Free Agent Draft

Most collectors have a cringe inducing story surrounding the desecration of cards or related products during their youth. A classic example is Jeff Katz gluing ’71 coins onto a board. Of course cards were designed to provide fun and entertainment for kids. At the time, the alterations we made brought us joy. However, I was enough of a collector as a kid to only mess with duplicates. The following is a tale of desecrating a ’69 Pete Rose card-amongst many others-in the pursuit of fun.

Parker Brothers produced a board game called “Pro Draft,” which utilized ’73 Topps football cards. I very much coveted this game but never obtained it. Being a clever lad, I decided to create my own game using baseball cards. I called the game “Free Agent Draft.” My best guess is I created it in ‘75 after the Messersmith/McNally case resulted in free agency.

Borrowing liberally from the rules of Monopoly, I crafted a board game where the first player to obtain a card for each positon–plus a manager–would be the winner. The players had different values, much like the properties in Monopoly. Drawing from my vast number of duplicates, I proceeded to write dollar values, ranging from 50 to 500, on the front of cards. This resulted in not only Pete Rose being defaced but Luis Aparicio, Boog Powell and Bill Mazeroski as well.

My “Monopoly like” board had spaces for drafting players, winning or losing money, being forced to trade a player or pay opponents fees. I had a “Community Chest/Chance” space called “Hit or Error” resulting in good or bad outcomes depending on which card was drawn. Examples included: “3 game winning streak: move forward 3 spaces” and “Pay $100 to pension fund.”

Competitors could raise money by placing players on “waivers,” receiving half value from the bank. An opponent could put in a waiver claim if you couldn’t meet your financial obligations. Obviously, I stole this from the mortgage option in Monopoly.

Participants could purchase multiple players for the same position in an attempt to block opponents from filling out a team. Conversely, you could take a player you needed if you landed on a “trade” space.

Initially, I drew the game board-poorly- on the back of a roll of Christmas paper and glued it to a checker board. Later, the board was significantly improved by my buddy, Ted, utilizing a piece of plywood and etching the spaces with a wood burner tool. We even varnished it.

Since we played this game for hours, it must have been somewhat compelling. I remember having to alter the rules several times since flaws would creep up. Eventually, we nailed down a fun game.

During a furnace installation in my grandparent’s basement, the board and the “Hit or Error” cards disappeared. I saved some of the adulterated baseball cards, which you are viewing.

If I had sold this concept to Parker Brother or Milton Bradley–not the player–I might have made a fortune. Alas, I’m sure copyright infringement would have been an issue.

I also created a game called “Jenk-o-Matic” baseball, but that is a topic for another post.

 

Father and Son

Our son was born on Christmas Eve, 2001. This is actually a hell of a story, albeit one that I am not going to tell today.

A few weeks later a couple of friends handed me a complete set of 2001 Topps baseball cards — for Drew, to mark the year of his birth. (They did a similar thing for our daughter Maya in 1998).

Truth be told, I had not been keeping up with the baseball card scene. Several years earlier, before the crash, I had cashed in all of my post-1980 cards, and my remaining efforts were to work on older sets. I had not opened a pack of cards in several years. I put Drew’s cards in a closet.

A few years later (2006) young Drew and I were in a store and he put some baseball cards in the shopping cart. He had seen my cards a few times so he knew about them. We went home and opened the packs, and then added to our pile throughout the summer. I explained to him who some of the “good” players were, and he slowly learned how to sort them into stacks of teams, as all right-thinking people do. He had favorite players, and favorite teams. (He suggested throwing the Yankees cards away, but I cautioned restraint.)

At some point along about here I remembered his birth gift and presented him the box, undisturbed in its shrink-wrap. Appropriately, he dumped them out and started rifling through them. We continued to pick up packs of current-year cards for the next few years until he had filled several shoe boxes.

Drew and I are very different. I am a no neatnik, but my clutter is very organized. I may have stacks of baseball cards all over my office, and a few on my bedroom dresser, but the stacks have a purpose — nothing is ever “missing” or out of place, and this was just as true when I was 10.

Drew … does not share this trait, at least not yet. His baseball cards were fairly quickly strewn all over his room. If they occasionally breached the common areas of the house, he or I would pick them up and move them back to his room, finding an available surface.

