Saturday, August 10, 2013

While at the National Sports Collector's Convention last week, I had the pleasure of meeting a number of former professional baseball players. One of those players was Rick Monday.

If you didn't grow up a baseball fan in the 1970s-80s, chances are that Rick Monday is not a name you know.
1968 Topps Rick Monday

Monday had a solid, though not Hall of Fame-worthy career. He is perhaps best known for snatching an American flag away from a couple of moron protesters who ran out onto the field at Dodger Stadium on April 25, 1976, doused a flag with lighter fluid and were trying to set it on fire with matches. Monday, who was playing center field for the Chicago Cubs at the time, snagged it just as one of the protesters struck the second match.

I only had a moment to talk to Mr. Monday, but in that minute I told him how much I appreciated his show of patriotism. He was very gracious and said that he was just glad he got there on time.

Watch the video of Monday's heroics here.

Off to See the Wizard...Ozzie Smith

This autograph is from arguably the best shortstop to ever play the game, Ozzie Smith.

Ozzie - better known as "The Wizard" - dazzled sports fans for 19 seasons with his physics-defying defensive play.

He was an 15-time All-Star and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2002 - his first year of eligibility. He was known for doing back-flips on the field after making an amazing play.
1987 Topps Glossy All-Star

I met Ozzie August 2 at the 2013 National Sports Collectors Convention in Rosemont, IL. I asked him if he still does back-flips, to which he laughed and replied, "not intentionally, man, not intentionally." I am not entirely sure what that means, but he amused me. Ozzie and Cal Ripken, Jr., were the two nicest athletes I have met in person.

He made every person who approached him feel welcome. He greeted each person individually, shook hands and was a pleasure to meet. He ribbed me a little about the Reds shirt I was wearing, saying that I was obviously a fan of the Big Red Machine and not the Cards. I wanted to come back with a witty rejoinder, but the line was moving so I just laughed, thanked him and moved on.

1982 Topps, #21, Cal Ripken, Jr., Autographed

The Iron Man, Cal Ripken, Jr.

Last week, I met one of the giants of the sports world - Baltimore Orioles superstar, Cal Ripken, Jr., also known as Iron Man.

Ripken's streak of 2,632 straight games played is a feat to which there is no equal and is one that surely will stand for all-time.

Not only was Ripken durable, he was one of the best shortstops to ever step onto the diamond. Ripken played for 21 seasons as a shortstop and third baseman for the Baltimore Orioles, and was a 19-time all-star, 8-time Silver Slugger, 2-time American League MVP, and a World Series champion.

As a newbie to the National Convention - or "The National" as folks call it - I was not aware how autograph signings were handled. For the most part, the For the most part, they are handled well, though depending on the personality of the athlete signing autographs, the experience is generally pretty sterile with very little conversation and often, not even a handshake.

Ripken, however, was very different. He greeted each person, shook hands, and engaged everyone - particularly the kids - in conversation. He was known for staying late after every home game to sign autograph after autograph, and 12 years after retiring, he's still treating fans with grace and respect.

When I handed Ripken my 1982 Topps card, I told him that this was a card that I pulled from a wax pack in 1982 when I was 14. I told him that it had been a prized card in my collection (I actually have three copies) since then. He thanked me for the compliment, but them immediately placed his fingers over the pictures of the players on either side of him and asked me what their names were. I told him I honestly didn't know. He then started telling me about both of these men and ended with saying that even though neither of them had the same baseball career he had, they had gone on to have great lives and do great things and that fans should know about them, too.

Talk about class.

One thing that made the whole Ripken autograph experience completely different is that Ripken has an assistant whose job is to snap pictures of each and every person who wants one with Ripken. The way it worked was Ripken would sign 10-15 autographs and those people would then stand in a mini-line while Ripken got up and stood for pictures with each person.

