Frank O’Rourke’s Inherent Dignity

I’m not a collector.

           I have a few cards, some that are worth slightly more than the cardboard they’re printed on, and many more that hold a good deal of sentimental value to me and nobody else. But in the context of the readers of this blog, I don’t merit the use of the term. I’ve never completed a set, never paid more than pocket money for a card, never gone to any remarkable lengths to acquire anything rare, or valuable, or particularly noteworthy. I still have all the cards I amassed as a kid, and I buy new hanger packs when I see them, and on the rare occasion that a wax pack drifts into my field of vision, I snap it up. I’ve made a habit of buying packs for my kids, and we make a little ceremony of opening them together. On Opening Day, or the first day of pitchers and catchers reporting, I sneak packs into their school lunches, and they come home and tell me what players they found inside.

           But I haven’t done any of those things I identify as serious collector behavior. I’ve bought maybe a half-dozen cards on eBay, for example, and I haven’t attended a show since I was about fourteen years old. I’ll never own a Mantle, Ruth, Mays, Clemente, or Aaron.

           Baseball cards are, for me, not an investment, and not an abiding obsession, but something adjacent to baseball that I love for that proximity. They remind me of the game. Their look, and feel, and smell are memory triggers, and for that reason I treasure them.

           And yet, with all that said, I recently bought a 1934 Frank O’Rourke card. It’s No. 43 in the Canadian-printed World Wide Gum Co. series, which reused the 1933 Goudey design, updating the salient facts for 1934, and repeating the biographical info on the back in French. In keeping with my longstanding tightfisted ethos, I paid more in shipping than I did for the card itself. It’s ungraded, with soft, smushed corners where crisp, sharp edges should be. There are minor creases. This card is anything but pristine.

            Frank O’Rourke was a nobody. Well, that’s not quite fair. He’s in the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, after all. Born in Hamilton, Ontario in 1891, he was an infielder who eked out fourteen seasons of big-league ball for Boston’s NL club, the Robins, Senators, Red Sox, Tigers, and Browns. By the time his portrait was rendered for the ’33 Goudey set he’d seen his last major league action, hanging on with the American Association’s Milwaukee Brewers. The ’34 card that I now own dates to his single season with the Montreal Royals of the IL. He dropped down a few rungs to the Piedmont League in ’35, then held on for four seasons as a player-manager for the El Dorado (AR) Lions of the class ‘C’ Cotton States League. He later managed one more year in the Gulf Coast League, and in retirement he served as a scout for the Yankees.

            As a big-league player, O’Rourke managed a career bWAR of -2.0 and amassed a .254/.315/.333 slash line, and a .947 combined fielding percentage at third, short, and second (with a handful of games at first, and a couple patrolling the grass). As a minor-league manager he piled up a lifetime record of 551-580 across four levels of pro ball. Add all of that up and you get a slightly below-average baseball long-hauler, which is not to say there was nothing quietly heroic about Frank O’Rourke; longevity requires its own superpowers.

            But unlike some of its in-set brethren, selling this card wouldn’t allow me to pay off the mortgage, or retire to somewhere hot, sandy, and tax-free. Instead, my appreciation for this card is twofold: the first is purely and unapologetically aesthetic; the second is its implicit historical value.

            The Goudey cards are notoriously easy on the eyes, rendered with a stab at artistry that’s not generally present in modern cards. Holding a Goudey next to a 2021 Topps card makes for a stark contrast. The latter assaults with hyper-sharp photography and whizbang graphics that are intended, I can only guess, to suggest futurity, and motion, and, I don’t know, the internet? The Goudeys are Renaissance paintings on discrete panels of olive wood meant to be inlaid in elaborate polyptychs framing alters in out-of-the-way country churches, reverent celebrations of the beauty and purity of God’s favorite game. The backgrounds are solid fields of color—green in O’Rourke’s case, but elsewhere blue (as in Gehrig), yellow (Jimmie Foxx), red (Dazzy Vance). All the better to focus on the player. O’Rourke’s depicted from the chest up, like a Roman bust, in classic baseball togs: a white (or off-white) cap, logo-free, and a matching jersey with sun collar and orange-brown soutache piping. The pose is adapted from a photo of him in a St. Louis Browns uniform, from 1931 at the latest, that the Goudey (or World Wide Gum) people didn’t bother to retouch, though they were clear to indicate that he was, by 1934, a member of the Montreal Royals and thus in the habit of donning a blue-trimmed uniform.

            The portrait is so classically, absurdly, tragically handsome that if you hold it up to your ear it sings Protestant hymns interspersed with staticky ’30s radio calls of games won with moxie and heart. Even if you aren’t up to speed on his biography, the portrait makes clear that this is a baseball lifer, a man rolled in chalk and infield dirt and baked beneath a thousand midday suns.

            Since I first gazed on O’Rourke’s cardboard face I’ve gone looking for baseball card corollaries, but I came up short until I widened my scope, and then I found Piero della Francesca’s portrait of an Augustinian friar (possibly St. Leonard). Consider the similarities: the subtle intimations of age around the eyes and mouth, the weariness, and yet the slight bemusement, the wry off-center stare. Neither the friar nor Frank are too jaded to enjoy a good joke. Though separated by half a millennium, you get the sense they’d find some common ground. But beneath it all there’s something unmistakably ecclesiastical about both men’s depictions, the not-quite-visible result of a lifetime’s devotion to their respective callings. It’s behind the eyes, I think, or maybe just below the skin. Wherever it is, Piero managed to capture it, as did Elmer E. Crowell, the man responsible for O’Rourke’s likeness.

            The second half of my appreciation for this card has to do with its age: almost ninety years have passed since it was printed. I haven’t handled enough really old cards for the wonder of that to have diminished. Eighty-six years ago someone—a child, a nostalgic adult—bought a pack of gum and out tumbled this card.

            The US domestic GDP was in recovery after the New Deal slammed the brakes on negative growth and pumped cash into the economy. Hitler was chancellor of Germany, already in the process of consolidating his power and assuming the title of Führer. The first camps opened. The Prime Minister of Canada was RB Bennett, a safety match magnate who bungled the response to the Depression but had the foresight to establish the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. In China, where my grandfather was a brakeman on a streetcar in Shanghai, tensions with Japan were ratcheting up in the wake of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and the uneasy resolution to the “January 28th Incident.” The globe, inexorably, marched toward war.

            In the Bronx, Ruth was in his last season as a Yankee, and Gehrig, five years from retiring in the face of the rapid advance of his illness, was assuming outright leadership of the team. The Gashouse Gang took the Tigers in seven games in that fall’s Series. Detroit’s Mickey Cochrane was voted the AL’s best player, and in Commerce, Oklahoma, zinc miner Mutt Mantle’s kid, named for Cochrane, turned three years old.

            Frank O’Rourke was not directly connected to any of this as he toiled away in Montreal, and his card—a 2-3/8″ by 2-7/8″ piece of thick paper—has nothing whatsoever to do with those events. It was not present for any of them; it was not in all likelihood possessed or handled by any of the players in the aforementioned dramas. But it is for me touched by a temporal proximity, sprinkled with a residue which, though slight, constitutes enough of a reason for me to own it.

            If a Ruth Goudey—or a Sweet Caporal Wagner, or a ’52 Topps Mantle—is the seventh game of the World Series, then my Frank O’Rourke World Wide Gum is a non-consequential Thursday afternoon getaway game played before an announced crowd of twelve thousand. And while I love the screw-tightening intensity of a big game, what I treasure most about baseball is the sweet everydayness of it, the companionship of the radio announcer’s familiar voice for six months, the long, comforting trough of a regular season. And for all the superstars, the game’s lifeblood is its rank and file, guys like O’Rourke, doing the yeoman work of showing up every single day and taking his cuts, scooping up ground balls, and making throws across the diamond from whichever position he’s assigned.

            In that way, this O’Rourke card is perfectly emblematic both of Frank’s life and career, and most of ours. I won’t be in any literal or figurative Hall of Fame, and chances are neither will you. That’s okay. Something as beautiful as this Frank O’Rourke card exists to quietly and stubbornly insist that regardless of that, there’s still a hell of a lot of dignity inherent in our efforts, and the legacies thereof.

Editor’s note: Andrew’s newest book is now available for pre-order. If you can judge a book by it’s cover, this one will not disappoint!

Author: Andrew Forbes

Author of The Utility of Boredom: Baseball Essays, as well as the short fiction collections What You Need (2015), and Lands and Forests (4/2019). Peterborough, Ontario.

13 thoughts on “Frank O’Rourke’s Inherent Dignity”

  1. I have always been an avid proponent of baseball cards as art, a notion which, more often than not, subjects me to responses of polite silence or, sometimes, out and out ridicule. Pleased to see that I am not alone.
    Over the years I have been compelled to scan and enlarge cards. The walls and ceiling of my home office are festooned with 8x10s of MVPs. They look so much nicer when freed from their 2 1/2 by 3 1/2 confines, as the museum shot of O’Rourke in the post demonstrates. I would like to cover the remaining walls and ceilings of the home in like manner, but I value my marriage, for now.
    My only Goudeys are the 1933 Chuck Klein, and the 1938 Goudey Heads Ups of Medwick and Gehringer, all of which, by the way, are easily affordable reprints.
    Loved the post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Paul. This is all very useful information, and I’m grateful. I have been made to understand, however, that the size of my collection shall not exceed the space allotted to it, i.e. my not-terrifically-large office. With such constraints in mind, I must be selective.

      Like

  2. While I do have an Aaron (’65, given to me by my father-in-law) that I enjoy looking at, I also get a thrill when flipping through the “commons” and coming across an image that stops me, or a name that I now know because he managed or became known not for playing but for some other achievement. More than once, those cards have sent me to Baseball-Reference or the Bio Project or just Google to find out more. When you’re sitting there on a sunny Thursday afternoon in a less-than-full ballpark, there’s nowhere better to be. What a great analogy for the Frank O’Rourke card. Fabulous post.

    Like

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