Jim Lemon had enjoyed a nice, long career as a big league player and was getting his chance to manage the Washington Senators. Little did he know in January of 1969 that he’d not only be fired a few weeks before the start of spring training but his misfortune would be subject to a rather cruel taunt from Topps.
Collectors who pulled his card from packs in the third series of the 1969 set saw him as the Senators manager, even though his firing on January 29 by new owner Bob Short made room for Ted Williams to take over. The back of the card, however, told the unfortunate story.
So why create a card of a guy who had been fired and even add a rather unflattering cartoon?
Topps always liked its card sets to be as up-to-date as they possibly could, although production restraints of the era surely made it a challenge at times. Considering the new MLB Players Association was making life difficult by telling players not to pose for baseball card photos, it’s possible, too, that Topps was hurting for player images and simply decided to leave Lemon in the set and create sort of an “update” card out of it instead of swapping a player out of an upcoming series to fill the void.
A few years ago, Rich Klein wrote a column for us about the card, asking why Topps hadn’t used Lemon’s biggest claim to fame for the cartoon: his three homer game against Whitey Ford in 1956. President Eisenhower was at the game that day and called Lemon over for a handshake. Thanks to a recent Robert Edward Auctions purchase, reader Roy Carlson provided the update to this story…one that shows both Topps and our writer had actually been on the same page—about 25 years apart. Here’s what he wrote:
I’ve always been fascinated with the 1969 Topps Jim Lemon manager card. Why would Topps produce two Senators manager cards, Jim Lemon and Ted Williams, in a set, and how could such a humiliating portrayal of Lemon get published?
Thanks to the Topps artist and the executives who approved the card, we know Lemon was relieved of his managerial duties on January 29, 1969. Not only was that statement proclaimed for all collectors to see, Topps added an exclamation point after the sentence, and even drew a sheepish-looking player hightailing it out of town, suitcase in hand. Really? How’d you like to be Lemon, his family or former teammates opening a ‘69 pack and finding that beauty? Heck of an embarrassing last card, to say the least.
Lemon’s card #294 appeared in the 3rd series, which by my estimation would have been released in stores around April. It’s obvious Topps had time after the January announcement to draw the cartoon with the infamous managerial exit statement, so surely they could have and should have replaced Lemon’s card with a different player (Tony Horton, anyone?) and awaited the new Washington skipper announcement. Ted Williams eventually signed a contract on February 21 to become the new Senators manager and Topps rightfully produced a Williams #650 card in the final 7th series, which probably hit stores around August or so.
Last month, I was lucky enough to be high bidder on eight 1969 Topps manager original card back drawings, one of which is Jim Lemon’s artwork.
As you can see from the photos below, the Topps artist mounted the infamous cartoon factoid on top of the original card stock. Upon closer inspection, a different original cartoon and statement lie beneath the one card collectors have only known. I shined a powerful light on the backside of the board, and to my surprise and delight, the statement “JIM ONCE SMASHED 3 HOMERS IN ONE GAME OFF YANKEES ACE, WHITEY FORD!”
It’s hard to know for certain why Topps made the move to create the “fired” Lemon card but thanks to Roy, who works at the Chicago Tribune’s printing facility, we now have the actual evidence of what was going to be on the back of that card had the Senators’ new owner not decided to pull the rug out from under him 50 years ago.