#CardCorner: 1974 Topps Steve Blass
In 1974, Steve Blass appeared on a Topps card for the final time in his career. It also happens to be the only time that Topps captured him in action (other than a 1972 World Series card).
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There’s some irony here, because Blass didn’t see much action at all in 1974. He appeared in a grand total of one game for the Pittsburgh Pirates. No longer able to throw strikes, in what remains one of the sport’s great mysteries, Blass was essentially forced to retire from a game in which he had excelled for most of his professional career.
The Blass card is one of my favorites in the 1974 Topps set. Not only is it an action shot, but it has an element of poetry, the way that Blass is balanced on one leg near the end of his full-force, old-school delivery. Blass’ left leg is completely extended, all of his weight shifted onto it, as he simultaneously raises his left arm into the air. I’m not certain if this is good pitching form or not, but it sure does look elegant and graceful; his left arm and left leg are so much in synch that you can practically draw a straight line from his the leg to the arm. It’s almost as if Blass is doing a pirouette, something we might associate more with an accomplished figure skater than we would a pitcher.
The card also contains a certain feeling of emptiness. Other than the left leg of the third baseman (which might be Richie Hebner, or his backup Fernando Gonzalez), we see no one else in the photograph with Blass. None of the other fielders, not even the shortstop or the left fielder, are visible. Similarly, there is no one apparent in the Three Rivers Stadium bullpen located beyond the outfield fence, and the angle of the photograph prevents us from seeing the outfield bleachers or the fans sitting in those stands.
I imagine this is how Blass must have felt in the latter days of his career, alone and solitary on the mound, unable to find a way to throw a ball within the confines of the strike zone.
Yet, there is much more to the Blass story than the struggles he encountered in 1973 and ’74. Blass’ career featured numerous triumphs, which began to occur shortly after he signed with the Pirates in 1960.
At first, Blass considered signing with the Cleveland Indians, who offered him a bonus of $2,500 but wanted him to wait until 1961 before beginning his pro career. The Pirates topped that number by offering him $4,000 and a chance to start pitching in the minor leagues right away. In 1961, he settled down at Batavia of the NY-Penn League, winning 13 of 19 decisions and putting up an ERA that was a run and a half better than the league average.
As a rookie in pro ball, Blass pitched well in the Appalachian League, but struggled badly when moved up to the Midwest League in midseason.
“What I remember about the game was [that] Leo Durocher was their third base coach at the time,” Blass told sportswriter Bob Hurte, “and he was screaming at me, using language that I had never experienced before; he was trying to rattle me. [But] it certainly ended up being a wonderful thrill.”
Having won his first start, Blass hoped to build on the early success, but would not fare as well in subsequent appearances. He finished the season with an ERA a tick above 4.00. Though he showed promise, he would return to Triple-A in 1965, spending the entire summer at Columbus.
As much of a letdown as he experienced in 1965, Blass would approach the other end of the emotional spectrum in 1966. He made the Opening Day roster, delivered 25 starts, 11 wins, and a respectable 3.87 ERA. The Pirates liked his toolbox of pitches, including a 90 mile-per-hour fastball and a deceptive slider, both of which he controlled well. Blass also employed a herky-jerky delivery that seemed to disrupt the timing of opposing hitters.
Lowering his ERA to 2.12, Blass won 18 games and emerged as the clear ace of the Pirates’ staff.
On a team that played close to .500 ball, Blass stood out as one of its prime stars. His pitching so impressed National League beat writers that they gave him some back-of-the-ballot support in the MVP voting.
Like many pitchers, Blass’ ERA rose in 1969, a by-product of the changes in rules that lowered the pitcher’s mound and narrowed the strike zone. Even with a 4.46 ERA, Blass won 16 games and struck out a career-best 147 batters.
In 1970, the Pirates won their first-ever National League East crown, qualifying for the postseason for the first time since their championship season of 1960. Blass did his part, spinning 196 innings and winning 10 games. If there was a disappointing chapter to the season, it was being bypassed during the NLCS. Blass did not make an appearance, as the Pirates lost three straight games to the Cincinnati Reds.
The Pirates won the next two games, before losing Game 6. That set up a winner-take-all situation in Game 7, to be played at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium. In the hours leading up to the seventh game, Blass felt a degree of nervousness that was unprecedented for him.
“Just all there was in the world,” Blass told me years ago during a visit to Cooperstown. “I woke up about four o’clock in the morning. At one point, I said I just want to get to five o’clock this afternoon and get on the other side of this thing.”
Blass continued his strong run in the NLCS. He pitched well in two starts, winning once and settling for a no-decision. The Pirates would lose that series in heartbreaking fashion, falling on Bob Moose’s wild pitch in Game 5, but Blass did everything he could in an effort to return to the World Series.
The loss to the Reds was dramatic and cruel, but it paled in comparison to the tragedy that the Pirates would face that winter. On New Year’s Eve, the 38-year-old Clemente lost his life in a plane crash when he nobly tried to aid earthquake victims of Managua, Nicaragua. At Clemente’s funeral, Blass delivered the eulogy. He concluded his words with a short poem:
Let this be a silent token
Of lasting friendship’s gleam,
And all that we’ve left unspoken
Your friends on the Pirate team.
Only a few weeks later, Blass and the rest of the Pirates reported to Spring Training in Bradenton, Fla. The spring came and went without much incident, as Blass prepared to for his assignment to start on Opening Day. He alternated mediocre performances with strong efforts in the early season, while issuing an uncharacteristically high number of walks. Then came two bad starts against Los Angeles and Montreal.
The following spring, Blass reported to Bradenton, determined to work out his control problems. Nothing seemed to help. In 14 innings of Grapefruit League play, Blass allowed 25 walks. The Pirates decided to keep him in Spring Training come Opening Day, hoping that the situation would improve. On April 16, Blass rejoined the Pirates. That night, manager Danny Murtaugh called on him in the fourth inning. In a five-innings stint, he walked seven batters and allowed eight runs. Realizing that his pitching was only worsening, the Pirates optioned him out to Triple-A Charleston. Even against minor league competition, Blass could not throw strikes. He walked 103 batters in 61 innings.
In a 1974 interview with Sports Illustrated, Blass opened up about his problems – and his fears of taking the mound.
“I never struggled at pitching before. I mean, I was never uncertain about whether or not I wanted to walk out to the mound,” Blass told sportswriter Pat Jordan. “Now, it scares me. Scares hell out of me. You have no idea how frustrating it is. You don’t know where you’re going to throw the ball. You’re afraid you might hurt someone.”
To this day, Blass remains mystified as to what caused him to close control of the strike zone. Some have speculated that he became affected by a mental block, one that only worsened over time. Others have wondered if his problems were caused by the sudden death of Clemente, one of his closest friends on the Pirates. Whatever the reason, Blass’ struggles resulted in the coining of a phrase – “Steve Blass Disease” – a name that is applied to pitchers who suddenly and strangely lose all ability to throw strikes.
Having exhausted every known remedy in an effort to continue pitching, Blass turned to work outside of baseball. He spent some time at a company that produced class rings before doing public relations work for a beer company. Ultimately, though, he would return to the game. In 1983, the Pirates hired him to work with Bob Prince on their cable TV broadcasts. With Prince becoming his mentor, and aided by his own outgoing and friendly nature, his strong sense of humor, and his ability to tell stories, Blass became a hit with Pirates fans. He soon moved on to the Pirates’ flagship station, KDKA, where he has remained ever since.
Prior to the 2019 season, Blass announced that this would be his final year as a Pirates broadcaster. Enormously popular with Pirates fans, even those too young to have seen him pitch, he will close out a career that has seen him work the booth for more than 35 years.
This time, a good man will leave the game on his terms.
Bruce Markusen is the manager of digital and outreach learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame