The 1948 Oakland Oaks were a powerful team in the Pacific Coast League, and the West Coast circuit made a strong bid for major-league status several times. That was thwarted when the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants moved to California, but in the late 1940s the Triple-A PCL had some strong squads.
Consider that the Oaks, while going 114-74 seventy years ago, won the PCL pennant by just two games over the San Francisco Seals, who won 112 games. The Los Angeles Angels, meanwhile, finished third despite winning 102 games.
The Oaks were piloted by Casey Stengel, who would be named manager of the New York Yankees in 1949. His second baseman in Oakland, Alfred “Billy” Martin, would be part of the New York dynasty that won five straight World Series titles from 1949 to 1953 and would later manage the Yankees five different times.
A 24-card set put out by Signal Oil in 1948 was stocked with 17 past or future major-leaguers. Signal was a longtime fixture in the Bay Area of California. It was founded in 1922 by a farmer named Samuel B. Mosher. It was one of the major sponsors for Oaks radio broadcasts, and the 1948 cards were given away at Signal gasoline stations in the Oakland area.
The Signal Oil set in 1948 included a pair of future Hall of Famers in Stengel and catcher Ernie Lombardi, who turned 40 in ’48 and had spent 17 seasons in the major leagues. The set also included pitcher Johnny Babich, who didn’t play in 1948 but was a member of the Oaks in 1946.
In addition to Martin, the Signal Oil set also featured future major-leaguer Ralph Buxton, who went 13-3 for Oakland in 1948.
The bulk of players who had major-league experience had played briefly during World War II, when many of baseball’s big stars were in the armed forces. The hitting star was former Yankees wartime veteran Nick Etten, who led the Oaks with 43 homers and 155 RBI.
Other players who had seen action in the majors before 1948 included Loyd Christopher (.318 in 1948), Charlie Gassaway (15-8), Ray Hamrick, Earl Jones, Cookie Lavagetto, Dario Lodigiani, Robert E. (Gene) Lillard, Floyd Speer and Aldon “Lefty” Wilkie. Lavagetto had been a hero for the Brooklyn Dodgers in October 1947, breaking up Bill Bevens’ no-hit bid in Game 4 of the World Series.
While this Oakland Oaks team may have seemed like the graveyard for former major-leaguers, two who played during the war years — Merrill Combs and George “Catfish” Metkovich — made it back to the majors after 1948. Metkovich showed some power for the Oaks in 1948, smacking 23 homers and driving in 88 runs.
The 1948 Signal Gasoline cards were not numbered and measured 2 3/8 inches by 3½ inches. The color photos on the front were full-bleed shots, with no markings, names or team logos. The white backs contained a brief biography of the players that was printed in either blue or black ink. A Signal Oil ad (“It takes Extra Quality to Go Farther” was the slogan printed on the card back) and logo also adorned the bottom of the card.
The set also contained the radio voice of the Oaks, Bud Foster, who did the play-by-play for KLX, 910 AM. Foster was a radio journalist during World War II, broadcasting from Guam and Iwo Jima in 1945. He also was the play-by-play announcer for the San Francisco 49ers (1946-1949, 1951-1953) and the announcer for the Oakland Raiders from 1960 to 1962. He was elected to the Bay Area Radio Hall of Fame in 2007. He even owned a television station — KUDO — for a few years in the late 1960s.
There is one variation in the set, and it has to do with Billy Martin. In one version, his birth date is incorrectly listed as 1921; the other version has the proper birth year of 1928.
Predictably, the most valuable cards in the set were those of Stengel and Martin (both variations fetch the same price). Rare high-grade examples can be pricey but a respectable card of either can usually be found for well under $200. Common cards from the set are very inexpensive considering the fairly limited quantity that survives today (you can see what’s available on eBay by clicking here).
The Signal Oil set may not have recognizable names to many current baseball fans, but these players were well-known in the Pacific Coast League and were respected for reaching the majors, even under the wartime circumstances.