Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Fritz, We Hardly Knew Ye by Rev. Norb

1965 was a pip of a year for baseball: The artists formerly known as the Houston Colt .45s changed their name to the Astros upon receipt of the lease to their new home, the Astrodome (making them the first major league baseball team to play their home games in a venue named after a character voiced by Don Messick), the Braves finished up their tenure in Milwaukee before heading to the Land of the Boiled Peanut, and the Los Angeles Angels changed their name to the California Angels, presumably in preparation to change it to something even stupider in the 21st Century. The Angels’ roommates at Dodger Stadium for the 1965 season – unshockingly, the Los Angeles Dodgers themselves – won the NL pennant despite pitcher Juan Marichal of the Giants attacking catcher (and former Sheboygan Indian) John Roseboro with a baseball bat during a late-season game, then overcame a 0-2 World Series deficit to upend the Minnesota Twins in seven games, largely on the strength of ace Sandy Koufax – who famously sat out Game 1 due to Yom Kippur – and his complete-game victories in Games 5 and 7. Willie Mays hit his 500th home run, Mickey Mantle played his 2000th game (all with the Yankees), and the Kansas City A's trotted Satchel Paige out to the mound at the grand old age of 59 for his final MLB start in a tilt against the Boston Red Sox, where he gave up no runs and one hit (a double to Carl Yastrzemski) in three innings of work. Zoilo Versalles of the Twins and Willie Mays of the Giants were the AL and NL MVPs. The season, as stated previously, was a pip.
            The pippitude of 1965 extended from the primary equation of the MLB season itself to baseball's first derivative, baseball cards. The 1965 Topps set is a rollicking and jolly 598-card assortment of bold shapes, bright colors, and manly joie de vivre, one of the best-looking sets of a visually peerless decade. The most expensive card of the set, were one inclined to undertake a project of this particular tenor, is, as usual, Mickey Mantle. Mickey Mantle is almost always the most valuable card in any baseball card set that has Mickey Mantle as a member (when there’s a set with a card that’s even pricier than The Mick, you got big trouble [looking at you,1963 Pete Rose rookie card]). Given the infernal pull of the Commerce Comet on the commerce of secondary market baseball card trading, this reporter often finds it more interesting to note what the second-most valuable card in any given baseball card set is, assuming that the most expensive item on that year’s to-do list is almost always Mantle. In the 1952 Topps set, the second-priciest card is Braves slugger Eddie Mathews. In 1959, it’s the Bob Gibson rookie card. In 1964, it’s the Pete Rose second-year card, restoring the natural order of things so grievously uprooted in 1963. And, for the 1965 Topps set, the silver medal – per the Beckett Baseball Card Price Guide, generally held to be the industry standard – goes to neither Koufax, nor Mays, nor any other celebrated hero of the 1965 season, but instead to a little-known righty from Northern Wisconsin: The immortal Fritz Ackley.
            Florian Frederick Ackley was born April 10th, 1937, in the fair hamlet of Hayward – a city of just over two thousand hardy souls, tucked away in the remote northwest quarter of Wisconsin, and home to the annual World Lumberjack Championships. Hayward’s most well-known landmark is the World’s Largest Muskie, conveniently located outside the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame (a photograph of the Parasites cavorting inside the creature’s mouth can be viewed in the accompanying graphics to the Rat Ass Pie album). Possessed of one of the truly great unibrows of his generation (second only to Dodgers utility man and part-time Dick Tracy villain Wally Moon) and signed by the White Sox organization upon graduating from Hayward High School in 1954, Fritz began his world-beating baseball career with the Class D Dubuque Packers of the Mississippi-Ohio Valley League, posting a 2-3 record with a 4.76 ERA. Over the course of the next decade, Ackley spent time with the Superior Blues, Waterloo White Hawks, Duluth-Superior White Sox, Colorado Springs Sky Sox, Davenport DavSox, Lincoln Chiefs, Savannah/Lynchburg White Sox, capping off his tenth year in the minors with a brilliant 18-win season for the AAA Indianapolis Indians. As a late season call-up for the big league team, Fritz made his major league debut on September 21st, 1963 in front of a raucous crowd of 4,291 at Tiger Stadium, giving up three runs over six innings of work in a 4-3 White Sox (Chicago edition) loss to the Tigers (Ackley received a no-decision, Denny McLain took the complete game victory for Detroit). Undeterred by this brief speedbump on the road to greatness, Ackley took the mound six days later for the second game of a doubleheader against the Washington Senators, scattering two hits and a lone run over the course of seven strong innings of work, as the White Sox cruised to an easy 7-1 victory over the Nats. This would be Ackley's lone big league victory that year... or, for that matter, any other year. Fritz stuck around as a reliever with the parent club for the beginning of the 1964 season, but, after three more games with the White Sox in which his ERA ballooned to an unwieldy 8.53, Fritz was sent back down to Indianapolis, traded to St. Louis, and assigned to the Jacksonville Suns of the International League, never to return to the bigs. Ackley's lifetime record in the majors – consisting of five games spread out over the end of the 1963 and beginning of the 1964 seasons – would be permanently frozen at a pristine 1-0, with a 4.19 lifetime ERA, 17 strikeouts, and 11 bases on balls. Although the caption on the back of Ackley's 1965 baseball card reads “opportunity is tapping Fritz on the shoulder after ten years in the minors,” Fritz spent 1965 ringing up an 8-11 mark for Jacksonville, followed by a trade to Pittsburgh, reassignment to the Tulsa Oilers, then the Columbus Jets, then back to Hayward, where Fritz became a manager: Manager of the Chip-A-Flo Lodge, conveniently located on the Chippewa Flowage. Fritz Ackley's 1965 baseball card is worth $200 in mint condition.
            At this point, it might do to inject a little context. What, exactly, does it mean when a player's baseball card trades for two hundred bucks American? Well, for one thing, it means the player ain’t no Mickey Mantle: The Mick’s 1965 card books at a hefty $600 in mint condition, triple that of Florian Frederick Ackley (the collector appeal of Mantle-iana is so great that the card commemorating Game 3 of the 1964 World Series – captioned “Mantle's Clutch Homer” – is itself the eighth-priciest card of the 1965 set, listing at $80 in mint). That aside, baseball cards with that hefty of a price tag, unsurprisingly, are generally reserved only for first ballot Hall of Famers and the occasional chronic gambler with HOF-level credentials. Per Beckett, there are two other 1965 baseball cards which command the same dollar value as that of Fritz Ackley: Pete Rose and Roberto Clemente. Rose was a 17-time all-star, and remains MLB's all-time leader in hits (4,256), games played (3,562), at-bats (14,053), and plate appearances (15,890). The beloved Clemente was a 15-time all-star, a National League and World Series MVP, racked up exactly 3000 hits, and died while manning a relief flight for earthquake victims in Nicaragua. Fritz Ackley's claim to fame is that he never lost any of the five games in which he appeared. Even some of the players whose cards’ net worth hasn't quite attained the lofty heights of Ackley-dom had fairly decent years in 1965: Willie Mays hit 52 of his 660 home runs that year, en route to his second NL MVP award and the twelfth of his twenty consecutive All-Star seasons, and his 1965 card books at a measly $150. Hank Aaron's home run record might have only lasted 33 years, but he still holds the all-time MLB records for RBI (2,297), total bases (6,856), and extra-base hits (1,477); his card is worth but half an Ackley – $100. A hundred bucks is also the going rate for a mint condition Sandy Koufax, pitcher of more victories in the 1965 World Series than Fritz Ackley pitched in his entire big-league career. Ernie Banks hit his 400th homer in 1965, Tony Perez played his first full season in the majors in 1965, and Jim “Catfish” Hunter, bypassing the minor leagues entirely, made his major league (and baseball card) debut in 1965. None of their cards break the century mark, dollarwise, let alone threaten the two hundred dollar plateau. At this point, one might be reasonably be forgiven for asking the obvious question: OKAY, SO WHAT THE HELL IS THE DEAL WITH THE FRITZ ACKLEY CARD???
            The roots of the deal can be, in a roundabout way, traced back to MLB’s 1960’s expansion: From the dawn of the 20th Century through 1959, the NL and AL each featured eight teams. In 1959,  Topps Baseball was a 572-card set. Figuring around twenty-five players for each of the sixteen major league teams, and one card to a player, that’s still only 400 cards – leaving 172 additional cardboard rectangles to fill. Thus, pretty much anyone who could walk, stagger, or crawl in front of a camera got to be on a baseball card: Managers got a card, rookies and prospects got cards, all-stars got two cards, World Series games got their own cards, even commissioner Ford fricking Frick got a card. By the mid-sixties, however, the sixteen existing teams had been joined by the Angels, Astros, Mets and Senators Mk. II, thrusting an additional hundred players into the mix. Meanwhile, reflecting a presumably reasonably inelastic demand for baseball cards, the Topps series had expanded very little – nudging up from 572 cards in 1959 to only 598 in 1965. By the mid-sixties, there were a lot less extra cards to fill. As a result, there would be no more cards for front office executive types, no more double cards for all-stars, and multiple rookies were squished together on a single card. The Catfish Hunter rookie card is a quad occupancy deal – the late A's hurler's postage-stamp-sized mug sits among similarly-sized portraits of three other can't-miss Kansas City prospects. This, too, is the situation for the duplexed 1965 Fritz Ackley card: Florian Frederick Ackley's delightfully-unibrowed kisser occupies only the left side of the card bearing the half-correct heading “CARDS 1965 ROOKIE STARS,” while the right half is given over to a player who actually wound up suiting up for the Cardinals. Between Fritz and his rookie cardmate, the two pitchers would combine for 330 lifetime wins and four Cy Young awards, which is because... the $200 Fritz Ackley rookie card is also... the $200 Steve Carlton rookie card. And that is the story behind the 1965 Fritz Ackley card. Hey, at less than $67 an eyebrow, you might need one yourself.

No comments: