Our collecting habits are almost certainly influenced by time and place, and my own certainly are. The players I collect were primarily active in the 1980s and 1990s, the team I collect was on top of the baseball world in 1986 with their spring training site moving about two miles away from my house, and, with my formative collecting years being the late 1980s and early 1990s, I find having a single card producing company with a full MLB license maddening.
At some point, probably in the early 2000s, I began collecting “cards” of players from the area in which I grew up. “Cards” is in parentheses because I have other items of the non-card variety, including Starting Lineup figures for the few who had them as well as other assorted card-like items. While the definition of a card varies by individual, my own definition of a “card” is broad.
Port St. Lucie was small when I lived there – the title of the post shows how much the area codes changed due to population growth over the span of about 15 years. There was not actually a high school in the city of Port St. Lucie until 1989 (I was in the second class that could possibly have attended the school all four years) – so I branched out a little into the rest of St. Lucie County as well as neighboring Martin and Indian River counties. But despite its size there were a few players who made it to the show.
The most famous player from the area is almost certainly Rick Ankiel. A highly touted pitching prospect who likely would have gone higher in the draft if he didn’t have Scott Boras as his agent, he finished second in Rookie of the Year voting to Rafael Furcal then proceeded to struggle with control against the Braves and Mets in the playoffs. He of course made it back to the majors as an outfielder, which, according to his book, may not have happened had he not had Boras as his agent. It’s that story which likely elevates him to the most famous player from the area.
Charles Johnson went to Fort Pierce Westwood and was drafted in the first round twice – once out of high school and once out of the University of Miami. I believe his dad was the baseball coach at Westwood for many years. He is probably the best player (at least according to WAR) to come out of the area, or at least he was until Michael Brantley came along. Again, there are dividing lines for a collection – I don’t collect Brantley because I had left the area before he became a local player. He was in the right place just at the wrong time. Brantley’s time in that area did overlap perhaps an even more famous individual from the area – you may have seen Megan Fox in a movie or two.
There are other players from the area, more minor players in the history of the game. Ed Hearn, who was born in Stuart and went to Fort Pierce Central, was a favorite of my best friend’s mom. He also happened to play for the 1986 Mets, which is good enough for me. Like Charles Johnson, Terry McGriff is a catcher out of Westwood and is actually Charles Johnson’s uncle. He’s also a cousin to Fred McGriff (who I also collect in a limited fashion though that has nothing to do with location – it has everything to do with time). A friend of mine in elementary school got Terry McGriff’s autograph when Terry visited my friend’s elementary school. Eventually that card ended up in my collection through a trade of some sort.
Danny Klassen, who went to John Carroll High School, is the closest in age to me, and while I didn’t play baseball with him (I was on the north side of Port St. Lucie and played at Sportsman’s Park; he was playing on the south side at Lyngate Park) I know many people who played on teams with him in Little League and Legion Ball. I believe he has a World Series ring with his time on the Diamondbacks. Wonderful Terrific Monds was a player I didn’t know much about, but (1) a good friend of mine’s parents couldn’t stop talking about how good he was and (2) his name is awesome. He never made it to the majors, but he has minor league cards and a handful of cards from mainstream sets due to being in the minors at the right time (a prospect in the early 1990s).
I should probably have a Jon Coutlangus collection, but alas, I think he was a year too late. At one point I identified Joe Randa as the best MLB player to attend Indian River Community College (which is now Indian River State College), so I started a Randa collection, though I don’t remember much about his IRCC career.
The more prominent players (Ankiel, Johnson, and Randa) have some game-used and autographed cards; most have parallel cards in one product or another. Okay, Ankiel has over 100 different autographed cards and over 50 memorabilia cards according to Beckett; he was a hot prospect at a time when there were multiple fully-licensed producers. He’s also popular enough that he has autographed cards in recent Topps issues, well after his retirement from baseball. Hearn, McGriff, Monds, and Klassen only have a handful (or what I would call a handful – less than 75) of cards. It’s usually easier to find the rarer cards of the bigger names because sellers will list them, with the cards of the less popular players coming up occasionally.
While the cards of these players aren’t going to set records at an auction or allow me to buy an island, the collection provides a tie to my formative baseball playing and baseball card collecting years. For me, those types of connections are why I collect.
Everybody get up for the 7th inning stretch! As I get close to completing this wonderful project, I’m learning so much more about the lesser known Negro League stars. Many have such amazing, and inspiring stories. Not only on the baseball field, but off the field, family, etc. Sam Jones just finished his warmup tosses, let’s play ball…
Sam Jones 1960 Leaf PSA 6. ’60 Leaf was a black and white set with only 144 cards, pretty rare. Sam had a stellar MLB career. He finished his 12 year career with 102 wins and 101 losses with a 3.59 era. A 2x All-Star, he won 21 games for the Giants in ’59 sporting a 2.83 era. 16 complete games, 4 shutouts, and 5 saves! Jones was a big dude, 6′ 4″ 200lbs, he was the first African-American to throw a no-no. Jones played for the Cleveland Buckeyes of the Negro American League.
🐐fact: Jones was nicknamed “Toothpick Sam”, since he routinely had a toothpick in his mouth.
Dan Bankhead 1951 Bowman RC. ’51 Bowman is one of my favorite sets, such amazing color, so ahead of it’s time. This card is centered really well for that era, really clean card minus the lines. Dan was the first African-American pitcher in MLB. He played 3 seasons, all with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He homered in his first MLB at-bat. Bankhead was leading the Negro League in hitting (.385), when his contract was purchased by the Dodgers in 1947.
🐐fact: Dan played for the Birmingham Black Barons and the Memphis Red Sox. He served our great country, and was a sergeant in the Marines. Word has it that Dan struggled as a pitcher during his time in MLB due to him being “scared to death” of hitting a white ballplayer. “Dan was from Alabama, you know what I mean? He heard all those people calling him names, making those threats, and he was scared. He’d seen black men get lynched.” – Buck O’Neil.
Charlie Neal 1960 Topps 1959 World Series Game 2. This is such a great looking card. Charlie broke into MLB with the Brooklyn Dodgers, had a solid career spanning 8 years including three All-Star appearances. He played all over the infield, and enjoyed his best year in 1959 when he hit .287, 11 triples, 19 home runs, 83 ribbies, along with 17 swipes. He also won a World Series that year, along with a Gold Glove.
🐐fact: Neal played for the Atlanta Black Crackers, and despite being only 5′ 10″ and 165 lbs, he belted 151 home runs during his minor and major league career.
Bill Bruton 1953 Topps RC. Great looking card, ’53 is an all-time classic set. Bruton was a .273 career hitter over a 12 year career with the Milwaukee Braves and Detroit Tigers. Bill came up in ’57, and had a promising rookie season. Playing in 151 games as an OF, he had 18 doubles, 14 triples, 26 swipes, and hit .250. He finished 4th in the ROY voting. He was 27 by the time he reached MLB. He led the league in triples twice, and stolen bases three times (’53-’55). In 1991 Bruton was inducted into the Delaware Sports Museum and Hall of Fame.
🐐fact: Bruton’s father in-law was Hall of Famer Judy Johnson. Judy helped Bill get a tryout with the Philadelphia Stars of the Negro League.
Donn Clendenon 1962 Topps RC. Donn was 6’4″, solid hitter, struck out a lot, played mainly at 1B. His best year was in ’66 with the Pirates, 28/98/.299. He was MVP of the 1969 World Series with the Miracle Mets. He was a 3 sport star at Morehouse College, receiving contract offers from the Cleveland Browns and the Harlem Globetrotters. Donn played briefly for the Atlanta Black Crackers.
🐐fact: Super cool fact. When Donn arrived as a freshman at Morehouse in 1952, each student was assigned a “Big Brother”. A former Morehouse grad volunteered to be his, Mr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Bob Boyd 1958 Topps PSA 7. Boyd had a career average of .293 over ten seasons in MLB. Hit over .300 4 times at the age of 36, 37, 38, and 40. Bob was a 1B and OF who only struck out 114 times in 2152 plate appearances, wow! He was the first black player to sign with the Chicago White Sox. An excellent fielder as well, he started his professional career with the Memphis Red Sox of the Negro Leagues hitting .352, .369, and .371.
🐐fact: Boyd had a famous nephew who played in the majors as well, Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd. Bob is a member of the National Baseball Congress Hall of Fame.
Dave Pope 1955 Bowman RC. A very well centered ’55 Bowman. Look at that classic glove and flannel Cleveland jersey. Dave didn’t reach MLB until the age of 31. He played 4 seasons for the Cleveland Indians, and 2 with the Baltimore Orioles. A .264 career hitter, he was an excellent defensive outfielder. Pope played for the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords in the Negro League, as did his older brother Willie. Pope was brought into Game 1 of the ’54 World Series in the late innings after “The Catch” by Mays. In the 10th, Pope came close to robbing Rhodes of his game winning HR.
🐐fact: “When you look at a hit like Dusty Rhodes’s, which was what – 200-and-something down the right field line? And when you think of a 250-foot home run and you think of a 410-foot out, it’s just something that doesn’t seem to match. But that’s the way the game goes.” – Dave Pope
Harry Simpson 1952 Topps RC. How can you not love the 1952 Topps set? Such great color, and name plate. Harry started his professional career with the Philadelphia Stars of the Negro National League. Simpson had two cool nicknames, “Suitcase” for his size 13 shoes that were large as a suitcase. Also “Goody” for his willingness to help his neighbors in his hometown of Dalton, GA. Harry played 8 years in MLB, his best was in 1956 for the Kansas City Athletics. Earning his only All-Star birth, he led the league with 11 triples, hitting .293 while smashing 21 HR and driving in 105.
🐐fact: Simpson once hit a HR onto Brooklyn Avenue, outside of Kansas City’s Municipal Stadium. There was a concrete wall atop a 40-foot-high embankment in right field, making it a near impossible feat. A barnstorming Babe Ruth even had trouble hitting the target during exhibition games.
Dave Hoskins 1954 Topps RC. These cards are really tough to find well centered. Dave had an impressive rookie campaign with Cleveland. 9-3 with a 3.99 era. Starting 7 games, finishing 9, 3 complete games, and one save. Hoskins was the first black player to appear in the Texas League. He received many letters threatening his life, but still won 22 games with a 2.12 era and hit .328!
🐐fact: Hoskins played for a handful of Negro League teams during his early years. His best season was with the Homestead Grays in 1944, he hit .324 and went 5-2 on the mound as the Grays won their 8th consecutive National League pennant.
Hal King 1970 Topps RC PSA 8. Hal was one of the last Negro League players to make it to MLB. He was a lefty hitting catcher who had his best year in the majors in 1970 with the Braves. He hit .260 in 89 games, with 11 HR and 30 RBI. King barnstormed with the Indianapolis Clowns before signing with the Angels in ’65. Hal celebrated his 77th birthday on February 1st of this year.
🐐fact: On April 15, 1968 King was involved in a record-setting game between the Astros and New York Mets at the Astrodome. Starting behind the plate, he ended up catching the complete 24-inning marathon that lasted 6 hours and 6 minutes.
J.C. Hartman 1963 Topps RC. Hartman was a SS who spent two years with the Houston Colt .45s in 1962-1963. Hartman appeared in the 1955 East-West All-Star Classic as a member of the Kansas City Monarchs. In ’56 he was drafted into the Army. He was a well trained barber who cut other players’ hair during Spring Training. Hartman turned 87 on April 15 of this year.
🐐fact: J.C became a police officer after baseball, he was the first black supervisor in the Houston Police Department.
Bob Thurman 1957 Topps RC. ’57 Topps, such an innovative set. First time they used color photographs, reduced the size of the card from 2-5/8 by 3-5/8 to 2-1/2 by 3-1/2. Also, it was the first time they printed multiple-year player statistics on the back of cards. Thurman is part of the 4th series of the ’57 set, which is noticeably harder to find than other cards in the set.
Thurman did not make MLB until he was 38 years of age. He spent 5 seasons with the Reds. In ’57 he hit 16 HR in 74 games as a 40 year-old. Thurman played for the Homestead Grays with such legends as Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, and Buck Leonard. In his first year with the Grays (1946), he hit .408. In ’47 he raked .338, and then in ’48 he hit .345 with a 6-4 record as a pitcher, helping the Grays win the pennant.
🐐fact: Thurman was originally signed by the Yankees. He was one of the best pinch-hitters of his era, smashing 6 career pinch-hit HR. If Bob was given the chance to play in MLB during his prime, who knows, he could of been a perennial All-Star.
Charlie White 1955 Topps RC PSA 6. Charlie was a catcher who played two years in MLB for the Milwaukee Braves. He started his professional career with the Philadelphia Stars in 1950. The next year he signed with the St. Louis Browns, by owner Bill Veeck. He was traded the next year to the Braves.
🐐fact: White was known for his humor on and off the ball field. He was a native of Kinston, NC.
George Spriggs 1967 Topps RC. Spriggs was actually featured on 3 different Rookie Stars cards. His first was with the Pirates, then in ’68 he had one with the Red Sox, and then with the Royals in ’69! George was an OF who played 5 years in MLB. He was the only Negro League player to play for the Royals. He was a part of the 1959 Kansas City Monarchs barnstorming team.
🐐fact: George built a baseball field behind his house named “Geno’s Field,” in honor of his late son. It was the home of the Tracey Twins, a team Spriggs was affiliated with for several years. George passed away last December at the age of 83.
George Smith 1965 Topps RC. George was an IF who played 4 seasons in MLB (3 with DET, 1 in BOS). Smith started his professional career with the Indianapolis Clowns. He signed with the Tigers in 1958 and was assigned to the Durham Bulls (Carolina League). He played sparingly with the Tigers, but during his one year with Boston he appeared in 128 games, smacking 8 HR and 19 doubles.
🐐fact: Smith was injured in Spring Training of 1967, even after getting released in July, he remained the Red Sox property. The Sox did the right thing for Smith, awarding him a one-third share of the World Series money.
Walt Bond 1960 Topps RC. The ’60 set is so unique, great looking card here. Bond came up as a 22 year-old with the Cleveland Indians. His best year in MLB was with Houston in ’64 when he belted 20 HR along with 85 RBI and batted .310 over 148 games. Walt stood 6′ 7″ and batted lefty. He battled leukemia during the latter part of his career. He got his feet wet in pro ball with the Kansas City Monarchs.
🐐fact: Bond passed away at the age of 29 due to complications from leukemia.
Lou Johnson 1960 Topps RC. Lou was an an OF who played 8 seasons in MLB. His best years were with the Dodgers in the mid-60s. In 1966 he hit .272 with 17 HR and 73 RBI. Johnson played in the Negro Leagues with the Indianapolis Clowns and the Kansas City Monarchs.
🐐fact: “If I had a wish, I would have God get all of the Negro league players, make them 30 years younger, and have them take the field again. This way, white folks could see them and what we’re talking about. I’d love for those fans to stand up, cheer, show their appreciation, recognizing them for what they’ve done.” – Lou Johnson
Willie Smith 1965 Topps RC. Willie was an OF/pinch hitter, a journeyman in MLB, playing for 5 teams in 9 years. His first full year, was actually his best pro year when he hit .301 with 11 HR and 51 RBI for the Angels in 1964. Smith played for the Birmingham Black Barons, and was selected to play in the East-West All-Star Game in 1958 and 1959. He was a highly touted pitching prospect, sporting a 14-2 record with a 2.11 era for the Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs in ’63.
🐐fact: During his MLB career, Smith pitched in 29 games, netting 3 starts, 61 IP, and a 3.10 ERA. During his 7 years in the minors, he was 49-27 with a 2.93 ERA. He also hit .304 in more than 1,200 plate appearances. If it was a different time maybe Willie would have been the first two-way star!
Billy Harrell 1959 Topps. Billy was an IF who played three seasons with the Cleveland Indians and his last with the Red Sox. He was known to be a defensive wiz. Described by Kirby Farrell, his manager at Cleveland and several minor league stops, as having “such tremendous hands, he could play the infield without a glove.” He received a basketball scholarship to Siena University, and during his time there they sported a 70-19 record. He also hit over .400 in his sophomore and junior seasons. Started his career with the Birmingham Black Barons in ’51, playing SS.
🐐fact: In 1966, Harrell became the third alumnus to be inducted into the Siena Athletics Hall of Fame. In 2006, he also became the first Siena basketball player to have his jersey number (#10) retired by the school.
Artie Wilson 1949 Sporting News/1946 Birmingham Black Barons Negro League Retort Signed Postcard. This was a really cool find. The Sporting News clipping details his time playing for the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League. The postcard (Wilson is 4th from left in back row) has Wilson’s auto along with Lyman Bostock, and Lester Lockett, his teammates on the 1946 Birmingham Black Barons. Artie did not have a MLB card. He played only one season for the New York Giants in 1951 at the age of 30. Wilson played for the Barons from 1942-1948, and considered the best SS during that time. He was the starting SS at the All-Star Classic four times in five years, only to get beat out by Jackie Robinson in 1945. In ’48, he batted .402, as well as mentoring a young Willie Mays.
🐐fact: Another player who was never given the chance in MLB despite his amazing talent. After his retirement, Wilson worked at Gary Worth Lincoln Mercury in Portland for more than 30 years, and stayed on there until the fall of 2008 at the age of 88 (what a legend!). He was named to the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame in 1989, and the PCL Hall of Fame in 2003. He passed away in 2010 at the age of 89.
End of 7. Thanks to you all for reading and chiming in on the comments. I hope you enjoyed it so far. The “9th Inning” will be filled with many of the greats. How about that!
As we hit the midway mark of the project, the hobby has reached unprecedented times. Due to a huge boom in card collecting, PSA recently shut down its services for the foreseeable future. Backloaded with millions of cards not yet processed or graded, I believe they made the correct move to shut down and restart. SGC also recently raised their prices from $25 per card to $75. I do love the look of vintage cards in the SGC “Tuxedo” slabs, so I was pretty bummed when they made the decision to jack prices to that level.
In saying all this, my plan was (and still is) to have every card/item in this collection graded/authenticated. Due to the shutdown of PSA, that will have to wait. Many of the lesser value cards in my project were originally planned to be sent out via bulk submissions. Not happy about it, but this project is more about the process than anything else. Okay, enough of the rant, first up to bat (I mean pitch) is…
Jose Santiago 1956 Topps RC. One of my favorite sets, ’56 Topps. Nicknamed “Pantalones” which means pants or trousers in Spanish, he earned this name during Winter ball in his native Puerto Rico. Santiago pitched for the Negro Leagues as an 18 year-old, playing for the New York Cubans. Jose reached the majors in 1954 with the Cleveland Indians appearing in only one game. In 1955, he had a really impressive year, finishing 6 games, and sporting a 2.48 era in 17 appearances. 1957 was his last season in MLB, but Jose was a baseball lifer, spending 16 seasons in the Puerto Rican Winter League.
🐐fact: Santiago lived to 90 years old, he was inducted into the Puerto Rico Sports Hall of Fame in 1987, as well as the Caribbean Series Hall of Fame.
Pancho Herrera 1958 Topps RC. Pancho was a 6’3″ 220 lb Cuban who had plenty of power. Herrera played for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro League before being purchased by the Philadelphia Phillies in 1954. In 1960 he finished second behind Frank Howard in NL Rookie of the Year voting. In 145 games he batted .281, slugged 17 HR to go along with 71 RBI. Herrera had an extensive Minor League career that spanned into his 40’s. He was elected to the International League Hall of Fame in 2008.
🐐fact: Pancho’s 1958 Topps card featured a rare error version that blocked the black printing dye where the “a” in his last name should’ve been. The “a” is barely legible, and must have been noticed very early by a Topps employee since there’s very few cards that have surfaced. To this date there’s only 50 cards graded in the PSA database, four PSA 8, one PSA 9, and none ever graded as a 10!
Junior Gilliam 1960 Topps. What a great set, Gilliam was an All-Star in 1959 his 2nd appearance in the Mid-Summer classic (1st was in 1956). Junior was born in Nashville, TN and played for the Nashville Black Vols (Negro Southern League) as a teenager for $150 a month. After spending 6 years with the Baltimore Elite Giants he was signed by the Dodgers organization in 1951. In 1953 he was NL ROY, leading the league with 17 triples.
🐐fact: Junior was a 4x World Series champ (appeared in 7 total), and spent his whole career (14 seasons) with the Dodgers.
Jehosie Heard 1954 Topps RC. This was an easy choice since it was the only Topps card Jehosie appeared on. He was the first African-American to play for the Baltimore Orioles. He appeared in 2 games as a 34 year-old in 1954. The Georgia native first picked up the great game of baseball on an Army base during the war. After serving our country he joined the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro League. Heard had success as a lefty pitcher for many years but was also an excellent hitter. In 1951 he hit .396 and played the outfield when he was not pitching.
🐐fact: Heard stood only 5′ 7″ and weighed 155 pounds.
Henry “Hank” Mason 1960 Topps RC. Like Heard, Mason appeared on only one Topps card. He was a right-handed pitcher, and played for the Phillies in 1958 and 1960. Hank began his professional career with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro League. He was the starting pitcher of the 1954 East-West All-Star Game. Mason was dominant in the Minor Leagues, posting records of 12-4 (1955) and 14-7 (1956) leading the league in shutouts for the Schenectady Blue Jays, a Phillies farm team.
🐐fact: On Opening Day in 1952 for the Monarchs, Mason pitched 16 innings to defeat the Philadelphia Stars, 3-2.
Carlos Paula 1955 Topps RC. Paula was a Cuban born right-handed hitting outfielder. ’55 is such a great set, Paula has a great smile and a really cool picture of him in a throwing motion with a clean Senators uni! Paula was built like a prizefighter, 6′ 2″, great speed, and could hit for power. On September 6, 1954, the Senators became the 12th of 16 teams to integrate their roster. Paula had a double, and single in his first MLB game. Paula was definitely one of many that did not get his fair chance of playing time. Often outplaying fellow white ballplayers, but as we know this was a common trend during these unfortunate times. During a 22 game stretch in 1955, from mid-August to September, Paula hit .450 with 36 hits, 14 for extra bases, while only striking out 4 times.
🐐fact: In 1954 Topps issued a card of Angel Scull who was thought to be the first player to integrate the Senators, but he never appeared in a Major League game!
Al Smith 1955 Bowman. Love the ’55 Bowman’s, such a unique set, one of a kind. Smith started his professional career with the Cleveland Buckeyes of the Negro League. He had a very good career in MLB. Amassing 1458 hits over a 12 year career. Posting a lifetime batting average of .272, along with 164 dingers. In ’55 he was an All-Star, finished 3rd in the AL MVP race, playing in all 154 games, 725 plate appearances, 123 hits, leading the AL in those categories. Not to forget his 22 HR, 77 RBI, and .306 AVG.
🐐fact: Smith played in the 1954 and 1959 World Series. After playing baseball, he went on to work for the city of Chicago, and managed the city-wide baseball program for 18 years.
Elston Howard 1962 Salada Coin PSA 8. This is really cool, especially that these coins came in packages of Salada Tea and Junket Dessert products. They came in six different colored borders, with over 260 players in the master set. Elston was a fan favorite in my family. My grandfather, and uncle always raved about him. A 9x MLB All-Star (1957-1965), MVP winner, 2 Gold Gloves, and don’t forget his 4 World Series Championships. In 1961 he hit .348 in 129 games, smashing 21 homers and 77 RBI.
🐐fact: Elston played 3 seasons with the Kansas City Monarchs, starting in 1948 at the age of nineteen.
John Wyatt 1966 Topps PSA 4. I’m not the biggest fan of the ’66 Topps set, but as you know I’m a jersey fanatic. I loved how the players wore those jackets under the uniform back in the day. No matter what city the Athletics played in, they had incredible uniforms. Really love this card. Wyatt was a right-handed pitcher who played in MLB for four teams over a nine year span. He finished with a 42-44 record, and a respectable 3.47 era. His best year was with Kansas City, when he appeared in 81 games (led the AL), 9 wins, 20 saves, a 3.59 era, and earned a trip to the Mid-Summer classic.
🐐fact: John started his professional career with the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro League in 1953. In ’54 the St. Louis Cardinals offered him $1,000 to sign, “I never seen that kind of money in one lump sum and I wasn’t going to let it slip away.”
Chuck Harmon 1954 Topps RC. Great set, awesome looking rookie card. Harmon broke into the majors at the age of 30 with the Reds. He was a 6′ 2″ utility player, who batted righty. Chuck was one of many who started their pro career with the Indianapolis Clowns. He deserved to be in the Big Show long before 1954. He hit .374 and .375 in consecutive seasons in the minors.
🐐fact: Harmon was a very talented basketball player in his high school days. He was the first African-American to coach in professional basketball and led the Utica team in the Eastern League as a player/coach.
Curt Roberts 1955 Topps. ’55 is a classic set. This is Roberts 2nd year card. He had an excellent rookie campaign, the back of this card states, “reputation as a top Major League prospect”. Curt was a highly touted defensive second baseman. He played in 134 games his first year, but only 37 more games over two seasons. By the age of 26 he played his last MLB game. Roberts was the first African-American to play for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Sadly, at the age of 40 he was killed by a drunk driver while changing a flat tire on the side of the highway.
🐐fact: Roberts started his professional career with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro League. He was also a mentor to the great Roberto Clemente during his time in Pittsburgh.
Charlie Dees 1964 Topps RC. Like Roberts, Dees had a very productive rookie year. Charlie was 28 years of age in 1963 when he hit .307 in 60 games for the Los Angeles Angels. By 1965 he was out of MLB. Dees started his professional career in 1957 with the Louisville Clippers of the Negro Leagues.
🐐fact: Dees led the Texas League in batting in 1962, hitting .348, 179 hits, 23 HR and 115 RBI for the El Paso Sun Kings.
Jim Pendleton 1953 Topps RC PSA 5. Great shot of Jim in that Milwaukee Braves cap. Pendleton started his career in 1948 with the Chicago American Giants of the Negro League. The Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jim after the ’48 season but spent four years in the minors, mainly due to Hall of Famer Pee Wee Reese at shortstop. In 1953 he was traded to the Milwaukee Braves and converted to an outfielder.
🐐fact: Pendleton spent 8 seasons in MLB, with 4 teams. He served our country in WWII.
Gene Baker 1959 Topps PSA 7. Gene was a 6′ 1″ infielder who reached the Big Show for a cup of coffee during the 1953 season with the Chicago Cubs. In ’55, as a 30 year-old Baker played in all 154 games, and made his one and only All-Star Game. He hit .265 over an eight year career with the Cubs and Pirates. Gene started his professional career with the Kansas City Monarchs and was their regular SS for the ’48 and ’49 seasons.
🐐fact: Not only was Baker part of the first African-American keystone combination in MLB (along with Mr. Ernie Banks), but he was also the first African-American to manage in the majors. During the ’63 season, then coaching with the Pirates, manager Danny Murtaugh and coach Frank Oceak were tossed, Baker took the reigns (not in the record books).
Bob Trice 1954 Topps RC. Trice was a 6′ 3″ right-handed pitcher from Newton, GA who played 3 seasons in MLB. The ’54 Topps was his only card. Bob was the first person of color to play for the Philadelphia Athletics. Bob spent three years with the Homestead Grays of the Negro League.
🐐fact: Bob started his professional career as an outfielder, but with the help of veteran Sam Bankhead he transitioned into a pitcher.
Jim Proctor 1960 Topps RC. This a really cool “Rookie Star” card, big fan of this look. Proctor appeared in only 2 MLB games (1 start) in 1959 with the Detroit Tigers. He started his professional career with the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro League.
🐐fact: Before being called up in September of ’59, Proctor had a fantastic year with the Knoxville Smokies (Sally League), sporting a 15-5 record, with a 2.19 era.
Larry Raines 1958 Topps RC. Raines was a well traveled ballplayer, mainly playing 3B, SS, and 2B. He started his pro career with the Baltimore Elite Giants in 1952. He went off to Japan to play in the Pacific League in 1953. Playing for Hankyu Braves, he led the league with 61 stolen bases in ’53. In ’54 he led the league in average (.337), runs (96), and hits (184). In 1957 (27 years old), he appeared in 96 games for the Cleveland Indians, hitting .262.
🐐fact: Raines is recognized as the first ballplayer to perform professionally in Minor League baseball, Negro League baseball, Japanese baseball, and MLB.
Joe Caffie 1958 Topps RC. Good looking ’58 card here. Caffie was a teammate of Larry Raines during the ’57 season. Joe had a fantastic rookie year, hitting .342 over 12 games. In a short span in MLB, he finished with a .292 avg (127 AB’s). Caffie broke in as an OF for the Cleveland Buckeyes of the Negro League. He hit well at every level. As you see with most of the Negro League players, they were either brought up to MLB too late in their career, or not given the proper playing time, even though most deserved it.
🐐fact: Joe was nicknamed, “The rabbit”. Here’s a quote by former Negro League star Luke Easter, “I have seen a lot of fast ones, but Caffie is the fastest, and that includes guys like Sam Jethroe.”
Joe Taylor 1958 Topps RC. Another ’58 Topps, great smile by Joe here. Taylor had a 4 year career in MLB, joining the Philadelphia Athletics as a 28 year-old. He started his professional career with the Chicago American Giants. In 1954 he was an All-Star hitting .323 and 23 HR for the Ottawa A’s (AAA).
🐐fact: Taylor battled alcoholism for much of his career, he had tremendous talent, here’s a quote from the great Maury Wills. “Joe Taylor should have been a superstar in the big leagues.”
