The power of the eraser

Author’s note: A previous post here examined the largely dismissive portrayal of the Negro Leagues by Topps in the early 1950s. This sequel simply expands the focus to other card makers of the era.

1949 Leaf

For hobbyists who regard the Leaf issue as 1948 or 1948-1949, this set would unequivocally be the first major U.S. release to feature ex-Negro Leaguers. For my part, I regard it as tied with 1949 Bowman. Either way, the Leaf issue included cards of three black players with Negro League resumes.

Card 8 in the set featured the legendary Satchel Paige. The card back, which among other things notes Satchel’s prior team as the Kansas City Monarchs, is pretty amazing.

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First we’ll note that Satchel is assigned an age, 40 years old, which should make just about everything else in the bio seem like fiction. Second, the praise for Satchel is through the roof! Though it’s possible one could assign a negative connotation to “most picturesque player in baseball,” the words that follow cast doubt on such a reading. Satchel is billed as a “high-powered talent” with “fabulous gate-appeal” who is expected to “sizzle into his old stride” in 1949. The folks at Leaf seemed to get it that Satchel was the real deal.

The next black player in the set was Jackie Robinson, and his card bio leads off with the historic line, “First Negro player in modern organized baseball.”

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As was the case with early Topps cards, the direct implication here is that the Kansas City Monarchs and the Negro Leagues were not “organized baseball.” On the flip side, the phrase “modern organized baseball” pays homage to 19th century black players whose histories were often erased in telling the Jackie Robinson story. This 1980 Laughlin card serves to illustrate the point, as do Robinson’s 1960 and 1961 Nu-Card releases.

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The final Negro Leagues alum in the set was Larry Doby, identified as the “first Negro player to enter the American League.” The last line of the bio is notable in that Doby is not simply described as a speedy base-stealer but a smart one as well. This strikes me as enlightened writing for its time.

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For legal reasons, if not financial ones as well, Leaf would not offer another baseball set until 1960. We will see shortly how the set handled the Negro League origins of pitcher Sam Jones.

1949 Bowman

The 1949 Bowman set featured the same three black players from the Leaf set plus one more, Roy Campanella. The Robinson card notes that “he became the first Negro to enter the ranks of pro ball.” At once this phrase dismisses the Negro Leagues as less than professional while ignoring nineteenth century pioneers like Moses Fleetwood Walker.

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The Roy Campanella card in the set describes “an exhibition game with Negro All-Stars at Ebbets Field.” This game, part of a five-game series against Major Leaguers, took place in 1945 and prompted Charlie Dressen to recommend Campy to Branch Rickey.

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To my knowledge, the Bowman card of Satchel contains the earliest use of the phrase “Negro Leagues” on a baseball card.

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The idea that Satchel “traveled around” the Negro Leagues may be taken one of two ways. On one hand, he did play for several teams. On the other hand, it may suggest a lack of seriousness and organization to the Negro Leagues themselves.

As with the Leaf card, we see the word “fabulous” used to describe Paige. New to the Bowman card is the treatment of Satchel’s age. While a precise birthday is offered (September 11, 1908), the bio makes it clear that “his exact age is not known!”

Larry Doby is the final Negro Leaguer featured in the set, and his card describes him as “one of the few Negroes in the American League.” Depending when in 1949 the card was produced, in addition to Doby and Paige, the description might have been referring to Minnie Minoso (April 19, 1949) and/or Luke Easter (August 11, 1949).

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1950 Bowman

Four cards in the next Bowman release referred to the Negro Leagues tenure of its players. Card 22 of Jackie Robinson is similar to its 1949 predecessor in referring to Jackie as the “first Negro to enter organized baseball.”

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The Larry Doby card similarly draws on its previous bio, again recognizing Doby as “one of the few Negroes in the American League.”

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Ditto for Roy Campanella whose role with the “all-star Negro team” first brought him to the attention of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

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The Hank Thompson (SABR bio) card highlights his role in a famous first of the integration era, “the first time in major league history that a Negro batter was up before a Negro pitcher.” The card also identifies Thompson’s pre-MLB tenure with the Kansas City Monarchs.

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1951 Bowman

Three cards in the next Bowman offering are relevant to the topic of the Negro Leagues and the integration of MLB.