As persnickety as I am about my own cards, I gave Drew a lot of leeway. I might find them on the bottom of his laundry basket, or under his bed, or stuck together by some mysterious adhesive. The damaged cards would get thrown away. When cleaning up, I did try to return any stray 2001 cards to their original box — I am not an animal — but the others would get stuffed into a shoe box, with neither rhyme, nor reason.

After taking a few years off, in 2012 I started buying him complete sets for his birthday or Christmas (both, sadly, in the off-season). I convinced him this was both a better deal and less messy. We still picked up cards over the summer, but in December he would get an entire set anyway.

All the while, he mainly liked going through the cards with me. (He also had a lot of Pokemon cards, and Yu-Gi-Oh!, and Magic, but he was on his own with all that.) Along the way Drew’s extra-curricular options expanded, and sorting baseball cards with Dad, oddly, stopped being his top choice. Properly.

Drew played baseball for several years (I was always the coach), but ultimately gravitated to soccer. Fine by me — soccer is a wonderful sport and has been great for him. He is in high school now, and he’s a good player. He is much more of a sports doer than a sports watcher, especially when compared with my teenage years watching any sport, no matter how obscure.

I recently asked Drew if I could “annex” his card collection. I assured him that he could take them back whenever he wished, and he was going to end up with all my cards someday anyway. I just wanted to organize the chaos, and all his cards would basically graduate to living with mine. He was cool with it.

I started by going through his 2012-2016 “sets” to verify that every card was there. Yes, they were! Adolescent Drew was neater than I thought. Bravo.

Next I took all of his other cards (mainly his ages 4-8 cards) and began the laborious process of figuring out what he had, starting with simply sorting the shoe box contents by year. Although spread over several boxes, he actually had a complete set of 2007 cards — not sure how that happened. I must have bought a hand-collated set on eBay ten years ago. He has a ton of many other years that I still need to go through.

Mainly, I was curious about 2001. This was like a grand social experiment: hand a five-year-old 790 baseball cards, allow him to live a middle-class junk-acquiring life for a decade, and then shout “time’s up!” and rush in to see what happened.

Tuesday night was the big night: How many of the 790 cards had survived a decade in that room?

Survey says: 757.

Honestly, not bad. The 757 are in fine condition, too.

There is a chance some of the missing 33 are in Drew’s room somewhere — in a box of Pokemon cards? In his sock drawer? In a large box of stray cards he picked up from the 1980s?

Maybe, but it is more likely that they decomposed in the town landfill many years ago. I will look around a bit more before giving up.  And by “giving up”, I mean “finding and purchasing the missing 33 cards.”

I was going through this exercise when Drew came upstairs, ear buds in place, bopping to something or other. (Drew is amazing.)

Suddenly I felt a little sad. Here I was riffing through his childhood, a part of his childhood that we had shared, and he was uninvolved. I motioned to him to come closer. He removed the buds.

“Drew,” says I, “I think we need to come up with some other activity we can do together.”

He pondered this, and said we could start doing jigsaw puzzles, or maybe a model. He went to my office and retrieved a White House model we had made years ago and we agreed it was still fabulous.

I also told him about the new movie, “Dunkirk,” coming out on July 21. “You’ll like it,” I said. “I’ll get out a map and explain the basic premise of the movie before we go.”

Date confirmed. Still amazing.

 

Delicious Memories

I haven’t spoken to my parents in about 12 years. It’s a long story, not a particularly interesting one, so I won’t go into it. Even though I don’t speak to them anymore, don’t draw the conclusion that they never did anything nice. That would be wrong.

When Hostess started issuing cards in 1975 on the back of Twinkies, Cupcakes, Suzy Qs and Chocodiles (which may have arrived on the East Coast a few years later) boxes, I was quick to up my intake. Not that I needed an excuse to eat more Hostess Cupcakes, an all-time great junk food, but cards were a very effective spur to increase buying. I was a pretty serious collector by 1975, but still dumb enough to cut the cards from the boxes. I don’t even want to show any; they’re not terribly cut, but they make me feel bad. By the following year I realized I should cut the whole back panel out.

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Around that same time my mother started taking me to a Hostess outlet. I can’t remember where it was in relation to our Lake Grove home in the middle of Suffolk County, but it wasn’t close. The outlet (imagine a Hostess outlet!) had boring stuff like bread and rolls but it had boxes and boxes of pastries (does Hostess product count as a pastry?). I could take my time checking their inventory and picking out cards I needed. It was a cake/card shop, the nearly perfect shop for a mid-teen like me.

My mother was a good sport about it, buying, it seems to me, as many boxes as I asked for. Once we brought the goodies home, there was no way I was going to wait until me, my brother and maybe my parents slowly ate their way through the stock. I dumped all the cakes out and put them in a bowl. The cellophane wrapper kept them sliding off each other, but I managed to cram the whole lot into the fridge. (There’s nothing better than cold Hostess cakes.) The boxes were empty, the back panels were cut and laid in an old shoebox.

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It wasn’t until 1977 that I saw individual cards in two packs of Twinkies and Cupcakes. I was visiting my cousin in Staten Island and we were in some kind of convenience or grocery store when I saw them and bought a bagful. I probably through an immature tantrum and made him pay. Like many food issues, those cards were the platter that the product sat on, so the cards all get stained. I’ve read that clean cards were released into the hobby, but that’s cheating. I got mine, Twinkie grease and all, the old fashioned way, at the retail level.

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I was looking through my Hostess cards (full confession: to list doubles on eBay) and I was instantly brought back to mid-70’s Long Island. Hostess cards bring happy memories and all I need to do is look at them. I don’t even need to eat a Twinkie to be transported. Even Proust’s madeleine couldn’t do that.

SABR 47 Checklist: Jean Afterman / 1991 Q-Card Hideo Nomo

The first panel I saw at SABR47 was a fine interview of Jean Afterman by recent JT Spink Award winner (and former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter) Claire Smith. I was a bit worn out from a combination of travel and enjoying a night out in the big apple when Afterman recalled that she was working as a lawyer when she had the opportunity to work on a copyright dispute over Japanese Baseball Cards.

Baseball Cards!! I was jolted awake.

The case led Afterman to become acquainted with the card creator Don Nomura. The litigation led her to Japan where Afterman went to local ball games and found the competitive level of the players to be comparable with American baseball. The ensuing realization was that Japanese players were restricted from participation in MLB because of an agreement made following Masanori Murakami’s stint with the San Francisco Giants (1964-65). The Murakami case was the subject of a very interesting panel at SABR 45 in Chicago. The audio from that panel can be found here while my fan highlights from that day can be found at my web site.

Jean Afterman and Don Nomura did their homework and eventually found a way to get Hideo Nomo a Major League Baseball contract, with the Dodgers. This was followed by Alfonso Soriano (a Cuban that came to the US via Japan), Hideki Irabu and several other Japanese players. Eventually this led Afterman to a position in the Yankees front office.

One could therefore argue that a dispute over baseball cards in the early 1990s eventually led to Japanese players getting a chance to play baseball in the United States. Here we find ourselves a quarter century later and Ichiro Suzuki has become the MLB all-time hit king among all foreign born players.

1991 Q Cards

1991 Q Card All-Star Hideo Nomo (RC)

Ok back to the baseball cards. Naturally I wanted to find out what baseball card set began this chain of events.

An LA Times article dated April 21, 1991 discusses Don Nomura and Nomura Trading Cards. The article also contains some key info about the cards. Most notably the cards were made of plastic rather than cardboard – more of a credit card material. Perhaps due to the upgraded material a pack contained only two cards. The packs sold for 500 yen in 1991 which was estimated to be $3.68 US at the time.

I was unable to find anything online about Nomura trading cards but the info from the LA Times made it easy to find these cards on the fun and informative Japanese Baseball Cards blog.

The above Hideo Nomo card is an All-Star card from a 62 card supplemental set of the original 120 card series. The design appears largely similar to the base with an all-star logo in the middle center rather than a team logo.

1991 Q Card Takeshi Nakamura with 1991 Q Card Wrapper

Above we have one of the base cards with the original wrapper. As pointed out by Japanese Baseball Cards there is a window in the wrapper that allows the buyer to know the team of one of the two cards in the pack.

Sources and Links

Japanese Baseball Cards / NPB Card Guy

LA Times

#SABR47

Baseball-Reference

#SABR45

Phungo

 

 

Rolling my own

1987 was my first full year as a baseball fan. After attending my first Giants game in 1986, despite the ridiculousness of the game—16-innings including the Giants using pitchers as outfielders and switching them between left and right field depending on the batters’ platoon splits—I ended up a hard core Giants fan the following year. That the Giants were actually good for the first time in anyone’s memory certainly helped. As did the fact that 1987 was also the year I got bitten bigtime by the baseball card bug.

That fall when the Giants won the Western Division* my local paper, The San Jose Mercury News, celebrated by printing cartoony baseball “cards” of the entire team on the back page of the sports section. It was a pretty silly thing. Cheap newsprint. The card backs were just whatever was on the previous page of the newspaper. But I was undeterred.

*30 years later I still instinctually think of the Reds, Astros, and Braves as the Giants’ rivals even though they’re no longer in the same division nor, in the Astos’ case, the same league.

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I scrounged some old vertical file folders from my parents, brushed on glue, and carefully laid the newspaper onto cardstock. I still remember carefully brushing the bubbles out before the glue dried. Later in the day once the glue had dried, I busted out my scissors and turned that cheap newsprint into real cards.

30 years later and I’m a bit surprised that these are in as good shape as are. Yes, of course I kept these in binders. But newsprint isn’t the most archival of materials and there was no guarantee I’d selected an appropriate glue. I probably just grabbed a bottle of Elmer’s but it’s not like I knew what I was doing when I was nine.

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The best part of these cards is the backs though. Besides being woefully uncreative—I had, after all, only been collecting cards for under a year—it’s an interesting snapshot into what I felt was important on a card back at the time. Yes, I also remember being fascinated with all the statistics but that would’ve been outside of my lettering ability at the time. But I felt very strongly about knowing a player’s position and recording the team/year information that the card represents.

It’s also very clear that I believed that a baseball card should be part of a numbered set. I have no idea how I chose to number these, but not only did I number them, that’s the order I sleeved them in my album.

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I was apparently not the only burgeoning baseball card collector who received The Merc at home. These cards got such a reception that a few days later they reappeared on the back of the sports page—this time in color and with proper backs. Or, well, sort of proper backs. It looks like something produced by a newspaper whose priorities are creating readable copy using the existing house style. I do however love the optimism of including a line for autographs. Even today I don’t know what pen I’d choose for that task.

Anyway, I went ahead and turned the new series into cards too. Same method only I had to both procure a second copy of the paper and figure out how to register the two sides for gluing.

I wish I could remember how I accomplished the registration.

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The following year when the A’s won their first pennant in over a decade The Merc celebrated the same way. This time though the cards were oversize—closer to the pre-1957 Topps size—and, while they were printed in color the first time around, they never got any backs.

So, as someone whose first exposure to cards the late 1980s with backs that stayed the same year after year, I went ahead and used the same template for my hand-pencilled backs that I’d used the previous year.

Productionwise though I no longer used vertical files. My parents encouraged me to find a cheaper source of card stock so these are, I think, on reclaimed cereal boxes. This resulted in way thicker cards and produced the nice side benefit of encouraging me to use a paper cutter instead of scissors. Where the 1987 cards have all janky hand-cut edges, these 1988s are nice and square.

Alas, The Mercury News never made any more cards. The following year’s Bay Bridge Series had plenty of other things for them to print commemorative back pages of and by the time the Giants returned to the World Series in 2002 the baseball card bubble had imploded. But I’m happy these were around right at the beginning of my collecting and I love rediscovering them both in how they’ve survived and how they suggest possible projects for my sons to try as they flirt with the hobby.

Almost Olbermann

I’d only been to SABR Conventions when I was speaking about a book I had out, so it was Cleveland in 2008 (Kansas City A’s & The Wrong Half of the Yankees) and Chicago in 2015 (Split Season). With this year’s SABR 47 in New York, it was too close to miss. Still, I couldn’t go for multiple days – cost, for one, and conflicts (friends coming to Cooperstown) – but if you read my last post you know how much the SABR Baseball Cards Committee has meant to me so I definitely wanted to be there for Saturday’s committee meeting, in general, and to see Mark Armour and Chris Dial, in specific. That Keith Olbermann was speaking was an added boost.

KO is 3 ½ years older than me and his lifetime of card collecting somewhat mirrors mine. I didn’t know how much until he spoke. Waving around a 1971 issue of the early card magazine The Trader Speaks, Olbermann spoke about going to card shows in NYC starting in 1971, realizing that he could buy 1940 Play Balls for a buck a piece and searching antique stores for T206s at .35 each. His Dad drove him from Westchester to Lake Ronkonkoma in Suffolk County for a show.

