Card Corner Plus: The Beauty of ’83 Topps and the Mystery of Lee Mazzilli

A little competition saw Topps up its game in the early 1980s. (via Paul Segien)

In our careers, we generally prefer less competition, if only because it increases our chances of succeeding. But as consumers, or in this case, as collectors of cards and memorabilia, we love the notion of competition. Competition not only creates more choices for us, but it serves as a motivational tool for companies to continue improving their product. There is nothing like competition to deal with the problem of complacency.

By the end of the 1970s, the lack of competition had hurt the baseball card collector. Only one company, Topps Gum, had the right to produce a full set of cards featuring player likenesses and team logos. If Topps produced a good set of cards with a pleasing design, we as collectors took greater joy in the hobby. But if the design was poor, if the quality of the photography was substandard, then the spring and summer became a little less interesting. I still felt motivated to complete the set, but I didn’t feel as passionate about the hobby as in other seasons.

Given that Topps had enjoyed a monopoly since the late 1950s, the company had fallen into a state that bordered on laziness. The cardboard stock used in the 1970s had become thinner, the quality of photography hadn’t improved, and the backs of the cards had become less and less readable. About the only positive development was the proliferation of action cards, which were beginning to replace the oh-so-boring posed shots taken on the sidelines of spring training.

After putting forth good sets from 1971 to 1975, Topps had reached a plateau. The sets of 1976 and ’77 were mostly forgettable, the ’78 set rose above the standard, and the ’79 set fell back into mediocrity. (Of course, these are subjective judgments, ones that many collectors might find off base. But there is no scientific formula to grade the quality of a set, so personal judgments sometimes need to be made.) All things considered, the baseball card product had flatlined, even while the prices of cards were starting to rise.

When the 1980 cards came out, I was encouraged. With a sharp design and clearly improved photography, the ’80 set represented a step up. But for the long term, Topps clearly needed a kick start, which could come only if an outside force stepped into the breach. That force arrived in late 1980, when a federal court ruled that Topps would no longer be allowed a monopoly on major league cards. The court ruling stated that Major League Baseball would need to strike a deal with at least one other company in time for the 1981 publication of cards.

After the ruling, MLB reached agreement with two companies, Donruss and Fleer. Given a short turnaround time, the two companies rushed out sets for 1981. The Fleer set turned out decently, even if too many photographs were out of focus. The Donruss set became a disaster, plagued by misprints, errors in identification, and blurred photographs that bordered on the embarrassing.

These were short-term problems; Donruss and Fleer would greatly improve their products, particularly by the mid-1980s. The more important development involved the competition, which now forced Topps to enhance its product.

The improvement did not come overnight. The 1981 set was fair, but the ’82 set turned out very poorly; with its amateurish design and out-of-focus photographs, I think it was the worst set Topps had produced since its initial failure with its “Blue Back” and “Red Back” cards in 1951. The real improvement would not turn up until 1983, when Topps came out with a set that marked a sea change in its product.

For the first time since 1963, Topps featured two photographs on the face of each card. While the ’63 cards had a large color photograph and a smaller black-and-white, the 1983 version featured color shots across the board. The smaller photograph, a circular head hot in the lower corner of the card, gives us a good look at the player’s face. The larger or main photograph occupies the majority of the card; many  are action shots, with a few photos posed.

With its dual-photograph look, much improved photography, and simple design that allowed the cards to breathe, the 1983 set represented a solid step for Topps. Some longtime collectors have called it Topps’ best effort of the 1980s. For the most part, Topps would continue to produce good sets over the balance of the decade, with the possible exception of the ’86 set, whose half-white, half-black border drew criticism from some collectors.

In the 1983 Topps set, the Lee Mazzilli card is one of my favorites, for several reasons. It shows Mazzilli in a triumphant moment, rounding third base as part of his home run trot during a 1982 game at Yankee Stadium. Mazzilli, as always, looks good, with his lean body draped tightly in his form-fitting uniform. (Few players could wear the polyester as well as Maz.) This card also gives us something different; Maz wearing the colors of the New York Yankees after spending most of his career with the rival Mets. And there’s a bonus second player, who can be seen on the far right edge; that would be Hall of Famer Robin Yount, who was playing shortstop for the Milwaukee Brewers that day.

Mazzilli played in only 37 games for the Yankees in 1982, so it’s easy to pin down the date of the photograph. The game occurred on a Sunday afternoon, Sept. 12. We see Mazzilli approaching third having just hit a two-run home run in the bottom of the third inning against Hall of Famer Don Sutton. And just to confirm that the date matches the card, Yount did in fact play shortstop that day, going hitless in five at-bats. Mazzilli’s two-run shot helped the Yankees to an 8-7 victory, with Jamie Easterly taking the loss for the Brew Crew.

If you’re not a diehard fan of the Yankees (or 1980s baseball), you might not remember Mazzilli’s stint as a player in American League pinstripes. He is most associated with the Mets, who drafted him on the first round in 1973 and brought him to the major leagues three years later. After a 24-game look-see in 1976, the Mets made him their starting center fielder in ’77. He struggled at the plate that season, but his speed and patient approach at the plate intrigued the Mets. They kept him in the starting lineup and watched him forge a productive three-year stretch, culminating in an All-Star Game appearance in 1979.

Mazzilli also became a matinee idol. He had natural good looks and a lean body, which he augmented by wearing a tight-fitting uniform. Some members of the New York media called him “The Italian Stallion.”  Some members of the media compared his level of sex appeal to that of John Travolta, the star of Saturday Night Fever.

Cooperstown Confidential: The Hauntings of the Hall of Fame
Believe it or not, Halloween stirs the ghosts of baseball.

Mazzilli hated such comparisons. “Mentioning my name with Travolta is ridiculous,” Maz told Sunday News Magazine, a publication of the New York Daily News. “We make our living in different ways.” Mazzilli wanted no part of the sex symbol treatment; he simply wanted to play baseball.

But indeed Hollywood came calling. A producer with the television show Laverne and Shirley offered him a regular role. Executives with the future Oscar-winning film Raging Bull also offered him a small part. Mazzilli turned down both offers.

Given his status a sex symbol, not to mention his on-field talent, the Mets figured they had a cornerstone to their franchise. In his early years with the Mets, Maz could be described as a four-tool player. He could run, hit, hit for power, and run down fly balls in center field. (He was stylish, too, with basket catches on routine fly balls.) There was one thing he could not do: throw. Mazzilli’s throwing arm was so weak that it became a liability, leading opposing baserunners to take the extra base at every opportunity. By 1980, the Mets had become so concerned about his paltry throwing that they moved him from center field to first base. In 1981, they returned him to the outfield, but this time to left field, where a poor throwing arm tends to be less of a concern.

Because of injuries to his elbow and his back, Mazzilli’ s hitting suffered in 1981. He played hurt, and his batting average fell to .228. He hit only six home runs, a poor total even during a strike-shortened season. Two subsequent developments over the winter made Mazzilli realize that his future in New York was not bright. First, the Mets fired manager Joe Torre, a mentor to Mazzilli who remained close with his onetime star. And then the Mets made a major trade. Looking to beef up their lineup, the Mets acquired George Foster from the Cincinnati Reds for a package of three lesser players.

With Foster in left and Dave Kingman at first base, Maz had no place to play. Knowing that Mazzilli would not be satisfied with a bench role, the Mets did what was once considered unthinkable. They traded Mazzilli, sending him to the Texas Rangers for two young pitchers, Ron Darling and Walt Terrell. When Mazzilli heard the news, he broke down and cried.

From the start, Mazzilli seemed like a bad fit in Texas. First, the Rangers already had an excess of outfielders and first basemen. Second, Mazzilli was a native New Yorker who had little connection to Texas and its culture.

Mazzilli lasted only 58 games with the Rangers; he struggled with a separated shoulder and a torn ligament in his wrist. By July of 1982, Maz had gained some perspective on his career. “This has been a pretty good lesson for me about how quickly things can change,” Mazzilli told Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News. “One minute things are going great. Then you turn your head for just a second, and it’s gone…I’ve learned that everything changes, that nothing is certain.”

