Here is a story I wrote for Sports Collectors Daily about Hall of Fame shortstop Lou Boudreau, who would have turned 100 on Jul 17.
Time sure flies. It’s hard to believe that it has been 22 years since Cal Ripken Jr. became baseball’s Ironman, as he broke Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games streak. The number “2,130” had been ingrained in baseball lore, much like Babe Ruth’s 714 career home runs and Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak.
Ruth’s record was toppled by Hank Aaron, who in turn was topped by Barry Bonds. But don’t look for any player, any time soon, to break Ripken’s mark of 2,632 consecutive games played. A player needs to be lucky, good, and impervious to pain to achieve a mark like that — plus, he needs a manager who is willing to put his name on the lineup card every day without fail. Most managers now believe in resting players and do not want to risk injury from the fatigue that inevitably comes from playing so many games in a row.
It is a credit to Ripken’s endurance and competitiveness that he not only played so many games in a row, but also remained a productive member of his team. The same can be said about Gehrig.
There have been plenty of books written separately about Gehrig and Ripken; earlier this year, Richard Sandomir wrote about the 1942 film tribute to the Iron Horse in his book, The Pride of the Yankees.
But longtime Baltimore sportswriter John Eisenberg takes a fresh angle, putting Ripken and Gehrig side by side for an absorbing comparative study. In The Streak: Lou Gehrig, Cal Ripken Jr., and Baseball’s Most Historic Record (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; hardback; $26; 299 pages), Eisenberg uses excellent research and a smooth narrative to educate and entertain the reader. Gehrig and Ripken are the main subjects in the book, but Eisenberg delves into history with richly detailed prose that includes some quirky stories about consecutive-game streaks in major-league baseball history.
Ripken broke Gehrig’s record on Sept. 6, 1995, at Baltimore’s Camden Yards, and that’s how Eisenberg opens The Streak. Eisenberg, who covered the Orioles for the Baltimore Sun and saw most of Ripken’s career, is uniquely a Baltimore guy. He wrote for the Sun for two decades, currently contributes columns to the Baltimore Ravens’ website, and still lives in Baltimore. His perspective about Ripken is unique and refreshing.
Eisenberg interviewed 26 people for this book, including Ripken. He also spoke with other players who had consecutive streaks of note, including National League record-holder Steve Garvey and Billy Williams, whose record he broke. Eisenberg also gleaned quotes from five members of the Orioles thanks to research for 1999’s From 33rd Street to Camden Yards, one of nine books he has written.
What emerges is the sheer doggedness of both men. While it’s true that Gehrig once opened a game at shortstop and batted leadoff to preserve his streak, that does not diminish his achievement. Gehrig also was fortunate to receive a few breaks when he was injured; one time, a game was rained out to preserve his record. According to records Eisenberg quotes from Raymond J. Gonzalez of the Society for Baseball Research, Gehrig was relieved by a pinch hitter eight times, by a pinch runner four times, and by a defensive replacement 64 times.
Ripken, meanwhile, started every game of his streak, and unlike many modern players he did not used a pinch-hitting appearance or appeared as a defensive replacement to prolong his streak. What is even more mind-boggling, though, is that Ripken once played in 8,264 consecutive innings before missing the final two innings of a Sept. 14, 1987, game. His replacement was Ron Washington, who would later manage the Texas Rangers to back-to-back American League pennants in 2010 and 2011.
Some of the quirky stories Eisenberg unearths include how an injured Stan Musial kept his streak intact by not actually playing in the game, but by simply being written on a lineup card. Everett Scott, whose record of 1,307 straight games was broken by Gehrig, once paid a man to drive him from a desolate area in Indiana to a trolley in South Bend, Indiana, where he would take a trolley to reach Comiskey Park in time to get into that day’s game.
Eisenberg also revisits the story of George Pinkney, who held the 19th century mark of 578 consecutive games from 1885 to 1890. Pinkney’s feat was buried for several years but was rediscovered when Fred Luderus played in more than 500 straight games during the last few years of the dead ball era. Scott would break Pinkney’s record on June 21, 1920.
Despite Eisenberg’s wonderful and detailed research, there are a few glitches. He refers to the Washington Senators winning the American League pennant in 1932 (they won it in 1933), and writes that the Boston Red Sox faced the Philadelphia Phillies in the 1918 World Series (the Sox faced the Chicago Cubs, although Boston and Philadelphia met in the 1915 World Series). He also writes that Joe DiMaggio played four full seasons with Gehrig, when he in fact played three (1936, 1937 and 1938 — Gehrig only played eight games in 1939 before benching himself).
From a stylistic standpoint, the only bump appears to be Eisenberg’s penchant to note that a certain player was “interviewed for this book.” It’s important, I suppose, to let the reader know that a certain player spoke to Eisenberg — at least from a credibility standpoint. But Eisenberg earned his writing and integrity chops long ago, so while it seemed necessary to make the point, it just did not read smoothly. Perhaps mentioning the people whom he quoted outside of the interviews he conducted would have worked better. It’s not worth quibbling about.
The Streak is an enjoyable read, full of history and anecdotes, lively quotes and a narrative that bounces between Ripken, Gehrig and other players who achieved ironman status during their careers. Gehrig’s record seemed unbreakable when he set it; Ripken’s now seems even more formidable. It probably will stand for all time.
Here's a story I wrote for Sports Collectors Daily about Roger and Rich Franklin, who are reviving the 1960s baseball board game, Challenge the Yankees. Roger Franklin invented the game more than half a century ago.
As one might expect, Topps Series Two follows the same pattern of the first series released earlier this year. A hobby box will contain 36 packs, with 10 cards to a pack. Topps is promising one autograph or relic in every hobby box.
The collation is good, as there was no duplication. I pulled 309 of the 350 cards in the base set. The design remains the same as Series One. The one criticism I have (and it might be a quirk in the box I opened) is that there were several horizontally designed cards that were miscut. There was a white gap at the top, and on the back there was a white line there, too. While that was common during the 1960s and ’70s, a collector hardly sees miscuts any more.
There are parallels in the set, and I pulled four rainbows from the hobby box I sampled. I also pulled a hobby box exclusive black parallel of Andrew Toles, numbered to 66. Gold parallels are numbered to 2017; other parallels include Vintage Stock (numbered to 99), Mother’s Day Hot Pink (50), Father’s Day Powder Blue (50), Memorial Day (25), hobby exclusive Clear (10) and Negative, and 1/1 Platinum and Printing Plates.
The big hit in the box was a Major League Material relic card of San Diego’s Wil Myers. The card is created in thick card stock and contains a small uniform swatch.
The inserts in Series Two combine some familiar sets with a few new ones. First Pitch returns for another run, honoring celebrities who go to the mound and deliver the ceremonial pitch before a game. There are 20 cards in the subset and I pulled five of them from the hobby box I opened.
MLB Network inserts also return for Series Two. There are 10 cards in the subset, and the card I pulled was of Brian Kenny. Topps Salute is a 100-card subset that returns with players grouped into four categories: Curtain Call, Legends, Spring Training and Throwback Jerseys. I pulled nine of these cards, plus a red parallel of Cleveland’s Tyler Naquin, numbered to 25.
Baseball Rookies & All-Stars is another 100-card subset and features players in the wood-grain design of the 1987 Topps set. I pulled nine from the hobby box I opened.
Two new parallels debut in Series Two. Major League Milestones consists of 20 cards and sports a horizontal design. The cards pay tribute to players who put up milestone numbers, like Miguel Cabrera’s 1,500th RBI or Mark Teixeira’s 400th home run. I pulled four of these cards. And Memorable Moments is a 50-card subset that recalls some of baseball’s iconic games, personalities and achievements. I pulled nine from the hobby box I opened.
Finally, buybacks return with “Rediscover Topps” cards sprinkled throughout the hobby box. I pulled six of these cards, which are stamped in various colors in foil to signify their rarity. Bronze is the most common stamp, followed by silver, gold, blue and red.
As in previous years, Topps simply follows the formula that is used in Series One, introducing players who didn't make it in the first run and throwing in a few new insert sets. It's an effective strategy, and for the traditionalists who wait for Topps' flagship set every year, that consistency is a comforting thing.
Here's a story I wrote for Sports Collectors Daily about a flea market find in Massachusetts -- an 1887 Kalamazoo Bats card of the Pittsburgh Alleghenys:
Major-league baseball players like Gary Bell “rubbed shoulders with the greats of the game,” Roy Berger writes in his latest book. “I had their trading cards.”
It’s a great, self-deprecating line from Berger’s second book, Big League Dream: The Sweet Taste of Life in the Majors (Mountain Arbor Press; paperback; $16.99; 262 pages). Berger is president/CEO of MedjetAssist, a global air medical transport. But at least once a year, he puts on a uniform and competes in baseball fantasy camps for a week.
Berger recounts the friendships he made with former major-leaguers during the camps in an engaging, entertaining style. Reading Berger is like sitting in a sports bar swapping stories with a friend, except the friend has the better tales to tell.
Berger, now 65, attended his first fantasy camp in 2010 and met his baseball idol, Pirates second baseman Bill Mazeroski. What began as the realization of a dream became an obsession, as Berger was hooked. He’s right: There is something alluring about trying to recapture your youth, particularly if you love baseball. That was captured in Berger’s first book, 2014’s The Most Wonderful Week of the Year.
Big League Dream takes a baseball fan back in time, as Berger is an eager and willing listener as former baseball players. tell their stories. Many are not big stars, but they are interesting nonetheless. In addition to Bell, Berger devotes chapters to Jake Gibbs, Jim “Mudcat” Grant, Fritz Peterson, Maury Wills, Ron Swoboda, Mike LaValliere, Steve Lyons, Kent Tekulve and others. There’s Bucky Dent, who wrote the foreword (in a whimsical touch, Berger calls it the “Pregame”); Jon Warden, who went 4-1 for Detroit in the Tigers’ World Series championship season of 1968; Chris Chambliss, remembered for his walk-off homer in the 1976 ALCS; and Kansas City teammates John Mayberry and Dennis Leonard. Hockey announcer Mike “Doc” Emrick also is profiled, and Berger devotes a chapter to women who have competed in fantasy baseball camps.
Finally, Berger expresses the joy of having his two sons attend the same camp he was participating in. There’s a funny line from Chambliss, too. Berger was on third and the bases were loaded, and as a third base coach, Chambliss was giving the usual instructions to the runner. And then ... “I’m not sure if you realize it or not, but the bases are loaded with Bergers,” Chambliss said, noting that Berger’s sons were the other runners on the bases.
Berger has a knack for telling a good story, and he gives the reader a nice behind-the-scenes look. The only criticism is some of the players' names are misspelled, like Dal Maxvill (spelled as Maxville), Tom Lasorda (spelled as LaSorda), Denny McLain (spelled as McClain), Carl Sawatski (spelled as Swatski), and even Caitlyn Jenner (spelled as Caitlin; no, Jenner was not in a camp, but Berger was trying to make a pop culture reference).
Berger said that the mistakes have been caught and will be fixed for the second printing of the book.
The mistakes do not detract from the overall theme and feel of the book. The cover shows Berger at the pinnacle of his camp experience — getting a bear hug from Dent after driving home the winning run in a 2014 fantasy game at Tampa’s Steinbrenner complex. Berger estimated that he had spent approximately $35,000 — his costs since beginning to play in fantasy camps — before realizing the thrill of a walk-off hit at age 62. It may not have had the drama Berger’s idol, Mazeroski, generated when he ended the 1960 World Series with a walk-off homer. But on that day in Tampa, Florida, a fantasy camper realized his ultimate dream.
“Sometimes they might come at a price, but dreams, even old, dated, forgotten-about, and parched ones, can come true,” Berger writes. “I had my ‘Big League Dream.’ Best money I ever spent.”
Here's a story I wrote for Sports Collectors Daily about the 2017 Bowman Draft baseball set, which comes out Dec. 6:
Here's a story I wrote for Sports Collectors Daily about the 1947 Tip Top Bread card set:
Here is a story I wrote for Sports Collectors Daily about an action photo involving Joe DiMaggio and Lou Gehrig during the 1938 All-Star Game:
Here is a story I wrote for Sports Collectors Daily about the 1962 Fleer football set, which was exclusively made up of American Football League players.
Here is a story I wrote for Sports Collectors Daily about a Home Run Derby promotion offered by Topps in conjunction with today's debut of 2017 Topps Series 2 baseball:
The first baseball book I ever read as a child was Paul Gallico’s 1942 book, Lou Gehrig: Pride of the ‘Yankees.’ I still have it, too. As a fourth-grader in Brooklyn, I bought my first left-handed baseball glove from a classmate for $5. It was a first-baseman’s mitt, a Gehrig model by Rawlings with his signature on the inside of the glove. Wish I still had it.
Mickey Mantle was my contemporary baseball hero during the 1960s, but Gehrig was the player — and man — I wanted to be: honest, hard-working, muscular and humble. He was the epitome of the New York Yankees.
“He entered the hearts of the American people, because of his living as well as his passing, he became and was to the end, a great and splendid human being,” Gallico wrote.
The 1942 movie, Pride of the Yankees, was similarly sentimental, starring Gary Cooper in the title role as Gehrig in the first real biography movie about an athlete. It immortalized Gehrig’s famous and emotionally charged “Luckiest Man” speech he gave on July 4, 1939, at Yankee Stadium, and also showed the love story between the slugger and his wife, Eleanor.
For all of its schmaltz and sticky sweet sentimentality, the film remains an American classic. Now, readers can get an inside look about how the film came together in the months after Gehrig’s death from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) — which would be more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease — on June 2, 1941.
The Pride of the Yankees: Lou Gehrig, Gary Cooper, and the Making of a Classic (Hachette Books; hardcover; $27; 293 pages) by Richard Sandomir is interesting, insightful and revealing. Sandomir, an obituary writer for the New York Times, wrote about sports media and business for 25 years. In this book, Sandomir analyzes the reluctance of a studio mogul (Samuel Goldwyn), the persistence of Gehrig’s widow, the search to cast the right people, and the impact the movie still has today. One of the movie’s goals, Sandomir writes, was to “idealize baseball” through its “worshipful treatment” of Gehrig.
The goal was achieved, but there were some hurdles. The movie was “produced by a man, Goldwyn, who knew nothing about baseball, starring a man, Cooper, who had never played baseball, and shot by a cinematographer, Rudolph Mate, who was also new to baseball,” Sandomir writes. Still, this combination would portray baseball as “a bright and shining sport.”
Cooper, who won an Academy Award in 1942 for his lead role in Sergeant York, was not built like Gehrig, did not sound like him, and definitely did not have the Iron Horse’s baseball skills. Teresa Wright, who would play Gehrig’s wife in the film, was the perfect, lively counterpoint to the taciturn Cooper — just as Eleanor Gehrig would be to Lou Gehrig. Both actors would be nominated for Academy Awards for their roles in Pride, although neither would win.
Gallico wrote the original screenplay and kept a running correspondence with Eleanor Gehrig through letters, which Sandomir relates in great detail. These letters really bring the story of the film to life and are a key reason why Sandomir’s book is such a compelling read. Gallico’s opinion of Gehrig can be summed up in the first chapter of his own book, where he said he called it “Lou Gehrig — An American Hero,” because “he was a hero and was totally our own.” Sandomir is less sentimental as he cuts through the hero worship and presents the business of Hollywood with smooth, effective prose.
Sandomir also points out the film’s many inaccuracies. Hollywood has a way of taking poetic license with a story, shaping it to meet its own standards for creating a box office success. For example, Goldwyn had Gehrig meeting his future wife, Eleanor Twitchell, seven years before they actually did. Gehrig worked for the city of New York after he retired, but after he gave his famous speech at Yankee Stadium. The movie depicts him working in the parole commission office before the speech.
Gehrig and his wife were married in their future apartment, several days before a formal wedding was to take place. In real life, Gehrig was concerned that his overbearing mother would try to interfere or make a scene in a Long Island setting so arranged what amounted to an elopement. In the movie, Goldwyn ridiculously places Mom and Pop Gehrig looking on benevolently as Lou and Eleanor recite their vows.
There was plenty of real-life tension between Eleanor and Christina Gehrig, but as Sandomir writes, that angle was softened somewhat. As Sandomir notes, “Eleanor’s harshest comments to Gallico about Mom (Gehrig) never found their way near the film.” The romantic tone that Goldwyn wanted to set would never allow for Eleanor’s “characterizations of Gehrig family dysfunction.”
The day Gehrig ended his consecutive game streak of 2,130 games also was misrepresented. Gehrig actually took himself out of the starting lineup before the May 2, 1939, game at Detroit. But telling manager Joe McCarthy hours before the game was “not dramatic,” so the film deviates, with Gehrig informing his manager to replace him after the sixth inning with Babe Dahlgren.
“It works dramatically,” Sandomir writes, “but squelches what really happened that day.”
Among the interesting nuggets that Sandomir sprinkles throughout the book is how Dahlgren negotiated himself out of the film because of his high salary demands.
One actor who did play himself was Babe Ruth, much to the consternation of Gehrig’s wife. Ruth lost nearly 50 pounds to appear in the film, but Eleanor Gehrig believed with “some rancor” that the Bambino, who overshadowed Lou Gehrig through much of his career, would try to be a scene-stealer in Pride. But Ruth’s name would lure paying customers. “It was impossible and impractical to keep Ruth out,” Sandomir writes. Still, Eleanor Gehrig knew that Lou had suspicions that Ruth had once slept with her — a sticking point that ended the friendship between the two sluggers.
Eleanor’s emotions about the Babe were “tough and raw,” but Goldwyn prevailed. “She did not get her way, and the Pride is better for it,” Sandomir writes.
Sandomir also addresses the myth of baseball scenes in Pride being filmed with the negatives reversed in some scenes, a fascinating offshoot of the film. Former baseball star Former major-leaguer Lefty O’Doul worked with Cooper, explaining that he should swing the bat like he was chopping wood — a chore the actor was familiar with. Another Babe — Babe Herman — appeared in the long shots of Gehrig in the film, since his baseball ability was much more credible than Cooper’s.
The most memorable scene in Pride, however, was Lou Gehrig’s “Luckiest Man” speech. In his book, Gallico wrote that Gehrig “was the living dead, and this was his funeral.” Gehrig’s speech, Sandomir writes “remains unmatched as a piece of athletic oratory” nearly 80 years after it was delivered and remains “a significant element of his soulful legacy.”
Goldwyn, however, had Gehrig’s immortal line — “the luckiest man on the face of the earth”— placed at the end of his speech, rather than the second sentence where it actually happened. While a full version of the speech does not exist in print (although Eleanor Gehrig claimed to help write it), it was “great one, notable for its power, structure, generosity and modesty,” Sandomir writes.
It didn’t matter that the speech was inaccurately portrayed in the film. To this day, the speech Cooper uttered in Pride is what we remember about Gehrig. He took the character of the unassuming slugger and made it his own.
“Lou seems to have become more Gary Cooper than Lou Gehrig but I suppose they had to do that, Gallico wrote to Eleanor Gehrig midway through the film’s production. “I think he still comes out a very lovely character.”
“Cooper’s last words as Gehrig were clearly his most enduring,” Sandomir writes. “Not only for their resonance over three generations, but for their uniqueness.”
Sandomir writes about Pride with no prejudice. It’s a clear-eyed look at a film classic that has left most of us misty-eyed through the years.
