Jeff TerpkoNovember 10, 2008
I have no memory of anyone named Jeff Terpko. You’d think a baseball player from the 1970s who never registered in the mind of someone obsessed with 1970s baseball might be somewhat inconsequential, but it turns out this is not the case. In fact, if I had to boil down to one sentence this endeavor of looking for inspiration and amusement in my shoebox of childhood cards, I might say “No one is inconsequential.” Everyone has a story. Jeff Terpko, for example, had been around for quite a while at the time of this 1977 card, many years and small cities listed in his complete major and minor league pitching record. Right in the middle of Jeff Terpko’s long meandering story, after the listings of his stops in Geneva, Buffalo, Pittsfield, Burlington, Greenville, and Burlington again, is a line at Spokane that has no numbers but just the words “DID NOT PLAY.” I’ve seen this before and have never understood what it means, exactly, and have only wondered what life must have been like for those going through years like that. Terpko was 23 in that year, six years into a pro baseball career and without a taste of the majors, six years of making just enough to eat gas station sandwiches during spine-numbing bus rides. But on he went the next year, going in one year from Pittsfield to Spokane to, as the front of the uniform shown here would have it spelled, TexaS. He spent the year after that entirely in Spokane, but then in 1976 seemed to stake his claim on a major league career by pitching solely for the Rangers, appearing in 32 games and posting an admirable 2.38 ERA. That promising number is at the lower right of the back of the card. At the upper left of the card is an enigmatic line that could be interpreted as the opposite of unequivocal promise:
“Acq: Traded Player, Ret’d by Phillies. 4-10-71”
Here’s the full transaction, courtesy of Jeff Terpko’s page on baseball-reference.com:
November 3, 1970: [Jeff Terpko was] traded by the Washington Senators with Greg Goossen and Gene Martin to the Philadelphia Phillies for a player to be named later and Curt Flood. The Philadelphia Phillies sent Jeff Terpko (April 10, 1971) to the Washington Senators to complete the trade.
So finally, through the seemingly inconsequential and absurd figure of a player to be named later turning out to be a player already named, we reach the realm of history, or at least what could be considered a footnote to history. I am referring to that most notable player involved in the Terpko for Terpko trade: Curt Flood. Before being involved in the trade that featured two teams treating Jeff Terpko like a bad luck charm, Curt Flood was involved in arguably the most important transaction in baseball history, a trade between the Cardinals and the Phillies that Curt Flood refused to accept. His refusal to report to the Phillies set in motion the end of the reserve clause in major league baseball, a clause that had allowed teams to treat players like chattel (or like Jeff Terpko) for decades. Flood’s good major league career was basically brought to an end by his taking a stand, but the trade listed above did allow him to have a few final largely ineffective at-bats with the Senators in 1971, a season that proved to be a footnote to what eventually came to be seen, because of his brave and self-sacrificing stand, as a historic career.
A footnote to that footnote to that footnote shows that Terpko had a knack for ghosting peripherally at the edges of careers of guys taking stands. Later he was traded for Rodney Scott, who in turn, some years later, was released by the Montreal Expos, which caused Expos teammate Bill Lee to stage a one-man strike against the team. If I remember correctly, Lee first bolted from the stadium before a game to drink beer and play pool for a few innings, though I think he did return when he thought he might be needed in relief. I think the next day he went into the general manager’s office and sat there chanting in a lotus position until the general manager arrived and told him his services would no longer be needed.
Terpko’s exit from the majors happened a few years earlier and was more conventional. He entered a June 2, 1977, game in the sixth inning against the New York Mets. His team, the Expos, was down 6-3. He walked Len Randle, allowed Len Randle to steal second, got Felix Milan to fly out, then walked the bases full and was yanked from the game and never called on again.