There’s been a lot of baseball parks in Chicago. Before there was Wrigley, there was Comiskey. Before Comiskey, there was the West Side Grounds, and before that, Brotherhood Park, and Southside Park, and Lakefront Park, and others, all the way back to Dexter Park.
Located just south of the Chicago Stockyards between 43rd and 47th and Halsted Streets, Dexter Park was the Windy City’s foremost ball ground in the mid-1860s. It hosted the 1867 tournament that saw Rockford’s Forest City Base Ball Club shock the previously undefeated Washington Nationals, 29 to 23, on July 25. The Nationals avenged the loss two days later by hammering the Chicago Excelsiors 49 to 7, and then giving the same treatment to the home-ground Chicago Atlantics after another two-day break, 78 to 17.
With the amateur game giving way to the professional version, the Chicago White Stockings claimed the park in time for the 1870 season. Twenty-thousand fans are said to have witnessed the home team defeat the visiting Cincinnati Red Stockings in mid-October, 16 to 13.
But before there was Dexter Park, there was Dexter himself. Described as “high-spirited, nervous, wide-awake and intelligent,” Dexter was America’s most famous horse during his short career. Racing from 1863 until he pulled up lame in 1867, years before he would’ve reached his prime, Dexter ran 55 times and won 50. He was Inducted as an Immortal to the Harness Racing Hall of Fame in 1956.
Dexter beat all of the other famous flyers of the time—Stonewall Jackson, George M. Patchen, Jr., General Butler, Commodore Vanderbilt, Toronto Chief, Lady Thorne and others. Along the way, the equine powerhouse set speed records for the day in mile heats, best three-out-of-five heats, two miles, three miles, in harness, saddle and wagon.
In 1866, Dexter was stabled in Chicago and owned by George Trussell, a notorious Windy City gambler. One of Dexter’s most-anticipated races was scheduled to be held at the Chicago Driving Park Association grounds on September 4. Trussell expected a big day. But torrential rain soaked the Windy City that morning and a three-way $5,000 match against Patchen and General Butler was postponed. It still turned out to be a big day for Trussell, when Mollie Cosgriff shot him dead.
Trussell spent the last afternoon of his life at the Driving Park, drinking and gambling with friends despite the race postponement. The party moved downtown in the evening with a tour of bars. It was said that Trussell had a strong attraction to the spirits of the time, and so it wasn’t a surprise when he drifted into Seneca Wright’s tavern on Randolph for a nightcap and a song toward the 11 o’clock hour.
What was a surprise, was when Mollie Cosgriff showed up at the saloon, wanting a word or two with George. She looked, according to one newspaper, as if she had just come from a dancing party, wearing a striking white moire dress to the occasion, a shawl draped over her shoulders, drunk, and carrying a revolver in a pocket.
Mollie was no stranger to the tavern side of life. She ran a well-known house of ill-repute on Fourth Avenue.
George and Mollie were no strangers to each other. Mollie had fallen into the demi-monde in Chicago after moving to the city from her home in Ohio. Her attractive figure and alluring beauty naturally gained the temporary attention if not the permanent affection of Chicago’s fast young men, of whom George was no exception. An affair evolved, and a son by Mollie’s calculation, and the couple drifted apart, but Mollie never lost her devotion to the man.
The lingering feelings were not reciprocal. George didn’t feel much like talking with Mollie that night, and he tried to usher her out the front door of Wright’s place. There was some pushing and shoving at the entrance. Seneca stepped from behind the bar, separated the two quarrelers, and then went back to his duties. The former lovers continued to scuffle. One witness said that George struck Mollie. Others said he didn’t. Mollie pulled her gun and shot him in the side.
George careened back toward the center of the saloon. Mollie followed, and fired again, the bullet striking him in the back. George stumbled toward a side door. Mollie shot him a third time. He staggered out the door, into the entrance of Price’s livery stable, and collapsed.
As if just coming out of a trance, Mollie raced out of the saloon and fell on his body, shrieking frantically, “O my George! My George! He is dead.”
A notorious gambler and owner of a famous horse, killed in his prime. A jilted lover, a keeper of a lewd house, a drunken murderess. Newspapers across the Northeast quarter of the country followed the story with salacious glee. It was a sensation, pure and simple, and it seemed like it would be a tough act to follow. But Chicago was a tough town, and racing soon resumed.
“There is great excitement in sporting circles,” the Chicago Tribune declared on Friday morning, September 21, 1866, “about the great race…between General Butler and Cooley, for a purse of five thousand dollars a side, and set for tomorrow on the track of the Chicago Driving Park Association.”
General Butler was a popular harness horse whose career overlapped the Civil War. His likeness circulated on Currier & Ives and other lithographs.
Cooley was a black gelding and a favorite on Chicago race tracks. Locally owned, the fast trotter was described as “a big little horse” with “an eye full of intelligence and kindness.”
Heavy betting underscored the excitement for the sulky race between the horses. “The knowing ones seem to be about equally divided in opinion as far as odds are concerned,” the Tribune computed, “though the majority seem to think the General stands the best chance.”
The match between the horses was also a match between the drivers of the sulkies they pulled. Manager Bill Riley drove Cooley. Two men would steer General Butler that afternoon—jockey Samuel Crooks for the first two races, and quarter-owner William McKeever the remainder of the way.
McKeever was a cool customer, and a good enough athlete to have played for two of New York City’s premier baseball clubs. He began as an infielder with the Gotham club in 1859 before taking on pitching duties for the rough and tumble Mutual club in 1863.
In 1861, McKeever pitched for New York against Brooklyn and the great Jim Creighton in the famous New York Clipper Silver Ball Match. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle called McKeever “the most effective medium-paced pitcher in the country.” Creighton outpitched McKeever that day in Hoboken, but Creighton isn’t called great without a reason.
Now nearing 30, McKeever had traded away the mound work for the less taxing pursuits of harness racing and gambling. A half-hour delay after the scheduled start of the Driving Park match drew the disapproval of the crowd of thousands in attendance. Odds favored Cooley 25 to 10 when the match finally began at 3:30 p.m.
General Butler pulled ahead in the first heat, building a five-length lead at the half-mile post but the horses were equal at the final turn. A late surge by Cooley earned the win by a neck.
Cooley won the second heat by 15 lengths. Bettors on General Butler, suspicious of the slow times turned in by Crooks and on the verge of seeing their wagers wiped out, begged McKeever to make a switch. As the odds climbed to 100 to 25 on Cooley, McKeever took the lines for the third heat. The move paid off with a win by 20 lengths for General Butler and the odds reversed themselves.
Trouble began in the fourth heat. A half-an-hour was lost in fits and starts and ill-words between the drivers. With darkness rapidly falling, the heat finally reached its start. Two hundred yards into the race, McKeever suddenly swerved in front of Riley’s buggy, scraping Cooley’s nose. General Butler won the race by a half-length. Many in the crowd argued that the foul should have resulted in a dead heat, or the award of the race to Cooley. Disarray prevailed when the track judges stuck with the win for General Butler.
By the time order was resolved, night had fully fallen and only moonlight illuminated the racing grounds for the fifth and final match. More argument ensued, with half the crowd for the race to be called off due to darkness, and the other half demanding it continue. A start was made despite the conditions. General Butler broke in front along the rail as the horses disappeared in the darkness.
In due course, Cooley returned to view, heading down the home stretch toward the winning line. General Butler careened behind, without a driver. A search quickly located McKeever, bloody and unconscious, face down in the cinders on the back stretch. He was quickly carried to the home of J. R. Gore, a physician who lived nearby on Michigan Avenue.
Examination revealed extensive fractures to McKeever’s skull, with particular injury to the left temple, as if McKeever had been struck in the head by a hard object. Gore extracted three broken pieces of the cranium. Hopes were raised that the procedure would relieve pressure on the brain and allow McKeever to regain consciousness. It soon became apparent that the patient could not recover from the injury.
With foul play evident, police launched an investigation. After taking Riley into custody, suspicion fell on Peter and Tom Hickey, brothers who owned a tavern near the race track. Police arrived at the saloon at two a.m. Sunday morning and arrested the two after a desperate fight that left the officers and suspects bitten, battered, billy-clubbed and pistol-whipped.
McKeever died Sunday afternoon without ever coming out of his coma. His body was returned to his brother’s care in New York and internment at Greenwood Cemetery, final resting place of so many of the game’s pioneers. Remembering their former pitcher, the entire Mutual Base Ball Club attended McKeever’s funeral.
Back in Illinois, the Cook County Coroner opened an inquest on McKeever’s death. Chicago’s sporting crowd packed the Central Police Station to view the proceedings. A string of witnesses testified. Two said they saw Peter Hickey on the track between the fourth and fifth heat. There were other figures in the shadows. Tom Hickey denied any knowledge of the events surrounding McKeever’s death. Bill Riley testified he didn’t have anything to do with it, either. He closed with one admission. “I did say, ‘If I could win the race, I would.’”
The coroner’s jury returned its verdict on October without charges, finding only that a plot existed among unnamed friends of Cooley to prevent General Butler from winning the match, and that the result of this plot caused McKeever’s death. A later history of the Chicago Police Department named Tom Hickey as the killer.
Mollie Cosgriff went on trial that same month for the Trussell killing. The charge was manslaughter, for which a sentence of up to life could be applied. There was no argument that Cosgriff killed Trussell. The only argument was whether she was justified in pulling the trigger, in fear for her own life when Trussell tried to push her out of Seneca Wright’s tavern. The jury didn’t buy the entire bill of goods, but came close. After deliberating just over three hours, the jury returned with a guilty verdict and the minimum sentence allowable, a year in the penitentiary.
It might be expected that a woman of Mollie’s notoriety and profession would have some connections. In prison, she was given a private cell and allowed to receive visitors and wear her own clothes, but that was just a nickel ante in a smaller game. Mollie had bigger cards to play: she was pardoned by Illinois Governor Richard J. Oglesby after serving just a month of her sentence.
The Driving Park Association did not survive McKeever’s death. With its reputation completely ruined by the autumn’s gruesome murders, the grounds were sold at auction in December of 1866 and soon demolished. Dexter Park, specifically named after the trotter, opened in July of 1867 to replace the disgraced track. The spacious infield of the racing oval contained the baseball diamond.
