Wednesday, October 29, 2014

I just made the first Rails & Sails card I've ever owned

For whatever reason, as big a collector of bubblegum cards -- sports and non-sports alike -- as I was in my childhood in the 1950s and early 1960s, I never owned a card from the 1955 Topps Rails and Sails set.

As a pre-teen, certainly the subject matter would have appealed to me. The lack of any of the cards in my childhood collection indicates to me that none of the several neighborhood grocery stores where I bought my cards as a kid carried the cards. 

Come to think of it, I now wonder whether the issue penetrated much into Wisconsin at all. Among all the dozens of original card accumulations I bought around the state throughout the late-1970s and early-1980s, I don't recall ever finding an R&S card.

So my first Rails and Sails card is MY first Rails and Sails card. My custom card depicts a streamliner of the Chicago and North Western railroad circa the 1950s-1960s.

These big yellow and green diesel locomotives were a familiar sight in my childhood. The train station in Fond du Lac was on the west side of town. We lived about 10 blocks west of the station. (So, yes, I did come from the wrong side of the tracks.)

I have two specific memories of the C&NW streamliners that inspired me to make this Rails and Sails tribute.

The first memory is from my very early childhood; early enough that the details must have been among the brain cells I killed off wholesale in later years. 

My best guess is that I was somewhere between 4-6 years old. I remember boarding the train in the evening and being seated on a bench seat between my mother and grandfather. My recollection is that we were traveling to Chicago, but for what reason I cannot remember. Mom and Grandpa are gone now, so I guess I won't know the details of the trip until, on my deathbed as promised by the Dalai Lama, I receive total consciousness.

My other specific memory of the C&NW passenger train at the Fond du Lac station dated from my misspent -- some would say delinquent, or even outright outlaw -- late teen years.

One night I was out with my brother and some buddies, drinkin' and cruisin' the town. We had to stop on a side street near the train station because the evening train between Milwaukee and Green Bay was stopped at the station, blocking the street.

Also waiting at the tracks was a young man whom we'll call Billy. Billy was developmentally disabled. In that less politically correct time, we referred to him as a Ree-tard. But never to his face. Billy had the mind of a child, but the body of a man . . . a large man. 

If you think Lenny from Of Mice and Men, you have Billy. He was probably a gentle giant, but none of us was willing to find out for sure. 

In my mind's eye I picture him as being six-foot two or three and more than 200 pounds. As I recall it, you never saw Billy without two things: a five o'clock shadow that could be used to strip paint, and a fancy wagon. Billy's wagon was one of those red Radio Flyers with the wood-stake box. 

Billy pulled that wagon all over town, to what purpose I never knew.

On this night, while we waited for the train to move, somebody in our car called out to Billy, "Hey, Billy, if you want the train to get out of the way, piss on it. It'll move."

With a bit more prompting Billy did whip out his johnson, which perhaps again more in my recollection than reality, was prodigious. As  Billy began to hose down the side of the train, we honked the car horn until some of the passengers looked out the window and began gasping and pointing. 

Within a couple of minutes a two uniformed trainmen were hustling Billy away. I don't recall hearing that he ever got into serious trouble for his efforts to move the train, and my buddies and I all had a good laugh at the time. Today, of course, I feel badly about the affair. I believe God or karma or the universe or whomever has repaid my loutish behavior several times over.

In any event, the Chicago and North Western streamliners are a childhood memory that I deemed deserving of preserving in this latter-day addition to the Topps Rails and Sails issue of nearly 60 years ago.

I may have one more "Rails" card in me, and I have definite plans for two or three "Sails" cards, so watch this space periodically.

You can purchase this cards. You can obtain a copy of this custom card for $12.50, postpaid. E-mail me at for ordering details. Illustrated lists of all my available custom baseball, football and non-sports cards can be found on my blog posts of Oct. 14-16.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

American Horror Story: Egregious anachronism

I'm enjoying American Horror Story: Freak Show, but the episode I watched the other night had a jarring anachronism.

The story line called for a trick-or-treat neighborhood street scene in West Palm Beach, Fla., in 1952.

Perhaps the writers are too young to remember what Halloween was like in that era . . . 

The show had the kids out trick-or-treating during daylight hours, and their mothers were accompanying them.

I don't know about you, but even as late as the 1970s in my hometown in Wisconsin, trick-or-treating was done at night, without parents.

This never would have happened on Mad Men.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Buddy Lewis was Air Corps all-star

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.

John Kelly “Buddy” Lewis was a highly decorated U.S. Army Air Corps pilot during World War II. He flew the C-47 transport plane in the China Burma India Theatre for 15 months, logging 611 operational hours on 369 missions, including 70 “Over the Hump.”

As part of the First Air Commando Group he took part in the March 5, 1944, glider invasion of Burma, towing gliders filled with Allied troops, pack mules, bulldozers and 500,000 pounds of supplies 200 miles behind Japanese lines. The C-B-I Roundup, the military’s official newspaper for the China-Burma-India theater of operations, said Lewis “is the major leaguer who has had the most hazardous mission to date.”

He earned the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with oak leaf cluster and the Distinguished Unit Citation badge.

The citation for Buddy Lewis’ Distinguished Flying Cross read . . .

“For extraordinary achievement in aerial flight during which exposure to enemy fire was probable and expected. Flying transport aircraft carrying a normal load, in addition to towing two heavily-loaded gliders, he took off at night for a point 200 miles beyond the enemy positions in Burma. Due to the proximity of the enemy and the necessity of surprise, the entire flight was made without radio aid, requiring the highest degree of piloting skill to avoid mid-air crashes either with aircraft in the towing unit or other near-by units on the same mission.”

Lewis had volunteered for the Army Air Corps a month prior to Pearl Harbor.

Yank, the weekly army newspaper, said of Lewis’ mission, “The glider crews and their load of Wingate’s Chindits (Indian special forces guerrilla fighters) were satisfied. The C-47 pilot had led them safely over the jutting, jungle-clad 7,000-foot Chin Hills and across enemy-held positions east of the Chidwin river and had delivered them right on the nose at one of the few spots in Burma, 200 miles behind the Jap lines, where enemy troops would not be waiting to greet them.

“It was a neat demonstration of flying skill on the pilot’s part, done with the same keen eye and split-second timing that once won him a place on the American League All-Star team. Capt. John K. (Buddy) Lewis, the former Washington Senators third baseman, had justified his nomination to the U.S. Army Air Corps’ all-star flying aggregation, the 1st Air Commando Force.”

Lewis had, indeed, been an All-Star; the starting third baseman on the 1938 A.L. team that lost 4-1. He started again in the 1947 All-Star Game, playing in right field alongside Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams. The American League prevailed in that game 2-1.

After two seasons at Chattanooga, 18-year-old Lewis had been a September call-up to the Washington Senators in 1935. He never played another game in pro ball for anybody else. 

Sweating out a couple of draft deferments until the 1941 season ended, Lewis spent the next three and a half seasons in the military. He returned in late July, 1945, batting .333 to help the Senators clinch a second-place finish to the Tigers. 

After two more seasons, he sat out the 1948 season to run his automobile dealership in Gastonia, N.C.

The Senators coaxed him back for one more year in 1949. He hit a career low .245, then retired for good. His lifetime mark was .297 in 11 years with Washington. He died in 2011 at the age of 94.

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.