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Archive for October, 2010

For only the third time, Halloween will play host to the World Series. On the two previous occasions, the Yankees were victorious, but this time around the Bronx Bombers will be donning costumes instead of uniforms. At least AJ Burnett will. The team’s very own Jekyll and Hyde snatched up a few scary items before frightening Yankees’ fans in his ill-fated ALCS start. In what looking back was probably a bad omen, Burnett’s preparation for Halloween trick-or-treating didn’t exactly scream confidence in the outcome of the series.

Those players who didn’t anticipate being home on Halloween probably missed out on all of the best costumes, but I am sure they’ll make do. After all, baseball players get plenty of practice. The ritual of rookie hazing, which usually takes place on the last road trip of the season, can make even the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade seem tame. Even conservative organizations like the Yankees get in the act, and over the last several years, the team has taken the tradition to an art form. So, on a holiday dedicated to playing dress-up, we celebrate Halloween by taking a look back at the Yankees’ recent history of hazing. Just be ready to cover your eyes.

2009: Batman and Friends

A proud Joe Girardi is surrounded by Batman (Mark Melancon) and friends, including the Boy Wonder (video man Anthony Flynn), Catwoman (Ramiro Pena) Joker (radar gun operator Brett Weber), Riddler (Mike Dunn) and the Penguin (massage therapist Lou Potter).

 2008: Village People

Brett Gardner, Francisco Cervelli and Juan Miranda take a stroll through Fenway Park as the Village People.

2007: Off to See the Wizard

Who said Joba Chamberlain doesn’t have courage and Phil Hughes needs a heart? Shelley Duncan as the scarecrow and Ian Kennedy as Dorothy can testify.

2006: Who’s the Boss?

Melky Cabrera dons a turtleneck and blue blazer in honor of George Steinbrenner. 

2005: Team Spirit

Chien-Ming Wang, Robinson Cano and Mike Vento shake their pompoms.

2004: Long Live the King

Andy Phillips, Bubba Crosby, Scott Proctor, Brad Halsey and Dioner Navarro do their best Elvis impersonations, but where’s Lance Berkman when you really need him?

2003: Godzilla the Pimp

Hideki Matsui puts forth a side to Godzilla that we never knew existed.

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As the Core Four’s careers wind down, can the Yankees keep a smile on their faces?

Earlier in the week, we suggested that Joe Girardi’s legacy as Yankee manager would depend on how he shepherds the Yankees’ core of aging veterans through the twilight of their respective careers. Making the task even more challenging for Girardi is that he played alongside these legends during the primes of their careers. As a result, you couldn’t blame the Yankees skipper if he allows sentimentality to play at least a small role in how he handles this precarious issue.

Although Girardi has been very diplomatic on the subject, Brian Cashman has not. According to recent comments, it seems that if the Yankees’ general manager has his way, sentimentality will have no impact on how the team treats its veteran stars.

We’re not going to be interested in retaining players because of future milestones. The stars don’t put fannies in the seats. Wins do. If it’s a bad team, people will stop showing up by July. They’ll go to the beach.” – Yankees’ GM Brian Cashman, quoted in the New York Times, October 29, 2010

Rob Neyer called Cashman “his hero” for the above statement, but as a lifelong Yankee fan, I find it somewhat disturbing, especially because it can’t be dismissed as tough talk. We’ve already seen this sentiment put into action with how the team handled the end of Bernie Williams’ career. Following the 2006 season, Joe Torre still seemed inclined to have the popular centerfielder play a role on the team, but Cashman refused to relent and only offered Williams a non guaranteed invitation to Spring Training.

Yeah, it would be tough for me if you had to say goodbye. I sense he feels confident that he can still play this game. It’s tough for him to feel wanted if it means getting spot on the 40-man roster at this point in time because there’s no room.” – Joe Torre, quoted by AP, February 18, 2007

In other words, Bernie Williams never really retired. The Yankees effectively ended his career.

