#CardCorner: 1974 Topps Dan Driessen
For a player who went undrafted out of high school, Driessen fashioned a career that no one would have predicted.
Born July 29, 1951, in Hilton Head, S.C., Driessen fell in love with baseball as a youngster and played sandlot ball on teams with his older brother, Bill. His high school had no team, and all the Driessen children helped support the family after their father died when Dan was six years old.
Eventually, Bill caught the attention of Hal Young, who was a coach at nearby Hardeeville High School and ran a semipro team: The Hardeeville Boll Weevils.
Bill, a shortstop/outfielder with tremendous power, convinced Young to give Dan a chance as a catcher. By the summer of 1969, Young was sure that both Driessens had a chance to make it in pro ball. Young sent a form letter to several big league teams, asking if they would take a look at Bill and Dan.
The Reds passed on the older brother – who was then 25 – but asked 17-year-old Dan to head to Savannah, Ga., where he would audition for Asheville Tourists manager Alex Cosmidis, whose team was in Savannah for a series.
“Don’t sign with anybody else,” the Dayton Daily News reported that Cosmidis told Driessen. “Wait till you hear from our scout.”
A few days later, Reds scout Bill Jamieson came to Hilton Head and signed Driessen. There was no bonus money involved, only an invitation to Spring Training in Tampa, Fla., in 1970.
“I got a letter with orders to fly to Tampa,” Driessen told the Dayton Daily News. “But I missed the flight. There was an airline strike and I couldn’t get a new reservation. So I rode an all-night bus. On the way down, we had a flat tire. I helped the driver change it. He gave me a $5 tip.”
The Reds quickly moved Driessen from behind the plate to first base, where he showed a natural smoothness around the bag. They sent him to Class A Tampa of the Florida State League, where Driessen hit just .223 with three extra base hits in 93 games. But he returned to Tampa in 1971 and hit .327, earmarking himself as a future big leaguer.
“The one thing you don’t want to do is give up too quickly on a prospect,” Reds general manager Bob Howsam told the Cincinnati Enquirer after Driessen had made the big leagues. “There had to be a reason he was recommended by one of your scouts in the first place.”
The Reds’ dynasty, however, ended as Cincinnati finished in second place in the NL West – 10 games behind the Dodgers.
In 1978, Driessen slumped to .250 with 16 homers and 70 RBI – though he led the NL in fielding percentage with a mark of .996. The Reds again finished in second place – and Anderson was dismissed following the season. Driessen, however, received a vote of confidence when he signed a six-year contract with the Reds – the longest in team history to that point.
Under new manager John McNamara, the Reds reclaimed the NL West in 1979 – with Driessen hitting .250 with 18 homers and 75 RBI. But Driessen had just one hit in 12 at-bats in the NLCS as the Reds were swept by the Pirates.
Though he never evolved into the hitter many predicted during his first years in the game, Driessen had become a solid big leaguer whose production was uncannily consistent. In 1980, Driessen hit .265 with 14 homers and 74 RBI to go with an NL-best 93 walks. He slumped to .236 in 1981 in a season that was truncated by a strike, but the Reds went 66-42 to post the best record in baseball – incredibly missing the playoffs only because the season was divided into two halves, with the Reds finishing the first half one-half game behind the Dodgers and trailing second-half champion Houston by 1.5 games.
Forced to share time with Bench at first base in 1981, Driessen publicly campaigned to be traded. But the Reds held on to Driessen, who still had three seasons left on his contract following the 1981 campaign.
In 1982, however, the Red cratered – finishing in last place in the NL West with a 61-101 mark. Driessen rebounded with a typical Driessen season, hitting .269 with 17 homers, 57 RBI and 82 walks while leading all NL first basemen with a .998 fielding percentage, going 97 straight games without an error.
Driessen led the 1982 Reds in home runs and tied for the team lead in RBI with César Cedeño.
In 1983, Driessen missed three weeks with a knee injury and appeared in just 122 games, batting .277 with 12 homers and 57 RBI while leading NL first basemen in fielding percentage for the third-and-final time. Then with his contract set to expire after the season, Driessen was traded to the Expos on July 26, 1984, for pitcher Andy McGaffigan and a minor leaguer.
Driessen turned down a contract extension offer by the Reds during the spring of 1983.
“He has been unhappy for a long time,” Reds shortstop Dave Concepción told the Associated Press after the trade. “We all knew he was going to go when he didn’t sign in the spring.
“He’s a great man, a professional. I don’t think there was ever anybody who has been with the Cincinnati club who didn’t like Dries, and I don’t think there is anybody here who doesn’t hate to see him go.”
Joining an Expos club that featured future Hall of Famers Gary Carter, Andre Dawson and Tim Raines, Driessen hit nine home runs and drove in 32 runs over 51 games – and he quickly agreed to a new three-year deal that would keep him under contract through 1987. He finished the 1984 season with a .269 average, 16 home runs and 60 RBI.
Now 33, Driessen began the 1985 season as the Expos first baseman but saw his power numbers diminish. After recording just six homers and 25 RBI in 91 games, Driessen was traded to the Giants on Aug. 1, 1985 – and he finished the year with a .243 average, nine homers and 47 RBI in 145 games.
With prospect Will Clark ready to take over at first base, the Giants released Driessen on May 1, 1986. He signed a minor league deal with the Astros a month later and played in a handful of games that summer, appearing in a total of 32 games that year with San Francisco and Houston.
When the Astros cut Driessen in Spring Training of 1987, he was out of the game for about two months before the Cardinals signed him to a minor league deal in June. When first baseman Jack Clark injured an ankle in early September, Driessen took over at first base and helped the Cardinals claim the NL East title – hitting .241 with 10 RBI in 18 games to end the season.
Driessen had three hits apiece in the NLCS and the World Series, platooning with Jim Lindeman at first base, as St. Louis defeated San Francisco and then lost to Minnesota. The Cardinals released Driessen following the season, and after stints in the Mexican League and Senior Professional Baseball Association in 1989, Driessen retired from the playing field.
His big league legacy, however, continued for several years in the person of Gerald Perry. Driessen’s sister, Ida, was Perry’s mother – and Driessen’s nephew also grew up in Hilton Head and also played first base in the big leagues, fashioning a 13-year career with the Braves, Royals and Cardinals.
In 15 big league seasons, Driessen batted .267 with 1,464 hits, 153 home runs, 763 RBI and 154 stolen bases. His career fielding percentage of .995 at first base ranks in the top 30 all-time.
And though he was not a regular on the 1975-76 Reds teams than many rank among the best of all-time, Driessen left an indelible mark on Cincinnati baseball.
“There was a special chemistry about this team when we were winning,” Driessen told the Tampa Tribune. “We were one big happy family. You have to become close when you win like that.”
Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum