#CardCorner: 1988 Topps Ken Phelps
Hall of Fame staffers are also baseball fans and love to share their stories. Here is a fan's perspective from Cooperstown.
I’ve always liked Ken Phelps.
First, he was a player who persevered, despite being forced to spend too much time in the minor leagues when he should have been playing first base or serving as a DH for a major league team. Never giving up, he finally received his first significant chance at major league playing time with the Seattle Mariners at the age of 28. Second, Phelps would become immortalized on one of my favorite television shows, Seinfeld. (Much more on that later.) And third, Phelps just looked like a good, old-fashioned ballplayer, straight out of central casting for a movie like The Natural or even Bull Durham.
Let’s take a look at his card from 1988, a set with a simple design but plenty of action photography. This action shot shows Phelps at the plate, as he is getting ready to slide his left hand toward the handle of the bat. Phelps makes a good old-fashioned impression by wearing his stirrups and his pants properly, the way that they were meant to be worn, so that we can see the light blue stocking colors of the Seattle Mariners. On top of that, Phelps has the kind of bushy mustache and brawny physique (including a pair of Popeye forearms) that made him look like one of the rough-and-tumble players of the 19th century.
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If Phelps had shown up in John McGraw’s office looking like this, the Hall of Fame manager might have signed him on the spot – based on his rugged appearance alone.
As a developing baseball fan in the 1980s, I used to read Bill James’ annual Baseball Abstract, which were written with color and insight. “Digger” Phelps was a favorite of James, a player who should have been brought to the major leaguers sooner, but didn’t seem to appeal to the scouts. Lacking the lean, tapered look of some of the better athletes of the 1980s, Phelps didn’t run well and wasn’t particularly adept at playing first base. He also struck out too often, which would not have mattered much in today’s game, but was still considered a major shortcoming in the 1970s and 80s.
Talent evaluators seemed to minimize the two things that Phelps did very well: He hit lots of home runs and drew tons of walks. With a keen batting eye, Phelps rarely swung at pitches outside of the strike zone. When he wasn’t hitting a moonshot toward the gaps, he was taking a leisurely stroll to first base, making the walk an art form and himself into an unheralded on-base machine.
After being selected by the Kansas City Royals in the 15th round of the 1976 draft, Phelps worked his way gradually through the farm system. He finally earned his first taste of Kansas City in 1980, picking up a grand total of four at-bats. The following year, he received another cup of coffee, receiving only slightly more playing time: 22 at-bats in 21 games.
As a first baseman-DH, Phelps found himself blocked in Kansas City, where the Royals already had the lefty swinging Willie Mays Aikens at first base and veteran Hal McRae at DH. There was simply nowhere for Phelps to go within the organization. So in January of 1982, the inevitable took place: a trade. The Royals sent Phelps to the Montreal Expos in a one-for-one deal for veteran reliever Grant Jackson.
Unfortunately, the Expos already had a terrific first baseman in Al Oliver, who was about to embark on a season in which he hit .331 with 22 home runs. To make matters worse, the Expos, as a National League team, had no DH. So Phelps spent most of another wasted season at Triple-A, where he blasted 46 home runs. In September, he finally received a call-up to Montreal, where he played in a scant 10 games and came to the plate only nine times. Phelps was fast forging a career as the “Dead End Kid.”
Phelps repeatedly asked the Expos to trade him to a team that had more of a need for a first baseman or a DH. Thankfully, the Expos filled that request in the spring of 1983. Toward the end of Spring Training, the Expos mercifully sold Phelps to the Mariners, who were not as well stocked at first base as the Expos and who had the luxury of using the DH.
In his first year with Seattle, Phelps appeared in 50 games, which didn’t make him a regular but represented a vast improvement over his earlier situations in Kansas City or Montreal. Then came the breakthrough of 1984, the kind of season that the Phelps followers believed he was capable of delivering. Totaling 290 at-bats as a DH and first baseman, mostly against right-handed pitching, Digger belted 24 home runs and slugged .578. Prorated over a full season, Phelps would have hit roughly 45 to 50 home runs.
That performance launched an extremely productive stretch of seasons for Phelps in Seattle. From 1984 to 1988, Phelps slugged at least .521 or better each year, with the exception of a lost 1985. He didn’t strike out as often as most power hitters (never fanning as much as 100 times in any season), and over a three-year span, he drew more walks than strikeouts. He especially enjoyed playing for Hall of Fame manager Dick Williams, who took over the helm of the Mariners in the middle of 1986.
With the Mariners headed toward a last place finish in 1988 and looking to make their team younger and more athletic, they put Phelps on the block in the middle of the season. For much of the first half of the season, trade rumors swirled around Phelps, with many of the rumors centering on the New York Yankees. In fact, the Yankees had talked about acquiring Phelps for three years, starting in 1985. Owner George Steinbrenner became obsessed with acquiring Phelps, whose hitting approach also drew raves from scouts. With his left-handed power, the Yankees thought that Phelps could become a monster at Yankee Stadium.
After weeks of rumors, a trade finally became reality. On July 21, the Yankees completed a major deal with the Mariners, sending outfield prospect Jay Buhner and two lesser prospects to Seattle for Phelps. As a result, Phelps’ 1988 Topps card quickly became outdated, but Topps wouldn’t show him in his new Yankee colors until the new 1989 set hit stores in February.
In rapid-fire delivery, Steinbrenner responds, “Well, Buhner was a good prospect, no question about it. But my baseball people loved Ken Phelps’ bat. They kept saying Ken Phelps, Ken Phelps!”
For baseball fans, both Mariners and Yankees alike, the exchange between The Boss and Frank hit home. To his credit, the easygoing Phelps has remained a good sport about the Seinfeld episode. In fact, in 2015 he and Buhner reunited at the Mariners’ Spring Training camp in Peoria, Ariz., where they both enjoyed a robust laugh over the Seinfeld parody.
“It’s nice to be remembered for something,” a smiling Phelps told reporters that day.
This fan of Phelps remembers him for a lot more, including his perseverance and professionalism. But I must admit that the Seinfeld reference completes the picture beautifully. As long as that episode continues to air in reruns, Ken Phelps has no chance of ever being forgotten again.
Bruce Markusen is the manager of digital and outreach learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum