Friday, January 4, 2019

Be True To Your School

I don't mean to sound braggadocios, but I have had some pretty good luck when it comes to autograph hunting at my local thrift stores and other secondhand shopping locations.

Over the past few years, I've happened upon a signed, game-used jersey from a former World Series Champion, an inked hat from a hurler who manned the mound for both of Chicago's MLB clubs, and a postcard with the John Hancock of a beloved Chicago Blackhawks legend.  That's not even counting the baseball autographed by one of the greatest ballplayers to ever swing a bat that was unknowingly gifted to me by my sister-in-law from her nearby thrifter.  All in all, I've found some fascinating baseball ephemera that had been ingloriously and carelessly discarded like a stack of beer-stained t-shirts.

What's my secret?  I simply visit my local Goodwill, Savers, Unique, etc. locations more often than my wife would care to admit.  The turnover rate in those stores is high enough that each aisle is almost completely different from week to week.  I scour the toy shelves, hat bin, athletic wear rack, and picture frame props with an eagle eye, looking for anything that might have the hint of ink on it.  It's surprising to me how often this trait is undiscovered or ignored by store staff.

One other section of these retailers that I always make sure to check is the sporting goods - this has been a surprisingly steady source of fascinating memorabilia.  Employees see a football or a bat and pay no further attention, commonly missing a key, display-case worthy attribute.  A few days ago, at a suburban Goodwill, I happened upon such an item that clearly held more intrigue than the slightly bent golf clubs and under inflated basketballs that surrounded it:

That appears to be a game-used baseball from the minor Frontier League.  This foul ball that was likely fought over by over-zealous fanatics during a mid-summer night at the old ballpark was now forgotten, secondhand fodder.  It's not all the surprising that one should end up in such a location, as the independent league has two clubs stationed in nearby locales - the Windy City Thunderbolts and Joliet Slammers - and the league is very low on the baseball chain.  I have caught several of these bad boys myself over the years, so I can see someone deciding that this Wilson A1010FL wasn't worth the shelf space.

Priced at 99 cents, I thought, "meh, it's kinda neat, but I really don't need another one, let alone one I didn't grab from the action myself."  Then. I turned it around:

Oh hey - autographs.  Who knows, while the FL is at the near bottom of the pro baseball ranks, maybe one of these guys is a true diamond in the rough?  That roll of the dice is definitely worth a buck!  As I stated in the intro, I've won this lottery before.  So, although the writing is slightly faded and near illegible, I decided to plop down a George Washingon and take the chance.

Thankfully, databases like Baseball Reference exist, or I'd have no idea where to begin the research on this baseball.  Knowing that it's a Frontier League sphere and pieces of each name, I started by scanning the recent rosters of the aforementioned Thunderbolts and Slammers.  "Bobby L" and "Bradley" something or another seemed pretty clear, so I was looking for any roster that happened to have both names included in their ranks.  It took a couple days worth of on again, off again sleuthing - because I have other things to do in life besides hunt down obscure baseball trivia - but, I was able to circle the 2011 Joliet Slammers as persons of interest.

With a Brad Netzel, Bobby Leeper, and a Ben Hewett on the club, I thought it possible that all three of those monikers could be made out in the scribbles.  Thus, I decided to do a quick Google image search to see if I could happen upon known examples of any of their signatures... no dice.  However, I did stumble upon pictures of Joliet's Brad(ley) Netzel wearing jersey number eight... the same number associated with the bottom signature.  I was closing in!

The end to my hunt was near. I was able to track down Ben Hewitt, now the head coach of a local high school's softball program, on Twitter and took a shot, asking him if that was his mark:

While I had his attention, I figured I might as well ask if he recognized the other two - you never know unless you inquire, right?  At this point, all I could do was sit back, kick up my feet and wait to find out if Ben would answer.  Lo and behold, I barely had time to go and make a sandwich before Mr. Hewitt had already responded:

Voila - they mystery has officially been solved!  My riddle ball had been signed by three members of the 2011 Joliet Slammers - Ben Hewett, Bobby Leeper, and Brad Netzel.  Case closed.  Of course, now I have to shift my focus from identifying these men to learning more about their backstories.  What did they (and continue to) accomplish on the diamond?

Spoiler alert - none of the trio made the Major Leagues.  In fact, none of them made it into affiliated ball either.  But, I don't point that out to belittle them, just to illustrate that the significance of this find comes from another source.  I mean, first off, the Slammers are one of my favorite minor league clubs - you might know them from the national promotion they did in partnership with Cards Against Humanity last year, but they hold further significance to me.  After all, the city of Joliet became my adoptive hometown, as I attended college in the city and lived in the area for several additional years.  I've been to many games at Route 66 Stadium (formerly Silver Cross Field) in my life, so any memorabilia from this club is a-okay in my book.

Also of note, the 2011 Joliet Slammers won the Frontier League championship season, in their first year of existence, no less.  Thus, these guys were part of some significant local history.

Route 66 Stadium, as captured by my lens in 2013.

As for the players themselves, Bobby Leeper partook in two seasons of professional baseball.  A 2009 graduate of the University of North Carolina Wilmington, Bobby was a starter in the outfield for the Seahawks before making the "leep" into pro ball with the Slammers in 2011.  He sure did make it count, as he was named to the mid-season All Star team, batting .292/.358/.458 across 66 games.  His contract was bought by the ill-fated North American Baseball League's Abilene Prairie Dogs for the 2012 season, but the team collapsed under financial strain before completing their schedule, with the league closing up shop soon after.  Surprisingly, post-Abilene, it appears as though Leeper was not signed by any other team.

Bobby hasn't given up on his dreams though, as it appears he's been plying his skills in the high-level, amateur Connecticut Twilight League for the past couple of campaigns.  In 2018, he took home the circuit's MVP trophy while breaking the league's homerun record with 28 bombs as a member of the Chicago Sam's Orioles.  Although I thought that this might be a local club, they are actually based in in Portland, but are sponsored by a bar called Chicago Sam's, which caused my confusion.  Anyway, congratulations, Bobby!

I love that the league creates virtual baseball cards to announce their postseason award winners.  Maybe I'll print that bad boy up to display with my autographed baseball...

The other two players who graciously wrote their name for an apparently ungrateful fan back in 2011 both have connections that hit even closer to home for me.  As it turns out, both of these ballplayers are alumni of the University of St. Francis in Joliet, aka, the same place from which I earned my college degree.  The tiny, private university, tucked quietly into the Stone City's Cathedral District, has an excellent educational reputation and is highly competitive across most sports in the NAIA, yet is rarely heard of or from outside of Will County.  Thus, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that both of Ben Hewett and Brad Netzel had been Fighting Saints, representing our shared alma mater on a larger stage!

Ben Hewett, the guy who responded to my Twitter inquiry, actually attended USF after his minor league career came to a close.  The catcher played three seasons worth of professional ball - all in the Frontier League with parts of all three coming with the Slammers - ending up with a career .258/.338/.301 slash line before going back to school and retiring to the dugout.  He spent the next several years at good ol' USF as a student and as a graduate assistant coach to the university's baseball program, which also plays their home games in Route 66 Stadium.  Today, Ben continues to share his knowledge of the game on as the varsity softball coach for nearby Plainfield North High School.

Here's a clip of Hewett playing the hero for the Slammers, courtesy of the team's YouTube account.

Finally, last but not least, Brad Netzel had the longest professional tenure of the triad. The shortstop logged time in five different minor league seasons (two spent in J-Town) and was the only one of his signature mates to play for the pennant flag of a league besides the Frontier. That said, those other two circuits - the Continental Baseball League and the Golden Baseball League - were also of the non-affiliated variety. Nevertheless, Netzel put together a few pretty good seasons and was even named the Frontier League Championship Series MVP in 2011, before retiring from the Slammers after the 2012 schedule. He's widely regarded as one of the most consistent batters in club history.

Of even greater interest to me is what Netzel did on the field prior to inking the dotted line on his first contract. As it turns out, he was already a Joliet baseball hero as an All-Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference and an NAIA All-Region VII shortstop for the University of St. Francis Fighting Saints under legendary collegiate baseball coach, Gordie Gillespie.  Brad's 2007 batting average of .412 ranks him in the top ten all-time for the powerful program, which has eight College World Series appearances under it's belt and a national title in 1993.

Brad graduated in 2008, when I was a freshman, meaning we actually walked the halls of USF at the same time. It's a super small campus too, so I almost guarantee that we crossed paths at some point. Had he been around a couple of more years, I would have actually covered him for the school paper, as I eventually became the sports editor and unofficial beat writer for the baseball team. Small world, right?

 Netzel with the Saints in 2006 and celebrating the Slammers' championship in 2011. Images courtesy of USF.

And thus, we've reached the end of my research rabbit hole. What a journey it has been!

All told, while none of the three mystery signatures on my Goodwill baseball were able to ascend all the way to the Major Leagues, all three were legitimate professional players who played for the love of the game, two of which have strong connections to my alma mater, the University of St. Francis in Joliet, IL.  All in all, it made for a entertaining and engaging research topic, plus I learned an awful lot about my fellow alumni's recent history in professional baseball.  

In summation, the purchase wasn't nearly as high profile as my Keith Magnuson postcard or my Bob Howry hat; but, what the item lakes in monetary value, it more than makes up for in sentimental gain.  I'd say that makes for a rather worthwhile purchase.

 In the words of Robocop's Bixby Snyder...

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Get Back, Loretta

There has been much ado made about the glacial pace of the free agent market over the last two winters and the sandbagging Cubs have certainly been no exception to this new normal.  While there hasn't been much movement on the player movement front - so far, Daniel Descalso remains the only Big League acquisition made by Theo and crew - this off-season has seen a flurry of activity in another facet of it's roster structure.  While the 25-man currently looks almost exactly the same as it did through the bulk of 2018, the same thing cannot be said about the coaching staff.  In fact, that staff bears little resemblance to the World Series winning crew of 2016.  Of that crew, over the past two seasons, only two men remain employed by the franchise with several positions turning over multiple times in that short span.

In some regards, that's the price of success - the Cubs have been quite successful over the past half decade and, thus, other clubs want to get a piece of the action.  However, part of that is also reflective of some poor decision making (the Chili Davis experiment, for example) and the fact that Joe Maddon heads into the upcoming season as a lame-duck manager.  Much like any professional setting, stability is a key ingredient to a productive workplace.

Since the end of this year's World Series, hitting coach Davis was fired, pitching coach Jim Hickey stepped down, assistant hitting coach Andy Haines was promoted in Milwaukee, and bench coach Brandon Hyde was poached by Baltimore to become their latest skipper.  In short, the staff will almost be entirely new once Spring Training comes around.

The Cubs had gone about filling all of these newfound openings, except for one that is - the bench coach spot previously occupied by Hyde.  With Maddon seemingly on the hot seat, the dugout's second-in-command in Chicago is sure to be put an interesting, maybe desirable position.  Rumors swirled around perennial future management candidate, David Ross, and fellow former Cub, Mark DeRosa, but both seem to be perfectly content as broadcasters for now.  Yesterday afternoon, word dropped that the North Siders had finally found their man and it was a name that came totally out of right field:

Mark Loretta spent fifteen years in the Major Leagues playing all over the diamond for five different clubs, from 1995-2009.  Along the way, he was named to two All-Star squads, even earning some MVP votes during his 2004 campaign with San Diego.  Oft-mentioned as a future management candidate, after his retirement in 2009, he came back to the California club to begin a career in the front office, becoming special assistant to the baseball operations crew in 2010.  Now, the Northwestern educated man is blowing back into the Windy City for his first opportunity to join a Big League coaching staff.

That's right - Mark's very first chance comes in a major market with a lame-duck manager, following a debilitating early playoff exit and two consecutive seasons of major coaching turnover.  Talk about baptism by fire!

It should be said that Loretta spent the 2009 season with the Boston Red Sox, when Theo Epstein was running the ship and Jed Hoyer was one of his assistants.  Additionally, he began his FO career with the Pads when Hoyer was running that show.  As you can see, there's some connection there.  Also of note, while Mark has no formal experience as a Big League coach, he did manage the Israeli national team in the 2013 World Baseball Classic qualifying round.  So, that's something.

But, hey, if everything goes well for him in 2019, perhaps he can set himself up nicely as a successor to Joe Maddon, should either side decide it's time to part ways at the end of the season, or for further advancement in the front office if Theo and Jed value his communication skills.  No matter what, this is going to be a big season for the new Cubs bench coach.

Most importantly, after reading this announcement and immediately rummaging through my closet, I was pleased to discover that I had a few Loretta cards tucked away in my trade boxes.  One of these three contenders - clockwise from the top, 2000 Topps, 2004 Donruss, and 1999 Pacific - will be entered into the coaches section of my Cubs All-Time Roster Collection.  Hey - for me, making sure every new Cubs is properly represented in my favorite binder is critical!  Which one of the three cards do you think would best do the job?  I'm leaning towards the Pacific, but this Cubs fan is a little leery of allowing more Brewers content into my CATRC.

In the meantime, along with announcing the final configuration of their 2019 coaching staff, the club also made the public aware that they'd found a new mental skills coordinator in the same press release:

The position had been previously held by the universally respected, Ken Ravizza, who tragically passed away after suffering a heart attack back in July.  Ken followed Joe Maddon from the Angels to the Rays to the Cubs and is credited by players across the league for fine tuning their skills.  As announced yesterday, former Cubs and Cardinals hurler, Bob Tewksbury, will get a shot at filling Ravizza's enormous shoes and has previously served the Giants and the Red Sox in a similar capacity over the last few seasons.

Of course, this isn't a position on the traditional coaching staff, necessitating no new inclusion in my CATRC - Bob will be staying in the player section of the binder.  However, it is an excuse to show more Cubs cardboard on this Cubs cardboard-themed blog!

With that, until the Cubs acquire a player of consequence, I am up to date on the current Cubs roster, with both coaching and active players.  Here's hoping there's not another round of turnover next winter; of course, that specter looms large with the lack of extension offers put towards Joe Maddon.  At a certain point, this constant change in voice and leadership has take a toll on the Cubs, right?  Maybe Tewks can help counteract that?

Anyway, welcome to Chicago and to my CATRC, Mark Loretta!

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Switching the Laundry Over

The hamper in our household has been filling up quickly this season.  My wife and I lead pretty active lifestyles -  both of us usually work out at least once a day, be it running, yoga, weight lifting, or Country Heat (not my favorite).  My running is usually done outside because treadmills are the devil, necessitating multiple layers this time of year.  Additionally, the holidays have been jam-packed with outfit changes based on photograph opportunities, food spillage, and/or whether or not we'd be visiting the home of a smoker in our Christmas adventures.  Not to mention, we both like to get comfortable at the end of a long day by swapping out our jeans and button ups for some warm and fuzzy pajamas.

Therefore, it's no mystery why our laundry pile grows like a dense, smelly patch of weeds.  Luckily, my wife and I have both been on vacation for the past week and change, so we've been able to keep up with the mound more quickly than normal.  However, the end of winter break is fast approaching and I'll likely soon get reacquainted with the back of my closet.

Thus, in the waning days of my break from the school district IT life, I would like to take advantage and get through one last load of laundry while I have the time.

By that, I mean I want to show off the latest laundry switch-ups, or "Cubgrades," I've made in my Cubs All-Time Roster Collection binder.  The real laundry can wait another couple of days... said the doomed procrastinator.

Back in the glory days of having multiple card companies with official licenses, not only was there more innovation in the trading card industry, there was more variety in player selection.  Between Topps, Donruss, Upper Deck, Pinnacle, Leaf, and Pacific, it seemed like most players who spent a significant amount of time on a 25-man roster would show up on cardboard in one of the potpourri of products hitting store shelves.  Nowadays, in the era of just Topps and a few logo-less "competitors," the stars, prospects, and rookies soak up all the attention, while the bullpen arms and bench players are lost and forgotten, like so many singular laundromat socks.  Today, it would be a small miracle if a guy like Manny Alexander showed up in anything other than maybe Update, if we were lucky

Thankfully, back in the 90's, sets like 1998 Pacific Collection were around to fill in the gaps.

This wonderful, ivy-backed shot of Manny came as part of a much larger stash of cards as a Christmas gift from my father, which has been the subject of several posts over the last week or so.  Prior to that holiday surprise, the only two Alexanders I had as options for my treasured CATRC were the two singles you see above.  While I do love minor league cards, I have a separate binder for those; furthermore, I hold no ill-will towards the Orioles, but I do believe that almost every ballplayer looks better in freshly-pressed Cubs duds!

On a related note, paired with Manny was another "Cubgrade" that came courtesy of the 1998 Pacific Collection checklist:

Miguel Batista stuck around Major League Baseball for what seemed like forever - first signed in 1988, he stayed on the diamond until a mid-season release in 2013.  His 18-year career saw him pop up in break Spring Training camp with 11 different clubs, making him one of the most well-traveled journeyman in the sport's history - sounds like he probably went through a lot of laundry too!  With all that in mind, it's easy to forget that Miggy was ever-so-briefly a Cub - for 11 games - in 1997.

There's basically no chance that Batista would end up with a Cubs card had his career centered around this decade - Topps would have paid his 0-5 record and 5.70 ERA  (yikes) no mind.  However, things were quite different in the diverse cardboard marketplace offered by the 1990's.

Like I said, the 90's were flooded by diverse player selection and cardboard innovation.  On that note, this next product epitomizes both of those characteristics perfectly:

Pack-issued, certified autograph cards might be commonplace these days - however, they were still quite the novelty when the Leaf Signature Series his LCS shelves in 1996.  The first set to offer an autograph in every pack is also known for it's wide-range of signature subjects - more than 250 players signed for the first series alone!  Luckily for me, one of the players Leaf tracked down for the ambitious project was Todd Haney and the resulting bit of baseball ephemera remains the utility player's lone card in Cubbie Blue.

To be completely honest, I'm kind of surprised that Haney doesn't have more Cubs pasteboards.  The previous year, Todd came up from Iowa for his first extended bit of MLB action and absolutely, positively raked.  Across 73 at-bats, he destroyed NL pitching, posting an eye-popping .411/.463/.603 slash line.  Had Haney's introduction happened today, as a rookie playing for a major market club, he'd have about fifty cards and parallels before the bottom dropped out.  Again, different times.

Speaking of different times, let's fast forward from the 90's to the aughts:

Exclusive monopolies were not yet a thing in the world of cardboard, though the competition was slowly beginning to die off.  Before they were able to secure complete comfort in the market, one of the best things Topps ever did was develop the Total brand.  From 2002-2004, this products sought to showcase more of the active roster than any checklist before; in fact, the inaugural edition and it's 990-card manifest was, by far, the most comprehensive baseball card set the old bubblegum company has ever released.  It was the only place a mediocre, non-closing reliever like Alan Benes had a chance to appear.

Appearing in only ten "Total" games from 2002-03, it's a minor miracle that Alan's Cubs tenure was documented at all.  But, that's why the Total banner still has a cult-like following today - bring it back, Topps!

Finally, our last "Cubgrade" of the day also hails from the same decade:

Did you know that Tarrik Brock is one of the few Cubs players to ever debut on foreign soil?  I'm not talking about in our neighbor's north of the border either - Tarrik's maiden Major League appearance came in the land of the rising sun, when the Cubbies and the Mets journeyed to Japan for MLB's special opening series in 2000.  Thanks to the Fleer Tradition release from that year, I too know this fun fact now.  All told, thirteen cumulative games that year would be the extent of Brock's big league experience.  Thus, he was forced to share his only MLB card with fellow rookie, Ruben Quevedo.

It's a funny coincidence that this light-hitting (.167) outfielder had made his debut in another country, seeing as, for the longest time, he was represented in my CATRC by a card from another land, as well:

Of course, that land was Venezuela, not Japan.  Tarrik's Major League career was over after 2000, but  he didn't give up on his professional dream.  In 2002, he was playing winter ball in the Liga Venezolana de Béisbol Profesional (LVBP), as this Line Up single will attest.  I must admit, I'm a little disappointed to boot this multi-cultural oddball from my main binder; but, it will still find a place in my binder of minor league/foreign league/Negro League cards.

With that, this load of laundry is finally done.  And I didn't even mess anything up!

That about covers all of the laundry switches found in my Dad's overly-generous Christmas gift; but, there's still plenty more content to cover from that yuletide haul.  I'm going to try and run through the rest of the goodies over the next couple days; although, at this rate, it's going to be next Christmas before I get through it all!

Thank you for joining me on the virtual laundromat known as Wrigley Roster Jenga today.  Now that I'm done with this 'load," maybe I should consider going to the actual laundromat with my heap of workout clothes and sweaters... Nah, I still have four more days before work starts back up - I'm sure I'll get it taken care of before then.  Suuuuuuurrrrrrrre.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Does This Even Count?

During the multi-decade process of attempting to acquire one card of every single person to take the field for the Chicago National League Ballclub, from 1870 through today, I've had to venture to the outskirts of the known cardboard universe.  After all, when you're looking for obscure mop-up pitchers and scant utility infielders - oftentimes literally older than sliced bread - you have to open up your binders to more than just Topps Flagship and the rest of the usual suspects.

With this in mind, oddballs become the name of the game and my Cubs All-Time Roster Collection tome is stuffed to the gills with such curiosities.  My horizons have expanded to include such non-traditional trinkets as greeting cards, unfurled matchbooks, postcards, stickers, and stamps, in addition to traditional, 2.5" x 3.5" pasteboards.  Furthermore, while my binder includes plenty of offerings from Topps, Bowman, Upper Deck, Donruss, et al, it also includes some more off-the-wall representatives; i.e., TCMA, Honus Bonus, Platinum Series BaseballArs Longa Art Cards, and Broders, among other fringe sources.  Without these alternative set producers, my collecting goal would be even more impossible than it already is!

On that note, this Christmas, I added another new "edge of the cardboard universe" manufacturer to my CATRC trapper.  This is one that I'd never heard of before - with a name like Skeetersoft, I think that I would have remembered if I had!

Now, there's really nothing to get "Rowdy" about here, this Harold Elliott card is not exactly exciting.  In fact, I think I can safely say that this is one of the most boring cards in my collection; although, it does have some equal company, which is a point I will elaborate on momentarily.

Before we delve too deeply into the circumstances surrounding this colorless, image-less "baseball card," let's take a look at the ballplayer which it purports to represent.  Rowdy Elliott was a back-up catcher and baseball journeyman who's five-year, MLB career took place entirely between 1910 and 1920, but who's minor league tenure extended far beyond that time frame.  Elliott had quick cameos with the Boston Braves to start, but the bulk of the Kokomo, IN native's MLB time came with my beloved Chicago Cubs from 1916-18.  Elliott was part of a pennant winner in 1918 - though he only appeared in five games that season because he enlisted in the Navy at the onset of our involvement in WWI.  Once he returned to the States, he had a 41 game stint with Brooklyn before returning to the bushes, where he would play ball in several dusty locales through 1929.

Sadly, his life was cut short in February of 1934, when he plummeted from his own apartment window in San Francisco - he was only 43.  To this day, the circumstances surrounding his death remain a mystery.

Here's a photograph of ol' Rowdy, so you can actually picture the man, since the Skeetersoft card doesn't help.

Skeetersoft, Inc. was a company behind one of the many tabletop baseball games which were popularized in the middle 20th century onward.  National Pastime was the name of their coffee table simulation and it was played with cards and materials exceptionally similar to those of the more well-renowned American Professional Baseball Association, aka APBA.  In fact, Skeetersoft's output was often marketed and used as aftermarket additions for it's more popular cousin, as it's formula was compatible with the game play of APBA.  Of course, there were a few slight differences which claimed to create a more lifelike sim.  What those tweaks are, I'm not sure, as I have never played either game and I'm not going to pretend like I know how to do so.

If you're interested, while the original Skeetersoft company appears to be defunct - though there is an online version of the diamond sport simulation, with updated stats available here.

Skeetersoft in action.

Both APBA and Skeetersoft use dice and mathematics to simulate the actions of a baseball game.  Cards are created to represent teams and players from all across the professional baseball timeline - these bare-bone game pieces feature assigned numerical values which correspond and interact with the dice and the game board.  Without truly understanding the game play myself, that's about the best summation I could possibly hope to come up with.

As you can tell, the cards created for these games were not intended to be collectible - they are there simply to serve a larger purpose, much like the property cards in Monopoly or the knowledge-packed cards of Trivial Pursuit.  Of course, that doesn't stop us obsessive baseball card collectors, constantly looking for new items to add to our precious player collections or oddball stores.  I know that I've come across several of these oddities on such reliable hobby sources as Ebay, Comc, and Sportlots and I've even seen a few in my local card shops.  I mean, they are cards and they do pertain to baseball... therefore, they must be baseball cards, right?

While Rowdy Elliott is the first Skeetersoft card to come into my possession, I do have a small sampling of APBA cards already resting comfortably in my CATRC book.  Desperate times call for desperate measures, so I have turned to these sources to fill otherwise nigh-unfillable gaps in my collection.

For example, above you see an APBA game card for Norm McMillan, starting third baseman for one of the greatest Cubs squads to ever take the field - the 1929 NL Pennant winners.  Despite his important status on an iconic team, Norm has exactly one official baseball card on the market, according to Beckett, and it's an uber rare strip card from 1923.  This penny-pincher is likely never going to come across one in my budget, if I ever come across one at all.  Thus, this game token allows me to scratch another name off of my list without costing much scratch itself.  Similarly, Rowdy Elliott only has a handful of sparse, original Zeenut singles to his name - different player, same situation.  Such is pre-war collecting, I'm afraid.

With that, I feel compelled to ask you, the reader, your opinion on a very important question - should these count?

Seeing as these flimsy game pieces hold no inherent collector's value and do not so much as even depict a silhouette of the player featured, should they count towards my Cubs All-Time Roster Collection, or even as baseball cards in general?

For me and for now, I do include these cards in my collection; but, only as a last resort and they will get booted if and when I can track down a proper, picturesque card.  Elliott, McMillan, and Clyde Beck are the only three such instances and I am not exactly seeking out more; that being stated, as plain and dull as these maybe-cards are, I'd much rather see these in my binder than an empty gap.

APBA and Skeetersoft are not the only game tokens to appear in my collection; the aforementioned Platinum Series Baseball and MLB Showdown hold down a few pockets each in my Ultra Pro pages.  However, unlike their brethren, these game cards feature actual photographs of the player which they represent, making them more like a traditional baseball card WITH game play characteristics.  Obviously, the plain jane APBA and Skeetersoft singles lack that duality.

What do you think about this situation?  Were you in my shoes, would you include these cards in your binders?  Perhaps you already do have them in your own, personal collections?  Do you even think of them as baseball cards?  Maybe you think I'm a touch too fanatical and wouldn't use these for anything other than board game night?  I encourage you to weigh in and share your opinions below because I'm truly curious how the blogosphere feels on this topic.

Just try not to let the debate get too "Rowdy!"

Monday, December 31, 2018

Remembering The Stars We Lost

Much like the annual Grammy Awards take a few minutes before the end of the show to pay tribute to those in the music industry who passed away in the preceding year, it's now time to take a few minutes to remember those who've passed on from in the realm of Windy City sports.  

In this blog post, I want to take some time and write a quick blurb about those who appear in my cardboard collections and who played for my favorite teams but did not survive the year 2018.  While I may have already honored a few of these Chicago athletes who spent time with the Cubs, Bears, Blackhawks, or Bulls at the time of their deaths, I know that I missed several during my blogging hiatuses.  Thus, before the year is out, I want to properly shine the spotlight on these men who took to the diamond, gridiron, ice rink or hardwood throughout the years.

I've made these sorts of entries before, for both 2016 and 2015 - although, I did not complete one for 2017.  I must admit, it was The Angels, in Order and Billy from Cardboard History who inspired me to get back to it and to expand my horizons from just Cubs players to all of those in my collections.  Hopefully, I do them justice.

Without any further ado, please allow me to honor those who have recently gone on to play in that great stadium in the sky:

Billy Connors
11/2/41 - 6/17/18
Chicago Cubs

A member of the 1954 Little League World Series winning squad, Billy Connors had an 11-game cameo with the Cubs in 1966 and pitched briefly for the Mets over the next two seasons.  That said, it was as a pitching coach that Connors built a legacy in the 80's and 90's.  Billy held that position with the Cubs from 1982-86, including the beloved '84 squad, as well as the Royals, Mariners, and Yankees into the new millennium.

Lee Smith once credited Connors and former manager Lee Elia as “the two guys who turned my career around,” while Connors also got credit for helping Mariano Rivera develop the cut fastball that made him the all-time saves leader.  All told, those are some pretty good credits to have on the old resume!

Ray Emery
9/28/82 - 7/15/18 
Chicago Blackhawks

Ray had a lengthy 11-year career as a backup goalie across the NHL.  Both of the 2011-12 and the 2012-13 seasons were spent between the pipes with the Chicago Blackhawks,  Valued for his steady leadership, veteran presence, and ability to step in without missing a beat should Corey Crawford be unable to go, Emery quickly became a fan favorite in Chicago.

In his second (and final) season with the club, Emery and Crow split the William M. Jennings trophy - given to the goalkeeper(s) having played a minimum of 25 games for the team with the fewest goals scored against them.  Furthermore Ray earned himself a chance to hoist the Stanley Cup, as the Blackhawks went on to win their second of three NHL titles during their dynastic period.

Tragically, Ray drowned after going for a swim in Lake Ontario this summer.  He was only 35.

Frank Ernaga
8/22/30 - 4/30/18
Chicago Cubs

Ernaga was one in a long line of Cubs wunderkinds who ultimately fizzled out during the doldrum between World War II and the near miracle of 1969.  

In May of 1957, Ernaga made an immediate impact by smacking a home run in very first at-bat, off Warren Spahn, no less.  As if that wasn't enough, he followed that memorable introduction with a triple off the Hall of Famer in his next trip to the plate.  Over the course of the next week, Frankie continued to scorch the ball, going 6-for-10 before his batting average plummeted back to earth.  Relegated back to the AAA-MLB shuttle, the young rookie's Major League tenure was over by the end of 1958.

Despite the abrupt end to his playing career, Ernaga had no regrets. During an interview with the Lassen County Times, he said, “Everything just fell into place for me. I always loved sports. I got to do everything in my life that was great.”  by all accounts, his bright and sunny disposition brought joy to all who had the fortune of encountering him.

Oscar Gamble
12/20/49 - 1/31/18
Chicago Cubs

I actually remember exactly where I was when I heard that Gamble had passed away, a victim of ameloblastic carcinoma at just 68 . I was on an airstrip in Dallas, TX, on my way to a business conference and it felt like my heart had sunk faster than the just-landed aircraft. Mr. Gamble was the embodiment of all that was fun in baseball, from his witty and humorous personality to his barely-contained, iconic Afro. The card you see above might be one of the most iconic pasteboards of all-time!

I wrote a more in-depth piece shortly after Oscar's untimely passing; so feel free to check that out.  I just want to take this opportunity to remind everyone reading that the fan-favorite got his MLB start with the Cubbies during the ill-fated 1969 campaign.  He might have made his name elsewhere, but he'll always be a Cub to me.

Chris Gedney
8/9/70 - 3/9/18
Chicago Bears

As a Syracuse senior, Gedney was a consensus first-team All-American in 1992, leading to his third-round selection by the Bears in the following year's NFL draft.  The tight end would go on to play three seasons for the Monsters of the Midway, though he was plagued by injury. A broken collarbone, heel problems, a broken leg, and a stress fracture in his foot limited his time on the turf at Soldier Field before he took his talents to the Arizona Cardinals for three more campaigns.

After hanging up his cleats, Gedney switched to the other side of the microphone, working color commentary for his beloved alma mater.  Tragically, Gedney committed suicide this spring, after battling depression and other behavior issues.  It seems as though Gedney suffered complications from CTE, like many a former football player.  

Is there a way to make this sport safe?

Bill Johnson
10/6/60 - 1/20/18
Chicago Cubs

Bill Johnson might not be well-remembered today, but he played a bit part on one of the most beloved Cubs teams in the history of Chicago baseball. Johnson pitched in four games for the eventual NL East Division Champions, breaking a 39 postseason drought in the process. During his 5.1 innings of bullpen duty, Johnson posted a sterling 1.69 ERA as a September call-up. Additionally, Bill made ten appearances in the year previous; although, that was the extent of his Major League career.

Once his career came to a close, the noted leader and family man turned to coaching American Legion Baseball, high school and college programs from his home in Wilmington, DE, the same hometown as my lovely wife. Records show that he died early this year at only 57 years of age; but, those same records make no indication of the cause.

Dick LeMay
8/28/38 - 3/19/18
Chicago Cubs

Dick LeMay came up through the Giants chain, and pitched for the San Franciscans from 1961-62, before blowing into the Windy City, via trade, for 1963.  The lefty only made it into nine games for the lackluster club, going 0-1 with a 5.28 ERA in 15.1 innings pitched, mostly out of the bullpen (one start).  Once that season had concluded, LeMay would never be rostered on an MLB roll call again, though he would return to the minors and became a consistent winner for the AAA affiliates of the St. Louis Cardinals, through 1970.

Upon the completion of his playing career, Dick took up coaching... though not in the sport you might expect.  In the mid-1980s, he was the head boys basketball coach at Cascia Hall High School - apparently, Mr. LeMay was quite the versatile athlete!  At that same time, the multi-tasker was getting his American pastime fix as scout for les Expos.

Stan Mikita
5/20/40 - 8/7/18
Chicago Blackhawks

In the land of Chicago, Stan Mikita is a man who needs no introduction.  On the Mount Rushmore of Second City sports, Stan the Man might just represent the Chicago Blackhawks, the team with which he spent the entirety of his lengthy, Hall of Fame hockey career (1958-80).  Without a doubt, Mikita is regarded as one of the best, if not the absolute best centres of the 1960's.  After all, he earned four scoring titles during that decade and was eight times an All-Star!  Honestly, I don't know what else can be said for the superlative superstar.

Besides his propensity for finding the back of the net, Mikita is also known for his innovative usage of stick curvature to find a competitive advantage and for being one of the first NHL skaters to wear a helmet.  And that's not even to mention his "famous donuts."

Bo Rather
10/7/50 - 4/2/18
Chicago Bears

Bookended by stints with the Miami Dolphins, David Elmer Rather- better known as "Bo" - played for the Bears as a wide receiver from 1974 to 1978. During this time, Rather appeared in 55 games and caught 91 passes for 1,428 yards and seven touchdowns in blue and orange.  Before making his way to Chicago via trade, Rather earned himself a big, shiny ring as a member of the Super Bowl VIII Champion Dolphins.  He played his college ball at the University of Michigan, where he set the Wolverine all-time record with 3,977 net rushing yards.

As a wide receiver, we know he was good with his hands.  What you might not know is that, after retirement, he developed a passion for gardening and writing poetry.  In fact, his flower gardens were recognized by the Battle Creek Garden Tour.  Additionally, Rather also specialized in audio recordings for various ministry programs.  What a well-rounded and artsy fellow!

Daryl Robertson
1/5/36 - 7/31/18
Chicago Cubs

Signed by the Giants out of Bingham Canyon HS (where he was part of multiple Utah state championship teams) in 1954, Daryl Robertson only spent one year in the Majors and it came with the Cubbies in 1962.  In nine games for the club, "Sonny" went 2-for-19 at the plate and spent time in the field at both shortstop and third base.  Unfortunately, this was not enough to impress the Cubs' brass and Robertson was sent back to the minors.  He would retire from professional baseball at the conclusion of the AAA season.

However, he hadn't completely left the diamond behind - Daryl was inducted into the Utah Fast Pitch Softball Hall of Fame in July of 1997. I wish I could find more information about his softball exploits, but Google isn't turning up much. Although, away from the field, Robertson worked for the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Department and retired as a Lieutenant after 30 years of service. How very admirable!

Luis Valbuena
11/30/85 - 12/6/18
Chicago Cubs

This truly tragic story is still fresh on our minds as I type.  Earlier this month, the slugging infielder was killed in an automobile crash, along with teammate and fellow former MLB'er Jose Castillo, on his way to a Venezuelan Winter League contest.  It was revealed that the wreck was no accident, as it had been set up by roadside robbers, who were later caught with items from the car in their possession.  All in all, it was a harrowing and sobering occurrence and highlights just how fleeting life can be.

In the wake of the event, I dedicated a full post to Luis, who was one of the few bright spots on some dismal, rebuilding Cubs teams in the first half of this decade.  He will forever be remembered for his enthusiasm on the field, his unapologetic sense of self, and the legendarily prodigious bat flips he would unleash for home runs and walks alike.

In addition to those you see above, there were also several Chicago athletes who passed away in 2018, but do not yet appear in any of my roster collection tomes.  Sans cards, I would like to take a minute to list their names below:

Michel Archambault
9/27/50 - 5/23/18
Chicago Blackhawks

Earl Balfour
1/4/33 - 4/27/18
Chicago Blackhawks

Bill Brown
6/29/38 - 11/4/18
Chicago Bears

Rasual Butler
5/23/79 - 1/31/18
Chicago Bulls

Len Chappell
1/31/41 - 7/12/18
Chicago Bulls

John "Kayo" Dottley
8/25/28 - 11/17/28
Chicago Bears

Dick Gamble
11/16/28 - 3/22/18
Chicago Blackhawks

John McKenzie
12/12/37 - 6/9/18
Chicago Blackhawks

Mark Merrill
5/5/55 - 4/12/18
Chicago Bears

Tom Roggeman
9/5/31 - 8/17/18
Chicago Bears

Greg Smyth
4/23/66 - 2/16/18
Chicago Blackhawks

Jim Wiste
2/18/46 - 1/2/18
Chicago Blackhawks


Sunday, December 30, 2018

1990 Target Dodgers - An Appreciation Post

In 1990, as I was celebrating my first birthday, the Dodgers franchise was turning the corner for their 100th lap around the National League circuit.  In fact, the club had actually been around since the 1884 season; however, the team emphasized their transferring from the failed American Association to the National League.  Of course, the century mark is an incredibly momentous milestone for any person, place, or thing, and a baseball franchise is no exception.  At the time, only a select handful of clubs had been able to stay functioning long enough to make it into the triple digits.  Thus, the Dodgers simply had to do something to mark this centenary.  With the height of baseball card investment and the junk wax era in full swing, it should come as no surprise that this 100-year celebration became the cardboard anniversary.

That summer, the Dodgers partnered with big box giants, Target, to release one of the most ambitious trading card sets to ever hit the market.  In order to properly pay tribute to 100 years of Dodger baseball, the powers that be created an expansive 1,095 card checklist which purported to include every single Dodger to ever take the field - be it in Brooklyn or LA - during their NL existence.  Every. Single. One.

Printed in perforated sheets of fifteen cards each, these treasures were distributed - typically in packs of multiple sheets - at Los Angeles area Target stores with a qualifying purchase, as well as at select Dodger home games as a giveaway.  The stock for the cards is cheap and thin... comparable to the sturdiness of your average index card - after all, this was a massive checklist printed in mass quantities.  As for the individual cards themselves, they were shrunk down from the standard size to 2"x 3", in order to cram as many on a sheet as possible.

Of course, with a project this ambitious, the 1990 Target Dodgers set is not perfect.  Many of the pictures are less than appealing, owing to the fact that many of these bygone ballplayers' careers pre-dated widely available flash photography.  Furthermore, the set was plagued with production issues, as player identities were screwed up, names were left off of the checklist, card numbers were confusingly repeated for multiple entries, etc.  That said, when you're trying to compile the all-time roster for a baseball team that's been around since the Benjamin Harrison administration, there's bound to be a mistake or two made.  I should know, seeing as I'm trying to compile a similar project for the even more ancient Chicago Cubs.

 Hell, some of these guys had to settle for drawings of their likenesses.

While I am not a Dodger fan, this set has long been of interest to me and my collecting habits.  After all, the set contains plenty of cards for men who had few or no other baseball card issued in their honor.  Additionally, since - like most of it's contemporary brethren - the set did not hold much investment value, it also provides an affordable opportunity to acquire cards of players who might only show up in the hallowed Goodwin Champions, T206's, or other pricey tobacco issues.  Most importantly, since the entire Dodgers timeline parallels that of the Cubs, there's a good amount of overlap in player usage for both historic franchises.

Add those factors all together and you can see why the 1990 Target Dodgers set has become a goldmine for my Cubs All-Time Roster Collection.  As of December 23rd, 2018, I had 19 Target singles resting comfortably in said binder, making it one of the most well-represented single products in my pages.  Although, you might be asking yourself why I added such an oddly specific demarcation line to that statement.  Well, you see, this past Christmas, I very nearly doubled my Target Dodgers content.

Man - they just don't come up with nicknames like that anymore.

As I mentioned in my post about the great Roy Johnson mix-up yesterday morning, I was gifted with a hefty haul of cardboard by my deceptively generous father this Yuletide season.  It seems he came across my blog want-list and simply went down the line, buying up as many cards as he could in the $1-$3 range.  Seeing as the Target Dodger checklist made up a good chunk of my list of desired cardboard and it's singles rarely sell for more than a buck or two, I ended up with 18 new "Red Bulls-eye" faces for my CATRC binder (and then some, but that's a story for another time).

All told, this amazing gift made up the largest single-day addition to my most hallowed tome in years.... maybe ever!  After all, it gets awfully hard to add more than a card or two at a time when you're trying to track down utility infielders and mop-up pitchers who were old enough to serve in WWI.

All of the cards that you've seen in this post were part of this Target haul substantive enough to make my wife blush.  Man, the amount of money we, as a couple, would drop at Target if the Cubs were to do a similar promotion with the Cubs at Chicagoland area stores...  Target and baseball cards - two of our favorite things!

Of course as well as that theoretical set would line up with my collecting and personal interests, I don't know that I'd actually want such a thing to come about.  After all, while collecting one card of every person to have ever played for the Cub is, in fact, my ultimate goal, if a single set were to come out and achieve that goal in a single release, it would negate a decade and a half of work on my part.  Not to mention, it would kind of just ruin the fun for me and abruptly end the thrill of the chase.

Thankfully, the Cubs celebrated their 100th anniversary back in 1970 and their 100th anniversary of NL baseball in 1976, so a similarly branded marketing effort would have come about already.  Maybe for their 150th milestone...  Anyway, I am glad that the Dodgers were honored with this all encompassing product - I'm also thrilled that such a large amount of baseballers split their time between the Windy City and the Zoo/City of Angels.

Plus, if any other old school clubs want to pursue such a project, I'd be okay with that too.

While we're on the topic of the Cubs though, I would be remiss were I not to point out a couple of surprises that I came across in my Target stash.  While the sets purports to have one card of every National League Dodger, getting a photograph of said players in the proper rags was not a possibility for everyone.  Heck, in some cases (like the dapper Mr. Charlie Irwin, above), the only pictures available don't even show them in baseball attire at all.  With that in mind, sometimes those who created the 1990 Target Dodgers set had to settle for whatever imagery they could actually get their hands on.  At this point, we're not talking about Sandy Koufax or Jackie Robinson.

With the approach being take what you can get for the more "off the beaten path" type players, the checklist is riddled with cruddy photography, lithographs, drawings, and guys wearing the jerseys of other clubs.  If I'm a Dodger collector, this is a foreseeable problem that I would just have to accept were I to collect this set.  However, as an interloping Cubs fan, that latter problem isn't necessarily a problem; rather, it's an opportunity...

An opportunity to track down Cubs cards from an seemingly unlikely source!  Both Dick Scott and Greek George are clearly sporting Cubbie Blue and not Dodger Blue in these photographs - this is good enough for me to declare these as proper Cubs cards for my CATRC!  Mr. Scott was a cuppacoffee reliever who made brief cameos with the Dodgers (9 games) in 1963 and the Cubs (3 games) in '64.  His career was short and unproductive (8.27 ERA), so Topps never bothered to include him in their industry standard set.  In fact, this Target card is one of only two to have ever been produced with his likeness and, ironically, his Fritsch One Year Winner single shows him in proper Dodger duds.  Who knows why this set had to resort to a Cubs photo, but I am certainly not complaining!

Meanwhile, Charles "Greek" George was a longtime minor league catcher who was called upon to fill in at the Major League level in five different seasons.  The backup backstop snuck into seven games for Brooklyn in 1938 and 35 for Chicago in 1941 and also spent time with Cleveland and Philadelphia (A's).  In 1945, George punched an umpire and then, unsurprisingly, never stepped foot on an MLB diamond again.  Yea... that's a pretty big no-no, though it does sound like the ump was egging George on.

Unfortunately, "Greek's" entire career was played out in the cardboard black hole after Goudey's iconic bubblegum release and WWII, meaning his pasteboard presence is also extremely thin.  I'm just thankful that Target went with a posed action shot of "Greek" during Cubs' Spring Training at beautiful Catalina Island - look at that windbreaker under his jersey!

In the end, regardless of whether the players were shown in a Dodgers, Cubs, or any other teams' wardrobe, I was able to add 18 cards from the 1990 Target Dodgers release to my CATRC in one fell swoop and that's a supremely significant one day influx!  In fact, another major milestone was achieved by this set that is, itself, celebrating a major milestone:  a card from it's checklist pushed me over the 75% mark for all-time completion.  That means that I now have more than three quarters of the men to have suited up for the Chicago National League Ballclub over the last century and a half represented in my humble Cubs All-Time Roster Collection tome.

Hot damn - I never thought I would make it to this point.  Hell, I didn't even think it was possible!  Now, how far will I be able to continue pushing my way towards completion?  Stay tuned to Wrigley Roster Jenga to find out!

As of my drafting of this post, my completion percentage reads at a little higher than three quarters - 75.85% to be precise.  That's because my father, in all his magnanimous altruism, didn't only bestow these Target Dodgers upon me.  No, no - when he came across my want-list he took it as a personal challenge and vowed to whittle it down as much as possible by Christmas day.  In the next few days, I'll be posting at least a couple of further times about this holiday bounty, in case you're curious about what other goodies he came across.

For now, I'm just grateful for my dad's munificent endowment and for the panoptic 1990 Target Dodgers set!