I mainly enjoy writing about baseball and baseball cards, but I've also dabbled in the sparsely populated Isaac Newton trading card humor genre. As of January 2019 I'm excited to be part of the SABR Baseball Cards blogging team, and as of May 2019 Co-Chair of the SABR Baseball Cards Research Committee.
“Everyone under your desks, now!” was the loud command from the front of the room. “Fully covered, arms and legs too! Heads down! Away from the windows!”
Gax didn’t mind. He knew it could have been real. He knew someday it might be real. On the walk home a plane passed overhead. A line of kids on the sidewalk ducked instinctively. Gax speed up his gait.
The Woolworth had some gum cards on the shelf. It would be fun to get a card of Roy Campanella or Jackie Robinson. One neighborhood kid said his friend got a Babe Ruth from a pack of Look ‘n See. Still, it felt more important to be prepared. Gax went with the plane cards instead.
“Friend or Foe?” Russian MiG-15? Definitely foe. It was 1952.
“Take cover! Get down, under your desks! Away from the glass! Stay under until we hear the bell.” These drills were old hat by now, second nature for Gax and his schoolmates who had been doing them as long as they could remember. It was 1958.
Gax still slept with the light on just in case. It was hard to sleep knowing the world could end all of a sudden. Countless nights were spent flipping through the box of cards he kept tucked under the bed. A favorite was the Mick posing with Hank Aaron. They looked like friends in the picture. They were not. Foes. Definitely foes.
The world was dangerous. Conflict was looming. The drills continued. It was 1959. Foes were everywhere, including among us.
It was hard to imagine the world being any scarier. And then…
“Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. You’ll excuse the fact that I am out of breath, but about 10 or 15 minutes ago a tragic thing from all indications at this point has happened in the city of Dallas. Let me quote to you this…I’ll… you’ll excuse me if I am out of breath. A bulletin, this is from the United Press from Dallas: ‘President Kennedy and Governor John Connally have been cut down by assassins’ bullets in downtown Dallas. They were riding in an open automobile when the shots were fired.” — Jay Watson, WFAA-TV, Dallas
And less than two months later…
“Consonant with the Constitution of the United States and the Charter of the United Nations and in accordance with its obligations under the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty, the United States is, therefore, prepared, as the President determines, to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force, to assist any member or protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty requesting assistance in defense of its freedom.” — Tonkin Gulf Resolution, January 7, 1964
For better or worse Gax expected war. He had prepared for it. It was as if he’d been waiting for war his whole life. Gax had never heard of the places where he might get sent. He only knew that the foe was real, and the war was better there than here.
“There is little reason to believe that any level of conventional air or naval action, short of sustained and systematic bombing of the population centers will deprive the North Vietnamese of their willingness to continue to support their government’s efforts to upset and take over the government of South Vietnam.” — Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense, August 25, 1967, to United States Senate
As opposition to the war grew at home, there was an effort to step up our firepower abroad. Topps obliged.
We knew the ending we wanted, but there were questions about whether that ending was possible or had ever been possible. For Gax’s family, just having him back home alive would have felt like a championship.
My dad never collected baseball cards as a kid, but these were the years of his youth, 1952-1967. It was an America of sirens and “duck and cover” drills, an America of missile crises and military action, an America of assassination and division, and an America of kids who didn’t come home.
But it was also the Golden Age of Topps; of Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, and Willie Mays; and wax packs filled with gunners, bombers, belters, clubbers, and–most of all–foes.
The cards I collected growing up were different. Aside from a lone 1982 Donruss card, they spoke to bridging divides…
…embracing our commonality…
…and seeking reconciliation. (Take that, Red Menace!)
Like my dad, my son isn’t a collector. If he were, he might notice the cards of his era looked a lot like the ones from his grandpa’s. And the cards wouldn’t be the only things they had in common.
“Everyone under your desks, now!” was the loud command from the front of the room. “Fully covered, arms and legs too! Heads down! Away from the windows!”
The first Topps World Series card I pulled from a pack was bittersweet. On one hand it was Reggie, the biggest star in the game; on the other hand, it memorialized his merciless dismantling, five homers and all, of my hometown Dodgers. Though I wasn’t yet enough of a fan in 1977 to have watched the Series, I remember the gloominess and despair that took over the faces of my classmates. Tears were shed.
Most collectors already know that 1978 was just one of many years that Topps included a postseason subset. For a complete catalog from 1958-1981, see this excellent post from Adam Hughes of Wax Pack Gods.
My goal here is to connect these Topps World Series cards to their long ancestry across the hobby’s history. Rather than jump straight in to the years before 1958, I’ll set the table by beginning at 1960, the year of the first true Topps World Series subset.
Though Topps would include single cards connected to the World Series in each of the prior years, the 1960 release marked the first year of an actual multi-card subset. The subset spanned cards 385-391, including the only Maury Wills card Topps would issue before 1967.
There was no World Series subset in the 1959 Topps issue. However, the Hank Aaron card in its “Baseball Thrills” subset was dedicated to the Hammer’s game 4 home run and overall awesome performance in the 1957 Fall Classic.
As we consider the ancestry of the World Series subsets, this card presents us with two “mutations” from the classic subsets that would follow.
It is the only postseason card in the set (and in fact from an entirely different subset)
It does not feature the prior year’s Fall Classic, instead reaching two seasons back.
As we go further back in time, most of the cards we look at will share these or other departures from the classic Topps World Series subsets of later decades. As usual, were we not to bend the rules a bit, there would be very little article to write!
1959 Fleer Ted Williams
I have featured this set in every one of my prehistory articles to date with the exception of Traded Cards. (And who the hell would even think of trading Ted Williams, right?) Sadly, it is impossible to tell the story of the Splendid Splinter without bringing up the heartbreak of the 1946 World Series, memorialized by card 31 in the set.
As an aside, the 1959 Fleer Ted Williams set comes across largely as a (justified) hagiography of the greatest freaking hitter who ever lived. It is odd then that their “Sox Lose the Series” card makes no mention of the fact that Williams played the series injured and instead attributes the Kid’s disappointing performance to a slump.
It is the Hammer once again in the 1958 Topps set, and this time he brought a friend. Okay, a foe! (As an aside, it would be fun to trace the use of the word “foe” on baseball cards over the years. We used to see it a lot more, and I worry we are lesser today for its absence.)
Oddly the card’s reverse makes no reference to the World Series but simply finds (quite easily) nice things to say about each of the featured players.
1948 Topps Magic Photos
Though off the radar (and out of the price range) of casual collectors, the very first Topps baseball cards came four years before the iconic 1952 set. The majority of the set’s baseball checklist was devoted to all-time greats such as Ruth, Cobb, and Wagner. However, 5 of the 19 cards were dedicated to the 1948 World Champion Cleveland Indians. These cards are light on detail, but the two cards known as “Cleveland Indians 4-1” and “Cleveland Indians 4-3” reference games 2 and 7 respectively.
1948 Swell “Sport Thrills”
Sorry, Dodger fans. Here comes another heart breaker. Mickey Owen’s dropped third strike from the 1941 Fall Classic was one of eight cards in this 20-card set to feature World Series highlights.
The Sport Thrills set wasn’t the only baseball set that Swell issued in 1948. They also issued a 28-card “Babe Ruth Story” set to go along with the movie of the same name. While the Bambino did appear on some of the cards, he was more often portrayed by William Bendix, the actor who starred in the film. Card 15 features Babe Ruth’s (okay, William Bendix’s) “called shot” home run from the 1932 World Series.
1940 Play Ball
For a brief stretch from 1939-1941 Play Ball cards sat atop the cardboard universe. The 1940 Play Ball release is known mostly for the cardboard return of Shoeless Joe. A less ballyhooed aspect of the set was the pennant flags adorning the cards of the Yankees and Reds players. (Oddly, the managers and coaches received no such decoration.)
Unlike the majority of the cards discussed so far, these “Pennant” cards also doubled as the main (only) card of each player in the set. An interesting comparison will be the 1933 Goudey set, where this is true for some but not all of the players.
1936 R312 National Chicle Pastels
My favorite thing about writing these articles is discovering cards I didn’t know about originally. In this case, the prize goes to these beautiful premiums from National Chicle. The full set contains 50 unnumbered cards with significant star power, including (arguably) a Joe DiMaggio rookie card. There are also a large number of multi-player cards, such as this one of Arky Vaughan receiving playing tips from the great Honus Wagner.
Most relevant to our topic, however, are several cards that explicitly reference the 1935 World Series between the Tigers and the Cubs.
First, here is Gabby Hartnett after his World Series home run in game 4.
Next, here is Schoolboy Rowe drawing a crowd, even in enemy territory. No wonder they call it the “Friendly Confines!”
And finally, although Tommy Bridges pitched the Tigers to a 4-3 complete game victory in the clincher, here is Alvin Crowder looking very much like he just won it all for the Tigers. In fact, the “General” is shown here following his own complete game to take game 4.
Finally, there are four other cards, a disproportionate number for the set, that include multiple Cubs or Tigers. The photo sleuths among us might let me know if these photos are from the World Series or just “random” shots from during the season.
1936 R313 National Chicle Fine Pen Premiums
Collectors had choices when it came to the 1935 Fall Classic. Among the 120 cards included in this 1936 release was at least one World Series card, #120, showing the throw from Lon Warneke to Phil Cavaretta arriving ahead of Goose Goslin.
As with R312, there are also some multi-player cards that may or may not be connected to the World Series. Card 116, showcasing the “Fence Busters” on the Chicago squad, is one of a few examples.
1934 Gold Medal Foods (R313A)
First a tip of the hat to Net54 member PowderedH2O for alerting me to these cards.
The parent company of Wheaties, Minneapolis-based Gold Medal Foods, issued a set of postcard-sized cards to commemorate the 1934 World Series between the Detroit Tigers and the “Gas House Gang” St. Louis Cardinals.
The “Standard Catalog” lists only 12 players while PSA lists 19 while indicating the set has 22. This suggests to me there may yet to be cards discovered here, either to the delight or chagrin of Hank Greenberg supercollectors.
Forgive Goudey for its numbering antics, but sure enough cards 107-114, 121-127, and 232-240 were created specifically to highlight the participants in the 1933 World Series. Those not as familiar with the set might wonder if 1933 was a typo. After all, this is 83 BTN (before “Topps Now”) we’re talking about. “Are you sure you don’t mean THIS World Series?”
Sure enough, the folks at Goudey were hard at work in late 1933 pushing out the tenth and final release of their iconic baseball debut. The sheet featured twelve participants from each of the pennant winners (New York Giants, Washington Senators) and even included records and results from the Series, as evidenced by this card of Master Melvin.
Something important to consider in assessing the place of these cards in our prehistory is that they weren’t merely cards issued late enough in the season to include tidbits about the Series in the bios. Rather, they reflected an explicit World Series issue, and a 24-card one at that! Quite remarkable really.
As a final note, nine of the Giants and nine of the Senators already had “base” cards in the set, meaning the World Series cards could be thought of as dedicated postseason extras for these 18 players. However, for six of the players, the World Series card reflected their only representation in the set.
1928 Fro-Joy Ice Cream Babe Ruth
Among the six cards in this 1928 set entirely devoted to Babe Ruth is this one, highlighting the first of his two home runs in the 1927 World Series against the Pirates.
1919-1920 Cincinnati Reds postcards
Black Sox Scandal completists will want to collect this 24-card set of postcards featuring players from the 1919 World Champion Cincinnati Reds team. There are two variations of each card. Later printings include the caption “World’s Champions” whereas early printings include only “Champions of National League.”
As an aside, Anson Whaley of Pre-War Cards just published an excellent five-part series on the baseball card legacy of the Black Sox Scandal. Part one is here.
1921 Koesters Bread (D383)
Hat tip to Net54 member brianp-beme for this one. This 52-card set uses the same card fronts as the 1921 American Caramel (E121) set but has different backs and restricts its checklist to only Yankees and Giants, the two participants in the first Subway Series.
