1987 Fleer Joe Sambito: A Modern Mystery (Solved)

In the summer of 2019, a small cadre of baseball card enthusiasts from the Chicago SABR chapter gathered at the home of Jason Schwartz to open a mound of junk wax packs, talk baseball, and devour pizza. Ever since, we have endeavored to gather every few months to bust packs and enjoy an evening of laughs and nostalgia.

At our latest gathering, collector-extraordinaire Rich Ray brought a fresh 1985 Donruss wax box and a 1987 rack pack box. [Rich always puts the rest of the group to shame with his generous contributions!]

While opening the 1987 Fleer packs, Jason noticed a player in the background on the Joe Sambito card and wondered whether it was Wade Boggs. Unfortunately, the upper righthand corner of the player’s second number was obscured by the winsome Sambito, so it was not immediately clear whether the full uniform number was a “26” or “28.”

If you read this article, you may know that Wade Boggs is my favorite non-Cub player and that I was previously under a mistaken notion that I had an impressive collection of Boggs cardboard. I quickly made a trade for the Joe Sambito card (sending some unwelcome Steve Garvey* cards Jason’s way), on the chance it was Boggs.

In order to solve the mystery, I turned first to Baseball-Reference.com with the hope there was no player on the 1986 Red Sox roster with the number “28.” Unfortunately, twirler Steve Crawford was a “28” so I had to turn to elsewhere.           

The collecting community responded swifty and decisively. Wade Boggs super collector David Boggs (no relation) found a Steve Crawford jersey and observed that the left side of the second letter was different for a “6” and an “8.” Things were looking good.

Next, Wade Boggs super collector Richard Davis evoked his medical training and observed, sans palpation, that the appearance of the player’s forearm proved it was Boggs.

The ultimate confirmation, however, came from Mr. Boggs himself, which included a good-natured poke at Steve Crawford’s girth. Only in the age of social media could such a groundbreaking baseball card mystery be solved so quickly and resolutely.

If you collect cards that happen to feature Wade Boggs in the background, you may now want to add the 1987 Fleer Joe Sambito (#43) to your album along side the 1985 Fleer Jackie Gutierrez (#160), 1993 Donruss Carlos Baerga (#405, on back), and 1997 Denny’s John Jaha (#8).  

Notes:

*As a Padre in 1984, Steve Garvey broke this Cub fan’s little heart. I have not forgiven him, so it is unfortunate that Garvey remains Jason Schwartz’s favorite player from childhood.

Sources:

Baseball-Reference.com, David Boggs, Richard Davis, Wade Boggs

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.

At home with John Orton

John Orton popped up again the other day.

Not in the sense of skying one to the second baseman. Rather, I mean he resurfaced. Came to the top.

He doesn’t live with the rest of my baseball cards — he lives on countertops, or on the edges of bookshelves — and it’s common for him to just show up every so often, like a wild cat wandering from time to time into the yard of a farmhouse.

# # # # #

I found him in the fall of 2018, or perhaps the spring of 2019; the circumstances would have been the same at either point.

IMG_E3767

I was jogging in Walpole, Massachusetts, near the two-room apartment where I’d moved after taking a new job in Boston in September 2018. My wife and younger son were still in Pennsylvania, with plans to sell our house there and join me in New England after the school year ended.

Most of the time between September 2018 and June 2019, I was either on a train headed to or from the city for work, or on a highway driving to or from Pennsylvania so I could spend a weekend packing, cleaning, and reminding my family what I looked like. What little time was left was spent in the two-room apartment, which my younger son christened the Sad Dad Pad. (Perhaps sensing that this cut a little close to the bone, he renamed it the Dad Cave, which it remained.)

Back to the jog: I was probably looking down, gauging a bumpy and unfamiliar stretch of sidewalk, when I saw John Orton — 1991 Topps Stadium Club #591, to be precise. The Doug Drabek card from the same set was sitting nearby, in similar condition, and a shuffling of additional weather-worn cards were spread further out in the yard.

I didn’t feel comfortable going into some stranger’s yard to look at the other cards. But John Orton (and Doug Drabek, who vanishes from the narrative hereafter) was right next to the sidewalk. So I picked him up. If some little kid didn’t want the company of the former Angels backstop, I’d take it.

As it turned out, we had something in common. I was the New Guy In The Office, trying to prove myself, and so was he.

IMG_E3764

It’s possible that John Orton and his comrades were lost, not intentionally thrown away. But I tend to think they were discarded. There were enough cards in the yard to make me think that any half-attentive owner would have noticed the absence of their bulk and volume if they’d been dropped by mistake.

No, instead, I figured some kid had bought a repack of cards, or had been gifted some old cards by a friendly uncle, and had decided to shed the ones he didn’t like — perhaps while walking from one house to another, flicking the wrist, the way one would casually discard the wrapper of a candy bar eaten in transit.

Some cards had blown farther from the sidewalk. Others had stayed where they fell. And a few went home with me — such as “home” was. I didn’t have a whole lot of counter space, but John Orton claimed some of it, wedged onto a sort of kitchen “eating bar” area where my computer lived.

# # # # #

The move worked out in the end. All the usual hurdles and speed bumps presented themselves, but the rest of the family moved to Massachusetts and rejoined me under a new roof as planned, and the sale of the house in Pennsylvania closed a month or two later. (I breathe multiple sighs of thanks and relief each day that we tackled this maneuver in 2018-2019, and not a year later.)

I probably gave some thought to chucking John Orton as I cleaned out the Dad Cave — him being emblematic of a time now over, and all that. But I kept him. I’ve never been one to throw out cards, not even teams I don’t like or players I don’t care about.

I should probably think about filing him in the boxes and binders that house the rest of my cards. “John Orton finally finds a home” would be a nice sentimental conclusion, I suppose.

But for now he’s still an outside cat, so to speak, living on countertops and desktops, getting buried by paper ephemera and then coming up again with each new cleaning. I think he fits nicely in that role, to serve as an intermittent reminder to both of us to be thankful for how life has improved since the day we met.

The Greatest Topps Card of the 1960’s

Spoiler Alert: It is not a card of a Hall of Famer.

Back in April I wrote a blog post about the Ugliest Topps Set Ever. I thought I would double down on crazy and write a post about the single Greatest Topps card of the 1960’s.

I actively started collecting and trading cards as a kid in 1961 and stopped after the 1969 baseball season. My cards from the 1960’s are long gone, so for this post I reacquainted myself with the cards from this era by thumbing through the book titled – Baseball Cards of the Sixties – The Complete Topps Cards, which contains pictures of all of the individual cards that were issued from 1960 to 1969.

Front Cover – Baseball Cards of the Sixties – The Complete Topps Cards

My criteria for choosing the greatest card of the 1960’s was not only the image of the player on the front of the card, but also the card design and all aspects of the back of the card – number, layout of statistics, cartoon, and the player write up. For each of the areas I gave a weighting and a grade so I could come up with an overall grade for the card.

With so many great cards of the hall of famers from that era is was difficult not to choose a card of Clemente, Mays, Aaron, Mantle, Koufax, substitute your own Hall of Famer who played during the 60’s.

Considering all the factors that I listed above my pick for the greatest Topps card of the 1960’s is the 1962 Roger Maris card.

1962 Topps Roger Maris Card – Front

In 1961 Maris smashed 61 home runs, eclipsing the record that Ruth set in 1927. For most of the season Maris and Mantle were neck and neck in the race to set a new high for most home runs in a single season. Maris was under tremendous pressure throughout the season. The press generated fake news stories about him. The fans booed him and cheered for Mantle to break the record. Rogers Hornsby said – “It would be a shame if Ruth’s record got broken by a .270 hitter.” The pressure took a toll on him. Clumps of his hair fell out. But he persevered and broke the record with a home run off of Tracy Stallard on October 1, 1961.

I was 8 years in 1961 and closely followed the M&M boys run at Ruth’s record. Every morning I turned to the sports section of the daily paper and scanned the write ups and box scores to see if Maris or Mantle hit a home run the previous day. Even my father, who only had a slight interest in baseball (he was into Y.A. Tittle and the New York Giants), got caught up in the chase. He took me to Fenway Park for my first major league game on September 24, 1961. Maris had 59 home runs at the time, and all of 30,802 fans in attendance were on the edge of their seats every time he came to bat hoping he would wrap one around the Pesky pole in right field, but it did not happen.

Setting the new home record in 1961 stands as the greatest baseball achievement of the 1960’s and Topps came out with an outstanding card of Roger Maris in 1962 to honor the accomplishment.

1962 Topps Roger Maris Card – Back

Player Image

In the photo Roger has a wad of chewing tobacco in his cheek and is finishing a swing that shows off his muscular arms.  The image conjures up cards of two other All Stars who played in the 1960’s – Ted Kluszewski and Nellie Fox.

This is the perfect photo to illustrate the term “baseball slugger”.

Grade A                       Weighting 35%

1957 Topps Card of Ted Kluszewski

1962 Topps Nellie Fox Card

Card Design

Many collectors hate the wood grain border design that Topps used for these cards. I am neutral on the design. I don’t think it is the worst design used during the 60’s and I don’t consider it the best either.

Grade C                       Weighting 15%

Card Number

Topps recognized Roger’s stellar 1961 season by designating it as the number 1 card in the 1962 set. It’s worth noting that the Maris card was the number 2 card in the 1961 set, as Topps gave the number 1 and number 2 cards to the MVPs in each league.

You can’t do better then being number 1.

Grade A                       Weighting 10%

1961 Topps cards of Dick Groat and Roger Maris

Layout of Statistics

Usually my preference is to see the complete minor and major league stats for a player on the back of a card, but in this case displaying only the 1961 season and lifetime stats works well since you can’t miss the 61 homers and 142 RBIs.

Grade A                       Weighting 10%

Cartoon

When I ripped open packs back in 1962 it was clear to me that the cartoons on the backs of the cards were done by one of artists that worked for that high-brow publication – Mad Magazine.

The cartoons for the 1962 set were done by Jack Davis, who I believe is the best cartoonist and illustrator of the 1960’s.  His work went far beyond Topps cards, Mad Magazine, and comic books. His illustrations can be found on album covers, movie posters, and magazine covers.

As you would expect, the card features an illustration of Roger smacking a home run.

Grade A                       Weighting 15%

Player Write Up

There have been some excellent blog posts about baseball card prose recently that have been written by Kenneth Nichols. I am sure he will do a deep dive on prose of the 1962 set soon, so my analysis of Roger’s write up will be brief.

Since the 1962 cards only have two stat lines, there is ample room for information about the player.

Topps leads off by referring to Roger as – “The most talked about player of the decade,” – and it is only 1962! You have to love that intro.

Grade A                       Weighting 15%

Overall Grade for the 1962 Topps Roger Maris Card

Card ElementsGradeWeightingWeighted Score
Player ImageA (5)35%1.75
Card DesignC (3)15%.45
Card NumberA (5)10%.50
Layout of StatsA (5)10%.50
CartoonA (5)15%.75
Player Write UpA (5)15%.75
TotalA-/B+100%4.70

Do you agree or disagree with me on the 1962 Roger Maris card being the greatest Topps card of the 1960’s? Let me know by way of a comment. 

