Monday, January 2, 2017

How fast is fast?

A week or so before the Cubs won the World Series (still can't believe I'm writing that), I went to the local card show for the first time in about a year and a half. I saw my usual dealer (whose father just passed away, sadly), and the haul from his table will be coming in a future post.

But there was a new vendor there I hadn't met before, an older gentleman who had a ton of vintage. He had the usual classic specimens that were way out of my price range, but also a clear plastic bin full of toploaders that contained more...weathered cards. I don't recall seeing him at a show before, but he seemed like he'd been at this a while, and talked about how he could almost always figure out which side of his table a collector would gravitate to after just a few questions.

A lot like our blog community.

There are a few high rollers out there, but a lot of us don't really mind a Hall-of-Famer or something from a legendary set even if it has some banged-up corners or a bit of paper loss.

1953 Topps #135 Al Rosen
I picked out three cards for a pretty fair $10, starting with my second card from 1953 Topps. Al Rosen, who manned the hot corner for the Indians, had his best-ever season in 1953. Collectors wouldn't get stats for that until the following year, but he led the league in home runs, runs scored, RBIs, slugging percentage, and a few other categories. He won the AL MVP award and his second of four All-Star appearances for that performance.

As is somewhat obvious from his surname, Rosen had Jewish heritage, and like Sandy Koufax a decade or so later, refused to play on Jewish holidays. He caught some occasional flak for his religion around the league, but had no trouble standing up for himself. He was an amateur boxer before he was a ballplayer, and served for four years in the Navy during WWII before he began his pro career. Not the guy I'd want to mess with.

1954 Topps #3 Monte Irvin
Continuing chronologically through these cards, here's Monte Irvin's card from 1954. I collected the reprints, but this is my first original card from that set. It's such a simple design, but it's become timeless. Both these cards are a little bit larger than standard cards, but still fit in a toploader if you skip the penny sleeve. 2.5" x 3.5" is what we all know today, but I wonder if things would be any different today if this original size (2.625" x 3.75") was kept.

It's not in perfect shape. All four corners are soft and there is residue from adhesive tape on both the top and bottom of the card. But it's over 60 years old, and it's my first copy of any kind. I don't even have the reprint!

In 1949, at the age of 30, Irvin became the first African-American player to take the field for the New York Giants, along with Hank Thompson, who had played the prior season for the St. Louis Browns. Thus, Irvin was only the fourth black player in the Majors. Along with Thompson, once Willie Mays came up in 1951, they made up the first all-black outfield.

Irvin led the league in RBIs in 1951, and won his only World Series ring in 1954. Even though he was voted onto the All-Star team in 1952 (facing Al Rosen), he had to miss it due to an ankle injury. That injury, which sidelined him for most of 1952, is the subject of the three cartoons on the back. But that injury wouldn't keep him down, he went on to put up a couple more strong seasons until his retirement as a Cub in 1956, and subsequent election to the Hall of Fame in 1973.

Irvin, Mays, Doby, and lots more prove how groundbreaking Jackie Robinson really was. Once Robinson was in the league, every other team was at a competitive disadvantage if they didn't follow suit and field the best players period, not just the best white players.

But if guys like Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson didn't get to test their skills in the Majors (yes, Paige did, but after the age of 40), it also calls into question the performances of players pre-integration. Chris Rock had some interesting things to say about integration in Ken Burns' follow up to his Baseball documentary, The Tenth Inning. Not only did Babe Ruth not have guys like Torii Hunter patrolling the outfield, but he also points out that "baseball didn't truly get integrated until you had black players who sucked...When we got the black Ed Kranepools, that's when baseball was truly integrated."

1975 Topps #500 Nolan Ryan
Much more recent but no less special is this 1975 beauty of Nolan Ryan. Ryan pitched for the Mets in the late 1960s, but didn't really kick the strikeout machine into afterburner mode until he was traded to the Angels in 1971. He'd go on to have perhaps the best pitching career in modern baseball, striking out a whopping 5,714 batters, winning 324 games, and pitching 222 complete games. Sort of like Rickey Henderson being the career leader in times caught stealing, Nolan Ryan is also the career leader in walks. His early lack of control is what led the Mets to give up on him, but he got his rocketing fastball under control and the rest is history. He finally had to call it quits in 1993 when his elbow gave up at the age of 46.

I have a few cards from 1975, and Night Owl has turned me on to the set quite a bit after years of reading his posts. We can see the Angels' black armband from their 1974 uniforms, worn in memory of Bobbie McMullen, wife of former Angel Ken McMullen. She passed away from breast cancer near the start of the 1974 season.

Nolan Ryan was a major subject in Fastball, a baseball documentary I watched on Netflix last night. Being that it's the dead of winter, I needed something to get my baseball fix, and that movie fit the bill. Obviously, it focuses on the fastball and some of the most famous pitchers who threw them, including Goose Gossage, Walter Johnson, Bob Feller, Bob Gibson, and of course Nolan Ryan. Gossage, Gibson, and Ryan were masters of intimidation, just as important a tool for a pitcher as anything they throw. Active pitchers were included as well, like Aroldis Chapman, Justin Verlander, David Price, and Craig Kimbrel.

It also looked at some of the ways that a fastball's speed was measured over the years, as it was something of a mystery until the mid-1970s. There were efforts to scientifically measure pitches from Johnson and Feller, and less scientific publicity stunts like pitching versus a speeding motorcycle. Feller was clocked at 98.6 mph in the late 1930s, and Nolan Ryan at 100.8 mph in the early 1970s with the first-ever radar gun. Walter Johnson's career predated the wide use of automobiles, so his readings were publicized in feet per second rather than mph, an unfamiliar metric a century ago. But those all measured the ball as it crossed the plate, whereas current measurements occur at 50 feet from home plate, just a split second after the ball leaves the pitcher's hand. So those early pitches were likely even faster by today's standards.

Even casual baseball fans have heard of Nolan Ryan, but the film also profiled an early 1960s pitcher named Steve Dalkowski. Like the active pitchers they interviewed, I'd never heard of him. And though Topps featured him on a 4-man card as a "1963 Rookie Star", he never made the majors. He just couldn't get his fastball under control. He was making some progress in the mid 1960s, but suffered an elbow injury and never recovered. He was rumored to throw in excess of 110 mph.

I'm quite surprised that the film didn't have anything to say about Tommy John surgery, as that's become just as much a part of the game as the pitch itself. But if you need a January baseball fix and cards like this aren't readily available for a mere $10, go check out that movie!


  1. I think I'll be watching that documentary myself this afternoon - thanks for the recommendation!

  2. I never pegged Chris Rock as a baseball fan, but he makes an interesting point for sure.

  3. Great cards! I watched the Fastball documentary a while back. OI really enjoyed it!

  4. It looks like you need to start getting to that show more often! I too will have to check out that documentary.

  5. After I'm done reading a few more blog posts... I'll definitely go look for this documentary online. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Man, that '53 Al Rosen rang some bells. I know it well from the '75 set, of course, as it appears in the MVP subset. It was one of the first cards I pulled when I was 9. I don't think I've seen the actual '53 Rosen until now.