When Brien Taylor Ruled The Hobby World

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

And within three years, it was all over.

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1992 Classic Best Promo #PR2

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

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

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

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1991 Classic Draft NNO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1992 ToppsGold #793 – A forgotten icon of the Junk Wax Era.

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

But… were these really rookie cards?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1992 Stadium Club #1 Draft Picks of the ’90s #2 – The first-ever insert set produced by Topps.

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

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

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1995 Bowman # 17 – Only one 1995 release had room for Taylor on its checklist.

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

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1996 Best Greensboro Bats #27 – Well into the ‘what if?’ years.

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

A most valuable discovery

As a kid I used to dream about finding my way into some ancient attic and unearthing boxes and boxes full of old baseball cards. For whatever reason, I imagined I’d need to be on the East Coast somewhere, which made the fantasy all the less attainable coming from my West Coast mind, but it was still fun to picture thumbing through these old stacks of cards and finding Ted Williams, Stan Musial, and Joe DiMaggio if not Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and Honus Wagner.

While this dream of mine never did come true, I did have the pleasure of meeting a fellow collector this year whose real life experience came awfully close.

David grew up in the Kansas City area but lives in Phoenix these days. Like me, he fell for card collecting hook, line, and sinker from the moment he was introduced to his first baseball cards, despite the fact he barely knew a thing about baseball or any of the players. While my love affair with cards and baseball began with 1978 Topps, David got going five years earlier and still remembers the thrill of pulling a 1973 Topps Hank Aaron card.

David was mainly a Hank Aaron and Kansas City Royals collector early on and started a paper route to feed his fix for packs. Once Hank Aaron retired, David branched out into the older stuff, mainly pursuing pre-1973 Hank Aaron cards and other stars he’d heard about from his dad. David was even lucky enough to have a teacher at school who would trade old 1950s cards for contemporary stars. While these swaps usually worked in David’s favor, he harbors at least some regret over a 1975 Gary Carter RC for 1955 Topps Tom Hurd swap.

Fast forward a bit and David eventually headed off to college. Like so many other collectors he left his cards at home–Hank Aaron, George Brett, Tom Hurd, and all. With David away at school his parents downsized and moved most of his stuff into storage. After his father passed away, David’s mother forgot about the storage unit, whose contents were ultimately sold off to the highest bidder.

The end. Right?

Not quite. I’ll let David’s twitter bio take over from here.

“Recently found my entire card collection I thought was long lost. Sharing my find w/twitter…”

While I grew up dreaming of finding boxes and boxes full of incredible cards, David actually did it. The twist, of course, is that the boxes he found were his own!

Evidently, David’s dad didn’t want to put the cards in storage and had a friend of his hang onto them instead. David remained in contact with this family friend, who one day, decades later, remembered he had a bunch of boxes somewhere with David’s name on them.

David’s first few twitter posts as “Cigarbox Cards” definitely got my attention!

The first card David posted was a well loved 1956 Topps card of Mr. Cub. The next day David posted a video of himself rifling through stacks of cards including early Topps issues of Gary Carter (but not the 1975!) and Dennis Eckersley while a 1949 Leaf Ted Williams sat untouched in the distance.

An autographed Yaz rookie was next, followed by a Red Man Willie Mays. In the days that followed David posted a Brett RC mini, a 1954 Bowman Mickey Mantle, and a 1974 Topps Tom Seaver. I always enjoyed the way David juxtaposed his featured finds with background elements that enhanced their presentation. This is a theme we’ll come back to shortly when I show you what David’s up to now.

Most of the online replies consisted of emojis like 😱 and 🔥 🔥 🔥 but I suspect certain collectors were wondering if David’s cigar box finds included any really good cards.

Then David dropped the Hammer.

And even more Hammer! (Click blue arrow twice to activate.)

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Though the cards are not mine, I still feel a thrill each time David posts an amazing card from his original collection. To think how close these cards came to being lost forever and then to see them pop up in my twitter feed is downright magical. It’s like flipping through my own personal attic find, even if the cards aren’t mine to keep–just like the dreams I had as a kid right down to waking up in the morning with the same collection I had before!

Beyond showing off some great cards David introduced some fun interactive features to his posts, among them his “Out or Hit” series…

…or his “In Action” baseball card gifs.

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Of course it was only a matter of time before this happened.

The cards kept coming and coming, almost obscenely so, but what really caught the eye of many collectors was the creative ways David was finding to display his cards, something many of us spend undue time considering.

Here’s another one that really caught my eye with bonus points for the bunting!

And if you’re wondering what the most creative use for a yellow drinking straw in a baseball card collection is…

Or for the Yankee fans…

I could go on and on, but you’d probably have more fun scrolling through all David’s posts yourself. Other than of course SABR Baseball Cards 🤣, it’s hard to think of another baseball card account as consistently awesome as his.

As I consider his collecting story I come back once again to my own and that of so many other collectors. How many of us dreamed of that elusive find, those boxes and boxes of cards filled with stars of yesteryear? If you’re like me, not only did that imagined cardboard haul never arrive but even the cards you did have were nowhere to be found by the time you realized you missed them.

What I didn’t know when I shuffled through my 1978-80 Topps cards as a kid was that the boxes right in front of me would someday be more valuable than any cards I might find elsewhere. Even today the memories of those cards mean more to me than the actual cards I’ve purchased since.

This post (below, right) from David makes the point well and was ultimately the catalyst for my writing this article.

Let’s face it. You can dream all you want about things you don’t have, but few fantasies or realities will ever come close to that of your first love, whether lost, lasting, or in David’s case both.

Author’s note: For another SABR Baseball Cards article inspired by collectors’ online posts, see “Fathers and Sons.”

Curiosities

Have you ever looked at a baseball card? Sure, there’s the players name, their position, the team … all the basics. On the back there’s the usual stats (batting average, RBI, HR, OBP, etc.) along with some of the players’ vitals. That’s what you see when you look at a baseball card.

If you look a bit closer, however, you’ll find a few curiosities. These curiosities could range from either a small variation like a different photo or a nickname instead of the players’ real name to something more of an oddity like players in odd uniforms (example: teams they never played for or teams they spent a very short time with) or players listed for teams that never existed (ex: 1974 Topps Washington cards).

While I was filing some cards away the other day, I came across several examples of cards of players in a uniform of a team they never played for. I don’t know if there is an official name for these cards. Some bloggers use the term “zero-year cards” as christened by a fellow blogger named “Dime Box Nick”. Nick runs the blog “Dime Boxes” and has been pretty good at keeping an ongoing list of these types of cards that are out there.

The question becomes then how exactly do cards like this, of players in uniforms of teams they never played for, come to exist? Well, the examples I found cover several difference instances of how these curiosities, for lack of  a better term, can happen.

preacher_roe

1. Retirement

Let’s start with one of the earliest known example of one of these types of cards, that being this 1955 Bowman Preacher Roe. Roe is best known for being a four-time All-Star with Brooklyn in the later 40s and early 50s with his best season during that time being 1951 where he went 22-3 over 33 starts. After the 1954 season, the Dodgers swapped him to Baltimore. Instead of suiting up for the Orioles, Roe decided to retire instead due to nagging injuries.

addy_russell

2. “Before They Were Stars” Trades

Bowman’s current focus is cards of rookies and draft picks and issuing cards of them in the uniform of the major league team that drafted them. Now, an argument could possibly be made for those types of cards classifying as a “zero” card but I’m going to focus this more on cards of those who have appeared in a major league game. With that, a more modern example of a “zero” type card is those who were traded before they were stars. Take this Addison Russell card for example, here he’s shown with the A’s who originally drafted him. But in July of 2014, he was traded to the Cubs and made his debut in April 2015.

ryan_madson

3. Injuries

Injuries are another modern example of how these cards come into existence. Let’s look at this Ryan Madson card. I’ll bet you didn’t know that Ryan Madson played for the Reds, right? Well, he actually didn’t. He was signed to be their closer in 2012 as Spring Training approached but suffered a shoulder injury during camp which led to Tommy John surgery. In turn, he never appeared in an official game for the Reds.

manny_ramirez

4. One Last Shot

If you take a look at the list I mentioned earlier from Nick’s blog, you’ll find one of the biggest causes of “zero” cards, that being players who are going for one last shot. Take for example this Manny Ramirez card. When I picked this up as part of a trade, my first thought was “I don’t remember Manny playing for Oakland.” Turns out, I was right. He never did. His last best shot at the big leagues came when he signed with Oakland in February of 2012. The closest he got though was 17 games at Triple-A before getting his release.

74wash team

5. Teams That Didn’t Exist

I’ve written about this previously and while they don’t fall into the direct pantheon of “zero” cards (as in players in uniforms of teams they never played for) they still have a place on this list. First, there’s the infamous 1974 Topps Washington error cards which feature several San Diego Padres as members of the unnamed “Washington Nat’l Lea.” team. Four years earlier though, in the 1970 set, Topps also printed cards of the Seattle Pilots. One small problem with that though, there was no Seattle Pilots team in 1970 as the ill-begotten Pilots packed up shop after one season in Seattle and headed east to Milwaukee to be rechristened as the Brewers.

I’m sure there are other variations out there of “zero” cards such as errors and what-not but I think I covered most everything else so I’ll pose two questions to the readers:

1. Besides error cards and the reasons I mentioned here, are there any other types of reasons a “zero” card could come into existence?

2. Is there an earlier example out there of a “zero” card besides the 1955 Bowman Preacher Roe?

Bowman’s encore performance

The first Bowman baseball card sets might technically be considered the 1939-41 Play Ball sets produced by Gum, Inc. However, the first baseball cards to use the Bowman name were released in 1948.

The 48-card set used black and white photographs and looked very much like miniaturized versions of its 1939 Play Ball predecessor.

Bowman followed up its 1948 offering with a set five times the size. The appearance of the cards differed from the 1948 cards primarily in using color over the player images and using one of several solid colors for the background. The backs also used color ink.

Bowman changed things up again in 1950. Player images used a fuller color palette and backgrounds were quite remarkable in their mix of color and detail. Among full-color baseball card sets, this was almost certainly the most lifelike one ever produced.

When the 1951 season rolled around collectors had been treated to fresh, if not revolutionary, new designs each of the past two years. How could Bowman possibly keep the wheels of progress turning? What would they do for an encore? Would the 1951 cards be 3-D? Scratch and sniff? (Let’s hope not!) True color photographs? Let’s take a look.

Well those cards sure look familiar, don’t they? Aside from adding names and making the cards taller, Bowman seemed content to put out more or less the same product as the year before.

In almost all cases, Bowman (or rather their artists at the George Moll Advertising Agency) employed a standard formula for turning the 1950 images into the 1951 images.

The 1950 image was enlarged about 25%, its full height was used, and excess width on each side was discarded, possibly unevenly. For players whose 1950 Bowman card used a landscape image, Bowman took an analogous approach.

Having just written about the laziest set ever, the thought crossed my mind that 1951 Bowman might at least warrant a seat at that table. However, reuse of prior images, and generic ones at that, was employed by MP & Company for its entire 1949 set, while reused Bowman images were at least based on actual player photos and in fact made up barely a third of the total set.

118 of the 1951 Bowman set’s 324 cards featured repeated players and images from the year before, such as the six I’ve shown. (See this article’s Appendix for a link to the full list.) I should note here that I’m referring to repeated source images, even if modifications were made to reflect team changes. For example, this Peanuts Lowrey card is counted among my tally of reused images.

Another 116 cards were of players who had no card at all in the 1950 release, including these two particularly famous ones.

Finally, there were 90 repeated players from the 1950 set whose cards used new images. While I’ve chosen two superstars to illustrate the point, it’s not evident to me that star power was a primary factor in selecting which players would receive image makeovers…

…nor was the player’s position on the checklist. For those of you with Ted Williams 20/10 vision or really large computer monitors, I’ve plotted the entire checklist using the color scheme from the pie chart (e.g., the top row of blue dots represents repeated players with new images.)

As much as I was hoping to spot a pattern, the dots strike me as largely random other than the unsurprising clustering of brand new players in the set’s final three series.

While my research into the set didn’t turn up any big find, there was at least one card pair that I was glad to stumble upon, not because it confirms any particular theory I had but because it does the opposite.

At first glance these Eddie Lake cards appear a lot like the landscape cards of Mueller, Kerr, and Snider that I showcased earlier. However, a closer look at Lake’s rear end on the 1950 card shows it just about (ahem) butting up against the card edge while the 1951 card leaves room for a sliver more of infield dirt. Likewise the 1951 card shows (nearly) full bodies of two players in the background while the 1950 card barely shows more than one.

These are minor details, but they are enough to illustrate that not all repeated artwork followed the simple crop strategy I showed earlier. In Lake’s case, previously unseen elements were added to the card whereas all earlier examples only showed elements subtracted. Had Bowman followed the standard formula, the result would have been the Fake Lake on the right instead of the Honest Eddie on the left.

Admittedly, I’d be a bigger fan of the 1951 Bowman set had it used all new images rather than recycling more than a third of them. Still, the subtle differences in the reused images–the cropping necessary to produce a new aspect ratio, the occasional team/uniform updates, and the bonus art of the Lake card–provide ample reason to take some of these cards out for a second look, an encore if you will.

Take a Bow…man!

Appendix

Want to do your own comparisons? I’ve created a Google Sheet with the 118 cards from the 1951 set that recycled images from the 1950 set.

Non-sports? Look for the Toehold

There are lots of great collectors on Twitter. Their posts are nearly always cool, but there are some that cause me to act. Kevin Lutes (@klutesphoto) always mixes in non-sports cards, which I love. When he shouted out about the 1976 Topps Happy Days set (44 base cards and 11 stickers), I was forced to track one down and, now bought, is en route.

I’ve wanted to write about a few non-sports sets I’ve worked on, or am working on, but the topic doesn’t fit our blog. Or does it? Our co-chair Nick not only advised me to look for a toehold to connect to baseball card, and even supplied one:

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So here we go.

Last year I worked on a magnificent set, the 96 card 1953 Bowman Television and Radio Stars of NBC set. Fantastic photos of once famous, and some still famous, celebrities. It’s a relatively tough set to put together. Centering can be a problem, but that’s not a real issue for me. What was an issue was that, for reasons unknown (to me), the odd numbered cards are noticeably harder to find. I lucked out with a big haul of odds at last fall’s Shriners’ show in Boston.

There’s also a 1952 version, a shorter checklist – 36 cards with some overlap with 1953 – with horizontal text on the back (the 1953s have vertical text). These are harder to find, period, but I’m working my way through it, a little less worried about nice corners and the occasional crease. I’ve got 22.

That’s the background; here’s the baseball.

Pioneering sportscaster Bill Stern got a card in the horizontal set. Stern’s connection to baseball is strong – he broadcast the first telecast of a baseball game in 1939 and appeared in Pride of the Yankees.

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Bob Considine also gets a card in the 1952 set. Sportswriter, baseball writer, author of books and screenplays, Considine was a giant in his field. He wrote The Babe Ruth Story with the Babe himself and then the screenplay. Yeah, I know, it’s a crappy movie, but still…

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Speaking of the movie, the faux Babe, William Bendix, gets a card turn the following year. No mention of his baseball work on the back.

Another set I’ve been casually working on is the 1957 Topps Hit Stars. An 88 card masterpiece of radio, TV and music titans, prices cover a wide range, with multiple James Deans, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, The Crickets and an Elvis a little more than I’m ready for right now. Lesser stars, and some bigger names, if I’m lucky, run me about $1.50 each. Here’s a Jimmy Piersall, as played by Tony Perkins.

It may be nicer than Jimmy’s 1957 Topps card. It’s close.

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That’s all for now. As non-sports baseball cards come to my collection, I’ll keep you informed. Until then, ask not what non-sports cards can do for you, ask what you can do for non-sports cards.

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The surprisingly long history of traded sets

Author’s note: My goal here isn’t to list EVERY set with Traded cards. In many cases, the set I highlight will stand in for similar issues across a number of years, before and after.

1981 Topps Traded

The first Traded set I became aware of as a young collector was in 1981. At the time the main excitement for me was that Fernando Valenzuela finally got an entire Topps card to himself. Of course, as the name suggested, it was also a chance to see players depicted on their new teams, such as this Dave Winfield card portraying him in a Yankees uniform.

Dozens of similar Traded or Update sets followed in the coming years, leaning considerably on the 1981 Topps Traded set as a model. However, 1981 was definitely not the beginning of the Traded card era.

1979 O-Pee-Chee/Burger King

My first encounter with O-Pee-Chee cards was in 1979. While most of the cards in the 1979 O-Pee-Chee set had fronts that–logo aside–looked exactly like their U.S. counterparts, every now and then an O-Pee-Chee required a double-take. Back here in the US, I was not yet familiar with the 1979 Topps Burger King issue, but they took things even a step further.

1979 Topps Bump Wills

Not really a traded card, but here is one that at least might have looked like one to collectors in 1979. Having been a young collector myself that year, I can definitely say Bump and hometown hero Steve Garvey were THE hot cards my friends and I wanted that year.

1970s Kellogg’s

The most fun Trades cards are ones where the player gets a genuinely new picture in his new uniform like the 1981 Topps Traded Dave Winfield. Next in line behind those are the ones where the team name on the card front changes, such as with the 1979 O-Pee-Chee Pete Rose. Distinctly less exciting but still intriguing are cards were a “Traded line” is added. We will see some sets where such a line makes the front of the card, but much more often we’ll see it as part of the small print on the back.

Here is Buddy Bell’s card from the 1979 set.

And here is Ken Reitz from the 1977 set.

In case it’s a tough read for your eyes, the second version of the Reitz back, at the very end of the bio, reads, “St. Louis brought Ken back in a trade.” The Bell card has a similar statement. Admittedly these cards are a bit bizarre in that the card backs already have the players on their new teams, even in the initial release. Because of that, one could make an argument that the second versions are less Traded cards than “updated bio” cards, but let’s not split hairs. However, you slice it two Reitz don’t make a wrong!

Similar cards can be found in the 1974, 1975, and 1976 Kellogg’s sets as well.

1977 Topps

Not really a Traded card but a great opportunity to feature a rare 1977 proof card of Reggie Jackson as an Oriole, alongside his Topps and Burger King cards of the same year.

1976 Topps Traded

This set features my favorite design ever in terms of highlighting the change of teams. Unlike the 1981 Topps Traded set, these cards were available in packs and are considered no more scarce than the standard cards from the 1976 Topps set. While the traded cards feature only a single Hall of Famer, this subset did give us one of the classic baseball cards of all time.

Side note: Along with Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Lou Brock, Lee Smith, and Joe Carter, Oscar Gamble was “discovered” by the great John Jordan “Buck” O’Neil. Well done, Buck!

1975 Topps Hank Aaron

Collectors in 1975 were rewarded with two cards of the Home Run King, bookending the classic set as cards #1 and #660. Aaron’s base card depicts the Hammer as a Brewer, the team he would spend his 1975 and 1976 seasons with. Meanwhile, his ’74 Highlights (and NL All-Star) card thankfully portrays Aaron as a Brave.

1974 Topps – Washington, National League

The National League’s newest team, the San Diego Padres, wasn’t exactly making bank for ownership in San Diego, and it looked like practically a done deal that they would be moving to D.C. for the 1974 season. As the cardboard of record at the time, Topps was all over the expected move and made sure to reflect it on their initial printings of the 1974 set. Because there was no team name yet for the D.C. franchise-to-be, Topps simply went with “Nat’l Lea.” (Click here for a recent SABR Baseball Cards article on the subject.)

Of course these San Diego/Washington cards aren’t true Traded cards, but that’s not to say there weren’t any in the 1974 Topps set.

1974 Topps Traded

This subset may have been the most direct precursor of the 1981 Topps Traded set. While cards from later printings were randomly inserted in packs, the subset could be purchased in full, assuming you threw down your $6 or so for the ENTIRE 1974 Topps factory set, traded cards included, available exclusively through J.C. Penney.

The Traded design is a bit of an eyesore, and the subset includes only two Hall of Famers, Marichal and Santo. For a bit more star power, we only need to look two years earlier.

1972 Topps Traded

As part of the high number series in 1972, Topps included seven cards to capture what the card backs described as “Baseball’s Biggest Trades.”

The star power is immense, though some collectors see this subset more as a case of what might have been. One of the seven trades featured was Nolan Ryan-for-Jim Fregosi. However, as the bigger name at the time, Topps put Fregosi rather than Ryan on the card.

Net54 member JollyElm also reminded me about another big miss from Topps here. Yes, of course I’m talking about the Charlie Williams trade that had the San Francisco Giants already making big plans for October. “Charlie who?” you ask. Fair enough. Perhaps you’re more familiar with the player the Giants gave up for Williams.

Topps took a pass on this one, but–as always–Gio at When Topps Had (Base) Balls is here to take care of us.

1972 O-Pee-Chee

This next example is not a Traded card, but it is one of the most unique Update cards in hobby history. RIP to the Quiet Man, the Miracle Worker…the legendary Gil Hodges.

You might wonder if OPC gave its 1973 Clemente card a similar treatment. Nope. And if you’re wondering what other cards noted their subject’s recent demise, there’s a SABR blog post for that!

1971 O-Pee-Chee

Though the first Topps/O-Pee-Chee baseball card partnership came in 1965, the 1971 O-Pee-Chee set was the first to feature Traded cards. (The 1971 set also includes two different Rusty Staub cards, which was something I just learned in my research for this article.) My article on the Black Aces is where I first stumbled across this 1971 Al Downing card.

Where the 1972 OPC Hodges and 1979 OPC Rose cards were precise about dates, this one just goes with “Recently…” Of course this was not just any trade. Three years later, still with the Dodgers, Downing would find himself participating in one of the greatest moments in baseball history.

1969 Topps

At first glance, these two cards appear to be a case of the Bump Wills error, only a decade earlier. After all, Donn Clendenon never played a single game with the Houston Astros, so why would he have a card with them? However, this is no Bump Wills error.  There is in fact a remarkable story here, echoing a mix of Jackie Robinson and Curt Flood. I’ll offer a short version of it below the cards.

Donn Clendenon played out the 1968 season with the Pittsburgh Pirates, which explains his uniform (sans airbrush) in the photos. However, at season’s end he was selected by the Expos in baseball’s expansion draft. Still, that was a good six months before these cards hit the shelves so there was time for a plot twist.

Three months after becoming an Expo, Montreal traded Clendenon, along with Jesus Alou, to the Astros for Rusty Staub. Based on the trade, Topps skipped Montreal altogether and led off their 1969 offering with Clendenon as an Astro. But alas, Clendenon refused to report to Houston, where several black players had experienced racism on the part of the team’s manager, instead threatening to retire and take a job with pen manufacturer Scripto. Ultimately the trade was reworked, Clendenon was able to remain an Expo, and he even got a raise and a new Topps card for his trouble.

1966-1967 Topps

Thanks to Net54 member JollyElm for providing information on this set and providing the occasion to feature Bob Uecker to boot. While the card fronts in these years gave no hints of being traded cards the backs indicated team changes in later printings. Here is an example from each year. In 1966, the only change is an added line at the end of the bio whereas 1967 has not only the added bio line but also update the team name just under the player name area.

Note that the corresponding OPC card backs follow the later (traded) versions of the Topps cards.

Topps League Leaders – 1960s and beyond

In August 2018 Net54 member Gr8Beldini posted a particularly devious trivia question. The subject was players whose Topps League Leaders cards depicted them on different teams than their base cards in the same set.

These 1966 Frank Robinson cards are among 11 instances where this occurred in the 1960s and 70s. If you can name the other 10, all I can say is you REALLY know your baseball cards!

1961-1963 Post Cereal

We’ll start with the 1962 and 1963 issues, which feature the now familiar Traded lines. Note however that there were no prior versions of these same cards minus the Traded line. Roberts is from the 1962 set, and McDaniel is from the 1963 set.

Post mixes it up a bit more in 1961 in that there were numerous variations between cereal box versions of the cards and mail-in order versions. The Billy Martin cereal box version (left) lacks a Traded line, but the mail-in version (right) indicates Martin was sold to Milwaukee in 1960.

BTW, thank you to Net54 member Skil55voy for pointing me to the Post Cereal variations.

1959 Topps

Thanks to Net54 member RobDerhak for this example, which follows (really, precedes) the examples from 1966-67 Topps. Note the last line of the bio on the second card back: “Traded to Washington in March 1959.” (You might also enjoy an unrelated UER on both backs. See if you can find it!)

1956 Big League Star Statues

A tip of the hat to Net54 member JLange who took us off the cardboard and into the a fantastic set of early statues, possible inspirations for the Hartland figures that would soon follow and an early ancestor of Starting Lineup. Doby’s original packaging puts him with his 1955 club (CLE), but later packaging shows his 1956 club (CHW).

1955 Bowman

You know those Traded lines that O-Pee-Chee seemed to invent in the 1970s, at least until we saw them from Topps on the card backs of their 1967, 1966, and 1959 sets? Well, guess who the real inventor was?

1954 Bowman

Bowman’s Traded line didn’t make its debut in the 1955 set, however. Here is the same thing happening with their 1954 issue.

Is this the first set to add a “traded line” to the front or back of a card? As it turns out, no. But before showing you the answer, we’ll take a quick detour to another early 1950s issue that included team variants.

1954 Red Man

George Kell began the 1954 season with the Red Sox but moved to the White Sox early in the season. As a result, Kell has two different cards in the 1954 Red Man set. There is no “traded line,” but the Red Man artists did a reasonably nice job updating Kell’s uniform, and the team name is also updated in the card’s header information.

Red Man followed the same approach in moving outfielder Sam Mele from the Orioles to the White Sox. Meanwhile, Dave Philley, who changed teams prior to the start of the season, enjoyed those same updates and a traded line.

1951 Topps Red Backs

Notice anything different about these two Gus Zernial cards?

Yep, not only does the Chicago “C” disappear off his cap, but the bio on the second card begins, “Traded to the Philadelphia A’s this year.” So there you have it. At least as far as Topps vs. Bowman goes, Topps was the first to bring us the Traded line. And unlike so many of the examples we’ve seen from 1954-1967, it’s even on the front of the card!

1947-1966 Exhibit Supply Company

If there’s anything certain about issuing a set over 20 years is that some players are going to change teams. As such, many of these players have cards showing them playing for than one team (or in the case of Brooklyn/L.A. Dodgers more than one city.) Take the case of Harvey Kuenn, who played with the Tigers from 1952-1959, spent 1960 in Cleveland, and then headed west to San Francisco in 1961.

The plain-capping approach used in the middle card might lead you to believe that the Exhibits card staff lacked the airbrushing technology made famous by Topps or the artistic wizardry you’ll soon see with the 1933 Eclipse Import set. However, their treatment of Alvin Dark’s journey from the Boston Braves (1946-1949) to the New York Giants (1950-1956) actually reveals some serious talent. (See how many differences you can spot; I get five.) I almost wish they just went with it for his Cubs (1958-1959) card instead of using a brand new shot, which somehow looks more fake to me than his Giants card.

1948 Blue Tint

In researching my Jackie Robinson post, I came across this set of cards from 1948. Among the variations in the set are the two cards of Leo the Lip, who began the year piloting the Dodgers but finished the year with their National League rivals. No need to take another picture, Leo, we’ll just black out the hat!

And if you’re wondering how many other players/managers appeared as Dodgers and Giants in the same set, we’ve got you covered!

1934-36 Diamond Stars

We’re going way back in time now to capture a Traded card sufficiently under the radar that even Trading Card Database doesn’t yet list it. (UPDATE: It does now, but PSA does not!) Its relative obscurity might lead you to believe it’s a common player, but in fact it’s Hall of Famer Al Simmons.

After three years with the Chicago White Sox, Bucketfoot Al joined the Detroit Tigers for the 1936 season. As a set that spanned three years, Diamond Stars was able to update its Simmons card to reflect the change. The cards appear similar if not identical at first glance. However, the Tigers card omits the Sox logo on Al’s jersey, and the card reverse updates Al’s team as well.

Another Hall of Famer with a similar treatment in the set is Heinie Manush. Some collectors are familiar with his “W on sleeve” and “no W on sleeve” variations. These in fact reflect his move from the Senators to the Red Sox. This set has so many team variations, most of which are beneath the radar of most collectors, that I wrote a whole article on the subject for my personal blog.

1933 Goudey

The 1933 Goudey set included some late-season releases, including a tenth series of 24 cards that included key players from the 1933 World Series. Even the most casual collectors know the Goudey set included more than one card of certain players–most notably four of the Bambino. What not all collectors realize is that the set includes a Traded card.

Hitting great Lefty O’Doul was originally depicted as a Brooklyn Dodger, the team he played with until mid-June of the 1933 season. However, when the final release of trading cards came out, Lefty had a new card with the World Champion New York Giants.

Of course, if Lefty’s .349 lifetime average isn’t high enough for you, there is an even better hitter with a traded card in the set. His move from the Cards to the Browns on July 26 prompted a brand new card highlighting not only his new team but his new “position” as well.

1933 Eclipse Import

Another hat tip to Net54 member JLange who offered up a set not even listed yet in the Trading Card Database. Also known as R337, this 24-card set may be where you’ll find one of the most unusual Babe Ruth cards as well as this priceless update. Not technically a Traded card since the player is with Cleveland on both cards (and was with the Tribe continuously from 1923 until midway through the 1935 season), but…well, first take a look for yourself, and then meet me on the other side!

Yes, that is the Philly mascot on Myatt’s uniform. After all, he played for Connie Mack’s squad back in…wait for it…1921! But no problem. Let’s just find someone with pretty neat handwriting to scribble Cleveland across the uni on our next go-round. Problem solved!

1927 Exhibits

My thanks to Net54 member Peter_Spaeth (whose worst card is 100x better than my best card!) for tipping me off to this set and allowing me to use his card of Old Pete. In a move that perhaps inspired future O-Pee-Chee sets, here is Grover Alexander, Cubs uniform and all, on the St. Louis Cardinals.

Other HOFers with mismatched teams and uniforms are Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, and Tris Speaker. In case you haven’t guessed it already, if you want to see a ton of star power on a single checklist, you owe it to yourself to take a look at the HOFers in this set.

1914-1915 Cracker Jack

If you view the 1914 and 1915 Cracker Jack sets as two different sets (that happen to have a gigantic number of nearly identical cards), then there are no Traded cards. However, if you view the two releases as a single set, then there are numerous Traded cards. Among the players to appear on two different teams, the biggest star is unquestionably Nap Lajoie. who appears in 1914 with his namesake Cleveland Naps and in 1915 with the Philadelphia Athletics. In addition to the change in the team name at the bottom of the card, you can also see that “Cleveland” has been erased from his jersey.

Another notable jumper in this set is HOF pitcher Eddie Plank who has his 1914 card with the Philadelphia Athletics and his 1915 card with the St. Louis Terriers of the Federal League.

1911 T205

I will take any excuse to include cards from this set in a post, so I was thrilled when Net54 member Gonzo alerted me to the team variations in this set. Here are two players who were traded from the Boston Rustlers (who?) to the Chicago Cubs. David Shean went packing on February 25, 1911, and George “Peaches” Graham made his move a few months later on June 10.

Gonzo also notes that many of the images from the 1911 T205 set were reused, uniforms and all, for the 1914 T330-2 Piedmont Art Stamps set. (I will freely admit to never having heard of this issue.) One HOF jumper is double-play man Johnny Evers, whose picture has him on the Cubs but card has him on the Braves. There are also several players attached to Federal League teams though their images still show their NL/AL uniforms.

1911 S74 Silks

It was once again Net54 member Gonzo for the win with this great find! On the other end of the aforementioned “Peaches” Graham trade was Johnny Kling, depicted here in his Cubs uniform while his card sports the Boston Rustlers name and insignia.

1909-11 T206

Another multi-year set, the Monster includes a handful of team change variations. The Bill Dahlen card on the left shows Dahlen with his 1909 team, the Boston Braves. Though he would only play four games total over his final two seasons in 1910 and 1911, the cardmakers at the American Tobacco Company saw fit to update his card to show his new team, the Brooklyn Dodgers.

