#CardCorner: 1959 Topps Moe Drabowsky
For one of the few times in his life, Moe Drabowsky appears to be playing it straight on his 1959 Topps card. No laughing. No hijinks. No pranks or practical jokes. No giving the Commissioner of Baseball a hot foot. No, on this card, Drabowsky is all business.
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In posing for this shot at Wrigley Field, the veteran right-hander appears to be doing his best simulation of his pitching motion. Pretending to throw on the sidelines before a sparse pregame crowd in Chicago, Drabowsky gives us a pretty good rendering of a pitcher in motion. Drabowsky is also sporting a very serious look on his face, almost as if he were pitching in an actual game, and not on the sidelines for the Topps cameraman.
Drabowsky’s 1959 card is also distinctive because of the pinkish frame used to surround the circular photograph. Only a handful of ’59 cards featured the pink frame. In fact, in the entire history of Topps I can only recall one other set – the 1975 set with multi-colored borders – that used the color of pink in its design. The ’75 cards had everything: Purple, lavender, bright green, yellow, orange and red.
No color, no matter how bright, could fully capture the nature of Drabowsky of the game’s most colorful characters. Drabowsky was a serviceable pitcher throughout the late 1950s and much of the 1960s, but he is best remembered for his extraordinary talents as a practical joker. As a matter of fact, he might have been the greatest prankster in the history of the game. And it was only fitting that he went by the nickname of Moe, a nickname that conjures up images of The Three Stooges, and their beloved leader, Moe Howard.
Let’s consider just a few of the stunts that Drabowsky pulled off during his long career:
- Drabowsky regularly ordered Chinese food from the bullpen. While he usually called local Chinese restaurants, he once decided to place a long distance call from Anaheim Stadium to a restaurant in Hong Kong. (Drabowsky’s habit reminded me of an episode of Seinfeld, when Elaine attempts to place a takeout order of Chinese food, only to be told that her apartment is out of delivery range. Due to the restriction, Elaine instructed the restaurant to deliver the food to a cramped janitor’s closet in a nearby building. Drabowsky would have appreciated that episode.)
- In addition to the bullpen phone calls, Drabowsky relied on a few other pet tricks. One involved the placement of goldfish into the opposing team’s water cooler. Another involved the addition of sneezing powder to the visiting team’s clubhouse air conditioning system.
- After the 1968 season, Drabowsky departed the Baltimore Orioles, who had left him unprotected in the expansion draft. Now a member of the Kansas City Royals, Drabowsky exacted some revenge on the Orioles in the fall of ‘69, when he sent the American League champions a six-foot-long boa constrictor during the World Series. Coincidentally or not, the Orioles went on to lose the Series in five games to the upstart New York Mets.
- Drabowsky was a master at pulling off the hot foot. He would crawl underneath an unsuspecting victim, light a match, and then apply the match to his victim’s shoe, which resulted in a sharp burning sensation, followed soon after by a loud yell. Not only did Drabowsky target teammates and opposing players; he once pranked the game’s ranking leader. It was during the 1970 World Series, by which time Drabowsky had rejoined the Orioles. Laying out a trail of lighter fluid from the trainer’s room to the clubhouse, Drabowsky managed to set the foot of Commissioner Bowie Kuhn on fire. By using the trail of lighter fluid, Drabowsky made it difficult for Kuhn to uncover the identity of the culprit.
- Drabowsky’s most famous stunt did not involve hotfoots, snakes, sneezing powder or Chinese food. It was during a May 1966 game between the Orioles and the Kansas City A’s. With A’s pitcher “Jumbo” Jim Nash mowing down Drabowsky’s Orioles, the mischievous right-hander placed a call from the Baltimore bullpen to the Kansas City bullpen. Doing his best imitation of A’s manager Alvin Dark, Drabowsky told Kansas City bullpen coach Bobby Hofman to instruct reliever Lew Krausse to begin warming up immediately. “You should’ve seen them scramble, trying to get Lew Krausse warmed up in a hurry,” Drabowsky told the Associated Press. “It really was funny.”
