When I was entering high school, I moved from Cleveland to Charlotte and soon became good friends with Rob, who was the other biggest baseball fan at our high school. Rob collected baseball cards. I mean he REALLY collected baseball cards. I used to think I collected cards when I was young, but that mostly involved buying packs and complaining about how many Sixto Lezcanos there were and flipping those cards and ruining the good ones by leaving them in my jeans for the wash and shoving the other cards in shoeboxes.
Rob was a COLLECTOR, the first I’d ever known. Collecting, I found, involved notebooks filled with baseball cards protected by cool cellophane sheets. This involved special hard plastic displays for particularly important cards. And, more than anything, collecting required a detailed knowledge of what is known as the rookie card.
Before I met Rob, I had no idea what “rookie card” even meant. It is, of course, the first baseball card released for a baseball player. The whole rookie card concept has grown more complicated as the years have gone on and ten million different companies started producing baseball cards. But for many years, the one baseball card company was Topps, and the rookie card was the first Topps card ever issued.
Some of these could be odd cards. For instance, this is Dale Murphy’s Rookie Card.
I actually thought that the one that follows was Dale Murphy’s rookie card, but not surprisingly a brilliant reader (who undoubtedly collects baseball cards) noticed my blunder right away. The top card is a 1977. The following is a 1978.
As you can see, Murph only takes up one-fourth of the card. This IS (I think) Lance Parrish’s rookie card (he was an excellent catcher for years) and it’s ALSO Bo Diaz’s rookie card (he played in two All-Star Games) and it’s ALSO Ernie Whitt’s rookie card (he played in an All-Star game too). This is a complete fluke, by the way. Most of the time on these future stars cards there isn’t even one All-Star listed, much less four.
This card would be more representative of a typical future stars card.
Anyway, sometimes the rookie cards are broken up like this with multiple players on there Sometimes, though, they are full cards of the player. Whatever they look like rookie cards are, for some reason, more valuable than other cards. This was especially true in the 1980s and 1990s, when there was a baseball card bubble. Rob seemed to me like a Wall Street trader for baseball cards. He was always looking for players who looked like breakout stars and tried to buy a bunch of the players’ rookie cards — you know, as much as a 15-year-old boy without a job could buy.
Anyway, one day he showed me that he had page after page after page of 1971 Bert Blyleven cards. I think he had 63 of them.*
*Notice how that year Topps decided to spell players names without capitalization. Kind of the e e cummings of baseball card sets.
When I asked him why he had so many, Robert shocked me with something I’ll never forget. He was the first one to tell me that Bert Blyleven was going to the Hall of Fame.
This idea utterly befuddled me. I considered myself a pretty big baseball fan at the time, and Blyleven was pitching for my Cleveland Indians at the time. And while there weren’t many things I was sure about in my early teenage years, I was pretty confident that Styx was better than REO Speedwagon, that Justine Bateman would want to marry me if she ever met me and that Bert Blyleven was not a Hall of Fame pitcher.
But Rob showed me a simple formula that would, in kind of a weird way, change the way I saw baseball. Understand this was long before Baseball Reference or Retrosheet or, you know, the Internet. Baseball numbers were all but impossible to find unless you looked at baseball cards or (as I eventually did) unloaded 60 bucks or whatever for the enormous Baseball Encyclopedia. The year was 1982, and we were looking at 1981 baseball cards, you know, the ones with the little baseball caps in the corner.
Rob showed me: Blyleven was born in April 1951 which means he had would turn 31 around Opening Day.
He already had 2,357 strikeouts.
“He’s a guarantee for 3,000 strikeouts,” Rob said. “And that means he’s going to the Hall of Fame.
OK, Rob’s system of matching age and stats did not ALWAYS work. I remember he hoarded Rich Dotson rookie cards for a while. But, I would say, this was pretty advanced thinking for a 15-year-old. I didn’t hear ANYBODY referring to Blyleven as a future Hall of Famer then. It certainly made me look differently at Blyleven. Like I say, I think it made me look differently at baseball too.
Blyleven got his 3,000th strikeout when he was just 35. He looked like a sure 300 winner after his age 38 season. That year he was fantastic; he went 17-5, with a 2.73 ERA, a league-leading five shutouts. He was probably the second best starter in the American League behind Bret Saberhagen. At that point he had 271 victories — just 29 shy. But he was injured and he was ineffective and he ended up 13 wins short of 300. Those 13 wins probably meant a pointless extra decade of waiting for the Hall.
