The Say Hey Kid: Willie is the Greatest

I have often said that I learned baseball from baseball cards. I learned the teams, and everything important about the players. I learned what they looked like, their statistical record, how tall they were, where they were born, and — if Topps was feeling whimsical — whether they liked rock ‘n roll records or bowling.

Its different today, of course. Kids today don’t need baseball cards to learn about the players — its all on-line, and if they want to dig deeper they can reach out to the players on Instagram.

In this post (and hopefully a few others) I am going to go through Willie Mays’s baseball cards and imagine what a child of the 1950s (or later) would have learned with these as his or her primary source. I will only consider the major flagship sets, at least for now, although I reserve the right to cheat if the mood strikes.

Most of Mays career was before my card collecting days, but there might be people out there for whom this exercise is more than hypothetical. Let’s give it a try.

1951 Bowman

Mays51BowmanFront    Mays51BowmanBack

Mays looks like a big strong guy, though he is actually not particularly big. (This is the same height and weight on baseball-reference.com today. Ordinarily I would scoff, but Mays honestly looked the same size for 23 years.)

Mays did not get called up until late May 1951, but Bowman had his accurate minor league details (.477!) and got this card onto store shelves later in the summer. His stint in the Negro Leagues in 1948 is not mentioned, but his brief pedigree was still quite impressive.

1952 Bowman

Mays52BowmanFront    Mays52BowmanBack

Once again Bowman put out this card late enough that they could mention his late May army induction. We now learn his birthdate for the first time, and that he has shrunk 1/2 inch. Most importantly, the card implies a bit of his major league ability, with his “sensational fielding plays” and that he would be missed “throughout the league.” Both very true.

1952 Topps

Mays52Front    Mays52Back

Topps reported Mays had won the 1951 Rookie of the Year award, a fact Bowman had not mentioned. Like Bowman, Topps’ 1952 Mays card came out late enough so that his army induction shows up. Topps had both his major league (1951 only) and minor league (parts of 1950 and 1951) records — including defense, which Topps eventually shunned. Also, we learned that Mays had brown hair and brown eyes, which you might think kids would not care about. You would be wrong.

1953 Topps

Mays53Front     Mays53Back

This was our first look at Mays’ entire body, and he looks as if he is fielding a base hit and is about to unleash a throw to third base to knock out the foolish base runner. We also get a look at his autograph — Mays has signed thousands of times in the years since, and this actually does look quite a bit like his later autograph.

Other than recording Mays’ brief 5-week stint with the 1952 Giants (before he went in the Army) there was not much for Topps to report. Their claim that Mays’ induction was a big reason why they failed to win the pennant holds up — they finished just 4 1/2 game behind the Dodgers, a gap one can imagine Mays making up.

Also, how do kids of today learn that Lou Gehrig was “The Iron Horse”? This seems a crucial part of a child’s education, but I can see this factoid falling through the cracks.

1954 Bowman

Mays54BowmanFront     Mays54BowmanBack

It has always been remarkable to me how much of an impression Mays made on baseball at a young age, before his statistical record made his greatness obvious. He was already “the greatest young fielder there is” after just 155 major league games, and his return for 1954 (he had missed the entire 1953 season) was considered by some enough to catch a Dodger team that had finished 35 games ahead of them. That is respect.

The quiz answer (George Sisler) held up for another 50 years, until Ichiro Suzuki’s 261 hits in 2004.

1954 Topps

Mays54Front     Mays54Back

In my view this is the first great Mays card. For the first time this handsome man was smiling, and the card back is spectacular. The cartoon panels refer to a 1951 catch he made off of Carl Furillo and the subsequent throw to cut down Billy Cox at home. This is the same catch Bowman mentions on their card, though Topps’ version is much more dramatic. Also of note, Mays has gained five pounds, probably all muscle.

One thing I could have mentioned earlier. All of his early baseball cards claim that he was born in Fairfield, Alabama. Actually Mays was born in nearby Westfield but was raised in Fairfield. This was likely an unimportant distinction to most people, even Mays, but there you have it.

1955 Topps

Mays55BowmanFront     Mays55BowmanBack

Many of the 1955 Bowman photographs were taken too far away for my taste, but the Mays photo is spectacular. For the first time, the effusive text on the back can not be brushed off as hyperbole — Mays had his first superstar season at age 23, and Bowman could therefore pick and choose which amazing statistics to highlight. The first four words — “Willie is the greatest” — could have suffice, but they had space to fill.

1955 Topps

Mays55Front     Mays55Back

Topps was also up to the task of praising Mays, and used some of their real estate to mention the catch he had made in Game 1 of the recent World Series. Notice that Topps did a much better job of using the space on the back, as they had all the text and numbers that Bowman had and still had room to tell us that Sam Crawford had the all-time triples record. (He still does.)

1956 Topps

Mays56Front  Mays56Back

Topps used the same primary photo for three years running. After a few seasons at 175 pounds, a healthy post-Army diet has helped Willie return to his rookie weight. In addition, for the first time we learn that Willie lives in New York, this information replacing his birthplace on the back of his baseball cards. By this time, Mays has so many things one could brag about that Topps’ challenge was to pick amongst them. He *loves* to make impossible catches, and he apparently did so nonchalantly. Likely true.

1957 Topps

Mays57Front     Mays57Back

For the first time, Topps used beautiful color photography for its card set, and the Mays card could hang in the Louvre. Also for the first time, kids got a statistical line for everyone’s entire professional career. Consider for a moment the work it must have taken for the staff at Topps to produce a baseball card like this for 400 (and later more) players. The elimination of defensive statistics (at least for now) is no big loss, honestly.

You will notice that Mays’ birthplace is now Westfield, correcting a mistake made on his 1951-55 cards. Topps seems a little sheepish about Mays’s reduced 1956 batting output, but highlights the 40 steals as a way to soften the blow. Still, what’s not to love?

1958 Topps

Mays58FrontMays58Back

The Giants moved to San Francisco in 1958 and Mays — despite this card being part of the first series — had already moved his home? Topps had to employ a bit of trickery to draw the “SF” on Mays’s cap, made a bit easier with the upturned bill.

After one year of an expanded statistical record, Topps returned to their 1956 format of one year plus career, and re-added fielding stats. The left cartoon seems to imply that Mays was the *first* player ever to hit 20 doubles, triples and home runs. In fact he was the fourth such player (Frank Schulte, Jim Bottomley, Jeff Heath), and it has happened thrice since (George Brett, Jimmy Rollins, Curtis Granderson). Still impressive.

Mays58FenceBustersFront     Mays58FenceBustersBack

For the first time Mays was featured on a non-base card, and yes I am going to show these cards too. Although Mays seems to be checking out Snider’s muscles, Topps spends more ink on Mays’ accomplishments. I especially like the part about “practically” making a great catch every day.

Mays58AllStarFront     Mays58AllStarBack

In Topps’ 1958 All-Star subset, they showed Mays’ performance against each of his seven opponents. The Pirates gave him the most trouble, a rare bright spot for an otherwise poor team. The text was apparently written by SPORT magazine rather than Topps, giving us a fresh set of superlatives. “Most electrifying.” It is telling that Mays’ extraordinary offense is often an afterthought in the praise.

1959 Topps

Mays59Front    Mays59Back

Honestly, what could be better than a cartoon of a thieving Mays being chased by a policeman with a nightstick? You might have noticed that on his 1954 card Topps tried (I think) to make Mays a black man, whereas they did not here. I am likely making way too much of this, but is it possible that Topps did not want to show a white cop chasing a black man with a club in 1959? My recollection from later years is that players were all white (or colorless).

Mays59HittingStarsFront     Mays59HittingStarsBack

Topps does a pretty good job making Mays and Ashburn into comparable stars. I am not complaining, this is appropriate on a card like this.

Mays59BaseballThrillsFront     Mays59BaseballThrillsBack

In 1959 Topps created a Baseball Thrills subset, and Mays’ catch got its own card. The Catch had been mentioned on his 1955 Topps card, but these three spectacular photos do a better job of showing kids what all the fuss was about.

Mays59AllStarFront     Mays59AllStarBack

Mays’ fourth card of the 1959 set is the first time his enduring nickname shows up. It was nice to see Topps focus on Mays offense for a change, if only for his .318 career batting average. The only active player with a higher average? Stan Musial at .340.

OK, this gets us through the 1950s, when both Topps and Mays took over the game. Until next time.

 

 

 

Spring 2019: (Sort of) Mark Your Calendars

National-Baseball-Hall-of-Fame0-f989cee95056a36_f989d01c-5056-a36a-0708e425a78aa7b7There is nothing like a visit to Cooperstown, New York, on a nice spring weekend. I have not been in a few years — thinking … gosh, its been since 2013 — because I live a few plane rides away and I have kids and a job and stuff like that. Cooperstown is a fine relaxing town fit for a cold beer, walking around and about, window shopping and immersing yourself in the history of baseball. Little known fact: The Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is there.

The Museum is a wonderful place, as many (most?) of you know. But next spring it will become even more wonderful.

For next spring is when the Baseball Hall of Fame will be unveiling this.

The page I link above was set up as a fund-raiser, but a few days ago I was told that the goal has been met and the permanent exhibit will open in 2019. They are aiming for Memorial Day weekend, when the summer season (and extended hours) kick in, but officially they are only saying “Spring 2019.”

In the past several months, as this exhibit began to crystallize, Chris Dial, Jeff Katz and I have been discussing a gathering of this committee (open to everyone) the weekend (still TBD) of the Grand Opening. What would this gathering entail? Not sure yet, but we envision speakers and events of some sort.

(One possible hiccup is that we also don’t yet know the dates/place of the SABR convention next summer. Obviously we would prefer that these two events be spaced apart.)

It would great if many of you began to think about setting aside a few days to head to Cooperstown next spring. Let’s face it — you’ve been putting off going to the Hall for a few years/decades, always saying “I’ll go next year.” Well, next year is next year.

Sorry for the lack of specifics. We shall keep you informed. If you have bright ideas, pass them on.

SABR 48

Things have been quiet around here of late. Thanks to Jeff Katz for providing content recently while the rest of us (read: me) have been lazy.

I was gone for about two weeks — half of which was spent in Pittsburgh for the SABR conference. Soon after I returned I faced (am still facing, in fact) a couple of house problems (plumbing, if you must know) that have taken up much of my time. It could be worse — I am temporarily out of work, so I have more time to deal with things like this. (There are downsides to being out of work, too, as it happens.)

Our meeting at the SABR conference was another big hit. After our success last year with Keith Olbermann, this year’s guest speaker was Tom Shieber, the senior curator at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Tom gave a delightful presentation on his newspaper research on the “craze” around what later became known as the T-206 tobacco cards. Very illuminating and fun.

While the best parts of the convention is seeing old friends and meeting new friends (either presenting research, or just hanging out) , it can be frustrating because there is so much stuff going on at the same time. On Friday morning, Chris Dial (co-chair of this committee) and Paul Ember (our very own phungo) gave presentations at the same time. After some struggle, I decided to go see Chris speak on statistical measures of defense. On the way in, Chris told me he wanted to go to Paul’s talk too. Chris was great, and Paul’s talk on Andy Warhol got rave reviews and caused several people to head over to Warhol’s museum that day.

When I return home from these conventions I am always amazed at how much I managed to squeeze in. Four Pirates games — one of which was postponed by a torrential downpour — some great attractions in Pittsburgh (the park and city are both wonderful). And, as usual, some great times with some of my favorite people.

1989-topps-baseball-cardsOn the final night (Saturday), several of us retired to the bar for some socializing. Hero Chris Dial brought a box of unopened 1989 Topps wax packs and handed them out in the bar, including packs to people who were not part of SABR at all. When I looked around I was amazed at the people who seemed totally enthralled by the cards, people who might never have held cards in their life. Bringing people together, that’s what we do.

At midnight came the annual meeting of the Baseball Think Factory chapter of SABR. I kind of horned in on this meeting a few years ago and now I just keep showing up. I might be in the group now! Anyhow, we found a bunch of tables and someone tried to maintain order. Meanwhile, Joe Dimino and I started playing “WAR War” with the stacks of 1989 cards laying around.

If you have never heard of WAR War, don’t feel too bad. I sort of made it up on the spot, but I think, like Monopoly or Scrabble, it has a chance to become a craze.

