For collectors of a certain age, there was a time in our youth when there were a few rules about Topps cards. I’m referring here to later end of the “single-series” era of 1974-1992, when a rookie card meant one line of MLB stats on the backside, off season transactions waited until the Traded set, and 792 was a sacred number.
But these were not strict rules, of course, and thusly led to aberrations that fascinated collectors like myself. Take 792, for example. Between 1982 and 1992, every flagship set was made up of 792 cards. Then 1993’s two-series set brought Baltimore’s Jim Poole at #793… I remember being thrilled by that card when I pulled it in ’93. It was totally new territory. Or the audacity of BJ Surhoff’s 1987 Future Stars rookie card – which featured NO big league stats on the back as Surhoff had yet to make his MLB debut. This was NOT something that supposed to happen.
But none of that compared to the shock I felt finding Jody Davis’ 1989 card… in which he was in the uniform of the Chicago Cubs, had a Cubs title above his name, but featured a plain text warning that read “NOW WITH BRAVES.”
I was amazed by this. Was this something that happened just as these cards were going into their wax wrappings? Was some poor schmuck stationed over the sheets as they came off the press, stamping ever Jody Davis that flew past? What was happening here?
I spent some time recently looking at Topps’ ‘deadline dates’ – the date past which offseason moves did not get coverage in the following year’s set. Of course, even after Topps stopped reflecting off-season moves in flagship in 1979, Topps still had a deadline date. From 1979 to 1981, it was the end of the World Series, when the playoff cards were set. Following that, it was at the end of the regular season, when league leaders cards could be finalized and everyone was depicted with the team with which they had ended the season. Of course, this wasn’t quite accurate – as evidenced by the 1980 Dock Ellis and Ralph Garr cards, in which late-season team changes were acknowledged only in their 1979 stat lines.
This was, for the most part, not an issue. Certainly Topps had an eye on the trading deadline, when a few big names were likely to change clubs, after which they could get to work unimpeded. But September trades were rare and usually inconsequential. Between 1980 and 1984, only two players important enough for cards the following year changed teams in September. On September 13, 1980, Sparky Lyle was traded from the Rangers to the Phillies and appeared in the 1981 set in an airbrushed Phillies cap. Doug Bair joined the Cardinals on September 10, 1981 and got a similar treatment in the 1982 set. And then, for two years, nothing of note to Topps happened late in the summer.
But on August 31, 1984, the Oakland A’s shipped Davey Lopes to the Cubs to complete a minor swap they’d made in July. Two days earlier, the Astros had traded All-Star Ray Knight to the Mets. Somewhere in Duryea, PA, a Topps artist set Knight up with a Mets card for the forthcoming 1985 set. They’d even manage to get a actually photo of him in his Mets uni to go with. But those two days were enough to leave Lopes with nothing more than three little words crammed into the corner of his Oakland A’s card – NOW WITH CUBS.
The concept was one that had been practiced north of the border for a decade and a half. O-Pee-Chee, a Canadian candy company, had been licensed to issue a bilingual version of Topps baseball sets in the Great White North since 1965. Since 1971, the O-Pee-Chee set had used the advantage of its later release date to reflect trades and transactions that had come too late to include in the Topps set. This usually consisted of using the Topps photo, but updating the team marker and including a small note in the photo detailing the move.
It’s not clear why Lopes got this treatment in 1985, but it indicates that Topps held a pretty hard line on when their 1985 card fronts needed to be finalized. They were a bit more relaxed in 1986, when three early September moves from the ’85 season – Don Sutton to the Angels, Dave Stewart to the Phillies, and Joe Nierko to the Yankees – were reflected with unaltered photos. But when Darryl Motley was traded to the Braves ten days before the end of the 1986 season, it was enough past the set’s bedtime that he became the second man to get the “NOW WITH” treatment in Topps’ flagship.
The 1988 set continues this mini-trend of depicting early September moves, but merely tagging late September transactions. On September 15, 1987, John Candelaria was traded by the Angels to the Mets and his 1988 card show him in an unaltered image as a Met. However, when Dickie Noles was traded to the Tigers (for a player to be named that ended up being… Dickie Noles) on the 22nd and when Doug DeCinces signed with the Cards four days later, Topps slapped both of their 1988 cards with the “NOW WITH.” Same for the aforementioned Jody Davis and Kevin Coffman, who went between the Cubs and Braves in a deal just four days before the end of the 1988 season.
This would mark the end of the “NOW WITH” phenomenon in Topps flagship. Neither 1989 nor 1990 produced any late September player moves that would have upset the next year’s set make-up and a late-September trade in 1991 involving Mike Bielicki, Damon Barryhill, and Turk Wendell (once again the Braves and Cubs), was actually represented in the 1992 set. That same year, O-Pee-Chee issued its final “Now With” cards as it was their last year of mimicking the Topps flagship (they issued their own unique set in 1993).
For more on O-Pee-Chee and its marvelous variations, please visit the Oh My, O-Pee-Chee blog, which is an incredible resource and helped out with my work here.