The 1954 Topps Guide to Life

How many times have you heard someone say, “Hey, life doesn’t come with an instruction manual?” Well, imagine my surprise when I actually found one last week! And not just any instruction manual but one with a vintage baseball card theme!

I’m referring of course to “The 1954 Topps Guide to Life: Beating the Odds, Getting the Girl, and Making the Team.” (Order here.)

As advertised the book was filled with great advice for ball-playing youngsters, and—even better—illustrated the various tips with baseball cards from the 1954 Topps set.

According to the book, 27 of the 250 cards in the 1954 Topps set have cartoons about players bouncing back from tough injuries. These cards offer a lesson in resilience.

For best results read these on a big screen rather than a teeny tiny phone.

Closely related to bouncing back from injury is bouncing back from failure. The trick, the book suggests, is to have a backup plan.

Though some of it might feel old fashioned to the modern reader, the book also offered advice on love and marriage.

There were also tips on dealing with rejection, which was the theme of six cards in the set.

Fittingly for a book that centered around advice, there is a section on accepting help from others.

Building a positive work ethic was the focus of 11 cards in the 1954 Topps set.

Coming off two recent wars there was of course a chapter on our men in uniform.

Alright, by now you’ve probably figured out there is no book. At the same time, there could have been. The 1954 Topps set was one where nearly every card seemed to moralize, educate, or motivate. Just do what your baseball cards tell you, son, and you’ll turn out just fine.

Oh, wait a minute. A reader has just stopped by, and he doesn’t look happy.

“Not a real book?!?!? NOT A REAL BOOK?!? Are you freaking kidding me, Jason?”

“Hey now, take it easy. It was all in good fun here. Put the bat down. No need for this to escalate…uh oh…this is getting serious. Okay, think, Jason, think. WWPMD? What would Paul Minner do?

UNCOMMON COMMON: Ernie Barnes

Author’s note: This is the second post in a series highlighting “common players” with stories far richer than the value of their trading cards. The first post in the series profiled Dave Hoskins and can be found here.

The common understanding of the term “Renaissance Man” is of someone with many talents or areas of knowledge. Ernie Barnes fits this description. Less correct but truer to the origin of the word renaissance would be a man reborn. Ernie Barnes fits this description too.

“Song of Myself”

Raised in segregated Durham, North Carolina, Barnes was chubby, nonathletic, and bullied by his Hillside High School classmates. He mainly kept to himself and drew in his sketchbook to pass the time. Tommy Tucker, a teacher at the school, noticed the drawings and took an interest in Barnes. A bodybuilder, Tucker sold Barnes on the positive impact weightlifting could have on his life. By the time he graduated, Barnes was state champion in the shotput and captain of the football team. He also had scholarship offers to 26 colleges.

“Sunday’s Hero”

At North Carolina College, Ernie Barnes played tackle and center on the football team while majoring in art. As a kid, despite his interest, Barnes was never able to visit the North Carolina Museum of Art. Blacks were not allowed. In college, however, Barnes made a trip to the recently desegregated museum with one of his art classes. The answer when Barnes asked where he could find paintings by Negro artists? “Your people don’t express themselves that way.”

“Friendly Friendship Baptist Church”

Twenty-three years the work of Ernie Barnes would fill this same museum, and today his work hangs in Halls of Fame, top galleries, art museums, and the homes of the art world’s top collectors. If you love Motown and grew before everything was digital, there’s a good chance you even have an Ernie Barnes sitting in your music collection.

“Sugar Shack” painting used for Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You” album cover

You might even have several!

That’s great, Jason, but what does all this have to do with baseball cards? Well, let me at least bring it back to sports.

“Fast Break”

Barnes was selected in the 8th round of the NFL draft by the Washington Redskins, but his Redskins career lasted only a few minutes. Then the team found out Barnes was black. Two rounds later, the Baltimore Colts called his name but ultimately cut Barnes at the end of training camp. In 1960 Barnes played five games with the Titans of New York, who later became the Jets.

“Football Pileup”

Barnes spent the 1961 and 1962 seasons as a San Diego Charger and the following two seasons with the Denver Broncos. Barnes never approached All-Pro status or even started a game, though he picked up the nickname “Big Rembrandt” for the sketches he did during games, including in huddles.

I suspect when you think of football players turned actors, Barnes is not the first to come to mind.

“O.J. Simpson” (1984)

Nonetheless, Barnes acted in numerous television shows and movies, highlighted by his portrayal of Josh Gibson in the 1981 Satchel Paige biopic “Don’t Look Back.”

There is another connection Ernie Barnes has to baseball, one shared with me by Lawrence “Dan” D’Antignan, owner of Chicago’s historic Woodshop, longtime institution and early commercial epicenter of African American art.

As Dan tells it, his wife had made a trip to Los Angeles to meet with Ernie Barnes and discuss the selling of his work when the meeting was interrupted by a woman hoping to show off the work of her teenage son who 100% lived up to the hype.

Perhaps you’ve tasted the back of some of his artwork…

Or been greeted by it at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City…

“Safe at Home” (2005)

There’s also a very good chance you’ve run across his book.

Of course, you didn’t come here to read about Kadir Nelson or even art! You want CARDS! Well, luckily I aim to please.

While an Ernie Barnes painting would easily set you back five figures if not six, it turns out any motivated collector can add an Ernie Barnes to his or her collection for the price of a bad ham sandwich.

As the title to this post suggests, Ernie Barnes, one of the great artists of the 20th century and an absolute icon in the African American art world, is a mere “common player, starting at around $2 on COMC and eBay.

1964 Topps Football card #48

Common though he is in the price guides, Ernie Barnes is the only man on the set’s 176-card checklist certain to remain relevant not just decades but centuries from now. Somewhere in a museum a young visitor will ask the docent where the works by African Americans are kept. And then, long, long after all 11 Hall of Famers in the 1964 Topps set have faded from memory, the visitor will happen upon an Ernie Barnes and neglect the rest of the day’s plans for a brush with greatness.

“Hook Shot” (1971)

There is only one Willie Mays

Here is a card, like most cards, with a story to it. You might expect it’s a story about Willie Mays. In fact, it’s a story about everyone not Willie Mays.

43-464Fr.jpg
1959 Topps “Baseball Thrills” #464

At least a few of us remember the play like it was yesterday. The hitter has some power, but the centerfielder chooses to play him shallow. Even before bat meets ball, the fielder knows one of two things is about to happen: extra bases or the greatest catch of his life.

9106-427Fr.jpg
1961 Nu-Card Scoops #427

He quickly turns and by the time the crack of the bat is heard he is in a dead sprint only stealing a quick glance back to ensure the ball’s trajectory matches the path in his head.

318-579530RepFr
1993 Upper Deck “Baseball Heroes” #47

Winning a race of man against ball is not an easy thing—the laws of physics might even suggest it’s impossible—but after what feels like he’s run a city block the fielder reaches up with his glove, still with his back to the plate, and somehow snatches the bullet of a baseball from the air. They say seeing is believing, but almost nobody watching even believes what they just witnessed. Of course, the play was not even over.

9072-17Fr
1994 Upper Deck “All-Time Heroes” #17

Still in full stride, the fielder brings his glove arm down toward his body where in an event nearly as improbable as the grab itself his right knee hits his right elbow full force and pops the ball from glove to ground.

Snodgrass

I was 16 and had been planning, waiting, and training years for the perfect fly ball—playing everyone shallow to up the odds—and it finally came, for the last and only time of my life. My friend Robert and fate itself had gotten the better of me.

Some of our cards are just cards, but others are memories. This past week I finally picked up a card I’d always wanted. When I opened the envelope I was no longer in my office at my desk. I was at Palisades Park young, fast, free, and for a brief 6-7 seconds the great Willie Howard Mays, that instant before I learned for damn sure there could be only one.

with card

P.S. In a bit of cardboard clairvoyance, THREE of Willie’s 1954 baseball cards (Bowman, Red Man, Topps) referenced a web gem nearly identical to “The Catch!”

mays-1954.jpg

P.P.S. Fans of the “Say Hey Kid” will also enjoy this set of posts from SABR President Mark Armour.

Super Asymmetry meets Play Ball

Author’s note: I suspect what I’m presenting here must have been obvious to the collectors of the day. However, any record of it seems to have gone unpublished. I am hopeful that I am sharing something new and interesting to our readership, but feel free to let me know in the comments if this is more “knew” than “new!”

My previous Cardboard Crosswalk examined the 1941 Play Ball set’s connections to its 1940 predecessor. As I researched and wrote the piece, it was only a passing thought that the 1939 debut offering would contribute anything essential to the story, so I was happy to save the 10+ hours of work any deeper look would provide. It certainly didn’t occur to me that the connection between the 1939 and 1940 set might be the single most unusual and interesting connection between any two baseball card sets ever produced.

Here, then, is the story of an incredible secret, perfectly hidden in the one place nobody would ever think to look: in plain sight.

Williams and DiMaggio

We’ll start the story with the two top cards in the 1939 set, shown here with their 1940 follow-ups.

Williams and Joe D.jpg

There is a nice asymmetry to the four cards. As Williams moves from an action pose to a portrait, DiMaggio does just the opposite.

For collectors undecided as to whether they prefer portraits vs action poses, it might seem fortuitous to end up with one of each. The secret of the sets, however, is that there is no happy accident here. This asymmetry is THE defining feature of the 1939-40 Play Ball sets! Let’s take a closer look.

Repeated players

The 1939 Play Ball set consists of 161 cards. (The cards are numbered to 162, but there is no card 126.) Of the 161 subjects featured in the set, 137 are repeated in the larger 240-card 1940 release.

As the graph below shows, these repeated players (red) came entirely from the first two-thirds of the set. Whereas most repeats from 1940 to 1941 reused photos, the opposite was true from 1939 to 1940. Of the 137 repeated subjects, only 11 (yellow) reused the previous year’s photos.

1940 art repeats

The other 126 (92%) used new photos. It is these 126 slots on the checklist that will be our main focus from this point forward.

Starting off 24 for 24

Here are the first six such cards on the 1940 checklist. (All are Yankees as the 1940 checklist was largely organized by team.) Beneath each card is its 1939 counterpart.

Batch 1rev

The three action poses from 1940 correspond to three portraits from 1939 and vice versa: Super Asymmetry nearly 80 years before Drs. Cooper and Fowler even proposed the idea on the Big Bang Theory!

Now let’s head to the next 6 cards: 7-11 and 13. And look at that! For every portrait in 1940 an action shot in 1939 and vice versa. Super Asymmetry again!

Batch 2

We’ll pause here, having examined the first 12 repeated players in the 1940 set, to consider the odds of such an outcome having happened by chance alone. While more complicated modeling leading to even lower probabilities is possible, the simplest and best case scenario would be (1/2)^12 = 1/4096 ≈ 0.00024.

And now, onto the next 6 cards: 14-19. Perhaps you’re not even surprised at this point. The probability of asymmetry through the first 18 cards? One in 262,144!

Batch 3.jpg

Now here are cards 20-25. The probability by chance now drops to around 1 in 17 million!

Batch 4

Definitely not random!

By now I hope I’ve convinced you that the swapping between portraits and action poses for each player is no accident but a very intentional design feature of the set. I imagine there are two ways this arrangement could have come about.

  1. The photographer, George Burke, could have provided Gum Inc with two images of each player: a portrait and an action pose. Once one was chosen for the 1939 set, the other then became the default photo for the 1940 set.
  2. Alternately, Gum Inc could have been more intentional by either drawing an opposite pose from some larger collection of player photos or asking Burke to provide the opposite of whatever he’d provided the year before.

Either one of these approaches seems to require more planning, consideration, and expense than anything I would have thought possible at the time. It’s really quite remarkable. (And if you are dying to know which of these explanations is more likely, read on till the end. I have a good guess till someone debunks it in the comments!)

Before continuing through the set, I’ll also pause to comment on the connection (so far) between Super Asymmetry and the 1941 set. Granted there were not many players who made the checklists of all three Play Ball sets, but let’s consider those who did (e.g,. Williams, DiMaggio). Gum Inc had already provided both a portrait and an action pose. Were they to provide another portrait of Teddy Ballgame, they’d be copying 1940, and were they to provide an action pose, they at least broadly be copying 1939. The strategy they had employed to make 1940 as different as possible from 1939 had led them to a no-win situation for 1941.

Rather than accept defeat and go with one or the other, Gum Inc pulled the first (and perhaps only!) Kobayashi Maru of the trading card world. By moving to color, they ensured the 1941 series would look completely different from either of its predecessors regardless of whether portraits or posed action was used.

Two dozen more for good measure

Here are the next 24 repeated players, along with their 1939 counterparts.

Batch 5

Batch 6

Batch 7

Batch 8.jpg

Once again, each 1940 card shows the opposite pose of its predecessor from 1939. We are now a perfect 48 for 48. Perhaps you can predict the ending at this point.

Not so fast…

As the 1940-1941 crosswalk showed, a set can start out one way and finish another way. Indeed we will not go 126 for 126, which is why we are dealing with only Super Asymmetry rather than Perfect Asymmetry!

Before looking at the cards themselves, I’ll present an updated 1940 Play Ball checklist with nine new shaded cells corresponding to the set’s asymmetry exceptions, i.e., cards where either the 1939 and 1940 photos were both portraits or both action poses.

1940 corrected grid.gif

The seven green cells

First up is Pete Appleton, card 128, who moves from the Senators to the White Sox. (All seven green cell card will involve team changes.) As a side note useful to Appleton supercollectors, Pete Appleton began his big league career as Pete Jablonowski, the name used on his 1933 Goudey and 1934 Canadian Goudey cards.

Appleton

Lynn “Line Drive” Nelson, card 135, moves from the Athletics to the Tigers, where he certainly lived up to his nickname. Though his at bats were limited as a pitcher, he parlayed his famously low launch angle into a .348 batting average.

Nelson

Beau Bell, card 138 and French for Beautiful Beautiful, moves from the Tigers to the Indians in his two portraits poses.

Bell.jpg

Joe Vosmik, card 144, moves from the Red Sox to the Dodgers, a transfer camouflaged by the matching hats but revealed by the differing jerseys.

Vosmik.jpg

Pinky Shoffner, card 149, moves from the Braves to the Reds just in time to win the pennant.

Shoffner

Ray Hayworth, card 155, changes sides in the Big Apple’s crosstown rivalry.

Hayworth.jpg

Finally, imminent batting champ Debs Garms, card 161 and a featured player in the 1940-41 crosswalk, moves from the Bees to the Pirates.

Garms2.jpg

Our analysis of the 1940 Play Ball set would be ready to tie a bow around if not for two inconvenient cards, highlighted in blue on our checklist.

The two blue cells

Cards 150 and 151 in the 1940 set belong to Cincinnati players Whitey Moore and Eddie Joost, whose stat line upon moving to the A’s makes it look like he might have!

Blue Guys.jpg

As often happens in the research I do, I have no explanation at all for why these two players had portraits in each set. Looking back at the checklist, I suppose it’s possible that whoever was responsible for cards 143-151 simply didn’t get the memo, and I suppose it’s also possible that Gum Inc simply had no action shots available. At any rate, two is not a big number.

Final thoughts

I speculated earlier as to the two most likely explanations for this near-perfect pairing of portraits and action poses. I am ready now to narrow this down to the first of the two.

Let’s assume that the photographer, George Burke, initially took a portrait and action shot of each of the players in the 1939 set, that Gum Inc simply slotted one for 1939 and the other for 1940 as needed.

The one place this approach would fail to provide for the 1940 release would be if a player changed teams. In these cases the leftover photos would no longer be current enough to use. As we have just seen, eight of the ten exceptions to portrait-action pairs occur with players who did exactly that.

The next clue actually came at the very start of this article. (I know it’s bad form to end a Super Asymmetry article with this kind of symmetry, but sometimes it just happens.)

Williams and Joe D2.jpg

Folks I know who are good at such things tell me these photos of the Splendid Splinter and Yankee Clipper were taken in 1939. (Among the “evidence” presented: “Williams didn’t smile for the camera after 1939.”) If so then it’s easy to imagine a similar story for the other 135 repeated players in the 1940 set.

However, this is a case where the how and the why are less notable than the what. The near-perfect pairing of portraits and action poses is the main headline here as such a connection between the 1939 and 1940 Play Ball sets is something unseen before or after in the long history of the hobby. That this pairing could go unnoticed (or at least unpublished) all this time makes it that much more remarkable.

Appendix for the die-hards

Early in the article I mentioned that 11 of the repeated players in the 1940 set did not get new photos. For completeness, I wanted to at least show them. The first two, Chuck Klein and Gene Moore, appeared in the 1941 set with colorized versions (and uniform updates) of their 1939-40 photos. The other nine players were not part of the 1941 set at all, hence any variety in their cards was limited to black/white vs sepia, slight differences in zoom, and an occasional tilt.

1940  to 1941 same pics.jpg

Cardboard Crosswalk: 1940-41 Play Ball

A colorized version of 1940?

If you’ve collected or window shopped the colorful 1941 Play Ball set and it’s comparatively drab predecessor, I’m about to start with something you already know.

