Card Corner Plus: The Battery of Munson and Peterson

This is Thurman Munson in action.

One of my 2017 themes has involved the memorable action photography unveiled by Topps in its 1972 set. I’ve written articles about the action cards of Tommy Davis, Johnny Ellis and Gene Michael (each of which featured multiple players in action), so it’s fitting that I conclude the year with a piece about another multi-player action card from that set. It’s ostensibly an action shot of iconic New York Yankees catcher Thurman Munson, who can be seen with one of his teammates on the mound.

I first wrote about this card five years ago, as part of a series called “A Baseball Card Mystery.” With help from faithful and determined readers, we were able to figure out that the photograph was taken during a game at the Oakland Coliseum on June 13, 1971. Several readers contended that the unknown Yankees player in the photograph is left-handed pitcher Fritz Peterson, who shut down the Oakland A’s, 5-1, that afternoon on the strength of a seven-hit complete game. That contention eventually was confirmed by Peterson himself. He posted a comment to the article, in which he said, “That was me. Fritz.” (Hey, it’s always nice to know a ballplayer is reading about himself in The Hardball Times.)

That mystery solved, critics of these early action shots, which Topps first debuted in 1971, have often poked fun at the quality of the photography and the quality of the alleged “action.” In this case, Munson and Peterson are photographed during an actual game, but they are not really “in action.” Rather, they are conversing on the mound, during a break in the action. Some baseball card critics contend this is really not an action card, and they are right—at least in a technical sense.

In defense of Topps, color action photography from live baseball games was difficult to obtain in the early 1970s. Why? Longtime photographer Doug McWilliams, one of the giants in the history of Topps, says that available technology made it problematic to obtain quality action shots. “My first 35 millimeter [action] shot used was a picture of Bert Campaneris sitting at the edge of the dugout. That was in 1975,” McWilliams told me. “Not much action, really just a candid shot. Topps required us to only shoot 100 ASA [speed] film. The lenses were not fast enough, nor long enough to do good work [with action shots]. That came later. The action shots used at first were not very good.”

Bert Campaneris 1975 Topps

Given those limitations, the action shots Topps used in 1972 (and throughout much of the early 1970s) become more understandable. Without high-speed lenses, and with relatively few photographers capable of doing good work with slower-speed cameras, it makes a little more sense when we see awkward photos of backup catchers like Bob Barton staring into ballpark netting and Pat Corrales falling onto the ground and losing the grip on his mitt, Vida Blue staring straight up into the air on an infield pop-up, and Bill Melton trying to check his swing on a bad pitch. Clearly, none of these photographs represented these players at their best or finest moments.

In a similar way, the Munson/Peterson card falls into this category of “weird” action; neither player is seen pitching or hitting. They are simply standing and talking to each other during a typical conference on the mound. That’s not action; it’s really just a candid shot, as McWilliams terms it.

Pat Corrales 1972 “In Action”

Having established all of that, we shouldn’t regard the Munson/Peterson card as some insignificant piece of cardboard. After all, it gives us a rare dual glimpse of two Yankees with intriguing back stories. It’s a wonderful starting point for examining two players who forged a strong bond as teammates and as a long-term catcher/pitcher combination.

Let’s begin with Munson, a crucial player in Yankees history. In 1970, he emerged as the American League’s Rookie of the Year on the strength of a season that saw him hit .302 and post an OPS of over .800. He became (along with Bobby Murcer and Roy White) one of the few bright spots during the so-called Horace Clarke years of mediocrity. He later took on a role as the emotional and spiritual leader of the great Yankees teams of the mid-1970s, his career culminating with his selection as American League MVP in 1976, followed by an even better statistical season in 1977.

Ultimately, Munson became a victim of tragedy, one who was taken from us in the 1979 crash of his own private plane. Nearly 40 years after his death, Munson remains a memorable and cherished figure in the history of the franchise. Of all the Yankees who played for the World Series championship teams of 1977 and ’78, it would be difficult to find a player more beloved than Munson.

While Peterson is not nearly as admired by fans as Munson was (and is), he is a friendly, outgoing sort who is hard not to like. He was also a notable Yankee, one whose career has been obscured by the relatively mediocre teams behind him. In the era after Whitey Ford and prior to Ron Guidry, he emerged as the dominant left-hander of those Yankees staffs. He essentially served as the Yankees’ No. 2 starter, right behind staff ace Mel Stottlemyre. An underrated pitcher, Peterson won in double figures every season from 1968 to 1972 while pitching no fewer than 212 innings and posting ERAs that ranged from 2.55 to 3.24. During that span, he twice finished in the top five in ERA among American League starters.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

More famously, Peterson also would take his place in the game’s popular culture. In 1973, he and teammate Mike Kekich revealed that they had recently swapped wives, children, and family dogs, creating the kind of Peyton Place drama baseball didn’t want while also supplying sexual tension the conservative baseball establishment had long tried to suppress. The “swap” did not work out so well for Kekich, who would separate from the former Mrs. Peterson within a few years, but it panned out nicely for Peterson, who remains married to the former Mrs. Kekich all these years later.

Taken as individuals, Peterson and Munson were important players to the Yankees in 1972 when this Topps card was printed. Peterson won 17 games, completed 12, and logged 250 innings. He struck out only 100 batters but succeeded with a pitch-to-contact approach. As for Munson, he batted .280 with seven home runs while playing exceptional defense. But Munson and Peterson were more than just individual players on the same team; they formed a crucial battery, one that worked frequently in unison from 1969 to 1973. In 1972 alone, Peterson made a total of 35 starts, with Munson catching him in 33 of those games. In the two games Peterson worked without Munson, he allowed three runs in six innings (a no-decision) and allowed two runs in six innings (a loss).

In interviewing pitchers who played with Munson, I’ve learned the Yankees captain could be quite spirited during his conferences on the mound. He had little patience for pitchers who were unable—or unwilling—to throw strikes. In those situations, Munson might make a visit to the mound, voice his displeasure with the pitcher in a quick one-way conversation, and then return to home plate.

But for a veteran pitcher with good control like Peterson, Munson tended to back off from confrontation. His visits were usually calm, much like Munson appears on his action card. “Nothing serious,” said Peterson in recalling the tone of Munson’s visits to the mound. “Thurman respected us, especially (Mel) Stottlemyre and myself. And we respected him as a young, cocky catcher that had all the confidence in the world. We worked well together because we knew what we wanted to throw and he learned what we wanted to throw and how we wanted to throw. And it was a very nice relationship.”

Though Peterson did not throw particularly hard, he was not necessarily easy to catch because of his wide repertoire of pitches. In addition to a decent fastball, Peterson threw a curve, slider, screwball, palm ball and a pitch that he called a knuckle-curve. Peterson said Munson’s high baseball IQ gave him an understanding of which pitches were working best on a given day.

“Thurman was very intelligent. He could see what was happening out there on the mound with us,” said Peterson. “If we were having trouble with a certain pitch, he knew how to stay away from it from time to time, and in crucial spots. And he gave us confidence in ourselves. He understood us, even though we were older than him and had been there longer. He had that cockiness and assurance that he was calling the right pitches. And so did we.”

At times, Peterson relied on Munson to do all the thinking for him, something the left-hander explained in his off-beat autobiography, Mickey Mantle is Going to Heaven. “Making him get into the games even more mentally at times, I would tell him, ‘Thurman, I need a rest. You call the whole game. I don’t want to think today.’” Peterson wrote. “And he would–and be even better for it. In the past I had learned the hard way that I had to throw the exact pitch I had in mind for each delivery or it could have disastrous results. With Thurman I knew when I asked him to call my game 100 percent that he could do the thinking for both of us.”

That strategy worked, mostly because Munson was a master of calling a game, understanding his pitchers, and keeping tabs on the tendencies of opposing hitters. During the game, he took an all-business, no-nonsense approach. In other settings, including the clubhouse and plane trips, Munson willingly involved himself in the kind of joking and hijinks that are typical of major league teams. Although he was clearly a star, his teammates regarded him as one of their own.

“Thurman was a fun guy on the team,” Peterson recalled with fondness. “We took him in as part of our little group of people that had fun on the team, on road trips, and stuff like that. Thurman was real special, and he was a real gamer, meaning that he would take out a second baseman on double plays, he would run over a catcher if he had to. He was just 100 percent a team man. And all of our guys were not like that at the time. We really respected that out of Thurman—and Bobby Murcer, too.”

One example of Munson’s team-first nature occurred during the 1971 season when he collided with Baltimore’s Andy Etchebarren at home plate. Knocked unconscious, Munson was taken to the hospital. The next day, he returned to the Yankees—when he clearly should have remained under observation—and served as a pinch hitter. The day after, Munson collected three hits. Peterson and his Yankee teammates took notice of Munson’s toughness, exemplified by his willingness to sacrifice his body and his health for the betterment of the team.

Clearly, Peterson thought highly of Munson. As teammates for five-plus seasons, their relationship was as strong as that of any pitcher and catcher with the Yankees of that era. So don’t be fooled by the bland nature of the 1972 Munson action shot. There clearly is more significance to this card than just another meeting on the mound. By scratching below the surface of this piece of cardboard, we learn more about the respect with which Peterson held Munson, and the fondness he still feels for his friend who has been gone for so long.

References & Resources

Bruce Markusen 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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Dennis Bedard
5 years ago

Allow me to offer somewhat of a dissent. The candid shots leave much to the imagination and that is what makes them special. A shot of Munson sliding into third base is what it is. But Munson talking with Peterson is more fascinating because they could be talking about anything. I went to a Marlins game a few years ago and the Indians’ bench coach was talking to Francona and had a small pad in his hand. They were reviewing something. It was the 9th and the game was lopsided. I asked my buddy what he thought they could possible be talking about. His answer: “you want mushrooms with that.” This site once ran a series of baseball cards with players in different odd cameo shots and offered readers a chance to sort of fill in the blank about what they were saying or thinking. It was a lot of fun.

Marc Schneider
5 years ago
Reply to  Dennis Bedard

I agree. I think it’s a great shot. It really catches a moment in time better than a pure action shot.

The Duke
5 years ago

I thought the “action” shots of the early years, correctly called “candid” shots were great. Even today, I like the old action shots better than what is on your typical card today.

The murkiness and spaciousness of the old style always conveyed a great sense of being at the game that’s missing in today’s shots