Player Collection Spotlight – Ivan Rodriguez

My favorite players all share one thing in common: they are all great defensive players. Pudge Rodriguez is one of those, one of the best defensive catchers of all time. He came up with the Rangers in 1991 and went on to to become a 14-time All-Star, 13-time Gold Glove winner (MLB record for catchers), 7-time Silver Slugger, and the AL MVP in 1999 on his way to Cooperstown.

Pudge picked of an MLB record 88 runners in his career, and I was there for one of them in 1998. In the third inning against the Angels, he picked off Phil Nevin at first base. Rodriguez also had an RBI infield single in the first. I was so excited to see one of my heroes have such a good game.

Pudge signed with the Marlins in 2003 and went on to win the World Series that season. Then he went to the Tigers in 2004 and had another trip to the World Series in 2006.

Pudge was traded at the deadline in 2008 from the Tigers to the Yankees. He signed with the Astros before the 2009 season, then was traded back to the Rangers in August of that year. He then signed with the Nationals and finished his career with two years in Washington.

I have 39 cards in my Pudge collection, all of them from the Topps Flagship, Traded, or Update sets. These include All-Star, Gold Glove, and Postseason Highlights.

Most of my favorites show him in his catcher’s gear. I’m a sucker when it comes to cards showing catchers in their gear. I was a catcher when I was in Little League and if I played again I would be behind the plate.

Number one on my list is the 1994 Topps card. It shows him right after he released a throw to second base, with his mask falling to the ground. It highlights his legendary throwing ability.

His 2002 Gold Glove card shows him ready to receive a pitch. He’s wearing the blue Rangers uniform and gear with red trim. I like that color combination better than the all red that the Rangers wore for a while.

His 2009 Update card is excellent. Pudge is shown making a play at the plate with a runner crashing into him. It looks like the runner is getting the raw end of this deal.

Finally, even though there are several more that show Pudge in his gear, his 2005 card shows him standing on second, and it looks like he’s pointing to the scoreboard and showing the Tigers that they are either not out of it yet, or that they have the lead.

I have decided to add Fleer and Donruss to my player collections, so I went from having 100% of the Pudge cards, to having just 57%. Oh well, that’s what happens when you’re a collector, right?

Strike a Pose, There’s Nothing to It

I attended just one game at “old” Yankee Stadium, before the extensive remodel shut it down for two years. That game was on Sunday, June 7, 1970, notable because it was Bat Day. (The above photo is from that game, according to website from which I borrowed it.) I grew up two hours away, in Connecticut, and Bat Day was the major draw for a few busloads of local families that my father’s company organized. I was 9 years old, and what I most remember about the game (a 4-3 White Sox win in 12 innings) is the majesty of the Stadium (when compared with Fenway Park, the only other venue I had experienced), and the crowd: 65,880, the largest baseball gathering I will likely ever witness.

This all came to mind a few days ago when Lindy McDaniel passed away. McDaniel pitched for 21 years and was one of the great relief pitchers of his time, a time when relievers were deployed much differently than they are today. In my 1970 game, he pitched the final 5 innings, allowing just the single run in the 12th to lose. There were only four pitchers used in the game, in fact: Fritz Peterson (7 innings) and McDaniel (5) for the Yankees; Tommy John (9) and Wilbur Wood (3) for the White Sox.

I recall being struck by how hard McDaniel was throwing. Granted, this was my second live game, and the other three pitchers in the game were crafty southpaws. But I vividly recall the crack of Thurman Munson’s mitt, remarked upon by the children of Southeastern Connecticut.

Anyhow, after McDaniel’s death, my Twitter feed lit up (as per the depressing 2020 custom) with old baseball cards. One of the best McDaniel cards is from 1971 Topps.

I have owned this card for 49 years, but when I looked it over I was struck by the large crowd, coming at a time with the Yankees did not draw well. And it hit me: this *might* be the very game I attended. There is not much to go on–McDaniel pitched 28 games at Yankee Stadium, likely half during the day. The best evidence is the crowd–the Yankees averaged around 12,000 fans per game, and rarely saw a crowd like this down the left field line. So, it’s possible.

In 1971 Topps used photos from actual games for the first time (on their base player cards), a total of 52 photos taken at either Yankee Stadium or Shea Stadium. Why this had not occurred to me in 49 years I cannot say, but a couple of days ago I decided to check out the other Yankees and White Sox “action” cards to see if I could find possible matches for my game.

Of the nine Yankee action cards, four of them clearly show an opponent that is not the White Sox: Thurman Munson (A’s), Gene Michael (Angels), Curt Blefary (A’s), and Jake Gibbs (Indians). Three do not show an opponent: McDaniel, Danny Cater, and Fritz Peterson. And two clearly show the White Sox: Ron Woods and Roy White.

Woods turns out to be the key card in this story, because my June 7 game is the only time he batted against the White Sox during a 1970 day game. Unless this is from a prior year (highly unlikely), I witnessed this plate appearance. What’s more, our seats were on the first base side at ground level up behind the dugout–so this is roughly the angle I had. Bonus clue: someone in crowd (at the far right, just above the dugout) is holding up a bat.

The Roy White card is from the same game–though the angle is slightly different, if you look closely you can see some of the same people in the crowd behind the Chicago dugout. Duane Josephson is behind the mask in both photos.

So that’s two cards from my game. Let’s look at the two White Sox action cards from the 1971 set.

Tommy John pitched just one game in Yankee Stadium that season, so this becomes our third match. This looks to be the same angle as our McDaniel card above (which may or may not be from this game), though (based on the shadowing) perhaps from a couple of hours earlier.

McCraw played first base in three 1970 day games at Yankee Stadium, but the other two games had crowds of 10,000 and 9,000 people; the packed bleachers out in distant centerfield makes it almost certain this is the June 7 game. That makes four cards. (The baserunner looks to be Gene Michael–the Stick had two singles and walk in this game. This photo was likely taken after his ninth inning single; his earlier walk loaded the bases; and his later single was after McCraw had moved to right field.)

For completeness, I will show the two other Yankee action cards (other than McDaniel) that do not show an opponent.

Not much to go on here. The key is whether these crowds look like sell outs, which the blurry background kind of obscures.

I generally do not play the role of card sleuth, which others have done so well. (Example: Ten cards from the same game?) The early 1970s is ripe for this sort of investigation, since Topps did not crop very well in those early action days. This left a lot of clues on the card to help place the game, or even the play.

I find it very satisfactory to discover color photos from a game I attended 50 years ago, the only game I ever saw at the original House that Ruth Built, in a card set I have studied as much as any I have ever owned. (The next time I went to Yankee Stadium was post-remodel, a Tiger game in 1977. I suppose I need to study the 1978 Topps set next?)

As for Lindy McDaniel, who started off this post, I hope he rests in peace, and left the world knowing how much pleasure he gave kids like me all those years ago.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Sets

I have been buying vintage Topps cards for 40 years (since I first walked into a “baseball card shop”), sometimes one or two at a time, sometimes in lots. There have been long stretches of inactivity for a year or five, as I dealt with jobs and children and whatnot, stretches where my cards were in moving crates, unseen for months at a time.

Acknowledging that everyone in this hobby gets to make their own rules, I have learned a few things along the way that might help others as you consider your own paths.

Set Collecting Lesson #1: Vintage cards are not a good investment, using any reasonable definition of that term.

I can only speak to post-1950 cards, so feel free to save for college on pre-war cards. According to the January 1991 Beckett guide, the 1965 Topps set (Near Mint) was selling for $3,300, which is $6,300 in 2020 dollars. The most recent Beckett Vintage Collector (thanks @nightowlcards) lists the set for $5,000. The 1967 Topps set has performed even worse, from $4500 ($8600 in today’s dollars) to $5000.

Vintage cards exploded in the 1980s, seeing a ten-fold increase in value, but have severely lagged inflation in the subsequent three decades. There are certainly individual cards that have increased in real value, but good luck figuring that out.

In my young adult years, coinciding with the 1980s boom, I filled in my early 1970s childhood sets and then moved backwards. From 1985 to 2010 I completed back to 1964, with the bulk of that time (and money) spent on 1966 and 1967. I continued to accumulate earlier (pre-1964) cards, content that set completion might never happen. By 2018, I had between 62% and 98% of the 1956 through 1963 sets. Even then, I was not committed to finishing any of them and occasionally contemplated selling one or more of the near-sets.

In May 2019, the Baseball Hall of Fame opened its new permanent exhibit celebrating baseball cards. I had helped with some of the exhibit planning, and I was trying to justify the expense of flying across the country to attend (while also rounding up several card friends to join me). My solution: abandon my 1959 and 1960 sets, by selling off my star cards. 1960 is my least favorite vintage Topps set, and while I like 1959 a bit more, I decided that going to Cooperstown was more important.

I got more than enough money to fund the trip, and it was it was an absolute blast from beginning to end. Looking forward to our next group “meeting” — Chicago 2021? Do I miss my 1959 and 1960 cards? Honestly, not really.

A few months ago, spending day after day shut in the house and having no other extra-curricular outlets, I again took stock of my collection. I now had the majority for six sets (1956-58, 1961-63) , rather than eight.

I decided to push forward.

Set Collecting Lesson #2: Try not to stock up on commons and leave the stars for the end. (A variation of this, which I read over this past weekend: Until you get the Mantle, you aren’t really committed. Fortunately, I had all six Mantle base cards.)

It feels great to say you have half of the 1967 set but (assuming completion is your goal) you want to think of “half” as meaning “half the value.” If you have no high numbers and still need Mantle, Mays, Clemente, and Aaron, you don’t actually have half the set. You have 15% of the set. I have made a concerted effort over the years to mix this up–if I was buying a 100-card lot of 1963 commons, I’d try to add Aaron and Koufax to the pile to stay in balance.

After revealing in an unrelated blog post that I needed just 22 cards from the 1956 set (and no big stars), a few SABR friends (including Chris Kamka and Dixie Tourangeau) contacted me to ask what I needed. And just like that–I was down to 15. (Have I mentioned how incredible SABR is?) Over the next few weeks, having been sufficiently nudged, I spent some time on eBay and bought the missing cards. On August 11, card #251 (Yankees team) arrived and I was finished. My first completed vintage set in more than a decade, and one of the most popular in Topps history.

Set Collecting Lesson #3: Don’t forget the team cards, especially the New York teams.

Because I had always considered team cards to be “commons”, and because they never showed up as commons when I was buying, my “need list” included a lot of team cards. The Yankees and Dodgers teams are priced like star cards.

About this time, another SABR friend sent me 100 cards from the 1950s–what he had saved of his childhood collection. It was an extraordinary act of kindness, one I plan to repay once the pandemic is over. Some were beat up, but many were not, and all are wonderful.

I now had five targets (1957-1958 and 1961-1963), each of which would require several hundred dollars (at least) to finish off. Candidly, I was contemplating abandoning one or more other sets in order to acquire the funds to carry on. Instead, I decided to take the long overdue step of reducing some of my excess cards and memorabilia.

Over the past few months, I have sold a lot of material, including

  • the last several years of Topps Heritage
  • all of my remaining 1959/60 cards
  • vintage baseball doubles (stars and lots)
  • old programs/yearbooks
  • vintage football/hockey/basketball
  • some older oddball stuff that I never looked at

My collection is considerably smaller than it was in July, and my office shelving has become considerably neater.

As my sales were starting to pile up I had an exchange of DMs with Jeff Katz (@splitseason1981). I told him that I was struggling with (for example) selling a stack of baseball cards for $300 and then buying other cards for $300 without thinking “Why am I spending $300 on baseball cards?” He urged me to think of them as “very long trades.”

Set Collecting Lesson #4 (via Jeff Katz): Using card sales to fund other card sales is properly justified as a trade, not a betrayal of the family budget.

This proved to be a crucial reframing. I will spare you the details, but since late July my PayPal balance has repeatedly grown, and has been repeatedly cashed in. I have not kept precise track of this, but it was essentially a break even enterprise for three months. This has slowed down, because I have run out of excess to sell. I have been glancing suspiciously at some of my old board games, but have thus far resisted.

So, how’d I do?

1963

I needed 12 cards, but unfortunately one of them was #547.

The 1963 Topps Pete Rose card (#547) is just awful. When considering its ugliness and its market price I could argue that it is the worst baseball card in the hobby. (I wrote about this before.) The “rookie card” phenomenon began in the early 1980s at a time when Rose was the biggest name in baseball, and that status in combination with the card being in the final series, made his card skyrocket. The card might have cost $1 in the late 1970s, but it was $500 in the 1986 Beckett guide (in 2020 dollars, $1175).

Employing Lesson #4, I built up some funds, searched for a few weeks for something in my price range at an acceptable condition (VG?), and bit the bullet. The other cards came along and I wrapped up the set on August 27.

Imagine lookin at this page, knowing nothing about card “values” and choosing the Rose card ahead of the Clemente just below it? Seriously, people?

1961

I needed 106 cards, and this proved to be the most difficult ($$) of the sets I was pursuing. While I had followed Lesson #2 by having nearly all the stars (exception: Juan Marichal rookie), I had done a relatively poor job with the high numbers, the special subsets, and the Yankees. I had not consciously avoided the Yankees, but when I was buying commons for 50 cents years ago, or $1 more recently, there were never any Yankees at that price.

The 1961 Yankees are a popular team with their fans, a championship team that featured a famous home run chase. Not only do you have the base cards of Mantle, Maris, Ford and Berra to contend with, you also have to pay a premium for Bill Stafford and Bob Cerv. What’s more, the subsets are littered with Yankees: the MVP set includes Mantle, Maris and Berra; the World Series cards feature Mantle, Ford and Richardson; the Baseball Thrills has cards for Mantle, Ruth, Gehrig and Don Larsen. I am generally a “base card” person, so I dislike paying premium prices for a Baseball Thrills card. But here I was.

This all culminates, of course, in the excellent All-Star subset of 22 cards, in the final series, that includes Mantle, Maris, Ford and Skowron (plus Mays, Aaron, Banks, etc.) If you are Yankee fan, I’d recommend cashing in everything you own and focusing on the 1961 set. If you are not, good luck, but … it’s a truly outstanding set.

Sorry for the lighting in my office.

When Ron Perranoski showed up on September 14, the set was conquered.

1962

I needed 74 and found a way to buy 36 at once to put this set in my sights.

Several years ago I made a giant spreadsheet listing all the cards I needed in various sets, and for the last eight cards of the 1962 set I typed “591 Rookie Parade”, “592 Rookie Parade”, etc. Which was accurate! None of them were big stars so I didn’t bother to list the player names. Each card contained 4 or 5 floating player heads, cards that I was predisposed to dislike. If I saw them at a show over the years, I am sure I just skipped right by.

It turns out that these eight cards are a Who’s Who of 1960s cult heroes, which makes them premium cards in a premium series. Sudden Sam McDowell, Dick (The Monster) Radatz, Bob Uecker, Bob Veale, Jim Bouton, Bo Belinsky, Ed (The Glider) Charles, Joe Pepitone, Phil (Harmonica) Linz, Rod Kanehl, Jim Hickman. My own fault, obviously, but seeing those prices on eBay one day was a bit off-putting.

It took quite a few vintage card sales to build up the balance for these floating heads. On October 2, the mailman dropped off #502, a gorgeous Hector Lopez, and the set was conquered.

1957

The 1957 Topps sets is one of the most important sets in baseball card history. It was the first to use the 2.5″ x 3.5″ size, which remains the standard 63 years later, and its simple design allows the gorgeous photography to dominate the face of the card. In my humble opinion, it is the second best set of Topps’ monopoly years.

While so many Topps vintage sets are beset with a challenging final series, in 1957 the tough series is actually the fourth (of five) series (265-352). Back in July, I needed 147 cards to finish this set, and nearly half of those were from series 4. Because I have always loved this set, I had picked up most of the stars over the years.

Having held my nose already to pay for the 1963 Rose, the next toughest card in my quest proved to be the 1957 #328 Brooks Robinson. Hall of Famer, rookie card, tough series, it checked all the boxes. Although everyone loves Brooks, and I love Brooks, it is not a particularly attractive card (especially obvious in such a stunning set) and I personally don’t value rookie cards. So, how much should I pay? I actually spent a few weeks finding and rejecting options, and was prepared to walk away from the set entirely if this card could not fall in my price range.

Set Collecting Lesson #5: Figure out what card condition you need.

My core childhood sets (1967-71) are at least EX-MT, maybe Near Mint, not that I know what that means exactly. I have spent quite a bit of energy going through the sets and upgrading them if I noticed a corner defect I had not previously seen. As I started to move backwards in my collecting focus 30 years ago, the hobby was putting more and more of a premium on condition, and I had to modify my standards if I was going to have any success. Without really understanding card grading, I discovered that the condition I wanted was:

  • centered enough so that you don’t notice centering at a glance
  • no creases/wrinkles/scarring on the main image; wrinkles near the edge are of less importance
  • nice corners preferred, but some rounding OK if eye is not drawn to it
  • no writing/marking

As we venture back in time ($$) my standards become looser, but all of the above principles are how I ultimately would score the card. Obviously, I would prefer the card be perfect, but my sweet spot (judging by eBay listings) is VG-EX, though I have found VG and even Good examples that meet my criteria and save me a lot of money.

I don’t buy graded cards as a rule. When I do it is because the card is at a good price based on my own personal criteria. I remember the early days of eBay when people would buy/sell without photos, but with the photo quality today I feel like I know what I am getting. I have bought a few cards that had a flaw that I had not seen, but nothing egregious.

My main objections to graded cards are: (1) you generally pay a premium for something I don’t care about, and (2) they screw up my card storage.

I bring this up because I bought a few graded 1957 cards and now I don’t know what to do with them. I have cracked a few PSA cases in my day, so I suppose that is what will happen but I have not yet taken this step.

This Brooks Robinson is worse than I normally want, but it represents great value for me because its flaws are in the 5% of the surface I care least about. If it had sharp corners but a crease on Brooks’s neck it would get a higher grade but I would had much less interest.

My final 1957 card (#306, Darrel Johnson) arrived on October 6.

1958

I love the 1958 set, though I am not sure precisely why. After the majestic photography of 1957, Topps switched gears and used either a head or body shot on a solid background, a model they have never used before or since. (The next year they split the difference by showing a little background within a keyhole circle–this does not work as well for me, though others seems to love it.)

In July I needed 189 cards from 1958, but a lot of them were commons which you can find in U-pick lots, and there is no really tough series. This is actually a pretty easy set to put together if you have the stars (which I did). I had to hunt for the Roger Maris rookie card, which proved much easier than I had feared.

One of the last cards I needed was #340 Don Newcombe. I bought a copy of the card on eBay in late August (before most of the above sets were finished) and a few weeks later it had not arrived. Understanding that the postal service is imperfect, I wrote to the seller, got no response, wrote again, no response, and finally requested a refund through eBay. I got the refund and bought another card. Too late, I realized I used the same seller! And, believe or not, the same thing happened again. I have no idea whether the guy ever sent either card–I got both refunds, and neither card ever showed up. I finally ordered from someone else.

On November 1, 9 weeks after ordering the card, I finally got Newcombe.

And I was done. Six finished sets in three months, stored horizontally a few feet away.

Set Collecting Lesson #6: Vintage cards are not a good investment, BUT putting money into vintage cards does not carry much risk.

Think of this way: you could buy a really nice 1957 Willie Mays for $400, put it in a frame on your office desk, and if you got sick of it in five years you could sell it and get most or all of your money back. With eBay and other on-line businesses available, the price of buying and later selling is pretty low.

And, importantly: you get to have a 1957 Willie Mays on your desk for five years. Assuming you don’t damage the card, you are merely borrowing it for a time.

And who wouldn’t want that?

Bartolo Colon: Free Agent

Topps Update has increasingly felt like a set consisting of several other set ideas all jammed together. All-Stars, Trades, Free Agent signings, and Rookie debuts are all things that used to be somewhat distinct sets or subsets. Update kind of throws them all into the same template and churns out something that’s kind of the Swiss Army Knife of cards sets: lots of things going on and handy to have but none of them particularly satisfying to handle.

This year of course threw Topps for a loop. No All Star Game. A season that started after the deadline for including new players. As a result the only traditional Update cards that made it into the set were players who changed teams during the offseason. Without Rookies or All Star cards Topps had to figure out how to fill the checklist.

One of their solutions was an “Active Leaders” subset which showed the active players who currently lead the league in various categories. This subset resulted in an amazing Bartolo Colon card. Colon hasn’t pitched  for two seasons now but since he hasn’t retired he’s still technically active and as a result, the active leader in Wins.

So despite not appearing on any cardboard as an active player last year. And despite not being on any teams’ rosters this year, Colon found himself with a real 2020 baseball card. The photo is at least four years old* and depicts him with the Mets instead of his most-recent team but what I find amazing is that he’s listed as a Free Agent with the Major League Baseball logo being used where the team logo would normally be.

*Actually over 6 years old.

We did a quick check of the hive mind on Twitter about whether Topps (or anyone else) has ever done something like this before and came up blank. As far as we know we’ve never had a card of an active player which depicts him as an unaffiliated player (let alone a free agent).*

*Suggestions that Curt Flood’s 1970 should’ve been done this way are noted and have me wanting to make a custom version which indicates how he was unaffiliated in 1970.

I usually just grab Giants cards from Update but I think I might snag one of these if I come across one because it’s so different. If Colon does in fact retire without playing in the Majors again this will become an especially interesting addition to Jason’s Ghost card concept.

I also can’t help but wonder if perhaps this might be a better approach to dealing with free agents in Series 1. Seems weird to commit to putting them on the wrong team if you know they’re free agents and now that the method has been established maybe we’ll see more of these in the future.

Sweet Lou’s cardboard

Some of the best and brightest blog contributors have recently commemorated the unfortunate passing of Tom Seaver, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson and Joe Morgan with card retrospectives. Befitting my status, I decided to memorialize the death of a beloved but less famous player.  Here is a look at the limited and rather mundane cards of “Sweet” Lou Johnson.

My first card encounter with Lou came in 1968.  I must have pulled his card in one the first packs I opened.  The odd “whistling” photo intrigued me as an eight-year old.  Even at that age, I wondered what was the backstory? We may never know the answer, but Topps gave us another year to contemplate the artistic and existential meaning of Lou’s pursed lips.

The players’ boycott of Topps resulted in the use of the same photo in 1969.  Lou was now on the Indians but continued to “whistle while he worked.” This repeat photo card would be last of his career.

Nine years before, “Sweet” Lou received his first Topps card.  Though originally signed by the Yankees, he made his major league debut with the Cubs.  The 1960 card highlights the fact that Lou had one oddly shaped ear.  This fact will forever be remembered by those who are Ball Four “freaks.” The author, Jim Bouton, recalls an interaction between Seattle Pilots manager Joe Schultz and Lou.  Upon seeing Lou Joe says: “Hey, what’s new, Half-Ear?”

Lou spent most of the early 1960s in the minors, bouncing between organization.  He does not turn up again in a Topps set until 1963.  By now Lou is part of the Braves organization, but the photo shows him in a Cubs uniform.  The bare head shot appears to be from the same photo session as the 1960 card.  This time his “good” ear side is used.

Despite filling in ably for the injured Tommy Davis in 1965 and hitting two home runs in the World Series, Lou did not receive a card in the 1965 set but did in 1966.  However, his World Series exploits are not detailed on the back of his card nor did he receive a World Series highlight card.  Unfortunately, Topps did not issue cards commemorating the 1965 World Series.

1967 marks the final Dodger card for Lou.  Topps is back with another head pose, but at least they finally recognized his 1965 World Series heroics.  Also, in 1967, Lou received a nice Dexter Press postcard.  This is the best photo of all.

Lou is featured in another “odd ball” set besides Dexter Press.  In 1969, he shows up in the “Jack-in-the-Box” California Angels set.

Most of you know that Mr. Johnson’s life spiraled out of control due to substance abuse.  He received treatment and went on to a long and fruitful career with the Dodgers community relations department.  Additionally, he appeared at card shows and MLB sponsored events, such as the 2001 All-Star game Fanfest in Seattle.

At this Fanfest, my wife obtained two autographs on the same ball. One was from “Sweet” Lou and the other from Lou Brock.  Ironically, they died 21 days apart.

RIP, “Sweet” Lou.

Joe Morgan, 1943-2020

(Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

One of my favorite Joe Morgan stories is one I first came upon in Joe Posnanski’s book on the Reds (The Machine, 2009). In a 1975 game against the Giants, Morgan doubled off of Charlie Williams. When the pitcher threw the next pitch in the dirt and Morgan saw the ball roll away from catcher Marc Hill, he sprinted towards third only to stop suddenly 20 feet from the bag. Hill, sensing an opportunity, gunned his throw to third but wild, and Morgan scampered home.

In the clubhouse after the game, Morgan explained that he had deliberately stopped running to draw a throw which he thought might go wild. The Giants players were livid, calling Morgan an arrogant son-of-a-bitch for disparaging their catcher. Morgan, believing arrogance to be a necessary quality in a star, was thrilled. He had gotten in their heads, which was his plan.

“If Joe keeps up his current pace,” said his manager, Sparky Anderson, “he’ll be dead in another month.”

——-

Many complimentary words have been written about Joe Morgan, the player, since his death last week, and there is no need to gild the lily here. Suffice it to say that I believe Morgan to have been one of the two greatest players of the 1970s (along with his teammate, Johnny Bench), and the greatest second baseman to ever play the game.

Today, I am here to praise his baseball cards.

A couple of things are very striking about Morgan’s cards. First, so many of them are spectacular–he was a good looking man his entire life, but never more so than on a baseball field. And second, his cards are remarkably affordable compared with contemporaries of comparable or lesser accomplishment. You could buy 10 of his rookie cards (1965) for the price of a single rookie card for Pete Rose, Tom Seaver, Johnny Bench, or Nolan Ryan. And none of his later cards have price tags that reflect his stature in the game’s history.

You can actually tell the story of Topps baseball cards using Morgan as a central figure. His 1966 and 1967 cards are fine specimens of those classic Topps sets–posed photos of a player doing baseball things, with easily recognizable faces. Beautiful.

I bought my first cards in 1967 but I do not believe I saw this Morgan card until a few years later. Which means that my first Morgan cards were these two.

These Morgan card were, as you all likely know, the victim of two unrelated problems: the MLBPA boycott, and Topps’ dispute with the Astros over the use of their name and logo. The latter led to the hatless, uniform-less image, and the former to Topps using this uninspiring image a second time.

It got better the next year.

The card above left, from 1970, is one of my all-time favorites. The ending of the disputes referenced above allowed many kids across America to see these glorious uniforms for the first time. In addition, what we later learned about Joe’s dissatisfaction with his years playing for Harry Walker (being asked to bunt, chop the ball on the ground, etc.) is well captured here, as is Joe’s sour expression. (Good times were coming, Joe.)

In 1971 Topps (above right) first dabbled in action shots, and Morgan was one of their test subjects. Presumably, he is roping a base hit in this gorgeous image.

In 1972 Topps introduced “Traded” cards for the first time, limiting the feature to just seven players who received a second card showing them on their new team. Both of the Morgan cards are excellent, highlighted by Morgan’s well-lit face and his new sideburns.

By the mid-1970s, Topps’ card sets were a mix of action and posed shots, and they would remain so for 20 years. Kids who got Joe Morgan cards in their pack were getting a superstar, one of the game’s best players, a two-time MVP. Whether he was posing, or vaulting out of the batter’s box, Joe Morgan was a card you wanted in your stack.

Joe Morgan’s career had three acts. At the start were 6 full seasons with the Astros as an under-appreciated player, occasionally a star. He finished in the top five in walks every year, an accomplishment no one noticed, stole a lot of bases, made a couple of All-Star teams. His second act was his first 5 years with the Reds (1972-76), when he was as valuable as Willie Mays or Mike Trout, and played for one of history’s greatest and most glamorous teams (The Big Red Machine). Finally, he finished up with 8 years as a very good player, making a positive contribution all the way to the end. The Silver Slugger award was introduced in 1980, and Morgan won it in 1982 at age 38. Had the award come long earlier, of course, he could have won a dozen.

The Topps monopoly ended in 1981, and it is fun to look at some of Morgan’s cards from this era, at a time when he was changing teams almost every year.

A sampling of his Donruss cards:

Morgan returned to the Astros for one season (1980), and helped them to their first division title. The next year we got this gorgeous shot of Joe at Wrigley Field, and one is struck that Joe looked very much like this for 20 years. He moved to the Giants in 1981, and almost led them to a pennant the next year, then was back in the World Series with the 1983 Phillies. None of this was surprising, nor was Joe vaulting out of the box on his 1984 Donruss card.

Now for some Fleer cardboard:

Not surprisingly, 1981 Joe looked great in Houston’s “Tequila Sunrise” togs, just as he had in their glorious late 1960s uniform. The 1983 Joe looks a little more serious, and his 1985 Fleer (he retired at the end of the 1984 season), he looks like peak Joe Morgan about to lace a double to left-center.

Morgan was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1990 with 81.8% of the vote. I understand none of this matters–he’s an all-time great, beloved by historians and fans and statheads. Still: what exactly were the 18.2% thinking? Joe Morgan doesn’t get your vote?

Joe went on to great success as a sportscaster, was a respected executive with the Hall of Fame, and was admired by all of his former teammates and opponents and apparently everyone else. Sparky Anderson said he was the smartest player he ever saw. Johnny Bench said he was the best player he ever saw. That’s not nothing.

I rooted against Joe Morgan in the All-Star game every year, though I knew that the National League was better and that Morgan played a brand of baseball of which my team was unfamiliar. (Morgan was on 10 All-Star teams, and his side won all 10 games). I also rooted against Morgan in the 1975 World Series, and his game winning single into centerfield in the top of the 9th inning of Game 7 broke my heart.

But none of that matters now, as we mourn yet another hero in this Godforsaken year. I just remember the greatness.

RIP Joe. Thank you for elevating this game.

Player Collection Spotlight – Keith Hernandez

The year was 1986. The Mets were on top of the baseball world and, perhaps more importantly, moving their spring training site to Port St. Lucie in short order. WWOR-TV out of Secaucus, NJ would broadcast what seemed like a zillion games over the next few years in that part of Florida. And baseball cards were collected by every kid in the neighborhood. Topps, Donruss, Fleer, packs, boxed sets, oversize cards, mini cards, stickers – someone had them.

How and why Keith Hernandez rather than Gooden or Strawberry or Carter or anyone else? Two reasons: Gooden and Strawberry were too expensive for a 10-year-old, and I kept pulling this Hernandez guy’s cards out of packs. I have a Gooden and a Strawberry player collection, but they are nowhere near as complete as the Hernandez collection. I have plenty of Carter, Orosco, Dykstra, Teufel, Mookie, Darling, Fernandez, McDowell, and everyone else from that Mets team as well as other Mets teams.

Unlike DJ, I lack … discipline, restraint, or whatever you want to call it (perhaps sanity) that allows him to limit himself to Topps cards of his players and team. I want to go on eBay, buy a lot of Jim Gantner cards, and send them to him (DJ, not Gantner) because I can’t imagine not having as many different Hernandez cards as possible. But then I also don’t want to upset his balance and turn him into … me. As a kid I would always try to swap for Hernandez cards with my friends. The first Hernandez rookie I ever owned came via a trade for a handful of football cards. Supposedly there was a Steve Largent rookie in there, but as I didn’t know who he was at the time it didn’t matter to me – I had the 1975 Topps Hernandez and three other guys. Also as a kid, I created my own alphabetical checklist of his cards, flipping through pages of a late 1980s Beckett Almanac scanning sets for his cards. At some point I tossed that out because I had created an electronic list, though I kind of wish I had kept the hand created list to see how close I had gotten to a complete checklist. I never got his autograph during spring training, though a friend of mine did give me an autographed 8×10.

If you want the stats, I have over 1,000 different listed items in Beckett’s database and many more that aren’t listed. The exact number could change by the time this post is public. For his pre-2004 cards I am only missing a handful that are listed in Beckett, some of which I don’t think actually exist. His number of cards exploded in 2004-2005 (he has over 600 cards from those two years alone due to parallels). Staying at home allowed me to scan the items I have, and the Beckett listed items all have front and back pictures (unless it’s a blank back team issue) if you scroll a little down this page to the links at the bottom. I have over 10,000 total Hernandez cards. How do I know? I always thought it would look cool to have the fronts of a single card displayed in all 18-pockets of two pages (back-to-front) in a binder. I have 689 of those pages, including 57 pages of his 1988 Topps card. You can get a sense of what that looks like below. Plus those thousand or so different cards. Plus about two binders of standard sized cards that don’t have 18 copies of a card yet. Plus oversized and mini cards. And extra game-used and autographed cards.

I didn’t do graded cards – until I got a really good deal on a lot. As one might imagine given my lack of restraint, I’ve pretty much climbed that mountain. I’ve grown less interested in the “master set” as listed by PSA because it now includes team picture cards from the 1970s. As someone once wrote here, you need to define a master set for yourself, even if it differs from the definition someone else uses.

While I don’t get too much into custom cards (unless it’s a Heavy J Studios rainbow dazzle purple refractor 1/1), I’m always looking for oddball items that I don’t have. Sometimes it’s an ad or a magazine with Hernandez on the cover or if he’s featured in an interview. Bobbleheads and figurines are also in there, as are drinking cups, posters, cello/rack packs with his cards on top – pretty much anything. I have about 100 ticket stubs from his MLB games, back when ticket stubs were actual stubs. Here’s a display with a variety of items:

Keith Hernandez shelf

With the increasing number of 1/1s and other low-numbered cards I’ve mellowed over the years and don’t worry too much about not getting every card. I’m usually a player in the market, though sometimes I marvel at how much they sell for. I admit that I get slightly annoyed when I make an offer on a card, have it turned down, and then a few days later see it sold for less than I offered. The economist in me doesn’t understand leaving $20 bills lying on the ground.

I don’t dabble much in game-used jerseys or other equipment because I’m not educated enough on those items to have confidence in my purchases. However, I have purchased a number of Topps Vault items. I think the most interesting piece I have is his original Topps contract, with his signature, his dad’s signature (the younger Hernandez was a minor at the time), and Sy Berger’s signature. And the Hernandez authored pop-up book First-Base Hero:

Keith Hernandez contract

It has been a fun endeavor for over 30+ years and somehow I’m always finding something I haven’t seen before (like a 3×5 miniature version of a poster that I just got in a lot last week). I have other player collections, and more different cards of other players (Ripken, Gwynn, and Piazza) but they all have vastly more cards than Hernandez. I have a higher percentage of cards for other players (like Jose Lind – a story for a different day), but Hernandez tends to be a balance of popular enough to be included in some new issues (I’m guessing that appearing on Seinfeld didn’t hurt his popularity – and yes, there is at least one bobblehead commemorating his Seinfeld appearance), but not so popular that he appears in a lot of new issues.

Farewell to Whitey who was Built Ford Tough

Edward Charles Ford, who passed away October 8 at the age of 91, was a Hall of Famer; World Series hero; Chairman of the Board; social companion of Mickey Mantle and Billy Martin; “Slick” to manager Casey Stengel. But to generations of Yankee fans he was simply, “Whitey.”

From the moment Ford joined the World Champion New York Yankees in midseason 1950, he was a trailblazer. He won his first 9 decisions and steadied a rotation that featured Allie Reynolds, Vic Raschi, Ed Lopat and Tommy Byrne en route to a World Series victory over the Philadelphia Phillies and their “Whiz Kids.”

A legendary competitor, the crafty lefty was the ace of the great Yankees dynasties of the 1950s and 1960s. According to the Baseball Hall of Fame website, Ford was the team’s Game 1 starter in every World Series from 1955-1958, becoming the first pitcher in history to start four consecutive Game 1s. Ford repeated the feat again from 1961-1964.

A 10x All-Star, Ford led the league in wins three times, twice in earned run average and won a Cy Young Award in 1961. With a record of 236 -106, he owns the highest winning percentage (.690) in history.  

As he lived in October, it stands to reason that Ford set numerous World Series pitching records, including consecutive scoreless innings (​33 2⁄3), wins (10), losses (8) games started (22), innings pitched (146) and strikeouts (94). He was a six-time World Series champion and a World Series MVP recipient in 1961.

When it came to baseball cards, Ford was equally iconic. After his exploits of 1950, the Bowman Gum Company honored the rookie by designating him card No. 1 in its 1951 Bowman baseball card set – the same set that features the rookie card of Mickey Mantle.

Ford, however, would miss the next two full seasons by fulfilling his military obligations as noted by the back of Ford’s 1953 Bowman Color baseball card.

“The return of Whitey from Uncle Sam’s service to the Yankee mound staff is looked upon by delight from everybody to the President down to the bat boy. He’s a great young pitcher, and if can pitch as he did before he left for his service hitch, he’ll be a tremendous help to the Yanks in their quest for a fifth straight pennant.”

1953 Bowman Whitey Ford card back

However, Ford didn’t miss a beat on his return to the majors. Winning 18, 16, 18 and 19 games in his next four seasons.

It was the mid-1950s and Ford was enjoying himself and the New York City nightlife with Yankee teammates Mantle and Billy Martin – a trio that earned the nickname, “The Three Musketeers.”

Bill Pennington, author of “Billy Martin: Baseball’s Flawed Genius” wrote that one of the Musketeers (Martin) was painted as a ringleader; taking most of the blame when things went wrong. The claim was refuted by Ford himself in the book.

“I don’t know why Billy always got labeled the instigator, which wasn’t at all true,” Ford said. “Mickey just had that innocent, country-boy look and I was quiet about a lot of things in public. But Billy didn’t care about appearances and he had that mischievous grin, so people just thought he was stirring us up all the time. It wasn’t really the case. We got into plenty of trouble on our own.”

Trouble like the infamous Copacabana incident in 1957 when several Yankees, including Mantle, Ford, and Martin as well as Hank Bauer and Johnny Kucks, were involved in an early morning altercation at the famed New York City nightclub.

The next morning’s headlines in the New York papers were scandalous at the time: “It Wasn’t A No-Hitter” screamed a headline in the New York Journal-American. Soon after, Yankee brass banished “ringleader” Martin, who was traded to Kansas City.

Nonetheless, the Yankees would continue their pennant-winning ways with Ford leading the way into the World Series– except the one time he didn’t.

In 1960, as the Yankees were preparing to play the Pittsburgh Pirates, Stengel surprised many by opting to start journeyman Art Ditmar in Game 1 in favor of Ford, who was already a dominant post-season performer. Skipping Ford in Game 1 meant the lefty would be unable to pitch three times if the series went the distance. The move backfired horribly. Not only did Ford pitch brilliantly – hurling two shutouts in Games 3 and 6 – but the Pirates jumped on Ditmar each time he pitched in the series. In fact, Ditmar never made it out of the second inning in either start. The Pirates won the series in seven games. The decision was heavily criticized and cost Stengel his job as Yankee manager.

Meanwhile, Ford would win the Cy Young Award the following year in that magical 1961 season and go on to pitch well into the 1960s, even as those Yankees teams began to falter as their stars like Mantle began to age.

Interestingly, Ford lost his last four World Series starts – Game 5 against the 1962 Giants, Games 1 and 4 (opposing Sandy Koufax each time) against the 1963 Dodgers, and Game 1 versus the 1964 Cardinals.

Ford was enshrined in Baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1974, five years before I started following baseball. Very quickly, however, I came to understand Ford’s place in Yankee history – mostly through my baseball card collection as well as his appearances at Yankees’ Old Timer’s Day. As is customary with the event, the greatest players are honored with getting introduced last. And when you’re talking New York Yankees, that’s quite a pecking order: Berra, Mantle and DiMaggio.

Years later with legends like Mantle and DiMaggio no longer around, it was time for Ford to receive the honors and accolades.

In 2010 – the last time I attended an Old Timer’s Day at Yankee Stadium – I paid strict attention to the moment when Ford and Berra were introduced.  Understanding that this might be the last I would ever see them, I fixated only on them. I stood silently and took in their every movement, smile and wave as they rode in from the centerfield gate in a tricked-out golf cart (complete with Yankee pinstripes). “Remember this moment. That’s Yogi and Whitey.”

When I visit Yankee Stadium with my sons, we dutifully pay a visit to Monument Park and read the plaques of the legends. Like Whitey Ford. 

Rest in peace.

A Brief Analysis of Baseball Card Prose and How It Makes Us Better Writers (1960-1963)

Seventy years of baseball card prose…four cards at a time. 

In this installment of my ongoing series, I’ll continue my project in which I examine the baseball card prose for one Detroit Tiger card from each year of the flagship set released by Topps.  We’ll learn about writing craft and baseball history, but we may just learn a little about ourselves…

Or maybe not.  Here we go:

1960 Larry Osbourne #201

Design of the reverse: Reduced stats, cartoon, and prose.

Text (59 words, plus 8 words in captions):  Larry showed great promise in his first full seasons of major league ball last year. In April he blasted his initial major league homer to climax a perfect 3 for 3 day against the Orioles. In June his 3 RBI’s helped rout the Red Sox 8-1 and in August he drove in a trio of markers against Kansas City.

Larry’s dad was a major leaguer in 1922 [Larry’s father shows Little Boy Larry how to hold a bat.]

The 1950s were a fascinating time.  The Cold War was heating up, rock and roll was born, and there were three major leaguers who were nicknamed “Bobo.”  Bobo Newsom began his MLB career in 1929 with the Brooklyn Robins and didn’t retire until 1953.  That same year, Bobo Holloman enjoyed his only stint in The Show, hurling in 22 games for the Browns. 

Bobo Newsom was referred to by his nickname in his 1953 card: his only Topps flagship card.  Sy Berger and his colleagues, on the other hand, referred to Osborne as Larry in his several Topps releases.  The writers of The Sporting News frequently used “Larry (Bobo) Osborne” when detailing the player’s exploits.  (He was just “Larry” on May 11, 1955, when the News described how Osborne, then with the Augusta Tigers, sidelined righthander Russ Swingle indefinitely by spiking him “on the ankle.”  Swingle’s “gash required 13 stitches.”)

One wonders what the authors thought about the rhetoric of nicknames in those early years.  In 1952, anyway, Harold Henry Reese was “Pee Wee” and Harry Lavagetto was “Cookie.” In 1956, “Pee Wee” received quotation marks, and Cookie went back to “Harry” on his 1961 manager card. 

In 1952: “Cookie” on the front…

…”Harry” on the back.

In 1961: “Harry.”

Forrest Harrill Burgess’s career spanned all of Topps’s early years, and he was always “Smoky.”  Later issues in the 1960s didn’t even include his real name on the back of the card.

The issue cuts to the idea of identity formation and the hero worship naturally stoked by baseball cards.  “Smoky Burgess” and “Pee Wee Reese” just sound cool.  Does “Bobo Osborne” have the same ring?  Did Topps use “Larry” because it sounded more traditional?  Did Topps just feel that Newsom, a long-time big leaguer, was the only Bobo?  (Holloman didn’t receive a Topps card until the 1991 Topps Archives “Cards that Never Were” release.  Yes, he was called “Bobo.”) 

A nickname lends a kid-friendly familiarity to a ballplayer–think George Herman Ruth–but it can also distance the fan from the player.  Do A-Rod’s close friends call him “A-Rod?”  I can see starstruck fans greeting Mattingly with a hearty, “Hey!  Donnie Baseball!”  The proliferation of digital technology makes it easier for fans to see a player’s real personality if he wishes to share it.  The cost is a loss of the majestic distance I felt when I ACTUALLY saw Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker in REAL LIFE and they were ACTUALLY playing baseball IN FRONT OF ME.  It’s wonderful to see a video of Trevor Bauer taking his Covid-19 test and eating a healthy lunch before working out on an off day, but does it dull the mystique when I watch him stare down batters on MLB.TV? 

There’s another big issue that I need to address with this card and others from 1960 Topps. 

Punctuation problems!  (Don’t worry.  I’ll keep it fun.) 

There isn’t a single comma in the prose on the reverse of Osborne’s card.  (There should be three, along with a couple hyphens.)  Many 1960 Topps cards feature “Season’s Highlights” instead of traditional prose; punctuation is easier when you’re writing bullet points.  But look at Johnny Callison’s card: 

That last bit needs a full stop!  Without it, the sentence implies that Callison hit 27 home runs on December 8th.  There weren’t even any games that day! 

Perhaps the Topps staff paid less attention to the sentences on the cards in the years during which they devoted more space to cartoons…

1961 Larry Osbourne #208

Design of the reverse: Full stats, no prose, cartoons

Text (16 words in captions):  Larry showed great promise in his first full seasons of major league ball last year. In April he blasted his initial major league homer to climax a perfect 3 for 3 day against the Orioles. In June his 3 RBI’s helped rout the Red Sox 8-1 and in August he drove in a trio of markers against Kansas City.

Larry’s dad was a major leaguer in 1922 [Larry’s father shows Little Boy Larry how to hold a bat.]

Speaking of years in which Topps cut down on the copywriting budget…

Topps opted to include fuller stat lines, including minor league lines for a player like Osborne.  I wish we could still ask Sy Berger, but I wonder if this was indeed done as a cost-cutting measure, or if Topps wanted to build the players’ identities in a different way.  Statistics certainly tell a story, just in a different way.  A savvy kid could take one glance at Osborne’s stats and see from the man’s .185 batting average why he spent the entire 1960 season in AAA.

I chose to write about two Larry Osborne cards for a couple reasons.  First, that’s what’s in the my one-Tiger-for-each-year collection.  Second, I love that Topps repeated the same anecdote about Osborne.  Larry’s father was Earnest Preston Osborne, nicknamed “Tiny.” (Is “Bobo” better than “Tiny?”)  

Tiny pitched from 1922 to 1925 for the Cubs and the Robins.  Only 22 years later, his son was in the bigs.  Ballplayers have long served as father figures to kids, whether or not the real father figure was around.  By emphasizing that Bobo had ostensibly made Tiny proud, a young boy or girl who pulled this card in 1961 might have subconsciously confronted his or her own subconscious desire to please the old man.  The cartoons are also part of Topps’s history of highlighting father-son ballplayer duos.

1962 Terry Fox #196

Design of the reverse: Reduced stats, one cartoon, prose

Text (53 words in prose, plus 13 in captions): Terry was considered “just a toss-in” in the deal that sent Frank Bolling to the Braves last winter.  Instead, despite some arm trouble, the righthanded bullpen artist developed into a gem as his 1.42 E.R.A. points out.  He won 12 games in relief in the P.C.L. in 1960.

TERRY OUTFOXES THE HITTERS

Terry won 21 games with New Iberia in 1955.  [From behind the umpire, we see Terry in his follow-through.  The ball is halfway to the plate, and the umpire has already extended his right arm into the air.]

Significantly, humor doesn’t seem to have a prominent role in most baseball card prose.  I suppose that there are a few jokes here and there, particularly in cartoons, but I’m not sure how often we see an honest-to-goodness pun like “Terry outfoxes the hitters.”  

Get it?  There you go.

Perhaps the authors don’t want to diminish the players through the use of humor or risk offending the parents of their target audience.  (Come to think of it, examining humor in baseball cards would be a fun study.)

If you’ll notice, the events in the prose are out of order.  Did the author want to fill up that last line above the stat box?

Oh, and that penultimate sentence is missing a comma.  

1963 Howie Koplitz #406

Design of the reverse: Full stats, cartoon, some prose.

Text (13 words in prose, plus 10 in captions): The righthanded reliever is still undefeated after 2 seasons in the American League.

Howie was in the Armed Forces for part of ’62.  [An annoyed staff sergeant watches Howie go through drills using a baseball bat instead of a rifle.  The rifle says, “BANG!”]

Topps always had affection for prospects and rookies.  As is the case today, the company was hoping to get in on the ground floor with players who would become the next big thing.  (Of course, the money in today’s baseball card ecosystem is completely different…)  

The Topps All-Star Rookie designation first appeared on cards in 1961, and Koplitz received the honor on his 1962 rookie card.  Unfortunately, the prose on the reverse of Koplitz’s 1963 issue sounds like the kind of statement we might make in a resume: technically accurate, but perhaps overly flattering.  It’s absolutely true that Koplitz was undefeated in the American League.  On the other hand, he was 5-0 as a starter as well as a righty coming out of the bullpen. 

Perhaps most importantly, there is precious little room for prose on the reverse of this card.  In this way, Topps boosts Koplitz in an efficient manner.  The pitcher is undefeated, and if you’re wondering why he’s only pitched in 14 Tiger games over two seasons, well…he was serving our country.  I can’t think of a better way to explain a gap in one’s resume!

