Forty-five years after purchasing a pack, I finally completed the 1974 Fleer “Baseball’s Wildest Days and Plays” set. This is one of several sets in which artist Robert Laughlin used cartoons to illustrate some aspect of baseball history. This set is often listed as having been issued in 1973-which is printed on the backs as the copyright date-but the packs didn’t appear in stores until 1974.
By the way, several other SABR Baseball Cards posts have examined Laughlin creations, including “Fleer Funnies,” “Laughlin to Keep from Crying,” and “What if Robert Laughlin made his 300/400/500 set today?“
The cards are of the “tall boy” style, measuring 2-1/2” x 4”. The set is comprised of 42 cards, which were distributed five cards to a pack, along with a slab of gum. Interestingly, Laughlin had a mail order business in which he “hawked his wares,” as evidenced by this advertisement in a 1974 “The Trader Speaks.” This ad clearly shows that the “Baseball’s Wildest Days and Plays” cards were new for 1974.
Card #1 in the numerical sequence provides a feel for Laughlin’s concept and art style. A cartoon is used to symbolize the event. The accompanying tagline helps set the stage and provides context. Finally, the narrative on the back fleshes out the whole story. Essentially, each card offers a baseball history lesson.
By all rights, the following confession should get me drummed out of SABR. Until I acquired this card a few weeks ago, I was unaware of the “Unglaub Arc.” In 1907, Red Sox first baseman Bob Unglaub proposed a rule designed to increase scoring. He advocated for an arc to be painted in the outfield 240 feet from home plate. The outfielders had to stay to the infield side of the arc before the ball was hit. Thus, the sluggers of the day would have a better chance of reaching base. Of course, today’s speedy athletes routinely play at a shallow depth and run back once the ball is airborne.
Action on the diamond isn’t the only subject matter. Senators catcher Gabby Street’s famous catch of a ball dropped from the Washington Monument in 1908 is an example. After several attempts, Gabby was able to snag a ball dropped from the height of 555 feet. According to the SABR Bio Project piece by Joseph Wancho, the ball fell with 300 pounds of force. Although Street is depicted in uniform, he was in street clothes when he made the “monumental” snag.
The murky legends of baseball get a turn with William “Dummy” Hoy and the origin of umpire signals. According to esteemed SABR researcher Bill Deane in a July 24, 2010 New York Times article, no contemporaneous evidence exists of hand signals being added by umpires to communicate balls and strikes to the deaf Hoy. As with many baseball innovations, the evolution is nuanced and not centered on a definitive moment in history.
My favorite “Wildest Days and Plays” cards use the actual likenesses instead of just a generic player. An excellent rendering of Jimmie Foxx is used to tell the story of the “Beast” being walked six consecutive times in a game. Also, a very recognizable Babe Ruth was drawn by Laughlin for another card.
The card for the Eddie Gaedel stunt is an excellent example of Laughlin using imagery to enhance the story. A little guy perched on a giant baseball automatically conveys Gaedel’ s diminutive size.
Likewise, a towering Jim Thorpe conveys the outsized status of the great athlete. Besides, hitting home runs in three different states in the same game is an “outsized” accomplishment.
Even owners show up in this set. Pirates mogul, Barney Dreyfuss, is depicted firing Bill Abstein for striking out 10 times in the 1909 World Series.
I will exit with the card that tells the tale of the rise and fall of Joe Borden. In 1875, Borden (playing under the name Josephs) recorded the first no-hitter in professional baseball history with Philadelphia of the National Association. In 1876 he joined the newly formed National League with Boston where he proceeded to win the first game in league history. Sadly, Joe’s status as a “phenom” came crashing down with each subsequent, poor performance. By the end of 1876 season, Borden was fulfilling his contract by serving as the Red Caps groundskeeper. Charlie Weatherby’s SABR Bio Project entry provides the full scoop on “Flash-in-the-Pan” Borden.