50 at 50

Sending out an alert for anyone who follows this blog but isn’t on Twitter or Facebook. SABR has been celebrating its upcoming 50th anniversary by having each committee contribute a 50 at 50 article on the SABR website. The Baseball Cards Committee’s contribution went up today.

Rather than making it a top-50 list or some other ranking, we decided to go a different direction and treat baseball cards as timeline that they are with a post of 50 cards for 50 years.

Baseball cards aren’t just something to collect. They mark the seasons and document the game as it happens. Looking back at them shows us the history of the game. Who played. What was important. What happened. How we analyzed things. Cards may fall under the category of “ephemera” but the ephemeral nature of what they record is what makes them such an important chronicle of the game.

Our list is not intended to be definitive or authoritative. Both the history of the hobby and the history of the game are way too interesting for each year to be able to be summed up in a single card. Instead we look forward to the discussion and critiques that always follow such lists.

While Jason and Nick are credited with compiling the contents, we wish to thank the multiple other experts who allowed us to pick their brains and challenged our choices.

Author: SABR Baseball Cards Research Committee

This account is used for official Committee postings.

13 thoughts on “50 at 50”

    1. How about a really big project, year by year back to the first baseball (base ball) card. The Library of Congress collection could be a good start for 19th century stuff, supplemented by some of the library and private collection sites.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I like your list because it is very collector-centric–what would a collector of that time be interested in or faced with? As such, for something like 1945, I think the honest approach would be to say “nothing.” Scrambling to find some Detroit newspaper cutout would change the exercise IMO.

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  1. It’s a good list to represent baseball history through baseball cards.

    While I have tremendous respect for Jackie Robinson, I think if 2020 is going to be represented by a Project 2020 card it should be the Efdot Gooden with the face mask (we don’t even need to switch artists). If not a Project 2020 card, then the Fauci first pitch card. COVID has had a massive impact on the game of baseball (and everything else) in 2020. And yes, that gives Gooden two cards to Jackie’s one, but technically (walks upstairs to look at Hernandez stuff) the 1984 Topps Stickers boxes had cards on the bottom (though they were blank-backed).

    1999 could have been represented by the Upper Deck Babe Ruth Piece of History game-used bat card. There was tremendous press around UD cutting up a Ruth bat. And that would also get a game-used card into the list. And the shift towards including retired greats more prominently in mainstream sets, or entire sets that are made up of retired greats, signaling that the manufacturers acknowledged that the hobby was being driven by adult collectors (who were interested in collecting cards of their favorite players from the past) more than kids.

    It’s odd that OBP hadn’t made it on to card backs in the traditional stats because at times Topps’ All-Star cards listed OBP league leaders. For instance, the 1985 Topps Keith Hernandez All-Star lists the NL top 10 OBP leaders from 1984.

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  2. Terrific idea and very well executed. I do have a couple of suggestions and thoughts, but I don’t want to take anything away from the overall positive feeling. That said:

    1. There are a few cards where write-up focuses on the back, particularly the addition of new stats, although I’d also mention the League Leader card where the write-up calls it shared, but only one player is seen. It would be nice to show the backs in those cases.

    2. Odd that two players are featured twice, one of them being a player who was long retired when these 50 years started. I do think the Jackie was the right choice for 2020, but I’d have swapped out his other card and probably the first Bonds.

    3. It’s a pity that neither Hostess nor Kellogg’s is represented in the early years, but I must admit I don’t really see what card I’d take away.

    4. For recent years I think there needs to be some representation of high-end sets which have become a big thing. The natural thing would be to use Topps Transcendent, but it started the same year as Topps Now which is certainly very important in its own right. Maybe a card from the first Topps Tribute set (the first to have a hit in every pack) for 2001.

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    1. Click on the photos on the SABR page and you’ll see both fronts and backs!

      Agreed on Hostess/Kelloggs. Blomberg’s 1974 Kelloggs was a close call but it only mentions the DH on the back. HAd it said DH-1B in the front though…

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    2. You could go with 1996 Leaf Signature rather than the 1996 Metal Universe to represent the hit per pack product, as that product had at least one autograph per pack. Maybe use the Otis Nixon autograph to showcase issues related to sending cards to players to autograph and asking them to send the cards back. Or the Mariano autograph if one wanted to showcase a class act, a classy signature, and the rebirth of the Yankees dynasty. Plus he’s the first player to be elected unanimously to the Hall of Fame, has the saves record, last player to (regularly) wear 42, etc.

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      1. This comment (as well as a few others I’ve received) points out something that I didn’t consciously define in the spec but which occurred by the way I was approaching the list (using “I” here because I can’t speak to how Jason/Mark/etc were approaching this list). I was looking for cards that represented that year in collecting/baseball as of that year, not cards that with the benefit of hindsight became desirable.

        A list of cards like the Otis Nixon (or say the 1993 BBM Ichiro) that became desirable years later would be fascinating and completely different.

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      2. Switch the 1996 Leaf Signature Autograph Rivera with the Jeter autograph from the same set and you get the 1996 AL Rookie of the Year who would have 22 hits that postseason helping the Yankees to their first World Series win in almost two decades. And hit the Jeffrey Maier assisted home run in the postseason. It looks like December 1996 was the first issue of Beckett in which Leaf Signature was priced, and Jeter shows up as the third highest priced autograph (behind Frank Thomas and Alex Rodriguez) so he was making an impact in the hobby, though A-Rod was setting the hobby on fire. Speaking of baseball history/baseball card history, A-Rod definitely had an impact on the game, and his not signing a Topps contract upon signing with the Mariners leading to him not having a Topps produced card until 1998 could have been on the list.

        The back cover of that Beckett has “1996: The Year of the Home Run” on it with cards of the 16 players who hit 40 home runs that season. The worst trend part II, according to one article, was the really tough to pull insert that was numbered to something low, like 50. File under “things that seemed strange back then.”

        The best use of a celebrity photographer … hmmm, I think I just read something about Christie Brinkley behind the camera. That set was also mentioned as one of the best insert set themes of the year (and was the focus of the front cover of the June 1996 Beckett), along with Collector’s Choice You Make the Play, Leaf Total Bases, Pacific Flame Throwers, Select En Fuego, and Topps Mickey Mantle reprints.

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