On Top of Old Smokey

15 Wood

Many of us can open a binder or box and pull out a “Smoky” Burgess or Walter “Smokey” Alston card. Some “pre-war” collectors may even have a “Smoky” Joe Wood from the 1915 Cracker Jack set. But, as unlikely as it may seem, the most prevalent “Smokey” in the hobby may be Smokey the Bear.

The ‘80s and early ’90 saw numerous regional sets sponsored by the US Forest Service. The cards had the iconic bear logo or featured a “real” bear posing with a player. The backs often imparted a message on how to prevent forest fires. Most were given away at games. This post will examine some of the “ursine” sets, but it is not intended to be a complete list.

84 Harvey

The first MLB Smokey cards I found were Angels and Padres sets in ’84. The card backs commemorate the 40th Anniversary of Smokey the Bear. Notably, the Padres set has the “rookie card” for Umpire Doug Harvey. Both clubs continued to issue annual Smokey sets through ’91 for the Angels and ’92 for the Padres.

Other teams jumped on Smokey’s “fire wagon” as well. The “brave bruin” shows up on cards featuring the Dodgers, Athletics, Cardinals, Royals, Astros, Braves and Rangers. The Royals and A’s had sets featuring players’ caricatures

As a vintage collector, I find the commemorative sets to be the most “bearable.” I own the ‘89 All-Star Angels, which has players from the Angles early years. There are several photos I’ve never seen in any other context. Also in ’87, the Dodgers issued a 25th Anniversary set and ‘89 saw “A Century of Dodgers Greats.” A retrospective set for the ‘62 Houston Colt .45 came out in ’89 as well.

The US Forest Service really “bared it all’ in ’87 by producing 3” X 5” cards featuring AL and NL All-Stars. Each card has a star player posing with the “grizzled” grizzly.


MLB teams were not the only baseball clubs who came “bearing” cards for fans.  In ’85 the Fresno Giants caught Smokey on a “fire break” and produce the earliest minor league set I found. Somewhere near Salinas, Smokey found his “bearings” and made a set with the Salinas Spurs set in ’87. College sets exist for UNLV, San Diego State and USC.

Other sports embraced Smokey in a “bear hug” as well. The LA Kings, Golden State Warriors, 49ers and the USFL’s Oakland Invaders issued cards.

Please remember: “Only you can prevent cardboard fires.”




Leaching on Rick Leach

Rick Leach

“Graybeards” — like myself — may remember when the nine-pocket, plastic storage pages first emerged on the scene. I discovered them in the early ‘80s and couldn’t wait to transfer my collection from boxes to binders. As with many innovative products, there are always kinks to be worked out. In this case, the type of plastic used (Polyvinyl chloride or PVC) was not ideal.

At risk of being eviscerated by chemistry experts in the vast blogosphere, I will attempt to explain what happens to PVC pages over time. Plasticizing agents (phthalates) — which makes PVC plastic soft and pliable — tend to leach out over time. This results in an oily film on the page that can adhere to the cards and may pull ink off when the card is removed. Additionally, the pages become stiff, wrinkled and stick together. Essentially, PVC plastic is returning to its normal, rigid state. Hard sleeves are usually made from PVC plastic and are fine for long term storage.

I recently acquired a complete 1981 Fleer set in pages. Perhaps the reason this set sold so cheaply was the undisclosed fact that the pages were PVC. I don’t see any obvious discoloration or damage to the cards, but of course this set is notorious for having dark, blurry photos to start with.

PVC Side-load

If leaching chemicals wasn’t quirky enough, the early pages were side-loaders.   The first two rows required pushing cards in from the right and the last row from the left. Cards tended to spill out, so top- loaders soon became standard.

Modern Side-loader

By the way, side-loaders are still available. I found this out by purchasing two boxes without stopping to read the small print. The modern pages are tighter, so the cards don’t move. It is difficult to load them after decades of putting cards in from the top. The side-loaders are a solution for the odd sized disc cards, since they fit in with only a small edge sticking out, though they tend to slide out.

Odd Page Sizes

Another oddity associated with the early pages was the variation in size. The differing dimensions offered by various companies could result in a mishmash of pages in a single binder. Plus, the three ring holes didn’t always line up.

Fleer Stickers 2

I still have a few cards and stickers in PVC pages. For instance, my early ‘70s Fleer stickers are still entombed in PVC, since the sticky nature of the pages may pull the stickers loose from the backing. Also, I recently discovered some miscellaneous Mariners singles from the ‘90s still in PVC.

We should all sing the praises of Ultra Pro and their standard sized pages made from non-leaching polyethylene. Remember, we all enjoy “better collecting through chemistry.”


The Express Expressed Exponentially

When conditions are optimal, a perfect storm may form. Three decades ago, the collision of an athlete at his peak and the excesses of the “Junk Wax” card era resulted in a “Texas tornado” cutting a swath across the cardboard landscape.

The legendary, laconic Texan, Nolan Ryan, was at the height of fame from the early eighties to the end of his career in ’93. (I attended his final game, played at the Kingdome.) This coincided with the emergence of new card companies in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, all of which needed product lines. Ryan was the perfect subject for numerous “odd ball” and promotional card sets. Over 30 different sets featuring the “Express” would find their way into the hobby


The first company to cash in on the Ryan phenomenon was Star, who introduced a 24-card set in ’86. They follow up with 11 card sets in ’89 and ’90. The cards have simple designs with white backs featuring stats and highlights. Only one card out of the three sets show Nolan on the Mets.


Next in the “shoot” are two postcard sets consisting of 12 cards each in ’90 and ’91. The postcards were distributed under the name “Historic Limited Edition” and all featured original art work from Susan Rini. Since the company produced 10,000 sets each year, their definition of limited is questionable.


In my humble opinion, the best of the lot was produced by Mother’s Cookies, which included four different cards in the cookie bags in ’90 and four more in ’91. They returned with a eight card “No-Hitters” set in ’92 and culminated with 10 cards in ’93. The design follows the Mother’s template: simple design, excellent photography and a glossy finish. I have a few of these from each series


Donruss teamed up with Coca-Cola in ’92 to issue a 26-card career retrospective set distributed in 12-packs of Coke products. I collected these at the time and have 12 different cards.


Classic cards chimed in with a 10-card set in ‘91 that resembles all of their “crap” cards of the era.

Barry Colla

Other Ryan sets were issued by Spectrum, Barry Colla, Whataburger, Bleachers 23K. ‘95 MLB All-Star Fan Fest and Classic Metal Impressions. Also, Upper Deck produced a mini-set within the “Heroes” issue in ’91.


By any definition, this number of sets is excessive. But one company, Pacific Trading Cards, ‘jumped the shark.” The Seattle area company produced a 222 card, two series set in ’91. Add to that, a ’93 Nolan Ryan Limited regular and gold issues, plus a special 30 card box set called: “Texas Express.” But wait, there’s more. Pacific teamed with Advil — for whom Ryan was a spokesman — to produce a set in ’96.


Producing hundreds of cards for the same player results in mind-numbing repetitiveness. Even throwing in cards depicting Nolan on a horse, with other animals and his family doesn’t break up the monotony.

The next time you curse the Aaron Judge card explosion, remember how Ryan’s “heater” caused a “junk wax” era meltdown.


Fox and Friends

In 1964 Topps tried to “pull a fast one” by putting Nellie Fox’s picture on the back of Roy McMillan’s 1964 “Giant.”  In this wonderful set, McMillan is on the Mets and Nellie is wrapping up his Hall-of-Fame career with the Colt ‘45s.

Mccmillan BackFox Back

Each “Giant” card has a black and white action photo on the back accompanying the text of a career highlight. A close examination of the grainy images-taken seconds apart-distinctly shows the “short and squat” body of Fox, along with his signature “chaw” of tobacco distending his cheek in both photos. The one on the McMillan card captures the Texas flag emblem and distinctive stirrup striping worn by Houston. Plus, Roy’s signature glasses are nowhere to be found. The .45s insignia and the Houston jersey script on the Fox card “seals the deal.” Finally, the photos must be from ’64 since Nellie was still playing for the White Sox in ’63.

