Vada Pinson

April 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.


  1. I always heard how Pinson was one of the great “What Ifs” in baseball, but he played a lot longer than I realized. He must have been a great “tools” guy to impress people so much because I noticed, looking him up on B-R that he made a lot of outs. Is it possible time as actually enhanced his reputation greater than what it should be to the point he’s joined the Rusty Greer so-underrated-he’s-overrated category?
    I need Rob Neyer here.

  2. Whereas Bert Blyleven played for mediocre teams that likely hindered his pitching statistics and HOF cred, Vada Pinson probably suffered the same kind of fate with his hitting statistics while playing in weak Indian, Angel, and Royals line-ups late in his career. The left side of the 1973 Angels infield (2B, SS, 3B) that he played on hit a combined 2 HR’s! I’m guessing it wasn’t hard to pitch around him with that lack of production.

  3. Bill James ranks him as the 18th best centerfielder of all time, just behind Richie Ashburn and Fred Lynn and just in front of Hack Wilson, Hugh Duffy, Cesar Cedeno, and Amos Otis. James has a good writeup about him that includes the info that he was a childhood best friend of Frank Robinson and a devoted trumpet player (I wonder if he was as good as Carmen Fanzone). James believes Pinson was considered by some to be a disappointment because he had such a blistering start to his career and because, more significantly, “the pitchers took control of the game in 1963, cutting into everyone’s numbers, and making ‘perrenial disappointments’ of many of the young players of that era, including Willie Davis, Frank Howard, and Norm Cash.”

  4. Ahh, the sweetness of the 1972 set. I love it still; I’m not sure if I can think of another sports card set that used such a daring typeface. It oozes that pop-psychedelia of pinball machine graphics and Sesame Street animation.

    I too remember being fascinated by Pinson’s numbers, but it was more in reference to his 1976 card (http://tinyurl.com/dkoujy). Only a few players each year needed a special microtypeface to vertically crunch their yearly stats into the card space, and he was one of them. (1979 McCarver was another that comes to mind). Imagining these guys playing in say, 1959 was mind-blowing to an 8 year-old…it might as well have been the 18th century.

  5. My favorite Vada Pinson story (which I remember from an old Sport magazine article): Pinson is up for his first big-league spring training for the Reds. Jimmy Dykes is coaching first base, and apparently because of his name, and because he was very shy and never spoke, Dykes thought he was Hispanic. So Pinson reaches first base, and they have this exchange:

    Dykes: Vada, the batter, he hit, you run. He no hit, you no run. Comprende?

    Pinson: Perfectly, Mr. Dykes.

    Dykes: Where the hell are you from?

    Pinson: Oakland, California, Mr. Dykes.

  6. Howard and Cash had strong OPS+ numbers throughout the 1960s but Davis and Pinson did not. Davis put up four seasons with an OPS+ of under 100, including a dismal 76 in 1965.

    Pinson seems really hurt by the trade away from Crosley Field. Lifetime there he had a .302/.347/.494 mark which are fantastic numbers for a CFer. Meanwhile, Cleveland Stadium, the park he had the next most PA, Pinson had a .275/.311/.455 mark. In 1969, his first and only season with the Cardinals, Pinson had a .667 OPS+ in St. Louis.

    The Reds traded Frank Robinson because they thought he was an “old” 30. Seems like maybe that distinction fit Pinson better.

    Finally, I think you and Baseball-Reference.com should work out a deal. All of your articles should link to the player page over there and for all of the players you have a piece about, their BB-ref page should link to your articles. I think it’s win-win.

  7. Pinson’s wearing a Cleveland uni here, airbrushed. They only wore the shadowed numerals for one year, 1970. He’s in Yankee Stadium, and the Tribe played there in April, June, and September in 1970. The sleeves (and those of his teammates–see other Indians in the ’71 set in the same spot) tells me to throw out June, and the temps during the September series were in the 80s. On Saturday, April 11th, the high was 50, low 30. The Sunday was slightly warmer. No precip either day, and there are blue skies in the pics. I’d say Saturday 4/11/70 is the day. Pinson went 1 for 3 with a walk in a 3-0 win.

  8. Josh, you pegged Pinson perfectly for me, I always associated him with Tony Oliva and of course Vida Blue due to his name. It’s interesting that he was once traded for Jose Cardenal and another time traded for Alex Johnson. Both players who, like Pinson had their best years in the ’60s and early ’70s and by the time we saw them were basically run of the mill players. Great job as always.

  9. “Oakland, California, Mr. Dykes.”

    And he was born in Memphis, Tennessee.

  10. Ah, Carmen Fanzone! Back in 1966-68, Carmen played for Pittsfield, MA – the AA affiliate of the Red Sox. He lived with a friend of mine and his parents during the season. My friend was about 7 or 8 during that time. Can you imagine having a professional ballplayer living with you when you’re in Little League? Carmen would have been about 23-24 years old then. My friend’s parents say he was the best houseguest. Maybe he reads this blog or googles his name and finds this reference!

    As for Pinson – I too thought he was Dominican or something when he played. I only realized it later that he was born in the US.

  11. I knew while I was writing the list of guys I associated Vada Pinson with (a list that shows me to have been under roughly the same misperception as Jimmy Dykes and pieman 1121) that I was forgetting somebody, and finally last night as I was drifting off to sleep the missing name hit me: Cesar Tovar.

  12. I always linked Rico Carty and Cesar Tovar in my mind.

  13. Great entry, Josh. It reminded me of ’72 when at the age of 6 I moved from NYC to the Bay Area and began to notice baseball when I started little league on the Mill Valley Grasshoppers. Becuase our colors were green I became an A’s fan. What struck me then about the A’s were the names: Vida, Blue Moon, Catfish, Fingers – what the hell was going on?! Blue Moon? I remember thinking his face must have been huge, like a gigantic frying pan – and blue? Reggie made it easy to be an A’s fan and the Coliseum was a strange place to visit as a 6 year old (partially because we traveled the hugely long San Rafael bridge to get there and mostly because it was named the COLISEUM). Eventually I became a Giants fan due to Bobby Murcer, the Count (Montefusco – great post earlier Josh), Chris Speier and they played in a park that had its own hawk (the name for the wind that kicked in over the bay and gave the ball extra movement).

    Josh – have you ever entered a post about managers? It would be interesting to read comments about coaches we’ve had as well as the impact managers have on a club.

  14. thunderfan24:
    Yes, I totally link those two as well; however, though I link Vada Pinson with Cesar Tovar and link Cesar Tovar with Rico Carty, I do not link Rico Carty with Vada Pinson.

    Good question about managers. I’ve cast a bit of view toward them now and again (off the top of my head, Billy Martin, Bobby Cox, Sparky Anderson, and Jeff Torborg have been featured, though I probably wasn’t able to stay on point about them for very long, if at all; I’m sure I’ve also taken some swipes at Don Zimmer). And I’ve mentioned a few of my own coaches in passing, including one you might remember, who I called “probably the best coach I ever had”: https://cardboardgods.net/2008/04/08/oscar-zamora/

    I’ll definitely try to get a conversation going soon about that subject, though. Thanks for the suggestion.

  15. Remembering that pizza joint made me cringe; if only I’d spent as much concentation on my studies as I did its Asteroids game.

    Buzz was the coolest…always be proud you lettered in ultimate!

  16. awesome one. i love the 72 series. the air-brushed hat is one of my favorite features of the old cards not to mention the constant presence of yankee and shea stadiums in the background.

  17. In my childhood baseball version of iTunes’ “Genius” software Pinson comes up in the same batch of players as Amos Otis, Hal McRea, and Al Oliver.

    The ’72 cards were very cool!

  18. Wisconsin—you can really turn a phrase! Like Josh, I began collecting cards in the mid-70’s and then somehow acquired a few random cards from the early 70’s. You can’t beat the ’72 Topps typeset and your description of the ’72 set is spot-on: “pop-psychedelia of pinball machine graphics and Sesame Street animation.” The airbrushed cap and blurry Yankee Stadium backdrop is a heady combination.

  19. And I just noticed the original frieze. This must be one of the last card photo taken at the Stadium prior to the renovation.

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