Dead Imitates Art: The Cultural Imagery of Fernando Valenzuela and his 1984 Topps Card

A number of years ago, my father gave me an 8”x 10” painting of Fernando Valenzuela’s 1984 Topps card.  The subject of the painting, however, was depicted as a calavera, a Mexican iconography image celebrating Dia de los Muertos, playing for the “Deaders.”  At the time he presented me with the painting, I was thrilled, of course, but also overwhelmed with other things going on around me.  I placed the painting on one of my shelves housing numerous baseball books and artifacts, and never paid much attention to it over the years.

Recently, among my random baseball card buying sprees, I came across the ’84 Fernando card and remembered, “Oh yeah, the painting.”  So, I went back to the piece and really started to look at it in a new light.  I found a new appreciation for the work not only in the sentiment that this was a gift from my father, who would pass away two years later, but in thinking about the painting as a reflection of my own culture and its place in the history of Chicano pop culture.

What we find is the intersectionality of baseball as art in the form of a baseball card, and the traditional and celebratory imagery of one of the greatest baseball heroes in the Mexican and Chicano community.

In Mexican culture, “calaveras” or skeletons, are ubiquitously depicted in “Dia de los Muertos” or Day of the Dead celebrations, in usually fun and happy scenes.  Dia de los Muertos, celebrated on November 2nd, is a time when we remember our friends and family who has passed on.  We build little altars, and make bits of food and desserts as an offering.  It’s a sacred time in our communities.  Calavera scenes in art portray normal life and everyday activities, just in skeleton form.  It might seem weird, but it’s home to me.

By the time the 1984 season rolled around, Fernando was having a pretty good start to his career.  He was 49-30 with an ERA of 2.55 in 97 starts over three years as a pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers.  No one had ever quite seen a pitcher like Valenzuela before.  He was a baby-faced, pudgy kid with a wide smile, who could light up a room and galvanize a community.  As he looked to the heavens before releasing a killer screwball or a commanding curveball you wondered how in the hell he did that.  He just did.  He was Fernando!

In 1981, his first full season, the 20-year-old led the National League in games pitched (25), complete games (11), innings pitched (192.1) and strikeouts (180).  Remarkably, he won Rookie of the Year, the Cy Young Award, the Silver Slugger Award (.250 batting average with 16 hits), and was 5th in MVP voting.  Not to mention, he was an All-Star.  Over the next two years, the Mexican native’s star would continue to rise, as did his popularity.

For kids and families in East Los Angeles, Fernando had reached cult hero status.  There was an incredible sense of pride when he pitched.  It was as if he was pitching on behalf of all Mexicanos and Chicanos in southern California!  That affinity translated into repeated sold out crowds when Valenzuela took the mound at Dodger Stadium in those years.  As with most cult heroes, we must find a way to uniquely capture their essence in a visual medium.  Among the shops on Brooklyn Avenue and Whittier Boulevard in the barrio, Valenzuela’s image was everywhere!  This was pride.  Pride in him, pride in our community, and pride in the Dodgers.

Years later, the calavera representation of one of my baseball heroes came into my possession, thanks to my dad who knew what it would mean to me.  I honor his memory, and the painting created by Joaquin Newman, here in these words.  I hope to continue this discussion in a presentation at SABR47.  Mr. Newman has created similar works with several other ballplayers that I will also showcase this summer.

 

“Chico” means little boy, not ballplayer!

Several days ago I received, much to my surprise, a package in the mail from a good friend and fellow baseball aficionado, a number of Topps baseball cards.  They were all Latino players – my favorites – ranging from 1957 to 1967.  Of the 39 cards, I made note of one specific thing that always bothered me about Latino players of the era.  Or rather, something about them.

A number of the ballplayers sported the nickname “Chico.”   I always hated that.  Not that anyone ever called me “Chico.”  Maybe pain-in-the-ass, but never Chico.  When I was a kid, NBC’s “Chico and the Man” was pretty popular.  Freddie Prinze’s character, “Chico,” was a grown man.  He was a New York Puerto Rican portraying a Chicano in East LA, and that bothered me, too.

At any rate, the set I was so generously gifted, here’s what I found (real name and country of birth is included):

1957 Chico Carrasquel           Alfonso (Venezuela)

1959 Chico Fernández            Humberto (Cuba)

1967 Chico Salmon                 Ruthford (Panama)

1967 Chico Ruiz                      Giraldo (Cuba)

In doing a quick search, I found that of all the ballplayers, there were 10 with the name, “Chico.”  Aside from the four listed above, there was Chico Walker, who played a number of years with the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs, in the 1980s and 1990s as an outfielder and third baseman.  Curiously, he was born in Mississippi as Cleotha Walker.  Somewhere along the way, he picked up “Chico” as a nickname.  I’m sure there’s a story there.

Chico Escarrega, born Ernesto, in Mexico, played a solo year with the Chicago White Sox as pitcher, going 1-3 and one save with an ERA of 3.67 over 38 games.  Cuban Chico Hernández, who was born as Salvador, played a couple of seasons with the Cubs during World War II, as a catcher playing 90 games over the 1942 and 1943 seasons.  His career in organized baseball was pretty unremarkable.

Chico García, a Mexican born Vinicio, played for only 39 games as a second baseman for the Baltimore Orioles during the 1954 season.  He had been drafted by the Orioles from Shreveport, in the 1953 rule 5 draft, according to baseball-reference.com.  By the end of that season, he was traded to the Brooklyn Dodgers, but appears to have left organized baseball.

 

Another Chico Fernández played during the 1968 season for the Orioles.  Cuban Lorenzo Fernandez was an infielder, playing both shortstop and second base for a measly 11 games. He appears to have spotty record, being signed by the Detroit Tigers in 1958, then sent to the Milwaukee Braves in 1962, then back to the Tigers in 1963, and then the White Sox several months later.  Prior to the start of the 1968 season, Fernandez was sent from the Southsiders to the Orioles.  The Atlanta Braves fielded another Chico Ruiz, this one born, Manuel Ruiz, was born in Puerto Rico, and played a couple of seasons (1978 and 1980) playing second base, shortstop and third base for a total of 43 games with a .292 batting average.

For whatever reason, these players allowed themselves to be denigrated by the term, “Chico.”  From my perspective, this rings as a means to keep Latino ballplayers in their place, by calling them “boy,” it minimizes their contributions and takes away from their given name, mocking their ethnicity along the way.

Speaking of which, you can’t utter “Chico” without thinking about the character, “Chico Escuela” played by Garrett Morris in NBC’s ‘Saturday Night Live’ in the mid-1970s.  While this is a parody of the perception of Latino players of the era, the character, as Adrian Burgos, Jr. points out in Playing America’s Game: Baseball, Latinos and the Color Line (2007), “made comedic fodder of Latinos in the midst of as new wave of Latino players breaking into the major leagues.” Escuela’s catchphrase: “baysbol has been bery, bery good to me” has endured over the decades.  Even repeated by Dominican Chicago Cubs slugger, Sammy Sosa during his hey-day.

I’m glad that there are no Latino players going by the name of “Chico.”  Though, the era of baseball nicknames has seemed to have gone by the wayside, anyway.  And, for the past few days I’ve sorted through my new stack of baseball cards, looking at the photos, flipping through the tidbits of information on back, thinking about the friend who was kind enough to send these things my way.  ¡Mil gracias!

Latino Commons in a 1965 Topps Card Lot

The Topps 1965 series was a 598-card set, featuring the team logo within a pennant.  The 2 ½ by 3 ½ inch cards included rookies such as Joe Morgan, Steve Carlton, Jim Hunter and Tony Perez.  I would later become more interested in a group of cards that would lead to a presentation at the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR)’s 46th annual convention in Miami, Fla.

As I tell the story, I attribute the interest in the 1965 cards not only because it was the year of my birth, but also I offer thanks to fellow SABR chapter member, Mark Armour, who wrote a great series on Topps cards for a baseball blog.  At the time, I had only been collecting cards from 1970 to 1990.  As a kid, I starting collecting cards around 1973, throwing them into a box, where I was spent time sorting them first by team, in alphabetical order, then later by card number.  And then, maybe sort them once again by team.  Alas, like many a lad, my precious pieces of cardboard would fall victim to a mother’s cleaning and obtuse unawareness for her child’s treasures.  And like that, they were gone.

Later as an adult with some disposal income, I could reach back into my childhood, and begin my favorite passion, collecting the baseball cards I had lost.  I don’t know how else to explain it, but it was if I had found old friends, and enjoyed the time of catching up.  I think 1970 seemed like a good time to start my re-collecting.  But, along comes Mark and his fancy nostalgia for cards in the 1960s.  I looked again at the 1965 set, and thought they looked fun, and decided to start there.

On eBay, I found a 1965 medium grade 23-card lot for $30.  A week later, I made a pleasant discovery that out of the 23 cards, six of them were Latino players.  I am a Latino baseball enthusiast, so the find was awesome.  From there, I started wondering about these guys.  They weren’t the Latino superstars, just “common”, in the baseball card vernacular.

They were: Phil Ortega (pitcher, Washington Senators); José Santiago (pitcher, Kansas City Athletics); Juan Pizarro (pitcher, Chicago White Sox); Vic Davalillo (outfielder, Cleveland Indians); Camilo Carreón (catcher, Cleveland Indians); and Héctor Valle (catcher, Los Angeles Dodgers).  The cards were in decent shape: no bad creases, no rounded edges, and the photos still relatively sharp.  Overall, I was happy with the purchase, but still…who were these guys, and what impact did they have on their teams?

I think out of the six, I was most familiar with Davalillo and his days with the Dodgers in the 1970s.  I have his 1978 Topps card.  In researching their 1965 contributions, the most remarkable thing you can say is that their year was pretty unremarkable.  Save for Davalillo, that is, who had an All-Star year with a batting average of .301 over 142 games, collecting 152 hits along the way.

He was also one of eight Latinos playing the 1965 All-Star Game held in Minneapolis, where San Francisco Giants pitcher Juan Marichal was the MVP.  Marichal would go on to have a more eventful summer.

In flipping through these cards, you realize that in blindly buying a lot online, the cards are not always going to be Latino superstars, and that’s okay.  I think the common Latino player is just as interesting with his own story to tell.  Those guys deserve our attention as well, and I am going to enjoy collecting their cards just as much.

Hispanic Heroes: A Seattle Mariners promo card set

In 2005, the Seattle Mariners gave out a nine-card set featuring their Latino players as part of their annual “Salute to Hispanic Béisbol”.

The cards featured an action shot on the front with the player’s name and position listed in Spanish.  Cool, right?  The flip side showed a smaller player photo with bilingual information and the player’s home country’s flag.

When the set was released in mid-September 2005 commemorating Hispanic Heritage Month, I joked with the Mariners marketing manager about the Cuban and Puerto Rican flags.  You will note that the Cuban flag includes blue and white stripes with a white star in a triangular red field, while the Puerto Rican flag includes red and white strips with a white star in a triangular blue field.  I smiled and told him he got right.  He smiled back with a sigh of relief!

While the Mariners, of course, have given away cards sets in the past, this was the very first time that they released a set in Spanish featuring their Latino players.  A cultured observer, however, will note that two of the nine cards include the player’s last name correctly spelled with an “ñ”, while several of the cards are missing accent marks.  The set includes:

PLAYER POSICIÓN HOME COUNTRY
Adrián Beltré tercera base Dominican Republic
Yuniesky Betancourt campocorto Cuba
Eddie Guardado lanzador zurdo USA
Félix Hernández lanzador derecho Venezuela
Raúl Ibañez jardin izquierdo USA
José López segunda base Venezuela
José Mateo lanzador derecho Dominican Republic
Joel Piñeiro lanzador derecho Puerto Rico
Yorvit Torrealba receptor Venezuela

I’m hoping that the team will look to release a new bilingual set September 2017.  Felix would be the sole member left from that 2005 squad.

The 1967-68 Player Boycott of Topps

I have written about this subject before, but have not done so here. This remains an area of study for me, and hopefully this post will catch some of you up.

From 1956 to 1980 Topps had a virtual monopoly in the baseball card world. There were exceptions along the way, mainly small specialty or regional sets, but for a quarter century the Topps base set dominated the field.

Topps maintained its monopoly by signing players when they were still in the low minors. They gave prospects five dollars as a binder to lock in exclusive baseball card rights for five years. Topps renewed these binders regularly and then paid players $125 per year if they were used on a card or if they appeared in the big leagues for 31 days. Topps even provided the players with a catalog of items they could choose from in lieu of the cash, like a set of luggage or a television. Topps continually renewed players prior to the expiration of their deals, keeping almost everyone in the fold.

In early 1966 the MLBPA hired Marvin Miller, an economist from United Steelworkers, as their first executive director. Over the next several years, Miller and the players engaged in true collective bargaining, earning increased benefits, larger salaries, an impartial grievance procedure, and, ultimately, limited free agency. What has been mostly lost to history is the role that baseball cards played to solidify the union.

In September 1966, the MLBPA created a group-licensing program—allowing companies to make deals to use any or all players’ names and pictures to sell their products. The union soon had very important and beneficial deals with Coca-Cola and others, but the contract that Miller most wanted remained elusive. Topps had binding agreements with virtually every player in professional baseball, making a group license seemingly impossible.

The player deals seemed inadequate to Miller, who set up a meeting with Topps, whose president, Joel Shorin, told him: “There will be no changes because, honestly, I don’t see the muscle in your position.” This response did not surprise Miller – he knew that he was not going to get a better deal from Topps by appealing to Shorin’s sense of fairness. That is not how labor battles were won. He needed muscle.

In early 1967 Miller suggested to the players that they stop renewing their individual Topps contracts and boycott Topps photographers. This was the only way, Miller advised, that they could get Topps to deal with them. Although the action was voluntary, Topps was able to take no more than a handful of photos during the 1967 season, and, with the dispute unresolved, none at all in 1968. This had an effect on the 1968 Topps set, which was not able to show as many properly attired photos as usual, and a much more dramatic effect on the 1969 set.

Let’s start with 1968.

Most Topps photographs in this era were taken either at spring training, or at one of the New York ballparks during the season, and almost always during the previous calendar year. For their 1968 set, Topps would want photos of the player taken sometime in 1967, in the uniform of their current (1968) team. Topps faced a challenge when a player was traded during the season, as a look at the 1968 Red Sox cards can illustrate.

The Red Sox acquired Elston Howard from the Yankees on August 3, 1967. In order to get a photo of Howard in his new uniform for his 1968 card, Topps sent a photographer to Fenway Park in late August (note the home uniform). Norm Siebern, acquired on July 15, was likely shot the same day.

On the other hand, Gary Bell and Jerry Adair joined the club in June 1967 but Topps used older photos of them in 1968 — both wearing uniforms from previous teams and photographed without a hat (the usual Topps trick in these situations). Why didn’t Topps take these photos in August when they got Howard and Siebern? A plausible explanation is that Bell and Adair were observing the boycott while Siebern and Howard were not. We can’t know for certain — maybe the players were in the bathroom at the time — but we know that by August Topps was having trouble getting players to pose.

More problematically than using an old photo was having no photo at all. Sparky Lyle made his big league debut for the Red Sox on July 4, 1967, and pitched in 27 games for the club in the pennant race. But Topps did not photograph Lyle either, so he did not get his first card with Topps until 1969.

Another interesting artifact of the 1968 Topps set is that the company made “team cards” for only 13 of the 20 teams. If you were a set collector, at some point you would have noticed that the team card you were waiting all summer for, the Red Sox for example, did not exist.

By the spring of 1968 the boycott was universally observed, and there is no evidence that any photos were taken that year. Topps and the MLBPA reached an agreement in November 1968, but Topps still had to put out a 1969 set without having any photos from the previous 18 months.

Making things even worse, Topps had to deal with four new expansion teams (whose players would appear hatless), the Oakland A’s (whose move from Kansas City caused them to be hatless), and the Houston Astros (who were hatless because of a logo dispute). That covers 6 teams, or 1/4 of the players.

Topps skipped the team cards, a staple since 1956, altogether.

If that weren’t enough, Topps used old photos, many of them recycled from previous years. Tom Seaver, Joe Morgan, Hank Aaron, well over 100 in all, used identical images from 1968.

In some cases Topps recropped the image, as they did with Carl Yastrzemski and Ernie Banks. Willie Mays used a recropping of his 1966 card.

On one occasion Topps (presumably accidentally) flipped a negative, confusing school kids everywhere.

(More details from David Sosidka here.)

The Reggie Jackson card, his very first Topps card, stands out because it presumably was taken during the boycott — the A’s moved to Oakland in 1968 and Reggie is shown in an Oakland uniform. I recently learned from Keith Olbermann that Topps purchased this photo, and a few others, from another photographer.

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The Johnny Bench card, his first all to himself, used a photo from a few years earlier. Many Topps photos — Reggie Smith is another example — show much younger versions of their subjects.

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In November 1968 Topps caved, agreeing to double its annual player stipend (to $250 per year) and to pay a royalty to the MLBPA of 8 percent on revenue up to $4 million, and 10 percent thereafter. In the first year of this deal the Association collected $320,000 from their Topps license, which came out to $500 per player on top of their individual deals. By the early 1980s, the union collected more than 10 times that from the licensing of baseball cards.

One could say that this was the first time the fledgling union used their collective power to effect change. “It was important on two levels,” said Jim Bouton. “One, it showed how powerful Marvin Miller was and how smart he was. It gave him instant credibility. But also, the player’s association became immediately self-funding.” Today’s licensing program, rebranded as Player’s Choice, nets tens of thousands of dollars per player annually, and funds charitable acts all around the globe.

As for the kids of America, in 1969 they were mainly annoyed, or at least confused. I loved the designs for both of these sets, but would have preferred fresh images of my heroes in those very formative (for me) seasons.

In 1969 Topps hustled to spring training sites and took lots of photos of cooperative players, and got many of these into their late series cards that very summer. By July of 1969, we got to feast our eyes on gorgeous cards of players wearing the uniforms of the four expansion teams, as well as the A’s and Astros.

In 1970, Topps showed off some of its best-ever photography. And kids everywhere turned away from their paths toward delinquency.

Death & Baseball Cards

The year was 1964. I was six years old.

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

hubbsfront“In Memoriam — Ken Hubbs”.

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

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

And there was more death on the way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Footnotes:

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

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