A few weeks back, suffering from pandemic boredom, I picked up the book, The Wax Pack, by first time author Brad Balukjian. It’s an interesting tale of the author buying an unopened pack of 1986 Topps baseball cards then spending the next summer driving across the country in his beat-up Honda Accord to interview each of the 15 players from is pack. It’s an interesting book and a fast read. It’s not the best baseball book I’ve ever read and it’s certainly not the worst. Each chapter is well written and entertaining. Not as entertaining as an interview with Mike Clevinger, but nothing else is. Clevinger seems to be the clown price of crazy interviews in baseball these days.
As for the best baseball book? Maybe The Glory of their Times by Lawrence Ritter. Coincidently, Glory is based on a similar premise, the author, Ritter, tracking down and interviewing retired players, albeit from another era. Some of Ritter’s players didn’t want to be found (Sam Crawford). Same with Balukjian (Dwight Gooden, Carlton Fisk). I won’t go any deeper in case you haven’t read either book.
In the spirit of the book, I tracked down an unopened pack of 1990 Fleer cards and decided to write a short blip about each player. I don’t have the inclination or the time to track down the players as Balukjian did. I do commend him for an original idea and the commitment to see it through to finish. It couldn’t have been easy. One difference I see on the modern game compared to players of the pre-1960s is money.
If a modern-day player had a career of five years or longer, they probably made some money. If they’ve managed their cash well, they can buy a certain amount of isolation and privacy in gated communities. Older players did not have that luxury. They often lived among us mortals.
Many years ago, I lived in Hays, Kansas. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s only a couple of counties over. Just a few blocks from where I lived resided one Elon “Chief” Hogsett. Chief Hogsett had been born in Brownell, Kansas and at the age of 25 broke in with the Detroit Tigers. Over the next 11 seasons he pitched for Detroit, Washington and the St. Louis Browns. His record was a pedestrian 63 and 87, but during his career from 1929 to 1944, Hogsett pitched against Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Jimmie Foxx, Babe Ruth, Hank Greenberg, Rogers Hornsby, Bob Feller and Dizzy Dean, among others. DiMaggio clipped him for six home runs, the most he gave up to any player. Hogsett won a World Series with Detroit in 1935. When I found out he had died in Hays in July of 2001, I lamented the missed opportunity to meet someone from another era and hear the stories he had to have.
Hays is a small city. I almost certainly had seen Hogsett around town. I would have seen him as just another old guy standing in line at the grocery store. He literally flew under the radar. I’m sure he had stories galore about his time in baseball. Smoky Joe Wood also grew up in that area, in Ness City, just 21 miles from Brownell. After his playing days ended, Wood coached the baseball team at Yale. After retiring from coaching, he could often be found sitting in the stands, watching the Eli’s play. Very few players of that era had agents and PR people once they retired. Trying to track down today’s players for an interview can be close to hard labor. Many old timers were still listed in the phone book!!
Anyway, on to the pack. I admit, it was fun to open an old pack. I haven’t bought a pack of cards in years. Decades probably. This pack still had the gum: a rock hard, chalky piece of gum situated at the top of the pack. Topps did collectors a solid by placing the gum on the back of a game card that was placed on top of the player cards. One hazard of packs from the 1960’s was sometimes the gum would get hot and leave a stain on the top card. Yes, in those days many grocery stores were not air conditioned. The warm gum stain could easily ruin a prime card. If the gum stain went on a Chris Cannizzaro card, no big deal. If it went on Willie Mays, that was cause for grief.
I hope you enjoy this trip down memory lane. If you’d like to share a memory of any of these players, leave it in the comments.
1. Pat Borders – Blue Jays - I remember this guy being a gamer. He had some good years from 1988 to 1990. He played in Kansas City one season (52 games in 1995) and the only thing I remember about him was Kirk Gibson just smoked him in a collision at home plate. One oddity, he played for 17 seasons and only collected 831 hits. Even stranger, he only collected 244 hits over the last ten seasons of his career.
2. R. J. Reynolds – Pirates – whenever I hear this guy’s name it makes me think of the tobacco company. Decent player, 8 seasons with Dodgers and Pirates and a career .267 batting average. Played in Japan and Mexico from 1991 to 1994.
3. Dan Gladden – Twins – Undersized scrapper with great ‘80s mustache. Won two World Series with the Twins. Didn’t have a lot of power but was a good player. He always dinged the Royals: .305/.346/.498 with 7 career home runs (most home runs against any team).
4. Dave Martinez – Expos – I remember when he came up with the Cubs, he looked like the real deal (.292 in 1987). They shipped him to Montreal, and he ended up having a 16-year career with 9 teams. He collected almost 1,600 hits and had a .276 career batting average. Not bad. He’s been a solid manager for Washington.
5. Mark Gubicza – Royals – I missed most of the Gubicza years (marriage, career, kids). Even though he was worth 37 WAR, he only had 5 winning seasons out of 14. He was great in 1988, 20 and 8 with a 2.70 ERA and 269 innings pitched. The dude still has a nice head of hair for being 57.
6. Mike Pagliarulo – Padres – Pags, right? I mean you don’t want to write or pronounce his name. I love the way the last name rolls off your tongue. Pag-li-a-rulo. Pags had some big-time power years with the Yankees in 1986 and 1987 and won a World Series with Gladden and the Twins in 1991.
7. Walt Terrell – Yankees – I don’t remember this guy at all. Right-handed pitcher, five teams in eleven seasons. He was acquired by the Yankees from the Padres for Mike Pag-li-a-rulo in July of 1989. He was involved in some bad trades: traded by Rangers WITH Ron Darling to the Mets for Lee Mazzilli in 1982. Traded by the Mets to the Tigers in 1984 for Howard Johnson. Ouch. HoJo had some huge years for the Mets between 1987 and 1991. Makes me feel better knowing the Royals weren’t the only team getting fleeced in trades.
8. Dan Schatzeder – Astros – Only remember him because of the funky last name. He went to the University of Denver which isn’t exactly a baseball powerhouse. He somehow hung around for 15 seasons, so props to him. He got to see a lot of the country, playing for nine different teams, including Kansas City for the final eight games of his career. Another one of those guys who won a World Series with Minnesota (1987).
9. Lance Parrish – Angels – My first thought was “Lance Parrish played for the Angels?” It’s hard for me to think about Parrish playing for anyone other than the Tigers, but he did, seven teams in 19 years. This guy was a stud for the Tigers. He was a block of granite behind home plate (6’3 and 210 lbs.) and had one of the great baseball nicknames: Big wheel.
10. Tom Henke – Blue Jays – Henke could bring the heat. To me he always looked like a junior high science teacher, but the dude could throw smoke. Wouldn’t you know that he was born in Kansas City and raised in Wardsville, MO. Another miss by the Royals scouting department. 311 saves in a 14-year career. Won the World Series with the Jays in 1992. Grew up in a small town, he’s the type of guy I’d like to have a beer with and talk baseball and fishing.
11. Stan Javier – A’s – I actually remember his dad, Julian Javier, better. Don’t think I ever saw Stan play, but a lot of people did, eight teams over 17 seasons. At 25 WAR, he had a better career than I thought.
12. Dickie Thon – Phillies – Thon always seemed like one of those guys that you hate to play against him but would love to have him on your team. Spent most of his years in the National League. Might be the only Dickie I know of. Dickie. Not Dick. Not Richard, or Rich. Dickie. Also had a great ‘80’s stache.
13. Rance Mulliniks – Blue Jays – Rance was featured in the Wax Pack and seems like a great guy. Another member of the 1980’s All-Star mustache team. I remember seeing him play in Kansas City in 1980 and 1981. In those days the Royals were flush with talent, but it still hurt to see him have a very solid career in Toronto. His trade from KC to Toronto might make the top ten worst trades in Royals history.
14. Doug Drabek – Pirates – This guy had some nasty stuff. He was especially great in 1990, 22-6 while winning the Cy Young. His kid, Kyle Drabek, was projected to be a good pitcher, but never matched up to the old man.
15. Jeff Reardon – Twins - Reardon looks like the father of the whole millennial wearing a shaggy beard thing. He was a serious closer: 367 saves over 16 seasons. Started his career with the Mets and the Expos before Minnesota hoodwinked Montreal in a trade. He too won a World Series with Minnesota in 1987. Seems like I got about half of that Twins team in this pack.
And that’s it. One thing I noticed is that a lot of these players had facial hair, twelve out of fifteen. Reardon was the only one with a full-blown beard, the rest sporting classic 1980’s porn mustaches. A lot of solid players in this pack, but no superstars and certainly no cards that are worth any money.
That’s always a little bit of a disappointment, thumbing through a pack and not finding any superstars. Opening a new pack is a little like opening gifts on your birthday. You can usually count on your parents getting you something decent and you can always count on your cool uncle getting you something killer, but there’s always the spinster Aunt who throws in a package of socks. Opening packs in the early ‘70’s could be like that. You might score an Aaron (Hank, not Tommy), maybe Willie Mays or Harmon Killebrew or Bob Gibson. Or your pack might be loaded with the Phil Gagliano’s, Ed Spiezio, John Lowenstein and Ron Theobalds of the world. Ten cents buys you ten cards, a stick of gum and the hope that your favorite player is in the pack.