Before they were millionaires, baseball stars worked in offseason

Wednesday November 13th, 2013

Even when he was at the height of his stardom with the St. Louis Cardinals in the late '60s and early '70s, Lou Brock owned and operated a flower shop in the offseason.
Heinz Kleutmeier/SI

As they begin their offseason in earnest, David Ortiz and Mike Napoli of the World Series champion Boston Red Sox will not likely spend their winter in uniform, standing in blizzards, pestering pedestrians to buy seats for next season.

But there was a time, just before the dawn of free agency, when Red Sox players did exactly that, to judge by the backs of their baseball cards. "Bob sells tickets for the Red Sox in the winter months," said Bob Montgomery's 1974 Topps card, which featured a line drawing of the catcher squatting in a snowstorm in full uniform, tickets plugged into both of his frozen fists.

The card of second baseman Doug Griffin noted that "Doug" -- Topps always put you on a first-name basis with your heroes -- "spends [his] off-seasons selling tickets for [the] Bosox." (Above that caption, a cartoon Griffin stood in full baseball uniform, behind a wooden stand, waving a ticket roll at passing pedestrians.)

As hard as it is to fathom now, even stars worked real jobs when November came around. Lou Brock, according to his '74 card, "owns and operates a flower shop off-season." (The man who would steal 118 bases that summer stands, in full uniform, with a sunflower in his ungloved hand.) Lee Lacy "handles mail during [the] off-season." Tim Johnson "sells motorcycles off-season." Steve Busby "is a construction foreman in the off-season."

And while that foursome sounds like an early prototype of the Village People -- flower-shop owner, mail carrier, motorcycle salesman, construction guy -- it was once what passed for normal at the highest level of professional sports. Paul Splittorff won 20 games for the Royals in 1973 and the following spring the back of his card read, "Paul works for a dairy during [the] off-season." The accompanying cartoon featured a milkman making his rounds in a baseball uniform.

This was the world as Sesame Street: These are the people in your neighborhood/The people that you meet/When you're walking down the street/The people that you meet each day.

Offseason jobs were not quite universal, and some lucky players whiled way the winter absorbed in their hobbies, or nursing their modest ambitions. Rangers slugger Jeff Burroughs, who would win the American League MVP in 1974, had his interests described thusly on the back of his card that summer: "Jeff likes to watch television." (Evidently while standing on a pitcher's mound, in full uniform, holding the TV in his hand.)

Tom Hutton of the Phillies had bigger hopes and dreams than Burroughs, but only slightly: "Tom plans on learning to play the harmonica." (Plans on.)

And Expos pitcher Ernie McNally had perhaps the most humble of all possible avocations, which is to say: "Ernie's hobby is going out-of-doors." (A ballplayer, as ever in full uniform, is depicted walking through an open door.)

This was of course 100 years ago, or 200, when milkmen still existed and baseball cards peaked as a cultural artifact. The 1974 Topps set is a kind of history book, 660 unbound pages revealing an ancient world, and often a very strange one. In the early 1970s, for reasons that have never been suitably explained, players wore windbreakers under their clothes, where their wind-repellent qualities were somewhat less effective. Vicente Romo, on his 1974 card, stares into the lens with his coat collar sprouting neatly from his Padres jersey, like the inverse of a superhero who wears his underpants on the outside.

On his card, Tito Fuentes famously wears his orange headband around the outside of his Giants cap, where it will be hard-pressed to absorb any sweat.

But then baseball style peaked in 1974. Players let their freak flags fly all summer, before putting on their bank-teller suits come fall. ("Jim [Howarth] is a bank management trainee.") It was a summer in which muttonchop sideburns and/or sunglasses were compulsory, but necks were not. (See Indians outfielder Walt [No Neck] Williams, in sideburns and sunglasses but sans neck.)

And yet, for all their libertine facial hair players still had -- or professed to have -- innocent, child-like hobbies. Willie McCovey "likes to read comic books." George Theodore "likes marshmallow milk shakes." Tom Paciorek "has a great appetite for hamburgers." Tim McCarver "collects matchbooks." Gene Michael "collects coins." And Darrell Evans "likes to collect stamps."

How much of this was true is anybody's guess. On the back of Sparky Lyle's card it said: "Sparky enjoys birthday cakes." Yes, technically that's true, but as we later learned, what Sparky most enjoyed about birthday cakes was sitting naked on them in the clubhouse.

Countless players, to judge by their cards, spent the winter bowling, or collecting guns or "listening to stereo music." Davey Lopes taught school, Dave Laroche sold real estate, Freddie Patek flogged appliances (two baseballs pop up from a toaster as the cartoon salesman, resplendent in full baseball uniform, looks on in delight.)

But the strangest offseason of all belonged to Bill Melton. Alone among his colleagues in major-league baseball, the White Sox third baseman spent the winter in a novel pastime for a professional athlete. As the back of his card noted, with an air of wonder: "Bill exercises to get himself into condition."

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.