Player Collection spotlight – Tim Jordan

Editor’s note: Do you have a player you collect? We’d love to hear about it. All SABR members are eligible to write for the blog!

I’ve written about Tim Jordan once already for the blog, and it was exactly that piece that led to this one. You see, back in March I had become fascinated with Tim Jordan but had exactly zero of his cards. For that matter I had exactly zero cards from any set he was in, not even the 1990 Target Dodgers set!

It’s hard to say when exactly you go from some cards of a guy to a full-fledged “player collection,” but I’m pretty sure it requires having at least one card. That changed about a month later when I landed one of the two Tim Jordan poses in the T206 set.

The card held tremendous appeal for me aside from simply being my first ever T206 and my first Tim Jordan. For one thing, there is the sunset. It was after all the American Caramel sunset that first captured my attention. This one wasn’t nearly as spectacular, but I still loved it.

Second, the position of the hands and body. Huh? In my scouring of various newspaper articles on Jordan I learned that his swing featured the same leg lift popularized by more famous hitters such as Mel Ott and Sadaharu Oh. If you look for it on the card, you can see it.

Well that was that for a while, though I managed to pick up several other T206 Brooklyn cards of other players in the several months since. I desperately wanted the T206 Jordan portrait card and the American Caramel, only I wasn’t quite desperate enough to pay the prices asked for the very small number of cards on the market.

Uncharacteristically (but not regrettably) I added a double of my same Jordan, only with a different back (Polar Bear), simply because the price was right and the Jordan cards I really wanted just weren’t popping up. I realize it’s a stretch but one could argue this is the first card ever to feature two rookie home run champs: Tim Jordan on the front and Pete Alonso on the back.

Then the floodgates burst and I was able to add this beauty to my collection.

Granted, running the table on T206 Jordan poses doesn’t quite match the achievement of collecting all four Cobbs or–let’s face it–any two of most players, but for a collector who began the year with a Monster Number of zero it was still a huge achievement. It also took me from Tim Jordan card-haver to Tim Jordan collector.

That said, I wouldn’t be typing this post (yet) if not for the package that arrived this morning. THE Tim Jordan card that began my fascination with the Dodger slugger.

The corners are so rounded the card can practically roll, and there’s also a bit of a diamond cut to it. Still, I somehow managed a crease-free, (hopefully) unaltered Jordan for about the same price I almost paid for much, much worse looking specimens. Ah, and it’s also my first card ever from an American Caramel set.

Not counting my Polar Bear back variation, my Tim Jordan collection is now up to a whopping three cards, which puts it about 700 cards behind my Dr. K collection but on the bright side requires far less storage space.

As I think about the future of my Jordan collection, let me put it out there right now that I’ve never really been a “completist.” The three cards I have already are by far my favorite cards of his, and I have a feeling most future Jordan acquisitions, 1990 Target aside, would involve spending a lot more for cards I like a lot less.

Still, I’ll highlight four-ish cards that will at least warrant saved searches on eBay just in case. The first two are from the 1911 Turkey Red Cabinets set. If I add either, there will be display challenges due to their 5-3/4″ X 8″ size. Still, I’ve always wanted a card from this beautiful set, and I suspect I could figure something out.

The final card holding an unrealistic spot on my want list is this 1912 C46 Imperial Tobacco card. Though I’m not a true “type collector” I do like the idea of adding a card from a set I don’t yet have, not to mention a very early Canadian issue. The card also feels important to my Tim Jordan collection in that Jordan enjoyed quite a career resurgence with the Maple Leafs under manager Joe Kelley (no, not him!).

Finally, there are two Jordan cards in the 1910-11 Sporting Life set. I wouldn’t turn down either but the Dodger/Superba fan in me certainly prefers the blue background. (The other is catalogued as “pastel background.”)

With all the cards I’ve just shown, you might be wondering what’s not on my Tim Jordan want list. Okay, not much, but you can see a fairly comprehensive list of his cards at Trading Card Database. Where some listings lack images you can usually pull them up with a Bing or Google search. Among them was one that I’ll declare a “best of.” It combined a sunset, the leg lift, his Brooklyn days, and his Toronto days all onto a single card. Why, such a card seems worthy of a museum, you might say. And indeed, that’s where you’ll find it!

How about you? Who is a player you collect, perhaps one a bit off most other collectors’ radars? How far along are you? What cards are you still looking for, and which are you willing to live without? If you haven’t written for the SABR Baseball Cards blog yet, highlighting your player collection might be a friendly way to get things started.

Oops

We’ve had a few articles on the blog recently dealing with set completion. Three that come to mind are the one from Jeff on which cards do and don’t constitute a complete set, one from Artie on building modern master sets, and “Set Building 101” from Jim.

What each of the articles has in common is the the informed, intentional, and methodical process by which each author defines his goal and progresses toward completion. Then there’s me. When I’m not busy presiding over my glitter empire or doing my day job, I’m writing articles with titles like “The Funnest Dumb Way to Collect (Almost) the Whole set.

As I prepare to dispense my questionable advice on our SABR readership, I’m reminded of the opening line to the Neil Young song “Hippie Dream.” (I have to imagine you all know the song by heart, but in case you’re having a moment, I’ll remind you: “Take my advice. Don’t listen to me…!”)

A set I’m collecting (or perhaps am done collecting) is somewhat typical of the almost aggressively anti-information approach I take to collecting, despite being someone who at times reads and writes almost manically about cards. Heal thyself, physician, as they say!

Some of you have seen from previous posts here or on Twitter/Facebook that I went from having no pre-1933 baseball cards (I have to say “baseball” here since my son and I have about 80 pre-1933 Sir Isaac Newton cards) to taking on the 1911 T205 Gold Borders Brooklyn team set. Here is a pic I posted back in March, with my dozen cards framed nicely by the Cigarbox Cards display.

Go ahead, ask me what I knew about the set before I started collecting it. Glad you asked! I knew the card were pretty, the only Hall of Famer was Zack Wheat, and almost all the other players were terrible. Of course I’m not an idiot, so I also did a quick eBay search and saw that “some guy” on the team could be had in reasonable shape (imagine the raw equivalent of a PSA 2.5) for $40. Okay, cool, I’m in.

Well, that picture from March is still my picture in August. Little did I know going in that three-time 20-game loser Kaiser Wilhelm is practically Walter Johnson in terms of price tag. Good chance I could take all twelve cards in my display–and even throw in the display!–and try to trade them for a Wilhelm in worse shape than all of them…and be refused.

So how bad do I want the card? I’ll answer my own question with a question. How bad do I want the team set? (And yes, I realize the completists out there are already wondering why I only have one of the two Barger poses.)

Whatever words I might offer in the affirmative, the facts of the case speak for themselves. I’ve been one player short for 6 months–the whole pandemic so far–and I’ve done nothing about it. I don’t even click when my saved eBay search turns up a hit. I don’t love being stuck at 12 players out of 13, but I love even less spending my (hopefully someday) 1960 Lake to Lake Dairy Hank Aaron money on a Kaiser Wilhelm. It’s a common limbo I find myself in often, a purgatory without the purgation. Done but not done.

True, it might be totally acceptable to go 79/80 on Fleer Ted Williams or 239/240 on 1933 Goudey. God knows plenty of otherwise respectable collectors are willing to set the remarkably pedestrian goal of 520/524 for T206, just as many modern collectors are able to settle for only the /5, /10, /25, /50, /99, /199, /400, /999, and /2020 Vertigo Refractor Rainbow Dazzle Tiffany versions of Jasson Dominguez “Move Over, Henry Aaron” Transcendent Museum Edition (Retail), foregoing the 1/1 in a last-ditch effort to avoid mortgage foreclosure.

Hobby orthodoxy permits those collectors to declare victory. Not so for a Kaiser-less Superba set. In fact, many collectors would insist I need two, and let’s not even get started about the factory numbers or tobacco brands!

The rational part of my brain recognizes it would have been prudent to do my homework before jumping in with both feet. Then I never would have gotten started on a set I couldn’t finish. I might have chosen something else, something I could do.

Then again, I wouldn’t have these cards, which are without a doubt among the dozen most beautiful in my entire collection. Yes, it was a dumb thing to do, to go in blind. Every now and then, however, you can be so dumb you’re smart.

So no regrets, that’s where I’m at. None at all. The set collector in me may be “suffe ing” 😃 but the card collector in me is doing just fine. In fact, he just picked up his fourth T206 Brooklyn card! Can the complete set be far behind?

Cards for a Cause

I admit it. Even in the best of times I sometimes wonder if I spend far too many hours and dollars assembling stacks of cardboard with baseball men on them. Now add the chaos we find ourselves in today, and it’s even harder to deny the futility of this Hobby other than as an escape. That said, sometimes all that keeps us sane is the occasional break from reality. Better occasional than permanent, right?

I spent the first couple weeks of the pandemic mentally and emotionally checked out from card collecting. I didn’t buy anything, I didn’t write about anything, and I didn’t even miss anything. Two weeks of experiencing life a little bit more like the other adults around me. (Not you guys, of course. The other adults!) Two weeks was all it lasted, but I think it changed me nonetheless.

Meanwhile some cool things were happening around the Hobby.

An anathema to many collectors, I genuinely enjoyed some of the creative work being done as part of Topps Project 2020. I even threw down $20 on one of the Dwight Gooden cards, making it the third or fourth most expensive card in my Dr. K collection of more than 700 cards the day I bought it. Bizarrely the price would hit $3500 just two months later, making it (while the mania lasted) the third most valuable thing I owned behind only my house and car.

Perhaps influenced by Project 2020, an artist-collector I followed on Twitter began something called the #MakeCardsMoarBetter project and invited other collectors to join. Sharp-eyed readers will no doubt find the two changes I made to Hank Aaron’s 1969 Topps card. (My completed sheet is here for anyone interested.)

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More renowned baseball card artists like Mark Mosley and Gypsy Oak were also putting together their own Project 2020 inspired creations, and don’t even get me started on these guys!

In contrast with the usual “doing nothing” brought on by the pandemic, here were collectors doing things with cards: being creative, having fun, and building community.

Then George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police.

Cards, hobbies, and fun itself all became a form of privilege, with escape being the ultimate privilege. Still, that’s not to say cards had no place.

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Artist Scott Hodges went on a giveaway rampage to spread some positivity into the Hobby community…

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…and Mike Noren, also known as Gummy Arts, put the original artwork behind his 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates All-Black Lineup set on eBay with all proceeds going to Black Lives Matter. (UPDATE: These same cards are now on their way to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum!)

Again I was seeing collectors doing something and it made me wonder what I was doing.

Scissors, school glue, glitter paper, and a Wade Boggs rookie later, I’d managed to raise $45 for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum with a card I made.

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Now I’m cutting up old Dave Parker and Kirk Gibson cards to raise money for Parkinson’s Disease research. (Team Cobra currently leads Team Gibby $25 to nothing, but I’m hoping eventually to raise at least $125 for each of their foundations.)

I’ve also had fun practicing on some other cards that I was able to find happy homes for across the Hobby community. There’s even a registry for this kind of thing now!

At the end of the day, I still love the old stuff: my Aaron collection, my Brooklyn team sets, my Campy collection. What’s different now is that I also love some other stuff: making and giving.

There was a time I’d look at my stack of 500 Kirk Gibson cards and think, “Not enough.” Then I hit that point in collecting where I’d look at the same stack and think, “Too many.” Now I’m at the point where I’d at least like to think each one of those cards, by itself worth maybe a nickel and already owned in spades by all the other Gibson collectors out there, could turn into something special for someone. Ditto Dale Murphy, Steve Garvey, Eric Davis, Doc Gooden, and all those other guys I have stacks and stacks of to this day.

If so, I wouldn’t be the first guy out there turning junk wax into gold. I wouldn’t even be the second. Or the third! And God knows I wouldn’t be the guy making the most money off trimmed cards. All I can hope for is to be the guy having the most fun with it and at least in some small way making a difference in this goddamn crazy world of ours.

UPDATE: I have a website now for the work I’m doing. Enjoy!

The first HOF baseball card for every team (part one)

Author’s note: All teams noted refer to their most recent MLB incarnation. For example, the San Diego Padres here are the MLB team and do not include cards/players from the PCL franchise of the same name.

This post celebrates a set of cards largely off the radar to most collectors but historic nonetheless, and it begins with an ambiguous question. What was the first baseball card to depict a Hall of Famer for each of baseball’s current and historic franchises?

Huh?

To help clarify, I’ll start with a couple of teams featured on SABR Baseball Cards Twitter.

Montreal Expos

When most collectors imagine an early Montreal Expos card of a Hall of Famer, good chance they picture this.

However, this didn’t become an Expos card of a Hall of Famer until 2003 when Carter made the Hall. What I’m looking for here is the first time a collector could hold up an Expos card and say, “Hey, this guy’s in the Hall of Fame!” and this would have been 23 years earlier when Expos legend Edwin “Duke” Snider headed to Cooperstown.

At that time, there was only this single card depicting Snider in his Expos colors, his coach card from the 1976 SSPC set. (Yes, I’m ignoring team cards and team issued photos here.)

This Snider card remained the only Expos baseball card of a Hall of Famer until Larry Doby made the Hall in 1998, conferring HOF status on this Topps/OPC card from 1973.

San Diego PadreS

Continuing through the 1969 expansion teams, the answer is once again a subject better known for his tenure on other teams. When you think Billy Herman, you probably think of the ten-time all-star second baseman and baseball cards like this, if not his 1950s and 60s coach/manager cards with the Dodgers and Red Sox.

But the first time a young Padres collector could put a Hall of Famer in his pocket to take to school was in 1978, thanks to this Family Fun Center card of the Friars batting coach. As the back of the card notes, Herman got the call from New York in 1975, making this card a HOFer card the moment it was issued.

Kansas City Royals

It’s hard to think of Royals Hall of Famers and not instantly (or exclusively!) think of George Brett, who made the Hall in 1999. However, that didn’t mean Royals collectors had no Hall of Famers in their collections until then.

Eight years earlier, well traveled hurler Gaylord Perry made the Hall, thereby promoting several of his 1984 cards to Hall of Fame status. The Fleer set alone had three, including one with Brett, to go with two highlights cards from Topps.

Six years before Perry, in 1985, Hoyt Wilhelm’s plaque went up in Cooperstown. Like Perry, Wilhelm had pitched for seemingly every team. Unlike Perry, his cardboard legacy with the Royals was quite thin, paper thin to be exact. In fact the knuckleballer’s only card came courtesy of the 1969 Topps Stamps set. (UPDATE: Per Tim Jenkins, Wilhelm was also a Royal in the Deckle Edge set that same year.)

Of course the prior year another Royal saw his plaque go up. The Killer became a Hall of Famer in 1984, elevating his 1976 SSPC card with Kansas City to HOF status.

In reality, however, Royals collections were well stocked with Hall of Famer cards well before 1984, thank to Bob Lemon’s induction in 1976 and his early 1970s Topps and O-Pee-Chee manager cards.

Seattle Pilots

The final 1969 expansion team was the Seattle Pilots. As the team existed for only a single season and wasn’t exactly stocked with talent, there is not a single Pilots card of a Hall of Famer. This Ichiro retro card from 2010 may be as close as the Pilots ever come.

UPDATE: Thank you to David Bender for alerting us to this 1992 Leaf Studio Heritage card of Class of 2014 Hall of Famer Paul Molitor decked out in Seattle Pilots gear. If only!

Milwaukee Brewers

Following the 1969 season, Bud stole the Pilots and renamed them the Milwaukee Brewers. Unlike the other three teams covered thus far, the first Hall of Fame Brewers card is very likely the one you would have guessed.

In 1982, Hank Aaron became the first Brewer to enter the Hall. Among his many Brewers cards, 1975-76 and post-career, we’ll go with card #660 from 1975 Topps.

