By Marty Appel
One of the best series of baseball paperbacks was the long-running “Baseball Stars” books, which began in 1950 and ended in 1975.
The books never wavered from the original format set by Lion Books in 1950, which was to produce mini-biographies of the best players from the previous season. The biographies were prepared by some of the best sportswriters of the day, and gave more than just a recap of the previous year’s accomplishments. Indeed, the reader would be treated to well- researched, full- life biographies. That is why the books remain valuable today, and in many cases, the best biographical source available on “one-year wonders.”
Still, they are not considered very collectible. Few people walk the tables of memorabilia shows looking to complete their collection. The 1957 and 1965 editions, with Mickey Mantle on the cover, remain the most valuable, but the books can often be found in the $10-$25 range.
Of course, since they started with a 25 cent cover price, and ended at 95 cents, that’s not a bad markup.
Martin Goodman, the publisher of Lion, assigned young Bruce Jacobs to be the original editor, although the 1950 edition says “Bob Considine Introduces Baseball Stars of 1950.” Considine was a big name in journalism at the time – he had recently completed an important book on Douglas MacArthur, and was the co-author of Babe Ruth’s 1948 autobiography. But Considine was there only to write a brief introduction, and Jacobs handled the rest. The stories were not originals done for the book, but rather taken from the pages of Sport Life and Sports Stars pulp magazines, which regularly profiled players in 1949 and 1950. So if you need a bio on Bob Dillinger or Del Ennis, Art Houtteman, Alex Kellner, or Birdie Tebbetts, this is where you go.
There were no editions in 1951 or 1952 (making the few collectors of this series quite confused), but it came back in ’53, this time credited to Jacobs, and featuring Hank Sauer and Bobby Shantz on the cover. Again, the stories were previously published in the pulps, and among the contributors were Furman Bisher, Harold Rosenthal, Shirley Povich, Bob Broeg and Milton Richman. It was in 1954 that the stories were all original commissions for the project.
Jacobs continued as editor through 1957, when the baton was passed to Ray Robinson, who had worked under Jacobs in compiling the books almost from the start. In 1958, publishing rights shifted to Pyramid, where they would remain to the end. Robinson, a distinguished editor of such magazines as Pageant and Coronet (and later of Good Housekeeping and Seventeen), was a huge fan who went to Columbia, idolized Lou Gehrig, and built scrapbooks as a kid, which he had extensively autographed. He was a perfect choice for the series.
“We worked with a $500 budget,” he recalled recently, still productive at 80 having turned out recent books on Knute Rockne, Will Rogers, Gehrig and Christy Mathewson. “That didn’t mean I got $500 – I got what was left after I hired the writers. So I had to pay $20, $25, maybe $30 an article. And I had to write a bunch myself, or else I would have nothing left. I did them all on my father’s LC Royal typewriter, which I still use.”
“$30?” says Dick Schaap, a frequent contributor. (He got the plum assignment of doing Roger Maris for the 1962 edition; his first piece was on Bob Friend 42 years ago). “I don’t remember ever getting that much. “$20 was more like it.”
But Robinson was persuasive, and got the likes of Jimmy Breslin, Roger Kahn, Al Silverman, Dick Kaplan, George Vecsey, Charles Einstein, Ed Linn, and Arnold Hano to contribute regularly.
Jacobs too, recruited top talent. “Harold Rosenthal was prolific and brilliant,” he says, now living in retirement at 76 outside Washington, D.C. “In those early books, you would see authors like, ‘Hal Taylor.’ That was Harold. We didn’t want to use the same name too many times.
Jacobs, a World War II vet, returned to military service after leaving publishing, reaching the rank of Major General in 1983. He served in the Nixon White House in 1969-70, and is considered one of the nation’s top authorities on the National Guard. Once he left baseball editing, he never looked back. He never followed Robinson’s books and let his fandom go. He meets very few people who ever make the connection of his name to those books.
“I remember those days, though,” he says. “Tried to interview Joe DiMaggio once. In those days, you had a press pass, you could track these guys down all over the field. But he wouldn’t talk to me. So I stormed back to the dugout, and said to him, ‘you weren’t so stuck up when you with the Seventh Air Force!
“A few minutes later, he followed me in, and with the handle of his bat, banged the bottom of my shoe. ‘Okay,’ he said, ‘I’ll give you 15 minutes.”
Robinson thinks that at its high water mark, perhaps 25,000 copies were sold annually. Ironically, the series ended in 1975 when baseball was in the dumps. The game revived itself the following year, following the thrilling ’75 World Series and the Yankees return to glory in ’76, but the series was done. “I just got tired of doing it,” says Ray, still a feisty, tennis-playing New Yorker, whose son Steve is managing editor of CNN/SI.
The final edition featured two contributions from Dan Schlossberg, who a decade later, revived the series in larger format, crediting Ray as his mentor on the project, but only got three years out of it. Collectors don’t consider them part of the series both for their different size, the gap in time, and the fact that the bios were written differently.
Who appeared the most times in the books?
Hank Aaron, whose 18 appearances in the 24 volumes edged Mickey Mantle by one and Willie Mays by two. Roberto Clemente appeared eleven times.