Bert Blyleven was born in Zeist, Netherlands and moved to the United States as a young boy.
Raised in Southern California, he was introduced to baseball when his father took him to see Sandy Koufax pitch for the famed Los Angeles Dodgers. Dad also constructed a pitching mound and makeshift backstop for Blyleven to practice in the family's backyard.
All the hard work and dedication paid off as Blyleven was drafted by the Minnesota Twins in the third round of the 1969 draft and wasted no time making an impact in the big leagues, becoming the youngest pitcher in the majors when he was called up in June of 1970. He shined early on and was named AL Rookie Pitcher of the Year by the Sporting News.
Blyleven's curveball was considered the nastiest and most effective of the era and he was one of the most durable right-handers in baseball history. Over a 22-year career, he had 3,700 strikeouts, the third most in history, 287 wins, 60 shutouts and 242 complete games. The two-time All-Star won the World Series with the 1979 Pirates and the 1987 Twins. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2011.
In this exclusive interview with SCD’s Tony Reid, Blyleven talks about his 1971 Topps rookie card, his collection of complete sets and the memorable fans in Minnesota.
The autograph experience is special between players and collectors. When were you first asked for your signature as a ballplayer?
Oh, boy. I came up at a young age. In 1969 when I signed, they didn’t make baseball cards of minor league players. I got called up in 1970 and they still didn’t take a picture of me even though I went to Spring Training. … I ended coming up to the big leagues in June, so my first baseball card was not until 1971.
I think the first cards I signed I saved for myself, the ones I was able to get my hands on. I kept them and I still have them today. What my wife and I do, on my website, bertblyleven.com, we raise money for Parkinson’s. My dad passed away from Parkinson’s many years ago. He battled it forever. We help raise money for different charities, including St. Jude’s, through the opportunity to get an autograph from myself and other items on our website.
You spoke of the classic 1971 Topps rookie card. Do you remember seeing your rookie card for the first time?
As a kid you have baseball cards. I remember going down to the old liquor store and for a couple of dimes you could get a pack of cards. I wanted the bubble gum that came along with it. You put the cards in the spokes of your tires, and you ride away and make a noise. I don’t know who I put in the spokes. It could have been a Babe Ruth or Mickey Mantle card. Once I got a little bit older, I started to keep baseball cards. I have complete sets going all the way back to 1971. I’ll look to do something with those someday.
When was it exactly that you became a more serious collector?
When my kids started collecting cards. When I first came up, I didn’t collect a lot of them. I think we started when my oldest son, Todd, started to get into baseball. One time we were in the car together. He must have been 7 or 8 and he said, ‘Dad, do you know Carlton Fisk had 27 home runs’ in a certain year. I had no idea. I wondered how he remembered that. When I got home, I looked at the back of his card and, sure enough, he hit the amount of home runs my son mentioned. So, they were very educational cards, too. They are good for kids to read the back. If you like numbers, that’s what the cards are all about, which I have always enjoyed.
You were inspired by Sandy Koufax as a young kid. Were there other players that inspired you growing up?
I came up at a very young age. I had just turned 19 years old. … The first time I went home, I grew up in Southern California in Anaheim, maybe 10 minutes from the ballpark, I had the opportunity through my pitching coach to sit and talk to Don Drysdale. I loved keeping score with my Little League scorecard when Koufax and Drysdale pitched because of all the strikeouts they were able to get over their careers. Now I get to sit in the dugout in Anaheim and listen to Don Drysdale talk pitching for about 15-20 minutes to me. It is something I cherished throughout my career. The late Don Drysdale was a big, intimidating man out on that mound, but he was such a nice man to me. I really appreciated that. He helped me become the pitcher I became because of his aggressiveness and the way he went about his life.
What is your most memorable fan interaction over the course of your career?
Probably in 1987 when we defeated Detroit to go to the World Series. We had won Game 5 in a seven-game series in Detroit. On the way home, they informed us on the airplane that they wanted to bus us to the Metrodome, and they wanted to open it up to season ticket holders. It was 11 at night. We said sure. We would love to go.
We were celebrating and having a great time. By the time that we got to the Metrodome at 11:30 there were about 55,000 people. That place was packed. They just wanted to wish us luck in the World Series. Fans think they don’t have anything to do with the players out on the field. Yes, they do. In 1987 we won the first two games at the Metrodome. We lost three straight in St. Louis and we came home and won Game 6 and Game 7 mainly because we had the 10th player on the field and that was the fans in Minnesota. Any time you can get the home-field advantage, that’s a big part of winning.
With all your accolades and accomplishments, do you have an area of your house where you have memorabilia displayed?
Actually, I’m talking to you in my little office here in Fort Myers, Fla. One thing I do have is a baseball from each one of my wins. You win your first Major League game and you keep that ball. One thing led to another. I have 287 wins along with my World Series wins. Then, as I went up the strikeout ladder with my 3,000th strikeout ball and when I started passing guys like Walter Johnson, Tom Seaver and Gaylord Perry, I got those balls and kept them. It’s kind of cool.
When I was inducted into the Hall of Fame, I have the jersey that I wore at the induction with a big picture. My wife has six of my gloves in a shadowbox, from my first Rawlings glove that I used in 1970 all the way to 1992 for the last year that I wore with the Angels. That was cool that she did that.
Do you have a favorite card of your own from your career?
The latter part of my career I was pitching to the kids in a father/kid game in Anaheim. There is a card, it had to be 1989, 1990 or maybe 1991. I am holding a beach ball. I have a big smile on my face because of the kids hitting the ball around. I got to pitch to them. I like that card a lot.
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