One of the cool things about being a sports card collector is that the cards remind you of things that you have long forgotten. I recently came across a 1988 Topps Rushing Leaders card, highlighting the 1987 season. Did you know that there were only 2 running backs that ran for 1000 yards that year (it was only a 15 game season due to a strike and most players only appeared in 12 games since 3 of them were played with mostly replacement players – about 15 % of the league did cross the picket lines)?
The 2 running backs? Eric Dickerson and Charles White. Charles White led the NFL with just under 1400 yards and Dickerson was second with just under 1300.
The story gets a bit more bizarre – White was actually Dickerson’s backup. Here is how that happened. Dickerson started the season as the Rams #1 RB, with White as his backup. After the 2nd week of the season, most of the players went on strike, but some crossed the picket lines to keep playing. Dickerson stayed away, White crossed the picket line. White became the starter. After an inauspicious debut of 9 carries for 18 yards, White busted out in week 4 with 166 yards vs. the Steelers. Charles White had, up until that point, managed 1 – 100 yard game and just 1400 yards in his 6+ year NFL career. He tore off another 100 yard game in Week 5 and then the strike ended. Dickerson was back for week 6, had about half as many carries as White in the game and then was summarily traded to the Colts. In case you don’t remember 1987, Eric Dickerson was the best RB on the planet, having just run for 1800 yards in 1986 and he was just 27 years old. With Dickerson gone, White retained the starting role and reeled off 5 more 100 yard games. Dickerson in the meantime, got off to a slow start with the Colts, but then managed to average 122 yards a game for the rest of the season to not only finish second in the league in total rushing yards, but to lead the AFC in rushing yards despite having played 3 games less than Curt Warner.
Dickerson would have just 2 more great seasons before turning into a pumpkin at age 30. Charles White would manage just 323 more yards in the NFL, getting hurt early in 1988 and losing his starting job to Greg Bell before retiring.
I recently decided to buy back a small piece of my youth and purchased a 1984 Topps complete set. It was fun reliving the memories of the 1983 season and my 10 year old self putting together the set. Living in NJ in 1983, there was excitement over the big rookie in NY that took the league by storm – Darryl Strawberry. His rookie card is in that set, along with another NY rookie who wouldn’t really make an impact until the next season – Don Mattingly. There are also cards of a very young Tony Gwynn, Cal Ripken, Wade Boggs and Ryne Sandberg, a very old Pete Rose and my all-time favorite name Doug Gwosdz (pronounced GOOSH, had the nickname “Eyechart”).
One of the cards that caught my eye was a highlights card that had Steve Carlton, Nolan Ryan and Gaylord Perry on it. I had forgotten this, but 1983 was the year that Walter Johnson’s 55+ year old record for strikeouts in a career fell, and 3 pitchers managed to pass the total of 3,509. Here is the way things stacked up going into the 1983 season:
Obviously Nolan Ryan was the one who was going to break the record first give he was just 15 behind Johnson going into the season. Ryan was starting to look like it might be near the end for him – he had been good but not great for a couple of seasons, so 4,000 strikeouts looked like it might be his upper limit. Perry was a bit of a longshot to catch Johnson because of his age and general ineffectiveness over the previous few seasons. Carlton, despite 1983 being his 38 year old season, had come off this 1982 season:
Cy Young Award
Ryan passed Johnson first and then Carlton and then Perry. Something strange then happened at the end of 1983. Here is how Ryan and Carlton pitched that season:
Carlton again led the league in IP AND SO, at age 38! So despite being the first pitcher to pass Walter Johnson, Nolan Ryan was not the all-time strikeout leader at the end of 1983:
Carlton was not nearly as good at age 39 in 1984 (nor for the rest of his career) and Ryan was about as good as he had been the previous 4 seasons, allowing Ryan to finish up 1984 as the all-time strikeout leader, a spot from which he never looked back, adding 1840 strikeouts to his career total after age 37. Since Johnson’s record was initially broken, 5 other pitchers passed the 3,509 total. For one brief season, Steve Carlton was baseball’s all-time strikeout king.