The Most Conventional Card Set

Self-proclaimed as the greatest off-season event in all of sports, the Cubs Convention was the brainchild of Cubs’ marketing director John McDonough (now president and CEO of the Chicago Blackhawks). The 2020 Cubs Convention will be the 35th such event to offer fans up-close panel discussions, autograph and photo opportunities, and just about any Cubs-related merch a Die-Hard Cubs Fan could ever desire.

The Cubs hosted their first-of-its-kind fan convention in 1986 and quickly established a tradition of creating special gifts for attendees such as hats, thermal mugs and team calendars. For their 11th annual convention in 1996, the Cubs introduced a set of baseball cards featuring the players, coaches and broadcasters who appeared at the weekend-long event.

The eclectic set of 28 cards was packaged in a boxy envelope, sealed impenetrably with a circular white sticker on the back. (If you are purchasing a sealed box, know that the cards can be removed from the box without disturbing the seal.) One set was given to each convention goer at registration.

The image on the front of the box depicts Brian McRae jumping atop an apparent walk-off celebration. Shawon Dunston and Mark Grace are easily identifiable, as well. (Dunston does not appear in the set, as he was granted free agency by the Cubs following the 1995 season.)

Measuring a robust 4” x 5½”, the sexy black-bordered cards are printed on a relatively thin stock. The top border is an homage to the famous Wrigley Field marquee and features the distinctive mid-1990s Cubs logo. Cards of active players included career statistics on the back. Retired players’ cards had highlights and career statistics on the rear. The cards are not numbered.

Most of the cards feature a single individual, like these Hall of Famers, including a bespectacled Ferguson Jenkins, the Cubs then pitching coach:

34A5DAD3-5415-4306-A89F-ABEE98F1198D

Six of cards combine multiple individuals:

3623FFD1-740F-4E43-8B31-28FE4B02BD80

The final card is an advertisement for the now-defunct Vineline magazine with Ernie Banks on the cover. A closer look at the card reveals a posthumous (but presumably misprinted) enticement for 1995 postseason tickets. (By the time of the 1996 Cubs Convention, the 1995 Cubs had already finished 3rd in the NL Central.)

480ACB9E-B6E0-4AD3-B42C-6F82CF5FCF3E

The Cubs Convention is a bonanza for autograph collectors and these cards are perfect for that purpose, like this Andy Pafko signed for the author:

9D181BBE-7412-4ABF-93DC-EDDB96AAC2AF

The Cubs have never disclosed convention attendance figures, so it is unclear how many of these sets were produced, although it is likely in the 10,000-25,000 range. If you are a Cubs fan or individual player collector, these are great oddball cards to add to your collection.

That 1996 Cubs Convention also included a special Donruss exhibit, where you could get custom card produced. This baby-faced slugger 1/1 is the rarest card in my collection:

A12B44FA-5923-4338-A1C1-27CA0C388437

Set checklist (numbers just for reference):

1. Terry Adams/Turk Wendell (Young Guns)
2. Ernie Banks
3. Ernie Banks (Vineline Ad)
4. Glenn Beckert
5. Larry Bowa
6. Jack Brickhouse/Vince Lloyd (Golden Voices)
7. Scott Bullett/Ozzie Timmons (Dynamic Duo)
8. Harry Caray
9. Jose Cardenal/Rick Monday (Sensational 70’s)
10. Frank Castillo
11. Jody Davis
12. Mark Grace
13. Richie Hebner/Keith Moreland (Wrigleyville Sluggers)
14. Randy Hundley
15. Fergie Jenkins
16. Don Kessinger
17. Gary Matthews
18. Brian McRae
19. Andy Pafko
20. Milt Pappas/Tim Stoddard (Flashback Favorites)
21. Jim Riggleman
22. Ryne Sandberg
23. Ron Santo
24. Scott Servais
25. Steve Stone
26. Rick Sutcliffe
27. Steve Trachsel
28. Billy Williams

A tale of a fateful set

Recently, a near complete set of 1973 Topps Pin-ups sold at auction for $11,400. Why is this set so rare? Well.. (cue theme music)

Just sit right back and you will read a tale, a tale of a test issue set/ That started from a Brooklyn press, but never would be shipped/ The idea was a mighty bold one. The sales would be great for sure/ Five airbrush artists set to work, for the logos couldn’t show through.  For the logos couldn’t show through/ The sales projections started looking rough and the set was nearly tossed/If not for the employees that kept a few, the set would be lost!  The set would be lost!

One of several “test issue” sets Topps produced over the years, the 1973 Pin-ups are like the 1968 3-D cards in that they were never issued or had a very limited release. The product was designed to be a wrapper for a large, rectangular piece of bubble gum. The collectibles are made of thin wax paper with a label on the outer side (with a small photo of Johnny Bench) and a large photo on the interior.  There are 24 wrappers in the set, each measuring 3-7/16” x 4-5/8.”

The most unique aspect of the set is the lack of cap insignia, jersey lettering and team names.  Vintage collectors know that Topps stopped producing pack inserts in 1972. The change coincided with a new contract with Major League Baseball.  Apparently, MLB wanted more money from Topps if they produced additional products beyond the base cards.  So, Topps devised a “work around” by airbrushing away all visuals that fell under the purview of MLB Properties. 

This technique used in the Pin-ups and Candy Lids foreshadowed the explosion of “logo-less” cards that would crop up in the late 1970s and run through the end of the “junk wax” era.  Of course, Panini still cranks out numerous sets with only Major League Players Association authorization.

Each team has a Pin-up and the set includes 15 Hall-of-Fame players-if Joe Torre is included. The non-HOF players are all stars of the era.

1973 is right in the middle of the “mutton chop” sideburns and mustache era.  There are some definite “badassery” photos.  George “Boomer” Scott, Nate Colbert and Mike “Super Jew” Epstein are prime examples.

The reigning American League MVP, Dick Allen, is his usual cool self.  I have yet to see a bad photo of Mr. Allen.  His “coolness” factor may never be replicated.

The worst image is that of former Seattle Pilot Mike Marshall.  Topps uses the same airbrushed photo as appears on his 1973 base card. The image is from 1967-68 during his Detroit years.  The “awesome” paint job qualifies as a “double-airbrush,” since the airbrushed cap emblem is airbrushed over.

Our esteemed co-chair, Jason Schwartz, will undoubtedly want to empty his bank account to add the Aaron to the collection. (Editor’s note: Barring lottery win, this card is firmly planted on the list of Aaron cards I’ll never own.)

Equally esteemed co-chair, Nick Vossbrink, will gladly cash out his children’s college fund to acquire Willie McCovey.

Likewise, the citizens of Red Sox Nation will spare no expense to land a “Caawl” Yastrzemski.

This is the tale of a set nearly cast away/ No one remembered it for a long, long time/ To find an even rarer set, would be an uphill climb/ No creases, no folds, no gum stains not a single deficiency/ Like the T-206 Honus Wagner, it’s rare as can be.

My Favorite Common

One of the most-rewarding things about being the co-chair of this committee is seeing people come out of the woodwork to not only join the community we have here but contribute to it. Every new voice on the blog is wonderful and Jason and I have thoroughly enjoyed our role in encouraging new posters.

Some of you come bursting out of the gate with fantastic posts already formed and polished. Others of you have felt the desire to post but have needed some assistance in coming up with a good topic or angle of approach. As I’ve watched new posters try to find their voice or figure out what to do after they’ve exhahttps://sabrbaseballcards.wordpress.com/wp-admin/edit.phpusted their opening salvo of posts it’s occurred to me that it might be nice to have essentially an internal blog bat-around where we each address the same topic as a way of introducing ourselves and our relationship to baseball cards.

This isn’t a capital-A Assignment. But if you’ve run out of post ideas and want something to write about or if you’ve been lurking here for years and haven’t figured out what you feel comfortable adding, here’s a free post idea that I hope we return to for many years.

Mark Armour started this committee off on the right foot so it’s only fitting that his My Favorite Common post provides the blueprint. Please write about your favorite common card. No stars. No Hall of Famers. No errors. No in-demand rookies. No cards where the primary interest is how much it’s worth. We all know what common cards are; what’s of interest to the committee is you. Why it’s your favorite. How it relates to your baseball fandom.

For example, I’ll select my 1985 Fleer Dave Dravecky card for this exercise. I got this card before I even became a baseball fan or attended my first game in September 1986. My friend gave it to me before soccer practice and, not having any pockets, I shoved it behind my shinguard to “keep it safe.”

When I got home, it lived in my desk drawer, semi-forgotten even after I started collecting cards. Then in 1987 two things happened. The first was that the Giants and Padres made a blockbuster trade where the Giants got Kevin Mitchell, Craig Lefferts, and Dravecky in exchange for Chris Brown, Keith Comstock, Mark Davis and Mark Grant. The second is that Eric Show hit Andre Dawson in the face.

I’m not sure what it says about me that the Show/Dawson incident is what made dig through my drawer but yeah I had remembered that I had a Padre pitcher and so I went digging. Instead I found that I now had a Giants card.

Over the 1987 season Dravecky was usually good and occasionally great with multiple shutouts including a gem in the playoffs. Then the next year they found cancer in his pitching arm. His comeback game in 1989 remains the single most exciting sporting event I’ve ever been to. There was an electricity in the crowd with every pitch that I’ve never felt since. Playoff and World Series games are intense but this was much more than that.

This card has remained a sentimental favorite ever since but it also represents a lot of things that I like about baseball cards in general. Cards with colorful borders that correspond to the team colors. Cards with simple but professional headshots that also offer a glimpse at the stadiums. And Dravecky himself is poised and confident while also offering a bit a smile.

I love the way the yellow border is actually the same color as the Padres yellow and the way it works perfectly with the brown pullover jersey. The colors in general work really well together here with the red plastic seats and green artificial turf offering just enough contrast to keep the card from looking too much like a Reeses Pieces advertisement. It’s just a good-looking basic card.

The background details though are what I like best since they’re emblematic of the state of the game when I fell in love with it. I never thought I’d miss multipurpose stadiums with their barely-filled outfield stands revealing row-upon-row of brightly-colored plastic seats but here we are. Those donuts weren’t great but you could always walk up to the ticket window and expect something to be available.

Succumbing to the Siren’s Song of the Topps Heritage Collection: a 1970 journey

Let’s just say that I was Topps Heritage collection-curious.  Oh, I’ve seen the sets depicting contemporary players in designs from 1969, 1968, and others, looking all sleek and alluring, like a siren’s song calling to me and my debit card.  Shaking my head quickly, I tell myself, no, no — that’s is all a marketing trick, don’t fall for it. Don’t give in.  I knew that once I bought a pack, I wouldn’t be able to stop!

Well, there I was, at the Greenwood Fred Meyers waiting in line to make my purchases, and there they were, off to the right in the racks calling out their familiar song.  Sigh.  Okay, maybe just one.  I can do it.  Just one, and that’s it.  It’ll be fun.  I know other guys are doing it, right?  And hey – look – there are 20 cards.  More value, the package read!  Okay … just one.  Here I go…

The high number plastic pack I opened included 19 cards and a candy lid. Curiously I flipped through the pack, looking at the design, both front and back, checking out the team names, and making notes of the words and drawings on reverse side in blue, white and yellow.  Going through the names and faces now, I was pleased to discover Vladimir Guerrero, Jr (#504); Yasiel Puig (#541); Michael Pineda (#662); and David Freese (#691), among others.  The candy lid (available only at Target, but purchased at Fred Meyer) was Rhys Hoskins (#29 of 30).

Being reasonably satisfied with the purchase and the design of the cards, I turned to my binder of 1970 cards, my handy-dandy copy of “Topps Baseball Cards: The Complete Picture Collection, a 35 Year History: 1951-1985,” and the “Official Baseball Card Price Guide: 1990, Collector’s Edition” to compare designs.

From this point, I stepped a toe onto memory lane and wandered through the 1970 collection.  The Topps book’s 1970 introduction made much to do about the saga of the Seattle Pilots and their heart-breaking move to Milwaukee before the season began.  The complete set itself totaled 720 cards, the first time that the card set exceeded 700, measuring 2 ½ x 3 ½ inches.

The cards themselves are unremarkable.  They feature a blue and yellow printing on white card board with yearly stats, brief bio, and a cartoon on the backside with the front side showing crisp color photos with team name in upper corner, and the player name in script in the lower gray border.

1970 Sparky AndersonI mean unremarkable in that the photos include players in pitching or batting poses, close-ups with caps, without caps, and some with very, very bad airbrushed caps.  I’m looking at you Sparky Anderson (#181); Curt Blefory (#297); Tom Shopay (#363); and Bob Heise (#478), among others.  Poor Fred Norman (#427).  He looks like his LA Dodgers insignia was ironed on his ballcap, with a somewhat noticeable Spokane Indians pictured.1970 Fred Norman

Some of the more interesting cards included the NL and AL Championships (#195 – 202), another first for Topps.  One fun-filled card, was Lowell Palmer (#252) of the Philadelphia Phillies, who was the only one to sporting sunglasses.  In keeping with the true essence of the Topps Heritage collection, Philadelphia Phillies Pat Neshek paid homage to Palmer’s card by wearing sunglasses and sporting the card number 252, as well.

1970 sunglassesTopps has done an outstanding job with these Heritage sets.  I don’t know if I will make another purchase.  Maybe next year, I guess.  Perhaps those 2020 cards will incorporate the 1971 card design.  Those would be interesting to see!  But, then again, I’m hoping to keep my impulse control in check.  These things can be addictive!

Editors’ Note: Jeff Katz has previously written about reaching the exact opposite opinion of 2019 Heritage and Nick Vossbrink has more a more detailed description of how Topps changed the printing between 1970 and 2019.

Digital Footprints

A recent post by Jenny Miller about the Topps Bunt app got me thinking about digital cards. I’ve long wanted to see such a post on this blog but I suspect that our membership base is skeptical at best* when it comes to cards that only live in an app.

*And dismissive at worst.

I get it. This is a cardboard hobby and the idea of something existing only digitally doesn’t feel “real.” At the same time, the experience Jenny describes is closer to the pure ideal of the hobby than much of what’s going on with card releases. She doesn’t have to spend any money. She’s able to look at her collection and acquire new cards anywhere and anytime she has battery life on her phone. There’s no concern about finding a card shop or hoping that the card aisle hasn’t been raided by pack seekers. It sounds like a lot more fun than most of the bellyaching I see about the current state of the hobby on Twitter.

What really got me thinking though were the images Jenny used in her blog post. I’m online-averse in all my media. I prefer CDs/DVDs/BluRay to streaming. I prefer books to Kindle. As interesting as the Topps Bunt app seems it’s just not something that appeals to me…unless I can get the cards out of the app. As much as I’m a luddite, my concerns are actually more about being locked in to a corporate ecosystem and the fact that companies have a bad track record with regard to maintaining these things.

I just don’t trust these apps to last and while I don’t need ALL my cards to last another 20, 30, 40 years it would be nice to know that there’s a possibility of it. Jenny didn’t get her images out of the app (she confirmed with me that she pulled them from Topps’s Twitter feed) but she could have.

My phone (an iPhone8) produces screenshots that are 750×1334 pixels. This translates into 2.5″×4.45″ at 300 DPI. Even if you have to crop off a little of the image to get just the card this is enough data for good-quality printing. Yeah. There’s no reason why you couldn’t roll your own Bunt cards.

As much as it’s weird to me how the Bunt app cards show evidence of wanting to pretend to be physical items with their wrinkles, halftone rosettes, “autographs,” and peeling effects, they are actually something that can be taken into the real world if you wanted to.

Costco wallet-sized prints are 59¢ for four. Even if you didn’t print these, just being able to save them outside of the app gives you a level of flexibility and future-protection that alleviates a lot of my concerns. It also reminds me of a number of other card-related things we’ve covered on this blog where the original objects contain information that is no longer accessible for most collectors.

One of the best things about this hobby is how it’s a near perfect usage of technology—in this case print technology. Cards are the right size to hold and store. They’re durable enough to handle without falling apart immediately. And they don’t require any supplementary technology.

I very much love cards that push the into other technological realms though. They just require some help to be fully enjoyed if the other technology does not age as well as ink on cardboard.

For example, Auravision and Baseball Talk are both wonderful objects but the audio portions of them are tough to access. Record players may be making a comeback but they’ve not been standard in most homes for a long time. Plus you have to punch a hole in the middle of that nice Auravision photo to listen to anything. Similarly, Baseball Talk requires a special player which, even if you have one, is not guaranteed to work anymore since it’s a cheap child’s toy.

But the internet is a wonderful place. The Auravision recordings are up on YouTube. As are the Baseball Talk ones. This means I can have my Baseball Talk cards in my album and pull up the corresponding recordings on the web. Yes there’s always that fear that the recordings will disappear from YouTube but they’re out there, but there are tools out there that will download the audio from a YouTube video and convert it to MP3.

Another thing that YouTube has preserved is things like 2000 Upper Deck Power Deck. Sure you can just shove a baseball card sized mini CD-ROM into a binder page but reading the data is near impossible now. Most computers don’t have optical media trays and the ones that do are usually slot-loading ones that can’t accept non-standard sized or shaped media. So your only option to see what’s on the disc is to go to YouTube and hope it’s been uploaded.

I’ve actually been engaged in my own form of converting a somewhat-inaccesable product into one with digital footprints. I don’t have the toy to view my Viewmaster discs so I’m only able to see them by holding a disc up to light. This isn’t ideal. Scanning them into wiggle gifs produces a better way of seeing them.

I’m also going a step further and scanning the booklet so I can convert each image into a 2.5″ square card with a still image in the front and the booklet on the back. No it’s not the Viewmaster experience but it take the photos into a form that’s more accessible.

Do I expect Bunt to be around in a decade? No way. But I do expect JPGs of the cards to be available someplace. Maybe not all of them, but someone next decade will have an archive of a bunch of them. And I have my fingers crossed that a few cards will even be printed out the way I’m printing out my Viewmaster photos.

Inside the Donruss Studio

Innovative, interesting, often beautiful, Donruss Studio was a welcome new entry in 1991, a card set that relied on the personalities of the players.

Though I enjoyed Studio, I only have two complete sets. I had no idea how long lived the Studio concept was. It was a true survivor of the junk era, issued from 1991-98, then again from 2001-05, and once again from 2014-16.

I’m not going to go too deeply into this, only enough to show all the designs. When they’re great, they’re great. When they’re not, they’re interesting. That can’t be said for many other base sets that ran for so long.

1991 – 264 cards

1992 – 264 cards

The first set I completed.

 

1993 – 220 cards

1994 – 220 cards

1995 – 200 cards

Flashback to the 1980’s credit card sets.

1996 – 150 cards

Indicative of the card boom and bust, in five years the set was halved.

1997 – 165 cards

1998 – 220 cards

Last year of the first run, and a sizeable increase in the base set. Once of the offshoots was a 36 card set of 8 X 10s. I bought a box of those.

2001 – 200 cards

Back from hiatus, more border, less picture.

2002 – 275 cards

2003 – 211 cards

This set is absolutely beautiful.

2004 – 270 cards

2005 – 300 cards

Back to the original set length, and a farewell to the Donruss’ MLB license.

By 2014, Donruss was a throwback name, not even a real issue, and the Studio sets were small subset, 10-20 cards per year. In some ways the lack of license doesn’t hurt the core mission of Studio, to capture the faces of the game. Still, these look like hell.

2014

2015

2016

There are many inserts over the years, some quite good, like the Heritage subset than ran from 1991-94. (Here’s Straw from 1992)

Writing this is making me want more of these sets. You too? See you at eBay.

Nine cards for #9

The great Minnie Miñoso would’ve turned 94 today. Or judging from some of his baseball cards either 95, 96 or 97.

But regardless of how old he really was, he was a very important player in baseball history, worthy of the Hall of Fame for his tremendous career as well as his role as a pioneer for black Latinos. So let’s celebrate the Cuban Comet with nine of my favorite Miñoso cards.

1945-46 Caramelo Deportivo [Sporting Caramels] Cuban League

This is my baseball card Holy Grail; the one Miñoso card in this post which I do not yet own. They do pop up once in a while, though with a price tag in the $350-$500 range even for something in the 2-3 grade range. Either way, these 1-7/8″ by 2-5/8″ black & white cards were printed on a very thin stock and were intended to be pasted into a collector album. So even when you find one of these, there will likely be a chunk of the back gouged out (this won’t be the first time you read about this here).

On the front of the card, there’s a thin white border with a photo and a small circled number. That’s so you knew where to paste the card in the album. Fun fact about these: the Caramelo Deportivo sets are the only cards I’ve seen of Minnie (Miñoso was featured in the 1945-46, 1946-47 & 1947-48 sets) where he’s sporting a mustache, though a thin one at that.

1952 Topps

The first installment of its “flagship” set, Topps has what is considered Minnie’s “Rookie Card” even though he has earlier cardboard appearances (see above). The front of the card lists his name as Orestes, as does his facsimile autograph. Missing here is the trademark straight-edge under the signature, as was his custom years later.

The back of the card does refer to him as “Minnie” even here for 1952.

1952 Red Man Tobacco

From 1952-55, Red Man Tobacco issued these colorful 3-1/2″ square cards (they originally came with another half-inch tab at the bottom), bringing cards and tobacco products back together again as they were with the 19th century & early 20th century sets. Everything you want is on the front here. The back of the card is just an advertisement of the set itself with an offer to collect 50 of the tabs and send them in for a baseball cap. Apparently, that’s what the original owner of my card did.

1952 Berk Ross

At only 2″ by 3″ this qualifies as a Mini Miñoso. There’s not much to it; the back of the card boasts “Hit Parade of Champions” with a brief bio and a few statistics. These cards have a sort of primitive charm to them. The printing is a little off, the centering also not quite right, and there’s little nubs on each edge as if they were part of a perforated strip. I got this card at a good price probably because somebody’s name is stamped on the back.

1954 Dixie Lids


65 years ago, somebody enjoyed a cup of ice cream and when they removed the lid, there was “Minny” Miñoso. If there’s another card of him listed as Minny, I’m not aware of it. These lids advertise the Dixie Lid 3-D Starviewer; all you need to do is send 25 cents, this lid, name and address to the company. Personally, I’d much rather have this lid than the Starviewer, even if it looks like quite a contraption.

1962 Topps Baseball Bucks

Minnie Miñoso played only 39 games for the St. Louis Cardinals, but it was long enough to get his face on a one-dollar 4-1/8 inch by 1-3/4 inch “Baseball Buck.” Sure, Henry Aaron and Roberto Clemente were on $5 bills and Willie Mays & Mickey Mantle were on $10 bills, but there’s nothing wrong with being on a $1. George Washington is on the $1 and that’s good enough for me.

1967 Venezuelan Retirado


These are TOUGH to find, particularly in good condition, because just like the Caramelo Deportivo cards I mentioned earlier, these were glued (or stuck in some way) inside collector albums, evidenced by the chunk of the back of my card that was torn off. Other than that, this might be my favorite Minnie card.

First of all, I had never even heard of this set before stumbling upon it. It’s pretty rare and it came from another country. I love the beautiful shade of blue as a plain background for the player image, which might not be a surprise to those who read my post on the 2010 Tristar Obak cards.

Editor’s note: This subset of 49 retired baseball players and one who would still be active in 1980 😃 was part of a larger Venezuelan release popularly known as 1967 Topps Venezuelan. However, there is some reason to believe these cards were not produced by Topps at all.

1984 True Value White Sox, 1986-89 Coca-Cola White Sox

I’m counting these five team issue cards as one card, since I make the rules. The first from the 1984 True Value team set, which Jason will certainly find more appealing than the 1986 Coca-Cola card (even though it’s the same photo used) because of the large BORDER. The Blue-bordered 1987 Coca-Cola card also shows the same photo as the red-bordered 1988 Coca-Cola card. Then there’s the obnoxiously-bordered 1989 card.

What’s my point? Well, the White Sox were still including Minnie Miñoso in team-issue sets even though he last played in 1980 (even though there were attempts to get him into a game in 1990 as well as 1993). And that means something. He’s Mr. White Sox. An iconic player in franchise history, as well as baseball history.

2015 White Sox tribute

This card was given out to attendees of Minnie’s memorial service at Holy Family Church in March 2015. It’s nicely done in the 1964 Topps style with red lettering instead of the light blue used in the original set. Plus, the #9 memorial logo is shown in the upper left corner.

Nine (okay, thirteen) cards of one man, spanning over 70 years. An amazing man. An amazing life. And about one year from now, we’ll hopefully be celebrating his election to the Hall of Fame on the Golden Era ballot.

Editor’s note: Chris delivered a terrific presentation on Minnie’s Hall of Fame case at a 2019 SABR Chicago chapter meeting. His presentation begins around the 19:00 mark of this video.

These Ain’t The First Rodeo Cards

When my first book, The Kansas City A’s and the Wrong Half of the Yankees, came out in 2007, I wasn’t as focused on getting book-related cards as I would be for Split Season 1981. In all fairness, it was easy pickings to find sets from 1981 that I didn’t have – Topps Foldouts, Scratch-offs, Coca-Cola, Stickers, Giant Photo Cards, Drake’s, Squirt, Kellogg’s. (Here’s the post).  Not as easy for the A’s book.

As I often do, I found myself at Baseball Nostalgia in Cooperstown and came across a 1955 Rodeo Meats reprint set, a 1976 issue. Affordable ($4) and filled with guys I had been researching and writing about. The back of the header card explains the originals better than I can:

It’s not that exciting a set, but fun to have:

78454274_10218417239496738_3954300819477626880_n

78293724_10218417240016751_7759082119300644864_n

78041059_10218417240816771_6943431107819864064_n

The backs are plain and informative:

78392207_10218417241656792_3897432171123572736_n

But, hold on:

fa92966f52c630a8c3f7e269f407c344

HarmlessWhoppingBluetickcoonhound-mobile

75250856_10218417242696818_619254599554957312_n

The originals are in glorious ’50’s color!

The 1955 set, coinciding with the A’s arrival from Philadelphia, has 38 different players with one error – Bobby Shantz’, one spelled “Schantz,” the other “Shantz.” There are players with two backgrounds – Cloyd Boyer (blue and pink), Joe DeMaestri (pea and light greens), Arnie Portocarrero (pink and yellow), Bill Renna (dark and light pinks), Wilmer Shantz (orange and purple. Why couldn’t they get those Shantz brothers done correctly?), Elmer Valo (yellow and purple) and Bill Wilson (yellow and purple). All in all there are 47 cards.

The 1956 set was reduced to 13 cards. The backs are different too. Here’s a 1955 back, featuring a scrapbook offer):

78281244_10218417243776845_6862988234381590528_n

And 1956:

1_74665fa1dc9e8e2977fc07db69733faf

If you’re thinking that these are real beauties and that you’d like to pick a few up, beware! They are super pricey. As a result, I’ll settle for my black and whites.

Disappointing, sure, but not as disappointing as being a KC A’s fan and watching them trade all your favorite players to the Yankees, or, worse, parking them until New York called them back.

Intrigued? Read the book.

 

Heritage before Heritage

I reached a collecting milestone last week by completing one of my all-time favorite sets. It’s a set that’s off the radar of most collectors (until now!) and has few cards, if any, worth more than a dollar. Its value to me is purely sentimental but still sky high in that it’s the set that started my lifelong love affair with baseball’s all-time greats.

Before getting into the set itself, I’ll start with a card not in it.

You may recognize this as the 1960 Leaf card of Brooks Robinson. The first time I saw it 10-year-old-me took the glow around Robinson’s head for a halo and suspected only I could see it. (UPDATE: Rob Neyer also saw the halo!)

To other collectors (but not our own Jeff Katz) the set is perhaps a bit more boring, despite the fact that it has to be the most exciting set ever to come with marbles instead of gum! (And did I mention the packs had cards of “Your Favorite Major League Star?”)

Marbles aside, we are looking at a black and white set produced long past the era of black and white sets, whether to you the Grayscale Age of Baseball Cards was the 1920s or the 1880s. “Your Favorite Major League Player” notwithstanding, the Leaf checklist strikes many collectors as lackluster, with the Human Vacuum Cleaner and Duke Snider perhaps the only top shelf Hall of Famers.

Various articles note design similarities between the 1960 Leaf set and its predecessor 11 years prior. My own opinion is that the two sets aren’t that close, but I’ll let you judge for yourself.

I chose Elmer Valo to compare these sets because his placement in the 1960 set comes with a little bit of a story. As reported in the May 4, 1949, Boston Globe, Valo was one of six ballplayers to sue Leaf for using their likeness in the 1949 set. The fact that he found himself back on the checklist in 1960 says something about the ability to forgive or forget, whether on the part of Leaf, Valo, or both.

Now fast forward to 1977 and one of the nation’s best known mail order dealers is planning a set of 45 cards as her very first entrée into the card making business. The next 10+ years would see her company produce dozens more sets including…

A 1983 tribute to the 1969 Seattle Pilots…

A 1984 “Art Card Series” featuring acclaimed baseball artist Ron Lewis of Negro Leagues postcard fame…

And six single-player sets from 1984-86 of several big name ballplayers and cult leaders! (Wait, that’s Pete Rose? Are you sure?)

While these later sets drew on new designs, the last few of which just scream 1980s, her very first set, much like Topps Heritage does today, mimicked a set from the past. T206? Nope! 1933 Goudey? Nope! 1952 Topps? Nope again. As you’ve no doubt guessed already, that set was 1960 Leaf!

Here is card #5, Roy Campanella, from Renata Galasso’s debut set, “Decade Greats,” featuring top stars from the 1950s.

Perhaps Ms. Galasso had a sentimental attachment to 1960 Leaf or maybe she just held a special admiration for her fellow challengers of the Topps monopoly. More than likely, her reasons for copying the Leaf set were more pedestrian. Black and white was cheaper than color, and it would have been tough to get too close to Topps without getting even closer to their lawyers. Finally, a collection of 1950s players made more sense in a decade-capping 1960 set than, for example, 1922 American Caramel.

Particularly for her rookie offering, Renata Galasso did a fantastic job capturing the look and feel of the 1960 set. Put the cards side-by-side and you’ll spot some differences, most notably the missing halo, but to paraphrase Maya Angelou the cards are much more alike than unalike.

As the small print on the back of the Campanella card shows, Renata Galasso received an assist from Mike Aronstein’s company, TCMA, which had already been making its own cards since 1972.

The 45-card set was evidently popular enough to engender a sequel two years later, this time numbered 46-90. While you might have expected this continuation set to focus on the 1960s, TCMA had already beat Galasso to the punch the year before with a stunning color issue (left) reminiscent of 1953 Bowman (right) in yet another case of Heritage before Heritage.

TCMA had similarly put out a 1930s set five years earlier, but the half decade gap left enough breathing room for Galasso to put her own “1960 Leaf” touch on the decade.

Where I had previously seen sharp photos of Aaron, Mays, Mantle, and other 1950s stars in my reading books, this 1930s set was the first time I had ever seen such vivid images of earlier stars. To a certain extent, Galasso’s set transformed these 1930s heroes from cartoon characters into men, which somehow made their records and feats all the more impressive. As the card footer shows, TCMA was again a partner in the effort.

Renata Galasso extended her set once again the following year, issuing Series Three in 1980. This time her decade of choice was the 1920s. This was around the time I started taking the bus to card shows, and the Galasso cards were a frequent purchase for me out of bargain bins. While I regret turning down a T206 Cobb for $14, I have no regrets about scooping this one up for a dime.

Once again, TCMA was in the mix, and once again the cards looked fantastic. In my view, all they needed was stats on the back instead of that humongous logo and they would have been perfect.

Series Four, numbered 136-180, came the very next year and featured stars of the 1910s. You don’t even have to look at the rest of the checklist to know the key card in this series is the Cobb, with its iconic Conlon photo.

In a move that foreshadowed the later work of SABR, you’ll notice that Cobb’s hit total was reduced between his 1980 and 1981 card backs. I’ll also credit Galasso (or TCMA) with splurging for a brand new bio where other card makers might have simply recycled the back from the previous series.

The Decade Greats set, now up to 225 cards, would continue in 1983 with a 45-card series, sometimes numbered 181-223 (plus two unnumbered cards), commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1933 All-Star Game.

I say “sometimes numbered” because the same 45 cards are also numbered 1-43 (plus two unnumbered), reflecting either a clever marketing move to co-brand this series as a standalone or just an oops by someone who forgot numbers 1-180 were already spoken for.

On top of that, the sequencing of the 43 numbered cards comes in the exact opposite order of their 181-223 counterparts. For example, here is my version of the Hubbell card, numbered 16 instead of 208, which of course is the 16th number counting backward from 223.

Card footers no longer mention TCMA, which I take to mean Renata Galasso was either producing these cards solo or experimenting with new vendors. Perhaps connected to the absence of TCMA, the quality of the cards drops off some with centering/miscut issues and minor typos being the main culprits.

The sixth and final series was released in 1984 and commemorated highlights and records. One of my favorite cards in the set provides a much sharper image of Jackie Robinson than his 1948 Sport Thrills card, even as both cards drew from the same George Burke photo.

As with the fifth series, quality falls short of the first four series. Look closely at the Robinson card, and you’ll see the name and caption are poorly centered relative to his portrait. This proves to be the case for the majority of the cards. This final series also includes a “BILL MAZEROWSKI” UER and the awkward Koufax caption “PITCHES 4TH NO HITTERS.”

There are also some really bad looking photos, especially compared to the earlier cards. For example, compare the elegant Mays from Series One to the practically reptilian Mantle of Series Six.

Finally, there is notable drift from the original 1960 Leaf design that inspired the set. Photos now are more squared off, the big letters have gotten smaller, and the small letters have gotten bigger. The resemblance is still there though perhaps more amateur.

The final two series are the hardest to find, a sign of declining production and sales. That no Series Seven or Eight was ever produced affirms the reduced interest in sets of this kind. We had reached the mid-1980s after all. Collectors now preferred future Hall of Famers to actual Hall of Famers, but why not! What could King Carl do to make his cards go up in value? Certainly not win 400 games like Dwight Gooden would!

Even where some collectors still wanted old-time stars for pocket change, there was no shortage of color offerings to choose from, including a gorgeous Dick Perez collaboration from Donruss in 1983 and various other Perez-Steele offerings that had gained popularity with autograph hounds.

Regardless of its flaws, its waning popularity, and its uselessness in funding my retirement (I just picked up the “tough” Series Five for $0.99 plus shipping), the 270-card “Decade Greats” set, also called “Glossy Greats,” will always be a favorite of mine.

It is a set that might have seemed lazy at the time, an unimaginative reboot of a set from two decades earlier. What we didn’t know then is just how ahead of its time that was…Heritage before Heritage if you ask me!

Extra for experts

The 1977-84 Renata Galasso Decade Greats set is a relatively early example of “Heritage before Heritage,” but it’s certainly not the only example or even the first. Go back six years and Allstate Insurance (of course!) put together a small set evoking the 1933 Goudey design. Here is the Ted Williams card from the set.

One could perhaps even consider the 1955 Topps Double Header issue a reboot of the 1911 Mecca Double Folders (T201) design, even as the cards differ in many ways visually.

There is also enough similarity across many tobacco issues that perhaps one could regard just about any of the sets Heritage-style remake of some other from a couple years earlier, though I would argue here that this is less about paying homage and more about paying less!

I’m curious what your examples are of early Heritage before Heritage. Ideally the visual match would be strong and the difference between the sets would be a good decade or more. Let me know in the Comments, either here or on Twitter.

Hitting through the Unglaub Arc

Forty-five years after purchasing a pack, I finally completed the 1974 Fleer “Baseball’s Wildest Days and Plays” set.  This is one of several sets in which artist Robert Laughlin used cartoons to illustrate some aspect of baseball history. This set is often listed as having been issued in 1973-which is printed on the backs as the copyright date-but the packs didn’t appear in stores until 1974.

By the way, several other SABR Baseball Cards posts have examined Laughlin creations, including “Fleer Funnies,” “Laughlin to Keep from Crying,” and “What if Robert Laughlin made his 300/400/500 set today?

The cards are of the “tall boy” style, measuring 2-1/2” x 4”.  The set is comprised of 42 cards, which were distributed five cards to a pack, along with a slab of gum. Interestingly, Laughlin had a mail order business in which he “hawked his wares,” as evidenced by this advertisement in a 1974 “The Trader Speaks.” This ad clearly shows that the “Baseball’s Wildest Days and Plays” cards were new for 1974.

Card #1 in the numerical sequence provides a feel for Laughlin’s concept and art style.  A cartoon is used to symbolize the event.  The accompanying tagline helps set the stage and provides context. Finally, the narrative on the back fleshes out the whole story. Essentially, each card offers a baseball history lesson.

By all rights, the following confession should get me drummed out of SABR. Until I acquired this card a few weeks ago, I was unaware of the “Unglaub Arc.” In 1907, Red Sox first baseman Bob Unglaub proposed a rule designed to increase scoring.  He advocated for an arc to be painted in the outfield 240 feet from home plate.  The outfielders had to stay to the infield side of the arc before the ball was hit.  Thus, the sluggers of the day would have a better chance of reaching base. Of course, today’s speedy athletes routinely play at a shallow depth and run back once the ball is airborne.

Action on the diamond isn’t the only subject matter.  Senators catcher Gabby Street’s famous catch of a ball dropped from the Washington Monument in 1908 is an example. After several attempts, Gabby was able to snag a ball dropped from the height of 555 feet.  According to the SABR Bio Project piece by Joseph Wancho, the ball fell with 300 pounds of force. Although Street is depicted in uniform, he was in street clothes when he made the “monumental” snag.

The murky legends of baseball get a turn with William “Dummy” Hoy and the origin of umpire signals.  According to esteemed SABR researcher Bill Deane in a July 24, 2010 New York Times article, no contemporaneous evidence exists of hand signals being added by umpires to communicate balls and strikes to the deaf Hoy.  As with many baseball innovations, the evolution is nuanced and not centered on a definitive moment in history.

My favorite “Wildest Days and Plays” cards use the actual likenesses instead of just a generic player.  An excellent rendering of Jimmie Foxx is used to tell the story of the “Beast” being walked six consecutive times in a game.  Also, a very recognizable Babe Ruth was drawn by Laughlin for another card.

The card for the Eddie Gaedel stunt is an excellent example of Laughlin using imagery to enhance the story.  A little guy perched on a giant baseball automatically conveys Gaedel’ s diminutive size.

Likewise, a towering Jim Thorpe conveys the outsized status of the great athlete.  Besides, hitting home runs in three different states in the same game is an “outsized” accomplishment.

Even owners show up in this set. Pirates mogul, Barney Dreyfuss, is depicted firing Bill Abstein for striking out 10 times in the 1909 World Series.

I will exit with the card that tells the tale of the rise and fall of Joe Borden.  In 1875, Borden (playing under the name Josephs) recorded the first no-hitter in professional baseball history with Philadelphia of the National Association.  In 1876 he joined the newly formed National League with Boston where he proceeded to win the first game in league history.  Sadly, Joe’s status as a “phenom” came crashing down with each subsequent, poor performance.  By the end of 1876 season, Borden was fulfilling his contract by serving as the Red Caps groundskeeper.  Charlie Weatherby’s SABR Bio Project entry provides the full scoop on “Flash-in-the-Pan” Borden.