Whither the Astros?

One of the unresolved (to me, at least) mysteries from collecting baseball cards from the late 1960s was how Topps handled the Houston Astros. As you likely know, the Houston expansion team was known as the Colt .45s for its first three seasons (1962-64) before becoming the Astros in 1965, coinciding with their move into the brand new Astrodome that April. Houston tried grass for a year, before contracting with Monsanto to install artificial turf (soon known as “Astroturf”) in 1966. That much we know.

armour-part04-1966-robinsonfrankTopps made a point in this period of trying to never show a player in the “wrong” uniform; if a guy was traded from the Reds to the Orioles early enough in the off-season, Topps could correctly move him to the Orioles but would not yet have a photo of him with his new uniform. Instead they would use a headshot with no hat, or with the hat logo blackened out, or some other solution that would protect young kids from the horror seeing Frank in his old Reds togs. Of course kids could usually tell, but at least they tried. In the 1960s this was a particular problem, because there were 8 expansion teams and 5 franchise moves between 1961 and 1971. This led to a lot of blackened or missing hats.

Which brings us back to the Houston Astros.

In 1965, Topps did not react to the Houston name change right away, referring to the team as “Houston” in the early series (and showing the old .45s hats) and “Houston Astros” (with no visible old logo) thereafter.

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But for the next two years (1966 and 1967) Topps put out two great sets and treated the Astros with dignity — the correct name, the correct hats and uniforms. Problem over?

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Not so fast.

In 1968, suddenly the name Astros was not used on either the front or back of any of the cards, nor were the hats or uniforms shown. (The cards for the other 19 teams used the team nickname, not the city.) I was 7 at the time and an avid collector, but I did not really take notice of the missing Astros name until a few years ago. I spent some time tryi86d0f5e8620b13e1f37a5a5ae38ee092ng to figure out why this happened, contacting Topps, former Topps employees, the Astros historian, Rusty Staub, and several knowledgeable bloggers. The most common reaction was. “I can’t believe I never noticed that.”

The most plausible explanation I have heard is that Monsanto was in a dispute with the Astros over the use of the name — though the baseball team used the name first, it was Monsanto that actually trademarked it (says the theory). Topps, seemingly uninvolved, took the cautious approach and decided to avoid using the name.

When this was going on I was already a rabid card collector — especially the cards of my beloved Red Sox. If I had grown up in Houston following the Astros, collecting an entire team’s worth of bland hatless logoless cards like this Jim Wynn card, might I have turned to other pursuits? Maybe 166083become a productive citizen?

The Astros did not stop using the name, nor the logo, nor did they or Major League Baseball stop authorizing the use of the logo to other entities. Dexter Press came out with a beautiful set of postcard-sized cards in 1968 and had several gorgeous Astros photos (like this one of Joe Morgan). If I was a kid in Houston, I would have found these a better option.

In 1969 Topps again avoided the name Astros, and avoided the uniform in the first three series. Starting with Series Four, sometime around June, the uniform finally returned (though not the name). The dispute, whatever it was, had been resolved, but Topps likely decided to keep the team name consistent throughout the set.

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Topps finally restored the Astros to full citizenship in 1970, giving many of us our first good look at the Astros uniform, especially these gorgeous home unis, in several years. It was great for me, but for the kids of Houston, Texas, it must have been glorious.

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Natalie Wood and Ron Swoboda

I have shared this story before, but not yet with this group. People who know me know that I love movies and I love baseball. For the most part these interests do not overlap — One day I’ll watch a movie, and the next day I’ll watch a baseball game, but rarely can I do both at the same time.

About a year ago I was watching Penelope, a delightful madcap romp from 1966 starring Natalie Wood, one of my favorite actresses from the past. I had never seen the movie before.  And then, this scene, with Wood and Peter Falk, happened.

 

You can see enough of the wrapper (time 0:45 to 0:55) and the card backs (1:33 to 1:45) to confirm that this was a pack of 1966 Topps cards. This was also the first year that Ron Swoboda got a card to himself.

The entire movie is fun, but this scene alone is priceless. This is the card that Penelope found at the top of her pack.

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“The Baseball Card Song”

Many of you likely know of the great band The Baseball Project.  Their members include several wonderful rock musicians who gained their fame in other bands, including Scott McCaughey, Steve Wynn, Linda Pitmon, Peter Buck and Mike Mills.  I could go and on, and I might at some point, but they write and perform songs about baseball, and they have made four great records.  I have seen them live four times.

Their most recent record (called The 3rd) came out in 2014 (guys, its time), and includes a fantastic song about collecting baseball cards that speaks to my young adult years rather pointedly.

I can’t find a video performance on-line, but here is the audio.  Have a listen, and then buy the CD/record.  Then buy the rest of them.

Josh Wilker’s Cardboard Gods

One of my favorite blogs is Josh Wilker’s Cardboard Gods.  Josh takes a different slant than most baseball card blogs, which are mainly nostalgia.  Josh uses one card to help tell some (often quite personal, sometimes funny and/or emotional) story about his own life, or about the world around him.

Several years ago he took some of his blog content, added several new entries, and turned out a book, also called Cardboard Gods. I highly recommend the book as well.

Note that we have a Blogroll over to the lower right.  If you have any other blogs that are worthy of promotion via SABR’s Baseball Cards committee, let’s add them.  Also, feel free to post about them as well.

— Mark

 

Bruce Markusen’s Card Corner

For those of you who don’t know, Bruce Markusen writes a column devoted to baseball cards (usually focusing on a single card) for the Hall of Fame web site.  He has a new entry today, which is on the 1968 Don Mincher card.

Bruce is a member of this committee, but even if he wasn’t I would recommend giving his column a read.  At the very bottom of the page there are some links to earlier entries, but you might need Google to find the rest.

— Mark