At first glance, they appear to have nothing in common, except that they played major league ball. They never played on the same teams. Hart spent most of his career in the National League, while McAuliffe and Theobald played entirely in the American League. Other than parts of the 1971, ’72 and ’73 seasons, these players hardly even played against each other.
Yet, for me, they share something important. While none were superstars, two were very good players, both underrated in their own way, while the third one made a distinct impression because of his baseball card. In fact, all three of these players made memorable appearances on Topps cards. As much as anything else, those baseball card recollections came to mind when I heard about their deaths.
I heard the news of one of the deaths on May 13, when it was announced that Dick McAuliffe had passed away at the age of 76 due to Alzheimer’s disease. His death was somewhat expected; he had struggled with Alzheimer’s for many years, and it was well known that he could no longer conduct interviews with the media. But for fans of the Detroit Tigers, McAuliffe’s primary team, the news still hit hard.
Fiery and tough, McAuliffe just might have been the most underrated member of the Tigers’ 1968 World Series championship team. On a team with superstar talents like Al Kaline and Denny McLain, veteran standouts like Bill Freehan, Willie Horton and Mickey Lolich, and colorful personalities like Gates Brown, the grinding McAuliffe became easy to overlook. A converted shortstop, he had entrenched himself as one of the American League’s best second basemen by 1968. He had good hands, excellent range, and a deft ability to turn double plays, even though his shortstop partner seemed to be ever changing. As a hitter, McAuliffe hit home runs and drew walks, two of the most important contributions that a batter can make.
I was all of three years old in 1968, so I didn’t really know about the greatness of that Tigers team—or the underrated effectiveness of McAuliffe—until years after the fact. I first became aware of McAuliffe in 1973, when his newest Topps card came out. It became a favorite.
The photo Topps used for this card was at least two years old. Normally, Topps relied on photographs from the previous season (which would have been 1972), but by 1972 the Tigers had ditched the gray flannel road uniforms seen in the picture for new road uniforms featuring multicolored stripes along the sleeves and the pants. Given the presence of the old style Tigers uniform here, this photo must have been taken in 1971, or perhaps even earlier. I’ve always liked the Tiger’s’ old-school road uniform, so it makes this card only more appealing to me.
In a card set where many of the action photos appeared to have been taken by cameras located outside the stadium, the McAuliffe action shot is up close and vivid. As we view McAuliffe from the side, we notice him choking up on the bat (a lost art in today’s game) while anticipating the next delivery from an unknown pitcher. We can also detect a bit of a grimace, a trait that should not be surprising on a player known for his determination and grit.
If there is a downside to the card, it has to do with its inability to completely show us McAuliffe’s unusual batting stance. As he stood in the batter’s box, he held his bat high above his head, in a way that was similar to some of his contemporaries (like Bobby Tolan and Carl Yastrzemski). He also batted out of a stance so wide open that he practically faced the pitcher head-on. As the pitcher began his delivery, McAuliffe simultaneously lowered his bat and closed up his stance, kicking his front (right) leg toward the front of the batter’s box. It seemed impossible for McAuliffe to finish all these movements in time to swing at the pitch, but somehow he did it. Perhaps that open stance gave him a better view of the pitches, since he also happened to own one of most disciplined batting approaches of his era, as evidenced by seasons in which he drew 105, 101 and 82 walks.
His action-packed 1973 card represented my first exposure to McAuliffe. So too did Jim Ray Hart’s 1973 card help me to learn about a player whose prime came in the years before I had started to follow the game closely. As with McAuliffe’s, the Hart card is striking. Seen wearing his usual No. 16, Hart is in the middle of an at-bat against the San Diego Padres. The game, taking place at Candlestick Park, is from the 1972 season, or possibly 1971.
Whereas McAuliffe was photographed before beginning his swing, Hart has already begun to move his bat forward. Let’s examine the torque being exerted on the bat: Hart’s bat appears to be bending as he pushes it forward. It is a sign of Hart’s brute strength. He was a massive slugger, with incredible upper body musculature and thick forearms, and all that is apparent in this clear, focused photograph.
This card, with its wonderful action and lighting, made me interested in Hart, even more so when the New York Yankees acquired the slugger from San Francisco in the middle of the 1973 season. As a young Yankees fan, I always became excited when the team acquired a veteran player in midseason. At the time, I was too young to know that Hart was prematurely past his prime, and was precariously close to the end of his career. But I did know that Hart had been a star with the Giants.
