A baseball card mystery: Rod Carew

It’s virtually impossible for a hitter to guide a batted ball, to place it on a target on the playing field. A hitter can try to hit the ball hard and can try to pull a pitch or take it to the opposite field, but he cannot be expected to hit a ball to a specific and particular location on the field. If there was anyone who came closest to having that ability, it was Hall of Famer Rod Carew.

Carew was an artiste at the plate and on the bases; he could do everything offensively but hit home runs. During the early stages of his career, he displayed the kind of speed and baserunning smarts that made catchers and infielders tremble. In 1969, he stole home nine times, a single-season total that has not been approached since.

Injuries and age took a toll on his footspeed, but they were slower in taking an effect on his hitting. Often changing his stance from at-bat to at-bat, Carew held the bat loosely in his hands, almost as if it were a baton. Patient and selective, he drew his share of walks, rarely swinging at pitches that were significantly outside the strike zone. When he did swing, he generally made contact, hard contact at that.

He could go with the pitch better than anyone, driving the ball to all fields, from gap to gap, from foul line to foul line. And just to add a little spice to the mixture, he could drop down a bunt as well as any player of the 1960s or ’70s.

The numbers bear out Carew’s skills at the plate. In 1972, he failed to hit a home run but he still managed to lead the American League in hitting at .318. In 1977, he made a late-season charge at the .400 mark—something that had not been attained since the incomparable Ted Williams in 1941—and finished the season at an eye-popping .388. That performance marked the best of his seven batting titles; those titles, along with a career total of 3,053 hits, vaulted him into Cooperstown.

As a second baseman, Carew was a ferocious hitter. In 1976, he was shifted to first base, where his lack of power sometimes caused concern. But on balance, if you had a first baseman who could hit .300, reach base 40 percent of the time and steal 15 to 25 bases, you wouldn’t be too upset.

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While Carew was unquestionably a terrific batsman, his 1979 Topps card has always puzzled me. Here we see him in action while wearing the road blues of the Twins. We can probably assume the photo was taken during the 1978 season, but that’s where the certainty ends.

Judging by the color of the catcher’s jersey, that looks to be the uniform of the Giants. More specifically, I initially thought it was veteran catcher Milt May.

Well, there are two problems with that theory. May did not play for the Giants until 1980; he was still playing for the Tigers in 1978. Furthermore, when exactly would the Twins and Giants have played? There was no interleague play in 1978, so cross off that possibility.

So how about spring training? The Twins played their exhibition games in Orlando, Florida, while the Giants trained in Phoenix, Arizona. It doesn’t seem likely that they would have played each other at that time either.

Then I looked at the All-Star banner on Carew’s card, and it struck me that the photo was taken during the 1978 All-Star Game. Just to make sure, I looked up the box score of that game to confirm one of the Giants catchers played in the game.

My search turned up a negative result. None of the Giants’ catchers played that night. With perennial All-Star Johnny Bench sidelined by injury, the three catchers who did appear were Ted Simmons of the Cardinals, Bob Boone of the Phillies, and the Braves’ Biff Pocoroba (yes, he did make an All-Star team). None of these teams sported an all-red or all-orange top in 1978. So unless my eyes are deceiving me, this photo was not from the 1978 Midsummer Classic.

So when was this photo taken? I really have no idea.

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Comments

  1. John said...

    absolutely its the Orioles.

    In Memorial Stadium the visitors were on the 1st base side…you can see them in the background. The catcher is likely Rick Dempsey.

  2. Bruce Markusen said...

    I did not think of the Orioles originally, but the more I think about it, the more I think you guys are right. Dempsey is also likely as the catcher because he always wore a cap behind the plate, like the player in this photograph.

    So it looks like Memorial Stadium in 1978 is the correct answer. Good job, folks.

  3. E. Walter Lewis said...

    Bruce….I have to believe that it is the Orioles. Back in the 70’s, do you remember teams having all of the variations of uniforms. I remember the Priates could go with numerous. Some teams stuck with the home whites and road greys/or blues. But some teams ventured out and had a lot of different uni’s.

    I also know the Rays for instance, now have the Powder Blue Jersey for Sunday games only. So it is always tough by judging by uniforms. Great notes on Carew…Stole home 9 times in one year? I never knew that.

  4. Gary said...

    Agreed…the Orioles introduced a third uniform style in 1976.  Orange with the navy blue and white stripes on the sleeves. That’s gotta be the great Dempsey behind the plate.

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