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Life must have been pretty exciting for Steve Dunning in the spring and summer of 1970.
He had just wrapped up his college baseball career with a stunning (sDunning?) season in which he went 13-2 with a 1.83 ERA and 144 strikeouts in 108 innings.
That was enough to convince the Cleveland Indians to select Dunning with their first pick — 2nd overall — in that year’s draft.
And then, the Tribe decided they liked Dunning so much that they stuck him right onto the Major League roster without his having to spend a day in the minor leagues. He was just the second player, after Mike Adamson of the Kansas City Athletics in 1967, to go directly from draft day to his MLB club.
Not only that, but Dunning went straight into the rotation, making his Big League debut on June 14 against the Milwaukee Brewers. He allowed five hits, two walks, a homer, and two runs over five innings, but it was enough to pick up the win in Cleveland’s 9-2 victory.
Dunning stayed on the Indians’ roster the entire 1970 season and finished with a 4-9 record and 4.96 ERA in 19 games, 17 of them starts. Not spectacular, but a decent beginning for a 21-year-old hurler with no minor league seasoning.
You Know You’ve Made It When …
It was also good enough to keep Dunning in the rotation for 1971 and to land him his very own 1971 Topps baseball card (#294). It’s a decent looking hunk of cardboard, with Dunning in his set position and Municipal Stadium in the background. He’s wearing the nifty pinstripes the Tribe rolled out in 1970, and the angle of the shot shows most of Chief Wahoo on Dunning’s left sleeve.
As collectors were pulling that card from packs, Dunning headed back to the mound and put together a sophomore campaign that featured an 8-14 record with a 4.50 ERA in 29 starts over 31 total appearances.
Dunning was rewarded for that effort by hanging onto his roster slot and with a 1972 Topps baseball card (#658). This time, he’s completing his follow-through in his Indians road grays with Yankee Stadium as his backdrop.
The 1972 season saw Dunning’s workload drop to 16 starts, but it also brought his first winning record, at 6-4. His 3.26 ERA would be the lowest of his career.
So Dunning entered his age-24 season on the upswing and with a chance to build something better with the only team he’d ever known. Oh, he also had his third baseball card in the offing — #53 in the 1973 Topps set.
And that’s where things get strange …
We Have This New Model We’re Just Dying to Try Out
We know that Topps had pictures of Dunning in his Indians uniform because they issued cards of him in 1971 and 1972.
And we know that, in those days, Topps was not averse to using the same picture of a player in consecutive years. See Ernie Banks in 1968 and 1969.
So why, oh why, did Topps airbrush that hideous red Indians cap over whatever Dunning had going on up there on his 1973 Topps card?
At first, I thought maybe it was because Dunning finally had been sent to the minors in 1972, but I can’t make script on his chest into either “Portland” or “Beavers” … and why would Topps bother taking a minor league photo of a guy when they already had Major League pics?
Maybe a quick trade-and-trade — out of Cleveland and back — with Topps snapping his picture in the interim? Baseball Reference says no on that front — Dunning was with the Indians organization throughout 1972.
And, if you look more closely at that 1973 Topps Dunning card, you can see that he’s wearing the Indians pinstripes, like he was on his 1971 Topps card.
Well, not quite like on his 1971 Topps card … those 1973 letters are plain and blocky, while the 1971 card shows rounder characters with fancy red shadow piping. You can see this most clearly on the “S” in “Indians.”
That difference might make you think Dunning is, indeed, wearing something other than an Indians uniform. But if you dig around a bit, you can find these togs other places.
Notably, on the 1972 Topps card of Cleveland manager Ken Aspromonte (#784). That’s the same lettering that Dunning sports on his ’73 card.
So we’re back to the question of what Topps was up to with that dastardly airbrush of theirs. Why would they mar an otherwise OK card with an unsightly red blob?
We Did It All for You
The answer lies in the cards of Dunning’s teammates.
Take a look at the 1973 Topps Indians checklist card:
Yeah, that’s ugly and not all that helpful, but it’s still pretty cool, don’t you think? But I meant take a look at the back of that card:
There you have a listing of all the Indians cards issued by TGC in 1973. Now, start working down the list, and what do you find?
Well, a bunch of names. But if you look up the actual cards, what do you find?
You can do this exercise for yourself if you want, but I’ve taken the liberty of checking out a few of the cards, like …
Ken Aspromonte (#499)
The Tribe manager appears with his college of coaches, as you would expect. Aspromonte was at the helm all season for the 1972 Indians, so Topps had plenty of time to snap his picture, yet … he, too, had the red-blob Cleveland cap! Hmmm …
Buddy Bell (#31)
The future All-Star third baseman was just 20 years old for most of the 1972 season, but he steps up big here on this card to help us solve our mystery. There stands Bell with the Yankee Stadium on-deck circle and third-base line in the background, donned in Cleveland road grays and a red cap — no airbrush in sight.
