Long-time SABR member, founder and past chairman of the Baseball Cards Committee, founder and past chairman (2002-2016) of the Biography Project, current President of the SABR board of directors, author of several books and dozens of articles on baseball. See mark-armour.net.
A few months ago, after we lost Henry Aaron, there was discussion on Twitter suggesting that Aaron had been short-changed by magazine covers during his career, especially by Sports Illustrated and SPORT. I will set aside SI for now (later, I hope), but I might be able to help with the SPORT issue.
I am an avowed fan of the heyday of SPORT. The magazine debuted in September 1946, and was a haven for long-form sports articles for 30 years. (It hung on into the 1990s, though I can not speak the later years.) I have written about SPORT before, so read this if you want the full story.
I own a complete run of SPORT through 1976, and I have used the magazine dozens of times for my own writing–for my own books, but especially for countless BioProject articles. We have made much progress in our ability to do research via the internet–many newspapers are on-line, the Sporting News, Sports Illustrated. But not SPORT, and really there was nothing else like it. So my hardcopies remain.
A couple of years ago, I spent some time creating postcard-sized copies of every SPORT cover and putting them in a binder. Long-term I want to place a subject index in each pocket so that my binder would also be useful. I’m But for now, I just have the postcards.
I recently went through my binder to count the number of times people appeared on a cover. Before presenting the answers, I wanted to explain how I counted. SPORT has employed many different cover designs over the years. Often they have just shown a single player as the cover subject, sometimes they have two or more players share a cover, and occasionally they will have one primary subject but one or more secondary subjects. Rather than make things overly complicated, I decided to keep two counts: primary, and secondary. A few examples should help.
On the left, Willie Mays is the primary subject. On the right, Ted Williams and Stan Musial are each primary subjects.
On the left, Dick Groat is the primary subject and Mickey Mantle and Jim Taylor are secondary subjects. On the right, there are 20 secondary subjects (none named, which tilted the decision).
There are some judgment calls, and one could argue that I really needed four categories, or eight categories. Ultimately, I didn’t feel the subject warranted Yalta-level deliberations.
To return to where we started, Henry Aaron was a primary subject on four SPORT covers.
It is unfortunate that neither the June 1962 or July 1968 photos filled the entire cover. Surely they would today be mounted and framed all across this land. They may still be.
Is four covers a low total? Baseball dominated SPORT covers and articles throughout much of Aaron’s career, at least until the late 1960s. SPORT was a monthly magazine, so there were generally only 7 or 8 baseball covers per year to go around and lots of other stars.
The all-time leaders (through 1976, counting only covers as a primary subject, and counting only baseball players) are Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle, with 16 covers each.
This August 1959 cover is the only one they graced together, albeit with two other players.
Here are the primary cover leaders:
16: Mantle, Mays
9: Ted Williams, Stan Musial
7: Joe DiMaggio
6: Rocky Colavito, Sandy Koufax, Jackie Robinson
5: Frank Robinson, Duke Snider, Warren Spahn
4: Aaron, Yogi Berra, Eddie Mathews, Pete Rose, Carl Yastrzemski, Maury Wills
All of these players are Hall of Famers with the exceptions of Colavito, Rose, and Wills, with Rocky by far the most surprising entry.
Colavito was a fine player, a six-time all-star who hit 30+ home runs seven times. He was no Henry Aaron, even in on his best day, but he was a very popular player in Cleveland and Detroit. SPORT was trying to sell magazines, and under no obligation to put the “best player” on the cover. However, it must be said that Colavito also bested Aaron inside the magazine, with 12 feature stories during his career to Aaron’s 11, despite Henry being a great player long after Rocky had washed out of the league. (Both Mays and Mantle had 30).
It would be naive to ignore race in this matter. Perhaps not directly–Aaron was well-liked and celebrated often in the pages of SPORT. But the magazine’s belief in Colavito as a story or cover subject, and the popularity of Colavito generally, stands out in a time when most of the bright young stars entering the game were Latino or African-American.
Roberto Clemente and Ernie Banks were featured on the cover of SPORT once each, shown above. Both were frequent story subjects (Banks 12, Clemente 11) but could not crack the cover code. Bob Gibson, the best and most famous pitcher in the world in the late 1960s, never graced the cover of SPORT magazine. On the other hand, Joe DiMaggio, who retired in 1951, made the cover five times in the 1960s.
SPORT did put Mays on the cover 16 times, and gave him their biggest honor on their 25th anniversary issue. SPORT loved Mays, as did every other sports magazine of the era. Heck, he also graced the covers of Look, Life, and Time. Mays is in his own special category.
SPORT’s baseball covers in the 1960s seemed to rotate between the nostalgia (DiMaggio, Ruth, Williams), a new emerging hero (Dean Chance, Johnny Callison) or a superstar. When they wanted the latter, Mantle and Mays were often the chosen ones, and famous stars like Gibson, Clemente, or Brooks Robinson (1 cover) were left out.
If I can find the time, I might make postcards for Sports Illustrated baseball covers. (Lawyers: I am not selling anything, just putting them in a binder for my own use.)
In the meantime, I will settle for 30 years of SPORT.
In 1969 a boy or girl could go to the store to buy baseball cards, discover that they did not yet have the new series, and instead spend his hard-earned nickels on baseball stamps. The stamps were not “inserts”, they were sold separately. For 5 cents, you could get a stick of gum, a 12 stamp panel (perforated for easy separation) and a team album in which you could place 10 stamps. If this makes you think of hot dogs, you are not alone.
If you bought a single pack, you might get this Cleveland Indians album, but no Cleveland Indians stamps. What good is that? It was a model that essentially required that you buy more packs if you wanted to collect them. Lots more packs. To complete the set (I know of no one who did this, or even really tried to do this) you would need to buy at least 24 packs to get the 24 albums. This would give you 288 stamps. Each of the team albums needed 10 stamps, so if you were incredibly lucky you’d fill up your albums and have 48 extra stamps.
Topps could have made this a lot easier by creating 20 unique panels, each with a non-overlapping group of 12 stamps. Collect these 20 panels, and you have your stamps. “Hey, I am missing the one with Tommy Davis in the upper-left, do you have that one?” Easy-peasy.
First of all, the panels came in one of two different configurations: either 6 rows of 2, or 2 rows of 6.
My memory is that in Southeastern Connecticut we got the vertical configuration. If either configuration is folded in thirds, the resulting 2×2 shape is the size of a standard baseball card, and fit nicely in the pack.
Second, the master sheets were not divided in a consistent way. There are many more than 20 possible sheets, so kids would have to trade individual stamps to complete their Indians booklet. In the below panel, the left-most four stamps are the same as the rightmost four above.
It was not completely random. If you get a horizontal panel with Larry Dierker in the upper left, you got this 12-stamp configuration. And apparently there are ways to put together a full set with 20 panels of 12 stamps, though I have not tried to figure out who the magic “upper left” players are that will allow you to do this. (If you have the answer, please let me know in the comments.) More likely, you will collect a bunch of panels with overlapping populations, so you will need a lot of stamps.
If you take a look at some of these hatless and black-hat photos, you will recognize that you are in 1969. As a reminder, that year Topps was beset with four new expansion teams, problems with the Astros, and a player boycott, and many of these photos were a few years old. You can tell that the stamps came out early in the spring, because all of the 1969 photo issues are in play.
We also know these were put together early by looking at how Topps handled Hoyt Wilhelm. Wilhelm was a great pitcher destined for the Hall of Fame, but he was 46 years old and beginning the nomadic phase of his career. He was pitching very well (1.73 ERA in 93 innings in 1968), but after the season the White Sox did not protect him in the expansion draft. Who’s going to draft a 46-year-old?
On October 15, the Kansas City Royals selected him in the draft. On December 12 he was traded to the Angels. Meaning that he was property of the Royals for 58 days.
During these 58 days, Topps put together the Royals album and the Wilhelm stamp.
Topps used Wilhelm’s likeness in a few other sets that year. In the 1969 flagship he was in the sixth series (late summer) and is on the Angels. He is in the decal set as an Angel. He in on the Angels team poster. The only other time he shows up as a Royal is in the deckle-edged set. Although his team name is not listed, we know he is a Royal because of how the checklist is laid out –he was the only Royal. In fact, his trade to the Angels (and Topps desire to have every team represented) caused Topps to replace him in the set with Joe Foy, one of two “variations” in that set. (The other, Rusty Staub giving way to Jim Wynn, was the result of Staub’s trade to the Expos and the need for an Astro deckle.)
Of these five items, four use the same photo, but the stamp (Royals) was most likely designed first, then the deckle-edged (Royals, replaced), then the poster and flagship (Angels), and then the decal (different image, with Angel hat/uniform drawn on).
OK, so what’s the point? The point, as always, is whether (and how) I would want to collect all of this today. Over the years I have realized that I really like the look of the stamp panels and I have haphazardly been “collecting” them. By which I mean if I see one (horizontal) at a decent price that I don’t already have I will attempt to acquire it. I have 17 different, though the prices, like everything else, have risen sharply recently. On occasion I will see a large sheet of 240 stamps which I would hang in my house except that I’d have to sell my house to afford the sheet.
I have also collected a complete set of 24 team booklets, with all stamps affixed. This is actually pretty affordable, though not as attractive or as easy to display. In this area, at least, I might side with @vossbrink’s view on the desirability of collectibles that have been used for their intended purpose. Or maybe I am just playing both sides, wanting the panels in their original configuration, but wanting the albums “used”. By this method, I own all the stamps, and can collect the panels without much regard for the player details.
As I mentioned recently with respect to the 1970/71 scratch-offs, the Topps offerings in this period are quite messy. But the mess is mainly trying to get it right (getting players on the right team, or in the right hat), not trying to rip off kids with chase cards and parallels and pieces of uniform. It was a better mess, in my view.
Recent trends in the baseball card world have caused me to step aside for the time being. Vintage cards, at least the years I might be interested in targeting, have become too expensive, and recent cards no longer cater to the childlike fun that drew me to the hobby as a youngster. I concede that Vincent Van Gogh would have made fine artwork if asked to use a 2.5 x 3.5 inch canvas, maybe even a classic “card” of Jackie Robinson, but (a) why would we ask him to do this, and (b) how would that help 10-year-olds to fall in love with the game?
So now what?
In recent years I have been very slowly working on completing various oddball sets from my childhood, especially Topps inserts or standalone offerings. The first inserts I remember encountering were the 1968 game cards, which Topps included in 3rd series packs. I’ve written about these cards before. They were fun and attractive, but very much treated as an “extra” in the pack, more important than the gum, but less important than the five included base cards. No one traded their “real” Willie Mays card for his game card.
In 1969 Topps produced two very popular inserts, one a black-and-white deckle edged card, and the other a color decal (which could be peeled off and affixed to another surface). Both very fun extras.
In 1970 Topps replaced their long-standard 5-cards-for-a-nickel packs with 10-cards-for-a-dime. This might seem a trivial difference, but for those of us with a 25 cents/week allowance, it required complex budgeting.
Perhaps feeling somewhat guilty, Topps placed three different inserts into packs throughout the summer. Although there may have been regional scheduling variations, in my neck of the woods Topps used posters in series 1/2, scratch offs in series 3/4/5, and story booklets in series 6/7. I hope to write about all of them in more detail soon, but for today I will focus on the scratch offs.
The 1970 Topps scratch off set consisted of 24 cards, picturing a player from each of the 24 teams.
When folded, the photo of Yaz is the “front”, the scoreboard and rules are the “back”. When unfolded, the game is revealed.
If you follow the rules your card might look like this around the sixth inning.
Truth be told, there are *lot* of problems here.
If you actually play the game, your hands will be blackened by the third inning. Even as a nine-year-old, this was annoying. What if you had to touch your “real” cards?
Once the game is played once, the card is useless. With the 1968 game cards you could collect a big stack (doubles are useful), and play the game over and over.
Even fresh out of the pack, the row on the seam (see picture) was difficult to scratch and read.
Not that kids cared at the time, but the cards were often misaligned or poorly cut.
Although I said above that the players represented each of the 24 teams, the team name is not actually listed–this is just something you would figure out if you placed them with their real team. Presumably “Red Sox” is not specified because Yaz is supposed to be the captain of *your* team. Nonetheless, the players chosen are clearly supposed to stand for the 24 major league teams.
McCarver and Allen played for the Cardinals and Phillies, respectively, in 1969, but were traded for each other (along with several others) in October. Since they appear hatless, and since they both appeared on cards labeled with their new teams in the flagship set, we can assume that these are cards for the Phillies (McCarver) and Cardinals (Allen).
Mike Hegan shows up wearing a Seattle Pilots hat, consistent with Topps use of the Pilots team throughout the summer (though they moved to Milwaukee prior to the season). For Yastrzemski and the other 20 cards the real-life team is obvious.
A discerning observer in 1970 (which, if we are being completely honest, I was not) would have recognized the scratch off set as an uninspired, even lazy, effort by Topps.
But … things would soon get *less* inspired.
In 1971, Topps was fresh out of ideas and chose to use the scratch offs as an insert again. Not just the concept — they used exactly the same players, with identical fronts and backs. The only difference is that the background color on the inside is red instead of white. (One wonders why they even bothered to change the inside?)
There were real-life player shifts that upended Topps’ team symmetry. Dick Allen had been traded to the Dodgers and Luis Aparicio to the Red Sox (changes reflected in the flagship set), which gave each of those teams two “captains” in the 1971 scratch off set. Mike Hegan still donned his Pilots cap, now more than a year after the team’s demise.
Of course, the team names were not listed on the “card”, there was no checklist, and the one-card-per-team rule was not stated anywhere. So, says Topps, “where is the lie?”
But, you might be thinking, “who cares if every team gets a card?”
For one, Topps very clearly cared. In all of their insert sets in the late 1960s and early 1970s they made sure to have least one card for every team. I assume that the people at Topps thought that kids in Cleveland would like seeing one of their heroes on a 1968 game card (Steve Hargan!), and that Seattle tots would get a kick out of seeing a Pilot on a 1969 deckle-edged card (Tommy Davis!). For kids who rooted for other teams, it gave these little sets a bit of character. The lesson we learned, in cards and in life: not every player, or person, is a Hall of Famer.
In 1970, Topps’ took this honorable stance one step further. For the three 1970 inserts sets I mention above, there were 24 cards in each set, one per team, and Topps used 72 different players.
Topps deserves a great deal of credit for doing this, for balancing the top-flight stars between these three sets, but also for serving children across the land. Isn’t that, I asked plaintively, the point of all this? Future Giants collectors hardly needed another version of three Hall-of-Famers to be, but look at those Angels, or those Brewers, or those Padres. Well done, Topps.
The actual point of all of this is to celebrate that I recently completed my 1970 and 1971 scratch off sets (my final card was the 1971 Stargell). This was more challenging than you would think because most dealers have no idea what the difference is between the two sets, so if you order something listed as a 1971 Aaron you might end up with the 1970 Aaron when the mail comes. Also, eBay listings will not reveal that the inside has been scratched so you really need to see an image for both the inside and outside, and dealers are occasionally annoyed when you ask for this. One person asked, in obvious exasperation , “does it really matter?”
Then once you get all the cards, you might put them in nine-pocket sheets and discover the two sets now look identical. Are you really going to pull out the card, unfold it, and stare lovingly at the black-on-red or black-on-white insides? Call me unromantic if you must, but I suggest that you are not going to do this.
Frankly, there is no good reason to collect either set, let alone both.
Except this. These “cards” were placed in packs in 1970 and 1971, packs that I opened, packs that I loved, packs that made my day on more than one occasion. They remind me of being 9 years old, when baseball cards were everything to me, and when Topps seemed for all the world to be focused on the needs and desires of me and fellow 9 year olds throughout the land. That version of me is gone, and so is that version of Topps.
But with these silly little scratch off cards, 48 in all, I can pretend that we are both alive and well.
I attended just one game at “old” Yankee Stadium, before the extensive remodel shut it down for two years. That game was on Sunday, June 7, 1970, notable because it was Bat Day. (The above photo is from that game, according to website from which I borrowed it.) I grew up two hours away, in Connecticut, and Bat Day was the major draw for a few busloads of local families that my father’s company organized. I was 9 years old, and what I most remember about the game (a 4-3 White Sox win in 12 innings) is the majesty of the Stadium (when compared with Fenway Park, the only other venue I had experienced), and the crowd: 65,880, the largest baseball gathering I will likely ever witness.
This all came to mind a few days ago when Lindy McDaniel passed away. McDaniel pitched for 21 years and was one of the great relief pitchers of his time, a time when relievers were deployed much differently than they are today. In my 1970 game, he pitched the final 5 innings, allowing just the single run in the 12th to lose. There were only four pitchers used in the game, in fact: Fritz Peterson (7 innings) and McDaniel (5) for the Yankees; Tommy John (9) and Wilbur Wood (3) for the White Sox.
I recall being struck by how hard McDaniel was throwing. Granted, this was my second live game, and the other three pitchers in the game were crafty southpaws. But I vividly recall the crack of Thurman Munson’s mitt, remarked upon by the children of Southeastern Connecticut.
Anyhow, after McDaniel’s death, my Twitter feed lit up (as per the depressing 2020 custom) with old baseball cards. One of the best McDaniel cards is from 1971 Topps.
I have owned this card for 49 years, but when I looked it over I was struck by the large crowd, coming at a time with the Yankees did not draw well. And it hit me: this *might* be the very game I attended. There is not much to go on–McDaniel pitched 28 games at Yankee Stadium, likely half during the day. The best evidence is the crowd–the Yankees averaged around 12,000 fans per game, and rarely saw a crowd like this down the left field line. So, it’s possible.
In 1971 Topps used photos from actual games for the first time (on their base player cards), a total of 52 photos taken at either Yankee Stadium or Shea Stadium. Why this had not occurred to me in 49 years I cannot say, but a couple of days ago I decided to check out the other Yankees and White Sox “action” cards to see if I could find possible matches for my game.
Of the nine Yankee action cards, four of them clearly show an opponent that is not the White Sox: Thurman Munson (A’s), Gene Michael (Angels), Curt Blefary (A’s), and Jake Gibbs (Indians). Three do not show an opponent: McDaniel, Danny Cater, and Fritz Peterson. And two clearly show the White Sox: Ron Woods and Roy White.
Woods turns out to be the key card in this story, because my June 7 game is the only time he batted against the White Sox during a 1970 day game. Unless this is from a prior year (highly unlikely), I witnessed this plate appearance. What’s more, our seats were on the first base side at ground level up behind the dugout–so this is roughly the angle I had. Bonus clue: someone in crowd (at the far right, just above the dugout) is holding up a bat.
The Roy White card is from the same game–though the angle is slightly different, if you look closely you can see some of the same people in the crowd behind the Chicago dugout. Duane Josephson is behind the mask in both photos.
So that’s two cards from my game. Let’s look at the two White Sox action cards from the 1971 set.
Tommy John pitched just one game in Yankee Stadium that season, so this becomes our third match. This looks to be the same angle as our McDaniel card above (which may or may not be from this game), though (based on the shadowing) perhaps from a couple of hours earlier.
McCraw played first base in three 1970 day games at Yankee Stadium, but the other two games had crowds of 10,000 and 9,000 people; the packed bleachers out in distant centerfield makes it almost certain this is the June 7 game. That makes four cards. (The baserunner looks to be Gene Michael–the Stick had two singles and walk in this game. This photo was likely taken after his ninth inning single; his earlier walk loaded the bases; and his later single was after McCraw had moved to right field.)
