Tom Seaver (1944-2020)

Baseball cards are personal. Someone could write hundreds of words about what set is the best, or what card is the best, and what design decisions are the best (guilty, guilty, and guilty), but for many of us, it comes down to how you experienced cards as a child. My story reads like a series of well-worn clichés: saved quarters from allowance, rode bike to neighborhood store, traded with friends, sorted cards on family vacation. The whole shebang.

The first year I bought cards was 1967, when I was 6. Ergo, this was the best set Topps ever made. I talk myself into believing that this opinion is based on a rational collection of factors about picture quality, design, content of the back, etc. But is it really?

A pack of 1967 Topps was a nickel for five cards. I did not have a lot of nickels, but I managed to accumulate a few hundred cards at the end of the season, including card #581.

1967 Topps

By the time I laid eyes on this card, likely in September, the 22-year-old Seaver was already one of the very best pitchers in baseball. He had pitched the final inning of the NL’s 2-1, 15-inning victory in the recent All-Star game, striking out Ken Berry to end it.  I wonder how often a player has played in an All-Star game before their first baseball card hit store shelves?

I might have watched some of this game, but no way I was allowed to stay up until the 15th inning. If I knew anything about Seaver it would have been his appearances in the league leaders that I studied every day in the paper. Very few six-year-olds living outside of the greater New York area had any idea who Tom Seaver was.

Bill Denehy, since you are wondering, finished the year 1-7, giving this baseball card a rookie pitching record of 17-20. Denehy would leave a second mark on baseball history in November when he was traded to the Senators for manager Gil Hodges.

In March 1968, I likely ran into Topps card #45. And it was a beauty.

1968 Topps

Collectors who got to the hobby 10 years, or 40 years, after I did grew up wanting “action” on their baseball cards. I did not–I fell in love with card sets filled with players whose faces I knew better than my own relatives. I did not think of this card as boring, I thought it was magnificent.

Because of the ongoing dispute between Topps and the player’s union, most of the photos Topps used in the 1968 set were taken no later than April or May of 1967, and many of them dated from years before. The photo on Seaver’s 1968 card was taken the previous spring, before Seaver had thrown his first big league pitch. At that same photo shoot, Topps took a beautiful photo of Seaver in his follow through.

1968 Topps that could have been

Unfortunately, some smarty-pants proof-reader noticed that Tom was throwing left-handed (a rookie trying to fool the photographer?) and we were robbed of this masterpiece. 

The next year, with the boycott still in full swing, Topps used the identical Seaver photo for card #480, a fifth series card that would have hit my store around July. By the time it did, Tom Seaver was one of the best and most famous athletes in the country.

1969 Topps

For a baseball-obsessed and baseball card-obsessed kid, there was no 1969 card more precious than this one. Mays and Aaron and Clemente were superstars, and Yaz was my personal hero, but Seaver was like the Beatles. He was whip smart, a beautiful and mechanically-flawless pitcher, handsome as all get out, and younger  (24) than most of my team’s “prospects”.  He and Nancy, smart, beautiful, and glamorous in her own right, were the John and Jackie Kennedy of baseball.

Seaver finished the 1969 season with 25 wins, a truckload of awards, and a World Series trophy. The 1969 Mets are one of the more famous teams ever, but if anything the story of their Miracle seems almost …undersold?  The Mets had been awful for their 7 year existence, and there was no free agency to afford them a quick fix. It was all, dare I say it, Amazin’.

But let’s get real: they were basically a team of (a) role players, (b) guys having their best year of their life, and (c) Tom Seaver. (Maybe Jerry Koosman gets special mention.) Seaver is the biggest hero in the history of his franchise–there is no close second–and one of the most respected and admired athletes in the history of New York.

If you fell in love with baseball when I did, there were two superstars that you grew up with: Seaver and Johnny Bench. I saw Aaron and Mays and Clemente on TV, but most of their careers predated me. I felt ownership of Seaver and Bench, as I did Rod Carew and Reggie Jackson. These four players, who would be named to 58 All-Star teams, all made their big league debuts in my formative year of 1967.  How about that?

A remarkable thing about Seaver, and this is equally true of Bench, is that his public persona never really changed. He was a mature team leader as a rookie. Despite playing the heart of his career in a period of rapidly changing hairstyles and flamboyant personalities, Seaver remained the confident, fascinating, brilliant superstar that hipsters and squares could all admire. My friends and I had opinions about Reggie Jackson or Pete Rose or Steve Carlton. No one had opinions about Seaver. What was there to say, honestly?

I am not going to run through all his cards, as much as I’d like to. I have been known to criticize Topps’ early attempts at action photos, but it came as no surprise that when Topps used game footage of Seaver they turned out these pieces of magic.

1974 Topps
1977 Topps
1981 Topps
1983 Topps

My favorite Tom Seaver card, if forced to choose, is from 1975. The best part of 1970s and 1980s sets is that Topps used a nice mix of posed, action, and (my personal favorite, as here) candid photos. The 1975 Topps card shows Seaver at rest, almost (but not quite) looking at the camera. What might he have been thinking?

He was 30 when this card came out, the best pitcher in baseball (he would win his 3rd Cy Young Award that year, and could have won others), one of the most famous, most admired athletes in America, a clothes model, a sportscaster. He was Terrific, and you get the feeling he knew it. How could he not?

Rest in peace, Tom Seaver. 

 

Legitimacy

1952ToppsJRobinson

I have been reading about or studying the integration of baseball for many years, at first principally because I wanted to write about the effect that integration had on the quality of the game. Obviously if you add Jackie Robinson to a league, that league is not just ethically and morally better, the quality of play is also better. Much better. I mean, this is JACKIE ROBINSON for God’s sake. And then Doby, and Campy, and Irvin, and on and on.

Jackie Robinson and the extraordinary cohort of people who integrated the game in the 1940s and 1950s will always be baseball’s best story, one that can not be over-told. We (myself included) have been guilty of treating this story as a culmination rather than as an important chapter in an ongoing struggle. Today’s decreased number of Black American players, to say nothing of managers and executives, is one constant reminder of progress yet to be made. Another are the tales of just how difficult the lives of black players can be in today’s Major League Baseball. Like the rest of America, baseball has a long, long way to go.

Additionally, my integration-era research has led to collateral damage in my relationship with Jim Crow (pre-1947) baseball, and its cards. I still appreciate the history, and the stories, and I understand how great Wagner, Cobb, Ruth, and DiMaggio were, but the stories are a little less romantic, and maybe the players were all a little less great than I thought. It’s the other side of same coin–you can’t believe that Robinson, Mays and Aaron made the game significantly better without also believing that not having them made the game significantly worse.


For Christmas in 1981, I was given a beautiful 1982 calendar which I believe had been advertised in the New Yorker. With brief exceptions, it has hung on a wall in my dorm/apartment/house/office for the past 38 years–it is six feet away from me as I type. (In 2021, for the first time since 2010, the days will align.)

Its 12 pages tell the story of baseball cards chronologically–January is for 19th century tobacco cards, while the last row of December shows 1981 Topps. If you lay the calendar on a table and flip through months (the only way to really do it–the pages are 22″ x 14″), you get a high level view of 100 years of the hobby. And of Major League baseball.

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What the calendar also shows, visually and starkly, is Jim Crow: page after page, row after row, of White dudes.

The first Black face belatedly shows up in August, in the penultimate row, appropriately the 1949 Bowman Satchel Paige. The final August row features 1951 Topps, and includes both Monte Irvin and Luke Easter. These three men were the 7th, 10th, and 11th Black players in the Major Leagues in the 20th century. There are four more Black faces on the page for September, which highlights the 1951 and 1952 Bowman sets.

My calendar almost always (as now) is hung so as to display October. I don’t know if it was deliberate on the part of the designer, probably not, but October’s top row is like a punch in America’s face, and the next three rows don’t really let up.

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Here is a thought experiment. Imagine seeing a binder of 1956 Topps cards, except that all of the Black players have been removed. No Mays, no Aaron, no Jackie, no Banks, no Clemente, no lots of other stars. There are still great players in the binder–Mantle, Williams, Koufax, Feller, and more–but its obviously a worse group than the real set. Not just a little worse, immeasurably worse.

In other words, it would be … just like 1934 Goudey. Or 1940 Play Ball. Or T-205. Looking through that denuded 1956 binder would be at the very least uncomfortable, and more likely offensive, to a modern collector. And that is why I struggle with all the pre-war cards sets.

As Nick wrote a couple of years ago, “while cards have always existed, their role in defining who ‘real’ ballplayers are cannot be ignored.” If I collect cards to celebrate the baseball of the time, I have to ask myself: do I really want to hang a frame on the wall that glorifies segregated baseball? The 1934 Goudey card set, the T-206 set, and all pre-war card sets, perpetuate the lie that “organized” baseball sold America for decades, that these were the best players, the “real” players.

While major league baseball was barring great Black players from playing in its leagues, and most white newspapers were complicit in not reporting on the Negro Leagues, companies like American Tobacco and Goudey  were not putting Black players on baseball cards. There were a lot of minor league cards or sets in these years, there were sets for pilots, and actors, and dogs, and trees, but nothing for the many fans of Oscar Charleston or Bullet Joe Rogan or Biz Mackey. Didn’t they smoke, or chew gum?

Had any of these companies chosen to make a Negro League set, or, better yet, incorporated Negro League players into their flagship sets, it might have led to increased and earlier calls for integration, and would have made these players “real” to kids all over America. But they did not.

When it comes to baseball cards, the lie began to dramatically unravel in the 1950s.  By the end of the decade, nearly 10% of the players on the field had dark skin, and many of these were among the best players in the sport. If you collected, some of the best and most sought after cards depicted players who you might not have heard of had they played a decade earlier.  In 1956, ten years after White America wondered if Jackie Robinson would be good enough, there were 52 Black players on big league diamonds.  Nine of them are in the Hall of Fame. Nine.

I have been dabbling in the cards of the early 1950s in recent years. I don’t have any of the sets and doubt I ever will, but enjoy picking up an occasional example, including Ted Williams or Yogi Berra or Duke Snider.

Sing the praises of pre-war cards and players as you wish.  But the 1950s are the first time when the best players were allowed in the major leagues and in baseball card sets. Both enterprises, belatedly, had become legitimate.

 

The One About Home Decorating

A few days ago Jason retweeted a photo I put on Twitter last fall showing a framed display of my baseball cards. Jason left out the role he played in my display, so I promised a post on the matter. This is more autobiographical than I am generally comfortable with, but the lessons herein might be of value.

When it comes to baseball cards, I have always considered myself to be a Set Collector. If someone were to gift me a stack of 1950 Bowman cards (no one has ever done this, but for the sake of science why not give it a try?) my reaction would likely be to figure out how many cards I needed to complete the set. Checking just now … I have 19 cards from 1950 Bowman (out of 252), which is 7.5%. I even have a few Hall of Famers. If you give me another 50, suddenly I am over 30% and pretty much committed.

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If you’re a Set Collector, a particular set’s “status” is generally defined more by what you don’t have than what you do have. I have been chipping away at my 1956 cards for 35 years–my focus on the set (and on baseball cards generally) has ebbed and flowed over the years. I still need 22, including the Luis Aparicio rookie card, and several difficult team cards (Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox, Cardinals).

But in stating the case this way, didn’t I bury the lede? Should I not instead start with the facts that I own 318 cards from the 1956 set, and that many of them are … kinda spectacular? I am not writing this to brag, but as an admission that I often don’t spend enough time appreciating what I have. For most of the past 30 years, when I have picked up a new 1956 card, even someone like Roberto Clemente, it doesn’t take more than a day or two before I carefully place it out of sight, in a box or binder. “What’s next?”

If a new friend were to walk into my house, it would take them a while to discover I was a baseball fan. There are no baseball artifacts in any of the rooms they’d likely encounter. The main reasons for this: (1) my house is of modest size; (2) other people live here; and (3) they show no signs of leaving. My baseball stuff is mainly confined to a small office that I have gradually taken over without explicit permission.

So last September Jason posted a picture of his display of Hank Aaron cards. It was incredible, both in its inherent beauty and as a visualization of a wonderful collection and tribute. I mean, come on:

IMG_2463I knew Jason was a Hammer GuyTM, and that he had all of his major cards, but to see them all in one display like this was a bit breathtaking.

But I also thought: Hold on a sec, I also have cards.

I called Jason and asked him about the display case, and he filled me in. I quickly suggested to my family that the case would make a handsome birthday gift, and a few short weeks later I was proven correct. After a few days rumination, I filled it with my best cards from 1952-58 Topps and hung it up on the wall.

EHSFso2UYAARGgz

(Jason, with 50 Aarons plus assorted other superstars, has considerably more WAR in his frame.)

Of my 45 cards, the first I owned were the 1956 Ted Williams and Jackie Robinson, purchased for $50 (total) at a card shop in Minneapolis in 1983. I had most of the others by early 1990s, safely squirreled away.

This display decision has worked out just fine. It remains up in my office, just a few feet from where I am now typing. My family seems OK with it, though my daughter is continually bothered the non-uniformity of the second row. I don’t recall that anyone else has seen it in real life–my office is not a visitor destination. I see it everyday, and I am sure I have looked at my 1953 Satchell [sic] Paige card more in the past seven months than in the previous 30 years I had owned it.

There are downsides.

First, it is not easy to replace cards or moved them around. You have to take the display down from the wall, lay it on a flat surface, open the hinged glass front, adjust the contents, close and re-latch the front, and then carefully place the whole thing back on the wall. I haven’t yet had any reason to change the cards, though I do have dreams of adding another Mays card or two.

A second down-side is its effect on my set collecting. My 1956 binder is now missing not only the 22 cards I need, but also the 9 I removed to put in this frame. What does this binder even mean now, with all of the best cards ripped from its pages? It’s not like I am going to buy second copies of these cards.

An upside to this downside is that it has allowed me to consider my collection in (arguably) a more healthy way. I recently purchased a few cards from 1953 Bowman, which is one of my favorite sets. I have no real intention of completing it, so I will instead just enjoy looking at the 20 or so cards that I own. Which is OK?

In a related matter, I have been mulling over a second display. The 1950s cards are from before I was born, so it stands to reason that a case focused on my sweet spot (say, 1967-71) would afford me some pleasure. Or maybe I could create pick out 50 of my beloved Corsairs and Belters.

The two biggest obstacles: (1) I am not seeing any available wall space around here, and (2) this plan would cause me to remove cards from binders of completed sets. I mean, is this even legal? While contemplating all of that, I wait.

In our little Twitter community, I have seen card displays devoted to T-205s, or of Dave Parker, or of Milwaukee Brewers. They all look amazing to me. In my humble-ish opinion, if you collect cards, and you have the appropriate space, they are worth displaying.

Happiness will ensue.

213

1967.jpg
1967 #213

I started collecting cards in 1967, at the age of 6. I had no idea who any of the players were–I was a geography nut, so I started off just knowing the cities and states, then gradually added the team names, the positions, and a basic understanding of the statistics on the back, and eventually started to figure out who the players actually were. Soon, I was an expert in separating the scrubs from the regulars, the stars from the superstars.

Eventually, not right away, I could pull a card like this Jay Johnstone, and realize that he was a superstar. He had 3 home runs in 1966, and home runs were obviously good things. Soon I realized that Topps used certain card numbers to designate the best players in the game, which made things easier.

For example, I learned, by deduction, that Topps set aside card #213 for a really special player. I did not see this for years, hence my delay in understanding how great Johnstone was–had I known that they had given Fred Newman #213 in 1966, obviously I would have connected the dots. In these days before hobby magazines, I had to figure out this pattern for myself.

