Positions, Positions, Positions

Name, Team, Position. Those are the three most standard pieces of information conveyed on the obverse of a baseball card. Of the three, position is the one that is most often left out. While it is certainly isn’t hard to find examples of cards not bearing the name or team on the frontside, position is the only piece of this trio that feels kind of optional. Player positions were included on many of the earliest cards sets ever issued and remained a staple of card design until the fabled T206 set – which listed a player’s name and team home city only – seemed to put the designation out of style. Over the next few decades, many of the most iconic sets – Goudey, Cracker Jack, Leaf – ignored the position as an element of design. Bowman hit the scene in 1948 and went even more minimalist, rarely going so far as to even include the player’s name on the front of the card.

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1972, the only Topps set between 1953 and 1986 not to indicate a position on the front.

But then Topps took over, aside from their 1951 and 1952 issues, included a position on the front of each of their sets until 1972, and again for each set between 1973 and 1986. The indicator vanished between 1987 and 1990 and was an on-and-off feature until 2014, when it returned for seven straight sets (including 2020) – Topps’ longest run of position-indicating since the 1980s. Donruss included a position on every one of its designs until 1998 and Fleer did the same, using the indicator on every flagship set the brand issued. Upper Deck ignored the position on just two of its flagship sets (1992 and 2004).

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This is not information that most collectors would have at the ready. Most collectors probably take the position bug for granted. I know I usually do. But being so ubiquitous (even in its absence), an unusual position indicator can make for a pretty memorable card. Herb Washington’s 1975 “Pinch Run.” is probably the most famous of these. But there are others that I recall standing out to me as a kid – Pete Rose cards where he was listed an “MGR-1B” seemed other-worldly, the 1990 Score John Olerud listed him as an “OF-P” (all while shown playing first base) made him seem like some kind of top-secret government project, and the 1989 Topps Kirk Gibson All Star that listed him as a “PH” was as jarring as it was confusing (this was done, I assume to give the NL team a DH player without using the league-inappropriate term).

A particular player’s position listing can also convey some emotion. Robin Yount listed as a shortstop or George Brett as a third baseman make them seem as though they’ll be young forever. But finding Reggie Jackson or Henry Aaron or Dave Winfield listed as a DH will bring a note of sadness that the end is near.

But of all the weird positional quirks that have happened over the years, there is nothing so fascinating to me as what happened with Paul Molitor in 1991. That was the year the versatile Brewer was listed at FIVE different positions on various cards and appeared with SEVEN different position indicators. This is, I believe, the greatest positional variety for a player in a single year ever (ignoring THIS, of course). So what happened here?

Well, Paul Molitor had historically been a trick player to pin down position-wise. He came up as a shortstop, getting his first change in the bigs when Robin Yount left the Brewers during Spring Training 1978. He only played 33 games at short that season, but it was enough to have him listed as a pure SS on his 1979 card. He played 10 games at short in 1979 and 12 in 1980, but maintained a dual listed as an “SS-2B” on Topps 1980 and 1981 issues. After spending all of 1981 in the outfield, Topps gave him the rare “2B-SS-OF” listing on his 1982 card. Molly moved to third base in 1982, and played there primarily for most of the next five years. Topps reacted in kind and listed his as either a 3B or 3B/DH through the end of the decade.

Donruss and Fleer, entering the market in 1981, both listed him as a 2B in their debut sets. Fleer gave him a pure (and accurate) OF tag in 1982, whereas Donruss went with the very broad “OF/IF” brand. Both brands followed suit with Topps and used 3B and DH marks exclusively through 1990. Upper Deck and Score did the same.

But Molitor had returned to his utility player roots by the late 1980s. He appeared in 19 games at second base in 1987 and 16 in 1989. Late in 1989, regular second-sacker Jim Gantner suffered a devastating knee injury on a wipe-out slide by the Yankees Marcus Lawton and Molitor took over regular duty at the position until Gantner was able to return mid-way through the 1990 season. Molitor, who suffered a number of injuries of his own that season, ended up playing 60 games at second base in ‘90, 37 at first base (the first time he’d manned that spot), and a handful at third and as a DH. Gantner ended the season as the regular second baseman and Molitor at prime man at first. After the season, the Brewers traded Dave Parker, who had been an All Star for them in 1990, opening the door for the now-34 year old Molitor to become the team’s regular  DH for the first time.

So, the long-time third baseman who had been playing second but was also being used at first, where he was now expected to see more time when he wasn’t DHing. Got all that? Card makers sure did.

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By my count, Molitor appeared on 21 different base cards in 1991 (I’m ignoring sets like Topps Micro and OPC here that merely reproduce other sets). All but Classic listed a position on their cards. He was most commonly listed at 3B, a dubious claim considering he’d only played two games there in 1990. But strong is the power of tradition. Topps listed him there, using that mark on the Bowman, Stadium Club, and OPC Premium sets as well. Fleer also considered him a 3B, as they had at least in part since 1983. Even Score listed him at the position, despite taking the rather bold stance of being the only card maker to declare him a pure DH on a 1980s issue (1988). Those two games in ’90 got a lot of mileage, I guess.

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Five cards listed him at 1B, a nice compromise between his audition there in 1990 and his projected role in 1991. Magazine cards were fond of this mark, as Baseball Cards Magazine, Sports Collectors Digest, and Sports Illustrated for Kids all used it on their in-mag cards, as did Donruss and (curiously) Fleer Ultra, which ran against the flagship’s opinion that Molitor was still a 3B.

Three cards gave him a generic IF designation: two Brewers-issued sets (which used the frustrating device of considering anyone who played in the infield an IF) and the Score Superstars stand-alone set, which also broke with its parent brand and made its own positional distinction.

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A pair of sets were forward-looking enough to list Molitor as a pure DH, Leaf and Studio. I recall these as later-year issues and were probably a reaction to Molitor’s role early on the 1991 season, in which he only appeared in the field once before late May.

Then, we have some true outliers. Upper Deck, showing that rebel streak that remade the hobby, boldly listed Molitor as a 2B in their set, and even used a photo of him playing the position. The semi-obscure Petro Canada Standup set also listed him as a 2B, but you had to actually stand the card up to discover this fact. Panini, in its sticker set, was the only brand to use a hybrid mark, listing Molitor was a “1B-2B,” his only 1991 card to accurately reflect upon his 1990 season.

And then there is 1991 US Playing Card set. In here, Molitor (as the Eight of Hearts) is listed as a centerfielder.

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Hmm.

At this time, Molitor hadn’t played the outfield since a handful of games in 1986 and hadn’t been in center since 1981. Were they boldly expecting Molitor to take over in center for Robin Yount in 1991? My guess is that this is probably just an outright error. None of the other outfielder cards in the deck are given a specific OF spot (LF, CF, RF), and I can’t find anything that indicated they were acting on some of weird rumor of an unexpected position change. But nonetheless, the card exists and only adds to the positional confusion.

Oddly enough, all this positioning and repositioning for Molitor quickly became a moot point. Following the end of the 1990 season, Molitor would play first base and DH exclusively. His cards reflected this. For the most part. For 1992, Topps again branded him at a 3B across most of its sets despite his not having played there regularly since 1989. And, not to be outdone by their 1991 goof, the US Playing Card company issued two decks with Molitor cards in 1992 – one listing him at 2B and the other at SS – where Molitor hadn’t appeared since 1982 (his 1993 USPC card has him mercifully listed as an IF). At least it’s a consistent decade-long lag time, right? For 1993, only the Post Cereal Company still listed him at 3B. Card makers had finally accepted him for what had become – a DH and part-time 1B.

For his career, Molitor was listed on cards as a 1B, 2B, SS, 3B, IF, OF, CF, DH, 1B/DH, 2B/SS/OF, 2B/SS, SS/2B, 3B/DH, OF/IF, DH/1B, and DH/3B – not to mention post-career cards as a coach and manager. That’s 18 different listings (and perhaps more that I have missed) to describe a single remarkable career.

6 thoughts on “Positions, Positions, Positions”

  1. Love it! Another possible theory on the 1989 Topps Kirk Gibson all-star PH card is that it’s in honor of his World Series pinch-hit home run. If Topps simply wanted to balance out the NL and AL squads, I think they would have opted for a player off the 1988 ASG roster. Vince Coleman (possibly as PR) would have been a natural choice since he was a starting outfielder on the squad whereas Gibson famously never made a single all-star team.

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  2. The conundrum of where to designate Molitor by the various card companies is understandable. Of his 13 fulltime seasons he was a multi-position player 6 years (played no single position at least 75% of the time). Of the remaining fulltime years, 3B 3 years, DH 3 years, 2B 1 year. Fun post!

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