Back in the early 1980s I thought I'd combine my interests in minor league baseball and vintage baseball cards by assembling a collection of the Obak cigarette cards that were distributed on the West Coast in 1909, 1910 and 1911.I didn't realize it then, but those cards are so much rarer than most of the contemporary T206 cards from "Back East" that putting together complete sets of the Obak could take decades to accomplish -- and that's if a guy had more money than God to buy the cards when they became available.
At about the time I started my Obak collection I also started researching the players who appeared in the sets. Over the course of several long Wisconsin winters I pored over microfilms of The Sporting News and The Sporting Life from the period several years before to several years after the Obak cards circulated, making prodigious notes on 3x5 file cards for each player in the set.
I gave up trying to collect the T212s (that's the catalog number Jefferson Burdick assigned the three sets in the pioneering American Card Catalog in 1939), long ago, and have since sold off all my Obaks, one-by-one, first on eBay, then on the Net 54 baseball card forum. As I was selling each card, I included interesting tidbits about each player from my notes. The bidders seemed to like learning a little bit about these guys on the cards, so I thought I'd now begin sharing their stories here.
The ol' Hidden Ball Trick
At 6'3" and 200 lbs., Harry Ables was a large man in his day. The sporting press described him in such terms as "giant southpaw," and commented more than once on his ability to completely conceal a baseball in his closed hand. He was also called the "Strikeout King of the Texas League" in his prime there in the 1900s, though actual stats are hard to come by. Born in Terrell, Tex., Ables spent much his pro career playing there.
He got his start in pro ball at the age of 20 with Memphis in 1904. He had a trial (0-3) with the St. Louis Browns the following year but spent most of the season with Dallas. For some reason he played only two games with Dallas in 1906. That may coincide with an undated note I have in my files that says he was once punched in the eye by a fan and suffered with double vision. He was back in action full time in 1907, returned to Dallas for 1908, then spent parts of that season with San Antonio and Birmingham. He returned briefly to the major leagues with Cleveland in 1909, where he had his only major league win, then spent the rest of the year and all of 1910 with San Antonio. He had another big league cup-of-coffee (0-1) with the N.Y. Highlanders in 1911, then moved onto the Left Coast where he pitched for Oakland from 1911-1915, also appearing for San Francisco that season. In the off-season between 1914-1915 he worked as a longshoreman on the docks of Oakland, and he was the keeper of the Oaks' team masot, a fox. Another undated note in my files indicates that Ables was the only man in the Pacific Coast League to wear the number "13" (they wore numbers on their sleeves out there many years before the major leagues began to use them).
It looks like I never had a 1911 Obak Ables card in my collection (the only year he appeared on a T212), but I do have a photocopy of the card's back that is worth sharing: "Ables, the giant left-hander is considered one of the best pitchers on the Coast. Has great speed and wonderful control over curve ball. He is a cunning pitcher and batters must be on the laert when facing him. Has several no-hit games to his credit. One of the few men in baseball that can cover the entire ball with his hand."
Between 1925-1928, Ables was president of the San Antonio Bears of the Texas League, and in 1925-1926, pitched a few innings for the team over the age of 40. For all his size, Ables was a light hitter, with a minor league average of around .137.