Sunday, September 28, 2014

More T.V. Westerns customs: Clint Eastwood and Rawhide

Continuing with my recent efforts at creating custom cards in the motifs of some of favorite non-sports bubblegum card sets of the 1950s and 1960s, I've recently completed two more T.V. Westerns cards. (On Aug. 13 I presented my trio of Maverick T.V. Westerns customs.)

My latest customs derive from the long-running CBS series Rawhide, which aired 216 episodes from 1959-65 and made a star of Clint Eastwood.

Until very recently, reruns of Rawhide were being broadcast on Saturday mornings on one or another of the cable networks. They've held up well over 50 years and I enjoyed the reruns as much as I'm sure I did the original showings. If the reruns aren't currently airing, dvd boxed sets of complete seasons are widely available for $20 or so.

You can find out all you ever wanted to know about Rawhide at various sites all over the internet, so I won't go into that here.

I'll just step back and show you what I've come up with.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Technicality freed Borton, crooked P.C.L. players

(continued from yesterday)

Among the first to come forward were Salt Lake City pitchers Ralph Stroud and Spider Baum. Stroud swore out an affidavit that said Borton and Chase had approached him prior to a game at Vernon on April 28, 1920, and offered him $300 if he would throw that day's game. Stroud said he spurned the offer, but went on to lose 5-1, giving up nine hits and four walks in seven innings. He said that Borton attempted to press the $300 on him after the game, but that he'd refused the money, telling Borton he'd pitched as hard as he could and been fairly beaten. Stroud came back to pitch the final game of that series, winning the second game of the traditional Sunday double-header 5-3 on a four-hitter. Baum, whose brother served as P.C.L. president from 1911-19, made a similar accusation against Borton and Chase.

Ed "Tubby" Spencer, catcher for Salt Lake City in 1919, swore out a statement that he had been offered $1,750 by Borton to cooperate in fixing games that season. Borton later admitted that he had made a bribe offer to Spencer, but not in anywhere near that amount.

Portland's second baseman, Paddy Siglin, made a statement charging that Borton had offered him $100 to stay out of the line-up during a week that Vernon was playing the Beavers in 1919.

The following season, when Vernon was visiting Portland, Borton apparently had his money on the home team to win. Two Beavers reported that Borton offered to tip them off when they were base runners.

Pitcher John Glasier said, "Babe Borton told me while I was a runner on first base to get a good lead off first,as he would tell me when the Vernon pitcher would throw to first, and if I was caught he would not tag me."

Portland right fielder Dick Cox told a similar story. "In one of the games I was on first base and thinking the pitcher had the ball I was just going to get my lead off first and Borton told me (Vernon second baseman Bob) Fisher had the ball so I stayed on the bag and Fisher did have the ball, waiting for me to get off the bag." He recounted a second incident, "In another game of the same series I was on first base and Borton told me, 'Don't get too big a lead, kid, the pitcher is going to throw over here' and sure enough he did throw over to catch me, but I did not have a big lead so he didn't get me as Borton had told me right."

By mid-August McCarthy's investigation had turned up three actual payments of a suspicious nature from Borton to members of the Salt Lake City Bees.

Outfielder Harl Maggert had been observed accepting $300 cash, and bank drafts in the amounts of $200 and $500 were traced to outfielder Bill Rumler and pitcher Gene Dale, respectively. Called on the carpet, Maggert said the 300 iron men he'd been paid were owed from a card game or a dice game (his story varied, according to the local press) from the previous year. Dale said the $500 he'd received was repayment of a loan made to Borton. Rumler's alibi was that the $200 he got from Borton was the proceeds of a "safety bet" made by the pair when each of their respective clubs was near first place in the 1919 pennant race. Safety bets, despite what baseball's hierarchy liked to believe, were a common practice at the time. According to Rumler, his agreement with Borton was an effort to insure that each would get at least some share of the post-season money regardless of which team won. When Vernon won, Borton owed Rumler $200; if Salt Lake City had won the pennant Rumler would have paid Borton $200. Technically, of course, it's betting against your own team, but it was a common practice in that era -- even among World Series opponents, who often paired off and agreed to split the winner's and loser's shares 50-50.

When word of the payoffs to the Salt Lake City players was received, Maggert and Rumler were immediately suspended from the team. Dale had moved on to Dallas for the 1920 season, and finished the Texas League season there before his name was dragged into the scandal.

As might be expected, lawsuits and threats of litigation began to fly. In late August, McCarthy virtually ordered Vernon's management and players to sue Borton for slander in naming them as participants in a bribery cabal. Borton threatened to counter sue. Hal Chase threatened to sue the P.C.L.'s owners for barring him from its parks. Bill Rumler threatened to sue the league for $50,000 for handing him a five-year suspension.

In 1913 the Yankees traded Hal Chase to the White Sox for
both their first basemen, Rollie Zeider and Babe Borton. In
1920, having been run out of Organized Baseball, Chase
joined Borton in fixing Pacific Coast League games. He was
subsequently barred from all P.C.L. parks 

Borton struck first in the courts, slapping Vernon manager (and his former roommate) Bill Essick with a $50,000 criminal libel suit for labeling Borton's contention that other Vernon players were involved in the bribery a "mass of lies." Borton promised that when his suit came to trial he would prove his story true "and that Essick was as deep in the plot as any of them." Borton eventually abandoned his suit against Essick and, for reasons that can only be guessed at, Essick and the Vernon players did not press their suits.

That, however, did not keep the affair out of the courthouse. In October, spurred by constant agitation of the L.A. newspapers, District Attorney Doran convened a grand jury. Under the direction of Deputy D.A. Stafford, the panel seemed unable to get beyond what McCarthy's league investigation had already turned up.

Borton expressed delight at the official probe. Los Angeles baseball best writer Matt Gallagher wrote, "Whatever else is to be said of Borton, he is one of the eager ones in getting the grand jury busy, which makes it appear he thinks the inquiry will do more to clear him than damn him -- or rather damn others with him. Borton has confessed his part and says he is sick and sore at being a goat because others, as he alleges, have not had the nerve to face the music."

After a week of taking testimony, Stafford could say only that there had been "some tall lying done by witnesses examined." Many of the Vernon players from 1919 were called into the hearing, as were various other P.C.L. players whom Borton had named as recipients of bribe money. One by one they denied knowledge of any general conspiracy by the Vernon team and evidence mounted that Borton had been acting as sole agent for the gambling interests.

The grand jury's net even brought in the known gamblers who testified that prior to the crucial Vernon-Salt Lake City series of September, 1919, the odds had swung to 3-1 for Vernon to come out on top. Gamblers who normally bet no more than $100 on a game were said to have wagered up to $1,500 per contest on some of the games in that series, a strong indication that the "sure-thing" bettors knew when the fix was in.

On Dec. 10, after six weeks of "exhaustive inquiry," the grand jury concluded that there was no truth to the allegations that any other Vernon player or official had taken part in any bribery. Indictments were returned against Borton, Rumler, Maggert and gambler Raymond, charging them with criminal conspiracy and "collusion to throw ball games in the Vernon-Salt Lake series in Los Angeles" in September, 1919. The charges carried potential penalties of up to two years in prison and fines of $2,000.

No other players were indicted, according to the grand jury, "so their names are not to be mentioned in the case as far as legal proceedings are concerned, whatever opinions the officials of the league may have, and regardless of any action the league may take later."

It was fully expected that the trials of the indicted fixers would bring out facts implicating other, unindicted, players, so the case, from a baseball standpoint, was not closed by any means.

L.A. County Judge Frank R. Willis ordered the arrest of the indicted men, setting bail at $1,000 each. Borton and Maggert appeared voluntarily a few days later to post bond. Rumler, at home in Nebraska, indicated he would appear for trial. Raymond was laying low in Seattle and was not heard from.

On Dec. 24, the criminal justice system gave the players and the gambler an early Christmas present by dismissing the indictments. Judge Willis held that there was nothing in California law that prohibited a ballplayer from throwing a ballgame. 

According to San Francisco writer "Seal Rock," the judge's decision "was not entirely unexpected. It had been pointed out that there was weakness in the California statutes that raised a great doubt as to the baseball prosecutions holding, and that as a matter of fact the Los Angeles indictments were merely regarded as test cases."

Rock editorialized, "A ball player can be as crooked as his conscience will permit, in California, and the law can't tuch him. He can even admit he is a crook and get away with it, so far as the law in concerned."

In dismissing the indictments, Willis said the players had entered into contracts to play ball to the best of their ability, but their failure to do so amounted only to a breach of civil contract and was in no way actionable as a criminal offense. The judge did excoriate the players with his personal opinion that their actions were reprehensible and he expressed regret that the law could not reach them.

The powers-that-be in the Pacific Coast League could, however, reach the players, and they did so. Borton, Maggert, Rumler and the unindicted Dale were formally expelled from the league. To add insult to injury, the players' 1919 season stats were expunged from the league's official records.

Borton never again played in Organized Baseball. He died in Berkeley, Calif., July 29, 1954, at the age of 65.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Borton's return to P.C.L. ends in infamy

(continued from yesterday)
Despite playing in pro ball throughout the golden
age of tobacco and caramel cards, Babe Borton
is found only in three issues of the Zeenut candy
cards on the West Coast, 1914, 1918 and 1919.

Borton was returned to the Pacific Coast League for 1917, when the Browns sold him to Portland. He would play out his career in the P.C.L. The beginning of the season found Borton embroiled in a domestic dispute. In mid-May his wife received a divorce in St. Joseph on the grounds of infidelity. The court ordered Borton to pay $700 of his annual $2,100 salary to his wife and baby girl as support. A week after the divorce Borton married again.

That soap opera apparently didn't tarnish Borton's image with the Portland fans. The Sporting News described him as "one of the most popular players that ever donned a Beaver uniform." The paper said, "His quiet manner and ability as a player have made him a great favorite, not only with Portland fans, but also with fans in other cities comprising the Coast League." In late July, Borton suffered a severe rupture that had to be surgically repaired. Despite optimism that he might be able to return to the line-up prior to season's end, Borton was unable to recover sufficiently to do so. The Portland ownership continued to carry him on the roster for the remainder of the season and Borton signed a 1918 contract in gratitude. Owner Walter McCredie looked forward to Borton's return in 1918. "He will hit .300 in any league," the magnate said, adding , "If Babe hadn't been hurt we would have been much farther up in the race (Portland finished fourth in a six-team race in 1917). We want him to take a good rest and report in fit shape in the spring."

The war-shortened 1918 season found Borton in Vernon, rather than Portland, however. In fact, Portland had lost its P.C.L. franchise to Sacramento, due to its distance from the California cities that made up most of the rest of the league. When the league shut down on July 14, Vernon was in first place in the standings, two games ahead of Los Angeles. A best-of-nine playoff series was ordered to decide the pennant race, with L.A. coming out on top, five games to two.

For 1919, the league expanded to eight teams with Seattle and Portland back in the fold. Borton raised his batting average back over the .300 mark that season (.303) and tied for third in the league with 14 home runs -- nearly as many as he'd hit in the previous eight years combined. As mentioned, Vernon won the 1919 pennant -- with a little help from players on several other teams.

Testimony would later reveal that at least three players accepted bribes from Borton in amounts of $200-500. Others around the league reported attempts to bribe them in amounts between $100 and $1,750.

When the scandal became public, Borton shocked the baseball world by contending that the entire Vernon team had been in on the bribery, and that the payoff money had come from a pool created when each of the players had kicked in $100. Further, Borton said the Vernon management had been aware of the plan. Borton alleged that he had told the team president's business manager, Lou Anger, about the fixed games at the close of the season, and that Anger had been sore because he'd not been informed earlier so that he could place some bets. 

Despite Borton's assurances that teammates would come forward to verify his statements, and despite a $500 reward offered by the league for information proving conspiracy on the part of the Vernon team as a whole, no real evidence ever linked the other Vernon players to knowledge of the bribery. It was generally believed by the press and league officials that Borton had implicated his teammates and management in the belief that the league would not or could not take punitive action against an entire team.

In an editorial in the Aug. 19, 1920, issue headlined "Can't Drag the Game Down," The Sporting News commented on Borton's allegations. "It is nothing new for a crook when caught to attempt to distract attention from or seemingly lessen his own guilt by a plea that others are just as black as he is. It is the plea of every briber or taker of bribes, of every grafter high or low.

"Bill Borton, driven into a corner by evidence that he betrayed the great national game that gave him some measure of fame and a goodly share of material favors, adopts (such) tactics. He proclaims that whole teams of ball players were crooked and attempts to explode his bomb with a story that Vernon players won their pennant last year by bribing players of other teams to throw games to Vernon."

As it turned out, Seattle gambler Nate Raymond was apparently the money man in the plot. During the following season, hotel registers around the league showed that Raymond was following the Vernon team from city to city, continuing the dirty work begun the previous season. In August of 1920, when Raymond was trying to get Seattle first baseman Rod Murphy to accept a $3,000 payoff, he told the player that he had cleaned up $50,000 during the 1919 season by betting on fixed P.C.L. games.

Also in 1920, Hal Chase, for whom Borton had been traded in 1913, returned to California and immediately set up a partnership with Borton to fix games.

It is remarkable that despite the widespread bribery and attempted bribery, not one opposing player blew the whistle on Borton until well into the 1920 season. Writing in the Los Angeles Evening Express in November, 1920, Harry Grayson editorialized on that phenomenon under the headline, "An Indictment Against the Ball Players as a Whole."

"The real reason for the belated housecleaning to which the national pastime is being subjected at this time is because the players and magnates have been too eager to put the soft pedal on shady stuff. The tendancy has been to hush things up," Grayson wrote.

"The baseball playing fraternity has certainly proved itself a close-mouth one until the jam came. Until a bunch were caught red-handed they were secretive. They told of nothing deep or dangerous until the blow came."

Grayson named a half-dozen of Borton's teammates and others in the league who had told him they knew Borton was "not walking the straight and narrow."

San Francisco baseball writer Seal Rock (pen name) played the same tune in an Aug. 26, 1920, column in The Sporting News. Its headlines read, "Players Tardy in Their Part Toward Keeping Game Clean / Common Club House Gossip Since Last Fall of Something Rotten Yet They Failed to Inform Those Who Could Set Matters to Right."

Rock wrote, "One of the astonishing things about the Coast League bribery scandal is that honest players in baseball, and there are ten honest men to every one crook, do not get together and hound the bad ones out of baseball. That's what they should do. They know they should but no one seems to want to take the lead. The honest players will have to get in and help clean up the game for their own protection and the sooner they start the sooner the atmosphere will be cleared and baseball will get a real chance again."

Later, he repeated that "it was astonishing that so many ball players, innocent themselves of wrong doing, knew that others were guilty, that bribes were being offered, and probably accepted, and yet these players kept the matter from the club magnates and the league head.

"The timid ones shivered when this scandal broke and thought baseball was doomed. They know differently now. Baseball is bigger than the crooks and gamblers and it will survive when some of the misguided players who forgot all sense of decency and honesty are in the ash heap."

Rock continued, "In the past certain players in this league have been entertained by and been friendly with notorious gamblers. In some cases the boys did so innocently. From now on, however, they will have no excuse. If they pal around with crooks after having been warned, something will drop on them like a ton of coal falling down a chute, and they will find themselves out in the cold, cruel world, with hard work staring them in the face."

He concluded, "President McCarthy has shown that a bold stand and a vigorous investigation, publicly conducted, is the wisest policy and the only policy in the long run. McCarthy has had experience as foreman of a grand jury, so he knows something about investigations. He is on record as saying that he will keep up the fight until every crooked ball player is driven out of the game and he will never let up on the gamblers who have corrupted the players."

The Sporting News also expressed confidence in McCarthy's ability to clean up the mess. The paper editorialized, "President McCarthy has shown that he is a man who has the courage to swing his stick on any guilt head; one who will play no favorites, nor will he deviate from the course he has taken to clean up baseball in his league if the whole playing personnel has to be reorganized."

The editorial worked itself to this feverish conclusion, "So again we say, get all the crooks, in any and every league, and let there be no mistaken policy of secrecy in getting them. Make up the dishonor roll and publish it so large and high that all the world shall know who the traitors have been and bend every effort toward seeing that no names are missing from that roll. Let the names that it carries be bywords for all that is mean and contemptible."

McCarthy's investigation was vigorous. He promised the public, "it would have no complaint to make of anything being covered up in the investigation," but asked for patience until the facts could be assembled and sifted through. He traveled the length and breadth of the league and summoned legions of players to his office to give testimony.

(continued tomorrow)

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Black Sox had nothing on Babe Borton

(This three-part article, an earlier version of which was published in Sports Collectors Digest on Aug. 27, 1993) concludes a series about the 1919 Pacific Coast League gambling scandal. Earlier presentations detailed the involvement of "Bad News Bees" players Gene Dale [June 14-15], Harl Maggert [July 10-11], and Bill Rumler [Aug. 15-17]).
Over five seasons (1914-20) Babe
Borton was a popular star in the Pacific
Coast League before it was discovered
he was a ringleader in fixing ballgames
and pennant races. (1914 Zeenut
candy card courtesy Mark Macrae.)

            Though it would be almost a year before the press and the general public discovered it, the 1919 baseball season was undoubtedly the dirtiest in the history of the national pastime. The Black Sox scandal of the 1919 World Series was only the culmination of a year’s worth of fixed and throw ballgames at the major league and minor league levels.

            Because it involved the revered Fall Classic and some of the best players in the game, the World Series scandal overshadowed the other chicanery to such an extent that the average fan today has heard little or nothing about baseball’s other dirty doings in 1919.

            Sure, fixing the World Series was a big deal and everybody today – thanks to books and movies – knows the story of the “Eight Men Out” and all the colorful characters on the periphery. But how many know the name of Babe Borton, the man who fixed an entire pennant race?

            At any other time in baseball history, the selling of the Pacific Coast League pennant race of 1919 would have been front page news nationwide. The P.C.L. was a virtual third major league at the time that no team in the American or National Leagues was situated west of St. Louis. But, because the details of the scandal were unfolding at the same time the World Series fix was being revealed, the story of Babe Borton’s tampering with the West Coast pennant race is virtually unknown today. It is a story worth knowing.

            Like the Black Sox scandal, the fixing of the P.C.L. pennant race was a secret kept tightly locked in the confines of the locker room. It may have never seen the light of day except that an innocent ballplayer could no longer take the accusatory jibes flung at him throughout the 1920 season.

            The 1919 Pacific Coast League pennant race had been a three-team thriller right into the final month of the season. By mid-September the Salt Lake City Bees, still in third place, had dropped to 10 games back, leaving the Los Angeles Angels and their cross-town rivals, the Vernon Tigers, in a tie for first place.

            On Sept. 16 the Bees and Tigers began a 13-game home-and-home series while L.A. hosted the fourth-place San Francisco Seals and then traveled north to play tail-end Seattle. When the Sunday double-headers were over on Sept. 28, Los Angeles was ahead of the Tigers by 2-1/2 games. While Vernon had taken nine of the 13 games against Salt Lake City, the Angels had beaten San Francisco five-of-seven and, after arriving in Seattle two days late because of train trouble, swept the Rainiers in six games.

            The 1919 Coast League pennant race came down to what should have been an incredibly dramatic finish – a seven-game series at Vernon between the Tigers and Angels for all the marbles. The teams split a Wednesday double-header on Oct. 1, then Vernon ran away with the gonfalon by sweeping the final five games of the season.

            In winning the pennant, the Vernon players also won a $10,000 purse put up by their fans, plus an $8,000 share of the best-of-nine “Junior World Series” in which they beat St. Paul of the American Association. Each Tiger pocketed the equivalent of several months’ pay at prevailing P.C.L. salary levels. As it turned out, several Salt Lake City player also received a well-earned, but dirty, bonus from the Vernon post-season pot. And many more players around the league were accused of having done the same, which caused the entire plot to unravel.

            In mid-June Los Angeles traveled to Salt Lake City for the first meeting between the teams in the 1920 season. The Seraphs, led by center fielder and manager Wade “Red” Killefer, began immediately to roast Bees pitcher Ralph Stroud. They accused Stroud of accepting $500 from Vernon the previous season to jump the Salt Lake City team during the critical series with Vernon. Indeed, after pitching twice in two days against San Francisco just prior to the critical Vernon series, Stroud left his team, citing irreconcilable differences with manager Eddie Herr. At the time he quit the Bees, Stroud had about the best winning percentage among regulars on the staff, 14-11 with an ERA of 3.84. When Herr was replaced by Ernie Johnson for the 1920 season, Stroud returned to the Bees and ran up a 26-13 record on a 3.20 ERA.

            Killefer would not accept Stroud’s explanation, nor the testimonial of Johnson, to whom Stroud had gone for help in quieting the accusations, that Stroud was on the level. In desperation Stroud appealed to P.C.L. President William McCarthy.

            McCarthy immediately began an investigation which culminated in late July when one of Stroud’s teammates was observed by a detective taking a $300 payoff from Vernon first baseman Babe Borton. Meanwhile, reports of bribes, attempted bribes and other efforts to throw ballgames during the 1919 pennant race piled up in McCarthy’s dossier against Borton. On Aug. 1, Babe Borton played his last game in Organized Baseball. He was suspended by the Vernon management pending the outcome of McCarthy’s investigation.

            Borton’s career had begun more than a decade earlier, when he signed his first professional contract in 1910 at the age of 21. Borton began with Springfield of the Three-I League Indiana, Illinois, Iowa), just down the road from Marion, Ill., where he had been born in 1888. He actually played his first pro ball for Ottumwa, Iowa, in the Central Association (Class D), on option from Springfield.

            He batted .293 at Ottumwa, fourth-best in the league among those who played more than 100 games. Borton’s team finished second in a field of eight that season.

