What if Robert Laughlin made his 300/400/500 set today?

Baseball artist and prolific direct-to-collector publisher Robert Laughlin printed a set honoring three of the sport’s “big numbers” (300 wins/.400 average/500 homers) in 1980. If you know Laughlin’s other self-made and Fleer-published sets, its cartoonish take on legendary players fits his style.

The significance of those 300/400/500 achievements also means Laughlin’s set contains just one guy not enshrined in Cooperstown, #13 Joe Jackson, banned from baseball following Chicago’s Black Sox scandal a century ago.

One Yankee legend garnered his “500 homers” card via a statistical side door — a route we’ll take again later.

That photo head and cartoon body design should be familiar to readers of my #5 Type Collection posts about 1938 Goudey Big League Gum. Robert Laughlin no doubt intended this resemblance.

Laughlin self-published this set not long before ’80s-90s power hitting took off. As of today (2019), a tranche of modern 500+ homer guys qualify. Trading friend and many-credentialed writer George Vrechek pointed out during a recent swap session that while no new players batted .400 since 1980, our other groups added 25 or 26 members, depending how you count.

300 victories (via career leaders at B-R)

  • Greg Maddux
  • Roger Clemens
  • Steve Carlton
  • Nolan Ryan
  • Don Sutton
  • Phil Niekro
  • Gaylord Perry
  • Tom Seaver
  • Tom Glavine
  • Randy Johnson

500 home runs (via career leaders at B-R)

  • Barry Bonds
  • Alex Rodriguez
  • Albert Pujols
  • Ken Griffey, Jr.
  • Jim Thome
  • Sammy Sosa
  • Mark McGwire
  • Rafael Palmeiro
  • Reggie Jackson
  • Manny Ramirez
  • Mike Schmidt
  • David Ortiz
  • Frank Thomas
  • Gary Sheffield
  • Eddie Murray
  • Fred McGriff* (493 regular season + 10 postseason, echoing Gehrig)

Our modern lament for these 300/400/500 candidates: steroids. Do we know how many of those 26* hitters and pitchers bulked up (and improved recovery) using things borrowed from the iron-pumping world of Mr. Universe? And who cares more, baseball collectors or baseball historians? (I’m about 80% collector and 20% historian in that regard.)

1970s muscle-builder Brian Downing, shown with his like-minded hero, brought a weight-training mentality to baseball that many others followed, some with chemical help.

Aside on Brian Downing: Back in my mid-80s salad days, I hated Downing’s pounding of Seattle pitching. Over 156 career games versus my Mariners, he hit a blistering .920 OPS. If you count those 156 games as a “season,” just five players registered better one-year numbers in the same era: Eddie Murray three times, Reggie Smith twice, Ken Singleton twice, Tim Raines once, and Howard Johnson once. (I do my best to impress on others how good Downing was to spread that searing, nostalgic pain around.)

But settle down! Let’s not get too serious about performance-enhancers today. Can a wholesome law-enforcement cartoon keep us in the “just enjoy our hobby” mindset?

If we extend Laughlin’s 300/400/500 set into today, I start with this cartoon head on our cartoon body. No reason to waste nicknames like “Crime Dog!”

Who else should we add to an extended checklist? Using just the aforementioned 10 pitchers and 16 sluggers gives me pause, because of our complete zero at .400. Just two modern guys came close, George Brett (.390 in 1980) and Tony Gwynn (.394 in 1994).

Laughlin set a 20th century cutoff for his 1980 set. What if we turn back time and net 19th century stars like Kid Nichols, Wee Willie Keeler, and Hughie Jennings? Given how few power hitters that era produced, I like this option better than going without adding any .400 hitters at all.

Potential old-school .400 members

According to Baseball-Reference.com, 23 batting seasons reached .400+ (and qualified for the batting title) in the pre-World Series era, 1871-1902. Some guys did so multiple times.

  • Billy Hamilton (1894)
  • Cal McVey (1871)
  • Cap Anson (1872)
  • Davy Force (1872)
  • Ed Delahanty (1894, 1895, 1899)
  • Fred Dunlap (1884)
  • Hugh Duffy (1894)
  • Hughie Jennings (1896)
  • Jesse Burkett (1895-96)
  • Levi Meyerle (1871)
  • Nap Lajoie (1901)
  • Pete Browning (1887)
  • Ross Barnes (1871-73, 1876)
  • Sam Thompson (1894)
  • Tip O’Neill (1887)
  • Tuck Turner (1894)
  • Wee Willie Keeler (1897)

Italicized seasons played less than 100 games, so sit below the stature of other 300/400/500 candidates. Let’s strike those.

Furthermore, Laughlin’s 300/400/500 contains Lajoie at #9. We can trim those 17 guys to ten “significant” 19th century 400 hitters not already in the original.

  • Billy Hamilton (1894)
  • Ed Delahanty (1894, 1895, 1899)
  • Fred Dunlap (1884)
  • Hugh Duffy (1894)
  • Hughie Jennings (1896)
  • Jesse Burkett (1895-96)
  • Pete Browning (1887)
  • Sam Thompson (1894)
  • Tip O’Neill (1887)
  • Wee Willie Keeler (1897)

Newspaper and ballcard photos exist for all ten, making it straightforward to create head-on-cartoon versions. While they played in a different era of hitting rules and equipment quality, modern analysis also diminished batting average overall. Fewer 21st century guys hallow it as a statistic that needs rigid defense. Loosening our lasso to pull in 19th century players gives historical depth to a list that already carries PED baggage.

Proposed 300/400/500 Extended checklist

  1. Title card
  2. Greg Maddux (300 game winners)
  3. Roger Clemens
  4. Steve Carlton
  5. Nolan Ryan
  6. Don Sutton
  7. Phil Niekro
  8. Gaylord Perry
  9. Tom Seaver
  10. Tom Glavine
  11. Randy Johnson
  12. Billy Hamilton (.400 hitters)
  13. Ed Delahanty
  14. Fred Dunlap
  15. Hugh Duffy 
  16. Hughie “Eeyah!” Jennings
  17. Jesse Burkett
  18. Pete Browning
  19. Sam Thompson
  20. Tip O’Neill
  21. Willie Keeler
  22. Alex Rodriguez (500 HR sluggers)
  23. Albert Pujols
  24. Ken Griffey, Jr.
  25. Barry Bonds
  26. Jim Thome
  27. Sammy Sosa
  28. Mark McGwire
  29. Rafael Palmeiro
  30. Reggie Jackson
  31. Manny Ramirez
  32. Mike Schmidt
  33. David Ortiz
  34. Frank Thomas
  35. Gary Sheffield
  36. Eddie Murray
  37. Honorary: Fred McGriff

Big thanks to Nick Vossbrink for this sharp and stylish custom Barry Bonds, befitting our modern 300/400/500 motif.

Now there’s just the matter of designing and printing our other 36 cards and engaging a lawyer to deflect “unlicensed photo depiction” civil claims! What do you think, does this checklist meet the bar set by its predecessor?

Author: matthewglidden

Probably the Joe Shlablotnik of Program Managers. Live in Cambridge, MA, which I think of as of the Cambridge of the USA.

2 thoughts on “What if Robert Laughlin made his 300/400/500 set today?”

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