As a baseball fan/researcher, one thing I believe is that every player in MLB history is the answer to at least one trivia question. It’s my goal (however unachievable it is) to find that piece of trivia for every player. As a card collector, I dream of having at least one card of every player ever.
Certainly, I’ll most likely never own a card of George Noftsker of the 1884 Altoona Mountain City club of the Union Association, and it’s equally doubtful that a cardboard issue of 1876 Chicago White Stocking rightfielder Oscar Bielaski will ever end up in my possession. Regardless, it would be great to fill that never ending binder as much as possible.
It’s that dream that compelled me one night to enter the name Louis Sockalexis into the search field on eBay. I don’t know why. Perhaps I was reading a book on him at the time; I do own a biography on him and have read it a few times. Maybe that’s it. Maybe not. But regardless, I stumbled across a 2010 Obak Tristar Sockalexis card! Naturally, after looking at the names in the set I was intrigued enough to purchase the set right away.
This set is an homage to the original Obak sets from 1909-11. Those originals were inserted into Obak cigarette packages. They feature players primarily from the Pacific Coast League and were 1 ½” by 2 5/8” in size, much like the infamous t206 set. These were later classified as T212. If you ever were curious about where those Letter-Number classifications originated, look no further than card 66 in the 2010 Tristar Obak set! Because that card is of Jefferson Burdick, the man who created the American Card Catalog.
In any event, the 2010 Tristar Obak set is the more traditional card size (although there are mini parallel inserts), and as an unlicensed product there are no logos or team names on them. These cards are very quirky and are probably an acquired taste. But I love them for two main reasons.
They’re very simple. White border with blue letters at the bottom. Last name in larger print followed by a brief description in smaller print. And by description, it varies. Some descriptions are teams, some are a brief reason why the depicted person is in the set in the first place.
Most of the images used of the people on the cards are black & white (as many of them are from the 19th century and early 20th century). And those backgrounds! Bright, colorful scenery! Tommie Aaron stretching to receive a throw over a bright yellow sunset? Absolutely. David Clyde going into his windup over a cloudy purple backdrop? Yes, please! Maurice Van Robays in front of a barn? I wouldn’t have it any other way. Yes, they’re a bit gaudy, but I think they’re damn charming… and fun!
What I like perhaps the most about this set is that it makes me flip over the cards to figure out why they’re in the set! And in some cases, to find out exactly who these people are.
The set is divided up into several subsets: History in the Making (top minor league prospects), History’s Greatest Legends (baseball greats), Heroes and Legends (players known for various feats or tall tales), #1 Overall Draft Picks, Minor Leagues Best, MiLB Players of the Year, Can You Believe (players with amazing stories), Game Changers (innovators in baseball and beyond), Future Stars, Multi-Sport, Pop Icons, Historic Names, Pacific Coast League, and U.S. Presidents.
Highlighting the Historic Names subset are two cards of Sherry Magee of T206 Rushmore fame, though the Obak set’s Magie variation brings much less today on the open market than its predecessor from a century earlier.
The cards at the end of the set are all over the place. Card number 106, for example, is pro wrestler Hulk Hogan.
What steals the show for me is the Game Changers subset. By far the largest chunk of the set. Where else can the founders of Coke & Pepsi be on the same team?
I had mentioned Heinz, and since I’m from Chicago I make sure his card is nowhere near Harry Stevens’ card, as he’s widely known as the catering wizard who introduced hot dogs to baseball games.
There’s a card of John Sherman, whose Act does not apply to baseball. (Editor’s note: stay tuned.) And Frederick Thayer, who is largely given credit for inventing the catcher’s mask.
Jim Bouton has a card, but neither his MLB career with the Yankees nor Ball Four is mentioned on the back of the card. Instead, he shares this card with Robert Nelson, his teammate with the Portland Mavericks of the Northwest League because they created Big League Chew bubble gum!
That’s just a sampling of 2010 Tristar Obak. I have yet to get my hands on the 2009 or 2011 editions. Those 2011s are particularly enticing; I love collecting cards of 19th century players, and since I can’t afford those 1887 Allen & Ginters, these will have to do.
Old Hoss Radbourn, Lee Richmond, Joe Start, Doug Allison, Ross Barnes (even if the image on the card isn’t Barnes) and even Bob Addy (!?!) make the 2011 checklist, but that one will be particularly pricey.
If you hear the name ‘Brien Taylor’ today, it’s probably in the way of some kind of cautionary tale. A lesson against getting too caught up in the hype surrounding amateur or minor league super-duper stars. A lesson that top draft picks, no matter how much of a sure thing, are never really a sure thing. For collectors, it’s a similar lesson, but one directed less at the athlete than at all the ephemera that athlete inspires. But while Taylor was never able to leave his mark on baseball, he certainly left a mark on the hobby. Brien Taylor made the hobby rethink its concept of rookie cards. He became the face of the hobby’s most venerable brand. His presence (or lack thereof) dictated when products were released and how they were (somewhat unscrupulously) dated. He revived a market for pre-Major League cards and store-branded specialty sets. He starred in what was, at the time, the most expensive factory set ever issued and was featured on what was, at the time, perhaps the most sought-after certified autograph ever released.
And within three years, it was all over.
There are still those who swear Brien Taylor was the greatest amateur pitcher who ever lived. He was born in Beaufort, NC, the son of a stone mason and a crab-picker. Tall, lanky, and with a whip-fast left arm, he dominated as a high school pitcher. As a senior in 1991, the threw back-to-back no-hitters, struck out an obscene 213 batters in just 88 innings (nearly 2.5 Ks per inning) and posted a 0.61 ERA. He had a fastball in the high-90s, a dependable change-up, and a knee-buckling curveball.
Taylor had been nearly as good the year before, but had yet to break through into the baseball mainstream. Don Mattingly, however, was as mainstream as an athlete got in 1990. His break-out campaign in 1984, followed up by an MVP season in 1985, had both made put him in line to be the Next Great Yankee and helped to ramp up the rookie card craze among baseball card collectors and investors. Mattingly’s 1984 rookie issues stoked the fires of a building craze. People with money to spend on cards wanted Mattinglys, but even more so they wanted the next Mattinglys… the cards that could be picked up cheap, stocked away, and then sold for a profit. Mattingly was still a star in 1990 and the rookie card craze his sweet, lefty swing had inspired was still very much in bloom. But for the 1990 season, Mattingly stunk. He batted just .256 – 67 points below his career average entering the season – and his Yankees finished in dead-last place, losing 95 games. It was the worst Yankees team in 77 years.
By the summer of 1991, these three stars had aligned themselves: a once-in-a-generation talent, a booming baseball card marketplace, and an unprecedented bottoming-out of the most famed pro sports franchise that ever existed. In June 1991, the Yankees drafted Brien Taylor first overall in the amateur draft and card collectors saw nothing but dollar signs.
Of course, by 1991 collectors no longer had the patience to wait for a player to be wearing a big league uniform for start stockpiling cardboard. Trying to entice collectors with the hottest rookies as soon as possible, Fleer, Donruss, Score and the upstart Upper Deck had begun to include players in their base sets before their Big League debut. When one of those players, Ken Griffey Jr., became a hobby sensation, it was clear that the rookie card game had changed. Topps missed out on including Griffey in their 1989 flagship set, but did start a new trend that year with the inclusion of a ten card subset of “#1 Draft Picks,” players from the 1988 draft who were just making their pro debuts. When Jim Abbott jumped from the ’88 draft class to Major League stardom that year, the other cardmarkers had been scooped. Topps had him first and it was their card collectors were chasing. In 1990, Score followed suit and issued a 22-card draft pick subset and the revived Bowman brand issued a slew of recently drafted talent. The hobby hype was now following players into A ball instead of the Big Leagues.
Card collectors weren’t the only ones with money on the mind after the Yankees tabbed Taylor with the top pick in June. Taylor and his family had hired Scott Boras to represent the young man and felt insulted at the Yankees’ initial offer of a $300,000 contract. The top pitcher of the previous year’s draft, Todd Van Poppel, had gotten $1.3 million in guaranteed money from the Oakland A’s and the Taylors wanted nothing less.
It took until late August for the Yankees and Taylor to agree on a $1.55 million pact, with Taylor signing the deal the day before he was set to begin junior college, and be lost to the Yankees. His professional status now meant that he was open to the cardmakers. Topps, Fleer, and Donruss had all hoped to include a Taylor card in their 1991 update sets, but had been stymied by his holdout. And when finally became fair game, it was The Scoreboard – maker of the Classic brand of board game cards and draft sets – that swooped in to the ink the super-prospect. Scoreboard paid Taylor $250,000 for his exclusive cardboard rights through the end of 1991 and his exclusive rights on minor league cards for a calendar year. Just months later, Classic released its 1991 Baseball Draft set, with Taylor at card #1. The company boasted that the entire run of the set sold out in six days and it was reported that the sets that included Taylor were expected to gross the company $30 million… thirty times what they’d made off their 1990 draft products.
That fall, Taylor reported to the Yankees’ fall instructional league team in Florida, where his stardom preceded him. He was featured in a 60 Minutes segment and signed autographs for members of the Green Bay Packers when they stayed at the same hotel that housed his team. He signed a lot of other autographs, too. Classic had cards of him in both the English and French language versions their four-sport draft picks set, including over 5,000 hand-signed cards inserted randomly into packs.
The media followed Taylor to Florida. Their reporting was complimentary. They noted his humble nature, that he mostly stayed in at night, always addressed his elders as “sir” or “ma’am” and that he did his own laundry. They talked about the Mustang he’d purchased with his bonus money, but also that he bought the car from the dealership where his bother worked as a detailer and that he had gotten a nice discount on the purchase. His biggest purchase, the papers noted, was a house for his parents, allowing them to move out of the trailer where Taylor had grown up. But there was a theme to the stories that made it clear that these were older, white reporters looking for a young, black athlete that didn’t push challenge any of their notions about how a ballplayer should act. They never said it, but it was clear that they wanted to hold Taylor up as an antidote to the Deions and Rickeys of the sporting world. Case in point: several articles mentioned with flattering intent that Taylor wore no gold chains. Neither did Todd Van Poppel, but no one was waiting to judge him by his neckware.
Near the end of 1991, Topps pulled a major coup and signed Taylor to another exclusive contract, making them the only cardmaker permitted to produce his Major League cards until he reached the Bigs, at which time he would, under the player’s union contract, be available to all companies with an MLBPA license. The deal scooped Upper Deck, who had been so optimistic about their chances of landing Taylor that they actually included his name in the preliminary checklists for their 1992 flagship set. As Topps promoted their upcoming set as the only one that feature Taylor in pinstripes, Upper Deck quietly remade their checklist.
With Classic’s deal still in effect until December 31, Topps seems to have actually pushed back the release of their 1992 set in order to include Taylor. But the result was a minor masterpiece. Finding their brand getting lost in the flood of newer and shinier released in the early 1990s, Topps had responded with a classic re-tooling for its 1991 flagship release and the introduction of its premium Stadium Club brand. Stadium Club was a smash and the company’s 1992 flagship reflected the changing tastes in the marketplace. Using beaming white stock for the first time in decades and featuring a clean, modern design, the set put Taylor front and center. In what might have been an homage to the 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. #1 that had already become that company’s trademark card, Topps gave Taylor #6 in 1992 set, the first regular player card after the traditional Record Breaker opening subset. The card featured Taylor in Yankee pinstripes, the first time Topps had shown a draft pick in their Major League uniform. The kid is just into delivery: left arm ready to cock, right foot dangling over the red box containing his name, eyes trained at whatever lay ahead of him.
1992 was also the year Topps introduced the first true parallel set with ToppsGold. The concept was stunning for its time – an alternate version of the classic flagship set, outfit with an etched gold foil nameplate. The cards would be found roughly one per wax box, making it an unimaginable task to complete a full set. But in the midst of the hype over this idea, Topps offered an alternative: a Gold Factory set, complete with a stunning card #793 – an exclusive Brien Taylor card, done in the standard veteran design, gold-plated and hand-signed by the young Phenom. The set, which retailed for around $250, was quickly selling on the secondary market for $4-500. The signed card itself was moving quickly for $100 and up. Taylor’s gold rookie – found one per 28,500 packs – was bringing $40-80 and his regular base card was a mover at $5.
But… were these really rookie cards?
As they had in 1990 with uber-prospects Chipper Jones and Todd Van Poppel, Classic had gotten the jump on the more mainstream brands by including Taylor in their Draft Picks set in the same calendar year in which he was drafted. The big companies had always waited until the year after the draft to debut these players. Topps and others had tried to produce a true Taylor RC – a 1991 release featuring him in his Big League dress, but were scooped by his holdout and then his deal with Classic. So, Topps decided to turn back the clock.
The result was the 1991 Stadium Club Dome set. Or was it 1992? Well, the set used the 1991 Stadium Club design and was issued inside a plastic reproduction of Skydome, home of the 1991 MLB All-Star Game. Each card featured a 1991 copyright line. Which made it outwardly appear as a 1991 release and its handsome card of Taylor (along with dozens of other 1991 draft choices) as a stunning “true rookie” of the biggest name in the hobby. Not so fast, said collectors. It was clear that Topps was back-dating the set to try to force a 1991 Taylor card. The set was not released until the spring of 1992 and it seems highly unlikely that Topps would have gone ahead with printing the set in ’91 while Taylor was under exclusive contract with another brand and then waited several months into 1992 before finally releasing it. Even if collectors didn’t fall for Topps’ scheme, they fell all over themselves for the set, which was going for $75 and the Taylor for $15 before the 1992 season had even opened.
Oh, right, the 1992 season. In which Brien Taylor would actually be playing professional baseball. After being the toast of the Yankees’ training camp, Taylor reported to the Fort Lauderdale Yankees of the high-A Florida State League. Just 20 years old, he posted some tantalizing numbers – 10.4 Ks per 9 innings, a 1.159 WHIP, a 2.57 ERA, and just three homers allowed in 161 innings.
His performance was all the more impressive considering all the hype that still surrounded him. He was a shy kid, away from home for the first time, and everyone wanted a piece of him. And everyone wanted his autograph. He had signed more than 12,000 cards for the ToppsGold sets, and another 8,000 for 1992 Classic products and hundreds of baseball for teammate opponents and everyone else with clubhouse access. And he was asked to sign even more each day by fans that stalked him at every turn. “They think you’re supposed to sign everything they throw in your face,” Taylor told a reporter during the 1992 season. He was knocked down by autograph hounds more than once. After a game in Port St. Lucie, so many fans gathered outside the clubhouse doors that the team was briefly trapped inside. “People know the autograph is going to be worth money. That’s the only way I see it,” he said. “As far as dealing with people, life will never be the same. The bigger I get, the harder it will get. I know I’ll probably never be able to sit at a movie and relax.” As for his trading cards, Taylor admitted he didn’t even own one. “They must know something I don’t,” he said of the people shelling out for his latest issues.
And as his debut season wound to a close, there would be many more options for Taylor collectors. With his exclusive non-MLB deal with Classic coming to an end, Upper Deck, Fleer, and Skybox announced plans to get in on the suddenly booming Minor League card market. Upper Deck promoted their set at Minor League parks late in the season, handing out thousands of promo cards of Taylor and Twins prospect Frankie Rodriguez. The Upper Deck set released in September and Fleer Excel dropped in December (oddly branded as 1992-93 Fleer Excel, another example of Taylor forcing cardmakers to get creative with their dating). The Fort Lauderdale Yankees even waited out the Classic contract to release their team-issued set of cards – which remarkably was not available until after the season had ended, as speculation abounded that the team would relocate for the 1993 season (it indeed would move). The market for Taylor was so intense that a franchise delayed the release of its annual team set until after it had played its last-ever game. The set was available by mail order and seemed to sell quite well. That fall, Topps also included Taylor in the company’s first-ever random insert set, a trio of cards featuring #1 overall draft choices found one in every 72 packs of 1992 Stadium Club Series 3. It instantly became a $25 item.
By the end of 1992, Taylor had been featured on (by my count) 48 different licensed trading cards and a handful of oddball, unlicensed, and magazine-issue cards. It was a staggering number for its time, especially for a player who had pitched in just 27 games professionally. By 1993, a bit of Taylor-fatigue began to appear. His card prices stabilized and, while his presence in the hobby held steady, it stopped being news. Searching the hobby columns that used to be regular features in newspapers across the nation, he was a regular item throughout 1991 and 1992. But by 1993, he faded away into the mass of other can’t-miss-kids making hobby news. He was still a Phenom to be sure, but he was a very familiar Phenom.
In 1993, Taylor made steady progress, racking up 150 Ks and a 3.48 ERA for the AA Albany-Colonie Yankees. It was progress, but collectors and the Yankee brass had visions of Taylor dominating the American League in 1993, not holding his own in the Eastern League. And then in December came baseball’s most infamous after-hours brawl since Mickey Mantle, Billy Martin, and company roughed up a boozy bowling team captain at the Copa. Back home in North Carolina, Taylor got into a melee trying to defend his brother and blew out his shoulder in the process. While the team tried to downplay the injury, Dr. Frank Jobe, who performed Taylor’s reconstructive surgery, called it “one of the worst shoulder injuries [he’d] ever seen.”
Collectors began to dump Taylor’s cards and, as Taylor sat out the entire 1994 season, he appeared in just a handful of sets. Many of his 1994 cards mentioned the injury. “He will miss the entire 1994 season and only time will tell whether or not he can regain his top prospect status,” his Ted Williams Card Company release opined. By 1995, time had told.
Demoted to the Yankees’ Rookie League team, Taylor struggled through 40 innings, walking 54 and allowing 37 runs. His fastball stalled and his curve had flattened. With the card market struggling to recover from the strike, companies downsized their releases. In 1995, just a few years removed from being such a force in the marketplace that his mere presence seemed to dictate time itself, he appeared on just one trading card – Bowman #17. He is pictured in a Yankees jersey cap, seating on a picnic table, wearing shorts and sneakers. He’s dressed like a fan or a training camp gofer. The backside mentions an “off the field mishap” and talks about hopes for a return to form that would never happen. Although he would hang around for parts of four more professional seasons, topping out at 27 innings (with an ERA over 14.00) in 1997, he appeared on just two more cards. He’s just 24 years old on his 1996 Best Greensboro Bats card, but he looks older. He looks tired. In 2000, he was featured in a team-issue set for the A-level Columbus Red Stixx. The only evidence the card exists is a listing on tradingcarddb.com. No image of it can be found.
He allowed 11 runs in just 2.2 innings for the Red Stixx that year. It was the last time he pitched. He went back home to North Carolina with his five daughters and worked as a package handler for UPS, then for a beer distributor, and later as a bricklayer with his father. He ran into legal troubles and, in 2012, was arrested on charges of trafficking cocaine. Facing forty years, he pled guilty and served just over three. “Life will never be the same,” Taylor said in 1992. “The only way it would be the same would be if I dropped out today. Then everybody would forget me.”
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Moon Landing, the SABR Baseball Cards blog is pleased to announce the “Apollo 50 All-Time Team!”
Our right-handed starter is John “Blue Moon” Odom, and our lefty is Bill “Spaceman” Lee. Coming out of the pen are Mike “Moon Man” Marshall and Greg “Moonie” Minton. Sadly, a failed drug test kept a certain fireballer with a space travel-themed nickname on the outside looking in. Finally, in keeping with tradition, Tony “Apollo of the Box” Mullane was intentionally overlooked.
Behind the plate is Fernando Lunar, who enjoyed a cup of Tang with the Braves before assuming backup duties for Baltimore in the early 2000s.
While primarily an outfielder, Wally Moon will man first base and provide some power from the left side of the plate with his prodigious moonshots.
Ford “Moon” Mullen won the first ever NCAA Men’s Basketball title as a member of the 1939 University of Oregon Webfoots five years before he made his Major League debut with the Phillies in 1944. Owing to the dearth of baseball card sets at that time, his only playing era cardboard comes from the 1943 Centennial Flour Seattle Rainiers set.
Mike “Moonman” Shannon had a solid nine-year career with the Cardinals, highlighted by titles in 1964 and 1967 and a 1968 season that included a pennant to go with his seventh-place finish in an unusual MVP race where four of the top seven finishers were teammates.
“Houston, we have a problem. Our shortstop has a .185 career batting average!” Can the Flying Dutchman be modified for space travel?
“The Rocket,” Lou Brock, is our leftfielder; “The Gray Eagle,” Tris Speaker, plays a shallow center, and patrolling rightfield is Steve “Orbit” Hovley.
Looking for his first ever Big League at-bat is Archibald “Moonlight” Graham.
Without this man, would there even have been an Apollo program?
Though he never suited up in the Bigs, we’ll gladly take a guy named Crater who managed the Rockets.
And speaking of guys named Crater!
But seeing as this Crater is a volcanic crater rather than an impact crater, we will double-dip by adding the inimitable Orbit!
Feel free to use the Comments section to air your snubs (“What? No ‘Death to Flying Things’ Ferguson?”) and note your Pilots sightings (Hi, Tim!). We’ll radio our guy in the Command Module and be sure your thoughts receive all due consideration.
The past couple of seasons Minor League Baseball has been running a Copa de Diversión promotion which involves rebranding teams with Spanish nicknames and uniforms. My kids really wanted to go to a Trenton Trueno game and due to a rainout at one of the Kids Club games we were able to go while only having to pay for parking.
Anyway, while we went for the Trueno experience, it turned out that it was also a baseball card giveaway night. We each got perforated strips of four cards (plus an advertisement) featuring four current Yankees who’d played for Trenton and who were also Latino—Andújar, Severino, and Sánchez are from the Dominican Republic while Torres is from Venezuela.
The cards are manufactured by Choice—the same company that makes Trenton’s Minor League team sets—and, aside from the perforations are legitimate cards rather than something that feels like a cheap digitally-printed sheet. The only problem is that the cards were designed with bleeds but whoever laid them out for perfing didn’t take that into account so the three center cards in the panel are closer to 2.625 inches wide.
Still it’s a fun little set with photos of the guys while they were at Trenton, nice Trueno logos, and some #PonleAcento action. I’m a bit confused at how Andújar got the accent and Sánchez did not though.
The back design is also nicely bilingual. The positions and vitals information are still English-only but the biographies allocate equal space to both languages. It does kind of feel like they were written in English and then translated semi-literally to Spanish but it’s a solid effort.
Since this set isn’t entered to Trading Card DB yet I have no idea how many other Minor League teams released cards as part of the Copa de Diversión. But it’s pretty cool and is a great recognition that not only is the game-day experience something that should be inclusive to Spanish-speaking fans, the merchandise and giveaways should also accessible to as many fans as possible.
Listen: Ichiro is the Guy Montag of George Sisler.
Like many students, I read Ray Bradbury’s dystopian classic, Fahrenheit 451, in middle school. Several of its ideas stuck with me for years afterward and I picked up a personal copy not long ago, to keep them fresh.
Near its climax, protagonist Guy Montag joins a clan of exiles who protect the written word from state-organized destruction. They memorize whole manuscripts as hedge against an American society locked in fiery struggle against its own texts. Guy’s recall of a portion of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes becomes his torch to carry.
Whatever your religious background, many SABR readers also know some Ecclesiastes, thanks to Pete Seeger’s adaptation of its third chapter into the 1960s folk-rock hit “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There is a Season),” intersecting with antiwar themes from Bradbury’s 1953 novel.
This cultureball matters to me now because of the link between Ichiro, one of our greatest 21st century players, and George Sisler, his parallel from a century ago.
I used to know just table scraps about the onomatopoeically “hot” Sisler. I rememberlots of other stuff, like how Dave Philley spent three years as a Phillie (1958-60) and Johnny Podres finished his career with the Padres (1969). Yet…diddly about “the greatest player in St. Louis Browns history.”
Sisler retired in 1930, explaining why I find him so unfindable. Despite writing about cards for years at the Number 5 Type Collection, almost all of my card research follows Goudey Gum’s 1933 baseball debut, making earlier players a crapshoot. Even my deep dive into a trivial question, “Who’s E.T. Cox and why’d he appear on a card in 1927?” stands out for what didn’t happen, not what did.
I give Ichiro full marks for breaking an 84-year-old record when he notched 262 hits in 2004. Yet hitting isn’t their sole connection. Let’s catch up with George, circa 1920.
Kids could buy this artful W514, trimmed from a strip of five, out of arcade vending machines during Sisler’s mammoth performance for an otherwise fair-t0-middling 1920 Browns squad.
.407 average, 1.082 OPS, 182 OPS+
MLB record-setting 257 hits, in 154 game era
49 doubles, 18 triples, 19 homers, 42 SB
Zero other seasons in MLB history include that balance of speed and power. None! Ichiro came close as a base runner, stealing 40+ bases five times, turning ground ball singles into scoring threats. As frosting to his power cake, George Sisler led the AL in steals four times.
Even if you drop stolen bases as criteria, just one other season in history, Lou Gehrig’s 1927, includes at least 49 doubles, 18 triples, and 19 homers. The Iron Horse, of course, enjoyed Murderers’ Row as “protection” for his spot in the lineup. St. Louis, however, depended on George’s stealing prowess just to get more guys in scoring position.
While pitching had moved to his back burner by 1920, George nonetheless closed out St. Louis’s final game on October 3 from the hill (box score), perhaps to help home fans enjoy one last bit of that remarkable year. Although he notched a .420 average two years later, OPS+ rates 1920 “better,” as Sisler hit fewer homers in 1922 (career stats).
Two of Sisler’s sons, Dick and Dave, went on to their own baseball careers. The former intersected with Ichiro’s future home as 1960 manager of the Pacific Coast League’s Seattle Rainiers.
While we’re visiting the past, let’s pretend we’re 12 years old again and snicker at how Dick Sisler appears on a Skinless Wiener trading card. (Players came one to a package.) Cross your legs and fire up the grill!
When Ichiro’s torrid pace projected to break the hits record in 2004, he also connected with still-living Dave Sisler, who enjoyed renewed interest in George’s past achievements and some of the Sisler family traveled to Seattle to see Ichiro break the record in person. (Topps mentioned that moment on Ichiro’s Season Highlights card.)
While I’m not surprised a guy with 3089 hits proved a student of hitting, it stands out that he’s a student of Sisler. Should this whole Internet thing burn to the ground, echoing the fiery urban chaos of Fahrenheit 451, I bet Ichiro can teach us plenty about George’s tools and talent.
This year I enrolled my sons in the Trenton Thunder’s Boomer’s Kids Club. It’s a great deal. Tickets to eleven games for the three of us plus fun activities and a tshirt* for $45. I knew we wouldn’t be able to make the games in July and August because of summer plans but even just going to the games through June it would be worth it.
*Shirt and activities for kids only.
We’ve now been to seven games this season (six with the kids club plus a Little League fundraiser night) and it’s been awesome. The boys have gotten two shirts, a jersey, a frisbee, and a pennant. They’ve had a chance to throw out the first pitch, walk around the field, be part of a high-five tunnel for the players, and watch The Sandlot on the outfield after a game. We’ve even been tossed five baseballs. Oh yeah and the games have been good. The Thunder are a decent team and it’s been a lot of fun to watch the boys learn the players and really get into following the season.
They’re also completely hooked on the hobby—especially autograph collecting. This is all me and my interests rubbing off on them. They’ve seen me write TTM requests and get cards signed at Trenton Thunder games and they want to join me. So I indulge them.
Not too much. I supply cards and pens (for now) but they have to do the requesting. I’m not going to flag a player down for them or ask on their behalf. I’ll help spot guys but the boys need to learn how to approach players, make the request, and say thank you. We’ve started off pretty simple by just focusing on the Trenton players and visiting coaches. As a result their autograph binders are pretty eclectic.
My youngest’s binder is organized alphabetically by first name. His idea. It’s a wonderfully random bunch of cards.* Seven Thunder players. Five coaches. And one card that Marc Brubaker mailed to him. I find myself wondering how much a first grader even cares about people like Joe Oliver, Brian Harper, or Matt LeCroy. These aren’t guys he knows. Some, like LeCroy, aren’t even guys I’d really talk to them about.** But they’re in the binder and he’s super-excited to show them off.
Can he tell you about the players? Only what he knows by turning the cards over. But he’s into this as a hobby even though he’s, so far, just tagging along with me.
His brother’s binder is pretty similar except that his one TTM return is in there and there are a couple 1991 Topps cards that he pulled from his own binder because he got the set for Christmas last year. As a result he has a bit more of a connection to guys like Harper and Oliver but LeCroy, Mark Johnson, and Mike Rabelo are all ciphers to him.
As the season’s progressed I’ve been questioning what it means to collect autographs of guys you’ve never heard of and second-guessing the importance of what I’ve gotten my kids into. Are they excited only because I’m excited? Am I pushing them to do something that only means something to me?
I jumped into the hobby in 1987. I bailed in 1994. Not a long period of time but it felt like forever. And in a way it was. Not only did those years represent half my lifetime by the time I stopped, they covered most of my years in school—pretty much my entire youth.
Now, 25 years later as a father, I’m seeing things from the other side. What was a lifetime when I was a kid is already flashing by in the blink of an eye. I know I only have a handful of years where my sons will legitimately share my interests. Yes legitimately. At the end of the day I’ve realized that it doesn’t matter why they’re interested in the hobby, the fact that they are and that we’re able to share it is what matters.
My two boys love collecting and everything it entails. Getting cards. Sorting cards.* Re-sorting cards.** Showing me their cards. Asking for new cards. Etc. Etc. It’s great. It reminds me of being a kid and it inspires me to document their adventures so that in a decade or two when they look back at their collection they’ll have my thoughts and memories to go with their memories of those years when the three of us were enjoying baseball together.
*On the floor as God intended.
**One day will be by number, the next by team, the next by last name, the next by first name.
I get to experience what I put my mom through, how patient she was, and how much she enjoyed seeing me get excited by the hobby. She kept a journal which I eventually turned into a book so that we could all have copies. I still enjoy rereading her essays and I’m looking forward to my boys reading them too.
Instead of journalling I’m blogging about our adventures and putting together summaries of events we’ve gone too. Like when we went to the Thunder Open House I took photos of their baseballs and printed out a letter-sized sheet for their binders. I’ll do the same thing with their haul of autographed cards for the season since I know they’ll re-sort them multiple times in the future.
It’ll always be important to have the biographical breakdown of their collection. As my sons get older, their cards and autographs will increasingly become markers for their memories rather than just objects to collect and hoard. The memories they’re attached to is what makes them special. It’s why I collect and why I hope they keep collecting.
In fact, I’ve been inspired to start doing the same thing for my cards and autographs. I know I’m going to be passing everything on to my sons. I also know that “all dad’s stuff’ will be nowhere near as memorable as having an introduction to a given collection or set which explains who I was when I got these and why the set was important to me. This is a big project but I’m looking forward to it.
A few months ago I attended the Frederick Ivor-Campbell 19th Century Conference at the Baseball Hall of Fame. The Fred is my favorite of all of the SABR conferences because of the intimacy, the subject, the location and the camaraderie. One of the presentations that weekend was entitled “The Birth of Baseball Cards.” The panel was moderated by MLB historian John Thorn and featured the SABR Baseball Card blog’s very own Jeff Katz, Hall of Fame curator Tom Shieber and author Peter Devereuax. Devereaux’s book, Game Faces, is an inside look at many of the early baseball cards that constitute the Benjamin K. Edwards Collection at the Library of Congress and served as a jumping off point for the panel. Game Faces should be on the reading list of everyone in this group.
Over the course of the panel the question was brought up of just what it is that defines a “card.” It is a question that is often addressed in the hobby; has, in fact, been addressed in this blog by Mr. Katz. It is also a question with no definitive answers, although Shieber, who was one of the driving forces behind the Hall’s new permanent baseball card exhibit entitled “Shoebox Treasures,” listed a few personal criteria. To be clear, Tom does not espouse to be the final voice on this subject, but much of what he said rang true to me. To him, the item in question should be: intended as a collectible, part of a set, directly related to baseball, and there should be a “cardyness” about it. That last one is admittedly vague, though for most of the folks reading this, the idea is likely akin to the old adage coined by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart about pornography. We know it when we see it.
This panel was the highlight of the weekend for me, not just
because it was dedicated to one of my favorite subjects, but more so because I
have wrestled recently with this very question. As I mentioned in my last post,
in my quest to complete a collection of the rookie cards of every Cuban who has
appeared in a major league game, I have had to stretch certain
standardly-accepted definitions, beginning with the idea of a what constitutes a
“rookie card.” In the interest of finding at least one card for every player, I
have had to not only step outside of some of the accepted definitions within
the hobby, but I have been confronted numerous times with the issue of whether
or not an item I am looking at even counts as a “card.”
Such is the case with the 1943 set issued by the Havana-based, cracker, candy and chocolate manufacturer, La Ambrosia. As with major league baseball, the arrival of World War II created a vacuum of talent in the Cuban professional league. The league had already been struggling financially since the political upheaval of the overthrow of President Gerardo Machado, in the early 1930s. When the war began, it stemmed the flow of top-tier American talent, the quality of play suffered, and the league found itself at a low point. The silver lining of this nadir was the maturation of the Cuban amateur leagues.
With no minor league system in place, Cuban clubs would find
their promising young talent on the sugarmill teams that dotted the countryside.
Similar to the American company teams that would produce exciting local
baseball that filled the void before the advent of radio and television broadcasts,
the sugarmill teams were a loose collection of business-based semi-pro clubs.
One of those clubs was sponsored by La Ambrosia, and would feature the likes of
such luminaries as future Cuban batting champ Claro Duany and Orestes “Minnie”
The candy giant capitalized on their sponsorship of the club by publishing a set of 240 images that were released as “stamps.” Collectors were encouraged to get all of the stamps and then stick them inside an album, similar to the more ubiquitous Cuban release issued by Caramelo Deportivo during the 1945/46 and 1946/47 seasons. Printed on thin paper that most closely resembles magazine stock, the La Ambrosia stamps featured the largest single published collection of Cuban amateurs that I have found.
Unlike the Deportivos, in which the images are black and white and often grainy, the La Ambrosias are in color. They have the distinctive look of the tones being both vibrant and muted, as though the photos had been tinted with watercolors. The images look especially bright when mounted on the yellowed pages of their original album. It is those albums which resulted in the Deportivos and the La Ambrosias sharing another unfortunate trait. There are few remaining of either issue that do not have serious flaws, including backs that were damaged by adhesives.
For many, including the auction houses that sell these sets, the descriptions of these issues have evolved from “stamps” to “cards.” They certainly fit with Shieber’s first three criteria. But what about “cardyness?” They are not published on what we think of as a card stock. But does that matter? What is that quintessential piece that makes a card a card? Does an item need ALL of Shieber’s (self-proclaimed arbitrary) criteria? Are three sufficient? What about two? Or one?
The “cards” I have included in the collection for the Aragóns, Ángel and his son Jack, are a perfect example of this latter question. Their short major league careers, as well as the fact that they played during war years (Ángel appeared in 32 games with the Yankees during World War I and Jack’s lone major league appearance was in 1941), led to neither of them having what would be thought of, traditionally, as a card. I have not even had any luck by expanding my search to include cards that portray them in foreign leagues, although Jack’s extensive minor league career gives me hope that I may discover him in an obscure set someday. At the moment, though, they just don’t seem to exist.
However, while trolling through ebay, I came across a seller
who was offering images of both Ángel and Jack. He had come into possession of
a number of old periodicals, including a 1914 Spalding Guide and a 1949
publication called, “Historia del Base Ball Profesional de Cuba,” written by
Raul Diez Muro. The seller, scissors in hand, cut up both periodicals into a series
of head shots for the players that appeared in the two collections. The Spalding
Guide offered a number of publicity photos of minor league players, including Ángel.
Jack appeared in the book by Muro.
I have decided to include these hand cut bits of newsprint in lieu of “cards” because there aren’t any other options for these players and they do have the advantage of originally being printed concurrent with the player’s career. They pass virtually none of Shieber’s criteria. While the publications themselves could be considered collectible, they certainly became less desirable after the scissors were taken to them. The subjects are definitely baseball related, but they are not part of an intended set, nor do they feel very “cardy” to me. I have blurred the line considerably in the interest of completing my checklist.
I am now at the point where I need to decide if, since I have expanded my definitions for the Aragóns, do I do the same with the remaining Cubans who were never issued a card? Are pictures cut from newspapers enough to check that box, especially if I hold true to the criteria of the images being published during their careers? I know it’s my set, and I can do with it as I damn well please, but I’m not a fan of cheating. I suppose the best answer would be for me to wait to make a similar discovery of a player who is cardless, and decide when I see the actual item. Because, like Stewart’s porn, I believe I’ll know it when I see it.
Author’s note: I thought some of you might be interested in seeing the collection as it develops. I have created a flickr album that you can access here. The cards appear in the album not by the year in which they were issued, but rather in the order in which the player made their major league debut. Thus, even though the card for Esteban Bellán wasn’t produced until 2014, he is the first one in the set.
I collect team sets and vintage single cards from Pacific Coast League teams. Of course, I have all the Mariners’ affiliate’s cards, but I also own numerous sets from a wide variety of teams out of the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. My latest acquisition is a team issued ’75 Tucson Toros set- the AAA affiliate of the Oakland A’s.
The cards are not exactly attractive. The grainy, black and white photos are filled with obscuring shadows. The non-standard size and format were used by other PCL teams in the mid-70s. I have similar sets for Tacoma, Spokane, Phoenix and Sacramento.
The photos are taken at venerable Hi Corbett Field in Tucson, which is the current home of Arizona State University’s baseball team. Of course, the Indians held spring training there for decades. In a personal aside, my wife and I “honeymooned” at spring training in ’91. We saw the Mariners play at Hi Corbett, and Indians’ broadcaster, Herb Score, gave me an autograph.
What makes the 1975 Tuscon set interesting—to me at least—are the familiar players. Many are veterans trying to hang on and earn one last chance in the “bigs.” A good example is Roger Nelson, who was the Royals number one draft pick in the ’69 expansion draft. He managed a couple of decent seasons with KC, but injuries short circuited his career. He went on to be better known as “Weird” Al Yankovic (joke).
Another “hanger on” was Billy “Eye Chart” Grabarkewitz. The one-time, top Dodger prospect had an All-Star year in ’70 but never again had sustained success. Tucson in ’75 is his swan song in pro ball. Bill’s most important contribution to baseball history is little known. It was his single in the 12th inning of the ’70 All-Star game that put Pete Rose in scoring position. Jim Hickman’s single sent Rose home, ending in the famous collision with Ray Fosse.
If anything went missing in the clubhouse, the team turned to the resident catcher/detective: Charlie “Chant.” His tendency to speak as if he were reading fortune cookie proclamations and dropping all his articles was a pain; however, Charlie always found the missing athletic supporter.
Rich McKinney is on the team as well. His ‘73 Topps airbrushed photo is so bad that it is positively glorious.
Legendary Oakland A’s owner, Charlie Finley, was afflicted with “trader’s remorse.” Often, Charlie would re-acquire a player he traded away. Several of the Toros fall into this category. Would-have-been ’70 Seattle Pilot, Lew Krausse, started with the KC A’s as a 18-year old phenom in ’61. Charlie was so enamored with Lew that he brought him back twice. Actual Seattle Pilot, Skip Lockwood, started in the A’s organization as did Ramon Webster, before being traded to San Diego. Veteran reliever, Orlando Pena, spent several years with the KC A’s in the ‘60s.
Chester “Chet” Lemon is the player in the set who would go on to have the best Major League career. He would star for the White Sox and Tigers in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
The Toros’ manager was veteran MLB pitcher Hank Aguirre. Many of you may remember a recent post from fellow committee member Anthony Salazar, which featured Hank, who is his personal hero.
Living up to his “gritty” name, Galen Pitts has a bandaged nose. Perhaps he “duked it out” with a member of the Albuquerque Dukes.
We can pretty much assume that future Braves’ pitching coach, Leo Mazzone, nervously rocked on the bullpen bench before entering a game.
Wearing the familiar green and gold uniform colors of his namesake Ray, catcher Buzz Nitschke was frequently called upon to flatten half backs who broke through the Toros’ front line.
To wrap it up, I present the mascot, “Freddy the Toro.” He appears to be holding a wagon tongue ready to rid Hi Corbett Field of an obnoxious, drunken fan.
I recently purchased a 2017 San Francisco Seals set commemorating the players from the WWII era. The 73-card set was produced by the artist, Carl Aldana, who often used historical images of the PCL in his paintings.
Aldana worked in Hollywood as a storyboard illustrator and in other art related capacities. He contributed to movies ranging from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” to “Halloween 3.” In a sad note, Mr. Aldana passed away on February 8, 2019.
The most appealing part of the Seals set is that Aldana used the early ‘50s PCL “Mother’s Cookies” template. The cards have rounded corners and feature solid pastel background. Mr. Aldana colorized the black and white photos. The backs feature a check list with the cards arrange by background color.
Many of the players do not fall into the “household names” category, but several players with major league pedigree are in the set. Of course, the legendary manager of the Seals, Lefty O’Doul has a card. Tony Lazzeri, who played for the Seals during the war is featured as well. Ferris Fain would go on to win two batting titles with the Philadelphia A’s. Larry Janson joined the NY Giants in ‘47 and won 23 games in ’51, helping the Giants win the pennant…the Giants win the pennant!
The Aldana retro-cards provide a good look at the various uniforms worn by the Seals during the ‘30s and ‘40s. During the war years, the club wore a patriotic shield for a cap emblem and arm patch.
There are several group cards in the set, including a “wacky” pose by the “Pitching Prospects.”
The intensity is palpable in these posed action shots.
Mr. Aldana never attempted to “airbrush” logos if he couldn’t find a photo of the player in a Seals uniform. This results in some cards featuring players in MLB uniforms or on other minor league teams.
This “seals the deal” for now, but in a follow up post I will look at Aldana’s other PCL cards done in the Mother’s Cookies style. There are several ’57 Seals cards that will interest the Red Sox fans amongst us, since San Francisco was a Bosox affiliate.
For the last year, I’ve been trying to organize my card collection after a quarter century of neglect. I started with the outlying stuff – non-sports cards, hockey cards, misc., then worked through basketball and football to the big prize.
It was fun to go through the cards of my youth (first set, 1958 Topps) and those of my early collecting years (a stash of T-206s, reprints and Laughlin cards from the 1970s). So far, I’d logged almost 70,000 major league cards with several boxes of doubles still to go.
And then I decided I’d better tackle my minor league sets. Going through old minor league sets, 1974-1993, is a slog of entire Rookie League teams who never produced a major leaguer, of cards of trainers and p.r. directors and batboys and owners, and owners’ sons. On the other hand, there are teams that featured pairs such as Juan Gonzalez and Sammy Sosa or Pedro Martinez and Mike Piazza, and Triple A Teams where nearly everybody got at least a cup of coffee.
It was interesting to watch the cards themselves change over the years. The minor league cards of the mid-1970s were black and white photos set inside a one-color design. As art, they were less than stimulating. The sets were plagued by mis-identified players, mis-spelled names and missing players.
By the 1980s, as Topps responded to competition in the major league sets, the minor league producers (TCMA, Cramer, Fritsch) began to respond to the color photography and better graphics of firms such as ProCards, Best and Star.
But besides stumbling over the Hall of Famers, some of the best moments were finding cards of people who became famous for something else. I’m not talking about the promo cards featuring Kevin Costner.
I’m talking about the Florida State League (High A) 1977 St. Petersburg Cardinals, which included future major leaguers Kelly Paris, John Littlefield, John Fulgham, Ray Searage and Tommy Herr. It also included an infielder named Scott Boras. He had an OPS of .863 at St. Petersburg, was promoted to Double A and traded to the Cubs. But after 1977, approaching 25, he retired, went to law school and entered another line of work.
Another who entered a somewhat different line of work was on the 1989 Billings Mustangs of the Rookie level Pioneer League. He was a young shortstop named Trevor Hoffman. He had an OPS of .607 that year, and slumped further the next year at Charleston, WV of the South Atlantic League. In 1991, the Reds decided he might be better used elsewhere and within two years he was in the majors.
And then there was John Elway on the 1982 Oneonta Yankees.
Future managers spiced up the slog: Jim Leyland on the 1975 Clinton Giants, Jim Riggleman on the 1977 Arkansas Travellers, Bob Brenly on the 1977 Cedar Rapids Giants, Bruce Bochy on the 1977 Cocoa Astros, Ron Washington on the 1980 Toledo Mud Hens, Bud Black on the 1981 Lynn Sailors, Felipe Alou (with Randy Johnson) on the 1986 West Palm Beach Expos, Torey Lovullo on the 1988 Glens Falls Tigers,
And then there were the front office people: Dave Stewart on the 1980 Albuquerque Dukes, Omar Minaya (and broadcaster Harold Reynolds) on the 1981 Wausau Timbers, Billy Beane (with Darryl Strawberry) on the 1982 Jackson Mets, Ken Williams on the 1983 Appleton Foxes, Kevin Towers on the 1984 Beaumont Golden Gators, Steve Phillips on the 1985 Lynchburg Mets, MLBPA head Tony Clark on the 1986 Daytona Beach Islanders.
For the star seekers, minor league teams occasionally had Hall of Famers as managers (Frank Robinson, 1978 Rochester Red Wings). More commonly, they brought back Hall of Famers as coaches or for a promotional night, and issued cards of them as well. Hoyt Wilhelm, Orlando Cepeda, Sandy Koufax, Bob Feller and Warren Spahn pop on various teams.
Overall, it proved an interesting tour of both the players of that era and the evolution of the card industry.