A tobacco card celebrates Dexter
The horse Dexter had a short career. So did the park named after him. It burned to the ground in 1871, a victim of the Great Chicago Fire.
William McKeever has never appeared on a baseball card.
Way back at the end of 2018 Mark Armour wrote a post about how where most SABR committees produce something concrete like a database, book, or online project, the Baseball Cards Committee ended up building a community. Twitter has been a huge driver of that community with so many fantastic and fun discussions centering around @SABRBBCards. Mark gave us a great start and Jason has carried the torch wonderfully.
For my part, I would not be collecting cards, a member of SABR (let alone a committee head), or enjoying Twitter nearly as much had this committee not ended up there half a dozen years ago. Which is why Twitter’s current instability feels like such a gut punch. I’m not trying to predict the future here but I’ve already seen too many people bail from the platform as well as enough warning signs that I’ve been dipping my toe in Twitter alternatives.
No, none of them are the same; for starters the community isn’t there. Yet. But there are a lot which feel very promising and it’s amazing how few people you need for things to start feeling fun the way they used to be.
To whit. In the scenario that Twitter becomes unusable for you,* you can find us in the following locations.
*For whatever technical, social, ethical, political, personal reason you choose.
SABR’s in-house group feature
This is an old-school email list which will remind those of us who were around for it of the late-90s, early-2000s internet. Subscribing is easy enough, just email email@example.com. Once you’re subscribed you can access the webpage at sabrgroups.org/g/sabrbbcards and configure your email delivery settings or browse the archives.
Mastodon feels a lot like Twitter. It can get complicated but thankfully one of the Sports Reference guys set up an instance at hellosports.page which is really simple to sign up for. Jason and I are on there at @HeavyJ and @vossbrink respectively. No blog account yet but for now most of the active accounts on there are us.
As with SABR’s group email list, Discord feels very much like the halcyon days of Internet Relay Chat. A few of us have se up servers to discuss things like custom card design or through the mail autograph returns but the nature of those chat rooms is such that they often become more free-wheeling discussions about cards in general. Since Discord is sort of an invite thing I have no good permanent links to put here but if this seems interesting to you hit me up in the comments on this post and I’ll try to get you in contact with someone.
There are also a few other legacy platforms where the community is present. I’m no longer there but we do have a Facebook presence/group if the Facebook experience if more your style. A lot of people are also migrating to or increasing their Instagram presences.
And yeah, I can’t say that this community isn’t going anywhere because it very much is. It is however way too big to disappear. I’ll miss what I had on Twitter since I suspect that the best-case scenario is something like the post 1994 strike MLB world where a lot us just fell out of the baseball habit for a few years. But I’m absolutely looking forward to reconnecting and keeping in touch with as many of you as possible.
This blog isn’t going anywhere and if we end up with discussions in the comments like we used to have in the glory days of blogging that’ll be just fine too.
During the playoffs a few of us noticed that Fox was putting out baseball card inspired graphics. These were showing up as Tweet previews among other things and they caught my attention due to being interesting twists on something I was already familiar with.
The first batch I noticed were all riffs on 1991 Topps. Urias is from October 11, Marsh from October 18, and Kim from the 21st. They seem to be used to illustrate player profiles—quite appropriate for a baseball card reference—and show a great attention to detail. I really like the addition of the facsimile autographs and adding the logo baseball so they can use the pennant for the Fox logo. Everything fits together perfectly plus they have some of the better fake printing I’ve seen.
Depending on your browser window width you’ll see either the horizontal or vertical designs. The horizontals show up on narrower views as a header and, since they’re the social media preview image as well, I suspect they were designed first. That said I really like the vertical designs and how they look like they might fit in tobacco pages.
Just when I’d gotten used to 1991 Topps though Fox dropped a 1991 Donruss inspired design of Jeremy Peña. This one doesn’t work quite as well in part due to the need to have a vastly different approach to the name box. 1991 Donruss is such a diagonal design that the horizontal modification just won’t work.
I do however really like making the border designs match the team colors. Dropping the Astros logo back there is a fantastic as well and letting the photo of Peña overlap the borders makes everything much more dynamic. While this doesn’t work as well as a design reference it has a lot of great ideas demonstrating about how 1991 Donruss might not be as bad as so many people say it is.
Fox then threw me by using 1989 Topps Football for Harrison Bader. It’s interesting that this very plain design* works so much better digitally.** I suspect that a large part of this is due to the way the horizontal design makes the stripes a lot more prominent. I’m not sure the vertical would be as nice if it didn’t have the black fade.
*I’ve never seen anyone gush about this set or design.
**Though one reason for this is that Fox’s logo is a black overlay that I barely notice against the out of focus crowd.
The most-recent “card” Fox has posted is this one of Chas McCormick. I don’t recognize the design except that it kind of looks like a mashup of of all three previous designs. Some of 1991 Topps’s double borders mixed with 1989 Football’s stripes and a 1991 Donruss cant. The result is kind of generic but also something that totally suggests modern Topps Big League.
I continued looking back into July but the Judge was was first obvious trading card design I could find. Is interesting to me it was a football design which Fox selected. It’s also worth nothing here that the Judge uses a fantastic halftone dither with a real rosette pattern.
The Mike Trout also deserves some discussion. There are differences in the name/position handling, logo treatment, and photo cropping compared to Peña but the 1991 Donrussness shines through. I’m pretty sure the borders use the exact same design elements too. But the team color treatment looks great and confirms how taking 1991 Donruss in a team color direction would completely transform the set.
The whole group of eleven designs is also something that I find really cool. There’s a whole range of made-up cards as used on programs and other printed material but the way these are intended for a digital audience got me thinking about Topps Bunt, the nature of digital cards, and how so many of them evoke physical properties.
These are purely digital creations (though you could absolutely print the horizontal ones out as real cards) but they have designs which suggest that they’re real physical items and aren’t just web graphics. From things like the print screens to the way there are borders and margins which treat the graphic as a self-contained object, they don’t feel at all like the usual illustrations we see online.
It’s also interesting to me how every one of these evokes a junk wax era design. That’s not what a lot of people think of as the golden age of baseball cards* but it may be the era of peak trading card ubiquity. Those borders—even the football ones—are from an era when cards were everywhere and their presence was part of the national language of sports.
That Fox uses them 30+ years later as visual shorthand for saying “this article will profile a player” confirms both how deeply steeped they are in our sports culture and how much trading cards in general color the way we remember and interact with sports.
There are a couple other fake-printing graphics which Fox made before they started making the trading-card inspired ones. These suggest that Fox was moving this direction before it realized that trading cards were the look they wanted.
On September 1 Fox profiled Julio Rodríguez using a fake postcard complete with a fake stamp/postmark on the picture side of the image and bubble lettering that’s asking for a small image inside each letter. This graphic also includes a drop shadow to give the card depth and faked wear and tear on the paper.
It’s trying a little too hard for my taste (though the fake halftone rosettes are great) and ends up in the uncanny valley where it looks like something designed by someone who’s never seen an actual postcard.
The next day Fox wrote about Judge and Maris using what I’m guessing is a reference to a vintage program.* This is an interesting design complete with yellowed paper effects and a less-convincing fake halftone. Clearly not a card but, as with the postcard, it’s drawing on our associations with these things as physical objects.
*It looks very familiar to me but I can’t place it.
I haven’t noticed anything really like these since they started doing the trading card graphics the following week so it kind of feels like the trading cards had exactly the right feel Fox was looking for. I also didn’t see anything like these as I kept digging back in time through Fox’s archives. Nothing in August and I gave up digging in July.
Author’s Note: This is the third in a multi-part series that explores the legal backstories that have shaped (and continue to shape) the baseball card industry.
You may recall that Fleer and Donruss entered the baseball card market in 1981 after a Pennsylvania district court found that Topps and the Major League Baseball Players Association (“MLBPA”) had illegally restrained trade in the baseball card market. The court voided Topps’ player contract exclusivity clause and the MLBPA was ordered to enter into at least one additional licensing agreement “to market a pocket-size baseball card product, to be sold alone or in combination with a low-cost premium.” This freewheeling baseball card market was short-lived, however, once the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed the Pennsylvania district court’s order on August 25, 1981 and held the exclusive rights in Topps’ player contracts were legal and enforceable.
Ultimately victorious, Topps filed separate matters in Delaware (seeking to disgorge Fleer of its 1981 profits) and New York (seeking to recover Fleer’s profits for 1982/1983 claiming that Fleer’s team logo sticker was a “sham product”). Both cases were settled on confidential terms, though with a provision that allowed Fleer to continue selling baseball cards with team logo stickers.
The MLBPA Turns the Screws on Topps
Despite settlement between Topps and Fleer in the Delaware and New York matters, the case continued as to the counterclaim by the MLBPA against Topps, which the court astutely observed had likely been filed “in order to exert some pressure on Topps to abandon or at least modify the breadth of its interpretation of its player contracts.” Specifically, the MLBPA sought declaration that the word “alone” in Topps’ contracts did not include “low-cost non-confectionary items like Fleer’s team logo sticker.”
Marvin Miller, however, had admitted under oath in the prior Pennsylvania matter that Topps’ rights would be infringed by the sale of cards with a “completely valueless item” and that the MLBPA would have denied any proposal for baseball cards to be sold with a “trivial product.” Additionally, the court took issue with the absence of evidence regarding how much it cost to produce the stickers or “the extent, if any, to which the sticker motivates purchases” of Fleer wax packs. Topps argued the only way for Fleer to avoid an infringement claim would be to “make sure that the production cost of the [logo sticker] at least equal[ed] the production cost of the cards in the package.”
However, the settlement of the underlying case between Topps and Fleer had altered the nature of the contract issue that the MLBPA wished to litigate. Although the precise terms were confidential, the settlement agreement required Fleer to increase the production cost of the logo sticker compared to the cost of the cards in each pack and specified that the logo sticker needed to be featured prominently on packaging and advertisement for the product.
Because Topps was satisfied that Fleer’s logo stickers no longer infringed on their rights to market cards alone, the court held that the MLBPA was seeking remedy for a package of cards (containing a “sham” sticker) that was no longer being marketed and that the MLBPA’s claim was nonjusticiable—it simply did not present an active controversy over which the court could preside. Accordingly, the matter was dismissed on August 25, 1986.
Turnabout is Fair Play
Separate litigation continued between Topps and MLBPA in New York. There, Topps alleged that the MLBPA had instigated a group player boycott; had attempted to monopolize Major League Baseball players’ publicity rights in violation of the Sherman Act; and had tortiously interfered with Topps contractual relationships with the players.
The compensation Topps offered for player contracts had remained unchanged since 1975—players received $5 upon signing the initial contract and received a $250 advance against his pro rata share of a royalty pool for every season he was a member of a major league club (and Topps used his picture on a card). All-Star pitcher Jim Kern described the deal with Topps rather pithily, “you get $250 from Topps, hell or high water, if your face is on a card.”
Marvin Miller had repeatedly attempted to negotiate better terms, but Topps ignored all demands—mainly because Topps’ individual contracting system left the MLBPA with little bargaining power. In fact, Topps had offered a lower royalty rate for exclusive rights than Fleer and Donruss had for non-exclusive rights prior to the 1982 season.
In an effort to increase their bargaining power, the board recommended that no player enter into or renew an agreement with Topps. Executive board member Buck Martinez acknowledged the MLBPA “simply wanted to negotiate a new contract with Topps.” The matter came to a head in January 1986, when Miller and Don Fehr distributed a memo that declared “the Executive Board has determined that it cannot, and will not recommend that any player enter into a new agreement with Topps, or renew or extend any existing agreement with Topps, pending the outcome of the discussions between the association and Topps.” Accordingly, few players signed renewals with Topps. The MLBPA thereafter presented Topps with a licensing offer of “commercially reasonable terms.”
Topps’ player contracts were set to expire with approximately 100 individual Major League players (a group that included most of the players deemed “superstars”) on December 31, 1986. Topps complained that it would be unable to produce a complete set of cards for 1987 if those contracts were allowed to expire.
In its opinion issued on August 1, 1986, the court found questions of fact regarding whether the MLBPA intended to obtain monopoly power. However, denial of Topps’ request for a preliminary injunction was a monumental win for the MLBPA, “Topps can easily avoid the irreparable harm it claims it will suffer by accepting the offer the MLBPA has made.” In other words, Topps could simply pay for the rights to renew those 100 players with expiring contracts, however unpalatable it was to Topps. Forced into the corner, a deal was struck that allowed Topps to market a full set in 1987 and beyond.
Though card manufacturers like Topps generally kept production numbers private, “one trade magazine estimated the tally at 81 billion trading cards per year in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, or more than 300 cards for every American annually.”
In Re: Nolan Ryan Rookie Card
In April 1990, a 12-year-old collector walked out of the Ball-Mart card shop in Addison, Illinois with a beautiful 1968 Topps Nolan Ryan card. The owner of the shop, Joe Irmen, had been in the baseball card business for just a few weeks and had marked the card “1200” without a dollar sign, comma, or decimal point ($1200 was essentially top dollar for the card at the time). During a blitz of customers at the card shop, Irmen asked a clerk from his next-door jewelry store to help out. Unfortunately, that clerk had no knowledge about the value of the card and mistakenly sold it for $12.
After being inundated with requests for cheap Ryan rookie cards, Irmen discovered the $1200 card in his case had been sold at a steep discount—the receipt on file clearly showed the $12 purchase price.
Irmen initiated a manhunt and posted a sign in his store offering a $100 reward for information about the person who had purchased the card. Once the buyer (a minor) was identified, Irmen went to the child’s house, but no one answered the door. Thereafter unable to negotiate its return, Irmen filed a lawsuit in an effort to recover the card. The family, who felt the card was purchased fairly, filed a $60,000 counterclaim for defamation.
The matter was set for trial on March 5, 1991 in front of DuPage County Judge Ann Jorgensen. Before the proceedings began, it was revealed that a trade had been made the night before in which the 1968 Ryan card had been exchanged for a 1965 Joe Namath rookie and 1967 Tom Seaver rookie. The bombshell revelation resulted in a shouting match between the attorneys. Bailiffs had to clear the courtroom.
Once order was restored, the case was continued and eventually settled by way of the parties agreeing to have the card auctioned off for charity. On June 21, 1991 the card was sold for $5000, and the proceeds split between the parties to be donated to charities of their choice.
Cutting Cards: A Cautionary Tale
In what may qualify as the original “cart art,” Dad’s Kid Corporation produced a set of “Tri Cards” in 1992 that were assembled using three identical baseball cards issued by Donruss, Fleer, Score, or Upper Deck. The top two cards were die-cut such that only the body of player remained. Those two pieces were then stacked and glued atop an uncut card to create a neat 3-D effect. Each card was encased in a plastic box and sold individually or in a two-pack, packaged such that each card was visible to potential buyers.
The owner of Dad’s Kid Corporation, Christopher Kamar, had struck deals with Toys R Us, F.A.O. Schwartz, Spencer Gifts, and other retailers to sell his Tri Cards. Almost immediately, the Tri Cards were so popular that Dad’s Kid had to run three shifts of 100 assemblers per shift just to meet demand. In fact, its initial shipment to Toys R Us was so successful, Dad’s Kid had a reorder on the table worth upwards of $20 million when Upper Deck, Score, Leaf, and the MLBPA filed coordinated lawsuits in New York and California seeking to stop Dad’s Kid from selling its Tri Card products. The respective lawsuits alleged that any modification of existing baseball cards, without prior written permission, violated trademark and copyright law.
For its part, Dad’s Kid had undertaken a thorough legal analysis before it began the manufacturing process and was operating under a good-faith belief it was not infringing on any rights; it was simply using cards purchased legally on the secondary market. Moreover, the company posted an explicit disclaimer on each box alerting consumers it was not claiming any rights with respect to the cards and was otherwise not affiliated with any of the card manufacturers, MLB, or the MLBPA.
In the New York case, the MLBPA moved for an injunction asking the court to stop Dad’s Kid from selling Tri Card products. The district court refused, citing the “first-sale doctrine” in a ruling issued on November 12, 1992:
“The fact that an enormous secondary market exists for baseball cards and baseball card derivative works leads me to conclude on this record that baseball players have little if any continuing publicity rights with respect to the use and reuse of their pictures on cards by subsequent purchasers and sellers of duly licensed baseball cards following a perfectly proper first sale into commerce for which the players get a royalty.” Effectively, the players did not have the right to control what was done with the cards after the initial sale and had no claim for any additional compensation. On the heels of this victory, Dad’s Kid announced its Tri Cards would be back in 1993.
The lawsuits rolled on, however, and in April 1993 the New York case was consolidated with the California matters to continue there. Unfortunately for Dad’s Kid, the California district court did not agree with (and was not bound by) the New York first-sale ruling and instead issued a permanent injunction on August 12, 1994 that prohibited Dad’s Kid from producing any further Tri Cards. The court further ordered that Dad’s Kid reimburse the plaintiff card manufacturers and MLBPA over $1 million collectively in attorneys’ fees and costs.
Dad’s Kid appealed and the case was eventually dismissed on March 8, 1996, pursuant to a confidential settlement.
Johnny Bench Hit by his Own Pitch
Sports cards and memorabilia sales continued to soar in the 1990s and quickly became a fixture on shop-at-home television stations. This format often preyed on those unfamiliar with the actual value of items and otherwise created an environment where even sophisticated collectors might get caught up in the frenzied sales tactics.
Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench appeared on the Home Shopping Network on August 5, 1993 to hawk baseballs he had signed. In typical shop-at home fashion, viewers were initially told the autographed balls were worth $129. They claimed the baseballs would sell out at $99.95. Finally, the Bench-signed baseballs were dropped to the low, low price of $49.95.
Unfortunately for the Home Shopping Network and Bench, however, the New York Department of Consumer Affairs had started to monitor the values claimed for sports card and memorabilia. With the help of a trusted price guide, they determined that an autographed Johnny Bench baseball was worth $35, only 70% of its final “sensational” sales price.
The first celebrity endorser to face such charges in New York, Bench was personally cited for misrepresenting the value of his own signature on a ball. Bench was hit with a $5000 fine in December and Home Shopping Network was ordered to pay $30,000.
Poking the Bear
Seeking to “put the fun back in baseball card collecting,” Cardtoons readied a 1993 release of parody baseball cards intended to poke fun at the egos and greed in the game (and the world) with an issue that was equal parts Wacky Packages, Garbage Pail Kids, and traditional trading cards. The set of 130 cards lampooned current players, retired legends, Michael Jordan (the baseball player) and political figures like Bill Clinton.
Cardtoons tapped free agent sportswriter Mike Sowell to create the players’ alter egos and write the card backs. Caricatures by Dayne Dudley and Dave Simpson were deftly rendered so that each individual was recognizable without including team logos that might run afoul of MLB’s rights. In fact, even the team names were changed to cheeky monikers (e.g., Orioles/Bore-Ioles and Cubs/Scrubs). The glossy cards were distributed in foil packs along with chase cards, foil versions, insert sets, puzzles, and redemption cards intended to skewer the baseball card industry, itself. Cardtoons’ initial run called for some 13 million cards to be printed.
Cardtoons first advertised their cards in the May 14, 1993 issue of Sports Collector Digest. This caught the attention of the MLBPA (who had not issued a license to Cardtoons to use the likenesses of the players depicted). The MLBPA sent Cardtoons a letter on June 18 asserting that its product violated the “valuable property rights of MLBPA and the players” and threatened legal action if any cards of active baseball players were sold. A similar letter was sent to the printing company, who immediately halted production.
Just days after receipt of the cease-and-desist letter, Cardtoons filed a lawsuit against MLBPA seeking a declaration that it could sell parody baseball cards without license from the MLBPA pursuant to First Amendment protection. At a subsequent evidentiary hearing, Cardtoons revealed it was sitting on nearly 4000 cases of product ready to ship. The MLBPA claimed it would never have licensed a parody set that poked fun at individual players (and also admitted to a “glut” in the market for baseball cards!).
