I’ve just read the eye-opening Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession
This is more history of the card INDUSTRY than I ever imagined. The book is not a love letter to card makers. Readers will recoil over some early behaviors of Bowman and Topps. For instance, Jim Bouton shares how he felt a Topps exec bullied minor leaguers into signing away their exclusive card appearance rights for a $5 retainer. Bouton didn’t bite, insisting his father should review the contract first.
Instead of interviewing card company officials, I’d rather know more about how it felt to be a face on those cards. When I wrote to former St. Louis Brown Don Gutteridge in 2000 about his 1944 “Play Ball” card, I got a surprising letter in return:
“I do not even remember giving anyone permission to use my name on a card. In fact, I did not see the 1944 (Play Ball) card until a few years ago (in the 1990s) when someone sent me the card and asked me to please sign it for them. The company never contacted me. In fact, I would like to have a couple of those cards for my own mementos. I think it’s very nice to have your picture and data on a card. It is so nice to be remembered.”
Ronnie Joyner has shared his insights as a baseball artist this week. Today, he tells of his life as an autograph collector. Don’t believe that former players care what you put in your letters? Joyner learned early that every word matters.
“Aside from the many great letters I received, there were some dubious (and funny) moments, too, that I remember off the top of my head:
– Tommy Byrne yelling at me for mentioning his St. Louis “Cardinal” years. He never played with the Cards. I meant to write St. Louis “Browns”. We became Brownie acquaintances years later.
– Gene Conley getting snippy about autograph collectors and why he was “forced” to charge. His note informed that he had three options:
1. Throw the enclosed card in the trash
2. Return it unsigned
3. Request a signing fee.
I never minded the guys that charged, I just didn’t like Conley’s accusatory tone. I always felt my thoughtful, hand-written letters should have separated me from the collectors who were only interested in making a buck off a player’s autograph, but some guys just hated the whole bunch of us no matter what. Nowadays, in my mellow old age, I would have just laughed it off. Being an angry young man at the time, however, I had to fire off a rebuttal while rejecting his offer to sign for, what was certainly, a small amount of money. It was the principle!
I sent my card back and told him he could do “option 1.” I told him that it was my contention that any decent guy wouldn’t have “option 1” as an option. How rotten is it to throw a kid’s card in the trash? Anyway, the problem was that I really wanted a signed 1956 Topps Conley because I was trying to accumulate as many sigs from the’56 set, one of my favorites, as possible. So it doesn’t pay to have principles when you want something.
So principled was I that I re-wrote Conley a letter under the pseudonym “Spanky Bozman” — and enclosed the autograph fee. I used my buddy Bill Bozman’s address, but forgot to tell Bill about my scheme. When the signed card arrived at his house, Bill called me and asked who the heck was Spanky Bozman! I had some ‘splainin’ to do.
But to this day, my Gene Conley ’56 “Spanky” card is one of my favorites. I still suspect that Conley knew the whole deal. I did a bio-illustration of him years later to make amends.
– Al Worthington calling into question my Christianity. “All the autographs in the world won’t help you get into heaven”. He enclosed a pile of literature and signed my card. Still, I resented this challenge to my Christianity. I thought I could be a good Christian AND an autograph collector. So, again, in the stupidity of my youth, instead of laughing it off, I rebutted him in a reply. Nothing overly confrontational, but a rebuttal nonetheless.
Stupid kid. I regret it to this day and I may reach out to him again. Funny thing — when I was helping Don Gutteridge write his memoirs back in 2008, we discussed an interesting story about Worthington. Don was a coach with the White Sox all through the 1960s, and Worthington was a pitcher there for a handful of games in 1960. Don, himself as solid a Christian as you’d ever meet, confirmed that the Sox were stealing signs from opposition catchers via a guy with binoculars hiding in the centerfield scoreboard. Worthington, apparently already solidly entrenched in his Christianity, did not like the dishonesty of the covert operations. He complained to management, refused to go along, and was promptly released. As I said, Don was a good Christian man, but he referred to Worthington as a “holy roller” type, which tells me that Worthington’s approach to sharing his Christianity has apparently rubbed everybody wrong forever. Still, I should contact him about the whole thing. I’m sure it would make for an interesting bio-illustration or straight-up article.
– Russ “The Mad Monk” Meyer getting confused. I wrote a long, thoughtful letter to Nats great Buddy Meyer. Problem was, Buddy was dead. I got my lines crossed and thought Buddy was alive and well because I was attributing the “alive-and-well” Russ Meyer’s address to the “dead-and-gone” Buddy Meyer.
Anyway, Russ writes back saying, “I don’t know who Buddy Meyer is,but I used to be a pro ballplayer.” Then he proceeded to write out all ofhis career achievements as if I had no clue who he was. Pretty dang funny. Iwrote him back and filled him in on the mistake. I did a bio-illustration of Russ years later because he was just too colorful not to draw, but, unfortunately, he died a few years before I got around to it.
Gotta love the hobby!”
(Ronnie is pictured at the 2009 NLCS game in Philadelphia. Photograph courtesy Ronnie Joyner)
Today’s baseball fans don’t have a Willard Mullin or Bill Gallo to capture their favorite diamond heroes in newspaper art. Photos are everywhere. The pen-and-ink artists disappeared as photographers multiplied.
Don’t tell Ronnie Joyner. Thanks to him, the medium is roaring back in places like Sports Collectors Digest. You might catch him depicting a current player in a rare diversion. Usually, he’s honoring the men of baseball’s yesteryear, adding an insightful biography to every artistic tribute.
His 2010 illustration of a retiree could have graced a sports section 50 years ago. (Why couldn’t Topps ever fit this much handsome info on the back of a card?!?) Best of all, Joyner is rewarding faithful fans of overlooked organizations like the Philadelphia Athletics or the Washington Senators.
Joyner’s arrival in baseball retro art started by collecting autographs through the mail! Here’s how he tells it:
“My whole foray into baseball-related art/writing projects came about as a by-product of writing to players for their autographs. I became good friends with a guy (Bill Bozman) around 1985. We worked together at an ad agency, and we soon found that we were both fanatics for baseball. He played ball for Maryland’s Northwestern High School (alma mater of the great Len Bias), while I had played at Oxon Hill High (alma mater of no one really great!).
He was three years older than me, so we’d never played against each other, but we still had a lot of stories we could share. One day my girlfriend (now wife) and I went over to Bill and his wife’s house for dinner, and I decided to take my old shoebox full of baseball cards for him to look at. I was proud of my old collection of cards, but my eyes were soon popping when Bill showed me HIS collection. Nothing but SIGNED cards, photos, postcards, etc.
It turned out that Bill and his brother has spent a great deal of their free time as kids writing to ballplayers and requesting their autographs. The bulk of what they collected were contemporary players of the day (late-60s/early-70s), but Bill said he once saw an ad somewhere that offered a list of baseball addresses for a dollar. He bought it and was able to acquire a lot of nice signatures of old players who would be gone from this Earth by the time 1980 rolled around.
Well, seeing Bill’s signed items made me feel mighty silly for not having thought of writing in my younger days, but I figured better late than never.
We found a copy of Smalling’s address list [of home addresses for current and former players](I think it was #3 or #4), and we were off and running, writing with a fury. I concentrated on the old-timers first, sending them reprints of their old Goudey cards. Eventually, I expanded my writing to guys through the 1960s, but I wasn’t really interested in writing contemporary players of the time. I always took great pains to hand-write a full-page letter, chock full of info specific to the player — and I was always ultra-polite. While I was into the aspect of quantity, which you discuss, I also found myself enjoying the “extras” that came back in many of my envelopes — a photo, a postcard, a business card, a clipping, or, best of all, a note.
Around 1993 I sent a “reprint” Play Ball card to a little-known Browns catcher named Frank Mancuso. In his return letter he asked me if I knew where he could get a bulk-lot of copies of the card I’d sent him so he could send them to his fans who wrote him requesting a card. I told him I didn’t think it was possible, but I told him I was an artist and I’d be glad to make him a card — even better than the Play Ball card. Youthful cockiness.
Anyway, I did it and Frank and I became good friends. He hooked me up with the St. Louis Browns Historical Society for whom I began to produce their quarterly magazine and reunion programs. I also created a fully illustrated card set commemorating the 1944 AL Champion Brownies, a club Frank was on. I also eventually did another card set of the 1953 Browns. Both sets are still sold by Larry Fritch up in Wisconsin.
Other baseball opportunities shot off from my relationship with Frank and the Browns — work with the Boston Braves Historical Society, the Philadelphia Athletics Historical Society, the Washington Senators Historical Society, and book projects with players like Don Gutteridge, Virgil Trucks, Ned Garver, Frank Thomas (Pirates), Bob Dillinger, and Gus Zernial. All this from simply writing players. It’s been great.”
Tomorrow, discover more about Joyner’s baseball art techniques, along with news of the players that have embraced his creations.