Friday, October 31, 2014

1942 News offered glimpse of old-time collections

In my reading of back issues of The Sporting News I am always delighted to find features about collectors from two or three generations back.

Such a find was to be made in the “Looping the Loops” column of TSN publisher J.G. Taylor Spink in the Aug. 6, 1942, issue.

Spink had been chronicling his recent tour of the baseball scene in California and made a stop at the home of one prominent collector. He presented it thus . . .

Al Scully—Souvenir Scourer
            While on the Coast we visited Al Scully’s house. Scully, who lives in Hollywood, owns what might be termed the West Coast branch of the Cooperstown Museum. Since last we visited Al’s home he has added to his collection of more than 4,000 baseball photographs a gallery of players in their service uniforms. Scully started this department shortly after Hugh Mulcahy, Hank Greenberg and several other early pre-war selectees were inducted and has kept up the collection since Pearl Harbor. It’s said to be, like Al’s entire collection, the most varied and strikingly presented private display of its kind in existence.
            Collecting baseball portraits has been Scully’s hobby for 25 years. Scion of a wealthy Chicago syrup manufacturing family, he has been able to devote at least two or three hours to his hobby each day. His museum and photographic gallery occupies one room on the second floor of his residence at 1031 South Rimpau boulevard. Each picture is uniformly framed and hung in rows from baseboard to ceiling. In addition to the more than 300 “current” framed portraits on open display, most of them autographed, Al has a large, systematically conducted file. If you don’t see your hero on the wall, just name him to Al and he’ll come up with his picture pronto.
            Scully has maintained his amazing collection strictly on a non-profit basis. He has, of course, a considerable cash investment in the huge outlay, including advertising address to other collectors with a view to swapping for items desired.
            Though the exhibit is in no sense a commercial service facility, Scully at times has loaned parts of his collection for public display. For instance, the World’s Fair in San Francisco showed a group of “California favorites,” which included Harry Heilmann, Chick Hafey, Lefty O’Doul, Freddie Fitzsimmons, Arky Vaughan, Ray Kremer, Lew Fonseca, Joe DiMaggio, Lefty Gomez, Babe Pinelli, Willie Kamm, Dutch Ruether and Tony Lazzeri.
            Recently Al branched out from purely pictorial trophies. He has a case of baseballs that have a historical background and a big lamp-shade crowded with player autographs. Formerly he had a noteworthy display of Japanese trophies, but recently he has stored these in the smokehouse.
            His section of old-timers is not to be duplicated, it is said. One of his main collaborators in this phase of his collection has been Charles Graham, president of the San Francisco Seals. In his youth Graham played on the famed Cordovas. Scully says that his Cordova collection is unique.
            Scully has specialized in portraits and groups. He has few action shots.
            And, we almost forgot to tell you: Al, who is a lifetime subscriber to The Sporting News, has bound volumes of every issue of The News published during the last 25 years.
*  *  *
Cullings From the Coast
While Al Scully’s collection runs mainly to photographs, George Young, the Pacific Coast League’s No. 1 fan, has one of the most extensive collections of major and minor league passes of any man in the country. Young, who operates a big wholesale business in Los Angeles and is a heavy stockholder in the Hollywood club, for years has received annual pass No. 1 of the Coast league.
And still speaking of souvenirs, Joe E. Brown, movie comedian, has a collection of autographed baseballs that perhaps is unsurpassed. These balls are neatly arranged in regular showcase style in the trophy room of Brown’s home, a typical movie star’s showplace, with swimming pool, private gate and all the trimmings. We’ll have more to say about Joe E.’s baseball collection.

There was a small one-column photo of Scully seated a desk with two walls of his framed baseball portraits in the background, but it is not suitable for reproduction here.

Besides collecting baseball memorabilia, Scully was a team owner in the Class C California League in 1941. He owned the Merced Bears, who operated only in 1941, folding due to the exigencies of World War II.

So, if you happen to live at 1031 South Rimpau in Hollywood, or know who does, it might be worthwhile to make an extensive excavation of basement and attic.

If you’re like me, you’re curious as to what became of Al Scully’s collection. Perhaps somebody in today’s milieu of baseball memorabilia collectors knows its current whereabouts.

In our next presentation, we'' take a look at yet another baseball collection that was detailed in that Aug. 6, 1942, issue of TSN.



Wednesday, October 29, 2014

I just made the first Rails & Sails card I've ever owned

For whatever reason, as big a collector of bubblegum cards -- sports and non-sports alike -- as I was in my childhood in the 1950s and early 1960s, I never owned a card from the 1955 Topps Rails and Sails set.

As a pre-teen, certainly the subject matter would have appealed to me. The lack of any of the cards in my childhood collection indicates to me that none of the several neighborhood grocery stores where I bought my cards as a kid carried the cards. 

Come to think of it, I now wonder whether the issue penetrated much into Wisconsin at all. Among all the dozens of original card accumulations I bought around the state throughout the late-1970s and early-1980s, I don't recall ever finding an R&S card.

So my first Rails and Sails card is MY first Rails and Sails card. My custom card depicts a streamliner of the Chicago and North Western railroad circa the 1950s-1960s.

These big yellow and green diesel locomotives were a familiar sight in my childhood. The train station in Fond du Lac was on the west side of town. We lived about 10 blocks west of the station. (So, yes, I did come from the wrong side of the tracks.)

I have two specific memories of the C&NW streamliners that inspired me to make this Rails and Sails tribute.

The first memory is from my very early childhood; early enough that the details must have been among the brain cells I killed off wholesale in later years. 

My best guess is that I was somewhere between 4-6 years old. I remember boarding the train in the evening and being seated on a bench seat between my mother and grandfather. My recollection is that we were traveling to Chicago, but for what reason I cannot remember. Mom and Grandpa are gone now, so I guess I won't know the details of the trip until, on my deathbed as promised by the Dalai Lama, I receive total consciousness.

My other specific memory of the C&NW passenger train at the Fond du Lac station dated from my misspent -- some would say delinquent, or even outright outlaw -- late teen years.

One night I was out with my brother and some buddies, drinkin' and cruisin' the town. We had to stop on a side street near the train station because the evening train between Milwaukee and Green Bay was stopped at the station, blocking the street.

Also waiting at the tracks was a young man whom we'll call Billy. Billy was developmentally disabled. In that less politically correct time, we referred to him as a Ree-tard. But never to his face. Billy had the mind of a child, but the body of a man . . . a large man. 

If you think Lenny from Of Mice and Men, you have Billy. He was probably a gentle giant, but none of us was willing to find out for sure. 

In my mind's eye I picture him as being six-foot two or three and more than 200 pounds. As I recall it, you never saw Billy without two things: a five o'clock shadow that could be used to strip paint, and a fancy wagon. Billy's wagon was one of those red Radio Flyers with the wood-stake box. 

Billy pulled that wagon all over town, to what purpose I never knew.

On this night, while we waited for the train to move, somebody in our car called out to Billy, "Hey, Billy, if you want the train to get out of the way, piss on it. It'll move."

With a bit more prompting Billy did whip out his johnson, which perhaps again more in my recollection than reality, was prodigious. As  Billy began to hose down the side of the train, we honked the car horn until some of the passengers looked out the window and began gasping and pointing. 

Within a couple of minutes a two uniformed trainmen were hustling Billy away. I don't recall hearing that he ever got into serious trouble for his efforts to move the train, and my buddies and I all had a good laugh at the time. Today, of course, I feel badly about the affair. I believe God or karma or the universe or whomever has repaid my loutish behavior several times over.

In any event, the Chicago and North Western streamliners are a childhood memory that I deemed deserving of preserving in this latter-day addition to the Topps Rails and Sails issue of nearly 60 years ago.

I may have one more "Rails" card in me, and I have definite plans for two or three "Sails" cards, so watch this space periodically.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

American Horror Story: Egregious anachronism

I'm enjoying American Horror Story: Freak Show, but the episode I watched the other night had a jarring anachronism.

The story line called for a trick-or-treat neighborhood street scene in West Palm Beach, Fla., in 1952.

Perhaps the writers are too young to remember what Halloween was like in that era . . . 

The show had the kids out trick-or-treating during daylight hours, and their mothers were accompanying them.

I don't know about you, but even as late as the 1970s in my hometown in Wisconsin, trick-or-treating was done at night, without parents.

This never would have happened on Mad Men.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Buddy Lewis was Air Corps all-star

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.

John Kelly “Buddy” Lewis was a highly decorated U.S. Army Air Corps pilot during World War II. He flew the C-47 transport plane in the China Burma India Theatre for 15 months, logging 611 operational hours on 369 missions, including 70 “Over the Hump.”

As part of the First Air Commando Group he took part in the March 5, 1944, glider invasion of Burma, towing gliders filled with Allied troops, pack mules, bulldozers and 500,000 pounds of supplies 200 miles behind Japanese lines. The C-B-I Roundup, the military’s official newspaper for the China-Burma-India theater of operations, said Lewis “is the major leaguer who has had the most hazardous mission to date.”

He earned the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with oak leaf cluster and the Distinguished Unit Citation badge.

The citation for Buddy Lewis’ Distinguished Flying Cross read . . .

“For extraordinary achievement in aerial flight during which exposure to enemy fire was probable and expected. Flying transport aircraft carrying a normal load, in addition to towing two heavily-loaded gliders, he took off at night for a point 200 miles beyond the enemy positions in Burma. Due to the proximity of the enemy and the necessity of surprise, the entire flight was made without radio aid, requiring the highest degree of piloting skill to avoid mid-air crashes either with aircraft in the towing unit or other near-by units on the same mission.”

