Card Corner: Gene Michael and the Yankees
Hall of Fame staffers are also baseball fans and love to share their stories. Here is a fan's perspective from Cooperstown.
As card collectors, we tend to assume that the photograph for each card is taken during the previous season. For most cards, that’s how the schedule works, but back in the 1960s, the lack of available photographs sometimes forced the Topps Company to forage deeper into its archive.
Gene “Stick” Michael’s 1969 Topps card shows a capless Michael with the designation of the New York Yankees, even though he’s clearly wearing the black and white sleeveless uniform of the Pittsburgh Pirates, a team that he hadn’t played for since 1966. So why did Topps use such an old photograph? It had to do with a financial dispute. Due to a disagreement with the Topps Company over compensation, the Major League Baseball Players’ Association told all of its members not to pose for baseball card photographs in 1968. As a result, Topps did not take any photographs of players during the ’68 season, including Michael. Topps had no choice but to use an older photograph of Michael, one that still showed him with the Pirates.
Playing for three teams in three seasons epitomizes the life of a well-traveled journeyman, especially in an era when players had no control over where they played. Given such movements, we can understand if Michael looks a little bit confused on his 1969 Topps card. More importantly, Michael’s move to New York, which actually occurred prior to the 1968 season, helped change his career for the better, first as a player and then as one of the game’s most astute general managers.
At one point, Michael seemed destined for a career in the NBA. A star player at Kent State University, Michael drew the interests of several NBA teams, but he opted for baseball instead. Michael began his major league career with the Pirates, where he failed to gain traction, hitting only .152 during a 1966 trial run. That winter, Michael was traded (along with slugging third baseman Bob Bailey) to the Dodgers for noted 1960s speedster Maury Wills.
The hidden ball trick epitomized Michael’s intelligence. He didn’t have the talent of a star, possessing little power, only average speed, and an overall gawkiness that came with his rail-like frame of six feet, two inches, and a mere 180 pounds. Yet, he was surprisingly athletic, enough to have starred in basketball at Kent State, where his lean look earned him the nickname of “Stick.”
As a major league shortstop, Michael made up for his lack of footspeed and arm strength with good hands and quick feet, and by studying the tendencies of opposing hitters and baserunners. How good was Michael defensively? He was a poor man’s Mark Belanger, which represents high praise given Belanger’s extraordinary defensive skills as the starting shortstop for the Baltimore Orioles. Like Michael, Belanger was tall and thin, and sometimes appeared overmatched at the plate. But Belanger was arguably the best defensive shortstop of his era, so it’s no insult to put Michael behind him in a listing of the top fielders of the 1960s and seventies.