The Conlon Project series continues with Part 3, a collection of five stories based on cards selected by our writers. We continue to present different writers and different stories.
This week’s installment includes stories on Conlon figures: Wes Ferrell by Mark Armour; Ray Morehart by Mark Black; Lon Warneke by Mike Beasley; Lefty Grove by Nick Vossbink; and Al Simmons by Rock Hoffman.
If missed the incredible story of the origins of the Conlon Collection by Steve Gietschier, be sure to check out: https://sabrbaseballcards.blog/2017/11/27/the-conlon-collection-project-intro/
PLAYER: Wes Ferrell
CARD #: 198
AUTHOR: Mark Armour
The cello pack Anthony sent me had Joe Cronin visible on top. This was Anthony’s gesture, as he knows I wrote a book on Joe, so he was basically tossing me an alley-oop. Determined not to take the easy way out, I opened up the pack.
During the several years I worked on Cronin’s story, I got to know many of the players from this period, especially the AL players. My Conlon pack included many of Joe’s teammates or players he managed. Tony Lazzeri was a rival in San Francisco when both were kids. Goose Goslin was a star Senator when Cronin finally got his big chance on the same team. Bob Johnson was a star opponent for a decade before the Red Sox finally acquired him during the war and he became Cronin’s best hitter.
But my guy today is Wes Ferrell. He was one of many AL stars (Jimmie Foxx, Lefty Grove, etc.) whom Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey acquired from other less rich teams in the 1930s. Many of these strong-willed men made Cronin’s life hell for a few years, none more so than Wes Ferrell. Cronin was the club’s shortstop and if Ferrell saw a reliever warming up in the bullpen he’d call Cronin over and say, “if that mother f**ker doesn’t sit down, I ain’t pitching.” He’d walk off the mound if there were errors made behind him, especially by his manager. One time, Cronin gave him a big fine, and Ferrell said he’d punch him in the face the next time he saw him. Eventually it all blew over, but inevitably he had to be traded.
But Wes Ferrell could play. In 1935, for example, he won 25 games as a pitcher (a total of 8.4 WAR) and also hitting .347 with 7 home runs as a hitter (2.6 more WAR). His 11 WAR (per Baseball-Reference.com) were the most in the league.
Like many pitchers of his time Wes Ferrell did not age well. But he was one of baseball’s best players for several years, and deserves to be remembered.
PLAYER: Ray Morehart
CARD #: 102
AUTHOR: Mark Black
My first 18 years of Sundays were spent in a (seemingly) never ending sequence of church, visits with relatives, Sunday dinners, and feelings of resentment because I was missing out on better ways to spend the weekend.
My grandmother didn’t have cable so while adults were visiting, we’d entertain ourselves by exploring my grandmother’s bookshelves. There was one book that seemed to capture our attention over and over again, Mining Photographs and Other Pictures, 1948–1968 by Leslie Shedden. A collection of stark black and white industrial photos, it covered every aspect of the mining history of Cape Breton – pit ponies, safety photos, labor conditions, and family life.
Over 20 years separates the Conlon collection from the Shedden collection, but for me there’s an echo of Conlon’s work in those mining photos and there’s an echo of my grandmother’s house in Ray Morehart’s face.
Every player in my pack seemed more well-known, more talented, more accomplished, and possibly more appealing. I could have chosen any of them for this project, but I chose Ray Morehart. There was something about Ray Morehart – his ‘snaggletooth’, the bags under his eyes, his uneasy smile – among the Hall of Famers, the legends, and the more fêted members of the ’27 Yankees, he clearly stands out. Ray Morehart looks like he doesn’t belong and more strikingly, it looks like he knows it.
There’s a down-to-earthness to Morehart’s photo, that same modesty and humbleness that resonated with me when I cracked open that book of mining photos 30 years previous.
PLAYER: Lon Warneke
CARD #: 231
AUTHOR: Mike Beasley
The quintessential quaff? The perfect pompadour? Baseball’s Brylcreem Boy for 1939? With hair combed high, the 6′ 2″, 185-pound right-handed sidewinding Lon Warneke compiled a 192-121 won-loss record, completed 192 contests, and threw 30 shutouts over a 14-year (1930-1945) span with the Cubs and Cardinals, posting a career 3.18 ERA. Warneke threw a no-hitter against Cincinnati in 1941. Of his four one-hitters, two were back-to-back to open the 1934 season for the Cubs. Following his playing days, the lifelong Arkansas resident umpired in the National League for five years, including the 1952 All-Star Game and the 1954 World Series. On retiring from baseball, he was elected a county judge in his home state, serving in that capacity from 1963 until 1972. Warneke passed in June 1976 at the age of 67.
It was almost a draw of the hat in choosing a particular Conlon card from the pack of 18, but Warneke won out for a variety of reasons. First, I was only vaguely familiar with the name, embarrassingly so, I have to admit. Then there’s the photograph, with rakish tilt of the cap, the high cheekbones, penetrating eyes and lean cheeks. But that pile of hair propping up the ball cap! A display of the cool confidence of the Arkansas Hummingbird. I wonder, though, if he ever thought “a little dab’ll do ya” and slipped a slippery one into his repertoire?
PLAYER: Lefty Grove
CARD #: 23
AUTHOR: Nick Vossbink
The thing about the Conlon photos is that you don’t see portraits like this too often on cards. They’re clearly Baseball™ but they’re also distinct from what we think of as card material. The thin depth of field from the 4×5 camera is something that we see now with super telephoto lenses yet the interaction between the photographer and the subject confirms a close working arrangement. Lefty Grove is isolated from the background but also clearly engaged with Conlon.
And the tones. My goodness. While panchromatic emulsions were available in the early 20th century, their expense delayed their adoption. As a result, Conlon’s images are especially sensitive to blue light — resulting in a rugged masculine beauty where everyone appears tanned and strong. Even though Lefty Grove looks young, his wrinkles are defined, and you can see the face he’ll mature into.
His uniform is also wonderful with the white elephant logo the A’s still use and even an undone middle button Pedro Martinez style. The piping on the jersey is classic and the piping on the hat is something I wish we still saw today. Also, that standup collar is something I can never picture working when I see it on a coat hanger, but I love how it looks here.
PLAYER: Al Simmons
CARD #: 49
AUTHOR: Rock Hoffman
For the Conlon Project, I selected the card of Al Simmons because the Athletics occupy a special place in the minds of Philadelphia baseball fans who know their history. I was born in Philadelphia and raised just outside of the city and I think there is a sense of pride that we had the Athletics and their five World Series wins. Of course, there were all those losing season too and combined with the Phillies, the fans of the Delaware Valley have seen a lot of bad baseball. Ultimately, I think there’s a feeling of disappointment that they left the city.
As I looked at the card of “Bucketfoot Al,” I saw that the photo was from 1924 which was Simmons first season in the majors, essentially it his rookie card. He’s 22 years old and has a look in his eyes of a life full of possibility. It’s like the line from the movie “Field of Dreams,” when Ray Kinsella sees his father as a young catcher and says, “He has his whole life in front of him.”
You wonder what Simmons is thinking, does he feel like he can become a star play or is he just hoping to hold on for a few years before he gets on with his life’s work.