By George Vrechek
This is the first part of a two-part article looking at the oldest living major leaguers and forming mock All-Star teams from the National and American Leagues. The first part, posted below, looks at the National League.
Collectors have a natural penchant for organizing their collections. As youngsters, we may have sorted our cards by number or favorite players. The kids on my block in the 1950s played baseball dice games with their cards. Snake eyes, or a one and a one, was a home run whether Ted Williams was batting or Ted Abernathy.
Organizing the teams
While the game didn’t make any statistical sense, it did make sense to us to have your “singles” organized by team, all ready to go for the dice games. The teams were kept current by checking the daily sports section for player transactions. If Enos Slaughter got traded to the Yankees, his card was promptly removed from the St. Louis Cardinals stack and moved to the Yanks. Sometimes we created cards for rookies not yet appearing on their own card or put the right uniforms on traded players by doctoring a duplicate of a similar-looking player.
Minor leaguers, retirees and deceased
If a player went back to the minors, he went into a stack at the back of my card box. If I knew he had retired, he went into another stack. There weren’t too many deceased player cards, but they may have had their own section as well. Had I continued organizing and updating my cards from the 1950s, I would now have no one with any team (unless you count those employed as goodwill ambassadors or spring training coaches). I would have a large stack of deceased players, and a small group of guys still with us as retired major league players.
Thinking about living former major league players from the 1950s and earlier is similar to being surprised that our grade school teachers are still doing quite nicely. As kids, we thought them ancient, but now find they may have been only 15 years or so older than we were. However, usually the only time older players make news is when they die. SCD reports the passing of former athletes in most issues.
The 100 oldest survivors
Wikipedia has a list of the 100 oldest living former Major League Baseball players. Players move up the rankings by age or disappear. No one ever moves down the list. Former Senators pitcher Connie Marrero made news last year when he became the No. 1 player on the list at age 101. A news photo reminded me of his 1953 Topps card; it was good to hear that he was still among the retired players in my theoretical baseball card box.
I checked the list of 100 and found that nearly half of the players had appeared on a baseball card. The rest of the players were either only in “the show” for a few games or had the misfortune of playing during WWII when cardboard for baseball cards was as scarce as nylons. Players listed ranged in age from 88-101, with the majority being in the 88-92 bracket. For this article, I used information from the list thought to be current as of January 2013. Unfortunately, the list of 100 will most likely have changed again by the time you read this.
Picking teams for an almost real game
Incredibly, the 46 players who appeared on cards from the lucky 100 divided nicely into National and American League teams, and each position was represented. I thought it would be great to get this gang together, along with those who never made it onto the cardboard. But rather than having them sit and sign cards and balls, I’m thinking they would really like to play a game, sort of like players in the movie Field of Dreams. This isn’t entirely whimsical; the late Chicago real estate businessman Ferd (yes, Ferd) Kramer put together an annual national tennis tournament for players over 90. The event attracted some pretty good players. Double Duty Radcliffe lived to age 103 and threw a pitch in a minor league game at age 96. John Whittemore threw the javelin and shot put in a masters track event at age 104. Herman Smith-Johannsen participated in a ski event at age 104. There are super-senior softball, tennis and even hockey leagues.
Maybe some enterprising show promoter will run with my concept and put together a baseball game for the ages, or at least the aged. But just in case no one does, I thought I would assemble on (SCD) paper fantasy All-Star teams of the oldest living players who appeared on baseball cards – the Super-Senior Baseball Card All-Stars. I get to decide who plays where and when they bat, which is a bit dangerous since I haven’t seen any of these guys play in 50-plus years, and some might no longer be in shape. Here are my teams anyway.
Monte Irvin, batting first and playing right field
- 94 years old, born 2-15-19
- Played 1949-56 with Giants and Cubs; 1938-48 with the Negro and Mexican Leagues
- Batting average .293, HOFer
- Appeared on many cards: 1950-56
- Irvin’s 1951 Bowman has his birthdate as 2-25-21, not an uncommon discrepancy
- Living in Houston, oldest living African-American player
- Involved in the Negro League Baseball Museum
- Has probably lost a step but should do fine leading off. Wait until you see the A.L. battery. They’ll have trouble keeping him from stealing a base.
Red Schoendienst, batting second, playing second base
- 90 years old, born 2-2-23
- Played for Cardinals, Giants and Braves 1945-63
- Batting average .289, HOFer
- Appeared on cards as a player and manager 1948-76
- Still a special assistant coach for the Cardinals in 2012, has worn a baseball uniform for 67 consecutive seasons, might be in the best playing shape of any
- Had dinner at my aunt’s home in Milwaukee in the 1950s and left his photo inscribed to me, which I still have, of course.
Ralph Kiner, batting third, playing left field
- 90 years old, born 10-27-22
- Played for Pirates, Cubs and Indians 46-1955
- Batting average .279 with 369 homers, HOFer
- Appeared on cards 1948-55
- Started in broadcasting in 1961 and still does guest broadcasting appearances for the Mets
- Oldest active announcer
- When he was traded to the Cubs, I traded my entire card collection for Kiner’s ’53 Topps card.
Stan Musial, cleanup hitter, playing first base (note, this was published prior to Musial's Jan. 19 passing)
- 92 years old, born 11-21-20
- Played only for the Cardinals 1941-63
- Batting average .331 with 475 homers, HOFer
- Appeared on Card cards 1948-63, his 1953 Bowman took a beating in the dice games since it remained his “latest” baseball card until late in the 1958 season
- Received Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011
- Wife Lillian died last year, they were married 71 years.
Andy Pafko, batting fifth, playing center field
- 92 years old, born 2-25-21
- Played for Cubs, Dodgers and Braves 1943-59
- Batting average .285 with 213 homers
- Appeared on regular cards plus many exhibit cards 1949-69, his No. 1 1952 Topps card fetches high prices in even low grades, which never made any sense to me.
- One of two remaining players to have been with the Cubs in a World Series (1945)
- Was the starter at a golf club bordering his home in Mount Prospect, Ill.; golf has probably kept his hitting sharp.
Al Dark, batting sixth, playing third base
- 91 years old, born 1-7-22
- Played for Braves, Giants, Cubs, Cards and Phillies 1946-60
- Batting average .289
- Appeared on cards as a player and manager 1949-78
- Managed from 1961-77
- Oldest living manager of a World Series team.
Solly Hemus, batting seventh, playing shortstop
- 89 years old, born 4-17-23
- Played for Cards and Phillies 1946-59
- Batting average .273
- Appeared on cards 1952-61 as a player and manager
- Operates an oil business in Texas
- Mobility impaired after a fall in Alaska; may have to have a backup ready, if Solly can’t go at short.
Mike Sandlock, batting eighth, catching
- 97 years old, born 10-17-15
- Played for Braves, Dodgers and Pirates 1942-53, managed to get into 195 games
- Bullpen catcher and utility infielder
- Batting average .240 with two lifetime homers
- On Topps cards in 1953 and 1954, there is a printing difference on the left side of his 1953 card
- Able to catch Johnny Lindell’s knuckler and went with him in two package trades
- Golfs two or three times a week and hit a drive 200 yards last year.
- Drives to Sunday mass from his home in Greenwich, Conn.
- Active in an organization to help older players
- Third oldest living major league veteran
- At 97, Mike might not want to go nine innings, but he seems to be in pretty good shape; he’s our senior guy, and we have backups ready.
Harry Perkowski, batting ninth, pitching
- 90 years old, born 9-6-22
- Played for Reds and Cubs 1947-55
- Career record of 33-40
- Appeared on cards 1952-55
- Good fielder, sore arm sent him back to minors; retired in 1960
- During WWII was with amphibious forces in Africa, Sicily, Italy and Normandy invasions
- Living in Beckley, W.Va., not far from the coal mining area where he grew up
- Recently gave up bowling and dancing, but I think I can coax him into making one more start. His arm should be better by now.
In the pen, I’ve got Eddie Erautt (88), Cot Deal (90), Johnny Hetki (90) and Dick Starr (91). Turk Lown (a great name, 88) went 55-61 lifetime, mostly as a reliever, and I’ll use him as my closer.
Some of these players didn’t make it onto too many baseball cards. I might need some more pitching down the road (see “Prospects” below). I’m counting on my HOF hitters blowing this game open early.
Catching in the bullpen and ready to come in, if Mike Sandlock needs help, will be Tim Thompson. Tim was a Tiger, an Athletic but fortunately also a Dodger, because I need him to be a National Leaguer. Otherwise, Mike has to go all the way.
With four HOFers in the lineup, it was tough to get a starting nod. I’m fortunate to have strong bench players who can cover every position in the event one of my starters needs a rest.
The bench players with ages and positions: Chuck Kress (91, 1B), Grady Hatton (90, 2B-3B), Vern Benson (88, 3B), Eddie Basinski (90, 2B-SS), Chuck Harmon (88, 3B-OF), Harry Elliott (89, OF), Marv Rackley (91, OF) and Wally Westlake (92, 3B-OF). Rackley and Basinski only had 1947 Tip Top cards, but we needed them on the squad, and they made the cut. Elliott’s only Topps card in 1955 managed to come with three printing differences on the back.
Every team needs a manager. While Schoendienst, Dark and Hemus have all had experience, I think it is too much to ask them to both play and manage. Therefore, I’m tapping future super-senior prospect Tommy Lasorda (85) to handle managing this squad, as well as the media. I’m not going to give him any coaches though, lest we get even sillier. The guys on the bench can handle the coaching boxes, and no one is going to take any coaching advice anyway.
Players without cards
Unfortunately, if you didn’t have a baseball card, you didn’t exist in my 1950s baseball dice games, and you didn’t make it onto my super-senior fantasy team. Most of the players without cards only played in a few games. However the “non-carded” group of National Leaguers includes Lennie Merullo (95 years old), who played 639 games at shortstop for the Cubs between 1941-47; Luis Olmo (93), who appeared in 438 games for the Dodgers and Braves between 1944-51; and Moon Mullen (96), who played in 118 games at second for the 1944 Phillies. Art Kenney (96) pitched in two games for the Boston Bees in July 1938.
I’d like to have these boys on the team, but rules are rules. If they can dig up “regular” cards of themselves from someplace, I’ll gladly add them to the squad.
Although this group is relatively young, all good super-senior teams need to look to the future for potential players. While no one can be guaranteed by the Almighty of making the top 100 oldsters, among the youngsters who have a pretty good chance of moving into future lineups are the following: Ernie Banks (82), Willie Mays (81), Hank Aaron (79), Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax and Frank Robinson (all 77). Frank Robinson can go in either league.
In an upcoming post, we’ll look at the American League squad.
Information for this article has been obtained from many sources. While believed to be accurate, the information may not be as solid as what you would find on the backs of their baseball cards.
George Vrechek is a freelance contributor to SCD and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.