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Baseball, Basketball, and Football

Play Ball America, 1939 (R334)

History mostly has forgotten Baldomero Melo “Mel” Almada Quirós, the first Mexican-born player in Major League history. Almada not only was a good player but has a fascinating backstory. His great-great grandfather, Don José María Almada, owned one of Mexico’s largest silver mines, La Quintara. Years later in 1913, shortly after the start of the Mexican revolution, Almada’s father was appointed governor of Baja California. The incumbent had other ideas, so Baldomero Almada Sr. was granted an assignment at the Mexican consulate in Los Angeles.

In September 1933, at age 20, Almada made his MLB debut as an outfielder with the Red Sox, batting .341 in 14 games. On October 1, he had three hits against Babe Ruth in the Yankee slugger’s final pitching appearance. Almada batted .290 in his first full-time season of 1935 and assembled a lifetime average of .284. He put together a 29-game hit streak for the St. Louis Browns in 1938, but he retired a year later, still just 26. His brother Lou explained the decision. “They’re throwing at me because I’m a Mexican!” Almada told his brother. "No, Melo, they’re throwing at you because you’re a batter!” In 646 career games, Almada was hit by a pitch just five times.

Play Ball, 1940 (R335)

By all accounts, Tris Speaker never should have made it to the major leagues. When he was a teenager growing up in Hubbard City, Texas at the turn of the century, he fell off a horse and fractured two bones in his lower right arm. This caused him to become a left-hander. Then, after injuring his left arm in a football game, surgeons advised amputation. Speaker refused and went on to a Hall of Fame career where he batted .345, set still-standing records with 792 doubles and 449 outfield assists and, in 1916, won the American League batting title, ending Ty Cobb’s run of nine in a row.

Along the way, Speaker was a virtual Forrest Gump, rubbing shoulders with an endless array of celebrities. His teammates between 1907 and 1928 included Cy Young, Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, Jimmie Foxx, Lefty Grove, and Ty Cobb. He reportedly taught Will Rogers how to use a lariat. Grantland Rice wrote that Speaker played with “the smoothness of a summer wind,” and Ogden Nash included him in a poem titled Line-Up for Yesterday: “S is for Speaker, Swift center-field tender, When the ball saw him coming, it yelled, `I surrender.’”

Play Ball,1940 (R335)

Napoleon “Larry” Lajoie, whose .426 batting average in 1901 was the highest of any Major League player in the 20th century, also had an American League-leading mark of .383 in 1910. How Ty Cobb was declared the batting champion despite a lower .382 average is a crazy tale. Official statistics were kept secret by the League in those days, but with one day left in the season, Cobb was believed to have secured the title and the Model 30 Roadster automobile (price tag $2,000) being awarded by the Chalmers Company.

Cobb took the day off while Lajoie played a doubleheader against the St. Louis Browns, whose manager, Rowdy Jack O’Connor, was known to despise Cobb. After Lajoie tripled in his first at-bat, O’Connor ordered his third baseman to play in shallow left field, allowing Lajoie to bunt safely seven times in two games. That pushed him past Cobb, but American League president Ban Johnson didn’t like the smell of things and conducted an investigation. He “found” two more hits for Cobb (which already had been recorded) and announced Cobb as the winner. Historians have since corrected the errors to show that Lajoie had the higher average. Chalmers gave each player a car.

Play Ball, 1941 (R336)

Yankees pitcher Lefty Gomez gave catcher Bill Dickey the nickname, “The Man Nobody Knows,” ostensibly because he was quiet to the point of being aloof. Certainly, he was productive, an 11-time All-Star who batted .313 for his career and compiled a sparkling fielding percentage of .988. But we wonder if nobody knew him, as Gomez exaggerated, because of the famous company he kept during a 17-year career with the Yankees. Dickey was teammates with 15 future Hall of Fame players and managers — including Ruth, Gehrig, and DiMaggio.

There is no disputing the credentials of Dickey, himself a Hall of Famer. “Bill Dickey is the best (catcher) I ever saw,” said Cleveland pitcher Bob Feller. “He was as good as anyone behind the plate, and better with the bat. I believe I could have won 35 games if Bill Dickey was my catcher.” Dickey played on nine World Series teams, and the Yankees won eight of them. He often struggled in the Fall Classic, batting .255. But in the fifth inning of Game 5 vs. St. Louis in 1943, facing 21-game winner Mort Cooper, Dickey hit a two-run homer that secured a 2-0 victory and the championship in his final World Series.

Play Ball Comparison 1940-41 (R335 & R336)

Mel Ott was the most productive 20-year-old hitter in Major League history. In 1929, he totaled 42 home runs and 151 RBIs — still records for a player who began a season at age 20 — while also batting .328 for the New York Giants. He drew 113 walks, struck out just 38 times, and scored 138 runs. For added measure, he delivered 26 assists from right field. Ted Williams, Frank Robinson, and Alex Rodriguez were terrific at 20, but none of them matched Ott.

Giants manager John McGraw saw it coming in September 1925 after giving the 5-foot-7, 150-pound, 17-year-old left-hander a tryout. “This lad is going to be one of the greatest left-hand hitters the National League has seen,” McGraw said. And he was, becoming the youngest player to hit 100 home runs and 200 homers and the first in the NL to reach 500 on his way to 511. When he died, days after a car crash in 1958, sports writer Arnold Hano called him “a little man with a bashful smile and a silken swing, baseball’s legendary nice guy.” He was all that, plus the best 20-year-old hitter the Majors ever saw.

Bowman Baseball Black & White, 1948 (R406-1)

Hall of Famers Ralph Kiner and Roy Campanella called Ewell Blackwell the toughest pitcher they ever faced. Part of that may have been because in 1950 the Fresno native threw 11 wild pitches and hit 13 batters. The 6-foot-6 right-hander was nicknamed “The Whip” because of his sidearm, snap delivery. Sports writer Joe Williams said it looked like “a Picasso impression of an octopus in labor.” Blackwell made six straight All-Star teams through 1951 before his production waned due to arm problems.

But in 1947, he may have been, as sports writer Joe Falls suggested, “the most intimidating pitcher of all time.” He was 22-8 with six shutouts and a 2.47 earned run average, finishing second in the National League MVP voting. He won a league-record 16 straight decisions for the Cincinnati Reds and fashioned a 1.34 ERA over that stretch. Blackwell pitched a 6-0 no-hitter vs. the Boston Braves and four days later against the Brooklyn Dodgers took a no-hitter into the ninth inning before giving up a single. Said Hall of Famer Stan Musial, “I don’t see how Blackwell ever loses a game.” In fact, his career win-loss record was 82-78.

Bowman Baseball Colors, 1949 (R406-2)

Fred Hutchinson was a solid major-league pitcher, a good manager, and a special man. Certainly, that’s the legacy he created in his hometown of Seattle, from the time he compiled a 60-2 record as a high school pitching phenomenom and once struck out 22 in a summer Legion game, to this day, where the nearly half-century-old Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center bears his name. Hutch was so revered locally that the Post-Intelligencer voted him Seattle’s Athlete of the 20th Century over Ken Griffey Jr.

After posting a 25-7 record as a teenager for the Double-AA Seattle Rainiers, Hutchinson won 95 games in 11 major-league seasons with the Tigers. As a manager for three franchises, he won 830 games, led the underdog Cincinnati Reds to the 1961 World Series, and developed a reputation for being tough but fair. ”If I ever hear a player say he can't play for Hutch,” Hall of Famer Stan Musial once said, "then I'll know he can't play for anybody.” Hutchinson died from cancer at the age of 45, and less than a year, later sports writers created the Hutch Award, honoring perseverance in the face of adversity.

Bowman Football Picture Cards, 1950 (R407-2)

Sammy Baugh was one of the first great passing quarterbacks in pro football history. Slingin’ Sammy from Sweetwater, Texas played 16 seasons with the Washington franchise, retiring after the 1952 season as the NFL’s career leader in passing yards and touchdowns. But Baugh was far more than an accomplished passer, and that doesn’t even take into account that he also played basketball at Texas Christian University and spent a season in the farm system of baseball’s St. Louis Cardinals. In an era where two-way players were common, Baugh took that to the extreme.

Baugh played quarterback, tailback, cornerback, and (briefly) defensive tackle. He held the NFL’s career punting average record when he retired. And in 1943, he pulled off this unmatched trifecta: League leader in passing yards, defensive interceptions, and punting average. In a win over Detroit that season, he threw four touchdown passes, intercepted four passes, and made an 81-yard punt. “There’s nobody any better than Sam Baugh,” Hall of Famer and fellow Texan Don Maynard said. “When I see somebody picking the greatest player around, to me, if they didn’t go both ways, they don’t really deserve to be nominated. I always ask, ‘Well, how’d he do on defense? How was his punting?’”

Baseball Picture Card Collectors Series, 1950 (R406-4)

Back in the fall of 1903, folks in the tiny Iowa community of Van Meter claimed to make a series of sightings of a 9-foot tall, winged, bat-like creature that was said to shoot light from a horn coming from its forehead and was impervious to bullets. Nothing that fantastic was tied to Van Meter until 1936 when its 17-year-old native son, “Bullet Bob” Feller, made his Major League debut with the Cleveland Indians. He struck out 15 batters in his first start and three weeks later whiffed 17.

When Feller returned to Van Meter to begin his senior year in high school, the governor of Iowa attended his welcome-home ceremony. The New York Times said he was the most famous young person in America with the possible exception of Shirley Temple. Despite missing three prime seasons to military service during World War II, Feller posted a career record of 266-162, including three no-hitters, and struck out 2,581 batters — second-most in the 20th century when he retired in 1956. “I don’t think anyone is ever going to throw a ball faster than he does,” Joe DiMaggio said in 1941. “And his curveball isn’t human.”

Baseball Picture Cards, 1950 (R406-4)

Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson famously broke baseball’s color line in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He did virtually the same thing in 1939 when he enrolled at UCLA where the student population was less than one percent African American, and there was not a black faculty member. His achievements in major league baseball, including winning the National League’s MVP award in 1949, a World Series title in 1955, and making six All-Star game appearances, should have been foreshadowed by his remarkable career with the Bruins.

Robinson was UCLA’s first four-sport athlete, and he excelled in three of them. His best sport in college was probably football where in 1939 and 1940 he led the nation in punt return average and in 1940 he was the team’s leader in passing yards, rushing yards, and scoring. At just 5-foot-11, he was the Pacific Coast Conference MVP in basketball, averaging 12.4 points in 1940. He won the 1940 NCAA title in the long jump for UCLA’s track team. He was least-accomplished as a college baseball player, batting .097 in his only season with the Bruins. Robinson more than made up for that in the Big Leagues.

Baseball Picture Cards, 1951 (R406-5)

Most of Babe Ruth’s records have been broken over the past century, but Johnny Vander Meer, who pitched back-to-back no-hitters in 1938, stands alongside the likes of Joe DiMaggio who hit safely in a record 56 consecutive games in 1941. Neither has had his astonishing feat eclipsed. The difference is that while the Yankee Clipper is an all-time great, Vander Meer is remembered almost solely for two games.

A 23-year-old rookie left-hander with the Cincinnati Reds, Vander Meer struck out four and walked three to fashion a no-hitter in a 3-0 win over the Boston Bees on June 11. Four days later, he struck out seven and survived eight walks in a 6-0 no-hitter vs. the Brooklyn Dodgers in the first night game ever at Ebbets Field. Vander Meer pitched 13 seasons, compiling an unremarkable win-loss record of 119-121. But on July 14, 1952, at age 37, he had one more special night — a no-hitter for the minor-league Tulsa Oilers at Beaumont, Texas. Beaumont’s manager was Harry Craft, who 14 years earlier was the center fielder who caught the final out in Vander Meer’s second no-hitter.

Baseball Picture Cards, 1952 (R406-6)

Venezuelan-born rookie Chico Carrasquel beat out future Hall of Famer Luke Appling for the Chicago White Sox shortstop position in 1950 and a year later became the first player from Latin America to start an All-Star Game, winning the fan vote over reigning American League MVP Phil Rizzuto. Carrasquel, who went on to play in three more All-Star Games, handled 297 consecutive chances without an error over 53 games that season, setting a record that stood for 18 years. He was so good that the Red Sox publicly offered Ted Williams in a potential trade. The White Sox said no thanks.

Carrasquel’s legacy also includes being thrust into a bit of “baseball diplomacy,” the brainchild of Walter Donnelly, the U.S. ambassador to Venezuela. Reacting to communist sympathizers stoning the U.S. Embassy in Caracas, Donnelly promoted a “Carrasquel Day” at Yankee Stadium on July 16, 1950, in an attempt to create goodwill. Carrasquel’s mother and sister were flown to New York, and the 24-year-old infielder was given a yellow Ford convertible, a $2,000 Rolex watch, a set of luggage, a television, and Venezuelan cash worth $5,000 — all ostensibly courtesy of his home country.

Baseball Picture Cards, 1952 (R406-6)

In New York in the 1950s, all three Major League teams boasted All-Star center fielders. The headliners usually were Mickey Mantle of the Yankees and Willie Mays of the Giants, with Duke Snider of the Brooklyn Dodgers playing third fiddle. But from 1953 through 1957, the “Duke of Flatbush” took a backseat to no one, hitting .311 with 207 home runs and 585 RBIs. He hit at least 40 home runs all five years, something neither Mantle nor Mays ever accomplished. “Duke was a fine man, a terrific hitter, and a great friend,” Mays said, “even though he was a Dodger.”

Snider’s finest season may have been 1955 when he hit 42 home runs and drove in a career-best 136 runs for a Dodgers team that won the World Series. He finished second to teammate Roy Campanella in controversial voting for the Most Valuable Player with Campanella winning his third MVP by a total of five points, 226-221. Varying versions of a story widely accepted had Snider’s name left entirely off the ballot of a voter who was hospitalized at the time, with Campanella listed twice. Had the ballot been completed properly, it is entirely possible that Snider would have won.

Bowman Football Cards-Large, 1952 (R407-4-2)

Some athletes just win. James “Jungle Jim” Martin was one of those guys. Martin earned his nickname after being awarded a Bronze Star for extraordinary service with the Marines in the South Pacific during World War II. As part of the Fifth Amphibious Reconnaissance Battalion, Martin and three others donned black swim trunks, fins, and face masks and located a string of underwater mines near a beach where Allied forces were planning to come ashore. The discovery led troops to a safer landing spot on the island of Tinian, and within one week, the mission was successfully completed.

Martin returned home and enrolled at Notre Dame where from 1946 through 1949, the Fighting Irish went 36-0-2 with three national championships. Martin, who also won Notre Dame’s heavyweight boxing title in 1949, was an All-American lineman his senior season. Martin then kicked off a 14-year pro career by winning an NFL championship with the Cleveland Browns as a rookie. Traded to Detroit, he won NFL titles in 1952 and 1953. Beginning in 1946, Martin won three collegiate national titles and three NFL championships in eight years.

Bowman Football Cards-Small, 1952 (R407-4-1)

Fresno-born Les Richter was a two-time consensus All-American at Cal while playing guard and linebacker. He was class valedictorian at UC Berkeley then spent two years in the U.S. Army during the Korean War before beginning his NFL career. An eight-time Pro Bowl selection as a linebacker, he even handled place-kicking duties for a time with the Los Angeles Rams. In nine seasons as a pro, he never missed a game, despite playing with a broken cheekbone in 1961.

But Richter, who died at the age of 79 in 2010, is also remembered for his role in a remarkable trade. Richter was taken No. 2 overall by the New York Yanks in the 1952 NFL draft just two days before that franchise folded. The club’s assets, including the rights to Richter, went to the expansion Dallas Texans. Needing to stock their roster, the Texans sent Richter to the Los Angeles Rams in exchange for 11 players — the second-largest deal ever for a single player. "We regretted giving up many of the boys," Rams coach Joe Stydahar said. As it turned out, six of them never played again, and four others spent no more than one season with the team.

Baseball Collector Series Black and White, 1953 (R406-8)

Preacher Roe first gained notice as a pitcher at Harding College in Arkansas during the late 1930s when he struck out 26 batters in a 13-inning game. The effectiveness of his fastball declined by the time he reached the Major Leagues, where Willie Mays quipped, “He had two fastball speeds — slow and slower.” Even Roe acknowledged his limits, once joking that his three best pitches were all change-ups. Even so, Roe put together a record of 127-84 during a 12-year career, including 90-33 from 1948 through 1953 with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was 22-3 in 1951 when the Dodgers blew a 13-game lead over the Giants.

The secret to Roe’s success wasn’t really a secret at all. Although the spitball was banned for all new pitchers in 1920, Roe was a master at loading up the baseball. His teammates called his spitter a Beech-Nut curve, referencing Roe’s favorite brand of chewing gum. Hall of Famer Stan Musial said he avoided going to two strikes on Roe because that is when he knew he would get a spitter. If the umpire asked to see the baseball, Roe typically would roll it to the plate, erasing the evidence.

Bowman Color Baseball Collector Series, 1953 (R406-7)

The first thing you need to know about Hall of Famer Saturnino Orestes Armas “Minnie” Miñoso is that there is no real consensus on his birth year. The first Latin American player in Major League history, Miñoso was born in Perico, Cuba, the son of sugar-cane cutters, on November 29. But what year? As of his death in 2015, Miñoso’s own website and this 1953 Bowman baseball card both said he was born in 1922. His 1946 Cuban passport and the Baseball Hall of Fame listed 1923. His family said 1924 after his death and Major League Baseball reported it as 1925.

That matters only because Miñoso played in four decades, debuting in 1951 and, after twice retiring, coming back for three games with the White Sox late in the 1980 season when he was anywhere from 54 to 57 years old. In between, Miñoso was a seven-time All-Star and an inspiration while the sport was being racially integrated. Fellow Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda, a native of Puerto Rico, once called him “the Jackie Robinson for all Latinos. He was everybody’s hero. I wanted to be Miñoso. (Roberto) Clemente wanted to be Miñoso.”

Bowman Color Baseball Collector Series, 1953 (R406-7)

Pee Wee Reese is best known for befriending Brooklyn Dodgers teammate Jackie Robinson, the first African American player in the Major Leagues in 1947. But Reese also has a special place among collectors, thanks to his distinctive 1953 Bowman card. The website called it “one of the most beautiful baseball cards ever made in one of the most gorgeous sets of cards in our hobby.” Allison Rudnick of the Metropolitan Museum of Art told The Athletic, “The card stands out among the single-player portraits of the set for its unusual composition.”

Clearly, the card was a departure from anything on the market. Turns out the image was a black and white shot taken by magazine photographer David Peskin, then painted to create its unique look. The photo was actually taken during spring training back in 1946, and it was not an action shot as it appears to be. Instead, Reskin posed the photo to put Reese in just the airborne position he wanted. There remains some debate over the identity of the baserunner, but Reese said years later that it was Stanley George “Frenchy” Bordagaray, a spring training teammate until he was released at the start of that 1946 season.

Bowman Baseball, 1954 (R406-9)

By the time Ted Williams got his first sustained look at his new teammate, Jackie Jensen already had won a College World Series title as a pitcher/outfielder and played running back in the Rose Bowl for Cal. The Yankees bought him from the Pacific Coast League’s Oakland Oaks, then sent him to Washington when Mickey Mantle developed into a star. But Williams was thrilled to have him with the Red Sox, beginning in 1954. “I had seen him with the Yankees, and I knew he ran fast . . . like a halfback or something,” Williams said in a 1999 interview. “He was a hell of a good outfielder, and he developed into quite a hitter. I would have him on my team anytime.”

In 1958, Jensen slugged 35 home runs and led the American League with 122 RBIs, earning league MVP honors. But by the end of the 1959 season, still just age 32, Jensen’s unhappiness being away from his family and a crippling fear of flying prompted him to retire. Former Cal teammate Charles “Boots” Erb recalled Jensen saying an airplane felt like an “iron coffin.” Jensen returned to the Red Sox in 1961, but his heart wasn’t in it, and he retired for good. 

Bowman Baseball, 1954 (R406-9)

Eddie Mathews was considered one of baseball’s strongest players during his time with the Boston/Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves. He played 15 of his 17 seasons in those three cities for the same franchise on his way to hitting 512 career home runs. Mathews was such a feared pull hitter that defenses shifted to defend against him before that was a popular strategy. During his Hall of Fame speech, Mathews explained, "My mother used to pitch to me and my father would shag balls. If I hit one up the middle close to my mother, I'd have some extra chores to do. My mother was instrumental in making me a pull hitter.”

Mathews played much of his career alongside Hank Aaron, and the two combined for 863 home runs — the most by teammates, four more than Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig totaled with the Yankees. The reality was Mathews played in Aaron’s considerable shadow. While Aaron won the 1957 MVP award, Mathews finished second twice — to Roy Campanella in 1953 and to Ernie Banks in 1959. Even so, no less an authority than Ty Cobb once said of Mathews, "I've only known three or four perfect swings in my time. This lad has one of them."

Bowman Baseball, 1954 (R406-9)

Everyone knows Jackie Robinson, the man who broke baseball’s color line in 1947. Fewer remember that Larry Doby did the same thing as the first African American player in the American League just three months later. Doby was batting above .400 for the Negro League Newark Eagles when Cleveland owner Bill Veeck purchased his contract. Doby got a cool reception from many of his new teammates, and he batted just .156 in 29 games. A year later, he hit .301 as the team’s regular center fielder and helped Cleveland win the World Series. In 1949, Doby was an All-Star for the first of seven straight years, and in 1954 he became the first African American player to lead either league in home runs.

Hall of Fame pitcher and teammate Bob Feller said of Doby, “He was kind of like Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, because he was the second African American in the majors behind Jackie Robinson. He was just as good of a ballplayer and a very good teammate.” Doby had his own take: "I played against great talent in the Major Leagues, and I played against great talent in the Negro Leagues. I didn't see a lot of difference.”

Bowman Football, 1954 (R407-6)

Tom Brady retired after the 2022 NFL season having passed for more than 89,000 yards — the equivalent of 50 miles. But he never threw for 554 yards in a game. Neither did any of the NFL’s other most prolific quarterbacks, including Peyton Manning, Dan Marino, or John Elway. That distinction belongs to Norm Van Brocklin whose performance on September 12, 1951 has remained the NFL record for 72 seasons. But here is the amazing part — he wasn’t even supposed to be the starter that day for the Los Angeles Rams.

With Bob Waterfield sidelined by an injury, Van Brocklin got the call against the New York Yanks in the season opener at the L.A. Coliseum. Van Brocklin completed 27 of 41 passes for 554 yards and five touchdowns, four of them to Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch, in a 54-14 triumph. As a reward for that remarkable outing, Van Brocklin started just once more all season. But the future Hall of Famer had one more big moment that year, coming off the bench to throw a 73-yard touchdown to Tom Fears in the fourth quarter, lifting the Rams to a 24-17 win over the Cleveland Browns in the NFL championship game.

Bowman Football, 1955 (R407-7)

Yelberton Abraham Tittle, Jr., known to pro football fans as Y.A., retired from the NFL after his 17th season in 1964 as the League’s career leader in passing yards and touchdowns. Tittle threw an NFL-record 36 touchdowns in 1963, was twice the League’s MVP, and made the Pro Bowl seven times. For many fans, Tittle is best remembered for an iconic photo taken on September 20, 1964, showing him on his knees in the end zone, his head bowed and blood trickling down from his balding scalp. “The blood photo,” Tittle called it.

Tittle was 38 and in his fourth season with the New York Giants when he took the blindside hit from the Steelers’ John Baker that left him with a concussion and a cracked sternum. "That was the end of the road," he told the Los Angeles Times years later. "It was the end of my dream. It was over.” The photo was taken by Morris Berman of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which declined to publish it, preferring an “action” shot. Recognition eventually came to Berman, and the image, one of the most famous in NFL history. And Tittle wasn’t quite finished — he started the next week vs. Washington and won.

Bowman Baseball Color TV Set, 1955 (R406-10)

Pitcher Curt Simmons once said, “Throwing a fastball by Henry Aaron is like trying to sneak the sun past a rooster.” Clearly, that didn’t happen often.  Twenty-nine players have hit 50 home runs in a season at least once. Aaron never did, but he clubbed 30 or more 15 times and had 40-homer seasons separated by a span of 16 years. It all added up to 755 career home runs, but even that wasn’t why Muhammad Ali called Aaron “the only man I idolize more than myself.”

The highest respect goes to Aaron not because he broke Babe Ruth’s record of 714 home runs but how he endured the journey. As Aaron approached Ruth’s record, he received some 930,000 pieces of fan mail but also hundreds of letters from racists, some of them containing death threats. Those landed in the office of the FBI. Aaron hit No. 715 off Al Downing on April 8, 1974, and most of America celebrated the moment. But it was bittersweet for Aaron. “The Ruth chase should have been the greatest period of my life, and it was the worst,” he wrote in 1991. “I couldn’t believe there was so much hate in people.”

Bowman Baseball Color TV Set, 1955 (R406-10)

Willie Mays has all the credentials to be on the short list of players considered as the greatest in Major League history. He hit 660 home runs despite missing most of two prime seasons while in the military and playing in cold and windy Candlestick Park. He played in 24 All-Star Games, won 11 Gold Gloves, even led the league in stolen bases four times. He won MVP awards 11 years apart.

But appreciating Willie Mays is not about the numbers. Mays was such a graceful and near-perfect player, it is almost as if someone dreamed him up then assembled him in a lab. From the guy who played stickball with the kids on the streets of Harlem to the center fielder who made the greatest catch the World Series has ever seen, he seemed too good to be true. Even the great ones were in awe of the “Say Hey Kid.” Hall of Famer Ty Cobb once said, “Mays is the only man in baseball I’d pay to see.” Legendary theater actress Tallulah Bankhead gave her own spin saying, “There have been only two geniuses in the world: Willie Mays and Willie Shakespeare.”

Bowman Basketball, 1948 (R405)

There had been random sports cards of basketball players as far back as 1909-11 when a company called Murad created a set of 150 cards that included four devoted to college basketball. The first set of cards dedicated specifically to basketball didn’t arrive until 1948 when Bowman released a 72-card collection featuring players from the fledgling Basketball Association of America, the precursor to the NBA. It was Bowman’s only basketball card set — the next basketball cards were published by Topps in 1957. But the Bowman set has historic value and, at least in the case of one card, potentially great cash value.

George Mikan was regarded as the NBA’s first superstar, dominating his era by winning seven championships and three scoring titles. The 1948-49 season was his first in the BAA (his second as a pro) and Mikan averaged 28.3 points while leading the Minneapolis Lakers to the championship. His No. 69 Bowman card is prized by collectors, and one rated as gem-mint 10 condition sold at auction for $403,664 in 2015. That is no doubt more than Mikan earned over his entire pro career, given that his $12,500 first-year salary with the Lakers was a record.

S16-Ed Watkins/The Natural

Bernard Malamud, whose 1952 novel, The Natural, became the 1984 motion picture starring Robert Redford, never shared the source of his inspiration for the story of a ballplayer shot by a deranged woman. Malamud did not specifically cite the 1949 incident in which a woman identifying herself as Ruth Ann Burns lured the Philadelphia Phillies’ Eddie Waitkus to her room at the Edgewater Beach Hotel in Chicago with a note passed to him by the bellhop. “It’s extremely important that I see you as soon as possible,” the note read. “We’re not acquainted, but I have something of importance to speak to you about.” The woman, actually a 19-year-old obsessed fan named Ruth Steinhagen, shot Waitkus in the chest with a .22-caliber rifle, then announced, “You’re not going to bother me anymore,” before turning herself in.

On the surface, it sounds similar to Malamud's tale of The Natural where young ballplayer Roy Hobbs is shot in a hotel room by a mysterious woman in black who then kills herself. In fact, while Malamud may have drawn from the Waitkus incident, there is evidence other episodes may also have influenced him. For instance, Cubs shortstop Billy Jurges was shot in 1932 by showgirl Violet Valli. And some believe the author was impacted by a column written by Arthur Daley of the New York Times which explores the question “Why does a talented man sell out?”

Still, the Eddie Waitkus-Roy Hobbs connection remains most popular, and sadly things did not turn out as well for the real-life ballplayer as they did for the movie character. In the film, Redford reappears years later and leads the fictional New York Knights on a magical pennant chase, hitting prodigious home runs, including one in the final baseball scene that crashes into a stadium light pole, prompting a shower of sparks raining down on the field as Hobbs rounds the bases. And, of course, Redford gets the girl, played by Glenn Close.