Charlie Spikes (#614) red hat AND sleeves, airbrushed
Finally, and maybe most telling of all, we have this Spikes “beauty.” Sure, Spikes was actually a member of the New York Yankees organization through 1972, and you can see those famed Yankees pinstripes peeking through on his third of this rookie outfielders card.
But it would have been easy for Topps to just blot out the NY logo or paint over it with the red, football-shaped Cleveland “C.” Instead, they went full hovering, glowing, bloody red cap … and they dipped Spikes’ arms in ketchup.
What’s Really Going On Here?
Taking these three cards into consideration, along with that stunning Dunning, it’s easy to see that Topps was dead set on … ahem … painting the Indians in red in 1973.
Well, a quick search for the history of Indians uniforms and caps leads you to this page at SportsLogos.net, where you’ll find what’s labeled as “Cap Logo (1972)”:
Yeah, that’s the same logo that Buddy Bell flashes on his 1973 Topps card, and the same one Topps tried to install on the foreheads of Dunning, Aspromonte, and Spikes.
Do a quick Google image search for “1972 Cleveland Indians” and you’ll find this same logo over and over and over …
Gaylord Perry had it.
Ray Fosse had it.
In ’71, it was all black caps with a red “C.”
In ’73, it was the cockeyed red “C” on a navy cap that you see here in Perry’s 1974 Topps card:
And all that leaves us with one conclusion …
Topps didn’t manage to secure actual 1972 photos of many Cleveland Indians, but they still wanted to give collectors the authentic look and feel of that season by the Lake. So they did what Topps always did to fix a problem in the 1970s — they fired up the airbrush.
Their intentions may have been noble, but, man the results were u-g-l-y, and Steve Dunning took the brunt of that indignity.
And Topps wasn’t done “flattering” Dunning, either.
The Long and Painted Road
A month into the 1973 season, Cleveland finally got tired of waiting for Dunning to develop and sent him to the Texas Rangers in exchange for Dick Bosman and Ted Ford. Dunning made 23 appearances (12 starts) for the Rangers, but it wasn’t enough to keep his streak of Topps cards alive.
In February of 1975, Texas traded Dunning to the Chicago White Sox for Stan Perzanowski, and then sent him down to the Triple-A Denver Bears. That December, the ChiSox shipped Dunning and Bill Melton to the California Angels in a trade that brought Morris Nettles and Jim Spencer to Arlington.
Dunning made four ineffective appearances (7.50 ERA) for the Angles in 1976 before they sold him to the Montreal Expos in May. He spent the rest of the Bicentennial season between Montreal and Triple-A Denver, and then Expos sent him, along with Pat Scanlon and Tony Scott, to the St. Louis Cardinals in exchange for Bill Greif, Sam Mejias, and Angel Torres in November.
In 1977, Mr. Stunning made 24 starts for the Triple-A New Orleans Pelicans through early August, when the Cards traded him to the Oakland A’s for Randy Scarbery.
All through that long stretch, from 1973 through 1977, Dunning went 0-for-Topps, and it looked like he might never get another baseball card. But the A’s were still staggering through their post-dynasty years, and they gave Dunning another shot at the Majors. In six appearances, he went 1-0 with a 3.93 ERA, but his more modern peripherals weren’t great — 1.473 WHIP, 2 K/9, 104 ERA+.
Modest as that showing may seem now, it evidently was enough to convince Topps that Dunning was back, because they included him in their 1978 set (#647). It’s another masterpiece, in which Dunning dons his best Jeff Daniels face and also in which Topps slathers Dunning in A’s green and gold. Now, I’ll admit that the airbrush job is markedly better than the one on Dunning’s 1973 turd, but there is an odd, blurry shadow effect around Dunning himself.
Almost like he’s not really there … or like there are two people in the one sleepy-eyed image, attempting to separate from each other even as we look on.
Heck, the photo and background are bad enough that there’s some small chance there’s no airbrushing going on at all.
At least Dunning got this one last card. He spent 1978 in the San Diego Padres minor league system and then was done.
And at least we can be pretty sure Topps was trying to do us all a solid with his 1973 Topps card.
But that doesn’t change the fact that this former first-round burner recorded maybe the highest percentage of lousy baseball cards (career) this side of Bryan Clark.
(Check out our other player card posts here.)