Author’s Note: Over the last couple years I’ve quietly marveled as fellow collector Christopher Torres worked his way ever closer toward a remarkable Hobby achievement: a complete set of T206 Polar Bear backs. In this interview with SABR Baseball Cards, Chris shares his experiences with our readers.
SABR Baseball Cards: Chris, many of our readers may know you from your excellent real-time documentation of the Topps Project 2020 set. Were you also collecting tobacco cards at that time, or is this a more recent foray for you?
Chris: First off, thank you for your kind words on my Project 2020 work. What a tremendous time that was for us as a country but also for us in the baseball card community. I personal can’t believe we are about to hit three years since I released my first ever P2020 video and to this day I am forever thankful for everyone who followed and watched my Project 2020 series. I credit a lot of my professional success these days to my trial and error with recording those earlier videos.
Now at the time Project 2020 started, I was a collector of tobacco cards but on a very minor scale with no real purpose. I picked up my very first T206 cards at the 2019 National in Chicago as a way to commemorate my first ever trip to the National. I ended up with raw Solly Hofman and an SGC A Frank Chance along with a few T212 Obak Seattle cards. Little did I know then that the $60 Chance purchase would eventually send me off on a three year plus collecting journey for the entire Polar Bear back run set.
SABR Baseball Cards: What drew you to collecting Polar Bear backs in particular? Were there any other finalists in mind as you settled on Polar Bear?
Chris: As I picked up more and more T206 cards through 2020 and the first part of 2021, I found myself at a true crossroads in the set. I knew financially speaking putting together all 520 cards was going to be tough and I also wondered if I could truly appreciate 520 different cards. At times I found myself buying cards just because and never truly enjoying them.
Through that trial and error, the one card back that I truly appreciated was the Polar Bear back. Not only is blue one of my favorite colors (Go UTEP Miners!), the card back was so much more visually appealing than the others. The second part that really struck me was the confidence of their slogan, “Is Now, Always Has Been, Always Will Be” the best scrap tobacco.
About two years after I picked up my first T206 card I sold off every single non-Polar Bear card, minus a few Southern Leaguer Old Mills, and decided to start over. By January 2, 2022, I was at 77 Polar Bears, which was just about 31% of the set’s 250 cards.
SABR Baseball Cards: Let’s dig in to that number a bit more. The Polar Bear subset has 250 different cards, which puts it at about half the cards of the full Monster. Is there anything that distinguishes these 250 cards? For example, do they represent just one of the three years 1909-1911, or are only certain teams represented?
Chris: The print years are the same as the broader T206 set (i.e., 1909-1911), but one very key property of the Polar Bear set is the inclusion of Ray Demmitt and Bill O’Hara in St Louis uniforms. (Editor’s Note: These St. Louis variations are two of the toughest cards in the entire Monster, trailing only the “Big Four” in scarcity.) These variations only occur in Polar Bear, as no other brands chose to update their teams following their trades.
I also personally put Simon Nichols on the same pedestal as Demmitt and O’Hara being that he retired in 1910 and was potentially replaced on the print sheet by Demmitt or O’Hara. However, the secondary market currently says otherwise.
SABR Baseball Cards: Which top-shelf Hall of Famers can be found with Polar Bear backs? For example, are all four Ty Cobb cards in the subset?
Chris: Polar Bear is unique as it only includes 32 Hall of Famers compared to the 74 in the entire 520 card set. In Polar Bear, Ty Cobb only has the “Red Portrait” and “Bat off Shoulder” variations. Walter Johnson has just the “Glove at Chest” variation, no portrait. Same with Christy Mathewson, no portrait in Polar Bear but the “Dark Cap” variation.
This is what makes Polar Bear unique in my mind. You are still getting a taste of all of the Hall of Famers but you aren’t having to buy as many different poses for a complete set. Only Cobb, Hughie Jennings, John McGraw, Joe Tinker and Vic Willis have two Polar Bear poses, and no Hall of Famer has three.
SABR Baseball Cards: What can you tell us about the Polar Bear tobacco brand itself?
Chris: The biggest difference between Polar Bear tobacco and the other tobacco brands represented in T206 (e.g., Piedmont, Sweet Caporal) was that it was sold in loose tobacco pouches versus rolled tobacco form (i.e., cigarettes).
This is also why finding these cards in great condition is so difficult. More than likely you will find them stained from the tobacco that was loose around the card and or with small bits of tobacco still attached to the card. To me those are some of the best Polar Bear cards because that small bit of tobacco harkens back to when it was first pulled out of the pouch in the early 1900s. You can’t replicate that in the modern Hobby.
