Poor Roger Maris (or Reflections on a Baseball Card with Review of a Maris Biography)

Poor Roger Maris, 1964 Topps, ed

*An oldie but a goodie: new post with a previously posted card
**Fourth Roger Maris post–and last for a while, promise
***Essay from latest issue of Aethlon 30.1

On the front of my pocket-weary, 1964 Topps baseball card that now feels all too emblematic in its scuffed and battered surface, Roger Maris gazes skyward with a look of defiant optimism and little clue of future mishaps that would befall him in the year following the card’s release. Surely an eventual two-year stint with the St. Louis Cardinals would bring Maris some unexpected rejuvenation and another World Series ring. Yet when I examine the career statistical breakdown for Maris, at first I notice only the salient decline in his regular season homeruns—those supremely arcing beacons of progress and willpower that once soared through the open sky of the old Yankee Stadium and countless other ballparks. And as I observe the stark drop after that extraordinary year of 1961 when Maris broke Babe Ruth’s longstanding season homerun record, so, too, do I feel my heart grow heavy and sink in my chest. However, statistics rarely tell the whole story, as I recently discovered with Tom Clavin and Danny Peary’s Roger Maris: Baseball’s Reluctant Hero (2010).

Not unlike the worn eponymous card from 1964, Roger Maris refused to “go gentle into that good night,” even in the apparent twilight of his fatiguing career. Admittedly, he was never again the same caliber of power hitter after Yankee management intentionally misdiagnosed his broken hand in 1965 just to keep him playing so the team could be in contention for a pennant (for which they weren’t even close). And although the hand injury sapped his fastball-slugging talent and the occasional slumps and streaky character of his hitting game would dog him early and mid-season, he stubbornly stuck around—and excelled when it mattered most. While limited by physical circumstance and no longer as capable with the long ball, he nonetheless proved he could also hit the smart ball as he continued to be a scoring factor—if not a decisive one. For Clavin and Peary do well to remind (or inform) fans and readers how in both the late season and at playoff time Maris remained a remarkable clutch hitter with solid RBI numbers. Furthermore, not even a magnifying glass elucidates those figures printed in miniature font on the backs of baseball cards, which seldom reveal fielding prowess and hustle, such as so regularly exemplified by Maris. It was, in fact, that very penchant for speed and determination that likely cut his career short—first with the knees, colliding into the stands for improbable catches, and then with his hand that he broke upon sliding into home plate and a slow-footed umpire.

Roger Maris is one of the rare finds among baseball biographies, as it insightfully recounts little-known facts and episodes like these and dexterously negotiates with well-crafted narrative a field typically fraught with obstacles: those of family drama and lineage; regular season and playoff games and statistics; and extensive commentary on behalf of family and friends, reporters, and witnesses. (The reliance on others for gleanings about Maris the man prove necessary because Maris himself grew appropriately mistrusting and uncooperative toward the press after the hellish and surprisingly negative media coverage in 1961 that literally caused his hair to fall out in clumps. Thereafter, he protected his privacy and largely guarded his words.)

The book is at its best, though, when it comes to those wonderful little baseball anecdotes that swiftly usher words like guffaw back into your vocabulary, as well as fateful tales where even ordinary men are granted the experience of triumph. Take, for example, the story of Andy Strasberg, previously an ardent Yankee supporter and reportedly Roger’s biggest fan. Almost as a lark on account of his college friends who persisted in needling him about his “‘good friend Roger Maris,’” Strasberg makes the drive from Akron College to Forbes Field in Pittsburg to see Maris and the Cardinals play the Pirates (318). Maris does not disappoint. Before the game he calls out to Strasberg by name, and Andy lines up his awestruck friends for introductions “‘as if it was a wedding reception.’” Later on during play, while seated “‘in row 9, seat 9’” and watching his favorite player wear the “‘familiar number 9,’” Andy receives an even bigger treat:

In the 6th inning against [southpaw Woodie] Fryman, [Maris] hit his first National League home run. And I caught the ball! My friends were witnesses. They were screaming at the top of their lungs as the ball came toward us, and I caught it on the fly bare-handed. I started crying because I was eighteen years old and life was not going to get any better for me. After the half inning, Roger comes out to right field and sees me holding the home-run ball and says, ‘I don’t believe it!’

However, there remains a noticeable dearth of such upbeat and jubilant sentiment in much of the biography and Maris’s life on the field. After I finish reading the closing chapters, a fishhook seems caught in my throat with some final thoughts that equally stick in my heart. For Maris ultimately received more in the way of jeers than cheers during his playing days. Clavin and Peary tell how even when the increasingly ill Maris returned to New York for his final Yankee Old-Timers’ Day, an elderly usher in the stadium shook his head and coolly remarked to Maris’s former coach, Sid Cichy, how “‘Nobody, nobody should have broken the Babe’s record’” (370). Clearly the swell of ill will that once followed Maris during his time in New York as a Yankee persisted in some minds.

After that summer day in 1984 when his number 9 was officially retired, Maris stoically suffered for over a year through an excruciating and tedious battle with cancer, which eventually ended his life at age 51 and took him away from his only true joys in life, his wife and children. Fittingly, his funeral service concluded with a poignant exchange between Maris’s son, Roger Jr., and that dedicated fan, Andy Strasberg. Indeed, Strasberg later recalls the scene:

The funeral was extremely moving. . . . At the end of the service I paid my respects to [Roger’s widow] Pat Maris. As always, she was extremely gracious and introduced me to her kids, whom I hadn’t seen since the last game of the 1968 season. She said to them, ‘I want to introduce you to someone very special. This is Andy Strasberg.’ And Roger Jr. said, ‘You’re dad’s number one fan.’ I said, ‘You’ll never know how much your dad meant to me growing up.’ And he said, ‘You’ll never know how much you meant to our dad.’ (378)

So I cannot help but think about stories like these—about young Andy Strasberg now grown up, his prized baseball, and where they both may be today—when I handle and cherish my old, beat-up Roger Maris baseball card and the meaning it contains for me. Some collectors would designate my Roger Maris 1964 Topps baseball card as strictly a “filler card” (a card in poor condition meant merely as a place-holder of sorts until a “better” card may be acquired), which I believe was also the exact phrase used in the description for the online auction of this card. But let me say this: there are few cards that I will ever feel are “better” than this one with all of its painfully wrought, elaborate wrinkles—its edges frayed by time. And there is no other player whom I will ever like more than poor Roger Maris.

Oh Jacki[e]

One critique of the pervading Jackie Robinson legacy narrative goes something like this: most fans and admirers already know about Jackie Robinson the symbolic hero and virtual saint, but we are sorely at a loss for historical accounts of Jackie Robinson the man, the conflicted, or even (gasp) the fallible. After 42 was released in 2013, much remains the same—at least in terms of onscreen portraits. However, books like Jules Tygiel’s Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy (1983) and Arnold Rampersad’s Jackie Robinson: A Biography (1997), among others, thankfully lend some dimensions and shades of complexity to a tale otherwise typically told in terms of contrasts as stark as the very racial divides that Robinson helped bridge.

However, this isn’t a book review. And in any case, there’s something else that conveys with utter realism the very ephemeral humanity of our most renowned historic figures: the curious photographic and painterly images of such popular idols printed crisp and bright at first, before they inevitably morph with age on whatever moldy or brittle scraps of cardboard. . . .

1953 Topps Jackie Robinson 1, 3rd poorest

In as much, the first time I laid eyes on this topographic spectacle of crags and rifts, a veritable ravine running prominently down the ravaged geographic center, I thought I’d found the one. Surely, this must be the poorest of all specimens of 1953 Topps Jackie Robinson #1. . . .

1953 Topps Jackie Robinson 1, 2nd poorest

Not long after, though, I discovered this poor Jackie: complete with some anonymous soul’s tortured math homework scratched out and hovering ethereally in lead-penciled glory over Robinson’s right shoulder—whereupon I knew that there could be no better paradigm for a poor 1953 Topps Jackie Robinson #1. . . .

1953 Topps Jackie Robinson 1, 1st poorestFinally, I found this. Then I marveled in awe at the surviving remains, how scant the frayed & burnt cellulose fibers barely holding things together.

Thus I close with an ill-advised and downright silly, sentimental quote (what my former 18th Century English literature professor might term bathetic). Still the words feel oddly apt. To (mis)appropriate from those gaudy pop icons of moussed hair, leather, keyboard synths, and moogs:

The noise electric never stops
And all you need is what you got
And there’s a place for everyone
Under heartbeat city’s golden sun
Jacki[e]

Oh Jacki[e]

   —The Cars, “Heartbeat City”

1962 Topps Roger Maris #1 (Doubles)

At this point in the conversation history relevant to Roger Maris, there’s probably not a whole lot to add. Suffice to say that likewise little elaboration is needed to explain the understated significance of numerical cataloging for the Roger Maris base card issued by Topps following his watershed season of 1961. Or perhaps that decision was neither understatement nor thinly veiled bias–but rather a relative, resounding declaration by those at the helm of cardboard culture. Indeed the entire 1962 Topps set with its unpretentious yet salient background & borders styled in imitation wood grain like sliced cross sections of an ash wood bat seems to be the pronouncement of an era (or at least a season) orientated towards hitter, slugger, launcher of orbs. No, there’s little else to add but nostalgic hyperbole such as this. . . . Then again, a couple of pertinent artifacts might still amuse.

1962 Topps Roger Maris 1, PSA Authentic

  1. Take a look at this curious specimen from an online auction listing titled “1962 Topps #1 Roger Maris PSA Authentic.” Consider that last term for a moment. This is not some outmoded printing format for PSA authentication slips. The designation of “Authentic” continues to appear on select PSA graded cards. Nevertheless, I remain dubious. (And the seller’s 0 reputation standing does not instill feelings of confidence, at least not the positive kind; however, it may well suggest the sense of, say, confidence scam.) Moreover, that any numbered grading system is absent from the PSA authentication slip suggests something else may be amiss. At the risk of delving into minutia’s minutia, here it is in short: PSA grading standards state that this designation indicates possible tampering (cutting or otherwise), and that “the ‘Authentic’ label means that the item, in our opinion, is real but nothing more.” In other words, this isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement—especially when it comes to condition. But I’m not an expert in these matters. For all I know the card encased here in its clear, plastic coffin is completely legitimate. . . . Still, I’m tempted to file this under F for Fake.

1962 Topps Roger Maris 1, and stamp

  1. As contrast, in terms of both condition and quality of character, allow me to present another copy of the same card. Authentication or no, this other 1962 Topps Roger Maris #1 definitely has my stamp of approval—if only for the sake of utter oddity. To add to its eccentricity: the affixed stamp doesn’t even appear to be a picture of Maris but of another, historically lesser known though vaguely familiar player (possibly a fellow Yankee teammate, though I can’t be certain because the paper peels away precisely where the team emblem would appear on his cap).

Given a choice, of course I’d take the weather-wracked, defaced Roger Maris card, sans flashy slab and authentication. It simply feels more real to me.

Poor Frauds

[Note: this previously appeared on Sports Collectors Daily.]

Take a gander at one excessively crinkled 1909 T206 Old Mill Nap Lajoie. Or cardboard gaze upon a perhaps peculiarly scarred and creased 1909 T206 Polar Bear Cigarettes Ty Cobb (bat off shoulder variant). Scrutinize an almost inscrutable 1909 T206 Uzit Cigarettes Honus Wagner. Apart from the card type and date, what else do all of these cards have in common? Under the guise of poor condition intended to suggest authenticity, in actuality they’re all fakes, frauds, forgeries—counterfeits.

for SCD piece, 1909 t206 Old Mill Nap Lajoie with bat cut auto card

Of course the commerce of counterfeits and counterfeit cards is nothing new. It’s a shadowy recess of the pastime that collectors continue to take very seriously, as evidenced by articles and reports such as these: “eBay Buyer Of T206 Magee Cards . . . ,” “A Fake Honus Wagner Tobacco Card With An Interesting History,” “Still ‘Allowed’ on eBay,” or this section from David Cycleback’s “Judging the Authenticity of Early Baseball Cards.” Then there was the recent story by a local NBC newscast in Reno, Nevada, where a man from Sparks purchased a poor condition Honus Wagner T206 for a little under two hundred dollars—in what has been reportedly revealed as an auction of nothing more than a “reprint.” (According to trading card forum chatter, that same purchaser has himself likewise attempted to now pawn the counterfeit off as an original.)

for SCD piece, 1909 t206 American Beauty Cigarettes Eddie Plank

But how do the same online auction sellers manage to repeatedly list such items? Auction sites have at least some basic safeguards in place for this kind of duplicitous conduct in the way of banning procedures, negative feedback, and more. Then consider all of the potentially disgruntled buyers who eagerly place bids without fully deciphering the deceitfully devised auction postings—prior to surely great disappointment and many an aired grievance. So, again, how does this happen?

It begins with the card. What kind of copy is it? Perhaps it’s an acknowledged reprint intended originally for the sake of novelty and/or appreciation, whereby this purpose is clearly indicated some place on the product: as on the card back, with the appearance of the word “Reprint” or an even more salient feature such as a retrospective summary of the card and player’s history. (With the former, some rather half-hearted attempts at fraud involve merely rubbing and scuffing the card back raw to remove this identifier.) Then there’s the outright fake that gives no such stated indication that it is a reproduction.* And with advances in affordable printing technology, especially with cheaper offset printers, some of these are fairly sophisticated—the 1933 Goudey set being among the more common and higher quality counterfeits. These can be found in abundance in online auctions, and they are sometimes difficult to discern from the sample image alone.

The brazenness of many fraudulent sellers, however, is exceeded only by their laziness. As with the previously mentioned scenario where an identifying mark such as “reprint” or “replica” on the card back will be intentionally removed via eraser, fingernail, coin, or other device and perhaps further masked by additional means (see below), this usually involves relatively mass-produced reprint issues from once-legitimate publishers and card manufacturers long-since out of business. Some of the more popular reprints include the following: The Sport Hobbyist and Nostalgia Press, with some early T206 reprints; Renata Galasso, which did T206, Goudey, and more; Dover, who released a perforated assortment (originally in book form) of Allen & Ginter, T206, and Goudey; C.C.C., Hygrade, and Capital, which all did reprints in the 80s; and yet various others. (And this is not a comprehensive list by any means.) Since most of these saw fairly large print runs with wide distribution, though, there’s no shortage of resources available on the relevant collector forums for help in spotting these.

for SCD piece, Reprint auctions that sold, 1

for SCD piece, Reprint auctions that sold, 3

for SCD piece, Reprint auctions that sold, 4

Also, in the current situation of auctioned counterfeits in poor condition, some sellers devise ways to artificially age and intentionally break down a fake card to both lend the appearance of authenticity at the point of purchase and impede subsequent inspection. In fact, when asked about his aging process, one such seller explained how he will “make them look old by dipping them in tea and putting them in the oven for a bit.” Besides adding a generally weathered, or toasted, appearance to what might be a still profitable and sought after low-grade card (that 1909 T206 Wagner, one 1933 Goudey Ruth, or a 1941 Play Ball DiMaggio), this could also be efficacious for baking away the gloss and more evenly distributing wear on an otherwise more evident reproduction. The same seller further mentioned that “Sandpaper works good to round the corners off [sic].” These seem like rather crude stratagems (and they are), but they apparently work well enough and fool enough buyers to, again, turn a profit. And while some Twinings tea and a convection oven may be primitive means for an unsavory end, rest assured that there are others with more advanced methodologies that are additionally difficult to detect. Whatever the manner and mode of simulacrum, though, these finer points probably become semantic for whomever the duped, remorseful buyer after the counterfeit is listed and purchased in an auction.

for SCD piece, Babe Ruth Reprint, Item Description

As for these questionable auction listings, they seem to work like this: while an identifying term such as “reprint” ideally appears somewhere in the given auction’s standard fields for details or “Item specifics” (i.e. categories like “Condition,” “Card Attributes,” “Original/Reprint”), some postings eschew the practice of proper entries. However, many of these counterfeit “Pre-war” baseball card auctions do technically provide this info elsewhere. At the same time, they strategically obscure it by intentionally omitting such points in the auction post title and those standardized data fields. They thus (mis)place facts about the lacking authenticity further below in the auction description, thereby demonstrating their knowledge of how to negotiate whatever gray area in the online auction rules. One seller actually anticipates customer complaints and negative feedback with the following brief disclaimer: “Not the seller’s fault if the buyer doesn’t read the description.”

So what does all of this amount to? We have a fake portrayed as an original yet technically listed as a fake. The forger or seller fully comprehends their misleading methods and likewise creates an auction posting to simultaneously conceal that which is transparent.

Oh, and I neglected to mention one more important variable in this whole scheme. These auctions sell. A poor 1921 W551 Babe Ruth “Signature Strip Card” racked up 26 bids for $37. One scuffed and battered 1934 Goudey Lou Gehrig yielded 27 bids for a final price of $33. There was even a 1933 Goudey Babe Ruth #53 that sold for $123.50, plus shipping. Of course, each one of these auctions was for a fake card, by way of the above methods. The price tag may pale in comparison to the real McCoy, but repeat business guarantees profits for these poor frauds and their respective sellers.

You (almost) have to hand it to these guys: there may not be a lot of artistry to the con, but they’ve clearly found a way to work the online auction system—though hopefully their success will be short lived. The whole farcical scam reminds me of that final major film by Orson Welles, F for Fake (1973): the elaborate lie that’s *technically* not even a lie.

for SCD piece, 1921 W551 BABE RUTH CUT SIGNATURE STRIP CARD

* Still, several basic steps of inspection may still easily prove an artless artifice: measurement of dimensions and further comparison to a known, verified original from the same issue or set; observation of card stock and finish, whether matte or more glossy; use of a jeweler’s loupe to examine and differentiate pre-war versus modern printing methods; or even employment of an ultraviolet or black light to similarly determine the general era of materials of manufacture. However, much of this is difficult to do without the card in hand, which lends further weight to the advice of collectors to refrain from buying highly valued or sought-after cards that are ungraded—or, at the very least, to obtain the highest quality image scans beforehand and purchase only from the most reputable sellers, who will also offer an explicit guarantee and refund if the card does not pass certification.

References

Brian-Chidester. “T206 Older Reprints.” Net54baseball.com. Net54baseball.com, 20 Jan. 2010. Web. 10 Oct. 2014.

Cycleback, David Rudd. Judging the Authenticity of Early Baseball Cards. Cycleback.com, n.d. Web. 10 Oct. 2014.

“Sparks Man Wins Online Auction for Rare Collectible.” Mynews4.com. KRNV News 4, 15 Sept. 2014. Web. 10 Oct. 2014.

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.