Book Review: “Hall of Name” by D.B. Firstman

Having already written about my Wall of Fame, the Hall of Fame, and even the Hall of Game I suppose it was only natural that I write today about the Hall of Name. (Note that a different blogger already covered the Hall of Same.) Specifically, I’m referring to “Hall of Name: Baseball’s Most Magnificent Monikers from ‘The Only Nolan’ to ‘Van Lingle Mungo’ and More,” which is the brand new book (Amazon | Barnes & Noble) from Casey Stengel chapter member D.B. Firstman.

Baseball fans and card collectors alike have always had a special place in our hearts for the players with the funny names. Before I even knew who the players were or which players were stars (apart from the Topps all-star shield telling me so), I knew I found something special in my pack when I landed one of these guys!

I also was fortunate to have friends more mature and sophisticated than I was who were able to educate me on the downright naughtiness of other pulls.

Fast forward to high school when I opened packs with friends. There were two kinds of players worthy of call-outs: the superstars and…you guessed it, the guys with the funny names! (See below for simulated pack opening with subtitles.)

In “Hall of Name,” D.B. Firstman goes beyond the pack and quick smirk to bring us a complete (pending volume two) log of “magnificent monikers” across all of baseball history and a level of depth previously unseen if even imagined.

Opening to a random page (90-91), for example, we find Milton Obelle Bradley, gamely described by D.B. as having a “Life” that’s been nothing but “Trouble.” (Well played, DB!) We get not only a fairly detailed biography of the player, but a number of bonus features including his full name’s etymology (though even D.B. came up empty on Obelle), his case for “Hall of Name” membership, his best day in baseball, a list of various people, places, and things not to confuse the player with, and some fun anagrams. Many of my friends who are Cubs fans will find Bradley’s anagram particularly fitting!

Boldly intolerable me!

Finally, D.B. ends each write-up with an “Ephemera” section. Usually this section houses the fun off-the-field tidbits that didn’t quite fit a baseball bio. In Bradley’s case, however, the tidbits are distinctly not fun.

Firstman’s book is organized into four sections. Were the Hall of Name an actual museum, you might imagine each section as a wing. The first wing, “Baseball Poets and Men of Few (Different) Letters” is rich in alliteration and mostly made up of players whose names simply sound good: Coco Crisp, Ferris Fain (whose side hustle was news to me!), Ed Head, and the like.

The second wing is the one many readers might just skip to: “Dirty Names Done Dirt Cheap.” The aforementioned Mr. LaCock resides in this section alongside other coquettish (ahem!) choices as Johnny Dickshot, Charlie Manlove, and Tony Suck. I’d continue, but this is a family blog.

Next up are the “Sounds Good to Me” players. In this wing we find Rocky Cherry, Quinton McCracken, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and the like. My 1978 Topps name-crushes, Sixto Lezcano and Biff Pocoroba, make it into this section as well.

Finally, D.B. closes the book with “No Focus Group Convened,” a catch-all of the 40+ players from Atz to Zdeb whose exclusion would have led many readers to cancel their Hall of Name memberships. “What, no Harry Colliflower?! No Mark Lemongello?! What’s the freaking point then?”Among the other players enshrined in this wing are Calvin Coolidge Julius Caesar Tuskahoma McLish, Bris Lord, and Ivey Wingo.

“Hall of Name” isn’t explicitly a baseball card book, even if there is some occasional baseball card content. For instance, the “Ephemera” section of the Callix Crabbe write-up notes the mix-up that led to Carlos Guevara’s appearance on Crabbe’s 2008 Topps card.

However, the first thing most of us took notice of (1953 Bowman collectors aside) when we rifled through our first packs of cards was the player’s name. Good chance most of us still do it today. What is the magic of opening a pack, after all, if not to reveal who’s inside!

Plus, if not for the name, would you really have any idea this was a Pete Alonso card or even a baseball card at all? (Then again, is it?!)

In this sense then, “Hall of Name,” while clearly a baseball book, is also a baseball card book that focuses on one very specific feature—perhaps the most important feature—of our cards: the names of the players.

Through D.B.’s enjoyable book, we are not only reminded of (or introduced to) the very best baseball names, past and present, but we further see each name turn into a story, and with it, each card in our collections escape its two-dimensional trappings to become something fuller, richer, and (dare I say) human, if not positively Devine!

Author’s note: “Hall of Name” is now available for pre-order through Amazon and (last I checked even cheaper at) Barnes & Noble.

Toehold

I wrote about a selection of Exhibit/Arcade cards I got on my own blog but there are enough of them to warrant a toehold post here as well.

We’ve had a handful of posts about Exhibit Cards here before but haven’t had a post specifically dedicated to them yet.* This is not going to be that post except to note that Exhibits are kind of wonderful because they represent a different method of card collecting and distribution and a different direction that the hobby could’ve gone.

*A good writeup is over on Sports Collectors Digest but I’d love to see more here as well.

Instead of packs of cards and the association with food and gum products, Exhibits are clearly photo products and place baseball players in the same ecosystem as Hollywood stars, cowboys, pinups, etc. of pop idols that fans would want to collect and display. Instead of products like photo packs you purchased at concession stands in stadiums, you bought your Exhibits from a vending machine in an arcade or store and you got what you got.

By the time I was a kid the only thing left being sold like this was mini plastic football helmets. It amazes me that there was an era when you could get 3.5″×5″ photo cards instead. Anyway while cards of Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, Judy Garland, Clark Gable, and Jimmy Stewart are lots of fun, this is a baseball card blog so I’m only going to write about the cards of baseball-related stars.

I was super-pleased to find cards of Abbott and Costello in my batch. Who’s on First* is a comedy classic that’s in the Hall of Fame because it’s not only required viewing for any baseball fan but one which I suspect we’ve all memorized as well.

*Link included as part of standard practices. 

A couple springs ago I was coaching Little League and had a kindergartner named Hugh on my team. Did I put him at first base? It would’ve been irresponsible and negligent not to.

Anyway these Exhibits appear to date to the 1940s and so represent this pair at the height of their popularity. I especially like that Costello’s salutation is “Yours for fun.”

There are a lot of Cowboy Exhibit cards but the only one in my batch was Gene Autry. I should probably have scheduled this post for Christmas to coincide with Here Comes Santa Claus and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, but things were busy and it was Autry’s involvement first with the Hollywood Stars and then as the primary owner of the Los Angeles California Anaheim Angels which makes him relevant here.

It’s funny, for someone like me who learned about the game in the 1980s, Autry should’ve been someone  I knew first as a team owner. I didn’t though. He was always the singing cowboy and showman first for me and I have to remind myself that he was involved with baseball for much longer than he was recording.

Some of this though is probably because by the time I was learning about baseball the only owners I was truly aware of were the ones like Marge Schott and George Steinbrenner who were in the news for all the wrong reasons. Autry with his hands-off nature is exactly the kind of owner that I can see Angels fans loving and everyone else not knowing anything about.

The last baseball-related Exhibit has turned out to be one of my favorites of the batch. Yes I like her even over Abbott and Costello. Laraine Day is not exactly a household name as a movie star but the tabloid scandal of her marriage to Leo Durocher and her subsequent involvement with the New York Giants makes her card something I’m considering moving out of the non-sport/non-baseball album and into my Giants album.

While she was married to Durocher she wrote a book about her life with the team* and even appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated. If what I’ve been able to find around the web is accurate this cover upset a number of racists in the United States due to Day’s “embracing” of Mays.

*I’ll probably have to pull that book from the library just to take a peek (having access to the university library is a nice perk).

That’s about it for now. We’ll see if anything more shows up in the next batch of non-baseball cards I get.

Digital Footprints

A recent post by Jenny Miller about the Topps Bunt app got me thinking about digital cards. I’ve long wanted to see such a post on this blog but I suspect that our membership base is skeptical at best* when it comes to cards that only live in an app.

*And dismissive at worst.

I get it. This is a cardboard hobby and the idea of something existing only digitally doesn’t feel “real.” At the same time, the experience Jenny describes is closer to the pure ideal of the hobby than much of what’s going on with card releases. She doesn’t have to spend any money. She’s able to look at her collection and acquire new cards anywhere and anytime she has battery life on her phone. There’s no concern about finding a card shop or hoping that the card aisle hasn’t been raided by pack seekers. It sounds like a lot more fun than most of the bellyaching I see about the current state of the hobby on Twitter.

What really got me thinking though were the images Jenny used in her blog post. I’m online-averse in all my media. I prefer CDs/DVDs/BluRay to streaming. I prefer books to Kindle. As interesting as the Topps Bunt app seems it’s just not something that appeals to me…unless I can get the cards out of the app. As much as I’m a luddite, my concerns are actually more about being locked in to a corporate ecosystem and the fact that companies have a bad track record with regard to maintaining these things.

I just don’t trust these apps to last and while I don’t need ALL my cards to last another 20, 30, 40 years it would be nice to know that there’s a possibility of it. Jenny didn’t get her images out of the app (she confirmed with me that she pulled them from Topps’s Twitter feed) but she could have.

My phone (an iPhone8) produces screenshots that are 750×1334 pixels. This translates into 2.5″×4.45″ at 300 DPI. Even if you have to crop off a little of the image to get just the card this is enough data for good-quality printing. Yeah. There’s no reason why you couldn’t roll your own Bunt cards.

As much as it’s weird to me how the Bunt app cards show evidence of wanting to pretend to be physical items with their wrinkles, halftone rosettes, “autographs,” and peeling effects, they are actually something that can be taken into the real world if you wanted to.

Costco wallet-sized prints are 59¢ for four. Even if you didn’t print these, just being able to save them outside of the app gives you a level of flexibility and future-protection that alleviates a lot of my concerns. It also reminds me of a number of other card-related things we’ve covered on this blog where the original objects contain information that is no longer accessible for most collectors.

One of the best things about this hobby is how it’s a near perfect usage of technology—in this case print technology. Cards are the right size to hold and store. They’re durable enough to handle without falling apart immediately. And they don’t require any supplementary technology.

I very much love cards that push the into other technological realms though. They just require some help to be fully enjoyed if the other technology does not age as well as ink on cardboard.

For example, Auravision and Baseball Talk are both wonderful objects but the audio portions of them are tough to access. Record players may be making a comeback but they’ve not been standard in most homes for a long time. Plus you have to punch a hole in the middle of that nice Auravision photo to listen to anything. Similarly, Baseball Talk requires a special player which, even if you have one, is not guaranteed to work anymore since it’s a cheap child’s toy.

But the internet is a wonderful place. The Auravision recordings are up on YouTube. As are the Baseball Talk ones. This means I can have my Baseball Talk cards in my album and pull up the corresponding recordings on the web. Yes there’s always that fear that the recordings will disappear from YouTube but they’re out there, but there are tools out there that will download the audio from a YouTube video and convert it to MP3.

Another thing that YouTube has preserved is things like 2000 Upper Deck Power Deck. Sure you can just shove a baseball card sized mini CD-ROM into a binder page but reading the data is near impossible now. Most computers don’t have optical media trays and the ones that do are usually slot-loading ones that can’t accept non-standard sized or shaped media. So your only option to see what’s on the disc is to go to YouTube and hope it’s been uploaded.

I’ve actually been engaged in my own form of converting a somewhat-inaccesable product into one with digital footprints. I don’t have the toy to view my Viewmaster discs so I’m only able to see them by holding a disc up to light. This isn’t ideal. Scanning them into wiggle gifs produces a better way of seeing them.

I’m also going a step further and scanning the booklet so I can convert each image into a 2.5″ square card with a still image in the front and the booklet on the back. No it’s not the Viewmaster experience but it take the photos into a form that’s more accessible.

Do I expect Bunt to be around in a decade? No way. But I do expect JPGs of the cards to be available someplace. Maybe not all of them, but someone next decade will have an archive of a bunch of them. And I have my fingers crossed that a few cards will even be printed out the way I’m printing out my Viewmaster photos.

R.G. Knowles 1901–02 Ogden’s Tabs

Last week I received a surprise mailing of pre-war cards from Anson Whaley, the proprietor of prewarcards.com who many of us turn to whenever we have questions an anything pre-war. I treat these mailings as an opportunity to google the subjects of the cards and hopefully come across an interesting Wikipedia page that leads me down a rabbit hole.

In this case, it wasn’t a Wikipedia rabbit hole I fell in to but rather a Google Books one. Anson sent me a dozen 1901–02 Ogden’s Cigarettes General Interest cards. A couple sporting subjects but mostly non-sports miscellany—actors, politicians, ships, etc.

One of them was a Mr. R.G. Knowles. The first round of googling confirmed his short bio. He was indeed a comedian who styled himself as “The Peculiar American.” But I also learned that his full name was “Richard George Knowles” so I decided to try googling that too. The result? A link to a book called Baseball written in 1896 in England.

At first I thought this must be a different Richard George Knowles but I figured it was worth flipping through the book just to make sure. Lo and behold on page 65 I found an author photo. To my eyes it looks like the same face (no comment on the hairstyle).

This is pretty cool. My general interest card just turned into a baseball card. So I went back and downloaded the PDF from Google so I could take a deeper look at the book. It’s basically a baseball primer for an English audience more familiar with Rounders and Cricket but is also a great snapshot of the state of the game in the mid-1890s on both sides of the Atlantic.

The player lives in a world limited to three bases, a home plate, and two foul lines, and, for a couple of hours or so, finds relief from business cares, and snatches a holiday for his brain.

The first chapter is about baseball in general. It starts off building baseball up as a game of intelligence where draws are impossible, skills are required in all facets of the game, and failure can be minimized due to the number of repeated chances a batter gets. Much of this reads as an implicit comparison to Cricket which doesn’t feature baserunning and a batter only gets to bat twice a match.

It then goes into describing how to lay out a baseball field. It’s impossible for me to state how much I love this section so I’ll just paste the full text in here in case anyone wants to lay out their own baseball field.

Procure a heavy cord one hundred and eighty feet in length. Tie three knots in it, one at sixty feet five inches, one at ninety feet, and the other at one hundred and twenty-seven feet four inches.

Then, at the outer point of the home plate, drive a peg in the ground, and attach the line to it. Extend the line straight out to the third knot, and at that limit mark the second base. The knot is the centre of the base. Care must be taken that the cord be kept taut, and absolutely straight from the peg at the home plate to the centre of the second base, for the first knot, at sixty feet five inches, must now be taken to indicate the centre of the pitcher’s plate. When this has been duly marked, have one end of the hundred and eighty feet line held at the centre of second base, and keep the other end secured at the home plate as before. Then take hold of the second knot, at ninety feet, which is, of course, in the exact centre of the cord, and walk out with it to the corner of the diamond which is to mark the first base. Keep walking until the line is taut on both sides, and, at that point, mark the first base. Repeat this in the opposite direction, and mark the third base. The diamond is then complete.

That R.G. Knowles goes on to say that when he was a kid he used to carry a ball of string with the requisite knots in it just in case he needed to create a diamond for other kids is just wonderful. Do I think he’s telling the truth? Of course not. (since when have kids cared about proper dimensions when playing a game) But I love the sentiment.

The man who evinces a quick grasp and comprehension of the points of play, and who is also gifted with the capacity of being witty, is a very desirable person for the post.

The second chapter describes each position, including the “coachers” and umpire. Not much to say about the players except to note that second base is treated as the key position on the diamond. The umpire is similarly familiar in how he’s charged with being in control of the game.  The coaches though are specifically the first and third base coaches and get a lot more description than any of the fielders. Aside from coaching the baserunners one of their jobs is to distract the fielders with banter.

Chapter three is the rules of the game. I didn’t read this one thoroughly since it appears to be mostly the same as current rules. I did notice however that things like the 18″ “pine tar” rule as well as the 3-foot running lane to first base already exist.

The next chapter though is great since it’s all about keeping score. Seeing different scoring methods is one of my favorite things and this section’s method is one of the most distinct ones I’ve come across. While it looks superficially like modern scorekeeping it’s vasty different.

To start off, shortstop is position #5 and thirdbase is #6. But everything else is different too. Instead of being a progression around the diamond each square is read left to right.

We also don’t have the now-standard abbreviations that I learned as a kid and which I’ve taught my kids. Take for example the following progression.

This represents a single, stolen base, advancing to third on an error (wild throw), and scoring on a passed ball. The only thing recognizable about this is putting an X or coloring int he diamond when someone scores.

Outs are a lot more familiar. This represents a ground out to the shortstop for the first out of the inning. Aside from the difference in position numbering this is pretty much the same thing I do today.

The rest of the chapter includes a bunch more examples of dealing with other possibilities available during a game. S–O are strikeouts. TI means advancing on a throw. S–H is a sacrifice. FF is a foul out. Very much the same kinds of things that happen in today‘s game and definitely sets baseball apart as a game which has always been obsessed with detail and replaying the events of games past.

The last four chapters of the book discuss the state of the game in 1895. Two chapters each devoted to Baseball in England and Baseball in America.

Among the people present at this christening of the game in London were: Buffalo Bill, General B. Williams (U.S. Army), Colonel Ochiltree, Mrs. Mackay, Mrs. Henry Labouchere, Mrs. T. P. O’Connor, Mrs. Alice Shaw, Dr. Maitland Coffin, Miss Blanche Rooseveldt, Mr. and Mrs. Tyars, Miss Hallett, Miss Helen Dauvray, Mrs. Conover, and Mr. W. Chapman. As a pressman summed it up, it was an audience of society folk, mummers and Mexicans, Cowboys and Cossacks, Gauchos and Indians.

The England chapter starts off listing a few exhibitions by American teams that failed to make any impressions before getting into a description of an exhibition between the Clapham Common nine—a team of Americans living in London who also appear to be members of the London Thespians—and a team of the Cowboys attached to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show at Earl’s Court. The game took place on July 13 1892 and Knowles includes an absolutely wonderful box score.

Where our author is batting third and playing second base in the scorecard, in the box score he’s batting fifth and playing second base (and pitcher) for the London Thespians Club.* This means that not only is my Ogden a card of a baseball writer, it’s of an actual nineteenth-century baseball player. Also the descriptions of the day jobs of the Wild West club players are something I could never in my wildest dreams have dreamed up.

*Especially appropriate given how Knowles is identified on his Ogden as a comedian.

Clearly fielding was not a strong suit for either team though I find it noteworthy that the concept of earned runs is prominent enough to be mentioned as a team stat. I also notice that the Wild West pitcher struck out 14 Thespians and that those putouts appear to be credited to the pitcher instead of the catcher. Oh and despite a cumulative 34 errors the game only lasted just over two hours.

The rest of the England chapters describe the growth of the league over the following years, the difficulty in finding good umpires, additional visits from American teams, hybrid baseball vs cricket exhibitions, and descriptions of a half-dozen baseball grounds.

The following chapter is all biographies of men associated with baseball in England from the President of the London Baseball Association Thomas Dewar to representative English players and representative American players in England.

The greatest interest centres in the professional teams that bear the names of such cities as Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Brooklyn, St. Louis, Washington, Louisville, and Cleveland.

This takes us to the final two chapters which detail the state of baseball in America in 1895. America seems baseball mad with an insatiable appetite for the results of games in progress. The growth of the professional game from individual teams to multiple leagues is markedly different than the amateur struggles Knowles describes in England.

Instead of detailing individual games like he does with the England summary, the 1895 season is described as a pennant race where the standing for a given day are reported instead of the game results until Baltimore clinched the pennant for the second year in a row. Burkett, Delehanty, and Keeler are listed as the top batsmen with Hawley, Rusie, and Young being the best pitchers.

Then we have essentially a biography of Harry Wright, the “Father of Professional Baseball,” as written by Henry Chadwick to close out the book. There’s a glossary, some more rules, an index, and a whole bunch of great advertisements which are too good not to share.

Angel in Cooperstown

Induction Weekend in Cooperstown is the best. If you’ve never been here for it, work on it! Before I moved to Cooperstown I’d never been to Induction. Now, I’d never miss it.

From Friday to Monday, there are events, vendors, signings, player sightings, a baseball fans dream. (Where else can you see Tony Oliva walking down the street, unaccosted?). On Saturday, Main Street is closed and becomes the best baseball block party in the country.

Last month, I worked the Cooperstown Rotary Club tent, selling raffles for an autographed baseball. I loved doing that, standing on Main St., gabbing about baseball with people who do and don’t know me. I have a very small level of fame, so I do get to meet some social media pals in real life. This year, I had an expected treat.

Three men stopped by the tent and one, Angel Colon, was a gift. He’s involved with SABR in Puerto Rico and we talked at length. Angel is involved in many things – using different braches from various trees felled during the devastating hurricane and turning them into baseball bats, creating a book about major leaguers who have played in Puerto Rico –

but the one that grabbed me the most, and fits our little world, is the 40 card set he created of Puerto Rican


League stars.

With work from the great Gary Cieradkowski, the set is tobacco card sized and portrays Major, Negro and Puerto Rican legends. It’s spectacular. The more we talked about the cards, the book, baseball, and Puerto Rico, the more I realized that Angel needed a bigger audience.

The next day, a few hours after Induction, is our annual Cliff Kachline Chapter meeting. It’s our biggest of the year, bringing in SABR members from all over the country. We had a huge lineup – Jane Leavy, Erik Sherman, Jay Jaffe and….me. I was going to talk about Friends of Doubleday, the 501c3 (I’m President) which raises money for Doubleday Field improvements (contact me for more info. There’s cool stuff happening) and the coming Doubleday renovations. It seemed clear to me that Angel was more interesting. I asked him to speak in my place and, though he’d never spoken to a group in public, he accepted. Of course, he killed.

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On top of this, Angel gifted me a copy of the SABR Puerto Rico book and, to my shock and joy, the complete card set! It’s a wondrous series of cards and you should get one too.  Angel’s contact info is here. Reach out. You won’t regret it.

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Jim Bouton, 1939–2019

Jim Bouton died last Wednesday after a long battle with the effects of a 2012 stroke. He was 80.

As you have likely read over the past week, Bouton meant a lot to a lot of people. I was one. Our paths crossed a few times, but his importance is always going to be about his book.

My first run-in with Jim Bouton was with his 1968 Topps card, pictured up top. I was seven that summer and my card collection was limited by my meager finances. But when the final series came out in August I must have had nickels bursting out of my pockets, because I ended up with dozens (says my memory) of this card (#562).

I had no interest in doubles even then (I would have gladly traded you my extra Henry Aaron if you had Dick Dietz), but, let’s be real, who was Jim Bouton anyway? I knew nothing of baseball prior to … maybe a year earlier? He was not in the Yankee box scores or in the Yankee games I was able to watch — because (I later learned) in June he had been demoted to the minor leagues (which might as well have been Mars). He was a minor leaguer?

Bouton had been a star a few years before, but whatever. I remember watching Eddie Mathews pinch hit in the 1968 World Series and being flabbergasted that the announcers claimed he used to be a good player. This guy?

So anyway, I suspect that one or two of the 1968 Bouton cards ended up in my bicycle spokes at some point. He would never appear on a Topps card again.

The next year Topps — who gave absolutely everyone a card — did not give one to Bouton, who in March was a non-roster invitee by the expansion Seattle Pilots.

Topps gave a card to Fred Newman, who had not pitched in the majors in 1968 and threw just six innings in 1967. He was a spring training invite for the Red Sox, and quickly released, but Topps gave him a Red Sox card anyway. He never pitched in the majors again.

Let me be clear: none of this is meant to criticize Topps. Card selection was a tricky business, with multiple series allowing for delaying identifying the last series or two until April. What I love about Topps cards in this era is that they tried to include everyone, even guys who (with the benefit of hindsight) seem like extreme long shots to play, so it looks wrong when someone is missing. Most of the 1969 set was printed before the Pilots even got to camp, and Topps made an educated guess that of the dozens of available options Bouton did not warrant a late series card. His brief demotion to Triple-A in April might have sealed the deal.

In 1969 Bouton pitched for the expansion Pilots and then the Astros. I watched a handful of Red Sox – Pilots games, and I am sure I saw Bouton a few times. But he was just a guy in the bullpen, the guy whose 1968 cards were spread all over my room. I gave him little thought.

Although Bouton pitched essentially the entire season in the majors in 1969, he again did not get a Topps card in 1970. This case seems particularly odd, and makes one wonder if he had an issue with Topps. He was a strong union guy, but the union had settled their Topps dispute in late 1968, which is why the 1970 set is so spectacular. A mystery, to me at least.

He pitched briefly (and mostly poorly) that year before again being exiled to the minors, but 1970 ended up being the most pivotal year of his life. His book — Ball Four — came out and caused quite a stir, and his cards would never be commons again. Forgive me, 1968 Bouton card — I didn’t mean it!

I was an early devotee of his book, reading it age 10 and then reading it continually thereafter. The baseball, the humor, the writing, the politics, the self-doubt — there is something on every page. But enough self-examination …

I didn’t really start buying older cards (cards issued prior to my collecting) until I was in high school and especially college. I picked up a few Bouton cards when I ran into them. And I kept up on all things Bouton — his other books, his occasional magazine article, his comebacks in the minors (and briefly, the Braves). You can read all about it in other places, I am sure.

Early in my sophomore year, Bouton came to my college (Rensselear, in Troy NY) to speak. I had not packed Ball Four with me that year (I would never make that mistake again), but I did have a few of his cards in my dorm room. Bouton signed my 1964 card, and it remains the only baseball card I have ever asked anyone to sign. (I have received a few signed cards over the years from friends.)

It has been said that once a player’s career is over and time fades, he is judged by his statistical record. This is not true of Bouton, who finished 62–63 (albeit with great seasons, World Series heroics, and historic comebacks mixed in) but who retained his fame and remained newsworthy until the very end of his life.

My point, and I have a point: collect his cards. They are fairly inexpensive for 50-year-old cards, and it’s Jim Bouton for heaven’s sake. If you collect cards from the 1960s, by all means you should look for Mays, Clemente, Aaron, Mantle, Koufax, just like everyone else, but save a few dollars for The Bulldog. (And Curt Flood.)

My collection is 100% about the history, and very few people are a more important part of the baseball story than James Alan Bouton. There will be never be another like him.

Fahrenheit .407

Listen: Ichiro is the Guy Montag of George Sisler.

Like many students, I read Ray Bradbury’s dystopian classic, Fahrenheit 451, in middle school. Several of its ideas stuck with me for years afterward and I picked up a personal copy not long ago, to keep them fresh.

Near its climax, protagonist Guy Montag joins a clan of exiles who protect the written word from state-organized destruction. They memorize whole manuscripts as hedge against an American society locked in fiery struggle against its own texts. Guy’s recall of a portion of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes becomes his torch to carry.

Whatever your religious background, many SABR readers also know some Ecclesiastes, thanks to Pete Seeger’s adaptation of its third chapter into the 1960s folk-rock hit “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There is a Season),” intersecting with antiwar themes from Bradbury’s 1953 novel.

This cultureball matters to me now because of the link between Ichiro, one of our greatest 21st century players, and George Sisler, his parallel from a century ago.

I used to know just table scraps about the onomatopoeically “hot” Sisler. I remember lots of other stuff, like how Dave Philley spent three years as a Phillie (1958-60) and Johnny Podres finished his career with the Padres (1969). Yet…diddly about “the greatest player in St. Louis Browns history.”

Just a handful of significant facts came to mind when I started this article: he hit over .400 twice, they called him “Gorgeous George” (predating the pro wrestler), and Ichiro broke Sisler’s single-season hits record. Oh, and he appeared in the 1972 Kellogg’s All-Time Greats set.

Sisler retired in 1930, explaining why I find him so unfindable. Despite writing about cards for years at the Number 5 Type Collection, almost all of my card research follows Goudey Gum’s 1933 baseball debut, making earlier players a crapshoot. Even my deep dive into a trivial question, “Who’s E.T. Cox and why’d he appear on a card in 1927?” stands out for what didn’t happen, not what did.

I give Ichiro full marks for breaking an 84-year-old record when he notched 262 hits in 2004. Yet hitting isn’t their sole connection. Let’s catch up with George, circa 1920.

Kids could buy this artful W514, trimmed from a strip of five, out of arcade vending machines during Sisler’s mammoth performance for an otherwise fair-t0-middling 1920 Browns squad.

  • .407 average, 1.082 OPS, 182 OPS+
  • MLB record-setting 257 hits, in 154 game era
  • 49 doubles, 18 triples, 19 homers, 42 SB

Zero other seasons in MLB history include that balance of speed and power. None! Ichiro came close as a base runner, stealing 40+ bases five times, turning ground ball singles into scoring threats. As frosting to his power cake, George Sisler led the AL in steals four times.

Even if you drop stolen bases as criteria, just one other season in history, Lou Gehrig’s 1927, includes at least 49 doubles, 18 triples, and 19 homers. The Iron Horse, of course, enjoyed Murderers’ Row as “protection” for his spot in the lineup. St. Louis, however, depended on George’s stealing prowess just to get more guys in scoring position.

This photo from Sisler’s other 1920 card, part of the scarce Holsum bread issue, hearkens back to his younger days as a southpaw pitcher. (Read George’s SABR bio for those details.)

While pitching had moved to his back burner by 1920, George nonetheless closed out St. Louis’s final game on October 3 from the hill (box score), perhaps to help home fans enjoy one last bit of that remarkable year. Although he notched a .420 average two years later, OPS+ rates 1920 “better,” as Sisler hit fewer homers in 1922 (career stats).

Two of Sisler’s sons, Dick and Dave, went on to their own baseball careers. The former intersected with Ichiro’s future home as 1960 manager of the Pacific Coast League’s Seattle Rainiers.

While we’re visiting the past, let’s pretend we’re 12 years old again and snicker at how Dick Sisler appears on a Skinless Wiener trading card. (Players came one to a package.) Cross your legs and fire up the grill!

When Ichiro’s torrid pace projected to break the hits record in 2004, he also connected with still-living Dave Sisler, who enjoyed renewed interest in George’s past achievements and some of the Sisler family traveled to Seattle to see Ichiro break the record in person. (Topps mentioned that moment on Ichiro’s Season Highlights card.)

As noted in that 2013 New York Times article, Ichiro spent a Cooperstown trip examining Sisler’s bats, comparing their construction and “sound” to his own modern models. Five years later, he brought flowers to George’s St. Louis grave during the All-Star Break.

While I’m not surprised a guy with 3089 hits proved a student of hitting, it stands out that he’s a student of Sisler. Should this whole Internet thing burn to the ground, echoing the fiery urban chaos of Fahrenheit 451, I bet Ichiro can teach us plenty about George’s tools and talent.

The 1954 Topps Guide to Life

How many times have you heard someone say, “Hey, life doesn’t come with an instruction manual?” Well, imagine my surprise when I actually found one last week! And not just any instruction manual but one with a vintage baseball card theme!

I’m referring of course to “The 1954 Topps Guide to Life: Beating the Odds, Getting the Girl, and Making the Team.” (Order here.)

As advertised the book was filled with great advice for ball-playing youngsters, and—even better—illustrated the various tips with baseball cards from the 1954 Topps set.

According to the book, 27 of the 250 cards in the 1954 Topps set have cartoons about players bouncing back from tough injuries. These cards offer a lesson in resilience.

For best results read these on a big screen rather than a teeny tiny phone.

Closely related to bouncing back from injury is bouncing back from failure. The trick, the book suggests, is to have a backup plan.

Though some of it might feel old fashioned to the modern reader, the book also offered advice on love and marriage.

There were also tips on dealing with rejection, which was the theme of six cards in the set.

Fittingly for a book that centered around advice, there is a section on accepting help from others.

Building a positive work ethic was the focus of 11 cards in the 1954 Topps set.

Coming off two recent wars there was of course a chapter on our men in uniform.

Alright, by now you’ve probably figured out there is no book. At the same time, there could have been. The 1954 Topps set was one where nearly every card seemed to moralize, educate, or motivate. Just do what your baseball cards tell you, son, and you’ll turn out just fine.

Oh, wait a minute. A reader has just stopped by, and he doesn’t look happy.

“Not a real book?!?!? NOT A REAL BOOK?!? Are you freaking kidding me, Jason?”

“Hey now, take it easy. It was all in good fun here. Put the bat down. No need for this to escalate…uh oh…this is getting serious. Okay, think, Jason, think. WWPMD? What would Paul Minner do?

Of Myths and Men (pt 1)

I have really enjoyed perusing SABR’s Eight Myths Out Series. Jacob Pomrenke and the rest of the many historians involved have done terrific work and it is a tribute to what a bright and meticulous team can accomplish.

The title of the project is a nod to the book and subsequent film “Eight Men Out”. As a promotion for the movie a trading card set was produced. It is a fun 110 card set that I enjoy because it falls at the intersection of two of my hobbies, baseball and film.

