My 1887 Old Judge…not!

Just so everybody here doesn’t think that as a defender of card grading, I’m a shill for PSA, I’ll share a weird experience I had a few years ago with an amazing goof on a card I sent to be graded.

I needed a graded card of Hall of Fame umpire Hank O’Day to add to my “unrestricted” set of Hall of Fame cards. “Unrestricted” means any card of any year, even if it’s long after a person played or lived, including graded Hall of Fame plaque postcards or Dick Perez portrait postcards. Generally, people create such sets with cards they already have from other more standard issues, but obviously folks like me buy other PSA graded cards to fill holes in these kind of sets. To each, his own. It’s how collecting works.

Yes, I know. I don’t consider these postcards really standard baseball cards but – rationalization here – some HoF members have very few real cards, and the one or two that exist are outrageously expensive in any form. So sometimes, I have settle for HOF postcards (which, proudly, I bought at the HOF gift shop in Cooperstown. The clerk was interested to know why I was buying these obscure players’ and execs’ postcards.)

Well, I sent PSA a Conlon card (early 1990s. obviously) of Hank O’Day to be graded. Silly me, I thought it looked pretty good and might rate a PSA 7 grade. Duh. It came back as a 5.5; pretty much worthless in graded form for a card from this set. (I eventually added it anyway as a Conlon to my set.)

Remarkably, PSA had somehow encapsulated this Conlon card as an 1887 N172 Old Judge. Gosh, I wish that had been what it really was! At that point, it was in the PSA registry as if the company had graded a 1887 Old Judge 5.5, which would be quite a find.

hank O'Day goof_NEW

I posted this card for sale with the scanned image on eBay, clearly pointing out that it was NOT an 1887 Old Judge. Since I had another raw O’Day card, I was hoping to recoup the grading cost and mailing fee (both quite steep, as those who submit cards to PSA know well). Normally when I list a nice card on Ebay, I might get half a dozen bids and maybe two dozen page views. If I recall, this card got more than 15,000 views in a day.

Immediately, the administrative assistant to PSA’s CEO contacted me, asking that I take down the listing and send the card back to be re-slabbed. Well, I wasn’t born yesterday (literally). PSA does correct what it calls mechanical errors free of charge, and I have taken advantage of this a couple of times, much to my benefit. Player’s names or years sometimes are incorrect on PSA cards out there. Mistakes happen.

But this Old Judge snafu seemed especially egregious, and I wasn’t inclined to send this card back to PSA just to get something pretty much worthless in return. I asked for a couple of free gradings, which were agreed to (though l still had to pay shipping) in addition to the corrected holder for my 5.5 Conlon card back. I probably could have driven a better deal, but I wasn’t looking to cheat or hurt anyone.

I do not share this experience to knock PSA. I understand the grading critieria. I pay to be a Collectors Club member, and I enjoy reading the monthly magazine articles about different sets, many of which are written by SABR member Kevin Glew, a journalist who is a major Canadian baseball authority (and who I have encouraged to post here). I enjoy and appreciate the Set Registry, which is free to participate in.

PSA told me the mistake happened after the card itself was graded. I accept that, but my gosh, I hope a better final checking process is now in place. I’m sure thousands of images of this card were downloaded when it was up for sale on Ebay, so I don’t hesitate to post it here.

Cardboard Crosswalk: 1991-95 Conlon Collection and 1933-34 Goudey

Author’s note: This is the first in what may be a series of “Cardboard Crosswalk” posts comparing cards across sets. Use the Comments to let me know if you’d like to see more articles like this one.

Introduction

A fun exercise when I flip through my Conlon Collection binder is to match up the classic Charles Conlon photographs on the cards with some of the older baseball cards that used the same images. My focus for this article will be the connection between these Conlon cards and the iconic 1933-34 Goudey sets.

While one normally wouldn’t expect cards issued six decades later to help shed light on sets from the 1930s, I hope we’ll see exactly that by the end of the this post. If not, boy was this a lot of work for nothing!

Defining the sets

Though there are numerous Conlon sets, I’m restricting my focus to the consecutively numbered 1430 cards issued from 1991-1995. Aside from occasional banners and badges on the cards, nearly all of them look quite a bit like this Hank Greenberg from the 1995 grouping.

Greenberg.jpg

The 1933 Goudey set, meanwhile, has 240 cards, with the bulk of the set using the “Big League Chewing Gum” banner design of this Rabbit Maranville and just under a third of the cards forgoing the banner, as is the case with this Joe Morrissey card.

design differences

Finally, the 1934 Goudey set follows two main designs with 84 of the 96 cards bearing a blue “Lou Gehrig says” banner and 12 cards from the high number series bearing a red “Chuck Klein says” banner.

34G examples.jpg

Comparing the 1933 Goudey images against the Conlon cards

As Charles Conlon was the preeminent baseball photographer of his day, a great many of the images used in pre-war sets derive from his work. Thirty-five of the 240 cards in the 1933 Goudey set show this directly, starting with the very first card in the set.

Bengough

In some cases, a single Conlon photo supported multiple cards. The most prominent example is the photo shown on card 888 from the Conlon set, which supported Goudey cards 53, 144, and 149 of the Bambino.

Ruth

In case there is any doubt that this photo was the source for the yellow and red Ruth cards above, here is the same photo cropped and resized. Perfect match.

Ruth 2.jpg

The most typical application of the Conlon photos involved the small amount of cropping necessary to adjust for the Goudey proportions, a masking of background elements, and of course colorization. The Bengough cards already shown and the Marty McManus cards below show all three of these modifications.

McManus

While the yellow and red Ruth cards show the most extreme cropping/zooming, several other cards nonetheless employ cropping and zooming beyond the minimal level needed to fit the Goudey dimensions.

Douthit

Lou Gehrig on the decline?

The most unusual alteration to a Conlon photo involves this Lou Gehrig card, of which there are two in the set. Something that had always bothered me with these cards was the sense Gehrig was batting down a hill.

Gehrig.jpg

We will see this is exactly the case by examining card 529 in the Conlon set.

Conlon Gehrig

As the tallness of the original photo was not compatible with the Goudey dimensions, the two simplest modifications, aside from choosing a new photo, would have been to crop or shrink the image. Examples of each approach are shown below.

Gehrig option 1

However, the less aesthetic, more clever option that at least appeals to the ex-mathematician and Pythagoras fanboy in me is to rotate the original image. Sure enough that is exactly what Goudey did. The good news is the card has “more Gehrig” than otherwise; the bad news is we get the “batting down a hill” posture you may never again un-see.

Gehrig rotation

I had a little fun in MS Paint trying to reconstruct what this Gehrig card would have looked like if Goudey hadn’t been so darn clever. I prefer the crop and shrink options considerably over the rotation, though I will put one I like even better at the end of this post.

Triple Gehrig.jpg

Okay, enough of the Gehrig card already? Almost.

In hindsight, even without the Conlon photo, there is a clue on the Gehrig that serious hijinks were afoot. Take a look at the third card again, the real Gehrig. See it yet? Okay, here it is.

Gehrig top

Yep, that’s the tip of Lou’s bat spilling over onto the border. Had this occurred with any of the other 334 cards in the two Goudey sets, we might just assume some sloppiness or artistic license. However, the Gehrig cards provide the only two examples of this, suggesting the unique approach taken with the photo was the likely culprit.

Complete inventory of 1933 Goudey-Conlon pairs

This post would get very, very long if I added pictures of all thirty-five 1933 Goudey-Conlon pairs, but here is the complete crosswalk for the two sets. (Feel free to contact me if you’d like a document that includes all the card images.)

I’ll preface the listing by acknowledging that there are pairs not on this list where the images were close but in my opinion not the same. There is subjectivity in image matching, and it’s possible a different collector might arrive at a slightly different list.

Inventory.JPG

Analysis

There is something in our collector DNA that simply loves putting similar cards side by side, whether the Blue Jays/Rangers Bump Wills cards from 1979 or a seven-year run of Steve Garvey all-star cards.

garvey run

To that end, if all this post does is help you put your 1933 Goudey cards next to their Conlon ancestors (or descendants) or dig up your Garvey cards, then good deal! 

On the other hand, if you’re interested in learning more about the Goudey sets from the Conlon crosswalk, definitely read on! There is only one quick preliminary you’ll need to know first. 

The 1933 Goudey cards were printed on ten different sheets, with each sheet (or sometimes pairs) having its own release schedule. For example, cards from Sheet 1 were released around the beginning of the season, and cards from Sheet 10 were released after the World Series.

Conlon phase-out

Referring back to the inventory of Conlon-Goudey pairs, we can count up the number of Conlon photos per sheet, graph the data, and quickly spot a pattern.

Graph.JPG

Even noting that Conlon had thousands of photographs beyond the 1530 that appeared in the 1991-1995 Conlon Collection, the graph very clearly shows Goudey’s decreasing use of Conlon photos as the year progressed. I believe what we are seeing in the graph is the shift from Charles Conlon to George Burke as the main source of photographs for the set.

Just to reinforce the point that the Conlon Collection cards reflect only a fraction of Conlon’s photography, here is a Tony Lazzeri photo of his that did not appear in the Conlon Collection. Based on the graph, you might presume Tony Lazzeri’s card came from a low-numbered sheet in the Goudey set, and you’d be correct: Sheet 1.

Lazzeri.jpg

And while we’re at it, another Conlon photo not in the Conlon Collection set with a corresponding Goudey card off Sheet 4.

Hornsby

Does this photo make me look younger?

There is another bit of information we can learn about the Goudey set from the Conlon card matches. You may have noticed the Conlon cards pictured in this post all have a year on the front. In most cases the year indicates when the picture was taken, though in some cases it may also/instead indicate the year of a particular feat described on the card. The graph below shows the year distribution of the photos matching the Goudey set.

Graph 2

The main takeaway, which I suspect many of you already knew, is that the images in the Goudey set are hardly confined to the preceding twelve months as we’ve become accustomed to with modern sets. Instead these photos span an entire decade. Combining this information with the earlier graph yields this (at least approximate) picture of the 1933 set.

  • Began from largely older photos from Conlon
  • Grew through (probably) newer/current photos from Burke

We can also use the wide range of image dates to better understand a distinction between Ruth’s card 181 (greenish one) and the other three Ruth cards in the set.

Two Ruth pics.jpg

If you ever imagined that the “green” Ruth (card 181) looked a lot older than the Ruth on the set’s other three cards, it may be because he is! We know from Conlon card 888 that cards 53, 144, and 149 of Ruth are based on a 1927 photo. Meanwhile, the photograph behind card 181 was most likely taken in 1932 or 1933, a good 5-6 years later in people years or 15-18 years later in Ruth years.

Action too good to be true

I’ll close out the 1933 crosswalk with one last tidbit, again probably not surprising to most collectors: the action shots in the 1933 set are faked!

Dykes.jpg

Ignoring the lack of a catcher and umpire, that Goudey card of Jimmy Dykes sure looks like he just took a mighty swing. Was it a homer? A hard liner into the gap? A searing line drive just over the third baseman’s head? None of the above, of course! It was just a warm-up swing near the dugout.

Very brief look at 1934 Goudey

You may have noticed that I have said nothing about the 1934 Goudey set since the introduction to this post. There is a good reason for that. True, there are three cards from the set that have partners in the Conlon Collection, but…

1934G and Conlon.jpg

All three of these cards (numbers 1, 11, and 14) come from the first of the four 1934 sheets, in which all 24 cards reused images from the 1933 set. In other words, there’s nothing new here.

1933 to 1934.jpg

However, I do at least want to update a graph from the previous section. I’ll use the labels 11-14 for the four sheets that made up the 1934 Goudey set. Even more clearly than before, we can see the phasing out of Conlon images, presumably in favor of Burke.

Graph 3.JPG

Conclusion

I won’t lie. It was a tedious exercise to compare nearly 2000 cards. As I own only a handful of the Goudey cards, I didn’t even get the thrill of laying actual cardboard side-by-side. Still, it was a fun bit of work to compare the sets, and I felt like a successful person every time I found a match. I was also particularly gratified to solve the mystery of the downhill Gehrig.

And finally, here is the the new and improved Gehrig I promised. Just don’t look too closely. I hardly do this for a living!

Newest Gehrig.jpg

 

Waxing elegiac: a century of cards in memoriam

Author’s note: I really enjoyed two posts from fellow SABR Baseball Cards Committee writer Jon Leonoudakis (jongree). His “Death Comes for Active Baseball Players” and “Death & Baseball Cards” inspired me to attempt a catalog of all 20th century baseball cards honoring the fallen. As the boundaries can sometimes be blurry in this work, I limited my scope to cards that came out within a year or two of the player’s death.

Okay, friends, here come the cards that really put the “rip” in ripping wax, the cards that turn requiescat in pace into requiescat in pack, and the cards you should never buy autographed on eBay. Among their numbers you’ll see Hall of Famers and guys you might not have ever heard of. You’ll see some familiar sets, and you’ll see some obscure ones. And you’ll even see some hockey guys. There really is no greater equalizer than death.

1994 Conlon Collection

These cards don’t count in the same way as the others featured in this post as the players honored had retired many decades earlier. Still, I thought they warranted inclusion, if for no other reason than to show how blessed we were to have these great players still among us not that long ago. Plus, when’s the last time a Charles Conlon photo ruined a page?

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1992-1993 Conlon Collection

Similar to the above, the 1993 Conlon set included In Memoriam cards for Joe Sewell and Billy Herman. The 1992 set included an In Memoriam card for Luke Appling, though they got the Latin a bit wrong.

9090-475fr

1990 Bart Giamatti cards – various

Topps, Donruss, Score, and O-Pee-Chee all paid tribute to baseball’s poet-commissioner, A. Bartlett Giamatti, who passed away on October 1, 1989. The card fronts make no mention of his passing, though his very inclusion in these sets would have been unusual otherwise. Card backs include his date of death.

Giamatti.jpg

1978 Frisz Minnesota Twins Danny Thompson

Danny Thompson died from leukemia on December 10, 1976. While he did not appear in any 1977 sets, he was given card 46 in a regional Twins release. The card back includes his date of death and changes “bats and throws righthanded” to the past tense.

Danny Thompson.jpg

1977 Topps Danny Thompson

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Hat tip to fellow SABR Baseball Cards blogger Keith Olbermann (you may know him from other stuff too) for this one, including the image.

As the Reggie card probably alerted you, these are Topps proof cards. The Thompson card is particularly unique in that he had no card at all when the 1977 set was finalized. Topps essentially acknowledged his passing by erasing him from the set. I’m not sure what stage of grief this suggests Topps was in. Denial?

1972 O-Pee-Chee Gil Hodges

At first glance the 1972 Topps and OPC issues for Gil Hodges look pretty much alike, at least until you read the fine print. “Deceased April 2, 1972.” I have to imagine the card prompted a number of Canadian youngsters to ask their parents what “deceased” meant. Overall a classy move by O-Pee-Chee and one I wish they repeated the following year for Mr. Clemente.

hodges

1964 Topps

Ken Hubbs died so young that this card’s almost hard to look at. Still, Topps really went the extra mile in modifying their card design to honor the Cubs infielder.

Ken Hubbs.jpg

As noted by jongree in both of his posts, Hubbs was not the only baseball death in 1964. Houston pitcher Jim Ulbricht died on April 8 from a malignant melanoma at the age of 33. Topps noted his passing on the bottom of his card back.

Umbricht.jpg

1956 Gum Inc. Adventure (R749) Harry Agganis

I type this one with a lump in my throat as I nearly died in 2016 from the same thing that killed Harry Agganis. The 26-year-old Red Sox first baseman died suddenly from a pulmonary embolism on June 27, 1955. A rather oddball trading card set whose subjects ranged from porcupines to sunburns included Agganis, Boston’s Golden Greek, as card 55.

Aggannis.jpg

Honorable Mention: 1955 Bowman and 1952 Topps

While there is fortunately no death to report, hence the mere honorable mention status, the 1955 Bowman Eddie Waitkus card back must be one of the most unique in the history of the hobby, right down to his story’s final sentence. His 1952 Topps also makes mention of his near-death experience, which inspired the Bernard Malamud novel “The Natural.”

waitkus

Waitkus2.jpg

1949 Leaf Babe Ruth

First off, yeah, I’m one of those annoying guys that refuses to say 1948 Leaf or even 1948-1949 Leaf. The Ruth card in this set makes no mention of his August 16, 1948, death. However, there are reasons to at least view this card as Leaf paying their respects.

  • Ruth is the only retired player in the set.
  • The set would have been planned right around the time of his passing.
  • Leaf even gave him card number 3, his famous uniform number with the Yankees.

Now read the back. It’s hard not to read it as an epitaph. RIP Sultan.

Ruth.jpg

1941 Harry Hartman set

Following a late season slump, Reds backstop Willard Hershberger took his own life on August 3, 1940 and to this day remains the last active player to have committed suicide. His card back is rather unique in that it relays to us the emotional impact of his death on his Cincinnati teammates. (Thank you to Chuck Ailsworth for alerting me to this card that was 100% off my radar!)

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1937-1938 World Wide Gum V356 Hockey

I know, I know…this is the BASEBALL card blog. But shoot, this one was too good to not include. And the card design is a complete clone of the V355 baseball release so what the heck. The first thing to know is that a Montreal Canadiens player named Howie Morenz died on March 8, 1937. His card back acknowledges as much.

morenz sr

If that was all the World Wide Gum set did, I wouldn’t have included it. However, the set took a particularly unique move that I think gives it an important place in any write-up of in memoriam cards.

morenz jr

The first time I saw this card while digging through a mixed baseball/hockey stack at a card show I assumed it was just a baby-faced player from back in the day. I had no idea it was a nine-year-old kid until I flipped it over. If I wrote blog posts back then I would have written about it, so here you go!

1911 T205 Gold Border Addie Joss

Addie Joss had the shortest life of any MLB Hall of Famer, dying from meningitis at the age of 31. Though he pitched in a very different era, his 1.89 ERA is nothing to shake a stick at. And if you did try that, you’d probably miss anyhow.

All the cards in the Gold Border set are works of art, but Addie’s takes on a special poignancy given the tragedy of his recent passing, noted in the lead sentence of the card’s reverse. The final paragraph of the bio is worth a read as well.

“He was a faithful player, liked by the team mates and respected by the public, many thousands of whom attended his funeral.”

Joss.jpg

1910 Doc Powers Day postcard

From the “Standard Catalog of Vintage Baseball Cards…”

“To announce to fans the forthcoming Doc Powers Day benefit game, the Philadelphia A’s produced this standard sized (5-1/2″ x 3-1/2″) black-and-white postcard. Front has a photo of the late A’s catcher and information about the special events to be held June 30. On back is a message over the facsimile autograph of Connie Mack asking fans to remember the widow and children of their fallen star.”

PowersPostcard 2.jpg

Quick aside: The great-granddaughter of Doc Powers is hoping to nab this card on the extremely slim chance you have doubles.

Dedication

This article is dedicated to young Simon Tocher. Cause of death: Collecting. Source: Boston Globe, August 25, 1910. RIP, young lad. You’re among friends here. I promise.

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Still can’t get enough?

If the real cards profiled in this post leave you wanting more, the “When Topps Had (Base) Balls blog has you covered. Click here to visit its “In Memoriam” gallery, which features a mix of custom cards in the style of the ones here along with other tributes to baseball personalities who have passed away over the years.

A tip of the hat to you, Gio, for all the great work you do keeping this hobby fun and filling in the essential holes in our collections!

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The Conlon Collection Project: Part 5 (The Finale)

1991 Conlon packs

The Conlon Project series concludes with Part 5.  These stories have been based on Conlon cards selected by our writers. This week’s final installment includes stories on Conlon figures: Max Bishop by Joe Gruber; Babe Ruth by Anthony Salazar; and Rogers Hornsby by Thomas Saunders.

 

If missed you the incredible story of the origins of the Conlon Collection by Steve Gietschier, be sure to check out: https://sabrbaseballcards.blog/2017/11/27/the-conlon-collection-project-intro/

 

As we sunset this project, I am very grateful for my newfound appreciation for the players of this era, and for the brilliant photographic work of Charles M. Conlon.  Baseball history is fortunate enough to have such a visionary.  I would also like to thank our writers for participating in this special project:

 

Alex Diaz

Anthony Salazar

Chris Dial

Craig Hardee

Doe Gibson

Jennifer Hurtarte

Jim Hoffman

Joe Gruber

Jonathan Daniel

Josh Mathes

Keith Pennington

Mark Armour

Mark Black

Mike Beasley

Nick Vossbink

Rock Hoffman

Scott Chamberlain

Thomas Saunders

Tim Jenkins

Tom Shrimplin

Tony Lehman

 

And thank you for your comments and encouragement!  Enjoy Part 5!

 

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Max Bishop

PLAYER:          Max Bishop

CARD #:           183

AUTHOR:        Joe Gruber

 

I had seen these cards before when they first were issued and may even have a few packs somewhere in my vast collection. They appeal to me because I have always liked learning about the history of baseball. I chose this particular card because I am a Red Sox fan and didn’t want a well-known player to write about.

 

Black and white photos remind me of my grandparents and that era. As I look at Max I feel like I could be looking at someone from the old neighborhood sitting on the corner talking, smoking and passing the time. My memory of men who grew up in that era is they seemed to smile about like Max is “smiling” in this picture. Even though the picture is black and white I can see the detail to the uniform and hat (less so) and would love to have a set just like them. The piping around the collar and down the front is really cool to me. It also reminds me of my first baseball uniform as an 8-year-old in 1974. I can still feel and smell that raggedy old uniform complete with real stirrup socks.

 

The final observation I have is the fact that Max had a nickname “Camera Eye”. It seems to have come from the fact that he had more walks than hits in 5 of 12 seasons he played. There are some contemporary players with good nicknames, but the vintage ones seem better and back then, that everyone had one. Maybe they sounded better or filled time while doing play-by-play on the radio.

 

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Babe Ruth

PLAYER:          Babe Ruth

CARD #:           145

AUTHOR:        Anthony Salazar

 

Little things tend to bug me to no end.  It’s not that I’m the obsessive type, but I have a hard time getting past incongruities.  The Babe Ruth card (#145) is one of them.  I don’t mean to rag on the Babe – I’m just as much of a fan as the next guy – but I’ve got major issues with this particular card that commemorates the 75th anniversary of the Red Sox 1916 World Series victory.

 

The #145 card depicts the Babe as a 21-year-old pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, though the photo has him taking a pre-game swing at home plate.  If he’s a pitcher, where’s my photo of a guy on the mound?  If you say he’s a pitcher, give the guy a ball and put him 60 feet 6 inches from a batter.  The Babe had a great year as a pitcher in 1916, going 23-12 with a league-leading ERA of 1.75 with 170 strikeouts.  This, compared to his performance as a batter, where his average was .272 with 37 hits and 3 home runs over 67 games.

 

In my efforts to locate a Conlon photo of Ruth as a pitcher, I came up empty.  Searching through the books, “Baseball’s Golden Age: The Photographs of Charles M. Conlon” and “The Big Show: Charles M. Conlon’s Golden Age Baseball Photographs,” I did discover, however, that the Ruth photo used for the #145 card was not actually shot in 1916, but in 1918!  For the record, he went 13-7 with a 2.22 ERA and 40 strikeouts that year.  Obviously not as impressive as two seasons prior.

 

I was rather disappointed with this discovery, which led me to believe that the card was apparently created to fit a specific narrative, rather than paint an accurate picture of the time and place.  Little things tend to bug me to no end.

 

Though, as photo composition goes, it’s a striking piece especially when shown next to Conlon’s 1922 photo of the Babe in almost exactly the same swing in “Baseball’s Golden Age: The Photographs of Charles M. Conlon.”  The card seems to depict a picture of what we might expect from the future Babe Ruth.

 

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Rogers Hornsby

PLAYER:          Rogers Hornsby

CARD #:           1

AUTHOR:        Thomas Saunders

 

The look of a stoic, heroic, determined Texan…that’s the first thing I see when I look at the first card in the Conlon Collections series…card number one…Rogers Hornsby holding his bat in the Cubs dugout circa 1929.  The look on his face stands out to me; his eyes glaring yet half squinted, like he is looking into the west Texas sun of his birth; his mouth with a half smirk as if he has just spied a tell in a pitcher’s delivery that he is about to exploit with a line drive back through the pitcher’s box; his hands, bare and griping his bat in anticipation, tight but not too tight as his pink finger gently rests an inch above the knob.

 

I grew up just 30 miles from Winters, Texas the place of Hornsby’s birth.  I grew up loving baseball and, as a good Texian would, the state of my birth and its heroes and while Chicago or St. Louis might lay claim to Hornsby as theirs, living so close to his birth place I laid claim to him for Texas.

 

I played summer ball against teams from Winters, who’s baseball park bared Hornsby’s name.  I remember asking my grandmother once, before the age of the Internet, to see if we could try locate the great Hornsby’s grave in Winters as the native son MUST have been buried there and I wanted to pay my respects.  She obliged, and I fondly remember searching in vain two cemeteries looking for this legend’s final resting place so I could pay my respects, but to no avail.

 

The Conlon Collection always reminds me of my childhood and series one, card number one started that set and in many ways started me on the path of reading and appreciating baseball history.  The card was later made into a special issued color card, one of a series issued every year which I strove to collect.  Card #20 in the color card set was the same card #1 of Rogers Hornsby.  Color card #21 was of Shoeless Joe Jackson who I had grown to love through the movies “Eight Men Out” and “Field of Dreams.”  As a kid I thought he was wronged and as his card suggested why shouldn’t he be in the Hall of Fame.

 

I was 10 years old when I first discovered the Sporting News’ Conlon Collection, and I collected every set and still store them in protective three ring binders.  I still strive for Jackson’s reinstatement, and I remember fondly the fruitless search with my grandmother, who died just a few years later, for Rogers Hornsby’s grave in Winters, Texas…and I still claim Hornsby as a great Texas athlete.

 

…and interesting aside is this…while visiting my home for the holidays back in Blackwell, Texas I found an envelope the Mega Card company.  In 1995 the Mega Card factory had a special mail away where if you collected a specific number of proofs of purchases and mailed them in they would send you some rare color cards. I collected them and mailed them in, and they mailed me my limited edition cards.  However, they had misspelled my name, instead of Leman Saunders they had my name down as Lee Ann Saunders…the name of my future wife…Lee Ann and I have been married for over three years now.

 

The Conlon Collection Project: Part 4

1991 Conlon packs

The Conlon Project series continues with Part 4, a collection of five stories based on cards selected by our writers.  We continue to present different writers and different stories.

This week’s installment includes stories on Conlon figures: Pie Traynor by Scott Chamberlain; Bennie Tate by Tim Jenkins; Dizzy Dean by Tom Shrimplin; Earl Webb by Tony Lehman; and John “Chief” Meyers by Anthony Salazar.

If missed the incredible story of the origins of the Conlon Collection by Steve Gietschier, be sure to check out: https://sabrbaseballcards.blog/2017/11/27/the-conlon-collection-project-intro/

Enjoy!

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Pie Traynor

PLAYER:          Pie Traynor

CARD #:           268

AUTHOR:        Scott Chamberlain

As a Pittsburgh Pirates fan, my attention turns to players in a Pirates uniform first. But the Pie Traynor card in my pack grabbed my attention for more than just that. I selected his card because of the expression on his face. Charles Conlon captured Pie talking with a big smile on his face. That expression on his face seems to be saying, “I love being in a Pirates uniform and being part of this team!” Pie’s smile on this card is one that makes me feel good every time I look at it. I sure wish I knew what he was saying when the photograph was taken.

 

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Beeny Tate.jpg

PLAYER:               Bennie Tate

CARD #:               220

AUTHOR:             Tim Jenkins

Even though there were several well-known players in my pack, I was drawn toward a “common” player’s card: journeymen catcher, Bennie Tate. The anonymity of “scrub” players leads one to flip the card over to answer the question: Who is this guy?  Bennie’s biographical information on the back confirms his modest credentials by insinuating that his most significant “accomplishment” was calling the pitch that Babe Ruth hit for his 60th home run in ‘27.

Tate’s lack of notoriety aside, the photo is a classic Conlon portrait in that it reveals much about the person.  In an era where players often appeared older than their ages in photos, Bennie looks like a 25-year-old.  His demeanor is serious but not stern.  He seems pleased that Conlon is photographing a career back-up.

In addition, the image captures the feel of the early 20th century.  The high-collard, Senators uniform along with the WW1 memorial patch evokes the era.  Also, Tate wears the low-crowned, cap style of the period.  If the photo were in color, the cap would be white with a navy “W” and a red bill.

The clarity and evocative nature of Conlon’s work transcends baseball. My wife was intrigued by Conlon’s stunning photos and collected all the series in the 90s. Once, I visited a 6th grade classroom to show part of my memorabilia collection.  I gave the students Conlon doubles.  The kids were intrigued, as was their non-sports fan teacher. A testament to Conlon’s lasting artistry.

 

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Dizzy Dean

PLAYER:          Dizzy Dean

CARD #:           3

AUTHOR:        Tom Shrimplin

As I opened the package of Conlon baseball cards, one after another were names I remembered hearing about, until I got to the next to the last one in the stack.

Dizzy Dean is one of the first memories I have of baseball.  In the 50’s he was on the GAME OF THE WEEK, on TV in black and white, describing the action on the field and telling us stories of his time on the field.  Ol’ Diz was as entertaining as any comedian, now or then. And as a 6-year-old, his strange twang and dialect was something I had never heard.  At first, it was hard to understand, but after a few weeks, it was as familiar as Howdy Doody.

Only after I grew older and started to learn about baseball in the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s did I find out what a great pitcher he was.  He definitely deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, and it makes me sad I wasn’t able to see him pitch.  With an ERA ranging from 2.66 to 3.30 between 1932 and 1937, and a winning percentage of 0.644, I agree that he was one of the all-time best pitchers.

Only in baseball will you find a “character” like Dizzy Dean. That’s what make the game unlike any other.

 

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Earl Webb

PLAYER:          Earl Webb

CARD #:           261

AUTHOR:        Tony Lehman

Card #261 features Earl Webb – still the leader for most doubles in a season with 67. As the card informs us, Webb set this record in 1931 at the age of 32. Webb has always been something of a blank slate in my head, with thoughts of him colored by an old Topps cartoon on the back of a 1977 card.

This portrait of Webb that Conlon captured, however, shows more. An unsmiling Webb stares out from the dugout, looking directly at the camera. His uniform is buttoned all the way to his neck and adds to the seriousness of the photo. Webb almost looks crestfallen at the fact that it took him until his thirties to make an impact in the major leagues.  It’s a solemn photo, befitting the seriousness of the Great Depression era.

I chose this photo of Webb in part because of the solemnity – something about the look in his eyes feels like it is telling a story of a fight to get to the major leagues and, then, a fight to stay there. The other part: the photo is the first time I have ever seen Earl Webb as a person rather than being a cartoon character on the back of a baseball card.

 

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Chief Meyer.jpg

PLAYER:               John “Chief” Meyers

CARD #:               171

AUTHOR:             Anthony Salazar

Over the course of the Conlon Collection Project, I’ve looked over all the cards in this 1991 330-card set, the Chief Meyers card is one of the few that features a catcher.  Ray Schalk (#48) and Tony Lizzeri (#113), being the others.  The bulk of the set portray awesome player head shots, or pitchers and batters in action, but this Meyers card stuck me with great interest.

I usually don’t think too much about catchers (my apologies to those of you who do), but when looking at Meyers’ card, I thought about his era, the 1910s, the types of players he had to face and the equipment he used.  Meyers played the bulk of his nine-year career with the New York Giants, with a couple of season with the Brooklyn Robins.  He’s listed as being 5’11” and 194 lbs.  Not the most bulky of catchers, but he sounds pretty athletic.  The photo depicts Meyers presumably before the game taking some warm-up tosses.  He’s wearing his shin guards and a chest protector, sporting his pillowy catcher’s mitt with his facemask is in front of him on the ground.

Again, not being an avid aficionado of the catcher, I was intrigued enough to do a bit of research on the evolution of the catcher’s gear, particularly of his mask.  The version that Meyers seems to have was developed in 1910, called the “Wide Sight” or “Open Vision,” which gave catchers a better peripheral vision of the action.  I’m appreciative of the Conlon card for providing me the insight not only of Meyers, who was one of the few Native Americans on major league rosters at this time, but also of the catcher’s equipment during this era.

The Conlon Collection Project: Part 3

1991 Conlon packs

The Conlon Project series continues with Part 3, a collection of five stories based on cards selected by our writers.  We continue to present different writers and different stories.

 

This week’s installment includes stories on Conlon figures: Wes Ferrell by Mark Armour; Ray Morehart by Mark Black; Lon Warneke by Mike Beasley; Lefty Grove by Nick Vossbink; and Al Simmons by Rock Hoffman.

 

If missed the incredible story of the origins of the Conlon Collection by Steve Gietschier, be sure to check out: https://sabrbaseballcards.blog/2017/11/27/the-conlon-collection-project-intro/

Enjoy!

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Wes Ferrell

PLAYER:          Wes Ferrell

CARD #:           198

AUTHOR:        Mark Armour

 

The cello pack Anthony sent me had Joe Cronin visible on top.  This was Anthony’s gesture, as he knows I wrote a book on Joe, so he was basically tossing me an alley-oop.  Determined not to take the easy way out, I opened up the pack.

During the several years I worked on Cronin’s story, I got to know many of the players from this period, especially the AL players.  My Conlon pack included many of Joe’s teammates or players he managed.  Tony Lazzeri was a rival in San Francisco when both were kids. Goose Goslin was a star Senator when Cronin finally got his big chance on the same team. Bob Johnson was a star opponent for a decade before the Red Sox finally acquired him during the war and he became Cronin’s best hitter.

But my guy today is Wes Ferrell.  He was one of many AL stars (Jimmie Foxx, Lefty Grove, etc.) whom Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey acquired from other less rich teams in the 1930s.  Many of these strong-willed men made Cronin’s life hell for a few years, none more so than Wes Ferrell.  Cronin was the club’s shortstop and if Ferrell saw a reliever warming up in the bullpen he’d call Cronin over and say, “if that mother f**ker doesn’t sit down, I ain’t pitching.”  He’d walk off the mound if there were errors made behind him, especially by his manager.  One time, Cronin gave him a big fine, and Ferrell said he’d punch him in the face the next time he saw him.  Eventually it all blew over, but inevitably he had to be traded.

But Wes Ferrell could play.  In 1935, for example, he won 25 games as a pitcher (a total of 8.4 WAR) and also hitting .347 with 7 home runs as a hitter (2.6 more WAR).  His 11 WAR (per Baseball-Reference.com) were the most in the league.

Like many pitchers of his time Wes Ferrell did not age well.  But he was one of baseball’s best players for several years, and deserves to be remembered.

 

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Ray Morehart

PLAYER:          Ray Morehart

CARD #:           102

AUTHOR:        Mark Black

 

My first 18 years of Sundays were spent in a (seemingly) never ending sequence of church, visits with relatives, Sunday dinners, and feelings of resentment because I was missing out on better ways to spend the weekend.

My grandmother didn’t have cable so while adults were visiting, we’d entertain ourselves by exploring my grandmother’s bookshelves. There was one book that seemed to capture our attention over and over again, Mining Photographs and Other Pictures, 1948–1968 by Leslie Shedden. A collection of stark black and white industrial photos, it covered every aspect of the mining history of Cape Breton – pit ponies, safety photos, labor conditions, and family life.

Over 20 years separates the Conlon collection from the Shedden collection, but for me there’s an echo of Conlon’s work in those mining photos and there’s an echo of my grandmother’s house in Ray Morehart’s face.

Every player in my pack seemed more well-known, more talented, more accomplished, and possibly more appealing. I could have chosen any of them for this project, but I chose Ray Morehart. There was something about Ray Morehart – his ‘snaggletooth’, the bags under his eyes, his uneasy smile – among the Hall of Famers, the legends, and the more fêted members of the ’27 Yankees, he clearly stands out. Ray Morehart looks like he doesn’t belong and more strikingly, it looks like he knows it.

There’s a down-to-earthness to Morehart’s photo, that same modesty and humbleness that resonated with me when I cracked open that book of mining photos 30 years previous.

 

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Lon Warneke

PLAYER:          Lon Warneke

CARD #:           231

AUTHOR:        Mike Beasley

 

The quintessential quaff? The perfect pompadour? Baseball’s Brylcreem Boy for 1939? With hair combed high, the 6′ 2″, 185-pound right-handed sidewinding Lon Warneke compiled a 192-121 won-loss record, completed 192 contests, and threw 30 shutouts over a 14-year (1930-1945) span with the Cubs and Cardinals, posting a career 3.18 ERA. Warneke threw a no-hitter against Cincinnati in 1941. Of his four one-hitters, two were back-to-back to open the 1934 season for the Cubs. Following his playing days, the lifelong Arkansas resident umpired in the National League for five years, including the 1952 All-Star Game and the 1954 World Series. On retiring from baseball, he was elected a county judge in his home state, serving in that capacity from 1963 until 1972. Warneke passed in June 1976 at the age of 67.

It was almost a draw of the hat in choosing a particular Conlon card from the pack of 18, but Warneke won out for a variety of reasons. First, I was only vaguely familiar with the name, embarrassingly so, I have to admit. Then there’s the photograph, with rakish tilt of the cap, the high cheekbones, penetrating eyes and lean cheeks.  But that pile of hair propping up the ball cap! A display of the cool confidence of the Arkansas Hummingbird. I wonder, though, if he ever thought “a little dab’ll do ya” and slipped a slippery one into his repertoire?

 

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Lefty Grove.jpg

PLAYER:          Lefty Grove

CARD #:           23

AUTHOR:        Nick Vossbink

 

The thing about the Conlon photos is that you don’t see portraits like this too often on cards. They’re clearly Baseball™ but they’re also distinct from what we think of as card material. The thin depth of field from the 4×5 camera is something that we see now with super telephoto lenses yet the interaction between the photographer and the subject confirms a close working arrangement. Lefty Grove is isolated from the background but also clearly engaged with Conlon.

And the tones. My goodness. While panchromatic emulsions were available in the early 20th century, their expense delayed their adoption. As a result, Conlon’s images are especially sensitive to blue light — resulting in a rugged masculine beauty where everyone appears tanned and strong. Even though Lefty Grove looks young, his wrinkles are defined, and you can see the face he’ll mature into.

His uniform is also wonderful with the white elephant logo the A’s still use and even an undone middle button Pedro Martinez style. The piping on the jersey is classic and the piping on the hat is something I wish we still saw today. Also, that standup collar is something I can never picture working when I see it on a coat hanger, but I love how it looks here.

 

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Al Simmons

PLAYER:          Al Simmons

CARD #:           49

AUTHOR:        Rock Hoffman

For the Conlon Project, I selected the card of Al Simmons because the Athletics occupy a special place in the minds of Philadelphia baseball fans who know their history. I was born in Philadelphia and raised just outside of the city and I think there is a sense of pride that we had the Athletics and their five World Series wins. Of course, there were all those losing season too and combined with the Phillies, the fans of the Delaware Valley have seen a lot of bad baseball. Ultimately, I think there’s a feeling of disappointment that they left the city.

As I looked at the card of “Bucketfoot Al,” I saw that the photo was from 1924 which was Simmons first season in the majors, essentially it his rookie card. He’s 22 years old and has a look in his eyes of a life full of possibility. It’s like the line from the movie “Field of Dreams,” when Ray Kinsella sees his father as a young catcher and says, “He has his whole life in front of him.”

You wonder what Simmons is thinking, does he feel like he can become a star play or is he just hoping to hold on for a few years before he gets on with his life’s work.

 

The Conlon Collection Project: Part 2

The Conlon Collection Project series continues with Part 2, a collection of five stories based on cards selected by our writers.  Over the next several weeks we will present different writers and different stories.

This week’s installment includes stories on Conlon figures: Hack Wilson by Jennifer Hurtarte; Joe Giard by Jim Hoffman; Lyn Lary by Jonathan Daniel; Sam Rice by Josh Mathes; and Benny Bengough by Keith Pennington.

If missed the incredible story of the origins of the Conlon Collection by Steve Gietschier, be sure to check out: https://sabrbaseballcards.blog/2017/11/27/the-conlon-collection-project-intro/

Enjoy!

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Hack Wilson

PLAYER:          Hack Wilson

CARD #:           29

AUTHOR:        Jennifer Hurtarte

Hack Wilson was a Chicago Cub, which is the primary reason I chose him. However, another reason is that I have a promotional picture for Diamonds in the Rough with Wilson posing next to Radio Flyer wagons hanging on my bedroom wall. (It was inside the copy of Diamonds that I checked out from the Chicago Public Library many years ago and I thought it was cool, so I kept it. Please don’t tell anyone at CPL. J)

Wilson’s card makes me feel wistful, but it also reminds me why I love baseball. I am fascinated by history, and baseball’s rich history is probably the main reason I came to love it so much. This card makes me want to go back in time to see all the great players of the 1920s and 30s. Although he’s in the Hall of Fame and still holds the NL RBI record, I don’t think Wilson is as well-known as he should be. Perhaps he would have been remembered as one of the greats if his career (and life) hadn’t been cut short by alcoholism.

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Joe Giard

PLAYER:          Joe Giard

CARD #:           119

AUTHOR:        Jim Hoffman

Joe Giard of the 1927 Yankees is depicted on card 119 in the Conlon Collection set.  I prefer Conlon’s portrait images, and Giard is an interesting subject.  He’s smiling in this shot.  He seems confident and approachable.  His Yankees cap is pristine and fits perfectly on his head.  His eyes are clear and his eyebrows full.  His facial features remind me of my wife’s long passed Italian relatives, and in Giard, I feel their welcome and genuine sense of family.  It’s a flattering image of a man in his prime.

Still, the lines on Giard’s face make him appear 15 years older than he is here, in his late twenties.  1920s America was harder on the body, with alcohol, tobacco & environmental pollutants.  Personal training and nutrition were primitive.  All the players in this set appear older than they were.  We romanticize about the era, but it had to have been a more difficult life.  Still, Giard smiles.  He’s probably the least consequential member of one of the most consequential teams in history.  He only made it into 16 games all year, with a 0-0 record.  All the games had been decided when they called on him.  I wonder if he got tired of talking about Ruth and Gehrig, Hoyt, Lazzeri, Pennock and Miller Huggins.  What would it be like to be part of greatness, but almost all of it as a spectator?  But the stories he could tell.  And it looks like he’d be happy to tell them.

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Lyn Lary

PLAYER:          Lary Lyn

CARD #:           318

AUTHOR:        Jonathan Daniel

He’s 29 but he looks older. Much older.

Lyn Lary has the look of someone who has worked hard his entire life. He’s from Armona, CA, a town I know nothing about. But in my mind, Lyn Lary played baseball to escape Armona and make a better life for himself.

The main reason I chose Lary is that I’d never heard of him before and those players interest me. Who were they? How did they get to the big leagues? What did they do after they retired? Writing about the other players in my pack of cards like Al Simmons, Hack Wilson and Honus Wagner would be “easier,” but my preconceptions would bleed through. Choosing a player who was anonymous, at least to me, allowed me to focus on the image rather than the player and that’s what drew me in.

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Sam Rice

PLAYER:          Sam Rice

CARD #:           54

AUTHOR:        Josh Mathes

There are just a few things that have stayed almost exactly the same since before there was even one World War in the history books, let alone two.

I couldn’t travel back to our nation’s capital in 1916 and have a meaningful conversation with Sam Rice about too many things. We’d have no common background to discuss food, travel, or politics. We both grew up in the rural Midwest, so I suppose we could talk about the hot, humid summers or October leaves. But the vast majority of my experience in 21st century America would make no sense to Sam.  But we could have a catch.

He’d whip the ball to me the same way my dad and uncles did on summer weekend afternoons. The sound of the ball sailing through the air and smacking our leather gloves would be the same whether I went to Griffith Stadium or he came to a ballpark with a name like Guaranteed Rate, Globe Life, or SunTrust.

The world was bigger then. The ballparks, too. Sam played 20 seasons of big league ball and only hit a pitch over the fence 13 times. He had more home run sprints than trots (21 inside-the-park homers) and used the massive Griffith Stadium outfield to rack up 184 triples. Parks were built then to fit into their surrounding areas, not the other way around. Exit velocity and launch angle don’t matter as much when the left field pole is more than 400 feet away. So, although Sam would’ve recognized the basics of the game, as a guy who struck out about twice a month, he might be amused at the all-or-nothing approach of today’s hitters.

Throwing a baseball back and forth, though, getting ready to play the game, would feel the same no matter the time.

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Benny Bengough

PLAYER:          Benny Bengough

CARD #:           103

AUTHOR:        Keith Pennington

After looking through my pack of Conlon cards a couple of times, one card seemed to stand out to me.  It is a card of New York Yankees and St. Louis Browns catcher Benny Bengough. There was something about his look and his very slight smile.  He has very clear cool eyes and he just seemed to have an aura of peace and satisfaction to his smile.  Also, he looked current.  Like someone who could be working with me or that I knew today.  He did not look dated.

But again, it was the eyes that drew me back. The only thing I really knew about Benny was that he was on card #1 in the 1933 Goudey baseball set.  Aside from that, nothing.  I read the back of the card to learn about Benny and found out that he played on the 1927 Yankees (1923 through 1930, in fact).

Amazingly, in 1926, Benny was hitting an unbelievable .381 in 36 games, but was sidelined by a broken arm after being hit by a pitch.  He played six years after that but did not again come close to that previous success.  He also did not hit a home run in the majors.

Looking at his stats really made me wonder when the picture was taken: before or after the injury.  Is he is smiling because of a bright future ahead or is it a wistful smile at what might have been or a smile of contentment regardless of his circumstances, or a smile of knowing he was playing with some of the best baseball players and arguably on the best team of all time.

I don’t know.  But it was the smile and the eyes that led me to select this card.

The Conlon Collection Project: Part I

On November 27, I introduced the Conlin Collection Project.  This is Part 1 of a the resulting series of articles.

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George Burns

PLAYER:               George Burns

CARD #:               309

AUTHOR:             Alex Diaz

 

After opening the pack, I realized that many players took their photos without smiling, simply looking serious. Some players turned away from the camera. However, Mr. Burns did not. He looked right into the camera and purely smiled. His joy can be felt as soon as you see the card. If Mr. Burns was with us today, I believe this is what he will say: For the love of the game.

Every day, I button up the rough uniform, put on the old hat, and do what I love most, play baseball. Truth is, at the end of the day, baseball is a game. Nothing more, nothing less. What many people don’t realize is that life is a game, too. Sometimes you might hit a single and have everyone cheer for you. Sometimes you might hit a grounder and have everyone dislike you. Sometimes you might hit a homerun and feel like king of the world. While sometimes you might strikeout with bases loaded at the bottom of the ninth and cry yourself to sleep. You don’t know what each trip to the plate will bring to you, just like you don’t know what life will bring your way.

 

Life is a game, and I love to play it.

 

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Mel Almada

PLAYER:          Mel Almada

CARD #:           234

AUTHOR:        Anthony Salazar

 

By 1936, Almada was a 23-year-old veteran, having spent over three seasons with the Boston Red Sox.  He had performed fairly well with the club, appearing in 151 games the year before, sporting a .290 batting average with 176 hits.  In 1936, his batting verage would fall to .253.  I think the card reflects some of the intensity he was looking to re-capture from previous seasons.  Unfortunately, he would be traded from Boston to the Washington Senators the following season.

The card shows Almada in an away jersey, playing probably in Yankee Stadium against the Bronx Bombers.  He’s taking a few cuts before game time, probably awaiting his turn in the batting cages.  The away jersey is gray, though the stirrups are mostly red with blue and white stripes of different widths.  Of course, I’m looking at a black and white photo, but thanks to the Baseball Hall of Fame’s “Dressed to the Nines” online color exhibit, the 1936 stirrups are easy to tell.

Mel, or really, Baldomero Melo (Quiros) Almada, a native of northern Mexico, grew up in Los Angeles, and later spent a couple of seasons with the Seattle Indians (1932-33), playing with his brother, Lou.  I was excited to see his card, because I identified with him in a number of areas.  My family hails from northern Mexico, and settled in Los Angeles.  As I am based in Seattle, the Almada brothers are two of the early pioneers of Latinos in Seattle baseball history that I have admired.  It’s unfortunate that his career was not more widely known outside the Boston area.  I am glad, however, that Almada is featured in a great SABR Biography.

 

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Bob O'Farrell

PLAYER:               Bob O’Farrell

CARD #:               175

AUTHOR:             Chris Dial

 

My favorite part of the Conlon Collection is that there are photos of everyone. No need to be a star; it’s as if Conlon’s entire thought was towards baseball cards. In this pack, it’s a leisurely stroll – which player do I know the least about? Which ones are the most obscure? Or who is the most famous player that is “uncommon”?

One such player that came up was Bob O’Farrell, the catcher for the 1926 St. Louis Cardinals. I’d never heard of him. I know all his teammates – Rogers Hornsby, Sunny Jim Bottomley, Billy Southworth.  Even more from playing Diamond Mind, I knew of Les Bell, Taylor Douthit, and Ray Blades.  This card said even more – O’Farrell was the National League’s Most Valuable Player.  He caught nearly every game, and posted a 112 OPS+.

The most amazing part of learning O’Farrell’s name, and then going to Baseball-Reference.com and reading his career stats, was the light bulb that turned on: O’Farrell was a key actor in one of the most famous moments in World Series history.  He was the catcher that threw out Babe Ruth trying to steal to end the 1926 World Series. A piece of trivia I have bantered about for most of my life, and I never knew who the catcher was until this pack of cards.

 

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Johnny Evers

PLAYER:          Johnny Evers

CARD #:           15

AUTHOR:        Craig Hardee

 

“Tinker to Evers to Chance” is the classic phrase that describes the Chicago Cubs infield of the early 1900’s. But the Johnny Evers card of the Conlon collection pictures him in a Boston Braves uniform in 1929.

By then, Evers was 47 years old, and had not played major league baseball since 1922, when he appeared in one game for the Chicago White Sox. His last significant action was in 1917, when he split the season between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Boston Braves.  Evers appeared in one game for the Boston Braves in 1929, on October 6, 1929. He’s not listed as a coach or manager of the Braves that year.

A mystery? Perhaps the Braves signed him so he could retire as a Boston Brave. He was a member of the Braves in 1914, when the Miracle Braves went from last place on July 4 to win the World Series. He was the National League MVP that year.

The back of the card reveals that Evers had two nicknames: “Crab” and “Trojan.” He was on the small side, listed at 5’9” and 125 lbs. To compare, the Yankees Aaron Judge is almost a foot taller than Evers was, and is more than twice Evers’ weight.

Evers was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1946, shortly before his death in 1947.

 

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Chief Bender

PLAYER:          Chief Bender

CARD #:           20

AUTHOR:        Dawn Gibson

 

There are certain players in the big league whose smiles shine as bright as the sun. Many of these men are the beloved bearers of a poetic athleticism that blends the bashing of balls with the graceful maneuvers of ballet. Baseball is a beautiful game.  Baseball is all encompassing, from the ace on the mound to the dreamers looking down at the game play from their seats in the stands. One is not indifferent to baseball. Either you love baseball, or you do not. Baseball is simple that way. When the gods play ball, we cheer with a hope and a joy that that unites the fans with the players, and when our heroes laugh, kid, and smile for all to see, we smile in return. Smiles are the knowing winks that fans and players alike use to confess their love of the game.

Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks, had that smile. I cannot look at a baseball card of Ernie Banks and not smile. The Conlon Collection has a card bearing one of these glories of baseball.  Chief Bender, who in 1926, was a coach for the Chicago White Sox.  Bender was born of Chippewa blood in 1884, the same year that a US Supreme Court decision declared Native Americans ineligible to vote because they were not considered to be citizens of the United States. In 1919, women were afforded the right to vote. It would be another five years before the US Congress finally ‘granted’ citizenship to all Native Americans, clearing the way for Native Americans to become part of the voting population. However, it wasn’t until 1956 that all states complied with voter rights laws.

Chief Bender died in 1954, one year after his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. As a Native American, he faced the adversities of that era of US history, and he overcame them. He overcame them with a heart for baseball and as a big league pitcher with a career 2.46 ERA. Baseball is an exquisite equalizer.  It gave an outcast in his own homeland the chance to excel and become one of the best baseball players in history.  It warms the heart to see a challenge fiercely met and conquered. Done so with a smile to prove there is indeed something deeply beautiful about the game of baseball. Wink.

 

NEXT WEEK: PART 2

The Conlon Collection Project: Introduction

At an estate sale late this summer, my wife’s uncle, who is in the antique business, came across a number of shoeboxes containing baseball cards.  While the majority of the boxes contained Topps cards from the 1980s, one box contained 25 unopened packs from the 1991 Conlon Collection put out by MegaCards in conjunction with the Sporting News during that era.

The cards depict black and white photographs from photographs taken by noted baseball photographer, Charles M. Conlon.  The cards in this 330-set, are organized by team, award, or Hall-of-Fame status.

Wanting to share in the riches, I reached out to the SABR Baseball Card community with a proposition.  I offered one pack of cards to 24 of our SABR baseball card enthusiasts (keeping one for myself), and then asked each person that when they received their pack to select one card of interest and write a short piece of that card. I was particularly interested in the holistic value of the selection.  Over the next couple of months, player names and stories trickled in.  I am quite pleased to present our work.

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To begin our project, I asked Steve Gietschier, who worked personally on the Conlon Collection for The Sporting News, to write a bit about his experiences.  For the next several weeks, we will present a handful of stories for your reading pleasure.  Enjoy!

 

THE ORIGIN OF THE CONLON COLLECTION

By Steve Gietschier

When I began work at The Sporting News in 1986, the negatives and photographs taken by Charles Martin Conlon — it would have been a misnomer at that point to call them a collection — were in complete disarray. The glass negatives, about five thousand, if I recall correctly, were stashed, row by row, in an old file cabinet that sat just outside a room guarded by a bank vault door. My predecessor as the keeper of TSN’s historical treasures was a Red Sox fan, and so the combination to the vault door was 4-0-6. Get it? But note that the old file cabinet was outside the bank vault door. That’s true. The room behind the door was so chock full of other stuff that the glass negatives were not given even this low level of protection. They were there for all, even visitors, to see and, in fact, to handle.

Conlon started taking photographs in 1904, and he used glass plates because there was no plastic film yet. His early images were recorded on 5×7 plates, but after a while, he switched to the 4×5 size. We can only imagine how difficult it was to transport his equipment—a large Graflex camera, a tripod, and a box full of glass plates, very heavy—from his home to the ballpark. It is no wonder that he frequented the Polo Grounds and later Yankee Stadium, but never the far away Ebbets Field.

Sometime in the 1920s he switched to plastic film, the earliest iterations of which were quite unstable. These negatives, another few thousand, were not kept with the glass plates in their special file cabinet. Instead they were interfiled with all the other TSN photographs, more than 600,000, in brown envelopes, arranged alphabetically by players’ last names and stored in file cabinets that were supposed to be fireproof. Sure.

But that’s not all. We also had hundreds of prints made by Conlon himself. They were easily identifiable because his handwriting on the back was so distinctive. And they were filed with all our other photos, too.

Truth be told, Conlon was, at the time, a hidden treasure, an undervalued resource. I had never heard of him, frankly. And the folks who ran TSN knew that his work was precious, but they did not care enough or know enough to protect their investment. Maybe that’s why they hired me.

Perhaps we should mention here that Conlon stopped taking pictures in 1942 and died in 1945 and that sometime during that interval he sold all the negatives he still had—countless others he had destroyed—to TSN. But there was no bill of sale that I could find and no paperwork documenting this transaction at all.

Somehow, TSN had convinced the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, to mount a Conlon exhibit in 1984. In addition, TSN had worked with a St. Louis financier to produce a rudimentary set of baseball cards, but that was it. But these projects used the glass negatives themselves to make prints, even though they were fragile, of course, and dirty besides. Thus, one of my first goals as TSN’s first—and last, as it turned out—professional archivist was to bring all the Conlon stuff together in one place, to make it a collection, and to inventory all that we had.

I ordered special acid-neutral envelopes and boxes and began the time-consuming process — two hours every work day — of identifying, dating, and re-housing every negative. That alone took months. I don’t remember how many. Sometime along the way I contacted Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler, one of America’s foremost archival conservators, and asked for advice on how to care for this collection. She referred me to Connie McCabe, a conservator at the National Gallery of Art. Connie was co-owner of a photographic conservation business, Photo Preservation Services, Inc., and she suggested that TSN contract with it to do what had to be done. Connie’s recommendation was standard operating procedure for large photographic collections: clean the negatives, develop each one into what are called inter-positives, and from these, create a new set of reproduction duplicate negatives. This set could be used for whatever purpose TSN wanted. But more importantly, the original negs, both glass and plastic, would be safe and protected, no longer subject to the wear and tear of use or curiosity seekers.

We began this process with a perilous journey from St. Louis to the Washington suburbs, the negatives, in their boxes, resting in the tailgate of a rented Ford Taurus station wagon. How else to get them to this destination? I remember distinctly praying to avoid a rear-end collision, an event that surely would have brought my career at TSN to a premature end. We made the trip safely, PPS did its work over quite some time, and we brought everything back to St. Louis safely again.

Truth be told, we had to convince Connie McCabe, not a baseball fan, that these negatives were worth her firm’s time. Only when she saw them did she agree that Conlon was not only a great baseball photographer but a great photographer, period. She, then, in communication with her brother Neal, said much the same thing, “You’ve got to see these photos.” He, a true fan, similarly demurred until he visited her in Washington and saw them for himself. Thus was born the sister-and-brother partnership that became the author team for Baseball’s Golden Age: The Photographs of Charles M. Conlon (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994).

But how does an idea of a book become a book? It’s not easy. TSN had a book division at the time, run by a woman named Sandy Dupont. She listened to our idea for a book of Conlon’s photographs and nearly dismissed it totally. But she did suggest that we talk with folks at Harry N. Abrams, a publisher of art books and another Times Mirror company, as was TSN. The Abrams people were enthusiastic enough to agree to do the book, but they assigned an editor who also knew nothing about baseball.  And when the book was finally published and Abrams had a launch party in New York, they decided not to invite the authors. Instead, I was invited to speak for the book, and I did so, even appearing on the sports segment of a local television news program.

My memory tells me that Baseball’s Golden Age got a very positive review in the New York Times Book Review. Was Jonathan Yardley the reviewer? Maybe. At any rate, the book did well. It went into several printings and is, I believe, generally regarded as the best book of baseball photographs ever printed. I commend it to anyone and note, especially, Neal McCabe’s wonderful introduction, “The Base Ball Photographer.”

Somewhere along the way, maybe even before the book was published, two entrepreneurs in a baseball card business called Megacards contacted TSN. They had never produced complete sets of cards from scratch, but the Conlons had attracted them. They proposed — and TSN agreed — to issue one series of 330 cards a year for five years. These became the famous Conlon Collection sets. The first two sets sold well, but the third set ran up against the great strike of 1994-1995, and was cut from 330 cards to 110. And that was the end of that.

In the years after Megacards, various other business proposals came our way, but none of them did very well. We even arranged an exhibit of Conlon prints at a fancy downtown art gallery in Manhattan, but it generated few sales. Conlon remains, I think, an undervalued resource. A second book, The Big Show: Charles M. Conlon’s Golden Age Baseball Photographs (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2011), did considerably less well.

How to bring this story to a close? Times Mirror sold TSN to Paul Allen (yes, the co-founder of Microsoft), and Allen later sold the company to American City Business Journals, headquartered in Charlotte, North Carolina. The ACBJ hierarchy told us that TSN’s editorial offices would remain in St. Louis, but in 2008, they changed their mind. The company would move to North Carolina, and I was not invited to go along. We packed up everything, and off it went.

Subsequent to the move, TSN sold its entire photographic archives to a fellow named John Rogers in Arkansas. You may have heard of him. He is in significant legal trouble on numerous fronts. Where are the Conlons now? I’m not sure. Perhaps in Arkansas. Perhaps under the custody of federal court officials. What will become of them? Who knows?

 

Cahiers des Cartes

 

The Conlon Project reminded me that despite being in many ways about photography, baseball cards almost never credit the photographer who took the photo. While we can often figure out which cards were shot by the same photographer based on the location, putting a name to that photographer often required putting the pieces together from other media.

We know that Richard Noble’s portrait of Bo Jackson was used in 1990 Score because of his lawsuit against Nike. And we know that Ronald Modra shot the photo of Benito Santiago in 1991 Topps because Sports Illustrated used a different photo from that session on its cover. But there’s no credit on the cards themselves even though anyone can see that they’re above the usual standard of baseball card photography.

Where we did have photographer credits is in the Broder card realm. I don’t just mean Rob Broder’s sets either. There were a number of photographers at this time creating their own unlicensed sets—all of which are known in the hobby as Broder cards.And there are even some licensed photographers like Barry Colla whose sets have the same “Broder” look and feel. On the surface these cards look very similar to each other and remind me of Mother’s Cookies* with their emphasis on the photo and the plain Helvetica text.

*I’ve been led to understand that Colla shot a lot of the Mother’s photos.

Often the photo is more of a function of someone who has access to a telephoto lens and a field-level press pass. It’s nice to see these photos but most of them aren’t anything portfolio-worthy. Sometimes though they’re clearly part of a portrait session and those are much more fun to see. Even if they’re standard baseball poses the portrait session is a more accurate gauge of the photographer’s abilities.

The backs remind me of the backs of mass-produced 8×10 photos. Name and numbering and not much else.* So they’re more like 2.5″×3.5″ photos rather than baseball cards. In many ways this makes them a wonderful artifact of the 1980s/90s freelance photography hustle where self-publishing was a feasible approach amidst the junk wax boom. The Barry Colla cards at least have some more information but the overall design still feels like an afterthought.

*That this is so close to my self-designed backs suggests I shouldn’t give my nine-year-old self such a hard time.

All of these sets—if you can call these packets of a dozen or so cards sets—were very much created to capitalize on whoever was rising on the Beckett hot list. Multiple cards of the same star player. Hot rookies. I’d snark more but it cuts very close to what I’ve seen going on with cards today where Topps is releasing an uncountable number of cards for Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger.

The Conlon cards exist in that same late-80s, early-90s ecosystem as the Broder cards. The earlier releases are very much in the same vein of treating the cards as photographs first and cards second. I very much appreciate how they’re printed as duotones* and it’s charming how the text is an afterthought and no one thought to even provide numbering.

*Yes there’s a post with more information than you ever wanted about printing. And much to my surprise many of the cards Topps released in 2017 are actually duotones or use spot colors for the black and white images.

By the early 90s the set has been redone as proper cards. More stats. More design. Set numbering. A large set count. In many ways they’re not really about the photo anymore.

Which is a shame since one of the things I did as part of the Conlon Project was check out Baseball’s Golden Age from the library. Where the Conlon cards have somewhat generic player information and stats on the backs, the book includes some of Conlon’s stories about photographing the players. These stories—such as Lefty Grove refusing to let Conlon see how he gripped the ball or how in that famous Ty Cobb photo Conlon was more worried about the well being of the third baseman than whether or not he got the shot—are fantastic and suggest another approach that these photographer-based cards could’ve gone.

Thankfully Upper Deck did exactly this in 1993 with its Walter Iooss collection and again in 1996 with its V.J. Lovero collection. These cards are great in how they’re so clearly photo-focused* but also allow us to see how the photographer approaches the game and his subjects.

*Something that mid-1990s Upper Deck excelled at in general.

The Iooss cards are also a wonderful demonstration of what makes Iooss’s work so distinct. The lighting relies on off-camera flash and underexposes the background. But unlike the “every sky must be dark and rainy” look that dominated Topps in 1985 and 1986, the Iooss photos balance the light temperatures well. The skies aren’t that weird grey blue color and the players all have a wonderful warm glow.

And the stories are great. Most of them are interesting—Albert Belle’s refusal to pose and Iooss’s subsequent having to take an action photo stands out—but I like the comparison of Paul Molitor and Will Clark.

Lovero’s photos don‘t have a clearly-defined look the way Iooss’s do. If anything it’s that they have a tendency to be shot extremely tight—similar to Topps’s current approach in Flagship except that I think Lovero shot this way and Topps just crops things this way.

What I like about the Lovero cards is that their backs often get into the technical side of the photography. The Caminiti card talks specifically about how to shoot tight action. There are others that talk about trying different angles for shooting. Reading them you get a real sense of how Lovero approaches photographing baseball action.

His stories about the posed shoots are closer to the Iooss stories except that they’re often about the context of the shoot rather than the player himself. Combined though, both the Lovero and Iooss sets offer a wonderful look at how a professional had to approach sports photography in the 1990s and offer a lot of pointers to anyone who’s interested in shooting sports action now.