If you have a minute, you may want to look at the fantastic card of Hall of Fame hurler Waite Hoyt.
1912 Technical Book Publishing postcards
Not for the budget collector, but these postcards were sold at the World Series itself and doubled as scorecards on the back. The card on the left shows the Boston Americans, and the one on the right shows the New York Giants.
1911 Philadelphia Athletics (E104-I and D359)
I’ll take some liberty here and merge what pre-war collectors would normally regard as two or three different sets. Certainly they will look more alike than different to the casual collector. In each case, I am a huge fan of the World Champions designator.
The first card, Frank “Home Run Baker,” comes from the 1910 E104-I (sometimes seen as E104-1) Nadja Caramels issue. Variations abound, including cards without the “World’s Champions 1910” banner. The next two cards, Charles “Chief” Bender and Harry Davis, could be construed as Baker cards as well, in that they come from the 1910 D359 Rochester Baking and Williams Baking issues respectively.
For any of the card displayers or binder folks out there, I have to imagine the variety of background colors would make these cards look incredible arranged as a group.
1910 Tip Top Bread Pittsburgh Pirates
It’s funny how life works sometimes. Just as I’d reached the end of my personal knowledge, augmented by the easier digital searches available to me, I did what I always do: reach for my Standard Catalog of Vintage Baseball Cards. But this time I didn’t even have to open it. Here was the 1910 Tip Top Bread Honus Wagner right on the cover, with the caption “WAGNER, World’s Champions.”
Indeed, this was a 25-card set honoring the 1909 World Champion Pirates team that bested Cobb’s Tigers four games to three. Here is team president Barney Dreyfuss from the same series.
1910 American Caramel Pirates (E90-2)
This tough regional release of American Caramel focused exclusively on the 1909 World Champion Pirates team. Unlike the Tip Top set of the same year, the cards themselves do not refer to the championship. (Hat tip to Net 54 member steve B for this one!)
1907 Geo. W. Hull Chicago White Sox postcards
These 16 postcards honor the 1907 World Champion Chicago White Sox, as noted by the “World’s Champions” caption below the player name. You might imagine the “Every One A Pennant Winner” title above the lines of hanging white stockings is another standard feature of the postcards in this set. However, that is just one of many titles used. Others include “A String of World Beaters” and “A String of Game Fish — No Bull Heads,” whatever that means!
1905-06 Lincoln Publishing Am. League Champs
The Philadelphia Athletics lost the 1905 World Series to the New York Giants, but they did not come up empty on the cardboard side of the ledger. All 20 postcards in this set were devoted to the American League champs and featured the achievement prominently in the card design.
1902-1911 Sporting Life Team Composites (W601)
For ten years, Sporting Life offered readers the chance to be individual team cards or the complete set as a bound volume. In addition to these very large poster-cards (13″ x 14″), postcard-size team composites were also offered some years. Pennant winners and World Series winners were specially noted below the team name.
Readers may be puzzled by the “1904 National League Champions” marker here since the Pirates finished the 1904 season in fourth place, 19 games behind the Giants. One thing to note is that the “National League” portion of the marker simply indicates the Pirates were a National League team. This can be seen by comparing the Pirates composite against others in the series. Finally, the “Champions” portion of the marker should be read as “defending champs,” which is how the 1904 Pirates began their season, fresh off the first ever World Series of the modern era.
At this point you might imagine we’re done. You can’t get much earlier than the first World Series, right? Not so fast…if you’ve read my other posts you know I love to go WAY back, even if it means bending the rules a bit, kind of like how a biologist might spend 58 minutes of the lecture talking about man’s descent from apes and the final 2 connecting us to amoebas or something.
1888 H.D. Smith and Company (formerly known as Scrapp’s Tobacco) die-cuts
Some recent detective work has added to our knowledge of this ridiculously old set and its origins. At first, you might just see too old-time ballplayers with caps you wished you owned.
However, these aren’t just any players, though that had been my first guess. Thanks to the 1976 SSPC reboot, I now know these are the participants from the 1887 World Series between the St. Louis Browns and Detroit Wolverines! Here is a look at one of the 1976 cards. Kudos to SSPC for their work on this beautiful reissue, which admittedly is almost harder to track down than the 1888 original!
1887 Tomlinson Studio Cabinets
If 1888 just isn’t old enough for you, you may be in luck. Even the “Standard Catalog” is stumped in terms of the reach of this set and the extent of the checklist, but here is at least one.
1887 Old Judge Browns Champions
And for those of you saying, “Hey, was that even a baseball card?” I’ve got an even better one for you! (Hat tip to Net54 member Gonzo for this one.)
It is at this point in the tour that the bus finally runs out of gas. As always though, I hope the result is an appreciation of some older cards you might not have known about and further reinforcement of the adage that “what’s new is old,” at least when it comes to the baseball card “innovations” of our youth.
As always, additions and corrections are welcome.
Appendix – Ancestry Report
Something I’ve toyed with and was encouraged to dig into more deeply based on a reader comment is an “ancestry report” that evaluates each entry against the key traits of the standard Topps World Series subsets. I won’t belabor the coding scheme or column headers unless asked, other than to acknowledge that blue represents mutations that go beyond the Topps standard. (In this case, I used blue for cards that feature the current-year World Series rather than the prior year.)
Anyone wanting to play with the raw data can find it here. Let me know if it’s useful at all. If so, I can do similar for Record Breakers and other prehistory work I’ve done.
Not all of us are lucky enough to get personalized batting tips from Jesse Barfield or have worked on our swing with these guys.
Fortunately, there is no shortage of cardboard we can turn to when our hitting falls below the Mendoza line. Here are a nice assortment of cards and sets to get you through your batting slump. And of course we begin with “the greatest [insert optional expletive] hitter who ever lived!”
1978 Post Cereal Steve Garvey Baseball Tips
What? You were expecting Ted Williams? No worries, we’ll get to him soon enough. But first the face of Dodger baseball in Los Angeles when I first fell in love with the game. Show me a single kid in L.A. who would have said no to Raisin Bran the year these box panels were out. There were twelve in all, with four addressing hitting. (Note to younger fans. Though they are no longer used at the Major League level, “bunting” and “hitting to the opposite field” used to be essential parts of the game.)
1962-1963 Sugardale Weiners
A regional food release spanning two years, the 1962 release included 19 players on the Indians or Pirates while the 1963 release included 31. Star power was not immense, but sometimes all it takes is one!
1959 Fleer Ted Williams
If only all you had to do was read the backs of four baseball cards to hit like the Splinter! Still, any advice from Teddy Ballgame is welcome. While the other 76 cards in the set provide information about Ted’s life and playing career, cards 71-74 provide advice for collectors to bring with them to the batter’s box.
1952 Coca Cola Playing Tips
This ten-player set hearkens back to the days when six packs came in cardboard carrying cases rather than the plastic rings now filling up our oceans. The front of each six-pack insert featured a player from a New York team (sorry, no Mantle), along with that team’s schedule, while the back featured tips to help aspiring ballplayers.
1939 Goudey Premiums
This 48-card set known as R303-A (or 24-card set known as R303-B) is the first of several 1930s sets to include batting tips. There is a simplicity to the instructions on the back of the Foxx card that almost makes you forget this is the hardest thing in all of sports.
Canadian collectors will also find these same cards and tips as part of the parallel 1939 World Wide Gum (V351) release.
1936 National Chicle Rabbit Maranville “How To”
In case hitting advice from the Beast is too daunting, this 1936 set provides a full array of baseball tips (including how to umpire!) all from a decidedly less intimidating player, Hall of Fame shortstop Rabbit Maranville. Card 11 (How to Bat) and card 13 (How to Bunt) address the offensive parts of the game.
The backs of Wheaties boxes during this period featured a multitude of designs across a number of different years and series. Really, any box of Wheaties will help a young hitter on nutrition alone, but Series 5 (1936), Series 6 (1937), and Series 12 (1939) would have provided an extra boost.
This 50-card set resides beneath the radar of many collectors; however, it is an outstanding set for aspiring ballplayers. Each card features one of baseball’s biggest stars sharing a “Major League Secret.” While the tip is alluded to on the card front, the card back supplies significant detail and makes it clear that the advice is directly from the player.
Modern fans of launch angle may cringe at the Frisch card until they learn he is instructing kids on the chop bunt. Then again, fans of launch angle probably aren’t fans of bunting either and may prefer simply to collect 49 of the 50 cards.
A final interesting tidbit about this set comes from the artist signature on the cards. This is the same Al Demaree who pitched from 1912 and 1919, winning 80 games (combined) for four different National League teams.
1934-1936 Diamond Stars
The mid-1930s were a magical year when it came to cardboard-based batting instruction. As part of the multi-year Diamond Stars release, Al Simmons and Joe Vosmik explain the importance of a good follow-through, Max Bishop warns against hitting bad balls (and has the .423 career OBP to prove it!), and Dixie Walker urges hitters to be relaxed at the plate–and that’s all from the first twelve cards in this 108-card set!
In case you struggle to picture all these players sending their tips to National Chicle, they were in fact written by Austen Lake, whose signature appears in the credits at the bottom of the card back. The level of detail in the tips is impressive, as illustrated by the Pie Traynor card’s advice on where to stand.
“…Study your needs and find the spot that best suits your style. Long armed boys should stand back farther than those with short arms, because of the difference in reach. In recent years, since free swinging from the end of the handle has become usual, major leaguers have tended to stand well in the rear of the box and back from the plate. Remember, the ball must cross some of the plate to be a strike. Hence stand where you can stretch your bat at arm’s length and cover the plate. Study “Pie” Traynor, Pirate manager for the correct batting style.”
I don’t want to typecast the anything-but-one-dimensional Austen Lake, but maybe you can guess what he contributed to the 1933 DeLong set. You guessed it…baseball tips! Here is some advice on batting stance courtesy of Mr. Lake and the set’s Al Simmons card.
1928 Fro-Joy Ice Cream
Card number 5 in this six-card set, no longer authenticated by PSA or SGC due to prevalent forgeries, provides collectors with an up-close look at how the Bambino gripped his bat. Just as Hack Wilson let us know in 1935, long-ball hitters do not choke up!
Though his career turned out just fine, it’s too bad a young Henry Aaron didn’t own this card as he was figuring out his own grip!
Is it true that at first you batted cross-handed, holding your left hand over your right on the bat handle?
Yes. One day, I batted that way during batting practice before a game in Buffalo, and the Braves had sent a scout to watch me. The scout walked over to me, told me to take my right hand and put it over my left. I did it and hit two home runs that day and I never looked back.
I always like to close with the really old stuff, so here goes. Hitting a baseball is a VERY difficult act to master. We can’t all be .400 hitters or even .100 hitters, but no matter. I think this Al Bridwell (of Merkle Boner fame) card offers the best advice of all. Find yourself a beautiful day and a nice patch of grass, play ball, and eat caramels! A bad day doing that is better than a good day doing just about anything else.
Author’s note: These same sets (exception Fro-Joy, Ted Williams) provide tips on other parts of the game as well: pitching, fielding, running, umping, and even setting up the field! I just chose batting so I could focus and cut down on distraction, another great batting tip by the way!
One of my favorite posts on the SABR Baseball Cards blog is Matthew Prigge‘s “Like a Broken Record” (March 2017), in which he detailed the progression of the Topps Highlights and Record Breaker cards from their respective origins in the 1975 and 1976 sets. In what I hope will be my first of many posts for this blog, I will go backward instead and focus on the ancestry of these cards, following a prehistory that goes back to more than a century ago.
Before jumping in, I’ll give a few examples of cards I will not include, along with my rationale for omission, as sometimes the best way to define one’s scope is to identify what falls just outside it
World Series cards
The first Topps World Series multi-card subset was in 1960, consisting of seven absolutely beautiful cards that told the story of the 1959 Fall Classic between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago White Sox.
If we consider single card subsets as a thing, then the very first Topps World Series subset came two years earlier with the 1958 Topps World Series Batting Foes (Mantle/Aaron) card. Because Topps would continue to push out World Series subsets with regularity, even in years with Record Breaker/Highlight cards, we will exclude World Series cards from our study. True, they feature highlights from the prior season, but they are a large enough sub-genre to warrant separate treatment.
The same logic will apply to the 1961 Topps (cards 471-486) and 1975 Topps (cards 189-212) MVP subsets. While MVP cards lacked the perennial quality of the World Series cards, they still feel more like their own category of cards than exemplars of the Record Breakers/Highlights category.
All-Stars, All-Star Rookies, etc.
Finally, while one could consider being named an All-Star or All-Star Rookie a highlight—at least very broadly—we will exclude these subsets for the same reasons as each of the others.
Pre-1975 Highlights and Record Breaker cards
Having identified what doesn’t make the cut, we are now ready to begin our journey, starting off where Matthew’s original article left off. As I like to do, we’ll proceed in reverse chronological order, though the article should accommodate a bottom-to-top if you prefer it that way.
Well there’s this guy of course!
1974 Bob Parker 2nd Best
It’s fitting that the second set we encounter on the way to the Topps run of Highlights and Record Breakers is a set honoring players who came in second! In addition to providing budget collectors with a shot at “Shoeless Joe,” the Vic Power card is a must have for “cards that say robust on the front” supercollectors.
A major differentiator between these cards and the Record Breaker/Highlights cards Matthew profiles are that these cards reach back across the vast history of the game whereas the more modern cards focus on the season immediately prior. Were we to treat this distinction as fatal, this article would be very short indeed, so we’ll continue under the assumption that cards such as these are allowed into the ancestry.
In addition to the various Fleer sets he worked on, artist R.G. Laughlin also put out his own set of cards in 1972. There were 51 cards in all, along with multiple color variations.
1971 Topps Greatest Moments
This 55-card release from Topps is without a doubt one of the toughest of the 1970s, and unfortunately for player collectors on a budget one that is filthy with Hall of Famers. Unlike the Fleer sets of the early 1970s the checklist consists entirely of (then) current players, but again the feats themselves span multiple years.
The nine cards from 311-319 in the 1962 Topps set are commonly referred to as “In Action” cards. Many of the cards, such as “Ford Tosses a Curve,” would strike only the most easily impressed baseball fans as highlights; however, this same subset does feature the biggest record to be broken in at least 20 years. In a move we might today regard as trolling, Topps chose this same year to dedicate a full ten cards to the previous record holder!
As with the “In Action” cards, the “Babe Ruth Special” cards were a mix of Record Breaker and non-RB cards. Ruth’s card 144 (no, not THAT 144), titled “Farewell Speech,” is particularly relevant to this post in that the front featured a career-capping highlight–the speech–while the back listed Babe Ruth’s various records.
The 1961 set marked second time in three years that Topps put out a “Baseball Thrills” subset in its main release. There were ten cards in all, including a mix of current (Larsen, Mantle, Haddix) and retired players.
1961 Nu-Card Baseball Scoops
While the Topps set offered the opportunity to beef up ones knowledge of baseball’s greatest achievements, the go-to set that year for history buffs was put out by Nu-Card. Numbered 401-480 for reasons unknown to me, these 80 cards presented collectors with nearly the complete canon of baseball feats. Even to this day, if you could choose just one set to learn the history of baseball from, I believe this would be it.
1960 Nu-Card Baseball Hi-Lites
This 72-card offering is similar in many ways to the set that followed it one year later, the most salient difference being their postcard size. Many highlights were reused from one set to another, as shown by the “Aaron’s bat…” cards in each set. (I believe the image on the 1960 card incorrectly shows Aaron’s pennant-clinching home run against the Cardinals, a problem which could have been solved by interchanging this images on his two cards in the set.)
While the 1961 Topps subset included long retired greats of the game, the 1959 “Baseball Thrills” cards exclusively featured active players. Between the immense star power of the players and the fantastic artwork, these cards crack my top two all-time for greatest vintage subset ever.
1959 Fleer Ted Williams
This 80-card set really covers the gamut as far as Ted Williams highlights are concerned, including highlights from his time in the military and his off-season hobbies of hunting and fishing. As an aside, you can see many of the photographs these cards were based on in Ted’s 2018 PBS documentary.
1954 Topps Scoop
A beautiful set off the radar of many baseball card collectors is the 1954 Topps Scoop set, which features 154 historical events, including a handful from the sporting world. The four baseball subjects are Bob Feller’s 18 strikeouts in a game, Babe Ruth’s 60 home runs in a season, the Braves move to Milwaukee, and a very long game between Brooklyn and Boston.
As a quick spoiler alert, if you have not already seen the Broadway musical “Hamilton,” avoid purchasing this set. Card 82 completely gives away the ending.
Though the name of the “Sport Thrills” set suggests other sports beyond baseball (and one card is even titled “Football Block”), all 20 cards in this set feature baseball highlights and records. A notable is the Jackie Robinson card, which I believe to be the earliest card front to refer to a player’s rookie season. (And if I’m wrong about that, it’s still a Jackie Robinson card from 1948!)
The Sport Thrills set wasn’t the only baseball set that Swell issued in 1948. They also issued a 28-card “Babe Ruth Story” set to go along with the movie of the same name. Naturally, as this is the Bambino we’re talking about, the set includes several highlights. While some of cards include Ruth himself, it should be noted that the most common “Ruth” on the cards is William Bendix, who played Ruth in the movie. An example is card 15, which shows Ruth…I mean Bendix…calling his shot in the 1932 World Series.
1938 Wheaties “Biggest Thrills in Baseball” (Series 10)
The back panel of Wheaties boxes featured a player from each major league team along with a highlight from the player’s career. While I didn’t include it here, the Wheaties “100 Years of Baseball” set from the following year could be said to feature highlights as well, though a typical example is “Crowd Boos First Baseball Glove!”
1925 Turf Cigarettes (UK)
In 1925 London tobacco manufacturer Alexander Boguslavsky Ltd issued a set of 50 “Sports Records” cards. The very last card in the set featured American baseball and George Sisler’s recent batting record. (I’m not sure why they wouldn’t have gone with Hornsby’s record, but perhaps news traveled slow back then.)
1912 T202 Hassan Triple Folders
I often end pieces like this with a wild card entry, one that may not meet the criteria applied to other sets but scores bonus points for its age. The middle panel of each T202 card features a great action shot, which is then described further on the card’s reverse. Most of these cards simply focus on a single play–exciting or not–that fails to rise to the level of a Record Breaker or Highlight.
However, the set does include some cards with narratives that do in fact rise to the level of a Highlight. An example of this is the Bergen/Barger “A Great Batsman” card, which on the back describes Napoleon Lajoie’s 227 hits in 1910 as breaking the American League record, even if today we no longer believe it! (At the time Lajoie’s 1901 hit total was thought to be 220, but he is now credited with either 229 or 232 hits, depending who you ask.)
A handful of other sets are worth mention here, even if they didn’t earn top billing. The 1972 Topps “In Action” cards and 1964 Topps Giants cards both featured highlights on the backs of the cards. Meanwhile, the very rare 1914 E&S Publishing postcard set includes background cartoons with captions that in some cases rise to the level of significant highlights or records.
The 1975 Topps set marked an important innovation in the history of the hobby in that it was the first major release to dedicate baseball cards, specifically its “Highlights” subset, to the most important historical feats of the prior season. However, like all innovations, this one did not appear out of a vacuum. Rather, it drew–intentionally or by happenstance–on a long and rich legacy of cardboard that came before it.
I hope this article allowed you to enjoy the cards and sets profiled not only as fantastic in their own right but also as important evolutionary stops along the way toward the Highlights and Record Breaker cards so many of us collected in our youth, if not the Topps Now cards many collectors still collect today.
Jason joined SABR in January 2019. Collecting interests include Hank Aaron, Dwight Gooden, and Sir Isaac Newton. You can find him on Twitter as @HeavyJ28 or on the Web here and here. He lives in the Chicago area but originally hails from Los Angeles.