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!


  1. That matchbook is pretty cool!

  2. I also have a pretty wide definition of what counts as a baseball card, and I've been meaning to write a post on the topic for a while. A matchbook definitely counts as a card for me -- just off the top of my head, I know I have magnets, pocket schedules, retail tags, and many other items sitting in my binders right now.