Sunday, March 24, 2019

They Might Be The New York Giants 1956 Topps Team Set

One of the fun things about a completed set is deciding how you want to organize it. I have the 1956 Topps set in a binder, sorted by team, in the same order that the teams finished in the 1955 Standings. In 1955, the New York Giants finished in 3rd place in the National League with an 80-74 record.

1951 had the "Shot Heard Round the World," 1954 had "The Catch," but all 1955 had was a 3rd place finish and a season ending Triple Play turned against them by the Phillies. The Polo Grounds were literally falling apart, and the team owner Horace Stoneman was looking West to potentially expand Major League Baseball's reach. With a franchise moving from Boston to Milwaukee, Minneapolis seemed like a possible landing spot. The Giants still controlled the minor league Minneapolis Millers, and the region had started plans to build a new major league ready stadium in the suburbs to the south west of the Twin Cities near the new airport. The team's future in Manhattan was now very much in doubt, and if not for a few key players, the Polo Grounds would be a very depressing place to be. 

It should be no surprise that the Giants' best hitter in 1955 was Willie Mays. He was now back from military service for a full year, and at age 24 Mays was just hitting his stride. Mays was the National League's leader in triples and home runs in 1955. That's remarkable. With the exception of Stan Musial in 1948, triples hitters are not power hitters-- to lead in both categories in the same season in almost unheard of. He also led the NL in Slugging , OPS, and total bases. He finished 4th in the MVP vote, behind Ernie Banks and a pair of Dodgers.

Mays was the MVP in 1954, as the Giants were World Series bound, and somehow Mays only won that award twice in his career. Starting in 1956, Mays led the NL in steals 4 straight seasons. He was very nearly the first 40/40 man, hitting 36 homers in '56 with 40 steals, then 36/38 the next year. The milestone would of course not be reached until 1988 when Jose Canseco did it. Mays finished his career with 660 homers, which was 3rd best in MLB history at the time, and is one of the first players mentioned whenever the discussion of greatest player of all time comes up. He was a 24 time All-Star, won 12 Gold Gloves, hitting for average and power, with great speed and defense.

The Giants' pitching in 1955 was suspect, but their best pitcher was southpaw starter, Johnny Antonelli. He won 14 games with a pair of shut outs, and a 3.33 ERA. Antonelli struck out 143 batters in 235 innings.

Like much of the Giants team, 1954 had much better results for Antonelli. He won 21 games and led the NL with a 2.30 ERA. He followed the 1955 season with another 20 win season. Over his career, he was a 6 time All-Star, and in the 1954 World Series had a great start and saved a second game.

The other Hall of Famer on the squad was knuckball reliever Hoyt Wilhelm. He led the Giants with 59 appearances tossing 103 innings and finishing 14 games in 1955. He was just a shade better than league average, sporting a 104 ERA+.

So, this card could probably use an upgrade, there was some tape used on the back at some point in the past. Wilhelm is best known for his Knuckleball and the longevity of his career - but did you know he is one of the rare MLB players to have hit a home run in their first career at bat? The 8 time All-Star pitched for 21 seasons, and he won a pair of ERA titles.

The only other Giant with an OPS+ above 100 was Hank Thompson, who hit just .245 with 17 homers. Don Mueller managed to drive in 83 runs despite only hitting 8 homers,  I suspect it was thanks in no small part to hitting after Willie Mays in the lineup, as Mays scored 123 runs in 1955. Wayne Terwilliger is a personal favorite of mine, he coached for the MN Twins and later the Saint Paul Saints well into his 90s.

Marv Grissom, the Giants' closer, actually had a very good season out of the bullpen. He saved 8 games, pitching 89 innings with an ERA under 3. Jim Hearn had an identical 14-16 record to Johnny Antonelli, but got there with fewer strikeouts and more walks...

1954 World Series Hero "Dusty" Rhodes was still on the Giants, providing timely pinch hitting and occasional relief in the outfield. Bobby Hofman added 10 homers as a part time infielder. Foster Castleman and Daryl Spencer would be regulars in 1956, which might explain how the Giants dropped to 6th Place in the National League in 1956. 

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Bernice Gera, Umpire

Bernice Gera worked as a secretary in the 1960s, but she loved baseball and wanted to find some way to contribute to the game she loved. She was an accomplished outfielder in her youth, and had even faced Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller in an exhibition game and tallied 3 hits off of him. In her Jackson Heights, NY neighborhood, she would teach the neighborhood kids how to play, often serving as the umpire. She knew that there were not many women coaching baseball, but believed firmly that her gender was a strength rather than a weakness, providing a measured and calming presence for the kids when the game could otherwise become unruly. In 1967, she was struck by the idea that she should try to become an umpire and enrolled in a umpire academy.

Despite the lack of facilities for women at the academy, Gera took up residence in a nearby hotel that she would have to use as living quarters and locker room. She completed the course without incident, and began sending out her resume trying to find an umpiring job. She focused in on the NYPENN League, due to the proximity to her family. She was signed to a contract for the 1969 season, but it was voided shortly thereafter by the NAPBL (what would later be known as the Minor Leagues) President, citing that there was a minimum size requirement for umpires (5'10", and 180 pounds). The 5'2" Gera jokingly offered to put on the weight, but the Minor League president wasn't laughing. Gera took her case to court, citing discrimination based on gender. In the meantime, Gera did get the opportunity to hone her skills at the Bridgeton Invitational Baseball Tournament. Bridgeton was at the time a new Tournament, founded in 1967 (and still going today).  She would serve as an umpire there for 3 years.

In 1972, the long court battle was over and Gera had won the right to work for the NYPENN League. The victory would be short-lived however- she faced a hostile work environment, as the other umpires did not want to work with her, to say nothing of the environment of working as an umpire in general. In her first and only game, she was stationed at 2nd base when there was a close call on possible double play. She initially made a safe call as the Auburn Twins' runner was retreating to the bag, there was no tag applied. The runner should have been out, however, because the shortstop had caught the line drive before it hit the dirt, throwing to second for a force out. She reversed her call, and the Auburn manager came out to berate the rookie umpire. Varying accounts of what was said have been reported, but all agree that Gera admitted her mistake and the manager retorted that it was her second one-- the first being trying to become an umpire in the first place. The manager was ejected, but Gera was sick of it. She had been scheduled to be the home plate umpire in the next game, but instead she decided to retire, citing not the interaction with the manager, but the interaction with her fellow umpires. The crew chief and the rest of the umpires would not speak to her, and as the crowd and players from both teams taunted and tried to bait her into an outburst, the other umpires did nothing. She had made her point, and chose not to continue to absorb the abuse. She would go on to a job working for the New York Mets as a community relations and promotions specialist.

When the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum opened its Women in Baseball wing in 1992, Gera's umpire mask and broom were included in the exhibit.

Further Reading -

Bernice Gera's Wikipedia Page

GlobalSport Matters article by Kathy Kudravi on Female Umpires

NY Times Obit

1989 Article on Gera

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Number One With A (Silver) Bullet

"Those who walk on the well-trodden path always throw stones at those who are showing a new road."
-- Voltaire

Julie Croteau didn't ask to be at the center of controversy, but she wasn't going shrink from a fight, either. In 1988, Croteau was one of the last cuts from her High School's (all male) baseball team. Julie had tried out for the school's JV team as a Sophomore, making the team in a testament to her perseverance. The coach had suggested she try softball instead, but she would not be persuaded. She had been playing baseball since Little League at the age of 6. As a member of the JV team, Croteau was stuck on the bench for the season. Her Junior year, the JV team did not have a roster spot for her. So when she tried out for the Varsity team as a Senior, there was some amount of ammunition for the coach to say she wasn't ready to play on the varsity team. Despite the fact that Croteau had ample experience outside of the school team, and that the team itself had a terrible record and could have used more quality players, Croteau was not given a chance to prove it against live competition.  Croteau's parents, both experienced lawyers, sued the school for discrimination, citing the landmark Title IX decision. Her would be teammates testified against her, as did her coach, and the judge ruled against her, adding there is no constitutional right to get to first base, a particularly distasteful turn of phrase.

One of the reporters covering the trial was also a coach for the semi-pro Fredericksburg Giants. The team is similar to the Cape Cod League, with pre-college and/or pre-minor league players competing for the attention of College and Pro scouts. While playing for the team, she was admitted to St. Mary's College of Maryland. She was assured that she would be judged on the merits of her playing ability only, and if she made the team, she would be allowed to play. St. Mary's Baseball team is a Division III NCAA program. She made the team, as the backup First Basewoman. Julie's first game was the first by any women to play for a Division III Men's baseball Team. In her first season for St. Mary's, she hit .222.

The Colorado Silver Bullets were an all-female franchise that played exhibition games throughout the United States for four seasons. Croteau played in the inaugural season for the team, then played in the MLB sanctioned Hawaiian Winter League for the Maui Stingrays, going 1-12. She continued playing for the Fredericksburg Giants and also started coaching for college teams. In 1995,  she became the first woman to coach for Division I NCAA Baseball Program, at the University of Massachusetts - Amherst. She also led the U.S. Women's National team to Gold Medal in 2006, after serving as the team's 3rd Base coach in a 2004 Gold Medal run.

She currently works at Stanford University as the Director of Communications in the Health Improvement Program of the Medical School.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

1991 Topps Traded Set

The 1991 Topps Set raised the bar for a company that had in some ways coasted through the 80s. For the brand's "40th" Anniversary, Topps went above and beyond to improve the photo quality, not just in terms of printing the cards, but in photo selection. Roberto Alomar's first Blue Jays card is a great example.

Alomar was one of six Hall of Fame players in the set. Jack Morris returned to the Twin Cities for just one unforgettable season, placing his name into the pantheon of great post-season performers on the back of a 10 inning shutout in game 7 of the World Series. Gary Carter stayed in California after a season in San Fran, now sporting Dodger Blue. Former Expos teammate Tim Raines was on the move as well, switching from the NL to the AL and joining a dangerous White Sox team on the Southside. Two Rookie Hall of Famers as well -- Jeff Bagwell coming off the trade from Boston to get his career started for the Astros. Catching phenom Ivan Rodriguez was on his way to greatness deep in the heart of Texas.

Speaking of Rookies, and speaking of the Houston Astros, the set had a hearty dose of both. Dback World Series Hero Luis Gonzalez was on his first Topps card, and Team U.S.A. was once again featured. Jason Giambi is the "bigger name" of these two Olympians, but Charles Johnson's card is interesting in light of his relationship with baseball cards over the years. Johnson's next Topps Card would be in the 1999 Topps Set, even though he was a member of the 1995 Topps Rookie All-Star squad, and was a member of the 1997 World Champion Marlins. That 1997 Season was awesome, Johnson caught 123 games and had 0 errors committed. He's one of just three catchers in MLB history to catch 100+ games in a season without an error.

Just like the 1987 Set, the 1991 Topps Traded set was a big one for the Minnesota Twins. Jack Morris was joined by the new kid, Chuck Knoblauch, who would be the 1991 AL Rookie of the Year. Mike Pagliarulo and Scott Leius platooned at Third Base to fill the void left by losing Gary Gaetti. The middle of the lineup was bolstered by free agent signing Chili Davis and added some depth to the bullpen with righty reliever Steve Bedrosian. Once again, the big Topps Traded checklist was a portent of post-season success.

Topps gave horizontal cards a fair shake again in earnest starting in 1991, though they would still be a long way away from a horizontal set.

My favorites from the set that I haven't mentioned already.... A lot of photography in the on deck circle and during batting practice in this set.

I didn't catch any terrible photoshop / airbrush jobs in this set - Topps really made an effort to get guys a card in their new uniform, as disorienting as it may be to see Dewey Evans wearing .... Orange? Cory Snyder as a Blue Jay? Gibson and Randolph at least had a full season or so with their new team, but it still just looks wrong!

This is the last set in the Series - If I get a good deal on it, I'll share the 1992 Traded set some time soon. Who was your favorite traded set regular? Dave Parker? Rick Cerone? Someone else?

Monday, March 18, 2019

1993 Topps All-Star Rookie Team - Outfielder Wayne Kirby

I see you, Jeff Reboulet.

Topps All-Star Rookies seem to fit into three categories - future stars, one year wonders, and guys that toiled for years in the minors before finally breaking through. Wayne Kirby falls squarely into that last group.

Look at all that experience!

Wayne Kirby was a Dodger prospect for several years, being drafted in the winter of 1983 out of high school. Kirby would display excellent speed in the minors, stealing 50+ bases twice. Kirby would come to Cleveland as a minor league free agent following the 1990 season. Kirby was a 29 year old rookie in 1993.

Cleveland had a lot of guys younger than Kirby, with more MLB experience that season. 1993 started with tragedy; Pitchers Steve Olin and Tim Crews were killed in a boating accident during Spring Training. 1993 was also the team's last season in Cleveland Municipal Stadium. With Albert Belle in LF and Kenny Lofton in Center, Kirby had one spot left to claim as the team's regular right fielder. His 1993 season included a league leading 19 outfield Assists. At the plate, Kirby was the team's #2 hitter, batting just after Lofton and before Carlos Baerga. He would hit .269 and drive in 60 runs. He stole 17 bases and scored 71 runs of his own.

Welp. It was a good run, Wayne. Kirby was essentially just keeping Right Field warm for Manny Ramirez, who tore up the minors in 1993 and made his MLB debut by season's end, including a 2 homer game against the Yankees in his home town of New York. But Wayne was not done in Cleveland. He was still fast, could handle the bat well, and played all three outfield positions. He would stay with the team in 1994 and 1995 as the team's fourth outfielder.

For every Manny and Jim Thome that can lead a team, there needs to be a Wayne Kirby and Alvaro Espinoza to keep the clubhouse together. Espinoza and Kirby were known as notorious pranksters throughout the 1995 World Series run. Espinoza's specialty was sticking things to a player's hat with a stealthily placed wad of gum. Of course, the bench players were more than just comic relief, and Kirby in particular played a vital role filling in for Kenny Lofton during the season, and for Albert Belle in the 1995 playoffs when they were out of the lineup with injuries.

Kirby would go on to play in a reserve role for several teams until 1998. After his playing career, Kirby found a home as a coach with Baltimore Orioles.