Friday, May 19, 2017

Why Martin Dihigo is remembered as a 'God' by one Cuban ballplayer

Martin Dihigo is widely regarded as one of the most talented and versatile players in the Hall of Fame. Whether he was on the mound, in the field, or at the plate, Dihigo stood out among the mere mortals that played alongside him.


Cholly Naranjo, a star pitcher for Cuba's Alemendares ball club in the 1950s who later made the major leagues with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1956, had a special connection with Dihigo. Naranjo is the nephew of Ramon Couto, DiHigo's catcher both in Cuba and with the Cuban Stars of the Negro Leagues.

The now 82-year-old Naranjo is one of a handful of players alive that saw Dihigo up close and personal. Speaking with Naranjo in May 2017, he explained what it was like to have contact with "El Inmortal," at an early age.

"Man you should have seen that guy, he looked like a God!" Naranjo said.

In the rest of the interview, which is linked below, Naranjo discusses watching Dihigo play as a youngster and how he was a top line player as both a pitcher and a batter. 

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Kevin Elster tells how his departure from the Yankees opened the door for Derek Jeter

A few years ago while Kevin Elster was in New York for a 1986 New York Mets reunion, we discussed about his short tenure with the New York Yankees in 1996 that was hastened by Derek Jeter's arrival. On the day that the Yankees will retire Jeter's number 2, I am sharing a story that I wrote for metroBASEBALL magazine, where Elster recalls how he received a very clear message from the Yankees that Jeter was his replacement and that his services were no longer needed by their organization.



Saturday, May 13, 2017

How 2017 Bowman Baseball puts a stamp on seven decades in the game

Bowman gives a nod to their seventh decade with the debut of their 2017 baseball card series, commemorating their history with tributes to their longevity throughout this year’s product. Highlighting special inserts marked with 70th anniversary logos, and reproductions of classic cards, Bowman has created an aura that respects their past while moving their brand forward.

2017 Bowman Baseball / Bowman
Building excitement as the first 2017 baseball card release that focuses on top farmhands within the MLB pipeline through their Bowman Prospects and Chrome Prospects subsets, 2017 Bowman Baseball has positioned itself as the premier set for collectors looking catch the next rising star. The smooth design of the set (which is enhanced by the Chrome parallels) only serves add to its wide appeal.

The aforementioned 150-card Bowman Prospects set features the standout minor leaguers across baseball, many of whom are on the cusp on the major leagues this season, including Amed Rosario, Austin Meadows, and Clint Frazier. While the checklist for the set might disappoint some due to seeing the same players included for a second year in a row, Bowman continues to make the future stars of the game its focal point.

Not to be ignored is the 100-card base set, which is highlighted by rookie cards of the ever-popular Aaron Judge, Yoan Moncada, and Dansby Swanson. The mix of rookies who made their major league debut last season, coupled with baseball’s established veterans, make the base set a valuable accompany piece to the pre-rookie cards that everyone is chasing.

2017 Bowman Aaron Judge / Bowman
In an effort to connect their 70th anniversary to the current stars, inserts that contain a mesh of active stars and retired legends are designed in the fashion of the 1948, 1951, 1952, and 1992 Bowman sets. Also inserted into packs are buyback cards stamped with the Bowman 70th anniversary logo.

2017 Bowman Inserts / Bowman
Each box promises one autographed card. The box provided for this review yielded a Chance Adams autographed Chrome Prospect card. The wide array of autographs available in 2017 Bowman will make consumers happy, as they have the opportunity to pull signatures from the likes of Judge, Mike Trout, and Bryce Harper, as well as Hall of Famers Greg Maddux, Mike Piazza, and Randy Johnson.

Chance Adams Chrome Autograph / Bowman
As Bowman literally puts their stamp on their seven decades of baseball lineage with the 2017 Bowman set, they are simultaneously positioning themselves to be a player in the hobby for potentially another seven decades. This release sets them up perfectly for this generation to place 2017 Bowman Baseball as a landmark set in their collections.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Luis Olmo recounts facing Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson in Puerto Rico

Luis Olmo, a pioneering Puerto Rican in the major leagues, passed away April 28, 2017 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He was 97.

The fabulous outfielder became only the second Puerto Rican in the major leagues when he debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1943. His entry followed the lead of Hiram Bithorn, who made history with the Chicago Cubs a year prior in 1942.

Luis Olmo signed photo / N. Diunte
Adrian Burgos of La Vida Baseball expertly documented Olmo's career in the wake of his passing, citing Olmo's influence on generations of Puerto Rican baseball players. His professional career started in the 1930s, leaving him as one of a small handful of peloteros at the time of his death that could document the pre-WWII era of the sport.

Acknowledging Olmo's place alongside those who opened the door for integration, I wrote to him in 2008 asking about the Negro League legends he encountered playing in Puerto Rico. While his answers were brief, they spoke volumes.

The then 89-year-old Olmo gave his insights on three Hall of Famers: Ray Dandridge, Satchel Paige, and Josh Gibson. A copy of the letter is included below, as is a transcript of the questions and his answers.

Q - "Where does Ray Dandridge rank when you think of 3rd baseman?
Luis Olmo - "One of the best I ever seen."

Q - What do you think kept the Giants from calling him to the Major League team?
Olmo - "Racism."

Q - What are your memories of facing Satchel Paige in his prime while in Puerto Rico during the late 1930s and early 1940s?
Olmo - "A great pitcher."

Q- What are your favorite memories of playing with and against Josh Gibson in Puerto Rico? 
Olmo - "Gibson was able to hit 100 home runs in a season."  

Luis Olmo letter to the author in 2008 / N. Diunte


Saturday, April 22, 2017

2017 Topps Gypsy Queen creates a regal mystique for collectors

Aiming for aura of regal mystique as its name implies, the 2017 Topps Gypsy Queen set delivers collectors a striking design that is sure to draw the attention of many this baseball season. Immediately clear from opening the first pack of the box, is that the emphasis is on creating cards that are timeless in their display. The vivid action shots that blur the lines of photography and artwork are meant to persist in their appeal for decades.

2017 Topps Gypsy Queen / Topps
This year’s Gypsy Queen makes some amendments to the 2016 series, reducing the base set to 320 cards and removing the mini parallels from the series of inserts available to chase. Parallels include numbered colored cards (Purple, Black & White, Red, Black), as well as image variations of players in throwback uniforms or capless action shots. Some of the parallels are hard to determine due to the difficult to read codes in the fine print on the back that serves to differentiate them from the base set.

Standout inserts included the Hand Drawn Art Reproductions, which further the design motif of the set, as well as the Fortune Teller inserts that feature many of the rising stars in the league. The most tantalizing insert set however, might be the Chewing Gum Mini autographs (1:771 packs). These signatures include Hall of Famers Hank Aaron and Sandy Koufax, as well as top-tier young talents Carlos Correa, Noah Syndergaard, and Yoan Moncada.

2017 Topps Gypsy Queen Inserts and Variations / Topps
In exciting fashion, the box provided for this review yielded three autographs, one more than the two that were guaranteed. There was a Jacob deGrom autographed jumbo patch, a black and white autographed parallel that was numbered out of 50, and a signed base rookie card.

Jacob deGrom Autographed Insert Patch Card / Topps
On a somber note, the Glassworks Box Topper inserted into the box, was one of the late Jose Fernandez. As of this writing, Fernandez doesn’t have a base card in any of the 2017 Topps releases; seeing him once again alive on cardboard serves as a painful reminder of his 2016 passing.

2017 Topps Gypsy Queen Jose Fernandez Glassworks Box Topper / Topps
This year’s Topps Gypsy Queen is certainly another release by Topps that is not only worth chasing, but preserving. While collectors might find it a bit frustrating and expensive to compile the 20 short prints (1:24 packs) for a complete set, the classic graphics make the 2017 Topps Gypsy Queen a tough set to pass up.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Bearing witness to Jackie Robinson Day in 1997

On April 15, 1997, the New York Mets hosted Jackie Robinson Night at Shea Stadium, where Major League Baseball forever retired Jackie Robinson's jersey number 42. Exactly fifty years prior, Robinson made his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers against the Boston Braves in 1947, serving to shatter the line of segregation in the sport.

I was fortunate enough to be in attendance at the game, as the Mets distributed tickets to local high schools to boost attendance. I remember an announcement being made that tickets were available and as soon as the bell rang for the next period, I went to the office to claim one. Excited to have my ticket in hand, I eagerly awaited the opportunity to bear witness to this historic event.

Media Gathering Around The Field at Batting Practice for Jackie Robinson Day April 15, 1997 / N. Diunte
Entering Shea Stadium for the game, there was a tremendous amount of security as President Clinton was in attendance. Seemingly at every turn in the stadium there was a Secret Service agent, constantly on the lookout for any potential sign of danger. On the field during batting practice, hordes of media gathered by the newly unveiled logo commemorating the event.


Jackie Robinson Day April 15, 1997 Shea Stadium / N. Diunte
During the fifth inning of the contest, Major League Baseball stopped the game for an unprecedented on-field ceremony that included a hobbled President Bill Clinton who was recovering from knee surgery, Rachel Robinson, commissioner Bud Selig, and a few of Robinson's former Brooklyn Dodger teammates. The President explained the significance of Robinson's legacy and why it was important that his number 42 was going to be permanently retired across Major League Baseball.

President Bill Clinton speaking during Jackie Robinson Day April 15, 1997 / N. Diunte

Taking in the game from the upper deck with hordes of other New York City high school students, there was a bond that evening that transcended team affiliations, knowing that we were all spectators to a historical baseball event, one worthy of the President's time and attention. Twenty years later, the annual on-going tributes to Robinson and the doors that he opened, serve to remind us just how powerful his impact was on  the game.

Special Commemorative Program From Jackie Robinson Day April 15, 1997 / N. Diunte