A baseball card mystery: Wally Backman and the unknown Pirateby Bruce Markusen
March 26, 2013
If you’ve seen recent pictures of Wally Backman, you’d be hard-pressed to think that he was once a speedy, 160-pound middle infielder. The Triple-A manager of the Las Vegas 51s looks nothing like he did in this 1987 Topps card. To put it lightly, he’s put on more than a few pounds in his post-playing days. Then again, over 25 years have passed since this photo was snapped at Shea Stadium. More than a few ex-players have seen similar weight gains during similar spans of time.
Backman is representative of a vanishing breed of player: the platoon ballplayer. A scrapping overachiever, he played in the 1980s, when teams still had only nine and 10-man pitching staffs, and carried enough position players to platoon at multiple spots. Backman might have had a tougher time making a roster in 2013, given the relative lack of spare infielders and outfielders on the 25-man roster. If you’re not an everyday position player in today’s game, your chances are severely limited.
Defensively, Backman lacked the range of the better defensive second basemen of his era, the Frank Whites and Manny Trillos of the world, but he was sure-handed and turned the double play efficiently. Backman also had above-average speed, particularly during the early portion of his career, when he put up seasons with 32 and 30 stolen bases.
Backman remained a productive player with the Mets through the 1988 season. But the team wanted to make room for a young Gregg Jefferies at second base, so the Mets traded Backman to the Twins for three middling minor league prospects, none of whom panned out in New York.
Although Backman was still only 29, he was just about done. After playing poorly in his one season in Minnesota, he became a free agent and signed with the Pirates, who switched him to third base. Absolutely lacking in power, Backman put up a .771 OPS, acceptable for a middle infielder but less satisfying for a corner infielder.
After a lone season in Pittsburgh, Backman again became a free agent. This time he signed with the Phillies, where he put in two seasons as a utility infielder before a disastrous 10-game stint with the Mariners in 1993. The M’s released him in mid-May, ending his career at the age of 33.
So let’s return to the Backman of his prime, the Backman of 1987, when this Topps was card was produced. What do we know about this card? First, it was likely taken during the Mets’ world championship season of 1986. Second, it was definitely taken during an afternoon game at Shea Stadium. Third, we know the Mets’ opponent that day was the rival Pirates, who at the time played in the same division with the Mets.
Here’s what we don’t know. Who is the Pirates catcher in this photograph? Is it starting catcher Tony Pena, who appeared in 139 games as a catcher that season? Or is it his backup, Junior Ortiz, who might have been more likely to play in a day game after a night game?
And if we can identify the catcher, can we then determine the specific game in which this play took place? Was Backman safe at the plate, or was he out?
These are the pertinent questions at hand.
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.