Happy Birthday To The Great Satchel Paige

Baseball legend Satchel Paige was born on this day in 1906. Forty-five years ago this month, Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn announced that former Negro League players will have a separate wing in the Hall of Fame. Not surprisingly, Kuhn’s separate, but equal Hall of Fame policy did not set well with the American public, particularly baseball players from the pre-segregation era.

Paige and Ted Williams were among the most vocal former players. Paige was famously quoted: “I was just as good as the white boys. I ain’t going in the back door of the Hall of Fame.”

Williams, in his 1966 HOF acceptance speech, urged Major League Baseball and the Hall to open the doors to Negro League stars, referencing Paige, Willie Mays and Josh Gibson among others.

On July 6, 1971 — five months after Kuhn’s backward-thinking-policy was announced — MLB and the HOF succumbed to public pressure and opened the doors to Paige with full HOF membership, which cleared the way other Negro League stars in the years to follow.

Paige’s 2004 Leaf Certified Materials Game Used Jersey cards are some of the most overlooked memorabilia cards ever produced.  He spent 22 seasons dominating the Negro Leagues and six years in the majors before being enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 1971. There were several versions of Paige’s first memorabilia cards issued in Leaf Certified’s “Mirror Materials” parallel set and the tiered “Fabric of the Game” insert set — all limited to a production run of 100 and selling for over $100.

Paige threw a remarkable 55 no-hitters during his Negro League career, becoming the league’s most popular and recognizable player, not to mention its largest gate attraction. He joined the major leagues in 1948, helping the Cleveland Indians win the World Series as a “rookie.”

In 1965, at the age of 59, nearly 12 years since he last pitched in the majors, Paige pitched one game for the Kansas City A’s, pitching three shutout innings. Three years later, he was a coach for the Atlanta Braves, where he wore the jersey Donruss officials used to incorporate into 2004 Leaf Certified Materials.

Known for longevity and age as a major leaguer, Paige was a Negro League legend in his younger days. At a time when African-Americans were barred from the majors, Paige drew huge crowds of black and white baseball fans. He led the Pittsburgh Crawfords to top billing in the Negro Leagues as a fireballer in the early ’30s and did the same for the Kansas City Monarchs in the early ’40s as finesse pitcher.

Barred from the majors, Paige was often tempted to jump from team to team to earn a decent wage. In 1937, he joined a large group of Negro Leaguers traveling to the Dominican Republic to play for a team owned by Dominican president Rafael L. Trujillo. The following season, Paige hurt his arm pitching in the Mexican League, but quickly transformed from a “thrower“ to a “pitcher.” He returned to the states using guile and control in leading the Monarchs to four consecutive pennants before entering the majors.

The first of just a few Paige baseball cards was issued by Topps in 1953 (#220). A headshot captured the 47-year-old reliever in his St. Louis Browns uniform. Unfortunately, the Topps spelling of “Satchell” was incorrect and never corrected. The card was issued following a 12-10 season with a 3.07 ERA. Paige’s ’53 Topps card is selling for $350 online in decent condition.

Hank Aaron: The Real Home Run King

On April 8, 1974, Hank Aaron smacked an Al Downing fastball over the leap of Dodgers left fielder Bill Buckner for his 715th home run at Atlanta Stadium, breaking the record held by Babe Ruth for over 50 years. The night of April 8, 1974 still hails as one of the most iconic moments in baseball history. The celebration of Aaron’s accomplishment combined with new-found appreciation for home run hitters from a previous, untainted era has increased interest in Aaron baseball cards.

The 1954 Topps Aaron rookie pictures a raw teenager on the verge of greatness. The card design sports two pictures, a large headshot and a small in-action shot in the lower left-hand corner. Hard to find in mint condition due to wear, dullness, blurry lettering and off-centered photos, near-mint PSA-7 versions sell in the $2,400 range.

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The slender 180-lb. outfielder would go on to hit an unblemished 755 home runs over his 23-year career. A right-handed hitter with remarkably powerful wrists and a smoothly crafted swing, Aaron was recognized for home runs, but his legacy included 3,771 hits (third all-time), 2,174 runs (tied for second), 2,297 RBI (first), and a career .305 average. Aaron also displayed outstanding speed and one of the better right-field arms of his time.

Topps, a chewing gum producer new to the trading card business, made a wide array of printing and production gaffes while Aaron was emerging as the game’s top slugger. After just a few years of producing baseball cards, Topps had yet to establish much of a photo library, so pictures were often recycled during the ’50s. The same Aaron head shot was used from 1954-1956.

The 1956 card (#31) also includes an action shot in the lower right-hand corner picturing Willie Mays sliding into home plate wearing a Braves uniform. A Topps artist painted the uniform. The actual photo of Mays appeared in a baseball card publication a year earlier. Near-Mint PSA versions of this hard-to-find relic accidentally picturing two of baseball’s greatest players sells in excess of $2,700.

Topps made an even bigger blunder on Aaron’s card the following year. The production staff accidentally reversed the negative on the 1957 card (#20), which displays baseball’s most prolific right-handed hitter batting left-handed. The card that has no-doubt triggered decades of bar room arguments sells for $100 in excellent condition.

The 1958 Topps “Baseball Thrills” card, picturing Aaron’s classic home run swing, celebrates Aaron’s Game 4 homer that helped propel the Braves over the Yankees to win the 1957 World Series. This Topps set is notorious for being mis-cut and off center. The rare gem is worth up to $125.

The ultra conservative Topps Co. rolled the dice in 1974 by printing “New All-Time Home Run King” on Aaron’s 1974 Topps card (#1) despite Aaron entering the ’74 season one home run shy of tying Ruth’s career mark. Fortunately for Topps, Aaron kept the suspense to a minimum, hitting a homerun on Opening Day. The ’74 Topps card became officially accurate a few days later when Aaron broke the record on a nationally televised Monday Night Baseball game with a homer against the Dodgers.

Aaron has gained popularity with today’s collectors, as baseball card manufacturers continue to combine baseball history with modern day memorabilia cards. His 2014 Topps Tribute “Game-Used Bat” card is a great find for $40.

Book Review: Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty

Whether you fancy yourself a baseball historian or a baseball fan with at least a remote interest in the game’s glorious history, Charles Leerhsen’s Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty is an absolute must read.

Leerhsen’s wide-ranging reporting and storytelling skills are on full display as he debunks the myths and sheds light on the complicated but brilliant career of Ty Cobb. Most of what we knew about Cobb was written in 1961 by biographer Al Stump, a man who seemed to have a personal grudge against the highly toxic Cobb. Looking for a quick profit and instant fame, Stump did not allow the truth to interfere with a sensational story. Many of Cobb’s digressions — and there were many — were greatly exaggerated to make for a better read.

Leerhsen looked deeper into the myths and embellished stories surrounding Cobb. His account of the Georgia Peach is based on information derived from tireless research and interviews. What he found was a flawed, complicated man with unfathomable determination who happened to be one of the greatest baseball players to ever live.

What Leerhsen does best is put Cobb’s life story in perspective with baseball and American life during the rough and tumble times of the early 1900s. Cobb was a smart, young upstart athlete from the south, a fierce competitor who rubbed many the wrong way. He found rookie hazing unacceptable, which did not sit well with veteran teammates. His aggressive, hard-nosed approach to the game threatened teammates who feared losing their jobs and opponents who were being tested in new ways.

During a time when disputes were often settled with fists both on and off the playing field, Cobb had his share of fisticuffs with teammates, opponents, umpires, groundskeepers, hotel staff and even fans — or “cranks” as they were called back in the day. Leerhsen explains how some of these stories were true, others greatly exaggerated, and some completely false. He sheds light on how Cobb struggled with being the first celebrity athlete; the most famous athlete beyond his hometown; the athlete the President wanted to meet.

We may never know all the facts surrounding Cobb’s life, but Leerhsen’s meticulously researched account gives baseball fans much to think about regarding the first player elected to the Hall of Fame and how he helped to shape baseball’s “Deadball Era.”

Baseball’s Unbreakable Records: Cy Young’s 511 Career Wins

As we Celebrate Denton True “Cy” Young’s birthday, here is Part 3 of “Baseball’s Most Unbreakable Records”.

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1973 Topps celebrates Cy Young’s MLB record 511 career wins.

There is a reason why we celebrate baseball’s greatest pitchers with the Cy Young Award. The name Cy Young is synonymous with greatness. Born on this day in 1867, the former Red Sox great was the ultimate workhorse, holding MLB records for wins, games started, innings pitched, losses and batters faced.

His 511 career wins may be baseball’s most untouchable record. Young’s contemporary, Walter Johnson, is a distant second with 417 career wins. With five-man rotations and specialized bullpens the norm these days, the modern pitcher has little chance of surpassing 300 wins. The name Cy Young is looking more and more like a permanent fixture atop the pitcher’s section of the baseball record book.

The 1973 Topps set celebrates Cy Young with the 1973 Topps “All-time Victory Leader” card. Sporting a vintage photo from Young’s playing days, this unique card is a great addition to any baseball card collection for under $5.

The Great Tris Speaker: Baseball’s Unbreakable Records (Almost)

The second part of a semi-regular series on “Baseball’s Most Unbreakable Records”.

Sometimes baseball’s most unbreakable records need to be framed in the proper context.  Sometimes luck or fate has more affect on the baseball record book than we realize.

Tris Speaker never actually came close to Joe DiMaggio’s “unbreakable” 56-game hitting streak established decades after Speaker’s Hall of Fame career. But the Red TrisSox Hall of Fame outfielder from the deadball era did something nearly as remarkable — some might say even more remarkable.

In 1912, Speaker had hitting streaks of 20 games or more three different times — “a feat not even the great DiMaggio could ever duplicate”, wrote Timothy Gray, author of the fascinating and meticulously researched book Tris Speaker: A Rough and Tumble Life of a Baseball Legend. Gay cited research done by dead-ball era historian Dan Holmes, who maintains Speaker came within an “eyelash or two” of a 70-game (or more) hitting streak. From May 27 – August 14, Speaker played in 78 games and collected a hit in all but four of them.  A scratch hit here, a wind-blown double there and we may be looking at the baseball record book from a different perspective.

1912 was a great season for Speaker and the Red Sox. Celebrating the opening of Fenway Park, Speaker earned the American League MVP award and led the Red Sox to a World Series title over the Christy Mathewson and the New York Giants. Speaker, an exceptional contact hitter who could drive the ball to the gaps, flirted with .400 for much of the season before finishing with .383 batting average. He led the league in doubles with 53 and home runs with 10.

Running neck and neck with Ty Cobb as the greatest fielder of the time period, the man they called “Spoke” established a record for outfield assist that season with 35 — an amazing accomplishment that has never been equalled. Speaker, renowned for playing a shallow centerfield — and by shallow, historians say he positioned himself just behind second base — also led the league “by engineering nine catch-and-throw double plays” that season, according to Gay’s book.

Joe DiMaggio’s Unbreakable Hitting Streak

The first of a semi-regular series on “Baseball’s Most Unbreakable Records”.

During the summer of 1941, Joe DiMaggio established the measuring stick for hitting streaks when he achieved the most treasured – and, arguably, unreachable – record in baseball history. The same year that Ted Williams hit .406 for the Red Sox, DiMaggio compiled a 56-game hitting streak for the Yankees, shattering Wee Willie Keeler’s record of 44 games in 1897.

From May 15 – July 17, DiMaggio batted .408, blasted 15 homers and drove in 55 runs. On July 19, the day after Indians pitchers Al Smith and Jim Bagby Jr. held DiMaggio hitless, the Yankee Clipper started a 16-game hitting streak. All told, DiMaggio hit safely in an unfathomable 72 of 73 games.

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Joe DiMaggio’s extremely rare 1937 V300 O-Pee-Chee baseball card.

How remarkable was DiMaggio’s hitting prowess? In the past 70 years, only three players – Pete Rose (44 games), Paul Molitor (39) and Jimmy Rollins (38) – have come within 20 games of DiMaggio’s seemingly untouchable record. There isn’t an active player in baseball whose two longest streaks, over an entire career, add up to 56 games

DiMaggio’s reputation and hitting exploits were established well before the magical 1941 season. In 1933, the 19-year-old DiMaggio, in his first season with the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific League, established the minor league record with a 61-game hitting streak, shattering the previous mark of 49 set by Jack Ness in 1914.

Like his hitting streaks, DiMaggio’s baseball cards are in a class of their own. One of the rarest and most coveted  DiMaggio cards is the 1937 V300 O-Pee-Chee, the key card from an extremely limited Canadian set distributed only in Canada. With our neighbors north of the border focused on hockey, few collectors or sports fans bothered to preserve the DiMaggio card and other cards from the series. The black and white photo card is one of a few featuring DiMaggio’s early seasons with the Yankees.

High-graded cards from this set are extremely difficult to find. Only three examples have been graded EX-MT 6 by PSA, the last one selling for over $5,200. PSA NM-MT 8 versions have sold for as much as $15,000. The O-Pee-Chee card is designed with a die-cut background that can be punched out and folded back, allowing each card to stand up. Because of this unique design, most V300 cards are found in poor condition, often with the die-cut backgrounds entirely missing.

Printed in both English and French, the card back – boasting sharp, bold legible text – informs baseball fans that DiMaggio “will make up for some of the color lost when Babe Ruth retired.”