View-Master Instructional Baseball

For a long time the 1953 Viewmaster set was the only Major League Baseball one I was aware of. Stay on Twitter long enough though and of course people will turn up more. I’ve recently discovered that Viewmaster made other sets in the 1970s and 1980s. Theres’s a 1970 which one is part of an instructional series and features the 1969 Mets. And there are a bunch of 1981 sets from various teams’* Spring Trainings.

*I’ve seen Dodgers, Astros, Phillies, Twins, and Yankees on eBay.

I’m not a completionist and decided to skip the 1981 team-based sets (if a Giants set existed though I’d’ve absolutely behaved differently) but the 1970 Mets se intrigued me. This is partially because it’s older than I am but it also looked to be shot a Shea Stadium so there was potentially a lot more of interest to look at in it. When I found one for under $10 shipped my hand was forced.

I went ahead and made composite scans of the discs this time so you can see both the printing and the images. I didn’t receive the booklet but these don’t look like they were really that instructional either. Anyway, the most fun part of these is scanning and making wiggle gifs so let’s get to those right away.

Disc 1

Pitcher “looks in” for sign from catcher.
The catcher gives the sign to pitcher, Gary Gentry
Grips for fast ball (left) and curve ball (right)
Pitcher winds up for the pitch.
Leg lift helps pitcher bring body and arm forward.
Pitcher’s forward stride is key to good control.
Release of ball on follow-through is up to pitcher.

The first disc demonstrates pitching and features Gary Gentry. Pretty basic instructions but some of the images—such as the catcher giving the signs—were unexpected especially for what works in 3D. I like that this disc is basically a complete sequence of how to throw a pitch and I can totally see how it would have worked as an instructional item.

Between the matchups on the out-of-town scoreboard in and the San Diego on the game-day scoreboard this set appears to have been taken on April 21 or April 22. Both games started around 2:00 pm while the photos look to have been taken in the mid-morning with the sun getting high but still enough in the East to cast a distinct shadow.

Disc 2

Infielder’s stance enables him to field or block ball.
Shortstop takes ball hit on his left and…
…tags second to force out runner from first.
The throw to first must be fast to get double play.
Shortstop play: second baseman to shortstop double play.
Sacrifice bunt gets runner to next base.
Fielder bare-hands bunt for hurried throw.

The next disc features fielding with Bud Harrelson. Unlike Disc 1 this disc doesn’t show a single sequence and instead depicts three or four distinct plays. The photos however are a lot of fun because a bunch of them show the ball in motion and as a result, really really pop as 3D. I especially like the dust clouds that show that the balls were actually being hit to him.

I really really love the fifth image showing Harrelson taking the throw from the second baseman. While the photo quality is technically inferior to the 1953 photos* being able to capture action like this creates a very different 3D experience. The pair of bunting photos is similarly fantastic this way.

*Color is worse and the sharpness of the images is pretty bad too.

The lack of a crisp shadow in this set of photos indicates either a different session or that the weather got a lot worse after the Gentry photos were taken. Sadly no visible scoreboards to help us either.

Disc 3

Batter takes one of three stances—open, closed, or parallel.
Cleon Jones meets the pitch.
Fielder watches fly ball all the way into his glove.
Fielder catches line drive with glove straight up.
Outfielder throws ball to infielder.
Harrelson makes a base hit.
Cleon Jones makes a score.

Probably the least instructive of the discs since it doesn’t include any real sequences but also the most interesting of the three since it includes three images of actual in-game action, all of which work pretty well in 3D. The last image of Cleon Jones scoring is clearly from the April 21 game against the Padres and suggests that the Gary Gentry photos were likely taken the same day before the game.

Jones scored the tying run on a sacrifice fly but the Padres rallied for two runs in the top of the ninth to take the lead. Harrelson did indeed single in this game so there’s a very good chance that his photos were also taken in this game. Where the Gentry photos were taken mid morning under a crisp sun, these are approaching twilight with the stadium lights on even though it’s only 4:30.

The photos  of Jones in the outfield have similar light to the Harrelson photos on disc 2 and the scoreboard there indicates that they were taken before a Pittsburgh game. The out of town scoreboard suggests April 16 as the most-likely date in this case.

It’s interesting to me that Viewmaster used generic shirts or jackets and plain caps for these photos yet was able to use images of actual in-game action which show the Mets trademarks. I’m not well-versed enough in intellectual property law to make a guess as to why this is though.

With the 1953 set, I turned my scans into actual cards and even sent some out TTM. I don’t see myself doing the same with these. Some of this is the photo quality just not being good enough. But there’s a larger issue in this case in how the images weren’t selected to be portraits. Still it’ll be nice to print something out to go with the discs in the binder. I just have to figure out what that might be.

The epitome of baseball card collecting

A friend recently sent me a surprise package of cards in the mail, highlighted by a new addition to my Steve Garvey collection.

The card was about one-and-a-half times the dimensions of a standard baseball card, featured what looked like a real autograph (see Author’s Note at end), and most notably was made from a ceramic material.

The back featured complete statistics, a serial number (430/1000), and some “Interesting Facts About Steve,” among them his favorite player being Gil Hodges and his nickname being Garv. There was also a 1985 copyright date in the bottom right corner, which in conjunction with Garvey’s stats, established a year for the card’s issue.

“Garv” was packaged in a tri-fold of corrugated cardboard, it’s front panel identifying the product as Armstrong’s Pro Ceramic Baseball Cards and indicating the full name of the player whose card was enclosed. The middle panel housed the card, and the back panel featured high praise from five of the era’s biggest stars: Reggie Jackson, Tom Seaver, George Brett, Pete Rose, and Steve Garvey.

According to no less an authority than Mr. October, these cards were “the epitome of baseball card collecting…Just like a classic car.” Meanwhile, Tom Terrific predicted the set to “soon become a bit of Americana” while Charlie Hustle declared the cards “winners.”

After doing some very light research I learned that the entire set of Pro Ceramic cards consisted of five players: exactly the ones who had hyped the cards on the back of the packaging. It was also evident that two different sets were released, one with autographs and one without. My gut sense from searches is that the unsigned cards are actually more scarce than the signed ones.

As nice a card as my “Garv” was, gold autograph and all, I toyed with the idea of pursuing the full set though I imagined at least the Seaver would be out of my price range.

Much to my surprise, I was able to nab all five cards for $29. And that’s total, not each! As good a deal as that seemed, my searches revealed other sets having gone for as little as $14.

On one hand it really is the “epitome of baseball card collecting” to see a high-end set from my collecting hey day fizzle its way into oblivion. On the other hand, it’s also the epitome of baseball card collecting to find bargains when you ignore “book value” and buy the cards you like.

After all, what really is oblivion but a hiding place for forgotten gems, a secret corner of the Hobby universe where ceramic baseball cards go not to die but only to await appreciation.

Author’s Note: A Pristine Auction listing for the set indicates the autographs as facsimiles. However, all look good to me, and they also vary from card to card enough to rule out an auto-pen sort of approach. For instance, here are two autographed Garvey cards with numerous evident differences in the signatures.

If someone faked these, I’d say they did a damn good job! That, and their ridiculously low price suddenly makes sense.

I’m sorry, Roger

My most prized complete set is the 1963 Topps. Even with the ugly Pete Rose rookie and the equally unattractive 1962 American League E.R.A. Leaders with the brim of Whitey Ford’s card missing, I still love it.

Yet my set is a constant reminder of how stupid a 14-year-old can be.

I collected the ’63s from wax packs bought back then mostly at the local Peoples Drug Store in suburban Washington, D.C. That explains why I had the misfortune to be a fan of the Washington Senators. It’s where I grew up. Given how bad the expansion team was (those Nats lost 106 games that season, for instance) and how heart-broken I had been when the original Senators moved to Minnesota, it’s a wonder I remained a fan.

To make matters worse, my best friend John was a Yankees fan, or more precisely a rabid fan of a guy named Mantle. Of course, like just about every serious fan outside metropolitan NYC, I hated the Yankees, or more precisely, since 1961, a guy named Maris. How sad to follow the crowd and not even know it.

My hatred of Roger Maris was because – no surprise – he had broken Babe Ruth’s home run record. I knew enough about baseball to know that Maris wasn’t anywhere near the Babe as a player, nor was he even the equal of Mantle.  

Members of this SABR committee who have seen Billy Crystal’s film 61* (I loved Barry Pepper’s portrayal of Maris) surely are aware of the venom directed at poor Roger, how his hair fell out and the pressure he was under. Heck, it wasn’t his fault Yankee Stadium had a short right-field porch or that Mickey got hurt. Or that Ford Frick wanted that darn asterisk on the home run record. Maris was just doing his job.

Still, one day during the season, when I got the #120 Topps card of Maris, I took a needle and punched a bunch of holes in it. For some reason, however, I kept the card. Perhaps in my subconscious, a voice was telling me what a mistake I was making, surely not because the card might someday become valuable – it has, but not ridiculously so – but because  I was being really stupid, disliking someone I didn’t even know so much as to treat his card as if it were a voodoo doll.

A couple of years later, John and I got Mantle’s autograph as he got off the Yankees’ team bus outside of D.C. Stadium. We got Ford, Jim Bouton and Elston Howard, too. Maris walked by us unimpeded.