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The Campanella card recycles Campy’s exhibition game origin story for a third time, though this time there is no reference to the makeup of his team. Meanwhile, the Easter card follows a familiar tradition of discounting Negro League service in its statement that Easter “entered organized baseball in 1949.” Finally, the Ray Noble card, which does an awesome job teaching kids the right way to say his name, makes reference to his time with the “New York Cubans of the Negro National League.”

1952 Bowman

An interesting evolution in the 1952 Bowman set occurs with the Luke Easter card.

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Having previously “entered organized baseball in 1949,” we learn now that Easter “began in baseball in 1949.” What an odd statement if we take it literally! (By the way, the use of terms like “professional baseball,” “organized baseball,” and “baseball” to refer specifically to MLB/MiLB is still commonplace today. I would love to see baseball writers move away from this practice.)

1952 Num Num Foods

This potato chips set is one I only learned of in doing research for this article. The regional food issue features 20 players, all Cleveland Indians, including four black players: Luke Easter, Harry Simpson, Larry Doby, and Sam Jones. Apart from single-player sets such as the 1947 Bond Bread Jackie Robinson issue, this set has the largest proportion of African American players of any I’ve seen from the era.

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The Easter card notes that he “played softball for several years before entering [the] Negro National League” and even referenced Luke’s support role with the Harlem Globetrotters. A couple funny stories are shared as well before ending on the down note of a fractured knee cap.

The Harry “Suitcase” Simpson card picks up where Easter’s leaves off, recognizing Simpson’s daunting role of having to fill in for an injured Luke Easter. Then again it’s hard to imagine anyone more qualified to fill large shoes than Simpson, who according to at least some stories got his nickname “Suitcase” from the size of his feet!

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The back of Larry Doby’s card is injury-themed as well. However, rather than add insult to injury, the writer actually defends Doby against any insult that he was a disappointment. The paragraph ending almost reads as a (very dated) math story problem and left me ready to set up an equation.

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The Sam Jones card closes with a phrase that posed a road block to the careers of at least three very talented black pitchers: Dave Hoskins, Mudcat Grant, and Sam Jones himself. The “Tribe’s already formidable big 4” were of course Hall of Fame hurlers Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, and Early Wynn, along with all-star Mike Garcia. Even as Cleveland brought up tremendous black hurlers, two of whom would eventually become “Black Aces,” there was simply nowhere in the starting rotation to put them.

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1954 Bowman

I didn’t run across any interesting cards in my review of the 1953 Bowman sets, so I’ll skip ahead to 1954. Card number 118 of Bob Boyd (SABR bio) references his start in the Negro National League while (as usual) recognizing his start in “organized ball” coming afterward. As a side note, Boyd’s Negro League team, the Memphis Red Sox, played in the Negro American League. As another side note, the trivia question matches that of Hank Aaron’s Topps card, again recalling (and ingoring/discounting) a famous Negro League feat attributed to Josh Gibson.

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Hank Thompson’s bio is a funny one for reasons unrelated to his Negro League lineage. For whatever reason, the Bowman folks felt the need to clarify what was meant by “a quiet fellow.” It’s also a rare thing to see a baseball card bio so critical of a player’s weight! In a less humorous vein, as was the case four years earlier, Thompson’s card identifies his tenure with the Kansas City Monarchs.

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1954 Dan Dee

A notable card in the 1954 Dan Dee (potato chips) baseball set is that of Pittsburgh Pirates infielder and one-time Kansas City Monarch Curt Roberts (SABR bio needed).

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The first line of his bio identifies Roberts as the “first Negro player ever to be placed on Pittsburgh club’s roster.” This contention has received scrutiny over the years since it overlooks Carlos Bernier (SABR bio), a black Puerto Rican player who preceded Roberts by a year.

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1954 Red Man

While the 50-card set also includes cards of Negro League vets Roy Campanella, Jim Gilliam, and Willie Mays, the Monte Irvin card is the only one whose bio can be considered relevant to his Negro League service.

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As usual, we see that he “began in organized baseball” once he started playing on white teams. Something new I did learn from the card was that—at least here—the AAA Jersey City Giants were known as the “Little Giants.” How’s that for an oxymoron!

1954 Red Heart

Whether a gum chewer, chip cruncher, dip wadder, or dog feeder, it’s hard to imagine a better year to be a card collector than 1954. Packaged with Red Heart, “The Big League Dog Food,” that year was this card of Dodgers infielder Jim Gilliam.

 

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A quaint aspect of the card is the blank entries for all of Gilliam’s career numbers. The bio area of the card explains why this is so. “As a rookie in 1953, he has no life record…”

Regarding his Negro League lineage and role in MLB integration, the opening of the bio tells us that Gilliam “was the youngest member of the Baltimore Elite Giants” and that “he is one of the fine negro ballplayers that have been taken into organized baseball during the past decade.”

1955 Bowman

In what must by now feel like a tired theme, here is Hank Aaron’s 1955 Bowman card citing 1954 as Aaron’s “third season in organized baseball,” omitting his season with the Indianapolis Clowns.

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1955 Red Man

The sequel to Red Man’s 1954 issue included five black stars: Larry Doby, Minnie Minoso, Brooks Lawrence, Willie Mays, and Hank Thompson. The Thompson card as usual notes that he “began in organized baseball in 1947, which was the year he jumped straight from the Kansas City Monarchs to the St. Louis Browns.

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1958 Hires Root Beer

The Hires Root Beer card of Bob Boyd is similar to his 1954 Bowman card in recognizing him as a “product of the Negro National League” instead of the Negro American League.

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1960 Leaf

After an eleven-year hiatus, the Leaf set is back, and its card number 14 is of MLB’s second Black Ace, Sam Jones (SABR bio).

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Toward the end of the bio, we learn that Jones “started his pro career with Wilkes-Barre in 1950…” though he pitched professionally for the Cleveland Buckeyes (and possibly Homestead Grays) of the Negro Leagues as early as 1947 (or possibly 1946).

1979 TCMA Baseball History Series “The 50s”

First off, what a great set! When I first came across this Hank Thompson card I initially assumed it was a slightly undersized reprint of his 1953 Bowman card. Then I realized he had no 1953 Bowman card! Of course the back of the card provided plenty of other clues that this was in fact a more original offering.

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The card bio includes some information about Thompson’s Negro Leagues resume as well as how he became a New York Giant.

“Thompson, who spent much of his playing career in the old Negro Leagues, got his first chance in the majors with the St. Louis Browns in 1947. But for some unknown reason the Browns let him slip away to the Giants two year later…”

The reality behind the “unknown” reason is that Thompson (along with teammate Willard Brown) was signed by St. Louis to a short-term deal whose extension would require additional payment to the Kansas City Monarchs who held his rights. While Thompson was one of the better players on the Browns, he was neither Jackie Robinson nor Babe Ruth. It goes without saying that a black player needed to be a lot better than  “better than average” to find a home on a Major League roster in 1947!

End notes

Either in conjunction with the Topps article or on its own, there was of course a “beating a dead horse” element to this post. We get it; we get it…the baseball cards back then did not regard the Negro Leagues as organized, professional, or even Baseball. While modern writers and historians do recognize the Negro Leagues as all three, the stubbornness of language is such that even today these terms and their meanings persist nearly unchanged.

While even a moment’s scrutiny makes it obvious that this terminology is not accurate in a literal sense, words have tremendous power even when they’re wrong—perhaps even more than when they’re right. When I toured the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in June 2019, I was struck by something Bob Kendrick, the president of the museum, said. Where there was not political or economic power, there was still the “power of the pen.”

I would love to see baseball writers update their use of the terms organized and professional baseball to encompass the Negro Leagues, as well as other professional leagues. Where this feels too expansive—since yes, even Little League is organized—I would simply suggest using more specific terms like Major League Baseball or Minor League Baseball.

Today, whether it’s in the form of articles, blog entries, or social media posts, we are all writers of some kind and hold our own “power of the pen.” Along with it, we hold the “power of the eraser.” As we continue to write, let’s be careful about what we erase.

Don’t think Trice, it’s alright

It ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe
It don’t matter, anyhow
An’ it ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe
If you don’t know by now

Bob Dylan, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”

While researching for another article, I came across this 1954 Topps card of Athletics pitcher Bob Trice (SABR bio), the first black player in Athletics history and one of Major League Baseball’s earliest black pitchers. Two things about the card jumped out at me.

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First, check the cartoon. Does Topps really refer to the Homestead Grays, one of the great dynasties in Negro Leagues history, as a semi-pro team? Wow. Second, perhaps a corollary to the first, the bio area recognized 1950 as Trice’s first in pro ball even though his Negro Leagues career began with the Grays in 1948.

The question this brought forth was whether Topps applied a similar treatment to all former Negro Leaguers or just Trice. There was only one way to find out!

