Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A custom card for a 50-year baseball man

1957 Topps-style custom card.
Though two of his three major league seasons were played during the thick of the Topps-Bowman “baseball card wars,” Washington Senators infielder Tony Roig never appeared on a big-league card.

And, considering he played 13 seasons in the minors and six in Japan, his cardboard legacy is not very deep at all.

Roig couldn’t have missed being on a Topps card by too much. In a recent Topps Vault auction on eBay, there was a Topps archive photo, attributed to 1957, of Roig. But, since his major league career was over before the First Series of ’57 Topps was issued, it’s not surprising that he didn’t make the cut for the checklist that year.

However, that Topps photo just screams 1957 TOPPS. If you collected them back then, or since, you know what I mean . . . it just has the look of a 1957 Topps card. Naturally, I decided to remedy Topps’ oversight by retrofitting the photo to the ’57T format.

Roig spent more than 50 years in professional baseball in three countries between 1948 and the 1990s.

He was born in New Orleans on Dec, 23, 1927. Or maybe it was 1928. Fudging one’s age a year or two one way or the other (sometimes both over the course of a career) was common back then.

The Phillies signed him as a free agent out of high school as a right-handed pitching prospect. He split his first pro season, 1948, with a pair of deep-south Class D clubs, Troy (Alabama State League) and Lafayette (Evangeline League). Records are sketchy for the low minors in that era, so his pitching performance is unrecorded.

Roig batted .286 that season, and the Phils decided to switch him to the outfield. He remained at the Class D level for 1949, with Enterprise (Alabama State League) and Dublin (Georgia State League), hitting a combined .257.

Prior to the 1950 season, Roig was acquired by the Washington Senators. Once again he opened the season at Class D, with Rome in the Georgia-Alabama League. While the Senators tried to find his best defensive position – he played second, short, third and in the outfield – he hit his stride at the plate, batting .327 with 15 home runs. At the end of the season he was promoted to Chattanooga, where he hit .304 in a week’s worth of games.

Like many ballplayers in that day, Roig lost two of his prime years to military service during the Korean War, serving in the Army as an MP (when he wasn’t playing ball).

Roig returned to Chattanooga for the 1953 season, finding a home at second base. He batted .303, but his home run production dropped to the single digits – literally, he hit only one.

He earned a September call-up to Washington, making his debut as the starting second baseman in the second game of a Sept. 13 doubleheader, going hitless in three at-bats. He batted .125 in three games.

Back in Chattanooga for 1954, he was switched to third base, hitting .272. But when the Senators signed a Bonus Baby third sacker named Harmon Killebrew, Roig’s road back to the bigs at that position appeared blocked.

In 1955 he played shortstop at Class A Charlotte, second base at Chattanooga, and even got back to Washington for a month, hitting .228 and playing at second, short and third.

Roig spent most of 1956 with the Senators’ Triple-A club at Louisville as a second baseman. He saw his final major league action with the Senators at the end of the season, batting .210 and playing middle infield.

The 1957 season was spent back at Chattanooga, where he was a teammate of Killebrew’s, batting an even .300. In his 10th season in pro ball, Roig appeared on a collectible for the first time, as part of a set of team-issued 8” x 10” black-and-white posed action pictures. The Lookouts photocards are seldom seen in the hobby market, and the set’s checklist is still unconfirmed, but except for the Killebrew picture, the pictures do not command particularly high prices. The Standard Catalog of Baseball Cards lists Roig at $30 in Near Mint.

That was also Roig’s last season as Senators’ property.

When the Dodgers moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles for the 1958 season, they picked up Roig in the Rule 5 minor league draft to stock their new AAA team at Spokane.

Roig spent three seasons with the Indians, and most of the rest of his life in the Spokane area. He played with all of Dodgers’ top stars of the 1960s, but never got to play for the big club. He played all four infield positions with the Indians, and some in the outfield, batting .281, and in 1959-1960 averaging 15.5 home runs.

When the Indians won the Pacific Coast League title in 1960, the fans voted Roig as the team’s MVP. He capped his career at Spokane on Sept. 8, 1960, by playing all nine positions.

In his last two years at Spokane, Roig appeared in the 1959 and 1960 Darigold Farms milk carton cards. These rare regional cards were issued glued to milk cartons. As indicated by their catalog value – even non-star players like Roig bring $150-200 in NM condition – they are also scarce.

Roig was drafted out of the Dodgers’ system by the Chicago White Sox for 1961, playing the full season with the San Diego Padres. He batted .255 and had a career-high 19 home runs, splitting his time in the field between second and third bases.

1961 Union Oil
The easiest of Roig’s career-contemporary cards was issued in 1961, as part of the Union Oil run of Pacific Coast League team sets. Even in Near Mint condition, Roig’s card would likely sell for less than $15.

Roig’s final season in Organized Baseball came in 1962 with the White Sox AAA team at Indianapolis. Contracting pneumonia during spring training, Roig was limited to 90 games with the Indians, at shortstop and second base. He hit just .211.

Following the season in the U.S., Roig played winter ball in Venezuela.

In 1963 he began a six-year stint in Japanese pro ball. He played five years in the Pacific League, 1963-1967 with the Nishitetsu/Seibu Lions and 1968 as the 40-year-old shortstop for the Kintetsu Buffaloes. He averaged 21 home runs a season in Japan, giving his teams unusual power for the shortstop position. He was selected to the equivalent of the league’s all-star team in 1966.

1967 Kabaya Leaf card of Tony Roig
(courtesy of Jeff Alcorn)
Roig appears on at least three Japanese baseball cards. He is the last card, #360, in that country’s first American-style baseball card set, the 1967 Kabaya Leaf issue. He also appears in a 1964 Marukami set and an unidentified menko (strip card) issue of the day. As might be expected, none are common in the U.S.

After his playing days were over, Roig returned to Spokane where he bought a lumberyard, which he operated until 1973 when he was hired as a scout by the Milwaukee Brewers.

In 1975-1976, the Brewers had Roig manage their short-season Class A team at Newark in the New York-Pennsylvania League. The team won the league pennant in 1975.

The closest Roig came to a big-league baseball card was in 1977 when he was included in the 18-card set of One Year Winners, a collectors’ issue by Larry Fritsch cards.

Roig later scouted for the California Angels and in 1981 came full circle professionally, joining the Phillies as a scout and hitting instructor for nearly two decades.

In 2008, on the golden anniversary of the arrival of AAA baseball in Spokane and the opening of Avista Stadium, Roig was honored by throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at the 50th anniversary game.

Tony Roig died on Oct. 20, 2010.

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