Friday, March 5, 2021

Andy Young: The literacy gifts that keep on giving

By Andy Young

Special to The Windham Eagle

Thanks to the collectible baseball cards featured on boxes of Alpha Bits, Sugar Crisp, and Post Toasties during my boyhood, I not only learned to use scissors safely at an early age, I picked up reading more quickly than I otherwise might have.

Half the players depicted on those 2 ½ X 3 ½-inch cardboard rectangles played for American League teams like the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, and Kansas City Athletics. The others toiled for National League squads that included the Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago Cubs, and the defending league champion Cincinnati Reds. Of course, no one I knew ever completed the 200-card set but trying to do so was both fun and addictive, just as the cereal company’s marketing gurus had no doubt calculated it would be.

There were also cards available on the back panels of Grape Nuts, but neither I nor anyone I knew would have attempted to ingest those pint-sized shards of gravel unless they came inside a box with Willie Mays, Yogi Berra, Hank Aaron, Sandy Koufax, Roberto Clemente, AND Ernie Banks on its back. But the Post Cereal decision makers were far too smart to let that happen. There were never two superstars on the outside of any one package; If you really wanted a Mickey Mantle card, you had to accept it would be accompanied not by images of future Hall of Fame players like Eddie Mathews, Frank Robinson, or Harmon Killebrew, but rather by spear-carriers such as Pancho Herrera, Gene Green, or Ken Hunt.

That fall Post came out with 200 collectable football cards on their cereal boxes, but they weren’t quite as popular. Maybe that’s because those football players had names like Jim Mutchscheller, Frank Varrichione, Sam Etcheverry, Andy Stynchula, Dick Syzmanski, Ed Khayat, John LoVetere and Ralph Guglielmi. Those monikers were awfully intimidating to fledgling readers like me. The baseball players answered to names like Joey Jay, Lenny Green, Bill White, Jim Lemon, Gus Bell, Jake Wood, Sam Jones, or Bob Friend. Who knows, had I been introduced to football cards first, I could have given up on reading as too difficult a skill to master, I might never have gotten out of first grade!

Much time has passed since I painstakingly snipped the baseball cards from the backs of those boxes, and inevitably most of the people depicted on them have moved on to whatever comes after their earthly existence has ended. At this writing, just 54 of the 200 individuals whose photos appeared on those cereal box cards are still alive. The oldest remaining pictured baseball player from that year’s set is former Detroit Tiger outfielder Charlie Maxwell, who’ll turn 94 next month. The youngest: Milwaukee Braves catcher Joe Torre, a comparative stripling who won’t even be 81 until this July 18.

But raw data can be deceiving. Just a year ago at this time there were 33 surviving National Leaguers from the set, which was three more than the American League could claim. But since then seven National Leaguers (Frank Bolling, Eddie Kasko, Lindy McDaniel, Hal Smith, Tony Taylor, Mike McCormick and Stan Williams) have died, while only two American Leaguers (Al Kaline and Whitey Ford) went to their reward during that same time period. So now the statistical shoe is on the other foot. That’s why, after exhaustive research, my data-driven conclusion is that the American Leaguers played a healthier brand of baseball in 1961 than their National League brethren did.

And after a bit of extrapolation, I’ve got another hypothesis as well, which is that I’ve got entirely too much time on my hands.

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