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.

Herold (Muddy) Ruel, 1933 Goudey

1933 Goudey #18 Herold Muddy Ruel

Muddy certainly seems appropriate for the battered condition of this card (and while this was purchased at a basement bargain price, the seller’s stated “fair” condition is dubious at best). Also, I am not quite sure how Herold earned his nickname, “Muddy.” Perhaps it had something to do with a scrappy, persistent playing style; on the other hand, most players from this era are assigned some kind of eccentric nickname on their trading card. In fact, I wonder how many of these colorful cardboard monikers are simply the result of some sensationalizing publisher, editor, or designer–or, better yet, some alliteratively artistic staff member starved for creative output. In any case, good ol’ Mud seems to have been a fairly solid player in his time. He batted over the often notable .300 threshold on more than a few occasions, and he played catcher for HOFer Walter (“Barney” or “The Big Train”) Johnson. The back of this Goudey card also informs that “He’s a lawyer, as well as a ballplayer . . . and passed the bar.” I can’t think of many other ballplayers with a law degree to fall back on, although in today’s marketplace the baseball skills are probably the better safety net. (Unless you graduate with honors from an Ivy League or other prestigious program, chances are you’ll be working the same Starbucks barista gig as you did in undergrad.) So take it from Muddy: just forget about law altogether–and play ball!

Robert Redford fantasy Goudey card

Roy Hobbs g

This morning I considered making my own Robert Redford fantasy Goudey card. I felt inspired because I saw The Natural for the first time last night from start to finish.

I had often watched bits & pieces of the 1984 Barry Levinson classic, but I had never before seen the seminal, opening twenty minutes. The film was playing on some Goliathan, commercial-heavy network yesterday, likely as some unsavory effort to capitalize on news of the recent death of Ruth Ann Steinhagen, who quietly passed away in December of 2012. (However, I suppose the broadcast could also simply be due to the fact that the baseball season is about to begin.) Steinhagen was of the course the mentally unstable fan and femme fatale of sorts who shot Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ed Waitkus–events that thus inspired the story of The Natural.

In any case, I toyed around with the idea of creating this tribute fantasy card when I stumbled upon this. As Solomon is attributed to saying in Ecclesiastes 1:9, “there is nothing new under the sun,” and apparently someone had already thought the same as me. I would love to give credit where credit is due, but I found this posted by an anonymous Brit on some random ebay forum. Yet whoever created this Robert Redford fantasy Goudey card, they did a commendable job.