Yogi. Icon.

682021953-Bowman-Yogi-Berra
“You should always go to other people’s funerals, otherwise, they won’t come to yours.” – Yogi Berra

When you were a kid and you opened that Topps or Bowman pack of baseball cards, and you pulled a Yogi Berra card out, you were batting 1.000. He WAS the catcher of his day. After all, he was THE catcher of the mighty New York Yankees.

Nobody used his card for spokes.

Nobody traded away his card.

Besides Mickey’s card, this was the one to savor.

After all, every kid loved him. He spoke like no one before or since. And somehow, you understood him.

He was one of us…kids from the Midwest or the Northeast or the South or the West. Yogi was us.

He may have passed, but we will never forget him.

We will come to yours, Yogi, just so you can come to ours.

Play Ball!

#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!

The Chase For #1

We are in that lull in time that happens each year when the sun is low in the Southern horizon, casting long shadows at midday toward the North. It’s a clean light, a sharp light that bodes hope of the chase which is about to begin. It is the chase for the #1, that first card in the newest Topps baseball card set for the coming year. Who will it be? Arguments are bound to develop.

To be sure, everyone has a favorite #1. The little appreciated #1 on the ’51 Topps Red set was Yogi Berra. On the more valuable ’51 Topps Blue set, Eddie Yost was #1. While many would argue that the ’51 Topps edition was not a card set but rather a game, most consider the ’51 Topps Red & Blue sets as the first Topps baseball card sets. The world-famous ’52 Topps set had one of the most valuable cards leading off that year’s collection. The Andy Pafko card today is of considerable value. As Topps was based in the East, New York teams usually got the #1 card. Pafko was then with the Dodgers.  The next year, 1953, another Dodger was #1, Jackie Robinson.

In 1954, Ted Williams was not only the #1 card but also #250, the last card in the deck. Little doubt that ‘The Kid’ was the star hero returning from the Korean War.

However, one of my favorite #1s was the first card in the 1955 Topps card set, one James Lamar Rhodes. It was one of the under appreciated baseball card sets ever produced. It was also one of the most classic baseball card sets ever produced. It was the first horizontal card sets with a head shot of the player, along with the nickname first name on the card and an action art drawing along with the players signature and the team’s logo. For the record, “Dusty” Rhodes played for the New York Giants and was one of the many heroes of the ’54 Giants’ World Series victory over the Cleveland Indians.

The 1955 Tops set was spectacular in many ways. It was the smallest set Topps ever produced in the standard size issues. It contained 206  cards but was numbered to 210. It is believed that four cards were pulled at the last moment to avoid legal issues. One of the biggest names of the day that was missing was that of Stan Musial, who had signed with the rival Bowman card and gum company.

But the #1 card was always the most chased. On the back of the card were all the stats that could propel you through the cold days of winter, allowing you to wait for that first wisp of spring that would occur when the first familiar voice of the your favorite team’s play-by-play announcer broadcast that first spring training game in the warm climes of Florida. Now you could know as much as that announcer. You had all the facts at your finger tips. It was right there…on the back of the card. Height: 6′. Weight: 180. Bats: Left. Throws: Right. Home: Deatsville, Ala. Born: May 13, 1927. He had been in 82 games the previous year, was at bat 184 times. He scored 31 runs and had 56 hits, with 7 doubles, 3 triples and 15 home runs while driving in 50 RBI. He hit .341.

This was the bible of baseball, the stats of life. And every kid could own this amazing encyclopedia of information by merely putting down a penny and having that light green, red and white wrapper in your hands with the words “Topps, Bubble Gum, 1 cent and Baseball across the front. “Buy Bazooka the Chew of Champions” emblazoned across the side of the pack assured you that you were now in the hunt and the dream of a great season floated in your head while a smile came across your face. Could this pack have the  #1 in it?

Play Ball!

The Pasteboard Era of Legendary Charlie Silvera

It was a nice day. Sun was shining. Temperature wasn’t too bad. I was examining the yard when a neighbor asked if I would come over to their house in a day or two to look at some baseball cards he and his wife had collected. The neighbor was wondering what to do with them and how to sell them. As one who has collected the ‘poor man’s stock market’ material for years, I said I would. The day came and I dropped over.

When I sat down and began taking them out of their containers, the anxious rush of childhood enveloped me once again, full of anticipation that the next card would be that of the ‘big one’, Mickey himself. Naturally I want through the 1952 Topps first. And there it was.

The one card that nobody ever wanted to see in their pack, the pack that cost them a nickel which was everything in the world at that time, was that of one Charles Anthony Ryan Silvera, better know as Charlie Silvera. On this card was a brilliant yellow background behind the portrait of the back up catcher for Yogi Berra of the famed New York Yankees. For much of that summer of my youth, to avoid the Silvera card was the task. Every pack that was bought would be carefully peeled away at the back, slowly removing the folded wax paper wrapper to make sure we did not tear the wrapper, damage any of the cards and get the flat wide stick of sugary bubble gum and make sure it didn’t leave a stain on the card.

Then we would look at the first card.

Invariably it would be someone whom few had ever heard about except for his family and friends. This is where Charlie Silvera usually came into our lives. During the course of a year you could end up with five, six or seven Charlie Silvera’s which had absolutely no value in ‘kiddom’. You could only hope that there was a newbie who would move into the neighborhood and not know a thing about the value of these pasteboard wonders. Or, you hoped that a kid would come along and want to trade a card, any card, for a Silvera which he would usually put in the spokes of his bike, secured by a clothes pin to the front bike fork, and create a loud mechanical sound that represented a mad drummer banging at a  faster and faster rhythm against a metal drum the faster the kid peddled his bike.

Silvera was omnipresent. Two kids could go to the corner store and buy two packs of Topps. When they came out and unwrapped their packs, you had a very good chance of each pulling the dreaded Silvera yellow background card from their packs. Ugh……..

Silvera killed us that summer. Topps must have printed 10 Silvera’s for every star player card.

But it wasn’t the first summer he had done that. The 1950 Bowman packs contained the first sighting of Charlie Silvera. Card #96 was his true rookie card. In the 1951 Bowman set, he was missing. But the 1952 Bowman set contained a horizontal beauty. On #197, there he was in a throwing position, ball in his right hand cocked and ready to throw while his big pillow glove on his left hand sighted the way. With his cap on backwards and a stern, square-jawed portrait, it is one of the better looking cards of that era. But, it was a Charlie Silvera card and not that of Mickey, or Yogi or Whitey or ‘The Scooter’, ‘Willie’ or ‘Duke’.

That same year he made his way into one of the two greatest baseball card sets of all time…the 1952 Topps. (Along with the ’52 Topps, the 1957 Topps is one of the most popular Topps sets ever produced.) In fact, he was in every early Topps set from 1952 (#168), 1953 (#242), 1954 (#96), 1955 (188) to 1957 (#255) with the exception of the 1956 set.

Charlie Silvera played for part of 10 season in the Major Leagues hitting .282. However, he only played in 227 games. But he has two things he can tell his grandchildren: he hit one home run. And, although he was on six World Series teams, he only played in the 1949 classic and faced Preacher Roe of the Brooklyn Dodgers twice without a hit. But, he played in the Classic.

So there I was, once again flipping through memories of youthful dreams past, spouting off various statistics to my neighbors about the cards that I knew so well as I was flipping them over and WHAM!

There it was again, Charlie Silvera’s 1957 card, his last. Will this dreaded curse of Silvera never end?

It was a different place in a different time. Here’s to you, Charlie. Hope today in San Francisco you experience nothing but pleasure. I can only say that now. When I came across your image in those glorious days on the front steps of Lincoln Avenue unwrapping that treasured pack of baseball cards with Snookie, my next door baseball friend, seeing you was a dreaded reminder that we were all another pack away from collecting a quiniela of Silvera cards.

Play Ball!