Last night I was reading through an old pre-season guide, the ‘1974 Official Baseball Dope Book’, a Sporting News publication. Toward the back the book listed career stats for every active player in the major leagues. Two five-year men notable to me for their rather pedestrian numbers were ‘Garvey, Steve’, and ‘Foster, George’, both born in December of 1948.
Garvey’s tally after five big league seasons with the Dodgers (following being drafted out of Michigan State) was a .272 average with just 262 hits and 25 home runs. He had never gotten 350 at-bats or reached double figures in home runs in any season.
Foster, acquired by the Reds from San Francisco at the tail end of the 1971 season, had just 162 lifetime hits, 20 homers, and a putrid .238 mark. In winter 1974 Foster would have been best known for scoring the winning run as a pinch runner in the 1972 NLCS. George had no at-bats in that NLCS, nor did he come to the plate in the World Series that year.
The two were statistically indistinguishable from other rather anonymous National Leaguers with five years under their belt – grinders like Ron Wood, Wayne Garrett, Coco Laboy, and Leron Lee. Then a funny thing happened. Both men, who had made brief debuts in the major leagues back in 1969, ascended to borderline Hall of Fame careers.
That spring, just a year removed from the retirement of Wes Parker, Los Angeles moved then-speedy Bill Buckner from first base where he had played in 1973, back to his natural position in the outfield. The 25-year-old Garvey, who had come up as a third baseman and played some outfield, was given a chance as the regular at first base. He responded by earning the National League Most Valuable Player award, leading the Dodgers to a pennant and registering his first of six 200-hit seasons and seven .300 batting averages. He also was honored with his first of four Gold Gloves and ten All-Star appearances. One of the games’ best all-time clutch hitters, Steve batted .338 with 11 home runs over 55 post-season games.
Foster finally got his chance at a full-time role with the Reds in 1975, at age 26, when Pete Rose moved from left field to third base. George hit .300 that year with 23 homers, helped Cincinnati to its first of two straight World Championships, and went on to lead the National League in RBI for three straight seasons. In 1977 he won the NL MVP award, batting .320 while leading the loop with 52 home runs, 149 RBI (both decade bests among all players), 124 runs scored, and a .631 slugging percentage. George became a five time All-Star, topped 90 RBI seven times, and finished his career with 348 homers.
No one could have predicted the bright futures for Garvey or Foster in the winter of 1974, when they seemed destined for careers as role players at best. Their development took time, and team circumstances had kept them out of the lineup until, when finally given the opportunity, they became All-Star fixtures in the National League.
It made me wonder what current journeymen might transform themselves into All-Star performers six or seven years into their career. Is the patience there anymore among today’s fans, team GMs, and in turn, managers, all seemingly fixated only with the very short-term, to let such late bloomers develop?
Can you think of any other players, from the 1970s or any other era, with career trajectories like Garvey or Foster?
Joe Gersbeck is a baseball historian and lifetime fan/student of the game who lives in New Jersey with his wife and two sons. His most recent book, 1970s All-Star Baseball: A History of the Decade’s All-Star Games can be found on Amazon:
His bestselling 1970s Baseball: A History and Analysis of the Decade’s Best Seasons, Teams, and Players is available on Amazon, B&N, and iBooks: