A baseball card mystery: Johnny Bench’s 1973 Topps card

Man, this is a terrific card. It’s part of the iconic 1973 Topps set, depicts a Hall of Fame player in his prime, and shows him attempting to make a fine running catch near the opposition’s dugout.

Johnny Bench is the best defensive catcher I’ve ever seen. Keep in mind that I never saw defensive stalwarts like Roger Bresnahan, Mickey Cochrane, or Jim Hegan play, but I have seen receivers like Bob Boone, Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez, and Jim Sundberg over the last 35 to 40 years.

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When you include Bench’s offensive game—which encompassed power, the ability to draw walks, and above-average speed—he ranks as the best all-round catcher of my lifetime.

I suppose strong arguments could be made for Josh Gibson as the greatest catcher of all time, but I never saw him play, and the Negro Leagues statistics are sufficiently lacking as to do him little justice.

But let’s get back to the card. Thanks to the magic of Topps, we see Bench in full action, near the end of a sprint toward the first-base dugout, as he attempts to finish off a two-handed basket catch of a foul ball.

Due to the timing of the photo by the cameraman, we don’t know for sure if Bench makes the catch, if he crashes into the enemy dugout, (which appears to belong to the Giants), or both.

So here’s the mystery. Did Bench actually make the catch in this game at Candlestick Park, or did he drop the ball? If he dropped the ball, would the official scorer have dared to give Bench an error?

And by the way, who is that Giant sitting in the darkness of the dugout? Bobby Bonds, perhaps?

The Reds played nine games in San Francisco during the 1972 season. This play must have taken place in one of those games. Time to dig.

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Comments

  1. Simon Oliver Lockwood said...

    Going through the game logs on Retrosheet and BB-Ref, I come up with 5 serious possibilities.

    May 18 2nd inning Hart
    May 18 3nd inning B. Williams
    June 28 2nd inning Kingman
    June 29 8th inning Gallagher
    Sept 1 3rd inning Hart

    There were two other day games at Candlestick in which Bench caught foul pop-ups, however in one of them, Bonds was on 1st base at the time (Sept 1 1st inning Fuentes) and the other was hit by the left-handed McCovey (Sept 2 4th inning).

  2. butch said...

    Great Job as usual, Bruce!! Happy Holidays Also!! By The Way Jerry Grote Also was a Great Defensive Catcher as You Mentioned in a Past Article!!  Also Sherm Lollar during the 1950’s Was a Gold Glove Catcher!!

  3. Steve Treder said...

    Great stuff, Bruce.

    If that was a Sunday game, then the odds are very good that I was there, about halfway up the lower grandstand behind that dugout.  But, sorry, I don’t remember if Bench hung on to the ball or not.

    Regarding the assessment of Bench’s defensive skill:  I agree that he was stupendously good.  But I’m not confident in saying he impressed me more than Pudge Rodriguez.  If it was for throwing alone, then, yes, Bench is the best-throwing catcher I’ve ever seen.  Put Rodriguez was quicker, more nimble and mobile (on plays such as pop-ups just like this!).

  4. Jim G. said...

    Having started following baseball in 1980, I sadly remember Bench more as a 3rd baseman than a catcher. I wish I could have seen him in his prime.
    I did get to see Boone, Sundberg and Pudge in their prime, though, and I agree with Steve that Pudge was absolutely mind-blowing in all facets of the game. Imagine if much of his youth wasn’t spent in that oppressive Arlington heat. I was living in Michigan when he came to the Tigers, and even if his best years were behind him, was still the best catcher I’d ever seen. The pressure he could put on a baserunner was remarkable. His pickoffs to first were like lightning. And effortless, too. I don’t remember him ever throwing the ball away. Up to that point, Lance Parrish was the best I’d seen in Detroit, and it took him a while to get to a high level, then he went to the Phillies and hurt his back, so it was short lived. My family always talked about how good Bill Freehan was, but I never saw him play.
    Catcher is one of those positions that, if you have an elite player,  makes the entire game a delight.

  5. scott said...

    if you look at the whole 1973 topps set, you will find cards 121, 130, 410, 507 and 554 also feature a daytime Reds at Giants game.  Now if we assume they were all taken the same game, that means the following players all had to play in the same game: Dave Rader, Rose, McCovey, Darrel Chaney, and Concepcion.  Alas, no such game exists – the main problem is Chaney and Concepcion played the same position.  HOWEVER, per Simon’s post above (and with help from retrosheet), the Giants and Reds played consecutive day games 6/28 and 6/29 in which all 5 players (plus Bench) got into at least 1 of the games.  Could these be the dates then, and the photographer just stayed for both games?  An even juicier possibility was a 9/10 daytime DH, but unfortunately Concepcion did not play either game.
    PS – look at Bench’s 1972 “In Action” card (#434).  Here he is shown in a day game at SF, throwing away his mask as he goes for a pop foul!!!  Could this card and his ‘73 card be on the same play?

  6. BlftBucco said...

    Scott,

    I was looking at the same thing earlier this evening.

    But take a closer look at the Concepcion card #554.  I believe this photo was taken a year earlier.  The ‘72 uniforms had elastic waistbands while the ‘71 uniforms had the belts, which is what Concepcion is wearing.

    I think the Darrel Chaney card #507 was taken on 6-28-72.

    The stand seem pretty full on the Dave Rader card #121 which makes me think that his photo may have been from 9-10-72.

  7. Steve Treder said...

    If it was 9-10, then I was definitely there. Doubleheader Sunday, baby.  I remember that one.  Lots of hitting and scoring, the Giants come from behind in the second game to get a split.  That Bonds 3-run HR in the second game was really cool.

    But I still don’t remember whether Bench held on to that pop fly.

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