Until I recently began a correspondence with collector extraordinaire Keith Olbermann, I had never heard of Allan Lewis.
In kicking around some ideas for additions to my list of custom card creations, Olbermann mentioned that Lewis had played in parts of six major league seasons between 1967 and 1973, but never appeared on a Topps card.
Intrigued, I started poking around baseball-reference.com. What I found there convinced me that Lewis should have a baseball card, even if it was four decades late.
You can read all about Allan Lewis' baseball career on the internet (I especially recommend Rory Costello's article on the SABR BioProject site --http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/75f838b4).
Basically, Lewis was maverick A's owner Charles O. Finley's first "designated runner." Though he played some in the outfield -- not too badly in the minor leagues -- Lewis was brought to the majors to steal ballgames on the base paths. He appeared in 156 major league games and had only 31 plate appearances.
In the bigs, Lewis stole 44 bases in 61 attempts, a 72.1% success rate. Conventional baseball wisdom holds that a success rate of 67% is about break-even in terms of helping or hurting a team's chances. By contrast, all-time stolen base leader Ricky Henderson had an 80.8% base-stealing success rate. Current active major league leader Juan Pierre is at 75%. While caught-stealing stats weren't kept throughout his career, for those seasons in which that number was available, Ty Cobb's success rate was 64.6%. And, the top base stealer of my generation, Maury Wills, had a lifetime swipe rate of 73.8%.
As enamored as Finley was of the concept of a designated runner, his managers were -- at best -- unreceptive to the notion, feeling that such a one-dimensional player was wasting a roster spot that could have been more effectively filled to benefit the team.
It appears as if his teammates at the major league level took their cue from the skipper. In 1973, when the A's won the World Series, his teammates voted Lewis only one-tenth of a share of the bonus money.
Lewis retired after the 1973 season with a pair of World Championship rings. He was replaced on the A's roster by Olympic sprinter Herb Washington (who DID appear on a baseball card, in Topps' 1975 set).
After his playing days, Lewis served the A's as an instructor for several years, then scouted in his native country for the Indians and the Phillies. He helped convert Panamanians Einar Diaz and Carlos Ruiz from infielders to major league catchers. He is now fully retired.
From his work in Topps' photo archives, Olbermann had a trio of images of Allan Lewis, spanning his days with the Kansas City and Oakland A's. One of them jumped out at me as belonging on an early 1970s Topps-style card.
Initially I thought my choice of Topps formats might be limited by the lack of certain minor league stats (Runs, RBI, SB) on baseball-reference.com. During Lewis' playing days, Topps cards in 1968, 1969, 1970, 1972 and 1973 printed (usually) complete minor and major league stats.
Lacking R and RBI figures for many of Lewis' minor league stops, I thought my choices for a custom card might be limited to 1971 or a post-career 1974. The photo I wanted to use showed Lewis in a 1970-71 uniform. While it would not have been unprecedented to use a three-year-old photo on a Topps card in that era, I decided to work with the 1971 format.
I actually completed the computer work for both front and back of a 1971-style Allan Lewis custom card. I'm showing it here, but this may be the only time you ever see it. I'm probably not going to print that design.
Upon reflection it seemed to me that the '71 style was somewhat lacking in that Lewis' considerable minor league career was ignored.
On a hunch, I asked Olbermann if he had access to a late-1960s or early-1970s Sporting News Baseball Register, which would likely have full minor league stats for Lewis' 1961-66 minor league stops. He did, and now I do.
That opened up more of the era's Topps designs, and I decided to work with a 1970 format. That's the one I'll be printing.