The coolest part of the whole experience was that Ripken never hurried anyone and never made anyone feel like he was anything other than a guy who could play baseball. Even better was the fact that not a single person complained about waiting in a long line while Ripken chatted up fans and posed for pictures. You don't often see that kind of collective patience in a crowded setting.

After I posed with Ripken, he shook my hand and said, "don't forget to learn a little about Bob Bonner and Jeff Schneider." I promised him I would.

After going back to my hotel room that night, I did a little research and learned that Bonner played for parts of four seasons with the Orioles before retiring in 1984.

After he hung up his spikes, he became a Christian missionary to Zambia - a job he did for 26 years. He later started an organization called International African Missions to recruit missionaries to serve in African nations.

I wasn't able to find out a lot about Schneider other than his time in The Bigs was short and that after leaving the game, he went to being a self-proclaimed "normal guy."

Monday, January 21, 2013

You're Outta Here!

As baseball fans everywhere undoubtedly know by now, baseball lost two of its heroes on January 19, 2012 - Cards slugger Stan "The Man" Musial, and longtime manager and hothead, Earl Weaver.

1974 Topps Earl Weaver, #308

Because most news stories and blogs will focus on the hard-hitting Musial, I have decided to dedicate the balance of this post to Earl Weaver. Those of us who grew up watching baseball in the 70s and 80s remember a red-faced Weaver standing nose-to-nose with an umpire - any umpire - arguing calls. In fact, I've mused that while a good pitcher can work the dirt on the mound with his feet to make his pitch do his bidding, Weaver could expertly work (read: kick) the dirt around the umpire's shoes to insult his enemy. 

But Weaver wasn't just a hot-headed manager. He was a baseball purist who believed in simplicity when it came to coaching. He preached solid pitching, good defense and dingers that left the park. He eschewed base stealing, bunting and other tactics he considered gimmicky in favor for old-fashioned pitching and hitting.

Weaver managed the Baltimore Orioles from 1968-1982 and again 1985-1986. In 17 years of managing the Orioles, he endured only one losing season - his last with the club before retiring in 1986.

1969 Topps Earl Weaver, #516
Weaver was thrown out of a stunning 91 games during his coaching career for berating umpires over what he thought were questionable calls. Perhaps even more notable is that he was ejected from both games of doubleheader matchups on three separate occasions.

In addition to his knowledge of the game and his rabid dog approach to conflict resolution, Weaver was known for his biting sense of humor - with his players, the media and especially the umpires. After one ejection, Weaver reportedly shouted to the umpire that he was going to check the rule book. The umpire offered his rule book to Weaver, but Weaver declined, saying, "I can't read Braille."

Weaver was also known for spinning his cap around backward so that we could get as close to an umpire's face as possible without actually touching him and earning an instant ejection.

He earned three American League pennants (1969, 1971 and 1979) and one World Series in 1970. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1996. His #4 jersey has been retired by the Orioles, never to be worn again.

Weaver died while on an Orioles fan Caribbean Cruise with his wife of nearly 50 years. Weaver liked spending time with Orioles fans and often joined fans and other Orioles players and coaches on the cruises.

Cruise organizer Ken Nigro said Weaver displayed his trademark bulldog behavior just days before his death, arguing over the scores of a Jeopardy game he was playing with other guests.

"It’s not 4-3, you lost that point," Nigro recalled Weaver saying. "It’s still 3-3."

Said Nigro: "He just started complaining. It was the old Earl Weaver all over again. He had that competitiveness until the end.”

Weaver was 82.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Yeah, I'm Talking to the Ball. What of It?

In 1976, Big Bird left Sesame Street for the comfort of  the mound where he often gave the ball a pep-talk before he sent it on its fast and nearly un-hittable path to the waiting catcher's mitt 60 feet and six inches away.

Mark Fidrych was known to many as simply, "The Bird," for his comical resemblance to our feathered friend from Sesame Street. Fidrych's tall, lanky frame was topped with a mop-like, blond pile of hair. He enjoyed just two complete seasons in the majors - and only one that was entirely successful - but left in indelible mark on the big leagues.

