Friday, February 28, 2014

#526 Bob Speake

Outfielder Bob Speake had a major league 'moment in the sun' in 1955. As a Cubs rookie he was given the role as a starting outfielder due to an injury to Hank Sauer and he went on a home run tear with 10 in his first 90 big league at-bats. He capped his run with five RBIs in a Memorial Day doubleheader on a 4 for 8 day that saw his average hit .304. But it was downhill from there and he ended the season with just two more homers and a .218 average.

Sports Illustrated had taken note of Speake during his hot 1955 run and published the following in this June 13 issue in an article on the Cubs surprising success:
The lead in the melodrama has been played by a lean young man named Bob Speake, who hit all of .264 for Des Moines last year and who had been to bat only eight times for the Cubs prior to May 2. Then veteran Outfielder Hank Sauer ate tainted shrimp and became ill with food poisoning. Speake, a first baseman by trade, was pressed into service as an outfielder and promptly caught fire. He hit a three-run triple against the Giants, a two-run homer to beat the Reds, a two-run homer to beat the Phils, a tenth-inning two-run homer to beat the Braves. He hit a home run to beat the Cardinals 1-0 in the first game of a double-header on May 25 and a run-producing double that provided the margin of victory in the second game. He hit a two-run homer in a 3-0 game against the Cards the next day. On Memorial Day he hit a two-run home run and batted in four runs as the Cubs beat the Cardinals 9-5 in the first game and won the second game with a home run in the eleventh inning. It was a very merry month of May for young Mr. Speake.
Unfortunately for Speake and the Cubs, as we have seen, by the time this was on newstands the slipper had been lost and the coach was again a pumpkin on the North Side.

He had begun as a pro by signing with the Cubs in 1948. He sandwiched a two year Army stint around four seasons in the Cubs chain where he proved to be a power hitter who wasn't much for average or OBP. But a 20 homer, .264 average season at the Class A level in 1954 got him that shot with the '55 Cubs.

He spent 1956 with the Los Angeles Angels of the PCL and his 25-111-.300 stat line got him back to Wrigley in 1957. He played that year nearly full time in the Cubs lineup and hit .232 with 16 homers but the Cubs moved him to the Giants that off season for Bobby Thomson.

With San Francisco in '58 he had less that 100 at bats and a terrible start to the 1959 season resulted in a trip back to the minors, a move noted on the back of this card. He finished out that year at AA and retired. He was in the bowling business in his native Springfield, Missouri before starting up an insurance company with a partner.

What caused his short career after such a promising start? One theory, advanced on a Cubbie message board, alleges that NL opponents discovered he had a 'blind spot' and that was the end of his salad days. Maybe, maybe not. With all the ex-major leaguers who played against Speake in the PCL in 1956 one would think his numbers would of suffered as they had in Chicago after May of 1955.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

#501 Bobby Tiefenauer

Oh, the irony! Knuckleball specialist Bobby Tiefenauer (and I'm NOT typing that again) spent from 1948 through 1969 playing pro baseball across North America and another 20 coaching but in 1959, the year this card was issued.... he was 'voluntarily retired'.

Signed by the Cardinals in 1948 he pitched in their minor league system for the better part of eight seasons getting a six game look in 1952 and a more extended 18 game stint in 1955. Those shots totaled 40 innings. In September of '56 the Cards dealt him to the Tigers in the first of a dizzying array of transactions for Tief that saw him pitch for six major league teams and in the system of a seventh in addition to being the property of several independent AAA clubs.

Rather than try to reproduce a 'map' of his career I'll let Baseball Reference lay it all out.

Teams Played For

 Glossary  · SHARE  · Embed  · CSV  · PRE  · LINK  · ?
194818Tallassee IndiansGeorgia-Alabama LeagueDSTL
194919Tallassee CardinalsGeorgia-Alabama LeagueDSTL
195020Winston-Salem CardinalsCarolina LeagueBSTL
195121Rochester Red WingsInternational LeagueAAASTL
195222Rochester Red WingsInternational LeagueAAASTL
195222Columbus Red BirdsAmerican AssociationAAASTL
195222St. Louis CardinalsNational LeagueMLBSTL11952-07-141952-08-08
195323Rochester Red WingsInternational LeagueAAASTL
195424Houston BuffaloesTexas LeagueAASTL
195525Omaha CardinalsAmerican AssociationAAASTL
195525St. Louis CardinalsNational LeagueMLBSTL11955-04-161955-06-22
195626Charleston SenatorsAmerican AssociationAAADET
195727Toronto Maple LeafsInternational LeagueAAA
195828Toronto Maple LeafsInternational LeagueAAA
195929Voluntarily Retired
196030Rochester Red WingsInternational LeagueAAASTL
196030Cleveland IndiansAmerican LeagueMLBCLE11960-04-191960-05-31
196131San Juan/Charleston MarlinsInternational LeagueAAASTL
196131St. Louis CardinalsNational LeagueMLBSTL11961-04-141961-05-02
196232Houston Colt .45'sNational LeagueMLBHOU11962-04-131962-09-29
196333Atlanta CrackersInternational LeagueAAASTL1
196333Milwaukee BravesNational LeagueMLBMLN11963-08-151963-09-27
196333Toronto Maple LeafsInternational LeagueAAAMLN2
196434Milwaukee BravesNational LeagueMLBMLN11964-04-151964-10-01
196535Atlanta CrackersInternational LeagueAAAMLN1
196535Milwaukee BravesNational LeagueMLBMLN11965-04-211965-05-23
196535Toledo Mud HensInternational LeagueAAANYY2
196535New York YankeesAmerican LeagueMLBNYY21965-06-181965-07-06
196535Cleveland IndiansAmerican LeagueMLBCLE31965-08-131965-09-18
196636Portland BeaversPacific Coast LeagueAAACLE
196737Portland BeaversPacific Coast LeagueAAACLE
196737Cleveland IndiansAmerican LeagueMLBCLE11967-09-101967-09-24
196838Tacoma CubsPacific Coast LeagueAAACHC
196838Chicago CubsNational LeagueMLBCHC11968-04-101968-09-21
196939Tacoma CubsPacific Coast LeagueAAACHC

One odd detail in all this is that Tief looked to be ready to establish himself  in the majors in '59 as he was coming off some very good seasons in Toronto. I can't find anything that hints at why he sat out that season after being traded to Cleveland. Since SABR doesn't have a Tief bio it remains a mystery. Perhaps he had gotten comfortable in Toronto and would have preferred to stay there.

But he did report to the Indians in 1960 and that began a 10 season odyssey of trades, sales, demotions, and promotions among several organizations. His busiest major league seasons came in 1962 when he pitched in 43 games for Houston and 1964/'65 when he had 46 and 31 appearances for the Braves (and Yankees in the second half of '65). He had 13 saves for Milwaukee in '64 which is more than half his career total.

In all he won nine games with a 3.84 ERA in 179 big league innings. In almost 850 minor league games over 19 seasons he was 162-96 with an ERA of just 2.66. He is enshrined in the International League Hall of Fame.

He last pitched in 1969 with the Cubs' AAA club and then spent nearly two decades in the Philadelphia Phillies' organization, working as a bullpen coach and a minor league pitching coach. He passed away at the age of 70 in 2000.

Monday, February 24, 2014

#494 Don Pavletich

Don Pavletich is an interesting guy on an interesting card. He was signed out of Wisconsin by the Reds for a big bonus in 1956. The card-back claims it was a 'reported $40,000' while Pavletich, in this book excerpt on Google which I referenced numerous times for this post, says it was $30,000 but reported as $20,000. Whatever it was it qualified him as a 'bonus baby' and obligated the Reds to keep him on their roster.  

He began his pro career in 1957 when he reported to spring training. He was on the Reds roster as the season opened and pinch hit (he walked for Don Newcombe) in one game. Then at the urging of the Reds he joined the Army in May. The plan was that he could play service ball and get experience without taking up a valuable roster spot and sitting around. He spent the rest of that year and all of 1958 in the military. Interestingly he says that he was discharged three months before the end of his two year hitch on a hardship appeal. The hardship being that he had to be in spring training to pursue his livelihood!

When he returned in 1959 he again played in a single game but this time, instead of heading overseas, he headed for the minors. He had two solid seasons there, played with the Reds in 1962 and was used sparingly. Two seasons split between the Reds and the minors followed and finally, in 1965, he had a full year as a major league platoon catcher and he hit a career high .319. Another good year  (.294 with 12 homers) followed in 1966 but by then a young Johnny Bench was on the Reds' catching horizon and Pavletich's days were numbered in Cincy.

His numbers and playing time took downward trends (he played more first than catcher in '68) and he was traded to the White Sox for 1969. A broken hand limited his playing time and he was dealt to the Red Sox where he played on a limited basis for two years. After an off season trade to the Brewers in the winter of '71/'72 he was released that March. He did not return to the majors and worked as a mortgage loan officer after baseball. 

That card is pretty unique in this set. Pavletich poses in catching gear with a red cap and in what appears to me to be Connie Mack Stadium. The windows and posts in the stands seem to make it so. Check this picture of the old ballpark and see if you agree. 

But when was it taken? He was with the Reds early in 1957 and they played in Philadelphia early in April so that's a possibility. He was in Europe in the Army during 1958. They also played there early in 1959, maybe early enough to have his photo snapped in time to be included in this set. But knowing Topps that just doesn't seem likely. 

But that cap. Assuming it's not 'colored' by an artist and really is red than that becomes an interesting clue. The Reds wore that cap in 1956 before going to the white crown version in 1957. It may be that Pavletich, after signing in '56, was brought to Philadelphia for a look at the club or to iron out details. The Reds were there in mid-September. And Pavletich himself spoke of signing in '56 but not reporting until '57 Or they team may have had him come for the actual contract signing and some publicity pics. That sort of this isn't unusual even today with big dollar prospects. 

I'll never know but tracking down stuff like this keeps me interested in this set even 500+ posts into it.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

#523 Harry Bright

When you are 22 years old with five years of pro experience and an organization turns over the reigns of a team to you, even a Class D minor league team, it's clear that someone sees you as a 'baseball guy'. And so it was with Harry Bright. In 1952, six years after signing his first contract with the Yankees (at 16!), Bright was named player/manager of the Janesville Cubs in the Wisconsin State League. One of his opposing managers, btw, was Hall of Famer Travis Jackson who, at 48, likely had spikes older than Bright.

Despite some impressive numbers it took Bright 12 years to make the major leagues after his signing in '46. He played some for the Pirates in the second half of 1958 and spent the whole of '59 with them playing on a limited basis.

He was traded to the Senators and in '61 was a platoon guy but in '62 he had his best big league year hitting 17 homers to go with a .273 average as the Nats' regular first baseman. He bounced around with several different clubs through 1965. That included a stint with the Yankees that got him his only post-season action, two at bats (both whiffs) in the '63 Series against the Dodgers. He was Sandy Koufax' 15th strike out in Game One, ending the game as a footnote to what was then a new Series single game K record. He later lamented that after waiting so long to make it to a Series the whole country was pulling for him to strike out.

Following his retirement as an active player Bright coached and managed in the minors and served as a scout for the Expos up until his death in 2000 at the age of 70.

And finally, just because it's a challenging read, here is Harry Bright's transaction log, as seen on Baseball Reference. Please take notes as a quiz will follow.
  • Before 1946 Season: Signed by the New York Yankees as an amateur free agent.
  • May, 1947: Released by the New York Yankees.
  • Before 1950 Season: Sent from Miami (Kansas-Oklahoma-Missouri) to the Chicago Cubs in an unknown transaction.
  • December 3, 1951: Drafted by York (Interstate) from the Chicago Cubs in the 1951 minor league draft.
  • Before 1952 Season: Returned (earlier draft pick) by York (Interstate) to the Chicago Cubs.
  • Before 1953 Season: Sent from the Chicago Cubs to the Chicago White Sox in an unknown transaction.
  • November 30, 1953: Drafted by the Detroit Tigers from the Chicago White Sox in the 1953 rule 5 draft.
  • May, 1955: Purchased by Sacramento (PCL) from the Detroit Tigers.
  • July 21, 1958: Purchased by the Pittsburgh Pirates from Sacramento (PCL).
  • November 30, 1959: Drafted by the Chicago Cubs from the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1959 rule 5 draft.
  • April 7, 1960: Returned (earlier draft pick) by the Chicago Cubs to the Pittsburgh Pirates.
  • December 16, 1960: Traded by the Pittsburgh Pirates with Bennie Daniels and R C Stevens to the Washington Senators for Bobby Shantz.
  • November 24, 1962: Traded by the Washington Senators to the Cincinnati Reds for Rogelio Alvarez. Rogelio Alvarez returned to original team on April 20, 1963.
  • April 21, 1963: Purchased by the New York Yankees from the Cincinnati Reds.
  • September 11, 1964: Released by the New York Yankees.
  • March 15, 1965: Signed as a Free Agent with the Chicago Cubs.

Harry Bright Transactions quiz:
  • How many times was Harry 'returned' to his original team within months of a transaction?
  • How many times was Harry released by the Yankees?
  • How many times times was Harry involved in an 'unknown transaction'?
  • How many of Harry's transactions involve the Cubs?
  • How many years elapsed between Harry first being acquired by the Cubs and the first game he played for them?
And finally...
  • ...Which of these transaction methods did the Cubs employ in deals involving Harry?
---Sent to the Cubs
---Sent from the Cubs
---Drafted from the Cubs
---Returned to the Cubs
---Returned by the Cubs
---Signed as Free Agent by the Cubs

Answers: 2, 2, 2, 7, 15 and All of the Above.

It's easy to see that Bright's card has escaped my 'upgrade purges' over the past few years. Condition-wise it sits right in between "I'm  OK with it" and "Maybe I should I'll spring for the $3.75 to get a better one". I think I'll just keep this copy. Harry's bright-eyed 'happy-to-be-in-majors-after-eleven-years-in-the-minors' look seems fitting on a card that's much closer to "F" than it is to "G" on the Fair-to-Good scale.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

#520 Don Elston

Ohio native Don Elston spent eight seasons as a starting pitcher in the Cubs' farm system after he signed with them in 1948. Those years were pretty impressive as a whole and one wonders what kept him 'down on the farm', especially in an organization as mediocre as the Cubs were at the time. The answer is likely his lack of control.

He did get a brief two game look at the end of the 1953 season and was banged around pretty hard. After pitching (and going 17-6) in the tough PCL as property of the Cubs in 1955 Elston was dealt to the Dodgers. Another season in AAA followed and then he made the Brooklyn staff in 1957.

That didn't last long however and after just a single one inning appearance in Ebbets Field in May he was traded back to the Cubs. He finished out that year as a starter/reliever on Chicago's North Side and then in 1958 he emerged as one of the better relief pitchers in the NL. He led the league with 69 appearances, had 10 saves (for a club with just 72 wins) and teamed with lefty Bill Henry to form an effective left/right closing combo.

In 1959 he made the NL All Star squad, pitched an inning and got the save in the first of the two ASGs played that year. He allowed a two out single to Nellie Fox in the top of the ninth at Forbes Field but got Harvey Kuenn to pop out to end it and preserve the NL's 5-4 win. that season he had career highs in wins (10) and saves (13). The save category for pitchers was reportedly created by Chicago newspaperman Jerome Holtzman as a way to show Elston's contributions. Holtzman saw Elroy Face getting wins after blowing leads with the Pirates and thought Elston's work as a reliever was better and deserved recognition.

Elston remained the club's workhorse for several more seasons although his numbers never again matched his '58/'59 run. After spending the 1965 season pitching in the minors Elston retired as an active player although he did manage briefly in the Cubs' system. He then spent the rest of his life in sales and working on behalf of Chicago area charities including the Chicago Baseball Cancer Charities organization for which he served as co-chairperson with another Chicago pitching standout, Billy Pierce.

Elston died at the age of 65 from heart failure in 1995. He had a long history of heart problems extending back to the beginning of his playing days, a fact he never shared with his teammates.

His Chicago Tribune obit has a lot of background and stories from his playing days. This big chunk of that work is worthy of being repeated here:
Don Elston, who died Monday at the age of 65, was like many pitchers of his time. He couldn't get Willie Mays out. Having exhausted his usual repertoire, Elston tried a spitter. Mays hit it over the fence in left center. Next time he threw a knuckler. Again, Mays connected-into the center-field bleachers, a few feet below the Wrigley Field scoreboard. "I don't know what we're going to do with him," catcher Dick Bertell told Elston."And Don said, `Tell him what's coming. He won't believe it, anyway.' "And so Bertell, when he went into his catcher's crouch, asked Mays: "What do you want to hit?"As Bertell recalled Wednesday, Willie didn't reply. "He just gave me a funny look. So I said, `It's going to be a curveball.' And for the rest of that at-bat, I called every pitch."Did Willie take Elston deep again?"No," Bertell replied. "He popped up. From then on, I wouldn't say Don had Willie in his pocket but he didn't get any more big hits off him."

Thursday, February 20, 2014

#521 Gary Geiger

And we are back to some high number series cards with Gary Geiger. Black replaced green on the reverse of these high numbers. Elsewhere it has been stated that the switch was done as part of Topps' efforts to gear up for the printing of their 1959 football cards. Sounds logical to me.

Gary Geiger was a standout player for Gorham high school in rural Illinois and was signed by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1954. He began as a pitcher and, after a rough first year, was a twenty game winner in 1955. He was having some success as a reliever in '56 when the Cards decided that given their pitching depth and Geiger's bat, speed and continued control problems as a hurler that he would help them more as an outfielder. And so he was switched.

He struggled with his hitting at the AAA level in 1957 and the Cards ended up exposing him to the Rule 5 draft that winter. In an interesting twist it was Frank Lane who, as Cardinal's GM made the decision to risk losing Geiger....and it was the same Frank Lane who, having taken the same position with the Cleveland Indians, selected Geiger in that draft in his first act with his new club.

Geiger hit .231 as the fourth outfielder with the Indians in 1958, a year during which he had to remain on the big league roster or be returned to St. Louis. In winter ball later that year he injured his neck and came home to the states over Lane's objections. He was then traded to the Red Sox where he would play next to two Hall of Fame outfielders, Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski over the course of his seven seasons in Fenway.

Geiger turned out to be injury prone and had trouble putting full seasons together. But he had speed and some power and was even able to hit over .300 in 1960 playing in nearly half the games. But much more was expected of him given the talent he flashed and in the end the Sox let him get drafted away by the Braves where he spent two seasons. Geiger finished his career with a couple of years in Houston after spending 1968 in the minors.

In 1996 Geiger died of cirrhosis of the liver at the age of just 59. He had lived the last 20 years of his life battling alcoholism. His family says his issues were a result of his fear of flying. He used drink to calm his nerves and in the end the habit caught up with him.

Gieger's SABR bio is the 'go to' place for more insight on his interesting life and career. This obit from a local paper is a quicker but also interesting read. Lots of stories from his family and friends in that one.

This card and the other 'light green' card (the previously posted #545 Tom Morgan) in the high number series have a distinct 'lime green' look about them. It's certainly a different shade of light green than that which is seen on the lower series cards. For a comparison here are the Geiger and Dale Long cards scanned side by side. The difference seems more pronounced when viewing the cards in person but it is plain enough to see in the scans.