How Don Zimmer’s baseball card inspired my book on short writing

I was at a baseball game in St. Petersburg, Florida, Wednesday night when news filtered through the stands that baseball legend Don Zimmer had died. His death was not broadcast by the stadium announcer or flashed on the giant video screen.

Almost everyone at Tropicana Field seemed to have a cell phone, and, as the news spread on social networks, it also spread by word of mouth. A friend even showed me a photo on his phone of Tampa Bay Rays coach Tom Foley – who wears Zimmer’s number 66 as a tribute – crying at the news in the dugout.

Don Zimmer was a baseball legend fueled, not by his talent (he was a .235 career hitter), but by his longevity and the rich variety of his experiences:

  • He knew Babe Ruth.
  • He played with and befriended Jackie Robinson.
  • A pitch fractured his skull, rendering him unconscious for two weeks, ushering in the era of the batting helmet.
  • He played six different positions, including catcher.
  • He coached and managed several teams, including the Yankees, Red Sox, and Cubs.
  • He wore the uniform of six World Series champions.

But the best evidence that Zimmer was a baseball man for life was this fact: “He and Miss Jean Bauerle were married at home plate in Elmira, N.Y., August 16, 1951.” How did I know this? Because I owned a replica, created in 1995, of a 1954 Topps baseball card. There it is as a caption on the back, right under a cartoon illustration of husband and wife, with his teammates in uniform standing around as witnesses.

I am holding that baseball card in my hand right now. And I am struck, suddenly, how it fits in my hand almost exactly in the dimensions of my cell phone. I decided to measure them, and it turns out that both baseball card and iPhone screen are 5 cm wide. The card is just a bit longer, 7.75 cm vs. 7 cm for the phones on which fans were reading the news of Zimmer’s passing.

Let me say it again for the record: that my iPhone and a replica of an antique baseball card have almost the same aspect ratios.

I can look at the images on my phone in either the vertical or horizontal position. Guess what? One side of my baseball card has a vertical colorized image of Don Zimmer, a head and shoulders shot with the Brooklyn Dodgers logo in the top right corner. A small black and white action pose sits in the lower right. But the back is organized horizontally. If you turn the card from front to back it has the same feel as if you switch the phone image from North and South to East and West.

I recently wrote a book about the power of short writing, and I say with confidence that whoever designed the back of the 1954 baseball card for Topps would have been a genius in the digital age. The amount of information contained in about six square inches of space is truly phenomenal; not to mention the efficient use of multiple forms of communication. This is, by any definition, a multi-media production, and multi-sensory, if you include the bubble gum.

Consider these elements:

A bio-box in the top left corner:

Height: 5’9”
Weight: 160
Bats Right
Throws Right
Home: Treasure Island, Fla.
Born: January 17, 1931

A text block to the right

Don was leading the American Association in Home Runs and Runs Batted In, July 7, 1953, when he was struck in the head by a pitch, missing the remainder of the season. A sure-handed Shortstop, he entered pro ball at Cambridge in 1949, seeing action in 71 games. Don has aspirations to someday become a Major League manager.

The prose is straightforward and accessible for an audience of primarily young sports fans. In retrospect, those three sentences carry some historical weight. Don’s head injury led to the mandating of batting helmets – and it should not escape us that this may have been one of the earliest attempts to deal with the effects of head injuries in sports, an issue that we continue to face in 2014.

Data visualization
Long before the era of what is now called “Big Data,” few baseball statistics were made available to the public, except in box scores in newspapers. Topps aggregated baseball statistics and found visually compelling ways to display them, using color contrast and a variety of typefaces. Consider how much data is stripped across the middle of the Zimmer card. There is room for 13 separate categories of data on parallel lines. As a child, I learned reading from the text blocks, and I learned practical math from the stats.

Features and illustrations

Even with all this information – words and numbers – there is room for not just one but two captioned illustrations, a lovely blend of language and visuals. Under the logo “Inside Baseball,” we learn that “Don led the Pony League with 23 Home Runs at Hornell in 1950.” But the lower right panel provides the payoff: “He and Miss Jean Bauerle were married at home plate in Elmira, N.Y., August 16, 1951.”

Thanks to a tip from Clay Luraschi at Topps, I now know the name of the designer of the early cards, including 1954. His name was Sy Berger, and this interview with him late in his life describes how he and an artist, Woody Gelman, designed the modern baseball card on his kitchen table. Not only did he imagine the images on the front, but he aggregated and curated the statistical information featured on the back.

Berger knew his audience: kids obsessed with baseball in the 1950s when families began to spread from the cities to the suburbs and when television brought baseball into your living room. The cards had to be colorful, informative, stackable, and portable. Kids would collect them. (My boss says he still has about 10,000.) But kids would also trade them and flip them in a variety of competitive games. One day, the kids would grow up and buy and sell them as part of a huge Baby Boomer collectibles market.

I don’t know how much money Sy Berger made in his many years with the Topps company, but I imagine he could have made another fortune working for Microsoft or Apple.

Back to Don Zimmer
A reference to Don Zimmer occurs on page 24 of my book “How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times.” The chapter encourages writers to “Study short writing wherever it finds you,” not just in text messages or on social media sites. Pay attention to short writing in fortune cookies, on cereal boxes, on candy valentine hearts. And, yes, on baseball cards. I wrote:

It was from these brief texts in small print on the backs of pieces of cardboard that I learned not just the background of the players but the rules of the game, its history and traditions, and, best of all, its language and slang. A “blue dart” was a line drive. A “can of corn” was an easy pop fly. “Chin music” was a pitch up and in.

The chapter ends with this epilogue:

Just a few days ago I ran into Beau Zimmer, a young Florida journalist and a grandson of Don Zimmer. “Please extend to your grandparents my warmest wishes on their sixtieth wedding anniversary,” I said. “I know they were married at home plate in Elmira, New York.’’
“You must have owned his baseball card,” said Beau.

I once read a book by a rabbi who did not believe in an afterlife. He said that if you want immortality, there are three things you can do: plant a tree, write a book, have a child. I now think there may be a fourth: be on a baseball card.

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  • Ron_Kaplan

    Thanks for the link to my site on Jews and Sports. I have some issues, however, with the rabbi’s thought on immortality: without appearing overly morbid, there are instances where children die young, trees get chopped down, and physical books turn to dust. And as far as baseball cards go, somebody’s mother will invariably throw them away at some point.