Leader of My Packs

I like “What If” history and I’ve put my time in to back that up. I was published in a book called Play It Again, with a bit of historical fiction about Sandy Koufax. I wanted to know how Koofoo’s career would have played out had he undergone surgery, so I wrote it. Years later, I created a 52-story series of rock and roll “what ifs” called Maybe Baby (or, You Know That It Would Be Untrue). That was a hoot to write, a self-taught class on different perspectives and styles. I ended up with some worldwide readership on that one.

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My penchant for “what ifs” is why I like Topps Archives (though doesn’t explain why I dislike Heritage). Multiple alternative history cards in one pack? I’m in.  And though Archives packs are expensive as hell, at least where I buy them ($5!), they’re still worth the occasional purchase. If you read my posts, you know I’m a sucker for packs and recently I got a good one.

Frazier 1

1992 Topps is one of the best, simplest designs. It’s right up there with 1957 and 1967 (don’t argue with me). Do I care about Todd Frazier? No. But the Toddfather in a 1992 card elevates his status.

Stargell 2

The Archives card of Pops is better than his regular ’82, not as good as his Action ’82. That’s not to quibble. Pulling a Willie Stargell card out of a 2017 pack is a smile-producer. Over the years I think Stargell has become undervalued, but if you were a fan during his heyday, there were scant few players more highly regarded. None were more loved.

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I didn’t spend a moment thinking about Tony Clark when he played, but I’ve met him several times over the past few years and he is one of my favorite people – smart, engaging, a towering figure that commands your respect in subtle, but real, ways.  A Clark card for his union role? Sign me up! After all, I wrote Split Season about the players’ union battles against Cro Magnon ownership.

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I don’t even want to go into this. I thought I was selling a Judge card high and I turned out to sell it low. It’s no fault of his, but Aaron Judge makes me upset.

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I’ve always collected autographs. Not at the level I’ve collected cards, but I was an incessant letter writer in the 1970’s and still pick up the occasional signed card. Pulling an autograph from a pack is a blast, my mixed Aaron Judge experience notwithstanding, but there are times when it’s a letdown. John Hirschbeck? Why? Where’s the demand for that? The one I pulled is a limited run of 25, but still, are their 25 people who want this?

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Simply a terrific card.

Trout 7

A few months ago I was toe-deep in a 1960 Topps set. Now I’m up to my neck in them (about 100 to go), so the 1960 look is on my mind a lot. The Trout card could fit in to the original set nicely. There’s a falseness to the look of the color picture, but there are lots of 1960’s that aren’t photographic, more like hand painted photos. The black and white action is more kinetic than the usual 1960 static B & W, but it works. And it’s Mike Trout!

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Wrong Seager, great card.

Archives is very good and yet, for all their history and skill and budget, Topps doesn’t do nearly as good a job as the “cards that never were” producers. Chase down whentoppshadballs.blogspot.com, cardsthatneverwere.blogspot.com, @BottommsCards (on Twitter) for some incredibly solid work. Every time these guys post something, it’s like opening a pack of unexpected goodies, and they’re free.

C’mon Get Happy!

Why 1971? Yes, ABC’s Friday night lineup was ( in order, starting at 8 PM EST), The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family, Room 22, The Odd Couple and Love, American Style, but I don’t think that’s it (though, as sung in Dayenu, “It would have been enough.”)

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My reentry into serious collecting started a year and a half ago, when I realized I needed 57 cards to finish what would end up a VG-EX (mostly) 1971 Topps set. As I thought about what other sets I had enough cards to build around, I was pleasantly surprised to find I had 19 of 75 1971 Kellogg’s 3-D cards. Then, last month, out of the blue, I started thinking about the 1971 Topps coins. You can read my sad story about them here, but as with the others, I had a lot of the set (2/3 in fact) and figured it was worth pursuing.

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One of my most favorite things is a complete set of 1971 Dell stamp books. I’ve got them all AND the divisional folders to store them in. I found out about them when I bought the Today’s All Stars book. As with the ’71 Topps coins, 8-year-old me made a dumb decision. I had all the player stamps in their team books, so I figured I could take the All-Stars book apart, removing the perforated player stamps. For what reason? Who the hell knows? They came out of the book and went into a box, where they stayed. It would have been easier to put the intact book in a manila folder with all the rest. Lurking in the back of mind has always been the wish to buy the book and I did, last week. Now I can sell all the individual stamps as a complete set and remove that blight from my memory.

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But, again, why 1971? Why buy the Dell book now, on the heels of completing the Topps set and midstream on completing the Topps Coins and Kellogg’s 3-D sets? Is it as simple as the math, that I had more than enough of each set to go the distance? I don’t think so.

I’m not one for personal nostalgia, for my own golden era or innocent youth, but 1971 is a pivotal year in my life. We moved from Brooklyn in December, from a middle class Canarsie neighborhood where I could walk to P.S. 114 and stop at a candy store called Paulino’s (not sure of the spelling) on Glenwood Ave., a wondrous place of cases full of candy and boxes of 1971 Topps cards, regular and Super. From there, I was transplanted to the middle of Suffolk County, where I had less freedom and was thrust back in time. Believe me, my long curly hair and David Crosbyesque fringe jacket didn’t play well with the Wenonah Elementary School crowd in January of 1972, kids who still had buzz cuts and never had seen a Jew. Not that it was all bad, by any means. I had my own room for the first time, which was liberating, and, within short order, I fell into a nice Long Island groove.

So why 1971? Somewhere in the creases of my brain, there’s a little Jeff Katz who longs for that year, before real life hit the fan. It could be that. Or maybe 54-year-old me simply thinks this is awesome.

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After all, I am a man of simple and consistent taste.

It’s Hard

It can’t be easy being Dick Pole. Here’s a guy who was a major league pitcher for six years, including the 1975 World Series, then became a successful pitching coach, cited by Greg Maddux as a major influence. But his claim to fame is that his name is Dick Pole. Dick Pole! And then to be Dick Pole on the Beavers?  Come on, cut the guy a break.

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There’s a super cool 1981 TCMA Sandy Koufax card from when the great Koofoo was a roving minor league pitching instructor in the Dodger chain. TCMA put him in their Albuquerque Dukes team set but when word got out that they shouldn’t have assumed they had the rights to do so, the card was pulled. It’s not very expensive, $15-20, but it is relatively hard to find.

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I’ve got a bunch of minor league sets, most I picked up in big lots years after they had plummeted from peak value. They’re fun, very goofy, and sometimes you come across a real gem. As I rifled through my 1981 sets, all in alphabetical order by team city, I hit upon this poor schnook.

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You’d think that with a name like Johnson Wood, to my ears even more ridiculous than Dick Pole, I’d have either heard of him or remembered him from when I got the 1981 Burlington Bees set. His card came as an incredibly funny surprise. I had to know more.

That’s when it became difficult. Wood had a nondescript minor league career, going by the name of John Wood to save his dignity, popping back up to manage in the Western League, guiding the 1998 Pacific Suns to a 28-62 record. Not so good.

I wanted to find out more about him but I can’t find much more online. I’m sure if I ducked to the Hall of Fame library I could dig up old articles and pictures. I’m not that interested. I thought I could find out some critical mass of information from my desk chair. No luck.  I also Tweeted out to Tom Candiotti, who was Wood’s teammate in 1983 in El Paso. I’m curious how much of a hard time his teammates gave good ol’ Johnson Wood. I’m still waiting for an answer.

Having a double phallic name has got to be tough, at least from the first moment of adolescent when your friends realizes that both of your names are synonyms for penis. I can’t imagine. I got a reasonable amount of shit with a last name of Katz!

I’ll probably stay on the Johnson Wood story for a little, maybe see what files the Hall has. I feel like this dude had it hard enough, what with his name, his less than illustrious minor league career and one horrendous season managing in the independent Western league.  We should all have a little empathy for the Johnson Woods of the world, doing their best to stand tall and firm against the stress and pressures that affect a lot of guys who, occasionally, fall flat.

 

Goin’ Horizontal

When this blog did its poll of favorite 1970’s sets, I was surprised that 1974 was my #1. Before I truly thought about the decade’s offerings, I would have flippantly said 1972 or 1977. Maybe even 1971. When I really got to thinking about it, I found I loved ’74 the most.

A prime reason I’m fond of that year’s cards is the huge amount of horizontal cards, especially the subset of 13 player cards. It’s not really a subset; I just think of them that way. They are my favorite cards in my favorite series, and they should be yours too. They’re great.

Here they are – not the horizontal All-Stars, team cards, Hank Aaron #1, playoffs, World Series (although there are some spectacular horizontals there) and leaders cards. These are the special baker’s dozen (non-Dusty variety) players that made the recumbent grade.

#28 – Manny Sanguillen 

I’ll admit this is not the best card to start with to prove my point. It ain’t much, but it’s a start and, you’ll have to admit, has its own look. Manny looks as sad as the Clemente-honoring black armband on his left sleeve.

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#80 – Tom Seaver 

Possibly my favorite card of my favorite player. Fierce Seaver follow through, big Shea crowd behind him. I always figured this had to be taken during the 1973 World Series, but there’s no Seaver started day game in Flushing. Maybe Game 5 of the NLCS? Sure, why not.

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#86 – Joe Ferguson

Ferguson was a caveman with a rifle arm. He doesn’t look too imposing here, kinda dorky, but he had some power. Speaking of dorky, the Phillies’ batter is Craig Robinson. If it was Hot Tub Time Machine Craig Robinson, that would make a killer card.

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#105 – Carlton Fisk

Fisk’s second full card and was there ever a better one? The guy played 20 more years and 1974 may be the pinnacle of his card-dom.

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#153 – Jon Matlack

The Seaver-Matlack 1974 combo was potent on the mound and unrivaled in this set.  Same looking day as the Seaver card, same looking crowd, but there’s no 1973 post-season Matlack appearance that fits. I have no idea, but it doesn’t matter. This card rocks.

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#238 – Fran Healy

No star, but Healy gets to go horizontal. Odd choice. I know nothing about camera technology, but the dark dark background is a signature period look. Plus, you get Thurman Munson, a future Healy teammate on the Yankees from 1976-78.

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#270 – Ron Santo

Like Sangullien’s card, not solid evidence that the 1974 horizontal cards are the best, and yet there’s something to this. The askew helmet is so goofy, and so appropriate for often silly Santo. Though small, who should be centered but bald old Leo Durocher. That’s good stuff.

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#386 – Gary Matthews

This is a great action card. I’ll hear no objections. Everyone’s doing their job – Wayne Garrett’s waiting for a throw, John McNamara is showing excellent third base coach clapping skills and Matthews is clearly busting it out for a triple. Except he’s not. It was August 25, 1973, Matthews had singled in the top of the fifth off Seaver and hustled to third on a Tito Fuentes single. He was stranded when Bobby Bonds ended the inning with a fly out to Don Hahn in center field.

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#392 – Dick Green

Green doing what Green did best, guarding the keystone and turning double plays.

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#490 – Vada Pinson

That Vada Pinson always had a handsome card and this latter day Angels’ action shot is a keeper. I’m a big fan of veterans finding themselves on the Angels in the 1970’s. Frank Robinson in the Halo uni is my favorite. Another vet is still to come in this post.

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#575 – Steve Garvey

Another non-star, but not for long. 1974 was Garvey’s breakout, MVP season. Good scouting Topps! Like the dark Healy card, this one has a classic sports photo look, with the out of focus crowd providing a gauzy backdrop. Unless early ‘70’s crowds were themselves out of focus. Lots of drugs back then you know.

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#640 – Milt Pappas

Pappas had a late career revival in Chicago, with back to back 17 win season in 1971 and 1972 (when he nearly, and sort of did, pitch a perfect game. He was robbed). 1973 was his last season and this is his last card. A good one to go out on.

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#650 – Mike Epstein

In 1972, the Hebrew Hammer belted 26 homers for the champion A’s and finished 16th in AL MVP voting. Then he was traded to Texas to open space for Gene Tenace, then on to California. 1974 was his last year and, like Pappas, this was his farewell card. It’s a fine example in the washed up veteran on the Angels series.

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You Can’t Judge a Judge (By Looking At Its Sale Price)

I was an options trader for about 20 years. Was I a good one? There were things I was good at and there were things I wasn’t good at. On the whole I did all right.

One thing I was bad at was picking stocks. That wasn’t a skill set I needed for trading, so when I owned stocks (which was infrequently), I tended to ride them into the ground. Unless I stumbled my way into something that was a no-brainer and, through circumstance, had a lot of stock that I needed to blow out. Which I did.

About one month ago, I bought a pack of 2017 Gypsy Queen at Yastrzemski Sports on Main St. in Cooperstown and pulled an Aaron Judge autograph. Judge was already a great story, I’m not trying to take away from that, but he doesn’t do much for me. I’m not overly excited by Aaron Judge and had no emotional reason to keep the card. Plus, it seemed the perfect time to sell high.

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I checked eBay and watched a few auctions that were close to ending. One closed with a final bid of $26, another closed at $28. I saw there were a few Buy It Now listings at $35 that were not selling, so I put in a $30 Buy It Now of my own. In trading, we used to call  marginally improving the market “carping. ” The card sat for about a day, and then Judge hit another home run.

There was a market frenzy! My card was bought, the $35 cards were bought, and then the market seemed to have hit some sort of equilibrium – for a few days. Then he kept hitting home runs. Now he’s on the cover of Sports Illustrated. The card I sold at $30 is going for $100 more than that.

I’ve been selling a lot on eBay lately and if you sell enough, things even out. I sold a lot of 1969 Topps hockey cards in overall VG condition for over $60. I thought I get $20, if I was lucky.

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Did I learn anything from this? I don’t know. It seemed like a good move to sell and who knows, Judge might be Babe Ruth or, as so many previously burned rookie card buyers have cited, Kevin Maas.

In 2000, I sold a Tracy McGrady Topps Heritage autograph card for 75 bucks. It was a similar kind of situation – McGrady was hot, but I didn’t care, so I sold the card. Years later I looked and the card could be had for less than $10. Now that McGrady is a Hall of Famer it goes for around $20.

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In options trading, all options have an expiration date. I won’t get too technical but on an option’s expiration, either it’s worth something or worth nothing. You could’ve sold it for $.50 and you could’ve sold it for $100 but if it goes out worthless it goes out worthless. You just don’t know until the cycle runs its course. Selling Aaron Judge was like selling an option early and riding out the wave to see where it ends up. And here I thought I left trading behind!

The Other Side of the Coins

We moved from Brooklyn to Long Island in December of 1971. I was nine-years-old and finally had my own room. It was a life changing event.

Sports were my thing then, my only thing really, and I hung up my Sports Illustrated posters of Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ken Harrelson, Carl Yastrzemski and two Joe Namaths. I had some 8 X 10’s to add to the gallery – a Willis Reed promotional picture from Voit, another of Reed and Walt Frazier from a game I had that they endorsed and a Pete Maravich Keds’ promo. (God I wish I still had those!)

There was a nice big, empty pace on the wall to the right of my dresser, a void I could see from my bed, itching to be filled. I had an idea. I found a large wooden board in the garage, painted it white and reached for my 1971 Topps coins. I love those coins; they’re beautiful, bright, alive, better, I think, than the funereal black shrouded base set of that year.

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I had 100 coins or so, in nice condition, as you can see. I wasn’t serious about collecting yet and I wasn’t even 10, so this seemed like a good project. I glued them to the board and nailed the board into the wall. It was cool to look at.

