I was born in 1980, and started following the Cleveland Indians when I was six. Like most boys who grew up in the 1980s I loved collecting baseball cards. 1987 Topps was the biggest year and brand for me, but I also grabbed whatever I could get my hands on at places like Marc’s and Toys R Us, where they sold random assorted packs of varying years and card manufacturers. Everybody wanted the good players, of course. Getting Barry Bonds, Jose Canseco, a McGwire rookie, etc. was the most important thing, but I also grew to quickly appreciate the weirdos who populated major league rosters. Of the four major sports, baseball has always had the most players who wouldn’t look out of place working at your local Sears, or waiting tables at Friendly’s. They’re athletes, of course, but more in the sense of possessing one or two elite skills among a gangly or pudgy mess, like Lumpy Space Princess playing the drums.
A lot of these 1980s baseball oddities resembled Weird Al Yankovic paired with Napoleon Dynamite. For the most part they are the ones I’m going to focus on, with a Dempsey or a Bream thrown in for good measure. Remember, these men were at the peak of their profession in the 1980s, modern versions of the ancient Olympians and Roman Gladiators.
Tom Hume is an Internet favorite when it comes to identifying major league ballplayers who would look at home living in your grandma’s basement surrounded by Rush posters. Most of these players tend to be pitchers, and Tom was a fairly effective one for quite awhile with the Cincinnati Reds and Philadelphia Phillies. Some of his other cards are even more distinctive looking, but I went with the ‘87 one here for nostalgia reasons. He lives in Florida now and is super Jesus-y, both legal requirements for ex-MLB players.
Pete Ladd is the template for weird uncle ballplayers. During his playing days with the Astros, Brewers, and Mariners, Ladd proudly rocked the David Koresh/Yankovic circa “Like a Surgeon” look. If Pete Ladd didn’t own an IROC at some point I don’t know what to believe in anymore. Incidentally, the 1986 Topps set is my second favorite design, and the first edition of the Cleveland Indians team set I ever got, so these will be popping up as well.
The man who inspired the article. This image, from the aforementioned 1986 team set, is forever ingrained in my memory. I don’t remember much if anything about Ernie as a player, but I will never forget the name, the hair, the mustache, the wire rims. What a look. He bounced around the Majors quite a bit, but his longest stint was with Cleveland. According to Wikipedia, after his playing career he worked as an electrician and maintenance man for the school district in his hometown, so he actually became my wife’s uncle.
There’s a NYC comedian named Brad Howe, and if I were asked to describe Lee Tunnell, my first thought would be to say that Tunnell “looks like a Brad Howe character.” Tunnell’s already impressive choice of eye wear was enhanced by its pairing with the Pittsburgh Pirates painters caps. He looks like a conductor, which is appropriate given Tunnell would easily finish top three in a vote of which MLB player is most likely to have a model train collection. Tunnell is still involved in baseball, serving as bullpen coach for the Brewers, and has completed his metamorphosis from Weird Uncle to Everybody’s late middle-aged dad, having swapped his mustache for a gray goatee.
Alvaro was clearly the uncle who worked at the gas station. He drove a boxy 1980s Mustang that barely ran and poured whatever money was left over after paying rent on his trailer located on the local golf course into it. Once a week burnout teens would challenge him to drag race and he’d always take the bait, but the Mustang inevitably stalled out at the start. He also played shortstop for the Twins, Yankees, Mets, Mariners, and my hometown Indians. Following his playing career, Alvaro did some managing in the minor leagues, and then presumably shaved the mustache and became the number three salesman at Jim Davis Ford in Waukegan, Illinois.
More so than your uncle, Rick Dempsey was a professional baseball player who looked like your dad. He could register disapproval with your career choices with the slightest twitch of his mustache. Most closely associated with the Baltimore Orioles, Dempsey had a very long, successful career as a no-hit, all-glove catcher, all while looking like he should be cursing because the vents on the charcoal grill are rusted shut. If Tom Hume was listening to Rush, Rick was changing the station to Hank Jr. Be proud of your dad! He’s one of only five catchers to ever win World Series MVP.
Which professional athletes who looked like Dungeons and Dragons players were your favorites? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter.