Saturday, November 28, 2009
1965 Topps, A Cardboard Tribute to the Playoffs and the MVP(s)
I recently showed a George Crowe card from 1959 and mentioned that was my favorite set from the 50’s. My favorite set from the 1960’s is perhaps my favorite set of All-Time, the 1965 Topps set. Some call it the “Pennant Set” for the little flag in the corner and that is what initially attracted me to it as a kid. I loved the waving pennant with the team logo and the colored frame around the picture and the player’s name. My parents were dating in 1965, but I was nowhere near to even being a thought at that time, but once I discovered baseball history, ’65 became the most fascinating year to me. After winning the pennant every year to this point in the decade, the Yankees dropped to 6th place in the American League and a team that was a perennial second division club won the pennant in the AL. 1965 was the first year of free agency and the first year for a domed ballpark. The 8th Wonder of the World opened in Houston in 1965. The Braves spent their final season in Milwaukee and Sandy Koufax enjoyed one of the best seasons any pitcher would ever have in baseball history. He won the All Star game, won two games in the World Series, including game 7, he pitched his 4th career no-hitter, which was a perfect game and he led the league in nearly every possible category and was a unanimous selection for the Cy Young Award, again. He was the 1st pitcher to win the award twice and till that point was the only unanimous winner and he won that way both times. He also set a new record for strikeouts in a season with 382. The record would stand for 8 years until Nolan Ryan upped the mark by 1 in 1973. Yeah, it was an amazing season… I don’t own Koufax’s card, otherwise it would be my hands down choice for best card of 1965. I don’t own any of the amazing rookies in the set either-1965 was the rookie card year for Steve Carlton, Catfish Hunter, Tony Perez and Joe Morgan. I don’t own many cards, but I do own a card of the American League MVP of the 1965 season, a 25 year old shortstop named Zoilo Versalles. To this day I have never said his name out loud, he sounded like a super hero as a kid. I referred to him as Zorro and as it turns out, that was his nickname. Zorro was born in Veldado, Havana, Cuba in December of 1939 and moved to the US to play baseball as a teen. He got his first taste of the Major Leagues with the Washington Senators in 1959 as a 19 year old rookie. He played sparingly early on, but by the time the team moved to Minnesota and became the Twins, Versalles was their starting shortstop and would hold that title from 1961-1967. Over that time he was twice an All Star and also won two Gold Gloves. For the sake of this post I am going to focus on his magical 1965 season where the infielder led the American League in at-bats (666), runs (126), doubles (45), triples (12) and total bases with 308. He also had a .273 batting average, 19 homers and 77 RBI from the leadoff spot. He won a Gold Glove that season, he was an All Star (a reserve, Dick McAuliffe started) and he led the Twins to the World Series. It was an incredible turn around for Minnesota who had finished 79-83 (6th place) under Sam Mele the previous year. In 1965 the Twins would win 102 games, even with a huge drop-off in production from Harmon Killebrew. They got help from scrappy players like Versalles, Bobby Allison and Tony Oliva. Whereas in ’64 Killebrew led the power charge with 49 homers himself, and 5 other players topping 20 homers, the ’65 Twins didn’t win with the long ball. Killebrew still led the team in long balls, but this year he only hit 25. Versalles was the glue of the infield and the sparkplug in the lineup. As the leadoff hitter, he stole 29 bases, but also hit 19 homers. He got on base and scored more often than not, he crossed the plate 126 times that year-19 more times than his teammate Oliva who was second in the AL. Versalles led the Twins to the World Series in an almost worst to first Cinderella scenario. The series lasted 7 games, but in the end the Dodgers pitching staff-led by Sandy “Superman” Koufax was too much for the Twins. Versalles hit .286 with 14 total bases in the series, his only career taste of postseason. He had one homer in the Series, which came in game 1 when Mudcat Grant beat Don Drysdale 8-2 to give the Twins the early advantage. Jim Kaat beat Koufax in game 2, but the Dodgers rallied and won the next 3 games behind amazing pitching performances from Claude Osteen, Drysdale and Koufax who each went the distance for the win. Mudcat Grant came back in game 6 and beat Osteen 5-1 in game 6 to even the series at 3 games each, but in game 7 it was all Sandy Koufax. In game 7 Jim Kaat started for the Twins against Koufax and till the 4th inning both pitches were rolling along and the score was knotted up with both teams shut out. Kaat allowed a homer to Slick Lou Johnson, the Dodgers cleanup hitter and was yanked from the game after 3 innings of work at a 2-0 deficit. Four Twins pitchers combined to shut the Dodgers out over the next 6 innings, but the damage was done. Sandy Koufax pitched a complete game shutout, striking out 10 and allowing 3 hits for his second win of the Series. The Dodgers won in 7 and Koufax allowed just 2 runs in 24 innings of work. Koufax was named the World Series MVP; he won the pitching Triple Crown, the Cy Young Award, was the Major League Player of the Year, won his 3rd World Series ring and finished second in the NL MVP voting to Willie Mays. In the NL it was Koufax’s year, but in the AL it was Versalles. He took home the American League MVP award, edging out his teammate and batting champion Tony Oliva (.321/16/98) and Brooks Robinson (.287/18/80). Tony Conigliaro who led the AL with 32 homers received just 1 point in the voting and finished 33rd in the voting. Versalles selection as MVP is one of the most disputed of the awards history. Many feel that Carl Yastrzemski, who batted .312/20/72 deserved it, some felt that Cleveland’s Rocky Colavito (.287/26/108) deserved it, but most contend that Oliva was the top player on the Twins and deserved the award. Oliva paced the AL in hits with 185 and led the league in batting for the second straight season with a .321 mark. He was a starter in the All Star game the previous year and also won the Rookie of the Year Award and laced a career best 217 hits the year prior. He also had a disappointing postseason (which shouldn’t effect the MVP vote) batting just .192 against Koufax and the Dodgers. Neither Oliva nor Versalles would ever come close to winning the MVP award again. Oliva’s career lasted 15 seasons and he was an All Star in 8 consecutive seasons. Versalles would never be an All Star again. He played 4 full seasons after his MVP campaign in ’65, but never batted above .249. He also never hit double digits in homers or triples again. He had 10 steals in ’66, but was caught stealing 12 times that year. He stopped being a base stealing threat and 6 was his best in his final 4 seasons. After the 1967 season he and Mudcat Grant were ironically traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers for Johnny Roseboro and Ron Perranoski. At this point the Dodgers were horrible, they finished 7th in the NL and although Versalles was the starting shortstop on the team, he batted just .196. The following year the Padres selected him in the expansion draft, but his career had past him. The Twins would return to the postseason again in ’69 and ’70, but would have to wait until 1987 for the franchise’s first World’s Championship. I had really intended on keeping this post focused on Zoilo Versalles-specifically his ’65 Topps card (which is the only card in this post that I actually own), but I just couldn’t. The Koufax card is on my wish list, but I couldn’t resist stealing images of him and Killebrew and about 20 others…. As far as Zorro’s ’65 card, does anyone know what he is doing? It’s a posed spring training shot; he’s crouched, squinting, perhaps in pain. He doesn’t look the guy who would be the most valuable player that year, but he was! As much as I love this set, the photography is at times horrific. I have to be glad (with this Zoilo card) that at least he has a ball cap on. Baseball cards of guys with empty heads aren’t cool. I don’t know, maybe this is a standard pose. A standard pose for a guy who comes from out of nowhere and leads a 2nd division team to the World Series and takes home the MVP award in the process. This is one of the cards that I rescued from Mom and Dad’s house. I think I bought it at a flea market many moons ago. It was in a top-loader that said MVP on it. I know that when I bought the card I have absolutely no idea who Zoilo Versalles was, but getting a card of an MVP from the 1960’s was too much for a young Troll to pass up. When I brought this card home the first thing I thought was: “wow, I wonder how long ago this dude won the MVP, he looks like an old man”. I keep on looking at the card right now and I feel the same way. I just called the wife in here to guess how old this guy was and she said “42”. He doesn’t look like a young man about to have a breakout year. He looks like a very old and weathered fellow. Truth is he is only 24 years old in this photo. He still looks like a coach to me. If not for the giant infielders glove that is forced into the camera I would be sure that he was a coach. I can’t believe the guy was 24 when this photo was taken, but there are a lot of things I can’t believe. I can’t believe that with all the talented players they had, that he was the first Twin to take home the honor. He is actually only one of only 5 Twins to ever win it. He was the first, then Harmon Killebrew took it home in 1969, Rod Carew won it in 1977, Justin Morneau was the MVP in 2006 and this year Joe Mauer became the 5th MVP Twin. I also really can’t believe that he was the first Cuban player to ever win the Award. Since they began awarding the Most Valuable Player in (the Chalmers Award) in 1911, it took 54 years before a Cuban player won it, Versalles being the first. He was the only Cuban to take home the honor for over 70 years until Jose Canseco became the second to do it in 1988. They are the only Cubans to ever win it. You can take it further and notice that he was only the 4th American League shortstop to win. Roger Peckinpaugh was the 1st back in 1925. Player slash manager Lou Boudreau won the Worlds Championship and the MVP with the Indians in ’48, then Phil Rizzuto took home the honor in 1950. 15 years later it was Versalles turn and it took nearly 20 years before another AL shortstop did it. Robin Yount and Cal Ripken won it back to back in ’82 and ’83, Cal did it again in ’91 and Miguel Tejada won it in 2002. In nearly a century only 7 different AL shortstops have won it and Versalles was one of them. In fact, he and Miguel Tejada (active) are the only shortstops (AL) to be MVP and not be in the HOF. Another crazy thing about Versalles, the Twins and 1965 is this. The Twins were the Washington Senators from 1901 until 1960. As the Senators they made the trip to the Fall Classic 3 times. They won it all once in 1925 and made their last appearance in 1933 when they were defeated by the New York Giants. It took 33 seasons before they made it back to the Classic, this time as the Minnesota Twins and of course, they fell to the Dodgers in a 7-game series. In 1969 and ’70 they made the playoffs again, but lost to the Orioles in the ALCS. They didn’t return to the World Series again until the magical season of 1987 when they won it all. They were back in 1991 and won it all again. Since then they have regular playoff contenders, but have not made it back to the Series since. They have been around for 109 seasons and have made it to the Series 6 times, winning it 3 times. 1965 was magical because it was 30+ years since they were there and it would be 20+ years till they made it back. Getting back to Versalles-he was a rookie in ’61 and in ’62 he began to make a small name for himself. He batted .241 with 17 homers and was actually named by someone on the MVP ballot. He finished 21st with 8 points. Of course Mickey Mantle won the award with 234 votes after a season where he batted .321 with 30 homers. Versalles pop as a slick fielding shortstop make him intriguing to the writers. Ernie Banks was a power hitting shortstop in the NL, but in the AL the standard was set for shortstops by guys like Luis Aparacio who never hit more than 10 homers in a single season. Versalles was an Aparacio type fielder and when he swatted 17 longballs, the writers took notice. Detroit’s Dick McAuliffe, who started the ’65 All Star game for the AL took power further than Versalles did (he hit 24 homers in ’64) but he didn’t have the glove or the speed that Versalles possessed. Anyway, that 8 points he earned on the MVP share in 1962 were the only MVP points Versalles earned prior to his selection in 1965-he was never named on an MVP ballot after that either. This gives him the dubious distinction of having the lowest career MVP share of any player who was actually voted MVP. He came out of nowhere in 1962 with the Twins and for the six seasons he was one of the best shortstops in the American League. Starting at 23 years old and continuing till 27 his average season was 156 games with 150 hits, 27 doubles, 9 triples, 13 homers and 11 steals. He also scored an average of 83 runs and had a .248 batting average, while playing gold glove defense. His card says he is 5’10” but I can recall while interviewing Mudcat Grant many years ago, Cat said Versalles was 5’8” in cowboy boots. He also said that Versalles was the biggest complainer in the clubhouse. He was in pain constantly. Despite that, he averaged 156 games a year over 6 seasons. He only missed 2 games during his MVP season and he topped 160 games a year 4 times. It was his back problems that abbreviated his career though. In July of ’66 he was treated for a hematoma in his back and that problem persisted. It was the reason that he was traded to the Dodgers in 1968 and probably the reason that they left him unprotected in the expansion draft. After leaving the Twins in ’68 Versalles bounced around with 4 different teams. He would retire after playing the 1971 season with the Atlanta Braves. He played in just 66 games for the 3rd place Braves, mostly backing up Marty Perez, but also relieved Felix Milan at second as well as a young slugger named Darrell Evens at third base. The Braves released him after the season where he batted just .191, he was 31 years old and it was the 4th time in his career that he batted below the Mendoza line. The bigger problem was that his defense wasn’t good anymore either. He took the ’72 season off and tried to come back in ’73 with the AA Jacksonville Suns of the Southern League. The comeback attempt lasted only 17 games and at 33 years old the former MVP was done with baseball. He still remains the only Twins shortstop to win the MVP Award and is also the only Cuban infielder to earn the honor. I do greatly appreciate anyone who has humored me to the point of reading this “out of control, LONG-ASS” post. I seriously started out intending merely to discuss one of the few cards I own from this awesome set. This post took on a life all it’s own. Like I said pages ago in the opening paragraph, the ’65 set is my favorite from this decade and maybe my favorite of all time. Unfortunately, many of the best cards in the set are also the ugliest. The black and white Steve Carlton rookie isn’t pretty and neither are any of the cards of hatless pitchers. I don’t think that this card of Zoilo Versalles will ever win any award as the prettiest card ever either. Fortunately Zoilo himself won the awards and he took home the biggest, the 1965 American League MVP award. 45 seasons later, Joe Mauer of the Twins took home the same award to Minnesota. Like Versalles was the first and only Twins shortstop to win it, Mauer is the first Twins catcher. I personally think that Mauer will win one or two more before he is done and hopefully he will do it for the hometown Twins and it will remind baseball of the first Twin to do-a fleet footed, slick fielding shortstop with a little bit of pop who crossed the plate almost once a game back in 1965 with a funny name that no one can pronounce, Zoilo Versalles. I do intend on highlighting some of the other awesome ’65 cards that I have stashed in my drawer, but look forward to MUCH SHORTER posts about them. In the mean time, if you want to check out a real blog with real 1965 Topps cards, check this one out. Its written by Kevin, who also brings the blog-o-sphere the Orioles Card of the Day blog. Thanks to the internet for all of the images that I borrowed for this post. There will be more posts about cards I actually own coming soon. PLEASE enter my contest for the most iconic baseball rookie card of the 1980s. The prize is the card that you, the blog-o-sphere choose as the most iconic. Like I had said before, if more than 100 of you vote I will give away three different cards-that is a lot of 80’s iconic rookies, so VOTE PLEASE!!! I wish that I could have had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing the ’65 MVP, but sadly Mr. Versalles is no longer with us. He died at his home in Minnesota in 1995. 11 years after his passing he became the 16th player voted into the Minnesota Twins Hall of Fame. On deck is the ’65 Robin Roberts. I LOVE THIS HOBBY!!!! Thanks for reading. Troll out.