Texas Rangers

With the new locale and nickname in 1972, I’ll distinguish the Rangers from their not very long and not at all storied history as the (new) Washington Senators. If we don’t see Rangers on the jersey or a “T” on the cap, it doesn’t count.

Unless it’s Teddy Ballgame, in which case an airbrushed cap, psychedelic team lettering, and satin collar is all we need!

Seattle Mariners

Major League Baseball returned to the Pacific Northwest in 1977 with the arrival of the Seattle Mariners. For the first 14 years of their existence the Ms had no Hall of Fame baseball cards. That changed when Gaylord Perry entered the Hall in 1991. Perry has dozens of cards with Seattle, but his earliest comes from the 1982 Topps Traded set.

Toronto Blue Jays

1977 also marked the first year of the Toronto Blue Jays franchise. McCarthy postcards issued that same year included 1972 inductee Early Wynn and 1986 inductee Bobby Doerr.

However, my focus in this article is on “true” baseball cards, a notion we often note around here could be a whole series of posts in itself. With this stricter criterion in mind, Jays collectors would need to wait two more decades for a card of a Hall of Famer.

With Phil Niekro’s induction in 1997, his lone Toronto card (1988 Classic) became the inaugural Hall of Famer baseball card in Blue Jay collections and it would remain the only such card for more than a decade until Rickey Henderson’s 2009 induction.

Colorado Rockies

The Rockies, who began play in 1993, famously had a total of zero Hall of Famers until the recent election of Larry Walker to the Class of 2020. Not surprisingly then, Walker provides (or will provide, if you want to be technical) Rox collectors with their first ever Rockies HOF card.

Walker, of course, has over a billion different Rockies cards (okay, not quite), but I’ll feature his 1995 Topps Traded and Upper Deck cards as among the many from his first year with the squad.

Florida/Miami Marlins

Entering the league the same year as the Rockies, the Marlins can boast baseball cards of numerous Hall of Famers and may even add another if the new Jeter/Topps collaboration extends into the dismal GM chapter of his career. The first time Marlins collectors could know the joy of a Hall of Famer in their midst was thanks to the 2002 Topps set, which included a manager card (okay, eight different-ish ones) of recent inductee Tony Perez (HOF 2000).

Arizona Diamondbacks

The D-Backs joined the National League in 1998, and have so far had two Hall of Famers on their roster: Roberto Alomar (2011) and Randy Johnson (2015). Their first HOF card is therefore of Alomar, and you can take your pick from nearly 200 of them, all from 2004.

UPDATE: Am thankful for our terrific readers, including fellow SABR Baseball Cards author Artie Zillante, for turning up this nugget from the 2002 Keebler Arizona Diamondbacks set. If you’re good with the shared real estate, then Yount (HOF 1999) definitely nudges Robbie Alomar aside.

Tampa Bay Rays

The team formerly known as the Devil Rays entered the American League in 1998 with the instant star power of Fred McGriff and Wade Boggs, quickly followed the next year by Jose Canseco. Of the three, Boggs (2005) is the only one in Cooperstown, hence the man responsible for the first Devil Ray HOF cards. He has too many cards to count in the various 1998 sets, but here are two.

Washington nationals

With the change in both geography and nickname, I’ll treat the Nationals franchise as distinct from its Expos ancestry and just treat it as if the Nats were a brand new team that appeared out of nowhere to start the 2005 season. While the Nats may claim Tim Raines, Andre Dawson, Walter Johnson, and even Josh Gibson in their Ring of Honor, I’m starting the franchise with Ryan Zimmerman.

Regardless, Nats fans didn’t have to wait before adding a HOF card to their collections. All they had to do was get lucky opening packs that year.

Houston Astros/Colt .45s

Having looked at baseball’s newest franchises from 1969 forward, we’re now ready to go in reverse. First up are the Houston Astros, who entered the National League in 1962 as the Colt .45s.

Of the future Hall of Famers (Nellie Fox, Eddie Mathews, Robin Roberts, Joe Morgan) lurking in 1960s Astros sets, the first to make the Hall was Roberts in 1976. Another Astro, Yogi Berra, made the Hall four years earlier but his first Astros cards didn’t come until much later. Therefore, Roberts it is!

New York Mets

The Rajah had been a Hall of Famer for 20 years when he joined the Mets as their third base coach in 1962. However, there was no immediate cardboard to herald his arrival. The closest we come is a 1966 James Elder postcard.

Baseball card purists (emphasis on “card”) may prefer this 1962 Topps card of Casey Stengel, which gained Hall of Fame status upon the Old Perfessor’s 1966 induction. Not the airbrushing department’s best work, but perhaps it was part and parcel for the altogether woeful season Mets fans endured that season.

los angeles/california/anaheim angels

Too many official name changes to keep track of here, but you know who I mean. The Halos joined the American League in 1961, the same year MLB adopted the 162-game schedule. Their wait on a HOF baseball card was decidedly longer than that of Mets fans. It was not until Frank Robinson made the Hall in 1982 that Angels collectors could add a HOF card to their binders.

Robinson’s first Angels “card” is from the hard-to-find 1972 Topps Candy Lid test issue, and is much like the 1962 Stengel in that Frank appears as an Angel in name only.

Rather than rectify the wardrobe malfunction the next year, Topps may have actually made things worse with its 1973 release.

His 1973 photocard aside, it was not until 1974 that Angel fans (and Rodin fans!) truly had a Robby card they could be proud of.

Washington Senators II

These are the Senators, 1961-1971, not to be confused with the Senators, 1901-1960, which means there will be no Walter Johnson cards to consider. As was the case with the Rangers team they became, their first HOF card was Ted Williams.

Minnesota Twins

Just as the new Senators started up in D.C., the old Senators headed to the Minnesota and became the Twins. The star of the team at that time also (in 1984 upon induction) gave Twins fans their first Hall of Fame baseball card.

baltimore orioles

The team formerly known as the St. Louis Browns began play in 1954 and would not have an eventual Hall of Famer on a baseball card until 1957 when they added three to the cardboard lineup.

1957 Topps #230 George Kell Front1957 Topps #328 Brooks Robinson Front1957 Topps #59 Dick Williams Front

However, it was not until 1983 that even the first of these men received his call from Cooperstown. First Orioles HOF baseball card honors instead went to Robin Roberts who made the Hall in 1976 and had cards with Baltimore as early as 1963.

what’s left?

My focus in this article has been on expansion teams or franchise moves that ditched both the city and the nickname. As such I skipped over the Oakland A’s, Kansas City A’s, Los Angeles Dodgers, and the like. All told, that leaves me with 16 modern-era franchises left to cover in a future article.

Unlike the cards identified in this article, where any one of them could be had in good shape for less than $10, the cards in the next article would be a bit more difficult to collect, with pre-war cards of Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Honus Wagner, and Babe Ruth representing nine of the sixteen teams.

The greatest year in baseball card history

I’ll get quick to the point. It’s 1954. Hands down…

Topps had a set.

1954 Topps #32 Duke Snider Front

Bowman had a set.

1954 Bowman #170 Duke Snider Front

Red Man had a set.

1954 Red Man #NL16 Duke Snider Front

Red Heart had a set.

1954 Red Heart Dog Food #NNO Duke Snider Front

Dan-Dee had a set.

1954 Dan-Dee Potato Chips (Reprint) #NNO Duke Snider Front

Stahl-Meyer had a set.

1954 Stahl-Meyer Franks #12 Duke Snider Front

The New York Journal-American had a set.

1954 New York Journal-American #NNO Duke Snider Front

And those were just the ones with Duke Snider!

Dixie had a set.

Wilson Franks had a set.

1954 Wilson Franks #5 Bob Feller   Front

And let’s not forget the single-team issues out there, of which there were many.

1954 Johnston Cookies #NNO Hank Aaron Front

And minor league issues too!

1954 Seattle Rainiers Popcorn #NNO Leo Thomas Front

Popcorn, cookies, hot dogs, ice cream, newspapers, potato chips, dog food (DOG FOOD!), chewing tobacco, chewing gum…you name it! Wait, did I forget the syrup?

