A baseball card mystery: Bud Harrelson and the unknown catcher

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.

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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.

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Comments

  1. Dave Jordan said...

    Second that.  Also, check out the guy in the visitors dugout – appears to be wearing spring/summer clothing.  Sunglasses in October?  Sure, it’s possible, but unlikely.  My first guess was Williams on first glance.  Definitely a Brave.

  2. John said...

    Are you sure he was batting righty?  It looks like the bat was flying out of his right hand which means he could have been batting lefty and this picture is of him after his turn toward first and letting go of the bat (with his bottom hand).

  3. Dennis Bedard said...

    I think John has struck gold.  When you swing a bat, your your opposite hand will let go of it last and the other hand will naturally go to your opposite shoulder.  So here Harrelson was batting left handed and thus against a right handed pitcher.  The catcher may still be Hal King.  I need to check the BS for each game and see if there was a right handed reliever in either.  Take an imaginary left hand swing and turn to first.  Then figure the camera angle.  You will be in almost the same position as Harrelson.

  4. Bruce Markusen said...

    I agree that Harrelson might be batting left-handed in this photo.

    87 Cards, I think you are right that it is Hal King. (I remember Earl Williams being bigger and bulkier than the catcher in the picture.)

    A little background on King: he was a backup catcher for the Astros, Rangers, Braves and Reds from 1967 to 1974. As a semi-regular with Atlanta in 1970, he hit 11 home runs, but is best remembered for what he did for the Reds in the second half of the 1973 season. Acquired in midseason, King hit three pinch-hit home runs that contributed to victories, helping the Reds win the National League West.

  5. 87 Cards said...

    Reference my 8:03 am comment:  I stipulate that Harrelson is batting righty…bad premise on my part; Good Eye Award to John at 10:05 am

  6. Michael Caragliano said...

    This photo definitely did not happen during the ‘69 World Series; it was overcast for most of the three games, and the crowd in the background is dressed for a regular season game in the summer (lots of sunglasses visible), not the suit-jacket crowd the Fall Classic used to draw.

    There’s a patch visible on the catcher’s shoulder, so I’d go with one of the Braves catchers. They had the Indian face patch on the road uniforms in 1971. As for the date, the Braves played four day games at Shea in 1971, but Bob Didier caught two of them, so if I had to guess that this photo was taken in 1971, there are two possibilities: May 22nd or July 3rd. The sunglasses on the faces in the crowd makes July 3rd my likely bet.

  7. 87 Cards said...

    I believe the mystery catcher to be Hal King from the following premises, assuming the photo was from game action of 1971:
    1.  Bud is wearing white thus the games was at Shea. Clearly, this was a day game.

    2.  That is Chief Noca-A-Homa patch on the left sleeve of the catcher, an accoutrement of the 1971 Atlanta Braves.

    4.  The Braves were in Shea May 21-23 and Jul 2-4, 1971, all day games.

    3.  Harrelson, a switch-hitter, is batting righty thus a lefty must be on the mound.

    4.  The only Braves left-handers Harrelson faced in 1971 were Steve Barber (May 21), George Stone (May 22), and Mike McQueen (May 23).
    5.  Bob Didier, a Causasian, caught the McQueen game.
    6.  Hal King had the plate for the Barber and Stone games.

    Special props to http://www.retrosheet.org on this tasty challenge.

  8. glenn-troy ny said...

    what about the earflap on the batting helmet? i can see an ear in the photo meaning the other ear is protected by the flap when batting right handed..

  9. Dennis Bedard said...

    To glenn-troy-ny:  come on!  There was no ear flap on either side of the helmet in 1971.  No way.  And you can look it up.

  10. BlftBucco said...

    Bruce,

    Great to see this series back.  I always enjoyed the sleuthing!

    @Dennis

    Not sure what you’re talking about, but helmets with ear flaps have been around in some form since the early 60’s.

    It was not a requirement for a new player to wear an ear flap until 1983.  Players who played prior to that season had the option of using a flapless helmet.

    Most players up through the early 70’s went without the flap.

    Personally, I don’t recall Harrelson wearing a helmet with a flap throughout his career.

  11. Michael Caragliano said...

    Great point about the earflaps, Bucco. I know they grandfathered in the helmets, and Bob Montgomery became the last player to bat without one…. so now, the obvious question becomes, who was the last player to bat in a game without an earflap?

  12. Peter Boucher said...

    @ Michael Caragliano. Great post about Bob Montgomery being the last player to wear a baseball player to wear only a cap when batting. He played for the Red Sox and I’m a big-time Red Sox fan all of my life. Not to change the subject but the last Hockey player in the NHL to play without a helmet was Craig MacTavish when he retired from hockey. He also played for the Boston Bruins for a few years. Thanks for the tidbit on Monty…….

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