As Mark Armour pointed out in his informative blog post on the ’64 large format cards, the series was not issued until late summer. This means the players’ photos are all up-to-date, and several of the photos on the back are from the ’64 season. The photos on the McMillan and Fox cards appear to be taken on August 1st at Shea Stadium.


The exact game can be pinpointed based on the identity of the sliding runner, who’s wearing number 15 on his pinstriped uniform. The Mets, Cubs and Phillies were the only NL clubs to wear pinstripes in ’64. This is not a Phillies player, since they had extra-large numbers in that era. Leo Burke wore 15 for the Cubs, but was not involved in a play at second with Fox. Thus, the runner must be Mets pitcher Al Jackson.

In the third inning of a day game on Saturday, August 1, Jackson singled off Hal Brown and was subsequently erased at second on double play ball hit by Bobby Klaus. The two photos show Fox turning the “twin killing.”

By the way, the Mets beat the Colt .45’s 3 to 2 with Jackson tossing a complete game. McMillan started at shortstop for the Mets, so the photographer had multiple opportunities to snap a photo of Roy.

It is conceivable that the photos are from a ’64 spring training game. Until proven otherwise, I’m going with the “tilt” played at the brand new “Big Shea.”


“Ersatz Irks Katz” OR “Topps Baits Boomers”


At the risk of further alienating the esteemed collectors who look askance at the ersatz nature of Topps Heritage, I will examine the 1968 inspired posters found in the 2017 Heritage set. This ties directly to my last post on the original, large posters. Incidentally, Mark Armour noted that I was wrong in asserting that the 9-3/4” X 18-1/8” ’68 posters were Topps largest product. The ’69 team posters have this distinction at 11-1/4” x 19-3/4”.


The 40 different 2017 Heritage posters were released as “Box Toppers.” There are 20 posters in both the base and high number sets. 50 copies were produced for each poster and randomly placed in Hobby Boxes. Thus, the posters are rare, which is reflected by the current prices on eBay and COMC.

My favorite aspect of this retro release are the vintage players. Twelve prominent players from 50 years ago are found amongst mix of modern stars. Frank Robinson, Carl Yastrzemski, Al Kaline and Henry Aaron- who appear in the ’68 set — are reprised in 2017. The 1968 NL Rookie of the Year, Johnny Bench, as well as defending World Champions Lou Brock and Steve Carlton are included as well.

The modern player posters follow the lead of the Heritage cards by mimicking the vintage Topps’ posed, portrait style. The lineup includes many of today’s greats including: Lindor, Cory Seager, Bryce Harper, Joey Votto and Yoenis Cespedes.

Like many of the Heritage inserts and subsets, Topps did not include a poster for each team, as they did in ’68. For instance, my Seattle Mariners got “hosed” again. Obviously, Cano, Cruz and Hernandez are not as worthy of inclusion as players from “back east” or “Tinsel Town.” As Howard Cosell once said: “I’m not bittah.” I’m simply sticking up for “my boys.”

69 Angels Poster

2018 Topps Heritage Hobby Boxes include modern versions of the ’69 team posters. I’ve yet to see a Mariners, but if one appears, I may drink the Topps “nostalgia Kool-Aid.”




Man Without Portfolio


Fifty years ago, Topps produced its largest product in scale: the 9-3/4” X 18-1/8” baseball posters. It was very unusual for non-base card products to find their way to my small hometown in Washington State. The various “test issues,” stickers, tattoos etc. were all distributed in larger markets. So, I pounced on the opportunity to collect the posters.


Since most of you are familiar this product, I will just refresh your memory on a few points. The set is comprised of 24 posters with each team represented. Boston, St. Louis, Houston and Minnesota have two players each. The posters were sold in individual wax packs — folded four times — with a stick of gum-for a nickel.

Due to the large, irregular size of the posters, displaying and storing them is problematic. Binder sleeves don’t exist in this large of a size and standard photo albums are too small as well. At card shows, I’ve seen the posters “shrink wrapped” to cardboard, but this is not a great solution for storage.


Until last week, my posters remained folded and stored in a box. Then, my wife purchased an art portfolio for some photographs. The label listed the various dimensions offered by the company. So, I purchased a 13’ X 19,” 24-page portfolio, which is perfect for the posters.


