Were the All Star FanFest Cards from 1994-2000 the Precursor for Topps Project 2020?

As a baseball card collector and enthusiast, I feel that I am living through the Renaissance era of baseball card art. My Twitter feed is filled daily with spectacular images of cards from many artists that are working with a variety of mediums to produce their own interpretations of what cards of past and present players should look like. A number of these artists are also using their artwork to support charitable causes.

There was certainly an undercurrent of fine baseball card artwork being produced long before 2020, but the Topps Project 2020 brought to the surface a tidal wave of beautiful cards from a wide variety of artists.

Was Project 2020 an original idea or was it a variation on a project from the Junk Wax era? A case can be made that Project 2020 can be linked back to the All Star FanFest Cards from 1994 to 2000.

The two projects are similar in that they have multiple artists and designers coming up with unique cards of a single player and they also share some common player subjects – Roberto Clemente (1994 – Pittsburgh FanFest), Nolan Ryan (1995 – Dallas FanFest), and Jackie Robinson (1997- Cleveland FanFest).

The other player subjects for the All Star FanFest sets were Steve Carlton (1996 – Philadelphia FanFest), Lou Brock (1998 – St. Louis FanFest), Carl Yastrzemski (1999 – Boston FanFest), and Henry Aaron (2000 – Atlanta FanFest).

Ray Schulte was responsible for the All Star FanFest cards from 1994 to 2000. At the time he was working as an event consultant for MLB Properties, and cajoled some of the major baseball card producers of the 90’s to design and distribute unique cards of an iconic player from the city that was hosting the All Star Game. To obtain the cards a fan had to redeem 5 pack wrappers of any baseball product of the manufacturer at their FanFest booth.

I was introduced to the cards when I attended the All Star FanFest event held at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston in 1999. I attended the event with my family and upon learning about the cards from a Fleer representative sent my two kids on a mission to purchase 5 packs of cards produced by each of the four manufacturers from dealers at the event so we could exchange the wrappers for the Carl Yastrzemski cards designed just for the 1999 FanFest.

Now let’s take a closer look at the All Star FanFest sets which feature players that overlap with the Topps 2020 Project.

1994 All Star FanFest Set – Roberto Clemente

1994 was the first year that FanFest cards were issued and with Pittsburgh hosting the All Star Game the player subject was Roberto Clemente. Topps, Fleer, Upper Deck, Donruss, and Pinnacle issued cards for the event.

Fleer and Topps decided not to mess with perfection and produced cards that were essentially reprints of Clemente’s 1955 Topps rookie card and his 1963 Fleer card with 1994 All Star logos. Upper Deck issued a metallic looking card of Clemente that contains career stats and accomplishments on the front. Upper Deck would utilize the “metallic look” design for player subjects for the next 6 years. As you would expect, an image of a Dick Perez painting of Clemente is on the front of the Donruss Diamond King card.

1995 All Star FanFest Set – Nolan Ryan

With the 1995 All Star Game being held in the home park of the Texas Rangers the logical choice for the player subject for the FanFest cards was Nolan Ryan who retired in 1993.

The 5 card manufacturers who designed cards for the 1994 All Star FanFest also produced cards for 1995 All Star FanFest event held in Dallas.

Topps produced a re-imagined 1967 Rookie card of by eliminating the Jerry Koosman photo and enlarging the Nolan Ryan image to fill the front of the card. In microscopic print, Nolan’s complete major league pitching record is on the back of the card. Steve Carlton got the same treatment a year later when Topps enlarged his airbrushed 1965 photo to produce a new version of his Rookie card. Fleer issued an Ultra Gold Medallion version of a Ryan card. Upper Deck continued with its metallic design for a Ryan card. The Pinnacle card featured a Nolan Ryan painting and Donruss produced a Tribute card.

Get out the magnifying glass. Back of Topps 1995 Nolan Ryan All Star FanFest card.

1997 All Star FanFest Set – Jackie Robinson

With the All Star Game 1997 marking the 50th year of his major league debut, Jackie Robinson was the correct selection for the player subject for the 1997 set.

Topps released a reprint of his 1952 card with a All Star logo on the front and his complete major league batting record on the back. Leaf distributed a reprint of Jackie’s 1948 “rookie” card with small All Star Game logo in the upper right-hand corner. Fleer choose a nice posed photo of Jackie looking like he is going to tag out the runner for its Ultra card. On the back of its Tribute card, Pinnacle included a great action shot of Robinson coming in head-first at home plate with the catcher about to make a tag. The photo leaves you wondering – Which way did the call go? Upper Deck once again used a metallic design for its Jackie Robinson FanFest card.

