Monday, March 13, 2006

Faces in the Crowd: Remembering Puck

Courtesy of
Mar 9 2006 2:59PM
by T. Scott Brandon

I was shocked on Sunday to hear from a friend that Kirby Puckett had suffered a stroke in his Scottsdale, AZ home. The next day, news of his passing brought back a flood of memories from throughout his career.

I first started following Puck in 1984, after my father returned from a business trip to Minneapolis. While there, he went to a Twins game where he saw a "little guy" playing center field. Being on the short side myself, I was interested in the success of a small man in Major League baseball. From that point on he replaced Eddie Murray as my favorite player. My choice of favorite players could not have been more dissimilar: Murray, the big, quiet, stern slugger and Puck, the small bundle of baseball joy did not outwardly share much in common other than a superior talent for baseball. I loved the way they played the game, though.

Late in the summer of 1984 I put in a pre-order for the 1984 Topps Traded set at my local card shop. I anxiously awaited the set's arrival in anticipation of owning my first Kirby Puckett card. I was quite disappointed upon the release of the set to find out that Topps did not see fit to include Puck in its year-end update, and the Fleer Update set, which was quickly shooting through the $100 mark, would be my only chance to get one of his cards that fall. At that point I made it my quest to get at least one of every card made of my favorite player.

In the early 1990's I added a technological dimension to my collection, compiling a comprehensive list of Kirby Puckett cards and memorabilia. I made the list available to other collectors with similar interests and was pleased to meet Puck fans all over the country. By the mid-1990's I had catalogued well over 1,000 unique items and, when the Twins came to Salt Lake City to play an exhibition game against their AAA affiliate, I gave a copy of my list to Puck. He was surprised at the length of the list, asking, "wow, that's all me!?" Shortly after, he mentioned in an interview that, upon his retirement, the only gift he would ask for is "one of every baseball card ever made of me."

Sadly, he would not have to wait long to test his request. At the end of Spring Training, 1996 he awoke with blurred vision and was soon diagnosed with Glaucoma. The disease robbed him of the sight in his right eye and ended his career years early. After hearing of his retirement plans, I contacted Twins Vice President Dave St. Peter and discussed Puck's stated retirement wish with him. I offered to donate my entire collection of Kirby Puckett cards and, with the help of the Twins, track down the few items that I had not yet added to my collection in order to present Puck with a complete collection of his cards. During the ensuing months I received help from numerous collectors, many of whom made generous donations in order to give Puck a gift from his fans.

In December 1996 Beckett Baseball Monthly ran an article about my collection and my list of Kirby Puckett collectibles. This put me in touch with hundreds of other Puck fans, several of whom contributed to his retirement gift. In May 1997 the Twins flew my family out to Minneapolis for Puck's retirement ceremonies and hosted our stay there. During the weekend I arranged a meeting of Kirby Puckett collectors at the hotel I was staying in. More than 50 local collectors, and several others from neighboring states, came out to talk about our favorite player and share collecting tips. Yet others sent their regrets for being unable to attend.

The team and their employees were more than gracious the entire weekend. My son got to take batting practice with the team, and "work out" with pitching coach Dick Such. My family got to spend some time with Kirby, and I asked him to sign the Beckett Monthly article about my collection. When he saw it, he asked, "Well, now that I'm retired, what are you going to do?" Up to that point, I hadn't considered where my collection would go next.

My biggest thrill of the weekend was at the last game of the series, when the team honored Puck with a retirement ceremony, including the unveiling of a giant mural of him in the Metrodome outfield. I was fortunate enough to be down on the field during the ceremony, at which time he was presented with the collection of his cards, among other gifts. The Twins staff had mounted the cards beautifully into large collages that were arrayed neatly around the diamond.

After the series I returned to my home in Utah and contemplated the question Puck asked me about my collection: "What are you going to do?" I decided that, in addition to re-assembling my Puckett collection, I would start collecting cards of every player, manager, coach, umpire, commissioner and league president whose career ended like Puck's, "through no fault of their own." As a member of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), I relished the challenge of researching these men from baseball's past. Over the next two years I created a list of players and other baseball figures and, with the gracious help of Beckett's Rick Klein, compiled a checklist of cards to pursue. My new collection included such players as Minter Hayes, the only other player whose career ended due to Glaucoma; players who died suddenly, such as Thurman Munson and Ray Chapman; and those who had to retire due to physical limitations such as Roy Campanella and Sandy Koufax.

In 2001 I attended the Hall of Fame induction for Puck, Dave Winfield, Bill Mazeroski and Hilton Smith. While there, I got to see him briefly at the Hall of Fame game and was fortunate enough to be allowed into the Hall while Puck had his photo taken with his family next to his new Hall of Fame plaque. That weekend was the last time I would see him.

Puck was not the first baseball player to suffer a stroke; several notable players had their careers interrupted or ended by the effects of strokes, from 19th Century star Dave Orr to J.R. Richard in the 1980's and Jeff Gray in the 1990's…but Puck was different. His smile could light an entire ballpark, and even draw a grin out of the likes of the ever-dour Juan Gonzalez. He organized charity events, drew much-needed attention to Glaucoma testing and detection, and brought joy to everyone who saw him on a baseball diamond. His bubbly nature and ever-present smile will be sorely missed.

T. Scott Brandon is a longtime Beckett reader and a life-long baseball fan currently living far from Major League Baseball in Layton, UT. Scott operates an opt-in baseball trivia list that readers can join by emailing Scott directly.

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