In 2023, there are dozens of baseball card sets at every price point. Any major star has thousands of cards available, with hundreds added annually. We can buy most cards we want in just a couple minutes, at a competitive price.
But 50 years ago, there weren’t nearly as many choices for collectors as there are today. There was the Topps set, sometimes a couple Topps inserts and test issues such as Super or Deckle Edge, and a few food issues such as Milk Duds and Kellogg’s. These sets weren’t made for the organized hobby, which was just as well because there really wasn’t much of an organized hobby in the 70’s.
What was the organized hobby in the early-70’s? There were a few thousand adult collectors nationwide. There were a few small card shows in and near major cities, along with a few hobby newspapers. They were invaluable in creating the knowledge base for the hobby. There were a handful of full-time mail-order dealers like Card Collectors Company and Larry Fritsch cards. They advertised through mainstream publications like The Sporting News, and produced their own catalogs that could number up to 100 pages. There were few storefront dealers, and no Internet. The first National Convention would wait until 1979.
TCMA emerged as the first card manufacturer that targeted the organized hobby. TCMA stood for “The Card Memorabilia Associates,” or the initials of the founders, Tom Collier and Mike Aronstein. The company was headquartered in Westchester County, north of New York City .
Their first sets included the SCFC “Sports Cards for Collectors” 1969 Yankees pictures (see Al Downing below) and an Old-Timers set. The latter set included pen drawings not only of Hall of Famers but forgotten players–that is, forgotten by all but SABR members.
1972 saw the first sets issued under TCMA’s name . They released several reprint sets of vintage issues such as 1887 Allen & Ginter and 1922 American Caramel. They also released the first few series of a set that would number over 500 cards featuring players from the 30’s. To cap it off, they produced a set of the Cedar Rapids Reds in the Class-A Midwest League, the first of hundreds of TCMA minor league team sets over the next 16 years.
Though TCMA would become best known for minor-league sets, their sets featuring vintage players deserve examination. They found a market among serious collectors of the time. Many 70’s collectors wrote away to players for autographs. There weren’t a lot of contemporary cards for stars of the 30’s and 40’s, and many collectors were hesitant to send off vintage cards for autographs for fear of losing them.
Enter TCMA—their sets had a clean design conducive to an autograph, and if they weren’t returned with an autograph at least it wasn’t a 1933 DeLong that was lost to the U.S. Mail or to a former player ambivalent to autograph requests. Many of these sets were designed to feature players who signed through the mail, in fact some dealers sent a list of player addresses along with the cards. This explains why many early TCMA cards offered on Ebay are autographed.
TCMA also offered sets that allowed collectors of modest means to own cards of 19th century players, along with 20th century players who didn’t appear on a lot of cards. One great examples are the 1936–39 Yankees Dynasty set, including not only greats like Gehrig and Lazzeri but journeymen like Paul Schreiber, who appeared in 12 major league games over two generations. What a great find for someone like me who has to have all the players, not just the legends! Others include the 1975 1951 New York Giants set and the 1972 The Yawkey Red Sox set. One of the largest early TCMA sets was the “All Time Greats” postcard issue. The set consists of several 24-card series of attractive black and white postcards. It covered virtually everyone in the Hall-of-Fame including executives like Lee MacPhail, Judge Landis and Will Harridge.
In 1975 TCMA expanded their offerings. To promote their retro and minor league sets, they produced their first catalog called “Collector’s Quarterly.” Through this catalog, they marketed their first sets of current major leaguers. Those came out under the SSPC (Sports Stars Publishing Company) label. There was a 1975 set for the Mets and Yankees, and then a 660-card set in 1976.
SSPC’s 1976 set was an attempt to challenge the Topps monopoly. They were sold only as a set and only to the hobby. The fronts had no team name or player name—a “pure card” design perfect for autographs. Topps cards had facsimile autographs many years and nothing is more awkward than an authentic autograph written over a fake one.
Topps took notice and went to court to stop the further release of these sets. TCMA was allowed to sell through their stock, which took several years.
SSPC would be heard from after 1976 though. In 1978, team sets were produced as pages in their magazines for several teams. A set of vintage players even appeared in the 1979 and 1982 Yankees yearbooks.
By the late-70’s, TCMA was becoming better known for minor league sets. TCMA representatives went to minor league general managers with a proposition- TCMA would take pictures of their team, and provide the team sets for sale in their memorabilia stands for free, in exchange for the right to sell team sets in their Collectors Quarterly catalog for $3–3.50 each team. TCMA photographers not only covered players, but sometimes managers, coaches, team executives, trainers, even bat boys and mascots!
By 1979 dozens of teams had TCMA sets, a number that expanded through the 80’s. By the time TCMA stopped production in the late-80’s, virtually every minor league squad had at least one annual team set, some had as many as three.
TCMA didn’t leave the vintage market. In 1978 and 1979, they produced attractive full color sets of players of the 60’s (in 1978) and the 50’s (in 1979). These sets were from 275–300 cards and featured both legends along with players who had never appeared on a card before. They followed up with a second series of 1960’s in 1981. All three sets are collectible today and not expensive.
TCMA also collaborated with large dealer Renata Galasso on several sets. They co-produced the annual 45-card retro sets included as a bonus with every purchase of current year Topps sets from 1977-84. These attractive sets are known as “Galasso Glossy Greats.”
Collectors were discouraged from pursuing TCMA’s sets by the hobby papers of the time. TCMA sets were considered “illegitimate” and “collector’s issues.” They weren’t considered fully collectible because they weren’t released in packs at candy stores, nor as a premium for another product. Most TCMA cards weren’t licensed by Major League Baseball nor the Players Association, or even the players itself. Nevertheless, TCMA thrived in a time where former players hadn’t monetized their career like today.
In the late-1980’s TCMA saw a formidable competitor for its minor-league throne, the Pottstown, Pennsylvania based Pro Cards. TCMA continued to release retro cards, but at a slower pace. At the same time Mike Aronstein, the head of TCMA, was acquiring a huge database of player photos and built a successful business providing 8×10 glossy pictures and other player items such as keychains. The TCMA label morphed into PhotoFile, which still markets licensed items for all major sports.
Aronstein and TCMA were before their time. TCMA cards aren’t always easy to find but are generally affordable considering their age and print run. Their sets are an important part of the history of the hobby. They deserve a look from every vintage collector and every baseball historian.
9 thoughts on “TCMA – A vintage history”
I have complete sets of 1978 TCMA the 60s AND 1979 TCMA the 50s in pages and easel-type binders that are part of a huge inventory I would like to place in a new home. Let me know if you are interested in either or both and any other cards you are looking for.
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Super informative account. I have a bunch of TCMA cards but never knew their history. Now I do!
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Isn’t it interesting that in the 1970s “collector’s sets” was considered a derisive term? That’s exactly what TCMA sets were, and they were wonderful.
If you were a young baseball fan at the time, reading about the great players of history, what chance did you have of ever seeing cards of those players, much less owning one? But in 1969, having just finished reading “The Glory of Their Times,” I saw a tiny ad in The Sporting News for those first SCFC “old-timers” sets and passed it on to my parents as an idea for a Christmas gift that year. When I looked in my Christmas stocking that December, I found that they’d gotten me all four sets of the over-sized, sketch-based cards. My first Ruth, my first Wagner, etc., etc. I have those cards in a binder to this day; I’m not sure what they’d bring on the open market, but it doesn’t matter, because I’ll never part with them.
For the real baseball fan, that’s the hole in the hobby that TCMA filled. I remember paging through the “Collector’s Quarterly” on the days it arrived, dreaming about which “Great Teams” sets I’d buy next, whenever I could set aside the money (my first acquisition was the 1919 White Sox). When I got the the point where I was ordering my Topps sets each year, rather than putting them together by pack, I’d always buy them from Renata Galasso, and looked forwarded to that year’s “Galasso’s Greats” set, originally built around stars of a specific decade. In the ’70s, where else where you going to find an Eppa Rixey, or a Hal Chase?
In other words, TCMA cards were for baseball fans who perhaps knew a little more about the game than what had just happened in the season past. And, really, does Mike Aronstein’s place in the hobby needed to be backed by anything more than pointing out he was the winner of the first Burdick?
This piece was a very nice intro for those who aren’t familiar with TCMA, but what I’d like to see someday is a comprehensive record of all the sets the company made. That would be quite a feat, because TCMA always seemed to come up with something new. Or perhaps something “old” would be more accurate . . .
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Thanks for that post. I seem to be finding TCMA sets all the time- I just picked up some cards from the “War Years” set from about 74-75. I met Mr Aronstein about 30 years ago and he loaned me some of his “Collector’s Quarterly” along with other vintage hobby papers. I was able to find out about a lot of his more obscure issues, that was in the days before the internet and when printed catalogs like SCD and Beckett Almanac didn’t cover TCMA in a comprehensive manner.
TCMA’s early cards are great additions to a collection for this reason- if I want to I can get multiple copies of most high profile cards within a few days, all it takes is money. But many TCMA issues don’t pop up frequently online. When they do, they are mostly affordable. It’s a great way to build a truly unique collection. You can have your PSA 10 slabs of 2022 rookie cards, I’d rather have these.
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Love this article! I have always enjoyed the “non-mainstream” issues. Especially the SSPC cards. No bells, whistles or frills! No UV coating! Just history!
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TCMA’s card evolution also tells us about the card production tech of the day, at least for people who took it seriously. They went from small sets of roguish black & white cards to Topps-level competitors in less than a decade, a standout achievement in the hobby.
I ordered the SSPC set back in 1975. I really enjoyed them. I would go to the local teams and try to get autographs from players as they were leaving after the games. I only got about 35 players. I don’t collect anymore but I want to hand them down to my adult sons. I was hoping to see the value of the set go up since they are rare in comparison to Topps cards. From your article it seems that there is interest in these sets.