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50 years ago Today, June 26, 1959-2009


Bob Brill

Hitched to a Star

It was a bright sun shiny morning in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, when Florence Brill took her youngest son Robert on an excursion to the Woolworth's store in the community of Mt. Oliver. 'Little Robert,' as his family called him, was in for a special treat. It was June 26, 1959 and his mother told him that tomorrow, Sunday, was his sixth birthday: the first time he was allowed to go shopping to pick out his own birthday present. The store would be closed on Sunday, so he was going a day early. The pair walked up McKinley Avenue to the closest street card stop and off they went. It would be a day well remembered nearly 50 years later.

Once in Woolworth's Five & Dime, he went straight to the toy section. There were myriad trucks, green toy soldiers in plastic bags, wooden paddles with a rubber band attached to a rubber ball and all sorts of cowboy guns and hats. This time though, with a new grown up attitude (after all this was the first time he was picking out his own birthday present) he was going to select something special.

Then it caught his eye. Hanging from a metal rack was the ultimate prize. It was what all the big boys had. His brother Jim had it. His cousins Rich and Davey had them; everybody who was anybody had them. Baseball cards! They stood out amidst the rest of the prizes on the store shelves. These featured three packs of baseball cards in a strip, and clearly visible were six of the cardboard collectibles. It didn't matter who the players were because he didn't know any of them anyway, but there they were.

He reached out and took them in his hands, looking at all the names in the Rack Pack of Topps cards. The cards on the front had pictures in oval shaped framed borders, while on the back each card had statistics and something written about each player. Also on the back was a cartoon which told something about the player.

'A cartoon,' Robert thought to himself. 'I thought this was for the big guys.'

He kept looking through the racks and then he found it. The words 'Pittsburgh Pirates' stood out on one of the cards. It didn't matter that it was Bill Virdon and the card was yuck, pink. All that did matter was it said 'Pittsburgh.' That was the home team. The guys would sure be impressed with this.

'Mom, this is what I want,' the youngster said looking up at Florence.

She nodded her approval and they made their way to the register where she would pay for his newfound passion.

Later that night before bedtime he began the ceremony that would later become a ritual, ripping open packs. Inside the wrappers were more great treasures. The Bill Virdon card was the only Pirate and quickly became his prized possession. There were others cards too. A team card of the Kansas City Athletics. Memorable because of the team logo on the card. It was a funky dancing elephant on a globe. The card was yellow. There was a green-bordered card of a pitcher named Don Rudolph and a lot of other guys whom Robert never heard of, (and consequently, of whom many followers of Major League Baseball hadn't heard of either).

While sorting them over and over, sometimes by team, sometimes by color, Robert began reading the card backs. One stood out in particular. The Don Rudolph card #179 was very interesting. The cartoon on the back pictured a lady with a short skirt dancing on a table top. She was kicking her leg toward a baseball player sitting at the table with a lamp and a drink. The caption read "Don's wife is a professional dancer."

Even at six years old young Robert thought this was odd. It was a moment in time he would recall often, over the next 43 years.

Flash forward to the late 1990's. Robert, now known as Bob, (except to his mom Florence, now 84), came full circle from the blue sky June day in 1959. He was no longer buying baseball cards, but he was selling them. He opened a card and memorabilia store in California after having spent a quarter century in broadcasting and journalism. During his days at United Press International he wrote about cards often and even had a weekly column for the wire service.

Yup, that's my story. And one of the things I kept over the years was a 1959 Topps Don Rudolph trading card, #179. This sits on my register along with two other cards at my store (KC Kings Sportscards) and often I'm asked why these cards are so special. My answer is always, 'These are my humility cards.'

There is a story with each card which features a story of humility pertaining to something in my life that I feel is a lesson I need to keep remembering. Why Don Rudolph? It's simple.

A fella works all his young life to have a shot at the major leagues. Not an easy task by any means. Then he looks for his first baseball card. On the back of that card is featured a cartoon which is supposed to talk about the player's accomplishments or the highlights of his career. For Don Rudolph, after bouncing around in the minor leagues for 10 years, his 1959 Topps card has this cartoon. The humility comes because the cartoon is not even about him…it's about his wife! You have to be humbled by that. No matter how far you go, or how big you get, it doesn't mean someone can't take your place or be more important at any given time.

