Cardboard Famous

A reply to a recent SABR Baseball Cards social media post led me to think about the baseball players more famous for their baseball cards than for any of their on or off the field exploits. Here are ten who I believe fit the bill.

BILLY RIPKEN

Ripken lasted twelve years in the big leagues as an infielder, including an all-star caliber season in 1990. Today he is a frequent co-host on MLB Network. His brother is baseball’s ultimate Iron Man and one of the greatest shortstops in history. And still, say the name Billy Ripken and card collectors think only of one thing: his 1989 Fleer F*ck Face card.

BUMP WILLS

His career on the diamond lasted only half as long as Billy Ripken’s but he spent six years as the regular second baseman for the Rangers and Cubs, topping 30 steals four times while batting a respectable .266. Like Ripken, baseball also ran in his family. Of course any kid who collected baseball cards in 1979 will know him best for this seemingly impossible cardboard trickery.

BRANDON PUFFER AND JUNG BONG

Puffer played four years in the big leagues, appearing in 85 games for the Astros, Padres, and Giants. Jung Bong played one fewer season, appearing in 48 games for the Braves and Reds. The two pitchers combined for a WAR of -1.2. Though never teammates, the duo shared Future Stars cardboard in the 2003 Topps set on card #331, known to collectors (and chronicled by David Roth) as the “Bong Puffer card.”

OSCAR GAMBLE

Legitimately one of the best hitters of his time, scouted by the legendary Buck O’Neil, and the man behind the classic line, “They don’t think it be like it is, but it do,” Oscar Gamble would be remembered fondly even if he had no baseball cards at all. Fortunately that’s a hypothetical we need not ponder long when this pure cardboard gold is right in front of us.

SHERRY MAGEE AND JOE DOYLE

Magee built a borderline Hall of Fame career from 1904-1919 that included more than 2000 hits, four RBI titles, and 59.4 WAR. Even with those credentials I suspect many readers can only hazard a guess whether his name is pronounced Maggie, McGee, or Madgee.

Doyle, on the other hand, had a completely undistinguished career, seeing limited action on the mound over five seasons at roughly replacement level.

Whatever their on-field exploits, each of these players will forever be cardboard legends, with their error cards comprising half of the T206 set’s “Big Four.”

BENNY BENGOUGH AND ANDY PAKFO

Bengough was a career backup catcher who compiled 0.3 WAR over his ten seasons in the big leagues. When the 1933 Goudey set came out, he was already out of baseball.

Pafko, on the other hand, was a four-time all-star who batted .285 over 13 seasons with a career OPS+ of 117. His 1952 season (.287/19/85) was uncannily similar to his lifetime per 162 slash line of .285/19/85, and his midseason move from the Cubs to the Dodgers the prior year was one of the season’s biggest trades.

While neither player would top any list of all-time greats, each player topped many stacks of baseball cards, thanks to being numbered one in the 1933 Goudey and 1952 Topps sets respectively. Until the Upper Deck Ken Griffey, Jr., rookie card came along in 1989, I suspect these two players were the Hobby’s most famous set starters. Certainly both cards, in reasonable shape, carried a premium comparable to lesser Hall of Famers due to rubber banding, spills, and the myriad other ways stack toppers suffered disproportionate damage in collections prior to the advent of plastic sheets.

HONUS WAGNER

I’ll end the article with what may be my most contentious selection. Without a doubt, Wagner is a top shelf baseball immortal, considered by many to be the greatest shortstop of all-time if not the single greatest player of the Deadball Era. (In both cases, Pop Lloyd deserves consideration as well.) To an audience well versed in baseball history, therefore, Wagner is most famous for his tremendous playing career, even if most fans still pronounce his name wrong.

Yet whatever his accomplishments on the diamond, I suspect the Flying Dutchman is best known today, whether in the collecting world or the general public, for a single, transcendently pricey cardboard rectangle, our Hobby’s Mona Lisa.

Who else would you nominate for this elite club where ERR trumps WAR and even backup catchers can be number one? Sound off in the Comments!

Author: jasoncards

I mainly enjoy writing about baseball and baseball cards, but I've also dabbled in the sparsely populated Isaac Newton trading card humor genre. As of January 2019 I'm excited to be part of the SABR Baseball Cards blogging team, and as of May 2019 Co-Chair of the SABR Baseball Cards Research Committee.

47 thoughts on “Cardboard Famous”

  1. Fun post!
    I think there’s a whole bunch of ballplayers who became “cardboard famous” by dint of sharing those multi-player rookie cards with players who became stars.
    If you recognize the names Bob Bonner and Jeff Schneider, you know what I mean.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Interesting point. You could call it the Bill Denehy Effect. Reminds me of when I was putting together a collection of all the Topps White Sox cards . . . I got all but one, weak-hitting Al Weis, whose 1963 rookie card was way out of my price range. I’m sure you all know why . . .

