Monday, September 22, 2014

Rescuing dog cost Van Atta his career

Russ Van Atta appeared on a 1933 Goudey
bubblegum card in his rookie season of 1933.
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.

While reading microfilm on a sunny Sunday spring morn, I spotted a story that particularly resonated with me.

The “Scribbled by Scribes” press roundup column in the March 28, 1940, issue of The Sporting News picked up a story by Charles Segar of the New York Daily Mirror, who reported that the career of recently retired seven-year major league veteran pitcher Russ Van Atta had been ruined by saving the life of a dog.

“Van Atta did well in his first season back in 1933, and that fall returned to his home in Franklin, N.J., with great prospects,” Segar was quoted. “But the fates were unkind. A fire hit Van Atta’s homestead. The pitcher saved his family, but in the house was the family dog. Van Atta went back. There was no way to reach the pet but by smashing a window, which Van did. The dog was saved but the result was two badly-cut fingers on his left hand.

“Came the spring of 1934,” Segar continued, “The fingers that had been cut had no feeling. Days and weeks came and the fingers felt the same. A year, then another. One operation after another. Teeth extracted . . . massage . . . baths . . . treatments from quacks and reliable men . . . hope. Van clung to that. Everything would be all right.

“He let no one in on the secret until one day last summer,” the story continued. “when the Browns sent him to the minors and he couldn’t pitch. He told me (the story) and pledged me to secrecy until he was definitely able to go on,” Segar revealed.

“He still had hope. He wanted one more chance. The other day he joined the Browns. A few days in camp. It was the same old story. The fingers that he could put over a flame without feeling any pain were lifeless. They had lost their touch forever. He broke the news to the Browns’ officials that he was through. No use carrying on.”

Van Atta was a graduate of Pennsylvania State University. It has been reported that he lost only one games in four seasons for the Nittany Lions.
1936 Goudey "Wide Pen" premium.

The N.Y. Yankees signed him and sent him to Hartford in the Class A Eastern League for 1928. On the strength of an 8-4 record and 2.37 ERA he was promoted to St. Paul in the American Association for 1929. He pitched four years for the Saints, compiling a 42-36 record before his 22 wins in 1932 earned him a promotion to the big club for 1933.

Van Atta had one of the most successful major league debuts on record at Washington on April 25, 1933. Backed by a lineup that included six future Hall of Famers, he not only shut out the Senators 16-0 (five hits, three walks and five strikeouts), but was 4-for-4 at the plate with a sacrifice bunt and an RBI.

The pitcher had a 12-4 rookie season for the Yankees. Because of his hand injury, he was 3-5 in 1934. When he started the 1935 season pitching only a handful of innings over five games in release he was sold to the St. Louis Browns in mid-May.

From 1935-39 Van Atta never had a winning season with the Browns, pitching mostly in relief. His record for St. Louis stood at 18-32 early in 1939 when he was sold to Toronto where he finished his professional career with an 0-1 record and 15.00 ERA.

During World War II, Van Atta served a four-year term as sheriff of Sussex County, N.J., later serving six years on the county’s board of freeholders. He had a successful career in sales with Gulf Oil Corp. He died in 1986 at the age of 80.

Van Atta’s tragedy hit home with me on two counts. I have great respect for any man who would do what Van Atta did to save his dog. Secondly, I can relate to the pitcher’s dead fingers.

For several years I have been losing the feeling in some of my phalanges. Probably due to a combination of diabetic neurothapy and thousands of blood-sugar test finger sticks, the little finger and ring finger on each hand have been going numb. All feeling is gone from the little fingers and there is little sensation left on the ring fingers.

The loss of feeling has begun to make everyday tasks more challenging. I dread the day that more of the digits should become affected, particularly if the time should ever come when my ability to manipulate a computer mouse would fail, rendering me unable to create my custom cards. 

Saturday, September 20, 2014

My Hurricane Hazle custom in 1956 Topps format

On July 4, I presented the reworked version of my custom 1955 Topps-style card of Hazle with the Cincinnati Redlegs.

