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?