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.