Archive for the ‘Baseball Cards’ Category

Espinosa Arrives, But Nats Fall

Saturday, September 4th, 2010

Danny Espinosa U.S. Futures All-Star Danny Espinosa of the Washington National fails to tag out World Futures All-Star Tyson Gillies of the Seattle Mariners as he steals second base during the 2009 XM All-Star Futures Game at Busch Stadium on July 12, 2009 the in St. Louis, Missouri.

Nationals fans got a glimpse of the team’s future double play combination on Friday against the Pittsburgh Pirates, as Danny Espinosa got the starting nod at second base. After spending most of three years in the minors (with stints in Vermont, Potomac, Harrisburg and Syracuse), Espinosa cashed in on his early-September call up by launching his first home run (in the top of the third inning) into the right field seats at PNC Park and turning a seamless double play at a position that he will play well into the future. The Desmond-Espinosa combo is likely to be the opening day up-the-middle defense for the Nats in 2011. Espinosa’s exposure at second base was the only piece of good news for the Nats on Friday night, however, as the Pirates beat up on steady starter Livan Hernandez, touching up the right hander for eight earned runs in just 4.1 innings. Hernandez was philosophical about his outing: “It’s not happening sometimes,” he said. “When it’s not your day, it’s not your day.”

Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: We had plenty of responses from readers on our posting on Albert Pujols and Lou Gehrig, including complaints that we are “N.L.-centric” and that we purposely left out “the one guy who puts Albert to shame.” The reader went on a screed, saying that “Alex Rodriguez has better numbers, plays for a better team, has more awards and plays a more difficult position” than Pujols. “Pujols is a very, very good player,” the reader said. “But he’s no Alex Rodriguez.” So we checked the numbers. Rodriguez has 604 home runs in 17 seasons (Pujols has 401 in ten), has a career BA of .303 (Pujols is at .332), has a career OBP of .387 (Pujols is at .425) and has won three MVPs — the same number as Pujols. Albert doesn’t play for the Empire, but he’s played in two World Series, while Rodriguez has played in one. Pujols lags behind Albert in games played (of course), but all that this means is that Pujols (who’s played in 1530) has about 700 games (Rodriguez has played in 2278) to catch the pride of the Gothams in career home runs — and at this rate (of about 33 per year) he will. By our reckoning (and at the current rate), when Pujols has played in 2200 games, he will have hit just over 610 homers. The reader is right: Alex Rodriguez is a great player. In fact, he’s the second best player in baseball today.

The Princes of Chavez Ravine

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

Once upon a time there was a pitcher who was nearly as celebrated as Stephen Strasburg — a phenom, a whiz, an over-the-top fastballer whose mid-90s down-in-the-zone pitches defeated even the best hitters. But Dean Chance will not go down in baseball history as Hall of Famer or even as one of baseball’s near greats, but rather as a one-time memorable figure whose talent and savvy brought him from the small Ohio hamlet of Wooster to the hallowed streets of Hollywood. Those were the days: when Hollywood legends packed the stands of the Dodger Stadium (which the expansion Angels shared with the N.L. legends), to oggle the young and brash stalwarts of “the singing cowboy’s” newest entrants into the Yankee-dominated American League. The most celebrated Angel of all was Robert Boris “Bo” Belinsky, the lefty throwing pool hustling playboy-athlete whose 1962 no-hit, no-run feat against Baltimore’s Orioles launched him into the headlines — and into the arms of (among others) Mamie Van Dorn, Connie Stevens and Ann-Margret.

In spite of their attraction to L.A. celebrity-wood, the 1961 expansion Angels were predictably poor. But the 1962 Angels were a fairytale, matching the Yankees in win for win as Hollywood oohed and ahhed and celebrated — prematurely. The Angels went through a late-season swoon and finished third. But with the storied, oh-so-handsome and charismatic Belinsky (a former “street rat” from New York by way of Trenton), on the mound, everyone thought the future was bright. The Angels would conquer both the Yankees and the American League  — and Bo Belinsky (handsome and blessed with a flash-bang smile), would lead the way. It was not to be: after his meteoric rise, Belinsky’s fame undid him, drowning a  promising career in years of dissipation — until (in later life), he became a reformed alcoholic and born again Christian living in Las Vegas (of all places). And as Belinsky fell, so too did the Angels, reverting to their losing ways and finishing 9th in 1963. Thus, Bo Belinsky.

Not Dean Chance. Like Belinsky, Chance was young and handsome. And, like Belinsky, Chance could pitch — could pitch so well, in fact, that he left hitters shaking their heads and walking back to the dugout. But that’s where the similarity ended. Unlike Belinsky, who dreamed of stardom and Hollywood and beautiful women, Chance dreamed of baseball. And unlike Belinsky, street smart and tough, Chance was a small town boy who grew up on a farm. Then too, Chance was dedicated to the game and, while he “ran” with Belinsky (and became his lifelong friend), he was never awed by flashing cameras, beautiful women — or the glitter of Hollywood. While the young Belinsky spent his New York childhood dodging the cops and tossing nickels on street corners, the 6-3 Chance spent his Ohio childhood listening to the Indians on the radio . . . and dreamed of becoming a ballplayer. And when the Indians weren’t playing (when the  midwest winds wickered across Ohio’s cornfields), Chance spent his time dreaming about being a boxer. “When I was growing up I always wanted to be a ballplayer,” Chance recently told a baseball reporter. “But I always loved boxing, too. I grew up listening to and watching Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano. Boy, were they exciting.”

Chance was a “puncher.” He styled his mound tactics in the same way that ’60s boxers styled their straight-ahead heavyweight tilts — he bored in on hitters, ratcheting up his fastball into the mid-90s, before dropping it (unpredictably) onto the outside corner. In high school Chance was not only unhittable, he became the most talked about young hurler in Ohio baseball history. His high school records remain unequaled: he threw 17 no hitters at Wooster high school — the closest contender is another Ohioan, Tom Engle, who threw six straight back in 1989. In 1962, as Belinsky was making headlines (though he was only 10-11) and dating the stars, Chance began his own career with the Angels, forging a workmanlike 14-10 campaign. In 1963, both of them struggled: Belinsky was 2-9 and Chance was 13-18. But, just as Belinsky was fading, Chance was becoming a premier pitcher. In 1964, as the Angels struggled to finish just two games over .500, Chance compiled a breathtaking 20-9 record and became (at 23) the youngest player to that point to win a Cy Young award. His 1964 campaign remains among the most memorable in A.L. history, in large part because Chance pitched better against the Yankees than he did against any other team: “It’s Chance, not CBS, who owns the Yankees. Lock, stock and barrel,” Angel’s center fielder Albie Pierson said during the season. “When Dean pitched, the Yankees became a bunch of guys in pantyhose . . . they had no chance.”

Belinsky couldn’t keep up. As Chance was making baseball history, Belinsky was struggling with his control (he would go 9-8 in 1964), and with his personal life. Flitting from date-to-date, and being photographed with the glitterati, Belinsky’s lifestyle (his constant fist fights, most notoriously, with an L.A. Times beat reporter) and his interminable scrapes with the Beverly Hills constabulary — was wearing thin with Angel’s owner Gene Autry. After the end of the ’64 campaign, Autry decided he’d had enough and traded Belinsky to the Philadelphia Phillies. But Belinsky’s fame preceded him, as Phillies fans viewed the new duo of Bunning and Belinsky as Philadelphia’s salvation; the two even appeared together on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Back in L.A., farmboy Chance continued to labor; and while the Wooster native would never equal the near perfection of his Cy Young year, his ten-year career remains a talisman of consistency — he won 20 games for the Twins in 1967, an astonishing 18 of them were complete. His career nosedived after 1968 (when he was 16-16), and, in 1971, he retired to Wooster, where he became a boxing promoter and manager and formed a respected sanctioning organization — the International Boxing Association.

Now, at age 68, Chance will talk baseball (and boxing) with anyone who will sit and listen. “The greatest defensive player I ever faced was Brooks Robinson,” Chance told one reporter several years ago. “The greatest relief pitcher was Dick Radatz of the Red Sox. The toughest hitters I ever faced were Tony Oliva of the Twins and Carl Yastrzemski of the Red Sox. They always hit me the other way. If I had a runner on third and no outs, those were the last guys I’d want to see at the plate.” Chance says his biggest thrill as a major leaguer was winning the 1964 Cy Young award. That may well be. But for fans of baseball, the most memorable event in the life of the Ohio farmboy-made-good, came on this date in 1967, when Chance threw the best game of his career — a no hitter against the Cleveland Indians. That in itself might not be historic, except that Chance’s no-hitter was the second he threw that month. The first had come on August 15 — when he no-hit the Red Sox.

(above: Dean Chance as a rookie; below: Bo Belinsky in the Angel’s clubhouse.)

Bullpen Sinks Pirates

Thursday, June 10th, 2010

The Washington Nationals took the second in a three game set against the Pirates on Wednesday, though the 7-5 victory was much less cleanly played than the previous night’s 5-2 drubbing. Still, a victory is a victory, and the sloppily played triumph will enter the win column — and lift the Nats to within two games of .500 with one game left to play against the Stargells. The victory was also a vindication (of sorts), for Nats manager Jim Riggleman, who has praised rookie right fielder Roger Bernadina. Bernadina was 3-4 on the night and his speed on the base paths seemed to energize the Nats Nine. “He’s a very talented guy,” Riggleman told the Post back in May. “If you run him out there enough, he’s going to do some damage, because he’s just that good of a player.”

The Nationals were also sparked by a perfect bullpen, as Tyler Walker, Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard and Matt Capps combined to sink the Pirates through 4.1 innings of two hit, no-run ball. Tyler Walker’s outing was key, as the former journeyman Metropolitan, Giant and Phillie has struggled of late. “It was a bullpen shutout. That’s what we were looking for,” Walker said after the win. “We came in and picked up Johnny [Lannan]. He didn’t have his best stuff tonight. You come in and you want to pick him up. You want to help out your teammates. Tonight, I was able to get that job done. I had been struggling in that situation lately — [with] inherited runners. I was really trying to bear down and get us off the field, so we could get back to hitting.” Walker’s outing brought his ERA to back under four, while Storen (1.74) and Clippard (1.57) continued to impress.

Those Little Town Blues: Our friends over at The Real Dirty Mets Blog are getting fat and sassy, in the belief that the Mets are showing that they are some kind of team. (Haven’t they learned? C’mon guys — you’ll only be disappointed . . .) Most recently, “Mr. North Jersey” did some kind of throw down (is that what it’s called now?) in CFG after the Strasburg outing — to the effect that “don’t expect my Mets to go easy on you; we will be out for blood.” Well, let me tell you — we’re terrified. No really. We are. I mean, Strasburg, Lannan, Hernandez et.al are pretty good, but there’s not a one of them as good as Oliver Perez . . .  Our constant desire to become an entry in The New Dickson Baseball Dictionary has led us far afield in the past. It didn’t seem that any Nats qualified as throwing, fielding or hitting in any particularly unique manner for us to even nominate a word or phrase. But now, with Stephen “they call me Mr.” Strasburg having plied his D.C. wares, we think we’ve come up with something. The heater that Strasburg threw against Andy LaRoche on Tuesday (his last K) seems to qualify. It was both unique and spectacularly Strasburg — ian. The Strasburg pitch was up-in-the-zone at 97-plus and absolutely unhittable. We’ll call it “a Porky Pig fastball” — and see if that catches on . . . No? . . .

“I mean, I don’t get it,” one of CFG’s droogs said last night. “The Ahoys? That’s what you call the Pirates?” Okay, we admit, it’s corny, but we’ll take reader nominations for nicknames and we’ll use them too. If they’re any good. We call the Mets “the Apples,” having dropped “the chokes” as being, well … offensive. But, while we call them “the apples” we don’t particularly like that nickname — or even “the Metropolitans.” It seems . . . ah . . . antiquated. So. Have you got something better? Well, send it in. And we’ll use it. But we’ll stick by “the Trolleys” (for the Dodgers) and McCoveys for the Giants and we’ll also stick with the Belinskys for the Angels (after legendary Halo pitcher Bo Belinsky) and, come to think of it, the uniquely descriptive “White Elephants” (c’mon, you know, for the Athletics) is an absolute keeper. But, admittedly, we’re having trouble coming up with a nickname for the Rockies. “The Heltons” is just too easy. And we’re having trouble labeling the Brewers. The “Brew Crew?” C’mon. I mean, who the hell cares? So nominations are open . . .

Guess who’s cashing in? Why, that would be the Topps baseball card company (well, they’re in business, so a little cash is probably not inappropriate), which has issued a limited edition set of cards of Stephen Strasburg, showing him pitching in Tuesday night’s debut. The limited edition has a very short print run, to ensure card value, and shows his first pitch. Right. That “other” card company — Bowman — will not be outdone. It has announced that it is producing a limited number of Bryce Harper cards. The Topps limited edition Strasburg card is pricey (and popular), although Topps has announced it will add a card to its 2010 660-card set (#661) for collectors who purchase a boxed set . . .

Strasburg card-0610.jpg

The “Forgettable” Senators of 1961

Saturday, April 10th, 2010

There’s lots of things that happened on this date in history: in 1912 the Titanic set sail from Southampton (to meet its untimely demise five days later) and in 1925 F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was published. Oh yeah, and in 1961 the expansion Washington Senators took the field for Opening Day at Griffiths Stadium. Of the three events, the last is the most forgettable, even if it most closely resembles the Titanic’s ghastly fate. These were not your daddy’s Senators (those Senators had boarded a plane for Minneapolis, where they became the Twins), and they certainly weren’t memorable: the Senators were cobbled together from an expansion draft of team leftovers when the men who then ran baseball decided that a team in Washington would balance the new high-end la-de-da franchise set to open in Los Angeles — and called (get this) the Angels.

Washington seemed an afterthought: a balancing act to the new west coast team — and its expansion draft reflected it. There just wasn’t that much talent available, and the talent that was available played in New York. Former Cubs great Dale Long came over from the Yankees to play first base, the beautifully named but limping Coot Veal came from the Tigers to play shortstop (which he did, but not often — and poorly), the aging Gene Woodling (38) came down the road from Baltimore to play the outfield and righthander Dick Donovan came in from the Pale Hose to anchor the staff. It wasn’t a surprise that the expansion Senators finished ninth that year — the surprise was that the Kansas City Athletics (then a virtual farm team for the Yankees) were actually worse: though both teams had the same 61-100 season. The Angels, on the other hand, finished ahead of the Senators by some nine wins. They had drafted better (Leon Wagner, Eddie Yost, Earl Averill, Ken Hunt!) and started to build a farm system.

Senators’ fans registered their disdain for the “Afterthoughts” by voting with their feet. The new expansion team drew just 597,000 fans, though the team’s owners thought this might improve — the next year the Senators were slated to move into the newly built “D.C. Stadium,” a then-state of the art facility that would later be named for Robert F. Kennedy. In all, there are only two good reasons to remember the ’61 Senators: Gene Woodling — whose career was revived by a surprising.313 season — and Dick Donovan, as classy a pitcher as there was in baseball. But Woodling’s surprise year was truly a surprise. A 38-year-old could not carry on forever and while Woodling would be remembered for his years of near-greatness with the Indians, he could not replicate them with the Senators. By 1963 he was out of the game.

Not so for Dick Donovan, a righthanded fastballer whose best year as a pitcher was still ahead of him. Donovan, who was originally signed as an amateur by the Boston Braves in 1947, had one day in the sun, though it was a long time coming. After three years of mediocrity bouncing between Boston and the minors, Donovan was signed by the Tigers, who (after eyeballing their wild new “ace”) sent him back to the Braves. “No thanks.” But in 1955 the Chicago White Sox took a gamble on Donovan and were rewarded, in large part because the New England righthander had developed a sneaky slider to complement his above-average fastball. The result was a 15-9 season and a spot at the top of the White Sox rotation. He thereafter served up four steady (and two not-so-steady) seasons before arriving in Washington.

Donovan’s claim to baseball fame, however, came in the third game of the 1959 World Series, when he pitched the best game of his career. Facing off against Dodger great Don Drysdale, Donovan gave up just two hits in 6.2 innings, while Drysdale served up eleven hits to the normally hitless Hose. But the White Sox were the hard-luck losers: after Donovan ambled to the dugout in the 6th, the Chicago bullpen collapsed and the Trolleys took the game 3-1. Donovan must have sensed the impending doom. While waiting for their new stadium to be completed in Chavez Ravine, the Dodgers played at the converted Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, where the short porch in left was guarded by a looming forty foot screen. As Donovan was warming up prior to facing Drysdale, he looked out at the screen and shook his head: “I wonder how a fellow ever gets the side out,” he said. “I guess you gotta be a positive thinker.”

