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Major League Leading Firemen, 1975

March 12, 2008
  
If the history of star relief pitchers was the history of rock and roll, this card might be something like a snapshot taken of two young duck-tailed hep cats at Sun Records in 1954. Each moment in question has rich historical roots, antecedents such as Hoyt Wilhelm and Firpo Marberry and Dick “The Monster” Radatz feeding into one story as Robert Johnson and Bill Monroe and Big Joe Turner feed into the other. But with Sun Records, 1954, and Major League Leading Firemen, 1975, the histories are poised to become something all their own, to catch fire.

In this analogy, Al Hrabosky would be Carl Perkins, the pioneer of a savage new style that would bring him a brief, hot fame that would fade, leaving him years later largely forgotten by the general populace. And Goose would be Elvis, the one-name star who in some ways absorbed the style of his daring contemporary on his way to prolonged success and widespread immortality. Just as Carl Perkins was first and therefore most striking to snarl the threat not to step on his blue suede shoes, Al Hrabosky was first to close out games with motorcycle gang facial hair and the bristling malevolence of a starving caveman bent on breaking the neck of and feeding on a saber-toothed tiger.

As a kid I was mesmerized and a little scared by the images on This Week in Baseball of Hrabosky stomping around behind the mound before pitches and shouting and gesticulating after pitches. But the key to his brief, hot fame–as with Carl Perkins–was that he was, at least briefly, really good. In fact, as good as Rich “Not Yet Goose” Gossage was in 1975, Al “The Mad Hungarian” Hrabosky was probably a little better. In 1976, when this card commemorating their success (albeit with a points system that was not explained and that few understood) came out, Hrabosky fell back to earth, but not as much as Gossage, who was moved from the bullpen to the starting rotation, where he floundered, posting a 9 and 17 record. At that point, if you had told a casual baseball fan that one of these men would someday make the Hall of Fame while the other would fade into relative anonymity (as evidenced by his unsponsored $10 page on baseball-reference.com), the casual baseball fan probably would have guessed that Hrabosky, not Goose, would be going to Graceland.

37 comments

  1. 1.  It looks like “points” were just wins plus saves. Rollie Fingers was one point behind Gossage, preventing this from being the best moustache card of all time.


  2. 2.  1 : Yeah, you’re right. I didn’t know that when I was a kid, though, so the “points” thing was kind of mysterious.

    In my (strained) analogy, Rollie would have to be Bill Haley, I guess.


  3. 3.  I see Fingers as more of a Chuck Berry type. He was really good for a long time but didn’t seem as big of a star as Elvis/Goose. Later in life he had tax problems.


  4. 4.  3 Yeah, Chuck Berry’s a much better fit.

    I’ve got the Quiz as Buddy Holly–witty and great, life tragically cut short.


  5. 5.  I was just thinking about Quiz too, but I had him as Brian Jones. The Royalling Stones were still pretty good for a few years, but, while they have their moments, they’re never going to be that good again.

    Bobby Thigpen is the codpiece guy from Cameo.


  6. 6.  Thanks for this card! I haven’t thought of the Mad Hungarian in years, but he was top of the mind in my youth.

    Also, doesn’t Al look illustrated? Does that support your analogy, as Carl Perkins might be more likely to be immortalized in drawing, while the thousands of pictures of Elvis survive on every teen age girls’ walls?


  7. 7.  Hoyt Wilhelm as Johnny Cash? Not only were they still active players as old men, but they were still really damned good.


  8. 8.  7 : I can see that. I had Wilhelm slotted in as Bill “Blue Moon of Kentucky” Monroe, because he predated the Goose-Sutter-Fingers era of relief-pitcher-as-star. Monroe, like Wilhelm and Cash, also went on and on and on and on and was fantastic.


  9. 9.  1) Whom, on the baseball side, lines up with Jerry Lewis?

    2) Whom, on the rock’n’roll side, lines up with Lindy McDaniel?
    (That is, if McDaniel — a well-known Christian — lines up with anybody … a gospel artist, maybe?)


  10. 10.  Whoops. That should be Jerry LEE Lewis, not Jerry Lewis. Just to make it clear.