Willie Mays and Alaga | Willie mays, Vintage baseball, Baseball

Of course, it’s not just about quantity, else just about any year from the Junk Wax era would beat 1954 hands down. But unlike the macaroni, hardware, and toilet paper cards of the late eighties, these 1954 releases also happen to be fantastic sets! They also marked a turning point.

Just one year later, apart from Topps and Bowman, there were only two baseball card sets other than single-team releases: Red Man and the Robert Gould All-Stars, though we’re be remiss not to mention Armour Coins and Wilson Franks Baseball Books. Just two years later, in 1956, there were none. And there wasn’t even Bowman!

In that sense, 1954 was not only the greatest year to be a collector but also the end of a certain Golden Age of cards. For collectors interested in taking a closer look at this magical year, I’ve compiled a checklist of the Hall of Famers (and Minnie, who belongs!) featured in each of the multi-team sets, with a notes column capturing all single-team releases. (A more readable version is here, which you can also sort in ways other than most cards to least.)

As a window shopper who loves flipping through sets in Trading Card Database or just admiring the collections of others, there is no better year for me than 1954. On the other hand, as a player collectors whose focus includes Hank Aaron, Roy Campanella, and Jackie Robinson, I will confess to often cursing the fact that certain sets exist. Then again, I suppose I’m still more likely to get the two 1954 Campy cards on my want list before the Shohei Ohtani completists get anywhere near the 2722 cards Trading Card Database lists for him in 2018 alone!

How about you? What’s your pick for greatest year in baseball card history? And if you’re a player collector, is it a good thing or a bad thing when the want list is a mile long?

And for more SABR Baseball Cards posts on 1954–

Rethinking the Hobby’s most iconic cards

If you came here to read about the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle or 1989 Fleer Billy Ripken, you came to the wrong place. I’m here to talk about true baseball card icons…these!

These are of course the position icons Topps used on their 1976 flagship set. Now that you see where the post is headed, I’m only going to get the ball rolling and look to you, the readers, to finish it for me.

Use the comments area either to fill a vacant slot or upgrade one of the existing slots. Together I believe we can assemble a team of the most iconic baseball cards ever, and I wouldn’t even be surprised if the entire collection could be had for only a few bucks.

Catcher

I was reasonably happy with the 1988 Score Bob Boone card, but I suspect there’s something better out there. Terry Steinbach had a couple that were very close but facing the wrong way.

Right-handed pitcher

As in the 1973 set, Topps used different icons depending on whether a pitcher threw righty or lefty. Until a better match comes along, here is the iconic 1991 Topps Donn Pall card in the righty slot.

Left-Handed Pitcher

Hunting for the LHP icon proved harder than I thought and introduced me to just how much variation in follow-through there can be from pitcher to pitcher. As with all of these, feel free to upgrade.

First Base

No entry yet.

Second Base

Though not a second baseman, Walt Weiss comes close to the Topps icon with his 1991 Topps card. My guess is one of you will find something better though, and bonus points if your sliding baserunner is a match too.

An honorable mention from the vintage division is found on another shortshop card, the 1956 Topps Pee Wee Reese. (And you thought only his 1953 Bowman was iconic!)

Third Base

For some reason when I look at the third baseman icon I see George Brett in my head. He has a few near matches like this 1982 Topps In Action. Still, I suspect another player will make for an even closer match.

Shortstop

No entry yet, but I’ll use this third baseman’s card as a placeholder.

Outfield

No entry yet.

Designated hitter

Pinch-hitting for the DH until something better comes along is the 1992 Topps Jay Buhner. For some reason, even though the batter is a righty, this position icon always reminds me of Yaz.

Not satisfied?

If near matches weren’t what you had in mind, have I got the set for you. Let’s call it the Topps equivalent of participation trophies, a set where EVERY player is iconic: 2004 Topps!

P.S. I kind of like these!

The most boring cards in the set?

I’d been sitting on the idea of this article for a while, and I finally decided to “check it off” when I saw an exchange between fellow SABR Baseball Cards blogger Matt Prigge and prewar savant Anson Whaley (with a guest appearance by Jeff Smith) on the first numbered baseball cards.

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Today the idea of numbered cards goes hand in hand with that of a (contemporaneously published) checklist. However, that was not always the case. While numerous examples abound, one famous numbered set with no checklist was 1933 Goudey. Likewise, we will encounter sets that had checklists but no numbered cards. This article will not be exhaustive, so don’t use it as a checklist. Rather, it will just highlight some of the variety attached to what in my collecting heyday was considered the most boring card in the pack.

These days

Had I written this article a year ago, I might have assumed erroneously that on-card checklists were a hobby dinosaur. After all, why waste a card in the set when it’s easy enough to post a checklist online? However, the lone pack of 2019 Topps update I bought last fall included a surprise on the back of my Albert Pujols highlights card.

Though I have to imagine the past three decades of baseball cards have more of a story to tell, I’m going to quickly jump all the way back to what otherwise was the last time I remember pulling a checklist from a pack.

Early nineties

The very last packs of cards I bought before entering my long “real life took over” hiatus were in 1992. I don’t recall buying any mainstream sets that year, but I liked the Conlons and their close cousins, the Megacards Babe Ruth set, of which I somehow still have the box and three unopened packs.

The Ruth set had no checklist, but the Conlon issue had several, much in the style of the Topps cards of my youth, right down to the checkboxes.

While there’s something to be said for the familiar, I was an even bigger fan of the checklists I pulled from packs of 1990 Leaf.

Checklists adorned with superstar players was new to my own pack opening experience. However, as with most “innovations” in the Hobby, it wasn’t truly new, as we’ll soon see.

1978-1989 Topps

This was my absolute pack-buying heyday, and it was a great time to be a checklist collector, assuming there is such a thing. Yes, we had the standard checklist cards each of those years…

…but we also got team checklists, either on the backs of manager cards…

…or on the back of team cards.

As a quick aside, I’ll note that EVERY collector I knew in 1978 sorted his cards by team and used the team card to mark progress, making the set checklists (e.g., 1-121) completely superfluous.

1974*

Though I’m skipping most years, I’ll make a quick stop at 1974 to highlight two features in particular. In addition to the standard checklists AND team photo cards without checklists, the 1974 Topps set used unnumbered team signature cards as team checklists. (Aside: Though unnumbered cards had a mile-long history in the Hobby and are hardly extinct today, I rarely ran across them as a kid apart from the 1981 Donruss checklists or the 1981 Fleer “Triple Threat” error card.)

A final note on these team checklists: they did not include late additions from the Traded set (e.g., Santo on White Sox), so a separate “Trades Checklist” was provided also.

1967-69 Topps

If I had to declare a G.O.A.T. checklist it would come from 1967-69 Topps, all possible inspirations for the 1990 Leaf card I showed earlier. (In fairness, 1984 Fleer might have played a role.)

At first glance I mistakenly thought these checklists brought more than just a bonus superstar to the mix. Take a look at entry 582 on the back of card below.

Could it be? Were we looking at the pinnacle of 1960s artificial intelligence technology: checklists with the self-awareness to check themselves off? Sadly, no. We were just looking at an abbreviation for “Checklist – 7th Series.” After all, this “smart checklist” was card 504 in the set and the ostensibly checked off card was a completely different card.

1963

While our friends at Topps were having a ho-hum year, checklist-wise, as if there’s any other kind of year to have, checklist-wise, I do want to provide recognition to the efforts at Fleer. Haters of the Keith Shore #Project 2020 designs will probably not be fans, but I’m a sucker for this cartoony, colorful approach to checklists.

Even the title, “Player Roster,” is a nice twist, don’t you think?

1961

The first appearance of numbered checklist-only cards from Topps came in 1961. Each checklist featured a baseball action scene on both the front and back of the card, and collectors can have fun trying to identify the players. (Side note: I believe these are the first ever game-action photos ever used by Topps.)

While the image on the back persisted across the set, the images on the front differed with each card. For example, here is Mr. Cub on the front of the second checklist. (Banks also appears prominently on the fifth checklist!)

Meanwhile in Philadelphia, Fleer introduced its first ever checklist cards.

The series one checklist featured Home Run Baker, Ty Cobb, and Zach Wheat well past their playing days, while series two did the same for George Sisler and Pie Traynor.

Incidentally, a similar approach was used 15 years later by Mike Aronstein in the 1976 SSPC set.

While Fleer had baseball sets in 1959 and 1960 as well, neither used checklist cards. However, this was not because the concept had not yet dawned on them. On the contrary, here’s a card from one of their more notable non-sport issues way back in 1959!

Note that the card pictured is #63. Cards 16 and 64 in the set are also known to have “checklist back” variations. However, the much more common versions of these same cards simply feature humorous descriptions or jokes.

Pre-1961 Topps

I referred to the 1961 Topps cards as checklist-only because there were in fact numbered checklist cards issued in the 1960 set. The 1960 cards were the perfect (or anti-perfect) hybrid of set checklists and team cards, perhaps offering a glimpse of the “why not both!” direction Topps would ultimately adopt.

Shown below is the Braves team card, but the back is not a Braves checklist. Rather, it’s the checklist for the set’s entire fifth series!

But wait, how does that even work? The set only had seven series but there were 16 teams, right? Yes, somewhat inelegantly Topps repeated checklists on the back of multiple team cards. For example, the A’s and Pirates each had sixth series backs.

Ditto 1959 Topps…

…and 1958.

We have to go all the way back to 1957 to see checklist-only cards. Aside from being unnumbered and landscape oriented, these cards check off all the boxes of the staid checklist cards I grew up with.

The 1956 set did the same but with an unusual turn, and not just the 90-degree reorientation. While the 1957 card shown includes the first and second series, the 1956 cards included non-adjacent series. The card below is for the first and third series, while a second card has series two and four.

The 1956 checklists also featured the first (that I could find) appearance of checkboxes. As such, it wouldn’t be wrong to regard (or disregard!) all predecessors as mere lists, unworthy of the checklist title.

The crumbiest card in the set?

It may have looked like Topps was blazing new trails with their checklist cards in 1956 and 1957, but take a close look at the second card in this uncut strip from the Johnston’s Cookies set, series one.

You may need to be the judge as to whether this qualifies as an actual card in the set vs a non-card that just happens to be the same size as the other cards.

On one hand, why not? On the other, how many collectors would consider the “How to Order Trading Cards” end panel a card?

When is a checklist not a checklist?

In 1950, Chicago-based publisher B.E. Callahan released a box set featuring all 60 Hall of Famers. The set was updated annually and included 80 Hall of Famers by 1956, the last year it was issued. At the very end of the set was what appeared to be a checklist for the set, but was it?

As it turns out, the card back wasn’t so much a checklist as it was a listing of all Hall of Famers. Were it intended as a checklist, it presumably would have also listed this Hall of Fame Exterior card and perhaps even itself!

Simple logic might also suggest that a checklist would have been particularly superfluous for cards already sold as an intact set; then again, stranger things have happened.

No checklist but the next best thing?

Prior to 1956 Topps a common way to assist set collectors, though a far cry from an actual checklist, was by indicating the total number cards in the set right on the cards, as with this 1949 Bowman card. Note the top line on the card’s reverse indicates “No. 24 of a Series of 240.”

Though this was the only Bowman set to cue size, Gum, Inc., took the same approach with its Play Ball set a decade earlier. The advertised number of cards in the set proved incorrect, however, as the set was limited to 161 cards rather than 250.

Goudey too overestimated the size of its own set the year before. The first series of 24 cards seemed to suggest 288 cards total…

…while the second series indicated 312!

Add them up and you have a set of 48 cards evidently advertised as having more than six times that number. In fact, some collectors have speculated, based among other things on the similarity of card backs, that the 1938 issue was a continuation of the 1933 (!) issue. Add the new 48 to the 240 from 1933 and you get 288. Perhaps, though the number 312 remains mysterious either way.

Tobacco card collectors are no stranger to the advertised set size being way off. Consider the 1911 T205 Gold Borders set for starters. “Base Ball Series 400 Designs” implies a set nearly twice the size of the 208 cards known to collectors and perhaps hints at original plans to include Joe Jackson, Honus Wagner, and many other stars excluded from the set.

As for its even more famous cousin, the 1909-11 T206 set. How many cards are there? 150 subjects? 350 subjects? 350-460?

The return of set checklists

While I’ve just highlighted several non-examples of checklists, there are several, probably dozens, of sets pre-1956 Topps that include checklists. The most common variety involved printing the entire set’s checklist on the back of every card in the set, as with the 1933 George C. Miller card of Mel Ott shown here.

As evidenced not only by Ott’s name but also brief biographical information unique to Master Melvin, the Miller set provided a unique card back per player in the set. As we travel further back in time to examine earlier checklisting, you’ll see that a far more common approach involved applying the same card back to multiple players in the set, often by team, by series, or across the set’s entirety.

The return of team checklists

It’s been a while since we’ve seen team checklists, but some great early examples come our way from the 240-card 1922 American Caramel set.

As the small print indicates, the set included 15 players apiece from each of the 16 teams, leading to an even 240 cards. As the Ruth back suggests, all Yankees in the set had identical backs, as was the case for all team subsets within the set. Rival caramel maker Oxford Confectionary produced a much smaller set (E253) the year before and was able to fit the set’s entire 20-card roster on the back of each card.

The golden age of checklists

Though neither the T205 nor T206 sets included checklist cards, many other sets of the era did. A fun one, checklist or no checklist, is the 1912 Boston Garters set. Note the back side (of the card, not the player!) lists the 16 cards in the set. (These are VERY expensive cards by the way. For example, the card shown is easily the priciest Mathewson among his various cards without pants.)

Another such set was the 1911 Turkey Red set where, as with the 1922 American Caramel cards, every card was a checklist card (subject to back variations). Low numbered cards had a checklist for cards 1-75 or 1-76, and high numbered cards had a checklist for cards 51-126.

The 1910 Tip Top Bread set provided collectors a much kneaded set checklist and team checklist for their hard-earned dough. Of course, this was by default since all the subjects in the set were all on the same team. While the checklist suggests numbered cards, individual cards have do not include a card number as part of the design.

The 1908-1910 American Caramel E91 cards similarly provided a checklist for each year’s set and the three teams that comprised it. For example the 1910 set (E91-C) listed Pittsburg, Washington, and Boston players.

And just to show these sets weren’t flukes, there are the 1909 Philadelphia Caramel (E95), 1909 E102, 1909-1910 C.A. Briggs (E97), 1910 Standard Caramel (E93), 1910 E98, 1911 George Close Candy (E94), and 1913 Voskamp’s Coffee Pittsburgh Pirates, and various minor league issues of the era.

Size isn’t everything

Another early approach to checklists is illustrated by the 1909-1913 Sporting News supplements.

The picture backs were blank, but sales ads provided collectors with the full list of players available.

By the way, the highlighting of “SENT IN A TUBE” provides a hint that collectors even more than a century ago cared at least a little bit about condition.

Obak took this approach a step further in 1913 by including a complete checklist in every cigarette box.

Though not technically a card, one could make some argument that this Obak insert represents the very first standalone checklist packaged with cards.

I don’t know enough about this 1889 (!) checklist of Old Judge cabinet photo premiums to say whether it was inserted with the cigarettes and cards as was the Obak or lived somewhere else entirely as did the Sporting News ad.

Either way, it won’t be our oldest example of a checklist.

Where it all began…almost

There aren’t many baseball card sets older than the 1888 Goodwin Champions and 1887 Allen & Ginter World Champions issues. Ditto 1887 W.S. Kimball Champions (not pictured). Take a look at the card backs, and it becomes evident that checklists are almost as old as baseball cards themselves.

And while most of the card backs I’ve seen from these issues are rather dull, here is one specimen that makes me smile.

It’s not the easiest thing to see, but I do believe the collector crossed Kelly off the checklist…

…before running out of money, running out of ink, or just moving on like any good player collector.

Summary

As my examples demonstrate, baseball card checklists have taken on many forms, and the question of which baseball card checklist was first is one that depends on your definition of a checklist and perhaps even your definition of a baseball card.

Though it’s risky to infer motives from men long since dead, it seems reasonable that the creation and publication of baseball card checklists indicates a recognition that the cards themselves were not simply throwaway novelties but items to be collected and saved. What’s more, this was evidently the case as far back as 1887!

Note also that these checklists weren’t simply offered as courtesies. They reflected the at least an implicit assumption that set checklists were more valuable (to the seller!) than other forms of advertising that would otherwise occupy the same real estate whether the product was bread, tobacco, or candy. A standard Hobby 101 education teaches us that cards were long used to help sell the products they were packaged with. What we see here is that the allure wasn’t simply a baseball player or his likeness on cardboard but also the set of such likenesses that kept the pennies and nickels coming.

I started this article with a question. Are checklist cards the most boring cards in the set? By and large, yes, I think they are. However, that’s only true most of the time.

For with every checklist, at least those put to purpose, there is that one moment of glory, of sweetness, and of triumph when the checklist—formerly mocked and yawned at—informs collectors young and old that their springs and summers were not spent in vain but rather in pursuit of the heroic, the noble, and the—holy smokes, it’s about damn time!—DONE!

 

Five sheets to the wind with 1981 Donruss

Not long again, fellow SABR Baseball Cards blogger Mark Del Franco posed three questions about the 1981 Donruss set he was paging in his binder.

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When the insider information Mark was hoping for didn’t arrive, I decided to make a day of delving deep into the Donruss checklist. Best case scenario, I’d have answers to all Mark’s questions. Worst case scenario, you’d get an article that at least brought back some of the nostalgia and fondness of the company’s debut baseball offering.

Apropos to Mark’s questions, let’s take a closer look at the cards that open the set.

Much like some of the early Bowman sets or even 1940 Play Ball, the set’s numerical checklist (cards 1-17 shown below, including both Duffy Dyer variations) includes small team runs. As already noted by Mark, cards 1-4 above are San Diego Padres and cards 5-10 are Detroit Tigers.

Were the pattern to continue throughout the set, no deep study or article would be warranted. However, the Mike Schmidt card is our first of many hints that the organization of the set is hardly as simple as your binder’s opening sheet might have suggested.

Was Schmidt’s presence simply a mistake? After all, like the Fleer set of the same year, the set did include several errors and variations. A look at the next two pages in the binder might shed some light.

Things start out simple enough: Astros, Astros, Astros, Astros, but then what’s this? Another lone Phil, this time Manny Trillo, appearing out of nowhere, before the run of Astros continues. Next up, a run of Rangers cards, a run of Blue Jays, and then…you guessed it! Another Phillie, this time Steve Carlton, pops in.

Were we forced to describe the structure of the set based only on what we’ve seen so far, I suppose the description would go something like this: groupings of 4-6 teammates, punctuated by the occasionally lone Phil.

This schematic of the set’s first hundred cards (excluding variations) illustrates that our description continues to hold, at least mostly, well past the cards we’ve seen so far. The only deviation comes from our lone Phils ultimately giving way to lone Braves.

The schematic also shows us that the placement of the lone Phils/Braves cards is not random. Geometrically, they form a perfect diagonal down the grid, meaning numerically they differ by exactly eleven. Specifically the cards are numbered 11, 22, 33, 44, 55, 66, 77, 88, and 99.

You might wonder if the numeric pattern extends further down the checklist. It does, at least sort of, but not for long. The next number in the pattern, 110, does correspond to a player all by himself, amidst a larger Yankees run. However, he’s an Oakland A’s player rather than a Phillie or a Brave.

Phillies? Braves? A’s? What does it matter, as long as these loners keep popping up every eleven cards. That’s the real pattern we care about, right? Well, I have bad news. Card 121 in the set, Dave Cash, is hardly a loner but instead the leader of a run of four Padres. Drat!

Are we done then? Not a chance! Inserted between a run of Tigers and Pirates is card 131, Pete Rose, another lone Phil! Then at 142, eleven cards later, Larry Bowa, another lone Phil! Card 153? Another lone Phil—

Does the pattern continue even further? As the signs used to say at Veteran’s stadium in 1980, DEL-IVERS! Card 164 is another lone Phil, Del Unser! Poppycock, you say? I think you mean Bull! Yes, Greg Luzinski does keep the Phillies solo parade going with card 175.

The loners continue every eleven cards like clockwork (if clocks had eleven numbers), just not with Phillies. As before, the team run interrupter baton is passed to Atlanta before (again!) having an Oakland player crash the party.

  • 186 – Brian Asselstine (Braves)
  • 197 – Rick Camp (Braves)
  • 208 – Bruce Benedict (Braves)
  • 219 – Chris Chambliss (Braves)
  • 230 – Jeff Cox (A’s)

I wish I could say card 241 was another lone Phil or Brave or even Athletic, but I can’t—as before, the Oakland A’s player proved a harbinger of discontinuity. All we get at card 241 is Gene Tenace (first sheet, second card) initiating a run of four Padres.

Well talk about deja vu all over again! Again, Pete Rose restarts the pattern of lone Phils, this time with his second card in the set, number 251. (Recall Donruss included multiple cards of many top stars in 1981.)

Do a host of lone Phillies again follow the Hit King at intervals of eleven? You bet!

  • 262 – Bob Boone (Phillies)
  • 273 – Tug McGraw (Phillies)
  • 284 – Sparky Lyle (Phillies)
  • 295 – Lonnie Smith (Phillies)

And if you guessed some Braves would come after that, you are on a roll!

  • 306 – Gary Matthews (Braves)
  • 317 – Rick Matula (Braves)
  • 328 – Phil Niekro (Braves)
  • 339 – Jerry Royster (Braves)

And if you’ve really been paying attention, you can probably guess the next two things that will happen. (Bonus points if you can guess the next three!)

  1. Yes, an Oakland A’s player shows up at 350.
  2. Yes, nothing special happens at 361. We just get Bill Fahey kicking off a four-card run of Padres (first sheet, third card below).

“But what’s number three,” you ask!

It’s Pete Rose once again, with his third card in the set (371), serving as Grand Marshal of the solo parade:

  • 382 – Keith Moreland (Phillies)
  • 393 – Bob Walk (Phillies)
  • 404 – Bake McBride (Phillies)
  • 415 – Dallas Green (Phillies)
  • 426 – Bobby Cox (Braves)
  • 437 – Dale Murphy (Braves)
  • 448 – Doyle Alexander (Braves)
  • 459 – Glenn Hubbard (Braves)
  • 480 – Mike Davis (A’s)

We’ve now made it through 80% of the set, ignoring the five unnumbered checklists, and we have seen a remarkably consistent if not perfect pattern all the way through. You may think you know the ending then: more of the same. Unfortunately (unless you like chaos), things get much more complicated in our final 20%, so much so that I’ll pause here and “solve the riddle” before unleashing the cacophony of the set’s final 100+ cards.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. In our case, that picture is an uncut sheet of the first 121 cards (sort of) in the set. (Like Topps at that time, the Donruss set used 11 x 11 printing sheets.)

Read from left to right and the sequencing appears random, but read top to bottom and you see that the sheet in fact runs in numerical order. Head down the first column and we have cards 1-11: our four Padres, six Tigers, and Mike Schmidt. Head down the next column and we see the run of Pirates and the start of an Astros run, interrupted briefly by Manny Trillo of the Phillies.

As for those darn Phils and Braves, we now see that they too are part of consecutive team runs, only horizontally rather than vertically down the sheet. But what about Mickey Klutts, or for that matter any of the A’s streak-breakers who seemingly crashed the parties solo? Mickey isn’t so much alone but simply nudged aside one slot by the first unnumbered checklist in the set. (That checklist is why I said the sheet “sort of” showed the set’s first 121 cards. From a numbering perspective, you are really seeing 1-120 plus an unnumbered card.) Swap Mickey with the checklist, and he’d fit right in with a nice vertical strip of A’s teammates.

