The hottest rookie card of 1935

Imagine yourself a young card collector in early 1935. Okay, fine. I’ll help you.

“What’s the point? Maybe I’ll just throw all these away…” you think to yourself as you rifle through the sack of Goudey cards you dutifully collected over the last couple years. Let’s face it, the 1935 four-in-one design just isn’t doing it for you. Compared to the cards of years past, the (often recycled) pictures are tiny, you loathe the extra work of cutting them yourself, and the puzzle backs don’t even seem to go together!

A couple friends in the neighborhood tried to get you into National Chicle Diamond Stars in 1934, but you declared yourself a Goudey loyalist, at least outwardly. The truth is you just didn’t have the spare change to start collecting multiple sets. And even if you did, why chance where that slippery slope could lead?

Still, you had to admit the cards were attractive….and the baseball tips just might help your game, which wasn’t exactly attracting the attention of Pittsburgh brass!

It was a small set too. Only 24 cards in 1934, with Lloyd Waner the only Pirate. Maybe you should have made the move from Goudey. Then again, the Diamond Stars set appears to have been a one-and-done in your part of town. You try asking the man behind the counter if the new Diamond Stars are in only to receive a blank star in return.

So yes, what’s the point of even collecting anymore? You hate the four-in-ones, but they appear to be the only game in town. Shouldn’t it be possible to follow your hometown Pirates without the need for a stack of cards at your side? Plus, you’d read their Goudey card backs so many times you pretty much had them memorized. Arky Vaughan? Bats left handed but throws right. Weighs 175 pounds. Bill Swift? “One of the main reasons why the Pirates win ball games!”

And then Blanton-mania struck. As SABR biographer Gregory Wolf tells it, “Cy Blanton broke in with the Pittsburgh Pirates in a blaze of glory.” What kind of blaze? Think Jake deGrom. And no, I’m not talking about rookie deGrom. I’m talking about present day deGrom.

The numbers don’t lie.

“The hard-throwing right-hander with an array of screwballs, curves, and sinkers” (SABR Bio) became your new obsession, completely surpassing your love for Big Poison and Little Poison. When pops fished out his T206 Wagner, declaring Hans the greatest Pirate of them all, you muttered “…until Blanton” under your breath before puzzling for a moment as to why a grown man would even own a baseball card.

Plus, if baseball cards were so great, why was there no Blanton card?

The thought was interrupted by the screech of bike tires followed by banging on the front door. Was someone dying? Was the world coming to an end? Why such urgency from little Jackie who was usually quite reserved?

“Look who I got! Look who I got!”

“Wait, what?!” There really is a Blanton card? But how could that be? He didn’t even play last year, did he? [Author’s note: He did, but just one game.]

“Lemme see! Lemme see!” you demand, practically ripping the card out of Jackie’s hand to admire it. That quick, your love of cards not only returned to you but completely consumed you. You need this card more than you need air and water. If we’re being honest, you need this card more than you need your friend Jackie, am I right?

After offering your entire collection, which included all four 1933 Goudey Babe Ruth cards, for the Blanton, a deal Jackie refuses due to A) Blanton-mania, and B) brand loyalty, you beg, borrow, and steal from your folks until you have more money in your pocket than you’ve ever had in your entire life: nine cents.

Eight packs in, you have a mouthful of gum but little else to show for the small fortune you arrived with: Stan Hack, Billy Urbanski, Cliff Bolton, Buck Jordan, Glenn Myatt, Billy Werber, Fred Frankhouse, and an oddball card of Jimmie Foxx as a catcher! But then, like a pre-Hobbsian Roy Hobbs (movie version, not book), you come through with a monster rip in the ninth.

For reasons unknown, even later in life, your mind raced to an exciting World of Tomorrow where humans could not only propel themselves to the moon but digital currencies as well, and card collectors communicated with each other by electromagnet technology so small it could fit in their pockets. Without understanding the means or the mechanism, you imagined yourself “sharing” your pull with friends even two or three towns away, along with the rhetorical, unorthodoxly capitalized, and interrobanged phrase that would unwittingly become standard only 85 years later—

“dID i dO gOoD?!”

“I’ve never had a kid faint from a pack of baseball cards. You’re lucky I had my smelling salts handy.” [Author’s note: I too fainted from a pack of baseball cards. 1981 Fleer, “C” Nettles error.]

Yeah, fainting was weird, but you didn’t have time to dwell. The Blanton! Where’s the Blanton!

Grabbing it off the floor you turn it over to read the back, a feat made difficult by lingering dizziness.

Eventually, the card comes into focus.

It was official. May 29, 1935, was the best day of your entire life. No less and authority than Austen Lake, right there on the back of your Blanton card, told you to “save your best stuff for the pinches” and you did. Ninth pack, Darrell E. Blanton, ’nuff said.

Little did you know that this phenom hurler was about to surrender 16 earned runs across his next four games, more than doubling his ERA from 1.00 to 2.01. He would still finish the season with a league-topping 2.58 to go with 18 victories, but like many phenoms he would pursue the shadow of his rookie campaign unsuccessfully for the rest of his career. Even still, your Blanton hording only grew, particularly when word hit the neighborhood that he had a Goudey also! (If memory serves, you traded your dad’s prized Wagner card for it.)

Blanton with three George Canales

When the 1940 season began sans Blanton [Author’s note: He joined the Phils in May], you looked back at your paper-clipped stacks of his rookie card, shaking your head in much the same way 1990s collectors looked back on their screw-down holders of Kevin Maas and Todd Van Poppel or modern collectors may someday view their PSA slabbed cards (if they ever ship) of Akil Baddoo and Wander Franco.

Of course the thing about baseball cards is that it may not matter what a card is worth later on. What matters most is that immediate and magical feeling of thinking you have something really special and therefore are something really special. There may be healthier and more sustainable paths to self worth, but for nine cents…this is a helluva deal!

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  * 

In other news, happy birthday to Cy Blanton, who would be 113 today were he still around. And for the Diamond Star junkies out there, here is what may be an interesting tidbit from the back of his card.

You may already know that the Diamond Stars set was issued over three years, according to this release schedule:

  • 1934: Cards 1-24
  • 1935: Cards 1-84
  • 1936: Cards 2, 4, 5, 8, 9, 10, 12, 16, 22, 26, 30, 31, and 73-108

The Blanton card, numbered 57 in the set, was part of the 1935 release. The above decoder ring aside, you can note his complete 1934 (International League) record at the bottom of the bio, along with a 1935 copyright date.

However, the portion of the bio I’ve highlighted in red tells us that this card would not have been out at the start of the season. I would imagine it would have been at least early May before anyone would seriously include Blanton among “the most effective pitchers in the major leagues.” Add however long it takes to print, slice, pack, and truck the cards to retailers, and I can’t imagine this card hitting the shelves before June 1935.

Was this the case with the entire 1935 issue, only the new additions (25-84), or some even smaller subset? For those who enjoy these things, I suspect there is some fun to be had in checking the backs of all the 1935—if not 1934 and 1936—Diamond Stars for clues. This is something I did earlier this year ad (hopefully not yours) nauseam with the 1933 and 1934 Goudey sets, so perhaps it’s something I’ll take on with Diamond Stars. In the meantime here is some additional reading on the set.

MORE DIAMOND STARS ARTICLES HERE ON THE BLOG

A “most valuable” Josh Gibson card

The formula for Topps Project 70 is a seemingly simple one. An artist, typically from outside the sports card world, chooses a player, chooses a design from among the “70 Years of Topps,” and combines the two, adding in their own artistic style and spin.

The Brittney Palmer card of A-Rod (1980 design) and Jonas Never card of Justin Turner (1982 design) are good examples of the concept in action.

Occasionally, however, an artist adds a third dimension. In the case of DJ Skee, it’s a curated Spotify playlist of music and storytelling. In the case of Alex Pardee, there’s an epic comic book-like plot unfolding, and in the case of Eric Friedensohn, (better known as Efdot), there is that complex but omnipresent realm many collectors only begrudgingly stomach: real life.

We profiled a couple of Efdot’s cards last year when he was part of the Topps Project 2020 lineup. His Jackie Robinson card was influenced by the protests and national reckoning following George Floyd’s senseless murder, and his masked Dwight Gooden card, a nod to the worldwide COVID pandemic, not only made a real doc out of “Doc” but made our “SABR 50 at 50” list as the defining card of 2020.

This year, readers of Apple News were treated to a sneak preview of yet another Efdot card that is meeting the moment.

On May 24 (TODAY!), Topps is releasing the first (but hopefully not only) Josh Gibson card of Project 70, which not only pays tribute to the legendary Negro Leagues slugger but also calls attention to an effort underway to name Baseball’s MVP trophies in Josh’s honor.

The card will only be available thru May 27 at noon ET, after which point no additional cards will be released. (Pro tip: Do NOT show up at 11:59 on the last day. Allow for at least a few minutes of captcha hell before Topps.com lets you complete your purchase.)

There’s a lot to unpack, but let’s start with the choice of Josh Gibson, a player Topps did not initially make available to Project 70 artists. For insights into the card and the story behind it, I checked in with Efdot, the card’s artist, and Sean Gibson, the executive director of the Josh Gibson Foundation, not to mention the great-grandson of the Hall of Fame slugger.

UPDATE: You can also tune in to Beckett Live Presents for a live discussion with Efdot and Sean. (If you miss it, the same link will take you to the recording.)

Jason: Eric, your earlier cards in the set were of Mike Schmidt, Ozzie Smith, Ronald Acuña, and Wade Boggs. What led you to choose Josh Gibson?

Efdot: Leading up to Project70, getting to choose my own players was incredible. I knew I wanted to illustrate a diverse group of both retired and young current players. I had not seen many cards representing Negro League players, and knew they deserved more recognition for their contributions to baseball. 

I had done extensive research on Jackie Robinson last year for Project2020 and learned more about the athletes that were forced to play only in Negro Leagues, never making it to the Major Leagues. I dug deeper and got inspired by Josh Gibson’s images, his story and the positive, engaged community around the Josh Gibson Foundation.

Jason: Once you knew you wanted to do a card of Josh, what was the process to make that happen?

Efdot: I worked with my friend, writer/editor Matt Castello, to help me finalize my player selections. Topps told me I could request players outside of the given list. Josh Gibson was at the top of my list for players that I wanted to illustrate, so I asked Topps if they could make it happen. I’m not sure what negotiations happened between Topps and the Josh Gibson Foundation/Estate, but after a few weeks, Topps informed me that I was able to make the first Josh Gibson card for Project70.

Jason: Sean, what did it mean to you to have an artist select Josh Gibson for this project?

Sean Gibson: I’d like to answer here not just for myself but on behalf of the entire Gibson family. Number one, it’s always exciting to see Josh Gibson on a baseball card. In addition, it’s particularly exciting for the card to be done by Efdot. I’m a big fan of his work, and I’ve really enjoyed the cards he’s done in the past. So yes, having a Josh Gibson card from Efdot is very special.

Jason: Eric, you had your choice of designs from seven decades of Topps baseball cards. What motivated you to choose 1972 for this card?

Efdot: I was initially interested in 1972 Topps from a design perspective, because it seemed like it would work well with my style. I found out that the 1972 set’s informal nickname among collectors is “the psychedelic tombstone set,” which is a reference to the design’s outer border and how each picture is presented within an arch. 

The way the team name is written across the top of the card, almost looking like a marquee sign shining bright. I recognized the font from comic books and art deco-style buildings that I’ve seen in Midtown Manhattan. (I had also created multiple lettering pieces in the past, referencing this same type style.)

Once I learned that Josh Gibson’s Hall of Fame induction happened in 1972, I decided it was the perfect pairing.

Author’s note: The 1972 design also proved fortuitous when Topps let Eric know much more recently that they wanted to add a “chase card” to the Josh Gibson release. Here is “Josh Gibson MVP…In Action!”

Jason: Eric, many of your cards feature small “Easter eggs” that help tell a broader story when found by the collector. On this card, the letters “MVP” are too prominent to qualify as an Easter egg, but there is still a story to them. You’re specifically referencing the Josh Gibson MVP Award campaign that’s underway right now, correct?

Efdot: Yes. I don’t recall exactly when I found out about the Josh Gibson MVP campaign, but it was something I resonated with immediately. Right away, I had the idea to change that marquee sign to say GIBSON MVP, loud and proud, instead of the team name. I wanted it to line up with the #JG20MVP campaign as a powerful combination of messaging and design.

Josh Gibson is such an important player with a rich and unrecognized history of accomplishment in home runs, batting average, and sheer power that deserves to serve as the standard across the league.

I believe the naming of the MVP award should be given to someone not only who represents the accomplishments in sports through their performance on the field, but also a good role model for young athletes and current players alike.

Jason: Sean, you had a peek at the card early. Tell me what it was like to see your great-grandfather brought to life by Eric’s artwork?

Sean Gibson: When I first saw the card I thought it was amazing. Now the most important part of the card is the lettering that reads “MVP.” When I first spoke with Efdot about the Josh Gibson MVP campaign he was the one who suggested putting MVP right on the card.

After that, I love the colors and the details. I particularly like the glove and how Efdot has the addreess of 2217 Bedford Avenue. For the readers who might not know, 2217 Bedford is the location where Josh first started playing baseball for the Pittsburgh Crawfords sandlot team. The field there is known today as Josh Gibson Field.

Jason: Eric, how does it feel to have created this special card, and what place do you hope it has in the Hobby?

Eric: I knew from the start that working on this card wouldn’t be like any other. I was so grateful for the opportunity to work with the Josh Gibson Foundation and Sean Gibson directly to help me truly understand the importance of Josh’s legacy and to help create a piece of work that will hopefully be used to celebrate that legacy for years to come.

Jason: And finally, Sean, what would it mean to your family and the families of other Negro League legends to have baseball’s MVP trophies renamed for Josh?

Sean Gibson: I would say this. The Hall of Fame is Josh’s biggest accomplishment. That said, I was three years old when Josh was inducted, so I have no recollection of the experience. For the younger generations and the rest of the Gibson family, this would be the most significant accomplishment of our lifetimes with respect to Josh.

Overall, it would be the second greatest accomplishment of Josh’s career, with the Hall of Fame being the first. However, this award would not only honor Josh but acknowledge and recognize the other 3400 men who were denied the chance to play Major League Baseball solely due to the color of their skin. Josh would be carrying all of these players on his shoulders.

Jason: Gentlemen, my genuine thanks to both of you for taking the time to talk to SABR Baseball Cards. Best of luck with the card and of course the MVP campaign! Finally, on a personal note, now that Josh finally has an official MVP card I can stop making my own! (But I probably won’t.)

ON THE WEB:

ON SOCIAL

Covering the Bases: 1986 Topps #85 Tony Perez (w/ guest Eric Davis)

To me the best baseball cards tell a story. One of those cards is Topps final offering for Tony Perez.

1986 Topps #85 Tony Perez

The story here is obvious, The featured player is Tony Perez one of the key members to the 1970s era Big Red Machine which won a pair of World Championships. He is greeted at the plate by teammate Eric Davis whose promising career is just beginning. Davis would go on to be a key member of the Reds next World Championship in 1990. The scene is a torch passing between the franchises two most recent championship squads.

Clearing the Bases

CTB is a feature where we take a deep dive into a single card. Since this Photo appears to be game footage one of the fun directions to go is “Guess the Game”.

Couple of easily discerned facts on this image. We need a game in the Perez/Davis crossover, Both players are wearing their road greys, and they appear to be celebrating a Perez Home Run.

Checking Baseball-Ref we find Tony Perez and Eric Davis were teammates for two seasons 1984-85. During that time Tony hit 8 of his 379 career Home Runs. However of those eight only TWO were hit on the road. May 21 1985 at Wrigley Field and October 6th 1985 at Dodger Stadium.

Checking the boxes of those two games is easy enough, May 21 was a Reds 5-2 victory over the Cubs. Perez Home Run was a solo shot off starter Ray Fotenot in the fourth inning. And the on-Deck Hitter was (…Drum Roll…) Eric Davis!

So we have a candidate, but we must check box #2

October 6 1985, Another W for the Reds 6-5 vs the Dodgers. In this game Tony Homered in the 3rd inning – also a solo shot. We check who is on-deck and find….. Nick Esasky! No Eric Davis. In Fact Davis was nowhere near the circle as he batted earlier that inning. Interestingly he had also homered – two batters in front of Perez.

There you have it, the game featured on Hall of Famer Tony Perez’s final card was a Reds 5-2 Win over the Cuibs at Wrigley Field in a game played on May 21 1985.

But Wait there’s more

The 1985 Reds season was chronicled by the prolific author Pete Rose who has “written” roughly a dozen autobiographies. “Countdown to Cobb” is Rose’s account of the season in which he broke Ty Cobb’s all-time hit record. In addition to being a player Rose was also the teams manager. On the field he played first base in a platoon with, You got it, today’s hero Tony Perez.

And fortunately Perez’s Home Run was significant enough to make Rose’s 1985 Diary.

It’s only three sentences in two short paragraphs but it gives us some background into the Home Run featured on Perez’s final card. Despite being in pursuit of the All-Time hit record, and being a Switch-Hitter Rose often sat himself versus Left Handed pitching.

Fortunately for Perez, Rose and the Reds starting Perez paid off and baseball fans who enjoy digging into the minutia of trading cards have another card with a story to collect.

This concludes this edition of Covering the Bases, thanks for humoring me while we played guess the game and took a deep dive into a single baseball card.

Sources Links

Baseball-Reference

Countdown to Cobb (Pete Rose/Hal Bodley)

Phungo Tony Perez HOF Index

Frank O’Rourke’s Inherent Dignity

I’m not a collector.

           I have a few cards, some that are worth slightly more than the cardboard they’re printed on, and many more that hold a good deal of sentimental value to me and nobody else. But in the context of the readers of this blog, I don’t merit the use of the term. I’ve never completed a set, never paid more than pocket money for a card, never gone to any remarkable lengths to acquire anything rare, or valuable, or particularly noteworthy. I still have all the cards I amassed as a kid, and I buy new hanger packs when I see them, and on the rare occasion that a wax pack drifts into my field of vision, I snap it up. I’ve made a habit of buying packs for my kids, and we make a little ceremony of opening them together. On Opening Day, or the first day of pitchers and catchers reporting, I sneak packs into their school lunches, and they come home and tell me what players they found inside.

           But I haven’t done any of those things I identify as serious collector behavior. I’ve bought maybe a half-dozen cards on eBay, for example, and I haven’t attended a show since I was about fourteen years old. I’ll never own a Mantle, Ruth, Mays, Clemente, or Aaron.

           Baseball cards are, for me, not an investment, and not an abiding obsession, but something adjacent to baseball that I love for that proximity. They remind me of the game. Their look, and feel, and smell are memory triggers, and for that reason I treasure them.

           And yet, with all that said, I recently bought a 1934 Frank O’Rourke card. It’s No. 43 in the Canadian-printed World Wide Gum Co. series, which reused the 1933 Goudey design, updating the salient facts for 1934, and repeating the biographical info on the back in French. In keeping with my longstanding tightfisted ethos, I paid more in shipping than I did for the card itself. It’s ungraded, with soft, smushed corners where crisp, sharp edges should be. There are minor creases. This card is anything but pristine.

            Frank O’Rourke was a nobody. Well, that’s not quite fair. He’s in the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, after all. Born in Hamilton, Ontario in 1891, he was an infielder who eked out fourteen seasons of big-league ball for Boston’s NL club, the Robins, Senators, Red Sox, Tigers, and Browns. By the time his portrait was rendered for the ’33 Goudey set he’d seen his last major league action, hanging on with the American Association’s Milwaukee Brewers. The ’34 card that I now own dates to his single season with the Montreal Royals of the IL. He dropped down a few rungs to the Piedmont League in ’35, then held on for four seasons as a player-manager for the El Dorado (AR) Lions of the class ‘C’ Cotton States League. He later managed one more year in the Gulf Coast League, and in retirement he served as a scout for the Yankees.

            As a big-league player, O’Rourke managed a career bWAR of -2.0 and amassed a .254/.315/.333 slash line, and a .947 combined fielding percentage at third, short, and second (with a handful of games at first, and a couple patrolling the grass). As a minor-league manager he piled up a lifetime record of 551-580 across four levels of pro ball. Add all of that up and you get a slightly below-average baseball long-hauler, which is not to say there was nothing quietly heroic about Frank O’Rourke; longevity requires its own superpowers.

            But unlike some of its in-set brethren, selling this card wouldn’t allow me to pay off the mortgage, or retire to somewhere hot, sandy, and tax-free. Instead, my appreciation for this card is twofold: the first is purely and unapologetically aesthetic; the second is its implicit historical value.

            The Goudey cards are notoriously easy on the eyes, rendered with a stab at artistry that’s not generally present in modern cards. Holding a Goudey next to a 2021 Topps card makes for a stark contrast. The latter assaults with hyper-sharp photography and whizbang graphics that are intended, I can only guess, to suggest futurity, and motion, and, I don’t know, the internet? The Goudeys are Renaissance paintings on discrete panels of olive wood meant to be inlaid in elaborate polyptychs framing alters in out-of-the-way country churches, reverent celebrations of the beauty and purity of God’s favorite game. The backgrounds are solid fields of color—green in O’Rourke’s case, but elsewhere blue (as in Gehrig), yellow (Jimmie Foxx), red (Dazzy Vance). All the better to focus on the player. O’Rourke’s depicted from the chest up, like a Roman bust, in classic baseball togs: a white (or off-white) cap, logo-free, and a matching jersey with sun collar and orange-brown soutache piping. The pose is adapted from a photo of him in a St. Louis Browns uniform, from 1931 at the latest, that the Goudey (or World Wide Gum) people didn’t bother to retouch, though they were clear to indicate that he was, by 1934, a member of the Montreal Royals and thus in the habit of donning a blue-trimmed uniform.

            The portrait is so classically, absurdly, tragically handsome that if you hold it up to your ear it sings Protestant hymns interspersed with staticky ’30s radio calls of games won with moxie and heart. Even if you aren’t up to speed on his biography, the portrait makes clear that this is a baseball lifer, a man rolled in chalk and infield dirt and baked beneath a thousand midday suns.

            Since I first gazed on O’Rourke’s cardboard face I’ve gone looking for baseball card corollaries, but I came up short until I widened my scope, and then I found Piero della Francesca’s portrait of an Augustinian friar (possibly St. Leonard). Consider the similarities: the subtle intimations of age around the eyes and mouth, the weariness, and yet the slight bemusement, the wry off-center stare. Neither the friar nor Frank are too jaded to enjoy a good joke. Though separated by half a millennium, you get the sense they’d find some common ground. But beneath it all there’s something unmistakably ecclesiastical about both men’s depictions, the not-quite-visible result of a lifetime’s devotion to their respective callings. It’s behind the eyes, I think, or maybe just below the skin. Wherever it is, Piero managed to capture it, as did Elmer E. Crowell, the man responsible for O’Rourke’s likeness.

            The second half of my appreciation for this card has to do with its age: almost ninety years have passed since it was printed. I haven’t handled enough really old cards for the wonder of that to have diminished. Eighty-six years ago someone—a child, a nostalgic adult—bought a pack of gum and out tumbled this card.

            The US domestic GDP was in recovery after the New Deal slammed the brakes on negative growth and pumped cash into the economy. Hitler was chancellor of Germany, already in the process of consolidating his power and assuming the title of Führer. The first camps opened. The Prime Minister of Canada was RB Bennett, a safety match magnate who bungled the response to the Depression but had the foresight to establish the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. In China, where my grandfather was a brakeman on a streetcar in Shanghai, tensions with Japan were ratcheting up in the wake of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and the uneasy resolution to the “January 28th Incident.” The globe, inexorably, marched toward war.

            In the Bronx, Ruth was in his last season as a Yankee, and Gehrig, five years from retiring in the face of the rapid advance of his illness, was assuming outright leadership of the team. The Gashouse Gang took the Tigers in seven games in that fall’s Series. Detroit’s Mickey Cochrane was voted the AL’s best player, and in Commerce, Oklahoma, zinc miner Mutt Mantle’s kid, named for Cochrane, turned three years old.

            Frank O’Rourke was not directly connected to any of this as he toiled away in Montreal, and his card—a 2-3/8″ by 2-7/8″ piece of thick paper—has nothing whatsoever to do with those events. It was not present for any of them; it was not in all likelihood possessed or handled by any of the players in the aforementioned dramas. But it is for me touched by a temporal proximity, sprinkled with a residue which, though slight, constitutes enough of a reason for me to own it.

            If a Ruth Goudey—or a Sweet Caporal Wagner, or a ’52 Topps Mantle—is the seventh game of the World Series, then my Frank O’Rourke World Wide Gum is a non-consequential Thursday afternoon getaway game played before an announced crowd of twelve thousand. And while I love the screw-tightening intensity of a big game, what I treasure most about baseball is the sweet everydayness of it, the companionship of the radio announcer’s familiar voice for six months, the long, comforting trough of a regular season. And for all the superstars, the game’s lifeblood is its rank and file, guys like O’Rourke, doing the yeoman work of showing up every single day and taking his cuts, scooping up ground balls, and making throws across the diamond from whichever position he’s assigned.

            In that way, this O’Rourke card is perfectly emblematic both of Frank’s life and career, and most of ours. I won’t be in any literal or figurative Hall of Fame, and chances are neither will you. That’s okay. Something as beautiful as this Frank O’Rourke card exists to quietly and stubbornly insist that regardless of that, there’s still a hell of a lot of dignity inherent in our efforts, and the legacies thereof.

Editor’s note: Andrew’s newest book is now available for pre-order. If you can judge a book by it’s cover, this one will not disappoint!

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.”