Monday, April 4, 2011

Wanna buy 4,000 Kiner pins?

When it comes to baseball cards and collectibles of the early 1950s today's hobbyists are faced with a serious shortage of contemporary information.

An item I found in a 1953 issue of The Sporting News, however, gives us a rare glimpse of the origins of an item of baseball memorabila that is still popularly collected today.

In the early 1950s, slugger Ralph Kiner was about the only gate attraction that the usually cellar-dwelling Pittsburgh Pirates had to offer. He had tied or led outright the National League in home runs every season since his 1946 debut.

By 1952, Kiner's salary had risen to $90,000, probably the highest in the major leagues, since DiMaggio had retired the previous year and Ted Williams was fighting in Korea. The Pirates still finished in last place.

The Pirates cut Kiner's pay by 17% for 1953, to $75,000 and he held out for virtually all of spring training. Trade rumors were rampant and on June 4 he was traded along with Joe Garagiola, George Metkovich and Howie Pollet to the Chicago Cubs for Bob Addis, Toby Atwell, George Freese, Gene Hermanski, Bob Schultz, Preston Ward and $150,000. 

Unforunately for Myron O'Brisky, the Pirates' manager of concessions and advertising, he had just taken delivery of a shipment of 4,000 pinback celluloid buttons, about 1-3/4" in diameter featuring a color photo and facsimile autograph of Kiner -- in a Pittsburgh uniform.

O'Brisky was able to unload the buttons to Cubs' concessionaire Ray Kneip at the fire sale price of a nickel apiece (though we don't know what O'Brisky originally paid), and they were offered for sale at Wrigley Field for a quarter. But with Kiner pictured in his "old" uniform, sales were less than brisk.

Presumably, when Kiner was traded to the Indians at the end of the 1954 season, the remainder of the unsold buttons either went with him or were junked.

Today, a nice example of the Ralph Kiner Pirates pin usually sells for $50-100.

The pinback buttons weren't the only Cubs souvenir item affected by the 1953 trade. Immediately after the trade, Cliff Jaffee, managing editor of the Chicago Cubs yearbook, which sold for 50 cents at the ballpark, had an insert of Kiner in his new Cubs uniform printed and inserted into the book, then hastily remade the yearbook to excise the players traded to the Pirates and adding the newcomers. This creates three collectible versions of the 1953 Chicago Cubs yearbook: 1) Original edition, 2) Original edition with Kiner insert, and, 3) Revised edition reflecting the June 4 trade.

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