Tuesday, December 29, 2009

#15 Johnny Vander Meer

Johnny Vander Meer enjoyed a 13 year career in the major leagues, winning 119 games, but he is best known for a feat most likely to never be repeated.

Born the son of a Dutch-born stone mason in 1914 in New Jersey, Vander Meer signed with the Dodgers in 1932. He wound up in the Reds' farm system, playing with Durham in the Piedmont league. In 1936, he was the league's pitcher of the year, going 19-5. He joined the Reds in April of 1937. On June 11, 1938, against the Boston Braves, he threw a no-hitter (with legendary hurler Cy Young in attendance). Four days later, Vander Meer took the mound again, at the first night game at Ebbetts Field in Brooklyn. Vander Meer walked eight batters, but once again did not allow a hit, becoming the first and only pitcher to throw two-consecutive no-hit game. In his next start, Vander Meer went into the fourth before Debs Garms singled, ending Johnny's bid for a third-stright no hitter. The 23-year old hurler went on to win 15 games that year, and stayed with the Reds through 1949 (excepting two years in the U.S. Navy).

Notoriously wild, he also brought a lot of heat and was regularly in the league leaders for strikeouts, leading the National League three times. Former teammate Billy Werber described the straight-laced Vander Meer as being frequently at odds with teammates, in large part to his reluctance to give his teammates any credit for aiding him in his no-hitters. After He was released from the Indians in 1951, Vander Meer signed with Tulsa in the Texas league, where at the age of 37, he threw another no-hitter, this time against Beaumont.

After his pitching days ended, Vander Meer managed in Savannah for a few years, even opening up his home to rookie players to make sure they didn't fall in with the wrong crowd. He died in 1997 of an abdominal anneurysm at the age of 82.

The Autograph: I remember the day I got this card signed through the mail from Vander Meer. It was the type of player I liked the most, the type who through one event would be immortalized forever. It is amazing to me how great players like Jimmie Foxx and Mel Ott are virtually forgotten today, but players like Vander Meer (with his double no-hitters) or Bill Wambsganss (unassisted triple play in the 1920 World Series) are much more well-known and remembered, despite unimpressive careers.

There is a great recollection on-line of a fan meeting Johnny Vander Meer when Vander Meer was 81.

Vander Meer and fan Robert Skead in 1996

Monday, December 21, 2009

#14 Fred Fitzsimmons

Fred Fitzsimmons was born the son of a police chief in Mishawaka, Indiana, in 1901. A semi-pro player in his on right, Pop Fitzsimmons passed his love for the game onto young Freddie. Fred learned the knuckleball at age 15, and quickly mastered the pitch. He signed with Muskegon in 1920, and from there went to Indianapolis for four years. He signed with the New York Giants in 1925, and along with Carl Hubbell formed a formidable 1-2 pitching punch for John McGraw. He won 20 games in 1928 and 19 in 1930. During the 1937 season, Fitzsimmons was dealt to Brooklyn, and stayed with the Dodgers through 1943, finally retiring at 41. In 1940, at 38 years of age, he went 16-2 in 18 starts. He finished his career with 217 wins and a .598 winning percentage.

After leaving the Brooklyn Dodgers, the baseball team, he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, the football team, as general manager. He returned to baseball in 1948 as a coach for the Braves, then bouncing around the league as a coach before quitting the major leagues for good in 1966. He helped out coaching a local high school team for a few years after that.

Fitzsimmons died in 1979 of a heart attack at his home in Yucca Valley, California.

The Autograph: I had to buy this one. He died the year after the set came out, and I wasn't involved in collecting then.

Fitzsimmons rasslin' with Pee Wee Reese in Cuba, 1942

Sunday, December 20, 2009

#13 Wally Moses

Wally Moses was an outfielder who came up with the Philadelphia Athletics in 1935, and embarked on a successful 17-year career that saw him amass totals of over 2100 hits and a lifetime .291 average.

Born and raised in Uvalda, Georgia, Moses first caught the eye of Ty Cobb in 1930 when Cobb officiated a sandlot game where Moses was playing, which lead to him signing with the Augusta ballclub in 1931. New York Giants manager John McGraw saw Moses' name, and sent a scout to sign the player. McGraw wanted a Jewish player in New York to attract the growing Jewish population in the city. When Moses informed the scout that he was not Jewish, the scout left without signing him. Moses bounced around southern leagues until Connie Mack signed him in late 1934. He made immediate impact with the Athletics, batting .325 in 1935 and .345 in '36. After seven years in Philadlephia in which he hit .300 each season, and was sent to the White Sox. Over the remaining ten years of his career, he never batted .300 again. He went to the Red Sox in 1946, and after 3 years there, returned to Philly to finish out his career.

After his playing days ended, Moses was a coach for 16, including stops with both Philly teams, Detroit and Cincinnati. He also was a scout and a roving hitting instructor.

After his days with baseball ended, Moses spent his time delving into many activites. He enjoyed hunting, and was a hard-core card player. His habit of smoking two packs a day that started in his teens took a toll, and even though he finally quit in 1978, it was too late. He had developed health problems, losing a lung to cancer and also diagnosed with emphysema. His health slowly deteriorated until October 11, 1990, when he died of a stroke just two days after his 81st birthday.

If you look at Moses' career, some parts are quite an anomaly. In 1937, he hit 25 home runs. He never hit 10 in any other season. In 1943, he stole 56 bases. That was 35 higher than any other season he had.

The Autograph: I am kind of surprised how few Wally Moses autographs there are out there. I found him to be very receptive, at least to my letters. Maybe I caught him on a good day.

Monday, December 14, 2009

#12 Zeke Bonura

Henry John "Zeke" Bonura had a short but effective career in the American League from 1934-1940. Born and raised in New Orleans, Bonura was a natural athlete, and a skilled javelin thrower. After attending Loyola University in New Orleans, he went on to play first base for the Chicago White Sox. He batted .302 with 110 RBI in his rookie year of 1934, and in four years in Chicago he batted .317 with 79 home runs. He was traded to the Senators for Joe Kuhel in 1938, and his average fell to .289, although he still hit 21 home runs. He was sent to the New York Giants for 1939, and played with the Senators and Cubs in 1940 before his major league career ended.

Despite his athleticism, Bonura was a horrible fielder. He was enthusiatic and energetic, but when the ball was on the way to him, the real adventure began. One time, with the bases loaded, the batter hit a slow dribbler towards Bonura. Bonura charged in, but couldn't come up with the ball, it squirted out of his glove, and he bobbled it. He accidently kicked it, and it rolled out of his reach. By the time he picked it up, the batter was on his way to third and all runners had scored. Bonura threw, and the ball wound up in the dugout, allowing the batter to score as well. Not to be beaten, Bonura shouted encouragement to the pitcher: "Stick in there, kid!"

Nicknamed "Bananas," when Bonura was traded from White Sox to the Senators, he drove to Washington from Chicago via New Orleans because it was the only way he knew to get there.

After his playing days, he served in the military during World War 2. He also managed for a few years in the minor leagues. Bonura died in 1987 at the age of 78.

The Autograph: I did not know much about Bonura when I originally wrote him. I learned a lot more after his passing, which is unfortunate because I would have had a lot of questions to ask. A colorful man, to say the least. His autograph is in abundance, and not hard to find for 5 dollars or so.

Friday, December 11, 2009

#11 Stan Hack

Stan Hack was a third basemen for the Cubs from 1932 to 1947. Known for his engaging smile as much as his athletic ability, the four-time All-Star was a stellar player, batting .301 over his career. He played in four World Series for the Cubs, batting .348 in 18 games. Hack was an excellent lead-off hitter, twice leading the Senior Circuit in stolen bases and hits. Defensively, he was the best in the game, reminding many of the legenday Pie Traynor, whose career was in the twilight as Hack was coming up. Upon his retirement at age 37, Hack was one of the most popular players to ever wear a Cubs uniform, both to fans as well as fellow ballplayers.
After his playing days, Hack managed in the minor leagues until he was hired to manage the Cubs for three unsuccessful years (1954-56). After a brief stint at the helm of the Cardinals, he returned to the minors to manage until 1966. He wound up managing a restaurant in Grand Detour, Illinois, until his death in 1979, just 9 days after his 70th birthday.

Stan Hack has one of those really cool names that sounds like a 60's western star. It just sounds as sharp as the line drives he hit. It is not out of the realm of possibility for Hack to be elected to the Hall of Fame one day. His exclusion is not surprising, but his election should not be surprising, either. Third basemen are under-represented in the Hall, and Hack really had no equal during his time. At the time of his retirement, he may have been the second-best third baseman in baseball history. However, his candidacy takes a hit given the impact of third sackers who came after him (Eddie Mathews, Mike Schmidt, Brooks Robinson, George Brett) that are in Cooperstown.

The Autograph: Hack autographs are not too common, but can be found regularly. This particular card is fairly rare to find signed by Hack, and commands a higher price in auctions.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

#10 Guy Bush

Known as the "Mississippi Mudcat," Guy Bush came from Aberdeen, Mississippi and signed with the Cubs in 1919, and finally made his debut with the club in 1923. He wound up pitching for the Cubs for 12 years, winning 152 games with a .601 winning percentage. During his peak years from 1928-1934, he went 121-64. He bounced around in his last few years, and after returning to pitch during World War 2, he retired after the 1945 season at the age of 44. He won 176 games over his entire career, and pitched in two World Series, but Bush is best known for surrendering Babe Ruth's 714th and final home run.

An avid farmer, Bush returned to Mississippi after his playing days to run a small farm in the community of Shannon. He recently was selected as one of the top 100 Cubs of All-Time.

In 1985, Bush was tending to the garden at his home when he was stricken with a heart attack and died. He was 83.

His second-cousin, Mary Scobey, has written a nice piece remembering Guy. Read it HERE.

The Autograph: Guy Bush's autograph is not uncommon. An index card rolls for around 20-25 dollars.

Bush with singing cowboy Gene Autry

Guy Bush in 1985

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

#9 Bob Feller

Bob Feller was a phenom in the truest sense of the word. Raised on a farm in Iowa, his dad built a ballfield on the farmland so his 12-year old son could practice. Off to the American League after his junior year in high school, he struck out 17 New York Yankees at the age of 17.

Feller made the most of his 18 years with the Cleveland Indians, winning 266 games. He served with the navy in World War 2, missing almost 4 entire seasons from ages 23-26. He returned from the military, and in 1946 struck out 348 batters while winning 26 games. He pitched for the Indians throughout his entire career, retiring in 1956 at the age of 37.

Feller was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962, and continued to work for the Indians until his death in December of 2010 at 92 years of age.

Want to see Feller's sweet wind-up?

Want to see Bob Feller's fastball get clocked by military instruments?
Petty Officer Heater

Want to see the movie reel from 1962, celebrating Feller and Jackie Robinson being elected into the Hall of Fame?
Jack and Bobbie
(I love the crack of the bat in these films. About as realistic of a sound as a punch in an action movie.)

Want to see 90-year old Bob Feller pitch to Paul Molitor in 2009?
Not-So-Rapid Robert and Molly

Okay... so the last one isn't all that great. But it did get him an offer from the Nationals.

The Autograph: Feller's autograph is one of the most abundant in sports. Year after year, Feller has done shows, public appearances, charity events. Reports are out that he has gotten a little cranky in recent years about signing, due to arthritis. As Bob Feller once told an interviewer, "If there is someone out there who does not have my autograph, then they must not want it."