Don Mossi and the “ugliest baseball card ever”

This 1960 Topps baseball card captures the unique physical appearance of Don Mossi.

This 1960 Topps baseball card captures the unique physical appearance of Don Mossi.

When I was growing up in the 1950s and early 1960s as a fan of the Detroit Tigers, we had our fair share of baseball cards around the house. Most kids then did. Baseball was still the indisputable national pastime, and a lot of us got Topps cards in packages of bubble gum. Nobody I knew was a serious collector of baseball cards — but everyone had them and occasionally swapped them. A few kids even taped them to the spokes of their bicycle wheels so they would produce that cool whirring sound when they rode. Little piles of baseball cards were in various places around the house, usually in my or my siblings’ bedrooms. I would examine them and try to memorize some of the statistics on the back. And everyone would look for their favorite Tigers. The Tigers games were usually on at our house — on the radio in the dining room, or on a transistor in the backyard. We heard the names of the players and followed our favorites but we rarely saw them on TV — games were rarely televised. Our mental images of the players depended a lot on the baseball cards we saw. I remember the cards mostly because some players’ names were memorable bordering on magical: Reno Bertoia, Al Kaline, Charlie Maxwell, Billy Bruton, Hank Aguirre. I was surprised when I read the word “alkaline” one day on a large tin of potato chips in the kitchen. I figured Number 6 must be endorsing the brand. The most memorable card was Don Mossi’s. Not because the pitcher was anyone’s favorite player — but because the photo of him with his very big ears and dour expression was so striking. He didn’t look happy to be having his picture taken. We christened his card “ugliest baseball card ever.” On a Saturday morning, my younger sister and I would often sneak into our two teenage sisters’ shared bedroom. They’d be trying to sleep in, but we’d bring in our various dolls and stuffed animals and have them play a pretend baseball game. Each one would assume a position on the “field”— the area rug in the middle of the bedroom. One doll got broken somehow in previous rough or careless play. His left arm was torn at the shoulder but still attached. It was hanging down by a few threads. I think we’d probably heard a radio announcer say something once about Paul Foytack having a “rag arm,” meaning he could pitch frequently. So we began calling this doll Faul Poytack (we occasionally talked in Pig Latin, like most kids in those days, and we liked transposing the initial sounds of words). Mossi, says Baseball Reference.com, had the nicknames “The Sphinx” or simply “Ears.” Indeed. He spent five years with Cleveland, relieving more than starting, before he came to the Tigers along with Ray Narleski in a five-player swap that included Billy Martin going to the Indians. Mossi then made 129 starts for Detroit in his five seasons with the club from 1959 to 1963. He went 59-44 with a 3.49 ERA and a 520-to-181 strikeout-to-walk rate. Not bad. His ERA-plus was 116, and his WAR for the Tigers is calculated at 13.4. Also pretty good. Mossi was actually a pretty dependable starter for those five years with Detroit. In 1964, he was sent to the White Sox, where BR lists his salary as $23,000! Those were different days indeed. Lefty Foytack was also a starter/reliever, like most pitchers in those days. A product of the Detroit farm system, he debuted in Detroit in 1953 and from 1956 to 1962 was a regular member of the pitching staff. The next year, he was sent to the Angels to finish his career, In his time as a Tiger, Foytack made 185 starts and 100 relief appearances and had an 81-81 record with a 4.14 ERA and an ERA-plus of 97 — which means he was pretty much the definition of an average pitcher. His rag arm often had control problems, with 631 walks as a Tiger compared to 789 strikeouts. His 10-year WAR with the Tigers is calculated at 10.9, which means he was worth about one net win a year. But at least his arm never fell off.

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About Michael Betzold

Author of Queen of Diamonds: The Tiger Stadium Story and other books, former Detroit Free Press reporter Michael Betzold always wore #4 to honor his first hero, the "Sunday Punch," Charlie "Paw Paw" Maxwell.