The district court considered that parodies (such as political cartoons) were generally protected by the First Amendment and “deserving of substantial freedom—both as entertainment and as a form of social and literary criticism.” The issue the court wrangled with, however, was whether “one can sell a parody” and ultimately decided that Cardtoons could not profit from the players’ likenesses and fame. An order was entered that prohibited Cardtoons from selling cards containing the likenesses of active Major League ballplayers (101 of the 130 cards in the set). Damages were denied because none of the cards had actually been sold at the time the decision was rendered on November 23, 1993.
The Cardtoons set eventually saw the light of day, however, because raunchy rap group 2 Live Crew sampled a Roy Orbison song without permission. In a case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, 2 Live Crew prevailed in a ruling handed down on March 7, 1994 in which it was held that a commercial (i.e., made specifically for sale) parody song could constitute fair use.
Cardtoons sought reconsideration in light of the 2 Live Crew ruling and on October 25, 1994, the district court reversed its prior decision, this time finding it reasonable that Cardtoons would seek compensation for its efforts and recognized that “parodists will seldom get permission from those whose works are parodied. Self-esteem is seldom strong enough to permit the granting of permission even in exchange for a reasonable fee.” The court ultimately ruled that that right of publicity did not “confer a shield to ward off caricature, parody and satire” and that the Cardtoons cards were protected by the First Amendment, regardless of their commercial nature.
Finally clear to distribute their cards, Cardtoons released the set in 1995—the product’s overarching message elegantly punctuated by intervening strike and cancellation of the 1994 World Series. While the original version of cards was set to be “90 percent positive in the way they portrayed players,” Sowell’s opinion soured as the court battle raged. He decided there was “no need to be nice” and satirized the players as he saw fit.
The appeal filed by MLBPA was denied in 1996, the Tenth Circuit ruling succinctly that “the last thing we need, the last thing the First Amendment will tolerate, is a law that lets public figures keep people from mocking them.” But for the protracted lawsuit, Cardtoons had plans to issue card sets for other sports.
Mickey Mantle v. Upper Deck
On February 1, 1993 Mickey Mantle entered a three-year contract that gave Upper Deck “exclusive worldwide rights to use and reuse. . .Mantle’s name (as well as any nicknames), image, likeness, artists’ portrayal of image or likeness, visual representation, signature (or facsimile thereof), photograph, voice, biography, statistics and endorsements” for baseball cards and associated promotional materials. Upper Deck’s 1993 Mantle issues were relatively modest, including several “All-Time Heroes” multiplayer cards and a “Then and Now” card featuring a young Mantle aside a holographic image an older Mantle wearing an Upper Deck jersey.
In 1994, Upper Deck produced a slew of Mantle cards, including one that was personally signed by both Mantle and Ken Griffey Jr. That year, Topps also issued a Mantle card as part of its Archive set, styled as a 1954 Topps card and clearly indicating on the reverse that it had rights to issue the card per an agreement with Upper Deck. (Mantle was signed with Bowman exclusively in 1954 and 1955 and Topps had not issued Mantle cards those seasons.)
Despite Upper Deck wholeheartedly issuing a multitude of Mantle cards in 1994, the company reportedly soured on the deal after Mantle publicly admitted he had undergone alcohol rehabilitation. Mantle filed a lawsuit late in the year claiming that Upper Deck had threatened to rescind the contract unless he agreed to take a pay cut. Upper Deck admitted, “discussions regarding restructuring Mr. Mantle’s contract were the product of his disability and other performance-related concerns.” Upper Deck claimed Mantle had “failed to live up to his commitments as effective spokesperson for the company.”
In February 1995 the parties agreed to participate in arbitration (an alternative dispute resolution process in which three arbitrators—not a jury or judge—decide the case and amount of damages, if any). Despite the ongoing dispute, Upper Deck went ahead and issued a set of metallic Mickey Mantle baseball cards in 1995.
Somewhat ironically, Upper Deck sued several parties in a separate action on February 14, 1995 claiming that those companies could not sell items autographed by Mantle during the term of Upper Deck’s exclusive contract with Mantle. One of those companies, Score Board, prevailed because its contract with Mantle specifically provided it could sell off remaining merchandise after that contract expired on January 31, 1993. At the same time, Score Board had separately sued Upper Deck in New Jersey claiming that Upper Deck was improperly selling autographed Ken Griffey Jr. signatures that Score Board had exclusive right to sell.
On May 28, 1995, Mantle was hospitalized and underwent a liver transplant on June 8. After Mantle passed away on August 13, 1995, collectors scrambled to acquire Mantle items and Upper Deck, alone, sold more than $500,000 worth of Mantle memorabilia on the heels of his death. Mantle’s (estranged) widow Merlyn and personal attorney Roy True continued to prosecute the Upper Deck case on behalf of Mantle’s estate.
On May 22, 1996 the arbitration panel awarded the estate nearly $5 million (approximately $9.7 million in today’s dollars), which included actual damages for having sold Mantle merchandise without a license to do so, punitive damages, and attorney’s fees. Upper Deck sought to have the award vacated, but their efforts failed, and the lawsuit was closed in April 1997.
Orel Hershiser Adds Another Shutout
Orel Hershiser is probably best known for his amazing 1988 pitching performance in which he tossed 59 consecutive shutout innings. A decade later, Hershiser sued Vintage Sports Plaques (“Vintage”) for infringement of licensing and publicity rights after learning that Vintage was selling Hershiser’s baseball cards affixed to wooden plaques and labeled with his name. (Deluxe plaques included a “clock with a sports motif.”) The Hershiser cards used by Vintage were purchased from licensed manufacturers and framed without alteration. Vintage, itself, had no licensing agreements with any parties.
Vintage argued that the “first-sale doctrine” was a complete defense to the publicity claims. The first-sale doctrine provides that “once the holder of an intellectual property right consents to the sale of particular copies. . .of his work, he may not thereafter exercise the distribution right with respect to such copies.” The court rightly recognized that its failure to apply the first-sale doctrine in the Hershiser case would “render tortious the resale of sports trading cards and memorabilia” and would have a chilling effect on the secondary market for trading cards. In fact, refusing to apply the first-sale doctrine here would essentially make it impossible for a child to sell a baseball card to a friend.
Ultimately, the court found that Vintage was merely reselling cards that it had lawfully obtained. “This is more appropriately classified as a case of an entrepreneur repackaging or displaying the trading cards in a more attractive way to consumers rather than a case of an opportunist using Plaintiffs’ names and likenesses to sell frames and clocks.” The appellate court affirmed and the plaintiff’s declined to pursue any further appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Hershiser was shutout.
An Ocean of Cards
Although the MLBPA had long been involved in baseball card-related disputes and litigation, the owners of the ballclubs had not been quite so active, perhaps because collecting money for the use of their trademarked logos and uniforms, while very lucrative, was not the lifeblood that licensing revenue represented for the MLBPA.
This changed in 1998, however, when Major League Baseball Properties, Inc. (“MLB”) learned that Pacific Trading Cards was in the process of manufacturing and distributing cards that depicted players in their MLB uniforms, despite MLB having refused to grant a license to Pacific for the current set. (MLB had authorized previous Pacific issues).
Pacific was fully licensed by the MLBPA and went forward with manufacture “either believing mistakenly that it would receive a license from MLB or not caring whether it would.” The MLB sued to stop Pacific from distributing their cards. The MLB’s request for a preliminary injunction was denied, inter alia, because the court felt that the inclusion of the logos or trademarks were only incidental to the depiction of the player and did not imply any sponsorship by MLB for the card.
An appeal followed by MLB and Pacific implored the court for permission to ship their cards immediately or the results would be financially ruinous. Ultimately, MLB and Pacific were able to reach a settlement and Pacific continued to issue sets of baseball cards through 2001.
Throughout the 1990s, card companies, like Pacific, continued to churn out nearly innumerable piles of cards. An exclusive license for Topps was on the horizon, but the fighting would continue in nearly every corner of the hobby.
To be continued…
Fleer Corp. v. Topps Chewing Gum, Inc., 501 F.Supp. 485 (E.D. Pa. 1980). The only trading card product ever to outsell baseball cards was Wacky Packages in 1973-74. The court noted that the slab of gum weighed “4.30 grams” in 1978. Fleer had a net operating loss in 1978 and its net income (loss) was as follows: 1977—$346,621; 1976—$502,257; 1975—$720,274; 1974—($309,261); 1973—$382,354; 1972—$268,926; 1971—$148,494; 1970—($200,016). Roughly two thirds of baseball cards purchased are purchased by “heavy” buyers (i.e., those who purchase more than 200 cards per year.)
Fleer Corp. v. Topps Chewing Gum, Inc., 658 F.2d 139, 658 F.2d 139 (3rd Cir. 1981). The number of players included in each licensing agreement varied. Some contracts, like those with Coca-Cola and Kellogg’s covered all the players, while others included “not less than 72, and not more than 300.”
Fleer Corp. v. Topps Chewing Gum, Inc., cert. denied, 455 U.S. 1019 (1982).
Topps Chewing Gum, Inc. v. Fleer Corp., 547 F.Supp. 102 (D. Del. 1982).
Tetley, Inc. v. Topps Chewing Gum, Inc., 556 F.Supp. 785 (E.D.N.Y. 1983). Tetley Tea manufacturer sued Topps for including “Petley Flea Bags” in its Wacky Packages release. Approximately 200,000 of the sticker was issued between 1975 and 1977 and Topps had produced approximately 400,000 more of the sticker for its 1982 release. Topps agreed to discontinue distribution of the offending sticker once the printed run was fully depleted.
Topps Chewing Gum, Inc. v. Major League Baseball Players Association, 641 F.Supp. 1179 (S.D. N.Y. 1986) Topps paid royalties to the MLBPA computed at 8% of Topps’ first $4 million in net sales and 10% of Topps’ net sales in excess of $4 million.
Topps Chewing Gum, Inc. v. Fleer Corp., 799 F.2d 851 (2nd Cir. 1986). The MLBPA was granted intervention as a defendant in Topps case against Fleer; Topps had not sued the MLBPA directly in this action. The matter was remanded to the district court to be dismissed without prejudice, which would have allowed the MLBPA to have filed a new lawsuit against Topps, if they desired. No such suit was filed.
Original Appalachian Artworks, Inc. v. Topps Chewing Gum, Inc., 642 F.Supp. 1031 (N.D. Ga. 1986). The makers of Cabbage Patch Kids sued Topps for copyright and trademark infringement caused by the sale of its Garbage Pail Kids stickers. Between May 1985 and August 1986, Topps had sold more than 800 million stickers. Before issuing the Garbage Pail Kids product, Topps had unsuccessfully tried to obtain a license for Cabbage Patch Kids. Topps eventually agreed to a confidential cash settlement and design changes to the cards. “Cabbage Patch Dolls are Victorious Over Garbage Pail Kids.” The Columbus (Georgia) Ledger, February 4, 1987: 8.
Fleer Corp. v. Topps Chewing Gum, Inc. 539 A.2d 1060 (Del., 1988). “Restitution serves to ‘deprive the defendant of benefits that in equity and good conscience he ought not to keep, even though he may have received those benefits honestly in the first instance, and even though the plaintiff may have suffered no demonstrable losses.’”
Cardtoons v. Major League Baseball Players Ass’n, 838 F. Supp. 1501 (N.D. Okla. 1993). The six companies with MLBPA licenses to sell baseball cards at the time were producing an estimated $1.3 billion in annual sales. Caricature was defined as “the deliberate distorted picturing or imitating of a person, literary style, etc. by exaggerating features or mannerisms for satirical effect.”
Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc., 510 U.S. 569 (1994). The District Court had granted summary judgment for 2 Live Crew, holding that its song “Pretty Woman” was a parody that made fair use of the original Roy Orbison song “Oh, Pretty Woman.” The appellate court reversed because they felt 2 Live Crew had “taken too much” of the original for their own use and that the song constituted a commercial use. The Supreme Court subsequently reversed and remanded holding that 2 Live Crew’s commercial parody might qualify as fair use.
Cardtoons v. Major League Baseball Players Ass’n, 868 F. Supp. 1266 (N.D. Okla. 1994).
Cardtoons, L.C. v. Major League Baseball Players Ass’n, 95 F.3d 959, 39 USPQ2d 1865 (10th Cir. 1996). “Because Cardtoons’ First Amendment right to free expression outweighs MLBPA’s proprietary right of publicity, we affirm.” The court noted that royalties from baseball cards generated over 70 percent of the MLBPA’s licensing revenue.
Mantle v. Upper Deck Co., 956 F.Supp. 719 (N.D. Texas, 1997). Mantle sued The Upper Deck Company and Upper Deck Authenticated, Ltd. These related companies are referred to collectively as “Upper Deck” for the reader’s benefit. Judgment confirmed for Estate of Mickey Mantle against defendants in the principal amount of $2,725,258.00, exemplary damages in the amount of $1,000,000.00, attorney’s fees in amount of $1,241,628.00, prejudgment interest at 10% per year from the date of the award until the date of judgment, and post-judgment interest at 5.81% per year.
Upper Deck Authenticated, Ltd. v. CPG Direct, 971 F.Supp. 1337 (S.D. Cal. 1997). Defendants included Shop at Home, Inc., CPG Direct, B&J Collectibles, William Rodman, Kenneth Goldin, Classic Games, Inc., Catch a Star Collectibles, Inc., The Score Board, Inc., Score Board Retail Corporation, The Score Board Holding Corporation.
The Score Board, Inc. v. Upper Deck Co., 959 F.Supp. 234 (D. N.J. 1997).
Allison v. Vintage Sports Plaques, 136 F.3d 1443 (11th Cir. 1998). Hershiser had otherwise earned $230,000 from licensing and endorsement deals from 1993 through 1996. Stockcar driver Cliff Allison’s widow Elisa was also a plaintiff in the case.
Major League Baseball Properties, Inc. v. Pacific Trading Cards, Inc., 1998 WL 241904 (S.D. N.Y. 1998).
Major League Baseball Properties, Inc. v. Pacific Trading Cards, Inc., No. 98-7700 (2nd Cir. 1998).
Cardtoons v. Major League Baseball Players Ass’n, 182 F.3d 1132 (10th Cir. 1999); Cardtoons v. Major League Baseball Players Ass’n, 208 F.3d 885 (10th Cir. 2000); Cardtoons v. Major League Baseball Players Ass’n, 335 F.3d 1161 (10th Cir. 2003). Cardtoons tried, and failed, to collect monetary damages from the MLBPA.
Paul Lomartire, “Baseball Cards and the Snaps of Spring,” The Tampa Tribune, April 4, 1982: 133.
John Leptich, “Boy sued over baseball card,” Chicago Tribune, November 10, 1990: 1.
“Nolan Ryan rookie card snafu headed to court,” The Tribune (Scranton, Pennsylvania), March 6, 1991: 12.
John Leptich, “Baseball card returns, trial goes on,” Chicago Tribune, March 8, 1991: 49.
John Leptich, “Charity delivers winning pitch in baseball card suit,” Chicago Tribune, April 23, 1991: 47.
John Leptich, “Ryan card brings $5000 and another flap,” Chicago Tribune, June 22, 1991: 41.
“Upper Deck Sues Rival Card Firm; Claims Trademark Infringement,” North County Times (Oceanside, California), August 2, 1992: 31.
Anne Michaud, “Small Baseball Card Firm Takes Hit from Big Leagues,” Los Angeles Times, October 22, 1992: 265.
“For the Record,” Los Angeles Times, October 23, 1992: 195. Dad’s Kid filed a counterclaim for $955 million.
Jim Bullard, “More than kids’ stuff,” Tampa Bay Times, January 1, 1993: 96.
Owen Canfield, “ML Players Association not amused by ‘Cardtoons,’” Central New Jersey Home News (New Brunswick, New Jersey), July 9, 1993: 24.
“Bench’s ink pitch draws ire,” Herald and Review (Decatur, Illinois), October 8, 1993: 30.
“Mantle files lawsuit against Upper Deck on contract balk,” Logansport (Indiana) Pharos-Tribune, November 4, 1994: 12.
Jay D. Preble, “Leagues fighting unlicensed cards,” Tampa Tribune, November 12, 1994: 24.
Gene Collier, “How do you spell egomaniacal?,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette February 12, 1995: 25.
John Mabry, “Satire cards aren’t a hit with big-league players, Kansas City Star, April 16, 1995: 44.
Christopher Kamar, telephone interview with author, October 21, 2022.
Michael Sowell, telephone interview with author, November 5, 2022.
Special thanks to Jason Schwartz for reviewing this article and offering helpful suggestions.
Tri Cards Checklist (Cards are not identified with a Tri Cards set number or date of issue by Dad’s Kid Corp. Cards are individually numbered to 50,000. Production was halted before 50,000 of any card was manufactured and no records remain regarding the actual number produced of each Tri Card. Additionally, no checklist of Tri Cards manufactured exists, so the following list may be incomplete.)
We may have something fun going on where your help would be awesome. Though the final product will likely take the form of a series of nearly 100 blog articles, it’s also fun to think of this as a really long book, one where each page tells the story of a different baseball card and the book, collectively, not only tells the story of baseball cards but baseball itself.
Think of this post as an example of how the book might begin, though your feedback and ideas may well replace the examples here with even better ones. Definitely let us know your thoughts in the comments, and more importantly, add your card ideas to our Google Sheet.
When card collectors think of the number “one,” the card they think of may depend on their age and collecting interests. For collectors of 1952 Topps, it’s Andy Pafko. For Goudey collectors, it’s Benny Bengough. For very new collectors, it may well be Shohei Ohtani or Mike Trout. And for just about everyone in between, the answer is Junior.
Ken Griffey, Jr., not only led off Upper Deck’s debut set but did so emphatically. As if the tamper-resistant packs, the hologrammed cards, the color photo backs, and the high sticker price weren’t enough to make the Hobby take notice, the positioning of Junior at the top of the checklist boldly announced that this was the company that loved unproven rookies just as much as you did.
It’s also possible that this “one” impacted all future “ones.” Prior to 1989, the top slot often went to top stars but sometimes went to record breakers, league leaders, and team cards of World Series winners. Post-Griffey, card one is nearly always a stud if not a statement.
The number two is largely ubiquitous in baseball: double plays, two-base hits, a number two starter, and of course the doubleheader. As luck would have it, Topps not only issued a second set of cards, Double Headers, as a companion to its 1955 offering, but the set just happened to include the Hall of Famer most synonymous with doubleheaders, Mr. Let’s Play Two himself. (Apologies to the Iron Man McGinnity die-hards out there.)
The 1955 Topps Double Headers set must have struck young collectors as completely unique and original: a card that could be folded into a different card (not to mention cards that could be arranged with other cards to build ballpark panoramas)! Older collectors, however, may have recognized its origins and inspiration in a set 44 years earlier, the 1911 Mecca Double Folders. (And for the McGinnity fans, yes, he has a card in it!)
The number three in baseball is practically synonymous with a certain Yankee slugger, but we’ll go here instead with a Yankee slayer, Lew Burdette.
Burdette famously pitched and won three complete games, the last two by shutout, to defeat the New York Yankees in 1957 and bring Milwaukee fans their first and only World Series title. In burying the Bombers, Burdette became the first pitcher of the live ball era to record three complete game victories in a World Series, a feat since repeated by both Bob Gibson (1967) and Mickey Lolich (1968).
While cards celebrating historical achievement are commonplace in today’s Hobby (e.g., ToppsNow and Topps “Turn Back the Clock”), this was not always the case. However, the period from 1959-62 was something of a golden age for honoring the past. In addition to the Nu-Cards sets of 1960 and 1961, Topps included “Baseball Thrills” subsets in 1959 and 1961. (The 1961 set also honored past MVPs.) Topps followed this with a “Babe Ruth Special” subset in 1962.
Fleer, meanwhile, made its return to baseball in 1959 with an 80-card set celebrating the life and career of Ted Williams, following up in 1960 and 1961-62 with sets of “Baseball Greats.” Golden Press also joined the fun in 1961 with an all-time greats set issued magazine style.
With apologies to Mel Ott, Hack Wilson, and Duke Snider, baseball’s iconic number 4 will always be the Iron Horse, Lou Gehrig. Fittingly, Gehrig is also card #4 in the underrated and under-the-radar 1994 Upper Deck All-Time Heroes set.
