Card Corner: 1972 Topps: Curt Blefary

There’s something compelling about a catcher shown in action on a baseball card. Perhaps it’s the chest protector, which makes him look like a fully prepared member of a SWAT team. A catcher in full gear looks like he’s ready for just about anything that could happen on a playing field, whether it’s a full-scale brawl that might erupt between the two teams, or a fan riot stemming from Ten Cent Beer Night.

When I started collecting cards, in 1972, I did not actually get my hands Curt Blefary’s action card. That’s because I tended to collect cards early in the season, when the lower-numbered cards came out. By the time the high numbered cards were released—and that included the Blefary card, number 692—we had moved on to other hobbies. Some of us had started collected football cards in anticipation of the upcoming NFL season. Yes, we were idiots back then.

So I never even saw Blefary’s action card that year. I didn’t pick it up until I had started to become a serious collector, buying it for a few dollars from a local card dealer sometime during the 1980s. Why did I like that Blefary card? There were three reasons. First, it was an action card, which was part of a special subset of the 1972 set. Action cards were not common in the 1970s and ’80s; they were still a novelty and a thrill to a young collector. Second, I loved the A’s of that era, the height of Charlie Finley’s green-and-gold colored dynasty. And third, Blefary was an alumnus of the Yankees, my favorite team since childhood.

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There’s another interesting feature to the card, one that I didn’t grasp until years later. It seems a little incongruous when bad fielders are photographed wearing gloves or mitts. That’s exactly the case with Blefary’s 1972 action card, which shows him with some cool lampblack under his eye while running with the ball in his hand.

Blefary had long since earned the nickname “Clank,” which represented the imaginary sound the ball made when it bounced off his hands. He got the nickname during his early major league days with the Orioles, the organization that claimed him on waivers after he had originally signed with the Yankees organization. Frank Robinson, who ran the Orioles’ Kangaroo Kourt, pinned the Clank moniker on his teammate.

Joining the Orioles in 1965, Blefary was an outfielder, and not a particularly good one. But he could hit. He had patience and power. As a first-year player, Blefary hit 22 home runs and drew 88 walks, numbers that helped him win the American League’s Rookie of the Year.

Blefary continued to put up good power statistics in 1966 and ‘67, even as the Orioles began to use him as a part-time first baseman, since they had so many good young outfielders in their pipeline. But that was only a partial solution, given the presence of Boog Powell and Mike Epstein at first base.

In 1968, Orioles manager Hank Bauer reintroduced catching to Blefary’s resume. He played 40 games behind the plate and showed terrific aptitude at throwing, as he put down 51 per cent of opposing base stealers. He also caught a no-hitter by Tom Phoebus. But there were problems, as he committed nine passed balls. More alarmingly, his hitting tailed off badly. His batting average fell from .242 to .200 and his slugging percentage fell to .322. Blefary blamed the constant switching of positions for hurting his hitting.

Blefary also clashed with new manager Earl Weaver, who replaced Bauer in midseason. Blefary asked for a trade. That winter the Orioles sent their unhappy slugger to the Astros as part of a deal for late-blooming left-hander Mike Cuellar. It would turn out to be one of the best trades in Baltimore franchise history, as Cuellar became a durable and effective mainstay of the Orioles’ rotation for years to come.

In the short term, the trade also benefited the Astros. Anointed as Houston’s starting first baseman, Blefary hit 12 home runs, a respectable total given the obstacle of the cavernous Astrodome. He also drew 77 walks and lifted his batting average into the .250s.

Blefary’s tenure in Houston drew praise from an unexpected source: It came with the publication of Jim Bouton’s Ball Four in 1970. Bouton lauded Blefary as the kind of teammate he would most like to have with him in a foxhole. He praised Blefary’s toughness and his willingness to work hard.

Blefary deserved praise for something else, though it received little favorable publicity at the time. He became roommates with Don Wilson, Houston’s right-handed ace. The arrangement was notable because Wilson was black. In agreeing to become roommates during Astros road trips, they became only the second set of integrated roommates in major league history. (Reggie Jackson and Chuck Dobson had become the first, with the A’s, in 1968.) Sadly, Blefary received hate mail from racists who ridiculed him for having the “audacity” to share a hotel room with a black man.

Though the Blefary/Wilson relationship created unfair controversy, Curt still enjoyed a good season. His numbers were solid, particularly given the offensive environment of the late 1960s. But Blefary did not enjoy playing in Houston and, for the second time in two seasons, clashed with his manager, this time Harry Walker. “The Hat,” who doubled as Houston’s batting instructor, wanted Blefary to cut down his swing and hit the ball to all fields. Blefary disagreed with that approach and asked for a trade. Fortunately, the Astros found a match; they sent Blefary to the Yankees, his original organization, in a straight-up deal for outfielder/first baseman Joe Pepitone.

The trade was a godsend for Blefary, a native of Brooklyn who had always wanted to play for the Yankees. Free from Walker and the Astrodome, Blefary abandoned his contact-hitting approach and resorted to his old home run swing in an attempt to take advantage of Yankee Stadium’s short porch in right field. Unfortunately, he became obsessed with hitting home runs, and his hitting suffered.

By the latter stages of 1970, Blefary lost his starting job in right field. He became a glorified pinch-hitter. Failing to adapt well to the new role, he became trade bait. In late May of 1971, the Yankees sent him to Oakland for left-hander Rob Gardner.

Finley acquired Blefary in part because he loved his versatility. The A’s used him as a utility man, while giving him some playing time as a catcher, which he hadn’t played since the 1968 season in Baltimore. Blefary became known for carrying around eight different gloves, in the eventuality that he might catch, play first, second or third base, or patrol the outfield. Blefary brought enthusiasm to the utility man role; he tried hard at each position, but in reality, he created a defensive liability everywhere he played.

As spring training began in 1972, Blefary ranked as Oakland’s second-string catcher behind Dave Duncan. All seemed well, as he vowed to get himself in shape, swing the bat well, and keep quiet. He certainly swung the bat, hitting .360 in Cactus League play, but he somehow managed to fall to fourth-string catcher behind Duncan and fellow backups Gene Tenace and Larry Haney. Although Blefary was a valuable backup player for the A’s, fourth-string catchers usually don’t have much job security on a team’s 25-man roster.

Despite being buried on the team’s depth chart, Blefary kept himself ready to play and served the A’s well in a pinch-hitting and backup role, collecting five hits in 11 at-bats. Then rather suddenly, the A’s announced a trade on May 17, sending Blefary and well-traveled left-hander Mike Kilkenny to the Padres for veteran outfielder “Downtown” Ollie Brown. Blefary had lasted less than a calendar year with the A’s.

Blefary’s outspoken nature, which often placed him in the center of turmoil, almost certainly played a role in his departure from Oakland. Right before the start of the regular season, Blefary had expressed dissatisfaction with his fourth-string status by issuing a play-me-or-trade-me order. So much for keeping his mouth shut. He had long since become famous for issuing such ultimatums during previous stops in his career.

One day after his latest outburst, Blefary apologized to Dick Williams for putting his manager on the spot just before Opening Day. Finley, Oakland’s irascible owner, did not seem as forgiving as Williams. As the team’s general manager, it was Finley who sent Blefary packing.

After the announcement of the trade, Blefary threatened to retire from the game and become a policeman if the Padres did not renegotiate his contract. Realizing that he wasn’t yet ready for law enforcement, Blefary changed his mind and reported to San Diego. Blefary batted .196 as a utility man for the lowly Padres, who released him after the season.

About a month later, the Braves called him and offered him a spring training invitation. Blefary took the Braves up on the offer and reported to Florida, but failed to make the team. The Braves released him before the end of spring training. No one else came calling, not even a team in the Japanese Leagues.

Blefary’s major league career had come to an end, even though he was still only 29. The timing could not have been worse, considering that the American League had just adopted the designated hitter rule. It was a rule that would have suited a defensive misfit like Blefary perfectly. Blefary’s ability to hit with power and draw walks had always made him an offensive plus. If there was ever a man born to be a DH, it was the man known as Clank.

So what happened? Some observers felt that Blefary had been blackballed because of his frequent complaints over playing time and his repeated trade demands.

Still another theory involved Blefary’s love of the night life. Known as a considerable drinker, he enjoyed partying too much for the tastes of many general managers. It was a problem that he acknowledged later in his life, when he put himself through a rehabilitation program devised by former major leaguer Sam McDowell.

Sadly, Blefary’s career after his playing days proved frustrating. He tried to land a job in baseball as a coach, but no one would hire him. Instead he worked a variety of jobs, putting in time as a bartender, a sheriff and a truck driver, among other undertakings. His personal life also began to crumble, as he and his first wife divorced.

In his later years, Blefary fell ill with chronic pancreatitis, which was likely caused by his alcoholism. The disease took his life in 2001 at the too-youthful age of 57. At his request, his second wife scattered his ashes at Baltimore’s old Memorial Stadium, which was already in the process of being demolished. Blefary had put up his best seasons playing there for the Orioles.

Perhaps a year or two before his passing, Blefary visited Cooperstown to take part in an autograph signing at the Tunnicliff Inn. I thought about going to the signing—not only to get an autograph but also to interview Blefary about his days in baseball.

When I heard shortly thereafter that Blefary had died, I realized I would never have a second chance. To this day, I regret my decision not to go to that signing. Not only because I never had the chance to ask him about his eventful career, but also because I lost the opportunity to thank him for some of my favorite baseball card memories.

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Comments

  1. Paul said...

    The story has often been told about the day the Orioles team bus going from hotel to stadium got hopelessly lost.  The bus driver pulled off at the gates of a scrap metal yard to turn around.  Frank Robinson noting the business is said to have yelled, “Curt, you might want to get a new glove while we’re here.”

  2. Michael Caragliano said...

    This was one of the last cards I needed to put this set together. 1972 was the first older Topps set I tried to assemble, and I must have spent a year going to card stores before I found it. I thought it was a great photo. The soft cap and the lampblack were the clinchers; who was the last catcher to regularly wear a soft cap backwards instead of a helmet? I played catcher in little league, and cards like this were a big reason why; a catcher wearing the tools of ignorance stood out and looked in charge on the field (well, that and the fact that the manager wanted the heavy kid behind the plate, but now I’m digressing).

  3. Bruce Markusen said...

    Michael, I’ll take a stab at your question. I’ll guess that Rick Dempsey was the last to regularly wear a cap with the old-fashioned catcher’s mask.

  4. Dennis Bedard said...

    Blefary was never part of Frank Robinson’s kangaroo court which began in the summer of 1969 when the Orioles had effectively clinched the division.  I remember The Sporting News first bringing the so called “court” to light around that time.  They published a picture of Robinson with an English wig on.  He would fine players a nominal amount of money for comical infractions during a game.  I don’t remember if this charade continue into 1970 when the O’s did something everyone thought they would do in ‘69:  win a championship.  It is interesting that TOPPS would put a picture of Blefary in catcher’s gear.  He only started 14 games at that position in 1971.  I also seem to recall that Blefary never lived up to his potential from the mid 60’s.  Sort of a Rick Reichardt clone but from the left side of the plate.

  5. Dennis Bedard said...

    I looked at the card a bit closer.  I don’t remember Oakland ever wearing a jersey with a solid green color on the arm and shoulder.  If you look closer at the pants, there are pinstripes on them.  I know the A’s never wore pintstripes in that era.  And the certainly would not wear them with a solid green shirt.  Under Blefary’s right arm is a gold color.  But other parts of hte shirt are white.  Check out the way he is holding the ball.  Like a knuckleball.  Catchers don’t do that.  This may be the sun at play but the whole picture looks doctored.

  6. dennis Bedard said...

    I still see a white stripe as in a pinstripe.  somewhat faded but I think it is there.  But the pants are definitely white and if the jersey is a combination green undershirt and gold vest, there is another problem. The A’s did not wear a gold vest with white pants in 1971.  So the white pants with a green undie and gold vest was not possible.  This is all very esoteric and for all I know this could have been a spring training game or they just wore that uniform match for that day.  What really gets under my skin and I guess this shows my love for baseball accuracy is that they show him as a catcher when he really wasn’t. Here is a link to the A’s uniforms for 1971.
    http://exhibits.baseballhalloffame.org/dressed_to_the_nines/detail_page.asp?fileName=al_1971_oakland.gif&Entryid=1192

  7. Michael Caragliano said...

    Hi Bruce! I wasn’t asking a trivia question, but I guess Rick Dempsey sounds about right. He’s the last guy I can think of, too. The catcher with the backwards soft cap is just one of those quaint things that dates the photo, sort of like the disappearance of stirrup socks. El Duque is the last guy I can think of off the top of my head, but I’m sure there are one or two holdouts there that I’m missing. Or batting helmets with no ear flap- I can’t think of when they went out of vogue.

    On a side note, Bruce, did you do the Billy Cowan card yet in your 1972 retrospective?

  8. Bruce Markusen said...

    Dennis, I’ve put the Blefary card under the zoom lens, and I’m not seeing the same things you are. In 1971, the A’s used a solid green on the arm and shoulder, which comprised the undershirt that was featured beneath the gold vest. I’ve also looked at the pants; all I see is one green stripe running down the leg, but no pinstripes. With regards to his grip on the ball, the blown-up picture is so hazy that I cannot make out the grip.

    I don’t believe the photograph is doctored or altered in any discernible way.

  9. Bruce Markusen said...

    Michael, I don’t think I’ll be writing about the Cowan card, if only because I have written about it several times in the past.

    If you would like, give me your e-mail and I will send what I’ve written about him and that card.

  10. Dennis Bedard said...

    You would think that Weaver, as colorful, as he was, would have spawned at least one short biography or at least a tell all book by, say, Jim Palmer, who thought he was a joke.  I still consider the 69 O’s the best team never to win a WS and probably one of the greatest teams of all time period.  As great as Weaver’s teams were, he lost 3 WS and won only 1.  Which brings to mind Bill Haller’s comment to him during a heated argument in the early 80’s over a balk call.  Check it out on youtube (enter Earl Weaver/Bill Haller).  Hilarious.

  11. scott said...

    There was that one memoir-ish book (so I’ve heard, never read it) by Weaver and Palmer, “Together we were 6’11” (or whatever height), but yes, no bios either.

    I was at the game in June 1979 when he ripped up the rule book.  What a character!

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