#CardCorner: 1975 Topps José Cruz
But in every other aspect of the game, Cruz excelled at a level that led headline writers to “discover” him well past what should have been his athletic prime.
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Born Aug. 8, 1947, in Arroyo, Puerto Rico, Cruz was one of 13 children and the oldest of three brothers who would eventually play in the big leagues. He signed with the Cardinals in the fall of 1966 and began a steady climb through St. Louis’ system, earning a late-season promotion to the big leagues in 1970 after hitting .300 with 21 homers and 90 RBI for Double-A Arkansas that season.
After beginning the 1971 season with Triple-A Tulsa – hitting .327 in 67 games for manager Warren Spahn’s team – Cruz was recalled to St. Louis in late June and inserted into the Cardinals’ lineup as the team’s center fielder. He finished the season with a .274 batting average, nine homers and 46 runs scored in 83 games – posting a .377 on-base percentage on the strength of 49 walks.
“Cruz has all the tools to achieve star status,” Cardinals general manager Bing Devine told Lindsay-Schaub News Service.
Cruz made the sports pages of newspapers all over the country in November of 1971 in an Associated Press blurb that quoted Cruz as saying “He’s too good to copy” when describing fellow Puerto Rican Roberto Clemente, who had won the World Series Most Valuable Player Award with the Pirates a month before.
Cruz, however, had talent all his own.
After slumping to a .235 average in 1972, Cruz appeared poised for a breakout season in 1973. In a Spring Training game against the Mets on March 23, Cruz started in center field and was flanked by his brothers Tommy and Hector, who signed with the Cardinals in 1969 and 1970, respectively.
Cruz finished with a .284 batting average, 1,036 runs scored, 1,077 RBI, 165 home runs and 317 stolen bases over 19 seasons. He was also hit by a pitch just seven times in his career – never more than once a season – a record for any player with at least 8,800 career plate appearances.
His career WAR of 54.4 ranks in the Top 250 all-time. And his family bloodlines remained strong, as his son José Cruz Jr. enjoyed a 12-season career in the big leagues.
But his 2,353 career games without appearing in a World Series – the 15th-most of anyone not to play in the Fall Classic – may be the most likely reason that José Cruz was not more appreciated in his own time.
Cheo simply did his job without fanfare.
“When he’s finished playing,” teammate Dickie Thon told the San Bernadino Sun, “they’re going to recognize a lot of the things he’s done.”
Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum