Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Giants "won" Tookie Gilbert in hat draw

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.

Harold "Tookie" Gilbert had a great baseball pedigree. His father, Larry, had been an outfielder on the 1914 "Miracle" Boston Braves and his older brother, Charlie, had a six-year major league career with the Dodgers, Cubs and Phillies. 

Tookie graduated from Jesuit High School in New Orleans after batting what the back of his 1950 Bowman card says was .695 in high school. (The school's other notable ballplaying alumni included Rusty Staub, Will Clark and Connie Ryan).

Larry Gilbert knew baseball inside and out. He was a successful manager in the Southern Association for 25 years.

By the time Tookie's high school days were over he was being courted by more than a few major league teams. Larry decided the best way to insure his son's baseball future was to cap the bonus bidding and let the teams still interested settle the matter by the luck of the draw.

With the signing bonus set at $50,000, those in the running were the Giants, Yankees, Cubs, Braves and Red Sox. On Oct. 13, 1946, with a representative from each team on hand, Gilbert's mother drew the Giants out of a hat and manager Mel Ott signed the 17-year-old left-handed slugger on the spot.

The Giants assigned Gilbert to their top farm club at Minneapolis for 1947, but he was overmatched there, hitting just .097 before being sent down to Class C Erie where he ended the season batting .333 with 11 home runs.

Gilbert slugged his way back up the Giants minor league ladder. In 1948 in Class A (Sioux City) he hit .299 with 26 home runs. In 1949 at Class AA Nashville he batted .334 with 33 homers.

After a month back in Minneapolis to start 1950, he was called up to the Giants, where he was asked to fill big shoes taking over for four-time N.L. home run king Johnny Mize at first base. Tookie hit a home run in his first big league game, but was unable to hit big league pitching consistently (.220 for the season) or with power (four HR).

He was returned to Minneapolis for 1951 and had a modestly successful year, batting .273 with 29 home runs and 100 RBIs.

For 1952, Gilbert was reunited with Mel Ott at Oakland in the Pacific Coast League. Though he hit only .259, he led the league with 118 RBIs and was second with 31 home runs.

His year with the Oaks earned him another chance with the big club. While he spent the entire year with the Giants in 1953 he was used most often as a pinch-hitter, playing at first base during brief periods when Whitey Lockman was playing left field. For '53, Gilbert batted just .169 with three HR in 70 games. 

Realizing he had no future in the major leagues, Gilbert retired prior to the 1954 season. In a newspaper interview he explained, "I'm 24 now, but I felt I was wasting my career away sitting on the bench. I asked to be traded but the Giants had such a big investment in me they refused. So I decided to quit and get myself established in a business. Baseball never had the appeal for me that it held for my father and brother."

Gilbert went into the business world with a New Orleans paint manufacturer.

In 1959, at the age of 30, he made a one-year comeback with New Orleans in the Southern Association. He didn't embarrass himself as the Pelicans regular first baseman, batting .261 with 22 home runs (tied for fifth in the league) and leading the league with 118 walks. 

Gilbert was elected Civil Sheriff of Orleans Parish, Louisiana, in 1962 and again in 1966. He died of an apparent heart attack behind the wheel of his car in 1967 at age 38.

Tookie Gilbert's baseball card legacy is thin. He appeared in the 1950 Bowman issue and has one of the relative handful of horizontally formatted cards in the 1952 Topps set. He is also found in the 1952 Mother's Cookies  set of Pacific Coast League players.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Custom card sales list update: 1952-56 baseball

Here is the updated list of available baseball cards in formats 1952 (Topps)-1956.

It will be further updated as future additions necessitate.

Custom baseball card
creations 1952-1956
These "cards that never were" are produced in very limited quantities; initially only 8-9 cards are printed. They are in full-color, front and back, in the same size as the classic baseball cards of the past. They are printed on card stock that closely replicates the originals.

Each hand-crafted card is in NM/MT condition.

1-2 cards, $12.50 each, postpaid
3+ cards, $9.95 each, postpaid

To order, e-mail scbcguy@yahoo.com

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Rough talk earned Higbe $1,000

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.

Foul language used to cost a ballplayer a fine. But in 1946 it reputedly earned one Brooklyn Dodger a large bonus.

In 1946, a Mexican cartel (sports, not drugs) headed by the Pasqual brothers began raiding the major leagues for players to populate the teams in a new professional league.

Offering huge salaries, bonuses and benefits to mediocre major leaguers, the new Mexican League made some serious inroads on big league rosters.

Before they obtained an injunction preventing the Mexican league from infringing on the contracts of its players, the Brooklyn Dodgers were especially hard hit. They lost catcher Mickey Owen, outfielder Luis Olmo and infielder Roland Gladu.

When pitcher Kirby Higbe, fresh out of the Army, was approached by agents of the Pasquals, he reportedly responded with a terse refusal, liberally peppered with foul language.

Dodgers’ president Branch Rickey, who wouldn’t say “shit” if had a mouthful, found Higbe’s colorful refusal of Mexican blandishments so refreshing that he reportedly gave Higbe a $1,000 bonus.

Though duly reported in The Sporting News, this is one of those stories that should possibly be taken with a grain of salt.

Rickey and Higbe parted ways early in the 1947 season. When Higbe, a South Carolina native, refused to play on the same team with Jackie Robinson, Rickey traded him to the Pittsburgh Pirates.

* * *
I never noticed before . . . 

While looking through card images of Higbe I just now realized that both Bowman and Leaf used the same photo of Higbe in their 1949 issues.

I can't recall any other instance where those competing card companies shared a photo.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Custom card sales list update: Baseball 1912-1952

As I mentioned when I announced resumption of my custom card availability on Jan. 7, here is the current list of available baseball cards in formats 1912-1952 (Bowman).

You can order these cards for your collection. One or two cards are $12.50 each, postpaid; three or more cards are $9.95 each, postpaid. Contact me at scbcguy@yahoo.com for ordering details.

It will be updated as future additions necessitate.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Sam Hairston added to my 1952 Topps customs

Sometimes the simple availability of a really great player photo jumps a card to the top of my custom card to-do list.

That was the case recently with the Sam Hairston card I made in the 1952 Topps format.

Baseball fans and collectors today are more familiar with Sam Hairston's two major league sons (Jerry and John) and two major league grandsons (Jerry Jr. and Scott). While the paterfamilias of this largest father-son-grandson major league lineage had  only a short major league career (four games in 1951), he spent a lifetime in professional baseball.

For details, see the biography by Rory Costello in the SABR baseball player BioProject: sabr.org/bioproj/person/211ac89e .  

For all the years he was associated with the game as a semi-pro player, Negro Leagues and Latin winter leagues star, .304 lifetime (11 seasons) minor league player and cup-of-coffee major leaguer, Hairston had only a handful of contemporary baseball cards. 

He can be found in the Toleteros Puerto Rican League sets of 1948-49 and 1949-50, and perhaps one or two other Latin American issues not yet completely cataloged. For a real challenge, you can try to find his minor league cards from the Globe Printing team-issued sets of the 1952 Colorado Springs Sky Sox and the 1954 Charleston Senators. 

Hairston had several modern minor league cards from the early 1990s reflecting his days as a coach and instructor in the White Sox organization.

My custom card represents that tiny portion of his playing days as a major leaguer. Some fans and collectors have a special interest in Sam Hairston as a pioneering black major leaguer. Hairston was not the first black player to appear for the Chicago White Sox, Cuban Minnie Minoso holds that distinction. Hairston, however, was the first African-American player on the team; perhaps a distinction without a difference.

You can purchase this card. You can obtain a copy of this custom card for $12.50, postpaid. E-mail me at scbcguy@yahoo.com for ordering details. Illustrated lists of all available custom baseball and football cards can be found in my blog posts of Feb. 17, March 1, March 3, March 9 and March 23.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Minor leaguer Spurrier won Medal of Honor

A brief item in the July 17, 1946 Sporting News mentioned that a hero of World War II and recipient of the Medal of Honor was realizing a lifelong dream when he was signed to a professional contract to pitch for the Galax (Va.) Leafs in the Class D Blue Ridge League.

James "Junior" Spurrier's page on baseball-reference.com credits him with appearing in just two games, winning one and losing the other. In six innings pitched he gave up seven hits, five runs and five walks. 

James Spurrier's minor league baseball career was as undistinguished as his military career was distinguished.

Sometimes cited as a "one-man Army" and the "Sgt. York of World War II," there are many internet articles detailing Spurrier's wartime experiences; you can follow up as your interests dictate.

In 2008, the Virginia legislature passed a resolution honoring Spurrier. The following text is from the Virginia House Joint Resolution:

Celebrating the life of Junior James Spurrier.
Agreed to by the House of Delegates, February 22, 2008
Agreed to by the Senate, February 28, 2008
WHEREAS, Junior James Spurrier, born James Ira Spurrier, Jr., in Wise County in 1922, was one of the war heroes of the so called "Greatest Generation," an exceptional soldier who singlehandedly engineered feats of extraordinary bravery during his military service; and

WHEREAS, Junior Spurrier lived in Bluefield, West Virginia, and worked at a Civilian Conservation Corps camp there until he joined the United States Army in September of 1940, and he was deployed to both the Pacific Theater and Europe; and 
WHEREAS, a private when he enlisted, Junior Spurrier quickly rose to the rank of staff sergeant, and in the fall of 1944, he was a platoon commander for Company G, 134th Infantry, 35th Infantry Division, 9th Army stationed near Lay St. Christophe, France; and 
WHEREAS, charged with taking a heavily guarded hill near Lay St. Christophe, Sergeant Spurrier mounted a tank destroyer, took its .50 caliber machine gun, and cleared the way for his platoon to advance, capturing over 20 German soldiers along the way; he received the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions that day; and 
WHEREAS, on November 14, 1944, Sergeant Spurrier led his platoon in an attack to take over the German-held town of Achain, France; he had his platoon approach the town from one side while he entered by himself from another direction; and
WHEREAS, the Germans successfully defended the town from the advancing platoon, but Sergeant Spurrier used his Browning Automatic Rifle, his M1 rifle, American and German rocket launchers, a German pistol, and hand grenades to kill 25 German soldiers and capture several more; and
WHEREAS, Sergeant Spurrier was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his unprecedented feats that day, and he received many other honors and distinctions for his valiant service, including a Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Cluster, Croix de Guerre, American Theater Service Medal, American Defense Service Medal with Bronze Star, European, African, Middle Eastern Campaign Medals, Marksman Badge (M1 rifle), and Combat Infantry Badge; and
WHEREAS, Junior Spurrier died in 1984 in Tennessee, but the man dubbed a "one man army" by fellow veterans was honored in 2006 with a memorial in Bluefield, West Virginia; now, therefore, be it 
RESOLVED by the House of Delegates, the Senate concurring, That the General Assembly hereby celebrate the life of Junior James Spurrier, a true patriot and a man of unbounded courage; and, be it 
RESOLVED FURTHER, That the Clerk of the House of Delegates prepare a copy of this resolution for presentation to the family of Junior James Spurrier as an expression of the General Assembly’s respect and admiration for his heroism and his dedication to duty.

Another account found on the internet provided further details . . . 
Capture of Achain was credited to one man: S/Sgt. James J. Spurrier, Bluefield, W. Va., a former farmer and Co. G, 134th, squad leader. When 2nd Bn. Attacked Achain Nov. 14, the 22-year-old sergeant entered the town alone from the west while his company drove in from the east.

Spurrier shot the first three Nazis with his M-1. Then, picking up BARs, Yank and German bazookas and grenades wherever he found them, he systematically began to clean out the town. He crumbled one stronghold with bazooka shells, killed three more Nazis with a BAR, captured a garrison commander, a lieutenant and 14 men. Another defense point was silenced when he killed its two occupants. Out of ammunition and under fire from four Nazis, Spurrier hurled a Nazi grenade into the house, killing the four Germans.

That night, the one-man army had charge of an outpost. While checking security, he heard four Germans talking in a barn. He set fire to the supply of oil and hay, captured the four as they ran out. Later, he spotted a Kraut crawling toward a sentry, killed him when there was no reply to his challenge.

According to Lt. Col. Frederick Roecker, Spurrier's battalion CO, Spurrier killed 25 Germans and captured 20 others. In March, 1945, Sgt. Spurrier was awarded the division's first Congressional Medal of Honor.

Spurrier's official Medal of Honor citation reads:
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty in action against the enemy at Achain, France, on 13 November 1944. At 2 p.m., Company G attacked the village of Achain from the east. S/Sgt. Spurrier armed with a BAR passed around the village and advanced alone. Attacking from the west, he immediately killed 3 Germans. From this time until dark, S/Sgt. Spurrier, using at different times his BAR and Ml rifle, American and German rocket launchers, a German automatic pistol, and handgrenades, continued his solitary attack against the enemy regardless of all types of small-arms and automatic-weapons fire. As a result of his heroic actions he killed an officer and 24 enlisted men and captured 2 officers and 2 enlisted men. His valor has shed fresh honor on the U.S. Armed Forces.

Various internet pieces indicate Spurrier lived a tough life after his military and baseball days, problems with alcohol contributing to run-ins with the law that eventually landed him in prison.

There are a handful of photos of Spurrier on the internet, but I've found none of him in his baseball uniform. The 1971 Baltimore Sun photo above shows Spurrier in the radio-tv shop he operated.

There may have been other professional baseball players who won the Medal of Honor, but I'm not aware of them. 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Reese-Robinson paired on '53B custom card

In this space yesterday I unveiled my first effort at a custom card creation in the classic 1953 Bowman format.

I mentioned that it seemed a shame to remove Pee Wee Reese from the original photo. However, I was making a Jackie Robinson card so the Dodgers' captain was superfluous. 

Still, making a multi-player card with both Reese and Robinson was not too much of a stretch. While there were no multi-player cards among the 64 original 1953 Bowman black-and-whites, there had been two in the earlier color series: Billy Martin-Phil Rizzuto, and Hank Bauer-Yogi Berra-Mickey Mantle. 

My card of the Dodgers' double-play combo fits right into the '53 Bowman scheme.

You can purchase this card. You can obtain a copy of this custom card for $12.50, postpaid. E-mail me at scbcguy@yahoo.com for ordering details. Illustrated lists of all available custom baseball and football cards can be found in my blog posts of Feb. 17, March 1, March 3, March 9 and March 23.