Saturday, September 6, 2014

Know Your Role

The greatest teams in baseball always have their fare share of stars.

Murderer's Row had Ruth, Gehrig and company.  The Big Red Machine had Rose, Bench and crew.  Where would the Gashouse Gang be with Leo the Lip, Medwick and friends?

But, even these historic teams didn't have a Hall of Famer occupying every spot on their roster.  The fact of the matter is that every team needs quality role players to fill in the gaps.  Plus, the 162 game grind that is Major League baseball necessitates substantial roster turnover throughout a full season.

However, history rarely remembers these men.  Such is the nature of their roles.

That said, TCMA and Larry Fritsch Cards always dug deeper in their set production, something Topps should take note of.  Both companies produced several sets that honored such legendary teams and they always did a thorough job in highlighting their rosters.

Their commitment and research has been invaluable in my Cubs All-Time Roster Collection.  While the Cubs have not had many significant teams of their own since 1908, their players have bubbled up in famous places before and after their tenures on the North Side.

A couple of Ebay bids allowed me to add two such players to my CATRC, for instance:

This exquisite piece was produced by Larry Fritsch in 1996 as part of a series that paid tribute to the 1944 St. Louis Browns.  Those old Browns were a more hapless franchise in those days than the Cubs at their worst. 

From 1902-52, before becoming the Orioles, the Browns were perennially doormats of the AL.  But, in 1944, things were different.  That year, they won their first and only pennant by going 89-65.  Though they lost to their crosstown rival Cardinals in the Series, they certainly enjoyed their year of respectability.

While George McQuinn, Vern Stephens and Bob Muncrief got the All-Star selections, former Cub Mike Kreevich played a key role as well.

After a brief 5 game audition with the Cubs in 1931, going 2 for 12, Mike didn't reemerge in the Bigs until 1935.  He eventually earned a starting role in the outfield on the other side of town through '41, hitting for high average and providing above average speed and extra base-power.

 Kreevich as a member of the White Sox

But injuries and battles with alcoholism took their toll and after a brief and unproductive stint in Philadelphia, Kreevich limped over to the Browns.

For that 1944 squad, Kreevich only got into 105 games but he certainly made the most of it.  He posted a .301 batting average in 402 at-bats and a .405 slugging percentage, even earning a few votes in the MVP balloting.  But, the .231 average and lack of power he showed in the World Series dimmed his star.  He was out of baseball by 1946.

But Larry Fritsch made sure he wasn't completely forgotten by including Mike in this commemorative set.  The cards feature a simple layout and superb artist renderings of the players on the front...

...while the back evokes card designs of the fifties in it's layout and inclusion of cartoons.  All in all, it was an outstanding release.

Plus, who doesn't love cards that feature defunct teams?  The Browns, Senators, Colt .45's, Pilots... they sure do make for more interesting card subjects.

While the next team being spotlighted is far from defunct, it has moved it's base of operations in the ensuing years.

1953 was the first season for the Braves in Milwaukee after their abrupt transfer, which was uncomfortably close to opening day.  Not a truly great team, but certainly a significant one in the history of the MLB and thus honored with a special set, again by Larry Fritsch, in 1983.

While the Braves had long been second-fiddle to the Red Sox in Boston and been years removed from contention, the team found a fanatical audience for Warren Spahn, Eddie Mathews and Joe Adcock in a city starved for a Major League franchise.

The support no doubt injected some energy into the club, which posted a 92 win season, a wild 28 game improvement over the previous year, and finished second in the pennant race. 

However, our subject here never actually played in a game for the Milwaukee Braves.  The former Negro League standout had been in the Braves system since 1951.  Batting .197 in 122 at-bats that season had kept him in the minor leagues since then.

 Marquez was briefly a Cub in '54

His .345/14 HR/99 RBI season in AAA put him back on the prospect map and earned him a spring training invitation going into 1953, but he didn't capitalize.  When the team made their big move to Milwaukee, Marquez was not invited to be part of the show.

The Cubs took a chance on him as a Rule 5 draft choice for the 1954 season, but he went 1 for 12 in 17 games with no extra base hits so they traded him to the Pirates for Hal Rice.  In his last 14 ML games, he got his career average all the way up to .182.

Though he wasn't technically a Milwaukee Brave, Fritsch decided to add Luis to his inaugural Milwaukee Braves set.  The set is much more rudimentary than that which Mike Kreevich appeared in (that's to be expected when considering the age difference) and it is certainly apparent that Fritsch lacked the design budget that the major card manufacturers had.

While Luis never officially appeared for the 1953 Braves, our next subject actually made a cameo for the team being honored - albeit extremely brief:

While I stated earlier that the Cubs haven't have many famous teams since 1908, they've definitely had some good ones take them ALMOST all the way.  One of those teams was the 1938 club, of Homer in the Gloamin' fame.

Among some of TCMA early sets was this 1976 series honoring the '38 Cubs.  The team went 89-63 and won the Pennant.  At the time, the Cubs had averaged a World Series appearance every 3 years ('29, '32, '35, '38) and seemed ready to end their modest title drought soon.

Although they were powered by HOF'ers Gabby Hartnett, Billy Herman and Dizzy Dean, the Tigers spanked them in the World Series and they'd have to wait until 1945 for their next chance.

Long-time PCL standout Steve Mesner was just another name on the roster that season.

Mesner turns a double play for the PCL Sacramento Solons

The middle-infielder was just getting his first taste of Major League action when he came up in late September as part of pennant race reinforcements.  The race was tight (The Cubs only beat the 2nd place Pirates by 2 games), so the rookie saw little usage.

In 2 games and 5 PA's, Steve contributed 1 hit, 1 walk and 2 runs to their cause.

He got into 17 more games the next season before being dealt to St. Louis.  He finally saw regular action as the starting third baseman for Cincinatti from 1943-45.  But, when the stars came back from war, Mesner went back to the PCL for good.

TCMA included every Cub to appear on the roster that season in their honorary set.  As was typical of their early days, the set features bare bones design, black & white photography and type-written statistics on the back.  Again, they definitely didn't have the budget of Topps.

I found this card in at my LCS in a box that was otherwise filled with relatively recent, mainstream releases; I was surprised and ecstatic when this fell out.  It may be a little bit dinged up, but I can now add Mr. Mesner to my CATRC!


In summation, though star power is what powers great teams, even the best of the best need role players and reinforcements to stay on top.

These vintage oddballs serve as an effective reminder of that statement.  For every Gabby Hartnett or Eddie Mathews, there's a Steve Mesner and a Luis Marquez.

Thanks to great companies like Larry Fritsch Cards and TCMA and their team sets, it's much more reasonable to find cards of these relatively anonymous role players.  I only wish Topps - or even Panini - would release sets with such depth today.

Maybe some day.

No comments:

Post a Comment