#1 At Goudey

When you were a kid and bought your first pack of baseball cards when they came out for that next season, one of the things that struck you was the #1 card. Who would win the honor of being the first in the deck for this coming season?

Too often it was a struggle getting the #1 card as pack after pack contained journeymen players. Trades were hard to come by unless you had a Cub fan next door. They would trade for a beloved Cubbie. Lucky us. Bye bye,Dee Fondy. Hello Jackie robinson.

Historically, baseball sets belonged to the top players in the game. For instance, in 1940, the Play Ball set had Joe DiMaggio as the #1 card. In 1941, the famed pastel Play Ball set produced Eddie Miller of the Boston Braves as the #1 card. An All-Star in 1940 & 1941, he had a 276 batting average with 79 RBIs for the Bees the previous year. In 1943, the M.P. & Co. put out a set with Hall of Famer, Jimmy Foxx as the #1 card.

After the war, Leaf Candy Company of Chicago came out with a set (marked on the back of some of the cards as printed in 1948 but were produced jun 1949. It is marked as the 1948 Leaf set. It is an iconic set and is the first color printed baseball card set after World War II. The #1 card was Joe DiMaggio. This set had more stars than MGM, including the then recently deceased Babe Ruth as the #2 card. Bowman’s 1948 set had Bob Elliott of the Boston Braves as #1 after a .313 batting average and driving in 113 runs in 1947. In 1949, Vern Bickford gained the #1 position after a great rookie season and became the first pitcher to be so honored after winning 11 games for the National League Champion Boston Braves. In 1950, Mel Parnell, a sensational 25 game winner the year before for the Boston Red Sox, was #1 on the Bowman set. In 1951, Whitey Ford, with his rookie card, was #1 on the Bowman set that year. On the initial Topps 1951 Red Back set, his battery mate, Yogi Berra was the #1 card while on the Blue Back set, Eddie Yost of the Washiongton Senators was on the #1 card. In 1952 Bowman honored Yogi while Andy Pafko was #1 on the famed 1952 Topps series while Jackie Robinson was #1 on the 1953 Topps edition. Over at Bowman, they put out two sets. On the 1953 Black & White set, Cincinnati Redlegs great, Gus Bell, who hit .300 that season was #1 and on the 1953 Color set, Davey Williams, an All-Star second baseman that season was the #1 card. It is one of the most interesting cards ever produced as he is in a fielding position, eyes off the ball in front of him, with an empty Polo Grounds stands behind him. while Phil Rizzuto of the New York Yankees was #1 on the Bowman set, Ted Williams grabbed the #1 card in the 1954 Topps collection. In the 1955 and last of the great Bowman sets, Hoyt Wilhelm, the New York Giants pitcher who had a great 2.11 ERA in 1954 Championship season, held the honor of being the #1 card in the final Bowman baseball set. The 1955 Topps set was led off with Dusty Rhodes, the hero of the 1954 World Series for the Giants. You  get the idea. It was usually one of the stars of the game during the previous season.

But in the ‘modern’ era of baseball, the first hereat set that landed smack in the middle of the Great Depression, was the 1933 Goudey baseball set. Enos Goudey was proclaimed as the ‘Penney Gum King In America’ by none other than William Wrigley, Jr. In 1933, the Goudey Gum Company brought out the very first baseball card set with a stick of gum included in every pack. This set produced one of the greatest baseball cards of all-time,  #106 Napoleon Lajoie. It actually wasn’t in the original set but was a premium that you had to get through the mail after the season. This 240 card set is considered one of the Big Three in the history of baseball cards along with the famed T206 (Honus Wagner card) and the 1952 set (Mickey Mantle’s famed #311).

So who was honored as the #1 card on arguably the #1 set in modern baseball? It as a basketball and baseball star, Benny Bengough of the St. Louis Browns. Benny Bengough? St. Louis Browns? Born in Niagara Falls, NY, Bengough attended Niagara University. In 1923 he joined the New York Yankees and played with them in three World Series before Bill Dickey joined the team. Benny was released in 1930 and joined the Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association (Triple A franchise of the Boston Braves). In 1931, he was bought by the St. Louis Browns and played with them until his last major league game on September 24, 1932. He batted .252 in his Big League career and did not hit a single home run. So why was Benny Bengough of the St. Louis Browns the #1 card on the #1baseball card set in modern baseball?

He was one of Babe Ruth’s best friends on and off the field. One of the best defensive catchers in the game, he had a fielding percentage of .988 for his career 10 points above the average catcher in that era. But it was his friendship with one of the games greets players…the man who brought baseball out of the darkest period in its existence, the Black Sox scandal of 1919.

Benny Bengough. #1 at Goudey, the first of baseball cards in the modern era.

Play Ball!

Kiner Gentler Korner

For some reason, which cannot be fully explained, I have been fascinated by Ralph Kiner as a player in a bygone era of the game. In a time when players in pain took an aspirin, the post-War era of the game had a host of great players who dominated the headlines. Guys like Williams, DiMaggio, Spahn & Sain, Mise, Musial, Klu, Feller, Richie, Trucks and Yogi dominated the headlines in papers all over America. But one guy, from 1947-52, when gasoline cost about twenty cents a gallon, crushed the ball better than al others in the National League.

That was Ralph Kiner.

In 1949, Kiner hit 54 home runs. It was the highest total in the major leagues from 1939 to 1960, and the highest National League total from 1931 to 1997. Think about that. Nobody hit more home runs in the Senior Circuit in a span of 66 years than he did. It made Kiner the first National League player with two fifty-plus home run seasons. Kiner also matched his peak of 127 RBI. To our knowledge, during this time, he was PED free. From 1947 to 1951, Kinder topped 40 home runs and 100 RBI each season. Through 2011, he was one of seven  major leaguers to have had at least four 30-homer, 100-RBI seasons in their first five years, along with Chuck Klein, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Mark Teixeira, Albert Pujols, Ryan Howard and Ryan Braun.

His string of seasons leading the league in home runs reached seven in 1952, when he hit 37. This also was the last of a record six consecutive seasons in which he led Major League Baseball in home runs.

He was an All-Star six straight seasons, 1948-1953.

He holds the major league record of eight home runs in four consecutive multi-homer games, a mark that he set in September 1947.

For all of this show of strength, he is famous for one of the great sayings in baseball: “Home run hitters drive Cadillacs and singles hitters drive Fords.”

For those who enjoy video, you can see Kiner hitting a homer in Forbes Field in the 1951 film, “Angels in the Outfield”.

When you got a Ralph Kiner card in your pack of Bowman’s, you had something special. But it wasn’t just the man himself, it was also for the beauty of the card. Take a look at the 1953 Bowman (color) card and you will see one of the most pristine poses of the ‘Golden Era’ of the game.

He was the face of the Pirates. He was the man among men. A WWII Naval aviator, he had full confidence of his position in life. He produced at every turn, Then the world changed.  On June 4, 1953, after all of these accomplishments, Kiner was sent to the Chicago Cubs as part of a ten-player trade. This was due to his continued salary dispute with the Pirate general manager at that time, “the Mahatma.”, Branch Rickey. Here was a legend in the game who had not only broken the color barrier; created the farm system that we know today for the St. Louis Cardinals; but also brought the batting helmet into existence. A shrewd lawyer and experienced baseball man, he reportedly told Kiner, “We finished last with you, we can finish last without you.”

What many forget, Ralph Kiner’s power was fan drawing. In 1947, the Pirates drew over 1 million fans for the first time in their history, a 70% increase in attendance in  one year. He WAS the reason for this popularity in Pirates baseball. For a few short years, Ralph Kiner was the greatest slugger in all of baseball. For 6 straight seasons he was baseball’s greatest light. This Hall of Famer, often forgotten, is what baseball could use today.

This is a great season of hope for the Pirates. Lets hope they remember the man who brought the first million fans to their ballpark so many years ago. It would be a Kiner Gentler Korner on the river in Pittsburgh this season.

Play Ball!