What did a Topps baseball card photographer capture on a seemingly random day in the late 1970s when he aimed a camera at Steve Kemp? Was it just a mundane pre-game moment that was captured on film, or did that shot of a left-handed hitting Tigers outfielder waiting for a turn in the batting cage represent something more?
Gazing at the image that was chosen for Kemp’s 1979 card (number 196 in Topps’ 726-card set that year), it looks like he’s got something on his mind. It’s possible to imagine that he was thinking about how he could improve as a hitter. The Tigers’ number one pick in the January 1976 draft had put up respectable enough numbers in his first two years in the major leagues in 1977 and 1978, although neither season was particularly remarkable. Perhaps that’s why Topps chose to focus on Kemp’s college ball achievements on the back of that 1979 card.
Coming into 1979, Jason Thompson, another left-handed hitter, would have been considered the Tigers’ top young threat at the plate. Thompson, a month and a day older than Kemp, had gotten a one-year head start, but both had rapidly risen through the minors to reach Detroit. The Tigers were a rebuilding franchise in the late 1970s, and both players were thought to be a big part of the future. The Sporting News featured Thompson and Kemp on the cover of an April 1978 issue, calling them “Tiger Kingpins.” In his first two seasons, however, Kemp hadn’t been able to match Thompson’s level of production.
April 29, 1978: Jason Thompson & Steve Kemp appear on the cover of The Sporting News pic.twitter.com/n7qr405HtY
— Tigers History (@TigersHistory) April 29, 2019
Looking at the photo on that 1979 card again, although it looks like Kemp is deep in thought, there also seems to be a hint of calm determination in his expression. Maybe he was imagining that he was on the cusp of fulfilling his potential, ready to achieve a higher level of success. When that season’s Topps cards (with their elegantly clean and simple design) hit the stores, those first youngsters who pulled this card out of their wax packs couldn’t have realized just how successful that Steve Kemp was about to become.
Kemp began the 1979 season with an 8-game hitting streak. Six of his 15 hits in that streak, including an Opening Day home run at Tiger Stadium (off future Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins), went for extra bases. His early season heroics continued with a 10-game hitting streak that began on April 28. His longest hitless streaks all season long only lasted three games each. (There was one in June and one in September, but he still drew a total of five walks during those two “slumps.”) Thanks to a 5-hit game in a 14-5 rout of the White Sox on July 15, Kemp was able to go into the All-Star break with exactly 100 hits.
In his All-Star Game debut in Seattle, Kemp led off the fourth inning pinch hitting for Boston pitcher Bob Stanley. (Although the Kingdome was an American League stadium, there was no designated hitter used.) He lined out. After enjoying a couple days of relaxation, Kemp began the second half of the season with two home runs in a game in Minnesota on July 20. That was the first of three games in 1979 in which he went deep twice.
On August 7, the day Kemp turned 25, the Tigers played a doubleheader at home against the Rangers. In the first game, Kemp had only one hit, but it was a big one. The game was tied 1-1 going into the bottom of the ninth. Gladwin, Michigan, native Jim Kern walked Lou Whitaker to lead off the inning. Kemp then came up and hit the first walk-off home run of his career. In the nightcap, which the Tigers also won, he chipped in with two hits, two runs, and one RBI.
Kemp added some more doubleheader heroics on August 26 at Tiger Stadium against the Mariners. In the first game, he drove in Whitaker on a fielder’s choice to give the Tigers a 1-0 lead in the first inning. When the Mariners took a 3-1 lead, Kemp narrowed the gap with a solo home run in the sixth inning, which was followed by Jason Thompson’s game tying home run. The game went into extra innings, but not for very long. Kemp led off the tenth inning with his second homer of the game (and second walk-off long ball of the season). In the nightcap, his third home run of the day tied the game at 8-8 in the seventh inning. The Tigers would go on to win that one too.
— Tigers History (@TigersHistory) August 26, 2019
The 1979 season turned out to be a career year for Steve Kemp. He notched career highs in some of the traditional stats that were mainstays on the back of that era’s baseball cards: home runs (26), RBI (105), and batting average (.318). Digging deeper, he also had career highs in on-base percentage (.398), slugging percentage (.543), OPS (.941), OPS+ (149), total bases (266), and Wins Above Replacement (4.2). The Detroit chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America voted him Tiger of the Year, for what would be the only time in his career. After the season, Kemp (along with teammates Lance Parrish and Aurelio Lopez) played in Major League Baseball’s exhibition tour of Japan.
A few years ago, Kemp made an appearance at a West Michigan Whitecaps home game, and he autographed that 1979 Topps card for me that day.
Looking back, the photo on that card may have captured a mundane pre-game moment, but it does also represent more than that. It represents a moment in time when a player was able to take his game to a new level. It also represents a moment in time when a young kid in mid-Michigan discovered the joy of rooting for a baseball team. 1979 was the year that I became a Tigers fan, and Steve Kemp was my first favorite Tiger.
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Sebastian Oslund lives in Midland, Michigan, home of the Dodgers’ Low-A Great Lakes Loons, and enjoys seeing the West Michigan Whitecaps, the Tigers’ affiliate, come to town. He tweets at @P_Sebastian_Ozz.