March 2015

March 29, 2015-Remarkably, I do not have a very extensive baseball card collection. I have been lugging around the same cards from the late 1970s and 80s that I’ve had since I was a kid. As any collector knows, these cards are virtually worthless. They are the by-products of a memorabilia world gone mad and are slowly being turned into something for my youngest daughter to play with. I’d sell the whole lot in a heartbeat if I could find a fool who would buy them.

The one batch of cards that I have been collecting for years are the New York Mets issued as a part of the Topps core set. Because the boys from Flushing did not come into existence until 1962, they have always been represented by Topps, which issued its first annual set of baseball cards in 1952. Today, there are seemingly hundreds of different sets released by the various card companies, so in the interest of sanity I have decided to stick with good old Topps. And their base set at that. It certainly isn’t going to result in the most valuable collection, but at least there will still be room in the apartment for the cats.

I was anticipating a chance to get some cards of the teams I would be seeing while I was in Cuba. Still naive about the differences between Cuban baseball and MLB, I believed that there would be such a thing. I mean, I knew the stadium amenities weren’t going to be luxurious and the food at the park was lousy, but surely some enterprising soul had published some baseball cards. I was quickly corrected. There are no baseball cards. Yes, there was a set published in 1994 which includes pre-MLB cards for the Hernandez brothers, Livan and Orlando. The one before that was published in the 1950s.

I had never given much thought of what it would be like to be a child baseball fan without baseball cards. I had loved the cards long before I truly loved the game. Despite the fact that I have chosen to direct my adult discretionary spending to something other than packages of cardboard, that does not diminish the passion I had for them when I was a boy.

That same passion, this time on the faces of a gaggle of Cuban children, was on display whenever a member of our group pulled out a pack of American baseball cards at one of the five National Series contests we attended. They would swarm, a collective that would consume any gleaming, hard-cornered photo of a player in action they could get their hands on. Bonus points if it was Yasiel Puig or Aroldis Chapman. At one point I pulled out a Hall Ball business card in order to hand it to a Cuban sportswriter and a child’s eager hands immediately reached out to me. Just the image of the Hall Ball was enough to ignite their imaginations.

All of this got me thinking about the Cuban stars of the past, and whether they had baseball cards. Certainly generations of National Series heroes have never had one. But, what about the 187 Cubans who played in the Major Leagues? Surely many of them must have cards. I considered starting a collection of all of the cards featuring Cuban-born players. I began by referencing the most comprehensive free digital source I’ve found to date, tradingcarddb.com.

I quickly realized that a complete collection of Cubans was going to necessitate far too much energy and money on my part pursuing José Canseco. There are over 2800 distinct cards published of the tainted slugger. I decided that maybe the best way to approach this new whim would be to just get the rookie cards. The set would become finite and achievable.

As it would turn out, many of the 187 have rookie cards, but certainly not all. Some would never have a card issued, at least none that a fairly thorough internet search could reveal. Others would have cards, but not ones that modern collectors consider “rookies.” To officially be a rookie card, it needs to be a first appearance issued by a major manufacturer. Cards from a player’s minor league days do not qualify. Similarly, neither do cards from foreign leagues, such as the pre-Revolution Cuban Winter League.

Such is the case of the Acosta brothers, José and Merito. The two appeared on Clark Griffith’s Cuban-laden Washington Senators of the 1910s and 20s. However, neither made enough of a mark to appear on a card during the austere years of World War I and the time that followed. Cards were produced in smaller sets, thus players like Merito, who appeared in 180 games in the outfield over five seasons, and José, who pitched in 55 games over three years, often fell through the cracks.

However, while playing for the 1923/24 Marianao squad of the Cuban League, they both appeared in a set that was issued in Cuba by Billiken. Like their American counterpart, these cards could be found in packs of cigarettes. In addition to Cubans, this set also featured American Negro League legends like Oscar Charleston and Andy Cooper. However, because the cards were not printed by a major company and the players were not with a major league team, they are not officially rookie cards. They are, however, the earliest cards I can find for the two and will serve for my purposes.

