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Musings on Satchel and Robby

If you’ve ever wondered about the iconic status of Topps, you need look no further than Satchel Paige’s 1953 card, which is easily the nicest card that exists of the legendary figure from the Negro leagues. I mention the designation of Topps as an icon in this regard, but I really should refer to it as is The Merriam Webster Topps Dictionary. That’s where the iconic status comes from: when your typos wind up becoming firmly entrenched in the lexicon.

Topps misspelled Satchel on the only card the company ever made of Paige, adding an extra “l” to Satchel. For thousands of casual fans, the 1953 Topps card was the first and in many cases only exposure that they had to the most famous player from the Negro leagues, and thus the misspelled first name became all but institutionalized for several generations of fans.

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The 1953 Topps Satchel Paige card is shown at right.

Oh, I’ll admit that it has been largely cleaned up now by the expansion of the Information Age and the dawn of the Internet, but there are, no doubt, hundreds of artifacts out there with the misspelling. I was at Mike Shannon’s restaurant in St. Louis several weeks ago, and in the “Hall of Fame” room in the lower level of the restaurant, there was some artwork with the misspelling, which got me to recounting to some of the other diners about the power or the original Topps mistake.

The 1953 Topps card included the same misspelling on the back, giving additional weight to it, reinforcing the initial mistake. Lots of eBay listings carry the extra “l” and some early auction catalogs had it as well, but like I say, the Information Age has helped clear it up over the last 20 years or so and the dramatically increased exposure for the Negro leagues hasn’t hurt, either.

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Now here’s a tangentially related story that I assume Ole’ Satch might have approved of (this is the Blogosphere, so I am willing to loosen up and end a sentence with a preposition). In 1971, I started working at the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations at the Pentagon in my last year in the Navy, and one of my first reactions as I waddled around the 17 miles or corridors was, quite literally, a question. “How come there are so many toilets in this place?” I asked myself.

It really was one of the first things that struck me about the building, and I had walked a good chunk of the corridors in the various rings, not because of an interest in aerobic exercise (70 percent of Americans smoked in those days), but rather because I wanted to see as many of the museum-quality ship models that were strewn about as I could.

Anyway, it only took 36 years to clear up the question about the toilets. From a book I am currently reading about the Pentagon, The House of War by James Carroll, comes word that there were 200 of them all told. Turns out that when the place was officially opened in 1943, President Roosevelt showed up for the ribbon cutting and spotted a “Whites Only” sign over one of the restrooms, a Jim Crow vestige obviously aimed at making the facility comply with Arlington, Va., segregation prohibitions. So that’s why there were so many of them!

FDR promptly told Pentagon officials (the 1943 equivalent of) “I don’t think so.” Toilet accomodations were thusly integrated, making the Pentagon the only place in Arlington to have such egalitarian ground rules in that particular area.

And there’s an epilogue, too. The next spring, the Weathermen underground organization blew up one of our beloved restrooms in a May 19, 1972, bit of terrorism that was part of their protest of President Nixon’s bombing of Hanoi during the Vietnam War. I remember the various demonstrations blocking our ability to get to work one day that May, and I remember seeing the blown-up men’s room, though I wasn’t working at the time of the explosion.

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In sticking to the integration theme, I am sure you’ve noticed that a number of Major League Baseball players have decided to wear No. 42 on April 15 to honor Jackie Robinson and mark the 60th anniversary of his breaking the color line. Ken Griffey Jr. was reportedly the one who pitched the idea to Commissioner Selig, who quite rightly was enthusiastic about the idea.

So the “retirement” of No. 42, which had been engineered by MLB a decade earlier at the 50th anniversary of the historic event, was given a one-day moratorium for the tribute, and a number of other players, including one Barry Bonds, quickly signed on.

I think it’s a great idea, and I also like the idea because of the link to our hobby. I suspect that by the time April 15 rolls around, every team will have a No. 42 out there, creating a number of wonderful collectibles in the process. We asked MLB officials what was going to happen to the jerseys; initial word was that there was no official word yet. The MLB.com site winds up the repository for an imposing pile of game-used stuff, so I assume that’s an option, or maybe the option.

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Original Jackie Robinson artwork by Darryl Vlasak (at right)

It would also seem to be a great way to raise money for charitable purposes, something that MLB has done in a big way for many years in conjunction with The Jackie Robinson Foundation. How much would somebody pay for a game-used No. 42 jersey used by Ken Griffey Jr. and signed by him? I dunno, but I bet it’s a pile.

A number of newspapers recounted the good-news story of modern ballplayers offering such proper genuflection to one of the giants who came before them; they then fouled off the rest of the story with a tortured linkage.

Several newspapers in MLB cities juxtaposed the No. 42 jersey story with the yesterday’s news demographic dirge about how the overal number of blacks has declined in Major League Baseball over the last two decades.

Gimmee a break! While the change in MLB’s demographics is a legitimate story – think about baseball’s expanded and wildly successful efforts to tap Latin American nations for talent – linking it to what Jackie Robinson did is silly and ultimately trivializes what he accomplished.

What Robinson faced in 1947 – and indeed, what a generation of black ballplayers faced – was a brutal, malignant institution that denied the basic humanity of an entire race. The decline in the numbers of blacks playing Major League Baseball – now below 10 percent – has been the result of a number of factors, virtually all rising independent of one another and hardly the result of any Pumpise Green-like quota somehow quietly installed by bigoted execs eager to cling to some final shadow of the color line.

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The last bit of business in this blog entry will be to address – albeit a bit collectively – some of the postings to my earlier blogs. Some of them included the kind of broader criticisms of SCD that we get – and take quite seriously – but don’t necessarily lend themselves to individual responses via the blog.

So I’ll note that we sincerely value our readers and our advertisers, and that auction advertising is indeed a major component of the magazine. Like everything else, SCD has changed dramatically over the past 10-15 years, with a good deal of that change dictated by the 800-lb. e
lephant in the room: the Internet. The articles are not paid for by advertisers; any time we do special sections with linked editorial and advertising content we diligently label the pages thusly.

The charges that our coverage has diverted away from new cards is a fair one; that was an editorial decision that was deemed of strategic importance quite a few years ago, and in any event, we feel our sister publication, Tuff Stuff magazine, offers a great repository for articles and features about the newer material. I could also add that the change is hardly absolute: our plan is to have the 2007 Topps Heritage cards on the cover of this week’s issue of SCD (May 4).

Other criticisms of individual advertisers also must face a collective response: grousing about specific businesses and individuals is, I guess, one of the democratic aspects of the Blogosphere, but it doesn’t strike me as particularly engrossing debate for forums where we try to involve our readers in some of the important issues facing the hobby. Companies that provide newly created autographed memorabilia, for example, confront a host of costs and expenses, and then price their material accordingly. Oh wait, that’s what virtually every business in America does, quite routinely, and consumers respond in the fashion that suits them.

As for carping about Mr. Mint, whom I would quite unabashedly characterize as a friend, all I can say is that the denunciations seem “sooo last week.”

See you next week.

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