A baseball card mystery: Reggie Smith and Rynoby Bruce Markusen
April 11, 2012
Ryne Sandberg was a fine fielding, power-packed second baseman who is now an unquestioned member of the Hall of Fame. Reggie Smith was an underrated star whom some also regard as Cooperstown worthy.
When you combine them on an action shot featured as part of the excellent 1983 Topps set, you have yourselves a gem of a card.
Smith actually accumulated slightly more WAR during his career than Sandberg, 63.4 to 62. That might be a simplistic way to assess Smith’s case for the Hall of Fame, but there is little doubt that he was a superb all-round player who hit with power, batted for a good average, drew walks, stole bases, and played a strong right field, the latter ability reinforced by his cannon-like throwing arm. Smith didn’t even strike out all that much for a legitimate home run hitter, never accumulating more than 95 strikeouts in a single season. Clearly, Smith could do it all.
Those kinds of numbers should have generated Smith a major league contract for the 1983 season, and while the Giants did make him an offer, they were outbid by the Yomiuri Giants of the Japanese League, so Smith took his substantial talents to the Far East.
Yet, this particular baseball card mystery is not solely about Smith’s value as a player, as great as he was. (But feel free to debate his Hall of Fame case.) As usual, it’s about the card, always about the card.
We know that the photograph must have been taken in 1982, because that was Smith’s only season in San Francisco, and it also happened to be Sandberg’s first season as a Cub.
(In 1981, Sandberg played briefly for the Phillies, while Smith put in his final season in Dodger Blue, so that season is simply not a possibility for the card.)
We also know that the ballpark is Candlestick Park, as evidenced by Smith’s home white uniform and the iconic chain link fence in the right field background. And, of course, it is an afternoon game, with the sun shining brightly in the San Francisco sky.
Sandberg, who looks particularly thin in his age-22 season, is safely returning to first base on a pickoff attempt. So while we know that Sandberg somehow reached first base, we don’t know exactly how. It’s a good bet that since the Giants are attempting a pickoff at first, there is likely no runner at second base, and quite possibly no one at third.
Is this enough information to pin down the game and the inning when the photograph was taken? I’m not sure, but let’s give it a try.
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.