#CardCorner: 1984 Topps Richie Hebner
If you collected baseball cards in both the 1970s and 80s, you likely experienced two different incarnations of Richie Hebner.
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The first one was a clean-cut, youthful Hebner sporting the Pittsburgh Pirates’ more conservative white and gray uniforms. The second one was a more mature Hebner, with mustache in full bloom, his hair a bit longer, and his body draped in the bold black-and-gold threads that made the Pirates the most distinctive looking team in the early 1980s.
Hebner’s 1984 Topps card gives us an ideal example of the latter incarnation. Taken on the sidelines before a game, the photo showcases the Pirates’ black jersey, the gold undershirt, the matching gold pants, and that wonderful pillbox cap, which much of the National League debuted in 1976 but which the Pirates maintained for more than a decade.
Seemingly oblivious to the Topps photographer on the sidelines, Hebner appears to be taking in a pregame catch with some unseen teammate. He is rather gingerly reaching into his glove, as if he is about to remove a fragile egg, rather than a hardened, 108-stitch baseball. I imagine that this was all part of a pregame routine that Hebner had established many years earlier.
Photographers would have had plenty of opportunity to take baseball card shots of Hebner. He was a player known for arriving at the ballpark early, often before the vast majority of his teammates. A baseball lifer through and through, Hebner loved spending hours at the ballpark, both before and after the game.
Though Hebner would become associated with baseball, he at one time seemed destined to play another professional sport. Growing up in Brighton, Mass., Hebner became a highly touted hockey player, so skilled and talented that he drew the interest of the NHL’s Boston Bruins. In some ways, hockey was Hebner’s first love, but he also excelled at baseball, becoming a hard-hitting shortstop in both Little League and high school. In 1966, the Pirates presented Hebner with a difficult decision by making him their first-round choice (15th overall) in the MLB Draft.
With Mike Schmidt at third base, the Phillies had no need for Hebner to play the hot corner. They moved him over to first base. Given Hebner’s declining range, the switch from third to first made perfect sense. Hebner played well for the Phillies in 1977 and ‘78, putting up OPS numbers of .864 and .834 in two seasons, respectively. But during the winter of 1978, the Phillies pursued Pete Rose, signing him to play first base.
The addition of Rose made Hebner expendable. As Spring Training came to an end in 1979, the Phillies alleviated the logjam by trading Hebner and infielder Jose Moreno to the New York Mets for a talented young right-hander named Nino Espinosa.
For the Mets, third base had long been a trouble spot. Deciding to move Hebner back to his original major league position, the Mets hoped that Hebner could fill the void. The plan did not work according to expectation. Hebner struggled in reacquainting himself to the hot corner. More surprisingly, he fell into a bad batting slump, which brought him loud boos from the fans at Shea Stadium.
Beyond his hitting and fielding woes, Hebner’s problems seemed to stem from his new environment. He did not like playing or living in the nation’s largest city.
“I’m just not a big city guy,” Hebner revealed in an interview with The New York Times. “Too much hustle-bustle.”
Bothered by the large crowds of people, the traffic, and a demanding fan base, Hebner never felt comfortable playing for the Mets.
At the end of the season, the Mets moved on from Hebner. They traded Hebner to the Detroit Tigers for a package of two players: Young third baseman Phil Mankowski and veteran outfielder Jerry Morales.
The trade left the Tigers thrilled. They viewed Hebner, with his lefty, pull-hitting stroke as an ideal fit for the short right field porch at venerable Tiger Stadium. Tigers manager Sparky Anderson gleefully announced that Hebner would not only serve as his starting third baseman, but would also bat cleanup for the Tigers.
Greeted with high expectations, Hebner did not deliver exactly that the Tigers had anticipated. Starting the season at third base, he moved to first base when the Tigers dealt Jason Thompson to California. Hebner failed to hit with much power, totaling only 12 home runs. An injured foot also limited Hebner to 104 games. Yet, not all was lost. When Hebner did play, he posted an OPS of .826. A .290 batting average, a .360 on-base percentage and 82 RBIs all represented positive numbers for Hebner.
In 1981, the player strike resulted in a fragmented season. The interruption seemed to affect Hebner more than most; he batted a career-low .226 and hit only five home runs. At 33, Hebner was showing his age.
Not the player he once was, Hebner settled into a platoon with new acquisition Enos Cabell in 1982. Hebner hit well to start the season, but then fell into a slump. With the Tigers falling out of contention, they decided to move Hebner, one of their aging veterans. In the middle of August, they sold Hebner to selling him to his original team, the Pirates.
For the next season and a half, Hebner performed respectably for the Bucs as a pinch-hitter and utility infielder. After the 1983 season, he signed a free agent contract with the Chicago Cubs.
Although he was nearing the end of his career, he impressed manager Jim Frey and his teammates with his enthusiasm. Hebner routinely arrived at the ballpark before any of the other players, even though there was little guarantee that he would play that day. On the field, Hebner excelled in a part-time role. He batted .333 in 45 games, doing his small part to help the Cubs win the National League East. For the first time since his Phillies days in 1978, Hebner returned to the postseason.
In 1985, Hebner came back to play one more season with the Cubs. The following March, he received his release, ending his playing career. To no one’s surprise, Hebner would remain employed within the game. He eventually became a minor league manager for the Toronto Blue Jays, at one point working for their Triple-A affiliate in Syracuse, N.Y. That’s when I had the chance to meet and interview Hebner for the first time. He made quite the impression with his honesty, his down-to-earth personality and his salty language. For those who remember the film Jaws, Hebner comes across as the “Quint” of baseball.
Hebner later returned to the Pirates as a minor league manager and instructor, before eventually returning to the big leagues as a coach with Philadelphia and Boston. He has put in time with several other organizations, too, working at such minor league outposts as Durham, Birmingham, and Buffalo. Now retired from the game, he continues to live in Walpole, Mass.
Still known to this day as “The Gravedigger,” or “Digger” for short, Hebner is one of the game’s good guys, a baseball lifer full of vigor. Whether he’s at the ballpark or at a card show, Richie Hebner is someone who will always give you a good story from a winding life in baseball.
Bruce Markusen is the manager of digital and outreach learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame