Elegance, thy name is … Circle K?

So this was originally going to be a super-short post about an old set – well, nearly a set – that was just sort of laying around, and that I’ve never quite been able to get out of my mind. But then I toddled off for just a tiny bit of research and now this won’t be super-short, probably not even short at all.

You’re welcome!

1985ck-11dAt some point back in the 1980s, I guess, I picked up a set of cards, (probably) sight-unseen because they were inside a box. As I remembered the set, they came from K-Mart and depicted the top 34 home-run hitters of all time.

At the time. Which meant the set included Lee May.

Lee May? Yeah, Lee May. When the set was released in 1985, Lee May’s 354 career clouts ranked 34th on the all-time list.

Now? Poor Lee May’s fallen well more than 100 percent on the all-time list, tied for 88th with Luis Gonzalez. But I remember enjoying the fact that one relatively small set of baseball cards included Hank Aaron and Lee May. Along with other non-immortals like Norm Cash, Frank Howard, and Dave Kingman.

But what I really liked about those cards, even 30-some years ago, was the simple elegance of their design. They did have a border – in those years, it seems that nobody could even imagine designing a baseball card without a border – but otherwise the card was pure image, with the player’s name in tiny print in the bottom-left corner of the border. (So I suppose this is becoming a running theme, as my previous post was about another simply elegant set. At some point early on, that apparently became my design preference, at least with baseball cards.)
41imymdgfclNow, about my research… This set was produced by Topps (as I correctly remembered) but not sold by K-Mart. It was actually Circle K, which surprised me mostly because we didn’t have Circle K stores where I lived.

This should have been obvious, since the back of the cards carry the Circle K logo. But I didn’t recognize the logo because – have I mentioned this already? – we didn’t have Circle K stores where I lived!

Okay, so going through my set, I discovered I was missing a couple of cards. And by looking at that 1985 list of home-run leaders, I realized the missing cards were Ted Williams (#9) and Joe DiMaggio (#31). Cards that (I figured) I had probably misplaced, used as bookmarks, or gave away.

I found about Circle K by Googling K-Mart baseball cards … ‘cause it turns out K-Mart did have their own baseball cards, also in the 1980s. Actually, it turns out pretty much everybody had their own baseball cards in the ‘80s. You might recall the glut. Here’s the description of my set from a Sports Collectors Daily article about all those ‘80s boxed sets:

In a departure from the busy designs that would mar just about every other boxed set during the 1980s, each card in the Topps “Baseball All Time Home Run Kings” set featured a full-color photo surrounded by thin colored piping inside a thicker white border. As the name implies, the cards depicted the top 33 sluggers on baseball’s career home run list at the time and were distributed at Circle K convenience stores.

A mystery, though. Only 33 cards in the set? Lee May is #34. Then again,scan_pic0036 34 is a strange number for a set. Just in terms of printing, don’t you want a number that’s divisible by 3 or 4? In fact, all the other sets discussed in the SCD story were either 33 or 44 cards. So why 34 in this one? And what in hell did I do with my Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio cards?

My answer took a few days. A partial answer, anyway. I was so annoyed by those two missing cards that I purchased a full set on eBay – don’t worry; it was cheap! – and this one arrived today with the original box. And on the back of the box, a checklist.

Or what looks like a checklist. It’s not a checklist. It’s a list of the top 34 home-run hitters, Aaron through May. But right next to the number 31 and Joe DiMaggio, an asterisk. And below the list, in even smaller type, an asterisk with this note:

Picture card not included in series.

We can probably guess why. DiMaggio’s people probably wanted more money than Circle K was willing to spend. DiMaggio’s people were well-known for that sorta thing. So the (self-described) Greatest Living Ballplayer and his 361 career homers are on the box, but not in the box. Oh well. At least now I do have the greatest (then) living hitter.

41qcb3psenlOne more thing about the box… Below the list and the DiMaggio footnote, we’re told that the set is (for some reason) DISTRIBUTED by TOPPS IRELAND LTD. and PRINTED IN REP. OF IRELAND. Which I’ll leave here as a tidbit for the archivists among you.

Before letting you go, I do want to revisit a note from that SCD snippet. If you’ve got the stomach for it, check out those other boxed sets from the ‘80s, from places like K-Mart and Woolworth’s and Eckerd Drugs and Revco. The designs of those sets were all busy. And that’s putting it nicely. I would argue that the 1985 Circle K set is the only boxed set from the ’80s that’s not esthetically revolting.

One of the great things about collecting cards is that there is not really a premium for attractiveness. If you want to build a collection that simply looks good, you don’t have to spend much at all. And you could do a lot worse than 1985 Topps Baseball All Time Home Run Kings Exclusively From Circle K (33 Super Gloss Photo Cards).

Yeah, Topps Supers really are

clementeExcept for a fairly brief period in my life, when it comes to baseball cards I’ve always been little more than an interested observer. Oh, I’ve purchased a pack (or two or three) of cards in most years since the early 1980s, I guess. But my “collection” is mundane and I spent only three or four years somewhat insanely buying box after box of cards (with money I didn’t really have) in the pursuit of a complete Topps set. Or Donruss or Fleer or even Score set (which should give you a pretty good idea of when I was in the grips of this particular mania).

But that’s a story for another day (if ever). The above is just a long-winded way of saying there’s a great deal about baseball/bubble-gum cards I’ve never learned, because I’ve never really invested much time or money in the pursuit. And so, somehow I didn’t discover until almost just this moment the splendid delights of Topps’s 1971 Supers.

Now, there are a couple of obvious reasons why I’d never even heard of the Supers, which were actually produced in 1971 and ’70. The first is that I wasn’t even in kindergarten yet; I don’t remember seeing any cards until a few years later. The second is that the Supers just weren’t popular (as you’d expect, considering their short run in the marketplace). Maybe more to the point, they’ve never become popular. There was never anyone saying, “Rob, you should covet these bits of cardboard.”

And yet, now I do covet them, and recently picked up a dozen or so on eBay (for cheap).

gibsonThe cards are massive: 16.4 square inches, compared to 8.75 square inches for a standard card of that (and today’s) era. But even that understates the difference. The Supers are all image, zero border. Meanwhile, the oft-beloved ’71 regular set, with its black borders, winds up with an image of just 6.2 square inches, meaning the Supers actually give you 264 percent more player per card.

How do you turn down 264 percent more major leaguer?

Well, I can guess why the kids in 1971 turned it down. For one thing, there were only 63 Super cards, compared to a whopping 752 in the regular Topps set. For another, a regular pack cost you a dime and got you eight cards; your same 10 cents got you only two Supers. And finally … kids in 1971 had small hands! Those regular cards probably seemed plenty big enough!

Come to think of it, kids today probably still have small hands. Baseball cards were designed for baseball fans with small hands and sharp eyes. But my hands are big and my eyes … well, I’m getting fitted for bifocals this week.

mccoveyI can’t be eight years old again. What I am is fifty years old with a few of the enthusiasms, or at least the capacity for enthusiasm, of an eight-year-old. And I gotta tell you, right now there are few things that bring me more joy than holding 16.4 square inches of rigidly thick, vividly colored cardboard featuring Willie McCovey’s young, smiling, handsome, BIG face.

The Supers lasted for just those two years, and I understand why it was only two years. Doesn’t mean I have to agree with it.