This is our fifth Pittsburgh Pirates Memorabilia article, where we get contributions from collectors, who show off a prized possession and tell the story of how and why that piece of history resides in their collection.
Our first submission was a 1946 team signed ball owned by Jarrod Ranone. The second installment was an 1887 scorecard used by a fan during the first cycle in Pirates franchise history. That article was written by Joe Gonsowski, a Detroit collector, who focuses on 19th century items. In our third installment, Martin Healy Jr. shared the story of his George Gibson mitt. Healy previously wrote about Gibson here over the winter, and what led him to write a book about the Pirates catcher for the 1909 World Series champs. The last one is about the Go Ball former Pirates Prospects contributor John Fredland received as a young boy from Lanny Frattare.
Today we go back to Spring Training during the 1911 season to look at a photo showing three members of the 1909 World Series champs. Jon Fowler, who collects Pittsburgh Pirates memorabilia, shares the story of his early collecting days and how it eventually transformed into collecting items related to the 1909 Pirates. He then tells of how he acquired our featured item and the vast research that went into finding out more about the item.
As a side note, his collecting habit has recently carried over to his wife, who makes and sells masks with vintage baseball images. You can contact Jon at his email at the end of the article if you’re interested in purchasing one of these items.
Fellowship Found in a Photo
by Jon Fowler
In 1979, Willie “Pops” Stargell and the Fam-A-Lee took over my heart. I was seven years old, an average ballplayer for my age, and I couldn’t get enough of that team. Omar Moreno, Tim Foli, Dave Parker, The Candy Man, and Manager Chuck Tanner were all my heroes. Fast forward to the heartbreak of Tony Pena being traded. I cried with him when it happened. The blow was softened some due to the three hidden gems the Pirates gained – Mike LaValliere, Andy Van Slyke, and Mike Dunne. Others like Bonds and Bonilla had me glued to the TV most evenings watching my Buccos, or on lucky days I would get to a game. We had another great leader. I think we all loved Jim Leyland and his no nonsense down to earth style.
Then came the mass exodus of talent and winning leaving with them. A long 20 years of pain and drudgery. Contestant rebuilding. Always hoping at the beginning of the season. Bright spots here and there, but losing was the norm. Like most of my friends I still loved and followed the team, but was yearning for something.
I turned to my old baseball cards that I still had from when I was a kid. Looking back, there’s not much value to them, but I loved them. Then one birthday my dad came home from visiting the town mayor. I was impressed with this at the time. I didn’t know why then, but it turns out our small town mayor was a collector of baseball cards and memorabilia. My dad was an old school guy, but he always knew how to get to my level. He came home and I was really interested in the “why” he met with the mayor. With my mom prompting me to go see what my dad was doing there, I ran to the door to see him. Rather quickly he held out his hand and said “Happy birthday”. In his hand was a 1959 Roberto Clemente card, the greatest thing I ever saw. My belly fluttered. I couldn’t believe that this was mine! That day lit a fire that still isn’t quenched. My dad has been gone now for a little more than six years, but my love for him and for collecting is ingrained in my soul.
My collection slowly grew, then was paused for a time when I grew up, graduated, went to college, and then enlisted in the Army. My mom would send letters when I was deployed updating me on the Pirates and the standings. Those things kept me grounded and put my mind into more pleasant things.
While in the Army I met my wife. We had four kids. My career grew legs and I found myself with some disposable income. Again I found myself yearning to collect. I still remember sitting at the kitchen table thinking through what I wanted to do with this collecting urge.
In my wildest dreams I wouldn’t have thought to collect things from way back in the early Pirates days. Then I remembered my Boy Scout leader talking with me one time when I was in my early teens. I didn’t think I could be an Eagle Scout because that was for other people that were better then me. He asked me “Why would you not go for Eagle Scout?” I then realized something about myself that he unlocked. I gained confidence that I could do things just as well as others could. I’d just have to try!
That led me to the decision I made right there at the kitchen table. What was the greatest, coolest, time in Pirates history? When did they win their first world series? I had all the year memorized, but didn’t know much about many of the teams. The won in 1909, 1925, 1960, 1971, and 1979. I know the ‘79 team. Everyone from my hometown new the 1960 Maz winning homer series. What did I know about the first time they won the World Series? Not much. That really expensive Honus Wagner card. That’s it.
I knew I had to learn more about that team and go for it. “I’m gonna collect the 1909 Pirates”. I suddenly exclaimed. I didn’t realize it, but I said it out loud. I startled my wife a little. She didn’t know what I was wrestling with, she just said “Well okay then”. She shook her head and went back to making dinner for me and our herd of kids. The memory still brings a smile to my face today. I realized If others can collect that time, why couldn’t I? I took the plunge and never looked back.
My knowledge and collection took off. I purchased my first couple T206 cards. They were hammered, but I loved them. Again fast forwarding a decade or so to many trades and purchases later, I branched into non-cards. Memorabilia grabbed a hold. The uniqueness was really powerful. Now I had a chance to pick up a couple items, one of which is still a favorite of mine.
A cabinet photo originally owned by Paddy O’Connor, a backup catcher and utility player, who played for the 1909 Pirates. I had gained a reputation for being a collector of this team and these kinds of things. A collector reached out to me with an opportunity. He owned something once owned by one of the players on the team! Is this possible? It was a stretch for me financially at the time, but I had to figure it out. The collector had picked this up from an estate sale held by Paddy’s family sometime after he passed away. He thought by I’d love it and he was right. Players shown in the photo are Mike Simon, Paddy O’Connor, Harry Martin and George Gibson. I loved the image and had to have it. And I had to know as much about it as I could find.
Mike Simon was a backup catcher. I had his T207 card. Paddy O’Connor, utility guy and catcher. I had his Tip Top Card. Harry Martin never made the club. He was a career minor leaguer who was invited to spring training. George Gibson, I had his T206. What was different about this image? They were together. They were suddenly real people. They had personality. They were friends. Friends so much one of the players kept this photo for the rest of his life.
Part of the fun with things like this cabinet photo is the research and the journey of learning with them. I have gone through many different assumptions about which field, when it was taken, and even who they were. After showing the image to several hobby and early baseball experts we realized it was likely taken in Hot Springs, Arkansas.
After lots of detective work and triangulating what I knew, the photo had to be 1911. The uniforms worn were first issued right after the end of spring training in 1910 and Harry Martin was only around the team for spring training in 1911. It had to be within a couple months of 1911. I’m sure it could be pinned down to more exact dates with some deep dive research, which I’m sure I’ll do sometime going forward.
One thing I love is Gibson, O’Connor, and Simon all played on the 1909 Pirates. The 1909 season would have made an impact on these guys. All of them being catchers also created a special bond. It takes a unique ballplayer to be that guy. This fellowship would be remembered with a photo. It was a special time.
Another interesting thing I noticed was the marks on Mike Simon’s and George Gibson’s faces. I always wondered if it was from a fight or something from game play. During that time it wasn’t uncommon for the players to be out gambling or drinking in town at night. Or maybe a baseball fight. I can easily imagine these guys having spare time and running around in there 20’s, living it up and getting into trouble.
How can you not love the uniforms? The metal cleats. The crossed arms of Gibson. What appears to be an equipment bag to George’s left behind the first bleacher. All of it.
Before all teams we’re going to Arizona and Florida for the spring, many were going the Arkansas. Lots of my friends would say “Arkansas? Why Arkansas?” Well the baseball team owners used spring training to get the teams into shape for a long season. It wasn’t like today when players have state of the art training year round, personal trainers on their payroll, and the best equipment. Back then the off-season was the off-season. They took a break from the intense long 154-game schedules. Some would even work regular jobs.
The Hot Springs were said to be therapeutic and revitalizing. The owners encouraged the players to take advantage of them, thinking they gave an edge and helped healing and good health. It was common to see players soaking in these naturally heated waters after a hard day of play. In my years of collecting I’ve seen images of player soaking in the waters there. Many people would come from all around to visit the springs and the ballplayers enjoyed the time there.
One thing I know is that these guys in this photo aren’t Hall of Famers like Honus Wagner, Fred Clarke, or Vic Willis, but they are real hard-nosed ball players. Tough players that made this team a better team for being there. Fighting to make the team great by pulling their weight. George was a solid batting catcher at a .265 batting average in 1909. He was a great field captain and he managed the pitching staff very well. He played in 150 regular season games in 1909. He was so good he eventually managed the team. Mike and Paddy were steady backups with lower than average hitting but were reliable fill-ins for the team.
To me a special part of this photo is Harry Martin. Not many images exist of Harry. He was a talented and well-traveled guy. Obviously by time this photo was taken he was one of the guys. Unfortunately he didn’t make the team in 1911 and went on to play 35 games that year for the Grand Rapids Furniture Makers/Newark Skeeters.
This cabinet photo sits in my man cave on my shelf. I look at it often. I find myself transported to those bleachers during one of those crisp day games. Listening to the boys chatter. I can hear the crack of the bat, with manager Fred Clarke hitting grounders, warming the boys up before a match. This was not long after a season of greatness in 1909. They helped put together 110 wins, a first place finish, and the city’s first World Series champions.
Jon can be reached at Jcfowler6@zoominternet.net
John started working at Pirates Prospects in 2009, but his connection to the Pittsburgh Pirates started exactly 100 years earlier when Dots Miller debuted for the 1909 World Series champions. John was born in Kearny, NJ, two blocks from the house where Dots Miller grew up. From that hometown hero connection came a love of Pirates history, as well as the sport of baseball.
When he didn't make it as a lefty pitcher with an 80+ MPH fastball and a slider that needed work, John turned to covering the game, eventually focusing in on the prospects side, where his interest was pushed by the big league team being below .500 for so long. John has covered the minors in some form since the 2002 season, and leads the draft and international coverage on Pirates Prospects. He writes daily on Pittsburgh Baseball History, when he's not covering the entire system daily throughout the entire year on Pirates Prospects.