Tagged: Baseball Cards

Card Corner: Gene Michael

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Michael.jpg

Forgive Gene Michael if he looks a little dazed in his 1969
Topps card. He’s shown as a member of the Yankees, even though he’s wearing the
colors of the Pirates, a team that he hadn’t played for since 1966. Somehow
Topps could not find a picture of Michael with either the Yankees or the
Dodgers, the team that actually traded him to the Yankees.

 

Now that I’ve thoroughly confused you, I can tell you this without
hesitation: Michael’s move to New
York, which coincided with the start of the 1968
season, helped change his career for the better, more subtly in the short term
and quite significantly over the long haul.

 

At one time traded for Maury Wills, Michael had fallen into disfavor
with the Dodgers because of his lack of hitting. After the 1967 season, the
Dodgers dealt him to the Yankees, where he would eventually replace Tom Tresh
as the starting shortstop. Like many shortstops of the era, Michael couldn’t
hit worth a damn, but he could field the position with a smooth alacrity that
the Yankees hadn’t seen since the prime years of Tony Kubek.

 

It was during his Yankee years that Michael established a
reputation as the master of the hidden ball trick. With the runner at second
base thinking that the pitcher already had the ball, Michael would blithely
move toward him and then place a tag on the unsuspecting victim before showing
the ball to the umpire. It’s a play that major leaguers occasionally pull off
in today’s game, but Michael did it with a stunning degree of frequency, at
least five times that have been documented. Considering that the hidden ball
trick relies on heavy doses of surprise and deception, it’s remarkable that
Michael was able to execute it more than once or twice. He was that good at it.

 

The hidden ball trick epitomized Michael’s intelligence. He
had little obvious talent, possessing no power, average speed, and an overall
gawkiness that came with his rail-like frame of six feet, two inches, and a
mere 180 pounds. Yet, he was surprisingly athletic, enough to have starred as a
college basketball player at Kent
State, where his lean
look earned him the nickname of “Stick.” As a major league shortstop, he made
up for his lack of footspeed and arm strength with good hands and quick feet,
and by studying the tendencies of opposing hitters and baserunners. How good
was Michael defensively? I’d call him a poor man’s Mark Belanger. Like Michael,
Belanger was tall and thin, and overmatched at the plate. But Belanger was
arguably the best defensive shortstop of his era, so it’s no insult to put Michael
in a slightly lower class of fielders.

 

Michael served the Yankees well as their starting shortstop
from 1969 to 1973, but age and injuries began to catch up with him in 1974. At
the age of 36, Michael received his unconditional release. He eventually signed
with the Tigers, where he played sparingly in 1975, before being returned to
the unemployment line. In February of 1976, Stick signed with the dreaded Red
Sox, but he could do no more than earn a minor league assignment. In May, the
Red Sox released Michael, who never did appear in a game for Boston.

 

With his playing career over, Michael quickly embarked on
his second life in baseball. George Steinbrenner, remembering him as one of the
original Yankees from his first year as ownership, gave him a job as a coach.
From there Stick became a front office executive and then a two-time Yankee
manager, serving separate stints in 1981 and ’82.  Like all Yankee managers of that era, Michael
was fired. He left the organization to manage the Cubs, where he clashed with his
new boss, Dallas Green.

 

After a brief respite from the reign of Steinbrenner,
Michael eventually returned to the Bronx. In
1990, the Yankees, by now a struggling team and a near laughingstock, made one
of the most important moves in franchise history. They hired Michael as general
manager. I was working as a sports talk show host at the time; I remember being
very critical of Michael, who seemed unwilling to pull the trigger on big
trades. Well, Michael knew a lot more about constructing a ballclub than I did.
He set out to rebuild the Yankees’ farm system, while resisting the temptation to
trade what few prospects the organization had for quick-fix veterans.

 

Under Michael’s stewardship, the Yankees drafted or signed
the following players: Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, and a fellow
named Mariano Rivera. That’s probably enough of a testament to Michael, but let’s
consider that he also signed Wade Boggs and Jimmy Key as free agents.

 

When Michael did decide to make a trade, he made a splash.
In November of 1992, Michael executed one of the most pivotal moves for the
franchise’s future. He sent Roberto Kelly, one of the team’s two young center
fielders, to the Reds for Paul O’Neill. It was a controversial deal, to say the
least. Kelly was two years younger than O’Neill, a good player certainly, but
one who was already 30 and had appeared to reach his ceiling. Michael knew what
he was doing. He realized that Kelly, who lacked patience at the plate and
passion in the field, was not as good a player as Bernie Williams, the team’s
other center fielder. He also sensed that O’Neill could blossom as a
left-handed hitter at Yankee Stadium playing for Buck Showalter. Stick was
right on both counts.

 

With those vital pieces in place–including a catcher, a
shortstop, a right fielder, a starting pitcher, and a closer–Michael left a
championship nucleus for Bob Watson and Brian Cashman when he stepped down as
Yankee GM in 1995.

 

Dazed and rejected no more, Stick Michael proved himself to
be a pretty smart guy.


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Card Corner: Billy Almon

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Almon79.jpg

Photography on baseball cards sometimes shows players in
delightfully awkward poses or clumsy moments. Card No. 616 of the 1979 Topps
set provides an example of that; it features journeyman infielder Billy Almon,
the No. 1 choice in the 1974 draft who never reached expectations of stardom in
the major leagues. The card’s photo, which was snapped during a game at Shea
Stadium, shows Almon dressed in the Padres’ highly unattractive uniforms of the
day. As baseball researcher Maxwell Kates points out, those yellow-and-brown
beauties are believed to be the last uniforms featuring both the team name and
the city name on the front of the jersey.

 

Beyond the ghastly colors of the Padres’ uniforms, there is
something intriguing in the odd way that Almon is holding the bat, which he is
gripping by the wrong end Perhaps after being called out on strikes yet again?
Or perhaps he is getting ready to crack the bat over his thigh, ala new Hall of
Famer Jim Rice? And then, as Kates suggests, there’s the dazed expression on
Almon’s face, as if to say, “What should I be doing with this piece of wood? I
am after all in the major leagues.” In 1979, Almon would bat only .227 with an
on-base percentage of .301 and a total of one home run. For his career, the
shortstop-third baseman performed only a bit better, batting .254 with 36 home
runs in 15 seasons with the Padres, Expos, Mets, White Sox, A’s, Pirates, and
Phillies. He was, however, an excellent bunter, leading the National League
with 20 sacrifices in 1977.

 

The Padres expected far more than good bunting from Mr.
Almon. Just how highly was Almon regarded as an amateur? When Almon graduated
high school in 1971, several teams wanted to draft the lanky shortstop in the
first round, but he wrote to each club informing them of his decision to attend
an Ivy League school (Brown University). The Padres drafted him anyway, taking
him with a 10th round selection in the ’71 draft. Three years later,
the Padres once again targeted Almon, selecting him with the first overall pick
in the draft after he set a school record by hitting ten home runs in a short
season. The Padres even gave Almon a $90,000 bonus–a huge amount at the
time–but he struggled to hit in both the minors and the majors, making him just
one of many No. 1 picks to turn into big league disappointments.

 

Unlike the NBA, there’s little certainty that comes with being
the first man taken in the major league draft.


Card Corner: Hoss Clarke

Clarke.jpg

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For too long now, we in the media have referred to the
Yankees of 1965 to 1974 as representatives of the “Horace Clarke Era.” The
team’s starting second baseman for much of that period, Clarke has come to
symbolize the mediocrity of those Yankee clubs. Seen here in his final Topps
card (vintage 1974), Clarke was viewed as an inadequate player, symptomatic of
a team that was inadequately built to win any pennants or division titles
during that ten-year span.

 

The criticism of Clarke has run on several different levels.
Too much of a free swinger, he didn’t draw enough walks. He didn’t have great
range at second base, especially toward his backhand side. He also didn’t turn
the double play well.

 

To some extent, the criticisms are all true. He never coaxed
more than 64 walks in a season and usually finished below the 50-mark.
Defensively, he paled in comparison to two other Yankees, predecessor Bobby
Richardson and successor Willie Randolph. On double plays, Clarke bailed out
early and often. Instead of pivoting at the bag, he sometimes jumped out of the
way of runners while holding onto the baseball.

 

Those critiques provide only a partial view. The
switch-hitting Clarke stole bases, bunted adeptly, and usually hit for a
respectable average (at least for that era), which would have played acceptably
as the eight-hole or ninth-place hitter. The Yankees made the mistake of using
Clarke as a leadoff man because he looked and ran like a tablesetter. That was
their mistake, not his. In the field, Clarke had his shortcomings, but for a
guy who supposedly lacked range, he did lead the American League in assists six
times. Part of that might have been attributable to having a sinkerballer like
Mel Stottlemyre on the staff, but it’s also an indication that Clarke had pretty
good range to his left.

 

Was Clarke a top-notch player? Of course not. But I would
say that he was better than mediocre. (The Yankees of that era, like Clarke,
were also better than advertised. Just look at the records of the 1970 and 1974
 teams.) I think the Yankees could have
won a division with a second baseman like Clarke, if only they had been better
at other positions, like third base (prior to Graig Nettles’ arrival) or right
field. If you want to find the real reasons why the Yankees so often struggled
during those years, you need to look no further than the revolving doors at
those slots. The Yankees had substantially weaker players at third base (Cox,
Kenney, Sanchez) and right field (Kosco, Swoboda, Callison). It’s just that
none of the third basemen or right fielders lasted long enough to become
targets of the critics.

 

Putting aside the issue of talent evaluation for a moment,
Clarke was an intriguing player to follow, especially for a young fan like me. Clarke
came attached with a cool nickname. He was called “Hoss,” raising memories of
Dan Blocker’s iconic character from Bonanza. (Bill White, in particular, loved
that nickname. “Hosssss Clarke,” he liked to say with flourish.) Clarke also
had an intriguing background. He was one of the few players I can remember who
hailed from the Virgin Islands. So that made
him a little bit different from your run-of-the-mill player. Then there was
Clarke’s appearance. He wore very large glasses, the kind that became so horribly
fashionable in the early 1970s, really round and overly noticeable. On the
field, Clarke not only wore a helmet at the plate; he sported one while
patrolling second base. I haven’t been able to figure out exactly why he did
that. It may have had something to do with his fear of being upended on
double-play takeout slides. Several years ago, Darren “Repoz” Viola of Baseball
Think Factory asked former Yankee broadcaster Bob Gamere why Clarke wore the
helmet at second base; Gamere explained that it may have stemmed from a 1969
incident in which Clarke was hit in the head with a ball, but he wasn’t
completely certain. Whatever the reason, the helmet made Clarke a distinctive
landmark on the middle infield.

 

For all of those reasons, and for being a quiet guy who
rarely complained, Hoss Clarke was a likeable guy. He was also a decent ballplayer.
So let’s stop vilifying the man who was once booed during pre-game introductions
on Opening Day at the old Yankee Stadium. Let’s stop raking the man that one New York writer
repeatedly referred to as “Horrible Horace.” I’d prefer to call him “Helpful
Horace.” Let’s go with that instead.

Card Corner: David Clyde

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Clyde.jpg

In 1973, just one year before this card appeared, the Texas
Rangers initiated the destruction of a young pitcher’s career in an effort to
revive a languishing franchise. Team owner Bob Short devised an ill-conceived
plan to rush phenom left-hander David Clyde from high school ball to the major
leagues as a drawing card for the struggling Rangers franchise. Clyde’s debut
season did much to help attendance at Arlington Stadium, but at considerable
damage to Clyde’s career, which seemed so
promising after throwing nine no-hitters in his senior season of high school.

 

At onetime a household name, Clyde
has become a forgotten man in baseball annals. Here’s what happened. Drafted
first in the country out of Texas’ Westchester High School
in the spring of 1973, Clyde received a bonus
of $125,000 and donned a Rangers’ major league uniform only a few days later.
The immediate call-up to Texas was the
brainchild of owner Bob Short, which conflicted directly against the advice of
manager Whitey Herzog, who believed Clyde
needed considerable schooling in the minor leagues. 

 

Equipped with both Short’s blessings and a mechanically
sound delivery that some scouts compared to that of Sandy Koufax, Clyde made
his highly publicized major league debut against the Minnesota Twins on June
27, 1973. (Only 20 days earlier, Clyde had
made his final appearance as a high school pitcher.) That night’s game at
Arlington Stadium became such a focal point of local attention that the first
pitch was delayed by 15 minutes, allowing more fans to free themselves from the
massive logjam of traffic outside the stadium. Perhaps rattled by the late
start and frazzled by his own nervousness, the 18-year-old Clyde walked the
first two batters he faced–infielder Jerry Terrell and Hall of Famer Rod Carew–before
settling down to strike out the side. Clyde went on to pitch a respectable five
innings, walking a total of seven Twins, but struck out eight batters while
allowing two earned runs and only one hit. Unfortunately, Clyde
struggled to match his celebrated debut performance over the balance of the
season, posting an ERA of 5.03 and winning only four of 12 decisions with the
lowly Rangers in 1973. His pitching only worsened in 1974, leading him down a
slippery slope to baseball obscurity.

 

Clyde’s problems only
worsened when Whitey Herzog was fired and replaced by Billy Martin. Ever fiery
and judgmental, Martin didn’t like the left-hander, in part because he didn’t
like pitchers and didn’t like rookies, two mortal sins committed by Clyde. Martin also didn’t appreciate the fact that Clyde lost nine straight decisions after starting the
1974 season at 3-and-0. At one point, Martin didn’t pitch Clyde
for 31 consecutive days.

 

The late Art Fowler, a crony of Martin at virtually every
one of his managerial stops, became Clyde’s second pitching coach in Texas. Several years
ago, Fowler appeared on ESPN’s “Outside The Lines” program to discuss Clyde’s saga. Fowler supported Martin’s general
evaluation of Clyde, claiming that the
youngster was vastly overrated, unable to throw his fastball much harder than
in the mid-eighties. Fowler also trashed the quality of Clyde’s
competition in high school, half-kiddingly suggesting that the left-hander had
piled up an impressive set of statistics pitching against “girls.” Fowler’s
recollections of Clyde, however, differ significantly from those of Tom Grieve,
who was Clyde’s Texas
teammate from 1973-75. According to Grieve, Fowler raved about Clyde’s talents at the time, saying that he had the
potential to be a 25-game winner once he harnessed his control. Many of Clyde’s Ranger teammates also raved about both his
fastball and curve, rating them both as well above major league average.

 

So who to believe, Fowler or Grieve? For what it’s worth,
Fowler drew criticism throughout his career for his work as a pitching coach,
reinforcing a belief that he held onto jobs in Minnesota,
Detroit, Texas,
New York, and Oakland only because of his friendship with
Martin. Given Fowler’s track record as a Martin crony, it’s not surprising that
he would come to Martin’s defense when passing a judgment on Clyde’s
ability. It was that very allegiance to Martin that shed a light of suspicion
on Fowler’s motives. Fowler himself claimed that he didn’t think much of Clyde in large part because Martin didn’t think much of him. And that’s not a very critical way
of thinking, especially when it was your job to instruct pitchers and find ways
to make them better.

 

By the way, here’s what Fowler had to say about Clyde after one of his starts in 1974. “When his fastball
is moving like it was tonight,” Fowler told Randy Galloway of The Sporting News, “and with the
velocity he had tonight, he didn’t need [his] curveball.” That doesn’t sound
like the description of a pitcher lacking a good major league fastball.

 

While Clyde struggled with
his pitching coach and manager, along with the on-the-field demands of pitching
against big league hitters, he also gave in to the temptations of a fast-lane
lifestyle practiced by several of the Rangers’ veteran players. The hard-living
group, which included catcher Rich Billings, infielder Jim Fregosi, and pitcher
Clyde “Skeeter” Wright (the father of former Indian and Brave Jaret Wright),
laid out the welcome mat for Clyde, including him in their post-game visits to
local establishments. Clyde began drinking
heavily, a vice that became obvious when he showed up late for a team flight
while wearing the same clothes he had used the previous day. Unfortunately,
none of the veteran Rangers stepped up to help the teenaged Clyde, whose drinking
habits only exacerbated his problems on the mound.

 

And that only expedited the crashing of the career of a
young pitcher who might have been. 

Bunts and Boots: Stolen Bases, Murphy’s Law, and Jim Palmer

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Less than a week after Sports
Illustrated
ran an article declaring the stolen base to be a lost art, two
players have run wild on the bases. First it was Rockies
rookie Dexter Fowler, who swiped five bases in a game against the Padres. Then
came Carl Crawford, who did Fowler one better by stealing a half-dozen bags on
Sunday against the Red Sox. In the process, Crawford tied the modern era record
for most thefts in a single game. So let’s not refer to the stolen base as
lost or dead, but something that is perhaps being resuscitated in 2009.

 

Do the one-game feats of Fowler and Crawford represent a
changing trend in the way that the stolen base will be used now that we’re in
the post-steroids era (if we can dare call it that)? It’s too soon to tell, but
I was initially leaning toward the poor state of catching as a reason for the
Fowler and Crawford explosions. After all, catching is one of the positions
that has been in recent decline, with most teams struggling to find quality
backups and some lacking severely in the starting department. Then I realized
that the two catchers in question–San Diego’s
Nick Hundley (no relation to Todd or Randy) and Boston’s
Jason Varitek–both have good reputations for their defensive play. Varitek
doesn’t throw the way he did in his prime, but his caught stealing percentages
have been 22 to 24 per cent over the last five seasons. Those aren’t great
percentages but they’re not terrible either and they’re remarkably consistent.

 

So I really don’t know why the stolen base seems to be on
the uptick in 2009. Teams are still hitting plenty of home runs; in fact, the
home run numbers for this April were up over the same numbers for April of
2008. Maybe the reasons for the surge in speed this week don’t matter. Maybe we
should just enjoy the spectacle of the stolen base…

 

With the Mets facing the possibility that Carlos Delgado may
be saddled with a chronically sore hip this season, they will have to start
considering alternate plans. If Delgado cannot play every day, or if his hip
prevents him from generating sufficient power, the Mets would be smart to move
Daniel Murphy to first base. Murphy has been nothing short of a defensive
disaster in the outfield this spring, as he combines the worst of Greg “The
Bull” Luzinski and Lonnie “Skates” Smith in left field. By putting Murphy at
first base, where he figures to be much more comfortable (he started his career
as a third baseman), the Mets would be forging a long-term solution at the
position. But here’s the problem: who steps in and plays left field? Gary
Sheffield has played poorly in spot duty, Fernando Tatis is best as a supersub,
and Jeremy Reed is no more than a stopgap. Perhaps Wily Mo Pena, currently at
Triple-A Buffalo, could provide some help. Unfortunately, the Mets don’t have
much else in terms of ready made offensive talent at Buffalo, where the Bisons
are running last in the International League in most major categories,
including batting average, home runs, and slugging percentage…

 

Finally, I’d like to extend thanks to those readers who
posted suggestions for this month’s homepage card image. I loved the suggestion
of the 1952 Topps Gus Zernial, with the various baseballs sticking to his bat, but
could not find a suitable image for posting purposes. So we’re going with a
1974 card of Jim Palmer, one of the underrated pitching greats of the 1970s,
for at least the first half of the new month. Always silky smooth, Palmer
pitched with a classic overhand throwing motion, releasing the ball from
seemingly the highest possible point above his head. Though surpassed by the
likes of Carlton,
Gibson, and Seaver, Palmer was one of the era’s second-tier Hall of Famers, and
the lynchpin to those great Orioles staffs of 1969-1971.

Eating Raul and Eating Those Ticket Prices

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The Phillies knew that Raul Ibanez would give them nearly
the same level of offensive production as Pat Burrell, though they thought with
less power and more contact. Through the Phillies’ first 20 games, Ibanez has supplied
plenty of pop, to the tune of seven home runs and a .718 slugging percentage. What
has surprised the Philly brass even more is Ibanez’ defensive play in left
field, which was a subject of much mockery and scorn in Seattle. Ibanez looks like a completely
different fielder in Philadelphia.
He has shown much more mobility than Burrell, which has made life easier on
Shane Victorino in center field.

 

At some point, the Phillies will need to add some
right-handed hitting to their lineup, but it does not appear that it will come
at the expense of Ibanez’ playing time. If Ibanez continues to hit and defend
at his current level, the Phillies will not relegate him to platoon status.
They’ll have to incorporate right-handed hitting somewhere else, whether that’s
at catcher or third base, two positions where the Phillies currently sacrifice
offense for defense…

 

Not only did the Yankees do the right thing in reducing the
prices of some of their high-end box seats, they did the smart thing. Let’s
refer to the “Empty Seat Syndrome.” Empty seats are the worst thing that can
happen to a professional sports team. Empty seats don’t buy concession items.
Empty seats don’t buy souvenirs or memorabilia. Empty seats don’t tell their
friends about their wonderful experiences at the ballpark. On top of all that,
empty seats just look bad, especially when they are located so close to the
playing field. When a team is coming off back-to-back seasons of four million
fans in paid attendance, there is no excuse for not filling the
ballpark–especially a new one that has so many improvements over the old
house–on a regular basis. Hopefully, the Yankees have learned their lesson…

 

Finally, we will continue to take your suggestions on a new
baseball card image for the month of May and post the winner sometime this
weekend. So far, we have votes for Jim Palmer (one of the underrated pitching
greats of the seventies) and Dirty Kurt Bevacqua’s 1977 Topps card, which shows
him blowing a bubble of gargantuan proportions. Both are good suggestions, but
we’re willing to hear more.

 

 

A Smattering of Intelligence: Murky Manuel, Baseball Cards, and Shameless Promotion

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The calendar has yet to turn from April to May, but the
calls for Jerry Manuel’s head have already begun to sound in New York. A second straight loss to the
previously slumping Marlins has created a sea of discontent, with much of the
focus centered on some bizarre strategy by Manuel in the ninth inning of
Wednesday afternoon’s loss to Florida.
With two outs and the bases loaded and the Mets down by a run, Manuel called
back Ramon Castro, who had banged out two hits in four at-bats. He summoned
backup catcher Omir Santos from the bullpen to pinch-hit, then watched him hit
a soft pop-up to end the game.

 

While the hue and cry for a change in managers is silly at
this early stage of the season, Manuel left me scratching my head with this
decision. Castro is a much better hitter than Santos, a career minor leaguer who has always
had a reputation as a good-field, weak-hit catcher. A few good games with the
Mets this past week should not have erased that reputation, nor should it have
fooled Manuel into thinking that Santos
posed more of an offensive threat than Castro. Bad move.

 

If Willie Randolph had pulled such a managerial rock, the New York media would
have roasted him. Manuel, who is a genuinely good guy and a great interview,
will probably be given a pass by most of the writers, but the fan base is beginning to lose patience with the Mets’ continuing ineptitude. In the meantime, expect
everyone to turn up the heat on David Wright, who looks lost at the plate and
in the field. Another target can be found in the Mets’ bullpen, which
was directly responsible for the one-run loss to the Marlins. J.J. Putz walked
the first two batters of the eighth inning, setting the stage for Florida’s comeback
rally. A few more outings like that, and we’ll start to hear speculation on
when Billy Wagner might be able to return this summer from Tommy John surgery.
It’s easy to forget that Wagner remains under contract to the Mets; just imagine a
three-man crew of Wagner, Putz and Francisco Rodriguez putting out fires in the
eighth and ninth innings of late-season games…

 

In anticipation of the new month of May, we’ll be changing our
baseball card image (which currently honors the late Dock Ellis) this weekend.
Feel free to submit nominations for a new card, either by posting a
recommendation here or by sending me an e-mail at bmarkusen@stny.rr.com. Topps cards are
preferred, but we’ll consider Upper Deck, Fleer, and Donruss cards, as well.
Heck, if the suggestion is a good one, we’ll consider just about any company…

 

On a promotional note, my 2006 book, The Team That Changed Baseball, is now out in paperback. The book
tells the story of the 1971 Pirates, who fielded major league baseball’s first
all-black lineup on the way to winning the world championship over the heavily
favored Orioles. For more information, or to purchase a copy (hint, hint),
please visit the website www.westholmepublishing.com.
My thanks to publisher Bruce Franklin for his continued support and faith in
the book.