UNCOMMON COMMON: Ernie Barnes

Author’s note: This is the second post in a series highlighting “common players” with stories far richer than the value of their trading cards. The first post in the series profiled Dave Hoskins and can be found here.

The common understanding of the term “Renaissance Man” is of someone with many talents or areas of knowledge. Ernie Barnes fits this description. Less correct but truer to the origin of the word renaissance would be a man reborn. Ernie Barnes fits this description too.

“Song of Myself”

Raised in segregated Durham, North Carolina, Barnes was chubby, nonathletic, and bullied by his Hillside High School classmates. He mainly kept to himself and drew in his sketchbook to pass the time. Tommy Tucker, a teacher at the school, noticed the drawings and took an interest in Barnes. A bodybuilder, Tucker sold Barnes on the positive impact weightlifting could have on his life. By the time he graduated, Barnes was state champion in the shotput and captain of the football team. He also had scholarship offers to 26 colleges.

“Sunday’s Hero”

At North Carolina College, Ernie Barnes played tackle and center on the football team while majoring in art. As a kid, despite his interest, Barnes was never able to visit the North Carolina Museum of Art. Blacks were not allowed. In college, however, Barnes made a trip to the recently desegregated museum with one of his art classes. The answer when Barnes asked where he could find paintings by Negro artists? “Your people don’t express themselves that way.”

“Friendly Friendship Baptist Church”

Twenty-three years the work of Ernie Barnes would fill this same museum, and today his work hangs in Halls of Fame, top galleries, art museums, and the homes of the art world’s top collectors. If you love Motown and grew before everything was digital, there’s a good chance you even have an Ernie Barnes sitting in your music collection.

“Sugar Shack” painting used for Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You” album cover

You might even have several!

That’s great, Jason, but what does all this have to do with baseball cards? Well, let me at least bring it back to sports.

“Fast Break”

Barnes was selected in the 8th round of the NFL draft by the Washington Redskins, but his Redskins career lasted only a few minutes. Then the team found out Barnes was black. Two rounds later, the Baltimore Colts called his name but ultimately cut Barnes at the end of training camp. In 1960 Barnes played five games with the Titans of New York, who later became the Jets.

“Football Pileup”

Barnes spent the 1961 and 1962 seasons as a San Diego Charger and the following two seasons with the Denver Broncos. Barnes never approached All-Pro status or even started a game, though he picked up the nickname “Big Rembrandt” for the sketches he did during games, including in huddles.

I suspect when you think of football players turned actors, Barnes is not the first to come to mind.

“O.J. Simpson” (1984)

Nonetheless, Barnes acted in numerous television shows and movies, highlighted by his portrayal of Josh Gibson in the 1981 Satchel Paige biopic “Don’t Look Back.”

There is another connection Ernie Barnes has to baseball, one shared with me by Lawrence “Dan” D’Antignan, owner of Chicago’s historic Woodshop, longtime institution and early commercial epicenter of African American art.

As Dan tells it, his wife had made a trip to Los Angeles to meet with Ernie Barnes and discuss the selling of his work when the meeting was interrupted by a woman hoping to show off the work of her teenage son who 100% lived up to the hype.

Perhaps you’ve tasted the back of some of his artwork…

Or been greeted by it at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City…

“Safe at Home” (2005)

There’s also a very good chance you’ve run across his book.

Of course, you didn’t come here to read about Kadir Nelson or even art! You want CARDS! Well, luckily I aim to please.

While an Ernie Barnes painting would easily set you back five figures if not six, it turns out any motivated collector can add an Ernie Barnes to his or her collection for the price of a bad ham sandwich.

As the title to this post suggests, Ernie Barnes, one of the great artists of the 20th century and an absolute icon in the African American art world, is a mere “common player, starting at around $2 on COMC and eBay.

1964 Topps Football card #48

Common though he is in the price guides, Ernie Barnes is the only man on the set’s 176-card checklist certain to remain relevant not just decades but centuries from now. Somewhere in a museum a young visitor will ask the docent where the works by African Americans are kept. And then, long, long after all 11 Hall of Famers in the 1964 Topps set have faded from memory, the visitor will happen upon an Ernie Barnes and neglect the rest of the day’s plans for a brush with greatness.

“Hook Shot” (1971)

Héroes de Cartón: A Cuban Collection

When I first traveled to Cuba in 2015, I had hoped to bring home some cards of the stars I would be seeing while I was on my baseball tour. Still naive about the differences between Cuban baseball and the major leagues, I believed that there would be such a thing. I knew the stadium amenities weren’t going to be luxurious (they weren’t) and the food at the park was bound to be lousy (it often was, though the pulled pork sliders I bought outside of Estadio 26 de Julio in Aretmisa remain vividly delicious in my memory). Still, surely an enterprising soul, or the government, had managed to publish a few sets of baseball cards. I was quickly corrected by none other than fellow traveler and Cuban baseball expert Peter Bjarkman. He informed me there were no modern cards in Cuba. There was one set published in 1994 which included pre-MLB cards for the Hernández brothers, Liván and Orlando. The one before that was sold in the 1950s.

I had never given much thought of what it would be like to be a youthful fan who could not regularly experience baseball cards. I loved the cards long before I truly loved the game. In the days before the internet and daily airings on team-owned networks, they were my most direct connection. I thrilled with each new pack and the treasures I found inside.

That same passion, this time on the faces of a gaggle of Cuban children, was on display whenever a member of our group pulled out a pack of Topps at one of the five Serie Nacional contests I attended. They would swarm, a collective that would consume any gleaming picture of a hero-in-action they could get their hands on. Bonus points if it was Yasiel Puig or Aroldis Chapman. At one point I pulled out a business card to give to a local sportswriter and a child’s eager hands immediately reached out to me. Just the image of a baseball on my card was enough to ignite their imaginations.

Jorge Soler’s rookie card appears in the Topps 2015 set, the year I began the collection.

All of this got me thinking about the Cuban stars of the past, and whether they had baseball cards. I had learned that generations of Serie Nacional heroes have never had one. But, what about the hundreds of Cubans who played in the major leagues? Surely many of them must have cards. I first considered starting a collection of all of the cards featuring Cuban-born players. I quickly realized that a complete collection of Cubans was going to necessitate far too much energy and money pursuing just José Canseco. There are roughly 3000 distinct cards of the tainted slugger. I decided that maybe the best way to approach this new whim would be to just get the rookie cards. The set would become relatively finite and definitely more achievable.

Many of them have rookie cards, but certainly not all. Some never had a card issued at all, at least none that my current research has revealed. Others have cards, but not ones that modern collectors consider “rookies.” Cards from a player’s minor league days do not qualify. Neither do cards from foreign leagues, such as the pre-revolution Cuban Winter League.

Tony Taylor’s 1958 Topps rookie card. Taylor is tied with Bert Campaneris for career triples by a Cuban-born player.

Such is the case of the Acosta brothers, José and Merito. The two appeared on Clark Griffith’s Cuban-laden Washington Senators of the 1910s and 20s. However, neither made enough of a mark to appear on a card during World War I and the lean years of the hobby that followed. Cards were produced in smaller sets, thus players like Merito, who appeared in 180 games in the outfield over five seasons, and José, who pitched in 55 games over three years, often fell through the cracks.

However, while playing for the 1923/24 Marianao squad of the Cuban League, they both appeared in a set that was issued in their homeland by Billiken. Like their American counterpart, these cards could be found in packs of cigarettes. In addition to Cubans, they also featured American Negro League legends like Oscar Charleston and Andy Cooper. Per the definitions set by modern collectors, these do not qualify as “rookie cards.” I decided that because so many of the pre-revolution members of the fraternity fell into this category, I was expanding my criteria to include first-known cards, as well.

The most respected Cuban-born player in his homeland is Martín Dihigo, whose 1945/6 Caramelo Deportivo is not a part of the collection because the color line kept him out of the majors.

As of this writing, there have been 208 Cuban-born men who have played or managed in the majors. So far, and research is ongoing, there appear to be 194 cards in the set I have designed. I had four at the outset, just by culling from my own collection: a 1990 issue of Tony Fossas, a 1989 Orestes Destrade, a 1987 Rafael Palmeiro and, from a pack bought in the interest of the project, a 2015 Jorge Soler. All of them happened to be Topps. There are numerous other publishers in this set, including Bowman, Upper Deck and Fleer. Going back before World War II, there are Zeenuts, T207s, an E135, and multiple cards from the candy manufacturer Caramelo Deportivo.

Palmeiro holds most of the offensive records for Cuban-born players, even outshining Hall of Famer Tony Perez. If not for his involvement with PEDs, he’d likely be a Hall of Famer, himself.

The day after I finished the first draft of the checklist for the set, I paid a visit to a comic book store in New Paltz, New York. My ex-wife and I meet there sometimes when we exchange our daughter. B is a fan of comics and I like to encourage my kid to become a nerd, just like her old man. While not a large shop, the collection is extensive and a fan of the genre is certain to leave satisfied.

What it does not have, however, is very many baseball cards for sale. The two collectibles will often appear together at small retail shops like this, though such stores usually lean more heavily in one direction. No one would ever think of this place as a local card shop. But, it does sell packs of the current sets and that day had about 50 individual cards up for grabs. Of those singles, the inventory was split between medium value cards of current players, a sprinkling of stars from 1970s, 80s and 90s, and a few lesser known players from the 60s.

One of those latter cards was from the Topps 1965 set, number 201. Minnesota Twins rookie stars César Tovar and Sandy Valdespino share the honors. Tovar, a native of Venezuela, had a fine twelve-year career with the Twins, Phillies, Rangers, A’s and Yankees. He finished in the top twenty-five in MVP voting every year from 1967-1971 and led the league in doubles and triples in 1970. The Trading Card Database has identified 56 unique cards manufactured for Tovar.

Hilario “Sandy” Valdespino lasted for seven seasons with the Twins, Braves, Astros, Pilots, Brewers and Royals. He did not share the same success as his card-mate, though he did get eleven at bats in the 1965 World Series, contributing a double and a run. Valdespino was born in San Jose de las Lajas in Mayabeque and became the 106th Cuban to appear in the majors when he made his debut on April 12, 1965. Number 201 is his official rookie card, one of only nineteen different identified cards of the outfielder ever produced.

A cardboard miracle.

The odds of finding that card, in that place, just days after I decided to pursue this quest, cannot be calculated. It was a divine intervention, a gift sent by the baseball gods in the form of a fifty-year-old piece of cardboard.

Today I have 115 of the cards from the set. The latest pickup, a W514 of Dolf Luque, is a real beauty. The corners are a little rounded and there are some minor markings on the surface, but it is crease free and remarkably sturdy for something that was printed a century ago. Luque, the first Cuban superstar, is an underappreciated name from yesteryear and a personal favorite. Finally acquiring his card inspired me to tell this story.

Among Cubans, only Luis Tiant put up better career pitching numbers than Dolf Luque. The W514s began production in 1919, the year Luque’s Cincinnati Reds defeated the Black Stockings in the World Series.

As always, the final cards of this set are the most challenging and, of course, the most expensive. It is also a set that is always expanding. Despite the recent short-sighted pronouncements of the current presidential administration, Cubans will continue to find a way to travel those ninety miles to American shores to play the game. Last year, six more made their major league debut. Three of them have rookie cards, so far, and the recent call up by the Yankees of Nestor Cortes, Jr., who had a less-than-impressive debut with Baltimore last March, increases the chances of him getting one at some point this season. When he does, I’ll be there.

Don’t think Trice, it’s alright (Part Two)

Author’s note: A previous post here examined the largely dismissive portrayal of the Negro Leagues by Topps in the early 1950s. This sequel simply expands the focus to other card makers of the era.

1949 Leaf

For hobbyists who regard the Leaf issue as 1948 or 1948-1949, this set would unequivocally be the first major U.S. release to feature ex-Negro Leaguers. For my part, I regard it as tied with 1949 Bowman. Either way, the Leaf issue included cards of three black players with Negro League resumes.

Card 8 in the set featured the legendary Satchel Paige. The card back, which among other things notes Satchel’s prior team as the Kansas City Monarchs, is pretty amazing.

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First we’ll note that Satchel is assigned an age, 40 years old, which should make just about everything else in the bio seem like fiction. Second, the praise for Satchel is through the roof! Though it’s possible one could assign a negative connotation to “most picturesque player in baseball,” the words that follow cast doubt on such a reading. Satchel is billed as a “high-powered talent” with “fabulous gate-appeal” who is expected to “sizzle into his old stride” in 1949. The folks at Leaf seemed to get it that Satchel was the real deal.

The next black player in the set was Jackie Robinson, and his card bio leads off with the historic line, “First Negro player in modern organized baseball.”

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As was the case with early Topps cards, the direct implication here is that the Kansas City Monarchs and the Negro Leagues were not “organized baseball.” On the flip side, the phrase “modern organized baseball” pays homage to 19th century black players whose histories were often erased in telling the Jackie Robinson story. This 1980 Laughlin card serves to illustrate the point, as do Robinson’s 1960 and 1961 Nu-Card releases.

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The final Negro Leagues alum in the set was Larry Doby, identified as the “first Negro player to enter the American League.” The last line of the bio is notable in that Doby is not simply described as a speedy base-stealer but a smart one as well. This strikes me as enlightened writing for its time.

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For legal reasons, if not financial ones as well, Leaf would not offer another baseball set until 1960. We will see shortly how the set handled the Negro League origins of pitcher Sam Jones.

1949 Bowman

The 1949 Bowman set featured the same three black players from the Leaf set plus one more, Roy Campanella. The Robinson card notes that “he became the first Negro to enter the ranks of pro ball.” At once this phrase dismisses the Negro Leagues as less than professional while ignoring nineteenth century pioneers like Moses Fleetwood Walker.

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The Roy Campanella card in the set describes “an exhibition game with Negro All-Stars at Ebbets Field.” This game, part of a five-game series against Major Leaguers, took place in 1945 and prompted Charlie Dressen to recommend Campy to Branch Rickey.

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To my knowledge, the Bowman card of Satchel contains the earliest use of the phrase “Negro Leagues” on a baseball card.

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The idea that Satchel “traveled around” the Negro Leagues may be taken one of two ways. On one hand, he did play for several teams. On the other hand, it may suggest a lack of seriousness and organization to the Negro Leagues themselves.

As with the Leaf card, we see the word “fabulous” used to describe Paige. New to the Bowman card is the treatment of Satchel’s age. While a precise birthday is offered (September 11, 1908), the bio makes it clear that “his exact age is not known!”

Larry Doby is the final Negro Leaguer featured in the set, and his card describes him as “one of the few Negroes in the American League.” Depending when in 1949 the card was produced, in addition to Doby and Paige, the description might have been referring to Minnie Minoso (April 19, 1949) and/or Luke Easter (August 11, 1949).

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1950 Bowman

Four cards in the next Bowman release referred to the Negro Leagues tenure of its players. Card 22 of Jackie Robinson is similar to its 1949 predecessor in referring to Jackie as the “first Negro to enter organized baseball.”

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The Larry Doby card similarly draws on its previous bio, again recognizing Doby as “one of the few Negroes in the American League.”

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Ditto for Roy Campanella whose role with the “all-star Negro team” first brought him to the attention of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

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The Hank Thompson (SABR bio) card highlights his role in a famous first of the integration era, “the first time in major league history that a Negro batter was up before a Negro pitcher.” The card also identifies Thompson’s pre-MLB tenure with the Kansas City Monarchs.

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1951 Bowman

Three cards in the next Bowman offering are relevant to the topic of the Negro Leagues and the integration of MLB.

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The Campanella card recycles Campy’s exhibition game origin story for a third time, though this time there is no reference to the makeup of his team. Meanwhile, the Easter card follows a familiar tradition of discounting Negro League service in its statement that Easter “entered organized baseball in 1949.” Finally, the Ray Noble card, which does an awesome job teaching kids the right way to say his name, makes reference to his time with the “New York Cubans of the Negro National League.”

1952 Bowman

An interesting evolution in the 1952 Bowman set occurs with the Luke Easter card.

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Having previously “entered organized baseball in 1949,” we learn now that Easter “began in baseball in 1949.” What an odd statement if we take it literally! (By the way, the use of terms like “professional baseball,” “organized baseball,” and “baseball” to refer specifically to MLB/MiLB is still commonplace today. I would love to see baseball writers move away from this practice.)

1952 Num Num Foods

This potato chips set is one I only learned of in doing research for this article. The regional food issue features 20 players, all Cleveland Indians, including four black players: Luke Easter, Harry Simpson, Larry Doby, and Sam Jones. Apart from single-player sets such as the 1947 Bond Bread Jackie Robinson issue, this set has the largest proportion of African American players of any I’ve seen from the era.

Num Num Easter.jpg

The Easter card notes that he “played softball for several years before entering [the] Negro National League” and even referenced Luke’s support role with the Harlem Globetrotters. A couple funny stories are shared as well before ending on the down note of a fractured knee cap.

The Harry “Suitcase” Simpson card picks up where Easter’s leaves off, recognizing Simpson’s daunting role of having to fill in for an injured Luke Easter. Then again it’s hard to imagine anyone more qualified to fill large shoes than Simpson, who according to at least some stories got his nickname “Suitcase” from the size of his feet!

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The back of Larry Doby’s card is injury-themed as well. However, rather than add insult to injury, the writer actually defends Doby against any insult that he was a disappointment. The paragraph ending almost reads as a (very dated) math story problem and left me ready to set up an equation.

Doby

The Sam Jones card closes with a phrase that posed a road block to the careers of at least three very talented black pitchers: Dave Hoskins, Mudcat Grant, and Sam Jones himself. The “Tribe’s already formidable big 4” were of course Hall of Fame hurlers Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, and Early Wynn, along with all-star Mike Garcia. Even as Cleveland brought up tremendous black hurlers, two of whom would eventually become “Black Aces,” there was simply nowhere in the starting rotation to put them.

Sam Jones Num Num

1954 Bowman

I didn’t run across any interesting cards in my review of the 1953 Bowman sets, so I’ll skip ahead to 1954. Card number 118 of Bob Boyd (SABR bio) references his start in the Negro National League while (as usual) recognizing his start in “organized ball” coming afterward. As a side note, Boyd’s Negro League team, the Memphis Red Sox, played in the Negro American League. As another side note, the trivia question matches that of Hank Aaron’s Topps card, again recalling (and ingoring/discounting) a famous Negro League feat attributed to Josh Gibson.

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Hank Thompson’s bio is a funny one for reasons unrelated to his Negro League lineage. For whatever reason, the Bowman folks felt the need to clarify what was meant by “a quiet fellow.” It’s also a rare thing to see a baseball card bio so critical of a player’s weight! In a less humorous vein, as was the case four years earlier, Thompson’s card identifies his tenure with the Kansas City Monarchs.

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1954 Dan Dee

A notable card in the 1954 Dan Dee (potato chips) baseball set is that of Pittsburgh Pirates infielder and one-time Kansas City Monarch Curt Roberts (SABR bio needed).

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The first line of his bio identifies Roberts as the “first Negro player ever to be placed on Pittsburgh club’s roster.” This contention has received scrutiny over the years since it overlooks Carlos Bernier (SABR bio), a black Puerto Rican player who preceded Roberts by a year.

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1954 Red Man

While the 50-card set also includes cards of Negro League vets Roy Campanella, Jim Gilliam, and Willie Mays, the Monte Irvin card is the only one whose bio can be considered relevant to his Negro League service.

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As usual, we see that he “began in organized baseball” once he started playing on white teams. Something new I did learn from the card was that—at least here—the AAA Jersey City Giants were known as the “Little Giants.” How’s that for an oxymoron!

1954 Red Heart

Whether a gum chewer, chip cruncher, dip wadder, or dog feeder, it’s hard to imagine a better year to be a card collector than 1954. Packaged with Red Heart, “The Big League Dog Food,” that year was this card of Dodgers infielder Jim Gilliam.

 

Gilliam red heart

A quaint aspect of the card is the blank entries for all of Gilliam’s career numbers. The bio area of the card explains why this is so. “As a rookie in 1953, he has no life record…”

Regarding his Negro League lineage and role in MLB integration, the opening of the bio tells us that Gilliam “was the youngest member of the Baltimore Elite Giants” and that “he is one of the fine negro ballplayers that have been taken into organized baseball during the past decade.”

1955 Bowman

In what must by now feel like a tired theme, here is Hank Aaron’s 1955 Bowman card citing 1954 as Aaron’s “third season in organized baseball,” omitting his season with the Indianapolis Clowns.

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1955 Red Man

The sequel to Red Man’s 1954 issue included five black stars: Larry Doby, Minnie Minoso, Brooks Lawrence, Willie Mays, and Hank Thompson. The Thompson card as usual notes that he “began in organized baseball in 1947, which was the year he jumped straight from the Kansas City Monarchs to the St. Louis Browns.

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1958 Hires Root Beer

The Hires Root Beer card of Bob Boyd is similar to his 1954 Bowman card in recognizing him as a “product of the Negro National League” instead of the Negro American League.

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1960 Leaf

After an eleven-year hiatus, the Leaf set is back, and its card number 14 is of MLB’s second Black Ace, Sam Jones (SABR bio).

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Toward the end of the bio, we learn that Jones “started his pro career with Wilkes-Barre in 1950…” though he pitched professionally for the Cleveland Buckeyes (and possibly Homestead Grays) of the Negro Leagues as early as 1947 (or possibly 1946).

1979 TCMA Baseball History Series “The 50s”

First off, what a great set! When I first came across this Hank Thompson card I initially assumed it was a slightly undersized reprint of his 1953 Bowman card. Then I realized he had no 1953 Bowman card! Of course the back of the card provided plenty of other clues that this was in fact a more original offering.

TCMA Thompson

The card bio includes some information about Thompson’s Negro Leagues resume as well as how he became a New York Giant.

“Thompson, who spent much of his playing career in the old Negro Leagues, got his first chance in the majors with the St. Louis Browns in 1947. But for some unknown reason the Browns let him slip away to the Giants two year later…”

The reality behind the “unknown” reason is that Thompson (along with teammate Willard Brown) was signed by St. Louis to a short-term deal whose extension would require additional payment to the Kansas City Monarchs who held his rights. While Thompson was one of the better players on the Browns, he was neither Jackie Robinson nor Babe Ruth. It goes without saying that a black player needed to be a lot better than  “better than average” to find a home on a Major League roster in 1947!

End notes

Either in conjunction with the Topps article or on its own, there was of course a “beating a dead horse” element to this post. We get it; we get it…the baseball cards back then did not regard the Negro Leagues as organized, professional, or even Baseball. While modern writers and historians do recognize the Negro Leagues as all three, the stubbornness of language is such that even today these terms and their meanings persist nearly unchanged. Until we change them.

Don’t think Trice, it’s alright (Part One)

It ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe
It don’t matter, anyhow
An’ it ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe
If you don’t know by now

Bob Dylan, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”

While researching for another article, I came across this 1954 Topps card of Athletics pitcher Bob Trice (SABR bio), the first black player in Athletics history and one of Major League Baseball’s earliest black pitchers. Two things about the card jumped out at me.

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First, check the cartoon. Does Topps really refer to the Homestead Grays, one of the great dynasties in Negro Leagues history, as a semi-pro team? Wow. Second, perhaps a corollary to the first, the bio area recognized 1950 as Trice’s first in pro ball even though his Negro Leagues career began with the Grays in 1948.

The question this brought forth was whether Topps applied a similar treatment to all former Negro Leaguers or just Trice. There was only one way to find out!

1951

Topps featured several Negro Leagues alumni in their three 1951 issues: Blue Backs (Jethroe), Red Backs (Easter, Thompson, Irvin), and Major League All-Stars (Doby).

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In all cases, biographical information was sparse and made no mention of their Negro Leagues roots, focusing instead on their Major League achievements.

“It ain’t no use in turnin’ on your light, babe
That light I never knowed
An’ it ain’t no use in turnin’ on your light, babe
I’m on the dark side of the road”

1952

The 1952 Topps set had more to say about the pre-MLB origins of its black players. In all cases, the story more or less matched the 1954 Bob Trice card.

Card 193 of Harry Simpson (SABR bio) refers to the Philadephia Stars “of semi-pro fame.”

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Card 243 of Larry Doby (SABR bio) similarly relegates the Newark Eagles to semi-pro status.

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Despite having pitched professionally for the Baltimore Elite Giants from 1943-1950, the back of Joe Black’s (SABR bio) card 321 sets Black’s first year in “organized baseball” as 1951.

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Finally, card 360 has George Crowe (SABR bio) entering organized baseball in 1949 despite his playing for the New York Black Yankees in 1947.

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The 1952 Topps set included numerous other former Negro Leaguers—Jackie Robinson among them—but their card bios made to reference to the Negro League tenures or professional debuts, instead focusing on their Major League or Minor League records.

1953

The 1953 Topps set seemed to acknowledge the immense impact of black players on the game by assigning cards 1, 2, and 3 in the set to former Negro Leaguers.

1953 Topps

Of all the cards in the set to feature black players—including the great Satchel Paige—only one made explicit reference to a player’s Negro Leagues past. Card 20 of Hank Thompson (SABR bio), a double barrier breaker who integrated both the St. Louis Browns and New York Giants, notes that he spent the 1948 season “playing in the Negro National League.”

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1954

Aside from the Bob Trice card, only one other card in the set referenced the Negro Leagues. It belonged to one of the three big rookie cards in the set, Ernie Banks, and identified the Negro National League and Kansas City Monarchs by name. An error, remedied the following season, is that the Monarchs actually belonged to the Negro American League while Banks played for them.

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Readers of my earlier Dave Hoskins post will remember his card’s all-too-real cartoon describing the resistance he faced integrating the Texas League.

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1955

Following the lead of his rookie card the year before, the 1955 Topps card of Mr. Cub included an explicit reference to the Negro Leagues, noting his .380 batting average in the Negro American League (correct this time!). The bio further indicates that Banks “never played a full season of organized baseball” before joining the Cubs. This is accurate since Banks played only partial seasons with the Kansas City Monarchs in 1950 and 1953 and was in the Army the two years in between. Still, based on what we’ve seen with earlier cards, it’s likely Topps would have made the same statement even if Banks had played full seasons with the Monarchs.

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The 1955 Topps card of Jim Gilliam (SABR bio) similarly includes the “Negro National League” in the bio portion.

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Another notable Negro Leagues alumnus in the 1955 Topps set is the Hammer. Though Aaron starred for the Indianapolis Clowns in 1951, Topps characteristically reports that Aaron got his start in “pro ball” in 1952 with Eau Claire.

Aaron with Josh Gibson trivia

However, the bio only tells half the story on Aaron’s card. Though contemporary research has cast doubt on the feat, one of the most famous stories from the Negro Leagues is the home run Josh Gibson hit completely out of Yankee Stadium. Given where Aaron was in his young career (i.e., nowhere near 715 home runs), it’s a rather remarkable coincidence that his card back brings together the three most legendary home run hitters in the history of American baseball: Babe Ruth, Josh Gibson, and Hank Aaron himself.

1973

I know I’ve skipped several years here, but the truth is that references to the Negro Leagues pretty much disappeared entirely from Topps cards after 1955. However, we may see evidence on a 1973 Expos manager card no less that the attitude of Topps toward the Negro Leagues had finally evolved.

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Now 1973 was hardly a random year in the history of the Negro Leagues. The National Baseball Hall of Fame had convened its Special Committee on the Negro Leagues in 1971, and there would be three Negro Leaguers (Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard) inducted by the time the 1973 Topps set was issued. Additionally, the death of Jackie Robinson in October 1972 may have also raised the profile of baseball’s early African American pioneers and their Negro Leagues origins.

So there is is, finally, under the description of coach Lawrence Eugene Doby. We see that he played 14 years in organized baseball (“O.B.”) and 13 years in the Majors. As Doby jumped straight from the Negro Leagues to the Majors, could it be that Topps was including some of Doby’s time in the Negro Leagues?

Not so fast! One of our Facebook group members, Wayne McElreavy speculated somewhat pessimistically that Topps was simply drawing on the Sporting News Baseball Register, which erroneously placed Larry Doby in the Pacific Coast League in 1960. Oh no! Could it really be?

And sure enough, the Cubs manager card from the same set tells us the answer. Take a look at the entry for Ernest Banks: “Played 19 years in O.B. 19 years in Majors.”

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Oh well.

“I ain’t sayin’ you treated me unkind
You could have done better but I don’t mind
You just kinda wasted my precious time
But don’t think twice, it’s all right”

Author’s note: My next piece will be a Part Two focused on how the other card makers addressed the Negro League heritage of its players. Stay tuned!

Baseball cards for the end of the world

“Everyone under your desks, now!” was the loud command from the front of the room. “Fully covered, arms and legs too! Heads down! Away from the windows!”

Gax didn’t mind. He knew it could have been real. He knew someday it might be real. On the walk home a plane passed overhead. A line of kids on the sidewalk ducked instinctively. Gax speed up his gait.

The Woolworth had some gum cards on the shelf. It would be fun to get a card of Roy Campanella or Jackie Robinson. One neighborhood kid said his friend got a Babe Ruth from a pack of Look ‘n See. Still, it felt more important to be prepared. Gax went with the plane cards instead.

“Friend or Foe?” Russian MiG-15? Definitely foe. It was 1952.

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“Take cover! Get down, under your desks! Away from the glass! Stay under until we hear the bell.” These drills were old hat by now, second nature for Gax and his schoolmates who had been doing them as long as they could remember. It was 1958.

Gax still slept with the light on just in case. It was hard to sleep knowing the world could end all of a sudden. Countless nights were spent flipping through the box of cards he kept tucked under the bed. A favorite was the Mick posing with Hank Aaron. They looked like friends in the picture. They were not. Foes. Definitely foes.

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The world was dangerous. Conflict was looming. The drills continued. It was 1959. Foes were everywhere, including among us.

1959

It was hard to imagine the world being any scarier. And then…

“Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. You’ll excuse the fact that I am out of breath, but about 10 or 15 minutes ago a tragic thing from all indications at this point has happened in the city of Dallas. Let me quote to you this…I’ll… you’ll excuse me if I am out of breath. A bulletin, this is from the United Press from Dallas: ‘President Kennedy and Governor John Connally have been cut down by assassins’ bullets in downtown Dallas. They were riding in an open automobile when the shots were fired.” — Jay Watson, WFAA-TV, Dallas

1963

And less than two months later…

“Consonant with the Constitution of the United States and the Charter of the United Nations and in accordance with its obligations under the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty, the United States is, therefore, prepared, as the President determines, to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force, to assist any member or protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty requesting assistance in defense of its freedom.” — Tonkin Gulf Resolution, January 7, 1964

1964

For better or worse Gax expected war. He had prepared for it. It was as if he’d been waiting for war his whole life. Gax had never heard of the places where he might get sent. He only knew that the foe was real, and the war was better there than here.

“There is little reason to believe that any level of conventional air or naval action, short of sustained and systematic bombing of the population centers will deprive the North Vietnamese of their willingness to continue to support their government’s efforts to upset and take over the government of South Vietnam.” — Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense, August 25, 1967, to United States Senate

As opposition to the war grew at home, there was an effort to step up our firepower abroad. Topps obliged.

1967

We knew the ending we wanted, but there were questions about whether that ending was possible or had ever been possible. For Gax’s family, just having him back home alive would have felt like a championship.

1967.2

My dad never collected baseball cards as a kid, but these were the years of his youth, 1952-1967. It was an America of sirens and “duck and cover” drills, an America of missile crises and military action, an America of assassination and division, and an America of kids who didn’t come home.

But it was also the Golden Age of Topps; of Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, and Willie Mays; and wax packs filled with gunners, bombers, belters, clubbers, and–most of all–foes.

The cards I collected growing up were different. Aside from a lone 1982 Donruss card, they spoke to bridging divides…

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…embracing our commonality…

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…finding brotherhood…

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…and seeking reconciliation. (Take that, Red Menace!)

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Like my dad, my son isn’t a collector. If he were, he might notice the cards of his era looked a lot like the ones from his grandpa’s. And the cards wouldn’t be the only things they had in common.

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“Everyone under your desks, now!” was the loud command from the front of the room. “Fully covered, arms and legs too! Heads down! Away from the windows!”

It’s 2019.

 

 

Death Comes For Active Baseball Players

Note: most of the information for this article was supplied by Baseball Research.com and the SABR Bio Project. The latter is noted (as well as other sources) for each specific use.

unglaub

On September 17, 1910, something terrible happened in Baltimore.

Former first baseman and manager Bob Unglaub of the Boston Americans was crushed in a railroad pit when he was struck by a locomotive.

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Seattle Pilots pitcher Miguel Fuentes was murdered by a man who thought Fuentes had been urinating on his car (he hadn’t) during the 1969 off-season in Puerto Rico.halman

Greg Halman of the Mariners died in 2011 of a stab wound over a dispute of music being played too loudly.

They all died while active players or managers. A different kind of Turk came for them, be they Hall of Famers like Roberto Clemente or cup-of-coffee guys like Herman Hill of the Twins.

One of my baseball card collector pals, Kevin Crane, told me his brother’s quirk was “collecting cards of guys who died during their playing careers. He’d line ‘em up on his window sill.”

This sent me down a fascinating and macabre rabbit hole.

Players fell off bridges, slashed their own throats, were shot chasing burglars, stabbed trying to break up bar fights, died of cancer, and by a variety of other means.

To date, there have been 98 players who passed away while still active.

  • 28 died in car crashes
  • 3 in boating accidents
  • 7 in plane crashes
  • 6 murdered
  • 10 of heart attacks
  • 6 drowned
  • 4 by suicide

The rest run the gamut: Phillies catcher Walt Lerian was hit by a runaway truck in 1929; Phils hurler Cy Blanton died of internal hemorrhages and cirrhosis in September of 1945; Woody Crowson of the A’s met his maker in 1947 due to a bus collision with a truck (he was the only person injured), and Otis Johnson of the NY Highlanders was shot in a hunting accident in 1915.

A number of players fell to the Reaper’s scythe by being born too early to benefit from advances in medical science, from Bright’s Disease (kidneys), smallpox, pneumonia, typhoid, influenza, tuberculosis, meningitis, and complications from malaria (1872-1918). Conversely, others died due to progress in industrial technology, perishing in plane and car accidents.

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Ken Hubbs’ 1964 Topps#550 was the first eulogy on the back of a baseball card.

 

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Youngsters got a double dose of death with the Topps 1964 set, as Houston’s Jim Umbricht’s card #389 attests.

 

ODD & DISTURBING DEATHS

  • Catcher Marty Bergen of the Boston Beaneaters had held a record of 38 passed balls in one season, 1898. Reports of mental problems surfaced, stating he was combative with teammates. In one of baseball’s most horrific stories, Bergen slit his throat in 1900, but not before murdering his wife and two children with an ax.

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  • Cubs pitcher Jeremi Gonzalez was struck by lightning in 2006 in Venezuela.

 

  • Len Koenecke was released by Brooklyn during a road trip. On the first leg of a flight home to New York, he got hammered, harassed passengers and belted a stewardess. American Airlines dumped him on a chair in a Detroit airport, where he chartered a small plane in the wee hours of the night. Once airborne, things went sideways, and Koenecke began harassing the pilot. The ballplayer supposedly was trying to get at the plane’s controls, and a life-or-death struggle ensued. The pilot and a friend who had joined him for the flight fought bitterly with the ball player and fended Koenecke off with a fire extinguisher. From all accounts, they caved in the outfielder’s head, and the pilot made a desperate landing on a racetrack in Toronto. (source: Studio GaryC.com)

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  • Perhaps as a precursor to Koenecke’s troubles as a passenger, Hall of Famer Ed Delahanty got into trouble as a train passenger. He was said to be drunk, brandishing a straight razor and threatening passengers. Delahanty was kicked off the train in Ontario near the International Bridge by Niagara Falls. Questions about whether he fell or jumped remain (accounts said he’d been yelling about death that night) and he was swept over the falls, dead at age 35.

 

  • Chris Hartje was a catcher with the Dodgers in 1939. He was sent to the minors, and while on a bus with the Spokane team traveling at dusk in drizzling rain, the driver veered to avoid an approaching car and smashed through the guardrail. The bus caught fire as it fell 350 feet down a rocky mountainside. Eight players died instantly, and Hartje sustained burns that would take his life two days later. The accident is considered one of the worst in sports history.

 

  • Reds catcher Willard Hershberger sliced his jugular vein in the shower at the team hotel. He was a child of suicide, as his father had shot himself with a shotgun. Hershberger backed up Ernie Lombardi in 1940 and was forced into action amid a pennant race when Lombardi was injured. Hershberger battled lingering depression from his father’s death and would blame himself for losing a game July 31. A few days later he became the only big leaguer to end his career by committing suicide during the season. In a bitter twist of fate, the Reds would go on to capture the flag and a world championship that season.

 

  • Another Reds backup catcher, Gus Sandberg, died from burns he suffered when his car’s gas tank blew up while he was trying to siphon gasoline in 1924.

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  • Tony Boeckel, a third baseman for the Boston Braves, was involved in a collision with a truck. After leaving his vehicle, he was hit by a passing car and died the next day. He was the first active major leaguer to die in a car accident (1924).

 

While 7 Major Leaguers lost their lives in plane crashes, Senators pitcher Marv Goodwin was the first, 22 years after the Wright brothers’ first flight, in 1925.

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Perhaps the best nickname of active players to perish was “Pickles” Dillhoefer, a catcher for the Cardinals who died of typhoid fever a few weeks after his wedding in 1922.

 

Red Sox pitcher George Craig discovered a burglar in his hotel room in 1911 and chased him down the hall. The perp produced a handgun and blasted Craig in the stomach. He died 40 hours later, but not before he gave info to the cops, who were never able to find the assailant.

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HoFer Addie Joss died at age 30 when he contracted tubercular meningitis. His first baseball card was a 1903 E107 Breisch Williams.

 

SUICIDES & MURDER MYSTERIES

NY Giants Pitcher Dan McGann had a tortured family history: “in 1909, one of his brothers had taken his own life. The previous New Year’s Eve, another brother had died due to an infection resulting from an accidental shooting. McGann’s sister committed suicide in 1890 following the death of their mother.” His death was by a bullet to the chest. The coroner ruled his death by suicide, but his sisters believed he’d been murdered. An expensive piece of jewelry was missing, but a diamond pin, $37 in cash and other valuables were still on his body. (info via SABR Bio by Don Jensen).

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Chick Stahl was one of the best outfielders of his day (1897-1906) who also suffered from depression. He briefly managed the Boston team in 1906 on an interim basis. His player-managership did not go well (5-13), and he resigned. Chick was asked to stay on until a successor could be found. The night before an exhibition game, he drank a glass of carbolic acid, a medication used to treat a sore on his foot. Fifteen minutes later, he was dead. The suicide puzzled many, as he was a very popular player, recently married, and relieved to shrug off the yoke of managing to concentrate on playing.

On February 28, 1894, pitcher Edgar McNabb met a woman in a hotel room. An argument arose, and McNabb shot her. He then turned the gun on himself.

Finally, catcher Frank Ringo became baseball’s first suicide in 1898, when he died of a morphine overdose. He was reported to enjoy “the sauce,” and Sporting Life noted he was “a good, hard-hitting catcher.”

 

THE COST OF DRINK

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Pete Dowling pitched for the Milwaukee Brewers and had a taste for “the creature.” Connie Mack, who’d signed Dowling, dropped him from the team for disciplinary reasons. Dowling had previously had troubles with drinking too much. He’d also been a bit of a local hero in Sacramento, where he saved three men from drowning. On the night of June 30, 1905, he missed the train to take him to a game in La Grande, Oregon. While walking along the tracks, he was struck by a train. He was killed instantly, and the impact severed his head. In his passing Dowling’s former manager John McCloskey said, “when he was sober, there wasn’t a more decent chap.” (SABR Bio by John F. Green)

The wrong sort of drink took another player down. Utilityman Tom O’Brien of the Giants and Pirates was told to drink seawater on a voyage to Cuba for a series of exhibition games. It was supposed to be a remedy that would cure sea-sickness. He and teammate Kid Gleason became violently ill, but O’Brien did not recover. He was dead at age 28 from bad advice.

 

LAST LICKS & ANALYSIS

Pitcher Cliff Young died in a car crash in 1993, becoming the third Cleveland Indian to die in an accident in the same year.

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Pirates pitcher Bob Moose also perished in a car accident, which occurred on his 29th birthday in 1976.

On March 3, 1932, Red Sox pitcher “Big Ed” Morris (a noted boozer) got stabbed twice at a fish fry/peanut boil in his honor. The assailant was a gas station operator. The cause for the confrontation ranged from Morris urinating in the community pot of boiled peanuts to Morris making a pass at the station man’s wife. Accounts vary from Morris as instigator to innocent bystander. (info from SABR BIO by Rick Swaine)

 Outside of the US, (4) players died in or on their way to Venezuela, in the Dominican Republic (4), and Puerto Rico (3).

 A player died every 20 years of drowning, from 1872-1979.

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Luis Valbuena and Jose Castillo died in the same auto accident December 6, 2018.

Automobile deaths spiked/doubled from 2000-2018, with 10.

More than 20 players died in 2000-2018 and 1920-1939, respectively.

1960-1979 was the worst 20 years for plane crashes with (4). All were private aircraft, with three being small or light planes.

When considering accidents as cause of death, 49, or half of all of the fatalities were chalked up to human error. Alcohol surfaced as a common denominator in many accidents and murders.

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Cory Lidle and his instructor died when their plane crashed into an NYC apartment building on October 11, 2006. A gusty wind blew their aircraft into the structure during a 180-degree turn.

A striking statistic showed that PITCHERS accounted for almost HALF (48 or 98) of those who perished while active. Moundsmen’s deaths accounted for more than two times of other position players.

Perhaps the saddest stories were those of rookies like the Cardinals’ Charley Peete, cut down before they could share their talents with the world.

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Barajitas estadounidenses: Bowman International

My seventh post featuring Spanish-language baseball cards released in the United States. Previous posts are:

  1. Introduction and 1978 Topps Zest
  2. 1993–2000 Pacific and Pacific Crown
  3. Other assorted Pacific cards and oddballs
  4. 1991 Kellogg’s Leyendas
  5. 1994 Topps and beyond
  6. Donruss Super Estrellas

I have to be honest, I thought I was done with these posts unless someone were to create a new Spanish Language set. But the wonderful thing about this hobby is that there’s always, always, more to discover. Which means I was quite pleased to learn that 1998 and 1999 Bowman International not only highlighted where a player was from but also included localized backs.

These aren’t one-off parallels but rather a complete set which includes a number of Spanish-language backs—including for players from Puerto Rico who are technically not international players. I haven’t gone on a deep dive looking at the Spanish language text on multiple cards and the stats on these are pretty thin (although Cuadrangulares, Carreras Impulsadas, and Promedio suggest that things are translated fully rather than using the more Spanglish terms like Jonron). Oh, and the #PonleAcento action on González is always nice to see too.

What did jump out at me is that height and weight are in meters and kilograms instead of feet and pounds. None of the previous cards I’ve featured in this series have made this translation but it makes sense here since this set is less about being aimed at the Spanish-speaking market in the United States and more about presenting international backs.

Which means that the set contains cards in other languages too. While at first I was interested in only the Spanish-language cards, I couldn’t help myself and began searching for other languages.

Japanese was the obvious next language to look for and I was pleased to find many on the checklist. I’m not going to comment at all on the language usage anymore since I can’t read them but I do have to highlight how Topps changed the units on the Kanji cards from meters to centimeters.

Also, using a non-Roman font is an impressive commitment for just a few cards in a set. Graceful language switching is something that really only became common with MacOSX and Opentype fonts which could contain a full complement of unicode characters. Neither of these were around in the late 1990s.

Designwise though I’m a bit sad that Yoshii’s Kanji signature is printed sideways.  Yes I know this is how he signed his Topps contract. But given that vertical space I’d like to think he’d’ve wanted the characters to be stacked vertically instead.

Skipping around since there’s no reason to provide exemplars for every language for every year. We also have Korean cards. In the 1999 design, even the name on the front is localized so you have to recognize Jung Bong’s photo or signature.

I’ve really nothing more to add here on top of what I said about Japanese except to note that I find Hangul to be one of the most brilliant things humanity has ever invented and it’s fun to have a US card which features it.

The Ntema Ndungidi card though is fantastic. There are so many good things going on with it. Topps didn’t go with the colonial language and print this in French. Nor did it select the obvious “name an ‘African’ language” choice and go with Swahili. Instead we’ve got something that stumps Google Translate but which appears to be some kind of Bantu—probably Lingala. I love it.

I also love how Topps typeset his height to be “1,85m” and replaced the decimal point with a comma. Topps also did this in the text where it mentions his batting average but didn’t do it in the statistics.

Another point of interest here is that Ndungidi was born in Zaire—a country which no longer existed in 1999 when this card was printed.* Topps still marked his origin as Zaire on the card front and on the back his birth information says “Ex Zaire (R.D. Congo).”**

*Quick quick history. Zaire ceased to exist in 1997 when the Rawandan war spilled into Zaire and the resulting Congo war forced Mobutu Sese Seko into exile and installed Laurent-Désiré Kabila as the new president.

**Note, his regular Bowman card just says Zaire and appears to be completely unaware that that was out of date.

I’m still looking through the checklists to see if there are any other languages I’m missing. I thought Sidney Ponson would be in Dutch but Topps used English for Aruba. Sadly, none of the Canadian players appear to get French cards nor are their vitals in metric units. Nor does Benny Agbayani’s card feature Pidgin or Hawaiian. But I’m plenty happy with what I’ve found and this was a nice way to expand on the Spanish-language posts I’ve been making on here.