Split Season sets (or, how writing a book invariably led to more cards)

The split season of 1981, the year of Fernandomania, the Bronx Zoo and the strike that saved baseball, was Year One in the explosion in card collecting that marked the next decade and more. All of a sudden, there were a lot of choices for collectors.

An important historical note recounted in my book, Split Season: 1981,Fernandomania, The Bronx Zoo and the Strike that Saved Baseball (see how I subtly introduced the title in the opening sentence?) is the lawsuit that ended the Topps monopoly. Here are the relevant paragraphs:

In spring, millions turned to a time honored system of information gathering – baseball cards. The turmoil in baseball, the interweaving of business and sport, of tradition and progress, was mirrored in the collectible world. Topps, the only card company that generations had grown up on, had competition for the first time in 25 years. Like free agency, the decision came from an outside arbiter.

Cards were big business, 500 million traded, collected and clothes-pinned on bicycle spokes every year, generating $10 million in revenue. It was no wonder others wanted in.  When Fleer first challenged Topps in 1959, Topps had nearly every player under an exclusive deal. In 1975, the same year the first free agent, “Catfish” Hunter, was pushed out into an open market, Fleer filed a $13.6 mil suit against the Topps monopoly.

It took almost six years to end. On June 30, 1980, it was ruled that Topps and the players’ association had violated the Sherman Antitrust Act, restraining trade in the card market violation of.  The players’ association, much to Miller’s shock, were sued as well because, they had only licensed Topps. Miller disagreed with Topps’ assertion of exclusivity, but by not granting other companies the same right, the union had helped Topps remain the only cardboard in town. The players’ association was thrilled, for once, to lose. They saw more licensing money on the horizon.

For all of Fleer’s work in the courts, it was a Memphis concern, Donruss, which jumped in first. Fleer, seeing the normal calendar compress, released its full set before the Super Bowl, rather than the customary mid-February date. Statistical errors were numerous, with Bobby Bonds credited with 936 career home runs. The cards came out too early to picture the recent crop of free agents in fresh garb. Winfield as a Padre, Fisk and Lynn as a Red Sox, made the new cards outdated on arrival. Each company had a hard time completely covering the expected top rookies. Topps featured Tim Raines in a triptych of future Expos stars. Fernando Valenzuela got the same treatment. Donruss offered a full, more in focus, solo card of an incredibly young looking Raines, his big Afro pushing his cap skywards, an empty Wrigley Field lower level in the background.  Fleer had the only Valenzuela card, though he was labeled “Fernand” Valenzuela.

The flood of new product, giving every purchaser a free choice, would lead to an explosion of the hobby. By year-end, three times the number of cards were collected. The union garnered an additional $600,000 in revenue. An open market was good for paper images of the players; why not for the real thing?

In those moments during research and writing, while my mind wandered, and needed to, I searched EBay for 1981 sets I didn’t have. Of course, I had the three big base sets, and the Topps Traded set, but there were plenty of new offerings.

1981 Topps Coca-Cola

Topps produced 12 card sets, for 11 MLB teams. (They produced a Yankee set but that was never issued. Only three players are out there – Goose Gossage, Reggie Jackson and Rick Cerone.).

Rather than buy sets team by team, I held out for the full run of 132 cards. It was well worth it. They are very nice and, in some instances, have different pictures than the regular 1981 cards. The Sutton card is the missing link between his base card and his Traded card.

1981 Topps Giant Photo Cards 

1918-giant-burg

Perhaps in the Top 5 (at least Top 10) of most beautiful card sets, these 5” X 7” borderless glossies are a dream. Again, Topps issued team sets, or geographic sets, but the key for me was getting the whole set, all 102 oversized pics. I had a few of these when they came out but 1) only Yankees and Mets were sold in New York and, 2) who has the time to buy one card packs? This is the perfect set for Rob Neyer, who wrote recently for the blog about how much he likes borderless cards.

Tom Burgmeier never looked so good.

1981 Topps Scratchoffs

scratchoff

Perhaps in the Bottom 5 (at least Bottom 10) of ugliest and pointless Topps sets. Three game cards to a card, perforated, the pictures small, players looking at, or averting their eyes from, the 24 black dots as if they were the plague. Not worth the time or money (small though it is at around $10.)

1981 Topps Stickers and Album

1981-stickers

Topps obviously decided that the best way to counter the Donruss and Fleer cards that now cluttered the market was to flood the market with more Topps sets. These are kinda nice, kinda silly, this big set of 262 flimsy little stickers features enough fine photography to make it interesting. Plus, it’s ridiculously cheap, less than a ten spot. I bought the album as well but there’s no sticking in my future.

1981 Fleer Star Stickers

1981-bake-fleer

Maybe not as nice as the Topps sticker set, a bit more cluttered in design, a bit smaller set (128) but bigger cards. Plus, a loose-leaf binder is virtually naked without a Bake McBride sticker on the front.

1981 Drake’s

1981-drakes-super-joe

The first Drake’s set since 1950 (the awesome “TV Baseball Series” cards), this 32 card gem was made in conjunction with Topps and is sweet, with great action shots of the “Big Hitters” of the day – and Joe Charboneau.

 

There were a few other sets I picked up – Kellogg’s 3-D (oddly, I had stopped buying those sets in 1980), the O-Pee-Chee Expos/Blue Jays poster set – and I had a few others – the Dodgers Police set and about 22% of all the minor league sets put out in 1981. I have no desire to pursue any more minor league sets, but I will make note of perhaps the best card of 1981. The TCMA Albuquerque Dukes set at first had a Sandy Koufax card, and then didn’t. Koufax was coaching in the Dodger chain that year.

1981-tcma-koufax

As for what’s left, there are some Police sets that don’t grab me (Braves, Royals, Mariners) and MSA/Peter Pan/Sunbeam discs that are bland beyond belief. When I bought the Towne Club disc set in 1976, discs of logo-less players seemed cool. Not by 1981, not now.

I may go after the Granny Goose A’s set, though searching for the short print Dave Revering card feels like an empty hunt. The only set remaining in my sights is the Squirt set. It’s not that big, not that expensive and I feel that not having anything in my collection labelled “Squirt” is a big void.

1981-squirt

A F*ck Face Story for the Holidays

Soon after the 1989 Fleer baseball cards were released, word spread that there was an obscenity on Billy Ripken’s bat. In those pre-Internet days, every article, whether in the hobby mags or regular newspapers, spoke of the “obscenity,” but what that obscenity was was a mystery to me. The mainstream press wouldn’t actually use the term, and there was no way to find out. At least I didn’t know how to find out, unless I got the card.

Getting the card seemed harder than you’d think. I couldn’t find packs anywhere and it was clear that when the set came in the mail (I’d order all the base sets back then), I’d end up with a corrected card. It was pretty frustrating.

Karen and I were already living in Buffalo Grove, Illinois in the spring of ’89. We’d moved to Chicago in early ’87 and headed to the suburbs the following year. It must’ve been a Saturday morning that I had to drive to the Jewel. On the way home I stopped for gas at the Amoco (I’m pretty sure it was an Amoco) at the corner of Buffalo Grove and 83 (McHenry Rd). I filled up and went inside to pay. No futuristic credit card readers at the pumps, kids, these were primitive times.

Before paying I scanned the candy racks and there, with the lid torn off, was a full box of 1989 Fleer! What the hell? Of all place to find some cards, let alone a full box. I grabbed it and brought it home.

Maybe I’d already told Karen about the Ripken card. Maybe I explained the whole story as I put the box on the dining room table. Either way, my idea was that we’d both open all the packs, the quickest route to finding out what the fuss was all about. We started.

Pack after pack was opened, wrappers placed in a pile between us. Early hopes led to sudden fears and, as the amount of unopened packs dwindled to the last few, I was getting nervous and angry.  I have no idea what a single pack of cards went for in 1989 but a whole box of them was a pretty big waste of money if the Ripken didn’t turn up. I was already getting the set. I didn’t need a pile of doubles.

I opened one of my final packs, head down, shuffling through the 15 cards (and sticker).

_3“F*ck face?” Karen said with equal bits of surprise and smile.

She’d gotten it! Yup, f*ck face. Of all the obscenities, f*ck face? What a ridiculous thing to write on the knob of a bat. It was hysterical to see – f*ck face. Karen did it!

By the time the set arrived in the mail, f*ck face had been obscured in a variety of ways – black box, black scribble, white scribble, white out. I think I have a black box variation. Who cares though, it was f*ck face that mattered.

 

The Mac Brothers – Willie and Big

I started going to card shows in 1973. There weren’t that many back then, two a year in Manhattan. I’d go with $100, saved up from a birthday or Hanukkah. That money had to be spent wisely and usually was. I stockpiled favorite players (Koufax, for one), bought the occasional Mantle or Mays, but my heart was always with complete sets, especially ones I’d padres-baseballsnever seen before. When I saw the 1974 McDonald’s Padres Discs in their plastic baseball holder, it was love at first sight.

Even if it didn’t contain a complete set of 15 Pads, the cheapo plastic baseball on its McDonald’s logoed stand would have been worth the price. It was the perfect marriage of Ray Kroc properties. Kroc, owner of both McDonald’s and the Padres, found padres-trioperfect synergy in card form. The set is a ‘70’s baseball fans dream – Matty Alou, Nate Colbert, Bobby Tolan, etc. It’s got a beautiful card of Willie McCovey in his new Padres brown and yellow uni, a worthier picture of the original Big Mac than his heinously airbrushed 1974 Topps card. There’s also a Dave Winfield rookie card.

padres-baseballs-openIt was only recently that I came upon the original plastic holder and five player starter set. This type (with a run of 60,000) was given away on at Jack Murphy Stadium July 30, an 8-0 drubbing at the hands of the Dodgers. The cards were great (that’s adorable and terrible Enzo Hernandez in the front of my starter set), the team not so much. They’d lose 102 games.

The ’74 Padres McDonald’s Disc set is a quirky little thing, reasonably priced, and worthy of your time. Where else are you gonna find a Ronald McDonald card, in action no less? And it comes in its own unique container, just like a McDLT.mcdlt-w-ad

Unfinished (set) business

I’m a man of my word. I keep my promises and I achieve my goals. I don’t get distracted, I stay on task and I always finish what I start. Except…

My income and my passion for cards were at similar peaks throughout the ‘90’s. I finished some old sets I was close to finishing, started some older sets from scratch. There were four sets that I jumpstarted my way into with a series of well-priced, shrewdly purchased lots, and I had every intention of making my way to the end, the final check made in each one’s checklist. I don’t know what derailed me from my goals. Maybe it was the new century and big life changes (job switches, moving to Cooperstown, and so on), maybe it was the changes in the hobby (shifts to grading, disappearance of commons into slabs, moving to Cooperstown, far from big Chicago area card shows), maybe I simply lost interest in those sets. Let’s find out.

 

1933 Tattoo Orbit

tattoo-orbitThere’s something about this size, 2” X 2 ¼,” that grabs me. Tattoo Orbit (or R305, if you want to get technical) is a beautiful little set, 60 cards in all, hyper-stylized. The player photo is slightly colorized and is ensconced in a background that looks like it could have been drawn by a child. Check out Marty McManus here, swinging away, gigantic, in a setting of magnificent red and yellow. It’s a thing of beauty.

I have 16 of the 60, including two of the short prints. Did I ever think I’d really go the distance on this one? In retrospect, I’m not so sure. The set, even in VG, is around $4,000, probably more if I hunt and peck for individual cards. I don’t like spending a ton, so my guess is this one was a bit of a whim, a “yeah, sure, I’ll put this together over time.” Looking at what I’ve got, and how prices have gone up since I began, it’s even less likely I’ll get back to this one. But they are wonderful cards, magnificently simple in design.

 

1947 Bond Bread

bond-breadI’m halfway to the 44 card set of baseball players (though there are also 4 boxer cards). Not sure how these came into my field of vision, but it seems that in the 1980’s a large number of these black and white gems were found in a warehouse and released into the hobby. Maybe that’s why I got so many, definitely why the big time Hall of Famers (Musial, Williams, Jackie Robinson) are relatively inexpensive).

There’s a chance I’ll go back to this set. There are many wonders to be found in the photographs. Stan the Man here looks like he accidentally fielded a grounder during a photo shoot for the new 1947 Packard. Still, hunting down ungraded Joe DiMaggio and Jackie Robinson cards may be a tough task and, it seems like after 2000, a rash of illegally reprinted square cornered cards (some come rounded) made their way not only into the hobby but into grading.  That worries me, though I wonder where the money is in counterfeiting 70-year-old Del Ennis cards.

 

1949 Remar Bread Oakland Oaks

remar-breadWhat’s with the bread cards? Sure, it makes sense to package cards with gum, kids chewing away as they read about their favorite players, but the image of a kid wadding a piece of white bread in his cheek is one I can’t shake. The poor little Oaklander would choke!

There are 42 cards in this set, a strangely sized 2” X 3.” They’re thin stuff, very flexible, but sort of cool. There’s a Billy Martin card, which I don’t have, but is pretty inexpensive in EX, the general grade of the 11 cards I have.

I’ve been scouting out the balance of the set on EBay and it looks like there are ungraded examples at reasonable prices. Completing this set may be a reasonable endeavor, but it’s awfully hard to muster up a real enthusiasm for chasing down an EX example of Maurice Van Robays, whoever the hell he was. Still, I look at my Mel Duezabou card and know that, to someone, he was important. I’m not sure that that someone is me.

 

1952 Parkhurst

parkhurstThis may be the one that got away and that calls me back the most. Almost exactly the size of the 1949 Bowman cards that I love, this 100 card set of Canadian International Leaguers (Montreal Royals, Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Athletics) is filled with unknowns and a healthy subset of drawings like “Gripping the Bat.” Look at this page – awesome, right?

Though I have half the set, I have none of the key cards, minor league appearances by Tommy Lasorda, Walter Alston and Johnny Podres. They won’t break the bank. I think if I fish around for these, I’m likely to find one or two sellers/dealers who would sell me a bunch at a reasonable price. What could the real demand for the no-names and sketches be? Then I’ll back myself into a corner and spring for the higher priced cards. That’s my methodology – go cheap for as long as I can and then force myself to pony up for the few costlier cards that stand between me and a complete set.

 

I’ve never been a type collector of random cards, never sought out having one from as many sets as possible, so having four partial sets drives me batty. Is it worth keeping what I have if I’m not going to get them all? I don’t know, I debate that a lot. What’s the point of having 51 of 100 1952 Parkhursts if I’m not going to end up with 100? It’s a small scale struggle, but a struggle nonetheless.

What Condition My Condition Was In

I’m not a stickler for condition. For the cards I’ve collected on my own, I like them Near Mint (NM), maybe EX-MT. It’s more important to me that the picture is sharp than that the corners are. I’m not bothered by off-center cards, slightly bothered by miscuts. All my sets are in pretty solid shape.

Then there are the cards I’ve gotten from other people over the years. Those tend to be more hit or miss. Not everyone put their cards straight from the pack into a shoe box or plastic sleeve. Some of the cards I’ve picked up from friends are nice, maybe EX or better; some look like they’ve been driven over by a car in a rough, cement-floored garage.

It’s the latter conditions I grappled with when I decided to finish my 1971 set. 1971 was the last year I let my mother (yes, let) throw out my cards. She would ask if I wanted them anymore and I, shockingly, told her no. Over time I reacquired a bunch of those, but in conditions that made me wince.

But when I looked and saw I only needed 57 cards to complete the set, I figured, what the hell, I’ll go for it, but I’ll go for it with cards in similar condition to the rest of what I had. Not only was pursuing 1971’s in Very Good (VG) condition a cheaper choice, it was also a liberating one. I didn’t have to worry if the corners were pointy enough, if the borders were as close to solid black as they could be (a notorious 1971 problem), if the cards were relatively well-centered. Once I finished the set, I was thrilled by it, happy to have them all, less concerned about the state of any individual card. I can tell you my Rich Morales (267) is a crime against collecting. Some slight upgrading is in order.

morales

With 1971 wrapped up, I turned to 1970, the last set I didn’t have that I was reasonably close to. In mid-July, I assessed the situation. I needed 187 cards to complete the set, lots of high numbers, some big stars too. Whoever at Topps put Nolan Ryan at #712 should be subject to enhanced interrogation.

ryan

Again, I had some condition problems, but, if I went after VG or EX, I could get this done reasonably and that’s what I’ve done. Starting with a solid nab of 25 cards at the great Baseball Nostalgia in Doubleday Court, Cooperstown, I was well on my way. Then I tweeted that I was working on this set and, lo and behold, prayers, had they been said, were answered. Two friends (Chris and Mike) gave me significant piles of their 1970’s. Not only did these windfalls fill a lot of holes, but they allowed me to upgrade to a more EX set.

I’ve been working the old eBay machine for the rest. While I miss the fun of card shows (there aren’t any to speak of in the greater Cooperstown area), I don’t miss haggling with dealers. I’m eminently patient and will wait out losing auction upon losing auction until I get my price. There’s a fun to buying on EBay, a different entertainment than shows. Swooping in at the last moment to get a good deal makes me feel, for no valid reason, a bit smarter. With much good fortune, I picked up a lot of EX-NM cards at VG prices. I’ve also been selling some doubles and triples to subsidize the endeavor. I’ve had a lot of fun with this, which is sort of the point of card collecting.

As of this post, I need only three cards – Johnny Bench (660), Ron Santo (670) and the Pilots team card (713, Nolan’s neighbor). I’m almost there.

Yeah, yeah, oh yeah!