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Why Joltin’ Joe’s postage stamp drew controversy

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Posted: Saturday, August 25, 2012 12:00 am

Long-time Lodi residents will recognize the Orioles, the Dodgers and the Crushers as the names of single-A minor league professional baseball teams that played during the 1960s and 1970s. Some outstanding players passed through Lodi on their way to the Major League, including the great Dodgers left-hander who took baseball by storm, Fernando Valenzuela.

Back in the day, minor leagues, including the Lodi franchises, thrived. Through 1949, 464 teams in 59 leagues drew 42 million fans. Today, the sampling is smaller with only 148 teams. But the stadiums, like the Sacramento River Cats' Raley Field, are on a par with Major League ball parks. Years ago, they were rickety wooden structures that looked like they may not make it through nine innings.

Baseball, the national pastime, has always held Americans' fascination. As proof, the Postal Service has issued more stamps honoring baseball than any other subject: Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente among others. Collectors snap up stamps that celebrate legendary fields and the Negro Leagues.

But to the dismay of many collectors, some of baseball's most admired Hall of Fame players had never been honored on a postage stamp. On June 20 at Cooperstown, four greats on single sheets of 20 stamps with five of each player were introduced at the Hall of Fame — Willie Stargell, Larry Doby, Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams.

The following day, in separate ceremonies in Stargell's Pittsburgh, Doby's Cleveland, Di Maggio's New York and Williams' Boston, the Postal Service announced the availability of single sheets featuring only the individual star.

The stamps, at first available only online or at select Post Offices, were an instant success. Pre-sale orders that included a 40-page softbound book, titled "Play Ball! Great Moments in Major League Baseball History," exceeded 2 million.

Like so many things the federal government does, however, the stamps were not without their controversy. Philatelists, or postage stamp collectors, a more discerning group than most, did a double take when they saw the DiMaggio stamp. So many feared that the stamp portrayed Di Maggio incorrectly batting left handed that the agency felt compelled to respond on its blog.

The explanation is wordy and complicated. The Postal Service insists that the Yankee Clipper is seen following through on his right-handed swing. Artist Kadir Nelson's depiction of DiMaggio's 90-degree follow-through makes it look like he's batting left-handed. Because of the stamp's small size, however, DiMaggio's lower torso and legs couldn't be included on the image. They are, according Nelson, twisted as they would be during DiMaggio's normal follow-through. Had collectors been able to see the photograph that Nelson worked from, they would have seen that DiMaggio's hands are exactly where a right-handed batter would have them placed, his bat extended fully away from his body and nearly parallel to the ground.

On your next trip to the Post Office, ask for the baseball stamps to see for yourself whether Joe D. is batting leftor right-handed.

I use mine only for personal mail, never to mail bills. The stamps are too cool to waste on mail that goes into a huge drop box at the local utility company.

Joe Guzzardi is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research and the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America. Contact him at guzzjoe@yahoo.com.

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