A team by any other name

On December 1, 1970, the Red Sox traded infielders Mike Andrews and Luis Alvarado to the White Sox for shortstop Luis Aparicio. Red Sox trades were always somewhat startling to me at the time, much like hearing that we had traded our family dog for a cat on the next block over. Why?

Once I recovered, at some point in the next few days I got out my baseball card locker and moved my most recent Mike Andrews card (probably this one) to the White Sox slot, and moved Aparicio to the Red Sox. (Alvarado did not yet have his own card–for simplification, I will ignore him for the remainder of this post.) Then I got out the team stacks and tried to figure out who would play where. This was my childhood, basically.

As Topps was preparing its 1971 baseball card set, the relevant question for me: was this December trade early enough in the off-season for Topps to put the players on their new teams, or would they be left with their old teams?

The answer: “its complicated.”

Teammates?

Andrews (card 191) was in Series 2, too late for Topps to switch his affiliation, but Aparicio (740) was in Series 7 and got transferred. Today this seems ironic–the extra time allowed Topps to give Aparicio a worse card.

This has always been a problem for Topps, but especially in the days of multiple series — Topps’ team designation often depended on when the guy was traded and what series his card happened to be in. My favorite example of this was the 1969 Dick Ellsworth — the Red Sox traded him to the Indians in April, after the season started, but he still got onto a (hatless) Indians card late that summer.

When I got the Andrews/Aparicio cards in 1971, likely in April and August, respectively, I put them on their correct teams — my team stacks were always current. But the point of this post, and yes this post does have a point, is: how do I sort them now?

If you own a set of baseball cards — 1971 Topps, 1987 Fleer, whatever — you probably either store them in a binder of protective sheets, or in a long storage box. In either case, you probably either organize them numerically, or by team. (There are other ways to organize them — I will not judge.)

I am a “team guy.” When I look at my cards, I use them to immerse myself in a season, to recall (or imagine, if it was before my time) what the 1967 Cardinals or the 1975 Reds looked like, who their players were. Taken as a whole, the box or binder can represent a baseball season — with the league leaders, the post-season cards, the Highlights cards, helping to tell the story.

So that’s the first thing — the cards look backwards. Although I bought the 1975 cards in 1975, they do not (today) do a great job of telling the story of the 1975 season. The “Home Run Leaders” cards are the 1974 leaders. The stats on the back stop at 1974. My team was the Red Sox — how can I revel in the 1975 Red Sox with no true cards of Jim Rice and Fred Lynn? If I want to revel in 1975 (and I do, believe me), I need to be looking at these Rembrandts.

Excuse me, I need a moment.

OK, so that’s the solution — sort the 1976 Topps cards by team, and create a 1975 Red Sox starting lineup using the cards. Right? The 1976 cards depict 1975 teams. The end.

Well, no. We still have the Aparicio/Andrews problem. Although Topps placed both men on the 1971 Red Sox, they were two ships passing in the night. Looking at this from the White Sox perspective, you can’t use the 1971 “Topps team” to make a legitimate 1970 lineup (no Aparicio) nor a 1971 lineup (no Andrews). For the Red Sox, you can make a fake lineup with both players.

The solution, it seems to me, is to put the players on their correct teams. Either you organize by their actual 1970 team (putting Aparicio back on the White Sox) or by their actual 1971 team (putting Andrews on the White Sox). Pick one, but you cannot make them both Red Sox without promulgating a lie.

Since I already claimed that baseball cards look back a year, the best way to use the cards is to allow the 1971 Topps set to celebrate the 1970 season. So Luis goes back to Chicago.

If you look at my 1971 Topps set, organized by team, about 90% each team is the same as how Topps designates them, and a handful are mismatches. It looks a little funny, but my “team” depicts a group of players who played together in real life. So it works for me.

So you’ve got some work to do.  But before getting to all that, I leave you with Dick Allen of the 1970 Cardinals.

Allen

 

 

Father and Son

Our son was born on Christmas Eve, 2001. This is actually a hell of a story, albeit one that I am not going to tell today.

A few weeks later a couple of friends handed me a complete set of 2001 Topps baseball cards — for Drew, to mark the year of his birth. (They did a similar thing for our daughter Maya in 1998).

Truth be told, I had not been keeping up with the baseball card scene. Several years earlier, before the crash, I had cashed in all of my post-1980 cards, and my remaining efforts were to work on older sets. I had not opened a pack of cards in several years. I put Drew’s cards in a closet.

A few years later (2006) young Drew and I were in a store and he put some baseball cards in the shopping cart. He had seen my cards a few times so he knew about them. We went home and opened the packs, and then added to our pile throughout the summer. I explained to him who some of the “good” players were, and he slowly learned how to sort them into stacks of teams, as all right-thinking people do. He had favorite players, and favorite teams. (He suggested throwing the Yankees cards away, but I cautioned restraint.)

At some point along about here I remembered his birth gift and presented him the box, undisturbed in its shrink-wrap. Appropriately, he dumped them out and started rifling through them. We continued to pick up packs of current-year cards for the next few years until he had filled several shoe boxes.

Drew and I are very different. I am a no neatnik, but my clutter is very organized. I may have stacks of baseball cards all over my office, and a few on my bedroom dresser, but the stacks have a purpose — nothing is ever “missing” or out of place, and this was just as true when I was 10.

Drew … does not share this trait, at least not yet. His baseball cards were fairly quickly strewn all over his room. If they occasionally breached the common areas of the house, he or I would pick them up and move them back to his room, finding an available surface.

As persnickety as I am about my own cards, I gave Drew a lot of leeway. I might find them on the bottom of his laundry basket, or under his bed, or stuck together by some mysterious adhesive. The damaged cards would get thrown away. When cleaning up, I did try to return any stray 2001 cards to their original box — I am not an animal — but the others would get stuffed into a shoe box, with neither rhyme, nor reason.

After taking a few years off, in 2012 I started buying him complete sets for his birthday or Christmas (both, sadly, in the off-season). I convinced him this was both a better deal and less messy. We still picked up cards over the summer, but in December he would get an entire set anyway.

All the while, he mainly liked going through the cards with me. (He also had a lot of Pokemon cards, and Yu-Gi-Oh!, and Magic, but he was on his own with all that.) Along the way Drew’s extra-curricular options expanded, and sorting baseball cards with Dad, oddly, stopped being his top choice. Properly.

Drew played baseball for several years (I was always the coach), but ultimately gravitated to soccer. Fine by me — soccer is a wonderful sport and has been great for him. He is in high school now, and he’s a good player. He is much more of a sports doer than a sports watcher, especially when compared with my teenage years watching any sport, no matter how obscure.

I recently asked Drew if I could “annex” his card collection. I assured him that he could take them back whenever he wished, and he was going to end up with all my cards someday anyway. I just wanted to organize the chaos, and all his cards would basically graduate to living with mine. He was cool with it.

I started by going through his 2012-2016 “sets” to verify that every card was there. Yes, they were! Adolescent Drew was neater than I thought. Bravo.

Next I took all of his other cards (mainly his ages 4-8 cards) and began the laborious process of figuring out what he had, starting with simply sorting the shoe box contents by year. Although spread over several boxes, he actually had a complete set of 2007 cards — not sure how that happened. I must have bought a hand-collated set on eBay ten years ago. He has a ton of many other years that I still need to go through.

Mainly, I was curious about 2001. This was like a grand social experiment: hand a five-year-old 790 baseball cards, allow him to live a middle-class junk-acquiring life for a decade, and then shout “time’s up!” and rush in to see what happened.

Tuesday night was the big night: How many of the 790 cards had survived a decade in that room?

Survey says: 757.

Honestly, not bad. The 757 are in fine condition, too.

There is a chance some of the missing 33 are in Drew’s room somewhere — in a box of Pokemon cards? In his sock drawer? In a large box of stray cards he picked up from the 1980s?

Maybe, but it is more likely that they decomposed in the town landfill many years ago. I will look around a bit more before giving up.  And by “giving up”, I mean “finding and purchasing the missing 33 cards.”

I was going through this exercise when Drew came upstairs, ear buds in place, bopping to something or other. (Drew is amazing.)

Suddenly I felt a little sad. Here I was riffing through his childhood, a part of his childhood that we had shared, and he was uninvolved. I motioned to him to come closer. He removed the buds.

“Drew,” says I, “I think we need to come up with some other activity we can do together.”

He pondered this, and said we could start doing jigsaw puzzles, or maybe a model. He went to my office and retrieved a White House model we had made years ago and we agreed it was still fabulous.

I also told him about the new movie, “Dunkirk,” coming out on July 21. “You’ll like it,” I said. “I’ll get out a map and explain the basic premise of the movie before we go.”

Date confirmed. Still amazing.

 

SABR 47

SABR_logo-square-700pxThings have been quiet around here. I was out of town for nearly two weeks, and I probably should have mentioned that. I brought my laptop with me and had plans to put up some posts (a few came in last week) and remain active on Twitter. But other than briefly answering emails and retweeting a few times, the committee was dormant. Hopefully things will return to normal over the next week.

The culmination of the time away was SABR 47 in New York City. I can’t really do it justice here — it was four great days filled with learning, laughing, and hanging out with (or meeting for the first time) good people. For more, read all of the recaps and view all the photos on SABR’s web site. Check back, because more are being added.

All SABR committees have meetings at the convention, and our meeting was Saturday morning. Chris and I introduced ourselves and spoke briefly about what the committee was and what we had done so far (basically this blog and our active Twitter account), and invited everyone present to participate. That took five minutes. Here is proof.

Screen Shot 2017-07-03 at 8.31.13 AM

After this, we introduced our guest speaker, who crushed it.

We did not invite Keith Olbermann to speak because he is a famous public figure (although the packed crowd was nice), or because of his decades long experience in sports media (although he was obviously more polished than most SABR speakers). He was invited because he is one of the foremost experts in the history of baseball cards and has been an avid collector since childhood. He is one of us.

Screen Shot 2017-07-03 at 9.07.34 AM.pngKeith was funny, insightful, and friendly, all of which are positives for a speaker, but his greatest contribution was that he made the best case yet for why this committee is appropriate and (dare I say it?) necessary.

Chris and I started this last Fall largely because we thought it would be fun for a lot of people (including us). Maybe SABR would gain some members, maybe people would have some knowledge to share. SABR has plenty of projects and committees of a more “academic” bent (in some of which Chris and I participate), but why not do something a little more fun?

But in Keith’s talk, in which his own five-decade experience in the hobby was the through-line, he made the points that (1) baseball cards are part of our (SABR’s) DNA, and (2) there is a real story to document. Many of the founders were serious memorabilia collectors, and early baseball card publications (more like newsletters) helped spread the word in SABR’s early days.

I found myself thinking, “Why did SABR wait 45 years?”

Many thanks to Keith for entertaining the troops, and being a perfect first speaker for our motley crew.

Next year: Pittsburgh PA, June 20-24, 2018.

— Mark and Chris

 

Thriller Decade Part 1: Results

Thanks to the 160 of you who took our poll to determine the best cards sets, annually, from 1981 through 1985. Click here to read about the poll and see the fronts and backs of the fifteen different sets.

One overall observation (spoiler!): there is probably a lot of Topps Loyalty out there, people who grew up with Topps in the 1970s (or earlier) and stuck with them through the years even until today as most of their competition has come and gone.

Anyhow, here are our favorite sets, year to year.

Note: scores are average point totals, where a 1st place vote is a 3, 2nd place vote a 2, 3rd place vote a 1.

1981 Topps (2.46), Fleer (1.91), Donruss (1.64)

1981to3

In July 1980 Fleer finally won their court case against Topps, when a judge ruled that the player’s association must grant a license to at least one other company to produce baseball cards. As it happened, they awarded two: one to Fleer, and one to Donruss. The two companies had just a few months to put together card sets, including the gathering of several hundred photographs.

Given the timeframe, the existence of the two sets is remarkable. But not remarkable enough to produce designs as well as Topps, who had been at it for 30 years.

1982 Topps (2.55), Donrus (2.03), Fleer (1.40)

s-l225 (3)

Topps won a minor reversal in their legal battle, so beginning in 1982 neither rival was allowed to put gum in their packs. (In 1981, all companies had gum.) The 1982 Topps set also turned in its second decisive victory.

In my opinion, Donruss took a big leap forward in design and photography, but Fleer was the opposite — cards so uninspired and blurry that I wondered whether they would bother continuing. (I joked on Twitter that the photos look to have been taken by your stoned friends on Florida spring break. And they do.)

1983 Topps (2.71), Fleer (1.76), Donruss (1.49)

83-topps-last-card-ripken

The most decisive victory in the poll. I could be wrong, but I think this is more a reflection of people’s love for the Topps entry rather than a reflection of the other companies. This is my favorite Topps set of the 1980s, so I sympathize.

Where I differ from the consensus is that I love the 1983 Fleer set. In fact, Fleer was a game changer for me. I was now out of college, and I had pretty much decided that I was just going to be a Topps guy, that the usurpers, while admirable, had not done well enough to convince me to buy multiple sets. So I got my Topps set early that year and called it a day.

And then I wandered into a card shop one day, saw some Fleer cards, and basically fell in love. The use of the logo instead of (not “in addition to”, like 1965 Topps) the team name was genius, the overall design was attractive (the first non-white border since 1975 Topps), and the backs were much better than Topps (and had been from the beginning, to be honest).

As I said, I really liked the 1983 Topps set, but I still like Fleer better all these years later.

1984 Fleer (2.05), Donruss (2.03), Topps (1.97)

murphy-84f

This was basically a 3-way tie, and if I ran this poll again using a different methodology it is anyone’s guess which would win. In fact, Fleer had the lowest total of 1st place votes (although the margin was also razor thin). But Fleer is the winner.

I assumed Donruss would win as it is one of the most famous sets ever. It was famous in 1984 for supposedly being scarce, and for having a great Don Mattingly rookie card. I have seen a number of articles or surveys about the best card sets ever, and this set is often mentioned.

Personally, the 1984 Donruss and Fleer sets are my favorites from the 1980s. As for Topps, I didn’t like their repeat of the second photo on the front. They went 20 years before using it in 1983, and should have exercised the same patience before going back to the well. (Admittedly, I am a one-photo guy.)

1985 Topps (2.21), Donruss (2.02), Fleer (1.81)

43648c5c004c7bf68b09711b4d8d9cd3

Topps is back on top in another very strong year for all three companies. After Fleer showed the way in 1983, Topps used team logos for the first time in 20 years. This was much preferrable to the second photo, in my opinion.

Donruss also debuted the team logo, and (like Fleer) used it instead of the team name. Donruss was the winner for me, but Topps was our (mild) consensus.

So there you have it. Topps takes four out of five, and easily could have swept. But by the mid-1980s I think it is clear that all three companies were on relatively equal footing, each having pros and cons. In 1981 we wondered: could the market really handle three card companies? A few years later, we knew the answer.

The best of The Thriller Years, Part 1

In previous polls, we have debated the best baseball card designs of the 1970s and the 1960s.  This was the heart of the Topps Era, when there was only one card set to worry about so we were ranking 10 sets per decade.

To tackle the 1980s, I decided to mix it up.  First of all, there were 31 cards sets in the decade, and I did not really want to ask you to ponder whether the 1983 Donruss deserves to slot ahead of the 1989 Score set in 27th place.  Check that: I did not really want to ask myself to do that.  So instead, we will start out by picking the best card set of each year.  We will skip 1980 for the moment (Topps was the only set).

Reviewing the rules:  Please, I beg you, do not vote for the set that had the best rookies, or the best update set, or the best retail value.  All those things being equal, if you look at 25 random cards from each year which are the most attractive? The End.

We are just going to do five years now, and finish up next week.

So, first review the photos below, and then vote.  The link is at the bottom.

1981

Steve-Garvey-(Surpassed-21-HR-on-card-back)  83-56aBk

s-l225  84-640aBk

1981to3  wpeE5

1982

s-l225 (1)  87-34Bk

s-l225 (2)  Robin-Yount

s-l225 (3)  89-390Bk

1983

$_58  download (1)

92-601Fr  92-601Bk

83-topps-last-card-ripken  download

1984

s-l225 (4) 95-151Bkmurphy-84f  96-186Bk

100_2721  25513-510Bk

1985

s-l225 (5) - Copy  100-222Bk - Copy

carew - Copy  101-297Bk

43648c5c004c7bf68b09711b4d8d9cd3  download (2)

OK, now go vote!

Results: Topps Amid the Counterculture

Thanks to the 189 of you who took our poll to determine the best Topps sets of the 1960s — or rather, the Topps sets that we collectively enjoy the most. As with the 1970s, every set was loved by someone, and all sets finished last in at least three surveys as well. So there is no true consensus. Which I think is a great result.

Chick here to read about the poll and to see images of each of the card sets (front and back). I am not going to repeat the images here.

What follows are our results, with my comments. The average score is computed as a 10 for a first place vote, 9 for a second, etc.

 

f60678b6cb5093053f2aae4b0e5f3381

1. 1967 (7.05 average score, 47 first place votes)

It ended up being a two-set race for the title. Every time I checked the results over the weekend 1965 was winning, but when I closed the poll this morning I noticed the top 2 had switched.

This has always been my favorite Topps set of all time — I like my sets to be simple (not many design elements) yet to have distinct colors. And I love the backs as well — vertical seems more natural to me, and the missing stats columns (games and runs for batters) seemed dispensable for the extra text.

 

2. 1965 (6.90, 38)

I admit that it was not until recently that I realized how great this design is. A year ago I suggested to someone that it was Topps’ most “childish” design, which my friend thought I meant as a criticism. Anything but — Topps did best, in my opinion, when it appealed to kids first and foremost. Most kids would rather have cartoons than a player’s WAR value. That flapping pennant on the front is pure genius.

 

3. 1963 (6.12, 21)

This was the first result that surprised me, as I had this ranked fairly low. For me, its the second picture on the front which is generally out of focus and superfluous. But 21 people thought it it the best set of Topps’ best decade, an impressive result.

In 1963 Topps switched to a lighter card stock, ushering in the “glory days” of card backs. For eight wonderful years, Topps had a light and colorful back filled with statistics for the player’s entire career (and often his minor league years as well). In 1971, Topps literally embraced the dark side, ushering in two decades of card back mediocrity. So, bravo 1963.

 

4. 1966 (5.28, 7)

This is another set, like 1967, in which the player’s photo takes up maximum space on the front of the card. My favorite sets generally have wall-to-wall photo, so I was meant to love this set. And I do.

The color-coded team name going diagonally across the upper left made this the absolutely best set of sorting by team, as all right-thinking people do.

 

5. 1969 (5.26, 13)

This card set had its problems, the reasons for which I have documented elsewhere. However, those problems had nothing to do with the design — which is what we are supposed to be ranking here. The design, for someone in the minimalist school, is great. It has a big photo with child-like design elements laid atop, and it has a bright colorful back. The top 50 cards from this set are as good as the top 50 of any year.

I expect there is a strong correlation between the people who love the elegant 1957/1961/1967/1969, vs. the colorful 1958/1959/1972/1975.

 

6. 1961 (5.22, 10)

After three years of anti-photo experimentation, Topps went simple in 1961 with a very elegant set of cards. There are a lot of deliberate head shots here — cards where Topps obviously had tons of material on hand but showed the head and face anyway. Clemente, Aparicio, Kaline, Mays. Beautiful cards if you want to see what the players look like.

 

7. 1964 (5.04, 4)

Topps most “meh” set of the 1960s, reflected in the lowest number of first place votes. Two years ago I would have said, without thinking, that this was a much better set than 1965. Having recently spent a lot more time with the cards from this era I have now flipped completely on this.

One thing I absolutely love about this set should be mentioned. I am a set collector, but I organize my cards by team. I love the color-coded teams (all Red Sox have a team name in green, with a red bar at the bottom with name and position. Topps’s designs made the team name the primary color element for the rest of the decade, which, as I came aboard in the late 1960s, is probably what influenced me to sort my cards the way I do.

 

8. 1960 (4,91, 15)

A lot of people love this set, which surprised me considerably. For me, it combines some of my pet peeves — the dreaded secondary photo, the single-season stat lines on an otherwise nice card back. I am also anti-horizontal. It is not as bad as Topps using them for “some” of the cards (which it tried from 1971-74, and is doing again today).

I am actually slowly building this set at the moment, so what do I know?

 

9. 1968 (4.89, 21)

Talk about divisive: only two sets got more first-place votes, and only one set got more last place votes. Certainly a big set from my childhood, but I don’t have nearly the nostalgic draw for them as I do for 1967 or 1969. Another set that got crushed by the player boycott, and also by the Athletics move, and also whatever was going on the with the Astros.

 

10. 1962 (4.38, 9)

The two brown bordered sets ended up at the bottom. I kind of like the border myself, although the backs are terrible and the set is plagued with a lot of mediocre photos. In fact, Topps photography got better throughout the decade (pre-boycott), which makes 1966 and 1967 quite easily the best photos if you like bright uniforms under sunny cloudless skies.

 

So there you have it. What should strike you is that the best set had an average score of 7 (a fourth place vote) and the worst around 4 (a seventh place vote). So we are … conflicted.

 

 

Topps Amid the Counterculture

Several weeks ago, our group put our brains together and determined, once and for all (?), the best Topps set of the 1970s.  Here is the original article, and here are our results.

At the time I promised that we would be running other polls, tout de suite, but things got kind of crazy for a while, and here we are.  Let’s get back to it, shall we?

I ask today that you consider the best Topps designs of the 1960s.  I suggest (please) that you not vote for a set because you like the great rookie cards, or your grandpop got you the Mickey Mantle for Easter.  If we do that it just becomes a big nostalgia battle.  I have nothing against nostalgia, it is the reason many of us still haul out our cards.  But for this poll I am trying to set aside that element.  This could mean that the card set that you voted for in some other poll last year, or in some other blog post back in 2012, is no longer your answer for this poll.

Further, I ask you to consider the front of the card (the size and quality of the photos, the way the design elements work together or are prioritized) and the back of the card (readability, statistics, cartoons, quizzes, etc.).

I next present an example of each set for your consideration.  At the bottom of this post is a link where you can vote.  Look at these cards carefully, and then get to it.

 

1960

ARMOUR PART03 1960 AaronHankFront  ARMOUR PART03 1960 AaronHankBack

 

1961

ARMOUR PART03 1961 AparicioLuisFront  ARMOUR PART03 1961 AparicioLuisBack

 

1962

ARMOUR PART04 1962 ClementeRobertoFront  ARMOUR PART04 1962 ClementeRobertoBack

 

1963

ARMOUR PART04 1963 McCoveyWillieFront  ARMOUR PART04 1963 McCoveyWillieBack

 

1964

ARMOUR PART05 1964 KillebrewHarmonFront  ARMOUR PART05 1964 KillebrewHarmonBack

 

1965

ARMOUR PART05 1965 RobinsonFrankFront  ARMOUR PART05 1965 RobinsonFrankBack

 

1966

ARMOUR PART05 1966 FordWhiteyFront  ARMOUR PART05 1966 FordWhiteyBack

 

1967

ARMOUR PART05 1967 PalmerJimFront  ARMOUR PART05 1967 PalmerJimBack

 

1968

ARMOUR PART06 1968 YastrzemskiCarlFront  ARMOUR PART06 1968 YastrzemskiCarlBack

 

1969

ARMOUR PART06 1969 RobinsonBrooksFront  ARMOUR PART06 1969 RobinsonBrooksBack

 

CLICK HERE TO TAKE THE POLL.  Note that there are two questions in addition to the rankings.

 

UPDATE: OUR RESULTS!