Solving an old mystery

A friend of my wife’s has a young son who just began collecting baseball cards.  I brought a big box of cards, mostly doubles of Cubs cards I already had, along on a weekend outing last fall, and told him could take whatever he wanted to add to his collection. But he insisted on trading cards with me, which is how I would have done it when I was a kid. Most of his cards were from the 2011 Topps base set, and I paged through his binder full of cards, looking for something that caught my eye.

The binder was a tipoff to how card collecting has changed since I was a kid in the late 1970s. My cards were kept in a blue plastic box, with a flap that folded down to close it up. I’m not sure how I got it, but it somehow became the home of my baseball card collection.

These things didn’t have any monetary value back then, they were just fun to have. The All-Star cards were the ones I wanted most, like every kid did, because we all wanted to be Mike Schmidt or Jim Palmer or Reggie Jackson. There were lots of role players, and they all had cards too, but getting one of those cards was never any big deal. Superstars and utility infielders all shared space inside my blue box, though.

Keeping my cards inside of a binder, with plastic sheets specifically designed to protect their condition, is something I wouldn’t have ever considered. Likewise, the idea of keeping cards all jumbled together, willy-nilly, inside of a plastic box wouldn’t occur to him, either. One storage system isn’t any better than the other, of course, but they do reflect differing views about these cards.

The card I found, which is shown above, isn’t an original 1977 card, but a reprint of that card for an “insert”  for the Topps base set. There were special cards (Father and Son Big Leaguers, Record Breakers from the previous season, etc.) when I was a kid, but these were all integrated into the larger set of cards. Somewhere along the way, some special cards were pulled out from the larger set, numbered differently from the base set, and are now thought to be more desireable than a base card of a player. Another new wrinkle since I was a kid.

The insert card I found was of Don Sutton, who was a pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers back in the 1970s. I saw Sutton pitch in a game in Busch Stadium when I was ten years old, but I never really knew what happened in that game. I remember that he left the game in the middle of an inning, without any explanation being offered to the fans, and that was it. The game just carried on, with another Dodger pitcher in his place. It just felt very weird at the time.

I wanted the Sutton card, though, and the trade was made. Trading baseball cards with a nine-year old felt a little strange, but many kids his age don’t seem to have an interest in baseball today, unless they’re playing a video game version of it.  So maybe I was just perpetuating the real thing, on some level.

I took the Sutton card home with me, and took to the internet for some research. It turns out that Sutton was ejected from the game for scuffing a baseball, and was suspended for ten games as a result. When Sutton threatened litigation against the League (this was back when the National and American Leagues were separate entities, unlike today), they backed off and Sutton was reinstated. The nickname “Black and Decker” followed him around throughout his career, as players assumed he had his toolbelt on whenever he took the mound.

I realized that this had happened in the pre-ESPN era, when the only way to get information like this was through reading a newspaper or perhaps Sports Illustrated. Sutton’s transgression was thus easier to bury than it would be today, and he was then able to have a Hall of Fame career without any real damage to his reputation, as least as far as I knew about.

In doing this research, I learned something else on the internet about Don Sutton that I didn’t know before. Sutton was apparently bothered by Steve Garvey’s All-American image, and made some comments to a newspaper along these lines. Garvey then confronted Sutton about it, and the two began wrestling around in the clubhouse. From a Cubs fan who hates what Steve Garvey did to us in the 1984 playoffs, I offer you a hearty bravo, Don Sutton.

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