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.
Sometime last year I picked up the last card I needed for my 1980 Topps set, placed it into its nine-pocket, and then took my well earned victory flip through the binder of majestic completed pages…only to find a page with a missing card. Dewey defeats Truman. Defeat from the jaws of victory. Bird steals the inbound pass.
Completing a set without actually completing a set is just one of the many cardboard errors I’ve made lately. Here are three more.
My largest player collection (by about 600) is the 700+ playing era cards I have of Dwight Gooden. For whatever reason, I decided a couple years back that the card at the very top of my Dr. K want list was Doc’s 1986 Meadow Gold milk carton “sketch” card.
I’d seen the card on eBay in the $10 range for a while, but you don’t amass 700+ cards of a guy by paying $10 each. At last one turned up for more like $3 and I couldn’t hit “Buy It Now” fast enough. When the card arrived I was genuinely excited to add it to my binder, only to find…
…I already had the card!
Just two weeks later, I “doubled” down by adding a card I thought I needed for my 1972 Fleer Laughlin Famous Feats set.
On the bright side, it’s not like these cards cost me real money. I’d never make the same mistake adding this Kaiser Wilhelm to my T206 Brooklyn team set, right?
Oops. Think again.
Of course what Hobbyist hasn’t accidentally added the occasional double or two…or three? Probably most, but how many could pull off the feat three times in one month?
In the corporate world, bosses would be calling for a root cause analysis and demanding corrective action. Am I simply getting old? Do I have too many different collections going? Have I gotten lazy at updating my want lists? In truth, probably yes to all three.
As a kid, and I think this was true of most die-hard collectors, I could open a pack and instantly know which cards I needed and which were doubles. I could do the same at card shows, looking through a dealer binder or display case. When it came to cards I had total recall. Evidently such cardboard lucidity is long gone, and it’s probably not a stretch to assume the same degradations have spread to various areas of adulting.
On the other hand, it’s also true that my purchases had much more riding on them back then. For one thing, every nickel, dime, and quarter were precious. Spending $0.50 on a 1963 Topps Ernie Banks (ah, the good old days!) when your entire card show budget (i.e., life savings) was $3.80 “borrowed” from various sources around the house was high finance. Add to that baseball cards being the only thing I thought or cared about, and it makes sense that I always batted a thousand.
An eternal optimist, it’s just not my nature to brand my “triple double” as what some collectors might bill a #HobbyFail. Rather, I’ll take solace in the adage errare humanum est and remember that it’s not the mistakes we make but how we respond to them that defines our true character. As a kid I would have sulked for weeks having committed even one of these blunders. Today I can laugh (and write) about them. Call these senior moments if you will, but isn’t”growing up” just a bit more pleasing to the ear?
Now does anyone wanna trade me a T205 Wilhelm for a T206?
UPDATE: The Wilhelm is no longer available for trade! About an hour after publishing this post the seller contacted me to let me know he’d accidentally sold it to someone else already. I guess I’m not the only one losing track of his cards these days! 😊
This article, however, will look at the first widely available baseball cards produced in the United States to showcase Negro Leaguers as Negro Leaguers. In other words, a card of Satchel Paige as a Cleveland Indian (1949 Bowman, 1949 Leaf) or St. Louis Brown (1953 Topps) would not qualify while a card of Satchel Paige as a Kansas City Monarch most definitely would. Should a working definition of “widely available” prove helpful, take it to mean there is nearly always at least one card from the set available on eBay.
Hall of Fame postcards (1971 to present)
I’ll leave it to readers individually to decide whether to count postcards as baseball cards. If you are in the “no” camp, feel free to skip this first entry. If you are in the “yes” camp then we’ll kick things off with the postcards issued and updated annually by the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
While one could quibble that more than half the text on the Paige card, first issued in July 1971, relates to his post-Negro Leagues career, I’ve chosen to count this postcard because A) Paige was selected by a special committee on the Negro Leagues, and B) he is not shown in an Indians, Browns, or Athletics uniform. The Gibson postcard, which carries no such ambiguity, was first issued in July 1972, as was a similar postcard of teammate Buck Leonard.
1974Laughlin Old-Time Black Stars
Bob Laughlin, also known for several collaborations with Fleer, independently produced this 36-card set in 1974. At time of issue, Satchel Paige (1971), Josh Gibson (1972), and Buck Leonard (1972) were the only Hall of Famers in the set. (Cool Papa Bell was inducted in 1974 but after the set was released.) Now an impressive 22 of the 36 cards in the set depict Hall of Famers, with all 14 of the remaining presenting compelling cases for enshrinement.
1975-76 Great Plains Greats
Thanks to Ted Chastain in the reader comments for identifying this 42-card set. Per the Standard Catalog the cards were produced by the Great Plains Sports Collectors Association. Cards 1-24, which includes Cool Papa Bell, were produced in 1975 and sponsored by Sheraton Inns. Cards 25-42 were produced the following year and sponsored by Nu-Sash Corp.
1976 D&S Enterprises Cool Papa Bell
In 1976 John Douglas of D&S Enterprises issued a 13-card set in conjunction with and James “Cool Papa” Bell, who was the subject of the set.
Interestingly, one of the cards in the set is a “card of a card” featuring Bell’s 1974 Laughlin card, updated with facsimile autograph.
1976 Laughlin Indianapolis Clowns
A second Laughlin set of note is his 42-card 1976 Indianapolis Clowns issue, mostly coveted by collectors today for its card of a young Henry Aaron.
In 1975 pizza chain Shakey’s issued a small 18-card set of Hall of Famers, followed up in 1976 by a much larger set featuring all 157 members of the Hall (and a second Robin Roberts card) in order of their induction. The latter set therefore included several Negro League stars: Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Monte Irvin (New York Giants photo), Cool Papa Bell, Judy Johnson, and Oscar Charleston.
Not counting the Hall of Fame’s own postcards, which may or may not be regarded as baseball cards by some collectors, I believe this Shakey’s set is the very first to feature both “traditional” (i.e., white) major leaguers and Negro Leaguers on its checklist.
1978Laughlin Long-Ago Black Stars
Four years after his initial Negro Leagues set, Laughlin produced a sequel, employing a similar design. Aside from a brand new checklist of 36 cards, the most evident updates were the replacement of “Old-Time” with “Long-Ago” and a greenish rather than brownish tint.
1978 Grand Slam
This 200-card set may have been produced with autographs in mind as (I believe) all 200 of the early baseball stars it featured were still living at the time the set was planned. While nearly one-fourth of the set featured current or future Hall of Famers, there was no shortage of lesser stars such as Bibb Falk and Ed Lopat. The set even included an outfielder with a lifetime OPS of .182.
More to the point, the set included cards of Negro Leaguers Buck Leonard, Judy Johnson, and Cool Papa Bell.
1980-87 SSPC Baseball Immortals
When initially issued in 1980, this SSPC set included all 173 Hall of Famers, i.e., the Shakey’s Pizza roster plus the 16 players inducted between 1977 and 1980. As such, it included the same Negro Leaguers as the Shakey’s set but also added Martin Dihigo (1977) and Pop Lloyd (1977).
Following the initial release, SSPC updated the checklist multiple times through 1987 to include the Hall’s more recent inductees. As such, cards of Negro Leaguers Rube Foster (1981) and Ray Dandridge (1987) were subsequently added to the set.
P.S. No, I don’t really know what’s happening on that Foster card, and don’t even get me started on the Josh Gibson!
1982 “TCMA” Baseball Superstars
Two different “Baseball Superstars” sets were produced in 1980 and 1982 that may or may not have been produced by TCMA. (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 second of these sets included a lone Satchel Paige card on its 45-card multi-sport checklist.
1983 Sporting News 1933 All-Star Game 50th Anniversary
This 60-card set was released by Marketcom to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first All-Star Game, and it’s first 48 cards featured the 32 players from the American and National League All-Star rosters plus various other players of the era such as Johnny Hodapp and Chick Fullis. Likely in recognition of the first East-West Game, also in 1933, the final dozen cards in the set consisted of Negro League greats selected by the Sporting News.
These same twelve Negro Leaguers would be reappear in their own 1933 All-Star tribute set in 1988.
1983 ASA Bob Feller
ASA was a big name in the early 1980s when it came to single player tribute sets, with Bob Feller the subject of one of its 1983 offerings. Card 5 in the twelve-card set includes a cameo by future teammate Satchel Paige in his Kansas City Monarchs uniform.
Note that a “red parallel” of the card (and entire set) exists as well.
1983 Donruss Hall of Fame Heroes
In 1983, Donruss augmented its slate of Hobby offerings to include a 44-card “Hall of Fame Heroes” set. While the majority of the set featured National and American League stars, it was notable at the time for being the first “mainstream” card set to include Negro League legends.
Cool Papa Bell and Josh Gibson are the two unambiguous Negro Leaguers in the set, and I would further count Satchel Paige in spite of his St. Louis Browns uniform.
Collectors hoping to get even more of artist Dick Perez’s talents applied to the Negro Leagues would be in luck the following year.
1980-2001 Perez-Steele Postcards(sorted in this article as 1984)
Beginning in 1980, the Perez-Steele Galleries issued a set of 245 postcards over the course of 22 years. The first of the releases to include Negro Leaguers was Series Five in 1984, which included Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Cool Papa Bell, and Judy Johnson. (The same series also included Satchel Paige as a Cleveland Indian and Monte Irvin as a New York Giant.)
1984 Decathlon Negro League Baseball Stars
Apart from the copyright line, this set is identical to its far more plentiful reproduction in 1986 by Larry Fritsch.
Consisting of 119 cards, it would take nearly four decades for a set to provide more Negro Leagues firepower than this one.
1985 Decathlon Ultimate Baseball Card Set
Decathlon returned the following year with a 15-card set of baseball legends, highlighted by Josh Gibson.
In addition thirteen white players, the set also included a “second year” card of Moses Fleetwood Walker.
If the artwork looks familiar, it was done by Gerry Dvorak of 1953 Topps fame.
1986 Larry Fritsch Negro Leagues Baseball Stars
Here is the aforementioned reissue of Decathlon’s 1984 offering, still available from Larry Fritsch Cards. I believe you can also pick up a set in person at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum gift shop.
1987 Dixon’s Negro Baseball Greats
Salute to historian, author, and Negro Leagues Baseball Museum co-founder Phil Dixon, whose 45-card set was the first ever set of baseball cards produced by an African American.
Phil also worked with the Ted Williams Card Company on its Negro Leagues subsets in 1993 and 1994.
In addition to Charles Conlon photographs of five white major leaguers, this six-card set also included a card of Cool Papa Bell.
Though the small print on the Bell’s card suggests a Conlon photograph, it should be noted that Charles Conlon passed away in 1945 while Bell did not become the manager of the Monarchs until 1948.
1988 Pittsburgh Negro League Stars
This 20-card set, highlighted on the SABR Baseball Cards blog in 2020, was given to fans by the Pittsburgh Pirates on September 10, 1988. Biographical information on the card backs comes from historian Rob Ruck.
Befitting a Pittsburgh-themed set, nearly all subjects are Crawfords or Grays, though there are some exceptions such as Monte Irvin.
1988 World Wide Sports 1933 Negro League All Stars
This 12-card set features the same twelve Negro Leaguers as the 1983 Marketcom set and also shares a common theme, that of the inaugural All-Star Game (or East-West Game). Additionally, many of the cards use identifcal source images apart from differences in cropping. However, this set is a standalone Negro Leagues set whereas the 1983 set included 48 players from the white major leagues.
The Negro Leagues set itself wasn’t scandal-free as it managed to confuse its two best players!
Counting the Hall of Fame postcards that began this article, we’ve now looked 20 years of Negro League baseball cards. Though the numbers of cards and sets may have been more than you imagined for this period from 1971-90, it’s fair to say that nearly all such sets might warrant the “oddball” label. Notably, we saw nothing at all from the biggest name in all of baseball cards, Topps.
The omission of Negro Leaguers by Topps could certainly be seen as a sign that Topps deemed these players unworthy of their precious cardboard. To an extent I buy the argument, but I’ll also counter with the fact that Topps operated “by the book” when it came to licensing, permissions, etc. I suspect many of the sets profiled in this article provided no financial compensation to the players or estates involved, meaning their honoring of the Negro Leagues may have been part celebration but also part exploitation. If so, perhaps Topps deserves kudos for not following suit.
Though I may have overlooked a card or set somewhere, I believe the first Topps Negro League cards appeared in 2001, most prominently as part of a “What Could Have Been” series.
Though unintentional, the set led off with a “what could have been” to top them all: Josh on the Kansas City Monarchs. Such would surely end all greatest team ever debates right here and now!
One of my oldest card collecting projects dates back to college and began, if I remember correctly, with a book I no longer have. The book was one of many along the theme of “baseball’s greatest players” but was particularly nice in that it included full-page photographs of every player.
In a move that perhaps foretold my joining SABR 30 years later, my roommate and I made copies of 50 of the pictures and arranged them nearly floor to ceiling to create our apartment’s own “Wall of Fame.” I recall we even put some care into the ordering of the players with the occasional new insight from “Total Baseball” prompting a reordering ceremony from time to time.
Soon after, we also began pinning our best baseball cards onto bulletin boards. (Don’t panic. The pins only went thru the penny sleeves.) Thanks to the Kit Young mail order catalog and a dealer named “Big John” who frequented local shows, we were able to update our Boards quite frequently. Naturally, any change to the Board was a major event in our apartment.
Following our graduation, my roommate eventually moved south and I moved north, which spelled the end of my Board. As remains the case today, most of my joy in collecting involved sharing the Hobby with others. In my new environment I didn’t have any friends who collected, so my grad school décor switched to Neil Young and Crazy Horse.
Fast forward two decades to 2014. I lived alone much of the week, had all kinds of time on my hands, and had just realized you could buy almost any baseball card you wanted on the internet. Unlike my college days where I made $6 an hour grading math homework, I now had a “real job,” hence real money to spend. This of course meant only one thing.
The Board was back!
Or should I say the Boards were back? I went with two display cases to fill side by side, setting the table (or rather the wall) for what I now call my “Top 100” project. Both Boards have seen numerous changes over the past eight years, typically prompted by a desire to add a player or set I didn’t already have.
For example, just last week I was able to swap out my 1935 Diamond Stars Joe Medwick card for his card from the 1938 Goudey set, thereby adding another classic set to my display. (Insert your own bad pun about getting my Duckies in a row.)
This Board and the 1958-81 version that hangs next to it are favorites in my collection for a couple reasons. One is simply that the cards themselves are wonderful. The other is that these Boards connect my present day collecting to my past. What else in my life did I begin at age 20 that I’m still working on past age 50? Among that which is tangible on this Earth, only myself and my card collection, and certainly more the latter if we’re being honest.
Even beyond the two reasons given, there is a third reason these Boards are as central as they are to my collection. Simply put, the Board uniquely defines who I am as a collector. As with fingerprints, I suspect no two collectors would ever possess the same Board. Really, who would even dispute such a claim, particularly if the collections in question amounted to 50 or 100 cards? However, I tend to think the claim holds even limited to five cards.
Following the craze of this past month or so, here is what my cardle might look like. (Two new cards from other displays make an appearance here.)
What would your cardle be?
Same card (player AND set) as mine: Give yourself a green!
Same player (different set) as mine: Give yourself a yellow!
Naturally I’ll look forward to seeing your results all over my social feeds. 😊
I’ve shared pieces of my Aaron collection here before. It includes bobbleheads, magazines, milestone home run “I was there” certificates, postcards, and of course the obvious: baseball cards.
For the most part, the collection had felt complete (or at least done) over the last year or so given that the only items on my checklist are way out of my price range. A typical example is Aaron’s 1972 Topps Cloth Sticker test issue, a recent copy of which just sold for about $600.
Of course that was before I came across a Brewers Spring Training program from 1975.
In truth, I tend to limit my magazine/program collecting tends to what Mark Armour would call “primary subject” covers. With this particular program, taxonomy is a bit complicated in that Aaron is the only named player but his image is much smaller than that of the batter and catcher shown, to whom we’ll now turn our attention.
At first glance these two players appear to be generic ballplayers reminiscent of the generic athletes that donned our ubiquitous Pee Chee (not to be confused with O-Pee-Chee) folders in elementary school.
However, there was no question who served as the model for at least the catcher.
It would be fair to ask if the similarity here is simply coincidental or if the match is exact. For this it is useful to overlay the two images. Rather than use the Bowman card, which crops away portions of Campy I’ll use the original photo upon which the Bowman image was based.
Since I am not only an Aaron collector but a Campanella collector as well, this discovery promoted the program from mere curiosity to must have, particularly given the very reasonable $5 price tag involved.
Through no lack of attempts I was ultimately unable to determine who the program’s batter (“Bento”) might have been. The name and uniform number made me think of Johnny Bench, though the handedness was a problem.
Perusing Getty Images I found shots of Rose, Maris, Yaz, and others that were similar but never exact. Still, as they say on the “X Files,” I do suspect the truth is out there.
Barring a miracle find from one of our readers, the one person who does (probably) know is the artist, whose last name is clearly Broadway but whose first name is less evident (Lonn? Ronn? Tom?).
Leaving the mystery of the batter unsolved for the moment, we can at last turn our attention to the Home Run King.
A keen-eyed Twitter user had no trouble finding the source photograph for Aaron himself.
From there it’s easy to imagine the graphic designer (perhaps Mr. Broadway himself) cutting out a Brewers hat logo (or just a capital M) from another photograph and gluing it over the Braves logo. One source I can rule out is the 1974 Topps Brewers team set where the closest match would require reversing the image of Bobby Mitchell’s card 497.
Is the result rather amateur? Absolutely, but in fairness there may not have been any photographs of Aaron in a Brewers cap at the time the program went to press, right? Oh but wait, what’s this on page 6 of this very program?!
Aaron is also featured (but with no photo) in the brief 1975 season preview on page 4 of the program. As the writer notes–
The addition of the all-time home run king Hank Aaron fills the designated hitter spot of the Brewers, a spot that last year produced only 14 home runs, 62 runs batted in, and a .222 batting average.
Almost on cue, Aaron’s 1975 slash line was .234/12/60.
Were I to rank my Top 100 Henry Aaron collectibles, this Spring Training program would fall far below even the bottom of the list. At the same time, were I to rank them by their oddity or mystery it probably makes the top five. After all, even if you solve the riddle of Bento, I now challenge you to identify the players on page 16…
And most importantly…what the heck is going on with dad’s hair on page 5? All I’ve been able to figure out so far is that the artist went on to work for Fleer in 1989. 😊
ANSWERS TO PICTURE CHALLENGES
Congratulations to Don Sherman who was the first to identify the page 16 artwork as coming from the 1946 National League playoff between the Dodgers and Cardinals.
Umpire is Babe Pinelli, catcher is Bruce Edwards, and batter is Red Schoendienst.
Multiple readers correctly identified the two most prominent figures on page 19 as Yogi Berra and Don Larsen following the final out of Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series. However, the jury is still out on which other players are “going for the gusto” in the image.
A reply to a recent SABR Baseball Cards social media post led me to think about the baseball players more famous for their baseball cards than for any of their on or off the field exploits. Here are ten who I believe fit the bill.
Ripken lasted twelve years in the big leagues as an infielder, including an all-star caliber season in 1990. Today he is a frequent co-host on MLB Network. His brother is baseball’s ultimate Iron Man and one of the greatest shortstops in history. And still, say the name Billy Ripken and card collectors think only of one thing: his 1989 Fleer F*ck Face card.
His career on the diamond lasted only half as long as Billy Ripken’s but he spent six years as the regular second baseman for the Rangers and Cubs, topping 30 steals four times while batting a respectable .266. Like Ripken, baseball also ran in his family. Of course any kid who collected baseball cards in 1979 will know him best for this seemingly impossible cardboard trickery.
BRANDON PUFFER AND JUNG BONG
Puffer played four years in the big leagues, appearing in 85 games for the Astros, Padres, and Giants. Jung Bong played one fewer season, appearing in 48 games for the Braves and Reds. The two pitchers combined for a WAR of -1.2. Though never teammates, the duo shared Future Stars cardboard in the 2003 Topps set on card #331, known to collectors (and chronicled by David Roth) as the “Bong Puffer card.”
Legitimately one of the best hitters of his time, scouted by the legendary Buck O’Neil, and the man behind the classic line, “They don’t think it be like it is, but it do,” Oscar Gamble would be remembered fondly even if he had no baseball cards at all. Fortunately that’s a hypothetical we need not ponder long when this pure cardboard gold is right in front of us.
