#CardCorner: 1958 Topps Marv Throneberry
It is just so tempting to look at this 1958 Topps card and joke, “Remarkably, Marv Throneberry did not drop the ball!”
Outside of Bob Uecker, no player has ever made more fun of himself than Throneberry, who carved out a healthy living by telling us how bad he was at baseball. Throneberry liked to exaggerate his ineptitude, of course, but it only made him all the more endearing to fans, even those (like me) who never saw him play.
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On the other hand, Throneberry is not exactly displaying textbook form in catching a ball (or simulating a catch) on his ’58 rookie card. For some reason, he is holding the ball in the middle of his first baseman’s mitt, where it could easily pop out, as opposed to the proper way of corralling the ball in the webbing of his mitt. And why exactly is Throneberry reaching for the ball with not only his glove hand, but his bare hand, which he is holding up, perhaps in an effort to protect his face?
This might be good form in trying to catch a football, but it seems like an odd way for a first baseman stretching to receive a throw from one of his infielders. If this was the way that Throneberry normally played first base, then perhaps his propensity to make errors becomes more understandable.
Then again, maybe Throneberry was just having fun in posing for his Topps card. Given the way that he is holding up his bare hand and squinting his eyes, good ole Marv might have been trying to create the illusion of a man stumbling in the dark as part of an inept effort to make a simple catch. That would have been Marv through and through.
By the 1970s, Throneberry’s act of self-deprecating humor had become an art form, so much so that Miller Lite Beer sought him out to do a series of commercials for their product. Throneberry made his first Miller Lite commercial in 1976, when he joked that “it used to take 43 Marv Throneberry baseball cards to get you one Carl Furillo.” After espousing the virtues of Miller Lite, Throneberry delivered his closing line perfectly: “If I do for Lite beer what I did for baseball, I’m afraid that their sales might go down.” And with that, Marv Throneberry, after becoming forgotten by most of the American public, became a national television star.
Back in 1958, Throneberry took a more serious approach to his ballplaying ability. He was about to embark on his first full season as a big leaguer with the New York Yankees, the team that signed him out of South Side High School in Memphis. He signed with the Yankees after turning down an offer from the rival Boston Red Sox, who already employed Marv’s brother, Faye.
Throneberry would never make it back to New York. In 1964, he returned to Triple-A Buffalo, picked up one hit in 12 at-bats, and drew his release. At the age of 30, his career had come to an end.
For the most part, Throneberry fell out of the public consciousness – and out of baseball. He went to work for a beer distributor and also took classes that helped him learn about selling insurance. That all changed in 1975 when he received a midnight phone call from an advertising executive. The man offered him a chance to appear in one of Miller Beer’s new line of commercials featuring retired athletes. Throneberry, with his laid-back style and willingness to poke fun at himself, emerged as a natural on the television screen. Miller Lite asked him to do additional commercials. In most of those 12 follow-up commercials, Throneberry delivered his memorable closing line in matter-of-fact fashion: “I still don’t know why they asked me to do this commercial.”
As part of his contract with Miller Lite, Throneberry made public appearances around the country, each one paying him in the range of $1,200 to $1,400. Throneberry did so well with Miller Lite that he was able to quit his full-time job working for a firm specializing in insulating glass. The talk show circuit also came calling. Throneberry became something of a cult star, admired for his down-home personality, his innocence, his sense of humor and his willingness to take good-natured verbal shots at himself.
Marv Throneberry became fashionable again – and helped Miller Lite execute one of the most successful advertising campaigns in television history.
In a 1982 interview with the Associated Press, Throneberry was asked why he so willingly mocked himself during his many appearances and commercials. His answer was refreshingly forthright.
“Cause I’m making commercials, making public appearances, and going to work just two times a month and making a great living,” Throneberry told the AP. “I can fish four or five days a week. I’ve got five boats and five motors. I don’t have to worry about things I used to worry about. I wouldn’t trade this for anything.”
At one point, NBC planned to do a made-for-TV movie featuring the Miller Lite stars, including Throneberry. The movie, billed as a comedy, would have taken on the feel of the "Smokey and the Bandit" films. Throneberry was supposed to play a character who invents a water substitute for gasoline, resulting in a madcap battle for the formula. But the film never did come to fruition. Throneberry would have to settle for guest appearances on "Saturday Night Live" and a 1985 Rodney Dangerfield comedy special.
Even though the made-for-TV movie did not become a reality, Throneberry continued his association with Miller Lite into the early 1990s. It seemed like he would have a long career as a beer spokesman and talk show guest, the second coming of Uecker, if you will, but then came the terrible news: A diagnosis of cancer. On June 23, 1994, Throneberry lost his battle with the disease. He was only 60.
Throneberry has been gone a long time now, but his legacy remains evident. One of his grandchildren, Craig Brewer, is a successful film maker who has directed such movies as "Hustle and Flow" and several episodes of the "Empire" TV series. Throneberry’s old Miller Lite commercials can still be found on YouTube. And yes, his baseball cards are not only available, but very affordable, including that 1958 rookie card, when he gave us a hint of the mishaps and the fun that was still to come.
Bruce Markusen is the manager of digital and outreach learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame
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