Virtually all collectors around my age have vivid (or at least blurry) recollections of 1981 as a watershed year in Hobby history. This was of course the year that Fleer and Donruss crashed the Topps monopoly with full-size baseball card sets featuring active players.
Of the multiple offerings, the Fleer cards were hottest initially, largely due to a ridiculously high number of errors in early print runs. While the cards have cooled off considerably in the time since, I will say Fleer’s Tom Seaver photo is among my favorite and a George Foster card captioned “Slugger” is always welcome in my collection.
Building off their prior success with team stickers, Fleer complemented its baseball card set with a 128-card “Star Stickers” set, which I recall as coming out at least a month or two after the cards.
Even at age 11 I was smart enough to know the dumbest thing in the world would be to peel and stick the stickers as directed. That was for suckers. I had reached the age (thankfully only temporarily) where “protecting my investment” took priority over enjoying my collection.
Kids lucky enough to assemble collections of both the cards and the stickers, whether stuck onto notebooks or preserved for posterity in shoeboxes, likely noticed that some of the photographs used on the stickers matched those of the cards, subject only to minor differences in cropping, brightness, or background clean-up. Cobra presented one such example.
Other times, the Star Sticker offered a genuinely new shot of the player, as was the case with this Don Baylor pair.
Somewhere between these two possibilities were 30 or so stickers that might have been confused for their cardboard counterparts until placed side by side.
In this Cardboard Crosswalk, I’ll do my best to showcase all “near pairs” across the two sets. As you’ll see, some close calls will prevent me from declaring my work definitive.
The first grouping of near-pairs are these 19 players, whose images are nearly identical other than the direction the player is facing (and less interesting differences such as zooming or cropping). Generally, one image will show the player looking directly at the camera while the other will show a three-quarters angle.
This next group of six players trades one pose in for another and includes some of my favorite pairings across the two sets, particularly Dave Kingman and his subtle shift from batter to fielder.
We already saw Bobby Grich go from stoic to smiling. The reverse occurs with Rick Burleson.
This next collection could come straight out of the “Highlights for Children” magazine where the child awaiting dentistry staves off total boredom by attempting to spot all differences between two nearly identical images. In each case, I believe I have found at least one feature that distinguishes source photos across the pair, but you may want to check my work.
Here are three other near pairs that I didn’t think fit neatly into any of the earlier categories.
And finally, here is Richie Zisk. When pulled from the pack, I doubt any collector looked at the sticker and thought, “Hey, this looks familiar.” However, putting the card and sticker side by side suggests photographs taken in close succession.
The 28 pairs shown thus far reflect about 20 percent of the sticker set, which includes 125 numbered cards and three unnumbered checklists. What about the remainder of the set?
Similar to the Don Baylor shown early in the article, about 70 of the stickers offer a completely different look at the player, while about 30 draw from the same source image as the standard baseball card. Part of the reason I say “about” is that I can’t always tell.
Take Rod Carew for example. His card and sticker appear to use the same source photo (though clearly the background has been altered). However, his head may be tilted more on the card than the sticker, meaning we may be looking at neighboring images on the roll. Carew is not unique in this regard as there are numerous card-sticker pairs where I just can’t be certain.
A puzzle of the sticker set, at least to me, is why Fleer introduced new photos for some but not all players. At least to my eye, the sticker photo is neither consistently better nor worse than the card photo, so it doesn’t appear to reflect any desire to improve upon the photo quality of what had been a hastily produced set.
One thought is that whoever was working on the sticker set paid little attention to the card set and simply chose the sticker photo independently from among the options available. That the same photo was chosen about half the time suggests a fairly small pool of photos (or at least photos that someone might choose), which to me works against the overall theory.
Lacking any compelling theory on the above, I’ll simply close out the crosswalk with a few random tidbits about the sticker set.
While the card set is famous for its many errors and variations, the sticker set has no known variations and only one recognized uncorrected error (UER): the misspelling of Davey (or Dave) Lopes as Davy. (The same UER occurs in the card set.)
While a wonderful innovation of the Fleer card sets, not just in 1981 but in subsequent years, was to sequence the cards by team, the numbering of the stickers appears completely random.
Sadly for Jays fans, the sticker set includes no Toronto players despite all 25 other teams being represented.
There are many mascot races in the major and minor leagues these days, but it all began at Milwaukee County Stadium on June 27, 1993, when a modest scoreboard animation suddenly burst into live action on the playing field.
That Sunday afternoon, the original Klement’s Famous Sausages—the Bratwurst, the Polish and the Italian—surged out from behind the left field fence and began running haphazardly toward home plate, weaving uncertainly back and forth in their seven-feet from head to knee lederhosen, red-and-blue striped koszulka, and tall chef’s hat.
Brainchild of Milwaukee graphic designer Michael Dillon of McDill Design, the racers were an instant hit with the 45,580 Brewer fans in attendance. At first, the races were only held on dates when a big crowd was expected. Later, the races occurred every Sunday. Finally, they became a ritual between the sixth and seventh innings at every game. In the mid-1990s, a Hot Dog was added to the County Stadium line-up. A fifth sausage, the Chorizo, later broke into the regular line-up.
The races continued after the Brewers moved to the then-named Miller Park. On July 9, 2003, Pittsburgh first baseman Randall Simon took a playful tap of the bat at the back of the Italian Sausage as the runners passed the third-base visitor’s dugout. The poke knocked the mascot to the ground, and the hot dog tripped over the fallen racer. Young women were playing the role of each racer. Both suffered cuts and bruises.
Sheriffs at the ballpark took a dim view of Simon’s interference and launched a criminal investigation. Judicial proceedings ended with a $342 fine levied against the Pirate for disorderly conduct. Major League Baseball elbowed into the act and suspended Simon for three days.
Despite the Simon incident, a friendly rivalry evolved between the Sausages and the Pierogies of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the two mascot teams now face off with each other in an annual home and away relay race.
But don’t expect anything similar with the Racing Presidents of the Washington Nationals. There’s some bad blood between the mascots, with the Presidential team mocking the Milwaukee originals as cardboard “Un-talian sausage,” “No-lish Sausage,” “Not-Dog,” “Not-Wurst,” and “Choriz-No.”
No matter. The Racing Presidents baseball card is the ugliest baseball card produced so far in the 21st century.
The Brooklyn Superbas of 1911 finished seventh in the National League standings and in attendance as well, which is to say they were not a pretty team to watch, but oh what a gorgeous team to collect!
While it’s the gold borders of these cards that give the T205 set its nickname and hallmark feature, I am just as much a fan of the rich, colorful backgrounds and simple design and an even bigger fan of the expressive (mostly) Paul Thompson portraits on which the player artwork is based. (See Andrew Aronstein’s site for some absolutely stunning side-by-side images.)
As many collectors of the T205 set are aware, many of the images used on the cards can also be found in the 1911 edition of Spalding’s Official Base Ball Guide. For example, here is the two-page spread on the Brooklyn team.
The Zack Wheat image matches up nicely with his T205 card.
In all, half of the 24 Brooklyn portraits in the Guide use the same photo as an image in the T205 set. I created this mashup to show the correspondence.
As there are 14 different cards in the T205 Brooklyn team set, there are necessarily instances where cards do not match the Guide portrait.
One such example is “Bad Bill” Dahlen, who managed the team from 1910-13.
A more unusual example occurs with the Tony Smith card, which matches up to the Guide image of a different Smith: Henry Joseph “Happy” Smith.
Interestingly, the Guide image of Tony matches up with the T206 card of Happy.
The third and final T205 Brooklyn card that doesn’t match the Guide image belongs to Cy Barger. Sort of.
I say “sort of” because Barger had two different cards in the T205 set but only one Guide portrait. The second of the two Barger cards, known as “Full B on Cap,” is the one that matches the Guide.
That Barger had two cards in the set is curious but hardly unique. Seven other subjects had multiple cards in the set as well: Roger Bresnahan, Hal Chase, Eddie Collins, Russ Ford, Bob Harmon, Bobby Wallace, and Hooks Wiltse. That Barger had the least impressive resume of the lot, circa 1911, may or may not be significant, and we’ll return to it shortly.
Returning to the crosswalk, there are a dozen Guide images that failed to make it onto cards, including the Smith and Dahlen portraits already discussed.
Had the set lived up the “400 designs” promised on the backs of the cards, perhaps we’d have cards of all or most of these players.
While four of the “missing” players made it into the T207 “Brown Backgrounds” set the following year, some had to wait all the way until the 1990 Target Dodgers mega-set to get their first cards with the team.
Before closing out the crosswalk portion of this article, I’ll note that there are two other pages of the Guide that include photographs of Brooklyn players. Each of pages 34 and 36 features four-player composites using photographs taken by Charles Conlon.
Collectors may recognize the Bergen image on page 34 as matching one of his two T206 cards, but none of the images provide matches to T205.
Having exhausted the Spalding Guide/T205 crosswalk angle, I’ll now return to the two cards of Cy Barger for something of a postscript.
When I first saw these two cards, I firmly believed they showed two different players, the shapes of the face and ears initially striking me as most discrepant. With Barger also being an unusual player to double up on in the set, I wondered if the reason for the second card was that the first card depicted the wrong guy. In other words, did the two cards represent an error card and its correction?
Let’s assume for a minute that this error/correction theory is correct. Perhaps the first question to ask is which card, if either, shows the real Cy Barger. As the Spalding Guide matches “Full B,” let’s start there. Additionally, as my wallet can attest, “Full B” is the more common of the two, which is what we would expect where errors and corrections are concerned.
However, any further scrutiny seems to torpedo the error/correction theory. Take the population report for the set, for example. Were one card a correction of the other, we would expect the combined population of the two cards to correspond roughly to that of a typical card in the set. Conversely, if the set simply (intentionally or not) doubled up on Bargers, then we would expect their combined population to be roughly double of a typical card in the set.
What we do find (as of May 31, 2022) is that the PSA population report for “Partial B” is 125 and “Full B” is 249. Meanwhile the population for a typical card in the set appears to be in the 200-250 range. This seems to refute the error/correction theory, instead suggesting “Full B” as a standard print and “Partial B” as a short-print in the set.
Were an error and correction at play, we would also not expect to see continued or repeated usage of the erroneous image on other cards. However, there are two other sets where both Barger images appear.
The first is the S74 Silks set, in which “Full B” appears on white silks and “Partial B” appears on colored silks.
The precise dating of these silks within the 1909-11 window can vary by source, though most that differentiate between white and colored have the former preceding the latter. (See the S74 website for an argument that dates the white silks to mid-1911 and the colored silks to later in the year.) Provided the white silks indeed came first, then we would have the correct Barger image replaced by the incorrect one, which feels odd. Obviously, odder things have happened in the baseball card universe, but I’d still say the Silks provide yet another blow to the error/correction theory.
We also see both Barger images in the 1912 Hassan Triple Folder (T202) set. Certainly one possibility is that T205 artwork, known errors and all, was simply recycled into T202 without scrutiny. More plausibly, however, there was no known error to begin with.
The two Barger images appear in several other issues, though not together. For example, here is the “Full B” image used in a few oddball issues of the period: 1909-12 Sweet Caporal Domino Discs, 1910-12 Sweet Caporal Pins, and 1911 Helmar Stamps.
Meanwhile here is the “Partial B” image used in the 1914 Helmar Art Stamp issue, which a discerning eye will note places him with the Pittsburgh Rebels of the Federal League. Careless recycling? Perhaps. Or, as before, we can take this as another nail in the coffin of the error/correction theory.
Even with the error/correction theory looking like a big, fat nothingbarger, a question still alive is whether one of the two Barger images is an uncorrected error, or UER as we way in the Hobby.
To no avail, I’ve tried to locate a source photograph for the “Partial B” image, even going so far as reviewing all 350+ portraits across the 16 teams in the Spalding Guide. I’ve also reviewed a couple years or so of images from old newspapers thanks to the free newspapers.com access our SABR memberships now include.
Finally, I’ve looked at the various Cy Barger cards that use neither the “Full B” nor “Partial B” image in hopes that they might provide hints.
In the end, I’m not sure any of the Barger cards, save the first two, look like the same guy, and that may well be the true conclusion of all this. There is always some “drift” in creating artwork from photographs, and this is only accentuated when the photos themselves differ. Each piece of art, or baseball card in our case, may resemble its source photograph reasonably well while at the same looking very different from other art of the same subject.
Personally, I still see two different guys on the T205 Barger cards. However, it’s no longer a hill I’d die on but one I can only Cy on. Feel free to share your own take in the Comments.
Editor’s note: SABR Baseball Cards welcomes new member F. Scott Wilkinson with the final installment of his 10 articles on the 1972 Topps set, now celebrating its 50th anniversary.Click here to start the series from the beginning.
I have explained many times that I am, by Profession, a Gambler—not some jock-sniffing nerd or a hired human squawk-box with the brain of a one-cell animal. No. That would be your average career sportswriter—and, more specifically, a full-time Baseball writer.
—Hunter S. Thompson
On the way to accumulating all 787 cards of the ’72 series I dove in and soaked up as much hobby knowledge as possible. As much as I’d been into collecting as a boy before long it became obvious that I knew nothing about any of the finer points. Good grief, is there ever a lot to learn…
Traditionally, cards with numbers ending in “00” or “50” are reserved for the most iconic players, though naturally not all selections have aged well. For 1972 there’s an interesting time capsule of 15 such cards, including: Willie Mays In Action (#50), Frank Robinson (#100), Norm Cash (#150), Lou Brock (#200), Boog Powell (#250), Hank Aaron In Action (#300), Frank Howard (#350), Tony Oliva (#400), Mickey Lolich (#450), Joe Torre (#500), Brooks Robinson (#550), Al Kaline (#600), Sal Bando (#650), Bobby Murcer In Action (#700), and Willie Horton (#750). Considering the year, it looks like Orioles are appropriately represented, Tigers are overrepresented, and pitchers and Pirates are underrepresented. Roberto Clemente for Sal Bando or Willie Horton, anyone?
Lower-numbered cards are more common while higher cards tend to be more rare and valuable/expensive, though I did happily find many decent high numbered cards in my spotty boyhood collection. Reportedly many regions of the country just never received higher series cards.
As with numismatics, the grade of “good” is a misnomer – about the worst grade there is – though “fair” and “poor” are valid too. Venders will note that those lesser grades are “just so you can say you have a card” – they’re placeholders, and barely worth the paper they’re printed on. Early on, Willie Stargell (#447) got tossed into the recycling bin – regrettable and maybe foolish, but the card was so warped and bloated from water damage I had to say goodbye. Tough to know where to draw the line though. Sorry, Willie.
An incorrigible collector/space filler from way back, I got lost in searching for the best deals…trying to be disciplined and unemotional, patient and thorough…which isn’t easy when all you want is to instantly have these things in your hands so you can turn them over and over and stare at them. At first it was fun to buy random large lots of cards to get the ‘best’ value (at that point I was thinking “Okay, about a dollar a card—not too bad…”), but the shine wore off soon as it sank in that many cards vendors sent were (perhaps) thin fakes or otherwise comically off-center, with rounded, fuzzy corners, frayed edges, and faded print on the back due to aging/oxidation or “paper loss”. The broad appeal of sports cards almost invites all kinds of creative ways to damage them.
They can have gum, wax, water, oil or tape stains, pencil/ink writing, staple holes, divots or indentations, blisters, rubber band constriction marks, and innumerable other blemishes caused by careless handling. Bernie Carbo (#463) arrived wearing one of those ’70’s style punch labels on his back and there it remains after inducing a tear. Don’t think I revisited that vendor. Maybe worst of all is a crease (or “wrinkle”), both soft (showing on one side or the other) and hard (showing on both sides). Then you read about card trimming, presumably to enhance centering and pricing. Really? Isn’t that a petty, chintzy scam! One could just measure the dimensions of the card in question…though by then the seller may be long gone.
Here are just a few of the bad things that can happen with your cards…
Sticker added (Bernie Carbo, #463), paper loss and bent corners (Hal McRae, #291), offset printing (Ross Grimsley, #99).
Hard crease (1st Series Checklist, #4), blister/mystery blemish (John Odom, #557), rubber band constriction marks (Steve Huntz, #73).
For me eventually very good, fine, and even “Excellent” cards weren’t satisfying enough…usually due to creases, stains, dog-ear corners and/or off centering…so then you go for “Near Mint” or “Mint.” Who would guess that over the course of a lifetime one could go from putting “In-Action” cards into bike spokes to obsessing about centering and perfect corners? Not me, until now.
After buying loads of cards I started to receive free ones tacked onto orders from familiar online vendors, a nice show of goodwill for being a reliable customer. Most of them were cheesy, value-less, but hey – they’re free, so no complaints at all. But speaking of “cheesy” – how about two Topps “Chrome” cards from 2001 —Roberto Alomar (#365) and Omar Vizquel (#452), featuring outdated cartoon caricature Indians logo and unavoidable reflection of phone and fingers.
Then along came a 1991 Fleer Dwight Evans (#93) and a 1996 Upper Deck Jim Abbott (#292) – pretty sweet.
One time it was a 1983 Donruss card featuring the “The (San Diego) Chicken”(#645)—okay. Another was a 1985 Fleer card of Al Oliver (#U-84) wearing number “0” and looking serious in a Dodgers uniform— very cool.
There was even a 1990 Upper Deck card of a thin, mustachioed Edgar Martinez (#532) when he still played third base for the Mariners—nice! The most generous gift was 15 Fleer cards from the charmed 1986 Mets team that won the World Series from the Red Sox, including Series MVP Ray Knight (#86). Much appreciated.
One of the latest freebees was a 4955 MFWD John Deere Tractor card (#D26) from 1994—oh boy. But still, I’ll keep it. I have to thank these kind vendors – it was eye-opening to be exposed to such a variety of brands and realize that Topps is just one facet of the sports card landscape.
All in all good luck has been had with online purchases, aside from a few mistakes like not reading the fine print (“Photo is a stock image”) and getting stuck with a crappy card I didn’t get to evaluate. They might send reprints rather than originals—not easily proven but hopefully not too commonplace either, at least with the hobby faithful. Eventually a black light will need to be had to help see if we’ve ever been swindled.
The only gripe I have is minor, but consistent: damn, do most vendors use way too much tape when packing the things up! That would be fine if it was some gentle non-stick tape, but it always seems to bleed tree sap onto a pristine sleeve to keep a card from teleporting out during its travels…or they create a packing tape fortress, covering the entire outside of the package with the infernal stuff. Some seem booby-trapped to keep you from the precious cargo…it’s just beyond the next plastic sleeve, rubber band, or cardboard sheath. But hey – the packages never show up bent so if that’s the worst thing about the process, so be it. Overall I’ve been treated like family, especially by my more reliable eBay sources like The Baseball Card Exchange, The Battersbox, Dean’s Cards, 4SharpCorners, and Sirius Sports Cards) as well as most all of the smaller operations out there, run by studious folks who just seem to love the hobby.
It’s worth mentioning that sometimes the process of finding well-centered cards can be maddening, if you care about that sort of thing. Evaluating the yin and yang of horizontal versus vertical centering is almost a science unto itself. After scouring enough versions of the same card it became evident that certain cards of the highest grade are either temporarily unavailable, exceedingly rare and unrealistically expensive, or simply do not exist and maybe never did. Cards like Dave Campbell (#384), Gil Hodges (#465), Bobby Murcer (#699), Jim Kaat (#709), Ken Aspromonte (#784), and the In Action series in general (e.g., Reggie Jackson (#436)), among many others (e.g., Bert Campaneris (#75), Rennie Stennett (#219), Ken Singleton (#425), Steve Kline (#467) – argh!). Well, the better players and higher numbered cards are pricey, but you can get a light-hitting lower-numbered Campbell in near mint for a few bucks (Sorry, “Soup”!). Here are a few unfortunate duds:
It’s always a trade-off – do you want perfect centering, or crisp corners? What about the print quality and clarity and brightness of the colors? Ultimately it’s almost impossible to find the best of everything in the same card unless you’re willing to pay top dollar, so eventually you settle on something available that passes the eye test and move on.
Speaking of “top dollar”, it’s flummoxing how these things can have any real worth. Unlike gold or other precious metals, they can’t be intrinsically valuable in any way—they’re only paper and ink. I remember hearing about how the bottom fell out of the sports card market in the early 1990’s and thinking, “who cares?”…but values are cresting again these days and even relatively common cards like these are being sold at amazingly high prices. I care now! They’re worth something to someone, the sole requirement for anything to have value.
Example: Probably the most prized 1972 Topps card is an airbrushed Angels/Mets pinstripes Nolan Ryan (#595), and in PSA 9 (mint) condition I’ve seen it listed for as much as $5,999.00, though the vendor may settle for the “best offer.” And you have to think that at some point someone may have paid more than that for a particularly nice one.
So, one must wonder: how can this be? Works of art may sell for millions of dollars – they’re mere canvas and paint, but created by a renowned artist. The most valuable numismatic coins are thin chunks of metal amalgams, but they have specific (low) mintages, making them desirable. Bullion is only metal too, but has intrinsic value – some elements are uncommon and precious. Diamonds are miraculously rare. With this pursuit though…how can there be any real value in cardboard? How can so much money be exchanged for pressed paper slabs when at one time they sold for pennies alongside a stick of bubblegum? These things have no serial numbers…how easy would it be to make a forgery? And if you didn’t know one was a fake, how and why would that matter?
Tough questions, but let’s at least take a shot at distilling down that elusive concept of “value”. Turns out these cardboard gems are much more than just valuable – they’re priceless.
As I’ve tried to explain to a fellow baseball aficionado (a diehard Red Sox fan, who watched miserably when he was 13 years old as Bob Gibson dominated his team in the 1967 World Series), sports cards may be more valuable than gold or diamonds or any other worldly thing because unlike those objects these fleshy old cards are personal. They hold and stir memories, and memories don’t equate with money. Each snapshot is stamped with a certain time and then endures through time, or at least for as long as one can remember. In turn, those memories jog feelings… and aside from knowledge gained feelings may be the most profound, real, persistent, and valuable things that we ever experience and have to hold on to. They live in our blood as much as our minds.
Plus, these days these cards are antique keepsakes – cool niche relics from half a century ago, finite in number. That must count.
Maybe that’s all there is to it, and maybe not. All I know is that these days I feel more like an energized, optimistic little kid again, one who couldn’t care less about Little Ricky and his pilfering of my cardboard friends so many years ago.
Valuable or not, the truth is I love everything about these cards. The way they feel in my hands. The way they look. The obscure statistics, geographical info, and nostalgic trivia on the backs. The fantastic fashion and trademark styles of 1972. All the heroes of my youth. They were there at that impressionable age when the boy fell in love with baseball and started buying his first packs of cards, so they’ll always be the sentimental favorite. More than anything it’s about all those warm, eye-candy colors and that funky, festive vibe they shout out all 787 times. Unless you feel similarly it’s not easy to explain how these things are tethered to the soul.
It took about five months to acquire the whole set, then about five months later I took them off the shelf and began to pore through the albums, unexpectedly finding exactly 50 that were horribly centered. After replacing those, I started over at card #1 and found many more that were troubling, with fuzzy gray corners, creases, stains, and iffy centering. How did I miss them the time before? After that time through I started at the beginning again and found that standards had risen even higher so that about every other one looked replaceable. Sheesh. So here we go again…
But why? Is the goal to have the world’s ‘best’ collection of 1972 Topps baseball cards? Maybe. Let’s just call it the Collector’s Conundrum. We all have different standards and reasons for loving the hobby and ultimately we curate, caretake, and enjoy them our way before leaving the hoard behind as treasure for someone else to discover.
As of this writing at least two-thirds of the worst looking cards have been swapped out and as the eyes adjust it seems like there’ll always be one or two more that aren’t quite up to snuff. In fact, the other day (over two years after beginning the 1972 Topps Project) I went through everything yet again to make sure all the cards had individual plastic sleeves and found over 100 more that are off-center, have bad edges, divots, little creases, nicked corners, or small stains. Astounding. The process has been a little like upgrading from stereo to a googlephonic system with a moon rock needle and realizing it still “sounds like shit“.
When will it ever be finished? When is enough, enough? A fuzzy–edged card is fine, right? Doesn’t that get the point across? Well of course…especially if it’s a T206 Honus Wagner, but boy, there’s nothing like a clean, well-centered card with four sharp corners. Remember, many of them are works of art and deserve perfect framing. And let’s face it, collectors never finish – this and everything else are just fun works in progress until time’s up.
Sometimes I think that none of them really matter and yet all of them matter—the “Good” all the way up to the “Mint.” Every one is a treasure and for now I’m at peace with being stuck in or around 1972, probably the only series I’ll bother to fully assemble…though those colorful 1975s are starting to look better and better. Everything from neighboring, earlier, and even later years is more interesting too.
Somehow I’ve managed to get ahold of all 51 Hall-of-Famers from the 1972 series (plus Pete Rose), encapsulated in plastic PSA cases, most graded ‘8 – NM-Mint”, with some 7’s and a few 9’s. Then the thing was acquiring full teams of my favorites as winners – the 1966 and 1970 Orioles and the 1975, 1976, and 1990 Reds. After that came PSA 8’s of the entire 1972 Reds squad. Next may be collecting cards from every year of a player’s career. Guys like Joe Morgan, Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Dock Ellis, Nolan Ryan, Luis Tiant, Bob Gibson and/or Henry Aaron. Oy vey. Better not give up the day job.
Serendipitously, I’ve been reacquainted with a rich, fascinating hobby that will entertain, energize, and educate this boy until the end of days. As a reasonably present husband, father, brother and son, cards can hold only one bit of attention…but what a great library to have when there’s time to go peruse ’em for fun. And joining SABR has been a joyful discovery of long lost brothers and sisters I never knew I had – people who are just as fascinated by this stuff…and know infinitely more. Perfect!
From here we’ll just keep working on what the unexpected detour has taught us up to now: Default to a smile whenever possible. Grudges aren’t worth holding, no matter how many cards of any kind are involved. Be ready for joy to find you when you least expect it. Keep on learning and having fun. Look back in time occasionally, but not too often and not for long. Focus forward and cultivate a kind, curious, and open mind. Pay attention. Try to do better all the time. Always be on the lookout for new friends.
Why focus on pain and losses when there’s so much to be done and gained? As poet Oscar Wilde said, “Life is much too important to be taken seriously.” Sure, “Ricky’ll be Ricky,” and there’ll always be more thieving Ricks out there lying in wait—that’s their problem. Life goes on and on every day of every season. Best to get on with it.
That’s it – the final portion of an ode to baseball and the early 1970s in general, and to the Topps Company and the special 1972 set specifically. Thanks for the memories, Topps—both the old ones and the new ones!
This was written for everyone out there who loves the 1972 Topps baseball card set as much as I do (if that’s possible).
Dedicated to my sports-loving mom, Caroline B. Wilkinson, who never threw my cards away.
Also dedicated to all the players and managers from the 1972 Topps Series, especially those who passed during the writing of this article: Henry Aaron, Dick Allen, Ed Armbrister, Glenn Beckert, Larry Biittner, Hal Breeden, Lou Brock, Oscar Brown, Horace Clark, Gene Clines, Billy Conigliaro, Tommy Davis, Chuck Dobson, Paul Doyle, John Ellis, Ed Farmer, Ray Fosse, Bill Freehan, Bob Gibson, Jim Grant, Joe Horlen, Grant Jackson, Bart Johnson, Jerry Johnson, Jay Johnstone, Al Kaline, Lew Krausse, Angel Mangual, Mike Marshall, Denis Menke, Lindy McDaniel, Roger Moret, Joe Morgan, Phil Niekro, Bob Oliver, Don Pavletich, Ron Perranoski, Juan Pizzaro, J. R. Richard, Mike Ryan, Tom Seaver, Richie Scheinblum, Rennie Stennett, Bill Sudakis, Don Sutton, Tony Taylor, Dick Tidrow, Bill Virdon, Bob Watson, Stan Williams, and Jim Wynn.
Special thanks to Baseball-Almanac.com, Baseballhall.org, Baseball-Reference.com, the Trading Card Database, and Wikipedia for all that data.
Extra special thanks to Larry Pauley, Jason Schwartz, and Nick Vossbrink for their kind help, patience, and encouragement.
The American League adopted the Designated Hitter (DH) rule in 1973. Of course, card collectors had to wait for the 1974 set to find cards with the players’ positions “designated” as DH. So, who was the first player to have a card solely labeling him a DH?
The answer is card number 83 in the numerical sequence, the Red Sox Orlando Cepeda. At this point in Cepeda’s career, the DH rule was a godsend. The veteran slugger’s knees would no longer allow him to play in the field. Interestingly, Topps would us “Des.” Hitter as the abbreviation for the position.
Several other gimpy, veteran sluggers show up as Des. Hitters: Tommy Davis , Jim Ray Hart, Tony Oliva, Deron Johnson and “Swingin’” Gates Brown.
Topps produced several cards where the position is a hybrid of DH and either 1B or OF. Sometimes the DH appears first, other times last. I thought this might correlate to the number of games played at each position, but this is not the case. The placement is entirely random. Topps would also toss a curve ball by labeling Harmon Killebrew as a First Base-DH.
The players who have DH-1B as a position are Ron Blomberg—the first player to come to the plate as a DH—and Tony Muser.
The only 1B-DH combo belongs to Gail Hopkins.
Players whose cards show them as DH-OF are Frank Robinson, Bob Coluccio and Alex Johnson, and the ones as OF-DH are Carlos May and Hal McRae.
Mike Lahoud was one of the Brewers DHs along with Ollie Brown. Both players were traded to the Angels prior to 1974. Lahoud’s card mentions his DH position on the back only.
Oscar Gamble was Cleveland’s main DH in 1973, but his card only lists outfield. However, his 1974 Topps stamp includes DH as a position.
I will let you get back to hitting balls off the tee under the stands to keep warm between at bats. I’m sure this DH thing is just a passing fad. Soon you will be flashing leather on the field as God and Abner Doubleday intended.
One of the elements of Topps Heritage that routinely catches my eyes are the Heritage News Flashbacks. For a small insert set which is purportedly about the heritage year’s news highlights, I’ve found it to be an interesting window into what kind of things Topps considers mass-market newsworthy.
Given Topps’s coverage of the 1950s–1970s we have a lot of civil rights firsts,* a lot of space exploration, and a lot of Vietnam War related events. All things which are conceivably politically neutral. In many years though Topps also commemorates legislation and other political achievements. These were clearly highly political at the time but also frequently remain political even today. When I look through the insert checklists it’s these cards that catch my eye in the way that they have one foot in both “this is something worth commemorating” territory and “this is what people say we shouldn’t talk about in the hobby” territory.
*The number of “first black” or “first woman” events Topps chose to celebrate is both refreshing to see and an indictment of who has been traditionally allowed to succeed in our society.
Not only do these legislative inserts catch my eye but they frequently have an interesting context outside of the just the card. This 2009 card commemorating the 1960 Civil Rights Act for example came out the same year that Barrack Obama became the first Black President and the year that Congress authorized the Civil Rights History project to collect oral histories from people who were active in the struggle during the 1950s and 1960s.
The thing with these news flashbacks cards though is that they also tend to frame history as a series of accomplishments rather than a continuing struggle and discussion. Looking at this card gives the impression that we’ve achieved equality at the polls and that no further work needs to be done to maintain things let alone improve on them further.
In 2010 we have acknowledgment of how Washingon DC residents were disenfranchised through the 1960 election with a card the commemorates the ratification of the 23rd Amendment. It’s definitely a good thing that their presidential votes count now but the struggle for DC statehood and representation continued after this amendment.
In terms of the context of this 2010 card it’s important to mention DC’s statehood has been endorsed by multiple Presidents now and that there was a referendum in 2016 in which 86% of DC voters expressed a desire for statehood.
In 2013 we pick up where 2009 left off with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As with the 2009 card this states plainly that segregation is outlawed as well as discrimination against ethnic, racial, and religious minorities plus women. This card doesn’t note how the Civil Right Act of 1964 is what prompted Southern Democrats to switch parties and drastically rearrange the political geography of the United States.
Coming out in 2013 is kind of some amazing immediate context too. Between the Trayvon Martin murder which spawned the Black Lives Matter movement and the Fisher v U of Texas case that threatened to roll back Affirmative Action the discussion about how relevant the Civil Rights Act of 1964 still was and whether its protections were still needed make this card anything but politically neutral.
The 2014 card which commemorates the Voting Rights act of 1965 is the card which prompted this post. For Topps to publish this the year after Shelby v Holder feels almost like an intentional political comment. With a headline about securing voting equality despite the mechanisms for actually keeping voting equality having just been ripped out of the act this card reads almost as a eulogy for what was rather than a milestone that was reached.
The ensuing decade has confirmed my sense of it being a eulogy as we’ve seen increased attacks on voting access nationwide.
We’ll skip a few more years and land in 2017 with yet another Civil Rights Act, in this case 1968’s, which was in the news a bit that year. This act contains within it the Fair Housing Act which prohibits discrimination in both renting and sales. The list of protected categories started off as including just race, religion, and national origin but has expanded to include sex, disabilities, and children. In 2017 sexual orientation and gender identity were added to this list via the judicial system (but never got anywhere in Congress).
This act also included some anti-riot language which made it a crime to travel between states in order to participate in a riot. It was notably used on the Chicago Seven and came up again in the aftermath of the Unite the Right rally in 2017 in which the courts ruled that its language was over-broad.
While this isn’t a legislative card I’ve included the 2018 card of the 1969 Stonewall Riots because of how much of a lighting rod it would be in today’s political landscape. This is history—both from a Gay Rights point of view and the fact that Marsha P. Johnson was a black transgender woman—which is currently being actively legislated against in multiple states nationwide and Topps just had it as a card only four years ago.
This card also came out in the aftermath of the 2015 Obergefell decision which legalized gay marriage and resulted in years of stories of workers and businesses who refused to acknowledge those rights and insisted that their rights to discriminate were more important.
After having maybe one political card per year, Topps went a bit nuts in 2019 and released four of cards of things the government did in 1970. Some of these like expanding voting access to 18 year olds don’t require much comment. Others like the PBS card are noteworthy in the timing of how free educational television was moving to streaming services with shows like Sesame Street only releasing new episodes through HBO Max.
The Earth Day and creation of the EPA cards though are fascinating to see in an age of runaway climate change, the complete abdication by the US Government to do anything about it, and the shortsighted focus on immediate profits over a sustainable world.
Back to only one card in 2021 but it’s a doozy for a year which was threatening to roll back many of the protections that women fought for in the 1970s as Covid had a greater impact on women’s jobs and abortion is getting outlawed nationwide.
In any case it’s pretty clear at this point that the biggest habitat threat is climate change and while the explicit protections and goals of the Endangered Species Act are laudable a larger, more-global, solution will be required moving forward.
And that’s the list. When looked at together it’s easy to reach a conclusion that Topps thinks that discrimination based on race, nationality, and gender is bad, that protecting the environment is good, and that voting should be accessible to all citizens. But it’s also easy to reach a conclusion that Topps considers that all of that has been accomplished already and something we can look back upon and celebrate much in the same way the Major League Baseball commemorates Jackie Robinson as a way of ignoring its current track record on racial equity.
Editor’s note: SABR Baseball Cards welcomes new member F. Scott Wilkinson with the ninth of his ten articles on the 1972 Topps set, now celebrating its 50th anniversary.Click here to start the series from the beginning.
I have explained many times that I am, by Profession, a Gambler—not some jock-sniffing nerd or a hired human squawk-box with the brain of a one-cell animal. No. That would be your average career sportswriter—and, more specifically, a full-time Baseball writer.”
—Hunter S. Thompson
For kicks, let’s revisit the four precious cards that Little Ricky stole (see Part 2 of this series) and remember a little bit about the special players they represent. At the time we felt lucky just to be newbie baseball fans while these living legends were still playing, even if they were on the downside of their careers, so to us any cards of theirs were like gold. That was one thing. I was also doubly crushed because I was so in love with the home run back then. Most kids are and to a certain extent I probably still am. There’s just something enchanting about the act of hitting a round ball with a round bat so squarely and so far, and when I was a kid these guys were the active kings of the round-tripper.
Surely random, but it’s appropriate that the 1972 wrecking crew were presented in the primary colors – blue (Robinson), yellow (Mays), and red (Aaron). It’s not much of a stretch to say that these guys compose what must be the most prolific right-handed power-hitting outfielder lineup of all time. And while we’re at it, wouldn’t Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr. and Babe Ruth have to be the all-time left-handed power-hitting outfielder lineup? Discuss. (Note: Solely out of ignorance I am not considering Negro League players here).
This is the last Topps card (#100) showing “The Judge” as an Oriole and it’s a pleaser. Frank radiates confidence in those warm-up sleeves and happily looks like he might still be in his prime. Interestingly, “Pencils” still holds the record for most home runs on opening day (8), including one in his first at-bat as player-manager for the Cleveland Indians in 1975. While I’ve sufficiently sung Mr. Robinson’s praises previously, this one slugging feat is worth mentioning:
On May 8, 1966, Robinson became the only player ever to hit a home run completely out of Memorial Stadium. The shot came off of Luis Tiant in the second game of a doubleheader against the Cleveland Indians, and the home run measured 541 feet (165 m). Until the Orioles’ move to Camden Yards in 1992, a flag labeled “HERE” was flown at the spot where the ball left the stadium.
Similarly, this is the final Giants card of Willie Mays (#49) and it’s nearly perfect. Willie looks vital, the uniform is classic, those hands are huge, and the stands are packed. It pains me to say that I never got to see Mr. Mays play live – I gather he not only makes the strongest case for best five-tool player of all time, but also that not many players come close. Just ask these guys:
Leo Durocher (#576): “If somebody came up and hit .450, stole 100 bases and performed a miracle in the field every day, I’d still look you in the eye and say Willie was better.”
Don Zimmer: “I’ve always said that Willie Mays was the best player I ever saw…he could have been an All-Star at any position.”
Willie Stargell (#447): “I couldn’t believe he could throw that far. I figured there had to be a relay. Then I found out there wasn’t. He’s too good for this world.”
Felipe Alou (#263): “Mays is number one, without a doubt…anyone who played with him or against him would agree he is the best.”
Roberto Clemente (#309): “To me, the greatest who ever played is Willie Mays.”
(Again, Negro League players like Oscar Charleston and Turkey Stearnes have something to say about all this, but they’re beyond the scope of this 1972-centric post).
Fun facts: Willie Mays still holds records for most putouts by an outfielder (7112) and most extra inning home runs (22). At the start of the 1972 season he was actually #2 on the all-time home run list, ahead of Henry Aaron (646 to 639), but Willie was three years older than Hank and only managed 14 more homers in his career. After two truncated summers with the Mets, he retired at the end of the 1973 season with 660 while Aaron played through 1976 and made it to 755.
Just one non-1972 card – the 1973 Roberto Clemente (#50), relatively drab maybe, but capturing him in a candid, sweet pose – coiled, ever alert, the action just about to happen. Nice back, but one of those cards where the statistics on the back are unfortunately final. This was the final Topps card of “Arriba,” issued shortly after his death in a New Year’s Eve plane crash while delivering food and supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. What a horrible way to end the year.
Nearly fifty years later it still feels like he should be here telling stories, so we should take a long moment and then some to appreciate the special player and groundbreaking man. Here applies the adage, “Play for the silence that came before you…and also for that which follows”.
Clemente was in a class by himself too and had the power numbers been there he might approach Mays as the top all around player, but his 240 career homers don’t quite measure up. And somehow Roberto managed only 83 stolen bases compared to 338 (RC had 166 triples though! Second in the modern era to Stan Musial’s 177). But it’s probably wrong to compare these legends with raw numbers – that’d be akin to scoring an award-winning McIntosh apple against a perfectly ripe Clementine orange – the intangibles just don’t compute. And yet some people out there are willing to make the case for The Great One being the best all around player ever. Interesting.
Sadly, I don’t recall ever seeing Frank, Willie, or Roberto play a full game, even on television. Living in SW Ohio with a 19” black and white Zenith TV and six working channels just wasn’t prime time. Fortunately, we had way more exposure to Henry Aaron (#299, here in a familiar pose – strong on strong, looking like he’s about to put a hurt on whatever comes his way next), who was busy chasing Babe Ruth’s hallowed home run record when I was nine years old. In fact, at my mom’s house, still stowed away somewhere, is a note I frantically scribbled down just minutes after watching Hank break the record by hitting number 715 off Dodgers pitcher Al Downing (#460). I think that note includes the date, time, pitcher, pitch count, pitch thrown, distance the ball traveled, and location it left the park. Oh wait—here it is now:
Hammerin’ Hank seemed to be everywhere in those days and there could not have been a finer gentleman to take Ruth’s record—by all accounts he was as special a man as he was a player. I still remember the first things I read about him when I was seven or eight…how he left home for the minor leagues with a single suitcase and $2 in his pocket, began his career as a shortstop, and how for a long while he didn’t even hold his bat the right way—he had his left hand on top instead of his right, cross-handed, a no-no for a right-handed hitter. Probably helped perfect those forearms though.
With all the home run hoopla in 1974, a contest was arranged in Tokyo between Hank and the Japanese home run champion, Sadaharu Oh, who ended up hitting a professional league record 868 homers for his career. I remember watching that derby and thinking, “No fair—Hank’s designated pitcher is just lobbin’ ‘em in there, but Oh’s is really pitching!”, then years later realized my concerns were silly since it was fair for each player to have his pitches served up however he wanted. Naturally the Hammer won, 10–9, even though he was past his prime at 40, six years older than Oh; after that they became friends. Here’s a picture of the riveting scene, from a Sports Illustrated scrapbook found in my old boyhood closet. Mr. Aaron surely did not shrink from the moment.
Looking at Aaron’s 1972 card you find that he had 639 home runs at the end of the 1971 season and had turned 38 in February before the ’72 season began. How many other players hit another 116 (or more) homers after they turned 38? Well, just one apparently—Barry Bonds with a ridiculous 166, but that’s another story altogether, for another time…
What’s worth mentioning of all these big hitters is that they weren’t especially imposing in their stature, but they were tremendously strong. All hands, wrists, and forearms. Frank was the tallest of the four, at 6’ 1” and 185 pounds. Hank stood 6’ even and weighed 180 lb. Roberto was 5′ 11″, 182, and Willie was 5’ 11”, 170. No steroids for these guys – they didn’t need ’em. Their natural talents were enough of an advantage.
Part of my ode to baseball and the early 1970s in general, and to the Topps Company and the special 1972 set specifically. Thanks for the memories, Topps—both the old ones and the new ones! Apologies for the pronounced wordiness, but the 50th anniversary of the set warrants some indulgence.
Dedicated to my sports-loving mom, Caroline B. Wilkinson, who never threw my cards away, and to all the players from the 1972 Topps Series, especially those who passed during the writing of this article: Henry Aaron, Dick Allen, Ed Armbrister, Glenn Beckert, Larry Biittner, Hal Breeden, Lou Brock, Oscar Brown, Horace Clark, Gene Clines, Billy Conigliaro, Tommy Davis, Chuck Dobson, Paul Doyle, John Ellis, Ed Farmer, Ray Fosse, Bill Freehan, Bob Gibson, Jim Grant, Joe Horlen, Grant Jackson, Bart Johnson, Jerry Johnson, Jay Johnstone, Al Kaline, Lew Krausse, Angel Mangual, Mike Marshall, Denis Menke, Lindy McDaniel, Roger Moret, Joe Morgan, Phil Niekro, Bob Oliver, Don Pavletich, Ron Perranoski, Juan Pizzaro, J. R. Richard, Mike Ryan, Tom Seaver, Richie Scheinblum, Rennie Stennett, Bill Sudakis, Don Sutton, Tony Taylor, Dick Tidrow, Bill Virdon, Bob Watson, Stan Williams, and Jim Wynn.
Special thanks to Baseball-Almanac.com, Baseballhall.org, Baseball-Reference.com, and Wikipedia.com for kindly compiling and sharing their vast treasure troves of data.
Extra special thanks to Jason Schwartz and Nick Vossbrink for their timely encouragement and warm welcome into the SABR community.
Much gratitude to Mr. Larry Pauley, who gave this project direction when there was none.
Author’s Note: This article is part of a larger SABR Century Committee effort commemorating the 75th Anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s historic 1947 season.Head here for the full series.
When Jackie Robinson trotted out to first base on April 15, 1947, his steps were no less historic than those of Neil Armstrong just over two decades later. Baseball’s senseless and shameful Color Barrier had at last been breached and with it the customs and traditions of Jim Crow America itself were on notice. This is not to say equality had come to Baseball. Far from it as even the Dodgers merely tiptoed into integration while several other teams waited a decade or more to add their first Black player. As for managers, eleven more men after Armstrong would leave footprints on the Moon before a single Black man would take the reins of a Major League team.
Even today, as Jackie’s legacy is rightfully celebrated, it’s fair to wonder whether a modern Jackie Robinson would even choose Baseball, just as it’s fair to wonder whether any teams would notice him and sign him if he did. Were he living in the Dominican Republic, absolutely, but in his birthplace of Cairo, Georgia, or his childhood hometown of Pasadena, California, who’s to say? While a modern Jackie could win games for a general manager of any color, there are none in front offices today who look like him.
The same could be said for domestic baseball card issues prior to 1947, only one of which featured a Black player. While it would be easy to discount the utter lack of Black faces as merely reflective of the times, such an explanation fails to account for the many Black boxers who made their way onto trading cards, going back to at least 1909. Ultimately, the whiteness of baseball cards was due solely to the whiteness of what was then perceived (and enforced) as Organized Baseball. Jack Johnson, Joe Jeannette, and Joe Gans were professional boxers. The Philadelphia Stars, Newark Eagles and Homestead Grays meanwhile? These were semi-pro.
Thus the 1947 season brought with it not only the integration of Baseball but (several rungs down the ladder of importance) the opportunity to integrate baseball cards as well. All that was missing were the baseball cards themselves!
While today we take it for granted that a new baseball card set (if not dozens of different ones) will come out every year, such was not the case in the 1940s. Following the three-year run of Gum, Inc., and its Play Ball sets from 1939-41, the War and other national priorities left American baseball without a major set to chronicle its players until 1948, when Gum, Inc., baseball cards returned to shelves, this time under the Bowman name.
In the meantime, where baseball cards were produced at all, they most often took the form of smaller regional issues, often connected to food or other household products, cards that today many collectors classify under the umbrella of “oddball.” As such, this review of Jackie Robinson baseball cards from 1947 will feature bread, slacks, and even cigarettes but not a single stick of gum.
1947 BOND BREAD
Bond Bread will feature in this article twice. This first instance is to highlight a 48-card release comprised of four boxers and 44 baseball stars. The selection of baseball stars included Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, and Stan Musial but most notably a baseball card of Brooklyn Dodgers rookie Jackie Robinson.
Cards were packaged in loaves of Bond Bread, and at least one theory for their rounded corners is that the cards were less susceptible to damage that way. Importantly for collectors today, the rounded corners help distinguish these cards from near-identical versions that emerged as a standalone product sold as “Sport Star Subjects” in 1949. The square cornered versions are far less collectible, though widespread misidentification, including by a prominent grading company, has created sufficient confusion to elevate prices among uninformed buyers.
While both the Bond Bread and Sport Star Subjects cards have blank backs, a third version of the Robinson card features a back that’s anything but blank.
“1947” ELGEE PRODUCTS
Precise dating for this issue is unknown and may well be after 1947. A mix of baseball and movie star photos, the baseball images match those of the Bond Bread issue but are easily distinguished in at least two ways. One, they are perforated. Two, their backs include other cards from the set or, in some cases, advertising. The Robinson card, for example, features actor James Cagney on the reverse.
As with the Sport Star Subjects, these cards are also frequently misidentified as Bond Bread cards, even by third party grading companies and auction houses. Post 391 in this Net54 Baseball Forum thread shows the front and back of an uncut sheet, including the ELGEE branding. Post 386 in the same thread provides additional background on the company.
1947-50 BOND BREAD JACKIE ROBINSON
In addition to the 48-card set above, Bond Bread also released a second set of 13 cards dedicated entirely to Jackie Robinson. The set is catalogued as a 1947 issue. However, independent research by collectors Mike Knapp, Shaun Fyffe, and Michael Fried, which I’ll attempt to summarize here, has produced a broader timetable for the cards while also providing information on distribution.
The set began 1947 with a single card featuring a signed portrait of Jackie, a brief bio, and a product testimonial. This card was not distributed in packaged loaves but rather was given out by store owners (with free slices of bread!) to promote Bond Bread among African American consumers. (Post 49 in this Net54 Baseball Forum thread includes an article from the New York Amsterdam News detailing the marketing strategy.)
From there, it’s unclear whether any of the set’s remaining twelve cards dates to 1947. The aforementioned collector-researchers speculate subsequent releases of three or six cards at a time taking place sometime between 1947 and 1950, though I lean more toward the cards being issued one at a time. Either way, a clue that helps group the cards is the advertising on the back.
These six cards, assumed to be the earlier of the twelve, exhort consumers to eat the same bread as Jackie. Fielding poses show a first baseman’s mitt, which Jackie would have used primarily in 1947.
Before proceeding to the second group of six, I want to highlight two photos in particular, one of which may be very familiar to non-collectors. Though the background has been removed and Jackie has even changed teams, the card of Jackie waving with his glove draws its image from this iconic photograph.
A second card among the six does some early “photoshopping” of a Montreal photo as well.
Much later in this article we will see yet another occasion where a Montreal photo is doctored for use on a Brooklyn card. For now, we will return to the other six cards in the set. Note here that all fielding poses show a standard infielder’s glove.
The “smoking gun” that places these cards (or at least one of them) after 1947 comes from the image on the last card, believed to source to a photograph taken just after this one. (Note Jackie’s cap has fallen a bit farther on the card and his body has separated more from his trailing arm.) If so, the card could not have been issued any earlier than July 2, 1949, the date the photograph was taken.
With the set no longer confined entirely to 1947, we arrive at several possibilities for its overall release schedule. Barring further information, I’d be inclined to settle on the first group of six cards coming out across the six months of the 1948 baseball season and the second group of six following suit in 1949.
