1986 Donruss “The Rookies:” A Cautionary Tale

Though 1978 was the year I fell in love with baseball cards, 1985 was the year I lost all control. The rookie crop that year was ridiculous, and I had an utterly insatiable appetite for Dwight Gooden, Roger Clemens, Orel Hershiser, Eric Davis, and Jeff Stone. (If that last one surprises you, check out the stats on the back of his card!)

The effect of my season-long bender was that I entered 1986 with a monster hangover not even Jose Canseco could cure. I saw the new cards hit the shelves, I saw the constant barrage of up arrows in the Beckett, and I saw the local card shop get more crowded than ever, but I just wasn’t feeling the itch. Nothing in 1986 could match the thrill of pulling a Dr. K rookie, so why bother. For the first time since I started collecting, I found myself in the cardboard doldrums.

And then the earthquake came.

Here it was, the box set to end all box sets. Not since the 1951 Topps Connie Mack All-Stars had a set ever been more packed with can’t miss, first ballot Hall of Famers.

Just a sampling of the names on the set’s checklist included (and yes, all caps are appropriate here!) BARRY BONDS, WILL CLARK, BO JACKSON, and JOSE CANSECO—practically the Mount Rushmore of the Junk Wax era—Junk Waxmore if you will.

Within a couple months, the set had TEN players listing at triple digits in the Beckett’s high column, not to mention Bobby Bonilla, Todd Worrell, and Andres Galarraga.

Source: January/February 1987 Beckett

At my card shop I think the price on these sets started around $10 but quickly bolted up to $20, that is, if there were even any left on the shelves. The 1985 version of me would have bought one (if not more) in a heartbeat, but the 1986 version of me somehow went without. As the years went on and the players from this set became bigger and bigger stars, I regretted this hole in my collection more and more.

What I never would have guessed in 1986 or the decade that followed was that the set’s megastar-studded 56-player checklist would fail to produce a single Hall of Famer. From a set that screamed “Cooperstown or bust,” we got no Cooperstown, all bust.

There is an obvious lesson here for collectors spending excessive amounts of money on today’s young stars. No player is a can’t miss. Every player is gamble. You may win a few, but the House always wins more. You can even go 0 for 56.

However much this sucked for collectors paying $4 for Jose Canseco or $2.25 for Pete Incaviglia in early 1987, I have to imagine the hangover will be even worse for collectors spending hundreds if not thousands of dollars on today’s equivalent of “The Rookies.”

Sample of eBay sold listings pulled July 12, 2019

However good today’s rookies and prospects look right now, the 1986 crop looked even better, which they may well prove to be. Buyer beware.

I’ll end this article with a puzzle. I just reported (accurately) that the 1986 Donruss “The Rookies” checklist didn’t manage a single Hall of Famer. Nonetheless, were you to buy this set today (going rate: about $10), you would indeed find a Hall of Famer in the box. Stumped? Scroll down for the answer.

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Ten quirks of the 1934-36 Diamond Stars set

The 1934-36 Diamond Stars set from National Chicle is a personal favorite thanks to its bright colors, its creative backgrounds, and the overall personality of its artwork. It’s also a set that makes for interesting study due to a variety of quirks and even a possible mystery.

10. NO Ruth or Gehrig

Though the Diamond Stars checklist is stacked with Hall of Fame talent, the set does not include the era’s two biggest stars, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Other notable absences include Dizzy Dean and Chuck Klein. While the omissions detract from the set in the eyes of many collectors, they may prove a blessing in disguise to set collectors on more modest budgets.

The standard theory, which I subscribe to, on why these players are missing is that they were locked into contracts with Goudey and/or mega-agent Christy Walsh. However, Ron Rembert offers an alternate explanation in his article, “Idols and the 1934-36 Diamond Stars Set.”

9. AUSTEN LAKE BIOS

The back of each Diamond Stars card features a novel biographical format that doubles as a baseball instruction manual and scouting report tailored to the featured player. The byline on this content is Austen Lake of the Boston American.

1934-36 Diamond Stars Lefty Grove with Austen Lake bio

Lake himself has an interesting bio, having at one time tried out as a catcher with the Yankees, played football professionally, and rose to prominence as a war correspondent during World War II. Of course, some vintage collectors might know the name (and even most of the bio!) from another set of 1930s trading cards.

1933 DeLong Lefty Grove with Austen Lake bio

8. what year are the cards?

As the name suggests, the 1934-36 Diamond Stars were indeed released over a three year period. However, that is not to say that each of the cards was available all three years. More detail is provided in an excellent article Kevin Glew wrote for PSA, but a basic summary of the 108-card release is as follows.

  • 1934: Cards 1-24
  • 1935: Cards 1-84
  • 1936: Cards 2, 4, 5, 8, 9, 10, 12, 16, 22, 26, 30, 31, and 73-108

For example, this Luke Appling card (#95) would have only been available to collectors in 1936 whereas the Lefty Grove card (#1) shown earlier would have been available in 1934 or 1935. (As you’ll see in the next section, this isn’t 100% true, but we’ll call it “true for now.”)

7. what year are the cards…really?

For cards spanning more than one year, such as the Lefty Grove, a different version of the card was issued each year. The most telltale feature for distinguishing the variations is the line of stats at the bottom of each card back. If you scroll up a bit, you’ll see the Grove card that led off this article featured stats for 1933, hence was part of the 1934 series, whereas this Grove card features stats for 1934, hence was part of the 1935 series.

6. color change

Card backs featured green ink in 1934, blue ink in 1936, and a mix of the tw0—at least for cards 73-86—in 1935. As such, a set collector hoping to collect all possible variations would need three of each card from 73-86: a green 1935, a blue 1935, and a blue 1936.

5. other variations

Two well front variations in the set are the Hank Greenberg and Ernie Lombardi cards, originally misspelled as Hank Greenburg and Earnie Lombardi. Less known are five cards in the set where the player uniform changes due to a transaction between one series and another. I have a more comprehensive article on this subject here, but here are images of the five.

In other cases, such as with Johnny Vergez, card fronts stay the same but card backs note team changes.

4. more ambitious set planned?

Similar to the 1933 Goudey set, the bottom of each card back advertised a set of “240 major league players.” Despite that, the set included only 108 cards and only 96 different players.

One explanation for the smaller set is that player contracts with Goudey greatly reduced the number of players available. Another explanation is the 1937 bankruptcy of National Chicle. That said, at the established pace of only 32 new players (or 36 new cards) per year, it would have taken a good 7+ years to make it to 240.

3. DOUBLED dozen

While the first 96 cards in the checklist represent 96 distinct players, the final 12 cards in the set are all repeats. For example, Bill Dickey has card 11 (1934, 1935) and card 103 (1936) in the set. A possible explanation for the repeated twelve cards will come at the end of this article.

2. mystery uncut sheet

An uncut sheet of Diamond Stars was discovered in the 1980s by the family member of a former National Chicle printer. While other uncut Diamond Stars sheets are known to exist, what made this one particularly unique was that none of its 12 cards appear anywhere on the Diamond Stars checklist! (See Ryan Cracknell article for more info.)

In addition to blank-backed cards of Hall of Famers Goose Goslin and Lefty Gomez, the sheet also includes a particularly noteworthy card pairing Browns teammates Jim Bottomley and Rogers Hornsby.

Original artwork for the Bottomley/Hornsby card sold at auction in 2012, and good news…the owner is evidently actively entertaining offers!

In addition, the press photo, taken at 1936 Spring Training, that the artwork and card were based on has also made the rounds.

1. connection between uncut sheet and doubled dozen?

I have seen some speculation that the twelve repeated cards (97-108) on the Diamond Stars checklist might have taken the place of the twelve cards on this uncut and unreleased sheet. I have also seen the Bottomley/Hornsby card at its neighbors proposed as part of an unrealized 1937 extension to the original set.

As with most 80+ year old mysteries, any definitive answer is likely lost to history. At least some clues that suggest the sheet was produced along with the rest of the 1936 series are the cards for Jim Bottomley, Roger Cramer, and Gene Moore, all of which show teams they joined in early 1936, and Benny Frey, Rip Collins, Linus Frey, and Lon Warneke, still shown on teams they were no longer with in 1937.

When I first saw this unreleased sheet, what jumped out at me were the zanier more geometric backgrounds versus the more traditional (but still colorful) stadium and cityscape backgrounds of the original 108 cards. Perhaps this mismatch prompted a National Chicle exec to kill the sheet and a panicking product manager to replace it with the fastest thing he could throw together: repeats of earlier cards.

BONUS KAWhi leonard tie-in

As Kawhi Leonard contemplates whether to remain in Toronto or join forces with LeBron and A.D. to form the greatest Big Three in NBA history, I thought I’d call out my favorite Cardboard Big Three ever. I defy you to top it, even if I spot you a Ruth and a Gehrig!

Junk Wax for the win!

Okay, I admit it. I’m kind of a collecting snob. As a vintage collector I tend to thumb my nose at modern and recoil instantly at anything that shines, refracts, redeems, rainbows, or retails for more than 30 cents a pack. So what was I doing this past weekend up to my ears in junk wax?!

Card collecting at its best…REALLY!

The plan hatched innocently enough. Following my baseball card presentation at our last SABR Chicago meeting, a few of the attendees and I were in the parking lot chatting about cards. One of the members, Rich, mentioned that he had a lot of unopened 1989 Fleer from the early (uncensored F*Face) print runs and would happy donate a cello box to the right occasion.

Meanwhile, one of my best buddies from high school, a guy I opened thousands of packs with back in the day, was up from Los Angeles on a work assignment. Abe no longer collected cards, but I knew there would be plenty of room for at least one evening of waxing nostalgic.

Abe on a more typical evening

Also joining the fun were Bill, whose chapter newsletters must be the best in all of SABR, and John, who writes on here as Baseball Law Reporter and is also the man behind the incredibly ambitious and useful Baseball Sites Project.

After some pizza and a few innings of Astros-Yankees on the main floor, we headed down to the basement, and Rich brought out the 1989 Fleer. How he had resisted opening the packs all this time was a mystery to me, but it worked out well for us. Or more specifically, it worked out VERY well for Abe, who managed to land all three of these gems!

Inside joke but Abe himself was the “Luckmaster” this past weekend!

As for my own stack of 1989 Fleer, it’s possible not a single card is worth more than a quarter (if even!), but it didn’t stop me from being excited any time I pulled a good player. Eddie Murray, Kirk Gibson, Dave Parker…the hits just piled up. As much as I love cards of the 1930s, the truth is it was THESE cards where I knew all the players, saw many of them play, and remembered the feeling of finding them in packs. Junk or not, nostalgia is in the memories, never the value.

From there we went on to 1981 Fleer, which brought back my age 11 memory of pulling the “C” Nettles at a card show and literally fainting! Riding his earlier hot streak, Abe (of course!) was the one to pull a Nettles, but it was the corrected Graig Nettles version. Of course he still managed the best hit of the box, the Fernand [sic] Valenzuela rookie card. Yes, I know the card is available on eBay for $1, but I still couldn’t help being insanely jealous of the pull.

You had ONE job, 1981 Fleer typesetter!

One thing that caught our eye with the 1981 Fleer box to retailers informing them of the two free packs (hence 60 cents extra profit!) contained in each box. And sure enough, there were those two extra packs, crammed sideways between the main stacks of wax. As card-obsessed as I was as a kid, this was wholly uninteresting to me back in 1981 but today reveals an important marketing strategy Fleer used to establish a foothold in the newly competitive baseball card retail space.

We also had some fun opening my 20 or so assorted 1988 Score packs and a box of 1988 Donruss. Every 20 minutes or so, one of us would run up to see if my 1981 Donruss box had been delivered, but sadly it never did arrive on time. Still, opening packs was only half the fun we had planned for the night.

At least partly to troll John for his recent article on the worst baseball card set ever, I brought out my never-been-played, had-to-empty-my-TV-remotes-for-batteries 1989 Main Street Baseball game. Of course there was no way we were using the ugly cards that came with the game, not when we had heaps and heaps of 1980s wax sitting right in front of us!

John, I hope it’s cool I stole your photo!

For what must have been the next 90 minutes, we proceeded to dig through our stacks of freshly opened cards, trying to find actual baseball cards of each of the players on our team. One fantastic attribute of junk wax became immediately apparent as readily handed off our Nolan Ryan, Tony Gwynn, and George Brett cards to whichever guy had the adhesive stat strip for the player. WE COULD GIVE THESE CARDS AWAY FOR FREE AND NOT CARE AT ALL!

This would have been unthinkable back in the 1980s!

Yes, the fact that many cards in our collections are worth money can feel like a positive sometimes, and the fact that we can probably flip a $80 card for at least $75 down the road makes us feel a little less crazy spending nice-dinner-out-with-the-family money on a little square of cardboard.

But let’s face it; the value of our cards is also the single greatest barrier to enjoyment. When your cards are worth money, it’s hard to give them away, it’s hard to even make trades, you’re not going to flip them, they won’t go near a bicycle tire, and you might not even want to touch them! What kind of hobby is this?!

Meanwhile, here we were with our junk wax not only sharing them freely (except Billy Ripken!) but even…YES!…putting stickers on them! (Side note: Did Puckett’s 1988 Score bio really say, “Sporting a shaved head and a chunky body shaved like a bowling ball…?” YES!)

Hoping my son can crack the code and build me a secret weapon player who homers every at-bat!

I’d say the game was anti-climactic after all the fun we had finding the cards we needed and affixing bar codes, but would that really do justice to a 4-3 thriller featuring a lead-off homer from Rickey, 8 strong innings from Orel Hershiser, and an oh-so-close ninth inning rally that left the tying run on third and winning run on second?

Sure the graphics were little red blips and the game seemed to skip an inning on us randomly, but the truth was this 1989 electronic baseball technology was far superior to anything I actually played as a kid!

The simple, intuitive interface inspired Steve Jobs as he was creating the iPod

Back to the cards, though, here is what the evening brought home to my snobby collecting self. There is a place in EVERY collection for worthless cards, the kind you can trade, give away, keep in your wallet, put stickers on, or—as Rich did at one point in the evening—use as a beverage coaster. There really is a certain kind of fun you can only have with worthless cards.

Junk wax connects us to the purity of the hobby in a way that no other cards can. It allows us to know the feeling of opening a pack of 1933 Goudey or 1952 Topps. Yes, the players are different, but more importantly the experience is the same. Like our hobby ancestors, here we are opening packs of cards for no other reason than a love for little pieces of cardboard with baseball players on them. That, my friends, is winning!

A Ted Williams mini-mystery…solved?

The hobby is full of secrets, mysteries, and a lore often built on hearsay, self-interest, imperfect memory, and conjecture. Of course sometimes there is actual evidence.

Today’s baseball card mystery is the mythical “Ted Signs for 1959” card #68 that has prompted many a collector to declare 79/80 good enough on the 1959 Fleer Ted Williams set.

About the card

Before plunging into the unknown, here is what’s known.

  • The card is significantly rarer than the other 79 cards in the set.
  • The card was pulled from production due to the exclusive contract Topps held with Bucky Harris. (Random aside: The first ever Topps card of Bucky Harris was in 1952 1953 1954 1955 1956 1991!)
  • The card was sent to collectors who contacted Fleer about its absence from the set.
  • And of course the card was and still is frequently counterfeited.

What remains a mystery, or at least lacking consensus, some 60 years later is just how early the card was pulled from production. Specifically, did card 68 ever make it into packs?

Ask the experts

Here is a fairly extensive literature review on the subject. While all sources agree the card was pulled early, none offer any specificity as to just how early “early” really was.

  • According to the Standard Catalog of Vintage Baseball Cards (5th Ed.), “card #68 was withdrawn from the set early in production and is scarce.”
  • The PSA Card Facts for the set note only that “The set’s most scarce and therefore prized piece is Card #68 (“Ted Signs for 1959”), which Fleer withdrew from the collection early in production.”
  • A more detailed PSA write-up on the card itself notes only that the “card was pulled from production early due to an alleged contract dispute with Buck [sic] Harris (the other man depicted on the card), resulting in a higher degree of scarcity.”
  • An article on Cardboard Connection is equally mum: “As a result, the card had to be pulled from production, pushing values up.”
  • A listing at Dean’s cards indicates that “Fleer was forced to remove the #68 card from distribution, due to the legal issues of using Harris’ image without his permission.”
  • An article on the set from Sports Collectors Digest refers to card 68 as “a single card that ended up being pulled off the presses…”. 
  • From Sports Collectors Daily (2012): “During the production process, the card was yanked from the set, creating a rarity that has driven set builders crazy for years.”
  • From Sports Collectors Daily (2016): “Fewer copies exist of that one compared to the other cards in the set because printing of it ceased early when the set was being created. It seems Red Sox GM Bucky Harris was under contract to Topps and thus, couldn’t appear in a Fleer set.  Fleer stopped the presses and pulled #68 but not before some of them had already been printed.”
  • From Tuff Stuff: “Fleer was forced to pull the card early from production.”
  • From Robert Edward Auctions: “This card was withdrawn from production due to legal issues relating to Fleer’s unauthorized use of Harris’ image.”
  • From Heritage Auctions: “[The card] is known for being difficult due to being pulled from circulation since Bucky Harris (who appears on this card) was under contract with Topps.”
  • From Leland’s: “The key to the 1959 Fleer Ted Williams Set. The Ted Signs for 1959 card #68 was pulled from production early making it a bit scarcer than the rest of the set. “
  • From KeyMan Collectibles: “Topps had Bucky Harris under exclusive contract and Fleer had to stop production of card 68 ‘Ted Signs for 1959’ making it a rare short print. Only a few made it out to the public.”

