A baseball card mystery

Forty years ago, Roberto Clemente took a stranglehold of the 1971 World Series and led his underdog Pirates to one of the most stunning upsets in October history.

After trailing the Orioles, two games to none, the Pirates returned home to Pittsburgh to win Game Three, thanks in large part to some hustle by Clemente, who forced Mike Cuellar into a throwing error, and a three-run homer by Bob Robertson.


That set the stage for Game Four, the first night game in the history of World Series play. As he did in the third game, Clemente made his impact felt, with three singles and a walk, though he did not score or drive in a run in the Pirates’ 4-3 win. Milt May, pinch-hitting for reliever Bruce Kison, delivered the game-winning hit in the bottom of the seventh.

The Topps Company chose to make Clemente the focal point of its World Series Game Four card. Clemente, seen in the middle of the card, appears to be leading off second base. But here’s where the mystery begins.

Clemente was never stationed at second base throughout the entire game. After each of his first two singles, Clemente went from first to third on a subsequent hit, without stopping at second. The other two times he reached base, he was left stranded at first base to end the inning.

So what happened here? I figure there are two possibilities. First of all, perhaps Clemente is not actually leading off second base. Maybe he is leading off first base. That would also explain why we see the partial and blurred figure of the other Pirate, who appears to be the batter at the plate.

Ordinarily, we would not see the batter at the plate on a photograph, taken at this angle, of the baserunner at second base. But if Clemente is on first base, then we might be able to see the batter, at least partially, within the same photograph.

Then there is the second possibility, the one that I‘m more inclined to believe. Topps may have used a photograph from a different game in the Series, possibly one of the games in Baltimore. It’s not entirely clear to me that this photograph was taken at night; it could just as well have been taken on an overcast day.

Furthermore, a look at the ground in the picture reveals that it appears more like grass, which was used in Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium, than the artificial turf of Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium. If that’s the case, then this photograph was not taken at Game Four at all. But it could not have been taken in Game Six or Seven either, because Clemente did not single or double in either of those games. All of his at-bats resulted in home runs, triples, strikeouts, or other kinds of outs.

So then it must have been taken in one of the first two games of the Series, also played in Baltimore. It could have been Game One, in which Clemente doubled and later drew a walk before advancing to second base. Or it could have been in Game Two, when Clemente stroked another double. So that’s my guess: The photo was taken in either Game One or Game Two, both losses for the Pirates.

That still leaves one remaining question: Who is the blurred Pirate in the foreground? I cannot make out the number at all, so that’s no help. If I had to guess, I would say it’s Willie Stargell, who batted behind Clemente in all seven games of the Series. But I cannot tell if Stargell is actually batting, or leading off first base. If Clemente is indeed leading off second base, then it’s a strange angle from which to see Stargell in the batter’s box. So maybe he’s the baserunner at first base. Or something.

All of it remains a puzzle to me. It’s all guesswork, and I remain unsatisfied that I have come up with the correct answers. Perhaps our able readers can shed some light on this mystery.

Print Friendly
 Share on Facebook0Tweet about this on Twitter0Share on Google+0Share on Reddit0Email this to someone
« Previous: Offensive surge gives Cardinals NL pennant
Next: LCS prediction results »


  1. First said...

    No answers, just questions that will maybe get someone else thinking in the right direction:
    1) What did the Pirates’ home/away uniforms look like during that series?
    2) Could the blurred player be in the on-deck circle?
    3) I see a foulline and the number 312 on the wall behind Clemente. Does that correspond to one outfield or the other in 1971? Does it correspond to the left field or right field wall? Can you infer which base he’s on and where the camera is from that?

  2. Kevin said...

    As First mentioned above – my first thought is that the player in the foreground is in the on-deck circle, and that Clemente is on first base.

  3. Chris C. said...

    I actually think the uniformed guy in the foreground is 1B coach Bill Virdon. He wore #41 that year, which looks like it could be a match.

    I also think that this game was played in Baltimore… if you blow the card up more, the uniform starts to look more like the grey roadies than the home whites. Not to mention the uniform of the player on Clemente’s left looks much whiter as well.

    If we operate under the assumptions that the man in the foreground is, in fact, Virdon—AND that the games was in BAL—then determining the exact AB near is impossible, as Clemente reached 2B four times in games played at Memorial Stadium: Game 1/1st inning (2B); Game 1/3rd inning (1B + Stargell BB); Game 2/3rd inning (2B); Game 6/10th inning (IBB + Stargell BB).

    There’s also the on-deck theory from the first two posts. If the player in the foreground is in the on-deck circle (and not a coach), then my money’s on the third inning of Game 1.

    Game 1
    1st inning = Clemente doubled
    3rd inning = Clemente singled and moved to 2nd on a Stargell BB

    In this game, Pagan was batting down-lineup from Clemente. After the Stargell walk, both Robertson (#7) and Sanguillen (#35) struck out to bring Pagan (#11) to the plate.

    Clemente only reach 2B in two of the remaining three games in BAL:

    Game 2
    3rd inning = Clemente doubled

    Game 6
    10th inning = Clemente was IBB and moved to 2nd on a Stargell BB

    In both of these games, the players who could have possibly been in the on-deck circle (save for a PH that never appeared) while Clemente was on 2B are the aforementioned Robertson, Sanguillen, and Al Oliver (#16). I suppose it’s possible that the second number on the mystery person’s back is a 6, it more closely resembles a 1 or a 7 (and possibly a 4, but I doubt it).

  4. Brian Minsker said...

    I think the key element of the photo is the foul pole in the background with the numbers to the right of the pole, indicating that it is the left field pole. There is also a hint of a foul line to the left of Clemente, further indicating that this is the left-field pole.

    Looking at video of Clemente in 1971 WS (http://vimeo.com/1357653), you can see the right-field mark at both 0:12 and 0:15, which shows yellow numbers inside a white line with a sloping projection in foul territory similar to that to the left of Clemente in the picture. Clemente is also clearly in road grays in the video, indicating the picture was Baltimore and not Pittsburgh.

    There is also an Oriole holding Clemente on base, seen just barely on the right of the picture. To my eye, the Oriole’s uniform is whiter than Clemente’s—another indicator that this was in Baltimore.

    I’m not convinced the “batter” is actually a Pirate. One Baltimore’s two uniform styles had the black-white-orange waistband, which when out of focus and somewhat desaturated in color would look similar to the Pittsburgh black-white-gold waistband.

    To get Clemente with the left field foul pole behind him and a player to his left holding him on, he is most likely on second base, with the picture taken somewhere down the right field line behind first base. The “batter” would have to either be a Pirate leading off first, Boog Powell playing first for Baltimore, or Davey Johnson playing second.

  5. Chris C. said...

    @Brian Minsker: Ah, good call. The player in the foreground definitely looks to be an Oriole.


    Powell (1B) = #26
    Johnson (2B) = #15

    I guess there’s a remote chance it could be a pitcher, too, in which case:

    McNally = #19
    Palmer = #22
    Hall = #29
    Dobson = #37

  6. Chris C. said...

    Damn, changed my mind again.

    I’m back to thinking the player in the foreground is a Pirate. I just busted out “Baseball Uniforms of the 20th Century” and BAL’s 1971 “home” stirrups didn’t have stripes (solid orange), whereas PIT’s 1971 “away” stirrups did (gold/black/white).

    Also, I found this pic of Memorial from 1991: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/c/ce/BaltimoreMemorialStadium1991.jpg

    Judging by angle of the picture on the card, I’d have to think any chance of the foreground player being in the on-deck circle is pretty slim. Rather, it’s more likely that the mystery man is either #8 Stargell (on 1B) or #41 Virdon (1B coach).

  7. Bruce Markusen said...

    Chris, I tend to think you are right in your analysis, but here’s what doesn’t make sense. The left field distance at Memorial Stadium is listed as 309 in every source I’ve seen, but the photo shows 312. I’m not sure why there is a discrepancy of three feet.

    It’s definitely not Three Rivers Stadium, where the distance to left field was 335, not anywhere close to the 312 that is shown.

  8. Jim G. said...

    Bruce et al,
    I love a good mystery. Some good detective work going on here. 312 isn’t a measurement marker, but a section number, which was definitely the left field seats just to the right (house right) of the left field pole at Memorial Stadium.

  9. BlftBucco said...

    Chris C. thanks for the bigger picture. 

    If you zoom in on Clemente’s left shoe you can see the tongue is sorta sticking up.  That may be our only remaining clue to define which game/inning.

    Getting kind of late tonight to watch 1971 World Series videos. . .  Maybe tomorrow!

  10. Jim G. said...

    Looking at Clemente’s body angle in relation to the foul line, I believe he’s on 2nd. I triangulated where the photographer would have been from an old Memorial Stadium map, taking into account a lead off 2nd. It put the photographer just on the far side of the home dugout, which is a bit down the rf line past 1st. That would put our mystery person around 1b. I agree that it’s either the first baseman, the first base coach, or a runner on first. Based on the possible uniform number, I’m dismissing Powell, who was #26. (The stirrups also indicate it was likely a Pirate.) From Bruce’s pic it looks like a 17. Chris’ theory that it was #41 Bill Virdon coaching is a possibility. But after seeing Chris’ link to a larger image, it is possibly a #8, which would mean Bruce was correct with Willie Stargell. And as Chris pointed out, could have been either game 1 or 6. I’m going with Stargell. Bift pointed out the floppy tongue on his cleat. That is probably the only clue to finding out exactly which of the two games it was.
    Of course, if it was game 6, it would have been Clemente’s final time standing on a base. He would homer for his only non-out in the decisive game 7, which the Pirates won. Three months later he’ll perish in a plane crash.

  11. Jim G. said...

    Thanks for the correction, Bift. Some site had his death posted as January 1972. I wish I could find that now. Should have stuck with Baseball-Reference.

  12. Brian Minsker said...

    Good catch on the socks, and the photo clearly shows the coaching box in a line with the left field foul pole and the area just past second. I can see it being the Pirate’s 1B coach in the foreground. The number on the back looks to fit a 41 better than any of the other possibilities.

  13. bennythedog said...

    so who is the Pirate in the foreground?  Is that Stargell batting?  It looks like the person is in a stance of some sort… legs together and hunched slightly.

  14. BlftBucco said...

    I just finished watching video of the ‘71 World Series and I believe without a doubt that the photo was taken in the first inning of game 1.

    When Clemente stroked a double to right field he definitely had the tongue raised on his left shoe.

    On a 3-2 pitch to Stargell, if you freeze the NBC game video when McNally is beginning his pitch. McNally has the ball near his hip and Clemente can be seen leading off second base. 

    At the same moment, Belanger is releasing from holding Clemente and, Roberto can be seen starting in motion. 

    There is an instant when the exact stance as is shown on the card is seen where both feet and arm positions match.

    Also to clarify/correct a few other items discussed:

    The first base coach was #43 Don Leppert not #41 Bill Virdon (Virdon was the hitting coach).  Leppert can be seen throughout the series coaching first base.

    The dimensions at Three Rivers Stadium at the time were 340’ down the line.  I believe the fences were brought in 5’ starting in 1975.

    Bring on more mysteries Bruce!

  15. Sven at 60ft6in.com said...

    I believe the picture on the card is clearly taken from somewhere near 1B, looking toward the LF corner, and Clemente is clearly on 2B.  No doubt about that.

    The player in the foreground appears to wear the same grey Away uniform and same color socks as Clemente.  Clemente is also looking toward home plate as he leads, so, that is a runner leading off of 1B.

    The picture was taken as both runners are getting their secondary leads, as the pitcher is delivering the ball.

    I doubt this picture was actually taken at the World Series.  It was probably from a random NL regular season game.  What NL stadium was 312’ down the LF line?  It isn’t even necessarily taken in the same ‘71 season.  They obviously have the games mixed up, why not the series, why not the season?

    Also, the Game 7 card is all touched up in the background.  The crowd is just painted on, so it could also be from any game, any season.

  16. Bruce Markusen said...

    Thanks for all of the great responses, everyone. Much appreciated. Based on everything submitted, I think the following conclusions can be made:

    a)The photo is from Game One of the 1971 World Series, taken at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore. (Remember the 312 is not a distance marker, but a seat section, according to above research.)

    b)Clemente is leading off second base, perhaps after his first at-bat in Game One.

    c)The Pirate in the foreground is either the runner at first base (maybe Willie Stargell) or first base coach Don Leppert.

    Mystery solved, at least for the most part.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>