Donovan was only 10-10 for the ’61 Senators, but he led the AL in ERA and might have become a feature of the new team’s rotation. But the Senators’ front office didn’t think he’d get much better and they dealt him (with Jim Mahoney and Gene Green) to Cleveland for Jimmy Piersall. It was a mistake. Piersall hit .244 for the Senators, while  Donovan won 20 games for the Indians. He was just so-so in the two years that followed and, after pitching only 22 innings in the ’65 season, he retired to his boyhood home in Massachusetts. For the next twenty years, Donovan was a successful businessman and a well-known figure in Weymouth. He died in 1997 at the age of 69.

Billy Ripken’s Error

Thursday, April 1st, 2010

It’s bad enough that Baltimore Bird Billy Ripken had to play in the shadow of his brother (which seems to bother him not in the least) — but he has for some time been notorious as the subject of one of baseball’s great “error cards.” In 1989, Fleer’s trading card entry featured Billy Ripken standing innocently before a camera, bat in hand, in his home uniform. Nothing controversial there. But written on the knob end of his bat were two words: “F*ck F*ace” — an “error card” well worth keeping and of some, though minimal value: it now sells, in mint condition, for something close to $30. It’s still too much money, if you ask me, but such are the ways of collectors. The only question that remains is: was the card an “error?” Or did the photographer and Ripken (and Fleer, for that matter) know the words were there — and decided ‘well, what the hell,’ we’ll print the card anyway? It’s possible you know: error cards bring in big money, and there’s no question that some error printings are not “error” printings at all.

The story of the Ripken “error card” is an old story, but it’s worth repeating here: if for no other reason than to point the way to our once-in-a-while entry on baseball’s other pasttime — collecting pieces of cardboard. The inimitable “Snopes” — the website that spends its time separating fact from fiction — clears up the difficulty. According to Snopes, while Ripken initially claimed that the words on the end of the bat were scrawled there without his knowledge (and presumably by a teammate), the truth is that Ripken had put the words there himself. Ripken eventually fessed up: “I got a dozen bats in front of my locker during the 1988 season. I pulled the bats out, model R161, and noticed–because of the grain patterns–that they were too heavy. But I decided I’d use one of them, at the very least, for my batting practice bat,” Ripken remembers. “Now I had to write something on the bat. At Memorial Stadium, the bat room was not too close to the clubhouse, so I wanted to write something that I could find immediately if I looked up and it was 4:44 and I had to get out there on the field a minute later and not be late. There were five big grocery carts full of bats in there and if I wrote my number 3, it could be too confusing. So I wrote ‘F–k’ Face on it.”

Yoy.

That isn’t the end of the story, of course. When the card was printed (there might have been about 100,000 copies in all), Fleer noticed that something was amiss and used wite-out on its future printings, before simply reverting to that tried and true format: it blacked out the offending words on its future press runs (bringing down the price of the card, of course). It’s not as if no one noticed: in the months following the Fleer printing, collectors had spiked the error card’s price to some $500 (the price has now returned from orbit). Ripken continues the story: “After the season was over, in early January, I got a call from our PR guy Rick Vaughn. He said, ‘Billy, we have a problem.’ And he told me what was written on the bat and I couldn’t believe it. I went to a store and saw the card and it all came back to me. We were in Fenway Park and I had just taken my first round of BP. I threw my bat to the third base side and strolled around the bases. When I was coming back, right before I got up to hit again, I remember a guy tapping me on the shoulder asking if he could take my picture. Never once did I think about it. I posed for the shot and he took it.”

Pretty interesting, all in all. As these things go. “I can’t believe the people at Fleer couldn’t catch that,” Ripken says. “I mean, they certainly have to have enough proofreaders to see it. I think not only did they see it, they enhanced it. That writing on that bat is way too clear. I don’t write that neat. I think they knew that once they saw it, they could use the card to create an awful lot of stir.” Billy says he has no idea where the bat is today. “If I were to guess, I would say it probably got lost after someone used it in a game. Probably a guy like Brady Anderson because he choked up so he could use a heavier bat.” And he finishes the story: “Fleer sent me some of the cards out of the goodness of their heart. I autographed them and used them for my gifts to my groomsman in my wedding . . . I figured, at the time, it was better than giving them a set of cufflinks. I think I devalued the cards by signing them though.”

