Wednesday, September 29, 2010
As a teaser for a new feature I have coming up, I thought I'd offer a limited edition Victor Starffin card. If you ordered on the the Series 1 set, you have a card of Japan's greatest pitcher, but this is a whole new drawing, featuring the big Russian in his 1934 All-Japan team uniform. Although he didn't get more than 2 innings of playing time against the Major League All-Star Team that visited Japan that year, it was none-the-less Starffin's profession debut. Within two years he and Eiji Sawamura would be the mainstay of the Tokyo Giants pitching staff. To order a card, click on the aptly named button above "Victor Starffin Card".
Tuesday, September 21, 2010
This is the first of what I hope becomes a semi-regular "Guest Author" series of cards. I enjoy finding and researching my own ideas, but I thought it might be really interesting to collaborate on stories with authors and researchers who have a particular interest in a player or time period and would like to share it with a wider audience and give it a card of its own. I have already asked a few people to participate but if anyone else has an interest in writing a story, feel free to email me and maybe we can work it out...
This week's piece is by Scott Simkus, who along with Gary Ashwill is the proprietor of the outstanding "Outsider Baseball Bulletin" a weekly, subscription e-zine devoted to baseball history. Each issue features original research, statistics, personal essays, and humor. There are also be stories about baseball-related car crashes, sex scandals, home decorating and... murrrrder!! I highly recommend it if you enjoy the characters who I feature on my site. Scott and Gary have graciously offered a special free trial subscription to the readers of this site, information located at the bottom of Scott's story...
Hey! I know you're busy, but you gotta take a quick look at his. Here!
I had three grandfathers.
The gentleman featured on this baseball card is my mother's father. He'd be grandfather number *two,* if you're keeping score at home, and it's worth mentioning that I never knew him. In fact, my mother never knew him.
His name was Joseph Petrzilka, he was the son of Czech immigrants who lived on Chicago's south side, and although his name was Joseph, he was known by friends and family simply as "Pete." Pete was, by all accounts, a devoted husband, a good man. He aspired to be a great father. When my mother was born, Pete was attending night classes, working towards attaining his degree in accounting. He was, as far as I know, the first person in our family to attend college. This is back in the late 1930s.
He was also, by all accounts, an outstanding athlete. He ran track, excelled in gymnastics, won medals in A.A.U. competitions. We have an old photograph of him performing a perfect handstand, muscles tense as he balances atop a wooden ladder, in the back yard of some forgotten three-flat in a working-class neighborhood which no longer exists. We have fading pictures of him at the beach in Michigan, smiling in the sun, flexing his muscles, mugging for the camera. My grandmother, young- much younger than I am now- is present in many of these black and whites, smiling in the background, laughing at her future husband. Fawning over the future grandfather number two.
And we have pictures of him in baseball garb. Baseball! There he is, in the baggy woolen uniform, black leather shoes, tiny fielder's glove. He apparently batted right, threw right, played for a high school team or semi-pro outfit, or both. I have no idea what position he played, or whether or not he was any good at the game, or if he struggled with the curve ball or had trouble with pop ups, but I can tell by the smile on his face that he loved it in some way, that it meant something to him. But it was baseball for goodness sakes, and baseball means something to all of us, right?
As my grandmother neared the end of her pregnancy, Pete didn't feel right. He was run down, tired. He was working full-time as a bookkeeper during the day, taking advanced classes at night. Perhaps the pressure of burning the candles at both ends, a baby on way, supporting his wife: perhaps this stuff was getting to him. I'm guessing he might have thought this, and soldiered on through each week, until he couldn't take the pain any longer. He was young- twenty-six- and still in athletic condition, still in great shape.
About twenty-five years ago, a strange man showed up at my parent's front door, said he'd been a classmate of Pete's. He didn't give his name, but instead he handed over a crumpled, brown paper bag filled with text books and papers, said he wanted us to have them. They were science and math books, Pete's signature on the front, his hand-written notes and doodles covered the pages inside. Everything dated from 1930 or 1931. The strange man was in his car, driving away, before anybody thought to ask any questions.
Other pieces have Pete have drifted into our lives over the years. The baseball pictures were buried in an old box, and discovered later on. A journal with his meticulous, hand-written notes (detailed income calculations, shopping lists, goals, memories from his honeymoon trip to Kentucky with my grandmother) was discovered in my grandmother's basement, when she was being moved to assisted living fifteen years ago. Courtesy of the internet, I've discovered that Pete's younger brother (the uncle my mother never knew), had been a college quarterback and team captain, back during the early 1940s. I also learned, in the Chicago Tribune archives, that his other younger brother, Fred, died tragically at the age of 8, after falling into the Chicago River. Turns out, Pete was there, maybe ten years old at the time, playing with his little brother when the kid slipped in. They tried to save him, Pete and some friends from the neighborhood, but it was too deep, they were too late.
My mother was born in early October, the day after Gabby Hartnett hit his famous 'Homer in the Gloamin,' and six weeks later my grandfather Pete simply hit the wall. He couldn't take it anymore. The excitement of becoming a father couldn't temper the pressure of working everyday, studying every evening, and getting very little sleep at night and on the weekends. Around Thanksgiving time, he finally went to see the doctor about the pain and fatigue. They took some blood, did some tests, told him to enjoy his holiday and they'd get back to him the next week if anything was wrong.
There's a haunting photograph in the Chicago Tribune. My great-grandmother standing on a bridge under an umbrella, as she watches the police drag the water below, looking for Fred's body as the rain comes down. Little pieces of Pete's life, both happy and sad and indifferent, continue to find me. Although my attention is almost completely monopolized by my own family and my baseball writing career, little glimpses into Pete's vacations and athletics and academics keep poking me in the side, demanding my attention.
Hey! I know you're busy, but you gotta take a quick look at this. Here!
The first week of December, the doctor sits Pete down in his office and tells him he wishes he had better news. You're sick, he told him. I don't know of any better way to tell you this, to convey the gravity of the situation, other than you are very, very sick.
Doctor said he had something called leukemia, and although they didn't have a set course of action, they had some experimental things they could try. By this time, it was January of '39, and hospitals back then tried a lot of things which didn't work. After a couple weeks of medicines which had no positive effect, they finally tried a blood transfusion.
It was devastating to the family, but just six short weeks after the diagnosis, the young man who once performed handstands on a ladder in the backyard, the guy who won A.A.U. track medals and played baseball in the neighborhood, the father of a newborn daughter, passed away. He was in his mid-twenties.
My grandmother was twenty-two, a widow, and single mother of an infant daughter. My grandmother's name was Libbie.
Libbie and Pete were childhood sweethearts. They lived on the same street, next door, in fact, to one another. Pete was a couple years older, used to walk my grandmother to school, carry her books. My grandmother told me these things before she passed.
Their houses were small ("cottages" was the way my grandmother used to describe them), and situated so close to one another, Libbie and Pete could pass notes through their bedroom windows. That's how they got to know each other. That's how they fell in love.
Everybody who knows me realizes I lean toward the agnostic side of the fence. Sometimes, I'm in full-blown atheist mode. Other times: Catholic-agnostic. Most times: Not worrying about it one way or the other. Once we're gone, we're gone, and I'm perfectly okay with that. Makes me want to get up every morning and enjoy as much of this fleeting existence as humanly possible.
Of course, I don't believe those who've gone before us can communicate from the great, unknown beyond. I don't believe it for a second. But I have changed my position in at least one respect: with the advances in technology, the digitization of papers and shipping manifests and other documents; with the photographs and old home movies, with out expanded understanding of DNA, and with the treasure-laden fragments of stories which have been passed down…we're getting better.
Those who have gone before us can't speak to us, but we're getting better at reaching out to them.
Hey! I know you're busy, but you gotta take a quick look at this. Here!
Scott Simkus is the publisher of the Outsider Baseball Bulletin (www.outsiderbaseball.com), a weekly ezine devoted to baseball history. In 2009, he helped the Strat-O-Matic Game Company create their first Negro League set. His work as a baseball researcher has been been profiled in Sports Illustrated, The New York Times and the USA Today, among others.
Get a FREE 4 week trial subscription to the Outsider Baseball Bulletin (where they can see more of my illustration work). No obligation to subscribe, all you have to do is email Scott at firstname.lastname@example.org and put GARY in the subject line and PRESTO you'll get four weeks of free issues to check out.
Thursday, September 9, 2010
My Father died one year ago this week. In some ways it seems like a million years since he passed and yet at the same time I still reach for the phone to call him several times a week as if it never happened. I'm not going to go on about The Old Man dying, but in honor of his passing, I give you a card of his all-time favorite player, Warren Spahn.
When I was a kid, I was a Mets fan. I suppose I still follow them. It was pre-destined that I wind up that way. See, my Father's Father was a die-hard Brooklyn fan and having a Cieradkowski being a fan of the Yankees was just not going to happen. So all I had was the Mets. This was the 1970's- Not the giddy, pennant winning Mets of the early 1970's, but the stinky, bottom-of-the-barrel Metropolitans of the late 1970's. Because the Mets stunk so bad, talking about them just wound up turning into angry complaining sessions, so out of a lack of quality Mets topics to discuss, baseball talks with my Dad often turned into question and answer sessions with me asking The Old Man about baseball when he was my age, kindling my interest in baseball history.
The best baseball talk I remember having with my Pop happened one muggy Saturday afternoon. The two of us had just got home after working a half-day in the factory. My Dad was a garment cutter and on Saturdays I swept floors, made boxes and did other menial and filthy things to have spending money and to teach me the meaning of a good day's worth of work. Plus I was convinced Pop lived to bust my balls and what better way than to make your kid work in a garment industry sweat shop. Anyway, I was about 12 and we're sitting in the kitchen and The Old Man was working on his first beer of the afternoon. Growing up in Passaic, N.J. and being the son of the biggest Brooklyn fan in the tri-state area, I always figured Pop would have been a Dodger fan, but I was wrong. Pop was a Braves fan! "How the hell did that happen?" I asked incredulously. Ignoring the swear word (a luxury he allowed me and my brother when Mom wasn't around) he uttered one phrase: "1957. Grab me another beer".
I was intrigued. I never met anyone who liked a team other than the Mets or Yankees, or if they were older, maybe the Giants or Dodgers. But the Braves? My Father told me that back in 1957, everyone knew the Dodgers were skipping town. He was 8 that year and was fishing around for a new team. Remember, the Yanks didn't factor into this choice and the Mets were just a nightmare in Casey Stengel's dreams. So the World Series rolls around and in '57 it was a fairly tight race. Both Brooklyn and St. Louis made a good run for the pennant but it was Milwaukee behind the pitching of Warren Spahn and Lew Burdette that carried the Braves to the finish line. They'd been pretty competitive in the years prior with guys like Adcock, Aaron and Mathews but Brooklyn and New York always seemed to have the edge over them. On the other side that year waiting to take them on lie the New York Yankees. They won the World Series 5 times already that decade and they were heavily favored to win again. But it wasn't meant to be. Lew Burdette beat the Yanks 3 times and Warren Spahn won another to give them the Series win and a young Polish kid in Passaic, N.J. had a new favorite team.
Yeah, I know it might seem strange that a boy would choose his favorite ballclub based on the fact they defeated another team. But hell, this was the Cieradkowski's and we just didn't do things the right way. See, my family's hatred of the Yankees was an artform all its own. It was a seething, horrible hate that was carefully passed down from generation to generation, the seed of which festered and grew in each of us as we aged, manifesting itself in different and terrible ways. I'll pass on telling about how I deal with my distaste for the other New York team, but I'll tell you this about my Dad: he would watch every Yankee game year after year just on the off-chance they would lose. Yeah, that's right. Instead of having a beer, enjoying a Braves game and watching a team and players he liked, the Old Man would sit and simmer in front the tv watching the Yankees play their sterile, winning games, all the while listening to whatever annoying announcer they had at the time blather on about Yankee Glory. That was my Dad. Hell, ask him who his favorite football team was and he'd say the Philadelphia Eagles. I don't think he ever even stepped foot in Philly his whole life, but he loved those Eagles. Why? Well, in 1960 the Eagles defeated the dreaded New York Football Giants in the season championship. Yeah, in my family the Football Giants warrented the same hatred as the Yankees. (My Grandfather's favorite team was the old Cleveland Browns. Why? He saw them defeat the Giants sometime long ago and he never forgot that).
So anyway, back to the Milwaukee Braves and Warren Spahn. As the sun set that day and The Old Man worked through a double sixer of cheap beer, the baseball stories poured forth. Up to that point, my father and I were never particularly close. I was a loner then and like him not very talkative. But that humid day we found a connection for the first time. He told me about how he and his cousin Glen would write away to all the Major League teams asking for free stuff and how Milwaukee sent them the biggest package with all kinds of stickers and pennants. Told me about how all he wanted for his birthday one year was a baseball mitt and when he opened his present that year, there was a mitt, but it was a second hand split finger model, not the modern pocket ones everybody else in the neighborhood had. But mostly he talked about Warren Spahn. I had never heard of him before. Pop reeled off numbers that seem astronomical to a Mets fan like myself. 21 wins and 11 losses in 1957. 22-11 in '58. 21-15 in '59. The stats went on. I got dizzy, I was lucky if one of my guys on the Mets could put up a winning record let alone win 20 or more games 13 times in a career. Told me how he was a bona-fide war hero, getting a battlefield commission and Silver Star during the Battle Of The Bulge. Pop talked about listening to Spahn pitch on the radio and then finally seeing him pitch against the Mets in '62 and '63 at the old Polo Grounds. How he threw a no-hitter against the Phillies at age 39 and then another against the Giants at age 40. He told me how Spahn wore number 21 and that it became his number whenever the need for one arose. Told me about the stately indian brave's head that the team wore on their sleeves and how they changed it later to a cool screaming brave. He went on about how stunning the dark blue and bright red uniforms looked on television and in real life when you watched them from the bleachers. That how as an artist I of all people could appreciate that. How the tomahawk was such a cool logo when he was kid and how he'd try to draw it over and over again. He told me how Spahn would throw his arms back behind him and swing them forward like some graceful machine to begin his delivery. How he would kick his leg high into the air, higher than anyone could think was possible. "Spahn finished all his games, too" he said and a quick check with the record book shows this to be true, he led the National League in complete games 9 times in his career. And he told me how he watched first hand as his hero Warren Spahn finished up his career playing for the '65 Mets, going 4-12 with them, only the second time in 21 years that he recorded more losses than wins in a season.
So, as the sun set that day in New Jersey, I had found a common ground with my Dad that lasted the rest of his life, growing more and more as we both aged. Through each season, every time we talked or got together in person, there was always baseball. And through it all, I secretly adapted Warren Spahn as my good luck charm. Whenever I played ball, I wore the cherished number 21 on my back. A colored pencil drawing I did in high school of Warren Spahn going through his wind up won a major award, was featured in a calendar and started me on my way to a career in art. Years later we both liked to team up and play roulette in Atlantic City and ol' 21 red became the lucky bet for us. And in 1998 when I got to meet Spahn over a few drinks in a hotel bar, I couldn't wait to tell The Old Man about it, how his old idol was really a pretty damn good guy in person. I could hear the relief in his voice all the way on my end of the country.
So anyway, this entry is dedicated to my Father, Gary Joseph Cieradkowski and his boyhood hero, Warren Edward Spahn.
Tuesday, September 7, 2010
I 'm doing something a little different for this post. Instead of focusing on one player I decided to feature 2 players and the story that binds the two of them together.
When I was first researching negro league baseball back in the early 1980's, the first great solid piece of work I stumbled upon was Robert Peterson's "Only The Ball Was White". Published in the early 1970's it was the groundbreaking work that laid the foundation for all the subsequent books and research on black baseball. Although riddled with inaccuracies (through no fault of his own, he was the first for God's sake!) Peterson's book shines a light on the dark and hidden world of early black ball. The stories in it ware fascinating to me, almost like ancient legends from another time and place. These were men who were playing the most popular sport in the country in front of millions of fans, yet no one ever heard of them. They were existing in a parallel universe and Peterson's book still gives me that feeling of mystery and danger when I think back on reading it so long ago. It was through his book that many of us were first introduced to two of the greatest infielders of the 20th century, Frank "The Weasel" Warfield and Oliver "The Ghost" Marcelle and the story that links them together forever in baseball lore.
By 1929 Frank Warfield and Oliver Marcelle were both stars and veteran infielders for the champion Baltimore Black Sox. So talented were they that along with teammates Jud Wilson at first base and Dick Lundy at shortstop they were called the "Million Dollar Infield". Warfield and Marcelle had been teammates before, playing together on the Detroit Stars. The Black Sox, always a strong team but never able to pull it together and win the championship, did just that in 1929, winning the Negro American League Pennant under Warfield's management. Warfield hit a mediocre .221 but it was his managerial experience and superb fielding that made the difference for Baltimore. His style of leadership has been described as rough and abrasive and he was often engaged in arguing and baiting umpires and berating his own players right on the field in front of everyone watching. He was quiet and brooding, flashed big wads of cash and was quick with a knife. Unpopular and sarcastic, his fellow teammates dubbed him "The Weasel".
Oliver Marcelle was the best third baseman of the 1920's. His ability to play deep and seemingly to appear at the right spot out of nowhere earned him the nickname "The Ghost". Marcelle was a good looking Creole from Louisiana and the vainest man in the league. He also had one of the nastiest dispositions in the negro leagues and the chronicle of black baseball is littered with stories of his battles. He was a stone-cold street fighter and would use anything to gain the upper hand in a fight. Already nasty, he was only worse when under the influence of alcohol. Once while fighting Oscar Charleston (himself a legendary brawler who had once ripped the hood from a Klansman who was threatening him) he hit the much larger Charleston over the head with a bat. He fought with opposing players, umpires and his own teammates.
After the successful 1929 season, Marcelle and Warfield headed south to Cuba for winter baseball. Back before the Second World War, Cuba's winter league attracted the best players of all colors who were eager to supplement their regular salary with some post-season employment. Only the best players were asked to play and being part of the "Million Dollar Infield" guaranteed an invitation for Warfield and Marcelle. The Weasel went with the Santa Clara Club and The Ghost to Almendares. It was playing in Cuba during that winter of 1929-30 that the incident occurred that bound those two volatile players together forever in baseball history.
It started with a dice game. Warfield and Marcelle were in a group shooting craps at a hotel in Santa Clara and Warfield was riding a winning streak. For every winning throw of the dice The Weasel threw, The Ghost crapped out finally coming up broke. Marcelle asked Warfield for five bucks to continue to play. The Ghost said it was owed to him by the Black Sox from the previous season in Baltimore. The Weasel refused. Things started getting nasty. Both men were not adverse to violence. It got out of hand quickly. Marcelle challenged Warfield to fight and slugged him in the mouth. It was on. The fight was so brutal that it was only ended after Warfield had managed to bite off a piece of Marcelle's nose. That's right, he bit off the part that covered the nostril on one side of Marcelle's nose.
Marcelle was taken to the hospital were he pressed charges against his former manager. Warfield cooled his heals in a Cuban jail for a few days while a minor international incident swirled around the fight. Eventually charges were dismissed and he was quietly released because both men were American citizens and Cuban officials probably just wanted to rid themselves of two nasty and violent men.
Now remember, Marcelle was one the vainest men to step on a ballfield. Losing a big ol' chunk of his proboscis in the days before plastic surgery must have been a crushing blow. He took to wearing a black eye patch over his nose to cover the hole. The once sarcastic and cruel player was now on the receiving end of what must have been an endless cycle of jokes from his opponents on the ballfield and the fans in the bleachers. It got to be so bad that Marcelle left organized ball and drifted out west where he was not known, playing semi-pro ball in dusty frontier towns along the way. He settled in Denver as a house painter and was instrumental in getting the Kansas City Monarchs an invitation to play in the Denver Post Tournament in 1934. The Monarchs promptly won the tourney and the white sports world was introduced to their pitching star, Satchel Paige. But The Ghost continued to drink, his addiction getting so out of hand that his family left him and he died alone and broke at age 51. No one in his neighborhood knew he was once a great ballplayer. they just remembered the guy with the nose patch.
Warfield, the victor in the fight, went back to Baltimore and resumed managing the Black Sox. His playing days were drawing to a close but he was coming into his own as a successful manager. In 1932 he took up the reigns of the Washington Pilots and while in Pittsburgh that July he died under shady circumstances. Warfield, always the ladies man, was with a woman that July night when he was rushed to the hospital bleeding. Internal hemorrhaging led to a heart attack and death. He was 37.