1968
1968 #213

My second year collecting, Topps came back hard with this legend, fresh off an -0.3 WAR season with the Reds. When you put Chico’s card together with teammates Pete Rose, Lee May, and Tony Perez, and with rookie Johnny Bench showing promise, my friends and I began to call them the Big Red Machine. Honestly, I felt like this nickname should have caught on, as almost all of these players remained stars for many years.

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1969 #213

I am embarrassed to admit that even after pulling this PSA-10 Arrigo out of a pack, I still had not put together the #213 pattern! Of course I understood that this was an inner circle star, but I just didn’t pay attention to card numbers back then. This was a 3rd series card, likely coming out in May, and the only excuse I can offer is that I was too distracted with the Apollo 10 launch to follow the tense Arrigo-Seaver duel for the Cy Young Award.

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1970 #213

I have written about the genius of the 1970 bat rack photos before, and it is only right that Topps put one of them on #213. And not just anyone, they didn’t waste the slot on Harmon Killebrew, they gave it to the starting catcher (against left-handed pitchers) for the best team in baseball. In addition, it must be said, he was the best looking player in baseball. This was the year — finally! — that the light came on about the glories of 213.

1971
1971 #213

Most famous for hitting two home runs in 1911 World Series, earning the nickname “Home Run,” the ageless Frank Baker was still hanging on 60 years later. While not quite the superstar he had been, you can’t blame Topps for giving the old legend the prime card spot one last time.

1972
1972 #213

Kinda ballsy of Topps to anoint not just one, but THREE, players with the superstar position in the set. Obviously they knew something, as these three hot prospects ended up racking up -0.1, -1.5, and -0.5 *career* WAR, for a mind-boggling total of -2.1. All on one card! Good luck finding this beauty at an affordable price. Clearly, the 213 Gambit paid off for Topps Bubble Gum, Inc.

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1973 #213

What can I say, Topps just blew it. Not only did they put a no-name on the card, someone destined for mediocrity, but we can’t even see his face! The only thing I can think of is that they meant to give #213 to Joe “Say Hey” Lahoud, but some intern swapped the images and Joe ended up on #212. Sad, but Topps had built up so much good will in my house by this point in my life that I decided to let it go.

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1974 #213

I also heard a rumor that Topps *wanted* to put Rader on #213 in 1973, but didn’t want to jinx the kid with only one fine season under his belt. But once he put up his .229 batting average with nine home runs in 1973, he kind of forced their hand. After the Garvey Debacle, it must have been a relief for Topps to have this slam dunk candidate to carry the torch.

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1975 #213

Oscar could play, or at least hit, and one can imagine a different timeline where he holds a full-time job for 10 years and makes a bunch of All-Star teams. And, of course, everyone dug Oscar’s ‘fro (the second best in his family), which made him a household name in all the cool households that dropped the names of platoon outfielders in casual conversation. But, let’s not kid ourselves. Oscar got the coveted #213 slot for his trendy top-hand-only batting glove game, which we all knew would catch on.

1976
1976 #213

Everyone knows that Heaverlo was the Mariano Rivera of the late 1970s, but, truth be told, Topps gave him star billing in 1976 because of his head. Fashioning himself the “Anti-Oscar,” Heaverlo was the first baseball player to shave his entire dome. Unlike Seattle Supersonics star Slick Watts, our hero did not get the credit he deserved because tradition dictated that he always don a cap. Perhaps in admiration for this sacrifice, Topps gave him a sort of Mr. Congeniality nod with the #213.

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1977 #213

Until 1976 Leon seemed destined to live in the considerable shadow of his father Sergio, the acclaimed director of such Spaghetti Western classics as The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West. Heroically, young Max finally broke through with his monster 2-win, 44-strikeout performance in 1976. By the time I first saw the 1978 cards hit the store shelves in Ledyard, CT, suffice it to say that there was little remaining suspense about who #213 was going to be.

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1978 #213

It has been said of Willie Mays that an admirer could enumerate myriad reasons for his greatness without even mentioning his power, his 660 home runs. There was just so much to brag about.

It’s kind of like that with Alan Bannister too. On his 1978 card, one of a long line of Rembrandt-level cardboard in his great career, Topps spent so much time waxing rhapsodically about his speed (including his mind-blowing 27 steals at Triple-A Eugene in 1973) and versatility (playing both infield and outfield), that they ran out of space before they could even mention that he hit a league-leading 11 sacrifice flies in 1976. Think about that for a second. They ran out of space.

1979
1979 #213

What more needs to be said, at this juncture, about Bill Travers?

1980
1980 #213

In retrospect it seems like a bold move on Topps’s part to delay the anointing of Jorgensen until several years into his career. But it paid off in spades after he put up 9 and 16 RBI in back-to-back seasons with the Rangers. In 1979 he took a run at Hack Wilson’s all-time single-season record, before cooling off in September and falling 175 RBI shy. By the time this card got in our hands, Jorgensen had been traded to the New York Mets, and he proved the missing piece in their extraordinary leap forward from 65 to 69 wins.

I could go on, but you likely knew all this already. By 1981 Topps had competition and things became a bit of a mess. But for most of my glorious childhood, I could point to Topps baseball cards numbering as the primary way I learned how to figure out who the great players were. There were other premium numbers, to be sure–#329 had a run of Phil Roof, Rick Joseph, and Chris Cannizzaro that is hard to beat–but I will always have a soft spot for #213.

