Now that winter is upon us, it’s time to resume our series of baseball card mysteries. We’ve been profiling 1972 Topps throughout our bi-monthly Card Corners, so let’s begin there with our first edition.
As part of its 1972 set, Topps included 72 specially designated “in action” cards, which featured stars, journeymen, and even bit players. There was everybody from Hank Aaron to Carl Yastrzemski, from Bob Barton to Jerry Johnson. One of the most familiar cards from that subset is Bud Harrelson’s.
The photograph for Harrelson’s card was likely taken during the 1971 season, when Harrelson won the only Gold Glove of his career. He had extraordinarily quick feet, which allowed him to scoot across the left side of the infield like a miniature vacuum cleaner. On a Mets staff that featured a fair share of notable left-handers, in particular starters Jerry Koosman and the underrated Ray Sadecki, and co-relief ace Tug McGraw in the bullpen, Harrelson’s presence became extremely valuable. In addition to standout range, Harrelson also sported reliable hands, a strong arm, and a quick release, making him the complete defensive package.
On this card, we see Harrelson taking on an offensive role, where he often appeared out of his element. At 5-foot-11 and a whopping 165 pounds, he looked like the kind of player who could easily have the bat knocked out his hands. Harrelson did his best to make up for his lack of stature by slapping the ball from both sides of the plate, bunting frequently, and taking plenty of pitches. He also had plenty of speed, making him a threat to steal bases out of the No. 8 position in the batting order.
In many ways, Harrelson had one of his typical offensive seasons in 1971. He hit no home runs and batted .252, but did draw 53 walks and steal 28 bases. Those certainly aren’t great offensive numbers, but for a strong defensive shortstop in the early ’70s, they were considered acceptable.
That brings us to our mystery. We know Harrelson is batting and we know that the place is Shea Stadium during an afternoon game. But who is the opponent? The only clue is provided by the opposing catcher, who appears to be either African American or perhaps a dark-skinned Latino.
My first thought was Manny Sanguillen of the Pirates. But that’s not right because the Pirates’ catchers did not use red knee guards back then; they used black guards. My next thought? Paul Casanova of the Braves. Well, that’s couldn’t be right because Casanova was still playing for the Washington Senators in the American League and wouldn‘t join the Braves until 1972. Long before the era of interleague play, the Mets and Senators never played at Shea Stadium.
On the other hand, the team could be the Braves. In somewhat of a statistical oddity, Atlanta had two black catchers in 1971, Rookie of the Year Earl Williams and veteran backup Hal King. So if it is the Braves, it could be one of those two. But which?
One other possibility has crossed my mind. The catcher in question looks like it could be the late Elrod Hendricks of the Orioles. Could this be a photograph from the 1969 World Series, when the Mets and Orioles squared off for five games, including three at Shea Stadium?
Still, that seems strange. Why would Topps use a three-year-old photograph when it had easy access to Shea Stadium throughout the 1971 season?
So the initial questions remain. Who is the Mets’ opponent, and who is the catcher? An intrigued writer wants to know.