1988 Orion Pictures Eight Men Out #5 The Black Sox Scandal

Since the eight myths are responses to ideas introduced in “Eight Men Out” the book and further propagated by the film several of the cards are also connected to these myths.

Today we will look at some of the myth cards. I envision this as a three column series covering four myths in each of the first two postings followed by a  non-myth set summary/highlights closer.

Myth #1 Comiskey as Scrooge

1988 Orion Pictures Eight Men Out #80 Charles A Comiskey

Myth #1 is covered on card #80 – if this was a Topps set it would be a Hero Number! OK, maybe a low-level star number. While this is a nice era appropriate profile picture of Comiskey when we flip the card over we start talking Scrooge…

1988 Orion Pictures Eight Men Out #80 Charles A Comiskey (back)

The text opens discussing Comiskey’s Hall of Fame credentials but things turn in paragraph 3. “Tightfisted” and “Dollar-Pinching” are the two adjectives used to describer Comiskey. The card also mentions Dickey Kerr who is discussed in one of the further reading bullets for Myth 8.

Myth #2 The Cicotte “Bonus”

1988 Orion Pictures Eight Men Out #6 Eddie Cicotte 29-7 in 1919

I love the statistical reference which is given as the sub-line on this card. The 29-7 record of Cicotte is a subtle / not-so-subtle nod to the 30 wins that the pitcher did not achieve in 1919.  There are 110 cards in this set and this is the ONLY one that has stats on the front.

Interestingly…

1988 Orion Pictures Eight Men Out #6 Eddie Cicotte 29-7 in 1919 (b-side)

The back of the card does not mention the benching of Cicotte at all.

Myth #3 Gamblers Initiated the Fix

1988 Orion Pictures Eight Men Out #19 The Key is Cicotte

Cicotte is mentioned by name on our myth #3 card as well, but it features gamblers “Sleepy” Bill Burns and Billy Maharg. Turns out the card (book and film) has the facts reversed. It was Eddie Cicotte along with Chick Gandil that approached the gamblers.

Myth #4 The Hitman: “Harry F.”

1988 Orion Pictures Eight Men Out #60 Lefty is Threatened

For legal reasons Eliot Asinof created a fictional character, Hitman “Harry F.”. According to “Eight Men Out” the hitman threatened Lefty Williams. The mythical threat is mentioned on card #60 above.

Once again I urge you to check out “Eight Myths Out” to further understand the facts/myths involved, I have only touched upon each bullet here as a connection with the related card.

This concludes part one of our series dedicated to Eight Men/Myths Out. Hopefully in the next week or so we will cover the bottom half of the myths.

Sources and Links

SABR: Eight Myths Out

Baseball-Ref

Imdb

Eight Men Out set index (Phungo)

Let Your 2009 Standard Catalog Be Your Guide

I’ve got a lot of price guides and checklists books scattered around the house. It’s the price one pays for collecting for over 40 years.

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My go-to sourcebook these days is the 2009 Standard Catalog. It’s the first (and so far only) price guide I’ve bought with a downloadable version and that has come in very handy.

2009? Are you mad? Those prices are hopelessly out of date! I’ve heard that from some other collectors, some who I’ve traded with and have asked me what I’ll pay for, say, 1968 and/or 1969 commons. When I tell them my price,  they demur, telling me there’s no way I’m getting cards for those prices these days. When I tell them I do, almost always, I’m accused of picking off some poor dealer who has no idea of value. I have never been unable to get commons, low numbers and high, and semi- to real stars, even superstars, for what the ’09 catalog quotes.

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My reality has been that I’m never far off from paying 2009 guide prices and have consistently finished sets well below book. I struggle sometimes to get those decade old prices, but I do end up getting them. When I have to pay a bit more, it’s usually for a better condition card than my usually EX, or something truly has gone out of whack. (The 1952 Parkhurst Bob Betz springs to mind, a card that seems more scarce than the books think it is.) When I feel like I may have missed some seismic shift in the market, I either have someone online email me a scan of a more recent price guide or I sneak a peek at Barnes and Noble. There’s usually been no real change.

The biggest fluke in all this is how lucky I’ve been to use 2009 as a baseline. It was clearly a good pricing year. This week I closed the door on my 1968 Topps set, getting a solidly EXMT Ryan rookie for $230. More than the $175 I was hoping to pay for in EX, but a much nicer card and a bargain for an EXMT. I turned to my older books out of curiosity.

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The 2000 Standard Catalog has the Ryan at $400 in EX. The 1993 Beckett has the card in VG-E (an interesting lumping of two different conditions) for $650! Thank the heavens for 2009!

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I’ll stick to 2009 as long as that’s tenable and there’s no sign it won’t be. In fact, I’m slowly putting together a 1933 Tattoo Orbit set and, while I know I’ll pay up for some big stars, the Ivy Andrews, a short print that booked for $225 in VG in 2009 was mine for $39.06 (and in VG-EX to boot!).