Don Sutton, 1945-2021

If you avidly collected baseball cards in the 80s, like I did, Don Sutton was a constant presence. From his last couple of Dodgers issues in 1980 and 1981, through his years with the Astros, Brewers, A’s, Angels and eventual return to the Dodgers in 1988, you never cracked a box of wax packs without getting a Don Sutton. The only thing that seemed to change was the color of his trademarked tight-knit and voluminous puff of curly hair. Steel grey for 1980 Topps to stark white in 1988 Score. Don Sutton always showed up and you were happy to have him.

Similarly, Don Sutton was always there for his team when called upon. In fact, in his 23 years in the Major Leagues, he never missed a start due to injury. Think about that amazing feat. He answered the bell through the presidencies of LBJ, Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan without missing a single start. Also, Don Sutton did not just show up every four days, he excelled every four days. 324 wins, 3,574 strikeouts, a 3.26 career ERA and a 1.14 WHIP. An amazing feat, especially for someone who pitched in the shadows of other legends like Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan and Steve Carlton.

Perhaps the most amazing fact about Don Sutton is that he is the only Dodgers Hall of Famer who never played for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Duke, Sandy and Pee Wee all played at Ebbets Field and Mike Piazza dons a Mets cap on his plaque in Cooperstown.

So, there he is, Don Sutton, standing alone as the only Los Angeles Dodgers Hall of Famer, at least until he is eventually joined by Clayton Kershaw. So, tonight after work, go on eBay and buy a box of mid-80s junk wax. When you get a Don Sutton card, and you will get a Don Sutton card, don’t rush by it to search for a bigger star. Turn over that Sutton card, check out his stats for yourself, and just appreciate his consistency and excellence.

Magnifying glass not included

Rest In Peace, Don Sutton.

Hank Aaron, 1934-2021

“We still have Henry.”

As we lost Hall of Famer after Hall of Famer last year, this was my mantra. As the calendar turned to 2021, which we might now more correctly call “2020 Update,” and we lost Lasorda, then Sutton, “We still have Henry.” There were mornings I’d wake up and check espn.com for one sole purpose: to make sure Henry Aaron was still with us.

And now, of course, he isn’t.

It would be impossible for me to put into words the excellent life he lived or the greatness of his career. The best you’ll find all in one place is the outstanding biography, “The Last Hero,” by Howard Bryant.

Instead I’ll share a couple stories and some collection highlights as a personal tribute to my favorite player of all-time.

Don’t meet your idols?

When an event sells out in all of about ten seconds there’s no need to publicize it much. Such was the case with the “Chasing the Dream” benefit put on by the Milwaukee Brewers Community Foundation off and on over the past decade or so.

An afternoon hanging out with Hank Aaron at the ballpark? Yes, please! The first year I’d heard about the event it was of course too late. No tickets left. Try again next year. I did, and I was right about to enter my credit card info when I realized I had a business trip I couldn’t reschedule. Strike two. Still, like the Hammer, I knew to keep swinging.

Come 2016 I had my Google Alerts set up and started “hammering” the Brewers event staff any way I could with calls, emails, calls to see if they got my emails, emails to see if they got my calls, etc. Had the blocked my number and put me on their spammer list, the only fair question would have been “What took you so long?” Instead, one day I got an email from an employee that read something to the effect of, “Jason, I think you are the person who keeps calling us about the Hank Aaron event. Tickets are going on sale tomorrow. Or if it’s easier for you, just let me know how many you need.”

Fast forward to the morning of the event and I’m up at the crack of dawn sorting through my Hank Aaron collection for just the right item to get autographed. Since my wife (then girlfriend) Jodee was joining me, I’d no doubt bring a second item she could have signed. Of course I couldn’t decide so we hit the car with 5-6 articles and, me being me, I worried the whole drive that maybe I left something even better behind.

“Wait, if the event is at 3, why are we leaving here at 11?”

Fair question.

“I want to make sure we’re not late.”

Milwaukee was about 90 minutes from where I lived, so I’d added another hour in case of traffic, thirty minutes in case we needed to stop somewhere, and another thirty minutes for making our way through the stadium. Oh, and another half hour just in case.

“In case of what?”

“I don’t know. Just in case we need it.”

We didn’t.

Not only were we the first car to arrive at the stadium, but the parking lot itself was not yet even open. I would have asked someone why the gates were locked, but we were so early there was not even anyone to ask.

About 45 minutes later another car pulled up behind us, and this was vindicating to me. “Yep, good thing we left when we did.”

Once the gates opened I parked as close as I could to the gate where our event paperwork directed us.

“Why are you running?” I heard a woman call out some distance behind me. It was Jodee. I slowed down.

“We need to hurry so we can get good seats.”

We compromised by speed-walking the rest of the way. There was only one problem. I had no idea where I was going. Most of the directions we were able to get from the handful of employees already working were of the “Hmm, not sure. Maybe up a couple more levels” variety.

Finally we came to a cozy, mid-sized room filled with tables, chairs, a stage, trays of meats and cheeses, and walls covered with Hank Aaron décor. Somehow we were too early. Nobody was here yet but us, meaning there wasn’t even anyone who could help us figure out our table.

When someone did come in, I was a little worried she was there to kick us out. Maybe this was some sort of VIP room, and the actual event I had tickets to was in a different part of the stadium. Damn.

“Are you here for the Hank Aaron event?”

“Yes, is this the right place?” I asked, hoping my Hank Aaron Milwaukee Braves throwback jersey would make me seem a little more VIP than I really was.

“Yes, you’re a little early, but feel free to have a seat.”

“Okay, do you know where?”

“You two are first, so anywhere you like.”

And yes I was gonna be that guy who grabs the table right in front of the stage where he’ll be literally three feet from Hank Aaron the entire time. I had better seats than Billye Aaron, and perhaps I should have offered to trade. Then again, it’s not like she didn’t see Hank Aaron all the time.

The event was unbelievable. Hank Aaron telling stories and taking questions from the crowd for over an hour, about as up close and personal as can be. The ten pounds of cheese and roast beef I ate were awesome too, but that’s another story. I sat there mesmerized the entire time, in the presence of baseball royalty. A true American hero in literal spitting distance from Jodee and me.

At the event’s conclusion there was time for each attendee to shake hands and get their picture taken with the Hammer. Mr. Aaron complimented me on my jersey, which I thought was funny. I had imagined that morning that half the crowd would be reppin’ #44, but it turned out I was the only one not in some variation of Dockers and a dress shirt. How Jodee predicted this I have no idea!

The collection

Hank Aaron had been an idol of mine since I first learned, around the age of 9, that he was the Home Run King. I had a book that included various leaderboards, and there was Hank Aaron’s name above even that of Babe Ruth. Little distracted by sabermetric nuance at that time, I simply figured things this way: Home runs are the best hit you can get, and Aaron has the most home runs. Ergo…

I practically shat myself in 1979 when I opened a pack of Topps cards and pulled a Hank Aaron. A friend at school had Aaron’s 1976 Topps but he would have sooner traded his whole house and family than let go of that card, so an Aaron of my own seemed impossible. And then it wasn’t.

Over the next few years, some friends and I made it to enough card shows and did enough trades that at various times I might have enough Hank Aaron cards to keep one in each of my pockets. This obviously did little for the condition and value of the cards but did wonders for my self-esteem.

With a series of unfortunate events nearly biblical in proportion, my Hank Aaron collection (along with my entire collection) would ultimately dwindle down to zero by high school, only to be rebuilt around my junior year of college when I figured out I could buy some top notch cardboard if only I stopped spending my work-study checks on overpriced textbooks. I proved to be worse at bookless school than I thought I’d be, but my (generous) C in Mathematical Analysis and F in Quantum Mechanics were a small price to pay for the Hank Aaron rookie card that remains in my collection to this day.

Over the next few years I continued to add to my collection through card shows and the Kit Young catalog. Hank Aaron wasn’t my sole focus, but I was slowly working toward a goal of collecting his entire career. This was pre-internet, so I had no idea just how many cards this would entail.

Fast forward more than two decades and I’m 44 (!) years old, sitting on a beat up couch in a small rental where for the first time in forever I open a box containing about 100 cards in yellowed top loaders. Along with my guitar and a coffee mug, this was the only thing I took with me when I separated from my ex-wife. There were some great cards in the box: Ted Williams, Jimmie Foxx, Hack Wilson, … but the cards that brought back the fondest memories were the Aaron cards. After making it once through the stack, I went back through it again to pull and sort the Aarons. I had 12 cards from his Topps base run, roughly half his career. Instantly I had a goal.

Hobby Rip Van Winkle that I’d become, my first thought was to look for a card show heading to town. A few web searches later I discovered that cards were really, really easy to buy nowadays. I found eBay too intimidating and ended up at Dean’s Cards where the selection was ample and the searches didn’t turn up tons of reprints and fakes.

It was a very tough stretch in my life but one made far better by the Dean’s shipment that hit my mailbox every week or so. Once I had my base run, I moved on to All-Star cards, off brands, combination player cards, etc. As the want list got smaller but exponentially pricier, I diversified my collecting to include magazines, bobbleheads, artwork, and other Hank Aaron collectibles.

Hell, I even ran Hank Aaron 5Ks!

With the arrival of Hammer’s elusive 1960 Lake to Lake Dairy card last week and his 1969 Topps Super last year, I have finally reached the point where my Hank Aaron collection may well be complete, give or take a handful of League Leader cards. Either way, my love and admiration for Hank Aaron will never fade.

It was a somber thing today to walk through our basement bedroom, affectionately dubbed the Hank Aaron Suite. What was once my Tribute is now my Memorial to the Hammer.

The great Hank Aaron who survived so many other baseball legends in 2020 and early 2021 has now joined them. Henry Aaron is still with us, but only in our hearts, our memories, and our record books.

The King is dead. Long live the King.

UPDATE: Watch Jason’s SABR presentation, “The History of Baseball Cards as Told by Hank Aaron.”

RIP Tommy Lasorda (1927-2021)

Editor’s note: We welcome SABR’s newest member, Brian Kritz, to the Baseball Cards blog. Brian is a longtime Dodger fan and collector who was gracious enough to share this remembrance of Tommy Lasorda literally minutes after joining SABR.

Most baseball-loving kids who grew up in Southern California in the 1970s and 1980s likely have a similar story. The day they met the ultimate Dodgers legend, Tommy Lasorda. Yes, the Tommy Lasorda of the career 0-4 record and a 6.48 ERA (or for the younger stat heads, a -1.3 career WAR).

But to a couple of generations of Southern California kids, Tommy was the biggest and most important Dodger of them all. Bigger than Garvey, Lopes, Russell, or Cey. Bigger than Dusty Baker, Reggie Smith and even bigger than Orel Hershiser and Fernando Valenzuela. When Kirk Gibson hit his game winning home run in Game One of the 1988 World Series, to whom did NBC pan? It was Tommy, trotting in joy out of the Dodgers dugout.

When I was 11 years old, I visited the Dodgers clubhouse before a game against the Atlanta Braves. After meeting and getting autographs from Dodgers greats such as Jerry Reuss and Bob Welch as well as obscure former Dodgers such as Terry Whitfield and Jack Fimple, I was taken to meet Tommy in his office. He was sitting behind his desk, larger than life, with pictures of him with Frank Sinatra and Ronald Reagan in the background.

He rose from his desk and made me feel like the most important person in the world when he told me to sit in his chair. I was floating on air and asked him to sign my copy of his 1982 Donruss card. He did, and then pulled out a postcard of himself from his desk and signed it To Brian, a future Dodger, Tom Lasorda.

Being a very literal kid, I pretty much figured that Tommy had just signed me to a contract and that I would play for the Dodgers some day. Tommy would see to it personally. He was Tommy Lasorda, he could do anything. Having collected baseball cards for the last forty years, and having turned my baseball card hobby into a business since eBay came along, I have seen probably three hundred signed Tommy Lasorda items with that same tag line, To [Fill In Your Name], a future Dodger, Tom Lasorda.

That was Tommy. He made you feel special, he made you feel like you could be a Dodger one day, he made you Bleed Dodger Blue. Rest in Peace, Tommy. Thank you for making us all feel special.

Dick Allen: A Chicagoan Remembers

In the late 1980s, Dick Allen took part in an old-timer’s day event in St. Louis that featured such greats as Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Curt Flood, and others, including Negro League immortal Cool Papa Bell. Afterward, Allen excitedly related a conversation that he had with Bell. “He said I could have been one of them,” Allen recalled. “He said I had power and I could run, the two most important requirements in Negro League baseball. It’s funny. Back in their day, the Negro League players all wanted to be big leaguers. They felt deprived because they could never get in. And there I was, in my day, a big leaguer who felt like he lost out because he never got a chance to play in the Negro Leagues.” Dick Allen, Negro League immortal? It’s easy to imagine. If Allen had spent his career in the Negro Leagues—playing in a league full of people who could relate to the sort of trials Allen hadexperienced since birth—Dick’s life might have been quite a bit less stressful. But the rest of us would be the poorer for it.        

When the Chicago White Sox acquired Dick Allen from the Los Angeles Dodgers in December of 1971 (for Tommy John, an outstanding pitcher, and scrub infielder Steve Huntz), I was one of many excited—and apprehensive—Sox fans. Allen was well-known for his prodigious talent with the bat, but the White Sox would be his fourth team in the last four seasons. Bill James described Allen as “the second-most controversial player in baseball history, behind Rogers Hornsby,” and it’s an apt comparison. While continuing to excel on the field, Hornsby had been shuffled from the Cardinals to the Giants to the Braves and then to the Cubs between 1926 and 1929. For Allen, it was from the Phillies—where he had been the first Black star for a franchise with an ugly racial history—to the Cardinals, the Dodgers, and finally the White Sox.

“Allen was labeled baseball’s biggest outlaw,” wrote Tim Whitaker, who collaborated with Dick on Allen’s wonderful autobiography, Crash: The Life and Times of Dick Allen. “He was undisciplined and outspoken, a free spirit who abided by no rules. He was accused of missing curfews, skipping spring training, drinking on the job, getting high, fighting with teammates, having managers fired, and even doodling cryptic messages on the infield dirt. He never did want to be bothered with sportswriters. He was as enigmatic as he was recalcitrant.”

Some of those accusations were true; many were not. As for Allen’s problems with sportswriters, how would you feel about people who refused to address you by the name his family had called you since birth? “Don’t call me Richie,” he would say. “My name is Dick.” But until he got to Chicago, he was “Richie Allen,” or sometimes “Rich” to writers and team officials and even on his baseball cards. (“Bob” Clemente could undoubtedly relate to this.) With the White Sox, Allen was finally referred to as Dick… at least by most people. Jerome Holtzman, the dean of Chicago sportswriters and future official MLB historian, was among the Allen antagonists who continued to call him “Richie.”

Whatever people called him—“Richie” being the mildest of insults hurled at this strong, unflinching Black man—we in Chicago quickly learned that Allen could play. In 1972, his first season with the White Sox, Allen led the American league in on-base percentage, slugging, home runs (a then-team record 37), and runs batted in while winning the league MVP award. In 1973, he was again among the league leaders when he suffered a broken leg in midseason; even this was steeped in controversy, as a White Sox physician insisted Allen could have returned. In 1974, Allen was again leading the league in home runs when he abruptly left the team in early September, announcing his retirement a few days later. He was so far ahead in the home run race that he still led the league, despite not playing a game after September 8.

There were wondrous moments, like a three-run pinch-hit home run in the bottom of the ninth in June of 1972 to defeat the Yankees, 5-4 (I still have an audiotape of that game). There was the game against the Twins a month later that featured two inside-the-park home runs from Allen—a reminder of what a fearsome baserunner Dick Allen was. There was Allen’s 460-foot home run into Comiskey Park’s center-field bleachers—a drive that nearly hit Sox broadcaster Harry Caray, who was doing the game from the bleachers that day. The ball was caught by young Mark Liptak, who later would become a leading White Sox historian.

But Allen being Allen, there were plenty of controversies as well. There was the special treatment—constantly harped upon by the Chicago press—given to Allen by Sox manager Chuck Tanner, who allowed Allen to skip batting practice and come late to the ballpark. Allen sometimes took advantage of that treatment. On at least one occasion, he missed the start of a game, with the White Sox covering his tracks by saying he was sick. There was the controversy over the extent of his injury in 1973 (Allen did attempt to return for one game, but was shut down after limping noticeably). His final year with the White Sox featured a season-long feud with new teammate Ron Santo; “I felt confused, disoriented, but mostly depressed,” Allen recalled about the 1974 season. Even Harry Caray, an early Allen supporter during their White Sox years together, turned on him, referring to Allen with the name that Dick hated. “Every time I try to compare Richie Allen to Stan Musial, I want to vomit,” Caray said. In those days when you lost Harry Caray, you lost Chicago.

Given an opportunity to return to his first team, the Phillies, under more positive circumstances, Allen reconsidered the retirement and finally met his goal of reaching the postseason in 1976. But his skills had diminished, he was bothered by injuries, and the second Philadelphia tenure ended unhappily as well, as did a brief finale with Charlie Finley’s Oakland A’s (Dick Allen and Charlie Finley did not get along? Amazing!)

Allen is gone now, and the outpouring of love he received from former teammates after his December 7 passing make it clear that a lot of the things that people said about Dick Allen were clearly wrong. Prima donna? Bad teammate? Killer of clubhouse morale? Not according to guys like Mike Schmidt and Goose Gossage and Larry Bowa and Jim Kaat and Steve Stone. All of these major stars not only respected Dick Allen; they revered him.

“I wonder how good I could have been,” Dick Allen said in perhaps his most famous quote. “It could have been a joy, a celebration. Instead, I played angry. In baseball, if a couple of things go wrong for you, and those things get misperceived, or distorted, you get a label. After a while, the label becomes you, and you become the label, whether that’s really you or not. I was labeled an outlaw, and after a while that’s what I became.”

Damn the labels. Richard Anthony Allen was a proud Black man in a sport, and a country, that has never felt comfortable with what Geoffrey C. Ward, biographer of the great boxer Jack Johnson, called “unforgivable blackness.” If Allen “played angry,” he had plenty of reason for doing so. He is at peace now, and remembered by many of us with deep affection. I felt privileged to watch a few years in the life of Dick Allen, and I mourn his passing.

Strike a Pose, There’s Nothing to It

I attended just one game at “old” Yankee Stadium, before the extensive remodel shut it down for two years. That game was on Sunday, June 7, 1970, notable because it was Bat Day. (The above photo is from that game, according to website from which I borrowed it.) I grew up two hours away, in Connecticut, and Bat Day was the major draw for a few busloads of local families that my father’s company organized. I was 9 years old, and what I most remember about the game (a 4-3 White Sox win in 12 innings) is the majesty of the Stadium (when compared with Fenway Park, the only other venue I had experienced), and the crowd: 65,880, the largest baseball gathering I will likely ever witness.

This all came to mind a few days ago when Lindy McDaniel passed away. McDaniel pitched for 21 years and was one of the great relief pitchers of his time, a time when relievers were deployed much differently than they are today. In my 1970 game, he pitched the final 5 innings, allowing just the single run in the 12th to lose. There were only four pitchers used in the game, in fact: Fritz Peterson (7 innings) and McDaniel (5) for the Yankees; Tommy John (9) and Wilbur Wood (3) for the White Sox.

I recall being struck by how hard McDaniel was throwing. Granted, this was my second live game, and the other three pitchers in the game were crafty southpaws. But I vividly recall the crack of Thurman Munson’s mitt, remarked upon by the children of Southeastern Connecticut.

Anyhow, after McDaniel’s death, my Twitter feed lit up (as per the depressing 2020 custom) with old baseball cards. One of the best McDaniel cards is from 1971 Topps.

I have owned this card for 49 years, but when I looked it over I was struck by the large crowd, coming at a time with the Yankees did not draw well. And it hit me: this *might* be the very game I attended. There is not much to go on–McDaniel pitched 28 games at Yankee Stadium, likely half during the day. The best evidence is the crowd–the Yankees averaged around 12,000 fans per game, and rarely saw a crowd like this down the left field line. So, it’s possible.

In 1971 Topps used photos from actual games for the first time (on their base player cards), a total of 52 photos taken at either Yankee Stadium or Shea Stadium. Why this had not occurred to me in 49 years I cannot say, but a couple of days ago I decided to check out the other Yankees and White Sox “action” cards to see if I could find possible matches for my game.

Of the nine Yankee action cards, four of them clearly show an opponent that is not the White Sox: Thurman Munson (A’s), Gene Michael (Angels), Curt Blefary (A’s), and Jake Gibbs (Indians). Three do not show an opponent: McDaniel, Danny Cater, and Fritz Peterson. And two clearly show the White Sox: Ron Woods and Roy White.

Woods turns out to be the key card in this story, because my June 7 game is the only time he batted against the White Sox during a 1970 day game. Unless this is from a prior year (highly unlikely), I witnessed this plate appearance. What’s more, our seats were on the first base side at ground level up behind the dugout–so this is roughly the angle I had. Bonus clue: someone in crowd (at the far right, just above the dugout) is holding up a bat.

The Roy White card is from the same game–though the angle is slightly different, if you look closely you can see some of the same people in the crowd behind the Chicago dugout. Duane Josephson is behind the mask in both photos.

So that’s two cards from my game. Let’s look at the two White Sox action cards from the 1971 set.

Tommy John pitched just one game in Yankee Stadium that season, so this becomes our third match. This looks to be the same angle as our McDaniel card above (which may or may not be from this game), though (based on the shadowing) perhaps from a couple of hours earlier.

McCraw played first base in three 1970 day games at Yankee Stadium, but the other two games had crowds of 10,000 and 9,000 people; the packed bleachers out in distant centerfield makes it almost certain this is the June 7 game. That makes four cards. (The baserunner looks to be Gene Michael–the Stick had two singles and walk in this game. This photo was likely taken after his ninth inning single; his earlier walk loaded the bases; and his later single was after McCraw had moved to right field.)

For completeness, I will show the two other Yankee action cards (other than McDaniel) that do not show an opponent.

Not much to go on here. The key is whether these crowds look like sell outs, which the blurry background kind of obscures.

I generally do not play the role of card sleuth, which others have done so well. (Example: Ten cards from the same game?) The early 1970s is ripe for this sort of investigation, since Topps did not crop very well in those early action days. This left a lot of clues on the card to help place the game, or even the play.

I find it very satisfactory to discover color photos from a game I attended 50 years ago, the only game I ever saw at the original House that Ruth Built, in a card set I have studied as much as any I have ever owned. (The next time I went to Yankee Stadium was post-remodel, a Tiger game in 1977. I suppose I need to study the 1978 Topps set next?)

As for Lindy McDaniel, who started off this post, I hope he rests in peace, and left the world knowing how much pleasure he gave kids like me all those years ago.

Sweet Lou’s cardboard

Some of the best and brightest blog contributors have recently commemorated the unfortunate passing of Tom Seaver, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson and Joe Morgan with card retrospectives. Befitting my status, I decided to memorialize the death of a beloved but less famous player.  Here is a look at the limited and rather mundane cards of “Sweet” Lou Johnson.

My first card encounter with Lou came in 1968.  I must have pulled his card in one the first packs I opened.  The odd “whistling” photo intrigued me as an eight-year old.  Even at that age, I wondered what was the backstory? We may never know the answer, but Topps gave us another year to contemplate the artistic and existential meaning of Lou’s pursed lips.

The players’ boycott of Topps resulted in the use of the same photo in 1969.  Lou was now on the Indians but continued to “whistle while he worked.” This repeat photo card would be last of his career.

Nine years before, “Sweet” Lou received his first Topps card.  Though originally signed by the Yankees, he made his major league debut with the Cubs.  The 1960 card highlights the fact that Lou had one oddly shaped ear.  This fact will forever be remembered by those who are Ball Four “freaks.” The author, Jim Bouton, recalls an interaction between Seattle Pilots manager Joe Schultz and Lou.  Upon seeing Lou Joe says: “Hey, what’s new, Half-Ear?”

Lou spent most of the early 1960s in the minors, bouncing between organization.  He does not turn up again in a Topps set until 1963.  By now Lou is part of the Braves organization, but the photo shows him in a Cubs uniform.  The bare head shot appears to be from the same photo session as the 1960 card.  This time his “good” ear side is used.

Despite filling in ably for the injured Tommy Davis in 1965 and hitting two home runs in the World Series, Lou did not receive a card in the 1965 set but did in 1966.  However, his World Series exploits are not detailed on the back of his card nor did he receive a World Series highlight card.  Unfortunately, Topps did not issue cards commemorating the 1965 World Series.

1967 marks the final Dodger card for Lou.  Topps is back with another head pose, but at least they finally recognized his 1965 World Series heroics.  Also, in 1967, Lou received a nice Dexter Press postcard.  This is the best photo of all.

Lou is featured in another “odd ball” set besides Dexter Press.  In 1969, he shows up in the “Jack-in-the-Box” California Angels set.

Most of you know that Mr. Johnson’s life spiraled out of control due to substance abuse.  He received treatment and went on to a long and fruitful career with the Dodgers community relations department.  Additionally, he appeared at card shows and MLB sponsored events, such as the 2001 All-Star game Fanfest in Seattle.

At this Fanfest, my wife obtained two autographs on the same ball. One was from “Sweet” Lou and the other from Lou Brock.  Ironically, they died 21 days apart.

RIP, “Sweet” Lou.

Joe Morgan, 1943-2020

(Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

One of my favorite Joe Morgan stories is one I first came upon in Joe Posnanski’s book on the Reds (The Machine, 2009). In a 1975 game against the Giants, Morgan doubled off of Charlie Williams. When the pitcher threw the next pitch in the dirt and Morgan saw the ball roll away from catcher Marc Hill, he sprinted towards third only to stop suddenly 20 feet from the bag. Hill, sensing an opportunity, gunned his throw to third but wild, and Morgan scampered home.

In the clubhouse after the game, Morgan explained that he had deliberately stopped running to draw a throw which he thought might go wild. The Giants players were livid, calling Morgan an arrogant son-of-a-bitch for disparaging their catcher. Morgan, believing arrogance to be a necessary quality in a star, was thrilled. He had gotten in their heads, which was his plan.

“If Joe keeps up his current pace,” said his manager, Sparky Anderson, “he’ll be dead in another month.”

——-

Many complimentary words have been written about Joe Morgan, the player, since his death last week, and there is no need to gild the lily here. Suffice it to say that I believe Morgan to have been one of the two greatest players of the 1970s (along with his teammate, Johnny Bench), and the greatest second baseman to ever play the game.

Today, I am here to praise his baseball cards.

A couple of things are very striking about Morgan’s cards. First, so many of them are spectacular–he was a good looking man his entire life, but never more so than on a baseball field. And second, his cards are remarkably affordable compared with contemporaries of comparable or lesser accomplishment. You could buy 10 of his rookie cards (1965) for the price of a single rookie card for Pete Rose, Tom Seaver, Johnny Bench, or Nolan Ryan. And none of his later cards have price tags that reflect his stature in the game’s history.

You can actually tell the story of Topps baseball cards using Morgan as a central figure. His 1966 and 1967 cards are fine specimens of those classic Topps sets–posed photos of a player doing baseball things, with easily recognizable faces. Beautiful.

I bought my first cards in 1967 but I do not believe I saw this Morgan card until a few years later. Which means that my first Morgan cards were these two.

These Morgan card were, as you all likely know, the victim of two unrelated problems: the MLBPA boycott, and Topps’ dispute with the Astros over the use of their name and logo. The latter led to the hatless, uniform-less image, and the former to Topps using this uninspiring image a second time.

It got better the next year.

The card above left, from 1970, is one of my all-time favorites. The ending of the disputes referenced above allowed many kids across America to see these glorious uniforms for the first time. In addition, what we later learned about Joe’s dissatisfaction with his years playing for Harry Walker (being asked to bunt, chop the ball on the ground, etc.) is well captured here, as is Joe’s sour expression. (Good times were coming, Joe.)

In 1971 Topps (above right) first dabbled in action shots, and Morgan was one of their test subjects. Presumably, he is roping a base hit in this gorgeous image.

In 1972 Topps introduced “Traded” cards for the first time, limiting the feature to just seven players who received a second card showing them on their new team. Both of the Morgan cards are excellent, highlighted by Morgan’s well-lit face and his new sideburns.

By the mid-1970s, Topps’ card sets were a mix of action and posed shots, and they would remain so for 20 years. Kids who got Joe Morgan cards in their pack were getting a superstar, one of the game’s best players, a two-time MVP. Whether he was posing, or vaulting out of the batter’s box, Joe Morgan was a card you wanted in your stack.

Joe Morgan’s career had three acts. At the start were 6 full seasons with the Astros as an under-appreciated player, occasionally a star. He finished in the top five in walks every year, an accomplishment no one noticed, stole a lot of bases, made a couple of All-Star teams. His second act was his first 5 years with the Reds (1972-76), when he was as valuable as Willie Mays or Mike Trout, and played for one of history’s greatest and most glamorous teams (The Big Red Machine). Finally, he finished up with 8 years as a very good player, making a positive contribution all the way to the end. The Silver Slugger award was introduced in 1980, and Morgan won it in 1982 at age 38. Had the award come long earlier, of course, he could have won a dozen.

The Topps monopoly ended in 1981, and it is fun to look at some of Morgan’s cards from this era, at a time when he was changing teams almost every year.

A sampling of his Donruss cards:

Morgan returned to the Astros for one season (1980), and helped them to their first division title. The next year we got this gorgeous shot of Joe at Wrigley Field, and one is struck that Joe looked very much like this for 20 years. He moved to the Giants in 1981, and almost led them to a pennant the next year, then was back in the World Series with the 1983 Phillies. None of this was surprising, nor was Joe vaulting out of the box on his 1984 Donruss card.

Now for some Fleer cardboard:

Not surprisingly, 1981 Joe looked great in Houston’s “Tequila Sunrise” togs, just as he had in their glorious late 1960s uniform. The 1983 Joe looks a little more serious, and his 1985 Fleer (he retired at the end of the 1984 season), he looks like peak Joe Morgan about to lace a double to left-center.

Morgan was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1990 with 81.8% of the vote. I understand none of this matters–he’s an all-time great, beloved by historians and fans and statheads. Still: what exactly were the 18.2% thinking? Joe Morgan doesn’t get your vote?

Joe went on to great success as a sportscaster, was a respected executive with the Hall of Fame, and was admired by all of his former teammates and opponents and apparently everyone else. Sparky Anderson said he was the smartest player he ever saw. Johnny Bench said he was the best player he ever saw. That’s not nothing.

I rooted against Joe Morgan in the All-Star game every year, though I knew that the National League was better and that Morgan played a brand of baseball of which my team was unfamiliar. (Morgan was on 10 All-Star teams, and his side won all 10 games). I also rooted against Morgan in the 1975 World Series, and his game winning single into centerfield in the top of the 9th inning of Game 7 broke my heart.

But none of that matters now, as we mourn yet another hero in this Godforsaken year. I just remember the greatness.

RIP Joe. Thank you for elevating this game.

Farewell to Whitey who was Built Ford Tough

Edward Charles Ford, who passed away October 8 at the age of 91, was a Hall of Famer; World Series hero; Chairman of the Board; social companion of Mickey Mantle and Billy Martin; “Slick” to manager Casey Stengel. But to generations of Yankee fans he was simply, “Whitey.”

From the moment Ford joined the World Champion New York Yankees in midseason 1950, he was a trailblazer. He won his first 9 decisions and steadied a rotation that featured Allie Reynolds, Vic Raschi, Ed Lopat and Tommy Byrne en route to a World Series victory over the Philadelphia Phillies and their “Whiz Kids.”

A legendary competitor, the crafty lefty was the ace of the great Yankees dynasties of the 1950s and 1960s. According to the Baseball Hall of Fame website, Ford was the team’s Game 1 starter in every World Series from 1955-1958, becoming the first pitcher in history to start four consecutive Game 1s. Ford repeated the feat again from 1961-1964.

A 10x All-Star, Ford led the league in wins three times, twice in earned run average and won a Cy Young Award in 1961. With a record of 236 -106, he owns the highest winning percentage (.690) in history.  

As he lived in October, it stands to reason that Ford set numerous World Series pitching records, including consecutive scoreless innings (​33 2⁄3), wins (10), losses (8) games started (22), innings pitched (146) and strikeouts (94). He was a six-time World Series champion and a World Series MVP recipient in 1961.

When it came to baseball cards, Ford was equally iconic. After his exploits of 1950, the Bowman Gum Company honored the rookie by designating him card No. 1 in its 1951 Bowman baseball card set – the same set that features the rookie card of Mickey Mantle.

Ford, however, would miss the next two full seasons by fulfilling his military obligations as noted by the back of Ford’s 1953 Bowman Color baseball card.

“The return of Whitey from Uncle Sam’s service to the Yankee mound staff is looked upon by delight from everybody to the President down to the bat boy. He’s a great young pitcher, and if can pitch as he did before he left for his service hitch, he’ll be a tremendous help to the Yanks in their quest for a fifth straight pennant.”

1953 Bowman Whitey Ford card back

However, Ford didn’t miss a beat on his return to the majors. Winning 18, 16, 18 and 19 games in his next four seasons.

It was the mid-1950s and Ford was enjoying himself and the New York City nightlife with Yankee teammates Mantle and Billy Martin – a trio that earned the nickname, “The Three Musketeers.”

Bill Pennington, author of “Billy Martin: Baseball’s Flawed Genius” wrote that one of the Musketeers (Martin) was painted as a ringleader; taking most of the blame when things went wrong. The claim was refuted by Ford himself in the book.

“I don’t know why Billy always got labeled the instigator, which wasn’t at all true,” Ford said. “Mickey just had that innocent, country-boy look and I was quiet about a lot of things in public. But Billy didn’t care about appearances and he had that mischievous grin, so people just thought he was stirring us up all the time. It wasn’t really the case. We got into plenty of trouble on our own.”

Trouble like the infamous Copacabana incident in 1957 when several Yankees, including Mantle, Ford, and Martin as well as Hank Bauer and Johnny Kucks, were involved in an early morning altercation at the famed New York City nightclub.

The next morning’s headlines in the New York papers were scandalous at the time: “It Wasn’t A No-Hitter” screamed a headline in the New York Journal-American. Soon after, Yankee brass banished “ringleader” Martin, who was traded to Kansas City.

Nonetheless, the Yankees would continue their pennant-winning ways with Ford leading the way into the World Series– except the one time he didn’t.

In 1960, as the Yankees were preparing to play the Pittsburgh Pirates, Stengel surprised many by opting to start journeyman Art Ditmar in Game 1 in favor of Ford, who was already a dominant post-season performer. Skipping Ford in Game 1 meant the lefty would be unable to pitch three times if the series went the distance. The move backfired horribly. Not only did Ford pitch brilliantly – hurling two shutouts in Games 3 and 6 – but the Pirates jumped on Ditmar each time he pitched in the series. In fact, Ditmar never made it out of the second inning in either start. The Pirates won the series in seven games. The decision was heavily criticized and cost Stengel his job as Yankee manager.

Meanwhile, Ford would win the Cy Young Award the following year in that magical 1961 season and go on to pitch well into the 1960s, even as those Yankees teams began to falter as their stars like Mantle began to age.

Interestingly, Ford lost his last four World Series starts – Game 5 against the 1962 Giants, Games 1 and 4 (opposing Sandy Koufax each time) against the 1963 Dodgers, and Game 1 versus the 1964 Cardinals.

Ford was enshrined in Baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1974, five years before I started following baseball. Very quickly, however, I came to understand Ford’s place in Yankee history – mostly through my baseball card collection as well as his appearances at Yankees’ Old Timer’s Day. As is customary with the event, the greatest players are honored with getting introduced last. And when you’re talking New York Yankees, that’s quite a pecking order: Berra, Mantle and DiMaggio.

Years later with legends like Mantle and DiMaggio no longer around, it was time for Ford to receive the honors and accolades.

In 2010 – the last time I attended an Old Timer’s Day at Yankee Stadium – I paid strict attention to the moment when Ford and Berra were introduced.  Understanding that this might be the last I would ever see them, I fixated only on them. I stood silently and took in their every movement, smile and wave as they rode in from the centerfield gate in a tricked-out golf cart (complete with Yankee pinstripes). “Remember this moment. That’s Yogi and Whitey.”

When I visit Yankee Stadium with my sons, we dutifully pay a visit to Monument Park and read the plaques of the legends. Like Whitey Ford. 

Rest in peace.

Giving a Hoot about Gibby

Editor’s note: A huge SABR Baseball Cards thank you to guest writer Bijan C. Bayne for contributing this Bob Gibson memorial retrospective to our blog. For more from Bijan, see his blog at or follow him on Twitter at @bijancbayne.

Bob Gibson died on October 2, 2020, a couple weeks after his fellow Omaha bred sports hero Gale Sayers. Gibson would have been 85 on November 9, and his storied athletic career is an intriguing as anyone’s. “Athletic,” because for a pitcher, Gibson embodies “athlete” like few others, and is one of a handful of top level hurlers capable of defeating you with his glove, arm, legs, or bat.

Gibson was raised in the aforementioned Omaha, tutored in youth sports by a much older brother who happened to be named “Josh” (who was a role model for a lot of boys in their close knit community), and excelled in basketball and baseball. In that order. The hoops proficiency earned the 6’1” Gibson a basketball scholarship to local university Creighton, where the All-American prospered. He actually had dreams of playing for Indiana University, but Gibson got the impression their head coach Branch McCracken had a small finite tolerance concerning roster spots for Black guys.

Gibson’s collegiate success was such that he toured on a College All-Star squad which toured nationally against the Harlem Globetrotters, who in those days boasted NBA level talent. The leaping, undersized Creighton Blue Jay forward torched the Trotters nightly during the tour, leading Globies owner Abe Saperstein to sign Hoot to his ballclub. Ever the fiery competitor, Gibson tired of clowning with the exhibition outfit, and shifted his focus to the diamond.

In the Cardinals’ system Gibson faced early frustration because manager Solly Hemus didn’t deem him worthy of the starting rotation, and would excuse him from pitchers’ meetings on the grounds Gibson wasn’t cerebrally able to understand mound nuance. For his part, Gibson characterized Hemus to be similarly bigoted as McCracken. Gibson was primarily deployed in relief. His first four big league seasons he was a combined 34-36, but he recorded strikeouts in roughly two-thirds of the innings he pitched.

New Cardinals skipper Johnny Keane exhibited more confidence in Gibson, who went 18-9 with more than 200 K’s in 1963. Some have even compared Gibson’s early career mediocrity to Sandy Koufax- who also attended college on a basketball scholarship at a Missouri Valley Conference school (Cincinnati). Of course by 1964, Gibson was a World Series hero who helped defeat the Yankees. Gibson could hit and hit for power, and he occasionally pinch ran (on a club that had speedsters Lou Brock and Curt Flood). Despite his signature follow through, whose momentum carried him off the mound to his left, Gibson was awarded nine Gold Gloves.

The World Series catapulted Gibson into cultural prominence. He epitomized postseason perfection, he was a product spokesperson for both asthma medication, and (demonstrating his fastball in the ad), shatter-proof plexiglass. He guested on an episode of “The Big Valley.” His drop dead gorgeous wife Charline appeared on the 1970’s incarnation of “What’s My Line.”

I followed his career closely, even moreso after a school carpool mate rode home with Gibson’s autobiography “From Ghetto To Glory,” and I flipped through the photo midsection in my father’s backseat. In my backyard, where I had chalked a strike zone on our back wall next to the basement door, I’d fall off the mound sideways in my pitching follow through. Like Willie Mays and Dick Allen (the latter a brief Gibson teammate), Gibson was always depicted in long sleeves under his uniform jersey, or even his warmup jacket underneath it on some trading cards.

I owned his ‘71 Topps—one of the few years he’s shown in an action shot, and also rarely, in profile (a less confrontational Gibby).

The ‘67 Gibby Topps is intriguing in that it captures him at the cusp of superstardom, still boyish in countenance and pose (he was 31). Contrast that with his ‘72 Topps, where he bears the elder statesman status of a Mudcat Grant.

You didn’t think I was done discussing Gibson’s prowess at the plate did you? He hit 24 career homers- five of them in 1965. He drove in 20 runs in 1963, and 19 each in ‘65 and ‘70 (the latter campaign he was 34 years old). He stole 13 bases, five of them in 1969. He recorded six doubles in both 1969 and 1972. The man who hated batters, loved to bat. Dick Allen once asked Gibson at the All-Star Game, “Why do you throw at us colored guys?”

Gibson: “Because you guys are the ones killing me!” When Tim McCarver would come out to conference at the mound, Gibson would bark “Get back behind the plate—the only thing you know about pitching is you can’t hit it.” When Michael Jordan returned from a foray into baseball, as a uniform number 45 in basketball, it reminded me the last person that competitive, to sport that numeral was Bob Gibson.

Gibson’s ‘67 World Series dominance is all the more remarkable because on June 15 of the regular season, Roberto Clemente had shattered the ace’s leg with a line drive. The clutch performer returned in time to lift his team in seven games over the Boston Red Sox, including a home run as a batter. Invariably when a 2000’s slugger crowded the plate, or sported body armor on his elbows and shins, tv commentators or former ballplayers remarked as if on cue, “He wouldn’t stand in that close if Bob Gibson were still pitching—Gibby would show him who owns the plate.”

Thus Gibson symbolized an era- one during which he and Don Drysdale, ummm, discouraged opponents’ digging in too close to the dish. Gibson’s trademark tenacity extended to exhibition games—he didn’t socialize with N.L. teammates at All-Star Games because he didn’t want to become friendly with batters. Ask Dick Allen. Off the field, while Gibson wasn’t mild mannered, he did wear glasses, which appeared incongruous. But so did Clark Kent and Ray Nitschke. One wonders what extra fear the specs stoked in opposing batters.

Because of cultural changes and contemporary baseball rules protecting batters, we will never see another Bob Gibson. Because of Gibson, we will never again see pitchers’ mounds 15 inches high—in 1968’s Year Of The Pitcher, he posted a 1.12 ERA and 13 shutouts.

Bullet Bob Gibson. Hoot. Gibby. The man so fiercely combative he quit a touring basketball team that generally went several consecutive seasons without a loss. The last of a breed. Nine World Series starts. Eight complete games, seven victories. Twice named Series MVP. Overcame ethnic bias, asthma, and a broken leg.

I cannot be the only person who imagined The Grim Reaper approached Gibson this week and asked for the ball. Gibson fixed the scythe bearing scepter with his laser beam stare, and said with that clipped Midwestern accent “If you don’t go sit your behind down somewhere I’m gonna plunk you.” Though the tactic may not have proved successful, it was certainly on brand.

To An Athlete Dying Old

I haven’t wanted to write about Tom Seaver.

One reason is that there have already been great pieces about his meaning to, and effect on, those who loved him. Mark Armour wrote one of the best, right here on this blog. Another reason is that I get too emotional. I participated in a podcast Hillel Kuttler did with several Seaver fans and broke down twice in the few minutes I had.

Still, Seaver is on my mind daily. It’s easy to say the pat things – “He was great!” “He made me a Mets fan,” “I lost a piece of my childhood when I heard he died.” They’re all valid sentiments. None of them capture what he meant to me, and I won’t claim to capture all of it right now.

Certain athletes (and musicians, and actors, and other celebrities) strike deep and make a home in one’s soul. They provide a thru line in your own life story and, if you’re lucky, make you think about things, big things, like how to perceive the sport you love, how to truly appreciate the art of sports and the skill, how to carry yourself with intelligence, courage, humor and self-awareness, remaining true to your very essence, while simultaneously giving of yourself in the public arena. Tom Seaver showed me the way and was a worthy guide, from my beginnings to his end.

I was lucky to have a long chat with Seaver once at a Hall of Fame cocktail party. After his rookie year, he told me he drove Nancy to Cooperstown to see the Hall. He wanted to show her Mathewson, Johnson, all the greats that he knew about and drove him. He wanted her to see what was so important to him.

All that was to follow his 1967 season. By the time this card came out, late in the summer, he was well on his way to Rookie of the Year, the future so bright, and so long, for him and all of us.

I first came to Cooperstown in the summer of ‘73. By then, six plus years into his career, Tom Seaver was on his way to another Cy Young and another World Series. He had already made his presence felt in my own life. I was almost 11 years old, a Scholastic Book Club Seaver poster in my room, multiple Seaver books already read, my first letter to a player having been sent, to him, after Leron Lee had broken up a no-hitter in 1972, my first autographed picture returned. Neither of us knew what was lurking four years hence, a heart breaking trade that made me shift my entire focus on baseball to the players who played it and liberated me from team-based fandom (which, in all ways, lead to the writing of Split Season). A triumphant 300th win in Yankee Stadium, the first event I ever bought scalped tickets for. Then, for me, a move to Cooperstown and two memorable interactions with him and Nancy.

At the time of my first visit to the Hall, Chick Hafey had recently died and there were flowers on his plaque. I never dreamed I’d see those flowers around Tom. Yet there they are, his life, and ours, whizzing by like a Seaver fastball, with the unpredictable movement of a Seaver slider.