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I am not a card collector by any means, but I do acquire cards to illustrate my SABR Game stories. So I was pleased when I saw that the card company was prescient enough in 1970 to put Gene Tenace and Vida Blue on the same card for me to conveniently illustrate Blue’s no-hitter–including his catcher.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Is “Bubble Gum Blowing Champ” a notable enough off the field activity, or was Kurt Bevacqua’s card commemorating his championship what made that famous?

    There are always the cards that are famous for the accessories the players have – Glenn Hubbard with the snake, Tim Flannery with the surfboard, and Mickey Hatcher with the giant glove. They’re Billy Ripken like cards, only more family friendly (and without “corrected” versions adding to their popularity).

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Obviously this is just me, but I think Bong/Puffer are the only players whose names would bring me to think of the card first. Ripken is close, but just testing myself, if I’m sitting at a ballpark and someone says “Remember Billy Ripken?” I would recall other things first. None of the pre-war cards I was even aware of.

    A close call might be 1969 Aurelio Rodriguez.

    Do I have to turn in my “baseball card nerd” badge?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The list is highly subjective and has a lot to do with our peak collecting years as well as the focuses of our baseball research interests. For me 1979 Bump Wills is a legendary baseball card but for folks much younger than me the card is probably completely anonymous.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Or , in my case, older than you. Wills was pretty famous because of his father, and a pretty big prospect. I bought the 1978 set prebuilt from Renata Galasso, and I doubt I knew about the Wills error for years after that. I still have the set, but I have no idea which Wills I have!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. When I started collecting in the mid-80s, I recall the Bump Wills as a notable error card that would pop up in articles about errors & corrections (particularly in Beckett Baseball Monthly). That led me to buy one when I saw it at my local card shop.

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  5. Ryne Duren’s run as the Roy Orbison of baseball cards sticks with me far beyond what I can recall of his career. 1960 #204 in particular, with the Duren twins.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Following up on Van Nightingale’s comment, I would go with Denehy, Hank Allen, Jerry Koosman, Mike Garman, Cecil Cooper, Dave McDonald, and Ron Tompkins. Although there are a couple of really good players in there, they are all eclipsed by their rookie card partners (Seaver, Carew, Ryan, Fisk, Munson, Bench).

    Liked by 1 person

  7. So good – the Oscar Gamble quote and picture alone are worth the price of admission. “Bong Puffer” is gold. So many great tangents in these comments too. Bravo!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Don Mossi had a very respectable 12 year career but I think his 1958 Topps issue is nothing less than the ultimate Mona Lisa of baseball cards.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Someone mentioned Lowell Palmer–his 1970 and 1971 cards are classics, so much so that Pat Neshek replicated his 1971 card in the 2020 Topps Heritage set. Although I was disappointed to find out that the sunglasses were added digitally.)
    – I’d also add the famous 1971 card #664 “Reynolds Rookies,” which is likely more famous than any of the three Reynoldses pictures.
    – The 1952 Gus Zernial pink undershirt, OK sign, and 6 balls stuck to the bat card may be more famous than he is.
    – The T206 John Titus card, the only mustachioed card in that set, may also be more famous than he is (although he is one of two players from the small town where my mom was born, the other being Joe “Socks” Holden, father of former US Congressman Tim Holden).
    – Finally there is the Paul Richards 1951 Bowman card, which was clearly the inspiration for the Cecilia Giménez restoration of the “Ecce Homo” fresco in Borja, Spain.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. All are GREAT nominations. I particularly feel like the Titus was a whiff on my part, as long as I was covering the T206 set.

      And then for the diehards only one might argue Jack Quinn is cardboard famous as the only active player in both T206 and 1933 Goudey. Of course such fame may be known to fewer than 1000 people on the planet, so is it really fame?

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  10. My memory from 1979 is that the Bump Wills Blue Jays card was the initial card issued because Topps thought he was going to be traded to the Blue Jays. Only after he wasn’t did they reprint it with the Rangers team name. So odd. Did they ever do anything like this before or since? There’s a good reason for not assuming a particular trade like that and going to press with it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The HOF “Cardboard Corner” column on this card says essentially the same. https://baseballhall.org/discover-more/stories/card-corner/bump-wills-and-blue-jays

      Interestingly there don’t appear to be any articles on newspapers.com or in the Sporting News that reference a possible trade. This leaves me to wonder if Berger just spun the tale to appear ahead of the curve rather than to admit there was simply a QC issue with the card. And of course there was a QC issue regardless since the back of the card still had Rangers.

      Liked by 2 people

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