Equivocating on the issue one final time is this Heritage listing for an unopened box, which suggests the card shouldn’t be in the packs but might be.

“We can only speculate if card #68 ‘Jan 23, 1959 – Ted Signs for 1959’ can be found within. History says it should not as the card was not supposed to be sold.”

Heritage Auctions listing #80171

If it were well known or provable that card 68 did in fact make it into at least some packs, I have to imagine the Heritage catalog would have played up that fact in its listing. As it is, my read of the listing is much more a “probably not” than a “maybe.”

Primary sources

Of course, if I learned anything at all from my History teacher, primary sources are always best. As such, let’s see what the Frank H. Fleer Corporation had to say about the card back in August 1959.

A full transcript of the letter is here, but the key lines are these:

Due to the possibility of legal overtones, card #68 of the Ted Williams series was not put on the market for sale.  However, it was made and we have been able to send several to people such as you who have inquired.

So there you have it, right? Straight from Art Wolfe at Fleer, we see that card 68 was not put on the market for sale, i.e., did not make it into packs.

The ultimate primary source

However, where baseball cards are concerned, there are sources even more reliable than the Assistant Promotion Managers of the companies that make them. The best authority on card 68 and the only source truly worthy of the label “primary” is of course card 68 itself!

As luck would have it, I finally picked one of after all these years. I think you’ll agree it’s not a bad looking “2.”

I have to imagine the grade was based more on the card’s reverse, which has a prominent wax stain and a crease that shows up the right lighting makes evident.

Wait a minute! Did somebody say wax stain?!?! Let’s crack that card out of its plastic prison and get a better look.

Sure enough, it’s a wax stain. MYSTERY SOLVED! And lest you think this one card managed to sneak through quality control, here’s another…

And another…

This is also a good spot to thank reader “athomeatfenway” for the tip to check out page 212 of the Ted Williams bio “In Pursuit of Perfection” by Bill Nowlin and Jim Prime. Here, dealer Irv Lerner recounts an incredible story of the 1959 Fleer set along with his recollection of card 68 specifically.

“The initial run did have the number 68s in it. Two or three months afterward, they damaged that part of the plate so they could pull it out.”

Estimating rarity

Incidentally, the wax stains do more than confirm that card 68 made it into wax packs, albeit very early ones. The stains may also provide a rough means of estimating how many of these cards were issued in packs versus through direct correspondence with Fleer.

Imagine that one had access to front/back scans of a large sample of the card, for example, all 1200 or so PSA/SGC graded examples of card 68. Now assume 30 of the cards exhibited wax stains. Since the cards were issued in packs of 6 or 8 cards apiece, we might infer from the 30 stained cards that between 30 x 6 = 180 and 30 x 8 = 240 of the 1200 cards (about 15-20%) came from packs.

Bonus info

In doing my research for this piece, I ran across some information outside the main storyline that nonetheless felt worth sharing.

First up, here is a 1958 photograph of Art Wolfe, the Fleer employee who signed letters to collectors in 1959. Source: October 12, 1958, Press and Sun-Bulletin (Binghamton, NY).

By March 1959, Mr. Wolfe had joined Fleer and was in Clearwater, Florida, doing his best to sign ballplayers. Source: March 21, 1959, News Journal (Wilmington, DE).

The following week the Fort Lauderdale News (March 25, 1959) covered the signing of Ted Williams by Fleer as an early sign of the cardboard apocalypse.

And a week after that, the April 2 (subscription required) Press and Sun-Bulletin (Binghamton, NY) covered Mr. Wolfe from Fleer in the middle of his “Just say no to Topps” campaign.

You might be surprised to see all this coverage of the baseball cards wars long before the financial side of the hobby exploded. Still, this stuff really did matter to kids back then! Here is the May 22, 1961, edition of the Miami News.

Fleer took a break from the baseball card business between 1963 and 1968, so it’s not surprising that Art Wolfe would return to his sportscasting roots, eventually becoming sports director for WPEN, known today as “97.5 The Fanatic.” Here is an ad from the July 13, 1965, Philadelphia Daily News.

Following his tenure with WPEN, Wolfe went on to become a sports reporter and anchor for Philadelphia’s KYW. This letter from a young reader in June 1986 stands as proof not only that Philly sports fans are the worst but that they start young! 😄

Clare R. “Art” Wolfe passed away in 2008, having spent most of his life a radio and TV man doing sports. However unappreciated his work may have been by an eighth grade Gregory Popowski, many of us—but not quite all of us—with complete 1959 Fleer Ted Williams sets owe Mr. Wolfe a debt of gratitude for putting those cards in the mail.

Committee note: Tomorrow the SABR Baseball Cards blog will be celebrating 400 posts with a specially themed article revolving around the number 400. Any guesses? Fitting though it might have been, you can probably already rule out Ted Williams!

The Babe Ruth trade of 1933

I know the historians among you are already protesting. “But the Bambino was never traded!” Details, details. You’re thinking of the real world, but I’m talking about the cardboard world.

An extremely rare 1/0 Babe Ruth traded card

The year was 1933, and a fourteen-year-old chewing gum company, having tucked its poisoning scandals safely in the past, was making its first foray into the baseball card world. The effort would be an ambitious one, promising young chewers a 240-card series of baseball stars.

Reverse of 1933 Goudey card #1, Benny Bengough

This set, known as R319 or 1933 Goudey, was destined to become one of the most popular and iconic trading card sets of all time, to this day sharing headroom with 1909-11 T206, 1952 Topps, and (depending on your age) 1989 Upper Deck on our hobby’s Mt Rushmore of classic baseball card sets.

Artist’s representation of fictitious Baseball Card Mt Rushmore. Beware of slippery slopes!

Before we can get to the Babe Ruth trade, it’s necessary to understand that the Goudey set was produced as ten sheets of 24 cards each. An uncut example of the fifth sheet is shown below. It includes card 53, the first of four Babe Ruth cards that would appear in the set.

Sheet 5 of 1933 Goudey set, the first release to include a Babe Ruth card

Probably not, but perhaps you’ve just done the math and wondered how card 53 would have ended up on the fifth sheet, which ostensibly should have featured cards 97-120. In fact, the Goudey set used extensive skip numbering, instead filling the fifth sheet with card numbers 53-57, 68-74, and 80-91. (I also believe a second factor was at play and that this particular sheet was originally designed as the fourth sheet.)

Here is the state of the Goudey checklist following the release of the fifth sheet. Note the gaps from 97-99, 106-114, 121-129, and perhaps 142-144.

But now let’s talk about that sixth sheet in greater depth. In particular, we’ll focus on five cards from it for which early proof versions exist.

When you think of card 106 in the 1933 Goudey set, you most likely think of the famous Napoleon Lajoie card. What you may not know is that an early proof card of Leo Durocher first bore this card number before ultimately receiving card 147 in the set.

1933 Goudey #106, Napoleon Lajoie, issued in late 1934 to appease the completists

Likewise, four other cards from the sixth sheet have proof cards that are “misnumbered.”

  • Eddie Farrell #107 (released as 148)
  • Luke Sewell #123 (released as 163)
  • Al Spohrer #124 (released as 161)
  • Rube Walberg #128 (released as 145)

Returning to the set’s checklist, the proof (incorrect) numbers of each are shown in pink and the final (correct) numbers of each are shown in blue.

In all five cases, the numbers of the proof cards land within the checklist’s gaps whereas the final numbers assigned avoid the gaps entirely. Though it would require the discovery of many more proof cards to be certain, the numbering of the known proofs at least suggests that an early draft version of the sixth sheet might have filled all 24 gaps prior to renumbering.

Ir reality, the sixth sheet filled only two of the gaps, 143 and 144, while adding the next 21 consecutive numbers to 165.

If you’ve done the math again, you may be pondering how it is that a sheet of 24 cards might only check off 23 numbers. The answer is that the sixth sheet contains the only double-print of the set, Babe Ruth’s card 144, which can be found twice in the second row of the sheet. The sheet also includes Ruth’s red 149 card and the renumbered Farrell (148), Durocher (147), Walberg (145), Sewell (163), and Spohrer (161) cards.

Sheet 6 from 1933 Goudey set (numbering added) featuring double-printed Ruth 144

To the extent the five proof cards identified thus far hint at a draft version of this sheet with different numbers, a second even more intriguing question is natural: did the draft version include both Ruth 144 cards, or was a second one added in some later stage of production?

