In the previous installment of this series, I began my journey through nearly seventy years of baseball card history. I’m examining the prose featured on the backs of one Detroit Tiger for each year of Topps flagship sets. We’ll learn about culture and technology, but we’ll also find out what this prose can teach us about writing and storytelling.
So let’s dip back into the collection that inspired this series and pull out my beautiful…
1956 Steve Gromek #310
Design of the reverse: The typed prose has been replaced by three cartoons.
Text (33 words in captions): This will be Steve’s 16th year as a major league star. [Three boys seek autographs from Gromek. The rightmost one says, “Gee, he wuz pitchin’ before we wuz born”]
In ’54, he had a brilliant 18-16 record. [Gromek following through after a pitch with a sunburst behind him.]
Steve started as an infielder in ’39, but switched to pitching in 1941. [Gromek standing on a pitching mound. He says, “I like the view from here”]
Sy Berger and his colleagues took a turn away from straight prose in 1956: the first set to eschew straight prose altogether. (Of course, making such a statement to fellow SABR members makes me nervous; they know everything!) The cartoons may be out of order, but the authors are still engaging in the identity construction that is such an important part of early Topps card prose.
Gromek, a member of the 1948 World Champion Cleveland Indians team, did indeed have a very long career as a hurler after switching to pitching. His major league career began in 1941, just as Indians star Bob Feller enlisted. A December 25th, 1941 Sporting News article described the competition to take his spot in the rotation in an article with this delightful headline: “Five Young Flingers as Feller ‘Fill-Ins.’” (The article engages in a fascinating description of how each pitcher qualified for a deferment.)
The authors put the colloquialism “wuz” into the mouth of one of the children. The Oxford English Dictionary traces the first print usage of the term to the classic 1886 children’s novel Little Lord Fauntleroy. I’m reminded of “Nuf Ced,” the nickname attributed to Red Sox superfan Michael T. McGreevy. While the writing teacher in me bristles at such phonetic spellings in popular use, the creative writer in me loves how the children who first opened these packs enjoyed the informal nature of the diction. Such playful use of language has always been around, and today’s young people certainly make the language their own while texting.
Perhaps the authors of the captions had more didactic/instructional aims; Steve Gromek’s career teaches us all that we may fail in one pursuit, but the point is that we should dust ourselves off and “try pitching,” whatever that may mean in our specific cases.
1957 Bob Kennedy #149
Design of the reverse: Full career stats for the first time. No cartoons.
Text (21 words): A valuable veteran, Bob is an all around ball player who can take over|first, and third base or play the outfield.
I’m sure Topps had proofreaders, but they must have had the day off when someone approved this card. (I certainly make my own share of mistakes.) There should be a hyphen in the compound adjective “all-around.” That “and” should be an “or.” And what is going on with that vertical bar?
1957 Topps seems to begin a phenomenon that I noticed as a kid. When I flipped over a 1987 Topps Nolan Ryan, all I saw was a sea of numbers. (“He’s been in the majors since my dad was in junior high!”) There was no room for prose.
Fifth-year player Tim Hulett, on the other hand, had room on his card to note that he “attended both the University of South Florida and Miami Dade North Community College.”
Statistics are another form of identity formation, to be sure. Any kid who checked out the reverse of this card before clothespinning it into his bike spokes would notice that Kennedy had a long American League career and would have understood what a great ballplayer the man was.
Perhaps the most interesting prose on the card is on Kennedy’s stat line for “‘43-5:” “(In United States Marine Corps).”
I suppose the lesson of this baseball card is that less can be more, and that a writer can coax a reader into filling in what the writer leaves unsaid or implied. Kennedy missed three years in the Marines. One wonders what he saw and did and how it shaped him. The kid who opened the pack might have been able to relate through his or her own father. I also wonder if any little kids read the card and realized for the first time that a sentence filled with mistakes is difficult to read and was inspired to be more careful in English class…
1958 Lou Sleater #46
Design of the reverse: A return to partial stats and cartoons.
Text (34 words): Lou worked exclusively in relief last season. He is specially effective against lefty hitters and his good control makes him tough for any one to hit. A fastball and curve are Lou’s main weapons.
This will be Lou’s 12th season in baseball. [Lou shows off a number of medals on his chest, saying “A real veteran!”]
He’s been with 4 A.L. and 1 N.L. clubs in his career. [Hands in pockets, Lou asks, “Any bidders?”]
Whoever composed the prose for Mr. Sleater’s card has unintentionally forced me into a dilemma. Look at that second sentence. The adverb “specially” applies to the specific purpose of its noun. (“The logo was specially chosen to bring attention to the indie ball team.”) Either the author has simply misused the word, or he or she meant “especially,” which is an adverb meaning “particularly.” If the latter is true, the writer may simply have forgotten the apostrophe that represents the omitted “e.”
My hunch is that the author simply used the wrong word, but it’s interesting to consider that he or she intended to use “‘specially.” There is a history of popular writers playing with words beginning in “s” in this way. It’s not a leap to believe that a baseball card prose composer living in Brooklyn in 1957 was aware of “S’Wonderful,” the Gershwin standard. The Disney film Song of the South had been released in 1946 and was re-released in 1956. One of the more prominent lyrics from Allie Wrubel and Ray Gilbert’s “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” goes, “It’s the truth, it’s “actch’ll”/Everything is “satisfactch’ll.” Perhaps the author of the baseball card was engaging in similar wordplay.
Okay, it was probably just a mistake.
I am also struck by the generic nature of the description. Aside from Sleater’s pitches, the author only includes details that could be gleaned from Sleater’s stat lines. (Topps employees must have had more extensive statistics at hand that they later condensed into the lines they included on the cards.) Maybe the author wasn’t inspired to describe Sleater in more fulsome terms. Or maybe it was Friday afternoon when he or she was working on card 46, and Sy Berger walked through the bullpen to tell everyone to knock off early once they finished the card they were writing.
1959 Billy Hoeft #343
Design of the reverse: Full(er) stats, cartoon. AND prose.
Text (41 words): A good fastball, a baffling curve and expert control spell success for Billy Hoeft. In ’56 he was one victory shy of teammate Frank Lary and the A.L. Win Crown. Billy’s 7 shutouts in ’55 were tops in the Junior Circuit.
Billy is a dedicated fisherman. [Billy dozes with a fishing line dangling from his big toe.]
Although the author has omitted the Oxford comma (the one before the last item in a list), I love the construction of that first sentence. The adjective “good” could apply to “fastball, curve, and control,” but look how much more powerful and specific when each noun gets its own modifier. Better yet, the adjectives improve. Which sounds more complimentary to you? “Good?” Or “baffling,” and “expert?”
Again, the author has turned away from some of the specifics and identity building that was present in the first few years of Topps baseball card prose. The reader certainly gets the idea that Hoeft, who once struck out all 27 batters in an American Legion game, is a good pitcher, but who is he, really? Would a little kid look up to Hoeft and mimic his windup because the man is a “dedicated fisherman?”
And then there’s the matter of the missing comma in the second sentence. It should read “In ‘56, he was one…” because the introductory clause must be joined properly to the independent clause. There’s a non-blahblahblah way to think about it. If you read the sentence like a newscaster–deep voice, clear articulation–you will want to pause after “In ‘56.” That’s my rule of thumb for those who have comma anxiety.
It’s been interesting to see how the prose changed from the early to late 1950s. Next time, I’ll look at the same player in consecutive years and a right-hander who looks even more like an accountant than Greg Maddux!