DiMaggio’s really long streak

I ended my previous post with the teaser that neither the 1961 Topps “Baseball Thrills” subset nor its 2010 reboot, much less its 1959 precursor, included what I had grown up understanding to be the most incredible baseball feat of them all.

Rather than imagine the Topps intern assigned to building the checklist simply whiffed on Joltin’ Joe (or that there even was a Topps intern with such a job!), I have to believe Topps simply lacked the rights to feature DiMaggio’s likeness on cardboard. A look at other postwar sets during and after DiMaggio’s career show his absence in 1961 was definitely the rule and not the exception.

1933-1941 (AKA “Prewar,” depending where you lived!)

During the early part of the Clipper’s career, while he was not in EVERY set, one can say he tended to appear in every major set you’d expect to see him in, and then some, including these two gems from the 1933-36 Zeenut set.

Knowing DiMaggio didn’t make his Yankee debut until 1936, it’s not a big surprise that he didn’t appear in the three major gum card releases of the mid-1930s: 1933 Goudey, 1934 Goudey, and 1934-36 Diamond Stars. That said, his appearance in 1933 Goudey wouldn’t have been completely out of the question since that set did include 15 minor leaguers, including a fellow Pacific Coast Leaguer, Pete Scott.

Meanwhile, the 1934 Goudey and 1934-36 Diamond Stars checklists did not include any minor leaguers, so there’s no reason DiMaggio would have even been up for consideration.

Now some of you may know about the 1937 Diamond Stars extension set and surmise that Joltin’ Joe might have cracked that checklist. Unfortunately, all that seems to have survived is a single sheet of 12 cards, which of course DiMaggio is not on. All we can say for sure then is that if National Chicle did have a Diamond Stars card planned it would have been a gem!

The two-year stretch from 1936-37 did see DiMaggio appear on several cards, now as a Yankee, though there is room for debate among the collecting orthodoxy as to which constitute his true rookie card. (Don’t ask me, I’d vote for his San Francisco Seals cards!)

These four from 1936 have the benefit of being a year earlier than the 1937 cards, hence score a few more rookie points for their date of issue. On the other hand, all are of the oversized premium variety, which not all collectors put in the same category as the smaller cardboard offerings that come from packs of gum or cigarettes.

In fact, DiMaggio did crack one (cataloged as) 1936 (but really 1936-37) set of gum cards, but the fact that the World Wide Gum were only issued in Canada gives pause to a good many of the Hobby’s arbiters of rookiehood. If nothing else, though, note the nickname on the back of the card. A bit harder to read but the bio would not pass muster today in its reference to Joe as “a giant Italian.”

One of DiMaggio’s most sought after cards, rookie or not, was another Canada-only release and came out the following year under the later-on-much-more-famous O-Pee-Chee name.

Back in the U.S., DiMaggio made it onto two cards in 1937, but as with the preceding year they were both of the larger premium variety. The Goudey offering (left) is not much (any?) different from its 1936 counterpart, while the Exhibits 4-in-1 is particularly notable in its pairing of the Yankee Clipper with Lou Gehrig. (Oh, and the other two guys are pretty good also.)

It is finally in 1938 that Joltin’ Joe receives his first ever, God honest American gum card as a Yankee, thanks to the 1938 Goudey “Heads Up” set. Like the other 23 players on the checklist, he in fact appears twice, once with a plain background (card #250) and once with a cartoon background (card #274).

Finally, DiMaggio and Gehrig make it onto another 4-in-1 of Yankee legends, this time swapping out Tony Lazzeri for Bill Dickey.

To this point, just about every card I’ve shown, save the 1938 Goudey pair, has some level of oddball status attached. This was not the case from 1939-41 when Gum, Inc., hit the scene with its three year run of major bubble gum releases under the Play Ball name. Though the term is perhaps overused, I’ll throw DiMaggio’s 1941 card out there as one of the truly iconic cards of the Hobby.

The Play Ball cards weren’t DiMaggio’s only cards from that three-year stretch. He could also be found in the 1939-46 Exhibits “Salutations” set, yet another oversized offering…

And the 1941 Double Play set, where he was paired with his outfield neighbor, Charley Keller.

If there’s a theme to all of this, beyond just the opportunity to post a lot of incredible cards, it’s that Joe DiMaggio was no stranger to cardboard during the prewar portion of his career. On the contrary, he was in just about every major set there was, and then some!

1942-1951

These next ten years take us to the end of the Yankee Clipper’s career while also leading us through the wartime era where not a lot of card sets were being produced. DiMaggio cards didn’t simply follow the dip in overall card production but practically disappeared altogether.

Joe’s first card, post-1941, comes from the 1943 M.P. & Company card, a somewhat “off the radar” almost certainly unlicensed set, something we’ll see quite a bit more of as we proceed through this section of the article. (Side note: This set is screaming out for one of you to solve the remaining 21% of a mystery.)

Two notable aspects of the card are Joe’s position, right field (!), and the fact that his recent hitting streak is not mentioned.

The latter of these notables is addressed five years later in the 1948 Swell “Sport Thrills” set, which also happens to be the first gum card set of baseball highlights and a possible inspiration for the 1959 and 1961 cards Topps put out under a similar name.

First off, I’ll show the back of the card, which is everything you might expect to see in a card featuring The Streak.

However, the front of the card is more than a bit disappointing to DiMaggio collectors for obvious reasons. “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?” indeed!

What I read into this card is that Sport Thrills did not have permission from DiMaggio to use his likeness on the card. Yes, it’s possible the folks at Swell truly considered “stopping the streak” a greater achievement than the streak itself, but I kind of doubt it.

But then again, look who made it onto the set’s Ted Williams card, so who knows!

1948 was also the year that Gum, Inc., reappeared on the scene, beginning an eight-year stretch (1948-55) of baseball card sets under the Bowman name. the Bowman sets managed to include pretty much every big name of the era but one: Joe DiMaggio.

Personally I would have loved to see the Yankee Clipper in one of these early Bowman sets, but a “what if” we can consider as collectors is whether the rights to Joe D. would have left another Yankee centerfielder off the checklist in 1951.

You might not have expected any mention of Topps so soon, but it’s worth noting that Topps made its baseball debut not in 1952 or even 1951 but in 1948 with 19 of the 252 cards in its Magic Photos release featuring baseball players.

The first five cards pictured could lead you to believe the players were all retired greats, but in fact six of the cards in the set featured images of the 1948 World Champion Cleveland Indians. Well shoot, this was the one year from 1947-53 that the Yankee’s didn’t win the World Series! Crazy to think it, but perhaps if the Yankees and not the Indians had signed Paige and Doby, there would be a playing career Topps card of Joe DiMaggio!

One of the least known (in terms of origin, not familiarity) releases of the era was the 1948 Blue Tint set. DiMaggio has a card in the set but in what’s emerging as a common theme the card (and entire set!) are believed to be unlicensed.

Similar to the 1938 Goudey cards a decade earlier, the 1948 1949 Leaf set finally presents us with an unambiguously mainstream, all-American, picture-on-the-front, New York Yankees card of the Clipper. It even boasts #1 in what is one of the earliest examples of “hero numbering” in a baseball card set.

Astute collectors may now say, “A-ha! That’s why he wasn’t in Bowman. Leaf signed him first.” However, my own belief is that Leaf not only didn’t sign DiMaggio but didn’t sign anyone, making this card as well as the rest of the set unlicensed. (As always, I would love it if a reader with more information is able to confirm or correct this in the comments.)

The next same year M.P. & Company was back with what I wrote about last year as the laziest set ever, adding to our tally of unlicensed Clipper cards. I rather like the blue added to Joe’s uniform since the 1943 release, but I don’t love the bio remaining unchanged even six years later.

In 1951 Topps hit the shelves in earnest with five different baseball offerings, a number that now feels small but was huge for its time. Though DiMaggio had already achieved all-time great status, there was no reason to expect him in the Connie Mack’s All-Stars set, in which the most modern player was Lou Gehrig.

However, there was reason to expect DiMaggio in the Current All-Stars set, which featured 11 participants from the 1950 All-Star Game. While DiMaggio wouldn’t consider the contest among his career highlights, having gone 0-3 and grounded into a double play, his presence at Comiskey that day at least qualified him for this tough Topps release.

Two other closely related Topps issues from 1951 were the Red Backs and Blue Backs. Though nobody would confuse their checklists for the top 104 stars of the era, it seems reasonable to think Topps would have gone with DiMaggio if they could have.

The final Topps offering of 1951 is one that seemed almost assured to include DiMaggio but didn’t. Topps Teams featured complete team photos of every team on the checklist, but there was only one problem. The checklist did not include the Yankees!

We close out the 1942-1951 stretch with the 1951 Berk Ross set, one that did in fact include a Joe DiMaggio card. In fact, there were two cards if we count his two-player panel with Granny Hamner as separate.

While not a lot is known about these Berk Ross cards, the one thing most collectors believe is that these cards, much like the other DiMaggio cards of the era, were unlicensed.

1952-1961

As much as some collectors, then and now, would have loved to see a 1952 Topps card of the Yankee Clipper, we of course know he did not crack the set’s 407-card checklist, nor should he have been expected to. While “career capper” cards are the norm today, the tradition at Topps for many years was to focus its flagship set on the players expected to play in the current season.

DiMaggio did find himself with an unlicensed career capper in the 1952 follow-up from Berk Ross

Beyond 1952 we are clearly in post-career territory, meaning DiMaggio cards would mainly rely on three types of issues: all-time greats, highlights, and reprints.

Of course that’s if we’re talking about the cards themselves. Joltin’ Joe was in fact the frontman for the 1953 Bowman set, his likeness and endorsement appearing on the boxes and the wrappers.

Side note: Topps liked the idea enough to try their own version of this in 1954.

The first opportunity for a post-career DiMaggio card came from Topps in 1954. If you’re confused, the set I’m talking about isn’t the 1954 Topps baseball set of Hank Aaron RC fame but a 1954 Topps set that mainly consisted of cards like this.

The 1954 Topps Scoop set captured 156 notable moments in our history, and four of them came from the world of baseball.

DiMaggio and his famous Streak would have been right at home in the set, but their absence was hardly conspicuous either given the primarily non-sports focus of the set.

The next opportunity for a DiMaggio card came in 1959 when Topps issued a ten-card Baseball Thrills subset as part of its main release. However, Topps focused all ten of the cards on current players.

The same year, Fleer issued its 80-card Ted Williams set. As the set’s name indicated, all the cards were of Ted Williams. At the same time, many of the cards included cameos of other players and personalities. As linked as the careers of Williams and DiMaggio were, a card of the pair would have fit the set perfectly.

The very next year, Fleer issued the first of its two “Baseball Greats” sets. The checklist boasted 78 retired greats and one active player (an eyesore of a Ted Williams card) but no Joe DiMaggio.

The checklist nearly doubled to 154 cards in 1961, leaving plenty of room for Joltin’ Joe. Of course, he was nowhere to be found.

Another player highlighting the history of the game in 1960 and 1961 was Nu-Cards. Their 1960 “Hi-Lites” set of 72 postcard sized cards was at the time the largest set of its kind ever issued. Two of the set’s cards featured DiMaggio, ending his decade-long exile from cardboard.

The 1961 Nu-Card “Scoops” set, one of my favorites, added 80 cards, now standard sized, but numbered as if the set were much larger. Again, DiMaggio makes the set twice.

As already mentioned, Topps was also back in 1961 with “Baseball Thrills,” but this time they departed from the 1959 version by including mostly retired stars. Still no Joe.

Nostalgia was evidently in the air in 1961 as yet another player entered the scene with an all-time greats offering. Golden Press produced a booklet of 33 cards that I rate among the best looking ever made.

I don’t know enough about the Nu-cards and Golden Press sets to know if DiMaggio’s image was used with his permission or if perhaps different rules might have applied when cards were issued in book form, as was the case with Golden Press. What I will say is that his absence from the biggies (Topps, Fleer), particularly on the 20th anniversary of the Streak, was more than just accidental.

1962-1971

This next ten-year stretch is one that was fairly thin on tribute cards, so there were few sets produced were a DiMaggio would have made sense.

The 1962 Topps set included its ten-card “Babe Ruth Special” subset, no doubt timed with the falling of Babe’s single-season home run record the year before. It was a fun set but not one that Joe DiMaggio would have belonged in.

DiMaggio did make an appearance in a 1967 set that might cause some collectors to say, “Hey, he finally got a Topps card!” The card came in the “Retirado” subset of the 1967 Venezuelan issue often referred to as Topps Venezuelan. However, the set was almost certainly not produced by Topps, and was more than likely a…you guessed it…unlicensed issue. (A future SABR Baseball Cards article will cover this topic in more detail.)

Bazooka issued an all-time greats set in 1969-70 that included small cards of baseball’s immortals and larger cards of baseball’s greatest achievements. In this case, DiMaggio might have fit either but ended up in neither.

Topps again featured amazing achievements in its 1971 “Greatest Moments” set. However, with all moments coming from current players, there would have been no place for Joe D.

As in the previous ten years it would be up to the smaller players to keep Joe DiMaggio’s cardboard legacy alive. One such player was Robert Laughlin, later affiliated with various Fleer sets of the 1970s. His cult classic World Series set (original version) from 1967 featured DiMaggio as the broom swinger of the 1939 Fall Classic.

With production of these Laughlin cards limited to 300 sets, collectors were forced to head to Oakland area Jack in the Box restaurants to feed their appetite for the Clipper, though it’s possible the younger burger eaters would have been even happier to land a different Yankee slugger.

1972-1979

The birth of TCMA in 1972 almost single-handedly accounted for the rapid spike in DiMaggio cards over the next decade, with Robert Laughlin and Shakey’s Pizza doing their part as well.

Two Robert Laughlin offerings that included DiMaggio were the 1972 “Great Feats” set and the 1974 “All-Star Games” set.

The “Great Feats” set, with mostly minor changes, became Fleer’s 1973 “Baseball’s Greatest Feats” set. One major change, however, was that DiMaggio’s card was dropped, almost certainly out of legal fears by Fleer.

TCMA’s first DiMaggio card was part of a beautiful set dedicated to the All-Time New York Yankee Team.

As were the Laughlin cards, TCMA cards were unlicensed and sold direct to hobbyists by mail order. Lawsuits would eventually hit TCMA, but at least for the time being they were able to issue cards of the Clipper with impunity. I can certainly see their “1930s League Leaders” card (left) from 1973 escaping the notice of Joe and his legal team, though was sufficiently under the radar, but I wonder if their 1973-74 “Autograph Series,” designed for signature by the players, might have been pushing things just a bit.

Among TCMA’s other DiMaggio offerings around this time were these postcards pairing the Yankee Clipper with other top-shelf Hall of Famers.

TCMA’s 1936-39 Yankees Dynasty set, issued in 1974, produced another two cards of Joe DiMaggio.

And if you couldn’t get enough DiMaggio/Williams cards, TCMA had your back in 1974 with its “1940s League Leaders” set.

I know a lot of collectors knock the unlicensed stuff, but I’m personally thrilled that TCMA was out there creating the cards that needed to be created. Topps had more than 20 years to figure out a way to pair Joe D. and Teddy Ballgame, and it never happened. This card needed to happen, and I’m glad it did.

We’ll take a quick intermission from TCMA cards to present a three-year run (1975-77) of DiMaggio cards from Shakey’s Pizza.

And now we’re back with more TCMA, this time a 1975 reboot of their All-Time Yankees set featuring all new photos.

Reprint cards and sets hit the hobby mainstream in 1977, including these two cards of DiMaggio, both originally from 1938. The first came from Bert Randolph Sugar’s book of “Dover Reprints” and the second came from Jim Rowe. (DiMaggio’s 1941 Play Ball card would come out as a Dover Reprint the following year.)

1977 was also the year that Renata Galasso began her 270-card magnum opus known alternately as “Decade Greats” and “Glossy Greats.” The first series of 45 cards, issued in 1977 in partnership with TCMA, assigned its very first card to Joe DiMaggio. (DiMaggio returned to the set in the 1984 Series 6 release.)

Evidently it was very much in vogue to lead off a set’s checklist with the Yankee Clipper as we see it happen two more times in 1979 TCMA issues, their 1953 Bowman-like “Stars of the 1950s” and their lesser known “Diamond Greats” set.

Before heading to 1980, I’ll just note that we’ve made it to 1979 with not a single Topps card of DiMaggio and possibly not a single licensed card from any company since either 1941 or 1948.

1980-present

The Me Decade kicked off with a beautiful Perez-Steele postcard of the Clipper. Dick Perez was not yet associated with Donruss, but Dick would soon lend his artwork to multiple all-time greats sets produced by Donruss over the next few years. You can probably guess whether or not those sets would include Joe DiMaggio. (Interestingly, there was no DiMaggio in the 108 “Great Moments” postcards released by Perez-Steele from 1985-1997. Ditto for the 44-card Perez-Steele “Celebration” series in 1989.)

DiMaggio was in an 30-card unlicensed set of “Baseball Legends” produced by Cramer Sports Promotions, the company that would soon become Pacific Trading Cards.

While other card makers joined the party, TCMA was still king in the early 1980s when it came to the all-time greats. Their third go-round of an All-Time Yankees set presented collectors with an early version of a “rainbow” nearly 40 years after Goudey did the same.

This same year, TCMA also included DiMaggio in its “Baseball Immortals” issued under their SSPC brand.

These 1980 “Superstars” are sometimes listed as TCMA and sometimes listed under the Seckeli name. (Andrew Aronstein, son of TCMA co-founder Mike Aronstein, believes the cards were sold by TCMA but not produced by TCMA. The Standard Catalog notes the cards were probably produced by Card Collectors Closet in Springfield, MA.) The set included 45 cards in all and five of DiMaggio.

A second series of 45 cards followed in 1982, this time with some non-baseball cards in the checklist and only a single DiMaggio.

The same year, Baseball Card News put out a set of 20 cards, including two with DiMaggio, one solo and one alongside Bob Feller.

1982 also saw three more TCMA sets with DiMaggio cards. Baseball’s Greatest Hitters and Baseball’s Greatest Sluggers featured standard sized baseball cards, and “Stars of the 50s” featured larger postcard-sized cards.

The streak of (probably) unlicensed DiMaggio cards finally met its end following the release of one last (probably) unlicensed DiMaggio card from the Big League Collectibles “Diamond Classics” set.

Before presenting the licensed DiMaggio issue, we’ll take one quick detour to highlight a set DiMaggio should have been in but wasn’t. The 1983 Donruss “Hall of Fame Heroes”set of 44 cards presented a terrific opportunity for DiMaggio to make his “big three” debut. (Donruss continued to put out all-time greats sets in 1984 and 1985 but neither included Joe D.)

Instead, DiMaggio signed on with Authentic Sports Autographs (ASA) for a twelve-card, limited edition set consisting entirely of DiMaggio cards.

I suspect “The Joe DiMaggio Story” by ASA represented the first time the Yankee Clipper got paid for his likeness on a baseball card in 42 years.

Rather than continue set by set, I’ll refer readers to an article from Night Owl Cards on DiMaggio’s more modern issues (or lack thereof) and simply close with some highlights.

DiMaggio’s next appearance with a major baseball card maker, which for now I’ll define as holding an MLB/MLBPA license, came in 1986 as part of the Sportflics “Decade Greats” set.

I can’t say for certain, but I think this was the first DiMaggio card to come out of a pack since 1961’s Nu-Card Scoops set.

I hate to bill this next one as “major card maker,” but it fits the definition I offered earlier. So here it is, 1989 Starting Lineup Baseball Greats.

The next major card maker to score a deal with Joe was, well, Score, in 1992. Several different cards, most very nice looking, were inserts either in packs or factory sets. The relationship would migrate to Score’s Pinnacle brand in 1993.

DiMaggio finally made his Fleer debut in 1998, though it was in a somewhat unusual way. The card was part of Fleer’s tribute to the Sports Collectors Digest hobby publication and showed DiMaggio signing cards for Pinnacle in 1993. How many times do you see one brand of baseball cards featured on another?

It was only a matter of time before Upper Deck got into the DiMaggio derby, though it would have to be posthumously. The relationship would continue until more or less the baseball (mostly) death of the company in 2010.

And what about Topps? The “baseball card company of record” at long last issued its first Joe DiMaggio card in 2001 as part of the “Before There Was Topps” subset. (For all those Mantle collectors who regard the 1952 Topps as Mantle’s rookie due to its being his first Topps card, I present to you your DiMaggio rookie!)

Topps would really jump into the DiMaggio game in 2007 and to this day remains your most likely source for future DiMaggio cards, even if Topps does not have an agreement in place at the moment. Overall though, Topps produced baseball cards from 1948-2000, a span of 53 years, with no Joe DiMaggio. Topps didn’t quite match 56, who who the hell ever will?

So all of this was my really long way of saying that it makes sense there was no Streak card in the 1961 Topps Baseball Thrills subset. Too bad though, it would have been a helluva card!

1991 Topps Cracker Jack 4-in-1 panel decoder ring

DR K. Ten Most Wanted

One of the coolest cards on my Dr. K “Ten Most Wanted” list as of last week was his 1991 Topps Cracker Jack 4-in-1 panel. (And please get in touch if you can help with any of the others!)

As a student of the master, I try hard not to pay more than a buck or two for any of the cards in my Gooden collection, but I finally bit the bullet and threw real money at this Cracker Jack panel.

I was particularly swayed by Doc’s co-stars, three of my favorite players of the era: Tony Gwynn, Eric Davis, and Ken Griffey, Jr.

Variations

As is the case with many panel-based sets there were in fact multiple panel variations featuring different player combinations.

It didn’t seem to take co-chair Nick more than a minute to figure out that there was something very not random about these player combinations. And sure enough, they all point to a larger sheet with exactly this neighborhood around Gooden.

Before going too much further into sheets or panels I should pause and provide more background on the individual cards themselves.

Like the regular cards but smaller

The 1991 Topps flagship set had the era-typical 792 cards and nearly as many spin-offs as Happy Days. Think Topps Desert Shield for example. Two of them featured tiny cards: the 792-card Micro set and the 72-card Cracker Jack set that itself was divided into a Series One and Series Two, each numbered 1-36. The Cracker Jacks are occasionally referred to as Micro cards with different backs, but this isn’t quite correct since card size differs as well.

Speaking of backs, here is what the Cracker Jack card backs look like. Series One is on the left, and Series two is on the right.

Apart from the different colors used, you’ll notice the second card also has “2nd Series” in the top left corner whereas the first card does not indicate any series at all. This suggests Cracker Jack (or Borden for you corporate types) originally planned only a single series of 36 cards and then added another due to the popularity of the initial offering. The star power of the first series checklist vs the second also seems to point in this direction.

Population report

The popularity of the promotion is borne out by a highly informative (if occasionally inaccurate) business article on the Borden-Topps partnership that even includes sales figures for each series:

  • Series One: 75 million boxes
  • Series Two: 60 million boxes

Based on the size of the set, this translates into about 2.1 million of each first series card and 1.7 million of each second series card. Back in 1991 we would regard this as “limited edition” with the second serious “extra scarce.”

SOURCE OF 4-in-1 PANELS

Though I’m sure the truth is out there, I can find no definitive documentation on the source of the 4-in-1 panels. Theories I’ve run across include–

  • Distributed to dealers or show attendees as promos
  • “Handmade” from full sheets of 1991 Topps Cracker Jack
  • Part of a mail-in offer

I’ll regard the first two as most viable at the moment. Mail-in seems less likely since Cracker Jack already had an offer in place for mini-binders.

I’ll offer one other very weak clue that works against both the mail-in and promo theories: the size of the borders.

On the left is an actual 4-in-1 panel. You’ll notice the interior borders are about twice the thickness of the outside borders. The card really doesn’t look bad, but I would think if you were designing the card intentionally as a 4-in-1 you might even out the borders to achieve a cleaner look. (And yes, I did say “very weak” clue.)

Regardless, the most fun option is to assume the four-in-one panels were produced on the secondary market from uncut sheets. Of course when I say “fun,” I don’t mean “normal people fun.” I mean mathematically fun!

Anyway you slice it

For the moment let’s assume that uncut sheets simply cycle through the 36 cards in the set over and over again in the same order until the end of the sheet is reached. Let’s also assume that our sheet cutter doesn’t just cut any old 2 x 2 array from the sheet but proceeds methodically from the beginning of the sheet and works his way left to right, up to down. Finally, let’s assume cards are sequenced in numerical order.

Here is what this might look like for a sheet that is 18 cards across and 10 cards down the side. What you’ll notice, as in the highlighted blocks of 5-6-23-24 panels, is that there are no variations produced by the method. If card 5 were Dwight Gooden for example, he would always have the same three co-stars.

Without breaking out any fancy number theory, you might correctly surmise that the rather ho-hum result has something to do with the sheet repeating every two rows, which only happens because we conveniently matched the number of columns to exactly half the set length.

Now let’s run the same cut against a sheet that’s only 16 cards across. It stands to reason that at least something more interesting should happen here. Sure enough, the new configuration produces two Gooden panels: 5-6-21-22 and 25-26-5-6.

While two variations is nice, it’s not four. If you think about it, one of the things limiting our variations here is that we always see 6 paired with 5, which is another way of saying we never see 4 paired with 5. (Alternatively, we can say that 5 is always on the left and never on the right.)

So long as we have an even number of columns, this sort of thing will always be true. Therefore, our only hope at hitting four variations would seem to be having an odd number of columns. The example below uses 15 and sure enough pairs 4 with 5 some of the time. Unfortunately, we still failed to reach the theoretical maximum of four variations.

Is it possible we just got unlucky with our odd number? Maybe so. Let’s try this one more time and go with lucky 13.

Alas, we remain stuck at only two variations. Is it possible that there’s simply no solution involving methodical cuts and that achieving more variations will require something more like this?

The good news is we have our four variations. The bad news is we end up with a lot more waste.

Is there a Methodical solution?

Let’s take one more quick look at the actual Gooden panels that started this post. In case you missed it the first time, notice that Doc finds himself in a different quadrant on each of the panels. For example, he’s in the upper left position on the Gooden-Boggs-Griffey-McGwire panel, and he’s in the upper right position on the Gwynn-Gooden-Davis-Griffey panel.

Under our assumptions about how uncut sheets should be constructed, the problem of a methodical cut yielding four variations is equivalent to the problem of a methodical cut putting Doc in each of the four panel quadrants.

Looking back at our earlier examples, we can see that our first time through Doc was only in the upper left, which is why we had only a single variation. The next time, Doc was upper left and lower left only. Finally, in our last two methodical efforts, Doc was only upper left or lower right.

What would our sheet need to look like for Doc to end up in all four panel quadrants? We can attempt to solve the problem by examining one quadrant at a time, starting with the upper left quadrant.

For card 5 to end up in an upper left position, we need two things to happen.

  • 5 needs to be in an odd numbered row since these rows correspond to upper halves of panels.
  • 5 needs to be in an odd numbered column since these columns correspond to left sides of panels.

It was an otherwise boring example, but you can check these properties against the first table we looked at.

What we need then is a formula or rule that helps us determine which rows and columns 5 will end up in based on the number of columns in the sheet. WARNING: This part will get a little complicated and mathy. Feel free to skip to the section titled “DARN IT!” if the math gets too distasteful for you.

Let’s assume our sheet is N cards across and has M rows of cards. Then somewhat generally our sheet looks like this. Almost.

I say almost because we haven’t yet accounted for our numbering restarting every time we reach 36. For example, when N = 18 and M = 10, we don’t want to see our sheet numbered 1-180. Exactly as in our first example, we want to see our sheet numbered 1-36 five times in a row.

A mathematical trick that will get us what we need is called modulus (or sometimes “clock arithmetic”). In this case, we just need to replace each sheet entry with its equivalent, modulo 36. (Technically, this still isn’t quite right since it would replace 36 with 0, but we can simply keep that oddity in our back pocket for now.)

