One man was a one-armed curiosity in the major leagues during World War II. Another was the first baseball player to hit more than 60 home runs in two different seasons. And a third was never much of a player but became the Western Hemisphere’s most famous revolutionary.
It would seem unusual to lump Pete Gray, Joe Hauser and Fidel Castro into the same category, but all three were part of a quirky 1988 card set, called the Little Sun Legends of Minor League Baseball. Little Sun was a small company out of California that produced cards between 1988 and 1992. Most of the sets focused on high school players; in fact, its final product, the 1992 High School Prospects set, featured a young Derek Jeter.
The 1988 set that Little Sun produced set paid tribute to some of the top minor-leaguers in baseball history. The cards were designed by artist Michael Guccione and bear more than a passing resemblance to a pair of sets from 1935: Diamond Stars and National Chicle. The colors are bold and attractive. The card backs are white and contain a long biographical sketch.
Other cards in the set include a header at No. 1, along with Ike Boone, Lou Novikoff, Luke Easter, Steve Bilko, Frank Shellenback, Smead Jolley and Jigger Statz.
Gray was a wartime star with the Memphis Chicks of the Southern Association during World War II, batting .333 in 1943 with five homers. Despite having just one arm — Baseball Reference website notes that he batted left, threw left and fielded “left as well” — Gray played 77 games for the St. Louis Browns in 1945 and collected 51 hits, including six doubles and two triples.
Hauser hit 399 home runs during a 16-year minor-league career that ran from 1019 to 1942 and clubbed 63 homers in 1930 for Baltimore in the International League. With Minneapolis in the American Assocation, Hauser smacked 69 homers. Hauser did play parts of six seasons in the majors, hitting 80 home runs while with the Philadelphia Athletics and Cleveland Indians. His career high in the majors was 27 in 1924 with the A’s.
Castro, who seized control of Cuba as its dictator in 1959, was a pitcher who threw sidearm. The back of the Little Sun cards, which offer a detailed biography of each player, noted that Castro had “fair control but little velocity.” While Washington Senators scout Joe Cambria held tryouts for aspiring Cuban players, Castro never made the cut and was not offered a contract.
The other members of the set are legitimate minor-league icons. Boone batted .407 for the Mission Reds during the 1930 Pacific Coast League season and had an astounding 553 total bases. Boone played in 198 games that year for the Pacific Coast League squad.
Novikoff hit more than 170 homers during his 11 years in the minors but was a liability in the outfield, making 95 errors.
Easter was a power-hitting star in the PCL, smashing 25 homers in 80 games with the San Diego Padres in 1949. Padres owner Bill Starr observed that the 6-foot-4 first baseman was “the most phenomenal gate attraction ever to hit the Pacific Coast League, and I am not excluding Joe DiMaggio.”
Bilko played 10 years in the majors and batted .312 during his 13 seasons in the minors. With the Los Angeles Angels of the PCL, Bilko hit 55 homers in 1956 and added 56 in 1957.
The right-handed Shellenback won 316 games during his 22 seasons in the minors from 1917 to 1938. He won 20 games five times and went 27-7 in 1931 for the PCL’s Hollywood Stars.
Jolley had a career .305 average in the majors and even topped 100 RBI twice in his four years in the bigs. But in the minors, he won six batting titles, including marks of .397 (1927) and .404 (1928) for San Francisco in the PCL.
Statz also played in the majors but rapped out 3,356 hits in the PCL. Throw in his 737 hits in the major leagues and he topped the 4,000-hit plateau.
One can tell that Little Sun had a special affinity for PCL players, so it’s not surprising that at least seven cards in this set contains players from the circuit that at times was considered strong enough to be classified as a major league.
The nice thing about the Little Sun Legends of Minor League Baseball set is that it is not expensive and is rather easy to complete. However, the artwork and classic poses give this modern-day set a vintage feel, which makes it a fun set to collect.
The addition of Castro makes the set quirky enough, too. He might have been the only dictator ever to receive a major-league tryout.