Sunday, December 31, 2017

2017 Bowman's Best Baseball Review - Bowman saving the best for last

When it comes to 2017 baseball card releases, Bowman literally saved the best for last. The famed card manufacturer looks to end the year on a high note by closing out the season with 2017 Bowman’s Best Baseball.


The base card design drives the desirability of this release, as the rich colorful backgrounds help the player images jump off the cards, making this Bowman’s most visually appealing set of the year. The 100-card base set, which includes 35 Top Prospect cards, will please those searching for an easy path to completion.



For collectors seeking a greater challenge, Bowman keeps things interesting by favoring its trademark refractor cards. They offer a complete set of base refractors (1 per pack), atomic refractors (1 per master box), as well as numbered colored parallels that vary in scarcity (250 or less). These parallels will further drive collectors 2017 Bowman's Best Baseball just to hunt down "rainbows" of their favorite players.


The insert sets are equally attractive and intriguing. The 1997 Best Cuts insert set pays homage to a classic design, fitting both top-flight minor leaguers as well as retired veterans into the checklist. The Baseball America Dean List’s set gives report card grades to the next wave of prospects, and the Mirror Image inserts pair similar talents on the same card. All of the insert sets have numbered colored parallels, as well as autographed versions (save for the Mirror Image cards).


At a price point of $100 per master box, Bowman delivers value by guaranteeing four autographs. The base autograph set includes established young stars Aaron Judge, Cody Bellinger, Kris Bryant, and Mike Trout, as well as upstarts Brendan McKay, Ronald Acuna, and Royce Lewis. For those lucky enough to pull a rarer autograph insert from this set, they could find themselves with one signed by Derek Jeter or Hank Aaron.



Closing Bowman’s release calendar for the year, 2017 Bowman’s Best Baseball provides an attractive mixture of design, diversity, and value that will please collectors looking for a place to spend their newly found holiday riches.


Thursday, December 28, 2017

Jackie Robinson's lone day as shortstop for the Brooklyn Dodgers

When the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson in 1945, he was playing shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues. His signing worried league veterans, as they questioned his ability to adequately field the position at the major league level.

“All us old fellas didn't think he could make it at short,” Hall of Famer Cool Papa Bell told Sports Illustrated in 1973. “He couldn't go to his right too good. He'd give it a backhand and then plant his right leg and throw. He always had to take two extra steps. We was worried. He miss this chance, and who knows when we'd git another chance?”

Jackie Robinson / National Archives
If anyone was qualified to evaluate Robinson’s readiness to play shortstop at an elite level, it was Bell. Regarded as the fastest the Negro Leagues had to offer, Olympian Jesse Owens reportedly refused to race against the fleet-footed outfielder. Even though Bell was in his mid-40s when he faced Robinson in Negro League competition, he could still draw on his legendary speed when necessary. He devised a plan to send a not-so-subtle message that Robinson needed to look for another place on the field if he was going to be their representative to break the color barrier.

“So I made up my mind to try and show him he should try for another spot in the infield,” Bell said. “One night I must've knocked couple hundred ground balls to his right and I beat the throw to first every time. Jackie smiled. He got the message. He played a lot of games in the majors, only one of 'em at short.”

Intrigued by Bell’s mention of Robinson’s lone game in the majors at shortstop, I looked for the story behind his brief return to a position he had not played professionally in eight years. On September 22nd, 1953, Dodgers manager Chuck Dressen gave the Brooklyn fans a treat during the last home game of the season, as he penciled in Robinson at shortstop next to his cleanup spot in the batting order.

Pee Wee Reese, the Dodgers captain and shortstop, stepped aside so Robinson could have one last taste of the position he last held with the Monarchs. Ironically, Reese was the catalyst for this move, as it was his dare that provoked Robinson to change positions. In true form, the ever-competitive Robinson didn't hesitate to accept the challenge.

“Jackie Robinson played shortstop yesterday on a dare by Pee Wee Reese,” Dave Anderson wrote in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. “The man-in-motion now has played every infield position this season as well as left field.”


Robinson’s charge at shortstop was witnessed by only the most diehard Brooklyn faithful, as only 2,365 fans showed up to Ebbets Field for the game. His appearance passed with little fanfare except for a lone wire photo of Robinson snaring a line drive from the bat of Pittsburgh’s Danny O’Connell.

So was Bell accurate in his assessment of Robinson playing shortstop in the major leagues? Robinson handled five chances without an error, but his clean sheet left out one curious detail. In the first inning, the Pirates lefty-hitting Hal Rice reached safely at first base on a groundball to shortstop. While the news reports made no mention as to where Rice hit the ball, one can wonder if he tried to slap one in between short and third and test Robinson like Bell did in the Negro Leagues almost a decade earlier.

* Note - A tip of the cap to Luke Epplin (@LukeEpplin) for his assistance with the newspaper research.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

2017 Bowman Draft Review - A fresh look at the 2017 MLB Draft class

Baseball card collectors in search of something shiny and new for the holidays have to look no farther than 2017 Bowman Draft Baseball. This set provides fans and collectors a grand opportunity to familiarize themselves with the first official baseball cards of next season’s top prospects.


Each box guarantees three autographs and plenty of chrome cards, both in the form of coveted refractors and serially numbered color variations. Two first-round picks, Minnesota Twins shortstop Royce Lewis (1st overall pick), and Tampa Bay’s two-way player, Brendan McKay, headline the set. While Sports Illustrated cover boy Hunter Greene is noticeably absent, that does not detract from the attention 2017 Bowman Draft Baseball deserves.

The box provided for this review served up a complete base set, which will please collectors looking to get into the depths of each organization’s newest additions to their minor league systems. Putting the base set aside, the chrome cards and color parallels bring the prospects to the forefront and make for attractive additions to any collection.


Bowman has expanded their Chrome Draft autographs to over 75 prospects, which allows collectors a wide assortment of players that they can land in each box. With over a dozen parallel variations of each autographed card, player collectors will be kept busy the entire offseason trying to chase down entire runs of their favorite player’s signature.


Bowman keeps it simple with the chase cards, limiting the hobby boxes to the Defining Moments, MLB Draft History, and Recommended Viewing insert sets. Both the Defining Moments and MLB Draft History sets also have autographed variations, adding to the excitement and potential of scoring a Hall of Fame signature or one from Bowman’s selected group of exclusive young superstars. While the box opened for this review did not yield any of the aforementioned insert autographs, it did provide a rare short print in the form of a Kevin Maitan facsimile signature image variation.


Debuting right in time for the holiday season, 2017 Bowman Draft Baseball makes for a wonderful gift under the Christmas tree that will provide collectors the chance to lose themselves in the 2017 MLB Draft class while they wait for spring training to emerge.





Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Mamie Peanut Johnson, female Negro League pitcher, dies at 82

Mamie “Peanut” Johnson, a pioneering female baseball player in the Negro Leagues has answered the ultimate call to the bullpen. Johnson, who was only one of three females to play in the Negro Leagues, passed away Tuesday December 19, 2017 according to Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. She was 82.


Born September 27, 1935 in Ridgeway, South Carolina, Johnson moved to New Jersey to live with relatives after her grandmother died. She honed her chops on the diamond playing on the boys’ baseball team at Long Branch High School.

Mamie Peanut Johnson in 2010 / N. Diunte

The five-foot-six right-handed pitcher earned the nickname “Peanut” when one batter called out to her, “How do you expect to get me out? You’re no bigger than a peanut!” After sending the hitter back to the dugout in defeat, the nickname stuck and a legend was born.

She played for the Indianapolis Clowns from 1953-55 during a time when the league was trying to survive after major league teams signed many of their top young talents. Determined to prove that her signed was more than a publicity stunt, Johnson dazzled batters from the mound en route to a lifetime 33-8 record. She also held her own at the plate, posting a career batting average in the .260s.

Moving on from the rigors of barnstorming, Johnson went to school at North Carolina A&T and became a nurse for thirty years. She spent the latter part of her retirement traveling the country promoting the game due to the resurgence of interest in the Negro Leagues in the early 1990s.

As she outlasted her peers, Johnson was honored with praise and awards. She was the subject of a 2002 inspirational book for young adults, “A Strong Right Arm,” which highlighted how she earned her place in history among the giants of the game. In 2008, the Washington Nationals selected her in Major League Baseball's Negro Leagues draft.

Mamie Peanut Johnson with Hall of Famer Dave Winfield (r.) in 2008 MLB Negro Leagues draft

Sunday, December 10, 2017

2017 Topps Gallery Review - How Topps Gallery delivers museum grade design to collectors

Topps's selection of artist Mayumi Seto to design the 2017 Topps Gallery set has paid immediate dividends for baseball card enthusiasts everywhere. The 200-card base set contains vivid portraits of MLB’s finest talent, largely due to her artistic vision expertly capturing the spirit of each ballplayer. Collectors will be drawn to the cards by her designs, making it a popular addition to shopping carts during the holiday season.

2017 Topps Gallery / Topps

The base set is comprised of 150 cards and an additional 50 short prints, narrowing the focus of the set to the top stars and prospects in the game (including both Rookie of the Year Award winners – Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger). By Topps limiting the players included within the set, this exclusive group further contributes to the excitement of opening each five-card pack.

The short prints create an interesting quandary for set collectors due to their relative scarcity. The box provided for this review yielded only one of the 50 short prints in the set. Mixing current players with retired legends for the short prints will drive collectors to complete this attractive set on the secondary market.

Each box contains two autographs, both which illustrate how even more impressive Seto’s portraits look behind a sharp signature. Due to the post-season release of this set, the cards contain sticker autographs, which will undoubtedly give collectors mixed feelings about adding them to their stockpiles. Some will pass on them, giving less discerning fans the opportunity to make a fine display of these autographs. As collectors move into the offseason, look for the hardcore autograph collectors to get the base cards signed in-person throughout spring training and beyond.

2017 Topps Gallery Autographs / Topps

A deeper dive into the inserts reveals even finer artwork by both Seto and Dan Bergren in the form of the Masterpiece and Hall of Fame Gallery sets. The Hall of Fame Gallery set is minted with a glossy finish that captures the essence of the game's legends at the pinnacle of their careers. The Masterpiece set could easily double as large portraits that are worthy of a museum display.

2017 Topps Gallery Inserts and Short Prints / Topps

The 2017 Topps Gallery set is a welcome shot in the arm for collectors that are looking for a different feel from the standard Topps releases during the season. While the obvious stars of this set are the artists and their handcrafted designs, 2017 Topps Gallery is designed with the reminder that baseball cards are created to be on full display for all to admire.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Tracy Stallard, surrendered record setting home run to Roger Maris, dies at 80

Tracy Stallard, a seven-year major league pitcher who was best remembered for surrendering Roger Maris' record-setting 61st home run in 1961, has passed away at the age of 80 according to an announcement by the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association.

During the 50th anniversary of his fateful meeting with Maris in 2011, I sat down with Stallard at a charity event in Pennsylvania for MetroBASEBALL magazine to discuss his place in New York baseball lore, both for his role in the famous home run, as well as his tenure with the New York Mets. Below is a modified version of the article that originally appeared in the magazine.

Tracy Stallard (l.) with Mets teammate Jack Fisher (r.) / N. Diunte
Fifty years after he faced off with Roger Maris, Tracy Stallard was just glad to be remembered. On the last day of the 1961 season, the strapping 24-year-old pitcher for the Boston Red Sox stared down Maris behind in the count 2-0. Stallard reared back for his fastball and with one swing of the bat, Maris eclipsed Babe Ruth’s mark for home runs in a season. Forever linked due to the events of October 1st, 1961, Stallard doesn’t shy away from his connection with the Yankee slugger.

“Well it seems to be now that it’s bigger now than when it happened,” Stallard said in 2011. “I’m glad it happened. I did my best and he was doing his best and he came out on top. That’s about all you can make out of it.”

Stallard had little time to get caught up with Maris’ chase as he was informed close to the start of the game that he would be taking the mound. The short notice gave him little chance to ponder the complexities of the Yankees powerful lineup.

“I went to the ballpark and we didn’t know who was pitching," he said. "We got there about 45 minutes before the game and [while] we were getting dressed Sal Maglie threw me the ball. That’s when I knew I was pitching. I didn’t think that much about it. They had a great team. He got a lot of good pitches to hit simply because of the guys hitting behind him. Mickey Mantle didn’t play that day; however, they had some good players [in the lineup], Skowron, Howard, Blanchard, and Berra.”

Lost in the celebration of Maris’ record-breaking home run was a strong pitching performance by Stallard. He gave up only one run in seven innings while striking out five batters, including Maris the next time he came to the plate. In fact, Stallard would face Maris seven times in his career and yield only that home run.

Ironically, Stallard found himself wearing a New York uniform shortly thereafter; however, it was on the other side of town. The New York Mets acquired Stallard in a trade prior to the 1963 season. For the next two years, Stallard was a mainstay in the Mets starting rotation, leading the team in complete games and strikeouts in 1964. Despite shouldering many of the losses, Stallard had fun playing in Queens.

“I was received very well,” he said. “The fans in New York are like no other. I pitched some pretty good baseball then. I enjoyed every minute of New York. The people were great and they treated us good. It’s hard to put up with a losing ballclub, but they did pretty well.”

Over his seven-year career, Stallard pitched with the St. Louis Cardinals in addition to the Mets and Red Sox. He pitched in the minor leagues until retiring from professional baseball after the 1969 season. He returned to Virginia and ran a successful coal stripping business for many years.

In retirement, Stallard shunned the spotlight, but in recent years he became more accepting of his place in baseball history.

“I don’t know that much about whether it’s changed my life or not," he said. “I played in a lot of golf tournaments because of it. I’m sure if I hadn’t been the pitcher at the time, I wouldn’t be invited. I’m certainly not that naive.”

Monday, December 4, 2017

Bobby Valentine to headline second annual IABF fundraiser in Brooklyn

While Bobby Valentine wasn’t in the race for the New York Mets or Yankees managerial positions, he will return to the baseball spotlight on Thursday, December 7, 2017, when he will be honored by the Italian American Baseball Foundation at Carmine’s Sports Bar and Restaurant in Brooklyn. The current Sacred Heart University athletic director will be celebrated during the foundation’s second annual fundraiser for his role as a global ambassador within the sport.

Bobby Valentine / N. Diunte

Carmine Gagnone, the owner of Carmine’s in Brooklyn where the fundraiser will take place, is also one of the organization's founding members. Speaking with Gagnone at his restaurant Sunday afternoon, he felt that Valentine’s record of community involvement made him a perfect choice to be recognized Thursday evening.

“Anybody I speak with, when they talk about Bobby Valentine, they say the work he does off the field is tremendous,” Gagnone said. “From 9/11 on, he was all over the place night and day.”

The nubile foundation was formed as the brainchild of Gagnone and Mint Pros founder Joe Quagliano as an opportunity to further the game of baseball in Italy through the establishment of baseball clinics and educational partnerships.

“We started the foundation about two years ago,” he said. “We want to eventually have baseball clinics in Italy, and we want to bring former and present major league players to run both clinics and tournaments. We hope we can offer good athletes [in Italy] a chance to get scholarships to play in the United States.”

Their inaugural fundraiser honored Hall of Famer Mike Piazza, who spent time as Team Italy’s hitting coach during the 2013 World Baseball Classic. Gagnone expressed how having a player of Piazza’s status support their initial efforts lent immediate credibility to the IABF’s mission.

“Having Piazza there helped tremendously,” he said. “We go to other events and they heard about us and what we do [just from Piazza appearing].”



This year’s event will have continued star power, with the list of confirmed attendees including current New York Mets and Team Italy outfielder Brandon Nimmo, as well as former Mets and Yankees stars John Franco, Jim Leyritz, and Rick Cerone. Brooklyn Cyclones Assistant General Manager Gary Perone will receive the IABF’s 2017 Executive of the Year award.

A limited amount of tickets remain for the November 7th, 2017 IABF Fundraiser. Each $500 ticket includes a cocktail hour from 6:30-7:30 PM, and then a two-hour dinner from 7:30-9:30 PM. For more information about the IABF, or to purchase tickets, visit their website, iabf.foundation

Thursday, November 23, 2017

2017 Bowman High Tek Review - Can High Tek break into the ranks of the minor league elite sets

The Bowman brand is dipping its hand into the High Tek series with the release of 2017 Bowman High Tek Baseball. Each box of the prospect focused set delivers four on-card autographs, enticing collectors who are looking to get ahead of the curve on next year’s breakout stars. In the tradition of the Topps High Tek releases, collectors are kept busy with a seemingly endless variety of parallels and designs. As collectors pursue the depths of 2017 Bowman High Tek, will the combination of autographs and parallels be enough to keep them in the game during its late-season release?

2017 Bowman High Tek Baseball / Bowman
Perusing the list of prospects included in this set, collectors will be able to get their hands on sought-after autographs of National League Rookie of the Year Cody Bellinger, Philadelphia Phillies power-hitting phenom Rhys Hoskins, Boston Red Sox rookie sensation Rafael Devers, and former Atlanta Braves prospect now turned free agent, Kevin Maitan. That grouping by itself should be enough to get collectors interested in the product, as with only 60 prospects included in the set, the odds are favorable to pull a signature of one of these coveted upstarts.

2017 Bowman High Tek Autographs / Bowman
The box provided for this review uncovered autographs of two of the top four prospects from this year’s Arizona Fall League, third baseman Francisco Mejia of the Cleveland Indians, and pitcher Mitch Keller of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

2017 Bowman High Tek Designs / Bowman
While 2017 Bowman High Tek attempts to capture eyeballs with their autographs, the real intrigue is the array of designs in the set. Bowman advertises over 10 different patterns for each player, making the chase for each design a mission for individual player collectors. The box provided for this review yielded four different patterns, with one being a rare circuit board pattern of New York Mets shortstop Amed Rosario.

2017 Bowman High Tek Amed Rosario Circuit Board Parallel / Bowman
Released at the end of October 2017, Bowman High Tek has heavy competition from 2017 Topps Heritage Minor League Baseball for those who are seeking their postseason fixes for the game’s top prospects. While the assortment of autographs and designs are intriguing with Bowman’s foray into this new product, at a price point of $110 per box, Bowman is asking collectors to take a leap of faith that their selection of prospects is indeed on the money.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Bobby Doerr remembered as a calming influence on the Blue Jays franchise

Bobby Doerr built a Hall of Fame career as the “Silent Captain” of the Boston Red Sox from 1937-1951. The humble nine-time All-Star second baseman, died November 13, 2017 in Junction City, Oregon. He was 99.

Bobby Doerr / Blue Jays

An icon with the Red Sox organization as both a player and a coach, Doerr also helped to build the foundation of the Toronto Blue Jays organization. Starting with the Toronto franchise during their inaugural 1977 campaign, Doerr served as their batting coach for five seasons. His profound impact went well beyond their hitters, as former Blue Jays All-Star pitcher Dave Lemanczyk recalled just how vital Doerr was to their operation.

“He just gave us the opportunity to compete,” Lemanczyk said Thursday night at the Firefighters Charitable Foundation Dinner in Long Island. “That was the big thing. He never got excited, [he was] very low key. … Sometimes as a baseball player, you let your emotions get a hold of you, and you try to compete at a level you shouldn’t be at and you end up screwing the pooch a little bit. He probably had a calming, almost like a grandfatherly influence on most of the guys he came in contact with.”

In addition to his easy demeanor as Lemanczyk observed, he said that Doerr’s reserved nature kept him from boasting about his legendary career. Even though Doerr wouldn’t be elected to the Hall of Fame until 1986, few of the players knew of his standing among the greats of the game.

“He was just a class, soft spoken guy,” he said. “I don’t think any of us realized that he was a Hall of Famer. He was just a kind gentleman who absolutely knew the ins and out, especially hitting, of baseball. Somebody who could put up with Ted Williams his whole career had to be pretty in tune with everything.”

Upon reading the news of Doerr’s passing, Lemanczyk’s memory was triggered by visions of a photo shoot they shared for a local department store. He dug up the photo and was immediately filled with emotion confronting the permanence of his former coach’s death.

“As soon as I read it in the paper, [I remembered] Alan Ashby, Jesse Jefferson, Bobby Doerr, and myself did a photo layout for Eaton’s department stores for a father’s day catalogue,” he recalled. “I happen to have that catalogue in the house and just looking at that brought an eerie chill.”

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Rance Pless, Kansas City Athletics infielder, dies at 91

Rance Pless had 2,037 hits and a MVP award to his credit during in his 14-year professional baseball career. Yet, with only 23 of those hits coming in the major leagues, Pless’ talents were largely hidden in small towns across the United States in the 1950s by a system that was controlled by the reserve clause.

Pless, who did finally make major league debut with the Kansas City Athletics in 1956 as a 30-year-old rookie, passed away Saturday, November 11, 2017, at the Laughlin Healthcare Center in Greeneville, Tennessee. He was 91.

Rance Pless / Author's Collection

Before his baseball career started, Pless enlisted in the Navy in March 1944 and after basic training, was part of a Landing Craft Infantry that was sent to Okinawa in 1945. While battling in Okinawa, Pless received the news that the United States had bombed Hiroshima. The former WWII veteran who in a sad twist of fate, passed away on Veterans Day, recalled the euphoria amongst his infantry.

"We started celebrating, shooting off guns, flares, etc," Pless said to the Greenville Sun in 2015.

His crew was tasked with capturing the surviving Japanese soldiers. Where they went after they were captured were of little consequence to Pless, he just wanted to get back home.

"The Japanese, we put them on the big ship and don't know where the hell they took them to and we didn't care," he said.

Pless worked his way into the New York Giants system in 1947, starting among many who were also returning from military service. At the plate, Pless shined, batting over .300 six of his first seven minor league seasons with the Giants. Unfortunately, Pless’ main position was third base, where he had competition from Bobby Thomson and Hank Thompson at the major league level, and future Hall of Famer Ray Dandridge with their AAA Minneapolis club.

In 1952, Pless was having a breakout season, leading the Southern Association with a .364 batting average. Just when Pless was on the verge of possibly being called to the major leagues, a fastball aimed squarely at his head drastically altered his path to big league stardom.

“I lead the league that year in 1952,” Pless told me during a phone interview from his home in January 2015. “I got beaned that year. We were playing down in Atlanta and I got hit on my cheekbone. I was afraid that it would destroy my eye.”

He ignored medical advice and returned to the team after a few weeks against the urging of team personnel. With his team in a pennant race, Pless wanted a taste of postseason riches.

“I got back and played in about a week or two,” he said. “They didn’t want me to play, but we got in the playoffs and that was extra money! I was not gun shy. I guess I was more mad [than anything else]. I got up there and I just felt like that they were going to be throwing at me. A few of them did and I hit them over the wall and they quit throwing at me!”

The Giants rewarded Pless with a promotion to AAA Minneapolis where he replaced Dandridge who left for the Pacific Coast League. He responded with another tremendous season, batting .322 with 25 home runs; however, the Giants left him beating the bushes once again. Determined to impress the Giants brass, he signed on with Caguas to play baseball in the Puerto Rican Winter League.

“That meant a lot to me,” he said. “Number one, we made pretty good money playing over there. You go over there and pick up that extra money. … They treated us good. It was just a good place to go in the winter time. I looked forward to going every year.”

One of his teammates during that 1953-54 winter league season was a skinny infielder from the Braves organization named Henry Aaron. More than 60 years later, recalling his memories of playing with Aaron at such a developing stage of his career brought him tremendous excitement.

“I don’t know if you’ve got enough paper to write on now,” he said. “He was one of the better prospects with a bat in his hands than anybody I’ve ever seen come down the pike. The harder they threw, the harder he hit it. He could hit the curve ball too (laughs) – he was almost unreal.”

At the time, baseball’s future home run king was trying to break in as a second baseman. Pless explained why he felt Caguas manager Mickey Owen made the right move to convert Aaron to an outfielder.

“I hate to say this, but he was a better outfielder than he was an infielder,” Pless recalled. “He [Mickey Owen] made a good move, and it was good for Henry too. In the outfield, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen him misplay a ball. He was just uncanny, that’s all I can say.”

Behind the firepower of Aaron, Jim Rivera, Vic Power, Tetelo Vargas, and other Puerto Rican Winter League mainstays, Caguas won the 1953-54 Caribbean Series. Pless helped to lead them to victory with a home run during the third game against Almendares of Cuba.

1953-54 Caugas Team Photo

Despite all of his offseason accolades, the Giants never pulled the trigger on bringing Pless to the major leagues, missing out their 1954 World Series championship team. Now approaching his late 20s, Pless continued his maturation as a ballplayer in Minneapolis, batting .290 in 1954, and then earned American Association MVP honors in 1955 after he posted Triple Crown worthy numbers with 26 home runs, 107 RBIs, and a .337 batting average.

The Kansas City Athletics took notice of Pless’ stellar season, purchasing him from the Giants for $35,000 during the offseason. The Athletics had high hopes that Pless would bring some power to their sputtering lineup; however, he didn’t hit a single home run in 46 games with the club, used sparingly as a backup to Hector Lopez and his former Caguas teammate Vic Power.

Pless returned to the minor leagues in 1957 for four more seasons. While he never returned to the big leagues, he faced the likes of Satchel Paige and Luke Easter, played alongside Tommy Lasorda, and played in Cuba under heavy security while Fidel Castro was coming into power.

After he retired from professional baseball, he worked for the Magnavox Company until 1987. He remained in the game as a scout for 25 years with the Atlanta Braves.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

2017 Topps Heritage Minor League Baseball Review - Showcasing the top prospects waiting on deck

With the 2017 Major League Baseball season under wraps, baseball fans still looking for their fix can look towards the Arizona Fall League and Caribbean Series to keep an eye on the game’s top prospects. Topps attempts to further the discussion of the next prospects to take off with the release of the 2017 Topps Heritage Minor League Baseball set.

2017 Topps Heritage Minors / Topps

Designed in the mold of the classic 1968 Topps set, 2017 Topps Heritage Minors aims to catch the nostalgic senses of veteran collectors while attracting fans who fill minor league ballparks in every corner of the country. Leading off the base set is New York Mets phenom Amed Rosario, who gave the team a much needed shot in the arm after tearing up the Pacific Coast League. Building upon Rosario’s newly minted fame, Topps has followed up with the likes of Mickey Moniak, Nick Senzel, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and Victor Robles to add to the ranks of the top prospects in this set.


2017 Topps Heritage Minors Inserts and Short Prints / Topps

The 200-card base set is also supplemented by an additional 20 short prints as well as four different colored base card parallels. Topps cleverly kept more of the sought after prospects in the short prints including Tim Tebow, forcing collectors to dig deeper to round out their sets.

2017 Topps Heritage Minors Green Parallel / Topps

Diving into the inserts, minor league All-Stars are neatly highlighted in the Baseball America subset. Topps shows its lighter side with the 1968 Topps mini discs. The discs are a throwback to a time when cards were exchanged and played with and not cut to exact size to fit neatly into 9-card binder pages.

2017 Topps Heritage Minors 1968 Mini Discs / Topps
Each box guarantees one autographed card and one relic card. The box provided for this review yielded an autograph of Cincinnati Reds outfield prospect T.J. Friedl and a relic card of Chicago White Sox outfielder Eloy Jimenez. While both of those hits were of the more common variety, collectors have a chance to scoop up autographed cards of Derek Jeter and David Ortiz as part of the Looming Legacy series, and autographed 1968 Mint relic cards of top organizational prospects.


While the hardcore collectors would like to see this set come out during the minor league season so they can track down their favorite local player before they move up their organizational ranks, the timing of 2017 Topps Heritage Minors provides fans and collectors the opportunity to track a wide range of next year’s future stars unencumbered by the heat of the postseason baseball.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

2017 Topps Archives Signature Series Review - Bringing fans closer to current superstars

For autograph collectors, scoring a signature of an active player has becoming increasingly difficult with limited access at Major League Baseball stadiums due to seating restrictions, shortened batting practice, and protective netting. Long gone are the days of buying a cheap bleacher seat, arriving to the park early, and going anywhere in the field level seating with the prospect of being able to walk away with a variety of autographs from the superstars to the players on the end of the bench.

2017 Topps Archives Signature Series / Topps

Topps has attempted to stymie this frustration for hobby enthusiasts with the release of 2017 Topps Archives Signature Series. Each single card box carries an encapsulated autograph of one active major league player at the price of what it would cost to attend a game. With a checklist that includes Aaron Judge, Bryce Harper, Ichiro, Kris Bryant, and Mike Trout, many fans would be elated to walk away with their signatures after a purchase of this product.

The box provided for this review yielded an autograph of former Cleveland Indians first round pick, Tyler Naquin, which is numbered to a limited edition of 99 cards.

2017 Topps Archives Signature Series Tyler Naquin / Topps

Certainly not every player included in this set is of the caliber of the aforementioned group; however, the guarantee that one will walk away a guaranteed signature of an active MLB player is an attractive feature for this product. While some might wait until the masses put their hits on the secondary market, most fans would enjoy receiving a box of 2017 Topps Archives Signature Series gift wrapped for the holiday season.


2017 Topps Archives Signature Series Autograph List


Aaron JudgeDan VogelbachJoe PanikNomar Mazara
Adam JonesDavid PriceJose AltuveOdubel Herrera
Adrian GonzalezDellin BetancesJulio UriasOrlando Arcia
Albert PujolsDerek NorrisJustin TurnerRobinson Cano
Alex BregmanDexter FowlerKelvin HerreraRyan Braun
Alex ReyesDidi GregoriusKenta MaedaRyon Healy
Andrew BenintendiDustin PedroiaKevin KiermaierSonny Gray
Ben ZobristFrancisco LindorKris BryantStarling Marte
Brandon PhillipsFreddie FreemanKyle SchwarberStephen Piscotty
Bryce HarperGeorge SpringerLucas GiolitoSteven Matz
Buster PoseyHenry OwensLuis SeverinoSteven Wright
Carlos CorreaIan HappManny MachadoTrea Turner
Charlie BlackmonIchiro SuzukiManny MargotTrevor Story
Chris SaleJ.D. MartinezMashiro TanakaTyler Austin
Corey KluberJacob deGromMatt CarpenterTyler Naquin
Corey SeagerJameson TallionMax KeplerWade Davis
Danny DuffyJason HeywardMichael FulmerWillson Contreras
Danny ValenciaJavier BaezMiguel SanoYoan Moncada
Dansby SwansonJeurys FamiliaMike Trout
Noah Syndergaard




Saturday, November 4, 2017

Al Richter, former Boston Red Sox shortstop passes away at 90

The plight of baseball players like Allen Richter was an all too common theme in the 1950s. Labeled as one of the best shortstops of his era in the minor leagues, Richter treaded water in the Boston Red Sox farm system while Johnny Pesky cemented his position as a franchise cornerstone. Bound to the Red Sox by the reserve clause and his path effectively blocked by Pesky, Richter played his best baseball away from the Major League spotlight, appearing in only six games during two separate stints in Boston.

While Richter’s major league career never fully materialized, he outlived most of his Boston counterparts, remaining active by playing tennis a few times per week into his late 80s. Sadly, Richter passed away October 29th, 2017 at his home in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He was 90.

Al Richter / Author's Collection

The Red Sox signed Richter in 1945 from Maury High School, where they placed him with their team in Roanoke. His time with the club was short lived, as he only played three games before he fulfilled his military duties in the Army Air Corps.

“I went in 1945 right after high school,” Richter told me during a 2009 phone interview from his home in Virginia Beach. “I got out in 18 months. They allowed me to be discharged a month early. I was in Germany. I did my basic training in Kessler Field in Mississippi and shortly thereafter I went to Denver for photography school. From there I went overseas in the Army occupation after the war was won. I was coaching a baseball team that we organized over in Germany.”

Richter returned to the Red Sox in 1947 and he moved briskly through their farm system, reaching AAA by 1949. He impressed with his eye at the plate, walking 100 times in 1950, while only striking out 36 times in 589 plate appearances. He took pride in the fact that he consistently put the ball in play.

“When I hit the ball, I hardly ever struck out,” he said. “If I were up 400 times, I struck out maybe 18 times and some were called out.”

Richter had his breakout season in 1951 batting .321 with Louisville while carving a niche as one of the top shortstops in the American Association. His teammates took notice of his tremendous play, including Charlie Maxwell who was another young talent that later joined Richter in Boston.

“I felt sorry for him because he hit over .300 a few years in a row in Louisville,” Maxwell said to me during a 2009 phone interview. “They would never give him the opportunity to go to Boston. Finally, he went up there and that's when they had the Coast League. … There was nobody else, outside of Don Zimmer at St. Paul, Richter was probably the best shortstop in the minors and nobody would give him a shot at the majors. … It was rare a shortstop would hit .300 in the minors but nobody gave him a shot. There weren't that many shortstops hitting .300 anywhere! “

Tearing up the American Association in 1951, Richter forced the Red Sox hand, as they called him up when rosters expanded in September. They were in the heat of a pennant race with the New York Yankees, so he had to wait until their fate was determined until he was able to make a start at shortstop.

“That was the best year for me,” he said. “I was a .260 hitter, which was okay for a shortstop, but I had a great year for Louisville, I hit .321. I was really on that year. I hit the best by far I ever had. I went up with the Red Sox at the end of the year at the end of ‘51. That’s when the Red Sox was battling with the Yankees until the last two games at Yankee Stadium to see who was going to be the champions of the American League. They kept Pesky at shortstop who was an All-Star.”

Manager Pinky Higgins placed Richter in the starting lineup during the last game of the season with many of the other Red Sox rookies. He responded by getting his first major league hit off of Eddie Lopat, a memory that was crystal clear more than 50 years later.

I was in the last game of the season that Harley Hisner pitched," he said. "That was the last [Major League] game other than the World Series for Joe DiMaggio. I got my only hit off of Eddie Lopat, a left-handed pitcher for the Yankees. … I always made contact and I hit that one up the middle of the diamond on the ground. The thing was, Phil Rizzuto was at shortstop and I thought he was coming close to it. I ran real hard down first base and I ran straight through just trying to beat out the hit. When I looked up running past first base, I discovered the ball went all the way through and it went out to center field. I should have made the turn and gone to second in case the center fielder missed it. That was the first time ever in my life I did that. That stood out in my mind and still does. I thought I had to beat it out because Rizzuto had gotten to it. I just had my head down and was racing hard to get first base.”

Richter’s lone hit capped a promising season, giving him a glimmer of hope for a return to Boston; however, those dreams were quickly dashed when they sent him to San Diego in the Pacific Coast League for the 1952 season. The Red Sox brought him back for one more appearance as a defensive replacement in 1953 and two years after that Richter was out of baseball at 28. During our 2009 interview, he explained how frustrating it was for players in his situation due to baseball's reserve clause.

“At that time when you were signed with a ballclub, they owned you for life,” he said. “It’s not like it is today. They had the reserve clause. For example, I was with the Red Sox. There was no three-year or five-year contract. When I signed with them out of high school, I belonged to them for life. I was like a slave for them. Even if they didn’t want to get rid of me, even if I did well or I didn’t do so well, if they didn’t want to get rid of me they wouldn’t let me go to any other club that wanted me.”

After his baseball career, Richter transitioned to becoming a television sports reporter in Virginia. He later moved on to careers in the real estate and food service businesses.

Richter was honored in 2012 by the Boston Red Sox when they invited him back to Fenway Park to take part in the franchise’s 100th anniversary celebration of the legendary stadium. Even though his time with the franchise was brief, he held the experience in the highest regard.

"It was just a privilege to have been around so many great players," Richter said to the Virginian Pilot in 2012, "and it will be a privilege to share a little in the history of a special place."

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

2017 Topps Update Baseball Review - How 2017 Update is taking a mighty cut at the fences

One look at Aaron Judge’s stoic glare on the cover of 2017 Topps Update Baseball and it is evident that Topps has lofty goals for its postseason product. Topps has loaded the base set with the two most desired young players in the game, with the inclusion of three additional rookie cards of Judge, as well as four of Los Angeles Dodgers upstart Cody Bellinger. Packed with the magnetism of these two power hitting young superstars, Topps is hoping that the abundance of their cards in the set will draw collectors to 2017 Update as the World Series championship hangs in the balance.

2017 Topps Update / Topps
With Judge’s dominating performance in the 2017 Home Run Derby serving as the first card in the set, Topps also highlights his rookie debut and his All-Star Game selection. Bellinger gets the same treatment, as well as his official Topps rookie card in their flagship product, further increasing the attraction of this set for collectors in both the near and long term.

2017 Topps Update Cody Bellinger RC / Topps
Outside of the two aforementioned likely Rookie of the Year selections for their respective leagues, Topps Update provides lesser known players to get their first shot on major league cardboard, as well as team collectors finding their team’s recently acquired 25th men having their moment in the sun after potentially being passed over in Topps Series 1 and 2 releases earlier this year.

Topps forces collectors to pay attention to detail with 2017 Update as there are well over 100 variations of the short print and super short print varieties that include legends Roberto Clemente, Babe Ruth, and Ted Williams. The lengthy set of variations could easily excite collectors to dive into a few boxes or chase a master set well into the offseason, giving this product room to run well after the World Series champion has been determined. Conversely, collectors craving simplicity could easily face burn out at this point in the season of having to track all of the different inserts within 2017 Update.

2017 Topps Update Variations / Topps
The box provided for this review yielded a complete base set with a few doubles to spare, an array of rainbow foil and Gold parallel cards (#’d/2017), nine of the aforementioned variations, and an All-Star relic card of Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Justin Smoak.




At a price point of $65 per box, collectors will find value in the fact that 2017 Topps Update Baseball will yield a complete set that includes a combined seven rookie cards of both the likely Rookie of the Year winners from each league. Add on the assortment of potentially scarce variations, parallels, inserts, and a guarantee of either an autograph or relic card, Topps has scored another winner with 2017 Update Baseball.







Sunday, October 15, 2017

Pat Kelly recalls the Yankees 1995 post-season heroics

Former Yankees infielder Pat Kelly was in New York recently to help give an assist to the fundraising efforts for the Jason Krause Kick Cancer Scholarship, signing autographs along with his Yankee teammate David Cone at their annual community event. As soon Cone explained to Kelly his endearment for the people who are involved with the organization, he came right on board.

“Andrew Levy our agent discussed it with me,” Kelly said during an interview at the fundraiser. “I discussed it with David Cone who has been here several years and it was something that we all wanted to get involved with and come back to as well.”

Pat Kelly / Yankees
Kelly, who played seven of his nine big league seasons with the Yankees from 1991-1997, helped the Yankees transition from a team mired in mediocrity, to one that would rise to dominate the latter part of the 1990s. He credited the late Gene Michael for being the wise architect of the new Yankees dynasty.

“Stick was the ultimate Yankee utility guy,” he said. “Stick did everything from manage, to coach, to [serve as] general manager. He really put together the Core Four, all of those guys in the early 90s who eventually turned into those great teams that we all know today. … He was fair and honest – a true Yankee.”

While serving as the Yankees primary second baseman from 1992-1995, Kelly had the opportunity to mentor a nubile Derek Jeter. He recalled a spring training encounter with Jeter during his early career that caused him question if the Yankees did the right thing in giving Jeter such a large signing bonus.

“Derek was quite the young lanky skinny sorta guy,” he said “I remember they brought him in 1994 and I was my prime then. I remember myself, Don Mattingly, Wade Boggs, and Mike Gallego sitting at second base and saying, ‘This kid’s never going to make it. They wasted $700,000 because he was just this lean kid.’”

After playing three seasons with Jeter, Kelly quickly changed his tune about their future captain. Taking a moment to reflect on Jeter’s Hall of Fame career, he surmised that he was just proud to be there to help instill the rich Yankee traditions in the young shortstop.

“The projection of the scouts to be able to predict that he was going to be the greatest Yankee that ever played was phenomenal,” he said. “His progression from the young Derek Jeter that we saw in Fort Lauderdale to what he is now is truly amazing. You give credit to Gene Michael; you give credit to us, because we taught him everything, all the stuff about how to be a Yankee. I take a lot of pride that I played with Derek and that a bit of whatever he turned into was because of the Yankee tradition.”

While the Yankees were giving Jeter his first taste of the big leagues in 1995, Kelly helped lead the Yankees to their first playoff appearance since 1981. While Kelly scored the go-ahead run in the 11th inning of Game Five of the American League Division Series against the Seattle Mariners, he is probably best remembered for being on base when Jim Leyritz hit his infamous walk-off home run in the 15th inning of Game Two to put the Yankees ahead 2-0 in the series.

“I just talked to Jim Leyritz about it yesterday,” he said. “It was all because of me I told him, because I walked and they thought I was going to steal. [Tim] Belcher is worried about me stealing, so he wasn’t worried about Jimmy, so it was all my doing. He hit that ball and it was raining. I remember just the feeling of getting goose bumps running around those bases knowing what we were doing. It was a long time since the Yankees had any success in the playoffs. The people just went nuts. What happened after that, you wouldn’t guess, right? The success we had all the way to those World Series after that, it was the start of something good. I was very proud to be a part of it and to get at least one World Series in 1996.”

Kelly battled injuries during the 1996 season, limiting him to only 13 games while the Yankees finally broke through to win the World Series. As exciting as it was for Kelly to be a part of that championship club, little did he imagine just two years later that he would be alongside Mark McGwire as he challenged Babe Ruth’s all-time single season home run record.

Signed as a free agent by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1998, Kelly rekindled a long standing friendship with the famed slugger that started when he played alongside another of McGwire’s close friends, Mike Gallego. Kelly detailed how they spent a lot of time together away from the field that most baseball fans aren’t privy to.

“We were great friends before that,” he said. “It came through Mike Gallego. Mark used to come out to eat with us when Gallego played with the Yankees. After Gallego was traded, when Mark was in New York, I hung out with him; that was how the friendship evolved. We would go away with my wife and his girlfriend on holidays. We went to Africa the year before he broke the record. The year he broke the record, we went to Australia because I was living there.”

Being one of McGwire’s confidants on the 1998 Cardinals, Kelly was an eyewitness to the rock star treatment that McGwire received throughout the season. He said it was an unimaginable spectacle for a baseball player.

“Playing with him in 1998, it was like hanging out with Elvis or the Beatles; it was a flash mob all the time,” he said. “When we were in Milwaukee, there was nobody at the bar, just out for a quiet drink. Before you knew it there were 2,000 people there, just like that. It was crazy making history like that.

“As a spectacle, like playing in New York and winning the World Series, it was right up there because it was something you never saw before. He hit two on the last day and we were celebrating the night before and I knew how many [drinks] we had; I couldn’t even see straight, let alone do anything and he hit two home runs that day! It was just a magical season.”

Peeling back the curtain of his wild ride with McGwire in 1998, he recalled that McGwire was able to put on his game face every day, but not without enduring the pressure that came with the increasing media attention.

“Every day he worried about it; he worried about losing the home run race,” Kelly said. “He didn’t want to lose to Sammy Sosa. The stress that he was going through physically he didn’t show it like Roger Maris with his hair falling out, but the stress was there. Every day we were together and he did intimate to me that it was stressful for him. Tony LaRussa was the one who made him that comfortable. We had a pretty good team. We were all there for Mark; we were doing everything for him.”

Kelly capped his major league career with the Toronto Blue Jays in 1999 and quickly moved to Australia in 2000. He has since worked as an international scout for the Dodgers, helping their operations in the Pacific Rim. It was a career move that he made sure that he took care of before leaving the United States.

“I married an Australian girl, moved there in 2000, and stepped into scouting,” he said. “I set myself up before I left, as I knew the writing was on the wall. I talked to the Dodgers and I’ve been there 16-17 years now. They have a league down there that is good and they bring former players in and I see the kids that progressed, the American minor leaguers that get to the majors and the handful of Australians too. The biggest thing that I’ve seen is the Asian market booming, the Japanese players that get posted and signed. I helped to sign Korean pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu for over $60 million.”

So who does Kelly think is the next big star that will come from Japan? He quickly singled out two-way player Shohei Ohtani, who is blessed with a 100-MPH fastball and a bat that carried him to over a .300 average for the Nippon Ham Fighters during the past two seasons in the Japan Pacific League. His success comes as little surprise to Kelly, who has watched Ohtani since he was in high school. The larger quandary Ohtani presents for MLB executives is how they can take advantage of both his powerful bat and pitching arm.

“I saw him as a 15-year old,” he said. “He can hit and pitch. He was 15, hitting and pitching! I told the guy I was working for that I didn’t know if he was a hitter or a pitcher because he’s that good at both. How do you deal with that as a general manager? He’s 0-4, but he pitched okay; how do you manage that when taking him out? It’s going to be a logistical nightmare dealing with it as a manger to deal with the Monday morning quarterbacking. It will be interesting to see how it goes.”

Saturday, October 7, 2017

2017 Topps Triple Threads Review - An exciting albeit expensive ride through baseball card collecting

Looking at their artistic relics, colorful design, and limited edition autographs, collectors are sure to be tempted to pull a box of 2017 Topps Triple Threads off of the shelves and get busy diving into its array of memorabilia driven baseball cards.

2017 Topps Triple Threads / Topps
Each master box contains two autograph cards and two relic cards, providing for multiple opportunities to walk away with a classic collectible. Exciting inserts for this product include autographed relics, as well as the coveted autographed relic combos, which feature multiple signatures from prominent franchise favorites with embedded game used memorabilia pieces. These combos are rather scarce, ranging from the singular white whale printing plate, to the base issues which are only made in quantities of 36.

2017 Topps Triple Threads Chris Sale Relic / Topps
Digging further into the depths of 2017 Topps Triple Threads uncovers cut autographs of Jackie Robinson, Ty Cobb, and Ted Williams, or even rarer dual cuts of the pairings of Williams and Stan Musial, or Willie Stargell and Roberto Clemente. The idea of having even the slightest chance of scoring signatures for those who rank among the pinnacle of the sport is enough to tantalize hobbyists into taking a peek behind the Derek Jeter themed boxes.

2017 Topps Triple Threads Base Cards & Parallels / Topps
As for the 100-card base set, the colors pop right off the front, enhanced by the golden tinges in the background. Multiple parallels of the base set will send collectors chasing further for limited versions of their favorite player. Those who are searching for breadth in the base set might wind up dissatisfied, as half of the set honors retired legends, and the lists of current players leans towards the upper echelon of MLB, excluding this year’s hottest rookies, Aaron Judge, Andrew Benintendi, and Cody Bellinger.

The box provided for this review yielded the Chris Sale relic card, as well this Tyler Austin autographed rookie patch card.

2017 Topps Triple Threads Tyler Austin Autographed Relic Card / Topps
With Topps’ Triple Threads brand legacy firmly established, collectors know the risk they’re taking with this product. At a price point near $200 per master box, a strong leap of faith is needed, as a box could easily yield common rookie autographs and relics; however, one could find their fortunes quickly turned around if they can hit one of the aforementioned coveted inserts.