Wednesday, November 3, 2010

What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love, And Baseball Cards?

The idea that baseball could be funny has reverberated through almost the entire history of the game, which leads you to believe that baseball was not really designed to be a game but rather some elaborate Victorian comedy routine played out for the enjoyment of the one-armed Civil War vets at the Grand Army Home. Maybe it was their version of Saturday Night Live, with Abner Doubleday as Amy Poehler, doing U.S. Grant impersonations. It would explain volumes, including, at last, Whammy Douglas.

The first instances of mass-produced baseball humor came in the mid-1880s, with the publication of advertising cards showing baseball players doing the hilarious things baseball players have always done: sliding, catching, batting, and throwing. What made you really split your sides and expel peach melba through your nose was that the players' heads were Macy's-balloon-size, and the slogans on the top engaged in subtle wordplay certain to send the eyeballs of the Henry James set rolling back into their foreheads.

For instance, there is the caricature of the Detroit Wolverines’ Dan Brouthers with the slogan, “Watch me soak one.” No, smart individual, the ball isn’t even made of water like the balls in those razor ads. It’s just a ball and a slogan and a caricature of Dan Brouthers that made Thomas Nast’s work on Boss Tweed look like Gainsbrough. A chicken feather lightly waved across the foot is not half so effective as a Moran's Coffee card, let me tell you.

This sort of hilarity continued with the Old Judge set, otherwise known as the card set of the masses, by the masses, for the masses, and containing all the masses. There the humorous hook designed to get people to set fire to dried leaves rolled in paper and stuck in their mouth was the old ball-on-a-string trick. Arlie Latham is reaching for a ball that will never, ever have the giddyup to reach his glove, which makes "Who's On First?" come off like Pacino and DiNiro doing Aristophanes. Combine that with handlebar mustaches and nicknames like "Death to Flying Things" and you're only a couple of gallons of blackberry brandy away from a rip-roaring party.

And around the turn of the century came the Edith Wharton-esque Mayo Comics set, which shows, among other moments that could have been outtakes from Airplane!, a drawing of an evicted family with their belongings on the street and the slogan "Put Out At 1st" beneath.

Boy, a two-handed eye-poke has nothing on social-consciousness humor from the meat-packing-trust days.

We could go through the hysterical hijinks for years and launch nasal chunks at the mere thought of baseball humor being used to sell paints and suits, but this is "Handful O'Landfill" and our objective is to ridicule the cards of baseball's salad days. So let's fast-forward to '91 – 1991, if you don’t mind -- and sharpen the long knives.

The humorous baseball cards of the HOL-i-days took one of two tacks, neither of which would hurt you much if you sat on them. The first was the historical approach, as embodied by Star Company’s “Baseball Hall of Shame” set.

Star Company was well-acquainted with baseball humor, having made a 20-card set of Sam Horn. It delved further into the history books with its Baseball Hall of Shame set and produced Chaplinesque moments like the following, delivered under the headline, “Blooperstown News”:

“1902 – Cubs pitcher Jimmy St. Vrain had a problem finding first base. This was understandable since he seldom made it to first, batting a weak .097 for the year.

“St. Vrain usually batted right-handed but, following a suggestion by his manager, he attempted to bat left-handed.

“On his very next trip to the plate, St. Vrain hit a slow grounder to shortstop Honus Wagner. Thrilled that he had simply hit the ball, St. Vrain dropped his bat and took off on a dead run – toward third base!

“The stunned Wagner didn’t know whether to throw him out at first or third. He recovered in time and fired to first for the out. It was probably the first time a runner was thrown out by 180 feet!”

Probably. And we wonder where the next James Thurber is coming from.

Forgive me for interrupting your paroxysms and convulsions, but I have a column to run and a question to ask: Would you pay money for more of the same?

Maybe if you’re Jerry Seinfeld and you find yourself with a standup act to write and no material to write it from. But for the mere mortals it would be like giving every new driver’s-ed graduate a Ferrari Testarossa. Watch out for the corners.

While the Baseball Hall of Shame set stuck to the facts with gut-jiggling results, the set known by no other name than "Fun Stuff" tossed aside the history books in favor of a no-holds-barred assault on the funny bone. The result was like a Steven Wright monologue with the punch line not merely delayed but completely eliminated.

Consider the card of "Bubble Dumb" Bonkus, Backup Catcher. Paired with a drawing of a player trying to remove what appears to be characters from a Dreamworks cartoon from his face are the deathless couplets, "If a guy can't blow bubbles, there is just no way he can make it in baseball./So despite his great arm and great bat, Bonkus will always be just a backup player if he can't master bubble gum."

Twain, Thurber, Benchley, Wolfe, Barry -- they were all just a run-up, laying the groundwork for "Bubble Dumb" Bonkus. You have to go all the way back to Chaucer to find something labeled as humor so completely hidden behind a veil of nondescript language.

I have no idea where this card came from. I'm guessing somewhere in the candy realm, based on the name "Confex" following the copyright circle. On the other hand, Confex may be the name of a clandestine operation, much like the Killer Joke Project from the Monty Python sketch, where hundreds of little gray men toil endlessly in an airless bunker, striving under threat of death to create the ultimate funny baseball card that will leave millions of eight-year-old boys so paralyzed with laughter that the Confex operation can swoop in and harvest their organs or swipe their iPod Touches. I know which one I'd prefer. Give me a good, fresh kidney over a mini-hard drive full of Taylor Swift anyday.

It's a thought. So is not bothering to joke up baseball. Let it roast – a celebrity roast, of course – on its own spit.

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