Baseball Americana

CdV

Over Thanksgiving I took a trip to go see the Baseball Americana exhibition at the Library of Congress. It’s a single gallery, doable in an hour, and I highly recommend visiting if you’re in DC before it closes. While I’ve already written about the general show on my own blog, for the purposes of this committee I feel like it’s worth highlighting the specific role baseball cards play in the exhibition.

Being part of the Library of Congress means that ephemera like cards are emphasized a lot more than equipment and artifacts. One of the key points this show makes is not only has baseball existed for 150 years years, it’s been recognizable that entire time; the existence of baseball cards—the earliest being a carte de visite from 1865 — is a key feature of this consistency. As long as we’ve had a game, we’ve been making pieces of cardboard featuring players’ pictures and trading and collecting the results.

Does a modern card (well, 1994 Bowman) with 4-color offset lithography, gloss UV, and foilstamping compare at all to a 130-year-old Goodwin & Co single-color uncoated photographic print? Not at all from a production point of view but seeing them next to each other in the same case and even my 6-year-old recognizes them as part and parcel of the same concept. Heck, even some of the poses are exactly the same.

The show continues with a display of a number of cards of stars of the pre-integration period. These are wonderful to see (and lust over) but the emphasis of this part of the exhibition is in who’s playing baseball and the cards are contrasted with photos of African-American ballplayers.

The clear takeaway to me is that while cards have always existed, their role in defining who real ballplayers are cannot be ignored. Seeing who we’ve chosen to make cards of is a powerful statement about who counts and who doesn’t in the sport.* I half-jokingly refer to Topps Flagship as the “card of record” but there’s a kernel of truth in there. Cards chronicle the history of the game and collecting them connects us to that history.

*Note, my takeaway isn’t just a race thing. When we see collectors express concerns about companies only focusing on rookies or stars or large-market teams it’s because of the way that cards function as a record of who matters.

Cards were my entrée into baseball history. They served a similar function for my kids. As much as my eldest hits Wikipedia, Baseball-Reference, and Retrosheet on the iPad, cards are why he knows who he knows and what sustain his interest and connection to the sport.

BBM

Later on, a sample of Japanese cards shows how the sport has transcended the United States and become more global. This is exactly right and, while I haven’t gotten into international cards,* I can’t deny that it’s really interesting to see how an American thing goes global and how baseball cards end up fitting into other country’s card-collecting traditions.

*My forays into Spanish-language issues are more of a language-based interest.

Cabrera

The only miss card-wise for me is that in the section that shows the increase of statistics in both scouting and the appreciation of the game. There’s a comparison of card backs and the nature of the statistical information that we’ve felt is appropriate over the years. Unfortunately we don’t actually get to see the backs and they’re merely described to us.

Plus there’s so much more that could be here. I would’ve loved to see a comparison of backs drawing a line from T205’s slashline of G/AVG/Fielding to the traditional slash lines of the 1960s, the whole range of proto-SABRmetric backs in the 1990s, and finally today’s inclusion of stats like WAR that I can’t even explain to my kids how to calculate. It’s not just that stats exist, it’s what stats we care about and how that impacts our understanding of the game.

Win with Vinegar Bend!

To celebrate the end of another election cycle, I decided to merge two of my passions: cards and politics. This post will highlight players who had post-baseball careers as politicians but is by no means a definitive list. So, it’s time to toss my cap in the “fungo” circle and head out on the “hustings.”

87-89 old judge tener 2

The first player turned solon we will examine is Pittsburgh native John Tener. He pitched for Cap Anson’s Chicago White Stockings and the Players’ League Pittsburgh team from 1888-1890. After baseball, he became a business man and was eventually elected to Congress in 1908. His stint in the House of Representatives was short, due to being nominated to run as a Republican for Governor of Pennsylvania in 1910. John won the “gubernatorial nod,” but decided one chief executive job wasn’t enough.

87-89 old judge tener 1

Tener accepted the National Leagues offer to become league president in 1913. He insisted on only working part-time and not receiving a salary until his tenure as Governor ended in 1915. I’m sure this arrangement never resulted in conflicts of interest.

1910 American Caramel E91-C

Once the “Big Train,” Walter Johnson, bid the diamond adieu, he took a turn at elective office. Johnson won a seat on the Montgomery County, Maryland Board of Commissioners in 1938. His effort to use this position as springboard to Congress failed when he ran as a Republican and lost in the 1940 general election.

 

Best known for tossing 8 2/3 innings of hitless relief in 1917 after the starter-Babe Ruth-was ejected, Ernie Shore sought to bring law and order to Forsyth County, NC after his playing day ended. Shore served as the elected Sheriff for 36 years from 1934-70.

56 Mizell

Another “Tar Heel” who put down the “horsehide” to “glad hand” the populace was Wilmer “Vinegar Bend” Mizell. The former Cardinal and Pirate “twirler” served in the US House of Representatives from 1969-75.

67 Bunning

The fine folks of Kentucky liked Jim Bunning’s “pitch” well enough to elected him to the House five times and the Senate twice. The Hall-of-Fame pitcher served in Congress from 1986-2010.

67 Jackson

Bunnings teammate and fellow starting pitcher, Larry Jackson, also become a politician.   Jackson was a five term Representative in the Idaho state house. He entered the Republican gubernatorial primary in 1978 but lost.

83 Edler

Little known infielder, Dave Edler, had a brief career with the Mariners in the early ‘80s. Dave became the Mayor of Yakima, WA-the “big” city near my home town.

85 Crabtree Bass

Randy Bass, the man closely tied to the “Curse of Colonel Sanders,” served as a Democrat in the Oklahoma Senate from 2004 to the present. Bass was a key figure in helping the Hanshin Tigers when the Japan Series Championship in 1985.

In the aftermath of the victory, a wild celebration ensued in which the fiberglass vestige of Colonel Sanders was taken from a KFC store and tossed into the river by a Tigers fan under the influence of more than “eleven herbs and spices.” Randy’s girth resembled that of the Colonel, which is what prompted the fan to “borrow” the statue. Alas, the Tigers have failed to win another Championship for 32 years, due to the “Kentucky Fried Curse.”

67 Jarvis

We can’t have a discussion of politicians without including corruption, indictment and conviction. Former Braves pitcher Pat Jarvis was the Sheriff of De Kalb County, Georgia from 1976-95. He was convicted of taking over $200,000 in kick-backs from a jail construction contractor. Jarvis served 15 months in Federal prison for his misdeeds.

Who knows which current or recent player will enter the political arena next? Perhaps Jose Canseco will launch Senatorial campaign with a “war on drugs” focus. Brice Harper might try to woo the millennial “bro” vote. In any case, you can expect some “appeals to the base,” late rallies and high “spin” rates.

 

SABR 47 Checklist: Jean Afterman / 1991 Q-Card Hideo Nomo

The first panel I saw at SABR47 was a fine interview of Jean Afterman by recent JT Spink Award winner (and former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter) Claire Smith. I was a bit worn out from a combination of travel and enjoying a night out in the big apple when Afterman recalled that she was working as a lawyer when she had the opportunity to work on a copyright dispute over Japanese Baseball Cards.

Baseball Cards!! I was jolted awake.

The case led Afterman to become acquainted with the card creator Don Nomura. The litigation led her to Japan where Afterman went to local ball games and found the competitive level of the players to be comparable with American baseball. The ensuing realization was that Japanese players were restricted from participation in MLB because of an agreement made following Masanori Murakami’s stint with the San Francisco Giants (1964-65). The Murakami case was the subject of a very interesting panel at SABR 45 in Chicago. The audio from that panel can be found here while my fan highlights from that day can be found at my web site.

Jean Afterman and Don Nomura did their homework and eventually found a way to get Hideo Nomo a Major League Baseball contract, with the Dodgers. This was followed by Alfonso Soriano (a Cuban that came to the US via Japan), Hideki Irabu and several other Japanese players. Eventually this led Afterman to a position in the Yankees front office.

One could therefore argue that a dispute over baseball cards in the early 1990s eventually led to Japanese players getting a chance to play baseball in the United States. Here we find ourselves a quarter century later and Ichiro Suzuki has become the MLB all-time hit king among all foreign born players.

1991 Q Cards

1991 Q Card All-Star Hideo Nomo (RC)

Ok back to the baseball cards. Naturally I wanted to find out what baseball card set began this chain of events.

An LA Times article dated April 21, 1991 discusses Don Nomura and Nomura Trading Cards. The article also contains some key info about the cards. Most notably the cards were made of plastic rather than cardboard – more of a credit card material. Perhaps due to the upgraded material a pack contained only two cards. The packs sold for 500 yen in 1991 which was estimated to be $3.68 US at the time.

I was unable to find anything online about Nomura trading cards but the info from the LA Times made it easy to find these cards on the fun and informative Japanese Baseball Cards blog.

The above Hideo Nomo card is an All-Star card from a 62 card supplemental set of the original 120 card series. The design appears largely similar to the base with an all-star logo in the middle center rather than a team logo.

1991 Q Card Takeshi Nakamura with 1991 Q Card Wrapper

Above we have one of the base cards with the original wrapper. As pointed out by Japanese Baseball Cards there is a window in the wrapper that allows the buyer to know the team of one of the two cards in the pack.

Sources and Links

Japanese Baseball Cards / NPB Card Guy

LA Times

#SABR47

Baseball-Reference

#SABR45

Phungo