#CardCorner: 1979 Topps Andre Thornton
In the mid-1970s, the Cleveland Indians briefly donned all-red uniforms that drew their share of criticism. Indians first baseman Boog Powell, who weighed in the vicinity of 250 pounds, once proclaimed that the uniforms made him look like a “massive blood clot.”
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According to Todd Radom, author of the book, Winning Ugly, 37 players decided to “petition team ownership, demanding relief in the form of alternate navy blue jerseys.” The red uniforms were certainly colorful – perhaps a little too colorful, even in an era when bright colors were taking over double knits in both leagues.
Later on, the Indians gradually moved away from the all-red appearance, as they started to wear a combination of white pants with a solid red jersey. It wasn’t as gaudy as the all-red look, but retained a nice touch of color, which was counterbalanced by the traditional white pants. In the 1979 Topps set, several Indians wore this uniform combination on their cards, including shortstop Tom Veryzer and right-handed pitcher Wayne Garland.
Perhaps none of the Indians looked any better than slugging first baseman Andre Thornton did on his 1979 card. On what appears to be a sun-splashed day during Spring Training, the photographer has given us a good look at Thornton as he moves into his crouch, anticipating the next pitch of the exhibition game. The photo also shows the large white logo the Indians sported on their left sleeve, along with the two-toned cap the team wore at that time. I must say that I like this uniform.
It’s also easy to like the player, given what Thornton has gone through in his life and how he has responded to the difficulties he has faced.
Thornton’s baseball story traces back to his days in Phoenixville, Pa., where he not only starred in baseball, but played football and basketball. He also excelled in billiards, to the point where he spent hours at a local pool hall playing for money.
Eligible to be drafted in 1967, Thornton was bypassed by all 20 major league teams. But the Philadelphia Phillies invited Thornton to a 1967 tryout at their aging ballpark, Connie Mack Stadium. Thornton showed good power that day, hitting several home runs against Phillies coach Larry Shepard.
In the meantime, the Phillies moved Thornton on to the Northwest League, where he put up mediocre numbers in 1968 while switching from third base to first base. The following summer, the Phillies assigned him to Spartanburg of the Western Carolinas League, where he began to turn the corner. He showed power for the first time in his pro career, clubbing 13 home runs and slugging .452.
Assigned to Triple-A Richmond, Thornton hit 14 home runs over the balance of the 1972 season. Returning to Richmond in ’73, he started off the new season in a slump. In the middle of May, the Braves decided to trade Thornton, sending him to the Chicago Cubs for veteran first baseman/outfielder Joe Pepitone.
In contrast to the Braves and Phillies, the Cubs had no preponderance of talent at first base, where an aging Jim Hickman was struggling to keep his job. In July, the Cubs recalled Thornton, giving him his first taste of the big leagues after nearly seven full seasons of minor league apprenticeship. Thornton played only sporadically for the Cubs that summer, but his days as a minor leaguer had come to an end.
On May 17, the Cubs traded him to the Montreal Expos for right-handed pitcher Steve Renko and singles-hitting first baseman Larry Biittner. It was a trade meant to address Chicago’s need for starting pitching, but it was a move that the franchise would come to regret.
Thornton spent the rest of the Bicentennial year platooning with Mike Jorgensen at first base and making occasional appearances in right field. Unwilling to commit to Thornton as their everyday first baseman, the Expos traded him that winter, sending him to Cleveland for right-hander Jackie Brown.
The accident took the lives of Thornton’s wife and daughter, leaving behind only him and his son, who was injured in the crash but would make a full recovery. It was a devastating tragedy, but it only made Thornton embrace his religious beliefs more forcefully. He also realized that he would have to concentrate his efforts in taking care of his son, who was still so young that he didn’t fully understand what had happened to the family.
His numbers would dip slightly in 1979, as his batting average fell to .233, but his power production remained substantial. After the season, he received the Roberto Clemente Award for his inspiring efforts off the field.
Even more importantly, Thornton remarried in 1979, wedding gospel singer Gail Jones. The marriage would produce two children.
With his personal life and career having been revitalized, Thornton would face additional setbacks over the next two seasons. More specifically, injuries curtailed Thornton. In the spring of 1980, he suffered a knee injury that required surgery and sidelined him for the entire season. In 1981, a pitched ball in a Spring Training game broke his hand, delaying his comeback from the knee surgery. The latest injury, along with a lengthy players strike in the middle of the season, limited him to 69 games.
In 1982, with his career seemingly on the wane, Thornton faced a critical juncture. Now rendered a DH because of the acquisition of Mike Hargrove, Thornton bounced back beautifully, hitting 32 home runs while reaching career highs in RBIs (116) and walks (108). The Sporting News named him Comeback Player of the Year. He would remain productive over each of the next two seasons, becoming a bright spot for an Indians team that perennially found itself out of contention.
It was not until 1985 and ’86 that Thornton began to show significant decline, his batting averages falling to .236 and .222 in those two seasons. Limited to 36 games in 1987, the 37-year-old called it quits that winter.
Since his baseball days, Thornton has found success in business. He has owned several Applebee’s Restaurants and currently serves as the CEO of ASW Global, a company that specializes in warehousing. He also continues to make frequent public speaking appearances at churches and charitable organizations around the country.
While many ballplayers have encountered difficulties in making the transition to life without baseball, Thornton represents a refreshing success story. It’s especially gratifying to see good fortune come the way of a man whose early baseball career met with repeated frustration and who was then devastated by a horrific accident that took half of his family away.
Again and again, Andre Thornton has found a way to come back. Yes, good guys can finish first, too.
Bruce Markusen is the manager of digital and outreach learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame