Mitchell PageJuly 9, 2009
It’s weird, I just spent the last few months coming increasingly unglued as I labored to finish a book lashing (to use Frederick Exley’s term) “that long malaise, my life” to four packs worth of baseball cards, and the first thing I want to do the day after getting a thumbs-up from my editor on the book is . . . keep writing about baseball cards. It’s like when Corporal Klinger, after spending all that time and energy (and money—a new hairy-leg-baring dress, pumps, and bonnet every week) “bucking for a Section 8,” ended up re-enlisting when his tour of duty (but not Jamie Farr’s contract) was finally up. But the truth is, I have not even begun to scratch the surface of my shoebox full of baseball cards from my childhood in the mid- to late-1970s. For example: Mitchell Page. I mean, I haven’t even mentioned Mitchell Page yet! Not having mentioned Mitchell Page after writing steadily about my baseball cards for nearly three years is like climbing up a trail for a long time and finally coming to a clearing and realizing you aren’t anywhere even close to the top of the mountain.
Eddie Murray won the Rookie of the Year award in 1977, but on closer inspection it seems that Mitchell Page was decidedly more deserving of the prize. The culprit in this injustice, as usually seems to be the case in these matters, was the over-reliance by the scribes of bygone years on what are now referred to, often somewhat sneeringly, as “counting stats,” in this case home runs and RBI. Murray topped Page in those categories (27 to 21 and 88 to 75), and he surely also benefited from being on a marquee team of the era that spent the entire year in a white-hot pennant race with the two biggest media-magnet teams in the league, the Red Sox and Yankees, while Mitchell Page toiled in front of empty seats as the ruins of the formerly dynastic A’s racked up 98 losses. Mitchell Page did at least get some consideration from the voters, coming in second to Murray, but one look at the more accurate indicators of on-base percentage and slugging percentage (listed below in that order) show that Page should have beaten Murray, and that it shouldn’t have even been close:
And that doesn’t even take into account park factors. Murray played his home games in Memorial Stadium, which was not exactly a Valhalla for hitters but which was decidedly superior in that regard to Page’s home stadium, the Oakland Coliseum, where batting averages went to die. The statistic of OPS+, which adjusts for park factors, lends an even more striking contrast between the two rookies: while Murray posted a fine mark of 123, Page racked up a spectacular 154, third in the league behind MVP Rod Carew and Ken Singleton, Murray’s teammate. Which brings up another point that not even OPS+ can account for: while Murray was cozily cushioned in and bolstered by a scary lineup including sluggers such as Singleton and Lee May as well as a host of effective platoon hitters, Page was exposed all alone in a green-yellow desert of a lineup that was barren but for the offensive carrion of the likes of Rob Picciolo and Marty Perez.
And I haven’t even mentioned Mitchell Page’s speed.
I have three Mitchell Page cards. The first, from 1978, includes a trophy in the lower right hand corner identifying him as a member of the Topps All-Star Rookie team. On the back of that card his excellent rookie season is alluded to in a somewhat muted way with the blunt analytical tools of the 1970s-era baseball card statistics, and he is given a highlight moment in text below the statistics, the text describing a big late August day for him at Fenway. My last card of him, from 1980, continues to show the rookie season in stats as well as a steady decline in the two succeeding seasons. The fact that the text below the stats in that card loops back and recycles news of his big late August day in Fenway in 1977 suggests that by then Mitchell Page was running thin on highlights, which indeed he was; after 1980 he never got more than 92 at bats in a season, his swan song coming in a 1984 season in which he got into 16 games, all as a pinch-hitter (meanwhile, that season Eddie Murray reigned as a champion of the world, still a decade and a half from calling an end to his Hall of Fame career).
But of my three cards, the mystery of Mitchell Page most fully resides in the 1979 card shown here, which includes on the back his rookie season stats as well as the stats from the following season, which despite dipping below his debut numbers can still be viewed with some hope, as if they are a temporary dip in a promising career and not the beginning of an unstoppable slide. Below the stats, this electrifying information:
“Established American League record for most consecutive successful Stolen Base attempts with 26 in a row, April 10th through August 13, 1977.”
Had this text not been included, I would never have known or in a million years guessed that at one point Mitchell Page had unstoppable speed. Baseball cards back then didn’t have a column for stolen bases, and the stats that were included showed Page to be a power hitter, and with the exception of Bobby Bonds, who was already in decline by then anyway, there weren’t any power hitters who racked up steals. Moreover, the card photos of Mitchell Page, especially the one in this 1979 edition, where he seems to be dreading that he’ll eventually have to struggle to his feet and trudge to the batter’s box, suggested that the muscular veteran pictured had more in common with a logy grizzly than a spry gazelle.
The inclusion of Page’s stolen base record bestowed on the 1979 card a mesmerizing tension, revealing that oddly old-looking, tired-seeming, possibly declining Mitchell Page was or had once not that long ago briefly been blessed with the combination of physical skills that are generally reserved for a select few players from baseball history whose athletic abilities have bestowed on them an aura of breathless myth, such as Willie Mays, Pete Reiser, and Eric Davis. Would Mitchell Page take what seemed to be just a small step back up to regain his explosive rookie form and join these legendary players in the collective memory of baseball fans? Or for some strange reason would Mitchell Page fade away with barely a trace?