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.

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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.


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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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First
Guest
First

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?

Kevin
Guest
Kevin

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.

Chris C.
Guest
Chris C.
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… Read more »
Chris C.
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Chris C.

Just re-read my post. Sorry for the typos/missing words. It’s difficult to proofread in a tiny text box wink

Brian Minsker
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Brian Minsker
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.… Read more »
Chris C.
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Chris C.

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

So:

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

Chris C.
Guest
Chris C.

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).

Bruce Markusen
Guest
Bruce Markusen

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.

BlftBucco
Guest
BlftBucco

Jim G.

Clemente died a year and three months later. He played in 1972.

Chris C.
Guest
Chris C.

Bruce: Yeah, same here. I’ve been looking everywhere, and all the sources say 309 down both lines.

I found a bigger picture of the Clemente card—http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_nYSKXlm_7Pg/TOnRaUseLjI/AAAAAAAABBE/65T96TFuIYA/s1600/72PS3.jpg

I’m wondering if it really does say 309, but with a fair amount of camera blur due to the distance/background noise/etc.?

Jim G.
Guest
Jim G.

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.

Jim G.
Guest
Jim G.

Or maybe that’s “stage right”. You know what I mean.

BlftBucco
Guest
BlftBucco

Memorial Stadium for sure.

The game 7 card shows the same foul line on the fence and you can see the same yellow number.

Now to narrow down the exact game/inning.

http://www.checkoutmycards.com/Cards/Baseball/1972/Topps/229/World_Series_Game_7_Steve_Blass

BlftBucco
Guest
BlftBucco

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!

Jim G.
Guest
Jim G.
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… Read more »
Jim G.
Guest
Jim G.

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.

Brian Minsker
Guest
Brian Minsker

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.

bennythedog
Guest
bennythedog

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.

BlftBucco
Guest
BlftBucco
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… Read more »
Sven at 60ft6in.com
Guest
Sven at 60ft6in.com
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… Read more »
Bruce Markusen
Guest
Bruce Markusen

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.

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