Sunday, January 15, 2012

Luke Sewell--1933 Goudey

Photos: Luke Sewell's 1933 Goudey, front and back, from my collection

Important recent card in my collection because a) my better half bought it for me for Christmas, and b) I love Goudeys.  The 1933 set is an iconic set to begin with; it was one of the few sets since the early Cracker Jack cards, the famous T205 and T206 cards, or the ones made in triptych in the late 1800s, to be considered art.  The 1933 Goudeys are smaller than today's cards, almost square, with a painting likeness of the player (sometimes accurate, sometimes not) against a solid color background.  The likeness of the player was often outlined very sharply against this background, as Sewell's is.  The cards, individually and as a set, are of high aesthetic value: the colors hold together well; the cardboard is thick and sustains (except around the corners, notoriously for this set); the printing conditions were very high; and, most importantly, all of the major players of the day are there, including 3 or 4 Ruths and Gehrigs.  A rarity in this set is that many of the players have duplicate cards, and not always because they changed teams, retired, etc.

Family lore has it that my father probably had a ton of these when he was a kid growing up in the 40s or early 50s.  He didn't remember which ones.  One day his mother came in and cleaned up his room, which involved throwing many of them away.  He had maybe three or four left over, which he either demolished by attaching them to his bike spokes, or lost by playing betting games with them--usually by flicking them against brick walls; he who had his card land face-up took the lot.  If this is accurate, he lost some HOF players, and maybe a few grand worth of cards.  But nobody thought of collecting and making money from these things back in the day.

This card:

This one is probably in G-VG condition.  It's not professionally graded, but since I'm holding on to it forever, I'm not going to bother.  It has slight creases of wear in the upper portion, noticeable only in a slanted light, and even slighter ones in the upper left corner, beneath the name, and in the direct center.  The corners are very rounded; this is notoriously common for this set.  Someone had to have the mindset of a collector in 1933 to somehow protect the card (probably in a book, or maybe a cheese box, back then) and its corners.  (There's a set of 114 cards of this condition on ebay right now, going for just over eight grand.)  That just wasn't the case most of the time back then.  Schoolboys played with them, folded them, flipped them, put them in their bike spokes, etc.  Some kid definitely played with this one back in the day; the creases tell me that it's been flipped on its head or tail quite a bit; it's probably seen its share of walls.  That means more to me, somehow.  It's got more character, more story, behind it, then if some guy just put it between the pages of a hardcover book in 1933 and didn't often look at it.  Mine's been used and abused.  It's got patina, as a picker would say.  (Though if someone wants to give me a 1933 Goudey of any player in great condition, please feel free.)

The player:

Some interesting tidbits from his Wikipedia page: He came up fast, after just 17 minor league games, and was probably signed by the Cleveland Indians to begin with because his brother was already an infielder for them.  He was part of a righty/lefty platoon; he never hit in League Park, the home park, which had a right field fence only 290 feet from home plate.  Known for his defense, he threw out 71 runners one year, 60 another, and so on, which tells me that not only did he have a very good throwing arm--but, apparently, everyone ran, all the time, once they got to first.  (Babe Ruth famously ended a World Series by getting thrown out at second base.  The old sped-up clips show his spindly legs moving quicker than you would think, but that's not enough to convince me that he had any business stealing bases, at any time.)

His defense was so good, and maybe his handling of the pitching staff so well-respected, that he did very well in MVP voting at a time when hitters stats were comparable to the steroid era.  For example, he finished fifth in the MVP voting in 1937, and was an all-star.  The league average, batting, that year was .281, and the average OBP was .355.  That means that your average ballplayer, who nobody's ever heard of before, could be a good to decent leadoff or number-two hitter today.  (A slightly below average year for Pedroia would be .281/.355 right now.)  The #10 hitter in the league hit .331 with a .407 OBP and a .546 slugging %, with 111 runs scored, 25 homers and 110 RBIs.  Sewell, as I mentioned, finished 5th in MVP voting, way ahead of all the guys whose stats are mentioned above; Sewell had 111 hits, with 1 homerun, 61 RBIs and a .269 batting average--all very, very, very below the league average.  More than five guys finishing in the top-25 behind him had over 25 homers and 100 RBIs each.  The guys in front of him were your DiMaggios, Greenbergs and Gehrigs, with over 37 homers and 159 RBIs apiece (those were Gehrig's stats, whose numbers were lower than the guys in front of him on the MVP list).  Guys in front of him hit .371, .346, .337, .351, and .332., with RBI totals of 167, 183, 159 and 133.  Then Sewell, hitting .269, with 1 homer and 61 RBIs.

Now that's respect.  Or else, he had pictures.  I don't know.  I'm guessing respect.  He must've been some defensive catcher and handler of pitchers.  The equivalent today would've been Jason Varitek finishing #5 in the MVP voting between 2000 and 2007.  Not happenin'.  Sewell finished 9th, 12th and 15th in the MVP voting in other years.  You can find these stats at, here.  He threw out 53% of the baserunners for two straight years, and was annually in the mid- to upper-40s.  That's incredible, for any era.  For his career, he struck out just 307 times in over 6,000 plate appearances; this averages to just 30 strikeouts per 600 plate appearances, per season.  In 1933, he had 24 strikeouts in 536 plate appearances.  Of course, he walked about as often, too.  In those 536 PAs in 1933, he walked just 48 times--though this is, of course, double his strikeout total.  With his good MVP standing, I'll bet he made the most of all those outs--moving the runners along, hitting to the right side, bunting, sacrifice flies.  All that.  He still holds the American League record for most consecutive seasons as an active catcher, with 20.  This also speaks to his defensive prowess.  Something else that also does is that he caught three no-hitters from three no-name pitchers.  Varitek, who also caught three no-hitters, probably caught them from pitchers of higher caliber.

His brother, Joe Sewell, is a Hall of Fame shortstop.  As I've barely heard of him, I'll bet it's because of his defense, as well.  Let's look 'em up...Woops!  I'm wrong.  Clearly one of the better hitting shortstops of the 20s, if not the best, and his strikeout ratios are even better than his brother's, to the point of silliness.  He struck out 114 times in just over 8,300 plate appearances for his career.  (By comparison, many of the best hitters today K well over 114 times in about 600 plate appearances in just one season.)  On average, per season, he would K just 10 times in over 700 plate appearances, with 72 walks, 189 hits, 90+ RBIs, a .312 batting average and a .391 on-base percentage.  He once had 115 consecutive games between strikeouts.  He still holds the MLB record for fewest strikeouts per AB, averaging just one K per 63 at-bats for his career.

Pappa Sewell taught his boys to make contact.

Though this was a great time to be a hitter, the juiced-up ball and smaller ballparks didn't lead to Joe Sewell walking as much, getting as many hits, and K'ing so rarely.  His D was good, too.  Overlooked player by the HOF and voted in by the Veterans Committee in 1977 in one of their rare good moves.  He died in 1990, aged 91, so he saw himself inducted into the Hall, which is rare for an overlooked ballplayer from a bygone era.

In an odd coincidence, Luke Sewell (back to him; sorry for the brother sidetrack) was traded by the Washington Senators, with cash, to the St. Louis Browns for Bump Hadley--whose 1933 Goudey I had just bought at a flea market a few weeks before.  (Hadley, a pitcher, had hit him in the head and knocked him unconscious in 1934, ending his season.)  Until Christmas, Hadley's was only one of the two Goudeys I owned.  (I got his card, and Bing Miller's--both in Good condition--for $20 total at that flea market.)  Weird.  He won two awards for Manager of the Year (one in the majors, one in the minors) but never seemed content anywhere and stepped down all the time.  Just kept moving around.  (He had a .622 record over two seasons for one team as manager, but stepped down and re-signed elsewhere anyway.)  In 1944, he led the St. Louis Browns to its only World Series in its 52-year existence, losing to the St. Louis Cardinals.

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