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Jose Canseco Baseball Card

Baseball card featuring Jose Canseco of the Madison Muskies, published by Larry Fritsch Cards, Inc. of Stevens Point, Wisconsin, 1983.
(Museum object #1984.156.13)

Well before achieving fame for his power hitting and use of anabolic steroids, Jose Canseco played for the Madison Muskies of the Midwest League, a Class A affiliate of the major league Oakland Athletics. Featured here on perhaps his first baseball card, the 18 year old Canseco played 34 games for the Muskies in 1983, batting .159 and hitting 3 home runs before being sent on to the Medford (Oregon) A's of the short-season Northwest League. Canseco hit for a better average and more power in Medford, and continued his rise to the Show at Modesto, California in 1984, where he hit .276 with 15 homers and a .446 slugging percentage – solid numbers, but hardly outstanding.

This card is one of a complete set of 32 Madison Muskies baseball cards published by Larry Fritsch Cards, Inc. of Stevens Point, Wisconsin. Established in 1970, the company is one of the oldest and largest card dealers in the country. In addition to buying and selling cards, Fritsch occasionally published its own cards, including sets for all the Midwest League teams in 1982 and 1983. Because of the sponsorship of East Towne Mall in Madison, more cards were printed for the Muskies than for some other teams in the league. Fritsch discontinued the series after the 1983 season because the financial returns did not justify the trouble. The photo of Canseco on this card was taken at Witter Field in Wisconsin Rapids.

Many consider Canseco to be the patient zero of the current epidemic of steroid use in baseball. According to his autobiography Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant 'Roids, Smash Hits, and How Baseball Got Big (2005), Canseco began using steroids at the start of the 1985 season, playing for the Huntsville (Alabama) Stars. Steroids improved his speed and power and led to his being named Minor League Player of the Year by Baseball America. That year, Canseco leapt from AA ball to the majors, making his debut with the Oakland A's on September 2, 1985.

The rest, as they say, is history. Canseco became the American League's Rookie of the Year in 1986 and its Most Valuable Player in 1988. In his illustrious 17 season career, Canseco was a six time All-Star, led the AL in home runs twice (1988, 1991) and was the first major league player to hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases in the same season (1988). By his own admission, however, Canseco helped turn the Oakland clubhouse of the late 1980s and early 1990s into a hothouse of steroid use, and he claims to have introduced several prominent teammates to the practice.

Few people probably noticed Canseco's departure from Madison in early 1983; they were too busy having fun. An expansion team added to the Midwest League for the 1982 season, the Muskies initially enjoyed great popularity and strong attendance playing at Madison's Warner Park. Led by the tireless promotion of General Manager Ed Janus and team president Bob Drew, 1983 proved to be the Muskies best year for attendance, when they drew 131,646 fans. But the luster eventually wore off. Attendance gradually declined, and organized baseball placed increasing pressure on the team and City of Madison to make costly improvements to the ballpark, improvements neither could afford. The Muskies remained in Madison through the 1993 season, but then departed for Grand Rapids, Michigan, where the team set an all-time Class A attendance record in its first season as the West Michigan Whitecaps.

The steroid scandal sparked by one-time Muskie Jose Canseco continues to plague Major League Baseball today. Many now believe that the tape-measure homers that rekindled baseball's popularity in the late 1990s (after a disastrous 1994 strike had cancelled that years' World Series) were fueled by steroids. Despite persistent rumors of doping, the owners, the players, the Commissioner of Baseball, and most fans were willing to look the other way.

The 2007 Mitchell Report, however, comprehensively burst that bubble. The report named two of the game's biggest stars - all-time home run king Barry Bonds and 354 game winner Roger Clemens - as users of performance enhancing drugs. Despite the record attendance and revenues of the steroid era, many fans have come to conclude that the use of performance enhancing drugs has tainted the record books and demeaned the game.

Baseball has long been the most nostalgic of American sports, and this card tells us two things about the nature of history and memory. First, it reminds us how small tokens can bring back vivid recollections of places, events, and entire eras. For Madison baseball fans of the 1980's, the gold, green and white of Canseco's uniform evokes the boisterous camaraderie of the Fish Bowl, cold beer on a warm summer night, and Mike the Muskie leading fans in the Fish Clap cheer.

This card also demonstrates how historical significance often seems to be projected backwards from later events. There's nothing about this card to differentiate it from those of fellow 1983 Muskies Eddie Escribano and Thad Reece; nothing that hints at Canseco's future as an All-Star and linchpin of a scandal. And yet, knowing what eventually happened, we look at the card in a different light. It becomes a symbol of lost innocence, a suggestion of paths not taken, and perhaps even an opportunity to turn a profit (or generate web traffic) on a current news story. This card is no longer what it once was.

[Sources: "A Fan's Guide to the Midwest league" available online at www.mwlguide.com; Information on Midwest League history available online at www.ballparkdigest.com]

DBD


Posted on March 20, 2008

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