When Brien Taylor Ruled The Hobby World

If you hear the name ‘Brien Taylor’ today, it’s probably in the way of some kind of cautionary tale. A lesson against getting too caught up in the hype surrounding amateur or minor league super-duper stars. A lesson that top draft picks, no matter how much of a sure thing, are never really a sure thing. For collectors, it’s a similar lesson, but one directed less at the athlete than at all the ephemera that athlete inspires. But while Taylor was never able to leave his mark on baseball, he certainly left a mark on the hobby. Brien Taylor made the hobby rethink its concept of rookie cards. He became the face of the hobby’s most venerable brand. His presence (or lack thereof) dictated when products were released and how they were (somewhat unscrupulously) dated. He revived a market for pre-Major League cards and store-branded specialty sets. He starred in what was, at the time, the most expensive factory set ever issued and was featured on what was, at the time, perhaps the most sought-after certified autograph ever released.

And within three years, it was all over.

Photo Nov 11, 6 03 49 PM
1992 Classic Best Promo #PR2

There are still those who swear Brien Taylor was the greatest amateur pitcher who ever lived. He was born in Beaufort, NC, the son of a stone mason and a crab-picker. Tall, lanky, and with a whip-fast left arm, he dominated as a high school pitcher. As a senior in 1991, the threw back-to-back no-hitters, struck out an obscene 213 batters in just 88 innings (nearly 2.5 Ks per inning) and posted a 0.61 ERA. He had a fastball in the high-90s, a dependable change-up, and a knee-buckling curveball.

Taylor had been nearly as good the year before, but had yet to break through into the baseball mainstream. Don Mattingly, however, was as mainstream as an athlete got in 1990. His break-out campaign in 1984, followed up by an MVP season in 1985, had both made put him in line to be the Next Great Yankee and helped to ramp up the rookie card craze among baseball card collectors and investors. Mattingly’s 1984 rookie issues stoked the fires of a building craze. People with money to spend on cards wanted Mattinglys, but even more so they wanted the next Mattinglys… the cards that could be picked up cheap, stocked away, and then sold for a profit. Mattingly was still a star in 1990 and the rookie card craze his sweet, lefty swing had inspired was still very much in bloom. But for the 1990 season, Mattingly stunk. He batted just .256 – 67 points below his career average entering the season – and his Yankees finished in dead-last place, losing 95 games. It was the worst Yankees team in 77 years.

By the summer of 1991, these three stars had aligned themselves: a once-in-a-generation talent, a booming baseball card marketplace, and an unprecedented bottoming-out of the most famed pro sports franchise that ever existed. In June 1991, the Yankees drafted Brien Taylor first overall in the amateur draft and card collectors saw nothing but dollar signs.

Photo Nov 11, 6 03 28 PM
1991 Classic Draft NNO

Of course, by 1991 collectors no longer had the patience to wait for a player to be wearing a big league uniform for start stockpiling cardboard. Trying to entice collectors with the hottest rookies as soon as possible, Fleer, Donruss, Score and the upstart Upper Deck had begun to include players in their base sets before their Big League debut. When one of those players, Ken Griffey Jr., became a hobby sensation, it was clear that the rookie card game had changed. Topps missed out on including Griffey in their 1989 flagship set, but did start a new trend that year with the inclusion of a ten card subset of “#1 Draft Picks,” players from the 1988 draft who were just making their pro debuts. When Jim Abbott jumped from the ’88 draft class to Major League stardom that year, the other cardmarkers had been scooped. Topps had him first and it was their card collectors were chasing. In 1990, Score followed suit and issued a 22-card draft pick subset and the revived Bowman brand issued a slew of recently drafted talent. The hobby hype was now following players into A ball instead of the Big Leagues.

Card collectors weren’t the only ones with money on the mind after the Yankees tabbed Taylor with the top pick in June. Taylor and his family had hired Scott Boras to represent the young man and felt insulted at the Yankees’ initial offer of a $300,000 contract. The top pitcher of the previous year’s draft, Todd Van Poppel, had gotten $1.3 million in guaranteed money from the Oakland A’s and the Taylors wanted nothing less.

Photo Nov 11, 6 03 03 PM
1991 Classic Baseball Draft Picks #1 – A collector told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1992 that he expected this card to sell for $100 once Taylor made the Major Leagues.

It took until late August for the Yankees and Taylor to agree on a $1.55 million pact, with Taylor signing the deal the day before he was set to begin junior college, and be lost to the Yankees. His professional status now meant that he was open to the cardmakers. Topps, Fleer, and Donruss had all hoped to include a Taylor card in their 1991 update sets, but had been stymied by his holdout. And when finally became fair game, it was The Scoreboard – maker of the Classic brand of board game cards and draft sets – that swooped in to the ink the super-prospect. Scoreboard paid Taylor $250,000 for his exclusive cardboard rights through the end of 1991 and his exclusive rights on minor league cards for a calendar year. Just months later, Classic released its 1991 Baseball Draft set, with Taylor at card #1. The company boasted that the entire run of the set sold out in six days and it was reported that the sets that included Taylor were expected to gross the company $30 million… thirty times what they’d made off their 1990 draft products.

That fall, Taylor reported to the Yankees’ fall instructional league team in Florida, where his stardom preceded him. He was featured in a 60 Minutes segment and signed autographs for members of the Green Bay Packers when they stayed at the same hotel that housed his team. He signed a lot of other autographs, too. Classic had cards of him in both the English and French language versions their four-sport draft picks set, including over 5,000 hand-signed cards inserted randomly into packs.

The media followed Taylor to Florida. Their reporting was complimentary. They noted his humble nature, that he mostly stayed in at night, always addressed his elders as “sir” or “ma’am” and that he did his own laundry. They talked about the Mustang he’d purchased with his bonus money, but also that he bought the car from the dealership where his bother worked as a detailer and that he had gotten a nice discount on the purchase. His biggest purchase, the papers noted, was a house for his parents, allowing them to move out of the trailer where Taylor had grown up. But there was a theme to the stories that made it clear that these were older, white reporters looking for a young, black athlete that didn’t push challenge any of their notions about how a ballplayer should act. They never said it, but it was clear that they wanted to hold Taylor up as an antidote to the Deions and Rickeys of the sporting world. Case in point: several articles mentioned with flattering intent that Taylor wore no gold chains. Neither did Todd Van Poppel, but no one was waiting to judge him by his neckware.

Near the end of 1991, Topps pulled a major coup and signed Taylor to another exclusive contract, making them the only cardmaker permitted to produce his Major League cards until he reached the Bigs, at which time he would, under the player’s union contract, be available to all companies with an MLBPA license. The deal scooped Upper Deck, who had been so optimistic about their chances of landing Taylor that they actually included his name in the preliminary checklists for their 1992 flagship set. As Topps promoted their upcoming set as the only one that feature Taylor in pinstripes, Upper Deck quietly remade their checklist.

Photo Nov 11, 6 05 34 PM
1992 Topps #6 – Topps had hopes for this card becoming their version of the iconic ’89 UD Ken Griffey, Jr.

With Classic’s deal still in effect until December 31, Topps seems to have actually pushed back the release of their 1992 set in order to include Taylor. But the result was a minor masterpiece. Finding their brand getting lost in the flood of newer and shinier released in the early 1990s, Topps had responded with a classic re-tooling for its 1991 flagship release and the introduction of its premium Stadium Club brand. Stadium Club was a smash and the company’s 1992 flagship reflected the changing tastes in the marketplace. Using beaming white stock for the first time in decades and featuring a clean, modern design, the set put Taylor front and center. In what might have been an homage to the 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. #1 that had already become that company’s trademark card, Topps gave Taylor #6 in 1992 set, the first regular player card after the traditional Record Breaker opening subset. The card featured Taylor in Yankee pinstripes, the first time Topps had shown a draft pick in their Major League uniform. The kid is just into delivery: left arm ready to cock, right foot dangling over the red box containing his name, eyes trained at whatever lay ahead of him.

Photo Nov 11, 6 06 01 PM
1992 ToppsGold #793 – A forgotten icon of the Junk Wax Era.

1992 was also the year Topps introduced the first true parallel set with ToppsGold. The concept was stunning for its time – an alternate version of the classic flagship set, outfit with an etched gold foil nameplate. The cards would be found roughly one per wax box, making it an unimaginable task to complete a full set. But in the midst of the hype over this idea, Topps offered an alternative: a Gold Factory set, complete with a stunning card #793 – an exclusive Brien Taylor card, done in the standard veteran design, gold-plated and hand-signed by the young Phenom. The set, which retailed for around $250, was quickly selling on the secondary market for $4-500. The signed card itself was moving quickly for $100 and up. Taylor’s gold rookie – found one per 28,500 packs – was bringing $40-80 and his regular base card was a mover at $5.

But… were these really rookie cards?

As they had in 1990 with uber-prospects Chipper Jones and Todd Van Poppel, Classic had gotten the jump on the more mainstream brands by including Taylor in their Draft Picks set in the same calendar year in which he was drafted. The big companies had always waited until the year after the draft to debut these players. Topps and others had tried to produce a true Taylor RC – a 1991 release featuring him in his Big League dress, but were scooped by his holdout and then his deal with Classic. So, Topps decided to turn back the clock.

Photo Nov 11, 6 05 08 PM
1992 Stadium Club Skydome #184 – Unable to get Taylor into a 1991 set, Topps tried to pass this set off as being a year older than it was.

The result was the 1991 Stadium Club Dome set. Or was it 1992? Well, the set used the 1991 Stadium Club design and was issued inside a plastic reproduction of Skydome, home of the 1991 MLB All-Star Game. Each card featured a 1991 copyright line. Which made it outwardly appear as a 1991 release and its handsome card of Taylor (along with dozens of other 1991 draft choices) as a stunning “true rookie” of the biggest name in the hobby. Not so fast, said collectors. It was clear that Topps was back-dating the set to try to force a 1991 Taylor card. The set was not released until the spring of 1992 and it seems highly unlikely that Topps would have gone ahead with printing the set in ’91 while Taylor was under exclusive contract with another brand and then waited several months into 1992 before finally releasing it. Even if collectors didn’t fall for Topps’ scheme, they fell all over themselves for the set, which was going for $75 and the Taylor for $15 before the 1992 season had even opened.

Oh, right, the 1992 season. In which Brien Taylor would actually be playing professional baseball. After being the toast of the Yankees’ training camp, Taylor reported to the Fort Lauderdale Yankees of the high-A Florida State League. Just 20 years old, he posted some tantalizing numbers – 10.4 Ks per 9 innings, a 1.159 WHIP, a 2.57 ERA, and just three homers allowed in 161 innings.

Photo Nov 11, 6 06 25 PM
1992 Upper Deck Minor League Promo #1 – After being forced to pull Taylor from its 1992 MLB set, Upper Deck got into the Minor League card business. This promotional card, given away at Minor League ballparks, promotes Taylor as the primary attraction in the set.

His performance was all the more impressive considering all the hype that still surrounded him. He was a shy kid, away from home for the first time, and everyone wanted a piece of him. And everyone wanted his autograph. He had signed more than 12,000 cards for the ToppsGold sets, and another 8,000 for 1992 Classic products and hundreds of baseball for teammate opponents and everyone else with clubhouse access. And he was asked to sign even more each day by fans that stalked him at every turn. “They think you’re supposed to sign everything they throw in your face,” Taylor told a reporter during the 1992 season. He was knocked down by autograph hounds more than once. After a game in Port St. Lucie, so many fans gathered outside the clubhouse doors that the team was briefly trapped inside. “People know the autograph is going to be worth money. That’s the only way I see it,” he said. “As far as dealing with people, life will never be the same. The bigger I get, the harder it will get. I know I’ll probably never be able to sit at a movie and relax.” As for his trading cards, Taylor admitted he didn’t even own one. “They must know something I don’t,” he said of the people shelling out for his latest issues.

Photo Nov 11, 6 04 51 PM
1992 Fort Lauderdale Yankees NNO – Taylor’s A-ball team had already wrapped up the 1992 season, and were in the process of relocating, but still wanted to cash in on his stardom by releasing this team set, available via mail order.

And as his debut season wound to a close, there would be many more options for Taylor collectors. With his exclusive non-MLB deal with Classic coming to an end, Upper Deck, Fleer, and Skybox announced plans to get in on the suddenly booming Minor League card market. Upper Deck promoted their set at Minor League parks late in the season, handing out thousands of promo cards of Taylor and Twins prospect Frankie Rodriguez. The Upper Deck set released in September and Fleer Excel dropped in December (oddly branded as 1992-93 Fleer Excel, another example of Taylor forcing cardmakers to get creative with their dating). The Fort Lauderdale Yankees even waited out the Classic contract to release their team-issued set of cards – which remarkably was not available until after the season had ended, as speculation abounded that the team would relocate for the 1993 season (it indeed would move). The market for Taylor was so intense that a franchise delayed the release of its annual team set until after it had played its last-ever game. The set was available by mail order and seemed to sell quite well. That fall, Topps also included Taylor in the company’s first-ever random insert set, a trio of cards featuring #1 overall draft choices found one in every 72 packs of 1992 Stadium Club Series 3. It instantly became a $25 item.

By the end of 1992, Taylor had been featured on (by my count) 48 different licensed trading cards and a handful of oddball, unlicensed, and magazine-issue cards. It was a staggering number for its time, especially for a player who had pitched in just 27 games professionally. By 1993, a bit of Taylor-fatigue began to appear. His card prices stabilized and, while his presence in the hobby held steady, it stopped being news. Searching the hobby columns that used to be regular features in newspapers across the nation, he was a regular item throughout 1991 and 1992. But by 1993, he faded away into the mass of other can’t-miss-kids making hobby news. He was still a Phenom to be sure, but he was a very familiar Phenom.

Photo Nov 11, 6 05 22 PM
1992 Stadium Club #1 Draft Picks of the ’90s #2 – The first-ever insert set produced by Topps.

In 1993, Taylor made steady progress, racking up 150 Ks and a 3.48 ERA for the AA Albany-Colonie Yankees. It was progress, but collectors and the Yankee brass had visions of Taylor dominating the American League in 1993, not holding his own in the Eastern League. And then in December came baseball’s most infamous after-hours brawl since Mickey Mantle, Billy Martin, and company roughed up a boozy bowling team captain at the Copa. Back home in North Carolina, Taylor got into a melee trying to defend his brother and blew out his shoulder in the process. While the team tried to downplay the injury, Dr. Frank Jobe, who performed Taylor’s reconstructive surgery, called it “one of the worst shoulder injuries [he’d] ever seen.”

Collectors began to dump Taylor’s cards and, as Taylor sat out the entire 1994 season, he appeared in just a handful of sets. Many of his 1994 cards mentioned the injury. “He will miss the entire 1994 season and only time will tell whether or not he can regain his top prospect status,” his Ted Williams Card Company release opined. By 1995, time had told.

Photo Nov 11, 6 08 29 PM
1995 Bowman # 17 – Only one 1995 release had room for Taylor on its checklist.

Demoted to the Yankees’ Rookie League team, Taylor struggled through 40 innings, walking 54 and allowing 37 runs. His fastball stalled and his curve had flattened. With the card market struggling to recover from the strike, companies downsized their releases. In 1995, just a few years removed from being such a force in the marketplace that his mere presence seemed to dictate time itself, he appeared on just one trading card – Bowman #17. He is pictured in a Yankees jersey cap, seating on a picnic table, wearing shorts and sneakers. He’s dressed like a fan or a training camp gofer. The backside mentions an “off the field mishap” and talks about hopes for a return to form that would never happen. Although he would hang around for parts of four more professional seasons, topping out at 27 innings (with an ERA over 14.00) in 1997, he appeared on just two more cards. He’s just 24 years old on his 1996 Best Greensboro Bats card, but he looks older. He looks tired. In 2000, he was featured in a team-issue set for the A-level Columbus Red Stixx. The only evidence the card exists is a listing on tradingcarddb.com. No image of it can be found.

Photo Nov 11, 6 08 48 PM
1996 Best Greensboro Bats #27 – Well into the ‘what if?’ years.

He allowed 11 runs in just 2.2 innings for the Red Stixx that year. It was the last time he pitched. He went back home to North Carolina with his five daughters and worked as a package handler for UPS, then for a beer distributor, and later as a bricklayer with his father. He ran into legal troubles and, in 2012, was arrested on charges of trafficking cocaine. Facing forty years, he pled guilty and served just over three. “Life will never be the same,” Taylor said in 1992. “The only way it would be the same would be if I dropped out today. Then everybody would forget me.”

Positions, Positions, Positions

Name, Team, Position. Those are the three most standard pieces of information conveyed on the obverse of a baseball card. Of the three, position is the one that is most often left out. While it is certainly isn’t hard to find examples of cards not bearing the name or team on the frontside, position is the only piece of this trio that feels kind of optional. Player positions were included on many of the earliest cards sets ever issued and remained a staple of card design until the fabled T206 set – which listed a player’s name and team home city only – seemed to put the designation out of style. Over the next few decades, many of the most iconic sets – Goudey, Cracker Jack, Leaf – ignored the position as an element of design. Bowman hit the scene in 1948 and went even more minimalist, rarely going so far as to even include the player’s name on the front of the card.

72-280Fr
1972, the only Topps set between 1953 and 1986 not to indicate a position on the front.

But then Topps took over, aside from their 1951 and 1952 issues, included a position on the front of each of their sets until 1972, and again for each set between 1973 and 1986. The indicator vanished between 1987 and 1990 and was an on-and-off feature until 2014, when it returned for seven straight sets (including 2020) – Topps’ longest run of position-indicating since the 1980s. Donruss included a position on every one of its designs until 1998 and Fleer did the same, using the indicator on every flagship set the brand issued. Upper Deck ignored the position on just two of its flagship sets (1992 and 2004).

8670-487137Fr

This is not information that most collectors would have at the ready. Most collectors probably take the position bug for granted. I know I usually do. But being so ubiquitous (even in its absence), an unusual position indicator can make for a pretty memorable card. Herb Washington’s 1975 “Pinch Run.” is probably the most famous of these. But there are others that I recall standing out to me as a kid – Pete Rose cards where he was listed an “MGR-1B” seemed other-worldly, the 1990 Score John Olerud listed him as an “OF-P” (all while shown playing first base) made him seem like some kind of top-secret government project, and the 1989 Topps Kirk Gibson All Star that listed him as a “PH” was as jarring as it was confusing (this was done, I assume to give the NL team a DH player without using the league-inappropriate term).

A particular player’s position listing can also convey some emotion. Robin Yount listed as a shortstop or George Brett as a third baseman make them seem as though they’ll be young forever. But finding Reggie Jackson or Henry Aaron or Dave Winfield listed as a DH will bring a note of sadness that the end is near.

But of all the weird positional quirks that have happened over the years, there is nothing so fascinating to me as what happened with Paul Molitor in 1991. That was the year the versatile Brewer was listed at FIVE different positions on various cards and appeared with SEVEN different position indicators. This is, I believe, the greatest positional variety for a player in a single year ever (ignoring THIS, of course). So what happened here?

Well, Paul Molitor had historically been a trick player to pin down position-wise. He came up as a shortstop, getting his first change in the bigs when Robin Yount left the Brewers during Spring Training 1978. He only played 33 games at short that season, but it was enough to have him listed as a pure SS on his 1979 card. He played 10 games at short in 1979 and 12 in 1980, but maintained a dual listed as an “SS-2B” on Topps 1980 and 1981 issues. After spending all of 1981 in the outfield, Topps gave him the rare “2B-SS-OF” listing on his 1982 card. Molly moved to third base in 1982, and played there primarily for most of the next five years. Topps reacted in kind and listed his as either a 3B or 3B/DH through the end of the decade.

Donruss and Fleer, entering the market in 1981, both listed him as a 2B in their debut sets. Fleer gave him a pure (and accurate) OF tag in 1982, whereas Donruss went with the very broad “OF/IF” brand. Both brands followed suit with Topps and used 3B and DH marks exclusively through 1990. Upper Deck and Score did the same.

But Molitor had returned to his utility player roots by the late 1980s. He appeared in 19 games at second base in 1987 and 16 in 1989. Late in 1989, regular second-sacker Jim Gantner suffered a devastating knee injury on a wipe-out slide by the Yankees Marcus Lawton and Molitor took over regular duty at the position until Gantner was able to return mid-way through the 1990 season. Molitor, who suffered a number of injuries of his own that season, ended up playing 60 games at second base in ‘90, 37 at first base (the first time he’d manned that spot), and a handful at third and as a DH. Gantner ended the season as the regular second baseman and Molitor at prime man at first. After the season, the Brewers traded Dave Parker, who had been an All Star for them in 1990, opening the door for the now-34 year old Molitor to become the team’s regular  DH for the first time.

So, the long-time third baseman who had been playing second but was also being used at first, where he was now expected to see more time when he wasn’t DHing. Got all that? Card makers sure did.

8712-505430Fr

By my count, Molitor appeared on 21 different base cards in 1991 (I’m ignoring sets like Topps Micro and OPC here that merely reproduce other sets). All but Classic listed a position on their cards. He was most commonly listed at 3B, a dubious claim considering he’d only played two games there in 1990. But strong is the power of tradition. Topps listed him there, using that mark on the Bowman, Stadium Club, and OPC Premium sets as well. Fleer also considered him a 3B, as they had at least in part since 1983. Even Score listed him at the position, despite taking the rather bold stance of being the only card maker to declare him a pure DH on a 1980s issue (1988). Those two games in ’90 got a lot of mileage, I guess.

73994-5307134Fr

Five cards listed him at 1B, a nice compromise between his audition there in 1990 and his projected role in 1991. Magazine cards were fond of this mark, as Baseball Cards Magazine, Sports Collectors Digest, and Sports Illustrated for Kids all used it on their in-mag cards, as did Donruss and (curiously) Fleer Ultra, which ran against the flagship’s opinion that Molitor was still a 3B.

Three cards gave him a generic IF designation: two Brewers-issued sets (which used the frustrating device of considering anyone who played in the infield an IF) and the Score Superstars stand-alone set, which also broke with its parent brand and made its own positional distinction.

192-238Fr

A pair of sets were forward-looking enough to list Molitor as a pure DH, Leaf and Studio. I recall these as later-year issues and were probably a reaction to Molitor’s role early on the 1991 season, in which he only appeared in the field once before late May.

Then, we have some true outliers. Upper Deck, showing that rebel streak that remade the hobby, boldly listed Molitor as a 2B in their set, and even used a photo of him playing the position. The semi-obscure Petro Canada Standup set also listed him as a 2B, but you had to actually stand the card up to discover this fact. Panini, in its sticker set, was the only brand to use a hybrid mark, listing Molitor was a “1B-2B,” his only 1991 card to accurately reflect upon his 1990 season.

And then there is 1991 US Playing Card set. In here, Molitor (as the Eight of Hearts) is listed as a centerfielder.

73197-8HFr

Hmm.

At this time, Molitor hadn’t played the outfield since a handful of games in 1986 and hadn’t been in center since 1981. Were they boldly expecting Molitor to take over in center for Robin Yount in 1991? My guess is that this is probably just an outright error. None of the other outfielder cards in the deck are given a specific OF spot (LF, CF, RF), and I can’t find anything that indicated they were acting on some of weird rumor of an unexpected position change. But nonetheless, the card exists and only adds to the positional confusion.

Oddly enough, all this positioning and repositioning for Molitor quickly became a moot point. Following the end of the 1990 season, Molitor would play first base and DH exclusively. His cards reflected this. For the most part. For 1992, Topps again branded him at a 3B across most of its sets despite his not having played there regularly since 1989. And, not to be outdone by their 1991 goof, the US Playing Card company issued two decks with Molitor cards in 1992 – one listing him at 2B and the other at SS – where Molitor hadn’t appeared since 1982 (his 1993 USPC card has him mercifully listed as an IF). At least it’s a consistent decade-long lag time, right? For 1993, only the Post Cereal Company still listed him at 3B. Card makers had finally accepted him for what had become – a DH and part-time 1B.

For his career, Molitor was listed on cards as a 1B, 2B, SS, 3B, IF, OF, CF, DH, 1B/DH, 2B/SS/OF, 2B/SS, SS/2B, 3B/DH, OF/IF, DH/1B, and DH/3B – not to mention post-career cards as a coach and manager. That’s 18 different listings (and perhaps more that I have missed) to describe a single remarkable career.

Like a Broken Record

Of all the junk wax era subsets, I’ve always thought that the Topps ‘Record Breakers’ series was underrated. They don’t carry the prestige of the All-Star Rookies or Diamond Kings, or have the kitsch of Turn Back the Clock, or inspire the misguided investment allure of Rated Rookies, but I love how they represent real events from the previous season – some historic, others not so much.

Topps issued a kind-of precursor to the Record Breakers set in 1961 with “Baseball Thrills,” a subset that honored various baseball highlights – many involving record-setting feats – from the previous 40 years or so. In 1974, Topps issued a special base card for Hank Aaron, proclaiming him as the “New All-Time Home Run King,” even though he hadn’t actually broken the record yet. 1975 saw the debut of the “Season Highlights” set, that honored the homer record, along with Lou Brock’s single season SB record, the first time records from the previous season were so honored.

In 1976, the first Record Breakers set appeared. The series opened up the set, number-wise, and featured Hank Aaron’s breaking of the all-time RBI record on card #1 (the fourth straight year Aaron appeared on card #1). Record Breakers appeared about every-other year through the 1985 set, alternating with the Season Highlights set, which usually contained a few record-breaking moments itself. In 1979 and 1981, the set started with card #200, but otherwise opened with card #1. This led to one of the less-distinguished “first cards” in Topps history, the 1983 opener featuring Oakland’s Tony Armas, the brand new holder of the esteemed mark for most putouts by a right fielder in a single game. Card #2 that year was Rickey Henderson, who had just broken the single-season stolen base record, obviously a much bigger deal. However, the numbering of these sets was (mostly) done by alphabetical order. The lone exception was Reggie Jackson’s 1978 RB, which honored his 5-homer World Series. The card appears at the end of the RB set, card #7, although by the letter, it should have been card #3. One can assume that the card was a late addition to the checklist and Topps chose to bump a base card from the #7 spot rather than reorder the RBs.

The 1983 Aramas #1 card is hardly the only RB to feature a less-than-historic achievement. In 1979, Topps paid tribute to Mike Edwards of the A’s for recording two unassisted double plays in a single game – tying a mark for AL second baseman. They also honored Mets backstop John Stearns that year. Stearns stole 25 bases (against 13 times caught) in 1978, hardly an earth-shattering total, but a new record for NL catchers. The 1981 set paid tribute to a couple of at-bat kings – Willie Wilson for a new single-season mark and Pete Rose for totaling the most consecutive 600 AB seasons.

In 1985, the Record Breaker set became an annual feature. That year saw 10 RB cards, the most ever in a single set (that feat alone could have garnered its own card), and featured five future Hall of Famers (Fisk, Morgan, Ryan, Sutter, and Sutton). In 1986, aside from the card honoring Pete Rose’s new career hit record, the pickings were a bit thin, prompting Topps to begin considering being the youngest or most elderly player to achieve a feat as a broken record. The ’86 RBs thus included Doc Gooden (youngest Cy Young winner), Phil Niekro (oldest to toss a shutout), and Tony Perez (oldest to hit a grand slam).

Rose’s 1986 RB card was his fifth, extending his own record for most RB appearances. That mark would be tied in 1992 by Nolan Ryan. Other players with multiple RB appearances include Cal Ripken (2), Carlton Fisk (2), Davey Lopes (2 ), Dwight Gooden (2), Rickey Henderson (3), and Vince Coleman (3). Of the 26 MLB teams that were around during the RB era, only the Mariners and Braves did not appear in the set. The New York Yankees were featured eight times, the most of any team.

The fact that Henderson, Lopes, and Coleman all made multiple appearances speaks to the high-speed era in which most of the RBs came from. Of the 85 Record Breaker cards Topps issued between 1976 and 1992, 13 dealt with stolen base records, more than all but strikeouts (15) and home runs (16). Surprising, Hank Aaron’s ’76 RBI Record Breaker was the only card to ever honor an RBI record.

In 1989, Topps went with a NNOF (no name on front) design for the Record Breakers – the rare occasion in which they issued player-specific cards without IDing them on the front (perhaps the only time they’ve done this, now that I think about it). The 1990 and 1991 sets would be NNOF as well. In 1990, the RBs were bumped back to accommodate Nolan Ryan’s #1 base card and a 5-card Ryan retrospective set honoring his 5,000th strikeout. Ryan also took the top spot in ’91 and ’92, followed immediately by the RBs – which each featured a Ryan card, making him the rare player with multiple “first page” (cards 1-9) appearances in a single year.

In 1993, with an expanded set and a new dual-series format, Topps dumped the Record Breaker subset.

Matthew Prigge has just launched a new card blog detailing his quest to complete a signed 1974 Topps set and his other collecting adventures. Check out Summer of ’74!

“BO”: The History of the Perfect Junk Wax Card

If there was a single athlete who personified the so-called “junk wax” era of trading cards, it was Bo Jackson. Bo was a force unlike anything the sporting world had ever known when he burst onto the scene in the late 1980s. As was the idea of grown men taking over a hobby once deemed the realm of children, the idea that a single freak of athletic nature could be the most exciting player in both baseball and football seemed ridiculous. And, just as with the hobby that promised to turn a stack of Todd Van Poppels into a college fund, Bo Jackson vanished from the scene before his potential could truly be realized. And in the summer of 1990, the forces that were Bo Jackson and the riding-high trading card hobby melded into what might be the definitive card of the junk wax era… 1990 Score baseball #697.

bofront

In 1988, Major League Marketing, the company that had given the world Sportsflics, introduced Score. The brand was a more mainstream play on the Sportsflics concept, which was largely defined by the gimmick of their plastic-coated changing-image obverses. Score was a more tradition cardboard issue, but utilized the underappreciated back-of-the-card features of Sportsflics – color photos and extensive biographical information – to create something truly revolutionary. A year ahead of Upper Deck and a year and a half of Pro Set, 1988 Score was a slick, premium trading card that brought collectors closer to the players than anything else on the market.

By 1990, with Upper Deck having enter the fray, the baseball market was more competitive than ever and brands were looking to differentiate themselves. For their third year of baseball, Score issued their most colorful and rookie-loaded set to date. They introduced draft pick cards – something pioneered by Topps the year before – and robbed Upper Deck of the illustrated card idea with their “Dream Team” subset. They also brought back an old-school concept with a playoff subset, highlighting the League Championship Series and the World Series.

But with card 697, they did something somewhat unprecedented in the hobby. There had been special, one-off cards of players before – honoring accomplishments, recognizing retirements, and the like – but card 697 was a tribute to nothing more than the sheer force that was Bo Jackson. The card itself, even devoid of context, is pretty remarkable. The front featured a black and white, horizontal image of Jackson in shoulder pads, hands draped over a baseball bat resting behind his neck. The photo was taken from a Nike Air poster titled “The Ballplayer” that had been issued the previous year. The image was framed by a white border and inset with the Score logo. The card’s minimalism, the subtle tones of the artful image, Jackson’s effortless pose and impressive physique all melded to form one of the most beautiful baseball cards yet issued. On the card’s reverse side, inside a green border and above the requisite branding and licensing bugs were just two letters – BO – done in black and blue (Raiders and Royals). To anyone who was a sports fan or a collector in 1990, those were the only two letters necessary to convey the power of the card. If you didn’t know BO, you might as well just put down the baseball cards and start collecting stamps.

boback

1990 Score baseball hit the store in January, right around the time Bo Jackson was finishing up an 11-game NFL season in which he ran for 950 yards on just 173 carries – which itself followed up a baseball season in which he hit 32 homers, made the all-star team, and placed 10th in the MVP voting. It was, perhaps, the height of Bo-mania both in the sporting and pop culture realms. 1990 was also near the peak of card-mania and, laughable as it seems today, adults were tearing through fifty-cent packages of Topps, Upper Deck, Score, Fleer, and Donruss baseball – carefully setting aside Ben McDonalds, Pat Combes, and Steve Hosesys with the honest belief that they were something akin to blue chip stocks.

Card 697 was the perfect combination of subject and timing. The oddity of it (I can’t think of any truly comparable card that had been issued to that date) and the hobby obsession with Jackson soon became the card of the season. By February, it was selling for a respectable sixty cents – about the same as the base cards of superstar players. By March, it was going for $4 – an unheard of sum for a new issue card that was not an error or rookie. By April, it had reached $8 and was drawing interest from the media outside of the hobby. Just weeks into the baseball season, with Jackson off to a blistering start, the Chicago Tribune reported that area card shops were selling packs of Score baseball for a dollar each – twice their retail price – and limiting customers to ten packs per day. Rumors flew that the entire 1990 Score set had been short-printed because of the brand’s newly expanded football line. Other whispers had it that card 697 was about to be pulled from production because of a Nike lawsuit. Score denied all the rumors (indeed, the 1990 set was just as overproduced as anything of the era), but that could not stop the furor over the card. In late April, 25-year veteran National League umpire Bob Engle was arrested for shoplifting seven boxes of 1990 Score from a Bakersfield, CA store. He was suspended by the league for the incident and later retired after being convicted and receiving probation. Bo-mania was officially causing strange behavior.

By June, even with Jackson having cooled off at the plate, the card was selling for $15 and Beckett Baseball Card Monthly ran the full-length Bo-in-shoulder-pads image on its cover. That same month, a spree of counterfeit 697s began to appear in Mississippi, Chicago, and New Jersey. They were strictly low-end knock-offs, given away by their lack of color on the reverse (some shady dealers were hocking them as Score “press proofs”). The Associated Press picked up on the story and newspaper coast-to-coast ran the story of the fake cards.

As the season wore on, the card began to cool off. In September, it hit its Beckett price guide peak of $12, and was down to $9 by December. This was due in part, no doubt, to overkill. Only Nolan Ryan had more baseball cards in 1990 than Jackson and, by the season’s end, the market was flooded with Jackson football cards as well. Then came the January 13, 1991 divisional playoff game between Jackson’s Raiders and the Cincinnati Bengals, when a tackle dislocated Jackson’s hip and effectively ended his days as the nation’s most captivating athlete. Many thought his professional careers were over and, the following March, the Royals released him. That summer, as Jackson worked towards his comeback, Beckett listed the card at $4.50 – more of a novelty than an investment (more on that here). I recall that for years afterward, as it remained above common card status, the card was listed as “697 Bo Jackson (FB/BB)…” in price books. And still, everyone knew what it meant.

Today, the card can be had for a few dollars online and can probably be found in dollar binders at card shows across the nation on any given weekend. Certainly a hard fall from the summer of 1990, but it remains a remarkably sought-after card. Take a look on eBay and you will inevitably find a few copies (ungraded) listed at outrageous prices given the marketplace – $10, $20, $30 (the complete 1990 Score set can be had for about $15). It’s easy to mock people who list junk wax era stuff for such prices as ignorant of the hobby, but with card 697, it feels just a little different. I’ve still got my copy of the card, still encased in the top-loader that my shaky little 8-year-old hands slipped it into a quarter century ago. I understand that I could only get a few bucks for it if I ever tried to sell it. But I also know it’s worth a lot more than that.

 

The Other Mike Cameron: A 2009 Topps Mini-Mystery Sorta Solved

Like many card collectors, I have a touch of what R. Crumb called “compulsive series syndrome.” That is, the need to create a collection that is not only complete, but organized in a specific way. As a Milwaukee Brewers collector, that means lining up the flagship team set every year – base cards arranged by last name followed by subsets by number, then the traded or update series organized in the same fashion – in nine-pocket bindered pages. It’s a nice way to capture a season, but the last decade or so of Topps flagship sets has often been frustrating. Series one usually contains  handful of guys no longer with the team while series two begins to roll out off-season additions. Unlike the clean single-series sets of yore, it leaves a sort-of two-season amalgamation of players. It also resulted in one of the true quirks of my flagship Topps Brewers collection – the twin 2009 base cards for Mike Cameron that sit side-by-side in my “2004-Present” binder.

cam

Before the 2008 season, the Brewers signed Cameron to a 1-year deal with an option for a second. Cam was to take over in center field for an over-matched Bill Hall and, after serving a 25 suspension for amphetamines, was one of leaders of a team that won 90 games and broke a quarter-century playoff drought for the Brewers. Cameron had a good season, but he wasn’t an all-star, got no MVP votes, and led the league in nothing. He was certainly significant enough to get a spot in the upcoming Topps set… but two? So far as I know, the only other player honored with TWO base cards with the same team in a single set was Ted Williams, who was both the first and last cards in the 1954 set. (I need to make clear here, there may be other examples of this… I just don’t know of or know how to search for them. If you know of others, please mention them)

cam2

So what gives? Well, the series one Cameron card is unremarkable. But the series two card offers a clue. While the series one entry correctly states that Cam was acquired as a free agent on 1-11-08, the second series card says “ACQ: TRADE WITH BREWERS, 12-15-08.” On December 11, 2008, it was reported that the Brewers were very near to a deal to send Cameron to the Yankees for Melky Cabrera. The Brewers had just picked up Cameron’s option year, but were looking at cheaper alternatives in center. Meanwhile, the Yankees were seeking a veteran upgrade from the 23-year old Cabrera. The deal was nearly official before the Yankees asked the Brewers to help pay part of Cameron’s salary. By December 17, it was reported that the deal was dead.

Piecing all this together, we can assume that Topps was finalizing its series two checklist right around the time of the rumored trade and prepared a Cameron-as-Yankee card. When the deal fell apart, they inexplicably kept Cam on the checklist as a Brewer, forgetting to change the ‘how acquired’ line. Why he wasn’t replaced altogether on the checklist remains a mystery. Several players who changed teams around the same time Cameron nearly did appear in series two in their new uniforms, so it’s not as though Topps did not have the time to make significant alterations to the series. And then there is the matter of CC Sabathia, who, like Cameron, was featured in the first series as a Brewer. Sabathia was the that off-season’s top free agent prize, and signed with the Yankees on Dec. 20. While Topps included a number of players who changed teams after Dec. 20 with their new clubs, they ignored the Sabathia signing – and any other player in series one who changed teams – until the update series. So, again, we’re left with to wonder what was so special about Mike Cameron.

So, in my quest to learn why my perfectly-aligned 9-pocket page had two Mike Cameron cards right next to each other, I ended up with as many questions as answers. Can anyone think of other two-base card players in Topps history? Does anyone have any similar petty-yet-maddening card mysteries?

Follow me on Twitter, @mjpmke and check out my blog on Brewers history.