Thickening the plot and potentially answering that question is the existence of a sixth proof card.

Proof card of Jack Russell

Like the other five proofs, its number 121 fits perfectly within the theorized numbering of the original sixth sheet.

However, this particular card did not end up on the set’s sixth sheet. It was bumped to the next one and assigned card number 167.

Sheet 7 from 1933 Goudey set featuring Jack Russell’s card 167

What this suggests to me is that there were at least two significant changes made to the 1933 Goudey set’s sixth sheet prior to final production.

  • Cards were renumbered to continue the set’s skip counting scheme.
  • Jack Russell was bumped to make room for a second Ruth 144 card.

So while I may never own the 1933 Goudey Babe Ruth card I’ve coveted since I was nine, I may well own the player he was traded for, and isn’t that almost as good?! 😀 (Spoiler alert: No.)

The author with his 1933 Goudey consolation prize

So that’s the story I intended to tell when I began work on this article. Unfortunately, facts have a way of ruining a good story, and that’s exactly what happened as I chased down some last-minute research on the topic.

While I am unable to find a photo of the reverse, I trust the Robert Edwards Action catalog enough to add this Al Thomas card to the list of numbering variations. While the true Thomas card (pictured at right) carries number 169 in the Goudey set, the proof card (pictured at left) is numbered 127.

Proof card and standard card for Al Thomas. Note various minor differences in typesetting of name.

On one hand, a proof card numbered 127 fits squarely within the numbering range of the other proof cards.

On the other hand, like the Russell, it bounced to the seventh sheet of the set.

Had Thomas remained on the sixth sheet along with Durocher, Walberg, et. al., his proof card would have fit my original thesis to a tee. However, with that not being the case, we are left with two possible conclusions.

  • The whole theory was rubbish to begin with
  • The theory was mostly right except that TWO Ruth cards were added at the end!

I find this second alternative the more attractive one, largely for self-serving reasons, but also because it begs the question: Which two?

I’ll close with a few quick notes on the proof cards discussed in this article.

  • While the most evident differences between the proofs and their standard issues are the card numbers on the back, there are also differences on the fronts of the cards. The typesetting of the player name is a frequent difference. For example, the proof version of Al Thomas almost looks like ALTHOMAS (one word) while the standard version separates his first and last name with a period (AL. THOMAS) and crashes into his hat.
  • While there is some mystery surrounding the precise timing of these proofs, a strong clue comes from the Durocher card. Because his proof has him with the Cardinals, a trade that occurred May 7, 1933, it is clear his proof card was produced after that date.
  • Thus far each of the proof cards identified with the possible exception of the Durocher is a 1/1, at least as far as known copies are concerned.
  • According to hobby lore, most or all of the proofs came from a single partial sheet obtained by hobby pioneer Woody Gelman directly from a source at Goudey. (An alternative explanation has been put forth with respect to the Durocher, claiming it was instead created by hobbyists post-1933 as a means of helping collectors complete their sets.)

Author’s note: If you are aware of other 1933 Goudey proofs with numbers that differed from their final printing, please let me know. Following the line of thought in this article, I imagine there might have been 20+ originally.

Ruining with Scissors

By now you are probably at least somewhat familiar with the various scandals rocking the baseball card world. Any summary I could provide here would be outdated by the time I hit “Publish.” Therefore I will address only one aspect of the scandal, one that to some collectors is no scandal at all: the alteration, restoration, and repairing on cards. (Also see “What Do Baseball Cards Want?” for a related SABR Baseball Cards article.)

I will lead off with an unquestioned assumption I think most collectors have hung their hats on for a while: condition is a one-way street.

True or not, we at least initially presume cards begin in some pristine (or at least best) state from which their condition either stays the same or gets worse over time. Were we to plot the condition of a card continuously over time, we could get what your calculus teacher would have called a monotonically decreasing function.

Where a collector put his cards in bike spokes, pockets, or a rainstorm, condition decreased quickly. Conversely, where a collector used more protection than a Spring Breaker in Tijuana, condition was protected and preserved. However, nothing caused condition to improve. Cosmetic appearance? Yes. Condition? No.

When it comes down to it, the idea that condition is a one-way street is the main reason high-grade cards are so coveted. Some collectors might argue that their value simply comes from looking the nicest. However, I would prop up the near worthlessness of reprints as a counter to that claim.

Take a look at this (aptly named) Hack Wilson, before and after it’s run-in with a paper cutter.

With four well-placed cuts the corners, edges, and centering have all improved, but would you (or anyone) actually pay me more for the card on the right, having watched me create it from the card on the left? Unless your intention was to profit off an unsuspecting collector ignorant of the trimming, I have to imagine you’d either walk away or lower your offer considerably.

Yes, the card may look better, but we know it’s not better. Sure, the contrarians out there might challenge us to explain why size is somehow more important than corners, edges, and centering combined, and when they put it that way we would likely even struggle. Of course the real reason isn’t a reason; it’s an assumption.

Condition is a one-way street. As such, anything significant done to a card automatically and axiomatically makes the card worse. Period. Doubt that, and nearly any discussion of condition or premium on condition becomes farcical.

Condition is a one-way street. Period.

Reflections on “Shoebox Treasures”

Author’s note: Along with other members of the SABR Baseball Cards Research Committee, I was in Cooperstown this past weekend for the opening of the Hall of Fame’s “Shoebox Treasures” exhibit. Like a great song or poem, a successful exhibit leaves room for each visitor to develop his own meaning. Here is mine. I encourage each of you to visit and find your own.

When you’re a kid a shoebox can be a lot of things but mostly a safe. In the closet, under the bed, or in some nook a kid imagines a secret, there is a box of his best things. It might start out with some plastic army men or a G.I. Joe, some bottle caps, a few pieces of Halloween candy pilfered from his sister’s trick or treat bag, and some stamps and coins, but as the collection grows all these things give way to the consummate currency of cool: cardboard.

My favorite photograph from the exhibit

The baseball card collection, guarded more closely than eggs to a hen, was all things at once: encyclopedia of all that matters, marker of status, builder of friendships, beginning of plans and dreams, blank canvas, constant muse, and drawbridge to the bigger and better.

Not sure why “improved” is in quotes here!

The luckiest kids were born into cardboard royalty through an older brother or cousin, or–if they really hit the jackpot–their dad. I was not. Though my dad grew up during the Golden Age of Baseball and could have acquired countless cards of of Mays, Aaron, and Mantle, he had neither the interest nor the change to spare. His interests as a young boy were astronomy and dinosaurs. He told me why once. They were the things he could think of as far away as possible, in distance and in time.

Upper portion of “Collector’s Corner” area of exhibit

He had no cards for me, just a similar desire to escape. We both grew up in (and ultimately recreated) houses full of conflict: arguments, yelling, fighting, and ultimately divorce. I expected things to improve when my dad moved out, but my mom’s anger never went away. It only found the closest targets. From the outside our house looked solid. It survived earthquakes and a fire. On the inside it was fragile and falling apart, its only stronghold my growing house of cards.

More than 40 pull-out drawers, organized by era, offer a tremendous visual timeline of the Hobby.

The kids I grew up with, I think most of them collected to be closer to their heroes. Far fewer collected to be farther from everything else. As adults, however long our hiatus from the Hobby, I suspect the proportion is greater. Our cards help us start over, feel young again, and shield us from what ails us.

The exhibit included the work of Baseball Card Vandals, Gummy Arts, Tim Carroll, and other artists.

As I made the drive from Cooperstown to Albany for my 6 o’clock flight home, I reflected on the unbelievably great time I had all weekend but also how fantastic it would be to get home, to be back with my fiancee, my son, and our dog. (And yes, to add a few new cards to my binders from the local card shops!)

Getting ready to hit the card shops (L-R): Mark Armour, Harry Hoyle, and Andrew Aronstein

For most of my collecting life, I needed to collect. I don’t anymore. Life is that good finally. But here’s the kicker, brought home 100% at “Shoebox Treasures.” I still love the cards just as much. My shoeboxes are still safes, but now only the cards need protecting. Thanks to the heroes, cardboard and otherwise, who got me here.

Several players were on hand all weekend for the Hall of Fame Classic

I know some of you are a little bummed to reach the end of this post without seeing a bunch of great cards, especially if you missed the Mantle rookie in one of the pics. In fact the exhibit is loaded with great cards, including what’s probably the nicest T206 Wagner in the world. (Before you go checking some pop report, this one has never been graded!) I have too many pictures to share, and I’d rather you just go see the cards for yourself, but I will leave you with this great pairing.

Topps All-Star Rookie trophy supplied by the great Johnny Bench himself!