Thursday, January 29, 2015

Song-inspired Rails & Sails train customs

Two of the most famous trains of the last half of the 20th Century achieved their renown based on popular recordings.

The song Orange Blossom Special was written by Floridian Ervin T. Rouse in 1938 and recorded the next year with his brother. Since then it has been covered by every male country performer of note.

My favorite version is Johnny Cash's, recorded in 1965, which reached No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 Country Music Charts. While OBS has been called the "fiddle players' national anthem," The Man in Black took it in a different direction, substituting two harmonicas and a saxophone for the fiddle parts.

The 1955 Rails and Sails-style custom card I created is based on circa 1940s linen postcards, of which there are several types. Such cards were sold on the train itself and at every station stop along the route. I did a little cutting and pasting to get the final image for my card.

I don't remember when I've had as much fun doing the research for a card back. I lost myself for most of a day googling the internet and exploring the many tangents. I'd forgotten how much I love mid-century trains. (See my blog post of Oct. 29 for my first R&S train card and background of my personal interest in 1950s streamliners.)

My follow-up R&S train custom card was inspired by the 1972 Arlo Guthrie folk song City of New Orleans. The song went to No. 18 on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles Charts.

It has been reported that Guthrie first heard the song when he was approached by its writer, Steve Goodman, in a Chicago bar in 1971. Guthrie said he'd listen if Goodman would buy him a beer. He agreed to record it on the spot.

After the release of Willie Nelson's version in 1984, Goodman was posthumously awarded the 1985 Grammy for Best Country Song. 

I've been an Arlo Guthrie fan since my college days, based on his 1967 hit ballad Alice's Restaurant Massacree. (The 1969 movie . . . not so much.)

Again, a gloomy winter Sunday spent researching the City of New Orleans (the train and the song) was a high point in the creation process.

As long as I am on a train "kick," I've got a couple more Rails and Sails additions in the works. Watch this blog for the revelation in a week or two.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Johnny Cooney's unlikely homer history

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.

One of my favorite cards from the 1955 Johnston Cookies Braves regional issue was that of coach Johnny Cooney. He just looked like such a pleasant fellow. Heck, the write-up on back said he was "Known for courtesy and understanding . . . a real credit to the game." With that big smile he kind of reminded me of my Uncle John.

While poring over the 1943 microfilm of The Sporting News, I learned that Cooney had an unusual major league home run history. 

Cooney made his professional debut in 1921 with the Boston Braves as a 20-year-old pitcher. He spent 20 seasons in the bigs, He was with the Braves into 1930, then spent the 1930-35 seasons in the high minors. He returned to the National League with the Dodgers from 1935-37, returned to Boston 1938-42, then had a second stay with Brooklyn 1943-44 before ending his major league days with the Yankees in mid-1944, at the age of 43.

He ended his playing days with Kansas City in the American Association in 1945.

He returned to the Boston Braves as a coach in 1946, moving with the team to Milwaukee in 1953. He left the Braves in 1955 and after a year off he coached for the Chicago White Sox 1957-64.

Now for Johnny Cooney's home run story . . . 

From the time of his debut in 1921, almost through the end of 1939, in a total of about 2,300 at-bats in the major leagues, Cooney never hit a home run,

His first big league circuit clout came near the end of his 15th season.

On Sept. 24, 1939, playing in the Polo Grounds, Cooney connected for a home run off Giants pitcher Harry Gumbert. The following day, with Bill Lohrman on the mound, Cooney hit another home run.

Then he never hit another.

He played five more seasons in the majors, about 1,050 at-bats, without another home run.

In his nine seasons in the minors, Cooney had a total of 12 home runs in nearly 2,600 at-bats.

You can read a full account of Johnny Cooney's career on the SABR website, penned by Ray Birch: .

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

New to World on Wheels: VW Microbus

In my "what if . . . " musings after I buy a Powerball or Mega Millions lottery ticket I sometmes get to daydreaming about the first vehicle I would buy.

Lately, the answer is a 1960s Volkswagen Samba, more often known as the Microbus.

I was recently surprised to see on an episode of Pawn Stars that a really nice restored example can be a $100,000 car in today's market. Oh well, when you win $100MM, what's $100K?

Sometimes I think I'd hunt down the white-over-green microbus that was featured on several episodes of That '70s Show near the end of its run.

But if I had cash in hand, my real first choice would be a white-over-light blue example like the one that sticks in my memory from my early college days.

As a freshman at the University of Wisconsin Fond du Lac, a branch commuter campus, my English professor was Dr. Michael Pikulef -- "pronounce it 'pickle-ef'" he'd said on the first day of class. 

Mike, as he insisted we call him, was almost the stereotypical liberal college instructor of the early 1970s, but that meshed well with my own philosophy at the time. 

I realized that I was really in college at my first party not long after school started. Besides the usual hippie chicks, pot- and pillheads and artistic poseurs, Mike was at the party.
Partying with the prof! I wasn't a high school kid any longer.

When booze ran low, a collection was taken up and Mike said he'd drive. Heck, he may have been the only one over 21 in attendance. I volunteered to go along. We got into his blue VW microbus and headed to a nearby bowling alley where we bought a case of beer, and to some other place I no longer remember for a gallon jug of cheap sangria.

I was really taken with that VW. You sat way up near the windshield and it had a tall stick shift lever. The bus had a particular engine sound that I can still hear today.

Some day I'd like to have me one of those.

That's why my latest World on Wheels custom card honors the venerable hippie wagon.

It's interesting that Mike Pikulef has almost no internet presence. I've found a couple of 10-year-old mentions of a Michael Pikulef in connection with the Village Playhouse in Wauwatosa, Wis., but that's it. I wonder what became of him?

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

So, what's the deal with "so"?


It's really started to grind my gears when people begin a statement, orally or in writing, with "So, . . ."

When did this become a meme?

This meaningless introduction has become epidemic in some of the internet forums I look in on.

So . . . give it a rest.

While I'm ranting . . . 

I believe the baseball card forums in which I participate would lose half their postings if the word "cool" was banned.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

1943 Sunday Cubs concession sales detailed

In the "Bouncing Around With Ed Burns" column in the July 29, 1943, issue of The Sporting News, the Chicago baseball writer provided details of concession sales for a Sunday doubleheader at Wrigley Field between the Cubs and the Cardinals.

The date was June 27, and Burns said the crowd was just over 38,000. According to Wrigley Field concessions manager Ray Kneips, unit sales that day. 

  • Red Hots                 35,600
  • Peanuts, Bags           5,500
  • Popcorn, Bags           3.020
  • Soda Pop, Bottles    30,200
  • Lemonade, Glasses   5,420
  • Ice Cream, Cups      25,700
  • Beer, Bottles             32,000
  • Scorecards               11,724
  • Player Photographs   1,000 

What effect, if any, the fact that the Cubs lost both ends of the doubleheader by one run, dropping them back to last place in the National League, had on concession sales was not speculated upon.

The concessions chief reported that he employed 150 vendors to service the crowd, and went through 22,000 pounds of ice to cool the beer and soda.

As a collector, I wonder if the 1,000 "Player Photographs" sold meant a thousand 25-piece picture packs, or 40 sets of 25? I'm guessing the former. Ballpark picture packs back then sold for 50 cents per set.

Other collectible souvenirs such as pinback buttons, yearbooks and pennants weren't mentioned.

In the Aug. 19 issue of TSN, Burns followed up his original piece with some details about the vendors at Wrigley. He said that while the average vendor made $12 or so on a well-attended Sunday doubleheader, one lemonade seller's commission on the day was $50, which he said was more than the club's vice president made that day.

Burns said the successful lemonade vendor at the ballpark must have "a strong and persuasive voice, a keen eye for detecting an upraised finger, and agility in moving rapidly over the feet of the assembled patrons."

He also noted that the lemonade at Wrigley was real hand-squeezed product, "no synthetics, no bottled stuff." It sold for 20 cents a glass. Other ballpark prices were 15 cents for a hot dog (up from a dime the year before), 25 cents for a bottle of beer and 15 cents for a bottle of soda.

Note was also made of the wartime exigencies at the Wrigley concession stands. Rationing of sugar and beef had led to the suspension of sales of candy, hamburgers and roast beef sandwiches.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Wyatt Earp customs added to TV Westerns

I've just completed a major addition to my recent work on custom cards done in the style of Topps' 1958 TV Westerns bubblegum cards.

Presented here is my quartet of cards based on the long-running (1955-61) series The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, starring Hugh O'Brian.

The show was more "legend" than "life," but that's been the case for the past 140 years. I spent a lot of time on the internet researching Wyatt Earp and have come to conclude that much of what we have seen from Hollywood about the frontier lawman has been, shall we say, embellished. Even the first comprehensive biography, 1931's Wyatt Earp Frontier Marshal, by Stuart N. Lake, was largely made up of whole cloth. His fictionalized accounts have been picked up and reworked time and again ever since in movies and films.

The Wyatt Earp TV show drew heavily upon Lake's book. I've chosen to base my cards on the show, rather than strictly historical fact.

Fortunately for my process, there are lots of great color photos of Hugh O'Brian as the title character, so I had no trouble coming up with four cards.

Here they are . . .

While it is not at all pertinent to my TV Westerns Wyatt Earp custom cards, I want to put in a plug for the Hugh O'Brian Youth Leadership programs.

Inspired by meetings in Africa with Dr. Albert Schweitzer, O'Brian in 1958 founded an organization to inspire youth to take leadership roles locally and thereby positively affect the global future. You can read about it here: .

I became aware of HOBY when my daughter was a high school sophomore in the mid-1990s and was selected (heck, she may have been the only kid in her school interested) to attand a stateside HOBY conference.

That weekend seminar inspired many of the subsequent educational and career choices that have brought her to where she is today.

For that, I have to thank Hugh O'Brian.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Backstory of '59 Fleer Williams-Ruth card

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. 

One of the most popular and valuable cards in the 1959 Fleer Ted Williams card set is #2, "Ted's Idol -- Babe Ruth".

The image of that card leaped to mind the other day when I was reading microfilm of 1943 issues of The Sporting News.

There was a large photo in that issue of Ted Williams and Babe Ruth shaking hands in front of a dugout.

According to the photo caption and a news brief found elsewhere in that issue, the occasion of the meeting of the two great hitters was something a little more than the back of the Fleer card indicated.

The description on the back of card #2 says, "Williams meets his boyhood idol, 'Babe Ruth' for first time during a special hitting contest in Boston in 1943."

As far as that goes, there was a hitting contest between Williams and Ruth the day that photo was taken, but it was just part of a larger event in which the pair participated.

On July 12, 1943, during the All-Star break, Fenway Park hosted a charity exhibition game to benefit Mayor Maurice Tobin's Field Day Fund. The Mayor's Field Day is a long-time Boston tradition to raise money for the current mayor's pet projects.

The highlight of the day's doings at Fenway was a game between the Boston Braves and the "Service All-Stars" team.

Babe Ruth was the manager of the military all-stars. His squad included a number of Red Sox players then serving in the army and navy, including Ted Williams, Dom DiMaggio, Johnny Pesky and a future Red Sox star, Walt Dropo.

Prior to the 4:30 p.m. game, there was a home run derby between Williams and Ruth. As the two were introduced in the clubhouse, reporters quoted Ruth as saying, "Hiya, kid. You remind me a lot of myself. I love to hit. You're one of the most natural ballplayers I've ever seen. And if ever my record is broken, I hope you're the one to do it." Years later, recalling the moment, Williams said, "I was flabbergasted. After all, he was Babe Ruth."

Williams hit three into the stands. The 48-year-old Ruth wasn't able to clear the Fenway outfield. He fouled the second offering off his instep and was hobbled for the rest of the contest.

In the game against the Braves, the all-stars won 9-8 on Williams' three-run homer in the seventh inning, said to have been a 425-ft. shot. He also singled in the game.

Ruth coached at first base for the all-stars. In the eighth inning, he acceded to the clamor of the crowd of 12,000 and put himself in as a pinch-hitter. After whiffing on the first two offerings, Ruth connected. According to a contemporary account, he "lofted a sky-scraping fly" out to right field.

The first-ever meeting between Williams and Ruth naturally offered a prime photo op. A number of different poses from the day are commonly found, mostly versions of the traditional "grin and grip" shot.

The picture Fleer used on 1959 card #2 is credited as a Wide World photo, The photo that I saw in the The Sporting News (above) was used in 1993 on a Ted Williams Card Co, card #121.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Connie Mack went to bat for double-murderer

Though he played in seven major
league seasons 1914-22, Crane
appears on few baseball cards. On this
1922 E120 American Caramel issue
he's shown with the Dodgers, for
whom he played only three games.

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.

On Sept. 5, 1944, former major league shortstop Sam Crane had his 18-to-36 year prison sentence for a double homicide commuted by Pennsylvania Governor Edward Martin. At the stroke of midnight on Sept. 25 he was released from the Eastern Pennsylvania Penitentiary at Graterford where he had served 15 years. After 11 unsuccessful appearances before the parole board, he was approved for early release on the 12th try, just a few days short of his 50th birthday.

(You’ve probably seen the rotting hulk of Graterford prison on television in recent years. It has been featured several times on “ghost hunter” types of shows, Halloween specials, etc.)

A major factor in Crane’s release was an appeal by his former manager Connie Mack, who promised Crane a job with the Philadelphia Athletics if he made parole.

A couple of years after having ended his professional baseball career, Crane shot and killed a former girlfriend, Della Lyter, and her escort Jack D. Oren, on Aug. 3, 1929, when he found them together in a Harrisburg, Pa., hotel bar.

Crane said he was drunk at the time of the shooting and had taken the pistol from his home with the intention of killing himself. He was convicted of two counts of second-degree murder.

While in prison Crane played shortstop, and later in the outfield, on the institution’s baseball team. During the latter days of his imprisonment, he managed the team. In 1944 his squad won 13 of 15 games (all home games, of course) against semi-pro and service teams from the Philadelphia area.

Crane’s “day job” in the prison was as a clerk in the superintendent’s office. He also drove the prison’s fire truck and maintained a pet squirrel named “Pete.”

In a story by Don Basenfelder in the Sept. 14, 1944, issue of The Sporting News, Crane was quoted as saying upon receiving the news of his successful appeal, “Uppermost in my thoughts at this time is to help everybody who has helped me in this struggle. I’d like to get some new clothes, see my mother in Harrisburg and go fishing.”

Like all state prisoners in that era, Basenfelder reported, upon his release Crane would receive a suit of clothes “manufactured in the prison tailor shop according to his measurements and specifications, and a $10 banknote as the state’s parting gift.”

A retired warden of the prison, Capt. Elmer Leithiser, promised to fulfill Crane’s desire for some fishing, planning to take him out on Lake Wallenpaupack, “an angler’s paradise” near Hawley, Pa. Leithiser was pictured in a photograph accompanying the TSN article shaking hands with Crane.

Crane expressed baseball ambitions other than taking the proffered position with the Athletics. He said he wanted to see a night game and, if possible, the World Series. “I’ve never stopped following baseball while I’ve been in here,” he told the reporter. "I read The Sporting News regularly and listen to reports of the games via radio, which is piped throughout the prison.”

Though he hadn’t heard from Mack in the first few days after his commutation, Crane said he wasn’t worried. “I’ll be happy to take any kind of job that Mr. Mack has for me,” he said.

Mack did offer Crane a job, at $35 a week on the maintenance crew at Shibe Park. He gave his blessing, however, when Crane landed a higher-paying factory job supporting the war effort.

"Red" Crane was born Sept. 13, 1894, in Harrisburg. He was reported playing pro ball as early as 1911  in the Tri-State League, including 1913 at Atlantic City.

Mack acquired Crane late in the 1914 season from Greensboro of the North Carolina League, where the 20-year-old redhead was playing shortstop and third base, hitting .244. Mack chose Crane for the A’s on the basis of a recommendation from his son, Earle Mack, who was manager of Raleigh in the same league.

Crane reported to Philadelphia after they had clinched the American League pennant and was played at shortstop to give a rest to Jack Berry prior to the World Series with the Miracle Braves.

“I wasn’t a wonder with a bat,” Crane admitted to the reporter, “though Mr. Mack and Harry Davis tried hard to teach me how to hit. I guess they gave it up as a bad job, for I was shipped to Richmond in the International League in 1915.” He moved to the Baltimore Orioles in the same league in 1916.

He returned to the American League with the Senators in 1917 (.179 in 32 games), then was farmed out to Minneapolis. Washington loaned Crane to the Cincinnati Reds in 1918, but the Senators’ asking price was too steep and he was returned. He played with Atlanta, Baltimore and Indianapolis in 1918-1919. In 1920 Crane was bought from Indianapolis by the Cincinnati Reds and played there in 1920-21. Crane finished his big league days with a handful of games for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1922, before he was sent to Seattle in the Pacific Coast League, where he also played 1923-25.

After making three errors in a game in June, 1925, Crane packed his gear and left the team, saying he was through with baseball. A month later he was sold to Harrisburg, but refused to report. 
Crane is included in the 1923 and 1925
Zeenut candy card sets of Pacific
Coast League players.

Buffalo purchased Crane in 1926. His final professional engagement was with Reading of the International League in 1927.

Basenfelder closed his article with, “The red has faded from Sam Crane’s hair. It is streaked with silver and gray. His eyes have a look of sadness and tragedy. In a few weeks he’ll be going home—to forget, if he can—the events of the past 15 years.

“And the Grand Old Man of Baseball will have another assist to his credit.”

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Iconic London black taxi on new WoW custom

Back in 1990 then-president of Krause Publications Don Nicolay called me into his office. He floored me when he asked me to name my own reward for the continuing success of the sports collectors' periodicals that I was in responsible for as publisher.

In particular, he wanted to acknowledge the success of Baseball Card Price Guide, which had debuted in 1988 and -- virtually unprecedented in the world of specialty magazines -- which had been profitable from the very first issue.

By 1990, the sports division accounted for about half of KP's revenues, grossing around $18 million.

After giving the  matter some thought, I told Nicolay that I would like to take my wife and daughter on a tour of Great Britain. Which we did that summer, spending two weeks in England, Wales and Scotland.

The pubs and castles were a highlight for me. The one thing my wife wanted to do was have a ride in a London black taxi cab. So one morning the doorman at the Kensington Gardens Hotel hailed a cab and we climbed in. Today, 25 years later, I honestly don't remember where we went, but it made me feel good to be able to provide such a simple desire for my spouse.

In the spirit of that encounter, I've now added a card to my World on Wheels customs of a circa 1948 Austin FX3 black cab.

There's really not a lot else that I can say about the new card. So I'll just give you a look.