By George Vreckek
Sy Berger, the long-time Topps legend, died on Dec. 14, 2014, a few months after the last time I talked to him.
Sy was a great interviewee and was not what you would call cautious. He would tell you everything, sometimes off the record. I easily saw how people would have fond memories of him, even if their contact was brief. You remember Sy and smile.
Sy was involved in some way with most vintage sports cards created by Topps. If you want to remember Sy’s influence, take a look at the cards of Bob Keegan, who pitched for the White Sox from 1953 to 1958. Keegan had one great year in 1954 when he went 16-9. In 1957 he pitched a no-hitter when he was 37 years old. Otherwise his stats were modest: six years with the Sox and a lifetime record of 40 wins and 36 losses.
However, Keegan was featured on Topps cards every year he was in the majors as well as in 1959 and 1960 while in the minors. He even had a Topps card in 1977 to commemorate his no-hitter from 20 years before. The upbeat bios on Keegan’s cards described him as a good-looking guy who had been a standout basketball and baseball player at Bucknell University.
Wait a minute, didn’t Sy Berger attend Bucknell at the same time as Keegan? You can read between the lines and see that Keegan was one of Sy’s many friends from Bucknell along with fraternity brother Joel Shorin. Shorin’s father was one of the four brothers who ran Topps. Berger joined Topps a few years after Bucknell. The Topps bio writers must have known the connections. Keegan is called the “handsome ex-Bucknell basketball and baseball star.” Keegan signed with only Topps, never appearing on a Bowman card. Berger remained good friends with Keegan, who died in 2001.
Playing with Arnie
Playing a sport with a professional athlete is a memorable experience. About 20 years ago I played golf with Arnold Palmer. At least that is what I tell people; however, I also tell them the rest of the story.
Palmer was playing with a member at Butler National in Oak Brook, Illinois. Palmer was waiting to hit his second shot from the middle of the first fairway, and I was in a separate group teeing off on 10 to start the back nine. The 10th and 1st fairways were close. My very errant drive went into Palmer’s fairway, and I said to Arnie (and everyone else within shouting distance), “Fore!” I retrieved my ball from their midst, and Palmer actually looked at me to see who owned the lousy shot. That was my golf with Arnie.
Playing with ex-Minnesota North Star Alex Pirus
My second experience playing with a professional athlete was much better. If you can skate a little, can dodge slap shots, don’t check, don’t play too seriously and find the right group, I have found you can have fun playing hockey even at an advanced age. I’ve been playing weekly pick-up hockey with a group of mostly older players. We are careful when new players join us to see that they are not too serious about the whole thing, like knowing or caring what the score is.
One of our new players this year looked like many of us…until he stepped on the ice. The newcomer was 61-year-old Alex Pirus, who played in the NHL between 1976 and 1980. He played at Notre Dame and joined the Minnesota North Stars for his rookie season in 1976-77. He scored 20 goals that year on a team where the top seven scorers averaged just 22 years of age.
In a 1977 game between the North Stars and the Winnipeg Jets, 22-year-old Pirus successfully defended 38-year-old Bobby Hull as reported in a Minnesota Star article titled “Jets’ Hull meets his match.” Hull commented, “Before I drive home tonight, I am going to peek in the back seat and make sure that kid isn’t there. What was his name?”
Pirus left professional hockey after the 1980-81 season. He traded on the Chicago Board Options Exchange for 17 years and then began running hockey camps with Hockey Ministries International.
When Pirus was on the ice, he focused on getting the puck to the rest of us and giving us tips on technique and strategy. He played with us, but at an entirely different level. He moved the puck at will around anyone else. I felt about as effective as a pylon in trying to even slow him down.
I have written SCD articles about the whimsical possibility of games involving baseball and football super-senior professional athletes. It is hard to imagine old-timers in those sports back on the playing fields. However, former professionals in some other sports including hockey can still look pretty good playing, especially when you leave out the checking and fighting.
The experience made me realize how much more proficient a professional athlete is than the recreational athlete. Pirus was a great addition to the group, and he offered advice without making you feel like a slug. He signed my Topps card of him.