Twelfth 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.
Jim Ray spent parts of nine seasons in the big leagues as a pretty dependable relief pitcher. He depended mostly on the hard stuff, earning the nickname “Ray Gun” from striking out batters with a laser-like fastball. He pitched most of his career for the Astros, breaking in with them with brief appearances in 1965 and 1966 before sticking for good in 1968. He was traded to the Tigers in December 1973 along with infielder Gary Sutherland for relief pitcher Fred Scherman and some cash. Because of the lead time Topps needed to produce their cards each year, Ray had a 1974 card showing him with the Astros, and this “TRADED” card was released later showing him with Detroit. Most players would have a headshot like this one taken by the card company’s photographer so their new team’s logo and colors could be airbrushed onto the photo if he was traded. In this case, Ray’s headshot was cleverly shot from below so only a little bit of navy blue needed to be done to obscure the Astros’ red cap color, along with modifying the piping on the jersey to a pattern that, while a more appropriate color, wasn’t part of the Tigers’ jersey. Oh well.
Ray only pitched one season in Detroit, going 1-3 with a 4.47 ERA in 28 relief appearances and two saves. For his career, he was 43-30 with a 3.61 ERA and 25 saves. He was sent to the Pirates in a conditional deal after the 1974 season but never played for Pittsburgh; he ended up in Denver, playing AAA ball for the White Sox that year, so despite his 1975 Topps Tigers card, he didn’t pitch for them – or anywhere in the majors – that season. The Astros brought him back on a minor league contract in 1976 and he pitched for their AA affiliate in Columbus, Georgia, making eight appearances including three starts and compiling a 1-1 record with an 11.77 ERA.
Ray was born in Rock Hill, South Carolina, but went to high school in Holly, Michigan, in northern Oakland County outside of Detroit. He died in Margate, Florida, in 2005 at the age of 60.
Imagine wanting to be a major league ballplayer. Lots of us have had that fantasy, but precious few of us have anything close to the ability – or the desire to put in the work needed – to make it to the show.
Now imagine having the ability – and the desire – but not having two good eyes. Imagine having damaged your right eye one day as a kid when you were goofing around with a jackknife. Imagine never telling any of your coaches or managers and somehow keeping the fact that you couldn’t really see very well out of that eye. Imagine somehow still being able to track a fastball and a high fly ball well enough to stick around in the major leagues for eleven seasons as an outfielder.
Yeah, I can’t imagine it either. But Leon Roberts did it.
Roberts was a big 6’3″ kid from Vicksburg, Michigan, who was recruited by Bo Schembechler to play football at the University of Michigan. He played baseball and basketball for the Wolverines instead and was drafted by the Tigers, where in 1975 he became the guy who replaced Al Kaline in right field after Mr. Tiger retired at the end of the 1974 season. He did well enough, especially considering how second-rate the Tigers were in the mid-seventies, hitting .257 with 10 home runs and 38 RBI.
The Tigers traded him to Houston after the 1975 season (those two teams did a lot of trading in that period, see Jim Ray above) along with catcher Terry Humphrey and pitchers Mark Lemongello and Gene Pentz for catcher Milt May and pitchers Dave Roberts and Jim “Catfish” Crawford in a trade that did absolutely nothing for either team except shuffle the rosters around a bit. He played parts of the next two seasons with the Astros before being traded to Seattle in 1978 where he had his best season, hitting .301, popping 22 homers and knocking in 92 runs. He was 33rd in the voting for American League MVP, which may not seem like much, but how many times have you appeared on the MVP voting list? Huh?
Roberts also played for the Rangers, Blue Jays, and Royals before retiring after one more minor league season in 1985 with the Tigers’ AAA team in Nashville.
After his career ended, Roberts finally revealed the story about his right eye and his poor eyesight. He explained that when teams would do their annual physicals for players, he’d listen to the guy before him in line, memorize the order of the letters, and recite them back when it was his turn. “No one ever figured it out. I would always force myself to really concentrate on reading the ball and tracking the ball,” he explained in a 2015 interview with Dan Holmes.
Roberts managed and coached in the minor leagues for many years, including helming three teams in the Tigers’ system from 1986 to 1988 (AAA Nashville, AAA Toledo, and A Fayetteville), and again for three seasons in the Braves’ system from 1992 to 1994 (Advanced A Durham and A Macon). As recently as 2018, Roberts was still the hitting coach for the Royals’ AA team in Northwest Arkansas at the age of 68.
Aurelio Rodriguez was my mom’s favorite baseball player. This wasn’t too unusual, because Aurelio was a fan favorite in Detroit, always smiling and popular with his teammates as well. But while my mom liked baseball, she wasn’t really a follower of any particular player – except Aurelio.
In 1974, I had several of Rodriguez’s cards shown above, with him ranging to the left to pick up a ground ball. Mom swiped one of them and kept it in her purse, and when she died two years ago, I found it in a collection of personal items, somewhat worn by time but still legible.
Rodriguez was one of the best players ever to come out of the Mexican League. He’s not well-remembered today, even by Tigers fans, but he had all the tools. He was an above-average hitter and one of the best fielders at the hot corner in Detroit history. But it was his arm that I really remember. Aurelio would pick off grounders that were just fair, ending up several feet in foul territory, yet still throw the runner out on a line with his cannon. The only other third baseman I saw that consistently could do that was the Orioles’ legendary Brooks Robinson, whose hold on the Gold Glove Award Aurelio finally ended in 1976.
Rodriguez started his career in the Mexican League with Jalisco and Fresnillo in 1965 when he was only 17 years old. He was the league’s Rookie of the Year, then signed with the California Angels where he spent the next two seasons mostly at the AAA level in the Pacific Coast League. In 1969 he made it to the show for good with the Angels, but shortly after the 1970 season started, he was traded to the Washington Senators, where he only spent one season.
After the 1970 season, Rodriguez was traded to Detroit along with shortstop Ed Brinkman and pitchers Joe Coleman and Jim Hannan for infielder Don Wert, outfielder Elliott Maddox, and pitchers Norm McRae and Denny McLain. Tigers general manager Jim Campbell had had enough of McLain’s antics and personal problems and was willing to ship him off for practically anything, but instead fleeced the Senators by getting a solid starting pitcher in Coleman and the left side of his infield in Rodriguez and Brinkman. None of the players the Tigers gave up did anything for Washington or the Texas Rangers, which the club became starting with the 1971 season.
Rodriguez played for nine seasons in Detroit, hitting .239 with 85 homers and 423 RBI for a total offensive WAR of 4.5, but a defensive WAR of 8.6. Not stellar numbers, but considering the mediocrity of the Tigers during those years, he was definitely a bright spot. As I mentioned, the highlight of his career was probably winning the Gold Glove at third base in the 1976 season, which was also the Year of the Bird (Mark Fidrych) and the breakout season for Ron LeFlore.
The Tigers sold Rodriguez’s contract to the Padres after the 1979 season for $200,000. He also played for the Yankees (nothing was weirder to 17-year-old me than seeing Aurelio wearing pinstripes), White Sox, Orioles, and White Sox again briefly in 1983. He finished his career with two more years in Mexico with Los Tigers Capitalinos in 1984 and as a player-manager for Los Sultanes de Monterrey in 1985. He was a successful manager in he Mexican League from 1990 to 1999 with Monterrey, Saltillo, Reynosa, and Monclova, and managed the Tigers’ low-A team in Niagara Falls in 1990.
Aurelio Rodriguez died in 2000 on a visit back to Detroit. Leaving the El Rancho restaurant in the Mexicantown neighborhood in southwest Detroit, he was hit by a car that jumped the curb. He was 52 years old.