(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.

(Poor) Bull Durham, 1909-1911 T206 #156

1909-11 T206 156 Bull Durham

Player name: Louis Raphael Staub

A.K.A. / stage names / monikers:

Charles Staub, Louis Raphael Durham, “Bull Durham”

Roles cast in: pitcher; “Coach Nolan” in The Pinch Hitter (1917), see trivia below

Teams / Clubs / Allegiances:

Brooklyn Superbas (1904)

Washington Senators (1907)

New York Giants (1908-1909)

Era: dead-ball

In the show: 1904, 1907-1909

On the farm: 1902-1904, 1906-1909, ?-1913

Off/on dreaming of both: 1877-1960

Highlights: in 1908, earned a 19-7 pitching record and won five double headers, in the minors

Bobbles: ERA of 12.60 with the Senators in 1907

Trivia and/or trivial: silent movie actor in Hollywood, 1914-1922; later worked as a “geologist”; surprisingly, no connection with the story in Ron Shelton’s film Bull Durham (1988)

Under the cool, wet grass: Pleasant Valley Cemetery in Bentley, Kansas

More player info: Bull Durham at Baseball-Reference Minors and Majors, Bull Durham Wiki page, Bull Durham at IMDB, and “In Pursuit of Bull Durham” at SABR’s Research Journals Archives

Image courtesy of COMC.com.

(Poor) Bob Darnell, 1955 Bowman

1955 Bowman, Bob Darnell

I amuse myself in imagining how on one early crisped, freshly mown morn during the spring training session of 1955 some nameless Bowman photographer likely set up his tripod and checked his Logaphot light “extinction” meter—unawares he was about to lose his job later that year in what would be a monopolistic harbinger in the acquisition of Bowman by the notorious Topps company. But before that happened, this Kodak-wielding idealist spectacularly captured the magical moment wherein Bob Darnell defied the laws of physics and threw his fastball so fast that it subsequently vanished in flames and traveled the way of a nuclear-powered, time-bending DeLorean. And now—nearly sixty years later—it just crashed straight through the television screen!

That’s not all: Bob’s career stats also boast a lossless pitching record during his time in the majors. On the other hand, Darnell’s time in the show was so brief that he never won a game either. Yes, that’s right: poor Bob held an 0-0 record during his two-year stint with the Brooklyn Dodgers, the team who subsequently up and left town for sunny California by 1958.

Darnell’s minor league numbers tell a slightly different story. After playing roughly nine years and almost exclusively in AAA, kicking around from St. Paul to L.A. to Montreal and elsewhere, he amassed 778 strikeouts. Sure, his career ERA of 4.06 wasn’t exactly exemplary, but to have experienced that rush of fanning so many batters must count for something, right?

In any case, with the 1956 season—his second and last time called up from the minors to play for Brooklyn—Darnell only pitched one major league game (indeed, only “1.1” innings), during which he failed to strike out any batters and then allowed a hit.

But he tried, didn’t he? Goddamn it! At least he did that.

♦ ♦ ♦

Bob Darnell major league and minor league info and stats found at Baseball-reference.com.

Image courtesy of COMC.com.

Ephemera Found When You Move, Part III: Nolan Ryan Signed Baseball

Signed Nolan Ryan Ball--after the family dog had his way with it

Please humor me for a moment to follow (and perhaps check) my math here: according to Major League Baseball’s sanctified Official Baseball Rules, the distance from home plate to the pitcher’s plate at the mound is 60 feet and 6 inches or 60.5 feet. Now this means when Nolan Ryan hurled his fastest recorded pitch at 100.9 miles per hour in an official major league game that it took all of .408 of one second for the ball to travel from the origin of the mound to the destination of home plate.[1] You may also note that this time is not far off from the average blink of the human eye.

So while the length of time that the featured Nolan Ryan autographed baseball (above) remained in mint condition certainly exceeds that of Ryan’s official fastest pitch, this particular piece of memorabilia nonetheless existed in pristine form for a still relatively brief period.

The story goes that my physician father-in-law received the autographed ball as one of those curious gifts given by some traveling pharmaceutical salesperson. And whatever you may feel about that particular, perfectly legal and not uncommon practice and the lamentable ethics of the broader pharmaceutical industry, I can say with confidence in knowing this discriminating man (my father-in-law, that is, not the traveling pharmaceutical salesperson) that he more than likely said “why, thank you very much—that’s very generous,” while in the same breath, “but no thank you to that worthless poison you’re peddling.”

My father-in-law couldn’t care less about baseball or Nolan Ryan, though, so he in turn gave the signed ball to his teenage daughter (my future partner-in-crime). At the time, she was an avid sports enthusiast, immersed in all manner of scores and statistics, nightly basking in the glow of broadcasts from the soon-to-be imperial ESPN. In fact, she even once attended a Texas Rangers and New York Yankees baseball game.

This inked orb of ephemeral memorabilia did not remain long in her possession, however, before a younger sibling (of yet fully developed capacity for appreciating material values) looked up towards a lofty bedroom display shelf and gazed upon said perched orb. Of course, the first thought that popped into this young child’s noggin proved just too tempting to resist: now isn’t that the perfect little bauble for me to throw and to catch and to play with—with my dog. Thus shortly thereafter Nolan Ryan’s still freshly scrawled autograph met with much smudged and slobbered disaster in the jaws of the family dog. . . .

But the ball survived just fine, albeit a bit lopsided, smeared, and worse the wear.

[1] After much nocturnal, numeric agony and my own feeble math skills, the calculations first require conversion from mph to ftps, or miles per hour to feet per second; hence 100.9 is multiplied by 5280, since 5280 feet equal one mile, and then that product of 532752 is divided by the 3600 seconds that comprise one hour. This yields 147.986 ft./sec. Given this rate, then divide the distance of 60.5 feet by 147.986 ft./sec. (as t = d/r, or time = distance/rate), all to arrive at the .408 seconds travel time.

 

Ephemera Found When You Move, Part II: Superman’s “Real Power”

2014-05-13-6149

Back when I was about little league age, though I never played in little league (for better or worse, and probably for better from what I have heard), my dad traveled to various book conventions around the country as part of his work. We lived at the time in a creaky floored, three-story Victorian house—of the North American variety—complete with eerie, Civil War era “dungeons,” stone foundation, and a domed turret façade. In short, to a young child the place felt rather expansive and a little unwelcoming; by night, I swore it was even haunted, especially with a massive cemetery cradling those soldiered dead only a few blocks away. Much of that was somehow ameliorated, however, when my dad returned after a long trip from one of those book shows. The hollow, old Victorian house seemed to grow warmer and shrink to a more comfortably sized dwelling space. Also, material fiends that consumerist children can be, it certainly improved my spirits when he came home bearing gifts snagged from whatever recent New York or Chicago convention.

Take, for example, one such book show freebie of the Man of Steel soaring through a veritable metropolis of enormous library books stacked as high as skyscrapers. And little matter how haphazardly this bookmark from 1983 stayed closeted away among so many other dusty possessions from my youth: the paper has nevertheless maintained much of its original crispness and gloss, while the colors likewise remain agelessly sharp and bright—from the blues and reds of Superman’s carefully inked super suit to the fleecy down of the clouds above.

Again, the copyright printed at the bottom of this bookmark identifies the year as 1983 (with ownership claimed by none other than DC Comics), alongside the named sponsoring organization of the “America Library Association.” Of course the ALA’s founding principles also inform the well-intentioned if not inane physical strength appeal—for reading—with the blocked letters that proclaim “KNOWLEDGE IS REAL POWER!,” which almost every bullied, grade school bookworm understands as suspect rhetoric.

In any case, I have not yet researched where the ALA held their annual big convention in 1983, and maybe I prefer for this to remain a mystery to me. That way I can imagine it could have been anywhere—that perhaps my dad traveled to the moon to bring back this small but thoughtful gift to his son.

In fact, my dad returned from that year’s meeting of the ALA with a stack of these Superman bookmarks. If memory serves, though so often it doesn’t, I remember that at one time I had a drawer full with dozens of the colorfully printed bookmarks; actually, my stockpile may have numbered a hundred or more. I recall how they even felt like some curious, vibrant form of currency. Of course they held little monetary value, but Superman easily made up for that lack in other, more worthwhile terms. Over time, however, my formerly plentiful supply thinned, what with each new but changeable acquaintance made, upon whatever the latest family move (and that childhood Victorian house being left behind long ago). Strangely, or fittingly, this is the last remaining Superman placeholder in my possession. For me, that only increases its real value, its real power.