Super Asymmetry meets Play Ball

Author’s note: I suspect what I’m presenting here must have been obvious to the collectors of the day. However, any record of it seems to have gone unpublished. I am hopeful that I am sharing something new and interesting to our readership, but feel free to let me know in the comments if this is more “knew” than “new!”

My previous Cardboard Crosswalk examined the 1941 Play Ball set’s connections to its 1940 predecessor. As I researched and wrote the piece, it was only a passing thought that the 1939 debut offering would contribute anything essential to the story, so I was happy to save the 10+ hours of work any deeper look would provide. It certainly didn’t occur to me that the connection between the 1939 and 1940 set might be the single most unusual and interesting connection between any two baseball card sets ever produced.

Here, then, is the story of an incredible secret, perfectly hidden in the one place nobody would ever think to look: in plain sight.

Williams and DiMaggio

We’ll start the story with the two top cards in the 1939 set, shown here with their 1940 follow-ups.

Williams and Joe D.jpg

There is a nice asymmetry to the four cards. As Williams moves from an action pose to a portrait, DiMaggio does just the opposite.

For collectors undecided as to whether they prefer portraits vs action poses, it might seem fortuitous to end up with one of each. The secret of the sets, however, is that there is no happy accident here. This asymmetry is THE defining feature of the 1939-40 Play Ball sets! Let’s take a closer look.

Repeated players

The 1939 Play Ball set consists of 161 cards. (The cards are numbered to 162, but there is no card 126.) Of the 161 subjects featured in the set, 137 are repeated in the larger 240-card 1940 release.

As the graph below shows, these repeated players (red) came entirely from the first two-thirds of the set. Whereas most repeats from 1940 to 1941 reused photos, the opposite was true from 1939 to 1940. Of the 137 repeated subjects, only 11 (yellow) reused the previous year’s photos.

1940 art repeats

The other 126 (92%) used new photos. It is these 126 slots on the checklist that will be our main focus from this point forward.

Starting off 24 for 24

Here are the first six such cards on the 1940 checklist. (All are Yankees as the 1940 checklist was largely organized by team.) Beneath each card is its 1939 counterpart.

Batch 1rev

The three action poses from 1940 correspond to three portraits from 1939 and vice versa: Super Asymmetry nearly 80 years before Drs. Cooper and Fowler even proposed the idea on the Big Bang Theory!

Now let’s head to the next 6 cards: 7-11 and 13. And look at that! For every portrait in 1940 an action shot in 1939 and vice versa. Super Asymmetry again!

Batch 2

We’ll pause here, having examined the first 12 repeated players in the 1940 set, to consider the odds of such an outcome having happened by chance alone. While more complicated modeling leading to even lower probabilities is possible, the simplest and best case scenario would be (1/2)^12 = 1/4096 ≈ 0.00024.

And now, onto the next 6 cards: 14-19. Perhaps you’re not even surprised at this point. The probability of asymmetry through the first 18 cards? One in 262,144!

Batch 3.jpg

Now here are cards 20-25. The probability by chance now drops to around 1 in 17 million!

Batch 4

Definitely not random!

By now I hope I’ve convinced you that the swapping between portraits and action poses for each player is no accident but a very intentional design feature of the set. I imagine there are two ways this arrangement could have come about.

  1. The photographer, George Burke, could have provided Gum Inc with two images of each player: a portrait and an action pose. Once one was chosen for the 1939 set, the other then became the default photo for the 1940 set.
  2. Alternately, Gum Inc could have been more intentional by either drawing an opposite pose from some larger collection of player photos or asking Burke to provide the opposite of whatever he’d provided the year before.

Either one of these approaches seems to require more planning, consideration, and expense than anything I would have thought possible at the time. It’s really quite remarkable. (And if you are dying to know which of these explanations is more likely, read on till the end. I have a good guess till someone debunks it in the comments!)

Before continuing through the set, I’ll also pause to comment on the connection (so far) between Super Asymmetry and the 1941 set. Granted there were not many players who made the checklists of all three Play Ball sets, but let’s consider those who did (e.g,. Williams, DiMaggio). Gum Inc had already provided both a portrait and an action pose. Were they to provide another portrait of Teddy Ballgame, they’d be copying 1940, and were they to provide an action pose, they at least broadly be copying 1939. The strategy they had employed to make 1940 as different as possible from 1939 had led them to a no-win situation for 1941.

Rather than accept defeat and go with one or the other, Gum Inc pulled the first (and perhaps only!) Kobayashi Maru of the trading card world. By moving to color, they ensured the 1941 series would look completely different from either of its predecessors regardless of whether portraits or posed action was used.

Two dozen more for good measure

Here are the next 24 repeated players, along with their 1939 counterparts.

Batch 5

Batch 6

Batch 7

Batch 8.jpg

Once again, each 1940 card shows the opposite pose of its predecessor from 1939. We are now a perfect 48 for 48. Perhaps you can predict the ending at this point.

Not so fast…

As the 1940-1941 crosswalk showed, a set can start out one way and finish another way. Indeed we will not go 126 for 126, which is why we are dealing with only Super Asymmetry rather than Perfect Asymmetry!

Before looking at the cards themselves, I’ll present an updated 1940 Play Ball checklist with nine new shaded cells corresponding to the set’s asymmetry exceptions, i.e., cards where either the 1939 and 1940 photos were both portraits or both action poses.

1940 corrected grid.gif

The seven green cells

First up is Pete Appleton, card 128, who moves from the Senators to the White Sox. (All seven green cell card will involve team changes.) As a side note useful to Appleton supercollectors, Pete Appleton began his big league career as Pete Jablonowski, the name used on his 1933 Goudey and 1934 Canadian Goudey cards.

Appleton

Lynn “Line Drive” Nelson, card 135, moves from the Athletics to the Tigers, where he certainly lived up to his nickname. Though his at bats were limited as a pitcher, he parlayed his famously low launch angle into a .348 batting average.

Nelson

Beau Bell, card 138 and French for Beautiful Beautiful, moves from the Tigers to the Indians in his two portraits poses.

Bell.jpg

Joe Vosmik, card 144, moves from the Red Sox to the Dodgers, a transfer camouflaged by the matching hats but revealed by the differing jerseys.

Vosmik.jpg

Pinky Shoffner, card 149, moves from the Braves to the Reds just in time to win the pennant.

Shoffner

Ray Hayworth, card 155, changes sides in the Big Apple’s crosstown rivalry.

Hayworth.jpg

Finally, imminent batting champ Debs Garms, card 161 and a featured player in the 1940-41 crosswalk, moves from the Bees to the Pirates.

Garms2.jpg

Our analysis of the 1940 Play Ball set would be ready to tie a bow around if not for two inconvenient cards, highlighted in blue on our checklist.

The two blue cells

Cards 150 and 151 in the 1940 set belong to Cincinnati players Whitey Moore and Eddie Joost, whose stat line upon moving to the A’s makes it look like he might have!

Blue Guys.jpg

As often happens in the research I do, I have no explanation at all for why these two players had portraits in each set. Looking back at the checklist, I suppose it’s possible that whoever was responsible for cards 143-151 simply didn’t get the memo, and I suppose it’s also possible that Gum Inc simply had no action shots available. At any rate, two is not a big number.

Final thoughts

I speculated earlier as to the two most likely explanations for this near-perfect pairing of portraits and action poses. I am ready now to narrow this down to the first of the two.

Let’s assume that the photographer, George Burke, initially took a portrait and action shot of each of the players in the 1939 set, that Gum Inc simply slotted one for 1939 and the other for 1940 as needed.

The one place this approach would fail to provide for the 1940 release would be if a player changed teams. In these cases the leftover photos would no longer be current enough to use. As we have just seen, eight of the ten exceptions to portrait-action pairs occur with players who did exactly that.

The next clue actually came at the very start of this article. (I know it’s bad form to end a Super Asymmetry article with this kind of symmetry, but sometimes it just happens.)

Williams and Joe D2.jpg

Folks I know who are good at such things tell me these photos of the Splendid Splinter and Yankee Clipper were taken in 1939. (Among the “evidence” presented: “Williams didn’t smile for the camera after 1939.”) If so then it’s easy to imagine a similar story for the other 135 repeated players in the 1940 set.

However, this is a case where the how and the why are less notable than the what. The near-perfect pairing of portraits and action poses is the main headline here as such a connection between the 1939 and 1940 Play Ball sets is something unseen before or after in the long history of the hobby. That this pairing could go unnoticed (or at least unpublished) all this time makes it that much more remarkable.

Appendix for the die-hards

Early in the article I mentioned that 11 of the repeated players in the 1940 set did not get new photos. For completeness, I wanted to at least show them. The first two, Chuck Klein and Gene Moore, appeared in the 1941 set with colorized versions (and uniform updates) of their 1939-40 photos. The other nine players were not part of the 1941 set at all, hence any variety in their cards was limited to black/white vs sepia, slight differences in zoom, and an occasional tilt.

1940  to 1941 same pics.jpg

Cardboard Crosswalk: 1940-41 Play Ball

A colorized version of 1940?

If you’ve collected or window shopped the colorful 1941 Play Ball set and it’s comparatively drab predecessor, I’m about to start with something you already know.

Here are the 15 Hall of Famers in the 1941 set.

1941 HOF.jpg

And here are their cards in the 1940 Play Ball set, minus Pee Wee Reese who did not crack the checklist. You may notice some similarities.

1940 PB

Aside from the color, some added background elements, and a different tilt to Lefty Gomez’s head, the images are identical. For this reason, the 1941 set is sometimes regarded as a colorization of the 1940 set. (Side note: I had a lot of fun making these!)

Foxx Hubbell.jpg

Not so fast!

Precisely because the only images from these sets truly burned in my retina are those of the Hall of Famers I was caught by surprise a couple weeks back when I saw these two cards of Babe Dahlgren. (Pro tip: His grandson is a great follow on Twitter.)

Dahlgren

Was a different picture really needed just to capture the Babe’s move from the Yankees to the Braves? That would have been odd since numerous contemporary sets managed to update a player’s team without need for a new photo. (See this article for a ton of examples or this article for the set I think did it best.) Or was it the case that I simply didn’t know the 1941 set as well as I thought I did? (Spoiler alert: Bingo!)

Detour

Before developing the answer further, I’ll take a quick detour to two famous sets from the previous decade. Here are the first 24 cards in the 1934 Goudey set.

1934 24.jpg

And here are the same players from the 1933 set. They should look very familiar.

1933 24.jpg

Were one to generalize from the first 24 cards in the set, one would suppose a great many of the remaining 72 cards in the 1934 set would reuse art from the prior year. Instead, zero did. Cards 1-24 were all repeats. Cards 25-96 were all new.

I can imagine the brain trust at Goudey thinking, “Hey, an all new set would be terrific, but it’d sure be nice to get something onto the shelves early…💡” (My longest–and some would say most heretical if not crackpot–article ever offers a more complicated theory on this.)

Returning to Play Ball, I wondered to what extent a similar rush-to-market image reuse strategy would characterize the first series and whether image reuse would all but disappear in the latter parts of the set. Sixteen and a half hours later…

Cards 1-24

The first 24 cards in the 1941 Play Ball set feature players from the 1940 set. In each case, the player image is derived from the 1940 Play Ball photo. In that respect, the set—at least so far—follows the precedent of the 1933-34 Goudey sets. None of the 24 players even change teams from one set to the other. The single biggest variation is with card 12, Jimmy Brown, who thanks to a zoom-out manages to (wait for it) regain his footing.

Brown.jpg

Another similarity to the 1934 Goudey first series is that the first 24 Play Ball cards are disproportionately packed with stars. Nine of the 15 Hall of Famer cards shown at the beginning of this post come from the set’s first quartile, including Carl Hubbell, Mel Ott, Jimmie Foxx, Ted Williams, and Hank Greenberg. (The corresponding count for 1934 Goudey series one is 13 out of 19.)

As Play Ball faced competition from both Goudey and National Chicle (Double Play) that year, it makes sense that they would want to front-load stars as a means of establishing early dominance. Then again, had they known the 1941 Goudey checklist in advance, they might have realized how little they needed to worry.

Cards 25-48

The first card in the middle third of the set introduced a bigger change than the previous 24 cards combined. Though both card backs put Gene Moore with the Boston National League squad (Bees in 1940, Braves in 1941), his 1940 card front has him in his old Brooklyn Dodgers uniform.

Moore

I’ll use the Gene Moore card to illustrate two quick points. For reference, his move from Brooklyn to Boston came on May 29, 1940.

  • The 1941 Moore card clearly shows that Gum Inc had the “technology” to update a guy’s team without taking a new picture. As such, the team change alone does not fully explain the reason a new Dahlgren photo was used.
  • The 1940 Moore card is a reminder that procuring updated photos (or manipulating photos) was harder back then than it is now. Even as the back of the card has Moore with Boston, the most recent photo available was a Brooklyn one. Meanwhile, the sets based on artistic renderings were much more able of adjusting player images on the fly.

Where the set really starts to change is at card 27, which starts a streak of 10 of 11 cards that use entirely new player photos. The graph below shows green for players with reused images, yellow for players with new images, and red for players altogether new to the set. Notice that cards 1-24 were all green (i.e., reused images).

1-48 analysis.JPG

As the graph shows, 11 repeated players scored brand new art. The first two of these, cards 27 and 28, along with their 1940 counterparts, are shown below.

Young.jpg

This middle third of the set also included two brand new players: Al Brancato (43) and Sid Hudson (46). As with cards 1-24, not a single player in 25-48 changes teams from his previous Play Ball card.

One player whose card may require a double-take is Buddy Lewis of the Washington Senators. Stare at his 1940 and 1941 Play Ball cards long enough, and you may just notice a subtle difference.

Lewis.jpg

Lest you wonder how the artist screwed up so bad in 1941, Lewis was a left-handed hitter, so the 1941 card is actually the correct one. The symmetry of the “W” logo on the hat and sleeve make this error more difficult to detect than most reversed negatives (e.g., 1957 Topps Hank Aaron, 1989 Upper Deck Dale Murphy)—so difficult that I was unable to find reference to it anywhere online or in the Standard Catalog. Could this be a SABR Baseball Cards blog scoop?! 📰 [UPDATE: Trading Card DB has now updated their 1940 Play Ball Buddy Lewis listing to include this UER. Thanks, guys!]

There are no Hall of Famers (unless you pronounce Jack Wilson with a Spanish accent) in this middle third of the set, though there were some players who were at the time considered stars. Still, whatever your metric for star power, cards 25-48 paled in comparison to cards 1-24.

Before proceeding to the final third of the 1941 set, I’ll note here that we may have already covered the entirety of the 1941 release. According to a Rich Mueller article in Sports Collectors Daily, only cards 1-48 were issued in 1941, with cards 49-72 added in 1942. (I struggle to wrap my head around this, particularly as it robs the 1941 issue of its most iconic card, but I’ve been wrong many times before!)

Cards 49-72

The final 24 cards in the set introduced significantly more new players than did the first 48. Most famous among the 8 new players was card 54, the rookie card of Harold “Pee Wee” Reese, but close behind Pee Wee are cards of the lesser two DiMaggio brothers: Vince (#61) and Dom (#63). As brother Joe was card 71 in the set, one-fourth of the final dozen cards in the set were DiMaggio cards!

49-72.JPG

This final series also introduced the only team changes (shown in blue) between 1940 and 1941—

  • Babe Dahlgren (49) – Yankees to Braves
  • Morrie Arnovich (57) – Phillies to Giants
  • Frank Demaree (58) – Giants to Braves
  • Jack Knott (68) – White Sox to Athletics

Interestingly, Dahlgren and Arnovich got new photos while Demaree and Knott did not. Aside from the Dahlgren/Arnovich cards, only one other player, Elbie Fletcher, received a total makeover.

Fletcher.jpg

By the end of this article, I hope to offer a credible explanation for what at the moment may present as two oddities of series three:

  • Why did two traded guys get new photos while two traded guys didn’t?
  • Why did Fletcher get a new photo?

Wish me luck!

An even closer look

Of the 72 cards in the 1941 Play Ball set, 10 are of brand new players, 48 repeat a 1940 player and his image, and 14 repeat a 1940 player but swap in a new image. Though it’s not immediately evident what it all means, an unexpected pattern emerges when the 48 photo repeats (blue) and 14 photo swaps (yellow) are plotted against the 1940 checklist.

1940 CHECKLIST.JPG

With only three exceptions, all the yellows are at the end of the set, and all the blues are at the beginning of the set. (Blue card 161 may be considered slightly out of place, and I’ll return to it later.) The three yellow exceptions are…wouldn’t you know it!…Dahlgren (3), Arnovich (97), and Fletcher (103)!

Traitors

The other 11 yellow cells, all of which sit neatly within a run of 32 cards near the end of the 1940 checklist, are pictured below, alongside their 1941 counterparts.

series two art swaps

Is there any pattern or common denominator behind these cards that suggests why these 11 (or 14 counting the oddball three) players were singled out for new photos? I will share a few things I don’t think it can be and then wrap up with my leading theory at the moment.

  • Rights and permissions to images – One reason to find a new photo would be if the permission to use certain photos did not extend into 1941. Perhaps Gum Inc never got around to securing rights to the photos in the final series of the 1940 set, hence was unable to use them in 1941. However, with the exception of certain retired stars, my belief is that all photos in the two sets came from the same photographer, George Burke. While this doesn’t completely preclude rights issues, it makes them less likely.
  • Damaged photos/negatives – Is it possible the original photographic sources that would supported image reuse in 1941 were somehow lost or destroyed? It’s always possible, but I would think the Plan B for that would be to choose different players rather than take new pictures of the impacted players.
  • No reason, just random – The non-random distribution of the blue vs yellow cells on the checklist convince me that randomness was not at play.

My best guess

Author’s note: What follows is largely speculative and quite long. It’s okay to skip it you came to SABR for Research with a capital R!

Following the mammoth 240-card release of 1940, I suspect Gum Inc saw little need to push out anything comparable in 1941. The 1940 cards had largely scratched the collecting itch of most young gum chewers, who might now rather spend their hard-earned pennies on cards of airplanes or Superman. Even with a colorful new design, ripping a 1941 Joe Krakauskas when you already had his 1940 card might feel like a penny wasted. As such, a much more modest offering would have felt more appropriate.

Naturally, selecting 72 random players from the 1940 checklist would have done little to boost the appeal of the new set. I believe the plan was to start with 48 cards (two series) reflecting the “best of” the 1940 set. These cards would constitute the core of the new set and be tolerated if not welcomed by collectors due to the colorized images and preponderance of top stars.

Selecting these 48 cards would be easy. Aside from retired greats, all the top players of the 1940 set could be found among the set’s low numbers (1-144). Selecting one third of those cards to reprise in 1941 was all that was needed to arrive at 48. There was only one small rub to the approach, which is that it would leave out the reigning National League batting champion.

“What the hell! No Debs Garms? You’ve gotta be kidding me! Stop what you’re doing and find a way to get a Garms into the set.”

That’s exactly what I picture some guy’s boss yelling upon seeing an early draft of the 1941 checklist. After all, how do you leave out a guy who just hit .355? And what do you do when your boss yells at you and you know he’s right? You go and get the Garms.

And this is how the 48 blue cells in the checklist came to include one lone high number, card 161, among them. Of course, adding Garms also meant subtracting someone else. I know it’s a convenient theory on my part, but I honestly believe THE thing you’d do is swap out a Pirates teammate. Get ready to be outraged, sabermetricians, but I would bet a lot that this is exactly how it went!

Sabermetric Heresy.jpg

We now have the core of the set, 48 players from the previous issue, colorized but otherwise unchanged in any significant way. Perhaps not to a man but at least broadly, these 48 could be construed as a “best of” or “top stars” reissue of the 1940 series. Maybe nobody wanted that second Joe Krakauskas, but they’d be okay with most of these guys.

From there, the brain trust at Gum Inc could take the set in a couple of different directions. Extending the same formula for another one or two series was certainly possible, but the talent pool would now be far thinner. The other approach would be to abandon the 1940 blueprint entirely and offer collectors something they didn’t already have.

First and foremost, that second strategy led to the introduction of ten brand new players who had not appeared at all in the 1940 set.

Rookies.JPG

Bronk, who had taken over shortstop duties for the A’s, was probably not a player kids would have killed for, but the other nine players were pretty legit at the time: all-stars, MVP vote getters, popular young rookies, brothers of the Yankee Clipper, etc. Without a doubt these players brought more star power than your average ten leftovers from the 1940 checklist, and of course there was the added bonus that these were good players kids didn’t already have from the year before.

The inclusion of these 10 newcomers left the set only 14 cards shy of completion. The 1940 low numbers had been cleaned out, top newcomers had been added, and there was only one reservoir of talent yet to be tapped: the largely low wattage 1940 high numbers. Retired immortals aside, pickings were somewhat slim, but on the bright side only 14 players were still needed, and really not even 14.

Here is what I believe went down in some Philly boardroom circa spring 1941.

  • Fletcher, fresh off his unceremonious dumping, was the first to make the cut.
  • Dahlgren and Arnovich, whose team changes offered an added jolt, joined the party.
  • And finally, the dreaded high numbers were scoured for another eleven players.

Realizing this last group brought the least sizzle on its own, a decision was made to spruce up this final fourteen with all new photos. And from there, the rest is history! (UPDATE: See Epilogue for an alternate theory that probably has this one beat.)

I can’t say I’d bet a million dollars that what I’ve just described is a 100% accurate depiction of how the 1941 Play Ball set was designed. It’s possible it’s not even 10% accurate. Either way, I will make sure you don’t regret reading all the way to the end of this post by rewarding you with perhaps the tastiest eye candy in the universe.

Williams and Joe D

Epilogue

Well this was unexpected. As it turns out, the follow-up article I wrote after this one helped me understand the 1941 set even better. If you don’t care to read the article, the short version is this:

  • The 1939 Play Ball set included a mix of portraits and action poses. Ditto for 1940.
  • Where a player had a portrait in 1939 he got an action pose in 1940 and vice versa.
  • The result was across the two sets nearly every player got a portrait and an action pose.
  • For each of these players, I suspect both photos were taken in 1939, with the one not used on the 1939 card set aside for the following year.

Back to the article at hand, you’ll recall this graphic from near the end. These were the 11 players from the 1940 high numbers who ended up with new photos in the 1941 set. However, there is another thing these 11 players have in common.

Rollie Marty.jpg

Of all the players in the 1940 high numbers and the 1941 set, these are the only players who are not in the 1939 set. That by itself is kind of neat. But of course there’s more. Take notice of how many of these players have both a portrait and an action shot across the two sets.

Just as (I speculate) George Burke shot portraits and action shots in 1939 for each player in the 1939 checklist, I suspect he did the same in 1940 for any newcomers to the 1940 checklist. If so, what we are seeing in nine of these eleven cards from 1941 is the leftover shot not used in 1940.

So perhaps the reason for the new photos on these 11 cards is what I initially proposed in this article—i.e., that Gum Inc wanted to spruce up what might otherwise be the most boring cards in the whole set. I am now more inclined to believe that the use of the new photos was simply because Gum Inc had the photos and hadn’t already used them anywhere else.

I’ll close the epilogue with a few notables that come only from looking at all three sets together. First, here are the only two players (of 45 total) appearing in all three sets who ended up with the same photo every time. The first is a familiar name, and the second was introduced in the “Cards 25-48” section of this post.

Klein Moore.jpg

And on the flip side, here are the only players with three different photos across the three sets, referred to earlier in this article as the “yellow exceptions.”

1939-41 three guys.jpg

I’d better stop now before the epilogue grows even longer than the post!

Miami Vices and Rocky Mountain Highs

Although most of you have been greatly relieved by the respite from the “first card for new teams” series, I am back to shatter your peace of mind.  This time, I am examining the first cards for the 1993 expansion Florida Marlins and Colorado Rockies.

The birth of the two new National League franchises coincided with the era of explosive card production. (The editor doesn’t like the term “junk wax.) (Ed.: In this context, it would have been fine.)  I found 17 different sets-counting updates-containing first cards for the Marlins and Rockies.  It is entirely possible that I missed a set or two.  (Ed: Or ten.) So, if I failed to mention “Lower Deck’s Super-Extreme-Virtuoso-Uber-Isotope of Titanium” set produced by Goudey in an exclusive run of 500,000, I apologize.

 

Donruss and Fleer must have been the first card series issued, since their expansion teams’ cards have photos of the players with their previous clubs.  Sadly, no airbrushing of logos was employed to provide memorable images. Matt Harvey (FL) and Eric Young (CO) are the first cards for their respective new teams. Donruss’ “Diamond Kings” features painted portraits of David Nied (CO) and Nigel Wilson (FL) in their new liveries.

David Nied (CO) and Jack Armstrong (FL) are Fleer’s first offerings.  Nied is pictured on the Braves with a ribbon identifying him as having been “signed by Rockies.” This is considered a variation, since most of the cards have him exclusively on the Braves.  The first card with Rockies on the name plate is Andy Ashby. Jack Armstrong is the first Marlin.  Fleer “Final Edition” has Andy Ashby as the first card of a player in a Rockies’ uniform.  Likewise, Luis Acquino shows up first for Florida.

Probably as a result of a later production date, Bowman provides shots of players in their new uniforms in the base sets.  Rich Renteria (FL) and Mark Thompson (CO) are the first Bowman issues.

 

Topps’ base set and their premium issue, “Stadium Club,” produced inaugural cards of players in new uniforms as well.  Jamie McAndrew (FL) and Mark Thompson (CO) show up first in the base set while Benito Santiago (FL) and Butch Henry (CO) are first in the “snooty” set.

Nigel Wilson (FL) and David Nied (CO) are Upper Deck’s first cards for the infant clubs. Upper Deck also issued cards in the “SP” set.

In order to save your sanity, I will not delve into all the brands.  However, here is a non-exclusive list of other companies that issued Rockies and Marlins:  Pinnacle, Leaf, Score, O-Pee-Chee (base and Premier), Pacific (Spanish), Ultra and Triple Play.

If only first-round expansion picks David Nied and Nigel Wilson had become superstars, I would be rich beyond measure.  Alas, the 2000 cards I have of each now languish in storage.  Another sure bet investment gone wrong.

Erstwhile committee member, Nick Vossbrink, pointed out that both Upper Deck and Bowman produced rookie cards for minor league players Ryan Turner (CO) and Clemente Nunez (FL) in the ’92 sets.  Thus, my shoddy research is laid bare!

Cardboard Crosswalk: 1954 Topps and 1954 Bowman

Author’s note: The “Cardboard Crosswalk” series aims to compare and contrast different baseball card sets. Earlier installments can be found here and here. Also note that SABR author Don Zminda compares these same two 1954 sets as part of his “Back Story” series.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”

Charles Dickens, “A Tale of Two Cities”

In short, it was 1954, and Brooklyn and Philadelphia were at war—not for the National League pennant but rather for the hearts and pocket change of the young gum chewers and cardboard flippers who would spend their pennies and nickels with one or the other.

1954 Topps

Brooklyn was the home of Topps, whose third major baseball release featured 250 cards, a terrific new dual-image design, and not one but two cards of the Greatest %&*$@ Hitter Who Ever Lived.

Williams

1954 Bowman

Philadelphia was the home of Bowman, whose penultimate vintage release would feature 224 cards, lackluster player images, and—just barely—a single card of the Greatest %&*$@ Hitter Who Ever Lived.

ted bowman

A war on two fronts

The story of the Bowman Ted Williams card is the story of a second war, the war for player contracts. While the Splendid Splinter had appeared in the 1950 and 1951 Bowman issues and even launched his cardboard career in Warren Bowman’s 1939 “Play Ball” set, history and loyalty didn’t pay the rent.

Image result for 1954 topps baseball cards box

Teddy Ballgame was a Topps man now, and Bowman was forced to replace his card with that of teammate Jimmy Piersall early in the release of its first series. Of course, Bowman had its own stable of enviable exclusives, including Mickey Mantle and some other pretty good players.

bowman exclusives

While it’s the Hall of Famers in the sets who attract most of the collector interest, the competition for players went well beyond the top stars of the game. For this Cardboard Crosswalk, we’ll take a much broader look at who went where and hopefully learn some new things along the way.

Analyzing the sets

Using the term “subjects” generically to include players, managers, coaches, and the O’Brien twins, there were 389 different subjects represented in the two sets. The Venn diagram below shows their distribution. (Figures don’t sum to total cards in set due to two Williams cards in the Topps set and two Piersall cards in the Bowman set.)Venn.JPG

We should be careful not to assume that the 165 “Topps only” subjects and the 140 “Bowman only” subjects were all under exclusive contracts. After all, there certainly would have been marginal players who either company may have omitted by choice. As for the 84 subjects in the “both” section of the diagram, it is probably a fair assumption that Ted Williams was the only one under an exclusive contract.

This next figure shows the distribution of players common to both sets within the Bowman set. Though there are some streaks and gaps evident, the distribution of players toward the beginning of the set largely matches the distribution toward the end. Series One more or less looks like Series Two. (If you are reading on your mobile device, you may need to go landscape mode here.)

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When we generate a similar plot for Topps, the result is a very different one, and the differences will form the basis for most of this article.

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In the first half of the Topps set, 55 of 125 cards are “Topps only.” In the second half, 110 of the 125 cards— almost 90% of them—are “Topps only.” This is too big a difference to be explained by randomness alone. Absent any deeper look, the data suggest one of two possibilities:

  1. Either the Topps exclusive contracts were secured so late in the process that cards of the players were not ready until Series Three, or
  2. Bowman locked so many players up that Topps was forced to cobble together the second half of its set largely from Bowman’s unwanted scraps

Under scrutiny, the second hypothesis appears to hold up much better than the first. Two quick clues come from an examination of coach cards and rookie cards. A less quick but equally telling clue will come from an examination of star players in the set.

Coaches

While the Bowman set included a limited number of managers, it did not include any cards of coaches. That left coaches ripe for the picking by Topps. In the first half of its set Topps included cards of three coaches: Bob Swift (Tigers), Bob Scheffing (Cubs), and Billy Herman (Dodgers). The second half included 19!

Rookies

As for rookies, the Bowman set featured only 14 of them, leaving a lot of rookies up for grabs. In the first half of its set, Topps included 15 rookies, two of whom were also in the Bowman set: Harvey Kuenn and Dick Cole. Meanwhile, the second half of the Topps set featured 52 rookies, none of whom were in the Bowman set!

Star power, part one

The first and second halves of the Topps set are also quite different when it comes to star power. However, I need to emphasize that I don’t mean Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Al Kaline, or other Hall of Famers who are huge today but would have been near unknowns when the 1954 season kicked off. Rather, I’m referring to the players viewed as top stars at the time.

We’ll start with a look at the the Top 10 MVP vote-getters from each league in 1953. I won’t pretend these were THE 20 biggest stars in baseball at the time, but they at least provide us with a reasonable starting point. This Venn diagram shows how these 20 players fell across the sets. Interestingly, NONE of these 20 players were in the second half of the Topps set.

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Star power, part two

A similar analysis can be done using the Top 5 MVP finishers each of the previous five seasons (1949-1953). This smooths out our previous results to be more representative of the era rather than just a single year. It also adds heavyweights like Mickey Mantle, Bob Feller, Ted Williams, and Jackie Robinson who were missing previously. And still, the result is exactly the same!

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The data examined thus far seem to support several conclusions that make perfect sense in light of Topps being newer to the gum card business than Bowman—

  • Bowman had the inside track on the game’s biggest stars.
  • The stars Topps was able to sign were always placed in the first half of the set.
  • The second half of the set was cobbled together mainly with rookies, coaches, end-of-rotation pitchers, bench warmers, and one lone repeat (Ted Williams).

Regarding the second bullet, the front-loading of star players was even more extreme than merely the first half of the set, as illustrated by this plot of the 20 Topps stars from the prior Venn diagrams.

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In fact, every one of the star players except Ray Boone (#77), Joe Black (#98), and the second Ted Williams (#250) was placed within the first 50 cards of the set, i.e., Series One.

It’s fair to wonder if the front loading of stars was simply the way things were done back then, but a quick look at the Bowman checklist shows a more even distribution. Among the second half cards in 1954 Bowman are Feller (132), Hodges (138), Newcombe (154), Berra (161), Wynn (164), Snider (170), Ford (177), and Lemon (196).

Twists of fate

When collectors think of the 1954 Topps set today, three cards immediately come to mind: the rookie cards of Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, and Al Kaline. (Throw in Tommy Lasorda too if you like.) I suspect most collectors simply assume Topps got lucky in choosing these future Hall of Famers for its set while Bowman whiffed on all of them. What I believe the data show is that Topps “lucked into” these HOF rookie cards through the misfortune of having no better players available.

Meanwhile, when collectors think of the 1954 Bowman set, the Mantle card of course comes to mind. However, the key card in the set is definitely the Ted Williams who wasn’t supposed to be there. As such, just as the best cards in the Topps set are the result of Bowman exclusives, the best card in the Bowman set is the result of a Topps exclusive. I’m pretty sure this is the exact opposite of how things are supposed to work.

Epilogue

I thought it would be interesting to track the players mentioned in this post into 1955 to see if there was any discernible shift of talent away from Bowman in what would be the Philly card makers last hurrah.

What follows is an alphabetical listing of the 46 star players mentioned in this post (and Willie Mays as a bonus), along with their Topps vs Bowman status in 1954 and 1955. Players whose status changed from 1954 to 1955 are shown in bold.

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The main takeaway from the chart is that most players stayed put. The greatest movement involved players who had been in both sets in 1954 but went to a single set in 1955. Of the seven instances of this, four went to Bowman and three—counting Ted Williams, who wasn’t supposed to be with Bowman in the first place—went to Topps.

There was also one player, Jim Konstanty, who went from neither set in 1954 to Bowman in 1955. Finally, Eddie Stanky went from Topps-only to both sets. Other than that, the remaining 38 players stayed the same.

While Bowman would ultimately and utterly lose the war with Topps, any advantage in the battle for talent would only come over Bowman’s dead body—just the way Topps wanted it!

Don’t think Trice, it’s alright (Part Two)

Author’s note: A previous post here examined the largely dismissive portrayal of the Negro Leagues by Topps in the early 1950s. This sequel simply expands the focus to other card makers of the era.

1949 Leaf

For hobbyists who regard the Leaf issue as 1948 or 1948-1949, this set would unequivocally be the first major U.S. release to feature ex-Negro Leaguers. For my part, I regard it as tied with 1949 Bowman. Either way, the Leaf issue included cards of three black players with Negro League resumes.

Card 8 in the set featured the legendary Satchel Paige. The card back, which among other things notes Satchel’s prior team as the Kansas City Monarchs, is pretty amazing.

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First we’ll note that Satchel is assigned an age, 40 years old, which should make just about everything else in the bio seem like fiction. Second, the praise for Satchel is through the roof! Though it’s possible one could assign a negative connotation to “most picturesque player in baseball,” the words that follow cast doubt on such a reading. Satchel is billed as a “high-powered talent” with “fabulous gate-appeal” who is expected to “sizzle into his old stride” in 1949. The folks at Leaf seemed to get it that Satchel was the real deal.

The next black player in the set was Jackie Robinson, and his card bio leads off with the historic line, “First Negro player in modern organized baseball.”

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As was the case with early Topps cards, the direct implication here is that the Kansas City Monarchs and the Negro Leagues were not “organized baseball.” On the flip side, the phrase “modern organized baseball” pays homage to 19th century black players whose histories were often erased in telling the Jackie Robinson story. This 1980 Laughlin card serves to illustrate the point, as do Robinson’s 1960 and 1961 Nu-Card releases.

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The final Negro Leagues alum in the set was Larry Doby, identified as the “first Negro player to enter the American League.” The last line of the bio is notable in that Doby is not simply described as a speedy base-stealer but a smart one as well. This strikes me as enlightened writing for its time.

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For legal reasons, if not financial ones as well, Leaf would not offer another baseball set until 1960. We will see shortly how the set handled the Negro League origins of pitcher Sam Jones.

1949 Bowman

The 1949 Bowman set featured the same three black players from the Leaf set plus one more, Roy Campanella. The Robinson card notes that “he became the first Negro to enter the ranks of pro ball.” At once this phrase dismisses the Negro Leagues as less than professional while ignoring nineteenth century pioneers like Moses Fleetwood Walker.

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The Roy Campanella card in the set describes “an exhibition game with Negro All-Stars at Ebbets Field.” This game, part of a five-game series against Major Leaguers, took place in 1945 and prompted Charlie Dressen to recommend Campy to Branch Rickey.

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To my knowledge, the Bowman card of Satchel contains the earliest use of the phrase “Negro Leagues” on a baseball card.

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The idea that Satchel “traveled around” the Negro Leagues may be taken one of two ways. On one hand, he did play for several teams. On the other hand, it may suggest a lack of seriousness and organization to the Negro Leagues themselves.

As with the Leaf card, we see the word “fabulous” used to describe Paige. New to the Bowman card is the treatment of Satchel’s age. While a precise birthday is offered (September 11, 1908), the bio makes it clear that “his exact age is not known!”

Larry Doby is the final Negro Leaguer featured in the set, and his card describes him as “one of the few Negroes in the American League.” Depending when in 1949 the card was produced, in addition to Doby and Paige, the description might have been referring to Minnie Minoso (April 19, 1949) and/or Luke Easter (August 11, 1949).

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1950 Bowman

Four cards in the next Bowman release referred to the Negro Leagues tenure of its players. Card 22 of Jackie Robinson is similar to its 1949 predecessor in referring to Jackie as the “first Negro to enter organized baseball.”

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The Larry Doby card similarly draws on its previous bio, again recognizing Doby as “one of the few Negroes in the American League.”

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Ditto for Roy Campanella whose role with the “all-star Negro team” first brought him to the attention of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

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The Hank Thompson (SABR bio) card highlights his role in a famous first of the integration era, “the first time in major league history that a Negro batter was up before a Negro pitcher.” The card also identifies Thompson’s pre-MLB tenure with the Kansas City Monarchs.

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1951 Bowman

Three cards in the next Bowman offering are relevant to the topic of the Negro Leagues and the integration of MLB.

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The Campanella card recycles Campy’s exhibition game origin story for a third time, though this time there is no reference to the makeup of his team. Meanwhile, the Easter card follows a familiar tradition of discounting Negro League service in its statement that Easter “entered organized baseball in 1949.” Finally, the Ray Noble card, which does an awesome job teaching kids the right way to say his name, makes reference to his time with the “New York Cubans of the Negro National League.”

1952 Bowman

An interesting evolution in the 1952 Bowman set occurs with the Luke Easter card.

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Having previously “entered organized baseball in 1949,” we learn now that Easter “began in baseball in 1949.” What an odd statement if we take it literally! (By the way, the use of terms like “professional baseball,” “organized baseball,” and “baseball” to refer specifically to MLB/MiLB is still commonplace today. I would love to see baseball writers move away from this practice.)

1952 Num Num Foods

This potato chips set is one I only learned of in doing research for this article. The regional food issue features 20 players, all Cleveland Indians, including four black players: Luke Easter, Harry Simpson, Larry Doby, and Sam Jones. Apart from single-player sets such as the 1947 Bond Bread Jackie Robinson issue, this set has the largest proportion of African American players of any I’ve seen from the era.

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The Easter card notes that he “played softball for several years before entering [the] Negro National League” and even referenced Luke’s support role with the Harlem Globetrotters. A couple funny stories are shared as well before ending on the down note of a fractured knee cap.

The Harry “Suitcase” Simpson card picks up where Easter’s leaves off, recognizing Simpson’s daunting role of having to fill in for an injured Luke Easter. Then again it’s hard to imagine anyone more qualified to fill large shoes than Simpson, who according to at least some stories got his nickname “Suitcase” from the size of his feet!

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The back of Larry Doby’s card is injury-themed as well. However, rather than add insult to injury, the writer actually defends Doby against any insult that he was a disappointment. The paragraph ending almost reads as a (very dated) math story problem and left me ready to set up an equation.

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The Sam Jones card closes with a phrase that posed a road block to the careers of at least three very talented black pitchers: Dave Hoskins, Mudcat Grant, and Sam Jones himself. The “Tribe’s already formidable big 4” were of course Hall of Fame hurlers Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, and Early Wynn, along with all-star Mike Garcia. Even as Cleveland brought up tremendous black hurlers, two of whom would eventually become “Black Aces,” there was simply nowhere in the starting rotation to put them.

