George “Specs” Toporcer

George “Specs” Toporcer played eight seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals from 1921-28, helping the franchise capture its first World Series championship in 1926 and becoming the first major league infielder to wear glasses in a game. A talented utility infielder and pinch hitter, Specs Toporcer served as the backup second baseman to two future Hall of Famers in Rogers Hornsby and Frankie Frisch.

Toporcer was born in the Yorkville section of New York City on February 9, 1899, where he and actor James Cagney played sandlot ball as boys. As Toporcer described it, “The kids in that area weren’t born with silver spoons in their mouths and you had to be able to take it as well as dish it out. Street fights and gang wars were common occurrences, (and) playgrounds and recreational facilities few and far between.”[1]

As a 13-year-old, Toporcer worked in the back room of a saloon, posting major league scores on a huge blackboard. During the World Series, he read the action out to a small crowd directly from the ticker tape. For these duties, he was paid 50 cents per week and all the liverwurst and crackers he could eat.[2]

Toporcer’s father had invented a spring arch support but had failed to make it a successful business. When his father passed away, one of Toporcer’s brothers inherited the company and Toporcer went to work for him, putting away his dream of becoming the first in his family to attend high school. Admittedly, Toporcer’s primary attraction to high school was the thought of playing sports, particularly baseball.[3]

Fortunately, Toporcer’s brother was an easygoing boss, granting him time off to attend New York Giants games and to practice baseball. Toporcer organized a local team, and his mother collected enough soap wrappers to get him his own glove from the soap company.[4] Toporcer played well enough to be invited to join the East New York semi-pro club in Brooklyn, where he led the club with a .421 batting average.[5]

Toporcer and East New York couldn’t agree on a salary the following season (they offered $400 and he asked for $650), so instead he played for another Brooklyn team, St. Agatha, while also playing for the meat packing company Wilson & Co. That June, Ernie Landgraf, owner of the Syracuse team in the International League, invited Toporcer to try out. However, when Toporcer arrived, he was informed that St. Agatha had heard about it and would cause trouble if Toporcer left to play for Syracuse.

As Toporcer described it in 1952, “what seemed a bad break turned out to be a blessing in disguise.” Unbeknownst to Toporcer, his mother had fallen seriously ill. Instead of playing baseball that summer, he stayed by her side until she passed away a month later. “It has always been a source of great satisfaction to me that I did not leave but was with her when the end came,” he later wrote.[6]

In 1920, Toporcer decided not to return to St. Agatha. Instead, he played for the Orange A.A. team of Orange, N.J. At an exhibition game in Newark, Landgraf again approached Toporcer and soon signed him. Shortly thereafter, Landgraf signed an agreement between his Syracuse club and the Cardinals, and Toporcer, still fresh from the New Jersey sandlots, was invited to the Cardinals’ training camp.

On his first day in camp, Toporcer met Cardinals star Rogers Hornsby, who by that time already had established himself as the National League’s premier hitter. Though Hornsby had a reputation for keeping to himself, Toporcer said that Hornsby took him under his wing.

“To have this great star single me out was a great thrill and I was always grateful for this gesture on his part,” Toporcer wrote.[7]

Third baseman Milton Stock held out during spring training, allowing Hornsby to move to third base during the Cardinals’ preseason schedule, but Stock returned for the Cardinals’ opener. To keep Toporcer in the lineup, Hornsby moved to left field and Toporcer started at second.

On April 13, 1921, Toporcer appeared in the Cardinals’ season opener against the Chicago Cubs, making him one of the few to jump directly from sandlot baseball to major league baseball without first playing college or minor-league baseball. Though the Cardinals lost, 5-2, Toporcer went 1-for-3, becoming the first major league infielder to play with glasses.

Toporcer’s appearance with the Cardinals shattered a longstanding baseball norm. As author John J. Ward wrote in the October 1924 issue of Baseball Magazine, “To be sure, eyeglasses had long been recognized as a useful invention. They had their place in the home, in the office, in various occupations. But on the ball field they were impossible.”

In the same article, Toporcer explained, “Eyeglasses have to be cleaned fairly often, particularly on a hot day. But handkerchiefs are cheap and easily obtained. Really, I can see no excuse for the prejudice against eyeglassed ball players and wouldn’t be in the least surprised to see many players wearing glasses in the next few years.”[8]

The experiment to move Hornsby into the outfield lasted just a few games. By the end of July, Toporcer was batting .264 in just 53 at-bats and was optioned to Syracuse. His stay there lasted just 21 games – during which time he batted .338. When he returned to the Cardinals to end the season, he assumed the utility role he would fill for bulk of his career.

In 1922, Toporcer played in a career-high 116 games, including 91 at shortstop. In 392 plate appearances, he hit a career-high .324 with 25 doubles, six triples, three homers, and 36 RBIs. Though his average dropped to .254 in 1923, Toporcer eclipsed .300 again in 1924, batting .313 in 216 plate appearances in 1924.

In 1926, with Tommy Thevenow installed at shortstop, Toporcer appeared in 64 games as a utility infielder and pinch hitter. Though Toporcer’s batting average dipped to .250, he led the National League with a .409 batting average as a pinch hitter.

In the Cardinals’ pennant-clinching win over the New York Giants on September 24, Toporcer pinch-hit for pitcher Flint Rhem in the top of the second. With runners on second and third, Toporcer hit a line drive double that tied the score, 3-3, then scored on a two-out home run by Billy Southworth that gave the Cardinals the lead for good.

Despite a relatively down year for Hornsby, who needed a badly infected carbuncle removed from his thigh in late June, the Cardinals won the franchise’s first world championship, defeating Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and the New York Yankees in a seven-game World Series. Toporcer’s only appearance came in Game 4, when he entered as a pinch hitter for Rhem in the fourth inning. Thevenow had just hit an RBI double to cut the Yankees’ lead to 3-2. With Thevenow on second and Bob O’Farrell on third, Toporcer hit a sacrifice fly to center field to tie the game. The Yankees went on to win the game 10-5, powered by three Ruth home runs.

After the 1926 season, the Cardinals traded Hornsby to the Giants for Frankie Frisch, another future Hall of Fame second baseman. As a result, Toporcer remained a utility player and one of the league’s top pinch hitters throughout his Cardinals career.

“I have always felt that my major league playing career would have been much longer had I been fortunate enough to be with a club with which I could have had a chance to play second regularly,” Toporcer wrote, pointing to his two seasons with batting averages above .300. “I grew sulky at times, though always giving my best. My feeling of disappointment was heightened by the knowledge that several other clubs in the league, notably Brooklyn, Boston, and Philadelphia, were interested in acquiring me.”[9]

In June 1928, Toporcer was with the team in Boston when he received a telegram from Branch Rickey informing him that he had been optioned to the Rochester Red Wings of the International League. Toporcer returned to his hotel room and spent an hour alone, absorbing the news. With the realization that he would get regular playing time after years of part-time play had eroded his batting skills, Toporcer emerged “almost cheerful.”[10]

After 546 games, Toporcer’s major league career ended with a .279 career batting average and .347 on-base percentage. Never much of a power hitter, he totaled nine home runs, 151 RBIs, and 22 stolen bases over eight seasons. In 1975, St. Louis Post-Dispatch sports editor Bob Broeg asked Toporcer what he would do differently if he had to do it all over again.

“I’d ask only for a stronger arm so I could have played shortstop better, because then I think I might have had a long major league career,” he said. “But I didn’t have a shortstop’s arm, and I lost out at second base to two great ones, Hornsby and Frisch.”[11]

Toporcer’s minor league career was longer than his time with the Cardinals. Under Southworth’s leadership as player-manager, and with Toporcer teaming with shortstop prospect Charlie Gelbert at the keystone, the Red Wings won the 1928 Independent League pennant, the first of four consecutive titles. In 1929, Toporcer teamed with first baseman Rip Collins, shortstop Heinie Sand, and third baseman Joe Brown to set a record with 223 double plays. Toporcer was named the league MVP in 1929 and 1930, and in 1931 became a player-manager for Jersey City. Due to financial problems, however, the team sold his contract back to Rochester in mid-season.

In 1932, with Southworth headed to manage the Cardinals’ Columbus affiliate, Toporcer was named Rochester’s manager. Toporcer managed the club through 1934, serving as manager to future Hall of Famer Johnny Mize in 1933. In 1935, he left the Cardinals organization and continued his playing and managing career with the Red Sox affiliates in Syracuse; Rocky Mount, North Carolina; and Hazleton, Pennsylvania; and the Pirates’ affiliate in Albany, New York, where he served as Ralph Kiner’s first manager.