Fast forward to the early 1990s, when my wife and I were cleaning out the attic, I came across a bunch of 1963 Topps that I had forgotten I had saved. The discovery, which got me back into card collecting, include the defaced Maris card, reminding me what I fool I had been.

I knew I deserved it.

‘McCovey is off the table!’

I grew up in the ’80s, and yet my favorite TV show – and certainly the one I related most to – was one set in the late ’60s and early ’70s: The Wonder Years. The primary reason was that the protagonist, Kevin Arnold, and the actor who played him, Fred Savage, were both my age when the show premiered after Super Bowl XXII in 1988. In many ways, what I watched on ABC each week was a mirror of my own experiences in suburban New Jersey.

One of the parallels – along with puberty, crushes and teenage politics – was baseball. Though Kevin may not have been as obsessed as I was, he was definitely a fan. The first image we see in the opening credits shows Kevin in the street, bat in hand, waving to the camera before calling his shot. He may have been known more for wearing his green New York Jets jacket, but baseball is not forgotten in the series.

In one Season 3 episode, “The Unnatural,” Kevin tries out for his junior high baseball team. The final scene shows him hitting a game-winning home run (despite missing third base; look for it), with Russ Hodges’ call of Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ’Round the World” playing in the background.

But the most notable baseball scene involves a different Giant, and a way of engaging with the game we’re all familiar with here: The Hobby. In an earlier Season 3 episode, “Odd Man Out,” Kevin and Paul discuss a baseball card trade centered around Willie McCovey. The episode aired in November 1989, meaning it was set in 1969 (events depicted in the show were meant to be 20 years earlier than when they aired).

It’s not clear which McCovey card they’re talking about. Kevin and Paul are 13 in 1969, and Kevin’s voiceover saying that they’d “been through this a hundred times before” indicates that it’s an on-going discourse, so it’s probably a mid-to-late ’60s McCovey card. Paul’s stern response – “McCovey is off the table” – carried enough weight to be included as a magnet in the deluxe edition of the complete series DVD released in 2014 and inspired an indie rock song.

The McCovey Negotiations magnet in the deluxe DVD release.

The Wonder Years returned to TV this fall in a reboot set around the same time – beginning in 1968 – but with a Black family and a 12-year-old protagonist, Dean, at the center of it. Baseball has an even bigger presence in the first few episodes of this series, starting in the pilot when the climactic scene occurs during Dean’s Little League game. Subsequent episodes show pennants on the wall of the room he shares with his older brother (who’s fighting in Vietnam); the Cardinals, Phillies, Yankees, and Dodgers are all represented.

And, in a nod to the “McCovey is off the table” scene, a trading session among Dean and his friends outside of school pops up in Episode 3.

Dean reads the (fake) stats on a (presumably fake) 1968 Bert Campaneris card.

This time the names offered, in a much more elaborate negotiation involving at least four boys, are Jim Fregosi, Bill Freehan (mispronounced as “Freeman”), Hank Aaron, Bert Campaneris, Carl Yastrzemski, and Willie Mays.


DEAN: OK, Cory, if you trade Brad your Jim Fregosi, Brad can trade Sam his Bill Freeman [sic], and I’ll just take this Hank Aaron, I guess. I think we have a deal here, fellas.

BRAD: Wait, who are you giving up?

DEAN: Well, I really don’t want to do this, but I guess I could get rid of my Bert Campaneris.

BRAD: Who’s Bert Campaneris?

DEAN (chuckling in disbelief): Who’s Bert Campaneris? Only the utility infielder for the Oakland A’s that hit .232 with four doubles and six hit-by-pitches last season.

CORY: I don’t know, man. My mom told me not to trade with you anymore after you took that Willie Mays card off my hands because he “ruined it” by signing it.

DEAN: I’m sorry – am I trading with Cory, or Cory’s mom? Do you ask your mom to cut your steak, too?

CORY: Well, yeah, actually – she does it the best.

BRETT: I’ll take the Bert Campaneris!

DEAN: Finally! Someone who’s his own man. Now, let’s see who do I want in return. [Picks up a card, reading.] “Carl Yas-term-ski?” That’s a weird name. Guess I could take this one off your hands.


Back in 1989, before “high definition” was a thing, Fred Savage – who directed that 2021 episode with the trading session – was given 1989 Topps cards when talking about Juan Marichal, Luis Tiant, and Willie McCovey. In 2021, the props master (they really should rethink that title) at least managed to get reprints of 1968 (and earlier) cards, though the script writer made up a Bert Campaneris season that never happened. In ’68, Campaneris was an All-Star shortstop who finished 11th in AL MVP voting after hitting .276/.330/.361 in 159 games, leading the league in plate appearances and at-bats.

