When Brien Taylor Ruled The Hobby World

If you hear the name ‘Brien Taylor’ today, it’s probably in the way of some kind of cautionary tale. A lesson against getting too caught up in the hype surrounding amateur or minor league super-duper stars. A lesson that top draft picks, no matter how much of a sure thing, are never really a sure thing. For collectors, it’s a similar lesson, but one directed less at the athlete than at all the ephemera that athlete inspires. But while Taylor was never able to leave his mark on baseball, he certainly left a mark on the hobby. Brien Taylor made the hobby rethink its concept of rookie cards. He became the face of the hobby’s most venerable brand. His presence (or lack thereof) dictated when products were released and how they were (somewhat unscrupulously) dated. He revived a market for pre-Major League cards and store-branded specialty sets. He starred in what was, at the time, the most expensive factory set ever issued and was featured on what was, at the time, perhaps the most sought-after certified autograph ever released.

And within three years, it was all over.

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1992 Classic Best Promo #PR2

There are still those who swear Brien Taylor was the greatest amateur pitcher who ever lived. He was born in Beaufort, NC, the son of a stone mason and a crab-picker. Tall, lanky, and with a whip-fast left arm, he dominated as a high school pitcher. As a senior in 1991, the threw back-to-back no-hitters, struck out an obscene 213 batters in just 88 innings (nearly 2.5 Ks per inning) and posted a 0.61 ERA. He had a fastball in the high-90s, a dependable change-up, and a knee-buckling curveball.

Taylor had been nearly as good the year before, but had yet to break through into the baseball mainstream. Don Mattingly, however, was as mainstream as an athlete got in 1990. His break-out campaign in 1984, followed up by an MVP season in 1985, had both made put him in line to be the Next Great Yankee and helped to ramp up the rookie card craze among baseball card collectors and investors. Mattingly’s 1984 rookie issues stoked the fires of a building craze. People with money to spend on cards wanted Mattinglys, but even more so they wanted the next Mattinglys… the cards that could be picked up cheap, stocked away, and then sold for a profit. Mattingly was still a star in 1990 and the rookie card craze his sweet, lefty swing had inspired was still very much in bloom. But for the 1990 season, Mattingly stunk. He batted just .256 – 67 points below his career average entering the season – and his Yankees finished in dead-last place, losing 95 games. It was the worst Yankees team in 77 years.

By the summer of 1991, these three stars had aligned themselves: a once-in-a-generation talent, a booming baseball card marketplace, and an unprecedented bottoming-out of the most famed pro sports franchise that ever existed. In June 1991, the Yankees drafted Brien Taylor first overall in the amateur draft and card collectors saw nothing but dollar signs.

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1991 Classic Draft NNO

Of course, by 1991 collectors no longer had the patience to wait for a player to be wearing a big league uniform for start stockpiling cardboard. Trying to entice collectors with the hottest rookies as soon as possible, Fleer, Donruss, Score and the upstart Upper Deck had begun to include players in their base sets before their Big League debut. When one of those players, Ken Griffey Jr., became a hobby sensation, it was clear that the rookie card game had changed. Topps missed out on including Griffey in their 1989 flagship set, but did start a new trend that year with the inclusion of a ten card subset of “#1 Draft Picks,” players from the 1988 draft who were just making their pro debuts. When Jim Abbott jumped from the ’88 draft class to Major League stardom that year, the other cardmarkers had been scooped. Topps had him first and it was their card collectors were chasing. In 1990, Score followed suit and issued a 22-card draft pick subset and the revived Bowman brand issued a slew of recently drafted talent. The hobby hype was now following players into A ball instead of the Big Leagues.

Card collectors weren’t the only ones with money on the mind after the Yankees tabbed Taylor with the top pick in June. Taylor and his family had hired Scott Boras to represent the young man and felt insulted at the Yankees’ initial offer of a $300,000 contract. The top pitcher of the previous year’s draft, Todd Van Poppel, had gotten $1.3 million in guaranteed money from the Oakland A’s and the Taylors wanted nothing less.

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1991 Classic Baseball Draft Picks #1 – A collector told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1992 that he expected this card to sell for $100 once Taylor made the Major Leagues.

It took until late August for the Yankees and Taylor to agree on a $1.55 million pact, with Taylor signing the deal the day before he was set to begin junior college, and be lost to the Yankees. His professional status now meant that he was open to the cardmakers. Topps, Fleer, and Donruss had all hoped to include a Taylor card in their 1991 update sets, but had been stymied by his holdout. And when finally became fair game, it was The Scoreboard – maker of the Classic brand of board game cards and draft sets – that swooped in to the ink the super-prospect. Scoreboard paid Taylor $250,000 for his exclusive cardboard rights through the end of 1991 and his exclusive rights on minor league cards for a calendar year. Just months later, Classic released its 1991 Baseball Draft set, with Taylor at card #1. The company boasted that the entire run of the set sold out in six days and it was reported that the sets that included Taylor were expected to gross the company $30 million… thirty times what they’d made off their 1990 draft products.

That fall, Taylor reported to the Yankees’ fall instructional league team in Florida, where his stardom preceded him. He was featured in a 60 Minutes segment and signed autographs for members of the Green Bay Packers when they stayed at the same hotel that housed his team. He signed a lot of other autographs, too. Classic had cards of him in both the English and French language versions their four-sport draft picks set, including over 5,000 hand-signed cards inserted randomly into packs.

The media followed Taylor to Florida. Their reporting was complimentary. They noted his humble nature, that he mostly stayed in at night, always addressed his elders as “sir” or “ma’am” and that he did his own laundry. They talked about the Mustang he’d purchased with his bonus money, but also that he bought the car from the dealership where his bother worked as a detailer and that he had gotten a nice discount on the purchase. His biggest purchase, the papers noted, was a house for his parents, allowing them to move out of the trailer where Taylor had grown up. But there was a theme to the stories that made it clear that these were older, white reporters looking for a young, black athlete that didn’t push challenge any of their notions about how a ballplayer should act. They never said it, but it was clear that they wanted to hold Taylor up as an antidote to the Deions and Rickeys of the sporting world. Case in point: several articles mentioned with flattering intent that Taylor wore no gold chains. Neither did Todd Van Poppel, but no one was waiting to judge him by his neckware.

Near the end of 1991, Topps pulled a major coup and signed Taylor to another exclusive contract, making them the only cardmaker permitted to produce his Major League cards until he reached the Bigs, at which time he would, under the player’s union contract, be available to all companies with an MLBPA license. The deal scooped Upper Deck, who had been so optimistic about their chances of landing Taylor that they actually included his name in the preliminary checklists for their 1992 flagship set. As Topps promoted their upcoming set as the only one that feature Taylor in pinstripes, Upper Deck quietly remade their checklist.

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1992 Topps #6 – Topps had hopes for this card becoming their version of the iconic ’89 UD Ken Griffey, Jr.

With Classic’s deal still in effect until December 31, Topps seems to have actually pushed back the release of their 1992 set in order to include Taylor. But the result was a minor masterpiece. Finding their brand getting lost in the flood of newer and shinier released in the early 1990s, Topps had responded with a classic re-tooling for its 1991 flagship release and the introduction of its premium Stadium Club brand. Stadium Club was a smash and the company’s 1992 flagship reflected the changing tastes in the marketplace. Using beaming white stock for the first time in decades and featuring a clean, modern design, the set put Taylor front and center. In what might have been an homage to the 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. #1 that had already become that company’s trademark card, Topps gave Taylor #6 in 1992 set, the first regular player card after the traditional Record Breaker opening subset. The card featured Taylor in Yankee pinstripes, the first time Topps had shown a draft pick in their Major League uniform. The kid is just into delivery: left arm ready to cock, right foot dangling over the red box containing his name, eyes trained at whatever lay ahead of him.

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1992 ToppsGold #793 – A forgotten icon of the Junk Wax Era.

1992 was also the year Topps introduced the first true parallel set with ToppsGold. The concept was stunning for its time – an alternate version of the classic flagship set, outfit with an etched gold foil nameplate. The cards would be found roughly one per wax box, making it an unimaginable task to complete a full set. But in the midst of the hype over this idea, Topps offered an alternative: a Gold Factory set, complete with a stunning card #793 – an exclusive Brien Taylor card, done in the standard veteran design, gold-plated and hand-signed by the young Phenom. The set, which retailed for around $250, was quickly selling on the secondary market for $4-500. The signed card itself was moving quickly for $100 and up. Taylor’s gold rookie – found one per 28,500 packs – was bringing $40-80 and his regular base card was a mover at $5.

But… were these really rookie cards?

As they had in 1990 with uber-prospects Chipper Jones and Todd Van Poppel, Classic had gotten the jump on the more mainstream brands by including Taylor in their Draft Picks set in the same calendar year in which he was drafted. The big companies had always waited until the year after the draft to debut these players. Topps and others had tried to produce a true Taylor RC – a 1991 release featuring him in his Big League dress, but were scooped by his holdout and then his deal with Classic. So, Topps decided to turn back the clock.

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1992 Stadium Club Skydome #184 – Unable to get Taylor into a 1991 set, Topps tried to pass this set off as being a year older than it was.

The result was the 1991 Stadium Club Dome set. Or was it 1992? Well, the set used the 1991 Stadium Club design and was issued inside a plastic reproduction of Skydome, home of the 1991 MLB All-Star Game. Each card featured a 1991 copyright line. Which made it outwardly appear as a 1991 release and its handsome card of Taylor (along with dozens of other 1991 draft choices) as a stunning “true rookie” of the biggest name in the hobby. Not so fast, said collectors. It was clear that Topps was back-dating the set to try to force a 1991 Taylor card. The set was not released until the spring of 1992 and it seems highly unlikely that Topps would have gone ahead with printing the set in ’91 while Taylor was under exclusive contract with another brand and then waited several months into 1992 before finally releasing it. Even if collectors didn’t fall for Topps’ scheme, they fell all over themselves for the set, which was going for $75 and the Taylor for $15 before the 1992 season had even opened.

Oh, right, the 1992 season. In which Brien Taylor would actually be playing professional baseball. After being the toast of the Yankees’ training camp, Taylor reported to the Fort Lauderdale Yankees of the high-A Florida State League. Just 20 years old, he posted some tantalizing numbers – 10.4 Ks per 9 innings, a 1.159 WHIP, a 2.57 ERA, and just three homers allowed in 161 innings.

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1992 Upper Deck Minor League Promo #1 – After being forced to pull Taylor from its 1992 MLB set, Upper Deck got into the Minor League card business. This promotional card, given away at Minor League ballparks, promotes Taylor as the primary attraction in the set.

His performance was all the more impressive considering all the hype that still surrounded him. He was a shy kid, away from home for the first time, and everyone wanted a piece of him. And everyone wanted his autograph. He had signed more than 12,000 cards for the ToppsGold sets, and another 8,000 for 1992 Classic products and hundreds of baseball for teammate opponents and everyone else with clubhouse access. And he was asked to sign even more each day by fans that stalked him at every turn. “They think you’re supposed to sign everything they throw in your face,” Taylor told a reporter during the 1992 season. He was knocked down by autograph hounds more than once. After a game in Port St. Lucie, so many fans gathered outside the clubhouse doors that the team was briefly trapped inside. “People know the autograph is going to be worth money. That’s the only way I see it,” he said. “As far as dealing with people, life will never be the same. The bigger I get, the harder it will get. I know I’ll probably never be able to sit at a movie and relax.” As for his trading cards, Taylor admitted he didn’t even own one. “They must know something I don’t,” he said of the people shelling out for his latest issues.

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1992 Fort Lauderdale Yankees NNO – Taylor’s A-ball team had already wrapped up the 1992 season, and were in the process of relocating, but still wanted to cash in on his stardom by releasing this team set, available via mail order.

And as his debut season wound to a close, there would be many more options for Taylor collectors. With his exclusive non-MLB deal with Classic coming to an end, Upper Deck, Fleer, and Skybox announced plans to get in on the suddenly booming Minor League card market. Upper Deck promoted their set at Minor League parks late in the season, handing out thousands of promo cards of Taylor and Twins prospect Frankie Rodriguez. The Upper Deck set released in September and Fleer Excel dropped in December (oddly branded as 1992-93 Fleer Excel, another example of Taylor forcing cardmakers to get creative with their dating). The Fort Lauderdale Yankees even waited out the Classic contract to release their team-issued set of cards – which remarkably was not available until after the season had ended, as speculation abounded that the team would relocate for the 1993 season (it indeed would move). The market for Taylor was so intense that a franchise delayed the release of its annual team set until after it had played its last-ever game. The set was available by mail order and seemed to sell quite well. That fall, Topps also included Taylor in the company’s first-ever random insert set, a trio of cards featuring #1 overall draft choices found one in every 72 packs of 1992 Stadium Club Series 3. It instantly became a $25 item.

By the end of 1992, Taylor had been featured on (by my count) 48 different licensed trading cards and a handful of oddball, unlicensed, and magazine-issue cards. It was a staggering number for its time, especially for a player who had pitched in just 27 games professionally. By 1993, a bit of Taylor-fatigue began to appear. His card prices stabilized and, while his presence in the hobby held steady, it stopped being news. Searching the hobby columns that used to be regular features in newspapers across the nation, he was a regular item throughout 1991 and 1992. But by 1993, he faded away into the mass of other can’t-miss-kids making hobby news. He was still a Phenom to be sure, but he was a very familiar Phenom.

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1992 Stadium Club #1 Draft Picks of the ’90s #2 – The first-ever insert set produced by Topps.

In 1993, Taylor made steady progress, racking up 150 Ks and a 3.48 ERA for the AA Albany-Colonie Yankees. It was progress, but collectors and the Yankee brass had visions of Taylor dominating the American League in 1993, not holding his own in the Eastern League. And then in December came baseball’s most infamous after-hours brawl since Mickey Mantle, Billy Martin, and company roughed up a boozy bowling team captain at the Copa. Back home in North Carolina, Taylor got into a melee trying to defend his brother and blew out his shoulder in the process. While the team tried to downplay the injury, Dr. Frank Jobe, who performed Taylor’s reconstructive surgery, called it “one of the worst shoulder injuries [he’d] ever seen.”

Collectors began to dump Taylor’s cards and, as Taylor sat out the entire 1994 season, he appeared in just a handful of sets. Many of his 1994 cards mentioned the injury. “He will miss the entire 1994 season and only time will tell whether or not he can regain his top prospect status,” his Ted Williams Card Company release opined. By 1995, time had told.

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1995 Bowman # 17 – Only one 1995 release had room for Taylor on its checklist.

Demoted to the Yankees’ Rookie League team, Taylor struggled through 40 innings, walking 54 and allowing 37 runs. His fastball stalled and his curve had flattened. With the card market struggling to recover from the strike, companies downsized their releases. In 1995, just a few years removed from being such a force in the marketplace that his mere presence seemed to dictate time itself, he appeared on just one trading card – Bowman #17. He is pictured in a Yankees jersey cap, seating on a picnic table, wearing shorts and sneakers. He’s dressed like a fan or a training camp gofer. The backside mentions an “off the field mishap” and talks about hopes for a return to form that would never happen. Although he would hang around for parts of four more professional seasons, topping out at 27 innings (with an ERA over 14.00) in 1997, he appeared on just two more cards. He’s just 24 years old on his 1996 Best Greensboro Bats card, but he looks older. He looks tired. In 2000, he was featured in a team-issue set for the A-level Columbus Red Stixx. The only evidence the card exists is a listing on tradingcarddb.com. No image of it can be found.

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1996 Best Greensboro Bats #27 – Well into the ‘what if?’ years.

He allowed 11 runs in just 2.2 innings for the Red Stixx that year. It was the last time he pitched. He went back home to North Carolina with his five daughters and worked as a package handler for UPS, then for a beer distributor, and later as a bricklayer with his father. He ran into legal troubles and, in 2012, was arrested on charges of trafficking cocaine. Facing forty years, he pled guilty and served just over three. “Life will never be the same,” Taylor said in 1992. “The only way it would be the same would be if I dropped out today. Then everybody would forget me.”

A most valuable discovery

As a kid I used to dream about finding my way into some ancient attic and unearthing boxes and boxes full of old baseball cards. For whatever reason, I imagined I’d need to be on the East Coast somewhere, which made the fantasy all the less attainable coming from my West Coast mind, but it was still fun to picture thumbing through these old stacks of cards and finding Ted Williams, Stan Musial, and Joe DiMaggio if not Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and Honus Wagner.

While this dream of mine never did come true, I did have the pleasure of meeting a fellow collector this year whose real life experience came awfully close.

David grew up in the Kansas City area but lives in Phoenix these days. Like me, he fell for card collecting hook, line, and sinker from the moment he was introduced to his first baseball cards, despite the fact he barely knew a thing about baseball or any of the players. While my love affair with cards and baseball began with 1978 Topps, David got going five years earlier and still remembers the thrill of pulling a 1973 Topps Hank Aaron card.

David was mainly a Hank Aaron and Kansas City Royals collector early on and started a paper route to feed his fix for packs. Once Hank Aaron retired, David branched out into the older stuff, mainly pursuing pre-1973 Hank Aaron cards and other stars he’d heard about from his dad. David was even lucky enough to have a teacher at school who would trade old 1950s cards for contemporary stars. While these swaps usually worked in David’s favor, he harbors at least some regret over a 1975 Gary Carter RC for 1955 Topps Tom Hurd swap.

Fast forward a bit and David eventually headed off to college. Like so many other collectors he left his cards at home–Hank Aaron, George Brett, Tom Hurd, and all. With David away at school his parents downsized and moved most of his stuff into storage. After his father passed away, David’s mother forgot about the storage unit, whose contents were ultimately sold off to the highest bidder.

The end. Right?

Not quite. I’ll let David’s twitter bio take over from here.

“Recently found my entire card collection I thought was long lost. Sharing my find w/twitter…”

While I grew up dreaming of finding boxes and boxes full of incredible cards, David actually did it. The twist, of course, is that the boxes he found were his own!

Evidently, David’s dad didn’t want to put the cards in storage and had a friend of his hang onto them instead. David remained in contact with this family friend, who one day, decades later, remembered he had a bunch of boxes somewhere with David’s name on them.

David’s first few twitter posts as “Cigarbox Cards” definitely got my attention!

The first card David posted was a well loved 1956 Topps card of Mr. Cub. The next day David posted a video of himself rifling through stacks of cards including early Topps issues of Gary Carter (but not the 1975!) and Dennis Eckersley while a 1949 Leaf Ted Williams sat untouched in the distance.

An autographed Yaz rookie was next, followed by a Red Man Willie Mays. In the days that followed David posted a Brett RC mini, a 1954 Bowman Mickey Mantle, and a 1974 Topps Tom Seaver. I always enjoyed the way David juxtaposed his featured finds with background elements that enhanced their presentation. This is a theme we’ll come back to shortly when I show you what David’s up to now.

Most of the online replies consisted of emojis like 😱 and 🔥 🔥 🔥 but I suspect certain collectors were wondering if David’s cigar box finds included any really good cards.

Then David dropped the Hammer.

And even more Hammer! (Click blue arrow twice to activate.)

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Though the cards are not mine, I still feel a thrill each time David posts an amazing card from his original collection. To think how close these cards came to being lost forever and then to see them pop up in my twitter feed is downright magical. It’s like flipping through my own personal attic find, even if the cards aren’t mine to keep–just like the dreams I had as a kid right down to waking up in the morning with the same collection I had before!

Beyond showing off some great cards David introduced some fun interactive features to his posts, among them his “Out or Hit” series…

…or his “In Action” baseball card gifs.

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Of course it was only a matter of time before this happened.

The cards kept coming and coming, almost obscenely so, but what really caught the eye of many collectors was the creative ways David was finding to display his cards, something many of us spend undue time considering.

Here’s another one that really caught my eye with bonus points for the bunting!

And if you’re wondering what the most creative use for a yellow drinking straw in a baseball card collection is…

Or for the Yankee fans…

I could go on and on, but you’d probably have more fun scrolling through all David’s posts yourself. Other than of course SABR Baseball Cards 🤣, it’s hard to think of another baseball card account as consistently awesome as his.

As I consider his collecting story I come back once again to my own and that of so many other collectors. How many of us dreamed of that elusive find, those boxes and boxes of cards filled with stars of yesteryear? If you’re like me, not only did that imagined cardboard haul never arrive but even the cards you did have were nowhere to be found by the time you realized you missed them.

What I didn’t know when I shuffled through my 1978-80 Topps cards as a kid was that the boxes right in front of me would someday be more valuable than any cards I might find elsewhere. Even today the memories of those cards mean more to me than the actual cards I’ve purchased since.

This post (below, right) from David makes the point well and was ultimately the catalyst for my writing this article.

Let’s face it. You can dream all you want about things you don’t have, but few fantasies or realities will ever come close to that of your first love, whether lost, lasting, or in David’s case both.

Author’s note: For another SABR Baseball Cards article inspired by collectors’ online posts, see “Fathers and Sons.”

What if Robert Laughlin made his 300/400/500 set today?

Baseball artist and prolific direct-to-collector publisher Robert Laughlin printed a set honoring three of the sport’s “big numbers” (300 wins/.400 average/500 homers) in 1980. If you know Laughlin’s other self-made and Fleer-published sets, its cartoonish take on legendary players fits his style.

The significance of those 300/400/500 achievements also means Laughlin’s set contains just one guy not enshrined in Cooperstown, #13 Joe Jackson, banned from baseball following Chicago’s Black Sox scandal a century ago.

One Yankee legend garnered his “500 homers” card via a statistical side door — a route we’ll take again later.

That photo head and cartoon body design should be familiar to readers of my #5 Type Collection posts about 1938 Goudey Big League Gum. Robert Laughlin no doubt intended this resemblance.

Laughlin self-published this set not long before ’80s-90s power hitting took off. As of today (2019), a tranche of modern 500+ homer guys qualify. Trading friend and many-credentialed writer George Vrechek pointed out during a recent swap session that while no new players batted .400 since 1980, our other groups added 25 or 26 members, depending how you count.

300 victories (via career leaders at B-R)

  • Greg Maddux
  • Roger Clemens
  • Steve Carlton
  • Nolan Ryan
  • Don Sutton
  • Phil Niekro
  • Gaylord Perry
  • Tom Seaver
  • Tom Glavine
  • Randy Johnson

500 home runs (via career leaders at B-R)

  • Barry Bonds
  • Alex Rodriguez
  • Albert Pujols
  • Ken Griffey, Jr.
  • Jim Thome
  • Sammy Sosa
  • Mark McGwire
  • Rafael Palmeiro
  • Reggie Jackson
  • Manny Ramirez
  • Mike Schmidt
  • David Ortiz
  • Frank Thomas
  • Gary Sheffield
  • Eddie Murray
  • Fred McGriff* (493 regular season + 10 postseason, echoing Gehrig)

Our modern lament for these 300/400/500 candidates: steroids. Do we know how many of those 26* hitters and pitchers bulked up (and improved recovery) using things borrowed from the iron-pumping world of Mr. Universe? And who cares more, baseball collectors or baseball historians? (I’m about 80% collector and 20% historian in that regard.)

1970s muscle-builder Brian Downing, shown with his like-minded hero, brought a weight-training mentality to baseball that many others followed, some with chemical help.

Aside on Brian Downing: Back in my mid-80s salad days, I hated Downing’s pounding of Seattle pitching. Over 156 career games versus my Mariners, he hit a blistering .920 OPS. If you count those 156 games as a “season,” just five players registered better one-year numbers in the same era: Eddie Murray three times, Reggie Smith twice, Ken Singleton twice, Tim Raines once, and Howard Johnson once. (I do my best to impress on others how good Downing was to spread that searing, nostalgic pain around.)

But settle down! Let’s not get too serious about performance-enhancers today. Can a wholesome law-enforcement cartoon keep us in the “just enjoy our hobby” mindset?

If we extend Laughlin’s 300/400/500 set into today, I start with this cartoon head on our cartoon body. No reason to waste nicknames like “Crime Dog!”

Who else should we add to an extended checklist? Using just the aforementioned 10 pitchers and 16 sluggers gives me pause, because of our complete zero at .400. Just two modern guys came close, George Brett (.390 in 1980) and Tony Gwynn (.394 in 1994).

Laughlin set a 20th century cutoff for his 1980 set. What if we turn back time and net 19th century stars like Kid Nichols, Wee Willie Keeler, and Hughie Jennings? Given how few power hitters that era produced, I like this option better than going without adding any .400 hitters at all.

Potential old-school .400 members

According to Baseball-Reference.com, 23 batting seasons reached .400+ (and qualified for the batting title) in the pre-World Series era, 1871-1902. Some guys did so multiple times.

