A Curmudgeon’s Guide to the New Millennium

Starting in the late 1980s, I can no longer remember the year of Topps base card sets from simply eyeballing the design.  For the most part, I can only give you a ballpark estimation of the year based on the player.  This stems from buying the factory sets, sorting, putting them in binders, and immediately archiving them in the card closet.

Contributing to this “one and done” approach to collecting modern cards is my curmudgeonly insistence that current designs are either lame or too similar from one year to the next.  To try and break from my “old school” mindset, I took a fresh look at each of the sets from the first decade of the 2000s.  What follows is one old curmudgeon’s ranking of the cards based solely on design.

Bringing up the rear of the decade rankings is 2007.  This one falls in my pet peeve wheelhouse by using foil lettering. The letters are very difficult to read, due to insufficient contrast, which renders the whole purpose of identifying players and teams moot.  Also, what is with the corner dots?  They remind me of the test pattern from the field of vision test I routinely take as part of my glaucoma treatment. The black borders are acceptable but not the “day-glow” green statistics box on the back.  The entirety of design is a complete “excrement show.”

2001 falls into awful category as well.  First off, this is the 50th Anniversary year for Topps. A design that paid homage to Topps past glories seems like a logical approach.  Instead we get teal borders and gold foil lettering!  Teal?  You’ve got to be kidding me!  Sy Berger would have turned over in his grave had he been dead at the time.

At number eight I present 2002 in all its “puke” gold glory.  This is not an attractive color.  It reminds me of the color of my first car, a 1972 four-door Plymouth Valiant with a black vinyl top. Also, are the ribbons supposed to be “gonfalons” floating in the stadium breeze?  Well, the gonfalon bubble burst, and the design is weighty with nothing but trouble. “Stinky (Davis)-to-Stanky-to-Sauer”

2000 and 2006 both suffer from the foil legibility issue, but 2006 gets props for including a cartoon on the back instead of a photo.  Do we really need photos on the back?  This generally means fewer statistics and limited or no biographical information.  How are kids supposed to who led the Sally League in triples in 1998?

Topps stepped up its game in 2005 by introducing white borders and team names, utilizing team word marks. But, why did they put only the player’s last name in bold letters at the top? The vertical placement of the players position is weird as well.  Kudos for having lengthy biographical material.

2009 has some positive elements such white borders and logo placement, but the hard to read foil “foils” the overall aesthetic.

Because it harkens back to past sets, I like the 2003 set with the picture-in-picture look.  If only Topps had used black and white photos with poorly airbrushed logos like 1963, it would be the winner.  The back has most of the good elements, apart from a cartoon.

I must admit that 2004 is a great look.  The team name in foil is very visible against the white background.  I love the drawing of a player representing the position of the person on the card.

As nice as the design is in 2004, it must take runner up status to the “Curmudgeon Cup” winning 2008 design.  The alternating color balls at the top-forming the team name-is simultaneously innovative and retro.  The white borders help draw the eye to the team name as well.  Also, the facsimile signature warms the soil of the vintage collector.  The biggest downside is the lack of the player’s position on the front.

Before you fill up the comments section with vitriol and torch me on Twitter, there is a strong “tongue-in-check” element to this post.  I am not inclined to defend my choices, since I have no strong attachment to this era’s cards.  I will leave you with this though: “Get off my lawn, Topps, and bring back burlap and wood paneled borders!”

A True Value or hardware disorder?

In 1986, one could head to the local True Value hardware store to buy a box of nails or a toilet plunger and emerge with a folded, sealed, four-card panel featuring three players from the “True Value Super Stars Collector Series.”

The oddly packaged set features a fourth card on the panel that serves as a sweepstakes entry form with a picture of a True Value product on the opposite side. This advertisement card forms the back of the pack while one of the player cards comprises the front.

The cards are perforated to allow for each card to be individually detached. Of course, the panel could be kept intact, but one of the cards would be separated by the advertisement.  Furthermore, the panel size is too big for a three-pocket, Hostess style page. An obsessive purist could leave the cards sealed, content in knowing two more cards reside inside, but the most logical thing to do is detach the cards.

This is exactly what I did this summer after purchasing the 10 different card folios at a local card shop.  After 33 years, the adhesive beneath the back flaps was firmly set.  I needed to use a putty knife to detach the flaps.  Once opened, the 2-1/2″ x 3-1/2″ cards had to be carefully separated to prevent tears. The front card must be at least 1/32 of an inch wider than the cards from the inside, since it fits very snugly in a standard 9-pocket page.

It goes without saying that once you have the 30 cards separated you are left with a crappy set.  These cards were produced by Michael Schechter Associates (MSA), who only had a MLBPA licensing agreement.  If MSA sounds familiar to you, you may know the name from these ubiquitous discs of the mid-1970s.

The lack of an MLB license results in mostly “head and shoulder” shots without cap logos. (Andre Dawson is shown from the waist up.)  The same images are used on numerous odd ball sets of the era.  The photos are small and the red, white and blue framing is overwrought.

The set does contain many all-time greats. There are 15 Hall of Famers including Tom Seaver on the White Sox, Reggie Jackson on the Angels, and Gary Carter with the Mets (but wearing an Expos cap). Fans of the Indians, Rangers, and Giants will not find a home team hero in the set. 

My collection of “junk wax” era, odd ball sets continues to grow, which begs the question: Why do I continue to add these unattractive cards with recycled images?  Perhaps I’m genetically predisposed to own every known image of “Mr. Mariner,” Alvin Davis.  Or, perhaps my essential cheapness won’t let me turn down bargain priced cards.  Both could be true, but I believe the answer lies in my slow but steady descent into hoarding syndrome. 

The Great Candlestick Derrière Dilemma

Recently, a post on Twitter included Willie Montanez’s 1973 Topps card.  This “in action” shot taken during the 1972 season has always intrigued me, primarily due to half of the photo being comprised of the Giants’ pitcher’s butt.  Inquiring minds want to know whose derriere filled the camera lens. Through the miracle of “Retrosheet” via “Baseball Reference,” I was able to pin down three possibilities, one stronger than the others.

In 1972, the 12-team National League played 18 games against divisional opponents and 12 against teams from the other division.  Thus, the Phillies and the Giants each had six home games broken into two series. (The work stoppage at the beginning of 1972 season did alter this scheduling formula; however, the Giants versus Phillies games were not affected.)

During the Phillies’ initial trip to Candlestick in April 1972, the clubs met twice in day games.  However, Willie Montanez was not involved in a play at the plate in either game.  So, his slide into home had to happen during the second set of games in July.

On Saturday, July 16 and Sunday, July 17 the squads squared off under a bright sun beating down on the rock-hard AstroTurf. Montanez scored a run in the Saturday game after being walked by Don McMahon in the second inning. He moved to second on a single by Don Money and went to third after Oscar Gamble walked.  Catcher John Bateman singled, scoring Montanez. 

This could be the play at the plate, provided Bateman’s single was of the infield variety or a shallow “Texas Leaguer.” Otherwise, Willie could have walked home on a routine shot to the outfield.  The “San Francisco Examiner” sports page for Sunday, July 17, is not helpful.  The game summary does state that Montanez scorede, but there is no mention of a play at the plate.  Therefore, it is possible that the photo shows the “arse” of the veteran “slabsman” McMahon.

In this same game, Chris Speier of the Giants hit an inside-the-park home run off Steve Carlton.  Speier has a 1973 card showing him sliding into home with the Phillies catcher, John Bateman, attempting to tag him.  Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean that Montanez’s slide occurred on July 16 since the photographer may have attended both games.

In fact, a more plausible play at home occurred in the next day’s game.  In the top of the 4th inning, Montanez singled to center off the Giants’ starter, Jim Barr, and took second on an error by Gary Maddox.  He then scored from second on a single by Don Money. 

In many instances, scoring from second on a single will draw a throw home, resulting in the runner sliding.  Of course, this would mean that Jim Barr is the pitcher whose backside is seen “up close and personal.” Alas, the Monday, July 18 “San Francisco Examiner” offered no supporting evidence, since it failed to mention Willie’s run at all.

Although not definitive proof that the photographer attended both tilts, the 1973 Topps in game action photos for Phillies pitchers Barry Lersch and Dick Selma were clearly taken at Candlestick.  Lersch pitched on Saturday and Selma on Sunday.  So, the photographer could have been at both games. But this is not a certainty because both pitchers appeared at “the Stick” during day games on April 26 (Lersch) and 27 (Selma).

To completely muddy the waters off Candlestick Point, this photo could conceivably be from 1971!  In the first game of a double header on June 6, 1971, Montanez doubled to center off Steve Stone in the 6th inning. 

He scored from second on a single by the next batter, ironically Ron Stone.  On June 7, 1971, “The San Francisco Examiner” stated that Willie “streaked to the plate.” Of course, we still don’t know if there was a throw, necessitating a slide into home. So, Steve Stone’s “bum” could be front and center in the photo.

The odds still favor 1972.  Barry Lersch did pitch in the second game of the June 6, 1971 doubleheader, but Dick Selma didn’t pitch at Candlestick during the day in 1971.  Photos from two separate years seems unlikely but not impossible.

If you are still with me, you are probably asking yourself, “who the hell cares about Willie Montanez sliding into home or pitchers’ butts?” Without a doubt, these are valid questions.  My retort is this:  I used this as a forum to show some of the great “warts and all” action photos from this era.  To me, these photos are exponentially better than modern shots.  The backgrounds and multiple players provide clues and context lacking with today’s cards.  Besides, it’s important to know which long ago Giants hurler left his butt in San Francisco!

Picture perfect postcards

One of the most aesthetically pleasing sets in my collection is the 1991 “Living Legends” Negro League postcards.  The set was produced by Capital Cards in conjunction with the Negro League Baseball Players Association and features the impressive artwork of Ron Lewis, who produced several art sets in the 1980s and ‘90s.

The numbered cards measure 3-1/2” x 5-1/4” and were distributed in a 30-card boxed sets.  Supposedly, 10,000 sets were produced.  Mr. Lewis traveled the card show circuit to sell his wares.  Dealers such as Larry Fritsch must have purchased in bulk, since the sets are currently available for under $30.

The backs have typical postcard markings, players’ names and brief biography.  Mr. Lewis’ signature adorns the bottom, and the set’s specific number out of the 10,000 is shown on the right.

The depicted players will be very familiar to those steeped in Negro League history.  However, some are not household names.  For example, Verlan “Lefty” Mathis was a Memphis pitcher, seen here in this wonderful Red Sox uniform.  This study of Newark Eagle Max Manning is truly spectacular, as well.

Upon viewing the set for the first time in years, I discovered Jehosie Heard had a card.  I became familiar with him when I explored the first cards of the Baltimore Orioles.  The artist may have used the 1954 Topps card or the original photo as a model for Jehosie on the Birmingham Black Barons.

Another name that stands out is Lyman Bostock, Sr., the father of the late ‘70s Twins and Angels outfielder of with the same name.  Of course, Lyman, Jr., was shot and killed at the height of his career in 1978. Father and son were estranged, due to the younger Lyman’s belief that his father abandoned him.  I was unaware of Bostock, Sr., until obtaining this set.  He had a long Negro Leagues career stretching from 1938 to 1954.

Ron Lewis included a pair of brothers, Garnett and Lonnie Blair, who both played for the Homestead Grays.  The Pittsburgh-based club also called Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C., home.

Catchers depicted wearing the “tools of ignorance’ are always a treat.  Bill Cash and Josh Johnson are no exception.

In addition to the lesser known players, Mr. Lewis produced cards for the famous too.  Examples include National Baseball Hall of Fame members Leon Day, Monte Irvin, Buck Leonard and Ray Dandridge.  Another well-known player, “Double Duty” Radcliffe, is part of the set.

The 60 years since the last Negro League game was played means that most of the players depicted have passed away. As of this writing, the immortal Willie Mays is still amongst the living.