Yank, the weekly army newspaper, said of Lewis’ mission, “The glider crews and their load of Wingate’s Chindits (Indian special forces guerrilla fighters) were satisfied. The C-47 pilot had led them safely over the jutting, jungle-clad 7,000-foot Chin Hills and across enemy-held positions east of the Chidwin river and had delivered them right on the nose at one of the few spots in Burma, 200 miles behind the Jap lines, where enemy troops would not be waiting to greet them.

“It was a neat demonstration of flying skill on the pilot’s part, done with the same keen eye and split-second timing that once won him a place on the American League All-Star team. Capt. John K. (Buddy) Lewis, the former Washington Senators third baseman, had justified his nomination to the U.S. Army Air Corps’ all-star flying aggregation, the 1st Air Commando Force.”

Lewis had, indeed, been an All-Star; the starting third baseman on the 1938 A.L. team that lost 4-1. He started again in the 1947 All-Star Game, playing in right field alongside Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams. The American League prevailed in that game 2-1.

After two seasons at Chattanooga, 18-year-old Lewis had been a September call-up to the Washington Senators in 1935. He never played another game in pro ball for anybody else. 

Sweating out a couple of draft deferments until the 1941 season ended, Lewis volunteered for the Army Air Corps a month prior to Pearl Harbor.

Lewis spent the next three and a half seasons in the military. 

Prior to going overseas, on June 27, 1943, Lewis visited his old teammates in Washington. By way of saying farewell, Lewis buzzed Griffith Stadium in his two-engine transport during the Sunday doubleheader, flying low over center field towards home plate and then on to Ft. Benning, Ga.

He returned to the Senators in late July, 1945, batting .333 to help the Senators clinch a second-place finish to the Tigers. 

After two more seasons, he sat out the 1948 season to run his automobile dealership in Gastonia, N.C.

The Senators coaxed him back for one more year in 1949. He hit a career low .245, then retired for good. His lifetime mark was .297 in 11 years with Washington. He died in 2011 at the age of 94.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Robertson's perfect-game ball . . . wasn't

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.

If his teammate is to be believed, the team-signed baseball that White Sox pitcher Charley Robertson prized as a souvenir of his 1922 perfect game wasn’t actually used in that game.

An unbylined article in the July 24, 1941, issue of The Sporting News made the case . . .

No Hits—One Error
            After 19 years, Johnny Mostil, former brilliant defensive White Sox outfielder, has disclosed that the autographed ball which Charley Robertson has as a souvenir of the last perfect game pitched in the majors, in Detroit, April 30, 1922, is not the ball which was in play. Johnny let the cat out of the bag in telling of his biggest thrill in baseball, his catch on the former Detroit catcher, Johnny Bassler, which ended the game. Basler his a low, screeching liner to left field, a few inches in fair territory, which Mostil snagged with a diving catch. Before he could regain his footing, an excited fan snatched the ball out of his hand.
            Back in the dugout, Kid Gleason, the White Sox manager, asked Johnny: “Where’s the ball?” Mostil told what had happened. “Quick, grab a ball, any ball,” said Gleason. So, Mostil picked up a practice ball, which he took to the clubhouse, where the players, club officials and admirers were already making a big fuss over Robertson. Mostil proudly handed the pitcher the ball, which all of the players autographed and which still is in Robertson’s possession.

That perfect game was about the only highlight of Robertson's eight-year major league career (1919, 1922-25 White Sox, 1926 Browns, 1927-28 Braves). Often plagued with a sore arm, he never had a winning season in the majors. His lifetime record was 49-80 with a 4.44 ERA, averaging 10.3 hits per nine innings.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Adversity didn't keep Wietelmann from 55-year pro ball career

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.
In the June 29, 1944, issue of The Sporting News, noted baseball historian Frederick G. Lieb penned a feature about Boston Braves infielder William "Whitey" Wietelmann.

He led with, “In times like these, when our brave and uncomplaining kids are losing eyes, limbs and their lives on war fronts all over the world, the pluck of a young player with impaired vision and subject to repeated eye operations, still standing up there undaunted at the plate, doesn’t mean so much, but our nomination for the gamest player of the year goes to the young shortstop of the Boston Braves, Billy Wietelmann.”

The player, Lieb went on to explain, had undergone four operations since spring training to remove cysts from his right eye. The condition had cropped up as the Braves were going through their preseason paces at Wallingford, Conn.

“As the condition comes on,” Wietelmann was quoted, “my vision in the right eye seems to become affected. A certain dimness comes up in front of the eye.”

One of the Braves minority stockholders, Dr. William Wranger, who had a private hospital near the team’s spring camp, removed cysts from Wietelmann’s eye on March 21, and the young shortstop thought that was the end of it.

Unfortunately, others began to appear and Dr. Wranger operated again on April 3. A third operation was necessary on April 23, after the season opened, and Wietelmann played that same afternoon against the Phillies. The next operation came on May 13 in Pittsburgh, forcing him to miss that day’s game.

“It seems to be a germ in my system,” Wietelmann told Lieb, “and the doctors are trying to eradicate it, but it has been darned annoying and I try not to be discouraged.”

The recurring blurring in his right eye forced Wietelmann to give up switch-hitting and stick to right-handed batting. In the field, the condition caused him to sometimes overrun a ground ball. To address that situation, Wietelmann was benched intermittently throughout June while he was fitted for a pair of shatterproof glasses that he then wore both on and off the field.

Wietelmann’s eye problems weren’t the first adversity he had faced in pursuing his baseball career.

In 1938 fire broke out at Wietelmann’s home in Zanesville, Ohio, where the 19-year-old player lived with his father, who had long been active as a player, owner and manager in amateur and professional baseball there. The elder Wietelmann had gone blind nearly a decade earlier.

Although the son escaped from the blaze, he realized his father was trapped inside. He tore loose from firemen and ran back into the blaze, effecting a rescue. “Dad was in that burning house; he was blind and I simply had to get him out,” he said. “My hair and eyebrows were burned off, and I was badly burned on the face and hands. Fortunately, just around that time the medical profession discovered a remarkable remedy for burns. I was covered with it, and though I was hospitalized for some time as the result of the burns, the treatment was so effective that I do not have scars today.”

Though his high school did not have a baseball team, Wietelmann attracted attention from the pros as a remarkable fielder in American Legion and semi-pro ball around Zanesville. The Boston Bees signed him to a professional contract in 1937 at the age of 18.

He played Class D ball that year at Beaver Falls, moved up to Class B in 1938 at Evansville, and Class A with Hartford in 1939.

In September 1939, Wietelmann was called up to Boston. He spent the entire 1940 campaign with the Bees, but hit only .195 with no power. 

In 1941-42, he split time between the big club and its top minor league teams. With World War II depleting manpower, Wietelmann spent all of the 1943-46 seasons with Boston. After the 1946 season he was traded to Pittsburgh, ending his big-league days with the Pirates in 1947.

Over nine seasons in the National League, Wietelmann averaged 64 games a year, hitting .232 with a total of seven
home runs.

From 1948-52, Wietelmann played in the Pacific Coast League with Sacramento (1948-49) and San Diego (1949-52). 

In 1953, Wietelmann began working as a playing-manager in the lower-level minor leagues. He led Milwaukee's Class B team at Wichita Falls in 1953, and the Braves' Class A club at Lincoln in 1954.

In 1955-56 he managed Yuma in the Class C Arizona-Mexico League.

During his player-manager days, Wietelmann took up pitching. In 1955 with Yuma he had a 21-13 record for the Sun Sox.

He retired as a player and manager after the 1956 season, but remained in the game as a coach at both the minor league and major league levels for the Padres and Reds. In 1984 he threw out the ceremonial first pitch for San Diego's first-ever home playoff game. He remained with the Padres organization through the early 1990s and died in 2002. 

Whitey Wietelmann's baseball card legacy is thin. His only career-contemporary card as a player was in the 1952 Mother's Cookies PCL set. In 1973 he appears as one of the coaches on Topps' San Diego Padres manager card of Don Zimmer. In 1975 he is pictured as a Padres coach on the SSPC set.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Third Healy variation found in '77 TCMA Lynchburg Mets

A third variation of the Bob Healy card in the
1977 TCMA Lynchburg Mets team set has been
discovered (bottom). The wrong-photo card was likely
the first variation printed, being quickly corrected.

Back when I was editing the Standard Catalog of Baseball Cards, one of my pet interests was minor league issues. A kindred spirit who still toils in that field is collector Simeon Lipman, who has been collecting minor league cards for more than a quarter-century, with a special emphasis on the TCMA minor league team issues of the 1970s.

In his pursuits in that arena, Simeon says it is his opinion that the 1977 Lynchburg Mets set is "perhaps the toughest" of the genre.

"Amongst the late issues and variations in the set," Lipman explains, "there are two in particular that are extremely difficult to find; one being the Stu Greenstein (where the team logo is found directly beneath Greenstein's glove) and the other being Bob Healy (with no name, logo, position or league on the front and blank-backed). A complete set, including the Greenstein and Healy variations totals 35 cards. It has taken me decades to complete a set, despite purchasing at least a dozen partial sets and plenty of singles from longtime minor league collectors over the years.

"Several months ago I bought another partial set on eBay looking to upgrade a few cards. Within it I was delighted to find, as far as I can tell, an undocumented variation!

"It's Bob Healy again! This time, it's a completely different image than the previous base card and variation. I recognized the image as George Frazier from the 1977 Holyoke Millers set.

"If this is indeed what I think it is, it brings the total number of cards in the 1977 TCMA Lynchburg Mets set to 36."

Lipman appears to be correct, and is to credited with discovery of yet another rare variation in the early TCMA team sets.

The early TCMA minor league sets present unusual challenges to today's collectors because of the manner in which they were issued. 

Besides being sold to the minor league teams, the sets were offered to collectors by mail order in the hobby publications of their day. For some teams, within and among this bifurcated distribution, errors were corrected and/or players added or removed.