            In 1911 Borton moved up to the Class A Western League, having been drafted by St. Joseph (Missouri). Borton led the league with a .343 batting average, and also paced the circuit’s first sackers in fielding. The Saints finished second.

            Borton was drafted by the Chicago White Sox for 1912, but was beaten out for a back-up first baseman’s job and returned to St. Joe. Borton again led the W.L. in 1912, batting .364. In late August, fearful of losing him to another team in the draft, the White Sox recalled Borton. In his month at Chicago he hit .371 and earned a first base platoon job with Rollie Zeider for the 1913 season.

On June 1, 1913, the Chicago White Sox traded
both their first baseman, Rollie Zeider and Babe
Borton (above), to the Yankees for Hal Chase. 

            On June 1, 1913, the ChiSox traded both of their first basemen, Zeider and Borton, to the New York Yankees for the game’s premier player at that position, Hal Chase.

            The Yankees gave Borton a month to prove himself, but when he was hitting just .130 after 33 games they assigned him to last-place Jersey City in the International League. Borton refused to report to the Skeeters, and went home to St. Joseph, where he went back to his off-season job working as a clerk in a cigar store. He tried to get St. Joe to buy his release, but they chose not to get involved. A deal to send him to Atlanta also fell through.

             After the close of the season, Borton requested a trade and was sold to Toronto, also in the I.L. In the interim he’d gone out to California to play in one of the winter league’s that flourished there at the time. Deciding he liked the climate, he informed Toronto’s management that he would not be reporting in the spring. His contract was returned to Jersey City, who made a deal to allow Borton to remain on the Coast, with Venice.

            The first baseman had a good season with Venice in 1914, hitting .307 (eighth-best in the P.C.L. among those playing 100 games or more) and leading the league’s first basemen with a .992 fielding average.

            Despite the fact that Venice finished fourth in the six-team league, Borton was hailed by Sporting Life as “the best first sacker ever in the Coast League with the exception of the ‘native son’ Hal Chase.” That status did not go unnoticed by the Federal League when it stepped up its raids on Organized Baseball to stock the teams of its “Third Major League.” For 1915 Borton signed a contract with the St. Louis Feds.

             With the Federal League St. Louis Terriers in 1915, Borton again had a strong season, hitting .286 and leading the Federal League in runs scored and bases on balls. His .993 fielding average was tied for third-best among all major league first basemen. Reading the writing of the Federal League imminent demise on the wall, in mid-August Borton tried to buy his release from St. Louis, hoping he could return to one of the "old" major league clubs.

After jumping to the St. Louis Terriers of the Federal League in
1915, Borton returned to the American League with the
St. Louis Browns (above) for 1916, his last season in the majors.

              As part of the Federal League's peace agreement with the National and American Leagues, Phil Ball, owner of the St. Louis Fed franchise was allowed to purchase the St. Louis Browns. When the players from the two teams were combined for 1916, Borton made the roster of the Browns.

              Playing behind future Hall of Famer George Sisler at first base, Borton made the majority of his appearances with the Brownies as a left-handed pinch-hitter. He was not very successful in that capacity, hitting just .171 off the bench, and only .224 overall, with little power.

(continued tomorrow)


Monday, September 22, 2014

Rescuing dog cost Van Atta his career

Russ Van Atta appeared on a 1933 Goudey
bubblegum card in his rookie season of 1933.
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.

While reading microfilm on a sunny Sunday spring morn, I spotted a story that particularly resonated with me.

The “Scribbled by Scribes” press roundup column in the March 28, 1940, issue of The Sporting News picked up a story by Charles Segar of the New York Daily Mirror, who reported that the career of recently retired seven-year major league veteran pitcher Russ Van Atta had been ruined by saving the life of a dog.

“Van Atta did well in his first season back in 1933, and that fall returned to his home in Franklin, N.J., with great prospects,” Segar was quoted. “But the fates were unkind. A fire hit Van Atta’s homestead. The pitcher saved his family, but in the house was the family dog. Van Atta went back. There was no way to reach the pet but by smashing a window, which Van did. The dog was saved but the result was two badly-cut fingers on his left hand.

“Came the spring of 1934,” Segar continued, “The fingers that had been cut had no feeling. Days and weeks came and the fingers felt the same. A year, then another. One operation after another. Teeth extracted . . . massage . . . baths . . . treatments from quacks and reliable men . . . hope. Van clung to that. Everything would be all right.

“He let no one in on the secret until one day last summer,” the story continued. “when the Browns sent him to the minors and he couldn’t pitch. He told me (the story) and pledged me to secrecy until he was definitely able to go on,” Segar revealed.

“He still had hope. He wanted one more chance. The other day he joined the Browns. A few days in camp. It was the same old story. The fingers that he could put over a flame without feeling any pain were lifeless. They had lost their touch forever. He broke the news to the Browns’ officials that he was through. No use carrying on.”

Van Atta was a graduate of Pennsylvania State University. It has been reported that he lost only one games in four seasons for the Nittany Lions.
1936 Goudey "Wide Pen" premium.

The N.Y. Yankees signed him and sent him to Hartford in the Class A Eastern League for 1928. On the strength of an 8-4 record and 2.37 ERA he was promoted to St. Paul in the American Association for 1929. He pitched four years for the Saints, compiling a 42-36 record before his 22 wins in 1932 earned him a promotion to the big club for 1933.

Van Atta had one of the most successful major league debuts on record at Washington on April 25, 1933. Backed by a lineup that included six future Hall of Famers, he not only shut out the Senators 16-0 (five hits, three walks and five strikeouts), but was 4-for-4 at the plate with a sacrifice bunt and an RBI.

The pitcher had a 12-4 rookie season for the Yankees. Because of his hand injury, he was 3-5 in 1934. When he started the 1935 season pitching only a handful of innings over five games in release he was sold to the St. Louis Browns in mid-May.

From 1935-39 Van Atta never had a winning season with the Browns, pitching mostly in relief. His record for St. Louis stood at 18-32 early in 1939 when he was sold to Toronto where he finished his professional career with an 0-1 record and 15.00 ERA.

During World War II, Van Atta served a four-year term as sheriff of Sussex County, N.J., later serving six years on the county’s board of freeholders. He had a successful career in sales with Gulf Oil Corp. He died in 1986 at the age of 80.

Van Atta’s tragedy hit home with me on two counts. I have great respect for any man who would do what Van Atta did to save his dog. Secondly, I can relate to the pitcher’s dead fingers.

For several years I have been losing the feeling in some of my phalanges. Probably due to a combination of diabetic neurothapy and thousands of blood-sugar test finger sticks, the little finger and ring finger on each hand have been going numb. All feeling is gone from the little fingers and there is little sensation left on the ring fingers.

The loss of feeling has begun to make everyday tasks more challenging. I dread the day that more of the digits should become affected, particularly if the time should ever come when my ability to manipulate a computer mouse would fail, rendering me unable to create my custom cards. 

Saturday, September 20, 2014

My Hurricane Hazle custom in 1956 Topps format

On July 4, I presented the reworked version of my custom 1955 Topps-style card of Hazle with the Cincinnati Redlegs.

Two days ago I explained why I have now created three different "cards that never were" of 1957 Milwaukee Braves phenom Bob Hazle.

Yesterday I showed you my custom of Bob Hazle as a Detroit Tiger on a 1959 Topps-style custom card.

Today I'm bringing you my latest, and possibly my last, Bob Hazle custom card, in the format of 1956 Topps.

You can't fault Topps for not including Hazle in its '56 set. A week before the opening of the season he'd been traded from Cincinnati to Milwaukee for first baseman George Crowe. At that point, his entire major league career had consisted of six games with the Redlegs in 1955.

Hazle actually spent the entire 1956 season with the Braves' AAA farm club at Wichita in the American Association, where he'd batted .285 with 13 home runs.

Though Topps didn't produce a Bob Hazle card until 1958, I came up with this example of what a 1956 card might have looked like.

Also as promised, here's an edited version of a column I penned in the Dec. 2, 2005, issue of Sports Collectors Digest . . .

Meeting Bob Hazle
     I had the please of meeting Bob Hazle once at a late 1980s' card show in Chicago where he was making a rare autograph appearance.
He'd walked away from baseball completely after spending the 1959-1960 seasons in the Detroit Tigers' minor league system and was working as a liquor salesman out of Newberry, S.C.
     As he handed me back my autographed J.D. McCarthy postcard, I commented on how bright and sharp his World's Championship ring looked. He pulled the ring off and handed it to me for closer inspection.
     He said the ring looked so fresh because it was a replacement he'd had made several years earlier.
     Hazle said he'd lost his original 1957 Braves ring some years ago when he was throwing a beer can out the window of his pickup truck and the ring flew off with it.
     Is it any wonder Milwaukee loved this guy?
     Bob Hazle died of a heart attack in Columbia, S.C., in 1992, at the age of 61.

Friday, September 19, 2014

'59 custom doubles Hurricane Hazle's card count

Yesterday I explained why I am compelled to create custom cards for former Milwaukee Braves pennant-chase hero Bob Hazle.

Shown above is a custom card I created showcasing Hazle as a Detroit Tiger in 1959, the year after he was sold by the Braves.

Today's fans and collectors may not know the significance of Hazle's nickname, "Hurricane."

Here's what I wrote nearly a decade ago in my Bleacher Bum column in the Dec. 2, 2005, Sports Collectors Digest.

Why 'Hurricane'?
The sporting press was more colorful in the 1950s, although the era of great baseball nicknames was drawing to a close. Bob Hazle got one of the last really good ones. It wasn't just alliterative appeal that made it memorable, there was historic and geographic context. Hazle was born in Laurens S.C., and played his first season of pro ball in Columbia, S.C., in 1950.

What Hurricane Katrina is to the current generation. Hurricane Hazel was to the previous one. Besides its massive toll of death and destruction, Hazel stuck in the national psyche because it hit at a time when television coverage of such human tragedies was coming of age. In 1954, for the first time, U.S. households with a television set surpassed the 50 percent mark.

The National Hurricane Center had only begun officially naming tropical storms in 1953. The following year Hazel was up in the alphabetical rotation when a storm began forming in the Caribbean on Oct. 5.

A week later Hazel hit Haiti, leaving an estimated 1,000 dead or missing. A handful more died in Bermuda. The storm struck the Carolina Coast on Oct. 14, making landfall near the border of North and South Carolina. Hazel's winds were a sustained 150 miles per hour and the Category 4 blow was preceded by a storm surge of over 14 feet.

Hazel was an especially fast-moving storm, but unpredictable in the path that it cut. More than 90 Americans died in 12 hours as the storm raged through Virginia, uprooted trees on the White House lawn and sliced through western New York state before crossing Lake Ontario and becoming the most famous storm in Canadian history.

Toronto was pounded with winds of nearly 70 mph, but it was the accompanying deluge that did the deadliest damage. Nearly eight inches of rain fell in 24 hours, with another three inches the next day -- an estimated 300 million tons of water. Flooding claimed 81 lives and 4,000 families were left homeless in southern Ontario.