Sam Jones Num Num

1954 Bowman

I didn’t run across any interesting cards in my review of the 1953 Bowman sets, so I’ll skip ahead to 1954. Card number 118 of Bob Boyd (SABR bio) references his start in the Negro National League while (as usual) recognizing his start in “organized ball” coming afterward. As a side note, Boyd’s Negro League team, the Memphis Red Sox, played in the Negro American League. As another side note, the trivia question matches that of Hank Aaron’s Topps card, again recalling (and ingoring/discounting) a famous Negro League feat attributed to Josh Gibson.

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Hank Thompson’s bio is a funny one for reasons unrelated to his Negro League lineage. For whatever reason, the Bowman folks felt the need to clarify what was meant by “a quiet fellow.” It’s also a rare thing to see a baseball card bio so critical of a player’s weight! In a less humorous vein, as was the case four years earlier, Thompson’s card identifies his tenure with the Kansas City Monarchs.

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1954 Dan Dee

A notable card in the 1954 Dan Dee (potato chips) baseball set is that of Pittsburgh Pirates infielder and one-time Kansas City Monarch Curt Roberts (SABR bio needed).

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The first line of his bio identifies Roberts as the “first Negro player ever to be placed on Pittsburgh club’s roster.” This contention has received scrutiny over the years since it overlooks Carlos Bernier (SABR bio), a black Puerto Rican player who preceded Roberts by a year.

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1954 Red Man

While the 50-card set also includes cards of Negro League vets Roy Campanella, Jim Gilliam, and Willie Mays, the Monte Irvin card is the only one whose bio can be considered relevant to his Negro League service.

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As usual, we see that he “began in organized baseball” once he started playing on white teams. Something new I did learn from the card was that—at least here—the AAA Jersey City Giants were known as the “Little Giants.” How’s that for an oxymoron!

1954 Red Heart

Whether a gum chewer, chip cruncher, dip wadder, or dog feeder, it’s hard to imagine a better year to be a card collector than 1954. Packaged with Red Heart, “The Big League Dog Food,” that year was this card of Dodgers infielder Jim Gilliam.

 

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A quaint aspect of the card is the blank entries for all of Gilliam’s career numbers. The bio area of the card explains why this is so. “As a rookie in 1953, he has no life record…”

Regarding his Negro League lineage and role in MLB integration, the opening of the bio tells us that Gilliam “was the youngest member of the Baltimore Elite Giants” and that “he is one of the fine negro ballplayers that have been taken into organized baseball during the past decade.”

1955 Bowman

In what must by now feel like a tired theme, here is Hank Aaron’s 1955 Bowman card citing 1954 as Aaron’s “third season in organized baseball,” omitting his season with the Indianapolis Clowns.

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1955 Red Man

The sequel to Red Man’s 1954 issue included five black stars: Larry Doby, Minnie Minoso, Brooks Lawrence, Willie Mays, and Hank Thompson. The Thompson card as usual notes that he “began in organized baseball in 1947, which was the year he jumped straight from the Kansas City Monarchs to the St. Louis Browns.

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1958 Hires Root Beer

The Hires Root Beer card of Bob Boyd is similar to his 1954 Bowman card in recognizing him as a “product of the Negro National League” instead of the Negro American League.

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1960 Leaf

After an eleven-year hiatus, the Leaf set is back, and its card number 14 is of MLB’s second Black Ace, Sam Jones (SABR bio).

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Toward the end of the bio, we learn that Jones “started his pro career with Wilkes-Barre in 1950…” though he pitched professionally for the Cleveland Buckeyes (and possibly Homestead Grays) of the Negro Leagues as early as 1947 (or possibly 1946).

1979 TCMA Baseball History Series “The 50s”

First off, what a great set! When I first came across this Hank Thompson card I initially assumed it was a slightly undersized reprint of his 1953 Bowman card. Then I realized he had no 1953 Bowman card! Of course the back of the card provided plenty of other clues that this was in fact a more original offering.

TCMA Thompson

The card bio includes some information about Thompson’s Negro Leagues resume as well as how he became a New York Giant.

“Thompson, who spent much of his playing career in the old Negro Leagues, got his first chance in the majors with the St. Louis Browns in 1947. But for some unknown reason the Browns let him slip away to the Giants two year later…”

The reality behind the “unknown” reason is that Thompson (along with teammate Willard Brown) was signed by St. Louis to a short-term deal whose extension would require additional payment to the Kansas City Monarchs who held his rights. While Thompson was one of the better players on the Browns, he was neither Jackie Robinson nor Babe Ruth. It goes without saying that a black player needed to be a lot better than  “better than average” to find a home on a Major League roster in 1947!

End notes

Either in conjunction with the Topps article or on its own, there was of course a “beating a dead horse” element to this post. We get it; we get it…the baseball cards back then did not regard the Negro Leagues as organized, professional, or even Baseball. While modern writers and historians do recognize the Negro Leagues as all three, the stubbornness of language is such that even today these terms and their meanings persist nearly unchanged. Until we change them.

Fathers and sons

“Baseball is continuous, like nothing else among American things, an endless game of repeated summers, joining the long generations of all the fathers and all the sons.” — Donald Hall, “Fathers Playing Catch with Sons”

Though its checklist boasts only 64 cards, the 1953 Bowman black and white set connects fathers and sons like no other. This much is clear from the very first card, but that’s only the beginning.

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Like their color counterparts from the same year, the Bowman black-and-whites have no names or other markings on the front, so you may not immediately recognize the player. Ditto for cards 10, 30, 34, 52, 56, and 59. Either way, here they are.

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You may not be able to identify all the players, but I guarantee these two men would recognize their sons, Duane Pillette (bottom right) and Dick Sisler (top left).

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And certainly these three men would recognize their fathers: Gus Bell (first card in set), Roy Smalley (bottom middle), and Ebba St. Claire (top right).

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And no doubt these two men would recognize their famous fathers-in-law: Walker Cooper (top middle) and Ralph Branca (bottom left).

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“Baseball is fathers and sons. Football is brothers beating each other up in the backyard.” — Donald Hall

Another father, James Stork, Sr., had a connection to this set, but he was not a big league baseball player. He was a nine-year-old kid in 1953, his first of many years as a card collector and a magical time for the hobby and the sport.

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Ralph Kiner was coming off seven straight National League home run crowns. Mickey Mantle was picking up where Joe DiMaggio (if not Babe Ruth) had left off in New York. And a new source of talent, black players, was taking the game to new heights.

On store shelves Topps was back with its second major baseball release. (I’m not counting the pre-1952 stuff.) Reflecting the influx of black talent, here are cards 1, 2, and 3 in the classic 1953 Topps set.

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Meanwhile, in their two-series color offering, Bowman offered young gum chewers what many collectors today consider the most beautiful card set ever produced. I am in love with too many of the cards to even want to choose, but here are the three I have in my personal collection: Monte Irvin, Stan Musial, and Minnie Minoso.

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Finally, while a bit lower on the radar for most collectors, Bowman finished the year with its black and white issue, presumed to be a lower-budget (and renumbered) third series continuation of the color issue.

With all these card sets to choose from, the young James Stork, Sr., made the best choice of all. He collected all three! And then he did something most collectors of the era did not do. He kept his cards! Bravo, Mr. Stork.

Fast forward 45 years to 1998. James Stork, Sr., now in his fifties, was at his local card shop to make a purchase. It was a 1953 Bowman black and white he still needed for his collection. As the card shop landed more and more of the Bowman black and whites over the years, the owner would call Mr. Stork who would come in and buy any cards he still needed.

James Stork, Sr., passed away in January of 2010 from cancer of the esophagus. He did not complete his set. Another collector did.

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I was able to interview the younger Mr. Stork about the cards and memories that went along with completing his father’s set. Here are some of the stories attached to the collection.

JASON: How long have you been a collector?

“I started collecting in 1980 at the age of 5. My dad brought home a box of Topps. He opened the packs, I got the gum. Fair trade in the day. The very first card I remember was 1980 Topps Ben Oglivie. I was hooked from there on out.”

JASON: How did your father get into baseball cards?

“My dad grew up on a farm in rural VA, and baseball was something that he and his friends would play all the time. When my grandfather would go to town my dad would go with him and my grandfather would get my dad a pack or two for a nickel a piece I think is what my dad said.”

JASON: Do you know which cards were your dad’s favorites?

“My dad loved Nellie Fox and Billy Martin. Out of all of his cards, I think he cherished those the most. Probably because my dad was short like them, and he loved how passionate Billy Martin was. He also loved his Mantle and Mays cards.”

JASON: What is a favorite memory of your dad as an adult collecting cards?

“My dad loved his old cards, and when I brought home a Beckett in 1989 my dad found out his cards were worth something, he was blown away. I remember going with him to a local card shop and getting card holders for them. He loved showing them off to anyone and everyone who would listen.”

JASON: Are there cards you and your dad collected together?

“Dad and I would always get the Topps set each year when it came out. We have 1978-2009 from when he was alive, and now I have them through 2018. One day they will be my son’s.

JASON: How about a favorite baseball memory involving the two of you?

“I lived in a small town in Virginia after college, which was the same town that Tracy Stallard lived in. So for Christmas one year, I wanted to get a card autographed for my dad from Tracy. I went to his house and this giant of a man answered the door. I politely told Mr. Stallard who I was and what I was doing there, and he then invited me into his house and told me he had something even better. He signed a poster to my dad with him on the mound and Maris in the background after number 61. I gave that and the card to my dad for Christmas and he was over the moon thrilled. He had it professionally framed and hung in his house.

About 2 years later, my dad found out he had cancer, literally right after he retired. I was thinking to myself, what can I do for him to keep up his spirits as he fought this while I lived 4 hours away. I found a site that had through-the-mail autograph addresses, and I began to write almost on a daily basis. I never told my dad about it.

About a week later I got a call from my dad, he was so excited, he got letters from Stan Musial, Bobby Doerr and Robin Roberts in the same day’s mail. I filled him in on what I was doing for him, from that day on, for the next 4 years, if I wasn’t at home visiting him, I was on the phone with him, asking who he got in the mail that day. I would also ask the players about their career, and what they did after baseball. He loved getting those letters in the mail and reading what they would answer. I have those letters now, and they are my pride and joy besides my dad’s cards in my collection.”

Here, take this for a second.

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JASON: Besides the 1953 Bowman black and whites, do you plan to complete any other sets from your father’s collection?

“Dad was also about halfway through the 1958 and 1959 Topps sets, just from his buying packs as a kid. These weren’t sets he was working on completing as an adult. When I got his cards from my mom after he passed, I started working on the 1959 set, and I am just 28 cards away from being done. Hoping to be done by Jan 2020. I will work on the 1958 set sometime, but I may wait until my son is a little older so he and I can do it together.”

I led off this post with the teaser that the 1953 Bowman black and white set connected fathers to sons like no other. You probably thought I was talking about these guys.

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But I was really talking about two other guys.

Stork family

Rest in peace, James Stork, Sr. (1944-2010). Your son is doing you proud!

Author’s note: My thanks to James Stork not only for sharing his time and memories with me for this post but also for completing one of MY sets. A couple months back I received an envelope with the final two cards I needed for my 1986 Topps set. It was from James. Nothing in return was asked or accepted. 

Putting the “old” in old cardboard: 50 years of manager cards

As a young collector, some of my least favorite pulls were manager cards. “What’s this OLD GUY doing in my pack?” Of course, now I’M the old guy. Thanks, universe!

It is then in a spirit of atonement and kinship that I am dedicating this post to half a century of manager cards in hopes of turning my fellow skipper rippers chipper and making geezer seizing pleasing again.

Yes, I bring you a post dedicated to the anti-heroes of the wax pack (the paunchiest pilots if you will) and drowning out the stroppy squawks of poppycocks and “Hobby pox!” with “Bobby Cox!!” and “Robby rocks!!” C’mon, America, let’s…well you get the idea!

Our 50 years of interest will run from 1933-1982. (I know that sounds like 49 years, but it really is 50. Trust me.) My goal in each case will be to highlight the evolution of the manager card genre across these sets or at least showcase some bit of trivia from the set that you might not have known, including an odd fact that makes Billy Martin and Joe Cronin cardboard cousins.

1933 Goudey

The 1933 Goudey set included 13 cards of 10 managers. The explanation for the uneven math is that Bill Terry had two cards, and Joe Cronin had three. The Rajah also had two cards in the set, but he is only the manager on his second one.

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By including managers in the set, Goudey was not necessarily breaking any new ground. Particularly with the prevalence of player-managers in baseball’s early days, I imagine that most of the major sets before 1933 included at least some managers. In addition, another non-innovation of the Goudey set was using the same card design for managers and non-managers alike. To break free of that mold, we will need to wait nearly three decades.

Collectors not intimately familiar with the Goudey set might be surprised to know it includes cards for the managers of the Milwaukee Brewers and Toronto Maple Leafs! “Hey, wait a minute! That last one can’t be right, can it?”

Dead serious. It really is Maple Leafs, not Maple Leaves.

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I know at least a few of you are saying, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Tell me something I DON’T know!” Not a problem. Here is some 1934 Goudey trivia I don’t expect too many people know. (Spoiler alert: I didn’t say it was interesting or important!)

Managers are identified three different ways on the card backs. The first, mainly used in the set’s earliest releases, was simply to identify the subject as a manager within the text of the bio. The second method, used only on one of the set’s three Joe Cronin cards, was to insert “Manager” just before the team name in the header area, and the third method, used in the set’s late releases, was to do similar but in all caps (i.e., MANAGER).

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In contrast with at least the latter two of these approaches, none of the non-manager cards in the set identified position information in the header. I cut up a very nice Carl Hubbell card just so I could show you.

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1934 Goudey

As for the 1934 Goudey set, nothing too exciting or different happened beyond a standardization of the “Manager” designation to all caps. Of course, standardization is a lot easier when a set has only three manager cards versus 13!

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Another element of the 1934 Goudey set was one we’ll see repeated often in other “small checklist” sets: manager cards going solely to player-managers, in this case Grimm, Cochrane, and Terry.

1934-1936 Diamond Stars

The multi-year Diamond Stars release from National Chicle included a handful of managers but did not go to great lengths to identify them as such. In some cases (e.g., Mickey Cochrane), no indication is given at all. In other cases (e.g., Frankie Frisch), mention is made within the “Tips” section of the card back.

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Not all of the managers were player-managers. Steve O’Neill, who succeeded Walter Johnson as manager of the Indians, had not played a major league game since 1928, and Bucky Harris, manager of the Senators, had not played since 1931. Lew Fonseca was also in a manager-only role by the time his card came out. However, he had played the season before, so his status was somewhere in the middle.

By far the most interesting manager card in the Diamond Stars set was the card that never was. This card, which would have been released in 1936 or early 1937, seems to predict the transfer of managerial duties from Rogers Hornsby to Jim Bottomley in July 1937.

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I’ll note here that this card and the 11 others from its “lost sheet” are sometimes assumed to have represented cards 109-120 in the Diamond Stars set and as such reflect an extension of the 108-card set. I suspect it’s also possible these cards could have been 97-108 instead of the 12 cards the set ultimately ended up repeating on the checklist. (More on this in a future post.)

BONUS: 1936 Goudey Wide Pen Premiums

To keep things from getting too crazy, I initially decided to restrict my focus officially to major releases and unofficially to “baseball card size” releases. Still, I can’t exit the 1930s without acknowledging this Yankees manager card, which doubles as one of several rookie cards of Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio. To bring back the awful wordplay from the top of this post, I think we’d all be chipper Clipper-Skipper rippers today if we pulled this card from our stacks.

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1938 Goudey “Heads Up”

With only 24 different subjects in the set, there are no manager cards in this set.

1939 Play Ball

There was one manager card among the 161 cards in Play Ball’s debut issue. In October 1938 Dodger shortstop Leo Durocher signed a contract to manage the club, succeeding Burleigh Grimes. His Play Ball card #6 in the set identifies his as “Playing Manager” in the card back’s header.

Durocher

1940 Play Ball

The 1940 Play Ball release expanded the number of cards and the number of managers. Furthermore, it was no longer necessary to be a player-manager to crack the set.

1940 Play Ball.jpg

The bad news, at least for the managers (and coaches) of the two pennant winners, is that they received no card front credit for their team’s success. While Yankees and Reds players (e.g., Wally Berger) all had small pennants on the front of the card, this honor did not apply to managers or coaches.

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1941 Play Ball

The 1941 Play Ball set had a much shorter checklist, so only one manager made the cut and even then probably wouldn’t have if he wasn’t also one of the game’s top players.

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1948-1949 Bowman

The first Bowman issue only had 48 cards, none of them managers. Bowman expanded its offering to 240 cards the following year and–much like the 1941 Play Ball set–included only a single manager card of a very good shortstop.

1949 Bowman

1949 Leaf

The debut offering from Leaf looked much like 1949 Bowman as far as manager cards were concerned. Only Lou Boudreau, as player-manager, made the list. The header area of his card back bills Boudreau as a shortstop, but his bio area is quick to note his player-manager role. And of course this same set featured a very famous coach card.

Leaf

1950-1955 Bowman

The 1950 Bowman set was the first major release in a decade to include non-player managers. Non-player managers were repeated in 1951-1953 and 1955 as well. As with all the sets profiled so far, the manager cards followed the same design as the other cards in the set.

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The 1951 grouping was notable in that it included what many collectors feel is the single ugliest baseball card of all time. Another notable aspect of the 1951 set was that it was the first major release of the period profiled (1933-1982) to include manager cards for every team (16, in this case). A final bit of trivia. Jackie Robinson appears on the Charlie Dressen manager card, or at least his name does.

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1952-1956 Topps

The first five major baseball issues from Topps followed the traditions of Bowman and others in that the handful of managers included occupied the same card design as the players. If there is any novelty to be found, at least among the sets profiled in this post, the 1953 Topps set was the first to indicate “Manager” on the front of the card. (Much older examples pre-dating the scope of this post certainly exist, such as the 1915-1916 Sporting News (M104) Connie Mack card.)

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Though managers were represented in these sets, they were not abundant. For example, the 1956 Topps set included only two managers: Mayo Smith and Walter Alston. Oddly, while the 1954 Topps set included four managers, it included 22 coaches across the 16 teams. Among them were three Hall of Famers: Billy Herman, Earle Combs, and Heinie Manush.

1958-1959 Topps

Topps took a year off from manager cards in 1957 but came back with two novel approaches the following year. A 1958 card honored the managers from the 1958 All-Star game while doubling as a checklist for cards 441-495 in the set.

1958 topps.jpg

Among the sets profiled in this post, this Stengel-Haney All-Star card was the first to adopt a different design than the standard player cards in the set. At the same time, it mimicked the design of its fellow all-star cards in the set, hence was not truly novel.

The same 1958 set also included two cards pairing managers with star players on their teams, including the great Frank Robinson (RIP).

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1959 looked a lot like 1958, once again including managers in its all-star subset. This time, however, the skippers did not have to share the same card.

1959 Topps

And once again, we have a manager-player combo card.

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1960 Topps

The 1960 Topps set was THE breakthrough set for manager cards. Not only did managers get their own unique card design but this was the first Topps set to include all 16 major league managers, assigning them consecutive card numbers from 212-227. (If you care to know, the manager cards were also alphabetized by last name.)

1960 Topps

You may also recall that Giants skipper Bill Rigney shares a “Master and Mentor” combo card with Willie Mays. I’ll show it here along with an attempt at imagining what player cards in the set would have looked like had they followed the same design as the manager cards. For my money, it would have been the best card design of the decade!

1960 extras.jpg

1961 Topps

The 1961 set more or less followed suit from 1960, again adopting a unique design for its managers. The cards below contrast the player cards and manager cards from the set.

1961 Topps.jpg

Oddly, there are 17 manager cards in the set despite there being only 16 teams the prior season. “Expansion,” you say! And yes, there are manager cards for the Angels and Twins. But still, wouldn’t that have given the set 18 manager cards? I’ll give you a sec to guess the missing team. Form of a question, please.

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Yes, it is the Cubbies! After a woeful 1960 season, 1961 marked the beginning of the College of Coaches for Chicago’s northsiders. While it led to a four-game improvement in the standings (though some baseball historians prefer to credit Billy Williams), the whole thing was just too damned complicated for Topps. Still, I think this gives custom card designers an open invitation to put together that Vedie Himsl-Harry Craft-El Tappe-Lou Klein quadruple-manager card that should have been. (Confession: I’d heard of exactly zero of these guys till five minutes ago.)

A tad more trivia on the set. If you’ve read Anson Whaley’s five-part series on the Black Sox Scandal, you know post-career cards of the banned eight players are a rarity until at least the 1970s. Aside from the 1940 Play Ball card of Shoeless Joe, the back of the 1961 Topps Cicotte pictured is the only cardboard I know that even mentions a single one of the “eight men out.”

1962-1972 Topps

Following an outburst of creativity, Topps reverted to assigning managers the same card design as players for the next 11 years. While so many other cards of the era sent a message that the world was coming to an end larger tumult dominated the era, the Topps manager cards provided an oasis of stability and calm. “Trust your leaders, kids. We got this.”

Managers of the 60s

The two different Walt Alston pictures for 1968-1969 are a reminder that Marvin Miller represented players but not managers. (See Mark Armour’s SABR post if what I just typed means nothing to you.) Certainly there are player cards with two photos also, but the manager cards provide the most consistent example.

And since I can never write one of these posts and not feature the Splendid Splinter, here is where he makes his appearance on the page. (If you’re keeping score, Ted made only one fewer Topps set as a manager than as a player!)

Ted Williams.jpg

1973-1974 Topps

The 1973-1974 sets brought Topps out of its manager card doldrums. The inclusion of coaches gave the manager cards a distinct design while also bringing back some great names from the past. Examples of Hall of Famer players who appeared on these cards as coaches included Ernie Banks, Warren Spahn, and Bill Mazeroski.

1973 Topps.jpg

The 1974 Mets manager card of Yogi Berra marked a milestone in my own collecting career. I made my collecting debut at a school carnival in 1977 by purchasing a stack of 1974 Topps cards for 50 cents. Though I didn’t know who he was at the time, this Yogi Berra would be the first card of a Hall of Famer that I ever owned.

1975-1977 Topps

For the next three years, Topps merged what had previously been two distinct subsets: team cards and manager cards. It really wasn’t a bad look or a bad idea, but the timing was unfortunate.

1975 Topps.jpg

The first year of the shrunken manager, 1975, happened to be the year that Frank Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s other color barrier. Though the Indians team card that year still made my list of the top ten cards of the decade (for this reason) and Robinson’s main card in the set gives him at least cartoon credit as skipper, I feel like Topps missed a great opportunity to give Robinson’s feat its proper due. One approach would have been to change “Des. Hitter” to “Mgr-DH” on his main card; the other would have been to hang on to full-size manager cards just one more year.

FRobby.jpg

Of course, these 1975 cards weren’t the very first to portray Frank Robinson as manager. That honor (I think) belongs to Robinson’s 1972 Puerto Rican Winter League sticker.

1972 Robby

1978 Topps

We finally arrive at the set that I can speak about with the unimpeachable authority of an obsessive eight-year-old. This was the year I really got going as a card collector. It was also the year Topps introduced its most innovative design ever for manager cards.

1978 Topps.jpg

While the “As Player, As Manager” dual photo approach was a novel one, I should mention that it wasn’t completely new. It’s a bit of cheating since he was a player-manager at the time, but the 1954 Topps Phil Cavaretta could be considered the prototype.

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1979-1981 Topps

The efficiency consultants were back at Topps for these three seasons and urged the combining of team cards and manager cards once again.

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1981-1982 Donruss and Fleer

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While Topps had relegated managers to a tiny box in the upper right hand corner of the team card in 1981, Donruss and Fleer took a page out of the 1962-1972 Topps (or almost everybody, 1933-1956) playbook and used the standard player design for their sets’ managers, just one more way that 1981 Donruss put the vintage back into modern.

Donruss came back with more of the same in 1982 while Fleer took the year off. (In fact, Fleer would never again include manager cards in their sets, aside from the “tiny manager in the corner of a team card” approach they borrowed from Topps for 1984.)

1982 Topps

Remember I started this post by stating how much I hated pulling “old guys” from packs when I was a kid. Well, Topps finally listened in 1982! Perhaps feeling the heat from Fleer and Donruss, the once and future monopolist set out to give us kids what we wanted: 792 cards of young guys…oh, and Phil Niekro too.

Team cards were also a casualty of this “voice of the customer” movement, but let’s face it…we far preferred extra cards of Claudell Washington and Rick Mahler, right?

1982 Topps.jpg

BONUS: 1983 Topps and Donruss

Just in case anyone was feeling ripped off with the whole 1933-1982 thing, or just needed some more Frank Robinson in their lives, here’s a quick look at the manager cards from 1983.

1983.jpg

Topps needlessly tweaked their player card design but was again back to giving managers their own card for the first time in more than a decade. Donruss, meanwhile, followed their 1982 approach (as they did with nearly all things that year) and gave manager cards the same treatment as player cards.

As noted, Fleer abandoned manager cards following their 1981 debut, but we’ll count our blessings here. It may well be that had Fleer dedicated 26 of their 660 cards in 1983 to managers, they–like Topps and Donruss–would have whiffed on what was ultimately the year’s hottest card, at least until the Topps Traded set came out.

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While we’re on the subject of 1983 Topps Traded…(pauses to admire Darryl card, takes deep breath, okay thanks)…did you know this was the first Topps Traded set to include managers? You’d have to be some sort of Keith Olbermann-Christoper Kamka hybrid to name all the managers in the traded set without cheating, so I’ll help you out. If you were imagining just one or two, boy were you off!

First here are the guys they replaced.

1983 Topps Managers.jpg

And finally, here are the Traded Set Seven!

1983 Topps Traded MGRs.jpg

In the introduction to this post I mentioned a pair of cardboard cousins. Ignoring minor releases, errors, and variants, these two men bookend of our half century as the only two men from 1933-1983 to have two different manager cards in the same set and design. So there you have it: cardboard cousins!

1953-1983

And yes, I know the two Billy Martin cards weren’t strictly from the same set, but cut an old guy some slack here. Respect your elders, cardboard or otherwise!

An Open, and a Shut, Case

Two mysteries this week, one unsolved, one quickly wrapped up.

The Battle of Battle Creek – Kellogg’s vs. the Atlanta Braves

I love my 3-D sets and look at them often. I’ve always wondered why, in the first two years, there were no Atlanta Braves. This is especially odd in 1970, when Kellogg’s crammed the set with the biggest names in the game (and Tim Cullen). Where was Hank Aaron? Orlando Cepeda? Phil Niekro?

Another shutout for Atlanta in 1971 and, then, in 1972, Ralph Garr makes his Brave debut. Or does he? The Roadrunner appears with a blacked out cap on the front and, even weirder, a non-existent Braves logo on the reverse. Kellogg’s clearly had a licensing deal with both the Players’ Association and MLB (both are prominent displayed on the card back), so use of logos should not have been a problem. These are not issued as MLBPA licensed only, which would have led to a lack of official team insignias and such.

What’s the deal here? Why would the Braves not be part of the overall licensing agreement? They had to be. I’d love to research this but really don’t even know where to start – Kellogg’s, MLB, MLBPA, Braves?

Help me out on this. I’d love to get an answer on the why Garr looks like a Little Leaguer and why  Kellogg’s was not the Home of the Braves in those early years.

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Play Ball! (Or Something Close)

I had a nice day trip yesterday to visit some friends. One of the reasons for the drive was to help dig into his card collection, recently reclaimed when his Mom moved. Like many of us of similar age, he had a nice group of mid-‘60’s to mid-‘70’s cards, but, like fewer of us, he was in a position as a kid to have the opportunity to buy some vintage, pre-war cards.

Lots of cool stuff, but one card that caught my eye was his 1939 Play Ball Joe DiMaggio. I’d never had one in hand, so took it out of its display. As many of you know, I’m not big on card backs. If they were so important, why aren’t they the fronts???? However, I can be proven wrong and I was excited to see this:

 

I’m not an expert on these cards, but have seen Topps seller samples online. The DiMag was authentic, no doubt, so I assumed these were legit samples. I didn’t know for sure though, so put it out that I was looking for some guidance. A few people thought they might be fakes, but that didn’t feel right.

As soon as I got home I figured I’d start searching in the Standard Catalog and, boom, there they were. A heap of the first 115 cards of the 162 card set were stamped, in red, as sample cards. The text is great, as you can read yourself. The samples are a bit harder to come by and do command a premium. I was pretty jazzed to find this out and relay that information.

It’s a remarkable thing to look at the same item over and over again and then see it for the first time. The Garr card seemed new to me, though I’d looked at it multiple times. Interesting how other collectors were unaware of the lack of Braves in the first two Kellogg’s sets. Finding fresh secrets, both easy and hard to unravel, is part of the joy, something like discovering new friends.

Cardboard Crosswalk: 1936 World Wide Gum and 1955 Bowman

Author’s note: The “Cardboard Crosswalk” series focuses on the commonalities of different sets many years apart. The first installment of Cardboard Crosswalk can be found here.

On the surface, these are two sets that would appear to have little in common, as these cards of Connie Mack and Hank Aaron will serve to illustrate.

Mack and Aaron
Among the main differences between these two sets–

  • 1936 WWG cards measure 2-1/2 × 2-7/8 inches, in the ballpark of the 1933 and 1934 Goudey issues. Meanwhile, the 1955 Bowman cards measure 2-1/2 × 3-3/4 inches, much closer to today’s baseball cards.
  • The 1936 cards are of course black and white (player selection aside!) while the 1955 Bowman cards have so much color they’re like watching a game on your brand new television set!
  • And finally, the 1936 cards were issued in Canada while the Bowman cards were issued in the United States.

Of course the main purpose of a Cardboard Crosswalk is to identify similarities, not differences. We’ll get there soon, but first I’ll share some irresistible odds and ends at least obliquely related.

The Mack and Aaron cards I selected were of course 19 years apart. I find it incredible that these two gentlemen have cards as players that are EIGHTY-NINE years apart!

Mack and Aaron 2.jpg

As impossible as that ought to be, we were only two years away from something much crazier. Imagine if Frank Robinson (RIP) had made his debut just two years earlier and had a card in the 1955 Bowman set. Then couple the Mack card with this one and we’d have cards 119 years apart!

Frank Robinson.jpg

 

Okay, next detour. Fans and collectors are accustomed to seeing Mr. Mack in a suit. That was pretty much his trademark as manager of the Athletics for half a century. However, the idea of players wearing suits seems like the territory of NBA/NHL draft pick cards and baseball sets like Stadium Club and Studio. (Note to self: Definitely do a post on the Prehistory of Leaf Studio.)

Sure, collectors might scratch their heads and recall Babe Ruth all dressed up on some of his 1962 Topps Babe Ruth Special cards, but those cards, issued more than a quarter century after his retirement, aren’t exactly on his master set checklist. Meanwhile, just look at these two dapper fellows out of the 1936 set. (As an aside, you could caption the image with Appling saying, “Mirror, show me what I would look like buff” or Zeke saying, “Mirror, show me what I would look like trim.”)

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On the other end of the spectrum, the 1936 WWG set included some top-notch images of Hall of Famers.

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And if you squint a bit, you may even see some resemblance between the 1936 cards and some Topps Hall of Famer cards of the 1970s.

Bench.jpg

L
O
N
G

D
E
L
A
Y

Sorry, I’m back now. The Lord just struck me down for comparing any card to the 1976 Bench. Lesson learned.

Finally, it would be impossible not to be impressed by the incredible checklist for the 1936 set. Where else are you going to find Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio in the same set, not to mention Hank Greenberg, Jimmie Foxx, and Dizzy Dean? And the set is definitely your go-to for Montreal Royals, with 14 of them on the checklist! (Depending if Trading Card DB makes my correction, you may only see 13. However, Rabbit Maranville should be included as well.)

And now, onto the crosswalk!

The reason I chose these two sets was that despite their being “only” 19 years apart, they feel so much more distant to me. Perhaps it’s because one of the sets rightly could have included Babe Ruth as a player while the other genuinely did include Henry Aaron, or perhaps it’s because two absolutely cataclysmic events, World War Two and the integration of Major League Baseball, happened between their issues.

Of course, 19 years isn’t exactly forever in baseball terms, so it should not be surprising that the two sets had some overlap across their respective checklists. For the crosswalk portion of the post, I’ll put the spotlight on the five subjects common to both sets, who remarkably enough entered the 1955 Bowman set for four different reasons! We’ll proceed alphabetically.

Dick Bartell

Entering the 1936 season Dick Bartell was a 28-year-old shortstop for the New York Giants with arguably his two best seasons still ahead of him. In the 1955 set he was a coach under Birdie Tebbetts with the Cincinnati Redlegs. (If you’re keeping score, put a check in the coach column.)

Bartell

Phil Cavarretta

Entering the 1936 season Phil Cavarretta (two Rs, two Ts, the WWG card has it wrong) was a promising 19-year old first baseman for the Cubs, having joined the club at 17. His 1945 season, albeit with many players off to war, won him the 1945 NL MVP award. While he would join the managerial ranks in 1951, he continued to play for several more years. As such, the back of his 1955 Bowman card lists him as “First Base, Chicago White Sox.” Put a checkmark in the player column (or player-manager if you prefer).

Cavarretta

Charlie Grimm

Having made his playing debut in 1916, also at the age of 17, the 1936 season would be Grimm’s last as a player. It would also be his fifth as Cubs skipper en route to a 19-year managerial career. It is as the manager of the Milwaukee Braves that he is included in the 1955 Bowman set in a reaching-right-out-of-the-set pose that might have scared kids away from television for years. (Kids, it’s okay, he’s actually a very nice man. His nickname is Jolly Cholly, and he plays the banjo! Wait, what? That didn’t help?)

Grimm.jpg

All joking aside, I love Charlie Grimm, who happens to be related to a friend of mine. If you are unaware of Grimm’s role in launching Hank Aaron’s career, Howard Bryant tells the story here.

Al Lopez

Entering the 1936 season, this Hall of Famer was a 27-year-old catcher with the Boston Bees, still in the first half of what would be a 19-year playing career featuring MVP votes in seven  of his seasons. He would succeed Lou Boudreau as manager of the Tribe in 1951 and preside over the 111-win juggernaut that would go to the 1954 World Series and fall victim to Willie Mays and “The Catch.”

Overall, Lopez would finish above .500 in all 15 of his seasons as full-time manager of the Indians and later White Sox and finish up with two pennants and a .584 lifetime win-loss percentage, good even today for tenth all-time.

Lopez

So that’s another manager, which puts us at a coach, a player, and two managers. What on Earth could be left? Owner? GM? Scout? Commissioner?

Lon Warneke

Entering the 1936 season, the Arkansas Hummingbird was a 27-year-old right-hander coming off consecutive seasons of 22, 18, 22, and 20 wins. He would have certainly won the Cy Young Award had there been on in 1932, as he led the National League in both wins and ERA while taking the Cubs to the famous “Called Shot” World Series.

Before turning to 1955, let’s pause to admire a nice trio of 1930s cardboard, from which one could make a very expensive flipbook on pitching follow-through.

Warneke.jpg

Those of you who know the 1955 Bowman set or Warneke’s biography well have long known what’s coming. For the rest of you, I’ll remind you of the first half of this post, in which I briefly detoured to suits on baseball cards. The suits I showed you then belonged to subjects of the 1936 set, but the 1955 set had some suits of its own!

W
A
I
T

F
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I
T

Behind the plate is a man who ought to know quite a bit about balls and strikes…

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So there you have it, the five men featured in the 1936 World Wide Gum and 1955 Bowman sets: a coach, a player, two managers, and an umpire. It would be easy to find checklists with more subjects in common, but I can’t imagine a more interesting variety than this one!

The Babe Ruth of the Palm Tree Division

Many of us derive pleasure from collecting the cards of our favorite player. Often, the player was childhood hero and/or a superstar like Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski or Willie Mays. However, this doesn’t explain my decision to collect Steve Bilko cards.

My fascination with Steve began after attending a Bilko presentation by author Gaylon White at a NWSABR chapter meeting. Subsequently, I purchased White’s biography, The Bilko Athletic Club, which chronicles Bilko’s struggles to establish himself as a productive Major League player, his PCL “halcyon days” and his many legendary drinking feats.

“Big” Steve developed an almost cult-like following in Los Angeles during the mid-50s, when he was racking up 50+ home run years for the PCL Angels at LA’s Wrigley Field. The bandbox ballpark featured absurdly friendly dimensions in left field, thus helping the “Slugging Seraph” cement his status as a long ball legend. Since the Angels’ games were telecast throughout Southern California, Steve’s power exploits made him as famous as a movie or TV star with the local populace.

Silvers-Bilko

Speaking of TV stars, most of you are familiar with the fact that Phil Silvers’ character in the mid-50s sitcom, “Sergeant Bilko,” derived his name from portly power hitter. The writers wanted to honor the man who had captivated Los Angeles.

51 Bowman

The Cardinals originally signed Bilko in ’45–at the tender age of 16–and he made his major league debut in ’49. Steve’s first card appeared in the ’51 Bowman set. The colorized photo provides a good looked at his powerful physique. Also, Bowman includes Steve in the beautiful ’53 color photography set and in the toned down ‘54s.

52 Topps

55 Double Header

Bilko’s gets his first Topps card in ’52 and continuing uninterrupted through ’55. In addition, he is paired with Bob Milliken on the strange Double Header set issued by Topps in ’55.

55 Bowman

The Cardinals’ “brain trust” was concerned with Bilko’s ever-growing waistline and his penchant for striking out, resulting in his trade to Cubs in ’54. The classic “color tv” design of Bowman’s ’55 set seems to barely accommodate Steve’s girth. Unfortunately, Steve’s poor performance got him shipped to the AAA Los Angeles Angels, a Cubs’ affiliate

During Bilko’s three-year (’55-’57) stint as “the Babe Ruth of the Palm Tree Division,” no regional cards were issued for the PCL Angels. According to PCL historian Mark McCrae, a memorabilia collector and dealer, a ’57 team issued card set exists. I was unable to find an example.

58 Topps

After walloping 148 home runs in three years with the PCL “Seraphs”, the Reds decided to give Steve another shot at the majors. With George Crowe and Ted Kluszewski ahead of him, Steve was once again unable to break in as a regular. Topps brought Bilko back-after a two year absence-and produced a classic, airbrushed uniform photo on his ’58 card.

59 Topps

Midway in the ’58 season, the newly transplanted LA Dodgers acquire Steve-primarily to drum up fan interest for their fading ball club. Steve provides a thrill for his devoted fans by smashing a three-run homer in his first at bat in the Coliseum. He then settles into a part-time role with limited success. The ’59 Topps card shows a corpulent specimen swinging the bat at the Coliseum.

60 Topps

60 Leaf

The Dodgers optioned Steve to AAA Spokane after the ’59 season, but he was picked up by the Tigers in the minor league draft. Bilko spends most of ’60 in Detroit, platooning with a young Norm Cash. This results in ’60 Topps card with a headshot taken at the LA Coliseum and an “action” photo on the Reds. Also, Steve shows up in the ’60 black and white Leaf Portrait set, which was recently examined in a post by Jeff Katz.

The American League’s expansion Los Angeles Angels couldn’t pass up an opportunity to bring Steve back to Wrigley Field (LA) in hopes of rekindling his PCL magic. He hit 11 home runs at Wrigley with a total of 20 for the season. The ’61 card is a typical expansion team one, with a bare-headed Bilko wearing a Tigers uniform.

62 Topps

In ’62, Steve moved with the Angels to Dodger Stadium (Chavez Ravine) where he managed to hit only two dingers. However, his card was a “grand slam.” Taken during training, Steve sports the classic Angels jersey and cap. His image is that of a man who could hit the ball a “country mile.”

63 Post

Also, during his time with the MLB Angels, Post Cereal produced cards for Steve in ’62 and ’63. The ‘63 was a career “capper,” since he didn’t play in the majors after ‘62. Additionally, a Bilko card could be found on JELL-O boxes in ’62 and ‘63.

Bilko is included in various oddball issues throughout his career. An Exhibit card exists from the early ’50s, picturing Steve on the Cardinals. He is in the regional Hunter Wieners sets in ’53 and ’54. Jay Publishing issues several Bilko photos in the early 60’s as did the Angeles concessionaire, Sports Services. Manny’s Baseball Land even issues a photo in ’61. Finally, in ’62, Steve can be found on Salada and Shirriff coins and in Topps’ stamp set.

Steve is the definition of the “cult” ballplayer. His notoriety and fan loyalty far outstripped his ability. It goes without saying that a man who can drink a case of beer without showing any signs of intoxication deserves a place in the cult section of baseball lore.

I highly encourage you to check out Warren Corbett’s BioProject piece on Bilko.