Thursday, July 31, 2008

1955 Bowman Baseball #5, Jim Robertson

This would be a disturbing sort of TV show to catch in the 1950s. "Jim Robertson Mimes Sports of the World." The old Athletics uniform hangs loosely on his veteran shoulders, blue cap concealing hair thinning earlier than his 27 years deserves. A producer stands to one side, hands on hips and jowls clamped down on an ego-sized wad of flavorless gum. A baseball sits firmly in the mitt pocket, held in place with sealing tape for the camera's benefit. After two hours in make-up, an art still evolving for color TV, the star looks slack-jawed and distant. Is this the rest of my life? Can't we even afford a catcher's mask?


1955 marked Bowman's final year, as they sold out to Topps in early 1956. Its "competitive gimmick" occupied a great deal of the card face and reflected the American fascination with moderne wood-grain televisions. With such an about-face from the uncluttered 1953 and 1954 designs, I'm not crazy about the fronts. Thumbs up for resurrecting color photos, but a hearty "meh" for the TV motif. At least the variety of park backgrounds adds some architectural and historical interest.


Much more intriguing to me are the card backs. Plenty of them include ghost-written fluff, but Mr. Robertson's shows a great concept, "My Favorite Baseball Memories." As a 13 year-old collector, I often wrote to retired players and wanted to know exactly that kind of thing. What was their favorite memory? Best day on the field? (Kiko Garcia, for example, recalled a good hitting performance for the Orioles in the 1979 World Series.) Even Jim, who played all of 69 career games, gets to tell a couple of stories. He includes Phil Rizzuto in both, as a former Yankee farmhand prior to getting on the field for Kansas City in 1954. Given the design, the most surprising part of this card is the comment near the bottom.

"My advice to youngsters. Play ball, don't watch it on TV."

That's right, children of the 1950s, get the heck off your duff and go start a civil rights movement or something.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

1974 Broder Popcorn Seattle Rainiers #5, Dick Aylward

Dick Alyward of Seattle's PCL club, the Rainiers, shows us all how to wait out a rain delay and look dapper at the same time. Unfortunately, the front-and-center team logo also makes him look like the beer delivery guy. Dude, kegs go in the back.



Card front

Aylward spent 99% of his career in the minors. He made the big-league Indians briefly in 1953 and went hitless in four games. A catcher throughout, he has the rare distinction of making a first-base putout. Quoth the CPC trivia page:

"As a rookie catcher with the Tulsa Oilers of the Texas League, Aylward retired a runner at first base. It happened April 21, 1947 in Oklahoma City. Pitcher Len Gilmore, batting for the home team, hit a roller past pitcher Tom Warren. Second baseman Jim Shilling and first baseman Jack Richards both charged the ball. Aylward, running toward first base to back up the play, realized the base was uncovered. Sprinting ahead of Gilmore, he got to the base first and caught Richard's toss for the out, scored 3-2."

You think the opposing pitcher took exception at being beaten to the bag by a rookie catcher? We hope Aylward was extra careful on his next trip to the plate.

I picked up this card a couple of years ago and didn't really know what I had. They resemble the Seattle Popcorn issues from the 1950s and 1960s, before the MLB Angels bought the Rainiers from the Red Sox and changed their name to the Seattle Angels. Aylward played for them in 1957 and cards from that year don't turn up often, so this is probably a reprint. Indeed, the card back includes a simple inscription to that end.


Card back


"Alyward" misspelling aside, Beckett's collection tools helpfully ID it as "1974 Broder Popcorn," a set of 235 cards that includes luminaries like Maury Wills, Sparky Anderson, and Joe Black. Most likely, it's a compilation of popcorn cards reprinted for collectors who couldn't find the originals. Unfortunately, that makes it another set for player collectors to obsess over, given that it doesn't turn up very often and is hard to identify even when you have it. Ah, the joy of the hunt!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

1936 World Wide Gum Baseball #5, Johnny Vergez

Zounds, is this a card from the depression era or what? It's hard to tell if Johnny Vergez needs a sandwich or some sleep. We'll save him a YMCA cot down on East 47th St and keep a BLT warm in the Polo Grounds clubhouse to cover all the bases.


If there's anything to enjoy about the photo, it's Johnny's snazzy cap. Witness the scalp-hugging form that preserved 1930s head warmth and compare it to today's raised-crown, vented mesh version. Also remember their wool, full-body uniforms! Some of those players must've cooked beyond al dente for most of the summer.


Montreal's World Wide Gum (WWG) operated under the aegis of its owner, the Boston-based Goudey Gum company. Many call its 1933 and 1934 sets "Canadian Goudeys," since they echoed the parent company's front and back designs. 1936, however, debuted a 134-card set of their own creation. It's pretty much as you see, with sparse detailing and headline-style lettering. (J. L. VERGEZ HITS ICEBERG, SINKS IN NORTH ATLANTIC!) Cards feature text-heavy backs typical of the 30s and similarly sullen photos. 1936 WWG is extremely challenging to complete and even the top-rated PSA set's missing a card.

Monday, July 28, 2008

1980 TCMA 1957 Milwaukee Braves #5, Bob Buhl

"Deer in the headlights," meet "Buhl in the camera lens."


Card front

This TCMA set picked a world champion in field performance, the 1957 Milwaukee Braves, but their photo quality leaves something to be desired. Even Bob's Wikipedia page shows off Topps' more humanizing 1958 version. Today's card (scan culled from my eBay win) self-consciously minimizes the pain by dedicating almost a third of the card to non-photo details. Still, that's a heck of a gaze...or stare...or flashback to some failed Bill Veeck promotion.

The late 50s Braves won pennants in consecutive years, '57 and '58. This 42-card set profiles the players from the former year, their only Milwaukee championship. (They lost the 1958 series in 7 games to the Yankees.) Hammerin' Hank and Warren Spahn represent the key cards, though the set's obvious shortcomings make it affordable as a unit despite a relatively small print run. (I've seen them on eBay for a $5 opening bid.)

My dad turned 10 on a Wisconsin dairy farm the year they won the series and knows this team inside-and-out. In the history of fatherly gift-giving, kids often default to ties, cologne, or gas for the lawn mower. About a decade ago (and on the spur of the moment), I picked up the 1957 Topps team set and put it into 3-by-3 card frames. The cards still hang next to his desk and, as far as I know, they're the top present from my 30-something years on the planet. Not sure if it works on every old man out there, but it sure breaks up the monotony of never knowing what the heck to get for someone.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

1970 Kellogg's Baseball #5, Mel Stottlemyre

Today's guest recently served as pitching coach for my Seattle Mariners, though most know him as you see him, in a New York uniform. Ten years as a Yankee sinkerballer and a few decades educating pitchers around the bigs built a good reputation for senior Mel. His sons found varying degrees of success on the hill, though any career is still more than the rest of us.


Though their history with sports promotions reaches as far back as the 1930s, collectors know Kellogg's for these cereal box cards with 3-D backgrounds and slick, easily cracked fronts. They created the illusion of distance by cross-hatching the gummy front surface and gluing it to a photo on papery (but still plastic) back.

Being made of different materials, the fronts and backs fight a religious war for tensile dominance. The hatched side usually wins by curling the card into a parchment-like roll. When you try to "fix" this by unrolling it, the card rewards you with a series of cracks at the least flexible points. Many, many Kellogg's cards bear the scars of this schism.

The real way to get around this is to put the curly card on top of something warm, like an oven or radiator. Assuming you keep it out of actual flame, the front will relax and return to its somewhat original shape. (We can assume the same straightening practice works on curly fries, but I never leave them around long enough to find out.)

Mel's got a top-shelf glare going in this shot, not too far from a Steve McQueen or James Coburn. Could he be the lost eighth member of The Magnificent Seven? (At least he's not forced to squint the sun from his eyes like other Yankees I could name.) On the rare occasion I catch an M's game this year, these eyes peer out from their bench, sifting for gold in Carlos Silva's sluggish right arm or Washburn's trick knee. There's always a notebook close at hand. I imagine it covered with freehand sudokus, one-liners, and other distractions from the looming 100-loss season. Maybe he should take up card collecting. I bet he could get 10 - 15 autographs per game, easy. More, if he signs between innings.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

1980 Cramer Legends Baseball #5, Joe DiMaggio

Joltin' Joe provides a worthy competitor to our recent spate of Ted Williams. Next year, Yankee Stadium might move down the street and reopen for business like an Oriental rug merchant, but DiMaggio's shadow still lingers. I know, Mantle did his own good work in center for which Topps remains eternally grateful. (Oh wait, their gratefulness lasted ten years.) In the public mind, though, the Clipper owned the most important position for the most important team. An All-Star every year he played, the Yankees won titles in 9 of his 13 seasons, and retired his uniform number (surprise surprise, #5) in 1952. Hard to beat that with a fungo bat.

Card front

As excellent the player, I have to question the photographer for today's shot. It's got it all, unflattering pants, EW YORK, and painful solar glare. The last point impacts the whole oeuvre of baseball pictures. How many of these turkeys take nothing but "sun directly overhead" pictures? Is it any wonder people look squinty? Or wear sunglasses? Or limit what shows up on cards made decades later? He's even leaning away from the sun like an anti-flower, probably to save his eyes. SMILE! yells the hack. SQUINT! replies Joe.

My cardboard habit kicked off in 1980, but Twin Peaks candy shops only stocked Topps, Fleer, and Donruss. I didn't catch the Cramer Legends until 1982, when we moved a little closer to Seattle. The set was all classic players on an odd, coonskin cap-era shingle design. The old names and faces interested me, but only in passing, like girls to a fourth-grader. What I did know was crappy Mariner shortstops, inside and out. Trade my Mel Ott for your Todd Cruz? That'll give me both sides of the Cruz Connection! You've got a deal, my friend.

Monday, July 21, 2008

1959 Fleer Ted Williams #5

Being one of the all-time greats, Ted Williams turns up on more cards than most. In fact, if you're not familiar with it, this set's all Splinter, all the time. The issue's unusual enough, but its #5 features something peculiar aside from the "hungry mouse" upper right corner.

Card front

The unusual: For 1959, Fleer signed Teddy Ballgame to an exclusive contract and created an 80-card biographical set based on his life, career, and military service up to that point. #5 "Ted's Fame Spreads" covers his growing renown as a teen-aged ballplayer.


The peculiar: Wait, Ted seems to be batting right-handed. Whaa? Although a natural rightie, Williams hit from the left side, perhaps to get an extra few inches toward first. (The Kid wasn't the fleetest of foot.) So did Fleer reverse a negative, Hank Aaron style? Was this a flirt with switch-hitting? Not so. Turns out he's pitching in this shot, a role I never knew he filled. Though a two-way star for his San Diego high school, Ted had little patience for mound men--and fielding, too--in the bigs. ("Ah, screw it," he'd famously say, "let's go hit!")

Card back

That Ted could carry a set on his own speaks to the heroic status accorded someone who proved his mettle for decades on the field and across two wars in the air. Fortunately for budget-minded folks, '59 Fleers are the cheapest way to get his career-era card. Some collectors like the color-tinted look, though it's measurably inferior to similar Topps sets from the early 1950s. I'd be more interested in the concept now if modernity hadn't rendered it passé with the explosion of flashy mod-retro issues. (I'm looking at you, Yankee Stadium Legacy.)

Friday, July 18, 2008

1941 Goudey Baseball #5, George McQuinn

Mean Mr. McQuinn looks really unhappy about something in 1941. The German invasion of Poland? American isolationist policies prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor? Both are possible, but my choice is "being on the St. Louis Browns for the prime years of my career."

Card front (blank back)

After dominating the hobby with its creative, eye-catching sets a decade earlier, Goudey's blasé 1941 effort tells us more about the company itself than the game of baseball. They printed its austere 33 cards on scrap rag paper due to shortages. Mel Ott and Carl Hubbell are the only superstars and each card in the set is blank-backed, so what you see is what you get. Four fruit colors serve as the set's only "innovation" and create a very challenging master set. (I'm not one for grading companies, but note the #1 PSA set entry isn't even complete, let alone in good condition.)

While no Mel Ott, McQuinn was a decent player. He made 7 All-Star games, placed 6th in the MVP voting for the title-winning 1947 Yankees, and hit the only World Series homer in Browns history. He produced the rare feat of double-digit 2Bs, 3Bs, and HRs in back-to-back years and almost always walked more than he struck out. This maintained his run production despite below-average teammates and George dipped below 100 OPS+ only once in 11 full seasons.

Goudey did me two favors by mis-cutting this #5. First, it's affordable, a magic word in my world. Second, we get some insight into the printing setup, as the top of #19 Posedel appears below McQuinn; compare the hat brim on both.


Cutting problems plague the 1941 set, given its "stacked" process. Sheets near the top would cut cleanly, but the bottom would slide out slightly and deliver the final product you see here.

The set's an alluring pre-war target, with only 33 cards and no huge names. However, heed the words of my trading friend (and SCD contributor) George Vrechek.

"Category 4 – Nice cards but impossible, Double Black Diamonds in ski terminology. Forget ‘em. Just not available much even though book prices may not be ridiculous. A type card would be nice though. (emphasis added)"


UPDATE: This 1988 reprint shows what a well-cut card looks like.


UPDATE #2: Here's the yellow version of Mr. McQuinn.


UPDATE #3: Red version.


UPDATE #4: Blue version.



Thursday, July 17, 2008

1980 Police San Francisco Giants #5, Jim Lefebvre

I can coach anyone, thinks Jim's disembodied voice. Look at me, I'm hitting balls from a tee. WHACK. You think anyone can hit balls from a tee? I managed Seattle for three years and let me tell you, those turkeys would need God's own fencepost in their hands just to pop it up. WHACK. Kept begging McCovey to stop by and give 'em a few pointers. He said he wouldn't work with little leaguers. WHACK.


Card front

Lefebvre's a switch-hitter, so I assume right is his "power" side for the tee-ball shot seen here. The photo shows good timing for a real swing, or exceedingly corny composition for a pose. Why do this? Was no one else around to toss a ball to him? Were they worried people might confuse him with an active player? If he's really standing on the third base line, hitting off a tee into the dugout, this seems unlikely. (No offense, Jim! Still a believer! Heh heh.)

Based on my experience as a small town eight year-old, you'd get the "police" sets by talking with officers or walking up to cruisers and asking them for cards. Sounds like a nice deal for the community, right? Kids learn that the police are there to do nice things and the grown-ups get some positive attention. In my neighborhood, that's how we built sets of Mariners and Seahawks, rosters safely stocked with people you've never heard of.

Naturally, I wouldn't let on to my other method of "collection expansion," swiping wax packs from the local drug store. That kind of talk would just spoil the mood. Kind of like how bringing up former boss Tommy Lasorda might suck the joy out of Lefebvre.

"Sept 17, 1980: While taping separate interviews at KNBC-TV studios in Burbank, CA, Giants coach Jim Lefebvre and Lasorda trade punches after a brief argument, bloodying Lasorda's lip. Lefebvre had been a Dodger coach in 1979 until Lasorda gave him the sack."

Thanks, Wikipedia!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

1956 Topps Baseball #5, Ted Williams

Talking about classic cards from baseball's golden age should always include 1956 Topps and its 340 cards of high-quality composition. Replete with star power, it's got Jackie, Mantle, Aaron, Mays, Clemente, and today's guest, Ted Williams. Most cards include an in-game action shot and eye-popping colors. Later years found it tough to match the beautiful horizontal layout, which looks even better in oversized 8-count binder pages.


Topps probably designed this set with serious competition in mind, given their fierce rivalry with Bowman over player contracts and the collector dollar. Subtle touches like the portrait halo, card front autograph, and varied color combos no doubt took time to design and vet. Think of the grunt-level surprise when Bowman sold their assets before producing a 1956 set, closing the doors on its run of post-WWII card production. Topps made the permanent move to attractive color photos in 1957, but many argue that card-as-art ended with this set.


I spotted my first 1956 card, #30 Jackie Robinson, atop a consignment stock of vintage goodies in a Seattle-area shop circa 1998. What excitement! It's a little embarrassing how easily it transported me. My collection contained exactly zero Jackie cards at the time--but here was one from when he played, with a great portrait, and an action shot of him stealing home! Damn, that was a collecting moment to package with gum and a team logo sticker. I eventually picked up a couple dozen high-grade cards at the shop, most of which became part of my only PSA submission. (The highlight was a PSA 8 Eddie Mathews, thanks for asking.)

This Williams belongs in any collection of significant cards, not just a fetish group of #5s. Only in his late career did companies create designs to match the incomparable career arc of twenty seasons and two military tours of duty. My only picked nit with 1956's design is the photo, where Ted's taken with something waaaaaay up in the air. Did they catch him popping up? Is that just a lazy fly to right? For all the good-looking confidence of the portrait photo, I say show the man some respect as a hitter. Even a fake at-bat or great defensive play beats a fluttering shuttlecock destined for the second baseman's mitt.

Monday, July 14, 2008

1979 Jack Wallin Diamond Greats Baseball #5, Joe Sewell

There are 1000 stories in the naked city and today's guest, Joe "Yankees Shortstop" Sewell, ties together several.
  • Tragedy: debuted as Ray Chapman's replacement after baseball's first fatal beaning in 1920.
  • Joy: Cleveland rode out of that valley to win the World Series that year, and Joe eventually picked up another with the Yankees in 1932.
  • Legacy: forty-plus years later, the Vets Committee voted him into the Hall of Fame, likely because he was one of the best shortstops throughout the 1920s and was day-in, day-out dependable before Gehrig made it fashionable.
Card front (blank back)

Though his batting skills eventually tailed off, Sewell holds what might be an unbreakable career record, striking out only once every 63 at-bats. This skill improved over time and he never struck out more than 9 times per season from 1925-1933, despite playing almost every single day. His 1990 obituary reported that Joe played his entire career with a single bat, adding a touch of the mythical to an already impressive performance.

Jack Wallin, an enthusiastic memorabilia collector, published this set of "Diamond Greats" using simple stat lines and archival photos. Unlike many other retro oddball sets, all of the players were still alive when Wallin signed them to contracts. Most of the cards went directly to collectors, so condition is usually excellent and a high percentage bear autographs. You could argue being alive was the main criteria for set inclusion, as some of the players pictured weren't anything close to great. (Even Sewell's a marginal HOFer, if less so than others.)

Barely 30 years old, the set's a nice way to pick up vintage players at cheaper prices, especially compared to anything from their own playing days. The cards turn up often enough in oddball bins at shows and a basic eBay search returned 500+ lots available for clicky puchasing. The photos vary considerably in composition, with many using a simple head-and-shoulders shot. Collectors looking for "more" will do best with pitchers and catchers, who frequently get full-length action shots.

Trivia note: Rube Marquard is in this set, but died soon after, in 1980. He holds the distinction of being the last living player from the T206 tobacco set. As far as I can tell, Diamond Greats was the last to feature him while alive, taking his card history from 1908 - 1979, an impressive 69 years on vintage cardboard.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Photo research puzzler

As a quick break from the parade of #5s, check out this baseball photo found yesterday at a Cape Cod, MA antique store. It doesn't have any provenance, but does include clues as to time and place from the clothes and surroundings. Wonder how close we can ID a time and place based on those pieces? (Rich Lederer of Baseball Analysts ran similar Foto Friday contests a little while ago.) Click the photo for a full-detail scan.


The picture shows a backyard-style game. It looks like people are circling bases after a hit, with a catcher prepping to receive a throw. It's almost certainly home plate, as there are two bats on the ground nearby. Two women in skirts run the bases, one likely the hitter headed to the swingset (first base), and the other (in the darker skirt) running home from third. An inscription on the back reads "Blue River Baseball Team" in nice penmanship.



The closest nearby connections are the Bluefish River (Duxbury, MA, across the bay from the Cape) and the Blue Hills Reservation south of Boston. Perhaps it's a house at the base of the hills? The trees rise steeply beyond the house and baseball diamond, so could be from another area entirely. (Plenty of states include a "Blue River," so I'm starting with proximity to the point of purchase.)

There's a flagpole in the back, but no wind means a slack flag, and no chance to date the photo by number of states. I did a high-resolution scan that picks up pretty much everything on the original. Any other ideas for locale and time? I'm interested in the idea of girls and boys playing together (or against each other), since women don't show up much in early baseball history.

Friday, July 11, 2008

1920-1921 W514 Baseball #5, "Shufflin' Phil" Douglas

Shufflin' Phil Douglas owns a great baseball nickname, right up there with Puddin' Head Jones and Hot Potato Hamlin. Unfortunately, the imaginative title masks a greatly troubled player, as Phil's drinking towered over his prodigious pitching talents. We could remember him as a World Series winner and one of the last legal spit-ballers, but Douglas casts a larger shadow as a recipient of one of baseball commissioner Kennessee Landis' lifetime bans from baseball.

Card front (blank back)

Phil debuted with a cup of White Sox coffee in 1912, just the first stop on a journey that covered five franchises over ten years, as teams progressively passed along his off-the-field issues like a track baton. John McGraw's Giants traded for Douglas in 1919 and Phil stuck around long enough to win two games in the 1921 World Series, but away from the diamond, he clashed with the discipline-minded manager, garnering both team suspensions and a bizarre dry-out kidnapping.

Tempers and drinking being what they are, it wasn't long before Phil's desire to sabotage McGraw shot himself in the foot. Douglas penned a foolish letter to a friend on the second-place St. Louis team, offering to "disappear" for the rest of the season (and thus denying New York their best pitcher), if the Cardinals provided some inducement. Despite a sober retraction, Commissioner Landis granted Phil's wish by banning him for life on August 16, 1922.

I like the downcast, introspective expression on this card. New York's uniform hangs slack and a little empty, long wool sleeves itchy against its humid summer winds. Douglas plays his last and longest stop in the bigs. Victories on the field come often, but the manager is a pain-in-the-ass. Bottles offer both solace and demons. Phil wonders: can't a guy have and eat his cake once in a while?

Most sets from the teens and twenties have an ephemeral feeling, with cheap paper stock and simple drawings like today's W514s. Without company info or statistics, it's hard to narrow a set's print date to one year, so players that change cities frequently help pin down a year by their listed team. Some catalogs date this set as 1919, but Phil didn't join New York until late that year, making it too early unless they rushed out the set for the World Series.

I think this set printer started production in the winter of 1919 and debuted them close to opening day in April 1920, with stock continuing to fill carnival vending machines through 1921. The dotted line on my #5's left edge hints at a neighbor; most came in strips of 5, leaving it to young collectors to hand-cut them down to singles. See Robert Edwards Auction's 2005 lot of several uncut strips for more.

Value: This #5 cost $15, about right for low and mid-grade singles. As with other prewar sets, stars cost a good deal more.

Fakes / reprints: Not sure if anyone reprinted Shufflin' Phil, but they probably exist for HOFers.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

1974 Laughlin Baseball Sportslang #5, Mascot

Artist Robert G. Laughlin created a number of 1970s baseball sets, from all-time highlights (1974 Famous Feats #5 profile) to Negro League player portraits (1978 Long Ago Black Stars #5 profile). His most readily available, the World Series issues, came in partnership with Fleer, but many others went out under Bob's own name, advertised via his popular newsletter, "Inside Pitch." Laughlin's style, alternately cartoonish and evocative, works well with cards and Mascot is about the cutest thing you'll see on baseball cardboard.

Card front

Prior to their successful challenge to Topps' hegemony and their 1981 set, Fleer wandered somewhat in the baseball card forest. (They printed lots of stickers, lots of team logos, and lots stickers with team logos.) Laughlin's issues seem more like labors of love and 1974 Sportslang comes from this mold, giving history to a bunch of sport phrases.

Card back

People who jump into suit and cavort around the field are common to baseball, though not universal. The Yankees, for one, have no mascot and the Red Sox only added "Wally, the Green Monster" a few years ago. In the olde tymes, a "mascot" was more like today's bat boys, with some teams hosting a kid in the dugout for good luck or amusement. They'd wear a Gaedel-sized uniform, pose for team photos, and occasionally appear on a card. The Chicken (FamousChicken.com) modernized wearing furry suits and acting out against umpires, which continues to this day in both his act and dozens of imitators.

Value: Singles from this 40-card set cost a dollar or so, with no real stars to speak of.

Fakes / reprints: Doubt any reprints or fakes exist for this set, given its low profile and lack of real players.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

1953 Red Man NL #5, Roy Campanella

My dad collected baseball cards as a young Yooper in Iron Mountain, Michigan. No doubt it passed the time between local "gang activity," where kids from the Italian families would hunt the Norwegians (including him) through the alleys one day and be hunted the next. Plenty of his childhood stories include the game one way or the other, growing up in a house that backed up to a ball field. We drove by there about 15 years ago and things seem little changed, even as the area's mining economy sputtered and eventually withered away during the 20th century.


Card front

A few of dad's cards survived into adulthood, usually because they were crammed into old books or other deposits of ephemera. During the 90s, I'd get an envelope every couple of years with a re-found card. What temptations they represented, a 1962 Musial one year and 1956 Duke Snider the next! Dad and grandma disagree about what happened to the bulk of his cards, with flood damage and swiping by childhood "friends" the top suspects. Whatever their fate, those discoveries seeded my own vintage collection, which now stretches back into grandpa's time and beyond.

Early in the re-discovery process, a 1953 Red Man Campy came in the mail. Its over-sized artistic beauty loomed over my mid-1980s Topps cards. They stacked neatly into 2 ½-x-3 ½ inch piles, but Big Roy got his own space at almost twice the size. He stands posed and poised on the card, slight halo outlining kinetic, powerful shoulders. It's unclear why they put a ball in his hand sans catching gear, though it might explain his bemused expression. ("What, hold it like I'm throwing? To who, the press agent?")

Despite closer geographic connections to Detroit and Milwaukee, Brooklyn's bums (and Duke Snider specifically) grabbed my dad's attention in the early 50s. He's a Dodger fan to this day, so it makes sense a Campy card would linger in some forgotten hiding spot. (I picture it as a dusty bookmark for The Crying of Lot 49 or The Fountainhead, titles set aside to check a box score and eventually sifted onto a disused shelf.)

The 1955 Dodgers, and their only Brooklyn-based title, remain a high point for my dad uneclipsed by later champions. Something about their move to L.A., where cornerstones like Jackie Robinson and Campy would never play, etched a line between two teams, the one he loved as a boy and who he follows as a man. My own Seattle Mariners know nothing from championships, so a piece of me remains fixed to Brooklyn and 1955 until their time comes. (Chicago Cubs fans can probably sketch out my golden years with a few broad strokes.)

Monday, July 7, 2008

1964 Bazooka Baseball #5, Warren Spahn

I'm almost finished reading A False Spring by Pat Jordan, available at finer libraries everywhere. This autobiographical and engaging book covers Jordan's life as a talented but erratic pitcher transitioning from "big fish" prep school life to the Milwaukee Braves farm system in the late 50s and 60s.

Card front (blank back)

Early in the book, the author describes a 10-minute photo shoot with Warren Spahn that followed Jordan's bonus baby signing. The final product looks casual and friendly, the veteran and greenhorn rookie immediately at ease with each other. Ten years removed, the pitcher-turned-writer describes how the photo decorates his attic's writing desk. It hints at the artifice of his sporting life, a slice of brilliance to banish the shade of unfathomable wildness.
Spahn spent 20+ years blowing horsehide past and around batters of every age, even after three years' service in WWII. Maybe being a one-of-a-kind pitcher maintained his sunny disposition and jocular approach to life, or vice versa. This 1964 Bazooka gum #5 catches him apparently unaware of the camera, hard at work on a warm-up baseball. Pictures like these brought kids onto the field with their superstars and become essential pieces of the diamond fantasy life. How many squeezed ten tiny fingers around the ball like a mystic, searching out Warren's secrets? Did their legs fly to the sky without knowing why?

Bazooka (under Topps' aegis) started printing cards in the 50s and continues fitfully to this day, but the 60s proved their best era. The traditional Topps set filled the card pack market and remained relatively static in size and distribution. On the other hand, the larger boxes of Bazooka gum were free to try out a variety of concepts, like three-card panels, baseball playing tips, all-time greats of the game, and even story cards that highlighted great individual performances.

A complete run of 1960s Bazooka would probably be more interesting than normal Topps, if less valuable. It's certainly fascinating to compare scissors skills from year-to-year! Maybe Spahn is smiling because he found a kid with hands as good as his own, who left nice, sharp corners.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

1952-53 Victoria Baseball #5, Raul "Chino" Atan

There's a poignancy to this card that impresses me every time I look at it. The green of the field, the smoky blue sky, and the umpire's crisp attention all point to the pastoral nature of baseball and show an artistic reverence for the game itself, something missed in an era of big stadiums and superstar personalities.


The umpire pictured, Raul "Chino" Atan, is of Chinese extraction. He spent a few years as a player in the Cuban leagues, but is best known for his time behind the mask (or, as depicted by the card, watching the lines). From what I can tell, all books about Cuban baseball include stories about him, a distinction unlikely for umpires of the American game. No wonder he received a card in this excellent 1952-53 Victoria tobacco set, and a beautifully posed one at that.

The foliage swaying just beyond left field doesn't look like a palm and scuttled me off to search for Cuban trees. Maybe it's a banyan fig? Something else tropical and laced with intrigue? (Is there anything as intriguing as "the tropics?") You can imagine kids unable to front the admission fee watching from holes in the outfield fence on a blazing afternoon and wandering back to the tree for shade between innings. All the while, Atan stands erect in his suit-and-tie, confident in baseball's lined dimensions.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

1923 W515 Baseball #5, Ed Rommell

The silent, corkscrewed face of Ed Rommel shows such determination, I have to wonder--is that a person? A statue? The essence of focus, narrowing all visual cues to only the strike zone and the catcher's signals? He even ignores whatever's going on behind him, algae bloom or burning bush. (God's calling, Ed! Just turn around!)

Card front (blank back)

Mr. Rommel (spelling error to the card) is known to baseball for a number of reasons. Most significantly, he developed the knuckleball pitch as an effective weapon and used it to win more than 20 games in a season multiple times. However, Ed's final MLB victory was assuredly the most unusual. Due to the scheduling oddities teams endured in the 20s, the A's took only two pitchers to a one-game series against the Indians. Rommel relieved Lew Krausse after a single inning in what became a barn-burner. Deadlocked at 15-15 after nine innings, the A's eventually won 18-17 in 18 innings. His (winning) numbers seem bizarre: 29 hits allowed (still a record), 17 innings pitched, and many, many runs. Perhaps his superhuman focus had wavered by then and the eyes wouldn't screw as tight as they used to.

Ed's facial expressions aside, the W515 strip cards look better than many other pen-and-ink issues. (That's called "damning with faint praise.") They use multiple colors, are fairly detailed, and actually resemble the player named.

UPDATE: Prior to 2011's opening day, Baseball-Reference.com highlighted two classic Opening Day Duels, one of which pitted Rommel and Walter Johnson against each other. Rommel eventually lost 1-0 in 15 innings, but clearly pitched an incredible game.

Value: You can find commons like Rommel for less than $10 and often as group lots. The set features a variation in size, dubbed imaginatively W515-1 and W515-2. This one's trimmed down to the colors, so I'm not sure which one it is. I'll roll my "expert collector" dice and say it's a W515-1. Who can say otherwise? ("PSA 0 trimmed?" No kidding!) Just in case I decide I really need the other one for my type collection, I'll bust out a ruler at this year's National and measure other Rommels until I find the 1/8" difference.

Fakes / reprints: Reprints probably exist, though this set's not valuable enough for them to be widespread.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

1947 Smith's Oakland Oaks Baseball #5, Ray Hamrick

Smith's Clothing, a men's store in the Bay Area, put out two sets of cards in the late 40s to celebrate their local minor league team, the Oakland Oaks. This 1947 card shows off the gritty determination of one Ray Hamrick, a war-time shortstop for the Phillies still hanging on in the PCL. His 452 big league at-bats in 1943 and 1944 produced a winsome .205 batting average with sparse power. Match that with a below-average glove and you've got Pacific Coast League material. I'm sure it was a pleasant train ride to California.

Card front

The card has two interesting features: 1) horizontal composition and 2) Ray's ability to field the ball while eyeballing the stands for scouts willing to give him another shot at the big time. This might explain his mediocre glove work!

I like most side-shot cards, especially those that give you an interesting composition or capture an exciting play. Not sure about Mr. Hamrick, though, trapped in his half-effort reach, ghostly right hand dangling forlornly behind. Perhaps a cheap sideline shot is all a clothing store can afford, but why blow a sideways picture on it? Did they simply never put a bat in the guy's hands? (The Phillies might wish they hadn't.)

Card back

Clothing stores don't often publish cards and this one makes me wonder whether the cards actually came from the stores or the team just sold Smith's-sponsored goods at the ballpark. Black-and-white printing with a muddy background doesn't wow the eye, but the set does get credit for being one of the first printed post-WWII, still four year prior to Topps' higher-quality debut.

Oakland's PCL team (fan motto: "I'm For the Oaks!") garnered five sets soon after the war, three from the Remar Bread company and two from Smith's. 1948, their final pennant-winning year, stands out in history. That team, nicknamed "Nine Old Men," featured a number of former MLB stars, Billy Martin's first pro campaign, and some manager named Stengel. More about them when I get to the 1948 set's #5.