Faux Cards

I first started collecting baseball cards, at age 6, in 1967. As I have written elsewhere, this was before I knew anything about the real players and teams. The cards were my baseball school. Although my family was all Red Sox fans, I have no memory of the fabled 1967 season. Did I watch the World Series? I don’t know.

I became a real fan — watching games, following the standings — sometime during the 1968 season. I again collected cards, probably from the start of the season, and gradually learned what was up. The 1968 Red Sox were my first “team”.

Carl Yastrzemski was the big star, the most famous person in New England, but several Yaz teammates had excellent seasons. Ken Harrelson led the league in RBI and Ray Culp and Dick Ellsworth won 16 games each, decades before we learned that those stats were bullshit.

I might not have been bright enough to tell you that my heroes were wearing the uniforms of the Senators, Cubs and Phillies, respectively, and certainly not enough to have told you why. The reason, since you asked, is that all three men were recent acquisitions — the two pitchers joining up in the off-season, and Hawk the previous August. The photo boycott killed whatever chance Harrelson might have had to be donning Hub togs.

All of these guys were sorted with my Red Sox, and when I made batting order and pitching rotations I had to deal with all of this. Honestly, how I didn’t turn to a life of crime is a mystery.

Looking ahead to the 1969 season, baseball had become a full-blown obsession. I bought all the preview magazines I could, and even wrote my own essays about all the Red Sox players that forecast their seasonal statistics. (Spoiler: they were very bullish.)

Because of the MLBPA Topps photo boycott (of which I knew nothing), I still did not get Red Sox photos of my heroes. Topps provided some variety by using a different previous team for two of the three players. Complicating things further, a week into the season Harrelson and Ellsworth were traded to the Indians — Ellsworth’s late-series card reflected this change, so that his Cubs uniform was actually *three* teams ago by the time the card hit the shelves.

Culp remained in Boston for a few years, but Harrelson (an extremely popular player) and Ellsworth never did get a Topps photo showing their Red Sox days. I am not blaming Topps here, just illustrating that this was a frustration that kids used to go through, especially during the 1968-69 years.

As I will always believe you should “play with” your baseball cards, in the same way you should “play” your record collection and not just leave it sitting alphabetically on the shelf, I still keep my cards by team. So this issue remains.

In recent years, a number of people have been creating what I call “faux cards”. The card at the top of this post is a faux 1967 card of Rod Carew.

The late Bob Lemke was one of the first to make these seriously — he called them “Cards That Never Were” — creating fronts and backs and selling them on his web site. I am unaware of anyone today doing faux cards with both a front and a back, although I could be wrong. Today you can find a lot of people selling “front-only” faux cards, with blank backs. There are also a lot of great artists creating electronic versions of the cards, so you can create your own with a good printer and paper cutter.

Here are a few.

I am fairly certain that I would have had a happier childhood, and a happier adulthood for that matter, had I pulled these cards out of my wax packs in 1968.

Of late I have been dabbling in these faux cards, and it has reminded me of why I fell in love with cards in the first place. It wasn’t to find a VG-EX card of someone who played before I was born; it was to find a great photo (with accompanying cartoon/quiz/stats) of Dick Ellsworth, or Julian Javier, or Roy White.

I should mention here that I have certain criteria for what makes a good faux card. These are rules for me, so you can feel free to make your own rules. (Including: they are all bad. You be you.)

  • Players who, for whatever reason, did not have a Topps card that year. When I was creating imaginary games involving the 1968 Oakland Athletics, I got tired of pretending that Reggie Jackson had the flu.
  • Players who were on Topps’s multi-player “rookie cards”, always inadequate but especially when you are one of the key players on the team. This Thurman card would have been badass. I should mention here that I also want the photo to have been taken either during or prior to the relevant season. This faux 1968 card of Bench (which Lemke made) shows a photo from 1969 which is a mistake in my view.
  • When you have a Topps card, but it shows you on the wrong team. This is not Topps’s fault, you got traded too late, but Alex Johnson won the 1970 batting title for the Angels so it is nice to see him in his correct livery.
  • When Topps gave you a card with the right team, but because of a recent trade or franchise move you are shown without your proper uniform.

For me, I don’t really have any need for a 1975 Mickey Mantle card, or the like. I am not passing judgment, it’s just not my thing. Similarly, I don’t need a faux card of Willie Mays in 1970 — Topps already made a perfectly good Mays card, I don’t need a new pose. The vast majority of Topps cards need no improvement.

I realize that most people don’t get the same joy out of using the 1970 Topps cards as a conduit to the 1970 baseball season, that they think of the cards as mere checklists to be completed. And that’s cool. The faux cards that work for me complement the Topps cards, and are a similar nostalgic teleport.

At the moment, I am considering taking that faux 1968 Aparicio and putting it in a sleeve with the Topps Aparicio “back” to create the perfect card that this wonderful player deserves. I have not done this yet. I am awaiting the right moment.

Jim Bouton, 1939–2019

Jim Bouton died last Wednesday after a long battle with the effects of a 2012 stroke. He was 80.

As you have likely read over the past week, Bouton meant a lot to a lot of people. I was one. Our paths crossed a few times, but his importance is always going to be about his book.

My first run-in with Jim Bouton was with his 1968 Topps card, pictured up top. I was seven that summer and my card collection was limited by my meager finances. But when the final series came out in August I must have had nickels bursting out of my pockets, because I ended up with dozens (says my memory) of this card (#562).

I had no interest in doubles even then (I would have gladly traded you my extra Henry Aaron if you had Dick Dietz), but, let’s be real, who was Jim Bouton anyway? I knew nothing of baseball prior to … maybe a year earlier? He was not in the Yankee box scores or in the Yankee games I was able to watch — because (I later learned) in June he had been demoted to the minor leagues (which might as well have been Mars). He was a minor leaguer?

Bouton had been a star a few years before, but whatever. I remember watching Eddie Mathews pinch hit in the 1968 World Series and being flabbergasted that the announcers claimed he used to be a good player. This guy?

So anyway, I suspect that one or two of the 1968 Bouton cards ended up in my bicycle spokes at some point. He would never appear on a Topps card again.

The next year Topps — who gave absolutely everyone a card — did not give one to Bouton, who in March was a non-roster invitee by the expansion Seattle Pilots.

Topps gave a card to Fred Newman, who had not pitched in the majors in 1968 and threw just six innings in 1967. He was a spring training invite for the Red Sox, and quickly released, but Topps gave him a Red Sox card anyway. He never pitched in the majors again.

Let me be clear: none of this is meant to criticize Topps. Card selection was a tricky business, with multiple series allowing for delaying identifying the last series or two until April. What I love about Topps cards in this era is that they tried to include everyone, even guys who (with the benefit of hindsight) seem like extreme long shots to play, so it looks wrong when someone is missing. Most of the 1969 set was printed before the Pilots even got to camp, and Topps made an educated guess that of the dozens of available options Bouton did not warrant a late series card. His brief demotion to Triple-A in April might have sealed the deal.

In 1969 Bouton pitched for the expansion Pilots and then the Astros. I watched a handful of Red Sox – Pilots games, and I am sure I saw Bouton a few times. But he was just a guy in the bullpen, the guy whose 1968 cards were spread all over my room. I gave him little thought.

Although Bouton pitched essentially the entire season in the majors in 1969, he again did not get a Topps card in 1970. This case seems particularly odd, and makes one wonder if he had an issue with Topps. He was a strong union guy, but the union had settled their Topps dispute in late 1968, which is why the 1970 set is so spectacular. A mystery, to me at least.

He pitched briefly (and mostly poorly) that year before again being exiled to the minors, but 1970 ended up being the most pivotal year of his life. His book — Ball Four — came out and caused quite a stir, and his cards would never be commons again. Forgive me, 1968 Bouton card — I didn’t mean it!

I was an early devotee of his book, reading it age 10 and then reading it continually thereafter. The baseball, the humor, the writing, the politics, the self-doubt — there is something on every page. But enough self-examination …

I didn’t really start buying older cards (cards issued prior to my collecting) until I was in high school and especially college. I picked up a few Bouton cards when I ran into them. And I kept up on all things Bouton — his other books, his occasional magazine article, his comebacks in the minors (and briefly, the Braves). You can read all about it in other places, I am sure.

Early in my sophomore year, Bouton came to my college (Rensselear, in Troy NY) to speak. I had not packed Ball Four with me that year (I would never make that mistake again), but I did have a few of his cards in my dorm room. Bouton signed my 1964 card, and it remains the only baseball card I have ever asked anyone to sign. (I have received a few signed cards over the years from friends.)

It has been said that once a player’s career is over and time fades, he is judged by his statistical record. This is not true of Bouton, who finished 62–63 (albeit with great seasons, World Series heroics, and historic comebacks mixed in) but who retained his fame and remained newsworthy until the very end of his life.

My point, and I have a point: collect his cards. They are fairly inexpensive for 50-year-old cards, and it’s Jim Bouton for heaven’s sake. If you collect cards from the 1960s, by all means you should look for Mays, Clemente, Aaron, Mantle, Koufax, just like everyone else, but save a few dollars for The Bulldog. (And Curt Flood.)

My collection is 100% about the history, and very few people are a more important part of the baseball story than James Alan Bouton. There will be never be another like him.

The Passage of Power

“The Passage of Power” is the name of the fourth volume (with one more to come, hopefully) of Robert Caro’s brilliant biography of Lyndon Johnson. The book largely concerns the assassination of President Kennedy, and the ups and down of the transition to the Johnson presidency. Its great, I highly recommend the entire series.

In completely unrelated and much less distressing news, I wanted to announce a power transfer occurring closer to home. Chris Dial and I started this illustrious committee, and blog, and twitter community, in late 2016. And it has been, I must say, a rousing success and a lot of fun. Two-and-a-half years later, we are ready to pass the torch.

Your new co-chairs are:

Nick Vossbrink (@vossbrink) and Jason Schwartz (@HeavyJ28).

This is not a dramatic change for the rest of you. Nick and Jason are already large contributors to the blog and to the community. Chris and I are not going anywhere. The most tangible change is that you should contact them if you want to publish a post.

Oh, and the “voice” of the Twitter account will no longer be me. I will let them decide how this shakes out.

One reminder that I need to say while I have the floor. This is a SABR group, and we would appreciate it if you would join SABR. (https://sabr.org/join) A lot of our readers and twitter folk are not SABR members — that’s OK, but understand we will continue to try to change that.