1951

Topps featured several Negro Leagues alumni in their three 1951 issues: Blue Backs (Jethroe), Red Backs (Easter, Thompson, Irvin), and Major League All-Stars (Doby).

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In all cases, biographical information was sparse and made no mention of their Negro Leagues roots, focusing instead on their Major League achievements.

“It ain’t no use in turnin’ on your light, babe
That light I never knowed
An’ it ain’t no use in turnin’ on your light, babe
I’m on the dark side of the road”

1952

The 1952 Topps set had more to say about the pre-MLB origins of its black players. In all cases, the story more or less matched the 1954 Bob Trice card.

Card 193 of Harry Simpson (SABR bio) refers to the Philadephia Stars “of semi-pro fame.”

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Card 243 of Larry Doby (SABR bio) similarly relegates the Newark Eagles to semi-pro status.

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Despite having pitched professionally for the Baltimore Elite Giants from 1943-1950, the back of Joe Black’s (SABR bio) card 321 sets Black’s first year in “organized baseball” as 1951.

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Finally, card 360 has George Crowe (SABR bio) entering organized baseball in 1949 despite his playing for the New York Black Yankees in 1947.

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The 1952 Topps set included numerous other former Negro Leaguers—Jackie Robinson among them—but their card bios made to reference to the Negro League tenures or professional debuts, instead focusing on their Major League or Minor League records.

1953

The 1953 Topps set seemed to acknowledge the immense impact of black players on the game by assigning cards 1, 2, and 3 in the set to former Negro Leaguers.

1953 Topps

Of all the cards in the set to feature black players—including the great Satchel Paige—only one made explicit reference to a player’s Negro Leagues past. Card 20 of Hank Thompson (SABR bio), a double barrier breaker who integrated both the St. Louis Browns and New York Giants, notes that he spent the 1948 season “playing in the Negro National League.”

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1954

Aside from the Bob Trice card, only one other card in the set referenced the Negro Leagues. It belonged to one of the three big rookie cards in the set, Ernie Banks, and identified the Negro National League and Kansas City Monarchs by name. An error, remedied the following season, is that the Monarchs actually belonged to the Negro American League while Banks played for them.

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Readers of my earlier Dave Hoskins post will remember his card’s all-too-real cartoon describing the resistance he faced integrating the Texas League.

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1955

Following the lead of his rookie card the year before, the 1955 Topps card of Mr. Cub included an explicit reference to the Negro Leagues, noting his .380 batting average in the Negro American League (correct this time!). The bio further indicates that Banks “never played a full season of organized baseball” before joining the Cubs. This is accurate since Banks played only partial seasons with the Kansas City Monarchs in 1950 and 1953 and was in the Army the two years in between. Still, based on what we’ve seen with earlier cards, it’s likely Topps would have made the same statement even if Banks had played full seasons with the Monarchs.

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The 1955 Topps card of Jim Gilliam (SABR bio) similarly includes the “Negro National League” in the bio portion.

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Another notable Negro Leagues alumnus in the 1955 Topps set is the Hammer. Though Aaron starred for the Indianapolis Clowns in 1951, Topps characteristically reports that Aaron got his start in “pro ball” in 1952 with Eau Claire.

Aaron with Josh Gibson trivia

However, the bio only tells half the story on Aaron’s card. Though contemporary research has cast doubt on the feat, one of the most famous stories from the Negro Leagues is the home run Josh Gibson hit completely out of Yankee Stadium. Given where Aaron was in his young career (i.e., nowhere near 715 home runs), it’s a rather remarkable coincidence that his card back brings together the three most legendary home run hitters in the history of American baseball: Babe Ruth, Josh Gibson, and Hank Aaron himself.

1973

I know I’ve skipped several years here, but the truth is that references to the Negro Leagues pretty much disappeared entirely from Topps cards after 1955. However, we may see evidence on a 1973 Expos manager card no less that the attitude of Topps toward the Negro Leagues had finally evolved.

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Now 1973 was hardly a random year in the history of the Negro Leagues. The National Baseball Hall of Fame had convened its Special Committee on the Negro Leagues in 1971, and there would be three Negro Leaguers (Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard) inducted by the time the 1973 Topps set was issued. Additionally, the death of Jackie Robinson in October 1972 may have also raised the profile of baseball’s early African American pioneers and their Negro Leagues origins.

