Here's a story I wrote for Sports Collectors Daily about a 1920 NFL program offered for sale by Heritage Auctions:
Here's a story I wrote for Sports Collectors Daily about Rob Du Brey of Bellingham, Washington, who stumbled across a treasure trove of cards when buying some toys off a local collector:
Averell Smith has been an ace in politics for years. Now he’s trying his hand in baseball history and is enjoying similar success.
The San Francisco Chronicle has called Averell “Ace” Smith “a pro at digging up dirt,” and one of the country’s most feared political opposition researchers. His critics have called him experienced, bright and aggressive, but “frequently over the top.”
Smith has been a political strategist and a campaign manager. He worked on the mayoral campaigns of Chicago’s Richard M. Daley and Los Angeles’ Richard Riordan, and the presidential campaigns of Hillary Clinton in 2008 and Howard Dean.
So, Smith not only can get down and dirty, but he also can spin a compelling story.
That serves Smith well as he tackles a subject that blends baseball with politics. And during the 1930s, and for very different reasons, few men were more feared, over the top and unafraid to get down and dirty than pitcher Leroy “Satchel” Paige and Dominican Republic strongman Rafael Trujillo. While Paige’s fastball was described as having bulletlike qualities, Trujillo’s bullets came from real guns and he was not afraid to give the order for his men to shoot them.
Those two characters dominate Smith’s book, The Pitcher and the Dictator: Satchel Paige’s Unlikely Season in the Dominican Republic (University of Nebraska Press; hardback; $26.95; 212 pages). Baseball plays a large role in Smith’s work, but the more fascinating subplot concerns the politics and intrigue waged by Trujillo, known as El Jefe (The Chief), who rose to power in 1930 and remained entrenched as the Dominican Republic’s most dominant figure until his assassination in 1961.
Trujillo was smart enough to keep a tight rein over his government and canny enough to take advantage of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor Policy” during the 1930s. Because of the growing threat of Nazi Germany, Roosevelt wanted Western Hemisphere countries as allies and conveniently looked the other way if they committed any atrocities. As Eric Paul Roorda wrote in 1998, the Good Neighbor Policy showed Latin American dictators like Trujillo that they could run their governments any way they wanted, so long as they had the same enemies as the United States.
Paige, meanwhile, was an opportunist not afraid to jump teams if the money was right. One example was nicely documented in Tom Dunkel’s 2013 book, Color Blind, when Paige bolted from the Negro League’s Pittsburgh Crawfords to pitch for a team in Bismarck, North Dakota, in 1935. So, when Dr. Jose Enrique Aybar, a dentist who ran the baseball team in Ciudad Trujillo, approached Paige with a $30,000 offer to pitch in the Dominican Republic in 1937, Paige bolted again, jumping as soon as he saw a bankbook with his name on it and that the five-figure deposit was verified in his account.
Aybar’s opening bid was “meant to awe,” Smith writes. “And it did.”
Paige was the crown jewel in Aybar’s quest to get Negro League players to join the Ciudad Trujillo squad, and the team was given the task of winning a barnstorming tournament against other teams in the Dominican Republican. The real reason for this all-star squad was to boost the career of Trujillo as he sought “re-election” in 1937.
Finishing in second place was unacceptable; Trujillo, who could be called a military version of Leo Durocher, was not interested in sportsmanship: “I come to kill ya,” the Lip wrote in his autobiography, Nice Guys Finish Last. Trujillo was cut from the same cloth, with more lethal means to pursue his goals. He was interested in winning, and his representatives made that clear to Paige and his teammates. This was not just a game; by wearing a uniform with Trujillo’s name on their chests, they were representing the prestige and honor of the dictator, who did not take kindly to being cast in a negative light.
“You better win,” the players were chillingly told.
Despite Trujillo’s repressive dictatorship, Paige and other black players found the island to be much more progressive in race relations than in the Deep South of the United States. Paige and his favorite catcher, William “Cy” Perkins, walking through Ciudad Trujillo, “were amazed to see folks white, black, and everything in between” mingling together. It was a far cry from being refused service at restaurants in Mississippi or Alabama. So, while Paige and his teammates enjoyed the easy living, they started to lose. And that did not sit well with Aybar, who knew what Trujillo’s reaction would be.
Fortunately, for Paige and his teammates, they regained the winning touch and won the tournament, then, richer for their efforts, barnstormed in the United States wearing the Ciudad Trujillo uniforms.
As one might expect, Smith’s research is meticulous and thorough. His bibliography includes a wealth of books that encompass baseball, race, social issues and history. Smith also combed through journals and newspaper articles in the Dominican Republic, including Listin Diario; his research also was drawn from black newspapers such as the Pittsburgh Courier, the Chicago Defender and Afro-American. For The Pitcher and the Dictator, Smith looked through microfilm and microfiche to give texture to the Jim Crow era of the South.
In politics, Smith’s opposition research techniques saw him buried deep in libraries, sifting through documents. Smith was feared because he could ferret out damaging information about an opposition candidate. If there were skeletons in a candidate’s closet, Smith was certain to be knocking on the door.
The Pitcher and the Dictator is an entertaining read, and Smith goes to great pains to describe the mood, the weather, the fans’ enthusiasm and the sinister specter of Trujillo looking over the all-stars’ shoulders. The detail is exquisite.
The book’s importance is not only in defining race relations and Caribbean gunboat diplomacy, but also lifting another veil from the shrouded legend of Satchel Paige. The mercurial Paige was a master showman who knew how to market himself, but he always maintained an air of mystery that baseball fans found irresistible.
Smith shows that Paige was not always infallible on the mound, but still commanded a presence among baseball fans. Works like Smith’s — and Dunkel’s before him — are valuable slices of baseball history that are worth the read.
Baseball fans are passionate. Baseball fans love to argue. Who was the best, who was better? It’s a universal trait among fans.
And New York baseball fans have always been passionate and argumentative. Just listen to sports talk radio in New York — that’s kind of an oxymoron, because I have yet to hear callers to talk radio stations in New York talk. Scream? That’s more like it.
Diehard Mets fans can take heart — there is plenty to debate about when it comes to this team. What was their greatest game? Their greatest moment? Their all-time lineup?
The answers — or at least a jumping-off point to start the debate — can be found in Brian Wright’s new book about the Mets. In Mets ins 10s: Best and Worst of an Amazin’ History (History Press; paperback; $21.99; 288 pages), Wright offers some juicy tidbits of Mets history and gives the reader a wonderful history of a franchise that began as lovable losers but then shocked the sports world by winning the 1969 World Series.
Well-researched and written in a conversational style, Mets in 10s is certain to spark some (hopefully) friendly debate. As the title implies, Wright ranks certain categories of Mets history from one to 10. As you read this book for the first time, you will see the subject and wonder if your No. 1 pick is the same as Wright’s.
It would have been easy, for example, to rank Johan Santana’s no-hitter against the Cardinals in 2012 as the best-pitched performance by a Met. After all, it was the first no-no in franchise history. But I was glad to see that Wright ranked Tom Seaver’s near perfect game against the Cubs on July 9, 1969, as the No. 1 pitching performance.
Now, I am not going to be a spoiler and disclose every winner. Wright breaks the book into eight parts, with several categories in each. “Beginnings” refers to the Mets’ early days as a woeful group of losers. “On the Mound” delves into pitching performances, and “At the Plate” explores hitting feats in single games and season efforts.
The fourth chapter, “Anguish,” explores the franchise’s tough losses and major disappointments. “The Clubhouse” references the best and worst trades in franchise history (Nolan Ryan for who??), while “Noteworthy Games” revisits key games in Mets’ history.
“Champions” is a top-10 look at regular-season games during years when the Mets reached the postseason. And the final chapter, “Best of the Best,” includes Wright’s all-time Mets’ starting lineup and their best postseason games.
Many readers will agree with Wright’s conclusions, while some certainly won’t. For example, I would have put the Mets’ World Series-clinching win higher than No. 5 among the postseason top 10, but certainly no higher than No. 3. Wright’s top two choices are right on the money.
That’s the beauty of this book. There is plenty of room for debate.
