did hit seven home runs in 225 at-bats, he batted a paltry .222, slugged only .373, played rarely against left-handed pitching, and spent too much time away from his natural position of third base.
If there was a bright side to be found, it was the Twins’ ability to win the inaugural American League West race, giving Nettles an early sampling of postseason play. He delivered a hit in his one at-bat, but the Twins lost in three straight games to the power-packed Orioles.
After the season, Nettles lost an ally in Martin, who had also been his manager at Triple-A Denver but was now being fired in response to a fistfight with pitcher Dave Boswell and a verbal dispute with owner Calvin Griffith. Nettles’ own struggles removed him from being an untouchable prospect and made him into a trade commodity. That winter, the Twins included Nettles in a package with center fielder Ted Uhlaender, and pitchers Dean Chance and Bob Miller, sending them to the Indians for Luis Tiant and veteran reliever Stan Williams. The trade would improve Minnesota’s pitching, but it would also remove a natural successor to Killebrew at third base.
On a personal level, the trade prevented Nettles from playing with his younger brother, Jim Nettles, who would make his debut for the Twins in 1970. But on every other front, the trade would turn out to be the perfect career break for Graig. Since the Indians had no one blocking his path at third base, manager Alvin Dark immediately made Nettles his starting third baseman, playing him against both right and left-handed pitching. Dark ignored scouting reports that indicated Nettles was a subpar fielder, instead believing his own eyes. Nettles responded with a wonderful season, highlighted by 26 home runs, 81 walks, and some of the finest fielding at third base that the Indians had seen since the Ken Keltner Era.
With the range of a shortstop, ultra soft hands, and a sidearm throwing style that produced unusual accuracy, Nettles began to draw comparisons to the American League’s elite fielders. No one was quite ready to put him on the same level as Brooks Robinson, at least not yet, but Nettles had at least entered the conversation.
At 25 years of age, Nettles looked like one of the building blocks to a franchise desperate for success after the struggles of the 1960s. Or so it seemed. After hitting a career-high 28 home runs and slugging .435 for the Indians in 1971, Nettles regressed in 1972. The Indians’ new manager, Ken Aspromonte, often pinch-hit for Nettles when he faced left-handed pitchers in crucial situation. Nettles didn’t appreciate the lack of confidence.
Nettles’ disappointing third season in Cleveland made him expendable. So Indians GM Gabe Paul included him in a blockbuster deal, sending Nettles and backup catcher Gerry Moses to the Yankees for a package of catcher/first basemen John Ellis, infielder Jerry Kenney, and a pair of outfielders, Charlie Spikes and Rusty Torres.
Normally a shrewd trader, Paul had executed one of his worst deals. But there has long been speculation that Paul knew exactly what he was doing. With rumors swirling that Paul was headed to New York to work as George Steinbrenner’s new general manager, many have speculated that Paul intentionally steered Nettles to the Yankees. In other words, Paul purposely made a bad trade, knowing that it would benefit his future team. Of course, such speculation is impossible to prove, but the conspiracy theory has been floated for decades now.
Nettles replaced the light-hitting Celerino Sanchez as the Yankees’ regular third baseman. Although Nettles’ OPS of .720 matched his disappointing production of 1972, it represented major improvement over the likes of Sanchez and Kenney. Nettles hit 22 home runs and drew 78 walks and played defensively like his 1960s predecessor, Clete Boyer.
Nettles had a similar season in 1974, a year in which he was caught using a bat filled with pieces of “superballs.” The incident occurred in a September 7th game against the Tigers. Nettles lined a single to left field, but the top of his bat fell off, allowing the pieces of rubber to leak onto the playing field. Home plate umpire Lou DiMuro called Nettles out; for his part, Nettles pleaded ignorance, claiming it was the first time he had ever used the bat.
In 1975, Nettles elevated his play to an All-Star level. Driving in 91 runs, he led the American League in sacrifice flies. The following summer, Nettles emerged as an MVP candidate. Taking advantage of the short right field porch at the newly remodeled Yankee Stadium, he led the league with 32 home runs, slugged .475, and threw in 11 stolen bases for good measure.
He also became involved in another controversy. This one occurred on May 20, in the midst of a nasty brawl between the Yankees and the rival Red Sox. During the melee, Nettles body slammed Boston left-hander Bill Lee, separating his shoulder in the process. Nettles claimed that it was an accident that occurred in a “mob scene,” but Lee never forgave Nettles for what he did.
In 1977, Nettles managed to avoid controversy as he reached his peak at the late age of 32. Other than perhaps Thurman Munson and free agent pickup Reggie Jackson, Nettles was arguably the most important member of the Yankees’ starting nine in 1977. Overshadowed by the circus-like threesome of Jackson, manager Billy Martin, and owner George Steinbrenner, Nettles quietly and efficiently put together what may have been his finest season. Achieving career highs with 37 home runs and an OPS of .829, Nettles also secured the Gold Glove Award for his brilliance at the hot corner. He placed an impressive fifth in the American League MVP race.
Though Nettles played exceptionally well, he developed a strong and fast dislike for the Yankees’ prized offseason acquisition. “The best thing about being a Yankee is getting to watch Reggie Jackson play every day,” Nettles said one day. “The worst thing about being a Yankee? Getting to watch Reggie Jackson play every day.”
As the season wore on, Nettles couldn’t resist making further cracks about Jackson. He took a sarcastic shot at Jackson’s tendency to pile up strikeouts. “If Babe Ruth were alive today, he wouldn’t be able to bat cleanup [for the Yankees],” Nettles said one day. “He didn’t strike out enough. I guess I’m not able to bat cleanup because I don’t strike out enough.”
Political correctness and diplomacy rarely invaded Nettles’ world. In an age when publicly spoken comments did not often result in sanction, Nettles sometimes ventured into the areas of race and ethnicity. According to Sparky Lyle’s provocative book, The Bronx Zoo, Nettles made a crack about one of the Indians players during pregame workouts. “I never saw a player with his address on his uniform,” Nettles said out loud to one of his teammates while pointing to Indians first baseman Wayne Cage, a large African-American man. It was the kind of racially charged remark that would have landed Nettles in big trouble in today’s world, but it hardly drew a second thought in the 1970s culture that swirled around the Yankees and baseball in general.
Nettles didn’t restrict his brand of humor to his words. He also enjoyed playing practical jokes on unsuspecting teammates. Typically, Nettles executed the prank and then exited the scene quietly and quickly, earning the nickname “Puff” for the way that he disappeared—like a puff of smoke.
Nettles managed to remain in the background, despite his tendency for causing trouble. He also remained an All-Star, a Gold Glove winner, and an MVP candidate in 1978, helping the Yankees win their second straight world championship. He was never better than in Game Three of the World Series, when he robbed Reggie Smith, Steve Garvey, and Davey Lopes of surefire hits with acrobatic plays at third.
After a decline in 1979, Nettles became a platoon player for new manager Dick Howser in 1980. He split time with Eric Soderholm and Aurelio Rodriguez, but returned to everyday duty during the strike-shortened season of 1981. No longer an elite player, he still contributed with his left-handed power and sure handed fielding through the end of the 1983 season.
Nettles’ decade-longer stretch in pinstripes came to an end in the spring of 1984, when advance notice of Nettles’ upcoming book, Balls, founds its way onto the desk of George Steinbrenner. “The Boss” soon read excerpts in which Nettles severely criticized his employer. Not taking kindly to the cross words, Steinbrenner ordered that Nettles be traded as soon as possible. Prior to Opening Day, the Yankees sent Nettles to the Padres for what amounted to 50 cents on the dollar, which happened to be left-hander Dennis Rasmussen and a player to be named later.
The trade turned out to be a stroke of fortune for Nettles. The Yankees were now an also-ran, but the Padres were primed to win the National League West on the way to their first appearance in a World Series. Nettles batted only .228, his lowest average since 1969, but he provided power, defense, and leadership to a Padres team skippered by Dick Williams. Nettles was exactly the kind of hard-edged, fundamentally sound player that Williams loved.
Although Nettles was on the verge of turning 40, he remained the Padres’ starting third baseman for two more seasons before drawing his release in the winter of 1986. Playing his final two years in Atlanta and Montreal, Nettles served as a part-time first baseman, third baseman and pinch-hitter before finally stepping aside at the age of 43.
Yet, Nettles wasn’t completely done. He competed in the short-lived Senior League as a player/manager (where he was a teammate of brother Jim) before returning to the Yankees’ organization as one of Stump Merrill’s coaches in 1991. Nettles held out hopes of succeeding Merrill as Yankee manager, but that would never come to pass. Instead, Nettles was fired by the next manager, Buck Showalter, who felt that Nettles had been disloyal to Merrill by repeatedly badmouthing him during his coaching tenure.
For the second time in his Yankee career, Nettles’ outspoken tendencies had caught up with him. For the most part, he has remained out of baseball since then, a sad development given Nettles’ intelligence and his experience in playing for so many winning teams. He still makes an occasional appearance in Cooperstown, but his public sightings have become far too infrequent.
We need to see and hear more from Nettles. He has a lot to tell us, whether it’s about the superballs in his bat, or the body slamming of Bill Lee, or that strange, surreal card from 1973 Topps.
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.