Here's a story I wrote for Sports Collectors Daily about the 1962 Topps Football Bucks insert set:
Here is a story I wrote for Sports Collectors Daily about the record-setting 1914 Baltimore News card of Babe Ruth. There is plenty of history and legal intrigue behind this card:
He was known as Alexander the Great, and during a seven-year stretch Grover Cleveland Alexander was one of baseball’s top pitchers.
From 1911 through 1917, only Walter Johnson won more games. Alexander had a 190-88 record and led the National League in strikeouts five times. Johnson, meanwhile, went 197-99 during that stretch and led the American League in strikeouts six times.
But something happened to Alexander. He went overseas to fight during World War I, serving in France as a sergeant in the 342nd Field Artillery Regiment. He effectively missed the 1918 baseball season, appearing in three games and going 2-1.
When he returned, Alexander seemed fine physically, but the war haunted him. He began drinking heavily, and his bouts with epilepsy became more of a concern but remained hidden from the public view. Alexander likely suffered from “shell shock,” which is now called post-traumatic stress disorder.
Alexander would be elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1938 but by then his life was a haze of alcoholism. In November 1950, Alexander was found dead in a hotel room in his hometown of St. Paul, Nebraska.
Alexander “wasn’t the relaxed discharged soldier he appeared to be,” Jim Leeke writes in his latest book, The Best Team Over There: The Untold Story of Grover Cleveland Alexander and the Great War (University of Nebraska Press; $29.95; hardback; 247 pages). “And effects of combat jangled his nerves and his psyche.”
Alexander would win 27 games in 1920 to lead the N.L. for a sixth time. He won 181 games from 1919 through 1930 and achieved immortal status for coming out of the bullpen and striking out Tony Lazzeri with the bases loaded in Game 7 of the 1926 World Series.
But he was an effective pitcher and a troubled man for most of the 1920s.
Some writers believed Alexander was washed up. For example, an Aug. 18, 1921, headline in the Grenola (Kansas) Reader noted that “Alexander Nearing End of His Career.”
What many people knew about Alexander came from a rather sanitized — and at times inaccurate — portrayal by Ronald Reagan in the 1952 movie, “The Winning Team.”
Leeke helps add context and accuracy to the legend of Alexander, touching on the years before and after World War I but concentrating on the pitcher’s time in the military.
Leeke, an Ohio native who worked in a newspapers as a reporter, columnist and sportswriter, is no stranger to World War I history. Among his works are Ballplayers in the Great War: Newspaper Accounts of Major Leaguers in World War I Military Service (2013), which he compiled and annotated; the award-winning From the Dugouts to the Trenches: Baseball during the Great War (2017); and Nine Innings for the King in 2018.
Before the war, Alexander was nearly unstoppable. He won 28 games as a rookie in 1911 and became the only other pitcher besides Christy Mathewson to win 30 or more games in three consecutive seasons. During his career he won more than 20 game nine times and tied Mathewson for the National League record in victories with 373.
“That a youth with ‘Grover Cleveland Alexander’ wished on him at birth could succeed in any line of endeavor is strange,” a June 1911 wire story began. “Most hopefuls nicked with the monacher (sic) of eminent citizens are flagged at the post.”
“He knows nothing that resembles fatigue; he never sulks; he is always ready,” a wire dispatch noted two months later.
In 1915, Alexander led the Philadelphia Phillies to their first N.L. pennant by winning 31 games, throwing 12 shutouts, completing 36 games and posting an ERA of 1.22. Alexander led the National League in innings pitched seven times and topped 300 innings nine times.
And Alexander was a favorite of fans and teammates.
“Alexander is admired, he is loved by every member of his team,” St. Louis sportswriter Sid C. Keener wrote on the eve of the 1915 World Series.
Men named their children after him. The Butte (Montana) Miner reported in September 1916 that Jerry Kennedy a popular cigar clerk a local saloon, named his 12-pound, firstborn son Grover Cleveland Alexander Kennedy. That’s a mouthful.
A wire story in March 1917, when Alexander was holding out for $15,000, noted that “his long arm reached down in the baseball depths about eight stories and pulled a team that was chronically near the tail end up to a commanding position on the heights.”
The Phillies, despite enjoying success through Alexander, traded the pitcher and catcher Bill Killefer to the Chicago Cubs two weeks before Christmas 1917, news that was “a hefty lump of coal” for Philadelphia fans.
“The deal gutted the Phillies,” Leeke writes.
It was a pre-emptive move by Philadelphia. Team officials believed Alexander would be drafted, so they took the money and ran. So, the Phillies took the money and ran. As it turned out, Alexander was drafted, despite originally believing he would receive a low classification because his mother was dependent upon him.
“The Philadelphia-Chicago deal smells little better today,” Leeke writes.
Alexander’s drinking increased when he returned from Europe. He was also treated for a stomach condition while in France, Leeke writes, even though he said he had never been sick during his time the Army.
“The Great War put an end to my day dreaming of various records,” Alexander would say.
The war certainly ruined any chance of Alexander winning 400 games. He would lead the N.L. in innings pitched seven times and topped 300 innings nine times.
Leeke helps the reader understand what the men who served during World War I faced. He traces Alexander from his enlistment until he returned from Europe. Alexander received his training with the 342nd Field Artillery Regiment at Camp Funston in Kansas. The outfit was organized as “a motorized heavy-artillery outfit,” Leeke writes. Leeke draws from the regiment’s history to paint a picture of the fast-paced training Alexander and his colleagues went through.
What made this regiment stand out was its athletic talent, Leeke writes. In addition to Alexander, athletes in the regiment included Clarence Mitchell of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Otis Lambeth of the Cleveland Indians, Win Noyes of the Philadelphia Athletics and Chuck Ward of the Dodgers. Football star George “Potsy” Clark, who coach the Detroit Lions to an NFL championship in 1935, also was a member of the regiment.
In a nice touch, Leeke begins every chapter of The Best Team Over There with a war poem from famed sportswriter (and WWI Army lieutenant) Grantland Rice.
“They were surprisingly good,” Leeke told podcaster Dean Karayanis on the “History Author Show” in April. “Not what I expected. You know, some of his sport poems are very light and casual and funny. But the war poems, by and large, were not that.
“They have real emotion to them, some of them have real power to them.”
The doughboys at Camp Funston, meanwhile, were suffering through training because of the Kansas prairie’s extreme seasonal changes.
Soldiers found the camp “too hot in the summer, too cold in the winter, and too unpredictable in between,” Leeke writes.
As for Alexander, he had time for a quick wartime wedding, marrying Amy “Aimee” Marie Arrant on June 1, 1918, in Manhattan, Kansas. Alexander and his outfit shipped to Camp Mills, New York, two days later and headed overseas on June 28, Leeke writes.
Leeke devotes chapters to Alexander’s unit sailing to Great Britain and then to France. The 342nd arrived in Liverpool on July 10 after what Alexander called “a splendid journey.” Four days later they arrived in France and traveled to Camp de Souge, nicknamed “The Little Sahara.” The troops had to learn how to put on gas masks immediately, and that was always a concern.
Leeke writes that Alexander was soon promoted to corporal and had at least one epileptic seizure while in France. His promotion meant that he had less time to play baseball, although “the sport was wildly popular among Yanks serving in France.” Alexander would say that he pitched in five games during his time in France.
Alexander and his unit finally saw action in the St. Mihiel offensive, digging in at Bouillonville. Alexander heard the shelling by the Germans and at one point watched a shell bounce past him; fortunately, it was a dud, Leeke writes.
Alexander would be promoted to sergeant on Oct. 3, 1918, and became a gunner. Alexander would be praised for coolness under fire, exhibiting the same calm demeanor he had on the mound, Leeke writes. War, of course, has higher stakes, so Alexander’s men would come to appreciate his steely persona.
Leeke provides plenty of detail, putting the reader into the trenches.
It is unclear when Alexander became affected by PTSD, and he never discussed it directly.
“But none could have been unaffected by the sights, smells, and sounds of war,” Leeke writes, “The awkward spread of dead animals, the terrifying whiff of gas, the deafening tom-tom-tom of the howitzers.”
No wonder “John Barleycorn had begun tightening his grip” on Alexander, who first began drinking hard liquor in France.
A decade later, Alexander “never budged” during a spring training game when some children set off fireworks in the grandstand.
“He just sat there stiff as a board, teeth clenched, fist doubled over so tight his knuckles were white,” teammate Bill Hallahan recalled.
Alexander’s unit remained in occupied Germany until early 1919, and Alexander finally returned to the United States that spring. After losing a 1-0 decision to Cincinnati on May 9, Alexander finished the year with a 16-11 record and a league-leading 1.72 ERA and nine shutouts.
Alexander always insisted he was sober when he came into Game 7 of the 1926 World Series to fan Lazzeri to save the Cardinals’ lead. The Winning Team movie used it as its final scene, but Alexander pitched two more scoreless innings, helped when Babe Ruth was caught stealing for the final out of the game.
Life was not kind to Alexander after baseball. His wife divorced him and he worked in a penny arcade and flea circus in New York’s Times Square. After making an appearance at the opening of the Hall of Fame, “the broken-down pitcher resumed his rocky road to nowhere,” Leeke writes.
In November 1940 he received treatment at a Veterans Administration hospital in the Bronx. In 1944 police found him wandering around the streets of East St. Louis, Illinois, in his pajamas at 2 a.m. In May 1949 he fractured a vertebra in his neck after falling down a flight of stairs at an Albuquerque hotel. Later that year he was admitted to a Los Angeles hospital to be treated for skin cancer.
Alexander’s final association with baseball game in 1950, when he visited Yankee Stadium for the final two games of the World Series, which featured the Phillies in the Fall Classic for the first time since Old Pete led his squad in 1915. He died several months later.
Leeke was not writing a definitive biography about Alexander. Rather, he concentrated on the pitcher's time in the military while bookending his life before and after World War I.
The research is detailed and extensive, with 24 pages of end notes and a meticulous bibliography.
Leeke’s writing is straightforward and clear, and his narrative is entertaining.
The Best Team Over There is a fine work of sports and military history. It gives the reader some new perspective about players who went overseas to fight during World War I, and perhaps answers some questions about why Alexander could not escape his demons after returning.
Lyle Spatz and Steve Steinberg are the Rodgers and Hammerstein of baseball history.
That may seem like an odd comparison, but read the collaborative efforts of Spatz and Steinberg. Their prose sings.
Their latest effort is perhaps their most challenging project together, but one both baseball historians tackled with relish to produce a very interesting narrative.
Comeback Pitcher: The Remarkable Careers of Howard Ehmke and Jack Quinn (University of Nebraska Press; hardback; $39.95; 473 pages) is a look at two pitchers whose careers spanned the deadball and lively ball eras of the 1910s and 1920s.
Neither are really household names, which is interesting when one considers that Quinn won 247 games during his 23-year major league career — including a two-year stint in the Federal League. Ehmke pitched 15 seasons in the majors and had a 166-166 record.
The authors note in the book’s preface that many major leaguers “are not headliners but rather men who contribute to their teams’ success while occasionally flirting with stardom.”
That captures Ehmke and Quinn perfectly.
Ehmke confounded the experts when he struck out a record 13 hitters as a surprise starter in Game 1 of the 1929 World Series. Quinn held the record of being the oldest pitcher to win a game, a mark that stood for nearly 80 years.
Quinn was 49 years, 70 days old when, pitching for the Brooklyn Dodgers on Sept. 13, 1932, he went five innings in relief to pick up 6-5 victory in the first game of a doubleheader against the St. Louis Cardinals. Jamie Moyer was 49 years, 141 days old on April 17, 2012 when he went seven innings as a starter for the Colorado Rockies and beat the San Diego Padres 5-3.
That is, we think that is how old Quinn was. He was one of the last legal spitball pitchers before his career ended in 1933 with the Cincinnati Reds, and during his playing days he was coy about his origins — or perhaps, he simply didn’t know.
Quinn’s birthdate and place of birth “were one of baseball’s enduring mysteries,” the authors write. “He added to his enigma by his vagueness and differing stories.”
The authors title their first chapter, “Jack Quinn, Man of Mystery,” and it is easy to see why.
It took a family relative by marriage, after a decade of genealogical research, to finally nail down Quinn’s birthdate of July 1, 1883, in the Slovakian town of Stefurov, which at the time was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The relative, Mike Scott, concluded that Quinn never told his age because “he never knew.” Quinn’s mother died shortly after the family moved to the United States, and his father worked long hours in the Pennsylvania coal mines.
John Picus Quinn’s middle name was an Americanization of his father’s surname, Pajkos. The authors note that Quinn changed his last name to Quinn because there were very few Eastern European baseball players, and prejudices ran high. “Quinn” sounded like an Irish name, and baseball had plenty of Irishmen at the turn of the 20th century.
These nuggets of information are typical of a Spatz-Steinberg collaboration, and their latest work is deeply researched and has 81 pages of end notes. Their bibliography runs an additional 20 pages and includes books, magazines, websites, articles from the Society of American Baseball Research and even a 2016 letter from then-Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens.
Spatz and Steinberg are award-winning writers who have collaborated on two previous books: “1921: The Yankees, the Giants and the Battle for Baseball Supremacy in New York” in 2010, and 2015’s “The Colonel and Hug: The Partnership that Transformed the New York Yankees.”
Separately, Spatz has written several books, including 2011’s Dixie Walker: A Life in Baseball, Hugh Casey: The Triumphs and Tragedies of a Brooklyn Dodger, in 2017, and New York Yankees Openers: An Opening Day History of Baseball’s Most Famous Team, 1903-2017.
Steinberg’s body of solo work includes Urban Shocker: Silent Hero of Baseball’s Golden Age in 2017, and The World Series in the Deadball Era in 2018.
Their partnership is a smooth one, with “a true collaboration” bringing out the best in every subject they research. It is not a choppy book, where one writer’s style stands out so it is easy to determine which author wrote a particular chapter. Other than a few overlaps here and there, it is a seamless work.
“As with a personal relationship, when it works well, it is rewarding and enriching,” Steinberg told SABR writer Bill Lamb in an interview. “But it takes more effort than a solo project.”
Speaking of partnerships, Quinn and Ehmke were teammates for several years. Both played for the Boston Red Sox from 1923 through 1926, and for the Philadelphia Athletics from 1926 to 1930.
Throughout their careers, the authors write, both men were written off as washed up and over the hill. Quinn, who debuted for the New York Highlanders (now Yankees) in 1909, was written off as a has-been as early as 1912. And yet, he went 26-14 for the Federal League’s Baltimore Terrapins in 1914 and had 10 seasons with double-digit victories. He won 18 games with New York in 1910 and 18 a decade later with the Yankees. In Philadelphia he went 18-7 in 1928.
“I was as strong as an ox … and could throw pretty smart,” Quinn once said.
Having a spitball in his arsenal helped, too. Quinn kept defying the odds, even when newspaper accounts noted that there were “plenty of folks in New York willing to testify that Quinn is through as a top-notcher.
Quinn had the last laugh. He was durable and still pitching in semipro leagues into his 50s.
Ehmke, meanwhile, also won at least 10 games 10 times during his career. He had a baffling array of pitches and windups, including a submarine delivery that seemed to come from the ground. Ehmke could also throw sidearm and overhand. He won 20 games in 1923 for a Red Sox team that only had 61 victories and followed it up with 19 in 1924 for a seventh-place Boston squad that won just 67 times.
Ehmke was hailed as “the next Walter Johnson” when he played for the Detroit Tigers in 1916. Ehmke pitched six seasons in Detroit, but the friction between him and Ty Cobb in 1921 and 1922, when the Georgia Peach was the Tigers’ manager, is intriguing.
Before Cobb became manager in 1921, Ehmke made it known that he wanted to be traded. “He and Cobb had not had an open breach in 1920, but both thought it best they stay apart,” the authors write.
Cobb would later refer to Ehmke as “indifferent,” and intimated that he lacked courage, while the pitcher called his manager “Detroit’s greatest pennant handicap.”
When Ehmke was traded to Boston and faced the Tigers in May 1923, he hit three batters, including Cobb. When Ehmke went under the stands after the game, Cobb was waiting for him, the authors write. Cobb won the fight, but Ehmke said he had more satisfaction from winning the game.
“I’d still rather be the winning pitcher than the winner of the fight,” he said.
Both Ehmke and Quinn found a home in Philadelphia, just as Connie Mack was returning the Athletics to prominence.
The authors write that during most of the 1929 season several of Philadelphia’s top players “had little use” for the Ehmke, including Al Simmons, who reportedly exchanged punches with the pitcher.
But Ehmke was 35 and wanted to pitch in a World Series, and Mack sent him to scout the Cubs during the final month of the season. That was no secret; the stunner was that Ehmke would start the series opener.
“The thought was that Ehmke was scouting the Cubs for the benefit of Mack and the A’s players,” the authors write. “Little did they realize he was scouting them for himself.”
The Cubs were primarily fastball hitters, and Ehmke’s “lazy motion and slow stuff” tripped them up.
Mack, appearing in a World Series for the first time since 1914 and winning a postseason game for the first time since 1913, called that Game 1 victory his greatest day in baseball.
“Ehmke had risen above the criticism and injuries he had endured those sixteen years to pitch the game of his life,” the authors write, noting that his 13 strikeouts topped the World Series record set in 1906 by Ed Walsh.
When Carl Erskine struck out 14 Yankees in Game 3 of the 1953 World Series, Ehmke sent the Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher a congratulatory telegram, the authors write.
Erskine had no idea he had set a record and did not know who had held it.
“I’m still not sure that I can even spell that fellow’s name right,” Erskine told reporters.
Ehmke would be released in May 1930. He later went on to have a successful business career producing sports tarpaulins for outdoor sports events. He remained close to Connie Mack and Philadelphia baseball events, attending old-timers’ games. He also was an enthusiastic golfer who shot in the low 80s, playing in tournaments up until a week before his death in 1959.
At 46, Quinn became the oldest pitcher to start World Series game when he opened at Shibe Park in Game 4. However, he was trailing 6-0 when he left the game after facing four batters in the sixth.
Fortunately for Quinn, that effort is hardly remembered, because the Athletics pulled off the biggest comeback in World Series history, scoring 10 runs in the seventh inning to win 10-8 and take a 3-1 lead in the Fall Classic.
The following year Quinn became the oldest player to appear in a World Series game, pitching the final two innings of Game 3 in a 5-0 loss. He was released after the Series and was picked up by the Dodgers, where he led the National League in saves in with 13 in 1931 and nine in 1932. He got into 14 games with the Reds in 1933 before he was released, pitching his final game a week after he turned 50.
While Ehmke had a comfortable retirement, Quinn scrambled to stay in baseball, pitching for semipro teams and even managing the House of David squad. However, his world was ripped apart in July 1940 when his wife Georgiana (known as Gene) tripped on a sprinkler and fell over a park bench during a family gathering. Her leg injury led to gangrene and she died two days later.
“It was a blow from which he would not recover,” the authors write.
Quinn began drinking heavily and died in 1946 from cirrhosis of the liver.
“He drank his sorrow — to death,” a family friend said.
Comeback Pitchers might be a niche read, but it is a fascinating look at two pitchers who made their mark, particularly during the free-swinging 1920s. Spatz and Steinberg lift both pitchers out of the haze and obscurity and show them for what they were — very good pitchers in an era that focused on hitters.
Here's a story I wrote for Sports Collectors Daily about the 1963 Topps Peel-Offs baseball insert:
Here is a story I wrote for Sports Collectors Daily about the 1961 Nu-Card Scoops set, a product that looked like a newspaper front:
I like when authors select a baseball season and put it in the context of history, pop culture, politics, literature and media. It’s a wonderful combination, and David Krell has chosen an interesting year to examine.
In 1962, I was 5 and getting ready for kindergarten in Brooklyn, New York. At that age I was probably oblivious to what was going on in the world (although I could name every president of the United States), but there was a great deal to absorb.
The Cold War was ramping up to a possible confrontation over missiles in Cuba, and the U.S. was cutting into the Russians’ lead in the space race. Musically, listeners were caught between the Elvis phenomenon of the late 1950s and the British invasion that would be spearheaded by The Beatles in 1964. Television was coming into its own with new and inventive programs, and movies and books were beginning to push the boundaries of staid, traditional fare.
Baseball completed its first round of expansion with new National League franchises in Houston and New York, capped by a memorable playoff between ancient rivals and a riveting World Series.
That is the backdrop for David Krell’s latest book, 1962: Baseball and America in the Time of JFK (University of Nebraska Press; $34.95; hardback; 335 pages).
Krell has a natural love for baseball, and it shows. Meshing the national pastime with popular culture has been a strength; in 2019 he edited “The New York Yankees in Popular Culture: Critical Essays,” and last year he edited “The New York Mets in Popular Culture.” In 2015, Krell wrote “Our Bums: The Brooklyn Dodgers in History, Memory and Popular Culture.”
Krell’s writing philosophy is summarized neatly on his website: “Writing is a demanding process. At times, terrifying. And I love it!”
The process is made easier by an extensive bibliography in 1962, with more than 145 books, comic books, movies and television stations referenced.
The notes are meticulous and exhaustive, too. Krell not only pulls materials from newspapers, magazines, television episodes, movies, and archives. He also makes extensive use of contacting sources via telephone, email and even snail mail (that was big in 1962, by the way) from Mary Frances Early, the first Black graduate at the University of Georgia. The telephone interviews include primary sources — Sherri Chessen, the “Romper Room” hostess whose “private choice to terminate a pregnancy became a public story,” is one example — along with relatives such as Sara Karloff, the daughter of actor Boris Karloff; Jayne Barbera, the daughter of the Joseph Barbera (of the Hanna-Barbera cartoon animation team); and Dinn Mann, the grandson of former Houston Colt .45s (and Astros) owner Judge Roy Hofheinz.
There is plenty for the reader to chew on in 1962, particularly Krell’s exploration of popular culture. But he throws a curve in the first paragraph of the first chapter, noting that Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ’Round the World” was “music to the ears of Brooklynites.” Unless Krell meant a sad trombone sound or a Chopin’s “Funeral March” funeral dirge. I cannot conceive of any Dodgers fan who found that musically magical unless I am misreading it.
After that shaky start, Krell settles into a smoother pattern. He concentrates on five key teams during the 1962 season. The expansion teams are awarded plenty of attention, along with the Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco Giants and the New York Yankees. Krell gives brief capsules about each team’s players. There is a great deal of detail about the birth of the Houston franchise, which tends to be overlooked because the Mets grabbed the spotlight because of their lovable ineptitude.
However, bringing baseball to the Lone Star State was a big deal, and Krell touches all the bases.
While Krell does not delve too deeply into the nuts and bolts of baseball in 1962 — there is no need for play-by-play or minutiae, since that can be read elsewhere — there is enough narration to keep baseball fans interested. Krell takes a broader view, focusing his attention on the political, social and cultural shifts that were taking place.
There are good baseball stories, too. Krell revisits Bo Belinsky, who threw a no-hitter in 1962 and married actress Mamie Van Doren. The statuesque Van Doren posed for Playboy and admitted that life with Belinsky was “a circus” but also “a wild ride and a lot of fun.” As for Belinsky, Krell writes that “the more (Belinsky) pushed aside his conscience, the more fun he had.”
Krell also digs into the television shows of the era, like “Car 54, Where Are You?” “77 Sunset Strip,” “The Real McCoys,” and “The Beverly Hillbillies.” That is because watching television “was a nationwide habit heavily rooted in our DNA by the early 1960s,” Krell writes.
Book plots are also discussed. “Seven Days in May” (one of the great Burt Lancaster-Kirk Douglas pairings when it was adapted to the silver screen in 1964) and “Fail-Safe,” are novels that played on the paranoia of power grabs, nuclear disarmament and nuclear weapons.
“Hollywood’s output in 1962 is staggering,” Krell writes about the movies that were prominent in 1962: “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” “Lolita,” “The Longest Day,” “How the West Was Won,” “Cape Fear,” “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” and the Oscar-winning “Lawrence of Arabia.” The star power was big, too, with John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Cary Grant, Doris Day, Lee Marvin and Steve McQueen landing prominent roles. The Oscars for best actor and actress would go to Gregory Peck (“To Kill a Mockingbird”) and Anne Bancroft (“The Miracle Worker”).
For all of its plusses, 1962 does contain some errors, particularly on the baseball side. Powel Crosley, the former owner of the Cincinnati Reds, is spelled as “Powell.” That’s a common mistake, something I would liken to the Bidwill family that owned the Cardinals football team (often misspelled as Bidwell, for example).
Krell notes that Lou Gehrig made his “Luckiest Man” speech in July 1939, “three years before his death.” Gehrig actually died in June 1941, nearly two years after his emotional farewell speech.
In a capsule about Tommy Davis, Krell writes that the Dodgers’ slugger was 18 when Jackie Robinson broke the color line in 1947. Davis, who was born in 1939, was actually 8 years old at the time.
Krell notes that Jim Gilliam’s “body of work” resulted in five pennants and three World Series titles while he was a player for the Dodgers. Gilliam actually played for seven pennant winners in Brooklyn and Los Angeles, and four World Series champions (1955, 1959, 1963 and 1965).
Elvis Presley made his first television appearance in 1955, Krell writes; if so, it must have been on a local station. The King’s first national appearance occurred on Jan. 28, 1956, on “The Dorsey Brothers Stage Show” in New York. The Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, meanwhile, is referred to as the “Fountainbleu” during an interview with Carla Kirkeby. That just might be poor transcription; the hotel has been misspelled hundreds of times through the years.
Krell also writes that Ralph Houk “helmed” the Yankees from 1961 to 1973. I guess “helmed” could be taken to mean Houk’s tenure as the team’s general manager (1964 to 1966), because he did not manage then. Yogi Berra (1964) and Johnny Keane (1965 and part of 1966) did; Houk returned to the dugout when Keane was dismissed 20 games into the 1966 season.
And while the telephone interviews were instructive and fascinating, some of them covered several pages. Krell’s phone interview with Chessen, while fascinating, was spread across five pages. I am not sure whether some paraphrasing might have worked better, particularly since the interview does not reference the questions asked. Or did Krell just ask one question and Chessen took off on a long explanation? It’s possible, I suppose.
I did not find the long interview distracting — this was stuff I didn’t know about, so I was hanging on every word — but perhaps others might have.
Overall, 1962 is the type of book Krell excels at — a cultural deep dive that examines what was trending in a particular year, and how it impacted how we saw the world. The book was slanted more toward politics and popular culture instead of baseball, and John F. Kennedy was not the central figure of the book. Politically he was prominent, especially with the Cuban Missile Crisis in October and his determined goal of winning the space race. Jackie Kennedy’s tour of the White House with CBS correspondent Charles Collingwood was unprecedented and gave Americans a glimpse into the country’s most famous address.
The 1962 baseball season ended with a rocket of a line drive off the bat of Willie McCovey, snared by Bobby Richardson to preserve the Yankees’ 1-0 win in Game 7 of the World Series. Later that month, civilization teetered on the brink of a nuclear holocaust because of rockets based only 90 miles away from the Florida mainland.
It’s an interesting parallel.
Krell’s book is a nice, well-rounded view of a year that was promising and turbulent, sometimes at the same time. He goes beyond nuts-and-bolts baseball in 1962, presenting the United States as it looked midway through Camelot.
Here's a story I wrote for Sports Collectors Daily about a woman who shared her aunt's photographs taken in Atlanta on the night Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth's home run record:
Here's a story I wrote for Sports Collectors Daily about a Wheatland Auctions sale that will feature the collection of Marshall Samuel, a baseball executive for more than five decades. Some of his items include a 1978 World Series ring.
Here is a story I wrote for Sports Collectors Daily about Heritage Auctions' spring sale, which included a record price for a Michael Jordan game-used jersey.
Here's a story I wrote for Sports Collectors Daily about the release later this year of Topps Triple Threads baseball:
Hall of Famers are normally famous for their achievements. Tony Lazzeri had a stellar 14-year career, played on six American League pennant winners and five World Series champions. He drove in 100 or more runs seven times, had a career .292 batting average, and had double-digit numbers in home runs in 10 seasons despite batting in the lower third of the order.
And yet, for many years, Lazzeri was noted for his biggest failure — striking out in a key situation during Game 7 of the 1926 World Series. Grover Cleveland Alexander, who struck out Lazzeri that day, has a notation on his Hall of Fame plaque from 1938 that states the pitcher “won 1926 World Championship for Cardinals by striking out Lazzeri with bases full in final crisis at Yankee Stadium.”
As Lawrence Baldassaro writes in his incisive biography about the Yankees’ second baseman, Lazzeri was “relegated to the dustbin of baseball history.”
In Tony Lazzeri: Yankees Legend and Baseball Pioneer (University of Nebraska Press; $34.95; hardback; 314 pages), Baldassaro highlights the career of a player who was overlooked but played a key role as a baseball pioneer. A decade before Joe DiMaggio broke into the game, Lazzeri was the first truly big Italian American baseball star. Sure, there was Ping Bodie (born Francesco Stefano Pezzolo), who played from 1911 to 1921, but Richard Ben Cramer described Bodie as “slow of everything but mouth.” In the National League, Babe Pinelli played in the National League from 1922 to 1927 but would have more lasting fame as a major league umpire.
Baldassaro provides a deeply researched chronicle of Lazzeri’s baseball career, and also shines a light onto Lazzeri’s personal life, including his battle with epilepsy.
The most interesting revelations in Tony Lazzeri are the blatant ethnic slurs he endured — a lot of it coming from sportswriters who believed they were adding colorful adjectives to a story.
But, be honest — what player of Italian heritage would want to be known as the “Walloping Wop,” as one writer wrote in an otherwise glowing description.
Baldassaro is a professor emeritus of Italian at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. He has written Beyond DiMaggio: Italian Americans in Baseball (2011); Baseball Italian Style: Great Stories Told by Italian American Major Leaguers from Crosetti to Piazza (2018); and The Ted Williams Reader in 1991. A native of Chicopee, Massachusetts, Baldassaro watched his first major league game in 1954, when he attended an exhibition game between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Giants.
Although a pitcher as a youth, Baldassaro notes that a favorite glove bought for him by his father was a Yogi Berra catcher’s mitt.
In Tony Lazzeri, Baldassaro provides a nuanced view of Italian Americans — on and off the baseball diamond.
Some of those sportswriters’ descriptions may have been rooted in how Americans perceived Italian immigrants during the first three decades of the 20th century. This is the most fascinating part of Baldassaro’s narrative. Mistrust had been fueled for decades, Baldassaro writes, with even The New York Times depicting Italian immigrants as prone to crime and violence.
In 1926, Lazzeri’s rookie season with the Yankees, the most public figures of Italian descent were gangster Al Capone and anarchists Niccolo Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Baldassaro notes.
Lazzeri was overshadowed during his career by Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and DiMaggio, but “Poosh-Em-Up Tony” was a steady force on those Yankees’ pennant winners. He was not a nationwide sensation like Ruth — even though he became the first professional baseball player to hit 60 home runs in a season (in 197 games with Salt Lake City during 1925) — but Lazzeri was popular with the Italian populations of every stop in the American League.
In Luckiest Man, Jonathan Eig described Lazzeri as “a tall, skinny kid, with big ears, a prominent nose, and cheekbones that looked as if they might poke through his flesh.” Baldassaro adds the impressions of sportswriters of the 1920s, who described Lazzeri as “swarthy,” “olive-skinned,” with high cheekbones and “smoldering eyes.”
Lazzeri was accepted as a baseball player, but many writers could not exist stirring their stories with strong ethnic undertones, reminding readers that “he was not quite one of us.”
“He remained, essentially, equal but separate, sometimes on the fringes of mainstream American culture,” Baldassaro writes.
Dialect headlines describing Lazzeri’s baseball ability began in The Salt Lake Tribune in 1925, intended as terms of endearment but laughable and insulting today. After hitting his 58th home run that year, Baldassaro writes, the Tribune headline read, “Our Tone, She Poosh Um Oop Two Time, Maka da Feefty-eight.”
Other than the ethnic angle, Lazzeri usually received just passing mention by authors writing about the Yankees of the 1920s and ’30s.
Paul Gallico wrote in 1942’s Lou Gehrig: Pride of the “Yankees” that Lazzeri “was no slouch with his funny sliding swing that could park a ball into the bleachers.”
Charlie Gentile noted in 2014’s The 1928 New York Yankees that Lazzeri was “considered by many” to be the best second baseman in baseball and worth “at least $150,000” to other teams. Steve Steinberg and Lyle Spatz quoted Miller Huggins praising Lazzeri in their 2015 work, The Colonel and Hug. The Yankees manager declared that players like Lazzeri “come around once in a generation” and called him “a dead game guy and a terrific competitor.”
Baldassaro notes that while Lazzeri’s work on the field was public, there was plenty of mystery about his private life. Even something as innocuous as Lazzeri’s middle name was open for debate. It could have been Michael, Marco or even Mark. Baseball-Reference.com lists it as Michael, and so does the Society for American Baseball Research. However, Lazzeri’s father filed an affidavit to Canadian authorities when Lazzeri was about to take a job managing the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1940, Baldassaro writes, and the middle name was listed as “Marco.” Other legal documents also support Marco or Mark, but even Lazzeri’s descendants are unsure.
Other fuzzy details Baldassaro attempts to sharpen include where Lazzeri grew up in San Francisco, and his marriage to Maye Janes — when Lazzeri proposed, he told Maye that he would not leave to play ball in Peoria unless she accompanied him.
“I wasn’t sure he loved me, but I knew Tony loved baseball,” Maye Lazzeri said in a 1989 interview. I couldn’t believe he was ready to give up baseball for me.”
Later, Baldassaro explores the time Lazzeri filed for divorce in December 1936 on the grounds of cruelty. A day later, the couple reconciled, and there was no mention of it again.
“It’s as if this brief drama … immediately disappeared into a black hole, leaving behind no evidence of the issues that led Lazzeri to seek a divorce,” Baldassaro writes.
Baldassaro also visits Lazzeri’s contract squabbles with the Yankees. He had a minor tiff with general manager Edward Barrow in 1930 but came to terms quickly. After Lazzeri had a dismal season in 1931, Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert speculated that his player was distracted by heavy losses in the stock market.
Baldassaro disputes that notion, noting that Lazzeri and his wife bought a six-room house in 1932. If they had lost so much money, “would they have been able to recoup enough of their losses in the height of the Depression to enable them to make such a purchase?” he writes.
The author speculates that injury — or perhaps increased episodes with epilepsy — might have been the cause for Lazzeri’s struggles. If Lazzeri’s medication dosage was increased during that time, for example, his reflexes could have been impacted.
While Baldassaro is unable to prove the epilepsy theory, it is certainly plausible.
Lazzeri’s health issues led to trade rumors during the early 1930s, but the Yankees never made the deal. Good thing, too. Lazzeri’s greatest game came in May 1936, when, batting eighth, he hit a pair of grand slams, a solo homer and a triple and drove in 11 runs. The day before, Lazzeri hit three homers during a doubleheader. His six home runs in three consecutive games set a major league record that stood until 2002, when Shawn Green had seven, Baldassaro writes.
Baldassaro’s research is excellent. His bibliography includes 68 books, articles and papers, and there are 19 pages of end notes that reference newspaper articles, census records and scrapbooks from the Lazzeri family. The only major glitches came when Baldassaro mistakenly mixed up Lefty Gomez with Lefty Grove (page 182), and calling the St. Petersburg Times the Tampa Bay Times (a title they did not adopt until 2012) in a 1934 article (also page 182).
Those are minor blemishes. The biggest blemish on Lazzeri’s career — the strikeout against Alexander in 1926 — was washed away when he was elected to the Hall of Fame.
Tony Lazzeri helps the reader get beneath the surface of those great Yankees teams of the 1920s and 1930s. Lazzeri was a driving force on offense, played strong defense and provided leadership and other intangibles that were crucial to the team’s success. Baldassaro also weaves in the ethnic attitudes of the day, asserting that while Lazzeri was not the first Italian American baseball player, his success helped open the door for others.
Baldassaro’s work cuts across baseball, history and social channels, and is an enriching read.
Here is a review I wrote for Sport In American History, The Short Life of Hughie McLoon:
At first glance, Thurman Munson did not look like a “traditional” member of the New York Yankees. He was grumpy, abrasive and not afraid to get down and dirty. His 1971 APBA baseball game card listed his nickname as “Squatty.” But let’s be frank: In the 1970s, Munson was the perfect Yankee: Gritty, tough, intense and focused on winning. He played hurt, and he played well.
If you rooted for the Yankees during that time — it’s been called the “Horace Clarke era” because the second baseman, fairly or unfairly, epitomized the dog days of baseball in the Bronx — Munson was the working class guy you wanted to lead your team.
I was a teenager during the early part of the 1970s and a Yankees fan, so I was not spoiled by the dominance New York enjoyed between 1921 and 1964 — 29 pennants, 20 World Series titles — so even getting close to the playoffs was a big deal.
But we know the facts: Munson was a seven-time All-Star and the American League’s Most Valuable player in 1976. But Munson’s shocking and untimely death in an Aug. 2, 1979, plane crash as he was practicing takeoffs and landings at an airport near his home in Canton, Ohio, cut short what should have been a Hall of Fame career.
We don’t know what Munson was like away from the field, but former Yankees player and teammate Ron Blomberg, along with author Dan Epstein, provide some much-needed perspective about the Yankees team captain. The Captain & Me: On and Off the Field with Thurman Munson (Triumph Books; $28; hardback; 284 pages) is a warm, funny, sentimental and honest look at a player who was misunderstood and underappreciated by many baseball fans outside of New York.
The cover of the book is a clever adaptation of a 1970 Topps baseball rookie card, the year Munson won the American League Rookie of the Year award. The book’s title comes from a 1973 album of the same name by the Doobie Brothers, a favorite group of Munson’s and the year Blomberg made history in Boston by becoming major league baseball’s first designated hitter.
Epstein properly notes that The Captain & Me is not a straight biography of Munson. That’s been done before, most notably and thoroughly in 2009’s Munson: The Life and Death of a Yankee Captain by Marty Appel. And Blomberg covered his own career in his 2012 autobiography, Designated Hebrew.
This book is more like a conversation with Blomberg at the old Stage Deli in Manhattan, which had a sandwich named for him – a triple-decker combination of corned beef, pastrami and chopped liver, topped with a Bermuda onion (“I always thought chopped liver was disgusting, so I could never actually eat it,” he writes). Blomberg’s eating exploits may have been more prodigious than his sweet left-handed swing that was tailor-made for old Yankee Stadium’s 296-foot porch in right field.
nterestingly enough, Blomberg hit 34 home runs from 1969 to 1973 at the original Yankee Stadium. Blomberg hit 17 at home and 16 on the road.
Blomberg, 72, opens The Captain & Me with a food anecdote on the day he debuted as a DH. Blomberg was devouring deviled eggs at a rapid clip in the clubhouse, and Munson was not pleased. The two were first-round draft choices of the Yankees — Blomberg was the No. 1 overall pick in 1967, and Munson was No. 4 overall in 1968.
Blomberg could see right away that Munson was all-business about baseball. “Once he was on the field, he was deadly serious about playing and winning,” Blomberg writes.
The pair became friends in September 1969 and shared their experiences through the years. Blomberg introduced Munson to matzo ball soup and got him hooked on pastrami and corned beef on rye, instead of than White Castle burgers. Munson was a devoted family man, and Blomberg was able to see his softer side.
“Tough and gruff as he seemed on the surface, he was really over the moon about becoming a dad,” Blomberg writes. “It was like he would visibly soften into a giant teddy bear whenever the subject came up.”
Blomberg, meanwhile, peppers the reader with baseball anecdotes, and his legendary eating habits are usually part of the stew. By hitting the buffet too many times at the Chateau Madrid in Fort Lauderdale during spring training, Blomberg caused the team to be banned from the restaurant. Teammates were upset at management, but “they were really upset at me for ruining such a good dining situation,” he writes.
Epstein’s job in The Captain & Me is to provide historical context and a timeline, and he does it well. He is uniquely positioned to write about 1970s baseball, with two excellent books to his credit — Big Hair and Plastic Grass: Baseball and America in the Swinging ’70s in 2010, and Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Season of 1976 in 2014. Epstein breaks up Blomberg’s narrative with good information and statistics.
Blomberg, meanwhile, explores his good relationship with Munson — as opposed to the catcher’s battles with the media.
Munson “had no patience with doing interviews, and no trust in most of the writers,” Blomberg writes. “When you are in the clubhouse, this is my house,” Munson once explained to Blomberg. “I do what I want to do, and I talk to who I want to talk to. And if I want to get in someone’s face, I get in someone’s face.”
As a sportswriter, I’ve been on the receiving end of that. Telling an athlete that while the clubhouse may be his home, it is my office, does not get a warm reaction.
But Munson was generous with young pitchers and knew how to call a game. If pitchers trusted him, invariably they would become more effective. He was a quiet prankster, too, and loved to fish and play golf.
Munson also had a soft spot for children with medical issues or veterans and would take the time to autograph baseballs and chat with them, Blomberg writes. Munson and Blomberg would often make unannounced and unpublicized visits to children’s hospitals.
“You should have seen how great Thurman was with these kids,” Blomberg writes. “His whole attitude would change, because he loved to see kids laughing and playing, and he would whatever he could to get them to smile.”
Blomberg admits that the public and the media never saw that side of Munson, noting that “the writers probably wouldn’t have even recognized the guy he was around those kids.”
Blomberg also writes about Munson’s trickery on the field and how he was able to scuff baseballs without the home plate umpires catching him in the act. Or how he would spit to signal the first baseman that a snap throw was coming. Blomberg also reveals how Munson would slip him a “greenie” — an amphetamine that was “really like a No Doz” — “just something to wake you up.”
“All of a sudden I felt like I was in ‘The Jetsons!’ Blomberg writes. “I felt great and ready to play. But when I got up to the plate, I was so hyper my hands were shaking, and the ball looked like three balls coming at me.”
That was a one-off for Blomberg, who points out that Munson did not take drugs and was more of a “natural high guy.”
Blomberg’s stories about record producer Nat Tarnopol are interesting, and the relationship was “like a fantasy for me and Thurman.” As president of Brunswick Records, Tarnopol oversaw 19 top-10 hits on the Billboard charts between 1970 and 1975. He would introduce Blomberg and Munson to some “heavy hitters” in the business world — and the underworld, too.
“I was really naïve about these guys, to be honest; I didn’t realize until years later that they were gangsters,” Blomberg writes. “But they were big-hearted guys who treated Thurman and I like we were their long-lost brothers, and they’d do anything for us.”
Tarnopol bought cars for both players, and they never had to wait for a table or buy a meal when they were his guests. The record executive even considered buying the Yankees from CBS, but the network would not sell to him, Blomberg writes.
Blomberg and Munson also mingled with singers like Frankie Valli, Tommy James and Jay Black.
What is also interesting in The Captain & Me is Blomberg’s insight into the rivalry between Munson and his Boston catching rival, Carlton Fisk. The two rumbled after a memorable collision at the plate during the ninth inning of a 2-2 game at Fenway Park on Aug. 1, 1973. Both catchers were ejected, but the die was cast. There was no love lost between them.
“I think that had Thurman lived, he would still hate Fisk today,” Blomberg writes. “And if Fisk died tomorrow, him and Thurman would have a fight up in heaven.”
Left unsaid, but probably true, is that Munson probably would have done a slow burn after Fisk was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2000. Blomberg believes Munson belongs in Cooperstown, but the catcher never received more than 15.5% during the 15 years he was eligible in for election by tenured members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. He did not fare well in later voting by the Veterans Committee.
For those who want to see the pros and cons about putting Munson in the Hall, a 2019 article by Chris Haft of MLB.com is required reading.
Put Blomberg in the “pros” category.
“In my view, his skills, his accomplishments, his leadership, and what he did for baseball” qualify him for enshrinement, Blomberg writes.
That remains to be seen. As memories dim, so do achievements. Munson had plenty of intangibles that made him great, but number crunchers may not be impressed by his career marks. Munson led the Yankees to three consecutive World Series (1976-1978) and had the wild-card format been around during the 1970s, New York would have made the postseason in 1970 and 1974.
The Captain & Me is a wonderful tribute and is full of stories — funny, touching and sad. Injuries shortened Blomberg’s career, and he left New York and finished his career with the Chicago White Sox in 1978. There are great stories about Reggie Jackson, Billy Martin, George Steinbrenner, Sam McDowell and Mickey Rivers. And even a few about Horace Clarke.
As it turns out, that era wasn’t so bad after all.
Here is a podcast I did on the New Books Network with Bruce Berglund, author of The Fastest Game in the World.
Here's a story I wrote for Sports Collectors Daily about 2021 Topps Luminaries, a very high-end product that is coming out in August:
Hands down, the 1972 Topps baseball set was the coolest group of baseball cards during the 1970s. The cards had that psychedelic look with bold team names, occasional action shots and throwbacks like Boyhood Photos of the Stars. The “In Action” cards also had a nice baseball brain teaser, “So You’re a Baseball Expert,” which tested your knowledge about the rules of the game.
Now, trying to get a box of Topps 2021 Heritage, which pays tribute to that 1972 set, can be a bit of a challenge unless you want to buy the cards online. As a traditionalist, I enjoy going to stores and buying blaster boxes and packs.
Tradition is going out the window.
I went to my local Target store Friday morning, shortly after 8 a.m., since the sign where the cards would normally be advised customers that the products would be only available at that time on a come-first basis. Customers would be allowed to buy three items from any set.
I get to the store and check in and found that I was No. 24 on the virtual list (Say Hey, Willie Mays would have been proud). The Target guys took my phone number and promised a text when it was my turn.
I wondered if there would be any product left. When I walked in, some guy had a shopping cart and was loading it with baseball cards, basketball cards and even Pokémon cards.
So I did some shopping while I waited. Came back a few minutes later and checked to see if there were any nine-pocket sleeves. None to be had. The associate asks me if I had checked in and I nodded. Told him what I was looking for, and then he said, “Well, you can’t stay around here. You need to get out of here.”
Hmm. Good customer service relations, and since I was shopping for other items, I walked away. I don’t envy the Target associates having to deal with a bunch of collectors — and from the looks of it — a bunch of speculators who were going to flip whatever they bought on eBay.
So the associates get a pass. That’s because for the most part, they were friendly.
After 35 minutes, I got a text notifying me that it was my turn.
Normally, I would have bought maybe a blaster or two. But because of the wait, I bought three Target Mega Boxes of 2021 Heritage at $39.99 apiece.
The difference in my case is that I don’t flip product. Oh, as a kid during the mid-1960s I flipped cards against the wall and stunk at it. Anyway, I enjoy the Heritage product, so I was glad there was still some left.
On to my review.
I was 14 when 1972 Topps cards were released in the spring of ’72. They were magical then, and the 2021 set captures that same excitement.
There are 500 cards in a set, with the last 100 cards (Nos. 401 to 500) considered short prints. Interestingly, Topps did not include card No. 216 — Cavan Biggio — in this set, promising that it will be inserted into the Topps Heritage high number set that will be released in November.
On Twitter, Topps said a production error caused the omission but did not elaborate. The production of Biggio’s mini parallel and French variation cards were not affected, however. They can be found in the regular Heritage set.
The statement is worded beautifully: “It has come to our attention,” Topps begins. Not sure of the reasoning behind the omission, but “production error” is an eyebrow raiser.
I must be getting too skeptical in my old age.
This year’s set has plenty of variations — 91 of them. I didn’t find any this time, other than a French variation card of Kolten Wong. Some of the players have as many as four variations, including action, error, reverse team name color swap and missing stars on the card front.
The Heritage Mega Box sold at Target contains 17 packs, with nine cards to a pack. I pulled 289 base cards and 17 short prints from all three boxes. The first box had 138 base cards and seven SPs, which was nice. The other two boxes had five short prints each, which is an average amount.
The second box trimmed 115 base cards and five SPs. There were 26 doubles. By the third box — and this was expected — the duplicates far outnumbered the base. I had 35 base cards, five short prints and 105 doubles. That’s OK; the dupes will find homes.
The Target Mega Boxes had red border parallels, and I pulled three from each. I also had a red border chrome card of Paul Goldschmidt.
Speaking of chrome cards, I found two among the packs I opened. One was of Mike Yastrzemski, numbered to 572. The other featured Mike Trout and was numbered to 999.
Other parallels included mini cards, also set in the 1972 design. I found seven minis, and some of them were goodies — Harmon Killebrew and Johnny Bench from the past, and Bryce Harper, Ronald Acuna Jr., Nolan Arenado, Anthony Rizzo and Casey Mize from the present.
The Mega Boxes did not yield a large number of inserts, but there was a good representation.
Heritage collectors are familiar with Then and Now and New Age Performer cards. The boxes I opened had Then and Now cards of Hank Aaron and Marcell Ozuna, Dick Allen and Luke Voit, and Gaylord Perry and Shane Bieber.
Each box contained a New Age Performer card, so I pulled Bieber, Brandon Lowe and Jo Adell. Paying tribute to current events and sports from 49 years ago, the Flashbacks 1972 cards I pulled were “Atari Releases Pong” (does anyone recall how that seemed so innovative at the time?), the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment and Aaron hitting a home run in the All-Star Game.
In a nice tribute, The Great One honors the career of Hall of Fame outfielder Roberto Clemente. Fittingly, the subset has 21 cards, matching his uniform number.
Clemente was an iconic player and a humanitarian, and his charitable deeds cost him his life. On Dec. 31, 1972, he died in a plane crash shortly after takeoff from Puerto Rico while helping deliver relief to earthquake-ravaged Managua, the capital of Nicaragua.
Topps Heritage is always worth the wait. Even if one has to “stand” in a virtual line. It’s filled with nostalgia, and Topps stays true to the design. And the 1972 Topps set had few peers in terms of design. Oh, 1975 comes close, but there was something magical about the ’72 set.
Here's a story I wrote for Sports Collectors Daily about Mile High Card Company's latest auction:
Tom Petty sang it: “Even the losers keep a little bit of pride.”
Nobody really remembers second place. That quote and its variants have been uttered by Walter Hagen, Bobby Unser, “Peanuts” creator Charles M. Schulz and even John Cena.
But the 1986 Boston Red Sox lost an epic World Series and are still remembered for coming one pitch away from winning it all. And while they lost, that squad from Boston kept its pride. The team went from the brink of elimination in the American League Championship Series to winning the pennant and going seven games in the World Series. In a two-week span, the Red Sox experienced ecstasy and agony.
But life goes on, and there is more to life than losing. And that is what Erik Sherman captures so well in his latest book, Two Sides of Glory: The 1986 Boston Red Sox in Their Own Words (University of Nebraska Press; hardback; $29.95; 253 pages).
Sherman has written about the 1986 season before, but from the perspective of the New York Mets. He wrote 2016’s Kings of Queens: Life Beyond Baseball with the ’86 Mets, and co-wrote Mookie: Life, Baseball, and the ’86 Mets with Mookie Wilson. He also collaborated with Davey Johnson for the former Mets’ manager’s 2018 autobiography, Davey Johnson: My Wild Ride in Baseball and Beyond. Sherman co-wrote another warm book of recollections, After the Miracle: The Lasting Brotherhood of the 1969 Mets with former outfielder Art Shamsky.
How ironic that a guy who attended Emerson College in Boston had not written about one of the greatest “what if” teams of all time — the 1986 Red Sox — until now. But it is worth the wait.
The Red Sox have won four World Series titles in the 21st century, so it is easier to look back.
Sherman presents a poignant look at the main players from that 1986 team, writing in a conversational way so readers feel like they are sitting in on the discussion. The Sox lost that best-of-seven series 35 years ago, but the memories remain fresh by the men who lived it.
As Sherman writes in his introduction, he wanted to capture “the team’s very soul.”
Sherman interviews a wide swath of players, including Bill Buckner, Roger Clemens, Jim Rice, Calvin Schiraldi, Bruce Hurst, Bob Stanley, Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd, Wade Boggs, Dwight Evans and more.
Fittingly, Sherman opens the book by interviewing Buckner, the first baseman whose error in Game 6 capped an unlikely rally by the Mets. Buckner’s error did not lose the Series—the game was tied when Wilson hit the slow roller in the 10th inning — but he wore the goat horns and was the symbol of Beantown frustration.
Sherman calls his talk with Buckner, who died on May 27, 2019, the player’s last major interview. Buckner speaks about his personal and business relationship with Wilson, as they appeared together for several autograph sessions with fans. And addresses “the Buckner play” head on.
“Do I think I lost the World Series? Obviously no. But it wasn’t good,” Buckner tells Sherman. “The only good that came out of it was that I had a lot of people who were inspired by it. I got so many nice letters. People were writing from the heart.”
The range of emotions of the players ranged from Boggs’ enthusiasm to Rich Gedman’s difficulty in speaking about the Series and his time in Boston — “It’s absolutely mind-blowing when you think about it. And gosh, I was a part of that,” Gedman tells Sherman. “It’s really amazing to me. I have to pinch myself. At the time I didn’t realize how big it was.”
Jim Rice, who Sherman describes as “easily one of the more challenging interviews in baseball,” doesn’t shy away from that reputation. When Sherman starts off a question with “When you came up with Fred Lynn,” Rice cuts him off.
“Let’s clear this up. Lynn came up with me!” Rice says.
After navigating that scolding, Sherman gets Rice to open up what turned out to be a fun interview.
Boyd, who said he pitched every game in the majors while under the influence of marijuana, offers an enthusiastic interview and one that will make the reader think about social and racial issues. Boyd’s idol was Satchel Paige, and his theatrics on the mound mirrored the great right-hander. And he makes some interesting observations about Jackie Robinson, and what No. 42 might think about the fewer number of Blacks currently in the majors.
“You would think that by (Jackie’s crossing the color barrier) it would be grand (for Black players),” Boyd tells Sherman. “But I think Jackie would be sick to know that (Blacks) are not playing now.
“So in actuality he didn’t do too much because they’re not playing today.”
Boyd adds that he was a fifth-generation professional baseball player. “My people were playing before Jackie was born,” Boyd tells Sherman.
Boyd remains angry over not being selected to the 1986 All-Star team and not being tapped to start Game 7 of the ’86 World Series. A rainout after Game 6 allowed manager John McNamara to go with Hurst, who had already beaten the Mets twice in the Series.
“Everybody on the team knew I would’ve beaten the Mets,” Boyd says. “I love Bruce. He was a good pitcher. He did well to beat them twice.”
But Boyd believed “it was going to be hard as hell to beat them three times.”
Hurst broke down three times while Sherman interviewed him. Sherman thought he was going to get a tame chat, especially since he had interviewed the more colorful players.
But Sherman’s three-hour interview with Hurst “would quickly turn into one of the most poignant, emotional and reflective meetings I’ve ever had with a ballplayer.”
Hurst had not done interviews for nearly three years, but he agreed because “I don’t want to be that guy.”
Hurst spoke about battling the perception that he was “soft” and lacked toughness. He recalls Carl Yastrzemski — Hurst grew up with a poster of Yaz over his bed — telling him, “You’re the worst pitcher I’ve seen in twenty years—bar none. You’re the worst!”
Even though Hurst was a rookie, he fired back. “The Red Sox should have traded you and kept Reggie Smith!”
Had the Red Sox won Game 6, it is likely Hurst would have been named the Series MVP. But the thrill of winning the championship would have been greater.
“Can you imagine what it would have been like to jump up and down in that clubhouse?” Hurst asks, full of emotion.
Sherman’s other interviews are just as good. Clemens is upbeat and enthusiastic, more than one might expect. Schiraldi leans on his faith and is also pragmatic — “you’re a hero one day, and you’re a goat the next.”
The memories Sherman pulls out of the players are meaningful.
Sherman has a unique ability to ask pointed questions without being too confrontational or assertive. He approaches these Red Sox players gingerly, and it pays off. In some cases, they told him more than he expected. Hurst is a good example.
Stanley, who threw the infamous wild pitch that enabled the Mets to tie Game 6, prefers to look at the big picture, Sherman writes. His son was diagnosed with cancer in his sinus area in 1990.
“You can take that ’86 World Series — and my whole career — and throw it out the window,” Stanley says. “I got the health of my son and that’s all that counts for me.”
In his epilogue, Sherman mentions the players who did not get the full chapter treatment but still played critical roles for Boston.
What shines through in Two Sides of Glory is the 1986 Red Sox players’ love for each other and the game they played. They suffered an agonizing defeat in the World Series, and if they had won it all the team would have been hailed as a great one. That, and ending the Curse of the Bambino — which eventually happened in 2004 in spectacular fashion.
Sherman presents the flip side of the 1986 World Series in an engaging, passionate and fascinating narrative. He shows that even though the Red Sox lost in agonizing fashion, they still kept their pride. And in the final analysis, that is what counted most.
Here's a story I wrote for Sports Collectors Daily about the 2021 Topps Archives baseball set, which will be released in late October:
Here's a story I wrote for Sports Collectors Daily about the 2021 Allen & Ginter chrome set, which is scheduled to be released in mid-November:
Here's a review I wrote for Sport In American History about "The Giants and Their City," by Lincoln Mitchell:
Here's a story I wrote for Sports Collectors Daily about some of the memorabilia of the late Terry Duerod, which is heading to auction later this week:
I love history. And I especially love baseball history.
As a guy who got a master’s degree in history — and, who as a kid in the early 1970s, used to tote The Baseball Encyclopedia around on family vacations so I had something to read in the car — there are some things I want from a book about baseball history.
First, teach me something new. Second, entertain me.
The second part sounds funny, but I mean entertain in the sense that the writer is engaging and not dry. Winded, textbook descriptions about history — baseball or otherwise — is a turnoff. After all, baseball books can be part of a thesis or dissertation, but it does not have to read like one. That is to say, dry and tedious. Brownie points for a sharp wit and/or irreverence.
That is especially true in baseball. Certainly, there are books about major events in American history, for example, that should not have the author cracking wise.
But this is baseball. So, all that reverence can go out the window, if the author chooses to do so.
Thomas W. Gilbert meets both of my criteria in his newest book, How Baseball Happened: Outrageous Lies Exposed! The True Story Revealed (David R. Godine; $27.95; hardback; 383 pages).
The book was published last September and won the 2020 Casey Award for best baseball book of the year. Gilbert received his award Monday night.
How Baseball Happened serves as a nice complement to another book about baseball’s early era: John Thorn’s 2012 work, Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game.
Thorn wrote the introduction to Gilbert’s book, suggesting that while his own book examined the “what” of baseball, Gilbert addressed how baseball happened while providing the “who” — names of pioneers that many of us have never heard of.
Gilbert digs into the beginnings of baseball, debunking the myths that have long been associated with the game. Certainly, baseball experts have gotten past the idea that Abner Doubleday invented the game in a cow pasture near Cooperstown, New York. Gilbert takes it further, noting that neither Alexander Cartwright nor Henry Chadwick can be called the father of baseball.
He notes that history can be wrong — sometimes the truth can be forgotten or misunderstood. And sometimes it is erased with lies. “When it comes to telling the story of where it came from, baseball has accomplished all three,” Gilbert writes.
Gilbert, a native of Brooklyn, New York, delves deeply into what was called the “New York game” of baseball — it is the game as we know it now, with some refinements through the years. The New York game was the dominant version played during the Amateur Era, which roughly covers the period before 1871.
Gilbert also has some great observations. Early in his work, he notes that he does not care much about the history of baseball as a children’s pastime, although baseball history itself is a legitimate topic to research. The game becoming a sport is what caught his eye.
“If that had never happened, then baseball would be hopscotch,” Gilbert writes.
Gilbert suggests that the rise of the social middle class during the mid-19th century was crucial to the spread of baseball in the United States. He calls it the “Emerging Urban Bourgeoisie,” or EUB (“my ugly acronym,” he jokes). This was a group of businessmen involved in industries like railroads, mass-market publishing and even the telegraph.
While it may seem provincial on Gilbert’s part — he lives in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn — there is merit to his assertion that groups of amateurs in Manhattan and Brooklyn built the game. These amateurs joined the military and volunteer fire companies to form the “holy trinity” of U.S. urban culture before the Civil War.
“Where is the real birthplace of baseball,” Gilbert asks. “If you open up five history books, you will find at least four answers to this question.”
Cooperstown, Hoboken, New York City and even England are the stock answers. But Gilbert says it was Brooklyn.
“Humor me,” he writes.
And then Gilbert lays out his case. It’s a compelling one.
Gilbert adds that the Knickerbockers of New York, a group of white American Protestants who began playing the game in the 1840s, never claimed to invent the game. Rather, they hedged and called themselves pioneers.
The graphics in How Baseball Happened are insightful. On pages 230-231, Gilbert offers a map of “How Baseball Expanded.” Starting from New York, Gilbert provides a timeline showing how before the Civil War, baseball clubs had sprouted as far south as New Orleans and as far west as San Francisco. Philadelphia, Washington, Chicago, Baltimore, St. Louis, Detroit, Boston and even Hamilton, Ontario, were playing the New York game.
That is because businessmen from New York fanned out and traveled to these cities, spreading the gospel of baseball while trying to make a buck.
That meant the game was established before the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter in 1861.
And if you believe in myths, Abner Doubleday was part of the battery that fired the first shots of the Civil War from Fort Sumter. Abner got around, apparently.
There is plenty of baseball in this book. For example, Gilbert writes about James Creighton, the first rock star pitcher in baseball history who died at age 21 from “strangulation of the intestine.”
“His career was like a nuclear explosion,” Gilbert writes. “It didn’t last long, but afterward the world was never the same.”
Creighton’s pitching style led to the formation of the strike zone, and he transformed the pitcher “into the most important defensive position.”
He also threw more than 200 pitches a game, and sometimes even 300, which is mind-boggling now.
John Creighton, James’ brother, meanwhile, fought during the Civil War and was part of a plot to colonize Nicaragua as a slave state. That did not work, and John eventually became an abolitionist. He later committed suicide.
Two very interesting characters in a book of many.
But what makes How Baseball Happened so enjoyable is how Gilbert peppers his narrative with brief vignettes. Baseball fans love trivia and history, and Gilbert provides some tasty bites that put the era into proper context. There is the story of Joseph Jones, who advocated physical education for boys and girls and touted the Excelsiors of Brooklyn to promote baseball nationally as a participant sport.
Or John Chapman, whose acrobatic barehanded catches earned him the nickname, “Death to Flying Things.”
The legendary Green-Wood Cemetery of Brooklyn, Gilbert writes, has “an astounding number” of baseball amateurs from the Amateur Era buried on its leafy grounds. James Creighton is buried there. So are Chadwick, Jones, Chapman, Asa Brainard and dozens of Knickerbockers and other members of Brooklyn teams.
“Drawing the Line” recounts the first instance of racial exclusion in baseball. In 1867, the National Association of Base Ball Players passed a rule barring membership to any club “composed of persons of color, or any portion of them.” The outlines of the first color line kin baseball, then, were drawn nearly two decades before Cap Anson and others reached a “gentleman’s agreement” to bar Blacks from the game.
“A Glimpse of Stocking” refers not to the Red Stockings or White Stockings teams of the late 19th century. Rather, it references the stockings worn by women and baseball players, which apparently were titillating to the general public.
“Showing more lower leg … had erotic impact, judging by photographs of 19th century prostitutes,” Gilbert writes. “Male calves also had appeal.” The San Francisco Chronicle, in an 1869 article, notes that the Red Stockings’ tight red wool stockings that “showed their calves in all their magnitude and rotundity.”
A century later, Jim Bouton wrote about baseball socks in Ball Four.
“It has become the fashion … to have long, long stirrups, with a lot of white showing,” he wrote. “The higher your stirrups, the cooler you look. Your legs look long and cool instead of dumpy and hot.”
Some things never change.
Gilbert has a delightful way with words that can alternate between cheeky and snarky. “The Civil War caused about 1.5 million casualties,” he begins seriously before shifting gears. “One of them was cricket.”
Gilbert adds that it is unclear why the war affected cricket, “but we do know the reason why we don’t know the reason — the chaos of war.”
The NABBP legalized professional baseball for the 1869 season, legitimizing what had been done anyway. That was the year of the Cincinnati Red Stockings and their long undefeated run. The National Association was organized in 1871, with the National League supplanting it in 1876. Baseball as we know it had finally arrived.
Gilbert’s research is drawn from 90 books and 25 online databases, Two of those books are his own — 1995’s Baseball and the Color Line, and 2015’s Playing First: Early Baseball Lives at Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery. He is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research and maintains a blog on Goodreads.
How Baseball Began allows fans to view the origins of the game from a fresh angle. Gilbert opens a window into a world of American nativism, when crediting the origins of baseball to British games like cricket and rounders was considered bad form for a country still trying to escape its colonialism from a century before.'''
There are new and fascinating characters to read about, and whether or not one believes that baseball as we know it grew in Brooklyn, it is an interesting idea.
Here's a story I wrote for Sports Collectors Daily about an exchange of letters between Jackie Robinson and Milton Sacks, a New Jersey man who questioned Robinson's comparison of Holocaust deaths to fatalities of slaves through the years:
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.