Orlando Cepeda Made Me a Criminal

Does one crime make you a criminal? Does a momentary act of desperation make you a bad person?

There’s the literary case of Jean Valjean, stealing bread to feed his sister’s children. The theft marked him for life, first with imprisonment, then with non-stop running from the grasp of the relentless Javert. A lifetime of suffering for satisfying an urgent need.

If you’ve ever tried to complete a set from packs, you know how horrible it feels as you get towards the end. Pack after pack, dollar after dollar, wading through card after card looking for that final one. In 1973, I was Valjean and Orlando Cepeda was my full loaf.

I needed a few cards to finish my set, the first set I’d assembled only from packs. I know I needed Dave Lemonds, probably a couple of others from the dreaded last series, but, really, the now rare high numbered cards were plentiful and available. (Not like the third series of 1972 Topps football, which I don’t think ever made it to Suffolk County. If they had, I would have bought them and I don’t have any!).

Orlando Cepeda was impossible to find. Orland friggin’ Cepeda, on the final leg of his career, was more sought after by an almost 11-year old kid than he was by any big league team when his card was made. By the end of ’73, when the last series emerged, “The Baby Bull” was finishing up a big comeback season as a Red Sox DH in Year One of the experiment. His Topps card though had him as an Oakland A. Did I know that yet? No.1973toppsbox

I bought pack after pack, scouring the front of cello packs – the one and three window varieties – looking at the fronts and backs in a mad search for “Cha Cha.” No luck.

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Living in Lake Grove in the early 1970’s was interesting for a boy from Brooklyn. It felt like the 1950’s still, except for the Smith Haven Mall. The mall was uber modern, very exciting in its own way. Less exciting was McCrory’s, a pretty nondescript budget department store, but McCrory’s had cards and I bought a lot of them there. Near the candy section was a three-tiered rotating wire rack of dangling three-pack cellos. On yet another trip to kill suburban time, I headed to the mall with a friend to hang out and stopped to continue my card quest.

rack pack

Spinning, spinning, top section, second section, third section, nothing – wait! Spinning in reverse to focus my eyes on what I’d seen and missed in my first go around, there he was! Cepeda, right in the front, right in the middle.

“What if I want it more than the person who has it?” Rocket Raccoon was still a few years from his debut but he summed up my situation best. I wanted, I needed, that card. I can’t remember if I had any money on me, probably not, because if I had I wouldn’t have stolen it.

I’d never stolen anything before, and didn’t quite know how it worked. I positioned my friend in front of me as I got to work. Now I didn’t take the whole three-pack, which would have been easier. Why? Because I didn’t need the three-pack, I needed the middle pack. See, I wasn’t really a thief, because I only was going to take what I needed. I tore the bottom pack off, tossed it under the display, and tore off the middle and skedaddled. Fast.

Whenever I see that Cepeda card I cringe a bit.  I have a few now, even one listed on eBay, but it’s not that one. That one is safely tucked between Von Joshua and Jim York in my set. Still, it hurts a little to know what I did, and confession is good for the soul, but only slightly. The 1973 Topps Orlando Cepeda card, number 545, is my bread and my conscience is my Javert.

1973 Cepeda front020

 

The Johnny Lindell Mystery

Baseball cards are touchstones; evoking childhood memories and pleasurable collecting experiences. A favorite player’s exploits or a key acquisition to complete a set can be conjured up with just a glance. Also certain cards can take you to a specific time and place. The 1949 Leaf Johnny Lindell is such a card.

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The Lindell card transports me back to the early ‘70s. My best friend at school told me a story about exploring an abandoned house. The old man who lived there had recently died. Of course he made it sound as the gentleman had died in the house, resulting in the certainty of it being haunted.  I subsequently learned that the man died in a nursing home.

The friend stated that the contents left in the dwelling were strewn about-probably by him-with most of the stuff dumped on the floor. There, in a cardboard box, he found, amongst other things, the Johnny Lindell card. Applying the “finders keepers” rule, my buddy laid claim to the card.

It goes without saying that my “collector’s gene” kicked in immediately. I negotiated a trade giving the friend some current cards in exchange. The card was nowhere near mint condition, but it was by far my oldest card. From that day forward, I’ve often pondered why it was in the house.

“Kids living in the house” is the most logical explanation for the card ending up on the shack’s floor. This ramshackle place undoubtedly saw many migrant families come-and-go. Central Washington has experienced waves of immigrants and emigrants trying to escape poverty by taking advantage of plentiful agriculture jobs. My parents and grandparents were part of the “Ozark Diaspora” in the ‘40s and ‘50s. The child collector theory is plausible, but the card was at least 22 years old at the time and apparently no other cards were present in the house.

It is possible that the old man had a special affinity for Johnny Lindell. After all he was a hero of the 1947 World Series in which he batted .500. Maybe the man remembered Johnny as a “war era” star since his deferment kept him playing through ’44 against weak competition.

How a ’49 Leaf Johnny Lindell ending up in crumbling house in Selah, Washington will always remain a mystery. However, it serves as a great example of the memories a single card can evoke. The accompanying photo is the actual card.

The ’49 Leaf cards measure 2 3/8 x 2 7/8 with 98 in the set. The background features bright colors with a colorized photo. This colorization process is primitive with a limited blue and red uniform pallet. The player’s face is painted with flesh tones.

To learn more about Johnny Lindell’s career, check out Rob Neyer’s BioProject biography.

It Falls Between the Lines

68 Lines Front68 Lines Back

All collectors have experienced the disappointment of opening a pack and finding mostly cards you already possess. The joyous anticipation of peeling open a wax pack or tearing the Mylar wrapper is quickly extinguished when only duplicates appear. Equally frustrating is getting numerous cards of the same player. Of course I only have anecdotal evidence, but occasionally it seems the random sorting process goes awry and the same player ends up in most of the packs.

70 Syd O'Brien

In 1970, I remember getting five Syd O’Brien cards out of six or seven packs I purchased. I can still see him with his arms spread in a mock infielders pose. But the multiple “Syds” pale in comparison to the deluge of Dick Lines cards I received in ’68.

1968 was my first year collecting which probably explains why I vividly remember opening pack after pack containing the Senators reliever. After acquiring a few more from my brother and friends, I ended up with 10. I must have derived some pleasure from hording the Washington southpaw. The card left such an impression on me that I still remember that the answer to the cartoon trivia question on the back is Darold Knowles. Dick’s pitching follow though pose at Yankee Stadium may be more familiar to me than memories of my wedding or birth of my son!

Ironically, Lines didn’t even pitch for the Senators in ’68 and never appeared in the majors again. He did have a great year in ’66, appearing in 53 games, winning five and losing two, with a 2.28 ERA and three saves. Dick’s two year major league totals include: seven wins, seven losses and a 2.83 ERA. He spent 11 seasons in the minors, retiring after the ’69 season. 1967 is the only other year a card was produced for Dick.

Lines 67

According to Baseball Reference, Dick was born in Montreal and is still living at the age of 78. Perhaps I should contact him and let him know what an outsized impact he’s had on me. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that Dick’s short, mediocre career may have contributed, psychologically, to my own general mediocrity. Perhaps at six years of age, Dick Lines’ career line on the card’s back convinced me of life’s limitations. If only Henry Aaron had been in all those packs, I might be rich and famous. Curse you, Dick Lines!

 

The Final Card

 

Starting in 1972 I devised a card collecting strategy to insure completing sets. I would purchase wax packs for the first two series. After saving my allowance and bottle collection money, I would purchase the later series through mail order. Many of you may remember that hobby companies sold cards by series. I continued this practice in 1973 before deciding to give up over-the-counter collecting and order complete sets starting in 1974. (By which time Topps was putting out every card in a single series.)

Completing the 1973 set came down to finding #154: Jeff Torborg. He was on the Angels that year having come over from the Dodgers in 1971. Torborg is best known for having caught three no hitters including Sandy Koufax’s perfect game in 1965 and Nolen Ryan’s first. He would later go on to manage the Indians, White Sox and Mets. Living in the small town of Selah, Washington limited my access to hobby shops that might carry singles. I’m not sure I knew that “Sports Collectors Digest” existed, where I may have found a “singles” source. Thus, continuing to buy packs was my only recourse.

The Selah Variety Store was a classic small town five-and-dime that served as the town’s sole source for baseball cards. This was an era when kids could ride their bikes or walk for miles around town without anyone being concerned for their safety. One spring Saturday I jumped on my bike and headed off in quest of Jeff Torborg.

Using the dollar my grandpa gave me every Saturday, I purchased nine packs at $0.10 each. I left the store and opened my packs next to the bike stand. Once again I was disappointed as no Jeff Torborg emerged. As I started to leave, a younger kid came out of the store with one pack of cards which he proceeded to open. Although I was a very shy kid, my need for Jeff Torborg overwhelmed my usual reticence. I approached him and ask him if I could see who he got. Sure enough, there was Torborg! Without hesitation, I snatched the card from his hand and gave him my nine packs. I jumped on my bike and rode off before he could register an objection.

The kid probably ended up with some great cards since first two series of the 1973 set contains such Hall-of-Fame players as Clemente, Aaron, Palmer and Frank Robinson. Perhaps the nine extra packs triggered a lifelong passion for collecting. More likely he followed the path of most “normal” people and gave up card collecting as he grew older. Hopefully, he hasn’t held a grudge all these years over losing Jeff Torborg to a chubby, weird kid on a purple stingray bike.

Post Cereal Issues from 1961-1963

I remember pieces of the 1964 season. I remember that we watched the Dodgers sweep the Yankees in the 1963 World Series. But my earliest baseball memory is being really excited about finding a Roger Maris card on the back of a box of Post cereal in 1962. Although I did not have this card in my possession for close to fifty years, its image was burned into my memory. This blog and my plans to write this post caused me purchase the card displayed here.

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Post started their brief foray into sports cards with a nine card set of oversized cards in 1960, which they put on the back of boxes of Grape Nuts Flakes. The cards were 7” by 8 3/4”. The set contained five baseball players (Eddie Mathews, Mickey Mantle, Al Kaline, Harmon Killebrew and Don Drysdale), two football players (Frank Gifford and Johnny Unitas) and two basketball players (Bob Cousy and Bob Pettit).

They went full on in 1961, when they issued a set with 200 baseball players, all standard baseball-card size.  The cards were blank on the back, with a color photo and biographical information on the front (with the photo on the left), along with lifetime and 1960 statistics. The name is in black, in a sans-serif font , and the phrase “BASEBALL STAR CARD No. ##” in black across the top, with a row of eight red stars below. The statistics are on a yellow background, with “MAJOR LEAGUE BATTING RECORD” or “MAJOR LEAGUE PITCHING RECORD” printed in white on a black background above the stats. The cards appeared on ten different varieties of cereals in multiple box sizes, and also on variety packs. There were 73 different box panels, affecting the variability of the various players. For example, for the Post Tens bottom tray, there were seven panels of three cards each. Only one of those 21 players appeared on any other panel. Cards were also available in team sheets, directly from Post. These cards came on thinner stock. There were four cards which were only available in this way, as well as cards that were only available on boxes. Information on some cards was updated as the year progressed. Dan Mabey, the recognized authority on the Post issues says there are 361 different box cards.

1961 Post
1961 Post

The 1962 set continued to have 200 players. Updates, card stock and other differences bring the total varieties to 543 cards. Layout is the same, but this time, the picture is on the right side instead of the left, and the player name is in a script font, written in blue ink, and the line of stars above the name is missing. The statistics title is black on the background of the stat box. The American League players (like Maris, above) have blue line around the statistics box and a white background for the player information and a yellow background for the statistics. National League players have a red line around the stats with a yellow background for the player information and a white background for the stats. Also,  100 of the cards were also issued in a Canadian set, without the color differentiation and with reduced text printed in both French and English.

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1962 Post
1962 Post
1962 Post

The 1963 set ceases the differentiation between the leagues and returns to a standard black serif font for the player names, The rest of the card uses a sans serif font, with the team name and position in all caps red. The card number is in red, prefixed by “No.”, and with three blue stars on each side, to center it above the player name. There are three blue stars on each side of the “MAJOR LEAGUE BATTING RECORD” or “MAJOR LEAGUE PITCHING RECORD” in the stat box.

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1963 Post

The “Laughing Bob” Trade

Undoubtedly following the example of my eleven year old brother Tony, I started collecting baseball cards in 1968 at six years of age. Since my brother was more knowledgeable in regards to which players were stars, he would try to hoodwink me into trading away players he coveted. For example, he was able to acquire Curt Flood and an Orlando Cepeda All-Star card for undoubtedly a bunch of scrubs. However, there is one transaction from the distance of nearly 50 years that stands out the most: Alvin Dark for Bob Tillman.

Obviously, this trade does not fall in the category of star player for scrub. In fact I’m not sure why my brother wanted the Indians manager and, since he is deceased, I will never know. The 1968 Bob Tillman features him hatless with the broad smile of someone in mid-laugh. tillman-backIn fact my brother emphasized this fact by convincing me that Tillman’s nickname was “Laughing Bob.” Also he pointed out on the back of the card that Bob had once played for the Seattle Rainiers in the Pacific Coast League. This geographical connection to the small, Central Washington town I grew in, coupled with the unique nickname, made an impression on me. But what sealed the deal was when my brother pointed out that Bob and I share the same birth date.

Perhaps my brother’s smug reaction or my realization that he continually took advantage of my naiveté in any number of situations soon brought on trader’s remorse. After pleading with him to reverse the deal, our confrontation turned physical. The resulting beat-down sent me running to my mom in tears. She didn’t know Al Dark from Harry Bright, but mom knew I had been cheated in some manner. Channeling her inner commissioner, she voided the trade in the best interest of household peace.

When my brother entered high school, he gave me all his baseball cards. I finally completed the 1968 set a few years ago and upgraded the condition of many of the cards including Dark and Tillman. But I specifically set aside the original two cards to serve as a reminder of that long ago transaction.

Incidentally, I had to smile when I purchased a 1961 Union Oil Seattle Rainiers set and discovered that Bob Tillman was amongst the featured players.

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1961 Union Oil Bob Tillman

 

 

Vada and Felipe

Mark Armour recently challenged us to write about our favorite common cards. For me, two cards from the 1971 Topps set immediately came to mind.

vada-pinsonGrowing up in Sacramento, the 1971 cards were really the first I collected and, as an Indians fan, my favorite player was Vada Pinson. To this day he remains one of my favorites. The 1971 Topps card shows him sliding into home against one of the greatest catchers of the era — Thurman Munson of the Yankees, wearing his Yankee cap, not a helmet, on his head. Totally old school. Plus I loved action shots as a kid and seeing your favorite player in that shot keeps it ingrained in your mind.

That year was Pinson’s second with the Indians and he had a small resurgence in his base stealing, nabbing 25 that year after stealing in the single digits the previous two years. Vada came up with the Reds, and in 1959 at age 20 led the National League in runs scored and doubles. He followed that up two years later by coming in third in the MVP voting, part of a decade-long run of stardom in Cincinnati. He ended his career with 2757 hits, just short of the magic number of 3000. 

I loved those old simple Indians uniforms. This card I think about more often than I probably should.

felipe-alouAnother card from that set I loved was this Felipe Alou, taking a full swing in those beautiful Oakland A’s uniforms, his number 8 showing for the camera. Just the color of that card was, and still is, mesmerizing. Alou moved around a lot when I was a kid, and he eventually landed with another of my favorite teams — the Montreal Expos — in 1973, their first decent team. Felipe will always have a special place in my heart, but this card is just flat out gorgeous.

The 1971 Topps set was the first that showed action photos as part of the regular player cards. There are many in this set I could choose, but Pinson and Alou are my choices. Both cards will remain in my memory forever.