In a lot of ways, Bob Friend and his 1960 Leaf baseball card were a match made in cardboard heaven.
You say your memory is fuzzy about one or both? Or maybe you forgot all about them?
Uh-huh, that’s the way it’s always been for these two.
Friend debuted for the Pittsburgh Pirates at the age of 20 in 1951 after just a couple seasons of minor league experience. The native of Lafayette, Indiana, acquitted himself fine, too — a 6-10 record, but with a decent 4.27 ERA.
You might scoff at those “fine” and “decent” labels, but when you consider that the Bucs finished 64-90, well, Friend’s rookie performance approaches All-Star levels … relatively speaking, you understand.
In fact, the backdrop of his team made Friend’s accomplishments stand out all through the 1950s — by the time the new decade dawned, Friend was a workhorse, a consistent 15-game winner, and a threat to touch 20 (he went 22-14 in 1958).
And, sure, his cumulative record stood at 103-127 entering 1960, and — yes — he had sort of tanked in 1959, at 8-19 with a 4.03 ERA.
But all through the 1950s, his teams posted just one winning season, which, not coincidentally, came in 1958.
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Friend was a star who stood out on his own team but was more or less swallowed up by their general lack of luster when it came to impressing a wider baseball audience.
Then, of course, Pittsburgh broke out with their storied championship run in 1960, and names like Roberto Clemente, Roy Face, Vern Law, Dick Groat, Don Hoak, Bill Mazeroski, and others became news on the national scene.
And Bob Friend did, too, posting 18 wins and making two All-Star teams before losing two games in the Pirates’ thrilling seven-game World Series win over the New York Yankees.
As if by some cardboard kismet, Leaf returned to the hobby scene that very summer for the first time in over a decade.
And, suddenly, collectors who had been left with the choice of Topps, a regional set here or there, maybe a set of nothing but Ted Williams cards in years past had a meaty 144-card issue to sink their hobby teeth into.
Ah, but since Topps had the exclusive right to issue cards with gum, Leaf sold their cards with, uh, marbles — five cards plus a marble in each pack, for a nickel.
The cards themselves featured black-and-white studio shots of the players, complete with the halo of light that makes any picture feel like that Jesus painting hanging in the dark recesses of your great grandmother’s back bedroom.
But these were baseball cards, darn it, and baseball cards of current players. And, yes, that included Bob Friend, Pirates hero, on card #53.
Things change fast in life and on the diamond, though, and Pittsburgh was back to losing in 1961, and in 1963 and 1964, with a fourth-place winning record thrown in for good measure in 1962.
They were winners again in 1965, Friend’s last summer in the Steeltown, but only by record, not by pennant. By then, their former ace(ish) had fallen into sub-.500 land for good, and he rode out the string on his career with a 1966 season in New York split between the Yankees and Mets.
Overall, he finished his MLB career with a losing record.
We wouldn’t see them again until the 1990s, when Donruss dusted off the brand for a new generation of collectors.
And the 1960 Leaf Bob Friend?
It’s an ephemeral yet somehow eternal reminder of a star pitcher and a star-crossed card company who came together at just the right moment to make a golden hobby memory.
Even if it does get a bit fuzzy from time to time.
You can occasionally find an unopened pack of 1960 Leaf baseball cards on eBay. Much more readily available, though, are the wax wrappers that once housed the cards and marbles …
They’re a more affordable option that still provides the flavor of the day, and would make a great stocking stuffer — or gift wrap! — don’t you think?
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