Venezuelan Topps and the Pirates of the Caribbean

When novice collectors hear the phrase “Venezuelan baseball cards,” they may picture something like this.

More seasoned collectors are more likely to identify Venezuelans as those hard to find, harder to afford, condition-sensitive cards that keep their player collections from the upper echelons of the PSA registries.

Hey, at least the shipping is free!

Other collectors, like this author, simply ignore such gaps in their collection based on most Venezuelan cards being so similar to their U.S. counterparts that there is not enough “there” there to pay through the roof for something you (mostly) already have.

In this post we will look very quickly at the years from 1959-1968 when the Venezuelan cards were nearly identical to their North American brethren and then spend my traditional very long time on the single year when they most certainly weren’t.

But first…1952-1958

My understanding is that Topps was selling cards in Latin America as far back as 1952. From 1952-1958, the cards were produced in the United States and then shipped to other countries to be sold. It was not until 1959 that Topps was not just selling but actually producing cards in Latin America.

1959

The 1959 U.S. and Venezuelan cards appear nearly identical, though in hand you would quickly detect two differences: a flimsier card stock and a less glossy finish. The backs of some of the cards would also replace the standard copyright line along the right edge with “IMPRESO EN VENEZUELA POR BENCO C.A.,” roughly translated as “Printed in Venezuela by Benco, Inc.”

As for the checklist itself, the 198-card Venezuelan issue simply followed the first 198 cards on the 1959 Topps U.S. checklist.

1960

There was even less differentiation in 1960. Again, the 198-card Venezuelan set mimicked the first 198 cards on the U.S. checklist, but this time there was not even a different copyright line. From a design perspective there was no difference between the North American (top) and South American (bottom) cards. From a production perspective, there is still a flimsier feel to the Venezuelan cards.

1962

More significant changes came to Caracas in 1962. The first is easy enough to spot: multiple elements of the card back are now in Spanish!

The second is one perhaps best known to collectors of a certain Latin American infielder. While the Venezuelan and U.S. checklists mirror each other for the first 196 cards, the Venezuelan issue skips U.S. cards 197 (Daryl Spencer) and 198 (Johnny Keane) and instead jumps to cards 199 and 200.

However, the Venezuelan issue didn’t simply jump to U.S. cards 199 and 200, both of which we recognize today as among the key cards in the U.S. set.

Rather, Venezuelan card 199 went to Venezuela-born second baseman Elio Chacon of the Mets, who would not be seen until card 256 in the U.S. set. (Side note: Frank Robinson sighting!)

Finally, card 200 went to an even more prominent Venezuelan infielder, whose card was number 325 in the U.S. set.

As a final note, the 1962 Topps U.S. set is famous for its variations. For example, all five (!) of these cards are number 139 in the U.S. set.

From what I can tell, “Babe on dirt” is the only one of the five variations present in the Venezuelan set, though (as in the U.S.) “Reniff portrait” can be found at slot 159 on the Venezuelan checklist.

Okay, I lied. I’ll say one last thing about the set. It involves a feature that would become commonplace across many Venezuelan and Canadian (O-Pee-Chee) sets during the decade.

1962 was the first year that Topps produced checklist cards as part of their sets. For one of three reasons (Topps not noticing, not caring, or not expecting the set to end after 198 cards), the Venezuelan “3rd Series” checklist must have disappointed or at least baffled young collectors such as the one who this card belonged to.

“¿Dónde está Daryl Spencer (197)? ¿Dónde está M. Mantle (200)? ¿Cuántos paquetes tengo que comprar?”

We know about sets with “chase cards,” but (counting the back of the checklist too) here was a set with 68 of them!

1964

Following the more significant changes of 1962, the 1964 release represented a return to the original formula, only with more cards. The set included 370 cards that mimicked the first 370 cards on the U.S. checklist. Moreover, the card backs reverted to English once again.

From a design standpoint, the most evident difference across continents was the black background color used on the Venezuelan backs as compared to a salmon color used on the U.S. card backs. (I am also speculating that the trivia answers came already revealed rather than requiring scratch-off, but I would love it if a reader can provide definitive information.)

1966

The next release was an awful lot like the one before it but with even less variation. The 370-card Venezuelan offering again matched cards 1-370 on the U.S. checklist and featured English-only card backs.

Flimsier stock and some subtle color differences provide the main means of recognizing these cards, and I have encountered quite a few tales of collectors thinking they bought a stack of ordinary Topps cards only to discover some number were Venezuelans.

1967

We’ll skip this one for now as it’s actually the main focus of the article!

1968

We have now reached the final year that Topps produced a parallel set for the Venezuelan market. The formula followed that of 1964 and 1966, a 370-card set matching up card for card with the first 370 cards of the U.S. issue. From a design perspective, about the only distinguishing feature was the nearly invisible (at my age) minuscule white lettering at the bottom of the card backs that read, “Hecho en Venezuela – C.A. Litoven.”

And finally…1967!

Hobby consensus, if not established fact, on every one of the sets from 1959-1968 is that Topps produced the cards expressly for the Venezuelan market to take advantage of baseball’s popularity and hopefully make a few extra bucks. As has been shown, the cards were essentially flimsier versions of the U.S. issues with the only interesting differences coming in 1962.

All this stood in stark contrast with what the kids of Caracas lined their pockets (or more likely their albums) with in 1967. Rather than a low-grade imitation of some early portion of the U.S. checklist, one could argue that Venezuelan collectors ended up with a better set of cards than their North American neighbors. Let’s take a closer look at the set, and you can decide for yourself!

While numbered consecutively from 1-338, there are three very distinct groupings of cards. In fact, the Standard Catalog lists them as three different sets, though most collectors I’ve talked to think of them as a single set in three parts.

Winter Leaguers

Cards 1-138 feature the players and managers of the six-team Venezuelan Winter League. This averages to 23 cards per team, which means this was less a “best of” and more an “almost everyone” sort of checklist.

Though they present at least some visual similarity to the 1967 Topps set, the Venezuelan Winter League cards are immediately identified as distinct by their distinctly non-U.S. team identifiers and their lack of facsimile signatures. (Or you can just flip the card over and see what number it is!)

Two particularly notable cards in this subset are those of nine-time National League all-star Dave Concepcion and Hall of Fame manager (then third baseman) Bobby Cox, whose Venezuelan cards beat their U.S. rookie cards by four and two years respectively.

RETIRED GREATS

Cards 139-188 featured retired (“retirado” in Spanish) greats of the game. Believe it or not, at 50 cards, this was actually one of the larger sets of retired greats produced to this point. While most of the players would have been at home in a U.S. issue, this subset also included a number of Latin American legends such as Alex Carrasquel, Alfonso Carrasquel (more on these two later), and Connie Marrero. There is also one of the more unusual Ted Kluszewski cards you’ll ever see!

ACTIVE MLB PLAYERS

Cards 189-338, a block of 150 cards comprising almost half the set, feature near replicas of 1967 Topps (U.S.) cards, at least as far as the fronts of the cards go, but these cards for once do not simply mirror the first 150 cards of the U.S. set. If that were the case, the top stars would have been limited to the following players:

  • Whitey Ford
  • Orlando Cepeda
  • Al Kaline
  • Roger Maris
  • Tony Oliva
  • Don Drysdale
  • Luis Aparicio
  • Ron Santo
  • Frank Robinson
  • Willie Stargell
  • Mickey Mantle

In fact, the 150-card subset included every one of these players except Ford (more on him later) AND also included Carl Yastrzemski, Harmon Killebrew, Brooks Robinson, Willie Mays, Eddie Mathews, Bob Gibson, Pete Rose, Ernie Banks, Roberto Clemente, Hank Aaron, Juan Marichal, Willie McCovey, Lou Brock, Billy Williams, and many, many other top stars of the day.

To my eyes, the player selection represents a hand-picked “best of” that not only fully encompassed every major star from the Topps set but sprinkled in a disproportionate number of Latin American players to boot. (It’s important to note here that I’m placing us back in 1967 where Seaver, Carew, and the like were not yet established superstars.)

A quick aside to quantify the “best of” nature of this subset a bit more. In at least an approximate manner we can associate the best players in the original Topps set as the ones with “hero numbering,” card numbers that ended in 0 or 5. I’ve highlighted in green the “hero numbers” from the Topps set that have cards in the Venezuelan MLB subset. Cells in red (e.g., Whitey Ford, #5) reflect cards not selected for the subset.

The chart shows at least three interesting things about the MLB subset–

  • A very high proportion (89/121, or 74%) of hero numbers were selected vs the 20% that either random selection or any consecutive block of 150 cards would have yielded.
  • All multiples of 50, generally associated with the superstars in a set, were selected.
  • And finally, it shows that more than half the cards in the MLB subset (89/150, or 59%) were chosen from the Topps hero numbers.

“How very unlike Topps to build a set around the players kids actually want!” you say. And don’t worry, we’ll get to that soon enough. For now, just recognize that the full Venezuelan set now includes just about the entire Venezuelan Professional Baseball League, a huge selection of all-time greats, and all the best active players from MLB. How do you beat that!

1967 Card Backs

Diverging from the other years we examined, the 1967 card backs look nothing like Topps. This Mathews card is typical for the entire set, with the note that its blue background is (almost always) red for the Winter Leaguers and green for the Retirado subset.

What are these anyway?

For a variety of reasons including the similarity of the final 150 cards to the U.S. issue, the full 1967 release has frequently been referred to as “1967 Topps Venezuelan” or “1967 Venezuela Topps,” the name suggesting (as truly was the case in 1959, 1960, 1962, 1964, 1966, and 1968) that Topps was the company behind the set’s issue.

However, conventional Hobby wisdom seems to be that the 1967 Venezuelan set (or sets if you prefer) were produced completely apart from and without the blessing of Topps. The cards were bootlegs, “pirates of the Caribbean” if you will.

More than likely the cards were produced by Sport Grafico, essentially the Venezuelan equivalent of Sports Illustrated or Sport magazines in terms of content and equal to Life or Ebony in terms of size.

From the author’s Hank Aaron collection

Before proceeding I’ll offer that the pirated nature of these cards is great news for all the collectors out there who avoid anything unlicensed. That said, I’d have a hard time imagining too many collectors who couldn’t find even one spot in their binders for beauties like these. (And feel free to click here for the most amazing 1967 Venezuelan collection I’m aware of, online or otherwise. Or click here for another amazing collection covering even more years.)

One of the best pages for learning more about the 1967 Venezuelan cards is here, though you will either need to remember your high school Spanish or use a translation feature on your browser. Among the fantastic information shared on that site is the actual album designed to hold all 338 cards. If you go to the site you can even see what the pages inside looked like.

Among other things, the album seems to all but confirm that the cards were produced by Sport Grafico. After all, their logo is prominent in the upper left corner. Though one might be tempted to regard the cartoon parrot as a nod to the pirated nature of the set, each cartoon character actually represents one of the six teams in the league:

  • Leones del Caracas (lions)
  • Tigres de Aragua (tigers)
  • Cardenales de Lara (cardinal)
  • Tiburones de la Guaira (shark)
  • Navegantes del Magallanes (sailors/mariner)
  • Pericos de Valencia (parrot parakeet)

Most online sources on the Venezuelan league refer to the name of the Valencia team as “Industriales” or the Industrialists! Fortunately, we have baseball cards to set the record straight.

You can even make out the parakeet logo on the Luis Rodriguez card!

When did the 1967 set come out?

On one hand this probably reads like the joke about who’s buried in Grant’s tomb. On the other hand, the Hobby has more than a few sets that came out later than their name would seem to suggest (e.g., “1948” Leaf).

Looking at the album cover again, we see the years 1967-1968 in the bottom right corner. This is no surprise given that the typical Venezuelan Winter League schedule ran from mid-October through early January. This alone makes me think a designation like 1967-1968 would make more sense for the cards than simply 1967. (Collectors of basketball and hockey are already quite used to this convention for dating their sets.)

One card that quickly tells us the Venezuelan cards could not have come out until (at best) very late in 1967 is the Brooks Robinson (pictured earlier) from the MLB portion of the set. In the U.S. set, this was card 600, part of the seventh and final series (cards 534-609), presumably released around September 1967. (This same series also produced 11 other players for the MLB portion of the Venezuelan set.)

I don’t claim to know all the steps and turnaround times involved to go from a stack of Topps cards to a full-fledged Venezuelan set (or even just the final third of one), but I would imagine at least the following things would all need to occur:

  • Select the players
  • Capture images from the Topps card fronts
  • Write bios and other info for the backs
  • Print, cut, and pack the cards
  • Get the cards to the stores

I’m sure I’m leaving out some important steps, but I’ll still say all of the above feels like at least two months of work. I’d be surprised if at least this final third of the Venezuelan set was out in time for Winter League Opening Day, and it definitely wouldn’t shock me to learn this final subset might not have hit the shelves until early 1968.

“Okay, but that’s the final portion of the set,” you say. Might the other portions have come out much earlier?

I’ll start with the Winter Leaguers since at least their numbering suggests they would have been the first out the door. We can gather some clues about timing from some of the players who made their Venezuelan Winter League debut during the 1967-68 campaign. One example is Paul Schaal, shown here with the Leones del Caracas team.

As 1967-68 was Schaal’s first year playing in Venezuela (also noted by the last line of his card bio), it stands to reason that the photo on the card could not have been taken before October 1967. Ditto for Jim Campanis (yes, the son of Al), who also made his Venezuelan debut in the 1967-68 campaign but is already shown in his Cardenales de Lara cap.

As these two players were still with their Major League teams (the Angels and Dodgers respectively) through the end of September, their cards would be a good month or so behind Brooks Robinson in how soon they could hit the shelves. I don’t want to underestimate the production team at Sport Grafico, but Christmas actually feels optimistic to me here.

Another interesting example here is Jose Tartabull, who remained stateside with the Red Sox all the way through the seventh game (October 12) of the 1967 World Series. However, as a returning player to the Leones del Caracas, it’s certainly possible his photo could have been a holdover from an earlier year.

We have now looked at cards in both the MLB and Winter League portions of the Venezuelan set that suggest either an extremely fast production process or at best a very late 1967 (e.g., December) release. What you probably wouldn’t expect is that even a card in the Retirado subset tells us something about the release window. His card also puts a bow on a minor mystery you might be hanging onto from a previous section.

Recall that Whitey Ford was the one big star from the 1967 Topps set not present in the MLB portion of the Venezuelan set. Given Ford’s retirement on May 30, 1967, it actually makes perfect sense that he would A) be excluded from the set of active MLB stars and B) find himself included in the set of retired greats. Perhaps the only thing that doesn’t make sense is why he’s posing with what I assume is Joe Pepitone’s jersey!

Ford’s retirement was early enough in 1967 that it wouldn’t have exerted any real pressure on releasing the Retirado cards by the opening of Winter League. Nonetheless, it takes the one subset that at least theoretically could have come out the soonest and probably pushes it back to August/September at the earliest.

Yes, one certainly could argue that the team at Sport Grafico simply had a feeling in advance that Ford would retire. However, the back of the card shows that he had in fact already retired.

Translated into English the last sentence of the card reads, “The lefthander’s career was shortened by muscular pains and although he underwent surgery he could not recover his effectiveness, so he voluntarily retired in 1967.”

Ultimately, the question of when these cards came out, if not established by the distinct memories of contemporary collectors, might be settled by a thorough enough review of Sport Grafico magazines from late 1967 and early 1968. Assuming the cards genuinely were the work of the magazine, then perhaps there would be an ad dedicated to their release.

That said, the bulk of the ads in the issues I have (early 1970s) are primarily targeted to adults who would not have been the target market for cards, at least not back then! Still, I’d enjoy the search if I ever found the right issues, and depending on what I found I might annoy my fellow collectors by referring to the set as 1968 Sport Grafico rather than any of the various names it goes by today.

“VEN” diagrams

Everything I’ve offered thus far is simply a curation (but with less accuracy or authority) than what you’d find on the Web if you spent a dozen or so hours trying to learn everything you could about these sets. Of course the reason I’m the highest paid blogger at SABR Baseball Cards (okay, fine, tied for highest with all the other guys making $0.00) is because I try to bring something new to the table whenever I can.

In this case I’m talking about my trademark needlessly detailed analysis of the set’s checklist. Since we’re talking about a VENEZUELAN issue, it stands to reason that I will be employing VEN diagrams. (And yes, I know I spelled it wrong. Work with me, please, work with me.)

This first VEN diagram looks at the 338 subjects in the set, organized by which group(s) they appear in. The main thing to notice is that five of the subjects have cards in multiple groups.

Since the numbers are small, I’ll show each of the cards that land in the overlapping sections of the VEN diagram.

First here are the three players represented in both the Winter League (1-138) and the MLB (189-338) portions of the checklist. Probably not coincidentally, the three players are all Venezuelan-born and were assigned to the first three cards in the MLB subset (i.e., 189-191).

Next up are an uncle and nephew who are both Winter Leaguers (coaches, anyways) and retired greats.

Collectors in Peoria, Illinois, may wonder how either Carrasquel managed to join the hallowed list of retired greats otherwise populated by the likes of Babe Ruth and Satchel Paige. In fact, Alejandro was the first Venezuelan to play MLB, and Alfonso was the first Venezuelan MLB all-star.

Now that we’ve made it through the VEN diagram of the full Venezuelan set, we can now compare each part of that set to the (real) 1967 Topps set. The first VEN diagram I’ll look at compares the Retirado portion of the Venezuelan issue with the full U.S. set.

If you were paying attention just a few minutes ago, you already know the player in the overlap is Whitey Ford, so I won’t rehash any old explanations. I’ll just note that another good candidate would have been Gil Hodges, who had a manager card in the 1967 Topps set and at least in my book would have fit every definition of a retired great.

The next VEN diagram compares the Winter League portion of the Venezuelan issue with the full U.S. set. From previous work, we already expect to see Davalillo, Tovar, and Aparicio within the overlap, but these three players represent just one-seventh of the total number.

Here is a complete list of all 21 overlappers. As you can see, nearly half were confined to multi-player rookie cards in the Topps set but now had solo cards they could show off to their families and friends.

And while the money wasn’t as good in Winter Ball, at least you got to wear your hat on your baseball card and have your uniform match your team!

The final Venezuelan subset to compare against the 1967 Topps (U.S.) set is the collection of 150 pirated Topps cards at the very end. A VEN diagram here would be dull since all 150 of the cards are drawn from the U.S. set. Therefore, what I’ll do instead is show how the U.S. versions of these 150 cards match up with the U.S. checklist.

As the barely readable plot shows, the 150 cards came from all areas of the Topps checklist, including the dozen already noted from the final series.

Postscript: North of the border

As a guy who gets paid by the word, even if my rate is $0.00 per word, I’ll do anything to make my articles longer. (Editor’s note: Even adding superfluous editor’s notes when he’s not even the editor!) In this case that means the one last comparison nobody would have presumed relevant (and probably still won’t even once I’ve presented it).

While Topps most likely had no hand at all in the 1967 Venezuelan set, aside from having their images ripped off, it’s not like Topps was ignoring the rest of the world. As had been the tradition for the previous two years, Topps once again issued an O-Pee-Chee set up in Canada.

Much in line with how the (true) Topps Venezuelan sets went, this 196-card set simply mimicked cards 1-196 from the U.S. set and would be indistinguishable (at least to me) from their American neighbors if not for the “Printed in Canada” line at the bottom of each card’s reverse.

What this means is that multiple players had cards from not one or two but THREE different countries in 1967, even if for most players the variation from card to card to card was fairly uninteresting. (And yes, this was true in 1966 and 1968 as well, bu my focus here is on 1967.)

To support your internationally diverse collecting interests I now bring you my final VEN diagram, one that will allow you to triple up on the cards of some of your favorite players. Among the 49 three-country sensations are these star players.

  • Orlando Cepeda
  • Al Kaline
  • Roger Maris
  • Tony Oliva
  • Don Drysdale
  • Luis Aparicio
  • Ron Santo
  • Frank Robinson
  • Willie Stargell
  • Steve Carlton
  • Mickey Mantle
  • Eddie Mathews

Aparicio collectors, it should be noted, can score the four-point play by adding his Winter League card to their binders also. (Ditto, Vic Davalillo.) And of course Ford collectors just miss the cut but can still rep all three countries by “settling for” his Retirado card as the Venezuelan piece of the trio.

Of course I know some of you will not be satisfied even with a three-country collection and are demanding four! Well, good news! I’ve also crosswalked the 1967 U.S., Venezuelan, and Canadian sets with the 1967 Kabaya-Leaf cards out of Japan, and I did manage to find a single hit…as long as you’re okay with the “Japanese Mickey Mantle!”

Book Review: "Hall of Name" by D.B. Firstman

Having already written about my Wall of Fame, the Hall of Fame, and even the Hall of Game I suppose it was only natural that I write today about the Hall of Name. (Note that a different blogger already covered the Hall of Same.) Specifically, I’m referring to “Hall of Name: Baseball’s Most Magnificent Monikers from ‘The Only Nolan’ to ‘Van Lingle Mungo’ and More,” which is the brand new book (Amazon | Barnes & Noble) from Casey Stengel chapter member D.B. Firstman.

Baseball fans and card collectors alike have always had a special place in our hearts for the players with the funny names. Before I even knew who the players were or which players were stars (apart from the Topps all-star shield telling me so), I knew I found something special in my pack when I landed one of these guys!

I also was fortunate to have friends more mature and sophisticated than I was who were able to educate me on the downright naughtiness of other pulls.

Fast forward to high school when I opened packs with friends. There were two kinds of players worthy of call-outs: the superstars and…you guessed it, the guys with the funny names! (See below for simulated pack opening with subtitles.)

In “Hall of Name,” D.B. Firstman goes beyond the pack and quick smirk to bring us a complete (pending volume two) log of “magnificent monikers” across all of baseball history and a level of depth previously unseen if even imagined.

Opening to a random page (90-91), for example, we find Milton Obelle Bradley, gamely described by D.B. as having a “Life” that’s been nothing but “Trouble.” (Well played, DB!) We get not only a fairly detailed biography of the player, but a number of bonus features including his full name’s etymology (though even D.B. came up empty on Obelle), his case for “Hall of Name” membership, his best day in baseball, a list of various people, places, and things not to confuse the player with, and some fun anagrams. Many of my friends who are Cubs fans will find Bradley’s anagram particularly fitting!

Boldly intolerable me!

Finally, D.B. ends each write-up with an “Ephemera” section. Usually this section houses the fun off-the-field tidbits that didn’t quite fit a baseball bio. In Bradley’s case, however, the tidbits are distinctly not fun.

Firstman’s book is organized into four sections. Were the Hall of Name an actual museum, you might imagine each section as a wing. The first wing, “Baseball Poets and Men of Few (Different) Letters” is rich in alliteration and mostly made up of players whose names simply sound good: Coco Crisp, Ferris Fain (whose side hustle was news to me!), Ed Head, and the like.

The second wing is the one many readers might just skip to: “Dirty Names Done Dirt Cheap.” The aforementioned Mr. LaCock resides in this section alongside other coquettish (ahem!) choices as Johnny Dickshot, Charlie Manlove, and Tony Suck. I’d continue, but this is a family blog.

Next up are the “Sounds Good to Me” players. In this wing we find Rocky Cherry, Quinton McCracken, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and the like. My 1978 Topps name-crushes, Sixto Lezcano and Biff Pocoroba, make it into this section as well.

Finally, D.B. closes the book with “No Focus Group Convened,” a catch-all of the 40+ players from Atz to Zdeb whose exclusion would have led many readers to cancel their Hall of Name memberships. “What, no Harry Colliflower?! No Mark Lemongello?! What’s the freaking point then?”Among the other players enshrined in this wing are Calvin Coolidge Julius Caesar Tuskahoma McLish, Bris Lord, and Ivey Wingo.

“Hall of Name” isn’t explicitly a baseball card book, even if there is some occasional baseball card content. For instance, the “Ephemera” section of the Callix Crabbe write-up notes the mix-up that led to Carlos Guevara’s appearance on Crabbe’s 2008 Topps card.

However, the first thing most of us took notice of (1953 Bowman collectors aside) when we rifled through our first packs of cards was the player’s name. Good chance most of us still do it today. What is the magic of opening a pack, after all, if not to reveal who’s inside!

Plus, if not for the name, would you really have any idea this was a Pete Alonso card or even a baseball card at all? (Then again, is it?!)

In this sense then, “Hall of Name,” while clearly a baseball book, is also a baseball card book that focuses on one very specific feature—perhaps the most important feature—of our cards: the names of the players.

Through D.B.’s enjoyable book, we are not only reminded of (or introduced to) the very best baseball names, past and present, but we further see each name turn into a story, and with it, each card in our collections escape its two-dimensional trappings to become something fuller, richer, and (dare I say) human, if not positively Devine!

Author’s note: “Hall of Name” is now available for pre-order through Amazon and (last I checked even cheaper at) Barnes & Noble.

Cards and Autographing

I like collecting autographs. In those years in the early 1990s when the hobby exploded and the number of available sets to purchase had jumped from three to at least seventeen, one of the things that kept me sane was collecting autographs.*

*I prospected at college games. Pursued minor league coaches and managers. Went to Spring Training. Hung over the rail at Candlestick. Sent out some through the mail requests. Hit a couple card shows.

In many ways my card collecting hobby transformed into a way for me to be able to pull a card of any player at any time. No this was not efficient, but in those pre-internet days it was better than betting on my local shop having a card of the player I was planning to get. Having a couple years of complete Topps sets was a great way to be sure I had cards of almost everyone who played in the majors.

Getting into autographs also meant that I had to make a decision about hobby orthodoxy. In those early 1990s there were a lot of rules. Rules about what cards to collect.* Rules about how to store them.** And rules about what condition to keep them in. Chief among the condition rules was that writing on a card was bad even if it was an autograph.

*Prospects, Rookies, Errors, and inserts.

**Rubber bands out. Binders OK. Toploaders better. Screwdown cases best.

It didn’t take me long to decide that rule was stupid but it’s also part of a larger debate that we still have in the hobby. For a lot of collectors, writing on a card does indeed ruin it. Even if it’s an autograph. For others like me, there are many cards which are enhanced by getting them signed. That there’s no one way of collecting is great but it feels like the autograph divide is one where neither group understands the other.

The appeal of cards as an autograph medium is pretty simple since it piggybacks on the same appeal as baseball cards themselves. They’re mass-produced photographs so they’re usually both the cheapest and easiest thing to find. They label who the subject is and have information about him on the back. They’re small enough to carry in a pocket or send through the mail in a regular envelope. And after they’re signed they’re easily stored and displayed.

But that doesn’t mean that just any card will do for an autograph. One of the fun things about talking autographs with other collectors is discussing what kinds of cards and designs we prefer to get signed.

First off, things we want to avoid. It’s inevitable that you’ll get cards where a player has signed on his face. Cards are small and there’s almost always a time crunch. Avoiding closely-cropped portraits and picking a card that doesn’t encourage face signing is an important factor to keep in mind.

Dark backgrounds are also dangerous. Especially if you’re sending a card out through the mail or otherwise can’t control the pen being used. When I was a kid my hands were tied because silver sharpies didn’t exist and I was limited in my card options. Now though I just assume that the dark backgrounds won’t work.

What I did end up liking? Simple photo-centric designs with the bare minimum of design elements. A name. A team. A border. Nothing else. These designs often underwhelmed me as cards* but I found that I really enjoyed them signed.

*As my photo and print literacy has improved I found myself appreciating the photos and design in many of these sets.

In many ways I got into the hobby at exactly the right time as the early 1990s were a heyday for these kind of designs. 1989–1993 Upper Deck and 1988–1993 (except 1990) Topps in particular were tailor-made for my autograph preferences and are still sets I return to when I can.

The rise of full-bleed photos also occurred during this time. I was scared of gloss as a kid but have started looking for these designs whenever I can now. They’re an even more extreme point in my “simple photo-centric design” preference but the key for me is that I like the ones which adhere to the simplicity.

A lot of the full-bleed designs are anything but simple with crazy graphics and other stuff going on. But the ones where the designs are essentially just typography? Beautiful. In the same way that many of the guys who don’t like signed cards prefer signed 8×10s, these function more as signed photos than anything else.

To be clear, I’m not against more colorful designs. They just require me to think extra hard about the way things will look. In addition to considering how the autograph will work with the image there’s the additional concern about how it will interact with the design.

These cases usually result in an autograph which isn’t as pronounced but ideally still combine a bright colorful design and a nicely signed image into a pleasant and presentable result.

With these less-simple designs there’s the possibility for the wonderful occurrence when everything works together perfectly and results in an even stronger look. Would these look better just as photos? Maybe. But for me the complete package of a strong design and a perfect signature/photo combination is something I especially enjoy.

And sometimes the point isn’t how things will look but just about getting a specific photo signed because it’s funny, important, or both. These are the requests I enjoy most because I can talk about the specific photo being one of my favorites and why I chose this specific card to get signed.

The key for me is to be as intentional as possible with my card choices. An important season. A specific team. A nice photo. A special event. A favorite design. Or just something silly like a picture of a player milking a cow.

Pennant Fever

My all-time favorite Topps design is 1965. The simple and colorful design is eye catching, but the waving pennant is the most appealing element. The gonfalon with a team logo is not unique to 1965. The design element was used for the managers subset in 1960. The fluttering pennant was placed at the top of the skippers’ cards. This would have been a far better design than the one used for the players’ cards.

Most of you are aware that Topps used a horizontal design for the players’ cards in 1960. The design featured a black and white “action” photo coupled with a color head shot. However, Topps decided vertical orientation was best for multi-player cards, coaches and the managers.

So, get ready to bark at the umpires, position the fielders, flash some signs, spit some tobacco juice and grab the bullpen phone. Here are the 16 gentleman who manned the dugouts at the start of the last pre-expansion season.

An interesting side note is the fact that eight of the photos used by Topps for the field generals are colorized shots from Jay Publishing. This company was the prime supplier of team issued photo packs.

Why not start with each league’s champions? Walt Alston looks like a jolly grandfather, even though he was only 49 years old. “Smokey” has the right to smile, having won the World Series in 1955 and 1959. “Señor” Al Lopez directs his “Go, Go Sox” from the steps of the dugout with a classic pointing pose.


Next up are the 1960 champion skippers. The World Champion Pirates were led by the great Danny Murtaugh, who sports a batting helmet. Of course, when Branch Rickey was Pirates General Manager in the 1950s, he outfitted all players-including pitchers-with batting helmets in the field. The Casey Stengel card is his last as a Yankee.

The long and storied managerial careers of Stengel and Murtaugh are in stark contrast to that of Bob Elliott. 1960 was his only big-league gig, posting a 58-96 mark with the last place Athletics.

On August 3, 1960, one of the strangest trades in history was consummated between Detroit and Cleveland. The Tribe sent manager Joe Gordon to the motor city for manager Jimmy Dykes. This bizarre mid-season swap was engineered by the legendary wheeler-dealer, Frank “Trader” Lane, who was the Indians’ General Manager.

If you think that swap was weird, how about trading places with a broadcaster? Charlie Grimm returned to manage the Cubs in 1960. “Jolly Cholly” previously ran the show at Wrigley Field from 1932-38 and again from 1944-49. Seventeen games into the season, Grimm traded places with radio broadcaster Lou Boudreau! By the way based on the Cubs logo style and the zippered jersey, Charlie’s photo dates to 1948-49.

Seventeen games as manager is a short stint; however, it doesn’t compare with Eddie Sawyer resigning as Phillies manager after one game in 1960! Sawyer-who led the 1950 “Whiz Kids” to the pennant-was not as successful during his second go round as Philadelphia’s skipper. Two bad seasons in 1958-59 soured Sawyer on the Phillies’ prospects. After an opening day loss in Cincinnati, he left Crosley Field with these parting words: “I’m 49 years old and want to live to be 50.”

The winning manager of Sawyer’s last game was Seattle legend Fred Hutchinson, who took the helm of his third different major league team in 1959. “Hutch” would lead the 1961 Reds to the National League Pennant, Cincinnati’s first since 1940.

The man who replaced Hutchinson as Cardinals manager when he was fired in 1958 was Solly Hemus. He was not an overly successful pilot, but he has a very handsome card.

Like Hutchinson, “Tall” Paul Richards once managed the PCL Seattle Rainiers. He skippered the “Suds” in 1950, before manning the helms of the White Sox and Orioles. Richards would leave the Orioles after 1961 to become the first General Manager of the expansion Houston Colt ‘45s.

Speaking of expansion, both Bill Rigney and Cookie Lavagetto would be affected by the new squads added to the American League in 1961. After the 1960 season, the Giants fired Rigney. However, his stint in the unemployment line was short, as the American League’s new Los Angeles Angels hired Bill to guide the nascent “Halos.” Lavagetto would move with the Senators to Minnesota in 1961, and a new Senators team would replace the old in D.C.

Another former Senators manager, Chuck Dressen, won 105 games and the pennant for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1953. Two years later, he lost 101 games while managing Washington-thus demonstrating that silk purses can’t be made from a sow’s ears.

I saved my favorite card for last. Billy Jurges took over the helm of the Red Sox in mid-season 1959. This colorized photo is wonderful in many ways. I love that he is wearing a glove. The classic positioning behind the batting cage and players in the background add to setting. There is a good chance the photo was taken at Fenway. Alas, Jurges could not get much out of the aging Red Sox and was fired on June 8, 1960.

Now, it is time to: “Ruthlessly prick the gonfalon bubble/Knowing that Rigney’s Giant stint is in trouble/The futures of Sawyer and Grimm are weighty with trouble/And Gordon will be traded for Dykes.

Resources: The following SABR Bioproject biographies are all excellent.

My Favorite Commons

My parents come from large families. My mom is the second oldest of seven children and my dad the youngest of seven. Hordes of grandparents, great aunts, great uncles, aunts, uncles, and cousins made for wonderfully chaotic family parties and holidays in my youth. But it is with my mom’s younger sister Debbie that I share a unique bond.

As a kindergartner in 1978, Aunt Debbie took me to the Cubs’ home opener, my first ever baseball game. At five years old, I was generally aware of Cubs baseball and had watched ballgames on WGN; however, my parents were not particularly avid sports fans (we prefer to bond over pizza) and with three kids under six, a trip to Wrigley Field was not necessarily on their radar.

I wore my red coat with race cars on it. I held her hand as we navigated the crowd, climbing the winding ramps up to the bleachers. And just like so many others, my first view of the field was absolutely mind-blowing—it was impossibly green and vivid and huge—so unlike the dark, grainy broadcasts of the day. I had a hot chocolate and she bought me a Cubs helmet and the Cubs won the game on a walk-off home run by Larry Biittner in the ninth. I was hooked. It is my Aunt Debbie I thank for my lifelong love of baseball.

In the summer of 1979, Debbie and her good friend Judy spent their summer at Wrigley Field, taking in close to 30 games in the $2.00 bleachers (roughly $7.00 today and considerably less than that same ticket would cost you today). They would take the bus up Austin from Oak Park and transfer over to the Addison bus that would take them right to Wrigley Field’s doorstep. After grabbing a doughnut and coffee at Yum Yum Donuts, they would get in line for the (general admission) bleachers to enjoy the sunshine and cheer on her favorite, Cubs’ slugger Dave Kingman, in left field.

Over the years, she took me to several games, including a “Crosstown Classic” match-up at a time the White Sox and Cubs used to play an exhibition game or two against each other in the early 1980s and another home opener with her then-boyfriend, who later became my Uncle Dan. It is one game, however, that led to my obsession with baseball card collecting.

81 topps fernando

In 1981, Dodgers’ pitcher Fernando Valenzuela took the nation by storm with a hot start that included an 8-0 record after his first eight starts, with five shutouts and eight complete games. Perhaps you recall Fernandomania? When Aunt Debbie called to see if I was interested in going to the Cubs game with her on Saturday, June 6—in front row seats along the first base line—I was thrilled. When I later learned it was going to be a Valenzuela start, I was over the moon.

As Fernando warmed up in the visitor’s bullpen, we stood along the wall and watched. As much as I loved the Cubs at that point, seeing him in person was tantamount to witnessing Babe Ruth in the flesh. Valenzuela might be the greatest pitcher of all-time! When Aunt Debbie took me to the souvenir stand, my allegiance wavered, and I insisted on a Dodgers’ helmet. (Hey, I was eight, swept up in Fernandomania, and simply had not realized how silly it was to ever root for the Dodgers.)

I received some praise from a smattering of Dodgers fans as I proudly wore my new helmet. The game got off to a good start for Los Angeles, who knocked Cubs’ starter Bill Caudill of the game in the first. After the top of the second, the Dodgers led 4-0. In the bottom of the inning, Hector Cruz took Valenzuela deep for the Cubs’ first run.

The score remained 4-1 as the Cubs came to bat in the bottom of the fourth. Jerry Morales began with a triple off Valenzuela, Cruz walked, and Carlos Lezcano singled home Morales. Ken Reitz flew out and Jody Davis singled, scoring Cruz. Light-hitting infielder Mike Tyson hit a three-run bomb off Valenzuela. After a walk to Ivan DeJesus, Valenzuela was lifted in favor of Bobby Castillo. Steve Dillard flew out. Bill Buckner, my favorite player at the time, doubled to drive in DeJesus. Morales, batting for the second time in the inning, grounded out. The Cubs led 7-4. And Valenzuela was mortal. I was no longer interested in donning Dodger blue.

As I took the helmet off and placed it under my seat, Aunt Debbie asked me what was wrong. I expressed regret for my impulsive helmet purchase. She graciously offered to take me back to the souvenir stand to replace the helmet with a Cubs item. We went back to the stand and after looking over the items, I decided on the 1981 Topps team set. (Geez, I acted like a spoiled punk!)

1981 topps cards

Now back at our seats, I rifled through the cards looking for all the players I had seen so far in the game. Bill Buckner! Mike Tyson! Ivan DeJesus! While it seemed that only half of the starting lineup from that game was represented in the team set, there was something downright magical about looking down at a baseball card and then up at that player on the field. (It was probably telling that the only two All-Stars in the set—Kingman and Bruce Sutter—were no longer on the team.)

The Cubs won the game 11-5 and hung seven earned runs on Valenzuela, causing his ERA to swell from 1.90 to 2.45. Mike Tyson would never hit another Major League home run. Just a week after this game, the players went on strike. I was blissfully unaware of the labor strife or how awful the 1981 Cubs team was. I took those cards everywhere with me.

That Dodgers helmet was imposed on opponents in backyard Wiffle Ball games for years to come. I still have it, along with a good portion of the cards from that original team set. I have no idea whatever happened to my Cliff Johnson or George Riley cards from that set, but the ones I still have symbolize the formation of my baseball allegiances, represent the starting point for my love of baseball cards, and are a tangible reminder of the special bond I have with my Aunt Debbie.

Time flies. Debbie is now retired and has raised four children of her own. She remains a passionate fan and even got to throw out the first pitch before a Cubs game in 2004 (jealous). We had quite a time celebrating the Cubs’ championship over Thanksgiving dinner in 2016. And catching up recently about those games of the 1970s and 1980s has been a blast. Thanks Aunt Debbie for my favorite commons!

Hero Decks

I have 12 decks of playing cards that I’ll never use.

They’re called Hero Decks, and they first came out around 2005, as far as I can tell.

These are regular 52-card decks of playing cards (plus “jokers”) that feature caricatures of famous people – whether it’s famous figures from history or politicians or musicians or athletes.

I collect the baseball decks, and they’re done by city. They are advertised as such (Boston Baseball Heroes, Philadelphia Baseball Heroes) I’m assuming due to licensing issues. The Milwaukee deck features both Braves & Brewers greats, and the Los Angeles & Brooklyn deck features Dodgers greats across all eras. The San Francisco deck sticks to only San Francisco Giants. There are separate Chicago decks (North Side & South Side) as well as separate decks for New York  (Yankees & Mets).

I bought my first deck (the White Sox deck) at a Borders bookstore probably in the late 2000s (I miss Borders) and shortly after I picked up the Cubs deck and the Milwaukee deck. One of the decks had a mail in offer for a free deck and I added the Yankees. In 2013 I worked a series of Cubs broadcasts in Pittsburgh and while visiting the Pittsburgh Sports Museum I found the Pittsburgh deck. I purchased a few on eBay (Philadelphia, St. Louis & LA/Brooklyn) and one on Amazon (Cleveland), and I also make a habit of buying a deck when I visit our friend the Mayor in Cooperstown (they sell Hero Decks at the Hall of Fame!), as I have picked up Cincinnati, Boston & San Francisco each of the last three trips I have made.

I absolutely love them. Not only do I enjoy the artwork (I dabble in drawing in my free time – I may soon do a post of the baseball cards I draw*), but it’s sort of like one massive baseball card set since they all look similar, except for a slight difference in style in the earlier decks. Those earlier decks (like the Jackie Robinson card shown below from the Los Angeles & Brooklyn deck) feature a larger player image, the name of the player, position and years with the team. The later decks (see Dick Allen card) give you a brief factoid about the players.

Editor’s note: YES PLEASE!! (HIS ARTWORK IS INCREDIBLE!)

Luckily for me, my two favorite players to collect are featured in multiple decks!

Whenever possible, the numbers on the cards correspond to the positions played. And the four suits are divided up among eras, as best as could be done.

The Aces are, well, aces!

The Kings are generally reserved for the hardest hitters. Particularly the Kings of Clubs, or at least it seems that way.

The 10 is used as a spot for the best players who didn’t crack the starting 2-9 slots. The Jacks & Queens are usually reserved for the rest of the outstanding pitchers.

…but other times are simply used like the 10 for other top players.

Since not all teams are the same strength, I think it’s cool to see some players crack the decks who you wouldn’t expect.

One thing I am excited to see with each deck I open are who the “jokers” are. It’s a wild card spot for…

Managers…

Owners…

And even Broadcasters! I love that; otherwise there would be no cards of Harry Kalas, Marty Brennaman, Jack Brickhouse & Jon Miller in my collection!

There have been updates to at least a few of the decks, which is exciting. There’s an updated Cubs deck for after they won the World Series; I haven’t tracked that one down yet. It may look strange in my binder. I don’t really want to put in duplicates, so I think I’ll just add the new cards to the Cubs section.

But yes, I know, these are card collector problems. I’ll gladly figure out a solution when the time comes.

One Man's Journey to Slay The Monster

*This is the first of hopefully many posts about my journey collecting the T206 set, aka “The Monster”. Many have tried, most have failed. Wish me luck!*

My introduction to the T206 set came last spring during a meetup with a local card collector. He was selling a Roberto Clemente rookie card to me because it didn’t fit with his “collection.” He proceeded to tell me that he primarily collected T206, which he referred to as “The Monster.” I recall being awed by the size (524 cards) and volume of Hall of Famers (76 cards in the subset, including the famous Honus Wagner card). As I was leaving, he smiled and said, “Once you go down this rabbit hole, there is no turning back.”

Fast forward to this past July. I’m at The Chantilly Show (a prominent card show in the DC area) and I run into that same collector who has some of his T206s on display and available. While I didn’t recognize many of the names on these beautiful cards, I did recognize a few: Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson. One card in particular caught my eye, a stunning portrait of Hall of Fame second baseman, Eddie Collins.

A gentleman who I had been chatting with noticed my eyes wander towards the Collins and remarked, “That’s a nice one. A Hall of Fame portrait with an off-back would make for a great start.” I turn the card over and see “Sovereign Cigarettes Fit For A King” in a pleasing forest green font. I was sold. After a little negotiating, I secured my first T206 card, one of a legendary player, nonetheless (pics below). Little did I know at the time, but I had just plunged into the rabbit hole.

Considering that I’m far from an expert and there is already so much great material available about the set (much of which I’ll reference and link in later posts) this blog will have more of a personal spin. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, befriending, and learning of many others in the very active T206 community, and I’m hopeful that I can weave in tales of their journeys and insights, as well.

While my T206 collecting journey is no longer in its infancy, it’s still very much in the early stages. My monster number currently sits at 52, which puts me at exactly 10% complete (not counting the Big Four) – far enough in to have learned a few things but still just a beginner. With the road to completion stretching further ahead in the future then I can see, I’m looking forward to everyone joining me on this ride.

Tommy’s walkabout

In reaction to a post on the SABR Baseball Card Committee Facebook page, someone commented that Tommy Davis was depicted on a different team for seven years in a row starting in 1966. This is quite an “achievement,” and will be explored in detail. Tommy’s walkabout through the major leagues ran head long into the MLBPA boycott of Topps, resulting in the repeated use of the same image on his cards and inserts. But even before Tommy left the Dodgers, his image was often recycled. Let us now ogle some wonderful cardboard from a player for whom serious injury may have derailed a Hall of Fame-worthy career.

1960 marks Davis Topps debut featuring is a colorized version of Dodgers team issue from 1960 produced by concessionaire extraordinaire Danny Goodman.

Topps uses the same photo in 1961 but adds the fantastic Topps All-Star Rookie trophy image. Plus, Davis’ cropped head from the photo shows up on the 1961 Topps stamp.

But wait, there’s more! The head shot is used by Salada for the 1962 and 1963 coins.

Tommy has a spectacular 1962 season with a league leading .346 average and an amazing 153 RBI. Fittingly, the emerging star gets two cards in 1963, since Fleer burst on the scene as Topps short lived rival.

In my humble opinion, the 1964 Topps Giant is the best of all Davis’ cards. The “in action” pose, glasses, and jacket under the jersey add up to produce a beauty. Topps liked it too. Tommy’s cropped head is used on the All-Star version of the coin inserts in 1964.

In May of 1965, an awkward slide at second against the Giants resulted in Davis suffering a severely broken and dislocated ankle. His slow recovery dimmed his star status. Tommy was hobbled in field and on the base paths and his batting stroke suffered as well. Topps produces a card featuring Tommy’s profile in 1965. This unattractive shot was used again in 1966.

Tommy’s vagabond years starts in 1967 when the Dodgers decided to part ways and ship him to the Mets. This results in a classic, traded head shot. After one productive year at Shea, the Mets sent Davis packing to the White Sox for Tommy Agee and Al Weis. A different head shot graces his 1968 card but the 1967 is repurposed for the game insert (see top of article).

The odyssey continues in 1969 when the White Sox leave Tommy unprotected in the expansion draft, and he is selected by the Seattle Pilots. Tommy is arguably the Pilots’ best hitter, forever holding the RBI record with 63. As a big- name player on an expansion team, Topps offers up several Davis products. His base card uses the same picture as 1967, the stamp brings back the 1966 image and the Super test issue card recycles the 1968 image. Airbrushed Dodger photos show up on the Deckle Edge and Decal inserts.

In addition to Topps, 1969 and 1970 saw Milton Bradley produce game cards which used an image of Tommy from the 1968 White Sox team issue photos.

The Pilots dealt Tommy to Houston in August of 1969, which launches him on the next stage of his “Cook’s Tour.” The 1970 Astros card features an airbrushed cap and “nostril shot,” probably taken while with the Dodgers. His stay in Houston was short as the Astros sent Tommy on to Oakland who in turn sold him to the Cubs late in 1970. Finally, in 1971, Tommy has a photo wearing in the team’s uniform for the first time since 1966.

It goes without saying that Tommy’s windy city stint was more of a “blow over.” “The Drifter” catches a freight bound for Oakland during the 1971 season. This results in a nice base card and a classic “In Action” photo of Tommy holding Horace Clarke on first at Yankee Stadium in the 1972 set.

Though Tommy was productive in Oakland, a dispute with owner Charlie Finley results in his release in March of 1972. Tommy will re-sign with the Cubs in July and eventually be traded to the Orioles. Tommy’s release may have factored into Topps not issuing a Davis card in 1973. His streak of cards on different teams ends at seven years.

But fortune shines on Tommy in the form of the Designated Hitter being implemented in the American League in 1973. The mobility challenged Davis is inserted into the potent Orioles lineup in the DH role. Tommy will have a career renaissance, helping Baltimore to two East Division championships in 1973-74.

The Orioles part ways after 1975. Tommy latches on with the Yankees, who release him at the end of spring training. The Angels sign him in July of 1976, but the nomadic Davis shuffles off to Kansas City in September- which is the team he is depicted on in his cardboard swan song as a player in 1977.

However, there is a career-capper of sorts found in the 1982 Donruss set. Tommy received a card, while serving as the Mariners’ batting coach.
Davis’ trek results in cards on 10 different teams, one more than Ken Brett, as I chronicled in a previous post.

If you know of another player with more teams, let us know. In any event: “Tommy Davis has been everywhere, man/He’s been everywhere, man/He’s crossed Chavez Ravine, man/He’s breathed the Seattle air, man/Baltimore crab cakes he’s eaten his share, man/Tommy’s been everywhere……”

I highly encourage everyone to read the SABR Bio Project Tommy Davis biography by Mark Stewart and Paul Hirsch.

1969 Mike Andersen postcard

Fleer breaks the Hall of Fame

Before jumping in let’s set the stage a little. It’s June 12, 1939, and baseball royalty has gathered in upstate New York.

Eleven of the game’s greatest are in Cooperstown for the first ever Hall of Fame induction ceremony, honoring the classes of 1936-39.

Not coincidentally, at least in my opinion, the next year’s Play Ball set did something that was at the time most unusual if not unprecedented. More than an eighth of the cards, 31 out of 240, on the 1940 Play Ball checklist featured retired all-time greats.

As the Hall of Fame had only 26 members to this point, the set necessarily included several players not yet (or ever?) enshrined in Cooperstown, most notably Shoeless Joe Jackson.

The chart below shows the Hall of Fame status of the 31 retired greats in the set, as well as two other pre-1940 Hall of Famers (orange rows) who were included in the Play Ball set outside the retired greats subset.

There were also several pre-1940 Hall of Famers not included in the set at all. Most had pioneer or executive status, but I’m sure you will recognize at least a few very, very good players on this list.

The 1940 Play Ball set, therefore, was not a perfect reflection of baseball’s Hall of Fame to this point, but it still gave young gum chewers their best chance to own a decent piece of Cooperstown in their card collections.

