1: A History

  1. Andy Pafko

That’s a pretty obvious way to start this, right? Pretty much anyone who has spent time in the baseball card hobby knows how that digit and that name go together, that Andy Pakfo, as a Brooklyn Dodger, was card #1 in the landmark 1952 Topps baseball card set.

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The reverse of a 1909 Philadelphia Carmel card, perhaps the earliest example of an organized numbering system in a baseball card set. (All images courtesy tradingcardb.com)

I’ve often wondered why Andy Pafko, of all people, got the fabled #1 spot in that set. But did it matter in 1952 that he was card #1? When it card #1 start mattering? The earliest example of a card set with a clear numbering system was the 1909 Philadelphia Carmel set. The cards aren’t individually numbered, but rather featured a numbered listing on the back for the 25-card set, with Honus Wagner is the #1 spot. Wagner was (and is) a huge name in the sport, but given that 10 of the 25 subjects of the set are Hall-of-Famers, it’s likely that Wagner was listed first, well, just because he was listed first. The 1910 Philadelphia Carmel set had the same numbering system, this time with Athletics’ first basemen Harry Davis is the #1 spot, with the checklist arranged by team and Davis in the top spot for no obvious reason.

The first true #1 seems to be Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown in the 1911 Turkey Red Cabinets set. This set, too, features a list of all subjects in the set on the backside of each card, but each card is also numbered, with “No. 1” gracing the backside of Brown’s card. The number system had a purpose – smokers could collect coupons from certain Turkey Red products and exchange them for the cards, instructed to “order by number only.” As for Brown’s place in the #1 spot, it isn’t clear whether not is was supposed to mean anything. There’s a haphazard alphabetical ordering to the set, but many of the names are out of place, including Brown’s. And while Brown was one of the biggest names in the sport at the time, the set is loaded with similarly famous names. The 1914 and 1915 Cracker Jack sets were also numbered, with no clear system to their assignment. The #1 card in each (the 1915 set re-issued most of the 1914 set) was Otto Knabe of the Baltimore Terrapins of the Federal League. Knabe had a few good years with the Phillies of the National League, but was hardly a star in Baltimore and was out of baseball by the end of the 1916 season. Again, we find a #1 with no obvious reason behind it.

The 1933 Goudey set is a landmark in hobby history, but no one cared to memorialize this occasion with it’s opening card. The spot went to Benny Benough, a career back-up catcher who had played his final season in 1932. But in the 1934 Goudey set, Jimmie Foxx – winner of the AL MVP award in both of the previous seasons – was given the lead-off spot. This is the first obvious example of the #1 used as an honorarium. And it would be the last until 1940, when the Play Ball set devoted the first 12 spots in its 240 card checklist to the four-time defending champion New York Yankees, with the #1 spot going to reigning MVP Joe DiMaggio. But in 1941, Play Ball went with Eddie Miller as card #1. Miller was an all-star the year before but, as a member of the moribund Boston Bees, was hardly a household name.

The first two major post-war releases honored a pair of reigning MVPs with their #1 spots – 1948-49 Leaf with Joe DiMaggio and 1948 Bowman with Bob Elliot. But Bowman got a little more obscure with their 1949 #1, picking Boston Braves rookie Vern Bickford – a member of a pennant-winning club, but hardly a national stand-out. Bowman’s 1950 #1 was Mel Parnell, an all-star and a sensation on the mound in ’49, and in 1951 they opened with rookie Whitey Ford, who’d helped lead the Yankees to another World Series win. Both were stand-out players and names collectors would have known, but neither are as convincing as purposeful picks for #1 as Foxx, DiMaggio, or Elliot. For Topps’ 1951 Game release, there were a pair of #1s (for both the blue and red back sets) – Yogi Berra and Eddie Yost – who, like Parnell and Ford, don’t really indicate any obvious attempt to use the number as an honor, particularly given the small size of 1951 issue.

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An unlikely #1, Dusty Rhodes had his heroics made clear on this 1955 Topps card.

