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.

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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

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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

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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.

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Earl Gillespie

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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.

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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.

 

Committee Project

Please pardon this brief interruption.  In addition to all of the fun we have talking about or trading baseball cards, I thought it would also be fun to leave a more permanent mark upon this world, to organize all of the great work we have been doing.

Since we are a SABR Research Committee, I asked Jacob Pomrenke — SABR’s Director of Editorial Content — how we could best have and use permanent web space that is more easily found, organized and updated.  He urged me to use the SABR/Baseball-Reference Encyclopedia, otherwise known as the B-R Bullpen, for this purpose.  It is a wiki, which is perfect for us in my view.

So I wrote up a very simple skeleton.  (There was some baseball card material already there, which we will build on or around.)

Click here.

Besides the front page, I already wrote up several subset pages (All-Star cards, Season Highlights, Historical Highlights, and Group Cards), and several place holders.

I especially encourage any interested committee member to help, but it is a public wiki which anyone can update.  It is also part of a very strong and respected site, and (I have already discovered!) active editors who are on the look out for errors.

My thought is that this would grow organically based on whatever it is people want to see here.  Do you want to add a list of Police Sets?  Let’s add it.  A list of cards with people doing whimsical things (carrying snake, etc.)?  Let’s add it.  Cards of players signing autographs?  Cards that show the wrong player?  We are not going to provide the images — we just create the list.  The images are findable.

The subsets I created are all incomplete, and focus on the Topps era which is my strength.  However, my pages should be updated (if appropriate) to include all eras and all brands.  For the Group Cards page, I stopped at 1969 Topps, but obviously in the 1980s it all came back.  Let’s get it all down.

(All of this is optional of course — if its not your bag, that’s fine.  We’re still going to do all of the things we already do.)

How can you help?  Don’t think of it as “help” — which implies that you are providing assistance to me — think of it as co-efforting?  You can create content yourself (its easy) or you can send material to me (or someone else) and have them create it for you.  You can add to existing material (more Group Cards) or you can add entirely new pages.

All ideas are welcome.  1970s plastic cup collectibles?  We’ll figure out how it fits in.

WAIT, DOESN’T THIS JUST RECREATE WORK OTHER PEOPLE HAVE DONE?

No.  In fact, we will act to organize the rest of the web, and link to the best pages.  For example, we could have a Topps Flagship Sets page, and each entry “1971 Topps” would provide links to the best content related to this set, including articles on our blog. (We are not here to advertise, but to provide content).

If we had a page on “Goudey Card Sets”, it could be a list of each set with a sentence or two of text.  Right below the entry for “1936 Goudey Wide Pens” would be a link to Jeff Katz’s great article that I posted an hour ago.  Synergy!

All advice on organization (especially if accompanied by a willingness to perform the organization) are welcome.  I created pages that all look “the same”.  I can be talked into changing the look, but not the consistency.

I suspect some of you already have your own lists that you have created for your own purposes.  Share them!

So, who’s in?  If you are, please contact me.

— Mark Armour

PS: Sometimes, Topps had to try harder to find season highlights.  And I am grateful.

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SABR Convention 2018

As a reminder, this blog is the publishing/communication arm of SABR’s Baseball Cards Committee.

If you are not a member of SABR, please join.  I could go on and on about the pleasure that SABR has given me for the past 30 years — the friends, the social events, the email and social media interactions, the fun.  Because of SABR, I am a writer.  Because of SABR, I have friends all over the country.  Because of SABR, I understand more about facets of baseball I otherwise would know nothing about.

SABR’s annual convention, its 48th, will be in Pittsburgh in five months.  Registration is now open.  Conventions are not exactly cheap — you need to get a hotel room, pay for the convention, feed yourself, etc.  There are ways to save money — I always have a roommate, and hotels usually allow you to haul in a cot if you want to triple bunk.  There are always cheaper ways to eat.  You can skip hanging out in the bar.  (Hahaha, just kidding — you really don’t want to do that.)

Pittsburgh will be significantly less expensive than New York, the site of our 2017 confab.  So there is that.  There will be no $25 beers in the bar.

Last year was also the first year of our committee, so we had our first meeting.  Our meeting was largely taken up with a highly entertaining and informative talk by Keith Olbermann.  Chris Dial and I have not figured out what our 2018 meeting will be like, but we’ll come up with something.

Bottom line: join SABR, join our committee, come to The Steel City, have the time of your life.  Profit.

 

An ode to El Tiante

1974

As August 1972 dawned, Red Sox reliever/spot-starter/afterthought Luis Tiant sported a 4-4 record with a 3.18 ERA. This was actually a positive and surprising turn of events — Tiant had been discarded a year earlier and his making the Red Sox in April was more a reflection of their sad pitching staff than it was Tiant’s spring mound work.  No matter what manager Eddie Kasko might have said.

On August 1 the Red Sox were 47-46, fourth place in the six-team AL East, a mediocre team on the way to a mediocre finish.  No one was blaming Tiant — he’d been given an unimportant role, and he had performed it with aplomb.

I was with my father and grandfather in the third base grandstand for his July 22 start against the A’s, his fifth start of the season. I generally attended one or two games a year, and this was the one.  The pitching matchup was Tiant against Catfish Hunter, which seemed hardly fair though both pitchers departed a 3-3 game eventually won by Oakland.  What are you gonna do?

Luis Tiant, as I well knew, had had some excellent seasons (especially 1968) with the Indians, had been traded to the Twins (1969), had badly hurt his throwing arm (1970), was released (1971), and finally was picked up by the Red Sox and sent to the minors. I loved Tiant in his pre-Red Sox days.  I liked his name, and I especially liked the way he looked on his baseball cards. Handsome as hell, and he looked like he came to win.

1968   1971

But this was not my first rodeo. I was plenty old enough (10) to know that injured and discarded pitchers did not suddenly become uninjured.  I figured I’d never hear his name again.

The Red Sox called Tiant up in June, and he was in and out of the rotation for two months. By early August he was 0-6 with a 6.44 ERA, and Kasko was mocked in the local papers. Tiant didn’t start again, thankfully, but he stuck around in the bullpen the rest of the season and pitched better.  The Red Sox gave him an invitation to spring training the next year, but he had no shot to make the team.

None.

Topps didn’t even put him on a 1972 baseball card. Understand: Topps gave everyone a baseball card, which is one of the things I loved about baseball cards.  Bobby Pfeil, who the Red Sox acquired a week before the season started but immediately sent to the minor leagues, never to return to the majors, got a baseball card as a member of the 1972 Red Sox.

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Luis Tiant did not get a card because Topps figured Tiant was finished.

On March 22 the Red Sox traded Sparky Lyle to the Yankees, an infamous deal that came with the side effect of saving Tiant’s job.  Give Eddie Kasko credit: he believed. Luis survived as a bullpen option who could also spot start.  Four months later his utility role had not changed.

He saved a game against the Yankees on August 2, then pitched two complete game wins over the Orioles on the 5th and 12th.  He pitched another game in relief (still not in the rotation!) before starting on the 19th at Chicago’s Comiskey Park.  The result was a 2-hit shutout, the first hit coming on a Carlos May double in the 7th. After the game, Kasko finally announced the obvious: Tiant would remain in the rotation. The team was suddenly just 3.5 games out of first.

Over the next four weeks I fell in love with Luis Tiant, and I have never really fallen back out.  It wasn’t the love I had for Agent 99, but it was love just the same.  I loved the look, the accent, the cigars in the shower. I loved the way he walked to the mound, stood on the mound, stared in to get the sign from Carlton Fisk, the 20 different windups, the 10 pitches thrown from several different angles and speeds.  And the fact that he got everyone out, that was also nice.

His next start was another shutout, and then another, and then another.  Four in a row, before he settled for a 4-2 win over the Yankees on September 8. After a shocking 3-2 loss in Yankee Stadium on the 12th, he shut out the Indians four days later.

This is about the time we all finally noticed, “Hey, wait a minute, Tiant doesn’t have a baseball card this year?  WTF was Topps thinking?” Thereby using both absurd revisionism and 21st century twitter jargon.

I was therefore doubly thrilled when this issue of the Sporting News showed up, with its “Boston’s Surprising Ace” headline.  If you ever want to see this issue, you can find it hanging in my office to this very day.

 

On September 20, when Tiant walked to the mound to face the Orioles, a sold-out Fenway Park crowd rose to its feet and cheered his entrance (his teammates joining in) and began chanting “Loo-EEE, Loo-EEE,” a refrain that would become a common Fenway sound over the next few years.

This went on for the rest of the night, growing especially loud when Tiant batted in the eighth, grounded to the pitcher, exchanged batting helmet for glove, and strode back to the hill. He finished his shutout, his sixth in his last eight starts, to total bedlam. Carl Yastrzemski, who knew a thing or two about starring in a pennant race, said that he had never witnessed such devotion.

Tiant pitched two more complete games wins before losing  a 3-1 heartbreaker in Tiger Stadium on October 3, a game that decided the division. Let’s not dwell on that.

For the season, the washed up spot-starter had finished 15-6, 1.91, capturing the league’s ERA title and various comeback awards.  This was just the beginning, of course. He would have many heroic moments in the coming years in Boston in pennant races and post seasons. (His September-October record for the Red Sox was 31-12.) But it started in August 1972.

1973

The most anticipated baseball card in New England in 1973 is right here.  Finally, our nightmare was over. Interesting — the photo was almost certainly taken in the spring of 1972, right about the time Topps moved heaven and earth to get Bobby Pfeil on a card.

The next time I saw Tiant pitch in person was June 24, 1974, against the Brewers.  No longer a spot-starter, Luis was instead one of the biggest stars in the game. I was thrilled that it was Tiant’s turn, and even more thrilled at the 9-0 shutout.

I sent Tiant a letter around this time, and received a signed copy of this card.  He had grown his trademark Fu Manchu, which he still sports.

1974Yearbook

Many years later, when I finally got up the nerve to submit an article to SABR for publication, it was the life story of Luis Tiant, which appeared in the Baseball Research Journal about 20 years ago.  I have updated it a few times, and it is on the web.  When I was fortunate enough to meet Tiant at the 2002 SABR convention in Boston (thanks to Anthony Salazar!), he gave me a cigar.

Once again, Luis Tiant’s candidacy for the Hall of Fame is up for debate.  Am I biased?  Of course I am biased.  Vote for him, please. It would be the capper to my 45-year love affair.

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