Sunday, March 26, 2017

Jose 'Tony' Zardon, eldest living Cuban major leaguer passes away at 94

Jose Zardon, a native Cuban who was the last living member of the 1945 Washington Senators, passed away March 21, 2017 in Tamarac, Florida. He was 94.

Affectionately nicknamed "Guineo," for his blazing speed that was akin to the local hen in Cuba, he first played in the United States in 1944 when the legendary scout Joe Cambria signed him to the Washington franchise. After playing one season in the minor leagues, the Senators minted the fleet-footed outfielder as a major leaguer in 1945, seeking to take advantage of his ability to cover the vast depths of Griffith Stadium. 

Jose Zardon at his home in 2012 / N. Diunte
With major league rosters depleted due to World War II enlistments, Zardon and his Cuban teammates with the Senators became pioneers of sorts, giving the club in the nation's capitol an integrated team a year prior to the Brooklyn Dodgers signing Jackie Robinson. While there were other Cubans who preceded Zardon in the major leagues, their solid performance further opened the pipeline for his countrymen to follow.

In his only major league season, Zardon batted .290 in 131 at-bats, while making some tremendous catches in the outfield. Throughout the remainder of the 1940s and early 1950s, Zardon spent his winters playing for the Almendares and Havana clubs in Cuba, as well as two seasons in Venezuela. He remained active in the minor leagues, spending another ten seasons as both a player and a manager before retiring in 1955.

Great detail of Zardon's career is profiled in the SABR book, "Who's on First: Replacement Players in World War II." In 2012, I had the opportunity to visit Zardon at his Florida home to discuss his career, where in his jovial fashion, he shared a story about how he stole first base after a famous Cuban sportswriter doubted his hitting abilities. The video, which is linked below, is a taste of Zardon's warm character which was appreciated by all who met him. 

* Ed Note - In the above SABR interview, Zardon admitted that his birth year was 1922, not 1923 as listed in the official baseball database.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

2017 Topps Heritage hooks hobbyists with a simple approach

Cut in the aesthetically pleasing style of the 1968 Topps design, Topps’ 2017 Heritage is a throwback to a season that was defined by the mound dominance of Bob Gibson and his miniscule 1.18 ERA. While the feel of the set doesn’t quite have the aggressiveness of Gibson’s fastball, it is the simplicity of the overall package that will attract collectors to this year’s issue.

While some of Topps’ other releases feel like a parade of bells and whistle with all kinds of shiny inserts, the traditional aspect of Topps Heritage is what keeps collectors coming back to this product. Nuances like the puzzles of Kris Bryant and Mike Trout on the back of the All-Star cards, as well as the action and letter variations are the right amount of diversity to make you pay attention to the details without losing sight of what brought you to the product in the first place.

Buster Posey Action Variation / Topps
A certain gem of 2017 Topps Heritage is the selections for the dual and triple Real-One autographed cards. Lucky individuals will garner a signed card of the fantasy Hall of Fame battery of Nolan Ryan and Johnny Bench. Others so fortunate will pull signed cards by three franchise Hall of Famers, with the Cardinals supplying Steve Carlton, Orlando Cepeda, and Lou Brock on the same card, while the Baltimore Orioles put out stalwarts Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, and Jim Palmer on another. These multi-signed cards are highly desirable pieces that could easily serve as the cornerstones of many hobbyists collections.

Nolan Ryan / Johnny Bench Dual Signed Card / Topps
Set collectors however, will face a major challenge in completing the 500-card set. The yield from the 24-pack box is well short of the fifty percent mark, further complicated by the 100 short printed cards at the end of the set. The box provided for this review only yielded eight short prints, which will undoubtedly force collectors to the secondary market to finish things off.

A selection of 2017 Topps Heritage Short Prints / Topps
A cool touch to the box provided for this review was the addition of a 1968 Topps buyback card, further connecting the past with the present as intended by the theme of the Heritage set. While hoping for one of the aforementioned dual autographs, this box yielded a Clubhouse Collection relic card of Miami Marlins slugging outfielder, Giancarlo Stanton.

Don McMahon 1968 Topps Buyback / Topps
Giancarlo Stanton Clubhouse Collection Relic / Topps

Despite the fact that a set will be difficult to build out of one, or even two boxes, the clean and simple design combined with the possibility of pulling a monumental autograph should push collectors to explore the depths of the 2017 Topps Heritage release well into the regular season.

 

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Former Met Anthony Young says brain tumor has shrunk

Former New York Mets pitcher Anthony Young, who gained notoriety in the early 1990s by setting a major league record with 27 consecutive losses, announced in late January 2017 that he had an inoperable brain tumor. Speaking with radio host Bill Donohue on New York’s WGBB 1240 AM, Young gave listeners an update on his condition.

“I was having blurred vision and my wife took me to the emergency room,” Young said. “They found out that I had a brain tumor in my brain stem, which is too dangerous to try to get a biopsy, so we treated it like it was cancer.”
Anthony Young / Mets

After two months of receiving chemotherapy and radiation, Young is now following a plan to recovery that includes a five day regimen of chemo 23 days apart. Determined not to let his diagnosis affect his life, Young continued to work the entire time since starting his treatment.

“I’m doing great,” he said. “I never got sick, I drove myself every day to chemo. I never missed a day of work. I go to work every day. … Everything is going fine. I had a MRI the other day and the tumor actually shrunk some.”

Monday, February 6, 2017

Why 2017 Topps Baseball fortifies their place as the gold standard in baseball cards

With a brazen Kris Bryant fortifying the cover of 2017 Topps Baseball, a clear signal has been made that Topps continues to set the bar high with their flagship product. Promoting this year’s theme of having fans, “rediscover Topps baseball,” the quality of this set is exhibit A as to why 2017 is a perfect time to fall in love with baseball card collecting.
2017 Topps Series 1 / Topps
The 350-card base set is book-ended by Bryant and David Ortiz and features action packed photos of the key players across the league. Sharp collectors will notice that Topps reinserted card number seven back into the checklist, placing New York Yankees phenom Gary Sanchez in the spot that they have previously skipped or reserved for Mickey Mantle since 1996.

As clear and crisp is the layout of the base set, the true gem of 2017 Topps Baseball are the 1987 Topps 30th anniversary parallels. Designed in the wood motif of the most fashioned set of the 1980s, the glossy updated look and feel of the 30th anniversary parallels are sure to attract collectors for both nostalgic and aesthetic reasons. Some collectors would go as far to argue that Topps could have made the entire base set a throwback to the 1987 design.

Keeping with tradition, Topps has a wide array of inserts and parallels to keep collectors chasing past compiling the base set. The expansive Topps Salute 100-card insert set presents a beautiful chronology of the past season, and the Five Tool subset highlights the ultra-talented superstars that excel in many facets of the game.

2017 Topps Inserts / Topps

Each box promises one autograph or relic card. The box provided for this review yielded a Jose Canseco autographed 1987 Topps 30th anniversary card. Canseco’s original 1987 Topps card was one of the iconic in the set, the card emblazoned with a Topps Rookie Cup and the young slugger pictured eagerly sitting in the dugout. The 30th anniversary autographed version featured a Canseco orbiting a trademark moon shot with a bold signature on the card.

Set builders will be happy with the collation, as a box came up only 30 cards short of a 350-card complete set; however, the cards were condition sensitive, as quite a few had dinged corners fresh out of the pack. Buoyed by the stunning 1987 retro cards, collectors will easily overlook a few soft corners as they are quickly reminded why Topps remains the industry gold standard.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Baseball Happenings Podcast: Kevin L. Mitchell - Author of Last Train to Cooperstown

Kevin L. Mitchell, author of Last Train to Cooperstown: The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era, is the guest for this episode of the Baseball Happenings Podcast. In this episode, Mitchell discusses how his love for the history of Negro League Baseball motivated him to capture the careers of this most recent group of Negro Leaguers to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. Mitchell profiles the 17 inductees who might very likely be the last members of the Negro Leagues to ride the train to Cooperstown.

Last Train to Cooperstown / Black Rose Writing


Friday, January 20, 2017

How Red Adams turned a devastating injury into a five decade journey in baseball

Looking at Red Adams’ career Major League stats, one might assume that he was washed up at age 24, pitching only 12 innings for the Chicago Cubs in 1946 with a bloated 8.25 ERA. Lost in the translation of his  cup of coffee was a 19-year minor league career that spanned over 3,000 innings and opened the door for another three decades as a scout, pitching coach, and instructor for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Red Adams / Author's Collection

Adams died Wednesday January 18, 2017 at the age of 95 in California. He left behind a lifetime of memories that came from a half-decade association with a game that he admits he wasn’t ready to play when he signed his first professional contract in 1939.

“I didn’t play any baseball before I went into pro baseball,” he told me during a 2009 phone interview from his home in California. “I grew up in a small town. There was a guy named Charlie Moncrief who took me to a tryout camp. He saw me play in high school. I played seven or eight games in high school. He took me to Los Angeles to a tryout camp and I was signed. I didn’t even know pitchers were supposed to cover first base.”

While Adams was learning the finer points of the game playing at the lowest rung of the minor leagues in Bisbee, Arizona, he suffered a severe injury that threatened to cut short a career that was just starting. An evening of horseplay with his roommates left him with an injury that would have stopped his career dead in its tracks if he played any other position besides pitcher.

“I had gotten into an accident in Bisbee, Arizona when I first started playing ball,” he recalled. “A bunch of damn fools we were! We were staying in a big rooming house; a bunch of players with nobody in charge. I was up there and a couple of us got into a damn water fight. I wound up getting hurt badly. I was chasing this kid down the damn hall to get even with him to throw water on him. He runs in this door and closes it behind him. It was a glass door and I was right behind him, I stick out my left arm and I cut myself real bad. If you get cut by glass like that, it was like no pain, but suddenly I was bleeding all over. I cut my left arm at the ulnar nerve just above my elbow. It’s like midnight and they take me to the hospital nearby. They just sewed it up. The main nerves were cut. It cripples my hand to where I can’t even straighten my fingers.”

His arm injury was so debilitating, that when he went to register to serve in World War II, he was declared unfit for participation. It was a label that he despised having.

“It kept me out of the Army,” he said. “I took my physical but the guy looked at my hand and said I’d be taken in for limited service. He told me I’d be called any time. I stayed out of baseball; I was married and my wife was expecting a baby. The next year, they didn’t call me. I was working on a farm not making any money, so I thought I’d go and play ball and make a little money. Eventually, they put me 4F which was ‘unfit,’ which I hated calling myself that because I was fit except for my arm. Had I been an everyday player, it would have been the end of me.”

A few years later after his devastating injury, Adams ascended his way to the major leagues, pitching with the Cubs in 1946 after posting a 9-4 record with a 2.68 ERA for the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League. It was in that league where Adams truly built his career, playing the next 12 seasons in the PCL while the league earned an Open classification from professional baseball.

He experienced a breakout season in 1952 with Portland after returning invigorated from an appearance in the Caribbean Series with the San Juan Senadores from Puerto Rico. At age 30, he found a new lease on his pitching life.

“I came back and was a different pitcher in the Coast League,” he said. “In the past I was struggling, I was going downhill; I started to wonder what I was going to do after baseball. In those years, I’d come on pretty good the last half of the season and keep my job. That winter, I came into spring training in shape and I led the coast league in ERA that year even though I lost more games than I won.”

Modern-era executives might now recognize his low earned run average as a sign of his effectiveness and discount his hard luck losses, but in 1952, management was quick to pin full responsibility of the ledger on their pitchers, no matter the ineptitude of their offense or defense.

“The general manager there cut my salary a couple hundred dollars per month,” he said. “I was pitched the opening game in San Francisco and lost 1-0; the other guy pitched a one-hitter. I lost my first five games and didn’t give up more than three runs per game. He [the general manager] called me in after the fifth loss and gave me the $200 cut. He said, ‘The way you’re pitching, if you don’t win a game, you deserve to have your salary cut.’ His name was Bill Mulligan. I ended up winning 15 games.”

Adams said that the scenario he described was common in the minor leagues, as players had little choice in their movement due to the reserve clause. Despite the salary cut against what he felt was effective performance, he still felt that playing in the Pacific Coast League had many benefits in the 1950s.

“Those were the struggling minor league days,” he said. "The Coast League was a good league to play in; we had good conditions, it was a very comfortable league to play in. A lot of the players came from the big leagues, fringe guys, or guys that had a couple of years left. The conditions were hard to beat. Not too many players made a lot of money in the major leagues. There were players happy to be playing there.”

After finishing up as a player in 1958, Adams was asked to become a scout for the Los Angeles Dodgers. He worked in that position until 1969 when Walter Alston brought him as a pitching coach. He stayed with the Dodgers in that role through the transition to Tommy Lasorda's regime until his retirement as a coach in 1980. Although he stepped down from his coaching duties, he continued with the organization as an instructor through the mid 1980s. Among his many prized pupils was Hall of Famer Don Sutton, who called Adams, “the standard by which all pitching coaches should be measured.”

During our 2009 conversation, Adams reflected on how fortunate he was to work with the Dodgers for such a lengthy period a time. After considering how his career was almost truncated due to a careless injury away from the field, he marveled at the fortune that turned it into an almost 50-year journey in the sport.

“It was a damn good organization,” he said. “I lucked out; I was pretty lucky.”

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Jim Bouton reflects on Ball Four as he auctions its recordings and manuscripts

Jim Bouton, the author of the revolutionary baseball book, Ball Four, has placed all of his audio recordings, notes, original manuscripts, and the subsequent letters from Major League Baseball urging him to retract his work, up for auction. The 77-year-old retired pitcher, who spent ten seasons in the major leagues with the New York Yankees, Seattle Pilots, Houston Astros, and Atlanta Braves, entrusted his collection to SCP Auctions, who expects the memorabilia which also includes some of his game-used items, to fetch in the neighborhood of $300,000.

Jim Bouton - 1965 Topps / Topps
Ball Four provided a look inside the major league clubhouse, with Bouton jotting down notes about anything of interest that happened during the season, whether it was on or off the field. In addition to Major League Baseball, Bouton’s work aroused the ire of the New York Yankees, who allegedly banned him after the 1970 publication of Ball Four from attending Old-Timers’ Day for writing about Mickey Mantle’s drinking habits.

In 1998, Bouton’s son Michael wrote a passionate letter to the New York Times to make the case for his father’s return to the annual Yankees Old-Timers’ Day. Published on Father’s Day, his son’s letter tugged at the heart strings of many, including the New York Yankees, who quickly welcomed Bouton back into the fold.

“That was sort of a bittersweet thing,” Bouton said when we spoke at the 2010 BAT Dinner in New York City. “I had been uninvited for 28 years, so the circumstances of me being invited back had to do with the fact that my daughter Lauren had been killed in an automobile accident the year before.

“My son Michael wrote a letter to the New York Times to be published on Father’s Day and said, ‘The Yankees should let bygones be bygones and that Old Timers Day was always a time for families, as he remembered when we had Old Timers Day when I was a player with the Yankees. So Michael ended the letter, ‘My dad can use all the hugs he can get right now.’ It was such a sweet and beautiful letter. The Yankees read it and invited me back.”

Forty years after his landmark work was published Bouton was still excited to discuss its merits. He explained why Ball Four has persisted despite his uncertainties about how it would be received.

“I thought it would cause a little excitement because I knew I was writing some things that hadn’t been written in a sports book,” he said. “I thought after a year or so it would die down, but it hasn’t. It didn’t hurt that I wrote an update in 1980, 1990, and 2000 to keep it alive. I think the characters in the book are so interesting and so funny; I think that [is what] resonates with people.”

While Bouton didn’t set out to revolutionize the world of sports writing, he acknowledged that Ball Four opened up a new world for authors to explore. Capturing the life of an athlete away from the stories told by box scores and game recaps became of greater interest to both sportswriters and fans alike.

“I think probably after the book came out, it was no longer possible for a sportswriter to be an extension of the team’s public relations department, which is what it usually was,” Bouton said. “Now I think reporters said, ‘Ok, people want to know more about these guys and their batting averages; they want to know what kind of people they are.’ I think because the players are attractively interesting with wonderful backgrounds, the more people know about them, the more they’ll become interested in the game.”