I went to those early card shows as well, starting in 1973. It seemed they were always either after my birthday or after Hanukkah, so I had some cash, $100 for each show. Though I was into cards and baseball history as much as Keith, I didn’t have the same focus he had. My first show I bought a 1955 Koufax rookie, a 1957 Paul Hornung rookie, a 1965 Don Maynard, a T206 Mathewson without much trace of a back. Why? I don’t know.

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Over the years I narrowed my focus, sort of. I knew who I liked – Koufax, Frank Robinson, Kaline, Banks – and got all their base cards. I occasionally bought a Mays, Mantle or Aaron. I never really liked The Mick, but my aversion to Mays and Aaron cards is inexplicable to this day. I also was set prone. Sometimes that worked for me – the 1959 Fleer Ted Williams comes to mind – but often it didn’t – the 1979 Topps Comics set comes to mind.

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When I say things “didn’t work,” I’m talking investment and future value. I always bought what I liked; in that way everything worked. Still, I look back and wonder where my head was at. It certainly wasn’t where Olbermann’s was.

As Keith spoke about buying truly old cards, going the extra mile to meet the great Mike Aronstein of TCMA fame, travelling to Lake Ronkonkoma for a show, I could see the monstrously large gap between his devotion and mine. Sure, he clearly had, and has, more disposable card money than I do, but his drive put mine to shame. I lived next to Lake Ronkonkoma, went to Sachem High School in Lake Ronkonkoma, knew The Trader Speaks was published in Lake Ronkonkoma but never, never, sought the local card community.

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The room was packed, a sure sign that the SABR Baseball Cards Committee has touched a nerve. Maybe some were only there to hear Olbermann speak. Even so, he spoke cards and that only reinforced what we’ve been up to on the blog.

As Chris Dial said as we talked about the future of the Cards Committee, “baseball cards are bigger than all of this.” “This” means SABR, Sabermetrics, Negro Leagues, women in baseball and so on. It seemed a shocking thing to say, but I know he’s right. EVERYBODY has come through cards at some point. Not everyone has dipped a toe in the other arenas. So when Keith Olbermann says he started as a baseball card collector and then became a baseball fan, that’s an experience we can all share equally.

 

SABR 47

SABR_logo-square-700pxThings have been quiet around here. I was out of town for nearly two weeks, and I probably should have mentioned that. I brought my laptop with me and had plans to put up some posts (a few came in last week) and remain active on Twitter. But other than briefly answering emails and retweeting a few times, the committee was dormant. Hopefully things will return to normal over the next week.

The culmination of the time away was SABR 47 in New York City. I can’t really do it justice here — it was four great days filled with learning, laughing, and hanging out with (or meeting for the first time) good people. For more, read all of the recaps and view all the photos on SABR’s web site. Check back, because more are being added.

All SABR committees have meetings at the convention, and our meeting was Saturday morning. Chris and I introduced ourselves and spoke briefly about what the committee was and what we had done so far (basically this blog and our active Twitter account), and invited everyone present to participate. That took five minutes. Here is proof.

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After this, we introduced our guest speaker, who crushed it.

We did not invite Keith Olbermann to speak because he is a famous public figure (although the packed crowd was nice), or because of his decades long experience in sports media (although he was obviously more polished than most SABR speakers). He was invited because he is one of the foremost experts in the history of baseball cards and has been an avid collector since childhood. He is one of us.

Screen Shot 2017-07-03 at 9.07.34 AM.pngKeith was funny, insightful, and friendly, all of which are positives for a speaker, but his greatest contribution was that he made the best case yet for why this committee is appropriate and (dare I say it?) necessary.

Chris and I started this last Fall largely because we thought it would be fun for a lot of people (including us). Maybe SABR would gain some members, maybe people would have some knowledge to share. SABR has plenty of projects and committees of a more “academic” bent (in some of which Chris and I participate), but why not do something a little more fun?

But in Keith’s talk, in which his own five-decade experience in the hobby was the through-line, he made the points that (1) baseball cards are part of our (SABR’s) DNA, and (2) there is a real story to document. Many of the founders were serious memorabilia collectors, and early baseball card publications (more like newsletters) helped spread the word in SABR’s early days.

I found myself thinking, “Why did SABR wait 45 years?”

Many thanks to Keith for entertaining the troops, and being a perfect first speaker for our motley crew.

Next year: Pittsburgh PA, June 20-24, 2018.

— Mark and Chris