You might think (as I once did) that you’ve seen “Buc Belters” a few times on Topps cards, but you were probably looking at “Bird Belters” (a 1968 card that featured Brooks and Frank Robinson of the Baltimore Orioles) or “Buc Blasters.” The latter card was particularly crowded; issued in 1963, it showcased four players from the Pittsburgh Pirates: Smoky Burgess, Dick “Dr. Strangeglove” Stuart Bob Skinner and someone named “Bob” Clemente.
No, a search of “Buc Belters” shows that it came just the one time, as part of the 1966 set. That’s when Topps took a picture of Donn Clendenon and Willie Stargell, both members of the Pirates at a time when they were overshadowed by another star who was still being called “Bob,” but preferred to be known as Roberto Clemente.
The Buc Belters card is one of the more handsome offerings in the 1966 set. Stargell and Clendenon are sporting the Pirates’ black-and-gray road uniforms of the era. They featured sleeveless jerseys and an emphasis on the color black over the Pirates’ other primary color, which was gold. I’ve long thought those uniforms, both the home and away versions, were some of the best in baseball history. The sleeveless look and the starkness of the black give the uniforms a simple and dignified look that is also intimidating.
Topps chose a good pose for the two sluggers. Clendenon and Stargell are seen kneeling on the field, with the players’ right hands gripping the bat handles and their left elbows pressed against the tops of the bats. It’s something of a menacing look, particularly in the way that the muscles of their left arms bulge out while pressed against the wood bats. Neither man is smiling. Stargell is rather stone-faced, while Clendenon’s mouth is gaping open rather awkwardly. I can’t really tell what emotions they are portraying here, though it appears that neither of the players is particularly thrilled with the assignment of posing for the Topps photographer. Either that or they simply felt awkward and uncomfortable, a common feeling for those among us who don’t really enjoy being in front of the camera.
That level of discomfort must have dissipated by the following season. In 1967, Topps would issue another card featuring Clendenon and Stargell. This one, titled “Pitt Power,” shows the two stars wearing their home white uniforms (which were very similar to the road versions). But the 1967 card has a completely different feel; Clendenon and Stargell are pressed against each other side-by-side, each man smiling and at ease. Clendenon looks especially relaxed, smiling widely and perhaps even laughing at the moment the Topps photographer took the picture.
Clendenon and Stargell’s appearances on two consecutive combination cards indicates a level of friendship between the two. Obviously, they didn’t mind being photographed with one another. Their relationship dated at least as far back as 1963, when they played together for the first time in the major leagues. Stargell was a rookie then, while Clendenon was playing in his second full season, and his first as a full-time starter.
Their 1966 Topps photograph session took place one year earlier, during one of the Pirates’ trips to Shea Stadium in 1965. Inevitably, the question comes up from fans and collectors: Why did Topps pick Stargell and Clendenon, and not the more obvious tandem of Stargell and Clemente?
Clemente was certainly the biggest star and the most recognizable figure on the Pirates in 1965, when the photograph was taken. But let’s also remember that Clemente often had a difficult relationship with the media, and that could have included the folks from Topps. He might not have been willing to pose with a teammate for Topps. Or it’s possible that the Topps photographer, knowing Clemente’s standoffish reputation with the media, didn’t even approach the superstar. We’ll never know for sure, but I can imagine some timidity when it came to walking up to Clemente and asking him to do a favor for the card company.
In a way, it did make some sense that Topps bypassed Clemente for the Buc Belters card. Yes, he did lead the National League in hitting in 1965, with an impressive mark of .329. But 1965 was not a banner power season for Clemente. Diagnosed with malaria during the offseason, he lost 20 pounds from the effects of the disease, sapping him of much of his power. Though he recovered in time to play on Opening Day, the weight loss and the subsequent loss in strength almost certainly reduced his power that spring and summer. He hit a mere 10 home runs and slugged only .463, one of his weakest marks in the 1960s.
It was not until 1966, when the card came out, that Clemente burst out with 29 home runs and won the NL MVP Award. In 1966 and ’67, Clemente hit a combined 52 home runs. But for most of the early 1960s (with the exception of 1961), Clemente was more of a surgical line-drive hitter than a pure “belter.” From 1960 to 1965, he hit for high averages and collected a good share of doubles and triples, but the real power did not come until later.
Based on the criteria of pure power, it did make some sense for Topps to go with players other than Clemente on the “Buc Belters” and “Pitt Power” cards. Stargell was a perfect fit for the card; he was the player the Pirates used most frequently as their cleanup man (108 times in 1965, 113 in 1966). He almost always batted in that spot against right-handed pitchers, while dropping down to the No. 6 hole against southpaws. For raw power, no Pirates player was superior to Stargell.
The 1965 season represented Stargell’s best season to date, with 27 home runs and a slugging percentage of .501. He led the Pirates in both of those power categories, and also topped the team with 107 RBI. Still only 25 years old, Stargell was fast building a reputation as one of the NL’s most intimidating hitters. He drew 13 intentional walks that season, second only to Clemente on the Pirates.
Based strictly on 1965 home run numbers, the most logical player to join Stargell on the card was veteran catcher Jim Pagliaroni. Though not known as an exceptional power hitter, “Pag” actually hit 17 home runs in 1965—putting him second on the Pirates, behind only Stargell. That was the best home run output of his career. His numbers would fall off considerably in 1966, when his OPS fell from .769 to .706. By 1967, he had lost his starting catching job, in part because of chronic back problems. That condition forced Pagliaroni to retire by the end of the 1969 season, when he was playing for the Seattle Pilots and was still only 31 years old.
While Pagliaroni had more home runs, Clendenon’s 1965 performance outstripped him in almost all other categories. He had more total bases (286 to 174), a higher slugging percentage (.467 to .432), and a better OPS (.818 to .769). With all of that considered, Clendenon made the most sense statistically for inclusion on the card. He put together an excellent season in 1965, when he hit 14 home runs, clubbed 32 doubles, and slugged a respectable .467 (this was in the midst of the pitcher-friendly 1960s). It was the best season of Clendenon’s career to date.
After Stargell, Clendenon was considered the most dangerous power threat in the Pirates’ batting order. He almost always batted in the middle of the lineup, either fifth behind Clemente and Stargell, or in the cleanup spot, right after Clemente. And for what it’s worth, Clendenon was the Pirates’ most durable player in 1965, playing in all 162 games, including 158 as a first baseman.
The duo of Clendenon and Stargell helped the Pirates immensely in 1965. In combining for 6.3 WAR, the two players were important parts of a Pirates team that finished 90-72. The Pirates placed third, seven games behind the pennant-winning Los Angeles Dodgers. In 1960s baseball, that was good enough for only honorable mention status, but in today’s realigned National League and revamped playoff system, the Pirates would have won either the Eastern or Central Division and hosted a series against a Wild Card team.
I have little reason to believe that Topps consciously took race into account in creating these cards. I doubt that Topps was trying to make a social statement by placing two African-American players on the same card; it had done so in earlier combination cards. But it is notable that the Clendenon/Stargell card was the only one of the five special 1966 combination cards that featured two black players. The other combo cards either had a mix of white and black players (like Johnny Callison and Wes Covington on “Power Plus” or Bill Skowron/Johnny Romano/Floyd Robinson on “Chisox Clubbers”) or all white players (Dick Schofield and Hal Lanier on “DP Combo” and Roger Maris/Norm Cash/Mickey Mantle/Al Kaline on “AL Bombers”). But it’s worth noting that Clendenon and Stargell did make a small footnote in the 1966 Topps set.
While it’s not obvious from the expressions on their faces, Clendenon and Stargell got along well on the Pirates, based on the accounts I have read. (Their level of camaraderie is perhaps more evident on the 1967 “Pitt Power” card). They had likeable personalities and both showed interest in causes that went beyond the playing field. Clendenon and his family were good friends of Martin Luther King, whose civil rights efforts they fully supported. King mentored Clendenon while he attended Morehouse College in the 1950s, leading to a long friendship. When King was assassinated in 1968, Clendenon led the campaign among the Pirates to postpone their Opening Day game as a way of paying tribute to him.
By the 1970s, Stargell would make major efforts to reach out to the community. During the winter of 1970/71, he traveled to Vietnam to visit soldiers stationed there. He also became president of the Black Athletes Foundation, an organization dedicated to improving salaries and endorsements opportunities for African-American athletes. And perhaps most famously, Stargell served as a spokesman in the effort to raise money in the fight against sickle cell anemia, a disease afflicting the black community.
I’ve enthusiastically researched the careers of Clendenon and Stargell, and find that the more I learn about them, the more I like them. I guess that’s why I find their 1966 Topps card so enjoyable. Sure, it would have been nice for Hall of Famers Stargell and Clemente to appear together on a Topps card—they never did, as far as I can tell—but the combination of Stargell and Clendenon some 50 years ago turned out to be a worthwhile venture, too.
References & Resources
- Donn Clendenon’s player file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library
- Willie Stargell: An Autobiography, by Tom Bird and Willie Stargell
- Willie Stargell: A Life in Baseball, by Frank Garland
- Bruce Markusen, The Hardball Times, “Cooperstown Confidential: Donn Clendenon’s Strange 1969 Season”