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Writings from the Porch 

February 14, 2017

Bubble Gum Card Stories

I have the unusual distinction of caring not at all about the contemporary sports scene yet possessing an impressive (if you’ll pardon my immodesty) knowledge of sports history, especially baseball and boxing. But this isn’t where I meant to begin this piece.

Lately our society’s fascination with celebrity deaths gave me a contemplative pause (it has been pointed out by some observant Will Rogers-type that in general people of the US behave as if death is optional and therefore tend to treat it as a shocking and unnatural occurrence). During the New Year’s celebrations for the beginning of 2017 there were many comments and articles lamenting how the year 2016 was especially harsh in its snuffing out of celebrities. I don’t wish to pass judgement on the mourning — we all have such choices to confront — but I couldn’t help but notice how the celebrity deaths overshadowed retrospectives of friends and family. Granted, movie stars do have better highlight reels and their obituaries are prewritten years in advance and kept on file in anticipation of the big moment. A quick sentence or quote about the final moments and it’s ready for the public. The rest of us have to fill out those horrible forms at the funeral home and even with the new technology highlight reels are still difficult to produce at a moment’s notice. Not so for those who have made it beyond the celebrity plateau.

Now, despite my snarkiness in the preceding sentences, I am one who honors those who have come and gone. Usually this is directed toward those who have profoundly touched my consciousness — as much of my published writings can attest — but I can stretch it a bit. And now I will tie the above gibberish together, somewhat, by adding two deceased athletes from 2016 to the list: Phil Gagliano and Chris Cannizzaro. In their time, these guys counted as celebrities, at least to those of us who spent the summers of our youth collecting baseball cards and reading the boxscores in the morning paper.

As a kid who lived for baseball cards, Gagliano was a fixture every year. He always had the catch-all “infield” listed as his position, so if you were putting a Cardinal team together you could insert him in place of a missing card, such as the harder to come by Orlando Cepeda at first or Mike Shannon at third. When the Cardinals were on TV you likely wouldn’t see Gagliano unless he entered late in the game as a pinch runner or the camera panned the dugout. The only season in which he played more than 100 games was 1965, dividing his time equally between 2nd base and right field to spell ailing Julian Javier & Mike Shannon, respectively, and a few games at 3rd to give aging all-star Ken Boyer an occasional rest. He finished the season with 8 HRs and 53 RBIs. In a 12 year career he would never come close to those numbers again. Thing is, he could play any position adequately but none particularly well, and he wasn’t much of a hitter, but he was on a Cardinal team that went to the World Series three times. How can you not like a non-descript player with that kind of success?

Chris Cannizaro was a different story. Although he appeared in a few games for the Cincinnati Reds in 1960 & 61, his official rookie season was with the 1962 expansion New York Mets—the most infamously bad team in baseball history. The Mets actually had 7 different starting catchers that year—which may be a record. Cannizzaro only started in 42 games, roughly ¼ of the total games, but that was more than any other Mets catcher, so he is listed in the history books as the primary catcher for the Keystone Cops of baseball teams. Although he did throw out an impressive 56% of would-be basestealers that year, he did little else to distinguish himself. He showed no power (literally zero homers and only 9 RBIs), was a slow baserunner, and would finish his 13-year career with a .235 batting avg. (three points lower than Gagliano’s .238). By the time the Mets pulled off the Miracle Season of ‘69, Cannizzaro had already been sent back to the minors and then traded to the Pirates, where he played virtually not at all.

But 1969, like 1962, was another expansion year for Major League baseball, and Chris was picked up by the brand new San Diego Padres. For the second time in his career he would have the distinction of being the primary catcher for an expansion team’s losing debut season. He played in 134 games with 4 HRs, 33 RBIs (remarkably low power numbers for a starting catcher) and batted .220, which is low for any position. But here’s the thing: He was selected to the All-Star team, thus being the first of the San Diego Padres to receive that honor. I haven’t done the research, but this has to be among the all-time least impressive stats for an All-Star, and I am certain there were at least ten other catchers in the league with better offensive stats. His fielding that year was adequate at best (his range was terrible but his fielding percentage and throwing percentage were both right at the league average) Since he was on an All-Star team with Johnny Bench and Randy Hundley, he was basically an all-star bullpen catcher—but still an All-Star.

Phil Gagliano was able to wear a World Series Championship ring (two actually: 1964 & 1968) for the rest of his life. I saw a guy wearing one of those at a casual gathering once—it’s an eye-catching bauble (former Yankee Eli Grba. I know, you never heard of him. But I had, and I even knew that his only appearance in the World Series of 1960 was as a pinch runner. Impressed by this knowledge, he let me hold the ring. ) Chris Cannizzaro was a starting catcher for the most infamously bad team in history, and he was a Major League All-Star who got to warm up Bob Gibson, Phil Niekro, Tom Seaver, and Juan Marichal in the all-star game bullpen. Both men were major leaguers for more than 10 years (Cannizaro for 13, Gagliano for 12). They did all right.

As this piece of writing winds down, I find myself looking for something profound and cynical — perhaps even clever — to say about celebrityhood or celebrityness. My mind is flipping through quotes filed from years of reading books and watching documentaries — there are many that have nailed it well. Then the contemporary notion of fake reality stars — people who are revered in the society around me that I hear about but never see—popped into my head and ruined any hope of creativity. Celebrities for nothing seemed harmless in the beginning. Then, the reality stars that became celebrities by following their scripted lives, these “real” people, took the reins. There is nothing clever to say about that.

But Phil Gagliano and Chris Cannizzaro — who I remember — sweated and worked just to hang on to the possibility of being on a bubble gum card again next year. Being on a baseball card was a celebrity status that had to be earned, and it meant living a life full of stories. Stories — now that’s a clever idea.

The obituaries for these two were likely brief and local; most likely even ESPN didn’t notice. But I could add this phrase to each: “He was real, and he left a lot of good stories” — which ain’t a bad epitaph.