Field Generals

During the 1960s and ‘70s Topps included manager cards for each team. I’ve always enjoyed these cards due in part to the staged shots which made the skipper appear to be in the act of managing his charges.    A typical pose had the manager with his hands behind his back as if surveying the practice field.  Also several cards depicted a manager putting his hand to the mouth to create the illusion of barking out orders.  Another frequent tactic was having him point as if giving directions to the players on the field.  In addition many shots featured the manager poised on the dugout steps or near a batting cage.   Some shots had the manager appear to be giving signs.  Let’s examine a few of these classic poses by focusing on some iconic field generals.

 

The “Little General”

Best known for piloting the 1964 Phillies to an epic collapse, Gene Mauch had a long managerial career with stints in Philadelphia, Montreal, Minnesota and California.  The 1968 card (left) is a classic example of the shouting out orders pose.  Perhaps he is telling Richie Allen to stop writing obscenities with his foot in the Connie Mack Stadium infield dirt.  In 1967 Gene is pictured at the batting cage.  Hopefully, batting practice wasn’t in session since he is standing in front of the cage.  1970 finds the Expos manager pointing not toward the field but at the Shea Stadium seats.  Is he signaling for the hot dog vendor?  Is he pointing out a plane taking off from LaGuardia?  Finally, the 1966 card has him posed apparently in the dugout.  But what is Gene holding?  Is it a jacket draped over a seat?  Is it a seat cushion?  What is with the strip of tape?

“Senor” Al

The Al Lopez cards of the 1960s had all the classic poses.  Lopez was the manager who twice interrupted the Yankees pennant run with flags in 1954 with Cleveland and 1959 with the White Sox.  The 1960 version (left) has Al on the top step of the dugout while the 1961 shot has him pointing.  Al is behind the Yankee Stadium batting cage in 1962 and hollering commands in the 1965 image.

The “Lip”

Leo Durocher’s long and colorful career culminated in the early 1970s.  His stewardship of the Cubs during the 1969 collapse in face of the Mets onslaught will forever be remembered in Chicago.  The 1970 Durocher finds him in the often used hands behind the back pose before a game at Shea Stadium.  I had to include the 1973 Astros shot since it is a prime example of airbrushing gone horrible wrong.  Topps’ art school drop outs provided Leo with a poorly rendered orange lid and windbreaker collar.

 

72-alston

“Smokey”

This 1972 Walt Alston is a perplexing pose as he points skyward. Is a foul popup coming his way?  Alston always appeared to be 20 years older than his actual age.  He is 60 in this picture but looks ready for the “old managers” home.

Mets in Jackets

Here we have two Mets legends, Casey Stengel and Gil Hodges, resplendent in Mets jackets.  The “Old Perfessor” is pontificating on the top step of the Polo Grounds dugout in this 1965 card.  Gil stands behind the batting cage on a sunny day in Queens for this 1972 card.  Tragically, Gil died of a heart attack during spring training in that year.  I had to include this great 1970 shot of Luman Harris who led the Braves against the Mets in the first National League Championship Series in 1969. The Braves jacket is a satin beauty.

all-dark

Dark Signals

I will conclude with this 1964 Alvin Dark apparently giving the indicator to his coach as he exudes authority with an imperious gaze.  Al’s bench career would see him lose in a classic seven game World Series to the Yankees in 1962 but win the championship with Oakland in 1974.

 

In Praise of Corsairs and Belters

My first baseball cards were 1967 Topps, which I discovered when I was a wee lad of six. Within a very short time, as I have explained, I used my cards in order to follow real baseball teams. I organized my cards by teams and made lineups based on the day’s box scores. I never knew what to do with the checklists, league leaders, World Series cards, and the like. Should I use the NL Batting Leaders card as a place-holder until I got Matty Alou? I might have done that.

s-l300

One group of cards I liked very much were those that pictured two or three players above a cute, often alliterative, title. Pitt Power — what a pair of words that was. Just as great was the back of the card, which was nothing but text. Understand, when I first saw this card I had little idea who these people were, and I wanted to learn. The fact that Topps put these happy-looking men on this card was proof that they were players to be reckoned with, and the news that Clendenon had once “paced the circuit” in home runs, albeit seven years earlier in the Sally League (whatever that was), sealed the deal. Phrases like “paced the circuit” became part of my language, along with “first sacker,” “blasted,” and “round-tripper,” all used here as well.

I knew right then what I wanted to do when I grew up: write the text on the front and backs of these cards. In 1967, Topps gave us 13 of them, with such wonderful titles as Cards’ Clubbers, Mets Maulers, Bengal Belters, and Hurlers Beware. And you can bet the backs had a fair bit of fence-busting, circuit-blasts and two-baggers. Warning: if we ever meet, I pretty much still talk like this today.

1953-bowman-baseball-color-rizzuto-martin
Martin and Rizzuto
Berra, Bauer, Mantle
Berra, Bauer, Mantle

Credit for multiplayer cards, at least in the modern era, belongs to Bowman Gum, which produced two multi-player cards in their 1953 set, five famous players from the perennial World Champions. The cards had no text on the front, like all the Bowman cards that year, and card backs filled with prose. In their remaining two years of operation, Bowman never tried this again.

Four years later, Topps brought these cards back and this time they stuck. Topps made 107 multiplayer cards over a 13 year period (1957-1969). I am not going to go through every one of them, we don’t have all day here. Suffice to say that I like all 107 of them.

These cards depicted either two (72 times), three (29 times), or four (6 times) people, usually players but occasionally a manager or coach. Often they were just standing around being awesome, but sometimes they were talking, exchanging baseball nuggets.

Here are a few of my favorite examples.

_57
1959 Topps

Three times Topps referred to a pair of players as Fence Busters. Besides Aaron and Mathews above, they had used the phrase with Mantle and Snider in 1958, and brought it back for Mays and McCovey in 1967. Topps used similar terms through the years (clouters and sockers and belters), often for players who were quite a bit less worthy than Henry and Eddie. But Fence Busters seems to have been set aside for the cream of the crop.

download-1
1969 Topps

Ted Williams signed a contract to manage the Senators in February 1969, quite late in the off-season for baseball card purposes, but Topps took photos of Williams in spring training and put him on his own late-series card plus this one of him teaching a mortal how to hit. Oddly, the Senators had already put the previous manager (Jim Lemon) on a card in an earlier series.

I recall as an 8-year-old seeing “Ted Shows How” on the checklist and wondering what it could possibly be. Much like kids must have puzzled over “Words of Wisdom” or “Lindy Shows Larry” a few years earlier.

166906
1968 Topps

Of these 107 multiplayer cards Topps depicted at least one (future) Hall of Famer 58 times. Often there were a pair of immortals on the card, and one time — this card right here — Topps struck gold with three players destined for Cooperstown. What’s not to like?

The photo was taken at the 1964 All-Star game at Shea Stadium. Topps used a few other All-Star game photos over the years (what better time to find pair of star players), and the 1967-68 player boycott required that they find some older photos.

front
1964 Topps

The vast majority of these multiplayer cards employed titles meant to praise the players — clubbers, maulers, aces, heroes, etc. With the above card Topps stayed on firmer ground, telling us only that the depicted men were Angels, and were catchers. On the back, we learn that they are both “fine handlers of pitchers [who] know when to call for the right pitch in the right situation.” As for their hitting, Topps wisely ignored their unimpressive major league resumes so they could brag about long ago successes in the minors (13 years earlier in Ed’s case.)

I know that Keith Olbermann has spent time researching the Topps photo archive, and I recently asked him whether he’d ever run across multiplayer groupings that were not used — indicating that Topps took a bunch of these every year and selected a subset of them to produce. Keith said he’d only seen a couple of new groupings, which suggests that Topps mostly printed what they got. The photographer was likely snapping some photos and said, “hey, come over here and let me get you both.” On this day, the two Angel backstops might have been warming up pitchers at the same time, and here we are.

download-2
1962 Topps

This photo of the two biggest stars in baseball was taken at the 1961 All-Star game at Boston’s Fenway Park. You can also make out Elston Howard, John Roseboro and Henry Aaron engaged in witty banter behind them. Oh, to have been wandering around the field on that day.

1991415f
1967 Topps

This is one of my all-time favorite cards, because of its breathtaking beauty. The sunny day, the uniforms, the matching “on-deck” stances. Cardboard perfection.

The title is wonderfully alliterative, if perhaps an odd way to refer to men known for their speed on the bases and in the outfield. But I shall not quibble nor debate this card.

31009_1600x953
1957 Topps

“I see the boys of summer in their ruin.”

When this card reached store shelves in late summer of 1957, these four wonderfully talented men could not have realized what lay ahead for their careers, or their team, or their city. Their expressions showed nothing but the justifiable pride and happiness for all they had accomplished thus far. Why shouldn’t it last forever?

1282798f

In their 1969 set Topps used four multiplayer cards, this being the final of the four in the checklist. And then, for whatever reason, it was all over. The multiplayer card was retired.

I have never heard an explanation for why. Its not as if Topps stopped other non-base cards — they still put out team photos, and tried “Boyhood Photos” or “Record Breakers.” These cards seemed to be very popular, and comparatively easy to put together. You just need someone to write 200 words on the back. Hell, I would have done it for free.

I consider these 107 cards, spread over 13 years, to be their own special subset, and if you have not yet experienced them I suggest you find some.  If filling in all of these old Topps sets is too much for your budget, how about just getting these 107 cards? There is no better way to celebrate the game and the era.

As for me, I need to figure out a way to make a poster, something more attractive than my feeble attempt below.

img_1014

Death & Baseball Cards

The year was 1964. I was six years old.

The black baseball card in my hands contained the haunting image of a somber fellow wearing a Cubs batting helmet.

hubbsfront“In Memoriam — Ken Hubbs”.

He looked so sad. All the other baseball cards I’d seen were bright and colorful, with the players gaily swinging bats, smiling at their good fortune. I turned the Hubbs card over and learned “the private plane he was piloting went down in a snowstorm near Provo, Utah”. I would later learn that Ken Hubbs was deemed a special player: 1962 Rookie of the Year, and the first ROY to win a gold glove. Set a fielding record the same year: 78 consecutive games and 418 chances without making an error. He played in the Little League World Series as a kid, was recruited to play quarterback for Notre Dame and UCLA to shoot hoops for John Wooden. If there ever was an All-American boy, Hubbs fits the profile. He even died trying to conquer his greatest fear.

hubbsbackFor many of us card junkies, we recall the day we held that black shroud in our hands and felt a small hunk of our innocence ripped away. The real world had intruded into the special place where I’d always felt safe, and, for the first time in my young life, felt vulnerable (I was too young to grasp the enormity of the events of November 22, 1963).

And there was more death on the way.

The Houston Colt .45s had a seductive name and logo, even if they weren’t very good. There was something different about the back of the card of one of their pitchers, Jim Umbricht. It said he was 6’4”, 215 pounds and 389-jim-umbrichtwas “one of the NL’s top relievers in ’63…”. The card also contained an epilogue I’d not seen on any other cards, settling under his stats, where lively cartoons usually appeared if you scratched the surface with a coin:

“Jim Umbricht passed away on Wednesday, April 8, 1964.”

What?! Another player died in the same year? Is this some kind of epidemic?

389-jim-umbricht-backThen came the questions that had no answers: why did he die? How did he die? The card didn’t say (Hubbs died 2/13/64, giving time to make the special card). That was more unsettling, not knowing what took the life of one of the NL’s top relievers. In adulthood, I would learn Umbricht was diagnosed with malignant melanoma in his right leg in March of 1963. His comeback from surgery made national headlines and he had arguably his best season pitching in agonizing pain. Dead at age 33, his ashes were spread over the construction site of the Astrodome.(1)

If my technicolor baseball gods were not impervious to the rigors of life on earth, what chance did the rest of us have? Some spend a lifetime looking for such answers.

One of the problems with mythologizing athletes who die young is getting at the truth about that person: who were they, what did they mean to their friends, family and community, and, most importantly to me, what kind of a person were they?

59-174frI decided to spend some time getting to know Ken Hubbs further. I contacted the Ken Hubbs Foundation in Hemet, CA, and spoke with it’s leader, Ron Doty. The Foundation’s mission is to honor athletes selected from high schools in the area, selecting boys and girls “who display not only outstanding athletic abilities on the field of plays, but also achievements in the classroom, community, in leadership and in community service.” I ordered a DVD of the mini-documentary made about Ken during his playing days, “A Glimpse of Greatness”. It lionized Hubbs further, but it shared perspectives of him growing up in the town of Colton as someone who was a leader and roundly admired. Ron told me of the annual ceremony and invited me to attend, which I plan to do as one of the stories for my new baseball documentary series.

I did more reading on updates of the Hubbs story. The guy was like a cross between a saint and Knute Rockne. Didn’t drink or smoke, had to be dragged off not just playing fields, but PRACTICE fields in his never-ending quest for perfection (Alan Iverson, take note). He was a legend unnamedbefore he became pro, with stories of him hitting a half-court shot to end the first half over a rival high school team AND nailing a buzzer-beating jumper to send the game into OT, eventually leading his Colton squad to victory. Another high school story has him breaking his foot before a big football game, stuffing the casted foot into a size 14-shoe and playing the entire game. (2) If I didn’t know better, Ken Hubbs crawled out of a John R. Tunis story.

But there is something about his death that gnaws. Was it the irony of his search for conquering his fear that led to his demise? After taking flying lessons, Hubbs fell in love with it and bought a Cessna 172. Brother Keith recalls watching his Ken make touch-and-go landings in 1963, with his father asking him to talk Hubbs out of flying. He was supposed to fly with Ken and a friend to Provo to play in a charity basketball game, but his schedule changed. The morning of his death, a storm moved in that Hubbs thought he could outrace. It was less than ten degrees and the visibility was terrible when he took off. Hubbs tried to turn back to the airport shortly after taking off, but the die had been cast. He had only 71 hours of flying experience and wasn’t qualified to fly by instruments and lost his bearing. The plane went into a death spiral, crashing into a Utah lake, leaving a ten-foot crater. It took divers two days to recover the bodies. (2)

Right about now is when one starts to hear refrains of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”…”does anyone know where the love of God goes when…”

Hall of Famer Ron Santo was so unsettled by Hubbs’ passing, he had to see a priest. Ken’s brother, Keith, had recurring nightmares so bad he didn’t want to shut his eyes. He had one final dream that snapped him out of it. In that dream, Ken told him, “I want you to stop worrying about me. It was quick and there was no pain. And I’m happy where I’m at.”(2)

Cessnas in the air mingling with snowflakes. A cancer victim blazing a final path of glory. Both spirits refusing to go gently into that dark night. Maybe that is the lessons of the Ken Hubbs’s and Jim Umbrichts’s: play hard, fight through the challenges and maybe then, and only then, we’ll be happy where we’re at.

 

Footnotes:

1 – “Jim Umbricht” – SABR bio project, by Thomas Ayers.

2 – “Fifty Years later, memories of Ken Hubbs still glowing”, 2/13/14 foxsports.com