So far, and research does continue, there appear to be roughly 150 cards in the set I have designed. I had four already, just by culling my own collection: a 1990 issue of Tony Fossas, a 1989 Orestes Destrade, a 1987 Rafael Palmeiro and, from a current pack bought in the interest of the project, a 2015 Jorge Soler. All of them happen to be Topps. There will be numerous other publishers in this set, including Bowman, Upper Deck and Fleer. There are even a couple of the mythical T-207s. Thankfully, neither Rafael Almeida nor Armando Marsans are likely to go for anything resembling the Wagner Holy Grail.

All of this brings us to a recent visit to a comic book store in New Paltz, NY. My ex-wife and I meet there sometimes when we exchange our daughter. Bella is a fan of comics and I like to encourage my kid to become a nerd, just like her old man. While not a large shop, the collection is extensive and a fan of the genre is certain to leave satisfied.

What it does not have, however, is a very impressive set of baseball cards for sale. The two collectibles will often appear together at small retail shops like this, though such stores usually lean more heavily in one direction. No one would ever think of this store as a baseball card shop. But, it does sell packs of the current sets and has about 50 single cards up for grabs. Of those singles, the inventory is split between medium value cards of current players, a sprinkling of stars from 1970s, 80s and 90s, and a few lesser known players from the 60s.

One of those latter cards was from the Topps 1965 set, number #201. Minnesota Twins rookie stars Cesar Tovar and Sandy Valdespino share the honors. Tovar, a native of Venezuela, would go on to have a fine twelve-year career with the Twins, Phillies, Rangers, A’s and Yankees. He would finish in the top twenty-five in MVP voting every year from 1967-1971 and would lead the league in doubles and triples in 1970. The Trading Card database has identified 56 unique cards manufactured for Tovar.

Hilario “Sandy” Valdespino would last for seven seasons with the Twins, Braves, Astros, Pilots, Brewers and Royals. He would not share the same success as his card-mate, though he did get eleven at bats in the 1965 World Series, contributing a double and a run. Valdespino was born in San Jose de las Lajas in Mayabeque and would be the 106th Cuban to appear in the majors. He would make his debut on April 12, 1965. Card #201 is his official rookie card, one of only nineteen different identified cards of the outfielder ever produced.

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I cannot reasonably estimate how many baseball cards have been printed. Millions certainly. Likely, billions. Enough that determining the odds of this comic book store, which sells such an infinitesimal number of cards compared to how many are in existence, having one of the 146 I need is a task that might stump Bill James. To top it all off, the shop only wanted $1.50 for the card. That’s at least a few bucks less than I could find it on ebay, and I didn’t have to pay or wait for shipping.

There have been numerous times throughout this pilgrimage that coincidences or synchronicity have occurred. See my August 23, 2014 post about visiting Old Hoss Radbourn for another example. But, that doesn’t mean that when it happens, the impact is lessened. The baseball gods are always watching and sometimes, if you are a good acolyte, they will reward you. That day, my reward came in the form of a fifty-year old piece of cardboard. Only 145 more to go.

March 17, 2015-The last three weeks have been the most memorable in the entire four-and-a-half year journey of The Hall Ball. Ten more photos were added from the state of Florida, finally finishing the Sunshine State. After my August 2010 visit to Sol White (number 1 in the quest) the next four photos came from the Bradenton area. Serendipity from a previously scheduled family vacation. Completing the state all these years later felt like a huge step forward.

Puerto Rico, too, was another long-sought milestone. I have always admired Clemente. When I was a kid it was because he wore my number as well as died a hero forty days after I was born. Now, it is because I better understand the fire within that drove him to excellence, both as a player and as a man. I am pleased with the photo of the ball on the Isla Verde Beach in San Juan, where the wreckage of his plane washed ashore in the beginning days of 1973. On the way out of town I noticed prints in the airport gift shop and made the poor clerk pose with the Ball.

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However, despite the success of Florida and Puerto Rico, there has been little in the quest that can compare with adventures in Cuba. In a little more than a week, I saw five games played by teams in the waning days of a pennant race. While the leisurely pace of Spring Training defines Major League Baseball at the moment, just 90 miles away another league is coming to its exciting conclusion.

Over those games I witnessed a triple play, as well as a two-homer game by established hero Alfredo Despainge. I spent 45-minutes sitting in the dark at Calixto García Íñiguez Stadium while technicians tried to solve a blackout. I met Victor Mesa, one of the most famous ballplayers in Cuba and manager of the squad from Matanzas. A strange mixture of brilliant and insane, his manipulation of a bullpen rivals Tony LaRussa’s for sheer volume of activity. We mingled on the field with the players and were broadcast on Cuban TV when we sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” during the seventh-inning stretch. I also picked a favorite team, based solely on the winner of the first National Series game I attended. Victor’s Matanzas squad ended up going 3-0 in the games I witnessed. Go Cocodrilos!

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I imagine that a trip to the ball park in Cuba has the feel of watching a Major League game circa 1955, when there was still a chance that you could ride the subway home with your favorite center fielder. Just prior to the start of one game, a player in full uniform and cleats stepped outside to buy a fruity, slushee-type drink from the cart by the gate. Throughout our visit we were accompanied by various notables. One of these was Enrique Díaz, the National Series leader in hits and stolen bases.  The familiarity between the players, current and retired, and the fans helps define baseball for the Cuban people.

The time warp feeling is further enhanced by the country itself. Between the 1940s and 50s Chevys that still lumber through the streets of Havana, and the crumbling cathedrals that are older than the United States, it is easy to sometimes forget when you are. Sadly, this antiquity is often true of the toilet facilities as well, but such is the price. Walking through Havana at night, near the famous sea wall known as the Malecón, is akin to walking through a salty, warmly lit dream.

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It goes without saying that the necessary photographs were taken. On the very first full day in country we stopped by the Colon Cemetery and visited the two Monuments to Baseballists. There, I photographed Méndez and Torriente, aided by fellow Cubaballista Tom Hawthorn as hand model. Progress has been made in regards to the true final resting place of Cristobal Torriente, but I will save those details until I have a chance to do a little more follow-up.

The journey to photograph Dihigo was an entirely different adventure. As previously mentioned, the province of Cienfuegos was not a part of the established itinerary. I broke off from the group to travel 3 hours away to the small town of Cruces. Along with “Pepito” Krieger and Larry Phillips, I was given the very special privilege of spending time with The Immortal’s son, Martín Jr. He is a warm, charismatic man who had some baseball skills of his own. He spent five-years in the Reds minor-league organization, alongside Pete Rose and fellow Cuban Tony Perez. Discouraged by the racism in America, he came back home to play basketball.

I was able to interview Mr. Dihigo, and we talked about his father as well as his own career. Often the tales of baseball greats do not contain a chapter about what brilliant parents they were. It was marvelous to hear that Martín Sr., whom most of the veteran Cuban ballplayers we spoke to named the greatest player ever from their country, was also a good father. Excerpts from the interview will be appearing in the book.

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I was also able to accomplish one of my rituals in a profound way. After every photograph taken at a grave, I toss the ball in the air twice and thank the player for their contribution to the game. I fancifully think of it as playing catch. This time I was able to literally play catch at the feet of this giant of the game, his son as my partner. I was glad to have the long drive after we were done to sort my thoughts. That the project had brought me this far, to a moment in time that I could not have imagined when I began, created a feeling I will not soon forget.

The rest of the Cubaballistas were wonderful. At one point, as we were boarding a plane in Holguin to fly to Havana, a security guard insisted that The Hall Ball go in to checked luggage. Terrified that all that work was going to be lost to a misplaced bag, it was the roughest part of the whole trip for me. The way the group rallied behind me, giving hugs and cheers when I pulled it out of my safely-delivered suitcase, endeared them to me forever.

There is so much more to say. I haven’t even touched on the youth baseball academies, or the small diamond by the front gate of Hemingway’s estate, or the country’s emphasis on combining baseball and art. There was the swarm of little boys whenever one of the group opened a pack of baseball cards. There were the talented players from Cuba’s premiere baseball league literally willing to sell us the shirts off their backs in order to supplement their meager salaries. There was the sensation of throwing a ball, my bare feet sinking into the warm, forgiving sand while an ocean the color of sapphire sparkled next to me.

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The total number of Hall of Famers photographed for the project now stands at 227 out of 310. Now that this long anticipated journey to Cuba is finished, it really does feel as though the end is in sight. There are only three or four road trips left to photograph all of the remaining graves. Only 18 of the nearly 70 living Hall of Famers have yet to participate. I have crossed over the line from believing the project will be completed, to knowing. Time to start planning the next adventure.