Here's a story I wrote for Sports Collectors Daily about a photo on sale via RMY Auctions. It's a 1927 photo of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig showing off their barnstorming uniforms.
It is a rare book that, in a literal sense, grabs you by the shoulders and shakes you. As the United States grapples with a polarized atmosphere of distrust, with immigration remaining a hot-button issue, Amy Bass has provided a valuable wake-up call that shakes you to the core.
Bass’ fourth book, One Goal: A Coach, A Team, and the Game that Brought a Divided Town Together (Hachette Books; hardback; $28; 304 pages), views a high school soccer team from Maine through cultural and social lenses.
Bass writes about the Lewiston High School boys’ squad, a roster filled with players of Somali descent. The Blue Devils’ pursuit of a state championship in 2015 is a central theme, but it is merely a foundation for the more interesting subplots that took place in a predominantly white community that struggled to accept an eastern African culture.
This is the fourth book for Bass, who is director of the honors program and a professor of history at the College of New Rochelle in suburban New York City. In One Goal, she has combined a trained historian’s eye for detail and a journalist’s inquisitiveness to uncover a compelling story. Journalism is part of Bass’ DNA; her father, Milton Bass, was a columnist for 60 years at the Berkshire Eagle in Massachusetts. Her mother, Ruth Haskins Bass, also worked at the Berkshire Eagle as a police reporter and building editor.
Bass’ scholarly interests include African-American history and modern American culture with an emphasis on sports. She received her undergraduate degree at Bates College in Lewiston, so she is familiar with the dynamic of the city. Lewiston, once a bustling mill town during the Industrial Revolution, had fallen upon bad times. Its only claim to fame over the past half century had been as the venue for the heavyweight boxing title rematch between Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston, a 1965 fight that smelled of a fix when Liston lost via a “phantom punch” in the first round.
A favorite saying in Maine, Bass writes, is that “You’re always from away.” That worked fine in Lewiston when French-Canadians from Quebec came to work in the factories beginning in the 19th century. But as the 21st century dawned, the tune was different when thousands of refugees arrived from Somalia. Longtime Lewiston residents were uncomfortable with people whose language, religion and customs were markedly different. Racism, Bass writes, “lived a robust life beneath the surface of any town,” and Lewiston was no exception. Visions of the movie Black Hawk Down put Somalis in a negative light.
In 2002 the mayor of Lewiston wrote a “Maxed-Out letter,” suggesting there were enough Somalis in town. But when a white supremacist group staged a rally in Lewiston a few months later, residents rallied and united against the hatred. It was a much-needed breakthrough, although even as late as 2012, a different mayor of Lewiston told the BBC in an interview that he wished the Somalis would “leave their culture at the door.”
Schools and athletics would become the catalyst and a much-needed balm to ease tensions. Bass writes that the schools in Lewiston “became the front line” for the transitions taking place. Lewiston was a place where Somalis could live peacefully, far away from the turmoil and carnage in their home country. To this day, that holds true; on Feb. 23 of this year, at least 18 people were killed as explosions rocked Somalia’s capital city of Mogadishu.
Longtime Lewiston High School soccer coach Mike McGraw saw the potential in the young Somalis playing pickup games in the city. Molding the group into a cohesive unit, McGraw and his squad weathered racial taunts to bring an elusive soccer state championship to a school nestled in a traditionally hockey-mad area.
It wasn’t easy. There had to be trust between the coaching staff and players, but McGraw, a crusty traditionalist who played by the rules and was a stickler for details, showed his ability to adapt and use some inventive schemes to take advantage of his players’ speed and strength. He also had to make allowances for Muslim holidays, prayer sessions and fasting (which sometimes took place before matches). And, as the players have joked, McGraw doesn’t care where his players come from, “as long as they pass the ball.”
McGraw was able to achieve success because of a hard-working, diligent group of assistants (Dan Gish, Abdijabar Herst. and Per Henrikson), supportive school staff (Athletic Director Jason Fuller and Principal Shawn Chabot), and community members like Denis and Kathy Wing, along with other members of the school’s booster club.
On the field, the players followed the lead of their parents who pulled together to help each other in their new community, adhering to the idea of Ilko wada jir bey wax ku gooyan — together, the teeth can cut. The team’s slogan of pamoja ndugu — “together brothers” — cut across racial, social and cultural lines and transformed groups of individuals into a team.
“Home” is a big part of One Goal, too. In a piece she wrote on her blog on Christmas Eve 2017, Bass noted that in her book, the word “home” appeared at least once on 69 different pages. Home games, road games, homes left behind or burned to the ground, she writes. Homes where people are welcome, and homes where people live in fear.
All those ideas are ably communicated in One Goal. While the history is interesting, and the social and cultural implications are fascinating, there is the cohesiveness of the story — and Bass is a fine storyteller. She resorts to play by play only when necessary, building the drama as the Blue Devils advance toward a state title that barely eluded them in 2014. In 2015, that goal would be reached in dramatic fashion, and a community celebrated together as brothers and sisters.
The rise of the Lewiston soccer team, Bass writes, shows what happens “when America works the way it is supposed to; the way it reads on paper.” The idea of building a wall to deter immigrants, an idea that helped propel Donald Trump to the presidency in 2016, pales in comparison to what a soccer team in “one of the whitest states in America” achieved. Rather than building a wall, the Blue Devils soccer team helped tear down racial barriers, even if only temporarily.
Bass shows how trust, faith, hard work and some uncanny soccer ability helped bring glory and pride to a town that still struggles with coexistence between very different cultures.
More importantly, she demonstrates that in the United States, you don’t have to live like a refugee.
Here's a story I wrote for Sports Collectors Daily about a card set put out in 1948 by Signal Oil, honoring the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League:
It’s hard to believe that WrestleMania is heading for its 34th show this year. If you’re a professional wrestling fan, then WrestleMania is the squared circle’s version of the Super Bowl or even the Daytona 500. Vince McMahon Jr. forever changed the landscape of pro wrestling during the 1980s, piledriving the competition along the way.
Topps’ 2018 WWE Road to WrestleMania recaps the big wrestling events and storylines of 2017 with a 100-card base set. It is an excellent lead-in for wrestling fans looking to refresh their memories about the old angles from 2017.
The base set is broken into three parts: The Raw Men’s Division, which covers cards 1 through 46; the Cruiserweight Division (47-55); and the SmackDown Men’s Division (56-100).
A blaster box includes 10 packs, with seven cards to a pack. There also is one memorabilia card per blaster. The box I opened had 20 Raw cards, six Cruiserweights and 21 SmackDown cards. In addition, there were 20 WrestleMania 34 roster cards, which are part of a 50-card insert set.
The design of the set is good, with plenty of action shots mixed with posed podium shots, stare downs and arms raised in triumph. And, there is a card of Elias with a guitar slung over his shoulder. Wrestling always keeps its connection to music, whether it is the Honky Tonk Man or manager Jimmy Hart. Music and anthems go hand in hand with wrestling.
The card backs are full of information about each wrestling, with history, feuds and achievements highlighted.
The blaster also contained two of the 10 Hall of Fame inserts, a subset that continues across WWE products. This set pays tribute to Andre the Giant, and there are plenty of highlights. The two cards I pulled recounted Andre’s unbeaten streak from 1973 to 1987, and when he won the WWE title in a match that was televised on NBC’s “Main Event.” Both cards made references to the World Champion but danced around the fact that the champion was longtime WWE headliner Hulk Hogan.
Hogan was fired from the WWE in 2015 after racist remarks surfaced. Hogan then would sue Gawker, which published the remarks and a sex tape. Hogan would settle for $31 million as lurid details emerged during testimony.
Knowing McMahon’s penchant for the dramatic, Hogan may return in a future WWE event. However, it seemed a little silly to exclude his name, unless there is some legal wrangling I am unaware of.
The hot card in the blaster box I opened was a Brock Lesnar WrestleMania 33 Mat Relics card, numbered to 199. The piece of the ring mat is a nice bit of memorabilia.
Topps’ WWE products are always colorful, with great detail provided for the many storylines that prevail in sports’ (or, entertainment, if you prefer) version of the soap opera. Good vs. evil is always clearly drawn, and the babyfaces and heels are easy to spot. Sometimes they shift gears, but it only adds to the intrigue.
The WWE Road to WrestleMania is a nice setup for the big bash in New Orleans on April 8.
Here's a story I wrote for Sports Collectors Daily about the 1957 Braves Spic and Span set, a 20-card regional offering put out by a Milwaukee dry cleaning company:
It’s official: Baseball season has arrived.
That’s because Topps has released its flagship baseball product, beginning with Series 1, which hit store shelves and internet sites last week. A hobby box can be bought in the mid-$50s range; I bought mine through an online retailer for $57.99. If you buy a hobby or jumbo box online, the dealer should send you a special Topps Baseball Silver Pack, which includes four cards.
A hobby box contains 36 packs, with 10 cards to a pack. Topps promises one autograph or memorabilia card per hobby box. Jumbo boxes have 10 packs, with 50 cards per pack.
Collectors who buy jumbos can expect an autograph card and two relics per box.
As has been the case in recent years, Series 1 consists of 350 cards. The design is basically full bleed, with horizontal and vertical layouts on the card fronts. Being an old-school Topps guy, I’ve always preferred the vertical design. Plus, they look nicer in binders. The Topps logo is stamped in silver on the card front, with a team logo anchoring the bottom of the card. The player’s name and position take up one line, while the team name is underneath. A ribbon-like swirl begins under the team logo and curls up above the player’s game.
The card back retains its basic design, with year-by-year statistics dominating the design. One of the nicer innovations through the years is the inclusion of the player’s Twitter handle, if he has one. It’s a nice way to keep up with your favorite player. The card number adorns the top-right corner of the card, with “Series 1” underneath.
The hobby box I opened gave me 325 out of the 350 base cards, which is always a great start if you are a set collector. Some of the subsets include League Leaders, Team Cards, Future Stars, World Series Highlights and Combo Cards.
Collectors should remember that Topps likes to throw in short print and super short print variations. The best way to tell is to check the code on the card back. Base cards end with 87, while short prints end with 43. The last two numbers on super short print cards are 44.
It didn’t look like I found any variations, but I will double check once I put the cards in my binder and examine the card backs.
Parallels should be familiar for Topps collectors. Rainbow parallel fall once every 10 packs, or three to a hobby box on average. I pulled four from the box I opened. Other parallels include Gold, which are numbered to 2018; Vintage (99), Independence Day (76), Mother’s Day Pink (50), Father’s Day Blue (50), Memorial Day Camo (25) and 1/1 Platinum and printing plates. Hobby and jumbo exclusives include Black (67) and Negative, with Clear parallels (10) exclusive to hobby boxes.
As for inserts, one pays tribute to the 35th anniversary of the 1983 Topps set. There are 100 cards in this set, and a hobby box should yield nine on average. That is how many I pulled, including names like Corey Seager, Trey Turner, Addison Russell and even Jose Canseco.
MLB Awards is also a 50-card insert set and honors award winners in hitting, pitching and fielding. I pulled six of these cards (two above the average Topps projects), including Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, Daniel Murphy, Brandon Crawford, Charlie Blackmon and Marcus Stroman.
Superstar Sensations is another 50-card subset that offers an interesting card front. There is a small color action player on the right side of the card, accompanied by a larger black-and-white shot. I pulled the average — four cards — and got Giancarlo Stanton, Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander and Ichiro.
Topps Salute is a 100-card insert set that continues to pay tribute to holidays like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Independence Day and Jackie Robinson Day. Legends and rookies are also celebrated in this subset.
The Topps Now counts down the top 10 cards bought the day after a player turned in a strong performance, or whether a key event was held. I pulled two cards – one of Judge and one of Derek Jeter. The odds were pretty good I’d pull both of them — Judge appears on seven cards in the set, while Jeter is on two of them. The only non-Yankee in the set is the Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger.
The Home Run Challenge insert falls one per hobby box. The back of the card has a scratch-off space with a code. Collectors go to Topps.com/Promotions and choose the game you think the home run hero will connect for a round tripper. If the player homers in that game, you win a prize and are entered in the grand prize drawing — a trip to the 2019 Home Run Derby, which will be contested at Cleveland’s Progressive Field. I pulled Jake Lamb of the Diamondbacks, who hit 30 homers during the 2017 season.
Collectors who enjoy buying retail will find different inserts to chase. Target has a 30-card tribute to Jeter, while Walmart has a 30-card look at the Cubs’ Kris Bryant. Legends in the Making is a 30-card subset available at both retail outlets, along with the 30-card MLB Opening Day set.
The hot card in the hobby box I bought was part of the Major League Materials relics set. The card I pulled was of Dodgers’ pitcher Kenta Maeda, and it contained a gray uniform swatch. For fans of retail, blaster boxes will contain an MLB Players Weekend Commemorative Patch.
The Silver Pack I received for buying the hobby box yielded four 1983 Chrome Promo cards. I pulled Jose Altuve (Astros), Garrett Cooper (Yankees) and Paul Goldschmidt (Diamondbacks). The fourth card I pulled was a gold parallel of Astros shortstop Carlos Correia, numbered to 50. There are 50 of these chrome cards.
As usual, Topps gets out of the gate quickly and effectively with Series 1 baseball. The photography is sharp, and the action shots can be fresh and innovative. There are, of course, the usual stock poses, but the vibrant colors make them seem colorful.
Here's a story I did for Sports Collector about the impeding release of the 2017-18 Upper Deck Series 2 hockey set:
Here is a link to the podcast I did with Sridhar Pappu, author of the book, "The Year of the Pitcher." Great stuff:
I love to blog about sports books and give my opinion. Baseball books are my favorites, but I read and review all kinds of books.