Those Are The Details and Now For The Headlines: The 2010 edition of Topps baseball set is out, and has been for some time. Last year’s entry was just so-so, though its Heritage cards (a reprint of the 1960 set — with current players) was a hit. The 1960 set must be the most popular — something that anyone old enough to remember will agree with. But this year’s set is a keeper — with an attractive full-color design, a killer font emblazoning the team names and a PR campaign intended to attract new fans. There’s a million card giveaway, with a promise of a mint 1952 set for the winner. Not surprisingly, Topps features its Albert Pujols card in its major promotions. And it’s a beaut . . .

Upper Deck has also released its 2010 edition (of course). Last August, the controversial company (with a history of lawsuits and internal wars) lost the right to produce MLB licensed cards. Major League Baseball gave Topps exclusive rights to use its logos as the “official” card of the MLB, which gave Topps a leg-up in their competition for the hearts of collectors. Upper Deck was undeterred: it signed an agreement with the Major League Baseball Players Association — producing a 2010 set that (in the humble opinion of those who follow these things) is near-beer compared to what Topps produces. MLB hit Upper Deck with a lawsuit in February, alleging trademark infringement.

And so the “Cardboard Wars” continue.

Meeting Carlton Fisk

Monday, September 28th, 2009

One of the memorable baseball photographs of all time — perhaps the most memorable — is of Boston Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk waving his arms, willing a fly ball fair during the sixth game of the Red Sox-Reds 1975 World Series. The date was October 21, 1975 and the Big Red Machine was leading the Bosox three games to two. With the Reds leading 6-3 in the eighth inning of the sixth game, Red Sox pinch hitter Bernie Carbo launched a fastball into the left field seats, tying the game at six apiece. And that’s the way it stayed until the 11th inning, when Joe Morgan nearly put the Reds on top with a long fly to right. But Morgan’s sure home run ended up in the glove of Dwight Evans, who made a spectacular catch to save the game — and the series. The Reds failed to score that inning and the next and on they went, into the bottom of the 12th.

Red Sox Diehard tells the rest of the story: “In the home half of the twelfth, Carlton Fisk led off. He stepped to the plate at 12:33 am, and hit the second pitch of the inning hight and deep to left field, but right down the line. If it stayed fair it was a sure home run, but would it stay fair? Fisk jumped up and down in front of home plate, wildly gesturing toward the ball, waving it fair. The ball smacked the foul pole. Home run. The Red Sox had won.” The Big Red Machine went on to take the series the next night, winning the series in seven nail biting games, but as “Diehard” reminds us, Fisk’s quip says it all: “the Red Sox won the series, three games to four.”

 

Fisk’s quip gets it right. Any diehard Red Sox fan (or any diehard baseball fan) will tell you that the 1975 World Series may well be the greatest ever played. And that’s true not because the Big Red Machine won, but because the Red Sox, in defeat, provided some of the most unforgettable post-season memories in major league history. There’s the aging but noble Luis Tiant, pitching his heart out, and Yaz battling for his ring — with an underrated outfield that ranks among baseball’s most surprising. Rose and Griffey and Morgan and Bench versus Yaz and Lynn and Evans and Petrocelli. But it is Fisk’s sixth game home run that remains the symbol of the series, as great a moment as Ruth’s “called shot,” Thomson’s “shot heard round the world” or Mazeroski’s 9th inning game-set-match home run of 1960.  

So when I was given the opportunity to meet Fisk — at a (get this) baseball card show in Pennsylvania — I took it. It’s not that I am a huge fan of the retired catcher: I remember him mostly as a backstop for the Comiskeys, to whom he was traded after a particularly ugly parting with the Red Sox (standard for them). But it was an opportunity, you see, and my wife (here she is, in case you’ve forgotten) is a Red Sox and Carlton Fisk fan. I fantasized my return home (triumphant!) with a bagful for me, but with “a little something” for her. So after me and “me droog” Dan (a lifelong Naps fan) navigated the D.C. to Philly highway puzzle — and after having strolled through dozens of baseball card exhibits — I bought a Carlton Fisk baseball card and handed it to him. “If my wife hadn’t married me,” I said, “I am sure she would have married you.” He laughed. “She must be a Red Sox fan,” he said.

It isn’t every day that you get to meet a hall of fame catcher — and baseball icon — so I took the opportunity to pose some questions, including the one I’m certain Fisk has been asked countless times. Do you consider yourself a Red Sox player or a White Sox player? He smiled and gave the recitation — and for all I know he’d said this so many times there was a string coming out of his back that anyone could pull to hear the same thing. But he was polite: “Oh, I consider myself a Red Sox,” he said. “Sure, I had some problems with the Red Sox in my career and that’s the reason I went to Chicago, but I think I played my best years in Boston. We weren’t any good in Chicago, but we won in Boston.”

He scribbled his name on the baseball card and looked up and stuck out his hand for me to shake and continued: “And I grew up in New Hampshire and the Red Sox were always my favorite team, and kind of my home town team.” I said that I’d seen him play in Chicago, a long time ago. “You remember,” I said. “One year they wore shorts.” He waved: “Oh God, not me. That was the year after I left.” I thanked him for the autograph and walked away, past the next table — where Johnny Bench, his 1975 nemesis was seated, chatting with a fan. I didn’t pay much attention.

3e66_1.jpg image by ChadFinn

Fading Cardboard

Friday, September 4th, 2009

Back on August 24, Sports Illustrated put the fading baseball card industry on life support: “The sports trading card industry is dealing with an uncomfortable present and an uncertain future,” SI intoned. “The sales of cards peaked in 1991 at $1.2 billion, according to estimates by Sports Collector’s Digest, but slid to $400 million by the turn of the century and to $200 million last year.” Take it from me — SI is right; baseball cards, once priced at a nickel a pack, now appeal to a shrinking market of grey haired oldsters who are less interested in the game than in finding a good investment. The proof, they say, is in the pricing. The last great baseball card made by the industry (according to the SI report) was “Ken Griffey Jr.’s 1989 Upper Deck Star Rookie” — the number 1 card in Upper Deck’s inaugural set, and it fetches a pretty fair price; it can bring as much as $150 on ebay, depending on the day and buyer. But it’s more than that: you can go into any store where kids hang out and look for baseball cards and they’re not there. And if they were the kids wouldn’t buy them: the cards are too expensive. The people who make baseball cards have made a terrible mistake — their cards aren’t for kids, they’re for collectors.

Ken Griffey

But the SI report tells only a part of the story. While the appeal of baseball cards has been shrinking, the market for older cards has not, according to those card dealers who specialize in sets from eras prior to 1980 — the date that is usually given for when the market began to be saturated by an increased number of manufacturers, specialty sets and over printing. It makes sense: when card production became unlimited, card values plummeted. But the very earliest baseball cards (and the cards of the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s and ’70s — the classics) actually increased in “value.” See, there’s that word. Back when I began to collect baseball cards (and I date myself here, but what the hell) I had no sense of their “value.” I bought them because they were the sole means that I had of learning a players stats — his ERA or batting average and reading the little cartoons on the back that weren’t so much funny as dumb. I stacked ’em up, kept them in a shoebox, looked at them, smelled them. They had value outside of the nickel I paid for them.

Then baseball card price guides came along. I was well out of baseball cards then, too busy making a living to pay attention, but the appearance of these guides puzzled me and I would stand at the supermarket magazine counter and page through them, noting the ups and downs of card values. It made no sense to me and it still doesn’t. Card grading, it still seems to me, is subjective and dependent on what a dealer views as being off center or faded or . . . whatever. Yeah, okay: a tattered and water-marked 1953 Satchell Paige is not worth as much as a mint condition Satchell Paige, but some of the differences between a grade “9” and “10” seems arbitrary and is not so much art as fraud; a way to create a specialty out of an opinion. All of this has generated a lot of controversy, and a mini-industry of its own, which can be found on a number of baseball blogs — of which there are plenty — and which we have linked to here at CFG. (You’ll find the links over there on the right — under the category “What Your Mother Threw Away.”)

It comes down to this: I recently bought a 1953 Topps Eddie Mathews card; it’s in pretty good but not great shape — and as pretty a card as you’ll find anywhere, with a picture of Eddie as a young third baseman. I sit at my desk, when I’m working and I look at it. I’m in the habit of collecting Eddie Mathews cards, not because I’m a Boston Braves or Milwaukee Braves or Atlanta Braves fan (I’m decidely not), but because I’m an Eddie Mathews fan. I saw him play about thirty times, maybe more, and I always rooted against the teams he played for: but always for him. He’s one of the best players I ever saw play the game. He could hit and field and he seemed to play his best when I was in the stands. So I started collecting his cards. And here’s the thing. I’m not collecting his cards in order to sell them, I’m collecting them in order to have them.

Eddie Mathews