An Unnecessary Premium

I’ve been selling my pre-war cards. Most of them anyway (there’s a few that I want around). In recent years my collecting has shifted, in ways that bring me great pleasure and, while it’s slightly odd selling off cards that are one of a kind in my collection (selling doubles is so much easier on the emotions), I’ve gotten enormous pleasure from the turnover.

I’m not sure why I have one 1934 Butterfinger Premium, (R310s for you scoring at home) let alone two. The Lloyd Waner made sense at the time, and in retrospect. I was looking for cards of Hall of Famers from their playing days. (Now that I have another “Little Poison,” a 1936 Goudey Wide Pen Type 1, I can let the R310 go).

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Bob O’Farrell? I have no idea.

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These premiums really aren’t even cards. Large, 7 ¾” X 9 ¾”, paper thin (though there are cardboard backed displays with red ad copy letting a bunch of Dead End Kids and Little Rascals of the decade know they could get their very own Lew Fonseca with the purchase of a nickel candy bar),

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and fragile, they’re more like posters (which often make it into the Standard Catalog anyway). The checklist is a nice representation of the player pool, from Ruth, Gehrig and Foxx (spelled both “Fox” and “Foxx”) to Al Spohrer and Ralph Boyle.

The cardboard displays are rarer, selling, according to one Standard Catalog, at four times the paper. There’s even a Canadian version, smaller in size, at 6 ½” X 8 ½”, and checklist, less than 60. (These are given a different designation, V94).

They’re nice items, perfect for team and type collectors, and not very expensive, depending, of course, on condition. A lot of them have suffered paper loss from various tuckings and gluings into albums. You can even get a low grade Al Spohrer for $10!

But the biggest mystery to me is why anyone needs a premium to buy a Butterfinger. They’re delicious and worth each of those five pennies.

Hawaii Six-1

Just when you thought you would never have to endure another vintage, minor league set profile, here is yet another gas station sponsored set.  This time we are examining the 1961 Union Oil Hawaii Islanders. This set is special in that it chronicles the first year Hawaii was a member of the Pacific Coast League.

On December 17, 1960, a Salt Lake City businessman-Nick Morgan-purchased the bankrupt Sacramento Solons from the Pacific Coast League.  Mr. Morgan set up shop 2,500 miles from the nearest opponent at Honolulu Stadium. The park served as a home for amateur baseball and the University of Hawaii football team.  College bowl games were played at the facility as well.  Known as the “Termite Palace” the ramshackle, wooden structure would serve as the home of the Islanders until Aloha Stadium opened in 1976.

In 1961, Union Oil produced a total of 67 different cards for six of the eight PCL teams (Vancouver and Salt Lake did not participate).  Only the cards that corresponded with the team in a team’s area could be found at the Union 76 gas stations.  Due to smaller population areas, Hawaii and Spokane cards are considered short prints, making them more valuable and harder to come by.

The set features borderless, sepia-toned photos that measure 3” X 4”.  The backs have an advertisement for the radio station that held each club’s broadcast rights.  There are 10 Islanders in the set.

The 1961 Islanders were affiliated with the Kansas City Athletics. The bottom dwelling status of the parent club meant that the Hawaii team was not stocked with top prospects.  Only a handful of the players had success at the major league level.

Perhaps the best of the lot is Diego Segui, who forged a long and productive career. His card photo-along with all the other Islanders-was shot at Sicks’ Seattle Stadium.  Segui had no idea that eight years hence he would be playing in the big leagues with the Pilots in the same stadium.

Rachel Slider shows up in the set.  “Rac” never played in the majors, but he was a long-time coach with the Red Sox.

A player who did log major league time was Bill Werle. The hurler was in the Pirates starting rotation in 1949-50.

Another player with a big-time pedigree is Ray Jablonski, who played for the Cardinals, Reds, Giants and A’s. Ray’s poor defense served as a counterweight to his batting prowess, which derailed a promising career after a promising start.

This photo of Dave Thies features a clear look at an advertisement for the 1962 Century 21 Worlds Fair in Seattle.  This exposition put Seattle “on the map” and left the city with its signature structure, the Space Needle.

The Islanders wore colorful uniforms, which foreshadowed those adopted by Athletics owner Charlie Finley. The solid green vest uniforms were used on the road and accessorized with yellow undershirt sleeves and caps.  The club donned white vests at home with green undershirt sleeves and caps.  Perhaps, Finley remember these togs when he shocked the staid baseball world by decking out the A’s in green and gold for the 1963 season.

 PCL players would no longer get a paid, week-long vacation in paradise after the 1987 season.  Dwindling attendance and rising travel costs forced the Islanders’ relocation to Edmonton. But you can virtually feel the gentle breezes of paradise by collecting this set and downing a few mai tais. 

Aloha!

A Little Treasure Chest

Brace, Conlon, McWilliams, McCarthy. McCarthy? Most card collectors and hardcore baseball fans have heard of, or encountered, the photography of George Brace, Charles Conlon and Doug McWilliams. For some reason, J.D. McCarthy has slipped through the cracks.

He shouldn’t have. McCarthy, from near Detroit, was a top level photographer, clicking away product that players used as postcards to answer fan mail or promote their bowling alleys and pizza parlors (McCarthy entries are scattered throughout the Standard Catalog), and that Topps used on a freelance basis. McCarthy archives had made it through various hands, and the bottom of the collection ended up with Bob Lemke, formerly of Krause Publications and one-time editor of the Standard Catalog. He wrote about it here.

Bob makes the point that the collection went through multiple owners, and, by the time it got to him, had been picked over, the Hall of Famers and big stars had disappeared. Which leads me to this post.

Back in 1986, I was visiting Cooperstown and, of course, Baseball Nostalgia. The shop, co-owned by inaugural Burdick Award Winner Mike Aronstein, was in its old location, at what is now the batting range. I picked up my usual odds and ends, like the current San Francisco Giants yearbook, and this little gem. (I’d always been under the impression that Sports Design Products was an Aronstein company, but Andrew Aronstein assured me it was not.)

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I had never heard of McCarthy, and had no idea of what would be contained within this plastic box, but, man, what’s inside was a marvel then, and still is now. It’s a 24-card set, matte-finish (if not matte, non-glossy), with brilliant photos and a simple, 1969 Topps design. SDP clearly had some big plans for the superstar portraits of McCarthy, hoping to get on board the card boom. Seemingly those dreams were never realized.

Here’s the entirety of the set:

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An up close look at these two beauts:

(The backs have little to offer, but I know you “card back” guys care.)

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While still cheap in price, the McCarthy set is high in aesthetic value. Track one down.

1977 and the Hirsute Hardball Hero

Nothing captured the zeitgeist of the late 1970s better than the mustache—an exceedingly visible symbol of assertive manliness. No collection of cardboard depicted our hirsute hardball heroes better than the 1977 Topps set.

My first flashes of baseball consciousness were as a kindergartener in 1977. My earliest memory of peeling open a pack of baseball cards occurred that season. It was about this time my dad grew an exemplary handlebar mustache. These mustaches were not so fashionable just a handful of years earlier in baseball, however.

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In 1917, Athletics catcher Wally Schang caused quite a stir when he announced he would wear a mustache—the only one in the major leagues—because it made him “look more dignified and less like a ballplayer when off the field.” When Philadelphia visited the Yankees at the Polo Grounds on April 9, New York teased Schang mercilessly for daring to sport that “bit of shredded wheat” upon his lip. When Schang hit a go-ahead three-run home run in the top of the ninth, his mustache got the star treatment, “Schang’s mustache quivered defiantly as he dashed toward first base. It twitched noticeably as he turned second, and bristled as he rounded third and followed two runners home…never again will the Yankees be so reckless as to kid a guy with a soup strainer under his proboscis. Never again will they tempt the fates that keep watch over three or four misplaced wild hairs.”

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Schang eventually shaved the mustache in a show of team unity—his clubmates judged the mustache a jinx. The papers eulogized the whisker loss, but the gesture was of no consequence as the Athletics ended the 1917 campaign in the cellar with a dismal 37-81 record. It would be some nineteen years before another player would boldly sport a mustachio.

Outfielder Stanley Bordagaray showed up at Brooklyn Dodgers spring training in 1936 with a mustache he had grown for a cameo role in a film named The Prisoner of Shark Island. As he entered the April 14 season opener as a seventh-inning defensive replacement, his magnificent mustache conjured an “advertisement for bock beer” and sent “feminine hearts fluttering.”

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Bordagaray shaved the mustache shortly thereafter but was apparently beset with regret. He grew it back, sporting a “second-growth” mustache as he pinch ran in the ninth inning at Ebbets Field on May 22. His status as the only mustachioed player did not last, however. It was still newsworthy when Bordagaray shaved his mustache for good sometime in June—at least in Lincoln, Nebraska.

 

By all accounts, Major League Baseball did not see facial hair on a ballplayer again until Dick Allen in 1970. As a member of the Cardinals, Allen’s mustache was documented in the St. Louis Cardinals Picture Pack and Photocard sets. After his postseason trade to the Dodgers, Allen’s facial hair made its first national appearance in Topps’ 1971 high-number series, with card number 650 depicting a smiling, mustachioed Allen—the only card in the set to feature a bewhiskered player. Perhaps this was not surprising considering prevailing attitudes about baseball and facial hair at the time. That summer, an American Legion team from Orlando chose to forfeit after the tournament director ordered eight of the players to get haircuts or shave.

The 1972 set contained roughly five mustaches, including Reggie Jackson, who is often credited, incorrectly, with bringing the mustache back to baseball. Jackson, however, did inspire Athletics owner Charlie Finley to offer a $300 facial hair bonus to the Oakland players who had grown a mustache by his June 18 “Mustache Day” promotion that season.

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As the mustache gained more popular acceptance in baseball, the numbers of players sporting mustaches in Topps baseball card sets began to grow wildly. The 1973 set featured 17 bewhiskered players. There were 87 in 1974 and 144 in 1975. The 1976 and 1977 sets saw 195 and 190 mustachioed players, respectively. There were 232 mustaches in 1978 and the decade ended with a downright shaggy 1979 set that included some 259 mustached ballplayers.

Of all these sets, however, 1977 best captured the essence of mustachio and chronicled the finest pogonotrophy of the decade. Here are the best mustaches of 1977 in the Topps set:

Honorable mention: Wayne Garland, #33; Willie Horton, #660; Dave Tomlin #241.

10. John Lowenstein, Topps #393/O-Pee-Chee #175

After the 1976 season, Lowenstein was traded by Cleveland to the Blue Jays. Before the 1977 season, he was traded back to the Indians. [Despite never having appeared in a regular season game for Toronto, his 1977 O-Pee-Chee card shows him in a Blue Jays uniform.] Even if you squint and look at this card, Lowenstein’s mustache is unmistakably prominent. Not sure this is a requisite yardstick—but it is a good start.

9. Rollie Fingers, Topps #523

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Fingers grew his mustache to cash in on Charlie Finley’s “Mustache Day” bonus offer in 1972 and has sported his trademark handlebar ever since. In his first season with the Padres in 1977, Fingers led the league in games, games finished, and saves. And probably mustache wax.

8. Bill Greif, Topps #112/O-Pee-Chee #243

Bill Greif’s exemplary horseshoe and crap-eating grin belied the challenges of his personal life. As a healthy 27-year-old, Greif left baseball before the Expos broke camp in order to focus on his child’s medical condition. He never appeared for the Expos or any other team in 1977 and a brief comeback attempt in 1978 fizzled at Tidewater.

7. Bill Buckner, Topps #27

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Despite being pictured on a Dodgers card, Buckner has been traded to the Cubs in January. Subjectively, this card would have ranked much higher if Billy Buck was shown in a Cubs uniform – he was my first favorite player ever. Regardless, the hypnotic draw of his mustache is enough to render the card’s uncomfortably askew background imperceptible. (Seriously, did you just have to take another look?)

6. Phil Garner, Topps #261/O-Pee-Chee #34

Composition is everything with this card—a profile shot that allows one to fully appreciate Garner’s prodigious whisker depth. Even half of this walrus mustache is enough to demand more. Having been traded to the Pirates before the 1977 season, Garner’s O-Pee-Chee card features an alternate photograph with probably one of the most perfectly lit mustaches ever.

5. George Hendrick, Topps #330/O-Pee-Chee #218

Hendrick is utterly regal while donning a satin warm-up jacket, crisp visor, and horseshoe mustachio. Hendrick posted his career year by bWAR (5.8) in 1977 as a member of the Padres. His O-Pee-Chee cardboard is unusual in that the airbrush artist used the visor as the basis for Hendrick’s Padres “cap,” resulting in an oddly squat crown.

4. Al Hrabosky, Topps #495

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Deemed the “Mad Hungarian,” Hrabosky’s demonstrative mound demeanor was only accentuated by his impressive whiskers. Bonus points in this card for the pillbox hat, too. Hrabosky is the only player in Major League history whose last name started with “Hr” to surrender a home run.

3. Ramon Hernandez, Topps #95/1968 Topps #382 

Hernandez appeared in just six games for the 1977 Cubs before he was shipped off to Boston. His time in Chicago is certainly best remembered for his most gentlemanly walrus. [Hernandez looked decidedly different on his 1968 Topps Cubs card.]

2. Dennis Leonard, Topps #75

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There’s a new sheriff in town. Looking as though he just stepped of the set of a Western soundstage, Leonard led the league with 20 wins in 1977, the first of three times he would win 20 or more. And how could you not love a guy with two first names or two last names or one of each?

1. Luis Tiant, Topps #258

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This is a stunner that has only gotten better with age. Amid his twisty windup, Tiant faced fully away from the batter. As he turned back, batters were mesmerized by his reemerging horseshoe mustache. Tiant is one of only 22 pitchers to amass 2400 strikeouts and post a career ERA of 3.30 or less. (All but Roger Clemens, Max Scherzer, and Sam McDowell from that list are in the Hall of Fame.) Tiant belongs there. Until then, he is a charter member of the Baseball Mustache Hall of Fame and caretaker of the best mustache in the 1977 Topps baseball card set.

Overall, my favorite mustache in 1977 belonged to my dad. But there were some other great ones out there, too.

Notes:

Counting mustaches was a surprisingly hairy task. Topps cards of the 1970s often used photos of dubious quality and odd perspectives that made identifying mustachioed players challenging. Additionally, shadows sometimes created potentially illusory mustaches. Judgment calls were made, especially when no conclusive determination was possible with the assistance of magnification.

For this exercise, only single-player/manager cards were counted. I did not include action cards, leaders, highlights, multiple-player rookie cards, or cards from any other subsets.

I was not able to find any baseball cards of Wally Schang or Frenchy Bordagaray in which they were depicted with a mustache.

Sources:

http://www.baseball-reference.com
http://www.retrosheet.org
http://www.tcdb.com
• King, Norm. “Frenchy Bordagaray,” SABR Baseball Biography Project, https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/frenchy-bordagaray/, accessed July 14, 2020.
• Wolf, Gregory H. “Bill Greif,” SABR Baseball Biography Project, https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/bill-greif/, accessed July 14, 2020.
• Evening Public Ledger (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), March 31, 1917, 17.
• Photo of Schang, Buffalo Courier, May 24, 1917, 10.
• “Schang Wears Mustache, Only One in the Majors,” The Washington Post, May 28, 1917, 6.
• “Induce Schang to Remove Mustache but Team Loses,” Buffalo Evening News, June 21, 1917, 18.
• Hughes, Ed, “Since Bordagaray Intends Sporting a ‘Soup Strainer’!,” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 9, 1936, 18.
• McLemore, Henry, “Some Odds and Ends as Dodgers were Taking their First Beating,” The Brooklyn Citizen, April 15, 1936, 6.
• Brietz, Eddie, “Sports Roundup,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, April 15, 1936, 17.
• Photo of Bordagaray, Detroit Free Press, April 19, 1936, 48.
• Diamond Dust, Daily News (New York, New York), May 23, 1936, 240.
• The Lincoln Star (Lincoln, Nebraska) June 19, 1936, 16.
• “In Hair Dispute: A Team Cuts Itself,” The Morning News (Wilmington, Delaware) August 10, 1971, 22.

The Journey to Authenticate My Wooden Number is Over!

“Until another example, with some very solid provenance/history, surfaces that is made of wood to compare yours to I would think it a bit difficult for anyone to state with certainty that it was used in Forbes Field.”

Hunt Auctions – from email dated October 29, 2019

1961 Topps Card #312

I stated at the end of my blog post on March 1st that I had hit the pause button on my journey to try and authenticate the wood number 2 that was supposedly from Forbes Field that my son had given me as a gift for my birthday last October. 

With the arrival in late April of an issue of Sports Collector’s Digest I hit the play button again. In that issue was a Man Cave article that mentioned Stadia dealer Richie Aurigemma, who has an impressive inventory of seats, signs, railings, and other artifacts from past and current ballparks for sale.

I emailed Richie and received a reply back that he concurred with the other people that had weighed in so far that he had never seen a wooden scoreboard number from Forbes Field.

Things were looking bleak, but then on May 3rd someone wrote a comment on my March 1st blog that they had seen a wooden number 9 from Forbes Field and that it was in the Baseball Hall of Fame!

The person who commented also added that he thought the wooden numbers were used on the “Next Game Here” sign that was adjacent to the larger scoreboard during the 1969 and 1970 seasons. He also included a link to a photo the included the “Next Game Here” sign.

Next Game Here sign at Forbes Field

I emailed the Research Department of the Baseball Hall of Fame on May 4th (HOF was closed at the time due to the pandemic) and they confirmed that they indeed did have a wooden scoreboard number 9 from Forbes Field and that it was still on display.

I also posted an inquiry on the Forbes Field Facebook page to see if anyone had information on the “Next Game Here” sign. Someone did reply that they have a wooden sign that reads JUNE on one side and AUG. on the other side, and also posted a photo that was probably taken in 1963 of the Scoreboard – see photo below. At the bottom of the scoreboard is a “Next Game Here” area. From the photo it looks like wooden numbers were used earlier than 1969 as well. I identified the players and coach from the Dodgers in the photo and have included their names.

Left to Right – Joe Becker (Pitching Coach), Ron Perranoski, and Larry Sherry

The Baseball Hall of Fame has recently opened and a friend of mine took his family there over the 4th of July weekend. He took photos of the wooden number 9 that they have on display in the Sacred Ground exhibit area and it does match up well with my number 2. He eyeballed the dimensions of the number on display and again these are consistent with my number.

Number 9 Photos are from HOF. Number 2 Photo is my wooden number.

It has been 9 months since I received my birthday present and I can now say with a very high degree of certainty that it is an authentic number from Forbes Field. I would not be able to make that statement without the help from a number who not only took the time to respond to a stranger on a baseball journey, but in many cases also did additional research to help me with my quest.

A shout out and thank you to all the following people and organizations for their help – Hunt Auctions, The Pittsburgh Pirates, Len Martin (the unofficial Forbes Field historian who has written books on Forbes Field and Fenway Park), Frank Thomas “The Original”, the co-chairs of the SABR Ballparks Research Committee, Richie Aurigemma, Matt (who commented on my blog), members of the Forbes Field Facebook page (who commented on my post), the Manager of Reference Services at the Baseball Hall of Fame and my friend who took the number 9 photos.

Little Boxes

One of the underappreciated, yet voluminous, touchstones of the 1980’s – early 1990’s card boom (I try to resist “Junk Wax Era,” because there are a ton of wonderful cards that, though small in value, are high in aesthetics, i.e., not junk) was the mini-boxed set. If you had a chain store, you likely had a self-branded set, 33, maybe 44, cards in size. Ames had 20 Home Runs/20 Stolen Bases, Revco had Hottest Stars, KMart had AL and NL MVPs and many other titles. If I were so inclined to research how many of these sets there were, I’d be wading my way through stacks and stacks of them. I am not so inclined.

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I can say, with some assurance, that Woolworth put out sets from 1985 – 1991, all made by Topps, all called Baseball Highlights (except the first two years, All-Time Record Holders and Super Stars, respectively), all 33 cards (except ATRH, which has 44).

I picked up the 1990 set (sans gum) for a buck at Yastrzemski Sports in Cooperstown, and it’s a glossy beaut.

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The checklist is made up of players you’d expect to find circa 1990 – MVPs, Cy Young winners, ROYs and post-season heroes, but also MLBers who hit some milestones. It’s always swell to see a new Dewey Evans card.

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As you’d expect, the set is overloaded with A’s and Giants, and that’s fine, but the highlights, for me, are in the Fisk, Murray, and Ryan cards. Especially that Murray card!

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The tail end of the set is a run of World Series cards. Not a lot in the way of highlights, unless you’re an A’s fan, but excellent cards. Check out that Kevin Mitchell one. (I still believe that if there hadn’t been an earthquake, the Giants would have put up a better fight. That the A’s could go Stewart and Moore, then Stewart and Moore again after a long layoff, helped Oakland. The Giants may have had a hard time with Bob Welch, but I liked their chances against Storm Davis.)

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The backs are simple, clear and uncluttered.

Granted, these boxes tend to blend into each other in checklist and shine. They’re not made of ticky tacky, but they do kinda all look the same. Still, I’m up to find more, but only at a dollar a piece. I do have my limits.

A Brief Analysis of Baseball Card Prose and How It Makes Us Better Writers (1952-1955)

If I had a time machine, I would zip around the fourth dimension to all of the expected places. I’d love to see Hamlet at the Globe. Maybe I’d drop in on the Constitutional Convention or the Cavern Club in 1961. I suspect that many of us might set our personal flux capacitors to 1951 so we could see Sy Berger design the 1952 Topps set on his kitchen table. There were baseball cards before that set, of course, but Berger and his team set the standard that still guides the industry. 

Two of the great constants in my life are baseball and writing. I could never hit a curveball. Or a fastball. Or a softball in a batting cage. I can, however, tell a decent story and put together decent sentences. It’s no surprise, then, that baseball cards were among the first literary works I read. It was Frog and Toad are Friends, Encyclopedia Brown, and the (primarily) Topps cards that my father would let me pick up in the supermarket candy aisle. 

These modes of “non-traditional” literacy formation are well-studied in the fields of education and rhetoric and composition. (How many immigrants learned to speak English by watching popular television shows?) Often overlooked, however, is the way that baseball cards served as a form of reading instruction, particularly during the time when the industry’s target demographic consisted almost solely of little kids. 

In this series of articles, I will engage in an admittedly surface analysis of baseball card prose, looking at the writing on the reverse of random base Detroit Tiger cards from each of Topps’ nearly seventy years of flagship releases. Other writers for this blog have chronicled how the prose on the backs of 1954 Topps cards offers valuable lessons.  Don Zminda had the great idea to compare how Topps and Bowman handled the prose in their 1954 sets.  I am curious to see how the prose changed over the decades, and how Berger and his successors used a few sentences to reinforce the construction of the ballplayer’s identity. Of course, I am also interested in isolating what writers of all kinds can learn from these works. 

A few notes on methodology. Topps has printed many tens of thousands of base cards since 1952. Unfortunately, I don’t have a fleet of researchers at my beck and call, so I can’t accumulate data on each of them. There are variations between base cards in sets, of course; a card released at the end of Alan Trammell’s career, for example, may feature only statistics because there was no room for prose. During some years, Topps included cartoons on the backs of the cards. I have typed up the prose and included a bracketed description of the image. Further, I have tried to preserve the baseball card prose as printed, mistakes and all. 

It just so happens that I have what I call my “Tiger Stadium Collection.” During a visit to Cooperstown, an ex-girlfriend purchased me a small, square tin decorated to look like the exterior of the best ballpark in the history of baseball. (I’m biased.) I keep a base flagship Tiger from (almost) each year of Topps in the tin: a fortuitous coincidence. 

With all of that blather out of the way…let’s look at some cards!

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1952 Johnny Groth #25

Design of the reverse: prose and reduced stats

Text (81 words): Johnny was the best fielding outfielder in the American League in 1951 winning the title by 2 ten-thousandths of a point. At the plate, he started the ’51 season slowly, but hit .325 during the last half of the season to bring his average up. He had trials with the Tigers in 1946 and 1947, but didn’t make the grade until 1949 after hitting .340 at Buffalo in 1948. His first year up, John batted .293 and hit .306 in 1950.

In its inaugural effort, Topps begins providing kids with the information that they couldn’t easily get elsewhere. There was no Baseball Reference in 1952, so it makes sense to include a stat-heavy summary of Groth’s career.

The formation of the ballplayer as a relatable hero also seems present. Imagine a second-string Little Leaguer opening up a one-cent pack and learning about how Groth succeeded after years of work dedicated to “making the grade.” It’s also interesting that the person who composed the prose alternated between “Johnny” and “John.” A mistake, or something else?

While the first sentence is missing a comma between the clauses, the second and fourth reinforce one of the basic uses of the comma: it joins a dependent clause to an independent clause. “His first year up” is not a sentence; it doesn’t have a subject, object, AND a verb. “John batted .293 and hit .306 in 1950” does have all of those elements. Therefore, you glue the not-a-sentence to a sentence with a comma. 

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1953 Fred Hatfield #163

Design of the reverse: Unrelated trivia question, reduced stats, prose

Text (76 words): “Hattie” was the top-fielding third sacker in the American League in ’52. The Red Sox spotted him playing American Legion Ball and he signed his first pro contract in ’42. After hitting .300 for Birmingham of the Southern Association in ’50, “Hattie” was brought up to the AL. The Sox used him in a utility role in ’51 and traded him to the Tigers early in ’52. Fred was [a] paratrooper during World War II.

Once again, the author begins with the player’s name, but does so in an even more intimate fashion, twice using Hatfield’s nickname. And once again, the reader gets a fairly rote (but necessary) description of Hatfield’s career to that point. Remember: both 1952 and 1953 only included “last year” and “lifetime” stat lines.

There are a couple mistakes in the prose. Was it convention to capitalize the generic “ball” in “American Legion Ball?” The author drops a word in that final sentence, too. With regard to that final sentence, I imagine how relevant the information would seem to the Topps target audience: little kids, mostly boys, whose fathers stood a great chance of having served during World War II themselves. 

As in 1952, the author begins with a fulsome description of the player’s fielding capabilities and then engages in prolepsis, flashing back to where the man began his career and how he got to the point at which he was so useful with a glove. Writers can engage in flashback while leaving the reader blind about the eventual outcome, or he or she can do so after informing the reader about the protagonist’s present conditions. In this case, the author of the card has no choice; the reader knows that Hatfield eventually made the majors…if he hadn’t, there would be no baseball card to trade with friends!

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1954 Don Lund #167

Design of the reverse: Two cartoons, reduced stats, prose

Text (94 words total, 68 without cartoon captions): Don began his career with Brooklyn in 1945, pinch hitting in 4 games. A University of Michigan graduate, he was sent down and recalled by the Dodgers in ’47. In 1948, he went to the Browns and was bought by the Tigers in 1949. Don was with Toledo in 1949-50-51 and in 1952 at Buffalo, he hit .302 and returned to Detroit to bat .304 in 8 games.

At Michigan U. Don was a Big Ten football star! [Lund, in Michigan green(?), carries the football.]

But, after graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree, Don decided to make baseball his career! [Lund makes a nice grab at the right field fence.]

Once again, the reader learns about Lund’s path to the big leagues. Once again, the main piece of prose begins with the player’s first name. I don’t believe the latter is an accident. These cards, of course, were made primarily for children, some of whom would be at the beginning of their journey as readers. Sentences that begin with the subject are very simple and clear. (“Matt Nokes hit a home run.” “Al Stump mischaracterized Ty Cobb.” “Alan Trammell wore number 3.”)

The author is clear to make education a part of Lund’s identity. The reader (again, a child), learns that being a sports star can go hand-in-hand with being a scholar. I also wonder if Topps included such information to give parents more reasons to allow their children to use their hard-earned pennies and nickels to purchase cards. The cultural storm that resulted in the 1954 adoption of the Comics Code Authority put a spotlight on comic books: a competitor for the same disposable income. Perhaps Berger and his team were reinforcing the relative wholesomeness of their product.

One of my dear, departed Creative Writing MFA professors joked that writers are allowed a single exclamation point in their careers. After all, feelings are better evoked with the other tools that a writer has in his or her toolbox. The author (or perhaps authors) of this card use two. Notably, both exclamation points occur in the cartoon captions. This makes sense; cartoons must be very punchy, and the exclamation point is a compact representation of emotion. 

miller
Yes, it’s autographed. Isn’t it amazing how his handwriting stayed so consistent?

7.10.2020miller

1955 Bob Miller #9

Design of the reverse: Unrelated trivia question, reduced stats, prose

Text (64 words): The huge bonus paid to Bob for signing a Detroit contract in ’53 looked like a good investment to Tiger fans last year. Used mostly as a relief pitcher, Bob’s wide-breaking curve and flashing fastball placed him 4th in E.R.A.’s among American League Hurlers. Before deciding on Baseball as a career, he won a Yale scholarship for his straight “A” average in High School.

The author was presented with a challenge when writing about Bob Miller. At the time, clubs had no choice but to keep “bonus babies” on the major league roster for two years. The author, therefore, couldn’t chronicle Miller’s pro journey to The Show.

The reader learns about the Yale scholarship offer that Miller received, but there is more to the story. Page 10 of the July 1, 1953 issue of The Sporting News features a wonderful article about the Bengals’ two new bonus babies. Seventeen-year-old Miller received $60,000, and Detroit offered $35,000 to an eighteen-year-old named Albert Kaline. Writer Watson Spoelstra helpfully informs us that the latter’s name is “(pronounced Kay-line).” Good to know!

Again, the author of the baseball card capitalizes the generic nouns “Hurlers” and “Baseball.” (Though goodness knows that “Base-Ball” has been called many things in print.)

From a writing craft perspective, I get the sense that the person who wrote this card wasn’t feeling maximum enthusiasm for Bob Miller. Look at the structure of the three sentences and how they all feel similar. I suppose the paragraphs in the 1952 and 1953 cards are similar, but I suppose this could just be an indication that tone is inherently about perception to some extent.


There are an awful lot of cards left before we get to 2020. I hope you’ll join me to consider how the prose changed along with the times and its audience. If nothing else, perhaps this project will help me learn how to make my writing more compact!

Next time: Robert Kennedy (the baseball player, not the former Attorney General) and a left-hander who once struck out all 27 batters he faced in an American Legion game!

Misery Loves Company

Now that Beckett has published a short post about this I’m sort of obliged to write a longer version detailing the Al Kaline debacle.

I don’t chase shortprints but I enjoy looking through them every new release. Very often the photographs there are more interesting and remind me of the variety that we saw in the 1990s. Plus the old players are always an interesting reflection of the kinds of players who still resonate today.

When Series 2 dropped, I did my usual look through. The Andrew McCutchen is awesome but what stopped me was the Al Kaline. I’m looking for good/interesting photos in the short prints. I’m not expecting to see a photo showing the wrong player.

Yup. That’s not Kaline in the photo. How do I know? Because I made this exact mistake with this exact photo only nine months earlier.

I enjoy writing Through the Mail autograph requests but I also refuse to send things through the mail which I don’t want to risk losing—say, for example, a vintage card of Al Kaline. Even though he was such a great signer (typically turning things around under 20 days and often closer to 10) I just refuse to tempt fate with the USPS like that. Instead I created a custom card by searching around around the web for photos I liked and dropping them into a template I had created.

Last November I sent a couple custom cards off to Al with a note asking him to keep the extras and hoping he enjoyed them. A week and a half later they came back to me. I was not expecting the result.

Gulp.

At first I was mortified. This is the most embarrassing kind of mistake to make when autograph hunting. Then I double-checked Getty* and confirmed that I’d done my homework. Did I make a mistake. Yes. But it wasn’t through either lack of caring or lack of effort on my part. I hadn’t just grabbed a photo, I’d made sure that multiple places including a somewhat authoritative source had identified the player.

*Note: As of July 17, 2020 Getty has corrected its database to reflect that the photo is actually of Don Demeter.

At this point I became much more comfortable with the humor of the situation. Did I trust Kaline over Getty? Absolutely. So I tossed it onto Twitter so people could laugh at both me and Getty while also hoping that the hive mind could identify who the mystery player was.

Many people—including many Tigers fans—confirmed that they’d always thought this was Kaline as well. Only after realizing that it wasn’t him did the hive mind quickly nominate Don Demeter. Similar build and swing. Same time period. He certainly seemed like the most-likely suspect.

Thankfully, Demeter is great responding to autograph requests as well. I acquired a card of him, wrote a letter explaining the screw up, included one of the customs, and asked him if he could confirm that the photo was indeed him.

While getting the card signed was fun, this was one of the rare autograph returns where the autograph request was always going to be less important than the response to my question. Much to my pleasure and satisfaction, Demeter answered my question and confirmed that it was him.

His response was actually this sketch. It’s pretty conclusive to me and makes a fantastic companion piece to the Kaline and Demeter cards in my autograph binder. I just wish there were a way to submit this to Getty so they can update their database.

As a custom card maker, it’s always somewhat flattering to see Topps select a photo that I’ve already used on a custom. In this case though, as soon as I saw the Kaline short print I started laughing. I recognized the photo instantly and knew exactly what had happened. While I’ve already made peace with my mistake, seeing someone else fall for the same thing just makes me feel even better about it.

While I’m sad that this is sort of a RIP Kaline card for Topps, I’m glad that he didn’t have to deal with being asked to sign it. I would however be thrilled to see someone ask Don Demeter to sign it. That would be awesome.

My Favorite Common

It’s early August, 1988. Steve Winwood’s “Roll With It” is holding down the No. 1 spot on the Billboard charts, thanks to regular airplay on New York’s Z100 and countless other radio stations across America. Tom Cruise maintains the right mix atop the box office rankings in “Cocktail.” A gallon of gas costs about 90 cents, but that doesn’t matter to me – seventh graders can’t drive. Milk costs $2.19 a gallon, but again, I’m a month away from turning 12; I don’t control the family purse strings.

What I do control is my pursuit of the 1988 Topps set, and as I’m sorting my collection one more time before my family heads off for our annual vacation in Maine, I find there’s only one more card I need: No. 39, Gerald Perry, Atlanta Braves.

1988 Topps Gerald Perry

I’d been collecting cards casually since 1985, the year I went to my first two Mets games, and increased how much of my allowance went toward 40-cent wax packs in ’86 as the Mets bludgeoned the National League. In 1987, I really ramped up my trips downtown to the Family Pharmacy (still there! Despite a CVS and Walgreens also within a ballpark’s footprint of one another) to buy packs of Topps’ wood-grained design, though I fell short of the complete 792 before the boxes faded from shelves.

So in ’88, I was determined collect the whole set. I’d save up my allowance and money from sweeping a neighbor’s patio and wrap-around porch and purchase a box at a time: 36 packs at 40 cents each, plus tax, came out to $15.26.

It’s a bit unfortunate that the ’88 set is the first one I set out to complete, because I find it the least visually appealing of the late-’80s Topps sets. Though I hadn’t really gotten into the hobby in ’84, I possessed a few of those cards with team names in colorful block letters down the left side, a main action photo of the player and the inset headshot. The ’85 issue featured those bold colors on the lower fifth of the card: the team name in a diagonal box above the player’s name, mostly in team hues. The 1986 set wasn’t that much more appealing, but it did feature the team name in a Napoli Serial Heavy font at the top (and was the set available for purchase throughout that championship season for the Mets). The greatness of the ’87 set and its suburban-basement paneling has been discussed on this blog before.

Mid-80s Topps

But the ’88 design is … OK? There are elements of some of those previous sets in it. The team name across the top is a cousin of the ’84 block font presented horizontally instead of vertically. The player name in a diagonal banner harkens back to the placement of the team ID in ’85, which was also the last year before ’88 with an all-white border. The most notable thing about the design may be Topps’ decision to go back to spelling out “Athletics,” after three years of using “A’s.” This prompted my friend Joe to ask one day, “Hey, did you see there’s a new baseball team? The Athletics?” He was always more of a football guy.

So as I’m packing for our vacation, the Mets are a few games up on the Pirates in the NL East and clear of the Dodgers overall in the NL, thanks to a 5-1 head-to-head record thus far. If things hold and the Mets maintain their success against the Dodgers when they meet in the NLCS, a second World Series berth in three seasons is looking promising!

But one of the toughest parts about the trips to Maine – a place I always loved to visit, and still do – was losing such easy access to baseball. My relatives in Vacationland didn’t have cable, and it’s not like we would’ve spent our evenings watching Red Sox games or stayed inside on Saturday for the national game of the week. There were woods to explore, rivers to plunge into, lighthouses to visit. L.L. Bean is open 24 hours! Only at night could I get my fix, delighted to find that the radio could pick up the Mets on WFAN all the way from New York, and I’d fall asleep to Bob Murphy’s play-by-play or Howie Rose taking calls on the postgame show.

Before this trip, I gave my friend Will the status of my pursuit. He had already completed his ’88 set, so I asked him to keep an eye out for that Gerald Perry card so we could trade and I’d be able to fill in that last box on the duplicate checklist card. Our outings in Maine didn’t usually give me an opportunity to look for cards – souvenir shops aren’t inclined to stock wax packs – so my search was on hold. (One exception came the following summer, when I saw a newspaper ad for a baseball card show in Augusta and got my dad to drop me off for an hour. I came away with a 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. card.)

A week later, after the long drive home down I-95, I was the first one to step inside our back door. And there, on the beige-blocked linoleum floor of the kitchen, lay this 3 ½ by 2 ½ piece of cardboard depicting Gerald Perry manning first base for the Atlanta Braves.

