The Conlon Collection Project: Introduction

At an estate sale late this summer, my wife’s uncle, who is in the antique business, came across a number of shoeboxes containing baseball cards.  While the majority of the boxes contained Topps cards from the 1980s, one box contained 25 unopened packs from the 1991 Conlon Collection put out by MegaCards in conjunction with the Sporting News during that era.

The cards depict black and white photographs from photographs taken by noted baseball photographer, Charles M. Conlon.  The cards in this 330-set, are organized by team, award, or Hall-of-Fame status.

Wanting to share in the riches, I reached out to the SABR Baseball Card community with a proposition.  I offered one pack of cards to 24 of our SABR baseball card enthusiasts (keeping one for myself), and then asked each person that when they received their pack to select one card of interest and write a short piece of that card. I was particularly interested in the holistic value of the selection.  Over the next couple of months, player names and stories trickled in.  I am quite pleased to present our work.

—–

To begin our project, I asked Steve Gietschier, who worked personally on the Conlon Collection for The Sporting News, to write a bit about his experiences.  For the next several weeks, we will present a handful of stories for your reading pleasure.  Enjoy!

 

THE ORIGIN OF THE CONLON COLLECTION

By Steve Gietschier

When I began work at The Sporting News in 1986, the negatives and photographs taken by Charles Martin Conlon — it would have been a misnomer at that point to call them a collection — were in complete disarray. The glass negatives, about five thousand, if I recall correctly, were stashed, row by row, in an old file cabinet that sat just outside a room guarded by a bank vault door. My predecessor as the keeper of TSN’s historical treasures was a Red Sox fan, and so the combination to the vault door was 4-0-6. Get it? But note that the old file cabinet was outside the bank vault door. That’s true. The room behind the door was so chock full of other stuff that the glass negatives were not given even this low level of protection. They were there for all, even visitors, to see and, in fact, to handle.

Conlon started taking photographs in 1904, and he used glass plates because there was no plastic film yet. His early images were recorded on 5×7 plates, but after a while, he switched to the 4×5 size. We can only imagine how difficult it was to transport his equipment—a large Graflex camera, a tripod, and a box full of glass plates, very heavy—from his home to the ballpark. It is no wonder that he frequented the Polo Grounds and later Yankee Stadium, but never the far away Ebbets Field.

Sometime in the 1920s he switched to plastic film, the earliest iterations of which were quite unstable. These negatives, another few thousand, were not kept with the glass plates in their special file cabinet. Instead they were interfiled with all the other TSN photographs, more than 600,000, in brown envelopes, arranged alphabetically by players’ last names and stored in file cabinets that were supposed to be fireproof. Sure.

But that’s not all. We also had hundreds of prints made by Conlon himself. They were easily identifiable because his handwriting on the back was so distinctive. And they were filed with all our other photos, too.

Truth be told, Conlon was, at the time, a hidden treasure, an undervalued resource. I had never heard of him, frankly. And the folks who ran TSN knew that his work was precious, but they did not care enough or know enough to protect their investment. Maybe that’s why they hired me.

Perhaps we should mention here that Conlon stopped taking pictures in 1942 and died in 1945 and that sometime during that interval he sold all the negatives he still had—countless others he had destroyed—to TSN. But there was no bill of sale that I could find and no paperwork documenting this transaction at all.

Somehow, TSN had convinced the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, to mount a Conlon exhibit in 1984. In addition, TSN had worked with a St. Louis financier to produce a rudimentary set of baseball cards, but that was it. But these projects used the glass negatives themselves to make prints, even though they were fragile, of course, and dirty besides. Thus, one of my first goals as TSN’s first—and last, as it turned out—professional archivist was to bring all the Conlon stuff together in one place, to make it a collection, and to inventory all that we had.

I ordered special acid-neutral envelopes and boxes and began the time-consuming process — two hours every work day — of identifying, dating, and re-housing every negative. That alone took months. I don’t remember how many. Sometime along the way I contacted Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler, one of America’s foremost archival conservators, and asked for advice on how to care for this collection. She referred me to Connie McCabe, a conservator at the National Gallery of Art. Connie was co-owner of a photographic conservation business, Photo Preservation Services, Inc., and she suggested that TSN contract with it to do what had to be done. Connie’s recommendation was standard operating procedure for large photographic collections: clean the negatives, develop each one into what are called inter-positives, and from these, create a new set of reproduction duplicate negatives. This set could be used for whatever purpose TSN wanted. But more importantly, the original negs, both glass and plastic, would be safe and protected, no longer subject to the wear and tear of use or curiosity seekers.

We began this process with a perilous journey from St. Louis to the Washington suburbs, the negatives, in their boxes, resting in the tailgate of a rented Ford Taurus station wagon. How else to get them to this destination? I remember distinctly praying to avoid a rear-end collision, an event that surely would have brought my career at TSN to a premature end. We made the trip safely, PPS did its work over quite some time, and we brought everything back to St. Louis safely again.

Truth be told, we had to convince Connie McCabe, not a baseball fan, that these negatives were worth her firm’s time. Only when she saw them did she agree that Conlon was not only a great baseball photographer but a great photographer, period. She, then, in communication with her brother Neal, said much the same thing, “You’ve got to see these photos.” He, a true fan, similarly demurred until he visited her in Washington and saw them for himself. Thus was born the sister-and-brother partnership that became the author team for Baseball’s Golden Age: The Photographs of Charles M. Conlon (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994).

But how does an idea of a book become a book? It’s not easy. TSN had a book division at the time, run by a woman named Sandy Dupont. She listened to our idea for a book of Conlon’s photographs and nearly dismissed it totally. But she did suggest that we talk with folks at Harry N. Abrams, a publisher of art books and another Times Mirror company, as was TSN. The Abrams people were enthusiastic enough to agree to do the book, but they assigned an editor who also knew nothing about baseball.  And when the book was finally published and Abrams had a launch party in New York, they decided not to invite the authors. Instead, I was invited to speak for the book, and I did so, even appearing on the sports segment of a local television news program.

My memory tells me that Baseball’s Golden Age got a very positive review in the New York Times Book Review. Was Jonathan Yardley the reviewer? Maybe. At any rate, the book did well. It went into several printings and is, I believe, generally regarded as the best book of baseball photographs ever printed. I commend it to anyone and note, especially, Neal McCabe’s wonderful introduction, “The Base Ball Photographer.”

Somewhere along the way, maybe even before the book was published, two entrepreneurs in a baseball card business called Megacards contacted TSN. They had never produced complete sets of cards from scratch, but the Conlons had attracted them. They proposed — and TSN agreed — to issue one series of 330 cards a year for five years. These became the famous Conlon Collection sets. The first two sets sold well, but the third set ran up against the great strike of 1994-1995, and was cut from 330 cards to 110. And that was the end of that.

In the years after Megacards, various other business proposals came our way, but none of them did very well. We even arranged an exhibit of Conlon prints at a fancy downtown art gallery in Manhattan, but it generated few sales. Conlon remains, I think, an undervalued resource. A second book, The Big Show: Charles M. Conlon’s Golden Age Baseball Photographs (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2011), did considerably less well.

How to bring this story to a close? Times Mirror sold TSN to Paul Allen (yes, the co-founder of Microsoft), and Allen later sold the company to American City Business Journals, headquartered in Charlotte, North Carolina. The ACBJ hierarchy told us that TSN’s editorial offices would remain in St. Louis, but in 2008, they changed their mind. The company would move to North Carolina, and I was not invited to go along. We packed up everything, and off it went.

Subsequent to the move, TSN sold its entire photographic archives to a fellow named John Rogers in Arkansas. You may have heard of him. He is in significant legal trouble on numerous fronts. Where are the Conlons now? I’m not sure. Perhaps in Arkansas. Perhaps under the custody of federal court officials. What will become of them? Who knows?

 

My 50-year chase to complete the 1964 Topps Coin Set

64ToppsBoxCling!

Oh, what a lovely sound.

A special coin just fell out of a 1964 Topps wax pack and into my dreams.

These were the greatest Topps inserts of all time. Color images of baseball heroes leaping off a metallic coin. 120 standard coins, 44 all-star coins. I read in 2014 that “a decent condition set will cost you $500-$1,000.”

main_1-Lot-of-18-1964-Topps-Baseball-Coins-with-2-159-Sandy-Koufax-150-Roberto-Clemente-134-Carl-Yastrzemski-129-Al-Kaline-PristineAuction.com

The photography on the standard coins ranges from headshots (no one is capless, btw) to batting stances (Pete Rose, #82, and Hank Aaron, #83, look fabulous). The rear of the coin featured the all-important info such as height, weight, which side a player threw or hit from, along with a brief info nugget. Coin #92 tells us Jim Hickman of the Mets was an ex-Cardinal. Your day is now complete.

206405  KoufaxAS  1964to4

Oh, those all-star coins! The vibrant colors! The simple but perfect graphic design. The sparkling photography. The A.L. coins were blue, the N.L. red. The color printing on the all-star coins was astonishingly brilliant and wears well to this day. The image registration is razor sharp. The beard stubble on Ken Boyer’s face could sand hardwood floors (#145). Roberto Clemente’s arm cocked, hand grasping a baseball, ready to mow someone down at the plate (#150). Chuck Hinton’s glower as he grips the bat (#162). Even the Washington Senators could look badass in this all-star set.

 

I was six years old when my brothers introduced me to baseball cards for the first time. The 1964 set and the accompanying coins planted the seed of a drug that has held me rapt for lo these 53 years.

We didn’t have many of those coins. Some were lost to the ravages of time, neighborhood thieves, and play rooms cleaned by a fastidious mother.

Decades passed. I started going to card shows. Technology evolved. I found people who gave or traded me coins for doubles of my cards. The grace of eBay arrived, backed by a celestial choir. There they were, gobs of the 1964 coins, separate or in lots, with plenty available. The ones in primo condition sold at crazy prices. I’m a possession collector, so I don’t care what condition they’re in, and I buy low.

1964 All-Star coins (Santo, Spahn, Killebrew, B Robinson)

In 2012, I put my hand on a rock and proclaimed I’d reclaim this special part of my childhood. I wanted every coin in the set. And, no, I did not need the error/variation coins of Chuck Hinton (#162A), and Wayne Causey (#161A)—Topps mistakenly made them as NL all-stars (I have no idea how many were made before corrected, nor do I care).

The first eBay pile came from a lady that found a bucket of coins in her attic, some partially corroded by moisture. Fine! Bring it! More lots followed, and I went down the checklist, ticking off stragglers.

64 coin p1578

64 coin p2579

By 2014, I only needed 8 to complete the set. The last coin I needed, #100, Al Kaline, taunted me. I would not pay a king’s ransom for it. I finally saw it on eBay for a very reasonable price, and Nirvana was achieved!

al kaline #100

I must admit to a moment of sadness when I’d finally completed the set. The chase was over. The thrill of the hunt was gone. But I finally had them all and could move on to the next phase: obtaining the sleeved pages, final presentation, and endless ogling.

I take the magical binder out once in a while to luxuriate in the glow of my metallic beauties. I close my eyes, and it’s 1964. Triples go to die in Willie Mays’ glove. Frank Howard is still on the Dodgers, and Billy O’Dell still has that weird thing on his upper lip.

I have my doubles in a beat-up baggie that I sometimes bring to baseball-related meetings and conferences to give to others I know will enjoy them. I recently had lunch with Rich Kee, former photographer for the Dodgers in the 70s and 80s. I offered him any coin from the stack of doubles. No dummy he, Rich snapped up coin #106, Sandy Koufax. Who knows? Maybe if you’re nice to me, I’ll slip you one the next time I see you!

1964-topps-coins-mantle

Best Trade Ever

Look at this card:

s-l1600

Yes, it’s a Joe DiMaggio rookie card, but a fairly reasonably priced one because it has another guy on it. That other guy is Hall of Famer Joe McCarthy!, but collectors find that takes away from the Joe D-ness of it. I’ve been working on my 1936 Goudey Wide Pen Type 1 set and this card was definitely going to be the hardest to find in reasonable condition at a reasonable price. In VG it books for $150 but I knew I’d never get it at that price. I assumed I’d have to pay $250 or more.

Then one appeared with a minimum bid and that minimum bid was $150. Definitely in a VG or better state, with some staining on the back that is hard to see on the front. I thought about it for days, asked myself  a lot of questions about whether I’d be happy with this particular card and that this particular price. I finally realized I’d never get it in this condition for any less, so I put in a bid.

In the last few weeks I’ve been methodically looking for doubles and triples to sell. One of the doubles I had listed was a 1976 Walter Payton rookie card, NM, with a minimum bid of $100. After I bid on the DiMag  card, I got the familiar iPhone ding signifying eBay action. Someone had bid on Payton. Then there was a message. The guy bidding on the Payton card was the same guy selling the DiMaggio! He’s putting together a complete run of Topps football , he liked my card and hoped we could end our respective auctions early.

1976 Payton front059

“Are you offering a one-for-one trade?”  I asked. He was. It was about midnight but I hopped out of bed and ran down to the computer. After a series of messages back-and-forth where we tried to figure out how to do this properly and in accordance with eBay rules (he changed his auction to Buy It Now with Offer and I was able to end my auction early and hit his bid), we got it done. Both eBay and PayPal were cut in on the deal but the end result is I got a Joe DiMaggio/Joe McCarthy card for $17 and an extra card I was willing to trade.

What does this say about value? I now have an 81-year-old card with two Hall of Famers, one of them amongst the most legendary, and the other guy got a 41-year-old card of an equally high level icon. Perhaps the value is in our mutual satisfaction and that’s enough. Prices, ages, maybe none of that really matters. Still, I can’t believe my good luck fortune.

Nineteen more cards to go in this set, with DiMaggio replaced by this guy as the highest priced card remaining:

s-l1600 (1)

Anyone want to trade one for one for this?:

1974 Wilt front017

The Baltimore Unions (not the Monumentals)

In contrast to the fragility of the ill-conceived Altoona Unions, the Baltimore Unions were one of the Union Association’s stronger and more stable franchises. The club was situated as a rival to both the American Association’s Baltimore Orioles and the Eastern League’s Baltimore Monumentals (the Baltimore UA club was exclusively referred to as the Unions, not the Monumentals as currently credited). Under the management of Baltimore baseball mogul, Bill Henderson (whose brother A. H. Henderson was president and principal owner of the UA’s Chicago franchise), they were one of just five UA franchises to complete their full schedule. The Baltimore Unions finished with a 58-47 record, good for fourth place (maybe third, depending on how you want to rate Milwaukee, who played just 12 games).

Despite the club’s relative stability and quality, the roster of the Baltimore Unions is a researcher’s nightmare. 37 different players appeared for Baltimore, including at least 3 whose first name is either unknown or in flux, as well as outfielder, Daniel Sheehan, whose appearance on August 27 is not currently credited. Sheahan played under the alias John Ryan, but is not the John Ryan who pitched for Baltimore that year.

The club lacked pitching depth and so it leaned heavily upon number one starter, 26 year old Bill Sweeney. Sweeney was member of the 1882 Philadelphia Athletics and pitched quite well as the club’s change pitcher. He spent 1883 with Peoria of the Northwestern League and was recruited by Baltimore for the 1884 season. Sweeney pitched very well for Baltimore and was one the league’s top pitchers. He started 60 games, pitched 538 innings and won 40 games. In the process, he shredded his arm and never pitched in the majors again.

Despite strong performances by future major league stars Yank Robinson and Emmett Seery, Baltimore had one of the league’s worst offenses. The biggest culprit was the club’s starting centrefielder, 39 year old Ned Cuthbert. Cuthbert appeared in the National Association’s inaugural season way back in 1871 and he is perhaps best known as the player-manager of the 1882 St. Louis Brown Stockings (thus making him the first manager in Cardinals franchise history). Some sources have him as an influential force in getting Chris von der Ahe involved in baseball. But by 1884, Cuthbert was a poor choice to playing centre field. He hit a meager .202, he compiled a staggering -1.6 WAR in 44 games.

But you’re not here to learn about the roster minutia of the Baltimore Unions, you’re here for Old Judge.

Of the 37 Baltimore Unions, a total of five appeared in the Old Judge set: Yank Robinson, Emmett Seery, Jumbo Schoeneck, Dick Phelan, and Gid Gardner. So let’s learn more about these folks.

1. William H. “Yank” Robinson

Yank Robinson made his major league debut as a 22 year old shortstop, playing 11 games for the Detroit Wolverines before washing out. As a 24 year old in 1884, he did what he did best, draw walks. His modest total of 37 led the league. Keep in mind that Union Association rules meant it took seven balls to draw a walk. Robinson put up a 123 OPS+, while playing 5 different positions including both catcher and pitcher. Thanks to his versatility, which included 75 innings of league average pitching, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch called him the Union Association’s best all-around player. Robinson would join the St. Louis Brown Stockings in 1885 and serve as a vital cog in the club’s burgeoning dynasty. He led the league in walks in both 1888 and 1889 (setting major league records both years with 116 and 118 respectively), despite paltry batting averages of .231 and .208. He finished up his career with Washington in 1892, hitting just .179. Sadly, he died in 1894 at age 34 of tuberculosis, just over two years after playing his last major league game.

Robinson is pictured during his salad days with the St. Louis Brown Stockings. As a star player for one of the best teams in baseball, it is no surprise that he is pictured in six different poses in the Old Judge set.

A “sliding” Yank Robinson:

Goodwin & Company William H. “Yank” Robinson, Shortstop, St. Louis Browns, from the Old Judge series (N172) for Old Judge Cigarettes, 1888 American, Albumen photograph; sheet: 2 11/16 x 1 3/8 in. (6.9 x 3.5 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Jefferson R. Burdick Collection, Gift of Jefferson R. Burdick (63.350.215.172.1562) http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/403865
Goodwin & Company
William H. “Yank” Robinson, Shortstop, St. Louis Browns, from the Old Judge series (N172) for Old Judge Cigarettes, 1888
American,
Albumen photograph; sheet: 2 11/16 x 1 3/8 in. (6.9 x 3.5 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Jefferson R. Burdick Collection, Gift of Jefferson R. Burdick (63.350.215.172.1563)
http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/403866
Goodwin & Company
William H. “Yank” Robinson, Shortstop, St. Louis Browns, from the Old Judge series (N172) for Old Judge Cigarettes, 1888
American,
Albumen photograph; sheet: 2 11/16 x 1 3/8 in. (6.9 x 3.5 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Jefferson R. Burdick Collection, Gift of Jefferson R. Burdick (63.350.215.172.1561)
http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/403864
Goodwin & Company
William H. “Yank” Robinson, Shortstop, St. Louis Browns, from the Old Judge series (N172) for Old Judge Cigarettes, 1888
American,
Albumen photograph; sheet: 2 11/16 x 1 3/8 in. (6.9 x 3.5 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Jefferson R. Burdick Collection, Gift of Jefferson R. Burdick (63.350.215.172.1564)
http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/403867

2. Emmett Seery

John Emmett Seery was a 23 year old left fielder for the Baltimore Unions in 1884. He was the club’s best hitter by far, posting a 142 OPS+ on the strength of a .313/.342/.411 batting line. He joined the UA champion St. Louis Maroons when they joined the National League in 1885. Seasons like Seery’s 1885 are good evidence of the disparity of play between the two leagues. In 59 games with St. Louis, he hit just .162/.220/.208. His time with the Maroons was highlighted by a brawl with his teammate, the tumultuous pitcher Charlie Sweeney. Despite his struggles with the Maroons, Seery soldiered on and became a solid major league player. His greatest strengths were his power, speed and walk rate. The Detroit Free Press wrote of his patient approach: [He was] a good enough waiter to preside at a restaurant. His strongest season was probably his 1889 season with Indianapolis where he hit .314/.401/.454 with eight home runs. He also stole over 40 bases three times, with a high of 80 in 1888 (good for second in the National League). After his career ended in 1892, he became the proprietor of a thriving orange grove in Florida. He died in Saranac Lake, New York in 1930.

Seery is pictured in four different poses during his time in 1887 with the Indianapolis Hoosiers.

Seery looking like the coolest man alive in my new favorite Old Judge:

 

 

3. Louis W. “Jumbo” Schoeneck

“Jumbo” Schoeneck was a giant for the time. At 6 foot 2, 223 pounds, he towered over most of the players in his day. Schoeneck was a 22 year old rookie first baseman in 1884. He started the season with the Chicago Unions, where he was one of the league’s strongest hitters, hitting .317/.332/.404 in 90 games. The Chicago club moved to Pittsburgh in late August and then folded on September 19. Reports in the Baltimore papers suggested that both Baltimore and Pittsburgh were under the same management (as mentioned before the Henderson brothers headed up the two clubs). When the Pittsburgh club disbanded, Baltimore signed eight players from the club including Schoeneck. In 16 games with Baltimore, Schoeneck struggled, hitting just .250. He bounced around the minor leagues for the next couple of years, before getting a couple of stints with the Indianapolis Hoosiers in 1888 and 1889. His National League career consisted of 64 games in which hit .237/.283/.260. Nonetheless, he appears in four different poses (with at least 15 known variations) from his time with the Hoosiers and the Western Association’s Chicago Maroons in 1888. He died in his native Chicago in 1930.

Schoeneck demonstrating his bocce form:

 

 

4. Gid Gardner

In a lot of ways, Franklin Washington “Gid” Gardner is the stereotypical uncouth ballplayer of the 1880’s. Amidst various suspensions for drunkenness, fights, and arrests for assaulting women and frequenting brothels, Gardner managed to forge a 12 year professional career, split among 8 different major league squads and at least 11 minor league clubs. Despite his tumultuous personal life, he was a versatile player, who appeared at six different positions in his career. His 1884 season is typical, as he began the season with the American Association’s Baltimore Orioles. After assaulting a prostitute at a brothel in St. Louis, he was put in jail and then suspended by Orioles’ manager Billy Barnie. He jumped to the Chicago Unions. When the Unions folded and merged with the Baltimore Unions, Gardner was not among the players signed. Nonetheless, Gardner found his way into one game with the Unions on September 23. Gardner was back with the Orioles in 1885 and was with Indianapolis in 1887. He was traded to Washington for baseball’s first triple crown winner Paul Hines, where he appeared in 1 game and then was traded to Philadelphia for Cupid Childs, where he appeared in another game. Amazingly, he is pictured in 3 different poses in the 1888 Old Judge set with both Washington and Philadelphia. Gardner’s pro career ended in 1891 and he bounced around local Boston semi-pro teams, never finding stable employment or transitioning to civilian life. He died in 1914. Check out Charlie Bevis’ nice SABR bio for more on Gardner’s “exploits.”

Gardner and Miah Murray in a beautifully framed horizontal card:

 

 

5. Dick Phelan

Goodwin & Company
James Dickson “Dick” Phelan, 2nd Base, Des Moines Prohibitionists, from the Old Judge series (N172) for Old Judge Cigarettes, 1889
American,
Albumen photograph; sheet: 2 11/16 x 1 3/8 in. (6.9 x 3.5 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Jefferson R. Burdick Collection, Gift of Jefferson R. Burdick (63.350.215.172.1801)
http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/404484

A native of Towanda, Pennsylvania, James Dickson “Dick” Phelan would enjoy a to a long professional career that lasted from 1883 to 1899. In 1884, Phelan was the rookie second baseman for the Baltimore Unions. He was a light hitter and his defensive statistics show him to be somewhat average. In 101 games, he hit .246/.268/.316 and put up -1.4 WAR. Phelan moved on to play a handful of games with the Buffalo Bisons and the St. Louis Maroons in 1885 and then became a minor league staple in multiple leagues. At age 44, he was still plugging away with Dallas/Montgomery in the Southern Association. He settled in the south and passed away in San Antonio in 1931.

He is featured with Des Moines in 1889 in four different poses in Old Judge.

Phelan pictured as the dapperest hipster alive:

Goodwin & Company
James Dickson “Dick” Phelan, 2nd Base, Des Moines Prohibitionists, from the Old Judge series (N172) for Old Judge Cigarettes, 1889
American,
Albumen photograph; sheet: 2 11/16 x 1 3/8 in. (6.9 x 3.5 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Jefferson R. Burdick Collection, Gift of Jefferson R. Burdick (63.350.215.172.1800)
http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/404483
Goodwin & Company
James Dickson “Dick” Phelan, 2nd Base, Des Moines Prohibitionists, from the Old Judge series (N172) for Old Judge Cigarettes, 1889
American,
Albumen photograph; sheet: 2 11/16 x 1 3/8 in. (6.9 x 3.5 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Jefferson R. Burdick Collection, Gift of Jefferson R. Burdick (63.350.215.172.1802)
http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/404485
Goodwin & Company
James Dickson “Dick” Phelan, 2nd Base, Des Moines Prohibitionists, from the Old Judge series (N172) for Old Judge Cigarettes, 1888–89
American,
Albumen photograph; sheet: 2 11/16 x 1 3/8 in. (6.9 x 3.5 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Jefferson R. Burdick Collection, Gift of Jefferson R. Burdick (63.350.215.172.1817)
http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/404487

 

Altoona, 1884

For six weeks in 1884, the Altoona Unions/Mountain Citys/Altoonas were the most unlikely major league team in baseball history. With an 1880 population of 19,710, Altoona, Pennsylvania is the smallest city to field a major league squad. Altoona was the last club to join the ranks of the Union Association (UA), gaining official membership in the 8-team league on February 20, 1884. This gave them just under two months to form a major league club. It is little wonder that the club opened the the Union Association season with 11 straight losses (including 8 straight to the eventual UA pennant-winning St. Louis Maroons).

With middling crowds, except for a couple of Sunday games that drew upwards of 3000 fans (big gates for the time), the Altoonas were in financial trouble. By the end of May, the Altoonas were a dismal 6-17, despite playing their last 18 games at home.

Union Association commissioner and Maroons owner, Henry V. Lucas, was the benefactor/propper up of many struggling UA clubs, but he saw the writing on the wall for the Altoonas. Rather than paying more money to help the struggling club keep going, Lucas had sought out investors in Kansas City, Missouri to replace Altoona. Four Altoona players, Taylor Shafer, Joe Connors, Cleary Cross, and Charlie Berry were enlisted to join the Kansas City Cowboys as they compiled a ramshackle squad that was scheduled to begin play on June 7.

Altoona’s stint as a major league city ended with a whimper, as the Altoona’s lost 5-3 to the Baltimore Unions on May 31.

The club lasted only 6 weeks and only 18 men (including the recently discovered Frank Schiffhauer) can proudly claim to be Altoona Unions. But despite this, there is still a former Altoona player represented in the N172 Old Judge set.

That man would be lifelong Altoona resident George J. “Germany” Smith. In 1884, Smith was a 25 year old rookie shortstop. He would be the only man to play in all 25 Altoona games, and established himself as the club’s best player and one of only two players to post positive WAR for the ill-fated club. He hit .315/.321/.407 with a 142 OPS+. When the Altoona Unions folded, Smith was one of the first players to find work elsewhere, joining the National League Cleveland Blues.

Smith would enjoy a 15-year career, best known as a light-hitting defensive wizard for the pennant-winning Brooklyn Bridegrooms in 1889-90. While 19th-century defensive WAR should be taken with a grain of salt, Smith led the league in defensive WAR four times and assists five times. His 22.8 dWAR is still good for 29th all time (and it is the highest total of any player who played solely in the 19th century). To put it his defensive prowess in perspective, he hit just .191 with a 43 OPS+ and -0.6 offensive WAR for the pennant-winning Bridegrooms in 1890, yet he put up 2.0 defensive WAR and kept his starting job. 

Smith’s major league career ended at the age of 39 after hitting just .159 for the 1898 St. Louis Browns. He died at age 64 in Altoona, his legacy as the Altoona Unions greatest player still intact.

Germany Smith about to make rare contact circa 1887 with the Brooklyn Bridegrooms. Smith has five poses in the Old Judge set, all dated 1887.

 

BRJ 46-2: Andres Galarraga Blast – Topps vs Upper Deck

The latest issue of the Baseball Research Journal has an interesting (and….complex) article concerning on a May 31 1997 Grand Slam hit by Andres Galarraga during an 8-4 Rockies victory over the Florida Marlins .

Left: 1998 UD Tape Measure Titans #2 Andres Galarraga

Right: 2015 Topps Update Tape Measure Blasts #TMB2 Andres Galarraga

The Home Run was initially estimated to be 529 feet by the Florida Marlins. However, later Greg Rybarczyk of ESPN’s Home Run Tracker posted an updated estimated distance of “only” 468 feet.

In the BRJ article a panel of authors (Jose L Lopez PhD, Oscar A Lopez PhD, Elizabeth Raven, and Adrian Lopez) set out to determine which of these estimates was correct. They put together a thorough analysis which of course included significant math and physics, and less expectedly factors such as weather, wind and humidity. The Lopez Lopez Raven Lopez team concluded Galarraga’s Home Run travelled approximately 524 feet. The article is a SIGNIFICANTLY more involved – Go Read It!!

Topps vs UD

The length of the blast makes the Home Run one of the longest in MLB history and I have found the event was captured on cardboard at least twice.

UD Tape Measure Titans

The first time was in the 30 card 1998 Upper Deck Tape Measure Titans insert set which included sluggers McGwire, Bonds, Bagwell, Frank Thomas, Sosa, Junior, Manny, Thome, Piazza, A-Rod, Chipper and others.

Upper Deck went with a retro feel for this subset. I like the Tape Measure graphic at the bottom of the screen. UD went with the 529 foot calculation provided by the Marlins and we can see the gauge dropped at the proper point.

Now on to my dislikes, Andres Galarraga hit this Home Run as a member of the Colorado Rockies, during the following off-season he went to Atlanta via free agency. Unfortunately that leaves us with a player in a uni that does not represent the accomplishment. UD Also elected, on a hitting related card, to use a fielding pose.  However for me the most egregious violation is that the “Upper Deck” logo absolutely dwarfs Galarraga’s name.

Topps Tape Measure Blasts

Tape Measure Blasts was a 15 card insert set in 2015 Topps update. Notables in this set include Reggie, Clemente, Ted Williams, Josh Gibson, David Ortiz, Albert Pujols, Mike Trout, Giancarlo, and a Ryan Howard card that should really be in my collection.

The Topps card has the benefit of being produced 17 years after the UD original. By 2015 Galarraga was a retired player. At this point Topps could put the Big Cat in whatever threads they wanted and fortunately he is with the Rockies here. Topps gets bonus points for getting the Marlins stadium of the era, Pro Player, on the card.

Of course the big difference in the cards is that Topps went with ESPN’s figure for the distance.

Flip

The Retro theme carries through to the back of the Upper Deck card (Top) and they did a nice job. This is as solid as some Heritage designs.

The text on the Topps card gives us some good copy on the Home Run including name dropping Hall of Very Good pitcher Kevin Brown.

Phungo Verdict

Despite the Topps card using the discredited distance I prefer their card. Too many things annoy me with the Tape Measure Titans – and I didn’t even mention that I really don’t like that name.

Sources & Links

SABR Baseball Research Journal Fall 2017

Bob Lemke – Standard Catalog of Baseball Cards

Game Dated Cards Index

Baseball-Ref

eBay

MLB

What’s good about grading and slabbing

From the posts I’ve read (and I read ’em all. It’s great being retired), more than a few members of this group don’t think much of card slabbing. I have plenty of ungraded cards, but I admit that I have my favorite sets encased in plastic by PSA (Professional Sports Authenticator, as I imagine most of you know). I don’t especially like how PSA dominates the grading market, but I do appreciate, as self-serving for PSA as it is, the set registry. You can list your cards, even your ungraded cards, by the way, on the registry for free, even if you are not one of the PSA “Collectors Club,” members.

The basic advantages, from my standpoint, of slabbing is preservation of condition,  a record of ownership (each card has a certification number) and, to a lesser degree, an assurance of quality — this applies mainly when you are buying a card. If you’re buying a card online, you’re trusting the seller’s description, no matter how good the scan looks. And I don’t find having the card in a plastic slab a distraction or detraction.

Is it worth it? That depends. If you submit cards directly, rather than through a dealer, you generally have to fork over $6 or more to get PSA to grade a card, and that’s if you use the changing offers of the Collectors Club ($100 or more year but with a few free gradings and a monthly magazine), often having to send in at least 25 cards at a time. And the return shipping charge starts at a minimum of $18. But I get most of my PSA cards on ebay or from dealers, which keeps me from going bankrupt.

When I submit cards to PSA, I’m often disappointed at the grades, although I have become better at knowing what will drag a grade level down. Honestly, it’s still hard for me to tell the difference between a PSA 8 and a PSA 10. I assume most of us here would consider an “EX 5”  to be a pretty nice card, too. I have a bunch of ’64 Topps that are 5s, and I’m perfectly happy with them. On the other hand, my 1984 Topps set, which ranks no. 2 on the registry, has only 9s and 10s. Once you get out of the ’70s, you probably would not want a slabbed card with a grade less than 9, although you should be able to get those lower grades for next to nothing.

I suppose there are people who view graded cards as an investment. (I’m not one of them.) Certainly, graded cards command higher prices than their ungraded equivalents.

I’m not trying to convince anybody to have his or her cards graded, but it’s good to keep an open mind about it. Collectors like me are glad there are collectors like everyone else with SABR who still loves baseball cards — slabbed or not.