Hobby’s undervalued don’t get enough respect

If you want to fire up a conversation or are just looking for a good old-fashioned barroom debate, the old “all-underrated” (insert sport here) team is almost sure-fire ignition. Everybody’s got their list, and chances are, they’ve been secretly waiting for someone to ask them. Seems almost any card-carrying American sports fan is spoiling for a fight when the topic turns to who gets overlooked when we talk about who the “good ones” were. Let’s face it, we all have a few guys that appealed to us for one reason or another, and we seem to hold in higher regard than anybody else. And we are perfectly willing to argue about it.
 The debates can really escalate when it comes to discussing the “Rodney Dangerfields” of baseball, because there is so much ground to cover. The game simply goes back so many generations, and we have so little frame of reference or perspective on players that were stars many decades before we were born.

   How good were Grover Cleveland Alexander and Cy Young? Shoot, are there even any human beings around who ever saw them play? Were they as good as Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan? Was Nap Lajoie really better than Bill Mazeroski, Joe Morgan or Ryne Sandberg? Few were ever be able to compare them with their own eyes.

   When it comes to who is underrated among collectors, however, the rules change and things are perhaps a little less abstract. Turn-of-the-century baseball players might be largely overlooked by John Q. Public, but they get a whole lotta love from cardboard collectors and memorabilia fans – in truth, a very disproportionate helping of love. It’s an interesting equation when you think about it: The more long-gone and largely forgotten a player is, chances are the harder it will be to find cards and memorabilia for him, and the more his artifacts will be coveted. An average “common” player from 1910 will likely be a much bigger name among today’s devoted collectors than a Hall of Famer from the 1970s or a future Hall of Famer who is still in uniform. 

   So how do we really judge who is getting dissed by collectors? There’s probably no better way than to simply look at a slice of their cards and memorabilia and look for a disconnect between a player’s on-field exploits and the popularity of his memorabilia – at least compared to that of his peers. With that criteria in mind, here is a short list of players who at least help make up the tip of the all-underappreciated iceberg.
   George Sisler: The fabulous first baseman for the St. Louis Browns should probably be in line for the captaincy of the all-undervalued team. He won two American League batting titles, hitting better than .400 each year, collected 200 hits six times and set a record in 1920 (the same season he played every inning of every game) with 257 hits that stood until Ichiro Suzuki finally broke it in 2004. In 1922, he hit safely in 41 straight games – a streak that stood until Joe DiMaggio came along. In 15 seasons, he hit .340, collected 2,812 hits, had an on-base percentage of .379 and was considered one of the best fielders of any era.

   With a playing career that went from 1915-30, Sisler missed being included in any truly comprehensive card sets, so his limited cardboard presence certainly works against him with collectors. Still, his autographed Wirephotos can be had for less than $400, and the value of his cut signatures – less than $100! That seems outrageously low for a player with his resume. Sisler is a true sleeper in the hobby.
   Minnie Minoso: Depending on who you believe, Orestes Minoso was either born in Cuba in 1922 or 1925. Either way, he was a late starter by the time he became a regular with the White Sox in 1951. He went on to bat .298 with a glowing .389 on-base percentage in 17 big league seasons. He was an all-star seven times, and before that, he was an all-star third basemen with the Negro League champion New York Cubans.

   Minoso was a great baserunner, consummate teammate and one of the most beloved athletes ever in Chicago. His cards seem to get respectable numbers – his ’52 Topps rookie prices at more than $600 in Near Mint condition, and his ’53 Bowman in similar shape tops $400. However, his autographed postcards and cut signatures fetch less than $50, and signed balls fall below $100. His signature is a relative steal for one of he best players of his generation.
Johnny Mize: Similar to Minoso, Mize’s cardboard gets plenty of respect in the hobby. No beef there. But you can find Mize-autographed bats for around $100, and signed balls go for less than that. That’s pretty reasonable for a guy that lost three of his prime years to military service, yet was a 10-time All-Star who played 15 seasons from the late 1930s on, was part of some glorious teams, hit .312 lifetime with 359 home runs, drove in 100 runs eight times and finished his career with a .397 on-base percentage.

   Mize finally landed in the Hall of Fame in 1981, but he still gets a spot on the All-Underappreciated Team.
   Billy Williams: We don’t care if the guy signs balls and photos from sunup to sundown every day of the year, it’s pretty remarkable that you can get a legitimate HOFer signed ball for $30, or a signed photo for less than that. Even a Williams game-used autograph bat goes for less than $1,000. That’s far below the going rate for a Cooperstowner with 426 home runs and more than 2,700 career hits. His 1961 Topps Rookie brings $40-$60 in PSA 5 or 6 condition, so his cardboard certainly isn’t in the high-rent district, either.

   Warren Spahn: Geez, the guy was the winningest left-hander ever, and his signature on a ball is worth only $40? That’s a pretty good deal. Some of his top-condition Bowman and Leaf cards from 1948-49 bring some pretty prices – north of $3,000 – but in general, his memorabilia and cards are very reasonable. Maybe it was because he was not a position player, and toiling in Milwaukee all those years didn’t help his visibility, but it’s surprising more people don’t clamor for memorabilia from a first-ballot Hall of Famer who won 20 games 13 times and collected 363 career wins.

   Frank Howard: At 6-foot-8 and 275 pounds, “Hondo” was one of the game’s most memorable characters, but he is far from a giant in the hobby. His game-used bats have been available recently for in the neighborhood of $250, his autographed bats and balls generally fetch less than $50, and none of his base cards get much attention. Howard played 16 seasons, had a great rapport with fans, hit balls to the moon and left the game with 382 career round-trippers, yet somehow, he gets a little lost in the shuffle.

   Steve Carlton: Since he played for 24 years, it stands to reason that there would be a lot of “Lefty” stuff on the market – and there is. And none of it is all that expensive. Carlton’s 1965 Topps rookie gets $600-plus in PSA 9 condition, but autograph balls can be had for as little as $50 and signed jerseys for $100. There also seem to be a fair number of game-used bats – an oddity for a pitcher – for very modest prices.
   Bob Gibson: A Gem-Mint 10 specimen of Gibson’s 1959 Topps rookie sold for more than $19,000 in 2006, so not all Gibson stuff is within reach of mere mortals. But most of it is. His autographed balls and bats can both be had for $50-$100 if you look hard enough and scour the big auction houses, and he is a reasonably frequent signing guests at some of the major card shows around the country. 

   Dwight Evans: Plenty of folks will argue that Evans was the best defensive outfielder of his generation, and maybe ever. He was no weakling at the plate, either, with 385 career long balls and a .272 average to go with his eight Gold Gloves while toiling in Fenway’s unforgiving right field. With game-used bats bringing in the neighborhood of $250 and even game-used gloves fetching only $500-$600 in recent years, it’s hard not to think of Evans as overlooked, even if he will always be a favorite son of the Beantown faithful.

   Dave Winfield: Yeah, he’s probably signed a lot. And yeah, he played forever, so there is a lot of stuff out there with Winfield’s fingerprints on it. And yeah, not everybody was a fan of his when he played. But Winfield game-used bats seem to grow on trees and can be had for about $250. Signed balls don’t normally get much more than $50. For a guy who hit 465 home runs and drove in another 1,833 while collecting seven Gold Gloves, those are some pretty modest asking prices. 

   Roberto Alomar: You’ll have trouble convincing those who saw him play regularly that there has ever been a better defensive second baseman. Alomar was a 10-time Gold Glover and an All-Star for 11 consecutive years. He retired in 2005 just 276 hits shy of 3,000, but not before collecting 210 home runs, 1,134 RBIs and 474 stolen bases. He might very well have been the best middle infielder of his era.

   The ugly spitting incident with umpire John Hirschbeck no doubt hurt his standing with some fans and collectors, but with game-used bats available in the $150-$300 range, game-worn jerseys for less than $500 and few high-priced cards, the likely Hall of Famer certainly seems to fit the Dangerfield profile. It would seem likely he will get more attention in the future.

   Tim Raines:  With 1,571 career runs scored, a .294 lifetime batting average and a whopping 808 stolen bases, “The Rock” was certainly a menace for opposing pitchers during his 20-year career. But at only 5-foot-7, he is apparently easy for collectors to overlook. Some of Raines’ early game-worn Montreal Expos jerseys are getting decent prices, but for the most part, his cards and memorabilia don’t measure up to his splendid career.

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