#CardCorner: 1974 Topps Boog Powell
It is at the plate where Boog Powell is most remembered. That’s one of the reasons that his 1974 Topps card is one of my favorite depictions of Powell; it shows him near the end of one of his ferocious swings during a 1973 game at the original Yankee Stadium.
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His massive body, with a good share of girth around the middle, is on full display on this card. We might also notice the subtle bending of his bat, something that is evident with hitters who generate a large degree of bat speed.
Other than Reggie Jackson, Willie McCovey and Willie Stargell, perhaps no left-handed hitter of that era was more feared than Powell. There were left-handed batters who were better all-around hitters than Powell, but few struck terror in the minds of pitchers (and first basemen and second basemen) the way that the hulking slugger did.
By conservative estimates, the 6-foot-4 Powell weighed 250 pounds, in an era when few players came close to approaching such dimensions. He swung hard, sometimes hitting pitches with so much force that it might have seemed possible the cover would fly off the ball. When it came to intimidating pitchers through immense size and sheer power, Powell stood near the top of the game.
Given his overgrown appearance, Powell looked like the kind of player who would have been clumsy and awkward in the field. But that was not the case, not at all. In actuality, Powell was graceful and sure-handed in fulfilling his fielding responsibilities at first base. While not a Gold Glover, he was a solid defender, one who nicely filled out a premier infield for the Baltimore Orioles.
Along with Dave Johnson (and then Bobby Grich) at second base, Mark Belanger at shortstop, and Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson (AKA “The Human Vacuum Cleaner”) at third base, the Orioles formed the kind of infield gauntlet that might have challenged even the likes of Clint Eastwood.
The 1971 season proved more problematic for Powell. He began the season in a terrible slump, his average buried below .200 in mid-June. And then, just as he began to emerge from the hitting doldrums, he suffered a fracture of his right wrist. The injury forced him to miss two weeks. Returning to action thereafter, he rebounded somewhat and finished the season with 22 home runs, but his overall numbers paled to those of 1970. The World Series brought more frustration. The Orioles blew a two games-to-none lead to Pittsburgh, as Powell struggled, managing only three singles in 27 at-bats.
In 1972, Powell again endured a poor start in April, May, and June. With his batting average floundering, he resorted to wearing glasses. They helped his vision, but not his hitting, so he stopped wearing the spectacles. He also tinkered with his batting stance and his position in the batter’s box. Powell hit better over the second half, with his final numbers looking very similar to his 1971 production.
Powell continued to play for the Orioles in 1973 and ’74, but he was now being platooned, his at-bats against southpaws severely decreased. The situation reached a valley late in 1974, when O’s manager Earl Weaver benched Powell in favor of the younger Enos Cabell. But Powell enjoyed one last hurrah for the Birds. Returning to the lineup in mid-September, Powell hit four home runs during the final two weeks of the season.
Trade rumors engulfed Powell that fall. At the 1974 Winter Meetings, the Orioles acquired slugging first baseman Lee May from the Houston Astros, a clear indication that Powell’s days in Baltimore were coming to an end. In February, the word became official: The Orioles traded Powell to the Cleveland Indians for catcher Dave Duncan and a minor league prospect.
The trade reunited Powell with Frank Robinson, his longtime teammate in Baltimore who had become the Indians’ manager. Robinson believed that Powell could still play and fill a void as the Indians’ everyday first baseman. While he admittedly looked odd wearing the Indians’ all-red uniforms – prompting Powell to say that he looked like “a giant blood clot” – he played well for Cleveland in 1975. He finished the season with a .297 batting average and 27 home runs, good enough to earn a few points in the American League MVP balloting.
Powell’s production made Robinson feel vindicated – and then some.
“His batting average has been a pleasant surprise,” said Robinson in an interview that appeared in the Utica Observer-Dispatch. “We expected him to hit 20 to 25 home runs and knock in 70 to 80 runs, but the batting average has been an extra. We knew what he could do, and we knew he was better than those last two years in Baltimore.”
A good season in the books, Powell finally began to show his age (34) the following season. Injuries took a toll, more specifically a muscle tear in his right leg. Playing in only 95 games, he saw his batting average sink to .215 and his home run total fall to nine.
Hoping that Powell could regain his health and his power, the Indians brought him back for Spring Training in 1977. But he continued to struggle, to the point that the Indians released him just before Opening Day.
Powell soon found work with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Yet, the team already had an All-Star first baseman in Steve Garvey, leaving Powell as a glorified pinch-hitter. He accrued only 53 plate appearances with the Dodgers before receiving his release on Aug. 31, thereby denying him another shot at the postseason. The Dodgers’ decision to cut him loose ended his major league career.
Powell’s jovial personality only helped him during his post-playing days. Along with other ex-ballplayers like Marv Throneberry and umpires like Jim Honochick, he became a staple of the popular Miller Lite television commercials. In 1978, he and Honochick teamed up for the first in a series of memorable spots.
In the first commercial, the two are seen facing a camera while standing in a crowded bar. When Honochick has trouble reading the label on his Miller Lite bottle, Powell lends him his glasses. Honochick, now wearing the new specs, looks up, finally realizing who he’s been talking to all along. “Hey, you’re Boog Powell!” the retired umpire says excitedly, prompting a laugh from the burly slugger. Honochick would re-use the line in later commercials, even when Powell was not present.
Continuing to do commercials and make promotional appearances for Miller Lite into the late-1980s, Powell also ran a marina in Key West, Fla., where he resided. In the 1990s, he opened up “Boog’s Barbeque,” a food stand located outside of Camden Yards in Baltimore. As Orioles fans can attest, the personable Powell regularly signs autographs and talks baseball with fans, especially the younger ones who never saw him play. They all learn about Boog.
A strange circumstance has led to even more recognition for Powell. In 2016, a young outfield prospect named Boog Powell broke into the big leagues with the Oakland Athletics. No relation to the former slugger Boog, the younger Powell’s presence has stirred up memories for older fans, while making younger fans aware of the original carrier of the name.
All these years later, Boog Powell remains an ambassador of the game. Even a late 1990s bout with cancer has done little to dampen Powell’s spirit. Now in his late 70s, Powell has retained his outgoing nature and charming demeanor, along with his sense of humor. He can’t bend a bat anymore, but when it comes to having fun at the ballpark, John Wesley Powell hasn’t lost a step.
Bruce Markusen is the manager of digital and outreach learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame
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