Card Corner Plus: 1974 Topps: Manny Sanguillen and Roberto Clemente

For much of the spring of 1974, this was the card I tried desperately to acquire. I’m not sure why this Topps card of Manny Sanguillen proved so elusive. The publication of the ‘74 set marked the first time in Topps history that the company issued all its cards at once, rather than in staggered series. So in theory, there should have been as many Sanguillens floating around as any other card during the spring of 1974.

Yet, I could not locate this card until the middle of that summer, finally obtaining it as part of a large pack I purchased at Pickwick’s Stationery store. Perhaps the elusiveness of the card made me appreciate it even more.

There were other factors that made me want this card badly. Now that Roberto Clemente was gone, Manny Sanguillen had become my favorite Pirate. With no Clemente card available for the first time in years, it was only natural that I gravitated to Sanguillen. At the time, I knew little about the relationship between Sanguillen and Clemente.

Sanguillen1974I also like the landscape format of the card. Taken at a low, field-level angle, the Topps photographer shows Sanguillen engaged in a serious session of pre-game throwing. By snapping the picture at this very instant, the photographer manages to capture Sanguillen with his mouth wide open, perhaps a sign of the strained effort that he is about to put into the throw.

The cameraman gives us an angle in which Sanguillen’s right arm is blocked from our view, hidden behind his chest and torso. This unusual angle allows us to imagine that Sanguillen has stretched his right arm as far back as it will go, ready to unleash with full force the next throw to his unseen teammate. Although the photograph has obviously been taken prior to a game, Sanguillen is supplying the kind of game time energy that makes this a legitimate action photograph. It’s the rare action shot taken in a non-action setting.

For all these reasons, of all the cards in the 1974 set, this is unquestionably my favorite.

Ten years before this card came out, Sanguillen signed with the Pirates as an amateur free agent out of Panama. On the recommendation of scout Herb Raybourne, who felt that Sanguillen had an ideal build for a catcher, the Pirates shifted the onetime amateur boxer to his new position behind the plate. The Pirates assigned him to their Batavia affiliate in the NY-Penn League, where he struggled to a .235 batting average. He also struggled to adjust to life in upstate New York, where few people spoke Spanish. Unable to communicate well in English, Sangy found it difficult to order a simple meal off a restaurant menu.

Assigned to Raleigh of the Carolina League the following summer, Sanguillen made the proper adjustments. He batted .328 with eight home runs, playing so well that the Pirates rewarded him with a late-season bump to Triple-A Columbus. In a nine-game cameo, Sanguillen batted .231 in the International League.

Remaining with Columbus through the next season, Sanguillen exhibited growing pains. He batted a mediocre .258 with only eight walks. Those were hardly the numbers of a ready-made prospect, but the Pirates decided to call him up in July. Given a 30-game look, he batted a respectable .271, but with no power (no home runs and only four doubles). Clearly, Sanguillen needed more development time.

In 1968, the Bucs sent Sanguillen back to Columbus in what turned out to be the best possible move. Showing a renewed aptitude, Sangy batted .316, reached base 34 per cent of the time and slugged a promising .448. At the age of 24, Sanguillen was now ready.

Thrilled with his improved batting, his promising power, and his athleticism behind the plate, the Pirates promoted Sanguillen in 1969 and made him their No. 1 catcher. Though he walked only 12 times and hit only five home runs, his .303 batting average, his good speed, and his defensive ability made him a plus for the Pirates. He also enjoyed an unexpected thrill, catching Bob Moose’s no-hitter on Sept. 20 against the Mets.

Those accomplishments, while important, did not affect him as greatly as his relationship with one of his teammates. Sanguillen became fast friends with Roberto Clemente, a native Puerto Rican. The friendship struck some as odd, given the contrasts in their outward personalities. Sanguillen, always equipped with a smile, liked to make jokes and laugh. Clemente was reserved and withdrawn. Some would take it a step further, calling him moody.

Although the two men came from different countries, they shared a bond of speaking Spanish. They both understood the difficulties that came with being a Latin American ballplayer in an American city. Sanguillen sympathized with Clemente over the way that sportswriters had criticized him for being a hypochondriac. Sangy understood that they had mocked Roberto’s accent and his limits with the English language. Similarly, Clemente prepared Sanguillen for the possibility that that he would face similar problems with American writers.

Helped by his relationship with Clemente, Sanguillen showed on-field improvement in 1970. Lacing line drives from one field to another, he batted .325 and slugged .444. Emerging as the National League’s second-best hitting catcher behind Johnny Bench, he finished 11th in the league’s MVP race.

Putting up nearly identical numbers in 1971, he batted .319 and drove in a career-high 81 runs. He also excelled defensively, throwing out exactly 50 per cent of opposing base stealers. With the Pirates winning the Eastern Division on their way to a world championship, Sanguillen moved up an eighth-place finish in the MVP sweepstakes.

Sanguillen played a huge role in the World Series, particularly in Game Seven, when he helped guide Steve Blass through some difficult moments early in the game. “He can spot my own weaknesses before I can,” Blass told Sports Illustrated the following season. “I pitch from a three-quarter delivery. If I drop below that, I’m in trouble. Manny notices any little change. In the seventh game of the World Series my slider wasn’t working at first. But Manny didn’t give up on it. You can’t do that with a pitch. It started coming around in the fourth inning and he called for it 80 per cent of the time the rest of the way. The Orioles had seen how bad it was earlier and were surprised.”

With Sanguillen and Blass teaming up on the O’s, the Pirates won Game Seven, 2-1.

The Pirates returned virtually the same team in 1972, creating optimism that they could repeat. But the season ended in heartbreak, when Bob Moose’s pitch bounced past Sanguillen—a clear-cut wild pitch—capping off a two-run comeback in the bottom of the ninth of Game Five of the playoffs.

That loss paled in comparison with the devastation that would come on New Year’s Eve. That’s when Clemente and four other men boarded a small DC-7 as part of a mission of mercy to the earthquake-torn country of Nicaragua. Shortly after takeoff, the plane exploded and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, just off the shores of San Juan. Without warning, Clemente was gone at the age of 38.

The tragedy nearly claimed two Pirates players. If all had gone according to plan, Sanguillen would have been aboard the ill-fated flight, too.

Clemente had asked Sanguillen, his best friend on the Pirates, to make the trip with him to Managua on Dec, 30. Though somewhat reluctant because of the small size of the plane, Sanguillen agreed to board the flight. After playing a winter league game that afternoon, he rushed for San Juan International Airport. But his car broke down along the way.

The difficulty with his car turned out to be irrelevant because Clemente’s flight was delayed a full day, from the 30th to the 31st. So Sanguillen once again prepared to make his way to the airport. This time, Manny could not locate the car keys in his winter apartment. He and his wife looked everywhere, even searching through the diaper bag of their young son, Manny, Jr.

Finally, at seven o’clock that night, Sanguillen found the keys, sitting atop a high shelf in the apartment. He did not remember putting them there. But by now, it was too late to drive to the airport to board the flight with Clemente. Realizing that he would miss the flight, Sanguillen remained in his apartment.

To this day, Sanguillen has no idea how the keys ended up on the shelf. He did not remember putting them there, nor did his wife. A religious man, Sanguillen wondered if some other force had made it difficult for him to find the keys, so as to prevent him from making a fateful drive that night.

Sanguillen’s relief at missing the flight was tempered by the tragedy that had taken his friend. Filled with grief, Sanguillen could not stand by and mourn Clemente in the normal way. It bothered him that recovery workers had not been able to find Clemente’s body. Determined to find his friend, Sanguillen made his way to the Puerto Rican shoreline, close to where the plane had come down. He took a small boat into the reef, and for the next three days made deep sea dives into the dark water that was plagued by sharks.

The Pirates’ general manager tried to discourage Sanguillen from the effort. “Joe Brown tried to talk him out of diving on his own,” Pirates relief ace Dave Giusti told United Press International. “But he wasn’t going to be talked out of anything.”

Consumed by the recovery effort, Sanguillen missed the funeral. After three straight days of being stationed on that lonely boat, Sanguillen finally stopped diving.

The loss of Clemente not only devastated Sanguillen, but the entire Pirates’ organization. When the Pirates reported to spring training in Bradenton, they decided to give Sanguillen Clemente’s old locker. That only made the situation more difficult. While the Pirates meant well, it represented just one more way in which Sanguillen had to do the impossible by filling the shoes of his heroic friend.

Still, the Pirates needed to move ahead. How could they possibly replace Clemente in right field? Manager Bill Virdon concocted a creative solution. Fully aware that Sanguillen’s speed and athleticism made him unusual for a catcher, Virdon thought of moving him into Clemente’s old position. To replace Sanguillen, Virdon could call upon one of the game’s top catching prospects, the left-handed hitting Milt May.

On paper, the changes allowed the Pirates to replace Clemente with the talented Sanguillen while making room for May behind the plate. While the moves made sense in theory, they did not take into account Sanguillen’s frame of mind.

In reality, Sanguillen did not want to play right field. Always a team player, he did what he was told, but he did so against his wishes. He felt guilty in trying to succeed his best friend on the Pirates. “I really feel bad,” Sanguillen told Sports Illustrated, “because we miss him so bad. I don’t like to talk too much about him. Everything comes to mind about him.”

Playing regularly in right field, Sanguillen committed six errors in the team’s first 34 games. His hitting also suffered. By then, Virdon had seen enough and wisely moved Sanguillen back to his regular position behind the plate. Making a seamless transition in reverse, Sanguillen quickly re-acclimated himself to his favorite position.

Though his final batting average fell to .282, he showed a level of power never before seen. He hit 12 home runs and collected 26 doubles. All was not lost in a difficult season.

Sanguillen’s power numbers returned to more normal levels in 1974, as he hit seven home runs. But he batted .287 and remained a top-notch receiver and thrower.

He also remained a fun player to watch. Always armed with a smile, Sanguillen brought an unusual level of joy to the game. Demonstrative behind the plate, he established a strong rapport with his pitchers, who loved how Sanguillen squatted so low in an effort to create an ideal target. Sanguillen also ran well, not just for a catcher, but for any position, making him a threat on the base paths.

As a hitter, Sanguillen employed a spread-out stance and used an unusually large bat, a 40-ounce model that seemed more appropriate for a slugger. He also displayed unusual aggressiveness. I’ve never seen a hitter swing at as many pitches so far out of the strike zone as Sanguillen. With a strike zone that stretched from one batter’s box to the other, Sanguillen swung at everything. He could make contact with pitches in the dirt, or above his head. That tendency wouldn’t make him friends among the Sabermetric crowd, which values a more patient approach at the plate, but there is something satisfying about watching a batter successfully hit a pitch off the bounce for a double.

With Sanguillen turning 31 in the spring of 1975, no one would have been surprised if he started to undergo a significant decline in his game. Perhaps as a way of combating the aging process, Sanguillen decided to change his look in 1975. He shaved his head completely and grew a mustache.

More significant than his change in appearance, Sanguillen embraced a new philosophy at the plate. Showing newfound patience by drawing a career-high 48 walks, he batted .328 and reached base 39 per cent of the time. Defensively, he showed some slippage, as he threw out only 26 per cent of base stealers, but that didn’t matter much with the fans or the media. Sangy made the All-Star team and also placed 16th in the MVP balloting.

Sanguillen’s 1975 performance represented the offensive peak of his career. Predictably, his numbers fell off across the board in 1976, but his OPS of .716 was still respectable for a catcher. Still a capable hitter, Sanguillen drew interest from other teams. One team in particular would target Sanguillen in a highly unusual trade proposal.

After the 1976 season, A’s owner Charlie Finley became upset when American League president Joe Cronin ruled that he would have to honor the long-term contract that manager Chuck Tanner had originally signed with the White Sox. Finley was not pleased that he now owed Tanner two more years on the contract. (Finley didn’t like the idea of paying big money to his players, let alone his managers.) So Finley let it be known that Tanner could be acquired via a trade. The Pirates expressed interest. Needing a new catcher, Finley asked for player compensation in return, specifically in the form of Sanguillen. So the Pirates sent Sangy and $100,000 to Oakland for Tanner, completing the player-for-manager swap.

Finley might have expected Sanguillen to become his No. 1 catcher, but his heavy workload of catching had  begun to take a toll. Sanguillen caught only 77 games for the A’s, while putting in time as a DH, right fielder, and first baseman. His batting average fell to .275, the lowest mark since his rookie year. Clearly, he was no longer the elite catcher he had been in Pittsburgh.

Although Sanguillen was the rare player who enjoyed a good relationship with the often difficult Finley, the friendship did not guarantee his long-term stay in Oakland. With Finley looking to rebuild with youth in 1978, Sanguillen became expendable. That spring, Finley sent him back to the Pirates for three players: infielder Mike Edwards, outfielder Miguel Dilone and relief pitcher Elias Sosa.

Now that the Pirates had Steve Nicosia and Ed Ott forming a platoon behind the plate, Sanguillen became a third-string catcher and pinch-hitter. He remained in that role for three seasons, highlighted by his subtle contributions to the Pirates’ world championship of 1979. In Game Two of the World Series, he delivered a game-winning RBI single with two outs in the ninth inning.

After the 1980 season, the Pirates included Sanguillen in the Bert Blyleven trade, sending the pair to the Indians for four younger players. But Sanguillen had no interest in finishing out his career with the Indians, so he opted to retire instead.

There have been struggles since then. He has gone through financial distress, including a bout with bankruptcy when his sporting goods store failed. But he seems to have found financial stability through a different business, “Manny’s Bar-B-Q,” which features a stand just outside of the Pirates’ PNC Park. Sanguillen sells his famed barbecue ribs while telling stories to his customers and providing autographs for those fans who request them. He enjoys talking about his days with the Pirates, even though the subject of Clemente’s death remains an understandably difficult topic.

All these years later, Sanguillen still harbors a strong bond with Clemente. He can often be seen wearing shirts that bear Clemente’s image or name. Additionally, he markets a barbecue sauce called “Sanguillen Sauce,” and contributes 10 percent of the sales to the Roberto Clemente Foundation.

Sanguillen still enjoys talking about Clemente these days, reminiscing about the good memories from their days together with the Pirates and in winter ball. He laughs about the ways that he used to playfully mock Clemente, while emphasizing the love and respect he continues to have for “The Great One.”

When someone has risked his life by diving into shark-infested waters, it should come as no surprise that the friendship, even 40 years after the fact, still perseveres.

Sources: The Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, Manny Sanguillen’s player file at the Baseball Hall of Fame

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    • neil brautigam said...

      Great article. Brings back lot of memories. Manny Sanguillen, one of the great players from Panama.

  1. Greg in SB said...

    The Roadrunner was my favorite player back in the day. Sangy had a great WS in 71…. he hit 379 with 2 stolen bases. He is one the best MLB player to come outta Panama, he and Rennie Stennett. He had an absolute war club for a bat. Largest in the league at that time.


  2. said...

    One thing I might add to help the story about Clemente is, yes, his supposed moodiness and prideful behavior could be difficult for some other people (mostly in the press) to understand but Roberto Clemente could be quite the animated character among his close friends in the Pirates locker room/clubhouse. The stories about how he and trainer Tony Bartirome and Dr. Joe Finegold would playfully yell and holler at each other are hilarious. I’m sure Sangy would have been part of this too. Read Steve Blass’ book about his life as a Pirate if you wish to get some deeper insight into Clemente’s world. He was a fascinating guy beyond being an incredible ballplayer.

  3. Shaun McCormick said...

    as a 10 year old Pirate fan at the time of Roberto’s plane crash, I remember well reading about Manny diving looking for his friend. It was such a shock for kids like myself who read anything they could in those days about their baseball heroes. I am glad Manny has the happiness he seems to have with his restaurant. When they won again in ’79, I was so happy for Willie Stargell and Manny, but sure thought of Roberto.

  4. Dennis Bedard said...

    I remember Tony Kubek calling the early 70’s Pirates The Pittsburgh Lumber Company. As good as Manny’s numbers were, he was only the 4th or 5th best hitter on those teams. Great article.

  5. Cliff Blau said...

    Another good article, Bruce. One point- Joe Cronin was no longer AL president in 1976; it was Lee MacPhail by then.

  6. gary lester said...

    Another super job – Sanguillen was a favorite of mine – I actually wrote a letter to Sporting News as a 11 year old about why Sanguillen should be picked over Bench for All Star team, lol

  7. Bruce Markusen said...

    At the height of the Lumber Company, you had Stargell, Hebner, Bill Robinson, Oliver, Parker, Zisk, and Sanguillen. Based on pure offense, Sanguillen might have been the sixth or seventh best hitter. And that is rather amazing.

    The 1979 team had lost Hebner, Oliver, and Zisk, but they were able to reload with Madlock, Milner, and Lee Lacy. Sanguillen was reduced to backup status, but Ott and Nicosia made for a serviceable platoon. What a run of success that decade. A lot of credit goes to the farm system and the front office for some fine trading.

    • gary lester said...

      If only they could have signed Gossage/Forster. But it’s not like the Tekulve/Jackson combo wasn’t pretty decent. Great point on trades – Oliver for Blyleven, Milner…Zisk for Gossage,Forster….Armas and company for Garner….Taveras for anyone(Foli was a pleasant surprise) – all good trades. Picking up Bibby was a plus, too.

  8. said...

    I love this article and the Sanguillen card. The feature dramatic film I wrote and directed that highlights Sanguillen and Clemente’s friendship entitled ” Baseball’s Last Hero: 21 Clemente Stories” is now on Amazon. i’m grateful the actors playing Clemente and Sangy really capture them well.

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