#CardCorner: 1978 Topps Frank Tanana

Part of the CARD CORNER series
Written by: Craig Muder

Frank Tanana had the good fortune to have two big league baseball careers in one 21-year stretch.

During each, Tanana could lay claim to being one of the most effective pitchers in the game.

Tanana’s 1978 Topps card depicts him at the top of his form when few pitchers on the planet threw harder. Teamed with Nolan Ryan in the California Angels rotation, Tanana didn’t quite match Ryan’s strikeout numbers but bested Ryan each year in earned-run average from 1975-78.

But as the 1980s dawned, Ryan left for Houston – and Tanana reworked himself into a completely different pitcher.

Born July 3, 1953, in Detroit, Tanana was a schoolboy superstar at Detroit’s Catholic Central High School who received more than 100 college scholarship offers for baseball and basketball. But during his senior year, Tanana injured his arm – and his hometown Tigers passed on him in the 1971 MLB Draft, taking Tom Veryzer with the No. 11 overall pick. With the 13th overall selection, Tanana went to the Angels.

Tanana did not pitch in pro ball in 1971 due to the injury, but recovered in time for the 1972 season – where he went 7-2 with a 2.79 ERA in 19 starts for Class A Quad Cities of the Midwest League. In 1973, Tanana rolled through the minors, going 16-6 for Double-A El Paso and posting a 2.73 ERA in two starts with Triple-A Salt Lake City before debuting with the Angels on Sept. 9.

The front of Topps' 1978 Frank Tanana card. (Milo Stewart Jr./National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum)

After going 2-2 in four starts at the end of the 1973 campaign, Tanana – at age 20 – earned a spot in the Angels rotation the next spring.

“Actually,” Tanana told the Independent of Long Beach, Calif, in the spring of 1974, “I thought I’d make it sooner. Nothing I do awes me.”

Never at a loss for confidence, Tanana won his first two decisions of the season before a stretch from May 7 through July 10 where he went 1-11 with a 4.70 ERA. But when Dick Williams replaced Bobby Winkles as Angels manager in late June, Tanana began to turn things around.

Spurred on by the fiery Williams, Tanana went 11-6 in his final 17 games, finishing the season with a 14-19 record and 3.12 ERA in 268.2 innings. In 1975, Tanana stepped out of Ryan’s shadow to go 16-9 with a 2.62 ERA and an MLB-best 269 strikeouts. It marked the only season from 1972 through 1979 that Ryan – who was limited to 28 starts in 1975 due to injuries – did not lead the AL in strikeouts.

The reverse of Topps' 1978 Frank Tanana card. (Milo Stewart Jr./National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum)

On June 21, 1975, Tanana set an AL record for left-handers with 17 strikeouts in the first game of a doubleheader against the Texas Rangers. Among AL lefties, only Ron Guidry and Randy Johnson have topped that mark since.

“It was kind of nice to watch somebody else strike out all those guys,” Ryan told the San Bernadino Sun after watching Tanana’s performance.

Tanana went 19-10 with a 2.43 ERA in 1976, finishing third in the AL Cy Young Award race. Then in 1977, Tanana led the AL in ERA with a 2.54 mark while going 15-9 with a big league-best seven shutouts. But at age 24 – with more than 1,000 innings pitched in his first four full big league seasons – Tanana’s arm began to show signs of wear.

Tanana recorded 14 straight complete games from April 29-July 3, and sat at 12-5 with a 1.89 ERA at the end of that string. He would win just three more games that season.

Tanana was 18-12 with a 3.65 ERA in 1978, but struck out just 137 batters over 239 innings. He made his fourth straight Opening Day start in 1979, but he missed almost three months with a shoulder injury that limited him to a 7-5 record over 18 appearances.

The Angels won the AL West for the first time in 1979, however, and Tanana started Game 3 of the ALCS vs. the Orioles, allowing two runs over five innings in his first postseason appearance during a game California eventually won 4-3. It would be the Angels’ only win of the series as Baltimore advanced to the Fall Classic.

In 1980, Tanana worked 204 innings but was 11-12 with a 4.15 ERA and just 113 strikeouts. Then on Jan. 23, 1981, the Angels sent Tanana, Joe Rudi and Jim Dorsey to the Red Sox in exchange for Fred Lynn and Steve Renko.

