#CardCorner: 1972 Topps Mike Cuellar
While pitching the Baltimore Orioles to five postseason trips in six seasons, Cuellar had more success than any other left-hander in the game.
Cuellar’s quirks were famous throughout baseball – thanks in part to the Orioles’ winning ways that kept them on the national stage for years. He would only warm up with Orioles coach Jim Frey catching, and during warm-ups Orioles catcher Elrod Hendricks – and no one else – had to take a batting stance to simulate a batter. Cuellar insisted on picking up his glove and the ball from the ground – he would not catch either thrown by any player – and he would circle the mound at the start of each inning.
Represent the all-time greats and know your purchase plays a part in preserving baseball history.
But whatever the method, it worked for Cuellar, who won more games (125) than any other lefty in the game from 1969-74, one fewer than MLB leader Fergie Jenkins.
Born May 8, 1937, in Las Villas, Cuba, Cuellar escaped work in the sugar cane fields by enlisting in the Cuban army, where he showed off his powerful left arm on the mound. He pitched for a Nicaraguan League team in 1956 during an era where players like Jim Kaat and Zoilo Versalles also played in that league, then spent a successful season in the Cuban Winter League in the winter of 1957.
Soon after, the Cincinnati Reds signed Cuellar and assigned him to the Havana Sugar Kings of the International League. Facing Triple-A pitching at just 20 years of age, Cuellar was 8-7 with a league-low 2.44 ERA. After posting a 13-12 mark in 1958, the Reds named Cuellar to their Opening Day roster in 1959. But after two relief appearances where he allowed seven earned runs over four innings, Cuellar was returned to the Sugar Kings.
He would not appear in another big league game for five seasons.
Cuellar was 10-11 with a 2.80 ERA for Havana in 1959, pitching the Sugar Kings to a spot in the Little World Series against the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association. Cuellar pitched in three of the games, with Havana winning Game 7 in a Cuban nation that had just undergone a revolution that put Fidel Castro in power.
“In the deciding game in Havana, Fidel came to the bench and asked who I was going to pitch,” Havana manager Preston Gómez, a native of Cuba, told the Associated Press. “He said: ‘If you need any help, just call me.’”
At age 37, Cuellar seemed to get better as he aged.
“His screwball makes his fastball that much better,” said Elrod Hendricks, who caught Cuellar for nine seasons in Baltimore. “He’s the only guy in the league who throws a good one.”
But Cuellar’s workload – he averaged 278 innings per season from 1969-74 – appeared to catch up with him in 1975, as he went 14-12 with a 3.66 ERA, his highest mark since becoming a full-time starter in 1966. Then in 1976, Cuellar lost seven of his first nine decisions. A notoriously slow starter who always seemed to heat up with the weather, Cuellar was given a long leash by Orioles manager Earl Weaver. But after falling to 4-12 following a loss on July 24, Cuellar was dropped from the rotation.
“I respect everything he’s done here,” Weaver told the Associated Press.
Weaver, who loved Cuellar’s tenacity, used Cuellar sparingly down the stretch in 1976. On Dec. 21, 1976, the Orioles released Cuellar.
He hooked on with the Angels in 1977, but allowed seven earned runs in 3.1 innings over two appearances that spring before drawing his release on May 16. He would pitch in the Mexican League and in the winter leagues well into his 40s, but Cuellar’s big league career was over.
After staying active in the game as a coach and instructor, Cuellar passed away on April 2, 2010.
“He was an artist,” Weaver told the Orlando Sentinel the day of Cuellar’s passing. “He could pitch a game in 85 pitches, and he might not throw his best fastball twice. That’s the kind of pitcher he was. He knew how to pitch, and he knew how to get people out.”
Cuellar finished his career with a record of 185-130 with a 3.14 ERA and 1,632 strikeouts.
In a career filled with highlights, his peak came when he pitched the Orioles to the Fall Classic title in 1970, embracing World Series MVP Brooks Robinson on the field after recording the final out.
“Mr. Cuellar,” Orioles teammate Boog Powell said after Game 5, “I would like to present you with the game ball.”
Cuellar, putting superstition aside, took the ball from Powell and kissed it.
“I love this game,” Cuellar said.
Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum