|Bob D'Angelo's Books & Blogs||
Here's a story I wrote for Sports Collectors Daily about a Texas collector who photo-matched a Ty Cobb bat to one he won at auction last year:
Here's a story I wrote for Sports Collectors Daily, previewing the 2018 Bowman's Best baseball set, which will be released in December:
It’s a time-honored cliché that a game — and for that matter, a player’s career — isn’t over until the fat lady sings. But who’s to say that the swan song will be a happy tune? For most baseball players approaching the end of their careers, the song is a melancholy one.
Parker Westfall is one of those guys. Expecting a call from a major-league organization, the 31-year-old, power-hitting first baseman instead is contacted by the owner of the Fort Collins Miners, an independent minor-league team in Colorado.
He had hit 31 homers the previous year in the Carolina League, but his dreams of being signed by a major-league organization are fading fast.
Westfall is the major character in Brian Kaufman’s fast-paced novel, The Fat Lady’s Low, Sad Song (Black Rose Writing; paperback; $17.95; 187 pages). Westfall shares the spotlight in this brisk narrative with several distinct characters.
Hard-boiled Grady O’Connor, is a manager who believes in “Grady Ball”— a throwback to the deadball era where pitching was prized and scrapping for runs was done the old-fashioned way. O’Connor is constantly miserable and cantankerous and spreads his pettiness among his players. If negativity won baseball games, O’Connor would have a plaque in Cooperstown.
Team owner Christopher Randall fancies himself as a Colorado version of Mike Veeck, the minor-league maverick who once advertised a “Vasectomy Night” in 1997 for the Charleston RiverDogs. Thankfully, it was snipped in the bud, so to speak, and canceled when the idea was criticized by the local Catholic Church. Whereas Veeck’s father, Bill Veeck, once sent a 3-foot-7 man named Eddie Gaedel to bat for the St. Louis Browns in 1951, Randall has an equally off-the-wall idea — he signs Courtney Morgan, a 20-year-old knuckleball pitcher out of college, to boost attendance.
“I want you to smooth the way for her,” Randall tells Westfall.
“This is like that Costner movie,” Westfall says.
That is not what the owner has in mind. “She needs allies, not mentors,” he retorts.
Westfall tries to do that during the season, but his attempts are awkward, and Morgan resents his tone and approach.
And no, the relationship between Westfall and Morgan will not degenerate into a schmaltzy love story. Kaufman wisely keeps their interaction brittle and wary.
On his website, Kaufman said the novel was inspired in part by Joe Bauman, an obscure minor-leaguer who went home run crazy in 1954 when he hit 72 in 138 games with the Roswell Rockets in the Class C Longhorn League.
Westfall is the same type of hitter, who at times is also a liability in the field. He will set a league record for home runs in his season of discontent, but he will be forever stamped as a minor-leaguer. However, Westfall does find a way to connect to the community, signing a bucket of baseballs before a game as delighted fans jostle to get one. Then he gets Morgan to do the same, with an even bigger reaction.
When a national tragedy strikes, Westfall suggests to Randall that instead of canceling that night’s baseball game, allowing fans to attend free of charge would provide some relief.
The language in this novel is earthy and at times profane, reflecting the true cadence in a locker room. The addition of Morgan gives her teammates chances to drop leering, sexual comments, but she is equal to the task. Westfall rescues her during a night when drunkenness nearly turned promiscuous, and he also managed to break up two barroom fights instigated by a teammate.
His leadership rankles O’Connor, who is irritated when Westfall organizes pregame practices without the coaching staff.
Without giving the ending away, it is safe to say that it has an interesting twist, particularly for Westfall. The sad song is actually a happy ending for all concerned.
Kaufman describes himself as a curriculum editor for an online junior college who lives with his wife and dog in the Colorado mountains. In another universe, he writes, he is a pro wrestler, radio show talk host, and a heavy metal guitarist.
He adds a little bit of both universes into his book. While the novel comes in under 200 pages, Kaufman manages to create some distinct characters that readers will either love, hate, tolerate or sympathize with. It works well in The Fat Lady’s Low, Sad Song. Kaufman is in tune with his audience, particularly with baseball lovers, and his prose should strike a positive chord with readers.
Here's a story I wrote for Sports Collectors Daily about the ultimate Willie Mays card collection:
Here's a story I wrote for Sports Collectors Daily about a Babe Ruth cap once worn by David Wells in a 1997 game. It's up for sale again:
Here's a story I wrote for Sports Collectors Daily about the Huskins Rookie Card Guide, a book that lists all rookie cards for baseball cards from 1933 to the present:
Here's a story I wrote for Sports Collectors Daily about a June sale held by RR Auction that included a 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers World Series ring and a 1966-1968 game-used road jersey worn by Chicago Bears running back Brian Piccolo.
Consistency remains Topps’ calling card with its flagship baseball set. In many ways, the 2018 Series 2 set mirrors Series 1, with a 350-card base set and the continuation of several insert sets. And yet, there are still a few new wrinkles as the major-league season approaches its midway point.
A hobby box contains 36 packs, with 10 cards to a pack. Hobby boxes also come with a promotional silver pack that contain four chrome cards that are designed like the 1983 Topps set. Some promo packs limited edition parallels and/or autograph cards. Topps also promises either one autograph or relic card per hobby box.
Since I enjoy collecting the flagship set, I bought a hobby box of Series 2. The design, as one might expect, is very similar to Series 1, with full bleed photography and some nice action shots. The design is mostly vertical, although it seemed as if at least three base cards from every pack had a horizontal design.
I pulled 320 of the 350 base cards from the hobby box I opened. In addition, there were four rainbow foil parallels, a gold parallel of Asdrubal Cabrera numbered to 2018, and a Memorial Day camo parallel of Ryan Rua numbered to 25.
Other parallels include Vintage Stock, numbered to 99; Independence Day, numbered appropriately to 76; black, a hobby and jumbo box exclusive (67), Mother’s Day pink (50); Father’s Day powder blue (50); Clear, a hobby-only parallel (10); Negative, exclusive to hobby and jumbo boxes; and 1/1 Platinum parallels and printing plates.
The big hit in the box was an autographed rookie card of pitcher Keury Mella. The right-hander began spring training with the Cincinnati Reds this season but was optioned to the Daytona Tortugas of the Florida State League in March. He has since been promoted to the Double-A Pensacola Blue Wahoos of the Southern League.
Mella is scheduled to be the starting pitcher for the South Division squad in Tuesday’s Southern League All-Star Game, as he sports a 6-3 record with a 3.10 ERA.
The stats are nice, but something better than a sticker autograph would have been nicer. However, the signature is bold and written in a blue Sharpie, and while Mella’s handwriting is so-so, the autograph card is not so bad.
The inserts are a mixture of old and new. Returning for Series 2 is Topps Salute, which fall one in every four packs. My hobby box was a little above average, as I pulled 10 of these inserts.
Also returning are the inserts that bear the 1983 Topps design. Also returning for Series 2 is the Home Run Challenge, a 50-card promotion that allows collectors to scratch off a panel on the back of the card and enter the code on Topps’ website. If a player homers in the game you’ve chosen, you win a prize.
Topps All-Stars is a 99-card subset, with 75 designed like the 1983 All-Star cards. The backs of these cards describe a great moment from an All-Star game. The remaining 24 are rookies and sports the 1983 base design. In the box I opened I received six All-Stars and three rookies.
Instant Impact debuts with a 50-card set. These cards describe how a player made an immediate difference when they reached the major leagues. I pulled five of these cards.
Longball Legends, also making its first appearance, is another 50-card insert that chronicles prodigious home runs. I pulled five of these cards, too.
The 2018 Topps Series 2 set provides continuity for collectors and throws in enough wrinkles to make it interesting. It remains a set builder’s delight, and chasing the inserts is still challenging but not impossible.
Here is a story I wrote for Sports Collectors Daily about the 1976 Goofs set for the Tulsa Oilers, a minor-league product that included autograph cards of Satchel Paige and Paul "Daffy" Dean.
Panini America’s 2018 Classics Football lives up to its name, with a great cross-section of legendary NFL players mixed in with veterans and rookies. A 300-card base set offers set chasers a chance to build a set of big names from the past and present. There are 100 veteran, 100 legends and 100 rookies in the base set.
As has been my pattern lately, I bought a blaster box to get a taste of the set. A blaster contains eight packs, with eight cards to a box. Each blaster also offers an exclusive Saturday Swatches card.
The box I opened yielded 33 legends, 24 veterans and three rookies. I really enjoyed this breakdown because it was fun to find cards of legends like Barry Sanders, Mike Ditka, Ken Stabler, Charlie Joiner and Fred Biletnikoff, to name a few. Legends are not limited to skill positions, either. Guards Larry Little and Larry Allen, center Mike Webster and tackle Jonathan Ogden also have places in the set.
The design is horizontal, with mostly color action shots; the Ditka card sports a black-and-white photo of the Bears’ tight end in action. The Classics logo is in the upper left-hand corner of the card front, with the player’s name in black block letters in the lower right-hand corner.
The team name appears above the player’s name, with smaller white block letters set against a black strip. A pennant is placed in the lower left-hand corner of the front, with Legends and Rookies inside. For veterans, the team name is placed inside the pennant and not above the player’s name.
The design for the card backs are horizontal, with the player’s name in golden letters set against a black background that strips across the top of the card. The player’s number and the team logo are directly beneath his name, with a biographical sketch included. Statistical boxes are included for veterans and rookies. The card number is in the upper right-hand corner of the card, placed inside a football helmet icon.
The set does have parallels, although I did not find any in the blaster box. But for collectors who buy hobby boxes, there are parallels in red (numbered to 299), blue (175), blank back (50), green (40), no name (10) and full name (5). There are Timeless Tributes parallels in gold (numbered to 99), orange (25), blue (10) and black (1/1).
The prime hit in the blaster box I opened was the Saturday Swatches insert. I pulled one of Rams running back Todd Gurley, with a red swatch from his days at the University of Georgia. The swatch is a square on the card front, with a photo of Gurley during his college days. The same photo graces the back of the card.
There were several inserts in the blaster box. Composers is part of a 30-card subset that pays tribute to those quarterbacks — past and present — who orchestrate drives for their teams. The card I pulled was Rams quarterback Jared Goff. Instant Classics is a 10-card set that recalls iconic moments in NFL history. The card I pulled was Franco Harris’ “Immaculate Reception” from the 1972 AFC playoffs.
The final insert I pulled was a Classic Clashes card that featured tight ends Kellen Winslow and Tony Gonzalez. The horizontally designed card is part of a 15-card set.
Panini Classics Football gives collectors a nostalgic look at the past and a glimpse into the future. The present is well-represented, too. For me, the Legends cards are what make this set special, because it scratches my itch for collecting great names from the past.
Plenty of baseball fans relish the opportunity to have a player sign an autograph for them, whether it’s on a baseball, a program or even a pennant.
I got my first baseball autographs in 1970 at Municipal Stadium in West Palm Beach. The Atlanta Braves were playing a spring training game and had a table set up with players to sign programs. I got pitchers Pat Jarvis and George Stone.
Seven years later I attended another spring training game in West Palm Beach, this time between the Braves and New York Yankees. I saw Yankees manager Billy Martin leaning against a rail near the dugout and approached him. He took my Atlanta Braves program, signed it and handed it back without saying a word. I still have the program.
That’s amateur stuff compared to Kevin Keating, who is two years younger than I am but had already amassed thousands of autographs by 1977. Keating was motivated, fearless and showed plenty of creativity as he got players to sign whenever the Illinois resident ventured into downtown Chicago. He has collected his favorite autograph stories and compiled them into a very readable memoir.