At least they aren’t in bicycle spokes? (Click to enlarge.)

A 1965 Topps Bill Freehan is on top of the cards being held on the left; those shown in the grass include three from 1963: Earl Averill (near center), Jimmie Schaffer (far right), and Casey Stengel and Gene Woodling of the Mets on a card titled “Veteran Masters” (top right of the pile). The bulk of the rest are from ’68, among them (roughly from left to right): Hank Aaron, Dick Kelley, Ken Suarez, Dave Morehead, Adolfo Phillips, Gary Peters, Cal Ermer, Bill Monbouquette, Tom Phoebus, Dan Schneider, Bubba Morton, and – yep, alone at the top – Carl Yastrzemski.

I wonder how things would have gone if Kevin had offered a Yastrzemski for the McCovey. Seems pretty fair to me.

The Case of the Missing Cubs

When researching the 1934-36 National Chicle “Batter Up” set I came across the curious fact the set’s first series, cards 1-80, included no Chicago Cubs. At first this seemed like a quirk unique to the set. However, further research revealed that the lack of Cubs was fairly common among the gum and candy cards of the era. Here is a chronology of the major sets from 1933-49 along with the status of their Cubs cards or lack thereof.

GOUDEY GUM

The 240-card set in 1933 included 17 Cubs cards, including at least one in each of its first 9 series, which is about what you’d expect. I’ve mainly included this set because A) it’s THE gum set of the 1930s, and B) it’s the last set before things got weird.

The 96-card follow-up set in 1934 included 6 Cubs cards, which by itself doesn’t suggest anything anomalous. However, the distribution of Cubs in the set is worth a quick note. Series one included three Cubs, but all were repeated from the 1933 set, artwork and all. (This was true of all 24 cards in 1934 series one.)

When the set did issue its first series of new players, none were Cubs. It wasn’t until the set’s third series that new Cubs (Lynn Nelson, Lyle Tinning) finally appeared. (The fourth series brought back another Cub, Kiki Cuyler, from the 1933 set but with new artwork. And as Matthew notes in the comments, the twelve “Chuck Klein says” cards also add to the Cubs fourth series presence.)

The 1935 Goudey set primarily relied on recycled artwork and players from their 1933 and 1934 releases. Of the 144 “cards” (really, quarters of cards) in the set, there are only 11 new players. None are Cubs. Overall, the Cubs are tied with the Phillies for fewest cards in the set: either one or four, depending how you choose to count.

The small 25-card set in 1936 included one Cubs player, Chuck Klein.

Subsequent Goudey sets seemed to be fairly normal with respect to Cubs players.

NATIONAL CHICLE

National Chicle debuted two significant multi-year sets in 1934. One was the Batter Up set, whose 80 cards that year have already been noted to have avoided the Cubs entirely. The other set, Diamond Stars, was equally devoid of Cubs among its 24-card offering that year.

Diamond Stars continued in 1935 with 60 new players, and this time there were three Cubs, two of whom were repeated with identical artwork in the 1936 release.

Meanwhile, series two of Batter Up, which I place entirely in 1936, exploded from zero to 11 Cubs among the final 112 cards in the set.

GUM, INC.

Gum, Inc., is best known to collectors for two different offerings: Play Ball (1939-41) and Bowman (1948-55). The three years of Play Ball cards included 473 different cards. Believe it or not, none were active Cubs players! The 161-card 1939 set and 72-card 1941 set included no Cubs at all while the 240-card 1940 set included three retired greats and one coach card.

The Gum, Inc., shutout continued into their debut Bowman offering that included 48 cards but no Cubs. Beginning in 1949, however, the Bowman sets had about the number of Cubs cards one would expect.

OTHER BRANDS

1934 Butterfinger Premiums

This set included 65 cards. None were Cubs.

1937 O-Pee-Chee Batter Up

This 40-card set had no Cubs, but it’s a bit of a special case as only American League teams were represented.

1941 Double Play

This set had 75 cards (150 if cut in half) including five (or ten) Cubs cards, among them the first card (or two cards) in the set.

1948 Swell “Sport Thrills”

This highlights set included only 20 cards, none of which were Cubs. Then again, there were five other teams that didn’t make the checklist either. Still, you’re gonna tell me this was a bigger thrill than the Homer in the Gloamin?’

1949 Leaf

Chicago-based Leaf Candy introduced a 98-card set (likely intended to be larger) in 1949, and 11 of the cards were Cubs.