The second uncut sheet in the set (cards 121-240 plus another unnumbered checklist) follows EXACTLY the same pattern, right down to the A’s player nudged by the sheet’s checklist.

Ditto for the third sheet, featuring cards 241-360 and the third unnumbered checklist.

And finally, sheet four, featuring cards 361-480 and the fourth unnumbered checklist.

While these sheets don’t answer every question about the set’s quirky checklist, they do provide a nice visual context for not only the patterns but the breaks in the patterns previously noted.

  • The “every eleven” patterns of lone Phils, Braves, and sometimes A’s corresponded exactly to the bottom rows of each sheet.
  • The breaks in our “every eleven” patterns (cards 121, 241, 361) were caused by the insertion of an unnumbered checklist at the end of each sheet.
  • As for Pete and Re-Pete (sorry, wrong brand!) and Re-Re-Pete re-starting the pattern each time, his (honorific?) spot in the bottom left corner of sheets 2, 3, and 4 are what make it work. (For what it’s worth, the first sheet also had a Phils great, Mike Schmidt, in the lower left corner.)

With the sheets in front of us, we can add two more observations to our list.

  1. The order of the teams on each sheet is identical: Padres, Tigers, Pirates, Astros, Rangers, Blue Jays, Mets, White Sox, Mariners, Angels, Dodgers, Reds, Cardinals, Giants, Indians, Brewers, Expos, Red Sox, Royals, Yankees, Orioles, and A’s (with Phils and Braves along the bottom).
  2. Two teams are nowhere to be found: Cubs and Twins.

Now that you know just about everything about the set’s first 480 (or 484 counting checklists) cards, we are ready for the final sheet. Just be sure you’re sitting down…or standing on your head.

Again, we have a Phillies great, Mike Schmidt, in the lower left hand corner and a checklist in the lower right. Next, notice…oh gosh, you’re not gonna let me do this to you, are you? Okay, fine, let’s try this again.

As promised, chaos. But not total chaos. I’ll illustrate the order by using thick red borders to identify contiguous team groupings (horizontal or vertical) and use big black “T” markings to identify cards like these.

A hallmark of the 1981 Donruss set is the subset of cards where player uniforms mismatch their team names. While Topps would have gotten out the airbrushes, Donruss left player photos intact, using only the team designation to reflect updates. If we include these players with their former (uniform) teams, we end up with twelve mini-team runs. Not surprisingly, half are Cubs and half are Twins.

The fact that Donruss placed all 17 of the “T” cards on the final sheet surprised me at first but perhaps isn’t surprising at all. I’ll illustrate this with two examples.

Ron LeFlore, photographed as an Expo, was granted free agency on October 28, 1980, but not signed by the White Sox until November 26. If we assume Donruss was in the homestretch of card-making for most players come November, then it makes sense that LeFlore would be moved to the back of the line while his team status was in limbo. (Note LeFlore’s bio opens with his signing by the Sox.)

On the other hand, what about Larry Milbourne, who was traded from the Mariners to the Yankees on November 18? While his team status changed, there was no prolonged limbo period attached. I can’t say what happened for sure, but there are a couple possibilities that seem viable.

  1. Donruss had already completed Milbourne’s Mariners card prior to the trade and then bumped him to the back of the line for correction once the trade took place.
  2. Donruss was aware of the trade when Milbourne’s card was being worked on, but they had not yet reached a decision on how to handle team changes. Would they ignore them? Would they go the airbrushing route? Would they race to Spring Training for a new photo? Or would they simply update the team name while leaving everything else the same? Again, back of the line makes sense pending a design decision.

You’ll notice the sheet has several other special cards not yet mentioned: a “Best Hitters” card featuring George Brett and Rod Carew, two MVP cards (Brett/Schmidt), and two Cy Young Award cards (Stone/Carlton).

We can add all of these cards to the “seems logical to have them here” pile, and we end up with 63 cards on the final sheet making sense. There may be a story to the remaining 58 (e.g., other pending free agents who stayed with their prior teams, rookies identified late in the process), but most are probably players who simply didn’t fit on the first four sheets.

To illustrate that there really are cards in this last category, consider Steve Howe (card 511). He was the reigning National League Rookie of the Year and had completely unambiguous team status as a Dodger. As such, Howe would have been an absolute lock for the set from the beginning but was nonetheless part of this final sheet.

UPDATE: From Keith Olbermann…

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I’m not sure my work here directly answers any of Mark’s original questions. At best I can say Ozzie Smith has card #1 because he is a Padre and the Padres lead off every sheet. Still, why Ozzie as opposed to other Padres, including bigger stars like Dave Winfield and Rollie Fingers? And why are the Padres with their last place finish in the top spot at all?

About all I can do is (maybe) add some rationale for the organization of the set into mini-team runs as opposed to complete team runs such as Fleer used that same year. I’ll start with a wrong answer but one that in some small way may inform a right answer.

At the very beginning of this article I mentioned the use of mini-team runs in 1940 Play Ball. For example, the New York Giants cards in this set occur at numbers 83-93, 154-159, 209-215. (There are also some “retired greats” cards at other checklist locations, but I’ll keep my focus on the active roster.) The Play Ball set was released in series, meaning had all 24 Giants cards been together on the checklist (e.g., cards 1-24), one series would have been jam-packed with Giants while the remaining series would have had none at all.

Of course 1981 Donruss was not released in series. All 605 cards came out all at once. As such, nothing terrible would have happened if the Padres simply opened the set with cards 1-18 rather than 1-4, 121-124, 241-244, 361-364, 525, and 595. On the other hand, let’s say that Donruss lacked whatever machinery Topps had in place for randomizing and collating cards into packs and boxes, something their past experience with non-baseball sets might have made clear to them going into the enterprise. If we assume that cards from the same sheet would have had a much higher than chance probability of going into the same packs, it’s easy to see that sheets with complete rosters would lead to collation issues more evident to consumers than sheets covering 24 different teams.

Personally, my own pack opening experience with 1981 Donruss (some as recently as last year) was that I still managed to open a great many packs with runs of 10-12 of the 18 cards spread across only two teams (e.g., Expos/Red Sox only). While this undoubtedly reflects poor collation, the fact is it could have been even worse. Had Donruss grouped entire team rosters together, those same packs might have yielded all Expos or all Red Sox.

Perhaps to address collation issues, the next year Donruss not only moved away from team runs entirely but also made several updates to their uncut sheets.

Among the other changes identifiable on this 1982 Donruss sheet are—

  • New size of 11 x 12 (132 cards), with five sheets again building the complete set, this time of 5 x 132 = 660 cards.
  • Change from vertical to horizontal sequencing of cards. For example, the top row run of Cal Ripken to Ray Burris covers cards 407-417 consecutively.
  • Insertion of Diamond Kings every 26th card.
  • Sheets covering a more complicated range of numbers. For example, the first six rows of the sheet shown (excluding Diamond Kings) cover cards 405-467 consecutively while the next six rows cover cards 279-341. (If you must know, the six Diamond Kings on the sheet are 16-18 followed by 11-13.)

Rather than go down the rabbit hole of 1982 any deeper, I’ll just close with some fond recollections of the 1981 set, some foggy and some vivid. I was 11 when the set came out, a perfect age for believing cardboard was magic while also being old enough to have more than a few cents in my pocket. We won’t talk about where the money came from, but I somehow “found” enough to ride my bike to 7-Eleven just about every day from March to October, often more than once.

I didn’t think in terms of monopolies and competition back then. In my world, more cards was a good thing, case closed. There was a lot for a kid to like about 1981 Donruss. More cards per pack, for one thing, and super colorful cards for another. Yes, there were plenty of errors, but boy were they fun to discover.

We had no internet back then to look this stuff up. (There were hobby mags, but I didn’t have subscribe yet.) It was just kids comparing notes at school: Steve Rodgers with a “d,” that’s not right! And then imagine the thrill of pulling a Rogers (no d) later that same year! Of course, some of the errors were funny too, like Bobby Bonds and his 986 home runs (giving father and son 1748 homers combined, by the way)!

Most of all though, I loved that some of my favorite players had extra cards in the set for no reason. Sure Topps might give a guy two cards if he was a Record Breaker, but here was Donruss with two Steve Garvey cards just because. Ditto Yaz. Tritto Pete Rose.

How about you? If you were a kid in 1981 what memories do you have of the set? And as you look back on it today, do you love it any more or any less?

The Prehistory of Shiny

A fixture of many modern sets are cards older collectors might dismiss as “the shiny stuff.” I’ll resist a complete taxonomy, but two major genera here would be metallic cards (e.g., chrome, foil) and cards displaying “advanced” optical properties such as refraction, holography, and “magic motion.” And of course, there are cards that check off both these boxes if not more, for example this (hurry, put your sunglasses on!)2020 Topps Heritage Chrome Gold Refractor of Kevin Pillar.

The recent history of such cards is either completely irrelevant to most older collectors or the lived experience of younger collectors, so I will skip all of it based on the assumption you either know far more than I do or care far less.

We’ll pick up our story then in 1991, which is still too modern for some of your tastes but (good God!) is practically 30 years ago now. Prior to my Hobby re-entry in 2014, it was my last year buying cards and I can’t even tell you how many Grand Slams my roommate and I ate in pursuit of the Upper Deck Denny’s Holograms set. (Side note: Does this Denny’s Howard Johnson qualify as an anti-metacard?)

These cards checked off all the boxes back then. They were literally everything and a side of bacon!

For collectors wanting to go “off menu” for dessert, all that was needed in 1991 was a trip to the corner 7-Eleven where “magic motion” coins had been packaged under Slurpee cups on and off since 1983.

And speaking of magic motion, Sportflics had been a major player on the card scene since 1986, more or less mimicking the 7-Eleven technology but onto standard 2-1/2 x 3-1/2 inch rectangles.

At least to a certain extent, precursors to the 7-Eleven and Sportflics offerings came from Kellogg’s, who had been pumping out 3-D cards on and off since 1970.

As for truly shiny, though, the first “cards” I remember buying as a kid came from the Topps Stickers sets of the early 1980s. While most of the stickers were of the standard variety, the sets included special foil inserts. Each of the Dave Parker stickers from the 1981 set is shown below.

“Okay, fine,” you say, “but what about true vintage, y’know, pre-1980?” Not a problem! If you were opening packs between 1960 and 1978 (but not 1974) I’m sure you ran across the occasional shiny trophy on your cardboard.

I mentioned earlier that the 3D sets from Kellogg’s date back to 1970 (see also Rold Gold), but I know some of you are thinking “3D” barely even qualifies as shiny. Then how about two sets that combine genuine shine and 3D: the 1969 Citgo Coins set, and the 1965 Topps Embossed set.

Though the shine was limited to the very edge, the 1971 Topps coins set warrants mention as well.

Ditto the 1964 Topps Coins set, but as with the 1980s sticker sets the all-stars get some extra shine.

Old London also included baseball coins with some of their snack products in 1965. If they look familiar, it is because they were produced by the same company that worked with Topps in 1964 and 1971.

And finally, before we leave the coin realm for good, the Cardinals put out a set of “Busch Stadium Immortals” coins in 1966 and were kind enough to dedicate one entire slot from the 12-coin checklist to a St. Louis Brown!

It’s been a while since we saw any magic motion, but the mid-1960s has that too. In commemoration of their championship season the Dodgers put out a set of three “flasher” pins: Don Drysdale, Sandy Koufax, and “Our Champs.”

In much of this post we are pushing the definition of baseball card a fair amount, and it’s possible most readers will feel I’ve gone too far in including this next set: 1950 Sports Stars Luckee Key Charms. Then again, if we keep the charm affixed to the packaging, just maybe!

Backing up several decades we get to a very early gold-bordered set. Ah, but not the one you’re thinking of. I’m talking about the 1915 PM1 Ornate-Frame Pins, a somewhat mysterious set with about 30 different players known thus far to make up the checklist.

An even earlier shiny set was also the first to have stats, bios, and even autographs. At last we’ve come to the masterpiece known as 1911 American Tobacco Company Gold Borders (T205). I believe the use of three significantly different designs (National League, American League, Minor Leagues) is also an innovation of this set, but perhaps a reader can verify.

However, among the firsts the T205 set accomplished, gold borders was not one of them. Two years ahead and one entry up in the American Card Catalog is the 1909 Ramly Cigarettes (T204) set, which not only features gold borders but additional gold framing around the player images.

A bit of gold could also be found in the 1910-11 Turkey Red (T3) cabinets, both in the nameplate and around the edge of each image. (See also 1911 Sporting Life Cabinets.)

You might expect by now we’ve reached the end of our journey, one that’s taken us back more than a century from the Kevin Pillar card that started this post. In fact we will go back another 20+ years to the 1888 H.D. Smith and Company (formerly known as Scrapp’s Tobacco) die cuts. Admittedly I’ve never seen one of this cards in person, but the lettering on the St. Louis player and the lacing on the Detroit player seem to have some gold sprinkled in.

Finally, just because I like to do this kind of thing, I’ll go back even one year earlier to 1887 and suggest an Honorable Mention, the 1887 Buchner Gold Coin (N284) tobacco series. I know, these cards don’t look shiny but they do have “Gold” in their name. In addition, this set had all the ingredients. Not only do we have plenty of Orr but we even have some Silver Flint!

And if that’s still not enough to warrant an honorable mention, here are two other cards in the set, Billy Sunday and Old Hoss Radbourn.

The man on the left, once he left the diamond, was known to tell his flock, “Give your face to God and he will put his shine on it.” And the man on the right? He’d be the first to tell you to take your cigarette cards and put ’em where the sun don’t shine!

When there was nothing to do except admire 1957 Topps…

Sometimes inspiration strikes when you least expect it. With everything going on in the world, I had put almost no time into my collection and for the first time in well over a year had no new articles in progress. Then, from my home-office-bunker in the basement I looked up at my framed 1957 Topps Brooklyn team set and didn’t love one of the cards.

It wasn’t just that my “Oisk” was off-kilter. (Try saying that to a normal person and see what kind of reaction you get!) It’s more that it just didn’t pop the way some of the other cards in my display did.

I headed to the Bay on my lunch break and quickly remedied the situation. (And if you can’t tell the difference between this card and the one above it, congratulations! It just means you are a normal person. It also means collecting vintage will be a lot cheaper for you than for some of us.)

Of course you all know how collecting works. Now that I had this beaut in the shopping cart, was there anything else I needed? The Erskine seller seemed to have an extensive inventory, and there was of course the added benefit that I’d save on shipping if I found other cards to order. In fact, I didn’t end up buying anything else. (And maybe like some of you I’ve found it hard to spend real money that can be used for food and toilet paper on little squares of cardboard…even if, yes, if we get really, really, really desperate…okay, let’s not go there.)

What I did come across, however, was a reminder: 1957 Topps is a gorgeous set. Here then, in no particular order, are some of my favorite shots in the set. Other than Ted Williams, I challenged myself to avoid Hall of Famers. This kept my focus on the card rather than the player.

And as a special bonus for the Dodger fans out there, here’s my new Brooklyn team set, complete with Erskine upgrade, nearly ready to frame back up.

So that’s it. That’s the post! Stay safe, stay home, and stay sane. If you have a favorite card from the 1957 set, let me know about it in the comments.

Quick postscript

Particularly with some of the cards in the set, there seem to be two versions. Side by side, one appears a bit more dull (which sometimes works!) and the other seems more green.

Initially I dismissed the differences to fading over time or the scans themselves, but having owned “pairs” of a couple players now, I think the differences are real. If you prefer one look over the other, don’t buy the first card you see. There doesn’t seem to be any pricing premium for one over the other, so go with what looks best to you.