In closing, I encourage you to add the Negro League Baseball Museum in Kansas City to your baseball bucket list.  I was there in 2005 and enjoyed every minute.  Plus, Arthur Bryant’s Barbecue is a few blocks away on Brooklyn Avenue. After stuffing yourself, head down Brooklyn to the former site of Municipal Stadium.

Editor’s note: Card 24 in the set is often listed as Hall of Fame catcher, Josh Gibson. In fact, the card depicts his son, Josh Gibson, Jr.

Detroit’s heroes go wild!

Periodically, I have added commemorative team sets to my collection.  The sets may mark a championship year or other noteworthy occurrence, famous or infamous.  Additionally, sets are issued to celebrate an anniversary year or a players’ reunion.  For example, I did a blog post on cards given to attendees of a banquet honoring the 1969 Senators.   Although this may prompt some of you to cancel your SABR membership, I will post additional pieces on commemorative sets from time-to-time.

First up is a 1988 set issued by Domino’s Pizza that commemorates the 20th anniversary of the Tigers 1968 World Series Championship.  Most of you remember that Detroit bested St. Louis in a classic seven-game series.  This World Series resonates with me since it is the first that I remember watching on TV.

All the photos in the 28-card set are black and white.  Many of the shots are unfamiliar to me, which was part of the appeal-along with being cheap.  All the unnumbered cards have a synopsis of the season printed on the back along with the players’ 1968 regular season and World Series stats. 

The cards were given away at Tiger Stadium during an “Old Timers” game featuring the ’68 Tigers players.  It is possible that they were also available at Domino’s locations.  Perhaps a Tiger fan in my vast readership remembers.

Of course, I must include the cards of Ray Oyler and Wayne Comer.  Both players were selected in the expansion draft by the Seattle Pilots after the World Series.  You may recall that the light hitting Oyler was benched in the World Series, with outfielder Mickey Stanley moving into the shortstop slot.  Both Comer and Oyler have memorable turns in Jim Bouton’s Ball Four.

Two Tigers icons-Willie Horton and “Swingin’” Gates Brown-are caught “in action.”  Willie was the big offensive force for the “Motor City Kitties” in 1968.

Speaking of icons, casual fan may not remember that Hall-of-Fame member, Eddie Mathews, closed out his career in a limited role with the Tigers in 1968.

The other Hall-of-Famer in the set is, of course, Al Kaline.  The all-time great is honored with two cards.  Ironically in Al’s only championship season, he suffered a broken arm after being hit by a Lew Krausse pitch, missing three months.

1968 was the “Year of the Pitcher” and Denny McLain was instrumental in creating this designation.  Fueled by endless bottles of Pepsi, Denny won an astonishing 31 games on his way to the AL Cy Young and MVP awards.

Another great Tiger hurler who came up big in the World Series was Mickey Lolich.  The portly “twirler” won three games in the World Series, including a decisive seventh game victory over Bob Gibson.

Although the Tigers rarely made errors in ’68, there are two error cards in this set.  Pitcher Pat Dobson has a version with the photo showing Jon Warden (card on right).  Additionally, leadoff man Dick McAualiffe has a version that leaves off the “e” from the end of his name.

I will end my Motown meanderings now, since I’m sure you are wishing that I was “looooong gone!”  Plus, I need to go to the Tiger Stadium concession stand and redeem this Domino’s coupon.

All in the Family

This post will look at a sampling of players whose brothers played a different professional sport simultaneously.  Furthermore, I am focusing only on siblings that had cards issued in the same year.  Therefore, there may be a numerous sporting brothers, but they had to have simultaneous cards to fit the parameters of this post.  Finally, this is not a definitive list.  Think of this as a discussion opener, in which your examples will add to the body of knowledge.

The impetus for this post was the recent death of Pumpsie Green.  I was unaware until reading his obituary that Pumpsie’s brother-Cornell-played for the Dallas Cowboys.  The siblings only overlapped with cards in 1964.

Another set of baseball/football playing brothers were the Kellys-Pat and Leroy.  Leroy Kelly was a star running back for the Cleveland Browns in the last 1960s and early 1970s.  His younger brother, Pat, was an original Kansas City Royal in 1969 and forged a nice career as a journeyman.  The Kelly boys have seven years of dual cards (‘69-’74). Note that a similar cartoon appears on the backs of each brother’s card in 1970.

Contemporary with Pat and Leroy were the athletic duo of Alex Johnson and Ron Johnson.  The enigmatic Alex won the AL batting title in 1970, while Ron was an elite running back- twice topping the 1000 yard mark. for the Browns and Giants in the early 1970s.

Mark and Dan McGwire were another set of ‘balling” siblings.  The Seattle Seahawks took Dan in the first-round of the 1991 draft out of San Diego State.  Unfortunately for Seahawks fans, he was a total bust.  Of course, Mark’s supernova stardom quickly shrank into a brown dwarf-much like his post-PED physique.

Like Dan and Mike, I’m sure that Wayne and Terry Kirby tossed spirals and curve balls in the backyard growing up. Both had cards in the early 1990s.

A more recent pigskin and cowhide familial pairing is Matt and Jack Cassel.  A 2007 rookie combo card features Patriots quarterback Matt, while Jack’s brief major league career is depicted on a Padres rookie card.

Of course, brother athletes are not confined to baseball and football.  Jim Bibby was an excellent starting pitcher for several teams in the 1970s, while brother Henry was plying the hardwood for the Knicks.

As recently as 2017, Golden State Warriors star, Klay Thompson, had a  brother-Trayce-pitching for the Dodgers. The other Thompson brother, Mychel, plays in the NBA as well.

To keep you from dozing off, I will mix it up by closing with a brother and sister combination.  In 1977 Giants pitcher Randy Moffitt and his superstar sister, Billie Jean King, were featured on cards. Billie Jean shows up in the large format “Sportscaster” card set.

Undoubtedly, there are glaring omissions in this brotherly love-fest.  Just remember, the siblings must have cards from the same year. Tim and Dale Berra were not brothers at the same time. (Attempted “Yogism!”)

Accessorizing with Tony Horton

Recently, Jeff Katz revealed on the blog how he stores the 1984 Fun Foods pin set by using pocket pages designed for stamps.  In a vain attempt to keep up with the “Katzes,” I completed my set and used tobacco card pocket pages to store mine. The pin subject reminded me that I have around 20 pins from the 1969 MLBPA pin (photo button) set.

This set consists of 60 pins measuring approximately 7/8”. There are 30 players for each league, with the American League featuring red borders and the National League blue.  The photos are all “floating heads” in black and white without cap emblems. The unnumbered pins were distributed in vending machines for 10 cents apiece.

Included in the set are most of the greats and near greats of the era. The set does not include players from the four expansion teams that began play in 1969-alas, no Seattle Pilots!  However, there is a George Brunet on the Angels which sort of counts.

Printed along the bottom is the following: “1969 MLBPA MFG. R.R. Winona, MINN.”  The reason I point this out is that a similar version of the pins was released by persons unknown in 1983.

The unauthorized pins are easy to spot. 

  • The photo and the pin themselves are smaller.
  • Players from either league show up in blue or red.
  • The player’s name appears above the photo and team name below-just the opposite of the originals.
  • Some hats include team logos whereas no 1969 hats do.
  • There is no manufacturer printed on the pin. “1969 MLBPA USA” does appear, but the issue was not sanctioned by the union.

The make up of the “bootleg” set is quite different.  Only 13 of the 60 players from the original issue show up in this 36-pin set.  The remaining 23 pins are all time greats including Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, and Satchel Paige. I found no reference to how the pins were distributed, but the gumball machine method seems logical.

A complete set of the originals in excellent condition is quite pricey.  On the other hand, you can pick up off grade singles at a reasonable price.

Since this set is not exactly aesthetically pleasing, I’m hoping this scintillating post doesn’t spur Jeff Katz to put the set together.  I don’t want to become mired in a “cold war” pin race. Meanwhile, I will make a fashion statement by pinning Tony Horton to the lapel of my leisure suit.