We have a special guest submission for today’s Card of the Day. Long-time reader John Lease asked to write about a 1974 Topps card featuring Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Frank Taveras. Lease owns an example of the card and he did a deep dive into the four players included on the card, so I’ll keep this intro short. It’s a card you can pick up for just a few bucks on Ebay, but it has quite a story to tell. Besides Taveras, one of the other players has a strong link to the Pirates (link included below). Here’s the featured card front/back.
1974 Topps Rookie Shortstops
by John Lease
Topps issued an interesting specialty card featuring four rookie shortstops. They were, clockwise around the card, Leo Foster of the Atlanta Braves, Tom Heintzleman of the St. Louis Cardinals, Frank Taveras of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and Dave Rosello of the Chicago Cubs. Topps would on occasion issue these kind of cards which I’d never have any use for, unless they had a Pirate on them.
Leo Foster was a 2nd round draft pick out of high school in 1969, and made his ML debut against the Pirates on July 9th, 1971. In a game that featured 27 hits between the two teams, Foster didn’t have any. Unfortunately, it was an accurate predictor of his Major League career. He was a decent hitter in the minors and raced thru the system, getting to AAA at the age of 20, and then to the majors. He had another call-up in September, but overall he was 0-for-10 at the plate in his inaugural season.
In 1972, Foster spent the whole season in AAA, and only hit .233. Another September call up in 1973 produced his first ever hit, a double off of Ross Grimsley of the Cincinnati Reds. That was his only hit though, and his lifetime average of .063 made the next year’s events seem unlikely. The 1974 season represented the most playing time he ever received in the majors. He made the team out of Spring Training, but was unable to unseat Craig Robinson, who the Braves had traded for in the 1973 season. Robinson was better than Foster, but he wasn’t a great hitter either. Foster hit .196 in 112 at-bats as the primary backup at shortstop, second base and third base. He even had a game in right field.
At the end of spring training in 1975, Foster was traded to the New York Mets for catcher Joe Nolan. He spent all of 1975 in AAA, but got another shot in 1976 with the Mets. Called up in August, he played frequently in place of Bud Harrelson. Foster had a .203 average in 24 games that season. He started 1977 in AAA, but got two extended looks, and ended up with a career high .227 average. In spring of 1978, he was traded to the Boston Red Sox, where he played in AAA that season and then hung it up. He is one of the very few players who had a better batting average in each subsequent year in the majors, but his lifetime average of .198 is what it is. A good enough glove, and no stick.
Tom Heintzelman was a 7th round draft pick of the St Louis Cardinals in 1968 out of college. He’s the son of Ken Heintzelman, a Pirates pitcher from the 1930s and 40s, who served during WWII. (Editor’s Addition: We wrote about Ken Heintzelman here). Tom lost two years of his career to the military during Vietnam, and returned back to play in AA after hitting well in 1968. The layoff clearly hurt him though, and it took two years in AA to really get back into shape. In 1973 he spent most of the year in AAA before making his MLB debut August 12th, 1973 as a pinch-hitter. He hit well in his inaugural MLB season, but in very limited capacity. He started three games against the San Diego Padres and got five hits combined, and then another four hits in the month of September gave him a 310 average.
Calling him a shortstop though was poetic license, he was almost exclusively a second baseman. Heintzelman only ever played one game in the majors at short, coming in 1974. He spent most of May, June and July in 1975 at the MLB level, playing mainly as a pinch-hitter and subbing at second. He hit .230 in his time, the most time he’d ever spend in the majors. At the end of the year he was traded to the San Francisco Giants for pitcher Jim Willoughby.
Heintzelman had a strong season in 1976 for the Giants in AAA, then was called up for two games in 1977, going 0-for-2 at the plate. He’d made the team out of Spring Training, but Rob Andrews had been acquired from the Houston Astros, so Heintzleman went back down to AAA. Interestingly, Bill Madlock and Tim Foli were the right side of the infield for the Giants that year. He made the Giants out of Spring Training again in 1978, but was sent down in May to AAA, and recalled one last time as a September call-up that year. He played one more year in AAA in 1979, and then called it quits. A lifetime .243 hitter, he only got 140 at bats at the Major League level, but did homer three times.
Frank Taveras, one of my all time favorite Pirates was next on the card. He was signed as a 17-year-old out of the Dominican Republic, and played 49 low-level games in 1968. Signed by Pirate super scout Howie Haak, Taveras was clearly a prospect right out of the gate. He had exceptional range and good hands, yet would be followed for years with being said to have a lack of concentration which led to fielding lapses. He played full time in 1969, but hit a mere .222, still all in A-ball. The 1970 season really turned it around for Taveras. He played at Gastonia in single-A all year, and hit a respectable .260. The team wasn’t very good, but he led them in almost all batting categories.
