One night about four years ago, Tom Taber was reading The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract when a particular paragraph leaped off the page at him. Listed under "Suicides in Baseball" was the name of Charles Nelson Brown. The kicker was that Brown was from Tuber's hometown, Albion, N.Y.
"I've lived here all my life, and I had never heard a thing about Charles Nelson Brown," says Taber, 43. "And Albion isn't exactly a big city. I had to find out more about this guy." According to The Orleans (N.Y.) Republican, Brown escaped on March 14, 1910, from a Batavia, N.Y., institution where he was being treated for a "mental disease," walked 18 miles to Albion on a snowy night, broke into his mother's house on South Clinton Street and hung himself. Brown was 27.
"He was ready to go to Canton, Ohio, that spring to manage and play second base for the Central League team there," Taber says. "But it must not have meant enough to him." Taber went to visit Brown's grave at the Mount Albion Cemetery, only to discover that it was unmarked. "That's when my idea clicked," says Taber. "I had been thinking about producing my own set of baseball cards, and I thought if I sold them, I could raise the money to buy Charles Nelson Brown a tombstone."
Soon afterward the Chicle Fantasy Co. was born. Its inspiration was the long-defunct National Chicle Co. of Cambridge, Mass., which issued only 108 of a proposed 240 Diamond Stars cards before going bankrupt in 1936. An aficionado of the Diamond Stars, which featured pastel backgrounds and lifelike portraits of players, Taber started pondering what might have been. "It was time to get some life into that old card set," he says. "There were a number of great players featured on cards that were never produced. It was time to do something about that." Taber hooked up with D'August Roth Martin, an illustrator from Medina, N.Y., and they went to work on a set of 36 cards ($19.95 a set, postage paid), as well as 16-by-20-inch uncut sheets ($39.95). Only 1,936 sets and the same number of uncut sheets were printed.
Among the players and managers included are James (Cool Papa) Bell, Dizzy and Paul Dean, Joe DiMaggio, Leo Durocher, Bob Feller, Lou Gehrig, Josh Gibson, Gabby Hartnett, Billy Herman, Connie Mack, Joe McCarthy, Buck Newsom, Satchel Paige and Casey Stengel, along with commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. There's also a card for a minor leaguer, Carl Fischer, who pitched for the Buffalo Bisons of the International League in 1936. Fischer, who died 30 years ago, once sold 'Taber packs of baseball cards from his Albion newsstand.
Several of Taber's cards have witty touches. Durocher is shown in his St. Louis Cardinal uniform, standing on the dugout steps, while two teammates laugh at the "hot foot" attached to his left shoe. Boston Red Sox catcher Moe Berg holds in his mitt a baseball bearing his name written in Japanese characters, which makes sense if you know that Berg played baseball in Japan and spied on the Japanese for the U.S. before World War II.
Dizzy Dean's card has a peanut vendor in the background. The Diz had a brother who hawked peanuts at minor league ballparks in the South. The outfield sign on Paige's card reads UPSET STOMACH? TRY VEECK'S FOR FAST RELIEF. Paige pitched for Bill Veeck with the Cleveland Indians and the St. Louis Browns and often suffered from an upset stomach.
On the backs of the cards are short, entertaining biographies researched and written by Taber. They are signed "Travis Lake," a play on the name of Boston sportswriter Austin Lake, who wrote the copy for the original Chicle cards. Taber even matched the typeface on the original cards.
A coordinator at the Orleans County (N.Y.) Job Development Agency, Taber spent dozens of hours researching photos. Several trips to the Baseball Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown, were especially helpful. And his wife, Leatha, a baseball fan, was a consultant for the project.
Taber has about $14,000 invested in the Chicle Fantasy Co. "It's really been a hoot," he says. "The whole idea behind the company is a bit of fantasy, and maybe it's a fantasy to think I'll make any money on it. But one way or another, Charles Nelson Brown will get his grave marker. He's waited 84 years. I'm sure he won't mind waiting a little longer."