Sunday, March 27, 2011

#123 - Nelson Briles

I am pretty sure that Nelson Briles is mere feet away from the location in which Ken Singleton was on his card which I designated as an ugly one. It looks a little nicer in this photo of Nellie here who appears to be adorned in his home uniform. It's not Three Rivers, nor is it an old photo from Forbes - Nellie was not with the Pirates when Forbes went down in '70 - so it must be the Pittsburgh spring training complex. Regardless of its location, the subject of the photo looks pretty content doing one of those phantom follow through poses the Topps people liked. '73 was a pretty good year for Nellie. While Pittsburgh had a pretty challenging season in the wake of Roberto Clemente's passing, the team was in the race through the last week and Nellie led the staff in wins, complete games, and innings and all starters in ERA

Nelson Briles was signed by the Cards in '63 out of Santa Clara University. He is the second Santa Clara player on this blog - Rich Troedson was the first - and he left school after his sophomore year to play ball. While at Santa Clara he had a big freshman year, going 11-2, which caught the eyes of a lot of scouts. He further raised his profile when in an exhibition game against the Giants he struck out five guys in three innings, including Willie Mays and Willie McCovey. In between he spent the summer of '62 in Canada where he went 16-4 for the Medicine Hat semi-pro team. He then had a very successful first season in Double A Tulsa in '64, going 11-6 with a 2.79 ERA as a starter. That would be his only minor league action.

In '65 the Cards called Briles up to the St.Louis bullpen.He had a pretty good rookie year, posting four saves and also put up decent numbers his sophomore season with six saves and a way better than average ERA, although his record was pretty poor at 4-15. He also did some spot starting in '66 which continued into '67 when he nearly reversed his record. That year he had a very nice start in the pen and when Bob Gibson went down with an injury, Nellie took his spot in the rotation, winning nine straight starts. His 14-5 record and 2.44 ERA earned him some MVP votes and his performance was a big contributor to the Cards reaching the Series that year. He had a real nice Series, pitching a complete game win in the third game and a couple shutout innings in Game 6, a loss. In '68 he had what was probably his finest regular season ,winning 19 with a 2.60 ERA. His '68 Series was not as good (0-1 with an ERA over 5.00). His '69 season was pretty good but the Cards were done with post-season play for a while. In '70 his hamstring went south on him and his poor season led to him being thrown in to a trade with the Pirates (he and Vic Davalillo went for Matty Alou and George Brunet).

Back in the bullpen for most of '71 Briles would make some quality spot starts down the stretch and earn a spot in the Series. He won Game 5 against Baltimore, throwing a two-hit shutout in what many thought was the turning game of the Series. A couple 14-win seasons followed and then came the above trade moving Nellie to the AL.

Kansas City wanted Briles to add a quality arm to its rotation, but it turned out differently. In '74 spring training Nellie tore cartilage in his knee and would win only five games with his worst ERA in four years. In '75 he began the season 4-1 with a 2.92 ERA when a liner by Fred Lynn nailed his elbow in a May game. He initially tried to pitch through it and then sat out all of June and won only two games the rest of the year. After the '75 season Nellie went to the Rangers for Dave Nelson. '76 was a revival year for him: 11-9 with a 3.26 ERA for a losing team. But that was his last hurrah and over the next two seasons he would go 10-8 with an ERA in the mid-4.00s for Texas and Baltimore. He finished with a career mark of 129-112 with a 3.44 ERA, 64 complete games, 17 shutouts, and 22 saves. In the post-season he was 2-1 with a 2.65 ERA and that shutout in his six games.

The front of this Traded card is about the worst one so far. The air-brushed colors are way too florescent and the colors don't match. The background is on a field, which has been a rarity for these cards, so that's nice.

While his immediate future with the Royals was nothing special, Briles did go on after playing to a high profile baseball career. In '79 he began calling Pirates games on TV, which he did for two seasons before moving to the same gig nationally for USA Cable. After three years with USA he broadcast Mariners games for another three years  In '86 he moved to Pirates administration, becoming their director of corporate sales. He was still in that position when at a golf outing in Florida on behalf of the Pirates he had a fatal heart attack. He was 61.

There are some nice props in those star-bullets. It's some signature. It looks like he tried to fit all the letters of his first name in one spot. And that's a great cartoon: Nellie did have an act. He was sort of a Dean Martin-type performer: a little singing, some baseball stories, and some comedy. He actually sang the anthem at one of the '73 Series games.

 On the back, this may be the only time I've seen KC spelled phonetically on a Topps card. All the guys mentioned in the deal have cards. Unfortunately Nellie didn't have quite the expected impact.

A recent HOF inductee gets these two together:

1. Briles and Bert Blyleven '76 to '77 Rangers;
2. Blyleven and Jim Holt '71 to '73 Twins.

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