The scene depicted by the card is one that define’s Lou Gehrig’s life and legacy even more than his statistics or famous streak. “…Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”
The 1970s blessed the Hobby with no small number of amazing catcher cards, cards which by the way hold their own nicely against any of the top cards of the decade. Rather than declare best, we will focus on first. Five cards into the 1971 Topps set, collectors were greeted with cardboard perfection.
Seriously, what’s not to like? The groovy landscape layout, the black borders, the sizeable All-Star Rookie trophy, a head-first and helmet-free Chuck Dobson, the glorious Oakland green and gold…oh, and the great Thurman Munson! This card has it all!
Nobably, the 1971 Topps Thurman Munson also represents a true rarity in the modern Hobby: a second-year card more coveted than the player’s rookie card. (Another good example is Ron Cey, but the reason is very different. Ditto Cey teammate Steve Garvey.)
Many great players have worn the number six, and one top-shelf immortal even carried the nickname Big Six. Still, we’ll go a different direction in selecting a “six” card. Here is Gus Zernial of the Philadephia Athletics seemingly defying the laws of physics with his bat and six baseballs.
The card must have caught the eye of many a young gum chewer in its day, but what does the picture represent? Why six baseballs? Flip the card over and you find the answer: “Gus also tied the major league record for the most home runs in 3 straight games with 6 circuit clouts and hit 7 in 4 straight games to tie the American League mark.”
The year of the record, 1951, was the first of three 30+ home run campaigns for Zernial, his high of 42 coming in 1953. While his 1952 Topps card is more famous today than his stat line, Gus actually retired in 1959 36th on the all-time home run list.
Records aside, the Zernial card stands out in a set filled with portraits and staid baseball poses and offers a “fun factor” that stacks up with even the most whimsical Fleer cards that followed three decades later.
Seven can mean many things in baseball: Nolan Ryan’s no-hitters, the number of innings in each half of a Manfred doubleheader, and of course the Mick’s iconic jersey number. Or it can mean a really incredible day at the plate.
Or an amazing run of home run crowns…
Or an amazing run of strikeout crowns!
The number eight in baseball most famously (or infamously!) is associated with scandal: the “Eight Men Out” in the wake of the 1919 World Series. Apart fom later tribute sets, there is no “playing era” set that includes all eight of the Black Sox banned for life. However, the W514 strip card set of 1919-21 comes the closest, offering seven of the eight.
For readers unfamiliar with strip cards they were, as the name implies, cut from longer strips. In most cases, the cards themselves were not inserted in products the way tobacco and gum cards were. Rather, they were given out to customers as rewards or premiums for buying other things. For example, you might imagine a customer spending a penny on some gumballs and then receiving one of these cards as a token of appreciation for the purchase.
The heyday of strip cards was without a doubt the 1920s, a decade that–along with caramel cards–filled the gap between the tobacco era (1880s-1910s) and the gum era (1930s-1990s). Many collectors find strip cards unappealing due to their hand-cut nature or (often) low quality artwork and printing. If you search the web you will find no shortage of hideous examples. That said, the W514 set is an important one in Hobby history if for nothing else its abundance of Black Sox, and a later strip card set from 1923 is equally notable as it represented the debut of Fleer baseball cards in the Hobby.
Nine innings, nine players to a side, and ninety feet between bases…few numbers are more important in baseball than the number nine. Likewise, few players have been as accomplished in baseball as Boston’s number 9, Ted Williams.
The 1959 Fleer set serves as a cardboard tribute to #9. Its 80 cards chronicle his life and career from boyhood to (then) present day, both on and off the field. At the time it was produced, it was by far the largest single player set to date. (Notable but much smaller sets featured–of course–Babe Ruth and–more surprisingly–Rabbit Maranville.)
Card 44 in the set depicts Williams, still very much in the prime of his career, hanging up his famous jersey as he prepares once more to go off to war. Overall, Williams would miss nearly five full years of baseball in service to his country, and one can only imagine what numbers those five years might have added to his career totals. Fairly conservative estimates might be 170 hits and 30 home runs per year, taking the Splendid Splinter from 2654 hits to around 3500 and from 521 home runs to nearly 700.
Of course, what Ted did do during those five missing seasons mattered too and perhaps added to his legend even more than the extra numbers would have.
When modern collectors think “10,” it’s the grade they hope their card receives from popular grading services like PSA, Beckett, or SGC. Where grades are concerned, 10 is synonymous with gem mint, the very top of the scale (ignoring silly modifiers like black diamond elite).
Certainly their thoughts are a million miles away from the obscure ballplayers of more than a century ago who patrolled the outfields of the rainy Pacific Northwest. Or should I say Ten Million miles away?
The unusually named Ten Million made his only cardboard appearance in the 1909-11 Obak tobacco card set, a set that carried a similar design to the contemporary T206 set of Honus Wagner fame. His card, as you might imagine, represented the largest number (at the time) ever seen on a baseball card, topping the previous record by a factor of a hundred.
Other researchers will have to determine the current record, but we will offer here, perhaps surprisingly, that Ten Million was at least matched a few years later by the 1914 Cracker Jack set.
Evidently, before there was junk wax, there were junk jacks!
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
So all of what you just read is the main idea here, but now picture the “pages” extending well beyond 1-10, potentially as high as 792, 793, or even higher. Would there be long stretches of numbers with no interesting cards? Maybe. Would it take forever to finish (or even read!) such a project? Probably! Would readers second-guess many of the cards selected? Definitely!
Well, also in the “definitely” category is that this is way too much work for one or two people to do themselves. Ideally some of you will be interested in–
Suggesting cards to feature – add your nominations here!
Doing the write-up for a ten-card run, similar to what’s in this sample article
Providing some early feedback on what will make this megaproject awesome – feel free to use the Comments area below.
A particular question to consider is whether you’d like to see a strict match between the number we’re writing about and the number on the back of the card, as was the case with Griffey, Gehrig, and Munson above, or if you prefer the variety provided by the Eight Men Out or Ten Million.
Just a very quick article to provide definitive resolution to some Hobby lore regarding 1975 Topps card 466. Though the card’s headline, “A’s Do It Again,” is reminiscent of a Britney Spears hit, the card is better known to collectors for its connection to another pop icon.
Next to Reggie Jackson is a young lad collectors have long presumed to be former Oakland bat boy Stanley Kirk Burrell, more commonly known to the world as MC Hammer or simply Hammer.
The supposition wasn’t a bad one at all seeing as the hip hop legend was a fixture in the Athletics clubhouse from 1973-80, fulfilling a range of duties from bat boy to vice president!
Even the rapper’s nickname draws from his time with the A’s, where Reggie Jackson and other players called him “Hammer” or “Little Hammer” based on the young man’s uncanny resemblance to Henry Aaron.
Returning to the Topps card, then, an MC Hammer cameo makes a lot of sense.
Of course, there are others who know far more about these things than I do.
So there you have it. The MC Hammer cameo is actually big brother Chris! Perhaps we should have known all along since Hammer himself would have been 12 at the time of the championship, which is younger than the bat boy on the card appears.
Fortunately, there is still work to do for the cameo sleuths out there. Any chance one of our cardboard detectives can spot a glimpse of Oakland ball girl Debbi Sivyer, better known today as cookie maven Mrs. Fields, on some random A’s card?
Get out those magnifying glasses and check the left field foul line! She’s gotta be there somewhere!
When William Klein died I tweeted out a quick RIP from the official account where I stated that he was one of the blog’s favorite photographers. If you were browsing Twitter on your phone it would’ve been easy to miss the details in the photo and realize why I tweeted it. For me as both an art museum goer and a card collector though, Klein represents one of the few genuine overlaps in my interests. Yes it’s great to be able to visit the Burdick Collection at The Met but it’s even more fun to see cards pop up in other parts of the museum.
I’ll start with Klein both because he’s what prompted this post and because this is the oldest piece. And yes, the title of this photo is indeed “Baseball Cards.” I’m not going to write a ton about him as a photographer on here but his book of street photos in New York is justly famous in part because of how it taps in to imagery that where you not only feel like part of the scene but suggests that the scene may be familiar to you.
Sometimes, like with “Gun 1,” the familiarity is disturbing. Other times, such as with “Baseball Cards” the scene is one that should resonate in a pleasant way with every reader of this blog. Kids showing off their stacks of cards. Kids showing off a favorite player. It’s why we started collecting and in many ways the feeling we’re trying to hold on to while we keep collecting.
If you only saw the tweet on your phone you might not have noticed that the kids were holding stacks of 1955 Bowman. Blowing up the image you can see that the central card is one of the few light wood borders and is pretty obviously Gil McDougald. I had to comb through the set to identify the other card. I’m pretty sure it’s Randy Jackson—the dark background plus the long sleeves plus the placement of name box is pretty distinct—but there are a decent number of righthanded batters which I had to choose from.
I’ve written about these before on here so there’s no need for me to write much more. That said, at the time of first writing I hadn’t identified everyone in the cards and it took a committee effort in the comments of that post (as well as on Twitter) to both identify the actual 1979 Topps cards that were the basis for these.
I don’t think anyone’s identified the Rookies card but the other five are Steve Henderson (JOE), Bob Randall (JERK), Steve Kemp (HOT DOG), Ed Glynn (BUS PASS), and John Matlack (WALLY). The Mets Team Card meanwhile shows up on what we’re using as the checklist for these.
Most of us here probably recognized immediately that Warhol used a new photo and didn’t just copy either of Rose’s 1985 Topps cards. But the cards are clearly part of the piece. One of the things I like about Warhol’s Rose prints is how they combine the Campbell’s Soup elevation of industrial design into Art™ with his larger-than-life pop culture celebrity portraits and it says a lot about baseball cards and Topps that they were worthy of this treatment.
And yeah. A small short checklist so far which I hope to be able to add to in the future. But also a very fun one that speaks to baseball cards’ larger importance as part of our culture.
As if I didn’t already have enough different things to collect, the recent progress my SABR Chicago bud John has made on his Cubs team sets, 1956-present, got me thinking…what about me?
For the last several years I’d been working on roughly one Dodger team set per year. For example, last year’s project was 1951 Bowman.
This year’s project has been T206, which I’m now only two cards from completing. (Remember we’re talking team set here, not the entire Monster!)
Like so many other collectors, I frequently found myself wondering what was next. As much as I’d love to go “Full Hoyle” and chase every card ever of my favorite team, a focus on the 1970s or perhaps the “Garvey Era” (1971-83) was what felt most tenable.
Sometimes all you need is just the right nudge, and it came when another SABR bud, Dave, emailed me to let me know he was putting much of his collection for sale. As it turned out, he had plenty of 1970s Dodgers and even a decent stack from the 1960s. Dave’s collection was a fantastic start to my new binder and even got me thinking if I might extend my ambitions to include the 1960s as well, if not the entire Los Angeles era.
In the time since, I’ve made some deals on Twitter, grabbed plenty of cards off eBay, and whittled my 1970s want list down to less than two dozen. Though I’m less committed (for good reasons you’ll soon see) to the 1960s, I’ve also added some very cool cards from that decade that look great in the binder, even by themselves. My favorite so far is this 1960 Leaf Duke Snider.
As I’ve worked on this new collecting project here are some of the “rookie mistakes” I’ve made along the way, on purpose of course to make the adventure that much more challenging, right?
When collectors think Dodgers, 1958-1980, they rightfully imagine having to spend real money on the likes of Sandy Koufax, Duke Snider, and Don Drysdale, but they might need a minute to remember Ken McMullen. Despite the absence of Hall of Famers, this is NOT a cheap card!
Ditto the rookie card of Tom Paciorek!
Though the Penguin is a true Dodger legend, his second year card also ups the tab much more than one would hope.
The list goes on and on, with high priced rookie card cameos and high numbers (pre-1974) selling on par with Hall of Famers. My solution at the moment is to proceed full speed ahead on the 1970s but hold off on any earnest attempts from 1958-1969 even as I’ll happily scoop up the occasional dollar common from those early years.
1975, PART ONE: BEWARE OF MINIS
Beware?? I know many of you love the mini set, and hey, I’m not saying I don’t. I’m just not there yet. Still, in the process of building my standard 1975 Dodgers team set, I’ve opened two different eBay envelopes only to find mini versions inside. One goof was on me for not fully reading the description; the other was a goof of the seller, who forgot to include “mini” in the listing. Either way, the lesson learned is you can’t tell a mini from the picture alone…unless that picture is of your binder!
1975, PART TWO: DARN THOSE WORLD SERIES CARDS!
When I was seeding my 1975 Dodgers set at Dave’s place, I went off the team checklist at Trading Card Database. Not wanting to take up too much of his time, I barely looked at each card as I pulled it from the box. It was not till I got home that I realized the five season cards I grabbed all had a common theme: DODGERS LOSE!
If I had it to do all over again, I might have passed on every single one of these cards. Of course the thinking changes once cards are already in hand, at which point you almost have no choice but to add them to the binder. Soon enough I was able to soften the blow by adding the NLCS and WS Game 2 cards, both reflecting Dodger victories.
1975, PART THREE: THEY PLAYED WHERE?!
As mentioned, the Trading Card Database team checklist was my source for which cards to buy from Dave or subsequently seek out elsewhere. The problem is I only looked at the Los Angeles Dodgers, meaning none of these four cards made the cut.
Naturally, it won’t be a big deal to chase these cards down. I just feel stilly that I whiffed on the chance to do so when they were right in front of me.
HOW MANY GARVEY ROOKIES DO I NEED?
When I was at Dave’s I was pleasantly surprised to find a Garvey rookie in with his 1971 Topps partial set. Knowing this would be one of the most expensive cards I’d be buying that day, I had to think for a minute whether I really needed the card. After all, I already had two of them.
One was at my office as part of my framed Steve Garvey display. The other was hanging on my wall at home as part of my “Top 100” display.
In case you haven’t already guessed, my conclusion was YES, I definitely would need a third Garv for my burgeoning 1970s Topps Dodgers binder. What exactly would an acceptable alternative even be?!
Fortunately, I was able to side-step a similar quandary with what is actually the NL Iron Man’s most expensive card, his 1972 high number. Until fairly recently I only had one of these, and it resided in my office display. Fortunately, my wife gave me a second one for Fathers Day, signed no less, and I was able to add it to my 1970s Dodgers binder where it looks fantastic.
A LITTLE TIMES A LOT IS…A LOT!
The final lesson learned was one of basic mathematics. Even with most cards averaging a dollar or so, a decade of Dodgers is still a good 300 cards. The result is that all these little bargains quickly add up to much more than it would take to add a banger like this one to my collection.
Despite the minor pitfalls along the way, I am really enjoying this new project. For one thing, I feel like these are sets I should have. (How could I take myself seriously as a Dodger collector if I didn’t even have a 1976 Manny Mota card?) For another thing, it is a treat to flip through the binder and see a team of “oldtimers” like Willie Davis and Maury Wills evolve into the squad of Garvey, Cey, Lopes, and Russell that I worshipped as a kid.
Finally, and this is no small thing, it’s hard to take on a project like this and not end up with some doubles. If you’re lucky, they’ll be as beat up as mine!
Author’s note: This is the eighth in a series of pieces that will offer a mix of facts, unknowns, and speculation on one of the Hobby’s most iconic brands.This installment focuses on some of the more mysterious relics associated with the 1933 set.
While the famous Napoleon Lajoie card 106 is traditionally regarded as the set’s rarest card, there are a handful of cards even more rare. One such rarity even bears the same number, 106.
Wait, WHAT?! Isn’t Durocher supposed to be card 147?
The “Keith Olbermann” Durocher, believed to be a 1/1 in the Hobby, is what’s known as a proof card from the set. Provided the card’s name is suggestive of its origin, we should imagine this card was part of a pre-production test run of the printing sheet Durocher was ultimately a part of, specifically Sheet 6. (Any speculation that the card might have been produced much earlier, for instance as part of a test run of the entire set, can be quashed by noting Durocher here is already with St. Louis, reflecting a trade that did not happen until May 7.)
An alternative explanation for Durocher 106 has been put forth, claiming it was not a pre-production proof or pre-anything but instead created by hobbyists post-1933 as a means of helping die-hard collectors complete their sets. Ignoring what would seem to be the prohibitive costs of producing a single card to this level of quality, there are at least two reasons to doubt such a hypothesis.
Duplicating a card already in the set, numbering aside, seems like the least satisfying way in the world to complete the set. I get it that maybe these guys weren’t artists, but even a newspaper picture of Hank Greenberg would seem an upgrade over the second Durocher.
Even more compelling, however, is the existence of other proof cards from the set, none of which would render any comparable service to collectors since their numbers are not 106.
Here is the most complete list of 1933 Goudey proofs I’m able to assemble.
The numbering of the proof cards is interesting in that it’s hardly a random collection of numbers from 1-240. Rather, we see that all eight proof cards are clustered between the numbers 106 and 128. The numbers take on even greater significance if we consider the state of the Goudey checklist just prior to the release of the set’s sixth sheet.
Remarkably, each of the proof cards fills an existing gap in the set’s skip numbering. Were we to imagine there were once 24 such proof cards (i.e., an entire sheet), we might suppose their numbering would have been as follows. (I’ve used magenta here for the eight known proofs and a lighter pink for the remaining 16.)
Of course, Goudey’s actual Sheet 6 did not fill the gaps in the manner indicated. Instead, it left nearly all of them in place. (And we’ll return soon to the fact that only 23 new numbers are highlighted.)
Were the new numbers for all eight proof cards to be found along this blue band, the story of Sheet 6 would be a simple one: the cards were simply renumbered late in the production process to leave rather than fill gaps.
As for why this occurred, I suppose there are a couple of reasons we could ascribe. Perhaps someone simply forgot that the set employed skip numbering as a means of conning kids into buying more and more packs. Or perhaps Goudey really did intend to close out the set earlier (i.e., at 144 cards rather than 240) but shelved such plans at the eleventh hour.
Of course, as with much about this set, the answer would not be so simple. While five of the proof cards remained on Sheet 6 with new numbering, three of the proof cards (Russell, Goslin, Thomas) landed at 167-169 and would not be seen again until Sheet 7, which included cards 166-189.
Admitting some speculation here, the picture that emerges of the set’s sixth sheet is this:
Proof version: 24 cards that filled the set’s existing gaps, namely 97-99, 106-114, 121-129, and 142-144.
Final version: Renumbering of all cards, including the demotion (or promotion if you like) of at least three cards to the next release.
Now let’s take a quick look at Sheet 6 as it was actually produced.
There are at least two key features that distinguish this sheet from all five of its predecessors.
It has two of the exact same card, Babe Ruth’s iconic card 144. (This explains how the sheet only managed to check off 23 numbers earlier.)
It repeats (with new numbering and a new color in one case) the Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, and Babe Ruth cards from earlier releases.
These contrasts are particularly notable as Sheets 1-5 contained no repeats at all, either within or across sheets. Prior to Sheet 6, the Goudey set consisted of 120 distinct players, each appearing in the set exactly once. From this perspective, we might regard five of the cards on Sheet 6 to be anomalies:
Ruth 144 (first instance)
Ruth 144 (second instance)
Already knowing that at least three cards (Russell, Goslin, Thomas) were bumped from Sheet 6 between the proof and production stages, it’s intriguing to consider whether five cards may have been bumped, transforming the sheet from a fairly standard collection of 24 new players to the spectacular, mega-star studded, triple Ruth sheet we know it as today.
If so, this would constitute the biggest (and most lopsided) blockbuster trade ever made!
Sheet 7 gets Jack Russell, Goose Goslin, Al Thomas, and two players to be named later?
If this is indeed what happened, the next question to ask is why.
Why turn Sheet 6 from a standard sheet to a super sheet? If Goudey had figured out more stars meant more money, what a curious choice to then follow up with six minor leaguers on Sheet 7!
Why number two of the Ruth cards 144? Conventional wisdom in the Hobby is that Goudey needed the duplicate numbering in order to ensure a (near) permanent hole in the checklist, thereby causing kids to keep buying packs in futile pursuit of card 106. (I question this theory at the end of my first article.)