A few years later, I was a serious collector, going to card shows and caring about my cards. I freaked out at what I’d done to my precious metal coins and pried them off.

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I tried frantically to scratch the glue off and submitted myself to hours of ancient torture, scraping wood slivers, which would get under my nails and cause me to bleed and cry in pain. I deserved it for what I did to these beauties.

I’ve been thinking of getting the last third of the set but they’re a bit pricier than I thought they’d be. Still, finding 44 in VG condition should, in time, be doable. Maybe there’s another masochist out there in the collecting world who has extra coins with excellent heads and ruined tails. I’m not so condition sensitive, as Rich Reese can attest.

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Great Expectations

I don’t like surprises (it’s a control thing) and I dread being handed a wrapped present. I like three general things – books, records and, of course, cards. It’s impossible to me to fake pleasant astonishment at a gift that, without a doubt, will leave me cold. “I always wanted an old mug from Howe Caverns!” Can’t do it. Keep that in mind for my next birthday. Yet I love packs and I love them because of the surprise. They’re wonderful little birthday presents, paper (or wax) itching to be ripped open.

It’s all about expectations, those being predictably met and those being delightfully unforeseen. Clearly I’ll love whatever is inside. I spoke about Split Season: 1981 last week before a group of guys celebrating the 25th anniversary of their fantasy league, Seasons Past. I got some solid swag, including three packs of 1981 Donruss (well played!). There was nothing new to be found there, I have the set, but peeling away the paper, chiseling away the gum (poor Dave Chalk!) and finding Tim Foli, Mitchell Page, Rick Wise and others, was a hell of a lot of fun.

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Back to expectations. The thing about new packs (as opposed to 36-year-old packs) is that there’s usually going to be something wondrous to be found. I’m not talking about the quasi-thrill of an insert, though I’ll admit to being jazzed when I pulled an autographed Aaron Judge card out of a pack of 2017 Gypsy Queen, which I then sold on eBay, figuring it was best to sell something like that early and high. That was around 5 homers ago. It’s not turning out to be a good call.

I’m talking about this: when Roberto Clemente died on December 31, 1972, that was it for his career. He was gone. Then I opened a pack of 1973 1st series, and there he was, Roberto Clemente, completely alive, at bat and ready to pounce. It was a shock, incredibly unexpected. I’ll never forget it.

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Or the following year, 1974, when early packs revealed a spectacular #1 – Hank Aaron, “New All-Time Home Run King.” What a jolt to the senses compared to the other 1974’s, though that is my favorite set of the ‘70’s. Though Aaron entered 1974 one shy of tying Babe Ruth’s record of 714 career homers, and more than likely to break the record early (he did it on April 8), it was still ballsy for Topps to proclaim him the new king on a card. As Clemente showed the year before, no one, not even Bad Henry, was guaranteed another season in life. It was totally startling to see that card #1.

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I’m finding that stacks of cards, small piles I’ve been buying to work on sets, provide the same kick of unopened packs. When I buy a lot of cards, I hone in on the numbers, comparing them to my checklist. Once they’re delivered, I take a closer look at the fronts.

Bouton56 wrote a post last month. “It’s Miller Times Two” is a fun look at players with the same names in the same set. A recent stack of 1960’s that I bought brought an unanticipated bombshell.

This is not Johnny Briggs:

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This is Johnny Briggs:

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I was kind of bowled over by white Johnny Briggs. I do know a lot of baseball, but I never heard of this guy. Well, I’d heard of him, but not this version of him. I only know black Johnny Briggs. When I was out to dinner with two older friends, writers and baseball card collectors, I told them this minor story about expectations and how often they can be shaken up.

“Oh, Johnny Briggs, the pitcher?” one of them asked. They identified with that one!

That’s the magic in the packs and stacks. There’s going to be something you didn’t know, or hadn’t seen, or comes out of left field, or goes out to center field, like Addison Russell’s Game 6 Grand Slam, a game I was at and was ecstatic to pull out of a pack this year.

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