Friday, October 15, 2021

Hockey Cards : My Harlot



I bought hockey cards.

But…you see…it was a different time back then. A looser time. A time of exploration and experience. A time of non-judgement. A more innocent and idyllic time to be a collector. And the cards were everywhere you went, man. Drug stores. Chain department stores. Gas stations. Corner stores. Everyone was doin’ it, man.

Yeah…I know.

If everyone jumped off a bridge would you do it too?

But hockey cards aren’t jumping off a bridge, man.

They’re pieces of cardboard with athletes on the front and stats on the back.

And I was hooked on all of it.

In all honesty, I don’t know why I bought hockey cards when I was a kid. Maybe for a less exaggerated reason than what I wrote above. While I dabbled in basketball, I never gave one single shit about hockey. I mean, I’ve watched hockey. On Tv. Live. Endured is a better word than watched. I’ve played hockey too. There was a weird time when every kid I knew bought a hockey stick and we played street hockey.

...Except Miller.

Miller hated hockey more than anyone I've ever met.

Even more than me.

Maybe the rest of us gave in to hockey's darkness because this guy was getting bigger and bigger in Pittsburgh.

Everyone loves a star.

Yeah…I still didn’t care about him either.

But I still went searching for him in packs.

I don’t know why I dislike hockey. I know why I dislike most vegetables. It’s because they taste like dirt. Hockey doesn’t taste like dirt. But it’s the sports equivalent of tasting like dirt to me. Say what you will about baseball. But at least there’s nuance. Substance. Poetry. Hockey is a bunch of guys skating around on ice for two plus hours, for a score of 1-0. Or worse. A goddamned tie.

The same goes for soccer.

And I don’t know why I bought hockey cards. Why does anyone do anything? Out of boredom? For experience? Because I wanted a pack of football cards, and all that the goddamned Thrift Drug had to offer me that day were hockey cards. I was an impatient child. Any little bit of money that I had burned a hole in my pocket. Saving was for fools.

And necessity being the mother of invention.

The first hockey cards that I ever bought were Topps’ 1988-89 release.

The one with this dude showing off his fresh new gear.

I’ll admit, it’s a good-looking set. Frosty white borders make you feel like you’re on the ice. Even though it’s hockey, the photos of the players look great. Especially the in-action shots. And I think that thumbtack “holding” up the players name is a nice touch. It harkens back to a time when sports cards were manhandled. Put in the spokes of bikes. Thumbtacked to your wall.

The problem for me was, I didn’t care about any of the players that I got in packs. Not Lemieux. Not Gretzky. I had no clue who Paul Coffey was, even though he PLAYED for the Penguins. Or Brett Hull. Or Patrick Roy. Or Mark Messier. I couldn’t even tell you who won that year’s Stanley Cup.

Yet I spent a shit ton of my money on them.

To the point where I was on my way toward building a set.

You know, if you have good parents, they watch out how kids spend their money. Try to encourage them to save. Spend it on things worthwhile. Once, I had fifty bucks burning a hole in my pocket. Christmas or my birthday. Or something. I really wanted this Monkees boxed set. So, I bought it. My mom read me the riot act. Why’d you waste money on that. You could’ve used it for (insert said important thing that I kid should buy but never would).

That kind of shit.

Funny thing is, thirty-one years later I STILL have that Monkees boxed set.

I couldn’t tell you where my binder full of 1988-89 Topps Hockey cards are.

            I didn't even talk about hockey cards with anyone else, or even know anyone other than my brother (and that's his burden to carry I've obviously got my own) who bought hockey cards. Not Phineas. Certainly not Miller. They were a deep, dark secret that I held onto. Like being a fan of the New Kids on the Block, or never having watched the movie Jaws.

            Yet....there went my hard earned coin.

            On fucking hockey cards.

            My foray into hockey cards (and it was hit and miss at best), did, however, coincide with the rise of the Penguins in the city of Pittsburgh. Long a frustrating and losing team in the city, the franchise was beginning to build a winner by the late 80s into the early 90s. A lot of it had to do with Lemieux. A lot of it had to do with supporting players.

            There was the arrival of this guy.

            Now 1990-91 Score hockey cards, I would have to say, were probably my next real forays into hockey card collecting. While I didn’t care about Lemieux or Jagr, like every kid and teen back then I thought that having cards of them (and other hockey stars) would one day make me rich and save me from the work-a-day drudgery that I saw my parents and friend’s parents deal with every day.

            They didn’t.

            With the exception of brief stints on the dole, I’ve been gainfully employed since I slung my first newspaper at a porch back some thirty-five years ago.

            Or I bought them because I wanted to see what I was missing.

            What everyone was excited about with this team.

            I remember actually opening wax boxes of 1990-91 Score hockey. 

            Around that time, I also got a job working at the Pittsburgh Pirates Clubhouse Store in the Monroeville Mall. The same legendary mall of Romero films and my blessed American Coin. The Coin was gone by then. And I was probably more interested in sports-related clothing than cards (though I was still buying cards). Everyone was going crazy over that shit. Starter brand was all the rage.

            There is this one memory.

            The morning after the Penguins won their first cup. We were all on-call at the Clubhouse. If they won, we all came into work. Early. Like real early. What awaited us was box after box of Penguins Stanley Cup champion t-shirts. And hats. Our job was to get those shirts out and sorted into size as quickly as possible, on hangers, and put onto the waiting six or seven racks for when customers started coming in.

            And come the customers did.

            The only other time I’d ever seen the store that packed was on Black Friday.

            The Pittsburgh Penguins had finally arrived.

            But all they ever gave me was a burn.

            You see, all of those t-shirts we got in came wrinkled. It was okay for the initial batch to go on racks wrinkled, because rabid-hockey fans didn’t care. But subsequent shirts had to be presentable. I spent the entirety of that day in the stockroom of the store, steam-ironing shirt. If you’ve ever steam-ironed something and accidently burned yourself, multiple times, then you understand where I’m coming from.


            All because of this pack of assholes.

            Maybe it was that day where I resolved to hate hockey and not care about the Pittsburgh Penguins, and never buy another pack of hockey cards again.

            Who knows?

            While the Steelers own the city, Pittsburgh is a hockey town too now. I did time in Buffalo, so I know my hockey towns. Hockey towns can be hard when you think the sport is dull and stupid, its fans confused an in need of corrective therapy. And the Penguins team has been competitive off and on for the last thirty years, and have actually managed to win the Stanley Cup four more times since that 1990-1991 season. Not that I watched a single period of the action.

            And good old Mario Lemieux owns the team now.

            I once gave his kid a library card.

           I met Jagr too. This guy I worked with at the Clubhouse was a puck-boy for the Pens when Jagr was a relatively new player. He had the job of showing Jaromir around. So he took him to the goddamned mall. To his job when he was off. I was working that night, so he could brag in front of his co-workers. Jagr didn’t speak much English. It was like meeting a stranger on the street.

            But he bought a two-hundred-dollar, leather White Sox jacket.

            Don’t ask me why.

            As for hockey cards…they still exist. The Upper Deck company is the major manufacturer or hockey cards. That sounds about right. And from what I’ve heard they do a really good job on them. Again, not that I’d know. That said, I do hope that the NHL and Upper Deck continue their relationship, and that pro-hockey cards aren’t just another domino that eventually falls into the Fanatics monopoly abyss.

            Stay strong Upper Deck!

            Even though you helped damage The Hobby back in the 1990s!


Thanks for reading! Happy collecting!

If you’d like to learn more about hockey cards or the Pittsburgh Penguins…go somewhere else. I’ve written more about hockey and hockey cards than I ever care to again.


Next Friday: I’m going to show off what I picked up while in Buffalo and Pittsburgh.




Friday, October 8, 2021

Basketball Cards : My Mistress


Basketball was always an “other” to me.

            Of course, I’d see kids playing basketball in the park. Pick-up games or some solitary child shooting hoops. But it seemed foreign to me. I wasn’t weaned on the basketball like I was baseball. It wasn’t ever-present on a Sunday afternoon in the way the NFL was in my house or any of my friend’s homes. We didn’t have a pro basketball team in Pittsburgh. So, there were no players to route for. No team colors to wear.

            No cards to collect.

            Although, as you’ll see, the card part wasn’t really on me.

            I didn’t really come to basketball until my family moved to the Penn Hills suburb of Pittsburgh in 1982. I was eight-years-old at the point. Not ancient. But getting set in my youthful ways. My catholic grade school had J.V. and varsity basketball teams. Pretty successful ones, coached by my eventual nemesis, RickMiami. We played a lot of basketball in gym. At the very least, Miami had us haul out a bunch of carts with basketballs on them and we played pick-up games until our allotted 45-minutes of exercise was up.

            God, I hated gym class.

            And I wasn’t exactly catching basketball fever.

            It wasn’t until I met Miller that I actually started to get into the sport of basketball. Miller was a basketball fan. He’d grown up on it. I remember he had this…I guess it was an old wooden door or something…that he’d attached a Nerf hoop too. He and I and sometimes his dad; we’d play Nerf basketball in Miller’s living room. We’d pretend to be these NBA players that he knew and I had no honest clue about. Moses Malone. Magic. Isiah. Sometimes I was this guy named Larry Bird. Had to be this team called the Celtics.

            Miller was always Dr. J.

            Now Dr. J…I knew that name. If you had any small conception about the sport of basketball in the early 80s, you at least knew the name of Dr. J. aka Julius Erving. Knew about his slam dunks on the court. How he’d made the move an art form, to be perfected later on by a guy named Michael Jordan.

            In the fall of 1984, I started watching some basketball games with Miller. On weekends, or on weekdays when there wasn’t much in the way of homework (or homework I wasn’t going to bother to do), I’d go down to Miller’s house and we’d sit in his parent’s bedroom and watch basketball on WTBS. On those broadcasts I got to see all of those guys whom I was pretending to be when we played Nerf basketball. There was Magic Johnson. There was Moses Malone. There was Kareem. There was Larry Bird.


            Larry Bird was white?

            But more than all of the others on those WTBS broadcasts, there was DR. J.

            Dr. J on the court. Dr. J for real and not just some guy whom I imagined in my head. Dr. J leading the Philadelphia 76’ers up and down the court. Dr. J dribbling the ball. Dr. J passing the ball. Dr. J dunking over some dude’s head.

            And there this kid named Charles Barkley.

            Charles Barkley was a rookie in 1984. A highly touted one. A big bulky badass who seemed like everyone’s troublesome little brother. I don’t know if it was because the fall of 1984 was the inaugural year for basketball on WTBS or not, but it seemed like the 76’ers were on a lot. And they happened to be Miller’s favorite team at the time. Not only did I get to know Dr. J (and actually get to see him play), I got to see Charles Barkley in his rookie season.

            Sometimes I even got to see this guy play.


            Who could forget that year’s summer Olympics.

            It felt like MJ was a legend before he even put on a pro uniform.

            When I look back on that time now, it feels like Miller and I were sitting in that bedroom watching pro-basketball morph from being a struggling, little-watched pro sport, into the multi-billion-dollar juggernaut that it is today. Not only were Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley rookies in 1984, but so were future NBA hall-of-famers John Stockton and Hakeem Olajuwon. They’d be joined in the next five seasons by Joe Dumar, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, Chris Mullen, Dennis Rodman, Reggie Miller, Scottie Pippen, and David Robinson.

And those are just the hall-of-famers in the bunch.

            Can I get a Ron Harper anyone?

            That 1984-85 season even culminated in a Lakers-Celtics championship series.

            Add a dash of mass marketing…

            For a kid like me, the logical extension to watching NBA basketball and getting to know the sport, meant that I wanted basketball cards. Surely there had to be basketball cards. There were baseball cards to go along with baseball, and football cards to go along with football. It seemed logical that basketball cards would go with basketball. I mean, Miller had basketball cards. Albeit they were a few years old.

So, we went searching for basketball cards. Cards with Charles Barkley on them. Cards with Jordan. Cards of Dr. J where he wasn’t sporting a huge afro, but looked more like the elder statesman that he was by 1984. Problem was…we couldn’t find them. I always assumed Miller and I were going to the Thrift Drug at the wrong time of the day to get basketball cards. We were there when there was nothing but the football cards we’d already exhausted. Or hockey cards.

Who in the fuck wanted hockey cards?

I told myself right then and there that any time I got ahold of some change, or God-willing a whole dollar, that I’d search the end of the earth for a pack of basketball cards.

The ten-year-old equivalent of the end of the earth.

Basically, the drug store across a dangerous road.

            But not so fast there kid.

            In 1984 there were no basketball cards.

            No basketball cards? Yep. There were no basketball cards that a ten-year-old kid could get his hands on at the local drug store. No basketball cards to buy after our marathon sprints into the American Coin hobby shop. No basketball cards at Hills Department store. Turns out Topps hadn’t produced basketball cards since the 1981-82 series. No other major trading card company had yet taken up the mantle. The cards that Miller had at home were the last basketball cards anyone had made in at least two years.

(Yeah, yeah, I know…the bloody Star Company. They’d started producing small sets in 1983 and, let’s be honest, they were about as easy for us kids to find as the Holy Grail itself.)

So, let’s just say there were NO basketball cards.

            But with the massive growth of the sport that was quickly going to change.

            In 1986, the Fleer company produced it’s first set of basketball cards, and the first major set of basketball cards since 1982. The set was met with an initial shrug, and not many kids bought them. Even in my hunt for basketball cards I don’t remember buying any 1986-87 Fleer cards. I wish I had. The set is damned near priceless today. 

            A Dr. J card will cost you $50. 

            If you want the Michael Jordan rookie card, graded, you better pony-up a good $350,000-$500,000.

            Honestly, I think the 1986-87 Fleer cards are pretty sharp. The red, white and blue border stands out, and the yellow border surrounding the player adds a nice color contrast. Just a nice-looking inaugural set. Of course, by 1986, Fleer was no slouch at making cards. And they were in the midst (1983-1987) of making some of the best baseball cards out there. These were card makers who knew what they were doing.

            Case in point, I give you 1987-88 Fleer basketball.

            Sleek, gray and white border. Colorful team name on the top. Very businesslike…but fun.

            But, of course, 1988-89 Fleer is where the fun really started.

            Love how the team color borders blend into each other. Just compliments the white into gray into black outer border.

            The 1989-90 cards stepped up the color game.

            Someone wanted to channel 1985 Fleer baseball.

            And so on and so on with just some great looking Fleer sets.            

            Looking back on my own collecting, I didn’t get hip to the fact that basketball cards were back until that gray/white bordered set Fleer produced for the 1987-88 season. That was the year I finally got to buy my first packs of basketball cards. I got a Michael Jordan card. A Charles Barkley card. One of Magic. One of Kareem. One of Larry Bird.

            I even pulled a Dr. J card.

            His last.

            But there was a problem.

            While I enjoyed watching those initial basketball games with Miller. And while I wanted basketball cards, knew all of the players, and could probably tell you the number on their jerseys; my enjoyment of the game itself never deepened beyond curiosity. My fandom didn’t ascend as basketball ascended in popularity. And even though I played my share of pick-up game, basketball never became a must-watch sport like baseball and football had been for me. It hung there on the periphery.

            It was probably all of the 3 on 3 Rick Miami made us play in gym.

Truth be told, basketball cards were probably the first cards that I collected just to collect. My conspicuous consumption of trading cards. The last drink of whatever for an addict. Shoot down some packs of Fleer. Buy a box two of Hopps when they came out for the 1989-90 season. 

Feed The Hobby Beast. It’s not like I was going to save the money I was making slinging newspapers and eventually working at the mall. That would’ve been smart.

The only thing that saved me from total financial obliteration, was the fact that I was essentially done collecting cards by the time Topps came back with its brand for the 1992-93 season.

But I still bought a pack or two.        

Now, I look at basketball as a mistress I go back to from time to time. I pay more than a passing glance at the sport. When we were all stuck inside in 2020, I admittedly watched my fair share of the NBA playoffs down in that Florida bubble. And I got just as sentimental for the 1990s as everyone else, watching that Chicago Bulls documentary. The sport is so huge and ubiquitous now, even if I didn’t want to know any players it would be kind of hard.

Even I’m subject to succumbing to the zeitgeist from time to time.

As a collector? Yeah…I’ve dabbled in basketball cards. Mostly singles because of how outrageously expensive basketball cards are to buy in hobby box, blaster box form. At the very last card show I attended before the pandemic, I bought a Hoops Zion Williamson rookie card. 

Picked up my fair share of cheap MJ cards when I finished watching that damned documentary. Got a few of today’s rookies.

But I had to go back to my youth when I thought of a basketball card that I really wanted to add to my collection. Back to 1984 and watching game with Miller. Looking at his collection of older basketball cards. Back to that hoops player who gave me my first thrill.

And the kid in me bought this.

Thanks for reading! Happy Collecting!

             If you'd like to know more about the career and stats of Julius "Dr. J" Erving you can do so both HERE and HERE.

            NEXT FRIDAY: Yeah...I bought Hockey cards.

Friday, October 1, 2021

And I Ran : Quitting the Football Team, and a Couple of Paragraphs on 1986 Topps Football Cards.

I was better at collecting football cards than playing football.

    Or I was apathetic to playing football. Organized football anyway. Or I became as such through no fault of my own. I was an overweight kid. A husky kid. You could play quarterback or running back or wide receiver if you were a husky kid; provided you were playing with your pals. Organized football was different for the bigger guys.

    When I signed up to play J.V. football for my grade school in 5th grade (Christ, who let’s 5th graders play full contact football now?), I wasn’t sure what to expect. I didn’t expect to start. J.V. was 5th and 6th grade, and my talents playing football on the cul-de-sac in my neighborhood did not at all indicate that I’d be taking a starting job from a 6th grader. My aspirations were more along the lines of the standing-on-the-sidelines skill set. Riding the pine, if you will.

    Learning the game.

    The only question I had for myself is where I’d land as a back-up. I could catch a ball. Maybe tight end? I could tackle. Maybe defensive end? For my size I was pretty quick. How about a full back (yeah, we still utilized those on the regular back then) coming out of the backfield to get those one or two yards? Those all seemed like awesome options to the eleven-year-old me. I just had to go to practice, play hard, run hard, and fate would take its course.

    I ended up a back-up offensive lineman.

    The coaches took one look at me and my size. They shoved me over to the small group of similarly plump kids practicing their three-point stances and hitting those pads. Turns out size did matter in organized youth football. There went my dreams of being the next Eric Dickerson. The next Wes Chandler. The next Kellen Winslow.

    Instead, I got knocked around on blocking drills by 6th graders.

    I got made into a guard.

    Who in the fuck wanted to be a guard?

    Now, I’m not slagging off offensive lineman. As an adult who watches the sport of football, I absolutely understand how important it is to have a strong O-line. Preferably one full of top talent. But as an eleven-year-old I didn’t want to be some dumb guard. There was nothing exciting about that. I didn’t want to play offensive line. I didn’t want to pull. I didn’t want to stand there blocking, getting man-handled by some school’s defensive line, while my teams’ QB, running backs and receivers got all the glory.
    Yet by the opening game I was a goddamned guard.

    And not even a starting one. As I said, I was a back-up. I got into games when games were already decided. Most of the time I stood on the sidelines, drinking all the water and Gatorade, and then tried my best to hide in the crowd, as angry coaches paced before us, screaming “who drank all of the goddamned water and Gatorade?” hoping they wouldn’t notice my pee-pee dance.

    By mid-season I wasn’t allowed to stand near the water or Gatorade.

    But I did eventually accept my fate.

    On the street I could be whatever I wanted to be.

    But on the actual field I was a guard.

    Time to learn those pulling plays.

    But then THIS happened.

    As a result of my accident with the glass window, I missed the entirety of my second J.V. football season. I didn’t even play one down. Couldn’t. As I was too busy doing physical therapy and walking with a leg brace, hoping to rebuild some damaged tendons. There was even a question that I might not be able to play football come my seventh-grade year. Varsity Catholic grade school football.

    Where I’d be the low man on the totem pole again.

    Possibly gone.

    Now, in the Catholic league I played in there was a big difference between J.V and varsity football. The biggest one was that there were weight limits in each category. Lineman had limits. So did backs and receivers. Weight you couldn’t be under or over. I already said I was a big kid. Imagine being a big kid and having to spend a year not really walking or running because of a leg injury. You get bored.

    My boredom was healed by Twinkies.

    My boredom was healed by handful after handful of potato chips.

    The end result was that I was too fat for varsity football, even though the doctor cleared me to play.

    But the coaches needed players. Even bench warmers with a penchant for purloining Gatorade. The coaching staff's solution was to make me run. And run I did. All August, while guys were getting in three-point stances, hitting those bags and hitting each other, I ran. When the team had scrimmages...I ran. When the team huddled with the coaches to go over plays...I ran.

    And it paid off, I guess.

    I lost enough weight to make the team.

    As a back-up guard.


    But it felt pretty good being back on a football team. At least at the beginning. Being a guard was...whatever. But I felt like I’d put that injury behind me. I thought it was cool that every Friday we got to wear our jerseys over our Catholic school shirts. Being on the sidelines meant that I had time to stare at the cheerleaders. Varsity cheerleaders. And when I got into a game, I thought I did all right.

    Except when it came to pulling.

    I could never figure out that shit.

    I was collecting a lot of cards back then. Baseball and football cards were as common as the coming of a season or the rising of the sun. That summer/fall of 1986, Topps put out a damned fine 396-card football set. A now classic, green-border, white-stripe football field design that just popped the minute you pulled them out of the pack.

    God I loved that design.


    And how about these inserts?

    Topps’ 1986 football card set has some pretty decent rookies.

    We all know this one.


    But then there are these guys too.




    1986 Topps was my third year collecting football cards. I also think the set is the third year in a great four-year football card run that Topps had going from 1984-1987. 
    Just some stellar designs. 

    Good enough to rival what they were doing with baseball cards during those years. In fact, I’ve grown into a bigger 1986 Topps Football fan than I am its baseball product that same year. That said, buying 1986 Topps wax boxes is impossible for me now. Because of that Rice rookie (and others), wax boxes will cost around $4,500-$8,000 now.

    That's a far cry from 35-cents a pack.

    But back then, it was understood, coming home from a practice, that if my old man had to stop at the Thrift Drug for a pack of smokes, I was buying myself a pack or two of 1986 Topps football cards. Being on a football team again, the cards helped me connect more to the sport that I was playing. I wasn’t just opening packs hoping for the Marinos, Montanas, Dickersons, or Elways (although those were nice). I started paying attention to the cards of guys on the O-Line.

    Guys like this.


    And this.


    I began to understand the offensive line’s role in determining the course of a football game. Though I was still shaky on guard’s pulling.

    How make or break a good O-line could be for a team.

    Looking at those cards I was finally getting excited about my position.

    My own roll on the team.

    I was getting excited about maybe starting come eighth grade.

    But...something wasn’t right.

    The running in practice didn’t end for me once I lost weight, the way it did for other kids that were on the fence. Obviously, I participated in drills during practice. And scrimmages. Because we’d be playing real games come Saturday afternoon. But the coaches still made me, and me alone run. Despite having a bum left leg, and injuries that were barely over a year old, some of the coaches felt that, maybe, I was dogging it. I wasn’t. I simply couldn’t run as fast as I used to. And with damaged tendons I ran clumsily at times. I tripped. I fell.

    The head coach saw that as goofing off. As me not being dedicated. And he was a real ballbreaker. Or he was a barker. A little man with short-guy syndrome and a bowl haircut named Rick Miami.

    He looked kind of like this guy.


    I couldn’t blow that guy off even if I wanted to. Miami wasn’t just my coach. He was also the school’s sole gym teacher. Not only did I see him evenings at practices, I had to put up with him two times a week in gym class. And, well, I had a reputation in gym class for being...kind of...a goof off.

    For lack of a better phrase.

    Because of my reputation in gym, I couldn’t articulate myself to the contrary of Miami’s accusations. So, he and the other coaches punished me. I ran. I ran until I was exhausted. More than just running, Miami had three 8th grade goon linebackers trail me as I ran the track. They were to keep pace six feet behind. But often they got closer. They called me a pussy. They called me a wimp.

    Instead of being on a football team I felt chased.

    I felt like prey.

    I bet that shit never happened to Russ Grimm.

    So I did what I did best.

    I quit.

    I think maybe it was the third or fourth week of the season. After another insulting practice of being chased by helmeted hooligans, and me not even getting in the game for a single down on that Saturday afternoon, I hauled my football gear, my helmet, that jersey that I was proud to wear on Fridays, right into the school’s gym first thing the following Monday morning. Miami was in there alone, sucking on a coffee, and probably stroking his trophies. I walked to his office and dropped my gear right in his doorway. Instant anger on the man’s face.

    No one quit on Rick Miami.

    And our conversation?

    It probably went something like this:

    Miami stopped fondling his trophies and looked at Grochalski’s gear on the floor. “What do you think you’re doing?”

    “I’m quitting,” Grochalski said. He trembled with fear. But his resolve was unshaken.

    “Quitting?” Miami took a pull on his coffee. “Pick the gear up and get out of my face. I didn’t waste my time just to have you quit on me.”

    “Yeah, but, I am quitting.”

    Having nothing else to say, young Grochalski left the coach’s doorway, and began leaving the gym. It was when he got to the gym doors that he heard Rick Miami get up from his worn, leather chair. Grochalski turned to see Miami glaring at him from his office doorway. “I said pick the gear up.”

    Grochalski looked from Miami’s pointed finger down to his gear on the floor. “No,” he said.

    “No?” What are you deaf and stupid? Grochalski wanted to say. It was one of his favorite movie lines. Instead, he shook his head.

    “You’re a quitter,” Miami said. “Nothing but a quitter. What would your dad think?”

    “He’s the one who drove me to school today,” Grochalski said.

    Miami’s face reddened. “What about your teammates? Huh? You want them to think you’re a quitter?”

    “I don’t even think half of them know my name.” Again, Grochalski made for the wide gym doors. This time he didn’t look back.

    “But...” Miami didn’t know what to say. He was losing his best benchwarmer. The guy he could count on to drink that water. The Gatorade Kid, as Miami lovingly referred to the boy. His quitting was an outrage. An affront! “You’ll be sorry, Grochalski,” Miami spat. “’ll be begging me to let you back on the team. If not this year. Then next year when you’re in eighth grade. You would’ve been starting then.” Miami made his way over to the gym doors. But Grochalski had already gone up the stairs toward his classroom. “You hear me? Starting! But not now. Not now, Grochalski. And you know why? Because you’re a quitter? And no one likes quitters. No one respects quitters! You know that Grochalski? Grochalski? Grochalski!”

    Or something like that.

    I did face a little bit of blowback. All those teammates that I “let down” they took it out on me by giving me those shoulder shoves in the hallways. Especially on jersey Fridays. One of the coaches was my math teacher, and any time I spoke in class when my hand wasn’t raised, it was me talking out of turn, even if I was answering a question for another student. Miami dogged me all year in Gym too. He gave me the grade of S or NI (which in Catholic school lingo was a C or D).

    But it didn’t matter to me.

    I was free of that horseshit.

    And like I said at the beginning.

    I was better at collecting football cards than playing football.

    1986 was a good year to collect football cards.

    And to this day I have no clue why guards pull.

Thanks for reading! Happy Collecting!

Next Friday: Going to take a look at....Basketball cards

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Greetings From Forbes Field by Russell Streur




Born in 1865 in the Grand Duchy of Baden, Barney Dreyfuss was the son of an Americanized father who made a fortune selling liquor to Native Americans before returning to Europe at the outbreak of the Civil War. Reversing the steps of the father, the younger Dreyfuss emigrated to the United States at the age of 16 to evade the Imperial German Army draft.

Working his way through the ranks of the family bourbon business, Dreyfuss found a talent in his spare hours to first organize baseball clubs of distillery workers and then to operate semi-pro baseball teams. In 1889, Dreyfuss bought a share of the Louisville Cardinals of the American Association, absorbed later by the National League when the Association collapsed. At the end of the century, Dreyfuss parlayed a Louisville line-up that included Honus Wagner, Rube Waddell, and Fred Clarke into the ownership of the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Bible of Baseball credits Dreyfuss with ending the war between the National League and the insurgent American League with the creation of the World Series in 1903.

Dreyfuss remained president of the Pirates throughout his life.



Postcard, Forbes Field, 1910


Dreyfuss opened the first concrete and steel National League stadium on June 30, 1909. Resisting the temptation of the time to name the stadium after himself, Dreyfuss instead chose Forbes Field, naming the grounds after an adjacent avenue honoring the British general who founded Fort Pitt during the French and Indian War. A second bordering street was named after a Swiss mercenary who served under Forbes, Henry Boquet, who later gained permanent infamy with his role in deliberately exposing Native Americans to smallpox during the Pontiac War.

The city certainly needed a new stadium. Exposition Park, built in 1882 and the original home of the Pirates, had the benefit of a downtown location on the banks of the Allegheny, but the low-lying outfield often resembled a marsh and flooded knee-deep in water when the river overflowed its banks.

Early observers questioned Dreyfuss’ judgment in choosing the outskirts of the city to place his new stadium. Critics labelled it Dreyfuss’ Folly and warned the owner that fans would turn their backs on the place as being too big, too fancy, and too long a trolley ride from downtown.

Talk of folly disappeared when the park opened. Writers lauded the “subtle elegance” of the stadium when it opened. “For architectural beauty, imposing size, solid construction and for public comfort and convenience, it has not its superior in the world,” the 1910 edition of the Reach Guide said. Baseball Magazine agreed. “The new park is the greatest achievement in civil engineering—and as beautiful as well as secure a construction as has been undertaken in this country since baseball first began to be the national pastime.”

The Pirates celebrated their new home by winning the World Series in 1909, defeating Ty Cobb and the Detroit Tigers in seven games behind the bats of Wagner and Clarke and the pitching of Charles Benjamin "Babe" Adams. Allowing six hits in each of his three outings, the rookie right-hander won the opener, Game 5 next, and then the finale with a complete game shut-out.


                                                         Forbes Field, Game Time 1912



 Postcard, Cathedral of Learning, University of Pittsburgh, circa 1940

Construction began 1926; officially dedicated 1937.

Paul Goldberg, in his book, Ballpark: Baseball in the American City, gives special mention to the unique placement of Forbes Field next to the woods and trails of Schenley Park in Pittsburgh’s upscale Oakland neighborhood.

The area, Goldberg writes, “already had a Carnegie library [and] would in time become the city’s main cultural center, with several museums, the University of Pittsburgh, and what would become the Carnegie Mellon University . . . No other city could claim a major league baseball park as part of its cultural mix, either in 1909 or anytime afterward. The geographical intersection of the ballpark with other cultural institutions would have no other examples other than Forbes Field at Schenley Park."

Less than a mile from home plate, the Cathedral of Learning towers above Forbes Field.




Cum Posey, Negro Leagues Legends No. 65 (2020)


The Pirates weren't the only home team playing at Forbes Field in the 1920s and 1930s. The Homestead Grays also regularly played at the park.

A white black double header was played at Forbes in May of 1932. The Pirates played the Philadelphia Phillies in the opener. The Grays played the Philadelphia Hilldales in the nightcap.

One of the longest-lived black teams, the Grays were organized by Cum Posey in 1912. The team mostly played as an independent club until joining a rebuilt Negro National League in 1935. The Grays were declared league champions in 1937 and 1938. During the years of World War II, the Grays increasingly shifted operations to Washington, DC, pulling in larger crowds at Griffith Stadium. Under the leadership of team captain Buck Leonard, the Grays won six more pennants before the league disbanded at the end of the 1948 season. Leonard's 15 years with the Grays was the longest stint of any player with any team in the history of the Negro Leagues.

Posey was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006. The national pastime wasn't Posey's first sport--basketball was. A Pittsburgh-area high school and college standout, Posey later organized, played for, and ran the Loendi Big Five. A dominant team during the Black Fives era of hardwood segregation, Posey's team won four consecutive Colored Basketball World Championship titles in the early 1920s. Posey was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2016, the only person in both the baseball and the basketball halls of fame.

                                                            Homestead Grays, 1931

Postcard, Negro League Legends, 1991, No. 82




Gus Greenlee, Negro Leagues Legends No. 44 (2020)


The Pittsburgh Crawfords were the third great Steel City baseball team. Hill District nightclub operator and numbers king Gus Greenlee bought the Crawfords in 1931 and raided the Grays and other clubs to replace a neighborhood roster with future Hall of Famers including Oscar Charleston, Josh Gibson, Judy Johnson and Cool Papa Bell. Unhappy with the rent charged at Forbes, Greenlee built and named for himself a concrete and steel stadium that seated 7,500 spectators. It was home to the Crawfords until Greenlee sold the club off after the 1938 season. The Crawfords won three pennants of the revived Negro National League between 1933 and 1936.

Some diamond historians consider the 1935 version of the team the best ever in the history of the Negro Leagues. Others give the nod to the 1931 Grays.


Pittsburgh Crawfords, 1936

Postcard, Negro League Legends, 1991, No. 84





Barney Dreyfuss thought home runs produced a boring brand of baseball, and he made sure his park wouldn’t permit any cheap shots into the seats. The original dimension of the field measured 360 feet down the left field line, 462 feet to center, and 376 feet in right. Dreyfuss got the running game he wanted—Pirate right fielder Owen Wilson set and still holds the major league record for most triples in a season with 36 in 1912, and the Pirates hit a record eight triples in a single game against the Cardinals on May 30, 1925.

Cast loose by the New York Yankees in the dead of winter, an overweight and fading Babe Ruth signed with the Boston Braves in the spring of 1935. On May 25, Ruth hit the last three home runs of his career at Forbes Field. The third of the blasts was the first to clear the recently-constructed 86-foot-tall roof in right field. Ruth retired a few days later after going hitless the rest of the month. Over the next 35 years, only 17 more homers cleared the roof. Willie Stargell hit seven of them.

While the dimensions of the park changed over the years, the field was always big, and it was still spacious enough in 1956 to allow Roberto Clemente to become the only major league player to belt a walk-off inside the park grand slam, speeding around the bases in a 9 to 8 Pirate win over the Cubs on July 25.

                            Topps, Circle K Boxed Set, All Time Home Run Kings No. 16 (1985)


The Pirates played their first night game at Forbes Field on June 4, 1940. But if wasn’t the first night game ever played at the park. Under the portable lights of the pioneering night-ball playing Kansas City Monarchs, the Homestead Grays defeated the visitors in 12 innings, 5 to 4, on July 18, 1930.


Forbes Field at night, circa 1949.





Topps saw the Pirates as a club on the rise in 1959. Three out of the 17 cards in that year's subset of team stars featured Pirate combinations. The chewing gum company was a year early. The Pirates took home a World Series championship in 1960.


Topps No.312 (1961)

 Postcard, Forbes Field, 1961




Forbes Field opened on June 30, 1909, with the Pirates losing to the Chicago Cubs, 3 to 2. The two teams also played the last games at the park, a double-header on June 28, 1970. The Pirates swept the Cubs, 3 to 2 in the opener and 4 to 1 in the nightcap. The careers of six Pirates span the lifetime of the stadium.


Babe Adams 1909 to 1926

One story says Adams earned his nickname during his 1908 Louisville season when female fans greeted the handsome pitcher with cries of “Oh, you babe!” whenever he took the mound.

Adams lost an epic duel at Forbes against Rube Marquard and the New York Giants on July 17, 1914, falling 3 to 1 when Larry Doyle homered in the top of the 21st inning. Adams walked no one during the marathon, setting the record for the most innings pitched in a game without giving up a base on balls. Adams pitched into his 40s, and logged a scoreless inning in relief during the 1925 World Series, won by the Pirates four games to three over the Washington Senators.


Babe Adams, Fleer Baseball Greats No.90 (1961)


Paul Waner 1926 to 1940 

Said to be always a threat to break up a no-hitter but never a party, the hard-drinking Waner credited his batting success to the whiskey he drank before batting. “When I walked up there (to the batter’s box) with a half-pint of whiskey fresh in my gut, that ball came in looking like a basketball,” he would say. “But if I hadn’t downed my half-pint of 100 proof, that ball came in like an aspirin tablet.” Waner may have been better off with a trip to the eye doctor. He played half-blind from nearsightedness.


Paul Waner, Conlon Collection No. 5 (1991)


Rip Sewell 1938 to 1949

Sewell joined the Pirates as a reliever in 1938. Late that year, Sewell was shot with two loads of buckshot to his lower legs during a deer hunting accident in the Ocala Forest. With the big toe on his pitching foot permanently mangled, Sewell was forced to revamp his delivery and was credited with inventing the eephus pitch, a slow and high-arcing blooper throw that baffled batters. The pitch revived his career, bringing him 17 wins in 1942, 21 wins in each of the next two seasons, and four NL All Star selections.

Not everyone was a fan of the pitch. National League President Ford Frick turned thumbs down on Sewell’s artistry after attending the All-Star Game in 1946. “I can take it if we lose, but I strongly object to our league making a burlesque out of the All-Star Game,” Frick declared. “I never want to see such an exhibition again.”


Rip Sewell, Reprint, Bowman No. 234 (1949)


Ralph Kiner 1946 to 1953 

Kiner led the NL in home runs seven straight seasons with the Pirates, from 1946 to 1952. His bat earned him the highest salary in the National League but couldn’t lift the Pirates into contention. The Pirates hit bottom in 1952, finishing the season with 42 wins against 112 losses, 54 ½ games out of first. When Kiner reported to the club in 1953, Branch Rickey offered the slugger a pay cut. Kiner didn’t take kindly to the suggestion. “We finished last with you,” Rickey told Kiner. “We can finish last without you.” Rickey sent Kiner to the almost equally hapless Cubs in June. Pirate fans hanged Rickey in effigy. The Cubs finished in seventh. True to Rickey’s prediction, the Pirates finished last.


Ralph Kiner, Topps Archives No. 191 (2001)


Bob Friend 1951 to 1965 

In the fourth of consecutive last-place Pirate finishes in 1955, Friend became the first pitcher to lead the league in ERA while pitching for a cellar team. A workhorse, Friend led the league in starts three times and never spent a day on the disabled list during a 16-year career. Friend holds the Pittsburgh franchise record for games started, innings pitched, strikeouts and batters faced.


Bob Friend, Pacific Trading Cards, No. 78 (1988)


Roberto Clemente 1955 to 1970

Roberto Clemente was interviewed for the pregame show before the finale at Forbes. A transcript survives. “This is a big emotion for me,” said the Pirates star. “I’ve been here 16 years, almost half my life. I’ve been here 16 years in this ballpark,” Clemente emphasized, “and this ballpark been great for me right here, and the fans have been great for me here, too. So it’s like I was telling some of the fellows today: You’ve been married to your wife for 16 years and so all of a sudden something happen, and you gonna be hurt about it.”

Out in left field, above the scoreboard, the minutes on the Longines clock swept by in mechanical progression, passing from one hour to the next.

 Roberto Clemente , Baseball Immortals No. 135 (1980)


 Last Out, 1970

Memories of Forbes Field No. 19 (2000)

--Russell Streur 

Thanks  for reading! Happy Collecting!


Next Friday: I’m bringing back The Quitter…and we’re gonna talk 1986 Topps Football cards.

Hockey Cards : My Harlot