Beginnings and endings.
They’re all around us, all the time, whether we are able to or want to see them.
For baseball fans, nowhere are the game’s beginnings and endings so poignantly evident as they are during Spring Training. And they’re just about impossible to ignore.
There is the grizzled veteran moving over to first base after a decade in the outfield or across the diamond at third. He’s still fit, still a torrid hitter, but can he make the transition? Time … and Spring … will tell.
And then there is the old man, trying to hang on with yet another team, or maybe lumbering into camp with his usual team but decidedly reduced from his prime. Gray hair, a paunchy belly, a gimpy gait, flat muscles, extended warm-up times … they’re all telltale signs of baseball’s old men.
Thing is, in order to reach old age in baseball — say, 38 or 40 or 42 — you have to be somebody in the first place.
Probably, you were an All-Star somewhere along the line. Certainly, you’ve collected a lot of playing time and shown your self to be dependable, and you’ve also piled up a lot of *something* along the way — hits, runs, wins, saves, strikeouts.
And, if you do find yourself among baseball’s geriatric crowd, there is a darn good chance you’re something even more … a superstar, likely, maybe even a Hall of Famer in waiting.
No matter which group you find yourself in, though, one common tie binds most of the guys who play the game for two decades or so: they have tasted some sort of postseason glory during their careers.
But, that’s not always the case.
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The roll of players who never made it to the World Series, in fact, could rival some of the best teams ever assembled — names like Ken Griffey Jr., Ryne Sandberg, Phil Niekro, Rod Carew, Frank Thomas, Ichiro Suzuki.
It’s a fascinating list of players, and served as the main inspiration for my decision to pick a card here on Day 31 of my 2019 Spring Training Baseball Card Challenge that shows a player who never won a World Series.
As compelling as all those guys are, though, no Fall Classic outsider tugs at the heartstrings quite like Mr. Cub, Hall of Famer Ernie Banks.
Banks served notice early on that he was something special, smacking 44 home runs in his second season in Chicago (1955) before pouring on the gas in 1958 and 1959 to cop the National League Most Valuable Player award each of those seasons.
The Cubbies weren’t much to look at in those days, though, losing 90, 81, 94, and 92 games in Banks’ first four full seasons. They did a bit better during his MVP campaigns, then bottomed out in 1962 and again in 1966, losing 103 games both years.
In ’67, though, Chicago climbed all the way to 87 wins and a third-place finish in the NL. Another third in 1968 led to optimism for 1969, and the Cubs looked like they might win the sparkling new NL East division for most of the summer. Of course, a late stumble, coupled with the surging and Amazin’ New York Mets left Banks and his teammates on the outside yet again.
And, as it turned out, that 1969 season would be Banks’ last as a full-time player.
In 1970, he was limited to 72 games and hit just 12 home runs, but the team did finish second again, winning 84 games.
That continued strong showing in the standings was enough to bring Banks back for one last run at October baseball, at the tender age of 40.
About the time Spring Training 1971 rolled to full steam, the first packs of 1971 Topps baseball cards hit store shelves. Collectors must have been taken aback by the black borders, but many were probably wowed by the photo on card backs. And, while there was no Banks card in that first series, astute fans surely realized he’d be there later on — and he was, apparently captured in mid-sentence on card #525.
As it turned out, that would be his final Topps card.
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Well, almost …
Because Topps likes to tinker, to test things out. And one of the things they tested out that summer was a ticket-shaped set called Baseball’s Greatest Moments, and you couldn’t very well talk about baseball’s greatest moments in 1971 without invoking Ernie Banks … so there he is on card #36.
Among the many great Banks moments Topps could have chosen to commemorate, they landed on his five grand slams — grand slammers, in 1971 Topps vernacular — in 1955.
The card is laid out in a horizontal format, with a color head shot on the left, and deckle-bordered black-and-white action shot showing Banks coming out of the batter’s box to the right. The back is a miniature above-the-fold newspaper with the five grand slams highlighted in the “article” title, with a cropped portion of the front action shot to the left of a block of descriptive text.
It’s a great card from a great, scarce test issue that honored one of the great players of the era — whether or not he ever made it to the World Series.
And, by pairing this card with Banks’ base card, Topps paid subtle homage to Ernie’s enthusiasm for the game — “Let’s play two!”.
Check out the entire series of 2019 Spring Training Challenge posts here.
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