Two players each have a stack of baseball cards, face down. You then flip them over into the center “1-2-3-War!”, so that eight cards (four each) have been flipped. The winner is the player whose 4th card has the most career WAR, and he or she wins the eight cards. Usually it was obvious (George Brett beats Al Nipper) but sometimes judges with smart phones had to get involved. Keep playing until one guy has all the cards, or there is no more beer. I forget who won. (The game could be improved with something like a challenge system to handle non-obvious Wars.)

Bottom line: baseball cards are everywhere at the convention.

See you next year in … San Diego? Chicago? Somewhere else? Stay tuned.

 

Cards on Film: “Mermaids”

Many of you likely know of my passions for both baseball and film. It is often assumed that I therefore must love baseball films — films about the game — but usually I do not. But I do love movies where characters attend baseball games, like Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward do in A New Kind of Love, or when there is an unexpected baseball photo in the background, as in Lauren Bacall’s iconic scene in To Have and Have Not. In the two preceding examples I link to the blog of my friend Tom Shieber because no one knows more about this subject than Tom, and no one is better than Tom at rooting out the details. I love stumbling across the scenes, but often I just pass them off to Tom to let him do all the hard work.

In recent years I have been especially on the lookout for films that use baseball cards in some way. I am not aware of a film in which baseball card collecting is a central theme, but that is really not what I am after. I want the baseball cards or related memorabilia to either be completely random, or perhaps to help us understand the character or the time and place.

My favorite such scene is from Arthur Hiller’s “Penelope” (1966). I have explained this in depth many times, so I will just wait until you read this link. The movie has nothing to do with baseball, or baseball cards, but it is wonderful.

I wrote about a second example last year, “Skipped Parts,” a rather obscure film from 2000. In this movie, the cards are used as evidence that the main character, a 14-year-old boy, is not appropriately growing up. Imagine collecting cards at 14? Incroyable!

I actually enjoy both of those films on their merits. That is not the case with “Poison Ivy” from 1985. I did not think it worthy of a blog post, but last week I linked to it on Twitter and directed people to go to time stamps 1:02:32 and then 1:03:05 (each scene lasts 2 seconds). Two boys are sitting on their camp bed and playing with a box of 1985 Fleer cards.

My latest entry in the Cards on Film Hall of Fame is Richard Benjamin’s “Mermaids” from 1990. The film is principally about a single mother (played by Cher) and her two daughters (Winona Ryder and Christina Ricci, in her debut). The family moves around a lot, for reasons explained, and early in the film they are newly arrived in a small town in Massachusetts. This is the fall of 1963. They soon meet a local shoe store owner (Bob Hoskins) who becomes the fourth principal character in the movie.

The Hoskins character is a big baseball fan, which is the reason I am writing this post. Here is the scene where the family goes shoe shopping.

As they walk into the shoe store the radio is playing a Red Sox game, and the Yankees appear to be the opponent. It sounds like Mickey Mantle might be batting. (After a few seconds the game goes silent, though no one turns the radio off.) More importantly, there are a lot of baseball photos behind the cash register, and several baseball cards — all Red Sox from 1962 and 1963. How many can you pick out?

Later in the film the whole gang is back in the store and you see the cash register from the side. There are even more Red Sox baseball cards.

Hoskins becomes Cher’s love interest, as you likely guessed. She is very reluctant to commit to him or anyone else (a central theme of the film), but as a way of finally giving in just a bit, the entire crew heads to Cooperstown and visits the Baseball Hall of Fame. There is one very brief scene on Main Street and at the museum.

There are lot of talented actors on display, and all of the characters are somewhat quirky. Ryder’s character, who is 16, is the narrator and turns into the central character of the film. Ryder was a pretty big deal in 1990, and this film was part of her meteoric rise. Unfortunately, her character has zero interest in baseball.

But she does go to Cooperstown. How cool is that?

If you have any other nominees for the Hall of Fame, please pass them on and I will investigate. Or you can blog about them yourself.

 

 

My First Baseball “Cards”

ED-U-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.

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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

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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

IMG_0045

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.

IMG_0048

 

Earl Gillespie

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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.

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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.

WAIT, DOESN’T THIS JUST RECREATE WORK OTHER PEOPLE HAVE DONE?

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.

topps1979-201F

 

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.