Thursday, October 23, 2014

Robertson's perfect-game ball . . . wasn't

Uncommon commons: In more than 30 years in sportscards publishing I have thrown hundreds of notes into files about the players – usually non-star players – who made up the majority of the baseball and football cards I collected as a kid. Today, I keep adding to those files as I peruse microfilms of The Sporting News from the 1880s through the 1960s. I found these tidbits brought some life to the player pictures on those cards. I figure that if I enjoyed them, you might too.

If his teammate is to be believed, the team-signed baseball that White Sox pitcher Charley Robertson prized as a souvenir of his 1922 perfect game wasn’t actually used in that game.

An unbylined article in the July 24, 1941, issue of The Sporting News made the case . . .

No Hits—One Error
            After 19 years, Johnny Mostil, former brilliant defensive White Sox outfielder, has disclosed that the autographed ball which Charley Robertson has as a souvenir of the last perfect game pitched in the majors, in Detroit, April 30, 1922, is not the ball which was in play. Johnny let the cat out of the bag in telling of his biggest thrill in baseball, his catch on the former Detroit catcher, Johnny Bassler, which ended the game. Basler his a low, screeching liner to left field, a few inches in fair territory, which Mostil snagged with a diving catch. Before he could regain his footing, an excited fan snatched the ball out of his hand.
            Back in the dugout, Kid Gleason, the White Sox manager, asked Johnny: “Where’s the ball?” Mostil told what had happened. “Quick, grab a ball, any ball,” said Gleason. So, Mostil picked up a practice ball, which he took to the clubhouse, where the players, club officials and admirers were already making a big fuss over Robertson. Mostil proudly handed the pitcher the ball, which all of the players autographed and which still is in Robertson’s possession.

That perfect game was about the only highlight of Robertson's eight-year major league career (1919, 1922-25 White Sox, 1926 Browns, 1927-28 Braves). Often plagued with a sore arm, he never had a winning season in the majors. His lifetime record was 49-80 with a 4.44 ERA, averaging 10.3 hits per nine innings.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Adversity didn't keep Wietelmann from 55-year pro ball career

Uncommon commons: In more than 30 years in sportscards publishing I have thrown hundreds of notes into files about the players – usually non-star players – who made up the majority of the baseball and football cards I collected as a kid. Today, I keep adding to those files as I peruse microfilms of The Sporting News from the 1880s through the 1960s. I found these tidbits brought some life to the player pictures on those cards. I figure that if I enjoyed them, you might too.
In the June 29, 1944, issue of The Sporting News, noted baseball historian Frederick G. Lieb penned a feature about Boston Braves infielder William "Whitey" Wietelmann.

He led with, “In times like these, when our brave and uncomplaining kids are losing eyes, limbs and their lives on war fronts all over the world, the pluck of a young player with impaired vision and subject to repeated eye operations, still standing up there undaunted at the plate, doesn’t mean so much, but our nomination for the gamest player of the year goes to the young shortstop of the Boston Braves, Billy Wietelmann.”

The player, Lieb went on to explain, had undergone four operations since spring training to remove cysts from his right eye. The condition had cropped up as the Braves were going through their preseason paces at Wallingford, Conn.

“As the condition comes on,” Wietelmann was quoted, “my vision in the right eye seems to become affected. A certain dimness comes up in front of the eye.”

One of the Braves minority stockholders, Dr. William Wranger, who had a private hospital near the team’s spring camp, removed cysts from Wietelmann’s eye on March 21, and the young shortstop thought that was the end of it.

Unfortunately, others began to appear and Dr. Wranger operated again on April 3. A third operation was necessary on April 23, after the season opened, and Wietelmann played that same afternoon against the Phillies. The next operation came on May 13 in Pittsburgh, forcing him to miss that day’s game.

“It seems to be a germ in my system,” Wietelmann told Lieb, “and the doctors are trying to eradicate it, but it has been darned annoying and I try not to be discouraged.”

The recurring blurring in his right eye forced Wietelmann to give up switch-hitting and stick to right-handed batting. In the field, the condition caused him to sometimes overrun a ground ball. To address that situation, Wietelmann was benched intermittently throughout June while he was fitted for a pair of shatterproof glasses that he then wore both on and off the field.

Wietelmann’s eye problems weren’t the first adversity he had faced in pursuing his baseball career.

In 1938 fire broke out at Wietelmann’s home in Zanesville, Ohio, where the 19-year-old player lived with his father, who had long been active as a player, owner and manager in amateur and professional baseball there. The elder Wietelmann had gone blind nearly a decade earlier.

Although the son escaped from the blaze, he realized his father was trapped inside. He tore loose from firemen and ran back into the blaze, effecting a rescue. “Dad was in that burning house; he was blind and I simply had to get him out,” he said. “My hair and eyebrows were burned off, and I was badly burned on the face and hands. Fortunately, just around that time the medical profession discovered a remarkable remedy for burns. I was covered with it, and though I was hospitalized for some time as the result of the burns, the treatment was so effective that I do not have scars today.”

Though his high school did not have a baseball team, Wietelmann attracted attention from the pros as a remarkable fielder in American Legion and semi-pro ball around Zanesville. The Boston Bees signed him to a professional contract in 1937 at the age of 18.

He played Class D ball that year at Beaver Falls, moved up to Class B in 1938 at Evansville, and Class A with Hartford in 1939.

In September 1939, Wietelmann was called up to Boston. He spent the entire 1940 campaign with the Bees, but hit only .195 with no power. 

In 1941-42, he split time between the big club and its top minor league teams. With World War II depleting manpower, Wietelmann spent all of the 1943-46 seasons with Boston. After the 1946 season he was traded to Pittsburgh, ending his big-league days with the Pirates in 1947.

Over nine seasons in the National League, Wietelmann averaged 64 games a year, hitting .232 with a total of seven
home runs.

From 1948-52, Wietelmann played in the Pacific Coast League with Sacramento (1948-49) and San Diego (1949-52). 

In 1953, Wietelmann began working as a playing-manager in the lower-level minor leagues. He led Milwaukee's Class B team at Wichita Falls in 1953, and the Braves' Class A club at Lincoln in 1954.

In 1955-56 he managed Yuma in the Class C Arizona-Mexico League.

During his player-manager days, Wietelmann took up pitching. In 1955 with Yuma he had a 21-13 record for the Sun Sox.

He retired as a player and manager after the 1956 season, but remained in the game as a coach at both the minor league and major league levels for the Padres and Reds. In 1984 he threw out the ceremonial first pitch for San Diego's first-ever home playoff game. He remained with the Padres organization through the early 1990s and died in 2002. 

Whitey Wietelmann's baseball card legacy is thin. His only career-contemporary card as a player was in the 1952 Mother's Cookies PCL set. In 1973 he appears as one of the coaches on Topps' San Diego Padres manager card of Don Zimmer. In 1975 he is pictured as a Padres coach on the SSPC set.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Third Healy variation found in '77 TCMA Lynchburg Mets

A third variation of the Bob Healy card in the
1977 TCMA Lynchburg Mets team set has been
discovered (bottom). The wrong-photo card was likely
the first variation printed, being quickly corrected.

Back when I was editing the Standard Catalog of Baseball Cards, one of my pet interests was minor league issues. A kindred spirit who still toils in that field is collector Simeon Lipman, who has been collecting minor league cards for more than a quarter-century, with a special emphasis on the TCMA minor league team issues of the 1970s.

In his pursuits in that arena, Simeon says it is his opinion that the 1977 Lynchburg Mets set is "perhaps the toughest" of the genre.

"Amongst the late issues and variations in the set," Lipman explains, "there are two in particular that are extremely difficult to find; one being the Stu Greenstein (where the team logo is found directly beneath Greenstein's glove) and the other being Bob Healy (with no name, logo, position or league on the front and blank-backed). A complete set, including the Greenstein and Healy variations totals 35 cards. It has taken me decades to complete a set, despite purchasing at least a dozen partial sets and plenty of singles from longtime minor league collectors over the years.

"Several months ago I bought another partial set on eBay looking to upgrade a few cards. Within it I was delighted to find, as far as I can tell, an undocumented variation!

"It's Bob Healy again! This time, it's a completely different image than the previous base card and variation. I recognized the image as George Frazier from the 1977 Holyoke Millers set.

"If this is indeed what I think it is, it brings the total number of cards in the 1977 TCMA Lynchburg Mets set to 36."

Lipman appears to be correct, and is to credited with discovery of yet another rare variation in the early TCMA team sets.

The early TCMA minor league sets present unusual challenges to today's collectors because of the manner in which they were issued. 

Besides being sold to the minor league teams, the sets were offered to collectors by mail order in the hobby publications of their day. For some teams, within and among this bifurcated distribution, errors were corrected and/or players added or removed.

Today collectors have to beat the bushes to find the cards they need to complete a team set. While the SCBC back in the day attempted to make the task easier by cataloging all known variations, little or no work has been done to update those checklists for about a decade. So we have to rely on collectors like Simeon who are willing to share their discoveries with the hobby at large.

The newly reported TCMA error card has the photo of
Holyoke Millers pitcher George Frazier.

Monday, October 13, 2014

1955 Bob Thorpe, rehabbed already

After reading my  blog for Oct. 10-11, a colleague noted that I was not completely satisfied with the portrait picture used on the 1955 Topps-style custom creation.

He sent along a couple of new choices of Thorpe in a Cubs uniform. Turns out Thorpe went to spring training with Chicago in 1957 and was pictured in the yearbook.

That picture had the requisite contrast and after I colorized it, I thought it came up to the standards of "real" 1955 Topps cards. In any event it is a great improvement.