Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The Windy City Flyer

Today, a Chicago sports legend has taken to Twitter to officially announced his retirement from the game of football:

Although he hadn't suited up at all during the 2017 season and hadn't inked a contract since splitting the previous campaign between the Baltimore Ravens and Seattle Seahawks organizations, the door had at least been left cracked open.  No more.  After 156 games over the course of 11 seasons, Devin Hester has decided to close the book on one of the most distinguished and unique careers in professional football history.

Hester was drafted by the Chicago Bears in 2006 out of the University of Miami to serves as a cornerback and was later switched to wide receiver.  However, it was as a punt/kick returner that Devin made his household name in the Windy City.  During his eight years in Chicago, Hester returned 19 kicks and punts for touchdowns, including the opening kickoff in Super Bowl XLI - one of the most iconic moments in the history of the franchise.  Adding one more during his brief stint in Atlanta, Hester brought his career total returns for TD's up to an eye-popping 20, which was and is an NFL record.

Specialists have typically had an incredibly steep, uphill climb to make it to Canton; however, I truly believe that Hester deserves enshrinement in the Hall of Fame for his career as a returner.  The m,an turned one of the most boring plays in sports into absolutely must-see TV.  You just never knew when "The Windy City Flyer" was going to take one all the way.

I must admit, I wasn't always a Bears fan.  In fact, through most of my childhood and into early adolescence, I didn't even understand how football was played; I was all about baseball and NASCAR racing.  It wasn't until Devin Hester burst through special teams coverages onto the national scene in 2006 that I truly started to pay attention.  As a track athlete, his incredible speed on the gridiron drew my fascination and by the team he racked up a single season record of six returns in his rookie season, I was hooked.  When he returned that Super Bowl kickoff into the endzone, I recall jumping up and down in my living room so violently that I thought I might break through the hardwood floors and end up in the basement!

In short, much like the 2003 Cubs pulled me back into baseball after several years in the wilderness, Devin Hester and the 2006 Bears finally inspired me to learn the ins and outs of football.  Maybe I should actually be mad at him though; if he hadn't drawn me in 11 years ago, I wouldn't have to suffer through the never-ending dumpster fires that have been the John Fox/Marc Trestman eras!

To this day, the only Bears jersey that I've ever purchased has been in honor of good ol' number 23 (a number with an astonishingly rich history in Chicago sports), seen above during my annual high school, cross country alumni Turkey Bowl)... I don't think that's going to change anytime soon either.  
"The Flyer" signed off his announcement by saying, “hopefully the next time I see y’all it’ll be in Canton.”  Whether or not Hester ultimately gets his bust in Canton is going to an interesting matter of great debate.  He absolutely revolutionized and under-appreciated position on the field and quickly became the all-time best in his craft.  Will that alone be enough to earn enshrinement in a Hall of Fame which has only admitted two full-time placekickers and one punter in it's long history?  After all, his career elsewhere on the field was mediocre, at best.

In my extremely biased opinion, I give an emphatic yes.  What say you?  Please feel free to make your thoughts known in the comments section below.

Ironically, even though he is - by far - my favorite football player to ever suit up in the NFL, I don't have much in the way of Hester cardboard.  In all honesty, the three cards which appear in this post are the only pasteboards I have which feature his likeness.  Clearly I am slacking.  That being said, as modest as my PC is, I felt like I still had to show it off today.

In the end, it's sad to see another player from my teen years hang up their cleats.  I guess this is why the sports-consuming public loves ageless wonders like George Blanda, Bartolo Colon, and Jaromir Jagr - they serve as a last, fleeting connection to our youth.

Anyway, good luck to you, Mr. Hester, in whatever and wherever your life takes you next.  Thank you for making kick-offs the most exciting part of any Chicago Bears game and for introducing me to the game of football.  He may have revolutionized the kick return specialist; but, he also cemented my "Monsters of the Midway" fandom (for better or worse).

Here's hoping that "the Windy City Flyer" lands in Canton sometime soon.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Target Acquired in Target

The Cubs enter this week's winter GM meetings having already filled two holes on their Major League roster.  Last Friday, Theo and Jed inked Tyler Chatwood to a three-year deal, plugging him into a starting rotation which has lost Jake Arrieta and John Lackey to free agency.  But, we've already covered that on Wrigley Roster Jenga.  Yesterday afternoon, the Cubbies again added to their pitching staff, this time filling a gap in their bullpen.  This guy had been a rumored as a key target for the North Siders since before the playoffs had even concluded.

And appropriately enough, I was standing in a Target when word trickled out that the club had acquired their target.

In a store jam-packed with crazed holiday shoppers, I was huddled off in a corner somewhere near the women's clothing section (trying desperately to avoid being run over by a soccer mom with a shopping cart), when the news of Morrow's deal with the Cubs started to show up my Twitter feed.  The news of his two-year, $21 million contract (plus a $3MM buyout or a $12MM vesting option for the 2020 season) with my favorite baseball team was a welcome respite from the chaos surrounding me.

Luckily for me, I remembered that I had this wonderfully shiny 2013 Archives Orange Day-Glo parallel (which were exclusive to hobby shops) sitting in my trade stacks.  This beauty will slot nicely into my Cubs All-Time Roster Collection binder, at least until his first card as a Cub hits the market.

Sorry, Night Owl!

It's even numbered /199, which, coincidentally, I believe is exactly how many other shoppers were packed into that section of Target with me.  Can you tell I don't like Christmas shopping?

Anyway, back to the target rather than the Target, Brandon Morrow looks likely to slide into the closer's role for 2018.  With this front office hesitant to shell out big-time bucks to relievers, Wade Davis has probably priced himself out of the Cubs' comfortable range.  While Morrow's contract isn't exactly a small commitment, it's sure to be dwarfed by what Wade's eventual deal.  Therefore, the club will now have their fifth different closer in five consecutive seasons.  After the season Brandon had with the Dodgers last year -  6-0, 2.06 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, and 50 K's in 43.2 innings without allowing a single home run - he seems like a good candidate to replace the dominant Davis.

Based on last year's statistics, the two-year contract with an option looks awesome, much like the photo on this 2012 Opening Day single.  However, I would be remiss if I didn't acknowledge the inherent risks and flaws that come with the deal... much like the Photoshop/airbrushing job that serves as a distraction on the same card.

Morrow and the disabled list are no strangers - he's dealt with lingering shoulder issues since his days with the Blue Jays, Padres, and Mariners, including season-ending surgery to correct a shoulder impingement in 2015.  Compounding this issue is the fact that Morrow appeared in 14 of the Dodgers' 15 postseason games, seemingly running out steam by the time the World Series rolled around.  That being said, I'm quite happy about this acquisition.  After all, all free-agent pitchers come with inherent risks; that's the game you have to play to acquire top-tier pitching (and you aren't going to find better than Morrow) on the free-agent market.

 ...much like the calculated risk I took by stepping into a big-box retailer within two weeks of Christmas.

Eventually, I was able to navigate my way out of that cramped Target with our gift-wrapping and my wife's new shirts.  When I finally arrived back at out apartment, I felt like a castaway reaching land for the first time in months.  In order to bring my heart rate back down to an acceptable level, I began to flip through my trade boxes and found the three Morrows you see in this post.  One of that trio was the above single from Tristar's 2006 edition of Prospects Plus, from when Brandon was a zygote of a prospect with the rookie-level Arizona League Mariners.  This one will look perfect in my minor league Cubs binder.

So, to sum things up, the Cubbies were able to plug two of their major holes on the roster before the Winter Meetings even officially began.  This week should prove to be an exciting one, with perhaps the signing of Alex Cobb and another late-inning reliever being major objectives of Theo and Jed while they are in Florida.  Plus, the trade winds are gusting, with the much-ballyhooed Ohtani and Stanton deals finally happening, which had been constipating the market.  All in all, this is going to be an interesting week of Hot Stove happenings!

Oh and welcome to Chicago, Brandon... I hope you already completed your holiday shopping because our Targets are nuts right now!

Friday, December 8, 2017

Feeling Pretty Chatty

IT'S HAPPENING!!! I REPEAT - IT'S FINALLY HAPPENING!!!!!!  Someone finally turned on the hot stove and it's starting to simmer!

Yesterday afternoon, while I was running around like a chicken with my head cut off at work, the Cubbies mad their first major transaction of the off-season.  I've been furiously monitoring Twitter and MLB Trade Rumors for the past several weeks, in anticipation of Theo Epstein and crew making a move, with the biggest nuggets being a minor Dario Alvarez signing and selling a prospect to Japan.  Then it finally happened... when I was busy hopping from classroom to classroom, trying to figure out why printers are jammed or holiday music won't play through Chromecast.  Such is the life of an IT guy at a middle school - oh well.

No matter, I'm still thrilled the Cubs signed a starting pitcher, to an actual Major League deal:

He's not Shohei Ohtani, but he'll do... for now...

Chatwood was inked to a three-year, $38 million deal to slot into the regular starting rotation, as well as my Cubs All-Time Roster Collection binder.  Luckily, I just so happened to have the above 2017 Topps Series One single in my Rockies stash, ready to jump in place.  This move basically guarantees that Jake Arrieta is gone; we might have figured that would be the case, but this money takes any sort of reunion off of the table.  With now two spots in the starting five vacant (John Lackey is also a free agent), the Cubs needed to acquire a couple of starters this off-season.  Chatwood isn't the sexiest option; however, if you dig into the statistics, there's plenty to like about the signing.

On the surface, as the back of this card indicates in the write-up, Chatwood has twice ended up under the knife for Tommy John surgery.  Obviously, injury and durability is a serious worry about Tyler.  Additionally, his ERA of 4.69 in 2017 isn't exactly impressive and he also happened to lead the league in losses (15), if you're into that sort of thing.  In summation, there are some warts on this frog.

On the other hand, Chatwood is an extreme ground ball pitcher, which fits in well with the Cubs outstanding middle infield defense; plus, it's not like Wrigley is a cavernous park and the less balls hit in the air, the better.  Furthermore, Chatty (spoiler alert) looks sharper on the road than in the band box that is Coors Field, with a much more eye-catching 2.57 ERA since the start of 2016.  Lastly, the hurler has also seen a slight velocity uptick in the last year, which isn't too uncommon for a player on the mend from TJ.  Oh... and he's only 28.

When you consider that the Cubs are still in the market for the likes of Ohtani, Alex Cobb, and maybe even Chris Archer or Yu Darvish, it looks as though Chatty is lining up in the fifth spot of the rotation, replacing John Lackey.  That's an awful lot of positive potential for a number five.

Here's Chatty making the Cubs look foolish last summer

Of course, any money spent on pitching is a gamble, so only time will tell if investing in Tyler Chatwood is worthwhile.  Nevertheless, as Theo himself put it in the media session after the signing, "starting pitching was an area where we thought there was more demand than supply."  In short, to acquire anyone worthwhile, you were going to have to open up the wallet.

With this signing, the Chicago rotation is, so far, made up of Lester/Hendricks/Quintana/Chatwood and a big question mark - not bad, not bad at all.  You know who else would look really nice in that list?  That Japanese, free agent prospect... I believe his name is O-tawny, or something... heard of him?  In all seriousness, the Cubs are one of his seven finalists and word is that the two-way star may make his decision by Monday.  Not to mention the fact that the annual winter GM meetings are set to begin next week, which will surely keep the hot stove on and break off the switch. 

It's happening!

In the meantime, I'm not going to get too greedy - I'm very happy with what the Cubs have gifted us, thus far, with Chatwood.  Welcome to the Windy City, Tyler!

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Lighting Up a Dark Day

"Yesterday, December 7, 1941 - a date which will live in infamy - the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan." - Franklin Delano Roosevelt addressing Congress, the following day.

December 7th, 1941 is one of the most infamous dates in American history; on this day, we remember the brave souls who were lost in the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in a surprise aerial assault by the Imperial Japanese Army Air Service.  All told 2,403 Americans died and 1,178 were wounded in the catastrophic event that would launch the United States into World War II  Additionally, eighteen ships were sunk or run aground, including the famed USS Arizona.  Today marks the 76th anniversary of the tragedy.

Many more qualified individuals will summarize and laud the events and heroes of that day and their significant impact on the world thereafter.  That said, seeing as this is a Cubs baseball card blog, I thought I should share a quick story - did you know that Pearl Harbor had a direct effect on the Cubs and their home ballpark, one that was felt for well-over forty years afterwards?

A story I'm sure that you've all heard by now is the tale of the first night game at Wrigley Field.  Heck, most of you were probably live and able-bodied baseball consumers by the time it occurred - it was 1988, after all, significantly later than their MLB counterparts.  The event was highlighted by Score in their second baseball card offering, as you can see above.

On August 8, 1988 (8/8/88), the light switch was flipped on at Wrigley for the very first time as Rick Sutcliffe took the mound against the Philadelphia Phillies.  Of course, with the Cubs leading 3-1 in the fourth inning, the rains came. Not a light drizzle, but a downpour. After a two-hour rain delay, the game was called.  Therefore, technically, the first official game to be completed under the lights at the Friendly Confines took place the very next night; however, 8/8/88 will forever be remembered as the night that the lights went on at Wrigley Field.

Now, what does any of this have to do with Pearl Harbor?

You see, Wrigley Field - famous as it was for it's staunch traditionalism and purity of day baseball - was intended to have lights much sooner than the 1980's.  In fact, had the Japanese not attacked Pearl Harbor on this day, 76 years ago, the ballpark at 1060 W. Addison would have been fully lit by the following year!

In fall of 1941, P.K. Wrigley, unbeknownst to the city's baseball fans, ordered light standards for the park to be installed in February or March of the following year. The material for the lights was stored underneath the bleachers at Wrigley, waiting for their installation in the spring.  Then, Pearl Harbor happened and the country was thrust, full force into the Second World War.  The very next day, the same day upon which FDR addressed Congress about the "date which will live in infamy," the Cubs' owner donated the 165 tons of steel, 35,000 feet of copper wire and other equipment to the United States war effort. 

Baseball was the last thing on anyone's mind, at that time.

And so, it would be nearly a half century before nighttime scenes, such as the one shown on this 1992 Donruss Triple Play single, could be played out... all because the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.  Of course, it goes without saying that this was the most minor of consequences; but, it was a consequence, nonetheless.  The Butterfly Effect is no joke.

All I can say, it's a darn good thing that Cubbies eventually got those lights erected.  After all, prior to 1988, Major League Baseball was on record as having told the Cubs that, should they ever reach the World Series, their home games would have to be played at a neutral site.  We faithful fanatics could have been robbed of grand scenes such as this one below:

Now, you can use this knowledge to impress friends at your local bar's trivia night or to impress at social celebrations.

As Chicago radio legend, Paul Harvey, might say, "now you know... the REESSSSSST of the story!"

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Counting Off the Best Cards of 2017

Where has the time gone?

It seems like just a couple of weeks ago that P-Town Tom, of Waiting 'til Next Year fame, was first challenging bloggers to write about their favorite card of 2016.  Now, suddenly it seems, it's been a full calendar year and the time has come to do the same for 2017.  The Peoria-area Cubs fanatic recently kicked off the second edition of this blog challenge/contest and the rules remain the same as last year's go-round:

  1. Must be one card produced in 2017.
  2. It does not have to be baseball related and may even be from a non-sport set.
  3. It should be a card you have in your collection.
  4. Make a quick blog post about your favorite card.
  5. Reply in the comments section of this post with a link to your blog post before January 8th, 2018.
For reference, here's a link to the original post.

When I saw this post go live, I instantly knew that I would be participating, once again.  After all, I love a good writing prompt and the incentive of a prize is never a bad thing (though it definitely is secondary).  Additionally, I figured that I would do as I did in 2016 and, instead of just writing about one card, I would build a full, top ten countdown and work my way to my favorite card of  '16.  It was a fun exercise the first time around!

The only problem is that, in my humble opinion, 2016 was a much better year for cardboard than 2017.  Whereas, last year, I almost instantaneously knew which card was my ultimate favorite, this year, I could scarcely come up with contenders for the crown.  Perhaps it's because I just didn't buy much in the way of current product this year, or that the Flagship design was unattractive, or the new lines (like Fire and the re-booted Gallery) didn't pull me in... at any rate, it wasn't nearly as easy of a process this time around.

That said, after a thorough review of my card stocks and my own blog posts, I was able to come up with what I think is a pretty good list.  So, without any further adieu, please join me for the Wrigley Roster Jenga Countdown of the Best Baseball Cards of 2017!


I know this is an odd card to choose for this project; in fact, many people might not even consider this "loot" card from Bunt to be a legit baseball card.  I don't know what it is about this Kris Bryant piece that draws me in - maybe it's the product logo which appeals to be graphic design roots, maybe it's the fact that Kris is layered on top of a bed of other baseball cards, maybe it's just the fact that I like weird stuff.  Whatever the reason actually is, I just like it!


From one extreme to another - we lead off the countdown with a filler card and the very next item included is a coveted chase card, or "hit" if you will.    Buckle up, it's going to be a bumpy ride!

This sort of manu-relic typically isn't my scene; however, the preponderance of blue in the design, offset with a crisp gold makes this Rizz pleasant on the eye.  Plus, any card which pays tribute to the great Jackie Robinson is a-ok in my book.  Putting it over the edge is the fact that it came as a generous gift from Collecting Cutch as a thank you for participating in one of his contests.  A hit for participation!  All of these factors combined make this 2017 Anthony Rizzo Jackie Robinson Day Commemorative Patch(from Topps Series One) one my favs of the year.


Mike Montgomery was acquired just before the trading deadline of 2016 and all he's done is become an incomparable swingman that's sprung the Cubs out of more than one jam in the bullpen and the starting rotation.  Furthermore, he just so happened to close out the first World Series win for the North Siders in 108 years, last October with his very first career save.

Even with all of that notoriety, it took until Heritage High-Numbers for MiMo to finally debut on Cubs cardboard - talk about overdue!


On that note, here's another card which makes the countdown solely on the fact that it's the player's first Cubs card.  Brian Duensing leapfrogs Montgomery because it was a pasteboard appearance which was wholly expected!

Mr. Duensing quietly became one of the most rusted components of Joe Maddon's bullpen and a cream of the crop LOOGY, as well.  That said, lefty specialists almost never get love from Topps and friends... why would they when there are so many hot rookies to exploit?  Therefore, I had resigned myself to the fact that Duensing would forever be a Twin in my Cubs All-Time Roster Collection binder... that is, until I read the checklist for Update.  I honestly couldn't believe my eyes that Brian appeared on the document instead of another Aaron Judge reach.  It may very well have been the biggest cardboard surprise of 2017, for me anyway.


This one makes the list more so because of what the card represents than the card itself.  On it's own, the Honus Bonus set is fairly bland and filled with non-complimentary colors and washed-out, black and white photography.  I do like the 20th Century Fox, movie theater-esque design; but, overall, these cards leave a lot to be desired.  So, after a rave review like that, how does this card make it all the way to number six on this countdown?

Well, as I said, the short-lived Honus Bonus brand represented a challenge to the era of license exclusivity.  I was thrilled to see a start-up come in, guns a-blazing and try to edge their way into the market.  In the end, their "fantasy sports meets trading cards" idea didn't last, but they still tried.  That (and the fact that I like this image of Willson) is why an HBP oddball appears on this countdown.

#5  (Tie)

Speaking of oddballs, this was a tie that I just could not break.  Both of these Mother's Cookies-like singles hail from Carl Aldana's new sets revolving around the old Pacific Coast League.

As I've detailed on this blog a few times now, Aldana was an oddball maestro in the 70's and has recently returned to the fold with this current project.  When I discovered that short-term Cub Jim Adair's first ever baseball card came of this product, I had to pounce.  Checking off such a rare need for my CATRC was definite a defining highlight for the year; but, then, Mr. Aldana himself stepped in.  He graciously made contact with me and gifted me with the Steve Bilko too, out of the goodness of his heart.  All things considered, there was no way that I could exclude either one of these bad boys; therefore, they share spot number five.


In October, one my wife and I's closest friends tied the knot with her wonderful husband in North Carolina.  The ceremony was lovely and the experience was one that I'll never forget... if for no other reason than it offered me the excuse to cross the nearby border and visit the home ballpark of the Myrtle Beach Pelicans ( I kid of course, the wedding was amazing).

On our way to catch a flight back home, my wife and I stopped by the South Carolina-based, Single A Cubs affiliate and were blown away by their hospitality.  The minor league season had concluded, by this point, but the staff on duty allowed... nay, encouraged me to tour all of the facilities.  I felt like a kid in a candy shop!  As a souvenir, I decided to pick up a team set from the gift shop, which featured the above Dillon Maples, who's meteoric rise through the farm system to the Majors was a joy to watch this summer.

Again, this card might be here more so for what it represents rather than it's own assets; but, it makes it, nonetheless.


While Brian Duensing made the Update checklist, big-ticket acquisition, Alex Avila, did not.  I'll never understand Topps' process.

Luckily, Alex played a pivotal role in one of the wackiest wins of the 2017 season, thus earning him a spot in the instant Topps NOW checklist.  You can read a detailed write-up about the insane game here, but the short version of the story is that the Cubs came back from a two-run deficit in the bottom of the ninth with two dropped third strikes, a stolen base, and an Avila RBI single.  As soon as I picked my jaw up off of the living room floor, I knew I needed to add this card to my collection.

The circumstances behind this amazing win, the exuberant celebration on the front, and the fact that it is perhaps his one and only Cubs card makes seeds this Now single near the top.


A White Sox card?  Near the top of a Cubs fan's countdown of the best cards of 2017?  Say what?

This stadium giveaway was acquired at Guaranteed Rate Field early in the summer, as part of a White Sox win over the Indians.  It was an absolutely picturesque day at the ballpark, which made for an excellent family day with my wife, father, and brother.  Upon arrival, we were each handed one of these baseball card-sized coupons which featured one of the Sox mascots, borrowing the likeness of White Sox legends on Milwaukee sausage costumes.  Weird, right?

How could a sausagey oddball (which doubles as a coupon for ice cream) of one of the few men to play for both the Cubs and the White Sox not make this list?!

With that, we've reached the moment of truth - what was the very best card of 2017????  Drum roll, please:




Okay, okay... I must admit that I was, in fact, stalling.  I had to take a moment to make sure that I had this order right; but, I think I finally have this nailed down.  Without any further delay, please allow me to unveil to my favorite card of the 2017 season:


This card came out in the first issue of Sports Illustrated for Kids this year, definitely ensuring that my year got off on the right foot.  Luckily, I just so happen to work for a school and was able to secure a discarded copy of the periodical.  SI for Kids cards have long been a part of the hobby and have personally been some of my favorite oddballs since the days of Mark Grace.  That fact alone would probably have secured on spot on this list for this card - seeing as those perforated panels cover all teams and individuals in all sports, Cubs don't show up all that often.  But, that photo!

The image used for the front of the card appears to be after hitting a key double in the postseason; however, it isn't the 10th inning double that won the Cubs their first World Series in over a century. This image was snapped after Miguel Montero and Dexter Fowler hit back-to-back homers in eighth inning of Game One of the NLCS to bust a tie.  Following that, Zobrist continued the rally with a bases-empty double and after what had just happened moments before, I think we can all understand why Zobs is so fired up on the photograph in question. I know that I was too!

To sum this all up, we have an oddball card from a continuing set that's fascinated me since childhood, one that uses a phenomenal photograph from a seminal moment in the Cubs' historic run to the World Series in 2016.  It simply pulls out all of the stops.

So, there you have it - the definitive list of the best cards of 2017, topped by the SI for Kids Ben Zobrist single.  It was a little tougher to draft this year, but I'm pretty happy with how it turned out. 

That noted, I have to ask, how does your list differ from my bullet points?  What's your favorite card of the year so far?  Is your favorite card even a baseball card?  Perhaps you think the football, basketball, or non-sport offerings were better?  Draft up your own post and enter it into P-town Tom's awesome contest!  What have you got to lose, eh?

I look forward to reading your takes!

Monday, December 4, 2017

That's a Nice Card

Those who are familiar with the Christmas culture of Chicago have surely heard of the Christkindlmarket.  The annual festivity is held throughout the month of December, in Daley Plaza, under the shadow of the Cook County Courthouse, and provides the city folk with a square full of kitschy specialty shops hawking German food, spirits, wares, and Christmas decorations.  All in all, if you're not from the Windy City, I'm sure it's similar to whatever holiday bazaar you might find in your area.  With admission to the square being free, it's become quite the popular destination for suburbanites to plan a weekend trip to the city around.

My wife and our friends are no exception to that last statement; a lot of us have pretty deep German roots too.

The joint was even more packed that here in this photo from the Chicago Mayor's Office

At just a train ride away, we've made it up to the market before and always had ourselves a good time - any event that serves me toasty gluhwein is a-ok in my book and their hand-made glass ornaments are divine.  Plus, this year, the weather was absolutely perfect on the day we decided to make the trip... which actually turned out to be more of a problem than a plus.  With temperatures hovering around the fifties, the square was absolutely packed beyond capacity...  it felt more like I was shuffling around the Union Stockyards than the Christkindlemarket!

Thus, after we got my commemorative mug of hot, spiced wine and a box of fresh-made strudel, and agreed to a later meeting place for drinks with our group, my wife and I headed for the hills - if we hadn't our Christmas spirit would have soon been turned into holly-jolly rage.  With a sudden block of time to fill and the weather being so temperate, a stroll down State Street seemed to be in order; we had to get away from the jam-packed mass of humanity that was the market square before my wife tackled ANOTHER man (that's right, I said another).

That meeting spot was the Christmas Tree in Millennium Park

I know what you're thinking, at this point:  "Tony, what does any of this word vomit have to do with baseball or baseball cards?"  I mean, this is a baseball card blog after all, right?  So, your confusion is absolutely warranted.  Please allow me to elaborate - I had to set up the scene!

You see, at the corner of State Street (that great street) and Jackson, there's a Barnes and Noble bookstore housed by DePaul University.  With my wife being a certified book fiend and my remembering a certain find that I made in that location a couple of years previous, this seemed like the perfect place to divert our attention for a few minutes.  Plus, Sam realllllllllllly had to use the restroom.  With that in mind, we made our way inside as our friends were still literally rubbing elbows (and shoulders and arms and what have you) with strangers in Daley Plaza.

Once inside, my wife booked it to the bathroom and I immediately caught a glimpse of what I had been searching for:

Greeting cards?.... Tony, you fool, those are the wrong kind of cards!  Clearly your brain was deprived of oxygen being stuck in that small space with so many people.

Wrong!  Well, maybe right on the latter point...

These pieces of ephemera are produced by The Nice Card Company, based out of my home city. Founded in 1992, they have since been using classic, black and white images to produce these beautiful greeting cards (also, magnets, notepads, puzzles, etc.) as an appreciation of  the local culture and historical photography. The source of these awe-inspiring images appears to be the Chicago History Museum, which I must make more of an effort to visit one of these days.

With Chicago being steeped in baseball history and playing host to two of the most historic clubs in the majors, it was only natural that Wrigley Field and old Comiskey Park would show up on this revolving rack, mixed in among the snapshots of Marshall Fields, The Tribune Tower, The Museum of Science and Industry, and the Stockyards which resembled the market:

I love looking through old photography, getting a glimpse at what everyday life was like in my home city before I entered into this plane of existence... especially when that aspect of everyday life is baseball-related!

As if the old-time images of Chi-Town's historic ballparks wasn't enough, there were even a couple of solo shots featuring Chicago baseball players from the days of yore:

Like Swede Risberg, one of the infamous 1919 Black Sox...

...and George "Lefty" Tyler, who pitched for the World Series bound 1918 Cubbies.  In fact, it was this very greeting card which drove me to re-visit this particular Barnes and Noble that night.

You see, longtime readers of this blog right actually remember this card, as I posted about Mr. Tyler a little less than two years ago.  While making a trip to Millennium Park to ice skate in 2015, my wife and I had also wandered into this Barnes & Noble, in search of warmth rather than shelter from a mob scene.  It was then that I first discovered The Nice Card Company and their wonderful greeting cards.  I was absolutely elated to find Tyler's exhibit, seeing as he and his 35 career Cub wins had, at that point, unrepresented in my Cubs All-Time Roster Collection binder  With the cardboard options for an obscure, middling hurler from 100 years ago not exactly being plentiful, I made the decision to include the greeting card in my baseball card collection.  You gotta do what you gotta do!

Thus, with that experience buzzing around the back of my brain, I was truly hoping to come across another Cubs player from the past who lacked a more traditional baseball card presence; perhaps I could even uncover a totally new name for my CATRC tome?

Luckily for me, there was, in fact, one more "Nice" baseball player made available by the card company and he just so happened to be a North Sider:

Of course, at that time, Larry Cheney was a West Sider, but that's another story.

After the gradual breakup of the Tinker to Evers to Chance dynasty, Larry Cheney emerged as the staff ace for the Cubs of the early teens.  In his rookie year of 1912, Cheney led the league with 26 wins and 28 complete games.  He was about as durable as a pitcher can be, racking up over 300 innings from 1912-14.  However, the live-armed hurler was also as wild as a loose fire-hose:  he still holds the Cubs' single season record for wild pitches in a season  (26 in '14) and he lead the league in errant tosses for six of his first eight seasons.  Although, this can almost be expected when you consider his main choices of attack were the spit ball and the knuckle ball.

Making this greeting card feel even more like a baseball card that just happens to open up in the middle is the fact that it provides a brief write-up on it's subject on the backside.  It's here that the Nice Card Company makes a pretty bold statement about Cheney's knuckler.

For those who can't read that tiny text, allow me to transcribe:

"From a potentially life-threatening accident came the invention of one of baseball's most baffling pitches. Toward the end of the 1911 season, Larry Cheney, who had just been called up from the minors, deflected a line drive that was headed toward his face with his pitching hand, driving his thumb into his nose and breaking both. The next year he couldn't grip the ball tightly and changed his delivery, digging his fingernails into the leather and giving birth to the "knuckleball." With it, Cheney went 26-10 in 1912, tying for the league lead in wins and racking up a league-high 28 complete games."

That's right, just like the previous ace of the Cubs' staff, Three-Finger Brown, Cheney's pitching success came as the result of a disabling accident.  Losing most of the mobility of his right thumb, he Cheney was forced to alter his grip and delivery, which gave his breaking/spitballs more movement and lead to his use of the knuckle ball.   However, the bold part of this write-up is the fact that they gave credit to Larry for inventing the famous and mystifying pitch.  I do not believe this to be accurate.

I think Mordecai had it a little worse of than Cheney

First of all, newspaper accounts from the era mention the knuckler by name prior to Cheney's debut in 1912, one such article from the Reading Eagle stating, "While the evolution of the ‘knuckle ball’ is claimed for Nap Rucker, of Brooklyn, Lew Moren, of the Phila. Nationals, and Cicotte, of Boston, it is asserted that the ‘knuckle’ is nothing more or less than the old ‘floater,’ or ice cream ball, that melted before it reached the plate."  Again, Cheney had yet to even take a Big League mound.

Where the Nice Card Company or the Chicago History Museum got the idea that Larry Cheney invented the knuckle ball is a mystery to me - he certainly helped to perfect the art but he definitely was not the first to make use of it.

Otherwise though, I love everything about this oddball find!

The insides of these greeting cards are left blank, so that the purchaser may write whatever salutation they would like.  Seeing as I'll be treating mine as a baseball cards, I think I'll be leaving the inside of Cheney in the pristine condition it came in.

While it was definitely exciting to again find a rarely-discussed Cubs player on the Nice Card Company rack inside DePaul's Barnes and Noble, it was not quite as thrilling as it was the first time.  You see, when I came across the George Tyler card in 2015, Tyler was entirely new to my Cubs All-Time Roster Collection.  In the case of my 2017 Larry Cheney find, even though he's fairly obscure, there was already an unbeatable representative in his slot of said binder:

That right there is an authentic 1914 Polo Grounds Game card... as "Nice" as the greeting card oddball is, there's no beating 103 year old antiquities!  Even if they're a touch stained.

Even so, I gladly purchased the Cheney greeting card for a buck and some change, along with a bottle of water and gummy worms for my wife (because we're children), and we hurried on our way to the Christmas tree in Millennium Park, four blocks away.  While the Cheney may not have been a needed item for my marquee collection, I was't going to pass up a cheap oddity... especially because I think my wife would have killed me if I didn't purchase something after dragging her all that way.

All in all, we had ourselves a lovely night on the town, even if the Christkindlmarket was a more akin to stockyards than a festive holiday experience.  We had good company, gourmet food, plentiful wine and German beer, beautiful weather, and an oddball baseball card rediscovery to keep our spirits lifted and our hearts full of Christmas spirit.  That being acknowledged, if you plan on ever attending the event yourself, that you do so on a weekday or when the weather is a tad less spring-like.

Unless your ultimate goal is make it to the local Barnes and Noble, that is!

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Bingo to Bango to Bilko

Blogging about baseball cards for the past four years has been a wonderful and enriching experience.  Along the way, it's provided a needed outlet for me to discuss, critique, complain, show-off, and brag about my favorite hobby - trust me, my wife, siblings, and cats were not as receptive of an audience.  Most importantly, it's built a network of connections and relationships with fantastic and generous collectors, with whom I would have never made acquaintance, otherwise.  And it hasn't just been collectors, for that matter; additionally, I've been lucky enough to hold conversations with actual card manufacturers, as well.  Before setting up Wrigley Roster Jenga, that's something that would have seemed completely out of the realm of possibility to pre-blog me.

I've had exchanges with Topps on Twitter, been pimped on Ars Longa Art Cards, received generous donations from Gypsy Oak and so on and so forth.  I don't mean to sound braggadocious; rather, I just want to emphasize how much I am flabbergasted by and appreciate all of these previously impossible experiences.  On that note, just a few weeks ago, I made another connection with a name many loyal readers of Bob Lemke's Standard Catalog of Vintage Baseball Cards:  Carl Aldana.

 Right: 1970 Orioles.  Left:  1971 Yesterday Heroes.  Both scans borrowed from the internet.

Aldana made his name in the 1970's as the brains, talent, producer, and artist behind a handful of oddball collector's issues.  For example, his 1970 Orioles and 1971 Yesterday Heroes sets both appear in the go-to hobby bible.  There's also a checklist of players from 1950-55 San Francisco Seals that was produced by his hand in 1972.  Thus, as a devoted lover of all things oddball, his name definitely stuck out to me when I noticed it was attached to a few new sets floating around on Ebay a couple of months ago.

That's right, Carl Aldana was back after a 40+ year absence from the baseball card-making game with a new set of ideas.  Like his Seals-centric set from '72, these new cards also focus on the players from the glory days of the original Pacific Coast League; but, this time, there are checklists for multiple teams.  They also pay homage to the old Mothers Cookies sets that were contemporary to the time, with rounded corners and vividly colored backgrounds.  When I saw that needed Cubs All-Time Roster Collection target, Jim Adair, appeared in a collation of Seals, I pounced.

Prior to Aldana's return, the short-term Cub never had a proper baseball card to his name - thus, I couldn't let this opportunity to fill an otherwise impossible gap in my collection slip by.  As I mentioned in my original post about the Adair single, I certainly didn't regret my impulse, "if I didn't know better, you could easily convince me that these were whipped up by Topps or Panini as some sort of retro insert set - they are simply that well done."

As thrilled as I was with the find, I didn't think too much more about the experience.  So, imagine my surprise when, a few weeks later, THE Carl Aldana was commenting on my humble little blog!  It wasn't long before we were emailing, back and forth, discussing his work and our mutual favorite game.  In the course of our conversation, he even shared with me some samples of his non-baseball work, included some wonderful, water color impressions that he painted during his time spent in Chicago.  Speaking as someone who worked near most of the locations he visited, these are exceptionally well done:

My mind was further blown when Mr. Aldana, unprompted, generously informed me that he would like to send me another one of his cards, free of charge.  There's no way that I was going to turn that offer down - I mean, it would have been impolite not to accept it, right?

Fast forward to yesterday afternoon and a PWE showed up in my tiny, rectangular mailbox in the foyer of my apartment complex.  Within it was contained the wonderful card that tops this post... I'll show it again, down here, in order to refresh your memory:

As you can see, the subject featured in this go-round is the Los Angeles Angels' Steve Bilko.  The Angels were the Cubs longtime Pacific Coast League affiliate and Bilko was the recipient of a brief trial with the Cubs in 1954; however, he saw much greater success and stardom in the PCL, a league whose popularity nearly rivaled that of the Majors, before westward expansion (more on that later).  Similar to the rest of his PCL cards, this set also apes the design and look of the Mother's Cookies cards of the 1950's.  The only difference between the OG cookie cards and the above is that Bilko is standard-sized, which is a welcome change to this OCD card collector!

Additionally, this single is part of a larger checklist which pays tribute to the stars of the original Los Angeles Angels, which were owned by the Wrigley family and played in their own replica of Wrigley Field:

That checklist is conveniently located on the backside and, as of yet, is incomplete.  I'm extremely curious to find out what other names Aldana will use to fill out the final nine spots on this list.

Along with the checklist, the oddball mastermind has also included some nostalgic artwork drawn up by the immortal Otis Shepard, who handled the art which graced the covers of the programs for the Cubs and Angels for decades.  It makes for a nice touch to an already exceptionally fun piece.  Furthermore, like the rest of his PCL cards, Bilko is printed on thin, but sturdy card stock - just as God and Mother's Cookies always intended. I don't have one of those fancy, schmancy BCW card thickness point gauges, but they sure do seem like a match to my eyes and hands. Furthermore, they are also clearly printed by professionals - these aren't coming off of some lousy, ink jet printer, that's for certain.

 For reference, here's a pair of Mother's Cookies cards from my collection.

Bilko was already repped in my CATRC binder; but, since the Angels were a Cubs affiliate and my previous slot-holder does not feature him in a uniform that is anyway connected to the Cubbies, Aldana's gift will take it's rightful place in my nine-pocket pages.  It's truly an honor to have had the man behind the card himself gift me with a piece of his own work for my collection.

However, it should be noted that the man shown on the card is every bit as interesting as the card itself.  In fact, Angel's manager and former Cub, Bob Scheffing, once said that Bilko was a bigger name in Los Angeles than Marilyn Monroe - those words shouldn't be taken lightly.  So, with that in mind, let's take a deeper look into the career of this Pacific Coast League superstar.

Bilko during his brief trial with the Cubs in '54.
Image courtesy of The Bilko Athletic Club.

Steve Bilko was a towering first baseman, earning the nickname "Stout Steve" as an homage to his girth (6'1" 230 lbs).  The St. Louis Cardinals farmhand possessed light tower power and dazzled audiences in the Pacific Coast League throughout the 1950's.  Unfortunately for Mr. Stout, his "bang or bust" style never translated to Major League success.  In his first year as a regular at the game's highest level, Bilko managed to swat 21 homers with a .251 batting average and 84 RBI.  However, on the other hand, the first-sacker also lead the circuit in strikeouts with 125 (Aaron Judge scoffs, somewhere in the distance).    It was this tendency to K which kept Steve in that awkward purgatory between the Majors and the minors for the majority of his professional career.

My CCC reprint of Steve's '51 Bowman single.

After the Cubs purchased his rights at the beginning of the 1954 season, he saw 47 games of action on the North Side.  With Ernie Banks at short, Gene Baker at second, and Bilko at first, Cubs announcer, Bert Wilson, anointed the trio as the "Bingo to Bango to Bilko" double play combination - not quite as poetic as Tinker to Evers to Chance, but it sure is fun to say!  Despite the catchy phrase, the trio wasn't to last long.  After producing only 4 round-trippers with a weak .239 average, Bilko was demoted to the PCL at the end of the campaign.  That wasn't necessarily a bad thing though, as it was there that he would truly make his mark on our nation's pastime.

Assigned to the Los Angeles Angels, Bilko quickly adapted to his new surroundings.  All he did in 1955 was smash 37 home runs with a .328/.396/.572 slash line as he made mince meat of PCL pitching staffs.  The next year, he truly outdid himself by mashing an astounding 55 big flies for the original Angels, to go along with a Triple Crown and a positively video game-like slash line:  .360/.453/.687.  Fans filled L.A.'s Wrigley Field to get a glimpse of this prodigious slugger - it was truly must watch baseball.  As a swan song to his time with LA, "Stout Steve" again outdid himself by crushing 56 home runs, coming ever so close to breaking the PCL record of 60 (held by eventual Cub, Tony Lazzeri)

Bilko was a beast of a man.  Image courtesy of the Daily Herald.

For those three consecutive seasons “the Babe Ruth of the palm-tree division” was voted as the Pacific Coast League’s Most Valuable Player.  Despite this unprecedented show of power, Bilko was never again called up by the Cubs and was instead sold to Cincinnati in time for 1958.  The "Lovable Losers" instead preferred to stick with Dee Fondy as their first baseman.  Then again, the mid-century Cubs were not known for their excellent decision making...

Bilko spent another few seasons as a regular on the bench with the Reds, Dodgers and Tigers, sadly,  his PCL power never made the ascent with him.  Appropriately enough, Steve would have one last hurrah in Major League Baseball and it would come again in Los Angeles, this time with the American League version of the Angels, when he was selected in the 1960 expansion draft.  He was the first man to play for both the PCL and AL iteration of the Angels.

It was this '62 Topps card which previously held down Bilko's slot in my CATRC.

Back in the "friendly confines" of L.A.'s Wrigley Field, which served as a temporary home to the expansion club, the first baseman was given a regular assignment.  He rewarded him adoptive hometown with 20 homers, a .554 slugging percentage, and a decrease in strikeouts (only 81 K's) in 114 games.  At 33 years of age, it looked like Bilko might have finally adapted to MLB pitching.

Alas, it wasn't to be.  Though his bat stayed productive in 1962, his body began to betray him, with an infected leg cutting his season short and requiring a hospital stay.  Bilko was dropped back to the AAA farm club after training camp in '63 and retired shortly thereafter, bringing an end to the career of one of the game's most unjustly forgotten, yet momentous thumpers.  Eventually, Steve got some of the recognition he deserved by being inducted into the Pacific Coast League Hall of Fame in 2003.

Before we go our separate ways, here's a few more fun, non-baseball related facts about the Los Angeles legend.  In September of 1955, Bilko's name was borrowed, in tribute, for a CBS-TV comedy starring Phil Silvers as Sergeant Ernie Bilko, a con artist in an army uniform; that TV show would later be adapted into a major motion picture, starring Steve Martin in the titular role. Furthermore, his granddaughter, Barbara Bilko, was a goalie for the Ohio State Buckeyes hockey team from 2008-11 - no word on if she was as hulking of a presence in the net as her granddad was at the plate.

Athletics obviously run in the Bilkos' genes.  Image courtesy of Citizens Voice.

And to think, we learned all of this just because of a random, thoughtful gift from a notable baseball card creator.  I thoroughly enjoying the process of spotlighting obscure baseball players!

Again, the most gracious of thank yous goes out to Carl Aldana, for seeking me out, the kind words about my little corner of the internet, for taking the time to converse with me, and (of course) for the fascinating free cardboard!  I highly recommend you check out some of Aldana's new work for yourself (and his old work, if you can track it down).  These PCL cards are available through an Ebay vendor by the name of thebaseballhobbyist, who has an exclusive deal to distribute Aldana's current sets.  Seriously, if you love oddballs, minor league history, or Mother's Cookies cards, there's no reason you shouldn't seek out a single or two for your own collection.

Here's hoping that this is the start of another wonderful relationship facilitated by my decision to blabber on and on online about baseball cards.  I still can't believe what this little project has blossomed into!