Friday, January 15, 2021

The Reach of Faith : 1953 Topps Card # 15 Bobo Newsom by Guest Blogger Russell Streur

 



 Bobo Newsom’s pitching career ended just as Topps was introducing its first baseball card sets in the early 1950s.  Card #15 in the 1953 set is the only card issued for Bobo by Topps during Newsom’s playing days.   

 



One afternoon in the summer of 1943, Bobo Newsom took the mound for the St. Louis Browns in a tilt against the Red Sox in Fenway Park. In the bottom of the fifth inning, his counterpart Oscar Judd came to the plate.  Judd got the better of the pitcher versus pitcher duel, launching a rocket up the middle in a trajectory interrupted by Newsom’s forehead.  The batted ball ricocheted high over second base and fell safely into center field for a hit.

 

The blow staggered Newsom but the tough right-hander refused to be taken out of the game.  Celestial music floated gently through his head and an enormous lump grew on his broad brow as the innings progressed.  In an angelic daze, Bobo mowed down one batter after another.  Newsom disclosed later that “old Bobo didn’t know nothing for a few innings afterward” but the temporary amnesia didn’t prevent the hurler from leaving the field with a complete game victory.

 

“It just goes to show you,” Newsom reflected that night.  “Old Bobo is a better pitcher when he’s unconscious than most guys are when they’re wide awake.”

 

So says The Bible of Baseball.

 

“It ought to have counted for two wins,” Newsom later suggested.  “I was seeing double every time a guy came up to bat.”

 

Baseball is a game of numbers.  Newsom has lots.

 

26 seasons in the game, 1928 to 1953.  Twenty years in the majors on a never-ending tour with most of the teams then playing.  The migrations included two stops each in Brooklyn and Philadelphia, back and forth three times with the St. Louis Browns, and five separate terms with the Washington Senators.  

 

His jersey numbers can fill a keno card.

 

Three times a 20-game winner and three times a 20-game loser, Bobo is one of only two players with more than 200 major league wins, and a losing record (211 – 222).

 

But in an era without any major league teams west of St. Louis or below the Mason Dixon line, a 30-win season for the Los Angeles Angels in the tough Pacific Coast League of the 1930s and 46 wins over three seasons in the Southern Association weigh more heavily in the old record books than they would today.

 

Bottom line:  951 games pitched.  951!  265 complete, 5,826 innings.  350 wins, 327 losses. 

 

A careful reader of box scores might discover a different tale of that game between the Browns and the Red Sox.  True, Judd’s line drive knocked Newsom loopy.  But he only finished the fifth inning, not the game, and he took a loss for the afternoon, not the win.

 

“That Newsom has a rubber arm,” said one player. “And a rubber head to match.”

 

But Bobo would pose the skeptic with an elegant question.  “Who are you going to believe?  The record book, or the guy what done it?”

 

The January 1949 hot stove issue of SPORT Magazine featured a poem by Ogden Nash titled “Line-Up for Yesterday: An ABC of Baseball Immortals.”  Nash assigned each letter of the alphabet to a baseball great.  Most were already in the Hall of Fame when Nash wrote the poem.  The rest got there later, except one:  Bobo Newsom.  Nash explained how Newsom ended up with the titans.  “He talked his way in.”

 

Baseball is a game of faith.

 

---Russell Streur 


Thank you Russell.....I added a few of Bobo's other cards to give readers a look, but that 1953 Topps is a wonderful gem.

If you'd like to learn more about Bobo Newsom you can do so HERE at the Society for American Baseball Research's page on him, written by Ralph Berger 

You can access Bobo Newsom's stats HERE

And you can read Ogden Nash's poem Line-Up For Yesterday right HERE


Next Friday I'll be back with a story about 1984 cards and the first time I rebuilt my baseball card collection...at the age of 10.

 

 

 

Friday, January 8, 2021

1983 Baseball Cards : To Sparky....wherever you are

 


The Paganini’s were moving back.

Which meant we had to vacate their home. The one my family had been renting from them for almost a year since we’d returned to Pittsburgh from Wellsburg, WV. The Pittsburgh suburbs. The land of plenty. Cars. Kids. Lawns. By age nine I’d gone from living in the city to a rural area to the land of milk and honey, where I watched a neighbor girl while away her summer days transcribing the entire script of the movie Annie, into a tape recorder, from memory. I didn’t even know my times tables up to twelve, and she had her lines down pat.

But I knew moving. Three homes in the last three years. Time for a new neighborhood. Time to be the new kid again. Time to pack up all my stuff. The clothes. The Star Wars figures. The baseball cards that I kept in blue suitcase. Stretch the legs in a new frontier that I was to make mine…but for how long? A brand-new lawn for my dog, Sparky, to turn into mounds of worn-out dirt, like he had the Paganini’s backyard. To hell with them.

Does this look familiar to anyone:



            Sparky wasn’t even our dog. I mean he was. He lived with us. We fed him. He sometimes slept on my bed. My parents cleaned up after him. Sparky made his way into family photos from time to time. When I say he wasn’t our dog is to say that he wasn’t ours originally. Sparky ended with us through chance.

Our dog had been Sam. Sam was a bronze-colored Golden Retriever/Irish Setter mix. My parents got Sam shortly before we made the move from Pittsburgh to West Virginia. We were going to have an acre of land in our new home. An acre of land meant getting a dog. A big dog. It didn’t matter that we already had another dog, Fawnie. But she was a lap dog. An indoor pooch. A kick-me dog in lesser circles of empathy. She’d cover no real ground.

Sam was a big galoot. A lumbering trouble maker with a heart of gold, who chaffed at the sound of motorcycle engines. A god, for whom, no trifling leash could keep him chained up in a yard. Sam’s antics made him the bane of our West Virginia neighborhood. He made use of that acre of land and more. Farmers detested him. Threatened to shoot him. One did…in the leg. But that’s a story for another time.

Because Sam roamed with a Kerouacian spirit that my parents couldn’t quell, it meant that Sam disappeared a lot. Went missing for days. Went missing for weeks. Was gone so long we feared the farmers made good on their threats to off him mafia-style. As mafia as West Virginia got.

