Talkin’ Baseball…Cards (Part 2)

Frankly, all the audio cards profiled in Part 1 did not whet my collector’s appetite. However, there are several “gems” in this post worthy of adding to the collection.

Many of you remember “Sports Challenge”; a syndicated sports trivia game show hosted by Dick Enberg, which ran from 1970-1978. A set of audio cards was produced in ‘77 called “Sports Challenge Highlights.”

The cardboard, 6” diameter discs were part of a 12-card set that featured great baseball moments. The cards have a stylized player illustration on the front with a 33-1/3 RPM recording overlaying it. Scarrab Productions produced the cards, but the record was made by American Audiographics. I couldn’t find sales or distribution information.

 

Mattel Box

In ’70-’71, Mattel produced a product for the toy market called “Instant Replay.” Although listed in the Complete Guide to Vintage Baseball Cards and “Trading Card Database,” it is a stretch to categorize the plastic discs as cards. The baseball version features: Mays, Aaron, Seaver, Oliva, Banks, McCovey and Frank Robinson.

Mays instant replay

The initial ’70 issue consists of a black, miniature disc with groves on one side and a sticker with the player’s stylized illustration attached to the opposite side. Later, a version having pictures imbedded in the plastic on both sides with the record groves overlaid was produced. Several other sports were offered, including a “Sports Challenge” trivia version in ’73.

The discs are designed to be inserted in a hand-held, battery-operated player, which resembles a walky-talky. The player and several discs were sold together as a boxed set. As with the previously mentioned disc players, the sound quality was poor and it tended to malfunction soon after purchase. It is very rare to find one that still functions. Additional cards could be purchased in four disc, “blister” packs.

Aura Robinson

The real “star” of this genre is “Auravision.” A subsidiary of Columbia Records, “Auravision” produced 6-1/2 x 6-1/2” cards with gorgeous color photos on the front and black-and-white photos with stats on the back. Apparently, the photos are unique to this product and are vivid and well-posed. The 33-1/3 rpm, clear record overlays the color photo. As with most record cards, there was a punch is the middle to be removed for play.

The first series of seven cards was issued in ’62, followed by a 16-card issue in ’64. The photos on the two Mantle cards are different, with the ’62 being very rare.  Equally rare is the “64 Willie Mays, which is considered a short-print.

Aura Colavito

Famous New York sportscaster, Marty Glickman, conducts a five-minute interview with players on 14 of the 16 recordings. Chuck Thompson is the interviewer for Warren Spahn and Ernie Harwell does Rocky Colavito.

The cards were used by several companies as premiums. Collectors could acquire the cards through offers by Milk Duds, Yoo-Hoo, and Meadow Gold dairy products. In addition, the “Good Humor” man would hand them out when kids bought ice cream.

Another set with some “pizzazz” is the 1956 Spalding “promo” cards offered as a premium at sporting goods stores. The two, 5-1/2’ x 5-1/2’ cards feature Yogi Berra teaching the listener, “How to Hit” and Alvin Dark offering instruction on, “How to Field.” The transparent record is laid over the picture on the front. The back has a photo of Yogi or Al and their gloves. The 78 RPM recordings were produced by Rainbo Records, who also made back-of-the-box children’s records for Wheaties.

Dark on Turntable

Being a glove collector who possesses a mid-‘50s Al Dark Spalding glove, I couldn’t resist buying one of the cards several years ago. The accompanying photo shows the Al Dark card on my state-of-the-art, ’47 Zenith radio/phonograph. I was hoping to add a video of Dark’s card playing, but the phonograph wouldn’t work. There must be burned out tube.

I will close with cool set of baseball card records courtesy of a promotion by H-O Oatmeal. Produced by Sight ‘N’ Sound records in 1953, the four, 78-RPM cards were 4-3/4” in diameter and offered instructional tips from Roy Campanella, Allie Reynolds, Whitey Lockman and Duke Snider. The front side has the record and a black-and-white posed shot over a Yankee Stadium crowd. The back had a color portrait. One card was randomly packed inside the oatmeal box. For 25 cents and two box tops, a collector could obtain the other three cards.

The cardboard record was used by many different products for promotions or premiums. They were frequently included in magazines in the ‘70s and ‘80s to augment stories or to hype artists. My guess is that there are more “talking” baseball cards to be discovered. I will keep the turntable spinning and the needle poised to drop in case I happen upon additional “talkies.”

Sources

Complete Guide to Vintage Baseball Cards

Trading Card Data Base

KeyMan Collectibles: Product descriptions

1970s Flashback With Mattel Instant Replay. (2015, March 19). Retrieved December 13, 2017, from http://www.sportscollectorsdigest.com/the-offbeat-beat-mattels-instant-replay/

D’Angelo, B. (2016, May 30). Auravision Records Were A Hit With Baseball Fans. Retrieved December 13, 2017, from https://www.sportscollectorsdaily.com/auravision-records-showcased-baseballs-biggest-stars/

Auravision Records Gave Voice to Legends, But There’s More. (2009, April 06). Retrieved December 13, 2017, from http://www.sportscollectorsdigest.com/auravision_records_1960s/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Talkin’ Baseball…Cards (Part 1)

BT Brett

Recently, I unearthed an unopened, four card rack pack with cards from the 1989 Topps “Baseball Talk” set. The unique aspect of this set is the transparent plastic “record” laid over the printing on the back of each card. Knowing that the “talking card” concept long predated this set, I decided to find out more about these “talkies.”

BT box

I’ll start with the before-mentioned 1989 “Baseball Talk” cards. The 3-¼ x 5-¼ cards are designed to be inserted into a special “Sports Talk” player, which was sold separately for $24.99. The record player came with a check list and cards for Henry Aaron, Don Mattingly and Orel Hershiser.

The 164-card set features a similar design to the Topps ’89 regular issue set, including a miniature version of the card back. In addition to contemporary players, the set contains stars from different eras utilizing vintage card images. The rack packs retailed for $4.00

It will come as no surprise that this whole concept was a bust. The record frequently jammed and the sound quality was terrible. Topps scrapped its plan to issue football and basketball versions. I’ve included a link to a TV commercial for the product.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DDXTjOLOfU8

PD Aux

In 1999, Upper Deck produced “Power Deck” cards. The “cards” are 32-megabyte CDs-die cut to the standard card size- with a picture of the player on the front. They contain both audio and video content.

The 25 “card” set had a parallel paper version called Auxiliary. Hobbyists bought packs containing two Auxiliary cards and one CD for $4.99. The set featured the “steroid era” sluggers, Ken Griffey Jr and pitchers Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez. Additionally, random cards were inserted from three subsets: MVP, Time Capsule and Season to Remember.

Mantle 2 Talking CMC

Perhaps inspired by “Baseball Talk,” Collectors Marketing Corporation (CMC) produced a Mickey Mantle “talking” card in 1999. It was included in the “Mickey Mantle Baseball Card Kit” along with a 20-card perforated sheet, album and booklet. The card has a 33-1/3 RPM transparent plastic record- superimposed over the photo on the front and is designed to play on a phonograph. The card set box implores the buyer to: “Hear Mickey’s actual voice!” Similar sets were produced for Babe Ruth, Joes Canseco and Don Mattingly.

TBC Larsen

The Mantle card is a reprise of a format used by CMC in 1979 called “Talking Baseball Cards.” Each of the 12, 5-½” X 5-5/8” cards depicts a famous baseball moment, ranging from Mazaroski’s walk-off homer to Bucky Dent’s crucial “dinger” off Mike Torrez in the ’78 tie-breaker playoff (sorry, Mark (ed: sigh)). Sold individually in rack packs, the cards have the clear 33-1/3 RPM record over a photo on the front and a narrative of the event on the back. Each card has a small perforation in the middle that could be “punched out” to fit on the center “nipple” of a turntable. I own a Don Larsen card but have never taken it out of the plastic sleeve to “give it a spin.

1979 also saw the Microsonic Company produced a series of “Living Sound” cards for United Press International (UPI). The cards were like “Baseball Talk” in that the 2” plastic record on the back of the 5” x 2-¾” card was inserted in a special player that was sold separately. UPI sold the cards in packs of 10 for $6.95. I’ve not been able to discover whether the cards or the player were sold at retail outlets or by mail order.

The “Living Sound” series was mostly comprised of non-sports topics, but the Great Moments in Sports and Sports Nostalgia sets containing nine baseball versions. The cards feature black-and-white photos on the front and a synopsis of the historical event on the back. Players in the set include: Aaron, Mantle, Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Williams, Musial, Bobby Thompson and Gene Tenace.

Monkees

Interestingly, Microsonic “cut its teeth” in the record overlay business by putting recordings on the back of cereal boxes. Wheaties put out kids’ music on box backs ’58 and Post had several promotions in the ‘60s and ‘70s featuring groups like the Monkees and the Archies.

LeGarde

By the way, Microsonic also produced a regional set of record cards for the Seattle Supersonics in the late ‘70s. I played the Tom LaGarde card on the turntable and it skipped halfway through.

In part two (or the “B-side”), I will continue the audio card saga by “spinning” such awesome “platters” as the Mattel Discs, “Auravision” and Spalding premiums. Catch you on the “flip side.”

 

Sources

Standard Catalog of Vintage Baseball Cards

Trading Card Data Base

“Flashback Product of the Week: 1989 Topps Baseball Talk Collection.” Sports Card Info, 18 Apr. 2014, sportscardinfo.wordpress.com/2014/04/18/flashback-product-of-the-week-1989-topps-baseball-talk-collection/.

Bidami.com: 1979 UPI Living Sound (Auction Site)

Collectable Classics.com: 1979 Collectors Marketing Corp. Talking Baseball Card (Auction site)

Top 10 Cereal Box Records | MrBreakfast.Com, www.mrbreakfast.com/list.asp?id=5.

 

The Conlon Collection Project: Part 2

The Conlon Collection Project series continues with Part 2, a collection of five stories based on cards selected by our writers.  Over the next several weeks we will present different writers and different stories.

This week’s installment includes stories on Conlon figures: Hack Wilson by Jennifer Hurtarte; Joe Giard by Jim Hoffman; Lyn Lary by Jonathan Daniel; Sam Rice by Josh Mathes; and Benny Bengough by Keith Pennington.

If missed the incredible story of the origins of the Conlon Collection by Steve Gietschier, be sure to check out: https://sabrbaseballcards.blog/2017/11/27/the-conlon-collection-project-intro/

Enjoy!

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Hack Wilson

PLAYER:          Hack Wilson

CARD #:           29

AUTHOR:        Jennifer Hurtarte

Hack Wilson was a Chicago Cub, which is the primary reason I chose him. However, another reason is that I have a promotional picture for Diamonds in the Rough with Wilson posing next to Radio Flyer wagons hanging on my bedroom wall. (It was inside the copy of Diamonds that I checked out from the Chicago Public Library many years ago and I thought it was cool, so I kept it. Please don’t tell anyone at CPL. J)

Wilson’s card makes me feel wistful, but it also reminds me why I love baseball. I am fascinated by history, and baseball’s rich history is probably the main reason I came to love it so much. This card makes me want to go back in time to see all the great players of the 1920s and 30s. Although he’s in the Hall of Fame and still holds the NL RBI record, I don’t think Wilson is as well-known as he should be. Perhaps he would have been remembered as one of the greats if his career (and life) hadn’t been cut short by alcoholism.

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Joe Giard

PLAYER:          Joe Giard

CARD #:           119

AUTHOR:        Jim Hoffman

Joe Giard of the 1927 Yankees is depicted on card 119 in the Conlon Collection set.  I prefer Conlon’s portrait images, and Giard is an interesting subject.  He’s smiling in this shot.  He seems confident and approachable.  His Yankees cap is pristine and fits perfectly on his head.  His eyes are clear and his eyebrows full.  His facial features remind me of my wife’s long passed Italian relatives, and in Giard, I feel their welcome and genuine sense of family.  It’s a flattering image of a man in his prime.

Still, the lines on Giard’s face make him appear 15 years older than he is here, in his late twenties.  1920s America was harder on the body, with alcohol, tobacco & environmental pollutants.  Personal training and nutrition were primitive.  All the players in this set appear older than they were.  We romanticize about the era, but it had to have been a more difficult life.  Still, Giard smiles.  He’s probably the least consequential member of one of the most consequential teams in history.  He only made it into 16 games all year, with a 0-0 record.  All the games had been decided when they called on him.  I wonder if he got tired of talking about Ruth and Gehrig, Hoyt, Lazzeri, Pennock and Miller Huggins.  What would it be like to be part of greatness, but almost all of it as a spectator?  But the stories he could tell.  And it looks like he’d be happy to tell them.

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Lyn Lary

PLAYER:          Lary Lyn

CARD #:           318

AUTHOR:        Jonathan Daniel

He’s 29 but he looks older. Much older.

Lyn Lary has the look of someone who has worked hard his entire life. He’s from Armona, CA, a town I know nothing about. But in my mind, Lyn Lary played baseball to escape Armona and make a better life for himself.

The main reason I chose Lary is that I’d never heard of him before and those players interest me. Who were they? How did they get to the big leagues? What did they do after they retired? Writing about the other players in my pack of cards like Al Simmons, Hack Wilson and Honus Wagner would be “easier,” but my preconceptions would bleed through. Choosing a player who was anonymous, at least to me, allowed me to focus on the image rather than the player and that’s what drew me in.

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Sam Rice

PLAYER:          Sam Rice

CARD #:           54

AUTHOR:        Josh Mathes

There are just a few things that have stayed almost exactly the same since before there was even one World War in the history books, let alone two.

I couldn’t travel back to our nation’s capital in 1916 and have a meaningful conversation with Sam Rice about too many things. We’d have no common background to discuss food, travel, or politics. We both grew up in the rural Midwest, so I suppose we could talk about the hot, humid summers or October leaves. But the vast majority of my experience in 21st century America would make no sense to Sam.  But we could have a catch.

He’d whip the ball to me the same way my dad and uncles did on summer weekend afternoons. The sound of the ball sailing through the air and smacking our leather gloves would be the same whether I went to Griffith Stadium or he came to a ballpark with a name like Guaranteed Rate, Globe Life, or SunTrust.

The world was bigger then. The ballparks, too. Sam played 20 seasons of big league ball and only hit a pitch over the fence 13 times. He had more home run sprints than trots (21 inside-the-park homers) and used the massive Griffith Stadium outfield to rack up 184 triples. Parks were built then to fit into their surrounding areas, not the other way around. Exit velocity and launch angle don’t matter as much when the left field pole is more than 400 feet away. So, although Sam would’ve recognized the basics of the game, as a guy who struck out about twice a month, he might be amused at the all-or-nothing approach of today’s hitters.

Throwing a baseball back and forth, though, getting ready to play the game, would feel the same no matter the time.

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Benny Bengough

PLAYER:          Benny Bengough

CARD #:           103

AUTHOR:        Keith Pennington

After looking through my pack of Conlon cards a couple of times, one card seemed to stand out to me.  It is a card of New York Yankees and St. Louis Browns catcher Benny Bengough. There was something about his look and his very slight smile.  He has very clear cool eyes and he just seemed to have an aura of peace and satisfaction to his smile.  Also, he looked current.  Like someone who could be working with me or that I knew today.  He did not look dated.

But again, it was the eyes that drew me back. The only thing I really knew about Benny was that he was on card #1 in the 1933 Goudey baseball set.  Aside from that, nothing.  I read the back of the card to learn about Benny and found out that he played on the 1927 Yankees (1923 through 1930, in fact).

Amazingly, in 1926, Benny was hitting an unbelievable .381 in 36 games, but was sidelined by a broken arm after being hit by a pitch.  He played six years after that but did not again come close to that previous success.  He also did not hit a home run in the majors.

Looking at his stats really made me wonder when the picture was taken: before or after the injury.  Is he is smiling because of a bright future ahead or is it a wistful smile at what might have been or a smile of contentment regardless of his circumstances, or a smile of knowing he was playing with some of the best baseball players and arguably on the best team of all time.

I don’t know.  But it was the smile and the eyes that led me to select this card.

Boston Unions

Much like the Baltimore Unions, Boston’s Union Association entry was one of the league’s more stable. Of the five Union Association clubs that completed their full schedule, only Cincinnati and St. Louis used fewer players than Boston’s 25. The Boston Unions (not the Reds as the history books say) officially joined the Union Association in March 1884, making them the last of the original eight clubs to join the UA. This makes it all the more remarkable that the club finished with a 58-51 record. For comparison, Altoona joined in February and finished a disastrous 6-17 before folding at the end of May.

The efforts to bring Union Association baseball to Boston were led by a triumvirate of Boston baseball legends, George Wright, pitcher Tommy Bond, and first baseman Tim Murnane. Wright’s involvement with the Unions has more or less been forgotten, but it is clear from contemporary accounts that Wright was the driving force behind the Boston Unions. The 33-year-old Murnane, a National Association and National League vet, who last played major league baseball in 1878, was slated to be the club’s first baseman and manager. The veteran pitcher Bond, once the best young pitcher in baseball, but now 4 years removed from his last injury free season. Amazingly pitching 3359 innings by the age of 24 is not good for the arm. Bond is the patron saint of gifted twirlers felled by crippling arm troubles.

Unlike most of the Union Association, Boston fielded its club with promising young players, rather than trying to poach players from established clubs. Thanks to Wright and Murnane’s scouting and a strong amateur baseball scene in the Boston area, the club was filled with young talent. Murnane was the club’s only regular above aged 26, while Bond was the only member of the pitching staff over 25. (As an aside, 19-game-winner James Burke’s birth date remains unknown). Among the talent, future major league regulars included 17-year-old outfielder Mike Slattery, 20-year-old pitcher/outfielder and future Hall of Famer Tommy McCarthy, 22-year-old third baseman John Irwin, and 22-year-old outfielder/pitcher Ed “Cannonball” Crane.

Despite raves from the Boston press, the Unions were not able to overtake the National League’s Red Stockings in the hearts and minds of the Boston faithful and drew poorly. After an opening day crowd of 3000 on April 30, just a few days later on May 5, they drew a crowd reported to be under 100. For a league whose admission prices were 25 cents and who promised a $75 guarantee to the road team, showings like these were a death knell. It seems apparent that George Wright was footing the bill for the team’s expenses. Indeed, Wright’s sporting goods empire, Wright & Ditson, published the official Union Association guide, so he was clearly a booster of the rebel league.

After a promising start, the 28-year-old Bond faltered as the club’s ace earning his release in June. The club landed disgruntled Detroit lefthander Dupee Shaw in mid-July, a coup for the Union Association, which was desperate to pluck major league talent from the rival National League and American Association. Shaw was dominant for the Boston, striking out a staggering 309 batters in 315.2 innings, while posting a 1.77 ERA (good for a 170 ERA+). His 451 strikeouts for the year (including 144 with Detroit) are the fourth best mark of all time.

Despite a dominant hitting season by catcher/outfielder “Cannonball” Ed Crane, the team’s offense was a weak point and prevented them from challenging for a higher position in the standings. Crane batted .285/.308/.451 with 12 home runs (good for second place in the league) and a 152 OPS+ (good for fifth in the league).

The club was dragged down by the poor hitting of Mike Slattery, 23 year old Kid Butler, and Tommy McCarthy. The teenaged Slattery hit just .208/.216/.232 good for a 51 OPS+. Of the 28 UA regulars who qualified for the batting title, Slattery was 28th. Butler, Boston’s left fielder and utility man was even worse, hitting just .169/.206/.227 for a 46 OPS+ in 71 games. Future Baseball Hall of Famer, McCarthy, hit just .215/.237/.244 good for a 62 OPS+ in 53 games. He totalled a -1.0 offensive WAR, -0.3 defensive WAR and put up an 0-7 record in the pitcher’s box, with a 4.82 ERA and a 63 OPS+. This was good for a -1.4 WAR on the mound. So in 53 games, he put up a -2.7 total WAR. All this in what is almost universally regarded as the lowest quality major league in history. (I am not going to comment on the major league credentials of the National Association). McCarthy’s 1884 season has a reasonable case as the worst season by anyone ever. His transformation from unfathomably bad to Hall of Famer has to be one of the most remarkable metamorphoses in baseball history.

The Boston Unions representation in the Old Judge set consists of four players: McCarthy, Slattery, Crane and third baseman John Irwin.

1. Tommy McCarthy

I wrote about McCarthy in the first blog in this series. There are 13 different poses capturing McCarthy’s transformation from struggling youth with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1887 to his burgeoning stardom with the St. Louis Brown Stockings. These 13 poses also include at least 30 variations and are illustrative of how complicated and unwieldy the Old Judge (N172) set is. (As an aside, all images are sourced from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection, which despite its vastness is still incomplete, hence the lack of inclusion of every pose for each player I discuss).

 

 

2. Mike “Kangaroo” Slattery

Mike “Kangaroo” Slattery was just 17 years old when he debuted for the Boston Unions in their first ever game on April 17, 1884. He is the youngest major league regular in baseball history, appearing in 106 games for the Unions. At 6 foot 2 and 210 pounds, he was one of the biggest players in the major leagues throughout his career. Unfortunately his athletic never translated into much hitting ability. After his teenage debut, Slattery spent the next few seasons in the minor leagues, before reappearing with the New York Gothams in 1888. He jumped the Players League Giants in 1890 and wrapped up his major league career with stints in Cincinnati and Washington in 1891. His post playing career including surviving a stabbing while trying to stop a shoplifter and a premature death at age 37 in 1904 due to stomach trouble.

Slattery is pictured in six poses with at least 12 known variations.

 

 

3. Ed “Cannonball” Crane

Ed “Cannonball” Crane had a very unusual and memorable career as the rare player to appear regularly both at catcher and pitcher. A powerfully built 5’9 and 215 pounds, Crane’s 1884 season was easily his best. Crane’s rookie season was split between catching, where he made a staggering 64 errors in 42 games, and the outfield. He also appeared at first base and on the mound. While his defense was dreadful, he showed tremendous power, hitting 12 home runs and 23 doubles. He also set the record for the longest throw, when he threw a baseball an estimated 405 feet (he did this on several occasions in October of that year), breaking former Cincinnati Red Stocking John Hatfield’s record of 400-402 feet. Crane hit well in limited time with Buffalo and Providence in 1885. A dreadful 1886 season with Washington in which he hit just .171, while also putting up a 1 and 7 record with a 7.20 ERA prompted a return to the minors. Pitching for the International League champion Toronto Maple Leafs, he hit .428 while winning 33 games. He returned to the majors with the New York Giants in 1888, where he pitched 12 games including the first no-hitter in New York Giants’ history, a seven inning affair on September 27 against Washington. The following week, he became the first player ever to strike out four batters in one inning. He made two starts for the Giants in that year’s World Series, going 1 and 1, helping the Giants to a 6 games to 4 win over the St. Louis Brown Stockings.

Crane joined the Giants as they toured the world with the Chicago White Stockings that off-season. Crane, who reportedly was not a drinker, quickly shifted into the life of the party on the tour. Crane dressed in fine clothes and regaling teammates and reporters alike with outlandish stories and song. He consumed wine and liquor at the seemingly endless banquets held for the touring baseballists. He missed several games due to drunkenness and hangovers. His throwing arm remained intact however, as he set an Australian record by throwing a cricket ball 384 feet and 10.5 inches in Melbourne. Somewhere along the way, he was provided with a Japanese monkey by an American sailor. The monkey terrorized passengers on-board, which Crane kept hidden in his coat pocket. At the end of the trip, Crane brought the monkey to New York, where he christened it the Giants’ new mascot.

Despite missing time due to injuries, Crane compiled a 14-11 record in 1889. The Giants won the pennant again. Crane showed flashes of his tremendous potential when he won 4 games for the Giants as they defeated the American Association’s Brooklyn Bridegrooms in that year’s World Series. Crane like most of his Giants’ teammates jumped the Players’ League in 1890. It was this season that Crane’s drinking started to takeover. His weight ballooned and in August he was arrested at a Harlem watering hole under charges of resisting arrest. He finished with a 16-19 record as the Giants’ finished a disappointing third. Crane walked a stunning 208 batters against just 116 strikeouts in 330 innings. Crane’s poor personal habits were singled out as the main cause of the club’s struggles.

Crane joined the King Kelly’s Cincinnati entry in the American Association for 1891. In doing so, he became one of the few players to appear in four different major leagues. Crane pitched well, leading the league with a 2.45 ERA with a 14-14 record, but he was criticized for his poor condition and lack of effort. The club disbanded in August and Crane jumped to the crosstown Red Stockings in the National League, as a replacement for Hall of Famer Old Hoss Radbourn. Crane went 4-8 in 15 starts.

Crane returned to the Giants in 1892, going 16-24 with 189 walks and a 3.80 ERA. His arm was faltering and his major league career ended in 1893 with dismal stints for the Giants and Brooklyn. Crane tried without success to find work as an umpire, appearing as a substitute umpire in five National League games over the next couple of seasons. He bounced around the minor leagues, drinking heavily at every stop. He reportedly committed suicide on September 19, 1896 by overdosing on a chloral hydrate prescription in Rochester, New York. He was just 34. Credit to Brian McKenna for the great SABR biography on Crane.

Crane appears in six different poses in the Old Judge set, capturing his time with both the National League and Players’ League versions of the Giants.

 

 

4. John Irwin

John Irwin lived in the shadow of his older brother Arthur Irwin. The elder Irwin was a star infielder for the Providence Grays, who in 1884 were rampaging towards the National League pennant. The previous year, Irwin was credited with inventing the fielder’s glove. John Irwin had made his major league debut in 1882 playing a single game alongside his older brother for the Worcester Grays. He spent 1883 with Bay City of the Northwestern League and from there joined the Boston Unions as their starting third baseman. Manning the hot corner, the 22 year old Irwin had a respectable rookie season. He was light hitter, but his .234/.260/.319 batting line was good for a 94 OPS+. In the field, his .780 fielding percentage was remarkably .003 points better than the UA league average for third baseman. No word on whether he used his brother’s glove. Despite his strong  blood lines, youth and promise, Irwin returned to the minors for most of the next three seasons, making brief stints in the majors with the Philadelphia Athletics in 1886 and Washington Nationals in 1887. Irwin earned modest playing time for the last-place Nationals in both 1888 and 1889 and then jumped to the Buffalo Bisons of the Players’ League in 1890. The Bisons finished in a distant last place with a record of 36-96. Irwin joined the eventual American Association pennant winning Boston Reds in 1891. The Reds were manager by his older brother Arthur. John played 19 games, but was released in July. I would hate to hear that conversation…Sorry bro, you suck.

From there, John joined the last place Louisville Colonels closing out his major league career with 14 games before being released in August. Irwin appeared for 5 different last place clubs in his major league career. Quite a record considering his career lasted just 322 games. He bounced around numerous minor league clubs until the turn of the century. He passed away at age 72 in 1934 in Boston.

Despite Irwin’s role as a part-timer on a last place club, he is featured in five different poses in the Old Judge set.

Irwin looks into his crystal ball to see what the future holds (last place probably):

 

A Dream Deferred

I’d go to card shows in the 1980’s and 1990’s and see fathers and sons flipping through the cards, working on building sets together, and dreamed that one day that’d be me, with my boy, crossing out numbers on checklists and sharing the thrill of the hunt, stumbling upon that much-needed bit of cardboard on our way to completion.

It never happened. None of the kids were really into cards. Nate’s hyperlexia/high-functioning autism took his obsessions in directions other than cards. I took Robbie to a big show near O’Hare Airport when he was little, but I don’t think he had much fun. Joey remembers a card show connected to Fan Fest during the 2002 All-Star Game in Milwaukee.  I don’t think that ever happened.

There was a show in Albany this weekend that I planned on going to. I figured it must be pretty good since it was in its 40th year. I asked Joey, who’s been more into baseball lately, if he wanted to go. He did.

It was a fairly small show at the Ramada Plaza, but definitely the kind of show I was looking for. A slave to my want lists, I knew I’d be able to knock off a chunk of my 1968 and 1969 Topps sets. I did – 83 1968’s, over half of what I needed, and 23 1969’s, about one-third of what was left. I also got 16 1956s for $2.25 each.

Joey was a little lost without a goal, but soon dove into the fun and freedom of not having sets to fill. His only mission was to get a Minnie Minoso card. He got a 1961 as I was looking through some sheets and I found a 1958 in a bargain bin (where I also found a 1955 Al Rosen. He wanted a Rosen card too).

There was a big box of cheap inserts, where Joey found game used items, including a Rocco Baldelli patch. Joey loves Rocco Baldelli.

He also grabbed cards of guys he liked and knew (Felipe Alou and Vida Blue)

or guys who looked cool that he never heard of (Zoilo Versalles and Jose Vidal).

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We talked about Tommie Aaron when Joey stumbled upon a 1969 card of Hank’s brother

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and, like a lot of us, he fell in love with 1971 Topps, especially Lindy McDaniel.

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He also discovered printing errors and now is on a mission to find more Timothy Leary inspired cards like the 1972 Felipe he bought for .50. (If you’ve got cards like this send them to me!).

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The last dealer we stopped at had rows of 1968s and 1969s he was willing to part with for .80 each, including high numbers. I asked Joey if he would help me go through them and he did. It was a bit arduous, but, as we sat side by side, my dream came true.

“Got one,” he’d say as he passed me another card, which led to conversations about Clete Boyer and the playing career of Tony Larussa.

When we were finished I thanked Joey for being such a good sport and helping me realize an old dream.  At first I thought he had more fun at the show than I did, hunting and pecking for neat cards while I slogged through various sheets of paper, but I realize now that I got so much more out of our Saturday afternoon in Albany. If I never get the chance to share another show with Joey, I’m fine. I got to do it once and it was wonderful.

The Conlon Collection Project: Part I

On November 27, I introduced the Conlin Collection Project.  This is Part 1 of a the resulting series of articles.

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George Burns

PLAYER:               George Burns

CARD #:               309

AUTHOR:             Alex Diaz

 

After opening the pack, I realized that many players took their photos without smiling, simply looking serious. Some players turned away from the camera. However, Mr. Burns did not. He looked right into the camera and purely smiled. His joy can be felt as soon as you see the card. If Mr. Burns was with us today, I believe this is what he will say: For the love of the game.

Every day, I button up the rough uniform, put on the old hat, and do what I love most, play baseball. Truth is, at the end of the day, baseball is a game. Nothing more, nothing less. What many people don’t realize is that life is a game, too. Sometimes you might hit a single and have everyone cheer for you. Sometimes you might hit a grounder and have everyone dislike you. Sometimes you might hit a homerun and feel like king of the world. While sometimes you might strikeout with bases loaded at the bottom of the ninth and cry yourself to sleep. You don’t know what each trip to the plate will bring to you, just like you don’t know what life will bring your way.

 

Life is a game, and I love to play it.

 

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Mel Almada

PLAYER:          Mel Almada

CARD #:           234

AUTHOR:        Anthony Salazar

 

By 1936, Almada was a 23-year-old veteran, having spent over three seasons with the Boston Red Sox.  He had performed fairly well with the club, appearing in 151 games the year before, sporting a .290 batting average with 176 hits.  In 1936, his batting verage would fall to .253.  I think the card reflects some of the intensity he was looking to re-capture from previous seasons.  Unfortunately, he would be traded from Boston to the Washington Senators the following season.

The card shows Almada in an away jersey, playing probably in Yankee Stadium against the Bronx Bombers.  He’s taking a few cuts before game time, probably awaiting his turn in the batting cages.  The away jersey is gray, though the stirrups are mostly red with blue and white stripes of different widths.  Of course, I’m looking at a black and white photo, but thanks to the Baseball Hall of Fame’s “Dressed to the Nines” online color exhibit, the 1936 stirrups are easy to tell.

Mel, or really, Baldomero Melo (Quiros) Almada, a native of northern Mexico, grew up in Los Angeles, and later spent a couple of seasons with the Seattle Indians (1932-33), playing with his brother, Lou.  I was excited to see his card, because I identified with him in a number of areas.  My family hails from northern Mexico, and settled in Los Angeles.  As I am based in Seattle, the Almada brothers are two of the early pioneers of Latinos in Seattle baseball history that I have admired.  It’s unfortunate that his career was not more widely known outside the Boston area.  I am glad, however, that Almada is featured in a great SABR Biography.

 

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Bob O'Farrell

PLAYER:               Bob O’Farrell

CARD #:               175

AUTHOR:             Chris Dial

 

My favorite part of the Conlon Collection is that there are photos of everyone. No need to be a star; it’s as if Conlon’s entire thought was towards baseball cards. In this pack, it’s a leisurely stroll – which player do I know the least about? Which ones are the most obscure? Or who is the most famous player that is “uncommon”?

One such player that came up was Bob O’Farrell, the catcher for the 1926 St. Louis Cardinals. I’d never heard of him. I know all his teammates – Rogers Hornsby, Sunny Jim Bottomley, Billy Southworth.  Even more from playing Diamond Mind, I knew of Les Bell, Taylor Douthit, and Ray Blades.  This card said even more – O’Farrell was the National League’s Most Valuable Player.  He caught nearly every game, and posted a 112 OPS+.

The most amazing part of learning O’Farrell’s name, and then going to Baseball-Reference.com and reading his career stats, was the light bulb that turned on: O’Farrell was a key actor in one of the most famous moments in World Series history.  He was the catcher that threw out Babe Ruth trying to steal to end the 1926 World Series. A piece of trivia I have bantered about for most of my life, and I never knew who the catcher was until this pack of cards.

 

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Johnny Evers

PLAYER:          Johnny Evers

CARD #:           15

AUTHOR:        Craig Hardee

 

“Tinker to Evers to Chance” is the classic phrase that describes the Chicago Cubs infield of the early 1900’s. But the Johnny Evers card of the Conlon collection pictures him in a Boston Braves uniform in 1929.

By then, Evers was 47 years old, and had not played major league baseball since 1922, when he appeared in one game for the Chicago White Sox. His last significant action was in 1917, when he split the season between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Boston Braves.  Evers appeared in one game for the Boston Braves in 1929, on October 6, 1929. He’s not listed as a coach or manager of the Braves that year.

A mystery? Perhaps the Braves signed him so he could retire as a Boston Brave. He was a member of the Braves in 1914, when the Miracle Braves went from last place on July 4 to win the World Series. He was the National League MVP that year.

The back of the card reveals that Evers had two nicknames: “Crab” and “Trojan.” He was on the small side, listed at 5’9” and 125 lbs. To compare, the Yankees Aaron Judge is almost a foot taller than Evers was, and is more than twice Evers’ weight.

Evers was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1946, shortly before his death in 1947.

 

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Chief Bender

PLAYER:          Chief Bender

CARD #:           20

AUTHOR:        Dawn Gibson

 

There are certain players in the big league whose smiles shine as bright as the sun. Many of these men are the beloved bearers of a poetic athleticism that blends the bashing of balls with the graceful maneuvers of ballet. Baseball is a beautiful game.  Baseball is all encompassing, from the ace on the mound to the dreamers looking down at the game play from their seats in the stands. One is not indifferent to baseball. Either you love baseball, or you do not. Baseball is simple that way. When the gods play ball, we cheer with a hope and a joy that that unites the fans with the players, and when our heroes laugh, kid, and smile for all to see, we smile in return. Smiles are the knowing winks that fans and players alike use to confess their love of the game.

Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks, had that smile. I cannot look at a baseball card of Ernie Banks and not smile. The Conlon Collection has a card bearing one of these glories of baseball.  Chief Bender, who in 1926, was a coach for the Chicago White Sox.  Bender was born of Chippewa blood in 1884, the same year that a US Supreme Court decision declared Native Americans ineligible to vote because they were not considered to be citizens of the United States. In 1919, women were afforded the right to vote. It would be another five years before the US Congress finally ‘granted’ citizenship to all Native Americans, clearing the way for Native Americans to become part of the voting population. However, it wasn’t until 1956 that all states complied with voter rights laws.

Chief Bender died in 1954, one year after his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. As a Native American, he faced the adversities of that era of US history, and he overcame them. He overcame them with a heart for baseball and as a big league pitcher with a career 2.46 ERA. Baseball is an exquisite equalizer.  It gave an outcast in his own homeland the chance to excel and become one of the best baseball players in history.  It warms the heart to see a challenge fiercely met and conquered. Done so with a smile to prove there is indeed something deeply beautiful about the game of baseball. Wink.

 

NEXT WEEK: PART 2

Lifers

One of the things I enjoy most about collecting cards is putting together checklists of things that interest me. Sometimes these become projects like the action cards or photographer cards that I try and collect. Other times just the exercise of figuring out the checklist and thinking about the theme is enough.

One such checklist I’ve been working on is about baseball lifers and trying to find cards that reflect the longest periods of time in organized baseball. Many of the cards on this list are unobtainable for various reasons but it’s been a fun project to research. I’ve limited to 45 or more years in the game but moving to 40+ would only add a few more guys like Clay Bryant. Also, before anyone questions my math, I’m counting inclusively.

Jimmie Reese

69 years
1925 Zeenut–1993 Mother’s Cookies

It’s fitting that Jimmie Reese’s first and last cards are both regional issues from the West Coast. I remember fascinated by him as the ancient Angels coach in the late 1980s and he was one of the few (if not the only) coaches who occasionally showed up in regular sets as well (he has cards in both 1991 Leaf Studio and 1991 Bowman).

Casey Stengel

56 years
1910 Old Mill Cigarettes–1965 Topps

Stengel was the obvious standout in this department. He benefits from the sheer number of card releases in the pre-World War 1 era. When I was researching this checklist there were a decent number of guys who debuted in pro ball between the wars but who didn’t get cards until after World War 2.

As with Reese, I really enjoy the difference between his first card and his last card. All the pre-war cards just feel like they’re from a completely different world.

Frank Robinson

50 years
1957 Topps–2006 Topps

Compared to Reese and Stengel, Robinson’s cards are much more familiar feeling. If anything, his 1957 card feels much more comfortable to me than that awkward 2006 design.

Felipe Alou

48 years
1959 Topps–2006 Topps

The first pair on this checklist that I can conceivably acquire. While a Frank Robinson rookie is also something that I could get, it’ll always be out of my price range. But these two, as a Giants collector, are pretty much already on my wantlist as it is.

As with the Robinsons, these both feel familiar although I appreciate how both of them are so of their time while also sharing the common Topps DNA.

Del Baker

47 years
1914 B18 Blankets–1960 Topps

Baker is actually the inspiration for this post. I found a 1917 Zeenut card of him at my grandmother’s house and subsequently acquired his 1954 Topps card. When someone else posted about a different 1954 Topps coach card we started talking about baseball lifers, Casey Stengel’s name came up, and then I started thinking about who else should be on the list.

Dusty Baker

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46 years
1971 Topps–2016 Topps Allen & Ginter Skippers minis

Dusty was actually the first name I thought of when the topic of baseball lifers came up. Sadly Topps doesn’t make manager cards in Flagship anymore. Nor do they appear to be in Heritage either. So Dusty’s last card as a manager is part of an Allen & Ginter mini set which is either so rare or so boring that the only images I can find online are the Topps promotional ones.

I miss manager cards and wish Topps would bring them back. Dusty also hasn’t retired yet so there’s a possibility he could move up this list if he gets another gig and Topps produces manager cards again.

Lou Piniella

46 years
1964 Topps–2009 Topps

Because of Ball Four I always associate Piniella as being a rookie in 1969. But as has been pointed out before, he was one of those multi-year rookie stars and his first rookie card from 1964 gets him into this checklist.

Leo Durocher

 

45 years
1929 Exhibits Four-in-One–1973 Topps

I’m glad I found one lifer whose last card is in the 1970s. As I mentioned earlier, the hardest part here is finding rookie cards in the 1920s and 30s. Which is too bad since the way that Topps includes coaches in 1973 and 1974 means that there was a possibility for more lifers to have last cards.

Anyway I’m sure I’ve missed some guys. I don’t have anyone whose last card was in the 1980s. Nor do I have anyone whose career started in the 30s or 40s. So I look forward to being corrected in the comments here.