Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Custom card for tragic Angels pitcher Dick Wantz

As best I remember Topps only created one "In Memoriam" card for a player. That was 1964 card #550, Ken Hubbs, remembering the Cubs second baseman who was killed in a  plane crash on Feb. 15 that year.

They could have created a similar card the following year.

Dick Wantz was a California boy whom the Los Angeles Angels signed to a bonus contract out of a 1961 tryout camp in Southern California.

At the time the Angels were looking to develop their farm system in the same season that they debuted in the American League. In '61 the Angels had only two minor league teams, Dallas-Ft. Worth in the Class AAA American Association, and Statesville in the Class D Western Carolina League.

Wantz, at age 21, was assigned to Statesville. As the Angels expanded their farm system into higher classifications, Wantz advanced a step or two every season, despite the fact that he never had a winning season. He was 20-33 with a 4.29 ERA between 1961-64.

He was a lanky right-hander with a propensity for wildness. In 1962 he led the Midwest League with 16 hit batsmen. But he also could throw heat. In 1963 at Tri-City he recorded 164 strikeouts in 137 innings. Since the Northwest League didn't keep strikeout records, I don't know if that was league-best or not.

Wantz pitched in the Arizona Instructional League in the winter of 1964-65, with a 2-1 record. On the basis of a strong spring training, he made the major league team for 1965.

Wantz pitched only a single inning in the big leagues. In the top of the eighth inning of the season opener, with the Cleveland Indians ahead 5-0, Wantz was brought in to relieve Don Lee. While he struck out two of the six batters he faced, he gave up two doubles and a single for two earned runs.

A month later he was dead.

Wantz had been suffering from severe headaches for some time. When the Angels visited Detroit at the end of the month, Wantz was hospitalized there for a week before returning to Southern California where he was operated on at Daniel Freeman Hospital in Inglewood on May 12 in an effort to remove a cancerous brain tumor. He never regained consciousness and died the next day.

We'll never know at this late date why Topps chose not to issue an In Memoriam card for Wantz. They certainly had a usable photo.

The picture I used on my Dick Wantz custom card is courtesy of Keith Olbermann, who acquired it from the Topps archives. It's a good thing Olbermann recognized the importance of the image because I haven't found any other decent color photos of Wantz. Also courtesy of Olbermann are Wantz's strikeout numbers from 1961, 1963 and 1964 Tri-City. In that era, the leagues didn't promulgate certain stats for pitchers. Olbermann maintains an extensive baseball library and was able to get the K numbers from appropriate edition of the Baseball Guide.

In making a 1965-style Dick Wantz card, I chose to go with the regular format. Given the timeline of Wantz's MLB appearance and his death. It's just as easy to presume that Topps might have created an In Memoriam card for its high-number series. 

It would be easy enough for me to do an In Memoriam version, and I probably will in the near future. For now, I'm very happy with how my first attempt at a 1965-style custom card came out.

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