(This is Day 2 of our series on the “Best Card From” each year, 1960-1989. Read all the entries here.)
The 1961 season was a historic one for several reasons.
First, the Los Angeles Angels and Washington Senators joined the American League, bringing the total number of Major League teams to 18.
At the same time, MLB expanded each team’s schedule from 154 games per year to 162.
That decision, of course, immediately led to controversy.
As Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle slammed baseball after baseball into the nether regions of old Yankee Stadium, Commissioner Ford Frick decreed that, in order to break Babe Ruth’s single-season record of 60 home runs set in 1927, either man would have to smack number 61 by the end of the New York Yankees’ 154th game of the season.
As the summer wore on, Mantle wore down, and his pace fell off. Maris stayed in the lineup, but he couldn’t quite match the Babe’s pace and recorded dinger #61 in the Yanks’ 163rd game of the season (an early-season game had been suspended).
The result was a new home run record that came along with the most famous asterisk in history.
So you might think with all the monumental happenings from the 1961 season that the card of a then-current player would be my choice as the greatest baseball card issued that year.
But you’d be wrong.
Ever Hear of the 1918 “Black Cubs”?
The best baseball card issued in 1961 was the Hippo Vaughn pasteboard issued by Fleer.
Here are just a few of the reasons why …
Fleer Was Flicking Boogers at Topps
For nearly a decade, Topps had enjoyed a virtual monopoly in the baseball card arena by virtue of their exclusive contracts with current players, but Fleer was intent on nibbling around the edges. First, they snatched Ted Williams away from The Old Gum Company in 1959 and issued what was essentially the forerunner to the Star Company sets of the 1980s.
Then, in 1960, Fleer returned with a 79-card set of retired (or dead) players who represented the best the game had ever offered.
In 1961, the upstart was back with more greats — 154 cards in all — and several multi-player cards.
Fleer was serving notice that they intended to stick around, and you have to imagine that Topps was annoyed if not a bit nervous.
Hippo Vaughn Has a Historical Tie to the Cincinnati Reds
We’re Reds homers around here, and any player who stitches his name into the historical fabric of our team is worthy of a closer look.
The back of Vaughn’s 1961 Fleer card lays a compelling tale of an epic battle that the Chicago Cubs pitcher once waged with Reds great Fred Toney:
So Vaughn lost his no-hit bid to Fred Toney, while Toney completed his 10-inning beauty against the Cubs.
Toney wins, Reds win, this card wins.
Hippo Vaughn Was a Member of the Cubs Team Who MAY Have Thrown the 1918 World Series
OK, so this one is no sure thing, but it’s so intriguing that it deserves to be dusted off every few years.
We all know that members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox took money to throw that year’s World Series to the Cincinnati Reds.
It was a scandal that nearly wrecked the game, helped create a strong and heavy-handed commissioner’s office, and likely led to the live ball era as MLB sought to bring fans back to the park after the dust had cleared from the Black Sox debacle.
But did you know that the 1919 White Sox may have just been following in the footsteps of their Windy City predecessors?
The 1920 court disposition from one of the disgraced White Sox, pitcher Ed Cicotte, hinted that the ChiSox had taken their queue from the Cubs the year before. According to Cicotte’s statement from the document, which was made public in 2011:
The ball players were talking about somebody trying to fix the National League ball players or something like that. Well anyway there was some talk about them offering $10,000 or something to throw the Cubs in the Boston Series.
To put this quote in some context, Cicotte was talking about a conversation players had on a long train ride from Chicago to the east coast when the discussion understandably turned to how underpaid they were as a group.
And the idea makes some sense because players actually took a pay cut in 1918 and were looking at paltry World Series shares. In fact, the Cubs and Boston Red Sox refused to take the field before Game 5 of the ’18 Series for just that reason.
In addition, there seem to have been some funky plays during the series, including Cubs runners being picked off bases they had no business being picked off and Cubs fielders dropping cans of corn.
So, did the Cubs really throw the 1918 World Series? We’ll probably never know for sure since records are scarce and everyone involved is long dead. But it sure is intriguing to think about and makes you look at relics from that era in a different light.
And as for Hippo Vaughn himself, there is no indication at all that he was involved in rigging the Series, even if that did occur.
But he was there, and he played with those Cubs and against those Red Sox. And he knew those White Sox and Reds players who came into the glare of scrutiny in 1919.
And there he is in the 1961 Fleer set for us to have, hold, and behold.