Specs Toporcer, in 1921. Source: American Memory: Chicago Daily News.
February 9, 1899|
New York, New York
|Died: May 17, 1989
Huntington Station, New York
|April 13, 1921, for the St. Louis Cardinals|
|Last MLB appearance|
|June 2, 1928, for the St. Louis Cardinals|
|Runs batted in||151|
George Toporczer [played as Toporcer] (February 9, 1899 – May 17, 1989) was a professional baseball player and executive. He served primarily as a utility infielder during his eight seasons in Major League Baseball, playing for the St. Louis Cardinals from 1921 through 1928. He batted left-handed and threw right-handed. Toporcer is widely considered as the first major league baseball position player to wear eyeglasses on the playing field.
From an early age, like most children at the time, George Toporczer was obsessed with baseball. In an interview, he admitted that for the last seventy five years scarce a day had gone by that he had not contemplated the sport. He stated that in spite of his obsession he was always picked last during childhood games because of his slight build and glasses. He went to school and becames friends with actor Jimmy Cagney, staying in touch into the later portions of their lives. George Toporczer said the first thing that hooked him on baseball was when he was six and went to the 1905 World Series. At the World Series he watched the Giants’ Christy Mathewson pitch three shutouts The experience was further reinforced by his two older brothers who, being diehard Giants fans, idolized the players, speaking of little else but the performance of their favorite team. The fanaticism of his older brother soaked into young George Toporczer and he too became a diehard Giants fan. He became so attached to the Giants that when they lost the pennant to the Cubs in 1908, due to Merkle's Boner, he cried himself to sleep. By the time he was ten he would walk the five miles from his house to the Polo Grounds. Although the one cent allowance that his father, a shoe and boot seller, was not enough to get him a ticket, he found a spot on Coogan’s Bluff that he could take advantage of an open space in the roof of the Polo Grounds. Unlike most of his peers he was enthralled with what was known then as inside baseball which were the strategies and tactics of the "dead-ball" era. While still loving the Giant’s players, George Toporczer held a special admiration of the Giants’ manager John McGraw, who he considered the best of his time. Out of all of the Giants players George’s favorite was the left fielder George Burns. When he was thirteen George Toporczer got a job at a local saloon as a scorekeeper, writing down the scores of the baseball games in exchange for fifty cents and free meals. While in seventh grade George’s history teacher made a school baseball team but he was turned down from it because of his slight figure and his glasses. Even though he was not on the team he still went to all of their games to cheer them on. At one of these game he was the only one there to cheer the team on and the team was short one player so he was drafted into play centerfield. During that game he made a difficult catch and contributed two hits. Around this time George Toporczer’s father died and passed the business on his oldest son, George’s older brother. George had to forgo high school and help his brother run the shoe and boot store. By working at the store and picking up odd jobs on the side George Toporczer was making more than enough to buy tickets and would regularly go to the Polo Grounds.
Born and reared in the Yorkville section of Manhattan, Toporcer never played high school, college or minor league ball. He went directly from sandlot baseball to major league competition.[unreliable source?] He split his first professional season between the Cardinals and the minor league Syracuse Stars. As he grew older, George Toporczer decided that he wanted to become the best baseball player that he could become. He practiced daily for hours, learning all aspects of baseball and even teaching himself to bat lefty even though he was a natural right-hander. All of the practice he had done had earned him a spot on one of the area’s best semipro teams in 1920. The manager of his semipro team was Billy Swanson, a former second baseman for the Boston Red Sox. Swanson helped George Toporczer hone his skills; prior to this George had been almost entirely self-taught. After one year on that semipro team, George Toporczer signed for the Syracuse Stars just months before it became a farm team for the St. Louis Cardinals. Branch Rickey, the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, transferred George’s contract from the Stars to the Cardinals. George Toporczer was to play for the Cardinals as the second baseman, bumping the former second baseman, Roger Hornsby, who had led the league in hitting that year, to left field. Later, because Hornsby was the leading hitter for the entire league, George Toporczer was moved from second base, so that Hornsby could once again be the second baseman, to become the utility infielder, a position that did not suit him as well as second base. Competing with Hornsby was difficult until Hornsby was traded for another second baseman, Frankie Frisch. Because he was not able to play his favored position, George Toporczer was moved from the Cardinals to Rochester, the Cardinals top farm team.
In an eight-season career, Toporcer was a .279 hitter with nine home runs and 151 RBI in 546 games. As a fielder, he appeared in 453 games at shortstop (249), second base (105), third base (95), first base (3) and right field (1).
Minor league player-manager
Following his major league career, Toporcer played for the Cardinals Triple-A affiliate Rochester on four straight pennant-winning teams (1929–32), being named the International League MVP in 1929 and 1930. He became the Red Wings' manager in 1932, continuing to play and manage the team until 1934. He continued to play in the minors until 1941, typically serving as a player-manager. While in Rochester George Toporczer was able to play as a second baseman. For seven years he played for Rochester, winning the International League pennant four consecutive years and being named the MVP for two of those years. For the last three of the seven years George served as the manager of the Rochester team. After his third year he had a financial dispute with Branch Rickey that ended him managing for any of the farm teams of the St. Louis Cardinals. George Toporczer managed other minor league teams for the next seven years before he became the farm director for the Boston Red Sox.
Toporcer later served as the director of minor league operations for the Boston Red Sox, and also worked with the Chicago White Sox. In 1944, Toporcer wrote an autobiography, Baseball – From Backlots to Big Leagues, still considered one of the best manuals of instruction for coaches and young players.
In 1951, while managing the Buffalo Bisons, Toporcer became blind after a fifth operation to save his failing eyesight was unsuccessful. His life story was featured in a network TV show in which he played the lead.
Toporcer died in Huntington Station, New York at the age of 90.
Loss of Sight
During his time as the farm director for the Boston Red Sox George Toporczer began to notice spots in his vision that were obstructing his sight. After visiting an eye specialist and having a lengthy examination done the doctor diagnosed him with a detached retina. George got the required surgery and the doctor proscribed a thirty-day period of laying in his bed not moving his head so as not the dislodge the retina while it healed. Once the thirty days were over the doctor removed the bandages to find the surgery had been unsuccessful and that George had lost sight in his left eye. Another attempt was made to save his left eye but after another thirty-day recovery phase it was found that it could not be saved. Some time after he had gone blind in his left eye he began to have problem with his right eye. After three more unsuccessful surgeries George Toporczer was blind in both eyes.
- Branch Rickey once told this story about Specs Toporcer: A 19-year-old boy who weighed 142 pounds and never had played a game of pro ball came off the field at Orange, New Jersey. I watched this kid and saw him take off his glasses and, with his hands outstretched, grope his way along the wall to the showers. My captain turned to me and said, For God's sake, who sent him up? - Norman L. Macht, baseball writer and statistician