I specifically remember getting a Tommy Helms card back in 1978 when I started collecting baseball cards.
I was 6 years old, a Red Sox fan and opening the world of who the players were and what the teams were. And when I would open a pack and find one of MY players from MY team, I got a rush. It was like being introduced to not only a friend, but like a member of the Super Friends.
If the card had a cursive Red Sox on the lower left hand corner, guess what? THIS WAS ONE OF MY GUYS!
Tommy Helms! Woo hoo!
Not long after getting this card in 1978, I learned that Tommy Helms was no longer on the Red Sox… despite the fact that I had the card that proved “Yes indeed he was.”
As I explained in the Frank Duffy entry from July, I was learning that the players on the cards did not always stay and Tommy Helms’ time with the Red Sox was “Blink and you will miss it” time.
He did indeed play with the Red Sox but very briefly in 1977, enough to get this card produced. It would be the final stop in a big league playing career. Twice in his baseball life he would miss being part of a Reds World Series winner, once as a player and once as a manager.
Tommy Vann Helms (a pretty cool full name if you ask me), was from North Carolina and joined the Reds in 1964 as a 23 year old. It was a good time to come of age in Cincinnati. He was surrounded by players like Frank Robinson and Pete Rose. Soon Tony Perez and Johnny Bench would be his teammates.
In 1966, he was named the National League Rookie of the Year. By 1967, Helms was holding his own with any member of the Reds team. He was a National League All Star in 1967 and 1968, batting .288 at a time when .301 earned you a batting title.
In 1970, Helms was a reliable starter on the Reds when they moved into a new ballpark, Riverfront Stadium, got a new manager, Sparky Anderson, and everything came together.
On May 27th, he got 4 hits in a game against San Diego. On July 1, he went 3 for 4 scoring 3 times in their win over the Braves. Down the stretch he had a 3 hit game over the defending World Champion Mets. The Reds would win the NL East and play in the second NLCS.
In the opener in Pittsburgh, he collected 2 hits and helped the Reds win 3-0. Cincinnati would sweep the Pirates and off they would go to the World Series. He started every game in the 5 game loss to Baltimore but Helms was a part of a Reds team who looked to dominate the decade.
They would do so without Helms. After the 1971 season, Helms would take his multiple All Star games and Gold Gloves to Houston. Lee May and Jim Stewart would join him in the deal that brought future Hall of Famer and MVP Joe Morgan to Cincinnati. Denis Menke, Ed Armbrister, Jack Billingham and Cesar Geronimo also came over to the Reds and the cast of the Big Red Machine was put into place.
As the Reds won the 1972 pennant and 1975 and 1976 World Series without him, Helms remained a regular player with the Astros and briefly with the Pirates.
The A’s, in total disarray after the 1976 season, purchased Helms contract from Pittsburgh but then traded him right back to the Pirates for a deal that included Mitchell Paige and Tony Armas.
The Pirates cut Helms in June and he was signed by the Red Sox to be a reserve infielder. In the end he was mainly used as a DH, only playing 3 of his 21 games for Boston in the field.
In a game against the Twins on August 27th, he homered, driving in 2. It would be his final big league homer. He failed to make the Red Sox out of spring training in 1978 and his playing career was over.
Helms returned to Cincinnati as a coach in the 1980’s and when Pete Rose was suspended in 1989, he took over as the team’s manager. It was a turbulent time for the franchise who saw the city’s favorite son removed from the game just 4 years after his greatest moment of passing Ty Cobb’s hit record.
Helms had some support of the team to take over as the full time manager in 1990 but Marge Schott fired him and went with Lou Piniella. It is difficult to argue with the results as the Reds won the 1990 World Series title, again without Helms.
After wards, Helms married for a second time and saw some of his sons and his nephew, Wes Helms, play professionally. He is part of both the Reds and the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame.
And one day in 1978, a young Sully opened a pack of cards and said “Yes! A Red Sox player! I will root for him.” Little did I know it was too late. His career was already over.