Joe Morgan, 1943-2020

(Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

One of my favorite Joe Morgan stories is one I first came upon in Joe Posnanski’s book on the Reds (The Machine, 2009). In a 1975 game against the Giants, Morgan doubled off of Charlie Williams. When the pitcher threw the next pitch in the dirt and Morgan saw the ball roll away from catcher Marc Hill, he sprinted towards third only to stop suddenly 20 feet from the bag. Hill, sensing an opportunity, gunned his throw to third but wild, and Morgan scampered home.

In the clubhouse after the game, Morgan explained that he had deliberately stopped running to draw a throw which he thought might go wild. The Giants players were livid, calling Morgan an arrogant son-of-a-bitch for disparaging their catcher. Morgan, believing arrogance to be a necessary quality in a star, was thrilled. He had gotten in their heads, which was his plan.

“If Joe keeps up his current pace,” said his manager, Sparky Anderson, “he’ll be dead in another month.”

——-

Many complimentary words have been written about Joe Morgan, the player, since his death last week, and there is no need to gild the lily here. Suffice it to say that I believe Morgan to have been one of the two greatest players of the 1970s (along with his teammate, Johnny Bench), and the greatest second baseman to ever play the game.

Today, I am here to praise his baseball cards.

A couple of things are very striking about Morgan’s cards. First, so many of them are spectacular–he was a good looking man his entire life, but never more so than on a baseball field. And second, his cards are remarkably affordable compared with contemporaries of comparable or lesser accomplishment. You could buy 10 of his rookie cards (1965) for the price of a single rookie card for Pete Rose, Tom Seaver, Johnny Bench, or Nolan Ryan. And none of his later cards have price tags that reflect his stature in the game’s history.

You can actually tell the story of Topps baseball cards using Morgan as a central figure. His 1966 and 1967 cards are fine specimens of those classic Topps sets–posed photos of a player doing baseball things, with easily recognizable faces. Beautiful.

I bought my first cards in 1967 but I do not believe I saw this Morgan card until a few years later. Which means that my first Morgan cards were these two.

These Morgan card were, as you all likely know, the victim of two unrelated problems: the MLBPA boycott, and Topps’ dispute with the Astros over the use of their name and logo. The latter led to the hatless, uniform-less image, and the former to Topps using this uninspiring image a second time.

It got better the next year.

The card above left, from 1970, is one of my all-time favorites. The ending of the disputes referenced above allowed many kids across America to see these glorious uniforms for the first time. In addition, what we later learned about Joe’s dissatisfaction with his years playing for Harry Walker (being asked to bunt, chop the ball on the ground, etc.) is well captured here, as is Joe’s sour expression. (Good times were coming, Joe.)

In 1971 Topps (above right) first dabbled in action shots, and Morgan was one of their test subjects. Presumably, he is roping a base hit in this gorgeous image.

In 1972 Topps introduced “Traded” cards for the first time, limiting the feature to just seven players who received a second card showing them on their new team. Both of the Morgan cards are excellent, highlighted by Morgan’s well-lit face and his new sideburns.

By the mid-1970s, Topps’ card sets were a mix of action and posed shots, and they would remain so for 20 years. Kids who got Joe Morgan cards in their pack were getting a superstar, one of the game’s best players, a two-time MVP. Whether he was posing, or vaulting out of the batter’s box, Joe Morgan was a card you wanted in your stack.

Joe Morgan’s career had three acts. At the start were 6 full seasons with the Astros as an under-appreciated player, occasionally a star. He finished in the top five in walks every year, an accomplishment no one noticed, stole a lot of bases, made a couple of All-Star teams. His second act was his first 5 years with the Reds (1972-76), when he was as valuable as Willie Mays or Mike Trout, and played for one of history’s greatest and most glamorous teams (The Big Red Machine). Finally, he finished up with 8 years as a very good player, making a positive contribution all the way to the end. The Silver Slugger award was introduced in 1980, and Morgan won it in 1982 at age 38. Had the award come long earlier, of course, he could have won a dozen.

The Topps monopoly ended in 1981, and it is fun to look at some of Morgan’s cards from this era, at a time when he was changing teams almost every year.

A sampling of his Donruss cards:

Morgan returned to the Astros for one season (1980), and helped them to their first division title. The next year we got this gorgeous shot of Joe at Wrigley Field, and one is struck that Joe looked very much like this for 20 years. He moved to the Giants in 1981, and almost led them to a pennant the next year, then was back in the World Series with the 1983 Phillies. None of this was surprising, nor was Joe vaulting out of the box on his 1984 Donruss card.

Now for some Fleer cardboard:

Not surprisingly, 1981 Joe looked great in Houston’s “Tequila Sunrise” togs, just as he had in their glorious late 1960s uniform. The 1983 Joe looks a little more serious, and his 1985 Fleer (he retired at the end of the 1984 season), he looks like peak Joe Morgan about to lace a double to left-center.

Morgan was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1990 with 81.8% of the vote. I understand none of this matters–he’s an all-time great, beloved by historians and fans and statheads. Still: what exactly were the 18.2% thinking? Joe Morgan doesn’t get your vote?

Joe went on to great success as a sportscaster, was a respected executive with the Hall of Fame, and was admired by all of his former teammates and opponents and apparently everyone else. Sparky Anderson said he was the smartest player he ever saw. Johnny Bench said he was the best player he ever saw. That’s not nothing.

I rooted against Joe Morgan in the All-Star game every year, though I knew that the National League was better and that Morgan played a brand of baseball of which my team was unfamiliar. (Morgan was on 10 All-Star teams, and his side won all 10 games). I also rooted against Morgan in the 1975 World Series, and his game winning single into centerfield in the top of the 9th inning of Game 7 broke my heart.

But none of that matters now, as we mourn yet another hero in this Godforsaken year. I just remember the greatness.

RIP Joe. Thank you for elevating this game.

Player Collection Spotlight – Keith Hernandez

The year was 1986. The Mets were on top of the baseball world and, perhaps more importantly, moving their spring training site to Port St. Lucie in short order. WWOR-TV out of Secaucus, NJ would broadcast what seemed like a zillion games over the next few years in that part of Florida. And baseball cards were collected by every kid in the neighborhood. Topps, Donruss, Fleer, packs, boxed sets, oversize cards, mini cards, stickers – someone had them.

How and why Keith Hernandez rather than Gooden or Strawberry or Carter or anyone else? Two reasons: Gooden and Strawberry were too expensive for a 10-year-old, and I kept pulling this Hernandez guy’s cards out of packs. I have a Gooden and a Strawberry player collection, but they are nowhere near as complete as the Hernandez collection. I have plenty of Carter, Orosco, Dykstra, Teufel, Mookie, Darling, Fernandez, McDowell, and everyone else from that Mets team as well as other Mets teams.

Unlike DJ, I lack … discipline, restraint, or whatever you want to call it (perhaps sanity) that allows him to limit himself to Topps cards of his players and team. I want to go on eBay, buy a lot of Jim Gantner cards, and send them to him (DJ, not Gantner) because I can’t imagine not having as many different Hernandez cards as possible. But then I also don’t want to upset his balance and turn him into … me. As a kid I would always try to swap for Hernandez cards with my friends. The first Hernandez rookie I ever owned came via a trade for a handful of football cards. Supposedly there was a Steve Largent rookie in there, but as I didn’t know who he was at the time it didn’t matter to me – I had the 1975 Topps Hernandez and three other guys. Also as a kid, I created my own alphabetical checklist of his cards, flipping through pages of a late 1980s Beckett Almanac scanning sets for his cards. At some point I tossed that out because I had created an electronic list, though I kind of wish I had kept the hand created list to see how close I had gotten to a complete checklist. I never got his autograph during spring training, though a friend of mine did give me an autographed 8×10.

If you want the stats, I have over 1,000 different listed items in Beckett’s database and many more that aren’t listed. The exact number could change by the time this post is public. For his pre-2004 cards I am only missing a handful that are listed in Beckett, some of which I don’t think actually exist. His number of cards exploded in 2004-2005 (he has over 600 cards from those two years alone due to parallels). Staying at home allowed me to scan the items I have, and the Beckett listed items all have front and back pictures (unless it’s a blank back team issue) if you scroll a little down this page to the links at the bottom. I have over 10,000 total Hernandez cards. How do I know? I always thought it would look cool to have the fronts of a single card displayed in all 18-pockets of two pages (back-to-front) in a binder. I have 689 of those pages, including 57 pages of his 1988 Topps card. You can get a sense of what that looks like below. Plus those thousand or so different cards. Plus about two binders of standard sized cards that don’t have 18 copies of a card yet. Plus oversized and mini cards. And extra game-used and autographed cards.

I didn’t do graded cards – until I got a really good deal on a lot. As one might imagine given my lack of restraint, I’ve pretty much climbed that mountain. I’ve grown less interested in the “master set” as listed by PSA because it now includes team picture cards from the 1970s. As someone once wrote here, you need to define a master set for yourself, even if it differs from the definition someone else uses.

While I don’t get too much into custom cards (unless it’s a Heavy J Studios rainbow dazzle purple refractor 1/1), I’m always looking for oddball items that I don’t have. Sometimes it’s an ad or a magazine with Hernandez on the cover or if he’s featured in an interview. Bobbleheads and figurines are also in there, as are drinking cups, posters, cello/rack packs with his cards on top – pretty much anything. I have about 100 ticket stubs from his MLB games, back when ticket stubs were actual stubs. Here’s a display with a variety of items:

Keith Hernandez shelf

With the increasing number of 1/1s and other low-numbered cards I’ve mellowed over the years and don’t worry too much about not getting every card. I’m usually a player in the market, though sometimes I marvel at how much they sell for. I admit that I get slightly annoyed when I make an offer on a card, have it turned down, and then a few days later see it sold for less than I offered. The economist in me doesn’t understand leaving $20 bills lying on the ground.

I don’t dabble much in game-used jerseys or other equipment because I’m not educated enough on those items to have confidence in my purchases. However, I have purchased a number of Topps Vault items. I think the most interesting piece I have is his original Topps contract, with his signature, his dad’s signature (the younger Hernandez was a minor at the time), and Sy Berger’s signature. And the Hernandez authored pop-up book First-Base Hero:

Keith Hernandez contract

It has been a fun endeavor for over 30+ years and somehow I’m always finding something I haven’t seen before (like a 3×5 miniature version of a poster that I just got in a lot last week). I have other player collections, and more different cards of other players (Ripken, Gwynn, and Piazza) but they all have vastly more cards than Hernandez. I have a higher percentage of cards for other players (like Jose Lind – a story for a different day), but Hernandez tends to be a balance of popular enough to be included in some new issues (I’m guessing that appearing on Seinfeld didn’t hurt his popularity – and yes, there is at least one bobblehead commemorating his Seinfeld appearance), but not so popular that he appears in a lot of new issues.

UNCOMMON COMMON: Charlie Berry

Author’s note: This is the third post in a series highlighting “common players” with stories far richer than the value of their trading cards. The first post in the series profiled Dave Hoskins and can be found here. The second post in the series profiled Ernie Barnes and can be found here.

The 1933 Goudey set is well known for its wealth of superstars, including four cards of the Bambino, two cards of the Iron Horse, and a litany of top-shelf Hall of Famers such as Ott, Speaker, Foxx, Hornsby, Grove, and (if you count him) Lajoie.

Collectors can therefore be forgiven if they aren’t impressed when stumbling upon card 184 in the set, that of Chicago White Sox catcher Charlie Berry.

The card was issued as part of Goudey’s seventh series (of ten in all), which I estimate as having come out in late August or early September 1933. The green Ruth #181 card would have likely been the prize for most kids, the other main highlight of the series being (generously) Hornsby’s crosstown update from Cards infielder to Browns skipper.

The card front was about as generic 1933 Goudey as could be (not that this is a bad thing!), featuring a solid yellow background reminiscent of Ruth’s card 53 and a waist up batter’s follow-through common to the set.

It would require some serious pre-internet knowledge of sports history, close proximity to Pottsville, Pennsylvania, or reading the back to know there was more to Berry than batting and backstopping.

Yes, Berry was one of the “mythical eleven” in 1924, a football All American at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, and (if I’m understanding how all this works) a Walter Camp first-teamer, an honor shared with gridiron legend Red Grange and among others.

Berry starred the next two seasons for the Pottsville Maroons of the fledgling National Football League, leading the league in scoring in 1925 and captaining an upset of the presumed top team in the country, an all-star team from Notre Dame that included its famed “Four Horsemen.”

Remarkably, the Pottsville squad included a second member of the 1933 Goudey set, Walter French.

Now mind you I’m by no means a football historian, but my sources (okay, source singular: Wikipedia!) tell me this was the game that put the NFL on the map. While the game catapulted the league to greater heights, Pottsville received anything but a thank you from the commissioner’s office.

On the contrary, the exhibition game was deemed a serious enough violation of league rules that Pottsville was stripped of its 1925 NFL championship and the Chicago Cardinals squad led by another 1933 Goudey alum took top honors.

Down the pecking order of consolation prizes a bit, the team did however earn a trading card set, maroon tint and all! The back of the set’s second card, “The Symbolic Shoe,” provides as strong evidence as you’ll find anywhere that Pottsvillians want that TITLE RESTORED!

This same set includes a card of Berry himself, and again the Zacko family is just not having that whole stripped title thing!

Berry collectors can also delight in knowing there was surprisingly (to me anyway!) a set produced in 1924 of the Lafayette Leopards college football team.

Sadly the set did not include Berry’s Lafayette (and future White Sox!) teammate Frank Grube, who would have to wait until 1935 to appear in the same set with Berry.

But enough about Charlie Berry the player. Let’s move on to what he did even better! For that, we’ll fast forward two decades to the 1955 Bowman set and the subset collectors love to hate.

Same guy? Yep, same guy!

In fact, if you were lucky enough to be at the Polo Grounds for “The Catch,” that first base umpire you might have booed was none other than the Pottsville Maroon legend.

Coincidentally, Berry was not the only umpire that day with cards in both the 1955 Bowman and 1933 Goudey sets. The Arkansas Hummingbird had an even better view of the catch as left field umpire that day.

Berry’s presence at the 1954 World Series was no fluke. He also worked the World Series in 1946, 1950, 1958, and 1962 for a total of 29 World Series games in all. Though I’m not exactly picketing Cooperstown or holding any bronze shoes hostage pending his enshrinement, I do think a strong Hall of Fame case could be made for Berry as an umpire.

However, Berry’s story doesn’t end there. Charlie Berry was also the Bo Jackson of officiating, racking up a borderline Hall of Fame resume working NFL games as well. His NFL head linesman resume included twelve (!) championships, highlighted by a critical call in the “Greatest Game Ever Played.”

Is it possible then that this “common player” from the 1933 Goudey set, whose card is readily found in decent shape for about $25, was perhaps the greatest sports official of all time as well as the player that put the NFL on the map? Might he even have two cases for induction, one for Cooperstown and one for Canton? And, as importantly, will the Zacko family finally donate that bronze shoe?

In the words of another Charles Berry, you never can tell!

And hey, don’t forget to check out Berry’s SABR Bio for plenty more on this Uncommon Common.

Farewell to Whitey who was Built Ford Tough

Edward Charles Ford, who passed away October 8 at the age of 91, was a Hall of Famer; World Series hero; Chairman of the Board; social companion of Mickey Mantle and Billy Martin; “Slick” to manager Casey Stengel. But to generations of Yankee fans he was simply, “Whitey.”

From the moment Ford joined the World Champion New York Yankees in midseason 1950, he was a trailblazer. He won his first 9 decisions and steadied a rotation that featured Allie Reynolds, Vic Raschi, Ed Lopat and Tommy Byrne en route to a World Series victory over the Philadelphia Phillies and their “Whiz Kids.”

A legendary competitor, the crafty lefty was the ace of the great Yankees dynasties of the 1950s and 1960s. According to the Baseball Hall of Fame website, Ford was the team’s Game 1 starter in every World Series from 1955-1958, becoming the first pitcher in history to start four consecutive Game 1s. Ford repeated the feat again from 1961-1964.

A 10x All-Star, Ford led the league in wins three times, twice in earned run average and won a Cy Young Award in 1961. With a record of 236 -106, he owns the highest winning percentage (.690) in history.  

As he lived in October, it stands to reason that Ford set numerous World Series pitching records, including consecutive scoreless innings (​33 2⁄3), wins (10), losses (8) games started (22), innings pitched (146) and strikeouts (94). He was a six-time World Series champion and a World Series MVP recipient in 1961.

When it came to baseball cards, Ford was equally iconic. After his exploits of 1950, the Bowman Gum Company honored the rookie by designating him card No. 1 in its 1951 Bowman baseball card set – the same set that features the rookie card of Mickey Mantle.

Ford, however, would miss the next two full seasons by fulfilling his military obligations as noted by the back of Ford’s 1953 Bowman Color baseball card.

“The return of Whitey from Uncle Sam’s service to the Yankee mound staff is looked upon by delight from everybody to the President down to the bat boy. He’s a great young pitcher, and if can pitch as he did before he left for his service hitch, he’ll be a tremendous help to the Yanks in their quest for a fifth straight pennant.”

1953 Bowman Whitey Ford card back

However, Ford didn’t miss a beat on his return to the majors. Winning 18, 16, 18 and 19 games in his next four seasons.

It was the mid-1950s and Ford was enjoying himself and the New York City nightlife with Yankee teammates Mantle and Billy Martin – a trio that earned the nickname, “The Three Musketeers.”

Bill Pennington, author of “Billy Martin: Baseball’s Flawed Genius” wrote that one of the Musketeers (Martin) was painted as a ringleader; taking most of the blame when things went wrong. The claim was refuted by Ford himself in the book.

“I don’t know why Billy always got labeled the instigator, which wasn’t at all true,” Ford said. “Mickey just had that innocent, country-boy look and I was quiet about a lot of things in public. But Billy didn’t care about appearances and he had that mischievous grin, so people just thought he was stirring us up all the time. It wasn’t really the case. We got into plenty of trouble on our own.”

Trouble like the infamous Copacabana incident in 1957 when several Yankees, including Mantle, Ford, and Martin as well as Hank Bauer and Johnny Kucks, were involved in an early morning altercation at the famed New York City nightclub.

The next morning’s headlines in the New York papers were scandalous at the time: “It Wasn’t A No-Hitter” screamed a headline in the New York Journal-American. Soon after, Yankee brass banished “ringleader” Martin, who was traded to Kansas City.

Nonetheless, the Yankees would continue their pennant-winning ways with Ford leading the way into the World Series– except the one time he didn’t.

In 1960, as the Yankees were preparing to play the Pittsburgh Pirates, Stengel surprised many by opting to start journeyman Art Ditmar in Game 1 in favor of Ford, who was already a dominant post-season performer. Skipping Ford in Game 1 meant the lefty would be unable to pitch three times if the series went the distance. The move backfired horribly. Not only did Ford pitch brilliantly – hurling two shutouts in Games 3 and 6 – but the Pirates jumped on Ditmar each time he pitched in the series. In fact, Ditmar never made it out of the second inning in either start. The Pirates won the series in seven games. The decision was heavily criticized and cost Stengel his job as Yankee manager.

Meanwhile, Ford would win the Cy Young Award the following year in that magical 1961 season and go on to pitch well into the 1960s, even as those Yankees teams began to falter as their stars like Mantle began to age.

Interestingly, Ford lost his last four World Series starts – Game 5 against the 1962 Giants, Games 1 and 4 (opposing Sandy Koufax each time) against the 1963 Dodgers, and Game 1 versus the 1964 Cardinals.

Ford was enshrined in Baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1974, five years before I started following baseball. Very quickly, however, I came to understand Ford’s place in Yankee history – mostly through my baseball card collection as well as his appearances at Yankees’ Old Timer’s Day. As is customary with the event, the greatest players are honored with getting introduced last. And when you’re talking New York Yankees, that’s quite a pecking order: Berra, Mantle and DiMaggio.

Years later with legends like Mantle and DiMaggio no longer around, it was time for Ford to receive the honors and accolades.

In 2010 – the last time I attended an Old Timer’s Day at Yankee Stadium – I paid strict attention to the moment when Ford and Berra were introduced.  Understanding that this might be the last I would ever see them, I fixated only on them. I stood silently and took in their every movement, smile and wave as they rode in from the centerfield gate in a tricked-out golf cart (complete with Yankee pinstripes). “Remember this moment. That’s Yogi and Whitey.”

When I visit Yankee Stadium with my sons, we dutifully pay a visit to Monument Park and read the plaques of the legends. Like Whitey Ford. 

Rest in peace.

Roberto Alomar: Un Pelotero Especial

One of the joys of living in Cooperstown is the annual Friends of the Village Library Used Book Sale. Well, sort of annual. The summer sale was called off due to the plague, but the resourceful volunteers at FOVL cobbled together a weeklong sale last week.

There are always cool finds beyond the scads of Danielle Steeles, Sean Hannitys and John Grishams. This is an old community, and ancient books tend to pop up now and then. This is not a diverse community, so I was shocked to see two Spanish language baseball books – La Maquinaria Perfecta, about the 1954-55 Santurce Cangrejeros and Roberto Alomar: Un Pelotero Especial.

My affection for Robbie Alomar is deep. He was always a favorite of mine, but looms large in our family history because, while we awaited the birth of our second son (in January 1993), I was watching the Jays-A’s playoffs while we discussed potential names. By the time Alomar blasted a 9th inning home run off Dennis Eckersley is Game 4 of the ALCS, it was decided – Robbie (officially Robert Samuel). I’ve met Alomar a few times. The first time I told him my son was named for him. He was stunned. (One of my favorite memories was when we met, again, at a Hall of Fame event, and when I went up to him for a photo he said, “I know you.” Validation!)

Back to the book. It a thick, oversized, glossy tribute, with tons of fantastic pictures. One Appendix has a terrific smattering of Alomar cards – official issues, Baseball Cards Magazine custom, Gary Cieradowski art card, minor league cards. It’s a feast that I had to share.

As to Robbie himself, it’s almost required that someone feels compelled to chime in about the spitting incident. Don’t. I don’t know the guy, but he’s been nice every time we’ve met. For him, don’t judge a person at their worst.  For you, I wish the same.

A Brief Analysis of Baseball Card Prose and How It Makes Us Better Writers (1960-1963)

Seventy years of baseball card prose…four cards at a time. 

In this installment of my ongoing series, I’ll continue my project in which I examine the baseball card prose for one Detroit Tiger card from each year of the flagship set released by Topps.  We’ll learn about writing craft and baseball history, but we may just learn a little about ourselves…

Or maybe not.  Here we go:

1960 Larry Osbourne #201

Design of the reverse: Reduced stats, cartoon, and prose.

Text (59 words, plus 8 words in captions):  Larry showed great promise in his first full seasons of major league ball last year. In April he blasted his initial major league homer to climax a perfect 3 for 3 day against the Orioles. In June his 3 RBI’s helped rout the Red Sox 8-1 and in August he drove in a trio of markers against Kansas City.

Larry’s dad was a major leaguer in 1922 [Larry’s father shows Little Boy Larry how to hold a bat.]

The 1950s were a fascinating time.  The Cold War was heating up, rock and roll was born, and there were three major leaguers who were nicknamed “Bobo.”  Bobo Newsom began his MLB career in 1929 with the Brooklyn Robins and didn’t retire until 1953.  That same year, Bobo Holloman enjoyed his only stint in The Show, hurling in 22 games for the Browns. 

Bobo Newsom was referred to by his nickname in his 1953 card: his only Topps flagship card.  Sy Berger and his colleagues, on the other hand, referred to Osborne as Larry in his several Topps releases.  The writers of The Sporting News frequently used “Larry (Bobo) Osborne” when detailing the player’s exploits.  (He was just “Larry” on May 11, 1955, when the News described how Osborne, then with the Augusta Tigers, sidelined righthander Russ Swingle indefinitely by spiking him “on the ankle.”  Swingle’s “gash required 13 stitches.”)

One wonders what the authors thought about the rhetoric of nicknames in those early years.  In 1952, anyway, Harold Henry Reese was “Pee Wee” and Harry Lavagetto was “Cookie.” In 1956, “Pee Wee” received quotation marks, and Cookie went back to “Harry” on his 1961 manager card. 

In 1952: “Cookie” on the front…

…”Harry” on the back.

In 1961: “Harry.”

Forrest Harrill Burgess’s career spanned all of Topps’s early years, and he was always “Smoky.”  Later issues in the 1960s didn’t even include his real name on the back of the card.

The issue cuts to the idea of identity formation and the hero worship naturally stoked by baseball cards.  “Smoky Burgess” and “Pee Wee Reese” just sound cool.  Does “Bobo Osborne” have the same ring?  Did Topps use “Larry” because it sounded more traditional?  Did Topps just feel that Newsom, a long-time big leaguer, was the only Bobo?  (Holloman didn’t receive a Topps card until the 1991 Topps Archives “Cards that Never Were” release.  Yes, he was called “Bobo.”) 

A nickname lends a kid-friendly familiarity to a ballplayer–think George Herman Ruth–but it can also distance the fan from the player.  Do A-Rod’s close friends call him “A-Rod?”  I can see starstruck fans greeting Mattingly with a hearty, “Hey!  Donnie Baseball!”  The proliferation of digital technology makes it easier for fans to see a player’s real personality if he wishes to share it.  The cost is a loss of the majestic distance I felt when I ACTUALLY saw Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker in REAL LIFE and they were ACTUALLY playing baseball IN FRONT OF ME.  It’s wonderful to see a video of Trevor Bauer taking his Covid-19 test and eating a healthy lunch before working out on an off day, but does it dull the mystique when I watch him stare down batters on MLB.TV? 

There’s another big issue that I need to address with this card and others from 1960 Topps. 

Punctuation problems!  (Don’t worry.  I’ll keep it fun.) 

There isn’t a single comma in the prose on the reverse of Osborne’s card.  (There should be three, along with a couple hyphens.)  Many 1960 Topps cards feature “Season’s Highlights” instead of traditional prose; punctuation is easier when you’re writing bullet points.  But look at Johnny Callison’s card: 

That last bit needs a full stop!  Without it, the sentence implies that Callison hit 27 home runs on December 8th.  There weren’t even any games that day! 

Perhaps the Topps staff paid less attention to the sentences on the cards in the years during which they devoted more space to cartoons…

1961 Larry Osbourne #208

Design of the reverse: Full stats, no prose, cartoons

Text (16 words in captions):  Larry showed great promise in his first full seasons of major league ball last year. In April he blasted his initial major league homer to climax a perfect 3 for 3 day against the Orioles. In June his 3 RBI’s helped rout the Red Sox 8-1 and in August he drove in a trio of markers against Kansas City.

Larry’s dad was a major leaguer in 1922 [Larry’s father shows Little Boy Larry how to hold a bat.]

Speaking of years in which Topps cut down on the copywriting budget…

Topps opted to include fuller stat lines, including minor league lines for a player like Osborne.  I wish we could still ask Sy Berger, but I wonder if this was indeed done as a cost-cutting measure, or if Topps wanted to build the players’ identities in a different way.  Statistics certainly tell a story, just in a different way.  A savvy kid could take one glance at Osborne’s stats and see from the man’s .185 batting average why he spent the entire 1960 season in AAA.

I chose to write about two Larry Osborne cards for a couple reasons.  First, that’s what’s in the my one-Tiger-for-each-year collection.  Second, I love that Topps repeated the same anecdote about Osborne.  Larry’s father was Earnest Preston Osborne, nicknamed “Tiny.” (Is “Bobo” better than “Tiny?”)  

Tiny pitched from 1922 to 1925 for the Cubs and the Robins.  Only 22 years later, his son was in the bigs.  Ballplayers have long served as father figures to kids, whether or not the real father figure was around.  By emphasizing that Bobo had ostensibly made Tiny proud, a young boy or girl who pulled this card in 1961 might have subconsciously confronted his or her own subconscious desire to please the old man.  The cartoons are also part of Topps’s history of highlighting father-son ballplayer duos.

1962 Terry Fox #196

Design of the reverse: Reduced stats, one cartoon, prose

Text (53 words in prose, plus 13 in captions): Terry was considered “just a toss-in” in the deal that sent Frank Bolling to the Braves last winter.  Instead, despite some arm trouble, the righthanded bullpen artist developed into a gem as his 1.42 E.R.A. points out.  He won 12 games in relief in the P.C.L. in 1960.

TERRY OUTFOXES THE HITTERS

Terry won 21 games with New Iberia in 1955.  [From behind the umpire, we see Terry in his follow-through.  The ball is halfway to the plate, and the umpire has already extended his right arm into the air.]

Significantly, humor doesn’t seem to have a prominent role in most baseball card prose.  I suppose that there are a few jokes here and there, particularly in cartoons, but I’m not sure how often we see an honest-to-goodness pun like “Terry outfoxes the hitters.”  

Get it?  There you go.

Perhaps the authors don’t want to diminish the players through the use of humor or risk offending the parents of their target audience.  (Come to think of it, examining humor in baseball cards would be a fun study.)

If you’ll notice, the events in the prose are out of order.  Did the author want to fill up that last line above the stat box?

Oh, and that penultimate sentence is missing a comma.  

1963 Howie Koplitz #406

Design of the reverse: Full stats, cartoon, some prose.

Text (13 words in prose, plus 10 in captions): The righthanded reliever is still undefeated after 2 seasons in the American League.

Howie was in the Armed Forces for part of ’62.  [An annoyed staff sergeant watches Howie go through drills using a baseball bat instead of a rifle.  The rifle says, “BANG!”]

Topps always had affection for prospects and rookies.  As is the case today, the company was hoping to get in on the ground floor with players who would become the next big thing.  (Of course, the money in today’s baseball card ecosystem is completely different…)  

The Topps All-Star Rookie designation first appeared on cards in 1961, and Koplitz received the honor on his 1962 rookie card.  Unfortunately, the prose on the reverse of Koplitz’s 1963 issue sounds like the kind of statement we might make in a resume: technically accurate, but perhaps overly flattering.  It’s absolutely true that Koplitz was undefeated in the American League.  On the other hand, he was 5-0 as a starter as well as a righty coming out of the bullpen. 

Perhaps most importantly, there is precious little room for prose on the reverse of this card.  In this way, Topps boosts Koplitz in an efficient manner.  The pitcher is undefeated, and if you’re wondering why he’s only pitched in 14 Tiger games over two seasons, well…he was serving our country.  I can’t think of a better way to explain a gap in one’s resume!

And perhaps my sense about the scarcity of baseball card humor is slightly off; note the appropriately Bazooka Joe-esque joke.  (I love the expression on the annoyed drill instructor’s face.)


The amount of prose may be decreasing, but I’m getting ever more excited as I get closer to that World Champion 1968 team.  Next time, I’ll write about a couple of the cogs on that squad and a highly underrated southpaw who was brave enough to strike out the Splendid Splinter the first time they faced each other.


Series: A Brief Analysis of Baseball Card Prose and How It Makes Us Better Writers
1952 – 1955,
1956 – 1959, 1960-1963
or the posts can be found under the “CardProse” tag.

Giving a Hoot about Gibby

Editor’s note: A huge SABR Baseball Cards thank you to guest writer Bijan C. Bayne for contributing this Bob Gibson memorial retrospective to our blog. For more from Bijan, see his blog at or follow him on Twitter at @bijancbayne.

Bob Gibson died on October 2, 2020, a couple weeks after his fellow Omaha bred sports hero Gale Sayers. Gibson would have been 85 on November 9, and his storied athletic career is an intriguing as anyone’s. “Athletic,” because for a pitcher, Gibson embodies “athlete” like few others, and is one of a handful of top level hurlers capable of defeating you with his glove, arm, legs, or bat.

Gibson was raised in the aforementioned Omaha, tutored in youth sports by a much older brother who happened to be named “Josh” (who was a role model for a lot of boys in their close knit community), and excelled in basketball and baseball. In that order. The hoops proficiency earned the 6’1” Gibson a basketball scholarship to local university Creighton, where the All-American prospered. He actually had dreams of playing for Indiana University, but Gibson got the impression their head coach Branch McCracken had a small finite tolerance concerning roster spots for Black guys.

Gibson’s collegiate success was such that he toured on a College All-Star squad which toured nationally against the Harlem Globetrotters, who in those days boasted NBA level talent. The leaping, undersized Creighton Blue Jay forward torched the Trotters nightly during the tour, leading Globies owner Abe Saperstein to sign Hoot to his ballclub. Ever the fiery competitor, Gibson tired of clowning with the exhibition outfit, and shifted his focus to the diamond.

In the Cardinals’ system Gibson faced early frustration because manager Solly Hemus didn’t deem him worthy of the starting rotation, and would excuse him from pitchers’ meetings on the grounds Gibson wasn’t cerebrally able to understand mound nuance. For his part, Gibson characterized Hemus to be similarly bigoted as McCracken. Gibson was primarily deployed in relief. His first four big league seasons he was a combined 34-36, but he recorded strikeouts in roughly two-thirds of the innings he pitched.

New Cardinals skipper Johnny Keane exhibited more confidence in Gibson, who went 18-9 with more than 200 K’s in 1963. Some have even compared Gibson’s early career mediocrity to Sandy Koufax- who also attended college on a basketball scholarship at a Missouri Valley Conference school (Cincinnati). Of course by 1964, Gibson was a World Series hero who helped defeat the Yankees. Gibson could hit and hit for power, and he occasionally pinch ran (on a club that had speedsters Lou Brock and Curt Flood). Despite his signature follow through, whose momentum carried him off the mound to his left, Gibson was awarded nine Gold Gloves.

The World Series catapulted Gibson into cultural prominence. He epitomized postseason perfection, he was a product spokesperson for both asthma medication, and (demonstrating his fastball in the ad), shatter-proof plexiglass. He guested on an episode of “The Big Valley.” His drop dead gorgeous wife Charline appeared on the 1970’s incarnation of “What’s My Line.”

I followed his career closely, even moreso after a school carpool mate rode home with Gibson’s autobiography “From Ghetto To Glory,” and I flipped through the photo midsection in my father’s backseat. In my backyard, where I had chalked a strike zone on our back wall next to the basement door, I’d fall off the mound sideways in my pitching follow through. Like Willie Mays and Dick Allen (the latter a brief Gibson teammate), Gibson was always depicted in long sleeves under his uniform jersey, or even his warmup jacket underneath it on some trading cards.

I owned his ‘71 Topps—one of the few years he’s shown in an action shot, and also rarely, in profile (a less confrontational Gibby).

The ‘67 Gibby Topps is intriguing in that it captures him at the cusp of superstardom, still boyish in countenance and pose (he was 31). Contrast that with his ‘72 Topps, where he bears the elder statesman status of a Mudcat Grant.

You didn’t think I was done discussing Gibson’s prowess at the plate did you? He hit 24 career homers- five of them in 1965. He drove in 20 runs in 1963, and 19 each in ‘65 and ‘70 (the latter campaign he was 34 years old). He stole 13 bases, five of them in 1969. He recorded six doubles in both 1969 and 1972. The man who hated batters, loved to bat. Dick Allen once asked Gibson at the All-Star Game, “Why do you throw at us colored guys?”

Gibson: “Because you guys are the ones killing me!” When Tim McCarver would come out to conference at the mound, Gibson would bark “Get back behind the plate—the only thing you know about pitching is you can’t hit it.” When Michael Jordan returned from a foray into baseball, as a uniform number 45 in basketball, it reminded me the last person that competitive, to sport that numeral was Bob Gibson.

Gibson’s ‘67 World Series dominance is all the more remarkable because on June 15 of the regular season, Roberto Clemente had shattered the ace’s leg with a line drive. The clutch performer returned in time to lift his team in seven games over the Boston Red Sox, including a home run as a batter. Invariably when a 2000’s slugger crowded the plate, or sported body armor on his elbows and shins, tv commentators or former ballplayers remarked as if on cue, “He wouldn’t stand in that close if Bob Gibson were still pitching—Gibby would show him who owns the plate.”

Thus Gibson symbolized an era- one during which he and Don Drysdale, ummm, discouraged opponents’ digging in too close to the dish. Gibson’s trademark tenacity extended to exhibition games—he didn’t socialize with N.L. teammates at All-Star Games because he didn’t want to become friendly with batters. Ask Dick Allen. Off the field, while Gibson wasn’t mild mannered, he did wear glasses, which appeared incongruous. But so did Clark Kent and Ray Nitschke. One wonders what extra fear the specs stoked in opposing batters.

Because of cultural changes and contemporary baseball rules protecting batters, we will never see another Bob Gibson. Because of Gibson, we will never again see pitchers’ mounds 15 inches high—in 1968’s Year Of The Pitcher, he posted a 1.12 ERA and 13 shutouts.

Bullet Bob Gibson. Hoot. Gibby. The man so fiercely combative he quit a touring basketball team that generally went several consecutive seasons without a loss. The last of a breed. Nine World Series starts. Eight complete games, seven victories. Twice named Series MVP. Overcame ethnic bias, asthma, and a broken leg.

I cannot be the only person who imagined The Grim Reaper approached Gibson this week and asked for the ball. Gibson fixed the scythe bearing scepter with his laser beam stare, and said with that clipped Midwestern accent “If you don’t go sit your behind down somewhere I’m gonna plunk you.” Though the tactic may not have proved successful, it was certainly on brand.

Player Collection Spotlight – Ozzie Smith

I remember watching Ozzie Smith on Johnny Bench’s show The Baseball Bunch back in 1983. This was the year after Smith’s Cardinals broke my heart by beating the Brewers in the World Series. Still, Smith was an incredible fielder, and he had some great tips. I became a fan of the Wizard of Oz and have been ever since.

Smith made his debut with the Padres in 1978. He spent four years there before he was traded to the Cardinals. He won the first two of his record 13 Gold Gloves as a shortstop.

Smith continued his Gold Glove streak in St. Louis, winning it in his first 11 seasons as a Cardinal. He led the Cardinals to the World Series and scored in the sixth inning of Game 7, the inning that the Cardinals took the lead that they would not give up. I’m not bitter.

Smith was a fifteen-time All-Star, including eleven as starting shortstop, a National League record for the position.

Smith was a fixture in St. Louis through the 1996 season. He hit .303 in four NL Championship Series and played in three World Series.

I find it odd that of his 27 Topps flagship and traded cards, only three of them have him wearing his glove. He was the best fielding shortstop in the game, yet there were six times as many cards showing him with a bat or running the bases.

I have three favorite Ozzie Smith cards. The first is 1980. I love the whole body swing and the contrast between his jersey and pants.

His 1981 Record Breaker card shows him doing what he does best as he’s moving toward the ball in the field.

The 1993 card shows him signing autographs for kids.

My Ozzie Smith collection consists of 27 Topps flagship and traded sets. I stuck with Topps, and more specifically these sets, to keep my collection more manageable.

Jumping Into the Deep End

I’ve posted sporadically the last few months because my collecting focus has been almost exclusively on football. I’ve been juggling multiple sets – 1964, 1966 and 1967 Topps, and 1967 Philadelphia. With 1967 Topps done (thanks Big Ben Davidson!), I’ve been thinking hard about tackling a big baseball set. 

(We all know that in our card community we’re often spurred on to pursue cards that our friends show us and talk about. I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a nod to Mark Armour’s recent relentless assault on completing Topps sets he was reasonably close to finishing. Mark has thanked me for honing his thoughts on that, so thanks are due right back at him).

After much deliberation, I made my decision – 1964 Topps. Why? A few reasons:

1 – I’ve got a relatively solid start, with 157 cards (although 17 will need to be upgraded to set-building condition). Not a big base, but 27% is 27% percent. Though 1964 is a bit before my collecting time (I was almost two years old), these cards came from a friend almost 50 years ago. They were his brother’s cards, supplemented by star purchases I made in the ‘70’s. I’ve always loved the look of the 1964s.

2 – I think I can get from 157 to 400 pretty fast. I won, bought, traded, for 60 yesterday, with, hopefully, another 50-60 on the horizon in coming auctions. Checking Beckett Marketplace, I’m sure I can add another 100-150 at my price point. (COMC is usually my go-to on set builds, but with at least 3 month delivery times, I’ll have to hold off for now. It would be mentally debilitating to have 150 cards bought, but undeliverable, until early 2021).

3 – High numbers are very reasonable. In EX, they seem easy to grab for $2-3, and, in lots, even less. That’s important and pricey highs keep me from going after 1966.

4 – Mantle. Need him, but he’s not too expensive. I think, with patience, I can get a nice one for $150ish. Rose is the second biggest on my list, but $75 seems to be attainable. (I once had this card, or my pal’s brother once did. It was a nice card, BUT, on the back, in bold caps, was written “STAY OUT TIM!” I was so upset about that that I ripped it in half and threw it away.)

So my strategy is in place – quick lots to get to a reasonable place, hit the local Cooperstown card shops (Yastrzemski Sports and Baseball Nostalgia) to fill some holes, peck around for stars, and, in time, go to card shows once the coast is clear. Of course, if any of you out there have EX or better cards that you’d like to sell or trade, I’m open to talk. For now, sheets have been bought, an album attained, and starting cards placed.

There’s something sad about 587 card slots, mostly unfilled. It seems lonely and daunting, a few cards surrounded by ghosts.

It’s also hopeful. As pages get filled and the set fleshes out, there’s that wonderful sense of a goal gradually attained.

Wish me luck!

At home with John Orton

John Orton popped up again the other day.

Not in the sense of skying one to the second baseman. Rather, I mean he resurfaced. Came to the top.

He doesn’t live with the rest of my baseball cards — he lives on countertops, or on the edges of bookshelves — and it’s common for him to just show up every so often, like a wild cat wandering from time to time into the yard of a farmhouse.

# # # # #

I found him in the fall of 2018, or perhaps the spring of 2019; the circumstances would have been the same at either point.

IMG_E3767

I was jogging in Walpole, Massachusetts, near the two-room apartment where I’d moved after taking a new job in Boston in September 2018. My wife and younger son were still in Pennsylvania, with plans to sell our house there and join me in New England after the school year ended.

Most of the time between September 2018 and June 2019, I was either on a train headed to or from the city for work, or on a highway driving to or from Pennsylvania so I could spend a weekend packing, cleaning, and reminding my family what I looked like. What little time was left was spent in the two-room apartment, which my younger son christened the Sad Dad Pad. (Perhaps sensing that this cut a little close to the bone, he renamed it the Dad Cave, which it remained.)

Back to the jog: I was probably looking down, gauging a bumpy and unfamiliar stretch of sidewalk, when I saw John Orton — 1991 Topps Stadium Club #591, to be precise. The Doug Drabek card from the same set was sitting nearby, in similar condition, and a shuffling of additional weather-worn cards were spread further out in the yard.

I didn’t feel comfortable going into some stranger’s yard to look at the other cards. But John Orton (and Doug Drabek, who vanishes from the narrative hereafter) was right next to the sidewalk. So I picked him up. If some little kid didn’t want the company of the former Angels backstop, I’d take it.

As it turned out, we had something in common. I was the New Guy In The Office, trying to prove myself, and so was he.

IMG_E3764

It’s possible that John Orton and his comrades were lost, not intentionally thrown away. But I tend to think they were discarded. There were enough cards in the yard to make me think that any half-attentive owner would have noticed the absence of their bulk and volume if they’d been dropped by mistake.

No, instead, I figured some kid had bought a repack of cards, or had been gifted some old cards by a friendly uncle, and had decided to shed the ones he didn’t like — perhaps while walking from one house to another, flicking the wrist, the way one would casually discard the wrapper of a candy bar eaten in transit.

Some cards had blown farther from the sidewalk. Others had stayed where they fell. And a few went home with me — such as “home” was. I didn’t have a whole lot of counter space, but John Orton claimed some of it, wedged onto a sort of kitchen “eating bar” area where my computer lived.

# # # # #

The move worked out in the end. All the usual hurdles and speed bumps presented themselves, but the rest of the family moved to Massachusetts and rejoined me under a new roof as planned, and the sale of the house in Pennsylvania closed a month or two later. (I breathe multiple sighs of thanks and relief each day that we tackled this maneuver in 2018-2019, and not a year later.)

I probably gave some thought to chucking John Orton as I cleaned out the Dad Cave — him being emblematic of a time now over, and all that. But I kept him. I’ve never been one to throw out cards, not even teams I don’t like or players I don’t care about.

I should probably think about filing him in the boxes and binders that house the rest of my cards. “John Orton finally finds a home” would be a nice sentimental conclusion, I suppose.

But for now he’s still an outside cat, so to speak, living on countertops and desktops, getting buried by paper ephemera and then coming up again with each new cleaning. I think he fits nicely in that role, to serve as an intermittent reminder to both of us to be thankful for how life has improved since the day we met.