Tagged: Mike Aronstein

Bert Randolph Sugar, 1936-2012

So the story – as I heard it, and as Bert Sugar would’ve told it – goes like this:

There’s this young advertising executive, already climbing his way up the ladder. The 1960’s this is. He works longer than anybody else. He’s at every social event. He’s a lawyer, never practiced, passed the bar – and lord knows it was the only bar he did pass. So this is the kind of palooka who can convince you to give him the buttons off your fly. And he’s that kind of larger-than-life character who can not only sell the advertisers anything, he’s also in creative, he’s also selling the customers – the hoi polloi out in the cheap seats.

Remember that “N-E-S-T-L-E-S, Nestles Makes The Very Best” jingle? That was one of his. Samuel Taylor Coleridge this was not, this “N-E-S-T-L-E-S” – but it sold a lot of chocolate. And our hero is the rising star on Madison Avenue and let me confide in you, my friend, that what you see on Mad Men is like a Sunday Church Ice Cream Social compared to the reality of the ’60s. The motto then was “I’d rather be a good liver than have one,” if you catch my drift.

Well there’s an office party and maybe it’s at J. Walter Thompson and maybe it’s at McCann Erickson. Doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s Tinker, Evers and Steinfeldt – and Steinfeldt was the third baseman with Tinker and Evers and Chance, if you’ve already forgotten, Junior. Anyway, our young hero has a boss who doesn’t like him. Rides him every chance. Sings N-E-S-T-L-E-S at him. Never lets up. Never promotes him. And finally comes the party and there has been more liquor consumed than after Jack Johnson beat James J. Jeffries in Havana on the 4th of July. And unfortunately for the boss, in this equation he’s Jeffries and our kid is Johnson. And the wrong word is said, our kid takes his cigar out of his mouth, and shoves his boss up against the office window.

Now there are two versions of what happens next. A) Boss bounces off the window, glass is cracked, boy wonder’s career is over, or B) — and this is the one you don’t hear a lot — Boss bounces through the window onto the balcony of the high-rise office building, boy wonder’s career is over, and they don’t call the police only because the Boss is more humiliated then hurt.

Great story so far, right?

Well that’s not even the punchline.

The punchline is, Boy Wonder takes his money, says screw advertising, says screw my law degree, I’m going to buy…a boxing magazine. And before it’s all over, after Cosell declines anyway, he’s the best known media guy in boxing, even gets into the Boxing Hall of Fame – and not once does he ever sign a contract with any of the big networks or the big newspapers! He not only knocks the boss into the window, but then he spends the rest of his life doing what he loved, and till the day he dies – **he’s** his own boss!

Here Bert Sugar would’ve laughed and added: “you got time for another story?

The real punch-line was, of course, that the ad exec who pushed his boss into the plate glass window was him – Bert Sugar.  Obviously that extraordinary truth made Bert Randolph Sugar my hero. Actually it made him more of my hero. Because when Bert Sugar – who died Sunday at the age of 75 — left advertising, and was struggling along with that Boxing Illustrated magazine, he had to do outside projects. And one of them stemmed from his perception, in the early 1970’s, that the next big thing…was the collecting of old baseball cards.

In retrospect it’s obvious. But back then, the multi-million-dollar Honus Wagner card cost $11,000 and the family of the guy who’d spent the $11,000 tried to have him committed. But Bert saw something the rest of us did not. So he decided to create a book that identified what the cards were and how much they were worth, and it would turn out to be the single biggest thing that launched a billion-dollar industry.

But to compile it, he needed help – cheap help.

His baseball card contact was a great man named Mike Aronstein, and Mike said “Bert, I got just the kid for you.” Which is how I met Bert Randolph Sugar – in 1974 – when I was fifteen years old. And how, sizing me up in my parents’ living room, smoking his ever-present cigar and talking to me like I was not only another adult but another Damon Runyon character, just like he was, he decided I could do it.

The book was The Sports Collectors Bible. I did the grunt work, organizing the checklists, throwing in notes here and there. He gave me a title: Associate Editor. He gave me $250 – I think. Might’ve been less. Most importantly, h gave me credibility. I’d worked on an actual book, while I was in high school. And a hit, one that was so popular he put out four different volumes of it.

Bert moved on. Baseball Trivia books, boxing books, Harry Houdini books. He put out a couple of books featuring reprints of famous baseball cards, thin little paperback editions with the reprints perforated so you could pretend you had a Wagner. He made a fortune. Not one of those cards was his – he borrowed them. The great secret was that Bert Randolph Sugar, who essentially invented the annual price guide, and the phone book-sized checklist book, and the monthly card price magazines, was not a card collector.

In addition to moving on, Bert moved up. He swapped Boxing Illustrated for the far-more-famous Ring Magazine and then when the idiots over there squeezed him out, he went back and took over Boxing Illustrated again, and just last year he’d bought Ring again. But in the years after he gave me my first paying job, Bert Sugar primarily devoted himself to the business of creating Bert Sugar. Same technique as in advertising. To the ever-present cigar, he added the ever-present hat. And the wardrobe, which he described as “The Salvation Army threw up on me.”

And mostly, he added the being there: Every big boxing match. Every baseball hall of fame induction. Every sports news conference, every sports premiere, every sports confirmation, children’s party, or bris. The last time I saw him it was at the premiere for Ken Burns’ 10th Inning. Burt had written another baseball book (The Baseball Maniac’s Almanac) and he made sure to mention it to all of us. A week later there arrived one of Bert’s singular, typewritten letters – and a copy of the book, vivid and peppy and filled with everything he’d learned in advertising and publishing and the ballpark.

Everybody knew him. Everybody. He became the boxing expert, and that was almost a shame because he really knew baseball at least as well, and boxing represented only about a fifth of his interests and only about a tenth of his stories. Remind me to tell you of the day he ordered one case of sets of Kelloggs Corn Flakes 3-D Football Cards and something went horribly wrong and the cases started arriving at his house like – as he put it – the enchanted mops and buckets in Fantasia — and he wound up with at least a thousand of them, filling his garage and his basement, and he used to hand the sets out instead of candy at Halloween or give me five cases each time he’d come over, just to get rid of them – and when years later they wound up being worth 250 bucks a set, he howled in laughter and shouted at me “of course they did! Of course they did! If I’d have held on to them they wouldn’t have been worth ten cents!”

I think I saw Bert at least once, often dozens of times, in each of the last 38 years. It was always the same. For his long ago confidence in the ultimate untested rookie, he would accept none of my gratitude, but if there was anybody nearby, he would express all of his pride.

27 years ago I was unemployed. “When you’re in the city, meet me at Zum Zum’s in Grand Central. It’s my office between twelve and three. At least you’ll get a nice lunch. And you’ll worry less.”  I asked him what he was doing with a kind of German fast-food restaurant as his office. “I’m plotting there.” Turned out he was plotting to take over Boxing Illustrated for the second time, which he did. “You’ll be fine, Kid,” he assured me. “Just remember me when you make it big.”

I always have, Bert.

I always will.

Because I have never met anybody else like Bert Sugar.

And frankly, I don’t need to. Because I had the privilege of knowing the original.

The above is adapted from my script of my obituary for Bert Sugar on Current TV’s Countdown. The video is here.


Chuck Tanner

I cannot convey to you how frightening it was to be a frequent presence on a major league baseball field at the age of 17. Every player seemed to be about 30 feet tall, and every club official and stadium security officer seemed to be within 30 seconds of chucking me back into the stands, no matter how many credentials I might have had. And the team managers? Ralph Houk? Billy Martin? Earl Weaver? 

To see them approach was to feel the fight-or-flight instinct surge in my veins. And not in that empowering, life-affirming “fight” way, sadly.
I was a photographer, nominally working for the hobby magazine Mike Aronstein had inexplicably put me in charge of the year before, Collectors Quarterly. Certainly we had need of our own images of big league ballplayers, but in fact I was on an illicit mission to snap them for an upcoming second set of the “SSPC Pure Card” baseball cards Mike had published earlier in that year of 1976. I had written the backs for the first set, and another fellow had taken most of the photos for them, only it turned out he didn’t really have any ballpark credentials and was only on the field because he’d been a batboy and knew all of the cops at Shea Stadium and they just let him sneak in. When the leagues and the clubs and Topps and the courts Topps sued us in found out about that, he wasn’t going to again get to be on any fields for a long, long time.
So Mike had written the obligatory letter to the Yankees supplying copies of the magazine and asking them to give me, usually no more than once or twice a homestand, pre-game access to the field to take photos of the players. My instructions were simple: get anybody you can, especially guys in new uniforms. Action shots, candid shots, whatever – but you’ll also have to get some portraits. You’ll have to ask the players to pose for you.

By the end of May I think I had screwed up the courage to ask a few guys to pose before each game. I remember Jim Colborn of the Brewers actually asking me what the magazine I claimed to represent was, and my promising him to send a copy to him, and then he kindly stood still for a few portraits. But by early June, I believe all my other conversations with the big leaguers consisted of “Pardon me, Mr. —-, may I get a couple of shots of you for Collectors Quarterly magazine?” followed by the answer “grunt” or “no” or “silence.”
Then the Oakland A’s came to town. It wasn’t official yet, but with Reggie Jackson and Ken Holtzman traded to Baltimore, Jim Hunter long since gone to New York, and Vida Blue, Joe Rudi, and Rollie Fingers on the block before the June 15 trade deadline, Oakland was already in its post-Championship Era. Still a forceful team that would nearly win the A.L. West that year, but truly in decline. They had their third manager in four years (and would, in fact, trade him that winter in one of owner Charles Finley’s desperate efforts to suck the value out of anybody who might want out of his rapidly collapsing club). We only had a photo of this manager in his previous uniform, and so of all the A’s, I approached him first to pose.
“Pardon me, Mr. Tanner, may I get a couple of shots of you for Collectors Quarterly magazine?”
Chuck Tanner beamed at me. “Of course you can, son.”
He stuck out his hand.
I had no idea what to do.
“I’m Chuck Tanner,” he said, both affably and sincerely. A faint bell dinged slowly in the back of my slow-moving mind. He’s shaking hands with you, dummy. I introduced myself.
“Very nice to meet you, Keith. What do you need me to do?”
I coughed out something about just standing there.
He laughed. “Can I smile?”
I laughed and snapped a few shots.
“I’m an amateur photographer,” he said, pleasantly.
I admitted I was too and suggested he could probably tell that.
He laughed again. “No, I wasn’t suggesting that. I’m just noticing you’re not using a flash but you’ve got me sort of side-saddle to the sun. If I move here it’ll probably come out better.”
This went on for several minutes. Not once did I get the impression that Chuck Tanner was trying to mock me or criticize me. He made it seem the most perfectly natural thing in the world for a major league baseball manager to take the time to give the most elemental of tips to a photographer, an hour or so before a ballgame. Then came something I couldn’t believe.
“Do you need me to get you any of my players so you can shoot them, Keith?”
You can guess how the rest of this went. Before I knew it, Dick Bosman and Paul Lindblad and Jim Todd were jogging in from shagging flies in the outfield to volunteer for my shaky camera lens. And as the old, beloved and lamented ritual of infield practice loomed and the media had to get off the field, Chuck Tanner walked back towards his dugout and stopped by and asked if I’d gotten everybody I needed. “Next time you’re back, find me first and I can get you anybody you want.”
I would meet Chuck Tanner again and again as the years went by. I was there as the reporter for UPI Radio as his Pirates won the 1979 National League Championship Series, and when I reminded him of how he had helped me at Yankee Stadium he either remembered it or did an amazing job pretending to, and then waved away security guards who tried to interrupt him while he gave a five-minute interview to the least important network radio reporter at the game. 
A year later, as I took the subway out to Shea Stadium to cover a Mets-Pirates game, I saw somebody who appeared to be Pittsburgh coach Alex Monchak sitting across from me, and then realized the guy to his left was clearly Kent Tekulve, and the fellow standing up holding on to the overhead bar sure looked like Tanner in a jacket and tie. I looked at him, he looked at me, and he suppressed a smile and brought his forefinger to his lips. 45 minutes later, on the field, he walked over and thanked me for not blowing their cover. “It’s so much faster to come out on the subway than the team bus,” he said. “The station is right next to our hotel and it’s really a nice ride, at least on the way out. Wait – you’re that radio photographer guy, aren’t you?”
Chuck Tanner, as you know, died yesterday at the age of 82. When he came back to the big leagues as manager of the White Sox in 1970 he was considered the best managing prospect in the minors. The Pirates thought enough of him to trade Manny Sanguillen to Oakland for him in the winter of 1976-77 (rendering those great shots I’d gotten of him – positioned per his excellent photographic advice – useless) and when the Pirates finally let him go, the Braves quickly snapped him up. He only made the post-season once, winning the World Series in 1979, so Pittsburgh will tell you he is a Hall of Famer anyway. 
And of course I would whole-heartedly agree. And I won’t even bother to address his credentials. May I have done once for somebody what he did for me, and countless others.
Chuck Tanner would appreciate this, for the leavening of the sadness, and the continuity of the game, and the nostalgia – and the photography.
I have the privilege of showing you an uncut sheet of the 2011 Topps Heritage Baseball Refractors Series. The glossy metallic treatment causes the sheet to warp a little, but you should be able to live with it. Topps has done another superb job on recreat
ing the historical original, in this case the 1962 set: you’ll notice nearly all the Mets and Astros are capless (just as they were in ’62, for far different reasons) and the lettering and the posing is very precise. 
Of particular note, in Row 8, fourth from the left you’ll find a rather clunky airbrush job in which a Phillies’ cap is poorly painted onto Cliff Lee’s head. This is not a mistake, but more of a deliberate reference to a 1962 card of catcher Sammy White, who joined the Phils of that year just as those cards were going to press, and who appeared in a kind of reddish-pinkish artist’s charcoal colored hat in the same kind of purgatory-like blank environment Mr. Lee seems posed in.
There is one disturbing image – Row 3, third from the right. It’s the first Topps card, I believe, showing Don Mattingly in any uniform other than the Yankees. Not to say he doesn’t deserve it, it’s just that no matter how often I look at it, it doesn’t compute:

A Hairstyle Is Temporary; A Baseball Card Is Forever

What you are going to see here will disturb you. 

In fact, if you feel like your grip on sanity is low (well, lower than usual), you may want to avert your eyes.
Impossible as it seems, all this will be explained.

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Bochy1977.jpgThis is not the late Hunter S. Thompson, wearing a giant old Houston Astros’ batting helmet. Nobody took a look at this picture and said “Oh boy, the Gonzo Journalist sure looks vaguely like Giants’ manager Bruce Bochy when Boch was 22 years old.”

This is Bruce Bochy, as depicted on a 1977 TCMA minor league baseball card set devoted to the Cocoa Astros of the Florida State League. Dipping a tentative toe into what is now an all-inclusive ocean, TCMA produced a minor league set of cards for the Rangers’ affiliate in Gastonia in 1974. Later that year there was a set in Cedar Rapids and a kind of a pirated set of stars of the International League (Gary Carter of the Memphis Blues is shown, and I’m very tickled to say I wrote the biographies – at least some of them by hand). 
By 1975, TCMA’s annual production was up to about a 


dozen sets, and the formula was simple and ingenious. All the team had to do was provide photographs and biographical data, and TCMA would print them 500 or 1,000 sets (I think the number was negotiable, based only on shipping costs!). Suddenly they had a promotional night, or something to sell at the souvenir stand, or something to distribute in conjunction with a local advertiser. And the only thing TCMA got from the deal was the seemingly trivial full consent on the part of the club to let the company print as many sets of cards as they wanted, and disperse them as they please.
Off the top of my head I don’t know how many different sets TCMA produced before other companies first challenged them, and then took over the field. But I do know that by 1977 TCMA, when it produced the cards of Bochy and, at the left, Rick Peterson of the Charleston Patriots (now pitching coach at Milwaukee), its all-teams minor league set, featuring an average of 25 or so cards per team, but sequentially numbered, went well beyond Card Number 1,000. If not a gold mine, it was a money stream. 
The best of the players have long since begun their march into Cooperstown. Cal Ripken showed up at Rochester, and Rickey Henderson in the uniform of the long-forgotten A’s AAA-team at Ogden, Utah. But now we have something much more fun. I was recently inspired to pull down what remains of my collection of TCMA cards, and found the beauties you see illustrated here. The movers-and-shakers of the game are preserved for all time in the full flower of youth. There are no name-alikes, no coincidences. These are the men who influence the game today, and those were their haircuts. The Jim Leyland over here is the 31-year old manager of the Clinton Pilots of the Midwest League in 1975. Fittingly enough, they were a Tiger farm team.
I have only passed two of these under the eyes of one of those shown. My friend Omar Minaya, General Manager of the Mets (and utility infielder/outfielder of the 1981 Wausau Timbers of the Midwest League) proudly pointed out how many of his teammates made the majors – and not just 

Minaya1981f.jpgHarold Reynolds, whose Thumbnail image for Reynolds1981.jpg

major task that year seems to have been trying to get that mustache to grow in. The correct answer is eight (Reynolds, the late Ivan Calderon, Darnell Coles, John Moses, Donnell Nixon, Edwin Nunez, Jim Presley, and Brian Snyder). There was also Rick Adair, now pitching coach of the Mariners, plus the Timbers’ manager ex-big leaguer Bill Plummer, who would skipper Seattle in 1992, pitcher Jeff Stottlemyre (whose brother and father have both pitched and coached in the majors) and catcher David Blume, now a scout for Toronto. With all that talent, it’s not surprising Wausau won 84 and lost just 48 and won their Division and the Playoffs. The full set of these A-ball players of 29 seasons ago can still be found in the $20-$30 range.

The other guy to whom I was happy to pass along a duplicate set of the comrades of his youth was this light-hitting catcher from the Quad Cities Angels of 1976, now better known as 

Thumbnail image for Maddon1976.jpg

the manager of the Tampa Bay Rays, and one of the game’s great ambassadors. Maddon loves all baseball history, but especially his own, and, quite off the point, sat in the dugout during Old Timers’ Day at Yankee Stadium Saturday and proudly recited the resumes of nearly everybody out there – and nearly all of them under the age of 55 had played, coached, or managed with him or against him in the last 35 years.
The genius behind all this happy nostalgia (and potential blackmail material) is Mike Aronstein, the unsung visionary who essentially invented the baseball memorabilia hobby. Until he rolled out a beautiful set of International League cards in color in 1978, Mike’s efforts were all black and white. I’ll thumb through the later color cards (there is a 1978 Buck Showalter, heav
ens help us) and post an assortment later. As long ago as 1969, he was the first to make and sell new cards of old players. He challenged the Topps major league monopoly with his SSPC sets of 1975-78. He made the first reprints. He was the first collector to turn into a veritable card magnate (TCMA was, nominally, “The Card Memorabilia Associates”; in fact it was the initials of Mike

Riggleman1977.jpgand his original partner, Tom Collier). Sheets in which to display your cards? Mike’s idea. These minor league sets? Mike. Regular “card shows,” a slickly-produced professional looking magazine, a company that did nothing but buy the rights to, and print up, stacks of player photographs for autograph sessions? All Mike.

He was also the first guy to pay me to write anything, and among his other hires were Rick Cerrone (later Vice President of the Pirates and for eleven years, Media Relations Director of the Yankees), and a once-obscure sportswriter from United Press International named Bill Madden, who just happens to be going into the Hall of Fame next weekend.
Thank goodness Mike didn’t make cards of us. This shot of the two of us posing on the occasion of the last weekend of Shea Stadium in 2008 is plenty.