Friday, March 9, 2018

Blinded By the Light

Nothing brings such unbridled joy to a collector as an unexpected bubble mailer full of cards.  The other day, Jon - of A Penny Sleeve for Your Thoughts fame - dropped quite the cardboard bomb into my mailbox, jam-packed with pasteboard perfection.  I'd like to spend more time talking his goods up and properly building anticipation for their big reveal on the blog; however, I simply cannot focus because they are all SOOOOOOOOO SHINY!!!!

Seriously, I suggest that you grab a pair of sunglasses before you scroll down... for your own protection!

Refractors -a whole bunch of refractors!  This decidedly low-budget collector has so very few of these fanciful beauties, owing to their premium pricing on the secondhand market; thus, trades are pretty much the only way that they sneak into my collection.  Scott, Robin (fun fact - first MLB player born in Singapore, and Lance will all be kicking their previous base representations in my Cubs All-Time Roster Collection to the curb - no contest.

Of course, Jon didn't stop at just adding rainbow flair to my Cubs binder though:

MOAR REFRACTORZ!!!!! This time, of the gridiron variety.  Legitimately, I think that this pair of polished pasteboards are my very first refractors from any sport outside of America's pastime.  Again, both Erik and Raymont easily unseat their previous placeholders in my Bears All Time Roster Collection.

This is where the refracting madness came to an end; that said, I would recommend that you leave your stunner shades on your face, as the shine has not worn off of this package yet:

For instance, this early ancestor of the "cracked ice" parallel was nestled alongside it's refracting brethren.  Technically, I suppose that this 1996 UD You Crash the Game insert was a contest card; if the player depicted on the front were to hit a homer in the series printed in foil on the front (July 4-7), you could mail "Slammin' Sammy" here in exchange for "a Super Premium You Crash the Game card of your Crash player."

In case you were curious, the Cubbies were at home against the Reds for that three-game tilt in '96.  For his part, "Slammy" went yard once, in the middle game, as part of a 6-2 victory.  Clearly, some kid 22 years ago dropped the ball here.

Anyone know what those "Super Premiums" looked like?  This orange redemption is pretty tough to beat in it's own right.

In the words of Coldplay, here's where Jon's trade package went "all yellow."

"Oh Henry" Rodriguez on a yellow, triple diamond parallel from 1999 UD Black Diamond... that's a confusing sentence.  No matter, this canary-colored card is another fine addition to the CATRC.  Same goes for the scrappy Rey Sanchez, shown here on a 1996 Score Gold Rush parallel.  I wish that these flaxen-tinted foil-boards photographed half as well as they look in hand.

Also, here's "Say it Ain't" Sosa on another reflective oddity, a 2001 Christmas ornament from Pacific... because of course this idea was Pacific's.  I've seen a few of these seasonal die-cuts on the blogs before and admired hem from afar (god bless Pacific and their wacky, innovative ideas) but had never seen them in the wild.  Now, thanks to Jon, I have to ask myself whether I should keep this bad boy as is or punch out the hole and make it the centerpiece of my Cubbie Christmas tree next December.  What say you, blogosphere?

Maybe I should track down a second copy...

Okay, I think we've finally dug to the bottom of this mine full of shiny objects; so, you now have my permission to remove your protective eye-wear.  However, there are still some matte gems left to be showcased, so don't go anywhere.

For instance, here's a pair of horizontal heroes that immediately grab one's attention.  On the top is Kerry Wood's famed 20K game, by way of a 1996 Stadium Club Video Replay insert - what a rip-off of Sportsflics, right?  Again, this was another toughie to capture in photograph, but it sure is fun to play with!  Along with Woodie, on the opposite end of the spectrum, we have some authentic, no-thrills vintage in a Cubs team card from 1967 Topps.  It's a little worse for wear - there's some heavy creasing visible on the front and the back has definitely seen better days:

Either someone was testing to see if their blue pen was out of ink, creating a piece of modern art, or just didn't really care for the 1966 Chicago Cubs.  Nevertheless, I'm happy to rescue this previously abused piece of cardboard and house it in my collection.

Here's another slice of landscape fun with my first ever single from 2001 Pacific Prism Atomic... again, the drug-fueled minds at Pacific are sorely missed in today's monopolized hobby.  Any set that makes such heavy use of team logos and colors is bound to be a Wrigley Roster Jenga favorite.

To wrap things up, Jon also gifted me with a lovely, numbered Gale Sayers Football Heroes parallel the first new steer to be added to my Bulls All-Time Roster Collection in several months.  To be honest, of all the major sports, basketball is the one that holds the smallest slice of my heart.  That's okay though because I still enjoy slotting new names into that binder, including Kornel David here.

Bunches of refractors and shiny parallels, vintage goodies,  magic motion oddballs, and even a Christmas ornament for heck's sake... as you plainly can see, Jon dropped a dizzying array of phenomenal cardboard into my mailbox and I couldn't possibly be more grateful for his generosity.  Thank you, Jon - I'll be sure to properly return the favor as soon as I possibly can.

By the way, does anyone else's retinas burn a little bit?  Maybe I need some stronger sunglasses!

Monday, March 5, 2018

Perturbing Premiums

As many of you in the card collecting community might know, Saturday was Upper Deck's annual National Hockey Card Day.  In order to celebrate their exclusive license with the NHL and drum up interest in their rink-based products, UD created a special checklist of cards and gave away free packs of those promos to customers at card shops across the United States and our neighbors to the north.  This is the third year that this holiday has been on the calendar and it's an event that's been circled on mine since year one.  Accordingly, I made sure to forgo sleeping in that morning so that I could get to my nearest card shop shortly after opening. After all, I didn't want to miss out on my free pack of cards, especially with Blackhawks hotshot, Alex DeBrincat, included as a potential pull.

Unfortunately, things did not work out as planned.

Normally, I go to a different shop on Hockey Card Day; but, with a full slate of non-hobby activities already on the schedule for the day, I decided to stay a little more local.  Big mistake.  You see, the proprietor of this particular store did not appear to understand the promotion and was adamant that these packs were to be handed out only to those who purchased hockey product (of which, he stocks nothing new, just random singles, btw).  After I politely pointed out the true parameters of the promo, which were notated on the poster he had posted in his front window, he stared at me, in complete silence, for what had to be at least thirty seconds. If looks could kill, then I'd be six feet under right now. At that point, I felt weird about the whole thing and wanted nothing more than to just leave.

But, then something on the counter caught my attention.

At first, I was just grateful for something to break up the awkward staring contest. Then, I realized what it was that I was flipping through and my jaw nearly dropped through the glass counter.  Good thing it didn't though because breaking the man's property might have been the only way to make him resent me more than he already did.

Sitting right out in the open, on the counter, was a small stack of cards from the 1930's (in top-loaders, mind you), like that was normal or something. And the price on these unexpected, super-vintage gems?  One buck a piece...  Yup, for the price of a pack of Opening Day, you could take home an eighty-year old piece of baseball history!  Surely this had to be some sort of mistake.

Despite my misgivings about the initial venture, this was simply not a deal that I could possibly pass up.  I grabbed two of the half dozen or so that were available, including the Ethan Allen that you see above.  Allen might be depicted in a Philadelphia Phillies uniform, assisting a young boy with his batting form (maybe his son?), but he'll always be a Chicago Cub to me - he played half a season with the club in 1936.  For a measly buck, I'm more than happy to include a career contemporary card to my CATRC binder.

The card, by the way, is a Type I 1936 Goudey Wide Pen Premium. These oddballs were made up of  3¼" by 5½" black & white photos printed on thin paper (comparable to an index card), with blank backs.  Also, they are referred to as "wide pens" because of the thick script which declares the depicted subjects name on the front.  This latter distinction is important, as we'll see in a minute.

Along with Ethan Allen, I purchased what is technically a Reds card.  The script on the bottom is quite tough to make out - it reads, " Lombardi says 'Ugh.' Reds vs. Cubs.  The Lombardi being referred to is not the legendary football coach, rather it is the Hall of Fame catcher, Ernie.  Maybe it's the Chicago homer in me, but the setting of this Chicle card is obviously Wrigley Field and an unidentified North Sider is coming home to score as Lombardi stares off in disgust.

I cannot stop obsessing over who the mystery Cubs runner could be.  There's not much information or really any clues to be found in the background, other than the fact that it's a Cubs/Reds game from earlier than 1936.  Heck, the man in question's face is even obscured by shadow.  However, what if it's an obscure Cubbie that lacks more traditional cardboard rep and this is my only shot to land them for my CATRC...  with that in mind, I couldn't risk leaving this one behind. 

Speaking of "behind," it's a little bit easier to understand why these antiques were so cheap when we look at Ernie's backside (phrasing):

Clearly, these were pasted (and taped) into someone's photo album or scrapbook, way back when.  That's understandable because they more like photographs than traditional baseball cards. Nevertheless, I think a buck apiece is still a steal of a deal!

Although it is of the same dimensions, stock, and style, this Lombardi card is not from the same checklist as Ethan Allen.  Ernie hails from another gum company premium release that dates back to 1936 - National Chicle Fine Pen Premiums.  The key difference between these blank-backed, in-store premiums is the breadth of the stroke used in the caption on the front.  With as difficult as it was to make out said caption on the front of Lombardi, you can see why this set has earned the moniker of "fine pens."  Otherwise, these two sets are almost completely identical!


In the end, while I eventually ended up with purchase-incentive premiums, they were certainly not the ones that I had expected to find that morning.  After our weird encounter before, I was awfully hesitant to bring these artifacts up to the cash register, but there was no way that I was going to leave them behind.  Without any chit-chat, the store owner rang me up and I shot out of there like a canon. I should probably mention that he did relent and begrudgingly let me take a pack of the National Hockey Day cards; that said, after how bizarrely that all went down, I don't think I'll be revisiting that store for a while. 

Did anyone else partake in this cardboard holiday?  If so, was the experience a pleasant one or did you too have to jump through hoops with a perturbed proprietor giving you the death stare?  I hope it's the former, but I'm curious to know if I'm the only one who's experienced the latter?

And I didn't even pull DeBrincat from my hard-earned, free pack either.  But, you know what, I think the premiums that I ended up with are much cooler anyway!

Friday, March 2, 2018

Gordon's Gallery

When it comes to oddball trading cards, there might not be any name in the hobby bigger than TCMA - the company started by hobbyists, Tom Collier and Mike Aronstein.  These maverick card producers put out several retro-themed and minor league card sets throughout the 1970's, which were ardently advertised in early hobby publications.  Then, in 1975, the pair got it in their heads to produce a direct challenge to Topps and create their own comprehensive set of current players (a Flagship, if you will) under the banner of Sports Stars Publishing Co. (SSPC) - one of those early hobby publications and one that Aronstein just so happened to own.

Borrowing inspiration from the classic 1953 Bowman set, the 1975-76 SSPC set became a hobby legend for it's minimalist focus on photography, it's vast checklist, and it being edited by a baby-faced Keith Olbermann.  As far as distribution goes, their product was only available via mail-in order; that said, Aronstein had intentions of bringing it to store shelves.  Unfortunately, before this came to be, Topps stepped in and sued to block any further production, ending any further competition between David and Goliath.

Admittedly, this is probably a tale that most collectors are familiar with; however, what often gets forgotten is that this lawsuit did not mark the end of SSPC baseball cards.  Aronstein and crew regrouped, licked their wounds and came back at Topps just a couple of years later.

Exploiting a loophole, in 1978, SSPC produced special magazines that profiled the top 44 players in Major League Baseball... oh and they just so happened to contain team-centric panels of "27 full color photo fact cards" that could easily be separated.  These "All-Star Gallery" publications were produced for a handful of clubs and actually made it to retail shelves before again being shot down.  It was after this second shot across the nose of Topps, TCMA returned to focusing on minor league sets and throwback checklists; but, they put up a valiant fight.

I'm not sure how SSPC went about selecting the "44 Top Starts" to profile - they aren't based off of the previous season's All-Star selections and appear to have been chosen by the whim of the publishers.  In case you were wondering (I know I was), only one Chicago Cub made the cut:  Bobby Murcer.

It's easy to forget that "the next Mickey Mantle" was once a Cub.... mostly because he was the aged, declining return in the lopsided and shortsighted Bill Madlock trade.  Although, the first half of his 1977 was pretty decent.

Besides the cards that were actually included within the spine of these magazines, Aronstein made sure to hawk his card products with TCMA and their business partner, Renata Galasso:

Renata - the "world's largest hobby card dealer" - was known for offering complete, hand collated sets of Topps products.  In order to stand out from the competition, she partnered with TCMA to produce some retro-themed sets of her own doing, as modeled by Joe DiMaggio in the add above, that were offered as further purchase incentives.  Needless to say, between TCMA, SSPC, and their partnership with Renata Galasso, Tom Collier and Mike Aronstein were the oddball kings of the 70's and 80's!

For many moons, I've been trying to track down the Cubs edition of the "All Star Gallery" for a reasonable price.  After searching high and low, basically since starting this humble blog, I was thrilled to finally stumbled across a copy on Ebay that did not hurt my wallet.  For just a little more than six dollars shipped, the full 27-card set of Cub finally entered into my possession this afternoon:

Aren't they glorious?  I mean, the Cubs of the late 70's were pretty blase at best, but they sure look good here - again, in a minimalist, Bowman inspired design.  All the big names are there - Bill Buckner, Dave Kingman, Bruce Sutter, Rick Reuschel, etc. - that said, to be honest, that's not what I'm after.

They may have survived all this time in their panel configuration; but, I can say for certain that I'll be separating them with the paper cutter on my desk.  This might cause some collectors' skin to crawl, but it's what has to be done.  You see, one of these panels contains the one and only baseball card ever produced for a certain Cubs player, a player in dire need of representation in my Cubs All-Time Roster Collection.  Single cards from this product don't pop all that often... thus, the knife must come down.

Mike Gordon was one of several young catchers that the Cubs were grooming to replace franchise "Iron Man," Randy Hundley, throughout the seventies.  Drafted out of high school from Boston, Gordon was highly touted by Chicago scout, Lennie Merullo, and encouraged his employers to take the young, switch-hitting backstop in the third round of the 1972 draft.

Sidenote - Merullo, you might remember, was the last living man to have played in a World Series game with the Cubs when he passed away in 2015.  Lennie manned shortstop for the team throughout the forties, including the 1945 Fall Classic against Detroit.  After hanging up his spikes, he transitioned into a scouting role for his former club, like many a former ballplayer.  Moe Drabowsky was his most notable discovery and, unfortunately for both parties involved, Mike Gordon did nothing to boost Merullo's credentials.

Merullo (and son) on a TCMA "War Years" single.

Gordon was offered a substantial bonus to pursue baseball, abandoning his natural sport of football. The prospect likely received a bonus in the $25,000 to $30,000 range, comparable to the $35,000 signing bonus the Montreal Expos paid future Hall of Famer, Gary Carter. After all, Gordon was selected to the Parade Magazine national All-America high-school football team and had also signed a letter of intent to play at West Virginia University. He was highly desired too, as he had scholarship offers from Boston College and Notre Dame to fall back on, as well; meanwhile, his baseball resume included no comparable honors or achievements. Perhaps that imbalance should have been a red flag, but the Cubs still heeded the advice of their longtime scout.

To put it lightly, things did not go well.   After posting a .194 batting average in the Gulf Coast League in 1972 and following up that anemic performance with a similar .180 mark in each of the next two years at Single A, Gordon's position in the org was tenuous, at best.  It was only his defensive skills behind the dish and the team's expensive investment that kept that pink slip at bay.  Accordingly, the Cubs drafted a pair of college catchers in Ed Putman and Steve Clancy, who leapfrogged our hero in the depth chart.

Putman would only appear in 22 games for the Cubs from 1976-78.

In order to save his career, Gordon made some adjustments at the plate over the 1974-75 off-season.  Accordingly, his batting mark improved to .241, earning his ticket to AA, and further rising to .247 after that promotion.  Going into the 1977 season, Gordon had improbably jumped back to the top of the catching prospect ranks.  Everything looked golden as Mike made the ultimate ascent to the Major League club, coming out of spring training that March, as the third string backup to Steve Swisher and George Mitterwald.  Sadly, it was all downhill from there.

Mike got off to a slow start, going 0-for-4 at bat  and catching a few innings of two games before he was sent back down to Wichita. He would not reemerge on the Big League roster until the September roster expansion and that's when things got really ugly.  He was given a starting opportunity in a pair of games against Montreal as audition for 1978, as Swisher and Mitterwald did not impress.  Gordon went 0-for-7 in those two contests AND allowed six stolen bases on six attempts; he didn't exactly seize the opportunity.  Furthermore, his hit-less streak would eventually extend to 12 at-bats before he finally connected on his first Major League knock.  All told, Mr. Gordon posted a dismal .043 batting average (1 for 23) on the year and looked over his head behind the plate.

I guess TCMA liked what they saw though, seeing as they decided to include him in their Cubs booklet for 1978.

 Bill Hayes would only appear in 5 MLB games, from 1980-81.
(He's also repped by a TCMA single from the 1983 Iowa Cubs team set)

At this point, the Cubs went out and traded for Dave Rader and Larry Cox to split time behind the dish.  However, Mike Gordon would get one further cameo with the MLB team in 1978, sneaking into four games after an injury to Rader, with one hit in five at-bats.  But, the writing was on the wall, as the Cubs selected catcher Bill Hayes in the first round of the 1978 draft, a clear signal that Gordon's glass slipper had shattered.  He was demoted as soon as Rader was healthy and would never again appear on a Major League roster.

In the end, Mike Gordon would hang on in the Cubs chain through spring training of 1980; after his release, Gordon decided to call it a career.  From there. he went back home to start a family, work as a technician for the Bay State Gas Company for almost three decades and became a noted amateur golfer in his region.  Sadly, in the autumn of 2003, Mike Gordon was diagnosed with leukemia, a disease which would claim his life eight months later, at the age of 60.

It should also be noted that it wasn't until the Cubs hit on Jody Davis in the 1980 Rule 5 Draft that the merry-go-round at catcher ceased to turn.

Jody Davis, catcher without fear, would hold down the backstop from 1981-88.

Seeing as his career in the Show didn't amount to very much and did not last for particularly long, it should come as no surprise that Mike Gordon got no love from Topps.  Furthermore, considering that he played in the days of the Topps monopoly, it stands to reason then that Gordon severely lacked cardboard representation.  To the best of my knowledge, Mike never snuck into a minor league card set or any other regional oddball checklist.  Therefore, I am eternally grateful to TCMA and SSPC for filling what would have otherwise been a frustratingly permanent black hole in my premier collection.

Additionally, it seems as though if it weren't for these booklets, we wouldn't even have a uniformed photograph of Mr. Gordon.  Image searches turn up nothing but this card, which is even used on his Baseball-Reference profile picture:

Maybe he didn't like having his picture taken?

All of these factors considered, I'm accordingly ecstatic about crossing Mike Gordon's name off of my want-list.  Now, with this acquisition officially in the books, there's only one further obscure infielder who played for the Cubs from 1977-78, who's only traditional baseball card happens to have been produced by an Aronstein venture, left for me to track down.  Oddly specific, right? 

If anyone knows where I can locate a modestly priced copy of the 1979 TCMA Syracuse Chiefs card featuring Mike Sember, I sure would appreciate the tip!

Before we wrap this up, I have to ask, do you have any of the 1978 SSPC cards in your collection?  Were you aware of their existence, despite the fact that the 1975-76 version steals pretty much all of the SSPC thunder?  Also, with all of Collier and Aronstein's cardboard ventures, how many cards from the oddball godfathers do you have in your collection?  Do you enjoy their efforts as much as Topps' flagship products of the day?  Personally, I feel like we need another set of mavericks, like these two, to step in, shake up the market, and issue a challenge to Topps' current monopoly.

With that, it's time to "close the book" on SSPC and Mike Gordon.  So, let's wrap up this post by showcasing the back cover of the Chicago Cubs edition of SSPC's 1978 All Star Gallery magazine:

Bad puns might be the only thing I enjoy more than adding a new name to my Cubs All-Time Roster Collection tome.

Also, I wonder if that offer has expired...

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

My Favorite Season

March is nearly upon us, the mercury is resting comfortably at sixty degrees, and the ground is finally thawing out enough that you won't risk shin splints just walking across your lawn.  You know what that means - track season is nearly upon us! 

Okay, maybe only I and a select few other crazy runner people associate the weather turning spring-like with the dawn of distance running season, rather than St. Patrick's Day, Easter egg hunts, and March Madness, but I'm a happy camper.  After eight years of cross country and track in high school and college, another six years of amateur road racing, and two years of coaching, I can't help but get a certain itch in my legs whenever the snow melts away and the running paths are clear once again.  Now that our track is no longer buried under ten inches of snow, I've officially set our school's track & field tryouts for the middle of next month.  I'm not thrilled that we have to limit our roster in that way, but that's a rant for another day.

At any rate, with running on the brain, it's quite appropriate then that I should make the following discovery in my computer lab, yesterday afternoon:

As I was making a sweep in between classes (to check the equipment), something caught my eye underneath one of the computer stations.  Lo and behold, the flash of white wasn't something boring like an index card or a discarded note between classmates; as you might be able to tell from the image above, it just happened to be an abandoned Sports Illustrated for Kids trading card. I guess I won't be finding these sheets of nine cards each when the magazine rack gets it's regular purge in the next few weeks.

This is the second time in the last month that I've stumbled across dis"carded" cards - of course, in this particular, the found treasure is in much better shape.  Last time it was football, what sport could it be this time?  When it comes to SI for Kids oddballs, it could literally be anything.

If the introduction to this post and the picture which kicks it off didn't already give it away, SURPRISE, it's running! 

While many kids and adults who pretend to be kids for the cards might immediately toss such niche sports to the side (as whoever tore into this panel did), I actually have a binder dedicated exclusively to runners on cardboard.  Shalane Flanagan will slot into this collection nicely, alongside Alan Webb, Meb Keflezighi, Jesse Owens, and crew.  As an added bonus, Flanagan is even a personal favorite of mine, as my collegiate teammates and I binged on the 2008 Olympic games, during our summer training camp, and followed closely when she took home the bronze in the 10K.  Since then, she's also made headlines for being the first American woman to win the New York City Marathon since 1977, among many other victories.

The front of the card features Flanagan as the harrier is just about to break the tape at that historic 2017 NYC triumph - her time was 2:26.53, nearly an hour fastest than my personal best!

As pumped as I was to find come across a card that fits into one of my collections in the most unexpected of places, I was a tad disappointed that this was the only card from that SI panel left behind.  Normally, I curse the name of students who leave their workplaces a mess; but, when that litter is trading cards, I can selfishly make an exception.  Out of curiosity, I had to take to Google in order to figure out what other eight athletes accompanied Shalane on that perforated sheet:

This national cross country champion (2002-03) hails from the January/February issue of the publication, which was built around a preview of the Winter Olympics and featured snowboarded, Chloe Kim, on the cover.  The cards which were inserted into the periodical are shown above - I find it odd that the powers that be did not do a panel of cards built around the upcoming winter games, considering the content of the magazine.  That seems like a missed opportunity to me, especially with the popularity of Topps' Olympics and Paralympics set.

Ultimately, there are no other cards on this sheet which would directly fit in with my collections, it all works out in the end.  I bet that whoever left Shalane behind was after the Jimmy Butler card, even though it features him on the Timberwolves; Butler is still a popular player in the Chicagoland market and basketball appears to be the overall favorite sport of this student body.

In the end, there's no more valuable resource for niche sport collections than SI for Kids - my runners binder has several such singles contained within it's pages, including 2016 NCAA XC Champion, Karissa Schweizer, above (another recent pick up).  Does anyone else on the blogosphere have personal collection built around sports not traditionally immortalized on cardboard?  I'm talking beyond the major games - i.e., baseball, football, hockey, soccer.  Am I the only oddball who collects cards that feature people who run really fast and/or far?  Does anyone else consider themselves a "crazy runner dude or dudette?"  Please feel free to let me know in the comments section below!

In the meantime, it's time for me to dig out my short shorts, moisture-wicking tank top, and Saucony Omnis - Ms. Flanagan has inspired me to hit the trail and start getting back into the regular swing of things.  After all, I can't let my sixth, seventh, and eighth grade pupils get the best of me this track season!

Monday, February 26, 2018

It's Like Christmas All Over Again

The looming snow drifts are melting away, the sun is peaking through the oppressively gray clouds, the previously frigid temperatures are slowly rising with sixty degree readings are predicted in the very near future... we're not quite out of the woods yet, but spring is at least making Jack Frost aware of it's impending arrival.  This spot of good weather, almost like an Indian summer in reverse,  is much closer to Easter conditions than it is Christmas-like; yet, nevertheless, it's the latter holiday that is currently on my mind.  Why is it that I feel that way, even though the mercury continues to rise and baseball's spring training camps are already underway?

This past weekend, my wife and I attended a family dinner at my parent's household, otherwise known as my childhood home.  While the lasagna was still in the oven and my parents were busy with it's preparation, in order to entertain myself, I found myself staring out of the picture window, at the rickety shed in the backyard.  You see, I knew I left some of my stuff behind when I initially moved into my college apartment and, again, after I moved in with my then girlfriend, now wife.  As I awaited my familial meal, straining to remember what forgotten treasures might be awaiting my return, my curiosity quickly got the best of me.  Before long, I was on the other side of that window and fidgeting with the lock on the front door of said outbuilding.

Once inside, surrounded by bicycles, pool supplies, and lawn care equipment, I found a massive wall of plastic totes - a daunting sight, indeed.  Luckily, I discovered that my possessions were near the front of the organized chaos and I only had to wade past the haphazardly "sorted" Christmas decorations (symbolic of what was to come).  Somehow, without tripping on as strand of lights, I pulled out a pair of containers and began my excited excavation, just as the garlic bread was going into the oven.

Those plastic totes were more like time capsules and, shortly after prying open the lids, I was transported back in time, back to the Christmas of 2006.

It was my last yuletide season before graduating from high school and my parents decided to splurge a little bit on me.  Growing up with three siblings in a middle class household, I never asked for much and was content to watch the unbridled joy in my baby sisters' eyes as they tore through green and red wrapping paper.  However, that year, it was me that ended up doing a happy dance in the middle of the living room.

When, I saw that autographed picture of Lee Smith which kicked off this post, resting among the old photographs of tote #1, I was instantly thrust back into that winter morning, 11+ years ago.

I was absolutely over-joyed, both when I initially found it resting under the Christmas tree and when I re-discovered it this past weekend.  The 1984 Cubs have long been a target of fascination for me and the intimidating closer, Lee Smith, was and is a personal favorite from that postseason drought-busting, Northside roster.  I firmly believe that the former all-time saves leader should have plaque on the wall at Cooperstown, but that's a rant for another day...

I don't know where my parents got this MLB-authenticated, signed, 8x10 print, but I do know that - all these years later - it's going to look great on the wall of my wife and I's current spare bedroom, right next to my "W" flag and Cubbie pennant collection!  Although, after several years of being stored in a non-climate controlled setting, the Kodak is a tad stuck to the glass of the frame... does anyone have a suggestion for how to loosen that problem without destroying the picture?

Anyway, as I was planning interior decoration in my head, I was promptly reminded that Mr.s Smith's John Hancock wasn't the only major gift that I received that yuletide season, as a triangular shaped cardboard propped up next to the Great Wall of Totes contained yet another artifact from the past:

A baseball bat.  But, it's not just any baseball bat - this, right here, is a spring training, game-used Louisville Slugger that once belonged to none other than former Cubs blue chip prospect, Eric Patterson!  

Ultimately, Corey's little brother was only a Cub for 20 games (2007-08) and ultimately, like most Wrigley farmhands of the time, washed out as a bust; but, on that Christmas morning in 2006, he was still part of the future of my favorite franchise, set to take over second base for years to come.  I thought I was getting in on the ground floor with this signed bat and was giddy as a school girl when I first unwrapped it.  Unfortunately, I did not have a proper way of displaying this item at the time and I immediately put it back into the box, for safe-keeping, where it stayed hidden until yesterday afternoon.

All these years later, we now know that Eric's elevator never left the ground floor; that's okay though, since I lost the certificate of authenticity that I know originally came with the gift.  Even so, it's not often that you come across a baseball bat used by an actual Cubs player in your parents' shed!  I'm going to have to fashion a bat rack or something in order that I might finally permanently release it from it's cardboard cage.  Also, I should note that this stick is actually my second slice of game-used memorabilia for the younger Patterson brother - my CATRC binder contains the following jersey swatch from 2006 Bowman Draft Picks & Prospects:

So, I now have an accidental Eric Patterson super-collection going.  Nifty.  It's probably the best there is around, by default.

Finally, as if an autograph by a should-be Hall of Famer and an MLB game-used baseball bat wasn't enough, there was one more treasure from 2006 waiting to be re-discovered.  At the time, my brother wanted to get in on the gift-giving fun; that said, being just a shade over 10 and without any source of income made that a rather difficult proposition.  Thrifty as he was, instead of going out and buying stuff from Target for his brother and sisters, he simply re-gifted items that he no longer wanted and were cluttering his bedroom.  In a normal situation, re-gifting might be seen as lazy or un-thoughtful; but, considering the situation, my brother was just doing the best that he could with his means.

As a result, I ended up with this 2002 Upper Deck Playmakers bobblehead of Ernie Banks, sans bat and it's corresponding UD trading card.  It would be easy to assume that the broken bat and missing card came as a result of years of careless storage; but, as I recall, the snapped stick was the reason why Mr. Cub was passed on to me.  Plus, little bro still wanted to keep the card for his personal Cubs collection, so that didn't make the transfer either.  But, hey, at least he tried.

If I remember correctly, Upper Deck released their series of bobbleheads in 2001 and 2002 but they never really caught on.  This doll was originally purchased from the local secondhand store, a few years after their initial release.

Although it's broken and incomplete, I was quite happy to find this gift, as well.  Though I've never been a big collector of bobbleheads, a few have passed into my hands over the years.  In the past couple of years, I've migrated this modest gathering to my desk at work, in order to add a little pizazz to my work-space.  Mr. Cub slots nicely into this display:

Accompanying Ernie, we have an SGA Kosuke Fukudome, Ryne Sandberg, Sammy Sosa, and Steve Trout from his days as the local independent team's pitching coach.  The kids at school love these desk decorations and I'm sure will take great joy at bopping yet another bouncing head.

At this point, dinner was about to be plated and it was time to wrap up the excavation.  Thus, my quick excursion to Christmas 2006 was ended and I transported back to the modern day.  However, perhaps when the weather takes a permanent turn for the better and it comes time for spring cleaning, I might have to meander back to my parents' shed for another go at the time capsules.  While that holiday season has been completely excavated, I know for a fact that there are plenty more goodies to uncover, including my NASCAR die-casts, books of autographed hero cards, and scores of caps, among other bits of memorabilia that I built up in my teenage years.

Am I the only one who still uses their parental home as a storage/staging area?  I hate to impose, but I just don't have the space right now.  I'm sure when I finally settle my student loans and can afford to upgrade from an apartment to a real house, my family will be all to happy to dump those boxes on my doorstep.  

When that day comes, it might just feel like Christmas, all over again!

Thursday, February 22, 2018

A Match Made in Heaven

Over the past few weeks, Tim Jenkins - of the excellent co-op blog, SABR's Baseball Cards Committee - has been conducting a semi-regular look into what exactly makes a baseball card.  While, on the surface, this may seem like a silly question with an easily definable answer, the market is flooded with countless items that do not match the typical template of a 2.5"x3.5" rectangle.  So, what if the collectible in question is slightly larger or smaller?  What if it's not printed on cardstock?  What if the shape is actually rounded instead of rectangular?  What of baseball player-centric products like stickers, patches, coins, stamps, postcards, etc.?  Are these items still considered "baseball cards?"   Many of these oddities are even listed in the Standard Catalog of Baseball Cards - is that the "be all, end all?"

I, for one, have a very liberal definition of cards and my marquee Cubs All-Time Roster Collection binder includes several, non-traditional representatives.  Given the expansive nature of my ultimate collecting goal, one card of every Cub to ever suit up, I kind of have to be extra inclusive in order to have even a snowball's chance in hell to achieve it.  For instance, there are stickers holding down the fort for a handful of Cubs and photo postcards occupying slots for others.  Also, in some pockets you might actually find a greeting card and in others you might come across a paper disc.

And now, if you flip through this CATRC tome, you'll even come across a matchbook :

It may seem quaint in today's increasingly tobacco-less world and Zippo lighters, but matchbooks were once a major target of collectors.  In a different time, when almost every adult had a pack of cigarettes in their back pocket, these books of matches were given away at almost every business, hotel, convention, etc as promotional material.  It was often said you could trace a businessman's every move by the matchbooks in his pocket.  Naturally, with their never-ending variations and relative ease of acquisition, these items garnered attention among the collecting inclined.  Thus, like coins, stamps, and buttons, matchbooks were a popular collectible in the first half of the 20th century,

During the mid-30's, The Diamond Matchbook Company attempted to capitalize on this popularity by printing sports-themed books, including football, hockey, and baseball.  Per Sports Collectors Daily, "Unfolded, each matchbook cover measures approximately 1 1/2″ wide by about 4 1/2″ long. The exterior covers had various colored borders. On one side, a player’s image was shown and on the other, a biography was printed. The player’s name and team also appeared on the covers."

The example that you see above hails from Diamond's 1935 (U-3-1) release, a checklist which featured 156 players from across both leagues and was reprinted again the next year.  It should be noted that various border and color combinations are found for most of the matchbooks in the series, as well, almost like the colored parallels of today.

While they might not "technically" be baseball cards, these matchbooks filled a gap in the Depression Era; for many players of the time, these books are the only baseball card-like collectible to be produced with their likeness.  After all, disposable income wasn't exactly commonplace, at the time, and it wasn't being spent on bubblegum cards; matches, at least, were functional.  One of these rarefied baseballers was Cubs hurler, Fabian Kowalik.

The Falls City, Texas-born Kowalik initially came up to the Majors with the crosstown rival White Sox in 1932 (errantly cited as the '33 season on the back of his Diamond matchbook), after several years in the Lone Star State minor leagues.  During his lone season on the South Side, Fabian appeared on the mound in two-games (one start, one relief appearance) and gave up 8 earned runs in just 10.1 IP.  Additionally, he also played a full game at third base and the switch-hitter posted a .385 batting average in his 13 AB's.  Apparently, the young ballplayer also worked in "the lumber business" during the offseason... his father owned the highly successful Kowalik Lumber Company back home.

Going into 1935, the Cubs scooped up the breaking ball specialist in the Rule 5 Draft during the off-season, likely as Fabian was "lumbering" away.  He was dropped into the Cubs' bullpen that season, where he covered 55 innings in 20 appearances with a 4.42 ERA.  Chicago won the pennant that season and Kowalik, despite his mediocre numbers, made the World Series squad because skipper, Charlie Grimm, knew the powerful Yankee lineup might necessitate an extra arm.

His action at the game's biggest stage consisted of just one appearance, tossing the final 4.1 innings of the Cubs' Game Four loss.  All told, the "Falls City Flash" only allowed one run, went 1-for-2 at the plate (again, showcasing his two-way capabilities), and even scored a run.  Unfortunately, his performance was marred by a pitch that got away from him, an inside toss that broke the hand of Yankee legend, Lou Gehrig.  Of all the people to knock out...

Fabian tries on a hat with an umpire and (presumably) his wife in 1936.  Image courtesy of The Deadball Era.

Come 1936, Fabian got married and then showed up to Catalina Island out of shape for spring training.  After that, the newlywed lost the confidence of his Grimm, and found himself shipped away to Philadelphia, shortly after the start of the regular season.  After a partial campaign with the Phillies (during which he battled depression and motivational issues) and a two-game cameo with the Boston Bees during the next, Fabian's MLB career came to a close.  Even an impromptu shift to the outfield couldn't save Kowalik, though he hung around in the bush leagues through 1940 before officially retiring from the game. 

Although, our hero did briefly return to America's pastime in 1950, as the manager of the Robstown Rebels of the Rio Grande Valley League in his native Texas, but the team folded in mid-May.  After baseball, Kowalik opened up a highly successful wholesale beer distributorship.  Unfortunately, the demons that plagued him in Philadelphia never left him and he was driven to the bottle, drinking the profits made from his business.  This alcoholism eventually claimed his life in 1954, at the far-too-young age of 46, via cirrhosis of the liver.

With that, we can close the figurative (match)book on Fabian Kowalik.

Given his brief Major League career, his uninspiring statistics, and the era in which he played, it should come as no surprise that the moundsman never had a traditional baseball card printed with his likeness.  Thus, when I came across his 1935 Diamond Matchbook on Ebay for five bucks shipped, I immediately pounced. 

Granted, the condition is *ahem* less than perfect - there's some serious staining on the back and some paper loss as well, not to mention the wear and tear on the edges and surface.  Of course, decades ago, this was likely stored in someones pocket, in the inevitable event that they should want to "light up;" so this should be expected.  Considering this original usage, Diamond Matchbooks rarely show up in pristine condition, and Fabian is no exception.  But, that's no problem for this notably thrifty (or cheap) collector - in fact, that's what puts this super-vintage oddball into my acceptable price range.  I certainly didn't get "burned" on this deal!

And it made it's way to me safely, without any further damage and adorned with a psychedelic stamp too:

My matchbook came with a postmark featuring a rocker famous for lighting his guitar on fire, mid-performance - isn't that appropriate?

Anyway, after years of  routinely checking grab bags and buckets of random matchbooks found in antique shops, thrift stores, flea markets, etc., across the Midwest, I'm ecstatic to finally add one of these Diamond Matchbooks to my collection.  For less than the price of a jumbo pack of 2018 Flagship, I was able to track down a an 83-year old piece of cardboard from the Depression Era, checking off a rare need for my CATRC. 

Not bad, eh?

I'll conclude today's post with a question, would you add something like a Diamond Matchbook to your collection?  If so, what other envelope-pushing types of items are currently resting in your binders and boxes?  Where do you draw the line on what is a baseball card and what isn't?  In the meantime, I can't wait to binder Fabian along with the playing cards, photo stamps, and other assorted oddballs that already reside in my CATRC tome.

You might say that, despite it's differences, it's still a perfect "match" for my collection!