Monday, February 25, 2013
A baseball card mystery: finding Kent TekulvePosted by Bruce Markusen
Kent Tekulve was easily the skinniest player I’ve ever seen play in a major league game. He was listed at 6-foot-4 and 180 pounds, but in reality, he could not have weighed an ounce over 165 pounds, perhaps even 160 pounds. He looked like a scarecrow on the mound. Taken a step further, I’d be tempted to say he looked almost skeletal out there.
With a pronounced Adam’s apple and large wire-frame glasses, Tekulve hardly intimidated in the way of other great relievers of his era, like a Goose Gossage, an Al Hrabosky, or a bearded Bruce Sutter. That Tekulve even made the major leagues was a testament to his perseverance. Signed as a lowly regarded amateur free agent in 1969, he did not make his big league debut until the 1974 season, when he had already turned 27.
With excellent sinking action on his fastball, plenty of sideward movement on his slider, and a slow curveball that he used as a change-up, Tekulve became one of the great relief aces of the late 1970s and early 80s.
Emerging as the Pirates’ primary closer in 1978, Tekulve saved 31 games. He matched that total the next season, coinciding with Pittsburgh’s second world championship of the decade. He also recorded the final out of the 1979 World Series to seal the title for the “We Are Family” Bucs.
Tekulve’s pitching fell off somewhat in 1980, as his ERA rose to 3.39. In the strike-shortened season of 1981, he lost the closer’s role to a bullpen committee headed by Enrique Romo and Rod Scurry. Even though Tekulve forged the best ERA of any Pirates reliever, he had to settle for only three saves.
To his credit, Tekulve regained the role of relief ace in 1982 and ‘83 before eventually being traded to the Phillies for hard-throwing left-hander Al Holland.
Exceedingly durable, Tekulve pitched 90 or more games three times in his career. With his underarming motion, he practically never had a sore arm. He lasted through the 1989 season, pitching for the Reds at the age of 42 and more than making up for the late start to his big league career.
Now that we’ve established his credentials, let’s tackle this week’s mystery. Tekulve’s 1981 Topps card shows him pitching in an afternoon game against the Mets at Shea Stadium. The baserunner appears to be Ron Hodges, the Mets’ longtime backup catcher, who is leading off second base.
What assumptions can we make? This is probably a game from the 1980 season, though it is possible that it could be from a 1979 game. The situation is likely in the late innings, when Tekulve pitched the vast majority of his innings.
So can we pin down this situation to a specific game, and a specific inning? Let’s go.
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.