As you can see, the sleeves come with a black paper in each. Since the posters have blank backs, a total of 48 items can be displayed.


Many of you may have experienced the posters tearing along the fold lines. This is very difficult to prevent, particularly if the poster has remained folded for 50 years.


As a kid, I took the slogan on the wrapper to heart and hung some of them on the wall. The Mantle and Frank Robinson are not in the best shape.


The Jim Lonborg poster may be my favorite. The reigning Cy Young award winner is shown at Fenway Park. Perhaps the photo was taken during the same session held before the game in which Tony Conigliaro was beaned by Jack Hamilton.

The poster series is a who’s who of baseball of the era. Twelve Hall-of-Famers and Pete Rose are present as well as outstanding players such as Richie (Dick) Allen and Rusty Staub. Only Ron Swoboda and Max Alvis don’t make the star grade.

72 Mays-Jenkins

Topps reprised the standalone poster in ’72, with a slightly smaller version. I have 12 of the 24 posters, which I achieved in the portfolio as well. Of course, now I’m inspired to complete the set- Yastrzemski and Rick Wise are on the way.

I’ll end with a rumination. Half of a century has passed since I first collected the posters. It’s very pleasing to me that I finally figured out how to display and store them properly. But, damn! I’m getting old.

“Floating Head” Coaches

The 1960 Topps set contains a unique subset: team coaches. Unlike ’73 and ’74 where the coaches appear on the manager’s card, in 1960 they were given special cards all their own. Topps went with the “floating head” design against a blank background. Depending on the team, there are three or four coaches on each. The backs provide brief biographical information. As with the managers in ’60, the cards are vertical, while the player cards have a horizontal design. Here is a look at some of the erstwhile “lieutenants.”


The Yankees card features several familiar faces, including Hall-of-Famer and former Bronx Bombers manager Bill Dickey. Ralph Houk — who will replace Casey Stengel in ’61 — will win back-to-back World Series titles in ’61 and ’62. Former ace hurler, Eddie Lopat, will come and go through Charlie Finley’s revolving door in KC as manager in ’63-’64. Of course, Yankee legend, Frank Crosetti, will be immortalized by serving as the Seattle Pilots third base coach.


The Cubs Elvin Tappe and Lou Klein were part of the ill-fated “College of Coaches” experiment the Cubs implemented from ’61-’65. Tappe was “head coach” on three occasions. Klein was the last head coach in ‘65 before Wrigley brought in Leo Durocher to serve as solo manager.


“Tall” Paul Richards apparently loved having Luman Harris around. Here he is as one of Richards’ coaches in Baltimore. When Paul took over as GM of the expansion Colt .45s in ’62, Lum came along to Houston and would eventually replace Harry Craft as manager. As Atlanta GM in ’68, Richards hired Harris to be Braves skipper.

Champs Celebrate

Topps gave Dodgers pitching coach, Joe Becker, some serious exposure in ’60. Not only is he on the coach card, but Joe is shown being dowsed with beer on the World Series celebration card.


Two skippers in waiting — Johnny Keane and Harry “The Hat” Walker — are found on the Cardinals coaches card. Of course, Keane will take the reins of the Red Birds and lead them to the ’64 championship. Walker will guide the Pirates and Astros with mixed results.


The Indians card features future Hall-of-Famer, Bob Lemon. He will manage the Royals, White Sox and, most famously, the ’78 World Champion Yankees. Also, the card has PCL and Seattle Rainiers legend Jo Jo White, who will serve as the Tribe’s interim manager for exactly one game in ’60.


1960 is the last year of the original American League Washington Senators before they depart for Minnesota. Coach Sam Mele will head to the mid-west with the club and eventually supplant Cookie Lavagetto as Twins manager. Sam will win the AL pennant in ’65.

Red Sox

I will leave you with a look at the Red Sox coaches simply because of Sal Maglie. The “Barber” will direct the hill staff of the ’67 “Impossible Dream” team and be remembered for advising his Seattle Pilots hurlers to “smoke ‘em inside.”

By my count, 19 of the coaches featured on the 16 cards would go on to manage or had managed at least one game in the majors.