Returning to a theme prevalent throughout this series, the 1933 Goudey set holds and will continue to hold mysteries, no matter how much over-analysis we apply. Fortunately, at least in my view, this is precisely what makes the set so fascinating!
* * * * *
I’ll close this article with a few additional notes on the 1933 Goudey proof cards that may be of interest.
According to hobby lore, most or all of the proofs came from a single partial sheet obtained by hobby pioneer Woody Gelman directly from a source at Goudey.
While the most salient feature of the proof cards is their numbering, some also exhibit small differences in artwork or typesetting. For example, notice the placement of “AL THOMAS” on these two cards.
The Goslin proof card is an interesting one in that its number 110 was ultimately used by Goudey (probably just coincidentally) for Goslin’s other card in the set, his World Series card from Sheet 10. I’ve drawn goose eggs in my search for an image of the Goslin proof, but the Standard Catalog notes his name breaks onto two lines rather than the single line shown on his standard card.
Author’s note: If you are aware of other 1933 Goudey proofs with numbers that differed from their final printing, please let me know.
Freshly back from SABR50 in Baltimore a number of questions from attendees are fresh in my mind. Perhaps the question most frequently asked pertained to assessing the value of a collection. Sometimes I’d ask for a description of the collection in question, and a typical reply might be “several boxes of cards from the 50s and 60s including Mickey Mantle.”
I’ll use this article to acquaint readers, particularly those who aren’t active buyers and sellers, with the main variables at play in putting a price tag on, say, a 1950s Mickey Mantle.
Without a doubt, not all Mantles were created equal. Head and shoulders above all others, at least as far as his standard Topps and Bowman issues are concerned, is the 1952 Topps card.
Mantle’s 1951 Bowman card, which doubles as the Mick’s rookie card, also carries a substantial premium, though perhaps counterintuitively a much smaller one than the aforementioned Topps card.
In general, not as a hard and fast rule but as a trend, older cards are worth more, and rookie cards in particular are worth the most. Though we have already seen an exception, it’s true much more often than it’s not. The graph below illustrates this for a hypothetical star player whose first card was in 1960. Note the significant drop-off from 1960 to 1961 and the overall decreasing trend across the decade. You might also recognize a significant drop-off between 1961 and 1962. This too is a thing as second year cards tend to carry a premium, though not nearly as much as first year (or “rookie”) cards.
Now, here is an actual graph for Mickey Mantle’s 1950s baseball cards. As we will soon see, the condition of the card plays an outsized role in valuation, so at the moment we will pretend all cards in the graph are of equal condition. (For those keeping score at home I’ll assume PSA 5, but don’t worry if you don’t know what that is.)
One thing you’ll note right away are the two sets of bars used, one blue and one orange. These correspond to the two major producers of baseball cards in the 1950s, Bowman and Topps. Bowman produced cards of Mickey Mantle annually from his first card in 1951 through the company’s demise following the 1955 season. Topps, meanwhile, issued Mantle cards in 1952 and 1953 but was forced into a two-year hiatus by rival Bowman who had Mick locked into an exclusive deal for the 1954 and 1955 seasons.
If you glance at the graph, one color at a time, you see that each color follows the general trend of the hypothetical graph presented earlier. Whether blue or orange, a downward pattern is unmistakable, and significant premiums are attached to the first of the bars.
So what was the purpose of all this? Mainly, I wanted to reinforce the idea that the value of a Mantle depends a lot on which Mantle. This weekend a 1952 Topps Mantle may make headlines by selling in the neighborhood of $10 million. This will no doubt cause some to wonder if the box of cards in their attic might produce its own seven-digit payday. Of course, as the graph shows, most Mantle cards (all but one, really!) are worth nowhere near that.
Before heading into our promised discussion of condition, I’ll share three more bits of information on the which Mantle front.
Particularly for cards produced before 1974, you will sometimes see exceptions to the monotonicity of the Value vs Year graph due to a “high numbers” effect. In many older sets, the cards at the end of the set were sold in smaller quantities, hence have greater scarcity. A famous example is the 1967 Topps Brooks Robinson, which is worth far more than any of his other 1960s Topps standard issues. (And yes, in case you’re wondering, Mickey Mantle had a “high number” card in the 1952 Topps set.)
Some players, especially stars, can have more than one card in a set. For example, Mickey Mantle has all three of these cards in the 1958 Topps set (and some might add the Yankees team card as well). Nearly always, the base (regular) card is worth more than the extras, in this case a World Series card with Hank Aaron and an All-Star card.
I’ve limited discussion thus far to cards from the major producers. However, the baseball card ecosystem is typically far larger than that. In 1954 alone, Mickey Mantle also had a dog food card, a potato chips card, a wiener card, as well as a couple others. It’s difficult to attach a general rule to the pricing on such cards. On one hand, they are generally less sought after by most collectors. On the other hand, some can be quite scarce. Thus there is some tug on their value in both directions, reduced demand pulling prices downward and reduced supply pulling prices upward.
In What Condition?
Even when I was a young collector in the late 1970s I knew cards with sharp corners and no creases were more valuable than ones you could practically roll along a table. This didn’t stop me from keeping my favorite cards in my pants pockets, but then again was I ever planning to sell them?
At any rate, the same is true today, but the premium on “high grade” vintage cardboard has only increased, in my eyes past the point of absurdity. Nowadays, much of the dealings in the Hobby’s upper stratosphere transpires with cards that have been commercially (the implication being professionally and objectively) graded by companies like PSA, SGC, and Beckett. While these companies certainly have their share of misses, the logic is that a well trained third party grader is more trustworthy than the card’s owner, who naturally stands to profit (at least in the short term) by over-stating a card’s condition.
Most grading is done on a numerical scale from 1-10, but the scale is decidedly non-linear. For example, here is a graph showing the value of the 1959 Topps Mickey Mantle card across its range of conditions. (Source: PSA, August 24, 2022.)
There have been no recent sales of the card with a grade of 10 and in fact only one such card has ever been graded by PSA. As such, there is no bar on the graph at 10, but you might have some fun guessing what such a card might go for based on the graph as shown. Half a million?!
Before proceeding I’ll show the same graph for grades 1-8 only, since the current graph’s very tall bar at 9 tends to dwarf all else.
The reason I’ve shared these graphs is to show just how much grade impacts value. For this particular card, a card graded 9 is worth more than 500 times as much as a card graded 1. Let’s unpack this a bit more.
Perhaps a friend lets you know that he just sold one of his 1950s Mickey Mantles for $1000, and—lo and behold—you have that very same card. Your copy might be worth $100 or it might be worth $10,000, maybe even a lot more than that! The point is, condition doesn’t just attach a premium; right or wrong, it creates a 500x (or more) differential in value, even when we’re talking about the exact same card!
I just illustrated the non-linearity of condition with respect to value. Separate from any discussion of market value, I’ll add my opinion that condition is also non-linear with respect to appearance. This may sound contradictory at first since you may view condition and appearance as synonyms, i.e., how the card presents. Either way, let’s take a look.
Here is the 1959 Topps Mickey Mantle card in grades 9, 8, and 7 respectively. At first glance, you would not be wrong to imagine the three cards identical. If anything, you might even dock the “9” for what looks like a very small stain below the O in OUTFIELD as well as some faint discoloration above the mickey mantle name.
At any rate, if we presume no error or subjectivity in the grading, we can only assume that there are important distinctions not necessarily evident to the naked eye (or, in fairness, on the backs of the cards). Perhaps the “8” has some microscopic corner ding, for example. Still, the larger point is that a 7, 8, and 9 all look almost exactly the same. (Notably, the card on the left sold for more than 30 times the card on the right!)
While I’ve illustrated my point using three cards, to my own eye the top six slots on the grading scale, i.e., grades of 5-10, all look about the same. Don’t get me wrong. If you look hard enough, I bet you can figure out which of these Mantle cards is a “10” and which is a “5” but I’ll still paraphrase Maya Angelou and say they “are more alike, my friends, than they are unalike.”
Back to value for a second, one of the two cards pictured sold recently for $1600. The other, were it to hit the market today, would likely fetch upwards of $500,000. 🤷🏻♂️
Sometimes someone sends me a picture of a card they took with their phone and asks what I think it’s worth. I hope the two Mantle cards illustrate the difficulty of providing such an assessment, particularly when cards are in really nice shape, hence differences in grades reflect only tiny distinctions but gigantic pricing differences.
For completeness, I’ll illustrate the lower end of the scale, where distinctions are much more notable, though still not always evident.
Though I’ve used graded cards to illustrate the hypersensitivity of price to condition, there are again some notes to offer.
Some cards receive half-grades (e.g., 3.5). Pricing for half grades is about what you’d expect.
Many sellers, even when a third-party grade has been assigned, will hope to realize a nicer sale by claiming their card is “under-graded” or “the nicest 3 you’ll ever see.” I can definitely say that grades being equal, some cards look better than others. Ultimately though, the buyer should be the judge of this rather than simply take the seller’s claim at face value.
Some cards receive non-numerical grades, the most common being “Authentic,” which usually is not as good as it sounds, and the most dreaded being “Counterfeit!”
Last but not least, most cards bought and sold are not graded. (Sometimes the term “raw” is used.) Here there is a greater risk associated with fakes, but the good news is that most of the folks out there buying vintage collections are able to tell real from bogus. As such, if you’re thinking about selling your childhood collection of 1950s cardboard, you need not panic that the only way to get anything for it is to spend tens of thousands of dollars having it graded first.
That said, if you are selling online to someone who can’t handle the cards directly, you may well experience a lower sales price based on buyer uncertainty over authenticity. A return policy and clear images mitigate this, but many online buyers will still attach risk to your cards and lower their offers accordingly.
Though it seems ridiculous, the value of a 1950s Mickey Mantle can be anywhere from about $10 to $10 million. Two factors that make a very, very big difference are which card you have an what condition it’s in. These certainly aren’t the only factors, but they more than suffice to make the point, which is that it is exceedingly difficult to assess the value of a vintage card or collection without spending some real time with it.
So what’s the value of that box of 1950s and 60s baseball cards from your childhood, the one you’re positive has a Mantle or two? There’s only one real answer, and it’s an incredibly unsatisfying one: it depends…and almost comically so!