Our thanks to Jason and Nick for all they already do, and for agreeing to step up here. The group is in good hands, and I expect it to just get bigger and better from here.

Mark Armour

PSA: Vacation Ahead

On Saturday, my family and I will depart for a two week trip to Scotland, England and France.  The last time I was on the continent was during the OJ Trial — in fact, I was in Italy when I heard the verdict.  Despite the rumored increase in connectivity since 1995, you should go ahead and just expect that I am unavailable for the rest of this month.  I have asked a few people — specifically Jeff Katz, Nick Vossbrink and Jason Schwartz — to continue to post as they would have, and also to help the anyone else who wishes to post in my absence.  They have, as far as I can tell, complete permissions/powers to do so.  So: contact one of them if you wish to post something.

The @sabrbbcards Twitter account will be fairly quiet, so if a new post does come up, please retweet it so that the word can be spread far and wide.  When I log on, I will try to do so.

In the mean time, I wish everyone a great rest of March.  There will be many regular season games before my return.

 

Happy New Year

Its been a bit over two years since Chris Dial and I started this committee.  My original plan was to create this blog, get committee members to write for it, and then use various SABR fora to promote it.  I had been involved with SABR committees for years, and this was a somewhat radical approach.  But “baseball cards” was a decidedly less academic, less formal, more “fun”, subject matter than previous SABR committees, one that did not fit the traditional 1980s model.

It was Jeff Katz who told me we needed a dedicated Twitter account — I had been on Twitter for a few years but was only occasionally active.  We also started a Facebook group,  and that was that. The country might be falling apart, but we had a baseball cards committee up and running.

And it worked!

The most successful SABR committees have produced some sort of collective work: a database, or a book, or an on-line project.  I still think we should try to do something like this, though we have not.

What we have built is a community.

I’d love to sit here and claim that this was my intention all along, but that would be untrue.  I was primarily thinking about the blog — as a SABR committee veteran, I wanted content.  That’s what SABR does.  It turns out we got both.

I knew many of you before this group was formed (though I did not necessarily know the depths of your card passions), but many of you I have met — in person or otherwise — through this group.  I had no idea two years ago that I would be exchanging baseball cards in the mail with people in this group.  Buying cards from eBay is easy enough — but sending/receiving cards with friends?  Much better.  My favorite part of this group is seeing all of the Twitter posts about cards you are sending each other.  Please keep them coming — try to tag @SABRbbcards and I will be better at retweeting from our main account.

My one goal for this committee in the coming year is that more people participate.  We have a core of blog writers, each great and different, and you can be one of them.  You can just write about what you are collecting, or about your favorite set, or favorite card.

This is a place where the 1956 Topps set and the 1990 Fleer set get an equal shake.  “Junk Wax” is not a term I use, because all cards are loved by someone.  We are not one voice around here.

I have been collecting since I was a little kid, and many of you have written about cards from a new angle that I had never even considered before.

If you are on Twitter, jump in.  Tell us what you want to collect, what you have extra of.  Join the conversation.  Hey, you might even meet some people along the way.

Happy New Year!

The Say Hey Kid: Willie Mays is Really Good

Forgive my delay, but I have been distracted by actual baseball games and the accompanying folderol. In my previous two posts (Part 1, Part 2) I took a trip through Willie Mays’s baseball cards (flagship sets, for the most part) through 1964. I am going to push that story forward here, but you can start by reading how we got here.

1965 Topps

Mays65Front   Mays65Back

A beautiful card in a beautiful set. After looking quite young on many of his cards in the 1950s, his face has begun to age rapidly. Not his body or his game, though — Topps calls him an “all time great” but he was still the best player in the game at the time this card hit store shelves.

Mays65HRLeadersFront   Mays65HRLeadersBack

Forty-seven home runs at Candlestick will do just fine, thanks. Too bad about Henry Aaron dropping down to 24 home runs; it looks like his years as a top power hitter are over at age 30.

Mays65RBILeadersFrontMays65RBILeadersBack

Ken Boyer was the Most Valuable Player in 1964, thanks largely to his RBI title. Mays finished third, although a quick reading of the back of the card would suggest he finished second. Topps loved Mays (baseball card chief Sy Berger became a close friend) and apparently could not bring themselves to listing him behind Ron Santo.

1966 Topps

Mays66Front   Mays66Back

One of the delightful treats of collecting Topps cards was how they distributed the players to the checklist numbers. Good players generally had a number than ended in “5”, All-Stars ended in “0”, and the very best players were assigned multiples of “50”. This was never announced, it just happened and kids took it on faith. In fact, if you learned the game as I did — from the cards — Topps assignments helped you figure out who the best players were. Willie Mays had a multiple of 50 every years between 1959 and 1965 (before I came on board).

In 1966 he got #1, one of the few times Topps used that number to anoint a superstar. In 1962 they gave the first card to Roger Maris, fresh off his 61 home run season, but in the intervening four years Topps had put its leaders cards at the front of the set. But in 1966, they gave it Mays who had just had one of his greatest seasons.

Mays66BattingLeadersFront   Mays66BattingLeadersBack

Try topping this card. The American League version of this card was Tony Oliva, Carl Yastrzemski and Vic Davalillo. “Daddy, why does the National League always win the All-Star game?”

Mays66HRLeadersFront   Mays66HRLeadersBack

The American League version: Tony Conigliaro, Norm Cash, Willie Horton. Hey, I am just reporting the news here don’t get mad at me.

Mays66RBILeadersFrontMays66RBILeadersBack

I am fairly certain the the major league baseball offices conspired to let Johnson win this title so that kids of America would stop laughing at the American League. The AL’s RBI leader was Chico Salmon. (Ed note: Lie, it was Rocky Colavito.)

1967 Topps

Mays67Front   Mays67Back

My favorite Mays card, and probably my favorite baseball card ever.

Although I come from generations of Bostonians and grew up in New England, I did spend parts of two years near San Francisco. The last of these was in 1967, which was first grade. This was when I fell in love with baseball cards, and baseball, in that order. When I got the cards I had basically no idea what any of it meant — the teams, the cities, the numbers, nothing. I liked the Giants because they played nearby, and I liked Mays because my father told me he was really good. My father was and still is a baseball fan, but a much more measured and sensible one than me.

“Willie Mays is really good” is basically how it all started for me. Is there a better way?

Mays67HRLeadersFront   Mays67HRLeadersBack

I know what you’re thinking: “Jim Pagliaroni hit 11 home runs in 1966, well I’ll be.” But focus on the three great hitters on the front just for a second. Richie Allen was good.

Mays67FenceBustersFront   Mays67FenceBustersBack

Mays’ final “group card,” which Topps phased out two years later. This was sad, as I have lamented before.

1968 Topps

Mays68Front   Mays68Back

Tricky question there Topps, faking kids all over America into guessing “Willie Mays” only to yank the rug out from under us.

This was the time when Mays took a step down from his place as the game’s very best player to being a merely excellent player. Although his days on the front of Topps “leaders cards” were over, he was much more than just an aging icon.

From 1967-1971, Willie’s final five full seasons with the Giants, he accumulated 25.2 WAR, which are star player totals. This is the 13th highest in baseball among position players. He made the All-Star team every year, and he deserved it.

1969 Topps

Mays69Front   Mays69Back

If you’ve been paying attention, you will notice that this photo is a cropped version of his 1966 photo. This was part of a large scale player boycott that weakened the 1968 and 1969 Topps sets.

Topps is running out of space to brag about Willie at this point, but he did warrant a rare exclamation point in his only sentence.

1970 Topps

Mays70Front   Mays70Back

What a beautiful photo this is.

Although they had removed his minor league numbers in 1969, they were restored this time around. And finally, Topps has run out of space. The numbers will have to speak for themselves.

1971 Topps

Mays71Front   Mays71Back

BREAKING: Willie Mays has moved to Atherton! By the way, if you don’t think 10 year old me looked at an atlas to figure out where Atherton was than we have never met.

I seriously love that Topps hauls out his putouts record and his hitting 20 home runs 17 times. Honestly, the 1955 batting title had grown stale.

1972 Topps

Mays72Front   Mays72Back

His last Giants card, and he got card #49. 49? What is this crap? What the heck is going on Topps?

Mays72InActionFront   Mays72InActionBack

A-ha, here it is. In 1972, included “In Action” cards of many of their players, and they placed them in consecutive numbers in the checklist. In this case, Mays special card got the #50. This is a nice card of Willie sliding with the artificial surface of Candlestick Park on display. Sigh.

For the back of the card I used the O-Pee-Chee version, partly to see if you were paying attention but mostly because the French text is wonderful.

Mays73Front   Mays73Back

Willie Mays is on the Mets. Give me more time, I have not quite processed this yet.

Mays73AllTimeFront   Mays73AllTimeBack

This looks like a misprint today, as Aaron and Mays both had a few more home runs to add to their totals. I will add that there were few things more fun as a kid that getting the paper in 1973 to see if Aaron hit another home run. He hit 40, to get within one of Ruth.

1974 Topps

Mays74WorldSeriesG2Front   Mays74WorldSeriesG2Back

Mays is famous for “hanging on too long”, but he really only had one bad year — 1973. What people forget is that Mays retired late in the season, and had no intention of playing again. Hitting .211 in early September, they had a ceremony on the field and that was that.

By some miracle or other, the Mets surged to a weird division title (82 wins!), and all the players credited Mays with his leadership and his willing them all to be great. The Mets put him on the playoff roster, but no one expected him to actually play. Unfortunately, the Mets actual starting center fielder was Don Hahn, and the more manager Yogi Berra looked at Hahn play the more 42-year-old broken-down Willie Mays started to look better.

In the final game of the NLCS, having literally not played in a month, Mays was sent up to pinch hit in a tie game. And he got an infield single to start a five-run rally. And the Mets won the game and the National League pennant over a vastly superior Reds team.

So now they are playing Oakland in the World Series, and, well, they had to play him again didn’t they?  In fact, he played parts of the first three games (going 2-for-7 but falling down in the outfield once), and did not appear again. At this point the story began to form that Old Willie should not have been playing, and he hung on too long and was embarrassing himself. But I remind you: he tried to quit, and everyone begged him to return. And it must be said: a mediocre team made it to the final game of the 1973 World Series. How much could he have hurt them really?

 

Willie Mays has appeared on hundreds (thousands?) of baseball cards, and I have only highlighted the ones from the big annual base sets. Perhaps I will visit others at a later date.

I became a fan at a time when Mays was an excellent player though perhaps no longer on the throne. But he was the greatest to me, and he remains the greatest all these years later. Long may he live.