So there is is, finally, under the description of coach Lawrence Eugene Doby. We see that he played 14 years in organized baseball (“O.B.”) and 13 years in the Majors. As Doby jumped straight from the Negro Leagues to the Majors, could it be that Topps was including some of Doby’s time in the Negro Leagues?

Not so fast! One of our Facebook group members, Wayne McElreavy speculated somewhat pessimistically that Topps was simply drawing on the Sporting News Baseball Register, which erroneously placed Larry Doby in the Pacific Coast League in 1960. Oh no! Could it really be?

And sure enough, the Cubs manager card from the same set tells us the answer. Take a look at the entry for Ernest Banks: “Played 19 years in O.B. 19 years in Majors.”

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Oh well.

“I ain’t sayin’ you treated me unkind
You could have done better but I don’t mind
You just kinda wasted my precious time
But don’t think twice, it’s all right”

Author’s note: My next piece will be a Part Two focused on how the other card makers addressed the Negro League heritage of its players. Stay tuned!

Charlie Chan(t) in Tucson

I collect team sets and vintage single cards from Pacific Coast League teams.  Of course, I have all the Mariners’ affiliate’s cards, but I also own numerous sets from a wide variety of teams out of the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. My latest acquisition is a team issued ’75 Tucson Toros set- the AAA affiliate of the Oakland A’s.

The cards are not exactly attractive.  The grainy, black and white photos are filled with obscuring shadows.  The non-standard size and format were used by other PCL teams in the mid-70s.  I have similar sets for Tacoma, Spokane, Phoenix and Sacramento.

The photos are taken at venerable Hi Corbett Field in Tucson, which is the current home of Arizona State University’s baseball team.  Of course, the Indians held spring training there for decades.  In a personal aside, my wife and I “honeymooned” at spring training in ’91.  We saw the Mariners play at Hi Corbett, and Indians’ broadcaster, Herb Score, gave me an autograph.

Nelson

What makes the 1975 Tuscon set interesting—to me at least—are the familiar players.  Many are veterans trying to hang on and earn one last chance in the “bigs.” A good example is Roger Nelson, who was the Royals number one draft pick in the ’69 expansion draft.  He managed a couple of decent seasons with KC, but injuries short circuited his career.  He went on to be better known as “Weird” Al Yankovic (joke).

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Another “hanger on” was Billy “Eye Chart” Grabarkewitz.  The one-time, top Dodger prospect had an All-Star year in ’70 but never again had sustained success.  Tucson in ’75 is his swan song in pro ball.  Bill’s most important contribution to baseball history is little known.  It was his single in the 12th inning of the ’70 All-Star game that put Pete Rose in scoring position.  Jim Hickman’s single sent Rose home, ending in the famous collision with Ray Fosse.

Chant

If anything went missing in the clubhouse, the team turned to the resident catcher/detective: Charlie “Chant.”  His tendency to speak as if he were reading fortune cookie proclamations and dropping all his articles was a pain; however, Charlie always found the missing athletic supporter.

 

 

Rich McKinney is on the team as well.  His ‘73 Topps airbrushed photo is so bad that it is positively glorious.

 

 

Legendary Oakland A’s owner, Charlie Finley, was afflicted with “trader’s remorse.”  Often, Charlie would re-acquire a player he traded away.  Several of the Toros fall into this category.  Would-have-been ’70 Seattle Pilot, Lew Krausse, started with the KC A’s as a 18-year old phenom in ’61. Charlie was so enamored with Lew that he brought him back twice.  Actual Seattle Pilot, Skip Lockwood, started in the A’s organization as did Ramon Webster, before being traded to San Diego. Veteran reliever, Orlando Pena, spent several years with the KC A’s in the ‘60s.

Lemon

Chester “Chet” Lemon is the player in the set who would go on to have the best Major League career.  He would star for the White Sox and Tigers in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

Aguirre

The Toros’ manager was veteran MLB pitcher Hank Aguirre.  Many of you may remember a recent post from fellow committee member Anthony Salazar, which featured Hank, who is his personal hero.

Pitts

Living up to his “gritty” name, Galen Pitts has a bandaged nose.  Perhaps he “duked it out” with a member of the Albuquerque Dukes.

Mazzone

We can pretty much assume that future Braves’ pitching coach, Leo Mazzone, nervously rocked on the bullpen bench before entering a game.

