Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Information and misinformation on the internet

As I near the age of 60, with more than 40 years of experience in gathering and disseminating information as a reporter, writer, editor and publisher, I continue to marvel daily at the availability of information via the internet. Some of it is even accurate!

Without the worldwide web I wouldn't be able to present much of the information you find on my blog, nor would I be able to compile the pictures and information I use to create my custom cards.

I have learned, however, that the internet's cornucopia of data and images is one gift horse that has to be looked in the mouth. Because it is so easy to post information in cyberspace, it is easy to post misinformation, whether innocently or maliciously. And both fact and fiction on the internet have a way of multiplying as undiscerning persons post and repost the information without independently verifying the facts or even applying the sniff test.

This mixed blessing was brought into focus for me again this week when one of my searches of baseball/football photos available for sale (or for "lifting") on eBay produced a studio publicity photo for a long-forgotten TV Western show.

The picture was of actor Jeff Richards in his title role for the 1958 NBC-TV series Jefferson Drum. In 26 episodes aired between April-December of 1958, Richards played a crusading newspaper publisher in the Old West, who, to quote one fan site, often had to use his six-gum to defend his right to print the truth.
This 7" x 9" studio publicity photo
pictures Jeff Richards as Jefferson Drum
Like a surprising number of other TV Westerns of the Fifties and Sixties, Jefferson Drum was a widower trying to bring up his son in a violent, rapidly changing world. By making the lead character a single dad, the door was left open to to a near-weekly parade of potential love interests.

As much of a fan as I was of TV Westerns in that era, I don't remember either the series, its star or any of the regular cast. I do note, however (again, through the accessibility of full episode casts on the Internet Movie Database []) that such stars as Dan Blocker, Robert Vaughn and Mike Connors had appeared in guest shots.

Evidently, the seller of the promo photo also accessed the internet to dig up some data on Jeff Richards. His auction description stated that Richards, who was born Richard Mansfield Taylor in Portland, Ore., had played professional baseball with the Portland Beavers of the Pacific Coast League.

Sensing a possible story for my blog, I began to dig into that allegation. While I found the same information repeated on dozens, if not hundreds of web sites, a couple of hours of cyber sleuthing failed to produce any specifics of the actor's pro ball career. I did find a different source that said that Richards also played with the Salem (Ore.) Senators after being released from the U.S. Navy in 1946.

Next I went to my go-to site for everything baseball, the Society for American Baseball Research's There is no listing on the site for Richard M. Taylor or Jeff Richards, nor for two of the other names on which he appeared in TV and movies, Dick Taylor and Richard Taylor.

With his birthdate -- also something that sometimes has to be viewed as potentially subject to fudging in the case of atheltes and actors -- at hand, Nov. 1, 1922, I checked the Beavers rosters for every season from 1935-1958. Nobody by any of those names was to be found.

Fortunately, the records for the Portland Beavers in those years as reported on the SABR database include every player who appeared in even a single game. It is thus my conclusion that reports of Richard Taylor or Jeff Richards having played pro ball in the PCL were studio hype.

I can't so easily make such a firm statement regarding the possibility that Taylor/Richards may have played with the Salem Senators in the Western International League. Like most of the minor circuits in that era, the SABR records, drawn largely from data compiled for the annual Spalding Baseball Guide, list only players who appeared in 10 or more games. It's possible that Taylor may have had a brief trial with the Senators between his navy days and the start of his Hollywood career.

Richards traded on his athletic background and leading-man good looks to land many moive and TV roles. His most famous baseball-related role was as Adam Polachuk, a N.Y. Giants prospect being evaluated by Hans Lobert (played by Edward G. Robinson) in the 1953 film, Big Leaguer. Baseball players also appearing in the movie as themselves were Carl Hubbell and Jim Campanis.

So, while the internet does offer accessibility of information that makes a researcher's job easier than ever, it is not (yet) infallible and its effective use requires a mix of experience and intuition to achieve a successful result.

And, because us old guys like to school today's youth about how rough we had it back in the day, I'd like to share a couple of personal anecdotes concerning persons who may have exaggerated their athletic glory days.

When I was in junior high school I had a science teacher who claimed that he had competed in the Olympics. As I recall, he was vague about the events in which he participated, though I believe he did specify one specific set of Games, perhaps 1948 or 1952.

He was also my older brother's science teacher a few years earlier, and had made the same claims of international athletic prowess. Probably coincidentally, my brother came across a reference book that purported to list every member of the U.S. Olympic teams.
Richards appeared as Jefferson Drum
in the1959 Nu-Card exhibit-size
set of TV Western stars 

My brother had the poor judgment to confront the teacher -- in front of the entire class -- with the fact that his name appeared nowhere in the official record. Guess who was still paying the price for his brother's indiscretion four years later in science class?

In the early 1980s, during one of my stints as editor of Bank Note Reporter, a monthly periodical for collectors of paper currency, my path would often cross at shows with that of a dealer whose personal collecting specialty was the obsolete bank notes of the state of Tennessee.

During an after-hours bull session at a hotel bar, this garrulous Southern gent once mentioned that he had played professional baseball with the Knoxville Smokies in the 1930s. Now the Southern Association, of which Knoxville was a part, was a Class A league in those days, just two steps below the majors.

Being suitably awed by knowing such a distinguished ballplayer, when I returned home from the show, I began scouring my reference set of Guides to extract the details of  my new hero's playing days. I was surprised that I couldn't find his name anywhere in those annals. I chalked it up to the fact that my friend may have had the proverbial cup of coffee at Knoxville, and thus didn't appear in the compiled stats.

Having learned my lesson in junior high, but mostly because I liked the putative ballplayer as a hobby friend and good ol' boy, I never mentioned to him my inability to verify his record.

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