In the U.S. and Canada, damage from the storm, adjusted to 2014 dollars, was more than $1.9 billion, putting it among the top  20 to that time. As would become policy following such a deadly storm, the name "Hazel" was retired from hurricane nomenclature.

Tomorrow I'll show you the last of my Bob Hazle custom cards and tell you about the time I met him at a card show.

You can purchase this card. You can obtain a copy of this custom card for $12.50, postpaid. E-mail me at for ordering details. Illustrated lists of all available custom baseball and football cards can be found on my blog post of July 17.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Why I make Bob Hazle custom cards

A couple of months ago (July 4), I blogged about my 1955 Topps-style custom card of Bob Hazle.

I said that I working on a couple of more Hazle customs and said when the time was right, I'd explain why I wanted to expand on Hazle's card legacy.

That time is now. Tomorrow and the next day I will be presenting my two latest (and likely, last) Bob Hazle custom cards.

Today, I'm going to present an edited version of a "Bleacher Bum" column I wrote in Sports Collectors Digest's Dec. 2, 2005, issue. The column was titled, "To heck with Hank, we wanted 'Hurricane'".

In the spring of 1958, when the red-and-green wax packs showed up on the shelves of the mom-and-pop grocery stores around the neighborhood, we were looking forward to the new baseball card season with unprecedented fervor. Our Milwaukee Braves were World's Champs.

It was with greater than usual alacrity that we retrieved our winter's stash of nickels earned shoveling snow, doing dishes and acing report cards so that we could begin the chase.

One of the beautiful things about the first baseball card purchases of the year was that for a brief moment -- perhaps as long as 10-12 packs -- every card was a "need 'im," not a "got 'im."

We had a lot to look forward to in '58. We wanted to see the Dodgers' and Giants' new uniforms. We wanted to see if Topps would be gracious enough to appropriately recognize that Bushville had sent the Bums packing for California with dreams of one last title for Brooklyn dashed.

But mostly we wanted to see the first-ever baseball card of Bob "Hurricane" Hazle.

We didn't know from "rookie cards" back then, but we did know that nobody in our trading circle owned a Bob Hazle card from previous seasons. From the flood of news coverage that Hazle received throughout August and September of 1957 we knew that he had made his major league debut with the Redlegs in 1955, but we searched our "Color TV" cards and our 1955 Topps cards -- even the skinny ones that folded in the middle to make two different players -- in vain. Somebody in the neighborhood had the checklist cards from 1956 and 1957 and Hazle was nowhere on them.

Jimmy Nelson said that HE had a Bob Hazle card, but it turned out to be a gnat-sized picture on the 1956 Cincinnati team card. We told him to cut the crap or we'd give him the Indian grass torture.

So there we stood on the corner outside the market, throwing wadded up wrappers at each other and stuffing bubblegum into our faces until our jaws ached and no adult in the world could have understood what were saying as we thumbed through each six-card stack.

"What'd they do? Paint on Mays' cap?"

"What's Ted Williams doing on number 1 again? Those guy finished third last year."

"Who's this Maris guy?"

"Hey! A Giants team card! Look, the checklist has "B. Hazle" as number 83."

"I got Hazle!"

Naturally, it was Greg, the youngest kid in the group. He didn't even collect cards seriously, but we had to walk right past his house to get to the store and he tagged along.

For a few minutes he was the center of attention as everybody tried to work a trade. I offered an Aaron, a Mossi and his pick of any other card, but I was quickly outbid. Greg overplayed his hand, though, and while negotiations continued, another Hazle was pulled, then a third. The trade value plummeted and soon he was begging to take me up on my initial offer.

What was so special about Bob Hazle?

Simplistically, or more accurately, at the level at which elementary school fans understood baseball, Hazle was the guy who came from minor league obscurity in the last seven weeks of the 1957 season to bat .403 and pull the Braves away from the pack in a five-team National League pennant race.

At the All-Star break, Milwaukee was 2-1/2 games behind the Cardinals; the Phillies and Redlegs were 3-1/2 back and the Dodgers were five behind.

As the second half opened, Braves' center fielder Billy Bruton went down with the knee injury that ended his season. Left with only recent call-up Wes Covington, Andy Pafko and Hank Aaron in the outfield, the Braves tried moving both Pafko and Aaron to center -- each was soon injured and out of the lineup for up to a week. To fill the garden spots, manager Fred Haney tried $100,000 bonus baby John DeMerit, but he couldn't hit. Emergency outfielders through July included Del Crandall, Red Schoendienst and Nippy Jones. Jones had been bought for first-base insurance after Joe Adcock had broken his leg in June. Jones had not played in the outfield since 1947; it had been nearly as long for Crandall and Schoendienst, and it showed in the fielding of all three.

On July 27, Milwaukee reached down to Wichita in the American Association and called up Hazle to serve as a reserve outfielder and left-handed pinch-hitter. Although he had been hitting about .230 most of the season, in the previous month he had batted .381 with plenty of power. The Wichita Braves could afford to lose Hazle because they were 8-1/2 games up in the A.A. pennant race and cruised to the flag.

Hazle had become Braves property on April 9, 1956, when he was packaged with pitcher Corky Valentine in a trade with the Redlegs for George Crowe, He had been assigned to Wichita where he hit .285 with 13 home runs in 1956. He was left unprotected in the 1957 draft and nobody claimed him for the $10,000 price, apparently scared off by a midseason knee injury.

Hazle made his Milwaukee Braves debut on July 29, grabbing one of Chuck Tanner's bats out of the rack and sacrifice bunting as a pinch-hitter in a 10-inning win over the Giants.

Two days later he got his first start, in right field, batting 1-for-4, an RBI double, in a win over the Pirates.

He rode the pines for a spell before getting another start on Aug. 4, when he was 2-for-3 as Milwaukee beat the Dodgers.

The Braves won the first 11 games in which Hazle appeared.

On Aug. 2, the Braves and Cards were tied in the N.L. race. a week later the Tribe had pulled ahead by 2-1/2 games, Brooklyn had dropped to five back and the Redlegs and Phillies were behind by seven.

The Braves went to St. Louis for a series Aug. 9-11, and took three from the Cardinals. Their three-game sweep at Cincinnati Aug. 13-15 swept the Redlegs right out of the pennant picture. On the road Hazle started five of the six games and hit .636. 

Huge crowds, which assured Milwaukee a new National League attendance record, packed County Stadium when the Cardinals visited Aug, 16-18. Though the Braves lost three of the four games , including both ends of a rain-delayed doubleheader that took eight hours and 16 minutes on getaway day (and, the clean-up crew reported, left 60,000 beer cans/bottles in the parking lot), the Braves were still ahead of St. Louis by 6-1/2 games on Aug. 23, with only Brooklyn, at 7-1/2 back, also in the chase.

The standings were about the same at the end of August, by which time Hazle had raised his average to .507 over 22 games, with five home runs and 22 RBIs.

A couple of minor injuries cooled off  Hazle in September.

On Sept. 2, during a 23-10 win over the Cubs in which he was 4-for7, Hazle bruised his instep. He sat out the next game and when he returned to the lineup he hit "only" .294 in the next five games. On Sept. 10 he was plunked in the side by the Pirates' Whammy Douglas. Hazle went 0-for-3 that day. He sat out six of the next eight games, and was hitless in the other two games.

Between Sept. 4-15, with Hazle contributing only a .208 average, the Braves allowed the Cardinals to rebound within 2-1/2 games. 

Hazle returned to the lineup in his customary sixth spot in the batting order when Milwaukee traveled to Wrigley Field on Sept. 20. He rebounded with a .500 series including a 10th-inning game-winning home run on the 22nd to put the Braves within a game of clinching the National League pennant.

Hazle sat out the next night with the Cardinals in town while Hank Aaron did the honors by winning the flag with his own 11th-inning homer.

In the penultimate game of the regular season, against the visiting Redlegs, Hazle broke up former teammate Johnny Klippstein's no-hitter with two out in the bottom of the eighth. On the season's final day it took 24 Braves to bear Cincinnati 4-3, with Hazle failing to hit .

Hazle ended the 1957 season with a .403 batting average over 134 at-bats in 41 games. I may be wrong, but I'm guessing this may be the highest "non-qualifying" batting average for a player with more than 100 at-bats since Ted Williams' .406 in 1941. 

The World Series was anticlimactic for Hazle. He batted only .154, 2-for-13.

Hazle sat out the first two games of the 1957 World Series in New York, but when the Braves came home for Milwaukee's first-ever World's Series game, their newest hero was the starting right fielder. He was 0-for-4 in the 12-3 loss, but drew a walk from Bob Turley to lead off the second inning and scored.

He took the collar the next day as the Braves evened the Series, and was on the bench during the Braves' Game 5 victory.

Back in New York he started the sixth game, but made no offensive contribution.

In the deciding game, Hazle was moved from sixth in the order to lead-off hitter. He responded with a 2-for-4 day in helping the Braves to a 5-0 win and Milwaukee's only World's Championship.

For his stretch-run role in bringing the pennant to Milwaukee, his teammates voted Hazle a three-quarters' share of the World Series bonus pot -- $6,693.27. He received one vote for Rookie of the Year.

After the victory parade and celebratory banquets, Hazle returned to his native South Carolina to sell real estate in Columbia. 

Hazle was a holdout in 1958. His contract for 1957 had been $6,000, pro-rated of course. When the bonus that Braves' management had promised him arrived with his 1958 contract, Hazle returned the $1,000 check. Negotiations continued until just after training camp opened, and he finally signed on March 2.

Hazle had a decent spring training in 1958, hitting around .300. With Bruton still rehabbing and emerging slugger Covington injuring his knee as the season opened, it looked like Hazle would have a regular spot in right field. By the end of April, however, the Hurricane was blowing; batting .143, all singles. When Covington returned to duty on May 2, Hazle was benched.

On May 7, Hazle was hit in the head with a Larry Jackson pitch in St. Louis. He suffered a concussion, was carried off the field and spent two days in the hospital. 

He had raised his average only a few points by May 24 when Bruton returned to the lineup and Hazle was sold to the Detroit Tigers for a reported $50,000.

He was dead to us.

As the Topps' series rolled out over the course of the summer of 1958, we young Braves fans/baseball card collectors had plenty of thrills.

There would be an incredible seven Braves' "rookie cards" in 1958. Besides Hazle there was Harry Hanebrink, Carlton Willey, Don McMahon, Bob "Hawk" Taylor, Bob Trowbridge and Ray Shearer. Red Schoendienst, Carl Sawatski, Bob Rush and Casey Wise would appear for the first time as Braves.

Befitting the World's Champions status, the Braves were well-represented in the multi-player feature cards and Sport Magazine All-Stars, but only the Schoendienst card and the pairing of Hank Aaron with Mikey Mantle on "World's Series Batting Foes" even came close to matching the thrill of seeing that first Bob Hazle card.

Tomorrow I'll show you my 1959 Topps-style Bob Hazle custom and explain the significance of his nickname, "Hurricane." The follwing day I'll give you a look at my 1956-style Hazle custom and tell you about the time I met Bob Hazle at a card show,