#198 Len Gabrielson
This is Gabrielson’s first solo card — his 1963 rookie card featured him and three other players. It’s also the last card to feature him as a member of the Milwaukee Braves. Mine has some wear-and-tear, and a couple of hairline creases at the top of the card. Still would probably grade out in the VG-EX range. This is a common card and SMR lists it for $8 in NM condition.
Once again proving that Topps didn’t have much of a research department to speak of, the trivia question on the back of the card is not only poorly written, but the answer given is misleading. The answer isn’t rubbed off on mine, but Topps’ response to “When did a World Series last for 9 games?” is “until 1921.” While it’s true that the 1921 WS was a best-of-9 series, not all had followed that format to that point. In fact, the first WS in 1903 was a best-of-9, but went to the traditional 7-game format until 1919, when baseball decided a 9-game format would help boost interest and revenue. But after a three-year experiment, the Series went back to 7 games in 1922 and has been that way ever since. The way Topps phrased the question, the actual correct answer is “never,” as no World Series ever went to a deciding 9th game (I shudder to think that kids used to learn baseball history this way).
As for Gabrielson, he was a promising youngster at the time this card was produced. In fact, Topps proclaimed on the back: “Here’s a young player who can hit with power.” Unfortunately, Len would only hit a grand total of 37 Major League home runs. As it turned out, he’s most notable for trying (and ultimately failing) to replace two eventual Hall-of-Famers.
Gabrielson’s .597 OPS in 129 plate appearances for Milwaukee in 1963 didn’t exactly set the world on fire, and he followed it up by going 7-for-38 to start the 1964 season. That ended up getting him traded to the Cubs for the astronomical figure of $40,000 (the Cubs sent the equally hapless Merritt Ranew to the Braves a few days later to complete the exchange).
Len got the opportunity to play full-time with the Cubs after the trade when Chicago shipped Lou Brock to St. Louis a couple of weeks later (one of many fantastic decision made by the North Siders over the years). Gabrielson hit .246 with five homers, 23 RBI, and a .655 OPS in 89 games with the Cubs in ’64.
He found himself traded again, this time in mid-1965 to the Giants in a deal that brought Harvey Kuenn to Chicago. He had the best stretch of his career with the Giants that year, when he hit .301/.365/.405 in 88 games. This led to the Giants awarding their starting left fielder spot for 1966 to Gabrielson, despite a challenge from Orlando Cepeda, who had been displaced from first base by Willie McCovey. It turned out to be a disaster for San Francisco, as Len hit just .217 with only four homers in 94 games.
Meanwhile, the Giants traded Cepeda to the Cardinals, and he won the NL MVP in 1967, leading St. Louis to a World Series title (though he only hit .103 in the Series).
Gabrielson was traded to the Angels following the ’66 season, but made it only 11 games there before being sent to the Dodgers. By 1968, he was playing full-time for the Dodgers, who he led in home runs that year with 10. Len’s .765 OPS that year was way above the league average (’68 is largely considered to be the worst offensive year of the modern era), and it looked like he might finally be establishing himself as a full-time big-leaguer.
But then it all went south again in 1969, when he had only one home run and seven extra-base hits in 194 PA. By 1970, he was reduced to a pinch-hitting role and was out of baseball at the age of 30.
Gabrielson’s father (also named Len) played five games for the Phillies in 1939. Len Jr. is currently 69 years old.