#CardCorner: 1973 Topps Gene Clines
One of the joys of Hall of Fame Weekend is the sheer presence of so many former big league players at one time. Not only are 50-plus Hall of Famers expected to be in town for the weekend’s Induction Ceremony in Cooperstown, but there are also a number of other retired players who are scheduled to be in town at some point.
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Some are here as invited guests of our six new inductees, while others have come to participate in autograph signings on Main and Pioneer streets. In some cases, the players have come here for both of the reasons. All of this contributes to what is essentially a festival of baseball and its history. Even for fans who have attended an All-Star Game or a World Series, there is nothing quite like the atmosphere that comes with Hall of Fame Weekend.
One of the many retired players who is expected to be in Cooperstown for the big event is Gene Clines, a former player and a longtime coach. He is one of the guests of new inductee Lee Smith. When Smith pitched for the Chicago Cubs in the 1980s, Clines served the club as a coach. Clines became one of the game’s most respected coaches, particularly when it came to the art of hitting. That’s just one of many chapters in the fascinating baseball life of Gene Clines.
Of all the Clines cards produced by Topps, my favorite is the card from 1973. It’s one of the better action shots in the set. Taken at Shea Stadium, as so many of the Topps photos were back in the 1970s, the photo gives us a glimpse into the New York Mets’ dugout, but the background is not clear enough for us to make out any of the numbers or the faces of the Mets’ players. Yet it does give us a pretty good look at Clines and his 5-foot-9-inch frame.
The photograph shows Clines near the end of his swing. Having just released his bottom hand, which is now fully open, Clines is still holding onto the bat with his top hand. I particularly like the way the card shows his legs in motion. His back leg is fully extended and seems to be supporting most of his weight, while his front foot front has landed rather awkwardly, tipped to its left side while it kicks up some dirt from the home plate area.
This is not exactly the balanced follow-through that a hitter desires, but it does give us a glimpse into the complexity of a completed swing. There is just so much going on, between the hands, arms, and legs; no wonder hitting a baseball is the hardest feat in modern team sports.
In 1969, the Pirates decided to have Clines repeat Double-A York – with far better results. He batted a more respectable .268, drew 48 walks, and fully utilized his baserunning skills by stealing 63 bases. Given his outright speed, it was no surprise that Clines earned the nickname of “Roadrunner.”
In 1970, the Pirates moved their Double-A affiliate to Waterbury, where Clines played his third consecutive season in the Eastern League. This time around, Clines mastered Double-A pitching, to the point that the Pirates brought him to Pittsburgh in mid-June. Clines would later return to Double-A, but then received a callback from the Pirates in August. Used as a utility outfielder who played left, center, and right field, Clines batted .405 in 37 sporadic at-bats. Although the sample size was small, the Pirates took notice. In 1971, they included him on their Opening Day roster.
The World Series brought Clines even more playing time; he came to bat 11 times and appeared in three games. While he collected only one hit, the Pirates as a team pulled off one of the most monumental upsets in October history, stunning the favored Baltimore Orioles in seven grueling games.
With a World Series ring now in his collection, Clines did not rest on his laurels. In 1972, he assembled his best season, while playing for new manager Bill Virdon, who had replaced the retiring Danny Murtaugh. Platooning in left field with another key role player, Vic Davalillo, Clines batted .334 average in 311 at-bats, and even earned some support in National League MVP balloting. Some within the Pirates’ organization felt that Clines was on the verge of becoming a star.
After a strong start in 1973, Virdon eventually installed Clines as the Pirates’ everyday right fielder. He replaced a struggling Manny Sanguillen, who had done his best to succeed Clemente, who died in a wintertime plane crash. Soon after moving into right field, Clines tore ligaments in his right ankle, forcing him to the sidelines. When he returned to action, he struggled at the plate, perhaps still bothered by the after-effects of the injury.
Given the glut of outfield talent in Pittsburgh, a trade made sense. That winter, the Bucs dealt Clines to the New York Mets for backup catcher Duffy Dyer. Clines could hardly contain his glee.
“I’m happy to be gone from the Pirates,” Clines told the New York Times. “They made up their minds a long time ago that I didn’t fit into their plans, and there was never a thing I could do to change their minds.”
Clines hoped that the Mets, a team with a thinner outfield than the Pirates, would give him more playing. It didn’t happen. Clines struggled at the plate, limiting him to 205 at-bats. For the season, he batted a meager .227. After the season, the Mets moved on, dealing Clines to the Texas Rangers for switch-hitting outfielder Joe Lovitto. The Rangers gave Clines more playing time than the Mets or Pirates had ever done, but the results proved to be mixed. Clines batted .276, but drew only 16 walks and failed to hit a home run.
After being released by the Cubs, Clines remained with the organization as a coach. He then joined the Houston Astros as a minor league hitting instructor before earning a promotion to the major league staff in 1988. Clines later worked as a coach for the Seattle Mariners and Milwaukee Brewers.
After the ‘96 season, the Giants named Clines their major league hitting instructor under manager Dusty Baker. While with the Giants, Clines developed a reputation as one of the game‘s finest hitting coaches. His skills included the ability to strike a positive chord with the team’s best player, Barry Bonds. Clines also drew considerable praise from many of the Giants’ veteran hitters, including Jeff Kent, who raved about his coach’s manner and approach.
Clines’ work as a hitting coach found its roots during his days as a player, particularly with the Pirates. That’s where he observed the batting techniques of his teammates.
That’s unfortunate, given Clines’ intelligence, his understanding of hitting, his communication skills and his ability to relate to players of today. For whatever the reason, Clines never received the chance to lead his own team. It’s a stiff reminder that there are only 30 major league managerial jobs available at one time.
In the case of Clines, it should not diminish what has been a fine and lengthy career as a baseball lifer. It’s a career that included a World Series ring, a chance to play with legends like Clemente and Stargell, a long run as a wise old batting coach, and untold respect from so many he has taught over the years.
Bruce Markusen is the manager of digital and outreach learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame