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Mudville: July 14, 2024 10:10 pm PDT

Leo’s Lip

Six Degrees of Separation is a concept I quite enjoy. It’s one of those exercises that shows just how connected we are to each other. It also puts into perspective how little time we have spent on this planet as a civilization. I once put that concept forward in baseball and called it Six Degrees of Satchel Paige, but that’s a tale for a different time. The concept of Six Degrees of Separation was brought to my mind courtesy of the 1973 Topps Leo Durocher manager card.

The card itself isn’t what caught my attention, although it’s a nice representation of The Lip. It’s a horizontal card with the left half taken up by a smiling bust of Durocher in his Houston Astros hat. It’s a bright color shot and the tanned Durocher is looking like a kindly gentleman who was spending his retirement working as a crossing guard.

There’s a little yellow garage sale sticker dot in the middle of the card. A silhouette of a generic manager stands in front of it wearing knickers. The right side of the card features four of Durocher’s coaches trapped in their own little boxes. Grady Hatton looks absolutely thrilled to be in his little orange sherbet prison, and that’s not sarcasm. Topps chose to overlay a tangerine sepia filter over black and white headshots of each coach, making them look like they were visitors from a bygone era. And it’s to that bygone era that The Baseball Card Vault Time Machine is taking us.

Seeing Durocher on a 1973 Topps card was surprising to me.

I just don’t associate Durocher with the era of The Big Red Machine and Rollie Fingers’ mustache. I also don’t connect him with the Astros, but Topps is telling me otherwise.

A quick fact check shows that Durocher took over in Houston in 1972 for the last 31 games of the season and then stayed one more year in 1973 to cap his career.

The 1973 Leo Durocher.

It was a good move by Topps getting the Hall of Famer into their 1973 set after just 30 games, but they jettisoned him like a waste dump by United Airlines over the Pacific Ocean once he retired, shunning him in their ’74 edition. Instead, new Astros manager Preston Gomez was pictured along with the severed heads of four coaches in ‘74. 1973 Topps was Durocher’s last appearance on cardboard.

Durocher was only 67 years old on the card, but he might as well have been walking the Earth with Stegosauruses, as Durocher’s debut came with the 1925 Yankees. He was teammates with Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth and some dude named Pee-Wee Wanninger.

He was also teammates with Fred Merkle, of “Merkle’s Boner” fame. Durocher was in the league at the same time as Chief Bender, who debuted in 1903. Some of his other contemporaries in 1925 were Walter Johnson, Tris Speaker and Pete Alexander. Those guys were born in the 1880s! The oldest player in the league when Durocher debuted was a fellow named Jimmy Austin, who born in 1879 when there were only 38 states. So, to see a Durocher card sitting in the same set as Dusty Baker, a guy who is ripping through the postseason as we speak, warps the space-time continuum.

A younger, more spritely Durocher with the New York Yankees.

That got me wondering which player survived on cardboard the longest as an active player who was also set-mates with Durocher in 1973. The answer is really not surprising; it’s the knuckleballing mummy, Charlie Hough. Hough made it all the way to the 1995 Topps set and from the looks of things, it was a rough 22 years.

The card pictures Grandpa Hough with the Florida Marlins tossing what I hope is a warmup pitch. It’s clearly not a knuckleball and the blurry umpire in the background has his back turned. Hough’s jersey number 49 is prominent and I was disappointed to learn that was not his age at the time. He was 46, but looked every second of 146.

Durocher’s 1973 Topps card was the capstone for one of the legendary figures in the game. He was supposed to be the manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers when Jackie Robinson broke the color line but got himself suspended a few days before the season started for associating with known gamblers. He was the manager of the Giants when Bobby Thomson hit the Shot Heard ‘Round the World and was the guy who said, “Nice guys finish last,” or at least some variation of that. He was awed by Herman Munster’s raw power and tried to sign him to the Dodgers. He’s probably the only guy to have seen both Babe Ruth and J.R. Richard naked. Probably.

The bridge created by Durocher and Hough strands a full 70 years and that 1973 Topps set is where two completely different eras came to meet. It’s the point in time where the baseball equivalent of Cro-Magnon Man shook hands with his modern brethren. Charlie Hough played in the same season as Manny Ramirez. Durocher played in the same season as Ty Cobb. Yet somehow, they found themselves in the same 1973 Topps set, distorting time and making us all realize how insignificant human existence is in the history of our great planet.

Sometimes Topps didn't even try. The '61 and the '63 Bob Gibsons were the same photo. And he still looked pissed.

Rocco is a baseball writer with too much time on his hands who lives in the dusty corners of Baseball Reference. He was one half of the battery for the 1986 Belleville Recreation Farm League Champion Indians. He likes early 20th century baseball nicknames, pullover polyester jerseys and Old Hoss Radbourn. He works as a College Athletics Director and his second book was released in April of 2021.

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