Sunday, March 31, 2013

#506 Bob Purkey

Pittsburgh native Bob Purkey began and ended his major league career with the Pirates but it was the seven seasons he pitched in Cincinnati that were the most productive. Signed by the Bucs in 1948 Purkey worked his way up through the minors, battling injuries and taking two years off for military service (he pitched for some highly successful Army teams) and getting several short looks with the big club before he established himself in 1957. He had learned the knuckleball from Branch Rickey along the way and he went 11-14 that year for a 62-92 seventh place club. Traded that winter to the Reds for Don Gross (who won only seven games in 2+ seasons in Pittsburgh) Purkey became one of the better pitchers in the NL, winning 17 games and making the All Star team.

He won double digit games in all but one of his seasons with the Reds, was a three time All Star, and in 1962 he went 23-5 with a 2.81 ERA and finished a distant third in the Cy Young voting behind winner Don Drysdale despite having numbers that compared quite well with the Dodger righty.

He pitched and lost Game Three of the 1961 World Series against the Yankees. In that game he allowed only six hits in a nine inning effort but homers he gave up late to Johnny Blanchard and Roger Maris cost him a 3-2 decision. He came back to appear in the fifth and final game of that Series as one of seven guys that Fred Hutchinson dragged out of the bullpen in a futile effort to stop the Yankee momentum.

He pitched one season for the Cardinals (1965 winning 10 games) and then returned to Pittsburgh for 1966 where he appeared in just 10 games before being released and retireing.

After baseball he founded an insurance agency which still operates under his name. As always the black frame on this card makes the red Reds uni stand out. Looks like Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum is the scene of the photo shoot.

Friday, March 29, 2013

#238 Gene Baker

Sure, Ernie Banks was the first African-American to play for the Chicago Cubs, but Gene Baker was the first African-American to wear a Cubs uni. He was called up shortly before Banks in September of 1953 but wasn't able to play because of an injury and watched his future DP partner take the field a few days prior to his debut.

Both Baker and Banks were shortstops but the Cubs moved Baker, older than Banks by 6 years, to second and in late '53/1954 they formed the first African-American DP combo in major league baseball. Baker played for the Cubs until he was traded to Pittsburgh early in the 1957 season, making the 1955 NL All Star squad along the way. With the Pirates he appeared in the 1960 World Series, something his pal Banks was never able to do.

But it was both before and after Gene Baker's active years that me made a larger impact. Coming out of St. Ambrose College in his native Davenport, Iowa and after a year in the military he played for the powerhouse Negro League Kansas City Monarchs until he caught the eye of the Cubs and was signed in 1949.

After he had retired as a player in 1961 he was named manager at Batavia, NY, the Pirates' Class D farm club thus becoming the first African-American to manage an affiliated minor league team. He later joined the coaching ranks in Pittsburgh and became the second African-American coach in the majors (Buck O'Neil preceded him by a year). 

And finally Baker became the first African-American to manage a big league club when he took over for Danny Murtaugh with the Pirates during a short suspension. He was a top scout for the Pirates in the Midwest for over 20 years. He died in 1999.

The Gene Baker card below is my original one. When I scanned it a few weeks back I saw that it was pretty shopworn, more so than the scan reveals. There is a nice sized crease, somewhat soft corners and it had lot of crud on it in addition to it being faded a bit. So I decided that Gene deserved a better representation and I found the one at the top on eBay for about a buck fifty shipped. 

It may be the last upgrade I'll do in the '59 set. 

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

#484 Willie Kirkland

Outfielder Willie Kirkland played nine seasons of major league ball after being signed by the New York Giants in 1953.  He worked his way up through the Giants' chain and kicked some serious minor league butt in the process by batting well over .300 and averaging 30+ homers a season between '53 and '56.
He served the next year in the military and debuted with the Giants in San Francisco a few weeks into the 1958 season. He immediately took an outfield slot and kept it for three years hitting over 20 homers each year.
He became the odd man out in a crowded Giants' outfield and was traded to the Indians for 1961. In three years with the Tribe he played as a regular and displayed his above average power in cavernous Municipal Stadium. He was traded to the Orioles for 1964 and on to the Senators in August that year. He was a regular into the 1966 season even as his numbers slipped. He spent 1967 in the minors.
Released after that season he played in Japan for an additional six years.
In 1961 Kirkland had an unusual day which is chronicled on the Hardball Times website. He homered in his first three at bats against the White Sox and then drew a walk. With a four homer game staring him in the face as well as two men on while his club trailed by a run, Kirkland laid down a sacrifice bunt to advance the runners to second and third. It turned out that the Indians couldn't score the runners but the story illustrates Kirkland's selfless baseball style.
These sea-foam green cards have really grown on me. There are 19 of them among National Leaguers.

Monday, March 25, 2013

#508 Art Fowler

Three Dodgers in a row? I hadn't planned it but what are you going to do? Anyway Art Fowler is one of the more interesting guys to appear in the '59 set. He was playing in the textile leagues in his native South Carolina when he was scouted and signed by the Giants in 1944.

His numbers were all over the board in five seasons of traveling up and down the Giants' minor league ladder and then he spent a season with the independent Atlanta Crackers before finding himself as property of the Braves. Four more seasons in the minors earned him a trade to Cincinnati and finally, in 1954, at the age of 31, Art Fowler made the big leagues. It's not known of anyone referred to him as a 'old' 31 but with the number of innings he had managed to throw in his years of baseball to that point it wouldn't be surprising if they did.

From '54 through '56 Fowler won double digit games for the Reds while serving as a starter (primarily) and a reliever  In 1957 he was in the bullpen and struggled to the point the Reds farmed him out for the '58 season and traded him to the Dodgers that June. He was in the minors the whole year.

He went 3-4 for the Dodgers out of the bullpen in 1959. He also spent more time in the minors and was not with the team for the World Series. Back to the minors in 1960, Fowler had to welcome his purchase by the crosstown Angels early in 1961. He spent three seasons in their bullpen and a fourth, 1964, as their pitching coach and part time pitcher. Fowler's SABR page includes this little nugget that says a lot about the gritty vet:

 Bill Rigney, the Angels’ manager, respected Fowler’s pitching skills: “With Fowler’s control, I saved him for the tight spots. I once brought him in with nobody out, the bases loaded, and three balls and no strikes on the batter in the ninth inning. When he got to the mound, he told me, ‘You’re a little late, aren’t you?’ But he got us out of it.” Rigney also remembered Fowler’s off-field antics: “Ryne Duren…ran with Art Fowler and Dan Osinski, that was a trio. One time we’re in Boston at the old Kenmore [Hotel] and there’s a fire at 5 o’clock in the morning and I get dressed and get down to the lobby and there are the three of ‘em all dressed up, smiling at me. ‘I bet you’re trying to figure out,’ Fowler said, ‘if we just came down or just came in.’”
In 1965 Fowler found himself back in the minors as property of the Twins and he pitched and coached through 1970(!) mostly under manager Billy Martin.

The Art Fowler/Billy Martin connection became a drama that played out for many years in the newspapers and broadcast media. Fowler followed Martin through five franchises, some multiple times. He was hired/fired/hired and fired again with the Yankees in particular. He obit in the New York Times and this MLB Blogs entry chronicle some of the circus that surrounded that pair.

Here is an interesting tidbit... Art Fowler's older (by 24 years!) brother, Jesse pitched in the majors in 1924. Art debuted in 1954 making them the major league brothers with the longest time between debuts.

And finally, from Wikipedia, a Fowler quote that sums up his pitching and personal philosophies:
"If running is so important, Jesse Owens would be a twenty-game winner. And, the only reason I don't like to run is that it makes me tired." -- Art Fowler, 1957

Saturday, March 23, 2013

#406 Solly Drake

Outfielder Solly Drake was signed out of Arkansas by way of the Canadian amateur leagues by the Chicago Cubs in 1951. After a nice '51 season at the 'C' ball level Drake spent a couple of years in the military and then returned to resume his climb up the Cubs' ladder. He continued to impress and got an extended look with the Cubs in 1956. He had decent numbers, hitting .256, but spent the 1957 season in the minors again and hit well enough to entice the Dodgers to acquire him for 1958. His year with their AAA Montreal club was good enough to get him a card in the '59 set. Topps obviously expected big things.

He only got nine at bats that year however and was sold to the Phils in June. He failed to hit much and never returned to the big leagues. He spent his final two seasons in pro ball in the minors.

Solly and his brother, Sammy, were the first African-American brothers to play in the majors. He is currently (and has been for 25+ years) the pastor of the Greater Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. 

Thursday, March 21, 2013

#403 Clem Labine

Gonna post this awesome Clem Labine without doing too much research. I've been in NYC for awhile and am currently knee deep in projects to catch up on.

So, here's Clem who is the child of Canadian immigrants and spoke only French until the age of seven. He was a good enough athlete as a kid to catch the eye of the Dodgers organisation and he signed in 1944 after dropping out of high school.

He spent a year in the service and worked up thru the Dodger's chain until he debuted in 1950. Unlike many relievers of the day he was not a converted (or failed) starter. He led the league in saves twice and games pitched once. He appeared in five World Series, four with the Dodgers and he won two rings with them. He also pitched for the Pirates in the monumental slugfest that was the 1960 Series against the Yanks and he won a ring that year, too. His postseason numbers took a real hit in that Series.

He was 77-56 with 97 saves in twelve major league seasons. 70 of those wins and 86 of his saves were with the Dodgers. He hit three homers in the bigs, all in 1955 and those were the only hits he had all season in 31 at bats. That's a strange stat.

His New York Times obit from 2007 is a good read and this excerpt is really all you need to know about Clement Walter Labine:

Through those summers of the 1950s, Labine was a confident figure, relieving pitching mainstays like Erskine, Don Newcombe, Preacher Roe and Johnny Podres.
“If you had a lead, there was this thing where about the seventh or eighth inning, where he’d get up, sort of a ritual, and walk down to the bullpen,” the former Dodgers pitcher Roger Craig told Bob Cairns in “Pen Men,” an oral history of relief pitching. “Clem was kind of a cocky, arrogant type, which was good. I liked it. He’d fold his glove up and put it in his pocket. I can see him now, strutting down to the bullpen and the fans cheering.”
The Dodgers website and the L.A. Times have more on Labine. Love the expression on his card and the seafoam green frame is sweet. Sorry Clem, you deserve a better post that this.

Monday, March 18, 2013

#173 Bill Monbouquette

Hey, it's Monbo!! Bill Monbouquette's (that's the last time I'm typing that!) career fell right in my wheelhouse as a young fan. He had six pretty solid seasons with the Red Sox between 1960 and 1965. He was six games over .500 for those seasons pitching on some pretty lousy Red Sox clubs, clubs that only once finished as high as sixth.

The Medford, Mass. native signed with the Sox in 1955 (and he spent that very night in jail!) and three years later he debuted in Fenway with a five inning no-decision outing against the Tigers. He went 3-4 that year with a 3.18 ERA, returned in 1959 to go 7-7 while splitting 34 appearances between starting and the bullpen. In 1960 he grabbed a place in the rotation and held it for awhile.

While with Boston he pitched a no-hitter against the White Sox in Comiskey in 1960 and had a 17 strikeout performance against the Senators in 1961. Oddly that was his only "double digit K" outing of the season. Monbo was traded to the Tigers for the 1966 season and following his release the next year pitched for the Yankees and Giants before retiring in early April of 1969. He never appeared in a post season game but he was a three time All Star, starting (and being roughed up) in the first of the two 1960 games. He talks about that game (and much more) in a two part Baseball Prospectus interview which is linked in the last paragraph of this post.

Here's a note from Wikipedia: On September 25, 1965 in a game against the Kansas City A's, Monbouquette was the starting pitcher versus 58-year old Hall of Famer Satchel Paige. Monbouquette threw a complete game for his tenth win of the season, but became the final strikeout victim of Paige's in the 3rd inning.

This is Monbo's rookie card and the picture shows him with as close to a smile as you're going to get outta him. If you get the idea I like Monbo you are correct. He struck a cord with me and my friends back in the day, and I don't know why. Maybe it was just his name or maybe it was the way Phil Rizzuto butchered it.

About ten years ago he was diagnosed with Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) but he's still out there kicking and is as feisty as ever according to some reports.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

#115 Mickey Vernon

Slick fielding first-baseman Mickey Vernon, like the recently featured Gene Woodling, was a very good player for a very long time. In a career that stretched from his debut with the Washington Senators in 1939 through his final games, as an activated coach for the Pirates during the 1960 pennant chase, Vernon won two batting titles, three times led the AL in doubles, made seven All Star squads and finished in the top five in MVP voting three times.

Signed out of Villanova University in 1937 Vernon put together some impressive minor league numbers before his 1939 debut in which he totaled more than 300 plate appearances and hit .257. He spent most of the next season in the minors but when he returned to the Nats in 1941 he was ready, hitting .299 and driving in 93 runs. He continued to put up some exceptional numbers in Washington through 1955 with a side trip to the Pacific for two years during WWII and a year plus stint with the Indians along the way.

Vernon had his arguably best season in 1946 when he was fresh out of the service. He hit .353 while collecting 51 doubles among his 207 hits. His 43 double, 15 homer, 115 RBI, .337 season in 1953 wasn't too bad either.

Traded to Boston for the 1956 season Vernon played for the Sox for two years before being obtained for a second time by the Indians for 1958. He was a member of the Milwaukee Braves by the time this card was issued in '59 (a year too late for the Braves' Series against the Yanks). He retired after that and was coaching with the Pirates when he was activated and 'unretired' in September of 1960 in time to pinch hit nine times for the Bucs. His Championship ring from that season represents the only postseason experience he enjoyed in his long and otherwise successful career,

He managed the 'new' Washington Senators during the first two+ years of the expansion club's existence ('61-'63) and then spent many years coaching at the big league level, managing in the minors and serving as a hitting instructor in several teams systems. He passed away in 2004. He is commemorated with a Little League named in his honor in his native Pennsylvania. He also is the focus of the Mickey Vernon Sports Museum.

His SABR bio is a fun read but Chrome issued a malware(!) alert when I went to it so I'll back away for a day or so.

That of course is Yankee Stadium behind Vernon on his orange framed card. From all accounts his smile was as much a part of his career as his bat. The cartoon-less, 'wall of text' cardback says "This guy was doing something right!" That all makes this a pretty nice card, don't you think?

Thursday, March 14, 2013

#132 Don Lee The Sporting News Rookie Star

Geeky high school teacher: "I'll take 'Fathers and Sons' for $200, Alex."

Thornton Lee and Don Lee

Geeky high school teacher: "What duo gave up homers to Ted F'ing Williams 21 years apart?"


And, btw, according to Wikipedia Ted is the only one to do that.

Anyway righthanded pitcher Don Lee signed with the Detroit Tigers out of the University of Arizona in  1956 and pitched in a dozen games for them in '57/'58. Half of those were starts. Traded to the Senators in 1960 he stayed with the Nats/Twins into 1962 when he was dealt to the Angels. That '62 season was his best, he won 11 games.

He pitched for the Astros and Cubs in '65/'66 and then spent the 1967 season in the minors. He finished with a 40-44 record and a 3.61 ERA. His father, the aforementioned Thornton Lee won 117 games in 16 big league seasons between 1933 and 1948. His ERA was nearly the same as his son's, 3.56.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

#170 Gene Woodling

Gene Woodling's career stretched from 1943 with the Indians through 1962 with the expansion Mets. Along the way he was a reliable hitter who had a good on base percentage, a .284 lifetime average, hit .318 in five World Series (he won them all as a Yankee and they were in consecutive years), had enough power to register double digit homers nine times, made the AL All Star team in 1959 and garnered a reputation as an all around valuable edition to every team he played for and a good guy to boot.

He broke into pro ball in 1940 as a 17 year old Indians signee and made the bigs in 1943 as noted. After a couple of years in the Navy during WWII Woodling returned to the Indians, was traded to the Pirates and then to the Yankees where he spent 6 seasons and won his five rings.

His first run with the Orioles, in 1955, wasn't very successful but after three years in Cleveland he returned to Charm City in 1958 and was one of the clubs better players. He continued on to play for the expansion Senators and then the Mets before retiring.

After his playing days he served as a coach for the Orioles for several years. He published a book on hitting in the late 60s. He died in 2001. EDIT: for some reason my browser is giving me a malware warning when I attempt to access the SABR site. YMMV  His SABR page is a very complete bio... as always it's recommended.

more late edit:

Gene has a page at the Baseball in Wartime blog. And it features this great picture. Not sure how I missed that in my initial research.

VERY LATE EDIT (Feb 20, 2014)... In a comment Paul pointed out that this picture on the baseball in Wartime site was flipped horizontally. Here is a corrected picture:

Sunday, March 10, 2013

#268 Tito Francona

John Patsy "Tito" Francona (yes, his middle name is 'Patsy.. I bet he grew up tough) signed with the St. Louis Browns in 1952 and spent a couple of years in their chain before Uncle Sam called and he spent a few more in the service. By the time he made the bigs the woeful Brownies had moved to Baltimore and become the woeful Orioles.

Francona stepped right in and played full-time in the O's outfield in 1956 hitting .258 with nine homers. He finished tied with Rocky Colavito for second in the Rookie of the Year balloting in the AL that season. That means he and The Rock each got a vote while Luis Aparicio got the other 22!

Despite that he spent some time in the minors early in the 1957 season and when he did return he wasn't quite able to produce consistently. He was traded to the White Sox in December of 1957 and split the '58 season between Chicago and, after a trade, the Detroit Tigers.

Another trade, in March of 1959, sent Francona to the Indians and it was in Cleveland that he finally established himself. That season he had a 'Brady Anderson' year hitting 20 homers and batting .363 for no apparent reason. Harmonic Convergence perhaps.

He continued to play well for the Indians over most of his six seasons with the club. From 1960 through 1963 he's pop up in the lists for Top Ten in various hitting categories.

After his run with the Indians Francona went on to play for the Cardinals, Phillies, A's and Brewers. For the most part he was no longer an everyday player but he did hit .286 with almost 400 plate appearances with the '68 Braves. And in 1969 he hit .319 in limited play in a season he split between the Braves and A's. His 1970 release by the Brewers marked the end of his career.

Tito Francona is, of course, the father of Terry Francona who piloted the Red Sox to much success (two titles) in the last decade, managed the Phils before that and is the new skipper in Cleveland, completing a circle of sorts.

Tito also holds a place in my heart because he wore the #44 for the Orioles which was 'my' number back when I was wearing one.

Friday, March 8, 2013

#271 Orlando Pena

Havana native Orlando Pena debuted with the Cincinnati Reds in 1958 after being picked up from an independent team in Daytona Beach and spending three impressive seasons in the minors.

He then embarked on a 14 season career with eight clubs that spanned from the '58 debut until 1975. His most successful run came with the Kansas City A's from '62 through '64 when he was a member of their starting rotation. His 20 loss 1963 season (he won 12) was actually one of his best numbers-wise.

After that he spent time in six other organizations and kicked around the minors as well and even pitched batting practice for the Royals between major league stints in the early 70s. In 1972 he was a combined 22-3 with Miami and Rochester in the Orioles chain. Oddly he led the AL in fielding percentage as a pitcher in 1963 and then led in errors in 1964.

After leaving the game in 1975 he resurfaced very briefly in 1979 with the independent Miami Amigos with a six frame outing for that Inter-American League club. Davey Johnson managed that team which was part of a brief, failed experimental league.

Nice to see Fidel Castro make an appearance on the back of Topps card, isn't it? And just because I can I'll show you his final Topps card, from 1975.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

#107 Norm Larker

Norm Larker began as a pro in 1949 in his hometown of Hazleton, Pennsylvania and caught the eye of Brooklyn scouts who signed him for the 1950 season. Larker began a long trek through the loaded Dodger system as an outfielder before he finally emerged with the now-Los Angeles Dodgers in 1958.

In his rookie season he batted .277 in 99 games. The following year, 1959, he played mostly first base and picked up a World Series ring playing in all six games and hitting .188. In 1960 he moved to first base spelling Gil Hodges and had by far his best season. Hitting .323 he finished 2nd in the batting race and made the NL All Star squad.

His production and playing time declined in 1961 and he was drafted by the expansion Houston franchise for which he played one year. He was traded to the Braves and then to the Giants late in 1963. That was his last season in the majors although he played some minor league ball and also played in Japan through 1966.

Pretty standard card for this set. That's the LA Coliseum in the background.

The September 10, 1962 issue of Sports Illustrated featured a bit of by-play that included both Norm Larker and a player whose card was featured a week or so ago, Hal Woodeshick:

The Houston Colts put on quite a show for early arrivals in Cincinnati's Crosley Field recently. First, Pitcher Hal Woodeshick and Catcher Jim Campbell almost had a fight when Campbell tried to hurry his teammate out of the batting cage. Woodeshick refused to be hurried, saying, "I'm taking my cuts." "What for?" said Campbell. "You're never around long enough to bat." Woodeshick went for Campbell and the two had to be separated.
Then Infielder Bob Aspromonte, upset because First Baseman Norm Larker wouldn't let him use one of his bats, threw it the length of the dugout and broke the knob end. Then he pulled all of Larker's bats out of the rack onto the concrete floor. Larker didn't go for Aspromonte—just for Aspromonte's bats, pulling them out of the rack and flinging them to the floor, too. When none broke, he took one and started hitting it against the concrete steps.
"What in hell is going on here?" suddenly roared Manager Harry Craft, and an uneasy peace settled over the Houston Colts.

Monday, March 4, 2013

#209 Lenny Green

Always nice to see an Oriole pop up, even one that didn't play a whole lot in Charm City. Baltimore signed Lenny Green in 1955 out of Detroit's Pershing High School. He put up some impressive minor league numbers and earned himself a look with the big league club in 1957.

He failed to stick and split the '58 season between the O's and the minors. In late May of 1959, despite a .292 average in limited play, Green was dealt to the Senators. He earned a job in the Nats/Twins outfield for 1960 thru 1962 and hit well and stole some bases. He hit a career high 14 dingers in 1962.

With his numbers declining he began bouncing around the AL including a second ride with the Orioles. He recaptured a bit of magic in Boston in 1965 when he earned over 400 plate appearances. He finished his career with the 1968 Tigers but was not around at season's end to possibly enjoy the Tigers World Series spoils.

He worked with the Ford Motor Company for 27 years after his baseball days. His SABR bio (as usual) is chock full of interesting details about Lenny Green. And early in his career Green was considered (by some) to be the first 'true' African-American player for the Senators. Details in an interesting web page found here.

I love the fact that the card depicts Green's smiling face with Memorial Stadium in the background. I think that style of light tower was unique to that dear old ballpark.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

#44 Vito Valentinetti

Vito John Valentinetti, if that's not a classic Italian name I don't know what one is. And I speak with the authority of one who's mother's name was Esposito.

Anyway, Bronx native Vito (I am not going to keep typing his last name) signed with the Chicago White Sox out of Iona College in 1950 (he's a member of their Hall of Fame) and then, after a brief minor league fling, spent two seasons in the military.  He pitched in one game for the Sox in 1954 and went back to the minors.

Following that he was acquired by the Cubs for 1955 and spent parts of 1956 and early 1957 with them before being traded to the Dodgers for whom he never pitched at the major league level. Before the '57 season was over he was purchased by the Indians. They traded him to the Tigers in March of 1958, and then the Tigers dealt him to the Senators that June.

He went 4-8 with the Nats (with a horrendous ERA) through 1959. Even so he had been traded around Opening Day of '59 to the Orioles but the trade was voided (maybe the O's thought his frequent flyer miles were coming in the trade) and went back to Washington to finish the season. He had a 13-14 career W/L mark in 108 games including 15 starts.

The O's did pick him up for 1960 (I hope someone is taking notes) but he stayed in the minors and then retired. Following his playing (and traveling days) he spent many years as batting practice pitcher for both the Mets and Yankees.

I'm not sure why this card appears sort of 'washed out' in this scan. The actual card is really a nice bright orange. I might have to dig up the book and read about my scanner settings.

I'm also not sure where this shot was taken. Looks like it could be a spring training facility but with Vito's convoluted career itinerary it could be anywhere.