But Sam always came back. Came trotting back home when he’d exhausted all of his dog possibilities and needed a good meal and a night’s sleep. Sam always came back. Until the one time he didn’t. Until Sam was gone for good. Months went by. To make a long story short, about a month or so before we were supposed to move back to the Pittsburgh area, my mom got a call. Someone had found Sam. We raced to the scene with boundless excitement. We had our Sam back! He’d just gone too far afield this time and couldn’t find his way home. Bad dog! Yet we were so happy to get to him and bring him home.

Except the dog in question wasn’t Sam. The dog in question wasn’t our goofy Golden/Setter mix. It was some mutt that looked a little bit like a wolf. An exuberant, kind dog, but not our Sam. He just had Sam’s tags on a collar around his neck. A cruel switcheroo. My Mom, being the bleeding-heart animal lover that she was, took this strange, new dog in anyway. It was either that or they were going to put him to sleep. Through fate and circumstance, Sparky, as we named him, was ours. And he was great, though he did bark a lot.

            Moving into a new place is always difficult. Like I said, we’d done it three times in last three years. Thankfully my parents found us a place not more than a ten-minute drive from where we were already living. I’ve already mentioned the hard, kid stuff about moving. But I never knew what it was like on parents. Setting up a new house. Making sure it felt comfortable and safe for the children. Finding a new, trustworthy babysitter, or someone you could trust, locally, with your kids. Navigating all of those new adult relationships in a neighborhood. Moving is hard on everyone.

I remember there was a knock on the door. A frizzy-haired, frustrated young woman standing on the other side. Then my mother shaking her head. My mother apologizing profusely. Jesus, what had my brother and I done already? I wondered. We hadn’t been in the neighborhood more than a month. My only friend was A.J. across the street, and all we did was play with Star Wars action figures. Whatever brought that anxious lady to our doorstep couldn’t have anything to do with the antics of children.

How I wish it had. The woman was at our door because of Sparky. She was there because her grieving mother couldn’t stand his barking. She’d just lost her husband, the woman’s father. All of the barking coming from across the street was causing her mother undue stress. Sparky was disrupting their time of mourning. Even though he stayed chained in our backyard and never had the penchant for roaming that Sam had, there were threats by the woman to call animal control. To keep the peace a decision had to be made. Someone had to go. Sparky.

            I don’t remember much about the day was gave Sparky away, except the heavy weight of sadness. My mom was upset. My brother and I were upset. My old man, ever indifferent to animals, went to work. It was a long, solemn ride to the Pittsburgh Animal Rescue League. The place was a no kill shelter, but my mom had to be thinking we were doing to Sparky what we promised we wouldn’t when we found him with Sam’s tags. We were letting him go.

She had us kids wait in the car while she took Sparky into the building. Two quick hugs and he was gone. Moments later, my mom came out alone and crying. The deed was done. Our new neighbors could now mourn in peace. My poor mom wanted to get me and my brother something to make the loss of our dog up to us. I could only thing of one thing. Baseball cards.

            Yes, this post is still about baseball cards. At least somewhat. And in 1983, Topps and Fleer were my main brands. The Topps brand still wins the top prize for me. The action shots were better than Topps had in 1982. 

I mean look at this one: 



Most of Fleer’s 1983 photos were staged and sometimes it looked like all of the photos were taken during a rain delay at the ballpark. 



The Topps design with that big photo in the bottom corner is a classic now. A touch modern. A touch 1963, The orange and gray card stock backs are still striking to me today. 

I’ve said it here before, but I put 1983 Topps baseball in any list of my favorite Topps cards ever produced. Even with the stinging memory that comes with them.

My mom took me, my brother, and our collective sorrow to the Thrift Drug, where he and I each selected a pack of 1983 Topps cards. From the bottom of the wax box, of course. The rest is a blur. I couldn’t tell you what I got in that pack. I wish I could say it was a Tony Gwynn rookie card



Or the Boggs. 



Or the Sandberg. 



I probably got Ron Kittle.



I wish I could say I got something great as a compensation for giving up my dog. My companion. My friend. Truth is, I wouldn’t have known back then if I got something good in that pack. I was nine. My knowledge of cards and players wouldn’t increase until later in that year when I met Miller. 1984 is when cards began to really matter. Basically, I sold out man’s best friend for nothing.

There is a cruel irony in all of this. Weeks after we gave up Sparky, my brother and I were outside riding bikes in a circle. We lived on a dead-end street that was a cul-de-sac. All of the sudden, a dog started barking at us. I mean he wouldn’t let up. We looked over at the house where the dog was barking. He seemed mean, aggressive, lunging at us like he wanted to break his chains and attack. In the nick of time, someone came outside to shush him.

It was the frizzy-haired woman who had come to our door to complain about Sparky! The same woman who’d threatened to sick animal control on us. The woman with the mourning mother who couldn’t take the noise of a dog. It was her fucking dog barking at us. Her mutt! And that salivating beast would bark at us for years. Riding bikes? Bark! Playing Wiffle ball? Bark! Playing Nerf football? Bark! Bark! Just trying to walk down the street in peace? Bark! Bark! Sitting on your porch on a humid summer night? Bark! Bark! Bark!  

Ain’t people grand?

 

Thanks for reading. Happy collecting.

 

Next Friday:  I have something special lined up. A guest blogger! Poet and artist Russell Streur is going to be taking over and discussing former American League pitcher…Bobo Newsom. Then I’ll be back on Friday, January 22nd, to tell you the tragic tale of those cards I put in that blue suitcase.

 

--JG

 

           

 


Wednesday, December 30, 2020

2020 : My Year in Card Collecting

 


I like year-end lists.

I like the finality of them. The end point of a year that people give themselves when compiling these lists to share. Best books of. Best records of. Best films of. My year in. You get the gist. The year-end/Best of lists that people compile allow me to sit back and agree and/or disagree on my own, without somehow insulting one’s tastes.  A lot of these lists allow me find things that I forgot or completely overlooked during the course of my own year. A book I might’ve forgotten. An album that I knew nothing about. Lists for movies, especially this year, are big for me. Everything film-wise that came out in 2020 was essentially lost on me thanks to this goddamned plague. Christ, how I miss going to the movies.

I thought about those lists in terms of card collecting, i.e. making a best of list or a my year in list. 2020, for as shitty as it was, was actually my first full year back into card collecting since 1992. What would a best-of/year-in essay mean for me, per se? I’m obviously better versed in how modern collecting works in 2020 than I was when I came back in 2019. I have the various podcasts that I listen to to thank for that (shout outs to Sports Card Nation and About the Cards for informing a guy).

But I still feel like too much of a newbie to sit here and detail what I thought the best card products of the year were. Also, I’m trying to keep this blog more on the personal/remembrance of things past, a Proustian blog on baseball/sport card collecting, if you will, rather than post on here praising or slagging card products when they come out. There are enough people, way better equipped people, out there doing reviewing products. I’ll stick to the home spun tales.

So what then? The most obvious choice for me was to make a year-in collecting essay for the Junk Wax Jay blog. Take a little time and space to casually talk about what I’ve been collecting in 2020, and what I hope to continue collecting in 2021. Sets I’ve put together. Sets sitting there waiting. Players I’m PCing. That interesting stuff.

With no further explanation…I give you…my year in card collecting 2020 edition:

Sets:

When I initially got back into collecting my goal was to collect sets (mainly Topps) from what I consider my main wheelhouse era of collecting. These were the years 1983-1992, even though technically I can go back to 1980. I was also going to collect anything new that caught my eye. Collecting the older sets meant collecting a lot of so-called Junk Wax Era cards. The cards that were still sitting in wax boxes by the cases. The so-called worthless stuff. So that’s where I went.

When you’re collating and building junk wax sets by hand, basically you’re throwing reasonable economics out the window. Building junk wax sets via wax box is way more expensive than buying those sets outright…and a lot less fun. I wanted to have fun not pay ten bucks for a set, put it in a binder, and then shelve it. Also building sets via junk wax boxes allowed me to rebuild/build a personal collection of players that I loved watching back in my collecting prime.

In 2020 (with a lot of purchasing help from 2019) I managed to complete Topps base sets from 1986-1992, as well as a 1987 Donruss base set. I’m most proud of building the 1987 Topps and Donruss sets, as they are two of my favorites produced during my collecting heyday. Honestly, for me, you can’t go wrong with 1987 sets. I was hoping to hand collate a 1987 Fleer set as well, but prices for wax boxes have nearly tripled as 2020 moved along its murderous pace. A wax box of Fleer (From a Sealed Case) was about fifty bucks as the beginning of the year…it now goes for about one-hundred and fifty. Another time perhaps.



Building sets (I’m looking at YOU 1982-1985) by hand using wax boxes was going to get quite a bit more expensive if I went any earlier than 1986. We’re talking five hundred dollars a box, for a set that is worth maybe fifty. Damned card grading…I kid…I kid. I had to figure out another way of putting those sets together. To be honest, I cheated a little and purchased  1982 and 1983 Topps sets outright. And I concur that it wasn’t any fun. But I sure love looking at the two, and 1983 is hands down my favorite year for my era of Topps after 1987.  If you don’t count my precious 1980 Topps, of course.

If I wanted to keep up with my collecting goals, earlier sets became a what-to-do scenario. Like I said, wax boxes were out of the question. Card shows were gone. I’m remain completely in the dark about buying card lots, and I don’t trust eBay. But this summer I got lucky.

A local card shop that I go to bought incomplete sets of 1984 and 1985 Topps. Both sets were in binders and came with their respective traded sets. By incomplete sets, I mean all of the usual suspects were missing. Mattingly rookie. Clemens rookie. Puckett. Gooden. Strawberry rookie. McGwire USA card. You name it. But the sets were only nine dollars each. Overall, each set was only about fifty cards shy of completion. Using SportLots and ComC, I began the process of rebuilding the sets. As of this writing, I’m currently two cards shy of completing my 1985 Topps set, and about forty cards away from completing 1984.

That said, having a lot of extra time this year, and thankfully, still being paid for the work I do…I went a little overboard trying to put together Junk Wax Era sets. In my closet listed under incomplete currently reside the following: 1988 Donruss (yeah, I did it), 1988 Fleer, 1988 Score 1989 Fleer, 1990 Bowman, 1991 Bowman, 1991 Donruss, and 1992 Donruss.

Why in the hell did I put together 1991 Donruss? Because it was cheap and it helped with the depression, the sound of sirens going up and down my street. Opening cheap packs and building cheap sets became a cathartic act. But, ss 2020 moved along, I began to feel a little Junk Wax set building overload. So, I’m keeping those sets at the ready to complete at a later date and at my leisure.

 New Sets:

            I’ve always been a flagship man. Of course, for the bulk of my collecting years, flagship was the only set a company produced. By the time Topps, Fleer, Donruss etc. were rolling out their Stadium Clubs, Ultras and Leafs, I was getting ready to roll away from the hobby. When I came back in 2019 it was specifically to buy hobby boxes and put together the flagship set…and, all right, the Heritage set. And that’s what I did…in 2019. But what’s the old adage? How do you make God laugh? Make a plan…I think I used that one before.

            2020 proved to be a different beast. Where I dabbled in current sets in 2019, in 2020 I got myself a bib and took a seat at the card buying buffet. I didn’t go hog wild, and by other’s standards I’d still be considered tame, but I bought way more current product in 2020 than I thought I would. Aside from compiling the flagship set for Topps, I also put together the Topps Archives set and am one card away from completing Topps Big League (one of my favorites for design alone, wish it was double in size) and about seventy away from finishing Stadium Club. Not to mention the random stacks of Gypsy Queen, Bowman, Donruss, etc, that I have in boxes.

But while I am a sucker for nostalgia, I abandoned putting together Topps Heritage set. Don’t get me wrong I love Topps Heritage. But I just found trying to put together a set, including the short prints, to be a frustrating and expensive proposition. It’s not a Sisyphean tasks, but it might as well be for a guy like me. I commend those collectors with the time and energy to devote to building a complete Topps Heritage set. Going forward I will admire Topps Heritage from afar, and only pick up the players I want for my PC.

Ugh…and that brings me to my personal PC.

 PC (personal collection):

I really worked a lot on my PC this year, both old and new players. In 2019 I didn’t know a thing about purchasing web sites like SportLots or ComC, so most of the cards that went into my personal player collections from came from Junk Wax doubles, and doubles that I got from current products. But with the use of SportLots and ComC I was able to buy individual cards and start putting together I PC that I’m enjoying. And as this blog IS about an anxious man coming back into collecting, buying online more has helped me not have a complete anxiety attack every single time that I make a purchase. Almost.

I pretty much PC the older players by keeping a general collection of Hall of Famers and players that I liked growing up. The Hall of Very Good, as the podcast of the same name likes to call them. I started building up card collections for Johnny Bench, Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla, Will Clark, Doc Gooden, Ken Griffey Jr, Tony Gwynn, Bo Jackson, Reggie Jackson, Don Mattingly, Fred McGriff, Al Oliver, Dave Parker, J.R. Richard, Pete Rose, Daryl Strawberry, Wille Stargell, Fernando Valenzuela and Andy Van Slyke. I’d say I PC Hank Aaron and Roberto Clemente too…but we’ll see how that goes.

Some recent PC purchases:










I’m most proud and excited about the Stargell’s that I bought. Pops’ legend always loomed large over the Pirates when I was a kid. When I started collecting again, I knew I wanted his cards in my collection. It was great to build my Willie Stargell’s back up, even getting cards that I never had the chance to have as a kid. That 1963 rookie still alludes me, however.





As for current players…that’s proven tougher. Getting back into collecting in 2019, meant that I was also getting back into a sport that I loved but had turned my back on since 2014 (if you want a rehash of that you can find it here). When I quit watching baseball there was no Aaron Judge or Cody Bellinger. Mookie Betts was a rookie and Mike Trout and Bryce Harper were just beginning their careers. I had to watch the sport to figure out who I wanted to collect.

To be honest, right now I tend to just hold on to all of the star cards for current players like I did as when I was a kid. Because Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was all the rage when I got back into collecting, I have a decent amount of his cards. Pete Alonso and Yordan Alvarez for the same reason. But do I P.C. them? I don’t know.

I keep the Pirates guys that I hope will turn out, though that is pretty dim right now. And just this week my Josh Bell PC was rendered obsolete by another dumb (but typical) Pirates trade. But I’m counting on you Ke’Bryan to save us all! I’d have to say that I really enjoy watching Tim Anderson play ball, so I’ve been buying cards of his here and there. Eloy Jimenez as well. Juan Soto is in there. And while collecting any Atlanta Brave other than Dale Murphy is anathema to my very being, I do have some Acuna Jr’s in the PC. But the current player PC is a work-in-progress overall.

 I did dabble a little in these:


And this happened to me on Christmas morning. I never hit anything and this came from a blaster box my wife bought me. It’ll be my pack-opening high water mark.



Goals for 2021:

More than anything it’s to make it to the other side of this pandemic, get vaccinated, and get back to living a life. I’d like to see something other than my neighborhood. I’d like to see a live ball game and go to a card show. I want to eat a huge bowl of ramens in Japan.

But we’re talking about collecting goals here, right? Obviously, I’d like to finish the sets I’m working on, specifically the 1984 and 1985 Topps set. Older sets keep calling to me. I did a post about 1980 Topps cards a few weeks back, as they were the first pack of cards I ever opened. A major goal of mine is hand-collating and completing the 1980 and the 1981 Topps set, even if they get me out of my comfort zone and force me to learn how to buy card lots. There’s always room for growth.



My Pittsburgh Pirates collection is going to be a major focus of mine. Building Pirates team sets from the 1970s and 1980s specifically. And as for the PC of older players, I’ve already got past Buccos like Bonds, Bonilla, Clemente, Oliver, Stargell and Van Slyke…but there’s room for Manny Sanguillen, Steve Blass and Bill Mazeroski in there as well.

On last thing about my year in collecting in an essay that has already gone on too long…it was really great to connect with a lot of other collectors, especially on Twitter. In real life I tend to be an introvert of the worst kind…case in point, my social calendar during a pandemic wasn’t much different than it was in 2019. But following different collectors and seeing how they went about the hobby, their opinions, frustrations (there’ve been a lot), joys, and triumphs have really added a lot to make knowledge and appreciation of this strange and wondrous thing that we put or time, energy and heart into.

Thank you to all in The Hobby whom I’ve connected with, the ones posting, the ones doing the podcasts, the ones doing the blogs, or the ones lurking around like me just trying to find your way back. May we all meet at the next major card show!

 

Thanks for reading. Happy collecting. And have a Happy New Year.

 

Next Friday:  How I sold out my dog for a pack of 1983 Topps Baseball Cards.

 

--JG

 

 

 






Friday, December 18, 2020

Aint nothin' gonna break my stride....except that old guilt: Rod Carew and Bobby Smith were living legends

 


Henry Miller once said, I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.

But Henry Miller said this as struggling writer living in Paris, composing Tropic of Cancer at a madman’s pace, all the while mooching off of people for shelter, food and drink…and, of course, occasionally going to bed with Anais Nin. He wasn’t some dumb kid stuck in the suburbs trying to buy baseball cards without a job, and hardly an allowance to speak of. That kid was me. Perennially broke. Any inkling of an idea of a naked Anais Nin was years upon years away. Back then, I couldn’t have given one damn for Henry Miller and his bloody art and pauper-is splendor. Money…that was what I wanted.

My parents didn’t have much money in the mid-80s, which meant I hardly had any money. Were we broke? Of course not. We had food enough that I had a weight problem at a young age. We had shelter. I had clothes on my back. I went to catholic school. But there were hard times. For years there was little money for anything else than the basics and birthdays and Christmas. I remember one instance where we had to use money from my piggy bank for a loaf of bread to tide us over until payday. We had cars that were powered on WD-40 and sheer will. Not really the stuff of Dickens, I know. But purchases were made using caution and common sense.

            But I did have a piggy bank. By hook or crook, I had accumulated some money, and managed not to blow it immediately on baseball cards or candy. The foundation of my wealth mostly came from change from bigger bills or from birthdays or holidays; pocket change that I could put away to prove to my folks my fiduciary responsibility. I wasn’t going to end up penniless in Paris, like Henry Miller. Henry Miller never wanted Rod Carew cards from the 1970s. But I did. I’d stay as flush as a kid could.

Why Rod Carew? It had to be because of Miller. Not Henry Miller but my Miller. Miller Anatasio was a big Rod Carew fan. This was before his Barry Bonds fixation. Oh, it had to be late 1984 when this adventure happened. The Matthew Wilder song Break my Stride was still going strong. Miller knew Rod Carew. Or knew of him way better than I did. He knew Rod Carew enough to copy his batting stance when we played wiffle ball. 


Miller talked about him with awe. He made Carew sound like a legend. To diehard Twins and Angels fans he already was.

I only knew Rod Carew from his baseball cards. 


I didn’t really know much about him as a player. I knew he was good. The stats on those red, white and blue Topps 1984 card backs told me as much. I didn’t see much in the way of West Coast baseball on TV, save a playoff game, or an episode of This Week in Baseball. Being in Pittsburgh, I saw little to no American League ball at all. Interleague play was a pipe dream that today I wish stayed as such. I’d never seen Carew the legend in live action.

            In our neighborhood our legend was Bobby Smith. Not a grand name for a legend, but Bobby was older than Miller by about four years, and me by five. Fifteen. A magical number I couldn’t wait to reach. He dated good looking girls. Bobby Smith smoked cigarettes and had a dip in his bottom lip from time to time. He had a deep voice that put our falsetto shouting, pre-pubescent voices to shame. Bobby sported a thin moustache. That was legend to ten and eleven-year-olds.

Miller talked about Bobby with Rod Carew-like reverence. Bobby this. Bobby that. Bobby was going to come play ball with us…but of course he never did. Just like Rod Carew, I didn’t know much about Bobby Smith other than two things. He was Carolyn Smith’s older brother, and she was my dedicated, unrequited crush. I also knew that Bobby Smith had baseball cards that he no longer cared about; cards that he was willing to sell. Stuff from the 70s.

            Miller and I made an immediate plan to benefit from the Bobby Smith’s puberty-induced fire sale, even though he was in the same financial straits as I was. Miller didn’t come from money either. His parents were older than most parents for kids his age. They did spot work. Bartending. Waitressing gigs. Miller’s wealth, like mine, was based on pocket change and happenstance; his card collection built from wax packs bought with money found under couch cushions. Current cards from the 1980s and little else. But we were going to score this time.

I remember being dumb. I remember coming downstairs with an over-sized Dixie cup full of coins that I’d purloined from my piggy bank. This drew immediate attention from my parents. One didn’t walk around my home with an over-sized wax cup full of change. When I told them what I was using the money for, to get those cards from Bobby Jones, Rod Carew’s mom and dad, I received an immediate no. I wasn’t using that money to buy cards. Books, fine. Save for something nicer, okay. Not old baseball cards. I certainly wasn’t using my money to buy old baseball cards from some fifteen-year-old they hardly knew.

I got sent back to my room with strict orders to put the money back in the bank. But that’s not what I did. I took as many quarters as I could from that Dixie cup. I shoved them in my pants pockets. I shoved them in my jacket. I came back downstairs, careful not to jingle-jangle, and moped my way out the door like I was the upset and defeated, naive child my parents expected me to be. Then I raced to meet Miller, as quickly as my hefty, coin-laded body could. It was off to Bobby’s house.

            Though Miller and I hung around the neighborhood with Carolyn and Alice Smith, I’d never been to their home. The Smith’s had money. They didn’t live in a rented duplex, like my family did. The Smiths had a golden bricked and blond wood paneled, ranch-style home with a big, wide window in front. They had huge cars in their driveway before SUVs were the rage, and all Americans had big, huge cars in their driveways. There was talk they were getting a pool.

The Smiths owned things. Like businesses. The Smiths owned a deli in the strip mall up the street. They owned the famous Frankstown Lounge, where Miller’s dad occasionally bartended, and my old man sometimes had a beer with a friend or two. They had a big screen TV in their living room. A kitchen with something called an island. The Smiths took vacations in the summer. They were rich by our standards. And there me and Miller were with pocket change, doing our best to add to their wealth.

            I have to admit that I wasn’t at the Smith’s lavish digs just for baseball cards. I was there to see if Carolyn was home. What was it about her? She had wide, coal eyes and a crooked smile. Carolyn was tomboyish. She played tackle football with us that fall. I had a crush on her and I wasn’t shy about it. Miller knew. The ten-year-old overweight me was a year or two away from the self-consciousness and self-loathing that would darken my junior high and high school years.      

    Ah, but Carolyn wasn’t around that evening for me to see her in her own element. Skunked by basketball practice up at St. Barts. But her younger sister Alice was home. Alice was nine to my ten. She already had a mean streak. Or a bipolar streak. Mean to me one day, kind the next. I didn’t like her as a result. I was very black and white in how I treated people as a kid. I can still be that way now. Though drawn to Carolyn I did my best to stay away from Alice Smith.

            Bobby Smith’s room was unlike any I’d seen. There was nary a stuffed animal or anything deifying Batman or Superman or Wille Stargell on his walls. He had posters. Posters of bands. Van Halen. Posters of women. Daisy Duke. Christie Brinkley. Paulina Poritzkova’s cover of the 1984 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Bobby Smith had an electric and an acoustic guitar propped up against his wall. His room was cool.

I remember him being casually kind to Miller and me. A little bored and disinterested. It was almost like Bobby had forgotten why he had two children in his room. Then the light when off and he pulled down two shoeboxes from his shelf. Cards! Older cards! 1970s stuff and it would be mine. I wouldn’t trade them all away again like I did the 1974 cards that I’d ripped off from Rick Stanton. Eat your heart out Phineas. Dimitri Danielopoulos, you could keep your brother’s collection of cards. I was going to build my own.

Miller started grabbing at Bobby’s Rod Carew cards. 

The 1976. 


The 1977. 

The 1978. 

All snagged before I’d stopped drooling over the shoeboxes and envisioning my triumph. 

Miller snagged the 1979 Carew too. 


All in Twins uniforms. I’d never seen Rod Carew in a Twins uniform. What was free agency to me, except a way of life in baseball by 1984. An accepted yet tragic reality in a city like Pittsburgh.

The Rod Carew cards were a little beat-up. What did condition matter? Bobby only wanted a buck a piece for them. Miller paid up with four crumpled bills. Then it was my turn. Oh, but what to get? There were Pete Rose cards…in his Red’s unform! Willie Stargell…with a beard? I might’ve had $4 in change on me. I dumped it all on Bobby’s bed. He arched his eyes and laughed. But he’d take the change and I’d take my cards. That was how capitalism worked. Then I’d go home, feeling like the luckiest kid in the world, like I really put one over on my parents.

But that’s not what happened. Guilt is what happened. The thought that maybe I was doing something wrong spending my own money on something I actually wanted. That early evening in the Smith home became a grounding theme that I carried through my teen years, and still have as an adult. Any pleasurable purchase comes with an echo of melancholy.

I feel like I have to explain myself to someone why I bought a card, a record, or went on a vacation somewhere. My wife looks at me like I’m nuts when I try and justify a simple purchase that neither of us should really be sweating. I don’t blame my parents for the way that I turned out regarding money. And I’ve never tried to correct the way I feel. The guilt is just there. It follows me in stores. It follows me when I make purchases online. I’m the guiltiest man lurking around ComC or SportLots.

I told Bobby Smith that I couldn’t decide what cards I wanted. Maybe we could do this later? Bobby shook his head. Sure, kid, sure. But he wasn’t going to let some ten-year-old with change come back into his cool-ass room and look through his beat-up cards again. My time was right there and then. But the ship had already passed for me and those old cards. I collected my change and Miller and I left. I enviously looked through his Carew cards on the way back to his house.

And then I went home empty-handed.


            Thanks for reading. Happy collecting.

 

            If you want to learn more about Rod Carew you can do so HERE and HERE

 

        And while I'll never be Henry Miller, I have managed to get a few novels and books of poetry published, which you can find HERE. Or if you're cash strapped, DM me on when of the social medias and I'll be happy to send you something.

 

    Next Friday:  Is Christmas....for whatever Christmas is this year. So no Junk Wax Jay. But I will be back on Wednesday, December 30th with my Year in Collecting post.


Have a Happy Holiday. Stay healthy and safe.

 

--JG

 

           

Friday, December 11, 2020

Dispatches from the PC : Here's Another Hit...Barry Bonds

 


He was a sign of hope.

He was a sign of better days ahead. Of great things to come for the hapless Pittsburgh Pirates. A shinning beacon of success. A bit of sunlight poking out of the gray pale of clouds that had been cast over Three Rivers Stadium. The next star. The bold, bright future. He was a light at the end of the tunnel. And us Pirates fans; we needed light

The 1985 season had been the worst in 30 years for the Pittsburgh Pirates. It doesn’t get much worse than a 57-105 record. The team was losing money and hemorrhaging fans. 1985 saw attendance dip down all the way to 735, 900, continuing the freefall that began in 1984. Pirates attendance was the worst in the National League. Not only were things bleak on the field, the Pittsburgh (cocaine) Drug Trails were taking place in 1985, with at least six current and former Pirates players involved.

In ’85, management brought in players like “jogging” George Hendrick and Steve Kemp. Sixto Lezcano and Johnny LeMaster. Mediocre to average players past their prime, brought in to try and steer the sinking ship. They brought back Tim Foli but the 1979 magic was gone. By June, Foli hitting .189 in 19 games, was released.

All those has-beens did was get hurt, or in the case of Hendrick, sulk and bat .230. The only bright spots in 1985 were second baseman Johnny Ray and catcher Tony Pena, an all-star with a .249 batting average. The only young player worth watching was twenty-one-year-old shortstop Sam Khalifa. We’d sunk so low as fans; Sammy’s .231 average was considered a bright spot.

He was going to become the second coming of Clemente…. we hoped.

The last vestiges of the 1979 World Series team were being shipped off or on their last legs as Pirates. A disgruntled John “Candy Man” Candeleria was traded to the California Angels. Bill “Mad Dog” Madlock to the Dodgers. The once-hopeful but now tragic figure of Rod Scurry was sent off to the Yankees to join noted coke sniffer and ex-Pirate Dale Berra. Buccos fans had to suffer seeing Kent Tekulve leave, and end up in a goddamned Phillies uniform. Only Rick Rhoden and Don Robinson remained from the Fam-A-Lee. There was talk of ownership selling the Pirates to a group in Denver. Denver of all places! What did Denver need with a baseball team…especially ours?

He was going to be one of the greatest to ever play in the Steel City.

            By 1986 there were signs of light and progress over at Three Rivers Stadium. We had a new General Manager in Syd Thrift. He’d hired the team a new manager in Jim Leyland. So long Chuck Tanner. The Pirates had managed to turn some of those late-season 1985 trades into getting exciting, young players like R.J. Reynolds and Sid Bream. We still had Johnny Ray and Tony Pena to put our faith in. But by May of 1986, it was obvious that the re-shaped Pirates were still on pace for another 100-game losing season (They would lose 98). Baseball times were dark in Pittsburgh. For goodness sake Willie Stargell, Pops, was down in Atlanta, coaching for the Braves, and dressed like this. 



            WTF, right?

            He was hope and change before Obama ever coined the phrase.

            And on May 30, 1986, twenty-one-year-old, first round draft pick Barry Lamar Bonds made his major league debut for the Pittsburgh Pirates, going 0-5 in a 6-4, 11-inning loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Not an auspicious start for the future home run champ. But over time Barry Bonds would prove to be a dynamic player, a catalyst to help lead the Pirate to three consecutive NL East championships. Along the way he’d prove to be a thorn in the side of coaches, managers, teammates and the local media. A surely superstar in the making. Barry Bonds might’ve been an asshole, but for seven seasons he was our asshole. And he played great baseball.

In in his rookie season, Barry Bonds showed all of the promise that us fans had placed on him. He led NL rookies in HR, RBI, SB and walks. Yet he came in 6th in Rookie of the Year voting. That honor went to St. Louis relief pitcher Todd Worrell. Barry’s first taste of the ol’ Pittsburgh curse. But we knew who the real Rookie of the Year was. Us fans knew. Us kids knew. Barry Bonds was going to be something special. To baseball and to the Pirates. He was going to be a star. And we wanted all of his cards.

            The first Bonds cards we were able to get came in those year-end sets in 1986. 






Topps Traded. Fleer Update. Even Donruss felt compelled to put out a “Rookies” set in 1986. And what a class that was. Aside from Barry Bonds, you had players like Jose Canseco and Wally Joyner having their first cards in base and update sets. Will “the thrill” Clark. Future two-sport legend, Bo Jackson. My favorite Pirates player, Bobby Bonilla, showed up in those sets too. Albeit still in a White Sox uniform.

1986 was the first time in my life that I ever collected every update issue. Same went for my friends. Phineas had them all. Miller had them too. My brother and I had to have separate sets lest there be bloodshed on Penn Oak Manor Drive. Kids at school had them. The rich ones bought two or three of the sets to break up. At card shows we tried to buy singles of some of those rookie cards, but they were too expensive back then. And when I got back into collecting in 2019, I had to at least have the 1986 Topps Traded set in my collection.

            For me the real rookie cards of Barry Bonds and those other stars came in the 1987 issued sets. 1987 was by far my favorite year for card collecting. In my humble opinion, all of the sets looked fantastic and really stood out from other years. You had Topps with their classic wooden borders harkening back to 1962. Yet it was a legendary set in its own right.



1987 Topps was the first wax box of cards that I ever opened with my own money. Getting up at 5 A.M. to sling newspapers and get chased by dogs had finally given me something. That’s not to say that Fleer and Donruss were any slouch. Fleer with those bright blue borders that faded into white, and had just a touch of 3-D imagery. Donruss going the black route with those gold bands of baseballs on the side.




I could never remember a year when all of the sets were at the top of their game. And maybe because I was the ripe old age of thirteen in 1987, and had a farther reach beyond just my neighborhood (on bike, on foot) all of the baseball card sets felt available to me in ways that they weren’t before. Collecting wasn’t just a passing fancy by 1987. I was deep in the trenches and so seemed to be everyone else around me.

My old man took my brother and I (with Phineas and Miller tagging along as well) to more card shows. The old man most likely acquiescing because baseball card shows in the mid to late 1980s, brought out all of the old timers to make money signing cards and other memorabilia. It was hard not to feel like a kid again standing in front of Brooks Robinson or Willie Mays. And going to more shows meant more access to cards from the different companies. I had more 1987 Topps, Fleer and Donruss than I’d ever had of any year before.

            It was not just the cards in 1987. The Pirates got better that year. It was the turn of the century, 100 years of Pittsburgh Pirates baseball, and the young talent was showing up. Sure, we lost Tony Pena, and eventually Johnny Ray, to trades. But we gained Andy Van Slyke and Mike LaValliere. Some guy named Doug Drabek, who only went on to win the 1990 Cy Young Award, came to Pittsburgh via a trade with the Yankees. Bobby Bonilla was just beginning to stretch his All-Star legs in right field and at third base.

The 1987 Pittsburgh Pirates were forming the nucleus of a team that would capture the NL championship for 3 consecutive years. In the mix of it all was Barry Bonds. In his first full season, at the tender age of 22 years old, Barry hit 25 home runs and batted .261. The beginning of a tainted but still hall of fame worthy career.

            If we were enthralled by 1987, the 1988 season at Three Rivers Stadium was even better. The Pirates went 85-75. The team was over .500 for the first time in 4 seasons of previously miserable baseball. Barry Bonds upped his home run total to 24, and upped his average to .283. The only step back that I saw that year was in the baseball cards. After the exuberant designs of 1987, the 1988 sets felt dull and bland to me. Devoid of any real creativity. And the cards were everywhere. I could find baseball card at the drug store, at the grocery store, in chain department stores long before Target and Wal-Mart sold them. The Junk Wax era had fully arrived.





            Only the debut of Score in 1988 brought any juice to the hobby for me.



The Pirates stepped back in1989. It seemed everyone got hurt. We lost first baseman Sid Bream for almost the whole season. Andy Van Slyke and his fantastic glove missed some time in the outfield and at the plate. Barry Bonds took a step back as well. He slumped to19 home runs, and a .244 average. Only my guy, Bobby Bonilla was a bright spot that season. Bobby Bo had 24 home runs and batted .281. He even managed to play in 163 games in a 162-game season. Bobby was an all-star that year. And the cards? Not 1987, though I still love the Topps and Donruss sets to this day. 




And good old Upper Deck had thrown it’s hat into the ring with it’s classic debut set.



            But 1990 was coming. And with it winning came back to Pittsburgh for the first time since 1979. But things got off to a shaky start. It was Barry Bonds vs. the local press in Pittsburgh. The press liked their sports stars affable and quotable, always smiling, and maybe a few skin shades lighter than Barry Bonds. It was Bonds vs. Jim Leyland in Spring Training with an argument whose video made national news. But it all settled down by the time the season started. We were in for a ride.

That record! 95-67!  Twenty-five-year-old Barry Bonds would hit 33 home runs and bat .301. 1990 would be the first all-star appearance of fourteen for Barry Bonds. His first MVP of seven. Barry won a gold glove in 1990. The first of eight gold gloves. He stole fifty-two bases in 1990, the first player to become a member of the 30-30 club. The legend and the future had finally arrived. And it wasn’t juiced back then.

Barry Bonds was a myth to us kids. We emulated him when we played wiffle ball. He was my brother and Miller’s favorite player. Miller had Bonds’ stiff-armed batting stance down pat. He could shake his bat like Barry. He even tried to run like him. Posters hung in our bedrooms with reverence. If there was a God, he was playing left field for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Barry Bonds felt tangible to us too. All players did back then. Miller swore up and down that he saw Barry in a Penn Hills McDonald’s, just sitting there over a coffee and an Egg McMuffin. Miller said Bonds smiled and nodded at him. Barry Bonds in our suburb? It was unbelievable but we wanted to believe it. Barry Bonds smiling and nodding? That wasn’t the Bonds we knew at games. The player whose star shone so bright he wouldn’t come near us ball waving kids to sign a single autograph, before or after a game. But if Miller had seen him. It had to be true.

            I had my own run in with Barry Bonds in either 1990 or 1991, the year slips my memory. Ever the small market team, the Pirates were about promotion, reaching out to the fans. There was an autograph show at Three Rivers Stadium. No tickets, etc. You just showed up and got into lines. Yours truly initially waited for Bobby Bonilla (a story for another time), while Phineas went off to wait forever in his blessed Andy Van Slyke line.

I still had time after getting Bonilla’s autograph to get into another line. Though it was ominously long, I got into the line for Barry Bonds. I waited a good hour and half, as we inched our way toward our cardboard hero. When I reached Barry, he said nothing to me. No McDonald’s smile or nod like he’d supposedly given Miller. I handed Barry a clean, National League issued baseball. He hid the ball underneath the table, and then handed it back to me without a word. The ball wasn’t even signed on the sweet spot. I was disappointed but couldn’t complain. Barry Bonds knew his value as well us collectors did. The ball went into a cube on my dresser. Sadly, I no longer have it. Lost to the years of countless moves to several cities.

The 1992 season was Barry Bonds last in Pittsburgh. Having lost Bobby Bonilla to free agency and the dreaded New York Mets, I took bittersweet joy in casting my lot with Bonds during his Pittsburgh swan song. Barry became my main Pirate to collect.





Some double-vision on that Topps and Fleer, huh?

And Barry didn’t disappoint. 1992 would see Barry Bonds hit 34 home runs while batting. 311. He’d make the all-star team, and win his second MVP award. The Pirates would go 96-66 for their third NL championship, only to lose their third NLCS in the bottom of the ninth inning on a play at the plate involving former Pirate, Sid Bream, on an ill-timed and mis-played ball by none other than Gold Glove winner, Barry Bonds. I’d never cried over a baseball game in my life…until that moment.


It still hurts to this day.

I cried because I knew. The end was coming. It was the end of an era for the Pirates, and one for baseball cards. 1992 was the first year my Topps cards didn’t come with a stick of gum. The first year in a long time that the cards were printed on a different card stock. 1992 was the first time I didn’t feel excited about a release, despite all of the innovations or improvements that the various brands were making. I didn’t even bother buying any of the other brands but Topps. The end was nigh for both Barry Bonds in Pittsburgh, and me in card collecting.

            On December 8th, 1992, Barry Bonds left the Pirates to sign with his hometown San Francisco Giants. Barry had a Pirates card in 1993, but it felt like a slap in the face. 


His departure from Pittsburgh coincided with my departure from collecting. I was nineteen and ending my freshman year of college. Buying CDs, Jack Kerouac novels, skipping classes to bum around coffee shops in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh while playing poet, meant more to me than shelling out money to buy packs of cards, or singles at card shows. I wanted the women in college to take me seriously.

In 1993 I only bought the Topps Pittsburgh Pirates team set. 



It was a hollow purchase full of ghosts. The Pirates teams that I’d loved from 1987-1992 were officially breaking up. Bonilla was gone in 1992. Bonds and Doug Drabek were off to the West Coast and Huston. Andy Van Slyke was thirty-two and his outfield heroics were catching up with him. He only played in 83 games that year, and would never be the same player. The Pirates record dipped to 75-87 in 1993; the beginning of twenty losing seasons from 1993-2012. Tough times had come back to Pittsburgh baseball.

             When I got back into collecting in 2019, it was always with an eye on both building sets from my era and building a PC of players I enjoyed. One of the first on that list was Barry Bonds. Post-Pittsburgh I’d had a tenuous relationship with the career of Barry Bonds. On the surface level I was mad at him for leaving. I shouldn’t have been.

Watching players leave was old hat in Pittsburgh. The last legacy star we had was Willie Stargell. And he’ll probably remain as such. Since then, I’ve watched players from Bonilla, Bonds and Doug Drabek up to Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole leave via trade. And it’s only a matter of time before young stars like Josh Bell are gone in the same manner. The Pirates don’t even wait until a player is a free agent anymore for them to leave Pittsburgh.

But back in 1993, since Barry Bonds wasn’t playing for the Pirates anymore, he went from being our asshole…to just an asshole. I didn’t pay much attention to him other than his stats in the box scores, or to boo him when the Giants came to Pittsburgh. Like everyone else I had my suspicions when Bonds hit 73 home runs in 2001. How could you not? The steroid innuendo was overwhelming by then. And by the time he was poised to break Hank Aaron’s home run record, I downright hated Barry Bonds and actively rooted against him.

Why PC the guy? Time heals all wounds? Or a firm belief that, even if some of those records are tainted with performance enhancing drugs (not illegal at the time by the way), Barry Bonds was one of the best baseball players that I’d even seen play the game. Though we only had him in Pittsburgh for seven seasons, they were seven amazing seasons. Seasons I’ll remember forever as a fan. Plus, as a collector, I wanted those Barry Bonds cards again. And, for me, I couldn’t have that feeling that I wanted getting back into collecting, that twelve-year-old feeling as I call it, without making room for Barry Bonds in my PC and actively collecting his cards.

I even have some of his Giants cards.



You know, I used to believe that the only way Bonds should get into to the Baseball Hall of Fame was if he bought a ticket. Now I feel that the Hall of Fame is lacking without Barry Bonds in it. My feelings are mutual in regards to Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, and Manny Ramirez. Don’t even get me started on Pete Rose. You can’t call yourself a Hall of Fame if you don’t have the best of the best residing in it. For those of you who say, but steroids, I say “greenies” and I say “cocaine.” Players have been trying to get an edge for years. And if you look at Robinson Cano…they still are.

Count me as one guy who’s rooting for Barry Bonds to finally get the nod in 2021.


Thanks for reading. Happy collecting.


 If you want to learn more about Barry Bonds you can do so HERE

 If you want to learn more about the career of Barry Bonds you can do so HERE

If you're a Pirates fan and want to torture yourself, YouTube has the entire bottom of the 9th Inning of the 1992 NLCS available right HERE

YouTube also has the entire game...but....like i said it still hurts. 

Next Friday:  Me and Miller dig up all of our change to go and buy some Rod Carew cards at a local "card shop" and boy are my parents angry.

 --JG