Please forgive my exuberance in using all capital letters for the title of this post.
In my book I make the point that mystery often surrounds baseball pinback buttons. We can hold in our hand the end-result of someone’s decision to have a pinback button be produced, but we often never know the who, what, when, where, why, and how behind the little trinket. This is especially true of pinbacks not issued in sets. They often defy explanation.
This is the story of solving the mystery of one pinback that has intrigued me for a long time. The particular pin in question is one that is well known in the hobby. It is a pinback of Jackie Robinson, 1.50″ in diameter (a most unusual size for a baseball pinback button). There is a youthful looking image of Robinson on the pin, with the inscription “Jackie Robinson Tells His Story to the Brooklyn Eagle.” At the bottom of the pin is an individual letter that is seemingly unrelated to the picture of Robinson or the words on the pin. In a previous post (“The Pinbacks of Jackie Robinson”) is a picture of the pin. This particular specimen features the letter “J.” The size of the letter was large enough to be noticed, but not over-powering in its presentation.
It is very unusual (but not unheard of) for a pinmaker to place any extraneous information on the front of the pin, as pertaining to the maker of the pin, for example. Such information is usually placed on the curl or on the reverse with a paper insert (if at all). I could not decipher the meaning of this free-floating letter. It is one of the more flagrant mysteries among baseball pinback buttons. The pin itself is very scarce. It rarely comes up for auction or for sale. I have seen two versions of this pin: one with the letter J and one with the letter N.
I reasoned there could only be two possible explanations for the two versions of the pin. One pertained to the pinmaker. I thought the pinmaker might have made two production runs, with the letters N and J simply identifying the run. Perhaps the two runs differentiated the time or place of the pin’s distribution. The pinmaker’s name was presented on the curl. I googled the company and unbelievably discovered it was still in business. I wrote a letter to the company and asked what it could tell me about the story behind the two different letters on the pin it had made. I heard nothing for weeks Finally I received a letter from an employee who had been with the company for over 50 years. He told me the company stopped making pins many years ago as part of their line of promotional products. Furthermore, all the files pertaining to pinbacks had long been destroyed.
My last hope was the Brooklyn Eagle archives at the Brooklyn Library. Previously I had researched their microfiche files for a post I had written on The Deer Club. The library had converted the Brooklyn Eagle into microfiche starting with the inception of the newspaper in 1841 up until 1947. The library ran out of money to finish converting the remaining issues into microfiche (the newspaper folded in 1955). I did a manual page-by-page search of the newspaper for 1947 hoping to find a reference to the Robinson pin. I found nothing. I donated $100 to the Brooklyn Library to help fund the continuation of the microfiche project.
About 1-2 years went by when I received an email from the Brooklyn Library stating that the complete run of the Brooklyn Eagle was now available on microfiche. While I was pleased that the project was now complete, I really did not have the enthusiasm to do another year-by-year, issue-by-issue, page-by-page search of the newspaper. The process was very laborious.
Recently I was scrolling through some old emails and found the one from the Brooklyn Library. Just for fun I clicked on it. Much to my surprise, the site now included a search function. I entered “Jackie Robinson tells his story” and was taken to eleven specific issues. The year was 1949. There was a ten-part series on Robinson’s story, beginning August 15, 1949 and ending August 24, 1949.
I clicked on the August 15 issue. Beneath the first installment of the series was an advertisement by the Brooklyn Eagle. My eyes were transfixed as the ad showed a picture of the Robinson pin. The ad read:
“The lucky letter is R! Look at your Jackie Robinson button. If it has the letter R imprinted just above the name ‘Brooklyn Eagle’ it’s a lucky button. You may exchange it for our autographed baseball of Jack Robinson. Bring all lucky buttons with the letter R to the Circulation Department, Brooklyn Eagle, 24 Johnson Street. Near Buro Hall.”
There it was in black-and-white, right before my eyes! But the ad didn’t explain everything. Like, how would people get a button? How many “unlucky” letter buttons were there? I knew of two of them, the J and the N. But something else seemed missing. The lead line of the ad appeared to be the answer to a question: “The lucky letter is R!” But what was the question?
I clicked back and found a reference that preceded the first installment of the series that was published on August 15. In the August 12, 1949 issue of the Brooklyn Eagle was an ad run by the newspaper. This ad was the Rosetta Stone to deciphering the Jackie Robinson pin! My mouth became dry when I read the ad:
“Button button, who’s got the lucky button? Thousands of these buttons are being given away on the streets of Brooklyn daily. Be sure to save yours because a number will be imprinted with a lucky letter just above the name ‘Brooklyn Eagle.’ The lucky letter will be announced in this space on Monday, August 15. Bring your original lucky button to the Circulation Department of the Brooklyn Eagle and receive an autographed baseball by Jackie Robinson.”
To further taunt the reader, the picture of the Robinson pin featured a question mark in the position where the letter would appear. The final reference pertaining to the mercurial Robinson pin appeared following the third installment on August 17. It was a photograph of three people, each wearing the lucky R Robinson pin and holding an autographed baseball.
We now know how the pins were distributed to the public. They were not sold at Ebbets Field, but were most likely given in batches to the operators of corner news stands in Brooklyn. Presumably every person who bought a copy of the newspaper was offered a free pin by the news stand operator as part of the Brooklyn Eagle’s promotion. How many news stands sold the Brooklyn Eagle in Brooklyn? Hundreds? The Robinson story was not a one-day event, but a series that ran in ten installments, one installment per day for ten consecutive days. How many pins were given out (“thousands daily”)? If the lucky letter on the pin was identified by the newspaper on August 15, what was the fate of the unlucky pins? Were they thrown to the curb when the buyer of the newspaper realized it wasn’t the lucky letter? Did the news stand operators fish out the lucky pins to get an autographed baseball for themselves? How many baseballs did Robinson autograph: 10, 20, 50? That is how many R pins would have been made.
How many letters were featured on the unlucky pins? We know the letters that were made: N, J, and R. These are three of the letters that are part of the first and last name of Robinson. If the letters chosen for production spelled out his full name, there were pins made with eight other letters: A, C, K, I, E, O, B, and S.
The Brooklyn Eagle did not undertake an inexpensive promotion of its series on Robinson. The pins required a double press run. The first run produced the image of Robinson and the words. The second run printed a strategically placed letter on the paper image. Then all the paper images were laminated with celluloid and crimped with a collett to become a pinback. This procedure was followed for as many different letters that were used: 3 (known), 11 (his full name), or 26 (the entire alphabet).
In my years of collecting I have seen two pins with the letter N and one with the letter J. Presumably the Brooklyn Eagle destroyed all the R pins after they were redeemed. But what became of all the other pins that were distributed, “thousands daily” for ten days? Pins purchased at ball parks are sometimes saved as a souvenir of a memorable day. These Robinson pins were distributed for free as part of a commercial transaction that lacked sentimentality. Is that why so few have survived? Was it because the value of the pin was established on the first day of the installment, thereby rendering all the unlucky pins to be valueless with nine days to go in the promotion? Would more pins have survived if the Brooklyn Eagle had identified the lucky pin on the last day of the promotion instead of the first? What are the odds that a lucky letter R pin was never redeemed and remains tucked away in an old dresser or shoebox?
While I feel very gratified to bring closure to the Robinson pin, it is fun to wonder what might have happened, and maybe what still is.