There are a few things that might have made the book better. Former Mets pitcher Jerry Koosman wrote the foreword, but an introduction by Wright would have been a good way to lead into the book. Also, there is no conclusion; the last top-10 item is given, and then the book ends. It seemed rather abrupt.
There could have been a few more categories, too. For example, best defensive plays would have been a good one, although we could say Ron Swoboda’s catch in Game 4 of the 1969 World Series is No. 1 and has no peer. Perhaps oddest plays would have been a good category, or best nicknames — who had the better nickname, George “The Stork” Theodore or “Marvelous” Marv Throneberry?
Those are just suggestions for future debate. Mets in 10s is a great trip down memory lane for Mets fans.
For the collector who enjoys looking into the future, the 2018 Panini Stars & Stripes USA Baseball set is the perfect vehicle. Members of the U.S. national team are in the spotlight in this set, and it offers younger prospects, current stars and retired greats. That includes players from the collegiate national team and the 18-and-under national squad.
The 2018 edition uses the formula that worked well in 2017: base cards, parallels and hits. For retail blaster boxes (the focus for this review), Panini America promises two autograph or memorabilia cards on average.
I was fortunate to buy an above average box, as I pulled one autograph, one relic and an autographed relic. For the $19.99 price tag, that’s a good deal; if you buy a hobby box, which lists somewhere in the neighborhood of $65, there will be a hit in each of the five packs. Sure, the names may not mean anything right now — but there’s always the chance that one of these players could make it to the major leagues and become a star, and that autograph or relic card will be a treasured gem.
The base set contains 100 cards, and because I bought a blaster box, all 30 base I pulled were the retail-exclusive Longevity cards. It was fun to pull cards of players who had successful major-league careers, like Ken Griffey Jr. and Mark McGwire, and it also was nice to pull a card of a player from Tampa like Alex Faedo.
The card design is vertical on the front, with the exception of team cards. A blue border adorns the top of the card and parts of the top left and right borders, and the rest of the borders are silver foil. The player’s name sits above an action shot, stamped in gold foil and next to a similarly stamped USA Baseball logo. The backdrop for the player’s name is red.
The images are a mixture of posed and action shots. My favorite shot was card No. 86 of M.J. Melendez, a second-round pick of the Kansas City Royals in 2017 who currently plays for the Lexington Legends of the South Atlantic League. Melendez, a catcher, is standing, mask off, and gripping the baseball while sneaking a peek down the third-base line. His expression is like “yeah, go ahead and take a longer lead.” Entertaining.
The card backs sport a large USA Baseball logo and the card number in the upper left-hand corner. Underneath each player’s name is a five-line biography, followed by another line that lists vital statistics such as height, weight, and whether the player bats and throws left-handed or right-handed.
In addition to the base cards, I found a pair of parallels: A Ruby team card of the national 15-and-under team, numbered to 249; and a Sapphire card of Nick Pratto, numbered to 49.
There were three hits in the blaster box I opened. The first was a sticker autograph card of 17-year-old Blake Shapen, an infielder from Shreveport, Louisiana. The autograph is boldly written in a blue Sharpie; an on-card signature would have been nice, but this was still a very nice card.
The second hit was a Jumbo National Team relic card of pitcher Ryley Gilliam, numbered to 299. This relic lives up to its name, with a huge swatch of Gilliam’s uniform on the card; the player is almost an afterthought.
The only criticism I have with the card is that it is all white; a more attractive swatch would have been one with at least one more color. Or even a pinstripe.
The third hit was an Silhouettes Signatures Jersey card of Alex Boychuk, a 15-year-old catcher from Hoschton, Georgia. The card is numbered to 199 and the autograph is on a sticker. The uniform swatch is beige-colored.
The 2018 Panini Stars & Stripes USA Baseball set is perfect for collectors who like to look into the future. The extra hit in the blaster box was a definite plus.
Here's a story I wrote for Sports Collectors Daily about Chris Brindell-Watt, a North Carolina middle school history teacher and Philadelphia Flyers fan who found an old hockey stick signed by Hall of Fame goalie Bernie Parent.
I’ve always had a soft spot for Lou Gehrig. The first baseball book I read as a child was Paul Gallico’s Lou Gehrig: The Pride of the “Yankees”, which was first published in 1942. There have been plenty of books written about Gehrig since, topped by Ray Robinson’s Iron Horse: Lou Gehrig in His Time and Jonathan Eig’s Luckiest Man.
Even more books have been written about Babe Ruth, and more are planned this year, including a biography by Jane Leavy (The Big Fella) that will be released in October.
Ruth and Gehrig were the heart of the New York Yankees’ batting order in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Together, they played in four World Series, winning three of them. From 1925 to 1934, when they were full-time teammates, Ruth and Gehrig combined for 772 home runs and homered in the same game 72 times. Between them, they averaged 274 RBI each year.
Ruth was flamboyant and driven to excess in his off-the-field escapades, while Gehrig was quiet, workmanlike and did not seem to care that his teammate usually stole the limelight.
They were friends early in their relationship, but somehow that friendship soured into a stony silence. Some called it a feud, but it’s hard to use that term when one party — Gehrig — never said a word about it. Robinson called Gehrig “a private, armored man in a public environment.”
In his latest book, Tony Castro explores the love-hate relationship between the two sluggers. In Gehrig & the Babe: The Friendship and the Feud (Triumph Books; hardback; $25.95; 273 pages), Castro examines both players and their personalities, and the incidents that probably led to their estrangement. I say probably, because it has never been definitively established what the cause was. Gehrig and Ruth took those secrets to the grave, as did Gehrig’s wife, Eleanor. There are hints and possibilities that have been brought up before, and Castro visits each of them.
Castro recalls a conversation he had with Johnny Grant, a young radio newscaster who had sneaked onto the set of the movie Pride of the Yankees hoping to land a bit part in the film. Instead, he struck up a friendship with Ruth. Grant asserts that Ruth told him that he “let my friend down,” and when he asked the Bambino why, the former player finally said “Women. It’s always broads, keed.”
When Grant pressed for more details, Ruth waved him off. “I’ll tell you the full story another time. It’s too petty,” he said. “Friends shouldn’t part over broads, but they do, all the time.”
Theories abound over why the two men grew distant with one another. One revisits the story that Gehrig’s mother, Christina, was appalled by the way Ruth’s younger daughter, Dorothy, was dressed when she and her stepsister visited the Gehrig household. Christina Gehrig, a highly opinionated and closed-minded woman who exercised control over her adoring son, lit into Claire Ruth, the Babe’s second wife and Dorothy’s stepmother. It “blindsided Claire and created a rift that no one saw coming,” Castro writes.
Ruth later confronted Gehrig in the Yankees locker room, and both men had to be separated. In Gehrig’s view, his mother was off-limits to criticism. Criticize Mom Gehrig, as she was affectionately known, and Lou would cut you off in a heartbeat. Even Babe Ruth, who loved Christina Gehrig's cooking and was a frequent visitor to the Gehrig household before tensions set in.
Castro said the relationship between Gehrig and his mother “bordered on the psychologically unhealthy,” and wondered if there had ever been a major sports figure “who has hung onto his mother’s apron strings” the way Gehrig had?
One could argue that tennis great Jimmy Connors was greatly influenced by his mother, but not to the extent of the Gehrig mother-son relationship. Connors was independent in ways Gehrig never approached.
The other rumor Castro explores — and it was more salacious than just an episode involving an overbearing parent — was the actual relationship Eleanor Gehrig may have had with Babe Ruth. During a barnstorming tour to Japan after the 1934 season, Eleanor Gehrig went missing for two hours. She was found with Claire and Babe Ruth in their stateroom, drinking and eating caviar. Castro quotes Leigh Montville’s marvelous biography of Ruth, The Big Bam, that intimated that “before she had known Gehrig, she had known the Babe,” and that Ruth “did not suffer many platonic relationships with women.”
Eleanor Gehrig always denied there had been a sexual relationship between her and Ruth. In her 1976 book My Luke and I, she described Ruth as “a pot-bellied, spindly legged, good-natured buffoon.”