Over the years I've often wondered about that card, Don Rudolph, his wife, who she was. Her name wasn't on the card and if she was a professional dancer, what did that mean? Was she famous? What happened? Not long ago I decided to find out.

The Encyclopedia of Baseball tells the facts about Rudolph's life but it doesn't reveal the whole story.

Don Rudolph was an obscure journeyman pitcher by all major league standards. Born in 1931, he began his minor league career at age 19 (not uncommon in the post war years) and bounced around the minor leagues for most of the decade. He was brilliant in Jesup of the Georgia State League, winning 41 games in two years. He was 28-8 in 1951.

As a big leaguer, he never fared quite so well. He was 18-32 in a career that ended in 1964. He came up with the White Sox, finished with the Senators and hurled for the Reds and the Indians in between. His best season was probably 1962 when he was 8-10 with a 3.61 ERA with the Indians and Senators. He even tossed the only two shutouts of his career. Part way through the year Cleveland sent Rudolph and pitcher Steve Hamilton to Washington for outfield Willie Tasby.

Rudolph was counted on to shore up a weak starting staff. He was the Senators opening day pitcher in '63, taking the mound in front of President John F. Kennedy on what would be JFK's last opening day. That Monday, April 8th, Rudolph pitched well against Steve Barber and the Orioles, but not well enough. Boog Powell and Jim Gentile smacked homers in a 3-1 Orioles win. After that, things didn't get any better.

When the season ended, Rudolph finished 7-19 with a 4.55 ERA and gave up a whopping 28 home runs in 175 innings. The lowly Senators finished the season 10th in the American League, 56-106. Relegated to the bullpen for part of the year, he picked up his third and final major league save. A former first baseman in high school, Rudolph must have thought about switching back.

'He should have switched when he was clued in by a coach in Washington that he had a 'crappy slider,' said Don's brother Robert. 'He was a good left-handed hitter in the minors aside from his pitching, so he probably should have switched to the outfield.'

The best thing perhaps to come out of that season was he belted his only major league home run. He had 20 hits in his major league career, seven of them for extra bases. His first hit in 1957, his next in 1962.

In 1964 he was limited to 70 innings and finished 1-3.

'They wanted to send him back to Buffalo in the minor leagues at the time but he didn't want to go back down,' relates Don's other brother Charles. 'So he went with his partner and started a construction company called Underground Utilities of California (in the San Fernando Valley).'

Thus, ended the career of Don Rudolph at age 33. Within four years, his life would also be over; tragically, he was killed when the old truck he owned lost its brakes, hit a curb, flipped over and landed on top of him. That was September 12, 1968. He left behind a famous wife and a seven year old daughter.

While I never met Don Rudolph, our paths may have crossed. I lived just two miles away from his home at the time of his death. We might have met at a grocery store, a little league game, or maybe we never met. We'll never know.

But the story doesn't stop there. To get the really good dirt about Don Rudolph, you have to look at what began in 1954, while he was pitching for Colorado Springs.

Rudolph was backing pitching after two years in the service. This is where he met the raven-haired beauty on the back of the baseball card. Born Patricia Hartwig, she was known professionally as Patti Waggin. She was Patti Brownell when they met.

'She was the highest paid stripper in the United States in her time, she was everywhere, she danced Vegas, burlesque of course, Minsky's,' said daughter Julina Rudolph, now 41 and still living in the family home where she grew up. 'She was the life of the party, and loved life each and every day. She wasn't a drinker or into drugs. She just loved life period.'

This was truly one of those stories about love at first sight and a ballplayer continuing to pursue that love until it culminated in marriage. They met at a night club in the city he called home at the time.

'She was performing at a club in Colorado Springs and he was pitching for the Sky Sox, I think it was, and he and some others went to her show,' said brother Robert. 'It was instant love on his part. He kept pestering her for a date until she gave in and one thing led to another and there it was.'

Their relationship was, over the years, featured in magazines, newspapers and they even appear in the Cleveland Indians Official Encyclopedia where reviewer Dan Albaugh wrote, 'The 'Off the Wall' chapter features a collection of 53 off-beat stories and anecdotes. There is a photo and story of 1960s pitcher Don Rudolph and his 37-23-36 exotic dancer wife, Patti Waggin.'

For the story on the back of that 1959 baseball card, we went to the man responsible for those things, the legendary Sy Berger. Known as the grandfather of baseball cards, Berger (now retired from Topps) either wrote or oversaw the writing on the back of every Topps card during Topps' Golden Era.

'I remember Don and that card very well,' said Berger. 'Don and my best friend Bob Keegan played on the same team and Keegan, my old college buddy pitched the only no-hitter of 1957 (when Rudolph made his major league debut with the White Sox).'
Berger says he prepared the subject matter for the card.

'I remember telling the illustrators to find something unusual and nice about the guy, or some specific feat that he did,' said Berger. 'But Don Rudolph was not a very big character at the time so I thought that his 'wife was a professional dancer' was cute.'
'I thought it was great, just wonderful that my mom was on my dad's card,' said Julina. 'I carried my dad's cards with me all over.'

If Rudolph didn't get upset that his wife 'upstaged' him on his trading card, he could have encouraged Topps to be a bit more creative. While his first Topps card was actually his 1958 single, he eventually would have six cards with Topps. He had other team and minor league issues but only six major league cards. The first three (1958, 1959 1962) all used the exact same photo. Only in his last three did the company select different photographs.

 'We used the same picture many times in the early days,' Berger recalls. 'Often it was because we didn't have the photographers like we do today, or even in the 60's. You must understand this was 1959 and we were virtual neophytes. Those were the growing years.'

It went even farther than that.

'You may remember in the mid 1950's we had two photos on the card, one was an action picture,' Berger offered. e didn't have the photography or the skills so if you look closely we used different guys in those photos, often they are not the same player. Back then we had to make baseball cards, real baseball cards. Today we make works of art.'

If you look closely as well in the first three Rudolph cards, you notice from 1958-62 not only were the photos the same, but also in the 1962 picture, the cap was airbrushed. In the first two it states "SOX" and the other a 'C' for Cleveland is painted in. Berger didn't realize also, that there was another tidbit in the photo. While they airbrushed the hat, they didn't touch the White Sox uniform. Rudolph may be the only Cleveland Indian ever to wear an Indians cap and the White Sox pinstriped uniform.

'I guess we just missed that,' joked Berger.

His 1962 card carries other interesting items. It states on the front '1962 Rookie' although he had two previous cards and pitched in two previous seasons. Also the cartoon (here we go again) on the back is confusing. It states 'Don started as a first baseman but switched to the mound in school.' It then pictures a coach showing Rudolph how to follow through on his throws with his right hand. Rudolph was a lefty. He even grew an inch from 5-11 to 6'0' over the three year period according to the card back.

Don's death was extremely hard on Patti and seven year old Julina.

'He died three days before my seventh birthday in 1968 and my mother lost it and became reclusive for a couple of years,' the daughter said. 'She never re-married, she always had something in her heart for dad because he was the love of her life.'

The love story comes through in that while both Patti and Don traveled in big name circles, he in sports she in entertainment, they seemed unaffected by their status. He was a teammate of Minnie Minoso, Don Zimmer and Claude Osteen. She traveled the circuit with Blaze Starr and Lili St. Cyr among others. Yet, they would probably have remained happily married with their memories in tact had the tragedy of 1968 never occurred. The fact they worked together is a miracle in itself as most marriages have a tough time surviving that, let alone marriages involving two such high-flying professions.

They also missed out on the autograph scene, which began booming in the 1980's and the 1990's. While they did readily sign when requested it is hard to imagine few signatures of the pair surviving. Patti did send out her own homemade cards with her photograph through the years to fans that requested it. She always signed it Patti Waggin. Rudolph died so young and played for such poor teams that his signature wasn't in demand much during his lifetime.

Today they could have traveled the show circuit together, likely commanding a nice fee for their signatures. Fate, however, has a way of keeping some people from such things. And for us, it might be said, the Good Lord may have had a hand in having a six year old boy decide on June 26, 1959 that he wanted a particular pack of baseball cards to be his first ever sports collectible.

For Don Rudolph he hitched his Waggin to a star. For me, it was just in the cards.

Read more about Patti Waggin by checking the following links...


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