(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.

Bump-da-da-dum! It’s Bastardo!

Nope, that jersey isn’t photoshopped. It’s the Phillies relief pitcher, Antonio Bastardo! Oh, baseball: land of the unfortunately named–where the boys who were bullied yesterday can seek refuge and become the millionaire major league pitchers of tomorrow.

2012 TOPPS RED BORDER TARGET 287, ANTONIO BASTARDO

However, I’m still not sure if I’d really love to see that word so prominently displayed on every single one of my baseball cards.

2009 Topps Heritage 515, Antonio Bastardo

Namesake aside, that is one handsome throwback rookie card.

Eddie Waitkus—1952, Bowman, OR When Love in the Form of a Silver Bullet Slowed Fast Eddie Down

Eddie Waitkus, ed

This is the third post in a week related to The Natural (1984), but I for one have not lost interest yet. Shortly after seeing the film, I started searching for Eddie Waitkus cards, “and original, not re-released—underlined.” To my surprise, even many of the older Waitkus cards are quite affordable, though this may have something to do with his rather uneven playing career after the infamous Steinhagen episode.

In as much, I recently found this 1952 Bowman card of Eddie Waitkus for $3.60 (including shipping) in an online auction. For an authentic, painterly Bowman of the original “Natural” (a nickname by which he was actually known as a young rookie), I thought the price was more than a fair deal. Not unlike Waitkus by this point in his playing career in 1952, the card has seen some wear with a noticeable corner crease and a little loss of sharpness and vibrancy in color. You may also observe by the front signature script that his name often appeared as “Edward” instead of Eddie on his cards.

1952 was three years after Waitkus had been shot by Ruth Ann Steinhagen in her room in the Edgewater Beach Hotel in Chicago. That fateful day in June of 1949 during his first season with the Philadelphia Phillies (after being traded by the Cubs) would haunt Waitkus for much of his later career and life after baseball. He reportedly suffered post-traumatic stress syndrome and experienced problems with alcoholism.

His career statistics attest to a decline in his performance on the field as well. Beginning in 1952, Waitkus saw fewer and fewer chances at bat. After the shooting, he also never hit .300 again, which he had managed twice before—both in 1946 and up to the point when he was shot in that ultimately harrowing season of 1949. He was even an All-Star selection in 1948 and 1949, but he never achieved that distinction again either.

Waitkus continued to play in the majors until he retired in 1955. Although most of his later years are generally characterized by struggle and martial strife, he did return to baseball—as an instructor at the Ted Williams baseball camp. As with many ballplayers from his era who heavily consumed tobacco, Waitkus eventually died from esophageal cancer. He was age 53.