There Once Was a Man Named Puckett…

It’s funny how you can have a mental image of a person that persists long after things have changed. Parents exhibit this behavior, often continuing to view their children in the same light as when they were much younger. That old couple you see celebrating their 75th anniversary? Their mental image of each other is from earlier days.

The same phenomenon plays out in baseball. Say the name Kirby Puckett and most people my age will talk about the fat guy with a funny name who could seemingly hit a double on command. Reports described him as “shaped like a bowling ball” and “the Buddha of baseball.” He could hit, specializing in making contact with anything withing three feet of home plate. There was no nipping the corners for called strikes. Anything was fair game. He retired with a .318 batting average, but what impresses about the number is the fact that he did this as a right-handed hitter. This means a rather portly, stubby legged guy had to run an extra two steps first base on every hit and still beat out throws. Among postwar righties he remains the all-time career batting champ.

Those that were watching from the beginning may have a different, and possibly better, understanding. Puckett wasn’t always a big guy. In fact, he made his debut as an undersized outfielder known more for his speed. Look at his 1984 Fleer Update rookie card (above). That is not a picture of a fat guy. His weight is listed at 178 lbs. The back talks up his college basketball career (again, a sport that rewards those who excel at cardio). That season he recorded 165 hits, 25 of which were bunts. This calls for serious speed, especially from the right side of the plate. The weight gain didn’t really show up in his baseball card photos until the 1990s rolled around.

Aside from an ability to keep offensive production humming while seemingly changing shape, Puckett was also known for longevity. For more than a decade after his rookie season he avoided the disabled list.

Our collective image of Puckett was shaken in 1995 when he was injured by a wayward fastball clocking him in the face. The always available bat was silenced through the end of the year as he tried to recover. Vision problems surfaced during the following Spring Training and he was gone from the game.

The image of a jolly goodwill ambassador followed Puckett after his retirement, though this too would change. He turned out to be a pretty bad guy on a personal level. A long list of marital infidelity came to light, which became infidelity-squared if you count cheating on mistresses with other mistresses. Multiple accounts of violence towards women can be found, including some very alarming reports involving guns and a circular saw. There is a huge disconnect between the mental image of the ballplayer and who he actually was. Since his death in 2006, all that is left of Puckett is that image, one built on a flawed reputation as a good guy.

An Encounter with a Player Collector

Puckett’s impression on baseball fans remains potent. While I already have cards of Dave Winfield and Dennis Eckersley, both much more accomplished players, this is my first “big name” refractor. There is always strong interest when one of these cards goes on the market and they don’t stay out there very long. Those seeking this card have to actually compete with player collectors to obtain one while there seem to be enough of other cards to go around.

This particular example was acquired from one such collector of Kirby Puckett cards. Puckett had been his primary collecting focus since childhood and he had amassed well over 1,000 different cards with numerous hard to find items. Having located most of the Puckett checklist and looking for a new challenge, this collector had begun picking up cards of Minnesota’s new center fielder Byron Buxton. The pandemic-era resurgence in card demand pushed him to choose between keeping the old Puckett collection or going full out to chase the latest Buxton releases. I like to think this purchase helped fund an amazing part of a new collection featuring a player that will hopefully replace Puckett in Minnesota’s heart.

This card had some condition issues that kept financial costs in check. Like many cards of the Finest set, centering is far from perfect. Close inspection of the card’s surface also reveals a few air bubbles trapped in the card’s heavy gloss coating. PSA was feeling generous when it later reviewed my card, apparently going by memory on what Kirby Puckett cards looked like in the past.