Therefore, our new generalized sheet looks like this:

Now that doesn’t look awful, does it? Okay fine, don’t answer that! And of course, I’m about to make things even a little more complicated since I can’t do a heckuva lot with all those dot-dot-dots taking up most of the sheet. I’d rather have variables, even if it means going from two letters (M and N) to four.

For example, if I am in row j and column k, I want to be able to say the number in that spot is [(j – 1)*N + k] mod 36. That way, if I want to know if the card is of Dr. K, I just need to check to see if [(j – 1)*N + k] mod 36 = 5! Simple, right?

Now let’s go back to the two conditions necessary for Dr. K to occupy an upper left panel position: odd row and odd column, which algebraically just means j and k are odd.

Of course (!) when j and k are odd, then [(j – 1)*N + k] is also odd regardless of the value on N, so there is at least hope we will have solutions for correctly chosen values of j and k no matter the width of the sheet.

What about if we want Doc to appear in the upper right, which I’ll note we have not yet seen in any of our examples? The conditions for this are–

  • 5 needs to be in an odd numbered row since these rows correspond to upper halves of panels.
  • 5 needs to be in an even numbered column since these columns correspond to right sides of panels.

Algebraically then, we know j is odd but k is now even. Going back to our complicated looking expression, that makes [(j – 1)*N + k] even no matter what value of N we choose, and this guarantees we will never have [(j – 1)*N + k] mod 36 = 5.

In case your eyes are glazing over, this means Doc will never end up in the desired position, which in turn means we will never get our four variations no matter what size sheet we go with. We could still look at the two lower quadrants but after suffering such a fatal setback one might justly wonder what the point would be.

Darn it!

Well imagine that! No matter what size we make our sheet, there’s no way to arrive at four Doc variations following a methodical cutting strategy. Two is as good as it gets. And yet, I started this article by showing you four actual examples. So what gives?

There are really only two options, assuming we’re still in the “panels produced from uncut sheets” camp.

  1. The cutters didn’t follow a methodical approach, instead just cutting up sheets willy-nilly to achieve desired results.
  2. The sheets didn’t follow the same rules we did.

The first option is hard for me to swallow, but the second one is equally baffling. Yes, one could imagine laying out the sheets so that we didn’t simply have the complete set repeated over and over. For example, we might imagine the insertion of a double-prints within the set.

The problem is that even the insertion of a double print doesn’t generate new solutions unless it were only sometimes inserted. (For example, imagine the first instance of the set on the sheet included two card 10s, but none of the other instances did. Possible but weird, right?)

Cheating, PArt ONE

Okay, what the heck. Let’s just look at an uncut sheet, shall we? Perfect, let me just get out my microscope!

Kidding aside, the sheet has everything we needed to know. First off, it’s 20 cards across and 22 rows down for a total of 440 cards, which is enough to hold 12 complete sets with 8 cards left over. We can also (barely) see that the sheet doesn’t even come close to following the logical layout originally assumed and later dismissed. I’ll highlight this by placing a thick red border around every Nolan Ryan card since his card is both easy to spot and card #1 in the set.

Sure enough, there are 12 Ryans, but their appearances on the sheet become more and more irregular as we progress down the sheet. Life gets more sane once we add nine more rectangles.

Each of these 6 x 6 blocks is itself a complete set, always following a consistent sequence. For what it’s worth, that sequence is:

32-21-08-30-33-04
10-07-25-19-22-02
05-34-26-28-29-13
17-06-16-36-27-12
23-35-09-18-20-24
01-14-31-03-11-15

We can further simplify the sheet by making three more rectangles. The upper orange rectangle houses the first two columns of a set, the middle orange rectangle houses the middle two columns, and the bottom orange rectangle houses the last two columns. Collectively they add up to the tenth complete set in the diagram.

All that remains then is to understand the last four rows of the sheet.

Each of the green blocks at the bottom represents the upper four rows of a complete set, which the two yellow rectangles then complete perfectly. Finally, the pink rectangle gives us our eight leftover cards, which match up with what we might call the upper left corner of the set.

That’s all well and good, but of course what we really want to see is whether this sheet layout produces all four Dr. K variations. At least that’s what I’m here for!

One thing we can say without a doubt is that the actual sheet layout is nothing like our original assumptions. With all the cockamamie patchwork we might justifiably exclaim, “Aha! THAT’s the crazy kind of layout you need to get all those variations!”

But guess what?

Cutting the sheet methodically into 2 x 2 panels, we find only all twelve Dr. K panels yield only a single variation (see yellow stars), the exact one I bought.

Go figure!

Cheating, part two

The only thing for me to do was ask the seller, who specializes in oddball cards and has always been a great guy to do business with. While his answer may not hold for all 4-in-1 panels like mine, he let me know, sure enough, that the particular panels in his own inventory came from uncut sheets.

I then asked if he did the cutting personally since I’m still surprised someone would resort to the unorthodox method it would require to produce all variations. He let me know he was not the cutter and had received his rather extensive lot as part of a larger purchase he made.

Perhaps one of my two readers who’s made it this far has direct knowledge in this area, in which case I hope they share that knowledge in the comments. In the meantime, I’m left believing that somebody somewhere wanted variations so badly that they were willing to live with a little waste.

Either that or…

what really happened

So I was thinking about the easiest way to produce all variations for all players with a minimum of waste. Taking Doc as an example, we know he only appears in the upper right quadrant when methodical cutting is applied. However, moving him from top to bottom just requires skipping a row. Similarly, moving him from right to left just requires skipping a column.

Treating the blacked out portion of the sheet below as throwaway, a methodical cutting of the remaining sheet portions will generate a complete master set of all 36 x 4 = 144 panels. I’ve highlighted one of each Gooden panel to illustrated this. (Note also that my black lines could have been just about anywhere and still done the trick. They only requirement is that each quadrant remain large enough to generate a panel of the desired player.)

So yes, I do believe that’s what happened, and the only question that remains for me is whether the cutter planned all this or just stumbled upon it by accident. As for that I’ll offer that many uncut sheets end up with a bad row or two due to creasing. I’ll also offer that bad cuts here and there are possible when chopping up an entire sheet. What this suggests to me is there are at least two ways the original cutter may have unwittingly generated a master set all my math told me was impossible!

Cheap Thrills, Part 1

As noted previously, I can barely keep up with, much less collect, all the post-career cards of my favorite players. I can’t even say I window shop. However, there are occasions where certain cards unexpectedly but decidedly grab me. Such was the case when I ran across this gem from the 2010 Topps Heritage set.

See, here’s the thing. The 1961 Topps “Baseball Thrills” cards on which this Robinson is based is one of my favorite Topps subsets ever. Flip through this ten-card collection and you’re not just treated to some gorgeous cardboard; you’re also reminded of some of the most amazing feats in baseball history. (Okay, small quibble. I wouldn’t have gone with “GEHRIG BENCHED…” as my headline for his amazing consecutive games streak.)

As for the Topps reboot nearly 40 years later (or nearly 60 years later if I go by when I learned about it), I have to say I am 100% impressed.

Let’s start with the five cards that are more or less clones of the originals, give or take a Heritage watermark and the need to rebrand the National League as N.L.TM on the Hornsby card.

At first I was disappointed to see these spots on the checklist wasted. However, that was before I realized that most pack-openers in 2010 would not have had the originals in their collections and very likely wouldn’t have even seen them before. If we’re looking to tell the story of baseball, circa 1900-1960, it’s hard to imagine doing so without Ruth, Hornsby, Gehrig, Mathewson, and Johnson. Besides, the new versions are a helluva lot cheaper than the old ones, and let’s just acknowledge here that cheap thrills are sure better than none at all!

With three of the other cards in the set, Topps simply filled in other highlights of that time period that would have been right at home in the original set, at least mostly so. I say “mostly” due to the sabermetrically pleasing but nonetheless anachronistic hit total on the Cobb card.

The Mantle card in the 2010 set warrants a special look alongside its 1961 predecessor.

On one hand, one of Mantle’s least satisfying cards (or if you prefer, Griffith Stadium’s best card) is replaced with a Mickey Mantle card that among other things includes a picture of Mickey Mantle. On the other hand, the “new and improved” clashes artistically with the rest of the cards, making it the one card in the 2010 edition I wish Topps had a do-over on.

But the Jackie card? This is utter perfection in my book, so much so that I’ll gladly show it again!

Note: It’s NOT your imagination if that image looks familiar to you. Here it is 60 years earlier.

1950 Bowman Jackie Robinson

Of course, beyond being a great looking card, the Robinson also sets the record straight. A listing of baseball’s greatest achievements (1900-1960 or so) that omits the breaking of the color barrier is an incomplete list indeed. I’m not sure what prompted Topps to omit it in 1961, but my Jackie Robinson collection thanks Topps for at least getting it right in 2010.

That said, neither the original set nor the reboot included what I grew up believing (from books and broadcasts less than independent thought) to be the greatest feat of them all. Rather than send this article on a massive detour, I’ll save that topic for a Part Two.

Interview with Graig Kreindler

For all the sets Topps releases each year you’d be forgiven for not tracking all of them. However, there is at least one you owe it yourself to see if not have…unless you really, really hate baseball!

The 2019 Topps 150 Years of Baseball “Artist Renditions” set consists of 20 cards, all featuring impossibly beautiful images off the canvas of baseball artist Graig Kreindler. Before jumping into my interview with Graig, let’s back up just a bit.

I first encountered Graig’s work when I ran across his painting “Henry” and just about died. The expression, the uniform, the color, the crowd, the musculature, the shadows, the…everything…was amazing to me. I had seen so many images of Hank Aaron in my life, but none had the hold on me that this one did.

I often wondered how amazing it would be if someday this image or others from Graig could be turned into baseball cards. Apparently I was not alone.

In late 2018 Topps contacted Graig and his agent about the concept of an “artist renditions” set to be released in limited print runs through the Topps website. By April 2019 the cards were a reality, with the first offering, Ty Cobb, selling 1549 copies.

“I had been aware of the business model they were working with, as I had followed their success with Topps Now and the Living Set. It was a little different than what I expected in terms of my first real baseball card project, but I was super excited to work with them in any sense – being a part of that lineage that goes back to my father’s childhood was super appealing to me.”

In case you missed it, Graig’s father was a card collector, but more on that much later.

“In a way, I liken it to comics where you have modern artists and writers handling these current issues of something like Batman, and them being in the same line with the Neal Adamses, Grant Morrisons, Frank Millers and even going as far back as Bob Kane and Bill Finger…it’s like a big family that you’re being asked to join.”

One question I had for Graig was who chose the players to be included in the set, Topps or Graig. This is something that interests me with nearly any baseball set…the hows and whos of arriving at a checklist.

“Topps was in charge of giving me the names of the players they wanted. They had the first 15 or so planned, both with the specific players and when they were to be released. For the last five, they did ask for a little input, but I don’t think that my suggestions were a huge influence in the decision making process. And I don’t mean that in a bad way, I just think that the players I might have wanted to paint may not have lined up with the players who they thought would be popular among their large fan base.”

While I would have loved to hear that Graig had total license over the project, I have to say Topps did a phenomenal job in selecting the players for Graig to paint. I can also imagine the good people at Topps being a bit irked had Graig decided to go with Lipman Pike or Hans Lobert over, say, Tom Seaver or Ted Williams.

The result is an almost obscenely stacked roster of top shelf baseball talent, so much so that you have to think hard to come up with who didn’t make the cut. (Two Yankees legends absent due to licensing issues were Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio.)

While Graig did not develop the checklist, he did choose the photographs that the card images were based on, though Topps provided some input likely aimed at increasing marketability.

“They made it clear to me that each player should be depicted with the team he’s best known for, and preferably on the youngish side of the coin. Combining that with the pool of images that Topps has the license to use via Getty, I was able to find at least 7-8 photographs of each player that I thought would be worthy.”

If you read that last sentence and are thinking PARALLELS, you’re not alone! Graig? Topps? What do you say?

One question I had for Graig was whether choosing an image for a large painting was very different from choosing an image for a baseball card.

“The thought was that if I did an action shot or a stadium panoramic [as many of Graig’s paintings are], it was going to be shrunk down to card size, so a lot of detail would be lost. Rather than risking that, I felt that portraits would be the safest bet. Plus, since I’m sure a lot of the images of these guys are in black and white, having a color representation of their face (and some jersey stuff when applicable) was the most important aspect of the artist rendition in terms of ‘connecting’ with people.”

Time considerations were a factor for Graig also since the project called for Topps to issue a new card roughly every two weeks. This too pointed toward portraits.

Among the portraits I wondered if Graig had any favorites, whether as an artist, a collector, or a fan. Were there any paintings where Graig said, “Wow, I really did a great job with that one!”

“There are certain aspects of each portrait that I really think I nailed. I mean, obviously, I always want the next painting to be the best one, but sometimes there are little spots of each that can shine or stick out to me in some way. And those parts aren’t necessarily visible to others (or even tangible for that matter) but they’re there.”

“As an example, the last painting I did of Lou Brock, the relationship between the bright, warm red of his cap and the cool green and blue hues of the dugout wall was incredibly pleasing. It was something I tried to push a lot in the original painting, playing off of color complements and optical blending. I’m not even sure if that stuff made its way into the final card itself, as a lot of nuance can get lost in the reproduction process, but I was very pleased with how the painting itself came out.”

Look again at that Brock card now. There’s nothing lazy, nothing wasted. Even the parts that immediately hit our eye as “white jersey” or “red cap” aren’t. Anywhere you look on any of these cards there is a glow, texture, and even a personality that emerges.

I wanted to know where this all came from, not just the Artist Renditions set but everything. Did Graig collect cards as a kid? Who were his favorite players? What were his favorite sets? I tried to go light since I knew Graig was preparing for a major exhibition of over 200 of his paintings in Kansas City as part of the Centennial Celebration organized by the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

“I did indeed collect as a kid. With my father being a somewhat avid collector in the ’50s up until a bit after I was born (1980), I don’t think my brother or I had a choice NOT to have an interest in baseball cards.”

Okay, I know you’re thinking what I was thinking! Well, here’s the bad news…

“Like most of the people of his generation, his mother threw out the majority of his collection when she deemed him ‘too old’ for it.”

Shoot! But wait, the story’s not quite over…

Author’s rendition of what card maybe looked like

“He was able to save some of his favorites. Included in that batch were mostly Yankees and a smattering of Giants and Dodgers. He managed to keep his ’51 Bowman Mantle, which always had a certain mystique about it, what with it being the rookie card of his favorite player and all. And let’s face it, it was expensive, which to me, as a kid, was extra cool. His example wasn’t even in decent shape or anything, but it still had quite an aura – so even then I was aware that it had some serious sentimental value.”

On one hand Graig’s father’s collection influenced Graig as a collector.

“Through my father’s stories, I came to ‘know’ Mantle and his teammates in a way that seemed more real to me than the feelings I had with the group of the then-current Yankees (Mattingly, Winfield, Randolph, etc). So while I was getting my first packs of baseball cards (’87 Topps – still LOVE that set), I was even more excited about picking up older cards when I could.”

“I remember being at one of the Gloria Rothstein Westchester shows in the late ’80s and my father paying $4 to get me a 1964 Topps Bobby Richardson. I held it in my hands and was truly amazed. My friends couldn’t understand why I had any interest in a guy they’d never heard of, but there I was, not being able to shut up about that ’61 Yankees infield.”

Interestingly, Graig’s father’s collection also influenced Graig as an artist.

“When I was younger, it’s fair to say that I was inspired to draw ballplayers because of my father’s baseball cards. Looking at it now, I’m sure that seeing those early Bowman and Topps issues with the illustrations must have had some kind of impact on my psyche – something along the lines of, ‘Hey, somebody actually drew and painted these things – they’re not photographs, they’re made by humans. Maybe that’s something I can do.’ I don’t remember actually having any epiphany like that, but I’ve gotta imagine that that is how what I do now all germinated.”

It was also around that time that Graig encountered the work of more contemporary baseball artists.

“In the late ’80s and early ’90s, I of course fell in love with the likes of Dick Perez and Christopher Paluso. And both for different reasons. I loved how painterly and expressive Perez was with his colors. And the sleak photorealism of Christopher’s work appealed to me on a craftsman’s level. To this day, I can still remember seeing their stuff for the first time.”

I worked with Graig to track down the first Christopher Paluso piece he remembers seeing, this lithograph of Joe Sewell. (Image source from Heritage Auctions.)

Tracking down Graig’s first recollections of Dick Perez’s work was a foggier matter. He vaguely recalled the 1986 Donruss Diamond Kings subset but was unsure of the player so I’ll just go with my three favorites!

Not wanting to leave anything out I ended my interview with Graig by asking him a question I was really happy I remembered to ask.

“What’s one question you wish I asked but didn’t? And what’s the answer?”

Graig’s answer was a long one that has little to do with baseball cards but is no less essential to the overall story of the cards that inspired this post.

“That’s a tough one! The question, ‘Who is your biggest art influence?’ is always one of my favorites. And that’s mainly because I like giving the man his due. I first met Peter Fiore in 1999 as an undergrad student at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. I had enrolled in his class – “Painting the Light” I think it was called – not quite knowing what to expect. The description mentioned something about learning how to paint your subjects in believable space by paying attention to light and color, or something to that effect. And the idea appealed to me greatly.”

“Little did I know that that fall, I made the acquaintance of the artist who would forever change the way I thought about painting. Up until then, I was strictly a renderer. I wanted whatever I painted to be realistic to the point where it blended between realism and photorealism. And to me, that meant being able to study edges, values and colors as they appear through photography.”

Source: Peter Fiore’s Facebook cover photo

“Through Peter, I learned that photography was a starting off point, that the world around me had much more to show. I learned how to work with color, and to work with it purposefully. I learned how light shapes the world around me. And this didn’t happen in just that semester. I took a few classes with him while I was in school. After I graduated, we became good friends, and I still consider him one of my favorite people on this planet. I’m always learning from him, be it about painting or light or life, and I can’t think of any teacher or friend who’s influenced my artistic journey as much as he has. For anybody interested, you can see his beautiful landscapes at peterfiore.com.”

Look at Graig’s work again and you can see this. Every detail is there, but there is something more. The players he paints are at the same time lifelike and larger than life. There is a radiance that differs from how our eyes might have seen these men but perfectly matches how our minds see them.

Normally such images are confined to galleries or perhaps just our imaginations, but thanks to Graig and Topps they can also have a place in our collections.

The tragedy of the commons

Those who have visited the memorabilia room (checks with fiancee…okay, GUEST ROOM) at our house know most of my best cards live on the wall. Though there’s some variety to my methods, I most often use top loaders to provide at least some protection of the actual cardboard. This new T205 Brooklyn display (thanks to David at Cigar Box Cards) is a good example.

While the cards are just sitting loose on the “shelves” each is in not only a tobacco size top loader but a penny sleeve as well. I took a similar approach to my Dodger team sets from 1956 and 1957, where cards were first put in sleeves and top loaders before being glued into the frame.

Sometime about a month ago I got to thinking about how even though my main collecting interest is vintage cards the Dodger fan in me really needed a card display honoring the 1988 World Series team. Not being the 1910s or the 1950s I naturally had several choices for sets to draw from: Topps, Fleer, Donruss, Upper Deck, and Score at the very least, and plenty of others if I was okay focusing mainly on stars. Mix and match approaches were possible as well.

Ultimately I decided on 24 cards from the 1989 Topps set, complemented by four cards from the under-the-radar World Series subset unique to the O-Pee-Chee release.

Unfortunately, a funny thing happened to me when I bought my frame, carefully measured to ensure enough room for four rows of 28 cards. They didn’t fit, at least not with the top loaders on them. The best I could do was six rows of three and way too much white space to look good.

Then a strange and foreign thought crossed my mind. Did I even need the top loaders? Did I even need any protection for the cards at all? After all, we were talking about $6 maximum worth of cards. The obvious solution was simply to glue the cards in directly. Besides solving the sizing problem, there would also be less glare in avoiding extra layers of plastic between cardboard and eyeball.

There was only one problem.

I couldn’t do it!

“I will not fire on innocent people!”

I couldn’t destroy perfectly good baseball cards, no matter how worthless they were. I reached out to my fellow collectors online and realized I wasn’t alone. Yes, some collectors said, “do it!” but most offered suggestions for other methods that would keep the cards intact.

Ultimately I decided that I needed to do it. I needed to not be crazy about a $6 stack of cards. I needed to realize that gluing some cheap cards to a picture frame didn’t make me a bad person or bad collector.

I was that kid standing at the end of the diving board over a cold pool, one step from doing what needed to happen but unable to budge. And then I jumped. And not just any jump. I jumped the shark.

I headed to my magazine shelf and grabbed a Sports Illustrated issue I’d been saving in plastic for more than 30 years. My stomach turned. My throat was dry. I cut off the cover and glued it down.

The process was agonizing for me, but I really liked how the final product turned out. A funny thing that hit me when it was over was that the new design probably could have fit the top loaders after all. Still, less glare, so I’ll call it a win. And really, what did I lose besides a few dollars worth of cards and my baseball card collecting soul?

My Favorite Common

On the heels of Nick’s suggestion, I thought I’d take a stab as well. If you’re one of the blog’s more avid readers you may recall I’ve already done two pieces on “Uncommon Commons,” the first on Ohtanian Texas League pioneer Dave Hoskins and the second on football player-artist Ernie Barnes. At present my cards of Hoskins reign supreme over the tens of thousands of commons in my collection, so much so that they get their own shelf in my memorabilia room.

Neither Hoskins nor Barnes will be the subject of this post, however. More in line with the spirit of the “Favorite Common” series, I’ll highlight a favorite common or two from my formative years as a collector, long before I had ever heard the names Dave Hoskins and Ernie Barnes.

Having come of age as a collector and fan in late-1970s Los Angeles, I went to bed each night with the transistor radio glued to my ear, faithfully tuned to the play calling and commentary of Vin Scully, Ross Porter, and Jerry Doggett on KABC 790. You’d be forgiven for not noticing from the outside, but inside Dodgerland there was a great chase afoot as dramatic and legacy defining as Mantle, Maris, or Aaron’s pursuit of Ruth.

The great Manuel Rafael Mota Geronimo (SABR bi0), whose full name was sometimes used by Scully out of reverence, was on the verge of becoming baseball’s all-time Pinch-Hit King! With every plate appearance came the question of whether he’d pull one hit closer to the immortal (or at least centuries old sounding) Smoky Burgess.

Many fans today know Scully’s famous call of Kirk Gibson’s pinch-hit home run in the 1988 World Series. From my memory, perhaps faulty but not wholly unreliable, that radio call was every Manny Mota at-bat in the year of our Lord 1979 as well as half the times Manny could have come up and didn’t.

So yes, your VCPs, Standard Catalogs, and Beckett Monthlies might regard Mr. Mota as a common, but I am here to correct the record. In Greek mythology some gods assumed common form, but this was 1979 Los Angeles, not 2000 B.C. Athens, and Mr. Mota’s assault on immortality made his 1978 and 1979 Topps cards anything but common in my collection.

Mota had entered the 1979 season with 132 pinch hits, a dozen short of the record. With roughly six months of baseball to play, barring whatever type of injuries befell pinch-hitters, Manny would need to average two hits per month to tie Burgess and of course just a hair over that to claim the crown for his own. Sure Ty Cobb once banged out 67 hits in a single month, but old Ty had the advantage of everyday play and competed against inferior talent. Let’s call it a wash, shall we?

Sure enough, Manny Mota began the season on perfect pace to match Burgess. Two hits in April followed by two hits in May. One one occasion each month, Mota drew a dreaded base on balls, the record chasing equivalent of a prom date with your cousin. Forgive us for we did not yet know walks would someday be hallowed above even RBIs among baseball savants, meaning at the time that the only response our amygdalas could produce was, “Pitch to the man, you bum!”

I don’t normally use this blog to shame anyone, but here are the bums in question. A pox on both your houses, Frank Riccelli and Mike Tomlin!

With two months of the season in the books, Mota’s average was a “Peachy” .364, but then came his dreaded June swoon and a slowing of Manny’s assault on Burgess. Only one hit in five at-bats prompted the question: Like Aaron in ’73, would Mota fall just short of the mark and be forced to carry its full burden into the off-season?

As it turns out, not a chance! Channeling Kobe’s final game, it seemed every time a Dodger hitter stepped to the plate in July it was Mota. I remember his plate appearances that month as 100 though the record books now tell me they numbered a mere dozen. Perhaps I’m counting all the times Scully wondered aloud whether Mota might be making his way to the bat rack.

“And look who’s coming up…”

Still, 12 at bats for a pinch-hitter is like a million for anyone else. Mota made the most of his trips to the plate, connecting for four hits and closing out the month with 141 pinch-hits. With two full months remaining, there was little doubt Mota would soon claim the crown.

Hinting at the role Fate had played in his career, Number 11 came to the plate 11 times in August. His first four times up resulted in three singles against only one out. He was now batting .375 on the season. More importantly, his career total for pinch-hits was now 144. The man was Ty Cobb meets Tie Burgess.

As was the way in ancient Sparta, there were now two kings. This we expected. What we didn’t expect was that the diarchy would drag on as long as it did.

As hot as August began, a rash of cool summer nights followed:

  • August 9: ground out
  • August 12: ground out
  • August 16: sacrifice bunt
  • August 20: ground ball double play
  • August 24: line out
  • August 25: fly out
  • August 28: strikeout

The wear of the season had caught up with Mota. While everyday hitters could match Manny’s hitless streak and barely blink an eye, they also cycle through seven plate appearances every two games. For Mota, the drought represented a full one eighth of the baseball season, which is quite an o-fer for a .375 hitter!

The Dodgers gave Mota the rest of the month off and didn’t call his number again until the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, at home against the Cubs. Leading off the bottom of the eighth inning on September 2, 1979, Manny Mota replaced Ken Brett in the Dodger lineup. On the mound for the visiting Cubs was card-in-every-pack northpaw Lynn McGlothen, who held a 1-2 count on Mota.

On the next pitch…history was made, or in the immortal words of Topps, “Basehit to Rightfield Does It!”

The king is dead. Long live the king! Let the history books (or at least the SABR Baseball Cards blog) show that this common was no common common but a common who one day ruled them all.

Epilogue

A couple years back I was staying with a friend in the Bay Area, and he brought out his old baseball cards. Seeing my reaction to his 1970 Manny Mota card, he was kind enough to give it to me. The front featured a beautiful image of Mota waiting his turn at bat, ready to deliver his trademark single to right. His gaze seemed affixed beyond the mound or batter’s box, almost heavenward, as if to let the baseball gods know, “Yeah, I got this.”

Flip the card over, however, and I’m actually thankful that I didn’t have it back in 1979.

“Considered by many to be the best #4 outfielder in the NL, Manny proved his value to the Dodgers in 1969 with timely hitting.”

As a kid who listened to Vin Scully more than his own parents and teachers, I saw Mota as a superstar. It had never once crossed my mind that Mota might have simply been the fourth best outfielder for a lot longer than most players, many of whom eventually became the third, second, or even first best. I was cheering a prize for bench warmers all those games, all the while thinking I was witnessing the toppling of the Bambino.

Who was Manny Mota then? Was he an immortal carving out his own slice of baseball’s record book or was he a glorified bench warmer? I prefer to remember him as the former, not just because it’s how I experienced him at the time but because such a portrait inspires me in my own life.

In so many parts of life, we are not the stars, the best, or even in the top three. We are the helpers, the ones who wait their turns, and the ones who much rejoice in small victories. We fail more than we succeed, and we don’t always know when our next opportunity will come, if at all.

