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 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 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.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

1953 Bowman b/w Jackie Robinson custom

While I have created more than 125 custom baseball cards in classic formats from 1912 tobacco cards through 1990 Topps, I had not previously undertaken anything in similitude of the iconic 1953 Bowmans.

To avoid embarrassing myself as a custom card creator I'd want to have a photo that echoed the quality of those original Kodachromes. And frankly, I haven't seen a lot of those for players who aren't already in the set.

One of the most important players of 1953 who didn't make the Bowman checklist was Jackie Robinson.
After appearing with Bowman in 1949 and 1950, Jackie jumped on the Topps bandwagon from 1952-56 (he didn't have a bubblegum card in 1951, unless you count his appearance on the 1951 Topps Brooklyn Dodgers team card).

There are probably a few Robinson photos out there that would look good in the simple frame of a 1953 Bowman format, but would be the challenge in that?

Recently I found in an auction a photo of Robinson in spring training that evoked the 1953 Bowman Pee Wee Reese card. Robinson in leaping in the air to make the double-play pivot while evading a sliding teammate. Pee Wee Reese looks on.

While the photo was not in color, I foolishly thought that I could colorize it and come up with a custom card that complemented that of his double-play partner. I was wrong.

Any skills I've developed at using Photoshop to colorize photos proved to be woefully inadequate in matching the look of real 1953 Bowman cards. I'm almost ashamed to show you what resulted from my best efforts, but here goes . . . 

Stung by that failure, I was on the verge of giving up on creating a 1953 Bowman custom of Jackie Robinson when I remembered the '53B black-and-white series. The rest, as they say, is history.

Making my Robinson card wasn't as easy as slipping the photo into a border. Comparing my card with the original photo you'll notice that besides excising Reese, I had to move the sliding Dodger and second base closer to the leaping Robinson.

There was also an unusual typography challenge to doing the back of the card. While most of the fonts used by Bowman are common mid-century typefaces, I couldn't find a real match for the player name at the top of the card or the "BASEBALL COLLECTOR SERIES" in the red banner. I settled on a font named BlacklightD found in my Photoshop font selections. I enhanced it with the faux bold effect and squeezed it horizontally to 80%. At that, it's only close to the Bowman original, but unless you have a '53B at hand with which to compare it, most wouldn't notice the difference. 

As I worked on my Robinson b/w, it occurred to me that there were no multi-player cards among the 64 original Bowman black-and-whites. And, Pee Wee is standing right there . . .  

Check back tomorrow to see what I came up with.

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 in my blog posts of Feb. 17, March 1, March 3, March 9 and March 23.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Koy, Mueller made home run history

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.

On Opening Day, April 19, 1938, Ernie Koy and Heinie Mueller made baseball history by becoming the only players to hit home runs in their first major league at-bats in the same game.

The Phillies were hosting the Brooklyn Robins before a tiny crowd of 1,000.

Koy was a 28-year-old rookie, starting in left field and batting third for Brooklyn. In the top of the first inning, he homered off Wayne LeMaster.

Leading off the bottom of the first, Mueller, the Phillies 25-year-old second baseman, poled his round-tripper off Van Lingle Mungo. 

The Robins won the game 12-5.

Koy and Mueller were the 12th and 13th major leaguers to hit a home run in their first at-bat. Since then, more than 100 others have done so.

Ernie Koy had spent a five-year apprenticeship in the minor leagues before getting his chance with Brooklyn. He had hit 16 home runs in the minors in each of the previous three seasons. He'd spend five years in the National League with Brooklyn (1938-40), the Cardinals (1940-41), Cincinnati (1941-42) and the Phillies (1942). 

He hit 10 more round-trippers in his rookie season, and ended his career with a total of 36.

Emmett Mueller had come to the Phils after eight years in the minors, mostly in the St. Louis Cardinals extensive farm system. At 5'6" he was one of the smallest men in the majors at the time.

Mueller played four years for Philadelphia, hitting 16 more home runs, including three more in his rookie year. 

As far as a baseball card legacy, Mueller was limited to the 1939 and 1940 Play Ball sets. The back of his 1940 PB noted, "'Heinie' goes in for painting and interior decorating as a hobby."

Ernie Koy will be found on only one career-contemporary baseball card, in the 1941 Double Play set.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Adding to Rudy York's card legacy, Part 2

Yesterday I presented my 1940 Play Ball-style Rudy York custom card creation. Today I'm debuting my 1941-style "card that never was."

The background of these cards was in yesterday's presentation. I also expressed my dismay that a slugging star of York's status was largely ignored by the baseball card powers-that-be during his career.

Recently while reading microfilm of back issues of The Sporting News from 1946, I found that York was apparently little appreciated in Detroit in the years he played for the Tigers (1934, 1937-45).

Detroit News baseball writer H.G. Salsigner in the World Series wrap-up issue of Oct. 16, 1946, wrote of the trade that brought York to the Red Sox in January, 1946.

At the 1945 World Series, in which York's Tigers beat the Cubs, Boston manager Joe Cronin had asked the writer how he thought York would work out as the Red Sox first baseman. “I told him I thought York would do very well in Boston,” Salsinger recalled. “In fact Rudy would do better in Boston than anywhere else.”

A year after the deal was made, sending shortstop Eddie Lake to the Tigers for York, Salsigner wrote glowingly of York.

              Rudy, with an even break, would be one of the best first basemen in the game, but he was not getting an even break in Detroit. He had been denied one for more than two years. The crowds in Detroit would not let York play his game.
            For one reason or another, the crowds in Detroit took a dislike to Rudy. We have never been able to understand how or why this dislike developed. We have known York ever since he came to the big leagues in 1934. We found him one of the most likable men we ever met in sport. He has most of the human virtues. We never heard him speak ill of anyone. He is generous and decent in his dealings with his fellow men and popular with other players.
            If the man were surly, mean or vicious, or had failed to deliver, the crowd attitude toward him would have been explainable.
            York, despite his size, is one of the nimblest fielding first basemen in the game. No other first baseman ever equaled him for glove-hand execution of plays. No contemporary was more expert in handling bad throws. He has all-round excellence as a fielder and he is one of the longest hitters in baseball, a batter with a rhythmic swing. We never saw another batter hit a ball with so little apparent effort.
Received Merciless Razzing
            Regardless of his ability, the crowds at Briggs Stadium disliked York and he received the most merciless booing that we ever heard a ball player get. The booing, jeering and cat-calling was not occasional, but continuous. Rudy was booed from the time he left the dugout. When the lineup was announced over the loudspeaker the name of York was the signal for an outburst of boos and jeers. There were outbursts every time he stepped to the plate, every time a strike was called on him, every time he swung and missed, every time he was retired.
            No player in history could have stood up under the barrage and York succumbed. His value to the Detroit club declined steadily, not because he had lost any part of his mechanical skill, but on account of the continuous booing and heckling.
            I told Cronin that York, playing at Fenway Park, before crowds that would give him an even break, would be transformed. Remaining with Detroit, he was doomed. There was no chance for a change of attitude of the crowds.
            Cronin needed a first baseman and he wanted one who could hit a long ball. Fenway Park, with its short left field, was ideally suited for York’s right-handed batting. 

Salsinger's assessment of York's defensive prowess as a first baseman is borne out by the stats. York often led American League first basemen in various defensive stats and was among the top five in the league in fielding percentage among first basemen four times, leading the league in 1947.

While York was first or second in errors committed by a first baseman for five consecutive years, 1941-45, he was also frequently first or second in putouts, assists and double plays turned at first base.

There may have been racial overtones in the Detroit fan base's riding of York. You'll notice that on the back of my 1940-style card I used the phrase, "the big Indian." No longer politically correct, the term would not have been out of place on the back of a baseball card in the pre-war years. 

It turns out, however, that the sporting press' constant references to Native American heritage and attempts to make the nickname "Chief" stick were misguided. While to many observers York looked like an Indian and his maternal great-grandmother was a full-blooded Cherokee, he downplayed any such characterization.

It's true that York was too fond of liquor, which was likely a significant factor in his rapid decline as a ballplayer after the age of 30, however that hardly made him unique among professional ballplayers in the 1940s. On at least two occasions overindulgence was cited (at least between the lines) was being responsible for two potentially fatal hotel fires caused when York fell asleep/passed out in bed with a lit cigarette.

If he was under-appreciated by Tigers fans, he gave Red Sox rooters plenty of cause to embrace him as a hero in their losing battle with the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1946 World Series.

In Game 1 he hit a game-winning home run with two out in the top of the 10th inning. With the Series tied and Game 3 in Boston, he hit a three-run homer in the bottom of the first inning to give the Red Sox all they needed in shutting out the Cardinals. York's .261 average was the highest among Boston players who appeared in all seven games.

Rudy York may have been unpopular with Tigers fans, snubbed by baseball card companies and a trial for managers, but he was my dad's favorite ballplayer and that was all the impetus I needed to create these Play Ball-style custom cards.

I have one more Rudy York custom card in the works, but I don't know when I'll actually complete the project. As always, you'll see it here first.

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 in my blog posts of Feb. 17, March 1, March 3, March 9 and March 23.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Filling the void in Rudy York's card legacy, Part 1

As I sat down at the computer this morning to work on this posting I pulled yesterday's page off my chihuahua-a-day desk calendar and noticed today is the 15th anniversary of my father's death.

It's fitting that my completion of a pair of Rudy York "cards that never were" comes on that anniversary because York was my dad's favorite ballplayer. He is one of the big leaguers of the 1930s and 1940s of whom my dad often spoke when we talked baseball while watching the Braves or the Cubs on the "superstations" of the 1980s.

As is my wont, I'm not going to regale you here with York's life story or baseball career; there are lots of places on the internet where you can find that information. You can't do better than Terry Sloope's extensive entry in the SABR Baseball Biography Project: .