For completeness, I will show the two other Yankee action cards (other than McDaniel) that do not show an opponent.
Not much to go on here. The key is whether these crowds look like sell outs, which the blurry background kind of obscures.
I generally do not play the role of card sleuth, which others have done so well. (Example: Ten cards from the same game?) The early 1970s is ripe for this sort of investigation, since Topps did not crop very well in those early action days. This left a lot of clues on the card to help place the game, or even the play.
I find it very satisfactory to discover color photos from a game I attended 50 years ago, the only game I ever saw at the original House that Ruth Built, in a card set I have studied as much as any I have ever owned. (The next time I went to Yankee Stadium was post-remodel, a Tiger game in 1977. I suppose I need to study the 1978 Topps set next?)
As for Lindy McDaniel, who started off this post, I hope he rests in peace, and left the world knowing how much pleasure he gave kids like me all those years ago.
I have been buying vintage Topps cards for 40 years (since I first walked into a “baseball card shop”), sometimes one or two at a time, sometimes in lots. There have been long stretches of inactivity for a year or five, as I dealt with jobs and children and whatnot, stretches where my cards were in moving crates, unseen for months at a time.
Acknowledging that everyone in this hobby gets to make their own rules, I have learned a few things along the way that might help others as you consider your own paths.
Set CollectingLesson #1: Vintage cards are not a good investment, using any reasonable definition of that term.
I can only speak to post-1950 cards, so feel free to save for college on pre-war cards. According to the January 1991 Beckett guide, the 1965 Topps set (Near Mint) was selling for $3,300, which is $6,300 in 2020 dollars. The most recent Beckett Vintage Collector (thanks @nightowlcards) lists the set for $5,000. The 1967 Topps set has performed even worse, from $4500 ($8600 in today’s dollars) to $5000.
Vintage cards exploded in the 1980s, seeing a ten-fold increase in value, but have severely lagged inflation in the subsequent three decades. There are certainly individual cards that have increased in real value, but good luck figuring that out.
In my young adult years, coinciding with the 1980s boom, I filled in my early 1970s childhood sets and then moved backwards. From 1985 to 2010 I completed back to 1964, with the bulk of that time (and money) spent on 1966 and 1967. I continued to accumulate earlier (pre-1964) cards, content that set completion might never happen. By 2018, I had between 62% and 98% of the 1956 through 1963 sets. Even then, I was not committed to finishing any of them and occasionally contemplated selling one or more of the near-sets.
In May 2019, the Baseball Hall of Fame opened its new permanent exhibit celebrating baseball cards. I had helped with some of the exhibit planning, and I was trying to justify the expense of flying across the country to attend (while also rounding up several card friends to join me). My solution: abandon my 1959 and 1960 sets, by selling off my star cards. 1960 is my least favorite vintage Topps set, and while I like 1959 a bit more, I decided that going to Cooperstown was more important.
I got more than enough money to fund the trip, and it was it was an absolute blast from beginning to end. Looking forward to our next group “meeting” — Chicago 2021? Do I miss my 1959 and 1960 cards? Honestly, not really.
A few months ago, spending day after day shut in the house and having no other extra-curricular outlets, I again took stock of my collection. I now had the majority for six sets (1956-58, 1961-63) , rather than eight.
I decided to push forward.
Set CollectingLesson #2: Try not to stock up on commons and leave the stars for the end. (A variation of this, which I read over this past weekend: Until you get the Mantle, you aren’t really committed. Fortunately, I had all six Mantle base cards.)
It feels great to say you have half of the 1967 set but (assuming completion is your goal) you want to think of “half” as meaning “half the value.” If you have no high numbers and still need Mantle, Mays, Clemente, and Aaron, you don’t actually have half the set. You have 15% of the set. I have made a concerted effort over the years to mix this up–if I was buying a 100-card lot of 1963 commons, I’d try to add Aaron and Koufax to the pile to stay in balance.
After revealing in an unrelated blog post that I needed just 22 cards from the 1956 set (and no big stars), a few SABR friends (including Chris Kamka and Dixie Tourangeau) contacted me to ask what I needed. And just like that–I was down to 15. (Have I mentioned how incredible SABR is?) Over the next few weeks, having been sufficiently nudged, I spent some time on eBay and bought the missing cards. On August 11, card #251 (Yankees team) arrived and I was finished. My first completed vintage set in more than a decade, and one of the most popular in Topps history.
Set CollectingLesson #3: Don’t forget the team cards, especially the New York teams.
Because I had always considered team cards to be “commons”, and because they never showed up as commons when I was buying, my “need list” included a lot of team cards. The Yankees and Dodgers teams are priced like star cards.
About this time, another SABR friend sent me 100 cards from the 1950s–what he had saved of his childhood collection. It was an extraordinary act of kindness, one I plan to repay once the pandemic is over. Some were beat up, but many were not, and all are wonderful.
I now had five targets (1957-1958 and 1961-1963), each of which would require several hundred dollars (at least) to finish off. Candidly, I was contemplating abandoning one or more other sets in order to acquire the funds to carry on. Instead, I decided to take the long overdue step of reducing some of my excess cards and memorabilia.
Over the past few months, I have sold a lot of material, including
the last several years of Topps Heritage
all of my remaining 1959/60 cards
vintage baseball doubles (stars and lots)
some older oddball stuff that I never looked at
My collection is considerably smaller than it was in July, and my office shelving has become considerably neater.
As my sales were starting to pile up I had an exchange of DMs with Jeff Katz (@splitseason1981). I told him that I was struggling with (for example) selling a stack of baseball cards for $300 and then buying other cards for $300 without thinking “Why am I spending $300 on baseball cards?” He urged me to think of them as “very long trades.”
Set CollectingLesson #4 (via Jeff Katz): Using card sales to fund other card sales is properly justified as a trade, not a betrayal of the family budget.
This proved to be a crucial reframing. I will spare you the details, but since late July my PayPal balance has repeatedly grown, and has been repeatedly cashed in. I have not kept precise track of this, but it was essentially a break even enterprise for three months. This has slowed down, because I have run out of excess to sell. I have been glancing suspiciously at some of my old board games, but have thus far resisted.
So, how’d I do?
I needed 12 cards, but unfortunately one of them was #547.
The 1963 Topps Pete Rose card (#547) is just awful. When considering its ugliness and its market price I could argue that it is the worst baseball card in the hobby. (I wrote about this before.) The “rookie card” phenomenon began in the early 1980s at a time when Rose was the biggest name in baseball, and that status in combination with the card being in the final series, made his card skyrocket. The card might have cost $1 in the late 1970s, but it was $500 in the 1986 Beckett guide (in 2020 dollars, $1175).
Employing Lesson #4, I built up some funds, searched for a few weeks for something in my price range at an acceptable condition (VG?), and bit the bullet. The other cards came along and I wrapped up the set on August 27.
Imagine lookin at this page, knowing nothing about card “values” and choosing the Rose card ahead of the Clemente just below it? Seriously, people?
I needed 106 cards, and this proved to be the most difficult ($$) of the sets I was pursuing. While I had followed Lesson #2 by having nearly all the stars (exception: Juan Marichal rookie), I had done a relatively poor job with the high numbers, the special subsets, and the Yankees. I had not consciously avoided the Yankees, but when I was buying commons for 50 cents years ago, or $1 more recently, there were never any Yankees at that price.
The 1961 Yankees are a popular team with their fans, a championship team that featured a famous home run chase. Not only do you have the base cards of Mantle, Maris, Ford and Berra to contend with, you also have to pay a premium for Bill Stafford and Bob Cerv. What’s more, the subsets are littered with Yankees: the MVP set includes Mantle, Maris and Berra; the World Series cards feature Mantle, Ford and Richardson; the Baseball Thrills has cards for Mantle, Ruth, Gehrig and Don Larsen. I am generally a “base card” person, so I dislike paying premium prices for a Baseball Thrills card. But here I was.
This all culminates, of course, in the excellent All-Star subset of 22 cards, in the final series, that includes Mantle, Maris, Ford and Skowron (plus Mays, Aaron, Banks, etc.) If you are Yankee fan, I’d recommend cashing in everything you own and focusing on the 1961 set. If you are not, good luck, but … it’s a truly outstanding set.
Sorry for the lighting in my office.
When Ron Perranoski showed up on September 14, the set was conquered.
I needed 74 and found a way to buy 36 at once to put this set in my sights.
Several years ago I made a giant spreadsheet listing all the cards I needed in various sets, and for the last eight cards of the 1962 set I typed “591 Rookie Parade”, “592 Rookie Parade”, etc. Which was accurate! None of them were big stars so I didn’t bother to list the player names. Each card contained 4 or 5 floating player heads, cards that I was predisposed to dislike. If I saw them at a show over the years, I am sure I just skipped right by.
It turns out that these eight cards are a Who’s Who of 1960s cult heroes, which makes them premium cards in a premium series. Sudden Sam McDowell, Dick (The Monster) Radatz, Bob Uecker, Bob Veale, Jim Bouton, Bo Belinsky, Ed (The Glider) Charles, Joe Pepitone, Phil (Harmonica) Linz, Rod Kanehl, Jim Hickman. My own fault, obviously, but seeing those prices on eBay one day was a bit off-putting.
It took quite a few vintage card sales to build up the balance for these floating heads. On October 2, the mailman dropped off #502, a gorgeous Hector Lopez, and the set was conquered.
The 1957 Topps sets is one of the most important sets in baseball card history. It was the first to use the 2.5″ x 3.5″ size, which remains the standard 63 years later, and its simple design allows the gorgeous photography to dominate the face of the card. In my humble opinion, it is the second best set of Topps’ monopoly years.
While so many Topps vintage sets are beset with a challenging final series, in 1957 the tough series is actually the fourth (of five) series (265-352). Back in July, I needed 147 cards to finish this set, and nearly half of those were from series 4. Because I have always loved this set, I had picked up most of the stars over the years.
Having held my nose already to pay for the 1963 Rose, the next toughest card in my quest proved to be the 1957 #328 Brooks Robinson. Hall of Famer, rookie card, tough series, it checked all the boxes. Although everyone loves Brooks, and I love Brooks, it is not a particularly attractive card (especially obvious in such a stunning set) and I personally don’t value rookie cards. So, how much should I pay? I actually spent a few weeks finding and rejecting options, and was prepared to walk away from the set entirely if this card could not fall in my price range.
Set CollectingLesson #5: Figure out what card condition you need.
My core childhood sets (1967-71) are at least EX-MT, maybe Near Mint, not that I know what that means exactly. I have spent quite a bit of energy going through the sets and upgrading them if I noticed a corner defect I had not previously seen. As I started to move backwards in my collecting focus 30 years ago, the hobby was putting more and more of a premium on condition, and I had to modify my standards if I was going to have any success. Without really understanding card grading, I discovered that the condition I wanted was:
centered enough so that you don’t notice centering at a glance
no creases/wrinkles/scarring on the main image; wrinkles near the edge are of less importance
nice corners preferred, but some rounding OK if eye is not drawn to it
As we venture back in time ($$) my standards become looser, but all of the above principles are how I ultimately would score the card. Obviously, I would prefer the card be perfect, but my sweet spot (judging by eBay listings) is VG-EX, though I have found VG and even Good examples that meet my criteria and save me a lot of money.
I don’t buy graded cards as a rule. When I do it is because the card is at a good price based on my own personal criteria. I remember the early days of eBay when people would buy/sell without photos, but with the photo quality today I feel like I know what I am getting. I have bought a few cards that had a flaw that I had not seen, but nothing egregious.
My main objections to graded cards are: (1) you generally pay a premium for something I don’t care about, and (2) they screw up my card storage.
I bring this up because I bought a few graded 1957 cards and now I don’t know what to do with them. I have cracked a few PSA cases in my day, so I suppose that is what will happen but I have not yet taken this step.
This Brooks Robinson is worse than I normally want, but it represents great value for me because its flaws are in the 5% of the surface I care least about. If it had sharp corners but a crease on Brooks’s neck it would get a higher grade but I would had much less interest.
My final 1957 card (#306, Darrel Johnson) arrived on October 6.
I love the 1958 set, though I am not sure precisely why. After the majestic photography of 1957, Topps switched gears and used either a head or body shot on a solid background, a model they have never used before or since. (The next year they split the difference by showing a little background within a keyhole circle–this does not work as well for me, though others seems to love it.)
In July I needed 189 cards from 1958, but a lot of them were commons which you can find in U-pick lots, and there is no really tough series. This is actually a pretty easy set to put together if you have the stars (which I did). I had to hunt for the Roger Maris rookie card, which proved much easier than I had feared.
One of the last cards I needed was #340 Don Newcombe. I bought a copy of the card on eBay in late August (before most of the above sets were finished) and a few weeks later it had not arrived. Understanding that the postal service is imperfect, I wrote to the seller, got no response, wrote again, no response, and finally requested a refund through eBay. I got the refund and bought another card. Too late, I realized I used the same seller! And, believe or not, the same thing happened again. I have no idea whether the guy ever sent either card–I got both refunds, and neither card ever showed up. I finally ordered from someone else.
On November 1, 9 weeks after ordering the card, I finally got Newcombe.
And I was done. Six finished sets in three months, stored horizontally a few feet away.
Set CollectingLesson #6: Vintage cards are not a good investment, BUT putting money into vintage cards does not carry much risk.
Think of this way: you could buy a really nice 1957 Willie Mays for $400, put it in a frame on your office desk, and if you got sick of it in five years you could sell it and get most or all of your money back. With eBay and other on-line businesses available, the price of buying and later selling is pretty low.
And, importantly: you get to have a 1957 Willie Mays on your desk for five years. Assuming you don’t damage the card, you are merely borrowing it for a time.
One of my favorite Joe Morgan stories is one I first came upon in Joe Posnanski’s book on the Reds (The Machine, 2009). In a 1975 game against the Giants, Morgan doubled off of Charlie Williams. When the pitcher threw the next pitch in the dirt and Morgan saw the ball roll away from catcher Marc Hill, he sprinted towards third only to stop suddenly 20 feet from the bag. Hill, sensing an opportunity, gunned his throw to third but wild, and Morgan scampered home.
In the clubhouse after the game, Morgan explained that he had deliberately stopped running to draw a throw which he thought might go wild. The Giants players were livid, calling Morgan an arrogant son-of-a-bitch for disparaging their catcher. Morgan, believing arrogance to be a necessary quality in a star, was thrilled. He had gotten in their heads, which was his plan.
“If Joe keeps up his current pace,” said his manager, Sparky Anderson, “he’ll be dead in another month.”
Many complimentary words have been written about Joe Morgan, the player, since his death last week, and there is no need to gild the lily here. Suffice it to say that I believe Morgan to have been one of the two greatest players of the 1970s (along with his teammate, Johnny Bench), and the greatest second baseman to ever play the game.
Today, I am here to praise his baseball cards.
A couple of things are very striking about Morgan’s cards. First, so many of them are spectacular–he was a good looking man his entire life, but never more so than on a baseball field. And second, his cards are remarkably affordable compared with contemporaries of comparable or lesser accomplishment. You could buy 10 of his rookie cards (1965) for the price of a single rookie card for Pete Rose, Tom Seaver, Johnny Bench, or Nolan Ryan. And none of his later cards have price tags that reflect his stature in the game’s history.
You can actually tell the story of Topps baseball cards using Morgan as a central figure. His 1966 and 1967 cards are fine specimens of those classic Topps sets–posed photos of a player doing baseball things, with easily recognizable faces. Beautiful.
I bought my first cards in 1967 but I do not believe I saw this Morgan card until a few years later. Which means that my first Morgan cards were these two.
These Morgan card were, as you all likely know, the victim of two unrelated problems: the MLBPA boycott, and Topps’ dispute with the Astros over the use of their name and logo. The latter led to the hatless, uniform-less image, and the former to Topps using this uninspiring image a second time.
It got better the next year.
The card above left, from 1970, is one of my all-time favorites. The ending of the disputes referenced above allowed many kids across America to see these glorious uniforms for the first time. In addition, what we later learned about Joe’s dissatisfaction with his years playing for Harry Walker (being asked to bunt, chop the ball on the ground, etc.) is well captured here, as is Joe’s sour expression. (Good times were coming, Joe.)
In 1971 Topps (above right) first dabbled in action shots, and Morgan was one of their test subjects. Presumably, he is roping a base hit in this gorgeous image.
In 1972 Topps introduced “Traded” cards for the first time, limiting the feature to just seven players who received a second card showing them on their new team. Both of the Morgan cards are excellent, highlighted by Morgan’s well-lit face and his new sideburns.
By the mid-1970s, Topps’ card sets were a mix of action and posed shots, and they would remain so for 20 years. Kids who got Joe Morgan cards in their pack were getting a superstar, one of the game’s best players, a two-time MVP. Whether he was posing, or vaulting out of the batter’s box, Joe Morgan was a card you wanted in your stack.
Joe Morgan’s career had three acts. At the start were 6 full seasons with the Astros as an under-appreciated player, occasionally a star. He finished in the top five in walks every year, an accomplishment no one noticed, stole a lot of bases, made a couple of All-Star teams. His second act was his first 5 years with the Reds (1972-76), when he was as valuable as Willie Mays or Mike Trout, and played for one of history’s greatest and most glamorous teams (The Big Red Machine). Finally, he finished up with 8 years as a very good player, making a positive contribution all the way to the end. The Silver Slugger award was introduced in 1980, and Morgan won it in 1982 at age 38. Had the award come long earlier, of course, he could have won a dozen.
The Topps monopoly ended in 1981, and it is fun to look at some of Morgan’s cards from this era, at a time when he was changing teams almost every year.
A sampling of his Donruss cards:
Morgan returned to the Astros for one season (1980), and helped them to their first division title. The next year we got this gorgeous shot of Joe at Wrigley Field, and one is struck that Joe looked very much like this for 20 years. He moved to the Giants in 1981, and almost led them to a pennant the next year, then was back in the World Series with the 1983 Phillies. None of this was surprising, nor was Joe vaulting out of the box on his 1984 Donruss card.
Now for some Fleer cardboard:
Not surprisingly, 1981 Joe looked great in Houston’s “Tequila Sunrise” togs, just as he had in their glorious late 1960s uniform. The 1983 Joe looks a little more serious, and his 1985 Fleer (he retired at the end of the 1984 season), he looks like peak Joe Morgan about to lace a double to left-center.
Morgan was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1990 with 81.8% of the vote. I understand none of this matters–he’s an all-time great, beloved by historians and fans and statheads. Still: what exactly were the 18.2% thinking? Joe Morgan doesn’t get your vote?
Joe went on to great success as a sportscaster, was a respected executive with the Hall of Fame, and was admired by all of his former teammates and opponents and apparently everyone else. Sparky Anderson said he was the smartest player he ever saw. Johnny Bench said he was the best player he ever saw. That’s not nothing.
I rooted against Joe Morgan in the All-Star game every year, though I knew that the National League was better and that Morgan played a brand of baseball of which my team was unfamiliar. (Morgan was on 10 All-Star teams, and his side won all 10 games). I also rooted against Morgan in the 1975 World Series, and his game winning single into centerfield in the top of the 9th inning of Game 7 broke my heart.
But none of that matters now, as we mourn yet another hero in this Godforsaken year. I just remember the greatness.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
I 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.
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
What more needs to be said, at this juncture, about Bill Travers?
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.