Dave Parker was destined for greatness but he always found his own way through the shadows and light.
Two things you should know about Dave Parker — 1) He was a truly great baseball player, and 2) he knows he could have been greater.
He was a player so feared, both offensively and defensively, that he was nicknamed “Cobra” for the way he could strike a crippling blow to an opponent at any time. Arguing that he didn’t reach his own ceiling likely sounds overly confident to the outsider who didn’t watch him as one of the single greatest players in Major League Baseball in the ‘70s. But for those familiar with the details, Parker is telling the truth.
Despite an already legitimate argument for Hall of Fame enshrinement, Parker should have an even stronger resume.
Dave Parker was ready to impress right from the start
The shadows would have swallowed any other man.
In 1973, the year Parker made his big league debut, Major League Baseball was still reeling from the tragic news that Pittsburgh Pirates right fielder Roberto Clemente had perished in a plane crash trying to deliver much-needed aid to Nicaragua on New Year’s Eve. The loss was so overwhelming that the Baseball Hall of Fame inducted Clemente the following year in a special election.
Just like that, the Pirates franchise had lost their most popular player, a 15-time All-Star and former MVP who was known for his bat, his arm and his charm. The idea of someone else occupying right field in Three Rivers Stadium felt absurd. For Parker, he was unphased by the challenge.
“I was already great,” said Parker in an interview promoting his new autobiography Cobra: A Life of Baseball and Brotherhood, co-written with Dave Jordan. “I just needed a format to be great on.”
As a three-sport star at Cincinnati’s Courter Tech High School, Parker knew early in his athletic career that he was destined for greatness.
“I should have been in the big leagues at 19, but I was already in an organization that had so many outfielders. But I feel like I could have played at 19. Being great is something I had in my mind coming out of high school and it was something I wanted to be. I’d already put it in my format for my future and I applied it to the way I played.”
As a teenager, Parker even held out hopes of being a multi-sport star and dreamed of playing running back at Ohio State.
“Back in the day when I hurt my knee, that was basically the end of my football career. They didn’t have the technology to fix the knee back in my day. I would have tried two. I could have tried three. But I would have tried football and baseball.”
In other words, the shadows were not going to be a problem.
Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images
The hardware is all there, proof positive of a celebrated MLB career, decades after Parker called it quits. “I got a trophy case full of stuff,” says Parker.
There’s the Most Valuable Player Award from 1978, a season in which Parker won his second consecutive batting title with a .334 average but also led the Majors in slugging with an incredible .585 clip. He had an MLB-leading 340 total bases that season powered by his incredible blend of strength and speed — 30 home runs, 12 triples, and 20 stolen bases.
Parker’s proverbial trophy case also features seven All-Star game selections (including an All-Star MVP award in ’79), three Silver Slugger awards, and six top-10 appearances in league MVP voting.
And let’s not forget the fact that Parker was just as feared in the field as he was at the plate. His cannon of an arm in right field was the best of a generation, earning him three Gold Glove awards. For some perspective, Parker’s league-leading 26 outfield assists in 1977 is the highest total in the last 56 years. On top of that, Parker won two World Series titles, one with the Pirates in 1979 and another 10 years later with the Oakland Athletics (1989).
“Full of stuff” sounds accurate.
Dave Parker’s prodigious resume could have been even stronger
Dave Parker has never shied away from the truth of his mid-career cocaine habit, one that robbed him of the rounded-off numbers that would make him an automatic induction in Canton.
Instead of continuing his dominance from the late ‘70s into the early ‘80s, Parker’s drug abuse began to take hold in the form of weight gain and injuries that stalled multiple seasons of his 19-year career right in the midst of his prime. By 1985, Parker would eventually earn a year-long suspension (that was later commuted in exchange for fines and community service) after he testified about his habit in the famous Pittsburgh drug trials.
Yet his talent would not be denied, and it wasn’t long before Parker was once again a dominant force at the plate — this time for the Cincinnati Reds. Despite nearly a half-decade of diminished performance and personal drama, Parker’s presence would once again become a vital asset for franchises like the Reds and A’s in his late-career resurgence.
“I was fundamentally sound,” says Parker when asked about his longevity. “These guys are not fundamentally sound these days. I see guys throwing to the wrong base or hitting the cut-off man when they shouldn’t. They’re not as fundamentally sound as we were as players. It’s just a different animal now.”
It’s his ability to keep producing so late in his career, over the course of an incredible 19 big league seasons, that Parker treasures. In fact, the most overlooked awards earned in two decades of Major League service are the ones that mean the most to him.
“Winning DH of the year back-to-back means a lot to me and that’s something they don’t talk about,” says Parker. “I was 39 and 40 years old winning DH of the year. That’s something that’s not mentioned very much, and that’s something that I hold as a treasure. I mean, I’m 39 and 40 and they had guys a lot younger than me who weren’t as productive as me.”
More than any personal accolades, however, Parker says the team achievements are the ones that mean the most.
“The ones I hold closest to me are the ones I did collectively with other players, like winning two World Series was something that I enjoyed. It was something I did with people I cared a lot about. With Willie Stargell, we wanted to win a Series together and we finally did that in ’79. Being with Dave Stewart and Tony LaRussa in Oakland, they brought me in as one of those final pieces of the puzzle to be a world champ. So all those things are things I hold close to me.”
Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images
To his credit, Parker did as much as he could to help those younger guys in much the same way that Pirates legends helped him adjust to life at the pro level. He credits Hall of Fame 1B/OF Willie Stargell for modeling the right approach to the game for him.
“It was passed down to me from Stargell,” says Parker. “He was my mentor and he showed me how to be a big leaguer, so it was something I inherited from him and passed down myself.
“All you had to do was watch Willie and you would know what to do. If you wanted to be a good player, you just followed Stargell in this league. All I had to do was follow him around and I’d pick up key points and things I needed to do in certain situations.”
While Parker was on the receiving end through the first half of his career in the ‘70s during those celebrated years in Pittsburgh, his experiences in the middle of his career gave him a perspective to shepherd others on the other side. Specifically, when the Reds gave him a chance as a free agent signing, he had a chance to impact a couple of young phenoms with Hall of Fame talent themselves.
“When you’re older, you want to extend yourself to younger players, and I did that and it all came from being mentored by Stargell. He was the key and was the reason I got into passing it down to younger players — guys who I played with in my latter years and helped like Eric Davis, Barry Larkin, Gary Sheffield, Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire. All those guys hold a place in my memory.”
Parker does admit those relationships weren’t merely one-sided, however. They might have enjoyed his mentorship, but Parker admits, “I utilized those guys to keep me young. I was in my late 30s and early 40s so they were inspirational to me.”
Dave Parker isn’t letting any more opportunities slip by
Even after 19 years, Dave Parker wasn’t ready to quit.
In 1991, the California Angels signed Parker to serve as their designated hitter after he made the All-Star team with the Milwaukee Brewers the previous season. Parker would end the season with the Toronto Blue Jays after being released and signed near season’s end. From there, teams simply stopped calling. Just like that, the proverbial well ran dry.
“Baseball made my decision for me,” says Parker. “I couldn’t get a job. I was a little surprised because I had those back-to-back DH of the year awards. I was also instrumental to organizations utilizing me as a mentor to the younger players. I was surprised.”
From there, Parker says he moved quickly to find something competitive to occupy his time. “After that, I tried to pick up golf. I played golf every day for 20 years. I just tried to find something else that would fill that gap — something competitive, something fulfilling in that gap. You can compete against the course and fill that need.”
Eight years ago, in an interview with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Parker went public with the news that, at the age of 62, he’d been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease one year prior. Yet Parker was determined not to allow this shadow to overwhelm him either. Instead, he was determined to use his platform to raise awareness and advocacy for the neurological disease.
In the last several years, the Dave Parker 39 Foundation has raised significant funds for Parkinson’s research via charitable events and their own shop. Even during a year limited by COVID-19, Parker was still busy with Cobra 39. “We raised $45,000 doing a golf tournament last September, so I’m still out there raising awareness for Parkinson’s,” he says.
In the meantime, Parker has also dreamed of sharing his story in the form of a book for quite some time. “I’ve been trying to get a book together for about 40 years,” he says with a laugh. “It’s something I have been thinking about for a long time and just got around to finding the right pieces and putting them all together.
“It’s been great to show the world what Dave Parker was all about during his playing career. It’s been a thrill pulling up memories that I played with, guys who I still keep in touch with, the fellowship that was established when I was a player. It’s been great.”