1969 – Commies, the Mets and the Moon

Fifty years ago, today, all systems were ‘GO’ for Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins to become the first humans to walk on the moon.  Years of work by NASA engineers and astronauts had come down to this very moment. 

This past week, I’ve been staying up way too late watching documentaries on the 1969 moon landing.  The “Space Race” of the Cold War has always been an interest of mine.  As a kid, I would occasionally spend the night at my grandparent’s house.  On clear nights we would often look at star constellations and the moon and he would tell me about the moon landing and how brave the men were that traveled to it.  After all, if things went south — there was no coming back.  After all, as Gene Kranz famously said, “failure is not an option”. My Pop-Pop would usually put me to bed and while most kids were read children’s books before bed, we would often find ourselves staying up away too late reading books about the submariners of the NAVY, the Cold War, or sometimes, we would grab a globe and he would tell me stories about whichever country I picked.  He really had strong opinions of the Communist party and “treasonous spies”.  I think as a 6-year-old, I knew more about Alger Hiss than many people know in their entire life.  Looking back, as a kid I thought I would run into more “Commie’s” as an adult than I really have. (Just in case, I’m still always on the lookout.)

Tonight before you go to bed, take a look up at the moon and remember that 50 years ago today – we were there.

Foundations of Mission Control – Autographed by Apollo Flight Director Gene Kranz

Looking back, the 1969 baseball season was a good one.  Not only was it celebrated as the 100th anniversary of professional baseball, honoring the first professional touring baseball team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings; it was the New York Mets that would be the World Champions after being the laughingstocks of the league for the better part of the 60’s.  In 1961 people thought Kennedy was overreaching when he pledged to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade.  Had he pledged that the New York Mets would win the World Series by the end of the decade though – people would have thought he was just plain crazy.  “Amazin’ly” by 1969, both missions would be accomplished. 

In addition to the Mets going from worst to first in 1969, the league also lowered the pitcher’s mound by 5 inches and tightened up the strike-zone with the intention of curbing the trend of low-scoring games that had plagued the league for the past six years.  The owners felt that pitching tyranny was ruining the game as spectators preferred 11-7 games and would grow tired of buying tickets to 1-0 games.  The move was not well received by Bob Gibson.  He said, “You can’t pitch a shutout anymore”.  Gibson was baseball’s best pitcher in 1968 with a 1.12 earned run average. That average more than doubled in 1969.

Baseball also expanded by adding teams in San Diego, Seattle, Kansas City and decided to make baseball an international sport by adding a team in Montreal.  1969 would become known as the first year of the “Divisional Era.”

1969 was also the debut of the iconic Major League Baseball logo.

1969 Statistical Leaders
American & National League MVP’s

The New York Mets and the Baltimore Orioles faced each other in the World Series. Having won the N.L. East Division with a league-best 100–62 record, and sweeping the N.L. West Division Champion Atlanta Braves in three games in the first National League Championship Series, the “Miracle Mets” became the first expansion team to win a pennant. They faced the A.L. East Division Champion Orioles, holders of the best record in baseball (109–53), who swept the A.L. West Division Champion Minnesota Twins in three games in the first American League Championship Series. The upstart Mets upset the heavily favored Orioles and won the World Series title in five games.

1969 World Series MVP – Brooks Robinson

John “Blue Moon” Odom – Simply dominant in the first half of the 1969 season, going 14-3 with a 2.41 ERA heading into the All-Star break. He also showed himself to be one of the league’s better hitting pitchers as he went 3-for-3 with a home run and six runs batted in against the Seattle Pilots on May 4. He was named to his second consecutive All Star team, but was tagged for five runs (four earned) in just a third of an inning as the National League cruised to a 9-3 victory. His numbers tailed off considerably following the All-Star break, as he went 1-3 with a 4.09 ERA in the second half of the season.

Steve Carlton – September 15, 1969, at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Cardinals hurler Steve Carlton struck out 19 Mets batters to establish a new major league record. Unfortunately the 24 year old lefty surrendered a pair of two-run homers to New York outfielder Ron Swoboda that proved to be all the Mets needed as they went onto win 4-3. Mets batter Amos Otis was unfortunate enough to be the 19th strikeout victim to Carlton. As he returned to the Mets dugout, his teammates cheered “let’s hear it for Otis!”, grabbed his bat and told him they were going to ‘send it to Cooperstown.’

Bill Mazeroski – Regarded as one of the greatest defensive second basemen of all time. Mazeroski passed Frankie Frisch’s career total for assists with his 6,027th at Wrigley Field in Chicago on April 14, 1969. Statistically, however, 1969 was a subpar season for him both defensively and offensively. He played in only 67 games.

Hank Aaron – On July 31, 1969, Aaron hit his 537th home run, passing Mickey Mantle’s total – this moved Aaron into third place on the career home run list, after Willie Mays and Babe Ruth. At the end of the 1969 season, Aaron again finished third in the MVP voting.

Pete Rose – Rose had his best offensive season in 1969, when he set a career-high in batting (.348) and tied his career-best 16 homers. As the Reds’ leadoff man, he was the team’s catalyst, rapping 218 hits, walking 88 times and pacing the league in runs with 120. He hit 33 doubles and 11 triples, drove in 82 runs, slugged .512 (by far the highest mark of his long career), and had a .432 OBP (also a career best). Rose and Pittsburgh’s Roberto Clemente were tied for the batting title going into the final game; Rose bunted for a base hit in his last at-bat of the season to beat out Clemente (.345).

Bob Gibson – Aside from the rule changes set to take effect in 1969, cultural and monetary influences increasingly began impacting baseball, as evidenced by nine players from the Cardinals 1968 roster who hadn’t reported by the first week of spring training due to the status of their contracts. On February 4, 1969, Gibson appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, and said the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) had suggested players consider striking before the upcoming season began. However, Gibson himself had no immediate contract worries, as the $125,000 salary Gibson requested for 1969 was agreed to by team owner Gussie Busch and the Cardinals, setting a new franchise record for the highest single-season salary.

Despite the significant rule changes, Gibson’s status as one of the league’s best pitchers was not immediately affected. In 1969 he went 20–13 with a 2.18 ERA, 4 shutouts and 28 complete games. On May 12, 1969, Gibson struck out three batters on nine pitches in the seventh inning of a 6–2 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers. Gibson became the ninth National League pitcher and the 15th pitcher in Major League history to throw an “immaculate inning”. After pitching into the tenth inning of the July 4 game against the Cubs, Gibson was removed from a game without finishing an inning for the first time in more than 60 consecutive starts, a streak spanning two years. After participating in the 1969 All-Star Game (his seventh selection), Gibson set another mark on August 16 when he became the third pitcher in Major League history to reach the 200-strikeout plateau in seven different seasons.

Johnny Bench – After winning Rookie of the Year in 1968, Bench would knock 26 dingers in ’69 as the Reds secured a 3rd place finish. One of the highlights of Bench’s 1969 season would happen during Spring Training. The manager of the Washington Senators was passing through the Red’s locker room and left Bench star-struck. Bench asked him for an autograph and as he walked back to his locker he looked down at the ball. “To Johnny-a sure Hall of Famer” it read. The manager was none other than Ted Williams.

Rich Nye – In the first season after the National League was split into two divisions, the Chicago Cubs finished with a record of 92–70, 8 games behind the New York Mets in the newly established National League East. Caustic 64-year-old Leo Durocher was the Cubs manager. The ill-fated season saw the Cubs in first place for 155 days, until mid-September when they lost 17 out of 25 games. After being used sparingly and finishing with a 3-5 record, 1969 would be Nye’s last year with the Cubs. When asked about the relationship with Durocher, Nye said, “People have asked me why I didn’t push harder with Leo in 1969. I’d won 13 games as a starter in 1967. My arm was healthy. I was young. Why didn’t I go to Leo and tell him I could try to give the team 200 innings? The answer is Leo himself. Leo was unapproachable. He had his tough guy image to maintain, and you just didn’t question him. And part of it had to do with me as well. It wasn’t in my nature to go to a manager that way.” Nye may have enjoyed baseball but he never really needed it. Not only did he go on to be a prominent doctor, he also used his civil engineering degree to help build the Sears Tower in Chicago and then moved into the medical field. Nye’s affinity with birds and exotic animals led to his establishing the Midwest Bird and Exotic Animal Hospital with colleagues Susan Brown and Scott MacDonald; Nye regularly treats ferrets, snakes, rabbits and parrots–anything but cats and dogs.

Jerry Koosman – Koosman was the pitching star of the 1969 World Series against the Baltimore Orioles. After Seaver was defeated in Game One, Koosman, leading 1-0, held the Orioles hitless until Paul Blair singled to lead off the bottom of the seventh inning, eventually scoring on Brooks Robinson’s only hit in 19 Series’ at-bats. The Mets regained the lead in the top of the ninth; Koosman got two outs in the bottom of the frame, then walked the next two batters. He was relieved by Ron Taylor, who induced Robinson to ground out to end the game.

With the Series shifting from Memorial Stadium to Shea Stadium for the next three games, the Mets won Games Three and Four, and Koosman took the mound for Game Five. He fell behind 3-0 in the third inning after giving up home runs to his mound opponent, Dave McNally, and Frank Robinson. The Mets, however, cut into the Oriole lead on Donn Clendenon’s two-run home run in the sixth, then tied the game in the seventh on a homer by Al Weis, who had hit only six career homers at that point—none of which had been in a home game. The Mets scored two runs in the eighth to take the lead, and after walking Frank Robinson to lead off the ninth, Koosman retired the next three hitters to end the game and complete the Mets’ improbable World Series win.

Tom Seaver – In the 1969 National League Championship Series, Seaver outlasted Atlanta’s Phil Niekro in the first game a 9–5 victory. Seaver was also the starter for Game One of the 1969 World Series, but lost a 4–1 decision to the Baltimore Orioles’ Mike Cuellar. Seaver then pitched a 10-inning complete game for a 2–1 win in Game Four. The “Miracle Mets” won the series. At year’s end, Seaver was presented with the Hickok Belt as the top professional athlete of the year and Sports Illustrated magazine’s “Sportsman of the Year” award. Seaver would also win the 1969 National League Cy Young Award.

1969 Topps Roberto Clemente (Once owned by Hall of Famer Gary Carter)

Roberto Clemente – Leading the league in triples in 1969, Clemente was also a National League All Star. The Pirates would go on to finish third in the National League East. While the Pirates 1969 season was fairly uneventful, Clemente is involved in a rumor only recently confirmed by fellow player Dave Concepcion. After a night game in San Diego, roommate Willie Stargell had sent Clemente out to pick up some fried chicken for dinner. En route back to the hotel, Clemente was kidnapped at gunpoint by four men in a car. The kidnappers drove him into the hills to rob and presumably kill him. With a pistol shoved in his mouth, Clemente told the men who he was and pleaded for them to spare him his life. Finally realizing who he was, they threw him back in the car, drove him back to his hotel, and handed him back his wallet (with the $250 in it) and World Series ring. Visibly shaken, Clemente headed to the front door of the hotel lobby and heard the car get thrown into reverse and pull back up to the sidewalk. The window slowly rolled down and one of the guys reached out and handed Clemente the bag of fried chicken that he was originally carrying. As he walked into his hotel room, Stargell grabbed the chicken and asked what had taken him so long. Clemente never spoke of the incident until years later.

$20 in Junk Wax

It was a simple task really. I was supposed to go to the store and come home with some milk.

As I pulled the car back into the driveway, I realized that I had forgotten the milk. Instead, the trip to Target had yielded me this:

$19.99 will get you this

The box boasted the “World’s Greatest Card Chase”. I may even pull a “Diamond Pack” which would gain me an entry to win the “The Big Find” which according to the box would be a framed autograph and photo of Hall of Famer Cy Young.

I couldn’t have cared less about winning that card.

I just wanted the 14 packs of worthless junk wax inside the box.

It’s no wonder I forgot all about the milk right?

Inside the box was a good variety of packs. Mostly from the 90’s, a few 80’s, some Topps, Donruss, Upper Deck, Score and Fleer and just as I suspected, no Cy Young autograph which was fine by me. I’m always looking for cards to either mail off with an autograph request or add to my mini collections. Let’s take a look at a few of my favorite pulls from each pack.

(1991 Leaf) – Possibly one of the most forgettable sets of the early 90’s. You can get the entire 1991 Leaf set for about $6 these days. Leaf spotlighted the 1991 rookie crop through a 26 card “Gold” set. Bagwell, Mussina, Van Poppel, and Klesko were among those featured. This pack awarded me with one Gold Rookie – Scott Leius – but it was the card of Karl “Tuffy” Rhodes that will end up in my “Wrigley Ivy Covered Wall” mini collection. Here you can see him warming up in front of the lush ivy covered wall of Wrigley Field.

(1990 Fleer) – Another snoozer of a set from the early 90’s and also, the same cards that I see the most of at garage sales and thrift stores. Not being particularly thrilled to open this pack, I was happy to pull this Mattingly. I’ve decided to start a player collection for him and I’ve always liked cards that feature players at the old Comisky Park. You can always tell it’s Comisky from the bright yellow aisle railings in the stands.

(1987 Donruss) – It had been 32 years since these cards had seen the light of day. A testament to the sheer number of cards produced around that time I guess. I’ve heard stories of entire warehouses full of master cases of cards from the late 80’s and early 90’s. The result of dealers and collectors hoarding them with hopes of one day flipping them into boat loads of cash. Today, they sit there collecting dust with no one showing them any interest. My pack was so absolutely unremarkable that this Joe Cowley was the only one that sparked my interest. Cowley is known for the no-hitter he threw when playing for the Chicago White Sox. It would be the last game he would win in his career. Cowley now works in sales for a text message marketing company. A few years ago, my company had partnered with his company and his business card was passed along to me. I immediately recognized the name but figured it was another Joe Cowley. I ended up giving him a call one day and asked if he was the same guy. He was! Sadly, he wanted to talk business more than baseball. Of course my agenda was the opposite. Adam over at Cardboard Gods also has a cool story about Joe. Click here to give it a read.

(1989 Donruss) – Despite not pulling a Griffey Jr., Sheffield, or Johnson rookie card, I was pretty happy to pull this Rickey Henderson for my player collection. I have been meaning to upgrade the one I already had. I remember being in 6th grade when this set came out. A few of my buddies and I agreed that the design was an improvement from the 1988 Donruss set. Not only was the design much better but Donruss also increased the weight of the card stock which was nice. I particularly enjoyed the Baseball’s Best subset that came out later in the year. The Griffey Jr card is much more beautiful than his regular issue Rated Rookie. Donruss also made sure to feature an additional Rickey card as he was traded to Oakland mid-season.

(1988 Fleer) – Some people will tell you that Fleer had a print run in 1988 that was far less than its competitors but I would disagree. These cards are not only everywhere, but as ugly as they come. This pack was quite unremarkable with the exception of this Andre Dawson. Here you can see the future Hall of Famer watching a fly ball take off at Wrigley Field.

(1990 Upper Deck) – I love this card of Andy Allanson and it will go right into my catcher mini-collection. The 1990 Upper Deck set has a few fun cards to chase. The 10 card set of Reggie Jackson was popular and we all used to purchase packs with the hopes of pulling a signed and numbered Reggie card. I think this may have been the start of the modern day “chase card”. There are also a few error cards to look for. The Nolan Ryan high number card #734 can be found both with and without the “300th Win” flag on it. Ben McDonald’s rookie card #54 was printed with either the Oriole’s logo or the Star Rookie logo on the front.

(1991 Topps) – Another “Donny Ballgame” upgrade for the player collection. Topps really outdid themselves with their 1991 set as they celebrated 40 years in the baseball card business. The 1991 set features a few of my all-time favorite cards. These include Benito Santiago, Wade Boggs, Walt Weiss, and Rickey Henderson.

(1990 Score) – I’ve always liked Score baseball cards. I particularly liked their effort to include a thoughtful paragraph or two about the player on the back of most cards. The full color photo on the back was also a nice touch. This particular set’s popularity was driven by card #697 which featured a horizontal black and white photo of a shirtless Bo Jackson sporting shoulder pads and holding a baseball bat. At the time, he was a phenom on both the football and baseball fields and was starring in his own Nike commercials. He was the man. There was no Bo Jackson in this pack but I did pull this Bob Geren for my catcher mini-collection.

(1989 Topps) – The fact that this Chili Davis card is the “best” card in this pack should tell you something about the other cards. I have actually always liked the design of the 1989 Topps set. I don’t always like designs where the team name is featured without the logo but in this case it seems to work okay. Davis was a three time All Star with 350 home runs in his 19 year career. He also won three World Series. This year he will work with the New York Mets as their hitting coach. The nickname “Chili” came from a particularly bad haircut he received from his father. His classmates asked him if his dad had put a “chili bowl” on his head before he trimmed his hair.

(1991 Leaf) – Another unimaginative design for collectors to suffer through. We can be thankful for this great action shot of young future star Gary Sheffield recording a force out on Oakland’s Carney Lansford. This photo appears to be from the May 12, 1989 game between Milwaukee and Oakland. Lansford lead off the bottom of the 6th with a base hit. As Walt Weiss poked a ground ball into right field, Lansford made his way to third base. A strong throw from right fielder Rob Deer gave Sheffield just enough time to tag the bag and avoid the slide. This card will go into my double play mini-collection. (Yes, I know it’s not a double play – the shot is just too good to pass up.)

Three cards for the “Catchers mini-collection”.

(1990 Score) – The 1990 Score pack provided not only the Bob Geren above but also this card featuring Gary Carter at Shea Stadium waiting on a throw home. Score had already gone to print with Carter in his Met’s uniform for this set. He was actually a San Francisco Giant in 1990. In November of 1989 the Mets released Carter batting only .183 in fifty games.

(2018 Topps Opening Day) – Topps put together a nice Opening Day card of Salvy Perez. He would go on to be elected to his sixth All Star game last year and has won Gold Gloves in the last five seasons. This year, the Royals will not have their beloved catcher behind the dish as he will be out with Tommy John surgery for the year.

(1988 Score) – I’m always happy to pull an Ed Hearn card. He was a crowd favorite here in Norfolk when he played for the Tidewater Tides in the mid 80’s. He would not be with the Met’s during their championship season. Barry Lyons beat him out for the backup catcher job in 1986. He was then traded to the Kansas City Royals in 1987 for pitcher David Cone. A shoulder injury sidelined Hearn after only nine games into the 87 season. He would spend the next six years trying to make his way back to a major league team before he decided to hang it up. Hearn is remembered most for his personal health battles after his baseball career. In 1992 Hearn was diagnosed with focal segmental glomerulosclerosis. Hearn immediately underwent a kidney transplant and was required to take several types of medication on a daily basis. Due to the debilitating effects of the disease, and mood swings caused by the medication, Hearn almost committed suicide, but was able to fight his way past it through faith and a chance request for him to give a motivational seminar. He has also been treated for skin cancer twice, undergone two more kidney transplants, and was diagnosed with sleep apnea. Despite all of the challenges and taking more than fifty types of medication on a daily basis, Hearn travels the country as a motivational speaker.

(1992 Babe Ruth Collection) – Kind of a cool set with 162 cards highlighting the life and times of Babe Ruth. I’ve seen a million of these cards over the years but was never compelled to give them a second look or attempt to complete the set. There is one listed on Ebay today for $3 with free shipping. This particular card caught my attention due to the horizontal photo of what appears to be a spring training game in Florida. After some digging, I learned that this photo was taken in St. Petersburg Florida during an exhibition game and features Babe sending one over the fence against the Boston Braves. The back features a great story by pitcher Wes Ferrell. He said that pitching against Ruth was like “looking into a lion’s jaw.” He would go on to say:

“Hell man, you’re pitching to a legend! You were nothing out there when Ruth came up. You would look around and all of your infielders were way back and your outfields have all but left town. Here you are, 60 feet away from him. You also get great encouragement from your infielders. The first baseman will tell you to pitch him outside while your third baseman will tell you to pitch him inside. After all, they didn’t want Babe to knock their legs out from under them. I used to say ‘take it easy guys, I’m closer to him than you are and I’m not worryin” — I actually was though.”

Junk Wax Treasures – 1987 Fleer Award Winners

Collectors either love or hate the infamous “junk era” of baseball cards. The late 80’s saw the emergence of price guide publications like Beckett and Tuff Stuff valuing cards well above the cost of a single pack. Collectors realized that they could spend .50 on a pack of 1987 Topps and possibly pull a Jose Canseco rookie worth $5. What a deal! The New York Times even published a very eloquent article suggesting that baseball cards were now a wise choice for those hoping to diversify their investment portfolios! With that, people starting buying and hoarding cards with the hopes that they would be able to send their kids to college or retire in 20 years. After all, investment experts from the New York Times SAID that cards had increased in value approximately 32% every year since 1978! To keep up with demand, from 1987 to 1994, card companies turned their printing presses up to “ludicrous speed”. With that, we saw baseball cards flood the market from every angle. Not only were companies of the day like Topps, Donruss, and Fleer producing boxed complete sets, wax boxes, cello boxes and vending boxes, they were producing proprietary sets for retailers. Stores like Woolworth’s, 7-11, Revco, K-Mart, Walgreen’s, Ben Franklin and Toys-R- Us all wanted their own baseball card action. The hobby was now turned into a powerhouse and stayed that way until 1994 when the Major League Baseball Players Association decided that the team owners desire to institute a salary cap wasn’t in the players best interest. The players walked off the fields. With negotiations going nowhere fast, the owners locked the players out on August 12th. There would be no World Series that year. It would not be until April 2, 1995 that the players returned to the field but the damage had already been done. No players meant no cards. No games meant no fans. After the longest strike in Major League baseball history, the baseball card bubble was on the verge of bursting.

As everyone knows, anytime you have more supply than demand, prices will fall. Great news for me. I can pick up cool sets like this 1987 Fleer Awards Winner set for a couple of bucks. The bad news for me? The set will ALWAYS be a couple of bucks. I don’t care.

I had this set as a kid but had lost it somewhere along the way. I can only assume that at some point in 1987 a family member and I were in a 7-11 where these sets were distributed and I asked them to buy it for me. Fortunately, I picked this one up on Ebay for about $3.

The set features 44 player cards and 6 logo sticker cards. I lucked out and received 2 Mets logo cards in this one. The idea behind the set is that it features players who were awarded some type of award. Just not necessarily in 1986 which leaves me wondering how they came to settle on some of the players included. Anyways, let’s take a look at a few.

1986 NL Cy Young Award Winner – Mike Scott

Mike Scott went on to a successful career with Houston after the Mets traded him in 1983. Up until then, he had bounced up and down between the New York Mets and the their AAA minor league team the Tidewater Tides. They played here in Norfolk, VA and he is featured on a mural right outside of the upper level press boxes at the stadium. He was also one of my first “through the mail” autograph returns. He signed a pretty beat up version of his 1988 Donruss MVP card in blue sharpie. It looked a lot better than his mug-shot featured above.

Despite playing a prominent post season role in 1985 for the St Louis Cardinals, Todd Worrell still qualified as a “rookie” in 1986. He would go on to save 36 games in 1986 and be awarded “Rookie of the Year”. Brett Saberhagen is featured in this set despite winning his Cy Young Award in 1985. In 1986 he posted a 4.12 ERA and went 7-12. He was still considered a “star” so I’m sure Fleer did not want to leave him out. Card companies loved future Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt and included him in any set they could throughout the 80’s. 1986 was the year Schmidt led the league in home runs and RBI’s. He would also go on to win his 3rd and final National League MVP award.

I’ll just put it out there. I have no idea what the “Sports Writers Fielding Award” is. When you look at all of the players featured in this set as “Sports Writers Fielding Award” winners, it coincides with the listing of Gold Glove winners from the previous year. Why not just list it as such? I’ve always liked Don Mattingly. I especially like this card featuring him at Comisky Park. You can always tell it’s Comisky when you see the yellow guard rails in the stands. He had a hell of a career with the New York Yankees. Despite the many accolades, he doesn’t have a World Series title and saw his fair share of injuries. His shot at the Hall of Fame has come and gone. He was simply a player that was REAL good but for too short period of time.

Ray Knight was a solid choice for this Award Winners set as he won the 1986 World Series MVP. It was Knight that crossed home plate after the infamous Bill Buckner error at first. The Mets would win Game 6 and Knight would hit the tie breaking home run in Game 7 as the Mets went on to become world champions.

Fleer was two years late with Ozzie Guillen’s “Rookie of the Year” card. He won that award in 1985. As strange as it is that they would include this card in this set, it has always been one of my favorites. I love the colors, the stadium in the background and the classic “Sox” logo featured on his jacket.

Through his 17 year career, Cecil Cooper was a solid player. A five-time All Star, Cooper batted .300 or more from 1977 to 1983. 1980 was his best season as he finished right behind George Brett in American League batting average. Brett finished with a .390 average and Cooper finished 2nd with .352. He also led the league in RBI’s with 122. He would notch his 2,000th hit in 1986 and close out his career in 1988 with 2,192 hits.

Future Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg is featured taking a swing at Wrigley Field. 1986 was only one of his nine Gold Glove seasons. Sandberg made his major league debut in 1981 with the Philadelphia Phillies as a shortstop that could also play 2nd and 3rd. He only appeared in 13 games and managed one hit in six at bats – ironically, a base hit at Wrigley Field with a bat borrowed by starting shortstop Larry Bowa. The Phillies would go on to trade Larry Bowa to the Chicago Cubs and Cubs demanded the rookie Sandberg as a 3rd baseman. The Phillies agreed as they did not have a need for him. 3rd base was occupied by Mike Schmidt and their current 2nd baseman Manny Trillo was performing well. In return for Sandberg and Bowa, the Phillies would get shortstop Ivan DeJesus. The trade worked out well for Chicago as they would see the post season in 1984 for the first time in 39 years.

There wasn’t a card company out that didn’t insist on featuring Jose Canseco in their 1987 sets. Canseco was everywhere. I remember my uncle taking me to a card show around that time and seeing Canseco rookie cards in the display cases with price tags of $200+. The 1986 Donruss Rated Rookie was the card to have and there were tons of them. For the life of me I couldn’t figure out why these guys were shelling out $200 for the one card when they could spend that money on a few wax boxes and maybe pull multiples. I’ve never been good at math but even as a ten year, I knew that didn’t add up. Card shows in the late 80’s and well into the 90’s were a gluttonous experience. Cards and big money were flowing everywhere. I was a cheap date for my uncle. After an hour of searching, we walked out with only a handful of cards – a crisp 1977 Gary Carter, a 1985 Donruss Gary Carter, a 1987 TCMA Tidewater Tides team set, and a 1988 Donruss Gregg Jefferies. I think we spent $20.

Another milestone card features future Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven. He would reach 3,000 strikeouts in 1986 largely due in part to a magnificent curve ball that he could throw over the plate anytime in any count. He would go on to win a World Series with the Twins in 1987 as they defeated the St Louis Cardinals in 7 games.

Marty Barrett was known as an excellent 2nd baseman and a great contact hitter. He would set a major league record in the 1986 with 24 hits in 14 post season games and was awarded the MVP of the ALCS. He would p1rove to be a tough out against the New York Mets in the 1986 World Series as he hit .433 during the series. Barrett was also a member of the Pawtucket Red Sox team that set 13 baseball records over the span of a 32 inning game against the Rochester Red Wings.

The game began Saturday April 18, 1981 at 8:25PM after a 30 minute delay due to problems with the stadium lights. The game went well into the night and into Easter morning. By 4AM the players were “delirious” from exhaustion. Rochester’s Dave Huppert had caught the first 31 innings before being replaced, and Jim Umbarger pitched 10 scoreless innings from the 23rd inning, striking out nine and giving up four hits. The president of the league, Harold Cooper, was finally reached on the phone by Pawtucket publicity manager Mike Tamburro sometime after 3AM. The horrified Cooper ordered that play stop at the end of the current inning. Finally at 4:07 AM, at the end of the 32nd inning and more than eight hours after it began, the game was stopped. There were only 19 fans left in the seats—not including David Cregg, who had fallen asleep – all of whom received season or lifetime passes to McCoy Stadium. As the players went home to rest before returning at 11AM for an afternoon game that Sunday; they saw people going to Easter sunrise service. When Wade Boggs’ father complimented him for getting four hits in the game, the player admitted that he didn’t think he had a good game. After all, he had come up to bat 12 times.

We will close it out with this card of “The Kid”. The “Game Winning RBI” metric was designed to recognize players credited with the difference making run in a game. The award was meant to identify players that were good clutch hitters and could perform well when the game was on the line. The stat never proved particularly useful as the “game winning run” being tracked was quite random and there was no particular player that was really any better than another in driving in the winning run. The stat was quietly discontinued in 1990. I can’t even find the official stat where he is credited with leading the National League in GWRBI’s. Either way, this card sits nicely in my “Gary Carter binder” in the “oddball card” section. I’m not even sure what my grand total of Carter cards is. I just know it’s a lot.

Rickey Henderson – “Rickey being Rickey”

This weekend I was finally able to get some downtime between work, a 3 year old and just life in general.  After finding myself on the couch with nothing to do, I took a look at our DVR and saw that I had recorded the ESPN “30 for 30” episode where they explored Deion Sander’s 1992 season where he not only played baseball for the Atlanta Braves and football for the Atlanta Falcons but actually played a game for each on the same day.  It was pretty good and there was a lot that I didn’t know about that particular part of his career.  I enjoyed watching Deion play football but his petulant arrogance and incessant mouth-running never really generated any admiration from me.

Ironically, I have always been a big fan of Rickey Henderson who is also a character of arrogance and big-talk.  I’m not sure why I have that double standard but I’ve always dismissed his antics as “Rickey just being Rickey”.  There are many “Rickey stories” out there and none of them are particularly flattering.  They are however, pretty entertaining.

Sunday I came across an article online where Rickey Henderson said he was hoping that Oakland’s top draft pick Kyler Murray would have chosen to come play baseball for the A’s instead of opting to play professional football.  He said that in 1986, he had gone to the LA Raider’s owner Al Davis and asked him if he could play football.  Davis agreed but the Oakland A’s put an end to that idea.  Seeing Rickey suit up for the Raiders would have been exciting to watch.

I’ve decided that in 2019, I’m going to focus on a few “player collections”. I’ve had a few going over the years such as Gary Carter, Michael Cuddyer, Ryan Zimmerman, and David Wright.  I’ll add Rickey Henderson, Adrian Beltre, Don Mattingly, and Harrison Bader.   I also think I’m going to start a collection focused on great action shots of catchers, outfield catches, or maybe acrobatic double plays.  I’ll save those ideas for another post in the future.

In the meantime, here are some of my favorite Rickey cards for your viewing pleasure.

1999 Topps Stadium Club – Of course I would pick one of Rickey’s Stadium Club cards to lead off.  I’m a sucker for the photography and Stadium Club is just loaded with exceptional photos.  This is my favorite of Rickey’s SC issues.  I can’t tell if he’s on his way to swiping second or third base but I’m nearly certain, he was called safe.   I love this card for so many reasons.  First off, it’s Rickey doing what ultimately defined his career, stealing bases.  I love the bright white, green, and gold uniform.  I love the mid-stride action shot and how he’s only player in sight.  The fact that this shot was taken during a sunny Oakland day game also helps. Rickey was a New York Met in 1999 so this shot was likely taken the year before when he was with the Oakland Athletics.  Ironically, Rickey hated playing day games.  Pitcher Tom Candiotti said, “We had a day game in Oakland, and Rickey struck out. He walked all the way through the dugout talking to himself, he always talked to himself. He was saying, ‘I don’t know who’s inside Rickey’s body, but he better get out because the guy in there doesn’t like day games, he only shows up on day games, so he better get out.'”  Candiotti said that the entire dugout was screaming in laughter.

1999 Topps Stadium Club

I love collecting the photo variations and short prints of past legends. Topps has done a nice job with doing this. Here are a few of my favorite Gypsy Queen Rickey cards as well as Rickey’s 2011 Topps Update “Legends Variation”.

2013, 2014, & 2018 Topps Gypsy Queen
2011 Topps Update (Legends)

1981 Fleer – As a kid in the 80’s, I knew Henderson only as a New York Yankee. I started collecting around 1986 and every Rickey card I had featured him in Yankee pinstripes. My grandparents lived next door to a family who had a kid that was a bit older than me and he had a shoe box full of mostly Fleer and Donruss cards from the early 80’s. I remember sorting through them one day and seeing these two cards of the 22 year old Henderson in his green Athletics uniform. I realized then that I would have known he was a former Athletic if I had ever bothered to read the stats on the back. From that point forward, I began looking at both sides of the cards. When you look at his 1981 season stats, you will see that Rickey lead the American League in runs scored (89), stolen bases (56), and hits (136). 89 runs scored and 56 stolen bases may not seem like a lot (he stole 100 bases in 1980) but 1981 was a strike-shortened season. This was also the year that the Athletics accounting department found their books off by about a million bucks. They actually had about 1 million MORE than they should have. They traced it back to Rickey’s million dollar bonus. Instead of cashing it, he framed it and hung it on his wall. Adding to the allure of this story, some sources state is was the Yankees who were missing the million bucks.

1981 Fleer

1992 Donruss – This set has always been a guilty pleasure of mine. In 1992, Donruss celebrated Rickey’s greatest achievement. On May 1, 1991, he stole his 938th career base; in doing so, he succeeded Lou Brock as baseball’s career stolen base leader. Henderson would end the 1991 season with 994 stolen bases. 1992 saw the Athletics finish first in the American League West with a record of 96-66. Their offense was centered around Henderson, Canseco and McGwire. The bulk of the Athletics’ 1992 accolades, however, went to closer Dennis Eckersley. Eckersley led baseball with 51 saves over the course of the season; in the process, he posted a 7-1 record with a 1.91 ERA. Eckersley’s efforts netted him both the 1992 AL Cy Young Award and the 1992 AL MVP Award. The mighty A’s would eventually fall to Toronto in the ALCS. In 1993 Henderson would find himself in a Toronto uniform and eventually a World Series champion. His Donruss base card puts you about as close as you can get to his record breaking signature head first slide on May 1, 1991. Here he is swiping 3rd against the New York Yankees. Seconds later, he would be called SAFE and as such; the all-time base thief. Now that I look at it, if it had been up to me, I would have used the base card as the “Highlight” card. The lime green and white batting gloves he’s sporting in that photo were a must-have for many little players that year. They were made by Mizuno and featured white leather with a lime green padding on the top. Very flashy and very expensive at the time. I had a pair thanks to Mom and Dad.

1992 Donruss Highlights + 1992 Donruss

1987 Topps – The 1987 Topps set has always been a favorite of collectors. featuring the wood-grain borders and loaded with rookies and future Hall of Famers, there are about 25 cards in the set that have always been my favorites. The Henderson is one of them. I love the symmetrical cropping of the photo. Starting in the top left hand corner of the card, you can follow the Yankees logo right to his head, down his torso and all the way down to the bottom right hand corner of the card. Straight as an arrow. Kind of a weird thing to find appealing in a baseball card you’re probably thinking. Due to injuries and only playing in 95 games, 1987 was a below-average season for Henderson and drew public criticism from Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. It was the only season from 1980 – 1991 that he did not lead the league in steals. Harold Reynolds lead the league in steals with 60 and tells a funny story about a phone call he received one night from Rickey:

1987 Topps

“The phone rings; ‘Henderson here.’ I say, ‘Hey, what’s going on, Rickey?’ (and I think he’s calling to congratulate me,) but he goes, ‘Sixty stolen bases? You ought to be ashamed. Rickey would have had 60 at the break.’ And then click, he hung up.”

1989 Topps & Traded – In 1989, the Yankees; uncertain whether Rickey Henderson was worth a new three-year contract and desperately in need of pitching, decided to send him back home to Oakland in exchange for pitchers Erik Plunk, Greg Caderet, and a speedy outfielder named Luis Polonia. Contractually, the Yankees needed Henderson’s approval prior to any trade and he said that Oakland was the only place he would go. Wasting no time after the mid-season trade, Henderson reasserted himself as one of the game’s greatest players, with a memorable half-season in which his 52 steals and 72 runs scored led the A’s into the postseason. The move back to Oakland proved to be a good one for Henderson as Oakland ended up in the World Series for the first time since 1974. Despite a devastating earthquake at the start of Game 3, the A’s would eventually go on to sweep the San Francisco Giants. Henderson hit .474 with an .895 slugging average (including two triples and a homer), while stealing three bases. Earlier that year on August 22, 1989, he became Nolan Ryan’s 5,000th strikeout victim, but Henderson took an odd delight in the occurrence, saying, “If you haven’t been struck out by Nolan Ryan, you’re nobody.”

1989 Topps Traded + 1989 Topps

1980 Topps (Rookie Card) – Rickey had no problem making a splash into major league baseball. At the age of 21, Rickey led the American League in stolen bases (100), was an All-Star, and helped lead the Athletics to a 2nd place finish. His rookie card is one of the most iconic cards in the hobby and it’s easy to see why. As kids, we all emulated his batting stance at one point or another. His signature fits nicely at the bottom of the card and even with a pen, you can tell Rickey was “flashy”. Check out his loopty-loop on the “y”. Ask any of his teammates how “flashy” Rickey is and they will likely tell you the same thing about his pre-game ritual. Since he broke into the league, before every game he plays, he stands completely naked in front of a full-sized mirror, points at himself and says “Rickey, you’re the best…” (over and over…)

1980 Topps

1997 Topps Gallery – This 180 card set was released to hobby shops only and as I was heading off to college that year, I didn’t discover it until years later. Here we see Rickey in a Padres uniform. One can only assume he successfully nabbed second base from the New York Mets. That looks like second baseman Edgardo Alfonso in the picture. I believe this is Shea Stadium and after reviewing Alfonso’s 1996 game log, he played second base for the Mets against the Padres in the August 27-29 home stand. Looking at Henderson’s game logs, the only game he was in a situation to steal was the August 29th game. Paul Wilson would walk Rickey Henderson in the top of the 5th. With Tony Gwynn at the plate, Rickey swiped his 35th base of the season as catcher Todd Hundley’s throw comes in late. Gwynn would go on to poke a ground ball through the middle for a base hit, scoring Henderson. That same year, Rickey was caught speeding but not by an opposing catcher. It was actually a San Diego police officer. As he approached Henderson’s sports car, the driver’s side window slips down a few inches and a hand emerges with a $100 bill in it. The officer shook Rickey’s hand and sent him home (with his money) and a gentle warning.

One time, the Padres GM Kevin Towers was trying to contact Rickey at a nearby hotel. Not finding him checked in under his real name, Towers decided to think like Rickey and asked to be transferred to “Richard Pryor’s room”. Rickey picked up the phone.

1997 Topps Gallery

Joe Tinker & Dick Egan

In 1907, Second baseman Dick Egan of the Cincinnati Reds got real furious one sunny afternoon as Joe Tinker of the Chicago Cubs executed a vicious slide into second base.  Before the cloud of dust had even cleared, fans watched as the two men were back on their feet, shouting back and forth.

Egan (2)

Cincinnati second baseman Dick Egan

Egan challenged Tinker to a fight.

“You dirty blankety-blank!” screamed Egan, “As soon as we’re done beating your team’s ass here, I’m going to knock your blankety-blank head off!”

Covered in dirt and have already out-“blanked” Egan; Tinker picked his glove up off of the ground and accepted Egan’s challenge to meet again after the game.

Confrontation was no stranger to the Cubs shortstop. The dark-haired Tinker was known for his fiery temper both on and off of the field but in most cases, his mood would cool just as quickly as it flared and by the end of the game, Tinker would have forgotten all about whatever it was he mad about in the first place.

I say in most cases because that was NOT the case with his long time double play partner and Cub second baseman Johnny Evers.

Tinker

Chicago shortstop Joe Tinker

On September 13, 1905 in Bedford Indiana, the Chicago Cubs played an exhibition game against the local team.  That afternoon, 700 excited fans filled the wooden bleachers to not only see the major league team from Chicago but to also see Bob Wicker pitch for the Cubs.  Wicker was a home-grown local boy known to the town as the “Pride of Bedford”.  Those expecting a pleasant diversion in seeing the big league club showing off their big league skills were shocked when a fight broke out (before the first pitch was even thrown) between two of the Cubs, Joe Tinker and Johnny Evers.   Fans watched as Tinker and Evers began shouting at each other, wrestled one another to the ground, and angrily exchanged punches until manager Frank Chance was able to pull them apart.

As it turned out, Evers had ridden off alone in a cab to the ball field from the team’s hotel, leaving Tinker and some other teammates behind.  Tinker later told reporters, “I was real mad about and as soon as I got to the park I went up to him and said, ‘who in

Evers

Chicago second baseman Johnny Evers

the hell are you that you’ve got to have a cab all to yourself?’  Well, one word led to another and before I knew it, we were at it and rolling around among the bats on the ball field.  After we were pulled apart, I said to Evers, ‘now listen you son of a bitch, if you and I talk to each other we’re only going to be fighting again.  So don’t talk to ME and I won’t talk to YOU.  You play your position and I’ll play mine and that’ll be that.’”

The pugnacious Evers responded: “That suits me just fine”, and walked back to the dugout.

The two didn’t speak again until 1937.

But back to the ball field in Cincinnati.

After the game had ended and the both teams were making their way back to their respective clubhouse, Tinker had forgotten all about the challenge he had accepted from that “blankety-blank” Egan.

Not so for Egan.

Never returning to his own clubhouse, Egan patiently waited for Tinker outside of the Cubs clubhouse.  After growing impatient Egan furiously barged into the Cubs dressing room searching everywhere for Tinker.

Tinker had simply showered, changed into his suit and had left as he always did after a game.

Not seeing him in the clubhouse, Egan began screaming at the other Cub players, “He’s yella! He’s run out on me!”

Hearing the commotion going on in the clubhouse, Cubs manager Frank Chance walked up to the Reds second baseman. “I’ve known Joe for a long time and Joe Tinker has never ran away from a fight in his life.  Let me get him for you”, he calmly said.

Chance walked out of the clubhouse and up onto the field to see the freshly showered and fully dressed Tinker walking just past second base as he was exiting the ball field. “Hey Joe!”, Chance yelled.  As Tinker turned around, he saw the bellicose Egan tearing up the dugout steps and across the infield with his fists clenched.

At that point, he remembered the challenge that he had accepted in the early innings of the game. Tinker calmly put down his briefcase, handed Chance his suit coat and in a moment, the battle was on inside of a circle of the Reds and Cubs players.

It lasted perhaps 4 minutes and witnesses said that few men have ever taken such a beating in so short a time as Egan did from Tinker.  When it was over, not so much as a strand of Tinker’s hair was out of place

An unbiased witness did say that after it was over and Egan was on the ground staring at the sky, Tinker did have to “straighten his necktie a little.”

Jim “Catfish” Hunter

01241202Little Cameron woke up early this morning.  To give Mom a quiet house and a chance to sleep in today, we packed up a little bag of supplies and headed out to run some errands.  My parents live about 15 minutes away so we decided to bring “Sunny and Pappa-Daddy” Egg McMuffins for breakfast.  My birthday was last week so my Mom handed me a small gift bag with a gift and a page from last week’s Virginia Pilot.  The article was from the travel section and featured a quick story on the opening of the Jim Catfish Hunter museum in Hertford North Carolina.  Located in the Perquimans County Chamber of Commerce building, the exhibition takes up two rooms and features memorabilia from Hunter’s high school days through his major league baseball years with the Athletics and the Yankees.

At first glace, Jim Hunter may be seen as one of the more “colorful” baseball Hall of Famers.  The nickname “Catfish” gives that impression.  The nickname was actually given to him by the owner of the Oakland Athletics Charlie Finley.  When Jim Hunter signed his first professional baseball contract, Finley asked if he had a nickname.  “Jimmy” was Hunter’s response.

Seeing that “Jimmy” wouldn’t be giving Finley very many promotional opportunities, he fabricated a story on the spot – “You left home when you were 6 years old.  Your momma and daddy couldn’t find you.  When they did finally find you, you had landed two catfish and had a third on the line.  They have been calling you ‘Catfish’ ever since.”

After listening to this new story about himself, Hunter said, “Mr. Finley, no one has EVER called me ‘Catfish.'”

Finley simply said, “I just gave you $75,000.”

“Yes, sir.  My name is ‘Catfish,'” Hunter replied.

Hertford is just a few hours from me and makes for a nice day trip.  I’ll certainly be taking Cameron down there to check it out once he’s old enough to appreciate it.


The Jim “Catfish” Hunter Museum
118 W Market St (In the Chamber building located in Historic Hertford)
Hertford, NC 27944
(252) 426-5647

 

 

Bob Friend – Practice Makes Perfect…

My son Cameron just turned 1 last week and what a crazy year it has been!  It’s been fun watching his personality start to develop as he grows into a little person.  I’ve always been a “planner” so I’ve certainly got my eyes on the future for him.  We’ve set up his savings
01081202account already, the college fund is up and running, and I’m debating on whether or not I should just go ahead and start now teaching him to hit from both sides of the plate.  Being a switch hitter may generate more baseball-scholarship dollars one day.  All jokes aside (not really) and without even knowing whether or not he will ever like baseball, I decided to start a little project for him.

I started writing baseball players letters back when I was 9 years old.  My first “success” was a postcard from Johnny Bench with his signature printed on it.  I still have it and even though it’s not a real signature, it’s still one of my favorite pieces.

After looking at a stack of 8×10 photos of baseball players, I decided to mail a few off to some retired players.  My note explained that I planned on giving the photo to my son one day.  I asked the player to personalize the photo and make a short inscription.  Mr Friend was happy to oblige and personalized this photo of him at Shea Stadium in 1966.  He wrote:  “To Cameron – Practice Makes Perfect – NLAS ’56, ’58, ’60 – Good Luck”.  The return is absolutely perfect and I can’t wait to give it to Cam one day.   Mr Friend is a great through-the-mail signer.  This request took 5 days to get back to me.

Bob Friend is nicknamed “The Warrior” as he averaged 39 starts per season between ’56 through ’60.  1955 was unique in that Friend posted a 14-9 record for the Pittsburg Pirates and led the National League in ERA with 2.83.  He was the first ever pitcher to do so for a dead-last team.

Being credited with wins in the ’55 and ’56 All Star Games, Friend shares the record for most All Star Games won.  His ’55 start saw him strike out Mantle, Berra, and Williams.

It was an unfortunate turn of events in the ’60 World Series where the Yankees got the best of him in both of his starts as well as a save opportunity.  Game 7 saw Friend being called in from the bullpen to preserve a 9-7 lead in the ninth.  Friend gave up singles to Bobby Richardson and Dale Long when manager Danny Murtaugh replaced him with Harvey Haddix.  Haddix then proceeded to give up a single to Mantle, scoring Richardson and advancing Long.  A grounder by Berra scored Long tying the game 9-9.

Of course, the ending of this game is well-known and regarded by some as “the greatest game ever played.”  It was Bill Mazeroski who faced Ralph Terry in the top of the 10th with the score tied.  It was a 1-2 fastball that Maz sent sailing over the wall in left, crowning the Pittsburgh Pirates the World Champions.  The Series of 1960 would go down as Mantle’s “biggest disappointment in his career.”

One of the most durable pitchers of his time, Friend averaged 232 innings pitched and 13 victories for 15 years.  Had those numbers not been for some of the worst teams in baseball, Friend would likely be in the Hall of Fame.