 

 

Wearing the familiar green and gold uniform colors of his namesake Ray, catcher Buzz Nitschke was frequently called upon to flatten half backs who broke through the Toros’ front line.

Freddie

To wrap it up, I present the mascot, “Freddy the Toro.”  He appears to be holding a wagon tongue ready to rid Hi Corbett Field of an obnoxious, drunken fan.

 

 

 

 

PSA: Vacation Ahead

On Saturday, my family and I will depart for a two week trip to Scotland, England and France.  The last time I was on the continent was during the OJ Trial — in fact, I was in Italy when I heard the verdict.  Despite the rumored increase in connectivity since 1995, you should go ahead and just expect that I am unavailable for the rest of this month.  I have asked a few people — specifically Jeff Katz, Nick Vossbrink and Jason Schwartz — to continue to post as they would have, and also to help the anyone else who wishes to post in my absence.  They have, as far as I can tell, complete permissions/powers to do so.  So: contact one of them if you wish to post something.

The @sabrbbcards Twitter account will be fairly quiet, so if a new post does come up, please retweet it so that the word can be spread far and wide.  When I log on, I will try to do so.

In the mean time, I wish everyone a great rest of March.  There will be many regular season games before my return.

 

Uninspired and Uninspiring

Give My Regards to Broad Street. Ring a bell? It was big box office flop, brought to us by Paul McCartney in 1984. As much as a fan I was (and still am), I didn’t have the nerve to see it then. Never have.

I do have the soundtrack though. There are some decent originals, and many new versions of Beatles songs. Maybe not so new. They’re fine, but they’re not the same, merely pointless imitations of finer originals. (When asked about them, George Harrison said “I didn’t notice that they were new versions.”)

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My thoughts on Topps Heritage are well known and previously written about. Bringing back old designs, almost the same, but not quite, does nothing for me. The old designs are wrapped in the romance of their time, and how old we were when we got them.

Like these two:

No one‘s going to tell me these cards aren’t awesome, near mirror images of two, by time of issue, ex-Mets, Shea Stadium a glorious backdrop.

I love those two cards. In fact, the Bobby Pfeil is my single favorite card in that set, the one I think of when I think of 1970 baseball cards. It’s only special because I was 7 years old and it’s wrapped in gauzy nostalgia.

I was in Target a few days ago and checked out the card shelves. There was one lonely pack of Heritage tucked away. I held it, put it down, picked it up, walked away, thought that maybe I’d hit something worthwhile, walked back, grabbed it, put it back down, thought about how, though I’d never know, maybe if I didn’t buy it I would’ve left a Pilots autograph behind, went back, grabbed it and bought it.

Here are the nine cards. Completely uninspired and uninspiring, not a single thing to make me buy any more.

Now here’s a random sample of nine 1970 cards.

Why does the original matter more? It’s not because of the look – muted gray, standard era photos. The magic is in what they were and who I was when I was buying these packs. That cannot be claimed for Heritage, not this year or any year.

And yet, there’s nothing intrinsically more worthy of Frank Quilici than of Victor Arano (though time may prove me wrong on Arano). Both are pretty non-descript. Yet, the Quilici card has a quality the Arano doesn’t. It doesn’t seem quite as antiseptic, not so perfectly rendered. Maybe it’s the naked guy in a towel at the left of the 1970 card. There’s a sloppiness there that wouldn’t pass today, unless it was intentionally created as a short print for collectors to buy more hobby boxes than retail boxes.

Anyway, many of you enjoy Heritage, and my curmudgeonly ways mean little. However, my disdain for the product leaves more packs available for all of you and for that, you’re welcome.

Fathers and sons

“Baseball is continuous, like nothing else among American things, an endless game of repeated summers, joining the long generations of all the fathers and all the sons.” — Donald Hall, “Fathers Playing Catch with Sons”

Though its checklist boasts only 64 cards, the 1953 Bowman black and white set connects fathers and sons like no other. This much is clear from the very first card, but that’s only the beginning.

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Like their color counterparts from the same year, the Bowman black-and-whites have no names or other markings on the front, so you may not immediately recognize the player. Ditto for cards 10, 30, 34, 52, 56, and 59. Either way, here they are.

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You may not be able to identify all the players, but I guarantee these two men would recognize their sons, Duane Pillette (bottom right) and Dick Sisler (top left).