“Everyone I talked to said (Tanana) was 100 percent the second half of the season,” Red Sox manager Ralph Houk told the Boston Globe following the trade, referencing Tanana’s 9-5 record and 3.28 ERA over his final 21 starts in 1980. “The man has been a winner, and there’s no substitute for that.”

But the 1981 season would not be kind to Tanana, who went 4-10 with a 4.01 ERA in 23 starts for the Red Sox during the strike-shortened campaign. Having signed a five-year deal with the Angels prior to the 1977 season, Tanana became a free agent in the fall of 1981.

After signing a multi-year deal with the Rangers, Tanana went 7-18 (the most losses in baseball) in 1982 with a 4.21 ERA and just 87 strikeouts in 194.1 innings. He began the 1983 season in the Rangers’ bullpen, but worked his way back into the rotation as he mastered the intricacies controlling the baseball and the strike zone.

Tanana was 7-9 with a 3.16 ERA in 1983, then truly began the second act of his career by going 15-15 with a 3.25 ERA for Texas in 1984. After starting the next season 2-7, Tanana was traded to his hometown of Detroit – with the Rangers getting minor league pitcher Duane James – on June 20, 1985.

It would be a trade that would bear fruit for the Tigers for years to come.

“We thought it was in our best interest to trade Frank to get the young pitching prospect,” Rangers general manager Tom Grieve told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

James, however, never pitched above Double-A and was out of baseball by 1987.

Tanana, meanwhile, went 10-7 with a 3.34 ERA down the stretch in 1985 – and won a total of 96 games for the Tigers over the course of eight seasons.

After going 12-9 in 1987, Tanana was 15-10 with a 3.91 ERA in 1987 as the Tigers chased the Blue Jays throughout the summer in pursuit of the AL East title. The Tigers entered the season’s final day with a one-game lead over Toronto, with Tanana scheduled to start the finale. Tanana had been dropped from the rotation following a difficult three-game stretch in early September where we was 0-1 with a 17.75 ERA, but he recovered with two sparking outings on Sept. 25 and 29 where he allowed just one earned run over 15 innings.

In front of 51,005 fans at Tiger Stadium on Oct. 4, Tanana pitched a six-hit shutout, allowing six hits while striking out nine in a 1-0 Detroit victory that clinched the division crown. The powerful Toronto lineup seemed helpless against Tanana’s assortment of off-speed pitches.

The next day’s Detroit Free Press featured a huge front-page sports photo of Tigers manager Sparky Anderson hugging a smiling Tanana.

“Every now and then,” Tanana told the Free Press, “I’d give (the Blue Jays) something in the 80s (mile per hour range) to keep them off balance.”

Tanana appeared in his second postseason game in the ALCS, losing Game 4 against the Twins after allowing three earned runs over 5.1 innings. Minnesota went on to win the series, denying Tanana a chance to pitch in the Fall Classic.

But Tanana continued to be a workhorse for the Tigers, staying in the starting rotation through the 1992 season. He picked up his 200th career win in 1990 and was Detroit’s Opening Day starter in 1991 – his first Opening Day assignment since 1979.

Tanana signed with the Mets as a free agent prior to the 1993 season and was traded to the Yankees in a stretch drive deal on Sept. 17.

He finished the season with a 7-17 record and 4.35 ERA, then signed a minor league deal with the Angels prior to the 1994 season.

But when the Angels released Tanana on March 20, 1994, his career came to an end.

“I’ve always seen guys get released, but I never got released before,” Tanana told the Los Angeles Times. “I guess if you hang around long enough, you’re going to see everything.”

Tanana finished his career with a record of 240-236, a 3.66 ERA and 2,773 strikeouts. The 240 wins are the most of any left-handed pitcher without a 20-win season, and his strikeout total still ranks in the Top 25 all-time.

Tanana also allowed the most home runs ever by an AL pitcher with 448 – a testament to his long career and ability to throw strikes.

A pitcher who threw 90s in the 70s and 70s in the 90s, Frank Tanana had the best of both pitching worlds.

Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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Part of the CARD CORNER series