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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

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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.