At the time, most Yankees’ fans seemed fine with the decision because Williams’ talents had obviously declined. I, however, was not. Although winning is clearly the number one mission statement, the Yankees should be about more than just one bottom line. George Steinbrenner was famously quoted as saying the only thing he cared about more than winning was breathing, but under the Boss, the Yankees’ organization placed great emphasis on promoting a family culture. Once a Yankee, always a Yankee so to speak. Much was made of Steinbrenner’s itchy trigger finger, but the truth of the matter was being fired or released from the Yankees just meant a reunion would soon be in the planning.

Make no mistake about it. Before Steinbrenner took over, the Yankees reputation had always been as a very bottom line organization. Even Babe Ruth was jettisoned when he no longer was the Sultan of Swat. And, to be sure, that philosophy probably played a role in the franchise’s perennial success. Having said that, the Yankees shouldn’t have to choose between winning and placating their veteran stars. After all, the team’s history is defined by more than just wins and losses, but also the men who make them possible.

The decline of legends like Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera (well, maybe not Mo) is inevitable, and at some point, the Yankees will have to move on. However, they don’t need to do it in such a cutthroat way. In the case of Bernie, there was no reason for not giving him a guaranteed deal. Even if the money was a concern, would the Yankees really have been worse off with Williams taking the roster spot of guys like Andy Phillips, Josh Phelps and Kevin Thompson? Luckily, Bernie’s relationship with the Yankees remains strong, but it would have been a shame had the result of the team’s decision been estrangement from one of its homegrown stars.

Do we really follow sports only to watch a winner? If so, why not jump from bandwagon to bandwagon? Although many casual fans do take that approach, the diehard’s attachment to a team stems more from its history than its prospects for future success. Because of their financial advantage, the Yankees can have their cake and eat it too. As a result, the team shouldn’t feel the need to abide by Branch Rickey’s famous advice about trading “a player a year too early rather than a year too late” when handling its Hall of Fame core. The Yankees can still win while catering to their stars. The end doesn’t always justify the means, and in this case, the cost of winning in the future doesn’t have to involve turning away from history.

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Curly Ogden’s game seven start was really a ruse perpetrated by Senators’ manager Bucky Harris against his Giants' counterpart, John McGraw.

As mentioned in the previous post about Matt Cain’s somewhat historic World Series performance, the Giants’ right hander became only the fourth starter to have a scoreless World Series debut, but fail to throw a complete game. Two of the other pitchers, Juan Marichal and Orel Hildebrand, were forced to depart early because of injury, but the really interesting story deals with the other member of the fraternity: Warren Harvey “Curley” Ogden.

Curly Ogden was an unaccomplished young starter when he was acquired from the Philadelphia Athletics on May 23, 1924. Upon joining the Senators, however, Ogden became a meaningful contributor to the team’s pennant aspirations, going 9-5 with a 2.58 ERA in 108 innings. Nonetheless, once the World Series came around, Ogden wasn’t expected to see the light of day against John McGraw’s mighty New York Giants, who were appearing in their fourth consecutive Fall Classic.

The Senators rotation was led by the legendary Walter Johnson, but also featured the solid duo of George Mogridge and Tom Zachary. Even Firpo Marberry, a highly effective starter/reliever hybrid was ahead of Ogden on the rotation depth chart, so there really was little hope for him to make any kind of meaningful impact in the World Series.

Once game seven rolled around, however, Senators’ player/manager Bucky Harris made what seemed like a curious decision. Although Johnson and Zachary had each thrown nine innings in games 5 and 6, respectively, Harris still had Mogridge available for the finale. In his game four start, Mogridge limited the Giants to two runs over seven innings to help tie up the Series, so it seemed only natural that he would toe the rubber for the deciding seventh game. Instead, Harris went with the untested Ogden, who hadn’t so much as warmed up over the first six games.

The casualties of shell-ridden “pitchers’ hill” have been so heavy upon both baseball armies that the two generals will be compelled to put their fortunes up to the youths of virtually untried capacity in today’s deciding game.” – Associated Press, October 10, 1924, writing about the Virgil Barnes vs. Curley Ogden matchup slated for game seven of that year’s World Series.

Bill Terry was the impetus for Harris' odd strategy.

In reality, Harris had no intention of letting Ogden go very deep into the game. In fact, he didn’t intend to let him go past one batter. Perhaps eager to match wits with the legendary McGraw, who had won three championships and 10 pennants, the 27-year old Harris had planned to set a clever trap for the Little Napolean, and Ogden was the bait. You see, the Giants were a prolific 73-45 against right handers, but managed to go only 20-15 against southpaws. And, in the center of the Giants’ of lineup was a young left handed hitter named Bill Terry, who would go onto a Hall of Fame career, but at the moment struggled mightily against southpaws. With that in mind, Harris hatched a unorthodox plan. He would have Ogden, a right hander, start the game, and lock McGraw into a lineup with Terry batting fifth. Then, after one batter, he would go to his lefty Mogridge and force McGraw to react.

It was Bill Terry, Giant first baseman, who threw the scare into Harris and caused him to resort to this strategy to get him out of the way…And this strategy worked out perfectly. McGraw had shifted his team to combat Mogridge and Terry was out.” – Associated Press, “Psychology in World Series”, November 11, 1924

According to a newspaper account after the series that cited an unnamed team source, Harris had actually scripted the entire game, planning ahead of time which pitchers would be used and for how long. The only deviations occurred when Ogden struck out the first batter, which forced Harris to hold off on his planned pitching change, and the game went into extra innings, which required the veteran Johnson to throw four innings on only one day’s rest. 

Despite all of Harris’ maneuvering, the Senators’ World Series fate rested on the great Walter Johnson…just as everyone had expected, albeit under much different circumstances. After suffering losses in games 1 and 5, Johnson was disappointed to be skipped over in the final game, but like a true legend, he responded with four shutout innings in relief and picked up the victory when Earl McNeely’s RBI double in the bottom of the 12th clinched the World Series.

Although it still took a late game comeback and a heroic relief outing from the tired Johnson, Harris’ plan was widely credited with helping to steer the Senators to victory (his .333/.353/.515 line in 34 PAs and HR in game 7 probably didn’t hurt). By taking the bold stroke, Harris was essentially able to control McGraw’s use of the dangerous Terry, who had an OPS of 1.315 in the series. After watching Terry make two weak outs against the lefty Mogridge, the Giants’ skipper eventually relented and sent Irish Meusel to the plate in the sixth inning. Ready for the scenario, Harris responded with his relief ace Marberry, who if not for two errors would have escaped from the sixth largely unscathed. All told, the right-handed tandem of Marberry and Johnson pitched seven innings without surrendering an unearned run, so it’s only natural to wonder what might have been for the Giants if the potent left handed bat of Terry wasn’t removed so soon.

Was Bucky Harris the first sabermetric manager? And, if the strategy had backfired, would he be have been ridiculed for trusting his “binder”? Who knows…but for at least one game, the upstart Harris had outfoxed an old master and in the process made Curly Ogden a permanent part of World Series lore.

Bucky Harris not only guided the Senators to victory in the 1924 World Series as manager, but he also led with his bat. Here, he crosses the plate in the fourth inning of game 7 after hitting a HR to give his team a 1-0 lead.

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One night after Cliff Lee bombed in the first game of the 2010 World Series, a new postseason pitching star was born. Just as he has done all October, Matt Cain shut down the Rangers’ offense for 7 2/3 innings, helping to propel the Giants to a 2-0 series lead. With his latest scoreless effort, Cain has now thrown 21 1/3 consecutive shutout innings, the fourth highest total by any pitcher in one postseason.

Scoreless Postseasons

Pitcher ER IP Year
Waite Hoyt 0 27 1921
Christy Mathewson 0 27 1905
Kenny Rogers 0 23 2006
Matt Cain 0 21 1/3 2010
Carl Hubbell 0 20 1933
Mike Boddicker 0 18 1983
Whitey Ford 0 18 1960
Pedro Martinez 0 17 1999
Joe McGinnity 0 17 1905
Duster Mails 0 15.2 1920

Note: Minimum 15 IP
Source: Baseball-reference.com

Although Cain remains a long way from Mariano Rivera’s record of 33 1/3 scoreless innings in the postseason, he is within striking distance of Christy Mathewson’s and Jonathan Papelbon’s record of 27 consecutive shutout innings to begin a postseason career. Among those pitchers who have never given up a postseason run, however, Cain has now surpassed the former record of 20 scoreless innings, which was set by Joe Niekro over two postseason starts with the Astros in 1980 and 1981 as well as a relief appearance with the Twins in the 1987 World Series.