On Aug. 8, another change came Mazzilli’s way. The Rangers sent him to the Yankees for veteran shortstop Bucky Dent. It was a trade of one matinee idol for another; Dent was the Yankees’ counterpart to Mazzilli; he had been featured on posters and in made-for-TV movies.

Still only 27 years old, Mazzilli joined a Yankees team that was crowded in the outfield and at first base, but he played well in his return to New York. In 144 plate appearances, Maz compiled an on-base percentage of .347 and hit six home runs. The Yankees used him primarily as a first baseman. With the Yankees searching for a new first baseman after the failures of veterans like John Mayberry and Dave Revering, Maz seemed to have found a second life in New York.

As a Yankees fan, I thought that Mazzilli would return to New York in 1983 and play a major role as a first baseman and occasional DH. That all changed when the Yankees dipped into free agency and signed outfielders Steve Kemp and Don Baylor, moving Ken Griffey Sr. from the outfield to first base. With Maz squeezed out, he became trade bait. That winter, the Yankees dumped him, sending him to the Pittsburgh Pirates for pitcher Tim Burke and three non-prospects.

The Pirates made Mazzilli their starting center fielder. He did a good job of reaching base, but showed no power and made the Pirates cringe with his lollypop throws from the outfield. Midway through the 1983 season, the Pirates benched Maz for the younger Marvell Wynne, whom they regarded as a far better defensive center fielder.

In 1984, the Pirates moved Mazzilli to left field, but his continued lack of hitting and absence of power convinced Pittsburgh that he was no more than a bench player. He remained with the Pirates for the better part of the next two seasons. The 1985 season proved especially difficult. Mazzilli was called to testify as a witness at Pittsburgh drug trials, and though he was never specifically linked to cocaine use, a book, The Pittsburgh Cocaine Seven, claims that he did use the drug. (For what it’s worth, Maz was not punished by Major League Baseball, but other Pirates, like Dale Berra, Lee Lacy and Dave Parker, were given commuted suspensions.)

After a poor first half with Pittsburgh in 1986, Mazzilli was given his release. That’s when the Mets decided to bring him back to New York as a bench player for a team that was headed toward a runaway win in the National League East. Maz played exceptionally well off the bench, compiling an .848 OPS for a team on its way to the world championship.

After another good season as a role player in 1987, Mazzilli struggled badly in 1988 and then suffered through a bad start in 1989. The Mets placed him on waivers, allowing Toronto to acquire him. Maz finished the season with the Jays, continuing to do well in reaching base, with an on-base percentage of nearly .400. He also batted well as a pinch-hitter, but came up hitless in eight postseason at-bats. After the Jays were eliminated in the playoffs, Maz decided to call it quits.

With his playing days behind him, Maz finally pursued some of his Hollywood opportunities, but eventually returned to baseball as a coach with the Yankees. His knowledge of the rules and of baserunning fundamentals, along with a positive personality, made him a strong presence on the staff of Joe Torre, by now the Yankees’ manager. He eventually received the call to manage, promoted by the Baltimore Orioles after the 2003 season.

Unfortunately, the Orioles’ hierarchy made life difficult for Maz. He reported to two different general managers in Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan, and a meddlesome owner in Peter Angelos while also dealing with a bad clubhouse full of large egos and a steroid scandal surrounding Rafael Palmeiro. With the O’s, Maz forged a sub-.500 record. After less than two years, the Orioles fired him in the middle of the 2005 season. Much of the baseball world felt that Mazzilli had been given a raw deal, after being asked to succeed in an impossible situation.

While Maz’s work as a coach and broadcaster has brought him some success, the path of his playing career remains somewhat of a mystery. Here was a young, promising player who played so well over the span of three seasons and seemed destined for a long career as a star in New York, only to have his career fortunes dissolve into journeyman status.

