Moskau Memories

Jason Schwartz, one of the new co-chairs of our Committee, does a little game on our Facebook page. He takes little sections of four different cards and we’re supposed to guess who the player is.  Here’s a “Cardboard Detective” from May 15:

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Immediately I knew it was Paul Moskau. For reasons unknown, his 1978 Topps cards is indelibly burned in my brain. I’m not quite clear why Paul Moskau holds a secure place in my memory, but I have some theories.

Not that I didn’t have a keen eye on the Big Red Machine, but after Tom Seaver was traded to Cincinnati mid-1977, I was more attentive. Moskau was, as far as I recall, heralded as part of the new wave of Reds starters. He, along with Mike LaCoss, Bill Bonham, Mario Soto, and Frank Pastore were the pitching staff that would continue where Don Gullett, Jack Billingham and Clay Carroll left off.

Not sure why, at least where it comes to Moskau.  He had success in the low minors, but was clearly mediocre in AA. He didn’t get better in the big leagues.

Seaver was definitely the entry point, but I was hooked on these Reds pitchers. Moskau was my favorite, and I think a lot has to do with his 1978 card. It’s a solid picture, making him instantly known. I assume I saw him pitch, either at Shea Stadium or on TV, but, really, my knowledge of Paul Moskau’s look is through his cards. The cards, as they often did, came first.

Moskau floundered in the majors, his best ERA+ coming in the 1977 season, when he was slightly below average (98). He bottomed out at 57 with the Cubs in 1983 and was gone.

The Cubs? I had no idea he was with Chicago, and with the Pirates the year before? No way. If you had asked me about Paul Moskau’s career, and there’s no reason why you would have, I would have bet that he was a lifelong Red. Why? BECAUSE THERE ARE NO CARDS OF HIM ON ANY OTHER TEAM! I read a lot of books and magazines about baseball back then, and watched a lot of games, but it was in the cards that I relied on where players played and how they appeared.

I’m glad I recently discovered this about Moskau. I still have a fond spot for him in my baseball memories. Here’s something I have, picked up in Cooperstown for a couple of bucks.

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Anna and the 1961 Yaz Card

1961 Yaz

I didn’t make Anna out for a baseball fan.  Not in a million years.  But, the more we talked about life and our lives, the more interesting she became.  Then she said she loved baseball.  Uh, what, as I did a double-take.

Turns out, she grew up near up not too far from Shea Stadium, and of course was a Mets fan.  She had been to tons of games early in her life and fondly recalled getting home from school one afternoon in October and her mother running out to tell her that the Mets had just beat the Baltimore Orioles to claim the 1969 World Series title.  It was the best moment of her baseball life, she said with a gleam in her eye.

She was never so beautiful as she was at that moment, telling me this story.  From then on, all we talked was baseball.  She was several years older than me, and married.  As a young and single guy, I was amused.  Still, we could talk about the Mets, and her favorite players, and growing up in the Queens neighborhood of Jamaica.

Despite all the interesting players filling the Mets rosters over the years, that included Seaver Koosman, Kranepool and Grote, Anna threw me a curveball when she said with emphasis that her all-time favorite player was Carl Yastrzemski.  Yeah, Yaz.  The Hall of Fame MVP, Triple Crown winner, 18-time All-Star, 7-time Gold Glove left fielder for the Boston Red Sox!  When I asked why him, she said that he was Polish (her ethnic background), and with a gush, she continued, “he was so handsome!”  Alright then, Yaz was her guy.  Cool!

I pondered our conversation that evening, and the day after, thinking about Yaz and the 1969 Mets, and the 1973 Mets, and the 1986 Mets.  I wanted to give Anna something special, something unique, something that I know she didn’t have.  Maybe a baseball card from my collection.  But, nothing would be as special as a 1961 Yaz card, the one with the rookie star, which I did not have.  As it so happened, there was a trading card shop several blocks from my house.  Armed with a binder of good stuff and the best of intentions, I ventured out into the night after work to do a little horse trading.

This was summer 1995, and the card guy wanted something like 30 bucks for that 1961 Topps #287 card.  It might have been $25.  Regardless, I didn’t have cash, and was prepared to haggle.  He looked through the pages of my binders with some mild interest, knowing that he had me over a barrel after I foolishly indicated the card was for a girl.  He would leaf through a couple of pages and stop, and continue turning pages, stopping again, and turning some more.  I had been in his shop on a number of occasions to peer with envy at the cards on the glass shelves, or sift through the commons in the boxes in neatly arranged stacks.  The glass shelf cards were always out of my price range, but it was harmless to covet.

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I had an idea of what he might find interesting, and tried to steer him towards a few of my cards from the early to mid-1970s, hoping to entice him with my 1971 Steve Garvey rookie card (#341) or my 1973 Rod Carew (#330).  Heck, I thought my 1974 Reggie Jackson (#130) looked pretty good, too.  Unfortunately, he had those, and wasn’t interested.  He flipped through the pages one more time before settling on my 1974 Tom Seaver (#80), 1975 Dave Winfield (#61) AND my 1976 Johnny Bench (#300).  Really?  All three?  He went to his cabinet and pulled out that ’61 Yaz, and seemed to wave it in my face.  Taunting me.  Or least that’s what it felt like.  I looked at Tom and Dave and Johnny, wondering if they knew what I was about to do.

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The 1974 Tom Seaver card was one of several Topps cards that year featuring the player in a landscape position.  The photo featured a great action shot of Tom Terrific pitching off the mound at Shea.  The ’75 Winfield card featured the third-year player at home in San Diego taking a few cuts, perhaps before the start of the game.  I always liked the Bench card from the 1976 collection.  He’s featured as a “NL ALL STAR” lettered within a star shape that also indicated his position.  The photo shows him standing in what appears to be moments after a close play at the plate because there’s still a cloud of dust enveloping him, as he stands with there in his catcher’s gear sans the mask.  I always liked those catchers’ cards.  Topps always seemed to do a good job at capturing the catcher working his tail off behind the plate.  Bench, in this card, seems to be ready to fight, ready to defend his plate.

I looked down again at those three cards and closed my eyes and made the deal.  The guy took my cards away and presented me with the ’61 Yaz tucked inside a hard plastic sleeve.  It wasn’t the best of deals, but it was the best that I could do.  I had hoped that someday I might get them back.  Right now, they were gone, and that was that.  But, now I had something special for someone special.  That thought lightened the short walk back to my apartment.

At lunch the next day, I surprised Anna with the card.  She was overjoyed.  She laughed and smiled, and held the card to her heart.  Suddenly, the trade didn’t seem so bad.  It was a great trade, in fact.  We talked about Yaz and the 1967 World Series, and the fortunes of the Boston Red Sox, and the fortunes of the Seattle Mariners, who were catching fire that summer.  I was pleased that Anna liked the card so much.

The next day, she presented me with a curious thing: a Cleveland Indians button with an attached talisman from the 1940s.  It was her grandfather’s, she said.  She wanted me to have it.  I never knew if she had any other baseball things, but I got the impression this object meant a great deal to her.  I took it from her with great care and appreciation, and promised to take good care of it.  For nearly 25 years, I’ve kept that Cleveland Indians button with attached talisman in a box in a little plastic bag.  Every so often I come across that thing and think of Anna and the 1961 Carl Yastrzemski card.

There is only one Willie Mays

Here is a card, like most cards, with a story to it. You might expect it’s a story about Willie Mays. In fact, it’s a story about everyone not Willie Mays.

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1959 Topps “Baseball Thrills” #464

At least a few of us remember the play like it was yesterday. The hitter has some power, but the centerfielder chooses to play him shallow. Even before bat meets ball, the fielder knows one of two things is about to happen: extra bases or the greatest catch of his life.

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1961 Nu-Card Scoops #427

He quickly turns and by the time the crack of the bat is heard he is in a dead sprint only stealing a quick glance back to ensure the ball’s trajectory matches the path in his head.

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1993 Upper Deck “Baseball Heroes” #47

Winning a race of man against ball is not an easy thing—the laws of physics might even suggest it’s impossible—but after what feels like he’s run a city block the fielder reaches up with his glove, still with his back to the plate, and somehow snatches the bullet of a baseball from the air. They say seeing is believing, but almost nobody watching even believes what they just witnessed. Of course, the play was not even over.

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1994 Upper Deck “All-Time Heroes” #17

Still in full stride, the fielder brings his glove arm down toward his body where in an event nearly as improbable as the grab itself his right knee hits his right elbow full force and pops the ball from glove to ground.

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I was 16 and had been planning, waiting, and training years for the perfect fly ball—playing everyone shallow to up the odds—and it finally came, for the last and only time of my life. My friend Robert and fate itself had gotten the better of me.

Some of our cards are just cards, but others are memories. This past week I finally picked up a card I’d always wanted. When I opened the envelope I was no longer in my office at my desk. I was at Palisades Park young, fast, free, and for a brief 6-7 seconds the great Willie Howard Mays, that instant before I learned for damn sure there could be only one.

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P.S. In a bit of cardboard clairvoyance, THREE of Willie’s 1954 baseball cards (Bowman, Red Man, Topps) referenced a web gem nearly identical to “The Catch!”

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P.P.S. Fans of the “Say Hey Kid” will also enjoy this set of posts from SABR President Mark Armour.

UNCOMMON COMMON: Dave Hoskins

“Uncommon Common” is a new series that I hope other authors will continue. What are the cards out there that have stories far exceeding their price tags?

Trust me on this one. If you don’t know the name Dave Hoskins (SABR bio) you owe it to the man, to yourself, and to Baseball to learn it. Today’s post certainly isn’t the most authoritative or encyclopedic account of this incredible ballplayer, but it should at least get you started.

My introduction to Dave Hoskins came from reading the book “Black Aces” by Jim “Mudcat” Grant. Hoskins was one of the ten “Early Aces,” along with Satchel Paige, Rube Foster, Smokey Joe Williams and other Negro League greats, selected by Grant as pitchers who would have been MLB 20-game winners if not for Baseball’s color barrier.

As a baseball card collector, it was inevitable that the book immediately prompted a quest to pick up cards of each of the Aces, early or otherwise. And yes, that is a Gummy Arts ORIGINAL of Chet Brewer!

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Some of you know I am turning these cards into a gift for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. I should have a finished product to show off in a couple months.

1954 Topps Dave Hoskins RC #81

When it came time to choose a Dave Hoskins card for the collection I was pleasantly surprised to learn that cards existed from his playing days. His 1954 Topps rookie card really called my name since it brought to mind visually and historically the more famous rookie cards of Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks from that same set. It was a thrill for me when the card arrived last month and also a reminder never to sleep on the card back.

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INSIDE BASEBALL: When Dave was with Dallas on June 9, ’52, he got 2 letters threatening his life if he pitched that day. But Dave wouldn’t be frightened. He hurled the game and won! And that year chalked up 22 wins.”

The cartoon really brought to life something I heard Negro Leagues Baseball Museum president and national treasure Bob Kendrick say when I was lucky enough to tour the museum with 2018 Hall of Game inductees Eddie Freaking Murray, Dick Freaking Allen, Kenny Freaking Lofton, and J.R. Freaking Richard—

“The story of the Negro Leagues is not adversity. The story of the Negro Leagues is triumph in the face of adversity.”

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If a man’s response to death threats is to go out and win 22 games I’d say that qualifies big time as triumph in the face of adversity.

“If I’m going to die, I’m going to die throwing a fastball 90 miles per hour. That’s the way you thought…” — Mudcat Grant on the approach Hoskins, himself, and other black pitching pioneers followed.

If I didn’t type another word I think you’d agree that Dave Hoskins would already qualify as a first ballot Black Ace, unbelievable bad-ass, and decidedly uncommon common. Of course, I’ve only scratched the surface. Let’s back up a decade.

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Yes, you are indeed looking at one of the most fearsome lineups in baseball history: Sam Bankhead, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Dave Hoskins, and Jerry Benjamin. Cool Papa Bell was on this same squad but was so fast he posed for the picture, went home, changed into his street clothes, and had a sandwich before the photographer could open the shutter. (For the entire lineup, including Cool Papa, go here!)

You may notice the caption under Dave’s picture has him as a rightfielder rather than pitcher. This is no mistake. While the man could definitely pitch, his batting and fielding abilities were what first drew the attention of the baseball world. His first professional contract came at the age of 17 (or 24) when he signed with the Ethiopian Clowns in 1942. Two years later the legendary Homestead Grays came calling. He joined the club in 1944 and proceeded to hit .355.

As speculation grew as to which black player had the best shot at breaking the Color Barrier, his combination of youth, versatility, and talent earned Hoskins frequent mention. You may already know about the sham tryout the Boston Red Sox offered Jackie Robinson in 1945. Hoskins was originally to be there too, but the Grays would not release him to attend.

Hoskins would continue to star for the Grays, both as a pitcher and a hitter, but it was only a matter of time before white teams came calling. Hoskins joined the Grand Rapids Jets (Class A, Central League) in 1948 where his .393 batting average proved he could compete against the “superior talent” of white clubs. After a one-year return to the Negro Leagues (Louisville Buckeyes), Dave spent 1950 with the Dayton Indians (Class A, Central League). It was there that he made his decision to pursue pitching in earnest. (There’s a story to it, but I’ll let you read it in Mudcat’s book.)

Texas Leaguer (noun) – a pop fly that falls to the ground between the infield and the outfield. Also see blooper.

Come 1952, a year BEFORE Hank Aaron, Horace Garner, and Felix Mantilla integrated the Southern Atlantic League, Hoskins became the Texas League’s first black player. His early reception there was every bit as horrific as expected. Less expected was that Hoskins would quickly become the league’s top gate attraction, leading his Dallas Eagles not only to the pennant but to new attendance records, black fans, and integrated seating.

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All told, Hoskins played pretty well in 1952. As the league’s top pitcher by a mile, he went 22-10 with a 2.12 ERA. Meanwhile, he still made enough trips to the plate to finish third in the batting race with a .328 average. He was a Cleveland Indian the very next year.

As a 27-year old (or 34-year-old) rookie, Hoskins posted an impressive 9-3 record in limited action, having both the fortune and misfortune to be paired with arguably the greatest four-man rotation in MLB history. His .259 average at the plate showed he could also hit at the Major League level. With such a promising MLB debut, it would be easy to imagine that Hoskins would have been given even greater opportunities the following year. However, his innings were cut from 112.2 to a paltry 26.2 in what would prove to be Hoskins’ final season as a big leaguer.

1955 Topps Dave Hoskins #133

Just as his Topps card from 1954 told a story, the Hoskins card from the 1955 Topps set does too. There are enough mirror images in the cartoon quiz to make one dizzy.

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Babe Ruth was a pitcher before he was an outfielder. Dave Hoskins was an outfielder before he was a pitcher. Babe Ruth was given the chance to do both at the major league level. Dave Hoskins was given the chance to do neither. Babe Ruth ushered in the “live ball” era and received a hero’s welcome everywhere he went. Dave Hoskins ushered in integrated baseball and received death threats. Babe Ruth of course went on to become the most famous baseball player of all time. Dave Hoskins remains largely anonymous.

1955 Topps Double Header Dave Hoskins/Ed McGhee #77/78

The final Topps card of Hoskins to tell a story is his 1955 Topps Double Header card, in which he shares the stage with White Sox outfielder Ed McGhee.

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As was the approach for much of the release, the Hoskins artwork mimics the action shot from his 1955 base card but enlarges the image significantly, expands on the artistry of the original colorization, and adds the puzzle-piece stadium background that any collector is amazed to learn about for the very first time.

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However, my focus with this card is on another notable feature of the Double Header set. When folded just right, the “half card” on the back became whole. This Ernie Banks illustrates the finished product. (And by the way, could there be a more fitting card in the Double Header set than Mr. Let’s Play Two!)

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Now imagine for a minute that it’s 1955. This is 8 years after Jackie, but 6-8 months before Rosa Parks would refuse to take that back seat, 8 years before MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech, a decade before the Voting Rights act, and two decades before Frank Robinson would become baseball’s first black manager. Our country is still peak Jim Crow.

Let’s take the Hoskins card and fold it so our outfielder-turned-pitcher turns into an outfielder once again. We get Ed McGhee of the Chicago White Sox.

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And yet this is not Ed McGhee, at least not fully. His legs are not his legs. They are the legs of a black man. They are the legs of Dave Hoskins.

This is a puzzle that could have worked nowhere in Jim Crow’s America other than right here and perhaps the US Army. It works because these men (at last) could wear the same uniforms and play on the same diamonds. And it works precisely because you barely knew who Dave Hoskins was.

I’ll explain.

1986 Larry Fritsch Negro League Baseball Stars #81

Here is the final baseball card of Dave Hoskins I’ll feature, his 1986 Larry Fritsch “Negro League Baseball Stars” card, which coincidentally reprises its #81 from his Topps RC. The key phrase on the back of the card is “8-year career.”

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I ordered this set in high school, and like most collectors, immediately flipped to the cards of Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige, and Josh Gibson. I had no interest at that time in the various “no names” sprinkled into the set. When I was gathering up cards of Black Aces for my Museum project, I didn’t even realize I had a Dave Hoskins card already.

Meanwhile, imagine if there had been no Jackie. Imagine if the integration of MLB had taken ten more years. Imagine if Dave Hoskins had had an eighteen year career in the Negro Leagues. It is not a stretch to think that the name Dave Hoskins would be up there with more familiar names like Leon Day, Bullet Joe Rogan, Judy Johnson, and Mule Suttles if not the immortals such as Satchel, Josh, Oscar, and Cool Papa. I would even suggest that it’s extremely likely Hoskins would have a plaque in Cooperstown.

Instead, Dave Hoskins is what the Standard Catalog and most collectors refer to as a “common player.” Negro League and Texas League historians aside, Dave Hoskins is a player most collectors have never heard of, a man whose anonymity was not due to talent but timing, the difference of a decade.

Had baseball integrated ten years earlier, Hoskins might have been one of the greatest Major Leaguers ever. Had baseball integrated ten years later, Hoskins could have been one of the greatest Negro Leaguers ever. Instead, his is a little known name suspended between two worlds, belonging to neither but connecting the two, a fateful Texas Leaguer landing in that singular spot between the players going out and the players coming in.

I can almost hear the ghost of the great Buck O’Neil saying it right now with a smile.

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For anyone thinking about adding a Dave Hoskins card to their collection, I have good news. When I said uncommon common, I wasn’t kidding. According to the Standard Catalog all three Topps cards I featured, even his RC, are “Common Players.” Double Headers are never cheap for any player, but I managed to grab the 1954 RC in pretty good shape for $8 including shipping.

Robby Goes to the Birds

Although it may be a fool’s errand to follow a masterful post by Jeff Katz with a similar topic, I humbly present my own Frank Robinson post. In a personal note, I was a huge fan of the Orioles in early ’70. With the Pilots gone and the Mariners still to be born, I selected Baltimore as my team. I’m still not over the shock of his trade to the Dodgers after the ’71 season.

Of course, the most famous deal involving Frank occurred after the ’65 season when he was sent to Baltimore by the Reds. This controversial trade brought a great deal of attention to Frank during ‘66 spring training in Miami. Magazine and newspaper reporters and photographers flocked to South Florida to cover the story. Topps sent photographers as well.

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Frank’s trade to Baltimore coincided with a 1966 uniform change. The Orioles adopted the familiar “cartoon bird” logo for the cap (replacing the “chirping body bird “) and added an orange bill. Additionally, the home uniforms had a new lettering font and orange became the dominant color over the previous black. Finally, the plain black stirrups were replaced with black, orange and white ones.

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However, the new “togs” were not worn until the ’66 regular season. The Orioles continued to use the ’65 uniform model in spring training. Thus, Frank is depicted on cards, magazine covers and publicity photos in a uniform that he never actually wore in an official game. Furthermore, Topps continued to use ’66 spring training photos through ’69.

66 Topps  66 Back

Topps’ ’66 Robinson card has the classic “in case of trade” photo. Frank has a head shot-sans cap- while still wearing his Reds’ vest uniform. The back has the frequently used cartoon graphic of a uniformed player carrying a suitcase with an arrow sign pointing to his new city. By the way, that same season Topps pictured Frank in a Reds cap on the NL RBI Leaders card.

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The ’67 card uses a ’66 spring training photo of Robby in the “chirping bird” cap and ’65 uniform. Also, he wears the cap on all three league leader cards and the checklist for the 1st series.

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For Robinson’s ’68 card, Topps managed to get a photo of Frank in the cartoon bird cap. However, the photo-used twice on league leader cards’ in 67-shows up on the AL Batting Leaders card and the 6th series check list.

69 Super

Although I’m not 100% sure of this, I believe the ’69 Topps Super card is a ’66 spring training photo as well. The piping on the uniform is a match for the ’65 uniform.

 

Sport Service 66  Bethlehem Steel 67

Other types of collectibles that fall in the card or collectible category have Frank in the uniform he never wore during a “championship season.” Sports Services (left) – who I believe produced photos for concessionaires — issued a “chirping body bird” card/photo in ’66 and Bethlehem Steel (right) issued one in ’67. (Oriole fans may know if this was a giveaway.)

The great “Sport” magazine photographer, Ozzie Sweet, did a photo shoot in ’66 spring training. This results in an iconic magazine cover. “Pulp” magazines such as “Super Sports” were still using their ’66 Miami images as late as ’69.

67 H&B Annual

For decades, “Hillerich and Bradsby” issued an annual titled, “Famous Slugger Yearbook.” They took a different tack than other publications in ’67 by airbrushing the “cartoon” bird on the cap but not altering the ’65 model uniform. This photo is from one featuring both Frank and Brooks Robinson.

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The ’66 spring training photos reappear in several retrospective cards. A company known as ASA did a Frank Robinson set in ’83 that contains at least two cards with ’66 spring training shots. Additionally, Upper Deck issued one in the ‘94 “American Epic” set.

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The Orioles returned to a “body bird” in the ’90s. Thus, Manager Frank Robinson wore a sold black cap with a similar bird in a regular season game at last.

F. Robby, Card Icon

When I first started going to baseball card shows in 1973, prehistoric times, I was then, as I am now, a collector first. Investment potential has never been a driving force for me. As an 11-year old, I knew there were certain guys I wanted to collect, at least get all their Topps base cards. I wasn’t on the prowl for Mantles (never a favorite) or even Mays or Aarons (though I loved those two). I’d always buy those guys as the mood took me. There were some players though, that felt compelled to buy. Frank Robinson was one of those.

For a kid coming of age in the late ‘60’s-early’70’s, F. Robby was at the top layer of baseball, as a player and as a person. When he became the Indians manager in 1975, he soared above all others, save Aaron, who had only the year before become the All-Time Home Run leader.

I’m not going to go through a comprehensive list of Frank Robinson cards, just some that stuck with me. I’ll say this about Frank – there was something in his look that made his cards standout, always, year after year.

1957 Topps

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Yes, it’s a rookie card, but that’s not why it’s here. It’s hard to stand out in a set that is perfect from #1 to #407, but look at this, really look at it. The calm confidence of a kid who knows what lies ahead, even if we don’t. This is the face, and the pose, of a man who is quite aware he belongs. The uniform, slight choking up and stadium background make this as good as card as ever made.

1970 Topps Poster

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This oversized (8 11/16” X 9 5/8”), much folded vision of a much older Robinson, shows the two sides that seemed ever present – the ferocity of the player, swinging fiercely, and the joy of the man, smiling broadly. Robinson was never mistaken for “The Say Hey Kid” in exuberance, but it was there. This is a favorite.

1974 Topps

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Truly his last player card (though 1975 has him as a DH, even though he was a player-manager). Wistful, contemplative, with all the traits that made him the obvious choice to be the first. We all knew he would be, it was only a matter of time, and that time was one year away.

1975 Cleveland Indians postcard

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Great team issue set, featuring Frank solo and with his coaching staff. HIS coaching staff. Everyone looks happy, none more so than Robinson, and deservedly so.

1976 SSPC

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A fantastic set, and Frank, still swinging, poses as more player than manager. He looks like he can still bring it at the plate, but those moments were few and far between. The Shea Stadium backdrop, home of the Yankees from 1974-1975, adds a little period charm.

Robinson was an electric figure, but, for all his history making achievements as player, a manager, and executive, there’s always been a sense that he never got  his just due, then, and now, overshadowed by Mantle, Mays, Aaron, the tragedy of Clemente. For me, he was in their class, often rising above them, a very special person.

During the 1999 World Series, my friend Rick and I stayed at a hotel in Atlanta and, we ended up on the elevator with Frank. That’s it, nothing to really to tell. We said hi, left, end of story, except it was friggin’ thrilling. WE MET FRANK ROBINSON! Years before I moved to Cooperstown and became mayor, running into someone of his caliber was rare for me, but even after all my experiences over the last 10+ years, that I once rode in an elevator with Frank Robinson is still exciting to recall, a priceless memory, that could only be valued in this kind of currency.

The Babe Ruth of the Palm Tree Division

Many of us derive pleasure from collecting the cards of our favorite player. Often, the player was childhood hero and/or a superstar like Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski or Willie Mays. However, this doesn’t explain my decision to collect Steve Bilko cards.

My fascination with Steve began after attending a Bilko presentation by author Gaylon White at a NWSABR chapter meeting. Subsequently, I purchased White’s biography, The Bilko Athletic Club, which chronicles Bilko’s struggles to establish himself as a productive Major League player, his PCL “halcyon days” and his many legendary drinking feats.

“Big” Steve developed an almost cult-like following in Los Angeles during the mid-50s, when he was racking up 50+ home run years for the PCL Angels at LA’s Wrigley Field. The bandbox ballpark featured absurdly friendly dimensions in left field, thus helping the “Slugging Seraph” cement his status as a long ball legend. Since the Angels’ games were telecast throughout Southern California, Steve’s power exploits made him as famous as a movie or TV star with the local populace.

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Speaking of TV stars, most of you are familiar with the fact that Phil Silvers’ character in the mid-50s sitcom, “Sergeant Bilko,” derived his name from portly power hitter. The writers wanted to honor the man who had captivated Los Angeles.

51 Bowman

The Cardinals originally signed Bilko in ’45–at the tender age of 16–and he made his major league debut in ’49. Steve’s first card appeared in the ’51 Bowman set. The colorized photo provides a good looked at his powerful physique. Also, Bowman includes Steve in the beautiful ’53 color photography set and in the toned down ‘54s.

52 Topps

55 Double Header

Bilko’s gets his first Topps card in ’52 and continuing uninterrupted through ’55. In addition, he is paired with Bob Milliken on the strange Double Header set issued by Topps in ’55.

55 Bowman

The Cardinals’ “brain trust” was concerned with Bilko’s ever-growing waistline and his penchant for striking out, resulting in his trade to Cubs in ’54. The classic “color tv” design of Bowman’s ’55 set seems to barely accommodate Steve’s girth. Unfortunately, Steve’s poor performance got him shipped to the AAA Los Angeles Angels, a Cubs’ affiliate

During Bilko’s three-year (’55-’57) stint as “the Babe Ruth of the Palm Tree Division,” no regional cards were issued for the PCL Angels. According to PCL historian Mark McCrae, a memorabilia collector and dealer, a ’57 team issued card set exists. I was unable to find an example.

58 Topps

After walloping 148 home runs in three years with the PCL “Seraphs”, the Reds decided to give Steve another shot at the majors. With George Crowe and Ted Kluszewski ahead of him, Steve was once again unable to break in as a regular. Topps brought Bilko back-after a two year absence-and produced a classic, airbrushed uniform photo on his ’58 card.

59 Topps

Midway in the ’58 season, the newly transplanted LA Dodgers acquire Steve-primarily to drum up fan interest for their fading ball club. Steve provides a thrill for his devoted fans by smashing a three-run homer in his first at bat in the Coliseum. He then settles into a part-time role with limited success. The ’59 Topps card shows a corpulent specimen swinging the bat at the Coliseum.

60 Topps

60 Leaf

The Dodgers optioned Steve to AAA Spokane after the ’59 season, but he was picked up by the Tigers in the minor league draft. Bilko spends most of ’60 in Detroit, platooning with a young Norm Cash. This results in ’60 Topps card with a headshot taken at the LA Coliseum and an “action” photo on the Reds. Also, Steve shows up in the ’60 black and white Leaf Portrait set, which was recently examined in a post by Jeff Katz.

The American League’s expansion Los Angeles Angels couldn’t pass up an opportunity to bring Steve back to Wrigley Field (LA) in hopes of rekindling his PCL magic. He hit 11 home runs at Wrigley with a total of 20 for the season. The ’61 card is a typical expansion team one, with a bare-headed Bilko wearing a Tigers uniform.

62 Topps

In ’62, Steve moved with the Angels to Dodger Stadium (Chavez Ravine) where he managed to hit only two dingers. However, his card was a “grand slam.” Taken during training, Steve sports the classic Angels jersey and cap. His image is that of a man who could hit the ball a “country mile.”

63 Post

Also, during his time with the MLB Angels, Post Cereal produced cards for Steve in ’62 and ’63. The ‘63 was a career “capper,” since he didn’t play in the majors after ‘62. Additionally, a Bilko card could be found on JELL-O boxes in ’62 and ‘63.

Bilko is included in various oddball issues throughout his career. An Exhibit card exists from the early ’50s, picturing Steve on the Cardinals. He is in the regional Hunter Wieners sets in ’53 and ’54. Jay Publishing issues several Bilko photos in the early 60’s as did the Angeles concessionaire, Sports Services. Manny’s Baseball Land even issues a photo in ’61. Finally, in ’62, Steve can be found on Salada and Shirriff coins and in Topps’ stamp set.

Steve is the definition of the “cult” ballplayer. His notoriety and fan loyalty far outstripped his ability. It goes without saying that a man who can drink a case of beer without showing any signs of intoxication deserves a place in the cult section of baseball lore.

I highly encourage you to check out Warren Corbett’s BioProject piece on Bilko.