Vada PinsonApril 27, 2009
Soon enough, I’ll resume using my remaining 1975 MVP cards to continue moving back through the past, beyond the usual narrow scope (1975–1980) of my collection, but I wanted to linger a little longer on the subject of the 1972 cards. For most of my life, I only had one 1972 card, the faded Tommy Helms shown on this site last week. But a couple years ago my mother-in-law, Patty, made a gift to me of some 1972 cards that were all in better shape than any of my own cards.
Vada Pinson was the best player in the new mother-in-law wing of my collection, but I don’t know if I can say that I understood this immediately. I had a notion about the kind of player Pinson was, but it was a distorted notion, based in large part on when I started collecting baseball cards. Before I got this card, I had spent most of my life with just one card for Pinson, a bland 1975 card showing him as a mostly anonymous Royal mixed in between Cookie Rojas and Tony Solaita. He did have an unusual, even dashing, name, but at that time there were other similarly unusual names that allowed me to lose whatever grasp I might have had on the distinct character of Vada Pinson. He existed in an exotic but blurry continuum along with Vida Blue and Von Joshua and all the Alous and even Tony Oliva and by extension Tony Solaita and, at the far fringes, Orlando Cepeda. This is generally a pretty good batch of players, of course, but because of when I was born and when I became savvy about baseball I was able to pull only Vida Blue completely free from that scrum, and that had to be largely because he continued to be a baseball star throughout the 1970s (plus he was the only pitcher, and moreover his name featured in the title of a year in the baseball encyclopedia that I studied incessantly: “Fast and Blue and Wait ’til Next Year”), whereas all the others either remained comparatively marginal or had slipped out of view by the time I started paying really close attention.
If I had studied the back of Vada Pinson’s 1975 card, I would have seen that he didn’t deserve the neglect of my attention, but for some reason it must not have made that much of an impression on me. That year, my first studying the backs of cards, I guess you had to be a slugger of the magnitude of Harmon Killebrew to guarantee that I would be drawn again and again to your numbers. The numbers had to be tiny (connoting extreme longevity) or garish (connoting mammoth home run power) or—in the case of Killebrew and Hank Aaron, to name two of a small group—both. Pinson’s numbers weren’t quite either, so he slipped into the peculiar obscurity of the star players of the decade directly adjacent to “my” decade. I feel as if I know baseball in the 1970s well, at least in a flawed, idiosyncratic way, but baseball in the 1960s is a shadowy collection of low-scoring offenses, dominating and intimidating pitchers, black and white action photography, and the fascinatingly horrifying story of Juan Marichal beating Johnny Roseboro in the head with a bat. The nuances of the decade, such as what must have been the thrilling all-around game of Vada Pinson, are lost to me.
If I had owned this 1972 card as a child, I feel I would have had a better window into that decade in baseball history. For one thing, there was a number on this card that was certainly garish enough to have gotten my attention. This number was beyond the scope of numbers on the 1975 card, which brings me to a further appreciation of the lurid ungainly circus that was the 1972 set: The 1972 cards seemed to have included minor league statistics not merely as a space-filler on the cards of unproven players but as a rule, for every player. I love this feature, as it makes the presentation of the minor league experience into something more than just a possibly deadly rash on the backs of marginal players’ cards. For example, with Vada Pinson, it shows that the man who would be a star throughout the decade in the majors got a start of legendary proportions as a star in the minors: In his second year of professional baseball, in a fittingly mellifluous locale called Visalia, during a season in which he didn’t turn nineteen until August, Pinson scored 165 runs. That garish number is accompanied by others on the same line: 40 doubles, 20 triples, 20 home runs (what symmetry!). He also knocked in 97 runs and batted .367.
The beauty of that incredible year was that it repeated itself in slightly muted terms throughout the following years as Pinson racked up the extra-base hits and RBI and runs. According to baseball-reference.com, the player most similar to him his first year in the majors was Mickey Mantle, then for the next several seasons his most similar player was his 1970s counterpart in power-speed combo, Cesar Cedeno, then he settled in for several seasons in which his most similar player was Hall of Famer Al Kaline before spending his last years mimicking the stats of a late-career Roberto Clemente.
By the time this blurry 1972 card came out, he was starting to wane. Had he been able to produce at his customarily high level for just a couple more seasons, he would have gotten 3,000 hits and been enshrined into the Hall of Fame, like Kaline and Clemente. As it turned out, the hints of creeping anonymity that mark this card, particularly in the cap on his head that has been doctored into blankness, would foretell the erosion of his stature in the minds of baseball fans. Fittingly, the stands behind Vada Pinson seem to be dissolving.