SHERRY MAGEE AND JOE DOYLE
Magee built a borderline Hall of Fame career from 1904-1919 that included more than 2000 hits, four RBI titles, and 59.4 WAR. Even with those credentials I suspect many readers can only hazard a guess whether his name is pronounced Maggie, McGee, or Madgee.
Doyle, on the other hand, had a completely undistinguished career, seeing limited action on the mound over five seasons at roughly replacement level.
Whatever their on-field exploits, each of these players will forever be cardboard legends, with their error cards comprising half of the T206 set’s “Big Four.”
BENNY BENGOUGHAND ANDY PAKFO
Bengough was a career backup catcher who compiled 0.3 WAR over his ten seasons in the big leagues. When the 1933 Goudey set came out, he was already out of baseball.
Pafko, on the other hand, was a four-time all-star who batted .285 over 13 seasons with a career OPS+ of 117. His 1952 season (.287/19/85) was uncannily similar to his lifetime per 162 slash line of .285/19/85, and his midseason move from the Cubs to the Dodgers the prior year was one of the season’s biggest trades.
While neither player would top any list of all-time greats, each player topped many stacks of baseball cards, thanks to being numbered one in the 1933 Goudey and 1952 Topps sets respectively. Until the Upper Deck Ken Griffey, Jr., rookie card came along in 1989, I suspect these two players were the Hobby’s most famous set starters. Certainly both cards, in reasonable shape, carried a premium comparable to lesser Hall of Famers due to rubber banding, spills, and the myriad other ways stack toppers suffered disproportionate damage in collections prior to the advent of plastic sheets.
I’ll end the article with what may be my most contentious selection. Without a doubt, Wagner is a top shelf baseball immortal, considered by many to be the greatest shortstop of all-time if not the single greatest player of the Deadball Era. (In both cases, Pop Lloyd deserves consideration as well.) To an audience well versed in baseball history, therefore, Wagner is most famous for his tremendous playing career, even if most fans still pronounce his name wrong.
Yet whatever his accomplishments on the diamond, I suspect the Flying Dutchman is best known today, whether in the collecting world or the general public, for a single, transcendently pricey cardboard rectangle, our Hobby’s Mona Lisa.
Who else would you nominate for this elite club where ERR trumps WAR and even backup catchers can be number one? Sound off in the Comments!
Stay in this Hobby long enough and you’ll have your share of heartbreak. Carry your favorite cards to school in your pants pockets, and you’re bound to put some through the wash. Sell a prized card when you need the money, and of course the value triples before you can buy it back. Stock up on your favorite phenom only to have his numbers plummet right in sync with your retirement plans. These tragedies happen. The only question is whether we have the resilience and perspective to weather them. I know I didn’t.
It was 1983 and I was thirteen. Cards were my whole world. I’m not saying that to brag. To put things another way, except for cards, I had no life, which is why this book had so much power over me. (In truth, mine was the second edition, but I couldn’t find a picture.)
It was this book that could turn an ordinary (and below average in most ways if we’re being honest) kid into a first-rate autograph collector. Sure I had some autographs in my collection already: Mickey Klutts, who signed at a show, and Nolan Ryan who I wrote to through the Astros, but Hall of Famers?! I wouldn’t have believed it except for the fact that it happened.
I don’t know how it’s done today but back then it was important to me to write each player a personal letter, praising their career and letting them know why their autograph would mean so much to me. I wish I could say my motivation was mere kindness. Sadly, I believe the only reason I did it was to up my chance of a return. “Flattery will get you everywhere,” as they say. Either way, I spent the weekend writing about 20 letters by hand, which I sent off (with SASE and accompanying baseball cards of course) all at once.
Any question about whether anyone would write back was answered quickly. I believe the exact time elapsed was four days, and the return address has remained in my head all these decades later.
Hank Greenberg 1129 Miradero Road Beverly Hills, CA 90210
I don’t recall any note inside. Instead there was only a blank slip of paper folded to protect what was now the most amazing card in my collection.
Right in front of me was a 1983 Donruss Hall of Fame Heroes card of Hank Greenberg, signed in blue Sharpie, with an absolutely Hall of Fame quality autograph across the beautiful Dick Perez artwork. I stared at it for hours the day it came and then did the same just about every day after.
My second Hall of Fame autograph arrived a couple weeks later—I believe it was from Al Kaline—and from there it seemed every week another envelope would arrive: Stan Musial, Duke Snider, Charlie Gehringer, and so on. Even as the collection grew, the Greenberg still stood alone: first, best, and perfect.
Of course what happened next was unthinkable yet entirely predictable.
For the third time in as many years, I came home to find my mom had thrown out my entire collection, Greenberg and all. To be clear, this wasn’t one of those “mom threw them out” stories about a kid off to college or interested in cars and girls. No, baseball cards were my whole life. That’s exactly what it felt like too, like my whole life had been thrown out.
Over the next couple weeks, almost cruelly, signed cards continued to arrive. I should have been thrilled to land autographs from Ted Williams, Yogi Berra, and Eddie Mathews, but instead I just dwelled on what I didn’t have. It would be too mild to say I experienced anger or sadness. Rather, it was the feeling of hating my life. I know that sounds extreme, but how would you feel if baseball cards were the only thing you cared about?
I did resume my card collecting almost immediately. What else was I going to do with my time? However, even as autographs kept trickling in, I just couldn’t get myself to care. Despite having barely even started, I was done as an autograph collector. This I knew.
Haunted day and night for months by my lost Greenberg, I now hated autographs. And then one day the obvious occurred to me. Why not write to him again?
Sure enough, there was an envelope from Miradero Road waiting for me no more than a week later. There was only one problem. My card was returned unsigned. Along with it was a typewritten note letting me know Mr. Greenberg required that a $5 check payable to the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (or maybe it was the Humane Society) now accompany all autograph requests. Like I even had a checkbook!
A couple years later, I saw the news that Hank Greenberg had passed away. I wish I could say my first reaction was sympathy for his loved ones or the legions of baseball fans who had lost a true giant of a man. Instead I was consumed by the thought that I’d blown my chance at an autograph. And yes, feel free to judge. Baseball cards were still my whole world.
About five years into my return to the Hobby, around 2019, I set up a saved search on eBay for a single autographed card: the 1983 Donruss Hall of Fame Heroes Hank Greenberg card. It had been 30+ years, for God’s sake! I thought I might be ready.
Only rarely did anything ever come up and most of the time when something did it proved to be an unsigned copy, misclassified by the seller or considered close enough by the eBay search engine. As it turns out, the bad results were a blessing. In contrast, it’s the truly autographed search results that strike me like daggers to the heart. Nonetheless, some self-destructive impulse, some bad mutation upon my collector DNA, compels me to retain this search, to keep looking.
Thankfully, the signatures on these cards are always black, not blue, ensuring at least some distance between the cards on the screen and the card I once had. Blue, that would probably kill me.
And then it happened.
A card came up last week that looked exactly like the one I had, the one I stared at for hours on end. Its blue Sharpie signature so uncannily matched the image burned in my head all these years that I now wonder if my mom really did throw away my cards or simply sold them to someone who sold them to someone who is now selling at least the best of them on eBay.
You might think I’d have already jumped at the chance to buy the card like some modern Ahab having at last cornered his White Whale. In truth, that would be confusing the hunter with the hunted. My journey back into the Hobby has been less about nostalgia than redemption, about rebuilding my collection without reliving its memories. Until now I have looked to the cards I buy to right, not revisit, my past. What happens then when one has the power to bring it all back?
What an unexpected thrill for me to see Gil Hodges finally “get the call” from Cooperstown. Among other things, his recent election provides the perfect occasion to showcase some of his most beautiful baseball cards.
If there is a single card to represent 1950s baseball, this might be it. Four beloved “Bums” in a classic baseball pose with the Ebbets Field outfield wall behind them in all its advertising glory.
The very first Topps World Series subset (if you don’t count 1948) is in my opinion the best. Obviously my love of the Dodgers plays a role here, but it’s really the look of the cards that grabs me. The Hodges card, in particular, is a true masterpiece of its time.
For many players, a card this beautiful would take first place without question. In truth, I’m not sure any other player of the era has a third place card even close to this one. I suspect it’s possible to look at it and see only a rather overused batting pose with a not particularly crisp stadium backdrop. Equally, however, it’s possible to look at it and see something more: perfection.
I know not all will agree here, but I regard Gil’s 1952 Topps card as the prettiest in the entire 407-card set. I love everything about it: the peach background, the landscape format, the shadows, the pose, the expression, the shoulder patch, the cut of the sleeves, the timeless Dodgers logo.
Though far more attention today goes to the pseudo-rookie cards of Mantle and Mays, I have to imagine this card when it came out was instantly one of the two or three most popular among the 12-and-under division of New York’s gum chewing elite.
What can I say? I’m a sucker for skies. For whatever reason the white and purple clouds and baby blue sky create not only a three-dimensional look to the card but practically trick my eyes into thinking the actual Gil Hodges (1954 version, not 2021) is looking right at me. It’s an illusion I normally only get from Graig Kreindler paintings. Note that this same image haunts the 1953-55 Stahl-Meyer Franks and 1953-54 Briggs Meats cards. Ditto for 1958 Bell Brand but in black and white.
Three other Gil Hodges cards that could have easily occupied any spot on this list are his 1950, 1952, and 1953 Bowman cards. I lack the image editing skills to do so, but I daresay adding some flourish to the bald sky of his 1953 card probably takes it straight to number one. Did I mention I’m a sucker for skies?
Finally, I would be remiss in ending this article without a single Mets card. After all, his time at the helm of the Miracle Mets may well have factored into his Hall of Fame nod nearly as much as his years as Dodger first baseman. In truth, I don’t think any of Gil’s Mets cards can compete aesthetically with his Dodger cardboard, but his 1972 O-Pee-Chee, noting his (then) recent death, is what I’ll end on.
Side note: I have to imagine a lot of Canadian youth asking their moms and dads what “deceased” meant and then getting really sad.
Hodges died suddenly at the very young age of 47. His 1972 baseball card is a reminder that none of us really know the days we have left, whether for ourselves, our loved ones, or our heroes. About all we can do, though it’s not a small thing, is to make the most of the time we have, living our lives with purpose and gratitude and making the world a little better where we can.
Author’s note: This post is dedicated to SABR member Donna Muscarella and the memory of her father, a Gil Hodges fan without equal.
A friend recently sent me a surprise package of cards in the mail, highlighted by a new addition to my Steve Garvey collection.
The card was about one-and-a-half times the dimensions of a standard baseball card, featured what looked like a real autograph (see Author’s Note at end), and most notably was made from a ceramic material.
The back featured complete statistics, a serial number (430/1000), and some “Interesting Facts About Steve,” among them his favorite player being Gil Hodges and his nickname being Garv. There was also a 1985 copyright date in the bottom right corner, which in conjunction with Garvey’s stats, established a year for the card’s issue.
“Garv” was packaged in a tri-fold of corrugated cardboard, it’s front panel identifying the product as Armstrong’s Pro Ceramic Baseball Cards and indicating the full name of the player whose card was enclosed. The middle panel housed the card, and the back panel featured high praise from five of the era’s biggest stars: Reggie Jackson, Tom Seaver, George Brett, Pete Rose, and Steve Garvey.
According to no less an authority than Mr. October, these cards were “the epitome of baseball card collecting…Just like a classic car.” Meanwhile, Tom Terrific predicted the set to “soon become a bit of Americana” while Charlie Hustle declared the cards “winners.”
After doing some very light research I learned that the entire set of Pro Ceramic cards consisted of five players: exactly the ones who had hyped the cards on the back of the packaging. It was also evident that two different sets were released, one with autographs and one without. My gut sense from searches is that the unsigned cards are actually more scarce than the signed ones.
As nice a card as my “Garv” was, gold autograph and all, I toyed with the idea of pursuing the full set though I imagined at least the Seaver would be out of my price range.
Much to my surprise, I was able to nab all five cards for $29. And that’s total, not each! As good a deal as that seemed, my searches revealed other sets having gone for as little as $14.
On one hand it really is the “epitome of baseball card collecting” to see a high-end set from my collecting hey day fizzle its way into oblivion. On the other hand, it’s also the epitome of baseball card collecting to find bargains when you ignore “book value” and buy the cards you like.
After all, what really is oblivion but a hiding place for forgotten gems, a secret corner of the Hobby universe where ceramic baseball cards go not to die but only to await appreciation.
Author’s Note: A Pristine Auction listing for the set indicates the autographs as facsimiles. However, all look good to me, and they also vary from card to card enough to rule out an auto-pen sort of approach. For instance, here are two autographed Garvey cards with numerous evident differences in the signatures.
If someone faked these, I’d say they did a damn good job! That, and their ridiculously low price suddenly makes sense.
When researching the 1934-36 National Chicle “Batter Up” set I came across the curious fact the set’s first series, cards 1-80, included no Chicago Cubs. At first this seemed like a quirk unique to the set. However, further research revealed that the lack of Cubs was fairly common among the gum and candy cards of the era. Here is a chronology of the major sets from 1933-49 along with the status of their Cubs cards or lack thereof.
The 240-card set in 1933 included 17 Cubs cards, including at least one in each of its first 9 series, which is about what you’d expect. I’ve mainly included this set because A) it’s THE gum set of the 1930s, and B) it’s the last set before things got weird.
The 96-card follow-up set in 1934 included 6 Cubs cards, which by itself doesn’t suggest anything anomalous. However, the distribution of Cubs in the set is worth a quick note. Series one included three Cubs, but all were repeated from the 1933 set, artwork and all. (This was true of all 24 cards in 1934 series one.)
When the set did issue its first series of new players, none were Cubs. It wasn’t until the set’s third series that new Cubs (Lynn Nelson, Lyle Tinning) finally appeared. (The fourth series brought back another Cub, Kiki Cuyler, from the 1933 set but with new artwork. And as Matthew notes in the comments, the twelve “Chuck Klein says” cards also add to the Cubs fourth series presence.)
The 1935 Goudey set primarily relied on recycled artwork and players from their 1933 and 1934 releases. Of the 144 “cards” (really, quarters of cards) in the set, there are only 11 new players. None are Cubs. Overall, the Cubs are tied with the Phillies for fewest cards in the set: either one or four, depending how you choose to count.
The small 25-card set in 1936 included one Cubs player, Chuck Klein.
Subsequent Goudey sets seemed to be fairly normal with respect to Cubs players.
National Chicle debuted two significant multi-year sets in 1934. One was the Batter Up set, whose 80 cards that year have already been noted to have avoided the Cubs entirely. The other set, Diamond Stars, was equally devoid of Cubs among its 24-card offering that year.
Diamond Stars continued in 1935 with 60 new players, and this time there were three Cubs, two of whom were repeated with identical artwork in the 1936 release.
Meanwhile, series two of Batter Up, which I place entirely in 1936, exploded from zero to 11 Cubs among the final 112 cards in the set.
Gum, Inc., is best known to collectors for two different offerings: Play Ball (1939-41) and Bowman (1948-55). The three years of Play Ball cards included 473 different cards. Believe it or not, none were active Cubs players! The 161-card 1939 set and 72-card 1941 set included no Cubs at all while the 240-card 1940 set included three retired greats and one coach card.