For some reason, Mazzilli did not age well. His best years came in his early 20s, more specifically at the ages of 23, 24 and 25. By the age of 27, when he should have been in his physical prime, he had been reduced to the level of a role player. Sure, he had some minor injuries, but nothing that seemed to be career-threatening or altering. And by the age of 34, with his body still looking like it did on his earlier Topps cards, he was done.

Sources:

Lee Mazzilli’s biographical file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library


Bruce Markusen has authored seven baseball books, including biographies of Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda and Ted Williams, and A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, which was awarded SABR's Seymour Medal.
newest oldest most voted
Dennis Bedard
Member
Dennis Bedard

Interesting picture of Mazzilli. He was a switch hitter so he would have batted left handed against Sutton. But no ear piece on the helmet. I thought ear covering was mandatory in 1982 but I guess not. And check out the stirrups, a vestige of the late 60’s and 70’s and the old style cleats.

doffbhoya123
Member
doffbhoya123

This was Rule 1.16 (c) until Raines retired:
All players entering the Major Leagues commencing with the 1983 championship season and every succeeding season thereafter must wear a single earflap helmet (or at the player’s option, a double earflap helmet), except those players who were in the Major League during the 1982 season, and who, as recorded in that season, objected to wearing a single earflap helmet.

87 Cards
Member
87 Cards

MLB players debuting in 1983 and thereafter were required to wear the flap-helmets like we wore in Little League. Paul Lukas at Uni-Watch confirms this and that Raines was the last bare-eared batter. http://www.espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/12741917/uni-watch-history-headgear-mlb-alex-torres

While you are at that link—look at Brooks Robinson’s hacksawed-headgear.

Dave Jordan
Member

I believe Tim Raines was the final player who wore the flapless helmet under the grandfather clause. Not certain of when the ear covering became mandatory, but there were still a few players who fell under the grandfather clause – I remember Keith Hernandez & Carter wore flapless helpmets well into the 1980s, as did Maz.

vinyldude
Member
Member

Great article! Enjoyed the transition from card talk to Mazzilli talk. Went back up to the top of the article to look at the cards featured in the picture and cannot figure out what that collector’s (Paul Segien?) method was. Any idea? Cards seem to be put in at random.

Paul G.
Member
Member
Paul G.

The real question is if you can make a good team out of the players displayed. There’s no second baseman, third base is a bit of a mess, it needs a couple of more starting pitchers and basically an entire bullpen, but overall that looks like a potential playoff team to me.

Of course, if we are allowed to clone Barry Larkin and put him at second, that would do wonders. Cloning Lenny Dykstra is not advised unless you have a very good bail bondsman and a large chewing tobacco budget.

jhirsch99
Member
Member
jhirsch99

Was wondering the same thing…looks how a 6-year old might have organized (at least my kid).

doffbhoya123
Member
doffbhoya123

great article. 83 topps is the best.

Jetsy Extrano
Member
Jetsy Extrano

I don’t know a thing about baseball cards, but I always look forwards to reading your articles.

RReady87
Member
RReady87
Another great article, Bruce. Lee Mazzilli was one of my favorite players. I think the Mets made a mistake playing him at first base. 1982, if I remember correctly, was the year in Yankee-land that George Steinbrenner declared the home run era ended and the stolen base era was beginning. To this end, the Yankees acquired speedsters like Dave Collins, to play first base, and Ken Griffey. This era lasted about half of the 1982 season before the Yankees went out to trade for John Mayberry and others to bring power back into the lineup. Mazzilli had a few good… Read more »
Las Vegas Wildcards
Member
Las Vegas Wildcards

Good point in the article about Mazzilli not aging well, sometimes a pro athlete does not train as hard as others in his 20s, and it catches up to them in their 30s.

Whether or not Mazzilli experimented with cocaine, I don’t know if that had any career impact. Countless pro athletes across all teams and sports either experimented or used during the 80s, it was that common.

Psychic... Powerless...
Member
Member
Psychic... Powerless...

Great article.

Ashwin
Member
Ashwin

Great post! I
mycomputerwindows10 like this and say thank you so much to you.