Derek Jeter has made news on three different fronts in 2009. First, his defensive range and overall fielding have improved significantly, a direct result of improved conditioning and agility drills. Second, he successfully pursued and then overtook the iconic Lou Gehrig for the franchise’s all-time lead in hits. And third, Jeter’s revitalized hitting has made him an outside candidate for American League MVP honors, a resurgence that figures to place him in the top ten of league balloting for the prestigious award.
Jeter deserves to make a few headlines in a fourth respect, as well. Very quietly, he has been named the Yankees’ nominee for another prestigious award—the Roberto Clemente Award. Named for the baseball hero who did so much work for underprivileged youth and lost his life attempting to airlift relief supplies to earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua, it is one of the few awards that make an effort at judging and measuring a player’s level of character. Given Jeter’s popularity in the clubhouse, his leadership as Yankee captain, his involvement in charitable works, and his generally exemplary off-the-field behavior, it should come as no surprise that Jeter has made the final cut of 30 candidates for the Clemente Award.
With Jeter and Clemente sharing so many common character attributes—loyalty, leadership, and reliability come to mind—it seems appropriate to put the spotlight on Clemente’s final Topps card, which came out over 35 years ago. It is a card that always stirs sadness, fond reflection, and moral debate in this writer’s mind.
At the time that Clemente died so horrifically and unexpectedly in a New Year’s Eve plane crash in 1972, the Topps Company had already produced his baseball card for the 1973 season. The tragically untimely passing of one of the game’s superstars placed Topps in an especially difficult quandary: should the company continue its original plan and issue a card for a venerable player who was deceased, or should it pull the card from distribution out of respect for the loss of a revered legend?
After some internal debate and discussion, Topps opted to publish the card, which had been assigned No. 50 in the series. Topps certainly had precedence on its side, having issued a 1964 “In Memoriam” card for Ken Hubbs after the young Chicago Cubs second baseman who died while piloting his own plane. On a subjective note, I have to say that I heartily endorsed the decision. As one of the few Topps card that depicts Clemente in action, it’s an inherently aesthetic card. Clemente’s beloved status also mandated the publication of the card. As a player so revered, his fans deserved to have one last memento of Clemente. On all fronts, this seemed like the right decision by the folks at Topps.
Rookie cards usually carry the highest value on the open market, but for me, the final regular issue card carries far more sentimental appeal. That is especially the case with Clemente. Rather than fade into obscurity, the final card of Clemente has become the most attractive of all the Clemente cards that Topps had ever produced. The card displays the typically dignified grace of Clemente as he stands rather regally in the right-handed batter’s box. Ever determined, he eyes an unknown New York Mets pitcher in anticipation of swinging at the next pitch. The card also features Mets catcher Jerry Grote (wearing No. 15), who was regarded as one of the game’s finest defensive catchers in the early 1970s.
Amidst all of its classic elements, a common misconception about the card persists. Some fans assume that it shows Clemente during his historic at-bat on September 30, 1972, when he collected his 3,000th and final major league hit against the Mets’ Jon Matlack. Although the Mets did indeed provide the opposition that day, that game was played at Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium; the background on the front of the card and the home pinstriped Mets uniform worn by Grote indicate that the Mets’ spring training site likely provided the setting for the card’s photograph.
This card will always serve as a reminder to me of what Clemente looked like on the playing field. That reminder is important because I only saw Clemente for a couple of years at the end of his career, a by-product of my extreme youthfulness at the time. But now I am reminded of Clemente a little more whenever I watch Derek Jeter take the field.
Bruce Markusen has written two books centered on the life and times of Roberto Clemente.