#CardCorner: 1973 Topps Bob Locker
Hall of Fame staffers are also baseball fans and love to share their stories. Here is a fan's perspective from Cooperstown.
An entire book could be written about weird and peculiar baseball cards. If such a book were to make it to print, it would simply have to include Bob Locker’s surreal 1973 Topps card.
A first glance at Locker’s card reveals an obvious case of airbrushing. The home white and blue colors of the Chicago Cubs have been layered on to an existing photo that shows Locker pitching for the Oakland A’s in a 1972 game. We figure that it must be 1972, since the A’s used sleeveless vest uniforms in 1970 and ’71, which would have made it more difficult to airbrush the Cubs’ uniform onto a photo from one of those seasons. In 1972, the A’s switched to a pullover jersey featuring sleeves, making it easier to make the transition to the Cubs’ look. Since this is an action shot, something that Topps featured prominently in its 1973 set, Topps also had to airbrush Cubs colors onto the center fielder in the picture. That outfielder just so happens to be Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson.
Yet, the presence of Cubs colors onto Locker’s uniform is not what is most noteworthy about this card. What is notable is the lack of Cubs pinstripes from the airbrushed uniform. I’m guessing that it would have been exceedingly difficult to draw minute pinstripes onto Locker, so Topps decided not to even try.
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Even more unusual is the complete absence of a number on the back of Locker’s jersey. With Locker’s back twisted to face the batter almost directly, we clearly see that he has no number, making for an odd appearance. For some reason, Topps decided not to airbrush the number in the color of the Cubs’ traditional blue. Rather than stay with a mismatched green number on the Cubs’ blue and white uniform, Topps simply chose to obliterate the number, leaving us with a numberless jersey. In a way, it’s a throwback to the days from the early part of the 20th century, before the Cleveland Indians and the New York Yankees became the first clubs to permanently add numbers to the backs of their players’ jerseys.
In trying to dissect this card further, I became determined to pin down further details about the card. Where was this photograph taken? Based on the fact that the batter is wearing a road gray uniform, the A’s must be the home team. It has to be a shot from the Oakland Coliseum, where Topps photographers took many of their pictures during the 1970s. (That group of photogs included the great Doug McWilliams, whom we have profiled in past editions of Card Corner) The next questions involves the identity of the opposition team in the photograph. Who were the A’s playing on this sun-soaked day at the Oakland Coliseum in 1972? For that, let’s enlist the help of the Hall of Fame’s skilled Curatorial Department.
Initially, I thought that the batter facing Locker was wearing the road uniform of either the Baltimore Orioles or the Minnesota Twins. Curator of History and Research John Odell immediately ruled out the Orioles, explaining that Baltimore’s road uniforms featured orange on the bottom of the waistband and black on the top of the waistband. Clearly, the player in the photograph has a waistband with the colors in reverse: orange on the top and black on the bottom. So it can’t be a player with the Orioles.
John then offered some speculation that the player might be a member of the Texas Rangers. Senior Curator Tom Shieber, an expert on baseball uniforms, confirmed that the waistband of the photo matches the waistband the Rangers used in 1972.
Tom then took it a step further, trying to determine players on the Rangers who batted right and happened to be African American, like the player in the picture. Tom came up with four possibilities: infielders Dave Nelson and Tom Ragland, and outfielders Ted Ford and Elliott Maddox. (Two other members of the Rangers, the switch-hitting Vic Harris and Lenny Randle, also had the ability to bat right-handed, but they would have batted left-handed against the right-handed throwing Locker. Based on that logic, we can rule out Harris and Randle.)
Not satisfied to narrow the list to a final four, Tom continued to research the matter. He determined that Locker faced the Rangers in two games at the Oakland Coliseum during the 1972 season. They happened to be in both ends of the same doubleheader, occurring on July 30. That was the same day that Topps photographed Nelson for his 1973 Topps card, lending further credence that the Locker photo was taken that same day. And by the way, Reggie Jackson played center field in both games, confirming that he is the airbrushed player in the background of the photo.
In the first game of the doubleheader, Locker faced only one batter, the aforementioned Maddox, whom he struck out. So it could be Maddox. In the nightcap, Locker faced only one of the four players mentioned above, Nelson, whom he struck out for the final out of the game. So it could be Nelson, or it could be Maddox. Based on a visual scan, I would guess that it is Maddox, who had a long, lean build that seems to fit the player on the card, but that’s strictly a guess on my part.
Locker would struggle in the Championship Series against the Detroit Tigers, but the A’s still managed to advance to the World Series. Appearing in one Fall Classic game, Locker logged a scoreless third of an inning, as the A’s won their first Series title since their move to Oakland.
As well as Locker pitched for the A’s in 1972, he was now 34 years old and part of a deep bullpen. Believing that they could trade from that depth, the A’s sent Locker to the Cubs in a wintertime deal for young center fielder Billy North. The trade allowed Locker to return to his original major league city, but now with the National League Cubs. Initially, Locker wanted no part of the trade. He liked playing for the A’s and enjoyed making his home in the Bay Area. He threatened to quit the game outright, rather than report to the Cubs’ camp in Arizona.
Thankfully, Locker changed his mind. He reported to Spring Training, but quickly came down with a sore arm. “My arm was so weak I couldn’t break a pane of glass,” Locker told famed Chicago sportswriter Jerome Holtzman. Working through the pain, Locker’s armed bounced back. He pitched beautifully in his second Windy City go-round, becoming a late-inning workhorse for manager Whitey Lockman. He also added a change-up to his repertoire, a pitch that prevented teams from keying in on his sinker. Accumulating 106 innings, the veteran righty sported an ERA of 2.54 and saved 18 games while wresting away the closer’s role from Jack Aker.
Although Locker had shined for the Cubs, he asked the team to trade him back to Oakland, so that he could be near his home in the Bay Area. On Nov. 3, the Cubs obliged, sending him back to the A’s for sidearming reliever Horacio Pina. But Locker would never appear in another game for Oakland. The heavy workload of 1973 took a toll on Locker’s right arm. He came down with a bad elbow, necessitating surgery. As a result, he missed all of the 1974 season.
After the lost summer of ‘74, the A’s sent him back to Chicago yet again as part of a deal for Hall of Famer Billy Williams. Locker reported to Spring Training in 1975, his elbow feeling fine, but his shoulder now hurting. Locker struggled in April and May, as he issued more walks than he collected strikeouts. In late June, the Cubs released Locker, ending his long career.
Locker left the game with a 2.75 ERA, 95 saves, and a total of 879 innings. He also became a rarity for his era – a pitcher who never made a single career start, his 576 appearances all coming out of the bullpen. In an era before specialists, Locker was exactly that – and a good one.
Choosing not to remain in baseball, Locker settled in to life in the Bay Area, where he lived with his wife and worked in real estate and exterior design for nearly three decades. In the early 2000s, he retired to Montana, where he became an inventor and writer. Locker essentially taught himself how to write professionally, without the benefit of formal training. To date, he has published three books, including Cows Vote Too and Esteem Yourself. The latter is a volume meant to inspire young people. Clearly, the books have nothing to do with baseball.
A man of many talents and supreme intelligence, Locker has led a life that is anything but typical of a major league ballplayer. It’s been an unconventional life for the man who, most fittingly, starred on one of the strangest baseball cards ever made.
Bruce Markusen is the manager of digital and outreach learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum