A Brief Analysis of Baseball Card Prose and How It Makes Us Better Writers (1956-1959)

In the previous installment of this series, I began my journey through nearly seventy years of baseball card history.  I’m examining the prose featured on the backs of one Detroit Tiger for each year of Topps flagship sets.  We’ll learn about culture and technology, but we’ll also find out what this prose can teach us about writing and storytelling.

So let’s dip back into the collection that inspired this series and pull out my beautiful…

gromek1956 Steve Gromek #310

Design of the reverse: The typed prose has been replaced by three cartoons.

Text (33 words in captions):  This will be Steve’s 16th year as a major league star. [Three boys seek autographs from Gromek. The rightmost one says, “Gee, he wuz pitchin’ before we wuz born”]

In ’54, he had a brilliant 18-16 record. [Gromek following through after a pitch with a sunburst behind him.]

Steve started as an infielder in ’39, but switched to pitching in 1941. [Gromek standing on a pitching mound. He says, “I like the view from here”]

Sy Berger and his colleagues took a turn away from straight prose in 1956: the first set to eschew straight prose altogether.  (Of course, making such a statement to fellow SABR members makes me nervous; they know everything!)  The cartoons may be out of order, but the authors are still engaging in the identity construction that is such an important part of early Topps card prose. 

Gromek, a member of the 1948 World Champion Cleveland Indians team, did indeed have a very long career as a hurler after switching to pitching.  His major league career began in 1941, just as Indians star Bob Feller enlisted.  A December 25th, 1941 Sporting News article described the competition to take his spot in the rotation in an article with this delightful headline: “Five Young Flingers as Feller ‘Fill-Ins.’”  (The article engages in a fascinating description of how each pitcher qualified for a deferment.)

The authors put the colloquialism “wuz” into the mouth of one of the children.  The Oxford English Dictionary traces the first print usage of the term to the classic 1886 children’s novel Little Lord Fauntleroy.  I’m reminded of “Nuf Ced,” the nickname attributed to Red Sox superfan Michael T. McGreevy.  While the writing teacher in me bristles at such phonetic spellings in popular use, the creative writer in me loves how the children who first opened these packs enjoyed the informal nature of the diction.  Such playful use of language has always been around, and today’s young people certainly make the language their own while texting.  

Perhaps the authors of the captions had more didactic/instructional aims; Steve Gromek’s career teaches us all that we may fail in one pursuit, but the point is that we should dust ourselves off and “try pitching,” whatever that may mean in our specific cases.

bobkennedy

1957 Bob Kennedy #149

Design of the reverse: Full career stats for the first time.  No cartoons.  

Text (21 words): A valuable veteran, Bob is an all around ball player who can take over|first, and third base or play the outfield.

I’m sure Topps had proofreaders, but they must have had the day off when someone approved this card.  (I certainly make my own share of mistakes.)  There should be a hyphen in the compound adjective “all-around.”  That “and” should be an “or.”  And what is going on with that vertical bar?

1957 Topps seems to begin a phenomenon that I noticed as a kid.  When I flipped over a 1987 Topps Nolan Ryan, all I saw was a sea of numbers.  (“He’s been in the majors since my dad was in junior high!”)  There was no room for prose. 

nolanryan

Fifth-year player Tim Hulett, on the other hand, had room on his card to note that he “attended both the University of South Florida and Miami Dade North Community College.”
hulett
Statistics are another form of identity formation, to be sure.  Any kid who checked out the reverse of this card before clothespinning it into his bike spokes would notice that Kennedy had a long American League career and would have understood what a great ballplayer the man was. 

Perhaps the most interesting prose on the card is on Kennedy’s stat line for “‘43-5:” “(In United States Marine Corps).” 

I suppose the lesson of this baseball card is that less can be more, and that a writer can coax a reader into filling in what the writer leaves unsaid or implied.  Kennedy missed three years in the Marines.  One wonders what he saw and did and how it shaped him.  The kid who opened the pack might have been able to relate through his or her own father.  I also wonder if any little kids read the card and realized for the first time that a sentence filled with mistakes is difficult to read and was inspired to be more careful in English class…

sleater

1958 Lou Sleater #46

Design of the reverse: A return to partial stats and cartoons.

Text (34 words): Lou worked exclusively in relief last season. He is specially effective against lefty hitters and his good control makes him tough for any one to hit. A fastball and curve are Lou’s main weapons. 

This will be Lou’s 12th season in baseball. [Lou shows off a number of medals on his chest, saying “A real veteran!”]

He’s been with 4 A.L. and 1 N.L. clubs in his career. [Hands in pockets, Lou asks, “Any bidders?”]

Whoever composed the prose for Mr. Sleater’s card has unintentionally forced me into a dilemma.  Look at that second sentence.  The adverb “specially” applies to the specific purpose of its noun.  (“The logo was specially chosen to bring attention to the indie ball team.”)  Either the author has simply misused the word, or he or she meant “especially,” which is an adverb meaning “particularly.”  If the latter is true, the writer may simply have forgotten the apostrophe that represents the omitted “e.”  

My hunch is that the author simply used the wrong word, but it’s interesting to consider that he or she intended to use “‘specially.”  There is a history of popular writers playing with words beginning in “s” in this way.  It’s not a leap to believe that a baseball card prose composer living in Brooklyn in 1957 was aware of “S’Wonderful,” the Gershwin standard.  The Disney film Song of the South had been released in 1946 and was re-released in 1956.  One of the more prominent lyrics from Allie Wrubel and Ray Gilbert’s “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” goes, “It’s the truth, it’s “actch’ll”/Everything is “satisfactch’ll.”  Perhaps the author of the baseball card was engaging in similar wordplay.

Okay, it was probably just a mistake.

I am also struck by the generic nature of the description.  Aside from Sleater’s pitches, the author only includes details that could be gleaned from Sleater’s stat lines.  (Topps employees must have had more extensive statistics at hand that they later condensed into the lines they included on the cards.)  Maybe the author wasn’t inspired to describe Sleater in more fulsome terms.  Or maybe it was Friday afternoon when he or she was working on card 46, and Sy Berger walked through the bullpen to tell everyone to knock off early once they finished the card they were writing. 

hoeft
1959 Billy Hoeft #343

Design of the reverse: Full(er) stats, cartoon. AND prose.

Text (41 words): A good fastball, a baffling curve and expert control spell success for Billy Hoeft. In ’56 he was one victory shy of teammate Frank Lary and the A.L. Win Crown. Billy’s 7 shutouts in ’55 were tops in the Junior Circuit.

Billy is a dedicated fisherman. [Billy dozes with a fishing line dangling from his big toe.]

Although the author has omitted the Oxford comma (the one before the last item in a list), I love the construction of that first sentence.  The adjective “good” could apply to “fastball, curve, and control,” but look how much more powerful and specific when each noun gets its own modifier.  Better yet, the adjectives improve.  Which sounds more complimentary to you?  “Good?”  Or “baffling,” and “expert?”

Again, the author has turned away from some of the specifics and identity building that was present in the first few years of Topps baseball card prose.  The reader certainly gets the idea that Hoeft, who once struck out all 27 batters in an American Legion game, is a good pitcher, but who is he, really?  Would a little kid look up to Hoeft and mimic his windup because the man is a “dedicated fisherman?”

And then there’s the matter of the missing comma in the second sentence.  It should read “In ‘56, he was one…” because the introductory clause must be joined properly to the independent clause.  There’s a non-blahblahblah way to think about it.  If you read the sentence like a newscaster–deep voice, clear articulation–you will want to pause after “In ‘56.”  That’s my rule of thumb for those who have comma anxiety. 

 

It’s been interesting to see how the prose changed from the early to late 1950s.  Next time, I’ll look at the same player in consecutive years and a right-hander who looks even more like an accountant than Greg Maddux!


Series: A Brief Analysis of Baseball Card Prose and How It Makes Us Better Writers
1952 – 1955,
1956 – 1959
or the posts can be found under the “CardProse” tag.

A Brief Analysis of Baseball Card Prose and How It Makes Us Better Writers (1952-1955)

If I had a time machine, I would zip around the fourth dimension to all of the expected places. I’d love to see Hamlet at the Globe. Maybe I’d drop in on the Constitutional Convention or the Cavern Club in 1961. I suspect that many of us might set our personal flux capacitors to 1951 so we could see Sy Berger design the 1952 Topps set on his kitchen table. There were baseball cards before that set, of course, but Berger and his team set the standard that still guides the industry. 

Two of the great constants in my life are baseball and writing. I could never hit a curveball. Or a fastball. Or a softball in a batting cage. I can, however, tell a decent story and put together decent sentences. It’s no surprise, then, that baseball cards were among the first literary works I read. It was Frog and Toad are Friends, Encyclopedia Brown, and the (primarily) Topps cards that my father would let me pick up in the supermarket candy aisle. 

These modes of “non-traditional” literacy formation are well-studied in the fields of education and rhetoric and composition. (How many immigrants learned to speak English by watching popular television shows?) Often overlooked, however, is the way that baseball cards served as a form of reading instruction, particularly during the time when the industry’s target demographic consisted almost solely of little kids. 

In this series of articles, I will engage in an admittedly surface analysis of baseball card prose, looking at the writing on the reverse of random base Detroit Tiger cards from each of Topps’ nearly seventy years of flagship releases. Other writers for this blog have chronicled how the prose on the backs of 1954 Topps cards offers valuable lessons.  Don Zminda had the great idea to compare how Topps and Bowman handled the prose in their 1954 sets.  I am curious to see how the prose changed over the decades, and how Berger and his successors used a few sentences to reinforce the construction of the ballplayer’s identity. Of course, I am also interested in isolating what writers of all kinds can learn from these works. 

A few notes on methodology. Topps has printed many tens of thousands of base cards since 1952. Unfortunately, I don’t have a fleet of researchers at my beck and call, so I can’t accumulate data on each of them. There are variations between base cards in sets, of course; a card released at the end of Alan Trammell’s career, for example, may feature only statistics because there was no room for prose. During some years, Topps included cartoons on the backs of the cards. I have typed up the prose and included a bracketed description of the image. Further, I have tried to preserve the baseball card prose as printed, mistakes and all. 

It just so happens that I have what I call my “Tiger Stadium Collection.” During a visit to Cooperstown, an ex-girlfriend purchased me a small, square tin decorated to look like the exterior of the best ballpark in the history of baseball. (I’m biased.) I keep a base flagship Tiger from (almost) each year of Topps in the tin: a fortuitous coincidence. 

With all of that blather out of the way…let’s look at some cards!

groth

1952 Johnny Groth #25

Design of the reverse: prose and reduced stats

Text (81 words): Johnny was the best fielding outfielder in the American League in 1951 winning the title by 2 ten-thousandths of a point. At the plate, he started the ’51 season slowly, but hit .325 during the last half of the season to bring his average up. He had trials with the Tigers in 1946 and 1947, but didn’t make the grade until 1949 after hitting .340 at Buffalo in 1948. His first year up, John batted .293 and hit .306 in 1950.

In its inaugural effort, Topps begins providing kids with the information that they couldn’t easily get elsewhere. There was no Baseball Reference in 1952, so it makes sense to include a stat-heavy summary of Groth’s career.

The formation of the ballplayer as a relatable hero also seems present. Imagine a second-string Little Leaguer opening up a one-cent pack and learning about how Groth succeeded after years of work dedicated to “making the grade.” It’s also interesting that the person who composed the prose alternated between “Johnny” and “John.” A mistake, or something else?

While the first sentence is missing a comma between the clauses, the second and fourth reinforce one of the basic uses of the comma: it joins a dependent clause to an independent clause. “His first year up” is not a sentence; it doesn’t have a subject, object, AND a verb. “John batted .293 and hit .306 in 1950” does have all of those elements. Therefore, you glue the not-a-sentence to a sentence with a comma. 

hatfield

1953 Fred Hatfield #163

Design of the reverse: Unrelated trivia question, reduced stats, prose

Text (76 words): “Hattie” was the top-fielding third sacker in the American League in ’52. The Red Sox spotted him playing American Legion Ball and he signed his first pro contract in ’42. After hitting .300 for Birmingham of the Southern Association in ’50, “Hattie” was brought up to the AL. The Sox used him in a utility role in ’51 and traded him to the Tigers early in ’52. Fred was [a] paratrooper during World War II.

Once again, the author begins with the player’s name, but does so in an even more intimate fashion, twice using Hatfield’s nickname. And once again, the reader gets a fairly rote (but necessary) description of Hatfield’s career to that point. Remember: both 1952 and 1953 only included “last year” and “lifetime” stat lines.

There are a couple mistakes in the prose. Was it convention to capitalize the generic “ball” in “American Legion Ball?” The author drops a word in that final sentence, too. With regard to that final sentence, I imagine how relevant the information would seem to the Topps target audience: little kids, mostly boys, whose fathers stood a great chance of having served during World War II themselves. 

As in 1952, the author begins with a fulsome description of the player’s fielding capabilities and then engages in prolepsis, flashing back to where the man began his career and how he got to the point at which he was so useful with a glove. Writers can engage in flashback while leaving the reader blind about the eventual outcome, or he or she can do so after informing the reader about the protagonist’s present conditions. In this case, the author of the card has no choice; the reader knows that Hatfield eventually made the majors…if he hadn’t, there would be no baseball card to trade with friends!

7.10.2020lund

1954 Don Lund #167

Design of the reverse: Two cartoons, reduced stats, prose

Text (94 words total, 68 without cartoon captions): Don began his career with Brooklyn in 1945, pinch hitting in 4 games. A University of Michigan graduate, he was sent down and recalled by the Dodgers in ’47. In 1948, he went to the Browns and was bought by the Tigers in 1949. Don was with Toledo in 1949-50-51 and in 1952 at Buffalo, he hit .302 and returned to Detroit to bat .304 in 8 games.

At Michigan U. Don was a Big Ten football star! [Lund, in Michigan green(?), carries the football.]

But, after graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree, Don decided to make baseball his career! [Lund makes a nice grab at the right field fence.]

Once again, the reader learns about Lund’s path to the big leagues. Once again, the main piece of prose begins with the player’s first name. I don’t believe the latter is an accident. These cards, of course, were made primarily for children, some of whom would be at the beginning of their journey as readers. Sentences that begin with the subject are very simple and clear. (“Matt Nokes hit a home run.” “Al Stump mischaracterized Ty Cobb.” “Alan Trammell wore number 3.”)

The author is clear to make education a part of Lund’s identity. The reader (again, a child), learns that being a sports star can go hand-in-hand with being a scholar. I also wonder if Topps included such information to give parents more reasons to allow their children to use their hard-earned pennies and nickels to purchase cards. The cultural storm that resulted in the 1954 adoption of the Comics Code Authority put a spotlight on comic books: a competitor for the same disposable income. Perhaps Berger and his team were reinforcing the relative wholesomeness of their product.

One of my dear, departed Creative Writing MFA professors joked that writers are allowed a single exclamation point in their careers. After all, feelings are better evoked with the other tools that a writer has in his or her toolbox. The author (or perhaps authors) of this card use two. Notably, both exclamation points occur in the cartoon captions. This makes sense; cartoons must be very punchy, and the exclamation point is a compact representation of emotion. 

miller
Yes, it’s autographed. Isn’t it amazing how his handwriting stayed so consistent?

7.10.2020miller

1955 Bob Miller #9

Design of the reverse: Unrelated trivia question, reduced stats, prose

Text (64 words): The huge bonus paid to Bob for signing a Detroit contract in ’53 looked like a good investment to Tiger fans last year. Used mostly as a relief pitcher, Bob’s wide-breaking curve and flashing fastball placed him 4th in E.R.A.’s among American League Hurlers. Before deciding on Baseball as a career, he won a Yale scholarship for his straight “A” average in High School.

The author was presented with a challenge when writing about Bob Miller. At the time, clubs had no choice but to keep “bonus babies” on the major league roster for two years. The author, therefore, couldn’t chronicle Miller’s pro journey to The Show.

The reader learns about the Yale scholarship offer that Miller received, but there is more to the story. Page 10 of the July 1, 1953 issue of The Sporting News features a wonderful article about the Bengals’ two new bonus babies. Seventeen-year-old Miller received $60,000, and Detroit offered $35,000 to an eighteen-year-old named Albert Kaline. Writer Watson Spoelstra helpfully informs us that the latter’s name is “(pronounced Kay-line).” Good to know!

Again, the author of the baseball card capitalizes the generic nouns “Hurlers” and “Baseball.” (Though goodness knows that “Base-Ball” has been called many things in print.)

From a writing craft perspective, I get the sense that the person who wrote this card wasn’t feeling maximum enthusiasm for Bob Miller. Look at the structure of the three sentences and how they all feel similar. I suppose the paragraphs in the 1952 and 1953 cards are similar, but I suppose this could just be an indication that tone is inherently about perception to some extent.


There are an awful lot of cards left before we get to 2020. I hope you’ll join me to consider how the prose changed along with the times and its audience. If nothing else, perhaps this project will help me learn how to make my writing more compact!

Next time: Robert Kennedy (the baseball player, not the former Attorney General) and a left-hander who once struck out all 27 batters he faced in an American Legion game!


Series: A Brief Analysis of Baseball Card Prose and How It Makes Us Better Writers
1952 – 1955,
1956 – 1959
or the posts can be found under the “CardProse” tag.