Player on 'worst baseball card' ever speaks

'The Hammer' recalls appearance in 1996 Pinnacle set

March 4th, 2022
Art by Tom Forget

This story was originally published in June 2021.

Great baseball cards have value that captures baseball at its best, stirs your nostalgic soul and perhaps even enriches your bank account. But strange baseball cards have value, too. They bring not just the stats but the laughs, thanks to poor production, confounding composition or unflattering photography. We’ll let the auctioneers and the hobbyists harp on the great cards. Here, we aim to explore the messiness and the mysteriousness of some of the most bizarre baseball cards of all-time.

Player: Bob Hamelin

Card: 1996 Pinnacle (#289)

Value: $54.99 on eBay

Slate Magazine has called it “the worst baseball card of all-time,” with a “commitment to badness [that] never wavers.” One blogger noted that its design “breaks all the rules, without reason or payoff.” Some have speculated that the only explanation for this card is that its creators had a secret beef with Bob Hamelin and created this cardboard curiosity to get back at him.

But the hilarious online commentary inspired by Hamelin’s 1996 Pinnacle has only protracted the card’s presence in our lives. Made before the internet went mainstream and yet seemingly made for the internet, the card evokes nostalgia for a defunct and oft-forgotten brand and for a lovably rotund home run hitter who was temporarily the talk of baseball.

Wrap those elements in a baffling presentation of odd angles, poor placement, a blank stare and three separate references to Hamelin’s last name within a 2 1/2-by-3 1/2-inch space, and this is a card that will linger with you a long while.

That’s what makes this card … kinda great? In our transient, short-attention-span society, it can be difficult to leave the sort of lasting -- or, dare we say, loving -- impression this card has made on people. That’s a valuable, beautiful thing. (I mean, did you see the asking price on eBay?)

Bob Hamelin's legendary baseball card. Images via Trading Card Database.

“I didn’t hear much about it for a long time,” Hamelin says of the card. “But then people started getting on the internet and writing about it, and it took on a life of its own.”

The card is an unusual and very much unexpected sensation. And in that sense, it is the perfect representation of Robert James Hamelin, aka “The Hammer.”

For the uninitiated, there are three reasons why this man is a living legend.

1. He beat out Manny Ramirez for the 1994 AL Rookie of the Year Award.

Manny Ramirez. The 12-time All-Star. The nine-time Silver Slugger. The two-time World Series champion. The guy who would be in the Hall of Fame if not for … reasons. That Manny Ramirez.

In ‘94, Manny was very good, with an .878 OPS, 17 homers, 60 RBIs in 91 games for Cleveland.

But he couldn’t hang with the Hammer.

A 26-year-old rookie, Hamelin emerged out of nowhere to hit .282 with 24 homers, 65 RBIs and a .987 OPS for a Royals team vying for its first postseason appearance in nearly a decade. Alas, the players’ strike upended the Royals’ run, as well as Hamelin’s heroics. But with his 6-foot, 240-pound frame, wire-rim glasses, mullet and huge homers, Hamelin had permanently become a Kansas City cult hero.

“I feel lucky that that happened,” Hamelin says. “It was a great time in your life. Everything you would think about it, that’s what it was. It was so much fun.”

2. He had that great season … after tearing his elbow tendon while arm wrestling!

True story. In January of ’94, shortly before Spring Training, Hamelin participated in a made-for-TV arm-wrestling tournament. It was a double-elimination event pairing two players per big league organization.

“It was mostly Minor League guys like me, not guys that were already established or anything,” Hamelin says. “It was a free trip to Vegas.”

It almost proved costly. Hamelin won both of his matches, but, at the end of the second one, he heard a distinct pop in his elbow. His partner lost two matches, so the pair was knocked out. And now Hamelin, who could barely move his arm in the aftermath, had to return to his personal trainer fearing that he may have significantly injured himself.

“My trainer says, ‘You’ve got to tell the team,’” Hamelin recalls. “I said, ‘I’m not telling the team.’”

They agreed to a compromise. Hamelin would get an MRI, and, if the injury was significant, he would inform the Royals what had happened. Sure enough, he had suffered a torn flexor tendon.

So the call to the higher-ups was not pretty, yet Hamelin was fortunate that the injury was not to the elbow of his throwing arm. And his best path to big-league playing time was as a DH, anyway. Thankfully, in the happiest ending to an arm-wrestling story since Sylvester Stallone’s character was reunited with his son in “Over the Top,” the injury scarred over enough before Spring Training that Hamelin was able to go out and win an Opening Day roster spot. Legend.

3. This card.

This card only adds to that legend. Of course, it did not come out amid Hamelin’s heyday. Though not conceived as such, the photo serves as a fine visual representation of Hamelin’s 1995 season, in which he hit .168, lost his regular at-bats and was demoted to Triple-A. Hamelin’s face is the expression of a man who was on top of the world one August and in Omaha the next.

The image, though, was snapped during Spring Training, where players are herded through Photo Day stations and asked to pose this way or that for various outlets.

“The first picture, every time you go to a station,” Hamelin explains, “is just for them, to know who you are when they scroll back through everything. That’s why I’m holding the card with my name on it.”

Why Pinnacle selected Hamelin’s identifier image, as opposed to a more proper pose, is anybody’s guess. The company has been out of business since 1998. Hamelin figures they misplaced the other images and went with this one -- a lot-less-interesting but probably-more-plausible theory than the aforementioned grudge angle.

Hamelin’s unnervingly vacant glare could have been offset a bit with a more attractive design. But then we wouldn’t still be talking about the card, 25 years later, and we might not still be talking about Hamelin, either.

The Hammer used to have a massive card collection of his own. His favorites were the mint condition Mickey Mantles and a rookie Roberto Clemente. He sold everything when he started playing professionally, because, once ballplayers became his colleagues, he no longer felt the need to make them his hobby. He kinda wishes he had held on to some of them, but, well, we are talking about a guy who grounded out in the middle of a game at Triple-A Toledo in 1999, decided on the spot that he was done playing baseball, grabbed his stuff and left. (Again, legendary.) Hamelin, who went on to run a manufacturing business and until 2020 was scouting for the Red Sox, knows when to call it quits.

We find it hard to quit him, though. And thanks to the strange survival of this card, we don’t have to. The “worst baseball card of all time” is here on the internet to stay, which means Hamelin himself is here to stay. It wasn’t the Hammer’s peak, but it has proven to be his Pinnacle.