Monday, October 17, 2011
A baseball card mysteryPosted by Bruce Markusen
Forty years ago, Roberto Clemente took a stranglehold of the 1971 World Series and led his underdog Pirates to one of the most stunning upsets in October history.
After trailing the Orioles, two games to none, the Pirates returned home to Pittsburgh to win Game Three, thanks in large part to some hustle by Clemente, who forced Mike Cuellar into a throwing error, and a three-run homer by Bob Robertson.
The Topps Company chose to make Clemente the focal point of its World Series Game Four card. Clemente, seen in the middle of the card, appears to be leading off second base. But here’s where the mystery begins.
Clemente was never stationed at second base throughout the entire game. After each of his first two singles, Clemente went from first to third on a subsequent hit, without stopping at second. The other two times he reached base, he was left stranded at first base to end the inning.
So what happened here? I figure there are two possibilities. First of all, perhaps Clemente is not actually leading off second base. Maybe he is leading off first base. That would also explain why we see the partial and blurred figure of the other Pirate, who appears to be the batter at the plate.
Ordinarily, we would not see the batter at the plate on a photograph, taken at this angle, of the baserunner at second base. But if Clemente is on first base, then we might be able to see the batter, at least partially, within the same photograph.
Then there is the second possibility, the one that I‘m more inclined to believe. Topps may have used a photograph from a different game in the Series, possibly one of the games in Baltimore. It’s not entirely clear to me that this photograph was taken at night; it could just as well have been taken on an overcast day.
Furthermore, a look at the ground in the picture reveals that it appears more like grass, which was used in Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium, than the artificial turf of Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium. If that’s the case, then this photograph was not taken at Game Four at all. But it could not have been taken in Game Six or Seven either, because Clemente did not single or double in either of those games. All of his at-bats resulted in home runs, triples, strikeouts, or other kinds of outs.
So then it must have been taken in one of the first two games of the Series, also played in Baltimore. It could have been Game One, in which Clemente doubled and later drew a walk before advancing to second base. Or it could have been in Game Two, when Clemente stroked another double. So that’s my guess: The photo was taken in either Game One or Game Two, both losses for the Pirates.
That still leaves one remaining question: Who is the blurred Pirate in the foreground? I cannot make out the number at all, so that’s no help. If I had to guess, I would say it’s Willie Stargell, who batted behind Clemente in all seven games of the Series. But I cannot tell if Stargell is actually batting, or leading off first base. If Clemente is indeed leading off second base, then it’s a strange angle from which to see Stargell in the batter’s box. So maybe he’s the baserunner at first base. Or something.
All of it remains a puzzle to me. It’s all guesswork, and I remain unsatisfied that I have come up with the correct answers. Perhaps our able readers can shed some light on this mystery.
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.