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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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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10 Comments on "A baseball card mystery: Johnny Bench’s 1973 Topps card"

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Simon Oliver Lockwood
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Simon Oliver Lockwood

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).

Simon Oliver Lockwood
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Simon Oliver Lockwood

In the June 29 game Bench dropped a foul fly hit by Gallagher during the same 8th inning at bat.

butch
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butch

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!!

Steve Treder
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Steve Treder

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!).

Bruce Markusen
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Bruce Markusen

Steve Treder might have been at that game! If only Topps included a better crowd shot.

Jim G.
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Jim G.
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… Read more »
scott
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scott
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… Read more »
BlftBucco
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BlftBucco

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.

Steve Treder
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Steve Treder

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.

Nicole
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Nicole

Is this card worth anything ?

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