Sunday, March 31, 2019

Cleveland 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, Cleveland finished in 2nd place in the American League with an 93-61 record.

Baseball in Cleveland was big in the mid-fifties with a championship in 1948 and another World Series appearance in 1954. Even with that success, baseball was still second fiddle to the great football team that shared space in Municipal Stadium. The Cleveland Browns were NFL champions in 1950, 1955, and 1956. appearing in the Championship game every year from their first NFL season in 1950 until that 56 title. The team was also 1st in their previous league for 4 years leading up to their joining the NFL, a full decade of division/league titles with their star QB Otto Graham.

On the baseball diamond, the 1956 Topps set is interesting as much for what is missing from the 1955 team as for what remains. The team parted ways with Hall of Famers Larry Doby, Ralph Kiner, and Hal Newhouser following the 1955 season- yet retained a talented and formidable core of players.

Even if you counted the seasons by Kiner and Doby, the best hitter on the 1955 squad was Al Smith. "Fuzzy" was the AL leader in runs scored, and was the team leader in hits, doubles, walks, stolen bases, batting average, and of course runs scored. His big season would take him to his first All-Star game, and rank him 3rd in the AL MVP voting.

Smith was an under-the-radar minor star in the 50s - he amassed 1,458 career hits in the majors, having been signed to play in the majors from the Cleveland Buckeyes in the Negro American League. For the Buckeyes, Smith was signed as a 17 year old and led the league in doubles and triples in his 2nd season. He was signed after being scouted on the same day as pitcher Sam "Toothpick" Jones. Smith was a 2 time All-Star and appeared in the World Series in 1954 and again with the White Sox in 1959. During Game 2 of that series, Smith was absolutely soaked with beer by a fan who knocked over a cup reaching for a home run by Tommy Davis.

Cleveland had a tremendous year from their pitching staff, but the biggest surprise was the amazing debut of 22 year old Herb Score. The lefty had a 16-10 record, and struck out a league leading 245 batters in just 227 innings. He was named AL Rookie of the Year, and made his first All-Star team.

He followed it up in 1956 with another season in which he led all AL hurlers in strikeouts, and also had a league leading 5 shutouts, and winning 20 games.  He suffered a freak injury in 1957, struck in his left eye by a line drive that effectively ended his season. He would return in 1958 only to have a torn tendon in his elbow, pitched in the majors for the last time in 1960, and by 1962 he had retired from baseball. He would start as a TV broadcaster in 1964, but was best known for his radio voice for Cleveland for more than 30 years.

When Herb Score burst onto the scene, he was replacing the great Bob Feller in the rotation. Score was even called a "left-handed Bob Feller," which was a very high bar that he would approach only in 1955 and 1956. For Feller, those would be his last two MLB seasons, pitching sparingly for Cleveland, the only team he would ever suit up for.

The Hall of Famer was a legend in the game, and his carefully crafted public persona as a crotchety old man brought decades of fodder for broadcasters and journalists alike, who would regularly name-check Feller anytime they wanted to talk about "the state of pitching today." In his day, Feller was nothing short of remarkable. Despite missing nearly 4 seasons in the prime years of his career, Feller still had 3 no-hitters, 44 career shutouts, and won 268 games. He was a 7 time strikeout leader, and would easily have won nearly that many Cy Young awards if the accolade was given in his prime.

Cleveland acquired Chico Carrasquel in the Larry Doby trade, and Chico did not replace Doby's bat. Instead it would fall on 22 year old rookie Rocky Colavito and veteran Vic Wertz to make up for the vacuum in the lineup left by Doby's departure in '56. Al Rosen was the 1953 AL MVP and was a fixture in Cleveland's lineup for the first half of the 1950s, but his career stalled out in 1956 with just 15 homers. Bobby Avila is credited with being MLB's first major star born in Mexico - he was the AL batting champ in 1954.

You can take your pick of Hall of Fame pitchers here-- Early Wynn, Bob Lemon, and Bob Feller all received the call from the Hall after their playing days were over. Score had a great 1955, but was 3rd on the team in victories - Wynn won 17 and Bob Lemon won 18. All three would win 20 games apiece for Cleveland in 1956. Don Mossi pitched beautifully out of the bullpen in '55, with a 2.42 ERA (a 166 ERA+) in 57 appearances.  Ray Narleski saved 19 games as the team's closer.

Jose Santiago pitched in 17 games for Cleveland in '55, with a 2.48 ERA. Hal Naragon hit .323 as the reserve catcher in 57 games, and Jim Busby came over to be the regular centerfielder for Cleveland in 1956 after a season split between the Senators and the White Sox.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Beyond Borders

In 1994, Ila Borders became the first woman to pitch in a collegiate baseball game, after being the first woman to receive a college scholarship to play baseball. Borders pitched for four years in college, for Southern California University (now known as Vangaurd University) and Whittier College. During her Senior year at Whittier, she was referred to as the team's most consistent starter. She was 2-2 with a 3.00 ERA against conference opponents, and 4-5 with a 5.22 ERA overall in her 1997 season. 

After college, Borders signed with the Saint Paul Saints of the independent Northern League. She would only spend one month in Saint Paul before being traded to the Duluth-Superior Dukes. Her debut for the Saints was a rocky one -- she hit the first batter she faced, balked during the second batter's plate appearance, and ultimately gave up 3 runs without recording an out. Borders was primarily a starting pitcher until joining the Saints - learning a new role while also being under intense scrutiny certainly didn't make her job any easier.

Borders would pitch for the rest of the 1997 season for Duluth, and would find success in 1999 when her new team in Madison (Still part of the Northern League) began to use her as an "Opener" - a role that has just now caught on in the majors. She started 12 games for Madison, appearing in 15 games overall, and had a fantastic 1.67 ERA over 32 innings pitched. Borders was a control pitcher that would work the corners and lower half of the plate to attempt to induce ground balls.

After her playing days (She retired following the 2000 season) she became a firefighter and EMT in California, Arizona, and in Oregon. In recent years, she returned to baseball, as a pitching coach for the U.S. National Women's Team. In 2018, she made a comeback as a pitcher on the Women's National Team. She was named to the 20 player roster, but did not make an appearance in the 2018 Women's Baseball World Cup. 

Further Reading:

Official Website for Ila Border's autobiography Making My Pitch

Essay by Cassidy Lent on Baseball Hall of Fame site about Ila

2017 Baseball America Article on Borders by J.J. Cooper

Friday, March 29, 2019

Opening Day!

I meant to post this yesterday, but I got sidetracked before I had to leave for the game- Jose Berrios pitched a gem facing off against Corey Kluber and the Twins are undefeated!! I think they'll probably run the table this year and go 162 - 0. Eat your heart out, 1972 Dolphins!

On Saturday I went to my local Card Shop and picked up a box of Opening Day. Just $28, but the catch is that there are no guaranteed hits. Oh well!

I got yer "guaranteed hit" right here, buddy!

Kikuchi is the latest in a long line of players to come to the U.S. from Japan, and even though he's not getting nearly the hype of Ohtani, he is a very good pitcher and should make a good impression this year.

A handful of favorites from the box - Stadium Club worthy, in my opinion.

Hey! It's the first Willians Astudillo card in a retail Topps set! I would have gone back for another box if this card wasn't in the first one!

Astudillo broke camp with the MLB club, and should be on the roster at least until Miguel Sano recovers from his leg injury. During the spring, Astudillo had over 50 plate appearances and had just 1 walk- and zero strikeouts. Looking for to seeing him get some playing time soon in MN!

Happy Opening Day everyone!

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Transatlantic Triple Break!!!

The Transatlantic Triple Break is back for 2019! Kevin of The Card Papoy gets things rolling with flagship 2019 Topps Series 1. I stopped after one blaster myself, so it was nice to get some more to add to my collection. Big fan of this Adam Engel card, as he leaps high to rob a homer.

It's an Ian Snell hotbox! I think Snell knows a thing or two about hotboxes.... ok ok ok. Congrats on the Cy Young Award, dude!

Rookie Cups! This is really why I picked the AL East, wanted to get both of these Yankees without having to pay for the singles. Even pulled a Gleyber Day Miracle with a second Torres card. I have another copy of the Ryan O'Hearn card as well, if anyone is interesting in one of those two.

1984 is back again! (political joke goes here) I think the 1984 Topps set had my favorite backs of the 80s Topps Sets.




More Twins - I was the lucky winner here, as we pulled the Eddie Rosario alternate image along with the regular issue. Rosie is my favorite Twins Starter, with Mauer retired and Kennys Vargas gone to play in Japan with the Chiba Lotte Marines. Willians Astudillo is going to have to take Kennys' place as my favorite Twin that deserves more playing time.

Kevin included a nice stack of Twins and Player Collection cards...

. . . and a sweet Brad Radke Auto! In 2001, Radke pitched 226 innings and issued just 26 walks. Control!!!!!

Thanks very much Kevin, I'm pumped for Opening Day 2019 thanks to the awesome Triple Break!

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

1993 Topps All-Star Rookie Team - Outfielder Jeff Conine

Well, well, well if it isn't Mr, Marlin himself! The Expansion Draft in 1992 netted several big names for the Marlins including their Inaugural Opening Day starter Charlie Hough, future Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman, ace reliever Bryan Harvey, and their franchise centerpiece in their early days, Jeff Conine.

Racquetball Superstar!

Conine was a standout baseball player at UCLA, but as a relief pitcher. In fact, he only had one plate appearance in college (he was hit by a pitch), but his hitting prowess was an open secret. The Kansas City Royals' GM John Schuerholtz had the inside scoop from UCLA's pitching coach that the team's best hitter was actually in their bullpen. The Royals made Conine their 58th Round (!) pick in the 1987 MLB Draft.

Conine would put up decent numbers in 3 minor league campaigns including hitting .320 with 15 homers for the AA Memphis Chicks in 1990, earning him a September Call-up. In 1991 injuries limited him to just 51 games at AAA, and his career was in danger of ending before it began. He came back strong in 1992, blasting 20 homers in 112 games for AAA Omaha, again returning to the majors for 1992.

The expansion draft changed everything. Conine was about to hit his peak, the Marlins needed athletes all over the diamond. No longer waiting in the wings in KC, Conine would play in all 162 games for the Marlins in 1993. He rapped out 174 hits, 12 homers, and drove in 79 runs as a rookie, finishing 3rd in the NL Rookie of the Year voting.

Conine would make the All-Star Team in 1994 and 1995. He would be the All-Star MVP in the second game, hitting a solo homer in the 8th inning, which would prove to be the winning run. In 1996, he had career highs in hits, runs, doubles, homers, and total bases. While Conine put up good numbers in South Florida, the team would finish no higher than 3rd, and at least 16 games out of first place in the NL East through the 1996 season. Conine experienced a lot of losing seasons and growing pains in Florida, so winning it all in 1997 was a bittersweet victory. Bittersweet because Conine was a notable casualty of the Marlins' first fire sale.

After spending a season back in Kansas City, Conine would move on to the Baltimore Orioles as the team's DH/1B and fill in corner outfielder. He would be a bit better than league average over 6 seasons with the O's, with a heavenly 777 hits. In 2003, he'd wind up back with the Marlins just in time for another post-season run. Once again the Marlins won the Wild Card, and Conine turned up the volume in the NLCS, hitting .458 with a homer against the Cubs, and a .333 mark in the World Series, scoring 4 runs against the Bronx Bombers. His 2nd title in Florida cemented his place as a Marlins legend. He would play in the bigs until 2007, with short term stops in Philly, Cincy, and with the Mets for 21 games. He signed a 1-day contract with the Marlins in 2008 to officially retire with the team.

After his playing days, Conine competed in Triathalons, and more recently had been on the Marlins' broadcast team, until Derek Jeter purged the organization of many former Marlins in favor of a clean slate. His son Griffin was a 2nd round pick by the Blue Jays in the 2018 MLB draft, as Toronto continues to stockpile next generation talent.

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.