I will, however, point out a couple of my favorite York career highlights.
  • York’s single in the bottom of the second inning of 1945 World Series Game 3 kept the Cubs’ Claude Passeau from a no-hitter.
  • Between 1939-46 York missed only nine of his teams’ 1,087 games. He appeared in every game in 1940, 1941 and 1945.
  • In 1937, York set a major league record by hitting 18 home runs in the month of August. Babe Ruth had previously held the record with 17. York’s mark was bested in June, 1998, by Sammy Sosa – whether you chose to accept that as valid is up to you.
  • In May, 1938, he set the record for most grand slam home runs in a month (3). That record has since been tied eight times. 
  • On July 27, 1946, York hit two grand small home runs in the same game off Tex Shirley of the St. Louis Browns. He also doubled and walked in that game, which the Red Sox won 13-6. York had 10 RBIs.
  • After he left the Tigers, Briggs Stadium became a jinx ballpark for York.In 12 games there with the Red Sox in 1946, York was 3-for-43 at the plate (.070) with 16 strikeouts and no home runs. In 1947 with the White Sox he hit .156 (5-for-32) there in eight games with one home run and five strikeouts. He played in just two games there with the Athletics in 1948; he was 0-for-5, striking out once.
  • York was selected to the American League All-Star team seven times between 1938-47; in the five games in which he played he batted .308.
  • During his career he was in the Top 5 in the American League in home runs nine times and in RBI's seven times.
  • In the 1946 World Series, York hit home runs in Games 1 and 3. The homers were hit with one of Hank Greenberg's bats, which had been sent to Ted Williams as part of an on-going good-natured ribbing between Greenberg and Williams. 
For as big a star as Rudy York was in the late 1930s and early 1940s, he seems to have been given short shrift from the baseball card companies in his playing days. It's true that his major league days began at the tail end of the great bubblegum card era of the 1930s, and that his career was over by the time Bowman and Leaf revived the genre in 1948.

He is among the 24 players in the 1938 Goudey Heads-Up set, and is included in both versions of the 1939 Goudey premium photos. 

York is also in the Exhibit Supply Co. "Salutation" series of 1939-46. In 1940 Wheaties included him in the 1940 "Champs" of the U.S.A. box-back set.

Certainly the scarcest career-contemporary Rudy York card is found in the 1940 Michigan Sportservice large-format team set of 21 Detroit Tigers. 

After he was traded to Boston, York was included in the 1946 and 1947 Red Sox team picture packs.

However, he was completely ignored by Play Ball in its 1939-41 sets. I have to wonder why Gum, Inc. snubbed York in those sets. There were 162 players in the 1939 set, 240 in the 1940 issue (albeit including a couple of dozen "old-timers") and 72 in the 1941 set. At a time when major league rosters comprised just 400 players, it's a mystery why York was omitted.

Similarly, York didn't make the cut for the 75-card (130 different players) 1941 Double Play set.

My custom creation of a 1940 Play Ball-style Rudy York card helps fill one of those gaps. I've also finished up a 1941 Play Ball-style card that I'll show you tomorrow.

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 my 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.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Yankees welcomed comeback pitcher with bunt barrage

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.

All's fair in love, war . . . and the American League.

In 1942, Washington Senators pitcher Emil "Dutch" Leonard broke his ankle in his second game of the season, April 23.

On Sept. 5 he faced the visiting N.Y. Yankees for the first time since his return to action.

As they emerged from the dugout before the game, each of the Yankees greeted Leonard, asking "How's the ankle, Dutch?" All declared they were glad his rehabilitation was coming along all right.

Then the first seven Yankees to come to the plate bunted on him.

Leonard lost the game 6-2, giving up five hits. I don't have the play-by-play, so I don't know how many of those hits may have been on bunts.

Dutch Leonard had a 20-year major league pitching career, specializing in the knuckleball. He won 191, lost 181 and had a 3.25 ERA from 1933-53 (he was with Atlanta in 1937), with the Dodgers (1933-36), Senators (1938-46), Phillies (1947-48) and Cubs (1949-53).

His bubblegum card legacy is lengthy. He was in the Play Ball sets of 1939 and 1941, in Bowman's issues 1948-53 and 1955 (as a Cubs coach), and with Topps, 1952-53.

UPDATE: It turns out that The Sporting News account was not really correct. A regular reader of the blog sent this . . . 

According to the 9/6/42 N.Y. Times, the first inning against Dutch and his ankle went like this:

"Hassett started by outgalloping a bunt. Red Rolfe popped out, but Selkirk walked and when DiMaggio laced a single to center, Hassett dashed home. Keller fanned, but Gordon and Bill Dickey weighed in with lusty singles, each hit driving in a run, and Rizzuto sent the fourth tally home by upending the Washington inner defense with another bunt. Curiously, Leonard pitched a whale of a game after that. He allowed the Yanks no more hits..."

Sounds like two bunts and three hard hit singles, producing four runs.