Keith Olbermann never fails to entertain us with his usually-on-target nightly cable news “Worst Persons in the World!” selections–most being somehow attached to some type of “shrubbery” or other. When it comes to the listing of classic “worsts” I have for decades remained unwavering in my own personal belief that the pink-shirted 1952 Topps bubblegtum icon of muscular Gus Zernial was a runaway candidate for the dubious honor of the worst baseball card (if not the worst baseball collectible) ever produced. In their brilliant tome entitled The Great American Baseball Card Flipping Trading and Bubble Gum Book, authors Brendan C. Boyd and Fred C. Harris have summed it all up best with the following unparalled anaylsys:
How do you suppose they got those baseballs to stay up there anyway? Nails? Scotch tape? Postage stamp hinges? And why do you think Gus is giving us the high sign? Is he trying to assure us that everything is OK? He is trying to indicate to us that he thinks the Athletics are a big zero? Does he want a cinnamon doughnut to go? And why is he wearing a pink undershirt? And what the hell is it all supposed to mean anyway?
Many fellow travelers (authors Boyd and Harris quite obviously numbered among them) have appreciated this odd ball cardboard image as one of the prime pieces of evidence that the one-time national pastime still didn’t take itself too seriously back in those simpler times. Can you imagine ARod or Derek Jeter or Manny ever agreeing to pose for a photo like this? The ball-riddled-bat maybe, but the pink undershirt shirt never! But then again on second thought, maybe they just might if the fee offered were high enough. If ballplayers wear big tails, then why not pink shirts?
I always thought the Zernial card was simply embarrassing. It had no parallel for bad taste during my youhful years of fandom. But the Zernial portrait had already been outdone years earlier, it turns out, on the baseball-crazy island of Cuba. During a recent search through my Cuban League photo archives I had the nightmarish experience of stumbling upon this 1930s-era image of (at that time) Cuban Amateur League utility man Jose (Tony) Zardon which I share with you here to make a point. (Please, no underage or thin-skinned viewers allowed.) Zernial has been replaced by Zardon (only a slight bump up the alphabet) as my new and likely never-to-be rivaled “worst baseball card in the world!” A pink shirt is one thing on a pro leaguer, but a pink face is yet another. What is a guy doing playing for a baseball club sponsored by the Loma Tennis Club? And did anyone ever really pinch the bill of their cap quite like this?
Zardon managed five seasons in the Cuban winter league of the mid and late forties and he must have been a somewhat proficient fly chaser since his batting average was a quite disarming .170. He did in the end manage to climb into the big leagues as one of those many mid-war and post-war Cubans who drank only tiny cups of coffee with the wartime Washington Senators. Zardon miraculously logged a single 1945 season where he batted much better (at .290 in 45 games) than he ever did in Havana. Shows you can never tell a big league athlete merely by his portraits.
Fortunately Topps was not yet issuing bubble gum cards in the mid-1940s or Zernial likely never would made it to the top of my list in the first place, at least not if Tony Zardon was captured in any other graven images quite like the one widely circulated back home in Cuba. A .170 five-year batting average in the Cuban League is a pretty ego-damaging resume item. But given this Carteles portrait published a few years before Zardon hit the big time, this dashing Cubano with the unique cap-wearing style likely already had thick enough skin to survive just about any type of personal embarrasment.