Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Hawk surprised us in '58 Topps

I've written here before (Sept. 18, 2014 blog) about what it was like to be a 7-year-old Milwaukee Braves fan finding  a 1958 Topps Bob Hazle card in a wax pack.

Little did I know then that the Second Series of '58 Topps would hold another Braves rookie surprise -- card #164 Bob Taylor.

If I knew about Bob Taylor at all back then, it was in the context of his having signed a $100,000+ "bonus baby" contract in June, 1957, upon graduation from Metropolis High School in Illinois. The fact that he came from Metropolis -- the same as Superman -- was also memorable.

But as the Braves battled the Cardinals and Dodgers through the month of July before taking possession of first place, Taylor was largely forgotten. 

While he made his major league debut on June 9 as a pinch-runner, we heard little of Taylor during the 1957 season. According to the back of his 1958 Topps card he appeared in seven games, scoring twice and failing to hit in his only at-bat. 

As the Braves brought World Series glory to Wisconsin we forgot about Bob Taylor . . . until the Second Series of 1958 Topps hit the shelves. By the time we held a Taylor card in hand, however, he was nowhere to be seen in the Braves' box scores.

Prior to the '58 season, Baseball had written its bonus rules yet again, freeing those high-priced youngsters from two years of (usually) idleness on the big club's roster and bench. Moreover, the new rules were applied retroactively, allowing Milwaukee to send Taylor to the minors for much-needed professional experience.

Taylor had a good year at Class A Cedar Rapids in 1958, batting .297 with 22 home runs. During  the season, an injured finger had forced him from behind the plate to the outfield. When the Braves recalled Taylor to Milwaukee in mid-September, it was largely to give left fielder Wes Covington some rest for the coming Series rematch with the Yankees.

On Sept, 27 Taylor got his first big league hit, a double off the Reds' Ted Wieand in a 6-1 win at County Stadium.

After spring training in 1959, Taylor was sent down to Class AA Atlanta. He split the season between catching and the outfield, but again lost time to an injured finger. He repeated his .297 batting average but had only four home runs in 99 games. There was no call-up to Milwaukee in 1959.

Taylor spent the 1960 season at Louisville, the Braves' Class AAA team, where he was part of the team that won the American Association pennant and defeated Toronto in the Junior World Series. Taylor again divided his time between catching and the outfield, batting .270. He led the Colonels with 17 home runs, 26 doubles and 80 RBIs.

He spent the off-season in the Army, missing all of spring training. Taylor spent the entire 1961 season with Milwaukee but appeared in only 20 games, mostly as a pinch-hitter. In the final game of the season, Taylor got his first major league home run, a game-typing blast off the Giants' Mike McCormick. The homer wasn't enough to lift his BA over the .200 mark, however, and he ended the season at .192.

Recalled to service with the 32nd Infantry after the season, Taylor didn't rejoin the Braves for the 1962 season until Aug. 11. He was again relegated largely to pinch-hit duty until early September when, he got his first real chance to play every day, first in left, then in right field. 

He appeared in 20 games for the '62 Braves, garnering just a dozen hits. Five of those hits, however, came in a single game, Sept. 15 in a 9-8 win against the expansion Houston Colt .45s. That perfect day at the plate raised his season's batting average from .156 to .270. He ended the season at .255.

As the 1963 season approached, it looked like it might finally be Taylor's year in Milwaukee. He had won the left field job with a torrid spring training, but as the season opener neared his was again bitten by the injury bug. Playing out of position at third base in a March 17 spring training game, a bad-hop grounder broke his collarbone. 

It was June 18 before he returned to the Milwaukee lineup. He played in just 16 games, getting above the .100 batting mark for just one game, ending the season -- and his time with the Braves -- with a .067 BA.

For what is now believed to have been a $119,000 bonus (including a $20,000 payment to his father), the Braves had Taylor's services in just 67 major league games in which he'd had just 20 hits.

At the winter meeting following the 1963 season, Milwaukee drafted pitcher Jack Smith from the Dodgers' organization. To make roster room they sold Taylor to the fledgling N.Y. Mets for $30,000.

Taylor played six more years in the majors, with New York (1963-67), the Angels (1967) and Royals (1969-70) mostly as a back-up catcher, bouncing between the big clubs and their AAA farms.

Taylor retired after the 1971 season, eventually earning a Master's Degree. He taught and coached at the high school and college levels. He died in June, 2012, at the age of 73.

For as few games as he played with the Braves, Taylor had a decent number of Topps baseball cards, a trend that continued through his later travels.

After his rookie card in the 1958 Topps set, Taylor appeared with the Braves in the 1961, 1962 and 1963 sets. On his 1961 card, his nickname of "Hawk" appears on front. He is also identified as "Hawk" on his 1965 Topps card, which, like his 1964 card, pictures him with the Mets. The Hawk nickname is on the front of Taylor's 1968 Topps card (and the Canadian and Venezuelan versions), which pictures him with the California Angels. His final career-contemporary Topps card is in the 1969 set, as a Royal.

Both during and after his playing days, Taylor was included in a number of collectors' issue sets. 

You can't blame Topps for not producing Hawk Taylor cards in 1959 and 1960; he spent both of those seasons in the minor leagues. 

If Topps had included Taylor in the 1959 set, I think my recently completed custom card provides a pretty fair idea of what it might have looked like.

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