In Waiting for a Sign, Volume 1: Highlights and Inside Stories From a Lifetime of Collecting Baseball Autographs (Word Serve Press; paperback; $21.95; 348 pages), Keating describes his adventures in 18 vividly written chapters. It is only fitting that now, Keating is the principal autograph authenticator for Professional Sports Authenticator. After all, he spent most of his youth collecting signatures and had more than 10,000 by the time he graduated from high school.
Keating would stand at the entrance to old The Executive House hotel in downtown Chicago, where visiting teams played. He always had a plan worked out and usually knew the players he sought by sight. Keating also sent letters to former players — including a self-addressed, stamped envelope — asking them questions about their careers. It was a sure-fire method of getting a response, and Keating shares some of the letters he received from men who played during the time of Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb.
The memorabilia craze was still decades away in 1969, so players and managers were more likely to sign autographs, particularly for kids. In that sense, Keating was fortunate. But even after he grew up and graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point, Keating pursued his hobby.
What resulted were Charles Kuralt-type “On the Road” journeys, where Keating would visit former players. He developed some warm friendships, and, in addition to collecting autographs, compiled some dynamite interviews.
Keating opens Waiting for a Sign with autograph memories from his childhood, and how Chicago Sun-Times columnist Bob Greene profiled him in a piece that got the 14-year-old in trouble (he was playing hooky to get autographs and the column blew the cover off that tactic).
The best chapter in the book is Keating’s interaction with Hall of Fame infielder Joe Sewell. Keating not only became friends with Sewell and his family, he also learned a great deal about the game and found answers to baseball questions that only a veteran of the 1920s and ’30s would know.
The trip to visit Sewell was part of a Deep South excursion, as Keating also traveled to meet Hall of Famer Johnny Mize at his Georgia home. He played a memorable round of golf with the “Big Cat” just a few weeks before Mize’s death in 1993.
The story about Hall of Fame shortstop Lou Boudreau, who signed a scorecard on the day Keating’s brother was born, was a fun read. Boudreau was more than happy to sign the same scorecard on ensuing years to commemorate the birth of Keating’s younger sibling.
Anecdotes about Yogi Berra, Warren Spahn, Whitey Ford show that Keating not only secured some classic autographs but made some lifelong friends. These are stories that young fans can only dream about.
A particularly funny chapter involved Joe DiMaggio. Keating discovered that the Yankee Clipper’s sister signed most of the autograph requests, so he bought a large poster and asked DiMaggio to sign it. Fortunately, a friend was there to take photos, and when DiMaggio realized he would be violating his contract because the poster was made by a competitor, his expression was priceless. Keating includes those photos in an amusing series.
Keating’s autograph collection reads like a who’s who of baseball: Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente, Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Ford and Berra. Keating managed to get a Mickey Mantle autograph but never met the slugger. In fact, Keating made the mistake of sending cards to the Mick and never saw them again. For $95, an associate Keating trusted got Mantle to sign a photograph of himself with his former teammate, Roger Maris. Maris had passed away, so the inscription Mantle wrote on the photograph was touching.
With so many autographs — and stories — a second volume made sense and it will be published in the future. Keating is promising stories about Casey Stengel, George Sisler, Harmon Killebrew, Bob Feller, George Brett, Chuck Connors, Buck O’Neil and even actor Charlie Sheen.
Waiting for a Sign is a fast, pleasant read. Keating does not go into the technical aspects of autographs, although his expertise in the field would probably reveal some fascinating details. Instead, Keating takes a more personal and informal approach, and it gives the reader a front row seat as the expert autograph collector spins stories from his past.
By the way, Keating autographed my review copy of Waiting for a Sign and personalized it, too. The signature, in case you wondered, was magnificent.
Here is a link to the first review I've contributed to the Sport in American History blog. The book is by Amy Essington and examines minor league integration in the Pacific Coast League. It's called "The Integration of the Pacific Coast League: Race and Baseball on the West Coast," by University of Nebraska Press:
Some days are etched in a person’s memory.
It could be because of love, a favorite sports team, or even a hobby you’re passionate about. Or all three of them.
Co-authors Marc Peter Reyna and James Harmon Brown blend those elements together nicely in a novel that is a tender love story, a nostalgic look back at childhood and a sobering but hopeful view of the present.
Diamond Stars: A Novel of the 1934 All-Star Baseball Game (Dog Ear Publishing; paperback; $12.99; 222 pages), is a work that bookends a pair of major league baseball all-star games as a historical backdrop. The authors switch back and forth between 1934 and 1984 to tell the story of Solomon “Solly” Manus and his family.
July 10 held a special place for Solly. As an 11-year-old baseball-mad fan in 1934, he and his friends rode a train from Brooklyn to Manhattan and sneaked into the All-Star Game, where they saw Carl Hubbell strike out five future Hall of Famers in a row. That same day at the Polo Grounds in New York, Solly also connected with a neighborhood girl, Abby Sellers, who was equally obsessed with baseball and her favorite player, Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Van Lingle Mungo. Solly and Abby, after awkward beginnings, would marry years later — on July 10.
Fast forward to 1984. Abby has been in a coma for six weeks after an automobile accident. Solly will be attending the 1984 All-Star Game in San Francisco — on July 10 — which would serve as a reunion of the players from that 1934 classic. Solly dug through his old baseball card collection and found the card with Mungo, hoping to get an autograph to show his wife, hoping the old connection would break the coma.
Back to Diamond Stars. Former major-league catcher Tom Haller, the Giants’ vice president of baseball operations in 1984, was teammates with Solly in 1960 when both played in the Pacific Coast League. He knew the pain his former teammate was experiencing.
“Tom had never known two people more curiously well suited than Abby and Solly,” the authors write. “They were soul mates, best friends and had baseball between them like no other couple he’d ever known in the game.”
The book’s focus bounces from one game to the next, with accurate play-by-play accounts of both games sprinkling the narrative. The authors use the play-by-play from both games, drawn from Retrosheet.org, and include it in an appendix.
That’s not surprising. Not only is Reyna a baseball fan, he also is a devoted baseball card collector and belongs to internet trading clubs (in the interest of transparency for this review, I belong to the same club, Old Baseball Cards). His Dodgers collection is extensive, going as far back as the gold-bordered T-205 cards from 1911. Reyna, 65, collected baseball cards from 1962 to 1964 and then put them away. In 1988 he found an old shoebox full of Topps cards from 1957 to 1965 and became hooked again. The ideas that are incorporated in Diamond Stars were ignited when Reyna discovered that long-lost box of cards.
He also has a special affinity for Mungo and is currently performing in a one-act play he co-wrote, “Mungo!” In his 1975 autobiography, Nice Guys Finish Last, Leo Durocher wrote that Mungo “had been considered as fast as (Dizzy) Dean, maybe as good but nowhere near as funny.”
Harmon, 69, was a staff writer for The Los Angeles Times from 1970 to 1983 but was noted for his writing partnership with Barbara Esensten on soap operas and dramas such as Dynasty, All My Children, Days of Our Lives, One Life to Live, Guiding Light and Port Charles. The pair were nominated for five Emmy Awards and won for their writing in Guiding Light.
There is drama in Diamond Stars. Manus grew up to become an infielder who excelled at the Triple-A level for 16 years and even made it briefly to the major leagues — twice. He worked as a scout for the Giants before being phased out. But Haller, who is one of the heroes of this book, finds another spot in the scouting department and brings Solly back into the fold.
What makes this novel work is the dialogue. It is fast-paced and jaunty, and characters’ personalities are introduced quickly and effectively. There is a memorable conversation between Solly and Joe DiMaggio at the 1984 game, and the banter between Solly and his childhood friends while at the 1934 game keep the action bouncing along. Even though baseball fans know the outcome of both games, the dialogue sustains the plot.
Solly’s meeting with Mungo at the 1984 game is less than what he expected, but the old pitcher famous for his fastball manages to throw a curve at the end of the novel to neatly tie everything together.
In 1969, Dave Frishberg wrote and performed a jazz song on piano, “Van Lingle Mungo.” He referenced 36 different players in a bossa nova style, but lingers over Mungo’s last name as the last word in many of the verses, in a melancholy, almost dirge-like litany:
Heinie Majeski, Johnny Gee
Eddie Joost, Johnny Pesky, Thornton Lee
Van Lingle Mungo
The last surviving player from Frishberg’s list is Eddie Basinski, who is 95. Frishberg turned 85 in March.
That’s just an interlude. Diamond Stars does not need a song to sustain itself. It is a sweet love story that is timeless — just like a baseball fan’s love of the game.
Here's a story I wrote for Sports Collectors Daily about 2017-18 Panini Opulence Basketball, a high-end product that will be released in early August.
I was in London last week, and in sports, soccer dominates the headlines. Most of the focus was on Liverpool goalkeeper Loris Karius, who made two key mistakes that resulted in a pair of goals for Real Madrid and was the difference in the Champions League final. Real Madrid won 3-1, and Karius, despite his apologies, was receiving death threats from angry fans.
They take their soccer — um, football — seriously in Europe.
It is the kind of passion that soccer enthusiasts want to see in the United States — minus the physical threats, of course — and that is what Topps is hoping to achieve with its 2018 Major League Soccer set.
This year’s product features a 200-card base set, which include players or the new Los Angeles Football Club. Collectors who buy hobby boxes can expect to find at least two autographs and a jumbo memorabilia card. I bought a blaster box, and that contains one signature card along with eight packs of cards. There were six cards to a pack.
The blaster I opened contained 43 base cards, which includes four Under 24 cards.
The design for this year’s set benefits from the colorful uniforms worn by MLS teams. The photography is sharp and vibrant, with plenty of intensity depicted. Most of the base cards I pulled had a vertical card front design, although several were horizontal. The player’s name is in the lower right-hand corner of the card front, with the team logo located at the middle right side of the card, tilted diagonally.
The card backs are clean and contain five lines of type about the featured player. Statistics are shown above the story type, and the player’s name, team and vital statistics adorn the top of the card.
There were two different inserts in the blaster box I opened. One was a Multi-Dimensional card of Kellyn Acosta of FC Dallas. The card features three different poses of the midfielder on the card front.
The next two inserts borrow the design of the 1988 Topps baseball set. I pulled one Throwback insert card of New York City FC’s David Villa, and All-Star cards of Montreal Impact midfielder Ignacio Patti and Atlanta United defender Greg Garza.
The autograph card I pulled was a blue parallel of Minnesota United FC midfielder Sam Cronin, numbered to 50. Cronin’s signature is on a sticker, and the design of the card is horizontal.
With its crisp design and sharp photography, the 2018 Topps Major League Soccer set is a nice product to collect. With the World Cup coming up soon, interest in soccer will be at a fever pitch worldwide. This product, while not part of the worldwide event, nevertheless will stoke interest in the sport.
In the old days — you know, when there were wrestling territories that were owned by promoters not named Vince McMahon Jr. — fans would get news about their favorite wrestlers from television matches, TV promos and magazines like The Wrestler.
Who could forget pro wrestling writer Bill Apter taking a heart punch from Stan Stasiak? Or eagerly reading stories with eye-catching headlines like “Bobby Heenan’s Bloody Obsession”?
The growth of cable TV, the internet and the wildly successful marketing plan McMahon used to become a giant among wrestling corporations changed the game. Topps has recently tapped into the pro wrestling fan base with much nicer looking cards than those that existed in the 1990s. Once again, Topps’ flagship set for WWE wrestling cards brings fans colorful action photos and interesting storylines.
The design for the WWE set closely mirrors the layout of Topps’ flagship baseball set. The layout is vertical, and the backs have a horizontal look.
The only negative is that there were not as many action shots; rather, many of the card fronts were glorified mug shots, or shots of wrestlers coming down the ramp when they were introduced before a match. In a sport/entertainment-based outfit like the WWE, action is what fans demand; the same should be considered in a set of collectible cards.
The base set includes 100 cards, and there are several variations. There are plenty of options for those who buy hobby boxes, such as autographed cards and relics. There are some nice possibilities for collectors who buy blaster boxes, which is what I did.
A blaster box, which a collector can buy at retail stores like Target or Walmart, contains seven packs, with 10 cards to a pack. There also is an additional pack that contains one relic card.
The box I opened contained six Superstar cards, including The Rock, Undertaker and announcer “Mean” Gene Okerlund. There were two more bronze parallel cards, featuring John Cena and Paige.
There were also 12 Raw cards, which included favorites like The Miz, Titus O’Neil, Kurt Angle, Heath Slater and Mickie James. In addition to the base Raw cards, there were bronze parallels of Stephanie McMahon and Maryse.
There were 13 SmackLive cards, which included Shane McMahon.
Of the 13 NXT cards I pulled, there was an interesting mix of announcers (Nigel McGuinness, Mauro Renallo and ring announcer Kayla Braxton), a manager (Paul Ellering) and a general manager (William Regal).
The key inserts in the 2018 Evolution set are Evolution, a 50-card subset that shows the changes several wrestlers have gone through during their time in the WWE; I pulled 20 of those cards.
The other insert is the WWE Hall of Fame Tribute, which continues in card Nos. 11 through 20 what began in the Road to WrestleMania set earlier this year. The card I pulled depicted the Ultimate Warrior winning the WWE heavyweight title in WrestleMania VI. According to the type on the back of the card, the Warrior won the title in 1990 at Toronto’s SkyDome by defeating “the legendary champion.” who is unnamed but was Hulk Hogan.
Blaster boxes contain an exclusive tribute to the late Randy “Macho Man” Savage, and the card I pulled also came from WrestleMania VI. Savage teamed with Queen Sherri (Sherri Martel) in a mixed tag team match.
The relic card was a commemorative medallion in the shape of Brock Lesnar’s Universal Championship belt and was numbered to 299.
The WWE set continues a nice run of cards by Topps. All facets of the WWE are represented, and there is a fine cross-section of stars and up-and-coming wrestlers.
A nice gesture by the WWE in the future would be an insert set commemorating the long career of the promotion’s first superstar, Bruno Sammartino, who died April 18. It’s a natural, but we will see.
Here's a story I did for Sports Collectors Daily about a photo being sold at RMY Auctions. The photo was taken during the Cleveland Rams' debut game in the NFL in 1937:
Jackie Robinson’s contribution to breaking the color line in the modern era of major league baseball has been well-documented .
But while Robinson used a “relentless fighting spirit” to earn his place in the majors, author Gaylon H. White writes that Artie Wilson used “singles and smiles” to help desegregate the minor leagues.
That’s the title of White’s warm, sentimental biography of Wilson, a shortstop who was known as “Artful Artie” during his years in the Negro Leagues and the Pacific Coast League.
Singles and Smiles: How Artie Wilson Broke Baseball’s Color Barrier (Rowman & Littlefield; hardback; $35; 233 pages) follows the career of Wilson, a gifted hitter and fielder who never got the chance to showcase his talents in the majors. Brought up to the New York Giants in 1951, Wilson went only 4-for-22 (a .182 average) before being shipped back to the minors to make room for a young outfielder named Willie Mays.
In fact, White writes, Wilson lobbied the Giants to bring Mays to the majors, even at his own expense. Wilson “focused on the big picture, not the big leagues,” White writes.
The title of the book is mostly appropriate: Of his 1,609 career hits in the minors, Wilson collected 1,365 singles and batted.312, including a .402 mark in 1948. One early criticism leveled against the book was that its title implied Wilson was the pioneer who broke the modern color line. Perhaps inserting the phrase “Helped Break” after his name in the title would have cleared up any confusion. It’s really a minor point: Baseball historians — and even casual fans — know that Robinson was the man who took the first steps toward racial equality in the game.
What’s accurate beyond question, however, was Wilson’s ability to smile. He had a joyous love for baseball and was eager to play it, whether it was in a Birmingham industrial league in his native Alabama, the Negro Leagues, the Pacific Coast League or the majors. Long before Ernie Banks, Wilson was the player who was happiest on a baseball diamond.
