The Say Hey Kid: Willie Mays is Really Good

Forgive my delay, but I have been distracted by actual baseball games and the accompanying folderol. In my previous two posts (Part 1, Part 2) I took a trip through Willie Mays’s baseball cards (flagship sets, for the most part) through 1964. I am going to push that story forward here, but you can start by reading how we got here.

1965 Topps

Mays65Front   Mays65Back

A beautiful card in a beautiful set. After looking quite young on many of his cards in the 1950s, his face has begun to age rapidly. Not his body or his game, though — Topps calls him an “all time great” but he was still the best player in the game at the time this card hit store shelves.

Mays65HRLeadersFront   Mays65HRLeadersBack

Forty-seven home runs at Candlestick will do just fine, thanks. Too bad about Henry Aaron dropping down to 24 home runs; it looks like his years as a top power hitter are over at age 30.

Mays65RBILeadersFrontMays65RBILeadersBack

Ken Boyer was the Most Valuable Player in 1964, thanks largely to his RBI title. Mays finished third, although a quick reading of the back of the card would suggest he finished second. Topps loved Mays (baseball card chief Sy Berger became a close friend) and apparently could not bring themselves to listing him behind Ron Santo.

1966 Topps

Mays66Front   Mays66Back

One of the delightful treats of collecting Topps cards was how they distributed the players to the checklist numbers. Good players generally had a number than ended in “5”, All-Stars ended in “0”, and the very best players were assigned multiples of “50”. This was never announced, it just happened and kids took it on faith. In fact, if you learned the game as I did — from the cards — Topps assignments helped you figure out who the best players were. Willie Mays had a multiple of 50 every years between 1959 and 1965 (before I came on board).

In 1966 he got #1, one of the few times Topps used that number to anoint a superstar. In 1962 they gave the first card to Roger Maris, fresh off his 61 home run season, but in the intervening four years Topps had put its leaders cards at the front of the set. But in 1966, they gave it Mays who had just had one of his greatest seasons.

Mays66BattingLeadersFront   Mays66BattingLeadersBack

Try topping this card. The American League version of this card was Tony Oliva, Carl Yastrzemski and Vic Davalillo. “Daddy, why does the National League always win the All-Star game?”

Mays66HRLeadersFront   Mays66HRLeadersBack

The American League version: Tony Conigliaro, Norm Cash, Willie Horton. Hey, I am just reporting the news here don’t get mad at me.

Mays66RBILeadersFrontMays66RBILeadersBack

I am fairly certain the the major league baseball offices conspired to let Johnson win this title so that kids of America would stop laughing at the American League. The AL’s RBI leader was Chico Salmon. (Ed note: Lie, it was Rocky Colavito.)

1967 Topps

Mays67Front   Mays67Back

My favorite Mays card, and probably my favorite baseball card ever.

Although I come from generations of Bostonians and grew up in New England, I did spend parts of two years near San Francisco. The last of these was in 1967, which was first grade. This was when I fell in love with baseball cards, and baseball, in that order. When I got the cards I had basically no idea what any of it meant — the teams, the cities, the numbers, nothing. I liked the Giants because they played nearby, and I liked Mays because my father told me he was really good. My father was and still is a baseball fan, but a much more measured and sensible one than me.

“Willie Mays is really good” is basically how it all started for me. Is there a better way?

Mays67HRLeadersFront   Mays67HRLeadersBack

I know what you’re thinking: “Jim Pagliaroni hit 11 home runs in 1966, well I’ll be.” But focus on the three great hitters on the front just for a second. Richie Allen was good.

Mays67FenceBustersFront   Mays67FenceBustersBack

Mays’ final “group card,” which Topps phased out two years later. This was sad, as I have lamented before.

1968 Topps

Mays68Front   Mays68Back

Tricky question there Topps, faking kids all over America into guessing “Willie Mays” only to yank the rug out from under us.

This was the time when Mays took a step down from his place as the game’s very best player to being a merely excellent player. Although his days on the front of Topps “leaders cards” were over, he was much more than just an aging icon.

From 1967-1971, Willie’s final five full seasons with the Giants, he accumulated 25.2 WAR, which are star player totals. This is the 13th highest in baseball among position players. He made the All-Star team every year, and he deserved it.

1969 Topps

Mays69Front   Mays69Back

If you’ve been paying attention, you will notice that this photo is a cropped version of his 1966 photo. This was part of a large scale player boycott that weakened the 1968 and 1969 Topps sets.

Topps is running out of space to brag about Willie at this point, but he did warrant a rare exclamation point in his only sentence.

1970 Topps

Mays70Front   Mays70Back

What a beautiful photo this is.

Although they had removed his minor league numbers in 1969, they were restored this time around. And finally, Topps has run out of space. The numbers will have to speak for themselves.

1971 Topps

Mays71Front   Mays71Back

BREAKING: Willie Mays has moved to Atherton! By the way, if you don’t think 10 year old me looked at an atlas to figure out where Atherton was than we have never met.

I seriously love that Topps hauls out his putouts record and his hitting 20 home runs 17 times. Honestly, the 1955 batting title had grown stale.

1972 Topps

Mays72Front   Mays72Back

His last Giants card, and he got card #49. 49? What is this crap? What the heck is going on Topps?

Mays72InActionFront   Mays72InActionBack

A-ha, here it is. In 1972, included “In Action” cards of many of their players, and they placed them in consecutive numbers in the checklist. In this case, Mays special card got the #50. This is a nice card of Willie sliding with the artificial surface of Candlestick Park on display. Sigh.

For the back of the card I used the O-Pee-Chee version, partly to see if you were paying attention but mostly because the French text is wonderful.

Mays73Front   Mays73Back

Willie Mays is on the Mets. Give me more time, I have not quite processed this yet.

Mays73AllTimeFront   Mays73AllTimeBack

This looks like a misprint today, as Aaron and Mays both had a few more home runs to add to their totals. I will add that there were few things more fun as a kid that getting the paper in 1973 to see if Aaron hit another home run. He hit 40, to get within one of Ruth.

1974 Topps

Mays74WorldSeriesG2Front   Mays74WorldSeriesG2Back

Mays is famous for “hanging on too long”, but he really only had one bad year — 1973. What people forget is that Mays retired late in the season, and had no intention of playing again. Hitting .211 in early September, they had a ceremony on the field and that was that.

By some miracle or other, the Mets surged to a weird division title (82 wins!), and all the players credited Mays with his leadership and his willing them all to be great. The Mets put him on the playoff roster, but no one expected him to actually play. Unfortunately, the Mets actual starting center fielder was Don Hahn, and the more manager Yogi Berra looked at Hahn play the more 42-year-old broken-down Willie Mays started to look better.

In the final game of the NLCS, having literally not played in a month, Mays was sent up to pinch hit in a tie game. And he got an infield single to start a five-run rally. And the Mets won the game and the National League pennant over a vastly superior Reds team.

So now they are playing Oakland in the World Series, and, well, they had to play him again didn’t they?  In fact, he played parts of the first three games (going 2-for-7 but falling down in the outfield once), and did not appear again. At this point the story began to form that Old Willie should not have been playing, and he hung on too long and was embarrassing himself. But I remind you: he tried to quit, and everyone begged him to return. And it must be said: a mediocre team made it to the final game of the 1973 World Series. How much could he have hurt them really?

 

Willie Mays has appeared on hundreds (thousands?) of baseball cards, and I have only highlighted the ones from the big annual base sets. Perhaps I will visit others at a later date.

I became a fan at a time when Mays was an excellent player though perhaps no longer on the throne. But he was the greatest to me, and he remains the greatest all these years later. Long may he live.

 

The Say Hey Kid: There Isn’t A Thing That Willie Mays Can’t Do

In my last post, I went through Willie Mays’s Topps and Bowman baseball cards from the 1950s, to determine what a young kid of the time would have learned about Mays from the cards. I suggest you go read that piece now before we continue into the 1960s.

1960 Topps

Mays60Front     Mays60Back

Although I did not mention this last time, in 1959 Mays’ reported height and weight both increased, putting him at a solid 5’11” and 180 pounds. His season statistics had become more of the same by this point, but in 1960 Topps simplified things (for all players) by simply highlighting some of his better games. In a game that did not make the cut: on September 17, with the first place Giants just a single game ahead of the Braves, Mays was 4-for-4 with a walk against Milwaukee including a three-run home run. Fun fact: Warren Spahn, going for his 20th win, failed to retire the first four Giants and was removed from the game.

Topps returned with a cartoon in 1960, and it is a classic. This is what kids lived for back then — a sliding Mays joking/trashtalking the poor baseman. Honestly, I sort of assumed that this actually happened.

Mays1960MasterMentorFront     Mays1960MasterMentorBack

As you can see, Bill Rigney gets the starring role on the back of this card, with his big star rating only a handful of words at the end. True, its not like Mays did not get enough ink at Topps.

Mays60AllStarFront     Mays60AllStarBack

Pretty standard fare at this point. If anything the prose (“Possibly”) pulls its punches a bit from previous seasons. I will say that he looks more menacing than usual in the cartoon.

1961 Topps

Mays61Front     Mays61Back

As you all know, Topps often took photographs of players without their hat on, and later used these photos if the player got traded and they didn’t want to show the old hat. I prefer this to the airbrushed hats, which were often comically rendered. Here the hatless photo is not necessary, but is nonetheless welcome. Mays is about to enter a period where he always smiled in his photos, a look he pulled off with aplomb. This card might be the most fearsome pose of all his cards. By all accounts a gentle man, he looks like he could pick me up and throw me over the moon. Which he probably could have.

Mays61BattingLeadersFront     Mays61BattingLeadersBack

This is the year Topps introduced “Leaders” cards, first for HR and batting average and later adding RBI. Mays was a regular on these cards of course, and you will be seeing all of them. I hope the Norm Larker family hoarded this one.

Although Mays is having one great season after another, it is worth pointing out that his “baseball card numbers” (that many of us grew up with and therefore revere) underrated him considerably. Over the first 10 years of his career he won a single batting title and a single home run title, both of which Topps mentions regularly over the years. But because he did everything on a baseball field so well, he is better served by a stat like WAR, which tries to measure all of his contributions. Mays led the NL — which during his career boasted one of the greatest collections of superstar talent ever assembled — a ridiculous 10 times in baseball-reference.com’s version of WAR. Six times he put up 10.0 WAR, a feat managed not a single time by Henry Aaron, Frank Robinson, or Roberto Clemente, his justifiably revered peer group. In fact, during Mays’s entire career, only one other National League player ever managed the feat — Ernie Banks in 1959.

Never forget: Mays was the King of Kings.

Mays61MVPFront     Mays61MVPBack

A rather dull subset I think, never repeated, showing a handful of players who had won MVP awards in previous years. The hat is blackened presumably because he had won the MVP in New York and he was now in San Francisco?

 

Mays61AllStarFront     Mays61AllStarBack

This subset, on the other hand, was glorious. I preferred the 1960 All-Star backs, with the big cartoon, though a kid of 1961 would have had all this text to chew on. The last sentence, suggesting that Mays made multiple spectacular catches in the 1954 World Series might be an oversell. I think it was just one, though it was quite a thing.

Apropos of nothing, twenty-three years and change ago I got married here. My vows consisted of explaining the significance of Willie Mays’s 1954 World Series catch in Jane and my subsequent childhoods (neither of us were born at the time of the catch). Truth. The closer was my claim that on this day I was “making the greatest catch of all time.” Corny perhaps, but it fit the informal mood of the festivities, which also featured Bob Dylan, Laura Esquivel, Roger Angell and James Brown.

But enough about me.

1962 Topps

Mays62Front     Mays62Back

The front of this card is simply spectacular, one of the most attractive photographs of his career. On the back, its is telling again how Topps relies on his batting title and home crown from years earlier as his most impressive accomplishments. In point of fact, Mays could have won the previous eight MVP awards.

Mays1962ManagersDreamFront     Mays1962ManagersDreamBack

The first time the game’s two most popular and famous players ever shared a card (they would do so one other time), and it is a spectacular shot taken at the 1961 All Star game at Boston’s Fenway Park. As a bonus, Henry Aaron shows up to the far right. (Elston Howard and John Roseboro are also pictured.) Topps makes it seem on the back that these two stars get together regularly to discuss baseball philosophies, though this might have been limited to their many All-Star game appearances.

Mays62HRLeadersFront     Mays62HRLeadersBack

A pretty solid group, though I was never a fan of the floating head look Topps used for many subsets this season. For several years in the 1960s Topps used the back of their leaders cards to list the top 30 or 40 players in the specific category. I can’t express how cool it was in the late 1960s to see a guy with a .211 batting average make the leaders card.

Mays62AllStarFront     Mays62AllStarBack

Topps had All-Star cards (a full lineup for each league) every year from 1958 through 1962, and of course Mays made it all five years. Also going 5-for-5 were Henry Aaron, Mickey Mantle, and Luis Aparicio.

Although his 1962 text continues to emphasize his 1954 and 1955 seasons, it does highlight the four-homer day he had the previous April.

 

1963 Fleer

Mays63FleerFront     Mays63FleerBack

In 1963 Fleer tried to enter the baseball market with its own set of current players, but after a single series they were stopped in court by Topps. Fleer’s 66 cards included Mays as card #5. No earth-shattering new information on the back, though their mild apology for Mays’s .304 batting average (despite 49 home runs) is rather amusing.

1963 Topps

Mays63Front     Mays63Back

Here is Willie in the middle of a typical Candlestick Park fog.

On several of his cards, Topps touts Mays’s play in the All-Star game. Records are made to be broken and all that, but its hard to imagine Mays’s resume in the mid-summer classic ever being assailed. He played in 24 games, possible because there were two games per year from 1959 to 1962. He started 18 and played 11 complete games. Although he finished 2-for-21 over his last eight games, he still ended up over .300 (23-75) thanks to so many big games in mid-career.

Mays63PrideofNLFront     Mays63PrideofNLBack

For Musial’s final season, Topps got him together with Mays for this great card. Stan seems to be passing the torch to the younger star, who is now 32 years old but still the best in baseball.

Mays63HRLeadersFront     Mays63HRLeadersBack

Five Hall of Famers on the front of the league leaders card ain’t bad. Anyone doubting the tremendous disparity of the two leagues at this time should just take a look at the AL version of this card, which features Leon Wagner, Norm Cash, Jim Gentile, Rocky Colavito, Roger Maris and Harmon Killebrew. Who chose these sides?

But if you are Ramon Mejias, you might consider framing the back of the NL card.

1964 Topps

Mays64Front     Mays64Back

A fantastic card because Mays looks relaxed and unaware of the camera. The back of his cards have subtly shifted to placing him among the best to ever play the game, rather than just a star of the moment.

Mays64GiantGunnersFront     Mays64GiantGunnersBack

This photograph was undoubtedly taken within seconds of the one above (ED: this is false, and obviously so), showing the Giants’ other great hitter. Although Willie McCovey would eventually surpass Cepeda as a star, Orlando was the better player until he hurt his knee in 1965 and Willie took a huge step forward. Of note: Cepeda did NOT win the 1961 NL MVP award, despite Topps’ claim. Frank Robinson did.

Mays64TopsInNLFront     Mays64TopsInNLBack

Certainly one of the greatest cards of All-Time. Of note is the fact that Aaron, who would become the All-Time home run leader, is praised for his batting averages and base stealing ability while Mays is the great slugger. If Aaron was underrated as a player it is because he shared a generation and a league with Willie Mays.

Mays64HRLeadersFront     Mays64HRLeadersBack

Another ridiculous card (AL version: Killebrew, Dick Stuart and Bob Allison. LOL). Gene Oliver has bragging rights on the back, but the most surprising name is probably Carl Willey, a Mets pitcher immortalized for his July 15, 1963 grand slam off Houston’s Ken Johnson at the Polo Grounds.

Mays64GiantFront     Mays64GiantBack

I wrote about the Topps Super set a couple of years ago. Every card is beautiful, and Mays might be the most beautiful. I haven’t dealt with oddball cards in these articles because they usually don’t have learning material on the back. This time Topps went all out with the text, most of which we have read before.

Until next time, when I push onwards to 1965.

 

 

 

 

The Say Hey Kid: Willie is the Greatest

I have often said that I learned baseball from baseball cards. I learned the teams, and everything important about the players. I learned what they looked like, their statistical record, how tall they were, where they were born, and — if Topps was feeling whimsical — whether they liked rock ‘n roll records or bowling.

Its different today, of course. Kids today don’t need baseball cards to learn about the players — its all on-line, and if they want to dig deeper they can reach out to the players on Instagram.

In this post (and hopefully a few others) I am going to go through Willie Mays’s baseball cards and imagine what a child of the 1950s (or later) would have learned with these as his or her primary source. I will only consider the major flagship sets, at least for now, although I reserve the right to cheat if the mood strikes.

Most of Mays career was before my card collecting days, but there might be people out there for whom this exercise is more than hypothetical. Let’s give it a try.

1951 Bowman

Mays51BowmanFront    Mays51BowmanBack

Mays looks like a big strong guy, though he is actually not particularly big. (This is the same height and weight on baseball-reference.com today. Ordinarily I would scoff, but Mays honestly looked the same size for 23 years.)

Mays did not get called up until late May 1951, but Bowman had his accurate minor league details (.477!) and got this card onto store shelves later in the summer. His stint in the Negro Leagues in 1948 is not mentioned, but his brief pedigree was still quite impressive.

1952 Bowman

Mays52BowmanFront    Mays52BowmanBack

Once again Bowman put out this card late enough that they could mention his late May army induction. We now learn his birthdate for the first time, and that he has shrunk 1/2 inch. Most importantly, the card implies a bit of his major league ability, with his “sensational fielding plays” and that he would be missed “throughout the league.” Both very true.

1952 Topps

Mays52Front    Mays52Back

Topps reported Mays had won the 1951 Rookie of the Year award, a fact Bowman had not mentioned. Like Bowman, Topps’ 1952 Mays card came out late enough so that his army induction shows up. Topps had both his major league (1951 only) and minor league (parts of 1950 and 1951) records — including defense, which Topps eventually shunned. Also, we learned that Mays had brown hair and brown eyes, which you might think kids would not care about. You would be wrong.

1953 Topps

Mays53Front     Mays53Back

This was our first look at Mays’ entire body, and he looks as if he is fielding a base hit and is about to unleash a throw to third base to knock out the foolish base runner. We also get a look at his autograph — Mays has signed thousands of times in the years since, and this actually does look quite a bit like his later autograph.

Other than recording Mays’ brief 5-week stint with the 1952 Giants (before he went in the Army) there was not much for Topps to report. Their claim that Mays’ induction was a big reason why they failed to win the pennant holds up — they finished just 4 1/2 game behind the Dodgers, a gap one can imagine Mays making up.

Also, how do kids of today learn that Lou Gehrig was “The Iron Horse”? This seems a crucial part of a child’s education, but I can see this factoid falling through the cracks.

1954 Bowman

Mays54BowmanFront     Mays54BowmanBack

It has always been remarkable to me how much of an impression Mays made on baseball at a young age, before his statistical record made his greatness obvious. He was already “the greatest young fielder there is” after just 155 major league games, and his return for 1954 (he had missed the entire 1953 season) was considered by some enough to catch a Dodger team that had finished 35 games ahead of them. That is respect.

The quiz answer (George Sisler) held up for another 50 years, until Ichiro Suzuki’s 261 hits in 2004.

1954 Topps

Mays54Front     Mays54Back

In my view this is the first great Mays card. For the first time this handsome man was smiling, and the card back is spectacular. The cartoon panels refer to a 1951 catch he made off of Carl Furillo and the subsequent throw to cut down Billy Cox at home. This is the same catch Bowman mentions on their card, though Topps’ version is much more dramatic. Also of note, Mays has gained five pounds, probably all muscle.

One thing I could have mentioned earlier. All of his early baseball cards claim that he was born in Fairfield, Alabama. Actually Mays was born in nearby Westfield but was raised in Fairfield. This was likely an unimportant distinction to most people, even Mays, but there you have it.

1955 Topps

Mays55BowmanFront     Mays55BowmanBack

Many of the 1955 Bowman photographs were taken too far away for my taste, but the Mays photo is spectacular. For the first time, the effusive text on the back can not be brushed off as hyperbole — Mays had his first superstar season at age 23, and Bowman could therefore pick and choose which amazing statistics to highlight. The first four words — “Willie is the greatest” — could have suffice, but they had space to fill.

1955 Topps

Mays55Front     Mays55Back

Topps was also up to the task of praising Mays, and used some of their real estate to mention the catch he had made in Game 1 of the recent World Series. Notice that Topps did a much better job of using the space on the back, as they had all the text and numbers that Bowman had and still had room to tell us that Sam Crawford had the all-time triples record. (He still does.)

1956 Topps

Mays56Front  Mays56Back

Topps used the same primary photo for three years running. After a few seasons at 175 pounds, a healthy post-Army diet has helped Willie return to his rookie weight. In addition, for the first time we learn that Willie lives in New York, this information replacing his birthplace on the back of his baseball cards. By this time, Mays has so many things one could brag about that Topps’ challenge was to pick amongst them. He *loves* to make impossible catches, and he apparently did so nonchalantly. Likely true.

1957 Topps

Mays57Front     Mays57Back

For the first time, Topps used beautiful color photography for its card set, and the Mays card could hang in the Louvre. Also for the first time, kids got a statistical line for everyone’s entire professional career. Consider for a moment the work it must have taken for the staff at Topps to produce a baseball card like this for 400 (and later more) players. The elimination of defensive statistics (at least for now) is no big loss, honestly.

You will notice that Mays’ birthplace is now Westfield, correcting a mistake made on his 1951-55 cards. Topps seems a little sheepish about Mays’s reduced 1956 batting output, but highlights the 40 steals as a way to soften the blow. Still, what’s not to love?

1958 Topps

Mays58FrontMays58Back

The Giants moved to San Francisco in 1958 and Mays — despite this card being part of the first series — had already moved his home? Topps had to employ a bit of trickery to draw the “SF” on Mays’s cap, made a bit easier with the upturned bill.

After one year of an expanded statistical record, Topps returned to their 1956 format of one year plus career, and re-added fielding stats. The left cartoon seems to imply that Mays was the *first* player ever to hit 20 doubles, triples and home runs. In fact he was the fourth such player (Frank Schulte, Jim Bottomley, Jeff Heath), and it has happened thrice since (George Brett, Jimmy Rollins, Curtis Granderson). Still impressive.

Mays58FenceBustersFront     Mays58FenceBustersBack

For the first time Mays was featured on a non-base card, and yes I am going to show these cards too. Although Mays seems to be checking out Snider’s muscles, Topps spends more ink on Mays’ accomplishments. I especially like the part about “practically” making a great catch every day.

Mays58AllStarFront     Mays58AllStarBack

In Topps’ 1958 All-Star subset, they showed Mays’ performance against each of his seven opponents. The Pirates gave him the most trouble, a rare bright spot for an otherwise poor team. The text was apparently written by SPORT magazine rather than Topps, giving us a fresh set of superlatives. “Most electrifying.” It is telling that Mays’ extraordinary offense is often an afterthought in the praise.

1959 Topps

Mays59Front    Mays59Back

Honestly, what could be better than a cartoon of a thieving Mays being chased by a policeman with a nightstick? You might have noticed that on his 1954 card Topps tried (I think) to make Mays a black man, whereas they did not here. I am likely making way too much of this, but is it possible that Topps did not want to show a white cop chasing a black man with a club in 1959? My recollection from later years is that players were all white (or colorless).

Mays59HittingStarsFront     Mays59HittingStarsBack

Topps does a pretty good job making Mays and Ashburn into comparable stars. I am not complaining, this is appropriate on a card like this.

Mays59BaseballThrillsFront     Mays59BaseballThrillsBack

In 1959 Topps created a Baseball Thrills subset, and Mays’ catch got its own card. The Catch had been mentioned on his 1955 Topps card, but these three spectacular photos do a better job of showing kids what all the fuss was about.

Mays59AllStarFront     Mays59AllStarBack

Mays’ fourth card of the 1959 set is the first time his enduring nickname shows up. It was nice to see Topps focus on Mays offense for a change, if only for his .318 career batting average. The only active player with a higher average? Stan Musial at .340.

OK, this gets us through the 1950s, when both Topps and Mays took over the game. Until next time.

 

 

 

Spring 2019: (Sort of) Mark Your Calendars

National-Baseball-Hall-of-Fame0-f989cee95056a36_f989d01c-5056-a36a-0708e425a78aa7b7There is nothing like a visit to Cooperstown, New York, on a nice spring weekend. I have not been in a few years — thinking … gosh, its been since 2013 — because I live a few plane rides away and I have kids and a job and stuff like that. Cooperstown is a fine relaxing town fit for a cold beer, walking around and about, window shopping and immersing yourself in the history of baseball. Little known fact: The Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is there.

The Museum is a wonderful place, as many (most?) of you know. But next spring it will become even more wonderful.

For next spring is when the Baseball Hall of Fame will be unveiling this.

The page I link above was set up as a fund-raiser, but a few days ago I was told that the goal has been met and the permanent exhibit will open in 2019. They are aiming for Memorial Day weekend, when the summer season (and extended hours) kick in, but officially they are only saying “Spring 2019.”

In the past several months, as this exhibit began to crystallize, Chris Dial, Jeff Katz and I have been discussing a gathering of this committee (open to everyone) the weekend (still TBD) of the Grand Opening. What would this gathering entail? Not sure yet, but we envision speakers and events of some sort.

(One possible hiccup is that we also don’t yet know the dates/place of the SABR convention next summer. Obviously we would prefer that these two events be spaced apart.)

It would great if many of you began to think about setting aside a few days to head to Cooperstown next spring. Let’s face it — you’ve been putting off going to the Hall for a few years/decades, always saying “I’ll go next year.” Well, next year is next year.

Sorry for the lack of specifics. We shall keep you informed. If you have bright ideas, pass them on.

SABR 48

Things have been quiet around here of late. Thanks to Jeff Katz for providing content recently while the rest of us (read: me) have been lazy.

I was gone for about two weeks — half of which was spent in Pittsburgh for the SABR conference. Soon after I returned I faced (am still facing, in fact) a couple of house problems (plumbing, if you must know) that have taken up much of my time. It could be worse — I am temporarily out of work, so I have more time to deal with things like this. (There are downsides to being out of work, too, as it happens.)

Our meeting at the SABR conference was another big hit. After our success last year with Keith Olbermann, this year’s guest speaker was Tom Shieber, the senior curator at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Tom gave a delightful presentation on his newspaper research on the “craze” around what later became known as the T-206 tobacco cards. Very illuminating and fun.

While the best parts of the convention is seeing old friends and meeting new friends (either presenting research, or just hanging out) , it can be frustrating because there is so much stuff going on at the same time. On Friday morning, Chris Dial (co-chair of this committee) and Paul Ember (our very own phungo) gave presentations at the same time. After some struggle, I decided to go see Chris speak on statistical measures of defense. On the way in, Chris told me he wanted to go to Paul’s talk too. Chris was great, and Paul’s talk on Andy Warhol got rave reviews and caused several people to head over to Warhol’s museum that day.

When I return home from these conventions I am always amazed at how much I managed to squeeze in. Four Pirates games — one of which was postponed by a torrential downpour — some great attractions in Pittsburgh (the park and city are both wonderful). And, as usual, some great times with some of my favorite people.

1989-topps-baseball-cardsOn the final night (Saturday), several of us retired to the bar for some socializing. Hero Chris Dial brought a box of unopened 1989 Topps wax packs and handed them out in the bar, including packs to people who were not part of SABR at all. When I looked around I was amazed at the people who seemed totally enthralled by the cards, people who might never have held cards in their life. Bringing people together, that’s what we do.

At midnight came the annual meeting of the Baseball Think Factory chapter of SABR. I kind of horned in on this meeting a few years ago and now I just keep showing up. I might be in the group now! Anyhow, we found a bunch of tables and someone tried to maintain order. Meanwhile, Joe Dimino and I started playing “WAR War” with the stacks of 1989 cards laying around.

If you have never heard of WAR War, don’t feel too bad. I sort of made it up on the spot, but I think, like Monopoly or Scrabble, it has a chance to become a craze.

Two players each have a stack of baseball cards, face down. You then flip them over into the center “1-2-3-War!”, so that eight cards (four each) have been flipped. The winner is the player whose 4th card has the most career WAR, and he or she wins the eight cards. Usually it was obvious (George Brett beats Al Nipper) but sometimes judges with smart phones had to get involved. Keep playing until one guy has all the cards, or there is no more beer. I forget who won. (The game could be improved with something like a challenge system to handle non-obvious Wars.)

Bottom line: baseball cards are everywhere at the convention.

See you next year in … San Diego? Chicago? Somewhere else? Stay tuned.

 

Cards on Film: “Mermaids”

Many of you likely know of my passions for both baseball and film. It is often assumed that I therefore must love baseball films — films about the game — but usually I do not. But I do love movies where characters attend baseball games, like Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward do in A New Kind of Love, or when there is an unexpected baseball photo in the background, as in Lauren Bacall’s iconic scene in To Have and Have Not. In the two preceding examples I link to the blog of my friend Tom Shieber because no one knows more about this subject than Tom, and no one is better than Tom at rooting out the details. I love stumbling across the scenes, but often I just pass them off to Tom to let him do all the hard work.

In recent years I have been especially on the lookout for films that use baseball cards in some way. I am not aware of a film in which baseball card collecting is a central theme, but that is really not what I am after. I want the baseball cards or related memorabilia to either be completely random, or perhaps to help us understand the character or the time and place.

My favorite such scene is from Arthur Hiller’s “Penelope” (1966). I have explained this in depth many times, so I will just wait until you read this link. The movie has nothing to do with baseball, or baseball cards, but it is wonderful.

I wrote about a second example last year, “Skipped Parts,” a rather obscure film from 2000. In this movie, the cards are used as evidence that the main character, a 14-year-old boy, is not appropriately growing up. Imagine collecting cards at 14? Incroyable!

I actually enjoy both of those films on their merits. That is not the case with “Poison Ivy” from 1985. I did not think it worthy of a blog post, but last week I linked to it on Twitter and directed people to go to time stamps 1:02:32 and then 1:03:05 (each scene lasts 2 seconds). Two boys are sitting on their camp bed and playing with a box of 1985 Fleer cards.

My latest entry in the Cards on Film Hall of Fame is Richard Benjamin’s “Mermaids” from 1990. The film is principally about a single mother (played by Cher) and her two daughters (Winona Ryder and Christina Ricci, in her debut). The family moves around a lot, for reasons explained, and early in the film they are newly arrived in a small town in Massachusetts. This is the fall of 1963. They soon meet a local shoe store owner (Bob Hoskins) who becomes the fourth principal character in the movie.

The Hoskins character is a big baseball fan, which is the reason I am writing this post. Here is the scene where the family goes shoe shopping.

As they walk into the shoe store the radio is playing a Red Sox game, and the Yankees appear to be the opponent. It sounds like Mickey Mantle might be batting. (After a few seconds the game goes silent, though no one turns the radio off.) More importantly, there are a lot of baseball photos behind the cash register, and several baseball cards — all Red Sox from 1962 and 1963. How many can you pick out?

Later in the film the whole gang is back in the store and you see the cash register from the side. There are even more Red Sox baseball cards.

Hoskins becomes Cher’s love interest, as you likely guessed. She is very reluctant to commit to him or anyone else (a central theme of the film), but as a way of finally giving in just a bit, the entire crew heads to Cooperstown and visits the Baseball Hall of Fame. There is one very brief scene on Main Street and at the museum.

There are lot of talented actors on display, and all of the characters are somewhat quirky. Ryder’s character, who is 16, is the narrator and turns into the central character of the film. Ryder was a pretty big deal in 1990, and this film was part of her meteoric rise. Unfortunately, her character has zero interest in baseball.

But she does go to Cooperstown. How cool is that?

If you have any other nominees for the Hall of Fame, please pass them on and I will investigate. Or you can blog about them yourself.

 

 

My First Baseball “Cards”

ED-U-CARDS

The first baseball “trading cards” that I ever bought (or rather, my mom bought for me) were 1967 Topps, sometime in late spring.  But these were not my first baseball cards. No, my first “cards” were these guys right here.

img_0042.jpg

Packaged like a standard deck of playing cards, they made a game where two players would take turns playing through an inning, and then handing the deck to the other guy.

They were made by ED-U-CARDS and the copyright on the box says 1957.  I got them a decade later — I assume they were purchased at the checkout line of a grocery store.

These cards were part of my education about the game and how the various events played on top of one another.  Although I am sure I enticed my brother or someone else to play on occasion, I also spent hours just playing the game by myself.  Like solitaire, except that I was learning how the game was played.  A few months later I got some Topps cards, and I began to learn about the actual players.  Both purchases were significant childhood events in by path toward full-on baseball nerd-dom.

The very next year, Topps inserted “game cards” into their 1968 packs.  I was predisposed to love these cards and I did — I still believe it is unmatched in Topps insert history, the absolute GOAT — but as an actual “game” the Topps version was far inferior.  There were fewer cards, fewer game events, and the ED-U-CARDS illustrations were classic.  The HIT-BY-PITCH alone was worth playing the game for.

In subsequent years I ran across similar games that came out around the same time.  If you grew up in the pre-video-game era, everyone had “card games” like this.  A house that did not have an “Old Maid” card game laying around was a house you could not trust.

What follows are other examples of card games that I did not own as a child but encountered later on.

 

Built Rite

img_0043.jpg

The above game was put out by Built Rite (according to the box) and cost 29 cents.  There is no date.  I like the scooped edging — much easier to hold for a youngster.  In fact the box brags “Shaped Cards To Fit Small Hands.”  The game events are pretty much the same, but the game includes a “Diamond Card” where you are supposed to place coins to keep track of which bases were occupied.  That’s a nice touch.

 

Batter Up

IMG_0045

This “Batter Up” game is copyright 1949, and is very similar to the other games.  I came to love the bright yellow cards, but I have to admit these have a classy look and the illustrations are really well drawn.  Also, it came with a set of rules which folded out to make a diamond for game play.

IMG_0048

 

Earl Gillespie

IMG_0046

Earl Gillespie was the voice of the Milwaukee Braves when this game was put out in his name in 1961.  It is a very classy box and set up, and the game plays out like all the rest of them, but the illustrations are pretty basic.  Gillespie emphasizes the game itself, rather than the fun drawings.  Its well done.

He also includes a handful of score sheets which is — probably taking things a bit far?  I mean, who are the players in this scenario? As a bonus, he includes a sample — a scoresheet (the Braves batters) from opening day in 1961.

img_0047.jpg

 

The question “what is a baseball card?” is inevitably so tied up in personal memories of childhood that logic is no longer driving the bus.  You can classify these as you wish, but good luck prying them from my hands.