Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you

Today (July 7) is Satchel Paige‘s birthday. It’s a day to honor a man who I wish I had known more about in my youth.

I’ve written before, going all the way back to the first thing I ever put in this space, about the Springfield Redbirds, who were once the triple-A affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals. When they began playing in my hometown of  Springfield, Illinois in 1978, I was not quite ten years old.

Over the course of the next four seasons, a very high-quality baseball game could regularly be found in the summertime, about 20 minutes away from my house. I didn’t fully appreciate this quite yet, but over time it has come to mean a great deal. Baseball matters to me in a way that no other sport ever has, or ever will. I can only conclude that the Redbirds played a role in this process.

In 1980, the third year that the Redbirds were in town, and the year they won the championship of the American Association, they hired Satchel Paige in the figurehead role of Vice President. By that time he was a Hall of Famer, the highest honor that the majors could bestow on him.

But Paige was also a living legend, having pitched–by his own recordkeeping–for 250 teams, in 2,500 ball games. He claimed to have won 2,000 games, and pitched anywhere from 20 to 100 no-hitters. The barnstorming nature of teams in the pre-integration era didn’t provide accurate records, so the actual numbers probably depended on what mood he was in on any given day. But no one doubts that he was a dominant pitcher, and perhaps the greatest one who ever threw to a hitter from a pitcher’s mound.

I remember going to a game once in 1980 and asking him if he would sign a program for me. He obliged this request, and I kept it with my things at home. It was a special thing to me, but I must admit that, as the years went by and that program somehow vanished. And so it goes.

Satchel Paige made his first big-league appearance at the age of 42, well beyond the age of most productive players. And his final appearance came in 1965, just a few years before I was born. He pitched three shutout innings for the Kansas City A’s, at the age of 59. It’s a record that will probably never be broken.

Satchel Paige died in Kansas City in 1982. His Springfield job was the last stop in a professional baseball career that spanned across seven decades. He’s known as perhaps the greatest player, in the most important position, in the best sport that I’ve ever known. I’m happy to have crossed paths, no matter how briefly, with such an important figure in the game’s history. I wish I had held on to that program, though.


Mets from A to Z

One of the things that keeps me connected to baseball is collecting baseball cards. It started for me in the mid 1970s, went into hiatus in the early to mid 1980s, and laid dormant until the summer of 2001. A distribution of Topps cards reprints at a couple of games I went to at Wrigley Field that summer brought back old memories, and I began picking up a few cards here and there on Ebay and at flea markets over the next decade or so.

My team has always been the Chicago Cubs, but as a byproduct of acquiring Cubs cards over the years, I have stacks of cards from all of the other teams in the majors, as well. The tallest stack has usually been the New York Mets, and in my limited attempts at online trading, I haven’t found a Mets fan who wants to send me a pile of Cubs cards, in return for the Mets cards I have. So I wanted to sort through them and see what turned up.

I found that I was nearly able to find one player for each letter of the alphabet (the only exceptions being the letters I, Q, and X). I wanted to have some fun with this, and offer something for any Mets fans and/or card collectors who might read this, so here’s my plan:

For each letter of the alphabet (except for the three above), I selected ONE card for a Mets player with a last name beginning with that letter. If you want to send me a list of who those 23 players might be, and you get more letters right than anyone else who sends me a guess, I’ll send you the whole stack (that is, after I scan one or two and tell a story about them). Send your guesses  to me at before the end of the year, and I’ll announce the winner early in 2012. If you send me multiples from the same email address, I’m only going to look at the first one. So make it count the first time.

A couple of things to add here:

The oldest of the cards dates from 1981, and the most recent one dates from 2011. So it’s a span of three decades we’re talking about.

Just a last name is fine for each letter, but for the letter “H” I will need to get a first initial, too.

Some of the cards are for star players, but by no means is every one a star player.

In the extremely unlikely event of a tie, whoever gets the nearest letter to the front of the alphabet correct will win. In the event of a tie after that, the winner with the longest email address will win.

And if you’re a Mets fan who wants to send some Cubs cards my way, I’ll be happy to send the non-contest cards your way in a trade. Or if there’s another team you want instead, let me know what it is and we can work something out. But please know that the “book value” for these things is meaningless to me. These are little rectangles with pictures and words on them, and nothing more.

Thanks, and happy Mets-guessing!

Party like it’s 1986

The 1985 Bears are having a pretty good season. The 2011 Bears? Not so much.

After the Bears won the Super Bowl in 1986, they were going to the White House to meet with President Ronald Reagan when the space shuttle Challenger exploded after liftoff in Florida. I still remember finding out about it in the lunchroom of the high school I attended, and then passing the news along to my younger brother in the hallway that day (“Dude, the space shuttle exploded” was how I put it, I believe). It was one of those “remember what you were doing when you heard the news” moments.

The Bears’ trip to the White House was cancelled, and the Bears–who were unique in so many ways–remained the only team that won the Super Bowl but did not visit the White House. And the first president to actually come from Chicago rectified this earlier this month. Walter Payton wasn’t alive to see it, Dan Hampton chose not to attend, and the Fridge has all kinds of medical issues going on, so not all of the team was able to be there. And the Bears aren’t unique anymore, at least not in this sense.

I wrote a piece about the 1985 Bears, where I argued that maybe they have passed their period of relevance, and it’s time to let them go as these larger than life heroes in Chicago. The sad ending of Dave Duerson, who killed himself earlier this year by shooting himself in the chest, is just one example of the trouble that a lifetime of head injuries can cause. They lived life at the highest level, these players did, and life might now be waiting to extract some revenge.

I’ve written about a recent rummage sale I went to here. But the most interesting thing I acquired there is a Chicago Tribune from the morning after the Bears won the Super Bowl in 1986. It’s not a reprint, and it’s not one of those “special commemorative edition” papers that always seem to come out nowadays. This was just the paper you would expect to find on your front porch way back in 1986. All of the sections are there, and the paper has yellowed some but is otherwise intact. It’s about has close to a historical artifact as you can get, at least in terms of Chicago sports.

Some people–maybe even most–would see this as an item that could be sold on eBay. After all, they aren’t making any more of these things. Back when people still subscribed to newspapers, saving a paper when something big happened was a way of remembering that day’s events. There was no internet back then, and it would have sounded weird if someone from today’s world went back to explain it to them.

Somebody who was around back in 1986 realized that the Super Bowl was a big deal, so they saved the paper from that day. And now, a quarter of a century later, it’s in my hands. I’d like to flip through it and read about some of the stories that were making news in the city I would one day call home.

I’m certain that life has changed a lot in Chicago since 1986, just as it has everywhere else. And this might be my chance to understand just what those changes are. But there are also a lot of fanatical Bears fans out there, especially when it comes to the only Super Bowl winner this city has seen. Perhaps selling it for ten bucks–or whatever it might actually bring–would be a good return on a $3 investment at a rummage sale.

It seems clear that whatever I decide to do with it will say something about my values as a person. A 1986 Chicago newspaper, especially this one, could be like Niagra Falls, powering the creation of lots of new material for this blog. It isn’t like too many other 1986 papers are out there, after all. But money is money, and the scarcity of similar items like this shouldn’t be ignored.

I’ll be content to leave it on a shelf in my basement for now. And if it leaves that shelf, one way or the other, this will be the first place to know about it.

One million dollars. For a baseball.

I saw this story online today and felt like Mr. Hand when Spicoli had a pizza delivered to his classroom in Fast Times at Ridgemont High: Am I hallucinating?

The story of Bill Buckner and the ground ball that went through his legs has been played again and again in the 25 years since it happened, most recently on the ESPN documentary Catching Hell. The almost inconceivable Red Sox collapse of 1986 was brought into our homes, the night before an even more inconceivable Red Sox collapse in Baltimore. Nobody has linked the two together yet, but it is kind of odd, isn’t it?

But the ball that got through Buckner’s legs became a collector’s item, much the same way that Carlton Fisk’s home run in the 1975 World Series did, when George Foster picked it up and held onto it. The ball has changed hands a couple of times since then, being purchased first by Charlie Sheen and his tiger blood, and then by Seth Swirsky, who apparently is a songwriter and a baseball memorabilia collector.

Swirsky paid $64,000 for the ball in better economic times than this, and he’s hoping to turn a tidy profit on its sale on eBay later this month. He seems to believe that there is a soul out there with a million dollars burning a hole in his pocket. I sure hope he isn’t right about that.

The ball is irreplaceable, and probably one of the best conversation starters you could have for a Red Sox fan. But having said that, the suggestion that this ball could bring a million dollars at auction is crazier than anything I’ve heard in quite some time. Think of all the good you could do with a million dollars, with people losing their homes and dreams and hope. You couldn’t help everyone, or even make any meaningful dent in the problem. But to choose owning a baseball over that? I don’t get that one at all.

I’m hoping for a five digit sales figure for the “Buckner ball,” not the seven-figure bonanza that Seth Swirsky seems to want. And I’d be curious to know who has the kind of cash laying around to pay such an exorbitant price. By the end of the month we’ll probably know what happened, and whether the owner of the ball wants to be publicly identified or not. I’m going to advise whoever gets the ball to keep a low profile for awhile, or at least send a few dollars my way.