Friday, March 25, 2016

Former Brooklyn Outfielder Jimmy Sebring and his T204 Baseball Card

I've always loved this Baseball card set.  The design is so un-Baseball like; with its embossed flowery vines encircling an oval portrait of a gentleman in a button-upped shirt.  If not for the name and team designation at the bottom you wouldn't know it was of an athlete.  I think most first impressions would pin it as a personal portrait photo that would be passed down from one generation to the next.  Instead, it is one of the scarcest and more unique Baseball card sets ever made.

Featured above is a T204 Ramly Cigarettes tobacco card of a former Brooklyn Superbas/Dodger outfielder named James "Jimmy" Dennison Sebring, and it is currently on auction at Brockelman and Luckey (link here).  Produced by The Mentor Company in 1909, it ushered in a new product line that sought to take advantage of the rising popularity of Turkish tobacco.  Originally sold as a high-end brand these cigarettes were expensive, and as a result this set is rather scarce.  Heck, the tobacco pack/box these cards were packaged in can by themselves sell for up to four figures.  Take a look at a pack on the right.

As for the value of the Baseball card, a common player like the Sebring above in VG condition can sell for a couple hundred dollars.  Although, some might say that Jimmy Sebring shouldn't belong in a commons pile.  He has a unique place that is worthy of some attention.

(reverse of Ramly card)
James was born in the Victorian era, and spent much of his childhood playing the game in a town now regaled as the home of Little League Baseball - Williamsport, PA.  Having played semi-pro ball as a youth, he would star for a Bucknell University squad that included future Hall of Famer Christy Mathewson.  Soon, Major League Baseball came calling, and he quickly made his debut in 1902 with the Pittsburgh Pirates. 

Sebring recorded his first hit off of "Iron Man" McGinnity, and slashed an fantastic .325/.365/.475/.840 in the 19 games he played his rookie season.  No doubt his stock was rising fast, and to many he was a can't miss prospect.  The next year, 1903, he helped propel the Pirates to a National League pennant and was easily the best batter during the games very first World Series match-up that Fall.  In fact, he made the record books by hitting the first home run in World Series, and he hit it off of Cy Young. Unfortunately, his exploits were not enough to bring home a championship.  His Pirates would lose to the Boston Americans, five games to three.

Then rifts started to form.  He constantly bashed heads with his teammates and player-manager Honus Wagner.  Soon, he got into it with team owner Barney Dreyfuss.  By the middle of the 1904 season Jimmy was sent packing to Cincinnati.  While with the Reds Sebring was forced to leave the club to tend to his wife -- who was suffering from peritonitis.  In order to remain closer to home, he joined an "outlaw" ballclub in Williamsport of the Tri-State League, and was effectively blacklisted by Major League Baseball.

Still, that didn't stop teams from vying for his services.  His rights were traded from the Reds to the Cubs, then to the Dodgers.  After several missed tries he was finally reinstated into the league in January 1909.  Sebring would begin the year in Brooklyn, batting fourth and as its starting centerfielder.  Unfortunately, much of the luster that once shined on him had now faded.  He went hitless in his first 29 at-bats as a Superbas, and was unceremoniously released by the club after only recording eight hits in 93 plate appearances.

After a short gig with the Washington Senators that year, he went home to Williamsport still confident that he could come back stronger the next season.  That would come to pass, though.  In December he suffered a seizure while working in a pool hall and died two days later of Brights Disease.  Per a fantastic biography written by Robert Peyton Wiggins at the SABR Biography Project:
An obituary in the Washington Post defined the sad plight of James Sebring; “Every town in the Tri-State League knew Jimmy Sebring, every city in the National League had admired his skill, and Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Brooklyn had known him as a member of their teams. Jimmy never did anybody but himself harm. He was a remarkable ballplayer. His impulses were kindly, he loved the world and wanted it to love him, but everything went against him, and before 30 the health of his athletic frame sapped. He has ended the life that during its last five years knew little but bitterness… His nature was too sensitive. He couldn’t stand rebuffs; he was a shining target for unkindness. Trifles that another man would have brushed aside with complete indifference Sebring brooded over and magnified till they became tragedies, and to this habit can most of his misfortunes be directly traced.”
Sebring was 27 years old, and he left behind his wife Mary and daughter Elizabeth.

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