  11. 11.  5 That would be Larry Blackmon of Cameo…


  12. 12.  I’d go with Jeff Reardon as Jerry Lee Lewis.

    I’m trying to come up with a match for Eckersley. The closest I can think of is Ricky Nelson.


  13. 13.  Oh, and Ryne Duren is Jim Morrison.


  14. 14.  Or maybe Eck is George Harrison. He was successful in two distinct parts of his career and his wife ran off with his close friend. I guess George’s Kirk Gibson is that guy who broke into his house and stabbed him.


  15. 15.  Wouldn’t George Harrison’s Kirk Gibson be Eric Clapton, who wrote a famous song about being in lust with Harrison’s wife?


  16. 16.  George’s Kirk Gibson is whoever stepped on a cord (or whatever) that caused the end of his guitar solo in All You Need Is Love, what should have been a shining moment for him, to be forever lost.


  17. 17.  In 1975, 5′ 8″ Freddy Beene recorded one save, a wild extra inning beauty…which would make him the equal of 5′ nuttin” Lil Jimmy Wages who recorded his wild R/B sider “Take Me From This Garden Of Evil” for Sun.

    Sam Phillips sat on the Wages song for years after determining it was “too wild” to be released…unlike Freddy Beene who was released in 1976.


  18. 18.  I was just thinking to myself, “wow, that was a Repozesque comment.” And then I looked at the poster’s name and holy shit, it’s Repoz!


  19. 19.  15 : I’d go with Rick Manning as Eric Clapton to Dennis Eckersley’s Harrison. Manning Layla-ed Eck when they were both on the Indians.


  20. 20.  It has been a long time since I have heard the term “firemen” used to describe closers.


  21. 21.  20 : I thought the very same thing and actually was going to make that the focus of the post until I got sidetracked into the Carl Perkins tangent.

    I even looked up “fireman” in the American Heritage dictionary. It’s there, the fourth definition: “a relief pitcher.”

    I have a sense of when the term started to fall out of use–it was gradual, tapering as the specialization of bullpens increased and bullpen aces became one-inning “closers”–but I’m not sure when the term began. Whenever it began, I believe that it crested in the ’70s and early ’80s with the guys pictured here and Fingers and Tekulve, etc. I like the term better than closer, just as I like (on a level of pure enjoyment) the way relief aces were used then better than now, “closer” being a term borrowed from the more predatory realms of capitalism (like Pacino’s character in Glengarry Glen Ross) and “fireman” of course being someone turned to in a desparate situation, the world collapsing.

    Ah, hell, now I’m in my forties I might as well completely embrace the following line of thinking: Everything was better in the old days.


  22. 22.  “And then I looked at the poster’s name and holy shit, it’s Repoz!”

    he-he…long time, Eric.


  23. 23.  Goose was heard from recently on the subject of Billy Crystal suiting up for the Yankees (quote from an MSNBC story linked to on Bronx Banter):

    “It doesn’t bother me,” the hard-throwing Goose said. “Of course, if I pitched to him, I’d flip him. I’d knock him down. And that would be the end of it.”


  24. 24.  I wonder if it is even genetically possible for baseball players to be born and then grow up to look like these “firemen” that are being discussed? I think Rod Beck was the last of this lineage and he unfortunately passed away.


  25. 25.  I’m going with Pat Boone for Lindy McDaniel. Both popular, both played forever, both contemptuously regarded by their peers…Bouton mocked McDaniel in Ball Four and I’m sure he wasn’t alone in doing so. Of course, McDaniel was actually a good if not great pitcher but will anybody out there defend Pat Boone’s music?

    Who’s Roy Orbison? Perhaps Tekulve, if only for being a strange looking man that wore dark glasses.

    Hrabosky has been a Cardinals broadcaster for many, many years. I’m rather surprised that nobody has mentioned this…as a Cubs fan, I’m keen to ascribe it to the inability of those half-witted, slack-jawed Cardinal fans to take an interest in a blog as intelligent as Josh’s…but really, the Cardinals have such a huge following, I’m surprised that a Cards fan hasn’t popped up to mention that fact.

    Hrabosky was Jack Buck’s broadcast partner for awhile, a very odd combination.


