Player Collection Spotlight: Representing the 772 (or 561 or 407 or 305)

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.

A minor tradition.

I worry about the trainers.

As we start the 2021 baseball season, Minor League Baseball is now firmly under the control of Major League Baseball. This has already brought about significant change.

A few low-level minor leagues – like my sentimental favorite, the Class A New York-Penn League – have been folded entirely. The others have had their time-honored names stripped from them, rearranged and rebranded with bland, waiting-for-sponsors titles. For instance, the century-plus of heritage behind the International League name has been discarded in favor of “Triple-A East.” Minor-league teams are now “licensed affiliates” who make a point to announce that their schedules have been provided by MLB.

It feels to this lifelong minor-league fan like any vestige of the old MiLB could be ripe for elimination, if it doesn’t make MLB money or burnish the parent organization’s brand in some way.

And one of the purest manifestations of the old MiLB is the trainer’s card.

Big-league sets don’t include trainer’s cards; you don’t find them in St. Louis or Los Angeles. (The best a big-league trainer could typically hope for, card-wise, was to appear as a small, golf-shirted dot on the fringes of the team picture.)

Instead, you find trainer cards in Wausau and Pawtucket, in minor-league card sets, adding bulk to the team set alongside the mascot, the stadium, the general manager, the owner, or occasionally even the chaplain. (He bats and throws righty!)

They’re not tremendously sexy cards, from a design standpoint, and they’re certainly not the most sought-after. If you were to sweep through a minor-league ballpark at the end of Team Set Giveaway Day, you’d probably find at least a couple of trainer cards, cast aside by kids whose solitary interest lies with uniformed on-field personnel.

Still, these cards are a tradition in many minor-league sets. And they serve a purpose, beyond filling out a set. They provide some small token of recognition to men and women whose work is necessary, even crucial, but unglamorous and almost certainly not lucrative.

These people work hard to keep the minor-league armies marching. They deserve these tips of the cap – whether they carry the old-fashioned title of Trainer, or newfangled, health-related handles like Strength and Conditioning Coach or Physical Fitness Coordinator.

I have no difficulty imagining a future in which MLB brings all minor-league card production into a central operation and discards the trainer card. They’ve junked bigger traditions, after all. Plus, trainer cards always have a touch of the podunk about them – and MLB isn’t in the podunk business.

It certainly won’t kill anybody if they do that, but it will be a loss, just as the New York-Penn League is a loss. It will be one less homespun touch, one less glimpse behind the polished facade.

Of course, the pendulum could swing the other way. With interest in cards at an almost absurd high, maybe MLB will want to churn out cardboard on anybody they can think to photograph. Trainers? Groundskeepers? Racing mascots?  That self-appointed superfan in face paint who makes an annoyance of himself blowing a vuvuzela and is thisclose to being banned at the beer kiosks? Bring ‘em all on; someone can be convinced to buy.

If we get trainer cards in chrome or refractor style, with multiple color variants, I might just be convinced to love the brave new world.

From the Negro League to MLB

3rd Inning

Before I get into the “3rd Inning”, I would like to thank everyone for the awesome comments, and taking the time to read the introductory post. I’m happy you all enjoyed, and staying on for the ride!

In the first post (1st Inning), I explained briefly how tough it was to locate some of the 86 players due to the fact that some had no MLB card (16 total). The “3rd Inning” will focus on my journey to find these players. Most of the cards and memorabilia from this post are not graded and/or authenticated yet, I’m currently in the process (maybe I’ll get them back from PSA sometime next year!).

Marshall Bridges 1978 TCMA “The 1960’s” Washington Senators / 1992 The Wiz New York Yankees “Yankees of the 60’s”. I could not find any graded card, memorabilia, or autographs of Marshall. I came across these two cards and decided to grab both. TCMA cards were pretty popular, and the Wiz card I hadn’t seen before doing my research. I did not know Bridges played for the Yankees, but he had a pretty good year for them in 1962 (8-4 3.14 era). He played in MLB for 7 seasons, with four different teams. Marshall pitched for the Memphis Red Sox in the Negro American League.

🐐fact: Bridges was shot in the leg by a 21 year-old married woman in a bar during Spring Training of 1963.

Robert Wilson 1990 Target Brooklyn Dodgers. Wilson had 5 at bats with the Dodgers in 1958, recorded one hit (as a pinch-hitter). Finding anything on Wilson was really tough due to his short stint in MLB. I did find a 1957 Montreal Royals autographed team ball, but it was way out of my price range. The Target card was issued as a “100th Anniversary”, and featured 1,095 players from all eras of the Dodgers franchise. Not the coolest one in the project, but there wasn’t much to choose from.

🐐fact: Wilson played on the 1947 Newark Eagles (53-42-1) with Monte Irvin, and Larry Doby. He batted .308 in 39 games.

Charlie Peete 1955-1956 Omaha Cardinals Team Photo. This guys stuff is super hard to find. I spent hours researching him. I love these old Minor League team photos, I really enjoy collecting them. Peete was a good lefty hitting outfielder. He played in the Negro Leagues for the Indianapolis Clowns. The Cardinals signed Peete in 1954. He tore up the Piedmont League batting .311 17 HR and was named to the All-Star team. In ’56 he led AAA batting .350 with 16 HR and 63 RBI for the Omaha Cardinals. Charlie had 52 at bats for St. Louis in ’56, the only year he would appear in MLB.

🐐fact: Peete had a very sad ending to his life. He passed away in the prime of his career, the very young age of 27. He was playing Winter ball in Venezuela when he and his family were killed in a plane crash.

Pat Scantlebury Original Type 1 Photo. Pat had me searching the web like a mad man! One day I received an eBay alert and there it was, a beautiful original photo of Scantlebury. It’s from 1951, around the time he was pitching for his native country of Panama in the 1951 Caribbean Series. It’s a wonderful candid shot of Pat. He appeared in only one MLB season, playing for the Reds in 1956 (Frank Robinson’s rookie year). Pat played for the New York Cubans of the Negro League from 1944-1948.

🐐fact: Scantlebury and Hall of Famer Rod Carew are the only two MLB players born in Gatun, Panama. Like many from that era, Pat took 8 years off his age before joining organized baseball. In 2012 he was elected into the Latino Baseball Hall of Fame.

Roberto Vargas Autographed Photo. This is a beautiful photo of Vargas as a member of the 1955 Milwaukee Braves (His only year in MLB). Vargas was a right-handed pitcher, he played in the Negro Leagues for the Chicago American Giants, and the Memphis Red Sox.

🐐fact: Vargas was one of the first group of Puerto Rican ball players who appeared in MLB. His first appearance was April 17, 1955, the same day Roberto Clemente made his with the Pirates.

William Greason Signed Photo & Letter. What’s really cool about this one is I purchased the signed photo from an estate sale. The gentleman’s son who sold it to me, said his Dad would write letters to people he respected and looked up to. Mr. Greason was kind enough to send a signed photo back. I was able to acquire the original letter he sent, as well as the stamped envelope William sent to him from his Birmingham area residence. As you can see on the photo he signed it, “Rev”, Bill as most call him is a Baptist minister. He served our great country, in World War II. 66th Supply Platoon, an all-black unit, and took part in the Battle of Iwo Jima. After the war he played in the Negro Leagues for the Birmingham Black Barons, where he was a teammate of Willie Mays. Greason played one year in MLB with the 1954 Cardinals.

🐐fact: Mr. Greason is a living legend, and an American hero. I believe he’s the oldest living player from the Negro Leagues. He turned 96 last September!

Connie Johnson PSA Authenticated Autographed Index Cards. I wanted to mix in some autographs with the collection so I went this route for Johnson. Connie was a 6’ 4” right-handed pitcher. He pitched 3 years with the White Sox and 3 with the Orioles. He finished his MLB career with a respectable 40-39 record to go along with a 3.44 era. Johnson played for the Kansas City Monarchs at the age of 17. Won back to back Negro League World Series titles with the Monarchs playing with the great Satchel Paige.

🐐fact: “The most I made in a year playing baseball was $15,000. Players today make more in one day than I made in my entire career. But, I wouldn’t change a thing. We had a good time. We had a ball.” – Connie Johnson

Sam Hairston, Ray Neil, Jim Cohen 1991 Retort Negro League Legends PSA Authenticated Autograph. Sam was a tough one to come by. He only played in 7 MLB games, in 1951 with the White Sox. When I came across the card I bought it immediately. The original photo was from the 1948 East-West Classic, standing in the middle of his two Indianapolis Clowns teammates, Ray Neil, and hard-throwing pitcher Jim “Fireball” Cohen. Hairston played for the Birmingham Black Barons before being traded to the Clowns. Sam had an extensive career in the minors, hitting .304 for his career. After his playing career, we went on to the have a successful career as a pro scout.

🐐fact: Sam was a patriarch of a three-generation big-league family. His son, Jerry Hairston Sr. had a 14-year career in MLB. and Jerry’s son, Jerry Jr. played 16 years. When you count John Hairston, and then Scott, that’s 5 players from one family playing in MLB. What an amazing family of ballplayers!

Luis Marquez 1983 Fritsch – 1953 Boston/Milwaukee Braves. Luis was a tough find. I had to go with the ’83 30th anniversary set. It’s a pretty cool set with some good players marking 30 years from when the Braves moved from Boston. The set features Hall of Famers, Eddie Matthews, and Warren Spahn. Luis was born in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico. He played 68 games in MLB, for the Braves, Cubs, and Pirates. He spent his early years in the Negro League with the New York Black Yankees, Baltimore Elite Giants, and the Homestead Grays.

🐐fact: Marquez was a speedy outfielder, who could hit, run, and possessed a strong arm in the field. He is the only Puerto Rican with batting titles in the Negro League, Puerto Rican baseball, and Organized baseball (AAA).

Willard Brown 2020 Dreams Fulfilled Negro Leagues Legends. I searched high and far for anything regarding Mr. Brown. I came across a reprint team photo of the 1947 St. Louis Browns team, but that didn’t do it for me since I wanted to have original content of each player. Brown played only one year in MLB (1947), at the age of 32 he had 67 plate appearances for the Browns. Since there wasn’t much out there I went with a card from the “Dreams Fulfilled” set. Graig Kreindler is a phenomenal artist who paints baseball players like I’ve never seen anyone before. His paintings of Negro League players are in the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. Graig did the original art for this set, so being that I know Graig and appreciate his work, I thought having a card from this set would be super cool.

🐐fact: Brown was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006. The great Buck O’Neil called him, “The most natural ballplayer I ever saw”. Josh Gibson named him, “Home Run Brown”. A speedy outfielder, Brown hit over .340 for the Kansas City Monarchs in 1942 and 1943. The next two years he served our country in World War II. He was among those 5,000 ships that crossed the English Channel during the D-Day Invasion of 1944.

James “Buster” “Buzz” Clarkson 1986 Fritsch Negro League Stars / 1951 Milwaukee Brewers Player Panel Card. Clarkson didn’t make it to MLB until he was 37 years of age. Played in 14 games, as an infielder and pinch-hitter for the Boston Braves in 1952. He started professional baseball with the Pittsburgh Crawfords of the Negro Leagues at 23 years old, and finished his career with the Des Moines Bruins of the Western League at 41. Clarkson was another one that had me searching and searching, actually I’m still searching. That is what makes this project very unique, I’m always down a rabbit hole looking for more.

🐐fact: Clarkson was well known during his time playing in Puerto Rico. He won a few Caribbean Series championships with the well-known Santurce Crabbers. As a member of the Crabbers, he played alongside two future legends, Willie Mays, and Roberto Clemente.

Milt Smith 2000 Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research (1957 Cardinals) and 1956 PCL Seattle Rainers Team Photo. Milt Smith was also a tough find. He played in MLB season for only one year, 1955 with the Reds (36 games). He did have an extensive Minor League career which lasted 10 years with various organizations. He broke into professional baseball with the Philadelphia Stars of the Negro Leagues. The Rainers team photo is an original and pretty rare, this one is black and white, but most of the time these old Minor League team photos are bright with colors, laid out with awesome fonts, and classic uniforms, the older the better!

🐐fact: Milt had his best Minor League season in 1955 with the PCL San Diego Padres hitting .338, prompting his call-up by the Cincinnati Reds.

Vibert “Webbo” Clarke 1957 Minneapolis Millers Program and 1947 Cleveland Buckeyes Negro League Retort Card (1992). Mr. Clarke was a Panamanian born left-handed pitcher who appeared in 7 games for the Washington Senators in 1955. He spent time with Cleveland Buckeyes and the Memphis Red Sox of the Negro Leagues. He was only 18 years of age when he made his first appearance with the Buckeyes. I did a lot of research on Clarke, and found the the Minneapolis Millers program on eBay. It’s in really good condition, and shows him on the roster page (even though they spelled his name “Vibret” incorrectly. On the Buckeyes card, Clarke is pictured in the second row, first on the left.

🐐fact: During his time with the 1957 Minneapolis Millers, he was a teammate of a then 19 year-old phenom named Orlando Cepeda (see program).

Sandy Amoros 8×10 1955 World Series Autographed Photo (COA). I chose this wonderful photo because of the significance of such an amazing play in World Series history. The Amoros catch on a Yogi Berra fly ball in Game 7 of the 1955 World Series helped secure the Brooklyn Dodgers a championship over the rival Yankees. Amoros had just come into the game to replace Junior Gilliam, who moved to second base to take Don Zimmer’s spot after he was pinch-hit for. Sandy was a lefty, so if a righty was playing LF, that ball falls in. Amoros made a play that would never be forgotten in baseball history, he fired that ball into Pee Wee Reese who doubled off McDougald at 1B.

🐐fact: Amoros was born in Cuba, he stood 5’ 7” and blessed with superior speed. He had a solid MLB career, 7 years with the Dodgers, and one with the Tigers. Sandy played for the New York Cubans of the Negro Leagues. He was elected to the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame in 1978.

Hank Aaron 1975 Topps (’74 Highlights) PSA 6. I purchased this card a week before the great Henry Aaron passed away. I wanted to use this card for my project because of the significance of breaking Babe Ruth’s HR record. Notice the card number is #1, Hank will always be number one in my HR record book. Hank started his professional career in the Negro Leagues with the Indianapolis Clowns. 18 years-old, scrawny, and hitting cross-handed back then (yes, cross-handed!!). In 1952 he led the Negro American League in average, a decent .467. Hank went on to accomplish nothing but greatness, on and off the field. We’ll miss you Hank!

🐐fact: “The only man I idolize more than myself.” – Muhammed Ali on Hank Aaron.

Well thats all for now folks, I hope you enjoyed the “3rd Inning”. We’re headed to the 5th, see you soon!

Collecting Glenn Burke

I spent last weekend reading the new Andrew Maraniss book “Singled Out,” which tells the story of Dodgers/Athletics outfielder Glenn Burke (SABR bio forthcoming). Of course, Burke was much more than the player suggested by his stat line, as the book’s cover reminds us. He is of historical and cultural importance for two firsts, one of which has become ubiquitous in the sport and another that remains largely invisible.

I won’t use this space to retell Burke’s story, though I will offer that Andrew’s book does an excellent job adding detail and humanity to what many fans might know only at the level of a basic plotline. Rather, I’ll focus on collecting.

I’m probably like many of you in that the more I learn about a particular player the more I want to add some of their cards to my collection. (I’ve avoided Jane Leavy’s outstanding Babe Ruth book thus far for just this reason!) What then are the “must have” Glenn Burke cards and collectibles out there?

Owing to the brevity of Glenn’s MLB career, he has only two Topps cards from his playing days, one with the Dodgers and one with the A’s.

For some collectors, that right there would be the end of the line. Others might add Burke’s 1979 O-Pee-Chee card, whose front differs from the Topps issue only by the company logo featured on the baseball.

As a huge fan of all things Aronstein (even his kid!), I also consider the 1978 SSPC Glenn Burke a must-have. (Unlike the 1976 SSPC set, these cards were only found as “All Star Gallery” magazine inserts and appear a bit less plentiful.)

Andrew’s book devotes quite a bit of time to Glenn’s journey through the minors, including one heckuva brawl that broke out between Glenn’s Waterbury Dodgers and the Quebec Carnavals. What better way to memorialize the incident, in which Glenn played a starring role, than with Glenn’s 1975 TCMA “pre-rookie” card?

Counting the OPC, we’re now up to five cards in all, or just over half a plastic sheet. To expand our card collecting further, we’ll need to look at Burke’s post-career cardboard.

Thanks to the tour de force known as the 1990 Target Dodgers set (more than 1000 cards in all!), we can add this card to our Burke page.

While other collectors might add it to their lists, I’m neither compulsive nor completist enough to bother with Burke’s 2016 Topps “Buyback,” which is simply his 1979 Topps card stamped with a red 65th anniversary emblem.

Beyond these catalogued releases, Mike Noren included Burke in his 2020 Gummy Arts set. The card fills a gap in Burke’s Topps run by utilizing the 1977 flagship design and furthermore memorializes Burke’s place in “high five” history (though readers of Andrew’s book will recognize that its image is not the first Burke/Baker high five).

I, myself, have added to the world of Glenn Burke collectibles, sending my own “card art” to fellow Burke fans.

Perhaps we will even see one of the Topps Project70 artists produce a Glenn Burke card before set’s end. Definitely at least a few of the artists are pretty big Dodger fans.

Either way, the universe of Glenn Burke baseball cards remains extremely limited at present. On the other hand, why stop at cards? There were three other items I ran across in Andrew’s book that I believe are worthwhile items for Burke collectors.

The first is this Dodger yearbook from 1981, whose cover features a Baker/
Garvey high five in place of Burke/Baker but nonetheless speaks to the rapid spread and ascension of the high five across the sporting world, if not society at large.

Another collectible in magazine form is the October 1982 “Inside Sports” that featured Burke’s coming out story, “The Double Life of a Gay Dodger.”

A final Burke collectible is one I never would have known about if not for Andrew’s book. As a nine-year-old kid in 1961, Glenn sang backup on the Limeliters album “Through Children’s Eyes,” released by RCA Victor in 1962. I wouldn’t be my life, but I believe Burke is the first kid in the row second from the top.

At the moment, give or take autographs that could potentially adorn all but the most recent of these items and excluding truly unique items, I’ll call this the almost full set of Glenn Burke collectibles.

A final category I find intriguing and perhaps undervalued is ticket stubs, in which case the following items would likely be of greatest interest.

  • MLB debut – April 9, 1976 Dodgers at Giants
  • First high five (and first MLB HR) – October 2, 1977 Astros at Dodgers
  • Pride Night feat. ceremonial first pitch from brother Sydney Burke – June 17, 2015 Padres at A’s

It also wouldn’t surprise me to see the Dodgers, A’s, or the Bobblehead Hall of Fame issue a Glenn Burke bobblehead one of these days. And in the meantime, there’s always Patrick’s Custom Painting, who fashioned this Starting Lineup figure for “Hall of Very Good” podcast co-host Lou Olsen and has applied his talents to bobbleheads as well.

Frank O’Rourke’s Inherent Dignity

I’m not a collector.

           I have a few cards, some that are worth slightly more than the cardboard they’re printed on, and many more that hold a good deal of sentimental value to me and nobody else. But in the context of the readers of this blog, I don’t merit the use of the term. I’ve never completed a set, never paid more than pocket money for a card, never gone to any remarkable lengths to acquire anything rare, or valuable, or particularly noteworthy. I still have all the cards I amassed as a kid, and I buy new hanger packs when I see them, and on the rare occasion that a wax pack drifts into my field of vision, I snap it up. I’ve made a habit of buying packs for my kids, and we make a little ceremony of opening them together. On Opening Day, or the first day of pitchers and catchers reporting, I sneak packs into their school lunches, and they come home and tell me what players they found inside.

           But I haven’t done any of those things I identify as serious collector behavior. I’ve bought maybe a half-dozen cards on eBay, for example, and I haven’t attended a show since I was about fourteen years old. I’ll never own a Mantle, Ruth, Mays, Clemente, or Aaron.

           Baseball cards are, for me, not an investment, and not an abiding obsession, but something adjacent to baseball that I love for that proximity. They remind me of the game. Their look, and feel, and smell are memory triggers, and for that reason I treasure them.

           And yet, with all that said, I recently bought a 1934 Frank O’Rourke card. It’s No. 43 in the Canadian-printed World Wide Gum Co. series, which reused the 1933 Goudey design, updating the salient facts for 1934, and repeating the biographical info on the back in French. In keeping with my longstanding tightfisted ethos, I paid more in shipping than I did for the card itself. It’s ungraded, with soft, smushed corners where crisp, sharp edges should be. There are minor creases. This card is anything but pristine.

            Frank O’Rourke was a nobody. Well, that’s not quite fair. He’s in the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, after all. Born in Hamilton, Ontario in 1891, he was an infielder who eked out fourteen seasons of big-league ball for Boston’s NL club, the Robins, Senators, Red Sox, Tigers, and Browns. By the time his portrait was rendered for the ’33 Goudey set he’d seen his last major league action, hanging on with the American Association’s Milwaukee Brewers. The ’34 card that I now own dates to his single season with the Montreal Royals of the IL. He dropped down a few rungs to the Piedmont League in ’35, then held on for four seasons as a player-manager for the El Dorado (AR) Lions of the class ‘C’ Cotton States League. He later managed one more year in the Gulf Coast League, and in retirement he served as a scout for the Yankees.

            As a big-league player, O’Rourke managed a career bWAR of -2.0 and amassed a .254/.315/.333 slash line, and a .947 combined fielding percentage at third, short, and second (with a handful of games at first, and a couple patrolling the grass). As a minor-league manager he piled up a lifetime record of 551-580 across four levels of pro ball. Add all of that up and you get a slightly below-average baseball long-hauler, which is not to say there was nothing quietly heroic about Frank O’Rourke; longevity requires its own superpowers.

            But unlike some of its in-set brethren, selling this card wouldn’t allow me to pay off the mortgage, or retire to somewhere hot, sandy, and tax-free. Instead, my appreciation for this card is twofold: the first is purely and unapologetically aesthetic; the second is its implicit historical value.

            The Goudey cards are notoriously easy on the eyes, rendered with a stab at artistry that’s not generally present in modern cards. Holding a Goudey next to a 2021 Topps card makes for a stark contrast. The latter assaults with hyper-sharp photography and whizbang graphics that are intended, I can only guess, to suggest futurity, and motion, and, I don’t know, the internet? The Goudeys are Renaissance paintings on discrete panels of olive wood meant to be inlaid in elaborate polyptychs framing alters in out-of-the-way country churches, reverent celebrations of the beauty and purity of God’s favorite game. The backgrounds are solid fields of color—green in O’Rourke’s case, but elsewhere blue (as in Gehrig), yellow (Jimmie Foxx), red (Dazzy Vance). All the better to focus on the player. O’Rourke’s depicted from the chest up, like a Roman bust, in classic baseball togs: a white (or off-white) cap, logo-free, and a matching jersey with sun collar and orange-brown soutache piping. The pose is adapted from a photo of him in a St. Louis Browns uniform, from 1931 at the latest, that the Goudey (or World Wide Gum) people didn’t bother to retouch, though they were clear to indicate that he was, by 1934, a member of the Montreal Royals and thus in the habit of donning a blue-trimmed uniform.

            The portrait is so classically, absurdly, tragically handsome that if you hold it up to your ear it sings Protestant hymns interspersed with staticky ’30s radio calls of games won with moxie and heart. Even if you aren’t up to speed on his biography, the portrait makes clear that this is a baseball lifer, a man rolled in chalk and infield dirt and baked beneath a thousand midday suns.

            Since I first gazed on O’Rourke’s cardboard face I’ve gone looking for baseball card corollaries, but I came up short until I widened my scope, and then I found Piero della Francesca’s portrait of an Augustinian friar (possibly St. Leonard). Consider the similarities: the subtle intimations of age around the eyes and mouth, the weariness, and yet the slight bemusement, the wry off-center stare. Neither the friar nor Frank are too jaded to enjoy a good joke. Though separated by half a millennium, you get the sense they’d find some common ground. But beneath it all there’s something unmistakably ecclesiastical about both men’s depictions, the not-quite-visible result of a lifetime’s devotion to their respective callings. It’s behind the eyes, I think, or maybe just below the skin. Wherever it is, Piero managed to capture it, as did Elmer E. Crowell, the man responsible for O’Rourke’s likeness.

            The second half of my appreciation for this card has to do with its age: almost ninety years have passed since it was printed. I haven’t handled enough really old cards for the wonder of that to have diminished. Eighty-six years ago someone—a child, a nostalgic adult—bought a pack of gum and out tumbled this card.

            The US domestic GDP was in recovery after the New Deal slammed the brakes on negative growth and pumped cash into the economy. Hitler was chancellor of Germany, already in the process of consolidating his power and assuming the title of Führer. The first camps opened. The Prime Minister of Canada was RB Bennett, a safety match magnate who bungled the response to the Depression but had the foresight to establish the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. In China, where my grandfather was a brakeman on a streetcar in Shanghai, tensions with Japan were ratcheting up in the wake of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and the uneasy resolution to the “January 28th Incident.” The globe, inexorably, marched toward war.

            In the Bronx, Ruth was in his last season as a Yankee, and Gehrig, five years from retiring in the face of the rapid advance of his illness, was assuming outright leadership of the team. The Gashouse Gang took the Tigers in seven games in that fall’s Series. Detroit’s Mickey Cochrane was voted the AL’s best player, and in Commerce, Oklahoma, zinc miner Mutt Mantle’s kid, named for Cochrane, turned three years old.

            Frank O’Rourke was not directly connected to any of this as he toiled away in Montreal, and his card—a 2-3/8″ by 2-7/8″ piece of thick paper—has nothing whatsoever to do with those events. It was not present for any of them; it was not in all likelihood possessed or handled by any of the players in the aforementioned dramas. But it is for me touched by a temporal proximity, sprinkled with a residue which, though slight, constitutes enough of a reason for me to own it.

            If a Ruth Goudey—or a Sweet Caporal Wagner, or a ’52 Topps Mantle—is the seventh game of the World Series, then my Frank O’Rourke World Wide Gum is a non-consequential Thursday afternoon getaway game played before an announced crowd of twelve thousand. And while I love the screw-tightening intensity of a big game, what I treasure most about baseball is the sweet everydayness of it, the companionship of the radio announcer’s familiar voice for six months, the long, comforting trough of a regular season. And for all the superstars, the game’s lifeblood is its rank and file, guys like O’Rourke, doing the yeoman work of showing up every single day and taking his cuts, scooping up ground balls, and making throws across the diamond from whichever position he’s assigned.

            In that way, this O’Rourke card is perfectly emblematic both of Frank’s life and career, and most of ours. I won’t be in any literal or figurative Hall of Fame, and chances are neither will you. That’s okay. Something as beautiful as this Frank O’Rourke card exists to quietly and stubbornly insist that regardless of that, there’s still a hell of a lot of dignity inherent in our efforts, and the legacies thereof.

Editor’s note: Andrew’s newest book is now available for pre-order. If you can judge a book by it’s cover, this one will not disappoint!

From the Negro League to MLB

1st inning – 

My name is Joe Genovese, curator and founder of the popular @GoatJerseys Twitter handle. I fell in love with jerseys as a kid in the late 70s and early 80s. The uniforms back then were full of wonderful colors, stirrups, and neatly fitted pants and jerseys.

My mother was a huge Yankees fan, and started buying me baseball cards in 1978 when I was a little over four years old. I’m thankful she introduced me to a hobby I would enjoy for many years. As High School set in, hanging out with girls and friends became more important than buying packs and trading cards. I stopped collecting.

Fast forward to March 2020, the pandemic hit and I was home like most Americans in our country. I was trying to keep myself busy so I went into the attic and stumbled onto my childhood card collection. As I looked through all the sneaker boxes full of sets and cards from 1978 to 1990, it brought back great memories. Like every kid in the 80s I thought my 1985 Topps set, Don Mattingly, Tony Gwynn, and Mark McGwire rookies would make me rich one day. I was always super OCD with my my cards and kept them in great condition, so I was happy to see they how they looked after so many years. Especially my 1988-1989 Jordan cards which were in protected sleeves, definitely gradable!

My then five year-old daughter started helping me sort through the boxes, and just like that she was hooked! We started buying some packs from Target and Walmart, and soon after I found an LCS that was close by. I had a card partner just like the old days, we traded, we sorted, and we drove the wife nuts! It really made me love the hobby again after all these years.

In saying all that, I decided to come up with a project that would keep me busy, but also one that was very informative. I’ve always been an aficionado of the Negro Leagues. The history, the players, stats, fields, and their remarkable stories. I had the pleasure of interviewing the great Bob Kendrick, President of the Negro League Baseball Museum. I knew if I had any questions or inquiries on players I could reach out. So I decided to start a project called, “From the Negro League to MLB.”

Notwithstanding the December 2020 MLB announcement, there were 87 players who played in the Negro Leagues and in Major League Baseball. Harry Chappas was a white ballplayer and he was signed to play in the Negro Leagues for the Indianapolis Clowns who were barnstorming in those days, sort of like the Harlem Globetrotters of baseball. I know some other players did the same, but Harry didn’t have to go through what they had, so I’m not counting him. So here’s the deal, my goal is to collect a graded card, or an authenticated photo, and/or a piece of memorabilia from the other 86 players.

This past September I started my research, about two hours a day on eBay, Google, PSA, Beckett, and any website or forum where I could find information. Out of the 86 players, 16 did not have a MLB card. Lino Donoso was only featured on a 1956 Topps Pittsburgh Pirates team card, and John Kennedy only appeared on the 1958 Topps Philadelphia Phillies team card. 6 players only appeared on one MLB card. As I searched more in-depth, I started to see that many of these players were connected from the Negro Leagues, to Minor League ball, and even to the Mexican League. So many of these talented ballplayers, not only African-Americans, but Panamanians, Puerto Ricans, and Cubans didn’t get their shot in MLB until way after their prime.

This project has become an addicting hobby, and I really wanted to share my journey with the masses. I hope you all enjoy it as much as I have.

Billy Parker 1972 Topps Rookie Stars. I started off buying some of the cheaper graded cards that were available and easy to purchase. Parker was my first, he was the last Negro Leaguer to play in MLB. Billy played for the Indianapolis Clowns in 1961, and like I said above by this time they were more of a barnstorming team, so technically Ike Brown (below) is the last to play. Parker played sparingly for the Angels from 1971-1973 as a backup IF and OF.

🐐fact: Like many back then, Parker passed himself off as five years younger than he actually was.

Ike Brown 1974 Topps. Check out the frames, mustache, and sweet Tigers road uni’s. (The background is from my old Pursue the Pennant board game from the 80s.) He played 6 years in MLB, all with the Detroit Tigers. Brown spent 9 years in the Minor Leagues, as well as time in the Negro Leagues with the Kansas City Monarchs.

🐐fact: Ike was a jack of all trades, played every position except CF and catcher. He was also nicknamed, “Showboat” for his slow HR trot, and aggresive approach at the plate.

Paul Casanova 1975 Topps MINI. Huge fan of the ’75 Topps set, and the mini’s are pretty cool. Love those Braves hats from that era. It was also Brown’s last MLB card. Casanova was born in Cuba, an excellent defensive catcher, played for the Washington Senators from 1965-1971, and with the Braves from 1972-1974. Paul also played with the Indianapolis Clowns during their later years as Billy Parker did.

🐐fact: Casanova caught Phil Neikro’s lone no-hitter. “After the game, I raised him up on my shoulder. We drank a 12-pack of beer and Phil gave me $1,000.”

John “Blue Moon” Odom 1972 Topps IA. Great shot of John in those beautiful Oakland uni’s from the 70s. The “In Action” shot made this card an easy choice. John had a 13 year career in MLB, 12 of them with the A’s. In 1968-1969 he earned back to back All-Star nods, going 16-10 2.45 and 15-6 2.92 respectively.

🐐fact: Odom played for the Raleigh Tigers in the late stages of the Negro American League. He was paid mainly “meal money” per day by cheapskate owner Arthur Dove.

Bobby Prescott 1960 National Bank Tacoma Giants. This is pretty rare (POP4 PSA), Prescott was one of the players who did not have a MLB card. He played in only 10 games, all in 1961 for the Kansas City Athletics. He was a legendary Minor League Home Run hitter, smashing 398 over his 20 plus years in baseball.

🐐fact: Prescott was born in Panama, played for the little known Jacksonville Eagles of the Southern Negro League. He also won a HR title in the Panamanian League in 1951.

Clarence “Choo-Choo” Coleman 1961 Topps Rookie Card. Really cool shot of Clarence in his catching stance. I’m always a sucker for the old rookie cards with the star in the corner, plus that catchers mitt and the clean Phils threads. Another player who joined up with the Indianapolis Clowns in the late 50s. Coleman played in only 4 MLB seasons, 1 with the Phillies, and 3 with the New York Mets.

🐐fact: Coleman was a catcher for the expansion Mets in their inaugural season. The legend Casey Stengel said about Choo-Choo, “I’ve never seen a catcher so fast at retrieving passed balls.”

Hal Jones 1962 Topps Rookie Card. Loved that “C” the Indians used back then. Hal played two years in the majors, 17 total games, all with Cleveland. He spent 9 years in the Minor Leagues playing mainly 1B.

🐐fact: Hal played for the Kansas City Monarchs in 1956, appearing in the East-West All-Star classic.

Ernie Banks 1980 Laughlin PSA 10. Another very rare card (POP7 PSA10). Not an expensive card, but I really love the look of this one. Robert Laughlin used cartoons to illustrate some really cool cards. Banks was a 14x All-Star, 2x MVP, and smashed 512 HR. I wish Ernie had a chance to show his stuff in the postseason.

🐐fact: Cool Papa Bell saw Banks playing in a semi-pro game and signed him to the Kansas City Monarchs. Played for KC in ’50, hit .250, left to the army for the next two years, came back in ’53 and raked .347!

John Kennedy 1958 Topps Philadelphia Phillies team. John never had his own MLB card, so this was an easy choice. I could not find anything on John for a long time until I came across his name in a forum while I was doing research. There I found out he was featured in ‘58 team card since he was in Spring Training with the Phillies in ’57. He played a few games in April and May of ’58 before being sent down. The more you dig, the more you find! Kennedy was an IF, and the first black player in Phillies history.

🐐fact: Kennedy played in the Negro Leagues for the Birmingham Black Barons and the Kansas City Monarchs where he hit .385 with 17 HR before signing with the Phillies.

Monte Irvin 1954 Red Man Tobacco. I love this card, one of my favorite in the collection. The Red Man cards are tough to find in good condition. It has great color, and it captures an awesome expression on Monte’s face. A lot of the Red Man cards do not have the bottom attached to it since that was the part you would tear off to get a free “Big League Style Hat” after you collected 50 stubs. Monte was a super talented OF who played with and mentored Willie Mays in the spacious Polo Grounds. During his time with the New York Giants Irvin hit over .300 3 times (.299 in ’50). Irvin didn’t make it to MLB until he was a 30 year-old. He played 8 years, 7 with the Giants, and his last year in Wrigley.

🐐fact: “Monte was the choice of all Negro National and American League club owners to serve as the No. 1 player to join a white major league team.” – Hall of Famer Effa Manley, owner of the Newark Eagles.

I hope you all enjoyed the 1st inning of “From the Negro Leagues to MLB.” 2nd inning will be up soon!

SABR Century Project – Baseball Cards of 1921

Author’s note: The newly formed SABR Century Research Committee has invited SABR’s other committees to share in the celebration of all things baseball a century ago. In our case, that means the baseball cards of 1921.

As I begin typing up this post I must confess to owning no baseball cards from the year 1921. Like a lot of collectors–even vintage collectors–my collection has a 20+ year gap between the tobacco and caramel cards of the early 1910s…

…and the gum cards of the early 1930s.

Of course if past habits prove true, I may find myself trying to bridge that gap by the time I reach the end of this post. (No joke! Every card pictured above came from my stint here at the SABR Baseball Cards blog.)

I will therefore approach this article not as any authority on the subject but through the eyes of a collector window shopping the offerings of the year 1921 as if I were trying to pick out a card, which of course I just might do, though I may need to add a side hustle to find the cash.

1921 American Caramel

The first set that comes to mind when I think of 1921 is the American Caramel set known as E121. American Caramel had been making cards on and off since 1908. In fact, the leftmost card in my first image above is from their 1909-11 set known as E90-1. However, in the years leading up to 1921, American Caramel had been mostly off, with their 1915 E106 issue being their lone set produced between 1912 and 1920. Much of the absence might be attributed to World War I and the flu pandemic since almost nobody was producing baseball cards between 1917 and 1919.

Their 1921 set then perhaps came as a welcome surprise to collectors and chewers, and for those who’d saved or remembered their earlier caramel cards the new cardboard would have looked quite different.

Gone were the color paints and here for the remainder of the American Caramel decade were black and white photos. And though none would have realized it at the time, the 1921 issue was also a next step in the decidedly haphazard evolution toward standard baseball card size. A side-effect was that some collectors trimmed the sides off their 1921 cards, likely to fit with their earlier cards better.

Player selection for the set of 80 included spanned 15 of the 16 Major League franchises. Perhaps surprisingly based on their Pennsylvania headquarters the one team not represented was the Philadelphia Athletics.

Positioned at the close of the Deadball Era the checklist was a mix of small ball and long ball. (And yes, the Bambino is still sporting his Red Sox jersey!)

Other “top shelf” Hall of Famers included Grover Cleveland Alexander, Rogers Hornsby, and Walter Johnson. Absent from the set are all “Eight Men Out” despite most having played full seasons in 1920. This was consistent with most card sets of the era and even into the present, as most sets aimed to produce cards for the current season rather than the prior one.

1921-23 National Caramel

Not to be confused with American Caramel, another Pennsylvania-based caramel company put out a set. The cards had the same basic look as the American Caramel cards, and many even used the same photographs. The set is known as the E220 National Caramel set and included 120 cards over a three year period.

A comparison of the card backs between the two sets suggests a common designer or at least printer was used by both companies.

I’d wondered for a bit if they were in fact the same company, perhaps thru merger, but my brief research seems to indicate their was no business relationship beyond competitor. (Related: A group of executives from American Caramel did leave in 1925 to establish York Caramel, which put out a set of cards in 1927.)

I wish I could say no one was hurt in the making and packing of these baseball cards, but this September 2, 1921, article from the Lancaster News Journal may suggest otherwise.

Now I know you’re thinking to yourself, “Hey, wait a minute! Isn’t that the same kid who got injured in a different explosion six years earlier?”

And don’t even get me started on the murder plot! (Of course I’m serious, even dead serious you might say.)

1921 Exhibit Supply company

The year 1921 also saw the debut of a family of baseball card sets that would extend all the way to the early 1960s. Exhibit Supply Company out of Chicago began producing postcard-sized photo cards with blank backs known to collectors simply as “Exhibits.” The initial offering featured 64 players, an even four per team, and again black and white photography carried the day.

Over the years and decades the look of these Exhibits cards changed relatively little, as these examples from 1939-46 and 1962 show, though in 1962 the innovation of adding statistics to an otherwise blank back occurred.

As for star power, the top-shelf Hall of Famers in the 1921 Exhibits exactly matched that of the American Caramel set, including the key cards of Ruth and Cobb.

Strip cards

No need to avert your gaze if you’re a non-collector simply reading this as part of your Century Committee scholarship. These is not some “adults only” release or deck of cards to be used in strip poker. Rather, these cards get their name for being issued in long strips that candy sellers would cut for their young baseball-crazy customers.

Various issues released in 1921 went by the (later) classifications W516, W521, W551 (shown above), and W9316 and were joined by some earlier releases that remained in circulation. The most popular of the earlier releases is the 1919-21 W514 set. Among its 120 cards are a dozen White Sox, and it remains the most affordable (but not very) way to collect contemporary cards of seven of the Eight Men Out. (Can you spot who’s missing?)

Despite their relative affordability (okay, explaining their relative affordability), many collectors find strip cards to be too cartoony and unattractive for their collections. To illustrate that this sort of artwork is harder than it looks I asked my son to draw three baseball players of the era, and I think you’ll agree he was no match for the pros. Wait, check that. These are actual cards from the 1921 W9316 issue!

Though many collectors would just as soon forget strip cards ever existed, they do feature importantly in the history of the Hobby. In 1923 a new set of strip cards would emerge. The front of the cards would look just like another strip card set known as W515. However, this new set featured advertising on the back from a gum maker who would 36 years later make a bigger splash in the Hobby and 58 years later make an even bigger one.

Zeenut Pacific Coast League

While most baseball card production ground to a halt during the war and pandemic years, one set managed to renew itself annually from 1911 until 1930. The 1921 issue featured 169 blank backed cards, 1-3/4″ x 3-11/16″ in size, significantly narrower and incrementally taller than today’s baseball cards.

While the checklist includes only one Hall of Famer, Sam Crawford of the Los Angeles Angels, there is no shortage of ex-MLBers, future MLBers, and other notables.

Pictures of these cards are hard to find, so I’ll illustrate by means of a quiz some of the top players on the checklist. Their 1921 Zeenut team is in parentheses.

  • Holds the fourth highest career batting average among qualifying players. (San Francisco Seals)
  • One of eight players with over 4,000 professional hits across MLB, MiLB, and NPB. (Los Angeles Angels)
  • Has the same name as the player with the most professional hits across MLB, MiLB, and NPB. (Salt Lake City Bees and Sacramento Senators)
  • Six-time National League home run champion (Salt Lake City Bees)
  • Pitcher-turned-baseball card illustrator (Seattle Rainiers)
  • Had the best relief outing of all time (San Francisco Seals)

Okay, ready for the answers? Lefty O’Doul, Jigger Statz, Peter Rose, Gavvy Cravath, Al Demaree, and Ernie Shore. Pretty fun names for a minor league set!

Bread cards

Though the releases described so far define 1921 to most pre-war collectors, I’ll offer that really 1921 was the “Year of the Bread Card.” Bread cards had been around for at least a decade, as evidenced by the 1910 Tip Top Bread “World’s Champions” set honoring the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Bread cards also continued well past 1921, as evidenced by Tip Top’s popular 1947 set and two from Bond Bread, one dedicated entirely to a history-making Dodgers rookie.

The years from 1980-2000 saw numerous bread issues as well, but of course those same years saw multiple cards sets from hardware stores, macaroni brands, fast food joints, toilet plungers, firearms, pacemakers, and bobby pins. (Okay, just kidding about some of those.)

What distinguished 1920 then wasn’t simply that there were bread cards, but that there were so many different ones.

  • 1920-21 Mother’s Bread
  • 1921 Clark’s Bread
  • 1921 Koester Bread New York Giants/Yankees
  • 1921 Mrs. Sherlock’s Bread Pins (shown below, and yes, I’m stretching the definition of baseball card a bit here)
  • 1921 Standard Biscuit
  • 1921 White’s Bakery Baltimore Orioles
  • 1921 Wool’s American-Maid [sic] Bread

I don’t knead to tell you that’s a lot of bread! What the focaccia was going on back then? Challah if you feel my pain. Can’t stop now, I’m on a roll.

The Bambino

From among the many other–mostly very obscure–sets issued in 1921, I’ll close with one most collectors have never heard of that nonetheless occupies and important slot in the evolution of the Hobby and in my opinion features the best design of any set of the era. (And yes, you have seen that last Babe Ruth pose already in this article.)

As the packaging notes, kids needed only to eat 250 boxes (wait, seriously?!) of this candy to win a baseball signed by Babe Ruth. What’s more, according to my research, this seven-card set (or six plus a variation, I would argue) was the largest set to date featuring a single player.

As was the case often with Babe Ruth in 1921 the record he beat was his own since the only (!) single-player baseball card sets I could find prior to 1921 were three (slightly) different Babe Ruth “Heading Home” movie card sets of 2-3 cards each from 1920.

Conclusion

Though 1921 was not the turning point in Hobby history it was situated within a brief 2-3 year period that saw many notable Hobby trends: the rise of Ruth, a return to photography, the debut of Exhibits, the peak of bread/bakery cards, the resurgence of caramel cards, and the demise of the Black Sox. The once ubiquitous tobacco cards that ruled the Hobby a decade earlier had largely disappeared from the landscape and would not return (in a major release) for 30 more years with the Red Man sets of the early 1950s.

Something else we know about the cards from 1921, however much or little we think about it, is that these cards tell us the story of a segregated game. Invisible from the sets of the day were many of the era’s top players:

  • Oscar Charleston of the St. Louis Giants
  • Cristobal Torriente, Dave Malarcher, and Bingo DeMoss of the Chicago American Giants
  • John Donaldson, Jose Mendez, and Bullet Rogan of the Kansas City Monarchs
  • Louis Santop of the Philadelphia Hilldales
  • Cannonball Redding and Dick Lundy of the Atlantic City Bacharach Giants
  • Pop Lloyd of the Columbus Buckeyes
  • John Beckwith of the Chicago Giants
  • Andy Cooper and Pete Hill of the Detroit Stars
  • Biz Mackey of the Indianapolis ABCs
  • Smokey Joe Williams of the New York Lincoln Giants

The omission of these players is not surprising, but it certainly diminishes the card sets of the era, at least in this collector’s eyes.

Less significantly, mustaches were absent from 1921 baseball cards and a good 50 years away from making their comeback.

As you and I ponder this Dick Allen card, which some of you may have even obtained in a pack (!) and I will at least recognize as coming from the same decade I entered the Hobby, I’ll close with a sobering thought. This Dick Allen card is as old today as the cards from 1921 were when the Dick Allen card came out. Putting it another way, that Dick Allen represents the midpoint between these two baseball cards:

At first glance, you might be drawn to the differences between these cards. How much has changed in a hundred years! But look again, and you will also see—quite remarkably—just how much has stayed the same. Therein resides the beauty of the Hobby, if not the Game.

Milk Carton Kids (And Sparky Anderson)

I recently snagged a VGEX 1960 Leaf Series 2 Sparky Anderson card, bringing me within two cards of a complete second series and full set. We all make fun of how old Sparky looks when he was, in fact, young. He’s 26 here and looks it (if you cover up the gray hair over his left ear).

The arrival of this card set me thinking about one of my favorite Sparky cards, leading off the 1966 Foremost Milk St. Petersburg Cardinals set. It’s a lovely issue of 20 cards, glossy 3 ½” X 5 ½” photos of the Florida State League Cards. A Class A ballclub rarely looked so good. (I don’t know how these were distributed. If you do, let me know in the comment section.)

It’s nice that Sparky can lead off the set, if paged alphabetically (and what other way would you arrange a non-numbered set?). Also of interest is Lenny Boyer, the seventh son of the Boyer baseball clan. Lenny spun his wheels in the minors from 1964-1970, never making the bigs. He does have that Boyer look, sort of a Ken and Clete mashup.

It’s important to me that everyone knows there was once a pitcher named Phil Knuckles. He put up a few decent years in the low minors, from 1965-71.

(Not sure why the Foremost logo is missing on Morgans’ card)

One of the joys of minor league sets is a peak at future major leaguers of note. Maybe Harry Parker isn’t of real note to many, but as a member of the 1973 NL Champ Mets pitching staff, he looms large for me. (Jerry Robertson never played for the Mets, but that didn’t stop Topps from giving him a 1971 cards of him in a Mets uniform, sort of.).

I have no tidbits of real interest about any of these guys. I welcome any stories, about these eight, or any other members of the team.

While the 1966 St. Pete Cards are mostly known, if not only known, for being an early stop in Sparky Anderson’s Hall of Fame managerial journey, they also are part of a forgotten bit of baseball history. That season, they played a 29-inning game versus the Miami Marlins, the longest game until eclipsed by the 1981 Pawtucket-Rochester 32 -inning classic. The latter featured Cal Ripken, Jr. and Wade Boggs, but if you want to read the exploits of “Sweet Pea” Davis, Archie Wade and Jim Williamson, there’s a fascinating story to behold.

Hawaii Six-1

Just when you thought you would never have to endure another vintage, minor league set profile, here is yet another gas station sponsored set.  This time we are examining the 1961 Union Oil Hawaii Islanders. This set is special in that it chronicles the first year Hawaii was a member of the Pacific Coast League.

On December 17, 1960, a Salt Lake City businessman-Nick Morgan-purchased the bankrupt Sacramento Solons from the Pacific Coast League.  Mr. Morgan set up shop 2,500 miles from the nearest opponent at Honolulu Stadium. The park served as a home for amateur baseball and the University of Hawaii football team.  College bowl games were played at the facility as well.  Known as the “Termite Palace” the ramshackle, wooden structure would serve as the home of the Islanders until Aloha Stadium opened in 1976.

In 1961, Union Oil produced a total of 67 different cards for six of the eight PCL teams (Vancouver and Salt Lake did not participate).  Only the cards that corresponded with the team in a team’s area could be found at the Union 76 gas stations.  Due to smaller population areas, Hawaii and Spokane cards are considered short prints, making them more valuable and harder to come by.

The set features borderless, sepia-toned photos that measure 3” X 4”.  The backs have an advertisement for the radio station that held each club’s broadcast rights.  There are 10 Islanders in the set.

The 1961 Islanders were affiliated with the Kansas City Athletics. The bottom dwelling status of the parent club meant that the Hawaii team was not stocked with top prospects.  Only a handful of the players had success at the major league level.

Perhaps the best of the lot is Diego Segui, who forged a long and productive career. His card photo-along with all the other Islanders-was shot at Sicks’ Seattle Stadium.  Segui had no idea that eight years hence he would be playing in the big leagues with the Pilots in the same stadium.

Rachel Slider shows up in the set.  “Rac” never played in the majors, but he was a long-time coach with the Red Sox.

A player who did log major league time was Bill Werle. The hurler was in the Pirates starting rotation in 1949-50.

Another player with a big-time pedigree is Ray Jablonski, who played for the Cardinals, Reds, Giants and A’s. Ray’s poor defense served as a counterweight to his batting prowess, which derailed a promising career after a promising start.

This photo of Dave Thies features a clear look at an advertisement for the 1962 Century 21 Worlds Fair in Seattle.  This exposition put Seattle “on the map” and left the city with its signature structure, the Space Needle.

The Islanders wore colorful uniforms, which foreshadowed those adopted by Athletics owner Charlie Finley. The solid green vest uniforms were used on the road and accessorized with yellow undershirt sleeves and caps.  The club donned white vests at home with green undershirt sleeves and caps.  Perhaps, Finley remember these togs when he shocked the staid baseball world by decking out the A’s in green and gold for the 1963 season.

 PCL players would no longer get a paid, week-long vacation in paradise after the 1987 season.  Dwindling attendance and rising travel costs forced the Islanders’ relocation to Edmonton. But you can virtually feel the gentle breezes of paradise by collecting this set and downing a few mai tais. 

Aloha!

Ladies and Gentlemen! Your PCL Champion…Yankees?

Historically, the New York Yankees’ AAA teams were in the East or Midwest.  The Newark Bears of the International League were owned by Yankees and played in Ruppert Stadium, named for Yankees owner Colonel Jacob Ruppert. The Kansas City Blues were a Yankees affiliate in the American Association at the time of the Athletics move to Kansas City in 1955. Additionally, Syracuse, Columbus and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre have had long stints as Yankee outposts. But in 1978, the Yankees found themselves affiliated with Tacoma of the Pacific Coast League.

The Bronx Bombers’ stay in the Pacific Northwest was planned from the outset to be for only one season.  The Yanks were set to play in Columbus, Ohio, but the ballpark would not be ready until 1979.  The Twins pulled out of Tacoma after the 1977 season leaving “The City of Destiny” as the only destination for New York.

This one and done season is commemorated by a 25-card, team-issued set sponsored by Puget Sound National Bank and produced by Cramer Sports Promotions.  This is the same Cramer who would go on to form Pacific Trading Cards. I have owned the set for years and always found it intriguing. My favorite aspect of this set is the “TY” logo on the cap, jacket and jersey.  It is a great take on the traditional Yankees script.

The 1978 PCL Co-Champion Yankees (Final series against Albuquerque was rained out) were managed by ex-Seattle Pilot, Mike Ferraro.  Mike was originally signed by the Yankees as a player and returned to the fold as a minor league skipper.  His success in Tacoma may have helped earn him the Indians’ managerial job in 1980.

Like Mike Ferraro, Jerry Narron would go on the be a big-league manager.  The career backup catcher would pilot Texas and Cincinnati.

The most interesting card in the set belongs to pitching coach Hoyt Wilhelm. Apparently, The Hall-of-Fame knuckleballer could teach pitching mechanics beyond mastering a knuckleball grip.

In addition to Hoyt’s card, there are several other shots snapped in the Cheney Stadium clubhouse.  Since the photos were taken early in the season, inclement weather may have forced the photographer inside.  I can attest to the fact that few stadiums are as cold and damp as Cheney in April and May. One such example is this flattering image of Dave Rajsich.

Generally, the photos are of poor quality, with faces obscured by shadows.  The low-angle photos coupled with the shadows make it hard to discern faces, rendering some players almost indistinguishable. Domingo Ramos and Damaso Garcia are prime examples.

The card for Tommy Cruz is another example not being able to see facial features.  He is the sibling of the great Astro and Cardinal, Jose Cruz, and the uncle of Jose Cruz, Jr.

Another brother of a long-time major league player is Brian Doyle, whose brother Denny toiled with the Phillies, Angels and Red Sox. Brian’s photo is the only one not taken at Cheney Stadium. He is pictured in the road uniform, which features a basic (Tacoma) Yankees away jersey plus a logo patch on the sleeve.

Several other players saw some action with New York and other clubs.  Dell Alston had a stint with Oakland, while Kammeyer, Werth and Zeber played in the Bronx.

Also, Mets fans may remember Roy Staiger.  The utility man always reminds me of the actor Roy Steiger.

Now that you know more than you ever hoped to know about the 1978 Tacoma Yankees, I am sure you will race over to eBay or COMC to grab your own set.  If you are willing to settle for a card or two, I have some duplicates.