Two days ago I explained why I have now created three different "cards that never were" of 1957 Milwaukee Braves phenom Bob Hazle.

Yesterday I showed you my custom of Bob Hazle as a Detroit Tiger on a 1959 Topps-style custom card.

Today I'm bringing you my latest, and possibly my last, Bob Hazle custom card, in the format of 1956 Topps.

You can't fault Topps for not including Hazle in its '56 set. A week before the opening of the season he'd been traded from Cincinnati to Milwaukee for first baseman George Crowe. At that point, his entire major league career had consisted of six games with the Redlegs in 1955.

Hazle actually spent the entire 1956 season with the Braves' AAA farm club at Wichita in the American Association, where he'd batted .285 with 13 home runs.

Though Topps didn't produce a Bob Hazle card until 1958, I came up with this example of what a 1956 card might have looked like.

Also as promised, here's an edited version of a column I penned in the Dec. 2, 2005, issue of Sports Collectors Digest . . .

Meeting Bob Hazle
     I had the please of meeting Bob Hazle once at a late 1980s' card show in Chicago where he was making a rare autograph appearance.
He'd walked away from baseball completely after spending the 1959-1960 seasons in the Detroit Tigers' minor league system and was working as a liquor salesman out of Newberry, S.C.
     As he handed me back my autographed J.D. McCarthy postcard, I commented on how bright and sharp his World's Championship ring looked. He pulled the ring off and handed it to me for closer inspection.
     He said the ring looked so fresh because it was a replacement he'd had made several years earlier.
     Hazle said he'd lost his original 1957 Braves ring some years ago when he was throwing a beer can out the window of his pickup truck and the ring flew off with it.
     Is it any wonder Milwaukee loved this guy?
     Bob Hazle died of a heart attack in Columbia, S.C., in 1992, at the age of 61.

You can purchase this card. You can obtain a copy of this custom card for $12.50, postpaid. E-mail me at for ordering details. Illustrated lists of all available custom baseball and football cards can be found on my blog post of July 17.

Friday, September 19, 2014

'59 custom doubles Hurricane Hazle's card count

Yesterday I explained why I am compelled to create custom cards for former Milwaukee Braves pennant-chase hero Bob Hazle.

Shown above is a custom card I created showcasing Hazle as a Detroit Tiger in 1959, the year after he was sold by the Braves.

Today's fans and collectors may not know the significance of Hazle's nickname, "Hurricane."

Here's what I wrote nearly a decade ago in my Bleacher Bum column in the Dec. 2, 2005, Sports Collectors Digest.

Why 'Hurricane'?
The sporting press was more colorful in the 1950s, although the era of great baseball nicknames was drawing to a close. Bob Hazle got one of the last really good ones. It wasn't just alliterative appeal that made it memorable, there was historic and geographic context. Hazle was born in Laurens S.C., and played his first season of pro ball in Columbia, S.C., in 1950.

What Hurricane Katrina is to the current generation. Hurricane Hazel was to the previous one. Besides its massive toll of death and destruction, Hazel stuck in the national psyche because it hit at a time when television coverage of such human tragedies was coming of age. In 1954, for the first time, U.S. households with a television set surpassed the 50 percent mark.

The National Hurricane Center had only begun officially naming tropical storms in 1953. The following year Hazel was up in the alphabetical rotation when a storm began forming in the Caribbean on Oct. 5.

A week later Hazel hit Haiti, leaving an estimated 1,000 dead or missing. A handful more died in Bermuda. The storm struck the Carolina Coast on Oct. 14, making landfall near the border of North and South Carolina. Hazel's winds were a sustained 150 miles per hour and the Category 4 blow was preceded by a storm surge of over 14 feet.

Hazel was an especially fast-moving storm, but unpredictable in the path that it cut. More than 90 Americans died in 12 hours as the storm raged through Virginia, uprooted trees on the White House lawn and sliced through western New York state before crossing Lake Ontario and becoming the most famous storm in Canadian history.

Toronto was pounded with winds of nearly 70 mph, but it was the accompanying deluge that did the deadliest damage. Nearly eight inches of rain fell in 24 hours, with another three inches the next day -- an estimated 300 million tons of water. Flooding claimed 81 lives and 4,000 families were left homeless in southern Ontario.

In the U.S. and Canada, damage from the storm, adjusted to 2014 dollars, was more than $1.9 billion, putting it among the top  20 to that time. As would become policy following such a deadly storm, the name "Hazel" was retired from hurricane nomenclature.

Tomorrow I'll show you the last of my Bob Hazle custom cards and tell you about the time I met him at a card show.

You can purchase this card. You can obtain a copy of this custom card for $12.50, postpaid. E-mail me at for ordering details. Illustrated lists of all available custom baseball and football cards can be found on my blog post of July 17.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Why I make Bob Hazle custom cards

A couple of months ago (July 4), I blogged about my 1955 Topps-style custom card of Bob Hazle.

I said that I working on a couple of more Hazle customs and said when the time was right, I'd explain why I wanted to expand on Hazle's card legacy.

That time is now. Tomorrow and the next day I will be presenting my two latest (and likely, last) Bob Hazle custom cards.

Today, I'm going to present an edited version of a "Bleacher Bum" column I wrote in Sports Collectors Digest's Dec. 2, 2005, issue. The column was titled, "To heck with Hank, we wanted 'Hurricane'".

In the spring of 1958, when the red-and-green wax packs showed up on the shelves of the mom-and-pop grocery stores around the neighborhood, we were looking forward to the new baseball card season with unprecedented fervor. Our Milwaukee Braves were World's Champs.

It was with greater than usual alacrity that we retrieved our winter's stash of nickels earned shoveling snow, doing dishes and acing report cards so that we could begin the chase.

One of the beautiful things about the first baseball card purchases of the year was that for a brief moment -- perhaps as long as 10-12 packs -- every card was a "need 'im," not a "got 'im."

We had a lot to look forward to in '58. We wanted to see the Dodgers' and Giants' new uniforms. We wanted to see if Topps would be gracious enough to appropriately recognize that Bushville had sent the Bums packing for California with dreams of one last title for Brooklyn dashed.

But mostly we wanted to see the first-ever baseball card of Bob "Hurricane" Hazle.

We didn't know from "rookie cards" back then, but we did know that nobody in our trading circle owned a Bob Hazle card from previous seasons. From the flood of news coverage that Hazle received throughout August and September of 1957 we knew that he had made his major league debut with the Redlegs in 1955, but we searched our "Color TV" cards and our 1955 Topps cards -- even the skinny ones that folded in the middle to make two different players -- in vain. Somebody in the neighborhood had the checklist cards from 1956 and 1957 and Hazle was nowhere on them.

Jimmy Nelson said that HE had a Bob Hazle card, but it turned out to be a gnat-sized picture on the 1956 Cincinnati team card. We told him to cut the crap or we'd give him the Indian grass torture.

So there we stood on the corner outside the market, throwing wadded up wrappers at each other and stuffing bubblegum into our faces until our jaws ached and no adult in the world could have understood what were saying as we thumbed through each six-card stack.

"What'd they do? Paint on Mays' cap?"

"What's Ted Williams doing on number 1 again? Those guy finished third last year."

"Who's this Maris guy?"

"Hey! A Giants team card! Look, the checklist has "B. Hazle" as number 83."

"I got Hazle!"

Naturally, it was Greg, the youngest kid in the group. He didn't even collect cards seriously, but we had to walk right past his house to get to the store and he tagged along.

For a few minutes he was the center of attention as everybody tried to work a trade. I offered an Aaron, a Mossi and his pick of any other card, but I was quickly outbid. Greg overplayed his hand, though, and while negotiations continued, another Hazle was pulled, then a third. The trade value plummeted and soon he was begging to take me up on my initial offer.

What was so special about Bob Hazle?

Simplistically, or more accurately, at the level at which elementary school fans understood baseball, Hazle was the guy who came from minor league obscurity in the last seven weeks of the 1957 season to bat .403 and pull the Braves away from the pack in a five-team National League pennant race.

