Rich Reminisces: Willie Mays

Willie Mays was the definition of a five-tool baseball player. Whatever he did on a baseball diamond he did well, and he did well until he was 40 years old. He outlasted all his contemporaries and made what might be the most famous catch in all baseball history. While those won’t be one of the cards we discuss today, that catch was honored on this 1959 Topps baseball card:

We’ll begin with his 1951 Bowman card. Just as with Mickey Mantle, who also was a 1951 rookie player and rookie card, this card is in the last and more difficult Bowman series. What most people do not realize in today’s world was when Dr. James Beckett published his first price guide book in 1979 there was only a $5 difference between the Mays and the Mantle card.

Yes, you would have done terrific with either card if you had put them away in 1979 and not have them seen the light of day for the following 40 years, but in those days Mantle was considered just a hair better than Mays in terms of pricing.

The next year we had his first Topps basball card. His first Topps card is in the second toughest series of the legendary 1952 Topps set and has never been an easy card for collectors to find. While not as difficult as the renowned last series, these are all pretty tough cards and the Mays is never readily available at shows or through the big auction houses

As you can see this also happens to be a very attractive card design and the attractiveness of the card works well with the expensive price tag. Another of my favorite Mays cards from his playing day is this 1962 Topps Superstars card with Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays.If you look carefully you will see Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks with their back to the camera. Pretty impressive with either group of players I would say. And if you had those two players on your team during the 1954-1965 time period you probably would have been able to, well in the words of famed sportswriter Red Smith, “serving strawberries in the wintertime just about every season.” You would not have needed a lot more help to make a great team.

If you were collecting cards in the 1960’s, you learned Topps used certain numbers to honor the superstars. Usually if a player had a card number ending with 00 or 50 they were not only beloved, but also considered the key cards in the set. That tradition continued for a long time, even famously in the 1985 Topps set when Oddibe McDowell was set up to be card #400, when Topps featured the 1984 Olympic gold-medal team and then Mark McGwire was #401. More than three decades later you wonder if Topps would like that numbering sequence back. 

Another one they would like back came in 1969 Topps when Mays was shockingly given card #190 after a long streak of being a key number.  There were a lot of things going on with Topps in 1969 in terms of their relationship with the MLB Players Union, and I wonder if they even thought they would be able to get all seven series they released out the door. The first two series were heavily front-loaded with stars and superstars, and we can look at that with modern conjecture. If you are really interested I would recommend reading Mark Armour‘s work on that card era, for he has done a yeoman job on the research and appreciates the time from both the kid he was at the time and the excellent researcher he is today.

But without further adieu here is card #190 in 1969:

Finally we end our tour with the last regular season card issued of Mays. Willie returned to New York during the 1972 season when the Giants were looking for a soft landing for his career’s end, and his presence helped the New York Mets get to the World Series the following year. Now he was pretty much through as a player in 1973, but in 1972 he still had one last dramatic flair to his career.

This clip of Mays’ first homer as a Met came against the Giants no less and turned out to be the game-winning hit.

That was on Mother’s day in 1972, and it seemed like Mother’s day was big in New York for baseball highlights. We had this one five years earlier; In fact, it was five years earlier to the day

But we digress, and here is Mays 1973 Topps card as a Met.

Now, I always wished Topps did more career retrospective cards but we were lucky in 1974 to have this “accidental” Mays card as part of the 1973 World Series highlights:

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Rich Reminisces: “Ball Four” by Jim Bouton

2019 is the 50th anniversary of what may be the most important book ever written about baseball. The tome which changed the world was “Ball Four” written by Jim Bouton and edited by Len Shecter.

Jim Bouton, who should have had Topps cards in 1969 and 1970 so we could have even better memories of that era, was as the author the key person of the book. After all, Bouton did pitch in 73 games during the 1969 season, which included two major league teams and a short minor-league stint.

Before going to the Seattle Pilots, Bouton had been a New York Yankee and was a remnant from the final days of the Yankees dynasty. While it was obvious from all his writings that he truly loved the game, the fact he looked at things differently was a cause of consternation for baseball officials. One of the things to remember is if all he had written about was how baseball players were human (young, loved to chase girls on the road, used coarse language, etc.) that would not have been so bad. Or as the story at the time goes: “If you see a word you don’t know, don’t ask your mother about those” to deal with the four letter words. This book took the inside stories which were evolving, beginning with Jerry Kramer’s book “Instant Replay” about the 1967 Green Bay Packers and Frank Beard’s book “Pro” about the golf tour.  

Bouton took these books a step further and was not nearly as family friendly as some of the other books in that process. Bill Freehan’s “Behind the Mask”, which actually pre-dated Ball Four’s release was also an inside look at a team, but without most of the non-baseball material covered in Ball Four. Of course there was a difference in Freehan playing almost every day as a position player and Bouton spending a lot of time in the bullpen, having more time to hear all those stories. Both Freehan and Bouton’s books are based on the 1969 season, so when the Seattle Pilots played the Detroit Tigers there are two different ways those games are dealt with.

The most amazing thing about these books was perhaps the self-examination needed for these diaries, as all of these athletes had seasons at or near their career peak during around that time. And in the case of Jerry Kramer, there is this memorable block of Jethro Pugh to give Bart Starr the room needed to score the winning touchdown in the 1967 Ice Bowl game  

But what really upset major league baseball was two fold:

1.) How he was able to show that the legendary Mickey Mantle was not perfect but just another person with typical male urges.
2.) He also showed how players were not properly paid, and some of the monetary troubles players had were because management had so much control.

Those issues as much as anything was what organized baseball got freaked out about after the book was published in 1970. Remember similar to today, there was a growing divide between the young athletes and those establishment types that were in charge. Today, much gets into the public because of social media use, which never used to be part of the discussion.

The other thing to remember was because of this book we were able to get a first person look at the 1969 Seattle Pilots, which were a one and done team. Since they were only in existence for that one year, the idea that we have this much information about the team is a gold mine.

Although the Pilots were an expansion team, they had several people important in baseball history. One of those players, who got traded before Spring Training even concluded was Lou Piniella. “Sweet Lou” may have had a sweet bat, but he was not always the mellowest player on the field. Piniella had what is called a “Red ***”, and more than 20 years later his temper was still well remembered.  He is the last Cincinnati Reds manager to take the team to the World Series and the only Seattle Mariners manager to lead them to the post-season.  And here is a brief part of a Sassoon ad which showed on television.

And there are plenty of other people who are remembered fondly because of their places in the day to day life of the Seattle Pilots. After all, Joe Schultz, a long-time baseball man, was the manager of the team and understood they were not going to be winning many games. Thus, one of his great pieces of advice was to “Pound the Old Bud (Weiser)” after every game.

We also have people who were almost “counter-culture heroes” at the time such as Steve Hovley and Mike Marshall:

And there is also Gary “Ding Dong” Bell:

Fred Talbot, is probably still waiting for his part of the 25,000 dollar prize since he, somehow as a pitcher, hit a grand slam in the designated inning of a fan contest. No, the money never came, but the story still lingers. There is no Topps card of him as a Pilot, so instead here’s his 1969 card of him as a Yankee.

And while I could talk about all the players and their roles in the book such as Marty Pattin‘s Donald Duck impression, the final couple of players I’ll talk about in this article is Greg Goossen. Goossen came up as a young man with the Mets and is responsible for one of the most memorable Casey Stengel lines: “This is Greg Goossen, he’s 19 years old and in 10 years he’s got a chance to be 29.

As a boxing fan, I’ve always been fascinated since Goossen is part of the boxing Goossen family, and before his passing actually was one of the corner-men in several important fights. He also became a stand-in for Gene Hackman in films, and did very well financially doing that seemingly thankless role.

And how else could I finish but by showing a card of Dooley Womack aka THAT Dooley Womack, who Bouton was traded for during the middle of the 1969 season. They had been Yankees teammates in 1966-68 before both of them began their last few seasons. This is Dooley pictured as an Houston Astro.

On a personal thought, I wonder if you could argue the eventual acceptance of Ball Four was one of the precursors to the work Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein did to uncover the Watergate Scandal. By that time we had started getting used to the concept that people who had previously been protected by media members were not being treated as normal human beings. Scandals were far fewer before 1970 and Ball Four than afterwards.

  Was this book and the honest appraisal of baseball players a tipping point in journalistic history?