Hollywood Stars Were in the Cards: Part 4

One of baseball’s enduring little mysteries arose the day I opened a pack of Topps in 1979 and pulled out a Rick Honeycutt: “Is Rick Honeycutt the son of Korean War veteran, Capt. B.J. Hunnicutt, U.S. Army Reserve?” I mused. It was, after all, just the sort of question an 11-year-old experiencing a sugar high from an alarmingly excessive amount of Topps bubble gum would ask himself on a warm spring day. The immediate and obvious answer, thanks to the spelling of the surname, is no. However, such variation in relations is not unheard of, nor are baseball cards free from error, so I decided to delve deeper once I got some free time—which I’d hoped would arrive before the summer of ’79’s conclusion but, unfortunately, didn’t present itself until last Tuesday.

As is well known—or should be, considering the Korean War is little taught in schools, sadly contributing to its lamentable sobriquet, “the Forgotten War”—the armistice declaring a permanent ceasefire (officially known as the Korean Armistice Agreement) was signed 27 July 1953. Although many American troops remained in South Korea until 1954 due to this fragile peace, Capt. Hunnicutt, a surgeon stationed at the 4077th MASH at the time of the ceasefire, was, like many officers, rapidly returned to the United States. (Being an officer, he almost certainly traveled by aircraft. Remember: in the waning days of the conflict, Capt. Hunnicutt got as far as Guam before his erroneous orders to rotate home were rescinded and he was sent back to the 4077th—all in a time frame possible only by air travel.) This means that Hunnicutt would have arrived home in Mill Valley, California, within the first days of August—to the great delight of his wife, Peg, and his young daughter, Erin. (Even had he been shipped home by sea, Hunnicutt still would have walked in his front door before the end of August.)

Rick Honeycutt was born 29 June 1954, in Chattanooga, Tennessee—which means that he was conceived in late September 1953. Baby booms are commonplace in the first weeks and months after wartime, as overjoyed and undersexed servicemen return to their wives or sweethearts. So, Rick Honeycutt’s conception falls right when we’d expect it to occur.

But why would Rick Honeycutt be born in Chattanooga if B.J. and Peg were living just north of San Francisco? One possible reason could be that, sometime in 1954, B.J. decided to honor his parting promise to Swamp-mate, Capt. B.F. Pierce, that they’d see each other back in the States, so he and Peg set out for the East Coast—surely with a stopover in Quapaw, Oklahoma, through which the major highway of the day, Route 66, conveniently passes, to visit Peg’s parents. Yet because this predated construction of the Interstate Highway System, travel by car was significantly slower than by standards of the late 1950s, causing the pregnant Peg Hunnicutt to unanticipatedly give birth to Rick in Chattanooga, either on the way to, or returning from, their easterly destination.

But that is a scenario fraught with geographic variables, and I believe the case to be much more along the lines of B.J. Hunnicutt attending a medical convention at Chattanooga State Community College—possibly traveling there on the yellow 1932 NSU 501 TS motorcycle on which he departed the 4077th (B.J. easily could have bribed an airman to stow it on the cargo plane taking him home). While at the convention, he had a fling with a local woman—a precedent had been set between the supposedly true-blue Hunnicutt and an on-the-rebound 4077th nurse, 1LT Carrie Donovan—and this latter affair produced a son, whose mother, either out of shame or ignorance of spelling, named the boy Rick Honeycutt. If this is the case, then it’s entirely possible that B.J. never knew of the existence of Rick.

As if additional evidence were needed, the 6’1” Rick Honeycutt apparently inherited the 6’3” B.J. Hunnicutt’s height and lean frame. (His 1979 Topps card also displays an extremely high crown to his cap, indicating that Rick likewise inherited his father’s abnormally spacious forehead.)

Honeycutt attended high school in nearby Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, so, at some point, his mother up and left Rick’s birthplace, taking her son from the disapproving eyes of Chattanoogans and across the state line, where her sordid past might not be the talk of the town.

After returning to Tennessee for his collegiate years, where Rick developed into a crackerjack first baseman and pitcher, Honeycutt was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates. Pitching well in AA ball, he became the “player to be named later” in an earlier trade with the expansion Mariners, making his major league debut for Seattle in August 1977. This must have pleased Capt. Hunnicutt, a keen baseball fan who, during his time in Korea, had predicted big things from a little-known rookie named Mays, helped fabricate a radio broadcast of a Yankees-Indians game, and whooped it up to Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World.”

Rick’s years in Seattle, however, proved no better than the stalemate in Korea, as poor teams kept him on the losing end despite an ERA near league average. His frustration piqued during a start in Kansas City on September 30, 1980, as Honeycutt resorted to taping a thumbtack to the middle finger of his glove hand in an effort to covertly cut the baseball. But his ploy was spotted in the bottom of the third inning—as was the gash on his forehead after absent-mindedly wiping his face with his glove hand—resulting in immediate ejection from the game. Honeycutt quickly incurred a ten-game suspension and a $250 fine for his transgression.

Such unscrupulousness lends support to the theory that Rick was a product of an extramarital affair, because Dr. Hunnicutt would not have been around to imbue Rick with the strong moral foundation that would keep him from, ironically enough, doctoring a baseball.  

Whether the thumbtack incident hastened Honeycutt’s end in Seattle is debatable, but an 11-player swap just 10½ weeks later deputized him as a Texas Ranger, where, except for a disastrous 1982, his fortune improved.

Soon after the 30th anniversary of the armistice that brought Capt. Hunnicutt back to the United States, Texas packed off Rick to the Los Angeles Dodgers, despite Honeycutt owning the lowest ERA in the league (which would hold up after the trade, giving Rick the American League crown at season’s end despite now wearing a National League uniform).

The 1980s also, presumably, meant that B.J. now could follow Rick’s sojourn through the majors thanks to the newfangled gizmo known as cable television—a predilection that might have intrigued Peg and Rick’s half-sister, Erin, to see B.J. watching, or eagerly waiting for scores about, Rangers and Dodgers games rather than the hometown Giants.

Honeycutt experienced a homecoming of sorts when Los Angeles dealt him to the Oakland A’s in August 1987. Now just across San Francisco Bay from Mill Valley, Rick could reside close to his parents, or, if the scenario involving an illicit affair were, indeed, the cause of his birth, B.J. could clandestinely attend Athletics games and spend time with his son afterward—either of which made all the sweeter by Rick’s impending appearance in three consecutive World Series (including a championship against the Giants, though I have yet to discover a press photo of a champagne-soaked Rick celebrating with B.J.—perhaps Capt. Hunnicutt found San Francisco’s loss too dispiriting to celebrate and could not bring himself to join Rick in the clubhouse).

Some of this evidence might seem inconclusive, even far-fetched. However, what, for me, cements Rick Honeycutt’s lineage to Capt. Hunnicutt is the message he left the world after his final game, when Rick pitched an inning of mop-up for St. Louis at Shea Stadium in May 1997—a message in rosin bags that conclusively demonstrated Rick to be his father’s son…

Hollywood Stars Were in the Cards: Part 3

Gen. George S. Patton believed fervently in reincarnation—a passion that served as an integral theme in the 1970 Academy Award–winning biopic about him. Often, Patton would declare to colleagues that he had participated in some renowned battle waged centuries before his birth.

Portraying the blustery general in that beloved biopic was, of course, George C. Scott. Few roles have so defined an actor as “Gen. Patton” did Scott—and have so defined a historical figure in the public consciousness (despite its inaccuracies). Scott’s steely-eyed, soldier-slapping performance earned him the Oscar for Best Actor (although he refused to accept it, due to his longstanding scorn for the craft of acting turned into a competition).

Six months after George C. Scott won, and left unclaimed, his Best Actor statuette at the 43rd Academy Awards, the Boston Red Sox consummated a ten-player trade with the Milwaukee Brewers that included first baseman George Scott. Not exactly the reincarnation of Gen. Patton, George Scott was something of a doppelgänger to the actor who so recently portrayed Patton. Known as “Boomer” because of his prodigious power, George Scott’s middle name also began with “C” (Charles). Stranger still, incoming to Boston was right-handed hurler, Marty Pattin. The trade included several other big-name players, among them Jim Lonborg and Tommy Harper, but the headlines in each town could have proclaimed GEORGE C. SCOTT SWAPPED FOR PATTIN. (Pattin, incidentally, began his career wth the California Angels, whose stadium in Anaheim sits about 30 miles from Gen. Patton’s birthplace of San Gabriel.)

Adding a touch of the ephemeral, George Scott’s birthday of March 23 comes one day after that of esteemed actor, Karl Malden, who, of course, portrayed Patton’s real-life colleague and onscreen foil, Gen. Omar Bradley. 

With such “cinematic pedigree,” George Scott would have been fully validated in choosing as walk-up music for his at-bats Patton’s trademark echoing of trumpet triplets.

And “Old Blood and Guts” certainly would have appreciated the brutish bravado of George Scott’s infamous necklace made of “second-basemen’s teeth,” not to mention that Scott’s penchant for donning a helmet in the field would have passed muster with the by-the-book general who demanded that his soldiers wear their helmet practically at all times.

George Scott enjoyed several of his best seasons while in Brewer blue, twice topping the American League in total bases and claiming the home run and RBI crowns in 1975. Similarly, Marty Pattin found instant success in Fenway Park, winning a career high 17 games in his first of two seasons with the Bosox, before Boston abruptly shipped him to Kansas City after the 1973 season. (Scott and Pattin briefly marshalled what remained of their diminishing talents for the 1979 Royals.)

Boomer eventually was reincarnated as a Red Sock, returning to Fenway in the deal that made Milwaukee famous to Cecil Cooper (and vice-versa). In Boston, Scott enjoyed his last big season, slamming 33 home runs and scoring 103 in 1977. He wasn’t able to help Boston shrug off New York in its epic collapse of 1978, hitting .163 once the calendar turned September and the erosion of Boston’s lead over the Bronx Bombers accelerated (although Scott did go 2-4 in the pennant-deciding finale and was twice stranded in scoring position when his run would have proved crucial).

In a bit of a final irony, Boomer moved south of the border when no suitors called on him during free agency, spending four seasons in the Mexican League. Somewhat conversely, Lieutenant Patton, on the way up in his military career, spent nearly a year in Mexico attempting to track down the revolutionary, Pancho Villa, not long before the United States’ entry into World War I would shape his destiny.

Sadly, George Scott lived only until age 69; George C. Scott died when he was 71; and Gen. George S. Patton, of course, succumbed at age 60, two weeks after an automobile accident.

All glory is fleeting…

Hollywood Stars Were in the Cards: Part 2

1969 was the Year of Rico—on the baseball diamond, on the silver screen, on the radio, and even on Capitol Hill.

During this swan song to the Sixties, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), a federal statute that eventually helped gut organized crime, was introduced as Senate Bill 30 by John L. McClellan (D-AR)—it eventually passed both houses and was signed into law by President Nixon in 1970.

In March, José Feliciano, who had performed the “Star-Spangled Banner” before Game 5 of the 1968 World Series, became the first native of Puerto Rico awarded a Grammy, receiving honors both for his suave, soulful interpretation of the Doors’ “Light My Fire” as well as for “Best New Artist.”

And in Fenway Park, Red Sox shortstop Rico Petrocelli enjoyed his finest season, establishing career bests in hits, home runs, runs scored, doubles, total bases, on-base percentage, and OPS. Erupting for 40 round-trippers, Rico not only tied Carl Yastrzemski for the team lead despite playing 8 fewer games, but bested Vern Stephens’ American League mark for long balls by a shortstop, set in 1949. Rico’s mark would stand until 1998.

Sabermetrically, Petrocelli’s value to Boston is reflected in his stratospheric 10.0 WAR—the highest mark in the American League and second in the majors only to St. Louis’s Bob Gibson.

Rico also should have won a Gold Glove for his deft defensive play. Baltimore’s Mark Belanger took home his first of 8 Gold Gloves, yet Rico outdid him in putouts, assists, double plays, total zone runs, range factors, and fielding percentage (an AL-best .981 to Belanger’s .968), while committing 9 fewer errors.

Rico further set a career mark with 98 walks—befitting for a year that saw the eventual Oscar winner for Best Picture, Midnight Cowboy, released on May 25, commencing what Joe Buck—that’s Jon Voight’s Joe Buck, not sports announcer Joe Buck—could have called the “Summer of Rico…Rico, Rico, Rico.”

“Rico,” of course, was Enrico Rizzo, the archetypal New York street hustler unflatteringly referred to as “Ratso” but who insisted upon being called “Rico” in his own Lower East Side home—a condemned tenement building in which he was squatting.

In walking more than he’d ever walked before (or since), Rico Petrocelli provided real-life counterpoint to Rico Rizzo’s impromptu flip-off to a New York cabbie: “I’m walkin’ here!”

A native New Yorker like his on-screen namesake, Petrocelli had 67 opportunities after the film’s debut to use that soon-to-be-iconic line, though it’s not known if he ever yelled it at an opponent while tossing his bat aside and proceeding to first base.

Perhaps if the opposing team’s bullpen cart had crossed the base path right in front of him…

Given Petrocelli’s Brooklyn accent, it would be a genuine shame if he never seized the opportunity.

Oddly, Rico’s 1975 Topps card mentions that he walked 48 times in 1974—an extremely unnoteworthy achievement that would have better served as a Midnight Cowboy-esque cartoon on the reverse of his 1970 card, when the previous season’s walk total had constituted something other than ordinary…

Hollywood Stars Were in the Cards: Part 1

A decade of tumult, the 1930s saw the United States, and the world, in flux. Numerous European economies continued their struggle to survive in the wake of the Great War—a struggle that finally reached America’s shores in October 1929, as the Wall Street Crash heralded the Great Depression. The map of the world, itself, was in flux, as newly minted despots gobbled up sovereign states to add to their burgeoning empires, while their demagoguery inspired millions to visit the darkest depths of the human soul.

In short, there was little in the 1930s on which to depend. Even names were in flux.

Warren Ogden, a descendant of Ogdens who had crossed the Atlantic with William Penn and whose surname became the eponym of the Pennsylvania town in which Warren was born, pitched for the Philadelphia Athletics and Washington Senators in the mid-1920s. (Warren’s older brother, Jack, also pitched in the majors, though his yo-yo career up and down from the bushes spanned 1918 to 1932.) Not much of an asset to Connie Mack, Warren was put on waivers in May 1924, eventually being picked up by Washington. His 9-5 record and excellent 2.58 ERA over the remainder of the season helped Washington clinch its first pennant. A surprise starter in Game 7 of the World Series, Ogden struck out leadoff hitter Freddie Lindstrom, walked Frankie Frisch, and then was pulled for southpaw George Mogridge, in a successful ploy by manager Bucky Harris to lure John McGraw into altering his batting order to the right-handed Ogden. (Washington won in the bottom of the 12th inning to claim its only World Series championship.) Ogden remained with the Senators through July 1926, his major league record set at 18-19.

But we’re talking about the tumultuous, undependable 1930s, aren’t we? So, why bring up Warren Ogden, whose major league career ended well before that decade arrived? Because Goudey, well known for including minor leaguers in its 1933 set, did just that: Card No. 174 shows Warren as a Montréal Royal. (Ditto for big-brother Jack [“John”] Ogden, whose major league career ended in 1932 but received a card as a Baltimore Oriole in 1933. On a weird side note, the only other vintage card on which either brother apparently appeared, the 1928 W461 Exhibit, is a card of John yet shows a several-year-old photo of Warren, in his Senators uniform.)

As you can see, Goudey parenthetically included Warren’s nickname, “Curley.” However, the common spelling of said nickname has always been “Curly.” In fact, his name is sans “e” in virtually all resources, including Baseball Reference, SABR, Baseball Almanac, and MLB.com.

One might be inclined to think this was a Goudey thing—after all, the company wasn’t spelled Goudy.

However, as stated above, such inconsistency seems to have been symptomatic of the chaotic 1930s, where it clearly plagued the Three Stooges as well.

Yet whereas Columbia Pictures seems to have permanently abandoned the “e” by late in the decade, the sheer paucity of vintage Warren Ogden cards allowed this oversight to go unaddressed until 1975—long after Warren Ogden’s death—when TCMA’s team set honoring the 1924-1925 Senators finally conformed the spelling of his nickname to standard.

Every baseball player thrills to seeing himself on a baseball card for the first time, so God only knows how many times over the years his 1933 Goudey caused Ogden to wipe his hands vertically across his face in Curly Howard–like exasperation or maniacally spin himself 360° while lying on the floor knowing that he’d likely take “Curley” to the grave.

Alas, like his more famous namesake, Curly Ogden was a victim of soycumstance.

Was National Chicle on the Ball or Off the Mark With its 1935 Diamond Stars Jimmie Foxx?

Though among most everyone’s candidates for the best first baseman in history, Jimmie Foxx—much like Honus Wagner two generations earlier—was a versatile player who could man various positions. (He ultimately took every position on the diamond besides second base and center field, including famously pitching—and pitching well—for the 1945 Phillies, as well as an earlier inning for the Red Sox.) Brought along gingerly by manager Connie Mack, Foxx was eased into the Philadelphia A’s lineup over several seasons. He originally reached the majors as a catcher, but with Mickey Cochrane claiming the position in his freshman season, Foxx had no future as Philly’s backstop. Tried variously in the outfield and the corner bases, Foxx did not become the Athletics regular first baseman until 1929. Not coincidentally, the A’s established themselves as the cream of baseball that season, leaving Babe Ruth’s mighty Yankees in the dust and cruising to a World Series championship.

With the arrival of Philadelphia’s quasi-dynasty of 1929–31 and Foxx’s subsequent eruption into Lou Gehrig’s near-equal as a devastating run producer, Jimmie was synonymous with first base throughout the 1930s.

Yet Foxx’s 1935 Diamond Stars card shows him as a catcher, despite the fact that he had not played an inning behind the plate since July 1928.

Having recently won back-to-back American League MVPs and now standing as one of the most famous and popular baseball players—not to mention first basemen—in the country, there seems to be no logical reason for National Chicle, the manufacturer of the Diamond Stars cards, to portray Foxx in his “long-lost” position.

Except that, for the first time in seven seasons, Jimmie donned baseball’s tools of ignorance, playing 26 of Philadelphia’s first 27 games behind the plate, before returning to first base. Mickey Cochrane had already traded in his white elephant for a tiger a season earlier and was busy player-managing Detroit to consecutive pennants, and Mack refused to put his trust in the A’s two other backstops when opening day arrived. In a strategy that could happen only in those quainter days, Mack moved Foxx back to catcher until he shelled out cash to the New York Giants for Paul Richards on May 25. (Richards was a short-term solution and did not even return to the majors until 1943; Mack ultimately solved his problem at catcher by bringing Frankie “Blimp” Hayes back to Philadelphia from the Washington organization, though Hayes was hardly a replacement for Mickey Cochrane.)

Anyway, National Chicle did not randomly or coincidentally depict Foxx as a catcher—the back of Jimmie’s card (spelled “Jimmy”) states that he had been “dividing his time between first base and catching…since Mickey Cochrane became manager of Detroit.”

This is flatly inaccurate (although to how much up-to-date and comprehensive statistics National Chicle availed itself certainly could be a factor): Cochrane had been traded to Detroit in December 1933, yet Jimmie never once played a game behind the plate in 1934 (though he unrelatedly did start nine game at the hot corner, for a total of 78 innings).

Thus, the only factual or rational reason for Foxx to be shown as a catcher on this card is because it wasn’t created until after Foxx debuted in 1935 as Philadelphia’s backstop on April 17. And he certainly would have had to have played at least several games at catcher before anyone at National Chicle either noticed or decided that enough of a pattern had been established to warrant capturing Foxx in catcher’s gear. (Considering National Chicle was based in the Boston suburb of Cambridge, it could be significant that the Red Sox and A’s did not clash until April 29, possibly delaying awareness that Foxx was currently not a first baseman.)

Exactly when in 1935 this card hit candy store shelves is unknown (at least to me). Foxx’s pose suggests—if we give National Chicle the benefit of the doubt on the facts of Jimmie’s defensive play, if not the semantics of his bio on the card—that National Chicle prepared and released its cards well after opening day. However, playing a handful of games at catcher in the early days of 1935 hardly can be considered “dividing one’s time” between the two positions when it never once occurred during the entire 1934 season. Either this was an excessively liberal take on National Chicle’s part or the writer of the card’s text assumed that Foxx had been catching in 1934—which, even in those less-enlightened days, was easily provable as false, had anyone bothered to fact check.

So perhaps National Chicle was under the erroneous impression that Foxx had been working behind the plate in 1934—which would make when the card was designed moot.

And yet, Foxx is mentioned as a first baseman even on the back of Jim Bottomley’s card, which was issued in the same series—and thus at the same time—as Foxx’s card, making Foxx’s portrayal as a catcher all the more curious.

Regardless, one must question to a degree the philosophy of so readily abandoning Foxx’s well-established reputation as an MVP first baseman based, presumptively, on a handful of games at the outset of the new season. It’s difficult to imagine the bigwigs at National Chicle thought Foxx’s move to catcher would be permanent, especially with light-hitting rookie Alex Hooks filling in for Foxx at first base, followed by powerless, though able, outfielder Lou Finney.

Still, National Chicle deserves a modicum of kudos for staying on the ball enough to reflect this recent, albeit temporary, change in Foxx’s defensive status—something of a Depression Era version of “keeping it real” (though whether it was necessary is debatable). As well, National Chicle should be commended from an aesthetic standpoint not only for providing an intrinsically interesting card but for similarly reminding the public that a baseball player is defined more by his many innings in the field than by his far shorter involvement at bat—a fact that modern fans tend to forget, especially in the era of the designated hitter and the current clamor for its adoption by the National League.

But as for whether Jimmie Foxx’s 1935 Diamond Stars card represents National Chicle being cutting edge or operating on erroneous information will likely never be known.