Another interesting aspect about Cain’s masterpiece was the fact that he wasn’t allowed to complete. Although Bruce Bochy’s decision to lift him made perfect sense from a strategic standpoint (he brought in a lefty to counteract the dangerous Josh Hamilton), it stands out like a sore thumb from a historical perspective. In the 106 year history of the World Series, Matt Cain became the first pitcher to go unscored upon in his World Series debut, but not pitch a complete game shutout (with three exceptions explained below).

Even though he wasn’t given the chance to complete his masterpiece, Cain still became the first pitcher to have a spotless World Series debut since Boston’s Jim Lonborg shutout the Cardinals in game two of the 1967 World Series. It would have been nice to see Cain go the distance, but his effort isn’t really diminished much by failing to do so. After all, it’s been several years since the advent of pitch counts and relief specialists, and during that span, no first timer has ever been scoreless in the World Series.

Leaving Early: Pitchers Who Departed Scoreless Outings in WS Debut

Player Date Game Tm IP H Reason for Departure
Juan Marichal 10/8/62 WS#4 SFG 4 2 Injured bunting in 5th.
Oral Hildebrand 10/8/39 WS#4 NYY 4 2 Pain in his side.
Curly Ogden 10/10/24 WS#7 WSH 1/3 0 Part of a strategic plan.*
Matt Cain 10/28/10 WS#2 SFG 7 2/3 4 Removed for RP.

*For more information on Ogden’s brief start, click here.
Source: Baseball-reference.com and various newspaper archives

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Cliff Lee is human after all.

Heading into yesterday’s World Series opener, Lee had compiled a 7-0 record with a 1.26 ERA, the third lowest postseason rate among starters with at least 50 innings (Sandy Koufax: 0.95 and Christie Mathewson: 0.97). Lee’s performance over the last two Octobers was so dominant that he even started to warrant serious consideration as one the best postseason pitchers of all-time. After watching him completely shutdown the potent Yankees’ lineup in game 3 of the ALCS, it would be hard for me to argue otherwise.

Cliff Lee’s Game 1 start seemed out of focus, but the Rangers’ lefty is not the first postseason ace to have a bad outing (Photo: Getty Images).

The combination of Lee’s recent success and the Giants’ low scoring offense made last night’s outcome one of the more surprising developments of the postseason. By surrendering six earned runs in only 4 1/3 innings, the Rangers’ ace saw his October ERA jump “all the way” to 1.96 (his World Series ERA is now 4.79 in three starts). Lee was also tagged with his first postseason loss, denying him the opportunity to tie Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez as the only pitcher to begin his playoff career at 8-0. It remains to be seen how Lee will bounce back in his next start, assuming he gets the chance, but at the very least, the Giants’ outburst has dispelled some of his aura of invincibility.

So, does Game 1 of the 2010 World Series remove Lee from the discussion of baseball’s greatest postseason pitchers? Not quite. Again, a lot will be determined by how Lee rebounds, both in this postseason and any future ones in which he may appear. After all, Lee isn’t the first postseason stud to suffer a blip in October. With rare exception,  just about every dominant ace has come up lacking in at least one playoff start.

Provided below are two lists. The first is a ranking of baseball’s best postseason starters, based on ERA (unadjusted). Included in the list are all starters with an ERA below 2.00 in at least 50 postseason innings. To account for those aces with more innings (and to avoid leaving several big names off the list), pitchers with an ERA below 3.00 in at least 100 postseason innings were also included.

A's lefty Eddie Plank never had a bad day in October. His worst postseason start would have been the envy of most pitchers.

The second chart provides a look at the “worst” postseason performance by each member of this group of October aces. For pitchers like Eddie Plank and Bob Gibson, “worst” is purely a relative term, but for most of the others, there is at least one black mark on their playoff resume.

Although Cliff Lee’s game score of 28 in last night’s game is tied for the second worst performance by a postseason master, he remains in very elite company. To stay there, however, Lee will need to return to his October dominance. He has already used his mulligan, and those worthy of being considered as baseball’s best postseason pitcher rarely get another.

 

Baseball’s Best Big Game Pitchers, Ranked By ERA

Pitcher IP GS ER W L ERA
Sandy Koufax 57 7 6 4 3 0.95
Christy Mathewson 101 2/3 11 11 5 5 0.97
Eddie Plank 54 2/3 6 8 2 5 1.32
Orval Overall 51 1/3 5 9 3 1 1.58
George Earnshaw 62 2/3 8 11 4 3 1.58
Lefty Grove 51 1/3 5 10 4 2 1.75
Carl Hubbell 50 1/3 6 10 4 2 1.79
Waite Hoyt 83 2/3 11 17 6 4 1.83
George Mullin 58 6 12 3 3 1.86
Bob Gibson 81 9 17 7 2 1.89
Herb Pennock 55 1/3 5 12 5 0 1.95
Cliff Lee 69 4 15 7 1 1.96
Fernando Valenzuela 63 2/3 8 14 5 1 1.98
Curt Schilling 1331/3 19 33 11 2 2.23
Orlando Hernandez 106 14 30 9 3 2.55
Orel Hershiser 132 18 38 8 3 2.59
Jim Palmer 124 1/3 15 36 8 3 2.61
John Smoltz 209 27 62 15 4 2.67
Whitey Ford 146 22 44 10 8 2.71

Note: Min. 50 IP and ERA < 2.00, or Min. 100 IP and ERA < 3.00
Source: Sean Lahman’s baseball database

Worst of the Best: Lowest Game Scores by MLB Postseason Aces

Pitcher Date Series Opp GSc
Orel Hershiser 10/18/1997 WS#1 FLA 21
Cliff Lee 10/27/2010 WS#1 SFG 28
Whitey Ford 10/3/1956 WS#1 BRO 28
Whitey Ford 10/15/1962 WS#6 SFG 28
Curt Schilling 10/13/2007 ALCS#2 CLE 29
John Smoltz 10/24/1995 WS#3 CLE 31
Waite Hoyt 10/10/1923 WS#1 SFG 32
Carl Hubbell 10/6/1937 WS#1 NYY 34
Jim Palmer 10/10/1973 ALCS#4 OAK 34
Orval Overall 10/17/1910 WS#1 PHA 35
George Earnshaw 10/9/1929 WS#2 CHC 39
Orlando Hernandez 10/17/2000 ALCS#6 SEA 41
Orlando Hernandez 10/20/2001 ALCS#3 SEA 41
Christy Mathewson 10/24/1911 WS#1 PHA 45
Lefty Grove 10/5/1931 WS#3 STL 45
Fernando Valenzuela 10/14/1981 NLCS#2 MON 48
Herb Pennock 10/15/1923 WS#6 NYG 49
Sandy Koufax 10/6/1966 WS#2 MIN 50
Bob Gibson 10/15/1964 WS#7 NYY 55
George Mullin 10/9/1907 WS#2 CHC 56
Eddie Plank 10/9/1905 WS#1 NYG 58

Source: Baseball-reference.com

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According to numerous published reports, Joe Girardi and the Yankees are in the process of finalizing a three-year contract extension worth around $9.5 million. The wisdom behind retaining Girardi is certainly debatable, especially after a postseason that featured so many questionable decisions, but what is clear is the Yankees have adopted a philosophy of managerial stability.

Joe Torre's departure cast a shadow, but Joe Girardi managed to step out from under it (Photo: Reuters).

Being the man who replaces “the man” is always an unenviable task, so the fact that Girardi survived his initial three year deal is accomplishment enough. After 12 successful years under Joe Torre, it wasn’t difficult to imagine a scenario in which Girardi failed under the weight of the comparison, especially after the team did not make the playoffs in his first season. Instead, Girardi rebounded and now appears on his way to another three seasons behind the manager’s desk at Yankee Stadium.

