Friday, February 20, 2009

1955 Red Man AL #5, Bob Grim

Looking decidedly wistful here, and anything but "grim," today's guest kicked off his major league career with a bang, going 20-6 in 1954. This earned him AL Rookie of the Year and he followed with three more years of relative success, posting a 45-21 record in pinstripes before being traded to Kansas City.

Card front

His Wikipedia entry notes how arm troubles prompted a successful conversion to relief pitching, which no doubt prolonged his career in a sport where young players can fall off the planet in no time at all. Grim's career eventually ended in 1962 with the A's, but his stats change notably after those four seasons in New York. I wonder where today's pitching strategies and medical care would've taken him, compared to the 1950s and four-man rotations.

Like other Red Man issues I've covered, this over-sized, beautifully painted card design stands out among oddballs. They look a lot like Topps' 1953 cards, but repeated for several years running. Each tobacco pouch included a card ("for your boy!") with the chaw ("not for your boy!"), and printed one numbered set per league. See the checklists for the full star power of the day and pictures of some ad placards. (Lest you think I made up the "for your boy" stuff.)

Thursday, February 12, 2009

1980 Topps Superstars #5, Jim Rice

Cheer up, Mr. Rice, you’re in the Hall of Fame! Some thought you’d make it, others held you shouldn’t, and it dragged on long enough that still others debated the debating. I just marvel that your hair looks so good on TV!

Card front (5" x 7")

I read through Jim’s Wikipedia entry to better understand all of the blather and palaver. The last section calls out a bunch of interesting similarities to fellow HOFer Ducky Medwick, who played for the Gashouse Gang in St. Louis. Unfortunately for Rice, people who know the political history of the Hall consider Ducky’s era (and even the Cardinals specifically) unfairly over-represented. Perhaps the linking’s meant to be supportive—their circumstances do align remarkably well—but peripheral issues take you in a different direction.

All this observed, I care much for cards and not so much for the Hall itself, so hey—1980 Superstars! Topps crafted these 5”x7” beauties as an oddball companion to the normal 792-card set. Each paper-wrapped pack contained a handful of big, sharp photos and the checklist includes 59 of the era’s best players…and Sixto Lezcano. (Zing!) Curiously, the back states only the player name and team, a dearth of data drowning in dreary grey newsprint.

Two things bother me about this issue. First, the pictures seem like spring training one-offs. Rice’s pose, a pretty uninspiring shot, looks better than 90% of his competitors. Everyone else is looking away from the camera, caught at odd angles, or just not feeling their best. Hey Topps, how about using all that real estate to show a nice action shot? Second, the card backs say almost nothing, a real waste of 35 square inches of space. How about using them to make a big All-Star roster puzzle like they did with 1977’s cloth stickers? A few strategic changes would’ve made them super Superstars.

Friday, February 6, 2009

1968 Laughlin Baseball World Series #5, 1908 (Cubs vs. Tigers)

Artist Bob Laughlin published a bunch of oddball card sets featuring his cartoons and caricatures during the 70s and 80s, including a cute series (1974 Sportslang) I covered last July. His earliest work, a series of single-panel highlight cards covering each World Series, shows up today. This first card featured the Boston American and Pittsburgh Pirates from 1903, the former beating the latter in a best-of-9. Recent type collection tangent John McGraw (and Giant team management) refused to play in 1904, so skip one year and add four to reach 1908, today’s card.

Card front

This plain-faced image, appearing humbly in black-and-white, relates to a great deal of baseball culture, old and new. Tinker, Evers, and Chance, most of the infield for Chicago’s dominant 1900s team, all played pretty well. Their social significance, however, looms over a simple stat line like the Colossus over Rhodes, casting shadows into the future. As multiple championship winners and poetic célèbre, the teammates became more than legend than substance. People knew them so well that their eponymous phrase came to mean “working smoothly and reliably.” This comes, however, with a mirror role as a sacrificial pop icon for modern critics. As individuals, none played up to Hall of Fame “standards,” itself a font of rich debate for baseball fans and writers throughout the sport’s history. The arguments back-and-forth are a reading snooze for me, but the line between Hall of Fame and Hall of Very Good really lights some people up.

Card back

To circle back to 1908, consider a few other Events of Significance surrounding that year’s World Series.

  1. Tender 19 year-old Fred Merkle mis-runs the bases (the Merkle Boner) and snatches defeat from the Giant jaws of victory. He went on to play for 20 years, but never outlived that infamous day. “GIANTS WIN LOSE THE PENNANT,” etc., etc.
  2. Gate attendance proved very low, partly from a Chicago ticket scalping scandal the ownership was implicated in. Sound familiar?
  3. “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” written by two gentlemen who’d never seen a pro game, becomes a nationwide hit.
  4. The Chicago Cubs kick off a century of waiting for their fans.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

1917 E135 Collins McCarthy Baseball #5, Fred Anderson

Today’s guest, John Frederick Anderson, is the first player I've written about who eventually took his own life. That tragic end came some forty years removed from Fred's half-dozen years in the game and a single 1917 World Series appearance, two brief and unremarkable innings in Game 2 against the Chicago White Sox. (The pale hose went on to win the series 4 to 2.)

Fred pitched his three New York seasons under legendary manager John McGraw. Apparently, he took a little something extra to the mound, frequently throwing spitters. Check out this colorful account of the team’s 26-game winning streak in 1916, which includes comments on Anderson’s “moist ball” and several good performances. The Baseball Crank blog adds a more statistical bent to the amazing run of Ws, noting he started three times and no doubt appeared in several others, as one of the league’s leading mop-up men.

E135 cards don’t show up very often. I finally purchased a trimmed #5 (with a blank back) from an online store last year for $30. It presents a little better in real life than what you see in the scan, given the ancient, plasticky gloss they used in the first quarter-century. Some include an advertising stamp for the Collins-McCarthy store on the back in black ink.

The whole set’s rare enough to counterfeit, something I originally feared of Fred. West Coast dealer Mark McRae helped add confidence to this particular example. Careful examination of the printing details shows the right kind of dot pattern, something handled differently by modern printers and presses. Modern gloss also holds up better, while the surface of a handled E135 appears to “fracture” into tiny pieces like a shattered mirror (or 1970s Kellogg’s card). I don’t expect PSA to ever pass judgment on Mr. Anderson, but if it happened, they’d look for similar indicators—right after cashing my large check, of course.