I am the proud possessor of a Bob Feller autographed baseball card. On reflection, however, my pride should be tempered for two reasons. According to certain knowledgeable collectors, there are more of his cards around sporting his signature than not. Feller, the former Cleveland Indians ace, has been most obliging at innumerable card shows. At 92 years young he has more post-induction years behind him than any other living Hall of Famer.

The second reason involves Feller’s signing. In 1935, a scout by the curious name of Cy Slapnicka, signed Feller to a minor league contract and “paid” him $1. Not to seem cheap, he also threw in an autographed baseball. Slapnicka was not unaware of the young lad’s potential. When he met with the directors of the Cleveland Indians he raved about his new discovery: “Gentlemen, I’ve found the greatest pitcher I ever saw. I suppose that sounds like the same old stuff, but this boy will be one of the greatest pitchers the world has ever known.” But it was the greatest theft since Manhattan was taken from another band of Indians. The gross injustice of it all casts a shadow on anyone’s autograph. On the other hand, the Baltimore Orioles signed Bruce Swango in 1955 to a $36,000 contract before realizing that their Bonus Baby could not pitch in front of crowds. They released him nine weeks later. He never made it to the majors.

Rapid Robert, as Feller came to be known, went on to lead the American League in strikeouts seven times, threw three no-hitters, 12 one-hitters, and had a fastball that was clocked in 1946 at 107.5 miles per hour. Nonetheless, when Feller signs his name to his baseball card, he is affirming something that is a genuine part of Americana and an integral part of the lives of American boys. If baseball is no longer “America’s Pastime” it certainly was in the Golden Age of the ‘40s and ‘50s. Ballplayers were titans and that’s what boys wanted to be when they grew to manhood. And the names were magical: Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Willie Mays, Robin Roberts, Johnny Vander Meer, Al Kaline, Mickey Mantle. They all came to earth, like Superman, from a distant planet.

The Topps Company often strained itself in order to avoid writing anything negative about the players it depicted. An untarnished image was essential, not only to keep the images pure but also as a good marketing ploy. Then, again, perhaps it was simply being charitable.

Sam Esposito labored as a utility infielder for the Chicago White Sox from 1952 to 1963. Over that span of time he managed to have 752 at bats and a career average of 207. How did his card read? “Sam joined the White Sox in 1952 … He has proven to be a valuable hand, starting his share of games at as many as four positions. Sammy attended Indian U. for three years.” Even as young collectors, hardly men of the world, we knew this was damning by faint praise and diverting our attention from his horrendous record as a ballplayer. But we enjoyed the illusions and were grateful for the kindnesses that Topps exhibited. No matter how inept, a major leaguer was still a Titan to be envied.

Even the motion picture industry collaborated in trying to keep the images of notable ballplayers squeaky clean. The Babe Ruth Story (1945) was sanitized to the point that one movie critic called it “Ruthless.” In The Winning Team (1942), the featured player, Grover Cleveland Alexander, though in real life, a chronic alcoholic, merely suffered from “epilepsy.” To complete the sanitization process, Ronald Reagan played Alexander while Doris Day played his supportive wife.

The disparity between the image and the reality was often amusing. Pumpsie Green and Gene Conley looked heroic on their card, but in life, they could seem hapless. In 1959, irate Red Sox fans paraded around Fenway Park for three days protesting Boston’s delay in bringing Pumpsie Green up to the majors. The Red Sox were the last team to integrate and Green was black. When he was finally summoned to the parent team it soon became clear that Pumpsie could neither hit American League pitching nor field American League hitting.

On a summer weekend in 1962, Pumpsie and teammate Gene Conley walked off the team bus in the middle of a traffic jam in the Bronx and disappeared into the postgame crowd. Three days later, a sports reporter spotted them standing in line at Idlewild International Airport attempting to board a plane to Israel. Neither had a passport or luggage, and both were more than slightly inebriated. This is not the stuff of titans.

One card that has not betrayed me is that of George Lee Anderson, better known to the world as Sparky. He was born in Bridgewater, South Dakota on Feb. 22, 1934, and grew up in dire poverty. He played one year with the Philadelphia Phillies and hit an anemic 218 with nary a home run, something excusable since he stood 5’9” and weighed 170 pounds. He gained prominence as a manager and was the first to pilot teams in both leagues to World Championships. He is #307 in my Topps 1985 set.

His plaque in the Hall of Fame bears an untraditional, but moving citation: “Revered and treasured by his players for his humility, humanity, eternal optimism and knowledge of the game.” On his office wall was an aphorism that encapsulated his humility: “Every 24 hours, the world turns over on someone who was sitting on top of it.”

Sparky raised millions of dollars for charity. I was honored to meet him at the annual Sports Banquet in Meriden, Connecticut, that raises money for the pro-life ministries of the local Franciscan Sisters. He was the main speaker and since the affair was for a good cause, Sparky was happy to speak without receiving a stipend. To raise a little extra money, a silent auction took place. Baseball cards galore went for prices that greatly exceeded catalog value thanks to a self-imposed charitable surcharge. This is the culmination of their value, I thought. Cards for life. Baseball cards converting into funds that will help promote and protect the value of human life.

Sparky was amiable and without pretense, as easy to chat with as a beloved uncle. I knew, from the information on his baseball card that he was born on George Washington’s birthday. So I asked him if he was named after America’s first president. I was hoping for an affirmative response. I wanted to think of him as embodying the attributes of both a general and a president. The reality was less romantic. He told me that he was named after a relative.

Sparky passed away on Nov. 4, 2010 at age 76. Mitch Albom, renowned novelist and award-winning sports journalist for the Detroit Free Press, who, himself, has founded four charities, captured the persona of Sparky Anderson in a nutshell when he said of his late friend: “His voice was gravel, his heart was mush, his word was bond.” George Lee Anderson was, indeed, a baseball personality who lived up to the iconic image on his baseball card. In fact, as the evidence indicates, he surpassed it.

Donald DeMarco is a regular contributor and professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo.