Monday, January 28, 2013

#490 - Vada Pinson

California had quite a few action shots in this set and I’ve always liked this one. The only complaint about it I have – and this is something sort of endemic to this set – is that it shows the subject, here Vada Pinson, on a swing and a miss, given the ball in the mitt of the catcher, who I’m guessing is Thurman Munson. That would make the venue Yankee Stadium, which looks about right. There’s a lot going on in the background. There are seven guys visible on the Angels bench but the only one at which I am going to hazard a guess on is Frank Robinson, second from the left. There appears to be a Yankee cap on a fan in the upper left but what really solidifies my guess as to the setting is that there are at least five fans who have no problem standing up in front of everyone while there is action worth watching on the field, including two guys to the right chatting away. Now that’s NYC behavior. This shot of Vada is taken during his second and final season as an Angel and by the time the card came out he was in Kansas City after a trade. By the time of the photo he was miles and years away from his prime as one of MLB’s premier center fielders. He was still a starter, though now in left field, and could still bank occasionally, but years of wear and tear on his legs sapped his speed and took away a bunch of his ability to torque his swing and therefore generate power. Still, he was a lefty and one of the nicest guys in the league and he’d be able to hang out a couple more seasons with the Royals. I just don’t get why Topps was so insistent on these cards of using strikes or popups for action shots of the hitters.

I had always thought Vada Pinson was from Latin America until I researched this post, but he was actually born in Memphis and relocated to California when his dad moved his family out there to work on the docks. He attended McClymonds High School in Oakland where Frank Robinson was three years ahead of him and Curt Flood one year. Vada was also a muscian and his baseball coach had to talk him into staying in ball. He was signed by Cincinnati upon graduating in ’56 and then hit .278 while playing first base in C ball the rest of the summer. In ’57 he upped those stats considerably by hitting .367 with 40 doubles, 20 triples and homers, 53 stolen bases, and 97 RBI’s. In ’58 he began the season on the Reds roster and started off hot but fell to .200 by May so he went down to Triple A where he hit .343 with eleven homers, 77 RBI’s, and 37 stolen bases, and by the end of the season was back up for good, reviving his average to .271.

In 1959 Pinson took over center field for Cincinnati and had an excellent year, leading the NL with 131 runs and 47 doubles. He would have given Willie McCovey serious competition for Rookie of the Year but the cutoff for the award back then was 90 at bats entering a season and Vada was over the mark by six. He was an All-Star, an honor he would repeat the following season. He was also a master at playing the outfield ramp at Crosley Field. In ’60 his 37 doubles again led the NL and he stole 32 bases. In ’61 his 208 hits led the league and he was a principal player in bringing Cincinnati its first title in a long time though he didn’t have a very good Series against the Yankees. He also won a Gold Glove and finished third in MVP voting to teammate Frank Robinson and Orlando Cepeda. In ’62 his average fell a bit but he posted his first season with 100 RBI’s and in ’63 he’d top out at that stat with 106 while also leading the league in hits and triples. ’64 was a tough year as he was restricted by leg ailments but missed almost no time. In ’65 he got back to posting double-digit stolen bases and he had his last season of 200-plus hits and .300-plus average. Prior to the ’66 season Robinson was traded to Baltimore and since the young power guys were still developing Vada did not see nearly as good an array of pitches as he’d seen his earlier years. Plus he was a pretty old 27 and those two features contributed to a slight withering of his stats. He put up pretty good averages in ’66 and ’67 and the latter year led the NL in triples. But his RBI totals were sliding and they bottomed out in ’68, a year the normally durable Vada missed a bunch of games due to a groin pull. He also got in dutch with Reds management when he asked his team members to sit out a game in honor of Bobby Kennedy who was assassinated that year. So he wasn’t too surprised when after that season he was traded to the Cards for Wayne Granger and Bobby Tolan.

Excited about going to the defending NL champs and playing with his old high school teammate Curt Flood, Pinson instead had another frustrating season as he took over right field from the retired Roger Maris. He’d hoped to bounce in his new surroundings but suffered a leg fracture that again robbed him of his speed and contributed to the Cards falling out of contention. After the season he went to Cleveland for Jose Cardenal and in ’70 had a pretty nice bounce in both his power and his average. In ’71 he got moved to the top of the order and his stolen base total of 25 was his highest in a bunch of years but all his other stats slid pretty hard, especially his RBI totals. That was also the year in which he, John Lowenstein, and Jack Heidemann all collided chasing a short outfield fly hit by John McCraw, sending all three to a hospital. After the season he was sent to California with Frank Baker and Alan Foster for Alex Johnson and Jerry Moses. For the Angels he was principally a left fielder his two years and in ’73 he separated his shoulder and missed some time. Prior to the ’74 season he went to the Royals for a minor leaguer. That year he hit .276 with 21 stolen bases while playing right and DH’ing but in ’75 his average fell to .223 in the same role. After being released following that season he was picked up briefly by the Brewers but was let go in spring training of ’76. Vada finished with a .286 average on 2,757 hits, 256 homers, and 1,170 RBI’s. He also stole 305 bases and in his only post-season hit .091 in five games. Defensively he ranks in the top thirty all-time for assists and putouts in center field.

Pinson pretty much immediately began coaching once his playing career ended. From ’77 to ’80 and ’82 to ’84 he was with the Mariners. He spent ’81 with the White Sox before returning to Seattle and was also with Detroit (’85-’91) and the Marlins (’93-’94). In ’95 he had a stroke and it was initially thought that he was not found for a few days after its occurrence which contributed to its seriousness. His family later denied that but the incident did keep him hospitalized until his death a few weeks later. He was 57.

So if we dispel with the old notion that 96 at bats did not a veteran make, how many guys got 200 or more hits his rookie year? Well, there are 15 of them and there is actually a quiz on Sporcle – linked to here – that I’m about to take right now to find out. I won’t spoil it but some of the answers are pretty surprising and the quiz disses Vada. Do it at your own peril. As for his off-season work, he did that for Kaiser Aerospace back home in Oakland, where he handled employee grievances. His son Vada III would be a pilot during the Persian Gulf conflict in the early Nineties.

Vada had a nice long career so let’s see if it helps in the double hook-up. First for Murtaugh as a manager:

1. Pinson and Freddie Patek ’74 to ’75 Royals;
2. Patek was managed by Danny Murtaugh on the ’70 Pirates.

Now with Murtaugh as a player. This one won’t be nearly as long as the last one:

1. Pinson and Gus Bell ’58 to ’61 Reds;
2. Bell and Danny Murtaugh ’50 to ’51 Pirates.

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