Card Corner: 1972 Topps: Curt Blefaryby Bruce Markusen
November 02, 2012
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.
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.
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.