Wilson was the second black in the PCL and the first to play for the Oakland Oaks and the Seattle Rainiers. The PCL was one of the first leagues to have all its franchises integrated within a decade of Robinson’s shattering of the color line.
White excels at examining the careers of players who, while not famous today, were notable during their heyday. His last book, a collaboration with former major-leaguer Ransom Jackson, was an engaging look at the player brought to the Brooklyn Dodgers to replace Robinson. Even though he could not wrest the starting job from Robinson in 1956, “Handsome Ransom” overcame the pressure and carved out a respectable career. In Singles and Smiles, White follows the same formula to show how Wilson did not allow pressure or disappointment cloud his sunny outlook on the game and in life.
White, who interviewed Wilson before the player’s death in 2010 at age 90, coaxed several opinions out of the former infielder. Robinson, Wilson said, was the only man who could have endured the abuse and vitriol hurled at him during his rookie season with the Dodgers in 1947.
“He had the tools, the know-how,” said Wilson, who was one of several black stars passed over in favor of Robinson. “I’m not saying these other guys couldn’t do it now. I just don’t think they would’ve gone through with it like Jackie.
“That is why I like Branch Rickey. He picked the right man.”
Wilson also thought that Jim “Junior” Gilliam should have been the first black manager in major league baseball instead of Frank Robinson.
“I would’ve taken Gilliam over any of them,” he tells White.
Wilson was such a consistent hitter that other managers employed shifts to prevent him from slapping singles to all fields. Wilson also had a penchant for fouling off pitch after pitch, frustrating pitchers until they threw him what he wanted to hit.
White expands one of the more entertaining anecdotes about Wilson’s time in the majors when he made an appearance in the Giants’ home opener. The story originally appeared in an essay by John Lardner and featured a battle of wits between Leo Durocher and Charlie Dressen in an April 20, 1951, game at the Polo Grounds. Durocher sent Wilson to pinch hit for the Giants in the seventh inning and the Giants trailing 7-3.
Dressen brought Carl Furillo in from right field and stationed him at second base, putting three infielders on the left side of the infield. Dressen was daring the Wilson to pull the ball; instead, he hit a one-hopper to the mound and was retired when Don Newcombe threw him out.
Dressen had managed Wilson at Oakland, so he knew a way to foil his former player. Durocher’s reaction, as expected, cannot be printed.
After an eye injury ended his career in 1957, Wilson found success for nearly a half century as an automobile salesman in Oregon. A flashy dresser who was called “Dude” by his teammates, and with a love for children, Wilson made a smooth transition from the game to business. He retired in 2005, but not before making a new group of friends. Wilson never seemed to try and pressure potential buyers, White writes. He was more content to talk baseball with customers. Invariably, that led to a sale.
White’s research included delving deep into newspaper archives, but he also did interviews with more than 30 former players, including Mays. A former sportswriter and businessman, White writes with an easy conversational style that tells a compelling story. His interest in West Coast baseball and integration shows in his approach to the Artie Wilson story.
Wilson was more than a footnote in baseball history. His legacy, while not widely known, still resonates today. Wilson’s sacrifices — he experienced racism firsthand and never flinched, doing it with a smile and a friendliness that did not mask his competitive spirit — helped make integration a reality in leagues like the PCL. In Singles and Smiles, White adds a needed chapter to baseball history.
Here's a story I wrote for Sports Collectors Daily previewing Topps Five Star Baseball, which is due to be released the week of Aug. 29:
Here's a story I wrote for Sports Collectors Daily previewing the 2018 Bowman High Tek baseball set, which comes out in August:
Here's a story I wrote for Sports Collectors Daily about John Tassoni Jr., a former Rhode Island state senator who once was a pressman for a company that printed cards for Topps back in the 1990s:
Here's a podcast I did with Jesse Berrett, author of Pigskin Nation: How the NFL Remade American Politics, by University of Illinois Press:
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.
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.