And perhaps my sense about the scarcity of baseball card humor is slightly off; note the appropriately Bazooka Joe-esque joke.  (I love the expression on the annoyed drill instructor’s face.)


The amount of prose may be decreasing, but I’m getting ever more excited as I get closer to that World Champion 1968 team.  Next time, I’ll write about a couple of the cogs on that squad and a highly underrated southpaw who was brave enough to strike out the Splendid Splinter the first time they faced each other.


Series: A Brief Analysis of Baseball Card Prose and How It Makes Us Better Writers
1952 – 1955,
1956 – 1959, 1960-1963
or the posts can be found under the “CardProse” tag.

Giving a Hoot about Gibby

Editor’s note: A huge SABR Baseball Cards thank you to guest writer Bijan C. Bayne for contributing this Bob Gibson memorial retrospective to our blog. For more from Bijan, see his blog at or follow him on Twitter at @bijancbayne.

Bob Gibson died on October 2, 2020, a couple weeks after his fellow Omaha bred sports hero Gale Sayers. Gibson would have been 85 on November 9, and his storied athletic career is an intriguing as anyone’s. “Athletic,” because for a pitcher, Gibson embodies “athlete” like few others, and is one of a handful of top level hurlers capable of defeating you with his glove, arm, legs, or bat.

Gibson was raised in the aforementioned Omaha, tutored in youth sports by a much older brother who happened to be named “Josh” (who was a role model for a lot of boys in their close knit community), and excelled in basketball and baseball. In that order. The hoops proficiency earned the 6’1” Gibson a basketball scholarship to local university Creighton, where the All-American prospered. He actually had dreams of playing for Indiana University, but Gibson got the impression their head coach Branch McCracken had a small finite tolerance concerning roster spots for Black guys.

Gibson’s collegiate success was such that he toured on a College All-Star squad which toured nationally against the Harlem Globetrotters, who in those days boasted NBA level talent. The leaping, undersized Creighton Blue Jay forward torched the Trotters nightly during the tour, leading Globies owner Abe Saperstein to sign Hoot to his ballclub. Ever the fiery competitor, Gibson tired of clowning with the exhibition outfit, and shifted his focus to the diamond.

In the Cardinals’ system Gibson faced early frustration because manager Solly Hemus didn’t deem him worthy of the starting rotation, and would excuse him from pitchers’ meetings on the grounds Gibson wasn’t cerebrally able to understand mound nuance. For his part, Gibson characterized Hemus to be similarly bigoted as McCracken. Gibson was primarily deployed in relief. His first four big league seasons he was a combined 34-36, but he recorded strikeouts in roughly two-thirds of the innings he pitched.

New Cardinals skipper Johnny Keane exhibited more confidence in Gibson, who went 18-9 with more than 200 K’s in 1963. Some have even compared Gibson’s early career mediocrity to Sandy Koufax- who also attended college on a basketball scholarship at a Missouri Valley Conference school (Cincinnati). Of course by 1964, Gibson was a World Series hero who helped defeat the Yankees. Gibson could hit and hit for power, and he occasionally pinch ran (on a club that had speedsters Lou Brock and Curt Flood). Despite his signature follow through, whose momentum carried him off the mound to his left, Gibson was awarded nine Gold Gloves.

The World Series catapulted Gibson into cultural prominence. He epitomized postseason perfection, he was a product spokesperson for both asthma medication, and (demonstrating his fastball in the ad), shatter-proof plexiglass. He guested on an episode of “The Big Valley.” His drop dead gorgeous wife Charline appeared on the 1970’s incarnation of “What’s My Line.”

I followed his career closely, even moreso after a school carpool mate rode home with Gibson’s autobiography “From Ghetto To Glory,” and I flipped through the photo midsection in my father’s backseat. In my backyard, where I had chalked a strike zone on our back wall next to the basement door, I’d fall off the mound sideways in my pitching follow through. Like Willie Mays and Dick Allen (the latter a brief Gibson teammate), Gibson was always depicted in long sleeves under his uniform jersey, or even his warmup jacket underneath it on some trading cards.

I owned his ‘71 Topps—one of the few years he’s shown in an action shot, and also rarely, in profile (a less confrontational Gibby).

The ‘67 Gibby Topps is intriguing in that it captures him at the cusp of superstardom, still boyish in countenance and pose (he was 31). Contrast that with his ‘72 Topps, where he bears the elder statesman status of a Mudcat Grant.

You didn’t think I was done discussing Gibson’s prowess at the plate did you? He hit 24 career homers- five of them in 1965. He drove in 20 runs in 1963, and 19 each in ‘65 and ‘70 (the latter campaign he was 34 years old). He stole 13 bases, five of them in 1969. He recorded six doubles in both 1969 and 1972. The man who hated batters, loved to bat. Dick Allen once asked Gibson at the All-Star Game, “Why do you throw at us colored guys?”

Gibson: “Because you guys are the ones killing me!” When Tim McCarver would come out to conference at the mound, Gibson would bark “Get back behind the plate—the only thing you know about pitching is you can’t hit it.” When Michael Jordan returned from a foray into baseball, as a uniform number 45 in basketball, it reminded me the last person that competitive, to sport that numeral was Bob Gibson.

Gibson’s ‘67 World Series dominance is all the more remarkable because on June 15 of the regular season, Roberto Clemente had shattered the ace’s leg with a line drive. The clutch performer returned in time to lift his team in seven games over the Boston Red Sox, including a home run as a batter. Invariably when a 2000’s slugger crowded the plate, or sported body armor on his elbows and shins, tv commentators or former ballplayers remarked as if on cue, “He wouldn’t stand in that close if Bob Gibson were still pitching—Gibby would show him who owns the plate.”

Thus Gibson symbolized an era- one during which he and Don Drysdale, ummm, discouraged opponents’ digging in too close to the dish. Gibson’s trademark tenacity extended to exhibition games—he didn’t socialize with N.L. teammates at All-Star Games because he didn’t want to become friendly with batters. Ask Dick Allen. Off the field, while Gibson wasn’t mild mannered, he did wear glasses, which appeared incongruous. But so did Clark Kent and Ray Nitschke. One wonders what extra fear the specs stoked in opposing batters.

Because of cultural changes and contemporary baseball rules protecting batters, we will never see another Bob Gibson. Because of Gibson, we will never again see pitchers’ mounds 15 inches high—in 1968’s Year Of The Pitcher, he posted a 1.12 ERA and 13 shutouts.

Bullet Bob Gibson. Hoot. Gibby. The man so fiercely combative he quit a touring basketball team that generally went several consecutive seasons without a loss. The last of a breed. Nine World Series starts. Eight complete games, seven victories. Twice named Series MVP. Overcame ethnic bias, asthma, and a broken leg.

I cannot be the only person who imagined The Grim Reaper approached Gibson this week and asked for the ball. Gibson fixed the scythe bearing scepter with his laser beam stare, and said with that clipped Midwestern accent “If you don’t go sit your behind down somewhere I’m gonna plunk you.” Though the tactic may not have proved successful, it was certainly on brand.