Monday, May 5, 2014

The 1957 Topps Art Houtteman Card

We were poring through hundreds of baseball cards that my friend's son obtained when I learned the real treasure of card collecting as we came across a 1957 Topps card of Cleveland Indians pitcher Art Houtteman.

A Beckman baseball card magazine valued the card, if in mint condition, at $10. This card was old and the corners were frayed. Even if my friend's son could find a card dealer, he'd probably only get a few dollars for the card. But to me, the card was worth far more than $10, or any price really. And I felt the same about the other cards in the collection.

My friend's son recently helped an elderly man clean out his house in preparation for sale. Apparently, the man was a hoarder because the son said he hauled away more than a dozen truck loads of junk. The elderly man said the son could keep whatever he found, but for the most part he found only trash and waste.

But he did come across several old U.S. and foreign coins, books of stamps, old photographs and hundreds of baseball cards.

He took the baseball cards home and then asked me this past weekend to help him evaluate their worth. I am the worst one to do that. I'll get hung up on worthless cards, remembering who the players were, stories behind them, the teams they played for and the players who were involved in trades with them. Each card, regardless of their booked worth, had a story I loved.

It took a few hours to go through a box that day. He had an old Joe Pepitone card and I told him the story in Jim Bouton's Ball Four about how Yankees players filled Pepitone's hair dryer with talcum powder during a game. Pepitone was particular about his hair and used the dryer to style it after each game. The Yankees were far ahead in the game when a player slipped into the locker room to doctor Pepitone's dryer. Unfortunately, the Yanks blew the lead and lost the game and the mood was somber when they returned to the clubhouse. Pepitone turned on the dryer and, in Bouton's word, “Whoosh,” he was covered with the white powder.

One card, a great story.

The cards were organized by era in some cases. He had a lot of cards from the 1980s and 1990s. There were several Cal Ripken cards, along with Barry Bonds. The friend's son found an earlier card featuring Bobby Bonds and, because he is not much of a baseball fan, asked if they were related.

Another card, another story.

He did find some gems. A 1967 Mickey Mantle card booked at about $30. He had a 1974 Nolan Ryan that was worth $50. A 1960 Sal Maglie in a St. Louis Cardinals uniform would only bring $5, but it was still neat. I never realized Sal “The Barber” Maglie played for St. Louis.

APBA players know baseball. We replay seasons, using actual players and we know their tendencies at the plate. But the cards the game company puts out, while reproducing accurate game results, are only numbers on a white card. We know batters' potential for power by glancing at the APBA cards. We know if the pitcher is good by reading his grade on the card. But we really don't know the player.

I realized this when we came across the Houtteman card. I'm replaying the 1950 baseball season using the APBA cards. Houtteman has pitched during replay games of the Tigers in my replay. In this 1957 card, though, Houtteman is wearing a Cleveland Indians uniform.

For the first time, I saw a picture of his face and the personality of who he was came through. Here was a reproduction of Art Houtteman, a guy who pitches every four or five days for the Tigers in my replay.  I only knew him as the white APBA card with red numbers. I read up on him and learned he only pitched during three games for the Indians that year before being sold to Baltimore.

Apparently, ol' Art, who is one of the aces in my 1950 replay, was a trouble-maker and often in the team doghouse. Although he was depicted on his card in a Cleveland uniform, he ended up in Baltimore that year. He made four relief appearances for the Orioles before he was sent down to the Vancouver Mounties of the Pacific Coast League. He returned to pitch for Baltimore for one more game at the end of the season — his last in the majors.

And here was his baseball card. Worth maybe $10 at the very most, but worth so much more to me with that story.

Each card has a story like that. Each player who made it to the big leagues and who had a card depicting his likeness has a story like that. Sure, there are the Mickey Mantles and the Nolan Ryans that the collectors covet. But there are tons of the Art Houttemans and the other marginal players who fans like us APBA players love to learn more of.

I spent nearly three hours digging through the box of cards, telling the son stories about some of the players. I don't know if he enjoyed those tales or just humored me, thinking I was a babbling old timer.

We'll find out sometime. He has several more boxes of cards that need going through.

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