Original Publish Date March 17, 2022
Looks like Major League baseball is on again. Right now, diehard hardball fans are on their knees thanking the baseball Gods that this Billionaires versus Millionaires battle is over and the season is set to start. I usually try and write a baseball article every Spring to kinda kick the season off and get my head on straight. But this year, since baseball fans are all “prayed out”, I thought it might be appropriate to write a story with a religious tint: The San Diego Padres God Squad versus Topps Garbage Pail Kids.
The Padres became a Major League franchise in 1969, but the namesake team was in existence long before then. The Padres’ first season came in 1936 in the Pacific Coast League after Hollywood Stars owner Bill Lane opted to move his team to San Diego. Lane built a stadium on the waterfront in downtown San Diego and gave birth to a new team that would carry its moniker to the Major Leagues and into the 21st century.
The “Padres” name is a tribute to the city’s history. It was the Franciscan Friars who founded the first Spanish colony in southern California. “Padre,” of course, is Spanish for “Father” (or “Friar”). Their mascot is the “Swinging Friar,” a sandal-clad Padre swinging a bat. They were known as the perennial cellar-dwelling team that often traded away their best players for little in return. That all changed in 1985. The 1986 defending National League champion Padres, led by manager Dick Williams, were coming off the best season in franchise history. The Padres’ gregarious owner, McDonald’s magnate Ray Kroc, had died the previous year.
The Topps Trading Card Company, Inc. (founded in 1938) was best known as the leading producer of American football, baseball, basketball, ice hockey, soccer, and other sports and non-sports-themed trading cards. After being privately held for several decades, Topps offered stock to the public for the first time in 1972. The company returned to private ownership in 1984 when it was acquired in a leveraged buyout led by Forstmann, Little & Company, a private equity firm specializing in leveraged buyouts.
Although both the Padres and Topps were hopeful about the upcoming season, things were about to come to a head between the two entities. The Padres were led by a group of young idealistic pitchers whose strong Christian faith would earn them the nickname of “The God Squad.” The pitchers were Eric Show, Mark Thurmond, and Dave Dravecky and together they comprised three-fifths of the Padres’ starting rotation. Their strong religious ideology, coupled with their even stronger anti-Communist leanings, made them the darlings of organized religion, the John Birch Society, and local media.
Press conferences in the Padres clubhouse often devolved into a discourse on political conservatism and a lecture on the evils of Capitalism. The Padres pitchers were proud members of the John Birch Society, a right-wing group that had become infamous in the ’60s by warning of communist infiltration of America. By the time of its resurgence in the Padres locker room, they were viewed as a fringe group and these Padres hurlers as fringees spouting political dogma.
Once these pitchers’ quotes were published in newspaper stories and columns, they began to creep across the entire country. The reaction was electric, like the first time Colin Kaepernick took a knee on the sideline. The most vocal of the “God Squad” Padres was 28-year-old Eric Show, the team leader in victories. In 1984 Show was Birching (the society’s word for political evangelizing) all the way through the Padres’ run to the World Series.
Show, a skinny pitcher with a prominent mustache, resented the stereotype that baseball players should be unthinking robot athletes. In the Birch Society’s New American magazine, he listed his hobbies as “philosophy, history, economics, astronomy, real estate, political affairs, business management — and, of course, God.” Show was a good pitcher (he is still the Padres’ all-time wins leader with 100), known for his fastball and his slider.
28-year-old Dave Dravecky went from the team’s best middle-reliever with 9 wins in 1984 to a 13-game winner in the starting rotation in 1985. Dravecky became a born-again Christian while playing Double-A ball in Amarillo, Texas in 1981. Padres players regarded him as an ideal teammate and moral conscience of the clubhouse . One teammate described Dravecky as having angel wings. Dravecky once told a reporter: “I think if Jesus Christ were in my shoes, he’d be one of the most aggressive pitchers around.”
Mark Thurmond, 27, a second-year pitcher out of Texas A&M, was definitely the quietest of the trio. Thurmond flip-flopped with Dravecky over those two seasons, winning 14 games as a starter in 1984 then moving to middle-reliever where he won 7 games the next year. In August of 1984, Thurmond, Show, and Dravecky were guests of honor at a giant “anti-sin” rally that took aim at abortion and homosexuality in San Diego. Most members of the Padres were content to ignore their teammates’ views on religion and politics. And in a baseball desert-like San Diego, fans didn’t seem to mind as long as they could hang on to that World Series appearance from the year before.
Instead, in 1985, baseball fans and players alike found a common nuisance to rally against. For that was the year that the Topps company came out with their Garbage Pail Kids cards. Cards is a misnomer though. Garbage Pail Kids was a series of sticker trading cards originally created to parody the wildly popular Cabbage Patch Kids dolls from the same era. Each sticker card featured a Garbage Pail Kid character having some comical abnormality, deformity, and/or suffering a terrible painful fate/death with a humorous wordplay character name such as Adam Bomb or Blasted Billy. Collectors will recall the card backs that featured puzzle pieces that together form comic murals, humorous licenses, awards, and comic strips.
Garbage Pail Kids characters, with names like Luke Puke, Slobby Robbie, Oozy Susie, Fat Matt, and Messy Tessie, were the talk of the schoolyard in the mid-1980s. During those first couple of years, Topps exercised restraint by holding back a few cards deemed too offensive to distribute. One reject was of a baby in a pickle jar; another, of a kid receiving Garbage Pail Kids cards like Moses receiving the 10 Commandments, another zonk featured a little girl and her dog standing near a pile of feces, and one, this writer’s personal favorite veto, depicted Abraham Lincoln with bullet holes through his top hat and a copy of a Slaybill in his hand.
The first Garbage Pail Kids were released in June 1985 and sold for 25 cents a pack. They were sold in slick-looking displays featuring the atomic detonation of Adam Bomb’s own head. Kids were hooked immediately. With a sense of humor straight out of Mad magazine, stores couldn’t keep the cards in stock. Garbage Pail Kids came out at a time when kids were buying up disgusting toys like D. Compose, the action figure that could open its rib cage to reveal entrails, Slime, the gelatinous green goop that got into carpets and never came out, He-Man Masters of the Universe Stinkor, who carried a very unpleasant smell. No doubt about it in the mid-1980s, gross toys were becoming big business.
The series was the brainchild of Pulitzer Prize-winning New Yorker magazine cartoonist Art Spiegelman. Garbage Pail Kids cards were known variously as Bukimi Kun (Mr. Creepy) in Japan, The Garbage Gang in Australia and New Zealand, Les Crados (The Filthies) in France and Belgium, La Pandilla Basura (The Garbage Gang) in Spain, Basuritas (Trashlings) in Latin America, Gang do Lixo/Loucomania (Trash Gang/Crazymania) in Brazil, Sgorbions (Snotlings) in Italy, Havurat Ha-Zevel (The Garbage Gang) in Israel, and Die Total Kaputten Kids (The Totally Broken Kids) in Germany. The cards inspired an animated television series and a live-action movie, The Garbage Pail Kids Movie, in 1987.
The 1985 series included characters like Junkfood John, Valerie Vomit aka Barfin’ Barabra, Gory Laurie, Drillin’ Dylan the nose-picker, Stuck Chuck the Voodoo doll, Rundown Rhonda (flattened by a steam-roller), and Woody Alan a wooden doll be-scarred by saw marks, nail/screw holes and a woodpecker pecking a hole in his head. Because the characters looked like Cabbage Patch Kids, the company was sued and forced to forfeit the royalties and change the design. Garbage Pail Kids were banned in many schools; teachers cited them as class distractions. A group calling themselves Parents Against Sadistic Toys (or PAST) successfully lobbied several Toys ‘R Us locations to stop selling the cards in their stores.
Enter the San Diego Padres “God Squad.” It was about this time that Padres players Show, Dravecky, and Thurmond stopped signing baseball cards. Not all cards mind you, only those cards produced by Topps. The trio continued to sign cards from fans made by the Fleer and Donruss card companies, but inquiries by mail were sent back unsigned with an explanatory note. “Dear Collector: I am sorry but I do not autograph Topps baseball cards. The Topps company prints the Garbage Pail kids cards which I am strongly opposed to. For this reason, I do not endorse their products by autographing their baseball cards. I am sorry for the inconvenience. Sincerely, Dave Dravecky.”
Soon other players around the league took the same posture. The San Diego Padres Dan Boone, NY Yankees Mike Armstrong, Baltimore Orioles Storm Davis, Houston Astros players Bob Knepper and Jeff Calhoun adopted the same practice. Calhoun’s note to fans was a little stronger in tone than Dravecky’s. “If you have seen these cards you know they are very graphic in depicting violence, dismemberment, and other very grotesque things. I am in utmost disagreement with this and the adverse effects they can have on children, especially in this day of declining moral values. I encourage you to join me, and an increasing number of ballplayers, in voicing your protest to the Topps company.” Calhoun ends his note with the mailing address of the Topps company.
By 1988, the handwriting was on the wall for Topps Garbage Pail Kids. That year Mexico banned all Garbage Pail Kids as part of an Export and Import Law outlawing all representations of minors “in a degrading or ridiculous manner, in attitudes of incitement to violence, self-destruction or in any other form of behavior antisocial.” After an adverse lawsuit from Original Appalachian Artworks (makers of Cabbage Patch Kids), and a movie that bombed, despite selling some 800 million cards, the fad seemed to have run its course. Topps released a total of 15 sets of Garbage Pail Kids. By the time a 16th set was nearly completed, they opted not to release it due to a lack of interest. In the ensuing years, Topps sporadically continued the production of Garbage Pail Kids in limited numbers.
After Dave Dravecky was traded to the San Francisco Giants in 1987, he resurrected the God Squad with teammates Scott Garrelts, Atlee Hammaker, and Jeff Brantley. These players eschewed the hard-partying lifestyle of many of their teammates, preferring instead to hold Bible studies in their hotel rooms while on the road. After the God Squad vacated San Diego, reporters asked future Padres Hall of fame reliever Rich Gossage for his thoughts on the issue. Goose responded, “Heck, it’s just like being a Catholic, I guess.” After Gossage was traded from the Padres, he created a controversy of a different kind aimed at the owner of his former team by saying, “Joan Kroc is poisoning the world with her cheeseburgers”.
The Padres God Squad played together for parts of two seasons before splitting for other teams. Ironically, God Squad leader Eric Show became a victim of the moral decay he so strongly railed against. After his baseball career ended in 1991, he began using meth and cocaine. In 1994, Show died in a rehab center after ingesting a speedball (a mixture of cocaine with heroin or morphine taken intravenously or by nasal insufflation). In 1988, while pitching for the Giants, Dave Dravecky was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor in his left arm. A year later, he made a dramatic comeback, only to have his humerus bone shatter in his second start; his arm was later amputated, ending his career. Mark Thurmond pitched six more seasons in the bigs before retiring to Texas to sell insurance. Nowadays, the “God Squad” and “Garbage Pail Kids” seem tame compared with our net-driven society. But back in the mid-1980s, it was the talk of the town.