Card Corner: 1973 Topps: Wes Parkerby Bruce Markusen
June 28, 2013
This is classic 1973 Topps. The card company spent a good amount of time at Dodger Stadium in 1972, compiling action shots for its new set, which featured a record amount of in-game photography. Taken from somewhere along the first base dugout, this photo shows Wes Parker doing what he does best: playing first base with the kind of attention to detail that Keith Hernandez would resurrect later in the decade.
His first baseman’s mitt extended toward first base, Parker is doing his best to hold on Phillies baserunner Greg Luzinski. Of course, we might ask the question as to exactly why he is holding on the man known as “The Bull.” Luzinski was never known for his fleet baserunning, not even in the early stages of his career; in 1972, he stole exactly zero bases. For some reason, Luzinski made four attempts at stealing a base that summer. We can only guess that all four fell woefully short.
Little did I realize when first looking at Parker’s 1973 Topps card that this would be the last Topps card of his career. I didn’t even know that Parker had no intention of playing in 1973. When I later found that Parker had retired, I wondered why. He was only 32. He was still a supreme defensive first baseman. And he batted a respectable .279 in 1972. Why would a player the caliber of Wes Parker call it quits when he was still a name-brand first baseman who was only two years removed from a .319, 111-RBI season? It made no sense.
So why did Parker retire in 1972? Let’s explore that story, but let’s begin chronologically in assessing the baseball life of the gentlemanly Mr. Parker.
After signing with the Dodgers out of Claremont McKenna College in 1963, the switch-hitting Parker reported immediately to Santa Barbara of the California League, where he hit .305 and earned a late-season promotion to Double-A Albuquerque. He hit a lusty .350 with the Dukes, impressing the Dodgers to the point where they brought him to Los Angeles the following spring.
Although Parker was an accomplished first baseman, the Dodgers already had Ron Fairly in a starting role. So they made Parker a utility player, using him as a backup outfielder at all three spots and as a defensive caddy at first base. He appeared in 124 games, but accumulated only 240 plate appearances. He showed little power, with a scant three home runs, and batted a mediocre .257.
After the season, the Dodgers assigned Parker to the Instructional League, where he could work on his hitting and prepare for an expanded role. The Dodgers moved Fairly to the outfield in 1965, clearing first base for Parker. The move also set the stage for some history. The Dodgers debuted an infield of Parker, Jim Lefebvre, Maury Wills, and Jim Gilliam, the first all-switch-hitting infield in major league history.
On a non-historic level, Parker put up Triple Crown numbers that looked paltry: a .238 batting average, eight home runs, and 51 RBIs. But a deeper look at the numbers reveals some value. Parker drew 75 walks to lift his on-base percentage into the .330s, led the league in sacrifice hits with 19, and stole a surprising 13 bases.
Parker was hardly a star, but he did play a subtle role for the Dodgers, who won the National League pennant and earned a World Series berth against the Twins. Although Parker was only 25, he performed admirably in his postseason debut. Playing all seven games against a tough Twins pitching staff that featured Mudcat Grant, Jim Kaat, and Camilo Pascual, he batted .304, drew three walks, and hit his first World Series home run. Parker was now a nationally known name, and more importantly, a member of a world championship squad.
In his follow-up to the World Series, Parker showed his first evidence of having any real power. He hit 12 home runs in 1966, while sacrificing none of his ability to hit for average. In fact, he batted .253, a 15-point improvement over the previous year.
For the second straight season, Parker and the Dodgers advanced to the World Series. This time Parker faced a difficult Orioles pitching staff, one that was even more imposing than Minnesota’s. He batted .231, walked only once, and did not hit a home run, as the Dodgers lost in four.
The next two seasons brought Parker disappointment. With OPS marks of .704 and .626, Parker’s production took a tumble, as it did with most hitters during an era dominated by pitching. Parker hit only eight home runs total over the two seasons, as the Dodgers fell out of contention in the National League. The only consolation could be found in the Gold Glove Award voting; Parker finally received credit for his defensive superiority, winning back to back Gold Gloves.
As offense in general began to enliven in 1969, so did Parker’s game. He batted .278, walked 56 times, and hit a career-high 13 home runs. In addition to winning his third straight Gold Glove, he even received some support in the MVP vote for the first time in his career.
With Parker’s popularity rising and his good looks putting him in demand, he took advantage of an opportunity away from the game. Offered the chance to appear on a popular sitcom, Parker filmed an episode of The Brady Bunch. In the episode that aired in January of 1970, the character of Greg Brady develops an intense crush on his math teacher, Miss Linda O’Hara. Greg, not knowing that she is engaged, allows the distraction to affect his performance in math class.
Toward the end of the episode, Parker makes an unexpected appearance as himself; he is revealed as O’Hara’s boyfriend and fiancée. If there is any solace for Greg, who lives in Southern California with the rest of the Brady clan, it is the opportunity to meet Parker, one of his Dodgers heroes. Parker promises to give Greg two tickets to Opening Day, but only if he can pull off an “A” on his next math test.
Although Parker uttered only a few lines at the end of the episode and appeared on camera for less than a minute, his cameo became an iconic moment in Brady Bunch history. Aired repeatedly in 1970s reruns, Parker’s cameo also became the subject of much conversation among baseball fans. Growing up in Westchester County, my friends and I often brought up the Parker appearance, usually with some level of laughter and whimsy.