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And certainly these three men would recognize their fathers: Gus Bell (first card in set), Roy Smalley (bottom middle), and Ebba St. Claire (top right).

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And no doubt these two men would recognize their famous fathers-in-law: Walker Cooper (top middle) and Ralph Branca (bottom left).

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“Baseball is fathers and sons. Football is brothers beating each other up in the backyard.” — Donald Hall

Another father, James Stork, Sr., had a connection to this set, but he was not a big league baseball player. He was a nine-year-old kid in 1953, his first of many years as a card collector and a magical time for the hobby and the sport.

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Ralph Kiner was coming off seven straight National League home run crowns. Mickey Mantle was picking up where Joe DiMaggio (if not Babe Ruth) had left off in New York. And a new source of talent, black players, was taking the game to new heights.

On store shelves Topps was back with its second major baseball release. (I’m not counting the pre-1952 stuff.) Reflecting the influx of black talent, here are cards 1, 2, and 3 in the classic 1953 Topps set.

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Meanwhile, in their two-series color offering, Bowman offered young gum chewers what many collectors today consider the most beautiful card set ever produced. I am in love with too many of the cards to even want to choose, but here are the three I have in my personal collection: Monte Irvin, Stan Musial, and Minnie Minoso.

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Finally, while a bit lower on the radar for most collectors, Bowman finished the year with its black and white issue, presumed to be a lower-budget (and renumbered) third series continuation of the color issue.

With all these card sets to choose from, the young James Stork, Sr., made the best choice of all. He collected all three! And then he did something most collectors of the era did not do. He kept his cards! Bravo, Mr. Stork.

Fast forward 45 years to 1998. James Stork, Sr., now in his fifties, was at his local card shop to make a purchase. It was a 1953 Bowman black and white he still needed for his collection. As the card shop landed more and more of the Bowman black and whites over the years, the owner would call Mr. Stork who would come in and buy any cards he still needed.

James Stork, Sr., passed away in January of 2010 from cancer of the esophagus. He did not complete his set. Another collector did.

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I was able to interview the younger Mr. Stork about the cards and memories that went along with completing his father’s set. Here are some of the stories attached to the collection.

JASON: How long have you been a collector?

“I started collecting in 1980 at the age of 5. My dad brought home a box of Topps. He opened the packs, I got the gum. Fair trade in the day. The very first card I remember was 1980 Topps Ben Oglivie. I was hooked from there on out.”

JASON: How did your father get into baseball cards?

“My dad grew up on a farm in rural VA, and baseball was something that he and his friends would play all the time. When my grandfather would go to town my dad would go with him and my grandfather would get my dad a pack or two for a nickel a piece I think is what my dad said.”

JASON: Do you know which cards were your dad’s favorites?

“My dad loved Nellie Fox and Billy Martin. Out of all of his cards, I think he cherished those the most. Probably because my dad was short like them, and he loved how passionate Billy Martin was. He also loved his Mantle and Mays cards.”

JASON: What is a favorite memory of your dad as an adult collecting cards?

“My dad loved his old cards, and when I brought home a Beckett in 1989 my dad found out his cards were worth something, he was blown away. I remember going with him to a local card shop and getting card holders for them. He loved showing them off to anyone and everyone who would listen.”

JASON: Are there cards you and your dad collected together?

“Dad and I would always get the Topps set each year when it came out. We have 1978-2009 from when he was alive, and now I have them through 2018. One day they will be my son’s.

JASON: How about a favorite baseball memory involving the two of you?

“I lived in a small town in Virginia after college, which was the same town that Tracy Stallard lived in. So for Christmas one year, I wanted to get a card autographed for my dad from Tracy. I went to his house and this giant of a man answered the door. I politely told Mr. Stallard who I was and what I was doing there, and he then invited me into his house and told me he had something even better. He signed a poster to my dad with him on the mound and Maris in the background after number 61. I gave that and the card to my dad for Christmas and he was over the moon thrilled. He had it professionally framed and hung in his house.

About 2 years later, my dad found out he had cancer, literally right after he retired. I was thinking to myself, what can I do for him to keep up his spirits as he fought this while I lived 4 hours away. I found a site that had through-the-mail autograph addresses, and I began to write almost on a daily basis. I never told my dad about it.

About a week later I got a call from my dad, he was so excited, he got letters from Stan Musial, Bobby Doerr and Robin Roberts in the same day’s mail. I filled him in on what I was doing for him, from that day on, for the next 4 years, if I wasn’t at home visiting him, I was on the phone with him, asking who he got in the mail that day. I would also ask the players about their career, and what they did after baseball. He loved getting those letters in the mail and reading what they would answer. I have those letters now, and they are my pride and joy besides my dad’s cards in my collection.”

Here, take this for a second.

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JASON: Besides the 1953 Bowman black and whites, do you plan to complete any other sets from your father’s collection?

“Dad was also about halfway through the 1958 and 1959 Topps sets, just from his buying packs as a kid. These weren’t sets he was working on completing as an adult. When I got his cards from my mom after he passed, I started working on the 1959 set, and I am just 28 cards away from being done. Hoping to be done by Jan 2020. I will work on the 1958 set sometime, but I may wait until my son is a little older so he and I can do it together.”

I led off this post with the teaser that the 1953 Bowman black and white set connected fathers to sons like no other. You probably thought I was talking about these guys.

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But I was really talking about two other guys.

Stork family

Rest in peace, James Stork, Sr. (1944-2010). Your son is doing you proud!

Author’s note: My thanks to James Stork not only for sharing his time and memories with me for this post but also for completing one of MY sets. A couple months back I received an envelope with the final two cards I needed for my 1986 Topps set. It was from James. Nothing in return was asked or accepted. 

Six Degrees of Smoky Burgess

During a recent trip to Cooperstown, my son, Dylan, purchased a mystery grab-bag at a card shop. Amongst other cards, the bag contained 17 “well loved” ’65 Topps. Knowing I would enjoy the vintage cards, he gave me the lot.

I decided to see if I could take this random selection of players and discover any connections, no matter how dubious. Using information from the card backs, a little research and my vast knowledge of the “Grand Old Game” (joke), I set about to find the ties that bind.

Minnesota’s Sam Mele, Earl Battey and Dave Stigman have a special connection since all contributed to the club winning the American League pennant in ’65; the same year the cards were issued. By the way, the back of Mele’s card informs the reader that his real name is Sabbath.

Sam Mele connects directly with Smoky Burgess, since they were teammates on the ’55 Reds. Also, the “burley backstop” has catching for the White Sox in common with Earl Battey.

Donn Clendenon was Smoky’s teammate on the Pirates. Donn and Phil Regan were part of the inexplicable ’69 pennant race between the Cubs and Mets. On July 14, 1969, Phil struck out the pinch hitting Clendenon to end the game.

As fate would have it, Clendenon shares the distinction of being selected in the ’68 expansion draft with Bill McCool, who is bound with John Tsitouris and Jake Wood by dint of being together on the ’67 Reds.

Returning to Phil Regan, the “Vulture” has a tenuous connection to Phil Gagliano-in that both have very dated cartoons depicting stereotypical Indians on the card backs.

Moving onward, we find that Gagliano was a teammate with Gene Oliver on the ’63 Cardinals. After being dealt to the Braves, Gene became a teammate with Eddie Mathews. This ties Oliver to Fred Gladding, who was traded to the Astros for Eddie Mathews.

In addition, Gladding and Clendenon have a commonality in that both excelled in the Sally League. Fred tossed a no-hitter in ’58 and Donn led the circuit in home runs in ’60.

The “Impossible Dream” aficionados will instantly draw a connection between Phil Gagliano, Jose Santiago and Ray Washburn. All three played in the ’67 World Series.

Ray Washburn and Wes Stock are bound together by virtue of growing up and living in Washington State. I would be completely remiss if I failed to remind you that Wes Stock would have been the pitching coach for the ’70 Seattle Pilots. He was the pitching coach for the original Mariners in ’77. Ray Washburn is the uncle of the PE teacher at the school where I work.

We can use Wes Stock as a segue to Ken Retzer. The cartoons on the back of their cards tell us that both players were league leaders in the Northern League. Wes paced the loop in strikeouts, while Ken topped the fielding percentage chart.

Both guys can claim a tie to Chuck Hinton. Chuck and Stock played for the Vancouver Mounties-though not on the same team and with different organizations. Retzer and Hinton were both traded from the Senators after the ’64 season. Both men are pictured wearing Senators’ togs.

I will end the serpentine nonsense with the fact that Smoky Burgess and Donn Clendenon had great affinity for “law.” Smoky was a teammate and roommate on the Pirates with Vernon Law, while Donn became a lawyer.