The Gum, Inc., shutout continued into their debut Bowman offering that included 48 cards but no Cubs. Beginning in 1949, however, the Bowman sets had about the number of Cubs cards one would expect.
This set included 65 cards. None were Cubs.
1937 O-Pee-Chee Batter Up
This 40-card set had no Cubs, but it’s a bit of a special case as only American League teams were represented.
1941 Double Play
This set had 75 cards (150 if cut in half) including five (or ten) Cubs cards, among them the first card (or two cards) in the set.
1948 Swell “Sport Thrills”
This highlights set included only 20 cards, none of which were Cubs. Then again, there were five other teams that didn’t make the checklist either. Still, you’re gonna tell me this was a bigger thrill than the Homer in the Gloamin?’
Chicago-based Leaf Candy introduced a 98-card set (likely intended to be larger) in 1949, and 11 of the cards were Cubs.
* * * * *
I posted some key elements of this article to the SABR Baseball Cards readers on Twitter as well as the collectors on the Net54 Baseball forum. Leading theories on the omission or delayed inclusion of Cubs in the various sets tended to relate to the Cubs being owned by the Wrigley family. Why help the competition, right?
Of course Cubs did ultimately crack the checklists, even if it took ten years in the case of Gum, Inc. One wonders, therefore, what made the difference. Did the rival gum and candy makers make P.K. Wrigley an offer he couldn’t refuse? Did the players break from official or unofficial team policy to sign with rival confectioneries? Did Wrigley ultimately decide that Cub-less baseball card sets would hurt the popularity of his franchise?
Whatever prompted the return of Cubs cards, I can’t even imagine being a Cubs fan from 1939-41, buying pack after pack of Play Ball, and not pulling a single Cubs player. I guess the closest I can come is being a Dodger fan in 2021 and not finding packs to open at all.
White Sox slugger Zeke Bonura has one of the more unusual baseball cards of the 1930s, courtesy of the 1936-37 World Wide Gum (V355) set sometimes known as Canadian Goudey.
Notably, the dapper Bonura is sporting a tie and vest ensemble rather than any baseball-related garb. (Oddly enough, the very next card on the checklist is of a fellow White Sox infielder, dressed almost identically.)
One might initially assume the two teammates were photographed at the same event, perhaps a banquet or the opera. Or might they have joined this man, dressed to conduct an orchestra or star in a Dracula movie, for a simple night on the town?
No? Okay, any chance Bonura, if not all three of these debonair gentlemen, were en route to this September 1935 watermelon eating contest?
Getting warmer but that’s still not it. If we’re gonna solve this mystery we’ll need one very important clue.
When Zeke wasn’t playing ball with the White Sox, he was often back home in New Orleans where according to this January 20, 1935, article (Nebraska State Journal) he “wrestles crates of produce, takes orders and makes himself generally handy around his father’s produce store.”
As it turns out, Bonura not only spent his winter months neck deep in fruits and vegetables but many springs as well. “Mentioning that Bonura is a holdout is about the same as saying that the sun will rise in the East tomorrow morning,” observed the Sporting News (January 14, 1937). Two years earlier, the same publication had Bonura “[speaking] up from the recesses of his father’s market in New Orleans” regarding his 1935 contract holdout. Bonura’s SABR bio has him holding out four straight years from 1935-38.
My understanding is that the fruitless negotiations went something like this:
SOX: “Hey, Zeke, are you gonna PRODUCE RUNS or RUN PRODUCE!” ZEKE: “Either way I’m gonna get my cabbage!” SOX: “…or just upset the apple cart.” ZEKE: “You really think I give a fig?” SOX: “How’d we end up with such a lemon?” ZEKE: “Actually the nickname’s Banana Nose.” SOX: “More like gone bananas! You’re really gonna turn down a plum job…” ZEKE: “I have a plum job!” SOX: “Apples and oranges.” ZEKE: “That too!” SOX: “What is this, Who’s On First?“ ZEKE: “Anyone but me if you don’t pay up!”
But lettuce at last return to the baseball card that began this article. If you haven’t guessed it already, it’s this other job—Bonura as fruit merchant—that the card depicts. Look carefully at the backdrop behind Bonura and you’ll spot various crates of produce. To the left of his forehead are the letters “TAIN,” which I suspect come from one of the many fruit crates of the period with “MOUNTAIN” on the label. Similarly, the “ON U.S.” by his chin is likely a fragment of “WASHINGTON U.S.A.” or “OREGON U.S.A.,” two states known for their produce. Look closely and you may recognize other words as well.
Though it’s possible the World Wide Gum card’s photograph was taken during the winter months, my sense is it’s more likely to be a spring photo since that’s when Zeke as fruit merchant would have been more newsworthy. If so, I have to imagine the 1936-37 WWG Bonura card is the first (and probably only) baseball card of a player actively holding out for more money.
How do you like them apples? 😊
Author’s Note: I believe the site of the baseball card and newspaper photos would have been at Bonura Wholesale Produce (and/or John Bonura & Company), located at 200 Poydras Street in the New Orleans French Quarter. While the business no longer stands today, there is a Gordon Biersch brewery and restaurant where you can raise a glass (or enjoy some seasonal vegetables!) in Zeke’s honor.