Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Covers: Volume 2/Number 1

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Friday, March 13, 2009

Covers: Volume 1/Number 1

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Little League Confidential by David "Stretch" Cohen

In 1963, the Daily News in Springfield, Massachusetts covered the local Little League campaign as if it were the Majors. Complete standings were listed each week, and summaries of every game were crafted by sportswriters who weren’t afraid to show off their flair for language. Even in a two-inch blurb, a fine pitching performance might be described as a “twirling gem” and a struggling hurler might be likened to someone “throwing watermelons” to eager batters.

We lived to see our names in print and dreamed we might someday be like Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris or Carl "Yaz" Yastremski. We knew no one could ever touch the recently retired Ted Williams.

My neighborhood was filled with large families, so there was no shortage of children to fill out the teams. Naturally enough, the Catholic kids played for the Holy Cross squad. Surprisingly, I played on the Wachogue Church team along with all the other Jewish kids. Our coach, Harry Stuckenbruck, was a lay minister who earned his living working for a big insurance company by day. Although the church was more of a neighborhood recreation center than a depository of religious dogma, the irony of playing for a church team, being coached by a protestant minister, and having the majority of the team be Jewish was not lost on us kids. When the Catholic boys started tracing a cross into the dirt with their bats before each turn at the plate, we followed suit with a Star of David. All the religious artwork probably lengthened the games by a good ten minutes.

We must have been doing something right, though, because we made a great run through the city tournament in ‘63. I remember that year like it was yesterday. I still have the old clips, glossy team photo, and stylish trophy awarded for our performance. I was hitting like a demon and connected for a grand slam in a 20-1 pounding of the Forest Park Jets. My best friend, Eric Stahl, drove me home for the winning run against McKnight AA. Those were exciting moments a young boy never forgets. After playing together for six years, we were one win away from the championship game.

The matchup against Grenier’s of Holyoke was neck and neck through the early frames. Zwirko, the big slugger we feared most, hit a towering fly over my head in the outfield. I was the tallest player on the team—even edging out Coach Stuckenbruck—but no one was going to catch this ball. They measured it at 325 feet. Despite the homer, we still held an unexpected 5-4 advantage going into the final inning. Then a pair of infield errors seemed to knock the remaining wind out of our already tired pitcher. Several hits later, we were 10-5 losers and out of the tournament.

But we almost beat the best team in the league. Come to think of it, we almost were the best team in the league.

Originally published 1994
Volume 1/Number 3

A Letter to Our Readers

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An example of The Giant Bee Journal's wayward PR efforts. This communique introduces the key staff members and attempts to explain to our eight subscribers why they weren't actually receiving any issues.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Dreams Sublime and Quotidian: Putting a Pricetag on Youth and Baseball by Philip Martin

FOUR OR FIVE years ago I drove down to my mother's house in Louisiana and crawled around in her humid attic. I don't remember exactly what I was looking for or even whether I found it or not, but I did fetch something from her rafters that I hadn't allowed myself to think about for years; a cache of Topps baseball cards from the mid-1960s through the early 1970s.

The cards were stored in a couple of orange shoeboxes, strapped shut with black electrical tape. I had lashed them together and put them away back at the beginning of high school, with only a vague idea that I might want to look at them again someday. I put them on a high shelf in the back of my closet.

I had sealed the boxes tight, so no light and only the most persistent mouse could ever intrude. I never once thought to reach back over the yearbooks and high-school clutter to touch the lids and reassure myself they still existed; they were buried then without mourning or regret. By the time I could drive, those cards were a legend only occasionally remembered. At some point, probably after I had left for college and it became clear "my room" was actually somewhere else, the boxes were moved, along with a collection of 45 rpm records and other childish things, into the attic.

When I found them again, a jolt of recognition as palpable as an electric shock coursed through me. I immediately cradled them down the stairs, wiped away the dust and split them open with a razor knife.

I folded back the lids from the center, so they opened like wings. And there were the cards, carelessly jumbled together, a mosaic of slightly off-register colors infused with the faint yet unmistakable flavor of stiff gum. Names like Koosman and Etchebarren and Kessinger and Roseboro and Aparicio. There was Ron Swoboda in mid-swing, in a batting helmet, shot from a low angle, backed by a pale 1968 sky.

If anything, they seemed brighter, the photographs sharper than I had remembered. Quite a few of my cards were from 1971, a series I didn't much care for because instead of printing the player's entire major league statistical history on the back, Topps opted to print only the line from 1970 and career totals. The 1971 series had black borders which has since become infamous among collectors. It is difficult to find cards with "mint" borders.

I had a Nolan Ryan card from 1969 and a Mickey Mantle from the same year. There were a couple of Hank Aaron cards, a Johnny Bench, a Tom Seaver. In all there were probably more than 600 cards in the two boxes. Most of them were cards of ordinary players—cards the collectors call "commons"—like Curt Blefary and Don Wert.

I knew what I had recovered. I knew the cards were worth something. Sometime in between the day I had put away my baseball cards and the day I had retrieved them, they had become a minor industry. Suddenly there were cards shops open in every strip mall, and nine-year-old kids were buying whole sets and putting them away unopened. They knew what Ken Griffey Jr.'s rookie card was worth, and they knew to slip cards into plastic sleeves to protect them from fingerprints and oil.

Kids were savvy, and there were plenty of older collectors too. Baseball cards were booming, four or five years ago, they were investments. I went down to one of the card shops and bought a Beckett's guide and started thumbing through it, estimating what my cards were worth.

It almost broke my heart.

I was not so savvy when I was a kid. I ruined a good many of my cards, by adding, in ballpoint pen, another line or two of statistics. Had I not defaced my Nolan Ryan card that way, it might have had a book value of $600. (Of course, I soon learned that no card dealer will ever pay you book value for a card—that's the price they charge you for a card. For any particular card, you might get 60 percent of what it says in the price guide.) If the word "Yankees" on my Mickey Mantle card had been printed in white rather than yellow, it would have been worth $700 rather than $175. I had, in my reckless youth, denatured a Tom Seaver rookie card by cutting it in half (the bottom portion of the card featured a pitcher named Bill Deheny) and stapling the Seaver photo to an index card on which I carefully printed his statistics each year.

Yet, even though a good many of my "best" cards had been defaced and rendered near worthless, I had a good collection. After I had taken my own inventory, I took the boxes down to one of the card shops to have a professional look at them. He appraised the collection, and made me an offer. It was more than I thought the cards were worth.

I turned him down and took my cards home.

THAT WAS FOUR or five years ago. That’s when the baseball card industry was booming. In 1990, demand for baseball cards—old and new—was at an all-time high. There were seemingly as many speculators buying cards as kids and collectors.

That baseball cards could become an industry might seem fantastic to those of us who flipped and traded them as kids. Their roots go back nearly as deep as the game itself, to the late 19th century, when tobacco companies began inserting them in packs of cigarettes. By the 1930s, they were sold with gum under license. From the late 1950s through the late 1970s, the Brooklyn-based Topps bubble gum company enjoyed a virtual monopoly on the major leagues; a stranglehold that was broken when a rival gum company, Fleer, won an anti-trust lawsuit.

In recent years, the gum has disappeared from the packs. It risks discoloring the cards, and upsetting collectors.

Opening the market was perhaps the best thing that ever happened to Topps. Through the 1980s, more and more companies joined the fray, until there were six companies printing more than 27 different lines of cards featuring the likenesses of major league players.

Card manufacturers begin to produce and sell more cards. (Topps sells many more cards today than it did in the years when it enjoyed a monopoly.) They introduced premium and so-called "super premium" lines. Kids could reel off the trading prices of a Don Mattingly card as quickly as they could relate his batting average. Baseball cards were collectibles, and if the public wanted them, the card companies were willing to oblige.

Books with mercenary titles like Collecting Baseball Cards: How to Buy Them, Store Them, and Keep Track of Their Value as Investments began to appear.

Then, quite naturally, the market began to settle and grow soft. Faced with myriad choices, collectors began to concentrate on buying the sets they liked best. Some kids, grew bored with the hobby. A lot of dealers found it hard to hang on and by 1992, most of the card shops had closed. A few hung on, servicing the hard-core collectors and kids newly introduced to the hobby.

Even after the boom subsided, baseball cards are still big business; Greg Ambrosius, the editor of Sports Card magazine estimates they made up $946 million of the $1.7 billion generated by the sports trading card industry in 1994.

Then, last August, major league baseball players went on strike. There was no World Series. There were no real major leaguers in spring training. Suddenly, baseball cards seem a precarious business; even though 1995 sets have been issued, and you can buy packs of new cards, production has been cut way back. And interest is disturbingly low.
Marty Appel, the director of public relations for Topps, the oldest and best-known of the card companies, downplays the affect of the baseball strike on the hobby. He says that while there’s a "large segment of consumers" angry with baseball and with sports in general, card collecting "has a life of its own."

"It can continue to flourish even without the games on the field," he says. "America maintains a passion for sports collectibles. If you look beyond the labor unrest, sports is a very healthy industry, and trading cards are a significant part of it."

Vince Nauss, the director of marketing for Donruss, echoes Appel's optimism one can hardly imagine a director of marketing doing anything else. He claims Donruss has yet to see any "major turnoff" from collectors, though he says he assumes that card collector interest will fall off if the strike affects the 1995 regular season. Accordingly, he says, Donruss has cut production on 1995 cards.

For that matter, so have Topps and most of the rest of the card companies. Apparently the demand just isn't there.

"You'll definitely see less Topps products on the market," Appel says, though he insists that as fans get over their anger the 1995 cards will eventually become highly prized by collectors.

"No matter how angry people are at the moment," he says, "last year may be one of the most historically significant and interesting seasons this century, in the sense it was an incomplete season. There will be considerable historical interest in the 1995 cards."

Cameron Broussard, the director of communications for Upper Deck, admits that the strike has significantly affected his company's sales.

"Fans have just stopped buying trading cards, period," he says. "It not because they feel badly about the cards, it's a measure of how they feel about the sports themselves."

Still, Garrison says cards like the vintage ones I stuck away in my shoe boxes more than 20 years ago have generally held their value. They were insulated from the boom. Few kids bought them, so they were scarcer and hence more expensive than newer cards—and why should a 12-year-old be interested in owning a 1966 Matty Alou card anyway?

ALL THE FLASH and glory attends the new millionaires, the cocky young men of the '90s who patrol the base lines draped in gold, wearing space-mask sunglasses. Barry Bonds, Kenny Lofton, Deion Sanders—the kids want the footwear heroes. That's who brings $5 a pack.

That's OK, I guess. Kids can’t help the time they're born in. If Roberto Clemente played today, he would be different too. Joe DiMaggio couldn't retain that hermetic cool; Mickey Mantle might be a candidate for intervention and substance-abuse treatment.
Big-league baseball wasn't better in those days—just different.

Baseball cannot, as some suggest, be boiled down to a line of statistics. The reams of quantifiable data produced by baseball don't equal the game, any more than a couple of shoe boxes full of trading cards equals a childhood. Baseball cards are sublime and quotidian, at best; they might be the receipt stubs of abandoned dreams.

Baseball, with its quiet stretches and languid rhythms, tempts writers into silliness all the time. They try to make a second baseman into a shaman. They try to make baseball cards into symbols of unrecoverable youth.

That’s not what they are. My cards had nothing to do with the game, just like the game has nothing to do with the strike or even with the rude young millionaires who play it. It is, as Stephen Jay Gould has written, profound all by itself.

I think sometimes I should have taken the cash for my cards. I don't really have any excuse for not taking the money, had the dealer offered a bit more money I'm sure I would have taken it. And I'm sure that money, whatever the sum, would be gone by now.

I’m glad I didn't sell my cards. I’m glad that I gave them to my niece, who was then too young to understand that the scraps of paper represented men who once played a boy's game. She could delight in their flat colors and the cartoon drawings on the back. I didn't care if she put them in her mouth and crimped their corners.

Her parents, being practical people, put them up for her.

— Philip Martin

Originally published in July 1995
Vol. 2/Number 2

Monday, June 30, 2008

A Certain Grace: Reflections on the Negro Leagues by Philip Martin

There is something in the way old ballplayers carry themselves that suggests nobility. Even 20 or 30 years after their time, even when they are old men, they move with an animal economy and a physical confidence that manifests itself as grace.

Football and basketball hobble and grind their players; short brutal careers chew knees to gristle, gnarl knuckles and snap tendons. Baseball players get hurt too, but not so often and not so dramatically. And even the crippled Mickey Mantle—the only player who was a bigger hero to his teammates than to the fans—drags himself from the oldtimer dugout with a king quiet dignity and forbearance.

It might have something to do with having played a game that requires, more than brute strength or speed, a certain litheness and precision. No other sport demands so much of those who would play it, even on a ordinary level. Baseball is too difficult a game for recreational players; slow-pitch softball, with its lobbed pitches and mighty muscular cuts is the domesticated, playable version.

To throw a strike, or even come close to throwing a strike, a pitcher must release his pitch at a certain point. An instant early or late produces embarrassing disaster. In baseball, the tolerances are extraordinarily close. It requires a kind of visceral genius to make the spatial and temporal coincidences necessary for a superbly batted ball occur; those who doubt the difficulty need only look to Birmingham last season, where a genius athlete, perhaps the finest specimen in the world, could barely hit his weight.

And, at that, Michael Jordan did not disgrace himself. Most of those who truly know the game are surprised he did so well.

So, if you have ever played the game at a high level, you know that you are capable. You might, indeed, hold yourself a little more erect, and level your eyes at those who approach you. You might know that you were always good enough to play against the white boys, even though they never let you in the major leagues.

* * *

Verdell Mathis played the game. He is nearly 80 years old, but there is, in the looseness of his stride and the dangle of his long arms, a quality that gives him away. He was left-handed, always an advantage in the game, a pitcher mostly but he played a little in the outfield and at first base, mainly for the Memphis Red Sox. He is a quiet gentleman, an aristocrat born in Crawfordsville, Arkansas.

They called him "Lefty," naturally, and he was one of the best in the old Negro League. He played with and against men like Satchel Paige and young Henry Aaron (then a 16-year-old shortstop) and Jackie Robinson and Cool Papa Bell and Willie Mays. He faced the white boys too, playing for Paige’s barnstorming All-Stars against a team led by Bob Feller. By the time Robinson broke the line in 1947, he was too old to think about the majors, but then, he had nothing to prove anyway, he had tested himself against the best.

* * *

Timing is everything in baseball

Robinson got his chance not because he was the best player in the Negro League, Mathis says, but because he had the right education and maturity. Robinson was better known as a football player at UCLA. He was also an All-Pac 8 basketball player and an expert tennis player.

"He was known," Mathis says. "He wasn't the best player, but he was a good player. He was agile. When he was with the Kansas City Monarchs, he had never played professional baseball before. But he could bunt, he could drag it down both lines and beat it out for a hit. And he could hit too—they said he couldn’t hit a fastball at the letters, but he showed them he could."

He sure did.

* * *

Joe B. Scott—another former Red Sox—was the first black man to play in Chicago’s Wrigley Field. In 1937, his high school played there, for the Illinois state championship. Scott was a freshman, and the only black boy on either squad. He played with and against major leaguers in the service, there no doubt he too could have enjoyed a long and relatively lucrative career in the bigs.

“Toughest pitcher I ever faced was Detroit Tiger ace Virgil Trucks,” he says, without too much deliberation. “When he threw the ball, it was like a pea, and it twisted all around. First time I faced him, he struck me out. Next time up, I doubled. But he was tough. Satchel was tough. This guy behind me—Lefty—he was sure tough. They all were tough. It weren’t never easy.”

Their stories are gentle stories, told by gentle men. They look back not in regret or horror that our society could have at one time, not 50 years ago, considered their ghettoization normal and proper.

I think maybe it is because the game they played is so humbling, so difficult and demanding that they are now able to maintain themselves with such Buddha-like composure.

They waste no gestures, their eyes are clear of hate.

— Philip Martin

Originally published April 1995
Vol. 2/Issue 1

Little League Confidential by Stephen Buel

Vince Coleman wasn’t the first aspiring demolition expert to throw a firecracker into a crowd of people outside a ballpark. Near as I can tell, that honor belongs to me.

I was outside the ballpark, but my targets were in the visitor’s dugout. They were Little Leaguers. Me, I never played.

Coleman, you recall, hurled an M-80 out the window of a car driven by Eric Davis. Three were hurt, one of them a two-year-old girl. Coleman was a New York Met and Davis an L.A. Dodger. Hell, they should have thrown ’em both in jail for that alone.

Me, I was running with the wrong crowd too. It was 1969 and my family had just moved to Tampa from Chicago. Tampa didn’t even have a baseball team, serving only as the spring-training home of the Cincinnati Reds. But it did have its share of juvenile delinquents,

On the day in question, Mitchell, Jeff and I were riding our Stingrays and chuckin’ Black Cat firecrackers at stuff. I was doing most of the chuckin’, actually, because I was the guy trying to prove he was cool. We rode past a Little League game and one of the players riding the pine for the home team dared me start shelling the opposition. It seemed like a good idea at the time, so I lit a Black Cat and fired it at a small window in the visitor’s dugout.

I guess you’d have to call my throw a “wild pitch.” It was the kind of toss that makes batters charge the pitcher with their bat in hand. I missed my target by a mile. The sizzling firecracker hit the cinder block dugout wall and came flying toward me like a liner back to the mound. I tried to slap it away just as it detonated. After my hand exploded—and after I stopped crying—I remember making up some story about how two or three “big guys in a car” threw the firecracker at me and then drove away. (“Honest, coach, it was the big guys.”)

Didn’t Vince Coleman finally say he’d learned a lot from his mistake? I learned a lot, too.

Little League is where you acquire ball control. And stay out of baseball if you have a short fuse.

— Stephen Buel

Originally published 1994
Vol. 1/Number 2