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?

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Rollie Fingers and His Magic Mustache

I once tried to grow a handlebar mustache.

Well, let's say I tried to grow a mustache...any ol' mustache, with or without handlebars.

There were two problems with this plan:
1974 Topps Rollie Fingers
1974 Topps Rollie Fingers
  • Problem #1: I can't grow a mustache
  • Problem #2: See Problem #1
My inspiration for becoming a handlebar-mustached hero was one Rollie Fingers, Hall of Fame relief pitcher for the Oakland A's. If you grew up watching baseball in the 1970s, you remember Rollie. He was hard to miss with his sinister facial hair and bright yellow and green uniform. The fact that he had a powerful fastball that helped close out three straight World Series victories for the A's didn't hurt either.

My facial follicle shortcomings aside, Fingers was always one of my favorite players. Because he was a relief pitcher - or "fireman" in baseball parlance - he usually didn't appear until the sixth or seventh inning when the starting pitcher's arm was starting to get rubbery. Fingers would come in with a fresh arm and fan the opposing team's sluggers, sealing the win while his mustachioed upper lip intimidated follicle-challenged guys everywhere, including your wayward blog author.

1975 and 1976 Topps Rollie Fingers
1975 Topps (left) and 1976 Topps Rollie Fingers

A few details about the cards pictured here: All three of the cards pictured here were made by Topps:

  • 1974 Topps: Card #212 - Topps was relatively new to publishing game-action cards in 1974 (the first real action cards appeared in 1971). By 1974, they were starting to get it right. This card perfectly captures the fury of a major league pitcher's heater.
  • 1975 Topps: Card #21 - One of the most striking (possibly garish?) cards Topps ever produced. The 1975 was a bit psychedelic in its design anyway. Add Rollie's colorful uni and wild mustache and you have an attention-getting card.
  • 1976 Topps: Card #405 - I remember pulling this card out of a wax pack in 1976. I remember my dad telling me that Fingers was a great pitcher. Like me, my dad couldn't grow a 'stache to save his life and if I am not mistaken, I remember seeing a little longing in his eyes when he looked at this card.

A few details about Mr. Fingers: Born Roland Glen Fingers in August 1946, Rollie pitched for 18 years in the majors. He played for the A's from 1968 to 1976, the San Diego Padres from 1977-1980 and the Milwaukee Brewers from 1981-1985. His number 34 has been retired by both the A's and the Padres. He was elected to the hall of fame in 1992.

Fingers was a seven-time all-star, was the AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner in 1981, and was a four-time Rolaids Relief Pitcher of the Year winner.

In 1973, A's owner Charles Finley offered a $300 bonus to the player who could grow and maintain the best facial hair. Rollie ran with it...

In 1986, the Cincinnati Reds offered Fingers a contract to pitch for one more season. However, the Reds had a "clean-cut" policy, meaning the organization would not allow players to grow facial hair. Fingers turned down the job, telling the Reds GM: "Well, you tell Marge Schott to shave her Saint Bernard, and I'll shave my mustache". You just gotta love a man with principles when it comes to the sanctity of his facial hair.

Fingers still rocks his coiffed facial hair today. Check out his website: Rollie Fingers Official Website

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Dick "Crash" Allen Crushes the Long Ball

Dick Allen might not be a name that immediately comes to mind when thinking of the game's power hitters. He's been shamefully neglected by the Hall of Fame. He earned a reputation (unfairly, many believe) for being a malcontent.
1973 Topps Dick Allen
1973 Topps Dick Allen
I, along with many others, think Allen's difficulties were spurred mostly by the anti-black sentiments of the 1960s. He was subjected to racial slurs and taunts from some Philadelphia fans while in the Phillies farm system, which only grew worse when he was called up to the Phillies. In fact, he earned his nickname, "Crash," because he wore his batting helmet - even when fielding - because some fans often pelted him with garbage during their ridiculous, racially-charged taunts. He even endured being called "Rich" and "Richie" instead of "Dick," as he preferred. Topps didn't get around to getting his name right on a baseball card until 1973.

Nevertheless, through all of that, Allen put up Hall of Fame numbers - better than those of some players already in Cooperstown. For reasons that escape me he has never taken his rightful place among the greats of the game.

1975 Topps Dick Allen, sporting his batting helmet on the field
1975 Topps Dick Allen

Crash is remembered for the booming - and I mean thunderous - shots he sent over fences around the league. Willie Mays even once remarked that Allen hit the ball harder than any other player he'd ever seen. Allen terrorized pitchers and made fans in the deep seats keep their eyes peeled when Allen stepped to the plate.

"Allen was scary at the plate," said Mickey Lolich, former Tigers and Mets pitcher. "When he came up there, he had your attention. I want to forget a couple of line drives he hit off me, but I can’t because they almost killed me."

Allen was a 7-time all-star, was the league's MVP in 1972 and and was the National League Rookie of the Year in 1964. He retired with 351 total home runs, 1,119 RBIs and a lifetime batting average of .292. He led the AL twice in slugging percentage; he led the NL once in slugging percentage.

The debate over whether Allen belongs in the HOF has gotten more heated as Allen's years of eligibility have piled up. In fact, one excellent blogger has devoted a blog to the enshrinement of Allen in the HOF. Check out Dick Allen Hall of Fame.

June 12, 1972 Sports Illustrated cover
June 12, 1972 Sports Illustrated cover
For fun, you should also check out the June 12, 1972 cover of Sports Illustrated. In it, Allen is smoking a cigarette while juggling baseballs near the team dugout. This cover certainly didn't help Allen's bad boy image. Seeing this cover made me laugh for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that it shows a professional athlete smoking on the field. We won't ever see that again.
Specific details about the cards featured here:

  • The 1973 Topps Dick Allen is #310 out of a set of 660 cards. Given Allen's snubbing by the HOF and his polarizing personality, his cards have never commanded high prices among collectors. This card books at best for $1.50. 
  • The 1975 Topps Dick Allen is #400 out of a set of 660 cards. It, too, has a paltry book value of just about 2 bucks.
Allen retired in 1977 after playing 15 seasons, the bulk of those with the Phillies (two stints) and with the White Sox. He also played for the Cards, Dodgers and A's before hanging up his cleats.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Johnny Bench - All-American Hero

If you were a boy who grew up in the 1970s or early 1980s and you even occasionally saw a baseball game, you knew that insofar as catchers were concerned, Johnny Bench was The Man. Bench epitomized all that was good about baseball. He had a great name. He played for one of the most beloved sports franchises to ever take the field (Cincinnati Reds) and he was one of the best - if not the very best - catchers in the game.

Making Bench even more of a god to young boys of the era was the fact that he was a decent guy. He was known to sign a lot of autographs, was appreciative of fans (especially youngsters) and despite his stardom, remained a regular guy. The fact that he was a power hitter, a RBI machine and perennial all-star certainly didn't hurt.

1969 Topps Johnny Bench
1969 Topps Johnny Bench

I played catcher in Little League largely because I wanted to be Johnny Bench. I remember donning my catcher's gear and checking myself out in a mirror at home (yeah, I know...). I remember thinking that I couldn't possibly look cooler. Making things even better for me was that I played for the Indians (I don't remember our sponsor) and we wore red shirts, hats and socks with white pants. Even though I played for the Indians and not my beloved Reds, I was still wearing red. Once I had the catcher's gear on, all you could see was that I looked strikingly similar to Johnny Bench. Really.

As a side note, I learned a few really important life lessons while playing catcher:

1. It is possible to sit too close to the batter. You'll know you're too close when you get clocked upside the head with a bat and your coach and parents are suddenly on the field trying to revive you.

2. Sometimes, you can be sneaky S.O.B. and snatch the ball from right over the plate just ahead of the batter's swing. Remember, we're talking Little Leagurers here, not George Brett. Of course, you also can get your catcher's mitt knocked nearly to first base.

3. Most importantly, though, you'll learn that if you elect not to wear a cup while playing catcher that the sound the ball makes when it hits your crotch is quite similar to the sound it makes when it hits your catcher's mitt. The sensation is somewhat different, however. This is a mistake you're likely to make just once.

Now, back to Bench...

A few details about the specific card pictured here: This is #95 of a set of 664 cards released in 1969. Regardless of the All-Star Rookie trophy shown on the front of the card, this really isn't Bench's rookie card.

This one is:
1968 Topps Johnny Bench
1968 Topps Johnny Bench Rookie
The 1969 Johnny Bench card is one of several cards in which Johnny was pictured sitting posed in the classic catcher's position including the 1970 and 1975 Topps cards. The back of the 1969 Topps card boasts that Bench's first big league home run was hit September 27, 1967. I just recently purchased a copy of the 69 Bench card and it is one of my all-time faves.

A few details about Johnny Bench: Bench was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1989 and The Sporting News named him the 16th greatest player to ever play the game. He is a two-time league MVP, 14-time all-star, 10-time Golden Glove winner, and was the MVP of the 1976 World Series. His #5 was retired by the Reds organization in 1984.

Since retiring, Bench has remained very active in charity, proving that he's just as a good a man off the field as he was on it. He is 64.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

My Very Own Joe Schlabotnik

In 1975, I was seven and growing up in Marion, Indiana. My beloved hobby was baseball card collecting - and baseball. At the time, I played T-Ball in the local PAL league for the Marion National Bank Giants.