Waitkus also found love after his shooting, marrying Carol Webel, a young blonde from Albany, New York, whom he met in Florida while rehabbing after the shooting that pierced his lung and required four surgeries. Waitkus had been a very good ballplayer, a two-time All-Star whose graceful play on defense earned him the nickname “the Fred Astaire of first basemen.” Initially, he made an impressive comeback on the field, but he never fully recovered from the hotel incident. He drank, smoked excessively, and suffered from depression that today likely would be identified as post-traumatic stress disorder. His marriage fell apart, and he was hospitalized after suffering a nervous breakdown in 1961. Waitkus died of esophageal cancer in 1972. He was just 53.

Bowman Vs. Topps, 1951 (R406-5) and 1952 (R406-6)

Did Gus Zernial actually help put Joe DiMaggio on the path to marrying Marilyn Monroe? That was just the start of an eventful 1951 season for Zernial. Monroe was brought one day to the Chicago White Sox spring training in Pasadena, California for some publicity shots and was posed in high heels and shorts alongside Zernial. After seeing the photo in the newspaper, DiMaggio asked Zernial about it and Zernial suggested he reach out to her press agent to get an introduction. The movie star and the Yankee Clipper were married three years later.

Zernial, on display here in his 1952 Bowman and Topps cards, was traded by Chicago to the Philadelphia Athletics after just four games in 1951, then came alive. He led the American League with 33 home runs, 129 RBIs, and 17 outfield assists — not counting the one he provided to DiMaggio. He hit six homers in a span of three games to tie a Major League record, prompting Topps to pose him holding a bat with six baseballs attached. And yet, Zernial finished a lowly 20th in the league’s MVP balloting. He did finish above DiMaggio who batted just .263 with 12 home runs in his final Major League season.

Following his retirement from the major leagues, Zernial settled in Clovis, California and from 1972 to 1976 acted as a play-by-play radio and television broadcaster for Fresno State baseball games. When the Fresno Grizzlies minor league team formed, Zernial was in charge of marketing and community fundraising for the Grizzlies until 2003 when he retired.

Bowman (R406-5 & R406-6) Vs. Topps (R414-5 & R414-6), 1951 and 1952

Warren Spahn often seems overlooked during discussions of baseball’s greatest pitchers. Consider this powerful evidence: His 363 victories and 63 shutouts are the most by a pitcher born in the 20th century and the most by a left-hander. Playing primarily for the Boston and Milwaukee Braves, Spahn won 20 games or more 13 times in a span of 17 seasons. He pitched no-hitters when he was 39 and 40 years old. He was 23-7 in 1963 at age 42. Stan Musial once joked, “I don’t think Spahn will ever get into the Hall of Fame because he’ll never stop pitching.”

Spahn wasn’t immune to every hitter. Willie Mays was a struggling rookie, 0-for-12 to start his career in 1951, when he hit the first of 18 career home runs against Spahn. "I'll never forgive myself,” Spahn said years later. “We might have gotten rid of Willie forever if I'd only struck him out.” Twelve years later, during that 1963 season, Spahn dueled the Giants’ Juan Marichal in one of the best-pitched games of all-time. The two battled into the bottom of the 16th inning of a scoreless game before Mays ended it with a blast over the left-field fence.

Fantasy Cards 1947 (HRT/RES 1976-77)

Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg, the first Jewish star in American sports, began his Major League career in the 1930s when antisemitism was on the rise, and he did it in Detroit where Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company, spread false conspiracies that Jewish people posed a threat to American values. Greenberg, who dealt quietly with abuse from fans, gained national attention in 1934 when he decided, after much consideration, to play on Rosh Hashanah, one of the faith’s High Holy Days. The Tigers were in a tight race with the Yankees, and Greenberg delivered a pair of home runs in a 2-1 victory that helped them win the American League pennant.

Greenberg averaged 42 home runs and 148 RBIs from 1937 through 1940, then missed much of the next five seasons while serving in the military during World War II. When the more mature Greenberg returned, his views had changed. Having been sold to the Pittsburgh Pirates before his final season in 1947, Greenberg offered encouragement to Jackie Robinson, who was making his debut as the game’s first African American player. “Listen, I know it’s plenty tough,” he said. “Just stay in there and fight back. Always remember to keep your head up."


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Story text above written by Jeff Faraudo.