Here are the 15 Hall of Famers in the 1941 set.

1941 HOF.jpg

And here are their cards in the 1940 Play Ball set, minus Pee Wee Reese who did not crack the checklist. You may notice some similarities.

1940 PB

Aside from the color, some added background elements, and a different tilt to Lefty Gomez’s head, the images are identical. For this reason, the 1941 set is sometimes regarded as a colorization of the 1940 set. (Side note: I had a lot of fun making these!)

Foxx Hubbell.jpg

Not so fast!

Precisely because the only images from these sets truly burned in my retina are those of the Hall of Famers I was caught by surprise a couple weeks back when I saw these two cards of Babe Dahlgren. (Pro tip: His grandson is a great follow on Twitter.)

Dahlgren

Was a different picture really needed just to capture the Babe’s move from the Yankees to the Braves? That would have been odd since numerous contemporary sets managed to update a player’s team without need for a new photo. (See this article for a ton of examples or this article for the set I think did it best.) Or was it the case that I simply didn’t know the 1941 set as well as I thought I did? (Spoiler alert: Bingo!)

Detour

Before developing the answer further, I’ll take a quick detour to two famous sets from the previous decade. Here are the first 24 cards in the 1934 Goudey set.

1934 24.jpg

And here are the same players from the 1933 set. They should look very familiar.

1933 24.jpg

Were one to generalize from the first 24 cards in the set, one would suppose a great many of the remaining 72 cards in the 1934 set would reuse art from the prior year. Instead, zero did. Cards 1-24 were all repeats. Cards 25-96 were all new.

I can imagine the brain trust at Goudey thinking, “Hey, an all new set would be terrific, but it’d sure be nice to get something onto the shelves early…💡” (My longest–and some would say most heretical if not crackpot–article ever offers a more complicated theory on this.)

Returning to Play Ball, I wondered to what extent a similar rush-to-market image reuse strategy would characterize the first series and whether image reuse would all but disappear in the latter parts of the set. Sixteen and a half hours later…

Cards 1-24

The first 24 cards in the 1941 Play Ball set feature players from the 1940 set. In each case, the player image is derived from the 1940 Play Ball photo. In that respect, the set—at least so far—follows the precedent of the 1933-34 Goudey sets. None of the 24 players even change teams from one set to the other. The single biggest variation is with card 12, Jimmy Brown, who thanks to a zoom-out manages to (wait for it) regain his footing.

Brown.jpg

Another similarity to the 1934 Goudey first series is that the first 24 Play Ball cards are disproportionately packed with stars. Nine of the 15 Hall of Famer cards shown at the beginning of this post come from the set’s first quartile, including Carl Hubbell, Mel Ott, Jimmie Foxx, Ted Williams, and Hank Greenberg. (The corresponding count for 1934 Goudey series one is 13 out of 19.)

As Play Ball faced competition from both Goudey and National Chicle (Double Play) that year, it makes sense that they would want to front-load stars as a means of establishing early dominance. Then again, had they known the 1941 Goudey checklist in advance, they might have realized how little they needed to worry.

Cards 25-48

The first card in the middle third of the set introduced a bigger change than the previous 24 cards combined. Though both card backs put Gene Moore with the Boston National League squad (Bees in 1940, Braves in 1941), his 1940 card front has him in his old Brooklyn Dodgers uniform.

Moore

I’ll use the Gene Moore card to illustrate two quick points. For reference, his move from Brooklyn to Boston came on May 29, 1940.

  • The 1941 Moore card clearly shows that Gum Inc had the “technology” to update a guy’s team without taking a new picture. As such, the team change alone does not fully explain the reason a new Dahlgren photo was used.
  • The 1940 Moore card is a reminder that procuring updated photos (or manipulating photos) was harder back then than it is now. Even as the back of the card has Moore with Boston, the most recent photo available was a Brooklyn one. Meanwhile, the sets based on artistic renderings were much more able of adjusting player images on the fly.

Where the set really starts to change is at card 27, which starts a streak of 10 of 11 cards that use entirely new player photos. The graph below shows green for players with reused images, yellow for players with new images, and red for players altogether new to the set. Notice that cards 1-24 were all green (i.e., reused images).

1-48 analysis.JPG

As the graph shows, 11 repeated players scored brand new art. The first two of these, cards 27 and 28, along with their 1940 counterparts, are shown below.

Young.jpg

This middle third of the set also included two brand new players: Al Brancato (43) and Sid Hudson (46). As with cards 1-24, not a single player in 25-48 changes teams from his previous Play Ball card.

One player whose card may require a double-take is Buddy Lewis of the Washington Senators. Stare at his 1940 and 1941 Play Ball cards long enough, and you may just notice a subtle difference.

Lewis.jpg

Lest you wonder how the artist screwed up so bad in 1941, Lewis was a left-handed hitter, so the 1941 card is actually the correct one. The symmetry of the “W” logo on the hat and sleeve make this error more difficult to detect than most reversed negatives (e.g., 1957 Topps Hank Aaron, 1989 Upper Deck Dale Murphy)—so difficult that I was unable to find reference to it anywhere online or in the Standard Catalog. Could this be a SABR Baseball Cards blog scoop?! 📰 [UPDATE: Trading Card DB has now updated their 1940 Play Ball Buddy Lewis listing to include this UER. Thanks, guys!]

There are no Hall of Famers (unless you pronounce Jack Wilson with a Spanish accent) in this middle third of the set, though there were some players who were at the time considered stars. Still, whatever your metric for star power, cards 25-48 paled in comparison to cards 1-24.

Before proceeding to the final third of the 1941 set, I’ll note here that we may have already covered the entirety of the 1941 release. According to a Rich Mueller article in Sports Collectors Daily, only cards 1-48 were issued in 1941, with cards 49-72 added in 1942. (I struggle to wrap my head around this, particularly as it robs the 1941 issue of its most iconic card, but I’ve been wrong many times before!)

Cards 49-72

The final 24 cards in the set introduced significantly more new players than did the first 48. Most famous among the 8 new players was card 54, the rookie card of Harold “Pee Wee” Reese, but close behind Pee Wee are cards of the lesser two DiMaggio brothers: Vince (#61) and Dom (#63). As brother Joe was card 71 in the set, one-fourth of the final dozen cards in the set were DiMaggio cards!

49-72.JPG

This final series also introduced the only team changes (shown in blue) between 1940 and 1941—

  • Babe Dahlgren (49) – Yankees to Braves
  • Morrie Arnovich (57) – Phillies to Giants
  • Frank Demaree (58) – Giants to Braves
  • Jack Knott (68) – White Sox to Athletics

Interestingly, Dahlgren and Arnovich got new photos while Demaree and Knott did not. Aside from the Dahlgren/Arnovich cards, only one other player, Elbie Fletcher, received a total makeover.

Fletcher.jpg

By the end of this article, I hope to offer a credible explanation for what at the moment may present as two oddities of series three:

  • Why did two traded guys get new photos while two traded guys didn’t?
  • Why did Fletcher get a new photo?

Wish me luck!

An even closer look

Of the 72 cards in the 1941 Play Ball set, 10 are of brand new players, 48 repeat a 1940 player and his image, and 14 repeat a 1940 player but swap in a new image. Though it’s not immediately evident what it all means, an unexpected pattern emerges when the 48 photo repeats (blue) and 14 photo swaps (yellow) are plotted against the 1940 checklist.

1940 CHECKLIST.JPG

With only three exceptions, all the yellows are at the end of the set, and all the blues are at the beginning of the set. (Blue card 161 may be considered slightly out of place, and I’ll return to it later.) The three yellow exceptions are…wouldn’t you know it!…Dahlgren (3), Arnovich (97), and Fletcher (103)!

Traitors

The other 11 yellow cells, all of which sit neatly within a run of 32 cards near the end of the 1940 checklist, are pictured below, alongside their 1941 counterparts.

series two art swaps

Is there any pattern or common denominator behind these cards that suggests why these 11 (or 14 counting the oddball three) players were singled out for new photos? I will share a few things I don’t think it can be and then wrap up with my leading theory at the moment.

  • Rights and permissions to images – One reason to find a new photo would be if the permission to use certain photos did not extend into 1941. Perhaps Gum Inc never got around to securing rights to the photos in the final series of the 1940 set, hence was unable to use them in 1941. However, with the exception of certain retired stars, my belief is that all photos in the two sets came from the same photographer, George Burke. While this doesn’t completely preclude rights issues, it makes them less likely.
  • Damaged photos/negatives – Is it possible the original photographic sources that would supported image reuse in 1941 were somehow lost or destroyed? It’s always possible, but I would think the Plan B for that would be to choose different players rather than take new pictures of the impacted players.
  • No reason, just random – The non-random distribution of the blue vs yellow cells on the checklist convince me that randomness was not at play.

My best guess

Author’s note: What follows is largely speculative and quite long. It’s okay to skip it you came to SABR for Research with a capital R!

Following the mammoth 240-card release of 1940, I suspect Gum Inc saw little need to push out anything comparable in 1941. The 1940 cards had largely scratched the collecting itch of most young gum chewers, who might now rather spend their hard-earned pennies on cards of airplanes or Superman. Even with a colorful new design, ripping a 1941 Joe Krakauskas when you already had his 1940 card might feel like a penny wasted. As such, a much more modest offering would have felt more appropriate.

Naturally, selecting 72 random players from the 1940 checklist would have done little to boost the appeal of the new set. I believe the plan was to start with 48 cards (two series) reflecting the “best of” the 1940 set. These cards would constitute the core of the new set and be tolerated if not welcomed by collectors due to the colorized images and preponderance of top stars.

Selecting these 48 cards would be easy. Aside from retired greats, all the top players of the 1940 set could be found among the set’s low numbers (1-144). Selecting one third of those cards to reprise in 1941 was all that was needed to arrive at 48. There was only one small rub to the approach, which is that it would leave out the reigning National League batting champion.

“What the hell! No Debs Garms? You’ve gotta be kidding me! Stop what you’re doing and find a way to get a Garms into the set.”

That’s exactly what I picture some guy’s boss yelling upon seeing an early draft of the 1941 checklist. After all, how do you leave out a guy who just hit .355? And what do you do when your boss yells at you and you know he’s right? You go and get the Garms.

And this is how the 48 blue cells in the checklist came to include one lone high number, card 161, among them. Of course, adding Garms also meant subtracting someone else. I know it’s a convenient theory on my part, but I honestly believe THE thing you’d do is swap out a Pirates teammate. Get ready to be outraged, sabermetricians, but I would bet a lot that this is exactly how it went!

Sabermetric Heresy.jpg

We now have the core of the set, 48 players from the previous issue, colorized but otherwise unchanged in any significant way. Perhaps not to a man but at least broadly, these 48 could be construed as a “best of” or “top stars” reissue of the 1940 series. Maybe nobody wanted that second Joe Krakauskas, but they’d be okay with most of these guys.

From there, the brain trust at Gum Inc could take the set in a couple of different directions. Extending the same formula for another one or two series was certainly possible, but the talent pool would now be far thinner. The other approach would be to abandon the 1940 blueprint entirely and offer collectors something they didn’t already have.

First and foremost, that second strategy led to the introduction of ten brand new players who had not appeared at all in the 1940 set.

Rookies.JPG

Bronk, who had taken over shortstop duties for the A’s, was probably not a player kids would have killed for, but the other nine players were pretty legit at the time: all-stars, MVP vote getters, popular young rookies, brothers of the Yankee Clipper, etc. Without a doubt these players brought more star power than your average ten leftovers from the 1940 checklist, and of course there was the added bonus that these were good players kids didn’t already have from the year before.

The inclusion of these 10 newcomers left the set only 14 cards shy of completion. The 1940 low numbers had been cleaned out, top newcomers had been added, and there was only one reservoir of talent yet to be tapped: the largely low wattage 1940 high numbers. Retired immortals aside, pickings were somewhat slim, but on the bright side only 14 players were still needed, and really not even 14.

Here is what I believe went down in some Philly boardroom circa spring 1941.

  • Fletcher, fresh off his unceremonious dumping, was the first to make the cut.
  • Dahlgren and Arnovich, whose team changes offered an added jolt, joined the party.
  • And finally, the dreaded high numbers were scoured for another eleven players.

Realizing this last group brought the least sizzle on its own, a decision was made to spruce up this final fourteen with all new photos. And from there, the rest is history! (UPDATE: See Epilogue for an alternate theory that probably has this one beat.)

I can’t say I’d bet a million dollars that what I’ve just described is a 100% accurate depiction of how the 1941 Play Ball set was designed. It’s possible it’s not even 10% accurate. Either way, I will make sure you don’t regret reading all the way to the end of this post by rewarding you with perhaps the tastiest eye candy in the universe.

Williams and Joe D

Epilogue

Well this was unexpected. As it turns out, the follow-up article I wrote after this one helped me understand the 1941 set even better. If you don’t care to read the article, the short version is this:

  • The 1939 Play Ball set included a mix of portraits and action poses. Ditto for 1940.
  • Where a player had a portrait in 1939 he got an action pose in 1940 and vice versa.
  • The result was across the two sets nearly every player got a portrait and an action pose.
  • For each of these players, I suspect both photos were taken in 1939, with the one not used on the 1939 card set aside for the following year.

Back to the article at hand, you’ll recall this graphic from near the end. These were the 11 players from the 1940 high numbers who ended up with new photos in the 1941 set. However, there is another thing these 11 players have in common.

Rollie Marty.jpg

Of all the players in the 1940 high numbers and the 1941 set, these are the only players who are not in the 1939 set. That by itself is kind of neat. But of course there’s more. Take notice of how many of these players have both a portrait and an action shot across the two sets.

Just as (I speculate) George Burke shot portraits and action shots in 1939 for each player in the 1939 checklist, I suspect he did the same in 1940 for any newcomers to the 1940 checklist. If so, what we are seeing in nine of these eleven cards from 1941 is the leftover shot not used in 1940.

So perhaps the reason for the new photos on these 11 cards is what I initially proposed in this article—i.e., that Gum Inc wanted to spruce up what might otherwise be the most boring cards in the whole set. I am now more inclined to believe that the use of the new photos was simply because Gum Inc had the photos and hadn’t already used them anywhere else.

I’ll close the epilogue with a few notables that come only from looking at all three sets together. First, here are the only two players (of 45 total) appearing in all three sets who ended up with the same photo every time. The first is a familiar name, and the second was introduced in the “Cards 25-48” section of this post.

Klein Moore.jpg

And on the flip side, here are the only players with three different photos across the three sets, referred to earlier in this article as the “yellow exceptions.”

1939-41 three guys.jpg

I’d better stop now before the epilogue grows even longer than the post!

The Rogers Hornsby hiding in your 1978 Topps set

The year of hitting dangerously

If you’re my age you remember the season well. It seemed like everywhere you looked there was a 12-10 score, balls were flying out of the park, and entire teams were flirting with .400. No, this wasn’t the steroid era, the early 1930s, or 1894, though it could have been. It was 1978, I was eight years old, and the game was Play Ball, Played by Two—just as often “played by one” in my house.

Well start with the right way to play, even if it wasn’t the way most kids wanted it to work. The rules of the game were printed on 30 of the 726 card backs in the set.

1978 Topps #173 Robin Yount Back

PLAY BALL.” Played by two. PLAYER HAS 50 PLAYER CARDS. TOSS COIN FOR WHO GOES FIRST. FIRST PLAYERS TURNS CARDS OVER ONE AT A TIME, ATTEMPTING TO SCORE RUNS UNTIL 3 OUTS HAVE BEEN MADE. AFTER 3 OUTS, SECOND PLAYER BEGINS GAME. GAME IS PLAYED WITH 9 INNINGS. IN CASE OF TIE, PLAY EXTRA INNINGS.”

As much as my friends and I would have preferred a Dodgers-Yankees World Series rematch, there was of course a problem in abandoning the Topps rules to play the match-up of your choice. It wasn’t just that Steve Garvey would come to bat in the first inning with two on, two out, and end the inning with a ground out. It was Steve Garvey could do nothing but ground out all season long.

1978 Topps #350 Steve Garvey Back

Sure, Steve Garvey, Ron Cey, Dusty Baker, and Reggie Smith had just made history in 1977 by all hitting 30+ home runs. When it came to Play Ball, they would go a combined 0 for 2400 on the year. Topps either hated the Dodgers, or they really wanted you to play the game right.

But what the heck does any of this have to do with Rogers Hornsby?

If you did play the game right, it was a completely different story. Of the 726 cards in the 1978 Topps set, 610 had Play Ball outcomes:

  • 134 SINGLES
  • 29 DOUBLES
  • 13 TRIPLES
  • 39 HOME RUNS
  • 68 BASES ON BALLS
  • 102 GROUND OUTS
  • 135 FLY OUTS
  • 40 FOUL OUTS
  • 49 STRIKEOUTS
  • 1 STRIKE UT 😉

1978 Topps #298 Tony Armas Back

Provided each player’s Play Ball stack is randomly chosen from the Topps set, the result is a lineup where the average hitter’s stat line was quite remarkable. (Phone readers, consider landscape for these stat lines.)

Stat Line

Believe it or not, the typical Play Ball player saw even better offense than this! After all, how many Play Ballers drew their lineups from complete sets of 726? More often, Play Ballers simply grabbed unsorted stacks from their collections or the cards from their last 3-4 packs. As such, the 51 double-printed cards in the 1978 set with Play Ball outcomes exerted twice the normal impact on the Play Ball probability space, leading to this DP-adjusted set of outcomes.

Stat Line with DP

If that .398 average with 43 home runs looks crazy, it should. MLB’s .390/40 club doesn’t have a lot of members. The most recent member is Babe Ruth, whose 1923 season (.393 average, 41 HR) earned him a spot. Of course, the Bambino drew nearly 100 more walks than our Play Ball composite. The .390/40 club has another member though, and he joined the club the year before.

Rogers Hornsby won the National League Triple Crown in 1922 with an eye-popping .401 batting average, 42 home runs, and 152 runs batted in. The Rajah had 148 singles that year. Play Ball had 146. The Rajah had 14 triples that year. So did Play Ball. The home runs of course differed by 1, and none of the four elements of the Rajah’s .401/.459/.722/1.181 slash line differed from Play Ball by more than half a percent. Within just a smidgen of round-off error, Play Ball was 1922 Rogers Hornsby.

Hornsby sketchpad

So yes, Topps really wanted you to follow the rules. Break the rules, and your four best hitters go 0 for 2400. Follow the rules, and your lineup is nine Rajahs!

Hornsby would crack the 1979 Topps checklist in earnest, just as he had in 1961 and 1976, and each of these cards no doubt gave kids a thrill out of the pack. However, 1978 is without a doubt the season that the Rajah most made his presence felt. Even without a card in the set, his 1922 season haunted every living room, bedroom, classroom, and school bus ride where Play Ball was played.

Hornsby cards.jpg

More on Play Ball

As the Garvey example illustrates, there was no effort on the part of Topps to associate the best outcomes with the best hitters. Of the 39 “Home Run” cards, the most prolific slugger in the bunch was Rick Monday, though Bombo Rivera at least possessed a great slugger name. Other notable home run Play Ballers included Nolan Ryan, Jim Palmer, and a man who caught baseball’s most famous home run.

1978 Topps #643 Tom House Back

Now I know most readers of this site like to play things fair and square, but let’s just say you really, really needed to win at Play Ball. Don’t say I told you, but yes, there are ways to make it happen.

Untitled.jpg

  • STEP ONE: Grab the Topps Super Sports Card Locker where I know you keep your set.
  • STEP TWO: Say to your friend, “Hey, I know you love the Big Red Machine. How about if you take the Reds and Braves, and I’ll take the Angels and Rangers. (This should be enough to net around 50 cards each, but if your set is short add the Giants or Twins to your friend’s stack, and add the Orioles or Jays to yours.)
  • STEP THREE: Play Ball!

The key to this approach is how unbalanced the Play Ball outcomes are by team. Here is a comparison of the Reds/Braves and Angels/Rangers.

Stats by Team.JPG

A variant on this strategy that’s perhaps less suspicious but still effective is to take American Leaguers over National Leaguers whenever you have a choice. Or you could just play fair and square. That’s fun too.

I could spend all day providing insights and analysis on the Play Ball card backs of 1978 Topps. However, knowing I am in the company of a number of fellow researchers I thought I’d do something different here.

For the first time in the history of the internet, I am publishing full Play Ball data and making it available to all readers of this blog—no paywall or anything. Enjoy, and I look forward to the varied and interesting research that will come from this treasure trove of data.

CLICK HERE FOR COMPLETE 1978 TOPPS PLAY BALL DATA

 

Cardboard Crosswalk: 1954 Topps and 1954 Bowman

Author’s note: The “Cardboard Crosswalk” series aims to compare and contrast different baseball card sets. Earlier installments can be found here and here. Also note that SABR author Don Zminda compares these same two 1954 sets as part of his “Back Story” series.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”

Charles Dickens, “A Tale of Two Cities”

In short, it was 1954, and Brooklyn and Philadelphia were at war—not for the National League pennant but rather for the hearts and pocket change of the young gum chewers and cardboard flippers who would spend their pennies and nickels with one or the other.

1954 Topps

Brooklyn was the home of Topps, whose third major baseball release featured 250 cards, a terrific new dual-image design, and not one but two cards of the Greatest %&*$@ Hitter Who Ever Lived.

Williams

1954 Bowman

Philadelphia was the home of Bowman, whose penultimate vintage release would feature 224 cards, lackluster player images, and—just barely—a single card of the Greatest %&*$@ Hitter Who Ever Lived.

ted bowman

A war on two fronts

The story of the Bowman Ted Williams card is the story of a second war, the war for player contracts. While the Splendid Splinter had appeared in the 1950 and 1951 Bowman issues and even launched his cardboard career in Warren Bowman’s 1939 “Play Ball” set, history and loyalty didn’t pay the rent.

Image result for 1954 topps baseball cards box

Teddy Ballgame was a Topps man now, and Bowman was forced to replace his card with that of teammate Jimmy Piersall early in the release of its first series. Of course, Bowman had its own stable of enviable exclusives, including Mickey Mantle and some other pretty good players.

bowman exclusives

While it’s the Hall of Famers in the sets who attract most of the collector interest, the competition for players went well beyond the top stars of the game. For this Cardboard Crosswalk, we’ll take a much broader look at who went where and hopefully learn some new things along the way.

Analyzing the sets

Using the term “subjects” generically to include players, managers, coaches, and the O’Brien twins, there were 389 different subjects represented in the two sets. The Venn diagram below shows their distribution. (Figures don’t sum to total cards in set due to two Williams cards in the Topps set and two Piersall cards in the Bowman set.)Venn.JPG

We should be careful not to assume that the 165 “Topps only” subjects and the 140 “Bowman only” subjects were all under exclusive contracts. After all, there certainly would have been marginal players who either company may have omitted by choice. As for the 84 subjects in the “both” section of the diagram, it is probably a fair assumption that Ted Williams was the only one under an exclusive contract.

This next figure shows the distribution of players common to both sets within the Bowman set. Though there are some streaks and gaps evident, the distribution of players toward the beginning of the set largely matches the distribution toward the end. Series One more or less looks like Series Two. (If you are reading on your mobile device, you may need to go landscape mode here.)

BOWMAN DOT GRAPH

When we generate a similar plot for Topps, the result is a very different one, and the differences will form the basis for most of this article.

TOPPS DOT GRAPH.jpg

In the first half of the Topps set, 55 of 125 cards are “Topps only.” In the second half, 110 of the 125 cards— almost 90% of them—are “Topps only.” This is too big a difference to be explained by randomness alone. Absent any deeper look, the data suggest one of two possibilities:

  1. Either the Topps exclusive contracts were secured so late in the process that cards of the players were not ready until Series Three, or
  2. Bowman locked so many players up that Topps was forced to cobble together the second half of its set largely from Bowman’s unwanted scraps

Under scrutiny, the second hypothesis appears to hold up much better than the first. Two quick clues come from an examination of coach cards and rookie cards. A less quick but equally telling clue will come from an examination of star players in the set.

Coaches

While the Bowman set included a limited number of managers, it did not include any cards of coaches. That left coaches ripe for the picking by Topps. In the first half of its set Topps included cards of three coaches: Bob Swift (Tigers), Bob Scheffing (Cubs), and Billy Herman (Dodgers). The second half included 19!

Rookies

As for rookies, the Bowman set featured only 14 of them, leaving a lot of rookies up for grabs. In the first half of its set, Topps included 15 rookies, two of whom were also in the Bowman set: Harvey Kuenn and Dick Cole. Meanwhile, the second half of the Topps set featured 52 rookies, none of whom were in the Bowman set!

Star power, part one

The first and second halves of the Topps set are also quite different when it comes to star power. However, I need to emphasize that I don’t mean Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Al Kaline, or other Hall of Famers who are huge today but would have been near unknowns when the 1954 season kicked off. Rather, I’m referring to the players viewed as top stars at the time.

We’ll start with a look at the the Top 10 MVP vote-getters from each league in 1953. I won’t pretend these were THE 20 biggest stars in baseball at the time, but they at least provide us with a reasonable starting point. This Venn diagram shows how these 20 players fell across the sets. Interestingly, NONE of these 20 players were in the second half of the Topps set.

Top 20 MVP.JPG

 

Star power, part two

A similar analysis can be done using the Top 5 MVP finishers each of the previous five seasons (1949-1953). This smooths out our previous results to be more representative of the era rather than just a single year. It also adds heavyweights like Mickey Mantle, Bob Feller, Ted Williams, and Jackie Robinson who were missing previously. And still, the result is exactly the same!

Top 5 MVP.JPG

The data examined thus far seem to support several conclusions that make perfect sense in light of Topps being newer to the gum card business than Bowman—

  • Bowman had the inside track on the game’s biggest stars.
  • The stars Topps was able to sign were always placed in the first half of the set.
  • The second half of the set was cobbled together mainly with rookies, coaches, end-of-rotation pitchers, bench warmers, and one lone repeat (Ted Williams).

Regarding the second bullet, the front-loading of star players was even more extreme than merely the first half of the set, as illustrated by this plot of the 20 Topps stars from the prior Venn diagrams.

Good players in Topps.JPG

In fact, every one of the star players except Ray Boone (#77), Joe Black (#98), and the second Ted Williams (#250) was placed within the first 50 cards of the set, i.e., Series One.

It’s fair to wonder if the front loading of stars was simply the way things were done back then, but a quick look at the Bowman checklist shows a more even distribution. Among the second half cards in 1954 Bowman are Feller (132), Hodges (138), Newcombe (154), Berra (161), Wynn (164), Snider (170), Ford (177), and Lemon (196).

Twists of fate

When collectors think of the 1954 Topps set today, three cards immediately come to mind: the rookie cards of Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, and Al Kaline. (Throw in Tommy Lasorda too if you like.) I suspect most collectors simply assume Topps got lucky in choosing these future Hall of Famers for its set while Bowman whiffed on all of them. What I believe the data show is that Topps “lucked into” these HOF rookie cards through the misfortune of having no better players available.

Meanwhile, when collectors think of the 1954 Bowman set, the Mantle card of course comes to mind. However, the key card in the set is definitely the Ted Williams who wasn’t supposed to be there. As such, just as the best cards in the Topps set are the result of Bowman exclusives, the best card in the Bowman set is the result of a Topps exclusive. I’m pretty sure this is the exact opposite of how things are supposed to work.

Epilogue

I thought it would be interesting to track the players mentioned in this post into 1955 to see if there was any discernible shift of talent away from Bowman in what would be the Philly card makers last hurrah.

What follows is an alphabetical listing of the 46 star players mentioned in this post (and Willie Mays as a bonus), along with their Topps vs Bowman status in 1954 and 1955. Players whose status changed from 1954 to 1955 are shown in bold.

1955.JPG

The main takeaway from the chart is that most players stayed put. The greatest movement involved players who had been in both sets in 1954 but went to a single set in 1955. Of the seven instances of this, four went to Bowman and three—counting Ted Williams, who wasn’t supposed to be with Bowman in the first place—went to Topps.

There was also one player, Jim Konstanty, who went from neither set in 1954 to Bowman in 1955. Finally, Eddie Stanky went from Topps-only to both sets. Other than that, the remaining 38 players stayed the same.

While Bowman would ultimately and utterly lose the war with Topps, any advantage in the battle for talent would only come over Bowman’s dead body—just the way Topps wanted it!