You can’t just look at the numbers when considering the career of David Ortiz. Sure, his numbers are great: 541 career home runs, 1,768 RBI, a 10-time All-Star and a three-time World Series champion.
It’s the intangibles that made Ortiz great. The Boston slugger was the heart and soul of the Boston Red Sox team that finally broke the Curse of the Bambino with a World Series title in 2004, and he helped them win two more times before retiring after the 2016 season. He did it with leadership and swagger, humility and example, and he never forgot his humble roots.
Those intangibles, along with his slugging ability, will land him in the Hall of Fame when he becomes eligible in a few years.
That’s why Papi: My Story (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; hardback; $28; 262 pages) is such a satisfying read. The book is short, but Ortiz packs plenty of information and insight, with the help of Boston sportswriter/columnist/radio personality Michael Holley.
Just seeing Ortiz’s big bat in the middle of the Red Sox batting order was frightening enough. And sure, he could whine and become agitated if he believed a pitcher was throwing too close to him, or that he wasn’t getting enough respect. But here was a guy, brought up in the Dominican Republic by hard-working parents in a town “where there was a shooting every day” who could stand at a Fenway Park microphone and crudely tell terrorists who exploded bombs at the Boston Marathon that Boston was “our city” (you know the exact phrase, so I don’t need to insert the profanity.
But like the headline in the San Francisco Chronicle the day after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, what Ortiz said was powerfully appropriate in the context of the moment.
Ortiz gives the reader glimpses of the personalities of those Red Sox teams, extolling the work ethic of Manny Ramirez, the steely resolve of Pedro Martinez and the vision of general manager Theo Epstein. He also speaks of trust broken with former manager Terry Francona and the abysmal 2012 season piloted by Bobby Valentine. He writes of his run-ins with David Price when the left-hander was with the Rays, but adds that he now considers him a good friend. He’s a family man who had some rough patches in his marriage but worked them out.
nd from a personal standpoint, it’s hard to dislike a guy who named his first son D’Angelo.
He writes about the transition from the Minnesota Twins, where as a player he could enjoy anonymity, to Boston, where “there were no places to hide out.” He writes about the pain of losing the 2003 American League Championship Series to the New York Yankees, particularly when the Red Sox held a 5-2 lead in the eighth inning of Game 7. After Aaron Boone’s 11th-inning homer sent the Yankees to the World Series, Ortiz was “sick.”
“Too sick to be angry. Too sick to be analytical,” he wrote.
But 2004 would be a different story, as the Red Sox overcame a 3-0 series deficit in the ALCS to sweep the Yankees. Ortiz’s homer at Fenway Park gave the Sox a victory in Game 4, and his game-winning single in Game 5 made it a series again. The Red Sox would sweep the final two games at Yankee Stadium to win their first pennant since 1986, and would sweep the St. Louis Cardinals to win their first World Series title since 1918. The Curse was over.
Ortiz also reveals the origin of his nickname, “Big Papi.” He had a terrible memory for first names, and to compensate he would call everyone papi. Babe Ruth called everyone “kid,” so Ortiz in his own way carved out a nickname for himself.
He writes about being on “the list” of players who tested positive for a banned substance in 2003, and how he had to face rumors and innuendo when the list was revealed in 2009. “I was now a name in this war. It was endless,” Ortiz writes. “Say you didn’t do it enough and you sound guilty. Say nothing and your silence proves your guilt.”
While Ortiz said he bought legal supplements and vitamins over the counter, he denied that he ever bought or used steroids.
“And after I said it, I felt some of the tension leave my body,” he writes. “All I could share was the truth.”
The truth is that Ortiz carved out a unique place in Boston sports history, and his towering home runs and larger-than-life personality is presented well in Papi.
“I’m truly blessed to have had such a gratifying life in baseball,” he writes.
Baseball fans — who rooted for and against Ortiz — surely feel the same.
What I’ve always enjoyed about Topps Inception baseball has been the painted versions of the players, set against a colorful and artsy background.
That formula works again in the 2017 edition, which hit the shelves last week. The thick stock is perfect for a higher-end brand, and the intricate drawings and the backgrounds with their big bang theory fusion-like look are both interesting and attractive.
A hobby box contains one pack of seven cards, and Topps promises one autograph card — or better — per box. The price for a hobby box is in the $70 to $80 range, depending on the retailer.
The base set contains 100 cards, and the pack I opened had four of them — Carlos Correia, Luis Severino, Josh Donaldson and Willson Contreras. The design was vertical for the cards I pulled, which I always believe is a plus.
The key cards were a pair of parallels and an Autographed Relics card. Severino makes an encore appearance in a green parallel, while Joc Pederson is featured on a purple parallel, numbered to 150. The purple background really looks nice on this card, especially when combined with the splashes of blue and red. Very attractive.
The Autographed Relics card featured pitcher Carson Fulmer, who saw some brief action last season with the Chicago White Sox but is currently in the minor leagues. The card is a red parallel, numbered to 25, and features a generous swatch of red and black. The autograph is distinctive, but is on a sticker, which I consider a negative. Love those hard-signed cards. The old style uniforms from the 1980s (the White Sox won the American League West in 1983) are a nice touch, too. The nice thing about this particular card is that there are only four per case, so its scarcity is a nice thing.
There is a lot of young talent in the Autographed Relics card subset, and a collector could pull Aaron Judge, Kyle Schwarber, Mike Trout, Manny Machado and others.
Inception is a nice-looking set. The card stock is thick, the design is different and attractive, and the hit cards are nice. I would have preferred on-card autographs, but you can’t have everything.
Here is a story I wrote for Sports Collectors Daily about the November release of the 2017 Topps High Tek baseball set:
Here's a story I wrote for Sports Collectors Daily about a find of 1950s cards, including a bunch of Hall of Famers.
A foot doctor wanted to prove that baseball icon Joe DiMaggio was not a heel. As Dr. Rock Positano writes in a sentimental memoir, the Yankee Clipper could be gracious and fascinating — as long as you toed the line.
As a dinner companion to DiMaggio for nearly a decade in the 1990s, Positano saw the private side of the graceful, elegant outfielder and played the role of a healer and confidante. He has written a warm, sometimes gossipy, at times critical and very revealing look at DiMaggio. In Dinner With DiMaggio: Memories of an American Hero, by Dr. Rock Positano and John Positano (Simon & Schuster; hardback; $26; 350 pages), Rock Positano puts the reader at the dinner table with DiMaggio, who viewed “breaking bread” as a sacred ritual and trusted very few people.
“He was a complex man, both a demon and a hero,” Positano writes. “So many have portrayed him as one or the other, which oversimplifies the man he was.”
My uncle, for example, viewed DiMaggio as a hero. In the late 1980s, he worked as a handyman for the St. Andrews Club in Delray Beach, Florida, and struck up a friendship with Dominic DiMaggio, Joe’s younger brother who vacationed in Florida during the winter season. Knowing that my uncle was also a good bartender, Dominic invited him to tend bar one night at his St. Andrews winter residence.
My uncle’s eyes popped when he saw the men he was tending bar for — former Yankees Hank Bauer, Billy Martin, and Joe DiMaggio. Dominic warned my uncle to say nothing “unless spoken to,” especially if his brother walked up to the bar. My uncle, a garrulous sort, amazingly kept quiet, and was treated to a unique night.
Unfortunately, Bartending for DiMaggio never materialized.
But that’s the effect DiMaggio had on the public, particular of the men and women of the “Greatest Generation.” He could be aloof, reserved, petulant and ice cold. But he had a soft spot for children and would not refuse an autograph request, even when he knew the child had been put up to it by a star-struck adult. DiMaggio knew his place in American culture and strove diligently to keep his reputation clean. He did not suffer fools easily, and while he could charm children, older fans and even teenagers, he could snub powerful men — including the mayor of New York City and the president of the United States.
In his 2000 biography, Joe DiMaggio: A Hero’s Life, Richard Ben Cramer refers to Positano as “Foot Doctor to the Stars,” as the podiatrist serves as a foot and ankle specialist for the New York Mets and the NFL’s New York Giants. DiMaggio had gone to Positano because of the nagging effects of painful bone spurs in his right heel that limited his playing time in 1949. Positano saw that the doctors forty years earlier had botched the procedure, and he worked to make DiMaggio more comfortable.
A friendship was born, although sometimes it was not a two-way street. DiMaggio could be highly critical of Positano’s appearance or promptness, and expected the doctor to drop what he was doing in order to have dinner or go to an event. While Positano mentions his son in parts of the book and refers to his own youth in the rough-and-tumble Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn, he mostly remains tight-lipped about his own personal life.
But the focus is naturally on DiMaggio, and Positano experienced some unique times. There are occasions during Dinner With DiMaggio, when Positano’s effusiveness bubbles over. At a Yankee Stadium ceremony in 1991 honoring the 50th anniversary of DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, Positano “viscerally experienced the cultural and iconic significance” of DiMaggio, sitting next to him in team owner George Steinbrenner’s box.
“I felt like a parochial grade-school kid hanging out with Jesus Christ in the hallway,” Positano writes.
That’s a little over the top, but DiMaggio seemed to have that effect, whether it was on former players, wise-guy mobsters, diplomats like Henry Kissinger, actors like Woody Allen or singers like Paul Simon. To be summoned to DiMaggio’s dinner table by the great man himself was an honor to be cherished.
Any book about DiMaggio inevitably brings up his relationship with Marilyn Monroe, and Positano gingerly addresses the subject. It was a taboo to mention it to DiMaggio and was worth “a trip to Siberia” if brought up. DiMaggio opened up, if only slightly, about “my Marilyn,” Positano writes, “because I never mentioned her and always steered clear of the subject.”
Still, Positano was taken aback by DiMaggio’s frankness. “When we got together in the bedroom, it was like the gods were fighting,” he quotes DiMaggio as saying. “There were thunderclouds and lightning above us.”
Positano also claims that the reason the couple split was not over jealousy or lust for fame. He said DiMaggio told him it was because they were unable to have children together. “Whether or not she was willing, she proved to be unable,” Positano writes.
On another occasion, Positano writes, DiMaggio made a statement “that took my breath away.”
“They did in my poor Marilyn,” DiMaggio said.
“I knew enough not to ask who,” Positano writes.
DiMaggio blamed singer Frank Sinatra and the Kennedys for Monroe’s death. “I always knew who killed her, but I didn’t want to start a revolution in this country,” he told Positano.
Positano is not reciting these conversations from pure memory. He kept notes after every encounter with DiMaggio; some of his actual entries grace the beginning of each chapter.
Positano’s anecdotes are engaging, funny and at times aggravating, depending on DiMaggio’s mood. He reminisced about his rivalry with Ted Williams, explained why Lou Gehrig and Muhammad Ali were heroes, and expressed regret about the poor relationship he had with his only son. In a lighter moment, DiMaggio, in his late 70, showed Positano how to hit properly one night from the batting cages in Coney Island, jumping in for a final at-bat to illustrate how to do it right.
Dinner With DiMaggio is an intimate serving of the thoughts and actions of a man who always knew his standing in American culture. He worked to show class and dignity, and expected the same from his friends. He would open a window to his personality to an elite few, but those few never knew the whole story.
“Joe’s life was a jigsaw puzzle,” Positano writes, “and only he had all the pieces.”
Here's a story I wrote for Sports Collectors Daily about the 2016-17 Panini Grand Reserve basketball set, which will be released in late June:
Here's a story I wrote for Sports Collectors Daily about the 1967 Philadelphia Gum Co. football set:
It’s ironic that Bowman — a brand that touts young stars and up-and-coming prospects — is a senior citizen. Topps is celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Bowman brand with by mixing the best of its current design with some nostalgic throwbacks.
And it looks like Topps has figured out a way to give a prospect a rookie card — just issue a card of Reds pitcher William Theron “Rookie” Davis.
The 2017 Bowman set contains 100 base cards and 150 paper prospects, with an additional 150 chrome prospects that mirror (that’s a great word for these shiny cards), the “regular” prospect cards. A hobby box contains 24 packs, with 10 cards to a pack. Topps is promising one autograph card per hobby box.
The base set opens with Kris Bryant at No. 1 and Mike Trout at No. 100. The hobby box I opened had all 100 base cards, a silver parallel of Jameson Taillon numbered to 499, and four duplicates. There were 71 prospect cards, and 47 chrome prospect cards — including a refractor of Athletics prospect Lazarito Armenteros, numbered to 499. In addition to silver parallels, the base and paper prospects also have parallels in purple, blue, gold, a hobby-exclusive orange (numbered to 25), red (5) and 1/1 black borders.
Chrome parallels include regular refractors and numbered ones in purple, blue, gold, hobby-exclusive orange (numbered to 25), red (5), and 1/1 SuperFractor and printing plate versions.
The one autograph in the hobby box I sampled was an on-card gold parallel signature card of Red Sox second baseman Yoan Moncada, numbered to 50. Moncada also appears in this box in a 1951 Bowman insert. This is a marvelous-looking card; the design and the shine are just right for this 19-card insert set. The 1948 set, Bowman’s debut that featured 48 black-and-white cards, is reprised in shiny fashion with a 10-card set. I pulled a Mike Trout card with the 1948 design.
Another Bowman reprise is the 1992 set, which contains 20 cards. There were two in the hobby box I opened — Ken Griffey Jr. and Braves prospect Sean Newcomb.
Rookie of the Year Favorites showcases the top rookies for 2017 in a 15-card set. I pulled three of these cards, including Boston’s Andrew Benintendi. Bowman Scouts’ Top 100 is a 100-card set that previews the most promising prospects, and I found three of those card. Talent Pipeline is a card with three players from a team’s various minor-league teams.
As an added bonus, Topps is also including buyback cards, stamped with a foil “70” with the Bowman logo located inside the zero. I had two of these cards, and both were from the 1993 set.
The 2017 Bowman set has a smart-looking design and a clean look. The inserts are intriguing and will evoke nostalgia among older collectors. I liked the fact that I was able to put together a complete base set, and while the prospects are only about halfway finished, it’s not a bad challenge to collect them all.
Here's a story I wrote for Sports Collectors Daily about an RMY Auctions sale of a 1904 Jim Delahanty cabinet photo:
Here is a story I wrote for Sports Collectors Daily about a 1919 World Series press pin that will be auctioned in late May by SCP Auctions:
Here's a story I wrote for Sports Collectors Daily about the sale of original vintage sports photos by Heritage Auctions:
It’s an unfortunate part of baseball lore. A player’s career can be defined by one game, one play, even one pitch.
Bill Buckner collected 2,715 hits during a 22-year major-league career, but is remembered for a grounder that rolled under his legs during Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. Rookie Fred Merkle was only doing what other players did when he peeled off between first and second base after Al Bridwell’s apparent two-out, game-winning hit for the New York Giants against the Chicago Cubs in 1908. An alert Johnny Evers called for the ball, stepped on second for a force play that negated the winning run, and the game remained a tie and eventually had to be replayed. The Cubs won and went on to win the National League pennant thanks to what became known as “Merkle’s Boner.”
And then there is the case of teammates Hugh Casey and Mickey Owen. With the Brooklyn Dodgers on the verge of winning Game 4 of the 1941 World Series to even the Fall Classic, Casey struck out New York Yankees hitter Tommy Henrich for the game’s final out — but, not so fast. The ball got past Owen, Henrich reached first base safely, and the Yankees went on to win the game and eventually the Series.
Both players were maligned for the gaffe, and for years there was a question whether Casey had crossed up his catcher by throwing a spitball. Casey, out of the majors within a decade and embroiled in a paternity suit, would commit suicide in 1951 at the age of 37.
Casey’s life was more than one misguided pitch and a sad ending. Baseball author and historian Lyle Spatz presents a deeper portrait of the pitcher and the man in his latest biography, Hugh Casey: The Triumph and Tragedies of a Brooklyn Dodger (Rowman & Littlefield; hardback; 320 pages). Certainly, Casey was a colorful character, a man who redefined the role of relief pitcher during the 1940s. Unofficially, he led the National League in saves twice (saves did not become an official statistic until 1969), and was part of a raucous, swaggering, brawling Dodgers team that was led by their equally cantankerous manager, Leo Durocher.
Casey also was a complicated man who had trouble controlling his weight, enjoyed a drink more often than not, endured several separations from his wife, ran a restaurant in Brooklyn, and had a memorable impromptu boxing match in 1942 with author Ernest Hemingway during spring training in Havana.
“He was a big, boisterous guy with a cigar in one hand and a scotch in the other,” announcer Ernie Harwell recalled.
Spatz, the former chairman of the Society of American Baseball Research’s Baseball Records Committee, is no stranger to the Dodgers of the 1940s. He wrote a biography of outfielder Dixie Walker in 2011 and edited a collection of biographies for SABR called The Team That Forever Changed Baseball and America: The 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers in 2012. He also wrote biographies of Bill Dahlen and Willie Keeler, and collaborated with Steve Steinberg on a pair of books about the Yankees of the 1920s — 1921: The Yankees, the Giants and the Battle for Baseball Supremacy in New York (2010); and The Colonel and Hug: The Partnership that Transformed the New York Yankees (2015).
Spatz’s talent as a researcher shines through in an extensive bibliography that includes books and articles from journals, magazines and newspapers. He taps into the baseball knowledge of historians and writers like John Thorn, Jules Tygiel, Charles Alexander, Jonathan Eig, Steven Gietschier, Peter Golenbock, Bill James, Roger Kahn and Lawrence Ritter, to name a few.
Spatz writes about Casey’s youth and minor-league career, noting that “the blood of the Old South and the Confederacy did indeed run deep” in his veins. After signing with the Detroit Tigers and playing for their minor-league clubs, Casey hooked up with his hometown Atlanta Crackers and caught the eye of manager Wilbert Robinson. It was uncertain whether “Uncle Robbie” liked Casey because of his pitching ability, Spatz writes, or because he “always knew where the fish were biting, was a Deadeye-Dick with a shotgun, and had a way with bird dogs.”
Casey would debut in the majors with the Chicago Cubs in 1935, but the team was unimpressed and shipped him back to the minors. He would emerge with Brooklyn in 1939 and would establish himself as a dependable starter and later as a lockdown reliever. But that bad pitch in the 1941 World Series turned the postseason around. Spatz writes that Durocher second-guessed himself for not going to the mound to settle his pitcher down. Owen also second-guessed himself.
“It was like a punch in the chin. You’re stunned. You don’t react,” Owen said years later. “I should have gone out to the mound and stalled around a little.
“It was more my fault than Leo’s.”
As a southerner, Casey was uncomfortable when Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers in 1947. Allegedly part of the ring of Dodgers who drafted a protest letter, Casey nevertheless worked to help Robinson field his position better; Spatz quotes historian Jules Tygiel, who wrote that Casey would hit grounders to Robinson at first base, “gently chiding” him about his fielding. But when Casey was drinking, his darker side would emerge, like the time he rubbed Robinson’s head for good luck during a card game. Robinson, miffed, continued to play cards without incident.
After a memorable performance in the 1947 World Series, Casey’s career began to go downhill the following year due to injuries and ineffectiveness. In 1949, he split his final major-league season between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Yankees, and then wound up his career in the minors.
Casey’s paternity suit is covered in detail by Spatz, who also writes about the pitcher’s tax woes with the IRS in 1951. Top that off with a separation from his wife that year, and the reasons for Casey’s suicide on July 3, 1951, seems more plausible.
Here's a story I wrote for Sports Collectors Daily about a Heritage Auctions offering of a Thurman Munson uniform jersey and pants.
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