#CardCorner: 1959 Topps Claude Osteen
There’s a lot to unpack when it comes to Claude Osteen’s 1959 Topps card.
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The yellow frame, seen on many of the ’59 cards, is quite eye-popping. Then there is Osteen’s physical appearance. He looks like he’s about 12 years old here. (He was only 18 at the time, but even that age seems like a stretch.) He also does bear an uncanny resemblance to famed actor Jim Nabors, which perhaps explains Osteen would eventually be given the nickname of “Gomer,” the character that Nabors played from 1962 to 1964 on The Andy Griffith Show before earning his own television series.
The team nickname also stands out on the ’59 card. Osteen’s team is not listed as the Cincinnati “Reds,” but rather the Cincinnati “Red Legs.” The change in names stemmed from the 1950s political movement known as McCarthyism, an effort led by Senator Joseph McCarthy, who accused a number of politicians and celebrities of being members of the communist party.
In Hollywood, over 300 actors and directors were placed on an unofficial blacklist and denied subsequent work because they were suspected of being communists. McCarthyism affected citizens who were not celebrities, too. For example, libraries in Indiana were pressured by anti-communists to remove the iconic book, Robin Hood, because of its favorable view of “spreading the wealth.” Those opposed to communism believed that the book encouraged an ill-conceived economy and way of life.
Baseball was not excluded from this political development. In 1954, the Cincinnati franchise reacted to the situation by changing its nickname from “Reds,” a word clearly associated with communism, to “Red Legs.” By 1956, the word “Reds” was completely removed from the team’s uniform, replaced by a large letter “C.” That season marked the first time since 1912 that Cincinnati’s home uniform failed to include the team’s nickname.
The disuse of Reds continued throughout the late 1950s and into the early 1960s. By 1961, with the era of McCarthyism now over, the Reds restored the club’s original nickname and its use on the team uniform.
Few ballplayers of the era offered public comment on the issue of McCarthyism. For a young player like Osteen, who was still trying to establish himself, there was little incentive to take a stand one way or another on controversial political matters. He was simply trying to prove that he belonged in the major leagues.
Osteen had pitched only briefly for the Reds in 1957, the season in which he originally signed with the franchise and then debuted in the major leagues. As an amateur, Osteen was a highly desired young pitcher, even though he stood only 5-foot-10. At least 11 teams showed interest in him, as did three colleges that offered scholarships, but the Reds won the bidding war in ’57.
Osteen did not pitch at all in the major leagues in 1958, but Topps still saw fit to include him in its new set of cards in 1959. He would appear in all of two games for the Reds in ’59, and those games did not go well; he walked nine batters in seven innings and sported an ERA of 7.04.
He lost his first four starts, but then began to settle in. He missed some time with injury, but pitched well over the second half of the season, finishing with a 3.65 ERA and an 8-13 record. He also curbed his wildness, issuing only 47 walks in 150 innings.
The 1963 season would represent something of a breakout for Osteen. He improved his control, to the point where he could hit his catcher’s target with regularity. While he lacked an overpowering fastball, he learned how to mix his four-pitch arsenal: a sinking fastball, a curve ball, a slider and a change-up. He made 29 starts, logged 212 innings and posted a solid ERA of 3.35. His record of 9-14 was mostly an indication of poor run support, and not an indictment of the quality of his pitching.
The following year, Osteen emerged as a workhorse. He pitched 237 innings, made 36 starts, lowered his ERA to 3.33 and won 15 games, the latter total especially impressive for a team that won only 62 games and finished last in the league. American League writers took notice, giving Osteen some back-of-the-ballot support in the league’s MVP voting.
In 1965, Osteen won 15 games, posted an ERA of 2.79 and threw a total of 287 innings. As a team, the Dodgers won the pennant, before moving on to defeat the Minnesota Twins in the World Series.
It was during his first season in Los Angeles that some of his Dodgers teammates pinned him with his nickname, “Gomer,” because of his uncanny resemblance to actor Jim Nabors and his television character, the bumbling Gomer Pyle. While Osteen did not mind the nickname, he also expressed concern that he might become known for the lack of intelligence shown by TV’s Gomer.
“I don’t object to [the name],” Osteen told Bud Furillo of the Sporting News. “But it has created a misconception around the league and with the fans. They associate me with the character Nabors plays and regard me as some kind of idiot. I am nothing like Gomer.”
And then, not wanting to insult Mr. Pyle, Osteen added a postscript to his last remark, saying, “Gomer’s lucky.”
Concerned about his age and looking to upgrade their offensive attack, the Dodgers worked out a deal, sending Osteen to the Houston Astros for slugging outfielder Jimmy Wynn. Osteen would pitch well for the Astros in 1974, but when the team fell out of contention, Osteen realized that a change might be brewing.
“I felt something was in the works,” Osteen informed the Sporting News. “I hadn’t pitched in 17 days, and any time that happens, you know something is up.” Sure enough, the Astros announced a trade, dealing Osteen to the St. Louis Cardinals for a minor league pitching prospect and a player to be named later.
In the midst of a heated division race, the Cardinals gave Osteen only two starts while using him mostly out of the bullpen, a role that had always proved problematic for him. Osteen struggled down the stretch, as the Cardinals lost the Eastern Division race on the final day of the regular season.
Given his intelligence, his ability to dissect pitching mechanics, and his general understanding of how to set up hitters, Osteen made a natural transition to coaching. At first, he worked in the minor league system of the Philadelphia Phillies, before receiving a surprising offer to serve as pitching coach on the Cardinals’ major league staff. He spent four seasons with the Cardinals, before moving back to the Phillies’ organization in 1982, this time as their big league pitching coach.
As a coach, Osteen enjoyed nearly as much success as he did as a pitcher. He may have looked like Andy Griffith’s Gomer, a beloved character not known for his smarts or common sense. But this version of Gomer had plenty of intelligence and wisdom when it came to the fine art of pitching a baseball.
Bruce Markusen is the manager of digital and outreach learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame