Joe Morgan, 1943-2020

(Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

One of my favorite Joe Morgan stories is one I first came upon in Joe Posnanski’s book on the Reds (The Machine, 2009). In a 1975 game against the Giants, Morgan doubled off of Charlie Williams. When the pitcher threw the next pitch in the dirt and Morgan saw the ball roll away from catcher Marc Hill, he sprinted towards third only to stop suddenly 20 feet from the bag. Hill, sensing an opportunity, gunned his throw to third but wild, and Morgan scampered home.

In the clubhouse after the game, Morgan explained that he had deliberately stopped running to draw a throw which he thought might go wild. The Giants players were livid, calling Morgan an arrogant son-of-a-bitch for disparaging their catcher. Morgan, believing arrogance to be a necessary quality in a star, was thrilled. He had gotten in their heads, which was his plan.

“If Joe keeps up his current pace,” said his manager, Sparky Anderson, “he’ll be dead in another month.”

——-

Many complimentary words have been written about Joe Morgan, the player, since his death last week, and there is no need to gild the lily here. Suffice it to say that I believe Morgan to have been one of the two greatest players of the 1970s (along with his teammate, Johnny Bench), and the greatest second baseman to ever play the game.

Today, I am here to praise his baseball cards.

A couple of things are very striking about Morgan’s cards. First, so many of them are spectacular–he was a good looking man his entire life, but never more so than on a baseball field. And second, his cards are remarkably affordable compared with contemporaries of comparable or lesser accomplishment. You could buy 10 of his rookie cards (1965) for the price of a single rookie card for Pete Rose, Tom Seaver, Johnny Bench, or Nolan Ryan. And none of his later cards have price tags that reflect his stature in the game’s history.

You can actually tell the story of Topps baseball cards using Morgan as a central figure. His 1966 and 1967 cards are fine specimens of those classic Topps sets–posed photos of a player doing baseball things, with easily recognizable faces. Beautiful.

I bought my first cards in 1967 but I do not believe I saw this Morgan card until a few years later. Which means that my first Morgan cards were these two.

These Morgan card were, as you all likely know, the victim of two unrelated problems: the MLBPA boycott, and Topps’ dispute with the Astros over the use of their name and logo. The latter led to the hatless, uniform-less image, and the former to Topps using this uninspiring image a second time.

It got better the next year.

The card above left, from 1970, is one of my all-time favorites. The ending of the disputes referenced above allowed many kids across America to see these glorious uniforms for the first time. In addition, what we later learned about Joe’s dissatisfaction with his years playing for Harry Walker (being asked to bunt, chop the ball on the ground, etc.) is well captured here, as is Joe’s sour expression. (Good times were coming, Joe.)

In 1971 Topps (above right) first dabbled in action shots, and Morgan was one of their test subjects. Presumably, he is roping a base hit in this gorgeous image.

In 1972 Topps introduced “Traded” cards for the first time, limiting the feature to just seven players who received a second card showing them on their new team. Both of the Morgan cards are excellent, highlighted by Morgan’s well-lit face and his new sideburns.

By the mid-1970s, Topps’ card sets were a mix of action and posed shots, and they would remain so for 20 years. Kids who got Joe Morgan cards in their pack were getting a superstar, one of the game’s best players, a two-time MVP. Whether he was posing, or vaulting out of the batter’s box, Joe Morgan was a card you wanted in your stack.

Joe Morgan’s career had three acts. At the start were 6 full seasons with the Astros as an under-appreciated player, occasionally a star. He finished in the top five in walks every year, an accomplishment no one noticed, stole a lot of bases, made a couple of All-Star teams. His second act was his first 5 years with the Reds (1972-76), when he was as valuable as Willie Mays or Mike Trout, and played for one of history’s greatest and most glamorous teams (The Big Red Machine). Finally, he finished up with 8 years as a very good player, making a positive contribution all the way to the end. The Silver Slugger award was introduced in 1980, and Morgan won it in 1982 at age 38. Had the award come long earlier, of course, he could have won a dozen.

The Topps monopoly ended in 1981, and it is fun to look at some of Morgan’s cards from this era, at a time when he was changing teams almost every year.

A sampling of his Donruss cards:

Morgan returned to the Astros for one season (1980), and helped them to their first division title. The next year we got this gorgeous shot of Joe at Wrigley Field, and one is struck that Joe looked very much like this for 20 years. He moved to the Giants in 1981, and almost led them to a pennant the next year, then was back in the World Series with the 1983 Phillies. None of this was surprising, nor was Joe vaulting out of the box on his 1984 Donruss card.

Now for some Fleer cardboard:

Not surprisingly, 1981 Joe looked great in Houston’s “Tequila Sunrise” togs, just as he had in their glorious late 1960s uniform. The 1983 Joe looks a little more serious, and his 1985 Fleer (he retired at the end of the 1984 season), he looks like peak Joe Morgan about to lace a double to left-center.

Morgan was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1990 with 81.8% of the vote. I understand none of this matters–he’s an all-time great, beloved by historians and fans and statheads. Still: what exactly were the 18.2% thinking? Joe Morgan doesn’t get your vote?

Joe went on to great success as a sportscaster, was a respected executive with the Hall of Fame, and was admired by all of his former teammates and opponents and apparently everyone else. Sparky Anderson said he was the smartest player he ever saw. Johnny Bench said he was the best player he ever saw. That’s not nothing.

I rooted against Joe Morgan in the All-Star game every year, though I knew that the National League was better and that Morgan played a brand of baseball of which my team was unfamiliar. (Morgan was on 10 All-Star teams, and his side won all 10 games). I also rooted against Morgan in the 1975 World Series, and his game winning single into centerfield in the top of the 9th inning of Game 7 broke my heart.

But none of that matters now, as we mourn yet another hero in this Godforsaken year. I just remember the greatness.

RIP Joe. Thank you for elevating this game.

Player Collection Spotlight – Keith Hernandez

The year was 1986. The Mets were on top of the baseball world and, perhaps more importantly, moving their spring training site to Port St. Lucie in short order. WWOR-TV out of Secaucus, NJ would broadcast what seemed like a zillion games over the next few years in that part of Florida. And baseball cards were collected by every kid in the neighborhood. Topps, Donruss, Fleer, packs, boxed sets, oversize cards, mini cards, stickers – someone had them.

How and why Keith Hernandez rather than Gooden or Strawberry or Carter or anyone else? Two reasons: Gooden and Strawberry were too expensive for a 10-year-old, and I kept pulling this Hernandez guy’s cards out of packs. I have a Gooden and a Strawberry player collection, but they are nowhere near as complete as the Hernandez collection. I have plenty of Carter, Orosco, Dykstra, Teufel, Mookie, Darling, Fernandez, McDowell, and everyone else from that Mets team as well as other Mets teams.

Unlike DJ, I lack … discipline, restraint, or whatever you want to call it (perhaps sanity) that allows him to limit himself to Topps cards of his players and team. I want to go on eBay, buy a lot of Jim Gantner cards, and send them to him (DJ, not Gantner) because I can’t imagine not having as many different Hernandez cards as possible. But then I also don’t want to upset his balance and turn him into … me. As a kid I would always try to swap for Hernandez cards with my friends. The first Hernandez rookie I ever owned came via a trade for a handful of football cards. Supposedly there was a Steve Largent rookie in there, but as I didn’t know who he was at the time it didn’t matter to me – I had the 1975 Topps Hernandez and three other guys. Also as a kid, I created my own alphabetical checklist of his cards, flipping through pages of a late 1980s Beckett Almanac scanning sets for his cards. At some point I tossed that out because I had created an electronic list, though I kind of wish I had kept the hand created list to see how close I had gotten to a complete checklist. I never got his autograph during spring training, though a friend of mine did give me an autographed 8×10.

If you want the stats, I have over 1,000 different listed items in Beckett’s database and many more that aren’t listed. The exact number could change by the time this post is public. For his pre-2004 cards I am only missing a handful that are listed in Beckett, some of which I don’t think actually exist. His number of cards exploded in 2004-2005 (he has over 600 cards from those two years alone due to parallels). Staying at home allowed me to scan the items I have, and the Beckett listed items all have front and back pictures (unless it’s a blank back team issue) if you scroll a little down this page to the links at the bottom. I have over 10,000 total Hernandez cards. How do I know? I always thought it would look cool to have the fronts of a single card displayed in all 18-pockets of two pages (back-to-front) in a binder. I have 689 of those pages, including 57 pages of his 1988 Topps card. You can get a sense of what that looks like below. Plus those thousand or so different cards. Plus about two binders of standard sized cards that don’t have 18 copies of a card yet. Plus oversized and mini cards. And extra game-used and autographed cards.

I didn’t do graded cards – until I got a really good deal on a lot. As one might imagine given my lack of restraint, I’ve pretty much climbed that mountain. I’ve grown less interested in the “master set” as listed by PSA because it now includes team picture cards from the 1970s. As someone once wrote here, you need to define a master set for yourself, even if it differs from the definition someone else uses.

While I don’t get too much into custom cards (unless it’s a Heavy J Studios rainbow dazzle purple refractor 1/1), I’m always looking for oddball items that I don’t have. Sometimes it’s an ad or a magazine with Hernandez on the cover or if he’s featured in an interview. Bobbleheads and figurines are also in there, as are drinking cups, posters, cello/rack packs with his cards on top – pretty much anything. I have about 100 ticket stubs from his MLB games, back when ticket stubs were actual stubs. Here’s a display with a variety of items:

Keith Hernandez shelf

With the increasing number of 1/1s and other low-numbered cards I’ve mellowed over the years and don’t worry too much about not getting every card. I’m usually a player in the market, though sometimes I marvel at how much they sell for. I admit that I get slightly annoyed when I make an offer on a card, have it turned down, and then a few days later see it sold for less than I offered. The economist in me doesn’t understand leaving $20 bills lying on the ground.

I don’t dabble much in game-used jerseys or other equipment because I’m not educated enough on those items to have confidence in my purchases. However, I have purchased a number of Topps Vault items. I think the most interesting piece I have is his original Topps contract, with his signature, his dad’s signature (the younger Hernandez was a minor at the time), and Sy Berger’s signature. And the Hernandez authored pop-up book First-Base Hero:

Keith Hernandez contract

It has been a fun endeavor for over 30+ years and somehow I’m always finding something I haven’t seen before (like a 3×5 miniature version of a poster that I just got in a lot last week). I have other player collections, and more different cards of other players (Ripken, Gwynn, and Piazza) but they all have vastly more cards than Hernandez. I have a higher percentage of cards for other players (like Jose Lind – a story for a different day), but Hernandez tends to be a balance of popular enough to be included in some new issues (I’m guessing that appearing on Seinfeld didn’t hurt his popularity – and yes, there is at least one bobblehead commemorating his Seinfeld appearance), but not so popular that he appears in a lot of new issues.

All Action All the Time

My time as a rabid collector lasted for approximately three years, 1986 through ’88. During those years, I blew nearly all my disposable income — mind you, I was a college student without a real job — on packs of baseball cards. Topps, Donruss, Score, Fleer, Sportflics… didn’t really matter. I was addicted, and spent an inordinate amount of time sorting my way to complete (or nearly complete) sets. I also had binders full of players like Cory Snyder and Tony Fernández. But that hoary old story is for another day!

This story’s about what I missed, by not starting earlier. No, not the outstanding 1984 Fleer set, which I’ve just recently come to love. That same year, Donruss produced their second Action All Stars set: 60 player cards + 1 checklist card; five cards per cello pack, plus a card consisting of three Ted Williams puzzle pieces.

Of course all the players were depicted in “action” photos, but what really distinguished these cards was their size. I like big cards. I mean, why would anyone not like big cards? The only downsides are a) you can’t stuff ’em in your pockets, and b) good luck finding the correct binder pages! But if the point of a baseball card is the image of the player, bigger is nearly always better (he said, overconfidently).

And these cards are 3.5 inches by 5 inches — essentially notecard size, or exactly the size of two lesser baseball cards.

I discovered the existence of this set just a few weeks ago, when searching eBay for “Topps big” or something (did I mention that I like big cards? I think I mentioned that). I really just wanted to hold one Action All Star, just to get a sense of the thing. But there was a good deal and … well, I wound up with eight five-card cello packs.

Look, I’m not stupid. I know I could have learned most of what I wanted to know by looking at images and reading stuff on the web. But not all.

All means holding a card in your hand, feeling its thickness and texture and turning it over and seeing what’s on the back. All means up close and personal.

Anyway, I opened all the packs. In retrospect, this was … okay, I am sorta stupid. For the money I spent on the packs, I could have picked up the complete set. With money left over. So buying the packs would have made sense only if I’d then sent some packs as gifts, or rationed the opening thrills for myself. But instead I did the other, stupider thing!

Oh well. Hardly the first time.

Anyway, the “action” images are really nice: well composed and framed, with a clean accompanying design (unlike too many cards in those pre-Stadium Club days). My research reveals that in both 1983 and ’85 (see below), Donruss went with two images on the front of their Action All Stars: action, and portrait … which only serves to detract from both.

Your mileage might well vary, but for my (not much) money the 1984 set is the only one of the three sets with real curb appeal.

Not that they’re perfect. In way too many of the images, the background is just sorta dark, or murky. Or murkily dark. Often the player is backlit. The overall effect is just … darkness. Which could be easily corrected today. On your cell phone.

Back then, though, they just went with the images they had, and we liked it. But among the 25 players I got, only a few — most notably, Dale Murphy — really pop the way you want them to. Just too many guys doing their actions in the shadows.

The backs of the cards could have been great, but are just passable. Using the top half for a head shot was a good idea, albeit still with too many shadows. The bottom half includes full name, biographical data, and a complete MLB statistical record. So far, so good. But then there are career highlights, with the combination of tiny black letters and dark red background almost impossible to read without a magnifying glass…

…which you could almost understand for the veterans with huge stat sections like Steve Carlton and Reggie Jackson. But Tony Peña’s got five stat lines, five lines of highlights … and a bunch of empty red space. Instead of using a bigger, actually readable font for the highlights, they just used the same teeny letters for everybody. Which I can barely read. Oh and by the way get off my damn lawn you meddling kids.

Overall, this is a good set that could have been great, with better lighting and some measure of design flexibility on the back. Well worth whatever they’re asking on eBay.

On cropping and layers

For most of baseball card history there have been two basic types of card designs. Either the photo is placed in a box* or the player is silhouetted onto a background.** Both of these designs are pretty straightforward with their image requirements in that designers only have to think about what is and isn’t shown in the photos.

*Straightforward but none more pure of an example than 1953 Bowman.

**1914 Cracker Jacks, 1949 Bowman, 1958 Topps, and many of the inserts from the 1980s to today.

There’s a third design though which took over cards in the 1990s and has made photo cropping difficult ever since. Rather than putting photos in boxes the trend toward full-bleed cards has created design after design that layers text and other graphic elements on top of the photo itself.

While it’s true that this design took over in the 1990s and was made extremely easy to do by foil stamping, it’s important to realize that its ancestry has been in cards for decades and in fact tended to surface every decade. So let’s go back to one of the first such designs.

Yup. 1957. I sometimes jokingly refer to this as proto-Stadium Club except that the photos themselves are pretty standard Topps photos that you’d expect to see until about 1991 or so. Posed shots showing a player’s upper body, headshots, and a few full-body “action” (at this point still posed) images.

The first thing to point out here is that Topps likes to put the players’ heads as high in the frame that it can. The next thing to look at—specifically in the Kluszewski and Thompson cards—is how Topps deals with the text overlapping the image. Topps likes to crop at players’ waists and at their necklines. In 1957 this is frequently where the top of the text starts but there’s another half inch of image visible under the text.

On the upper-body portraits this extra half inch can give us a little more information about the location of the photo and allow us to see the field and stadiums.

Photographically, these photos were also composed somewhat loose since the image area of the film is huge* and the photographer knew things would be cropped later. This is why in the Gomez card there’s so much grass in the foreground.

*at least 2 and a quarter inches square and quite likely more like 4 inches by 5 inches.

Now we flash forward a decade. On a lot of other sets* before this the image frame is knocking off a corner of the photo. This isn’t the same kind of design/photography issue since most of the photos are somewhat centered so there’s rarely something of import in the corners.

*eg. 1962, 1963, and 1965. Plus in 1966 there’s a layering effect in the corner.

1967 though is exactly like 1957 only there’s text at both the top and the bottom of the card now. Topps is doing the same thing as it did in 1957 too except that the players’ heads are now a little lower in the frame so that the names and positions can fit. The waist and neckline croppings though are pretty close to the 1957 croppings.

The net result here is that we get to see a lot more stadium details in many of the cards—giving the set a photographic character which differs from the other 1960s Topps offerings.

The Fuentes card though shows the dangers of this kind of design. Unlike the 1957 Gomez, Fuentes’s feet—and even his glove—are covered by the team name. This isn’t a big problem with a posed “action” photo but becomes much more of an issue when we move into the age of action photography.

I’ll jump to Japan for the 1970s since the Calbee sets of that decade deserve a mention. It’s obviously doing something very similar with extending the photo under the text. At the same time the simplicity of the text almost makes it an absence of design. In a good way.

It might be because I can’t read the text but the way it’s handled encourages me to not see it. Not because it’s not readable. Quite the opposite in fact. The way the text changes from black to white on the Sadaharu Oh card is handled masterfully in how my brain barely notices it. It’s there as information but manages to not take anything away from the photos.

It is worth noting though that the cropping on Oh and Davey Johnson is pretty similar to Topps’s standard cropping. And that third card of Hisao Niura tying his shoes has enough foreground space to give the text plenty of room to be legible.

Toppswise I skipped 1969 since it’s such a photographic nightmare that I don’t feel like it’s a fair to look at the photos. (Offhand though it’s interesting to note that it tends to crop the photos tighter at the bottom than 1967’s or 1957’s designs do.) 1980 is close, super close, to being included but it still feels like more of a corner-based design. Which brings us to 1988.

Not much to note with 1988 except for the layering of the player on top of the team name which is on top of the background. This is a wonderfully subtle bit of design that allows the photos to feel like they’re cropped similarly to the rest of Topps’s cards. Instead of getting more image area the layering doesn’t affect the image too much.

1991 brought us Stadium Club and the beginning of the full-bleed era of cards. Looking at this first set shows both that Topps was being pretty considerate with its cropping and how things would start to break.

Where earlier sets had the benefit of posed photos which could be cropped, as action photography began to be the priority for card companies the room for cropping started to decrease. For every card like Kent Anderson where there’s enough room for the graphics there’s a card like Damon Berryhill where the graphic is starting to intrude into the image.

1992 Stadium Club shows an alternative to just slapping a graphic on the bottom of the card. That Topps moves the graphic depending on where it best fits the photo is fantastic.

It’s also a lot of work since it requires each card to be designed individually. Instead of positioning an image into a template, this design requires the image and graphic to be adjusted until they work together. Find the best cropping, then adjust the graphic. This extra amount of work is probably why this approach hasn’t really been revisited since 1992.

By 1993 the standard operating procedure had been set. This design captures the way most sets ever since have been designed. A basic template, drop the picture in. Don’t worry if the graphic obscures an important part of the photo.

One of my pet peeves in the full-bleed era is when there’s a photo of a play at a base and the graphic obscures the actual play. The Bip Roberts is a textbook example of this. Great play at the plate except the focus of the play is obscured by the Stadium Club logo.

This is a shame since in 1993 Upper Deck showed how to do it right. The layering effect like 1988 Topps at the top allows the image to be cropped nice and tight at the top of the frame. Upper Deck though selected photos and cropped them to have empty space at the bottom.

You wouldn’t crop photos in general this way but as a background for the graphics it works perfectly. It forces the photos to be zoomed out enough that you can see the entire player and get a sense of what he’s doing within the game.

Most of the 1990s and 2000s however look like these. I could’ve pulled a bunch more sets—especially from Pacific and Upper Deck—here but they’re all kind of the same. Big foil graphics that cover up important parts of the photo. Some sort of foil stamping or transparency effect that cuts off the players’ feet.

Instead of cropping loosely like 1993 Upper Deck most of the cards in these decades feel like the photos were cropped before being placed in the graphics.

It’s easy to blame the card companies here but this is also a photography thing. Portrait photographers often find the crop after they take the photo. They use larger-format film and understand that the publication might need to crop to fit a yet-to-be-determined layout. Action photographers though get in tight and capture the best moment. This is great for the photos but not so great with baseball cards.

Baseball is a horizontal sport and there’s no reason to include dead foreground space. The only reason to include that space if you know that you’re shooting for a baseball card design that’s going to need it.

We’ll make a brief stop at 2008 though. This isn’t a transparency or overlay design but it’s doing something similar. Rather than the usual cropping at a corner of the image box, Topps placed its logo in a uvula at the top of the image box. Right where it would normally place the players’ heads.

The result? Very similar to 1967’s effect where the photos get zoomed out  a little and you see more background. The problem? These photos are already somewhat small and the change to mostly-action means that in most of them you’re just seeing more blurry crowds.

Fred Lewis is emblematic of the standard cropping. Small player image with lots of wasted space in the upper corners. That the posed photos like the Matt Cain are often bare skies at spring training locations instead of in Major League stadiums makes the added “information” there generally uninteresting.

All of this is a shame since the Tim Lincecum shows that when a selected photo is not impacted by the uvula, not only is the photo area not that small but the design can actually look pretty nice.

Okay. To contemporary cards and Topps’s recent dalliance with full bleed designs in flagship. I’m looking at 2017 here since it’s kind of the worst but 2016 to 2018 all do this. The transparency at the bottom of the cards is huge now. Yes it gets blurred out a bit but the photo information still needs to be there and as a result the cropping has to be even tighter.

As much as Topps was drifting toward in-your-face all-action shots, the actual designs of these cards sot of prevents any other kind of action. They also prioritize action that focuses in the top half of the frame. Any plays at a base gate stomped on by the design and even photos like the Chase Headley which don’t focus low in the frame are pretty much ruined too.

It’s easy to blame the TV graphics in Flagship but even Stadium Club—a set I love—has this same problem. On action photos the name/type often gets in the way of the image (compare Tim Anderson to the 1993 Upper Deck Lou Whitaker) but it’s the otherwise-wonderful wide-angle photos which fare the worst.

As the angle gets wider and the players get smaller, the odds that the text becomes intrusive increase tremendously. On Dexter Fowler’s card he’s the same size as the text and, as great as the photo is, the design of the card ruins it. Same goes with the Jose Berrios where the text is covering the entire mound and the ground fog Topps adds for contrast covers the whole playing field.

Which brings us to 2020 and a design that gets a lot of flak because it features sideways names.* What isn’t mentioned very frequently is how moving the transparency effect to the side of the card results in tremendously better photos and photo cropping.

*I don’t mind the sideways names except that I think they should’ve been rotated 180° so that when paged the horizontal cards don’t end up upside down.

All of a sudden we can see players’ feet again. Images aren’t all as in-your-face. We can have action images at second base where you can actually figure out what’s going on. Instead of cropping out the bottom of an image which a photographer has already framed, this design uses the space the photographers already provide for players to “move into.”*

*In action photography you’re generally trying to give the subject some room to move into the frame.

More importantly, it opens up the possibility for great photos that would never have worked in the previous full-bleed designs. For example, Omar Narvaez’s image is impossible to use in any design that puts transparency at the bottom of the card. Even Stadium Club. But 2020 Topps is flexible enough that it can use a wider variety of images.

I hope Topps learns some lessons from 2020 and that if we’re to see further full-bleed designs that they’ll be done in such a way so as to not get in the way of the images or to take advantage of the Transparency to give us more interesting photos.

Five sheets to the wind with 1981 Donruss

Not long again, fellow SABR Baseball Cards blogger Mark Del Franco posed three questions about the 1981 Donruss set he was paging in his binder.

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When the insider information Mark was hoping for didn’t arrive, I decided to make a day of delving deep into the Donruss checklist. Best case scenario, I’d have answers to all Mark’s questions. Worst case scenario, you’d get an article that at least brought back some of the nostalgia and fondness of the company’s debut baseball offering.

Apropos to Mark’s questions, let’s take a closer look at the cards that open the set.

Much like some of the early Bowman sets or even 1940 Play Ball, the set’s numerical checklist (cards 1-17 shown below, including both Duffy Dyer variations) includes small team runs. As already noted by Mark, cards 1-4 above are San Diego Padres and cards 5-10 are Detroit Tigers.

Were the pattern to continue throughout the set, no deep study or article would be warranted. However, the Mike Schmidt card is our first of many hints that the organization of the set is hardly as simple as your binder’s opening sheet might have suggested.

Was Schmidt’s presence simply a mistake? After all, like the Fleer set of the same year, the set did include several errors and variations. A look at the next two pages in the binder might shed some light.

Things start out simple enough: Astros, Astros, Astros, Astros, but then what’s this? Another lone Phil, this time Manny Trillo, appearing out of nowhere, before the run of Astros continues. Next up, a run of Rangers cards, a run of Blue Jays, and then…you guessed it! Another Phillie, this time Steve Carlton, pops in.

Were we forced to describe the structure of the set based only on what we’ve seen so far, I suppose the description would go something like this: groupings of 4-6 teammates, punctuated by the occasionally lone Phil.

This schematic of the set’s first hundred cards (excluding variations) illustrates that our description continues to hold, at least mostly, well past the cards we’ve seen so far. The only deviation comes from our lone Phils ultimately giving way to lone Braves.

The schematic also shows us that the placement of the lone Phils/Braves cards is not random. Geometrically, they form a perfect diagonal down the grid, meaning numerically they differ by exactly eleven. Specifically the cards are numbered 11, 22, 33, 44, 55, 66, 77, 88, and 99.

You might wonder if the numeric pattern extends further down the checklist. It does, at least sort of, but not for long. The next number in the pattern, 110, does correspond to a player all by himself, amidst a larger Yankees run. However, he’s an Oakland A’s player rather than a Phillie or a Brave.

Phillies? Braves? A’s? What does it matter, as long as these loners keep popping up every eleven cards. That’s the real pattern we care about, right? Well, I have bad news. Card 121 in the set, Dave Cash, is hardly a loner but instead the leader of a run of four Padres. Drat!

Are we done then? Not a chance! Inserted between a run of Tigers and Pirates is card 131, Pete Rose, another lone Phil! Then at 142, eleven cards later, Larry Bowa, another lone Phil! Card 153? Another lone Phil—

Does the pattern continue even further? As the signs used to say at Veteran’s stadium in 1980, DEL-IVERS! Card 164 is another lone Phil, Del Unser! Poppycock, you say? I think you mean Bull! Yes, Greg Luzinski does keep the Phillies solo parade going with card 175.

The loners continue every eleven cards like clockwork (if clocks had eleven numbers), just not with Phillies. As before, the team run interrupter baton is passed to Atlanta before (again!) having an Oakland player crash the party.

  • 186 – Brian Asselstine (Braves)
  • 197 – Rick Camp (Braves)
  • 208 – Bruce Benedict (Braves)
  • 219 – Chris Chambliss (Braves)
  • 230 – Jeff Cox (A’s)

I wish I could say card 241 was another lone Phil or Brave or even Athletic, but I can’t—as before, the Oakland A’s player proved a harbinger of discontinuity. All we get at card 241 is Gene Tenace (first sheet, second card) initiating a run of four Padres.

Well talk about deja vu all over again! Again, Pete Rose restarts the pattern of lone Phils, this time with his second card in the set, number 251. (Recall Donruss included multiple cards of many top stars in 1981.)

Do a host of lone Phillies again follow the Hit King at intervals of eleven? You bet!

  • 262 – Bob Boone (Phillies)
  • 273 – Tug McGraw (Phillies)
  • 284 – Sparky Lyle (Phillies)
  • 295 – Lonnie Smith (Phillies)

And if you guessed some Braves would come after that, you are on a roll!

  • 306 – Gary Matthews (Braves)
  • 317 – Rick Matula (Braves)
  • 328 – Phil Niekro (Braves)
  • 339 – Jerry Royster (Braves)

And if you’ve really been paying attention, you can probably guess the next two things that will happen. (Bonus points if you can guess the next three!)

  1. Yes, an Oakland A’s player shows up at 350.
  2. Yes, nothing special happens at 361. We just get Bill Fahey kicking off a four-card run of Padres (first sheet, third card below).

“But what’s number three,” you ask!

It’s Pete Rose once again, with his third card in the set (371), serving as Grand Marshal of the solo parade:

  • 382 – Keith Moreland (Phillies)
  • 393 – Bob Walk (Phillies)
  • 404 – Bake McBride (Phillies)
  • 415 – Dallas Green (Phillies)
  • 426 – Bobby Cox (Braves)
  • 437 – Dale Murphy (Braves)
  • 448 – Doyle Alexander (Braves)
  • 459 – Glenn Hubbard (Braves)
  • 480 – Mike Davis (A’s)

We’ve now made it through 80% of the set, ignoring the five unnumbered checklists, and we have seen a remarkably consistent if not perfect pattern all the way through. You may think you know the ending then: more of the same. Unfortunately (unless you like chaos), things get much more complicated in our final 20%, so much so that I’ll pause here and “solve the riddle” before unleashing the cacophony of the set’s final 100+ cards.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. In our case, that picture is an uncut sheet of the first 121 cards (sort of) in the set. (Like Topps at that time, the Donruss set used 11 x 11 printing sheets.)

Read from left to right and the sequencing appears random, but read top to bottom and you see that the sheet in fact runs in numerical order. Head down the first column and we have cards 1-11: our four Padres, six Tigers, and Mike Schmidt. Head down the next column and we see the run of Pirates and the start of an Astros run, interrupted briefly by Manny Trillo of the Phillies.

As for those darn Phils and Braves, we now see that they too are part of consecutive team runs, only horizontally rather than vertically down the sheet. But what about Mickey Klutts, or for that matter any of the A’s streak-breakers who seemingly crashed the parties solo? Mickey isn’t so much alone but simply nudged aside one slot by the first unnumbered checklist in the set. (That checklist is why I said the sheet “sort of” showed the set’s first 121 cards. From a numbering perspective, you are really seeing 1-120 plus an unnumbered card.) Swap Mickey with the checklist, and he’d fit right in with a nice vertical strip of A’s teammates.

The second uncut sheet in the set (cards 121-240 plus another unnumbered checklist) follows EXACTLY the same pattern, right down to the A’s player nudged by the sheet’s checklist.

Ditto for the third sheet, featuring cards 241-360 and the third unnumbered checklist.

And finally, sheet four, featuring cards 361-480 and the fourth unnumbered checklist.

While these sheets don’t answer every question about the set’s quirky checklist, they do provide a nice visual context for not only the patterns but the breaks in the patterns previously noted.

  • The “every eleven” patterns of lone Phils, Braves, and sometimes A’s corresponded exactly to the bottom rows of each sheet.
  • The breaks in our “every eleven” patterns (cards 121, 241, 361) were caused by the insertion of an unnumbered checklist at the end of each sheet.
  • As for Pete and Re-Pete (sorry, wrong brand!) and Re-Re-Pete re-starting the pattern each time, his (honorific?) spot in the bottom left corner of sheets 2, 3, and 4 are what make it work. (For what it’s worth, the first sheet also had a Phils great, Mike Schmidt, in the lower left corner.)

With the sheets in front of us, we can add two more observations to our list.

  1. The order of the teams on each sheet is identical: Padres, Tigers, Pirates, Astros, Rangers, Blue Jays, Mets, White Sox, Mariners, Angels, Dodgers, Reds, Cardinals, Giants, Indians, Brewers, Expos, Red Sox, Royals, Yankees, Orioles, and A’s (with Phils and Braves along the bottom).
  2. Two teams are nowhere to be found: Cubs and Twins.

Now that you know just about everything about the set’s first 480 (or 484 counting checklists) cards, we are ready for the final sheet. Just be sure you’re sitting down…or standing on your head.

Again, we have a Phillies great, Mike Schmidt, in the lower left hand corner and a checklist in the lower right. Next, notice…oh gosh, you’re not gonna let me do this to you, are you? Okay, fine, let’s try this again.

As promised, chaos. But not total chaos. I’ll illustrate the order by using thick red borders to identify contiguous team groupings (horizontal or vertical) and use big black “T” markings to identify cards like these.

A hallmark of the 1981 Donruss set is the subset of cards where player uniforms mismatch their team names. While Topps would have gotten out the airbrushes, Donruss left player photos intact, using only the team designation to reflect updates. If we include these players with their former (uniform) teams, we end up with twelve mini-team runs. Not surprisingly, half are Cubs and half are Twins.

The fact that Donruss placed all 17 of the “T” cards on the final sheet surprised me at first but perhaps isn’t surprising at all. I’ll illustrate this with two examples.

Ron LeFlore, photographed as an Expo, was granted free agency on October 28, 1980, but not signed by the White Sox until November 26. If we assume Donruss was in the homestretch of card-making for most players come November, then it makes sense that LeFlore would be moved to the back of the line while his team status was in limbo. (Note LeFlore’s bio opens with his signing by the Sox.)

On the other hand, what about Larry Milbourne, who was traded from the Mariners to the Yankees on November 18? While his team status changed, there was no prolonged limbo period attached. I can’t say what happened for sure, but there are a couple possibilities that seem viable.

  1. Donruss had already completed Milbourne’s Mariners card prior to the trade and then bumped him to the back of the line for correction once the trade took place.
  2. Donruss was aware of the trade when Milbourne’s card was being worked on, but they had not yet reached a decision on how to handle team changes. Would they ignore them? Would they go the airbrushing route? Would they race to Spring Training for a new photo? Or would they simply update the team name while leaving everything else the same? Again, back of the line makes sense pending a design decision.

You’ll notice the sheet has several other special cards not yet mentioned: a “Best Hitters” card featuring George Brett and Rod Carew, two MVP cards (Brett/Schmidt), and two Cy Young Award cards (Stone/Carlton).

We can add all of these cards to the “seems logical to have them here” pile, and we end up with 63 cards on the final sheet making sense. There may be a story to the remaining 58 (e.g., other pending free agents who stayed with their prior teams, rookies identified late in the process), but most are probably players who simply didn’t fit on the first four sheets.

To illustrate that there really are cards in this last category, consider Steve Howe (card 511). He was the reigning National League Rookie of the Year and had completely unambiguous team status as a Dodger. As such, Howe would have been an absolute lock for the set from the beginning but was nonetheless part of this final sheet.

UPDATE: From Keith Olbermann…

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I’m not sure my work here directly answers any of Mark’s original questions. At best I can say Ozzie Smith has card #1 because he is a Padre and the Padres lead off every sheet. Still, why Ozzie as opposed to other Padres, including bigger stars like Dave Winfield and Rollie Fingers? And why are the Padres with their last place finish in the top spot at all?

About all I can do is (maybe) add some rationale for the organization of the set into mini-team runs as opposed to complete team runs such as Fleer used that same year. I’ll start with a wrong answer but one that in some small way may inform a right answer.

At the very beginning of this article I mentioned the use of mini-team runs in 1940 Play Ball. For example, the New York Giants cards in this set occur at numbers 83-93, 154-159, 209-215. (There are also some “retired greats” cards at other checklist locations, but I’ll keep my focus on the active roster.) The Play Ball set was released in series, meaning had all 24 Giants cards been together on the checklist (e.g., cards 1-24), one series would have been jam-packed with Giants while the remaining series would have had none at all.

Of course 1981 Donruss was not released in series. All 605 cards came out all at once. As such, nothing terrible would have happened if the Padres simply opened the set with cards 1-18 rather than 1-4, 121-124, 241-244, 361-364, 525, and 595. On the other hand, let’s say that Donruss lacked whatever machinery Topps had in place for randomizing and collating cards into packs and boxes, something their past experience with non-baseball sets might have made clear to them going into the enterprise. If we assume that cards from the same sheet would have had a much higher than chance probability of going into the same packs, it’s easy to see that sheets with complete rosters would lead to collation issues more evident to consumers than sheets covering 24 different teams.

Personally, my own pack opening experience with 1981 Donruss (some as recently as last year) was that I still managed to open a great many packs with runs of 10-12 of the 18 cards spread across only two teams (e.g., Expos/Red Sox only). While this undoubtedly reflects poor collation, the fact is it could have been even worse. Had Donruss grouped entire team rosters together, those same packs might have yielded all Expos or all Red Sox.

Perhaps to address collation issues, the next year Donruss not only moved away from team runs entirely but also made several updates to their uncut sheets.

Among the other changes identifiable on this 1982 Donruss sheet are—

  • New size of 11 x 12 (132 cards), with five sheets again building the complete set, this time of 5 x 132 = 660 cards.
  • Change from vertical to horizontal sequencing of cards. For example, the top row run of Cal Ripken to Ray Burris covers cards 407-417 consecutively.
  • Insertion of Diamond Kings every 26th card.
  • Sheets covering a more complicated range of numbers. For example, the first six rows of the sheet shown (excluding Diamond Kings) cover cards 405-467 consecutively while the next six rows cover cards 279-341. (If you must know, the six Diamond Kings on the sheet are 16-18 followed by 11-13.)

Rather than go down the rabbit hole of 1982 any deeper, I’ll just close with some fond recollections of the 1981 set, some foggy and some vivid. I was 11 when the set came out, a perfect age for believing cardboard was magic while also being old enough to have more than a few cents in my pocket. We won’t talk about where the money came from, but I somehow “found” enough to ride my bike to 7-Eleven just about every day from March to October, often more than once.

I didn’t think in terms of monopolies and competition back then. In my world, more cards was a good thing, case closed. There was a lot for a kid to like about 1981 Donruss. More cards per pack, for one thing, and super colorful cards for another. Yes, there were plenty of errors, but boy were they fun to discover.

We had no internet back then to look this stuff up. (There were hobby mags, but I didn’t have subscribe yet.) It was just kids comparing notes at school: Steve Rodgers with a “d,” that’s not right! And then imagine the thrill of pulling a Rogers (no d) later that same year! Of course, some of the errors were funny too, like Bobby Bonds and his 986 home runs (giving father and son 1748 homers combined, by the way)!

Most of all though, I loved that some of my favorite players had extra cards in the set for no reason. Sure Topps might give a guy two cards if he was a Record Breaker, but here was Donruss with two Steve Garvey cards just because. Ditto Yaz. Tritto Pete Rose.

How about you? If you were a kid in 1981 what memories do you have of the set? And as you look back on it today, do you love it any more or any less?

Donruss Diamond Kings breakdown

The quarantine has allowed me to spend more times with my card collection. And that leads to ridiculous ideas such as a deep dive into Donruss Diamond Kings. I took all of the Diamond Kings from sets in 1982 (the first Diamond Kings) through 1991 (the last year they were part of the base set before becoming an insert set in 1992). I considered ignoring the 1991 Diamond Kings since they started doing full-body action shots (hated that) rather than strictly headshots (which I like much more), but in the end I included them. I examined the Diamond King selections using the stats from the prior season, so for example 1984 Diamond Kings will be judged by their 1983 stats, etc.

Of course, this isn’t perfect since Donruss avoided selecting the same players in consecutive years, and they also had a few examples of “lifetime achievement” selections. I only used the Diamond Kings at the beginning of the sets (the cards numbered 1-26 in every Donruss set from 1982-91) and did NOT include examples such as the standalone “King of Kings” cards such as Pete Rose’s #653 in the 1986 set or Nolan Ryan’s  #665 in the 1990 set. So with all of this being said, here’s more than you ever wanted to know about the Donruss Diamond Kings run from 1982-91!

In all, there were 260 Diamond King cards, one per team, 26 teams for 10 years. There were 232 different players, which means there were 28 players who had repeat performances. But none with more than two.

Diamond King highlights & nuggets by year

1982

Pete Rose is card #1 – technically the first Diamond King. He also appeared in 1986 as a “King of Kings” – card 653 –  but I’m not counting it in this project. Pete looks great in the helmet. On average, there were about 2 or 3 helmet cards per 26-card Diamond King set.

Ivan De Jesus was a 1982 Diamond King after hitting .194 the season prior. It’s the worst batting average of any position player DK.

Carlton Fisk looks particularly amazing in the 1976-81 White Sox collared uni.

There were four position players to be a Diamond King after a season where they hit no home runs. Three of them were 1982 Diamond Kings – Pete Rose, Ozzie Smith & Ivan De Jesus. The other one was Ozzie Smith again (1987).

1983

1982 & 1983 Diamond Kings are almost identical on the front. There was some blue printing on the back of the 1982s, only black on the 1983s.

Rollie Fingers has arguably the best mustache of any Diamond King. That’s two great Brewers in a row (Gorman Thomas in 1982 was awesome).

Willie Stargell’s card is maybe the most perfect Diamond King card ever made. Great looking headshot (with the Pirates pillbox cap), but the subtle row of Stargell’s Stars in the background are a nice touch.

The SOX on Britt Burns’ cap looks a little off, but the warmup jacket looks amazing. There weren’t many pitchers pictured in warmup jackets, but this is the best one.

1982 & 1983 both boast 10 Hall of Famers. Most of any 26-card DK set from 1982-91.

11 of the 26 Diamond Kings were pitchers – the most of any DK set from 1982-91. In 1984 & 1988, there were only five pitchers.

1984

This is the only Diamond King set (1982-91) without the traditional “Diamond Kings” gold ribbon across the top. Instead, there’s decorative bunting along the top of the card. Also, the mini action shot is in a rectangular frame, which is also exclusive to 1984.

There are three bespectacled Diamond Kings in 1984. Ron Kittle, Leon Durham & Andre Thornton. In the other 9 DK sets from 1982-91, there are three players with eyewear combined.

Four 1984 Diamond Kings are pictured with batting helmets. Along with 1987, that’s the most of any of the ten DK sets featured here.

Wade Boggs had the highest batting average (.361) leading to his Diamond King selection (among position players).

1985

Don Sutton’s action shot is engulfed by his large poof of gray hair, which is amusing.

Alvin Davis is one of THREE Mariners Diamond Kings following their rookie year. Matt Young (1984) & Ken Griffey Jr. (1990) are the others.

DK DETOUR: Diamond Kings as a rookie

  • Mariners: Matt Young (1984), Alvin Davis (1985) & Ken Griffey Jr. (1990)
  • A’s: Jose Canseco (1987) & Mark McGwire (1988)
  • Angels: Wally Joyner (1987) & Devon White (1988)
  • Others: Benny Santiago (1988), Chris Sabo (1989), Delino DeShields (1991), Mark Grace (1989), Ron Kittle (1984), Kent Hrbek (1983), Juan Samuel (1985) & Sandy Alomar Jr. (1991).

1985 (CONT’D)

Rich Dotson (4.3 WAR) had the highest WAR of any White Sox Diamond King season. The collective 28.0 WAR by White Sox Diamond Kings from 1982-91 was lowest of any team. Cubs were second lowest at 28.2.

DK Detour: Lowest WAR by by team (1982-91)

  • White Sox (28.0) – highest contribution was a 4.3 WAR season by Richard Dotson (1985). Three seasons of 1.9 (Ron Kittle 1984, Britt Burns 1983 & Greg Walker 1987)
  • Cubs (28.2) – dragged down by the two worst WAR seasons of all 260 cards
  • Braves (32.5) – a season of 0.2 by Gerald Perry (1989) and a 1.2 by Phil Niekro (1982) don’t help.

1985 (CONT’D)

Of all the Diamond King years from 1982-91, 1985 had the best combined WAR of 116.8. That total (remember, it’s stats from the season before – in this case 1984) was led by Cal Ripken’s 10.0, Ryne Sandberg’s 8.6 & Bert Blyleven’s 7.2.

DK DETOUR: Combined WAR by year (26 Diamond Kings totaled)

  • 1982        63.1 (1981 was strike year)
  • 1983      106.7
  • 1984        81.3
  • 1985      116.8
  • 1986        95.0
  • 1987      110.0
  • 1988      111.6
  • 1989      96.8
  • 1990     101.1
  • 1991      114.6

Diamond Kings with the highest & lowest WAR by year (remember, the stats are from the year prior). Everything here is using baseball-reference WAR, by the way.

1986

Jerry Koosman is one of two players (along with Willie Stargell in 1983) to be a Diamond King following his last career MLB season. Koosman’s 4.62 ERA is the highest of any Diamond King pitcher, though it’s more of a lifetime achievement selection.

Dwight Gooden’s 13.3 WAR is the highest of any Diamond King during the 1982-91 run.

1987

The first year of repeat Diamond Kings. From 1982-86 there were 130 Diamond Kings (just counting cards 1-26), all different players. Dale Murphy, Dave Winfield, Fred Lynn, George Brett, Jack Morris & Ozzie Smith are the first two-time Diamond Kings. By the way, in all, from 1982-91 there are 28 two-time Diamond Kings; 17 of them with the same team, 11 with two different teams.

Same team (17)

  • Dave Winfield, Yankees, 1982 & 1987
  • George Brett, Royals, 1982 & 1987
  • Dwight Evans, Red Sox, 1982 & 1988
  • Alan Trammell, Tigers, 1982 & 1988
  • Carlton Fisk, White Sox, 1982 & 1989
  • Jack Morris, Tigers, 1983 & 1987
  • Dale Murphy, Braves, 1983 & 1987
  • Dave Stieb, Blue Jays, 1983 & 1991
  • Robin Yount, Brewers, 1984 & 1989
  • Dave Righetti, Yankees, 1984 & 1991
  • Cal Ripken Jr., Orioles, 1985 & 1988
  • Don Mattingly, Yankees, 1985 & 1989
  • Frank Viola, Twins, 1985 & 1989
  • Tony Gwynn, Padres, 1985 & 1989
  • Lou Whitaker, Tigers, 1985 & 1990
  • Ryne Sandberg, Cubs, 1985 & 1991
  • Roger Clemens, Red Sox, 1987 & 1991

Two different teams (11)

  • Dave Parker, Pirates 1982, Brewers 1991
  • Ozzie Smith, Padres 1982, Cardinals 1987
  • Fred Lynn, Angels 1984, Orioles 1987
  • Jack Clark, Giants 1984, Cardinals 1988
  • Pedro Guerrero, Dodgers 1984, Cardinals 1991
  • Andre Dawson, Expos 1986, Cubs 1988
  • Kirk Gibson, Tigers 1986, Dodgers 1989
  • Johnny Ray, Pirates 1986, Angels 1989
  • Willie Randolph, Yankees 1986, Dodgers 1990
  • Steve Sax, Dodgers 1987, Yankees 1990
  • Bob Welch, Dodgers 1988, A’s 1991

1987 (CONT’D)

Keith Moreland (-1.7) is the lowest WAR of any Diamond King. The second lowest season WAR by a Diamond King from 1982-91 is also a Cub (Ivan De Jesus, 1982, -1.3).

1987 is the least mustachioed group of Diamond Kings (7 of 26 players; 8 if you count Hubie Brooks, who’s questionable).

1988

The “Bash Brothers” are Diamond Kings following their rookie years in both 1987 (Jose Canseco) & 1988 (Mark McGwire).

Danny Tartabull has the odd distinction of being a two-time Rated Rookie (1985 and 1986) and a Diamond King (1988). Same with Sandy Alomar Jr. (1989 and 1990 Rated Rookie, 1991 Diamond King). The pattern in the background of Tartabull’s card reminds me of a Mondrean-esque grid. I like it.

Here are all the players to be Rated Rookies and Diamond Kings within the span of 1982-91:

DK DETOUR: Rated Rookies who were also Diamond Kings (DK year in parentheses)

  • 1984: Tony Fernandez (1988), Ron Darling (1988), Kevin McReynolds (1987)
  • 1985: Danny Tartabull (1988), Mike Bielecki (1990), Billy Hatcher (1988)
  • 1986: Kal Daniels (1988), Fred McGriff (1989), Cory Snyder (1989), Andres Galarraga (1989), Danny Tartabull (1988), Jose Canseco (1987)
  • 1987: Benito Santiago (1988), Bo Jackson (1990), Rafael Palmeiro (1991), Devon White (1988), Mark McGwire (1988)
  • 1988: Roberto Alomar (1991), Mark Grace (1989)
  • 1989: Sandy Alomar Jr. (1991), Ken Griffey Jr. (1990), Gregg Olson (1991)
  • 1990: Sandy Alomar Jr. (1991), Delino DeShields (1991)

1988 (CONT’D)

If you glance at Paul Molitor’s card, the pattern in the background makes it look like he’s wearing a cowboy hat.

Ivan Calderon’s card is missing his signature gold chains.

Tommy John is the oldest Diamond King – following his age 44 season.

1989

The most mustachioed set of Diamond Kings (18 of 26 players).

With the skyline and baseball laces, the background design of David Cone’s card looks like the Mets logo.

Chris Sabo is the only Diamond King to wear goggles.

Dave Henderson is the second A’s Henderson to be a Diamond King (Rickey Henderson 1983).

Speaking of Daves, 11 different Daves were Diamond Kings from 1982-91. Concepcion, Dravecky, Henderson, Kingman, Magadan, Parker, Righetti, Schmidt, Stewart, Stieb &Winfield. And that’s NOT counting David Cone or Davey Lopes!

1990

This DK set had Bo & Junior but is the most underwhelming lineup of the bunch. Only two Hall of Famers. Ken Griffey Jr. is the youngest Diamond King (following his age 19 season).

Steve Sax has a card that looks like somebody dropped pick-up sticks in the background.

Dave Stewart rocking a sweet jacket.

Ellis Burks has a sweet background. Multi colored splashes of color. Looks great.

Pete O’Brien looks like he exploded onto the scene.

Mike Bielecki is the only Cubs pitcher to be a Diamond King (1982-91). The Angels (Chuck Finley in 1991) are the only other team with just a lone pitcher over the ten-year run. The Astros, Brewers, Dodgers, Mets, Orioles, Phillies & Yankees had pitchers four out of ten years.

1991

1991 changed format; no more small action shots along with large headshots. Some were full body action shots. Gone were the patterns in the background. I’m not a fan of the break from tradition. At least they were in the base set.

The first (and only through 1991) Diamond King appearance by Barry Bonds.

Cecil Fielder is the only player to be a Diamond King following a 50+ HR season.

Craig Biggio was the first full-size headshot in a catcher’s mask (some of the smaller action shots had featured catchers in gear). Sandy Alomar Jr. & Brian Harper were in catcher’s gear as well.

For the first time, players without hats/helmets!  Dave Parker & Pedro Guerrero both show off their heads of hair.

Roger Clemens led the way with 10.4 WAR. Red Sox Diamond Kings (1982-91) had the highest collective WAR of any team.

DK DETOUR: HIGHEST WAR BY BY TEAM (1982-91)

  • Red Sox (54.4) – including seasons by Roger Clemens of 10.4 (1991) and 8.8 (1987), 7.8 by Wade Boggs (1984) & 7.5 by Mike Greenwell (1989).
  • Tigers (48.4) – led by a season of 8.2 by Alan Trammell (1988) and 6.5 by Cecil Fielder (1991).
  • Dodgers (47.1) – led by Bob Welch’s 7.4 (1988), Kirk Gibson’s 6.5 (1989) and Orel Hershiser’s 6.3 (1986).

A few more observations

In 1992, Diamond Kings were taken from the base set and turned into an insert set. Whereas the previous Diamond King sets (well, not exactly 1982-84) had the card design border, these new inserts were borderless. It just wasn’t the same anymore. And in my opinion, the heyday of the Diamond King was over. But I hope you enjoyed going back in time with me and giving a fresh look at some really great cards.

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Cards and Autographing

I like collecting autographs. In those years in the early 1990s when the hobby exploded and the number of available sets to purchase had jumped from three to at least seventeen, one of the things that kept me sane was collecting autographs.*

*I prospected at college games. Pursued minor league coaches and managers. Went to Spring Training. Hung over the rail at Candlestick. Sent out some through the mail requests. Hit a couple card shows.

In many ways my card collecting hobby transformed into a way for me to be able to pull a card of any player at any time. No this was not efficient, but in those pre-internet days it was better than betting on my local shop having a card of the player I was planning to get. Having a couple years of complete Topps sets was a great way to be sure I had cards of almost everyone who played in the majors.

Getting into autographs also meant that I had to make a decision about hobby orthodoxy. In those early 1990s there were a lot of rules. Rules about what cards to collect.* Rules about how to store them.** And rules about what condition to keep them in. Chief among the condition rules was that writing on a card was bad even if it was an autograph.

*Prospects, Rookies, Errors, and inserts.

**Rubber bands out. Binders OK. Toploaders better. Screwdown cases best.

It didn’t take me long to decide that rule was stupid but it’s also part of a larger debate that we still have in the hobby. For a lot of collectors, writing on a card does indeed ruin it. Even if it’s an autograph. For others like me, there are many cards which are enhanced by getting them signed. That there’s no one way of collecting is great but it feels like the autograph divide is one where neither group understands the other.

The appeal of cards as an autograph medium is pretty simple since it piggybacks on the same appeal as baseball cards themselves. They’re mass-produced photographs so they’re usually both the cheapest and easiest thing to find. They label who the subject is and have information about him on the back. They’re small enough to carry in a pocket or send through the mail in a regular envelope. And after they’re signed they’re easily stored and displayed.

But that doesn’t mean that just any card will do for an autograph. One of the fun things about talking autographs with other collectors is discussing what kinds of cards and designs we prefer to get signed.

First off, things we want to avoid. It’s inevitable that you’ll get cards where a player has signed on his face. Cards are small and there’s almost always a time crunch. Avoiding closely-cropped portraits and picking a card that doesn’t encourage face signing is an important factor to keep in mind.

Dark backgrounds are also dangerous. Especially if you’re sending a card out through the mail or otherwise can’t control the pen being used. When I was a kid my hands were tied because silver sharpies didn’t exist and I was limited in my card options. Now though I just assume that the dark backgrounds won’t work.

What I did end up liking? Simple photo-centric designs with the bare minimum of design elements. A name. A team. A border. Nothing else. These designs often underwhelmed me as cards* but I found that I really enjoyed them signed.

*As my photo and print literacy has improved I found myself appreciating the photos and design in many of these sets.

In many ways I got into the hobby at exactly the right time as the early 1990s were a heyday for these kind of designs. 1989–1993 Upper Deck and 1988–1993 (except 1990) Topps in particular were tailor-made for my autograph preferences and are still sets I return to when I can.

The rise of full-bleed photos also occurred during this time. I was scared of gloss as a kid but have started looking for these designs whenever I can now. They’re an even more extreme point in my “simple photo-centric design” preference but the key for me is that I like the ones which adhere to the simplicity.

A lot of the full-bleed designs are anything but simple with crazy graphics and other stuff going on. But the ones where the designs are essentially just typography? Beautiful. In the same way that many of the guys who don’t like signed cards prefer signed 8×10s, these function more as signed photos than anything else.

To be clear, I’m not against more colorful designs. They just require me to think extra hard about the way things will look. In addition to considering how the autograph will work with the image there’s the additional concern about how it will interact with the design.

These cases usually result in an autograph which isn’t as pronounced but ideally still combine a bright colorful design and a nicely signed image into a pleasant and presentable result.

With these less-simple designs there’s the possibility for the wonderful occurrence when everything works together perfectly and results in an even stronger look. Would these look better just as photos? Maybe. But for me the complete package of a strong design and a perfect signature/photo combination is something I especially enjoy.

And sometimes the point isn’t how things will look but just about getting a specific photo signed because it’s funny, important, or both. These are the requests I enjoy most because I can talk about the specific photo being one of my favorites and why I chose this specific card to get signed.

The key for me is to be as intentional as possible with my card choices. An important season. A specific team. A nice photo. A special event. A favorite design. Or just something silly like a picture of a player milking a cow.

If They Can Make it There

I am currently curating an exhibition at Queens College, in Flushing, which will be on display throughout February and March. While I don’t yet have a title for my little experiment (the show marks the first time I have ever done such a thing), the theme of the event centers on the history of baseball in New York City, from its inception to the present day, told through art and artifacts. I am indebted to a number of individuals who are either loaning me pieces from their private collections, or are submitting original work to help me craft the story I am trying to tell.

The gorgeous artwork of Jesse Loving at Ars Longa

Of course, baseball cards are a part of the event. I have long known that I wanted Jesse Loving, creator of the beautiful Ars Longa cards, to be a part of this. Although he had gone on a bit of a hiatus, he kindly agreed to fire up the engines again and is providing me with roughly 80 cards that cover the game in the Big Apple from William Wheaton and Doc Adams, to Rube Marquard and Casey Stengel, a span of roughly eighty years. I am giddy at the idea of creating a wall of his lush, vibrant images, and eagerly await the arrival of the package.

With one or two exceptions, I was intending for Jesse’s work to be the only cards in the show. There are lots of ways to tell the history of the game that have nothing to do with our favorite hobby and I wanted the beautiful creations of Ars Longa to exist in a vacuum. Then, I learned last week that one of the individuals who was contributing some truly exciting pieces from the 19th Century had decided to withdraw from the exhibition. I had to come up with something to fill the holes on the walls of the gallery left by his exit.

I am not a fine artist, nor do I have a particularly extensive collection of artifacts and memorabilia laying about. So, what to do? While the pieces I lost were from the 19th Century, I actually have some of Jesse’s cards, as well as uniforms and equipment loaned to me by Eric Miklich, that are already assisting me in telling that part of the story. I also have quite a few items that represent the Golden Age of baseball in New York, the halcyon days of Willie, Mickey, and the Duke. What the show was really lacking was a nod to the more modern incarnation of the game. The best way for me to benefit my show, and fill the unexpected void, was to focus on that gap.

That’s when it struck me that, while I don’t really have a lot of personal memorabilia at hand, there was a way I could tackle my problem at very little expense. Any exhibit on the history of New York City, (especially one taking place in the most ethnically diverse borough, on a campus that hears over 110 languages spoken every single day) needs to explore the beautiful multiculturalism that makes this City what it is. That was when I came up with my plan, a work I am calling, “If They Can Make it There.”

In the long history of professional baseball, there have been men who were born in over fifty countries besides the United States that have made the incredible and unlikely journey to the Major Leagues. While the Dominican Republic and Venezuela have provided an outsized portion of these ballplayers, countries as far-flung as Belize, the Czech Republic and Australia have also chipped in. Many of those foreign-born athletes got their professional starts in New York City. In fact, twenty-one different countries, not counting the U.S. and its territories, have generated players who made their Major League debut with the Yankees or the Mets. My plan to fill in my unexpected vacancy is to honor these men, and what better way to do it than through the beauty of baseball cards.

I am putting together a collection of these itinerant dreamers which will feature each of them in the uniform of either the Yankees or the Mets. Why just those teams and not also the Giants, Dodgers, and the multiple early squads? Two reasons. The first I already mentioned. The goal was to try and examine the impact of the game in the present day. By focusing on just the Yankees and Mets, it reinforces that point by design. The other reason is economics. Now, I can complete this set, mostly, with inexpensive cards from the last thirty or forty years.

Beyond the player appearing in a New York uniform, I decided to lay down a few other guidelines to make this creation have a little more form, and not just be a random mishmash of cards thrown up on the wall. First of all, no reprints. While the exhibition will feature some reproductions (uniforms, mostly), I have been trying to limit their influence all along. No need to further water down this project by including “fake” versions of the cards. Besides, very few of the cards I needed were particularly valuable, so why resort to knock-offs? I also wanted, if at all possible, for the card to have been issued at the time the player was employed by that team.

Jim Cockman’s .105 average may explain why the 1905 season was his lone chance at the big leagues.

This is not always feasible. A number of players who fit this criteria, including cups of coffee like Jim Cockman (born in Canada) and Harry Kingman (China), both of whom made brief appearances with the Yankees years before Jacob Ruppert signed Babe Ruth, never had any card issued, nonetheless one of them wearing the proper uniform. There are even holes for more durable players from recent years, like Stan Javier (Dominican Republic), who enjoyed a seventeen-year career that ended in 2001. During his first big league season, in 1984, he appeared in seven early-season games for the Yankees before being shipped back to Nashville and Columbus for more seasoning. He would later appear on the roster of seven other major league teams, but he never played another game for the Yankees. The Trading Card Database claims he has 289 cards out there, but none of them were issued in 1984 or ’85 featuring Javier in pinstripes.

There are missing pieces of the puzzle for the Mets, too. Utility man José Moreno (Dominican Republic) and shortstop Brian Ostrosser (Canada) never got a card of themselves in blue and orange, at least not while actively playing for the team. I have decided that in their cases, as well as that of Javier, to bend the rules and use one of the cards that came with the sets issued by the NYC-based appliance retailer, The Wiz, in the early nineties. While most of the hundreds who appear in this ubiquitous set were no longer active members of the roster at the time the cards were issued, at least they are dressed properly. I am also considering getting an Aceo Art card of Frank Estrada (Mexico), whose two lifetime plate appearances were insufficient to ever make Topps take notice.

The sets issued by The Wiz were originally released in 15-card sheets.

Most of the collection, though, will be the real deal. There are cards from almost all of the big name publishers of the modern era, including Topps, Bowman, Fleer and Donruss. There will be plenty of Junk Era wax, as well as the slick chromes that have come to represent the current state of the industry. The bulk of the exhibit will include roughly 130 cards (purchased via COMC or already in my collection) that cost me a combined total of $45.76. Most exciting to me, however, is that there will be a small handful of pre-war cards thrown in there, too. I decided to reward my clever thriftiness by investing in some slightly pricier goodies.

Arndt Jorgens played for the Yankees his entire career, serving as Bill Dickey’s backup.

I’ve already picked up a 1934 Goudey Arndt Jorgens (Norway), a 1934-36 Diamond Stars George Selkirk (Canada), and a 1911 T205 Jimmy Austin (United Kingdom). I also have my eye on two T206s, a Jack Quinn (Slovakia) and a Russ Ford (Canada). Assuming the Ebay gods favor me and I get the latter two, they will represent the first cards I’ve owned from that hobby-defining set. These bits of old paper not only give the exhibit a little more gravitas as a whole, but when it’s all over I will have some gems to add to my personal collection.

The exhibit also gives me a chance to show off a little bit of my beloved collection of Cubans who made the leap to the majors. There have been eight Cubans who began their major league career as Yankees, most recently Amauri Sanit in 2011. The Mets have birthed the careers of four citizens of the forbidden island, the most notable of which was Rey Ordoñez. While Ordoñez was famously weak at the plate, rarely hitting more than a single home run in a season, he was a defensive mastermind at shortstop in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, when the Amazin’s had one of the most exciting infields in baseball history. His partner in the middle of the diamond, Edgardo Alfonzo (Venezuela), will also be featured.

The players mentioned here really are just the tip of the iceberg. The exhibit will also include some of the brightest stars of today, including Gleyber Torres (Venezuela) and Miguel Andujar (Dominican Republic). Ron Gardenhire (Germany) makes an appearance, as do the Mastuis (Japan), Hideki and the less-successful Kazuo. There is even one Hall of Famer who is featured, buried in the dozens of other more obscure names. The quickest among you will figure out who that is almost instantly. The rest of you, well, I guess you’ll just have to stop by the college and find out. My currently unnamed exhibition opens February 18. I hope to see you there.

The Twelve Cards of Christmas

With the festive frivolity of the holiday season upon us, I bring you a post even more frivolous than my usual lightweight offerings.  Before reading, I suggest adding a pint of rum to the eggnog-which will ensure that you forget that this blog is connected to an august body like SABR.  So, toss on another yule (Blackwell) log on the fire, grab a plate of cookies (Rojas and Lavagetto) and contemplate this ancient carol (Clay) within your decked-out halls (Jimmy and Tom).

A Partridge in a Pear Tree:  Jay Partridge was the starting second baseman for Brooklyn in 1927.  I could not locate a card from the time, but an auction site did have a small newsprint photo described as a panel.  Fortunately, Mr. Partridge has a card in the 1990 Target Dodgers set.  If you insist on a card issued while the player was active, this 1977 TCMA of Glenn Partridge falls into that “family.”

Apparently, no players with the surname Pear or Tree ever appeared in a professional game.  But Matt Pare shows up on the 2017 San Jose Giants.  I had to go the minor league route as well to find a “tree.”  Mitch Trees was a catcher for the Billings Mustangs in 2017.

Two Turtle Doves:  Spokane Indians assistant coach “Turtle” Thomas has a 2017 card, but I’m going with 1909-11 T206 “Scoops” Carry of the Memphis Turtles.  As for Doves, Dennis Dove has several prospect cards, including this 2003 Upper Deck Prospect Premiere. However, this 1909-11 American Caramel card of “Buster” Brown on the Boston Doves wins out.  After all, Buster lived in a shoe, and his dog Tike lived in there too.

Three French Hens: For this one, I must go with Jeff Katz’s acquaintance Jim French. The diminutive backstop toiled for the Senators and Rangers. Dave “Hendu” Henderson was the best hen option, outside of any Toledo Mud Hen.

Four Calling Birds:  This 1982 Larry Fritsch card of Keith Call on the Madison Muskies certainly “answers the call” for this word.  Although, Callix Crabbe is in contention based solely on the awesomeness of his name.  For the bird, I heard the call of the “royal parrotfinch” and went with longtime Royals pitcher Doug Bird.

Five Golden Rings:  It would be a cardinal sin if I didn’t go with the Cardinals’ Roy Golden on this 1912 T-207 “brown background” card. Phillies pitcher, Jimmy Ring, gets the nod with this 1921 National Carmel issue. 

Six Geese a Laying:  Since Christmas is coming and the goose is getting fat, Rich Gossage would have been a logical choice.  But I can’t pass up making Seattle Pilot Greg Goossen my fowl choice.  His 1970 card is so amazing that all I can do is “gander” at it. This 2019 card of Jose Layer on the Augusta Greenjackets is the best fit that I could lay my hands on.

Seven Swans a Swimming: After answering a personal ad in a weekly newspaper, I met my future wife for a drink at the Mirabeau Room atop the SeaFirst Building in Seattle on June 9, 1990.  That evening, Russ Swan of the Mariners carried a no-hitter into the 8th inning against Detroit.  Viewing this mound mastery sealed our lifelong bond, for which the “swan song” is yet to be sung.

I must “take a dive” into the Classic Best 1991 minor league set to find someone who fits “swimmingly.” I ended up somewhere near Salinas and found the Spurs’ Greg Swim.

Eight Maids a Milking: Since no Maids are found on “Baseball Reference” and the players named Maiden don’t have cards, I was “made” to go with Hector Made and his 2004 Bowman Heritage. 

This may qualify as “milking” it, but the best fit I could find was the all-time winningest general manager in Seattle Pilots history, Marvin Milkes.  This DYI card uses a Pilots team issued photo, which shows off the high-quality wood paneling in Marvin’s Sicks’ Stadium office.

Nine Ladies Dancing:  The 1887-90, N172 “Old Judge” card of “Lady” Baldwin and the 1996 Fritsch AAGPBL card of Faye Dancer are a perfect fit.

Ten Lords a Leaping:  This wonderful 1911 T205 Bris Lord card coupled with a 1986 Dave Leeper doesn’t require much of a leap to work.

Eleven Pipers Piping:  Former Negro Leaguer Piper Davis has a beautiful 1953 Mother’s Cookies card on the PCL Oakland Oaks.  In fact, the card is “piping” hot.

Twelve Drummers Drumming:  You can’t get much better than this 1911 Obak T212 card of Drummond Brown on the PCL Vernon Tigers.  Or, you could “bang the drum slowly” with this specialty card of Brian Pearson (Robert De Niro) from the movie “Bang the Drum Slowly.”

I realize that Santa will fill my stocking with coal and “Krampus” will punish me for having written this, but the spirit of the season will endure.  I wish you and all those you hold dear a wonderful holiday season and a prosperous new year.

Inside the Donruss Studio

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

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

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

1991 – 264 cards

1992 – 264 cards

The first set I completed.

 

1993 – 220 cards

1994 – 220 cards

1995 – 200 cards

Flashback to the 1980’s credit card sets.

1996 – 150 cards

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

1997 – 165 cards

1998 – 220 cards

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

2001 – 200 cards

Back from hiatus, more border, less picture.

2002 – 275 cards

2003 – 211 cards

This set is absolutely beautiful.

2004 – 270 cards

2005 – 300 cards

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

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

2014

2015

2016

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

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