  • Billy Hamilton (1894)
  • Cal McVey (1871)
  • Cap Anson (1872)
  • Davy Force (1872)
  • Ed Delahanty (1894, 1895, 1899)
  • Fred Dunlap (1884)
  • Hugh Duffy (1894)
  • Hughie Jennings (1896)
  • Jesse Burkett (1895-96)
  • Levi Meyerle (1871)
  • Nap Lajoie (1901)
  • Pete Browning (1887)
  • Ross Barnes (1871-73, 1876)
  • Sam Thompson (1894)
  • Tip O’Neill (1887)
  • Tuck Turner (1894)
  • Wee Willie Keeler (1897)

Italicized seasons played less than 100 games, so sit below the stature of other 300/400/500 candidates. Let’s strike those.

Furthermore, Laughlin’s 300/400/500 contains Lajoie at #9. We can trim those 17 guys to ten “significant” 19th century 400 hitters not already in the original.

  • Billy Hamilton (1894)
  • Ed Delahanty (1894, 1895, 1899)
  • Fred Dunlap (1884)
  • Hugh Duffy (1894)
  • Hughie Jennings (1896)
  • Jesse Burkett (1895-96)
  • Pete Browning (1887)
  • Sam Thompson (1894)
  • Tip O’Neill (1887)
  • Wee Willie Keeler (1897)

Newspaper and ballcard photos exist for all ten, making it straightforward to create head-on-cartoon versions. While they played in a different era of hitting rules and equipment quality, modern analysis also diminished batting average overall. Fewer 21st century guys hallow it as a statistic that needs rigid defense. Loosening our lasso to pull in 19th century players gives historical depth to a list that already carries PED baggage.

Proposed 300/400/500 Extended checklist

  1. Title card
  2. Greg Maddux (300 game winners)
  3. Roger Clemens
  4. Steve Carlton
  5. Nolan Ryan
  6. Don Sutton
  7. Phil Niekro
  8. Gaylord Perry
  9. Tom Seaver
  10. Tom Glavine
  11. Randy Johnson
  12. Billy Hamilton (.400 hitters)
  13. Ed Delahanty
  14. Fred Dunlap
  15. Hugh Duffy 
  16. Hughie “Eeyah!” Jennings
  17. Jesse Burkett
  18. Pete Browning
  19. Sam Thompson
  20. Tip O’Neill
  21. Willie Keeler
  22. Alex Rodriguez (500 HR sluggers)
  23. Albert Pujols
  24. Ken Griffey, Jr.
  25. Barry Bonds
  26. Jim Thome
  27. Sammy Sosa
  28. Mark McGwire
  29. Rafael Palmeiro
  30. Reggie Jackson
  31. Manny Ramirez
  32. Mike Schmidt
  33. David Ortiz
  34. Frank Thomas
  35. Gary Sheffield
  36. Eddie Murray
  37. Honorary: Fred McGriff

Big thanks to Nick Vossbrink for this sharp and stylish custom Barry Bonds, befitting our modern 300/400/500 motif.

Now there’s just the matter of designing and printing our other 36 cards and engaging a lawyer to deflect “unlicensed photo depiction” civil claims! What do you think, does this checklist meet the bar set by its predecessor?

Endless stream of cards and magazines

Picking up a Street and Smith Yearbook from the newsstand or drug store was an annual rite of spring for many baseball fans.  Since ESPN and the internet were nowhere in sight, annuals were one way to obtain updated rosters and prognostications for the upcoming season.  Of course, the information was several months old by the time it reached the magazine rack. However, those of us in a non-Major League markets or rural areas especially relied on these publications to set the stage for the season.

In the 1970s, Street and Smith produced regional covers designed to attract fans of the local team.  Prior to the Mariners arrival in 1977, Washington State baseball fans received covers featuring California teams.  For instance, I bought this 1976 edition with Davey Lopes on the cover.  But New England fans would find the same content covered with the photo of 1975 Rookie of the Year and MVP, Fred Lynn.

While looking through both versions, I was drawn to the advertisements for sports card dealers. Obviously, sports magazines were an excellent method of reaching the customer base.  The 1976 Street and Smith Yearbook has numerous ads for dealers across the nation.

For example, mail order stalwart (still going strong in 2019) Larry Fritsch Cards in Stevens Point, WI, has an ad. The 1976 Fritsch ad is filled with tempting choices including the complete 1976 Topps baseball set for $12.95 plus postage.  This is on the expensive side, since most of the other ads offer the set for less.  Incidentally, $12.95 in 1976 dollars has the buying power of $58.44 today.  Thus, a kid had to mow several lawns or, in my case, return a huge number of beer bottles to the recycler to afford the complete set.

I distinctly remember ordering my 1976 complete set from G. S. Gallery in Coopersburg, PA.  The set was $7.95, plus a dollar postage.  I remember the postal worker (Mr. Copeland-it’s a small town) at the Selah, WA, post office having to redo the money order after accidentally putting “Cooperstown” on it instead of Coopersburg.  By the way, $8.95 has the 2019 buying power of $40.39 when adjusted for inflation.

Two other dealers in the magazine offer examples of the price range for the complete set.  Stan Martucci of Staten Island-who urges buyers to “Go with Experience” based on his 22 years in the business-priced his set at a whopping $14.  Meanwhile, collectors could shell out $9.99 to obtain the same cards from the only West Coast dealer in the magazine, Will Davis of Fairfield, CA.

In addition to new sets, the dealers offered sets from previous years.  Wholesale Cards of Georgetown, CT, offered complete sets from the 1970s in all four major sports.  Plus, you could pick up Topps Civil War, 1966 English Soccer or the 1959 Fleer Ted Williams set.

Another merchant with a tantalizing selection of cards was Paul E. Marchant of Charleston, IL. The 1964 Topps “Giant” set was available for only $3.00. Also, SSPC sets could be had along with an address list for autograph seekers.

This ad uses the card of Glenn Abbott as an example for the 1976 set.  An odd choice since Glenn was just starting out.  I must point out that he would be the “ace” of the original Seattle Mariners in 1977, winning 13 games.  At the time, his win total tied the record for most wins on an expansion team.  The first to do it was Seattle Pilots hurler, Gene “Lerch” Brabender.

The Sports Hobbyist in Detroit offered a different way for collectors to obtain a complete set of 660 Topps cards in 1976.  For $10, they sent 1,000 cards and guaranteed that “just about” a complete set could be assembled.  A 50-cent coupon was included to purchase up to 40 cards to help complete the set.

Once a complete set was obtained, the collector needed some place to store the cards.  A nifty tote box, divided into 26 compartments, was one solution.  It was available for a mere $4.00 from ATC Sports Products of Duluth, MN.

Along the same lines, a Major League Baseball card locker could be had from the Royal Advertising Corp. for $2.95, plus 36 cents postage.  You could even send cash!  Note that Seattle Pilots outfielder Steve Whitaker’s 1967 card on the Yankees is front and center in the ad.

Although cards are not offered, there is an ad for the hobby publication, “The Trader Speaks.” I never subscribed to this trade paper but went with “Sports Collectors’ Digest” instead.

One negative feature of all these offers was the fact you had to wait four to six weeks to receive the merchandize in 1976.  There was no expectation for faster service, and no reason given for the protracted processing time.  My recollection was that it always seemed to take closer to six weeks than four.  This process explains why I am such a patient man to this day.

I will close with two advertisements that were ubiquitous in magazines of this era:  Manny’s Baseball Land and Charles Atlas.  Manny’s had the same format for years with many of the same products offered as well.  Of course, Charles Atlas offered to “make a man out of Mac” for decades.  I’m still trying to get his body building method to work, and I’m damned tired of bullies kicking sand in my face at the beach!

ATM Cards? Who Needs ’Em!

Paul Simon tells the story about how pissed off Joe DiMaggio was at him about “Mrs. Robinson.” Simon says he’d heard that Joltin’ Joe was bothered by the song, maybe even to the point of legal action.

“What I don’t understand,” DiMag said, “is why you ask where I’ve gone? I haven’t gone anywhere.”

Maybe it was that sense of being forgotten, if even symbolically that pushed Joe into hawking product. Nationally, in 1973, The Yankee Clipper became Mr. Coffee.

Locally, the year before, DiMaggio started doing TV for the Bowery Savings Bank in New York City.

Smartly, the Bowery issued a baseball card, just one. Simple front, 1971 Topps knockoff design (in pink!) on the back.

I’d always wanted this card, never got it, forgot about it, but was jolted (yup, I’m using that word) back in time when I saw it at a show last year. Since then I’ve been looking for it. It’s not too hard to find, but the prices run from a reasonable $10ish to unreasonable factors of 10.

At the big Shriner’s Show this past weekend, I was going through a stack of 1955 Bowman Football, and, immediately after paying, saw a scattered stack of cards. There it was! And for $5!

The 1972 DiMaggio Bowery card has always been my favorite bank card. And, while it doesn’t get money, it didn’t take much either.

R.G. Knowles 1901–02 Ogden’s Tabs

Last week I received a surprise mailing of pre-war cards from Anson Whaley, the proprietor of prewarcards.com who many of us turn to whenever we have questions an anything pre-war. I treat these mailings as an opportunity to google the subjects of the cards and hopefully come across an interesting Wikipedia page that leads me down a rabbit hole.

In this case, it wasn’t a Wikipedia rabbit hole I fell in to but rather a Google Books one. Anson sent me a dozen 1901–02 Ogden’s Cigarettes General Interest cards. A couple sporting subjects but mostly non-sports miscellany—actors, politicians, ships, etc.

One of them was a Mr. R.G. Knowles. The first round of googling confirmed his short bio. He was indeed a comedian who styled himself as “The Peculiar American.” But I also learned that his full name was “Richard George Knowles” so I decided to try googling that too. The result? A link to a book called Baseball written in 1896 in England.

At first I thought this must be a different Richard George Knowles but I figured it was worth flipping through the book just to make sure. Lo and behold on page 65 I found an author photo. To my eyes it looks like the same face (no comment on the hairstyle).

This is pretty cool. My general interest card just turned into a baseball card. So I went back and downloaded the PDF from Google so I could take a deeper look at the book. It’s basically a baseball primer for an English audience more familiar with Rounders and Cricket but is also a great snapshot of the state of the game in the mid-1890s on both sides of the Atlantic.

The player lives in a world limited to three bases, a home plate, and two foul lines, and, for a couple of hours or so, finds relief from business cares, and snatches a holiday for his brain.

The first chapter is about baseball in general. It starts off building baseball up as a game of intelligence where draws are impossible, skills are required in all facets of the game, and failure can be minimized due to the number of repeated chances a batter gets. Much of this reads as an implicit comparison to Cricket which doesn’t feature baserunning and a batter only gets to bat twice a match.

It then goes into describing how to lay out a baseball field. It’s impossible for me to state how much I love this section so I’ll just paste the full text in here in case anyone wants to lay out their own baseball field.

Procure a heavy cord one hundred and eighty feet in length. Tie three knots in it, one at sixty feet five inches, one at ninety feet, and the other at one hundred and twenty-seven feet four inches.

Then, at the outer point of the home plate, drive a peg in the ground, and attach the line to it. Extend the line straight out to the third knot, and at that limit mark the second base. The knot is the centre of the base. Care must be taken that the cord be kept taut, and absolutely straight from the peg at the home plate to the centre of the second base, for the first knot, at sixty feet five inches, must now be taken to indicate the centre of the pitcher’s plate. When this has been duly marked, have one end of the hundred and eighty feet line held at the centre of second base, and keep the other end secured at the home plate as before. Then take hold of the second knot, at ninety feet, which is, of course, in the exact centre of the cord, and walk out with it to the corner of the diamond which is to mark the first base. Keep walking until the line is taut on both sides, and, at that point, mark the first base. Repeat this in the opposite direction, and mark the third base. The diamond is then complete.

That R.G. Knowles goes on to say that when he was a kid he used to carry a ball of string with the requisite knots in it just in case he needed to create a diamond for other kids is just wonderful. Do I think he’s telling the truth? Of course not. (since when have kids cared about proper dimensions when playing a game) But I love the sentiment.

The man who evinces a quick grasp and comprehension of the points of play, and who is also gifted with the capacity of being witty, is a very desirable person for the post.

The second chapter describes each position, including the “coachers” and umpire. Not much to say about the players except to note that second base is treated as the key position on the diamond. The umpire is similarly familiar in how he’s charged with being in control of the game.  The coaches though are specifically the first and third base coaches and get a lot more description than any of the fielders. Aside from coaching the baserunners one of their jobs is to distract the fielders with banter.

Chapter three is the rules of the game. I didn’t read this one thoroughly since it appears to be mostly the same as current rules. I did notice however that things like the 18″ “pine tar” rule as well as the 3-foot running lane to first base already exist.

The next chapter though is great since it’s all about keeping score. Seeing different scoring methods is one of my favorite things and this section’s method is one of the most distinct ones I’ve come across. While it looks superficially like modern scorekeeping it’s vasty different.

To start off, shortstop is position #5 and thirdbase is #6. But everything else is different too. Instead of being a progression around the diamond each square is read left to right.

We also don’t have the now-standard abbreviations that I learned as a kid and which I’ve taught my kids. Take for example the following progression.

This represents a single, stolen base, advancing to third on an error (wild throw), and scoring on a passed ball. The only thing recognizable about this is putting an X or coloring int he diamond when someone scores.

Outs are a lot more familiar. This represents a ground out to the shortstop for the first out of the inning. Aside from the difference in position numbering this is pretty much the same thing I do today.

The rest of the chapter includes a bunch more examples of dealing with other possibilities available during a game. S–O are strikeouts. TI means advancing on a throw. S–H is a sacrifice. FF is a foul out. Very much the same kinds of things that happen in today‘s game and definitely sets baseball apart as a game which has always been obsessed with detail and replaying the events of games past.

The last four chapters of the book discuss the state of the game in 1895. Two chapters each devoted to Baseball in England and Baseball in America.

Among the people present at this christening of the game in London were: Buffalo Bill, General B. Williams (U.S. Army), Colonel Ochiltree, Mrs. Mackay, Mrs. Henry Labouchere, Mrs. T. P. O’Connor, Mrs. Alice Shaw, Dr. Maitland Coffin, Miss Blanche Rooseveldt, Mr. and Mrs. Tyars, Miss Hallett, Miss Helen Dauvray, Mrs. Conover, and Mr. W. Chapman. As a pressman summed it up, it was an audience of society folk, mummers and Mexicans, Cowboys and Cossacks, Gauchos and Indians.

The England chapter starts off listing a few exhibitions by American teams that failed to make any impressions before getting into a description of an exhibition between the Clapham Common nine—a team of Americans living in London who also appear to be members of the London Thespians—and a team of the Cowboys attached to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show at Earl’s Court. The game took place on July 13 1892 and Knowles includes an absolutely wonderful box score.

Where our author is batting third and playing second base in the scorecard, in the box score he’s batting fifth and playing second base (and pitcher) for the London Thespians Club.* This means that not only is my Ogden a card of a baseball writer, it’s of an actual nineteenth-century baseball player. Also the descriptions of the day jobs of the Wild West club players are something I could never in my wildest dreams have dreamed up.

*Especially appropriate given how Knowles is identified on his Ogden as a comedian.

Clearly fielding was not a strong suit for either team though I find it noteworthy that the concept of earned runs is prominent enough to be mentioned as a team stat. I also notice that the Wild West pitcher struck out 14 Thespians and that those putouts appear to be credited to the pitcher instead of the catcher. Oh and despite a cumulative 34 errors the game only lasted just over two hours.

The rest of the England chapters describe the growth of the league over the following years, the difficulty in finding good umpires, additional visits from American teams, hybrid baseball vs cricket exhibitions, and descriptions of a half-dozen baseball grounds.

The following chapter is all biographies of men associated with baseball in England from the President of the London Baseball Association Thomas Dewar to representative English players and representative American players in England.

The greatest interest centres in the professional teams that bear the names of such cities as Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Brooklyn, St. Louis, Washington, Louisville, and Cleveland.

This takes us to the final two chapters which detail the state of baseball in America in 1895. America seems baseball mad with an insatiable appetite for the results of games in progress. The growth of the professional game from individual teams to multiple leagues is markedly different than the amateur struggles Knowles describes in England.

Instead of detailing individual games like he does with the England summary, the 1895 season is described as a pennant race where the standing for a given day are reported instead of the game results until Baltimore clinched the pennant for the second year in a row. Burkett, Delehanty, and Keeler are listed as the top batsmen with Hawley, Rusie, and Young being the best pitchers.

Then we have essentially a biography of Harry Wright, the “Father of Professional Baseball,” as written by Henry Chadwick to close out the book. There’s a glossary, some more rules, an index, and a whole bunch of great advertisements which are too good not to share.

A vintage guy buys the new stuff

While in Portland a couple weeks ago I was lucky enough to have lunch with SABR president/author/mensch Mark Armour and baseball author/analyst/commissioner extraordinaire Rob Neyer. Despite our gawdy SABR Baseball Cards Research Committee resumes, Rob was able to completely stump us with some baseball card trivia he may turn into an article soon, so stay tuned.

Following lunch, Rob had to go back to work (THE WEST COAST LEAGUE DOESN’T RUN ITSELF!) while Mark and I proceeded to hit up a card shop in the Portland suburbs. Our eyes were mainly drawn to the shop’s vintage racks, but I also thought it would be fun to try something I hadn’t done in nearly 30 years: buy a pack of baseball cards from a current set.

In fact I bought two, one for Mark and one for me. In contrast to many of today’s buyers there was no big “hit” I was after or set to complete. Mostly I just wanted to re-live the thrill of opening packs and bring my baseball card knowledge at least a little bit more up to date.

What follows is a recap of my pack buying and opening experience, including my reflections on the cards themselves. I know the whole “what I got in my pack” sub-genre of baseball card blogging is pretty saturated already, but perhaps my contribution will distinguish itself by its utter lack of current knowledge.

the choice

I wanted to buy whatever pack felt closest to the “good old days” when you could get 15 cards for 30 cents or so. Of course there was nothing among the 2019 offerings that fit that description, though I suspect the shop owner still had some leftover 1991 Donruss he might have let go at that price.

The next best thing appeared to be 2019 Topps Series One or Series Two, but Mark already had complete sets of each. Ultimately we landed on the much pricier 2019 Topps Update, which I think had only been out a week or two at the time. Coincidentally, I had just the day before seen an article Ryan Cracknell published for Beckett that had cool looking cards of Willie Mays and Jackie Robinson, so I had at least a couple players I could hope for as I opened my pack.

The $5 price tag was at first hard to swallow, but then I remembered how I used to pay $3 per pack for Upper Deck high numbers in 1989 back when $3 was a lot more money in my life, so what the heck. Unfortunately, neither Mr. Mays nor Mr. Robinson made it into my pack, but the 14 cards I ended up with did exactly what I’d hoped they would do. They were fun to flip through, and they gave my ancient baseball card knowledge a much needed Update.

the results

The cards in my pack fell into seven categories. This was in contrast to the two categories (rookies, team changes) I remembered from the last Topps Update product (1984 Traded set) I ever purchased. All this variety felt overwhelming to me at first, but it probably made some otherwise ho hum cards seem more exciting. Here is how my pack broke down.

Team changes

My four team change players were Adam Ottavino, Jordan Lyles, Anibal Sanchez, and Yonder Alonso. Sanchez had just pitched a postseason gem, and I knew Ottavino mostly from his Babe Ruth commercial. Alonso was of course the wrong Alonso to pull this year and kind of reminded me of pulling a Kevin Bass vs Kevin Maas back in 1990 or a Tommy Boggs vs Wade Boggs in 1983. Of this group, the player I was thrilled to land was Jordan Lyles (not to be confused with his near namesake), who I’d written about in an earlier SABR Baseball Cards blog post.

With the season now over I can provide a quick update on where Jordan Lyles now sits in relation to the all-time worst career ERA record. When I wrote my original article in July, Lyles had an ERA of 5.29 through 851 innings, and the record stood at 5.37 for pitchers with at least 1000 IP. In other words, Lyles would not only have to get a little worse but also keep his career going another 149+ innings, neither of which seemed impossible.

Well, an amazing thing happened the day I published my article. Jordan the Pirate who had gone 5-7 with a 5.36 ERA became Jordan the Brewer (that very day!) and managed to go 7-1 record with a miserly (and record jeopardizing) 2.45 ERA. As a result he now sits at 5.11 with 909.2 innings in the books and may be a longshot to break the record unless he can somehow recapture his early season unmagic and carry it forward to 2020 and beyond.

Rookies

Thanks to a recent innovation, love it or hate it, I didn’t have to think hard to identify the five rookies in my pack. There was an MLB “rookie card” shield in the upper right or left corner of each of the cards. The players themselves were Harold Ramirez, Elvis Luciano, Darwinzon Hernandez, Oscar Mercado, and Devin Smeltzer.

At the risk of sounding unqualified for my co-chairmanship here at SABR I’ll admit to not knowing who any of these players were. (Feel free to let me know if I landed a huge hit and can pay off my mortgage now.)

What I did note was that all but one of the players had Latin names. Flipping the cards over, the four Latino players were born in Columbia, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and (yes I know it’s in the United States…) Florida. Likewise, none of the five rookies were African American.

While sample size here is fairly small, my pack at least hinted that the historic dearth of African Americans in MLB is not on the verge of changing. In reality, I would only expect to see the trend reverse when teams invest as much in our inner cities as they do in Latin America. I’m not holding my breath.

Finally, I had to at least check to see if any of the players were born in (gasp!) the 21st century, as if I needed anything more than aching knees and a giant bald spot to remind me of my advancing age.

Sure enough, my Elvis Luciano not only listed a February 15, 2000, birth date but indicated in the bio that Luciano was in fact the first player born in the 21st century to appear in the big leagues!

Party-poopers will no doubt impugn the coolness of my card and the quality control at Topps by noting that the 21st century did not technically begin until January 1, 2001, but are we really gonna go there?

Home run derby

Though I tend to root against the Astros as part of my 2017 World Series grudge, I was happy to pull an Alex Bregman Home Run Derby card. Before he was an Astro Bregman was an LSU Tiger, which makes me a fan at least by (imminent) marriage. He’s also just a damn impressive baseball player.

Perhaps as testament to my poor memory, it took this card to make me realize these guys don’t wear helmets when they Derby. I also wondered if Topps had somehow enhanced the veins popping out of Alex’s arm or if one of the game’s smaller players (at only six feet, 180 pounds) was really that jacked.

all-star game, part one

The “normal” ASG pull from the pack was Brad Hand. Without recalling the entire rosters of both leagues, I have to imagine Hand would have been among the 3-4 players I would have been least excited to pull. In fact, he had a helluva first half and pitched just fine in the Midsummer Classic. I’m just enough of a curmudgeon to view relief pitchers in the same way many fans view designated hitters.

All relievers do is remind me of how much I miss the old days of complete games and having no idea what a guy’s pitch count was. I know and respect all the arguments for why today’s game has evolved toward increased bullpen use. I just miss the old days from an entertainment perspective and because missing the old days is what old guys do.

What can you do though? Sometimes life just deals you a Brad bad hand.

all-star game, part two

The other All-Star Game card I pulled was of Twins ace Jake Odorizzi, who gets his own category due to the card’s gold-ish (but non-metallic) border and serial numbering on the back.

Now I can’t say I was as excited to pull this variation as I was in 1979 to pull a Bump Wills or (especially) in 1981 to pull a Craig [sic] Nettles. Still, the hobby shop guy was pretty stoked for me and even busted out a penny sleeve so I could protect my investment.

My high school Social Studies teacher used to tell a story that inflation was so bad in postwar Germany that a guy had to bring an entire wheelbarrow full of money to a hardware store to buy a hammer. Evidently the clerk told the man he’d take the wheelbarrow but had no use for the money.

I just assumed Mr. Johnson made the whole thing up, but then I just looked it up and found the exchange rate in 1923 was one trillion Deutschmarks to the dollar. Shows what I know, but I guess that’s why I went into baseball cards and not history or economics.

Oh, so what was the point of this detour? Right, the penny sleeve. Crazy as it sounds I’m happier to have the penny sleeve than the card! Behalt Dein Geld! Ich werde die Schubkarre nehmen.

2019 season highlights

Continuing the theme of “worst in class” cards for these categories, my 2019 Season Highlights card celebrated Albert Pujols and his 2000th RBI. Were I a modern fan you might imagine that my objection to the card was the now popular belief that RBIs are overrated and nearly meaningless. Nope! On the contrary, I LOVE RBIs, and you’ll never take that away from me.

Mainly, and perhaps unfairly, I tend to see Pujols as a juicer, rendering his numbers and achievements (in my mind) meaningless and empty. Beyond that the card kinda sucks in that the back is simply a too small to read checklist for cards 61-120. While I needed checklists back in the day, I have to imagine nobody actually uses them these days. First, the full checklist is always on the internet, and second, we’ve all been trained not to take a pen or marker to our cards anymore. As such, I’d much prefer to read about a highlight, however cheap, than see a bunch of tiny names and checkboxes, including the unchecked box for this very card, which is kind of funny when you think about it.

Finally, it’s hard to recall Pujols and his RBI totals without being reminded of the oddball recalculation of Babe Ruth’s RBI numbers. Hey, it’s one thing to turn Hack Wilson’s 190 RBI into 191 for accuracy’s sake, but it’s another to subtract hundreds of RBIs from the Babe just because the stat itself wasn’t yet official. Please, Baseball, do you even think about how long some of us spent memorizing all these stats and records as kids? I’m gonna say 4,191 hours!

none of the above (I think)

My Miguel Castro card didn’t seem to fit any of these other categories in that there was no special logo (e.g., Rookie Card, Home Run Derby) nor had Castro changed teams since 2017. Without looking anything up I’ll simply assume that Castro didn’t quite make the cut for the base sets, hence was still available to fill a slot on the Update set roster.

Perhaps making up for the card’s undistinguished status in the set, the card may well be the most attractive pull from my pack. Check out the bird peeking out of his jersey and the chains flying, along with what are either earrings, long hair, or really long ear lobes forced back by the strength of his motion.

NOW WHAT?

My main goal here was to open a fresh pack rather than actually add new cards to my collection. As such, anyone who does trades with me over the next few months will likely find themselves with one or more of these cards added to the envelope.

In the meantime, I’ll have to wrap my head around the fact that more than 40 years after starting my prized baseball card collection my rarest card is…

Good God, this can’t be right, can it?

Holy smokes, it is!

…a 2019 Topps card of Jake Odorizzi!

Wiggle Wiggle

If I said that for under $20 you could purchase a small set from 1953 which was one-third Hall of Famers and included a bunch of other big names from the time, I’d expect to be met with skepticism. Cards from 1953 aren’t generally cheap so a set like this is bound to come with a catch.

In this case, the catch is that the set is actually three Viewmaster discs. I’ve mentioned these before and have always had them in the back of my mind since 3D cards are one of my weaknesses. I don’t have a Viewmaster* but I don’t care, these are just fun objects to have.

*This is my mom’s cue to pull one out of storage even though she’s been culling almost all of my childhood stuff.

Just handling the paper envelopes and holding the discs in my hand evokes all kinds of childhood memories. Pulling out the discs, studying the text to see who’s on it, and holding it up to the light to get a glimpse of the images is the same kind of thing I did when I was 6—only my discs were Disney tales or something and not baseball heroes.

Now I may not have a Viewmaster, but I have something better. Since these discs are really just 14 different Kodachrome slides, dropping them into my photo scanner allows me to get an even better view of the photos. So that’s what I did.

I also went ahead and created wiggle “3D” gifs which alternate between the left and right images.* They’re not really 3D but our brains interpret them with depth and they’re a great way to get a flavor of the Viewmaster experience.

*3D photography involves photographing a subject at the same time with two different cameras that are a couple inches apart. This simulates the perspective that each of our eyes have. A 3D viewer then forces each eye to look at a different image and our brains combine the result into a 3D image.

Disc 1

The first disc has two Hall of Famers in Rizzuto and Berra, one should-be Hall of Famer in Miñoso, Al Rosen the year he won the MVP award, and some very good players in Jackie Jensen and Preacher Roe. Even Whitey Lockman had been an All Star in 1952.

I enjoy the variety of poses with Roe’s working the best in 3D of all the images. There’s also a lot of wonderful detail in the background of the Lockman image.

Each disc also comes with a 4-panel fold-out booklet which has a short bio of each player, the last two years of his stats (plus his regular season and World Series totals), and a facsimile signature. Since the full-fold-out is too long for my scanner, I just folded over one panel and scanned the three visible ones.

I really like the booklets. Clean and crisp typesetting with the box around them and a willingness to let the signature overlap the text like in Jensen’s panel. I’m sure I could have found these even cheaper as just the discs but it wouldn’t have been worth the savings.

Disc 2

Disc two is stacked. Four Hall of Famers in Mize, Lemon, Schoendienst, and Irvin plus the 1952 American League MVP in Bobby Shantz. Ferris Fain and Sid Gordon weren’t slouches either.

Aside from the player quality in this disc, the photos capture a couple of great uniforms of teams that no longer exist. Shantz is in his Philadelphia A’s uniform and Gordon is in his Boston Braves uniform.

Looking at the uniforms and seeing the color stirrups makes me realize how vibrant these must have been in 1953. Bowman had only just released the first set of baseball cards using color photographs. These go a step further and are color slides that literally pop off the film.

Not much more to add about the booklets except to note that while Gordon is depicted with Boston the move to Milwaukee had already happened when these were printed.

Disc 3

The last disc is a bit lighter on star power since Campy is the only Hall of Famer but for me it makes up for it by having two Giants legends in Maglie and Thomson.* Vic Wertz is another big name, Woodling was one of those annoying Yankees guys who always came through in the World Series, and Parnell and Hatton were both All Stars.

*Having four Giants out of the 21 players depicted is something I appreciate very much.

I really like Campanella’s pose with the mask in the foreground. Wertz meanwhile is the third image of a team that’s about to cease existing since 1953 was the last year before the Browns moved to Baltimore.

The stadium background in these photos also demonstrate how much flash was used to take these pictures. The photos are all somewhat moody with darkish skies. This helps them pop a lot through the contrast of the light uniforms and the dark backgrounds while also giving them a look that’s different than the typical baseball card image. This look only started to show up on Topps cards in earnest around 1985.*

*Something I covered a bit on my own blog. In short, in the 1980s Topps started to underexpose the background of the portrait and use flash to produce more contrast between the subject and his background. Many 1985 and 1986 Topps cards feature dark skies.

One last look at the booklets and my only comment is that I’m relieved to see that Bobby Thomson’s home run is mentioned.

Are these Cards™? No. But they’re card adjacent and fit in binder pages so I’m counting them. I’m also planning on printing the photos out as 2.5″ square pieces with the relevant back information from the booklets so I can enjoy the images without having to hold the disc up to the light. Who am I kidding, holding the discs is the best part anyway.

1960 Topps #321 Ron Fairly (1938-2019)

Why does the death Ron Fairly warrant a card obit? For starters he was a Major Leaguer for over 2 decades and a semi-star that I remember from my youth.

Secondly he was a SABR member remembered fondly by a couple of our fellow SABR Card Collectors.

Finally as a collector Fairly means something to the staff at Phungo HQ because he is a member of the inaugural Topps Rookie All-Star (TRAS) class. As you may know the Rookie Cup cards are one of my favorite collections and Fairly was one of the outfielders selected for the 1959 season which was honored in 1960 Topps.

1960 Topps #321 Ron Fairly
1960 Topps #321 Ron Fairly

There are 10 cards in the original subset which opens with Willie McCovey at #316 and runs through #325 Jim O’Toole. This makes Ron Fairly’s #321 the sixth All-Star Rookie Cup ever produced.

Outside of McCovey the two most notable players on the team are likely Fairly and Jim Perry.

The Topps Rookie All-Star Cup Team (Sporting News 1960 Apr 20)
The Topps Rookie All-Star Cup Team (Sporting News 1960 Apr 20)

Willie McCovey is on the left followed Pumpsie Green, Jim Baxes, Joe Koppe, Bob Allison, Ron Fairly (directly above Tasby inset) , John Romano and Jim Perry. Willie Tasby and Jim O’Toole who could not make the outing are shown in an inset bottom left.

This is a picture from a New York City banquet Topps held to honor award winners. For a more in depth discussion of the banquet (1963) click here.

The 1959 All-Star Rookie Cup team has had a tough year. Starting with Willie McCovey’s death almost exactly a year ago the class has lost four members in the last 12 months. John Romano (February 2019), Pumpsie Green in July and now Ron Fairly.

This leaves Willie Tasby (86) and Jim Perry who turned 84 the day Fairly passed as the last two living members of the original All-Star Rookie Cup team.

Flip

1960 Topps #321 Ron Fairly (b-side)

I want to open the discussion of the card back to the Fairly’s vitals at the top of the card. His DOB is listed as July 12 1938. Therefore Ron Fairly was just 20 years old when the 1959 season commenced and 21 when he was named to the rookie cup team.

Moving on to the text, it opens by mentioning Fairly’s election to the TRAS team and rolls into his pre-MLB experience.  Then we get to the cartoon.

“Ron Led USC to the National Championship”

Well I checked into it and yes he did. He was a member of the 1958 USC Trojans that won the College World Series. The final game was an 8-7 extra inning victory over the Missouri Tigers.

The 1958 CWS concluded on June 19th, less than three months later Ron Fairly made his major league debut with the LA Dodgers on September 9th.

1958 USC Trojans College World Series Champs (Western Canada Baseball)

Ron Fairly can be found in the front row four from the right. Checking the names one can find a Hall of Famer in that back row. Executive HOF Pat Gillick, architect of the 2008 World Championship Phillies. Turns out Gillick was a pitcher for the 1958 Trojans and teammate of today’s card hero Ron Fairly.

Sources and Links

Baseball-Ref

Western Canada Baseball

Topps Baseball Card db

The Sporting News

Phungo 1959 Topps Rookie All-Star Index

Baseball cards that remember the past

When I got back into collecting around 2014, my first goal was to finish my Hank Aaron collection, which at that time included just over a dozen of his base cards, a few assorted all-stars and record breakers, and a handful of cards that came out after his playing career. Having been gone from the hobby for more than 20 years I assumed another 10-15 cards would finish the collection, maybe 20-30 if I really needed to have everything.

Of course the true number was in the thousands! At the time I’m typing this Trading Card Database puts the Hammer at 4,255 different cards, and by the time you read this I suspect that number will be even higher.

There’s a stat people love to quote about Hank Aaron. Take away his 755 home runs and he would still have more than 3,000 hits. My guess is you could take away every card from Aaron’s playing career and he’d still have more than four thousand cards!

Though my collector gene at least beckons me to collect them all, the “often needs to blend in as a normal adult” gene in me somehow proves dominant and forces me to restrict my collection’s personal Hammer Time to the years 1954-1976. Still, whether through overly broad eBay searches or through the generosity of fellow collectors who send me stuff I do manage to at least notice if not add at least some of Aaron’s post-career cardboard. In fact, one of my favorite mail days of the year was when fellow collector Matt Malone sent me this gorgeous 2019 Topps Heritage “box loader” card for nothing!

If I had to create a Favorites category it wouldn’t be the shiny stuff, the serial numbered stuff, the relic stuff, or the “anything else” stuff. It would 100% be the regular stuff that looks like all the other regular cards in the set. For example, here is a 2019 Topps Series 1 “Legends” card next to a base card of Clayton Kershaw…

…which finally brings me to the actual subject of this article!

While the modern and welcome tradition of mixing retired greats in with current players is new compared to the heyday of my collecting (very extended) youth (roughly 1978-1992), just as most things cardboard and in life it’s not something truly new.

“Ahem,” you say! “There were tons of retired greats in the sets of your youth, Jason,” thinking I can somehow hear you right now, so let me explain. I’m not talking about cards like this…

…even if they came in the same packs as these.

I’m talking strictly about the cards that blend right in with the rest of the set. Otherwise I’m afraid this article would practically go on forever. (Editor’s note: It already has!) What follows is hardly a comprehensive list, so as always I invite readers to add their favorites to the Comments.

The first instance of these “legends in disguise” that I became aware of as a collector was the 1949 Leaf card of the (at the time) very recently deceased Babe Ruth, even if 1) I thought of it as 1948 at the time, 2) it’s pretty hard to disguise Babe Ruth, and 3) even if many of the “current players” are legends themselves by now.

Beyond the Bambino it’s worth noting that Honus Wagner also had a card in this same set. Though you’ll see soon enough how inconsistent my criteria are, I won’t quite count Wagner since he’s in the set as a coach and not a retired great. (You could easily dispute this and probably win in that Wagner is the only coach/manager in the set, a fact that strongly suggests Wagner was in the set as Wagner vs coach.)

Of course the tradition didn’t originate with the Leaf set. Just months before a tiny entrant into the gum card market showed up with a large set of cards, not all baseball, that mixed the likes of Ruth, Hornsby, Mathewson, Wagner, and Cobb with Lou Boudreau!

By the way, these cards are known as 1948 Topps Magic Photos. While I don’t dispute the date it’s worth noting that the non-legend portion of the baseball set focuses on the 1948 World Series, hence the Boudreau, which of course didn’t occur until October. As such, it wouldn’t shock me if much like the Leaf set this particular set did not arrive on the scene until early 1949.

Speaking of 1949, readers of my earlier article on the 1949 M.P. & Company baseball issue may recall that the set included a Jimmie Foxx card, recycled from six years earlier, alongside active players like Mel Ott Alvin Dark.

Evidently nostalgia ran large in the 1948-1949 as there was yet a third issue that mixed the old with the new. The 1948 Blue Tint (R346) checklist made room for Lou Gehrig whose last game was in 1939 while mainly consisting of modern stars such as Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson, and Joe DiMaggio.

One could place the R346 Hank Greenberg card in either category. On one hand he played a full season in 1947 with the Pirates so a card in 1948 wouldn’t be completely unusual (though more so back then than now). On the other hand the lack of a team designation followed the design of the Gehrig in the set as opposed to the active players. (The set also includes a Mel Ott manager card with no team noted. However, this was later corrected to indicate “N.Y. Giants.”)

Lest you imagine this kind of thing could only happen in America, I’ll highlight the Cuban 1946-1947 Propagandas Montiel issue as yet another set from the era open to all comers.

At any rate, the battle for first place involves none of these late 1940s issues. After all, the most sought after card from the start of the decade is one of many “Former Major League Stars” that Play Ball camouflaged into its 1940 set.

Did I mention my criteria were pretty inconsistent? Oh, good, because otherwise I’d have no place taking us into the 1933 Goudey set where not one, not two, but two-and-a-half retired legends make an appearance. The first of these is Shoeless Joe’s 1919 White Sox teammate, Eddie Collins, who technically cracks the set as a vice president and business manager, two categories so far fetched that it’s safe to say he simply cracks the set as Eddie Collins.

Next up is the part-owner of the Kansas City Blues because of course every set needs a card of a part-owner!

And batting third is the set’s Holy Grail, Napoleon Lajoie, who is 100% retired great, 0% owner, vice president, business manager, or otherwise.

In fact, old Larry was so far removed from the business of baseball by then as to be the Lloyd Dobler of his time. (“I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career, I don’t want to do that.”)

Still, while Lajoie’s status as pure “retired great” is uncontaminated there are a few reasons to assign his card only partial credit in meeting the criteria for this article.

  • One, his card couldn’t really be said to blend in with the rest of the set seeing as it wasn’t even released with the rest of the set. As is well known, Goudey didn’t issue the card until 1934 and only then to the relatively small number of collectors who sent them hate mail about their missing card 106.
  • Two, the card’s design doesn’t even match the rest of the 1933 (or 1934) set, instead reflecting a hybrid of the two designs.

While we’re on the subject, there is yet another retired baseball legend who cracks a 1933-1934 Goudey checklist, but this time it’s with the “Sports Kings” issue, where Ty Cobb slides in alongside two active players, Babe Ruth and Carl Hubbell.

My approach so far has been to start with 1949 and work my way backward. As I’m not aware of any examples (aside from coaches/managers) before 1933, I’ll close the article with a few post-1949 honorable mentions.

The 1960 Fleer Baseball Greats set technically qualifies as a set that mixed old and new. The checklist consists of 78 retired stars and exactly one active player, Ted Williams.

The 1967 Venezuelan Topps set includes a “RETIRADO” subset that doesn’t at all blend in with the set’s other cards. However, the design of the retired players reflects at least some attempt to match the base cards of active players.

The next honorable mention comes in 1982 from both Topps and Fleer.

I’m sure there was no intent to include the great J.R. Richard as a retired legend. Nonetheless, with J.R.’s final trip to the mound coming in 1980, his spot in the 1982 sets proved unusual. Naturally, Topps and Fleer were banking on a successful comeback that unfortunately never materialized.

Overall I’m a big fan of packing retired legends into modern sets. I can only imagine how much I would have loved it to open packs of 1978 or 1979 Topps and pull cards like these!

Of course, if the kids opening packs today are like the players I coached in Little League a few years ago, they may not have the same reverence for yesteryear that we once did. To quote one of kids on the squad, “Hank Aaron? Is he from the 1900s or something?”