Saturday, June 23, 2018

Ed Roebuck, one of the last 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers World Series champs, dies at 86

Ed Roebuck, one of the last links to the Brooklyn Dodgers 1955 World Series championship team, passed away June 14, 2018 in Lakewood, California. He was 86.

The right-handed relief specialist made his major league debut in 1955 after breaking camp with the Dodgers out of spring training. Manager Walt Alston gave him the heavy task of being the team’s closer and for the first few euphoric months in the big leagues, Roebuck answered the call.

“The first half of the season I was in almost every save possibility there was,” Roebuck told me during a 2010 interview in New York. “I think I led the club in saves that year. You could come in the fifth inning or the ninth inning. There wasn’t [a] right or left hander specialist; you’re in the bullpen and you could go in the first or the ninth.”

1956 Ed Roebuck Dodgers Photo / Author's Collection

By the middle of July, Roebuck was firing on all cylinders. He led the team in saves and held an ERA that hovered around two; however, his good fortunes would change quickly. At the end of the month, he had two consecutive rough outings against the Milwaukee Braves and suddenly he went from Alston’s stopper to mop-up duty.

“[Clem] Labine took over and I didn’t get to pitch after that, and when I did, I got racked up,” he said.

Fortunately, for Roebuck, his rocky start did not exclude him from the postseason roster. He made one appearance in the 1955 World Series, pitching two scoreless innings in Game 6.

“I wasn’t expecting to pitch in the series,” he said. “I was just happy to be there.”

Growing up in Western Pennsylvania, the thought of Roebuck playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers was a remote one. After starring at Brownsville High School, Boston Red Sox local scout Socko McCary followed Roebuck so closely that most felt he would certainly sign with Boston once he turned 18.

“He moved in with us almost,” Roebuck said. “He would come out there every day and it was sort of a known fact that when I became eligible, that I was going to sign with the Red Sox.”

At the urging of his brother, Roebuck reluctantly attended an open tryout while awaiting his 18th birthday. Little did he know that day would alter the course of his professional baseball career.

“There was a tryout camp, and my brother who was sort of my guiding interest said, ‘Let’s go to the tryout camp,’” Roebuck recalled. “I said, ‘Gee, I don’t know, they want you to throw as hard as you can, run as hard as you can, and nothing ever comes out of it.’ He said, ‘Let’s go anyhow.’ So we go up there and apparently, I did pretty well and then I forgot all about it.”

The venerable Branch Rickey had his spies working to uncover baseball talent from every corner of the country. Unbeknownst to Roebuck, while McCary was cozying up to his family, Rickey’s charges had their eyes on the young righty the entire time.

“In 1948 while pitching for the coal mining team at that workout, the Bowen brothers had scouted me,” Roebuck recalled. “I didn’t even know anything about them. They did the hard scouting on me. I didn’t even know they existed because they were secretive about everything. I [never] talked to them before.”

Once he was on Brooklyn’s radar, nothing was going to get in the way of the Dodgers pursuit. They navigated muddy dirt roads deep into the rural community where Roebuck lived to convince him to go to Brooklyn.

“Jim Murray came over to where we lived,” he said. “We really lived in the boondocks. Most times, you couldn’t get a car back there; it was all lanes and muddy and so forth. One day this big Buick drives up there and the man says, ‘I want to take you to Brooklyn.’ I said, ‘It’s all right with me if you get the okay from my brothers and my mother.’ So he drove me there and I worked out at Ebbets Field. I had a good workout, they took me up to the office, and actually Branch Rickey signed me.”

At the tender age of 17, Roebuck had the intimidating task of sitting across the desk from Branch Rickey during his contract negotiation. He called his trusted brother for backup.

“He [Rickey] was a little scary really,” he said. “Actually, they didn’t want to make me a bonus player. The contract they offered me, I told them I’d have to check with my brother, who was going to have to check with the Red Sox to see if they were offering what [the Dodgers] were offering. My brother called back and said that the Red Sox couldn’t do that and to go ahead and sign with them, so that’s how I started.”

Immediately, the Dodgers placed Roebuck with their Class B team in Newport News, Virginia for the 1949 season. Rickey was so confident in Roebuck’s abilities that he debuted in a league where most of the players had a few years of minor league seasoning under their belts. It proved to be a rocky rookie experience for Roebuck, as he posted an 8-14 record with a 4.64 ERA.

“I think because of being signed in Brooklyn by Rickey, they put me in too high of a league to start,” Roebuck said. “There were 30-year-olds in that league and I was only 17. I had a hard time at Newport News.”

Not to be discouraged, Roebuck rebounded from another losing season in 1950 with 14 wins for Class A Elmira in 1951. His steady performance set him to go to their top farm club in Montreal, only one step away, although it was a big one, from the major leagues. For three seasons, Roebuck toiled with the rest of Brooklyn’s prospects eagerly awaiting his call to the show.

The Brooklyn Dodgers minor league system had a wealth of talent, primarily due to Rickey’s keen baseball eyes. With close to 30 minor league teams, their system was often a breeding ground for the rest of the league’s talent.

“There were just so many players in front of you in that organization,” he said. “When I first went with the Dodgers in spring training, there were 636 players. Many shortstops never made it because of Pee Wee [Reese] — Billy Hunter, Don Zimmer, Bobby Morgan, Chico Fernandez, etc.”

One of Roebuck’s Montreal teammates who was in this cluster of players awaiting one of Brooklyn’s All-Stars to vacate their position was Roberto Clemente. Playing together in 1954 after Clemente signed as a “bonus baby” prospect from Puerto Rico, he recalled the antics the Dodgers went through to try to hide his talents so another club would not draft him.

“He was one helluva good looking prospect,” Roebuck said. “They really messed him around because they didn’t want him to get drafted. The Pirates had their top scout follow us around in Montreal all year, Clyde Sukeforth. You knew it was going to happen.”

It happened for Roebuck too, as the Dodgers gave him his start in the major leagues the next season. From his seat in the dugout, the rookie hurler was thrilled just to be able to watch his future Hall of Fame teammate operate from field level.

“I remember in Ebbets Field sitting in the dugout and you would watch guys like [Gil] Hodges hitting, and you would have to look up,” he recalled. “Usually when you are that close to the action in baseball, it’s not all that glamorous, but it was glamorous for me. All those big guys were doing the ballet. There is so much balance and power at the same time. [Roy Campanella] was something to watch from the dugout. It was something to be associated with that outfit at the time.”

Roebuck solidified the Dodgers bullpen for the next three seasons, helping the team to return to the World Series in 1956 against the New York Yankees. An arm injury during the 1958 season put his career in jeopardy and subsequently caused him to miss the Dodgers 1959 World Series victory. The Dodgers sent him to their Triple-A team in 1959 to pitch and play first base while he recovered.

“The major league rule came in and I couldn’t play winter ball,” he said. “I never had a sore arm in my life. … Johnny Podres and I worked over at the Dodgers place and didn’t do any throwing. It was terrible. My arm was so fine-tuned and I hurt my arm by not pitching. I made a comeback and tore all those adhesions loose. The Dodgers told me I would never pitch again because I had too much scar tissue in there.

“A scout, Kenny Myers (who signed Willie Davis) told me that he thought we could do something, but it was going to be painful. By the time the summer was over, I went back to the big leagues. I would just get against the chain link fence and throw as much as it would let me. Then he would twist my arm and stretch it. He was paralyzed in the service and he had some experience with that. It was he who got me back to the big leagues. In St. Paul in 1959, I hit five home runs and gave up [only] four in 200-something innings.”

Roebuck followed the Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, eventually making his home in Lakewood. He welcomed the change while other Brooklyn mainstays resisted.

“We as a family wanted to go, my wife and me, because it was new territory and new fertile ground,” he said. “I know Duke wanted to go. I don’t think guys like Hodges and some of the guys who had homes in Brooklyn wanted to go. I didn’t think O’Malley would do it. … My family was happy to go out there.”

While he found the Los Angeles Coliseum favorable as a pitcher, he lamented the challenge his teammates faced trying to hit there, especially Duke Snider.

“It was much tougher to pitch in Ebbets Field,” he recalled. “You saw some fluke home runs in the Coliseum, but you also saw some line drives hit to the screen that would be home runs somewhere else. You would have to bomb the ball to get it out in right field. It was a shame what Duke Snider had to go through when we went out there.”

Roebuck played with the Dodgers halfway through the 1963 season until he requested that they trade him to the Washington Senators. He wanted to join his old friend Hodges in the nation’s capital.

“In 1963, I didn’t pitch that much,” he recalled. “I went to Fred Patterson to tell Bavasi that I wanted to get out of there. I wanted to go with Hodges. Buzzie calls me in the office, tells me that I will always be part of the Dodgers, and the next day I was traded.”

While Roebuck got what he wanted by moving to the Senators to reunite with Hodges and pitch more often, he faced a clubhouse culture unseen with the Dodgers.

“It was a big disappointment going from the Dodgers to the Senators,” he said. “Almost all of the Dodger teams were winners. It dawned on you when you are there, that those guys are going for me. I’m going to have a good year and I don’t have to worry about winning or losing. We get a couple of hits, grab a couple of beers, and get ‘em tomorrow.

“Some of these young teams have a lot of talent but something always happens. They’ve not matured to where they know how to win. The first thing that you noticed was that the Dodgers or Yankees, they knew how to play the game. It was just a feeling. You know how to win or have been winning and take it for granted. The same thing goes the other way when you’re used to losing; you are going to play your best, but the Yankees are going to win.”

Roebuck continued to play in the majors until 1966 with the Senators and Philadelphia Phillies, which included being a part of the Phillies ill-fated collapse during the 1964 pennant race. He spent one more season in the Pacific Coast League with the San Diego Padres in 1967 before finally calling it quits.

He stayed in the game as a scout for the next 30 years, citing his most prized pupil as Bert Blyleven. He helped the Hall of Famer develop his legendary curve ball coaching him in a winter scout league.

“We had a winter team for kids in high school,” he said. “I was managing this team. We would invite all these people graduating the next year to play with us in the wintertime. I helped him. He didn’t have a real good spinning curve ball when he played there. It was more of a slider / slurve.”

Ed Roebuck (r.) with the author in 2008 / N. Diunte
Wrapping up our talk at a Westchester, New York hotel on the evening before a 2010 autograph show appearance, Roebuck admitted that this would be the last show he was going to attend. He was growing weary of the cross-country travel and didn’t enjoy it as much now that most of his Brooklyn Dodgers teammates were gone. As he further reflected on his place in baseball history, he humbly admitted that even though he spent 11 seasons in the major leagues, he felt he just blended in his entire career.

“I was just holding on most of the time,” he said. “You know, I never really had time to smell the roses because if you don’t do the job, you’re history. After I finished playing baseball, I realized I was one of the 25 people there.”

Thursday, June 14, 2018

2018 Topps Tier One Review - Topps takes a mighty swing at the fences with 2018 Tier One Baseball

Baseball card collectors searching for a guaranteed hit have to look no further than 2018 Topps Tier One Baseball. Promising two autographs and one relic card in each box, the only question is whether 2018 Topps Tier One packs home run or warning track power.

2018 Topps Tier One Baseball / Topps 
The true treat to this year’s product are the flagship Tier One autographs set. Coming in at one per case (Bronze /25, Silver /10, Gold 1/1), fans have a chance to pick up signed cards by the likes of legendary figures Hank Aaron, Derek Jeter, and Sandy Koufax, as well as modern marvels Aaron Judge, Bryce Harper, and Mike Trout.

Digging further into the signatures, Tier One Talent offers a solid blend of current stars, legends, and Hall of Famers, and the Break Out autographs feature many of the top prospects and new faces in the majors. The sought after multi-player autographed cards feature pairings such as Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, as well as Nolan Ryan and Greg Maddux.

2018 Topps Tier One Talent Autograph / Topps

While the baseball card community is not often excited about relic cards, Topps provides an enhanced experience with their 2018 Tier One Baseball Dual Autographed Relic Book Set, and rare single copy Autographed Bat Knobs and Limited Lumber (Bat) cards. The raised look and feel of the Bat Knob and Limited Lumber cards are sure to pique interest in the release.


2018 Topps Tier One Prime Performer Autograph / Topps
The box provided for this review was a “hot box” of sorts, yielding two autographed cards and two relics. While I was not fortunate enough to land one of the aforementioned fancy limited signed relic cards, the Tier One Talent Dellin Betances and Prime Performer Jose Berrios autographs were aesthetically pleasing on multiple levels.


Collectors who pull one of the limited dual signed cards or autographed 1/1 relics will be touting 2018 Topps Tier One Baseball as a circuit blast; however, if the two autographs are in quantities nearing 300 (as was the result of this box), they may be left feeling that the $120 price tag barely beat out a base hit. When delving into guarantee hit products this is the risk you take; you swing for the fences, but you just might end up hitting a Texas Leaguer.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Chuck Stevens, the oldest major league baseball player, dies at 99

Chuck Stevens, a former first baseman with the St. Louis Browns who had the distinction of being the oldest living major league baseball player, passed away Monday in Long Beach, California. He was 99.

Stevens played three seasons with the St. Louis Browns in the 1940s; however, his biggest impact on the sport came from the decades he spent helping former players in need as the director of the Association of Professional Ball Players of America. Serving as the organization’s director from 1960-1988, Stevens helped thousands of players (both major and minor league) as scouts and team personnel get back on their feet in the face of hard times.

Chuck Stevens / Author's Collection
“The situations often were someone having a rough time who just needed a hand up to take care of the necessities of life,” Stevens said in February 2018 to the Long Beach Press Telegram. “One player called us and all he wanted was enough money for a bus ticket home. I never dwelled on how bad some of the situations were, but I was proud we were able to help, and do it quietly.”

Well before Stevens was on a quest to provide for so many that were involved in the game, he etched his place in baseball lore during of the most infamous debuts in major league history. On July 9, 1948, he stepped into the batter’s box as the Cleveland Indians brought Satchel Paige in from the bullpen. A familiar face from their winter ball duels in California, Stevens greeted Paige to the majors with a single to left field.

“I played against him about ten times before that night. I played against him when he could really smoke it,” Stevens told me in 2012 via telephone from his California home. “When Satch relieved against us [in Cleveland], he was just spotting the ball around. [It seemed like] he had lost 60 mph off of his fastball. He threw his breaking stuff and he had great control so you knew he was going to be around the plate all the time. He wasn’t going to overpower you like I had seen him in his earlier days.

“The ballgame in Cleveland was not a big deal for me because I was just hitting off of Satch. I singled into left field, between [Ken] Keltner and [Lou] Boudreau. … I always had pretty good luck off of him.”

Shortly after the interview, I was able to travel to California to meet Stevens and his wife Maria at his home. He told me about his military service in the Army Air Force during World War II, as well as playing baseball in the service with Joe DiMaggio. While certainly proud of his major league career, he still made it a point during my visit to note the work of the APBPA and invited me to return to their annual dinner.

Mr. & Mrs. Stevens with the author (r.) in 2012 / N. Diunte
While I was not able to make the return trip, Stevens’ generosity was evident from the time I spent with him on both the phone and in-person. Some may look at his 184 career major league hits and assume that he had only a small impact on the game, but those who truly knew Stevens’ behind the scenes work with the APBPA will certainly recognize that his career stats grossly underestimate his footprint within the baseball community.





Thursday, May 17, 2018

2018 Bowman Baseball Review – How 2018 Bowman is setting a fever pitch in the industry

Immediately following the release of 2018 Bowman Baseball, prominent sports card dealers were placing five-figure bounties on the coveted Shohei Ohtani Superfractor card. As of this writing, Blowout Cards has ignited the offer to $100,000; therefore, it is of little surprise that collectors nationwide are posting photos of empty retail shelves in their quest to hit the big time.



While Ohtani has provided the necessary mania to give the sports card industry a shot in the arm, Bowman shows that their 2018 release can stand well on its own despite the hype surrounding one vaunted card. With a clean design and attractive inserts, 2018 Bowman Baseball furnishes a product that has staying power for years to come.


The 100-card base set features the aforementioned Japanese phenom, as well as a keen mixture of rookies and veterans. Ronald Acuña, Hunter Greene, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. all lead the charge of the 150-card prospect set, with their chrome cards serving as sought after treats for those lucky enough to get their hands on an entire box.


Digging into the parallels and inserts, traditional serial numbered colored parallels will keep fans busy tracking down their favorite player’s rainbow, while the new Bowman #Trending and Bowman Birthdays insert sets give a new flavor for collectors to dine upon. Equally pleasing are the Bowman Sterling, ROY Favorites, Scouts Top 100 and Talent Pipeline inserts, with each providing another nuance for consumers to pour into while digging for their golden ticket.


Even though this box did not add six figures to my annual income, it did yield a complete base set, a host of inserts, three numbered parallels, and a refractor autograph of New York Mets prospect Andres Gimenez. Just going through each pack was exhilarating, as there was tremendous excitement on social watching many post stories of their frantic searches for the product.


With box prices trending near $150 due to the increasing reward placed on the Ohtani Superfractor, 2018 Bowman Baseball is still worth diving into just for the exciting ride that could end with a life-changing hit.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

2018 Topps Gypsy Queen Review - A mysterious vibe worth catching

Sliding in on the heels of 2018 Topps Heritage Baseball, this year’s release of Topps Gypsy Queen Baseball series serves as formidable follow-up a heralded product. The set features a design that contains elements of the old and new school, giving collectors a tasty treat to start the season.

2018 Topps Gypsy Queen Variations and Short Prints / Topps
Immediately noticeable is Shohei Ohtani’s rookie card. With the two-way phenom taking the baseball world by storm, his presence in the set alone will draw fans to this product. Beyond Ohtani’s solo appearance in the base set, 2018 Topps Gypsy Queen has an attractive offering of parallels and variations that add excitement to opening a box (or case) of this product. The Jackie Robinson Day variations, numbered color parallels and rare Bazooka backed cards all give 2018 Topps Gypsy Queen a flavor of its own that will go down smoothly with hobbyists.

2018 Topps Gyspy Queen Bazooka Back / Topps
Each box guarantees two autographs and staying to true form, Topps provided sleek on-card autographs that pop. This box yielded rookie autographs of Garrett Cooper and Anthony Banda, with the latter a limited edition black and white variation. While neither are top prospects, Derek Jeter, Kris Bryant, Sandy Koufax, and the aforementioned Ohtani are some of the high impact names that comprise the autograph subset. For collectors who have better fortunes, their venture into 2018 Gypsy Queen may uncover rare autographed patch books (1:2877 packs) and the interesting pull-up sock relics (1:7920 packs).

2018 Topps Gypsy Queen Garrett Cooper Autograph / Topps
Staying consistent with last year’s release, the Fortune Teller mini insert cards return to feature 20 of the top young talents in Major League Baseball. The Tarot of the Diamond inserts follow along with the gypsy theme, an additional insert set that Topps should continue to preserve for future releases.

2018 Topps Gypsy Queen Tarot Card Inserts / Topps
While the presence of Shohei Ohtani’s autograph will lure many fans to 2018 Topps Gypsy Queen, the set’s pleasurable aesthetic and crisp on-card autographs creates a mystique that will keep fans chasing after it throughout the season.