According to the rules of the day, a player receiving a bonus that exceeded $4,000 had to be immediately placed on the major league roster. So after signing with the Cubs on July 22, Drabowsky completely bypassed the minor leagues and reported immediately to the big league club. Drabowsky pitched well in his debut, a scoreless inning in relief. But nerves overcame him in his second appearance. “The next night in Cincinnati, I really had the jitters,” he told the Chicago American. “The first man I faced was Ted Kluszewski. I was so worried I threw him four straight balls.”
From there, Drabowsky settled down somewhat. He pitched sparingly that summer, receiving seven starts after the two relief appearances, but he performed respectably. He recorded an ERA of 2.47, though he did struggle mightily with his control. Still only 20 years old, he walked 39 batters in 51 innings.
Not surprisingly, his pitching suffered in 1958. Making only 20 starts, he saw his ERA rise to 4.51 and his win/loss record fall to 9-and-11. To make matters worse, he felt something in his elbow snap during a game in July. He missed a start and underwent treatment, which helped initially, but he began to favor the elbow, which placed unwanted strain on his shoulder.
For the next few seasons, the condition of Drabowsky’s arm compromised his pitching. He struggled badly in 1959 and ’60, with his ERA rising to 6.44 the latter season. Drabowsky pitched so poorly in 1960 that he spent part of the season trying to work out his problems in Triple-A ball. Perhaps realizing that his baseball career might not last as long as he wanted, Drabowsky began to plan for the future. After the 1960 season, he took a training course to become a licensed stock and bond broker.
Splitting his role between the bullpen and the rotation, he mostly struggled with the Reds. In August, Cincinnati decided to move on, selling him to the Kansas City Athletics.
Over the balance of the 1962 season, Drabowsky fared no better for the A’s than he had for the Reds and Braves. The 1963 season would bring better results, however. Used somewhat regularly as a starter, Drabowsky lowered his ERA to 3.05 and struck out 109 batters.
Drabowsky’s first World Series appearance allowed him to make national headlines. Relieving Dave McNally early in Game 1, Drabowsky came on to pitch six and two-thirds innings of one-hit ball and set a World Series record for relievers by striking out 11 batters. At one point, he fanned six consecutive Dodgers. Buttressed by Drabowsky’s Herculean relief effort, the Orioles won Game 1, setting the tone for a surprising four-game sweep of the Dodgers.
Drabowsky continued his excellent work in 1968, with an ERA of 1.91 ERA. Based on his strong performance over the last three seasons, Drabowsky would have seemed like a lock to return to the Orioles in 1969. But the offseason that followed 1968 was different; two new expansion clubs in the American League had to be stocked with players. Unable to protect all of their good players, the deep and talented O’s felt they had no choice but to leave the 32-year-old Drabowsky exposed to the expansion draft. The Royals took advantage, selecting the stalwart reliever.
Pitching well over the next season and a half, Drabowsky then finished his career with a strong six-game stint for the Chicago White Sox in the latter stages of 1972. While Drabowsky’s numbers in Chicago looked good, he felt like he had lost his ability to pitch when he delivered a flat, lifeless pitch to Boston’s Tommy Harper.
“I watched that ball go to the plate and I said [to myself], ‘When in the world is that ball gonna get to the plate?’ I said, ‘Hey, my career is over,’ ” Drabowsky recalled in an interview with Sports Collectors Digest.
After his retirement from coaching, Drabowsky remained active by attending Orioles fantasy camps. There he continued his habit of pulling off practical jokes, which often included the use of live snakes. One day, the local police, who happened to know Drabowsky, arrested him on the charge of “cruelty to animals.” When Drabowsky arrived at the police station, the police informed him that the “arrest” was nothing more than a practical joke.
As Drabowsky continued his coaching career with the Orioles in 2000, he received an undesirable diagnosis: Advanced stage multiple myeloma. Doctors gave him only six months to live, but Drabowsky’s determination, along with a willingness to try stem cell transplants, extended his life by six years. He finally succumbed to the disease in 2006, at the age of 70.
Drabowsky’s passion for living matched his passion for playing jokes and pranks on friends and opponents. When it came to living a full and vibrant life, few could match the efforts of a one-of-a-kind pitcher named Moe.
Bruce Markusen is the manager of digital and outreach learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame