Friday, March 25, 2016

Klippstein's unusual home run pace

Uncommon commons: In more than 30 years in sportscards publishing I have thrown hundreds of notes into files about the players – usually non-star players – who made up the majority of the baseball and football cards I collected as a kid. Today, I keep adding to those files as I peruse microfilms of The Sporting News from the 1880s through the 1960s. I found these tidbits brought some life to the player pictures on those cards. I figure that if I enjoyed them, you might too.

As a child collector I always had a fondness for the 1953 Topps card of Johnny Klippstein. Maybe it was the unusual name, or perhaps the bright orange sky background.

Whatever, seeing his name in a headline as I read back issues of TSN usually causes me to read what the sporting press had to say about him 50 or 60 years ago.

I especially enjoyed a short piece in a 1962 issue detailing the righty relief specialist's home run on Aug. 6 in Houston off Don McMahon. It was his first home run in nearly 10 years and it gave him and the Reds the 1-0 win in the 13-inning contest against the Colt .45s.

Bob Purkey had held the Colts scoreless through 10 innings, though he'd given up seven hits and three walks. Houston's Turk Farrell pitched 12 innings, allowing six hits and a walk before giving way to McMahon in the 13th. 

Klippstein was the third batter to face McMahon. Cincinnati manager Fred Hutchinson later said that if either John Edwards or Don Zimmer had reached base in the 13th, he would have sent Joe Gaines up to pinch-hit in the pitcher's spot. But the Reds' bullpen was gassed, having played back-to-back double-headers the previous two days in New York.

Thus with two out and nobody on, Hutch let Klippstein bat for himself. On the way to the batter's box, Klippstein accepted the bat proffered him by erstwhile pinch-hitter Gaines standing on the top step of the dugout. "I even kidded Joe about the bat,," Klippstein said after the game. "I asked him how he expected me to hit with the bat. It left as light as a toothpick."

The lightweight lumber proved to be a game-winner, though, as Klippstein sent McMahon's offering over the left field fence, 380 feet away. "I don't know whether it was the excitement or not but that trip around the bases seemed like running two miles," Klippstein said, " I felt so tried that I could hardly move my legs."

Perhaps he was just out of practice; Klippstein had not hit a home run in more than nine years. "You think maybe I've been in a slump?" he quipped after the game. 

Klippstein told reporters that he had hit home runs in each of his first four major league seasons prior to the power drought: As a Chicago Cubs rookie in 1950 off Bob Chipman of the Braves, in 1951 off the Pirates Murry Dickson, in 1952 off Pittsburgh's Woody Main and in 1953 off Johnny Lindell, again of the Pirates.

Klippstein had started in pro ball in 1944 at the age of 16, as a St. Louis Cardinals minor league prospect. With a year out for military service in 1946, Klippstein had pitched his way up the Cards' minor league ladder over four seasons, never having a losing season.

The Dodgers' organization grabbed Klippstein in the 1948 post-season minor league draft. He pitched the 1949 season at Class AA Mobile where he was 15-8 with a team-leading 2.95 ERA.

This time it was the Chicago Cubs that picked Klippstein in the post-season Rule 5 draft. He left the minor leagues behind him when he joined the Cubs for 1950. He'd had a 41-28 record in the minor -- and he'd never hit a home run.

Klippstein pitched in the major leagues for 18 seasons. He was with the Cubs (1950-54), Reds (1955-58, 1962), Dodgers (1958-59), Indians (1960), Senators (1961), Phillies 1963-64), Twins (1964-66) and Tigers (1967). Through 1957 he was in the Cubs and Reds starting rotations; from 1958 on he was almost exclusively used in relief. As a major leaguer Klippstein compiled a 101-118 record on a 4.24 ERA.

He appeared twice in the World Series, winning with the Dodgers in 1959 and losing to the Dodgers while with the Twins in 1965.

You'll find Klippstein in the record books as having led the AL with 14 saves in 1960. In 1956 he led the NL by hitting 10 batters. He also led in wild pitches in 1952 (12) and 1961 (10).

Besides Klippstein's peculiar home run pace, there's another interesting angle to his batting record. As a Cubs rookie in 1950 he batted .333 -- 11-for-33. He never again hit higher than .175 in any season, usually failing to get to .100. His big-league career BA was .125.

An excellent baseball biography of Klippstein by Gregory H. Wolf can be found in SABR's bioproject at Klippsten baseball bio .

Klippstein left a thorough baseball card legacy. He was in Bowman's 1951, 1954 and 1955 sets and in Topps sets of 1952-54 and 1956-67. He's also found in the occasional regional card issues such as 1956-57 Kahn's Weiners and 1965 Trade Bloc Twins.

Because he was often traded in the latter stages of his career, Klippstein may hold the record for appearing capless in Topps cards; he did so in 1961-63 and 1965. I do have to give Topps props for hustle on Klippstein's final baseball card. He went to spring training with the Detroit Tigers and was signed only the day before the 1967 season opened. He was released at the end of May, but appears in the '67 high-numbers.


1 comment:

  1. I'd say George Brunet is a candidate for "most capless cards".


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