Much like McAuliffe, Hart was an underrated player, overshadowed by teammates with higher profiles. With teammates like Willie Mays and Willie McCovey, Hart became something of an afterthought, but during his prime years, he was a feared slugger. From 1964 to 1968, in an era dominated by pitching, Hart put up OPS marks of .840, .837, .853, .882 and .767. Those numbers become even more impressive in the context of Hart’s ability to play third base, his primary position during his days with the Giants. Granted, Hart wasn’t much of a fielder (as evidenced by his TotalZone rating of -38), but his bat more than carried his defensive shortcomings at the position.
So why did Hart decline so quickly as a player? Problems with alcohol—he was a heavy, heavy drinker—affected his conditioning and performance. He aged badly; by the time he joined the Yankees in 1973, he was only 31, but looked 41.
Hart also had an unusual physique that became the impetus for his nickname. Shortly after he joined the Yankees, veteran second baseman Horace Clarke began calling Hart “Black Angus,” a name that probably would not have received much acceptance in today’s politically correct age. When asked about the nickname, Clarke tried to explain to Dick Young of the New York Daily News. “Did you ever see one [a black angus]?” Clarke asked. “This high, and all beef,” Clarke said, motioning with his hand. “He has arms like a bull, legs like a bull. Strength like a bull.”
Sadly, Hart’s bull-like strength turned into a weight problem. After his retirement from baseball, he continued to drink and put on pounds, becoming obese. In his later years, his health turned bad, a situation exacerbated by his choice to live as a recluse. Failing to answer requests from the Giants to return for reunions, he also turned away from family and friends. This was especially troubling to his former teammates, who remembered Hart as a likeable and pleasant clubhouse presence. Reportedly living alone, Hart died on May 19, only six days after McAuliffe left us. Seemingly forgotten by much of the contemporary baseball world, the reclusive Hart was 74 years old.
Hart’s death, along with the passing of McAuliffe, created headlines, at least for fans old enough to have seen them play. The recent passing of another big leaguer, infielder Ron Theobald, who died in mid-April at the age of 72, didn’t draw nearly as much attention. After all, he played parts of only two seasons (in 1971 and 72) before his major league career ended.
Theobald was a player who persevered. Originally signed by the Chicago Cubs in 1964, he toiled for seven seasons in the farm systems of the Cubs, Minnesota Twins, Cincinnati Reds and Washington Senators before finally making the major leagues in 1971. As the Brewers’ starting second baseman in 1971, he batted .276 and compiled an on-base percentage of .342. For a middle infielder of that era, those numbers were respectable. He was also an excellent bunter, as evidenced by his league-leading 19 sacrifice hits. Yet, none of these tidbits are why I remember Theobald. He always comes to mind because of his distinctive 1972 Topps card. As luck would have it, it was the only card of Theobald that Topps ever produced.
It’s appropriate that Topps showed Theobald pretending to bunt, but our focus should really be on his face. When Topps took this photograph, Theobald was in his late 20s, but he looks more like he’s in his early 60s. Some people have joked that he appeared so old that he must have been the manager of the Milwaukee Brewers, or maybe one of the coaches, but not one of the players. Theobald looks so shopworn here that I wondered if one of the Brewers coaches decided to have some fun with Topps and stand in for the second baseman.
In actuality, this card is not a case of mistaken identity; it’s just a bad photograph. I’ve seen other photographs of Theobald from this time period, and in those photos, he looks darker and younger than the “old man” on this card. Maybe there’s just too much sunlight here, or perhaps the angle makes Theobald look older than his birth certificate would have indicated.
When I learned of Theobald’s death, I not only thought about his card, but I read some of the obituaries to learn more about him. Based on everything that was written, Theobald was an exceedingly nice man, particularly with fans whom he was meeting for the first time. If for no other reason, he should be celebrated for that.
It’s funny how we remember obscure players like Theobald, who played so briefly, but stick with us because of their baseball cards. Hart and McAuliffe had longer careers, but their cards solidify their reputations even further. While the deaths of these three players were unrelated to each other (and who knows if they ever even talked to each other), these players all find common ground through those small pieces of cardboard.
Over the years, some people have asked me why I hold onto these old cards, particularly the ones that have little financial value. They are worthless, I am told. They take up too much space.
Those critics miss the point entirely. These cards help me remember. When I hear news about these players, whether it’s about their death or just about their attendance at a baseball card show, or better yet, when I get to meet them for the first time, the images from these cards are what comes to mind. Those card images motivate me, not only to revisit my youth, but to learn more about these players and their stories.
The critics are wrong. These cards aren’t worthless. To a baseball fan, particularly a middle-aged one, they mean just about everything.
References and Resources
- Biographical player files at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library