1887-90 Old Judge

If T206 isn’t old enough for you, then let’s go even farther back to the juggernaut of 19th century baseball card sets, N172, more commonly known as Old Judge. According to Trading Card Database, Hall of Fame pitcher Amos Rusie has cards with both the Indianapolis Hoosiers (1887) and the New York Giants (1889-90). I was unable to find what felt like a real NYG card of Rusie, but I did find one where a strip of paper reading “New York” had been glued over the area of the card that had previously said “Indianapolis.” My immediate thought was that a collector was the culprit behind this cut-and-paste job. But how funny would it be if this is how the Old Judge cardmakers did updates back then!

Epilogue

When I first stumbled across Traded cards, it was love at first sight. What a thrill to end up with two cards of a top star, and what better way to turn a common player into a conversation starter. To the extent baseball cards tell a story and document the game’s history, Traded cards hold a special role. Unfortunately, these cards have a dark side as well. At least in 1983 they did. If you ever doubted that 8 3/4 square inches of cardboard could rip a kid’s heart out, stomp it to bits, and then spit all over it, well…here you go.

A Really Big, Though Not National, Show

I went to the East Coast National in White Plains on Saturday. Why is it the East Coast National? By definition, it’s not “national” if it’s “East Coast,” but, you know, there’s this:

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All card shows start the same for me. I have an optimistic plan of everything I’m going to find, but then I hit the room and am immediately disappointed. Not so this time.

I’m uber focused and organized, but the ideal me is more spontaneous. I watch with awe the collectors who simply buy stiff they find looks cool, or is a bargain in a discount box. That’s not me. However, I printed up a 1955 Bowman Football checklists, marked the 10 I had, and hoped I’d find a box or stack of low price cards in nice shape to jump start the set. I’ve always loved this set, and I’ve seen tons of them in bargain bins.

It didn’t take long. I found a guy with stacks of cards, each at great prices, and I went nuts, losing all sense of time and place (to the point of missing a meet up. Sorry Matt!).

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A couple of dealers later I was now working on a set. My friend Greg scouted out some cards and helped chose the best cards for the price. When I used to go to shows, I’d see tandems working on sets together. I always wanted to do that, and last weekend I did. Greg and I share a lot of common interests and, when it comes to cards, he immediately knew what I was looking for. It was great fun having him choose while I checked off the list.  I came home with 45 cards for $85. I even have my first completed page!

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That first dealer also had a stack of 1952 Bowman Television and Radio Stars of NBC. I knocked off a set of 1953 vertical backs last year, and was wavering on whether to go for the 36 card horizontal back set. You know where that wavering led; I’m totally working on the set. I came to the show 7 cards in, and picked up another 11, including two sports guys, Bill Stern and Bob Considine. With two more on the way I’m already close to the end. A bit lesser condition than my verticals, but they are definitely harder to find. (These were 50% off the listed price, don’t worry.)

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Alright, alright, now on to the baseball cards.

I put a big dent into the last of my 1961 Post set, a full half of my want list at prices I’m not finding online. I’ve been hard pressed finding cards at prices I find reasonable (I wrote about that last month), but I knocked off these at exact the dollar amount I was looking for. Flood and Antonelli were a buck each and I’m thrilled to have gotten the Mathews for $15. I’m in the home stretch now – 11 to go!

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If you’re a consistent reader of my posts, and, really, why wouldn’t you be?, you’ll know I’m committed to the 1960 Leaf second series. I’ve been pretty successful getting nice ones – EX or better – for less than $10 per common. It’s not super easy, though not super difficult. The opportunities come and go quickly. I pored through a pile of them and tried to talk the guy down from $15 to $10. He landed at $12, which was fine. It was good to knock 6 more off the list. I’ve got 27 of 72 and my average per card cost is still $7.93.

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Early in the recent history of this blog, I wrote about how online buying knocked shows out of my system and, I thought, good riddance. Of course I was kind of wrong (kind of right too) because in the last two years I’ve been to great shows and made purchases at a level that can only occur at big events. I find myself already anticipating the next one!

Back Story: Bowman Bows Out (on Color Television!)

Note: This is Part IV oa series focusing primarily on the material featured on the backs of baseball cards (previous articles featured the 1956 Topps1960 Topps, and 1954 Topps/Bowman sets). 

By 1955, the battle for baseball-card supremacy between Bowman and Topps had been going on for several years. And though Topps was making some inroads, Bowman still had the edge when it came to established stars signed to exclusive contracts. Frankly, it wasn’t even close. Here’s a comparison of the number of players named to the American and National League teams for the 1954 All-Star Game who were featured in each company’s 1955 card set. 

1954 MLB All-Stars in 1955 Bowman & Topps Baseball Card Sets 

Only Bowman              32 players 

Only Topps                   16 players 

Both Sets                         4 players 

The All-Stars who appeared in both sets were Yogi Berra, Gil Hodges, Sherm Lollar and Willie Mays. (Somewhat mysteriously, three 1954 All-Stars had cards in neither 1955 set: Larry Doby, Don Mueller, and Stan Musial). Bowman also boasted four future Hall of Famers who didn’t make the 1954 All-Star teams: Richie Ashburn, Bob Feller, Ralph Kiner, and Early Wynn; Topps only had a well-past-his-prime Hal Newhouser. (Non-1954 All-Star but future Hall of Famer Phil Rizzuto had cards in both sets.)  

Yet despite Bowman’s edge in overall star power, Topps had been beating Bowman pretty handily in the marketplace. Kids just seemed to prefer the innovative, attractive design of the Topps cards, a credit to the work of Topps’ master card designer, Sy Berger. 

So in 1955, Bowman pulled out all the stops in their card design, on both the fronts and the backs. While my primary focus continues to be the material on the backs of the cards, the fronts of the 1955 Bowman and Topps sets deserve a look as well. That year, both Bowman and Topps used a horizontal (or landscape) design on their card fronts for the first time. The Topps cards featured both a head shot and a small “action pose” of each subject, set against a solid colored background. This was essentially the same design that Topps had used in 1954; the main difference was that the head shot and action pose had been in vertical (or portrait) mode in ’54. For players who had cards in both its 1954 and 1955 sets, Topps often used the same head shot in both sets (and continued to use the same head shot in 1956). 

The 1955 Bowman cards, by contrast, were completely new and daring. Color television was brand-new in 1955—the first color TV sets had only become available to the mass market in 1954, and there were next to no actual color broadcasts available—but Bowman put the new medium into the hands of card collectors by featuring each subject on the screen of a wood-grained color TV. Pretty “hep,” as we cool cats used to say back in ’55. 

But did the new design work? Before moving on to the backs of the 1955 Topps and Bowman cards, let’s compare the card fronts of a few players featured in both sets that year. Here’s Ernie Banks, a young star who would have his first big season in 1955. 

I have to say that, then and now, I preferred Ernie’s dreamy-eyed look on his Bowman card to the blank expression featured on both his Topps head shot and action pose. (He looks like he’s saying, “Let’s play none today!”) Even so, there is one problem with the Bowman design that was apparent even to a kid unconcerned with the future value of his cards: with no white border on the edge of the cards, those Bowman TV sets could often start to look pretty beat up. 

Like Banks, Al Kaline had his breakthrough season in 1955, and I like the fronts of both his Bowman and Topps cards: relaxed and confident on the Bowman, determined kid on the Topps. Two nice cards. 

Steve Bilko’s Bowman card shows him staring off in the distance… maybe toward the Pacfic Coast League, where he was about to become a legend as a slugger with the minor league Los Angeles Angels. Bilko’s Topps card isn’t exactly beautiful, but the head shot gives you a better glimpse of him, and the corkscrew swing and Cubbie logo are nice touches.  

Give Bowman points for innovation; its 320-card set featured not only the TV-set design, but 31 cards devoted to major-league umpires (including one for American League umpire supervisor Cal Hubbard, a future member of both the baseball and pro football Halls of Fame)—certainly a unique touch. 

Bowman continued the innovations on its card backs: about one-fourth of the Bowman cards had articles supposedly written by the player on subjects such as “My Biggest Thrill in Baseball,” “My Childhood Hero,” “The Best Hitter I’ve Ever Seen,” and “My Advice to Youngsters.” I’m sure that seemed like a promising idea to Bowman, but the result was usually pedestrian and sometimes outright comical. Let’s look at a few examples. 

Typical of the genre were “The Most Important Part of Baseball” by Don Hoak and “My Advice to Youngsters” by Rip Repulski.  “As far as I’m concerned, ‘Hustle’ is the most important part of baseball,” writes Don. “Never give up,” says Rip. Good advice, to be sure, but it makes for pretty dull reading. Heck, when Don Hoak was in the minors, he was one of four members of the Fort Worth Cats who were married at home plate (by four different ministers) before the start of the game. Wouldn’t that have made a good “Greatest Thrill” article? 

The afore-mentioned Steve Bilko’s card has an article entitled “My Favorite Memories in Baseball.” His biggest thrill was the day he hit four home runs in one game, but he doesn’t mention when or where it happened; it definitely was not in the major leagues, and I’ve yet to track down a four-home game by Bilko in his minor-league career, either. When and where it happened would have been pretty nice to know. Bilko picks Willie Mays’ great catch in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series as the best catch he’s ever seen, but as he was neither a member of the Giants nor the Indians, he likely only saw the catch on film or on (black and white) television. He picks picks Stan Musial as baseball’s best hitter and Robin Roberts as the best pitcher. Not exactly scintillating stuff. 

“The Most Exciting Game in Which I’ve Played” by White Sox catcher Sherm Lollar recounts a 1953 game in which the Sox—trailing 3-1 with the bases loaded and two outs in the top of the ninth—beat the Yankees with a pinch-hit, grand-slam home run by Tommy Byrne. But Lollar gets some of the details wrong, and doesn’t mention the fact that Byrne was a pitcher, the main reason why the homer was so memorable. Even more strangely, Byrne had a card in the ’55 Bowman set, but the Bow-men did not select Tommy for one of those “Greatest Thrill” first-person articles, opting instead for a boilerplate rundown of his career. 

Then there is “My Biggest Thrill in Baseball,” by Eddie Waitkus. “In 1949, I was shot by a deranged girl,” it begins, recounting the bizarre incident in which a female fan who was obsessed with Waitkus invited him to her hotel room and then shot him in the chest. (The incident was later fictionalized in The Natural by Bernard Malamud.) The article recounts Waitkus’s recovery, with the help of the woman who became his wife, and it’s a heck of a story, but… getting shot… that’s your “greatest thrill”? 

The backs of the 1955 Topps cards avoided such histrionics, instead opting for a prose rundown of the player’s career, his 1954 and lifetime stats, and a cartoon Q&A that was very similar to the “Dugout Quiz” featured on the backs of the Topps 1953 set. Here are three examples, using players who also had Bowman cards that year. 

To summarize, the Bowman 1955 cards were very creative on both sides of the card, while the Topps cards recycled formats they had used previously, down to even using the same head shots from 1954. Bowman also had a bigger set—320 cards versus 206 for Topps (the Topps set was supposed to have 210 cards, but they had to pull four players who turned out to have exclusive contracts with Bowman)—along with more star players. Yet Topps dominated the marketplace once again.  Why was that? Here are a few reasons: 

  • As card dealer and author Dean Hanley has pointed out, Topps countered Bowman’s edge in overall star power with a stronger first series. That included baseball’s biggest star of the day—Ted Williams (who had shifted from Bowman to Topps in 1954), along with Jackie Robinson and Warren Spahn. Additionally, the Topps first series included rising stars Banks, Kaline, and Hank Aaron; all three players appeared in the Bowman set as well, but only Kaline was part of Bowman’s first series. Topps was faster out of the gate. (Topps did similar in 1954 as well.)
  • Hanley also notes that Topps’ last series included the likes of Yogi Berra, Gil Hodges, Willie Mays, and Duke Snider, while Bowman was countering with a series full of lesser lights and umpires. Topps had Bowman coming and going. 
  • The Bowman set included some quality control issues, like blurry photos; mixing up the card fronts and backs for Milt and Frank Bolling and Ernie and Don Johnson; and misspelling Harvey Kuenn’s last name. Bowman issued corrected cards for the Bolling, Johnson and Kuenn gaffes, but the damage was done. 
  • With the TV-set design taking up a large part of the borders of the Bowman cards, the player photos were smaller by necessity. That was a major contrast to the large head shots on the Topps cards, and an obvious disadvantage. Here’s Hanley again, from his excellent book The Bubble Gum Card War: The Great Bowman & Topps Sets from 1948 to 1955: “There is too much wasted canvas space [in the Bowman set]. Most of the pictures of the players are standing upright, resulting in smaller pictures and a lot of empty background. The design of the 1955 Topps set did a much better job of filling the canvas and creating a more attractive product.” Amen to that!

Ultimately Topps outsold Bowman again in 1955, as it had for the previous few years; kids just liked the Topps cards better. As a Chicago-area youngster who was just beginning to collect baseball cards in the spring and summer of 1955, I can attest to that: I and most of my friends preferred the look and feel of the Topps cards, with their large head shots and team logos on the card front, and the clever cartoons on a clear white background on the back.  

By the time the 1956 baseball season rolled around, Bowman was out of the trading card business (the final nail in Bowman’s coffin came when Topps issued its first football card set in the fall of 1955, an all-time college All-American set that logged better sales than Bowman’s NFL cards). This was a major loss for collectors: whether or not they sold as well as Topps, the Bowman cards were always great, and continue to be a worthy part of anyone’s collection. 

Before Ohtani, there were …

Before Shohei Ohtani arrived with the Angels as both a pitcher and position player (or least, a designated hitter), few major leaguers in recent years had played with some regularity on the mound and as hitters. We’re not talking about guys sent in to finish up blowouts, but those who actually were major-league-level pitchers and good enough hitters to play other positions.

The two most noted examples this century have been Rick Ankiel, who came up as a pitcher, and Brooks Kieschnick, who added pitching to his role as an outfielder and pinch-hitter to extend his career. Ankiel stopped pitching in 2001, except for a brief appearance in 2004. He reinvented himself as a power-hitting outfielder in the minors before returning to the Cardinals. Both have numerous cards with them on the mound and at bat.

The Angels have another two-way possibility in Jared Walsh, who was up briefly earlier this season. Although he has pitched in earnest at the AAA level, his only work on the mound with the Angels so far has been in lopsided affairs.

The most famous pitching convert obviously is Babe Ruth. Contemporary cards of Ruth as a pitcher—the 1916 Sporting News version being the most familiar—are expensive and hard to find. A few of Ruth’s contemporaries also pitched and played some at other positions, but since World War II, it’s rare to find a player with significant time in the majors as both a pitcher and a position player. And almost always, those who did it made a permanent conversion.

Kieschnick was one of the few who kept doing both with the Brewers, who for a while were happy to have him as a two-way player. Another was the 1950s Pirates infielder Johnny O’Brien. He switched mostly to pitching in 1956 and had a decent year, playing 10 games at short and second and hitting .300. But he was so bad on the mound in ’57 that he went back to being a full-time infielder. He had Topps cards before he pitched and after, but none listing him as a pitcher. His ’58 Topps card mentions his having pitched. Johnny’s brother and fellow Pirates infielder, Eddie, also pitched in a few games.

The Pirates also had a light-htting infielder/outfielder in Dick Hall, who has a card in the ’55 Topps set. Hall spent that year in the minors, working on his pitching (and still hit .300). He was back with Pirates mostly as a pitcher in 1956 and went on to a long career in the bullpen with the Orioles.

Until Ohtani resumes pitching (if he does), the only “modern” card era player who pitched in 15 games or more and played substantially at another position in the same season is far more obscure: Willie Smith of the 1964 Angels. Smith came up as a pitcher with the Tigers and was traded to the Los Angeles to bolster the bullpen. He ended up as a regular in the outfield and hit over .300.

Smith never had a card showing him as a pitcher, although the back of his 1965 Topps card raves about his pitching. Although primarily an outfielder after the middle of the ’64 season, he pitched a few times for the Indians and Cubs after he was traded by L.A., never yielding a run.

Two other players in the ‘60s came up as outfielders before switching to pitching. Mel Queen with the Reds was the most successful and converted quickly. His 1967 card lists him as “P-OF.” Danny Murphy was an outfield prospect with the Cubs and played a bit in 1960, ’61 and ’62. He made the long road back to Chicago, but to the South Side with the Sox, in 1969 and ’70 as a pitcher.

Going back farther, Hal Jeffcoat came up with the Cubs in 1948 as an outfielder before converting at the big league level to pitching in 1954. He spent the rest of the decade on the mound. Jeffcoat appeared on Bowman cards as an outfielder from 1951 through 1954 and on Topps cards in 1952 and 1953. His 1955 Bowman card is his first as a pitcher, and his 1956-59 Topps cards follow suit.

Baseball Reference.com has a listing of every non-pitcher who ever pitched and played more than five times as many games at other positions, if you’d like to see how rare it is for players of the past 100 years to make the switch.

I’ve always been fascinated with these two-way players. It led me to write the BioProject essays on Willie Smith and Hal Jeffcoat. If you know of others from the Bowman/Topps card era I’ve missed, please let me know.

There is only one Willie Mays

Here is a card, like most cards, with a story to it. You might expect it’s a story about Willie Mays. In fact, it’s a story about everyone not Willie Mays.

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1959 Topps “Baseball Thrills” #464

At least a few of us remember the play like it was yesterday. The hitter has some power, but the centerfielder chooses to play him shallow. Even before bat meets ball, the fielder knows one of two things is about to happen: extra bases or the greatest catch of his life.

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1961 Nu-Card Scoops #427

He quickly turns and by the time the crack of the bat is heard he is in a dead sprint only stealing a quick glance back to ensure the ball’s trajectory matches the path in his head.

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1993 Upper Deck “Baseball Heroes” #47

Winning a race of man against ball is not an easy thing—the laws of physics might even suggest it’s impossible—but after what feels like he’s run a city block the fielder reaches up with his glove, still with his back to the plate, and somehow snatches the bullet of a baseball from the air. They say seeing is believing, but almost nobody watching even believes what they just witnessed. Of course, the play was not even over.

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1994 Upper Deck “All-Time Heroes” #17

Still in full stride, the fielder brings his glove arm down toward his body where in an event nearly as improbable as the grab itself his right knee hits his right elbow full force and pops the ball from glove to ground.

Snodgrass

I was 16 and had been planning, waiting, and training years for the perfect fly ball—playing everyone shallow to up the odds—and it finally came, for the last and only time of my life. My friend Robert and fate itself had gotten the better of me.

Some of our cards are just cards, but others are memories. This past week I finally picked up a card I’d always wanted. When I opened the envelope I was no longer in my office at my desk. I was at Palisades Park young, fast, free, and for a brief 6-7 seconds the great Willie Howard Mays, that instant before I learned for damn sure there could be only one.

with card

P.S. In a bit of cardboard clairvoyance, THREE of Willie’s 1954 baseball cards (Bowman, Red Man, Topps) referenced a web gem nearly identical to “The Catch!”

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P.P.S. Fans of the “Say Hey Kid” will also enjoy this set of posts from SABR President Mark Armour.