News from the Post Office

I’ve been working on some football sets lately that I’ve always wanted to complete, and a few non-sports sets. (Have I told you about the glorious 1965 Soupy Sales set! That was a fun project.) I haven’t been working on baseball cards too much because I’m stuck. I literally need one card to complete the 1936 Goudey Wide Pen set (Type 1) and one card to finish the 1963 Bazooka All Time Greats set. I’m treading water on my hand cut 1975 Hostess set (14 to go) and my 1961 Post set.

With three more 1961 Posts in transit, I’m down to needing 26 to finish. It’ll end up a pretty nice set overall, maybe VGEX-EX. I’ve enjoyed getting hand cuts because condition is harder to peg. Nobody seemed to really know how to use scissors back then. I picked up a Mantle that was very nice, except for a crease (the price was right and I’m happy with it) and a Bob Shaw short print that was well below what I expected to pay. That’s all good.

What I’m running into is a clear case of short prints that, according to my admittedly out of date Standard Catalog, are not listed as SPs. I’m not talking hard SPs (Estrada, McMillan, Stobbs) or even tougher variations (Minneapolis v. Minnesota, company issue v. box), I’m talking about cards that should be priced as commons, but aren’t. Some examples:

58 – Gary Bell

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I can’t find it for close to $2-3, which is where it’s supposed to reside (company or box).

Orioles Group:  71 – Milt Pappas, 74 – Steve Barber

Box version of Pappas should be cheap, and all I want is the cheaper variation. I know Barber should be a buck or so more, but that’s not where I see them priced.

Phillies Group:  115 – Dick Farrell, 116 – Jim Owens, 122 – Ken Walters

Again, a mystery in cost. Eventually I’ll pull them in for less than $3, but that’s going to feel like a rip off.

West Coast Group: 142 – Johnny Antonelli , 156 – Norm Larker

No reason I shouldn’t be able to find these for $2 or less, but it’s not happening.

I do realize I’ll have to pony up for the Estrada, Stobbs and McMillan cards, but I think there are relative bargains to be had. If anyone knows why the cards above are harder to find than I figured, let me know. Maybe it’s because I’m using a 2009 Standard Catalog and discoveries have been made since then.  That has certainly been the case with certain numbers in the 1975 Hostess set, which came as news to me.

Of course, if you’ve got dubs of any of them (and the others I need), let me know.

Jim Bouton, 1939–2019

Jim Bouton died last Wednesday after a long battle with the effects of a 2012 stroke. He was 80.

As you have likely read over the past week, Bouton meant a lot to a lot of people. I was one. Our paths crossed a few times, but his importance is always going to be about his book.

My first run-in with Jim Bouton was with his 1968 Topps card, pictured up top. I was seven that summer and my card collection was limited by my meager finances. But when the final series came out in August I must have had nickels bursting out of my pockets, because I ended up with dozens (says my memory) of this card (#562).

I had no interest in doubles even then (I would have gladly traded you my extra Henry Aaron if you had Dick Dietz), but, let’s be real, who was Jim Bouton anyway? I knew nothing of baseball prior to … maybe a year earlier? He was not in the Yankee box scores or in the Yankee games I was able to watch — because (I later learned) in June he had been demoted to the minor leagues (which might as well have been Mars). He was a minor leaguer?

Bouton had been a star a few years before, but whatever. I remember watching Eddie Mathews pinch hit in the 1968 World Series and being flabbergasted that the announcers claimed he used to be a good player. This guy?

So anyway, I suspect that one or two of the 1968 Bouton cards ended up in my bicycle spokes at some point. He would never appear on a Topps card again.

The next year Topps — who gave absolutely everyone a card — did not give one to Bouton, who in March was a non-roster invitee by the expansion Seattle Pilots.

Topps gave a card to Fred Newman, who had not pitched in the majors in 1968 and threw just six innings in 1967. He was a spring training invite for the Red Sox, and quickly released, but Topps gave him a Red Sox card anyway. He never pitched in the majors again.

Let me be clear: none of this is meant to criticize Topps. Card selection was a tricky business, with multiple series allowing for delaying identifying the last series or two until April. What I love about Topps cards in this era is that they tried to include everyone, even guys who (with the benefit of hindsight) seem like extreme long shots to play, so it looks wrong when someone is missing. Most of the 1969 set was printed before the Pilots even got to camp, and Topps made an educated guess that of the dozens of available options Bouton did not warrant a late series card. His brief demotion to Triple-A in April might have sealed the deal.

In 1969 Bouton pitched for the expansion Pilots and then the Astros. I watched a handful of Red Sox – Pilots games, and I am sure I saw Bouton a few times. But he was just a guy in the bullpen, the guy whose 1968 cards were spread all over my room. I gave him little thought.

Although Bouton pitched essentially the entire season in the majors in 1969, he again did not get a Topps card in 1970. This case seems particularly odd, and makes one wonder if he had an issue with Topps. He was a strong union guy, but the union had settled their Topps dispute in late 1968, which is why the 1970 set is so spectacular. A mystery, to me at least.

He pitched briefly (and mostly poorly) that year before again being exiled to the minors, but 1970 ended up being the most pivotal year of his life. His book — Ball Four — came out and caused quite a stir, and his cards would never be commons again. Forgive me, 1968 Bouton card — I didn’t mean it!

I was an early devotee of his book, reading it age 10 and then reading it continually thereafter. The baseball, the humor, the writing, the politics, the self-doubt — there is something on every page. But enough self-examination …

I didn’t really start buying older cards (cards issued prior to my collecting) until I was in high school and especially college. I picked up a few Bouton cards when I ran into them. And I kept up on all things Bouton — his other books, his occasional magazine article, his comebacks in the minors (and briefly, the Braves). You can read all about it in other places, I am sure.

Early in my sophomore year, Bouton came to my college (Rensselear, in Troy NY) to speak. I had not packed Ball Four with me that year (I would never make that mistake again), but I did have a few of his cards in my dorm room. Bouton signed my 1964 card, and it remains the only baseball card I have ever asked anyone to sign. (I have received a few signed cards over the years from friends.)

It has been said that once a player’s career is over and time fades, he is judged by his statistical record. This is not true of Bouton, who finished 62–63 (albeit with great seasons, World Series heroics, and historic comebacks mixed in) but who retained his fame and remained newsworthy until the very end of his life.

My point, and I have a point: collect his cards. They are fairly inexpensive for 50-year-old cards, and it’s Jim Bouton for heaven’s sake. If you collect cards from the 1960s, by all means you should look for Mays, Clemente, Aaron, Mantle, Koufax, just like everyone else, but save a few dollars for The Bulldog. (And Curt Flood.)

My collection is 100% about the history, and very few people are a more important part of the baseball story than James Alan Bouton. There will be never be another like him.

The Grand TCMA Decade Sets (Some of them anyway)

Followers of this blog and our Facebook and Twitter accounts have been a bit TCMA obsessed since several of us gathered in Cooperstown for the opening of the Hall of Fame’s Shoebox Treasures exhibit in May. A chance run in with Andrew Aronstein, son of TCMA founder Mike, touched off a bit of TCMA frenzy. (I’ve known Andrew and Mike for a few years, so I’m glad others in our card world are getting to know them).

My own recent TCMA interests have circled around the big baseball decades sets (and the football, basketball and hockey sets). Not all of them, actually, only the 1950’s and 1960’s sets. These are all beautiful, simple cards, with magnificent photos, as you’d expect. I picked up the entire 1950’s set at Baseball Nostalgia in Cooperstown (where else?), which started over 40 years ago as the TCMA flagship store.

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The cards are wonderful, the checklist is wide ranging and they look wonderful signed. Released in 1979, the 291 card set is a must have.

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With that set safely acquired, I marched forward to get both 1960’s sets, but was warned at Baseball Nostalgia that they’re harder to find than the ‘50’s set, and pricier. This proved to be true. The first set, released in 1978 with 293 cards was easier to spot, but I didn’t want to buy that series without the more difficult second series attached. (I learned this lesson when I picked up a cheap TCMA football base set and still find myself struggling to get the 12 card update at a reasonable price. I’d have been better off waiting to buy both sets.)

The 1981 (yay Split Season!) series 2 has 189 cards, but the problem is that about 1/3 were printed compared to series 1 (according to the Standard Catalog). Whenever that series would appear, it was too pricey for me.

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Well, as of last night, my long waiting is over. I got both sets for a good price and they’re on their way! I can’t wait. Like the 1950’s cards, the 1960’s sets have fantastic variety of names, from superstars to non-stars to Jim McKnight.

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And they look wonderful signed.

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Fahrenheit .407

Listen: Ichiro is the Guy Montag of George Sisler.

Like many students, I read Ray Bradbury’s dystopian classic, Fahrenheit 451, in middle school. Several of its ideas stuck with me for years afterward and I picked up a personal copy not long ago, to keep them fresh.

Near its climax, protagonist Guy Montag joins a clan of exiles who protect the written word from state-organized destruction. They memorize whole manuscripts as hedge against an American society locked in fiery struggle against its own texts. Guy’s recall of a portion of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes becomes his torch to carry.

Whatever your religious background, many SABR readers also know some Ecclesiastes, thanks to Pete Seeger’s adaptation of its third chapter into the 1960s folk-rock hit “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There is a Season),” intersecting with antiwar themes from Bradbury’s 1953 novel.

This cultureball matters to me now because of the link between Ichiro, one of our greatest 21st century players, and George Sisler, his parallel from a century ago.

I used to know just table scraps about the onomatopoeically “hot” Sisler. I remember lots of other stuff, like how Dave Philley spent three years as a Phillie (1958-60) and Johnny Podres finished his career with the Padres (1969). Yet…diddly about “the greatest player in St. Louis Browns history.”

Just a handful of significant facts came to mind when I started this article: he hit over .400 twice, they called him “Gorgeous George” (predating the pro wrestler), and Ichiro broke Sisler’s single-season hits record. Oh, and he appeared in the 1972 Kellogg’s All-Time Greats set.

Sisler retired in 1930, explaining why I find him so unfindable. Despite writing about cards for years at the Number 5 Type Collection, almost all of my card research follows Goudey Gum’s 1933 baseball debut, making earlier players a crapshoot. Even my deep dive into a trivial question, “Who’s E.T. Cox and why’d he appear on a card in 1927?” stands out for what didn’t happen, not what did.

I give Ichiro full marks for breaking an 84-year-old record when he notched 262 hits in 2004. Yet hitting isn’t their sole connection. Let’s catch up with George, circa 1920.

Kids could buy this artful W514, trimmed from a strip of five, out of arcade vending machines during Sisler’s mammoth performance for an otherwise fair-t0-middling 1920 Browns squad.

  • .407 average, 1.082 OPS, 182 OPS+
  • MLB record-setting 257 hits, in 154 game era
  • 49 doubles, 18 triples, 19 homers, 42 SB

Zero other seasons in MLB history include that balance of speed and power. None! Ichiro came close as a base runner, stealing 40+ bases five times, turning ground ball singles into scoring threats. As frosting to his power cake, George Sisler led the AL in steals four times.

Even if you drop stolen bases as criteria, just one other season in history, Lou Gehrig’s 1927, includes at least 49 doubles, 18 triples, and 19 homers. The Iron Horse, of course, enjoyed Murderers’ Row as “protection” for his spot in the lineup. St. Louis, however, depended on George’s stealing prowess just to get more guys in scoring position.

This photo from Sisler’s other 1920 card, part of the scarce Holsum bread issue, hearkens back to his younger days as a southpaw pitcher. (Read George’s SABR bio for those details.)

While pitching had moved to his back burner by 1920, George nonetheless closed out St. Louis’s final game on October 3 from the hill (box score), perhaps to help home fans enjoy one last bit of that remarkable year. Although he notched a .420 average two years later, OPS+ rates 1920 “better,” as Sisler hit fewer homers in 1922 (career stats).

Two of Sisler’s sons, Dick and Dave, went on to their own baseball careers. The former intersected with Ichiro’s future home as 1960 manager of the Pacific Coast League’s Seattle Rainiers.

While we’re visiting the past, let’s pretend we’re 12 years old again and snicker at how Dick Sisler appears on a Skinless Wiener trading card. (Players came one to a package.) Cross your legs and fire up the grill!

When Ichiro’s torrid pace projected to break the hits record in 2004, he also connected with still-living Dave Sisler, who enjoyed renewed interest in George’s past achievements and some of the Sisler family traveled to Seattle to see Ichiro break the record in person. (Topps mentioned that moment on Ichiro’s Season Highlights card.)

As noted in that 2013 New York Times article, Ichiro spent a Cooperstown trip examining Sisler’s bats, comparing their construction and “sound” to his own modern models. Five years later, he brought flowers to George’s St. Louis grave during the All-Star Break.

While I’m not surprised a guy with 3089 hits proved a student of hitting, it stands out that he’s a student of Sisler. Should this whole Internet thing burn to the ground, echoing the fiery urban chaos of Fahrenheit 451, I bet Ichiro can teach us plenty about George’s tools and talent.

It Was 47 Years Ago Today (Give or Take)

I’ve been spending a lot of time in 1972 the last week, the first year I completed the full Topps set (and the last year that brand new, very old Mets’ pitching coach Phil Regan had his LAST card as a player.)

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The week began with a little Father’s Day present to myself – a binder and box of sheets. I tend not to put complete baseball sets I already have in binders. I reserve that for sets I’m building. It’s so much easier to put a recently acquired card or two in a binder than pull out a box that is, invariably, in a logistically hard to get place. However, in the interests of maximally efficient storage, a binder for the ‘72s was necessary.

It’s a set I love more for what it reminds me of than how it looks (though I like how it looks). We had moved to the middle of Suffolk County, Long Island (Lake Grove to be exact) in December 1971. It was a hard move to make, going from Brooklyn in 1971 to LI stuck in 1961. By spring and summer of 1972 it was getting better for me, but the baseball cards of that year were my best medicine. I can see myself on the concrete pad outside our front door opening a full box of packs, my greatest youthful extravagance, $2.40 of cobbled together loose change brought much joy.

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Looking at the sets 9-card pages at a time, brought to mind a constant question of mine. Why is the last series so much brighter looking?

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One Twitterer commented that he thought “The later series were much clearer images than many found in the first few. It looks like there is a blue filter on many of the earlier 1972 cards. This photography was done in spring training.” Here’s #130, Bill Freehan.

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Another collector thought, maybe, that Topps used different card stock at the end of the baseball line, as they turned to football. They don’t feel any different, but I don’t know.

It seemed like the 6th series never made it to me (similar to the 1972 3rd Series Football, though less extreme). I bought tons of packs back then, so there’s no reason I can think of why I have only three doubles. I ended up buying the whole series after the season ended and, weirdly, the toughest series is my best condition one.

And, speaking of doubles, I sold 492 cards this morning to a friend who only recently found out I collected cards. As my wife said afterwards, collecting is so intrinsic to who I am, it’s amazing everyone doesn’t know. Funny, you all do, but many people who I know well don’t. That says something about me, though I’m not sure what.

I have been selling cards lately, but there’s something extra nice of getting them to someone who really wants or needs them. My friend now has a nice running start on a set in EX or EXMT condition, and he got to pick from multiples for the card he liked best.

I don’t think almost 10 year old me would have liked parting with those cards, but almost 57 year old me approves.

Before Ohtani, there were …

Before Shohei Ohtani arrived with the Angels as both a pitcher and position player (or least, a designated hitter), few major leaguers in recent years had played with some regularity on the mound and as hitters. We’re not talking about guys sent in to finish up blowouts, but those who actually were major-league-level pitchers and good enough hitters to play other positions.

The two most noted examples this century have been Rick Ankiel, who came up as a pitcher, and Brooks Kieschnick, who added pitching to his role as an outfielder and pinch-hitter to extend his career. Ankiel stopped pitching in 2001, except for a brief appearance in 2004. He reinvented himself as a power-hitting outfielder in the minors before returning to the Cardinals. Both have numerous cards with them on the mound and at bat.

The Angels have another two-way possibility in Jared Walsh, who was up briefly earlier this season. Although he has pitched in earnest at the AAA level, his only work on the mound with the Angels so far has been in lopsided affairs.

The most famous pitching convert obviously is Babe Ruth. Contemporary cards of Ruth as a pitcher—the 1916 Sporting News version being the most familiar—are expensive and hard to find. A few of Ruth’s contemporaries also pitched and played some at other positions, but since World War II, it’s rare to find a player with significant time in the majors as both a pitcher and a position player. And almost always, those who did it made a permanent conversion.

Kieschnick was one of the few who kept doing both with the Brewers, who for a while were happy to have him as a two-way player. Another was the 1950s Pirates infielder Johnny O’Brien. He switched mostly to pitching in 1956 and had a decent year, playing 10 games at short and second and hitting .300. But he was so bad on the mound in ’57 that he went back to being a full-time infielder. He had Topps cards before he pitched and after, but none listing him as a pitcher. His ’58 Topps card mentions his having pitched. Johnny’s brother and fellow Pirates infielder, Eddie, also pitched in a few games.

The Pirates also had a light-htting infielder/outfielder in Dick Hall, who has a card in the ’55 Topps set. Hall spent that year in the minors, working on his pitching (and still hit .300). He was back with Pirates mostly as a pitcher in 1956 and went on to a long career in the bullpen with the Orioles.

Until Ohtani resumes pitching (if he does), the only “modern” card era player who pitched in 15 games or more and played substantially at another position in the same season is far more obscure: Willie Smith of the 1964 Angels. Smith came up as a pitcher with the Tigers and was traded to the Los Angeles to bolster the bullpen. He ended up as a regular in the outfield and hit over .300.

Smith never had a card showing him as a pitcher, although the back of his 1965 Topps card raves about his pitching. Although primarily an outfielder after the middle of the ’64 season, he pitched a few times for the Indians and Cubs after he was traded by L.A., never yielding a run.

Two other players in the ‘60s came up as outfielders before switching to pitching. Mel Queen with the Reds was the most successful and converted quickly. His 1967 card lists him as “P-OF.” Danny Murphy was an outfield prospect with the Cubs and played a bit in 1960, ’61 and ’62. He made the long road back to Chicago, but to the South Side with the Sox, in 1969 and ’70 as a pitcher.

Going back farther, Hal Jeffcoat came up with the Cubs in 1948 as an outfielder before converting at the big league level to pitching in 1954. He spent the rest of the decade on the mound. Jeffcoat appeared on Bowman cards as an outfielder from 1951 through 1954 and on Topps cards in 1952 and 1953. His 1955 Bowman card is his first as a pitcher, and his 1956-59 Topps cards follow suit.

Baseball Reference.com has a listing of every non-pitcher who ever pitched and played more than five times as many games at other positions, if you’d like to see how rare it is for players of the past 100 years to make the switch.

I’ve always been fascinated with these two-way players. It led me to write the BioProject essays on Willie Smith and Hal Jeffcoat. If you know of others from the Bowman/Topps card era I’ve missed, please let me know.

Number 400 on Your Checklist, Number One in Your Heart

Mickey Mantle was the quintessential “baby boomer” icon in post-war America.  His good looks, athleticism and strength personified the American concept of exceptionalism.  “The Mick” was the ultimate hero for the white American male, who controlled all the levers of power.  It is not a stretch to state that Don Drysdale was the pitcher who complemented the slugger.

 To commemorate the SABR Baseball Committee’s 400th blog post, members were tasked with coming up with a post that tied in the number 400.  In 1969, Topps assigned Drysdale card number 400 in the set. Many of you know that Topps gave superstar players the “hundred” numbers.  The card turned out to be Don’s last regular issue card.  This post celebrates our blog’s milestone by examining the Big D’s cardboard legacy.

Most of you remember that 1968 was a record-breaking year for Don-while 1969 had a tragic ending. 1968 saw him set the record for consecutive scoreless innings with 58-2/3 (since broken by Orel Hershiser with 59 in 1988).  Unfortunately, starting 35 or more games for nine straight seasons finally caught up to Drysdale.  Ongoing shoulder issues culminated with a diagnosis of a torn rotator cuff.  After 12 starts in 1969, Don was forced to retire.

Standing 6’3’ and weighing 190, Don was a prime physical specimen and the epitome of the sun-splashed, California athlete.  Being handsome, well-spoken and playing in Los Angeles resulted in advertisement opportunities and TV appearances. People of a certain age remember the Big D as a guest on “The Donna Reed Show,” “Leave it to Beaver,” “Beverly Hillbillies” and the “Brady Bunch.” The alliteration of the double D’s in his name contributed his recognition in and out of baseball.

My favorite Drysdale card was issued in 1967.  The posed, follow through shot at Shea Stadium exudes confidence and command.  Don had mid-century America by the horns, and he knew it.

The early cards depict a young man still developing into a prime athlete.  Drysdale’s first Topps card in 1957 shows him with the Brooklyn “B” in the “Bums” last season in Ebbets Field.  The shift to LA in 1958 results in an airbrushed “LA” on the cap.  The Hires Root Beer card from that year makes him look rather cherubic.

1959 and 1960 are great, mostly due to the backdrop of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.  The massive football stadium-turned ballpark is certainly distinctive.

 Drysdale shows up on specialty cards as well. In 1959, Don joins teammates Johnny Podres and Clem Labine on a cool, multi-player card captioned: “Hitters Foes.” Podres is back in 1963, but this time Drysdale’s fellow superstar teammate, Sandy Koufax, joins him on the card titled: “Dodgers Big Three.”  Additionally, Drysdale has 1960 and 1962 All-Star cards and is on numerous league leaders.

Fleer attempted to break the Topps monopoly in 1963.  Topps successfully sued to stop future production, but Fleer managed to put out at least a portion of its set.  Don plays in “both ends of a double dip,” showing up in both sets.

Topps chose Don to represent the Dodgers in the 1967 poster insert and the 1968 large posters, which were sold individually, one per pack.  Both are excellent photos and the designs are superb in their simplicity.

As one of baseball’s top stars, Don is featured in every Topps insert or test issue set.  He shows up on Bazooka boxes, Post Cereal, Salada coins and many other oddball sets.

Receiving a “hundred” number in a Topps series in 1960s was to be recognized as a true icon.  Don is a man certainly worthy of our 400th post.  I’ll leave you with a photo of my Drysdale shrine in my memorabilia room.

To learn all there is to know about Don Drysdale, I highly recommend Joseph Wancho’s BioProject entry.