While browsing Wikipedia the other day, I started to read the page about Hal R. Smith, who was a catcher in the majors at the same time as another Hal Smith, Hal W. Smith, who hit a key homer in game 7 of the 1960 World Series. Trying to keep the two Hal Smith’s separate is something which has perplexed all sorts of baseball fans. I’m not sure what it was with people named Smith around this time as the 1958-59 Topps set had, if I recall correctly, three different players named Bob or Bobby Smith. By the way, the Cardinals Hal Smith had his own website.
So, when I was reading the obituary for Hal R. Smith, I noticed that his career had basically ended (except for a brief cameo in 1965) because of a heart attack he suffered in 1961. I still remember growing up what a huge development it was when Dave (the Rave) Stallworth, who was a valued bench member of the New York Knicks and star of the first Wichita State hoops team to reach the Final Four, suffered a heart attack in his 30s.
Some players returned from heart attacks and continued their playing career. In most of these cases, it’s not like there is any premium for their cards but it is sure interesting to trace their careers. So, we will talk about a few players who returned from that abyss and continued their baseball life and others who weren’t so lucky.
First up is John Hiller, who was a Tigers pitcher in the 1960’s and 70’s and was a member of the beloved 1968 Tigers team. Hiller suffered a heart attack in 1971 at the age of 27. He recovered and rejoined the Tigers in the middle of the 1972 season, then recorded 38 saves in ’73 and still holds the team record for games pitched. When Hiller retired in 1980, he was the last member of the 1968 Tigers team to have been an active major leaguer. He’s still around at age 71.
Hiller’s baseball card history is pretty calm with his only reasonably tough cards in the 1969 final series and as a semi-high in 1971. Otherwise, all the Hiller cards are easy to locate.
Current Red Sox bearded wonder Johnny Gomes suffered many near-death experiences and has returned to be a force for several teams in recent years. While his cards may only end up as semi-stars at best, his story is very inspirational to all concerned. In fact, I was watching the MLB Network when they ran a feature about how Gomes during the World Series stood up to cancer in honor of a very young man named Brady Wein.
What makes this feature extra special is Gomes suffered a heart attack on Christmas Eve back in 2002. Having had that experience made Gomes even more sensitive to what struggles a person can have despite seemingly being in the best of health. Johnny Gomes rookie cards were in 2002 and the Bowman's Best version is autographed. With all Gomes has gone through and what he does now, although the values may not be much, the stories behind those cards are great. And when he plays for the Red Sox today, no one thinks about his past.
Not every story has a happy ending. Darryl Kile, who came from a family with a history of heart ailments, was stricken in the middle of the night while the Cardinals were on a road trip in Chicago 11 years ago. It was quite an emotional scene, if you’ll recall watching the coverage from Wrigley Field once it became known what had happened and the game was postponed. Some 2002 Kile baseball cards were issued before his passing but there was only a window of a few months where Kile was alive to sign them. With the number of collectors and the early release date of that year’s cards, however, it’s likely there are a fair number in collections or offered for sale.
Remarkably, two managers in the 1966 Topps set passed away within months of their cards being released. Charlie Dressen had a 1966 Topps card and would be dead before the season ended. Dressen, by the way, was the last major league manager to be born in the 19th century. While certainly possible, there cannot be that many signed 1966 Topps Dressen cards available and the same can be said for signed 1966 Topps Johnny Keane.
Keane was relieved of duty while the Yankees were off to a 4-16 start and died before the 1967 season began.
In the spring of 1972, while managing the Mets, Gil Hodges was stricken on a Florida golf course and did not survive.
We received a lot of response to the ‘cards with bad air brush jobs’ column that ran recently.
Thanks To Bill Hedin, Matt Newberry, Chris Murray and everyone who wrote in.
We’ve put together a special 'Air Brush Heaven' Collection to show you just how hard it apparently was for Topps to change a player to his new team!
I received a huge box from Leighton Sheldon of Just Collect and are now off to a great start with door prizes for our next show here in Plano, TX and would be happy to have more. If you wish to contribute door prizes or silent auction items please let me know via the email address below and you will also receive the tax sheet as well as a major shout out in this column. The first show was a blast and we know the second will be even better.