#CardCorner: 1979 Topps Gene Tenace
One of the strengths of 1979 Topps is the quality of the action shots. In the early 1970s, Topps tended to include action shots taken from long distances, often featuring multiple players on the same card. While those cards were fun, they didn’t always give us a good look at the player in question.
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By 1979, Topps photographers had refined their work. A perfect example can be found in this well-focused action shot of Gene Tenace. In a shot taken at Shea Stadium, we are able to see Tenace up close, including the tension and movement of the muscles on his right arm just after he makes contact with the pitch.
Also in evidence are Tenace’s left hand and arm, which are sporting a batting glove and a thick yellow sweatband. And of course, we have a nice close-up view of those garish San Diego Padres uniforms, with their brown tops, yellow lettering and multi-colored racing stripes.
Tenace’s rock-solid physique is fully evident here, too. Listed at six feet and 190 pounds, Tenace appears to have relatively little body fat and plenty of muscle. In an era before weightlifting became common, Tenace stood out for his Gibraltar-like stature.
By 1979, Tenace was well-established as one of the game’s premier hitting catchers. A decade and a half earlier, he was still living in the small Midwestern town of Lucasville, Ohio, where he grew up. His grandparents had emigrated from Italy and had decided to Americanize their last name, changing it from its original “Tennaci.”
Tenace’s grandfather gave the youngster the nickname, “Steamboat.” It was a reference to the unusually clumsy way that Tenace walked – sort of like a steamboat carrying a load of heavy cargo on a river.
Tenace might have walked awkwardly, but he could play the game well at a young age. His father, a former semi-pro player, drove him hard to improve his baseball skills. Tenace felt so much pressure to excel that he developed an ulcer at the age of 13. The unexpected health problem forced him to miss an entire season, and when he did return, he asked his father not to attend any more games. Tenace emerged as an all-state shortstop. He also starred in American Legion ball, where his teammates included future major leaguers Al Oliver and Larry Hisle.
Prior to the 1965 draft, the Kansas City Athletics scouted Tenace and liked him enough to select him in the 20th round, an indication that they regarded him as a prospect, but only a fringe one. Realizing that he was not suited to play shortstop, the A’s quickly switched Tenace to the outfield. In one minor league game for Peninsula of the Carolina League, Tenace showed his versatility by playing all nine positions in a game – a promotional stunt meant to attract more fans to the ballpark.
“The biggest thing is getting him to relax,” Niarhos told the Sporting News. “When he does, and if he keeps hitting, he’ll be up there [in Oakland]. That could be next year; that’s how much I think of his chances.”
In particular, Niarhos liked Tenace’s natural curiosity and willingness to learn. “Tenace wants to know. He asks, too. He’s a good student.”
In 1971, Tenace shared catching duties with Duncan, who was considered the best receiver on the Oakland roster. When given a chance to play, Tenace hit well, batting .274 with seven home runs in 65 games.
Then came an unexpected slump in 1972. Tenace saw his batting average fall to .225 and his home run output tumble to five. He caught only 49 games, while also being used as a jack-of-all-trades, appearing in games at first, second and third base and in the outfield.
Then everything changed in the 1972 World Series. Participating in his first Fall Classic, Tenace blasted two home runs in his first two at-bats. For the Series, he tormented the Cincinnati Reds with four home runs and a .348 batting average and a 1.313 OPS, a performance that earned him Series MVP honors, as the A’s took home their first world championship since their days in Philadelphia.
Tenace not only played in Game 7, but excelled. He picked up two more hits, including a double, and drove home two of Oakland’s three runs. Tenace’s latest effort sealed the MVP vote and made him a household name, resulting in appearances on late-night talk shows. For a player who had struggled to find consistent playing time during a disappointing regular season, the transformation to national celebrity was a remarkable development.
While players like Reggie Jackson, Jim “Catfish” Hunter, Vida Blue, and Rollie Fingers garnered most of the attention, Tenace quietly played a vital role in helping build the Oakland dynasty.
Tenace continued to excel in 1975 and ’76, earning his first All-Star Game nod and picking up some MVP voting consideration. With the end of the ’76 season came free agency, allowing many of the A’s top players, including Tenace, to sign multiyear contracts with other clubs. Tenace and Fingers both signed with the Padres, owned by the free-spending Ray Kroc.
Tenace turned in his gaudy, green-and-gold Oakland polyesters for the even gaudier brown-and-yellow threads preferred of the Padres. Making the transition to the National League, Tenace hit 15 home runs, but his patient hitting style drew the ire of Kroc.
He filled that role capably for two seasons and helped St. Louis win the 1982 World Series before becoming a free agent and signing with the Pittsburgh Pirates, where he struggled in a utility role. The following spring, the Pirates released Tenace, ending his 15-year career.
While Tenace’s playing days had come to a close, his association with baseball did not. He turned to coaching, first in the minor league system of the Boston Red Sox. At one point, rumors circulated that he would replace Chuck Tanner as manager of the Pirates, but that call never came.
Bruce Markusen is the manager of digital and outreach learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame