A Brief Analysis of Baseball Card Prose and How It Makes Us Better Writers (1956-1959)

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…

gromek1956 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Design of the reverse: The typed prose has been replaced by three cartoons.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.

bobkennedy

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. 

nolanryan

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.”
hulett
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…

sleater

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. 

hoeft
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!


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

Author: Kenneth Nichols

I write and teach. Check out my Young Adult and Contemporary Romance novels at http://www.allisonrhodesbooks.com. One day, I'll write a great baseball novel. Someday.

12 thoughts on “A Brief Analysis of Baseball Card Prose and How It Makes Us Better Writers (1956-1959)”

  1. Alas, two Sleater cards and no Hoeft card. Maybe we can see it next time.
    I noted a couple of interesting choices. On the Kennedy card we are specifically informed that he served in the Marines, not just ‘military service’, as designated on ’60s cards.
    For whatever reason, the stat lines for the pitchers shortened ‘innings’ to IP from ’56 to ’58 but persist in using ‘walks’ instead of a shorthand alternative such as ‘W’ or ‘BB’, as on the more recent Ryan and Hulett cards. The same choice applies to ‘games’ for the pitchers, but not for hitter Kennedy in ’57.
    All the cards are eminently readable with regard to the color schemes used for the card stock and I love the cartoons. They present a comic book quality which appeals to kids. One could argue that the cartoons put Topps in the vanguard of presenting graphic novel type content as the cartoons further the bios of the players rather than just illustrating silly factoids.
    Finally, I always liked the addition of middle names. For whatever reason, we know that Gromek was a Joseph in ’56, Kennedy only a D. in ’57, and are clueless as to Sleater in ’58.
    Love these posts.

    P.S. Different rules for parenthetical exclamation points?!

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    1. Sorry! I fixed the Hoeft card. WordPress is harder to use since they changed the writing interface to make it less word-friendly.

      I love your other observations. I would absolutely love to get in touch with some of the folks who worked for Topps at the time to see what kind of style guide they worked from. And as for the cartoons, I’m going to make the wild guess that some of the Bazooka Joe artists worked on the baseball card cartoons. (I wonder if they were staff of freelance.)

      I picked up on middle names, too. I always remembered that Matt Nokes’s middle name is “Dodge.”

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Kenneth, I love reading the back of the old cards. I think the bad prose and corny cartoons make those old cards a real treat to read. If it wasn’t for those discrepancies (?) they would be boring. Love your post. A Tiger fan. Donn

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  3. This is a terrific thread and area of research, and the notion that the language has evolved over the years to become in some ways less formal, and in other ways less colorful, is an interesting one to explore. Did you ever consider digitizing a couple or a few sets from different period and running a regular expressions analysis to see how the instances of different words have changes over the years. Yes, I’m geeking out about this…

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      1. Ah, okay I guess my offerings aren’t needed. I wish this list was available back 20 years ago when painstakingly built my want list. I finally got them all and now I am selling them. D’oh, but it was fun. Anybody interested in a Topps Manger card list . . . Or the cards?

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    1. I would LOVE to have a text database of as much baseball card prose as possible. How many times does the word “wife” occur and how much change over time? What about the change in colloquialisms like “dinger” or “three-sacker?”

      The Trading Card Database has zillions of images of baseball card backs, but I do not have the computer programming wherewithal to scrape the images and run them through OCR to get a text file.

      It would be a great capstone project for a college student…

      Liked by 1 person

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