Even if Girardi only serves one day of his new contract, he will surpass the tenures of the three other men who were called upon to replace legendary figures in the team’s history. Ralph Houk only lasted three years after replacing Casey Stengel (Houk would return for an eight year tenure starting in 1967), who like Torre was “pushed out” after serving as manager for 12 seasons. Miller Huggins also lasted 12 years at the Yankees’ helm, but his replacement, Bob Shawkey, only survived one. Finally, no one left a bigger imprint in the manager’s chair than Joe McCarthy, whose 16 seasons as skipper is a franchise record. Bucky Harris followed McCarthy, but was gone after two seasons.

No one lasted longer as Yankees’ skipper than Joe McCarthy, whose 16 year tenure as manager is a franchise record.

Incredibly, the Yankees have only had one instance in which the tenures of two consecutive managers lasted at least four years: an honor held by Buck Showalter (1992-1995) and Joe Torre (1996-2007). If Girardi survives the term of his contract, he would not only squeeze his way into that grouping, but also become only the sixth Yankees’ manager to serve in the role for six consecutive (full) seasons.

From 1973 to 1991, the Yankees had 12 different men serve as manager over a span that included 19 different regime changes. By comparison, the recent era of stability (three managers in 19 seasons) is dramatic, although it does pale next to the span from 1918 to 1960 in which the team had only five skippers (aside from interims required by Huggins’ and McCarthy’s deaths).

Being Yankee manager did not provide much job security under George Steinbrenner's early days as owner.

It remains to be seen just how long Joe Girardi will last at the Yankees’ helm, but if he remains successful, the climb up the franchise’s managerial ranks might not take that long. In retrospect, that reality makes earlier speculation about Girardi bolting for the Cubs’ job seem even more implausible. In this new era of stability, Girardi has a unique opportunity to leave his mark on the franchise’s storied history and its hard to imagine any scenario in which he would willingly pass that up.

Then again, Girardi’s ultimate legacy might not be defined so much by wins and losses, but how he deals with the twilight years of an aging core of Hall of Famers. Just like McCarthy with Babe Ruth, Stengel with Joe DiMaggio and Houk with Mickey Mantle, Girardi could be called upon to shepherd Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera through the inevitable end of their prolific careers. That task is easily the greatest challenge of Girardi’s second tour of duty, and it could be the one the determines whether he has a third.

Yankees’ Most Tenured Managers, by Games

Manager Yrs From To G W L W-L% Avg. Finish
Joe McCarthy 16 1931 1946 2348 1460 867 0.627 1.7
Joe Torre 12 1996 2007 1942 1173 767 0.605 1.2
Casey Stengel 12 1949 1960 1851 1149 696 0.623 1.3
Miller Huggins 12 1918 1929 1796 1067 719 0.597 2.2
Ralph Houk1 11 1961 1973 1757 944 806 0.539 4.1
Billy Martin2 8 1975 1988 941 556 385 0.591 2.2
Clark Griffith 6 1903 1908 807 419 370 0.531 4.1
Buck Showalter 4 1992 1995 582 313 268 0.539 2.4
Joe Girardi 3 2008 2010 486 287 199 0.591 2
Bill Donovan 3 1915 1917 465 220 239 0.479 5

1 Houk served two separate terms as manager: 1961-1963 and 1967-1973.
2 Martin served five separate terms as manager: 1975-1978, 1979, 1983, 1985 and 1988
Source: Baseball-reference.com

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Honus Wagner has been dead for nearly 55 years, but a group of Baltimore-based nuns is hoping that the Hall of Fame shortstop can come up big one more time…on the auction block that is.

The photograph of Honus Wagner that was used to create the now widely sought after T206 baseball card (lower right). Note the incorrect spelling of “Pittsburgh” that was added across Wagner’s chest.

The School Sisters of Notre Dame are the latest in a long line of lucky owners who have found themselves in possession of what has become known as the baseball card collector’s Holy Grail: the T206 Honus Wagner.

