A Tale of Two Sams

“Who are these people? Where do they come from? What do they do? What’s in a name?”

—Harvey Pekar in the film adaptation American Splendor (2003)

Harvey Pekar’s quasi existential musings in his now famous “What’s in a name” monologue felt like an appropriate start here. I recall feeling the same vaguely pensive sentiments about identity, chance, and fate not long after I first encountered pitcher Sam Jones and his salient, doleful visage. To this day, Sam’s lachrymose expression seems to cause the very cardboard to warp and sag on his contradictorily brightly colored 1958 Topps card. Printed in typical four-color halftone on customary compressed cellulose, his portrait exhibits a poor imitation of a happy ballplayer; indeed, the tortured smile that drags his eyes down appears to be more grimace than grin. This is the illustrated definition of a long face. One compatriot baseball enthusiast whom I know even jokingly suggested a more than suitable nickname, “Sad Sam.” Actually, it turns out that Sam’s teammates and fellow players similarly christened him: “Sad Sam Jones.”

1958 Topps 287, Sam Jones

Sad Sam it would be. Naturally, curiosity next propelled me to do some casual research (as if the baseball almanacs, biographic blurbs, and statistical ebbs and flows would so easily illuminate some secret tragedy in Sam’s past).  I was but barely on my way to discovering the origins of Sad Sam’s woes and melancholy when I soon confronted a wall of confusion in the form of another pitcher—named Sam Jones. At first I assumed an error had somehow occurred in the annals of ash wood and leather. In fact, I swore that some editorial oversight was culprit for the following, more startling duplication: that this other, early prototype (highly regarded by players and fans in his time) was also infamously hailed as none other than “Sad Sam Jones.”

1933 Goudey, Sam Jones

Two Sam Joneses. Two “Sad” Sam Joneses. Both pitchers. But wait: the coincidental or preordained links in the chain do not end there—not by a long ball. For while each Sad Sam clearly lived his own individual life, possessed no shortage of inimitable eccentricities, and earned some fine distinctions in the game, some additional and curious parallels exist. . . .

Sams converge

The Sad Sam Jones who lived from 1892 to 1966 (henceforth Sam Jones I) was a pitcher who threw right and batted right.

Likewise, the Sad Sam Jones who lived from 1925 to 1971 (henceforth Sam Jones II) was a pitcher who threw and batted right.

Sams diverge

Sam Jones I played in the MLB from 1914 to 1935—near the end of the dead-ball era and into a new chapter for pitchers.

Sam Jones II played first in the Negro leagues and then in the MLB from 1951 to 1964—near the end of the era of exclusion of African Americans from baseball and into a new chapter for black ballplayers.

Sams converge

Among other teams, Sam I played for the Cleveland Indians and St. Louis Browns.

Among other teams, Sam II also played for the Cleveland Indians, St. Louis Cardinals, and the Baltimore Orioles (formerly known as the St. Louis Browns).

Cleveland was the first team for both Sams.

Sams diverge

Sam I’s achievements include winning three World Series Championships (with the New York Yankees).

Sam II’s achievements include appearing in two All-Star games.

Sams converge

Sam I was born in Woodsfield, Ohio.

Sam II was born in Stewartsville, Ohio.

Approximately forty miles apart, Woodsfield is less than an hour drive from Stewartsville.

Sams diverge

Sam I earned his nickname on account of his “downcast” exterior when on field, no doubt exaggerated by the style in which he wore his baseball cap very low over his eyes. (While other players wore their caps high so they could more easily admire the female fans, or so he jocularly criticized, Sam defensively attributed his peculiar cap-donning fashion to the desire to play with focus.)

Sam II earned his nickname due his shy nature and “mournful-looking” appearance (often with a toothpick in his mouth, which earned him a second moniker).

Sams converge

Sam I threw a no-hitter in 1923 but with the dubious distinction of failing to make a single strikeout (a first for a pitcher with a no-hitter).

Sam II threw a no-hitter in 1955 (making him the first black pitcher to accomplish this feat in the MLB).

Sams meet

After his time playing major league ball was over, Sam I remained involved in baseball. Whether by kismet or serendipity, his charitable work among youths in baseball would bring two paths to a cross, as SABR reports:

He kept busy, teaching kids in Woodsfield how to play ball (and securing donations of major-league equipment from some of his old teammates), according to his friend, Ronald Turner; one of those children, from nearby Stewartsville, Ohio, was another Sam Jones, nicknamed “Toothpick Sam.”

Credit: 1958 Topps Sam Jones courtesy of COMC.com.

Oh, if baseball cards could talk. . . .

1911 T205 Gold Border Robert Byrne Pittsburgh Pirates, Pretty Freakin Awful

I could write about Robert Byrne (Bobby, to his friends & fellow players). I could write another all too brief account of a baseball life long since expired. I could write about Byrne’s ability as a stellar hitter in the often hitless dead-ball era. (In a span of less than ten years, from 1908 to 1917, a half-dozen no-hitters occurred in a given season—three times! 1908, 1915, and 1917.) I could also write about Bobby’s remarkable athleticism; apparently, he played professional soccer in the off-season. However, when he left St. Louis to play for Pittsburgh, Pirates president Barney Dreyfuss gave him an ultimatum, which forced Bobby to choose baseball exclusively. I even could write about Byrne’s mildly curious retirement and his ownership of a bowling alley in St. Louis, the hometown of his first major league team. . . .

Honestly, though, all I really want to do is share what I believe is one of the most beautifully wretched, old cards that I have ever seen. The auction listing title for this artifact could not have been better: “1911 T205 Gold Border Robert Byrne Pittsburgh Pirates, Pretty Freakin’ Awful!” Indeed, poor Bobby’s right eye seems to be knocked out of place, as if ’twere the aftermath of some peculiar boxing match o’ cardboard.

Player pages and other info found at the following resources: Baseball-reference.com and Wikipedia.

Who was Frank Truesdale?

Truesdale final

If you don’t know about Frank Truesdale, then you’re probably not alone. You may also be scratching your head at the peculiar sight of the featured T205 card of Truesdale from 1911. Well, that’s because it’s my own little tribute (see “fantasy card”) that I made for this wholly unappreciated, unknown ballplayer.

Nevertheless, Truesdale was still a ballplayer in the majors, which in itself is an achievement that not many of us can claim. He played for some four, albeit irregular, seasons over the course of eight years from 1910 to 1918, playing with the St. Louis Browns, New York Yankees, and Boston Red Sox. He hit one home run in his career and batted well under .300, though those numbers certainly aren’t unusual or even particularly poor in the aptly named dead-ball era (don’t you just love that phrase?). However, his “on-base percentage” was an improvement at .318. He largely fielded at 2nd base, and in his last season with the Red Sox he garnered a whopping salary of $2,120. He appears to have retired from baseball altogether in 1918, and he died in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1943.

Of course, so many players of Truesdale’s lackluster “name” status exist in baseball’s history. Largely, a life such as Truesdale’s utterly unsung existence is but a mere blip, a smattering of seemingly meaningless statistics, a smudge in the baseball almanacs and reference books. Moreover, many of these early ballplayers never received even the minimal acknowledgement of having their likeness imaged on a cheaply printed tobacco card insert. For some, not one photograph remains.

Thankfully, we do have a small photographic record for Truesdale. In fact, one such artifact appears strikingly clear and preserved: archived in the digitized holdings of the Library of Congress, this glass plate photo-negative of Truesdale from his days as a Yankee.*

truesdale, lrg

The black and white photo image was combined with a scanned T205 card to create the topmost featured one–violà. The result is far from perfect, though better than I had expected. I would love to make more of these, especially for unknown players like Truesdale, but we’ll need to see if it’s–er–in the cards. Finally, if I had to give this activity a lofty, academic-inspired term, perhaps I’d call it revisionist history (via baseball cards).


Truesdale final cartoonized

*Indeed, the LOC contains a number of these stunning early photographic images of ballplayers and other athletes. Better yet, the LOC also houses a special collection of thousands of old baseball cards.

Card notes: My mission was to create a Truesdale tribute card with my limited photo editing skills (mostly using Pixlr).  And for fun I also made an alternative, more cartoonish card (directly above). The process can be time consuming and tedious (at least for me), but maybe there’s just a learning curve.

Sources: Player pages and other info on Truesdale may be found at the following sites: Baseball-reference.com, Wikipedia, and the Library of Congress.