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.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Notes on my card creation process may help others

The other day on this blog I debuted my pair of Bob Thorpe custom cards, in the formats of 1955 and 1958 Topps.

Today I want to share another little bit of my process for custom card creation. Perhaps other card creators will find something useful they can apply to their own efforts.

As you can imagine with a player who had only two games in the major leagues and just six seasons in pro ball, there are not a lot of photos of Bob Thorpe with which to work. And, for this player, one has to be careful not to select a photo of the "other" Bob Thorpe, who played for the Boston/Milwaukee Braves 1951-53.

For the '55-style card I needed both portrait and action photos.

After considerable searching I found only two portrait photos of Thorpe in a Cubs uniform. I worked with each of them for a day or two and never really got where I wanted to be.

I decided to work with the portrait of Thorpe that appeared on the rare regional 1955 Old Homestead hot dogs team set of Des Moines Bruins cards.

The picture was black-and-white, so I had to colorize it for my card and replace the letters on the cap. Frankly, I don't feel that I was completely successful with that process. The card picture did not have great contrast. Still, with my Photoshop Elements program shouldering the heavy lifting, I was able to come up with something I can live with. In the unlikely event I would ever find a better portrait, this card would be a candidate for rehabilitation on that basis.

I am much more pleased with the result on the action photo on this card. 

The original photo was a pitching pose, black-and-white of course, of Thorpe with the Stockton Ports. The image was probably made in 1954 when Thorpe was lighting up the California League. It appears to be a local press photo.

To convert that 60-year-old picture to my fantasy card use, I began by dropping out the background with Elements' eraser tools, and colorizing the resulting cutout image.


The resulting picture admirably fits my standard for a 1955 Topps-format custom. I thought long and hard about using the image as is.

However, doing so would have been taking liberties with the original 1955 Topps format. While I didn't check every card in the set, I believe that Topps didn't use any minor league photos. Or, rather, they did use some minor league photos, but airbrushed away any uniform details that would identify the picture as other than major league. A perfect example is the card of Orioles catcher Hal Smith, which pictures him wearing a white jersey devoid of logos. 

In a similar vein, the rookie card of Sandy Koufax shows him in a generic white uniform. Koufax came right to the majors from the University of Cincinnati, so it wasn't minor league details that Topps painted out. Some years ago, I heard an interesting bit of hobby lore that alleges the picture of Koufax with his foot on the dugout step and cap in hand originally showed him wearing a Pittsburgh Pirates uniform. That photo, it was said, was taken when Koufax had a tryout with the Bucs prior to signing with the Dodgers. If that's true, I'm surprised I've never seen the original picture.

Be that as it may, I ultimately decided that as nice as the Thorpe-Stockton action picture had turned out, I would have to change the "S" on the cap to a "C" and white out the letters of "STOCKTON" from the jersey.

The logo-switch on the cap was easily accomplished. I searched pictures of other 1955 Topps Cubs cards until I found an action photo of a player facing directly front. That turned out to be El Tappe. I picked the "C" off Tappe's cap and grafted it onto Thorpe's.

In the process of poring over '55T  Cubs cards, I noticed that the small photo of Cubs manager Stan Hack provided a good luck at the "CHICAGO" logo on his jersey. I guessed, correctly as it turned out, that with a little finagling I could replace some of the "STOCKTON" logo with the Cubs lettering.

I think it turned out admirably.

One other element found on 1955 Topps cards could have sunk my project before it ever got off the ground . . . the facsimile autograph.

As scarce as Bob Thorpe photos are, images of his signature are even harder to find. Again, you have to be careful to get the right Bob Thorpe (Robert Joseph Thorpe) signature. There are plenty of images of Benjamin Robert Thorpe's autograph on the internet, including on his 1952 Topps high-number card.

After a bit of searching, I discovered that Thorpe had been included in the first edition of the 1955 Chicago Cubs yearbook, with a nice bold facsimile signature under his picture.

I put out an SOS to the members of the Network 54 vintage baseball memorabilia forum and received a rapid response from Georgia collector Tom Hufford, who sent a scan of the yearbook page. Hufford not only has a 1955 Cubs yearbook, but his book is almost completely hand-signed by members of that team. As he noted, the penned signature of Thorpe matches his facsimile autograph stroke for stroke.

So, there you have my "notes" on the creation of my 1955-style Bob Thorpe card.From time to time in the future, if I think similar presentations would be useful to card creators, I'll try to share similar details.