1975 Marion National Bank Giants T-Ball Team
Rick Kughen, star player for the Marion National Bank Giants in 1975.
I remember my mother stopping at Dennison's Market after my T-ball games and buying me a red pop and five packs of baseball cards. That was my reward for a game well played. We lived just a few blocks from Dennison's, but I would manage to both down my red pop and open all five packs of cards before our Chevy Travelall reached our tiny house on Swayzee Street. My one and only goal: to find the coveted 1975 Pete Rose card - my Joe Schlabotnik.

1975 Topps Pete Rose
1975 Topps Pete Rose #320
Topps packaged their cards that year 10-to-a-pack and sold them for 25 cents each. (I wish I could say that I remember those details, but I had to look them up.) I estimate that we made this Dennison's stop 25 times that year (she was a good mom who didn't always require that I have played a T-Ball game in order to have collected my red pop/baseball card bounty). That means she purchased roughly 125 packs of cards for me, meaning I had 1,250 chances to get my Joe Schlabotnik. I never did. I guess you could say that Charlie Brown and I shared at least one similarity that year.

This specific card - and this specific set of cards - is what rekindled my love of baseball card collecting. I put my collection away when I left for college in 1986 and other than hauling them around from place-to-place in the 26 years since then, I really never touched them. That is until this year when something - middle age, missing my mother, missing the simplicity of my childhood, the purity of my own children - something made me dig into those 20,000 or so baseball cards that I had stowed away in a closet.

Once I pulled them out, it was on. I found myself instantly transported back to those mid-1970s to mid-1980s days when baseball cards and playing baseball were my life. I realized that the attachment that I had to those cards of yesteryear had never gone away. It had just gone to dormant place and waited until my important parts of my life were in check (love life, children, career, house, etc.).

I have spent the last few months organizing, appraising and in general slobbering over my baseball cards. In that time, I realized just how important these cards were to who I am today. I spent some time reading the blogs of other kindred souls (see my Other Good Reads links at the right) and decided that I had a lot to say, too.

A little about this specific card and set: it is card number 320 from a set of 660 cards. This set's multi-colored borders make it one of the most coveted sets ever produced, as well as one of the hardest to find in excellent to mint condition. The colored borders nick very easily and thus, even cards that have been handled fairly carefully show their age.

A little about Pete Rose: Rose's all-time hit record of 4,256 career hits still stands today. The fact that he is not a member of the Hall of Fame is beyond me. Whatever you think of his gambling issues that resulted in his lifetime ban from the HOF, the fact remains that Charlie Hustle was possibly the greatest player to ever play the game. We have forgiven Michael Vick, Charles Barkley and other sporting bad boys. I think it's time that bring ol' Pete in out of the cold. I believe he did more for baseball, baseball card collecting and the Cincinnati Reds more than any other player in history has done.

Rose retired in 1986 and was permanently banned from Major League Baseball in 1989. In addition to holding the career hits record, Rose still holds career records in singles, games played at bats, and most winning season - just to name a few. Rose's number 14 has never been officially retired, but no other Cincinnati Reds player has worn the number since and many believe, none ever will.

Interestingly, Rose turned 71 yesterday (April 14).

The Ever Evasive Joe Schlabotnik

So why am I searching for Joe Schlabotnik? Fans of the Peanuts comics strips might remember Joe Schlabotnik as Charlie Brown's favorite baseball player. Good ol' Joe was a minor leaguer who occasionally got called up to the majors for a cup of coffee, as they say, but never became a big star. Fitting that he was Charlie Brown's favorite player.

Sadly, Charlie Brown was forever searching for that prized Joe Schlabotnik baseball card. He would open pack after pack and never find a Joe Schlabotnik card. Lucy, of course, would come along, purchase a single pack and walk away with a Joe Schlabotnik card. Poor Chuck...
Peanuts Joe Schlabotnik Cartoon - Copyright PEANUTS Worldwide LLC
© PEANUTS Worldwide LLC
Such was the life of a kid growing up in the 1970s. If you collected baseball cards, you probably had a Joe Schlabotnik of your very own. I did. Mine was the 1975 Topps Pete Rose (a subject of my next post). No matter how many packs I opened, I never found a Pete Rose. In fact, it wasn't until this year - my 44th trip around the sun - that I finally got a copy of that card. I purchased the entire 1975 Topps set on eBay. It wasn't as exciting as finding it in a wax pack back in 1975 would've been, but it was still pretty neat. Yes, I said "neat." That's how I would've described in 1975 and that's how I still describe it in 2012.

This blog is dedicated to the baseball cards that made growing up in the 1970s and early 1980s a magical time. Baseball was pure magic then. It had yet to go corporate, big league players weren't shooting steroids and packs of baseball cards cost less than a buck each (lots less).

Posts on this blog will focus on various baseball cards - sometimes individual cards, sometimes sets, sometimes particular teams - and will touch on baseball and life in the 1970s and 1980s in the midwest. I welcome your comments on this trip down memory lane. And for those of you thinking this might be the beginnings of my midlife crisis, well, you're right. Maybe this will be therapeutic for us all.