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Ah … Christmas! The time of year when Don Rudolph blazes through the night sky at the front of Santa’s team and …

Sorry, getting ahead of myself.

It’s just the excitement of the season and all the trappings thereof, I suppose.

See, there is a scene in the Christmas classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer that we play over and over at our house.

Rudolph has gathered with the other young reindeer for training, and he’s got his nose covered with a ball of mud so that he can fit in with the other “guys.” Rudolph is off to the side flirting with a fawn named Clarice when Comet the Coach calls on him to take a shot at flying.

Just as Rudolph walks away to make his feeble attempt, Clarice calls him back and utters one of the most course-altering lines in cinematic history: “Rudolph, I think you’re cute.”

That sends Rudolph into a rambling litany of “I’m cute,” over and over … and into the air, soaring like no reindeer really has a cause to soar.

After a couple of jump-flights that stop the other juvenile reindeer in their tracks as they marvel at his superpowers, Rudolph engages in some gentle antler jousting with his buddy Fireball. In the excitement of the moment and the jostling of the rough-housing, Rudolph’s nose begins to glow and beep, and it blows the prosthetic right off his face.

Well, that’s the beginning of the trouble for young Rudolph, as you might imagine, directly foreshadowed by the Outer Limits eye effects that Comet manifests when he sees the flaming orb on the tip of Rudolph’s snout.

What does all this have to do with baseball and baseball cards?

Glad you asked!

See here …

1960 Seattle Rainiers Popcorn Don Rudolph

 

Late in the 1957 season, the Chicago White Sox were wrapping up a 90-win campaign that landed them a second-place finish in the American League behind (surprise!) the New York Yankees.

The ChiSox were in first place as late as late June and hung fairly close to the Yanks in the second half. As the season entered its last week, though, Chicago hovered about six games back, and the odds were not in their favor.

So they decided to take a chance.

On September 21, general manager John Rigney called up 26-year-old lefty hurler Don Rudolph from the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians.

Now, that sort of thing happens all the time late each year, but this move was remarkable because 1) Rudolph had spent eight full seasons in the minors without ever getting a call to the Major Leagues and 2) his record stood at 8-20 on the season.

Holy jumpin’ reindeer, Santa!

But Rudolph was quite a character with quite a history, having starred in several minor league stops and also having served 21 months in the Army right in the midst of his hardball career.

And, oh yeah, Rudolph was married to Patricia Artae Brownell, better known as Patti Waggin. The duo met in the 1954 under, um, unusual circumstances, by which time Patti had already been named to a list of “top 10 strippers in America.”

As you might imagine, the duo caused quite a stir wherever they went, and baseball teams have been known to take advantage of  a good publicity buzz from time to time.

Anyway, in 1957 Rudolph went 1-0 with a 2.25 ERA down the stretch for the White Sox in 1957, which was good enough to get him another shot at Triple-A and, ultimately, another seven appearances with the big club in 1958.

It also landed him a 1958 Topps baseball card (#347):

 

1958 Topps Don Rudolph

 

And that cup of coffee in ’58 got him a 1959 Topps card:

 

1959 Topps Don Rudolph

 

By the end of that season, Rudolph was heading into his late 20s with just 21 Major League appearances under his belt and heading to the Triple-A Seattle Rainiers after a trade to the Cincinnati Reds (along with Lou Skizas in exchange for Del Ennis).

With scant success in the Majors and full seasons at Triple-A in 1960 and 1961, Rudolph wasn’t able to crack another Topps lineup until 1962. Apparently, TCG thought that his Rule 5 selection by the Cleveland Indians in November ’61 portended good things for his future, because they graced him with a “1962 Rookie” star emblem on card #224:

 

1962 Topps Don Rudolph

 

So, that’s three cards for Rudolph, who still had only 21 appearances in the Majors to that point. But, if you look more closely, you might contend those pasteboards were really just one card.

I mean, isn’t there something familiar about that 1959 card? And that 1962 card?

The answer, of course, is “yes.” And what’s familiar is the photo of Rudolph that Topps used on each card. It’s the same one across the board, even though Rudolph makes a team change (to the Indians) on that last issue.  As these things go, and especially considering the era, that’s a pretty solid airbrush job on the ’62, too.

In effect, then, we have Topps saying to Rudolph, “we think you look really good in this picture.”

And, then, they say it two more times.

“We think you look really good in this picture.”

“We think you look really good in this picture.”

Is it hard to imagine how that might have sounded to Rudolph’s ears?

“They think I’m cute! They think I’m cute! They think I’m cuuuuuuuutttteee!!”

And, just like the reindeer Rudolph, the ballplayer Rudolph was buoyed by the praise lavished on him by his Clarise (Topps).

Traded to the expansion Washington Senators in May of 1962, went 8-10 in 38 appearances (37 for the Senators), and followed that up with 65 more Big League games through the end of the 1964 season.

Only then did the fake nose fall off.

Landing back in the Reds organization in 1964, Rudolph did his best in two Triple-A stints through 1965, but he never made it back to the Bigs.

So, at age 35, Don Rudolph retired from baseball and started a contracting company. Sadly, he was killed on the job in 1968 when a truck rolled over on him.

It was an untimely end for one of baseball’s forgotten characters, but he’s one of the guys who always comes to mind around Christmas … or anytime you see baseball card photos repeated from year to year.

And just remember — that’s not necessarily a sign of laziness on the part of the card manufacturer. Maybe — just maybe — they think the player is Rudolph-cute.

(Check out our other player card posts here.)