Taveras split 1971 between AA and AAA, and even had a call up in September for the eventual world champs. His only appearance was as a pinch-runner on September 25th. The next batter hit into a double play, quickly ending his MLB debut. Taveras played a full season in AAA in 1972 and got a September call-up, but his weak hitting on a stacked Charleston Charlies team had dimmed his star a bit. He had 30 errors for the season, and clearly Richie Zisk and Art Howe were much more MLB ready than the 22-year-old Taveras.
He spent the full season in AAA in 1973, his third year at that level, and didn’t get a call up in September. Taveras had hit marginally better, but he hit a total of seven doubles in the entire season, which is remarkable for over 500 plate appearances. The Pirates were in desperate need for a shortstop at that time. Dal Maxvill, Gene Alley and Jackie Hernandez had all attempted to fill the bill. Veteran Maxvill hit .189 for the season, and Gene Alley was clearly on his last legs as well. The Pirates had to do something in 1974, and this turned into the chance for Taveras. Gene Alley retired after the 1973 season and Jackie Hernandez was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies.
The battle was on against Dal Maxvill and Taveras eventually won it. Maxvill was cut loose in April, and Taveras was the starting shortstop. He hit well out of the gate. Injuries and the league learning him cooled him off, but he still hit .246 that first season. Defense was a problem though. Mario Mendoza became his defensive substitute, which kept the question up of who was going to win out in the end. Mendoza had more power than Taveras (really), but was a worse overall hitter. Taveras used the carpet at Three Rivers Stadium to his advantage, but he hit only four doubles and two triples for the entire season in 367 plate appearances.
The 1975 season saw him dip again, but Mendoza dipped further. Taveras played more, and hit slightly better. He always had good bat control and rarely struck out. The Pirates finally started to get some real production from him in 1976. He hit .258, and used his speed to pick up 58 stolen bases, finishing tied for third in the NL with Cesar Cedeno. The 1977 season was probably his best year in the majors. He cracked double digits in doubles (20) and triples (10), and led the NL with 70 steals. That was the Pirates new single season record for one year, breaking Max Carey’s 1916 mark. In 1978, Taveras hit .278 with 31 doubles and nine triples, though he had been supplanted in the stolen base department by Omar Moreno.
Taveras looked like he was finally hitting his stride as a Major Leaguer. However, he was dealt to the New York Mets for Tim Foli on April 19, 1979. Due to the discrepancies in scheduling, he led the NL that year with 164 games played (11 with Pirates, 153 with Mets). Taveras had a strong 1979 and 1980 for the Mets, including his only over-the-fence homer. His only other career homer had been an inside-the-park grand slam as a Pirate. After a poor 1981, he was dealt to the Montreal Expos and then 1982 would be his last appearance in the majors.
Dave Rosello was the last ’74 rookie shortstop on this card. He was signed out of high school as a free agent by the Cubs in 1968. He made his professional debut in 1969, and had a hard time adjusting to A-ball level. He hit .189 that initial season, and certainly didn’t have the look of a prospect. Yet like Taveras and Foster, he could pick it defensively. His second season was much better, and earned him a promotion to AA San Antonio by the end of the year. He spent all of 1971 in AA and regressed, hitting only .218. Yet he rebounded in 1972, spending the season in AAA and earning a call up in September. He kept his hitting up in the majors as well, and hit his first MLB homer that year off of Mets pitcher Bob Rauch.
Rosello played another season in AAA in 1973, getting a call up in August. He played sparingly, but he was being groomed to be a utility player, and played more at second that year, while still playing some short. In 1974 and 75, he bounced between AAA and the majors, spending a lot of time in the majors in 1974. But the infrequent use clearly effected his hitting, and 1975 saw most of his action in AAA. He did play in a memorable game in 1975 though.
John Candelaria faced off against Rick Reuschel on September 16, 1975. Rosello was batting eighth and playing shortstop for the Cubs. That game is remembered as the 7-for-7 game of Rennie Stennett which ended in a 22-0 Pirates win, Rosello’s contribution to the game was one hit.
Rosello was the Cubs primary backup infielder all season in 1976, and he set career highs in nearly every category. He spent 1977 in the majors all year as well, but barely played. Over the winter, he was traded to the Cleveland Indians and then spent all of 1978 in the minors. He would then spend 1979-81 in the majors as a backup infielder for the Tribe. He spent 1982 in the minors before retiring.
So, Topps was stretching things with this 1974 rookie shortstops card with Heintzleman, but it was interesting to look back at the careers of all four players.