“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!

The Heroes of Battle Creek

The filthy, vacuous, spiritually empty 1970’s was equally barren for collectors. If America is going to be great again, let’s hope that the ‘70’s aren’t the reference point. Yet, out of this wasteland emerged a hero, riding in from the unlikeliest of places – Battle Creek, Michigan.

kelloggs-1970-maysKellogg’s began their 3-D cards in 1970 with a stunning 75 card set.  It’s a fantastic checklist of players, star filled, simply lovely design. The 3-D effect, only recently surpassed in Avatar, worked, especially in small gaps – between a player’s arm and his head, between his bat and body. In these little glimpses of the background, magic happened.

I had a few cards from 1970-1972, but it was only in 1973 that I noticed the mail-in form on the box and sent in for a full set. Getting that brick of 3-card panels in the mail was a joy, and it only cost $1.25 and two Raisin Bran box tops. Having that set put me at the ready for upcoming issues, and sent me back to get 1970 and 1972. That damned ’71 set was the only one not available through the mail and, as a result, was much harder to come by, either complete or individually. It still is.

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Even back then, collectors knew there were two problems with cards – they’d curl and, in time, they’d crack. I was on the problem early. I’d get a set and immediately bind them like a Chinese woman’s feet, but with less pain. My ingenious process was to put two pieces of cardboard on both the front and back of the set and strap the cards in tightly with rubber bands. The cardboard prevented rubber band marks on the first and last cards. It was a pretty good system and held the cards solidly in place for decades. Over time, some bands would get flabby, some would break, but it worked. What curl I had was manageable. Maybe one or two cards in all of my sets have cracks, and I think they arrived that way.

That was what held them until a few years ago. My friend Jimmy, as a thank you for another great Cooperstown Induction weekend, sent me a box of hard top loaders and inner sleeves (is that what they’re called? I may be confusing the term with records). It was a complete surprise and the perfect gift; I would never buy that kind of stuff myself. I was consumed for weeks with placing old 3-D cards in their new holders. I hadn’t looked at all of these cards in years. Thankfully, 1970’s me did a solid job on keeping the cards flat and it was an easy transition. Now, all my Kellogg’s sets (save 1973) are flat and stay flat in their new homes.

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I’ve been thinking of finishing off the run. I don’t have 1982 and 1983, easy enough to come by and cheap, but in looking at 1971, that damned 1971 set, I don’t have enough critical mass of single cards to pursue the full set. I don’t want to go cheap on that one and start down a cracked path. We all know the bad luck that surrounds cracks, whether in mirrors, concrete or 1971 Clarence Gaston cards.

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1970 Topps: Chillin’

I had planned on writing a full blown story about one of my favorite sets–1970 Topps–but I decided instead to just write about a single aspect of those cards: their “candid” (kinda, sorta) photography.

You are likely aware that Topps first used action photography on their base players cards in 1971. Some were great, others less so. Before that year, other than special subsets–World Series cards, record breakers–all player cards were posed.

What were these poses? Nearly all of them were either (a) head shots, or (b) photos showing the player pitching, batting or fielding. If you were an odd kid like me you could sort your cards by “pose type”. One of my personal favorites were catchers in their crouch getting ready to receive a pitch–usually squatting in some random spot, perhaps facing the stands with the field behind them. Sometimes the catcher had shin guards, though usually not.
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In 1970 Topps took their first step toward the candid photography that would soon dominate its set. Candid photos might occur when a photographer wanders around and finds players hanging out and snaps away. For example, to get this shot of Henry Aaron the shutterbug likely walked past the dugout and said, “Hey Hank!” Aaron looks up, “click.”
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Is this actually how it went down? No way to know, but its hard to imagine the camera guy, or Aaron, deciding on this pose. Either way, it was a breath of fresh air at the time.
Lou Brock is looking rather casual here, performing an Ichiro like back stretch using his bat. Hey Lou, ‘sup?
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The most candid shot in the set was a card that would look at home a decade later, showing Bud Harrelson signing for the hometown fans. For kids of 1970, Harrelson might as well have been streaking across the infield for the shock of it all. Where is a his glove? His bat?
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A related, though less risque, example is this gorgeous card of Harmon Killebrew, standing near the bat rack, picking out a bat, looking askance. Perhaps not totally candid, but one can imagine the lensman saying, “just act natural, Killer. Sure, keep the towel.”
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By itself, this card is interesting. What makes it more interesting that Topps had no fewer than nine (9) cards that year of guys standing near the bat rack, a structure that had barely ever shown up a card before.
Interesting exceptions: the 1961 and 1962 Wes Covington cards.
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In the first series in 1970 (cards 1-132) there were two such cards — one of Gerry Moses, and this one below of Juan Rios. When I first laid eyes on the Rios I had likely never seen a real bat rack before–I was playing Little League by this time, but we just tossed our bats in a pile. The Royals were obviously a pretty high class organization.
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Incidentally, Juan might have chosen his bats a little more carefully–he hit .224 as a rookie in 1969 and never played in the majors again.
Here is a pretty sweet card of Coco Laboy looking for some lumber. In his case, the impact of the high-class bright red bat rack is somewhat mitigated by the chain link fence. Where is this place?
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But for the true low-rent district, look no further than Del Unser, who looks undecided on his bat choice.
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The Senators only had a couple of seasons left before heading for Texas. Perhaps we should have seen their financial troubles coming, given that they were storing their bats in what looks like a grocery store shopping cart.

Assorted Authenticity Notes, Thoughts and Tips

As well known to my friends and family, I am a non-linear thinker and talker, and this article follows the pattern. Offered here are aleatory notes, thoughts and tips on authentication related topics.

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A concern I often hear from collectors is that computer and digital printing technology is getting so advanced that some day they will be able to make a counterfeit T206 Honus Wagner completely indistinguishable from the original.

The answer is no, this is not correct.

Modern digital printing indeed looks better and better and is more and more detailed at the naked eye, holding-the-card-in-your-hand level. However, it looks less and less like the original 1909 T206 lithography at the microscopic level. And it is at the microscopic level that printing is identified and dated and such cards are ultimately authenticated.

The paradox with printing technology and the duplication of old prints is that the more closely it looks like the original at the naked eye level, the less it looks like the original at the microscopic level. Today’s computer printers use a fine pattern of tiny dots to reproduce graphics, with the finer the dot pattern the more detailed and realistic the reproduced graphics at the naked eye level. However, this fine dots maze looks very different under the microscope from the original, antiquated T206 printing–and the finer the dot pattern gets, the less it looks like the original printing at the microscopic level.

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If the identifying, dating and microscopic inspection of old printing is something that interest you, I wrote the following guide book. Well illustrated in color, it covers the major forms of antique and commercial printing and was written for collectors and dealers of antique trading cards, posters, ads, signs, premiums and even fine art. It is in pdf format and you can download it for free.

Identifying Antique Commercial Printing Processes

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Fake detection tip
If a seller is selling online a rare and expensive baseball card with obviously scissors clipped corners that he describes as “natural corner wear,” there is a more than probable chance you’re looking at a fake.

With homemade fakes, one of the harder things to do is to mimic natural corner rounding due to wear. The forger often clips the corners at straight angles then roughs them up a bit. In many cases, the corners remain obviously hand cut.

Of course genuine cards can have clipped corners, but anyone experienced with cards can tell the difference between clipping and natural wear. Even if the there is the odd chance the card for sale is real, why would you choose to make expensive purchases from a seller who can’t identify obvious trimming? Shouldn’t you be buying from the seller who knows what he is doing?

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Identifying Common Cracker Jack Reprints
The 1914-15 Cracker Jacks cards used no white ink and this helps in identifying many reprints.

The white (actually off white) on the card is created by the absence of ink on the white (actually off white) color of the cardstock. In other words, the white borders and any white in the player picture is the color of the cardstock.

If the Cracker Jack player picture has a large white section of his uniform that directly touches the border, there should be little or no difference in tone between the border white and the white of the uniform. They should seamlessly blend one into the other.

On the common reprints, a giveaway is that the border is distinctly different than the white in the player image. You can clearly see this when the border ends and the touching white in the player picture starts.

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Original 1915 Cracker Jack
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Reprint Cracker Jack with brighter border



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Scams regularly involve greed from both sides

As has been noted by numerous experienced collectors, baseball card scams often involve greed on both sides of the equation–from the buyer and the seller, not just the seller.

Since the dawn of scamming, it is a common scammer’s technique to appear ignorant about what he is selling (often a forgery he made himself!), and have the buyer believe he is getting a steal from a dim bulb of a seller. The scammer will say something on the order of: “This card looks real to me. But as I’m not an expert, I am calling it a reprint to be safe and offer it at a deep discount” or “I found this Sweet Caporal Honus Wagner card. A local card shop says it looks like the real deal and is worth lots of money. But I don’t know for sure so I’m offering it for $5,000.”

The purchaser in these sales correctly believes there is a rube involved in the sale, but incorrectly believes it is the seller. The purchaser also thinks he is getting a steal of a deal from a rube. This is why some collectors feel little pity for such buyers. The buyers are trying to get a steal and think they are taking advantage of the ignorant.

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For science geeks, this is an old article I wrote on the advanced science used in authentication and forgery detection of art, artifacts and collectibles, including baseball memorabilia. It covers carbon dating, infrared radiation, x-rays and even dendrology (the study of trees rings). Technically, baseball cards can be radiometrically dated (carbon dating is the best known form of radiometric dating), but it is cost prohibitive. The article also shows how there are limits to science in authentication.

The Science of Forgery Derection

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A simple technique for dating a pinback as antique

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Corroded pinback back

If you are at an antique store or garage sale and see a cool antique looking pinback, a simple way to identify it as genuinely antique, and not a modern reproduction or fantasy item, is to check the back. If the back and needle is corroded and rusted brown, you can be confident it is antique.

Similarly, rusty staples on antique items are signs of authenticity. Many antique booklets, magazines, calendars and tickets were stapled. Antique staples have rusted dark, with the rust sometimes spreading to the paper. If the staples are bright and shiny, that is evidence the item is a modern reproduction or at least has been re-stapled. I’ve seen many modern reproductions offered online that are given away in part by the shiny staples.

 

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Authenticating playing and game cards
Many playing and game cards, such as the 1913 National Game and Polo Ground issues, have factory cut round corners that make identifying reprints and counterfeits easy, even in online pictures. The corners on the originals were die cut a consistent size and curve. Known official reprints will have a noticeably different corner size, while homemade versions will be obviously scissors cut and usually of different size. If someone is offering one of these playing cards online it is easy to check the authenticity by comparing the corners to a picture of a known authentic card, say one in a PSA or SGC holder.

Die cut shaped cards in general are harder to deceptively forge, because it is hard to cut the shapes to perfectly mimic the original machine cut–especially if the forger is doing it by hand.

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Original 1913 National Game card
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National Game reprints with different corners

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The Issue of Restoring baseball cards
The restoration of baseball cards is a regular hot topic of debate with collectors, and it seems the restoration of high end cards is becoming more common. Some collectors are adamantly against any alterations, some have no issue with it and some say it depends on the situation. I am not here to give the ‘final ethical word’ on the topic, but to look at various aspects of the issue.

The common strong and often visceral reaction against restoration and any form of alteration is based in two reasons. First, the hobby has a long history of deceptive (undisclosed) alterations as part of scamming: trimming, bleaching and other alterations without disclosure at sale. Many collectors consider this equivalent to counterfeiting and forgery. This problem is still ongoing, with unethical resellers who only care about money, altering and trying to sneak cards past profession graders. This is one of the scummy parts of the hobby. For some people, it is anything for a dollar.

The second reason is many collectors like old cards that have honest wear and aging. These collectors think they there is nothing wrong with an old card showing its age–after all they are collecting old items not twenty first century Upper Decks inserts. To them, there is nothing wrong with ‘honest wear,’ so there is nothing to fix.

Many collectors are generally against alterations, but are not zealots about it and feel that there are times where restoration is reasonable. Many collectors say it is ethical to remove items and substances that are not original parts of the cards. They say it is fine to remove a of piece scotch tape, glue or paint on a 1952 Topps, because it is not an original part of card. There are also cases of major damage, such as a card that has a substantial tear or fungus, where conservation will not only make the card look nicer but will prevent further damage. Left to their own devices, fungus spreads and tears only get bigger over time.

One question baseball card collectors often ask is why is restoration so frowned upon in the baseball card hobby, but seemingly accepted and common practice with paintings and movie posters. It is true that restoration is more accepted in those areas, but realize that, as in the baseball hobby, opinions and sentiments vary from collector to collector. Another thing to keep in mind is that movie posters and paintings have different uses and are of different materials.

A movie poster and painting are display items, usually large and designed to be hung on the wall for everyone to see. Baseball cards are little and spend most of their lives in boxes and drawers. Few people want a 2×3 foot display item on the wall next to the dining room table or over the living room couch to be covered in coffee stains, scrapes and scotch tape marks.

Also, movie posters and paintings are often made of materials that are delicate and must be conserved to preserve them and to withstand display. Movie posters are on thin paper, and old paint and the backing on paintings often have deterioration problems that must be fixed. Old oil paintings were originally varnished, with the varnish turning brown over the years. Removing and replacing the dingy varnish not only makes the painting look as it originally did, it often reveals the real colors of the painting. A green appearing flower may turn out to be bright blue.

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Antique oil painting with half the original varnish removed

It should also be noted that as part of restoration and conservation, movie posters are usually ‘linen backed’ (backed in linen) so are easy to identify as restored.

As far as valuation of restored versus unrestored posters and paintings go, an advanced vintage movie memorabilia collector told me that a grade Vg movie poster restored to Near Mint looking condition will be valued more than the Vg grade but less than unrestored Near Mint. Painting collectors look for restoration, because it does affect value. All other things the same, a restored painting will be worth less than an unrestored one. So, while restoration is more accepted, there still is a valuation and sentimental difference between restored and unrestored.

One inescapable constant is that all alterations and restoration have to be disclosed at sale. Not only is this the ethical thing to do, it is the law. This is in all areas of collecting, including movie posters and paintings. If a seller knows a physical fact about the item will likely change the value in the minds of the buyers, that is a fact that has to be stated. It is up to the bidders, not the auctioneer, to decide what facts will affect the final bid value.

I end by noting that a veteran collector once said that collectors are temporary caretakers not owners of the items, and that is what people should keep in mind when deciding what to do with a card. Or, as I say, these are historical artifacts and serious collectors are historians. There may be legitimate reasons to restore an item–such as for preservation for future generations or to fix major damage–but a card or other item should never be altered for purely monetary reasons. When things are done strictly and only to make a buck, all forms of unethical and seedy behavior soon follow.

Finding the Right Woman (and the Right Card)

I think a lot of us went through a phase where we recognized that collecting cards wasn’t cool, that making it known at 18, 20, 22 years old that we were working on completing our 1967 Topps set was not the best pickup line. “Hey, how’s it going? I gotta tell you, finding a Near Mint Juan Pizarro high number is really tough. Can I buy you a drink?” It doesn’t work.

I gave up on cards during college, though I’d occasionally buy packs. Once graduated (and single), I made up for lost time and bought the sets I’d missed from 1981-1984 (though not the 1984 Fleer Update, dumb!). Then I got back on the trail of my 1967 set.

You know you’ve met “The One” when you can openly fess up to what you perceive as your most embarrassing traits. Karen was “The One,” and not only did she quickly know I collected cards, but she came with me to shows! That’s true love. It was at one show, I think in New Jersey (let’s just say New Jersey, it’s a good setting), that having Karen along made all the difference.

Down to my final few ‘67’s, I found a dealer with a nice supply in nice condition. I got what I could and now, with one card to go, but the one card I didn’t see, I asked – “Do you have a Red Sox team card?”

“I don’t,” I heard him say, or was it “no,” I can’t recall. Whatever it was, it was bad.

I bought the cards he did have and we walked away from the table.

“I can’t believe he didn’t have the last card I needed,” I said, moaning the words out, Eeyore style.

“No, he did have it,” Karen said. “He said ‘I have it someplace else.’”

Really? How did I miss that? We headed right back and Karen was dead right. He had the card, it was in another box behind his table. He got it and it was beautiful. Thanks to Karen, it was mine.

Sure, I would have gotten the Sox team card eventually, yet, in my mind, I never would have completed the set without Karen. It’s a better story that way and that moment is eternally connected to that set and this card:

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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.

Doing my part to win the Cold War

In the summer of 1983 I was 22 years old and writing software for a large defense contractor (Raytheon) in Rhode Island. Had a secret security clearance and everything. As it happens, a joint software project with Sperry-Univac required that I spend a bit of time that summer in St. Paul, Minnesota. The Defense Department (essentially our employers) was conducting round-the-clock stress testing on our weapons control system at Sperry, and someone from Raytheon had to be present. The work consisted almost solely of sitting in a chair (probably reading a novel) ready to step in if there was a test failure. My most vivid Twin Cities memories that summer were multiple trips to the Metrodome–mostly to see the Twins, but once to a Vikings preseason game where the crowd vigorously booed Broncos rookie John Elway.

After a couple of week-long sojourns with my boss, I made a trip by myself near the end of the summer. The solo voyage was to be an annoyance not because of the work, but because of logistical issues I had never dealt with before–I didn’t own a credit card, for example. No worries, I was told. Raytheon prepaid all the big items, and then gave me a karl-malden-aestack of travelers checks (look it up, kids) as a “per diem.” This $25 per day was ostensibly for food, but I was told that I was free to use it however I wished.

As luck would have it, my hotel provided free breakfast, and there was a lunch spread at work. I planned to go to a couple of Twins games, and I was pretty sure I could buy a prime ticket, food and beer for that budget. The other three evenings I figured I would just find some nice restaurants and bring a thick book. I brought some cash for incidentals, but I was optimistic that my per diem would be enough to get me through the week in style.

These well-laid plans were upset on my very first day when I discovered a delightful baseball card store near my hotel. (By “near my hotel,” I might mean: “up some obscure side street I found after poring through the yellow pages and consulting a local map.”) After wandering in, I drifted past the usual boxes of modern wax packs to the display case filled with old cardboard from the 1950s. At this point my collecting consisted of very slowly filling in the sets from my childhood (beginning with 1967) and keeping up with the annual releases.

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But one look at this pair of cards at the top of the case and I was like when Tony first laid eyes on Maria in “West Side Story.” The twin objects of my affection were from 1956, and they carried the same price tag: $25. I might have seen both cards before, but never in this condition or at this price.

On the other hand, I had never spent $25 on a baseball card before. Further, I didn’t really have $25–I had no credit card, I just had a bunch of traveler’s checks that I had already accounted for.

At that moment I realized that the traveler’s check budget needed refiguring.

I went back to my hotel and ran through numbers again. I wasn’t going to give up the two Twins games I had planned–don’t be silly–but the rest of the food suddenly seemed extravagant. What’s wrong with a nice sandwich?

Somewhat surprisingly, I made a fairly mature decision. I decided I would eat frugally throughout the week and return to the card store on Saturday morning before my flight. If I had money left, perhaps I could buy one of those beautiful cards? (If they were still there.)

The week passed uneventfully as I tried to keep my mind away from the card store. The weapons simulations did not misfire, I enjoyed my free breakfasts and free lunches, and discovered that I didn’t really need that second hot dog at the ballgame. On non-game nights I found some takeout and ate in the hotel.

Come Saturday morning and, surprise surprise, I still had about $60 in traveler’s checks in my wallet. I packed up my suitcase and headed for the card store.

As luck with have it, both of my dream cards were still in their case, and I trembled a little when I announced that I would take them both. The guy behind the counter chuckled at my traveler’s checks, but I accepted the teasing rather than tell him my sordid story. These two cards instantly became the best two cards in my collection. They still are.

I have made many baseball card purchases over the years, and to this day I usually feel at least a bit of guilt. (Is this really the best use of my money? Is that really a hole in my son’s shoe?) But as I flew home on that plane 34 years ago I felt nothing but satisfaction. I had not taken money from my children’s college fund. I would soon come to realize that defense department work was not my bag, but for these two cards I know who to thank: Ronald Reagan and his military buildup.

On the flight home I took the cards out of my brief case every ten minutes or so, and had the card backs memorized by the time we crossed over Detroit. The woman in the seat next to me gave me that look. You know the one.

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