#CardCorner: 1978 Topps Frank Tanana
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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