Monday, February 29, 2016

'61 St. Cloud photo has Brock as 1st-year pro

Yesterday, as I came to the bottom of a box of cards and collectibles that I'd accumulated over my 25+ (1980-2006) years as writer, editor and publisher of some of the hobby's leading periodicals and books, I re-discovered a great minor league team photo that I'd bought years ago.

As I wrote in describing the picture for an eBay listing, "This is an authentic, original black-and-white glossy team photo of the 1961 St. Cloud (Minn.) Rox, Class C farm club of the Chicago Cubs in the Northern League. This was Lou Brock's first year in Organized Baseball and his only season in the minor leagues. He is pictured sitting in the front row (far right)."

The Cubs had signed Brock as a free agent out of Southern University in Baton Rouge in late summer 1960, more on the basis of raw talent than proven accomplishments. 

In 1961 he led the Northern League with a .361 batting average, 268 total bases, 33 doubles, 181 hits and 117 runs. He was named the league's Rookie of the Year. Surprisingly, the man who went on to break Ty Cobb's career stolen-base record did not lead the Northern League in steals. His 38 was second to Jose Martinez' (1969-70 Pirates) 40.

At the end of the season, Brock was called up to the Cubs, ending his minor league days and starting a Hall of Fame career.

There are four other future major leaguers in the photo: Ron Campbell (1964-66 Cubs), Billy Cowen (1963-64 Cubs, 1965 Mets, Braves, 1967 Phillies, 1969 Yankees, 1969-72 Angels), Hal Gilson (1968 Cardinals and Astros), and Bill Ott (1962, 1964 Cubs).

The '61 Rox were managed by career minor-leaguer Joe Macko, who also played first base and pitched a little.

The photo measures 10" x 8-1/8". The back is blank, and has a player identification key taped on. It was part of a large number of 1940s-1970s minor league team pix I collected over the years and recently sold on eBay as part of a decade-long divestment of my accumulations. Going through the various boxes and binders of my "stuff" has been a lot of fun, especially when I find nearly-forgotten pieces like this Rox photo.

The picture was put up for auction on eBay, closing March 6. It sold for $76.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

'59T custom multi-player feature card has Slaughter, Boone, Vernon as Braves

Creation of this custom card required me to bend one of my cardinal rules of card-making. I strive to never make a card that is anachronistic; that is, that could not have been created by Topps, Bowman, etc., in the year represented.

That's why I've never made a Babe Ruth card is the 1958 Topps format, or a Gorman Thomas card in the style of 1955 Bowman.

My new "Tribal Elders" card is in the format of a 1959 Topps multi-player feature card (a term I invented 30+ years ago for a feature in Baseball Cards magazine). 

While all three of the players pictured actually did play for the Milwaukee Braves in 1959, each had already appeared in the '59T set with another team: Mickey Vernon with the Indians, Ray Boone with the White Sox and Enos Slaughter as a N.Y. Yankee.  

By the time the trio converged on the Milwaukee clubhouse, the 1959 baseball card-season was over. By the time the 1960 cards were being prepared, two of the three were no longer with the Braves.

Still, the black-and-white photo on which I based my card is just too good to ignore. It shows three All-Star veterans who you don't normally think of in a Braves' uniform. So I decided to stretch the 1959 card season and make this card in that classic Topps mid-century format.

Pretty much as it says on the back of my card, these veteran ballplayers were picked up by Milwaukee to bolster their chances at a three-peat of the National League pennant. At the time they joined Milwaukee, Vernon was just shy of his 42nd birthday. Slaughter was 43 (the oldest player in the majors), Boone was 36.

Vernon came over on April 11, just prior to the opening of the 1959 season. The Braves had sent pitcher Humberto Robinson to Cleveland in a trade. Milwaukee would use Vernon when a left-handed hitting first baseman was called for, and he provided insurance at the position for the injury-prone Joe Adcock.

Versatile Ray Boone was picked up on waivers on Aug. 20 from the Kansas City A's, for whom he had hit .273. While he was almost exclusively a first baseman at that stage of his career, Boone had earlier played at third base and shortstop. He still offered occasional power in his bat.

Slaughter didn't join the Braves until Sept. 11. He too came off the waiver wire, from the Yankees. The Braves acquired Slaughter because their regular left fielder, Wes Covington, went down with a torn ankle ligament; out for the season.

When play resumed after the (first) All-Star break, the Braves found themselves in a three-way pennant chase with the Giants and Dodgers, after having led the N.L. almost ever day since the season opener. They never dropped below third place and were never further behind than 4-1/2 games but it was a real dog fight.

The Braves ended the regular season tied with the L.A. Dodgers, then dropped a best-of-three playoff series.

As it turned out, the veterans acquired by Milwaukee didn't materially affect the outcome of the pennant race.

Vernon appeared in 74 games, almost all of them as a pinch-hitter. He batted just .220. In the second-game loss of the playoff series, he was unsuccessful in that role, striking out for the third out in the top of the ninth after Sandy Koufax had walked the bases loaded.

Ray Boone was also used principally as a pinch-hitter by Milwaukee. He did get three starts at first base to go along with 10 pinch-hit appearances. He batted .200 for Milwaukee.

Filling in for the downed Covington, Enos Slaughter started five games in left field and had six pinch-hit appearances, including both games, ineffectually, of the playoff series with the Dodgers. In his time with the Braves, Slaughter hit just .167.

Milwaukee released Slaughter and Vernon on Oct. 13, 1959. 

Slaughter spent 1960 and 1961 as a minor league playing-manager. In 1960 he was skipper of the Cubs' Class AAA farm club at Houston. In 1961 the N.Y. Mets, set to begin NL play in 1962, hired Slaughter to manage their Class B team in the Carolina League. Slaughter's Raleigh Capitals ended the season in last place and did not have a single player who ever saw as much as a cup of coffee in the major leagues. Slaughter batted .341 in 41 pinch-hit appearances for the team.

Mickey Vernon was hired for 1960 as the Pirates first base coach. One of his special projects was to work with Dick Stuart to improve the slugger's fielding as a first baseman.
When the rosters expanded on Sept. 1, Vernon was tendered a player's contract. He appeared nine times as a pinch-hitter, getting one hit, a walk and an RBI. In the first base coach's box, Vernon was the first person to shake Bill Mazeroski's hand when Maz hit a walk-off home run to defeat the Yankees in the 1960 World Series.

In 1961 Vernon was named manager of the expansion Washington Senators. He was fired in mid-1963, later coaching the Pirates and Cardinals and working as a minor league manager for the KC/Oakland A's, the Braves and the Mets through 1971.

Ray Boone remained with the Braves until May 17, 1960, when he was traded to the Boston Red Sox. Aging and ailing knees prevented him from continuing as a major leaguer and in mid-September, he retired and took up scouting for Boston in his native San Diego area.

I'd had the Slaughter-Boone-Vernon photo in my files for a number of years before reconciling to the fact that any card I made with it would have been an impossibility for Topps in 1959, but it was just too good a concept not to pursue.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Where's Ty Cobb's clock?

This photo was taken at Ty Cobb's home
in Atherton, Calif., in 1936. It does not
specify the clock as being that given to
him in 1925, but there appears to be a
plaque to the left of Cobb's elbow.

Shortly after his death in July, 1961, the Ty Cobb Baseball Memorial Commission was formed to direct the creation and construction of a memorial building in Royston, Ga., the small town where the Georgia Peach had grown.

In the Feb. 28, 1962, Sporting News, Tigers’ Hall of Fame broadcaster Ernie Harwell wrote of the commission’s quest to “obtain photographs, mementos and other material relating to Cobb and his baseball career.”

The commission’s chairman, Dr. Stewart Brown, Jr., the son of one of Cobb’s best childhood friends, had a special request. “I’m especially anxious to locate an old grandfather’s clock which was given to Cobb when he and Henry Ford were tendered a testimonial banquet at the Book-Cadillac Hotel in Detroit. These men were honored as the two leaders who had done the most for that city. So far we have no trace of what might have happened to (the clock).”

Looking further into the banquet at which the grandfather clock was presented to Cobb, it appears as if Dr. Brown might have been incorrect in some of the details he cited about the banquet. While Ford was mentioned by Mayor John W. Smith in the after-dinner speechifying, none of Cobb’s biographers indicate the auto industrialist was in attendance at the event.

The banquet was the culmination of a special “Ty Cobb Day” on Saturday, Aug. 29, 1925, honoring the Tigers player-manager’s record-breaking 20 years in the American League.

At a game that afternoon at Navin Field, a crowd variously reported at 20,000-30,000 turned out. In pre-game ceremonies, Cobb stood bareheaded at the third-base gate to the field boxes and shook hands with hundreds of the fans.

He then went on to have a 2-for-4 day at the plate, with a double, a walk, two runs and an RBI in defeating the Philadelphia A’s 9-5. It was the sixth of 10 consecutive Tigers wins, though the streak was not able to pull Detroit out of fifth place in the AL.

At the testimonial banquet that night, Cobb was presented with a grandfather clock said to have cost $1,000 (about $14,000 adjusted for inflation today). Biographers variously cite the clock as being the gift of the citizens of Detroit, the city council, or the city itself. The mayor is said to have appropriated $1,000 in public funds for the clock’s purchase, endorsed by the city council.

In presenting the gift, Mayor Smith said, “Two names alone in Detroit history are associated with the supreme degree of achievement in their respective fields. They are those of Henry Ford and Tyrus Cobb.”

In his 1925 coverage of the banquet, TSN’s Detroit beat writer Sam Greene reported attendance at about 600. Greene also mentioned an item that would interest today’s collector. He described a souvenir program given to attendees that included stats from Cobb’s career, game-action and leisure-time photos and an ode by Grantland Rice. At least one autographed example of the program is known within the hobby.

If my cursory internet research is correct, the proposed Ty Cobb Memorial was still a long way off in 1962, despite the best intentions of the committee. It was reported that the State of Georgia appropriated up to $200,000, to be combined with corporate and private donations to erect a suitable building. A site for the memorial was set aside on U.S. Highway 29 in Royston, across the road from Cobb Memorial Hospital, which Ty Cobb had endowed with $100,000 in honor of his parents in 1949.

The hospital has grown over the years into the Ty Cobb Healthcare System, which includes two hospitals and four convalescent centers.

Aug.  30, 1962, was declared Ty Cobb Day in Georgia by then-Governor S. Ernest Vandiver. An article in the July 28, 1962, Sporting News detailed progress on the proposed Cobb Memorial.

It was reported that the city of Royston had purchased land for the project, and donated it to the building commission. An Atlanta architectural firm, Wilfred J. Gregson and Associates was authorized to proceed with plans for the shrine building.

Initial thoughts were that there would be a central rotunda that would display some of Cobb's "most treasured trophies and memorabilia." One wing was designated to contain "pictures, records, plaques, bats, gloves, shoes, uniforms and other personal effects that will dramatize Cobb's life story."

Another wing would house a business office, concession stand and souvenir shop.

The updated estimate of construction cost was pegged at $350,000.

One of the first big private contributors to the building fund was Boston Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey, who gave $1,000 to "preserve the fighting competitive spirit of Ty Cobb." In ceremonies at Atlanta's Ponce de Leon Park on Aug. 30 for the unveiling of architect's drawings for the shrine, Detroit Tigers vice-president Rick Ferrell presented a $2,500 check to the building fund from club president John Fetzer.

Planning and funding for the Ty Cobb Baseball Memorial seems to have petered out over the years. It wasn’t until 1998 that the Ty Cobb Museum was opened. It is located at 461 Cook St., just off US 29 in Royston, inside the Joe A. Adams Professional Building. The museum’s web site indicates it receives about 4,000 visitors a year.

I contacted the museum to inquire whether it might be the current repository of Cobb’s presentation grandfather clock, but have not heard back from them. 

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

1963 Twins shoe horn marks a die-hard collector

How do you know you're really a die-hard Minnesota Twins collector?

When you have one of the "error" Metropolitan Stadium giveaways from the home game on Sept. 17, 1963: a 16" gold-inscribed wooden shoe horn.

Twins publicist Herb Heft explained in the Sept 26 issue of The Sporting News, "We ordered 43,000 shoe horns a month ago when it appeared the record would be set. They were to be given out the day or night of record-breaking."

The record that the team intended to commemorate was the single-season home gate, as explained by the gilt inscription to the right of the team logo: "A footnote to another attendance record -- 1,433,117 -- Thanks! -- September, 1963 -- The Minnesota Twins."

Their first year in Minnesota, 1961, the Twins had drawn 1,256,723 fans while finishing in seventh place. They jumped into second place in 1962 and drew 1,433,116. 

In 1963 the Twins had been within a game and a half of the league-leading Yankees at the end of June, and held onto second place in the AL as late as Sept. 13, drawing crowds as large as 37,000 for a four-game series against the Yankees. For their last home series, officially out of the pennant race, Sept. 17-19 against the Tigers, attendance averaged just 10,500.

On the night the shoe horns were given away, attendance was 14,147.

As it was, the Twins' 1963 attendance of 1,406,652 was the best in the American League. The AL Champion Yankees had a gate nearly 100,000 lower, at 1,308,920.

Heft said, "We decided to go through with it even when it became apparent the goal would not be reached because of weather and the pennant race."

The publicity man said the souvenirs would be valuable one day -- like the Twins' World Series tickets that were printed in September, 1962.

One of the Twins' souvenir shoe horns was available recently on eBay for $50.

Phantom 1962 Twins World Series tickets are not uncommon. Three-game strips can be regularly found on eBay in the $40-60 range.

Collector Larry Serota reports that he recently purchased in a sports collectibles auction one of the 1963 Twins shoehorns, with the original paper wrapper in which it was distributed.

The white paper wrapper has line-art drawings of Twins players, officials, etc. The drawings are in blue with red facsimile autographs. 

The presence of the paper wrapper raised the value of the Twins shoehorn to $75 in that auction.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Hawk surprised us in '58 Topps

I've written here before (Sept. 18, 2014 blog) about what it was like to be a 7-year-old Milwaukee Braves fan finding  a 1958 Topps Bob Hazle card in a wax pack.

Little did I know then that the Second Series of '58 Topps would hold another Braves rookie surprise -- card #164 Bob Taylor.

If I knew about Bob Taylor at all back then, it was in the context of his having signed a $100,000+ "bonus baby" contract in June, 1957, upon graduation from Metropolis High School in Illinois. The fact that he came from Metropolis -- the same as Superman -- was also memorable.

But as the Braves battled the Cardinals and Dodgers through the month of July before taking possession of first place, Taylor was largely forgotten. 

While he made his major league debut on June 9 as a pinch-runner, we heard little of Taylor during the 1957 season. According to the back of his 1958 Topps card he appeared in seven games, scoring twice and failing to hit in his only at-bat. 

As the Braves brought World Series glory to Wisconsin we forgot about Bob Taylor . . . until the Second Series of 1958 Topps hit the shelves. By the time we held a Taylor card in hand, however, he was nowhere to be seen in the Braves' box scores.

Prior to the '58 season, Baseball had written its bonus rules yet again, freeing those high-priced youngsters from two years of (usually) idleness on the big club's roster and bench. Moreover, the new rules were applied retroactively, allowing Milwaukee to send Taylor to the minors for much-needed professional experience.

Taylor had a good year at Class A Cedar Rapids in 1958, batting .297 with 22 home runs. During  the season, an injured finger had forced him from behind the plate to the outfield. When the Braves recalled Taylor to Milwaukee in mid-September, it was largely to give left fielder Wes Covington some rest for the coming Series rematch with the Yankees.

On Sept, 27 Taylor got his first big league hit, a double off the Reds' Ted Wieand in a 6-1 win at County Stadium.

After spring training in 1959, Taylor was sent down to Class AA Atlanta. He split the season between catching and the outfield, but again lost time to an injured finger. He repeated his .297 batting average but had only four home runs in 99 games. There was no call-up to Milwaukee in 1959.

Taylor spent the 1960 season at Louisville, the Braves' Class AAA team, where he was part of the team that won the American Association pennant and defeated Toronto in the Junior World Series. Taylor again divided his time between catching and the outfield, batting .270. He led the Colonels with 17 home runs, 26 doubles and 80 RBIs.

He spent the off-season in the Army, missing all of spring training. Taylor spent the entire 1961 season with Milwaukee but appeared in only 20 games, mostly as a pinch-hitter. In the final game of the season, Taylor got his first major league home run, a game-typing blast off the Giants' Mike McCormick. The homer wasn't enough to lift his BA over the .200 mark, however, and he ended the season at .192.

Recalled to service with the 32nd Infantry after the season, Taylor didn't rejoin the Braves for the 1962 season until Aug. 11. He was again relegated largely to pinch-hit duty until early September when, he got his first real chance to play every day, first in left, then in right field. 

He appeared in 20 games for the '62 Braves, garnering just a dozen hits. Five of those hits, however, came in a single game, Sept. 15 in a 9-8 win against the expansion Houston Colt .45s. That perfect day at the plate raised his season's batting average from .156 to .270. He ended the season at .255.

As the 1963 season approached, it looked like it might finally be Taylor's year in Milwaukee. He had won the left field job with a torrid spring training, but as the season opener neared his was again bitten by the injury bug. Playing out of position at third base in a March 17 spring training game, a bad-hop grounder broke his collarbone. 