SABR Baseball Cards: Aside from the T206 set, was Polar Bear involved in any other tobacco issues? For example, can Polar Bear backs be found in T205 or other notable sets?
Chris: As you correctly point out, Polar Bear was one of the 17 brands used in the T205 set but they are most famous for being in the T206 set.
SABR Baseball Cards: Tell us how you are keeping or displaying your collection. Slabs? Binders?
Chris: My original goal was to have a complete binder set as I always valued being able to hold a baseball card that was 110 years old as more important than owning the card itself. I never really valued a card being in a slab before because plastic is not true Americana. However, I had a shift around the 200-card mark to where I had “enough” of the feel game and started to value the look of the cards more than their feel.
Now that I’ve reached the 240+ mark in the set, I have just over 210 raw copies and 30 graded. SGC takes up the majority of the graded group with 21 in a tuxedo. I also find they display a whole lot better than the PSA versions, but you can’t beat a red portrait T206 in a red PSA flip.
SABR Baseball Cards: And what about condition? As tough as this set is to put together, I have to imagine you’ve made room for plenty of lower grade cards.
Chris: The one rule that I have always had with my Polar Bear set was to put together a back run set with very clean backs. I never honestly really cared about what the front looked like! So if you see a badly damaged Polar Bear back on my website, that is because it was obtained before I made the switch in 2021 and just haven’t gone back to upgrade it. I have financially prioritized new pickups versus upgrades the past two years.
SABR Baseball Cards: Knowing you are in the Seattle area, obviously there are no Mariners (or Pilots!) in the set. Have you adopted any particular team from the Monster as your favorite?
Chris: I will always be partial to the Chicago Cubs due to Frank Chance and Solly Hofman and the origin on my T206 collecting journey. Still, to me it was never about the teams; it was always about the back.
SABR Baseball Cards: There are so many beautiful cards in the T206 set. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, do you have a Top 5 among the Polar Bear run?
Chris: Completely ignoring how good the players are, here are my Top 5.
- Christy Mathewson – This card is gorgeous to me as it shows potential rubber-band wear and tear and then someone spilled something on it in the past. Or maybe the tobacco package got wet and this is a tobacco stain.
- John Titus – Everyone knows, the only man with a moustache in the entire T206 set, not just Polar Bear.
- Davy Jones – What a stud in this card. Someone must have liked him as they were making the set.
- Del Howard – Very unique background, which is unusual for the T206 set, along with the popped collar and I have visited his grave here in Seattle. That was an interesting moment personally speaking.
- Ed Konetchy – Feels like a very 3D image that feels very hard to pull off 110 years ago. This card has always stuck out to me as being very unique versus the other action shots.
SABR Baseball Cards: Earlier, you mentioned two of the Polar Bear set’s rarities: the St. Louis variations of Demmitt and O’Hara. Are these two cards part of your Polar Bear quest, or have you set your sights on a more modest goal of 248?
Chris: I go back and forth on this all the time. When I started this back-run set I knew I was committing myself to spending $1k for the Demmitt and O’Hara cards, and I was completely fine with that. Apart from Ty Cobb, those would be my two significant purchases. However, now that Demmitt and O’Hara are going for four to five times that price, the financial decision becomes much more difficult.
This is also why I decided to add them to my Polar Bear sleeve tattoo. Getting their cards on my arm was a a tad cheaper than putting down $8k for 2 cards and while some people will view that as “crazy,” you can never tell a Polar Bear story without Demmitt and O’Hara.
SABR Baseball Cards: Wait. What?! Did you say you got those cards on your arm??
SABR Baseball Cards: That is AWESOME! We definitely support your right to Bear arms! So the tattoos will essentially sub for the cards here?
Chris: I’m currently at 244/250 for the set. Once I get to 248, I will take a look at the market and make a decision on those last two. Ultimately, if I am going to have a complete Polar Bear set, I need to have a Demmitt and O’Hara. Maybe I will find a great deal at the 2023 National for one of these cards! You never know. That would be incredible to finish this set at the place where it all began!
SABR Baseball Cards: It’s been amazing to follow your journey. You are truly putting together something that most collectors can only dream about. Thank you so much, Chris, for taking the time to share your story with our readers.
Author’s Note: You can view Chris’ entire Polar Bear set (in progress) on his website. Take a look, it’s awesome!