“1948” OLD GOLD CIGARETTES
The situation with Jackie’s Old Gold cards is precisely the opposite as here collectors regard what may be two cards from 1947 as if they came out the following year.
As Anson Whaley notes in his article for Sports Collectors Daily, two clues on the card backs suggest a 1947 release.
Robinson is listed as 28 year old, which was only his age through January 30, 1948
His 1947 Rookie of the Year Award (announced September 19, 1947) is not listed among his career highlights
Certainly each of these clues could merely point to bios written ahead of time, hence do not point definitively to a 1947 release of the actual cards. Still, absent any information affirming a 1948 release, the clues are at least intriguing.
“1947″ PLEETWOOD SLACKS
Continuing the theme of uncertain dates is this rare 5″ x 8″ promotional issue from Pleetwood Slacks. While catalogued as a 1947 issue, I am unable to find any source that provides independent corroboration. Notably, the Standard Catalog of Vintage Baseball Cards indicates that “the  date of issue cited is conjectural.”
When I do find “hits” on Pleetwood Slacks, never mind Jackie, they only come in the Black press of late 1948, specifically October through December. Here is a typical example.
Perhaps information is out there somewhere establishing the Pleetwood Slacks card as a 1947 issue. In the meantime I’d just as soon date it to late 1948 where timing it’s would better match the print advertising campaign for the brand.
1947 CHAMP HATS
Collector and Hobby historian Bob Lemke (1941-2017) featured this 8 x 10 “card” as a new find on his blog in 2015.
As detailed on Bob’s blog, both Bob and the previously mentioned Sean Fyffe regarded 1947 as the most likely year for this piece.
1947 DODGERS TEAM PHOTO PACK
Many teams sold photo packs of their players and other personnel, going back to at least the 1930s. The 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers photo pack consisted of 25 photos, 6” x 9” in size, including this one of Jackie Robinson.
The image is a sharper and cleaner version of the ones used on his Bond and faux Bond issues and a reminder that many cards of the era used photos provided by the teams or their photographers. Furthermore, the presence and identical placement of Jackie’s signature on the Bond and pseudo-Bond cards leads me to wonder if those cards didn’t originate from the original photograph but from this photo pack card. Either way, I suspect the photo pack Jackie is the earliest of his various 1947 issues.
1947-66 EXHIBIT SUPPLY COMPANY
One of the most common and (formerly!) affordable early baseball cards of Jackie Robinson is his 1947-66 Exhibit Supply Company (Chicago, IL) postcard-sized issue. However, despite “1947” right there in the naming of the set, there is no evidence that Jackie’s exhibit cards date back that far.
Rather, the “1947-66” label simply means that the overall set of 300+ different cards spanned 20 years. The presence of later stars such as Aaron, Banks, and Kaline suffice to show that “1947” hardly applies to all players.
The Keyman Collectibles site provides a guide for the precise dating of Exhibit cards. Having reviewed more than a dozen so far, I have not yet run across a Robinson any earlier than 1948.
Side note: A 1948 release would have left plenty of time to find pictures of Jackie as a Dodger. However, the photograph used on the Exhibit card, as was the case with two of the Bond Bread cards, dates to 1946, as evidenced by Jackie’s Montreal uniform.
SUMMARY: THE JACKIE ROBINSON CARDS OF 1947
All told I’ve reviewed 22 different Jackie Robinson cards correctly or incorrectly associated with his Barrier Breaking debut season in Brooklyn. From this number, there are only three where I believe the 1947 dating is firmly established:
1947 Bond Bread multi-player set
1947 Bond Bread Jackie Robinson set – portrait with facsimile autograph
1947 Brooklyn Dodgers photo pack
For the reader only reasonably acquainted with the world of collectibles, it might seem a tame question to then ask which of these cards is Jackie Robinson’s rookie card. Could it really be that the answer is none of them!
EPILOGUE: JACKIE’S ROOKIE CARD
Modern collectors focus heavily (if not obsessively!) over the notion of a rookie card, particularly when the player concerned is a Hall of Famer. In a simpler world, a player would have one card for each year of his career, and the first such card would be his rookie card. In the real world, however, the situation is far murkier, complicated by any number of wrinkles, depending on the collector.
For example, any of the following may be treated as a disqualifying when it comes to rookie card status.
cards that pre-date a player’s major league status (e.g., a minor league card)
cards from minor, regional, unlicensed, or non-US releases
cards that aren’t really baseball cards (e.g., a postcard, mini-poster, or bobblehead)
cards with uncertain release dates
In the case of Jackie Robinson, all four of these come into play. While I did not feature it in this article due to its 1946 issue date, there is a highly sought after Parade Sportive newspaper insert featuring Jackie Robinson, which checks off each of the first three bullets above.
As for Jackie’s Bond Bread cards, many collectors regard the releases as too minor to warrant rookie card status. Add to that for many of them an uncertain release date as well. Ditto for Elgee Products, Old Gold Cigarettes, Pleetwood Slacks, and Champs Hats, with the latter two having only questionable baseball card status as well.
The Brooklyn photo pack card, which may well be first of Jackie as a Dodger, also challenges the most rigid definitions of “baseball card” while adding the potential disqualifier of a regional release. Finally, the Exhibit card is not quite a real baseball card to many collectors while also carrying uncertainty as to dating.
Also lacking card status to most collectors are the various Jackie Robinson buttons and pins that were popular among fans in the late 1940s. I omitted lengthier treatment in this article but will show six of them here.
The result of all this is that many collectors would not consider any of the Jackie Robinson cards profiled so far to be Jackie’s rookie card. Instead, the coveted label is most often applied to Jackie’s card from the set known popularly in the Hobby as 1948 Leaf.
“This is the only true rookie card of baseball’s first African-American representative and hero to all,” according to PSA, the Hobby’s largest grader and authenticator of trading cards.
Though my revenue, Hobby or otherwise, is a far cry from that of PSA, I nonetheless challenge this assertion. For one thing, despite the typical designation of the set as “1948 Leaf” (or sometimes 1948-49 Leaf), there are compelling reasons to believe the Robinson card (if not the entire set) dates to 1949.
1949 copyright date on the back of the card
Reference to Jackie’s 1948 statistics as “last season” on the back of the card
Standard Catalog entry indicating the set was “produced by Chicago’s Leaf Gum Co. for issue in 1949”
Hall of Fame and Beckett cataloguing of card as 1949
Erroneous dating aside, I’ll also note that the Leaf cards, at least of some players, were unlicensed, which can often be a rookie card disqualifier. That said, collectors tend to give the set a free pass on this point.
At any rate, if we regard the Leaf card as a rookie card, we should then confer rookie status on Jackie’s other significant release of the same year, issued as part of the 1949 Bowman set of 240 cards.
Alternatively, we might turn our attention to a card that genuinely does date to 1948, Jackie’s Sport Thrills card from Swell Bubble Gum.
From a rookie card perspective, this card beats Leaf and Bowman by a year, has unambiguous baseball card status as opposed to some of the other 1947-48 contenders, and originates from a more major release than its contemporaries and predecessors. At the same time, not all collectors treat the Sport Thrills set as major enough, and its focus on highlights rather than players equally reduces the appeal.
Ultimately, the question of Jackie’s true rookie card is a complicated one, confounded by the uncertain or erroneous dating of his early cardboard and curiously subjective notions like “major release” and “baseball card.” On one hand the lack of a definitive rookie card opens the door for individual collectors to apply their own criteria and judgment. On the other hand, the same fuzziness creates opportunities, intentional or accidental, to misrepresent and misinform. In the end, perhaps the only truism when it comes to Jackie’s rookie cards is this: If you have to ask, you can’t afford it!
I started collecting cards in 1987. Since my primary purchases were Topps rack packs at Toys R Us I accumulated a lot* of both 1987 and 1986 Topps that year. I also acquired a bunch of repacks—also from Toys R Us—which featured “old” cards back to 1979**
*A lot for a 2nd grader which means a couple hundred or so of each.
**While I found exactly one each of 1976, 1977, and 1978 in those packs, a single 1979 per repack was usually the oldest card.
I say “old” because for me, anything from 1979 to 1984 was old back then. Not only did they predate my being in school* but the relative rarity of the cards in how they didn’t show up en masse in the repacks and how different they looked with their multiple photos, facsimile autographs, or cartoonish caps made them feel distinct.
*Apologies if this post makes anyone feel super old.
1985 though was different. Especially the Topps cards. They showed up more frequently in the repacks and felt similar enough to 1986 to end up being something I never really paid attention to. Not old or different enough to be interesting. Not new enough to be relevant. I accumulated a couple Giants but outside of those I didn’t pay any attention to that set until after I found my first card shop and discovered that there was a super-desirable (especially in the Bay Area) Mark McGwire card inside.
Even with the McGwire knowledge—which I remember feeling at the time as sort of a betrayal of the concept of a rookie card—I never got to know more about the set. I had other newer cards to acquire and shiny things like Score and Upper Deck to covet. All of which left me in an interesting place where to-date, 1985 Topps remained a complete donut hole in my card knowledge.
I neither educated myself about it like I did with older sets nor is it one I had any actual experience with. I did however get a big batch of it last summer and as a result have had a chance to really take a good look at it for the first time in my life.
Looking through that pile was a bit uncanny since, while I’ve mentally treated it as a border between classic cards and junk wax, in many ways it actually functions as this border. Yes I know people draw lines at 1981 and 1974* but the more I looked at the 1985 cards the more I could see the beginnings of what I expected to see in the cards of my youth in a set which wasn’t quite there yet.
*When I periodized this blog I chose to avoid naming eras and just drew lines in places that felt like logical breaks and listed them as date ranges.
1985 is one of those basic Topps designs that so many people wish Topps would return to. White borders. Simple solid colors. A good-sized team set for each team. It dropped the multiplayer cards that marked so many of the previous releases but it still feels like a classic Topps set that serves as both a yearbook of the previous season as well as a marker of the current season.
The photography is mostly the same as previous sets. Action is increasingly creeping in but there’s nothing really fantastic yet. Catchers are clearly leading the way here but there’s nothing like the amazing action shots which we’d see in the coming years. It does however feel that a lot of the action is cropped a bit tighter than in previous seasons. Feet and legs are frequently out of the frame and there’s an overall emphasis on getting closer to the scene.
There are also a few wonderfully casual images which would fit in perfectly with the variety of 1990s photography. We’ve had candid shots ever since 1970 but they really became a staple of 1990s sets.
At a more technical level there’s an increased reliance on fill flash in the posed photos. Skies are underexposed and there’s more contrast between the player and the background. I’ve seen this described as something distinct to 1985 and 1986’s look but the technique itself is something that is used with increasing sophistication as we get into the 1990s as well.*
*This probably helped by cameras becoming much much smarter in the late 1980s. For example the Nikon F4 was released in 1988 and was a game changer in both autofocus and flash photography.
The last part that presages where the hobby would go comes from the multiple subsets. We’re not talking about things like the Record Breakers and All Stars which have been around a long time. Instead we’re looking at the USA Olympics cards and the #1 Draft Pick cards.
These wouldn’t just return in refined forms in later years but would come to dominate the entire hobby. The concept of printing “rookie” cards of guys way before they debuted in Major League Baseball became the tail that wags the dog as Topps, and everyone else, tried to catch the same lightning in a bottle that they caught with the Mark McGwire.
Team USA cards in 1988, 1991, 1992, 1993. #1 Draft pick cards for all teams starting in 1989. Bowman turning into the pre-rookie card set. The flood of non-40-man-roster players in card sets throughout the 1990s and into he 2000s such that MLBPA had to be explicit about what was allowed in its 2006 license. 1985 Topps is patient zero for all of this.
Meet the new set, same as the old set. Or something like that.
You know what I’m talking about, right? Or maybe not. You were thinking this was about the new Topps cards? 😊 Don’t worry, we cover that too, courtesy of my friends Nick and Jeff.
Me? I’m here to channel my outrage at a card producer no longer even around to defend itself. Yes, I’m talking to you, Gum, Inc., as if your very name itself wasn’t a dead giveaway that originality would never be your hallmark. Shall we review the evidence?
PART ONE: 1939-41
The first Gum, Inc., baseball sets were released from 1939-41 under the Play Ball name. Here is the Joe DiMaggio card from the 1939 set.
While some collectors might refer to the card design as “classic” or “uncluttered,” let’s call it what it is: BORING!!! Just a black and white image on a nearly square piece of cardboard. No name, no team, no logo, no anything. This Play Ball brand will be lucky to last three years, give or take!
Gum, Inc., tried a little harder the following year, so I’ll give credit where due.
Though many collectors are lukewarm on the 1940 Play Ball set, I rather like the working of baseball equipment into the design around the nameplate, and I absolutely applaud the level of effort taken to toggle the images of nearly every repeated player from 1939. Ah, and who doesn’t love nearly every first name in quotes?
Of course, just when we thought the good folks at Gum, Inc., were poised to innovate, they go full-on MP & Company on us.
True, conventional wisdom has it that U.S. entry into World War II is what brought Gum, Inc., baseball offerings to a standstill, but all geopolitics aside could they really have lasted another year with such a tepid creative team? I mean, gosh, what was next in line? Returning the 1941 images to black and white? (TCMA imagined a different path for 1942 Play Ball but unoriginality remained a key feature.)
PART TWO: 1948-52
When Gum, Inc., resumed baseball card production in 1948, the world was a very different place, and change can of course be a scary thing for most. Fortunately, card collectors could take comfort in the fact that time had not simply stood still at Gum, Inc., but actually gone backward. For its 1948 Bowman card design, the Gum, Inc., team–either intentionally or unintentionally–brought back 1939 Play Ball.
About the only discernible change to the cards was the use of about a third less cardboard, best shown by turning the 1948 card sideways.
The 1949 cards shrunk even more while “innovating” on the 1939/1948 design in swapping a solid color background into each photograph and colorizing certain elements of the player image.
In later series, Gum, Inc., even went a little crazy and added names.
Teaming up with the George Moll advertising agency, the 1950 Bowman cards truly did something new and beautiful. I particularly enjoy the detailed baseball stadium scenes on some of the cards, complete with fans or sometimes “fan” as the case may be.
With no way to top the 1950 offering, Bowman adopted a “crop, don’t top” approach in 1951 for more than half of the players included in both sets.
Just for fun, here is a trio of 1951 Bowman cards superimposed on the same trio from 1950.
The 1952 cards continued the use of full color artwork and included my personal pick for the most gorgeous card of the entire decade. Facsimile autographs replaced the more pedestrian nameplate of the year before. If you couldn’t get an autographed photo of your favorite player, his 1952 Bowman card would have proved a worthy stand-in.
Unfortunately for Bowman, much like the Campanella card’s background, the writing was on the wall.
PART THREE: 1953-1955
While Topps had some baseball cards of their own in 1951 and even 1948, Topps really got serious in 1952 and ready to compete in earnest for baseball card supremacy. While the Bowman cards had their merits in 1952, the Topps cards were much larger, featured lifelike player images, and even included stats on the back.
How could Bowman possibly compete?
“Hey, guys. I have an idea. How about we make our 1953 cards were larger, feature lifelike player images, and even include stats on the back? Am I a genius or what?!”
The result was that in 1953 the Bowman cards looked even more like Topps than Topps did!
While Bowman played catchup in 1953, Topps took their cards in other directions, going with a rectangular nameplate in the corner and a trivia question on the back…
So naturally Bowman did the same in 1954.
Still, the Bowman design proved no match for the near perfect, three-bordered beast Topps put out that year.
Rather than try to imitate Topps or evolve an older offering of their own, Bowman produced their most original (though perhaps imitative) set of cards to date, and this baseball card revolution evidently would be televised.
Creativity at last, emphasis on last. Just as Bowman’s baseball card minds were beginning to think outside the box, the company was gobbled up by a manufacturer of…wait for it…boxes!
But wait, what’s this? Accounts of Bowman’s demise may have been greatly exaggerated? A shocking claim but then again the cardboard doesn’t lie.
1956 Topps, a collector favorite to be sure, but that landscape format…the reused player photos…another year of background action scenes…the facsimile signatures…undoubtedly the least original cards produced by Topps thus far, or to put it another way “the most Bowman!”
Gum, Inc., is dead. Long live Gum, Inc.
All kidding aside, Bowman really did make some comebacks in the Hobby after 1955. Topps brought the brand back to life in 1989 with a set that was at once reminiscent of the much acclaimed 1953 Bowman series and wholly despised.
Even today, Topps continues to pump out sets under the Bowman name with the 2021 Bowman’s Best offering even spawning the “Wandergate” controversy.
Certainly, hockey collectors of a certain age will recognize the strong influence of the 1955 Bowman baseball design on the 1966-67 Topps Hockey set.
Finally, readers may be aware of the 1956 Bowman baseball prototypes, which among other things clearly influenced the 1958 Hires Root Beer cards and perhaps even 1957 Topps football and 1960 Topps baseball.
As Faulkner wrote, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.”