Even if you were lucky enough to pull a Dennis Eckersley card from a 1977 Topps wax pack that spring, you probably weren’t all that impressed or intimidated.
There Eckersley was, posed on the front of his second-year pasteboard in cold-weather gear that included a long-sleeve “sweat” suit underneath a Cleveland Indians red home jersey. Of course, you might have been forgiven for thinking the top was actually pink and not red given Topps color scheme for the team that year.
And it was fitting, right?
The Indians were perennial doormats who couldn’t possibly hang with the big boys in the old AL East, so a nice, gentle color seemed appropriate.
Now, it’s true that Frank Robinson — the first black manager in the history of the Major Leagues — had guided The Tribe to an 81-78 record and fourth place finish in 1976, but no one really expected Cleveland to jump up and knock off the New York Yankees — right?
And who was Dennis Eckersley?
Fans outside of Cleveland may have known him as the young guy with a lively fastball, but he was no household name. Most would have simply thumbed past the card in a stack of gum-chalk-covered 1977s, but a few would have turned the card over.
For those who took the time to study Eckersley’s stats, card #525 was likely a revelation …
In 1975, he had won 13 games and lost only seven for a Cleveland team that finished 79-80, showing some glimmers of promise. Along the way, Eckersley struck out 152 batters in 187 innings and sported a cool 2.60 ERA.
In 1976, the ERA ballooned to 3.44 and his record fell to 13-12, but Eckersley racked up 200 Ks in 199 innings. Back in those days, you just didn’t strike out a batter an inning unless your name was ‘Nolan Ryan‘, so … maybe Eckersley was worth a second look after all.
Really curious collectors my have, at that point, glanced up at the bio section of this 1977 card and done a quick calculation — as the ’77 season got rolling, Eckersley was just 22 years old.
This was getting interesting for anyone who made it this far, and Eckersley definitely warranted further scrutiny.
Flipping the card back to the front — and armed with the knowledge that a few minutes of a statistical deep-dive can impart — you probably would have noticed it immediately.
It was the glare of an intense competitor. The humorless expression of a young athlete who had no time for doubters. And the slightly unkempt hair that hinted Eckersley might be a little … wild.
If you weren’t excited by this kid by that point, well, it would still be hard to blame you.
Not Good but Dominant
After all, he still pitched for the Cleveland Indians, and they were going nowhere fast. Despite the improvements they’d shown under Robinson since he took over at the start of 1975, they stumbled to an 18-22 record that left them in fifth place through May 29 of 1977, a day on which they beat the struggling Oakland A’s on a Duane Kuiper walk-off single (how many times have you heard that one?!).
Even with that victory and the good things F. Robby had done for Cleveland, his managerial seat was already plenty warm by Memorial Day, May 30.
That night, the Indians hosted the California Angels and their own young ace Frank Tanana. On the mound for Cleveland would be that same, still clean-shaven fireballer that collectors may or may not have noticed in their first trips through 1977 Topps wax packs: Dennis Eckersley.
Tanana entered the game 8-1 and turned in another amazing performance that included six strikeouts over nine full innings, allowing just five hits and a single walk. The only run he surrendered came on a bunt groundout by Jim Norris in the bottom of the first inning to score — yes — Duane Kuiper.
Unfortunately for Tanana, Eckersley was utterly dominant, striking out 12 and walking just one batter in a nine-inning shutout. And, oh, by the way — he didn’t give up any hits at all.
Take a look at that savage sidearm delivery in the grainy footage below as Eckersley Gil Flores for the final out of his stunning no-hitter, and you get a small hint as to what Angels batters faced that day.
Now, look back to that glowering young man on the front of his 1977 Topps baseball card.
Doesn’t he look just a tad more vicious? Don’t those stats on the back make more sense?
Of course, none of that really mattered for the Cleveland Indians that season, who would finish at 71-90 and in fifth place. For his troubles, Robinson would be canned less than a month after Eckersley’s gem.
And Eckersley himself finished a pedestrian 14-13, though he did make his first All-Star game. He’d be gone before the 1978 season began, though, traded to the Boston Red Sox, where he’d record his greatest season as a starter.
From there, “Dennis” went through a series of up-and-down seasons and battled a myriad of personal issues before he emerged a decade after his no-hitter with the Oakland A’s as The Eck to become one of the most dominant relief pitchers in baseball history.
Could we have seen all the twists and turns of his storied career just by reading our cardboard crystal balls?
Hardly, but there were plenty of clues in Dennis Eckersley’s 1977 Topps baseball card that the young man was something special on the mound.