Skip to main content

The True Stories Behind the Cards

Search engines help ‘detectives’ answer decades-old mysteries regarding vintage action cards. On some cards, what you are seeing is not what Topps is telling you is taking place. Here's the real story.

By Reid Creager

When Topps started featuring regular season game photos on its baseball cards, it changed the collecting hobby in many ways.

For almost a century, virtually all of the pictures on baseball cards were head shots, standing shots or those intended to simulate action – though it was clear even to kids that the latter weren’t photographed during real games. That changed starting in 1971, when Topps added even more appeal to its dramatic black-border set with a smattering of card fronts that featured photos showing plays from actual major league games.

Topps had shown plays with its World Series cards but never from regular season games. These scenes took the collector right to the game, just like photos in the next day’s newspaper.

But unlike the newspaper, there were no captions on the cards to tell us the circumstances surrounding these regular season plays. The details remained a mystery for years – until the Internet and its sophisticated search engines brought out the inner detective in some of us. Now we have some answers, with a big assist from information sources ranging from to excerpts from books on Amazon and Google to well-documented blogs.

I’m one of those detectives, though my two finds here involve World Series cards. I was able to piece together some information that narrows down the time frame on Topps’ storied 1965 World Series card with Mickey Mantle. Other veteran hobbyists, some who have been at the card detective game longer than I have, have pinpointed details surrounding the regular season cards.
The result is some context that adds to these cards’ interest and appeal – including some occasions when Topps may have misled us.


Sometimes the action depicted on a card, like this 1965 Topps No. 134, does not correlate with the information on the card describing the scene. That’s where the card detectives come into play.

1965 Topps #134: “Mantle’s Clutch HR” (Game 3, 1964 World Series)
Contrary to the headline on this card, the photo does not show Mickey Mantle’s game-winning solo home run in the bottom of the ninth in Game 3 of the 1964 World Series at Yankee Stadium – a 2-1 New York victory. This picture could only have been taken on Oct. 8, 1964 (two days earlier) or on Oct. 15 — games that were in St. Louis.

This photo was not taken at Yankee Stadium. Mantle’s wearing a road jersey, and Yankee Stadium didn’t have that kind of padding behind home plate. Another obvious sign that something’s amiss: The follow-through from the pitcher is clearly that of Bob Gibson, who started Games 2 and 7 in St. Louis. (It’s no coincidence that his uniform number is air-brushed out.) Mantle’s game-ending homer – sorry, “walk-off” is an ill-conceived term; every win is a walk-off – was against knuckleballer Barney Schultz.

It has been suggested that this photo could show Mantle’s three-run homer off Gibson in the sixth inning of Game 7 in St. Louis, Mantle’s 18th and last Series home run. This is all but impossible, due to two factors. First, a video clip of that homer (found on YouTube) via an overhead camera angle shows Cardinals catcher Tim McCarver reaching out and up slightly with his glove hand – his throwing hand slightly underneath the glove – for the pitch that Mantle drove over the left-centerfield fence to the opposite field. On the Topps picture, Mantle is swinging at a pitch that’s inside and around the knees. McCarver is reaching in, not up, with both hands for a pitch that may have crossed him up.

Second, the picture on the card looks very much like a swinging strike. McCarver seems to have caught the ball, because he’s using two hands to secure it. So this could have been snapped during any number of Mantle’s at-bats in St. Louis.
More detective work indicates that although the picture isn’t Mantle’s Game 7 homer, it was taken sometime during that Oct. 15 finale.

I found a signed Joe Pepitone photo on eBay in which Pepitone is being hit by a Gibson pitch in St. Louis during the Series ( tells us that occurred in the sixth inning of Game 2. In that photo, the fans seated in the first row behind home plate and to the right of the aisle from the centerfield camera (all older men) don’t look anything like the old men who appear in the same first-row camera view on the Topps photo. (Even though the men are a little blurry in the Topps photo, there are significant differences in height and the wearing of hats.) There’s also a man wearing a light overcoat in the second row in the photo of Pepitone; in the Topps photo, no one is wearing a light coat in that vicinity.

Further, both the picture of Pepitone and the Topps photo were taken from virtually the same angle. This is confirmed by a slight vertical separation in the padding behind home plate just in front of the aisle, which lines up in practically the same location – next to the left-handed batter’s left shoulder – in both photos. So the presence of Gibson, the game’s location and discrepancies in the appearance of these fans are conclusive evidence Topps used a photo that was taken five days after Mantle’s game-winner. And it wasn’t a picture of a home run.

This foul ball pop-up didn’t stave off elimination for the Reds in the 1970 World Series as the headline suggests.

This foul ball pop-up didn’t stave off elimination for the Reds in the 1970 World Series as the headline suggests.

1971 Topps #330: “Reds Stay Alive!” (Game 4, 1970 World Series)
Topps’ headline on its Game 3 1963 World Series card, “L.A. Takes 3rd Straight” – with the Dodgers’ Ron Fairly catching Joe Pepitone’s long drive in front of the Yankees bullpen – leaves the impression that this was the last out of the game. And it was.

Not so on this 1971 card, also with a headline that leads one to believe the play depicted shows the final out. Plus, this is one of the poorer photo choices Topps has made for a World Series game. C’mon – Lee May hits a three-run homer in the eighth to wipe out a 5-3 deficit with the Reds an inning away from a four-game washout, and we get a picture of backup infielder Darrel Chaney catching a pop-up – a pop-up that didn’t even end this 6-5 Reds victory?

As a lifelong Reds fan, I instantly recognized Chaney in this photo as No. 12, but I never recalled him doing anything of note – not even catching a pop-up to end a big game. Suspicions confirmed, again thanks to
Chaney, who came on in the seventh inning as a defensive replacement at shortstop, caught a pop-up by Baltimore’s Davey Johnson in foul territory leading off the bottom of the ninth for his only putout. That’s the play shown on the card. The last out of the game was Clay Carroll striking out Don Buford with a runner on first. That’s the out that kept the Reds alive.

Without reading beforehand, any guesses when this play took place in 1970 between Thurman Munson and Vada Pinson?

Without reading beforehand, any guesses when this play took place in 1970 between Thurman Munson and Vada Pinson?

1971 Topps #275 Vada Pinson
This card has it all, starting with two borderline Hall of Famers who died “young” (Pinson at 57, Thurman Munson at 32). On his blog, Uncle Doc’s Card Closet (, North Carolina collector Nathaniel Thornburg tells how he got a bonus once he went through processes of elimination to determine the date and game of this play – June 24, 1970, Game 1 of a doubleheader.

Here’s how he arrived at the date and game via Internet searches (first determining it was a Yankees home game because Munson is in pinstripes): “The Indians played at Yankee Stadium nine times during the 1970 season. Of those nine games, one was a night game. Scratch. In another, Thurman Munson did not don the Tools of Ignorance. Scratch. In two more, Vada Pinson never reached base. Double scratch. And finally, in three of those games, Pinson never had a play at the plate. Triple scratch.”

That left June 24. The only play involving Pinson at home plate was in Game 1. Pinson walked, went to third on a single and was thrown out at home trying to score on a fly ball.

While searching, Thornburg found actual Yankees game footage from the movie Bang the Drum Slowly that shows the play with Pinson and Munson. He posted a screen cap of Pinson starting his slide and Munson receiving the throw – moments before the picture used on Pinson’s 1971 Topps card was taken.
The back story for this card reveals one of the craziest doubleheaders in baseball history:

  • Bobby Murcer hit four straight home runs.
  • In Game 2, Pinson tried to score from second on a wild pitch. Munson retrieved the ball and threw it to pitcher Stan Bahnsen at home. Bahnsen tagged high and hard, prompting a response from Pinson. Bahnsen threw the ball at Pinson’s foot. Pinson laid out Bahnsen with a single left hook and was ejected.
  • A fan threw a cherry bomb from the upper deck in Game 2. It exploded near Indians catcher Ray Fosse, causing burns through his stirrup, sock and shoe. The fan was arrested; Fosse stayed in the game.
  • In Game 1, Yankees pitcher Steve Hamilton lobbed a high, soft pitch – his “Folly Floater” – to Tony Horton, who popped it up foul and out of play. Horton called for another one, Hamilton obliged, Horton popped out and then crawled back to the dugout on his knees.
The mystery as to when the action took place in this photo on Chris Short’s card can be solved quite quickly.

The mystery as to when the action took place in this photo on Chris Short’s card can be solved quite quickly.

1971 Topps #511 Chris Short
This picture, with Pete Rose leading off in the background, doesn’t take a lot of detective work. Assuming it was taken in 1970 and not earlier, the date of this game had to be June 14. That was the only time Short faced the Reds that season, a 10-1 Cincinnati victory.

A look at the Reds’ schedule from that year shows June 14 to be the final time they played at Connie Mack Stadium – and 10 days later, they played their last game at their own Crosley Field. Bruce Markusen of The Hardball Times notes that “Short’s 1971 Topps card shows him trying to pitch through some of his chronic back pain . . . by 1970, the stadium had deteriorated badly, but it was one of the good old ballparks in its heyday, a structure with a distinctive outer facade that oozed baseball of the 1930s and ’40s.

“As Short delivers the pitch on this card, he does so against the nostalgic backdrop of the old advertising signs at Connie Mack. In case you’re wondering, the card gives us a partial view of the famed Alpo Dog Food sign, which emphasized that the product contained ‘100 per cent meat.’ ”

Who’s that sliding into home plate against Pat Corrales? Hint, it’s a Hall of Fame pitcher.

Who’s that sliding into home plate against Pat Corrales? Hint, it’s a Hall of Fame pitcher.

1973 Topps #542 Pat Corrales
Who would guess that the player sliding at the plate was a pitcher and Hall of Famer? It’s Ferguson Jenkins.

Corrales played in only 44 games in 1972. From Thornburg: “Judging by the uniforms, we know it is a road game, and that knocks it down to 27 potential games. Looking at the baserunner, we can tell it’s either a Met or a Cubbie. We can also tell the player’s number, which is either a 21 or a 31.”

No. 21 on the Mets was Cleon Jones; No. 31 on the Cubs was Jenkins. “Diligent review” of Jones’ box scores eliminates him. Jenkins pitched in one home game against the Padres in 1972, on June 14. Review of that box score reveals a play at the plate in the bottom of the second involving Corrales and Jenkins. The pitcher had singled to leftfield off of Steve Arlin, moving Ron Santo to second. Then Don Kessinger doubled to left, scoring Santo.

“Based on the box score, the leftfielder’s throw (Leron Lee) went to the cutoff man (Enzo Hernandez), who then threw out Jenkins at home. This is confirmed looking at the card.” Corrales has the ball in his right hand, Jenkins is not touching the plate and the home plate umpire, Mel Steiner, is preparing to make the “out” call.

For Thornburg and others, the researching of these cards is fun and necessary.

“To me, every ‘action’ card has a story, and they just need someone to write it,” he says. “I think this is especially important for vintage cards because information was not readily available like it is today. Back then, games were not televised nearly as much, and most people usually got their baseball from the radio or in the box scores.

“So, I think it brings another exciting aspect into the action photo when you know the back story and exact play depicted on a baseball card.”

Reid Creager is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at

Auction of the Week


Galaxy Auctions

Sports cards, rock posters, music memorabilia, collectable card games, Hollywood, pop culture, historical, autographs, publications, art, and much more!