Maury Wills 1972 Topps PSA 7.5. Speaking of Mr. Maury Wills, he will be up last in the “5th Inning” segment. I love this Wills card, two reasons, the ’72 set is one of my favs, and second, it’s his last Topps player card. Great Dodgers uniform here, exceptional piping down the shoulder and sleeve. Maury was the glue to those great Dodgers Championship teams. A 7x All-Star, 3x World Series champ, 2 Gold Gloves, and MVP of 1962 when he hit .299, smacked 208 hits, stole 104 bases, and legged out 20 triples. Wills was born in Washington, DC, a 3 sport star in basketball, football, and baseball. He played briefly for the Raleigh Tigers of the Negro League. He finished his MLB playing career with 2,134 hits, 586 stolen bases, and a .281 average.
🐐fact: Maury, now 88, is still a member of the Dodgers organization. In 2015, he missed getting elected by the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s Golden Era Commitee by 3 votes.
Well that’s all for now folks, I hope you enjoyed the “5th Inning”. We’re headed to the 7th, see you soon!
Inside the big box was a smaller box. A crooked smile crossed my face in curious wonder as I reached for some unknown treasure. I had just sorted through several things in Uncle Dan’s mystery box of baseball when I came across the familiar white cardboard baseball card box. Slowly I unpacked the contents as my curious wonder intensified. The cards I pulled out were just a random hodge-podge. I was flipping through cards from Score, Fleer, Upper Deck, Donruss, several Bowmans and only a few of my favorite, Topps. The majority of the cards were 1989s and 1990s. A few 1988s, and 1991s, as well. Interesting enough, I found a stack of 1990 Upper Deck hologram logo stickers, too.
Being somewhat compulsive with a need for order, I sorted this jambalaya of cards into stacks that made sense to me: by manufacturer and by year. I’ll sort them by number later. With a little bit of hope, I sorted through the 1989 Upper Decks, looking for “The Kid.” Hoping, maybe, maybeee … Nope, no Junior. Oh well. I knew it was too much to hope for. Regardless, there are some good names in the stack. I turned to the Donruss pile. A couple of good things, including a Bart Giamatti card. I don’t recall if I had ever seen a card for the commissioner of baseball before, but it was good to see. I like Giamatti, and for a moment I reflected on the scenes from the Ken Burn “Baseball” documentary, wondering what his tenure would have been like had he lived to serve a full term in office.
In the 1990 Donruss stack, I also found something cool: the Juan Gonzalez (#33) reverse-image card. The card manufacturer erred when they reversed the image of this Ranger “Rated Rookie” so that we see him batting in what appears to be on the left side of the plate, and of course, his uniform number 19 appears reversed. Fortunately, the correct image card is among the stack, as well.
The short stack of 1990 Fleers included #635 “Super Star Specials” called ‘Human Dynamos” picturing Kirby Puckett and Bo Jackson. I’m guessing since both players are sporting their home jerseys, the photo was probably taken at the 1989 All-Star Game, which was played at Anaheim Stadium (where Jackson was the game’s MVP). It’s an educated guess, but I would love to hear confirmation from someone.
I was a little more intrigued with the small pile of 1990 Bowman cards, which warranted a little research. As it so happened, by 1990 Bowman scaled down the size of their card, to a more standard dimension. A couple of things piqued my interest. First, this stack of cards featured a cool Art Card insert by Craig Pursely. My stack featured Kevin Mitchell. The reverse side gave a little blurb on the player, while the card also doubled as a sweepstakes entry. This Art Card insert set included 11 cards.
The other thing that piqued my interest is how the player’s information is presented on the reverse side. In this instance, only one year of data given, but the analytics are compiled by competitor. That is, the rows include the player stats, while the columns feature the specific teams. For example, the Red Sox first baseman/outfield Danny Heep played in 113 games in 1989: 8 vs Orioles; 9 vs Angels; 7 vs White Sox; 8 vs Indians; and so on. It’s a squirrelly way to present the data, if you ask me. I feel bad for the person that had to put all that together for all 500+ cards.
A couple of interesting things that stood out was a 1990 Score Tombstone Pizza Kirby Puckett card (number 25 of 30), a 1992 mini-set of three “Special Edition Combo Series” cards from French’s Mustard. The three in my set include: Julio Franco/Terry Pendleton (#3), Don Mattingly/Will Clark (#11) and Cal Ripken Jr/Ozzie Smith (#13). Brief information on each player (bio, stats, two-sentence blurb) is found on the card’s reverse side. The 1992 Combo Series featured 18 cards with 32 players. That is a lot of mustard to buy!
I’m still struck by this unusual collection of cards, and wonder about the original collector’s motivation and frame of mind. Such a wide assortment. It also makes me want to read up again on this era of cards, when it seems like the wild west of cardboard and baseball players, with everyone and his brother looking to cash in on the collecting craze of the late 1980s/early 1990s.
Uncle Dan’s mystery box of baseball cards continues to provide an ongoing sense of wonder, if not source of amusement. But wait, there’s more …
We don’t talk a lot about value and sales prices on this blog. This is by design. Neither Jason nor I (nor Mark nor Chris) are interested in that stuff too much and we all agree that the primary interest of this committee is in card usage. Yes value maters when it comes to putting together a collection or knowing what to expect to pay. But none of us are in this committee to talk about how we’ve made (or lost) money on cards.
At the same time, when the market goes up and new money comes in, the results affect all of us. The past year in the hobby has been wild enough to result in numerous articles over the past year about the exploding market for sports cards. Most of these are nothing new to anyone who’s been collecting for more than a couple years. At their best they serve as decent primers to anyone who hasn’t thought about cards in decades. At their worst they end up being lazy analogies comparing card prices to index funds. Almost all of them mess up some key facts, such as calling the 1952 Topps Mantle his rookie card.
I read them because sometimes there’s something interesting. Usually I’m disappointed or frustrated but a recent article in the New York Times caught my eye because it made an explicit connection to the art market.
“This is the art of the future for sports enthusiasts who have money and don’t want to buy art,” Davis said. “Pretty much everything I collect now is because I think it is a good investment and because I like the player. The common thread is, I think it will be a good investment. It’s part of the fun.”
I’ve been making this point on Twitter for a while. While many people like to think of sports cards as analogous to stocks, it’s been clear to me that the better analogy is to the art market. From the way serial-numbered cards are basically art editioning to restoration issues and catalogue raisonné issues, the hobby has been moving in a direction which takes it out of the realm that most of us grew up in.
Becoming more like the art market means that extremely rich people are buying things as part of a portfolio. Some of them might be fans. Many of them though just like the idea. But the products they’re buying and selling are going to be products that the rest of us never see in person.
Most worrisome is the likelihood that the market will be manipulated as these investors seek to prop up the values of their cards. This kind of stuff is pretty common in the art world and, despite being a Potemkin Village, seems to skirt right by the press coverage which focuses just on the latest record-setting auction price.*
What the two dealers were apparently attempting to do was thread the needle on the two lesser Warhols. To bid high—as much as the consignor was hoping to get—might serve to prop up values for the Warhol market at large, but would be expensive and make the paintings that much more difficult to sell down the road.
Sure this might be fun for some people. But the fun is in the making money, not the medium which enables these flips.
The thing about the art market is that many museums have let the art investor/collectors drive the business. Some museums make a big deal showing one person’s collection. Often these feature a piece from all the prescribed big names and do nothing but allow for the owner to enhance the prestige of their collection. Other museums are basically showcases for a specific collection.
I don’t inherently dislike this but it’s important to realize that the immense platform we give the expensive stuff is only a sliver of the whole picture. As baseball cards move toward this territory it’s important for us all to remember that the art market side of things has pretty much nothing to do with the way we collect and that the focus on the expensive stuff tends to remove the hand of the curator.
In art, the museum curators are in charge of what museums display, illuminating why they’re on display, and considering how they interact with other items in the same gallery. There’s no similar position in trading card world. Instead, each of us is wears that hat and our collections are our personal curatorial projects.
The expensive 1:1 stuff is not only unattainable, it’s a distraction. It makes the focus just about value and turns a lot of heads. A collection of “these are expensive cards” is ultimately as boring as an art museum which only talks about how much the paintings are worth. There’s so much more interesting stuff to do with cards. There are so many more interesting ways to collect.
Pick themes. Tell stories. Run down a rabbit hole of weird stuff that interests only you.
Use your cards. Look at them. Share them. Display them. Talk about them.
I expect fellow author-collector Dylan has really started something with his post on the subject a couple weeks back. The topic is one just begging for the pen of each of our members, even as the idea of choosing “just four?!” often feels impossible.
1934-36 Diamond stars
I’ll lead off with a set that Dylan included on his Mt. Rushmore, the “Diamond Stars” issued by National Chicle from 1934-36. Like Dylan, it’s the look of the cards that hooks me in.
The color palette jumps off the cardboard like ink off a comic book page, but I am also a big fan of the baseball scenes depicted in so many of the card backgrounds. I’ve already written about these scenes coming more from the imaginations of the artists than real life, but for me that’s a feature, not a bug.
From a purely visual standpoint, Diamond Stars is my favorite set of the 1930s and perhaps my favorite set of all-time. Where it falls short with many collectors is in its player selection. Conspicuously absent from the set are Yankee greats Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. For the budget set collector, this is yet another bug-turned-feature.
If you’ve read a few of my pieces already, you also know I enjoy sets with some novelty and mystery. Diamond Stars definitely fits the bill, not only for its various quirks but also offers early instances (though by no means the earliest) of “Traded” cards.
If I had to choose one thing I dislike about this set, it’s the repetition of 12 players at the end of the set’s 108-card checklist. Particularly as these final cards are more scarce than the first 96, the duplication introduces disproportionate pain for set collectors forced to pay a premium for cards they already have.
Here is another set I’ve written about quite a bit and the set under whose shadow all other sets of the era reside.
While the set’s iconic status goes hand in hand with its trademark “Big League Chewing Gum” banner along so many of the card bottoms, my favorite cards come from the set’s final three releases (e.g., Morrissey, Root, and Herman above).
Where Diamond Stars lacked Ruth and Gehrig, Goudey brought these players on steroids, combining for six cards across the set’s 240-card checklist. Counting the Napoleon Lajoie card issued the following year, the set includes 66 cards of Hall of Famers and all but two players who competed in the season’s inaugural All-Star Game.
Were I to find fault with this set, it would be in a flaw common to all other baseball sets issued in the United States around this time. The set included players from the National League, American League, Pacific Coast League, International League, Southern Association, and American Association but no players from the Negro National League or other Black baseball leagues.
Kudos to my bud Scott Hodges who is filling some big holes in the 1933 Goudey set and others with his own digital card creations.
I’ve attempted similar in analog fashion though I’ve been less faithful to the history. Here is Buck Leonard on the Grays a year before he joined the team.
I will definitely treat the absence of Black stars as a bug, not a feature, but if there’s a silver lining it’s that there is no chance I could afford a 1933 Goudey Josh Gibson, and its absence from my collection would absolutely torment me daily.
1911 T205 Gold Borders
Like Dylan I had to include a tobacco set on my list. The T206 set, which initially did little for me, has grown on me immensely over the past couple years. Still, it would have to gain a lot more ground to surpass its gilded sequel.
The set features three different designs: one for National Leaguers, one for American Leaguers, and one for Minor Leaguers.
I absolutely love the NL and Minor League designs and am somewhat ho hum about the AL one, so I’m fortunate to be a Brooklyn collector.
As brilliant as the card fronts are, the T205 card backs are not to be ignored. While some feature brief biographies and one of several tobacco brands, others include…stats!
As with the two sets covered thus far, you will not find a single Black player in this set. You might suppose no card set from 1911 included Black athletes, but this was not the case. For example, here is Jack Johnson from the 1911 Turkey Red Cabinets (mostly baseball) set.
Once again then there is the knowledge in collecting T205 that you’re not collecting the very best players of the era. But again, did I mention I was a Brooklyn collector?!
Here’s where it always gets tough. I probably have ten or more sets I’m considering, but the rules are that I can only choose one. Though I love the cardboard of the 1930s (and earlier!) so much, my favorite era of baseball is the early 1950s. Though integration was slow, it was at least happening, and the mix of new talent and old talent was simply off the charts.
That said, the number of baseball card sets that managed to include all the top stars of the period was practically zero. Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, and Jackie Robinson in the same (playing era) set? Your choices are already fairly limited:
1947 Bond Bread
1948 Blue Tint
1950 All-Star Pinups
1950 R423 Strip Cards
1952 Berk Ross
Add Stan Musial and Bob Feller and the list shrinks further:
1947 Bond Bread
1950 R423 Strip Cards
1952 Berk Ross
Add Mantle and Mays and the list boils down to one: 1952 Berk Ross.
With a selection of players that also includes Roy Campanella, Yogi Berra, Larry Doby, Duke Snider, Monte Irvin, and an awesome Johnny Mize “in action” card, could this set be the winner?
As much as I love the checklist, the answer has to be no. Most of the images are too dark, too light, or too weird for my taste, and the simple design borders on the boring. Still, what could have been!
The key then is to find a set with beautiful cards and almost all these same players, and–if we add a few more years–Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente, and Ernie Banks.
As much as it pains me to give up Joe DiMaggio and Stan Musial, it’s hard for me not to land on 1956 Topps. The beautiful portraits, the Kreindleresque action shots, and the awesome cartoon backs offer my favorite overall design of the Golden Age of Baseball, and the absence of Bowman meant nearly every active star was included in the set.
Unlike 1952 Berk Ross, with only 72 cards, 1956 Topps included 342 cards (counting un-numbered checklists), hence was large enough to assign a card to nearly everyone, not just a couple stars per team.
If I have any bitterness toward this set, it’s only the sour grapes of waiting way too long to collect it. If there’s a lesson here, it’s that sometimes to collect your Rushmore you need to…rush more! Luckily, I do have all 24 Brooklyn cards from the set, and hey, did I mention I’m a Brooklyn collector?
How about you? Which vintage (or modern!) sets make your Mt Rushmore? We look forward to your article!
Author’s note: This is the third post in a series highlighting “common players” with stories far richer than the value of their trading cards. The first post in the series profiled Dave Hoskins and can be found here.The second post in the series profiled Ernie Barnes and can be found here.
The 1933 Goudey set is well known for its wealth of superstars, including four cards of the Bambino, two cards of the Iron Horse, and a litany of top-shelf Hall of Famers such as Ott, Speaker, Foxx, Hornsby, Grove, and (if you count him) Lajoie.
Collectors can therefore be forgiven if they aren’t impressed when stumbling upon card 184 in the set, that of Chicago White Sox catcher Charlie Berry.
The card was issued as part of Goudey’s seventh series (of ten in all), which I estimate as having come out in late August or early September 1933. The green Ruth #181 card would have likely been the prize for most kids, the other main highlight of the series being (generously) Hornsby’s crosstown update from Cards infielder to Browns skipper.
The card front was about as generic 1933 Goudey as could be (not that this is a bad thing!), featuring a solid yellow background reminiscent of Ruth’s card 53 and a waist up batter’s follow-through common to the set.
It would require some serious pre-internet knowledge of sports history, close proximity to Pottsville, Pennsylvania, or reading the back to know there was more to Berry than batting and backstopping.
Yes, Berry was one of the “mythical eleven” in 1924, a football All American at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, and (if I’m understanding how all this works) a Walter Camp first-teamer, an honor shared with gridiron legend Red Grange and among others.
Berry starred the next two seasons for the Pottsville Maroons of the fledgling National Football League, leading the league in scoring in 1925 and captaining an upset of the presumed top team in the country, an all-star team from Notre Dame that included its famed “Four Horsemen.”
Remarkably, the Pottsville squad included a second member of the 1933 Goudey set, Walter French.
Now mind you I’m by no means a football historian, but my sources (okay, source singular: Wikipedia!) tell me this was the game that put the NFL on the map. While the game catapulted the league to greater heights, Pottsville received anything but a thank you from the commissioner’s office.
On the contrary, the exhibition game was deemed a serious enough violation of league rules that Pottsville was stripped of its 1925 NFL championship and the Chicago Cardinals squad led by another 1933 Goudey alum took top honors.
Down the pecking order of consolation prizes a bit, the team did however earn a trading card set, maroon tint and all! The back of the set’s second card, “The Symbolic Shoe,” provides as strong evidence as you’ll find anywhere that Pottsvillians want that TITLE RESTORED!
This same set includes a card of Berry himself, and again the Zacko family is just not having that whole stripped title thing!
Berry collectors can also delight in knowing there was surprisingly (to me anyway!) a set produced in 1924 of the Lafayette Leopards college football team.
Sadly the set did not include Berry’s Lafayette (and future White Sox!) teammate Frank Grube, who would have to wait until 1935 to appear in the same set with Berry.
But enough about Charlie Berry the player. Let’s move on to what he did even better! For that, we’ll fast forward two decades to the 1955 Bowman set and the subset collectors love to hate.
Same guy? Yep, same guy!
In fact, if you were lucky enough to be at the Polo Grounds for “The Catch,” that first base umpire you might have booed was none other than the Pottsville Maroon legend.
Coincidentally, Berry was not the only umpire that day with cards in both the 1955 Bowman and 1933 Goudey sets. The Arkansas Hummingbird had an even better view of the catch as left field umpire that day.
Berry’s presence at the 1954 World Series was no fluke. He also worked the World Series in 1946, 1950, 1958, and 1962 for a total of 29 World Series games in all. Though I’m not exactly picketing Cooperstown or holding any bronze shoes hostage pending his enshrinement, I do think a strong Hall of Fame case could be made for Berry as an umpire.
However, Berry’s story doesn’t end there. Charlie Berry was also the Bo Jackson of officiating, racking up a borderline Hall of Fame resume working NFL games as well. His NFL head linesman resume included twelve (!) championships, highlighted by a critical call in the “Greatest Game Ever Played.”
Is it possible then that this “common player” from the 1933 Goudey set, whose card is readily found in decent shape for about $25, was perhaps the greatest sports official of all time as well as the player that put the NFL on the map? Might he even have two cases for induction, one for Cooperstown and one for Canton? And, as importantly, will the Zacko family finally donate that bronze shoe?
Edward Charles Ford, who passed away October 8 at the age of 91, was a Hall of Famer; World Series hero; Chairman of the Board; social companion of Mickey Mantle and Billy Martin; “Slick” to manager Casey Stengel. But to generations of Yankee fans he was simply, “Whitey.”
From the moment Ford joined the World Champion New York Yankees in midseason 1950, he was a trailblazer. He won his first 9 decisions and steadied a rotation that featured Allie Reynolds, Vic Raschi, Ed Lopat and Tommy Byrne en route to a World Series victory over the Philadelphia Phillies and their “Whiz Kids.”
A legendary competitor, the crafty lefty was the ace of the great Yankees dynasties of the 1950s and 1960s. According to the Baseball Hall of Fame website, Ford was the team’s Game 1 starter in every World Series from 1955-1958, becoming the first pitcher in history to start four consecutive Game 1s. Ford repeated the feat again from 1961-1964.
A 10x All-Star, Ford led the league in wins three times, twice in earned run average and won a Cy Young Award in 1961. With a record of 236 -106, he owns the highest winning percentage (.690) in history.
As he lived in October, it stands to reason that Ford set numerous World Series pitching records, including consecutive scoreless innings (33 2⁄3), wins (10), losses (8) games started (22), innings pitched (146) and strikeouts (94). He was a six-time World Series champion and a World Series MVP recipient in 1961.
When it came to baseball cards, Ford was equally iconic. After his exploits of 1950, the Bowman Gum Company honored the rookie by designating him card No. 1 in its 1951 Bowman baseball card set – the same set that features the rookie card of Mickey Mantle.
Ford, however, would miss the next two full seasons by fulfilling his military obligations as noted by the back of Ford’s 1953 Bowman Color baseball card.
“The return of Whitey from Uncle Sam’s service to the Yankee mound staff is looked upon by delight from everybody to the President down to the bat boy. He’s a great young pitcher, and if can pitch as he did before he left for his service hitch, he’ll be a tremendous help to the Yanks in their quest for a fifth straight pennant.”
1953 Bowman Whitey Ford card back
However, Ford didn’t miss a beat on his return to the majors. Winning 18, 16, 18 and 19 games in his next four seasons.
It was the mid-1950s and Ford was enjoying himself and the New York City nightlife with Yankee teammates Mantle and Billy Martin – a trio that earned the nickname, “The Three Musketeers.”
Bill Pennington, author of “Billy Martin: Baseball’s Flawed Genius” wrote that one of the Musketeers (Martin) was painted as a ringleader; taking most of the blame when things went wrong. The claim was refuted by Ford himself in the book.
“I don’t know why Billy always got labeled the instigator, which wasn’t at all true,” Ford said. “Mickey just had that innocent, country-boy look and I was quiet about a lot of things in public. But Billy didn’t care about appearances and he had that mischievous grin, so people just thought he was stirring us up all the time. It wasn’t really the case. We got into plenty of trouble on our own.”
Trouble like the infamous Copacabana incident in 1957 when several Yankees, including Mantle, Ford, and Martin as well as Hank Bauer and Johnny Kucks, were involved in an early morning altercation at the famed New York City nightclub.
The next morning’s headlines in the New York papers were scandalous at the time: “It Wasn’t A No-Hitter” screamed a headline in the New York Journal-American. Soon after, Yankee brass banished “ringleader” Martin, who was traded to Kansas City.
Nonetheless, the Yankees would continue their pennant-winning ways with Ford leading the way into the World Series– except the one time he didn’t.
In 1960, as the Yankees were preparing to play the Pittsburgh Pirates, Stengel surprised many by opting to start journeyman Art Ditmar in Game 1 in favor of Ford, who was already a dominant post-season performer. Skipping Ford in Game 1 meant the lefty would be unable to pitch three times if the series went the distance. The move backfired horribly. Not only did Ford pitch brilliantly – hurling two shutouts in Games 3 and 6 – but the Pirates jumped on Ditmar each time he pitched in the series. In fact, Ditmar never made it out of the second inning in either start. The Pirates won the series in seven games. The decision was heavily criticized and cost Stengel his job as Yankee manager.
Meanwhile, Ford would win the Cy Young Award the following year in that magical 1961 season and go on to pitch well into the 1960s, even as those Yankees teams began to falter as their stars like Mantle began to age.
Interestingly, Ford lost his last four World Series starts – Game 5 against the 1962 Giants, Games 1 and 4 (opposing Sandy Koufax each time) against the 1963 Dodgers, and Game 1 versus the 1964 Cardinals.
Ford was enshrined in Baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1974, five years before I started following baseball. Very quickly, however, I came to understand Ford’s place in Yankee history – mostly through my baseball card collection as well as his appearances at Yankees’ Old Timer’s Day. As is customary with the event, the greatest players are honored with getting introduced last. And when you’re talking New York Yankees, that’s quite a pecking order: Berra, Mantle and DiMaggio.
Years later with legends like Mantle and DiMaggio no longer around, it was time for Ford to receive the honors and accolades.
In 2010 – the last time I attended an Old Timer’s Day at Yankee Stadium – I paid strict attention to the moment when Ford and Berra were introduced. Understanding that this might be the last I would ever see them, I fixated only on them. I stood silently and took in their every movement, smile and wave as they rode in from the centerfield gate in a tricked-out golf cart (complete with Yankee pinstripes). “Remember this moment. That’s Yogi and Whitey.”
When I visit Yankee Stadium with my sons, we dutifully pay a visit to Monument Park and read the plaques of the legends. Like Whitey Ford.
I have been reading about or studying the integration of baseball for many years, at first principally because I wanted to write about the effect that integration had on the quality of the game. Obviously if you add Jackie Robinson to a league, that league is not just ethically and morally better, the quality of play is also better. Much better. I mean, this is JACKIE ROBINSON for God’s sake. And then Doby, and Campy, and Irvin, and on and on.
Jackie Robinson and the extraordinary cohort of people who integrated the game in the 1940s and 1950s will always be baseball’s best story, one that can not be over-told. We (myself included) have been guilty of treating this story as a culmination rather than as an important chapter in an ongoing struggle. Today’s decreased number of Black American players, to say nothing of managers and executives, is one constant reminder of progress yet to be made. Another are the tales of just how difficult the lives of black players can be in today’s Major League Baseball. Like the rest of America, baseball has a long, long way to go.
Additionally, my integration-era research has led to collateral damage in my relationship with Jim Crow (pre-1947) baseball, and its cards. I still appreciate the history, and the stories, and I understand how great Wagner, Cobb, Ruth, and DiMaggio were, but the stories are a little less romantic, and maybe the players were all a little less great than I thought. It’s the other side of same coin–you can’t believe that Robinson, Mays and Aaron made the game significantly better without also believing that not having them made the game significantly worse.
For Christmas in 1981, I was given a beautiful 1982 calendar which I believe had been advertised in the New Yorker. With brief exceptions, it has hung on a wall in my dorm/apartment/house/office for the past 38 years–it is six feet away from me as I type. (In 2021, for the first time since 2010, the days will align.)
Its 12 pages tell the story of baseball cards chronologically–January is for 19th century tobacco cards, while the last row of December shows 1981 Topps. If you lay the calendar on a table and flip through months (the only way to really do it–the pages are 22″ x 14″), you get a high level view of 100 years of the hobby. And of Major League baseball.
What the calendar also shows, visually and starkly, is Jim Crow: page after page, row after row, of White dudes.
The first Black face belatedly shows up in August, in the penultimate row, appropriately the 1949 Bowman Satchel Paige. The final August row features 1951 Topps, and includes both Monte Irvin and Luke Easter. These three men were the 7th, 10th, and 11th Black players in the Major Leagues in the 20th century. There are four more Black faces on the page for September, which highlights the 1951 and 1952 Bowman sets.
My calendar almost always (as now) is hung so as to display October. I don’t know if it was deliberate on the part of the designer, probably not, but October’s top row is like a punch in America’s face, and the next three rows don’t really let up.
Here is a thought experiment. Imagine seeing a binder of 1956 Topps cards, except that all of the Black players have been removed. No Mays, no Aaron, no Jackie, no Banks, no Clemente, no lots of other stars. There are still great players in the binder–Mantle, Williams, Koufax, Feller, and more–but its obviously a worse group than the real set. Not just a little worse, immeasurably worse.
In other words, it would be … just like 1934 Goudey. Or 1940 Play Ball. Or T-205. Looking through that denuded 1956 binder would be at the very least uncomfortable, and more likely offensive, to a modern collector. And that is why I struggle with all the pre-war cards sets.
As Nick wrote a couple of years ago, “while cards have always existed, their role in defining who ‘real’ ballplayers are cannot be ignored.” If I collect cards to celebrate the baseball of the time, I have to ask myself: do I really want to hang a frame on the wall that glorifies segregated baseball? The 1934 Goudey card set, the T-206 set, and all pre-war card sets, perpetuate the lie that “organized” baseball sold America for decades, that these were the best players, the “real” players.
While major league baseball was barring great Black players from playing in its leagues, and most white newspapers were complicit in not reporting on the Negro Leagues, companies like American Tobacco and Goudey were not putting Black players on baseball cards. There were a lot of minor league cards or sets in these years, there were sets for pilots, and actors, and dogs, and trees, but nothing for the many fans of Oscar Charleston or Bullet Joe Rogan or Biz Mackey. Didn’t they smoke, or chew gum?
Had any of these companies chosen to make a Negro League set, or, better yet, incorporated Negro League players into their flagship sets, it might have led to increased and earlier calls for integration, and would have made these players “real” to kids all over America. But they did not.
When it comes to baseball cards, the lie began to dramatically unravel in the 1950s. By the end of the decade, nearly 10% of the players on the field had dark skin, and many of these were among the best players in the sport. If you collected, some of the best and most sought after cards depicted players who you might not have heard of had they played a decade earlier. In 1956, ten years after White America wondered if Jackie Robinson would be good enough, there were 52 Black players on big league diamonds. Nine of them are in the Hall of Fame. Nine.
I have been dabbling in the cards of the early 1950s in recent years. I don’t have any of the sets and doubt I ever will, but enjoy picking up an occasional example, including Ted Williams or Yogi Berra or Duke Snider.
Sing the praises of pre-war cards and players as you wish. But the 1950s are the first time when the best players were allowed in the major leagues and in baseball card sets. Both enterprises, belatedly, had become legitimate.
Popcorn, cookies, hot dogs, ice cream, newspapers, potato chips, dog food (DOG FOOD!), chewing tobacco, chewing gum…you name it! Wait, did I forget the syrup?
Of course, it’s not just about quantity, else just about any year from the Junk Wax era would beat 1954 hands down. But unlike the macaroni, hardware, and toilet paper cards of the late eighties, these 1954 releases also happen to be fantastic sets! They also marked a turning point.
In that sense, 1954 was not only the greatest year to be a collector but also the end of a certain Golden Age of cards. For collectors interested in taking a closer look at this magical year, I’ve compiled a checklist of the Hall of Famers (and Minnie, who belongs!) featured in each of the multi-team sets, with a notes column capturing all single-team releases. (A more readable version is here, which you can also sort in ways other than most cards to least.)
As a window shopper who loves flipping through sets in Trading Card Database or just admiring the collections of others, there is no better year for me than 1954. On the other hand, as a player collectors whose focus includes Hank Aaron, Roy Campanella, and Jackie Robinson, I will confess to often cursing the fact that certain sets exist. Then again, I suppose I’m still more likely to get the two 1954 Campy cards on my want list before the Shohei Ohtani completists get anywhere near the 2722 cards Trading Card Database lists for him in 2018 alone!
How about you? What’s your pick for greatest year in baseball card history? And if you’re a player collector, is it a good thing or a bad thing when the want list is a mile long?