Day 14 of 30 baseball book reviews in 2021: Dave Parker snakes his way back into the conversation

“Cobra: A Life of Baseball And Brotherhood”

The author:
Dave Parker
and Dave Jordan

The publishing info:
University of Nebraska Press
480 pages
Released April 1, 2021

The links:
At the publisher’s website
At The Last Book Store in L.A.

The review in 90 feet or less

Let’s overthrow the cut-off man and cut to the chase here: Does Dave Parker and all his bad-assery belong in the Baseball Hall of Fame? Has he been unjustly wronged by having been overlooked during his 15-year eligibility that ended in 2000, and then coming up short in two subsequent special committees in 2017 and 2019?

How do we fix this? Or is the fix in?

Because if that’s not on the forefront of the reader’s mind as he ponders the impetus for this piping-hot and pleasantly plump Parker memoir landing with a thud 30 years after his retirement, then you’re not connecting dots.

Indulge us in creating a timeline on the life and times of the man they coolly called Cobra:

= June 9, 1951: Born in Grenada, Mississippi

= June 24, 1973: After three months at Triple-A Charleston, Parker tells the team “I’m out of here” – it’s either a promotion to the big league Pittsburgh Pirates or back home to Cincinnati. When Pirates outfielder Gene Clines is injured on July 10, Parker is brought up, but manager Bill Virdon says it will be a platoon, benching him against left-handers.

= July 12, 1973: About seventh months after the death of Roberto Clemente, the Pirates put 22-year-old Dave Parker into right field, batting leadoff in his major-league debut, as he goes 0-for-4 in the Pirates’ 4-0 win at San Diego. He finishes with a .288 average in 139 games. Three years later, he’s third in the NL MVP voting at age 24.

= 1978: With a league-leading .334 batting average (and a second straight batting title), a league-best .585 slugging percentage to go with 30 home runs and 117 RBIs, he wins the NL MVP award.

= January, 1979: Parker signs a $5 million, five-year contract, making him the first athlete in team sports to earn $1 million a season.

= July 17, 1979: All-Star Game Most Valuable Player in NL’s 7-6 win at Seattle, highlighted by Parker throwing out Jim Rice trying to stretch a double into a triple at third base in the seventh inning, and throwing out Brian Downing trying to score at home in the eighth inning to send the game into the ninth tied 6-6.

= April 2, 1984: After 11 years in Pittsburgh, where fans were more and more disenchanted with his abilities and playing condition, Parker lands with his hometown Cincinnati Reds, who sign him as a free agent to play under manager Pete Rose.

= Feb. 28, 1986: Parker is one of 11 players suspended, and seven handed a whole-season suspension, by commissioner Peter Ueberroth,  later exchanged for fines and community service. It stems from their involvement in testifying during the 1985 Pittsburgh drug trials, one of the game’s biggest scandals. Parker’s testimony in exchange for immunity led to the conviction of six Pittsburgh men for distributing cocaine. 

= Dec. 1987 to Sept, 1991: Traded to Oakland (a member of the Athletics’ 1988 ALCS champion team and ’89 World Series winners); signed as a free agent with Milwaukee, traded to the Angels for Dante Bichette; released by the Angels after 119 games, after he put up a .233 average with 11 homers and 56 RBIs as a DH, signed as a free agent with Toronto.

= Oct. 2, 1991: Final game is a 1-for-2 effort in the Blue Jays’ eventual 6-5 win at SkyDome against the Angels. After his sixth-inning double off Scott Bailes, the 40-year-old Parker is taken out for a pinch-runner.

His 19-year career totals: 2,712 hits, 339 homers, a .290 batting average, .810 OPS, 154 stolen bases, 40.1 WAR, three Gold Gloves (a league-best 26 assists from right field in 1977), seven All Star appearances, twice named Edgar Martinez Award for top AL DH, three World Series appearances, two championships.

= 1996: In his first year of eligibility for the Baseball Hall of Fame, he receives 85 votes (17.5 percent). The next year is his best result – 116 votes (24.5 percent). He topped 20 percent only one more time (1999) in his 15-year run that ends with 15.3 percent in 2010.

= 2017: One of the 10 candidates up for consideration for the Baseball Hall of Fame through a vote of the committee judging the Modern Era of Baseball (players whose greatest contributions came from 1970 to ’87). Jack Morris and Alan Trammel receive enough votes; Parker was listed among six who received fewer than seven votes. The voting panel consisted of executives Sandy Alderson, Dave Dombrowski, David Glass, Walt Jocketty, Doug Melvin and Terry Ryan, media members/historians Bill Center, Steve Hirdt, Jack O’Connell and Tracy Ringolsby, plus Hall of Fame players George Brett, Robin Yount, Rod Carew, Dennis Eckersley, Eddie Murray and Ozzie Smith.

= 2019: Again, in the pool of 10 considered for Hall induction by the Modern Era committee, Parker receives seven of 16 votes (43.75 percent), but is fourth best, trailing electees Ted Simmons and Marvin Miller. The same 16 voted on these 10 as they did on the 10 two years earlier. “I think it’s all political,” Parker says of the latest vote. “I’m the best damn player that they had in my era. I did all I could do.”

= April, 2021: “Cobra,” Parker’s memoir, is released.

= November, 2023: The next time Parker’s name comes up for consideration again by the Modern Era Committee.

And the discussion begins all over.

In 2017, a very cool website, The Hall of Very Good, made Parker one of its inductees under the headline that he has “always been a badass.” A man with a 6-foot-6, 230-pound-plus frame in one of those Pirates’ black and gold uniforms, and the pillbox hat, he was making a fashion statement without knowing it. He wore football faceguard bar on his helmet, then went to a hockey goalie mask during the 1978 season after a collision at home plate with the Mets’ John Stearns (above), something that resonated 30 years later with Paul Lukas at UniWatch/ESPN, calling Parker the first to wear a baseball/football hybrid contraption.

He was Superfly in baseball cleats, especially when wearing the custom-made T-shirt — “If you hear any noise it’s just me and the boys boppin’,” a paraphrasing of a lyric from Parliament’s 1975 jam “Mothership Connection.” The shirt seems to be back in circulation, along with an explanation of its origins.

He wore an earring when that was a little bit of going against the norms. He smoked in the dugout.

In 2019, as Parker’s career came up for scrutiny again, an MLB documentary came out called “The Cobra at Twilight,” chronicling his career and current battle with Parkinson’s disease. It led to Clinton Yates doing a piece for The Undefeated that asked if Parker will “ever get the recognition he deserves?” More published discussions about his credentials came on and A 2012 poll on got 80 percent (256 reader votes) support to “definitely put him in!” But Jay Jaffe’s well-regarded “Cooperstown Casebook” that came out in 2017 led him to a conclusion that it’s “an easy no” regarding a Parker plaque. Fangraphs explained how he comes up short as well “despite stardom and swagger.”

In one breath, he’s comparable to the careers of Hall of Famers like Tony Perez, Billy Williams, Andre Dawson and Harold Baines. Yet it also aligns as easily in a group with Rusty Staub, Fred Lynn, Cecil Cooper, Bernie Williams and Torii Hunter.

Now comes Dave Jordan, who in 2016 helped John D’Acquisto write his life story, asked to help Parker shape his own story in his own words.

Last month, when asked by Baseball By The Book podcast host Justin McGuire had Jordan on to talk about “Cobra,” he waited until the end of the discussion to finally ask about Parker’s Hall credentials. Said Jordan:

Dave Parker in my view possesses a holistic resume that surpasses the burden of proof for enshrinement in the Baseball Hall of Fame. It’s not just about his playing record. It’s about his contributions to other teams … people forget there are six criteria for the voting to the Hall of Fame. One is playing record. One is playing ability. One is the contributions to your ballclubs. If you think about the players he influenced later in his career — Barry Larkin, Eric Davis, Kal Daniels, the most underrated hitter of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Garry Sheffield, he was an influential player … If you listen to some of the Hall of Fame speeches, it’s not often you hear them talking about other players, Barry Larkin made sure Dave Parker sat up front to hear his speech. He made sure to let the entire crowd know what an influence Dave Parker was on him. Plus, his playing ability – he was the most talented player of the 1970s. He had pure ability. You have to take his statistical record, which almost gets him all the way there, and then you add his contributions to the teams he played on as well as his elite playing ability – I think that gets him over the border. And there’s others like that: Keith Hernandez, his playing record plus his broadcasting should get him in. Jim Kaat is another one. I think these guys with their holistic resumes should be considered a little more than they are right now.”

If all this completely overshadows that essence of what Parker wants to say in 400-plus pages, all things considered, that’s the only plausible reason why the book nearly weighing two pounds feels like more than 20 pounds as we pick it up off the desk to continue reading it. And why Parker’s presence in doing interviews for this will still make some star-struck.

As expected, Parker has plenty of damn cool stories to tell, and in a very charismatic and colorful way. No apologies or regrets. About what could have been without injuries, going back to when he thought his athletic talents were going to flourish with football at Ohio State. The language is candid and authentic; the drama is real. The memories are interesting to see what he was thinking and feeling at big moments in his career – and even as the book opens with him getting dressed up to testify to a federal jury in a case that would put a scarlet letter on his chest for all time.

He played hard, he lived hard, he beat cocaine, he powered through. He was flawed. He has things to tell – but not a tell-all sort of way to drag anyone else down. We learn more. Our empathy and revisionist history is tested.

So after wading through it from start to finish, do we have a new opinion, a new outlook, a better appreciation for what kind of teammate he was? Can we admire what Parker continues to do for Parkinson’s research with his foundation?

That’s up to whomever wants to add this book to their collection and let memories of the Cobra flow through your blood stream again. In this point of time in our nation’s history, it’s better to read and learn than stick to old stand-by reflexes.

How it goes in the scorebook

The 9-2 DP stands as much for a double play as it does to define Dave Parker, right on the money with another highlight-reel throw and could get Hall voters going back to the replay booth.

One review we liked came from Gerald Early, professor of English and chair of the African and African American Studies Department at Washington University in St. Louis, and a voice in Ken Burns “Baseball” documentary from long ago: “Dave Parker’s autobiography takes us back to the time when ballplayers still smoked cigarettes, when stadiums were multiuse mammoth bowls, when AstroTurf wrecked knees with abandon, and when Blacks had their largest presence on the field in the game’s history. Honest, informative, funny, sad, even at times touching, Parker’s book fills a major void about what a great Black ballplayer’s life was like in the 1970s and 1980s. I highly recommend it.”

More to cover

== Jordan talks to the Pandemic Baseball Book Club last November.

== Parker’s SABR biography by J.G. Preston begins:

How you remember Dave Parker depends largely on what you remember him for.
Do you remember him as one of the best players in the major leagues in the last half of the 1970s? The man who was the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 1978 and MVP of the All-Star Game in 1979? The man who played a key role on the Pittsburgh Pirates’ 1979 World Series champions?
Or do you remember him as the overweight, injury-prone drug user who was the target of anger and resentment from Pittsburgh fans in the early 1980s when his production dropped off after he signed what was at the time the most lucrative contract in baseball history? The man who testified at a high-profile 1985 trial in federal court about his cocaine use and as a result was sued by the Pirates for fraud?

== A link to Dave Parker’s foundation

== A 2020 look at Parker’s spectaular 1978 season by

== Dave Parker trivia note: Although July 12, ’73 marked his big-league debut, he’s actually included in a box score from April 21 of that year, a game played when he was in Triple-A. The Pirates’ contest that day against the Cubs at Wrigley Field was suspended by darkness on that date in the sixth inning. It didn’t resume until the Pirates came back to Chicago on July 26 – and at that point, Parker officially entered the game in the seventh and recorded a pinch-hit single to center.

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