At the All-Star break, Milwaukee was 2-1/2 games behind the Cardinals; the Phillies and Redlegs were 3-1/2 back and the Dodgers were five behind.

As the second half opened, Braves' center fielder Billy Bruton went down with the knee injury that ended his season. Left with only recent call-up Wes Covington, Andy Pafko and Hank Aaron in the outfield, the Braves tried moving both Pafko and Aaron to center -- each was soon injured and out of the lineup for up to a week. To fill the garden spots, manager Fred Haney tried $100,000 bonus baby John DeMerit, but he couldn't hit. Emergency outfielders through July included Del Crandall, Red Schoendienst and Nippy Jones. Jones had been bought for first-base insurance after Joe Adcock had broken his leg in June. Jones had not played in the outfield since 1947; it had been nearly as long for Crandall and Schoendienst, and it showed in the fielding of all three.

On July 27, Milwaukee reached down to Wichita in the American Association and called up Hazle to serve as a reserve outfielder and left-handed pinch-hitter. Although he had been hitting about .230 most of the season, in the previous month he had batted .381 with plenty of power. The Wichita Braves could afford to lose Hazle because they were 8-1/2 games up in the A.A. pennant race and cruised to the flag.

Hazle had become Braves property on April 9, 1956, when he was packaged with pitcher Corky Valentine in a trade with the Redlegs for George Crowe, He had been assigned to Wichita where he hit .285 with 13 home runs in 1956. He was left unprotected in the 1957 draft and nobody claimed him for the $10,000 price, apparently scared off by a midseason knee injury.

Hazle made his Milwaukee Braves debut on July 29, grabbing one of Chuck Tanner's bats out of the rack and sacrifice bunting as a pinch-hitter in a 10-inning win over the Giants.

Two days later he got his first start, in right field, batting 1-for-4, an RBI double, in a win over the Pirates.

He rode the pines for a spell before getting another start on Aug. 4, when he was 2-for-3 as Milwaukee beat the Dodgers.

The Braves won the first 11 games in which Hazle appeared.

On Aug. 2, the Braves and Cards were tied in the N.L. race. a week later the Tribe had pulled ahead by 2-1/2 games, Brooklyn had dropped to five back and the Redlegs and Phillies were behind by seven.

The Braves went to St. Louis for a series Aug. 9-11, and took three from the Cardinals. Their three-game sweep at Cincinnati Aug. 13-15 swept the Redlegs right out of the pennant picture. On the road Hazle started five of the six games and hit .636. 

Huge crowds, which assured Milwaukee a new National League attendance record, packed County Stadium when the Cardinals visited Aug, 16-18. Though the Braves lost three of the four games , including both ends of a rain-delayed doubleheader that took eight hours and 16 minutes on getaway day (and, the clean-up crew reported, left 60,000 beer cans/bottles in the parking lot), the Braves were still ahead of St. Louis by 6-1/2 games on Aug. 23, with only Brooklyn, at 7-1/2 back, also in the chase.

The standings were about the same at the end of August, by which time Hazle had raised his average to .507 over 22 games, with five home runs and 22 RBIs.

A couple of minor injuries cooled off  Hazle in September.

On Sept. 2, during a 23-10 win over the Cubs in which he was 4-for7, Hazle bruised his instep. He sat out the next game and when he returned to the lineup he hit "only" .294 in the next five games. On Sept. 10 he was plunked in the side by the Pirates' Whammy Douglas. Hazle went 0-for-3 that day. He sat out six of the next eight games, and was hitless in the other two games.

Between Sept. 4-15, with Hazle contributing only a .208 average, the Braves allowed the Cardinals to rebound within 2-1/2 games. 

Hazle returned to the lineup in his customary sixth spot in the batting order when Milwaukee traveled to Wrigley Field on Sept. 20. He rebounded with a .500 series including a 10th-inning game-winning home run on the 22nd to put the Braves within a game of clinching the National League pennant.

Hazle sat out the next night with the Cardinals in town while Hank Aaron did the honors by winning the flag with his own 11th-inning homer.

In the penultimate game of the regular season, against the visiting Redlegs, Hazle broke up former teammate Johnny Klippstein's no-hitter with two out in the bottom of the eighth. On the season's final day it took 24 Braves to bear Cincinnati 4-3, with Hazle failing to hit .

Hazle ended the 1957 season with a .403 batting average over 134 at-bats in 41 games. I may be wrong, but I'm guessing this may be the highest "non-qualifying" batting average for a player with more than 100 at-bats since Ted Williams' .406 in 1941. 

The World Series was anticlimactic for Hazle. He batted only .154, 2-for-13.

Hazle sat out the first two games of the 1957 World Series in New York, but when the Braves came home for Milwaukee's first-ever World's Series game, their newest hero was the starting right fielder. He was 0-for-4 in the 12-3 loss, but drew a walk from Bob Turley to lead off the second inning and scored.

He took the collar the next day as the Braves evened the Series, and was on the bench during the Braves' Game 5 victory.

Back in New York he started the sixth game, but made no offensive contribution.

In the deciding game, Hazle was moved from sixth in the order to lead-off hitter. He responded with a 2-for-4 day in helping the Braves to a 5-0 win and Milwaukee's only World's Championship.

For his stretch-run role in bringing the pennant to Milwaukee, his teammates voted Hazle a three-quarters' share of the World Series bonus pot -- $6,693.27. He received one vote for Rookie of the Year.

After the victory parade and celebratory banquets, Hazle returned to his native South Carolina to sell real estate in Columbia. 

Hazle was a holdout in 1958. His contract for 1957 had been $6,000, pro-rated of course. When the bonus that Braves' management had promised him arrived with his 1958 contract, Hazle returned the $1,000 check. Negotiations continued until just after training camp opened, and he finally signed on March 2.

Hazle had a decent spring training in 1958, hitting around .300. With Bruton still rehabbing and emerging slugger Covington injuring his knee as the season opened, it looked like Hazle would have a regular spot in right field. By the end of April, however, the Hurricane was blowing; batting .143, all singles. When Covington returned to duty on May 2, Hazle was benched.

On May 7, Hazle was hit in the head with a Larry Jackson pitch in St. Louis. He suffered a concussion, was carried off the field and spent two days in the hospital. 

He had raised his average only a few points by May 24 when Bruton returned to the lineup and Hazle was sold to the Detroit Tigers for a reported $50,000.

He was dead to us.

As the Topps' series rolled out over the course of the summer of 1958, we young Braves fans/baseball card collectors had plenty of thrills.

There would be an incredible seven Braves' "rookie cards" in 1958. Besides Hazle there was Harry Hanebrink, Carlton Willey, Don McMahon, Bob "Hawk" Taylor, Bob Trowbridge and Ray Shearer. Red Schoendienst, Carl Sawatski, Bob Rush and Casey Wise would appear for the first time as Braves.

Befitting the World's Champions status, the Braves were well-represented in the multi-player feature cards and Sport Magazine All-Stars, but only the Schoendienst card and the pairing of Hank Aaron with Mikey Mantle on "World's Series Batting Foes" even came close to matching the thrill of seeing that first Bob Hazle card.

Tomorrow I'll show you my 1959 Topps-style Bob Hazle custom and explain the significance of his nickname, "Hurricane." The follwing day I'll give you a look at my 1956-style Hazle custom and tell you about the time I met Bob Hazle at a card show,

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Johnson got help for final autograph

A poignant part of reading through the 1946 issues of The Sporting News was the on-going coverage of Walter Johnson’s last months.

In April, Johnson had been hospitalized at Georgetown Hospital in Washington, D.C., suffering from what was eventually diagnosed as a brain tumor.
Every couple of issues TSN reported on Johnson’s condition in what was an eight-month series of rallies and relapses, with the great pitcher slipping into and out of comas and varying degrees of lucidity. As his condition worsened, the once-husky Johnson wasted away to 100 pounds.

In a news short in the Dec. 4 issue, the sporting paper reported that Johnson had sent a birthday card to his old boss, Clark Griffith, who turned 77 on Nov. 20. The item read . . .

One of the most prized mementoes of the seventy-seventh birthday anniversary of Clark Griffith, president of the Senators, was a card from Room 103, Georgetown University Hospital. Accompanying the card was a letter from Nurse Sara Shea, who wrote: “Walter Johnson asked me take his hand in mine and help him guide the pen so he could sign it. I did and I enclose his greeting to you.”

On Dec. 7, Johnson went into a coma from which he never regained consciousness. He died just before midnight on Dec. 10.

As a collector, I’d like to think that what must surely have been Walter Johnson’s last “autograph” survives somewhere today.

Monday, September 15, 2014

My Quarrymen custom adds to Spins and Needles

I don't know about the kids in your neighborhood in the 1950s and 1960s, but where I grew up the guys on the block were distinctly divided into card collectors and non-collectors.

There weren't any fence sitters as I recall; you either collected bubblegum cards or you didn't.

Until the late 1960s, I always counted Denny Smith among the non-collectors.

Denny was a year and a half older than I, a classmate of my older brother. If you can conjure up images of Fonzie from Happy Days, you've got Denny. In the vernacular he was a greaser. He was a little guy with slicked-back hair and a short-man's complex. He had the reputation as a prodigious fighter, though the only time I actually saw him in a fistfight, he lost to a jock.

Denny was a car guy as opposed to a card guy. In the years just before he got drafted and went off to Korea, he had a white 1959 Buick; Le Sabre, as I recall. When he returned from the Army he bought a brand new purple 1969 Dodger Charger 440.

I never knew Denny to be a card collector in our younger days, so I was surprised in the late 1960s to see a small stack of 1960 Fleer Spins and Needles cards on the closet shelf in his room. As far as I know, they were the only cards he ever had.

I also had a few Spins and Needles cards as a kid. I probably never bought more than a pack or two. I was the type of card collector that would buy a pack of anything new I saw on the candy store shelves. I really wasn't into music before my mid-teen years, so I guess the subject matter of the Spins and Needles cards didn't hold any special appeal for me.

By the time I got back into card collecting in the late 1970s, the Spins and Needles cards were more up my alley. Some of the recording artists from the set were now being played on the oldies stations that I preferred (still do). I don't recall now whether I built or bought a set, but for some years I had the complete set of Spins and Needles. 

As part of my new-found interest in creating custom cards in the formats of some of my childhood favorite non-sports sets, I've added a modern take on Spin and Needles by creating this card of The Quarrymen. 

You might not recognize the name, but you should recognize the faces. The Quarrymen was the group co-founded by John Lennon, who was later joined by Paul McCartney and George Harrison (and a rotating cast of musicians). They were the Beatles in the years before Pete Best and Ringo Starr.

The official web site of the current iteration of The Quarrymen -- -- will tell you everything about the group's history and provided the details necessary for me to write up the card back.

In the back of my mind I've a notion that other Spins and Needles customs could be forthcoming, such as Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins, Ricky Nelson and Roy Orbison, in keeping with the 1960 issue date of the original cards. Some would even fit into additions to the 1957 Topps Hit Stars issue. They're not high on my priority list, though.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Babe: "To hell with all the Japs"

I’ve heard since childhood that during War World II Japanese troops would invoke the name of Babe Ruth to confound American troops in battle.

Some kids in the neighborhood even said that “Banzai” actually meant “Babe Ruth, go to hell!”

I thought these tales were apocryphal, until I saw a directly sourced account in the March 9, 1944, issue of The Sporting News.

Staff Sergeant Jeremiah A. O’Leary, a Marine war correspondent, was quoted as saying, “’To hell with Babe Ruth’ was the battle cry of the Japs as they charged against the Marines at Cape Gloucester, New Britain.”

According to the TSN short, when the Bambino was told of the incident, he said, “I hope every Jap that mentions my name gets shot—and to hell with all the Japs anyway.”

Ruth had visited Japan following the 1934 season, playing in a series of four exhibition games in Tokyo that drew as many as 200,000 fans.

Collectors today can find a number of contemporary souvenirs of that tour, including the poster shown here.