We aren’t Hank Aaron or Mike Trout (unless one of them is reading this column…HOLY SMOKES!!!), and nobody will ever collect our baseball cards. Still from our benches there are glories and gratitude as we aspire humbly not to be heroes to millions but on a good day, to those around us, a Favorite Common.

Author’s note: Manny Mota fans and baseball fans in general might enjoy W.P. Kinsella’s short story, “The Night Manny Mota Tied the Record.” It’s in “The Essential W.P. Kinsella,” among other places.

Mother, should I build a wall?

When I was a kid my dad had his own small collection, not of cards but of Argus posters. These posters, at least the ones my dad decorated the house with, tended to feature beautiful nature scenes and inspirational quotes. They were essentially the memes of our analog home.

Much like today’s memes are intended to do, the messages on these posters tended to stick with me and become baked into my worldview.

There are no Argus posters in my memorabilia room, but one could argue that my entire memorabilia room is an Argus poster! No, not one of the many reminding us that happiness comes from relationships or experiences, not things, but a different one, which I’ll get to soon enough.

What I do have on my walls and loose on shelves are my very best cards, no matter the value. For example, here is my Roy Campanella collection, rookie card and all.

Just to its left is my Hank Aaron collection, again rookie card and all.

Wander around a bit and you’ll find more card displays to enjoy, including my own personal Cardboard Cooperstown.

Obviously there are risks to doing what I do. Theft? Maybe. Fading? Probably, though we tend to keep things pretty dark down there. Moisture? Flooding? Odor? Alien abduction? All possible!

But here’s what’s definite. When I walk past these cards they make me happy in a way that my cards in boxes or binders do not.

I know where some of you are. You would love a card wall, but you’re nervous about protecting your investment. Far be it from me to tell you how to collect, but I will plant at least two seeds in your mind. First off, the cards you display really don’t have to be your most valuable ones. For example, I’m sure I paid less than $30 total for all the cards in my Cobra frame.

Maybe add ten more dollars and the same holds true for my Steve Garvey collection.

So that’s the first seed I’ll plant. The cards on your wall don’t have to be expensive. They just have to be cards you like.

As for the second seed, I’ll take you back to my dad’s poster that made the greatest impression on me. It showed a boat taking a beating from the waves and rain, on the precipice of capsizing but somehow, barely, still afloat.

Here was the caption, which also serves as the unofficial motto of my card walls.

“A ship in the harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.”

John A. Shedd, “Salt from my Attic” (1928)

Enjoy your cards!

Heritage before Heritage

I reached a collecting milestone last week by completing one of my all-time favorite sets. It’s a set that’s off the radar of most collectors (until now!) and has few cards, if any, worth more than a dollar. Its value to me is purely sentimental but still sky high in that it’s the set that started my lifelong love affair with baseball’s all-time greats.

Before getting into the set itself, I’ll start with a card not in it.

You may recognize this as the 1960 Leaf card of Brooks Robinson. The first time I saw it 10-year-old-me took the glow around Robinson’s head for a halo and suspected only I could see it. (UPDATE: Rob Neyer also saw the halo!)

To other collectors (but not our own Jeff Katz) the set is perhaps a bit more boring, despite the fact that it has to be the most exciting set ever to come with marbles instead of gum! (And did I mention the packs had cards of “Your Favorite Major League Star?”)

Marbles aside, we are looking at a black and white set produced long past the era of black and white sets, whether to you the Grayscale Age of Baseball Cards was the 1920s or the 1880s. “Your Favorite Major League Player” notwithstanding, the Leaf checklist strikes many collectors as lackluster, with the Human Vacuum Cleaner and Duke Snider perhaps the only top shelf Hall of Famers.

Various articles note design similarities between the 1960 Leaf set and its predecessor 11 years prior. My own opinion is that the two sets aren’t that close, but I’ll let you judge for yourself.

I chose Elmer Valo to compare these sets because his placement in the 1960 set comes with a little bit of a story. As reported in the May 4, 1949, Boston Globe, Valo was one of six ballplayers to sue Leaf for using their likeness in the 1949 set. The fact that he found himself back on the checklist in 1960 says something about the ability to forgive or forget, whether on the part of Leaf, Valo, or both.

Now fast forward to 1977 and one of the nation’s best known mail order dealers is planning a set of 45 cards as her very first entrée into the card making business. The next 10+ years would see her company produce dozens more sets including…

A 1983 tribute to the 1969 Seattle Pilots…

A 1984 “Art Card Series” featuring acclaimed baseball artist Ron Lewis of Negro Leagues postcard fame…

And six single-player sets from 1984-86 of several big name ballplayers and cult leaders! (Wait, that’s Pete Rose? Are you sure?)

While these later sets drew on new designs, the last few of which just scream 1980s, her very first set, much like Topps Heritage does today, mimicked a set from the past. T206? Nope! 1933 Goudey? Nope! 1952 Topps? Nope again. As you’ve no doubt guessed already, that set was 1960 Leaf!

Here is card #5, Roy Campanella, from Renata Galasso’s debut set, “Decade Greats,” featuring top stars from the 1950s.

Perhaps Ms. Galasso had a sentimental attachment to 1960 Leaf or maybe she just held a special admiration for her fellow challengers of the Topps monopoly. More than likely, her reasons for copying the Leaf set were more pedestrian. Black and white was cheaper than color, and it would have been tough to get too close to Topps without getting even closer to their lawyers. Finally, a collection of 1950s players made more sense in a decade-capping 1960 set than, for example, 1922 American Caramel.

Particularly for her rookie offering, Renata Galasso did a fantastic job capturing the look and feel of the 1960 set. Put the cards side-by-side and you’ll spot some differences, most notably the missing halo, but to paraphrase Maya Angelou the cards are much more alike than unalike.

As the small print on the back of the Campanella card shows, Renata Galasso received an assist from Mike Aronstein’s company, TCMA, which had already been making its own cards since 1972.

The 45-card set was evidently popular enough to engender a sequel two years later, this time numbered 46-90. While you might have expected this continuation set to focus on the 1960s, TCMA had already beat Galasso to the punch the year before with a stunning color issue (left) reminiscent of 1953 Bowman (right) in yet another case of Heritage before Heritage.

TCMA had similarly put out a 1930s set five years earlier, but the half decade gap left enough breathing room for Galasso to put her own “1960 Leaf” touch on the decade.

Where I had previously seen sharp photos of Aaron, Mays, Mantle, and other 1950s stars in my reading books, this 1930s set was the first time I had ever seen such vivid images of earlier stars. To a certain extent, Galasso’s set transformed these 1930s heroes from cartoon characters into men, which somehow made their records and feats all the more impressive. As the card footer shows, TCMA was again a partner in the effort.

Renata Galasso extended her set once again the following year, issuing Series Three in 1980. This time her decade of choice was the 1920s. This was around the time I started taking the bus to card shows, and the Galasso cards were a frequent purchase for me out of bargain bins. While I regret turning down a T206 Cobb for $14, I have no regrets about scooping this one up for a dime.

Once again, TCMA was in the mix, and once again the cards looked fantastic. In my view, all they needed was stats on the back instead of that humongous logo and they would have been perfect.

Series Four, numbered 136-180, came the very next year and featured stars of the 1910s. You don’t even have to look at the rest of the checklist to know the key card in this series is the Cobb, with its iconic Conlon photo.

In a move that foreshadowed the later work of SABR, you’ll notice that Cobb’s hit total was reduced between his 1980 and 1981 card backs. I’ll also credit Galasso (or TCMA) with splurging for a brand new bio where other card makers might have simply recycled the back from the previous series.

The Decade Greats set, now up to 225 cards, would continue in 1983 with a 45-card series, sometimes numbered 181-223 (plus two unnumbered cards), commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1933 All-Star Game.

I say “sometimes numbered” because the same 45 cards are also numbered 1-43 (plus two unnumbered), reflecting either a clever marketing move to co-brand this series as a standalone or just an oops by someone who forgot numbers 1-180 were already spoken for.

On top of that, the sequencing of the 43 numbered cards comes in the exact opposite order of their 181-223 counterparts. For example, here is my version of the Hubbell card, numbered 16 instead of 208, which of course is the 16th number counting backward from 223.

Card footers no longer mention TCMA, which I take to mean Renata Galasso was either producing these cards solo or experimenting with new vendors. Perhaps connected to the absence of TCMA, the quality of the cards drops off some with centering/miscut issues and minor typos being the main culprits.

The sixth and final series was released in 1984 and commemorated highlights and records. One of my favorite cards in the set provides a much sharper image of Jackie Robinson than his 1948 Sport Thrills card, even as both cards drew from the same George Burke photo.

As with the fifth series, quality falls short of the first four series. Look closely at the Robinson card, and you’ll see the name and caption are poorly centered relative to his portrait. This proves to be the case for the majority of the cards. This final series also includes a “BILL MAZEROWSKI” UER and the awkward Koufax caption “PITCHES 4TH NO HITTERS.”

There are also some really bad looking photos, especially compared to the earlier cards. For example, compare the elegant Mays from Series One to the practically reptilian Mantle of Series Six.

Finally, there is notable drift from the original 1960 Leaf design that inspired the set. Photos now are more squared off, the big letters have gotten smaller, and the small letters have gotten bigger. The resemblance is still there though perhaps more amateur.

The final two series are the hardest to find, a sign of declining production and sales. That no Series Seven or Eight was ever produced affirms the reduced interest in sets of this kind. We had reached the mid-1980s after all. Collectors now preferred future Hall of Famers to actual Hall of Famers, but why not! What could King Carl do to make his cards go up in value? Certainly not win 400 games like Dwight Gooden would!

Even where some collectors still wanted old-time stars for pocket change, there was no shortage of color offerings to choose from, including a gorgeous Dick Perez collaboration from Donruss in 1983 and various other Perez-Steele offerings that had gained popularity with autograph hounds.

Regardless of its flaws, its waning popularity, and its uselessness in funding my retirement (I just picked up the “tough” Series Five for $0.99 plus shipping), the 270-card “Decade Greats” set, also called “Glossy Greats,” will always be a favorite of mine.

It is a set that might have seemed lazy at the time, an unimaginative reboot of a set from two decades earlier. What we didn’t know then is just how ahead of its time that was…Heritage before Heritage if you ask me!

Extra for experts

The 1977-84 Renata Galasso Decade Greats set is a relatively early example of “Heritage before Heritage,” but it’s certainly not the only example or even the first. Go back six years and Allstate Insurance (of course!) put together a small set evoking the 1933 Goudey design. Here is the Ted Williams card from the set.

One could perhaps even consider the 1955 Topps Double Header issue a reboot of the 1911 Mecca Double Folders (T201) design, even as the cards differ in many ways visually.

There is also enough similarity across many tobacco issues that perhaps one could regard just about any of the sets Heritage-style remake of some other from a couple years earlier, though I would argue here that this is less about paying homage and more about paying less!

I’m curious what your examples are of early Heritage before Heritage. Ideally the visual match would be strong and the difference between the sets would be a good decade or more. Let me know in the Comments, either here or on Twitter.

Solving the border crisis

A common complaint among vintage collectors who run across newer issues is that we miss the good old days when baseball cards had borders. Looking at cards like these 2017 Astros leaves us feeling (ahem!)…cheated.

The borders we overlooked as kids have come to symbolize all that was right about baseball cards. Joni Mitchell had us pegged. You really DON’T know what you’ve got till it’s gone. No, we’d never pave Paradise to put up a parking lot, but we sure wouldn’t mind a thin cement edge around it.

The borders on our cards have taken on almost a spiritual significance with “meaning of life” level implications. We ponder koans such as, “Is a card without a border even a card?”

The sages teach us that without nothing there could be no something. Cardboardismically speaking, the border is the yin to the image’s yang. Form needs outline.

The vintage collector therefore must find “border in the chaos,” else risk serenity and sanity alike. Should he even consider collecting cards post-2015, his best, nay ONLY, option is Heritage!

Whatever you hear on TV, friends, THIS is the real border crisis, but fear not…

Tengo un plan para eso…and it won’t even raise your taxes! (Checks new eBay policy. “Okay, so maybe a little.”)

Add just THREE CARDS to your collection and you’re gonna win on borders so much you’ll be tired of winning on borders.

1960 Fleer ted williams

Let’s start with Ted Williams. Compare his 1960 Fleer card with that of Hack Wilson or any other player in the set. That’s some serious border! Where some perfectly centered cards are said to have 50-50 centering, Teddy Ballgame comes in at 150-150!

Back in the day you might have found this card an eyesore, but that was then. Now you probably look at the card and wish the borders were even bigger!

1936-37 World wide gum Lou Gehrig

The second must-have for the border hoarder is the 1936-37 World Wide Gum card of Lou Gehrig. (Note that this issue is catalogued as 1936, but Matthew Glidden makes a compelling case that 1936-37 is more correct.)

At first you may shrug away Larrupin’ Lou’s border as nothing special, no different than that of teammate Dickey. Look closer though and you’ll see that Gehrig’s image comes to a refreshing end more than a quarter inch from the card edge. After unremarkable offerings in 1933 and 1934, World Wide Gum definitely put the Border in “North of the Border!”

1934 Butterfinger Paul Waner

Finally we come to the 1934 Butterfinger card of Paul Waner, the card that I believe sets the standard when it comes to border-to-image ratio.

While the Dizzy Dean image from the same issue flirts tantalizingly close to the card edge, the Waner card has more margin than Gould selling hammers to the Pentagon. If the card had any more border we might forget it was a baseball card altogether and assume it was a Home Depot paint sample for Gotham Gray. If Big Poison were any smaller on the card he would have been Little Poison.

Teddy Ballgame, the Iron Horse, and Big Poison. Three players who made the Hall of Fame by a wide margin, but even more importantly, three cards who made the wide margin Hall of Fame. Border crisis averted, at least for now.

A most valuable discovery

As a kid I used to dream about finding my way into some ancient attic and unearthing boxes and boxes full of old baseball cards. For whatever reason, I imagined I’d need to be on the East Coast somewhere, which made the fantasy all the less attainable coming from my West Coast mind, but it was still fun to picture thumbing through these old stacks of cards and finding Ted Williams, Stan Musial, and Joe DiMaggio if not Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and Honus Wagner.

While this dream of mine never did come true, I did have the pleasure of meeting a fellow collector this year whose real life experience came awfully close.

David grew up in the Kansas City area but lives in Phoenix these days. Like me, he fell for card collecting hook, line, and sinker from the moment he was introduced to his first baseball cards, despite the fact he barely knew a thing about baseball or any of the players. While my love affair with cards and baseball began with 1978 Topps, David got going five years earlier and still remembers the thrill of pulling a 1973 Topps Hank Aaron card.

David was mainly a Hank Aaron and Kansas City Royals collector early on and started a paper route to feed his fix for packs. Once Hank Aaron retired, David branched out into the older stuff, mainly pursuing pre-1973 Hank Aaron cards and other stars he’d heard about from his dad. David was even lucky enough to have a teacher at school who would trade old 1950s cards for contemporary stars. While these swaps usually worked in David’s favor, he harbors at least some regret over a 1975 Gary Carter RC for 1955 Topps Tom Hurd swap.

Fast forward a bit and David eventually headed off to college. Like so many other collectors he left his cards at home–Hank Aaron, George Brett, Tom Hurd, and all. With David away at school his parents downsized and moved most of his stuff into storage. After his father passed away, David’s mother forgot about the storage unit, whose contents were ultimately sold off to the highest bidder.

The end. Right?

Not quite. I’ll let David’s twitter bio take over from here.

“Recently found my entire card collection I thought was long lost. Sharing my find w/twitter…”

While I grew up dreaming of finding boxes and boxes full of incredible cards, David actually did it. The twist, of course, is that the boxes he found were his own!

Evidently, David’s dad didn’t want to put the cards in storage and had a friend of his hang onto them instead. David remained in contact with this family friend, who one day, decades later, remembered he had a bunch of boxes somewhere with David’s name on them.

David’s first few twitter posts as “Cigarbox Cards” definitely got my attention!

The first card David posted was a well loved 1956 Topps card of Mr. Cub. The next day David posted a video of himself rifling through stacks of cards including early Topps issues of Gary Carter (but not the 1975!) and Dennis Eckersley while a 1949 Leaf Ted Williams sat untouched in the distance.

An autographed Yaz rookie was next, followed by a Red Man Willie Mays. In the days that followed David posted a Brett RC mini, a 1954 Bowman Mickey Mantle, and a 1974 Topps Tom Seaver. I always enjoyed the way David juxtaposed his featured finds with background elements that enhanced their presentation. This is a theme we’ll come back to shortly when I show you what David’s up to now.

Most of the online replies consisted of emojis like 😱 and 🔥 🔥 🔥 but I suspect certain collectors were wondering if David’s cigar box finds included any really good cards.

Then David dropped the Hammer.

And even more Hammer! (Click blue arrow twice to activate.)

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Though the cards are not mine, I still feel a thrill each time David posts an amazing card from his original collection. To think how close these cards came to being lost forever and then to see them pop up in my twitter feed is downright magical. It’s like flipping through my own personal attic find, even if the cards aren’t mine to keep–just like the dreams I had as a kid right down to waking up in the morning with the same collection I had before!

Beyond showing off some great cards David introduced some fun interactive features to his posts, among them his “Out or Hit” series…

…or his “In Action” baseball card gifs.

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Of course it was only a matter of time before this happened.

The cards kept coming and coming, almost obscenely so, but what really caught the eye of many collectors was the creative ways David was finding to display his cards, something many of us spend undue time considering.

Here’s another one that really caught my eye with bonus points for the bunting!

And if you’re wondering what the most creative use for a yellow drinking straw in a baseball card collection is…

Or for the Yankee fans…

I could go on and on, but you’d probably have more fun scrolling through all David’s posts yourself. Other than of course SABR Baseball Cards 🤣, it’s hard to think of another baseball card account as consistently awesome as his.

As I consider his collecting story I come back once again to my own and that of so many other collectors. How many of us dreamed of that elusive find, those boxes and boxes of cards filled with stars of yesteryear? If you’re like me, not only did that imagined cardboard haul never arrive but even the cards you did have were nowhere to be found by the time you realized you missed them.

What I didn’t know when I shuffled through my 1978-80 Topps cards as a kid was that the boxes right in front of me would someday be more valuable than any cards I might find elsewhere. Even today the memories of those cards mean more to me than the actual cards I’ve purchased since.

This post (below, right) from David makes the point well and was ultimately the catalyst for my writing this article.

Let’s face it. You can dream all you want about things you don’t have, but few fantasies or realities will ever come close to that of your first love, whether lost, lasting, or in David’s case both.

Author’s note: For another SABR Baseball Cards article inspired by collectors’ online posts, see “Fathers and Sons.”