A baseball card mystery: Wally Backman and the unknown Pirate

If you’ve seen recent pictures of Wally Backman, you’d be hard-pressed to think that he was once a speedy, 160-pound middle infielder. The Triple-A manager of the Las Vegas 51s looks nothing like he did in this 1987 Topps card. To put it lightly, he’s put on more than a few pounds in his post-playing days. Then again, over 25 years have passed since this photo was snapped at Shea Stadium. More than a few ex-players have seen similar weight gains during similar spans of time.

Backman is representative of a vanishing breed of player: the platoon ballplayer. A scrapping overachiever, he played in the 1980s, when teams still had only nine and 10-man pitching staffs, and carried enough position players to platoon at multiple spots. Backman might have had a tougher time making a roster in 2013, given the relative lack of spare infielders and outfielders on the 25-man roster. If you’re not an everyday position player in today’s game, your chances are severely limited.

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Although a switch-hitter, Backman never hit much against left-handed pitching, to the point where the Mets platooned him with players like Kelvin Chapman and Tim Teufel (who’s currently New York’s third base coach). But Backman hit right-handers well enough to bat second for some great Mets teams, as he fit in smoothly behind either Lenny Dykstra or Mookie Wilson in the New York order.

Defensively, Backman lacked the range of the better defensive second basemen of his era, the Frank Whites and Manny Trillos of the world, but he was sure-handed and turned the double play efficiently. Backman also had above-average speed, particularly during the early portion of his career, when he put up seasons with 32 and 30 stolen bases.

Backman remained a productive player with the Mets through the 1988 season. But the team wanted to make room for a young Gregg Jefferies at second base, so the Mets traded Backman to the Twins for three middling minor league prospects, none of whom panned out in New York.

Although Backman was still only 29, he was just about done. After playing poorly in his one season in Minnesota, he became a free agent and signed with the Pirates, who switched him to third base. Absolutely lacking in power, Backman put up a .771 OPS, acceptable for a middle infielder but less satisfying for a corner infielder.

After a lone season in Pittsburgh, Backman again became a free agent. This time he signed with the Phillies, where he put in two seasons as a utility infielder before a disastrous 10-game stint with the Mariners in 1993. The M’s released him in mid-May, ending his career at the age of 33.

So let’s return to the Backman of his prime, the Backman of 1987, when this Topps was card was produced. What do we know about this card? First, it was likely taken during the Mets’ world championship season of 1986. Second, it was definitely taken during an afternoon game at Shea Stadium. Third, we know the Mets’ opponent that day was the rival Pirates, who at the time played in the same division with the Mets.

Here’s what we don’t know. Who is the Pirates catcher in this photograph? Is it starting catcher Tony Pena, who appeared in 139 games as a catcher that season? Or is it his backup, Junior Ortiz, who might have been more likely to play in a day game after a night game?

And if we can identify the catcher, can we then determine the specific game in which this play took place? Was Backman safe at the plate, or was he out?

These are the pertinent questions at hand.


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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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Carl
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Carl
I agree that itis the June 15th game in the 4th inning.  The fan in the stands behind Pena is weraing a tank top, so that rules out the Oct 4th game.  (I was at that game and had seats behind the Pirates dugout and got Barry Bonds’ autograph). Note also how clean the top of Backman’s uniform is, which to me rules out the 14th as Backman had a diving stops against Pena in the top of the 5th in that game, as well as the 7th of the same game as Backman would have had a dirty uniform… Read more »
Bruce Markusen
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Bruce Markusen

Well done, Michael. I think you are right on with your research.

Dave Cornutt
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Dave Cornutt

One other thing that confirms Pena as the catcher is the way he is standing… he had a very unorthodox half-split stance he used when catching.

Michael Caragliano
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Michael Caragliano
The Mets and Pirates plated three day games at Shea in 1986 where Backman played and reached base, but since Backman and the catcher are both in short sleeves, I think that rules out the October 4th meeting. That leaves a June 14th game and the first game of a June 15th doubleheader as the likely possibilities. Pena was the catcher for all nine innings in both games, so if the photo is from 1986 (and it probably is, since the dugout wall in the background has the awful wood paneling, which I don’t remember seeing in 1985), then that’s… Read more »
BlftBucco
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BlftBucco

I watched my VHS tape from the game in question and without a doubt the photo is from the 7th inning of the game on June 15th. (Game 1).

In the 4th inning Pena caught the ball about waist high on a short hop in front of the plate.  Backman was behind him and his hands never came above his head.

The photo is definitly from the 7th inning. As Jim stated it was a beautiful relay from the cutoff man that nailed Backman at the plate.  The photo was taken after the tag had been applied.

BlftBucco
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BlftBucco

If it was the June 15th game, then I was there watching.  Somewhere I have the games from that day recorded on VHS tape.  I’ll have to see if I can locate the tapes to verify the photo.

Jim
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Jim
I agree with Michael Caragliano.  Play by Play of the June 15 game does mention Backman safe on a throw home as Keith Hernandez (who had doubled) took third. However, Backman was also thrown out in the seventh of the same game on a Kevin Mitchell double to left where the left fielder (be still my heart) hit the cutoff man and was out at the plate 7-6-2.  However, looking at the picture, it appears that the tag has not been made as the catcher is still holding the ball high, unless, of course, he has already tagged him and… Read more »
87 Cards
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87 Cards

Iron knees props to Tony Peña….He caught every inning from June 11 from June 21, 1986 including both ends of the pictured twinbill in Shea (eleven games)….Still, 1986 was only his fifth-highest season for innings played…Peña caught over 900 innings more that Ortiz in 1986…Jim Leyland wore him out before the Bucs shipped him off to St. Louis in 1987 (namesake of my username).

Lara
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Lara

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