It was June 18 before he returned to the Milwaukee lineup. He played in just 16 games, getting above the .100 batting mark for just one game, ending the season -- and his time with the Braves -- with a .067 BA.

For what is now believed to have been a $119,000 bonus (including a $20,000 payment to his father), the Braves had Taylor's services in just 67 major league games in which he'd had just 20 hits.

At the winter meeting following the 1963 season, Milwaukee drafted pitcher Jack Smith from the Dodgers' organization. To make roster room they sold Taylor to the fledgling N.Y. Mets for $30,000.

Taylor played six more years in the majors, with New York (1963-67), the Angels (1967) and Royals (1969-70) mostly as a back-up catcher, bouncing between the big clubs and their AAA farms.

Taylor retired after the 1971 season, eventually earning a Master's Degree. He taught and coached at the high school and college levels. He died in June, 2012, at the age of 73.

For as few games as he played with the Braves, Taylor had a decent number of Topps baseball cards, a trend that continued through his later travels.

After his rookie card in the 1958 Topps set, Taylor appeared with the Braves in the 1961, 1962 and 1963 sets. On his 1961 card, his nickname of "Hawk" appears on front. He is also identified as "Hawk" on his 1965 Topps card, which, like his 1964 card, pictures him with the Mets. The Hawk nickname is on the front of Taylor's 1968 Topps card (and the Canadian and Venezuelan versions), which pictures him with the California Angels. His final career-contemporary Topps card is in the 1969 set, as a Royal.

Both during and after his playing days, Taylor was included in a number of collectors' issue sets. 

You can't blame Topps for not producing Hawk Taylor cards in 1959 and 1960; he spent both of those seasons in the minor leagues. 

If Topps had included Taylor in the 1959 set, I think my recently completed custom card provides a pretty fair idea of what it might have looked like.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

"Downtown" Ollie Brown was also "No-Hit"

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.

Somebody in the San Francisco Giants' organization in 1963 came up with the idea of switching young Ollie Brown from the outfield to the mound.

In a one-season experiment during his second season of pro ball, 19-year-old Brown made 21 starts for the Decatur Commodores in the Class A Midwest League. And one of those starts gave Topps cartoonists something to feature on the backs of several of his early baseball cards.

On Aug. 13, 1963, "Downtown" Ollie Brown pitched a no-hitter against the Wisconsin Rapids Senators. And this wasn't one of those cheap minor league seven-inning doubleheader games. It was a genuine nine-inning gem, an 8-0 shutout in which only five balls reached the outfield.

Which is not to say that it was a breeze for Brown; he walked 11 batters. However, he also helped himself with the bat, belting two home runs and plating four RBIs.

The 1963 season was Brown's second year at Decatur. He'd signed with the Giants in 1962 as an amateur free agent. After a handful of games with Salem in the short-season Class D Appy League, he'd gone to Decatur in the Midwest League, also at the time in a Class D circuit. He was able to demonstrate some power, with 10 home runs in 64 games.

But batting just .230 and striking out about once per game got somebody in the 'Frisco front office thinking his true calling might be somewhere other than the outfield.

Back in Decatur for 1963, the league having "improved" to the Class A level, Brown was given a regular spot in the rotation, playing in the outfield about once a week and doing some pinch-hitting. The move was not a disaster, Brown had a 9-8 record including eight complete games with three shutouts. But his ERA was 4.76, and in his 123 innings pitched he had given up 132 walks while striking out 107. His 24 wild pitches were the most in the MWL that season and he'd hit seven batters.

Brown had improved at the plate in 1963, at least statistically. He cut his strikeouts by nearly two-thirds, fanning just 22 ties in 92 at-bats. He'd also hit six home runs.

With the pitching experiment inconclusive, Brown was sent to the Giants' winter instructional league team in Arizona after the '63 season. Back in the outfield, he led the team (those who played in more than a dozen games) with a .325 batting mark.

The extra work in the off-season paid big dividends for Brown. He was still at Class A in 1964 but this time it was with Fresno in the California League, back where he'd grown up. 

Brown's .329 average was fourth-best in the league, but he was tops in the circuit with 40 home runs, 133 RBI, 111 runs scored and 11 triples (four-way tie).

That kind of domination in a fast A league earned Brown a jump to the top rung of the Giants' minor league ladder for 1965. With Tacoma in the Class AAA Pacific Coast League, Brown batted .293, leading the team with 27 home runs.

That earned him a September call-up to the big leagues. Though he hit just .200 with no power in his first major league look-see, Brown was there in San Francisco when the 1966 season opened. With a brief step back to AAA Phoenix in July, where he hit .343 with nine homers in 27 games, Ollie Brown was on his way to a 13-year major league career.

Left unprotected in the 1968 expansion draft after a down year in which he'd spent a couple of months back with Phoenix, Brown was the San Diego Padres' first pick. He hit 20 home runs in 1969 and 23 in 1970 before losing his power stroke. Brown was traded to the Oakland A's in mid-May 1972, then picked up on waivers by the Brewers at the end of June.

After hitting .280 for Milwaukee as a part-time outfielder and designated hitter in 1973, Brown was traded to the California Angels in a nine-player deal. He was purchased by the Astros in spring training 1974, but after hitting just .217 near the end of June, he was waived to the Phillies.

Brown closed out his pro career with three more seasons in Philadelphia, retiring after the 1977 season. He holds a lifetime BA of .265 with 102 career home runs. He died a year ago, in April, 2015 at age 71.

Something else a collector could learn from the backs of Ollie Brown's baseball cards: he came from an athletic family. His little brother Oscar played parts of five years (1969-73) for the Atlanta Braves and older brother Willie (not the Hall of Fame Willie Brown) had three years in the NFL with the Rams (1964-65) and Eagles (1966).

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Flags of the World custom cards added: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland

I'm not a big bucket-list kind of guy. If I'm being honest, I screwed up that entire concept.

As a child I had overheard the adults saying I wasn't expected to live to 18. As that time came and went I was in full-on "live like there's no tomorrow" mode; gratification deferred could well be gratification denied.

I'm paying for that now, of course. I've heard the quote attributed to both Groucho Marx and Mickey Mantle, but it accurately reflects my current situation . . . "If I had known I was going to live this long, I'd have taken better care of myself."

Between what I did to myself over the past 64+ years, and what my body has done to me, I am in no position today to work on a bucket list.

There is one thing I would like to do, however. I'd like to return to Great Britain. In 1990 I with my wife and daughter, took a two week coach tour of England, Wales and Scotland; I'd like to go again.

All this is by way of explaining my four most recent custom non-sports cards. Done in the format of 1956 Topps Flags of the World cards, a childhood favorite, I have created a quartet of cards featuring the flags of Great Britain's constituent countries as they might have appeared in the mid-Fifties.

I learn a lot through the creation of these flag cards as I research things such as the "stats" on back which reflect the countries as they existed in 1956.

Collectors of the Topps' originals may recognize that I have borrowed from a couple of the 1956 cards. For my Wales card I appropriated the images on the right from the Topps Flags Poland card, as both countries are known for their sheep and coal mining. The picture at top of my England card is only slightly modified from that which appeared on Topps' Russia Flags cards. 

There are at least three more Flags cards in my future, for the American Territories of Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico. These will likely have to wait until next winter, though. My capacity for creating, much less producing, custom cards is not what it was even a year ago. Thus I'm attempting to spread out my efforts among the genres of baseball, football and non-sports cards. Keep watching this blog for new creations.

For now, I hope you'll appreciate my latter-day Flags of the World.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Exhibition performance was Bob Lee's big break

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.

For eight seasons Bob Lee had pitched his way up the Pittsburgh Pirates' minor league ladder. The 6'3", 225-pound righthander (his nicknames included "Horse," "Moose" and "Man Mountain") had signed as a free agent out of Bellflower High School in California in 1956.

After just one game against big league competition in 1963, however, his ticket was punched for the major leagues . . . though not with Pittsburgh. Two years later he was on the mound in the All-Star Game.

Lee had pitched for the Pirates' organization in virtually every Class C minor league west of the Mississippi. While he usually struck out about one batter per inning, he also allowed a lot of hits and gave up more than a few walks. From 1956-1962 he had an ERA of 4.28 and never had a winning season.

In 1960 he was converted to a relief pitcher and moved up to Class A ball in Savannah. His record was only 3-5 but his ERA dropped to 2.23. He made it up to AAA with the Pirates' International League team at Columbus in 1961, but spent most the year in Class A Asheville and had a 6-6 season.

Lee stuck in AAA for 1962, with Dallas-Ft. Worth in the American Association. He was 2-10 with an ERA of 4.68.

Something clicked for Lee in 1963, though. Back in Class A with Batavia he was returned to a starter's role and led the New York-Pennsylvania League with a 20-2 record and an ERA of 1.70. He struck out 240 (third-best) in 185 innings, walking 47.

At the end of July, Lee had a 15-2 record and had won 14 straight decisions when Pittsburgh called on him to start an exhibition game in Cleveland on Aug.1. On Aug. 15 he extended his win streak to 15 straight with a 10-inning 7-4 win, striking out 13.

Before a crowd of 34,487 in cavernous Municipal Stadium, Lee pitched a complete-game, winning 7-1 on six hits. He wowed the scouts by striking out 16 Indians while walking just two. He contributed two doubles with the bat.

"I was lucky with such a performance against a big league team," Lee told Pittsburgh baseball writer Les Biederman in the Aug. 17, 1963, Sporting News. "I had a good fastball and depended on it a great deal. My curve wasn't as good as it has been and I had trouble with my change-up, a fork ball."

Lee had driven himself the 225 miles between Batavia and Cleveland for the exhibition game, and made the drive back right after the game. After toiling so long in the low minors, he must have felt pretty good on the drive back.

In the Sept. 28, 1963, issue, The Sporting News reported that Lee had been purchased "conditionally" by the L.A. Angels from Batavia. The Angels had some familiarity with Lee's mound work. They had a partial working agreement with the Dallas-Ft. Worth Rangers in 1962 when Lee pitched there. Whatever the conditions of the sale were, they must have been met because Lee opened the 1964 season with the Angels.

He made a relief appearance in the Angels' second game of the season, at Washington. He struck out two of the three Senators batters he faced.

Lee was used mostly in relief with Los Angeles in 1964. He appeared in 64 games, starting five and closing out 39. He had a 6-5 record with 19 saves. He struck out 111 in 137 innings. His 1.51 ERA was tops on the Angels' staff.

The following season, Lee was named too the AL All-Star team. At the break he had a 6-4 won-lost record and 14 saves. He did not appear in the 6-5 loss to the NL. He finished the 1965 season with a 9-7 record. He didn't get a start in his 69 appearances, closing out 50 games and earning 23 saves. His 1.92 ERA was again team-best.

After a 5-4 season for California in 1966, Lee was traded to the Dodgers. He relieved in four games for them in 1967 before being sold to Cincinnati, where his record was 3-3 with three saves in 27 appearances. Lee ended his pro career with the Reds in 1968. His record that season in 44 appearances was 2-4 with three saves and a 5.15 ERA.

Bob Lee's major league totals in five seasons was a record of 25-23 with 64 saves in 269 games. He struck out 315 in 492 innings and had a career ERA of 2.71.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Original Bat-man added to my TV Westerns customs

We were hit with nearly two feet of snow here is west central Pennsylvania the weekend of Jan. 22-23. With nowhere to go and no way to get there, the situation offered a great opportunity to work on some custom cards.

It's been nearly a year since I made any additions to my TV Westerns series, so that was my subject of choice. 

The series Bat Masterson lasted on NBC for four seasons (108 episodes) 1958-1961 during the heyday of TV Westerns. 

Suave Gene Barry had the title role. To my mind, his portrayal of Masterson was just the first of three personifications of the same  debonair man-about-town character. There's really not a lot of difference between Bat Masterson, Amos Burke (Burke's Law 1963-1966) and Glenn Howard (The Name of the Game 1968-1971) as played by Gene Barry.

When the Starz premium cable network has its free preview weekends, I like to watch or record reruns of Bat Masterson. For several years It has been part of the lineup on the network's Encore Westerns channel.

The show's original format made it something of a challenge to add to my TV Westerns card series. The half-hour program was broadcast in black-and-white, making available color pictures for my cards somewhat scarce.

Making the best of the situation, I was able to create this pair of custom cards in recognition of one of my favorite TV Western shows when I was a kid. 

Friday, February 5, 2016

Gibbs' return to Little Rock in '63 stirred crowd

Jake Gibbs played most of his first four
sons of pro ball as catcher for the
Yankees' AAA farm team at
(International League).
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.

Casual sports fans in attendance at the July 10, 1963, ballgame in Little Rock, Ark., may not have fully understood what was happening when the Richmond Virginians sent a pinch-hitter to the plate in the top of the eighth inning.

The city had gone the previous season without a professional ballclub after decades as a mainstay of the Class AA Southern Association. When the Class AAA International League had gone to a two-division, 10-team circuit for 1963, Little Rock had received an expansion franchise. They were a top farm club of the Philadelphia Phillies.

The Richmond pinch-hitter was catcher Jake Gibbs. As he was announced, the crowd erupted with cries of "sooiee!" They remembered the last time Gibbs had appeared in Little Rock.

On Oct. 22, 1960, Gibbs was on the field at War Memorial Stadium as the All-American quarterback for the undefeated Ole Miss Rebels. They were playing #14 Arkansas, that season's eventual Southwest Conference champion.

The Razorbacks and Rebels had faced each other dozens of times since 1908. From 1940-47 and 1952-62 they renewed the rivalry annually. 

In 1960 the game was tied 7-7 late in the fourth quarter when Gibbs engineered a drive beginning on the Mississippi 25-yard line and stalling just inside the Arkansas 40-yard stripe.

Allan Green came on for a 39-yard field goal attempt. Gibbs was the holder as Green lined up for the kick. The roar of the home crowd was deafening. Referee Tommy Bell, a Southeastern Conference official, called time out to quiet the crowd so the Rebels could hear their signals. Green, however didn't hear Bell's whistle and kicked what would have been the winning field goal.

He had to retry the attempt but the result of the re-kick was the same, Ole Miss won the game 10-7.

Arkansas fans were howling mad. They swore that Bell signaled the kick was good as soon as Green's foot contacted the ball. They said the try went wide.The home folks felt Bell's call was a make-good and they roasted the ref. Without multiple cameras and the benefit of slo-mo replays, Bell's call was the final word.

The game came to be known in Arkansas as the "Tommy Bell Game." Although Bell went on to a 15-year career as one of the NFL's most respected officials he had few fans among the Razorback faithful.

The fans in Little Rock got some measure of satisfaction that July night when their one-time nemesis Jake Gibbs popped out.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

New Rails & Sails custom: "Abraham Lincoln"

I've just completed another custom card in the 1955 Topps Rails and Sails format. It depicts the 1930s Chicago-St. Louis inter-city passenger train "Abraham Lincoln."

Production of this distinctively different outfit was subsidized by the U.S. Public Works Administration during the Depression.

The back of my card is really just a 1950s snapshot of the train's origins. Tracing its history all over the internet is a convoluted route. The "Abe" was reconfigured a number of times between 1935 and the 1960s, especially after the Alton Railroad was sold to the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio in 1947.

Still, I enjoy losing myself for an afternoon researching the great old streamliners of my youth.

There will be more along these lines as the winter wears on.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Jansen's '52 Topps showed procreative prowess

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.

For a non-star player's card, Larry Jansen's 1952 Topps card #5 has always enjoyed a bit of extra popularity. 

It is one of the horizontal cards in the set, and pictures a broadly smiling Jansen holding up five fingers on his left hand and two on his right. 

Reading the back of the card, it seems Jansen is indicating the number of children he has. That homey touch and the horizontal format have given the card a modest boost in demand over the years.

But those seven children weren't the end of Jansen's brood. On Sept. 12, 1963, Jansen's wife Eileen gave birth to their 10th child, James Michael, whose appearance brought the family into balance at five girls and five boys.

The Sporting News noted that the newest Jansen was an "instant uncle" to four of Jansen's older grandchildren.

His procreative prowess aside, Larry Jansen enjoyed a modicum of success as a professional pitcher.

In 1946, his fifth season in the minor leagues, Jansen won 30 games to lead the Pacific Coast League (they played 183 games in the league back then). His 1.56 ERA was also tops.

Naturally the N.Y. Giants brought Jansen up for the 1947 season. He was 21-5 with a 3.16 ERA. His .808 winning percentage led the major leagues and he came in second in Rookie of the Year voting to Jackie Robinson.

In his eight years with the Giants, Jansen was a two-time All-Star, including 1951 when he tied for the major league lead in wins with teammate Sal Maglie at 23. Some of the luster of that season was lost when he was tagged for two World Series losses to the Yankees.

After winning his first two decisions in 1954, he dropped a pair and the Giants' released him at the All-Star break.

Jansen returned to the Coast League for 1955 and had a 7-7 record with Seattle. In 1956, again with Seattle, he had an 11-2 record when the Cincinnati Reds brought him up in August. For the remainder of the season he was 2-3 with Cincinnati.

Jansen  pitched four more years in the PCL, retiring after the 1960 season to join the S.F. Giants as pitching coach in 1961. He held that post throughout the decade.

At the time of his death in 2009 in his home town of Verboort, Ore., Jansen had 23 grandchildren, more than 40 great-grandchildren and a great-great grandson.