Joe Palooka's successful ring career in comic book pages attracted millions of readers and top dollars. Other publishers attempted to crack this lucrative market with varying degrees of success. True to form, each created legendary characters who were seemingly not bound by the laws of physics and gravity. The formula was deceptively simple: create popular and successful characters, superheroes of the diamond, the football field, basketball court or prize ring, and given them adventurous story lines that would keep readers coming back. Often these heroes were multi-sport wonders, changing their venues and uniforms with the seasons so the comic would find readers year around. Baseball, being the most popular sport of all, attracted several claimants for the title of fictional MVP.
Sometimes these comic book ball players very successful. Others faded from the news stands almost as quickly as they appeared. In many ways these obscure, brief runs are among the most interesting for collectors.
In real-life sports such short-lived professional athletic careers are known as "a cup of coffee," i.e. lasting only as long as a gulp of that morning beverage. Several of these "one-shot" wonders stand out on collectors want lists today:
Swat Malone, America's Home Run King (Swat Malone Enterprises) was the prototypical sports comic hero. Swat's on-field exploits were truly exceptional when the title debuted in September 1955 with art by Hy Fleishman. Called up to the fictional major league Jays from the bush leagues, Swat and his wonder bat, "Old Faithful," led his team from the back of the pack to the World Series. Along the way, the team made up a 30-game deficit and Swat set a major league record for pinch-hit home runs.
The comic also featured baseball trivia questions, sports tips, and true life sports heroes. Interestingly the magazine format included a story of track, baseball and football sensation, Jim Thorpe. Unfortunately, the title folded quickly. Only a single issue appeared and so is infrequently encountered today. Expect to pay $15-$25 for a fine copy.
Baseball Comics' Rube Rooky was Will Eisner's 1949 attempt to snag "fans who know and love the game." Eisner touted his hero as "the greatest all around ball player" in comics. He hired sports writer Bill Cullough to edit the title and assure its authenticity. In addition to its title story, the publication was a mixture of true-life illustrated stories and short sports articles. Its first "Spring Training" issue was a "home run," Eisner claimed. A second issue was promised in time for the World Series. Its creator urged readers to let him know how they liked the publication.
Eisner, creator of the Spirit, Sheena and other successful comic characters, is a legend in the comics field. Unfortunately, he was not so successful with his baseball hero, Rube. When the fan mail never materialized, Eisner pulled the plug, and the promised second issue never came.
Readers in 1949 may not have appreciated his efforts, but Eisner's short-lived title is one of the favorites of sports comics collectors today. Even dog-eared, well worn examples sell for $50 or more. A nice fine copy would retail for $150 or so. A pristine issue would be a rarity, indeed, going for $400 on up.
After folding the title, Eisner was not willing to give up on his baseball character. He reprinted Rube's exploits as a section of his popular weekly comic, The Spirit. Once again, to Eisner's chagrin, Rube failed to catch on with readers.
In later years, Eisner lamented his failure with his sports title. "We tried our best," he said, dejectedly. Eisner was right, of course. It often has proven difficult to bridge the gulf between comic book fan and sports fan. A lot of people have tried and not succeeded.
One baseball character who exceeded Eisner's totals was a lad who took his high school baseball team to the title. Vic Verity, High School Hero (Vic Verity Publications) proved more successful than the norm for fictional comic book athletes. Vic's name means truth and his character was the kind every mother would love.
Vic debuted in 1945 and his title ran seven issues through the Fall of the following year. Vic's supporting cast included a western hero named Boomer Young and an adventurer named Tom Travis. Examples of this title in average condition bring about $15.
Although these short-lived baseball titles are half a century old, any of these comics is still a "good read" today. You shouldn't expect any surprises. The "good guy" wins on the diamond, even if he didn't at the news stand.
Fred Reed is former News Editor of Coin World and Vice President of Beckett Publications. A collector for 40+ years, Reed is a member of most national coin and stamp organizations. He is also Secretary of Society of Paper Money Collectors. SPMC awarded Reed its lifetime achievement award for his groundbreaking Civil War Encased Stamps: The Issuers and Their Times, one of his five books. Reed has also written on coins and currency, tokens and medals, stamps, comic books, post cards, Beanie Babies, sports cards and collectibles, engravings and lithographs, movie memorabilia, autographs, antique photography, and Civil War artifacts, all of which he avidly collects. He is currently penning two books on the entertainment careers of professional athletes; another on the first family of American sculpture, James Earle Fraser and Laura Gardin Fraser; yet another titled Abraham Lincoln Pictorial Treasury; one on the career and collectibles of Yogi Berra and a murder mystery set during the 1870 baseball season. Reed is a long time member of the American Society of Magazine Editors, the Dallas Press Club and the Society for American Baseball Research.