When you’re a kid, you don’t think much about them. “Them” are the players nobody really wants, the ones that cause a disappointed sigh when you open your card pack, the ones who don’t even have a team logo on their caps because they’re always being traded or cut, the guys who never make it on a poster. They are the ones who end up folded at the top and attached with a clothes pin in the spokes of your bicycle.
You know who they are. Guys like Whammy Douglas or Jerry Kindall or Herm Wehmeier. The bubble gum is barely in pieces in your mouth and you see them and know that they have no future in your cigar box. They warrant the same level of disdain as a checklist. And they’re not even a full cut above a team photo or cards that say “Future Stars” or “Philly Pickets” or “Keystone Combo.” They won’t bring anything in trade. They probably won’t be on the team the card says they’re on when the season is over. People won’t even steal these guys when they go on hocking sprees. Worst of all, it won’t matter if you have doubles of them — it’s the spokes or nothing.
Once in a while you look on the back of their cards. It might say that Herm or Chuck or Ned hit a single in a key minor league game, or that his mom was a softball pitcher. There isn’t room for a lot else because there’s a seemingly endless list of cities you’ve never heard of — Spartanburg, Danville, Pocatello, Ponca City — followed by letters — I.I.I., S.A.L., F.S.L. — that mean even less to a 10-year old. This is where these guys played but it means little or nothing because none of these are places you read about on the sports pages. They might not even be real.
Much later in life, when you are as old or older than these guys, you see some of them up close. You see why their faces seem sad on their baseball cards. You see why they will always be so — a hitch in their swing, a funny throwing motion, trouble pitching with men on base, a hair too slow on the pivot, poor plate discipline or, sometimes, you get the sense the team’s general manager or field manager just didn’t want them, that they represented the spokes in their team bike.
You see them differently at this age. You see them not as the guy who played instead of your hero the one day you got to see a big league game, or as the first guy you got from your favorite team and you got him once or twice again before you got anyone else from that team. You see them as someone like you, someone who dreamed at night about hitting a game-winning home run in the World Series, or striking out the side in the ninth inning of a perfect game. You see them as guys who maybe were good in Little League and maybe in high school, then just struggled to try and keep afloat after that, hoping they would get their one big chance and make good. You see them not as kids, but as guys who got old early in their baseball lives and who, at 30, always had their duffel bags packed.
During spring training, there are a number of these guys around, especially in the early weeks. Maybe one or two of them catches on for one last shot, or gets offered a coach’s job or a minor league manager’s job. Maybe a couple go overseas to play.
You sit in the stands and watch them and you know, now, what it’s like; that they know they are forever in the spokes of little kids’ bikes, but that they will press on because this is still their dream. A part of you smiles at their doggedness. A part of you admires them. A part of you wants to go up to them and apologize on behalf of all the guys like them for sticking their baseball cards in the spokes of your bicycle. And, still, a part of you knows that if you were a kid and you got their card your first thought would be to look for a clothes pin.
NOTE: Herm Wehmeier was one of the first baseball cards I ever got. He was listed as a Detroit Tiger and was wearing a Tigers cap. He was looking skyward, wearing a wistful expression as if he was hopeful that a bit of baseball magic would descend upon him and grant him one more season. He didn’t get it. He was done at age 30 and did not live to reach age 50.
The second Tiger card I got was Coot Veal…Christian name: Orville Inman Veal. He signed his name “Orville.” His face reminded me of someone you’d see on a show like Mayberry RFD or Petticoat Junction. He would’ve been the bag boy at the local grocery store.
I saw Coot play the very first time I attended a Tigers’ game. He had two hits and drove in three runs. He became one of my favorite cards.
By: Francis Kinlaw