Cardboard Tigers: Krenchicki, Kuenn, LaGrow

Eighth in an occasional series. Collect ’em all! I’m working through a stack of Tigers baseball cards from the late 1960s and early 1970s, with occasional newer cards.

There sure were a lot of guys who had 1984 Topps cards showing them as members of the Tigers who never played an inning for them that year. It might even be some kind of a baseball card record. Wayne Krenchicki was another guy who played for the Tigers in 1983, got his picture taken in his blue batting practice jersey, then ended up somewhere else while the Tigers won the World Series in ’84.

Wayne Krenchicki – 1984 Topps #223

Krenchicki was obtained from the Reds in June, 1983, played in 59 games for the Tigers, hitting .278 in 133 at-bats, mostly as a utility infielder. He was sold back to the Reds in November, meaning he was only a Tiger for about five months. He also played for the Orioles and Expos over a eight year major league career. He was also a long-time minor league manager, winning the Atlantic League title with the Newark Bears in 2007. Wayne died in October 2018 at the age of 64.

“American League Kings” – Nellie Fox & Harvey Kuenn – 1960 Topps #429

This is one of my favorite cards. Not because the players were Hall of Famers (though Nellie Fox was, and was inducted in 1997; Harvey Kuenn wasn’t but did have over 2000 major league hits), but because both of them are:

  1. Sporting massive chewing tobacco lumps that make them, Harvey in particular, like he’s got a terrible case of the mumps that has settled in their left cheeks;
  2. Inexplicably both wearing their home white uniforms; and
  3. Both staring into their exactly identical baseball gloves.

Now I know there have to be reasons for #2 and #3, but honestly, I don’t want to know. Any explanation is sixty years in the past, anyway, and both men have been dead for over thirty (Kuenn died in 1988 at 57 and Fox in 1975 at only 47). So let’s let them have their secret for this odd moment in time captured on this special 1960 Topps card.

Kuenn played for 15 years in the bigs, starting with Detroit in 1952, then winning American League Rookie of the Year in 1953 when he hit .308, finished 15th in the MVP race, played in the All-Star game as a rookie, and showed some flash at shortstop. He was an ten-time all star for the Tigers over eight seasons (two games were played in 1959 and 1960), finished in the top 20 in the MVP voting in six of those years, and, when the team moved him to the outfield in 1958, turned out to be just as good out there as he had been at short.

He was half of one of the biggest blockbuster trades in baseball history when Detroit shipped him to Cleveland for Rocky Colavito. The trade was notable because Kuenn had just won the AL batting title with a .353 average (the best of his career) and Colavito had led the league in homers with 42. The trade also became known to Indians fans as “the curse of Rocky Colavito” because after trading the very popular outfielder to Detroit, the Indians didn’t finish closer than 11 games from first place for the next 33 years.

Kuenn coached and managed for the Brewers after retiring, even after having his right leg amputated below the knee due to circulation issues. He was the manager of “Harvey’s Wallbangers,” the 1982 Milwaukee team that made the World Series for the only time in the franchise’s history. They lost to the Cardinals in seven games in the Brewery Series, matching the home towns of Miller and Anheuser-Busch.

Lerrin LaGrow – 1974 Topps #433
Lerrin LaGrow – 1975 Topps #116

Lerrin LaGrow was a 6’5″, 230 pound pitcher for the Tigers from 1970 to 1975. He was mostly a reliever in his early years before becoming a regular starter in 1974 and 1975, going 8-19 and 7-14 over those two seasons and likely explaining the noticeable grimace on his face in these two photos. He later became a closer for the White Sox in 1977 and 1978, saving 41 games over those two seasons.

But the moment I shall always remember LaGrow for was the incident in the 1972 American League Championship Series against the Oakland A’s (which I briefly discussed here if you’re having some deja vu). LaGrow had had a good year for the Tigers, with a 1.32 ERA in 16 games, and he was brought into Game 2 of the series in the bottom of the seventh and the A’s up 5-0. A’s shortstop Bert Campaneris came to the plate, already with three hits, two stolen bases, and two runs scored in the game. LaGrow’s first pitch hit Campy in the ankle, prompting him to show off his bat-throwing skills, flinging it baton-like at the Tigers’ pitcher, who had the presence of mind to duck as it went by. Let’s hear George Kell and Larry Osterman describe the scene from the WWJ-TV broadcast:

Tigers manager Billy Martin may have wanted to rile up his team, though it was never confirmed that he ordered LaGrow to throw at Campaneris. His reaction afterward, though, was certainly consistent with his managing (and playing) style, and it did seem to work, as the Tigers came back to win Games 3 and 4 before finally losing the five-game series. It also got both LaGrow and Campaneris suspended for the remainder of the series, which, to be honest, worked out much better for Detroit than for Oakland.

He seems happier.

Lerrin finished his career with the Dodgers and Phillies and retired at 31 after the 1980 season. He’s currently a business broker in his hometown of Phoenix. His profile on his Ler’rin Enterprises website says that “During off seasons [Lerrin] returned to ASU to obtain his degree. Retiring in 1980 after a twelve year [baseball] career, he began investing in Arizona Business Opportunities, owning and operating three different companies with the latter a Business Business Brokerage firm. Since 1981 he has overseen the sale of over 2,000 business transactions. He is genuinely dedicated to his industry, its attitudes, professionalism, integrity and you ! He is a member of the Executive Association of Greater Phoenix, (EAGP).”

Cardboard Tigers: Ike Brown, Bruton, Colbert, and Coleman

Third in an occasional series. Collect ’em all!

Ike Brown
Ike Brown 1972 Topps #284

Ike Brown was a utility infielder and outfielder for the Tigers in the early seventies. He was the kind of player who wouldn’t embarrass you wherever you put him, hit well enough that you could consider using him as an occasional pinch hitter (though with Gates Brown – no relation – also on the team, those opportunities didn’t happen often), and always seemed like a nice teammate. He wore the stylish wireframe glasses you see on both his 1972 and 1974 cards before they became commonplace, not to mention that few ballplayers wore glasses during games at all, and along with his linebacker build, he was a recognizable and popular Tiger each of his seasons with the club.

Ike came up about the time the Tigers put last names on the back of their uniforms, and he wore “I. BROWN” while Gates wore “G. BROWN,” which I somehow thought was pretty sophisticated. Now we have a plethora of SRs, JRs, IIIs, and IVs it feels a little out of control, but Ike and Gates were trendsetters in the uni nameplate world.

Ike Brown
Ike Brown 1974 Topps #409

Other than being the Don Kelly or Andrew Romine of his day in Detroit, Ike has two other interesting distinctions:

  • He hit a home run in his first major league at bat on June 17, 1969 at Yankee Stadium. Considering he only hit 19 more in 536 total big league at bats, the trend was definitely downhill from there.
  • Ike was the last player who had played in the Negro Leagues to debut in the majors. The Tigers signed him from the Kansas City Monarchs in 1961.

Ike died in 2001 in his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee, at the age of 59.

Bill Bruton
Bill Bruton 1963 Topps #437

Bill Bruton was a very fast outfielder for the Milwaukee Braves (1953-1960) and the Tigers (1961-64). A good hitter and an above-average fielder with good range due to his speed, he led the National League in stolen bases for three consecutive years from his rookie season of 1953 through 1955, racking up totals of 26, 34, and 25 swipes, which should give you an idea how often NL teams were running in the early fifties. Bill played for the Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association in 1952 when the team was the top farm club for the Boston Braves. The next year he was promoted to the bigs but didn’t have to move as the Braves moved to Milwaukee. When fans think of western expansion of the major leagues they usually think of the Dodgers and Giants moving to California in 1958, but the Braves were the first to head west, though they only went as far as Wisconsin. Bill had the game-winning home run in the bottom of the 10th inning in the transplanted Milwaukee Braves’ first game on April 14, 1953, as they beat the St. Louis Cardinals, 3-2.

Bill hit two bases loaded triples in the same game in 1959, something that had only been done once before (Elmer Valo in 1949) and once since (Duane Kuiper in 1978). That may not seem like much of a record to share, but it probably got Bill a beer or two.

Bill died in a car crash that was caused by an apparent heart attack outside of Wilmington, Delaware, in 1995. He was 70 years old.

Nate Colbert
Nate Colbert 1975 Topps #599

Nate Colbert was a power hitter. He hit 173 home runs in his ten-year major league career with the Astros, Padres, Tigers, Expos, and A’s. Mostly remembered for his years in San Diego, he was a National League All-Star three times from 1971 to 1973, years in which he hit 27, 38, and 22 home runs and racked up 84, 111, and 80 RBI. Plagued with back problems, he was traded to Detroit after a down 1974 season in the three-team deal involving Eddie Brinkman that I mentioned the other day. Nate only played 45 games for the Tigers before being sold to Montreal in June. He played 52 games for the Expos in 1975 and 1976 before they also let him go. He spent the rest of the bicentennial year in the minors before making one last brief appearance with Oakland at the end of the season, going 0 for 6 with one walk in two games. He retired at the age of 30.

I love Nate’s smile in this 1975 Topps card. This is a classic baseball card photographer’s trick: get at least one shot from underneath the ball cap, so if the player is traded you won’t have to airbrush the new team’s colors and logo onto the crown of the hat. This explains Nate’s snappy jersey piping in the photo, which appears to have been done with a chisel-tip Sharpie marker, but does not at all explain why the upper deck of Jack Murphy Stadium is visible behind him.

Nate had the bad luck to play with nine last-place teams in a row from 1968 to 1976. He had a brief cup of coffee with the Astros in 1966 (they finished eighth in the then-ten-team National League) and, as mentioned above, finished with the A’s in 1976 (they finished second in the AL West that year). In 1975, he played with two last-place teams: the Tigers and the Expos.

He deserved better, yet somehow he was able to keep smiling. Unlike many of the players we’ve met so far in this series, Nate is still alive at the age of 74.

Joe Coleman
Joe Coleman 1974 Topps #240

Joe Coleman was always one of the American League’s leaders in the “Largest Lump of Chaw” competition. And he only got better with age. I mean, look at the 1974 card: only a small bump showing through his left cheek. By the next year, though, as seen below, Joe really was getting good, with a wad of chewing tobacco so big he couldn’t even close his mouth anymore. By 1976, the chaw was threatening to take over his face and maybe petition to get its own zip code, and he appears to have been drooling tobacco onto his left knee as well.

I don’t understand the poses on Joe’s cards. He seems to be getting ready to pitch or has just delivered a killer curveball despite appearing to be standing nowhere near a pitcher’s mound but instead somewhere along the first base stands. That is not how you play baseball, Joe. At least he has his glove in position, ready to spear a hot liner through the box.

Joe Coleman
Joe Coleman 1975 Topps #42

Joe’s father was also a major league pitcher for ten seasons from 1942 to 1955, interrupted for three years by World War Two. He played mostly for the Philadelphia Athletics before finishing two short stints with Baltimore (as shown in this special 1976 card with son Joe, Jr.) and finally with the Tigers, where he went 2-1 with a 3.20 ERA and three saves in 17 games at the end of the 1955 season. If you look closely, Joe Sr. seems to have a wad of chewing tobacco in his left cheek as well, right down to the crooked grimace. Pass the tradition along, Joe! (Incidentally, Joe Jr.’s son Casey pitched for the Cubs in 2010-12 and briefly for the Royals in 2014, making the Colemans one of the few three-generation big league families.)

Joe Coleman and Joe Coleman, Jr.
“Father and Son – Big Leaguers” Joe Coleman and Joe Coleman, Jr. – 1976 Topps #68
Joe Coleman
Joe Coleman 1976 Topps #456

Joe was a very good starting pitcher for the Senators (1965-70) and the Tigers (1971-76), and then a succession of other teams over the next four seasons before hanging ’em up. With the Tigers in 1972, he was part of an excellent starting rotation that led the team, which wasn’t exactly an offensive juggernaut, to the American League East division championship. The staff was led by Mickey Lolich (22-14, 2.50 ERA, 250 Ks), Coleman (19-14, 2.80 ERA, 222 Ks), and August pickup Woodie Fryman (10-3, 2.06 ERA, 72 Ks), plus a solid bullpen of Chuck Seelbach (14 saves, 2.89 ERA), Fred Scherman (12 saves, 3.64 ERA), and John Hiller (3 saves, 2.03 ERA)

The Tigers lost to Oakland in the 1972 ALCS, 3 games to 2, with the most memorable moment coming in the seventh inning of Game 2, when Tiger reliever Lerrin LaGrow hit A’s shortstop Bert Campaneris in the foot with a pitch, causing Campy to hurl his bat at LaGrow, who was wise enough to duck as the bat sailed by. The benches cleared, Billy Martin had to be restrained by several Tigers and the umpiring crew to keep him from fighting Campaneris. Here’s a clip of the incident, with George Kell and Larry Osterman of WWJ-TV (Channel 4) with the call:

Joe was later a pitching coach and minor league manager, finishing his over 50 year career in baseball with the Jupiter Hammerheads of the Florida State League. He’s retired now at the age of 74, and reportedly spends his time in Florida and Tennessee.