Was National Chicle on the Ball or Off the Mark With its 1935 Diamond Stars Jimmie Foxx?

Though among most everyone’s candidates for the best first baseman in history, Jimmie Foxx—much like Honus Wagner two generations earlier—was a versatile player who could man various positions. (He ultimately took every position on the diamond besides second base and center field, including famously pitching—and pitching well—for the 1945 Phillies, as well as an earlier inning for the Red Sox.) Brought along gingerly by manager Connie Mack, Foxx was eased into the Philadelphia A’s lineup over several seasons. He originally reached the majors as a catcher, but with Mickey Cochrane claiming the position in his freshman season, Foxx had no future as Philly’s backstop. Tried variously in the outfield and the corner bases, Foxx did not become the Athletics regular first baseman until 1929. Not coincidentally, the A’s established themselves as the cream of baseball that season, leaving Babe Ruth’s mighty Yankees in the dust and cruising to a World Series championship.

With the arrival of Philadelphia’s quasi-dynasty of 1929–31 and Foxx’s subsequent eruption into Lou Gehrig’s near-equal as a devastating run producer, Jimmie was synonymous with first base throughout the 1930s.

Yet Foxx’s 1935 Diamond Stars card shows him as a catcher, despite the fact that he had not played an inning behind the plate since July 1928.

Having recently won back-to-back American League MVPs and now standing as one of the most famous and popular baseball players—not to mention first basemen–in the country, there seems to be no logical reason for National Chicle, the manufacturer of the Diamond Stars cards, to portray Foxx in his “long-lost” position.

Except that, for the first time in seven seasons, Jimmie donned baseball’s tools of ignorance, playing 26 of Philadelphia’s first 27 games behind the plate, before returning to first base. Mickey Cochrane had already traded in his white elephant for a tiger a season earlier and was busy player-managing Detroit to consecutive pennants, and Mack refused to put his trust in the A’s two other backstops when opening day arrived. In a strategy that could happen only in those quainter days, Mack moved Foxx back to catcher until he shelled out cash to the New York Giants for Paul Richards on May 25. (Richards was a short-term solution and did not even return to the majors until 1943; Mack ultimately solved his problem at catcher by bringing Frankie “Blimp” Hayes back to Philadelphia from the Washington organization, though Hayes was hardly a replacement for Mickey Cochrane.)

Anyway, National Chicle did not randomly or coincidentally depict Foxx as a catcher—the back of Jimmie’s card (spelled “Jimmy”) states that he had been “dividing his time between first base and catching…since Mickey Cochrane became manager of Detroit.”

This is flatly inaccurate (although to how much up-to-date and comprehensive statistics National Chicle availed itself certainly could be a factor): Cochrane had been traded to Detroit in December 1933, yet Jimmie never once played a game behind the plate in 1934 (though he unrelatedly did start nine game at the hot corner, for a total of 78 innings).

Thus, the only factual or rational reason for Foxx to be shown as a catcher on this card is because it wasn’t created until after Foxx debuted in 1935 as Philadelphia’s backstop on April 17. And he certainly would have had to have played at least several games at catcher before anyone at National Chicle either noticed or decided that enough of a pattern had been established to warrant capturing Foxx in catcher’s gear. (Considering National Chicle was based in the Boston suburb of Cambridge, it could be significant that the Red Sox and A’s did not clash until April 29, possibly delaying awareness that Foxx was currently not a first baseman.)

Exactly when in 1935 this card hit candy store shelves is unknown (at least to me). Foxx’s pose suggests—if we give National Chicle the benefit of the doubt on the facts of Jimmie’s defensive play, if not the semantics of his bio on the card—that National Chicle prepared and released its cards well after opening day. However, playing a handful of games at catcher in the early days of 1935 hardly can be considered “dividing one’s time” between the two positions when it never once occurred during the entire 1934 season. Either this was an excessively liberal take on National Chicle’s part or the writer of the card’s text assumed that Foxx had been catching in 1934—which, even in those less-enlightened days, was easily provable as false, had anyone bothered to fact check.

So perhaps National Chicle was under the erroneous impression that Foxx had been working behind the plate in 1934—which would make when the card was designed moot.

And yet, Foxx is mentioned as a first baseman even on the back of Jim Bottomley’s card, which was issued in the same series—and thus at the same time—as Foxx’s card, making Foxx’s portrayal as a catcher all the more curious.

Regardless, one must question to a degree the philosophy of so readily abandoning Foxx’s well-established reputation as an MVP first baseman based, presumptively, on a handful of games at the outset of the new season. It’s difficult to imagine the bigwigs at National Chicle thought Foxx’s move to catcher would be permanent, especially with light-hitting rookie Alex Hooks filling in for Foxx at first base, followed by powerless, though able, outfielder Lou Finney.

Still, National Chicle deserves a modicum of kudos for staying on the ball enough to reflect this recent, albeit temporary, change in Foxx’s defensive status—something of a Depression Era version of “keeping it real” (though whether it was necessary is debatable). As well, National Chicle should be commended from an aesthetic standpoint not only for providing an intrinsically interesting card but for similarly reminding the public that a baseball player is defined more by his many innings in the field than by his far shorter involvement at bat—a fact that modern fans tend to forget, especially in the era of the designated hitter and the current clamor for its adoption by the National League.

But as for whether Jimmie Foxx’s 1935 Diamond Stars card represents National Chicle being cutting edge or operating on erroneous information will likely never be known.

Convergences

Image

 

Yordan Álvarez is depicted on the Topps 2020 Series One Variation short print card #276 in glorious landscape orientation, like a widescreen Panavision vista of mesas and buttes, the fever dream of John Ford ardently lusting after a sunset into which he might send his hero trotting. Álvarez possesses plenty of swagger, but on this card he does not look heroic. He looks defeated as he makes the long walk back to the dugout, a look of frustration on his face, or possibly anger, eyes cast into the middle distance, his mouth a thin, tight line. And this is not the frontier; it’s a ballpark.

Álvarez made his major league debut for the Houston Astros on June 9th, 2019, and this card was issued in February of 2020, which means the photograph was taken sometime during the latter half of the season. Over his shoulder looms the unmistakable sight of Camden Yards’ B&O warehouse, so he’s in Baltimore. Houston visited the Charm City only once that season, for a three-game set in August, so we can assume the shot was taken on one of those three dates.

Further, Álvarez is not wearing the Astros’ standard road greys, nor is he sporting the orange or navy alternate jerseys Houston has been known to wear. He is instead wearing a throwback uniform – a modern version of the getup the Astros donned from 1982 until ’93, the name ‘Astros’ across the chest in an Arial-like sans-serif font, navy blue over a plain navy star. Above that, things get weird: thick racing stripes of navy-red-orange-gold-orange-red-navy drape the shoulders. This was the toned-down version of their 1970s tequila sunrise uniforms, which we can only guess made sense at the time, but now look like a parodic representation of what that decade felt like if you were tuned in, pharmacologically.

His batting helmet is navy, unlike the bright orange lids those ‘70s Houston teams wore – hunter blaze, we’d call that now, usually worn with a full neck-to-toe camo ensemble, the cap designed to make you clearly human and decidedly not ungulate in the eyes of fellow sportspeople lurking in the bush with long guns and trigger fingers made itchy by hours of inaction.

An odd thing about those ’82-’93 Astros uniforms is that there was no true road version. At home they wore white, and on the road they sported the very same uniform in cream. But Yordan Álvarez, it appears to my eyes, is wearing white. Of all the orthodoxies I hold dear to my heart, this is among the strictest: a ballclub should wear white at home and grey on the road. Ever was it thus, ever thus should it be.

The actual home team was commemorating near-glory. August 9th, 2019, a sultry Friday night in Baltimore, was a celebration of the 1989 “Why Not?!” Orioles, a team of scrap and grit that came close to winning the AL East, heading into the season’s final weekend needing a sweep of the Blue Jays to take the division. The Jays won two of three.

But the Frank Robinson-led Orioles had taken their fans on such a great ride that thirty years later, in the midst of a miserable 108 loss season, the 2019 O’s dressed up in ’89 uniforms to mark that exciting run, and the Astros played along by wearing period-appropriate (if not geographically consistent) togs, never mind that in 1989 the Astros were a National League club and so, short of a World Series matchup, would never be in Baltimore to play the Birds.

When commemorating what once was, we usually get the details a little bit wrong.

 

*

 

I pulled Series One Variation #276 from a retail pack sometime back in March, and ever since this card has held me in wild fascination. The effect is oversized in relation to my regard for Álvarez; I’m basically indifferent to him. I’ve only ever given Yordan Álvarez—an imposing, Aaron Judge-like presence in the middle of the Astros’ order—a passing thought as an avatar of modern baseball.

But the card is mesmeric, a small object around which gravity bends subtly but perceptibly. This is what the best cards do, I think, whether they’re of our favorite players, or feature some odd quirk or error, or otherwise manage to imprint themselves in the folds of our soft brains and stick there. They carry a series of signals betraying disparate and competing energies, emitting a persistent, high-pitched buzzing.

This one buzzes with questions that zip like unruly voltages. Like: why that uniform? What date? And given that it is clear from his carriage that he has just struck out: is there still room for shame in a post-shame world?

Álvarez’ slow, simmering post-K saunter is anything but exceptional; it’s what he did in over 25% of his plate appearances last season. Historically speaking that’s remarkable, but in the narrow trough of these launch-angle days, it’s par for the course: the average strikeout rate across baseball was 23% in 2019, an astonishing new historical high. Graphed, it resembles a bull market.

When tabulated, collated, filtered, and parsed, the numbers tell us that the Rob Deer approach of Three True Outcomes – i.e., steadfastly refusing to put the ball in play – wins ballgames. It’s a style of baseball condoned by the cubicle-dwellers for whom the ones and zeroes of absolute efficiency trump all aesthetic arguments, because The Datapoints Do Not Lie.

But here’s the friction: despite what the numbers say, the human soul still harbors a strong vestigial dislike of failure, and the one-on-one nature of the hitter-pitcher dialectic makes the called third strike, or the big-swing-and-a-miss look unmistakably like failure. The strikeout elicits micro-scale stirrings of shame. It can’t be helped. Nobody likes to whiff, and Álvarez is no exception, though his debut campaign would suggest an attempt at immersion therapy.

Álvarez’ photo on Series One Variation #276 reflects the unavoidable distaste. His face is captured in a candid moment of naked emotion, a sliver of time tucked beneath the game’s joints and surfaces, when he should no longer be the focus of attention, having ceded it to Carlos Correa, who followed him in the lineup. But the camera found him, and the result is a wonderful photo, with echoes of the great John Dominis shot of Mantle dejectedly throwing his batting helmet while retreating to the Yankee Stadium dugout in 1965.

Anyway, what Álvarez did in 2019 when not striking out was noteworthy: .313, 27 HR, 75 RBI in 369 plate appearances after his early June callup, and a unanimous selection as 2019 American League Rookie of the Year. That trophy was supposed to belong to Toronto’s Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., but Vladito turned in a performance that evinced mortal fallibility and not the demigod we’d been promised, while Álvarez came in and raked. The choice was clear.

 

*

 

The game log informs us that Álvarez singled in the top of the first to score Alex Bregman from second; in the top of the third, Álvarez struck out swinging on Baltimore starter Dylan Bundy’s 1-2 offering; struck out swinging again in the top of the sixth, once more Bundy’s victim, on an 0-2 pitch; in the eighth, deep into the Orioles’ bullpen, Álvarez hit a fly ball to left off Paul Fry that was caught by Anthony Santander for the first out. That was Álvarez’ night: 1 for 4 with a single, an RBI, and two strikeouts. The Astros won 3-2.

The photo in question must be from the first K, in the third inning, because the sky behind Álvarez’ head, over the great brick warehouse, is purplish, heavy-seeming, but not yet dark. At that time of year, in that part of the world, the sun sets shortly after 8:00, and first pitch that night was 7:05. By the time Álvarez struck out for the second time, in the sixth, night had fallen.

 

*

 

The next night the Astros walloped Baltimore 23-2, with Álvarez homering three times, including a grand slam, for a total of seven RBI. But the Yordan Álvarez of Friday night’s third inning strikeout is of greater interest to me. He stands at the nexus of innumerable convergences: strains of information, history, prognosis and apology, wayward currents pinched to a single point in space. He’s an individual upright but unguarded, caught in 1/100th of a second and preserved against a background, that great brick facade vivid but blurred, which suggests that he is stalked by uncertainties. The thick, hazy air of a dog day’s evening makes time’s immateriality evident. Much has come unmoored.

There’s a lot to be said about the Houston Astros circa 2017-19, both about those accusations preserved in Official Accounts and related disciplinary reports, and those many things suspected but unproven. Nobody’s linked Yordan Álvarez’ great rookie season to electronically abetted sign stealing, but the suspicion may follow him anyway, as it will everyone connected to that team during those years. Stains spread.

It’s also possible that you don’t think what Houston is purported to have done constitutes anything but the logical progression of a time-honored baseball tradition. But it feels safe to assert that the Astros are emblematic of those shifting values and practices that make modern baseball feel morally ambiguous. For a hundred years there was, at least, a Right Way to do things, and a Wrong Way. The in-game definition of virtue was skewed and problematic, but it was at least a definition. Now a cold integer logic means fewer stolen bases and fewer manager ejections, and it makes homers feel cheaper by virtue of oversupply. We’ve allowed the old gods to die and replaced them with Win Probability. You might understand why these things have happened, and yet still long for the old structure the way an atheist envies the adherent’s certainty.

Yordan Álvarez is connected to all this, but not implicated. He plays baseball the way he’s been taught and trained to play it, and he does it well, and the rewards are plain. Series One Variation #276 is just a baseball card. But I look at it in something like the narcotized daze of phone hypnosis, this smooth and glossy cardboard rectangle, hints of the mystery with which all such mementos are imbued, images of figures in collision with history, men bound by contracts, time working its silent will. The tracers are barely visible but strangely evident, those countless converging forces, smell of popcorn and beer, close summer nights full of love and torpor, and all our accidental associations.

Editor’s Note: For more of Andrew’s award-winning writing, visit his website. Of particular note is his book of baseball essays, “The Utility of Boredom.”

Gabby Gabby – Hey!

I’ve written about my pursuit of the 1936 Goudey Wide Pen Type 1 set a few times (the most detailed is here).  The Type 1 set (there are five types) has 120 cards and a weird, diverse checklist. When I last posted about them, a little over two years ago, I was getting close to the end. I had a good jump on this set. Somewhere along the way I had gotten 80 of them. On March 7, 2018, I was 11 shy of done.

It wasn’t easy finding those last cards. It seems that Yankees and Cubs are the hardest to find. I thought I’d find Bill Dickey and Earl Combs for $15-25 each, and I did. Each cost me $20.79, though in VG condition. That’s the lower end on what was shaping up to be a VG/EX to EX (and some EX/MT) set. Walters (not a Yankee or a Cub), Crosetti and Cavaretta set me back well more than the $5-10 per card I had counted on: $18.50, $16 and $22.29! Augie Galan, another of those defending NL Champ Cubbies, also was more costly than I expected – $17.50.

Last, and seemingly never appearing, was Gabby Harnett. I originally assumed he’d set me back $15-25, like Dickey and Combs, but man was I off. Was I destined to stay one card short of the set for years? That was a distinctly unpleasant possibility. Day after day my eBay search turned up nothing.

Well, there was one guy. He wants $249.99, for one in SGC 60 (EX). Why? It’s rare, he told me, it has “Litho in U.S.A.” in the bottom corner. I told him that all Type 1s have that (except the Lloyd Waner’s card, which comes with and without the tagline). Still, he said, it’s harder to come by. He’s right, but not $250 right.

I put out a request on Net54 and there was a guy who had one in VG for $60. It wasn’t a bad card, but not for that much and I still thought I could get it for $35ish.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, the little dot near my search title was on. There’s always a thrill of excitement that comes with that, immediately followed by crushing sadness when it’s either the wrong card or a ridiculous price. Not so this time. Greg Morris, one of the best eBay dealers, had one in VG/VGEX! He had another in VG/VGEX, though creased! Two possibilities and strategizing began.

93412117_10219750060536431_1005373868862341120_n

I wanted the uncreased one and hoped I could get it for $60. I wasn’t thrilled with that idea, but my stopgap was the Net54 card (assuming he still had it) and, at this point, I was tired of needing the card. In a last bit of desperation, I hiked my bid to $90. Why? Pure panic.

If I didn’t get the card at $90, then all bets were off for the creased one. I’d go as high as I needed to.

Like all (or at least most) panics, it was pointless. The auction popped to $49.80 a few days before the end, and it stayed there. (The creased one went for $15.50). Here’s Gabby in his new home.

92848892_10219750060816438_472525365533736960_n

So that’s the end of the story, and a pretty happy one. No more gloomin’ over an unfinished set.

item_51667_1

The original ERR Jordan

Our SABR Baseball Cards blog and the collecting blogosphere never fail to remind us that a single card can have quite a story. Even still, I was surprised by just how much story this particular card had.

The card in question comes from the 1909-11 American Caramel set known as E90-1. My own non-scholarly take on the set is that it’s what T206 would have looked like if it had one-fifth the cards and were done in watercolor.

So now that you have a feel for the set, I present to you the E90-1 card of Brooklyn’s “guardian of the initial sack,” Buck Jordan. Because his name is spelled wrong (“Jordon”) on the card, we might rightly say this is the very first ERR Jordan card!

This card first hit my radar for two reasons. One, I have a fledgling Brooklyn Superba collection that still has room for a few more cards. And two, I’m a sucker for these crazy sunsets, in real life and on cardboard.

As any astute buyer would be smart to do, I decided to learn a little more about the player before pulling the trigger on my purchase. The name “Buck Jordan” was familiar to me in a way I couldn’t place, and I soon learned why: I already had his card!

The only problem, at least if the Diamond Stars bio was to be believed, was that Buck Jordan would have been about two years old in 1909! Now I’ve heard of players starting young–Campy, Nuxhall, and Ott to name a few–but this was a level of diaper dandy that left even me dubious.

Well, just a little more research was enough to solve the riddle. The player on the E90-1 card was not Buck Jordan at all, as the PSA flip indicated. (Readers skilled at navigating the PSA customer service labyrinth are welcome to report the error.)

UPDATE: SGC also gets it wrong.

This was Tim Jordan, a totally different player who (from what my research could turn up) was never once known as Buck. Interestingly, I did find several articles that used the nicknames “Big Tim Jordan” or “Big City.” Here is one of the more notable ones, from the March 16, 1908, Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

As another quick aside, I’ll mention that there really was a “Buck Jordan” card right around the time the American Caramel card was issued. Card 45 in the 1911 Turkey Red Cabinets (T3) set featured none other than Charles “Buck” Herzog and Tim Jordan, hence could correctly be deemed the very first true Buck/Jordan card.

Now are you ready for another error? I don’t claim to know which player is which on that Buck/Jordan card, but there’s nobody I trust more than Baseball Researcher to get these things right. As you can see by his caption, he has Jordan as the fielder and Herzog as the runner.

If you have good eyes (and feel free to head here for a bigger picture), you might notice that the fielder has his glove on his left hand, i.e., throws right handed. However, Baseball Reference lists Jordan as a lefty. Ditto Wikipedia. (UPDATE: Both sites have now been updated!)

Might the photo simply be reversed? Or less likely, could Baseball Researcher have it wrong? Jordan’s solo card in the same set offers a clue. And once again, Jordan looks to be a right-hander.

Could we have yet another reversed negative? This Paul Thompson photo of Jordan provides a definitive answer. Again, Jordan appears right-handed, and the lettering on his jersey rules out any reversed image. A scouting report from the March 25, 1906, Detroit Free Press (paywall) also notes, “He is a right hand thrower, but bats left handed.”

If you’re keeping score at home that already makes three errors: one by American Caramel (“Jordon”), one by PSA (“Buck”), and one by Baseball Reference/Wikipedia (throws left)!

Enough about errors though! It was time to find out who Tim Jordan really was. For his time at least, he was a low batting average guy who hit a bunch of homers and struck out a lot—a “Deadball Kingman” of sorts. (Feel free to substitute Gorman Thomas, Rob Deer, or almost anyone from any of today’s lineups.)

Lest you think Jordan’s homers were chiefly inside-the-park and the Kingman comparison is off-base, I present one of (very) many articles (New York Herald, March 30, 1919) attesting to Jordan’s power.

Jordan’s tremendous proclivity for the long ball was even remembered two decades after his final big league heimlauf by no less than Pirates magnate and Hall of Famer Barney Dreyfuss, who will very shortly make a second appearance in this story. The scene was the 1930 equivalent of the Winter Meetings, and virtually everybody who was anybody was gathered in New York to discuss the state of the game, including the recent home run epidemic.

“The ball is too lively in my opinon,” Dreyfuss said. “In the two years prior to 1929 only two balls were hit over the right field fence in Pittsburgh for homers. They were hit by Outfielder Stenzel and Tim Jordan of Brooklyn. Now they hit two or three over in a single game.” (Incidentally, homering over the right field fence in Pittsburgh wasn’t the only thing the burly Jake Stenzel, shown below, had in common with Jordan. We’ll come back to this near the end.)

Just one more aside…I thought it would be fun to find a record of Jordan’s moonshot. Thanks to some great reporting the next day by the Pittsburgh Press (July 23, 1908), I not only found a description of Jordan’s big fly but an apparent record of all such dongs. (No mention of “Outfielder Stenzel” though. In fact, all twelve of Stenzel’s home runs in Pittsburgh were of the inside-the-park variety.)

Further justifying the comparison to the modern power hitter, Jordan is one of only five rookies in MLB history to win the home run crown as a rookie. The other four are Ralph Kiner, Mark McGwire, Aaron Judge, and Pete Alonso. (Another comparison: per the June 9, 1946, Brooklyn Eagle, Jordan “anticipated Mel Ott by a number of years. He lifted that mighty right leg of his when he pointed to the fence at the tee-off.”)

Master Melvin and his famous batting style

Glance at Jordan’s stat sheet, and you’ll see that Jordan played very little of the 1910 season with Brooklyn. As the season approached there was uncertainty whether Jordan would man first base for Brooklyn or whether newcomer Jake Daubert might land the job. It was not until Opening Day when manager Bill Dahlen wrote Daubert into the lineup that either man learned his status, Daubert as the everyday player and Jordan as pinch-hitter.

Many newspaper articles of the era credit Jordan with a rather dramatic end to his career, a three-run, pinch-hit homer in his final at-bat, but Jordan in fact played in one more game six days later, making the penultimate out in a May 2 contest against the Giants. The game was notable in that the official scorer’s controversial decision to credit Pryor McElveen with a single in the eighth denied a certain Hall of Fame hurler what would have been his third and final no-hitter.

After a disappointing and abrupt end to his big league career, Jordan enjoyed a resurgence in the International League, not only continuing to “punish the sphere” but “wielding his willow” for high averages as well. (See “The Player” tab on this page for some of his numbers.)

Jordan’s strong play with Toronto not only earned him a card in the 1912 Imperial Tobacco (Canada) set but also prompted Pittsburgh owner Barney Dreyfuss to offer the team $10,000 (or “simoleons” in the article) to make Jordan a Pirate. The deal never materialized, with Jordan’s own skipper Joe Kelley claiming it would be baseball suicide to part with his prized fence buster. (Source: Buffalo Courier, February 14, 1912.)

By 1915 Jordan was back in New York where he continued to hit the ball hard for the Binghamton nine and generate now amusing headlines like this one.

I’m not sure the pay compared with that of Brooklyn, but this clipping from the June 9, 1916, edition of the Press and Sun (Binghamton, NY) shows at least the benefits “suited” him.

As some readers know, Jordan was more than a ballplayer and kind letter writer. He was also the inventor of the Tim J. Jordan card game.

A 2013 Heritage auction included the game, complete with original packaging.

While some players look ahead at what they might do after their playing days are over, as the 1914 date on the PSA label might suggest, Jordan was looking for things to do instead of playing baseball, as demonstrated by these clippings from 1909, five full years earlier. (Source: Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 1, article and April 13, advertisement.)

Knowing that Jordan did play for Brooklyn in 1909, you might assume the game was a bust. Not so, says the September 4, 1909, edition of the York (Pennsylvania) Dispatch!

I mentioned earlier that Tim Jordan and Jake Stenzel had more in common than allegedly clearing right field in Pittsburgh. Now that you know about Jordan’s side hustle selling card games, here is Stenzel the entrepreneur selling “rooter buttons” to fans of the Cincinnati nine. (Source: Robert Edward Auctions.)

Readers of this blog know I could probably go on and on (and on!) about Mr. Jordan, but I’ll simply end with one last error. Here is Jordan’s obituary from the September 16, 1949, edition of the New York Daily News. It didn’t quite make sense to me when I first read it, and then I realized the second and third lines from the end were flip-flopped.

So there you have it! ERR Jordan all the way till the end, even in death! Ah, but rest easy, Tim. Readers of the SABR Baseball Cards blog know who you were and what you did, and your “knock the cover off the ball” approach to hitting is more than alive and well in the game today.

Custom Tim Jordan ERR card (wrong logo) and Pittsburgh Press article (9/29/08)

An Exhaustive List of the One-Off Team-Issued Commemorative Baseball Cards of Which the Author is Aware

Ryne Sandberg (1997)

On Saturday, September 20, 1997 the Cubs held Ryne Sandberg Day in honor of the future Hall of Famer’s official—and this time permanent—retirement as a player. [You may recall he had walked away from the game following the 1994 season and did not play in 1995. Ryno returned to play in 1996 and 1997.] The Cubs produced a special commemorative program for the occasion that included “The Sandberg Collection” on the inside back cover—an eclectic mix of baseball cards representing each of the seasons he played in Chicago.

Sunday, September 21 was the Cubs’ final home game of the year and a merciful end to an abysmal season on Chicago’s north side. In the first inning, Sandberg put the Cubs up 1-0 with a ringing double off Phillies’ starter Curt Schilling. After he singled off Schilling in the fifth, Sandberg was lifted for a pinch runner. As he jogged off the playing surface at Wrigley Field for a final time, Ryno paused and tipped his helmet to the crowd. A raucous, goosebumps-inducing standing ovation followed. The Cubs went on to win the game 11-3.

A9AD02A6-ECC7-4969-993B-0993AC127E6B
Author’s photo

To mark the occasion of Ryne Sandberg’s final home game, the Cubs issued a single commemorative baseball card for the September 21 contest. Sponsored by LaSalle Bank, the card was produced in a standard 2½ x 3½ size, and included a list of career accomplishments on the back, along with Sandberg’s Major League and Cubs career statistics, up-to-date through September 14, 1997. (The slight discrepancies attributable to six plate appearances for the 1981 Phillies.)

Jim Thome (2007)

On September 16, 2007, White Sox DH Jim Thome appeared in his 2000th MLB game at U.S. Cellular Field. Thome broke a 7-7 tie in the bottom of the ninth inning by smacking his 500th career home run off of Angels twirler Dustin Moseley, becoming the 23rd member of the 500 home run club and the first ever to do so in walk-off fashion. The Sox won 9-7.

After Thome’s historic blast, ballpark ushers came down the aisles to hand out large (4 x 6) cards in celebration of accomplishment. I was not there for this game, but my neighbor was—and she knew I collected cards. She saved hers especially for me.

Fittingly, the man voted nicest player in baseball used the back of the card to thank the fans, endorsed with a large facsimile signature.

The White Sox later commemorated a pair of Thome blasts hit in 2008 with a bronze plaque—but not cards—highlighting the first two baseballs ever to reach the Fan Deck at the ballpark, hit on June 4 and September 30, the latter of which accounting for the only run scored in game 163 against the Twins, giving the White Sox the 2008 Central Division championship.

Thome plaque
Throughout the years, team-produced card sets were staple giveaway items. These Sandberg and Thome cards, however, were one-offs specially commissioned by the Cubs and White Sox to celebrate a retirement and momentous career milestone, respectively.

No reliable information regarding the quantity of each card produced has been found, and because the cards were simply handed to fans in an unprotected state, the number of cards that survived in top condition is presumably limited. Further, because these cards do not really have an official name, searching for them on eBay or otherwise proves problematic.

What Other Cards Are Out There?

Are you aware of any other occasions on which teams issued similar one-off baseball cards to celebrate a single player’s retirement, accomplishment, or otherwise?

At the very least, it appears the Philadelphia Athletics produced a picture card for Doc Powers Day in June 1910, in an effort to raise funds for his widow. Powers had died following an on-field injury suffered in 1909.

Sources:
Baseball-Reference.com
Retrosheet.org

The Story Behind the Card – “The Hawk” 1968 (Chapter 1)

In case you missed it because of the holidays, the Hall of Fame announced last month that Ken “The Hawk” Harrelson, the former major league ballplayer and professional golfer, was selected as the recipient of the 2020 Ford C. Frick Award. The Award is given out annually for excellence in broadcasting.

The flamboyant Harrleson started his broadcasting career with the Boston Red Sox back in 1975. He left the Boston booth after six years and joined the Chicago White Sox broadcasting team in 1981. He was a fixture in the White Sox booth for 33 years. However, those years were not continuous as he did a couple of short stints as the White Sox general manager (end of 1985 to 1986) and then a broadcaster for the Evil Empire (1987). He retired at the end of the 2018 season.

The announcement on December 11th brought back memories of my brief encounter with “The Hawk” back in the summer of 1968.

In August of 1967 a bidding war for the Hawk ensued after he was placed on irrevocable waivers by Charlie “Cheapskate” Finley for calling the impulsive A’s owner “a disgrace to baseball” after Charlie O fired Alvin Dark, the A’s manager. The boneheaded move by Finley turned Hawk into a free agent. After mulling over multiple offers, he agreed to join the Red Sox for $150,000 (he was making $12,000 at the time).

Harrelson, the first major leaguer to don a batting glove (it was actually a golf glove), officially joined the Red Sox “Impossible Dream” team on August 28, 1967. The Sox were in a very tight pennant race and needed a big bat and outfield help after the beloved Tony Conigliaro was almost killed by an errant Jack Hamilton fastball on August 18th.

Still have the The Impossible Dream Album.

Hawk Harrelson soared in Boston, and with the fans and media behind him, helped the 1967 team capture the AL flag in what has been called the greatest pennant race in the history of baseball.

In the summer of 1968, the Hawk was in full flight mode and having a spectacular year. One in which he socked a carrier high 35 home runs and led the league in RBIs with 109. The Fenway faithful cheered him on the field, and we dug his Nehru jackets and dune buggy.

Hawk and his Dune Buggy.

The Card and the Story

I briefly met “The Hawk” after a game in the summer of 1968. I was a chartered member of the Hawk fan club and desperately wanted his autograph.

The best place to get autographs after a home game was on the Van Ness Street side of Fenway Park along the chain link fence that outlined the area where the players parked their cars. That summer day the area was jam packed with kids trying to get autographs.

Hawk came out, signed some autographs, got into his car, and left. Determined to come away with his autograph I decided to run after his car and hope that he would have to stop at an intersection. Luckily, he took a right on Jersey Street which meant he would have to stop when he came to Brookline Avenue. I was a pretty fast runner back in ’68 and caught up to the car at the intersection. I tapped on the passenger window which startled the Hawk. He smiled, leaned over and rolled down the window. I asked him to please sign my baseball card. I handed him my 1966 Topps card which featured him as player on the Kansas City A’s and a ballpoint pen. I was embarrassed that I did not have current Red Sox card of him and said – “I am sorry about the card, but it is the only one I have.” He said that was OK and signed my card. I thanked him and he drove off.

Determination does pay off! The autographed 1966 Topps card.

In this excellent post back in 2017, Tim runs down all of the Hawk’s cards and points out that that Topps NEVER issued a card of the “The Hawk” in a Red Sox uniform!

Two weeks into the 1969 season the Red Sox broke my heart and traded the Hawk to the Cleveland Indians. I am still not over it.

Something else you may have missed since it did not get the promotion it deserved is Ken’s very informative and entertaining autobiography titled –Hawk I Did It My Way that was published in 2018. I highly recommend it.