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,

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