“Skipped Parts”

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A couple of years ago I was watching the 1966 movie “Penelope,” starring (peak) Natalie Wood, when I came upon a brief scene in which Wood casually opens a pack of 1966 baseball cards. Here, read this.

One of the best minutes in movie history.

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So last night I watched the 2000 film “Skipped Parts,” with an ensemble cast led by Jennifer Jason Leigh. Its kind of a coming-of-age story, set in 1963, in which Leigh plays the unwed mother of a 14-year-old boy. Leigh’s father is a wealthy citizen considering a run for governor in some unnamed southern state, who exiles his daughter and grandson to a house in Wyoming so that they don’t embarrass him during his campaign. Leigh is a bit “wild”, even with a son. She also has never worked a day in her life, so she pretty much has to do whatever her father says.

65962There is a scene near the start of the film where grand-dad summons the boy into a room and makes him toss a stack of baseball cards into a raging fire. Something about “setting aside all childish things.” Prior to the summons, we see the kid (who knows what is coming) palm a 1958 Don Drysdale and slip it into his back pocket. When he tosses in the stack, we see (with a bit of freeze framing, several rewinds, and several minutes of Google image searches) that the top card is a 1962 Felix Mantilla, and below that is a 1961 Alvin Dark managers card. For the rest of the stack we can just see the backs in the fire, and they include a 1961 Willie Mays. The cards looked to be in good shape, though deteriorating by the second.

All of this is soon forgotten, and lots of interesting stuff happens for the next 90 minutes. It is sort of a proto-Juno, except the teenagers (Bug Hall and Mischa Barton) are 14, rather than the 17-18 year olds in the later film.

In the final scene, which takes place a year or so later, the boy is sitting on the front porch of the Wyoming house, next to (SPOILER) a baby in a bassinet. Above the baby is a mobile constructed out of baseball cards. (How did I not have one of those, or make one for my kids?)

54f5c4680cdc4_66095nThese are also 1961 and 1962 cards. I can make out a 1962 George Alusik (took me a while to figure this out, as the cards were literally spinning in a light breeze), a 1961 Gary Geiger (I think), and, still surviving, the 1958 Drysdale.

The movie was made in 2000, and the cards were obviously meant as a period device. We never saw the kid actually do anything with his cards other than near the start when he has a stack on the table that grandpa makes him destroy. I appreciate that the movie makers made the effort to get the correct vintage, even though very few people likely took the time to notice.

I am likely going to buy this DVD so that I can make clips out of these two scenes to add to my “collection.”

Oh, and the movie’s not bad. (I had no idea about the cards when choosing it.) Its not Casablanca, but the characters are interesting and Leigh, typically brilliant, is worth a couple of stars just by herself.

Please let me know if you run across any other baseball card scenes in movies, or if you have any insight into this one.

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Orlando Cepeda Made Me a Criminal

Does one crime make you a criminal? Does a momentary act of desperation make you a bad person?

There’s the literary case of Jean Valjean, stealing bread to feed his sister’s children. The theft marked him for life, first with imprisonment, then with non-stop running from the grasp of the relentless Javert. A lifetime of suffering for satisfying an urgent need.

If you’ve ever tried to complete a set from packs, you know how horrible it feels as you get towards the end. Pack after pack, dollar after dollar, wading through card after card looking for that final one. In 1973, I was Valjean and Orlando Cepeda was my full loaf.

I needed a few cards to finish my set, the first set I’d assembled only from packs. I know I needed Dave Lemonds, probably a couple of others from the dreaded last series, but, really, the now rare high numbered cards were plentiful and available. (Not like the third series of 1972 Topps football, which I don’t think ever made it to Suffolk County. If they had, I would have bought them and I don’t have any!).

Orlando Cepeda was impossible to find. Orland friggin’ Cepeda, on the final leg of his career, was more sought after by an almost 11-year old kid than he was by any big league team when his card was made. By the end of ’73, when the last series emerged, “The Baby Bull” was finishing up a big comeback season as a Red Sox DH in Year One of the experiment. His Topps card though had him as an Oakland A. Did I know that yet? No.1973toppsbox

I bought pack after pack, scouring the front of cello packs – the one and three window varieties – looking at the fronts and backs in a mad search for “Cha Cha.” No luck.

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Living in Lake Grove in the early 1970’s was interesting for a boy from Brooklyn. It felt like the 1950’s still, except for the Smith Haven Mall. The mall was uber modern, very exciting in its own way. Less exciting was McCrory’s, a pretty nondescript budget department store, but McCrory’s had cards and I bought a lot of them there. Near the candy section was a three-tiered rotating wire rack of dangling three-pack cellos. On yet another trip to kill suburban time, I headed to the mall with a friend to hang out and stopped to continue my card quest.

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Spinning, spinning, top section, second section, third section, nothing – wait! Spinning in reverse to focus my eyes on what I’d seen and missed in my first go around, there he was! Cepeda, right in the front, right in the middle.

“What if I want it more than the person who has it?” Rocket Raccoon was still a few years from his debut but he summed up my situation best. I wanted, I needed, that card. I can’t remember if I had any money on me, probably not, because if I had I wouldn’t have stolen it.

I’d never stolen anything before, and didn’t quite know how it worked. I positioned my friend in front of me as I got to work. Now I didn’t take the whole three-pack, which would have been easier. Why? Because I didn’t need the three-pack, I needed the middle pack. See, I wasn’t really a thief, because I only was going to take what I needed. I tore the bottom pack off, tossed it under the display, and tore off the middle and skedaddled. Fast.

Whenever I see that Cepeda card I cringe a bit.  I have a few now, even one listed on eBay, but it’s not that one. That one is safely tucked between Von Joshua and Jim York in my set. Still, it hurts a little to know what I did, and confession is good for the soul, but only slightly. The 1973 Topps Orlando Cepeda card, number 545, is my bread and my conscience is my Javert.

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More bunting, please

“Boys, bunting is like ******* ***. Once you learn how, you never forget.” Joe Schultz from Ball Four (Since this is a “PG” forum, you can look up the missing words.)

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All too frequently baseball broadcasters will comment on “modern” players’ inability to bunt. Supposedly, every player used to spend hours “catching” the ball with the bat and placing perfect bunts at will. The exact time players stopped trying to perfect their bunting technique is never articulated; however, it had to be after Brett Butler retired since his name is synonymous with the art of bunting.

Of course much has been written about the lack of correlation between bunting and run production. Earl Weaver, the Orioles Hall-of-Fame manager, recognized the folly of excessive bunting prior to advanced metrics and famously eschewed the bunt in favor of the three-run homer. Dan Levitt presents a good case against frequent bunting in this analysis: http://baseballanalysts.com/archives/2006/07/empirical_analy_1.php

No matter what side you come down on in the bunt debate, it is true that teams did bunt more frequently in the past. All this bunting “back in the day” is reflected in the numerous “bunting cards” found in the ‘60s and ’70s. The bunter pose was usually reserved for light hitting, middle infielders with slight builds or Whippet like outfielders. These frail but speedy types could “lay down” a sacrifice bunt or “drag” one for a single in their sleep. They constantly put the opposition on guard for a “safety” or “suicide squeeze.” Occasionally, a slugger would strike the pose as well. Now, let’s look toward the third base coach, get the “sign” and “roll one down” memory lane.

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The weak hitting “poster child” for the bunting pose has to be Ray Oyler. His inability to hit Major League pitching is legendary; best exemplified by his benching in the ’68 World Series to get Kaline’s bat in the lineup. His lifetime average of .175 and a .258 OBP confirms his “weak wand.” Ray peaked with 15 sacrifice bunts in ‘67. My unhealthy obsession with the Seattle Pilots compels me to mention that Ray was the opening day shortstop in ’69.

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Being a big Orioles fan in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s explains why the ’70 Paul Blair is my favorite bunter pose card. The Gold Glove centerfielder hit second and frequently used his speed to get on base which allowed the Robinson boys and Boog Powell to “knock him in.” He led the AL in sacrifice bunts in ‘69 and had a career best 17 in ’75.

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Giraldo “Chico” Ruiz assumed the bunting stance in both ’68 and ’71. He was a speedy utility infielder who posted 12 sacrifice bunts in ’64 with the Reds. Ruiz is remembered for an infamous incident where he allegedly pulled a gun on Alex Johnson in the Angels clubhouse in 1971.

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Ruiz’s ’68 teammate, Leo “Chico” Cardenas, had an almost identical photo. The slick-fielding shortstop “moved them over” 95 times in his career.

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This ’70 Angel “Remy” Hermosa shows him attempting drag bunt. Angel recorded six sacrifice bunts in 91 career games.

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Another early Expo shown “squaring around” is Charles “Boots” Day in ’72. Boots’ stats were less than exemplary, but he has to be enshrined in the “Best nick-name Hall-of-Fame.” Since he was primarily a catcher, the bunt pose is unusual but not unprecedented.

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Tom Satriano’s cards in ’67 and ’69 feature the same bunt stance photo. Like Boots, Satriano did occasionally play in the field. He had 14 career sacrifice bunts.

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Shortstops Jackie and Enzo Hernandez very much fit the prototypical bunter stereotype. Here we have Jackie in ’72 and Enzo in ’76. Those of you who attended the Miami SABR Convention in 2016 had the privilege of hearing Jackie reminisce as part of the Cuban player panel.

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When the Royals dealt Jackie to Pittsburgh in 1970, they received “Little” Freddy Patek. The diminutive shortstop was the perfect player for a bunt shot. His career successful sacrifice rate was 75%.

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Although he would later “muscle up” and slug 43 homers for the Braves in ’73, Davey Johnson modeled his bunting technique in this ’67.

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Some guys were so associated with the bunt that they were depicted multiple times in the stance. Bert Campaneris shows up three times (’66, ’72, 76). Also Sonny Jackson put down a “bunt triple” in 70, 71 and 74.

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Although he had some power and good RBI production, Topps put Jim Fregosi in the pose in ’68 and repeated the picture in ’69. The player boycott of Topps undoubtedly explains the usage of the same photo, but maybe Topps just liked that cool turtle neck undershirt. Jim led the AL in sacrifice bunts in ’65.

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Being the complete player that he was, Joe Morgan undoubtedly mastered the art of bunting. He doesn’t fit the profile of the light hitter, but Topps had him pose bunting nonetheless in ’70.

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Jose Cardenal must have kept a packed suitcase since he was constantly being traded. He is shown bunting in ’71 with the Cardinals.

I could “drag” this bunt theme on longer, but I will close with a few more examples.

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As action photos became the norm for cards, actual “in game” bunts show up regularly. This ’74 Pete Rose is a classic shot.

From the ‘90s to the present there are countless examples. As long as mangers continue to “flash the signs” and pitchers bat in the NL, the bunt shot will not be “sacrificed.”

Ponder This

I want to remind everyone that this blog is part of SABR’s Baseball Cards Committee.  I urge any of you slackers to join SABR , an organization filled with lots of great groups like this one, people who love to talk about (obsess over) biographies, records, the Negro Leagues, the 19th Century, statistics, poetry, board games, and dozens more.  You are free to join any or all of these groups, and you are free to start your own.  This group started last fall because Chris Dial and I said, “Hey, I wonder if anyone would be interested in a Baseball Cards committee?” Yes, in turns out.

After less than four months of work, this is our 100th post — a pretty fine output for a bunch of part-timers. I want to stress that this blog does not take an editorial position on what people should collect, or how people should collect.  I have my likes and dislikes, and I am one of the more active posters, but the only thing keeping your favorite sets (or your favorite collecting habits) from getting their due is that you aren’t writing about it.

So step right up!

If you are a frequent blog reader, you might have noticed an annoying tendency to write disrespectfully about high-end collecting: extreme grade-sensitive cards, using grading services, and storing cards in lifeless albums and blocks of plastic.  Qui, moi?

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If I am guilty of anything, it is that I want to spread the message that high-end collecting is not the only game in town.  I would suggest that the rise of grading services and condition-sensitive collecting drove a lot of people, people that didn’t want to spend $125 for this Jim Davenport card, out of the hobby.  One of the reasons I was motivated to start this committee and blog was to show people that you don’t have to be rich to collect and enjoy your childhood hobby.  (I have heard from many of these people in the past few months.)

Put away the price guide for a second and find out what cards you actually like, and how you enjoy your cards.  That’s what we want to blog about.  (You can buy a perfectly excellent 1965 Davenport for $5, and for $10 you can get one that would require a magnifying glass to find its flaws.)  If you like collecting high-end graded cards, great, write a post about it and we’ll run it.

Thought of the day: “Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ would be such a cool painting, but two of the frame corners are chipped, so meh.”

So: if you want to want to build a set of 1961 Topps, all Near Mint, knock yourself out. If you don’t have 100 grand laying around, there is still a place for you in the hobby.

The card below would run you about $50 because (oh, the horror) it is only in “EX-MT” condition.  The Davenport above, I remind you, is $125.

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Ponder this question.  If you woke up tomorrow and every baseball card in the world was suddenly worth 10% of what it is worth today, would this make you happy?  Your collection just lost 90% of its value — that is horrible!

Despite a sizeable collection of vintage cards, I would be thrilled.  I like getting more and different cards, and in this alternative universe I would be able to afford a lot cards that I can’t afford now.  This would be wonderful.

I have read blog posts that “review” old card sets, and I am struck by how often I read: “A fine attractive set filled with stars, but the lack of a tough high number series drags the set down a bit for most collectors.”  In other words, the set is less popular because the cards aren’t expensive enough.  Pardon my French, but WTF?

My message is: if you like baseball cards, there is a place for you.  Collect the cards you like.  And for God’s sake, play with them.

 

 

Not Hooked on Heritage

“You realize that our mistrust of the future makes it hard to give up the past.”
― Chuck Palahniuk on Topps Heritage cards

 

What is it about Topps Heritage that leaves me cold? It’s the kind of idea I’m predisposed to love, but I don’t.

God knows I’ve tried to dig them. In fact, I collected/bought, a full 2007 Heritage master set, with a smattering of inserts. I don’t even like the original cards that much but there I was, scrambling for 1958 manqués (I love that word!), short prints and all. It’s perhaps in the misery of going after that set that my disdain for Heritage began.

I do love the 1959 design and was all prepared to go at it again in 2008, but there’s something missing in the faux-retro cards. I can’t quite put my finger on it but the new cards don’t seem to put in the effort, pictorially, of the old ones. Compare the two:

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There’s something in Heritage that is fuzzy, fake, quasi-painterly, but not well-painted and not interesting. The hook is all in the design but, as this blog pointed out recently in its poll on favorite 1970’s cards, the attraction of a card goes beyond its mere design and Heritage, for me, points out that design alone doesn’t cut it. The photos need to be dynamic and appealing. It’s why cards like the 1953 Bowman set are so wonderful. There isn’t even a design to speak of; it’s simply a series of incredible pictures.

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I dutifully bought two jumbo packs of the new Heritage. Eh. First of all, the 1968’s do nothing for me. Second, the photos left me flat. I ended up giving all the cards to my 21-year old who first wanted the Cubs, then took them all for the bus ride back to college.

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The thing is he totally loved the cards! They were new to him, old in a non-defined way because he’s not bringing any old man baggage to a 49-year old design, but fresh. They may be enough to restart his interest in the hobby.

I think freshness is the key. An old design with mediocre photography doesn’t feel fresh to me, it feels tired. Maybe I’d feel different if the gimmick didn’t extend over a full set. I kind of like Topps Archive – several different old designs, with old players in new looks and new players in old looks. That works for me; Heritage most emphatically does not.

 

The Johnny Lindell Mystery

Baseball cards are touchstones; evoking childhood memories and pleasurable collecting experiences. A favorite player’s exploits or a key acquisition to complete a set can be conjured up with just a glance. Also certain cards can take you to a specific time and place. The 1949 Leaf Johnny Lindell is such a card.

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The Lindell card transports me back to the early ‘70s. My best friend at school told me a story about exploring an abandoned house. The old man who lived there had recently died. Of course he made it sound as the gentleman had died in the house, resulting in the certainty of it being haunted.  I subsequently learned that the man died in a nursing home.

The friend stated that the contents left in the dwelling were strewn about-probably by him-with most of the stuff dumped on the floor. There, in a cardboard box, he found, amongst other things, the Johnny Lindell card. Applying the “finders keepers” rule, my buddy laid claim to the card.

It goes without saying that my “collector’s gene” kicked in immediately. I negotiated a trade giving the friend some current cards in exchange. The card was nowhere near mint condition, but it was by far my oldest card. From that day forward, I’ve often pondered why it was in the house.

“Kids living in the house” is the most logical explanation for the card ending up on the shack’s floor. This ramshackle place undoubtedly saw many migrant families come-and-go. Central Washington has experienced waves of immigrants and emigrants trying to escape poverty by taking advantage of plentiful agriculture jobs. My parents and grandparents were part of the “Ozark Diaspora” in the ‘40s and ‘50s. The child collector theory is plausible, but the card was at least 22 years old at the time and apparently no other cards were present in the house.

It is possible that the old man had a special affinity for Johnny Lindell. After all he was a hero of the 1947 World Series in which he batted .500. Maybe the man remembered Johnny as a “war era” star since his deferment kept him playing through ’44 against weak competition.

How a ’49 Leaf Johnny Lindell ending up in crumbling house in Selah, Washington will always remain a mystery. However, it serves as a great example of the memories a single card can evoke. The accompanying photo is the actual card.

The ’49 Leaf cards measure 2 3/8 x 2 7/8 with 98 in the set. The background features bright colors with a colorized photo. This colorization process is primitive with a limited blue and red uniform pallet. The player’s face is painted with flesh tones.

To learn more about Johnny Lindell’s career, check out Rob Neyer’s BioProject biography.

A Card Too Far

The vast majority of my collection consists of either (a) complete sets, or (b) sets I am working on. I completed 1968 through 1971 in the 1980s, and in the past 30 years I have managed to push it all the way back to … 1964.

I do not work on one set a time — I work (slowly and randomly) on a bunch of things, which gives me more flexibility when I see an affordable lot. I might go months without buying anything, and then see some 1954 Topps commons that look great. I have no timetable. I would be content not finishing another set. We shall see.

Here is where I stand at the moment on my 1952-63 Topps sets.

Year Total Have Need %
1952 407 33 374 8%
1953 274 42 232 15%
1954 250 56 194 22%
1955 206 46 160 22%
1956 340 207 133 61%
1957 407 243 164 60%
1958 495 300 195 61%
1959 572 360 212 63%
1960 572 348 224 61%
1961 587 472 115 80%
1962 598 508 90 85%
1963 576 543 33 94%

I have 23 1952 cards, and I have 543 1963 cards.

Logically, 1963 seems like the next set that I should finish — look how close I am! But it’s just not gonna happen.

One of the cards I need is #537.

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I have nothing against Pete Rose. Or, for that matter, Ken McMullen, Al Weis, and Pedro Gonzalez. Heck, I liked Pete Rose as a player, and I wish we had a player like him around today. He gambled a bit? Zzzzz.

But I consider this a rather ordinary card, perhaps even a bit ugly. I like the 1963 base design quite a bit, but I gotta be blunt here: the rookies and leaders subsets, both of which employ the “floating heads” technique, are pretty lame. (Do people disagree? Anyone?)

If I am patient enough, and compromise a bit on condition, I might be able to find this card for $500. We all have our budgets, but I just can’t see myself spending $500 for this. Its probably worth $5-10 to me as a card, and perhaps as much as $50 as a “I must complete this set!” card.

But if I have $500 laying around (spoiler: I really don’t), I could instead buy all of these 1955 cards (also “needed”) in the same condition.

Oh, and I’d have about $250 left over. Not really a difficult call for me.

I first heard of the concept of the “rookie card” almost 40 years ago, when a dealer explained to me why some of his cards seemed to be oddly priced. I thought, and still think, the whole thing is contrived. There was no increased demand for a Rose rookie card until dealers jacked the price up.

Dealers: “This card is scarce and desirable.”

Collectors: “OK, I must buy this card.”

Dealers: “Cool, its now actually a bit scarce.”

Its a not a card anyone would otherwise care about.

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But even if there is additional demand for the first Pete Rose card, wouldn’t this be a better choice? For my money, this is actually Pete Rose’s first real card. Isn’t this, objectively, 10 times the card of the 1963 … thing? This is one heck of nice card, to be honest. And it is less than 20% of the price.

I like the multi-person rookie cards that came along later in the decade. They are a fun subset, like the World Series cards or the league leaders cards. But the “demand” for them is way overblown and makes set collecting unnecessarily expensive.

The Nolan Ryan rookie card is a cute little addition to the 1968 set. But the Bob Gibson (the best player in baseball at the time) is absolute magic.