* * * * *

I posted some key elements of this article to the SABR Baseball Cards readers on Twitter as well as the collectors on the Net54 Baseball forum. Leading theories on the omission or delayed inclusion of Cubs in the various sets tended to relate to the Cubs being owned by the Wrigley family. Why help the competition, right?

Of course Cubs did ultimately crack the checklists, even if it took ten years in the case of Gum, Inc. One wonders, therefore, what made the difference. Did the rival gum and candy makers make P.K. Wrigley an offer he couldn’t refuse? Did the players break from official or unofficial team policy to sign with rival confectioneries? Did Wrigley ultimately decide that Cub-less baseball card sets would hurt the popularity of his franchise?

Whatever prompted the return of Cubs cards, I can’t even imagine being a Cubs fan from 1939-41, buying pack after pack of Play Ball, and not pulling a single Cubs player. I guess the closest I can come is being a Dodger fan in 2021 and not finding packs to open at all.

How baseball cards got us through a year and a half of remote learning

So school finally started a couple months ago. In person. We’re lucky to live in a district which is taking things seriously so everyone’s masked, anyone who can be vaccinated has gotten vaccinated, HVAC has been upgraded districtwide, and our class sizes are even reasonable. Is kind of a weird feeling since it’s been a year and a half since I last had this much time to myself.

I haven’t written too much about what we’ve been doing day-to-day. Exciting stuff like bats and fires? Yes. But the everyday grind of trying to keep things interesting and moving? Not so much. It’s been tough. School is hard and while I appreciate being able to know what they’re learning, it was a lot to stay on top of all their work.* Plus the daily grind of lessons and homework is not the most compelling stuff to write about.

*Though it has paid off as real-world events have required us to better explain things.

I can however comment on how baseball and baseball cards have given the boys somewhat of a rock to hold on to amidst all the uncertainty over the last year and a half. Not collecting—lord knows that that’s been basically inaccessible to them as Target was always sold out for months before they stopped carrying cards at all—but the hobby itself has given them something reliable to turn to for multiple school assignments.

My youngest started off remote learning with a “passion project” where he would have to research something he was interested in and then report about it to his class.* He picked baseball but sort of panicked about his presentation because he hates being on camera. After talking things over we figured out that if he made oversized baseball cards he could draw something on the front and have his notes on the back.

*Not the best assignment but his teacher used the time to put together an excellent remote-schooling curriculum so it worked out great.

So that turned out to be a fun thing to work on. We’ve got plenty of books and could also watch the Ken Burns documentary. He ended up doing a mix of small stories about early rules*, early games, and some stories about how teams got their nicknames.

*Something we all learned about at a vintage baseball game a couple years ago.

My two favorite cards that he drew feature the first game in Hoboken—very appropriate given that we live in New Jersey—and a picture of a trolley mowing down inhabitants of Brooklyn. We may be a Giants household but the Dodgers nickname story is vastly superior. Oh, and these are intentionally uncolored because they’re supposed to be old and old photos are black and white.

My eldest meanwhile did a similar project and ended up making a presentation about the Giants where he picked the “best” lineup from their time in San Francisco. So he did some research into stats and had to make an argument about why he chose who he chose.

It wasn’t specifically a Baseball Card project but he ended up using baseball cards as his illustrations. Part of his choice to use cards was because it made for the easiest way of finding photos online and having them labelled clearly on his Power Point. But it also worked as a way of situating those players in time and showing when they played.

He’s made some noises of using this to make a small sent of custom cards but aside from a few design experiments nothing’s really come to fruition. As much as he likes the idea of making custom cards like I do, he hasn’t quite figured out that having a set theme is a good idea.

The following school year, my youngest decided to research baseball cards for one of his writing projects (specifically a research paper). This one felt a little weird to me since he had to list his sources and, while I didn’t spoonfeed him things, he definitely consulted with me.

At the same time, he has been to museums and seen old cards* and has a decent understanding of both card history as well as the nature of the hobby today. He definitely knows more about cards than I did when I was his age since I never got to see any of them.

*Also the Burdick cards at the Met.

He also was writing his report right when coverage of the hobby started to hit national media again. Between the number of high-profile sales—in particular the Mike Trout Superfractor which was briefly the most-expensive card out there—and the amount of other market craziness we all experienced last year, his report had a lot of almost current events to cover as well. I got a chance to see a lot of surprised comments from his teacher and he got to learn how nice it is to turn in a research project that teaches the teacher.

I don’t have screenshots of either of their reports (sharing writing seems a lot more personal than sharing drawings) but I was very happy to be able to read both of them and recognize how with everything else in upheaval, they were still able to draw on some hobbies as a source of inspiration and comfort in their schoolwork.

Cardboard Detective: 1936-37 WWG Zeke Bonura

White Sox slugger Zeke Bonura has one of the more unusual baseball cards of the 1930s, courtesy of the 1936-37 World Wide Gum (V355) set sometimes known as Canadian Goudey.

Notably, the dapper Bonura is sporting a tie and vest ensemble rather than any baseball-related garb. (Oddly enough, the very next card on the checklist is of a fellow White Sox infielder, dressed almost identically.)

One might initially assume the two teammates were photographed at the same event, perhaps a banquet or the opera. Or might they have joined this man, dressed to conduct an orchestra or star in a Dracula movie, for a simple night on the town?

No? Okay, any chance Bonura, if not all three of these debonair gentlemen, were en route to this September 1935 watermelon eating contest?

Source: Chicago History Museum

Getting warmer but that’s still not it. If we’re gonna solve this mystery we’ll need one very important clue.

Source: Chicago History Museum

When Zeke wasn’t playing ball with the White Sox, he was often back home in New Orleans where according to this January 20, 1935, article (Nebraska State Journal) he “wrestles crates of produce, takes orders and makes himself generally handy around his father’s produce store.”

As it turns out, Bonura not only spent his winter months neck deep in fruits and vegetables but many springs as well. “Mentioning that Bonura is a holdout is about the same as saying that the sun will rise in the East tomorrow morning,” observed the Sporting News (January 14, 1937). Two years earlier, the same publication had Bonura “[speaking] up from the recesses of his father’s market in New Orleans” regarding his 1935 contract holdout. Bonura’s SABR bio has him holding out four straight years from 1935-38.

My understanding is that the fruitless negotiations went something like this:

SOX: “Hey, Zeke, are you gonna PRODUCE RUNS or RUN PRODUCE!”
ZEKE: “Either way I’m gonna get my cabbage!”
SOX: “…or just upset the apple cart.”
ZEKE: “You really think I give a fig?”
SOX: “How’d we end up with such a lemon?”
ZEKE: “Actually the nickname’s Banana Nose.”
SOX: “More like gone bananas! You’re really gonna turn down a plum job…”
ZEKE: “I have a plum job!”
SOX: “Apples and oranges.”
ZEKE: “That too!”
SOX: “What is this, Who’s On First?
ZEKE: “Anyone but me if you don’t pay up!”

But lettuce at last return to the baseball card that began this article. If you haven’t guessed it already, it’s this other job—Bonura as fruit merchant—that the card depicts. Look carefully at the backdrop behind Bonura and you’ll spot various crates of produce. To the left of his forehead are the letters “TAIN,” which I suspect come from one of the many fruit crates of the period with “MOUNTAIN” on the label. Similarly, the “ON U.S.” by his chin is likely a fragment of “WASHINGTON U.S.A.” or “OREGON U.S.A.,” two states known for their produce. Look closely and you may recognize other words as well.

Though it’s possible the World Wide Gum card’s photograph was taken during the winter months, my sense is it’s more likely to be a spring photo since that’s when Zeke as fruit merchant would have been more newsworthy. If so, I have to imagine the 1936-37 WWG Bonura card is the first (and probably only) baseball card of a player actively holding out for more money.

How do you like them apples? 😊

The Clarksdale (MS) Press Register, March 17, 1936

Author’s Note: I believe the site of the baseball card and newspaper photos would have been at Bonura Wholesale Produce (and/or John Bonura & Company), located at 200 Poydras Street in the New Orleans French Quarter. While the business no longer stands today, there is a Gordon Biersch brewery and restaurant where you can raise a glass (or enjoy some seasonal vegetables!) in Zeke’s honor.

The Tampa (FL) Tribune, April 16, 1922

Hollywood Stars Were in the Cards: Part 5

George Costanza is woven deep into the fabric of America’s national pastime. Assiduously converting a nebulous, unrealistic desire to become either the general manager of a baseball team or a sports announcer while holding no experience in either endeavor, he eventually rose to assistant to the traveling secretary of baseball’s most prestigious franchise, the New York Yankees. So versatile was Costanza in this capacity that, in addition to his expert booking of the team in Ramada hotels during road trips, he imparted invaluable batting tips to Bernie Williams and Derek Jeter before the 1997 season. It’s no coincidence that Williams, a .305 hitter in 1996, saw his batting average jump to .328 after Costanza’s unraveling of hitting’s simple physics (velocity/[trajectory × gravity]), then earn the American League batting crown in 1998 with a .339 mark.

By 1999, both Williams and Jeter pumped their averages into the .340s—making Costanza probably the best de facto hitting coach the franchise ever had.

And as for Jeter’s fragile defense that the Bronx Bombers had just won the 1996 World Series and thus didn’t warrant Costanza’s unsolicited batting tutelage, it’s even less of a coincidence that New York proceeded to sweep the 1998 and 1999 World Series and lose only one game in the 2000 Fall Classic—thus dropping a lone contest over three Costanza-influenced World Series championships.

So much for winning in six, Derek.

An ardent Yankees supporter long before he joined the payroll, Costanza introduced the revolutionary concept of naming a newborn after the uniform number of one’s favorite player—in George’s case, Mickey Mantle. Alas, this electrifying idea was stolen by his fiancé’s cousin, but George can be proud that somewhere walks a young man or woman with the wonderfully novel appellation of “Seven”—a name with cachet up the yin-yang!

Whether George was freeing the New York Yankees from the shackles of the past by wearing Babe Ruth’s priceless uniform while eating syrupy strawberries or dragging its hard-won World Series trophy around the parking lot to free himself from the shackles of the Yankees so he could accept an offer to become the New York Mets’ head scout, George Costanza proved himself an integral element of baseball—even if 1979 National League co-MVP Keith Hernandez thinks he’s a chucker.

If George owns a regrettable moment during his baseball career, it’s his brief, star-crossed encounter while doing volunteer work with senior citizens. While Elaine Benes devoted time to Mrs. Oliver, the goitered ex-lover of Mahatma Gandhi, and Jerry attempted to provide companionship for the irascible Mr. Fields while simultaneously allowing Kramer and Newman to loot the old man’s valuable record collection, George found himself partnered with the carefree Ben Cantwell, as they attempted to enjoy a lunch together.

Though this lunch occurred previous to his employment with the Yankees, it is curious that an ardent baseball fan such as George failed to realize that the man sitting opposite him in the booth of the coffee shop may well have been former major league pitcher, Ben Cantwell, a man who was a teammate of Babe Ruth, himself. True, Mr. Cantwell claimed to be 85 years old, which would make his birth year either 1907 or 1908, whereas all official sources list the Boston Braves hurler as having been born in 1902. However, birth records from such remote years have been known to be inaccurate; as well, people, in their vanity, have been known to shave years off their birthdate either to feel younger or keep themselves relevant. Ben Cantwell might simply have been the Joan Rivers of the major leagues.

George’s potential knowledge of Cantwell’s history surely would have provided for a more amiable and rewarding conversation. What stories Mr. Cantwell could have spun: playing with and against the titans of the 1920s and ‘30s; being a 20-game winner in 1933; being a member of the worst National League squad of the 20th century; recollections of the Babe. Mr. Cantwell was a veritable treasure trove of baseball history waiting to be gleaned.

Rather than pecking obsessively at the fact that the wizened Cantwell could meet his maker at any moment, George could have discussed how Cantwell dealt with going a horrid 4-25 for the inept Boston Braves in 1935. Judging by Mr. Cantwell’s insouciance about his advanced age, it’s a good bet he comported himself in the same graceful manner while his teammates barely lifted a bat to help him—a life lesson that would have well served the anxiety-plagued, hypochondriacal George.

Instead, George insists on pressing the issue of Ben Cantwell’s ostensible nearness to oblivion, eventually driving away his elderly company. A precious opportunity lost (after which, George adds insult to injury by crassly expecting this sufferer of the Great Depression to pay for the soup).

Okay, it might be a little much to expect George to have recognized a man who may have been a semi-obscure pitcher six decades earlier. But considering George’s extensive interest in baseball, as well as growing up under the yoke of a father who also possesses a passion for the sport—as evidenced by Frank Costanza’s grilling of George Steinbrenner both for the Boss’s lamentable trade of Jay Buhner and a $12 million contract handed to Hideki Irabu*—one is left wondering how George could have no inkling of his lunch guest’s possible identity.

* For the Irabu comment, see transcripts from the Fourth District County Court, Latham, Massachusetts v. Seinfeld et al; Article 223-7 of the Latham County Penal Code (the Good Samaritan Law); Honorable Judge Arthur Vandelay presiding.

Still, getting fired from a volunteer job may have been a moot point: George Costanza was, by his own admission, a great quitter who came from a long line of quitters. He was raised to give up—making his termination as Ben Cantwell’s youthful companion inevitable one way or the other. In essence, George Costanza was the 1935 Boston Braves of caring for senior citizens.  

