My First Baseball “Cards”


The first baseball “trading cards” that I ever bought (or rather, my mom bought for me) were 1967 Topps, sometime in late spring.  But these were not my first baseball cards. No, my first “cards” were these guys right here.


Packaged like a standard deck of playing cards, they made a game where two players would take turns playing through an inning, and then handing the deck to the other guy.

They were made by ED-U-CARDS and the copyright on the box says 1957.  I got them a decade later — I assume they were purchased at the checkout line of a grocery store.

These cards were part of my education about the game and how the various events played on top of one another.  Although I am sure I enticed my brother or someone else to play on occasion, I also spent hours just playing the game by myself.  Like solitaire, except that I was learning how the game was played.  A few months later I got some Topps cards, and I began to learn about the actual players.  Both purchases were significant childhood events in by path toward full-on baseball nerd-dom.

The very next year, Topps inserted “game cards” into their 1968 packs.  I was predisposed to love these cards and I did — I still believe it is unmatched in Topps insert history, the absolute GOAT — but as an actual “game” the Topps version was far inferior.  There were fewer cards, fewer game events, and the ED-U-CARDS illustrations were classic.  The HIT-BY-PITCH alone was worth playing the game for.

In subsequent years I ran across similar games that came out around the same time.  If you grew up in the pre-video-game era, everyone had “card games” like this.  A house that did not have an “Old Maid” card game laying around was a house you could not trust.

What follows are other examples of card games that I did not own as a child but encountered later on.


Built Rite


The above game was put out by Built Rite (according to the box) and cost 29 cents.  There is no date.  I like the scooped edging — much easier to hold for a youngster.  In fact the box brags “Shaped Cards To Fit Small Hands.”  The game events are pretty much the same, but the game includes a “Diamond Card” where you are supposed to place coins to keep track of which bases were occupied.  That’s a nice touch.


Batter Up


This “Batter Up” game is copyright 1949, and is very similar to the other games.  I came to love the bright yellow cards, but I have to admit these have a classy look and the illustrations are really well drawn.  Also, it came with a set of rules which folded out to make a diamond for game play.



Earl Gillespie


Earl Gillespie was the voice of the Milwaukee Braves when this game was put out in his name in 1961.  It is a very classy box and set up, and the game plays out like all the rest of them, but the illustrations are pretty basic.  Gillespie emphasizes the game itself, rather than the fun drawings.  Its well done.

He also includes a handful of score sheets which is — probably taking things a bit far?  I mean, who are the players in this scenario? As a bonus, he includes a sample — a scoresheet (the Braves batters) from opening day in 1961.



The question “what is a baseball card?” is inevitably so tied up in personal memories of childhood that logic is no longer driving the bus.  You can classify these as you wish, but good luck prying them from my hands.


Committee Project

Please pardon this brief interruption.  In addition to all of the fun we have talking about or trading baseball cards, I thought it would also be fun to leave a more permanent mark upon this world, to organize all of the great work we have been doing.

Since we are a SABR Research Committee, I asked Jacob Pomrenke — SABR’s Director of Editorial Content — how we could best have and use permanent web space that is more easily found, organized and updated.  He urged me to use the SABR/Baseball-Reference Encyclopedia, otherwise known as the B-R Bullpen, for this purpose.  It is a wiki, which is perfect for us in my view.

So I wrote up a very simple skeleton.  (There was some baseball card material already there, which we will build on or around.)

Click here.

Besides the front page, I already wrote up several subset pages (All-Star cards, Season Highlights, Historical Highlights, and Group Cards), and several place holders.

I especially encourage any interested committee member to help, but it is a public wiki which anyone can update.  It is also part of a very strong and respected site, and (I have already discovered!) active editors who are on the look out for errors.

My thought is that this would grow organically based on whatever it is people want to see here.  Do you want to add a list of Police Sets?  Let’s add it.  A list of cards with people doing whimsical things (carrying snake, etc.)?  Let’s add it.  Cards of players signing autographs?  Cards that show the wrong player?  We are not going to provide the images — we just create the list.  The images are findable.

The subsets I created are all incomplete, and focus on the Topps era which is my strength.  However, my pages should be updated (if appropriate) to include all eras and all brands.  For the Group Cards page, I stopped at 1969 Topps, but obviously in the 1980s it all came back.  Let’s get it all down.

(All of this is optional of course — if its not your bag, that’s fine.  We’re still going to do all of the things we already do.)

How can you help?  Don’t think of it as “help” — which implies that you are providing assistance to me — think of it as co-efforting?  You can create content yourself (its easy) or you can send material to me (or someone else) and have them create it for you.  You can add to existing material (more Group Cards) or you can add entirely new pages.

All ideas are welcome.  1970s plastic cup collectibles?  We’ll figure out how it fits in.


No.  In fact, we will act to organize the rest of the web, and link to the best pages.  For example, we could have a Topps Flagship Sets page, and each entry “1971 Topps” would provide links to the best content related to this set, including articles on our blog. (We are not here to advertise, but to provide content).

If we had a page on “Goudey Card Sets”, it could be a list of each set with a sentence or two of text.  Right below the entry for “1936 Goudey Wide Pens” would be a link to Jeff Katz’s great article that I posted an hour ago.  Synergy!

All advice on organization (especially if accompanied by a willingness to perform the organization) are welcome.  I created pages that all look “the same”.  I can be talked into changing the look, but not the consistency.

I suspect some of you already have your own lists that you have created for your own purposes.  Share them!

So, who’s in?  If you are, please contact me.

— Mark Armour

PS: Sometimes, Topps had to try harder to find season highlights.  And I am grateful.



SABR Convention 2018

As a reminder, this blog is the publishing/communication arm of SABR’s Baseball Cards Committee.

If you are not a member of SABR, please join.  I could go on and on about the pleasure that SABR has given me for the past 30 years — the friends, the social events, the email and social media interactions, the fun.  Because of SABR, I am a writer.  Because of SABR, I have friends all over the country.  Because of SABR, I understand more about facets of baseball I otherwise would know nothing about.

SABR’s annual convention, its 48th, will be in Pittsburgh in five months.  Registration is now open.  Conventions are not exactly cheap — you need to get a hotel room, pay for the convention, feed yourself, etc.  There are ways to save money — I always have a roommate, and hotels usually allow you to haul in a cot if you want to triple bunk.  There are always cheaper ways to eat.  You can skip hanging out in the bar.  (Hahaha, just kidding — you really don’t want to do that.)

Pittsburgh will be significantly less expensive than New York, the site of our 2017 confab.  So there is that.  There will be no $25 beers in the bar.

Last year was also the first year of our committee, so we had our first meeting.  Our meeting was largely taken up with a highly entertaining and informative talk by Keith Olbermann.  Chris Dial and I have not figured out what our 2018 meeting will be like, but we’ll come up with something.

Bottom line: join SABR, join our committee, come to The Steel City, have the time of your life.  Profit.


An ode to El Tiante


As August 1972 dawned, Red Sox reliever/spot-starter/afterthought Luis Tiant sported a 4-4 record with a 3.18 ERA. This was actually a positive and surprising turn of events — Tiant had been discarded a year earlier and his making the Red Sox in April was more a reflection of their sad pitching staff than it was Tiant’s spring mound work.  No matter what manager Eddie Kasko might have said.

On August 1 the Red Sox were 47-46, fourth place in the six-team AL East, a mediocre team on the way to a mediocre finish.  No one was blaming Tiant — he’d been given an unimportant role, and he had performed it with aplomb.

I was with my father and grandfather in the third base grandstand for his July 22 start against the A’s, his fifth start of the season. I generally attended one or two games a year, and this was the one.  The pitching matchup was Tiant against Catfish Hunter, which seemed hardly fair though both pitchers departed a 3-3 game eventually won by Oakland.  What are you gonna do?

Luis Tiant, as I well knew, had had some excellent seasons (especially 1968) with the Indians, had been traded to the Twins (1969), had badly hurt his throwing arm (1970), was released (1971), and finally was picked up by the Red Sox and sent to the minors. I loved Tiant in his pre-Red Sox days.  I liked his name, and I especially liked the way he looked on his baseball cards. Handsome as hell, and he looked like he came to win.

1968   1971

But this was not my first rodeo. I was plenty old enough (10) to know that injured and discarded pitchers did not suddenly become uninjured.  I figured I’d never hear his name again.

The Red Sox called Tiant up in June, and he was in and out of the rotation for two months. By early August he was 0-6 with a 6.44 ERA, and Kasko was mocked in the local papers. Tiant didn’t start again, thankfully, but he stuck around in the bullpen the rest of the season and pitched better.  The Red Sox gave him an invitation to spring training the next year, but he had no shot to make the team.


Topps didn’t even put him on a 1972 baseball card. Understand: Topps gave everyone a baseball card, which is one of the things I loved about baseball cards.  Bobby Pfeil, who the Red Sox acquired a week before the season started but immediately sent to the minor leagues, never to return to the majors, got a baseball card as a member of the 1972 Red Sox.


Luis Tiant did not get a card because Topps figured Tiant was finished.

On March 22 the Red Sox traded Sparky Lyle to the Yankees, an infamous deal that came with the side effect of saving Tiant’s job.  Give Eddie Kasko credit: he believed. Luis survived as a bullpen option who could also spot start.  Four months later his utility role had not changed.

He saved a game against the Yankees on August 2, then pitched two complete game wins over the Orioles on the 5th and 12th.  He pitched another game in relief (still not in the rotation!) before starting on the 19th at Chicago’s Comiskey Park.  The result was a 2-hit shutout, the first hit coming on a Carlos May double in the 7th. After the game, Kasko finally announced the obvious: Tiant would remain in the rotation. The team was suddenly just 3.5 games out of first.

Over the next four weeks I fell in love with Luis Tiant, and I have never really fallen back out.  It wasn’t the love I had for Agent 99, but it was love just the same.  I loved the look, the accent, the cigars in the shower. I loved the way he walked to the mound, stood on the mound, stared in to get the sign from Carlton Fisk, the 20 different windups, the 10 pitches thrown from several different angles and speeds.  And the fact that he got everyone out, that was also nice.

His next start was another shutout, and then another, and then another.  Four in a row, before he settled for a 4-2 win over the Yankees on September 8. After a shocking 3-2 loss in Yankee Stadium on the 12th, he shut out the Indians four days later.

This is about the time we all finally noticed, “Hey, wait a minute, Tiant doesn’t have a baseball card this year?  WTF was Topps thinking?” Thereby using both absurd revisionism and 21st century twitter jargon.

I was therefore doubly thrilled when this issue of the Sporting News showed up, with its “Boston’s Surprising Ace” headline.  If you ever want to see this issue, you can find it hanging in my office to this very day.


On September 20, when Tiant walked to the mound to face the Orioles, a sold-out Fenway Park crowd rose to its feet and cheered his entrance (his teammates joining in) and began chanting “Loo-EEE, Loo-EEE,” a refrain that would become a common Fenway sound over the next few years.

This went on for the rest of the night, growing especially loud when Tiant batted in the eighth, grounded to the pitcher, exchanged batting helmet for glove, and strode back to the hill. He finished his shutout, his sixth in his last eight starts, to total bedlam. Carl Yastrzemski, who knew a thing or two about starring in a pennant race, said that he had never witnessed such devotion.

Tiant pitched two more complete games wins before losing  a 3-1 heartbreaker in Tiger Stadium on October 3, a game that decided the division. Let’s not dwell on that.

For the season, the washed up spot-starter had finished 15-6, 1.91, capturing the league’s ERA title and various comeback awards.  This was just the beginning, of course. He would have many heroic moments in the coming years in Boston in pennant races and post seasons. (His September-October record for the Red Sox was 31-12.) But it started in August 1972.


The most anticipated baseball card in New England in 1973 is right here.  Finally, our nightmare was over. Interesting — the photo was almost certainly taken in the spring of 1972, right about the time Topps moved heaven and earth to get Bobby Pfeil on a card.

The next time I saw Tiant pitch in person was June 24, 1974, against the Brewers.  No longer a spot-starter, Luis was instead one of the biggest stars in the game. I was thrilled that it was Tiant’s turn, and even more thrilled at the 9-0 shutout.

I sent Tiant a letter around this time, and received a signed copy of this card.  He had grown his trademark Fu Manchu, which he still sports.


Many years later, when I finally got up the nerve to submit an article to SABR for publication, it was the life story of Luis Tiant, which appeared in the Baseball Research Journal about 20 years ago.  I have updated it a few times, and it is on the web.  When I was fortunate enough to meet Tiant at the 2002 SABR convention in Boston (thanks to Anthony Salazar!), he gave me a cigar.

Once again, Luis Tiant’s candidacy for the Hall of Fame is up for debate.  Am I biased?  Of course I am biased.  Vote for him, please. It would be the capper to my 45-year love affair.




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.”


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.




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_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