Tuesday, February 07, 2012
A baseball card mystery: Bill Sudakis and the strange lightPosted by Bruce Markusen
Diehard Yankee fans of a certain age will remember Bill Sudakis. Tall, muscular, and blond-haired, Sudakis brought a defined and distinctive look to the baseball field.
He had the appearance of a California surfer. He also reminded me of the actor David Soul, who famously played Detective Ken Hutchinson in the 1970s cop drama, “Starsky and Hutch.”
As a ballplayer, Sudakis was a journeyman. At one time, he appeared to be a star third baseman in-the-making, part of a young and promising Dodgers team known as “The Mod Squad.” But the Dodgers had depth at third base and felt that Sudakis could withstand the strains of catching, so they tried him behind the plate.
Unfortunately, the Dodgers were wrong; Sudakis developed knee trouble. He also struggled in making the transition to catching, particularly when it came to throwing out opposing baserunners. In 38 games behind the plate in 1970, Sudakis threw out six percent of base stealers. That’s no misprint, six percent.
During the spring of 1972, the Dodgers tried to slip the switch-hitting Sudakis through waivers, but the Mets put in a claim, sent the waiver fee to the Dodgers, and made him part of their bench. Continuing knee problems derailed his time with the Mets, who ended up trading him to Texas.
From there, he returned to New York, this time with the Yankees, where he became a third-string catcher behind Thurman Munson and Rick Dempsey.
Sudakis' tenure with the Yankees would become memorable, not for his role as a utility man-DH, but for a vicious fistfight with Dempsey at the famed Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee. Late in the 1974 season, Sudakis and Dempsey engaged in a knockdown brawl, even launching pieces of hotel furniture at each other like flying projectiles. (According to one report, one of the combatants threw a lamp as if it were a javelin.)
Remarkably, neither man suffered a serious injury. A peace-loving Bobby Murcer broke up the fisticuffs, only to suffer a broken pinky finger in the process. The loss of Murcer, one of the best players on the team, ended up costing the Yankees, who were desperately trying to win the American League East on the final weekend of the season.
Sudakis’ 1975 Topps card has always intrigued me, especially in regard to the lighting. I cannot tell whether this photograph was taken at the height of a sunny afternoon or during a night game.
At first glance, it looks like a night game, with the bright light around the plate magnified by a stanchion located up above. Topps, however, almost never took pictures of players during night games. Almost all of their photographs were taken during the daytime, either before or during afternoon games.
So perhaps this is a case of the cameraman snapping the shot of Sudakis while looking into the sun, making the light around home plate appear almost artificial in its brightness.
The other question has to do with the location. I cannot figure out which ballpark provided the setting for this photograph. I’m tempted to say Texas, or perhaps Baltimore, but I’m not sure. Or maybe it was taken in Milwaukee, the site of Sudakis’ great Yankee infamy.
So where did this take place? And was it taken during the night or the daytime?
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.