The photo on this 1973 Hickman card, ironically enough, was taken at Shea Stadium, home of Hickman's first major league team, the Mets. You can also see the 1972 jersey, the only Cub road jersey ever to have the uniform number in the center of the shirt, rather than offset to the left.
Profile by BCB reader Gregory
"Gentleman Jim" was a big, sturdy outfielder who was regarded as a powerful, though exasperatingly sporadic, hitter throughout the 1960s and early '70s. He was one of the infamous 1962 New York Mets, the expansion ballclub generally regarded as the worst team to ever take the field in the modern era of major league baseball, and although he had the first cycle and the first three-homer game in that franchise's history, Hickman's best days in baseball took place during his tenure with the Chicago Cubs.
Before that, though, Hickman and the Cubs crossed paths in a memorable 1963 game. Mets pitcher Roger Craig had pitched into the ninth inning of this August 9 game at the Polo Grounds, trying to break a personal 18-game losing streak, which was at the time the longest in NL history. With the game tied and the bases loaded, Hickman came up (note in the boxscore -- he hit leadoff and played 3B that day) and hit a grand slam off Lindy McDaniel to win the game for Craig, whose record became 3-20.
Hickman, born on May 10, 1937 in Henning, Tennessee, was a somewhat smaller (6'4", 205) and less extreme version of Adam Dunn. Like Dunn he was a poor fielder and a notoriously picky hitter who was prone to leave the bat on his shoulder for both ball fours and called third strikes. Throughout his career he was among the National League's leaders in both walks rate and strikeouts rate. And, like Dunn, he did not hit for average, ending his career with only a .252 batting average. But he was less prodigiously powerful than Dunn, and unlike Dunn he was a right-handed batter. This meant that Hickman's managers frequently felt no compunction about employing him as the more lightly-used half of a platoon or as a pinch-hitter.
Hickman broke his wrist in 1966, forcing him to miss most of the season and leading the Mets to no longer consider him to be a part of their long-range plans. They traded him to the Dodgers as part of the Tommy Davis deal that off-season. He languished in L.A., hitting only .163 in 1967; his lone highlight that season came when Dodgers manager Walter Alston put him on the mound for two innings to finish out a rout.
He came to the Cubs on April 23, 1968, along with reliever Phil "The Vulture" Regan, in exchange for light-hitting outfielder Ted Savage and minor-league pitcher Jim Ellis. It was to be one of the cannier trades of the late sixties for the Cubs, who immediately made Regan their highly-successful closer. Hickman remained a mere bench player, hitting only .223 with five homers in 75 games. However, Cubs manager Leo Durocher made Hickman the team's primary rightfielder in spring training of 1969, and he would go on to play a career-high 118 games there that year. Left-handed hitter Al Spangler would start in his place when tougher right-handed pitchers took the mound against the Cubs. Hickman still hit only .237, but his 21 homers in 338 at-bats and his patience at the plate helped him reach a slightly-above-average .793 OPS. More importantly, he came through and raised his game while his teammates faltered late in that star-crossed season. Although he was only hitting .216 at the beginning of August, he went on to bat .315 that month with ten homers and 25 RBI. Alas, he couldn't carry the team by himself, and as everybody knows Hickman's former Mets teammates caught and passed the Cubs and went on to win the pennant and the World Series.
The following year, playing every day (mostly at first base instead of the aging Ernie Banks, but frequently in centerfield or rightfield as well), Hickman put together a year far beyond any he had before or after. He batted .315, a full 63 points above his career average and 43 points better than any other season in his career, and slugged 32 homers. His 115 RBI and 13 game-winning hits also eclipsed by a mile anything he would ever achieve in those categories throughout his career. Hickman would go on to finish in the top ten in numerous NL hitting categories, wind up eighth in MVP balloting, and make the only All-Star team of his major-league career. In that All-Star game Hickman had a minor role in one of baseball's most memorable moments; he was the National Leaguer whose single drove in the winning run in the twelfth inning in the person of Pete Rose, whose full-speed crash into AL catcher Ray Fosse at the plate sent the latter into the hospital and ruined a budding superstar. He even had an exciting two-run walkoff homer against the Pirates on May 28, lifting the Cubs to victory in a game where they came from behind three different times.
Whatever magic elixir Hickman had used in that standout 1970 season wore off by the next spring. He slumped to .256-19-60, and was once again used by Durocher in only about two out of every three games. The same scenario held true in 1972, in which Hickman posted .272-17-64 numbers. His power abandoned him in 1973, as he hit only three homers in 201 at-bats. He was dealt to St. Louis in spring training of 1974 for the uniquely-named pitcher Scipio Spinks, and after a half-season of undistinguished work as a pinch-hitter was released by the Cardinals and announced his retirement.
Hickman was a journeyman. But for one year he was a giant on the North Side and captured the imagination of Cubs Nation.