Perhaps spurred on by his moment of Brady Bunch fame, Parker put up a career season in 1970. In actuality, Parker credited much of his improvement to working with former Brooklyn Dodger Dixie Walker. Attending the Dodgers’ spring training camp, Walker helped Parker eliminate the uppercut in his swing, instead emphasizing a more level approach.
Walker’s work emphasized some of the efforts that Tommy Lasorda had made with Parker during the previous spring. “Dixie Walker came to camp,“ Parker said many years later. “He worked with me like Tommy had and finally, after weeks of practice, the results were amazing.”
Indeed they were. Playing in a league-leading 161 games, the durable Parker also led the NL with 47 doubles. Despite hitting only 10 home runs, he surpassed the 100-RBI mark, completely uncharacteristic for a singles hitter like Parker. His batting average also exceeded his previous high by 41 points, as he placed fifth in the National League MVP voting. In a season featuring career years for so many National League players (Dick Dietz, Dodgers teammate Billy Grabarkewitz, Cito Gaston, Jim Hickman, and Ted Savage also come to mind), Parker’s increased production was as stunning as anyone’s.
Opposing players took notice of Parker’s transformation as a hitter. “You used to be able to get Wes out without throwing him a strike,” Joe Torre, playing with St. Louis, told Sports Illustrated. “He had a lot of blind spots, and he would swing at bad pitches. He's different now. He’s a good hitter. Good hitters ride out the slumps and don’t panic—they don’t change everything around and get so messed up they can’t do anything. Wes has that kind of confidence.”
Sadly, Parker’s improved offensive production did not last. Over the next two years, which turned out to be his final seasons in the big leagues, Parker’s hitting returned to its previous level. He hit in the .270s each year, walked more than he struck out, and won his fifth and sixth Gold Gloves. While he was nowhere near an All-Star level, he was still a competent player and a terrific defender at first base. Members of the Los Angeles media had good reason to call him “Mr. Steady.”
At the very least, Parker would have qualified to be a backup first baseman, a defensive caddy to the up-and-coming Steve Garvey, whom the Dodgers were about to switch from third base to first base because of continuing problems with his throwing. (Ironically, Parker disliked Garvey to the extreme. Wes considered his young teammate self-centered and insincere, a phony to put it bluntly. It was an opinion that would eventually be shared by other teammates, including Don Sutton.)
So what happened to Parker? Why did he retire at the tender age of 32? Well, there appear to have been several factors at work. First, as Parker has often stated, he had grown tired of the major league lifestyle, the constant travel, the repeated night games, and the generally long hours that needed to be put in at the ballpark. Parker felt there was more to life than spending afternoons and evenings at Dodger Stadium.
Second, Parker had become disenchanted with the Dodgers’ recent struggles. Admittedly spoiled by LA’s appearances in the 1965 and ‘66 World Series, he did not like the idea of going through a rebuilding process with too many unfamiliar faces.
A third factor may have provided Parker with additional incentive to step aside. Parker was one of the few players who did not see eye to eye with Marvin Miller, the head of the Players Association. Although he was the Dodgers’ player representative, Parker did not like the direction of the association, which was becoming more stringent in its demands of ownership and had decided to strike at the outset of the 1972 season.
Still, there may have been more to it than that. Parker was one of four Dodgers who reportedly voted against the strike in ‘72. Knowing this, Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley became concerned about a lack of unity among his players. He wanted to rid himself of the four players (Billy Grabarkewitz, Jim Lefebvre, and Bill Singer have been rumored to be the others) who had voted against the union strike. Both Grabarkewitz and Singer departed in a trade with the Angels, while Lefebvre was released. It’s possible that O’Malley did little to discourage Parker from his retirement plan, rather than have him return to a fractured clubhouse. Additionally, Parker may have been reluctant to rejoin teammates who resented him for his anti-strike stance.
Once Parker opted to leave the Dodgers as a player, he joined the Reds’ broadcast team for the 1973 season. But Parker still had a hunger to play the game. To the surprise of many, he signed a contract to play in the Japanese Leagues, where he hooked on with the Nankai Hawks. He played well in his lone season in Japan, hitting .310 with 14 home runs, but called it quits for good after the 1974 season.
With baseball finally out of his system, Parker took acting classes and began to pursue roles in Hollywood as a follow-up to his Brady Bench debut. In the 1970s, he made guest appearances on shows like Emergency! (the precursor to ER), the short-lived Matt Helm, McMillan and Wife, and Police Woman. He also appeared as himself on Simon and Simon, starred in a new Norman Lear series called All That Glitters, took roles in several TV films, and made one feature film appearance before leaving the Hollywood scene in the mid-1980s. For awhile, he worked with a televised religious ministry
In recent years, Parker has done some voice work for video games, but hasn’t made a film or TV appearance since 1985. Still, he has interest in the industry, as evidenced by his personal collection of rare films and vintage movie posters.
In some ways, Parker has come full circle by coming back to baseball. In 2007, he made some news when he was selected to the all-time Rawlings Gold Glove team, beating out Keith Hernandez for first base honors. In 2009, Parker rejoined the Dodgers as a member of their legends bureau. He also made a memorable speaking appearance at the 2011 SABR Convention in Long Beach, California.
In many ways, Wes Parker has been a renaissance man, as evidenced by his interest in acting and his collection of films and memorabilia. But Parker is a smart man, too, and the smartest renaissance men eventually come back to baseball.
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.