In hindsight, it’s appropriate that Perry was the final piece to my ’88 Topps puzzle. He had the best full season of his career in 1988, posting a 109 OPS+ and making his only All-Star team (0-for-1, F7). But nothing he did on the field stayed with me – to this day, whenever I flip past any Gerald Perry card, I think back to this 1988 Topps, No. 39, the last one I needed to complete the set. Until looking up his career just now, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you which of his 13 seasons was his best or that he played until 1995 or that he spent one season in Kansas City and five in St. Louis.

He’ll always be the first baseman in that grey Atlanta road uniform, manning his position on a sun-splashed afternoon, waiting for me to open the door at the end of our annual summer vacation.

1988 Topps Gerald Perry 39

Legitimacy

1952ToppsJRobinson

I have been reading about or studying the integration of baseball for many years, at first principally because I wanted to write about the effect that integration had on the quality of the game. Obviously if you add Jackie Robinson to a league, that league is not just ethically and morally better, the quality of play is also better. Much better. I mean, this is JACKIE ROBINSON for God’s sake. And then Doby, and Campy, and Irvin, and on and on.

Jackie Robinson and the extraordinary cohort of people who integrated the game in the 1940s and 1950s will always be baseball’s best story, one that can not be over-told. We (myself included) have been guilty of treating this story as a culmination rather than as an important chapter in an ongoing struggle. Today’s decreased number of Black American players, to say nothing of managers and executives, is one constant reminder of progress yet to be made. Another are the tales of just how difficult the lives of black players can be in today’s Major League Baseball. Like the rest of America, baseball has a long, long way to go.

Additionally, my integration-era research has led to collateral damage in my relationship with Jim Crow (pre-1947) baseball, and its cards. I still appreciate the history, and the stories, and I understand how great Wagner, Cobb, Ruth, and DiMaggio were, but the stories are a little less romantic, and maybe the players were all a little less great than I thought. It’s the other side of same coin–you can’t believe that Robinson, Mays and Aaron made the game significantly better without also believing that not having them made the game significantly worse.


For Christmas in 1981, I was given a beautiful 1982 calendar which I believe had been advertised in the New Yorker. With brief exceptions, it has hung on a wall in my dorm/apartment/house/office for the past 38 years–it is six feet away from me as I type. (In 2021, for the first time since 2010, the days will align.)

Its 12 pages tell the story of baseball cards chronologically–January is for 19th century tobacco cards, while the last row of December shows 1981 Topps. If you lay the calendar on a table and flip through months (the only way to really do it–the pages are 22″ x 14″), you get a high level view of 100 years of the hobby. And of Major League baseball.

IMG_1935

What the calendar also shows, visually and starkly, is Jim Crow: page after page, row after row, of White dudes.

The first Black face belatedly shows up in August, in the penultimate row, appropriately the 1949 Bowman Satchel Paige. The final August row features 1951 Topps, and includes both Monte Irvin and Luke Easter. These three men were the 7th, 10th, and 11th Black players in the Major Leagues in the 20th century. There are four more Black faces on the page for September, which highlights the 1951 and 1952 Bowman sets.

My calendar almost always (as now) is hung so as to display October. I don’t know if it was deliberate on the part of the designer, probably not, but October’s top row is like a punch in America’s face, and the next three rows don’t really let up.

IMG_1934

Here is a thought experiment. Imagine seeing a binder of 1956 Topps cards, except that all of the Black players have been removed. No Mays, no Aaron, no Jackie, no Banks, no Clemente, no lots of other stars. There are still great players in the binder–Mantle, Williams, Koufax, Feller, and more–but its obviously a worse group than the real set. Not just a little worse, immeasurably worse.

In other words, it would be … just like 1934 Goudey. Or 1940 Play Ball. Or T-205. Looking through that denuded 1956 binder would be at the very least uncomfortable, and more likely offensive, to a modern collector. And that is why I struggle with all the pre-war cards sets.

As Nick wrote a couple of years ago, “while cards have always existed, their role in defining who ‘real’ ballplayers are cannot be ignored.” If I collect cards to celebrate the baseball of the time, I have to ask myself: do I really want to hang a frame on the wall that glorifies segregated baseball? The 1934 Goudey card set, the T-206 set, and all pre-war card sets, perpetuate the lie that “organized” baseball sold America for decades, that these were the best players, the “real” players.

While major league baseball was barring great Black players from playing in its leagues, and most white newspapers were complicit in not reporting on the Negro Leagues, companies like American Tobacco and Goudey  were not putting Black players on baseball cards. There were a lot of minor league cards or sets in these years, there were sets for pilots, and actors, and dogs, and trees, but nothing for the many fans of Oscar Charleston or Bullet Joe Rogan or Biz Mackey. Didn’t they smoke, or chew gum?

Had any of these companies chosen to make a Negro League set, or, better yet, incorporated Negro League players into their flagship sets, it might have led to increased and earlier calls for integration, and would have made these players “real” to kids all over America. But they did not.

When it comes to baseball cards, the lie began to dramatically unravel in the 1950s.  By the end of the decade, nearly 10% of the players on the field had dark skin, and many of these were among the best players in the sport. If you collected, some of the best and most sought after cards depicted players who you might not have heard of had they played a decade earlier.  In 1956, ten years after White America wondered if Jackie Robinson would be good enough, there were 52 Black players on big league diamonds.  Nine of them are in the Hall of Fame. Nine.

I have been dabbling in the cards of the early 1950s in recent years. I don’t have any of the sets and doubt I ever will, but enjoy picking up an occasional example, including Ted Williams or Yogi Berra or Duke Snider.

Sing the praises of pre-war cards and players as you wish.  But the 1950s are the first time when the best players were allowed in the major leagues and in baseball card sets. Both enterprises, belatedly, had become legitimate.