The infamous card, which was originally produced by the American Tobacco Company between 1909 and 1911, was part of a set of 514 that the giant cigarette manufacturer distributed along with its many brands. Although most of the cards in the set are highly coveted, what sets the Wagner issue apart is its scarcity.

To date, there are only about 60 known examples of the Wagner T206 series. Most, like the one possessed by the Sisters, are not in very good condition, but still fetch six figures at auction. Better preserved versions, however, have regularly sold for over $1 million. In fact, the T206 Wagner purchased by Arizona Diamondbacks’ owner Ken Kendrick sold for $2.8 million, the highest amount ever paid for one baseball card.

As legend has it, Wagner objected to having his photo included in the T206. Some accounts have cited the Flying Dutchman’s objection to having his picture used to promote smoking among children, while others claim a dispute with ATC over compensation (after all, Wagner’s image had been used to promote tobacco products in the past). Either way, Wagner’s card was pulled from the set, making it the strongly sought after treasure that it is today.

Not long ago, a firm of tobacco manufacturers wrote to a local newspaper man and asked him to secure a picture of Hans Wagner to be given away with cigarettes [sic]… The scribe wrote to Wagner and asked him for the picture enclosing the tobacco company’s letter. A few days later he received a communication from Hans, saying that he did not care to have his picture in a package of cigarettes [sic], neither did he wish his friend to lose the chance to cop a little extra coin. “So,” he concluded, “I enclose my check for the amount promised you by the tobacco company in case you got my picture and hope you will excuse me if I refuse.” – Ralph S. Davis, excerpt from “Wagner A Wonder”, The Sporting News, October 24, 1912

Whether or not Wagner actually objected to his image being used to lure young boys to a life of smoking remains unknown, but by the time the set was produced, the relationship between baseball cards and tobacco had already become a cause for concern. In an attempt to curb the increase in underage smoking, several cities went so far as to ban the distribution of sports and actor cards along side tobacco products, but the overwhelming popularity of the giveaways was not abated by the limited legal actions.

I was allowed the first peep…to a sight of the Blessed Land and the gods, which, until then, we had only beheld in the lithographs which were given free with every pack of Duke’s Cameo cigarettes – I think that was the name of our choice vice.” – Benjamin De Casseres, writing about his youth and baseball, New York Times, April 18, 1920

A 1954 advertisement for Red Man tobacco that promotes a free baseball photo with every pack.

Ironically, the tobacco companies were just as eager for an exit from the picture card business. In an attempt to outdo the competition in terms of star power and production quality, manufacturing cardboard inserts quickly became one of the industry’s highest expenses. Eventually, it became hard to determine whether cigarettes were driving the picture card industry, or vice versa.

Finally fed up with their decreasing profit margins, the largest competitors in the tobacco industry consolidated under one umbrella, the aforementioned American Tobacco. One of the chief reasons for combining was to control costs, particularly marketing expenses associated with manufacturing picture cards. According to Dave Jamieson, author of Mint Condition: How Baseball Card Became an American Obsession, “the popularity of baseball cards had helped to spur the formation of one of the most powerful monopolies in American history”.

Beginning in 1907, the government began to take notice of American Tobacco’s dominance of the market place and brought suit under the Sherman Antitrust Act. By1911, the monopoly was forced to dissolve by decree of the Supreme Court. Not ironically, this period coincided with the rebirth of picture cards as a cigarette company marketing ploy, as evidenced by the now famous T206 series. Unintentionally, the federal government’s actions not only opened up the tobacco industry to increased competition, but also re-opened the market for underage smokers by once again making photo inserts relevant.

Cigarettes have always played a role in the national game. In many ways, both baseball and smoking were the defining pastimes of several American generations. Whether it was via picture card inserts, early television commercials or stadium billboard advertisements, cigarette companies strived to promote the idea that enjoying a smoke and watching baseball went hand in hand. In today’s smoke-free stadium environments, that may seem hard to believe, but curious relics of the past, like the Honus Wagner T206, help to serve as a reminder.

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