When I got back into collecting around 2014, my first goal was to finish my Hank Aaron collection, which at that time included just over a dozen of his base cards, a few assorted all-stars and record breakers, and a handful of cards that came out after his playing career. Having been gone from the hobby for more than 20 years I assumed another 10-15 cards would finish the collection, maybe 20-30 if I really needed to have everything.
Of course the true number was in the thousands! At the time I’m typing this Trading Card Database puts the Hammer at 4,255 different cards, and by the time you read this I suspect that number will be even higher.
There’s a stat people love to quote about Hank Aaron. Take away his 755 home runs and he would still have more than 3,000 hits. My guess is you could take away every card from Aaron’s playing career and he’d still have more than four thousand cards!
Though my collector gene at least beckons me to collect them all, the “often needs to blend in as a normal adult” gene in me somehow proves dominant and forces me to restrict my collection’s personal Hammer Time to the years 1954-1976. Still, whether through overly broad eBay searches or through the generosity of fellow collectors who send me stuff I do manage to at least notice if not add at least some of Aaron’s post-career cardboard. In fact, one of my favorite mail days of the year was when fellow collector Matt Malone sent me this gorgeous 2019 Topps Heritage “box loader” card for nothing!
If I had to create a Favorites category it wouldn’t be the shiny stuff, the serial numbered stuff, the relic stuff, or the “anything else” stuff. It would 100% be the regular stuff that looks like all the other regular cards in the set. For example, here is a 2019 Topps Series 1 “Legends” card next to a base card of Clayton Kershaw…
…which finally brings me to the actual subject of this article!
While the modern and welcome tradition of mixing retired greats in with current players is new compared to the heyday of my collecting (very extended) youth (roughly 1978-1992), just as most things cardboard and in life it’s not something truly new.
“Ahem,” you say! “There were tons of retired greats in the sets of your youth, Jason,” thinking I can somehow hear you right now, so let me explain. I’m not talking about cards like this…
…even if they came in the same packs as these.
I’m talking strictly about the cards that blend right in with the rest of the set. Otherwise I’m afraid this article would practically go on forever. (Editor’s note: It already has!) What follows is hardly a comprehensive list, so as always I invite readers to add their favorites to the Comments.
The first instance of these “legends in disguise” that I became aware of as a collector was the 1949 Leaf card of the (at the time) very recently deceased Babe Ruth, even if 1) I thought of it as 1948 at the time, 2) it’s pretty hard to disguise Babe Ruth, and 3) even if many of the “current players” are legends themselves by now.
Beyond the Bambino it’s worth noting that Honus Wagner also had a card in this same set. Though you’ll see soon enough how inconsistent my criteria are, I won’t quite count Wagner since he’s in the set as a coach and not a retired great. (You could easily dispute this and probably win in that Wagner is the only coach/manager in the set, a fact that strongly suggests Wagner was in the set as Wagner vs coach.)
Of course the tradition didn’t originate with the Leaf set. Just months before a tiny entrant into the gum card market showed up with a large set of cards, not all baseball, that mixed the likes of Ruth, Hornsby, Mathewson, Wagner, and Cobb with Lou Boudreau!
By the way, these cards are known as 1948 Topps Magic Photos. While I don’t dispute the date it’s worth noting that the non-legend portion of the baseball set focuses on the 1948 World Series, hence the Boudreau, which of course didn’t occur until October. As such, it wouldn’t shock me if much like the Leaf set this particular set did not arrive on the scene until early 1949.
Speaking of 1949, readers of my earlier article on the 1949 M.P. & Company baseball issue may recall that the set included a Jimmie Foxx card, recycled from six years earlier, alongside active players like
Mel Ott Alvin Dark.
Evidently nostalgia ran large in the 1948-1949 as there was yet a third issue that mixed the old with the new. The 1948 Blue Tint (R346) checklist made room for Lou Gehrig whose last game was in 1939 while mainly consisting of modern stars such as Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson, and Joe DiMaggio.
One could place the R346 Hank Greenberg card in either category. On one hand he played a full season in 1947 with the Pirates so a card in 1948 wouldn’t be completely unusual (though more so back then than now). On the other hand the lack of a team designation followed the design of the Gehrig in the set as opposed to the active players. (The set also includes a Mel Ott manager card with no team noted. However, this was later corrected to indicate “N.Y. Giants.”)
Lest you imagine this kind of thing could only happen in America, I’ll highlight the Cuban 1946-1947 Propagandas Montiel issue as yet another set from the era open to all comers.
At any rate, the battle for first place involves none of these late 1940s issues. After all, the most sought after card from the start of the decade is one of many “Former Major League Stars” that Play Ball camouflaged into its 1940 set.
Did I mention my criteria were pretty inconsistent? Oh, good, because otherwise I’d have no place taking us into the 1933 Goudey set where not one, not two, but two-and-a-half retired legends make an appearance. The first of these is Shoeless Joe’s 1919 White Sox teammate, Eddie Collins, who technically cracks the set as a vice president and business manager, two categories so far fetched that it’s safe to say he simply cracks the set as Eddie Collins.
Next up is the part-owner of the Kansas City Blues because of course every set needs a card of a part-owner!
And batting third is the set’s Holy Grail, Napoleon Lajoie, who is 100% retired great, 0% owner, vice president, business manager, or otherwise.
In fact, old Larry was so far removed from the business of baseball by then as to be the Lloyd Dobler of his time. (“I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career, I don’t want to do that.”)
Still, while Lajoie’s status as pure “retired great” is uncontaminated there are a few reasons to assign his card only partial credit in meeting the criteria for this article.
- One, his card couldn’t really be said to blend in with the rest of the set seeing as it wasn’t even released with the rest of the set. As is well known, Goudey didn’t issue the card until 1934 and only then to the relatively small number of collectors who sent them hate mail about their missing card 106.
- Two, the card’s design doesn’t even match the rest of the 1933 (or 1934) set, instead reflecting a hybrid of the two designs.
While we’re on the subject, there is yet another retired baseball legend who cracks a 1933-1934 Goudey checklist, but this time it’s with the “Sports Kings” issue, where Ty Cobb slides in alongside two active players, Babe Ruth and Carl Hubbell.
My approach so far has been to start with 1949 and work my way backward. As I’m not aware of any examples (aside from coaches/managers) before 1933, I’ll close the article with a few post-1949 honorable mentions.
The 1960 Fleer Baseball Greats set technically qualifies as a set that mixed old and new. The checklist consists of 78 retired stars and exactly one active player, Ted Williams.
The 1967 Venezuelan Topps set includes a “RETIRADO” subset that doesn’t at all blend in with the set’s other cards. However, the design of the retired players reflects at least some attempt to match the base cards of active players.
The next honorable mention comes in 1982 from both Topps and Fleer.
I’m sure there was no intent to include the great J.R. Richard as a retired legend. Nonetheless, with J.R.’s final trip to the mound coming in 1980, his spot in the 1982 sets proved unusual. Naturally, Topps and Fleer were banking on a successful comeback that unfortunately never materialized.
Overall I’m a big fan of packing retired legends into modern sets. I can only imagine how much I would have loved it to open packs of 1978 or 1979 Topps and pull cards like these!
Of course, if the kids opening packs today are like the players I coached in Little League a few years ago, they may not have the same reverence for yesteryear that we once did. To quote one of kids on the squad, “Hank Aaron? Is he from the 1900s or something?”