Slaying the Monster: A Milestone and Observations

Back in February, I posted my first entry chronicling the beginning of my T206 journey. Fast forward a few months, thanks to an abundance of downtime and a seemingly unquenchable thirst, my monster number has doubled from 52 to 104, putting me at exactly 20% complete of the basic set, minus “The Big 4.” The milestone was achieved courtesy of a beautiful fire engine red Ginger Beaumont portrait, won via a last second eBay buzzer beater (it’s nice to be on the other side of this for once.)  

Reflecting on my adventure to date, which has been wildly fun, maddening, and educational all in one, I’ve compiled some observations, which I believe would be especially beneficial to those thinking about dabbling (or plunging like myself) into the set. Please note that I’m by no means an expert, and you should supplement these thoughts with your own research. 

  1. While eBay is a great platform to buy and sell T206 cards, there are other options. Net54, Facebook groups and Auction Houses are the three other main avenues T206s are bought, sold and traded. Paying attention to these avenues is crucial, especially if you want to add the occasional big card to your set! Auction Houses in particular tend to be a good bet for those looking for exotic backs and/or high graded specimens. 
  1. There are certain poses that shouldn’t be hard to find but in actuality are really difficult! What I mean by this is that there is research to validate that these poses shouldn’t be challenging but for a myriad of reasons are. Pre-War Cards touched on this subject a few years ago, but I thought it would make sense to revisit briefly. In my nine or so months hunting, surprisingly difficult subjects include Doc Adkins, Del Howard and Ray Ryan, amongst others. As I’ve learned via word of mouth, a few subjects are hoarded by certain collectors, so if you see one of these subjects at a decent price, don’t hesitate to pounce. 
  1.  While there are hundreds if not into the thousands of active T206 collectors out there, you quickly realize it’s a fairly small community. What I’m getting at, as any experienced baseball card collector knows, is you ultimately run into the same people over and over.  Building relationships and building a reputation as someone people can trust is of the utmost importance in the T206 world. Not only can these relationships can help land you cards that you never thought were possible (see below) but they can also help expand your knowledge immensely. My advice? Ask questions to fellow collectors, read through  and when you’re ready, engage in conversations and discussions on message boards. The great majority of people in the community are happy to chat and share their wisdom. I know I’ve learned a ton by doing this. Ultimately, who knows what you might learn or who you might meet. 

The One About Home Decorating

A few days ago Jason retweeted a photo I put on Twitter last fall showing a framed display of my baseball cards. Jason left out the role he played in my display, so I promised a post on the matter. This is more autobiographical than I am generally comfortable with, but the lessons herein might be of value.

When it comes to baseball cards, I have always considered myself to be a Set Collector. If someone were to gift me a stack of 1950 Bowman cards (no one has ever done this, but for the sake of science why not give it a try?) my reaction would likely be to figure out how many cards I needed to complete the set. Checking just now … I have 19 cards from 1950 Bowman (out of 252), which is 7.5%. I even have a few Hall of Famers. If you give me another 50, suddenly I am over 30% and pretty much committed.

IMG_1817

If you’re a Set Collector, a particular set’s “status” is generally defined more by what you don’t have than what you do have. I have been chipping away at my 1956 cards for 35 years–my focus on the set (and on baseball cards generally) has ebbed and flowed over the years. I still need 22, including the Luis Aparicio rookie card, and several difficult team cards (Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox, Cardinals).

But in stating the case this way, didn’t I bury the lede? Should I not instead start with the facts that I own 318 cards from the 1956 set, and that many of them are … kinda spectacular? I am not writing this to brag, but as an admission that I often don’t spend enough time appreciating what I have. For most of the past 30 years, when I have picked up a new 1956 card, even someone like Roberto Clemente, it doesn’t take more than a day or two before I carefully place it out of sight, in a box or binder. “What’s next?”

If a new friend were to walk into my house, it would take them a while to discover I was a baseball fan. There are no baseball artifacts in any of the rooms they’d likely encounter. The main reasons for this: (1) my house is of modest size; (2) other people live here; and (3) they show no signs of leaving. My baseball stuff is mainly confined to a small office that I have gradually taken over without explicit permission.

So last September Jason posted a picture of his display of Hank Aaron cards. It was incredible, both in its inherent beauty and as a visualization of a wonderful collection and tribute. I mean, come on:

IMG_2463I knew Jason was a Hammer GuyTM, and that he had all of his major cards, but to see them all in one display like this was a bit breathtaking.

But I also thought: Hold on a sec, I also have cards.

I called Jason and asked him about the display case, and he filled me in. I quickly suggested to my family that the case would make a handsome birthday gift, and a few short weeks later I was proven correct. After a few days rumination, I filled it with my best cards from 1952-58 Topps and hung it up on the wall.

EHSFso2UYAARGgz

(Jason, with 50 Aarons plus assorted other superstars, has considerably more WAR in his frame.)

Of my 45 cards, the first I owned were the 1956 Ted Williams and Jackie Robinson, purchased for $50 (total) at a card shop in Minneapolis in 1983. I had most of the others by early 1990s, safely squirreled away.

This display decision has worked out just fine. It remains up in my office, just a few feet from where I am now typing. My family seems OK with it, though my daughter is continually bothered the non-uniformity of the second row. I don’t recall that anyone else has seen it in real life–my office is not a visitor destination. I see it everyday, and I am sure I have looked at my 1953 Satchell [sic] Paige card more in the past seven months than in the previous 30 years I had owned it.

There are downsides.

First, it is not easy to replace cards or moved them around. You have to take the display down from the wall, lay it on a flat surface, open the hinged glass front, adjust the contents, close and re-latch the front, and then carefully place the whole thing back on the wall. I haven’t yet had any reason to change the cards, though I do have dreams of adding another Mays card or two.

A second down-side is its effect on my set collecting. My 1956 binder is now missing not only the 22 cards I need, but also the 9 I removed to put in this frame. What does this binder even mean now, with all of the best cards ripped from its pages? It’s not like I am going to buy second copies of these cards.

An upside to this downside is that it has allowed me to consider my collection in (arguably) a more healthy way. I recently purchased a few cards from 1953 Bowman, which is one of my favorite sets. I have no real intention of completing it, so I will instead just enjoy looking at the 20 or so cards that I own. Which is OK?

In a related matter, I have been mulling over a second display. The 1950s cards are from before I was born, so it stands to reason that a case focused on my sweet spot (say, 1967-71) would afford me some pleasure. Or maybe I could create pick out 50 of my beloved Corsairs and Belters.

The two biggest obstacles: (1) I am not seeing any available wall space around here, and (2) this plan would cause me to remove cards from binders of completed sets. I mean, is this even legal? While contemplating all of that, I wait.

In our little Twitter community, I have seen card displays devoted to T-205s, or of Dave Parker, or of Milwaukee Brewers. They all look amazing to me. In my humble-ish opinion, if you collect cards, and you have the appropriate space, they are worth displaying.

Happiness will ensue.

Set Building – Recent Master Sets

Jim Osborne recently wrote a great post about set collecting, with a focus on building vintage sets. For newer products, acquiring a base set, which I’ll define as not including shortprints or inserts, is not all that difficult. If you want a 2019 Topps set without any bells and whistles, they are relatively easy to find.

I have dabbled in master set building since about 2000. I think the first one I tried to complete was 2000 Skybox Dominion. Why that product? The card shop kept getting boxes and they were not that expensive. The inserts were interesting to me. There are some rare inserts like the Eye on October Warp Tek cards numbered to the player’s uniform number – those are white whales. There are two Jeters – I’ve never seen either of them, yet I’ve seen all three A-Rods for sale at some point in time.

Defining “master set”

Two of Jim’s main points – educate yourself and know your budget – are just as applicable here. I will not go into depth on those points beyond stating that you may want a slightly flexible budget, and I’ll explain why later. I will start with:

Define what “master set” means to you. It is a hobby – it is supposed to be fun. Look at your budget and determine the cards that you will use to comprise a master set. I have been building master sets of Topps Opening Day for a while now. I got hooked because, like Skybox Dominion, boxes of Opening Day are not that expensive, and you usually get a complete set or fairly close with one box. When I first started around 2006-2007 there were no relic cards, no shortprinted cards, and the autographs were of players like Toby Hall and Johnny Estrada with a Matt Kemp every now and then. Earlier years did have autographs like Hank Aaron and Wade Boggs, and 2005 had some game-used cards. But they were fairly simple to put together (even though I’m still missing a handful of cards – that happens when you decide to build a master set of a product after it has been on store shelves for a while), and the autographs were not the usual suspects. Opening Day is a fun product, meant for kids, and the inserts are fun.

In 2013 Opening Day introduced shortprinted cards and a more expansive autograph checklist. In 2014 relics came back. In 2020 there are now numbered dirt relic cards with autographs. If I can pick one of those up for a good price I do, but I do not include them in my master set list that I am actively looking to fill because the prices can be extraordinarily high. Nearly every product has 1/1 printing plates – again, I’ll pick those up if I like the price for that player but trying to put together a 200 card set of one-of-ones (or one-of-fours if you mix and match colors) seems more frustrating than fun to me, so my master set list doesn’t include those cards.

To give a sense of how many insert sets there might be, I’ve used Pete Alonso to illustrate the rarer 2020 Opening Day insert sets as he is in many of them, except for the Mascot Patches (so I’ve used Mr. Met). There are other rare inserts not pictured (autographs, ballpark profile autographs, Canada variations, mascot relics, mascot autographs, and mascot autograph relics). There are 346 inserts in 2020 Topps Opening Day, counting those rare low-numbered autographs; removing them still leaves over 300 inserts.

OpeningDay-Inserts

Once you have educated yourself, determined your budget, and decided what master set means to you there are some additional guidelines I follow. I’m going to channel Tyler Durden here – the first rule of master set building is to get started when the product hits the shelf. The second rule of master set building is … to get started when the product hits the shelf. If you have done your homework and you get started when the product hits the shelf you should be able to get some good deals early on before prices start trending to their equilibrium (buy-it-nows on eBay are more likely to lead to better deals than auctions early on). Knowing how many of an insert set fall to a box or a case is important, as is knowing insert set size. If an insert is a case hit and the set size is 30 and another is also a case hit and the set size is 10 then the cards in that 30 card set are likely going to be harder to find. But beware, as there are times right when the product hits the shelf that cards sell for really high prices. There are deep-pocketed player, team, and master set collectors who will spend money to get rare inserts. I do a lot of searching to find deals early on.

The other reason I recommend starting early is because I see the biggest difference between vintage set collecting and master set building of newer products is that it is amazing how quickly some of the cards dry up. Once they dry up, they can be difficult to find at any price. If you want a 1952 Topps Mantle, they are on eBay. They are reasonably expensive in any condition, but you can at least find them. I can’t find the 2019 Topps Opening Day Dugout Peeks cards I’m missing.  I can find the 5×7 cards in regular (numbered to 49) or gold (numbered to 10) versions all day, but the pack inserts are nearly impossible to find. There is a Lindor on eBay right now. There are none on COMC. There are none on Beckett Marketplace. You might get lucky 6 months later and get the card for a good deal once people have moved on to other projects, but there also might be three people looking for that one card that they haven’t seen for 6 months.

If you decide to collect a master set a few months or years after a product hits the shelves you will need patience and persistence (which may mean years, if ever) to find the card at the right price. The alternative is to have a healthy budget for picking up the cards, as some sellers know that inserts and shortprints do not appear regularly and put high price tags on them.

Jim mentioned looking at previous sales prices, and I agree. I will take it one step further for newer products. Unless someone finds a discrepancy reviewing game logs, Mickey Mantle’s numbers aren’t changing. Unless someone uncovers some unknown secret, Mantle’s life story isn’t changing. With newer products I recommend paying attention to price trends. A player’s performance (on and off the field) affects his card prices, which is a second difference between vintage set building (as the players are mostly retired, at least from active rosters) and master set building of newer sets. That’s why I mentioned a slightly flexible budget – if a player is having a monstrous year, you’ll need some flexibility. If a card started off selling at $30 when the product hit the shelf but has consistently sold in the $40-$50 range recently, it’s unlikely that it will be found for $30 unless you get lucky or want to wait. You can wait for the player to cool off, but then there is the risk that the cards will dry up again. Hot players tend to see their cards listed more often.

Trout-puppydog

As an aside, if the card you need is of Mike Trout you are highly unlikely to get lucky with respect to price, so I recommend having a Mike Trout rule (will you go after his rare cards or not). I got lucky once with Trout (I got the puppy dog card for a really good deal) – I don’t expect it to happen again. Sometimes a Kurt Suzuki insert will cost as much as a Nolan Arenado from the same set; that doesn’t happen with Trout and a few other players. Even his parallel cards are going to cost a few dollars.

Parallels

Parallel-lot

In defining master set, do you consider the parallels to be part of your set and if so where do you draw the line? Do you go after the retail parallels as well or just stick to the hobby parallels? I think parallel set collecting is probably the closest to vintage set collecting. I buy lots like I would for a vintage set and try to sell or trade doubles (or at least I used to) to save on monetary cost. Unlike the base sets, there usually aren’t very many complete parallel sets available, and complete parallel sets are usually expensive, so I recommend buying lots until you get down to a few cards. Like with vintage set building, pay attention to the star cards in the lot. Sometimes you can get a lot for the exact same price as buying the star card individually, which to me makes sense because the extras can always be sold or traded. While that part of set building is similar to vintage sets, a third difference between vintage set and newer product master set building is that condition rarely comes into play with newer cards, unless you are concerned with the difference between a graded 9 and a graded 10. It is unlikely that cards from 2020 have been put in bicycle spokes or carried around in wallets. That also means there is not much room to trade off lower condition to try to get the card for a lower price.

Non-rare inserts

OpengingDay-Mascots

Lastly, there are the “non-rare” insert sets. I have focused more on the rare cards because complete insert sets of the more common inserts, at least for a product like Opening Day, can usually be picked up for a much lower cost than if you were to buy the cards individually. For dealers who crack a case they will usually get multiple complete insert sets of this type. For some bigger insert sets I have used the same approach as I do with parallels in that I buy lots of the inserts until I get down to a few cards, and then pick-up the last few cards individually.

Those are just my thoughts given my experiences building master sets. Mostly I work on products with lower price points, so there may be different strategies with higher-priced products. I welcome others’ thoughts on their experiences.

Rethinking the Hobby’s most iconic cards

If you came here to read about the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle or 1989 Fleer Billy Ripken, you came to the wrong place. I’m here to talk about true baseball card icons…these!

These are of course the position icons Topps used on their 1976 flagship set. Now that you see where the post is headed, I’m only going to get the ball rolling and look to you, the readers, to finish it for me.

Use the comments area either to fill a vacant slot or upgrade one of the existing slots. Together I believe we can assemble a team of the most iconic baseball cards ever, and I wouldn’t even be surprised if the entire collection could be had for only a few bucks.

Catcher

I was reasonably happy with the 1988 Score Bob Boone card, but I suspect there’s something better out there. Terry Steinbach had a couple that were very close but facing the wrong way.

Right-handed pitcher

As in the 1973 set, Topps used different icons depending on whether a pitcher threw righty or lefty. Until a better match comes along, here is the iconic 1991 Topps Donn Pall card in the righty slot.

Left-Handed Pitcher

Hunting for the LHP icon proved harder than I thought and introduced me to just how much variation in follow-through there can be from pitcher to pitcher. As with all of these, feel free to upgrade.

First Base

No entry yet.

Second Base

Though not a second baseman, Walt Weiss comes close to the Topps icon with his 1991 Topps card. My guess is one of you will find something better though, and bonus points if your sliding baserunner is a match too.

An honorable mention from the vintage division is found on another shortshop card, the 1956 Topps Pee Wee Reese. (And you thought only his 1953 Bowman was iconic!)

Third Base

For some reason when I look at the third baseman icon I see George Brett in my head. He has a few near matches like this 1982 Topps In Action. Still, I suspect another player will make for an even closer match.

Shortstop

No entry yet, but I’ll use this third baseman’s card as a placeholder.

Outfield

No entry yet.

Designated hitter

Pinch-hitting for the DH until something better comes along is the 1992 Topps Jay Buhner. For some reason, even though the batter is a righty, this position icon always reminds me of Yaz.

Not satisfied?

If near matches weren’t what you had in mind, have I got the set for you. Let’s call it the Topps equivalent of participation trophies, a set where EVERY player is iconic: 2004 Topps!

P.S. I kind of like these!

Was National Chicle on the Ball or Off the Mark With its 1935 Diamond Stars Jimmie Foxx?

Though among most everyone’s candidates for the best first baseman in history, Jimmie Foxx—much like Honus Wagner two generations earlier—was a versatile player who could man various positions. (He ultimately took every position on the diamond besides second base and center field, including famously pitching—and pitching well—for the 1945 Phillies, as well as an earlier inning for the Red Sox.) Brought along gingerly by manager Connie Mack, Foxx was eased into the Philadelphia A’s lineup over several seasons. He originally reached the majors as a catcher, but with Mickey Cochrane claiming the position in his freshman season, Foxx had no future as Philly’s backstop. Tried variously in the outfield and the corner bases, Foxx did not become the Athletics regular first baseman until 1929. Not coincidentally, the A’s established themselves as the cream of baseball that season, leaving Babe Ruth’s mighty Yankees in the dust and cruising to a World Series championship.

With the arrival of Philadelphia’s quasi-dynasty of 1929–31 and Foxx’s subsequent eruption into Lou Gehrig’s near-equal as a devastating run producer, Jimmie was synonymous with first base throughout the 1930s.

Yet Foxx’s 1935 Diamond Stars card shows him as a catcher, despite the fact that he had not played an inning behind the plate since July 1928.

Having recently won back-to-back American League MVPs and now standing as one of the most famous and popular baseball players—not to mention first basemen–in the country, there seems to be no logical reason for National Chicle, the manufacturer of the Diamond Stars cards, to portray Foxx in his “long-lost” position.

Except that, for the first time in seven seasons, Jimmie donned baseball’s tools of ignorance, playing 26 of Philadelphia’s first 27 games behind the plate, before returning to first base. Mickey Cochrane had already traded in his white elephant for a tiger a season earlier and was busy player-managing Detroit to consecutive pennants, and Mack refused to put his trust in the A’s two other backstops when opening day arrived. In a strategy that could happen only in those quainter days, Mack moved Foxx back to catcher until he shelled out cash to the New York Giants for Paul Richards on May 25. (Richards was a short-term solution and did not even return to the majors until 1943; Mack ultimately solved his problem at catcher by bringing Frankie “Blimp” Hayes back to Philadelphia from the Washington organization, though Hayes was hardly a replacement for Mickey Cochrane.)