Today collectors have to beat the bushes to find the cards they need to complete a team set. While the SCBC back in the day attempted to make the task easier by cataloging all known variations, little or no work has been done to update those checklists for about a decade. So we have to rely on collectors like Simeon who are willing to share their discoveries with the hobby at large.

The newly reported TCMA error card has the photo of
Holyoke Millers pitcher George Frazier.

Monday, October 13, 2014

1955 Bob Thorpe, rehabbed already

After reading my  blog for Oct. 10-11, a colleague noted that I was not completely satisfied with the portrait picture used on the 1955 Topps-style custom creation.

He sent along a couple of new choices of Thorpe in a Cubs uniform. Turns out Thorpe went to spring training with Chicago in 1957 and was pictured in the yearbook.

That picture had the requisite contrast and after I colorized it, I thought it came up to the standards of "real" 1955 Topps cards. In any event it is a great improvement.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Notes on my card creation process may help others

The other day on this blog I debuted my pair of Bob Thorpe custom cards, in the formats of 1955 and 1958 Topps.

Today I want to share another little bit of my process for custom card creation. Perhaps other card creators will find something useful they can apply to their own efforts.

As you can imagine with a player who had only two games in the major leagues and just six seasons in pro ball, there are not a lot of photos of Bob Thorpe with which to work. And, for this player, one has to be careful not to select a photo of the "other" Bob Thorpe, who played for the Boston/Milwaukee Braves 1951-53.

For the '55-style card I needed both portrait and action photos.

After considerable searching I found only two portrait photos of Thorpe in a Cubs uniform. I worked with each of them for a day or two and never really got where I wanted to be.

I decided to work with the portrait of Thorpe that appeared on the rare regional 1955 Old Homestead hot dogs team set of Des Moines Bruins cards.

The picture was black-and-white, so I had to colorize it for my card and replace the letters on the cap. Frankly, I don't feel that I was completely successful with that process. The card picture did not have great contrast. Still, with my Photoshop Elements program shouldering the heavy lifting, I was able to come up with something I can live with. In the unlikely event I would ever find a better portrait, this card would be a candidate for rehabilitation on that basis.

I am much more pleased with the result on the action photo on this card. 

The original photo was a pitching pose, black-and-white of course, of Thorpe with the Stockton Ports. The image was probably made in 1954 when Thorpe was lighting up the California League. It appears to be a local press photo.

To convert that 60-year-old picture to my fantasy card use, I began by dropping out the background with Elements' eraser tools, and colorizing the resulting cutout image.


The resulting picture admirably fits my standard for a 1955 Topps-format custom. I thought long and hard about using the image as is.

However, doing so would have been taking liberties with the original 1955 Topps format. While I didn't check every card in the set, I believe that Topps didn't use any minor league photos. Or, rather, they did use some minor league photos, but airbrushed away any uniform details that would identify the picture as other than major league. A perfect example is the card of Orioles catcher Hal Smith, which pictures him wearing a white jersey devoid of logos. 

In a similar vein, the rookie card of Sandy Koufax shows him in a generic white uniform. Koufax came right to the majors from the University of Cincinnati, so it wasn't minor league details that Topps painted out. Some years ago, I heard an interesting bit of hobby lore that alleges the picture of Koufax with his foot on the dugout step and cap in hand originally showed him wearing a Pittsburgh Pirates uniform. That photo, it was said, was taken when Koufax had a tryout with the Bucs prior to signing with the Dodgers. If that's true, I'm surprised I've never seen the original picture.

Be that as it may, I ultimately decided that as nice as the Thorpe-Stockton action picture had turned out, I would have to change the "S" on the cap to a "C" and white out the letters of "STOCKTON" from the jersey.

The logo-switch on the cap was easily accomplished. I searched pictures of other 1955 Topps Cubs cards until I found an action photo of a player facing directly front. That turned out to be El Tappe. I picked the "C" off Tappe's cap and grafted it onto Thorpe's.

In the process of poring over '55T  Cubs cards, I noticed that the small photo of Cubs manager Stan Hack provided a good luck at the "CHICAGO" logo on his jersey. I guessed, correctly as it turned out, that with a little finagling I could replace some of the "STOCKTON" logo with the Cubs lettering.

I think it turned out admirably.

One other element found on 1955 Topps cards could have sunk my project before it ever got off the ground . . . the facsimile autograph.

As scarce as Bob Thorpe photos are, images of his signature are even harder to find. Again, you have to be careful to get the right Bob Thorpe (Robert Joseph Thorpe) signature. There are plenty of images of Benjamin Robert Thorpe's autograph on the internet, including on his 1952 Topps high-number card.

After a bit of searching, I discovered that Thorpe had been included in the first edition of the 1955 Chicago Cubs yearbook, with a nice bold facsimile signature under his picture.

I put out an SOS to the members of the Network 54 vintage baseball memorabilia forum and received a rapid response from Georgia collector Tom Hufford, who sent a scan of the yearbook page. Hufford not only has a 1955 Cubs yearbook, but his book is almost completely hand-signed by members of that team. As he noted, the penned signature of Thorpe matches his facsimile autograph stroke for stroke.

So, there you have my "notes" on the creation of my 1955-style Bob Thorpe card.From time to time in the future, if I think similar presentations would be useful to card creators, I'll try to share similar details.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Bob Thorpe, '55 Cubs, added to my custom cards

            It's not surprising that Bob Thorpe didn't have any Bowman or Topps cards while he was active in pro ball. Despite an impressive minor league record, he played only two games in the majors, both with the Cubs in 1955.
           One has to be careful when discussing Bob Thorpe of the early 1950s; there were two of them in the big leagues. Benjamin Robert Thorpe was an outfielder for the Boston/Milwaukee Braves 1951-53. Robert Joseph Thorpe was a pitcher for the 1955 Chicago Cubs. It is the latter who is the subject of my most recent custom cards.
Thorpe had been named the outstanding high school athlete of Southern California in 1952, when his San Diego High School team won the Southern California state championship. He then pitched his San Diego American Legion Junior team to second place in the national finals and was named American Legion Player of the Year.
Signed by the Cubs for a reported $15,000, Thorpe pitched for Class C Stockton of the California League in 1953, with a 16-8 record. From his first year in pro ball, he was widely heralded as a pitcher, rather than just another teenage thrower. He didn’t have a great fastball, but kept hitters off balance with off-speed pitches and an outstanding change-up. He threw a curve that dropped off the table and he could deliver it with pinpoint accuracy.
Returning to Stockton in 1954, the young right-hander tied a league record with 28 wins, the most in Organized Baseball that season. He started 33 games and finished all but one of them, pitching 300.1 innings. His 2.28 ERA led the league. He was named California League Most Valuable Player.
That performance earned him a call-up from the Cubs for 1955, the first time the team had ever advanced a player from Class C to the majors.
The Cubs debuted Thorpe before the Wrigley faithful in the final game of the 1955 exhibition season, with the White Sox visiting.
Starting before the crowd of 19,504, Thorpe was only able to last two innings. While he struck out four, he walked five and gave up four runs on four hits.
That outing appeared to shake the confidence of Cubs manager Stan Hack and he limited Thorpe to mop-up appearances in two games with no decision before he was optioned to Des Moines on May 9, where he was 10-10.
He developed arm trouble and in the next two seasons in the Pacific Coast League was 14-22.
In the Rule 5 minor league draft after the 1957 season, the Pirates drafted Thorpe for 1958, but he spent the entire season on the disabled list after undergoing an operation to remove bone chips from his right elbow.
He tried a comeback with Columbus in the Sally League in 1959 but retired after three games.
Working for his father-in-law as an apprentice electrician on a power line near San Diego, Thorpe was fatally electrocuted March 17, 1960. He was splicing a high-powered 2400-volt electric cable. He instinctively jumped back as the power hit his palm and his elbow grounded against a metal transformer box. The force of the current burned his fingerprints into the metal base of the awl he was using to apply insulating fluid.
Thorpe had only one "real" baseball card during his playing days. He is found in the scarce 1955 Old Homestead franks team set of the Des Moines Bruins.
I chose to create two different Bob Thorpe cards. My 1955-format card is what might have been when he was a highly touted rookie. My 1958-style card is an optimistic look at what Topps might have done if Thorpe had not been injured.
As hard as it was to find suitable photos of Bob Thorpe to make the '55-style custom, getting the photo of Thorpe was a purely a stroke of good fortune. 
The spring training picture of Thorpe as a Pirate has been in my files for two or three years, if not longer. In fact, I don't remember now from whence it came. I do know that a google-search for Bob Thorpe photos does not return this image.
For those who have an interest in my custom card-making process, tomorrow I'll share some of the challenges I faced in making the 1955-style card.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

High-flying Hudlin sold, bought himself in 1944 comeback

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.

When the St. Louis Browns were in the thick of the American League pennant race in 1944 they called on former major league pitcher Willis Hudlin. At age 38, Hudlin  had last pitched in the major leagues four years earlier, compiling a 2-5 record for the Indians, Senators, Giants and Browns in 1940. 

After leading the league most of the season, St. Louis dropped into second place on Labor Day. When Bob Moncrief was shelved with arm trouble after five straight losses on Aug. 27, the call went out for Hudlin. 

Hudlin, at the time, was part owner of the Little Rock Travelers in the Southern Association and the ace of its pitching staff, with a 12-3 record and 2.56 ERA. He was playing in his fourth season for Little Rock.

Hudlin sold himself to the Browns. Despite appearing in only one game for St. Louis, taking the loss Aug. 31 in a two-inning relief role, he picked up a check from the loser’s cut of the 1944 World Series, being voted a one-quarter share of $685.95. Then he sold himself back to the Travelers.

The pitcher had been released from the Army Air Corps in May, having reached his 38th birthday. He had been stationed at Little Rock, where for the past two years he had been tutoring the army’s flight instructors and pitching part-time for Little Rock.

Hudlin was unique among ballplayers in that era in that he disdained rail travel around the Dixie circuit, instead piloting himself from series to series in a two-seater monoplane.He flew a Culver Cadet, which a reporter described as a “speedy, economical lightweight, which he can park in a pea patch.”

Thus while his teammates wearied through 13-hour day coach rail trips from New Orleans, Hudlin was winging home in three hours. “I spent every night in a hotel or at home,” he said.

Despite his choice of transportation, Hudlin expressed doubts that the major leagues would be switching to air travel any time soon. “Team travel in a huge plane is too risky,” he was quoted “When one of those big babies falls, it’s—whoof! Maybe it won’t happen in a hundred years, but the loss of an entire team would mean millions of dollars in players alone and might disrupt a league.”

Following the 1944 World Series, Hudlin returned to Little Rock where he resumed his job as a flight instructor at a municipal airport.

In the spring of 1945 he resumed his pro ball career. Hudlin had played only one year in the minors, with Class A Waco in 1926. He had a 16-11 record in the Texas League he was acquired by the Cleveland Indians in mid-August of '26.

Hudlin spent the next 13 full seasons at Cleveland, earning a 155-150 record before beginning his four-team tour in 1940. On Aug. 11 at Cleveland, he gave up Babe Ruth 500th home run; despite also being homered off of by Lou Gehrig, Hudlin won the game 5-4.

After his one-game comeback in 1944, Hudlin pitched for two more years at Little Rock, then ended his pro career at Jackson in the Southeastern League in 1947-48. His minor league lifetime total were 71-49 with an ERA of 3.52, all pitched at Class B or higher levels.

In the 1950s he served as a pitching coach for the Detroit Tigers and later scouted for the Yankees. He died in 2002 at the age of 96.

As a star pitcher throughout the bubblegum card era of the 1930s, Hudlin was included in many of the major sets from Diamond Stars, Goudey, Batter-Up and National Chicle.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Bucket list: West Point. Check

Cody, the "prison puppy," was part of my bucket
list-trip West Point for an Army football game.

Since childhood I'd always wanted to visit West Point and the U.S. Military Academy.

As a youngster I'd heard my mother speak of an automobile trip she and her younger sister had taken from their hometown of Fond du Lac, Wis., to West Point,, N.Y. I wish now that I'd asked her more about the trip when I was older, because I really don't know many of the details.

Through the magic of the internet, I've been able to piece together some of what I assume are the details of that trip. 

I'd always thought that my mother had made her epic auto trip while in her late teens; which greatly impressed me . . . two teenage girls driving more than 950 miles cross country in the pre-interstate days. Now, I don't think that was the case; she must have been somewhat older.

Another assumption, logical at least in my mind, is that my mother and aunt made the trip to visit their cousin, Esther, who was married to James R. Andersen, an instructor at West Point. Since Andersen was at the USMA from 1939-42, I now believe mom must have been about 24 years old at the time; still a gutsy adventure for two young small-town women.

During World War II, Andersen rose quickly in rank and responsibility. By early 1945 he was a brigadier general and Chief of Staff to Lt. General Millard F. Harmon, commander of U.S. Army Air Forces in the Pacific. 

On Feb. 26, 1945, Harmon, Andersen and eight other officers and enlisted men were lost when the B-24 Liberator in which they were flying en route to Washington, D.C. vanished between Guam and Hawaii. When last heard from, the converted bomber had plenty of fuel and was traveling in good weather over calm seas. What newspaper accounts called the most extensive air and sea search in the Pacific to that time failed to turn up and any trace of the plane or its crew.

My oldest brother, who was born in September, 1946, was named James Roy after Gen. Andersen.
In 1949, an Army air base on Guam was renamed Andersen Air Force Base.

My own trip to West Point was occasioned by the desire to attend a football game there. My daughter, son-in-law and I drove up from our winter place in western Pennsylvania to attend the Oct. 4 game vs. Ball State. 

We saw a good game and a Black Knights win. The experience was made extremely enjoyable by the Army's handling of my special needs for wheelchair accommodation. Everything was handled in a professional and efficient manner from start to finish.

As game day approached, I discovered that my parking pass had not been mailed with the tickets. With a single phone call I was able to secure the pass delivered by next-day express.

We drove up on Thursday evening, staying at a hotel in Mahwah, N.J. On Friday we drove the 40 minutes or so to West Point and spent the day at the USMA Visitor's Center and the West Point Museum.

The museum is, simply stated, awesome. There are four floors of the history of warfare and of the U.S. Army. We spent nearly four hours poring over the displays and dioramas. You could not overuse the word "priceless" to describe some of the items held there. There is an original Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington, along with a pair of his pistols. Napoleon's sword and brace of pistols are exhibited. Hermann Goering's sidearm, dagger and a silver presentation pistol he gave to Hitler are displayed among the war trophies. More plebeian, but no less historically interesting in my view, are a pair of arrows retrieved from the Little Big Horn battlefield. 

I have no doubt that the museum lives up to its claim to be the largest and most comprehensive military museum in the nation. From foot-long silver darts dropped -- silent but deadly -- from high altitude over enemy positions in Vietnam to a WWI tank and a replica of the first A-bomb it was all immensely appealing to my interest in military history.

A week out, we knew that game-day weather was going to be iffy. Predictions called for a 90 percent chance of rain. And the predictions proved accurate. Rain in the morning caused the cancellation of the cadet parade that I was greatly looking forward to. 

It continued to rain virtually non-stop until almost the end of the game. Fortunately, wheelchair seating at Michie Stadium is under the upper deck and we remained dry and comfortable. By the time the game was over, so was the rain, and our half-hour wait for the wheelchair-accessible shuttle bus was also dry.

I cannot stress strongly enough my recommendation that you add West Point and an Army football game to your own bucket list.

An unusual aspect of our trip was that we were accompanied by Cody, a year-old yellow lab service dog in training. Cody is a "prison puppy." He is being given his basic training by a prisoner at the facility where my daughter teaches. As part of that training, he is periodically taken outside the walls for socialization and a broad range of experiences that aren't possible in the prison setting.

He handled everything well. Army football games feature liberal use of cannon fire inside the stadium and across the Hudson River. Cody jumped just a bit at the gun's report at kickoff, then was unphased by subsequent firings. 

After another four or six months with his prison handler, Cody will move on to advanced training to become a service dog in an area such as advanced seizure detection, providing stability to a handicapped walker or some other discipline. 

My daughter has worked with these dogs for as long as she's been at the prison. The program involved is called Canine Partners for Life, a non-profit organization that for more than 20 years has been training service dogs, home companion dogs, and residential companion dogs to assist individuals who have a wide range of physical and cognitive disabilities. You can check out the program at 

As I get older and less mobile, my days of traveling to attend college football games may be drawing to a close. If I never get out to another, my West Point experience will have been a fine capstone.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Zacher first to catch ball from plane?

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.

I've presented accounts in this space (most recently on July 15-16) about stunts of late 19th and early 20th Century ballplayers catching -- or attempting to catch -- baseballs throw from great heights.

One much such story can't hurt.

In 1912 former major leaguer Elmer Zacher became one of the first -- his 1944 obituary claimed he was THE first -- players to catch a ball thrown from an airplane more than 300 feet in the air.

The feat made Page 1 news in the Feb. 18, 1912, issue of the San Francisco Call

Zacher's catch came amidst an aerial show that took place at Oakland's Aviation Field on Feb. 17. The air show featured all manner of stunt flying, wing walkers and other attractions that drew a crowd reported at 15,000.

According to the newspaper, Zacher and fellow Oakland Oaks outfielder Izzy Hoffman thrilled the crowd and "risked their heads and hands in a semisuccessful attempt to catch oranges and baseballs thrown by Lincoln Beachey at heights varying from 300 feet to 550."

Beachey was a nationally famed pioneer aviator and stunt flyer, who soared aloft in a Curtiss biplane to make the drops. The paper reported, "three nice ripe oranges spattered on the grass after a fall of more than 500 feet, and one baseball sank in the sod before Zacher succeeded in catching a ball tossed from 300 feet or more."

Born in Buffalo, N.Y., Sept.17, 1880, Zacher graduated as a pharmacist from the University of Buffalo in 1904. 

That same summer he started in the pro game with Pottstown of the independent Pennsylvania League He played with Woodstock (Canadian) and Concord (New England) in 1905. He was with Worcester (also in the New England League) for 1906. In 1907 he moved up to Newark in the Class A Eastern League, then was with New Haven (Connecticut State) in 1908-09.

Zacher advanced to the major leagues when the New York Giants purchased his contract from New Haven on Aug. 22, 1909. He played only a single game with the Giants, in 1910, before being sold to the St. Louis Cardinals on May 8. It was reported in his obituary that he roomed with Christy Mathewson.

In 47 games with St. Louis, in the outfield and at second base, Zacher hit only .212, ending his big league career.

He was subsequently with Chattanooga (1911), Oakland (1911-14), Salt Lake City (1915), and, in 1916, with Newark, Elmira and Rochester ) He retired from pro ball after the 1916 season.

Zacher returned to Buffalo where he was employed by the city parks department from 1921-25, and 1927-44, rising to the rank of supervisor of city playgrounds. In 1926-27 he served as New York’s assistant Secretary of State. He died Dec. 20, 1944, after a four months’ illness.

With his lengthy career in the Pacific Coast League, Zacher appears in many of the regional sets of the 1910s, including the 1911 Obak cigarette card at top and the 1911 Zeenut candy card above.