Ah, that’s a shame…

Redecorating with Hostess Paneling

I ate more Hostess products than the average kid. I’m sure of it. Twinkies, CupCakes, Suzy-Q’s, Fruit Pies (which I told Karen, in our early years, was the perfect food, containing all the food groups), Snowballs (word to the wise – don’t put the whole thing in your mouth at once. Breathing becomes difficult), Chocodiles (chocolate covered Twinkies, of which my older cousin sang to the tune of “Never Smile at a Crocodile”). Chilled in the fridge was my preferred preparation. I didn’t eat Ding Dongs though. That’s what Yodels are for.

This was before they started putting cards on box backs in 1975. That year was amazing! A new set, rare in those times, and not that easy to build. Yes, I ate a lot of Hostess, but 50 boxes (150 cards) in one summer was too much even for me.

For some reason I cut those cards out. I knew better by then; I was already a serious collector. I can’t quite figure it out. A few years ago I realized I had almost half the set, 69 cards (or 23 boxes worth), and finished it up, with all variations except the Doug Rader spelled correctly one. It’s a bit pricey. Hand cuts are very forgiving, and the whole project was pretty cheap.

I was happy with that, my first complete Hostess set. I’d never seen them all in one place and it warmed my cockles. Now toasty, I set out to find the other sets, and stumbled upon two great deals; 1976 and 1977 hand cuts (nicer job than I did!) were now in hand, with lots of my original panels for doubles. I had wised up by  ’76 and left the cards intact.

Now, with two years left to clear the table, I searched for 1978 and 1979 hand cut sets, but first I checked my inventory. I must’ve been on a diet in 1978 because I only had 11 of 50 panels. Not so in 1979; I had 30 of 50!

While my leanings were toward building hand cut sets, I couldn’t bring myself to cut the cards after all these years. I’d kept them intact for so long it felt wrong. I had no choice (I did have a choice, but, so be it), I committed myself to panel sets, even though that would make it harder and more expensive.

There are various panels that I find acceptable:

I’m good with all of them, as long as the perforated lines are fully, or almost fully, visible. Some panels have marks/stains, some panels have some whitish scuffing. That all works for me, because that’s how they looked when my mother would drive me to the Hostess outlet nearest our house (I think it was Medford, Long Island). I’d get home with a bunch of boxes, dump all the cakes into a bowl, find room in the refrigerator, and cut out the panels. I wasn’t going to wait for box by box consumption to file the cards away.

I’m already down to needing only 6 panels for 1978 and 11 for 1979. (I’m not dedicated to getting the variations. 1979 has two – Carew, close up and far away, and Bailor, regular and reverse images). I’ve used my 1977 and 1978 doubles for trade, which has come in handy. I had an emotional twinge letting them go; they feel like a real part of my youth and early collection, but I had to get past that. They’re real assets, and there’s something nice about teenage me helping old me get some new cards.

There are two pricey items – 1978 Eddie Murray rookie, whose value should be lowered by the appearance of Gary Lavelle and Rennie Stennett, and the 1979 Ozzie Smith rookie, whose value is elevated by the appearance of Nolan Ryan and Willie Montanez, although I’m sure most of that is not from Willie.

Once I’m done, there’s a Hostess party to be had. CupCakes and Twinkies for all! I’m buying this round.

“Hello, do you have Michael Jordan in a can?”

At the tail end of the “junk wax” era in 1995, Upper Deck—in tandem with a company called Metallic Impressions—produced a set that exemplifies the excess and weirdness of the era.  Taking advantage of the hoopla surrounding Michael Jordan’s attempt to become a baseball player, Upper Deck released a set of five Jordan “cards” on steel stock.  The five-card set is contained in a metal box with a detachable lid.

The “Michael Jordan Tribute Set” is rather conventional in design. Paper fronts and backs are adhered to the gold embossed steel. Action photos grace the fronts, with narratives of Michael’s baseball odyssey contained on the back along with another photo.  The cards are numbered MJ1-MJ5.

 The first card features a Little League photo of Michael Jordan, with the back providing the inspiration and rationale for retiring from basketball and trying a sport he last played in high school.

Card MJ2 is about the White Sox sending Michael to the Arizona Fall League after the Birmingham Barons AA season ended in September of 1994.  By the way, he got off to a fine start at bat and finishing with a respectable .252 average.

The final three cards are devoted to hitting, baserunning and fielding.  The text details Jordan’s hard work and continued improvement.

Of course, Jordon decided to end his pursuit of a baseball career in 1995 and the bottom fell out of the baseball card market.  The set I have is from the markdown section at Target, where my wife or I purchased it for my son in the late 1990s. Last summer, I rediscovered the set buried within a storage bin.

This set is an example of the prevailing philosophy of the “junk wax” era; throw stuff at the wall and hope something sticks.  In the case of the “Michael Jordan Tribute Set,” it fell clanking to the floor.

“You better let Michael out of the can before he suffocates to death!”