One of the great things about baseball cards is that, within the space of about nine square inches, you have the chance to get an inside look at just about any aspect of the game you can imagine — like batting cages.
If you’ve ever played baseball at any level or even thought about playing baseball at any level, there’s a good chance you’ve spent some time inside a batting cage or two.
And when you did … well, didn’t you imagine that you were Roger Maris or Dave Parker or maybe Rod Carew.
I know that I did, and it was an easy thing to imagine because I knew all my heroes paid their dues in the cage, too.
And if ever I needed proof, all I had to do was pull out my collection and flip through a few.
After a while, I was bound to run into a gem like these 10 great baseball cards that show batting cages in various shades of limelight.
(And, yes, there are plenty more where these came from. Maybe we’ll do a follow-up some day.)
“Orestes?” you may be thinking to yourself, or maybe you exclaimed it out loud.
“Who is Orestes?”
It’s a valid question, but if you look at that follow-through and study the facial features on 1952 Bowman #5, you’ll realize the young man featured is none other than Minnie Minoso.
Minoso was one of the scores of superstars who made the transition from the Negro Leagues to the Major Leagues after Jackie Robinson broke through in 1947, and he was one of the first to spend most of his career in the Majors.
Minoso played for real until 1964 when he was 38, but he also made a couple of gimmick appearances in 1976 and 1980 to make him a nominal five-decade player.
On this Bowman beauty, though, Minoso is in his mid-20s with most of his career ahead of him and a net of some sort behind him.
So, the apparatus behind Minoso on this card could be a ruse, but the netting looks enough like a batting cage for it to make our list.
You don’t become the all-time, single-season home run leader without paying your dues in batting practice, in batting cages.
Don’t believe me?
Just ask Roger Maris.
In the spring of 1961, Maris was coming off his first American League MVP award after a stellar first season with the New York Yankees.
As if to prove that his success was the product of hard work, Topps featured the young slugger in front of the mesh of a darkened batting cage.
That work ethic carried over into the new season, of course, as Maris battled teammate Mickey Mantle in a race to break Babe Ruth‘s single-season mark of 60 homers, which The Rajah did on the last day of the season.
The next spring, Topps was back with another behind-the-scenes glimpse of Maris making the sausage.
This time, Roger is following through on a big swing with his typical wan expression. Behind him once again is the batting cage in old Yankee Stadium.
Baseball cards can be cruel sometimes, and Topps — and Fleer and Donruss — seem happy to hang certain players out to dry. (Google”1983 Topps Bryan Clark” for an example, and don’t forget to check out most of his other pasteboards, as well.)
In the Batting Cage division, you’d be hard pressed to find a better example of a company thumbing their collective noses at a player than the 1968 Topps Ray Oyler card.
Oyler played for six years in the Major Leagues, spending most of that time at shortstop for the Detroit Tigers.
That stay in Motown included the 1968 World Series, during which Oyler played in four games and garnered one plate appearance — a sacrifice bunt in the ninth inning of Game 2 that advanced Al Kaline and Norm Cash. Both men scored, but the Tigers were already up 6-1 on the St. Louis Cardinals and won the game, 8-1.
That PA was pretty indicative of Oyler’s Big League career, though, as he finished with a .175 batting average in 1265 at-bats. He did manage to muscle out 15 home runs, but he also struck out 359 times against just 135 career walks.
He wasn’t all that great in the batter’s box, in other words.
And Topps illustrated that fact to great effect on card #399 in their 1969 set.
Oyler is awash in a sea of batting-cage net, his hands clutched in a bunt grip around a bat, the mere weight of which his skinny frame looks too frail to support.
His expression is a combination of concern, confusion, and — just maybe — amusement. Doesn’t matter how much time I spend in the cage, coach, the glove is my thing.
If ever there were a picture of the quintessential light-hitting middle infielder, this is it.
Those who can’t’ do, teach.
It’s a glib proverb that we’ve heard all our lives, and most of the time, it’s pure bunk.
But in the case of Billy Martin and baseball discipline, it sort of fits.
Renowned for his carousing and fiery temper as a member of the 1950s New York Yankees, Martin landed his first managerial gig with the 1969 Minnesota Twins — where he was supposed to mold a group of players into a cohesive unit that could follow rules well enough to win some games.
And the gamble worked out pretty well as the Twins won the first-ever American League West division crown. Of course, Minnesota fired Billy after the season because he got into a fight with 20-game winner Dave Boswell in August.
But that’s beside the point. Right?
After a year away from the Majors, Martin was back in time to take the helm of the 1971 Detroit Tigers, and that’s where we find him on this 1972 Topps card, posed as maybe only Martin could be.
He’s simultaneously glaring toward the dugout and flipping off the Topps cameraman while the empty batting cage waits in the background for the next subject of Billy’s tutelage.
Martin would work his magic for two full seasons in Detroit, mustering one second-place finish and one division title, before being canned 134 games into the 1973 campaign.
When the photo for this card was snapped, likely some time during the 1973 season, Dave Parker was a 21-year-old prospect who had spent the previous three years making his way through the Pittsburgh Pirates’ farm system.