Castro notes that Gehrig’s best friend on the Yankees, Bill Dickey, was reluctant to talk about any rifts, intimating that “it is just too unpleasant to think about even now.” Dickey conceded that something came between the two men, “but I don’t want to tell you about it.” Dickey took that information to the grave, too.
Castro, who has previously written two books about Yankees players — Mickey Mantle: America’s Prodigal Son, in 2008; and DiMag and Mick: Sibling Rivals, Yankee Blood Brothers, in 2016 — utilizes an extensive bibliography for his narrative on Gehrig and Ruth. That includes two books about Gehrig from 1941, works by Claire Ruth, Dorothy Ruth Pirone, Eleanor Gehrig, Gallico, Robinson, Eig, Montville, Robert Creamer and Harvey Frommer. He references both of his books and even lists Leavy’s 2018 biography as a source.
He lists Grant as one of the “godfathers” for this book, and adds the other godfather was writing colleague Dave Thomas, who pointed out that the feud between Los Angeles Lakers stars Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant was “the modern-day Ruth and Gehrig.” It’s an astute observation.
Two facts that Castro revealed were fascinating to me. One was that Juanita Jennings, who had some dalliances with Ruth, claimed to be the mother of Dorothy Ruth. It had been assumed that Dorothy had been adopted from an orphanage by Babe and Helen Ruth, and some news stories after Helen’s death in 1929 mentioned it. The International News Service reported on Jan. 16, 1929, that “Neither Ruth nor the family of his wife have any legal claim to Dorothy as the Ruths took her from a Brooklyn, N.Y., Catholic orphanage on a ‘continued custody’ basis.” The Associated Press reported two days earlier that Ruth and his wife announced in September 1922 that a daughter had been born but “they had decided not to announce it earlier.” No mention of adoption in the AP version.
Jennings, Castro wrote, did not admit to being Dorothy Ruth’s birth mother until shortly before her death in 1980. So, it’s another mystery taken to the grave by those who knew the answers.
The other fact I had not seen before was what Ruth said to Gehrig when he embraced the Iron Horse after his “Luckiest Man” speech on July 4, 1939, which caused Lou to smile. Castro reports that Ruth hugged Gehrig and said “C’mon, kid … C’mon, kid, buck up now. We’re all with you.” That embrace graces the cover of Gehrig & the Babe and has been a staple of all books about Gehrig.
Rud Rennie, writing in the New York Herald Tribune, phrased it differently, quoting Ruth telling Gehrig to try out the fishing rod he'd been given and catch all the fish in the sea.
I agree with Castro's version, which came from a report out of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle after Gehrig's speech.
The friction between the two men, Castro quotes University of Hawaii English professor Frank Ardolino, developed from their different personalities, public personas and the influence of other people on their relationship. “Given all of these factors, their feud seems inevitable and regrettable,” Ardolino concludes in a paper he wrote for the Society for American Baseball Research.
Castro explores all those attributes and combines it into a neat package. While some questions may forever be unanswered in the Gehrig-Ruth friendship and feud, Castro’s book provides some excellent context.
When you think of gypsies, you think of exotic fortune tellers and tarot readers. In the past, Topps Gypsy Queen baseball has had fortune tellers. Now, it is adding tarot to the mix.
This year’s product includes an insert set called Tarot of the Diamond, a 22-card offering that has artistic renditions of players with a traditional tarot background. Pair that with the returning Fortune Teller insert set, which makes predictions about future player achievements, and it doesn’t take a crystal ball to see that Gypsy Queen is working toward an exotic feel.
In opening a blaster box of 2018 Gypsy Queen baseball, a collector will find seven packs of six cards each, plus an exclusive five-card pack of parallels. The base set has 300 cards, and there are an additional 20 short prints. The blaster I opened had 37 base cards, plus a green parallel of Angels pitching/hitting sensation Shohei Ohtani and a Bazooka back parallel of Marlins pitcher Jose Urena.
Other parallels include cards with missing nameplates, Indigo (numbered to 250), a Gypsy Queen logo swap, Red (numbered to 10) and a 1/1 Black card. For those who buy hobby boxes, there is a chance to get a Black and White parallel, numbered to 50.
For those who enjoy more variations, there are 20 cards depicting players without caps. Also, there is a Jackie Robinson Day variation, with players shown wearing the Hall of Famer’s No. 42 jersey.
The card design features a drawing of the player with his name in the lower right-hand corner of the card. The player’s team and position and featured in the upper right-hand corner of the card, with a distinctive “GQ” located in the lower left part of the card. Every card I pulled from the blaster had a vertical design, which I love.
The card backs contain four lines of biographical type, with the player’s name in capital letters above the description.
As for inserts, I did receive a Tarot of the Diamond card of Boston’s Rafael Devers, and a Fortune Teller card of Amed Rosario that predicted that the Mets shortstop would be the youngest Opening Day starter in the National League and would contend for Rookie of the Year honors. The 22-year-old did start on Opening Day and went 2-for-4 with two RBI.
I did get a treat in my blaster box, as I pulled an on-card autograph card of Rays pitcher Jacob Faria.
The Gypsy Queen set is a nice-looking product with plenty of variations that are sure to stymie master set collectors. The fact that the autographs are hard-signed makes it a much more attractive product, too.
Here's a story I did for Sports Collectors Daily about the 1959-1960 Darigold Farms regional sets of the Spokane Indians, a Pacific Coast League affiliate of the Los Angeles Dodgers:
Here is a podcast I did through the New Books Network with author David Rapp, who wrote Tinker to Evers to Chance: The Chicago Cubs and the Dawn of Modern America through the University of Chicago Press:
Here is a podcast on the New Books Network I did with Amy Bass, the author of One Goal: A Coach, A Team, and the Game that Brought a Divided Town Together, her recently released book through Hachette Books:
It feels like 1969 again, as the 2018 Topps Heritage baseball sports the design of that amazin’ year of baseball. There is something soothing about that large white frame that surrounds a bright color photo of the player, with the team name in big block letters across the bottom. Add the player’s name is positioned inside a circle near the top of the card. Classic 1969.
What memories. I was a 12-year-old during the summer of ’69, and if a man could walk on the moon, how far-fetched was it to believe that the New York Mets could win the World Series?
A blaster box of Heritage contains eight packs, with nine cards to a pack. The format remains consistent, as it has through the years — a 500-card base set, with the final 100 cards in the set designated as short prints. Short prints will generally fall every three packs, so pulling two from the blaster box was right within the expected average.
Just like the original 1969 set, the 2018 Heritage issue will contain subsets like league leaders, rookie stars, World Series highlights and Topps News All-Stars (a subtle variation from the original Sporting News subsets. There are variations too, including throwback uniform cards and action images, but I did not pull any of those cards.
The blaster box I opened contained 65 base cards and two short prints. There was a game-used card, too: A Clubhouse Collection uniform swatch belonging to the Diamondbacks’ Paul Goldschmidt. Clubhouse Collection cards also come in parallels that include dual relics numbered to 69, triple relics numbered to 25 and quad relics numbered to 10.
The inserts I pulled should be familiar to Heritage collectors: New Age Performers and News Flashbacks. The New Age insert was of Nationals slugger Bryce Harper, while the News Flashbacks card featured the Beatles.
Baseball Flashbacks and Then and Now inserts also should be found in blaster boxes. I just didn’t pull any in the box I bought.
A familiar insert from the 1969 product was the 33-card Deckle set. The 2018 version has 30 cards, and I pulled a Cody Bellinger card from the blaster box. Unlike the original, which had two variations, there are not two players sharing the same numbers (remember card No. 11, which featured Jim Wynn and Hoyt Wilhelm; and No. 22, which was shared by Rusty Staub and Joe Foy?).
A Collectors set of 13 cards are exclusive to Target, and I pulled one card — Joey Votto.
Heritage continues to please nostalgia buffs with modern players in a vintage design. It has settled into a nice pattern and beginning next year the product will tackle the 1970s, which featured fun sets (1972 and 1975 come to mind), condition-challenging sets (1971) and the bland (1973 was particularly vanilla).
Regardless of the beauty — or lack of it, in some cases—the next chapter in Heritage history should be an interesting one.
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.