Why is it that some great players are not appreciated in their time? That’s really one of the great baseball questions. I have one theory. There are players — Steve Garvey is a good example — who are in tune with their time. In Garvey’s time, people cared about 200-hit seasons and playing every day and batting average. Garvey got 200 hits every year, played in a National League record 1,207 consecutive games and hit .300 in seven of eight seasons in his prime. His low on-base percentage (a lifetime .329 on-base percentage), his relative lack of power for a first baseman (he never slugged .500), his shaky advanced defensive numbers — these weren’t only irrelevant at the time, they were all-but nonexistent. The year Garvey ran away with the 1974 MVP, he finished 17th in WAR –the list ahead of him included three teammates. There was no WAR then.
Garvey fit his time so perfectly that I think people STILL keep jamming him back into the Hall of Fame discussion even though there are at least a half dozen, maybe a full dozen, non-Hall of Fame first basemen who are better candidates. It just doesn’t make sense/ How could we have thought he was so good then and look back and think he was not as good now?
Blyleven did not fit his time. In an era where a great pitcher meant a 20-game winner, Blyleven won 20 just once (and lost 17 that year). In a time when fastballs were honored, Blyleven threw curves. He was a flake too … not a fun flake like Mark Fidrych but a kind of goofball who lit stuff on fire as a gag and talked too much about being traded and griped a lot about his teams management. One player told me a story of a time when Blyleven, as a gag in front of a bunch of local fans, pretended to poop out a candy bar and then ate it. It wasn’t the best timed stunt. “Great pitcher,” the player told me. “But he’s kind of a jerk.”
Maybe he was a jerk, maybe not — there were a lot of teammates who found him hilarious and fun to be around too — but no matter he just wasn’t viewed as substantial. Seaver was substantial. Palmer was substantial. Hunter was substantial. And Blyleven? “Great curveball,” people said. They meant his pitch. They probably meant his personality too.
But Blyleven WAS a great pitcher. He should have won the Cy Young Award in 1973, when he threw 325 innings with a 2.52 ERA in a good hitters ballpark, pitched a league-leading nine shutouts and won 20 games for a mediocre Twins team. His 9.9 WAR that year was not only by far the best in the league that year, it was actually better than Ron Guidry’s amazing 25-3 season in 1978 and Vida Blue’s MVP season of 1971.
He finished seventh in the Cy voting instead because, well, WAR didn’t exist and that 20-17 record wasn’t too handsome. Catfish Hunter, whose threw 70 fewer innings with an ERA almost a full run higher and a 1.8 WAR finished third, way ahead of Blyleven. Why? He was pitching for the World Champion A’s. So he went 21-5.
Blyleven was almost as good the next year — second with a 7.9 WAR, fourth in ERA, fourth in WHIP, second in strikeouts, second in strikeouts to walk, 19 complete games — and he didn’t get a single Cy Young vote, not even a third place vote. I doubt anyone even considered voting for him. That record again: 17-17.
It was like that again and again for Blyleven. In 1981, the strike season, he again led all pitchers in WAR. Not a single Cy Young vote. In 1984, he went 19-7 — an impressive won-loss record — so the Cy Young voters gave him third place, behind two relievers. In 1985, he led the league in complete games, shutouts, innings, strikeouts — and finished third in the Cy voting again.
All the while he was piling up not just good career numbers, but unreal ones. He would throw more shutouts than Bob Gibson. He would strike out more batters than Tom Seaver or Walter Johnson. As he aged, the curveball had a tendency to hang a little bit more, and he set the major league record for most home runs allowed. People noticed that and maybe held it against him. But over his career, Blyleven really didn’t give up a lot of home runs (six times he actually finished Top 10 for FEWEST home runs allowed). He pitched for five different teams and people noticed that too, maybe held that against him too. Blyleven throughout his career, though, was actually at his best in August and September than the other months, and he went 5-1 with a 2.47 ERA in the postseason.
I’ve always liked the movie “Amadeus” … what I like about the story (and it is just a story, with only hints of truth in it) is how Salieri, the court composer who is so jealous of Mozart, is the only one who truly understands Mozart’s genius. He has been blessed or cursed with enough musical talent to understand Mozart’s brilliance but not enough to make music himself that will survive the years.
I think of this in baseball. Dwight Evans was a better player than most people realized during his time. So was Lou Whitaker and Rick Reuschel and Reggie Smith and Buddy Bell and a bunch of others. Bert Blyleven’s rather astounding career numbers ended up shocking a lot of people because few ever talked about him a great pitcher while he was active The temptation at the end is to think: “Well, the numbers are deceiving; he wasn’t that good.” In this case, I don’t think that’s right. I think Bert Blyleven really WAS a great pitcher. Most of us just didn’t have the gift to see it at the time.