In the minors, Parker had hit for a high average, shown nice power progression, displayed good speed on the base paths, and flashed the right-arm cannon that would help make him so successful in the Majors.
Still, there was no real reason for Topps to think he’d be a superstar anytime soon, so they (apparently) didn’t put a ton of effort into getting the best pic they could of the towering young outfielder.
Parker is looking off to the side as if he’s not even aware of the Topps photographer in front of him, and the only possible indication of a position is his batting helmet — probably not a pitcher, but even that was not a solid assumption considering the Pirates were and are a National League team.
Still, Parker’s rookie card gives us a nice, up-close look at the mesh batting cage behind him, and that’s serendipitous for us.
Or is it?
As it turned out, Topps seemed to really like the Parker-batting cage dynamic, as they’d feature it again in 1978 … and 1982.
The 1975 and 1976 Cincinnati Reds put together one of the greatest two-year runs in Major League history.
The Big Red Machine, as the team came to be known, feasted on opponents through a combination of efficient pitching, stellar defense, and, most notably, a potent offensive attack that threatened to crash the All-Star roster from top to bottom.
Though he was past his physical prime and didn’t post the gaudy numbers of teammates like George Foster, Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, and Joe Morgan, Tony Perez is credited by many observers as being the internal force most responsible for the unique greatness of those Reds teams.
When this 1976 Topps card was issued, the Reds were in the middle of their run, and Perez — unbeknownst to Cincy diehards — was entering his final year on the Riverfront.
It didn’t matter, though, because Doggie was ready to get down to the business of winning another World Series championship, and it all started with batting practice.
Right there in the shadow of his cardboard batting cage.
Who does this guy think he is?
Duh … he’s Keith Hernandez.
And if you don’t get that reference, well, we probably couldn’t be friends in real life.
But when this 1980 Topps card hit collectors’ sweaty little palms that spring, Hernandez was also the reigning National League (co-)MVP after leading the circuit with a nifty .344 batting average in 1979.
Like Maris before him, old (young, actually) Keith didn’t reach those heights without putting in the work to get there, and this card shows him taking his hacks in the St. Louis Cardinals’ batting cage.
Hernandez would keep at it, too, batting .300 in five of the next seven seasons en route to a .296 lifetime mark and nearly 2200 hits.
He may not have made the Hall of Fame, but Hernandez sure looked good hitting the ball … and he had one magic loogie!
Reggie Jackson was the self-proclaimed “straw that stirs the drink” with the New York Yankees during the late 1970s.
And Reggie could back up that bluster, too, thanks to a prodigious power swing that produced three straight home runs in the 1977 World Series and catapulted Jackson deep into the 500-home run club … and ultimately into Cooperstown.
But Reggie developed a reputation during his prime as being a prima donna and was often viewed as a hot dog or sullen or brash or all of the above rolled up into one incorrigible package.
If your only exposure to Reggie were his 1982 Fleer cards, though, you probably thought he was a happy teddy bear of a guy.
Maybe Jackson realized that, with free agency looming after the 1981 season, his days in Pinstripes were waning and he should enjoy them while he could.
Or maybe he just found himself heading into the batting cage on a spring morning and couldn’t keep himself from smiling, just a little.
And who could blame him for that?
By 1983, Rod Carew was 38 years old and nearing the end of the line in his Major League career. Never a sterling defender, Carew had been moved from his original position of second base and was relegated to a split between first base and the DH slot.
It was a role normally reserved for aging sluggers, but Carew’s career high in home runs was 14, achieved in both 1975 and 1977. Still, his high-average bat was too respected for the California Angels to punt on him entirely, so they installed him in this heavy-legged platoon.
Just because Carew was off the field, though, didn’t mean he shied away from the batting cages.
Indeed, Carew would respond with his final .300 season — he hit .339 — courtesy of 160 hits that would all but punch his ticket into the 3000-Hit Club and also into the Hall of Fame.
So, in a season engineered to get Carew his hits, it’s fitting that his Fleer card shows him with bat in hand, headband holding the hair out of his eyes, and batting helmet perched on his head as he waits for a pitch.
And in the background, Carew’s old friend — the batting cage — waits for him.
Like Parker before him, Carew also seems to have attracted batting-cage shots, as the two also appear together on 1974 Topps and 1984 Fleer pasteboards.
By the time this card was issued, Yaz was just about done.
Already 43 years old when 1983 Topps baseball cards debuted during (roughly) Spring Training of that year, Yaz had already been a more-or-less full-time designated hitter for a year and a half. And if you didn’t know that, the front of his Topps card let you in on the secret.
Sure, T.C.G. told us explicitly that Yastrzemski was the Red Sox’s “DESIGNATED HITTER” but they also positioned the aging superstar as nothing but a hitter in his action photo.
There he is, ball in right hand, bat in left and resting on his left shoulder. He’s standing in the dirt somewhere near home plate and looking out on the field in front of him. It’s clear that Yaz is about to toss the baseball in the air and give it a whack, probably helping younger players with their fielding drills.
In the background, the black upright of a batting cage looks on as if to remind us that, although Yastrzemski turned in several Gold Glove seasons in left field, offense was his bailiwick.
And, even though his body was finished with the game, you knew, even then, that he could still smack one every now and then.