Bobby ValentineFebruary 14, 2012
Between the two of them, Maury Wills and Bill Russell handled the great majority of the shortstop duties for the Los Angeles Dodgers franchise over the first two and a half decades of its existence. Wills arrived in 1959, the team’s second year in Los Angeles, and captained the infield until being traded away before the 1967 season; he returned to the Dodgers in 1969 and remained the starter until 1972, when Bill Russell took over the job for the next twelve years.
Before the 1971 season, the player pictured here arrived in Dodgers camp with the conviction that he would shoulder aside fellow up and comer Russell while wrestling the starting job away from the aging Wills. He mentions both players by name in a February 23, 1971, article titled “Valentine Confident”:
I realize you don’t just step in and move out a star like Maury Wills, but I suspect one of us will be moving to another position. I’m aware that the Dodgers want to make a shortstop out of Bill Russell and move me to third base. Well, no way. I intend to be the Dodgers shortstop for many years.
He can’t be faulted for being confident. He’d been a legendary multisport high school athlete and had just come off a spectacular season at the Dodgers Triple A affiliate where he’d batted .340 with 39 doubles, 16 triples, 14 home runs, and 29 stolen bases. He had also bounced back from two horrific injuries, first from a beaning that came within a quarter inch of killing him and next from an injury to his leg that had doctors seriously wondering whether he’d ever play again. These things didn’t stop him. What chance did Maury Wills or Bill Russell have?
This card from the dusky latter stages of the 1970s makes plain that Valentine’s day never arrived. He’s not wearing Dodgers blue, for one thing, and the “OF” position indicator inside the little baseball icon dangling like a washed-out Christmas ornament from his bat shows that he ended up getting moved as far from shortstop as is humanly possible in baseball without moving a player entirely off the diamond. That latter move is not far away, either, at least going on the diminishing playing time suggested by the meager stream of numbers on the back of the card. The numbers are framed above by personal info, including that Valentine was drafted #1 by the Dodgers, and below by some space-filling prose that has nothing to do with Valentine’s on-field accomplishments: “Bobby’s father-in-law is Ralph Branca, former big league pitcher, 1944–1956.” You might think this gap between great expectations and (at least in terms of his own bold estimations at the start of the career now about end) trivial accomplishment would gnaw at a guy from inside. Valentine does look a little worn on the front of the card, but despite his somewhat forlorn and abandoned surroundings he doesn’t look beaten. By now he knows the drill, so the photographer probably didn’t even have to tell him to pretend he’s waiting for a pitch. He takes his stance and glares out at nothing as if it’s not nothing.