Monday, April 22, 2019

Will Gary Vaynerchuk push the sports card market to new heights?

Gary Vaynerchuk, the entrepreneur and social media giant, has set his eyes on the sports card industry with a laser-like focus that could quickly elevate the hobby back into national prominence. While some may think "Gary Vee" is trying to ride the wave of the most hyped prospects; however, he is no stranger to collecting. Vaynerchuk built his chops in the late 1980s and early 1990s, making thousands of dollars as a teenager selling baseball cards at local shows.

Gary Vaynerchuk / Twitter

One just has to look at stacks of Todd Van Poppel and Gregg Jefferies rookies from the sports card boom as a reminder that collecting was designed to be a hobby instead of a venture into an alternate stock market. Despite the historical warnings, collectors are diving into prospects hoping to find the next Mike Trout while sidestepping the likes of Greg “Toe” Nash. With new money flying into the sports card market, will the top cards reach new highs in the coming year?




Modern-era baseball cards will always lag well behind their pre-WWII counterparts, but recent history shows that modern-era cards are starting to attract more lucrative bids. Just six months after a Shohei Ohtani rookie card sold for a modern-era record of $184,000, a Mike Trout rookie card has attracted a $92,000 bid on eBay and could climb higher. According to SBD, on-field greatness only goes so far in upping a card's value, but if Trout continues to stake his claim to the title of best (non-steroid) player since Willie Mays, they set the odds at 1/2 that a Trout card becomes the most valuable modern-era card within the next decade.

With Gary Vee’s massive following turning their attention towards the new generation of sports cards (Vaynerchuk has 1.88 million Twitter followers as compared to Topps’ 125,000), we could get a win-win on both sides of the hobby. Excited hustlers and entrepreneurs could easily drive up the higher ends of the card market while simultaneously drawing an increasing amount of casual fans back into the joys of collecting.

Let's Play Two: The Life and Times of Ernie Banks by Doug Wilson | Book Review

As the April sun peaks through the clouds to signal the start of a new baseball season, excited children and parents echo Ernie Banks’ famous “Let’s Play Two!” at fields across the country. While the Hall of Famer died in 2015, author Doug Wilson ensures that fans remember his shining spirit through his new biography, “Let’s Play Two: The Life and Times of Ernie Banks”.

Let's Play Two / Rowman and Littlefield

Wilson provides a fascinating look at Banks’ early life in Dallas, Texas, connecting with Banks’ few living high school teammates and classmates to detail not only his early athletic prowess but also the history of the segregated North Dallas neighborhood.

Wilson pours through a seeming encyclopedia of sources to chronologically reconstruct Banks’ life on and off the field. While fans may be familiar with the narrative of his 512 career home runs, stories like Banks’ ill-fated run for local office serve to spice up the details of a man who projected an overwhelmingly positive public persona.

“He refused to acknowledge that anything other than good existed, in every person and every situation,” Wilson wrote. “He was a true-life Don Quixote de la Mancha, seeing the world not as it was, but as it should be, climbing aboard his trusted steed, ready to charge windmills to undo wrongs and bring justice to those in need.”

Shaving another layer of the seemingly impenetrable curtain that Banks maintained, Wilson dug into the tumultuous relationship between Banks and his manager Leo Durocher. When Durocher arrived after the end of the 1965 season, he sets his sight on Chicago’s largest target, Ernie Banks.

“He turned his wrath on Ernie Banks—something no one has ever done before,” Wilson wrote. “He nagged incessantly about little things … he quickly added complains about Ernie not taking a big enough lead as a baserunner.”

Durocher thought that Banks was damaged goods and wanted to replace Banks with faster and younger talent, similar to what he did when he jettisoned Johnny Mize and Walker Cooper from the New York Giants in 1949. However, with his hands tied by the Wrigley family, Durocher used the only power he had to voice his displeasure—his lineup card.

“Leo really treated him badly,” Cubs first baseman Lee Thomas said to Wilson. “He would ignore him; he wouldn’t play him. Sometimes he would say things in front of the team or in the papers. It bothered me, and I know the other players didn’t like it either.”

Banks maintained his composure and eventually, he played well enough that even Durocher could not keep him on the bench. It was only much later in Durocher’s life that he apologized for how he treated Mr. Cub.

Throughout the remainder of his career and retired life as a Hall of Famer, Banks befuddled the media with his bureaucratic retorts. Wilson explained how Banks frustrated writers in their attempts to gain depth into his thoughts and character.

“For whatever reason, he had decided he would not discuss subjects painful to himself or others. His image was a hard-candy protective coating. No one was ever able to crack it open to find out what was inside. … Ernie’s polished dance with writers was his way of saying the same thing but doing it while still looking like a nice guy. Writers who accepted this at face value and were content with the status quo were allowed to remain, pleasant acquaintances, even friends. Those who didn’t were doomed to frustration.”

After his playing days were finished, Banks encountered many speed bumps as he tried to escape his career in a baseball uniform. He faced multiple divorces, failed business ventures, and a reputation sullied by his inability to follow through on his promises to make public appearances. At the end of the day, there was only one place where he truly found success, and that was being Mr. Cub himself.

Wilson was not able to get Banks to open up for this work, as a Chicago area entrepreneur Regina Rice kept the Hall of Famer protected in his later years through a series of muddy dealings that Wilson explores in detail. As of the writing of his book, Banks’ will remained contested between Rice and his former wife Elizabeth Banks.

“The man famous for cooperation and peace was the subject of a nasty public battle after his death,” Wilson said.

Whatever Wilson's book lacks in the absence of Banks’ direct narratives, is bolstered by the vivid sources used for the intimate details of Banks’ career. “Let’s Play Two” shows that while heroes like Ernie Banks appear to be impenetrable on the field, away from the game, they are susceptible to imperfections that cannot be measured by the stats on the backs of their baseball cards.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

2019 Topps Inception Baseball | Checklist, Box Break, Autographs, Parallels, and Review

If you’re in search of an artistic take on the top prospects and young stars in Major League Baseball, look no further than 2019 Topps Inception Baseball. The 100-card base set features a design that splashes the players’ images into a canvas background, resembling a painting that fits compactly into their hands.

2019 Topps Inception Base Set and Checklist

The base set, while aesthetically pleasing, is a difficult task even for seasoned collectors. Each box of 2019 Topps Inception contains one seven-card pack, four of which are base; the other three are parallels, autographs, or autographed relics. While most will not break a case to go for the base set, patient collectors will benefit from the breakers who push aside those cards as they feverishly chase down the rare serial numbered inserts. Click here to view the entire 100-card checklist.

2019 Topps Inception Base Set / Topps

2019 Topps Inception Parallels

Topps splits the parallels over a rainbow of colors in traditional fashion for 2019 Inception. The solid color backgrounds make the artwork jump off the card, further increasing their desirability with collectors. The box provided for this review drew a Giancarlo Stanton Green parallel, and a Mookie Betts Blue parallel numbered to 25.

2019 Topps Inception Parallels / Topps

2019 Topps Inception Autographs and Relics

The serial numbered base Inception autographs feature an impressive lineup, including Ronald Acuña Jr., Shohei Ohtani, Aaron Judge, and Mike Trout. As with the base set, the autographs also come in rarer colored versions. Lucky fans will snag one of the two mystery player redemption cards (one of which is Eloy Jimenez), or a case hit silver autograph.

2019 Topps Inception Silver Signature / Topps

Signed patch cards are also part of the chase, with the real hook coming in the form of the autographed relic book cards. The book cards are either limited to one or two copies, making them a real treasure for prominent display in any collection.

2019 Topps Inception Book Relic / Topps

While we were not so fortunate to pull any of the super limited edition autographs or relics, Matt Chapman’s signature stands out boldly against the base design’s background.

2019 Topps Inception Matt Chapman Autograph / Topps

2019 Topps Inception Box Break and Final Take

As 2019 Topps Inception boxes sell within the $60-$70 range, they create an interesting choice for collectors this baseball season. With signatures that clearly distinguish themselves from a majority of Topps’ releases, and attractive base and parallel cards to further capture eyeballs, 2019 Topps Inception makes a ploy for value above many of Topps’ guaranteed hit offerings.



Sunday, March 31, 2019

Chuck Harmon tells how a wild week in the Negro Leagues unexpectedly opened his door to the majors in 1947

Chuck Harmon’s name may not resonate with baseball fans when discussing the sport’s color barrier in the same way as trailblazers Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby; however, the talented multi-sport athlete followed his counterparts into baseball in 1947 to ultimately carve out his own niche in baseball’s record books.

The University of Toledo basketball star who became the first African-American player ever for the Cincinnati Reds died March 19, 2019, at his Cincinnati home. He was 94.

1955 Topps Chuck Harmon / Topps
Harmon initial athletic fame came from his achievements not on the baseball diamond, but on the hardwood courts across Indiana. He was a basketball star at Washington High School, leading the team to consecutive Indiana state championships in 1941 and 1942. Upon graduating, he played one year at the University of Toledo before he was whisked off to serve in the Navy during World War II.

University of Toledo Basketball Stardom

Harmon had his first taste of stardom when the All-American helped to lead Toledo to the 1943 NIT championship game against St. John’s at Madison Square Garden. He scored six points in their 48-27 loss. It was there where he caught the attention of Abe Saperstein, the legendary owner of both the Harlem Globetrotters.

“My freshman year in college basketball we went to the final game in the NIT,” Harmon told Baseball Happenings via telephone in 2008. “St. John’s beat us in the final game. Saperstein was trying to get us. Back then, the NIT was the big tournament.”

While Saperstein’s interest was deferred by Harmon’s military duties, local scouts kept him on their radar. After returning to Toledo in 1947 to star for their basketball and baseball teams, local scout Hank Rigney took notice and offered the collegian a spot with the Indianapolis Clowns.

“I was at the University Toledo and it was summer vacation,” Harmon said. “I was hanging around school and was supposed to get a recreation job with the city. I was waiting on that to come through. Meanwhile, Hank Rigney, an old scout for the Browns, ran the concession stand at the school. He was an all-around go-getter, baseball scout, football scout, and basketball scout. He was scouting the Clowns, so he knew about me playing basketball and baseball at Toledo.

“He asked me one day if I wanted to play with the Clowns. I was still waiting for the job around school. I was tired of waiting around, so I didn’t know if it was going to come through with the playgrounds or recreation, so I told him yeah. He said, ‘I’ll sign you up with the Clowns.’ I said, ‘Anything to get out of here, I’ve been waiting here doing nothing.’”

A Chance in the Negro Leagues

Suddenly, Harmon went from being an unemployed college student to a member of one of the Negro Leagues most storied franchises. Rigney sent him right into the fire as the Clowns prepared to face the formidable Kansas City Monarchs.

“The Clowns were in Indianapolis playing,” he said. “Hank Rigney gave me a letter to give to the manager of the Clowns. I went over there, signed, and started playing with them. I wouldn’t call it playing with them; I signed with them. On a Wednesday, they had a game that night against the Kansas City Monarchs. I got over there that afternoon, dressed, and played that night. Of course, I didn’t play. I was there; you know trying out, whatever they called it. They were picking up guys as they went along. It wasn’t nothing real formal.”

While the tryout process lacked formality, Harmon assumed the name Charlie Fine to preserve his amateur status while playing with the Clowns. Once the travel rigors of Negro League Baseball set in, Harmon quickly discovered the ride was not as glorious as promised.

“It was one of them deals, we climbed in the bus to go to Michigan to play,” Harmon recalled. “We played up there, and after that game, the next day we went to Michigan City, Indiana. We played that night. You get off one bus, get on another bus, and go for 300 miles and play; you don’t sleep. When we got to Fort Wayne to play a team, it got rained out, so we stayed all night there. We stayed in private homes, that’s where we stayed all the time when we [went] to those towns.”

Due to the barnstorming nature that fed the Negro Leagues, teams did not have the luxury of rescheduling rained out contests. Harmon walked right into the middle of one of the miseries of road life that was markedly different from the first class treatment he experienced while playing college basketball.

“We got rained out in Michigan City and Fort Wayne, and when we went to Chicago — that was the first night we stayed in a hotel. I think we had a Sunday doubleheader. I dressed there. To this day, I don’t think I got into a game at all from Wednesday to Sunday. That was too much for me [coming from] playing in college, staying in hotels, and eating in the fine restaurants. Playing in Toledo, we stayed in the best hotels and played in Madison Square Garden.”

Harmon thought that he could parlay his experience with the Clowns to stay on with Saperstein’s Globetrotters. After his miserable week with the Clowns, he decided to pivot and return to Toledo for the summer.

“I don’t remember getting in a game or not because we had four or five games, we played two, the first night and the night in Chicago, and then we got rained out,” Harmon said. “I said to myself, ‘This isn’t for me.’ In my mind, what was going to happen was, the Globetrotters [would take] me and another guy. He had been trying to get us to play with them anyway. The basketball was probably worse traveling than the baseball. Traveling on the bus and sleeping in private homes if you could. I told him no thanks.”

A Door Opens with the St. Louis Browns

Back in Toledo from his brief foray into the Negro Leagues, Harmon waited on the city for his recreation job. By that time, the St. Louis Browns signed both Hank Thompson and Willard Brown to major league contracts. With the organization’s door open, Rigney jumped at the opportunity to get Harmon into the fold.

“A couple weeks later after being back there, the job with the city still hadn’t come through,” Harmon said. “Finally, he came over to school and [told me] they wanted me at the [Toledo] Mud Hens office [because] St. Louis wanted to sign me to a contract. That was like going to the World Series hearing that. Going with a major league team, as they always said, that was ‘organized ball.’”

While Brown and Thompson are often touted as Major League Baseball pioneers, Harmon was part of a select group who quietly pried opened doors at a time when only a few teams embraced integration. Standing in those offices, he saw the hope that was newly available to African-American ballplayers.

“We went to the office there in Toledo,” he said. “I didn’t have any idea of signing a Triple-A contract, but still that was a step to the major leagues. They wanted to send me to upstate New York, to the Canadian-American League, Class C. They sent me up to Gloversville [New York]. It was organized ball, and you could see the footsteps to major league ball if you were good enough.”

During our talk, Harmon chose not to focus on struggles with Jim Crow segregation, but the joy of being paid to play baseball. He thrived in his new environment.

“I did pretty good and finished the season out there,” he said. “I played 50 something games, and I was on cloud nine. You didn’t care [because] you saw them checks! The first time you saw a check, you got paid. Some guys played week to week. They played and spent it. Being in organized ball, we got paid and stayed in hotels. It was a glory road for me.”

Harmon returned to Toledo to play basketball for the 1947-48 school year. He put his minor league dreams on hold to play for the Fort Wayne General Electrics in 1948 while finishing his college basketball eligibility. With his college basketball career behind him, Harmon came back to the Browns, even after they sent him down a level in the minor leagues.

“Gloversville bought my contract and they sent me to Olean, New York in Class D,” he said. “Up there I was hitting about .370-.380 each year. When Gloversville sent me up there, I started hitting, and I got married. My wife was expecting, and I told them that when they sent me down. That’s when I really started wearing the ball out there. I talked to Gloversville and my wife was expecting, so I told them if I was hitting over so-and-so, would [they] bring me back to Gloversville. That incentive helped. Meanwhile, the Browns were having money problems, moving their clubs, and getting rid of players. During the winter, they sold the teams to independent buyers, and Olean bought my contract.”

A Cincinnati Reds Courtship

Unbelievably, it took two years of Harmon hitting .374 and .375 with Olean before the Reds bought his contract in 1952. He jumped to their Double-A team in Tulsa in 1953 and those footsteps he saw in 1947 were finally starting to lead on the right path.

“I went to Tulsa next year and I was leading the team in everything,” he said. “I was driving in all those runs. I had a bad day if I just got three hits. If I got two hits, it was bad.”

Harmon spent that winter sharpening his skills in Puerto Rico by playing for the Ponce team. He tore through the league and finished second in hitting, just below Luis “Canena” Marquez, and three points ahead of a young Hank Aaron. On the cusp of realizing his major league dreams, Harmon sensed that being in the presence of young talent and hardened Negro League and Puerto Rican veterans primed him for the next step.

“They had a lot of great players in winter ball,” he said. “You knew they were going to make it.”

Making History in the Major Leagues

He made the Reds out of spring training, and on April 17, 1954, against Aaron’s Milwaukee Braves, Harmon made history. His seventh-inning pinch-hitting appearance minted him as the first African-American to appear in a game for the Reds. Historians have argued that Nino Escalera, a Puerto Rican who batted right before Harmon, was the first black player for the franchise. Almost 65 years later, Harmon was more concerned with being on the team than being first.

“All that didn’t faze me a bit,” he said. “You knew you were good and that you were one of the best. That’s all you thought about. Not being the first black. It didn’t dawn on me at all. You know, all the players down there, you’re just trying to beat them. You’re trying to be better than them so that you get picked. You didn’t think that you would get picked before this guy or that guy, all you thought about was being on the team.”



Harmon played in the majors for four seasons from 1954-1957, batting .238 in 592 at-bats with the Reds, St. Louis Cardinals, and Philadelphia Phillies. He continued to play in the minors until 1961. He made one last Negro League connection in 1958 when the Phillies sent him to their Triple-A team in Miami with Satchel Paige.

“He could throw that ball,” Harmon said. “I’m just glad I didn’t have to face him, at 52! ... You just couldn’t believe that old what he could do in there. You were in awe of him more than trying to figure him out.”

He remained in the game for a few years as a scout with the Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians before settling in as a clerk for the Hamilton County Court of Appeals in Cincinnati. The Reds honored him in 2015 with a statue at their Youth Baseball Academy in Roselawn, Ohio.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Art Mazmanian | USC College World Series hero and legendary baseball coach, dies at 91

Art Mazmanian, the star second baseman from the University of Southern California’s 1948 College World Series championship team, died March 22, 2019, in San Dimas, California. He was 91.


Mazmanian’s USC squad faced off with future President George H.W. Bush’s Yale team during the 1948 College World Series. Six decades later, he eagerly shared the details of their legendary match up.

“In 1948, we won the first national title for USC,” Mazmanian told Baseball Happenings during a 2009 phone interview from his California home. “We beat George Bush’s Yale team. He was their first baseman and captain. I remember everything. I have a good memory; it was just like yesterday. He got two hits in the three games. He batted seventh in the lineup, and both of hits were doubles.”

The New York Yankees signed Mazmanian in 1949. He marveled at the thought of a 120-pound college freshman becoming a pro prospect.

“I shouldn’t have been signed,” he said in 2009. “You don’t know how blessed I’ve been. You know how much I weighed? When I played at USC, I went there when I was 17 years old; my first year I weighed 121 lbs.”

As unbelievable as it sounds that a slight infielder would fill out in a few short years to attract the New York Yankees, even more amazing was how he earned a full baseball scholarship without USC coach Rod Dedeaux ever seeing him play.

“[Rod] Dedeaux gave me a full scholarship and never saw me play,” he said. “I introduced him at a banquet for our letterman’s club as a senior in high school. … My high school coach got Rod Dedeaux to come and speak. That was the first time I met him. At the banquet, my high school coach talked to him. I weighed 119 lbs and I didn’t make all-city, I made all-league. I didn’t hit over .260, [but] the principal talked to him, and a week later, he gave me a full scholarship. Of course, the war was on, because without the war, I wouldn’t have been noticed. I was the only civilian in classes because I was [just] 17.”

The reliable infielder played from 1949-1954 in the Yankees farm system, reaching the Triple-A level for three of those seasons. While the spray-hitting Mazmanian never made the major leagues, he had a brief taste of the major league life when Casey Stengel invited him to spring training with the parent club in 1952.

“In 1952 I was there for only two weeks, but I really enjoyed it,” he said. “I really liked Casey Stengel. I didn’t deserve to be there, and I knew that, but I loved it. I was tickled to death to be in the organization. I had been playing second base throughout the minors and when I got to Triple-A, they moved me to shortstop. They thought [Phil] Rizzuto was retiring. I didn’t have a shortstop's arm, but I did all right there.”

Mazmanian returned to his alma mater, Dorsey High School in Los Angeles where he coached football and baseball for 13 years. He took the reins at Mt. San Antonio College in 1968, holding the position for 31 years, amassing 731 wins in the process.

During the summers, Mazmanian moonlighted as a minor league coach, taking on rookie ball teams for 17 years, as the short-season fit in with his teaching and coaching duties. His prized prospects included Jack Clark, who he converted from a pitcher to outfielder, and a nubile Don Mattingly in Oneonta.

“I hit it lucky with Mattingly, he was 17,” Mazmanian recalled. “He hit two home runs that year in Oneonta, but we had a tough park. I wrote on the report that I projected him to hit 15-20 in the majors. I saw that Mattingly hit .349 in that league. You don’t know how hard it is for a high school kid to hit in that league. Eddie Williams the number one pick in the draft; he hit about .220 in that league.”

Even after Mazmanian stepped down from his position at Mt. San Antonio College to care for his ailing wife, he could not stay away from the field. He volunteered at South Hills High School from 2011-2015 and finished his coaching career as an assistant at Claremont-Mudd-Scripps College in 2016.

“Money-wise, I’m right back where I started,” Mazmanian said in 2011. “I started as a volunteer at Dorsey and now am a volunteer helping out Coach (Kevin) Smith at South Hills.”