Saturday, December 10, 2016

2016 Topps High Tek offers intriguing variety for collectors

Two-thousand-sixteen is quickly coming to a close, but Topps gives collectors a glimpse into the future with this year’s High Tek baseball release. Crafted with a slick opaque design with funky patterns that highlight the on-card action shots, 2016 Topps High Tek breaks the mold of recent trading card designs.

2016 Topps High Tek / Topps
The 111-base card set is divided into two different styles, Spiral Vortex and Maze Grid. If these two were the only options in the set, High Tek would quickly fall to the wayside as one of Topps’ novelty releases, but a closer inspection of the designs reveals at least a dozen additional variations. Some collectors will find this to be a dizzying array of options; others will be enthralled at the challenge of putting together a master set. Further adding to the chase of a complete set is the fact that there are only six base cards in each box.

2016 Topps High Tek Base Cards & Variations / Topps
The major appeal of 2016 Topps High Tek is the on-card autographs. The impressive list includes top modern stars such as Ichiro, Kris Bryant, and Mike Trout, as well as Hall of Famers Hank Aaron, Sandy Koufax, and Ken Griffey Jr. The box provided for this review produced an autograph of Hall of Famer Wade Boggs in a parallel limited to 25.

Wade Boggs Topps High Tek Autograph / Topps
With 2016 High Tek, Topps aims to give value to collectors looking for instant autograph hits with the addition of the chase of variations that comprise the master base set. While some collectors might frown at the notion that purchasing an entire case might not yield a complete base set, they will be pleased at the quality of autographs and diversity of inserts and parallels.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Melvin Duncan, 87, pitcher for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues

Melvin “Buck” Duncan, a former pitcher and outfielder for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues, passed away November 29, 2016 in Ypsilanti, Michigan. He was 87.

Born March 31, 1929 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Duncan joined the Monarchs at the tender age of 20. The watchful eyes of a future Negro League manager steered him towards one of the Negro Leagues most powerful franchises.

Melvin Duncan / Author's Collection
“I joined the Monarchs in Monroe, Louisiana,” Duncan wrote in a letter to the author in 2007. “I was scouted by Sherwood Brewer, who was from where I was raised.”

Managing the Monarchs was the legendary Buck O’Neil, who took over the helm in 1948 after Frank Duncan (no relation) retired. With O’Neil serving as a player-manager, the young hurler found that Monarchs’ skipper still took an interest in nuturing the rookies on the club.

“He was strict, gentle, and very nice to be around,” Duncan wrote. “He was like a father to the younger players; full of knowledge and would give to you. I love him very much.”

One teammate he considered a close friend was fellow pitcher Gene Collins. He found Collins special for the camaraderie they built on the road.

“Eugene Collins, he was understanding and like a brother with me, for me were roommates,” he wrote. “Whenever he pitched, he was like the fifth infielder, for he was a good fielder.”

While Collins’ name came to the forefront when recalling his favorite teammate, Duncan hesitated to choose the best player he played with in the Negro Leagues. Instead, he chose to focus on the team aspect of the game.

“It takes nine men to play the game,” he wrote. “Each man has a position to play. I was a pitcher and not a catcher, so [therefore] I was not as good as Elston Howard.”

Duncan played with the Monarchs and Detroit Stars through in 1955 while the league was in decline. Closing his 2007 letter, Duncan had a simple request on how he wanted the memory of his career to survive.

“[I want it to be remembered] that I played in the Negro Leagues and I gave all I had to give.”



* - Video Courtesy of Negro Leagues Baseball Museum

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Irv Noren at 92 recalls his ride from worst to first with the Yankees

Fans of yesteryear will remember Irv Noren as the bridge between Hall of Famers Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle roaming center field for the New York Yankees. As much as he is known as an integral part of three World Series championship teams in the Bronx (1952, ’53, and ’56), little do fans know that he was dangerously close to playing for their cross town rivals in Brooklyn.

Signed by the Dodgers in 1946 after serving in World War II, Noren tore up the Dodgers farm system, winning consecutive league MVP awards, first in the Double-A Texas League in 1948, and then in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League the next season (an award ironically DiMaggio had won in 1935). So why wasn’t Noren wearing Dodger Blue instead of Yankee Pinstripes?

Irv Noren at his home in 2012 / N. Diunte
With the Dodgers fielding an outfield that contained Duke Snider and Carl Furillo, Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey had other plans for his budding superstar. During a 2012 visit with Noren at his home in Oceanside, California, he explained how he found out just what those plans were.

“I just came out of Hollywood and had a great year there," Noren said. "That winter, I was sitting for dinner one night in Arcadia where we were living and I heard this come over the radio, ‘Irv Noren’s been sold to the Washington Senators by the Brooklyn Dodgers for $70,000 and a player or whatever.’ I dropped my food and went out in the backyard and said, ‘Washington Senators!’”

With the Dodgers’ finances suffering due to their investment in the Brooklyn football franchise of the AAFC, Rickey sold Noren to recover some of the losses they faced. Little did he know that the sale of Noren would haunt him only a few years later.

After two excellent seasons with the Washington Senators, Noren’s sweet left-handed swing and superb defense in the spacious Griffith Stadium attracted the attention of Yankees manager Casey Stengel. Disappointed with the early season play of the replacements for the recently retired DiMaggio, the Yankees acquired Noren in May of 1952 from the Senators in a six-player deal.

“Perhaps we gave up a lot, but we had to in order to get what we wanted. We wanted Noren. We need a center fielder who can hit, run, field, and throw,” said Stengel to the New York Times.

Within a matter of months, Noren went from worst to first, and rode the elevator all the way up to World Series victory.

“It was different going into the Yankees clubhouse instead of the other way," he said. "I said to myself, ‘Jeez, this is where Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and everybody was, in this clubhouse.'"

High expectations were omnipresent, as none of the veterans wanted anyone getting in the way of their World Series checks. The team atmosphere was a tremendous shift from playing in Washington.

“It was fun to go to the ballpark because you knew that the guys meant business and policed the game themselves," he said. "Some guys stayed out all night and if they couldn’t play the next day or pitch, they’d let them know. ‘You’re screwing around with my money. In the winter do whatever you want, but right now [don’t do it]. With the Yankees, everybody wanted to beat them, and you couldn’t make a mistake against them. You had to produce over there. In Washington, you could go 0-8, but in New York if you went 0-8, someone else would be in there. They had to win.”

Noren played five seasons with the Yankees from 1952-56, which in addition to the aforementioned World Series championships, included a selection to the 1954 All-Star Game. He continued playing in the majors until 1960, making appearances with the Athletics, Cardinals, Cubs and Dodgers. Upon retiring from his playing career, he was involved with a variety of business ventures that included owning a sporting goods store, a screen printing business, and breeding thoroughbred horses. In between all of that, Hall of Famer Dick Williams recruited Noren to serve as a coach for the Oakland Athletics during their championship seasons in the early 1970s. Now completely retired, Noren enjoys the company of his family and looking after his horses.

“I felt I was a pretty lucky guy," he said. "You never give up and something good is going to happen if you hang out and do your best. It was tough in them days. Most of us spent the best years of our life in the service. I went in from 18 to 21; that’s the best three years of your life. That’s fine, we did it for the country.

"We didn’t make a lot of money, but we played for fun and a bit of money like they say. It made us respect a little bit more about what life was about, what the priorities are in life. I’ve got 15 grandkids. I get up after dinner and my grandson said, ‘Did you really play center field for the Yankees?’ [To them] we were never young; we’re [just] old. I have a few horses that keep me busy with my buddies, as well as my grandkids and great grandkids; that’s what I’m living for.”

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Dave 'Boo' Ferriss, 94, twenty-game winner for Boston Red Sox

"Boo Ferriss was a great hitting pitcher. He was ambidextrous; he could throw left handed and right handed. Of course, he was a right handed pitcher. He had two great years, [and] then he hurt his arm. He would have been a great, great pitcher if he hadn’t hurt his arm. And a real class guy, real fine."- Billy Hitchcock to Gene Fehler in, "When Baseball Was Still King: Major League Players Remember the 1950s."

Dave "Boo" Ferris, who started his major league career with two consecutive 20-win seasons that led the Boston Red Sox to the World Series in 1946, passed away on Thanksgiving in Cleveland, Mississippi. He was 94.
Dave "Boo" Ferriss - SportsNola.com

Ferriss won the third game of the 1946 World Series and was left with a no-decision in the deciding seventh game against the St. Louis Cardinals. Ferriss watched helplessly as Enos Slaughter made his famous "mad dash," to score the deciding run from first base on Harry Walker's double in the ninth inning. Ferriss indicated that it wasn't the World Series that was his most memorable baseball moment, but his victory in 1948 to force a one-game playoff with the Indians for the American League pennant.

"It was disappointing to lose both the 1948 and 1949 pennants, after coming so close," he said to Fehler. "In 1948 I was pitching against the Yankees on the last day of the season. If we beat the Yankees and Detroit beat the Indians, Cleveland and us would tie for the pennant. I got in trouble in the sixth inning, I believe. The Yankees loaded the bases with Hank Bauer and DiMaggio coming up. I got Bauer on a sacrifice fly to Ted [Williams] in left field and got DiMaggio out and we went on to win the game. I think it was 10-5, and of course Fenway was going wild because the scoreboard showed Detroit was beating Cleveland. We did end in a tie and that brought about the first playoff game in American League history the next day, and sad to say we lost that. Gene Bearden beat us 8-3 there in Fenway. But it was a memorable moment for me, going into that game that had so much riding on it at the time."

Perhaps much greater than his 65-30 career record with the Red Sox, was his impact on the baseball program at Delta State University. With his pitching career cut short due to arm troubles, Ferriss moved on to the collegiate ranks, literally building up Delta State's program from the field level. Six-hundred-thirty-nine victories and three Division II World Series appearances later, Delta Stats acknowledged Ferriss' indelible impact on the program by naming the baseball field after him when he retired in 1988.

Clyde King recalls a mound visit from Fidel Castro

On April 20, 1960, Rochester Red Wings manager and former Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Clyde King stood inches away from Fidel Castro as he threw out the first pitch of the International League season. Some fifty-six years after their encounter, the Cuban leader passed away November 25, 2016 at the age of 90. Little did King know at the time that the man he once squared off in an exhibition game would become one of the vilest dictators in modern history.

Fidel Castro (l.) throws out the opening day pitch in 1960 as Clyde King (r.) watches
“I think it was 1960 when I got to meet Castro,” King said from his North Carolina home in 2008. “We opened the season there and Castro threw out the first ball. We didn't know he was a bad guy at the time. We went out the mound and he said, ‘Do you remember me?’ I said, “Yes, I remember you.’ He said, ‘I'm Fidel Castro, do you remember going to the University of Havana one Sunday afternoon?’”

King quickly harked back to an exhibition the Dodgers played in Havana during 1947 while Branch Rickey was preparing Jackie Robinson to join the big league club. Castro proudly reminded the Red Wings manager that he suited up against the Dodgers squad that day.

“When the Dodgers were training, one club stayed in Havana and the other went to the University so we could get more players in action,” King recalled. “Castro said, ‘Do you remember who you pitched against?’ I said ‘No.’ He said, ‘Me!’ I asked him if he remembered the score, he said he didn’t. You know what the score was? 15-1!”

King acknowledged Castro’s support of baseball as Cuba’s flagship sport and his failed attempts to play professionally; however, whatever affection Castro had for the sport was overshadowed by the terror of his reign.

“We found out later he wasn't such a good guy,” King said. “He was terrific baseball guy. He tried to work out for a pro team but he couldn't do it. We sort of wore him out that day.”

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Ralph Branca, 90, legacy reached far beyond iconic baseball moment

Ralph Branca, the legendary Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher who is most famously remembered for surrendering the home run to Bobby Thomson that catapulted the New York Giants to the 1951 World Series, passed away September 23rd, 2016 in Rye, New York. He was 90.



The Mount Vernon native and New York University grad stayed true to his local roots when he first suited up for the Dodgers in 1944 at the tender age of 18. His debut began a 12-year major league career that included one 20-win season, three All-Star appearances, and spanned 11 of those seasons with the Dodgers, interrupted by stints with the cross town rival New York Yankees, as well as the Detroit Tigers.

Ralph Branca (r.) with Bobby Valentine in 2011 / N. Diunte

While many know him for his involvement in, “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” Branca didn’t let that moment define the entirety of his career. In his post playing days, Branca immersed himself in charity work, first with the Baseball Assistance Team, helping out former major leaguers who fell on hard times, and later assisting youth sports organizations through his own Sports Angels foundation.

“I was chairman of the board of the Baseball Assistance Team, and worked especially with the dinner committee," Branca said in 2009. “When I resigned, they all resigned at BAT. We worked together for 15 years. I said, 'Why don't we continue as another charity?' We decided to organize Sports Angels.”

Branca, who was one of the last surviving players from Jackie Robinson’s major league debut, was featured prominently in the movie, “42,” where Branca often gave a kind hand to Robinson during rough patches in his rookie season. He took every opportunity to stress the cultural and historical significance of that event, something he felt the newspapers at the time overlooked.

"That day, if you read the papers, basically, they didn't mention that he was breaking the color barrier,” Branca said in 2009. “It was a strange new territory; people didn't know how to react or behave and the papers themselves didn't note it as a historic event, just as a write up of the game period. The papers said, ‘Robinson went 0-3, walked, scored a run, and bunted successfully.’ It never mentioned that it was a great event in the history of the world. I say the world because he helped baseball number one, but also as baseball integrated, the country took a different view of blacks. It took the government seven years to pass a civil rights law which was to the benefit of everyone, lessening our countries' prejudice.”

In 2011, Branca published his memoir “A Moment in Time,” with David Ritz. In the book, Branca had the opportunity to clear the air one final time about his famous pitch and his place in baseball history.

“They’ll find out who I really am,” Branca said in 2011. “I’m not the goat; the goat is the Giants team. They did the most despicable act in the history of the game by going off the field, using a telescope, using a buzzer system, which nobody else did. Stealing signs on the field is part of the game and that includes the dugouts, but to go in your locker room and hook up a buzzer system … that’s totally despicable.”

Monday, November 21, 2016

Rinaldo 'Rugger' Ardizoia, 95, pitched one sweet game for the New York Yankees

Rinaldo "Rugger" Ardizoia, a pitcher who played in one game for the New York Yankees in 1947, passed away Sunday evening due to complications from a stroke. He was 95.

The Italian born pitcher gained notoriety in his later years as the oldest living alumni of the New York Yankees. He pitched in one game during the 1947 season against the St. Louis Browns, throwing the final two innings in a 15-5 loss. He gave up two runs, including a home run to one of his former teammates in Iwo Jima during World War II.

Rugger Ardizoia / OOTP Developments
 "The guy that hit the home run off me was one of my boyhood idols, Walter Judnich," he said to Bill Nowlin in Bridging Two Dynasties: The 1947 New York Yankees. "I more of less slid it in for him because we were so far behind anyway."

Ardizoia played the majority of his career in the Pacific Coast League with the Hollywood Stars, where he had the chance to befriend celebrities such as Desi Arnaz, Lucille Ball, and a fellow that would later become president of the United States.

“Ronald Reagan — he used to hang out with us,” Ardizoia said to the New York Times in 2015.

At the completion of his professional baseball career in 1951, he went to work selling rental linen for 30 years. Still, his passion for baseball did not dwindle, as he played on the semiprofessional level until he was 61. He continued to attend old-timers reunions well into his 90s, willing to share his stories of playing with the legendary Yankees no matter how brief it was.

*Note - This was originally published July 21, 2015 for the now-defunct Examiner.com.