Monday, October 31, 2016

2016 Topps Update captures the magic of a landmark baseball season

Cracking open the packs of 2016 Topps Update as the Cleveland Indians and Chicago Cubs battle for the World Series title, one gets the perfect opportunity to relive many of the fabulous moments of 2016. From the rookie debuts, to the career milestone achievements, and the late season switches, Topps captures all of the magic of a landmark baseball season.

2016 Topps Update / Topps
Clocking in at 300 cards, the set is a sleeker version than last year’s 400-card issue. Rookie card collectors will be pleased to find additions to their favorite player’s stash with a Rookie Debut subset that commemorates the first time they set foot on major league soil. The All-Star Game is also a major focus, with an additional subset highlighting the All-Star rosters and Home Run Derby participants.

Topps puts a finishing touch on Ichiro’s quest for 3,000 hits, by adding an insert set to chronicle the remainder of the hits he rapped out to reach the vaunted milestone. Carrying on with the tradition of Series 1 and Series 2, Topps puts the spotlight on an additional 10 ceremonial first pitches.

Ichiro Update Autographed Card / Topps

Each box guarantees an autograph or relic card. The box provided for this review yielded a cool 3,000 hits relic card of Roberto Clemente. Additional inserts included Topps Fire, and the Team Franklin set, which not-so-cleverly disguised as advertising for Franklin’s baseball gear.

Topps Fire Insert / Topps
The design follows Topps’ base card pattern for the year, with clear photography and a clean design that adds to the appeal of the set. Set collectors will appreciate the ability to build an entire base set from a hobby box, with the 36 packs making a complete set with a few doubles to trade.

Julio Urias Rookie Debut / Topps
With the ability to pull multiple rookie cards from the likes of Corey Seager, Trevor Story, and Julio Urias, build an entire set from one box, and uncover autographs from some of the top stars in the game, Topps Update only adds to the exciting ending of a legendary season for the baseball annals.


Monday, October 24, 2016

Clint Conatser recalls how he almost changed the course of the 1948 World Series

Clint Conatser was just 17 years old when he started in the depths of the Cleveland Indians organization in 1939. Some 77 years later, he is only one of two living participants from the last Cleveland World Series championship in 1948; however, Conatser didn’t enjoy the fruits of the Indians victory, but the labors of defeat as a member of the National League Champion Boston Braves.

Conatser almost never got to the big stage, as he asked to be put on the voluntarily retired list in 1941 so that he could enlist in World War II. They obliged.

“I wrote Cleveland and I asked them to go to the voluntary retired list,” Conatser said during a 2008 interview from his home in California. “If you went in the service, they had to pay $150 to pick you up. They didn’t pick me up and I’m in the South Pacific getting letters from little towns in Georgia and South Carolina that wanted to give me a contract.”

Clint Conatser as a Boston Brave / Author's Collection
Upon his return home, he started to work out at Manchester Playground in Los Angeles, where he attracted the attention of area scouts. He credited his resurgence to physically maturing during his service time.

“I was better than when I left because I was bigger, stronger, and I had matured,” he said. “I had started when I was 17. I just matured and had control of everything.”

He signed with the Detroit Tigers in 1946 and spent two seasons in their minor league system before the Braves purchased his contract prior to the start of the 1948 campaign. He earned the favor of manager Billy Southworth during spring training and seven years after he voluntarily retired from baseball, he was a big leaguer.

Conatser hit .277 in his 90-game rookie campaign while patrolling the outfield for the National League champs. He made two appearances in the 1948 World Series, starting in Boston’s Game 3 loss, and then pinch hitting in the deciding Game 6. During our 2008 conversation, Conatser’s clearest memory of the World Series was how his bases loaded sacrifice fly was inches from helping to force a potential Game 7.

“In the sixth game of the World Series when I pinch-hit with the bases loaded, I hit a shot and a guy made a great play on it,” he said. “They read the box scores and it said I hit a long fly ball to center field; I didn’t, I hit a shot. If the ball goes in, we win, and come back with [Johnny] Sain the next day. [Lou] Boudreau had taken [Larry] Doby out of center field because he played short like Tris Speaker used to and he put in a guy Thurman Tucker who was a world class sprinter; he could really run. He made a great play and Boudreau said that was the defining play because he put him in for Doby. If the ball goes in, it’s a different story. Every series is like that.”

Thursday, October 20, 2016

A 2016 postseason trip down to the farm with Topps Heritage Minors

With the attention of baseball fans focused on the postseason, Topps takes a trip through the minor leagues with the release of the 2016 Topps Heritage Minor League set. Crafted in the vintage design of the 1967 Topps motif, the stars of tomorrow are given the major league treatment with the look and feel of classics pieces of cardboard.

Headlining the set is Atlanta Braves phenom shortstop and first-overall draft pick, Dansby Swanson. Accompanied by the likes of Red Sox upstarts Andrew Benintendi and Yoan Moncada, as well as Yankees slugger Aaron Judge and Houston Astros rookie sensation Alex Bregman, collectors will find immediate familiarity with the prospects in the 215 card set.

2016 Topps Heritage Minors Yoan Moncada / Topps

Those purchasing the product might notice that Topps reduced the amount of cards per pack to eight cards, one less from last year’s product. The significant difference will put consumers much farther away from a complete base set than last year, with the box provided for this review falling well short of yielding a base set compared to 2015’s product.

2016 Topps Heritage Minors Drew Jackson Autograph
Topps attempts to make amends for the reduced amount of product with on-card autographs. The blue ink on the vintage backgrounds jumps off of the cards, providing an attractive addition for this year’s release. Sticking with the blue theme, Topps also inserted blue parallels numbered to /99, giving fans of the Heritage line even further incentive to make a purchase.

2016 Topps Heritage Minors Jorge Mateo 61 Mint Insert / Topps
The box opened for this review yielded two autographs (including a blue parallel autograph limited to 50), a jumbo coin relic card, a half dozen short prints, ten sticker inserts, and three blue parallels. With a retail price of $50, 2016 Topps Heritage Minors is an entertaining value product, as collectors can hedge their bets on prospects of the future, while looking forward to a box packed with inserts.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

2016 Topps Heritage High Number is a perfect bookend for the collecting season

Topps bookends what is quickly becoming their flagship set with the release of the 2016 Topps Heritage High Number series. This second issue of Topps Heritage features exciting rookies who were excluded from the first set earlier this year, as well as players who changed teams mid-season. This combination of top prospects with players who might have their only on-card appearance with their new team, makes the High Number series a coveted asset in collecting.

The 225-card High Number set features a 200-card base (501-700) with an additional 25 short prints (701-725). Topps gave the short prints an added touch of flair with a slightly brighter color on the card backs, making them even easier to differentiate from their base card counterparts.

2016 Topps Heritage High Numbers Box / Topps
Collectors will enjoy finding the rookies featured in this set are on their own individual cards, as opposed to the first series which had prospects sharing cards together. With the likes of Julio Arias, Lucas Giolito, Aledmys Diaz, Trevor Story, Nomar Mazara, Kenta Maeda, and Seung-Hwan Oh all getting the rookie card treatment, this set has the potential to be one to watch in the future as these players become the superstars of Major League Baseball.

The variety of inserts to chase is enough to keep the product interesting, but not so much to overwhelm the average collector. The box Topps provided for review yielded an image variation, a Chrome parallel, a gum stained back, and three of each of the following series: Now and Then, Award Winners, Clubhouse Combos, and Rookie Performers.

2016 Topps Heritage Inserts / Topps

The collation of the product was excellent. Each pack yielded some type of insert or short printed card. The 24 nine-card packs were just nine cards shy of yielding a complete base set. The box advertised either one relic card or one autographed card as its main hit. This box revealed an autographed card of Hall of Fame pitcher, Phil Niekro.

2016 Topps Heritage Phil Niekro Real One Autograph / Topps

Collectors will enjoy the 2016 Topps Heritage High Number series for both its value and collectability. With boxes priced at $60 that yield almost a complete base set with valued inserts in every pack, fans will have a tough time passing on this release. Whether their attraction to the High Number series is due to nostalgia, or the fun of scoring the next big hit, this product is a win that comes just in time for the World Series.

2016 Topps Heritage is as close as it comes to a sure bet with baseball

When it comes to a sure thing in baseball cards, nothing comes closer than the Topps Heritage series. Continuing with the trend of merging the current with classic, Topps makes a smash hit with their 2016 Topps Heritage set.

Paying homage to the 1967 Topps card design, this year’s Topps Heritage series is perfectly timed with the start of the spring training season. As the 2016 crop of veterans and rookies take the field with fresh faces and the uniforms of new teams, fans and collectors can get a similar rush of excitement by delving into the 2016 Topps Heritage set.

2016 Topps Heritage Mike Trout Clubhouse Collection / Topps
Staying in line with past Topps Heritage releases, this year’s series will keep collectors busy trying to pursue a master set, with 75 short prints, as well as a myriad of image variations to chase down. The design of the base set also has a fine touch of including dual rookie cards of the top young talent that will impact the major leagues in 2016.

Going past the base set and its variations, there are also Flashback inserts paying tribute to significant happenings of the 1967 season, as well as the classic Then and Now inserts that help to merge the stars of 1967 with 2016.

Each box guarantees either one autograph or one relic card. The autograph checklist for this year’s product is rather strong, featuring Real One single, dual, and triple autographed cards, as well as rare cut autographs of deceased players from the 1967 set. The box provided for this review produced a Mike Trout Clubhouse Collection Relic, highlighting a game used jersey from arguably the top young star in the game.

Whether it is the nostalgic design of the 2016 Topps Heritage set, the many layers of their master set, or the desirability of their autographed inserts, this year’s Topps Heritage set proves that if there is one Topps product that you have to put your money on, it’s this one.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Jim Zapp, Negro League teammate of Willie Mays, passes away at 92

Jim Zapp, a star outfielder for the 1948 Negro American League Champion Birmingham Black Barons, passed away Friday September 30, 2016 in Harker Heights, Texas. He was 92.

Born April 18, 1924 in Nashville, Tennessee, Zapp attended a Catholic school that lacked a baseball team, so ironically his first real exposure to the game wasn't until he enlisted in the Navy during World War II. Stationed at Pearl Harbor in 1943, Zapp played third base for their black baseball team. His abilities caught the attention of Edgar “Special Delivery” Jones, a former All-American football player at the University of Pittsburgh who was coaching the white team on the base. Zapp made history when Jones selected him to integrate his team.


Jim Zapp with the Birmingham Black Barons / Author's Collection

After returning to the United States in April 1945, Zapp was stationed in Staten Island, New York. Due to the good fortune of a recommendation from a base teammate, Zapp had his first taste of the Negro Leagues when he joined the Baltimore Elite Giants to play on the weekends. His teammates included Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella, whom Zapp recalled in Neil Lanctot’s “Campy,” that the catcher used to, “like to sit on the back wheel,” during bus rides.

Zapp played with the Elite Giants through 1946 before returning home briefly as a member of the Nashville Cubs. After one season with the Atlanta Black Crackers in 1947, he joined the Black Barons in 1948 off the strength of a recommendation of a player in the league. It was there in Birmingham in 1948 that things came together for Zapp and his teammates. Buoyed by a squad that included an outstanding double play combination in Piper Davis and Artie Wilson, Zapp provided much needed power to a lineup that included a 17-year-old center fielder by the name of Willie Mays. Zapp was one of many mentors to the talented teenager, and the news of his passing greatly touched the now 85-year-old Hall of Famer.

“Willie took it really hard,” his son James Zapp Jr. said in during a phone call Sunday afternoon. “His secretary e-mailed me yesterday; he’s going to write a letter that he wants read at my dad’s funeral.”

Zapp saved one of his greatest performances for the 1948 playoffs. In Game Three of the Negro American League Series against the Kansas City Monarchs, Zapp hit a game-winning ninth-inning home run to lead the Barons to a 3-2 victory. Unfortunately, he could not carry that magic into the World Series, as the Barons succumbed to the Homestead Grays 4-1 in a best of seven series.

At the close of the season, members of the Barons were invited to barnstorm with the Jackie Robinson All-Stars as well as the Indianapolis Clowns. Zapp was offered a spot with the Clowns, which he declined on the basis of a reduced draw. Years later, speaking with author Brent P. Kelley in, “The Negro Leagues Revisited,” Zapp lamented about his decision to leave the team.

“I told them to just give me my release,” Zapp said. “That’s probably one of the biggest mistakes I made in my life.”

He came back to Nashville to play semi-pro ball after parting from Birmingham. Not completely done with the game, he went for another round with the Elite Giants for two years from 1950-51 until he was signed into organized ball.

Zapp with the Big Springs Broncs / Author's Collection
Right away Zapp turned heads with his prodigious power while playing for the Class D Paris Lakers, crushing 20 home runs with a .330 batting average in 1952. Zapp’s terror of minor league pitching continued in 1954 when he set a Longhorn League record by swatting 32 blasts in only 90 games for the Big Springs Broncs. He played one more season in 1955 with Port Arthur and Big Springs before hanging it up for good.

Zapp stayed involved in sports after finishing his professional baseball career, serving as an athletic director at multiple military bases until his 1982 retirement. He continued to share his knowledge of the game through coaching and umpiring for an additional 20 years. With the Negro Leagues experiencing a resurgence in popularity throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Zapp frequently attended reunions and was honored with multiple baseball cards, including one in 2010 by Topps, as well as his own Hartland statue.

Within the last year, Zapp experienced a renaissance of sorts rarely seen by nonagenarians. In January 2015, Zapp Jr. sent correspondence indicating that due to his father’s advancing Alzheimer’s condition, that his grim prognosis could no longer allow him to accept fan mail. Amazingly, 18 months later, not only was Zapp alive, but Bill Nowlin reported in a July 2016 National Pastime Museum article, that Zapp’s condition had actually improved due to his family stepping in and altering his treatment.

“It’s been a little over a year since I took him off that medication and it worked out great,” Zapp Jr. said. “It got to the point where it was great to come see him because he was back to himself.”

Early in the morning on September 30, 2016, his son received a call from his father’s caregivers that his dad passed away. Sadly, the elder Zapp had premonitions that it was soon to be his time to go.

“He said he wanted to lay down awhile before he had breakfast,” Zapp Jr. said. “They put him back in his bed in his clothes and 20-30 minutes later, he was gone. He made a comment to them the night before that he wasn’t going to be around much longer. He was at peace.”

To be able to have that last year with his father’s improved condition and care meant the world to the Zapp family. They watched in amazement recently as Zapp reconstructed memories 70 years ago about his baseball career.

“He could remember things in the past that I was astonished that he could remember,” Zapp Jr. said. “A great era just came to an end.”

Funeral services will be held at Heritage Funeral Home in Harker Heights at 10AM on October 6, 2016.