Ten years later another set came along that scored a direct hit on the Baseball Hall. In 1950, Chicago-based publisher B.E. Callahan released a box set that consisted all 60 Hall of Famers to that point (plus two cards of the building itself). According to the Standard Catalog, the box set and supplemental cards were sold at the Hall of Fame itself and major league ballparks.

The set was updated annually to remain current through 1956, providing collectors with cards of baseball’s first 80 Hall of Famers.

The next major set rich in retired baseball greats, short of the Hall of Fame postcards themselves, once again came ten years later, this time with the release of Fleer’s 1960 Baseball Greats set.

The set included 79 players (80 if you count the unreleased Pepper Martin backs), all retired with the exception of Ted Williams. By my count, 47 of the cards, including the first ten on the checklist, portrayed subjects who were already Hall of Famers. (As of 2020, the total is up to 74.) Here are the five cards in the set that do not have corresponding busts in Cooperstown.

Fleer’s 1960 set was (perhaps surprisingly) successful enough not just to warrant a repeat but a near doubling of the set in 1961. The 1961 Baseball Greats set boasted 154 cards, including two checklists, making it by far the largest all-time greats set to date, a distinction it would retain (subjectively) for 20 years. That said, a closer look at the set’s checklist raises valid questions as to just how many of the “Baseball Greats” were actual…baseball greats. Had baseball even had 150+ greats to this point?

Author’s collection in progress

The series one checklist largely reprises the 1960 offering, with 57 of the 88 cards having counterparts the year before. Another 18 subjects from 1960 would crack the series two checklist. That left only 4 cards from the 1960 set with no sequel in 1961.

Excluding the two checklist cards and the 75 repeated subjects from 1960, Fleer had 77 slots to fill with all new cardboard. Naturally, some number would go to true greats who didn’t quite make it the first time around (i.e., 1960), but our focus here will be on players that make you say “Huh?”

Cards 80 and 82 feature two very much better than average twirlers who combined to post a 317-239 win-loss record. I recognized but couldn’t place the names when I first saw their cards.

As it turns out the two starters had squared off in one of baseball history’s greatest pitching duels, combining for 19 innings of no-hit ball.

Another unexpected entrant to a set of “Baseball Greats” was Nick Altrock. Though he posted a couple very nice seasons with the 1905-06 White Sox, his card back suggests it was his clown status that made him a Fleer immortal.

Dennis Galehouse and Bump Hadley were two other pitchers I can’t say I knew well.

Their card backs indicate that their postseason success was responsible for placing them on the same checklist as Ruth, Cobb, and Wagner. That said, the two won a combined three World Series games in 31 seasons.

My favorite card in the set, however, belongs to Joe Hauser, a respectable but hardly standout hitter for the Philadelphia A’s teams of the 1920s, certainly overshadowed by the Hall of Fame roster surrounding him.

Of course, some readers will recognize Hauser’s place in baseball history has less to do with his major league record as what he accomplished after his big league days were through: an unthinkable 132 home runs in two seasons!

Besides introducing young collectors in 1961 (and guys like me in 2020) to some lost greats, the 1961 Fleer set (and to some extent its 1960 predecessor) was also a bit maverick in its choice of photos. Many of the top stars in the set are depicted with teams you’d hardly expect. (For what it’s worth the cities starting with “C” seemed to gain the most players.)

The more I got to know this set the more it reminded me of the baseball books I used to read as a kid. Yes, there were chapters on the true immortals, but there were also stories about baseball’s greatest personalities, baseball’s most unusual games, the little guys who came up big when it counted, and the big guys who came up big when it didn’t count. It took all these players to tell the story of baseball in a way that fused history, drama, and comedy into one grand game rich not only in tradition but personality.

The 1961 Fleer set is not so much a study in putting the Hall of Fame into packs but a blueprint for a different Hall altogether, one where a great story or great moment is as good as a great career…and for the guys with great careers, one where we at least give them a funny hat!

I know some readers would be aghast to even consider such a Hall, so it’s to them I ask this question: what’s the point of reading a plaque if you already know who the guy was!

Extra for Experts

A few odds and ends related to the 1960-61 Fleer Baseball Greats sets that didn’t quite fit the article.

The 1960 checklist (1-79) is in more or less random order. However, there is a simple pattern to the color schemes used. Cards 1-20 use blue with white lettering, cards 21-40 use yellow with red lettering, cards 41-60 use green with yellow lettering, and cards 61-79 use red with white lettering.

The 1961 checklist is alphabetical by series, but the background colors (red, orange, yellow, green, and blue) appear more or less random.

Both sets include a card of Ed Walsh. However, the 1960 set erroneously uses a photo of Ed Walsh, Jr. Perhaps to clear up any confusion the following year Fleer made darn sure collectors knew they were looking at Big Ed Walsh this time around.

Photos on the 1960 cards are credited to World Wide Photo. No similar credits are noted on the back of the 1961 cards.

Just When I Thought I Was Out, They Pull Me Back In!

One of my personal favorite sets, from the relatively barren late ‘70’s when there wasn’t a ton of product, was the 1977 Padres team issued set of schedule cards. It’s a weird little set of a bad little team, 49 cards total.

Of those cards, 40 have schedules on the back and a line “One in A Series of 40 Player Photos.”

Some greats:

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Some not so greats:

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One had, what for me will always be the DP combo of the future:

84509335_10219013698167832_3140939828724498432_n

The other 9 had blank backs:

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Weird that in a 1977 issue, there’s a McCovey card (he was already back on the Giants by way of the A’s) and a Washington card (that franchise move a dead issue by ’77).

A nice group of cards, filed away, complete, at least until I stumbled on this post a few years ago – https://clydes-stalecards.blogspot.com/2013/07/1977-san-diego-padres-schedule-cards.html  *

It turned out that I only had slightly more than half the set, what are referred to as Type 1 (those 40 cards) and Type 3 (the blank backs). Of course, the Type 2s are harder to come by.

Type 2s also total 40 cards, with the same info as Type 1s on the back, EXCEPT there’s no “One in A Series….” line. There are also two types of fonts used for the fronts, a thin player name and a bold one.  It’s also got a slew of players not contained in either of the other types (Miller and Norman are thin font, Beckert is thick font):

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And this guy (who looks suspiciously like Rollie Fingers!):

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While all of this seems haphazard, there’s a good (though bad) reason for the confusion. Andy Strasberg, former head of PR and VP for the Padres can explain:

I created the set with each card having a Padres sepia photo on the front and a calendar of promotional game dates on the reverse. A few different cards were given away for free for each home game at Padres program stands.

Unfortunately the credibility of the cards flew out the window when a couple of local collectors replicated the format with different photos and flooded the collectors market to undermine the validity of the true Padres team issue card set.

The team issued cards are the Type 1s. All other types are ripoffs of Strasberg’s original idea.

Frustrating to find out about, and, seemingly an impossible group to find, I set out on a mission to find the Type 2 subset. Not a very exhaustive mission; I created an eBay search. Last week, after years, it finally happened! A full Type 2 set was listed, not marked as such, but the pics showed that to be the case. I was the only bidder. There were even some doubles, which I’ll list.

It’s a strange feeling, to know for sure that you’ve got every card, only to find out you’ve been mistaken for over 40 years. Thankfully, it’s not the biggest mistake I’ve made since 1977 and one that was relatively painless to fix.

*NOTE: Clyde’s post states the Jones/Kuhn card isn’t a blank back, but the one I have is. Not sure if that means there are two versions, but I doubt it.