Friday, February 22, 2019

2019 Topps Series 1 Baseball | Checklist, Box Break, Inserts, Autographs, and Review

As baseball fans flock to 2019 Topps Series 1 Baseball, it is another signal that spring training is in full swing. The flagship Topps product brings forth the abundant optimism and possibilities that come with the anticipation of the upcoming baseball season. A fresh design that has a slight nod to 1982 Topps makes 2019 Topps Series 1 an attractive treat for collectors.

2019 Topps Base Set / Topps

Base Set / Parallels / Checklist

The 350-card base set has Ronald Acuña Jr. in the leadoff spot, christening the 2018 National League Rookie of the Year with the coveted first card honors. The hobby box provided for this review came about 40 cards short of a complete base set.

2019 Topps 150th Anniversary Parallels / Topps
A few new twists include the 150th anniversary parallels and the hobby exclusive clear parallels for the first 100 cards. Click here for a complete set checklist.

2019 Topps Gold / Topps
Topps keeps collectors busy with a range of colored parallels that go beyond the Rainbow Foil inserts. For those wanting a serial numbered experience, 2019 Topps Series 1 delivers similarly to its 2018 predecessor.


Gold (#/2019), Vintage Stock (#/99), Independence Day (#/76), Black (#/67 - Hobby/Jumbo only), Mother's Day Pink (#/50), Father's Day Blue (#/50), Memorial Day Camo (#/25), Platinum (1/1), and Printing Plates (1/1)

2019 Topps Carlos Rodon SP Variation / Topps
In an effort to keep collectors on their toes, Topps has both SP and SSP image variations, with the latter including only retired legends. The SSP variations are difficult to track down and have made it very challenging to build a master set.

Inserts

The standout insert for 2019 Topps Series 1 is the 1984 35th anniversary set. The updated gloss finish with the white background makes today’s talent pop in the 1984 designs, while also giving Don Mattingly’s iconic rookie card a new look with different photos. Sticking with the nostalgic insert themes, the 150 Years of Professional Baseball, and Iconic Card reprints further serve to connect generations throughout the hobby.

2019 Topps 1984 35th Anniversary Inserts / Topps

2019 Topps 150 Years Insert Set / Topps
2019 Topps Inserts / Topps

Autographs / Relics

With almost 20 different autographed insert sets, Topps strives for diversity with this year’s offerings. They range from signed versions of the insert sets to highlights of the 2018 World Series Champion Red Sox, as well as 1/1 cut signatures from icons Cy Young, Roberto Clemente, Satchel Paige, Ty Cobb, and Ted Williams.

There is no shortage of relic variations many coming with serial numbered parallel versions. Topps guarantees each box will contain either relic or an autograph. The box provided for this review yielded a Miguel Cabrera Major League Material Relic.



Postgame

Opening 2019 Topps Series 1 Baseball is an annual bonding experience for fans, collectors, and families alike. Digging through these baseball cards is a ritual that celebrates the hope of a new baseball season.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Baseball Happenings Podcast | Don Newcombe's memory celebrated by Nashua teammate Billy DeMars

Don Newcombe was instrumental in breaking down barriers when the Brooklyn Dodgers signed him in 1946. Instead of sending him to join Jackie Robinson in Montreal, they sent him along with Roy Campanella to play for the Nashua Dodgers where they integrated the Class B New England League. In the wake of Newcombe’s recent passing, I reached out to the 93-year-old Billy DeMars for the latest Baseball Happenings Podcast to discuss the experience of playing with his pioneering teammate.




Click here to listen on Spotify.
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“The one thing I remember about Don was he was a helluva great pitcher,” DeMars said from his Florida home. “We were playing in Manchester New Hampshire one night, and Walter Alston was our manager that year. He brought him in the ninth inning. ... He didn’t hold anything back, he struck out all three batters. Just to watch him throw, he let the air out. He was tremendous!”

Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella in Nashua, 1946 
DeMars also noted that in addition to being lights out on the mound, Newcombe was a force at the plate. He led the team in with a .311 batting average, even besting his future Hall of Fame teammate Campanella.

Branch Rickey sent both of Negro League talents north to New Hampshire, as he could not place them in the hostile cities of his other southern minor league affiliates. DeMars said the Nashua team readily accepted both players and treated them like family.

“We had absolutely no problems whatsoever on the team," he said. "They were just other players. We got along absolutely great with Don [Newcombe] and [Roy] Campanella. In fact, Campanella had a little boy who was five or six. We used to put him on an iron crate and let him play on the pinball machine.”

The Brooklyn native wound up on the Nashua team after returning from his World War II service, where he played with Ted Williams and Charlie Gehringer at the Jacksonville Naval Air Station. The trio of future major leaguers, as well as player-manager Walter Alston, helped guide the team to the championship. Some seven decades later, DeMars chuckled at the reward.

“Another funny thing about that season, we lost the pennant on the last day of the season,” he said. “We went into the playoffs, and we won that to [become] the champions and our winning share was ten bucks apiece!”

Long removed from his playing and coaching days, DeMars marveled at the amount of money, or lack thereof, that he made while in the minor leagues.

“I signed and went up to Olean New York in 1943 just before I went in the Navy,” he said. “I tell everybody I made $3.50 a day. It was $100 a month — $25 a week, which came out to $3.50 a day. It is a little bit different than today.”

He cited a broken current minor league system that continues to underpay both the players and coaches. He explained that with record-setting major league contracts, baseball needs to reach down into the minor leagues and improve salary conditions.

“That’s what’s wrong with the game,” he said. “I just saw [Manny Machado] signed for $300 million and the guys who have to take cuts in salary are the minor league managers and the players. They are not paid as much as they should be [making]. The scouts and minor league managers need to make good money too. They are developing the players, and they have to work hard as hell down there.

"I spent 11 years as a minor league manager, and I was married and I had children at the time. You had to write up the whole league twice a year, the players once a month. At that time, I used to drive the team. We used to have cars; me and two other players would drive the club around. It wasn’t easy but we made it.”

DeMars played parts of three major league seasons with the Philadelphia Athletics and the St. Louis Browns. After 11 years as a minor league manager, he spent the next 19 as a major league coach with the Philadelphia Phillies, Montreal Expos, and Cincinnati Reds. He has managed to outlive most of his peers, with Newcombe’s death serving as a mortal reminder of his place in history.

“In August, I will be 94,” he said. “Now with Newcombe gone, I moved up to 22 [he is currently the 23rd oldest living former major league baseball player]. It’s a helluva a list isn’t it?”

Still, the nonagenarian is popular with the fans due to his status as one of the few remaining St. Louis Browns alumni.

“I get a hell of a lot of mail,” he said. “I think there are 12 of us left from the St. Louis Browns. St. Louis was great, everything about St. Louis was great.”

Don Newcombe dies at 92 | A baseball and civil rights pioneer

Don Newcombe, the famed Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher died Tuesday February 19, 2019 in Los Angeles after battling a long illness. He was 92. The Dodgers released the following statement regarding his passing.


Don Newcombe 1956 Topps / Topps
Newcombe had his start with the Newark Eagles of the Negro Leagues in 1944 where he played two seasons for Effa Manley's outfit. Branch Rickey signed him to the Dodgers in 1946, sending him along with Roy Campanella to their farm team in Nashua. Together they integrated the New England League.

He continued to break barriers throughout his career, even earning Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s praises for furthering the Civil Rights Movement. He won the Little World Series in 1948 with playing with their Triple-A team in Montreal. When the Dodgers called him up in 1949, he was the third African-American pitcher to appear in a Major League game, following teammate Dan Bankhead and the venerable Satchel Paige. He wasted little time in making an impression, as he raced through the competition with a 17-8 record en route to winning the 1949 National League Rookie of the Year award.

His rapid rise included becoming the first African-American pitcher to win 20 games (later known as one of the Black Aces), a feat he accomplished three times in 1950, 1955, and 1956. In the latter season, Newcombe went an astonishing 27-7 to earn both the Cy Young and the National League MVP awards. He was the first Rookie of the Year to win both of the aforementioned honors in the same season, a record he held for 55 years until Justin Verlander joined him in 2011. In the video below, Newcombe gives Verlander a humorous introduction at the 2012 BBWAA Dinner.




While many thought Newcombe was on the path to a Hall of Fame career, his struggles with alcoholism derailed his path to Cooperstown. After becoming sober in the late 1960s, the Dodgers employed him as a director of community relations in 1970, and he has worked for the club ever since, spending copious amounts of time helping others to learn from his mistakes.

Newcombe was a fixture at Dodgers Stadium, serving as a bridge and ambassador for the team's Brooklyn history. His looming presence was evident from the many online tributes by not only fans but also many of the Dodgers players who cherished his guidance and advice. The video below of a passionate Newcombe saluting the 7th inning stretch, who was a Korean War veteran, perfectly captures the essence of his reverence and respect for the game.



Tuesday, February 19, 2019

How Jack Crimian mystified Mickey Mantle in his major league odyssey

John “Jack” Crimian, a former major league pitcher with the St. Louis Cardinals, Kansas City Athletics, and Detroit Tigers in the 1950s, died just days short of his 92nd birthday on February 11, 2019, in Middletown, Delaware.

Jack Crimian 1956 Topps / Topps
The righty hurler signed his first professional baseball contract with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1943 out of Olney High School where he was teammates with another future major leaguer, Del Ennis.

“I went to high school with Del Ennis,” he said in a phone interview from his Delaware home in 2009. “We used to hit from the football field. He once hit one out on Duncannon Avenue, past the football fields and the tennis courts. I got signed out on the sandlots on C Street and Roosevelt Boulevard. There is a park down the street and the Phillies scout (Jocko Collins) signed me from out there.”

He played the 1944 season Wilmington and Bradford before being drafted into the Army. He served as a paratrooper until 1946 when he had to return home after his father’s sudden death.

Jack Crimian 1951 Minor League Bio / Author's Collection
After the Cardinals drafted Crimian from the Phillies at the end of the 1946 season, he toiled patiently in their minor league system until his midseason 1951 call-up. The Cardinals wasted no time putting his services to use.

“I got into a ballgame in the major leagues the first day that I got there,” he recalled. “I got off the plane, went to the hotel, and they were leaving for the ballpark. I went right along to the ballpark with them.”

He pitched sparingly for the Cardinals but stayed long enough to earn his first major league win, which came in a relief effort ironically against the Phillies. He ended his first campaign with a 1-0 record with a 9.00 ERA in 11 games.

The Cardinals gave Crimian another look in 1952, but the fierce National League lineups served him a quick return to the minor leagues. He spent the next three seasons in Triple-A honing his craft in preparation for another shot at major league glory.

His bumpy ride included a 1953 offseason trade to the Cincinnati Reds who then sold his contract to the Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League. Now a veteran of almost a decade of professional experience, the team had Crimian help Elston Howard make the transition from outfielder to catcher.

“We taught him to catch in Toronto,” he said. “We got him on loan from the Yankees, and they wanted to make a catcher out of him. We had a veteran staff, and they let us have him so he could catch every day. He caught on real quick.

“I still think he was one of the best hitters ever in the American League, definitely on that Yankees club. He hit all over. You could not pitch him one way; he would hit to right and left-center. He hit behind Mantle and Maris, and you could not walk either one of them to get to Howard because he would hurt you just as much as they would. It is no wonder why they got all of those RBIs. You had to pitch to them. He was hard to strike out.”

The Kansas City Athletics looked to bolster their pitching staff when they traded for Crimian after he posted a 19-6 record and 2.10 ERA with Toronto in 1955. Finally, he had a full season ahead in the major leagues. Pitching mostly in relief, he finished second in the American League in appearances, seeing mound time in 54 contests. While he could not recapture his dominance from Toronto in the American League, he was proud that he held Mickey Mantle to a paltry .182 batting average (2 for 11 with 5 Ks).

“I had no problem with him, I really didn't,” Crimian said. “I was fortunate I guess. He might have got a bunt single, but that was about all. I never threw him a strike.

"He wanted to hit all of the time so he would chase pitches. I would throw sliders way in on him and sinkers away from him all day long. He used to bunt against us. We were the first ones to put the shift on him. A couple times, he bunted and he got a base hit. At least we knew where we were at; that's why we did it.”

Despite his reliability with Kansas City, Crimian was on the move once again, this time the Athletics traded him to the Detroit Tigers in 1957 as part of an eight-player deal. He only lasted four games with the Tigers; however, he was still able to get his name in the record books.

A Cleveland Indians rookie named Roger Maris stepped to the plate in the 11th inning looking to battle the well-traveled veteran. He ran the count full, and Crimian thought he could sneak a high fastball by the youngster. Maris swung mightily and connected for his first major league home run.

“It was a 3-2 count and I pitched him up and away,” Crimian said to Bob Yearick in 2017. The ball went up and away, and it still hasn’t come down. But it was Jim Bunning’s fault. He struck out Maris earlier in the game, so he told me how to pitch to him.”

Detroit sent Crimian to the minor leagues a few weeks later, ending his major league career. He pitched two more seasons in the minors before retiring in 1959. While Crimian was out of professional baseball, he had not completely abandoned the game. He pitched with them from 1963-65, and even though his fastball no longer had the zip it once did, he used his guile and smarts en route to a perfect 26-0 record.

He spent 34 years as an auto body specialist in Wilmington, Delaware before his retirement. He was inducted into the Delaware Professional Sports Hall of Fame in 1999.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Phinally! The Phillies, the Royals and the 1980 Baseball Season That Almost Wasn't | Book Review

Nineteen-eighty marked a pivot for Major League Baseball as it entered a decade that was marred by a work stoppage, a drug scandal, and a nasty collusion case. Fortunately, for baseball fans, the 1980s opened with an exciting season that preceded the looming drama of the next few years.

Author J. Daniel takes readers through a complex journey that was the 1980 baseball season in his new book, "Phinally!: The Phillies, the Royals and the 1980 Baseball Season That Almost Wasn't" (McFarland: 220pp., 2018).

Phinally! / McFarland

Once glance at the cover would lead those studying its intricacies that "Phinally!" is solely about the Philadelphia Phillies winning their first World Series title in franchise history; however, that could not be farther from the truth. Daniel went deep in the archives with his work, capturing every significant detail that the 1980 season offered.

While Daniel dives into the big stories of J.R. Richard's health woes, George Brett's season-long flirtation with .400, and Reggie Jackson getting up close and personal with a gun barrel, each event is interspersed with the less heralded happenings that serve to create a "This Week in Baseball" atmosphere.

His strength is certainly the tremendous depth in which he chronicles the season, as "Phinally!" reads more like an anthology than an oral history. He relies on a variety of newspaper and magazine accounts to narrate the season rather than rose-colored interviews with players almost 40 years later that leave out the gritty details they may have selectively forgotten.

While this nuanced approach fits Daniel's style, some will find it exhausting at times to keep up with the constant jumping around the league from page to page, as he goes through each month's dealings. Despite some of the challenges to keep up with the multitude of anecdotes that Daniel tracks, he holds the suspense of the Phillies World Series victory until the end, leaving the final page with the late Tug McGraw victorious on the mound with his hands raised in the air for the fans to once again celebrate.