Anyway, National Chicle did not randomly or coincidentally depict Foxx as a catcher—the back of Jimmie’s card (spelled “Jimmy”) states that he had been “dividing his time between first base and catching…since Mickey Cochrane became manager of Detroit.”

This is flatly inaccurate (although to how much up-to-date and comprehensive statistics National Chicle availed itself certainly could be a factor): Cochrane had been traded to Detroit in December 1933, yet Jimmie never once played a game behind the plate in 1934 (though he unrelatedly did start nine game at the hot corner, for a total of 78 innings).

Thus, the only factual or rational reason for Foxx to be shown as a catcher on this card is because it wasn’t created until after Foxx debuted in 1935 as Philadelphia’s backstop on April 17. And he certainly would have had to have played at least several games at catcher before anyone at National Chicle either noticed or decided that enough of a pattern had been established to warrant capturing Foxx in catcher’s gear. (Considering National Chicle was based in the Boston suburb of Cambridge, it could be significant that the Red Sox and A’s did not clash until April 29, possibly delaying awareness that Foxx was currently not a first baseman.)

Exactly when in 1935 this card hit candy store shelves is unknown (at least to me). Foxx’s pose suggests—if we give National Chicle the benefit of the doubt on the facts of Jimmie’s defensive play, if not the semantics of his bio on the card—that National Chicle prepared and released its cards well after opening day. However, playing a handful of games at catcher in the early days of 1935 hardly can be considered “dividing one’s time” between the two positions when it never once occurred during the entire 1934 season. Either this was an excessively liberal take on National Chicle’s part or the writer of the card’s text assumed that Foxx had been catching in 1934—which, even in those less-enlightened days, was easily provable as false, had anyone bothered to fact check.

So perhaps National Chicle was under the erroneous impression that Foxx had been working behind the plate in 1934—which would make when the card was designed moot.

And yet, Foxx is mentioned as a first baseman even on the back of Jim Bottomley’s card, which was issued in the same series—and thus at the same time—as Foxx’s card, making Foxx’s portrayal as a catcher all the more curious.

Regardless, one must question to a degree the philosophy of so readily abandoning Foxx’s well-established reputation as an MVP first baseman based, presumptively, on a handful of games at the outset of the new season. It’s difficult to imagine the bigwigs at National Chicle thought Foxx’s move to catcher would be permanent, especially with light-hitting rookie Alex Hooks filling in for Foxx at first base, followed by powerless, though able, outfielder Lou Finney.

Still, National Chicle deserves a modicum of kudos for staying on the ball enough to reflect this recent, albeit temporary, change in Foxx’s defensive status—something of a Depression Era version of “keeping it real” (though whether it was necessary is debatable). As well, National Chicle should be commended from an aesthetic standpoint not only for providing an intrinsically interesting card but for similarly reminding the public that a baseball player is defined more by his many innings in the field than by his far shorter involvement at bat—a fact that modern fans tend to forget, especially in the era of the designated hitter and the current clamor for its adoption by the National League.

But as for whether Jimmie Foxx’s 1935 Diamond Stars card represents National Chicle being cutting edge or operating on erroneous information will likely never be known.

Ladies and Gentlemen! Your PCL Champion…Yankees?

Historically, the New York Yankees’ AAA teams were in the East or Midwest.  The Newark Bears of the International League were owned by Yankees and played in Ruppert Stadium, named for Yankees owner Colonel Jacob Ruppert. The Kansas City Blues were a Yankees affiliate in the American Association at the time of the Athletics move to Kansas City in 1955. Additionally, Syracuse, Columbus and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre have had long stints as Yankee outposts. But in 1978, the Yankees found themselves affiliated with Tacoma of the Pacific Coast League.

The Bronx Bombers’ stay in the Pacific Northwest was planned from the outset to be for only one season.  The Yanks were set to play in Columbus, Ohio, but the ballpark would not be ready until 1979.  The Twins pulled out of Tacoma after the 1977 season leaving “The City of Destiny” as the only destination for New York.

This one and done season is commemorated by a 25-card, team-issued set sponsored by Puget Sound National Bank and produced by Cramer Sports Promotions.  This is the same Cramer who would go on to form Pacific Trading Cards. I have owned the set for years and always found it intriguing. My favorite aspect of this set is the “TY” logo on the cap, jacket and jersey.  It is a great take on the traditional Yankees script.

The 1978 PCL Co-Champion Yankees (Final series against Albuquerque was rained out) were managed by ex-Seattle Pilot, Mike Ferraro.  Mike was originally signed by the Yankees as a player and returned to the fold as a minor league skipper.  His success in Tacoma may have helped earn him the Indians’ managerial job in 1980.

Like Mike Ferraro, Jerry Narron would go on the be a big-league manager.  The career backup catcher would pilot Texas and Cincinnati.

The most interesting card in the set belongs to pitching coach Hoyt Wilhelm. Apparently, The Hall-of-Fame knuckleballer could teach pitching mechanics beyond mastering a knuckleball grip.

In addition to Hoyt’s card, there are several other shots snapped in the Cheney Stadium clubhouse.  Since the photos were taken early in the season, inclement weather may have forced the photographer inside.  I can attest to the fact that few stadiums are as cold and damp as Cheney in April and May. One such example is this flattering image of Dave Rajsich.

Generally, the photos are of poor quality, with faces obscured by shadows.  The low-angle photos coupled with the shadows make it hard to discern faces, rendering some players almost indistinguishable. Domingo Ramos and Damaso Garcia are prime examples.

The card for Tommy Cruz is another example not being able to see facial features.  He is the sibling of the great Astro and Cardinal, Jose Cruz, and the uncle of Jose Cruz, Jr.

Another brother of a long-time major league player is Brian Doyle, whose brother Denny toiled with the Phillies, Angels and Red Sox. Brian’s photo is the only one not taken at Cheney Stadium. He is pictured in the road uniform, which features a basic (Tacoma) Yankees away jersey plus a logo patch on the sleeve.

Several other players saw some action with New York and other clubs.  Dell Alston had a stint with Oakland, while Kammeyer, Werth and Zeber played in the Bronx.

Also, Mets fans may remember Roy Staiger.  The utility man always reminds me of the actor Roy Steiger.

Now that you know more than you ever hoped to know about the 1978 Tacoma Yankees, I am sure you will race over to eBay or COMC to grab your own set.  If you are willing to settle for a card or two, I have some duplicates.

Set Building 101

Set building equates to putting back in order what has purposely been randomized and that is my best definition of what baseball card collecting is all about.  Surely it’s what Woody Gelman of Topps had in mind all those years ago in Brooklyn.  Why else would he have cataloged his own work that way, right? You break away from Mom in the local drug store, Otto Drugs in my 1974 case, to hit the candy isle and see this red wrapper with a baseball on it with a tag line saying “ALL 660 CARDS IN ONE SERIES!”.  Then I had no idea what a series meant in that usage nor had any inkling of the heartache and heartburn it would cause me in my later years as I discovered short prints, double prints, variations, errors, regional test releases and scarcities but my soon to turn nine year old self knew it meant something needed to be completed.   Hammerin’ Hank was just becoming the new Home Run King and what was viewed as our local team in Louisville, Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine, was churning up and waiting for Sparky to put Foster in the starting lineup during the following season – it was a glorious time.  These were all on the shelf.

But returning our focus to Baseball Card set building I’d like to give a few best practices obtained over the last few years since returning to the hobby that I have found to make the process as efficient as possible.  For practical purposes this list works off the assumption of a couple of things:  Topps/Bowman era to present and that you know your budgetary constraints.

handEducate yourself – fully about the set you have interest in. Know not just who the rookie and obvious star cards are but review for any high number series that may be more difficult to obtain and learn if short printed cards are involved.  This will help with the sticker shock of why a 1963 Harmon Killebrew with a far less appealing photo than its 1962 older brother runs three times the price.

Although you will still shake your head in disbelief as you pay more for a 2014 Topps Heritage common short print than you did for an actual 1965 in the same category.  Variations and error cards can also be a deep hole you find yourself in and can greatly affect your budget if not considered before diving in. Base set and Master set are not really a new thing to the Hobby.  1956 Topps for example has six team cards that have three versions each, did I know that going in?  Nope, but I did choose to track them all down?  Oh yes, those team cards are just flat out cool.  Did I then choose to also fill the binder up with all the white or grey back and color line variations?  Oh noooo, one Mickey Mantle with that odd looking grin is enough thank you.  But you see the point, 200 plus extra cards to compile a 1956 Master Set is far less appealing to me than the 18 extra cards needed to “master” all of the 1974 magnificence.  Again that budget precursor is a biggie.  Then we have those printing errors and defects that Topps’ printers have given an unending supply of “how’d they let that out?!?” over the decades for a print guy like me who walks grocery store isles looking for bad print and color variation.coop

Stay focused on condition – Graded, not graded, high mid low grade, targeted graded, there’s a lot going here and it is all, again, related to the budget question.  A collector can be in the rarefied air that is breathed in on PSA’s Set Registry site or just happy to have a particular card and anywhere in between.