1977 Topps
Fidrych was selected in the fourth round of the 1974 by the Detroit Tigers and made his MLB debut in 1976 after the Tigers traded longtime ace, Mickey Lolich. What followed was a storybook season that isn't often seen in professional sports. In his rookie debut, The Bird as named to the American League All-Star team, was named the A.L. Rookie of the Year and finished second in A.L. Cy Young voting.

Along the way, Fidrych captured the hearts of the country with his unusual antics on the mound. He was known to get on his hands and knees and groom the mound, freeing it of cleat marks, before his was willing to pitch from it. He often talked to himself, looking the ball in its little seams before letting it fly. He often strutted around the mound after every out, talking to himself, the ball, the dirt. He was known to aim the ball at the catcher's mitt, like one aims a dart, and perhaps most interestingly, he often refused to you use certain balls because they "had hits in them." He demanded that those balls be removed from the field.

My dad wasn't a Tigers fan, but I can remember him laughing at the TV when Fidrych was on. The 1977 Topps card pictured at the right was one of the first "big find" cards that I pulled from a pack. I remember rushing in to show my "BIRD CARD" to my dad. You'd have thought I had stumbled upon the Holy Grail.

However, as storied as Fidrych's 1976 season was, it was not to last. During spring training the following year, he was shagging fly balls with some teammates when he injured his knee. Later that season, while pitching a game, he tore his rotator cuff, though it would not be diagnosed as such until years later. While pitching with a terribly injured arm, he stumbled to a 6-4 record in 1977, then struggled to even pitch in a big league game between 1978 and 1985. He spent much of that time in the Tigers and Red Sox farm leagues, trying to reclaim the potency of 1976 whirlwind season, but it was not to be.
Sports Illustrated, June 1977

Fidrych last appeared in a major league game in October 1980, finally retiring in 1985 at the age of 29. He finished his career with a modest 29-19 record, an ERA of 3.10 and 170 strikeouts - pedestrian numbers for a pitcher who for a year, captured the hearts of an entire country. Fans of Fidrych's called themselves "Bird Watchers" and to this day, Fidrych's retro jersey can be spotted on Tigers fans in Detroit's Comerica Park.

After hanging up his cleats, Fidrych lived in Northborough, MA where he worked as a contractor, hauling gravel and asphalt. He also worked weekends in his mother-in-law's diner.

Tragically, The Bird died April 13, 2009 while working on a dump truck used for his business. Authorities said it appears that Fidrych's clothing became tangled in the truck's power takeoff shaft, causing him to suffocate. He was 54.

About Fidrych's three key baseball cards:

  • 1977 Topps, #265 (pictured above) - This is Fidrych's official rookie card and currently has a Beckett book value of $3.00, while the 1977 Topps cloth sticker equivalent comes in at just $5.00.
  • 1978 Topps, #45 - This card has a current Beckett value of $2.50.
  • 1979 Topps, #625 - This card has a current Beckett value of $2.50.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

10,000, Baby

Earlier this year, I embarked on a mission to create a database that tracks my baseball card collection. When I first started this monumental task, I started with an Excel worksheet that simply tracked the name of the player, the year, the card make and its current book value. Simple and efficient, right? Well, yes, but it lacked pizzazz - a certain je ne sais quoi, if you will.

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a bit of an organization freak. I love details. In fact, I have the idiom, "the devil is in the details" tattooed on my back. Seriously, here...let me pull up my, uh, nevermind.

My FileMaker Pro 12 database is on the left. I look up the pricing and images in Firefox and then catalog the images on my hard drive so that if my database ever becomes corrupted, I don't have to find all of the images again.
Details, you see, are what keep me sane. Those of you who know me know that I am prone to over-thinking just about everything and if I don't have a project, some sort of mental calisthenics to distract me, I think that I could easily go stark, raving mad. So, that means that I do things such as ripping every single track from 2,000+ CDs to my computer, writing more than 800 pages on my long-awaited book (opus, really) on freshwater fishing, or spending hours on Wikipedia, adding bits of mental jewelry I've amassed to the public collective.

In fact, one of the last conversations I had with my best friend before he died in June 2012, was his amusement over my continual need for a mental diversion. I can still hear him saying, "man, you really do need a diversion, don't you?" Amen to that, brother.

But, I digress.

My love of details en masse made my puny Excel spreadsheet tracker entirely inadequate. So, I started searching the Internet for pre-built database apps specifically devoted to sports card collecting. I found a few, though none of them did it the way I thought it ought to be done, and a couple of them were unbelievably complicated (not from a what the database tracked perspective, but from a how to use it perspective). I tried two or three of them before deciding that I needed to roll my own.

I'll spare you the gory details, but my database tracks the player's name, year and make of the card, quantity owned, the condition, book value, market value, value adjusted for the condition of the card, the team, position, rookie status and hall of fame status. I also include an image of both the card front and back and any pertinent notes about the card or set.

I know...

So, I have spent the last eight months, entering cards, one-at-a-time, into my spiffy database. I am only tracking star players, special issues and rarities. Common player cards are not being tracked. Last month, I crossed the 10,000-card mark and I still have a LONG way to go.

As of December 16, I have 12,500 cards in my precious little database. It's beautiful, man. It might turn out to be my life's work.

I know, I know...

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Legend of Oscar Gamble

While there are many baseball cards that will forever remain etched in my memory, most of them are because the player pictured was a star. Sometimes cards were memorable because he played for my favorite team (go Reds!). And occasionally, they were memorable because they were especially difficult to find.

1975 Topps
There are some cards, however, that stand out because of the picture itself. Nearly any kid who grew up collecting baseball cards in the 1970s knows who Oscar Gamble was, though few will tell you that he was an outfielder who played for the Cleveland Indians and New York Yankees (and a whole host of other clubs). No, most people who remember him will say, "he's the one with really BIG afro, right?"

Defining Gamble's afro as "big" really doesn't do it justice. The sheer magnitude of Gamble's 'fro was purely epic. His afro was so magnificent, so voluminous that he seriously couldn't run to first base or chase a fly ball without his hat flying off his head. It was as if his hat was wedged down upon his head so tightly that it would just squirt off with the slightest of provocation.

While Gamble was a decent player, his play never earned the fame enjoyed by the hair. To this day, Gamble still receives multiple autograph requests - almost always on cards showing him with his famous hair.

1976 Topps Traded
Iconic Yankees owner George Steinbrenner made Gamble shear his righteous 'do in 1976 when the Tribe dealt him to the Bombers (the Yankees have long had strict guidelines regarding the hair length and facial hair of its players). Gamble was only pictured with his afro and in a Yankees uniform on one baseball card - the 1976 Topps Traded card. Notably, however, the Yankees' hat and uni shown in the photo were airbrushed (and badly) when the Traded set was issued in 1976 after the trade. 

Gamble reportedly was told by Steinbrenner that he'd get his Yanks uni when he cut his hair. Teammate Elston Howard took Gamble for his famous haircut. 

“At times, you might try to sneak it and grow it a little longer than you should," Gamble said, "but, you got to do something about your hair if you want to wear those pinstripes. They want you to look neat in them.”

Legend has it that cutting his locks cost Gamble an endorsement deal with Afro Sheen, but that Steinbrenner paid Gamble what he would've earned for the endorsement deal.

Gamble retired after the 1985 season, having played his last game with the Chicago White Sox. He never made an all-star team or led the league in any statistical category, though I would bet that many people remember him more than they remember some of the other players who made multiple all-star teams. Cecil Cooper anyone?