A baseball card mystery: finding Kent Tekulve

Kent Tekulve was easily the skinniest player I’ve ever seen play in a major league game. He was listed at 6-foot-4 and 180 pounds, but in reality, he could not have weighed an ounce over 165 pounds, perhaps even 160 pounds. He looked like a scarecrow on the mound. Taken a step further, I’d be tempted to say he looked almost skeletal out there.

With a pronounced Adam’s apple and large wire-frame glasses, Tekulve hardly intimidated in the way of other great relievers of his era, like a Goose Gossage, an Al Hrabosky, or a bearded Bruce Sutter. That Tekulve even made the major leagues was a testament to his perseverance. Signed as a lowly regarded amateur free agent in 1969, he did not make his big league debut until the 1974 season, when he had already turned 27.

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Without an overpowering fastball, Tekulve relied on sink, deception, and one of the funkiest deliveries in history. Long before Chad Bradford made the major league scene, Tekulve used a submarining motion in which his right elbow came within a few inches of touching the dirt on the pitcher’s mound.

With excellent sinking action on his fastball, plenty of sideward movement on his slider, and a slow curveball that he used as a change-up, Tekulve became one of the great relief aces of the late 1970s and early 80s.

Emerging as the Pirates’ primary closer in 1978, Tekulve saved 31 games. He matched that total the next season, coinciding with Pittsburgh’s second world championship of the decade. He also recorded the final out of the 1979 World Series to seal the title for the “We Are Family” Bucs.

Tekulve’s pitching fell off somewhat in 1980, as his ERA rose to 3.39. In the strike-shortened season of 1981, he lost the closer’s role to a bullpen committee headed by Enrique Romo and Rod Scurry. Even though Tekulve forged the best ERA of any Pirates reliever, he had to settle for only three saves.

To his credit, Tekulve regained the role of relief ace in 1982 and ‘83 before eventually being traded to the Phillies for hard-throwing left-hander Al Holland.

Exceedingly durable, Tekulve pitched 90 or more games three times in his career. With his underarming motion, he practically never had a sore arm. He lasted through the 1989 season, pitching for the Reds at the age of 42 and more than making up for the late start to his big league career.

Now that we’ve established his credentials, let’s tackle this week’s mystery. Tekulve’s 1981 Topps card shows him pitching in an afternoon game against the Mets at Shea Stadium. The baserunner appears to be Ron Hodges, the Mets’ longtime backup catcher, who is leading off second base.

What assumptions can we make? This is probably a game from the 1980 season, though it is possible that it could be from a 1979 game. The situation is likely in the late innings, when Tekulve pitched the vast majority of his innings.

So can we pin down this situation to a specific game, and a specific inning? Let’s go.


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Bruce Markusen is the manager of Digital and Outreach Learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He has authored seven baseball books, including biographies of Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda and Ted Williams, and A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, which was awarded SABR's Seymour Medal.

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14 Comments on "A baseball card mystery: finding Kent Tekulve"

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Jim
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Jim

Probably the best I could find also with only one flaw.  According to “Dressed to the Nines”, the Pirates did not wear the all yellow uniform in 1980, only 1977 thru 1979.  Unless, the Hall of Fame site is wrong.  If the game was during those 3 years, there is not a day game where Tekulve was the pitcher and Hodges was on second at the same time.  So, I suspect the uniform site is missing a uniform.

Carl
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Carl

Many other 1981 Topps cards show a similar all-gold uniform, including Willie Stargell, Victor Cruz, and the 3 guys on their prospects cards.  Victor Cruz, Rod Scurry show the black hat as well.  Don Robinson’s card, also an in-action card, shows the all gold uniform w the black hat.

I remember Shea having blue outfield walls. Is this bad memory, were the walls changed at some point, or did the picture just become really washed out?

dj
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dj

June 8th, 1980.  1st game of a doubeheader. Hodges singles off of Teke. Steals second.  It’s most likely him.  Other lefty-swinging Mets that year.  Jorgensen; Phil Mankowski.  1979 (in case they used the pic from year before) was Hebner & Bruce Boisclair.  Without doing more research, I’m betting Hodges.

metsilverman
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metsilverman

Forget the color of the uniform and what happened in the game… RON HODGES STOLE A BASE?! I must not have been watching on Channel 9 that day because I would have remembered that.

Fr. H
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Fr. H

Jim said the the Pirates didn’t wear the all-gold uniforms in 1980, citing “Dressed to the Nines.”  The illustrations on that web site were taken from Marc Okkonen’s book on uniforms.  Okkonen could not show all the different combinations in the space allotted, so he did various representations.  In 1977-79, they had no “home” or “road” uniforms, doing a mix-and-match of all the possibilities.  In ‘80, they dropped the stripes off of the white uniforms and made them the home outfit.  The all-black, all-gold and mix-and-match were used as road uniforms.  So it could be 1980.

Jim
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Jim

Okay then, it looks like it is the June 8, 1980 game.

87 Cards
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87 Cards
MetSilverman’s jibe at Hodges’ stolen base set me to seeking and searching about stolen bases and caught stealing and such basepath things.  Here is the gee-whiz stuff from the hunt: 1.    Hodges’ stolen base off of Tekulve was his only SB of 1980 and was 10% of his career output.  Ron was 10 for 23 lifetime on the paths. 2.  He stole it off of Ed Ott who gunned down 37% of his 1980 runners (the league average was 32%).  Tekulve’s base stealers had a 77%  success rate (his long-leg whip into his right-handed sidearm gave runners a good… Read more »
87 Cards
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87 Cards
Kent Tekulve-an inspiration to skinny, near-sighted pitchers of my youth. On Sunday, June 8, 1980, the Pirates started play 0.5 games up on the Montreal Expos for the NL East League.  This despite the losing the first two of a four game set in Shea to the Mets (23-26, 6 games back coming into play).  A Sunday doubleheader closed out the series. In the bottom of the eight inning of Game One, Hodges led off with a singled, stole second off of Tekulve and Ed Ott, the catcher. He was sacrificed to third base by Ed Glynn, Mets pitcher. He… Read more »
Jim
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Jim

Hugo raises an interesting point.  In 1980, only two non-Hispanic or non-African Americans reached second base for the Mets against Tekulve in a day game.  One was Stearns in the 9th inning on 6/7/80 and the other was Hodges the next day in the 8th inning.  I did not go back to any other year.  Interesting, both catchers, one day apart and both built almost alike as Hodges was one inch taller.  I looked at Topps pictures of both and Stearns was more clean cut, but from the picture it is hard to see if that difference is noticable.

Bruce Markusen
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Bruce Markusen

It’s definitely Hodges and not Stearns. One clue is the flap on the helmet. It’s on the side for a left-handed hitter (like Hodges) and not a right-handed hitter (like Stearns).

And like MetSilverman, I am stunned that Ron Hodges stole a base.

87 Cards
Guest
87 Cards

June 7, 1980, the night before the picture on the Tekulve card, Hodges pinch-hit for Doug Flynn in the 11th inning and singled home Stearns for the winning run…here is video of it from: 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0H0b1EsE0wY

Ron is at the 0:32 cue..that is Bert Blyleven in a rare relief appearance for the Bucs.

Hugo Anversa
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Hugo Anversa

Could be John Stearns the Mets catcher?

salvo
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salvo

Unlike Hodges, Stearns actually was a catcher who was a base-stealing threat, with four seasons in double figures including 25 in 1978, representing the fifth-highest single-season total for a catcher.

James B
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James B

I get the feeling that you guys like facts. Alas, I cannot give you any. What I can tell you is that I was a young catcher growing up in Brooklyn around the time this photo was taken, and even though he was not all the good a hitter, Ron Hodges was a bit of a hero of mine. I can tell you with personal certainty that is Ron Hodges.

For what it’s worth, I found this board after doing a search of Kent Tekulve…my all-time favorite baseball player.

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