Great Moments in Sports Card History: Albert Belle

05 May
May 5, 2011

Whenever Milton Bradley does something crazy these days, I wonder if Albert Belle catches it on SportsCenter. If so, he probably doubles over in laughter and then points at the TV and says something like, “You got a long way to go to be as batshit nuts as me, dude, a LONG way!!!”

In case you’ve forgotten, Bob Carter’s SportsCentury profile supplies some of Belle’s nuttiest highlights from the late 80′s and 90′s:

At Louisiana State, Belle chased a heckling fan in the stands, was suspended and ended up missing the College World Series. In the minor leagues, he destroyed part of a bathroom after a tough night at bat. In the majors, he turned up the intensity. He struck a photographer and a fan with thrown balls in separate incidents, charged the mound to fight pitchers, verbally chastised NBC reporter Hannah Storm before a World Series game, chased egg-throwing teenagers from his house on Halloween and leveled Milwaukee infielder Fernando Vina with a forearm hit while running the bases. (ESPN.com)

In his book The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty, Buster Olney provided some other quality Belle tidbits:

Few escaped his wrath: on some days he would destroy the postgame buffet…launching plates into the shower… after one poor at-bat against Boston, he retreated to the visitor’s clubhouse and took a bat to teammate Kenny Lofton’s boombox. Belle preferred to have the clubhouse cold, below 60 degrees, and when one chilly teammate turned up the heat, Belle walked over, turned down the thermostat, and smashed it with his bat. His nickname, thereafter, was “Mr. Freeze.” (The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty, 2004, pg. 133)
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That’s why the card to the right is so damn fantastic. You see, for its 1996 Pinnacle baseball card set, the folks at Pinnacle Brands decided to take supermodel Christie Brinkley from in front of the camera and put her behind it. The idea was to have her shoot players in a casual, relaxed atmosphere and then dub the subset the “Christie Brinkley Collection.”

It resulted in one of the all-time great sports card images: a smiling Albert Belle holding Christie’s son Jack, with the clouds in the background helping to make the scene that much more surreal. Dare I say that Albert actually looks pretty damn peaceful in that picture.

This card was released when Belle wasn’t just at the height of his craziness, but also at the height of his productivity as a hitter. In 1995, he amassed 50 doubles and 50 homers in a season that was cut to 144 games due to a work stoppage. Nobody – not Babe Ruth, Hank Greenberg, Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays – had accomplished that feat before.

Numbers like that would ordinarily warrant an American League MVP Award, but you see, this was Albert Belle we were talking about. That’s why in 1995 that award went to the less productive but also far less nutty Mo Vaughn.

Not all that long after he posed for Brinkley, Belle’s career would be over. Somewhat surprisingly, it wasn’t because MLB finally banned him for life for being certifiably insane. No, the culprit was an arthritic hip that cut his career short after the 2000 season.

With his track record of outright insanity, it’s no wonder that Belle’s departure from the game generated little positive feeling amongst those who covered him. Here’s how Dan Patrick reacted:

But Albert Belle, once the highest-paid player in the game — who earned more in one year than the entire payroll of some teams — will not have any tears shed for him by anyone who covers baseball. You won’t hear it very often, if at all, but the essential reaction to this story is a firm “good riddance.” (ESPN.com)

Was Belle as crazy as he was because of steroid use? Hey, it was the 90′s, so everyone who played in the decade is a suspect to some degree (Cal Ripken fans just recoiled in horror). Maybe Belle needed the kinder, gentler type of juice that Sammy Sosa was on, because I don’t recall any stories of Sosa smashing a clubhouse thermostat to bits.

Getting back to that glorious Pinnacle card, I’m not so sure Belle didn’t explode at some point during that shoot. If you flip the card over, the bill of Brinkley’s kid appears to poke Belle in the eye. Who knows what kind of reaction that set off:

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