Toporcer served as the Red Sox farm director for five years, beginning in 1943, then spent two years as field director for the White Sox. In 1945, Toporcer suffered the deepest tragedy of his life when his son Bob, who was himself an outstanding athlete at Rochester Prep, passed away from cancer at age 16.[12]

Two years later, Toporcer began to experience blurry vision in his left eye. He was diagnosed with a detached retina, and after two unsuccessful surgeries, he lost vision in the eye in 1948.

In 1951, Toporcer felt the itch to manage again and took a job with Buffalo of the Independent League. The 1952 season proved to be his last in professional baseball, as his right eye began to experience the same symptoms he experienced in his left four years earlier. Despite three operations to attempt to address the issue, Toporcer was left completely blind.

With the assistance of his wife Mabel, Toporcer became an ambassador for the sport, accepting public speaking opportunities across the country and publishing From Backlots to Big Leagues, a book that blended autobiographical details and baseball instruction. In the years to come, Toporcer was inducted into the International League and Rochester Sports halls of fame, and was named Bluebook Magazine’s first Man of the Year Award winner in 1953.

Gabe Paul, general manager of the Cincinnati Reds, said that Toporcer deserved to be one of baseball’s most celebrated stars, noting that he “overcame more handicaps – poor eyesight, a frail body, and other things – than any other major league player in baseball history.

“The others were endowed with that tremendous natural ability and didn’t have to work like Toporcer did. Yet, he became a major league star and today, speaking strictly on his record, he must be rated as the greatest second baseman in International League history.”[13]

At the Boston Writers’ Dinner in 1952, Toporcer expressed appreciation for the opportunities baseball had given him.

“I feel I’ve been pretty fortunate because I made good in a modest way,” he said. “I was a skinny kid with glasses and made the major leagues.”[14]

On May 17, 1989, Toporcer passed away at age 90 after falling down a basement staircase at his home in Huntington Station, New York. His wife, Madeline; brother, William; and five grandchildren survived him.[15]

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[1] George (Specs) Toporcer, “Toporcer, Blind, Tells of Struggles,” The Sporting News, February 27, 1952: Page 3.

[2] George (Specs) Toporcer, “Toporcer, Blind, Tells of Struggles,” The Sporting News, February 27, 1952: Page 3.

[3] George (Specs) Toporcer, “Toporcer, Blind, Tells of Struggles,” The Sporting News, February 27, 1952: Page 3.

[4] George (Specs) Toporcer, “Toporcer, Blind, Tells of Struggles,” The Sporting News, February 27, 1952: Page 3.

[5] George (Specs) Toporcer, “Toporcer, Blind, Tells of Struggles,” The Sporting News, February 27, 1952: Page 3.

[6] George (Specs) Toporcer, “Toporcer, Blind, Tells of Struggles,” The Sporting News, February 27, 1952: Page 4.

[7] George (Specs) Toporcer, “Sandlotter Specs’ Leap to Majors,” The Sporting News, March 5, 1952: Page 11.

[8] John J. Ward, “Why Shouldn’t Ball Players Wear Glasses,” Baseball Magazine, October 1952.

[9] George (Specs) Toporcer, “Sandlotter Specs’ Leap to Majors,” The Sporting News, March 5, 1952: Page 12.

[10] George (Specs) Toporcer, “From Star to Pilot … Lights Out,” The Sporting News, March 12, 1952: Page 15.

[11] Bob Broeg, “Toporcer Is a Sharp Observer,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 29, 1975.

[12] Hap Glaudi, “He Lost His Son, His Sight; But He Lost Not His God,” New Orleans Item, February 14, 1952, Page 22.

[13] “Specs must be ranked with baseball’s greats, Cincy boss says here,” Buffalo Evening News, June 24, 1952.

[14] Bob Ajemian, “Toporcer Gets Big Hand at Boston Writers’ Dinner,” The Sporting News, February 13, 1952: Page 17.

[15] “Ex-Card ‘Specs’ Toporcer Dies,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 19 May 1989: Page C5.