#CardCorner: 1980 Topps Jim Sundberg
No sentence could better illustrate how good Sundberg was behind the plate.
By the time Sundberg’s 1980 Topps card hit the market, Sundberg was a two-time All-Star and four-time Gold Glove Award winner. But in an era that included future Hall of Fame catchers Johnny Bench, Gary Carter, Carlton Fisk and Ted Simmons – as well as perennial All-Stars like Bob Boone and Thurman Munson – Sundberg was often overlooked.
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The numbers he compiled, however, live to tell the tale of one of the most durable and talented catchers in history.
Born May 18, 1951, in Galesburg, Ill., Sundberg was drafted out of high school in the sixth round in 1968 by the Athletics, but chose to play college ball at the University of Iowa. The Rangers then took Sundberg in the eighth round of the 1972 MLB Draft, but Sundberg did not sign until Texas chose him again with the second overall pick in the January 1973 draft – right behind Dick Ruthven of the Phillies.
After hitting .298 in 91 games with Double-A Pittsfield in 1973, Sundberg made the big league roster in 1974 and quickly established himself as Texas’ starting catcher. That summer, he was named to the American League All-Star team.
“When I first came up, I was awed by the people I played against and with,” Sundberg told the Galesburg Register-Mail after learning of his All-Star Game selection. “But now I feel I’m one of them.”
Sundberg hit .247 with three home runs and 36 RBI in 132 games in 1974, but it was his defense that stood out. He led all AL catchers with 15 double plays that year and threw out 43 base runners, the fifth-best total in the league. His .990 fielding percentage ranked third.
The next season, the Rangers fired manager Billy Martin after 95 games and replaced him with Frank Lucchesi. However, neither skipper saw any reason that Sundberg shouldn’t be in the lineup every day.
Despite a sophomore slump at the plate that dropped his batting average to .199 and pushed his OPS to .539 – the lowest mark ever for any non-shortstop playing in at least 155 games – Sundberg led AL catchers in putouts (791) and assists (101) while finishing second in caught stealings (65) and caught stealing percentage (45.8 percent).
Then on Jan. 18, 1985, the Brewers, Royals, Rangers and Mets executed a four-team trade that saw Sundberg land in Kansas City. It was a perfect fit for Sundberg, who joined a young Royals team that had won the AL West title in 1984. He hit .245 in 112 games behind the plate, masterfully handling a Kansas City staff that featured young aces Mark Gubicza, Danny Jackson and 1985 AL Cy Young Award winner Bret Saberhagen.
The Royals won the AL West, then rallied from a 3-games-to-1 deficit to defeat the Blue Jays in the ALCS – with Sundberg driving in a team-best six runs in the series. Sundberg’s three-run triple in the sixth inning of Game 7 turned a 2-1 KC lead into a 5-1 advantage and effectively put the game out of reach.
In the World Series against the Cardinals, Sundberg hit .250 with six walks and a team-best six runs scored as the Royals once again rallied from a 3-1 deficit. In the pivotal Game 6, Sundberg scored the winning run as the Royals – just two outs away from elimination – rallied on Dane Iorg’s two-run single off Todd Worrell.
Sundberg had two walks and an RBI in Game 7 as the Royals won 11-0.
Sundberg appeared in 140 games – 134 behind the plate – in 1986 in his final season as a regular. He spent 1987 and part of 1988 with the Cubs before heading back to Texas, spending his final season in 1989 playing in front of appreciative fans.
Over 16 big league seasons, Sundberg hit .248 with 1,493 hits and 243 doubles. En route to six Gold Glove Awards and three All-Star Game selections, Sundberg appeared in 1,927 games behind the plate – which ranked second on the all-time list behind Bob Boone at the time of his retirement.
“I have not sought to be better than everyone else, but the best I could be,” Sundberg said when he announced his retirement. “So I leave the game feeling good about being the best that I could be.”
Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum