Monday, April 29, 2013

1889 Philadelphia "Stars of the Diamond" Baseball #5, L.M. (Lave) Cross

Before, before designated hitters, before talk radio, before the 20th century, there was still baseball. "Founding era" baseball. Well-dressed gentlemen who played dirty. Outlaw leagues that ignored each others' signed contracts. Cheating, drinking, and megalomania. Yellow journalism baseball. For all our ragging on today's public sports obsession, at least there are hundreds of other channels to watch. 19th century fans flocked to baseball in part because it put the ne'er-do-wells into a public arena with nominal rules and umpires to enforce them.

In their collective infancy, 19th century pro teams rose and fell on the strength of individual stars, who blossomed for a few glorious years, only to destroy their bodies or reputations with intemperate living and fall back to earth amidst media scandal. (21st century satirist-writers like @OldHossRadbourn base their commentary on the era's expected insouciance of body, mind, and liver.)

Printed in what I consider the most significant city of baseball's first century--no offense, New York--these page-sized "cards" came with midsummer issues of The Stage, a Philadelphia weekly newspaper. 19th century photography worked best in formal studios, so Mr. Cross and many in The Stage's 14-player set look like college lettermen plucked from a turn of the century yearbook. Look at that natty suit, polished hair, perfect tie knot, and buttonhole chain. Excelsior!

Actual size, 9.5" x 12.5"

Lave Cross largely avoided his contemporaries' flameouts and racy headlines, but  The Stage would've covered him often as a 14-year pro in their fair city, suiting up for different local teams: the Philadelphia Athletics across three leagues (American Association, Players League, American League) and later the Philadelphia Phillies, which play then as now in the National League (career stats).

A Wisconsin native and son of Czech immigrants, he received the moniker Lafayette Napoleon Cross to approximate and replace his birth name Vratislav Kriz, with the nickname "Lave" striking a middle ground between Lafayette and Vratislav. (I assume The Stage either got "L. M." wrong or he was known publicly with a different middle name and initial.)

This "Stars of the Diamond" text fills in some Cross family backstory, including a prominent mention of recently deceased brother Amos (d. 1888), who shared backstop duties with Lave for the 1887 Louisville Colonels. According to SABR research, oldest brother Joe Cross also played a single game for Louisville that year as a positional fill-in from a Cleveland semi-pro team. They're not quite three Alou brothers in the same outfield, but that many siblings on one team still stands out in baseball history.

We can infer The Stage's "Kelly's at the Bat" poem adapted "Casey at the Bat," but tailored to fit 19th century star King Kelly, then of Boston's Beaneaters. Stage performances of "Casey" debuted in 1888 and proved immediately successful, inspiring paeans and variations of all sorts in the 120+ years since, including this stamp in the Post Office's "Folk Heroes" series.

Value: Old Cardboard estimates VG singles at $185, but pricing will vary given the set's extreme scarcity. Most modern transactions come via auction, so "real" value changes by whim of the bidders. The text supplements are also significant as original sources for stories of 19th century baseball, so collectors also compete with historians.

Fakes / reprints: Haven't seen any in the marketplace, perhaps due to the set's obscurity.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

1993 Stadium Club Baseball #5, Tony Phillips

Happy 54th birthday to Tony Phillips, a guy who exceeded the common definitions of "journeyman" and "utility player." He suited up for six franchises over 18 years, played every non-battery position, and posted a 109 career OPS+, drawing 100+ walks five times.

Stealing a page from Satchel Paige's playbook, Tony prolonged his career with independent teams Yuma Scorpions (2011) and Edinburg Roadrunners (2012), then tried out for this year's York Revolution. Unlike former big-leaguer Brett Tomko, Tony didn't make their 2013 roster.

I like the photo on this card's front exactly as much as I dislike the card's cluttered, mis-mash back. The fuzzy glove hand obscures almost everything else and Stadium Club would've been better served choosing a rookie card OR batting pose and not both.

It's interesting that Topps called Tony "3B-2B," given this breakdown of where he played in 1992.
  • 2B: 57 games
  • RF: 35
  • DH: 34
  • CF: 24
  • 3B: 20
  • LF: 14
  • SS: 1

Given all that, I'd go with "2B-OF." Tony's fielding versatility reminds me of Pete Rose, as Charlie Hustle logged 500+ games at 5 positions. It's almost certainly why Phillips never made an All-Star team in 2 decades of good play.

Value: Tony's star never rose high enough in the sky to break $1, but I bet he enjoyed the 1989 World Series win.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Baseball, the Marathon, and Some Cards

Finally stepping off this week's emotional roller coaster, as everyone here in Boston went from great Patriots Day expectations to the Boston Marathon bombing, the factory explosion outside Waco, the Senate vote on background checks, multiple earthquakes in Asia, and back to Watertown's meticulous manhunt. Locals mused that Friday night would see the greatest bar tab in city history as a release from sequestering themselves indoors all day. Most people expressed relief over joy; it's nerve-wracking keeping yourself "alert" for 24+ hours.

Baseball self-consciously took a lower profile after Monday, given its hand-in-glove relationship with the marathon. My favorite part of every Patriots Day is the mid-morning Fenway game, timed to end so 30,000+ energized fans can spill out into nearby Kenmore Square and join the confluence of humanity motivating runners to gut out the marathon's last agonizing miles. Boston's horsehide-and-sneaker combo is a sweet spot for the city and when I think about Patriots Days past and future, the link feels (and should remain) inseparable. I pulled some of my favorite Red Sox cards with that connection in mind.

1938 Goudey #282, Bobby Doerr

Bobby Doerr is Boston's oldest living HOFer and held a ton of offensive team records that it took Ted Williams to break. And is there a more enjoyable set than the big-head 1938 Goudeys, complete with tiny cartoons and baby blue uniforms? (Hidden cartoon pun: prior to reaching Boston, Doerr "starred" for the eponymous Hollywood Stars.)

1938 Boston Marathon: 1936 winner and then-leader Ellison "Tarzan" Brown surprises fans by taking a cooling swim in Lake Cochituate mid-race, ceding his chance at victory. Brown returned to win in 1939 and became the first Boston runner to break 2:30.

1987 Fleer Word Series subset, Spike Owen and Dave Henderson

Both guys on this card started 1986 with Seattle, far from World Series prospects, but a mid-August trade made them teammates with the same Roger Clemens who'd struck out 20 Mariners in April. Spike contributed a .875 postseason OPS and Henderson homered twice in the World Series, including a long blast off Dwight Gooden.

Boston's Bruce Hurst went 3-0 that postseason, including a complete game 5 win over Gooden, who lost twice in the series. Hurst continued to pitch well for years, but if Boston wins that series, Bruce would still be on billboards around town.

1987 Boston Marathon: Two-time Japanese Olympian Toshihiko Seko wins his second Boston title, following 1986 wins in London and Chicago. As he put it, "The marathon is my only girlfriend. I give her everything I have."

1984 Donruss Champions #14, Ted Williams

Donruss printed several postcard-sized sets in the 80s, adding hand-painted legends like Williams to this 60-card collection of Champions (active players) and Grand Champions (retired players). I enjoyed the new-and-old variety as a young collector and still own all of them (set checklist).

1984 Boston Marathon: Briton (and Olympian) Geoff Smith wins his first of back-to-back races, the last Boston Marathons to offer no prize money. Adding a financial incentive quickly inflated the pool of elite competitors, which also increased the race's international prestige.

Bill Lee, in formal attire

Baseball spent the 1970s being as eccentric as Spaceman Lee. They belonged together.

1970s Boston Marathon: Bill Rodgers wins four times, twice setting a course record. 1982 marked the last time a Commonwealth resident (Alberto Salazar) won Boston and 1983 was the last time an American (Greg Meyer) did so. In 1975, Boston became the first major race to add a wheelchair division.

1967 Topps #604, Boston team card

Boston's 1967 pennant-winners, decked out in red, red, and more red. This is tough card to get: scarce Topps high number, Yaz Triple Crown year, and "Impossible Dream" World Series collectors all vie for them.

1967 Boston Marathon: Kathrine Switzer famously runs the marathon, at one point evading race officials desperate to chase her (or any woman) off the course. Women are first officially "welcomed" by the BAA to register and run in 1972. (Join Benoit won Boston in 1983, prior to taking Gold in the inaugural Women's Marathon at the LA Olympics in 1984.)

Thanks to everyone outside Boston for this week's shows of support and solidarity. Here's hoping the marathon and baseball remain linked now and forever.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

2004 Upper Deck First Pitch Baseball #5, Miguel Cabrera

Born today, 2012 AL Triple Crown Winner, career 151 OPS+ hitter, and occasional glove man Miguel Cabrera.

Miguel split 2003 between third base and left field, so I assume this photo shows him as an outfielder, fielding something hit low in front of him.

So many players get labeled as "Star Rookies" and so few deliver on those projections, year in and year out, but Miguel sits atop that group for the last ten years. (2013 marks the start of just his 11th season; it feels to me like he's been pounding the ball forever.)

Upper Deck published this 300-card set to coincide with Opening Day, in part to get young guys like Cabrera shown in "real" uniforms as quickly as possible (set checklist).

This card text actually undersells Cabrera, who certainly "bulked up physically" and can hit darn near everything within reach. "FUTURE TRIPLE CROWN WINNER" might've been tough to predict, though.

Want a major flashback? Check out Florida's 2004 Opening Day roster, which still featured "original Marlin" Jeff Conine and future Red Sox title winners Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell. Yeah, I'm old now.

Value: Awesome hitter or not, this #5 costs just $1 on and other stars run about the same.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

1967 Post Cereal Great Moments in Sports #5, Baseball (Batting)

I recently wrapped up a job of 13 years, so have had less time to focus on the collection and blogging of late. Hope today's hard-to-find type card from Canada is worth the wait!

This 4"x4" pose of an unknown hitter poised to swing started as a larger punch-out card packaged in Canadian cereal boxes. Kids then separated the background, batter, and umpire/catcher into pieces with numbered tabs and matching slots. Combine everything correctly--via instructions in English or French--and you have a tiny diorama, similar to one scene from a pop-up book.

The bilingual back gives a functional account of the batter's task, to evaluate and swing at incoming pitches. I assume it's just as dry in French.

Note the small triangular cut near the bottom middle--that's a fold-out support panel that helps it stand upright when assembled, like a leg on a picture frame. This card's previous owner taped its corners to avoid losing this base, making it difficult to stand up as Post intended.

To my knowledge, this set's uncatalogued by the typical baseball collector guides, so it's not easy to discover why Post produced this unusual set design. 12 panels comprise the whole set and baseball appears just once. Good thing for me it was #5!
  1. Hockey (shooting)
  2. Hockey (passing)
  3. Football (passing)
  4. Football (kicking)
  5. Baseball (batting)
  6. Skating (pairs special)
  7. Basketball (lay up shot)
  8. Auto Racing (finish)
  9. Track (the finish) [Roger Bannister]
  10. Sailing (old and new)
  11. Horses (jumping)
  12. Soccer (goal shot)

UPDATE: See the Post Cereal Baseball Card Museum profile of this set, complete with original box and advertising.

1967 Post 3-D Insert Gallery sample

Value: I paid $25 on eBay for this #5. They're so rare I'm not sure if that's fair or not, but Roger Bannister's fame should make its track card most valuable to collectors at large.

Fakes / reprints: It'd be tough to fake all that die-cutting and not worth doing for a card with no real players.