Death, Burying the Dead, & the Orioles

In light of yesterday’s final demise of the O’s and many a pinned and crushed hope for this morning’s mournful Baltimoreans, David Salner’s “Opening Day” seems an oddly appropriate poem to close the Orioles’ postseason:

from David Salner’s Opening Day, ed

(Read the full poem by Salner in Cobalt‘s 2014 baseball theme issue, available online for free.)

1933 Sanella Babe Ruth—from the Handbuch des Sports Album, Part III

1933 Sanella Babe Ruth

The older the subject, the more challenging it is to add to the discourse. There is nothing new under the home run, and few names are as instantly recognizable in baseball as the legendary George Herman Ruth—otherwise an archetype, as “the Babe.” Actually, Ruth’s reputation precedes him so that he has garnered several additional monikers. In one memorable scene from popular film, the young misfits in The Sandlot (1993) cycle through a list of the alternate names, each title an attempt to convey Ruth’s hard-hitting renown: “The sultan of swat!”; “The king of crash!”; “The colossus of clout!”; “The great Bambino!”

Here’s a man. Here’s a man with more noms de guerre than a prince or king. Here’s a man during his career with easily more mentions in newspapers than his extraordinary number of homeruns. Here’s a man whose name graced more endorsement contracts than any athlete before him. Anyone care for some Red Rock Cola, Murphy-Rich soap, or All American Athletic Underwear? What about tobacco? The Babe peddled for Old Gold Cigarettes and Pinch Hit Tobacco, too. With a wide range of Ruth biographies, baseball histories, and young adult and children’s titles, there’s also not any shortage of Babe Ruth publishing products. So, again, Ruth being so popular a personality in life and in death, is there anything left that’s new to say?

I’ll kill the suspense: no, there’s probably not.

However, this 1933 Sanella Babe Ruth card may be new to you—that is unless you’re the kind of collector with a ludicrous desire and improbable goal to acquire a pre-WWII Ruth card whilst on a trading card budget as tight as the skinny man’s pants worn by a fat man. But that only makes the rare purchase, the rare deal, all the more special. Even better for “the poor collector”: a lump sum of $80-85 will occasionally yield not merely this meticulously crafted card, hand-colored in the pre-press process and issued during Ruth’s playing days, but also the full 1933 Sanella set with its official Handbuch des Sports album.

Like the rest of its set, the 1933 Sanella Ruth is not particularly rare or very valuable, especially compared to earlier, more coveted Ruth issues. Criminy! The flimsy stock isn’t actually cardboard; it’s really more paper than card. Even the nearly identical Astra variation carries a significantly higher price than the Sanella one. Then there’s the obvious sticky point that it’s not American but German, though perhaps that’s all the more appropriate since Ruth’s parentage was German-American.

But let’s face it: no matter how precious, prized, or exorbitantly priced a 1933 Goudey Ruth or 1914 Baltimore News rookie card of Ruth may be, these frail portraits in miniature will never manage to truly convey the enormity and vitality of Ruth’s life. The often weathered substance and time-muted color palette of these artifacts do even less so to capture, contain the icon. The 1933 Sanella is no different when it comes to such shortcomings.

That’s not at all to diminish the intrinsic worth of these cards. Their mere existence today, the perseverance to survive the passing of various stewards whose watchful care must always at some point cease before transition to some new, more watchful sentinel—this culture of cards alone is a testament to Ruth’s life and heritage.

He mattered. And that fact is abundantly clear in every one of his surviving vintage cards, no matter the state of pristine condition or decay. That’s clear, too, in the 1933 Sanella issued by his ancestors’ homeland.

Like most products (indeed all trading cards) to feature Babe Ruth, the Sanella card focuses on a positive quality or moment of triumph, instead of some flaw or folly. Surely it was not a pretty sight when a man of Ruth’s size whiffed at a pitch and struck out, as he almost necessarily did in that stellar year of 1927, for example, with 89 strike outs. There’s none of that here. The still image glorifies Ruth when he was at his best, an apparent instant after full contact and thunderclap: on a stage laid in earth and grass, with a “Hotel Congress” billboard for the set’s stark backdrop, and before an audience all aquiver as a hazy array of apple blossoms. Here Ruth’s follow-through form is less slugger than ballet artist for the ages.

Poor Japanese Catcher, Anonymous—from the Handbuch des Sports Album, Part II

I know next to nothing about baseball in Japan. Here’s what I do know: baseball is big in Japan, very big; folks have been playing baseball in Japan for roughly one hundred and forty years; and, as in the Americas, baseball cards appear to be popular collectables, with menko being just one of several types of vintage Japanese baseball cards.

That’s not all. Today’s MLB teams are filling their ranks with both veteran stalwarts and younger talents who hail from Japan. Of course many fans may be familiar with current Yankees outfielder Ichiro Suzuki, who previously played ball in what’s known as Japan’s Pacific League. (Although far from peak form, Suzuki’s BA, OBP, and OPS figures are slightly up from last season.) Nori Aoki plays for this year’s surprising (re. winning record) Kansas City Royals; he’s Japanese as well. Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka is also from Japan–and with his 2.47 ERA, he remains a promising feature member of New York’s starting rotation (despite some elbow issues). This is just to name a few. Here are some more.

It may further surprise you to know that Tom Selleck was quite the ballplayer and made a name for himself in Japan with the Chunichi Dragons.

(Note: most of this information I’ve gleaned from the million-legged Wikipede and something called Mr. Baseball, which I caught on TV late one night.)

Finally, there’s this guy. . . .

1933 Sanella, Japanese Catcher

It’s a 1933 Sanella–so a German card of a Japanese baseball player. Apparently, he was a catcher. Again, though, that’s all I know. His name is nowhere to be found on either his card or the trading card album in which his card appears. However, he must have been pretty good, as he’s only one of two ballplayers featured in the entire Handbuch des Sports.

1933 Sanella Margarine—and the Handbuch des Sports Album, Part I

1933 Handbuch des Sports album

The trading card album is not a rare or recent novelty. Rather than collect some slivered, frail artifacts to store in a shoebox or even today’s slick, ultra-violet ray resistant, acid-free, and PVC-free protective page sleeves destined for some equally cloistered binder, once upon a time folks would tape or (gasp) glue and paste their cardboard and/or paper treasures into an album for display. For collectors of both sport and “non-sport” cards (curious term that may be, as in identification/categorization by absence or deficit, like nonfiction), this phenomenon was a pervasive one across cultures and time.

Some of these albums can still be found lingering, slumbering the decades away in people’s closets, attics, and (worse for wear and mold) basements. For example, hunters and searchers of cellulose gold continue to seek out the following, to name just a few: the 1929 Churchman’s Cigarettes Sports and Games album from the United Kingdom; Cuba’s 1946-47 Propagandas Montiel Los Reyes del Deporte; or the German-issued 1933 Sanella Margarine set. (Besides the supplementary album format, each of these mentioned releases shares another distinction; more on that can be found in the third and final installment of this series.) And while the 1933 Sanella Margarine trading card set and its official, accompanying Handbuch des Sports album may not be the oldest, rarest, or most valuable, the vibrant specimens and often excellent-to-near-mint conditions make this as good a place as any for an introduction to one such noteworthy album-based card set.

The history of the 1933 Sanella set is well known to several avid card collectors—as well as to many German-born citizens. Indeed, an urban legend of sorts indicates that just about every German household owned at least one copy of the album or book. Perhaps one reason: what self-respecting German doesn’t love margarine? As was so often the marketing practice, the trading cards were premiums associated with Sanella margarine products. (Also, a caveat: these somewhat flimsy cards actually look and feel like paper stock, though a mid-to-high grade quality thereof, not cardboard.) Reportedly, or at least as another entertaining myth would have it, one collector took advantage of the high population count of the Sanella cards and several years ago flooded the U.S. market, thereby driving prices down—even for cards of the most popular athletes in set.

Another possible reason for the abundance of Sanella cards: much of the set and album amounted to almost propagandized nationalistic material that German citizens must have felt privileged or compelled to own. After all, the cards were issued in 1933, not too long before the (in)famous 1936 Berlin Olympics. Of course, 1933 being the year that historians often refer to as the beginning of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich, another more problematic kind of, er, national pride was brewing with plenty of further troubles abound.

Not surprisingly, among a smattering of globally recognizable athletes, the set therefore features a disproportionate number of German figures. As with a few of these individuals, some of the selected “events” appear to have little if any background or standing in the sports realm, at least as traditionally defined. For one, the number of airplanes and aviators (often or always German) contextualized here as objects and figures “des sports” feels like a bit of, again, a propagandic stretch.

Admittedly, motor sports is somewhat of an oxymoron likely concocted by a person with deep-rooted automotive interests—either a fanatical imbecile or capitalizing genius. But at least by standards of acceptability in German popular culture, even for this time period some of these events were nevertheless tenable: such as motorcycle racing or car racing. With such qualifiers in mind, the colorfully inked and exquisitely printed and rendered card images of these primarily terrain-bound and wheeled automotive wonders really do deserve some focus.

First, here’s an example from the album with two racecar cards on the same page.

1933 Sanella fig. 1, Full page example--two racecars(Top card: Der Welfrefordwagen / Bottom card: Glromlfnlen (?) Mercedes.)

One such card of a motorcycle dirt race, or dirt bike race if that’s the preferred phrase, depicts a well-composed yet high-speed scene that really demonstrates the uncanny ability of the still image to communicate motion (which must have been something that continued to fascinate people, even at a time when Hollywood exports of moving pictures were already widely popular). The stillness of the large, floating red letters—as on a high wall or overhead banner—offers an effective juxtaposition that accentuates the movement and speed of the perhaps undersized but powerful machines chewing and churning up bits and plumes of earth on the dirt racetrack.

1933 Sanella fig. 2, Motorcycle Dirt Race (Motorcycle dirt race)

 

1933 Sanella fig. 3, Rudolf Caracciola(Pictured: Rudolf Caracciola.)

 

1933 Sanella fig. 4, Beiwagenrennen(Beiwagenrennen! Google translation: “Chariot Races.” Hmm, maybe there’s an idiomatic issue there.)

 

1933 Sanella fig. 5, Manfred von Brauchitsch(Pictured: Manfred von Brauchitsch.)

Note the expressions of the motorists and the faces of spectators in many of these racing scenes. As probably evident by the contrapuntal dynamics (yes, there can be music in the visual) of photographic definition combined with the softness of an almost watercolor application, all of these cards look to be based on pre-existing photographs. Indeed, for some of the more notable athletes elsewhere in the set, the very same images can easily be researched and located in their earlier, monochrome forms.

1933 Sanella fig. 6, BMW motorcycle(BMW motorcycle)

 

1933 Sanella fig. 7, Motorists and Cyclists(Motorists and cyclists)

 

1933 Sanella fig. 8, Toni Bauhofer(Pictured: Toni Bauhofer.)

Posing here is one racing star of the day, Toni Bauhofer. Before an accident and injury led him to retire, Bauhofer won four major championship titles (between 1924-1932) and earned several other racing distinctions in his early life. A lesser known distinction of Bauhofer’s: according to Hermann Historica, an international auction house and collecting resource, Bauhofer purchased a watercolor painting by Adolf Hitler that was a gift from Hitler to Eugenie Haug, a close and “ardent supporter” rumored to be a former lover of the mustached megalomaniac. The auction house notes that sufficient documentation verifies Bauhofer made the purchase; it makes one wonder about the undocumented penchants held by Bauhofer, as well as some other folks highlighted in this “handbuch.”

Finally, to return to the exemplary quality of these artifacts: both the advanced printing technology and honorific portraits of a booming automotive industry more than tempt the present-day viewer with speculation. What developments, what heights could have been attained through such mechanical and engineering talents alone, specializations so inherently and comparatively benign in nature next to the tragedies that followed. Instead, this portrait of a nation that these hopeful colors paint is now vastly overshadowed by darker shades cast by almost unspeakable monsters and monstrous actions. Strangely haunting, too, how the same enticing messages of an impossibly promising future filled with wondrous, superbly well-oiled machines driven and piloted by blue-eyed, blond-haired specimens of “perfection”—how these lures of a larger, more dangerous and devious scheme eventually doomed so many thousands to such horrors.

She Wore Blue Velvet–and Drank it, too

Kerr-McGee Blue Velvet Motor Oil--I'll Buy That! Ed

It holds an appeal in the strangely still vibrant colors amidst apparent decay. Indeed, those intriguing hues of a night-draped veil, what velvety blues, and the brackish yellow and gold—along with the starkly promoted automotive content in the curiously branded oil can—all fooled my eyes from afar. Up until the point when I grazed the surface and edges with my fingers, I would have sworn that this was some toasted, porcelain sign. But no: ’tis only cardboard—beaten, worn, yet painted (printed) bright.

Likewise the story holds an appeal: how I’d locked my keys in my car for probably the dozenth time in my life and was temporarily trapped at a delightful hole in the wall antique store, which to me aptly recalled an ill-lit vintage baseball card shop I once knew that was actually called The Hole in the Wall due to a literal gaping hole in the storefront’s crumbling adobe. In any case, I had ample time to stare, debate purchase, and admire the subject matter and design—time enough to learn that the piece came from the consigned collection of some local picker called Nestor, Roscoe, or some such name that seemed nicely evocative of engine parts and kinematic viscosity.

Even some cursory research on the Kerr-McGee company’s history proves equally, if not murkily rich as well with their less than stellar environmental or simply ethical record.* For example, Kerr-McGee lost a drawn-out legal battle against the Navajo Tribe in a dispute vitally pertinent to Native American rights and sovereignty of reservation lands; eventually, the case was decided by the Supreme Court. In addition, Kerr-McGee owned and operated the plutonium production plant where Karen Silkwood worked, whose life and activism inspired the film Silkwood (1983).

I also learned that Kerr-McGee was headquartered in Oklahoma City, which is less than a few hours driving distance from the previously mentioned antique shop wherein this sign was found.

Yet most appealing of all is the inside joke to myself: how there’s few more perfectly idiosyncratic, cunningly sideways allusions to be unearthed and appropriated for the personal display of a David Lynch devotee.

*It’s somewhat difficult to read from the image, but the Kerr-McGee company name is seen on the upper-left corner of the illustrated oil can.

To read more about the Kerr-McGee company history, visit the Kerr-McGee wiki page.

(Poor) Nap: 1913 Napoleon Lajoie Card Game, Red Tint

1913 Napoleon Lajoie Card Game, Red Tint

If you’ve ever seen these rosy hued lovelies floating about the scattered cards and carddust of the universe, then you might wonder why a pre-1920s card of a Hall of Famer from the dead-ball era can easily be found for the paltry ballpark figure of thirteen dollars and fifty cents.

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that his name isn’t George Herman Ruth or Ty Cobb—or that a self-titled Hollywood biopic has yet to be filmed. Maybe it’s because of foolishly xenophobic prejudices against anything European and his background as a Frenchy (or at least a French immigrant’s son) who nevertheless excelled in, nay, dominated the “National Pastime.” Perhaps the card value is also diminished by its condition being a little rough around the edges, as well as by the characteristic chicken-scratch handiwork of some surely long-since deceased juvenile delinquent who saw fit to deface the card’s back with uninventive profanities and bawdy stick figure sketches (or maybe that last detail suffers from a bit o’ embellishment). More likely still: maybe the average seller of ungraded cards is restrained from advertising lofty asking prices on these Napoleon Lajoie card issues primarily on account of that age-old law in the land of misfits and cardboard—a fickle dynamic known as supply and demand. In as much, that purveyor of family fun and trusted household name in the realm of board games, Parker Brothers, didn’t manufacture just hundreds of these cards for their popular Napoleon Lajoie Card Game; in fact, as each game came with a set of fifty cards or game pieces with Lajoie’s likeness printed on the front, well, you needn’t even bother with the math. The population count is probably in the thousands. And despite whatever its relegated status as an “oddball” card, suffice to say that’s a lot of Naps flooding the marketplace.

So why do I value this flimsy game piece all the more? Call it nostalgia, nonsense, or simply respect for the past and a player well worth his weight in silver slugged (or perhaps that’s an anachronism, as the Silver Slugger award only began in 1980). In any case, when Lajoie batted a .426 average during the season of 1901, he set a mark that has gone unsurpassed to this day by any subsequent player in major league ball. In that same season when “he abandoned the National League in favor of [the American League], Lajoie almost single-handedly legitimatized the AL’s claim to major league status,” as his SABR biography explains.[1] Lajoie’s career numbers remain equally impressive, too, with 3,252 hits and an average of .339.

However, there’s much more to love about Lajoie than merely what’s in the record books. His power was the stuff of legends, except that these legends are true: in fact, “Lajoie swung so hard and met the ball with such force, that on three separate occasions in 1899 he managed to literally tear the cover off the ball.”

Whether by his own foolhardy stubbornness, bad luck, or a little of both, Lajoie also went through just about everything that a ballplayer can in the bizarre spectrum of possible experiences on and off the field, as his SABR bio again attests:

In 1900 Lajoie lost five weeks after breaking his thumb in a fistfight with teammate Elmer Flick. Two years later, legal squabbles between the American and National Leagues cut into his playing time. . . . [Then] in 1905, Nap’s leg nearly had to be amputated after the blue dye in his socks poisoned a spike wound.

And who doesn’t love a ballplayer with an absolute disdain for authority? Actually, Lajoie’s behavior is probably worthy of some psychological case study. Indeed, considering his antics and “famous run-ins with umpires,” I doubt that a better example of chronic ump rage exists:

In 1904 he was suspended for throwing chewing tobacco into umpire Frank Dwyer’s eye. After one ejection, Lajoie, who stubbornly refused to leave the bench, had to be escorted from the park by police. And in 1903, Nap became so infuriated by an umpire’s decision to use a blackened ball that he picked up the sphere and threw it over the grandstand, resulting in a forfeit.

Perhaps befitting his uneven temperament, did I mention that Nap’s card also comes in assorted hues of cool blue and angry red?

[1] And while some may argue that Lajoie’s incredible success had much to do with an uncompetitive American League, it seems prudent to note that the AL did have some other strong talent, including an utterly exemplary pitcher by the name of Young, first name Cy, who also threw one of the best seasons of his career that same year.

More player info: Napoleon Lajoie at SABR’s Bio Project. Batting records at Baseball-Reference: Single-Season Batting Average and 1901 American League Batting Leaders. Card info at PSA Card Facts.

(Poor) Roger Maris, 1964 Topps

Poor Roger Maris, 1964 Topps, ed

Pocket-weary, scuffed, and battered, Roger Maris gazes skyward in defiant optimism. More than anyone, he should know how pinstripes can suppress the ecstasy of flight. At age 29, the navy blue cap sits atop a ravine-furrowed brow, conceals bald patches and tufts of gray—distressed vestiges from 1961. An expanse of black netting looms behind his back. In high, deserted tiers, no crowd of a thousand empetalled faces quivers with applause. But even bold trajectory always dips eventually. So Roger plays with bone chips, a broken hand; he wracks his knees on grandstand dives; and, come retirement, he combats the Hodgkin’s lymphoma whose cytology reveals periwinkle profusions among white blood cells. What history has since transpired: wrinkles extend in cellulose varicose veins from center to edges frayed. Yet still he stares through folds of time; he lifts his head, as if to trace the measured beat of ash wood—its resonant, aerial song arcing through the pale-blue down above.

*Previously appeared in Harpur Palate 13.2 (Winter/Spring 2014), page 63.