  26. 26.  24 : Yes, the gradual extinction of the wild hairy Firemen gave way to the era of Mariano Rivera, who I always thought resembled in his unflappable (lack of) mannerisms the emotionless android superhero Vision (of the Avengers).

    25 : I’d vote for Tekulve as Orbison. Besides the glasses and odd “aura of loner” appearance, the effectiveness of each resided in part in strange abilities that were, in the context of their chosen fields, almost effeminate: with Orbison the ability to hit notes more often associated with large-lunged women in Viking helmets, and with Tekulve the ability to throw (practically) underhand.


  27. 27.  26 Thor could have been Goose Gossage to the Vision’s Mariano Rivera especially in the issues where Thor rocked the huge ‘stache. You are certainly right about Rivera’s resemblance to the Vision.


  28. 28.  Hey, was Hrabosky really Hungarian? His name sounds Slavic, maybe Ukrainian.

    This just occurred to me, after 30 years of knowing him as “The Mad Hungarian”.


  29. 29.  As a Cards fan who watches Hrabosky nightly from April to October and who drives by Hrabosky’s bar on my way to work every morning, I forget that the Mad Hungarian (yes, he’s ethnically Hungarian) is relatively anonymous outside the 314 area code.

    I’d address Zernialophile’s Cards fan baiting, but I’ve got to go clean the memorabilia from the many, many WS titles and pennants the Cards have won in my lifetime (not to mention my parents’, grandparents’, and greatgrandparents’ lifetimes).


  30. 30.  If he had pitched a generation or so earlier, I would suggest Steve Howe = Bobby Fuller.


  31. 31.  29 Fan-baiting aside, I grew up in downstate Illinois so I also forget the “relative anonymity” of Hrabosky. When you see a nationally-televised game from St. Louis, it always seems like the announcers comment on how well-supported the Cardinals are despite it being a “small market.” While technically being a small market, the Cards always had great, widespread regional radio coverage back in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. As a result, huge parts of the Midwest, the Ohio Valley, and the South predominantly root for the Cardinals. Which means that if those Sun Records boys were baseball fans, they probably cheered for the Cardinals.

    Like Hrabosky, Harry Caray was a Cardinals announcer for a very long time and, sure enough, one of the rockabilly boys was apparently a fan of his…


  32. 32.  Lee Smith as Muddy Waters? There’s the Chicago connection, and between playing for the Cubs and failing to make the Hall of Fame, Smith definitely knows the blues…


  33. 33.  31 : Great clip. Thanks for sharing that.


  34. 34.  One of the most entertaining at-bats I ever saw was Reggie hitting against Hrabosky, when the Mad Hungarian act was in full flower. Al walked to the back of the mound, rubbing up the ball manically and angrily, muttering to himself. Then he slammed the ball into his mitt and charged up onto the rubber, ready for the kill.

    And Reggie asked for time.

    When he stepped back into the box, Hrabosky had to start the whole routine over again. Stomped to the back of the mound, rubbed up the baseball angrily, muttered to himself, slammed the ball into his mitt, charged back onto the rubber. And Reggie stepped out again, grinning.

    I don’t for the life of me remember how long this went on – it had to be three or four times – or who finally caved, or how. By that point I was laughing so hard it didn’t matter.


  35. 35.  34 : If the at-bat was in the regular season, Hrabosky got him out. Reggie faced him six times during the ’78 and ’79 regular seasons and was 0 for 6 (with two RBI). In the playoffs, of course, Reggie went deep:

    http://tinyurl.com/2rtac7


  36. 36.  35 From the New York Times, 5/14/78:

    Jackson, meanwhile, had also starred in the only off-beat element of this game, a waiting contest with Al Hrabosky, the relief pitcher who likes to give himself a pep talk behind the mound before pitching…

    …Hrabosky came in to face Jackson. Every time Hrabosky stepped back, pumped himself up and climbed back on the hill ready to be ferocious, Reggie called time and stepped out himself.

    Eventually, the count reached 3-2 and Reggie delivered the run with a solid fly to center.


    Thanks to the sac fly and the home run, Reggie’s career line against Hrabosky (including postseason) is a rather remarkable .125/.111/.500.


  37. when i think “fireman”, i think of bruce sutter
    he had some decent facial hair as well…



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