The Fantasy Baseball Time Machine Goes Back To 1986

If you didn’t play Fantasy Baseball before the Internet, the historical concept of 1980’s Rotisserie Baseball might be slightly hazy. For the Old Duck, it is an era filled with the best memories one could imagine.

In March of ’81, I read an article in Inside Sports magazine entitled, “The Year George Foster Wasn’t Worth $36.” It was written by Dan Okrent and was one of the very first references to “Rotisserie” (Fantasy) baseball.

By 1984, the originators of the game (including Okrent and Glen Waggoner) published the first edition of “Rotisserie League Baseball.” When I spotted the book, the ’81 article came to mind and I couldn’t wait to consume the details of this fascinating hobby. After reading the entire book in one sitting, I got on the phone and began calling numerous baseball-loving friends with the following challenge – “Go buy this book and tell me if you’re in.” Within 48 hours, the “Bowling League of Rotisserie Baseball” was born. Why Bowling? Well, almost everyone in the group (including me) worked in the bowling industry…owners, executives, managers, sales reps and the like.

So there we sat in the spring of ’84, eight guys who were baseball fans but didn’t have a clue about this new game other than the minimal strategies talked about in the book. No Internet, no Fantasy magazines, no Sabrmetrics and no Rotisserie Gurus. Our main resource was the Sporting News and its Baseball Register. I chose Donald’s Ducks for my team name and we went boldly where no fan had gone before.

In going through some personal archives, I came across an article from the L.A. Times published in 1986. As you’ll see, the writer was trying to make sense of this strange hobby and interviewed me along with a number of other “pioneers”. Hopefully, you’ll enjoy the perspective of our great game from 35 years ago.

For Rotisserie Baseball Fanatics, a Grand Sham

April 30, 1986|FRANK CLANCY 

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April 3 was not a good day for local baseball fans. On that day Pedro Guerrero, the Dodgers’ star left fielder, ruptured a tendon in his left knee, causing fans throughout Southern California to bemoan his misfortune. But J. R. Williams probably reacted more strongly than most fans to the injury, which will keep Guerrero idle at least until July.

“I was really upset,” the 23-year-old computer operator recalled later. “I was shocked. I couldn’t believe it.

“I hate to see any player get hurt,” Williams added, but his concern was not entirely selfless. Williams owns the “J. R. Ewings” of the Golden State League of Rotisserie Baseball Clubs; Guerrero, who hit 33 home runs last year and batted .320 for the Dodgers, was also the Ewings’ star. On April 1, Williams had signed Guerrero to one of the richest contracts in league history: $7 a year for three years.

Confused? You’ve never heard of Rotisserie Baseball or the Golden State League, let alone the J. R. Ewings? Don’t worry. Except in the hearts and minds of J. R. Williams and 10 friends, the Ewings exist only on paper.

> Thousands of Fans

But how does this league, and hundreds like it, exist in the minds of owners! Indeed, Rotisserie League Baseball (named after a Manhattan restaurant, at which the first known league was conceived in January, 1980) has attracted thousands of baseball fans, causing some to lose sleep worrying about their players, others to run up large phone bills, and many–heresy among baseball fans–to root against the home team.

The object of such devotion, also known as “ghost” or “fantasy” baseball is on its surface a disarmingly simple game. It has no board, no dice, and no cards. It requires only imagination–and an incredibly detailed knowledge of baseball.

While rules vary somewhat from league to league (often being altered at winter meetings by “club officials”), basically here is how it goes: Soon after baseball season begins, about 10 “owners” gather to select real players from major league teams. Each chooses 22 or 23 players, including eight pitchers, at auction or through a draft. As in major league baseball, the challenge is to evaluate players and assemble a balanced team.

Throughout the six-month long baseball season, owners trade, cut, and move players, measuring their success by the actual statistics of their players. In October, leagues use eight statistical categories, such as home runs (5 points in a typical league) and pitching victories (30 points for a starting pitcher, 20 for a reliever), to determine the best team. The top three split the money collected from the player auction or from entry fees. One local league, for example, charges $60 per team to enter and pays $350 to the top team, $150 to second place and $100 to third.

(The concept is not confined to baseball, and a handful of leagues play a similar game with pro football, using only offensive players. In one, the “Hollywood Football League,” owners chip in $500 apiece.)

If J. R. Williams’ reaction to Pedro Guerrero’s injury seems extreme, in context it is not at all so.

Last summer, mononucleosis and hepatitis forced Matthew Irmas, owner of Matt’s Fat Bats in the Westwood Rotisserie League, to miss three months of work. But Irmas, 29, remained an active owner. “For three months I was completely consumed by baseball,” the Marina Del Rey resident remembers. “I would wake up at 3:30 in the morning waiting for the paper to come.”

A fellow owner avoided that problem by subscribing to a computer data base that provides detailed baseball results. Now he can find out how his players did minutes after a game ends.

> Penny Pincher League

Donna Turner, 51, a banking consultant, owns the DT’s in the Penny Pincher League. The Torrance resident says her long-distance phone bill doubled last summer because she was calling major league teams for information.

Turner isn’t unique. According to Toby Zwikel, assistant publicity director for the Dodgers, the team received a number of calls from Rotisserie players asking about Guerrero. Zwikel says his office gets “too many” such calls: “They are a pain for us. We’re here 14 hours a day and more during the season. To answer those questions is just one more thing we have to do.”

“Being a baseball fan is one thing,” Donna Turner explains, “but to really let your fantasies go in a league is another. You get the ‘owners’ syndrome–you really think these players are yours. Your mind runs away.”

Rotisserie leagues have made dedicated Dodger fans reconsider their loyalties. “You never watch a baseball game the same way again,” says Don Drooker, 40, of Canoga Park, whose team, Donald’s Ducks, competes in the Bowling League of Rotisserie Baseball (a group of bowling industry managers and executives). “You could be a lifelong Dodger fan, but if you go to the stadium and one of your pitchers is pitching against the Dodgers, you root against the Dodgers.”

There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of similar leagues. Ghost League Baseball, a San Francisco company selling computer software to run leagues, has responded to more than 1,000 inquiries about the program and a statistics service since both were introduced in February, says part-owner Jules Tygiel. Bantam Books’ Rotisserie League Baseball, a humorous guide, has 51,000 copies in print, and more than 400 leagues, including about 40 in Southern California, have paid $50 apiece to join the Rotisserie League Baseball Assn.

For their money, association members get a mixture of serious information (final major league rosters, lists of players by position) and humor that has from the beginning marked this game. At the end of each season, for example, the original Rotisserie Leaguers ritually pour Yoo-Hoo, a soft drink once endorsed by ex-New York Yankee catcher Yogi Berra, on their league champion; the association will send a can of Yoo-Hoo to any league that cannot obtain the syrupy chocolate beverage. Few, it seems, actually emulate the ritual.

With names like the the Wulfgang (owned by Steve Wulf) and the Sklar Gazers (Robert Sklar), the original league also spread a plague of puns that play on owners’ names. The J. R. Ewings compete against Harper’s Bizarre (Ben Harper), the Fuller Brushmen (Alan Fuller), and the Haskimos (Mike Haskins).

> Fall in Love’

Devotees of Rotisserie baseball offer various explanations for the game’s popularity. “It begins with little boys,” suggests Glen Waggoner, 45, a founding member of the original Rotisserie League, the editor of Rotisserie League Baseball, and now a contributing editor at Esquire. “Just before sex, boys fall in love with baseball. In adolescence they get their heads turned by sex, but in their 20s and 30s baseball comes back; by then you no longer have a credible fantasy of playing major league baseball yourself. The next greatest fantasy is to (own a major league team). With Rotisserie League Baseball you can do that, and you don’t need $25 million.”

Although league champions have been known to win more than $1,000, players say money is hardly a motivation. “The money is irrelevant,” Don Drooker insists. “The people in our league would do this for 260 match sticks.”

Along with the leagues have come a host of related businesses selling statistics services, winning systems, a scouting service, and leagues via computer modem. One new company, Ghost League Baseball, grew out of the Pacific Ghost League, formed in San Francisco five years ago.

At 37, part-owner Jules Tygiel is no ordinary businessman. A professor of history at San Francisco State University, he is the author of “Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy.”

“Baseball has been booming,” Tygiel says, “and part of it has to do with the computer. Baseball is so much a game of numbers, of statistics; the marriage of baseball and computers is a fortuitous one. Baseball first became popular in an age of mathematics, the 1880s, so it doesn’t surprise me that this resurgence in popularity of baseball coincides with the introduction of the personal computer.”

But if the Dodgers cannot replace Guerrero, it will be a long summer. In his absence, the team is using Franklin Stubbs, a promising rookie, and Cesar Cedeno, an aging superstar.

The J. R. Ewings are no better off. Drafting on Sunday, April 13, at a league meeting in a Glassell Park residence, owner Williams acquired Andy Van Slyke and Greg Gross, who last season hit 20 fewer home runs and batted 60 points lower than the Dodgers’ popular star.

At that five-hour auction, Golden State League owners showed they can be as ruthless and unforgiving as George Steinbrenner, the temperamental New York Yankees owner with a penchant for firing managers and publicly berating players. Consider, for example, the case of Ken Landreux.

Two nights earlier, the Dodger center fielder played poorly against the San Francisco Giants: with several Golden State League owners watching, Landreux made an error that allowed the Giants to score three runs. By Sunday, his Rotisserie League value had plummeted. Selected by Commissioner Pete Arbogast (the “Arbohydrates”), Landreux was the very last player chosen. His auction price and 1986 salary: 10 cents.

Hope you enjoyed the quick trip in the time machine…maybe next year; I’ll try to draft that English prospect H. G. Wells.


Secrets of the Scrap Book

Being retired is supposed to be fun. Spending time with family & friends, traveling, activities you enjoy, volunteer work or finally having time for that hobby you love.

The Old Duck is especially fortunate to spend three days a week interacting with folks who share my passion for sports and the collectibles that spring from the games that are played.

Card collecting is over 100 years old and the hobby has evolved into a complex and ever-changing marketplace. From the tobacco cards of the early 20th century to the sporadic issues of the Depression era and World War II to the post-war cards from companies like Bowman & Leaf, it wasn’t until almost 70 years ago that the Topps Company started the real boom era of sports card collecting. While they issued a couple of playing card style sets in 1951, the 1952 set marked the true beginning of baseball cards as we know them today with over 400 numbered cards that included statistics and player bios. Bowman also issued card sets during this time, but Topps bought them out in 1956 and became the exclusive distributor of major league cards for a period that lasted through 1980. They had to compete against numerous other manufacturers for the next 25 years, but became the exclusive producer again about 15 years ago.

A recent set of circumstances can possibly be defined as juxtaposition. Last week, various news reports confirmed that Major League Baseball had made an agreement with a sports apparel company to take over the licensing and production of baseball cards by 2026. In essence, this means that in five years, there will no longer be Topps Baseball cards. For collectors and fans, it almost seems unfathomable, as the history of these products is so embedded in the fabric of the game.

The day after the announcement, I received a call from a nice lady by the name of Shirley. As with many clients, she came to me through a referral from someone who had a positive experience with their own collection. She proceeded to tell me that she had some old baseball cards that were in poor condition and didn’t know if it was really worth the time, but could I fit her into my schedule. Of course, the pandemic has brought hundreds of people to my corner at the baseball card shop that seem to think cards from 1988 are “old” but I’m always willing to give time to anyone who wants to drop in.

When Shirley arrived a few days later, she placed a small red scrapbook on the counter that looked like it was from the 1940’s. Upon opening the book, I discovered close to 100 cards from the iconic 1952 Topps set. Mixed emotions would be the only way to describe the experience, as the cards are certainly scarce but Shirley’s description of the condition was correct because the cards were taped onto the pages.  The retail value of cards in this type of condition isn’t much but the memories are priceless. Especially when they came from Topps first set in the same week where we hear about the end of the Topps era.

Let’s take a trip down baseball’s memory lane and look at the cardboard heroes on a few random pages.

  • Al Schoendienst, Cardinals 2B – Known better as “Red”, this lifelong redbird was Stan Musial’s closest friend and played 19 seasons in the big leagues. A 10-time All-Star, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1989.
  • Eddie Stanky, Cardinals Manager – Known for jumping on the back of Leo Durocher when Bobby Thomson hit that famous Home Run in ’51, he managed St. Louis for the next four seasons.
  • Mel Parnell, Red Sox Pitcher – The BoSox best hurler in the late 40’s and early 50’s, he won 27 games in 1949 and 21 in 1953.
  • Robin Roberts, Phillies Pitcher – Won 20 games or more from 1949-1955, pitching over 300 innings in each of those seasons. Won a total of 286 games and was voted into Cooperstown in 1976.
  • Johnny Mize, Yankees 1B – Even missing three years in his prime serving in World War II, this prolific power hitter made the Hall of Fame in 1981. Hit 51 HR’s for the Giants in 1947.
  • Bob Feller, Indians Pitcher – Broke into the majors in 1936 as a 17 year-old and was the most dominant pitcher of the era. Another player who spent three years of the 1940’s in the military, he led the AL in Wins six times and was inducted into Cooperstown in 1962.
  • Other familiar names found in the pages include Phil Rizzuto, Johnny Sain, Warren Spahn, Preacher Roe, Enos Slaughter, Ted Kluszewski, Dom DiMaggio & Monty Irvin.

And just think, every pack of cards came with a stick of bubble gum.

Fantasy MVP – Stats or Value?

As a true baseball fan, what are your criteria for choosing a “Most Valuable Player” (MVP)? Everyone seems to have a different take on this award and for the 60 baseball writers who vote on the award each year, there seems to be just as much confusion. Even the directions mailed out with the ballot say, “There is no clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable means”.

Are you in the camp of those who feel that the Cy Young Award is for Pitchers and the MVP is for everyday players? In the 1980’s, both Willie Hernandez (’84) & Roger Clemens (’86) were awarded both in the same year. It happened again in 1992 with Dennis Eckersley and as recently as 2011 & 2014 when Justin Verlander & Clayton Kershaw captured both trophies.

Or maybe you feel strongly that the MVP needs to come from a winning team that makes the playoffs? Ernie Banks won the NL MVP in both 1958 & 1959 playing on Cubs teams that were under .500. In those two seasons, he hit 92 HR’s and had 272 RBI’s making his dominance difficult to ignore. In fact, there are some who feel that winning teams dilute the value of star players because there are usually multiple members of the roster making significant contributions.

A few years ago, baseball writer Jeff Passan added another talking point to the MVP debate. He asked if “value” also includes a player’s contribution to his team relative to his salary and posed the question, “have we been missing what should be one of the chief criteria of value”. Bryce Harper is having an MVP-type season, but his salary is $25 Million. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has even more amazing stats, but makes only $605,400. The basic theory is “MVP in actuality is the one that most improves postseason chances given payroll limitations.” Passan wasn’t quite ready to use performance vs. contract as a primary factor in MVP voting but felt that when a spot on the ballot is “too close to call”, he would consider it as secondary criteria.

Of course, experienced Fantasy players have been utilizing this approach for decades. Unlike major league baseball, we all choose and manage our teams under the umbrella of a salary cap. When every team’s budget is $260, “value” becomes a relative term. While some may say that once you leave the Draft table, it’s all about performance, a given player’s salary impacts your roster’s flexibility throughout the season. So, let’s take a look at the MVP race in a real world fantasy baseball league.

For this laboratory experiment, we’ll use the industry’s premiere “experts” keeper league, the Xperts Fantasy League (XFL). A 15-team mixed, auction-style league with 5×5 stats (OBP replaces BA), the league is in its 19th season. As with most leagues, it has some interesting rules including dynasty-type salary guidelines, but the essence of the stats vs. value argument will be clear. Adhering to recent real-world MVP balloting, we’ll look at teams in contention as we head into the final quarter of the season. The current standings have five teams with 100 points or better and they are clear of the field by at least 10 points. Statistics are as of August 13th.

For purposes of anonymity, we’ll call the contenders the Mallards, Barristers, Gandhis, Broadcasters & Ronettes. Only players either kept or drafted in the December 2020 auction will qualify, eliminating $1 bargains chosen in the March 2021 supplemental phase like Emmanuel Clase, Jesus Aguilar and Jake McGee.

The  Mallards have received stellar production from Marcus Semien, who has produced a $29 return. However, his salary of $24 creates a gap of only $5 while Kevin Gausman has also contributed $29…with a $6 salary.

The defending champions Barristers have a plethora of great values with Bo Bichette, Rafael Devers & Ozzie Albies but the MVP is an easy call. Even with time spent on the IL, Fernando Tatis Jr. has contributed $39 in value for a $7 price tag.

The emerging Gandhis have boppers like Max Muncy and Joey Gallo, but they also get to put Shohei Ohtani into their line-up. Even though he takes up two spots on the roster, his $10 salary makes him the obvious MVP.

The Broadcasters have a number of outstanding players but the aforementioned Guerrero laps the field with a $7 salary and a $39 season.

The Ronettes have gotten $27 of value from Whit Merrifield but his salary of $21 won’t make him their MVP. How about Adam Frazier’s $16 season for a $2 salary and throw-in multiple position eligibility.

If you consider yourself an expert at this game or just a fan that plays for the love of the game, the theory of “value” should always be in your thought process, especially if you’re re-building for 2022. It impacts trade decisions as well as keeper choices next Spring. Determine your MVP for this year and you’ll be a step ahead of your competition.

Futures Card Game

Through the first three decades of the era of modern baseball cards, collecting was what it was all about. Opening packs, making your Dentist rich by chewing the bubble gum, finding your favorite players and putting together a complete set. When the Topps monopoly ended in the early 80’s, the hobby began to change and customers were no longer just collectors, to a great extent they also became speculators. People had seen the dramatic increase in the valuation of cards from the 50’s & 60’s and determined they could make a profit by investing in this unique commodity.

As a dealer in sports cards, I have the unenviable task of telling sellers that all those cards they saved from the 80’s & 90’s don’t have any value. The factor left out of their thought process back then was the lack of scarcity. Manufacturers supplied an enormous amount of product and values went south quickly. In fact, this phenomenon almost ruined the industry, as collectors got fed up with too many products and too much supply.

The hobby started to reinvent itself about 15 years ago and created a new breed of speculator. By seeding packs with limited edition, autograph and relic (jerseys & bats) cards, they found customers who were willing to gamble on high-priced products in hopes of getting that extremely rare (and valuable) card. Of course, there are still millions of fans who collect cards for the joy of the hobby, but even they are always hoping for a great “pull” from a pack.

For today’s speculator, one of the most popular investments is the card of a prospect. As Fantasy Baseball aficionados, we all know that only a small percentage of the top 100 each year actually become stars, but the appeal of the next Vladimir Guerrero Jr. or Juan Soto is too much for these collectors to resist. Historically, the Bowman brand (owned by Topps) is known for highlighting minor leaguers with potential. This goes all the back to their 1992 set where you’ll find Mariano Rivera’s rookie card a full three years before he wore a major league uniform. Now, of course, the prospects even have autographed cards in the packs. Now understand that we’re not talking about rookies who have already made a splash like Dylan Carlson or Ke’Bryan Hayes. We’re scouting the minor leaguers you probably haven’t heard of yet.

  So, with the annual Futures Game in the rear-view mirror, let’s get a feel for some of the prospects and their market demand. The price reflects the current market value of an autograph card from 2021 Bowman Chrome Prospects.

> Blaze Jordan, Red Sox 1B/3B – A great name for a hitter on a hot streak, this 18 year-old is batting .362 in Rookie League ball and his card is at $150.

> Hedbert Perez, Brewers OF – Also 18, his Dad (Robert) played six seasons in the majors. He’s hitting .342 in Rookie ball and his card will set you back $100.

> Maximo Acosta, Rangers SS – Hobbyists love the young guys and this 18 year-old is on a fast track to be the Rangers next long-time SS. His autograph card is a $100 investment.

>Yoelqui Cespedes, Marlins OF – The younger Brother of Yoenis, he defected from Cuba to pursue the game. He’s 23 and playing at the A+ level with an OPS of .822 and a card value of $100.

> Spencer Torkelson, Tigers 1B/3B – The #1 pick in last year’s draft, he signed for over $8 Million. On track to replace Miguel Cabrera, his card is worth $100.>Jeremy De La Rosa, Nationals OF – Still a work in progress, he’s playing A ball at age 19. The hype is there with a card price of $60.Jeremy De La Rosa, Nationals OF – Still a work in progress, he’s playing A ball at age 19. The hype is there with a card price of $60.

Jeremy De La Rosa, Nationals OF – Still a work in progress, he’s playing A ball at age 19. The hype is there with a card price of $60.

  • Garrett Mitchell, Brewers OF – At age 22, he’s honing his skills at AA and his card will set you back $50.
  • Kevin Alcantara, Cubs OF – Recently acquired from the Yankees in the Anthony Rizzo trade, this 19 year-old is batting .364 at Rookie ball. $75 will get you his card.
  • Aaron Saboto, Twins 1B – Having contact issues at A ball, he’s a power prospect and a card investment of $50

For Fantasy players and card collectors, prospects can make your day…or break your heart.

1959 Topps Baseball Cards

To some extent, 1959 not only marked the end of a decade but the start of a new baseball era. The statistics on the back of the cards highlighted the first major league season of West Coast expansion, as the Dodgers & Giants left New York to build new legacies in Los Angeles and San Francisco. It also was a time of change for baseball, as many established stars were winding down their careers and the final barrier to players of color was removed when the last team integrated a full 12 years after Jackie Robinson first played in Brooklyn.

 This was the fourth year of the Topps monopoly after Bowman ceased operating in 1956 and the company issued their largest set ever with 572 cards. Beautifully done, with bust pictures of the players in a colored circle, it included Sporting News All-Star selections in the scarce high series and the first cards designated as “Rookie Prospects”. For this visit, we’ll focus on Hall of Famers in the ’59 set and the values are based on cards in “Near Mint” (NM 7) condition.

> #10 Mickey Mantle, Yankees OF ($1,500) – Still in his prime at age 27, “The Mick” was coming off a season in which he led the AL in Runs, Home Runs & Walks and had a 1.035 OPS. This is the most valuable card in the set.

> #20 Duke Snider, Dodgers OF ($55) – Age and the move to the L.A. Coliseum meant that things would never be the same for the “Duke of Flatbush”. Following five consecutive seasons of 40+ Home Runs in Brooklyn, he hit only 15 during the ’58 season and injuries limited him to 106 games.

> #30 Nellie Fox, White Sox 2B ($32) – Won the AL MVP Award in ’59 as he led the “Go-Go Sox” to the pennant.

> #40 Warren Spahn, Braves P ($70) – Even in his late-30’s, the left-hander with the most victories in history was still at the top of his game. Won 20 games or more from ’57 – ’61.

> #50 Willie Mays, Giants OF ($250) – The move to the Bay Area didn’t slow down the “Say Hey Kid” at all. His first season in San Francisco included a .347 BA, 29 HR’s, a league leading 31 SB’s and a Gold Glove.

> #149 Jim Bunning, Tigers P ($25) – Led the AL in Strikeouts in both ’58 & ’59 before his glory days with the Phillies in the 60’s.

> #150 Stan Musial, Cardinals OF-1B ($125) – Still All-Star caliber in his late 30’s, “Stan The Man” hit .337 in ’58.

> #155 Enos Slaughter, Yankees OF ($28) – 1959 was the last season for this legendary player who served three years in World War II during his prime and came back to have 130 RBI’s for the championship Cardinals in 1946.

> #163 Sandy Koufax, Dodgers P ($200) – Still learning his craft at age 23, he was 8-6 in 23 starts during the ’59 season. The 173 K’s in 153 IP showed the promise and he did start one game in the World Series as the Dodgers won the title from the White Sox.

> #180 Yogi Berra, Yankees C ($95) – Was an All-Star for every one of the years of the 50’s decade, in which he won three MVP Awards.

> #260 Early Wynn, White Sox P ($28) – Was at 249 Wins after the ’58 campaign and would eventually get to the magic 300 number in 1963.

> #300 Richie Ashburn, Phillies OF ($35) – 1959 was the last of his 12 years with Philadelphia. He played three more NL seasons including 1962 with the expansion Mets.

> #310 Luis Aparicio, White Sox SS ($35) – Led the AL with 56 SB’s in ’59 and finished 2nd in the MVP balloting to teammate Nellie Fox.

> #338 Sparky Anderson, Phillies 2B ($45) – The card says George, as this is the rookie card of the future HOF Manager. ’59 was his only major league season and he hit .218 in 477 AB’s.

> #349 Hoyt Wilhelm, Orioles P ($22) – 1959 was the one season where this famous knuckleball reliever was actually a member of the starting rotation. How did he fare? How about 15 Wins and a league-leading 2.19 ERA?

> # 350 Ernie Banks, Cubs SS ($90) – 47 HR’s & 129 RBI’s in ’58, then 45 HR’s & 143 RBI’s in ’59. The result was back-to-back MVP Awards.

> #360 Al Kaline, Tigers OF ($65) – 1959 was a great year for this Detroit legend – .327 BA, 27 HR’s, 94 RBI’s and a Gold Glove.

> #380 Hank Aaron, Braves OF ($200) – Ultimately known for his Home Run prowess, it is forgotten that in 1959, he led the NL with 223 Hits and a .355 BA.

> #387 Don Drysdale, Dodgers P ($45) – ’59 was his breakout season as he had 17 Wins and a league-leading 242 K’s. Not surprisingly, he also led the NL with 18 hit batters.

> #390 Orlando Cepeda, Giants 1B ($40) – Rookie of the Year in ’58, he followed up with a .317 BA, 27 HR’s & 105 RBI’s in ’59.

> #430 Whitey Ford, Yankees P ($60) – Right in the middle of his great career, he led the AL with a 2.01 ERA in ’58.

> #435 Frank Robinson, Redlegs 1B-OF ($50) – At age 23, he was already an established star with 98 HR’s in his first three seasons.

> #439 Brooks Robinson, Orioles 3B ($50) – Still developing at this point in his career, he didn’t win a Gold Glove until 1960. Of course, he then captured 15 more consecutively.

> #450 Eddie Mathews, Braves 3B ($65) – In his prime at age 27, he led the NL with 46 HR’s in 1959.

> #455 Larry Doby, Tigers OF ($28) – The first AL player of color, this was his final major league season.

> #478 Roberto Clemente, Pirates OF ($215) – Due to his legacy, most fans don’t grasp the work it took him to become a star. 1959 was his 5th year with the Pirates and he didn’t make an All-Star team until 1960.

> #480 Red Schoendienst, Cardinals 2B ($28) – In his mid-30’s by this point, he was injured for almost all of the ’59 campaign and never played another full season.

> #514 Bob Gibson, Cardinals P ($1,250) – Not only is this the Rookie Card of the Redbirds great hurler, it also comes from the scarce high series run of this set. Other than the Mantle, this is the toughest card to find in nice condition.

> #515 Harmon Killebrew, Senators 3B ($145) – Spent five seasons languishing on the bench before getting his chance in ’59. The result was a league-leading 42 HR’s, the first of eight years with 40+ HR’s.

> #550 Roy Campanella, “Symbol Of Courage” ($150) – This card pictures “Campy” in a wheel chair and tells the story of his tragic automobile accident as written by NL League President Warren Giles.

In a future visit, we’ll look at some of the other great and not-so-great players represented in this classic set.

Baseball Card Condition & Grading

Prior to the 1980’s, most kids who collected baseball cards weren’t concerned with the condition of the cards. We wrapped them in rubber bands, put them in the spokes of our bicycle tires, flipped them against the wall (in a contest to win cards from other boys) and occasionally even wrote on them with a pen or pencil. So, today, when someone has a 1980 Rickey Henderson card, the first question is “what’s the condition?”

As with most hobbies, the condition (of stamps, coins, comic books, etc.) will determine the real value in the marketplace. For baseball cards, the key factors are centering, corner wear, creases and stains. Prior to the mid-90’s, collectors and dealers used a subjective method of determining if a card was “Mint” or “Near-Mint” or “Excellent”. With the hobby changing and the introduction of the Internet, buyers & sellers needed a better way to agree on condition…and, therefore, pricing. Into that void stepped the third-party authentication and grading companies, who would give the card a number grade (1-10), encase it in a tamper-proof holder and register the card with a serial number. Eventually, this would become an industry standard…especially for older cards.

The value of a particular card can vary greatly depending on the condition. The monthly Beckett price guide shows the ’80 Henderson Rookie Card as having a book value of $60. That estimate, however, assumes that the card is in NM (Near-Mint) condition…defined as a “7” by the grading company.

Of course, the real world isn’t defined by estimates and the current market price of an ’80 Henderson that is graded “7” is about $120. The real key, however, is the differential of the values on the same card based on condition. The most recent sales on Internet sites (like eBay) show the following for our ’80 Henderson example…

“5” = $60

“6” = $70

“7” = $120

“8” = $275

“9” = $1,750

As you can see, each level represents an increase in value for the seller and as the condition gets better, the price increases dramatically. Could you tell the difference between a “7” and an “8” with the naked eye? Probably not, but the companies that specialize in grading have equipment that can see imperfections in order to gauge centering and wear exactly.

What probably caught your eye is the huge difference between a card graded “8” and one graded “9”. This is exactly why the baseball card hobby is in an unusual place in 2021. During the pandemic, while people were stuck at home with no sports on TV and social gatherings at a minimum, they found all those cards that they had squirreled away in the garage or attic or extra bedroom. When they discovered a Henderson card that was possibly worth $60, they decided that by grading it, they would get rich…because, of course, theirs must be a “9”. So many cards were sent in for processing that it essentially shut down the two major grading companies due to the overwhelming demand and the Henderson is just an example. Orders were taking 6-8 months or longer and the grading providers stopped taking orders until they could get caught up.  That is where the industry sits at the moment and no one knows exactly when we’ll be back to normal. It will come as no surprise to you that thousands of collectors will be disappointed when their orders come back. By nature, we are all optimists, but the fact is that over 23,000 Henderson RC’s have been graded by PSA and less than 10% of them have judged to a “9”. After all, these are 40 year-old pieces of cardboard.

Grading is an important part of the hobby but collectors must understand that gauging if a card should be graded is an essential step. If you’re building a set of cards from the 1950’s or 1960’s, by all means consider grading the major stars. If you are collecting the cards of a certain player or team, getting them graded for display in your office is a great idea. My Ted Williams rookie card is from 1939 and it is graded a “2” but that’s OK because it is my Ted Williams rookie card.

The other factor in grading your cards is that it proves the card is authentic and has not been altered. It is not unheard of to find older cards that have been trimmed (to shave off edge wear or improve centering) or retouched with a marker to make the card look more appealing. So, if you’re selling older baseball cards, don’t assume they’re in NM condition…be prepared for a more realistic offer. If you’re keeping your cards, think about grading them to improve your ability to display your collection while protecting the cards from damage.

The entire grading process has also created new markets and challenges for card collectors. One of the grading companies has even created a “Set Registry” where collectors list their sets of vintage cards in which every card has been graded. Currently, there are thousands of baseball card sets registered on the website by collectors and some feature cards in amazing condition. For example, there are two 1956 Topps sets that have an average grade of “9” (Mint Condition). Can you imagine the journey those collectors made to acquire 342 cards to meet that standard? What would that set be worth? One industry magazine estimates the value at $300,000+ but we’ll never really know because the sets probably won’t ever become available. In the meantime, I’ll be very happy with my 1956 Topps set, which based on the dozen or so star cards that have been graded, averages about a “5” (Excellent Condition).

As always, my advice is to collect, not speculate.

Show Me Ohtani

As an old school baseball fan, your humble scribe keeps watching the Angels SP/DH Shohei Ohtani with absolute wonder. Leaving aside the fact that he was the starting pitcher for the American League in the All-Star game, can his batting skills really be this amazing? After all, he has struck out in 1/3 of his at-bats this season, so there are certainly holes in his swing.

Utilizing the new-age stats supplied by MLB’s “StatCast”, let’s look inside the numbers and see how Ohtani compares to his contemporaries who are only batters. Statistics are as of July 18th

  • Exit Velocity (EV) measures the speed of the baseball as it comes off the bat. Ohtani’s average speed is 93.6 mph, tied for 5th in all of baseball with Fernando Tatis Jr.
  • Maximum Exit Velocity (maxEV) gives us the fastest batted ball for each player. Ohtani’s is tied for 2nd with Aaron Judge at 119 mph.
  • Barrel Percentage (Barrel %) calculates how often a batter hits a baseball with at least a speed of at least 98 mph with a certain launch angle. Ohtani has a number of 25.5%…no other player is even at 21%!
  • Hard Hit Rate (Hard Hit %) shows how many of a player’s batted balls left the bat with a velocity of at least 95 mph. Ohtani is 4th at 56.3%.
  • Expected Slugging Percentage (xSLG) takes the historical slugging percentage stat and updates it to eliminate the defensive skills of the opposing team. Ohtani’s number of .675 is the best in the game by over 30 points.
  • Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) is an extension of a statistic originally introduced by Bill James. The calculation is adjusted so that the major league average is 100. Ohtani is at 173, 2nd only to Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
  • Isolated Power (ISO) measures the raw power of a player by taking only extra-base hits into account. Ohtani’s number of .405 is 40 points ahead of 2nd place.

Are you impressed yet? How about some basic research?

  • He is one of three players with an OPS figure over 1.000.
  • He leads all of baseball with 33 Home Runs.
  • He’s second in RBI’s.
  • He’s also stolen 12 bases.
  • And, turning to our old friend “Wins Above Replacement” (WAR), he’s the best in the game at 5.5 (3.6 batting and 1.9 pitching).

The big picture is that we’re all having the opportunity to watch history being made by a generational talent.

Speculating On #1 Picks

With the convergence of multiple baseball card manufacturers and the Internet in the 90s’, many collectors turned into speculators when it came to top prospects. Major League Baseball’s Amateur Draft has taken place every June since 1965, but the attention on the players has intensified ten-fold during that time. If you were a baseball fan in 1966, you probably didn’t know that Steve Chilcott, a High School Catcher from Lancaster, California was the first overall pick in the country (by the Mets). And, even if you did, it wasn’t anticipated that he would have a baseball card until he (someday) reached the Majors. The end result was that he had a seven-year minor league career; never had a baseball card and the Mets could have had Reggie Jackson instead.

 Bryce Harper, the #1 pick in 2010, was the hottest card in the industry in 2011 and he’s proved his worth ever since with a career that includes a MVP award. The same phenomenon took place in 2009 with Stephen Strasburg but he ended up on the operating table before the 2011 season was over. And, he’s injured again in 2021.

With the 2021 Draft just completed, let’s look at the top picks over a 20 + year span and see how the hype turned out…

> 1997 – Matt Anderson, Tigers P…a tall pitcher with a triple digit fastball, he never had any real success at the major league level.

> 1998 – Pat Burrell, Phillies OF…got to the majors in 2000 and had a fairly productive career that included almost 300 HR’s, but never a star.

> 1999 – Josh Hamilton, Devil Rays OF…lost his way to drugs and personal issues and was actually out of baseball before resurrecting his career with the Reds in ’07…eventually established himself as a  star with the Rangers and won the AL MVP in 2010…however, the last few years of his career are remembered mostly for injuries.

> 2000 – Adrian Gonzalez, Marlins 1B…two teams gave up on him before he established himself with the Padres in ’06…signed a huge free agent contract with the Red Sox in 2011 and ended a 15-year career with four Gold Gloves and over 2,000 Hits.

> 2001 – Joe Mauer, Twins C…the face of the Twins franchise after his debut in ’04, he won three AL Batting Titles…despite 2000+ hits and the ’09 MVP, he was never really a superstar.

> 2002 – Bryan Bullington, Pirates P…an example of why the Pirates weren’t relevant for so many years…Zack Greinke went #6.

> 2003 – Delmon Young, Devil Rays OF…was a productive player for a few years including finishing 2nd in the ROY voting in 2007, but his career was over before he turned 30.

> 2004 – Matt Bush, Padres SS…a complete bust, he ended up in jail before resurrecting his career as a relief Pitcher with the Rangers…Justin Verlander was picked next in this draft.

> 2005 – Justin Upton, D’Backs OF…now on his 5th team, his 321 lifetime HR’s show the potential, but he’s good, not great…and inconsistent.

> 2006 – Luke Hochever, Royals P…out of baseball, his lifetime ERA in nine seasons was 4.98…Clayton Kershaw was available at #7.

> 2007 – David Price, Devil Rays P…with 154 career Wins, a Cy Young award and a $200+ Million contract, you’d think he’d be thought of as an elite SP but not to collectors or Fantasy players. This season, he’s making $32 Million to be a relief pitcher.

 > 2008 – Tim Beckham, Rays SS…didn’t have a decent major league season until 2017 at age 27…in 2021, he’s hitting .279 at AAA Charlotte…Buster Posey was the #6 pick.

> 2009 – Strasburg

> 2010 – Harper

> 2011 – Gerrit Cole, Pirates P…blossomed in Houston and then signed a gigantic deal with the Yankees…but can he pitch without sunscreen?

> 2012 – Carlos Correa, Astros SS…ROY in 2015 and he’ll be a free agent in ’22. However, he’s only been able to play over 110 games once in his career.

> 2013 – Mark Appel, Astros P…gave up the game for three years at age 26 after five minor league seasons…currently pitching at AAA for the Phillies…Kris Bryant was the next pick.

> 2014 – Brady Aiken, Astros P…didn’t sign with Houston and was drafted as the 17th player by the Indians in 2015…hasn’t pitched since 2019…it seems Aaron Nola at #7 would have been a better choice.

> 2015 – Dansby Swanson, D’Backs SS…essentially given away by the D’Backs to the Braves in a trade prior to the ’16 season, he’s been a decent player with a lifetime .247 BA…Alex Bregman was the #2 pick.

> 2016 – Mickey Moniak, Phillies OF…still trying to make it but he’s currently batting .213 at AAA.

> 2017 – Royce Lewis, Twins SS…still highly rated but he’ll miss all of 2021 with an injury.

> 2018 – Casey Mize, Tigers P…in the Bengals rotation this season and has 5 Wins with a 3.59 ERA.

> 2019 – Adley Rutschman, Orioles C…hitting .283 with 12 HR’s at AA.

> 2020 – Spencer Torkelson, Tigers 1B…at age 21, he’s smacked 12 HR’s with a .999 OPS at A+ / AA.

So, if you “invested” in the initial baseball cards of these 20 + players, what kind of success would you have realized? Harper & Correa would be blue chips while some others might still be in your portfolio. The sage advice is to collect, not speculate.

Putting In the Clutch Half-Way

The definition of “clutch” seems to be somewhat elusive for many people. The slang dictionary describes it as “the ability to deliver when peak performance is needed” and your imagination can take that beyond the realm of sports. The urban dictionary concurs by saying, “the ability to perform well on a certain activity at a particular moment, despite external pressures, influences or distractions.” Of course, the term also has a tendency to fit other circumstances such as, “you are really craving a beer…you go to the fridge and there’s one left…so clutch.”

For long-time baseball fans, clutch has always been linked with RBI’s. After all, don’t the leaders in that statistical category come through in the clutch? The answer, of course, is never that easy. The folks who study baseball statistics have known since the 70’s that raw stats can be misleading. Batting in runs is a very important factor in a player’s success but that outcome is influenced greatly by where he hits in the line-up, whether he has protection in that line-up and, more importantly, how many runners were on the base paths when he came to the plate. To this end, gives you the historical data to determine “RBI Percentage”. It is a result of a player’s (RBI – HR) / Runners On, or in simplistic terms, what percentage of base runners did a player drive in during the season. In 2020, the stat told us that Freddie Freeman & Jose Abreu (the two MVP’s) finished 3rd & 4th in all of baseball with marks over 22%.

So, as the mid-point of the season comes and goes, let’s look at the best (and worst) clutch hitters in the game. The statistical information is as of July 2nd and includes players who had at least 100+ runners on base when they came to the plate.

1) Eddie Rosario 22.7% – Cleveland gave him a cheap one-year deal and while his overall numbers aren’t great, he’s come through with 45 RBI’s.

2) Adam Duvall 22.2% – Another bargain free agent, his 56 RBI’s have been a big part of the Marlins offense.

3) Ramiel Tapia 21.9% – The Rockies lead-off hitter has very productive and he’s added 11 SB’s.

4) Ozzie Albies 21.7% – The Braves have a legitimate star in this 24 year-old. He’s leading the NL with 58 RBI’s.

5) Manny Machado 21.6% – Padre fans have forgotten about his mediocre 2019…and he’s still in his 20’s.

6) Shohei Ohtani 21.6% – You do realize that this is a generational player?

7) Yadier Molina 21.3% – The fountain of youth must be under the Gateway Arch.

8) Sean Murphy 20.7% – A Catcher with these offensive numbers is golden.

9) Rafael Devers 20.5% – This is a genuine star at the Hot Corner for the BoSox. He leads the AL in Doubles & RBI’s.

10) Taylor Ward 20.4% – A nice surprise for the Halos.

11) Matt Beaty 20.3% – Where do the Dodgers find these guys? Maybe we should ask Max Muncy.

12) Alex Kirilloff 20.2% – The next star in the Twin Cities.

Fernando Tatis Jr. shows up in the next level (19+ %) as do three Blue Jays in Bo Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Teoscar Hernandez.  When it comes to everyday players, the bottom of the barrel looks like this…

> Kevin Newman 6.3% – Hitting .207 overall

> Nick Ahmed 6.9% – The D’Backs have won 23 games.

> Brett Gardner & Victor Robles 7.0% – Bad performances include veterans and youngsters.

There are also some significant surprises on this year’s list…

> Bryce Harper 8.1% – His .881 OPS obviously doesn’t tell the entire story.

> Andrew Vaughn 8.6% – Possibly an over-hyped prospect?

> Jason Heyward 9.3% – He’s making $23M and has 15 RBI’s.

> Francisco Lindor 10.2% – A salary of $22M with a contract that goes until 2031!

For those of us from a certain generation, it would have been nice if Carlos Gonzalez was still playing and had made the list because it would have brought back memories of “Clutch Cargo”.

Staying Too Long

Branch Rickey has an esteemed place in the history of baseball and his quotes are intelligent and insightful. One of the most famous is a microcosm of his General Manager philosophy…”Trade a player a year too early rather than a year too late”. That may seem somewhat cold and heartless but the GM’s job is to win games, not make friends. Athletes in general and baseball players in particular, usually have to be dragged away from the game kicking and screaming. It is easy to say that the primary factor is money, but that would be much too simple an answer. In the days before free agency and guaranteed long-term contracts, players almost always played well past their prime and in numerous cases, embarrassed themselves and tarnished their reputations. The reasons are varied, but it comes down to just wanting to be a ballplayer. It is what they’ve always done and leaving the lifestyle is never easy. Very few players went out “on top” and many of those didn’t really do it voluntarily.

Some of the best final seasons that weren’t actually by choice include…

> Joe Jackson, 1920 White Sox – “Shoeless Joe” hit .382 with 121 RBI’s and led the AL in Triples with 20. For you stat geeks, his OPS was 1.033. Even at age 32, he was at an elite skill level before being banned from baseball due to his involvement with scandal of the 1919 World Series.

> Roberto Clemente, 1972 Pirates – At age 37, the Bucs legend still hit .312 and won a Gold Glove despite being limited to 102 games. It seems clear that he could have made a positive contribution for a few more years if not for the tragic plane crash on December 31st.

> Jackie Robinson, 1956 Dodgers – After 50+ years, the perception seems to be that this pioneer was washed up at age 37. A closer look, however, shows that his .275 BA with a .382 OBP included double digit HR’s & SB’s. Not bad for a player who also appeared at four different defensive positions during the season. The Dodgers did win the pennant and took the Yankees to seven games, so in retrospect, his retirement may have had more to do with being traded to the Giants after the season.

> Sandy Koufax, 1966 Dodgers – The premiere example of a player going out on top, this Hall of Fame Lefthander completed a season that included 27 Wins, 27 Complete Games, 323 IP, 317 K’s and a 1.73 ERA. Imagine what might have happened if more modern methods were available to fix his elbow. He was only 30 when he retired.

> Kirby Puckett, 1995 Twins – Another player impacted by injury, his final season at age 35 showed very little regression. The All-Star appearance was his 11th in a row and he hit .314 with 23 HR’s & 99 RBI’s.

> Lyman Bostock, 1978 Angels – Not really remembered by fans under the age of 40, this budding star was shot and killed at age 27 in September of ’78. He had just completed his first season with the Angels after hitting .323 & .336 for the Twins the previous two years. In 2,000 + major league AB’s, his BA was .311, but the prime of his career never materialized.

David Ortiz was an exception to the rule, as he had an excellent season (127 RBI’s) at age 40 before hanging it up. Many players have tried to accomplish this feat, but more often than not, the attempt was futile. Not everyone can be like Ortiz or Ted Williams, who after hitting .254 in an injury-plagued 1959 campaign, came back at age 42 to hit .316 with 29 HR’s in his final year. Hank Greenburg (25 HR’s & .884 OPS), Will Clark (.319 BA & .964 OPS) and Mike Mussina (20-9 with over 200 IP) also belong in this category.

This season’s baseball landscape has Jon Lester signing a free agent contract at age 37 despite the fact that he’s made over $198 Million in his career…he has one Win and a 4.99 ERA. Albert Pujols was released by the Angels and took a minimum deal with the Dodgers even though he’d make $30 Million to stay home…his BA is the same as last year at .224.

Too often, we painfully watch great players hang on to the dream as their performance deteriorates…

> Mickey Mantle – His last two seasons (’67 & ’68) produced batting averages of .245 & .237, which dropped his lifetime figure under .300. That statistic scarred him emotionally and he once said, “My biggest regret was letting my lifetime average drop below .300. I always felt I was a .300 hitter, and if I could change one thing that would be it.”

> Willie Mays – Hit .211 for the 1973 Mets.

> Hank Aaron – Played his final two seasons with the Brewers (’75 & ’76) compiling BA’s of .234 & .229.

> Pete Rose – Even the “Hit King” wasn’t immune, hitting .219 with the Reds in 1986.

> Duke Snider – His last two years (’63 & ’64), he hit .243 & .210.

> Steve Carlton – Pitching for a succession of teams in his 40’s, he had ERA’s of 5.10 & 5.74 in ’86 & ’87.

> Ernie Banks – Hit .193 in his age 40 season…he didn’t have the energy to “play two”.

> Reggie Jackson – Went back to Oakland at age 41…and hit .220.

> Harmon Killebrew – Played his final season in Kansas City as their DH and hit .199.

> Babe Ruth – Played 28 games for the Braves at age 40 and hit .181.

> Ken Griffey Jr. – Returned to Seattle for 33 games at age 40 and hit .184.

> Mike Schmidt – 42 games into his age 39 season, he walked away. He was hitting .203 with an OPS of under .700 for the first time in his career.

> Nap Lajoie – This legendary player had over 3,000 Hits and a .338 lifetime BA. In 1916 at age 41, he hit .246 with 35 RBI’s in over 400 AB’s.

> Trevor Hoffman – Went into his age 42 season needing just nine Saves to reach 600 for his career. It was an enormous struggle as he ended up with 10 Saves but a 5.89 ERA.

> Dave Winfield – The oldest player in the Majors at age 43, he hit .191 in 46 games before hanging up the cleats.

Of course, Billy Chapel pitched a perfect game to end his career…oh, wait that was a fictional story. Even on that magical night, Billy said, “I don’t know if I have anything left”.