By Arnold Bailey
TCMA produced many unusual baseball cards during 15 years in the business and one of the most interesting pictures is of the only keystone combo that played together on two different pennant-winning franchises.
The card is in a series of 18 produced in 1983 labeled TCMA Playball Postcards.
In an awkward pose, it pictures shortstop Alvin Dark and second baseman Eddie Stanky, who led the Boston Braves to a pennant in 1948 then, after a big trade, helped the New York Giants capture the National League championship three years later. Both teams lost in their respective World Series, the Braves to the Cleveland Indians and the Giants to cross-city rivals, the New York Yankees.
The TCMA set pictures players from the 1940s. Six cards feature New York Yankees including team cards for 1941, ’42 and ’47, all three pennant winners and two World Series champs. Three cards picture Braves players, two picture Red Sox and there is one card each with players from the Indians, Pirates, Phillies, Cardinals, Athletics, Tigers and Browns.
TCMA had a busy year in 1983 with production including some 55 minor league team card sets and 10 big-league retrospective issues.
With the 1948 Braves (on TCMA’s card number 9), Dark was honored as the league’s Rookie of the Year after batting .322 and solidifying Boston’s infield. The fiery Stanky was traded to Boston by Brooklyn after the 1947 season, as the Dodgers opened up the second base position for Jackie Robinson. Stanky was injured early in the ’48 season and played just 67 games but batted .320 and provided the spark that ignited the Braves to win their first pennant in 34 years.
Dark and Stanky became close friends while with the Braves and roommates on road trips.
In some ways they were similar. Both possessed strong wills to win. Neither liked Braves manager Billy Southworth. Each earned All-Star honors three times. And both began their big-league careers rather late in life. Dark’s start was delayed until he was 25, due primarily to his service with the Marines in World War II. Stanky didn’t reach the majors until he was 27, a delay caused by his lack of size and perceived limited ability.
Dark was a terrific athlete, a three-sport star in high school and college. He had offers to play pro football, but chose baseball. And it proved to be a good choice as he spent 12 seasons as a player and 14 more as a manager.
Stanky had less natural ability. Manager Leo Durocher, for whom Stanky played with both with the Dodgers and Giants, summed him up best: “He can’t hit, he can’t run, and he can’t field…all he can do is win.” Stanky would help his teams win often enough to spend a decade in the majors as a player, and nine more as a manager.
The two were traded together by the Braves after the 1949 season, paired as a package in a blockbuster deal with the Giants that brought four players – outfielders Sid Gordon and Willard Marshall, pitcher Red Webb and shortstop Buddy Kerr – to Boston.
Background information on the Dark-Stanky TCMA card underlines the importance of a keystone combination to a ballclub: “The secret of any team’s success in baseball is strength up the middle and Dark and Stanky provided that necessary ingredient in leading the Boston Braves to the 1948 National League pennant.”
The Dark-Stanky combo is just one of thousands of such double-play duos in big league history, and certainly not the best known, the most celebrated or the most talented.
Probably the best known pairs shortstop Joe Tinker and second baseman Johnny Evers. They gained that level of fame with the Cubs of the early 1900s because of a catchy bit of baseball poetry, a Franklin Pierce Adams refrain that celebrates into mythology the double play expertise of “Tinker to Evers to Chance.” The “Chance” in the poem was Frank Chance, the Cubs’ first baseman. This combo paced the Chicago team to four pennants and two World Series championships between 1902 and 1912.
The three Cubs and the poetry that defined them all ended up in Cooperstown at the Baseball Hall of Fame, but Tinker and Evers aren’t the only double play duo made up of two Hall of Famers. There are several more.
Second baseman Frankie Frisch played with five different shortstops who would become fellow Hall of Famers during his 19-season career – Dave Bancroft, Travis Jackson and George Kelly with the Giants and Rabbit Maranville and Leo Durocher with the Cardinals. (Kelly was primarily a first baseman but played several games at second base.)
Durocher, a star shortstop long before his colorful managerial career, was paired with three Hall of Fame second basemen – Rogers Hornsby and Tony Lazzeri in addition to Frisch. Jackson, at shortstop, included among his second base partners Hall of Famer Fred Lindstrom and the previously mentioned George Kelly.
Pee Wee Reese’s best known second base teammate with the Dodgers was Jackie Robinson, but the Brooklyn shortstop and captain also teamed with Hall of Famer Billy Herman.
Reese’s contemporary counterpart in New York was Yankees shortstop Phil Rizzuto. His second base partners included Hall of Famer Joe Gordon who, later in his career with the Indians, had fellow Hall of Famer Lou Boudreau at shortstop. (Rizzuto and Gordon are together on card No. 17 in the 1983 TCMA set).
The Red Sox featured two future Hall of Fame inductees in the middle of their infield in the late 1930s and early 1940s – Bobby Doerr and Joe Cronin.
Shortstop Nellie Fox and second baseman Luis Aparicio displayed their double play magic for several seasons with the White Sox and both have Hall of Fame plaques. Topps saluted them together on a card (No. 408) labeled “Keystone Combo” in its 1959 set.
Perhaps the least known Hall of Fame middle infield combo had Rogers Hornsby at short and Miller Huggins at second. Their lack of identity as a keystone combo is because Hornsby is better known as a second baseman, instead of a shortstop, and Huggins is best remembered as a manager, though he played for 13 seasons.
There are a lot of other Hall of Famers who were one half of a double-play duo that also included a non-Cooperstown inductee. The Hall’s Bill Mazeroski is the all-time leader in double plays turned as a second baseman. His shortstops included some solid players like Dick Groat (who also was a college baseball All-American) and Gene Alley though neither is in the Hall of Fame.
Eddie Colllins was a Hall-worthy second baseman and he and his teammates with the Philadelphia A’s were labeled “The $100,000 Infield” back in the early 1900s when a million bucks meant something. But his shortstop – Jack Barry – never made it to the Hall of Fame nor did the A’s first basemen of that era, although his third baseman Frank “Home Run” Baker gained enshrinement.
Lots of fans would favor a combo like Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar at second with a shortstop named Omar Vizquel who is the all-time leader in double plays turned at that position and should enter the Hall in the future. Also fan favorites were the Reds’ Joe Morgan (Hall of Famer) at second with Dave Conception at short, and the Tigers’ long-time duo of Alan Trammell at short and Lou Whitaker at second, both solid players but only Trammell has been elected to the Hall.
There have even been several keystone combos that featured brothers at the two positions, like the Ripkens of the Orioles. That’s Hall of Fame shortstop Cal Jr. and second baseman Bill (a solid player but best remembered by collectors for the unmentionable on his 1989 Fleer baseball card). Cal ranks third among leaders in double plays turned at shortstop. Ironically, he’s also near the top of the list (second to still-active Albert Pujols) in double plays grounded into.
Frank and Milt Bolling played a few games in the middle infield of the Tigers, though they spent most of their careers with different teams.
And the Hamners, (shortstop Granny and second-baseman Garvin) were a big-league duo for about 20 games for the Phillies in 1945. Granny went on to enjoy a long career in the big leagues; Garvin did not.
The closest Keystone Combo has to be Johnny and Eddie O’Brien. They played second base and shortstop, respectively, for the Pirates, and also were paired by Topps on card No. 139 in its 1954 set. Not only were Johnny and Eddie brothers, they were identical twins. You can’t get much closer than that.
Arnold Bailey is a a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest and can be reached at email@example.com.