So that brings us to “Handy” Andy Pafko. And tells us… well, not much. Sometimes the top spot was used to pay tribute and sometimes it was just used and sometimes it’s kind of stuck in between. But after Pafko, Topps would use the #1 spot for a variety of purposes, some honorific, others utilitarian. The 1950s were a mixed bag: a jumble of superstars (Jackie Robinson in 1953, Ted Williams in 1954, 1957, and 1958), executives (AL President William Harridge in 1956 and commissioner Ford Frick in 1959), and a postseason hero (Dusty Rhodes in 1955). The 1960s featured award winners from the year before (Early Wynn in 1960, Dick Groat in 1961, Roger Maris in 1962, and Willie Mays in 1966), mixed in multi-player league leader cards and a tribute to the 1966 Baltimore Orioles World Series win. Between 1970 and 1972, the #1 card honored the World Series winner with a team photo. 1973-1976’s top spots went to Hank Aaron, honoring his chase and breaking of Babe Ruth’s home run and RBI records. But this run of #1s could have been little more than a coincidence. After Aaron’s 1974 card (which is actually his base card, the front given a unique design to commemorate the home run records that he hadn’t actually set yet) was a pure #1 honor spot. But the ones that followed fit into a pattern that Topps would mostly use for the next decade – opening the set with either Record Breakers or Highlights and ordering those cards alphabetically. A fellow named “Aaron” setting records and making highlights was bound to take those top spots. (You can find Beckett’s visual guide to Topps #1s here)

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Despite an boom in card production, the 1980s would see dark times for #1 cards. Fleer and Donruss joined Topps in the baseball card market in 1981 and both companies put player base cards in their #1 spots. Fleer honored the veteran Pete Rose and Donruss led off with young shortstop Ozzie Smith, a decision that – in the context of the great work on the ’81 Donruss set by Jason in a recent post here – seems to not have been much of a decision at all, leaving their brand’s Hall of Fame leadoff man more of a coincidence than a tribute. But by 1982, all three companies had locked themselves into numbering formulas that left little room for creativity at the top. Topps went with Record Breakers or Highlights, bottoming out in the #1 game in 1983 when Tony Armas took the honors with a card commemorating him fielding 11 fly balls in a single game, breaking a five-year-old record. Donruss debuted its famed ‘Diamond Kings’ subset in 1982 and opened each set of the 1980s with it, leading to some big names at the top, but never really lining up the assignment with any big event from the prior year (only Ryne Sandberg’s #1 card in 1985 followed up on a major award win). Fleer, arranging its checklist by team, opened up each set with the previous year’s World Series winner. But with the players within each team arranged alphabetically, their #1s went to guys like Doug Blair and Keith Anderson as often as they went to stars. What’s more, Fleer goofed in 1989 and opened the set with the Oakland A’s (Don Baylor at #1), even though the Dodgers won the World Series in 1988. And just two years later, Fleer would make the same mistake,  handing the A’s a premature crown for the 1990 season by leading off with catcher Troy Afenir, who had 14 at bats the year before and hadn’t played at all in the postseason. Their habit of honoring (or at least attempting to honor) the World Champions at the open of their set was dropped after that year.

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Sportflics took a direct approach it its #1s.

The truest honorary #1 spot from the big three in the 1980s was the 1986 Topps Pete Rose. His base card – a “pure” card – was given top billing and followed by a series of career retrospective cards to commemorate his breaking of the all-time hits records in 1985. It was the first time since Willie Mays in 1965 that a player’s pure base card was given #1. 1986 also saw the debut of Sportflics, a gimmicky set, but one that took its #1 seriously. George Brett led off the set and, for the next four years, the set would always open not just with a star, but with a player sought after in the hobby. In 1988, the Major League Marketing, parent company of Sportflics, debuted the more standard Score set, which opened with Don Mattingly at #1, continuing the trend set by Sportflics and bringing it into the collecting mainstream.

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Ken Griffey Jr’s Upper Deck was a landmark card, but didn’t change how the #1 was assigned.

1989, of course, would be the year Upper Deck changed the hobby forever, in no small part to opening up their debut set with – for the first time ever in a major release – a player who has yet to make his Major League debut. This card, of course, was the iconic Ken Griffey Jr. rookie. It would become one of the hobby’s most recognizable cards and would join the Pafko as a famed #1. But oddly enough, it didn’t really change the trajectory of #1s. In fact, Upper Deck, who owed so much to that one card, didn’t even bother putting a player in the #1 spot in 1990 or 1991 – using that spot instead for checklists. The next big deal rookie to get a #1 spot from any brand was Mark Wohlers in the 1992 Donruss set. And who remembers that?

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Perhaps the classiest #1 ever made.

The heart of the junk wax era saw some interesting uses of #1. In 1990 and 1991, Donruss’s new Leaf Set – among the first line of upscale releases – didn’t even have a card #1, instead opening with unnumbered card with the Leaf logo. The 1991 Bowman set opened with a tribute to Rod Carew. Intended as a fun set for kids, Donruss’s 1992 Triple Play set opened with a card of Skydome. And to showcase the classiness of its first upscale set, Topps put Dave Stewart at the 1 slot for its debut Stadium Club set – dressed in a tuxedo and a baseball cap. There were a few true head-scratchers from this era as well, such as 1993 Donruss opening with journeyman reliever Craig Lefferts. Or Bowman giving its #1 in 1993 to Glenn Davis, who was 30 games away from the end of his career (it was actually Davis’ third straight year getting a #1, as he got the spot in 1991’s Studio set and 1992’s Fleer Ultra due being the first alphabetical player for the Baltimore Orioles, the first alphabetical American League team).

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By the mid-90s, #1s like these had pretty much gone extinct.

By the mid-1990s, nearly all major releases – save for Fleer, who clung to their team-based numbering system that gave no attention to #1 – had taken up the practice putting a base card of a star player with hobby appeal in the top spot. That trend continues today, with Topps offering an online vote to determine who gets #1 each year, and the winning players – Aaron Judge, Mike Trout, Ronald Acuna, very much fitting that mold. So it ended up not being the legacy of Andy Pafko or Ken Griffey Jr. or Diamond Kings or broken records or hot rookies that live on as #1 in our binders today, but that of Sportflics and Score, who made things no more complicated than taking a player both talented and popular and putting him at the top of stack.

For a more complete list of #1 card, you can visit the Vintage Twins blog’s “First Cards” Page.

12 thoughts on “1: A History”

  1. 1988 Score – that may be the easiest set to sort ever. Purple, Blue, Red, Green, Yellow, Orange. Action shots on the card fronts with head shots on the card backs. The text on the back of those cards was fantastic – there’s 19 lines of text on the back of the Bo Jackson card. Now we know they were trendsetters by putting Mattingly at #1 and saving the number 1 spot for a top player. But a minor correction as I don’t think Score was a product of The Score Board Inc.

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  2. For the sets apparently numbered at random there’s a part of me that still imagines someone somewhere had to make a list, which is damn hard to do in any truly random way when you’re in the realm of 40+ players. Someday I would love to see one of these random-ish sets decoded.

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  3. Very enjoyable post! The #1 is fun and I like how 1978 Topps leads off with a Brock Record Breaker, followed by 6 more RB’s in the 2 through 7 slots. Looks good on that first 9 pocket page.

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      1. I’ve also wondered why producers don’t take 9-pocket pages into account when designing the checklist.

        5, 14, 23, 32, 41, 50, 59, 68, 77, 86, 95 … those could be the key cards as they are the “center square” of pages. Or blocks of 9 for a team or an insert set. I used to “double up” cards in pages by putting them back-to-back until someone pointed out the backs should also be displayed (it may have been a shop owner; in hindsight he may have just wanted to sell more pages). Ten card insert sets are the worst because there is always that one extra card that ends up on its own page. At least a 15 card insert gets six cards on the second page and a 25 card insert set gets seven cards on the third page.

        But it’s like checklist designers are Adrian Monk and can’t think beyond set sizes that end in 0 or 5. I understand the reason for the 33 and 44 card boxed sets in the past (the 132 card sheet size) but I don’t understand why they need to keep small sets at 10 today.

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      2. YES to all of this. Treating the center square as an important card. Considering how a block of 9 will look together. Sets that are multiples of 9. Would absolutely love it if companies considered these things.

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      3. While we’re on the subject (and in case someone who makes cards reads this blog) … card numbers on the back that are able to be read when thumbing through them when stored in a box. There are two considerations – 400 or 660 or 800 count boxes or whatever where cards are stored “on their side” and the 3200 or 5000 count boxes where cards are stored “upright.” 1986 Topps is an example that works well, though even in that set the orientation of the numbers changes for a few cards (the Turn Back the Clock cards have a vertical orientation as do the All-Star cards). Neither orientation is an issue when stored upright, but it can be an issue when stored on its side.

        And in some cases just card numbers that can be read. The “US” on the back of recent Topps Update makes it really difficult to read the numbers when sorting. And the letters are redundant because the words “Update Series” are printed beneath the number, so it’s clear that it’s Topps Update. And then the numbers are at the “bottom” of the card, so if you put them in a 5000 count box to store them you either need to store them so the pictures are upside down (so the numbers are at the top) or where the pictures are oriented the correct way but the numbers are at the bottom (so you have to pull out the stack of cards to find the correct place to put the card if you want them in numerical order).

        None of that means it is like 1994 Donruss Special Edition, which may be the worst numbering ever. The gold foil on top of the number makes it near impossible to read.

        A while ago I read a blog post (I don’t think it was here – I think it predated this site) on the placement of numbers on card backs. It was fairly informative.

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  4. Very nice piece, Matthew. The 1950s-1970s danger to #1 cards may have been the rubber bands used to hold piles together or just the hazards of sitting on top of the pile, but the 1980s-present equivalent is the damage caused by being in the front of a cardboard storage box. Your story made me think of how most of my sets not in binders begin with card #2 or 3 after I safely slid card#1 into a safer position in the box.

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