I recommend sticking to whatever your comfort level is and knowing what your plan is for the set once completed by answering the Graded/Non Graded question.  The first set I wanted to work on upon returning to the hobby was my birth year set of 1965 Topps.  Once completed and without focus I have Graded and Non Graded Hall of Famers and the same with common cards as well, it’s all over the place and it feels like that great pennant design65 is having an existential crisis akin to an El Camino, unsure as to if it’s a car or a truck.  Targeted Graded can be an option as well if you want to focus on professionally graded cards of just the HOF’ers in the set, or a certain team, etc.  The 1963 Topps set fits this approach well for me as the big names in set have iconic photos that look amazing with many showing fantastic views of now gone ballparks in the background and vintage uniforms.

  As opposed to many of the commons that have loads of boring head shots cap less and airbrushed as Topps was beginning to get lazy in it’s monopoly.

starterStarter Sets and Lots – Ah yeah! Starter isn’t just reserved for sweet throwback satin jackets, it’s also how you get your jump out of the gate when you decide to start a set.  Now short of being able to say any of the following:  “Well, I already have the Mantle”, or sub in “Clemente, Rose, Seaver or Ryan rookie”, then you are going to need a Starter Set.  Maybe it’s a holdover from your childhood recently rediscovered, a yard sale find, a dealer offering to dump a box of 70’s to you for a $20 because he doesn’t want to lug it back to the car or maybe and best of all you find a deal on eBay thumbing through auctions ending soon during the fourth Hallmark Channel movie you have sat through this week while your better half remains teary eyed over the plot line in this new quarantined world.

  • Bold and in italics for a reason auctions ending soon is part of eBay’s search functions that you should make yourself highly acquainted with. Favorite search topics can be saved so you receive notices when newly listed auctions with your keywords are listed.  As a compulsive set builder I will also just search for “starter set”, “card lot”, etc by era under Baseball Cards and Ending Soonest just to see what is out there.  Don’t get too locked into era though because at times you will find deals where sellers have not listed correctly and that buried treasure will appear.
  • Since you have previously educated yourself you will have an idea of how much you want to pay for a card on average until you reach a point where buying in quantity no longer has an upside. Depending upon the size of the set you may want to acquire multiple starter sets or lots to combine and give you potential condition upgrades.  I am currently working on 1959 Topps and purchased six lots ranging from 4 to 205 cards over a four month period.  My goal was to spend 75 cents a card on average up to this point and the reality cost is 85 cents a card has got me to 56% of the set completed with a large chunk of the mighty mighties already knocked off the list.  These starter sets and lots are where you will find most of the value on star cards in my opinion.  Especially if your condition tolerance is more mid grade raw cards.  At this point you can separate the wheat from chafe, the keepers from the doubles and create THE LIST!  Those doubles from your starter sets and lots can be sold or traded to help flesh out the remaining cards needed.

THE LIST!  Once you have obtained around 60% of the set it’s time to create a list of the remaining cards and the search becomes more pointed. This list will also have the running tally of dollar expense so you know where you are in relation to your budget.  I am a collector first and usually do not flip out sets once they are completed but the opportunity has presented itself to sell a few times and having the info stored away is helpful in parting ways with a finished work.  Here is where your local card shop, if your area is fortunate enough to still have one, and websites like Sportlots and COMC come in quite handy.  Both of the latter of these will allow you to select the cards you need at fair prices in large quantities.  Each is different in that Sportlots is more geared to working with an individual seller who has cards in their possession while COMC has a massive inventory built from thousands of sellers who have sent their cards in for COMC to store and ship.  Great success has been had with Sportlots by knocking down lists for sets ranging from the 1950’s to modern day Topps Heritage.  COMC is great for harder to find sets or series where individuals may not have much inventory but having access to many different sellers you can save on shipping costs.

  • This all leads to what has become the best part of the Hobby I’ve experienced over the last couple of years – Twitter Trading. Yes, within that cesspool of keyboard warriors that Twitter has spiraled down into, there is a group of fantastic folks I have been able to complete trades with just like back in 1974.  We exchange lists, send pics of the cards we are offering and accepting in trade and then ship them out.  Once received we post our completed trades as they are received back on Twitter and the cycle continues.  I was initiated into this process by a great ambassador of this trading world, fellow SABR Baseball Card Blogger Mark Del Franco, @delspacefranco, who is very active in trading of this type.  This provides great conversation about cards and sets and really returns what, I’m sure, is the beginning reason for collecting in the first place – it’s just fun!

Hopefully this has provided some best practices for you put into action and provides some help as you build.  Some sets can be completed in short order while you may wait months to years to add to a truly scarce set, let me tell you about my 1968 Topps Action All-Stars sometime.  That’s when you find out about the last second eBay bid snipers who are always watching like the Eye of Mordor!  Happy Building, enjoy the journey!

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1997 Denny’s: The Most Ambitious Set Ever?

I was introduced to holograms by Desi Arnaz, Jr in 1983. Arnaz played Walter Nebicher, a nerdy police officer/computer whiz who craved more responsibility within the police department. In his spare time, Nebicher developed a powerful crime-fighting, helicopter-piloting, Tron-like-hologram hero he dubbed “Automan.” Unfortunately, Automan was canceled after only 12 episodes and I pretty much forgot about holograms until those marvels of dimensionality began to be incorporated into baseball card sets in the late 1980s.

On the other hand, lenticular cards had been a hobby staple since the 1970s. These plasticky “3-D” oddball issues were first introduced as a Topps test issue in 1968. Collectors most likely became aware of the 3-D technology, however when they found baseball cards in their Kellogg’s cereal boxes or discs on the bottom of 7-11 Slurpee cups. The Sportflics issue in 1986 introduced the lenticular card on a much grander scale, incorporating a headshot and a pair of action poses for individual players and cards featuring up to 12 different player photos. Regardless, the 3-D card has largely remained a novelty.

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Whether a baseball card featured a holographic or lenticular element, the creator of that card was endeavoring to capture the action and movement of the game into a static format—what else could a collector ask for in a two-dimensional card? Many of these cards are downright magical.

Famous for its Grand Slam breakfast, Denny’s began producing a branded baseball card set with Upper Deck in 1991. That set featured a full bleed holographic image on the front and narrative statistical information on the reverse, along with—cleverly—the player’s career grand slam tally. One card was issued for each of the 26 Major League teams at the time. Denny’s followed a similar format in 1992 and 1993, the latter set growing to 28 cards with the addition of players from the Rockies and Marlins. These cards were given to patrons who ordered a Grand Slam breakfast.

In 1994, Denny’s and Upper Deck changed the format a bit and for the first time, the set included pitchers. The player’s grand slam tally was discontinued, perhaps because none of Jim Abbott, Kevin Appier and Cal Eldred had never hit a home run, let alone a grand slam. This year, the issue also included a special Reggie Jackson card that was reportedly distributed one to a location and was to be given away as a prize. This remains the rarest of any Denny’s issue.

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The 1995 Denny’s set was the last for Upper Deck, the restaurant chain having partnered with Pinnacle for 1996. While the 1991-95 Upper Deck holographic issues simply added some shimmer and dimension to the card fronts, the 1996 set really brought home the bacon. Touted as “Full Motion Holograms,” these cards—when pivoted at just the right angle—actually depicted fluid action of a batter’s swing or pitcher’s windup. This issue also added a randomly inserted ten-card Grand Slam subset, with a parallel ten-card Grand Slam Artist’s Proof subset. The holographic image on the Grand Slam subset card was just a generic Grand Slam breakfast advertisement, ironically making the chase cards much less desirable than those in the base set.

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Then, in 1997, the 24-hour diner chain turned the collecting world on its collective head. Not unlike the resplendent union of eggs and toast, a concept was hatched in which a single regulation-sized baseball card would include both lenticular and holographic elements. This intrepid design produced the most technologically ambitious baseball card ever—with roughly 71%* of the card’s real estate covered by special effects. The front of the card was oriented horizontally and featured crisp effects in front of or behind each subject. The back of the card contained biographical and career highlight information, along with a large holographic image of the player’s face. These cards were wrapped individually and were available for 59 cents to anyone who purchased an entrée and non-alcoholic beverage.

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The set was comprised of 29 cards, one for each of the 28 Major League teams of the day, along with a special Jackie Robinson card in honor of 1997 having been the 50th anniversary of his having broken baseball’s color barrier. The Robinson card was based on Ernie Sisto’s depicting Robinson being tagged out at plate by the Pirates’ Clyde McCullough at Ebbets Field on May 2, 1951.

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Oddly, Denny’s also produced a separately distributed card of Larry Doby, numbered “1 of 1.”** The Doby card was given out at the All-Star Game Fan Fest and National Sports Collectors Convention, both of which were held in Cleveland that year. [Additionally, there is anecdotal evidence that the Doby card was also available at Cleveland-area Denny’s locations, but this has not necessarily been substantiated.] As you may know, Doby broke the color barrier in the AL, playing his initial game for the Indians on July 5, 1947.

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The 1997 Denny’s cards are fun to handle not only because of the movement and special effects on both sides, but also because a good number include other identifiable individuals. For example, John Jaha appears to be holding Wade Boggs on at first. The Sammy Sosa card has Jose Hernandez positioned oddly as Sosa appears to be mid home run trot. It appears that Jeff Bagwell is depicted on Tim Salmon’s card, Hal Morris appears on Derek Jeter’s card, Kirt Manwaring is seen on Andruw Jones’s card, and Jim Thome makes a baserunning appearance on Bagwell’s card, the only dual Hall of Famer entry in the lot.

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Interestingly, Cubs catcher Scott Servais appears on two cards, those of Ray Lankford and Gary Sheffield. The Sheffield card is particularly interesting because the visible Wrigley Field bunting probably dates that photograph as having been taken during the Cubs opening series against the Marlins in 1997, not long before the set would have been finalized for manufacture.

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The card fronts are also interesting to study for the differing ways in which motion was added and whether the perspective of that motion was in the foreground, background, or both. The majority of the cards depict the main subject as a solid, two-dimensional figure. Several cards, however, animate a portion of the player’s body, such as Mo Vaughn’s glove, Mike Piazza’s arm, and Frank Thomas’s left hand gripping a baseball to autograph.

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Unfortunately, all this technology came at a price. While information regarding the cost to produce each of these cards has eluded the author, these cards could not have been inexpensive to produce and Denny’s ambition may have been the reason for the demise of their baseball card promotions. Alas, the 1997 set was the last that Denny’s would distribute.

Even now, Denny’s sets and singles are readily available and relatively inexpensive. The ambitious 1997 set is the pinnacle of baseball card fun, even more so than Automan ever was.

Here is the checklist: 1997 Denny’s Checklist

Notes:

*I say that “roughly 71%” because the hologram features a slight rounded contour of a baseball, not a straight line. I am not going to do any math that requires me to calculate the area of an arc section.

**Denny’s having chosen to celebrate Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby may have been an effort to help rehabilitate their corporation reputation on the heels of paying $54.4 million to settle a class-action racial discrimination lawsuit.

Sources:

Jeff Leeds, “Denny’s Restaurants Settle Bias Suits for $54 Million: Civil rights: Blacks complained of discrimination at the chain. Case marks new push for Justice Department,” Los Angeles Times, May 25, 1994.

Dwight Chapin, Greg Smith, “Highland Mint strikes gold in memorabilia market,” The Marion Star (Marion, Ohio), August 31, 1997.

A Time of Innocence: Gary Bell, Howie Reed, and 1965 Topps Baseball

I don’t recall exactly why I walked into Joe’s Department Store on that blustery Saturday afternoon in November 1961. I probably had a dime that was burning a hole in my pocket. But I remember very clearly leaving Joe’s with two very different packs of football cards in my hand—the first packs of cards that I ever owned.

I leaned against the brick façade of the building facing Fenkell Avenue and tried to block the wind while I opened the packs. The first pack I opened was exciting! I still remember three cards from that pack—Minnesota Vikings quarterback George Shaw, who would soon be supplanted by Fran Tarkenton; Detroit Lions running back Nick Pietrosante, one of my father’s favorite players; and Jimmy Brown, the Cleveland Browns’ outstanding running back who even I, at age six, knew was a star player. That card was magnificent! Brown looked like he had been dropped in against a sky-blue background, just having taken a handoff and ready to run. I knew my dad would be impressed!

I shoved these cards—which I discovered later were manufactured by Topps—in my jacket pocket and opened the second pack, which had a completely different design on the wax wrapper. The cards themselves were also very different from the first pack; rather than players posing against a solid background, these cards depicted players on a gridiron that looked like it was on the edge of a forest, with trees and shrubbery in the background. The linemen were depicted charging toward some off-camera target, and the running backs all seemed to be heading straight toward the photographer. I still remember a few of the cards from this pack—San Diego Chargers lineman Ron Mix, Dallas Texans lineman Bill Krisher, and New York Titans running back Pete Hart.

(How, you might ask, can I remember what cards I got in packs that I bought nearly sixty years ago? That’s easy to answer. Those packs were the only ones I bought all year, and I was so enthralled with the pictures that I looked at them every day and read their backs so often that I memorized their stats and details. It was clear that I was hooked on cards within those first two packs.)

I quickly jammed the second pack of cards—which I later realized were made by Fleer—in my other pocket and closed my hands in the pockets so they wouldn’t blow away in the wind on my three-block trip home. (I have no recollection of whether or not I chewed the gum.) When I got home, I quickly showed the cards to my father. As I expected, he was impressed with the Pietrosante card, and upon seeing the Jimmy Brown card, he said approvingly, “He’s a good one!” But when he looked at the cards from the second pack, a puzzled expression came across his face. “Dallas Texans? The Dallas team is called the Cowboys!” “New York Titans? I only know the New York Giants!” I shrugged my shoulders as my dad suggested that maybe these pictures were of college players. Clearly the American Football League had not made an impact on anyone at the house on Patton Avenue in Detroit by the fall of 1961.

After my father handed the cards back to me, I asked him if baseball cards were also sold. Dad said he didn’t know but suspected that some company made them. He said we would have to see when the spring rolled around. I had something exiting to anticipate!

***

In late March 1962, I was thrilled to discover that Joe’s Department Store and Checker Drugs—just three storefronts down from Joe’s—both carried baseball cards. I loved that 1962 set, and I still do. From the faux woodgrain border to the photo with the lower right corner curled up to reveal the player’s name, team, and position, I thought those cards were perfect. I didn’t have a lot of them, but my parents were generous with their nickels and dimes, and I couldn’t wait to walk down to the store to pick up one or two of those green-wrappered packs of cards. I regularly volunteered to go to Checker’s with a note from my father allowing me to pick up a pack of Pall Malls for him—and to pick up a pack of cards for myself. (Thankfully, my dad quit smoking a few years later. I had to find other excuses to go to the store to buy baseball cards.) I probably had four or five dozen cards from the first and second series—not a lot, but enough to whet my appetite for more. And while I loved the pictures, I also studied the backs of the cards. I enjoyed reading about Roger Maris’ record-setting exploits in 1961, learning that Marv Breeding was the victim of the “sophomore jinx” in ’61 (although I had no idea what that was), and trying to figure out how to pronounce the name of Cleveland utility infielder Mike de la Hoz.

That spring I would go outside after dinner to throw a rubber ball against the steps of my parents’ front porch. I soon discovered that the Brooks brothers three doors down would play catch on the sidewalk in front of their home almost every night. I would wander down and strike up a conversation with Billy, who was in fourth of fifth grade, and Bobby, who was in junior high. They didn’t seem to mind having a little kid talk to them and watch them, and in fact they encouraged it by asking me to play “running bases,” a glorified game of “pickle” where I would start in the middle between them and they had to try to get as close to me as possible and tag me without dropping the ball. Invariably we would all collapse in laughter on the cool front lawn of the Brooks home. Those were wonderful, precious times.

I soon discovered that Billy and Bobby collected baseball cards, just like I did. They collected their cards together and had a lot of the first couple of series of Topps cards in 1962. I did, however, have a few cards that they were missing, and they told me that they would give me three of their doubles for every card I had that they needed. I think I had six cards they wanted, so I got eighteen cards in exchange. That was a nice way to increase my collection. I told Billy that I also collected the cards from the backs of Post cereal boxes and the coins that were in Salada Tea (which my grandmother drank) and Junket desserts. Billy collected the Post cards too but didn’t know anything about the coins. I showed him my burgeoning collection and he looked at them with curiosity, saying he had never heard of Junket. “Really?” I exclaimed. “You haven’t seen the television commercials? ‘Junket rennet custard/The growing up dessert! Helps you grow up, not out!’ Billy stood back from me, eyed me up and down, and said with a grin, “Doesn’t seem to be doing a good job with you.” At first, I thought he was making a cruel joke about my weight, but he nudged me with his elbow and told me he was kidding. We both laughed about it—no harm, no foul.

Once school let out for the summer, the Brooks brothers went on vacation with their parents, and I didn’t see them much once they got back home, but they were my first trading partners and thus had a strong influence on me. I knew that there were other people out there who loved card collecting as much as I did. So thanks, Billy and Bobby, for your friendship and savvy trades all those years ago.

I collected baseball cards throughout the summer of 1962. I probably had about two hundred different cards—a pretty good collection, but not even half of the 598 cards in the set. The cards were issued in seven series, and I never saw any packs of sixth or seventh series cards at Joe’s or Checker’s. I bought one pack of seventh series cards at a drug store my mother visited for a special prescription; those were the only seventh series cards I bought at a store.

By mid-August, baseball cards were supplanted by the new Topps football card set, and I bought those, too. I liked the dark borders but wasn’t thrilled with the small black-and-white action photos that accompanied the larger color still shots. Still, they were cards, and I bought as many as I could.

That fall, my parents bowled in my dad’s Detroit Edison league, so every Friday they would take my older sister and me to my grandmother’s apartment. She would ply us with chocolate pudding and orange slices and let us watch such television programs as “William Tell,” “I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster,” “The Flintstones,” and “The Hathaways.” My grandma lived in a second-story apartment above a convenience store, and each visit also included a trip to the store. I discovered that the store sold football cards, too—a product issued by Fleer that depicted stars from the American Football League (about which I had read over the previous year). I probably had half of the small set of those cards and enjoyed the variety between them and the Topps issue.

When spring 1963 rolled around, and the new Topps baseball set was issued, I was excited, but I was a little let down by the cards themselves. They 1963 cards were colorful, but I liked the 1962 set so much that I was disappointed with this year’s design. I can’t quite put my finger on why, but no matter—I still bought as many as I could. And once again, I never saw any packs of sixth or seventh series cards. All that aside, however, I had an experience that has lived with me ever since and which I wish I could revisit and try to do differently.

One afternoon in June 1963, just after school had let out for the summer, my mother asked me if I wanted to go grocery shopping with her. I liked going because I could look at the baseball cards on the backs of Post cereal boxes and Bazooka bubble gum boxes and shake the Junket boxes to hear the coin bouncing around inside. My mom and I headed to the local Packer grocery store “(Packer’s got the meat/Packer’s got the price/That’s why Packer is twice . . . as . . . nice!”). I soon left my mom to shop on her own while I visited the cereal and candy aisles. I saw what I wanted to see and was heading back down the main aisle when something caught my eye and caused me to halt all movement and gasp for breath. There, hanging from the end of the aisle on a metal bar, were rack packs of Topps baseball cards—three stacks of cards wrapped in cellophane and there for the taking. And not just any baseball cards—they were my favorites, 1962 Topps! And not just any 1962 Topps, but as I discovered by looking at the cards on the top and the bottom of the rack pack, they were the elusive seventh series cards, of which I only had five!!!

I quickly put the rack pack back on the metal stake and hustled off to find my mother. When I saw her, I was out of breath.

“Mom!!! They have baseball cards here!!!!! Please come with me!”

My mother looked at me suspiciously but followed me to the display on the main aisle. I took down a rack pack and handed it to her.

“Can I get this, Mom? Please???”

She looked at the package and asked, “Are these from this year?”

“No,” I replied, “But—”

“No,” my mother said forcefully. I’m not buying you old cards.”

“But Mom, I don’t have ANY of these cards!”

“No, I’m not buying you old cards.”

“BUT MOM!!!!!”

“Stop, Danny. Put them back.”

I thought about throwing a tantrum right then and there, but I figured it wouldn’t be dignified for an eight-year-old to be so immature. So instead, I decided not to talk to my mom at all for the rest of the day. That would show her!

That incident has stayed with me all these years. I sometimes wonder how valuable those cards would be today, when common seventh series cards can sell for almost $100 apiece in nice condition. Of course, in my hands, they probably wouldn’t have stayed in mint condition, and almost certainly those rack packs would have been quickly ripped open, but still, it’s nice to speculate on their value.

Once again, by mid-August, football cards were on sale, and I bought a lot of those cards. I really liked that set—they were very colorful and had strong visual appeal, plus a lot of my friends also bought them and I could trade with them. I remember, though, that some cards seemed almost impossible to come by—particularly the Philadelphia Eagles cards, which nobody seemed to have. Of course, at that time I knew nothing about short prints, but I would soon find out about them. My parents bowled in the Edison league again that fall, and once again the convenience store below my grandmother’s apartment sold Fleer AFC cards, so I had a lot of football cards to look at. The last time I bought cards there was Friday, November 15; a week later, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and while my parents still bowled that night, the convenience store was closed, and I don’t remember ever seeing Fleer football cards there again after that.

During March 1964, I began to visit Joe’s and Checker’s to look for the new baseball cards. I was surprised to discover, however, that neither store had them. Late March turned to early April, and still no cards were on sale. Rather than coming home from school and then going to the stores, I started to go right from school. I was desperate for my baseball card fix!

The baseball season started on April 13 in 1964, and a couple of days before that, I went to Checker’s and asked for some baseball cards. The woman behind the counter said they didn’t have them yet. She must have seen my disappointment because she leaned forward on the counter and said, conspiratorially, “Do you want to know why there are no baseball cards?”

I moved close to the counter and didn’t say anything but was shocked and stunned when she said, “It’s because of the Beatles.”

I looked at her like she had lobsters crawling out of her ears. “THE BEATLES??? What do you mean?” How could a show business phenomenon have such an effect on my baseball card mania?

The woman explained to me that the Beatles were such a big box office draw that Topps put together an offer to sell bubble gum cards of the band. Those cards sold even better than baseball cards and led to a second series, which sold just as well. She said that Topps was in the process of developing a third series and that the baseball cards would be issued after that third series of Beatles cards was released.

I was dumbfounded. I didn’t know whether to believe her or not, but it seemed logical, and later research proved that she had the details pretty much correct. I went home crestfallen, wondering when the baseball cards would arrive in the stores and cursing the Beatles for making me wait for my fix. Of course, I had loved watching the Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show” that February, and I had even begun combing my hair over my forehead, like 90% of the boys in my class at school, so I couldn’t stay mad at them for too long. They were on the radio constantly, and my sister collected their cards (she eventually had complete sets of all six series), so once the baseball cards came out, all was forgiven.

Maybe it was because it took so long for them to arrive, but I really liked the 1964 Topps cards., I still remember the first card that I saw in my first pack that year—Milt Pappas, the Orioles pitcher who hailed from the Detroit area. But yet again the sixth and seventh series were nowhere to be found in my local stores, and in mid-August I was surprised to see that Topps was issuing AFL cards rather than their usual National Football League product. In late August, a new company, Philadelphia Gum, began to distribute NFL cards. I liked the Topps cards but LOVED the Philly product—the pictures looked like they had all been taken around the same time in the same location, and I liked the offensive plays that were diagrammed on certain cards. My friends and I spent a lot of time trading cards from both sets but particularly the Philadelphia set. I think I came about forty cards short of a set, which is about the best I had done with any card set up until that time.

***

There was no such drama when Topps released their baseball cards in late March of 1965. These cards were beautiful! They were bold and colorful, and I loved having the team name inside a waving pennant near the bottom left of the card. I loved these cards, and I wanted to get as many of them as I could.

I bought most of my 1965 early series cards at Joe’s Department Store. Unlike Checker Drugs, where the cards were behind a counter and the druggist had to get them for me, at Joe’s I could grab the packs myself from a box in a candy aisle. If nobody was looking, I was sometimes able to slide down the bottom of the wax pack and see what card was on the top of the pack, thus assuring that I would get a card I didn’t have. I tried not to abuse that privilege, however, because the proprietor was such a nice man.

Joe reminded me of Wimpy from the Popeye cartoons—short, round, balding, with a bristly mustache. He always had a glint in his eye and a smile on his face; he would see me walk into his store and exclaim, “Hello, young man! What can I do for you today?” He always knew that I wanted to buy a pack or two of baseball cards. Joe’s was called a department store, but it was very different from Sears, Montgomery Ward, or J.L. Hudson. It was more like a small warehouse; it encompassed two storefronts and contained men’s and women’s clothing and various other items but was more like a thrift shop than what passed for a department store back in those days. But it was a neighborhood store, and while I don’t remember buying anything besides candy or cards there, I know that a lot of my neighbors regularly visited the store.

Joe and I got to know each other pretty well that spring—so well, in fact, that Joe and his female assistant granted me special favors. The big privilege was that Joe took a box of baseball cards and put them behind the counter so that he would always have some available for me when I came in the store—even if the packs were sold out in the candy aisle. Maybe Joe just didn’t want me to try to open the packs in the aisle, but I thought it was really cool of him to treat me that way. It also gave rise to an idea that served me well for the rest of the year.

One day in late April, I told my mother that I wanted to discuss something with her and my dad over dinner. She seemed surprised that her nine-year-old son would have some deep thought that needed airing and asked if I was in trouble at school. I told her no; this wasn’t a bad thing. So at dinner, I brought up my idea. I received twenty-five cents a week for an allowance, and I spent virtually all of that, plus a penny sales tax, for five packs of baseball cards. I asked my parents if I could instead get $1.25 per month—a 20% increase—if I did more chores around the house. I said that I would cut the grass and rake the leaves in the fall and handle some of the housecleaning that my mother was constantly doing.

My dad was always reluctant to spend more money than he had to. He grew up during the Great Depression, and I think his attitude toward money was a result of those tough times. He rarely enjoyed spending extra money on my sister or me, and even my mom hesitated to ask for certain necessary things because she didn’t want to make him angry. As a family, we never wanted to anything, but we didn’t live a life of luxury, either. We were solidly in the middle class.

My mother asked me why I wanted more money, and I explained my reasoning.

“With $1.25 per month, I could buy a full box of baseball cards each month.”

My dad didn’t even look up from his dinner. “You get a quarter a week” is all he said.

But my mom asked some other questions.

“how many packs are in a box?”

“24.”

“At five cents apiece?”

“Yes.”

“So that’s $1.20. Plus five cents tax, for $1.25. That works out nicely.”

“What do you think, Mom?”

Dad didn’t even look at me. “You get a quarter a week.”

My mother knew how important this was to me, though, and she said, “Let me discuss this with your dad.” Only then did my dad lift his head from his dinner; he looked at both of us and repeated, “He gets a quarter a week.” The look my mom gave me, however, implied that the decision was not yet final.

A few days later, when there hadn’t been any obvious discussion about it, I asked my mother where things stood. She said that she would talk to my dad about it that night.

The following day, when I got home from school but before my father arrived home from work, my mom took me aside and said, “Dad and I have discussed your idea and we have agreed to try it.” I must have been grinning from ear to ear because my mom quickly said, “On three conditions: One, that you do some more chores around the house; two, that you don’t ask for extra money for individual packs; and three, YOU DON’T CHEW THE GUM!” I laughed and quickly agreed to all those conditions. In fact, I told my mother that I would cut the lawn right then. “That can wait until tomorrow,” Mom said. “First, let’s go to Joe’s and get your box of cards.”

When I walked into the store, Joe saw me and started to say, “Hello young man–.” But then he saw my mother behind me and quickly changed his tone to sound more professional. “Hello madam, welcome to Joe’s. What can I do for you today?” My mom looked down at me, and I said to Joe, “I would like to buy a box of baseball cards.”

“Certainly, young man. How many packs would you like?” Joe headed back behind the counter to grab some packs from my special box.

“I would like the entire box, Joe. All twenty-four packs.”

Joe looked confused and glanced at my mother, who smiled and nodded her head. Joe then cocked his head to the side, as if to say, “This is different!” He told me to wait a moment while he went in the stock room to get a full box. When he came back, he opened the box and began shoveling the packs into a bag for easy carrying. I quickly stopped him and asked if he would leave the cards in the box and let me take the box with me as a souvenir. He smiled and said, “Of course!” He also complimented my mother on raising such a polite young man. My mother and I both smiled broadly. I thanked Joe and told him that I would be back for another box when the second series was released. Joe looked a little surprised and said, “I hope you’ll be back before then, even if you’re not buying baseball cards!” That man was a total sweetheart.

When we got home, my mother reminded me not to chew the gum and told me to have fun as she left my bedroom. I then proceeded to open all twenty-four packs and put the cards in numerical order as I opened them to extend the excitement as much as possible. For me opening those packs was like Christmas morning—new pleasures with each pack. As I reached the end of the box, however, it felt even more like the end of Christmas morning, when a kid realizes that he didn’t get everything on his list. I noticed toward the end of the box that I was getting a lot of duplicate cards, and in fact I was about two dozen cards short of the entire series when I was done opening the packs. But I had lots of friends at school who collected cards—Chuck and Rusty in my class, in particular—and I had lots of doubles to trade, so over the next few days I traded for the cards I was missing. Buying cards by the box was really going to pay off!

I relied on Rusty and Chuck to tell me when succeeding series of cards were released, and when that occurred my mother and I would walk or drive to Joe’s for a fresh box. The next few series were smaller in number than the first series, so I was missing substantially fewer cards after opening the boxes, and I was able to trade for everything I needed. Through the first four series, I had the entire set of 1965 Topps cards, and I had a good start on the fifth series when I bought a box of those cards. After trades, I was missing only one card—number 424, Gary Bell, a Cleveland pitcher. None of my friends had this card, and they didn’t know anyone who had it. My mom even broke her own rule and let me buy a few individual packs to try to find it, to no avail. I was stumped.

Then my mom had a suggestion. “Why not write a letter to the Topps company asking them to send you the card? I’ll give you a dime that you can attach to a letter explaining that you have tried hard to find the card but have been unsuccessful.” I thought this was as good an idea as anything I could imagine, and I sat down to write. I don’t remember my exact wording, but it went something g like this:

Dear Sirs,

I am a ten-year-old card collector who has been assembling the 1965 Topps baseball set. I have every card in the first five series except number 424, Gary Bell. I can’t find it anywhere, and none of my friends have it. Could you please send this card to me? I have enclosed ten cents for your trouble and have also enclosed a stamped, self-addressed envelope. Thank you in advance for your attention to my letter. Sincerely, Danny Marowski

A couple of weeks later, my mother came into my room with a large envelope and said with a smile, “You have mail!” My jaw dropped when she handed me the envelope that had the Topps Chewing Gum address in the top left. I carefully unsealed the envelope and discovered three life-changing things inside.

First, I saw the Gary Bell card. They had sent it!!! I was ecstatic and yelled out to my mom, “They sent me the card!!!” She was very happy, too. Next, I pulled out a short letter from someone at Topps. I wish I had kept the letter, but I pretty much remember what it said.

Dear Danny,

Thank you for your letter. While we don’t sell cards to collectors, we were very impressed by your letter and are happy to help you complete your collection of 1965 Topps baseball cards. We have also returned your SASE and your ten cents and have enclosed a catalog for The Card Collectors’ Company. You can buy cards from them for this year and previous years’ sets at reasonable prices. Feel free to contact them for all your collecting needs. Good luck in your pursuit of the full 1965 Topps set, and keep collecting!

I quickly looked at the catalog, and I caught my breath as I realized that I could fill in my sets from the past few years for pennies per card. I ran out to show my mother the catalog—actually, more like a small bifold pamphlet—and said that I wanted to try to complete my older sets through The Card Collectors’ Company of Franklin Square, New York. My mother reminded me that I was spending all of my allowance on current baseball cards, but I noted that the season was almost over and that I probably wouldn’t be able to find sixth or seventh series cards in stores, so I would save my allowance in the fall and order cards through the catalog. Little did I realize the impact that catalog would have on my collection over the next few years.

I waited patiently for Joe’s to have the sixth series of baseball cards, but as in previous years they never arrived, so I figured it would be football card season soon anyway and gave up my pursuit of the Topps baseball set. Imagine my surprise, then, when Chuck told me that a store near him was selling sixth series cards! I quickly hopped on my bike and rode the eight blocks to Chuck’s house, then walked down the street to a small convenience store named Connie’s Corner. Connie was indeed the proprietor, and she welcomed us with a broad smile. Chuck asked for a couple packs of cards and opened them right then and there. Sure enough, they were from the sixth series! We went back to Chuck’s house, and I called my mother to let her know that a new series was out. She told me that we would have to wait until the next day to buy the box, and I worried all night that they would be out of stock by then. My worries were unfounded, however; I bought a box and completed the entire sixth series without needing to trade with Chuck or anyone else. My pursuit of a complete set was still alive!

I never expected to find seventh series cards anywhere in my neighborhood, so I figured that I would have to mail away for them through the CCC catalog. A couple of weeks before school started that fall, however, I began visiting another classmate. Jon was different from most of my other male friends. He wasn’t into sports, concentrating instead on fascinating electronics and oddball devices. His parents were older, and his father worked either in the government or in some science-based position. Their house was full of things I had never seen before, and they were clearly wealthier than most of my friends’ parents. Also, their house was north of Grand River Avenue, a main artery in Detroit that separated middle class residences from old, moneyed families. While most of my friends and I would attend public high school in a few years, Jon attended Assumption, a private academy in Windsor, Ontario. Jon’s world was very different from mine.

I must have visited Jon at his home three or four times over a ten-day period. To get to his house, I had to cross the massive Grand River Avenue, and to do that I crossed at a street that had a traffic signal. On the southwest corner of that street was a drug store named Schnellbach’s. I had never gone in there before because it was a Rexall drug store—noted by the orange sign above the door—and they were notoriously kid-unfriendly, at least in my neighborhood. But after one visit to Jon’s home, I was parched, so I stopped in to Schnellbach’s to get a bottle of orange soda. Before I got my drink, however, I noticed behind the counter a box of baseball cards. I also noticed a small banner on the front of the box that stopped me in my tracks. The banner read, “FINAL SERIES.” There it was! The elusive seventh series!!! I forgot about the soda and rode home as quickly as possible, exploding though the back door to tell my mom that we needed to go to the drug store to get the cards. Mom was making dinner and told me that she would take me after we ate. That night I probably ate my dinner faster than I ever had before.

As my mom a I prepared to go out, my dad asked where we were going. Mom said that she was running an errand with me. My dad looked puzzled and asked if he needed to come along, and my mom told him no, it wasn’t necessary. It hadn’t dawned on me until right then that my dad didn’t have any idea that I was buying baseball cards by the box! On the way to Schnellbach’s I asked my mom if dad knew what was going on. She smiled, said no, and said she wanted to make this decision herself. I gained newfound respect for Mom that day but also wished I could share my excitement with my dad.

When we got to Schnellbach’s and I asked for a full box of baseball cards, the salesperson gave me a box without the banner on it. I pointed to the box behind the counter and asked, “Do you have any boxes with the Final Series banner?” She checked the back room and came out with one such box. “Last one!”

When I got home, I opened the packs and found myself three cards short of a complete set. Oddly enough, two of those cards were of my hometown Detroit Tigers—Jake Wood and Joe Sparma. But Rusty told me that he had found seventh series cards at Connie’s Corner and that I could have his. That left me one card short—I was missing Howie Reed, number 544, a Dodgers pitcher. Neither Rusty nor Chuck had the card, but Chuck told me that a friend of a friend had it, and a connection was soon made. The boy with the Reed card came to Chuck’s, and I told him he could have as many of my doubles as he wanted in exchange for Howie Reed. I think he took a couple of dozen cards away with him, but I didn’t care—I had Howie Reed, and I had the entire 1965 Topps baseball set!!!

That was a red-letter day in my life. I was excited; my mom was happy for me; my friends were thrilled as well. Even my dad found out that I had completed the set and was impressed—although I think he thought I had traded for the majority of my cards. What this did for me personally was give me a hunger for completing future sets and going back and completing older sets as well, first through services like the Card Collectors’ Company and later through hobby magazines and conventions. I remember attending national shows in Troy, Michigan, in the early 1970s and picking up amazing deals on older cards for prices that couldn’t be touched today. Those sets have stayed with me all these years; I have a complete run of Topps sets from 1955-1990, Bowman 1948 and 1954-55, and Fleer 1960-63, plus most Topps football sets from 1955-1990, Fleer football 1960-63, Philadelphia football 1964-67, and my favorite, a Post cereal football set from 1962, as well as hockey and basketball card sets. I took quite a few years off from collecting to pursue work and raise a family, but I’m happy to be scratching the collecting itch again and trying to fill some older sets, including 1950 Bowman baseball and 1961 and 1963 Post cereal baseball.

1965 was the final year that I collected cards though packs. During 1966, I discovered that another Checker Drugs a few miles away sold cards in a vending machine—six cards (or more—sometimes as many as eight) for a nickel. My mom would drive me to the store with a dollar’s worth of nickels, and I would spend them all on the machine. My 1966 and 1967 sets were completed like this; beginning in 1968, I ordered the complete set from the Card Collectors Company, and I kept up that method for many years.

I lost touch with Jon and Rusty over the next couple of years, but I just recently reconnected with Chuck after more than forty years. Unfortunately, we have very little in common anymore. That said, I think back often to those wonderful days when our only worries were whether we could complete a baseball card set. Would that our lives could be like that again!

Convergences

Image

 

Yordan Álvarez is depicted on the Topps 2020 Series One Variation short print card #276 in glorious landscape orientation, like a widescreen Panavision vista of mesas and buttes, the fever dream of John Ford ardently lusting after a sunset into which he might send his hero trotting. Álvarez possesses plenty of swagger, but on this card he does not look heroic. He looks defeated as he makes the long walk back to the dugout, a look of frustration on his face, or possibly anger, eyes cast into the middle distance, his mouth a thin, tight line. And this is not the frontier; it’s a ballpark.

Álvarez made his major league debut for the Houston Astros on June 9th, 2019, and this card was issued in February of 2020, which means the photograph was taken sometime during the latter half of the season. Over his shoulder looms the unmistakable sight of Camden Yards’ B&O warehouse, so he’s in Baltimore. Houston visited the Charm City only once that season, for a three-game set in August, so we can assume the shot was taken on one of those three dates.

Further, Álvarez is not wearing the Astros’ standard road greys, nor is he sporting the orange or navy alternate jerseys Houston has been known to wear. He is instead wearing a throwback uniform – a modern version of the getup the Astros donned from 1982 until ’93, the name ‘Astros’ across the chest in an Arial-like sans-serif font, navy blue over a plain navy star. Above that, things get weird: thick racing stripes of navy-red-orange-gold-orange-red-navy drape the shoulders. This was the toned-down version of their 1970s tequila sunrise uniforms, which we can only guess made sense at the time, but now look like a parodic representation of what that decade felt like if you were tuned in, pharmacologically.

His batting helmet is navy, unlike the bright orange lids those ‘70s Houston teams wore – hunter blaze, we’d call that now, usually worn with a full neck-to-toe camo ensemble, the cap designed to make you clearly human and decidedly not ungulate in the eyes of fellow sportspeople lurking in the bush with long guns and trigger fingers made itchy by hours of inaction.

An odd thing about those ’82-’93 Astros uniforms is that there was no true road version. At home they wore white, and on the road they sported the very same uniform in cream. But Yordan Álvarez, it appears to my eyes, is wearing white. Of all the orthodoxies I hold dear to my heart, this is among the strictest: a ballclub should wear white at home and grey on the road. Ever was it thus, ever thus should it be.

The actual home team was commemorating near-glory. August 9th, 2019, a sultry Friday night in Baltimore, was a celebration of the 1989 “Why Not?!” Orioles, a team of scrap and grit that came close to winning the AL East, heading into the season’s final weekend needing a sweep of the Blue Jays to take the division. The Jays won two of three.

But the Frank Robinson-led Orioles had taken their fans on such a great ride that thirty years later, in the midst of a miserable 108 loss season, the 2019 O’s dressed up in ’89 uniforms to mark that exciting run, and the Astros played along by wearing period-appropriate (if not geographically consistent) togs, never mind that in 1989 the Astros were a National League club and so, short of a World Series matchup, would never be in Baltimore to play the Birds.

When commemorating what once was, we usually get the details a little bit wrong.

 

*

 

I pulled Series One Variation #276 from a retail pack sometime back in March, and ever since this card has held me in wild fascination. The effect is oversized in relation to my regard for Álvarez; I’m basically indifferent to him. I’ve only ever given Yordan Álvarez—an imposing, Aaron Judge-like presence in the middle of the Astros’ order—a passing thought as an avatar of modern baseball.

But the card is mesmeric, a small object around which gravity bends subtly but perceptibly. This is what the best cards do, I think, whether they’re of our favorite players, or feature some odd quirk or error, or otherwise manage to imprint themselves in the folds of our soft brains and stick there. They carry a series of signals betraying disparate and competing energies, emitting a persistent, high-pitched buzzing.

This one buzzes with questions that zip like unruly voltages. Like: why that uniform? What date? And given that it is clear from his carriage that he has just struck out: is there still room for shame in a post-shame world?

Álvarez’ slow, simmering post-K saunter is anything but exceptional; it’s what he did in over 25% of his plate appearances last season. Historically speaking that’s remarkable, but in the narrow trough of these launch-angle days, it’s par for the course: the average strikeout rate across baseball was 23% in 2019, an astonishing new historical high. Graphed, it resembles a bull market.

When tabulated, collated, filtered, and parsed, the numbers tell us that the Rob Deer approach of Three True Outcomes – i.e., steadfastly refusing to put the ball in play – wins ballgames. It’s a style of baseball condoned by the cubicle-dwellers for whom the ones and zeroes of absolute efficiency trump all aesthetic arguments, because The Datapoints Do Not Lie.

But here’s the friction: despite what the numbers say, the human soul still harbors a strong vestigial dislike of failure, and the one-on-one nature of the hitter-pitcher dialectic makes the called third strike, or the big-swing-and-a-miss look unmistakably like failure. The strikeout elicits micro-scale stirrings of shame. It can’t be helped. Nobody likes to whiff, and Álvarez is no exception, though his debut campaign would suggest an attempt at immersion therapy.

Álvarez’ photo on Series One Variation #276 reflects the unavoidable distaste. His face is captured in a candid moment of naked emotion, a sliver of time tucked beneath the game’s joints and surfaces, when he should no longer be the focus of attention, having ceded it to Carlos Correa, who followed him in the lineup. But the camera found him, and the result is a wonderful photo, with echoes of the great John Dominis shot of Mantle dejectedly throwing his batting helmet while retreating to the Yankee Stadium dugout in 1965.

Anyway, what Álvarez did in 2019 when not striking out was noteworthy: .313, 27 HR, 75 RBI in 369 plate appearances after his early June callup, and a unanimous selection as 2019 American League Rookie of the Year. That trophy was supposed to belong to Toronto’s Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., but Vladito turned in a performance that evinced mortal fallibility and not the demigod we’d been promised, while Álvarez came in and raked. The choice was clear.

 

*

 

The game log informs us that Álvarez singled in the top of the first to score Alex Bregman from second; in the top of the third, Álvarez struck out swinging on Baltimore starter Dylan Bundy’s 1-2 offering; struck out swinging again in the top of the sixth, once more Bundy’s victim, on an 0-2 pitch; in the eighth, deep into the Orioles’ bullpen, Álvarez hit a fly ball to left off Paul Fry that was caught by Anthony Santander for the first out. That was Álvarez’ night: 1 for 4 with a single, an RBI, and two strikeouts. The Astros won 3-2.

The photo in question must be from the first K, in the third inning, because the sky behind Álvarez’ head, over the great brick warehouse, is purplish, heavy-seeming, but not yet dark. At that time of year, in that part of the world, the sun sets shortly after 8:00, and first pitch that night was 7:05. By the time Álvarez struck out for the second time, in the sixth, night had fallen.

 

*

 

The next night the Astros walloped Baltimore 23-2, with Álvarez homering three times, including a grand slam, for a total of seven RBI. But the Yordan Álvarez of Friday night’s third inning strikeout is of greater interest to me. He stands at the nexus of innumerable convergences: strains of information, history, prognosis and apology, wayward currents pinched to a single point in space. He’s an individual upright but unguarded, caught in 1/100th of a second and preserved against a background, that great brick facade vivid but blurred, which suggests that he is stalked by uncertainties. The thick, hazy air of a dog day’s evening makes time’s immateriality evident. Much has come unmoored.

There’s a lot to be said about the Houston Astros circa 2017-19, both about those accusations preserved in Official Accounts and related disciplinary reports, and those many things suspected but unproven. Nobody’s linked Yordan Álvarez’ great rookie season to electronically abetted sign stealing, but the suspicion may follow him anyway, as it will everyone connected to that team during those years. Stains spread.

It’s also possible that you don’t think what Houston is purported to have done constitutes anything but the logical progression of a time-honored baseball tradition. But it feels safe to assert that the Astros are emblematic of those shifting values and practices that make modern baseball feel morally ambiguous. For a hundred years there was, at least, a Right Way to do things, and a Wrong Way. The in-game definition of virtue was skewed and problematic, but it was at least a definition. Now a cold integer logic means fewer stolen bases and fewer manager ejections, and it makes homers feel cheaper by virtue of oversupply. We’ve allowed the old gods to die and replaced them with Win Probability. You might understand why these things have happened, and yet still long for the old structure the way an atheist envies the adherent’s certainty.

Yordan Álvarez is connected to all this, but not implicated. He plays baseball the way he’s been taught and trained to play it, and he does it well, and the rewards are plain. Series One Variation #276 is just a baseball card. But I look at it in something like the narcotized daze of phone hypnosis, this smooth and glossy cardboard rectangle, hints of the mystery with which all such mementos are imbued, images of figures in collision with history, men bound by contracts, time working its silent will. The tracers are barely visible but strangely evident, those countless converging forces, smell of popcorn and beer, close summer nights full of love and torpor, and all our accidental associations.

Editor’s Note: For more of Andrew’s award-winning writing, visit his website. Of particular note is his book of baseball essays, “The Utility of Boredom.”