Other All Star FanFest Cards

1997 All Star FanFest Larry Doby Cards

Depending on your definition of a complete set, collectors should be aware that Fleer and Pinnacle released Larry Doby cards to coincide with the All Star game being held in Cleveland. Included below are photos of the Fleer Ultra card and the Pinnacle 3-D Denny’s card.

2000 Henry Aaron FanFest Error Card

For some reason Topps decided not to make a reprint of Aaron’s 1954 Rookie card part of the official 2000 All Star FanFest set. Instead, Topps designed a unique card that featured a spectacular color photo of Aaron in a posed batting stance. Topps did however print some of the 1954 Rookie reprints with an All Star Game logo. These Aaron Rookie reprints are considered “error” cards.

Costs

Almost all the All Star FanFest sets can be purchased for under $12 on eBay. The exception is the 1994 Roberto Clemente All Star FanFest set. Each manufacturer produced 15,000 cards for the event. Less than 10,000 of each card were distributed at FanFest. The rest of the cards were destroyed. A Clemente set will set you back about $60.

Mr. Blue Jay

“Tony Fernandez,” opines the back of his 1988 Donruss Diamond Kings card, “is the AL’s answer to Ozzie Smith.” For a complex stew of reasons that statement played like music in the ears of Blue Jays fans. In brief, Canadians—some Canadians—this Canadian—feel the contradictory pull of a sense of superiority vis-à-vis the United States (mostly because we don’t risk insolvency if we break a leg, and we don’t tend to carry sidearms), and a crushing inferiority complex (because America is America, and we’re not). (Note that this didn’t apply to Expos fans, or at least not Francophone Expos fans, who constituted a unique presence, a “distinct society,” within Canadian culture; they weren’t really interested in Americans’ view of them one way or another.)

That lowkey but badgering sense of inferiority was the active ingredient in the fizzy feeling we’d get when Americans deigned to notice the Blue Jays. Comparing Tony Fernández to the Wizard of Oz was like saying that Toronto is bigger than Philadelphia: not immediately obvious to most people, even if evidence backs up the claim.

To love a ball team is to ingest its unique cocktail of announcers’ voices, sponsors’ jingles, silly promotions, subpar graphics, poor economic strategies, uninformed personnel moves, and bad uniforms—a boatload of decisions made by people qualified to do what they do only because they’re already doing it. Canadians reflexively assume our own provincialism, and while the Jays, beginning on a snowy afternoon in 1977, were by definition “big league,” we weren’t sure they looked the part to the outside observer. The team’s record in the early going was predictably awful. Exhibition Stadium was laughably rinky-dink, a pair of single-tiered embankments annoyingly offset from one another, bracketing the saddest expanse of artificial turf you ever saw. The park hosted both the American League and the Canadian Football League, but it was suited for neither. As for the uniforms, we loved them even while suspecting they looked goofy in a specifically Canadian way to anyone but us.

Tony Fernández’ ascension coincided with the Jays’ rise, but it was no coincidence. He was lanky and janky, hunched at the shoulders, calm of demeanor, a pair of flip-downs frequently protruding from his brow. An elite defender who was also a fantastic switch hitter, Fernández was among the first through the pipeline of talent out of San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic, “The Cradle of Shortstops.” He inherited the starting job in Toronto from fellow Dominican Alfredo Griffin when the latter was traded with Dave Collins and an envelope full of cash to Oakland for bullpen righty Bill Caudill. Fernández became a fixture at short, hoovering up balls hit into the hole and flipping them to second, or heaving them parabolically with a submarine fling to first, an altogether unnatural motion that he made look cool, easy. Imitating that throwing style as a child almost certainly played a part in the clicking twinge I still feel in my right shoulder when I play catch with my kids.

He was so reliable—161 games played in ’85, and 163 in ’86—that it was fitting, when George Bell sank to his knees after recording the out that secured Toronto’s first AL East title in October, 1985, that Fernández was the first to reach him, trotting out from his post to high five the jubilant left fielder.

Heartbreakingly, Fernández was traded after the 1990 season, shipped to the Padres along with Fred McGriff for Joe Carter and Robbie Alomar, an exchange we had no way of recognizing at the time as the medicine necessary to bring a World Series title to Canada. Fernández wandered around the National League a bit after that, but in ’93 the Jays welcomed him back via midseason trade with the Mets, and he was instrumental in the push for a second straight pennant. Fernández started at shortstop in all six games of the Fall Classic, batting .326 with a series-high 9 RBI.

Then he was gone again, into his second great period of itinerance, to Cincinnati, to the Bronx, to Cleveland, before coming back again, to those middling end-of-century Blue Jays teams for whom third place seemed the natural state of things. He found himself in Japan in 2000, then Milwaukee to begin the 2001 season. When the Brewers released him that summer, there was really only one place it made sense for him to land.

In all he left Toronto three times before he departed baseball for good, but over time it came to seem that he’d always wind up back in a Blue Jays uniform. We never wanted to be rid of him; his departures were only nods to the churning, heartless marketplace of baseball. When he died in February 2020 at just 57 years of age I said, “Oh god, Tony Fernández died.” My son asked me who Tony Fernández was. “He’s Mr. Blue Jay,” I said, as though that explained everything, or anything, but that’s how I’ve long thought of him. He was a part of so many different eras of Blue Jays baseball—the rising team of the mid-’80s, the championship team in ’93, the largely characterless squads of the late-’90s, leading into the Buck Martinez-led team of 2001—that I can’t think of anyone more deserving of the name. I could have said that he was the Jays’ leader in games played, or that he collected more hits in a Toronto uniform than any other player, but I didn’t. I just said “He’s Mr. Blue Jay.”

In those early years—of his career, but also of the franchise’s very existence—Tony Fernández bestowed on our quaint little team something invaluable, something that an ageing Rico Carty or a past-his-prime John Mayberry couldn’t give them, something a pre-NBA Danny Ainge couldn’t will into being: he gave them legitimacy. And as they were our team, that said something about us, too.

The Jays’ standing rose on through him and that ’85 crown (we don’t talk about the ALCS loss to KC), to Bell’s 1987 MVP award, and upward until the grand affirmation of two World Series trophies. But the statement on the back of Fernández’ 1988 Diamond Kings card announced something to the rest of the baseball world, and confirmed for us, that he—and so Toronto, and so all of Canada—was a part of the game, the real game, the big show, the Majors. It was a badge of glossy cardstock, a certificate of authenticity.

And lest you think the comparison with Ozzie Smith unfounded, I’ll just point out their identical career fielding percentages (.978), and Fernández’ superior offensive numbers (a .746 OPS to Smith’s .666, more doubles, triples, and homers, and a higher lifetime average). Tony didn’t do backflips, but you couldn’t watch him long without concluding that he was a wizard, too.

When I collected cards as a kid I loved them all, every single last one of them, but my real favorites were Blue Jays: Bell, Barfield, Moseby. Ernie Whitt and Dave Stieb. Willie Upshaw, who gave way to Fred McGriff at first. Fernández. On the faces of the Topps, O-Pee-Chee, Score, Donruss, and Upper Deck cards in my binders and boxes the entire baseball universe was flattened to two dimensions, arrayed like a map of the Milky Way, so that the whole true cosmography was evident. I spread them out on the floor and marveled at the sight: stars among stars, vast and awesome, their brilliance undimmed by familiarity.

Otis Nixon Wore Many Hats

Baseball formally required all batters to wear helmets in 1970. Red Sox catcher Bob Montgomery was the last player to bat in a Major League contest without a helmet in 1979. Then in 1983, it became mandatory for all professional players to use a helmet with at least one earflap, although anyone with Major League service time in 1982 or earlier could opt for a flapless helmet like Ozzie Smith, Dave Winfield, Tim Raines, and several others. Raines would be the last player to use a flapless helmet.

1980 Topps #618 depicts helmetless Montgomery

On April 7, 1979 Orioles outfielder Gary Roenicke was hit in the face by a pitch, causing a laceration that required 25 stitches to close. Roenicke returned to the lineup on April 15 at Milwaukee and went 3-3 using a helmet with a modified football facemask attached. Expos outfielder Ellis Valentine had his cheekbone fractured when he was hit by a pitch on May 30, 1980 at St. Louis. Valentine also returned to the lineup donning a similarly designed batting helmet equipped with a sawn-off football facemask. Folks who opened packs of Topps baseball cards in 1981 could find a pair of cards depicting each of these unique batting helmets.

1981 Topps Valentine #445, Roenicke #37

Although no such picture appeared on any cards issued during his playing career, it is generally accepted that the first player to experiment with protective face gear was Dave Parker. Parker sustained facial fractures in a collision at home plate with Mets catcher John Stearns on June 30, 1978. Upon his return to the lineup July 16, Parker experimented with a (downright terrifying) hockey goalie mask and other football facemask designs. Despite his injury, Parker would win the batting title (.334) and be named National League MVP in 1978.

Photo credit: Associate Press, 1978

Most recently, Giancarlo Stanton made news when he returned to the Marlins in 2015 using a helmet fitted with a custom facemask that cleverly incorporated a “G” into the protective design. Stanton had been hit in the face by the Brewers’ Mike Fiers on September 11, 2014 resulting in fractures that ended his season. No longer newsworthy, facial protection is now commonplace with an ever-increasing number of MLB players opting for jaw guards incorporated into their batting helmets.

On April 4, 1998 Twins outfielder Otis Nixon coaxed a first-inning walk but was soon forced out at second. During the play at the bag, Royals shortstop Félix Martínez kicked Nixon in the face. Nixon stayed in the game but later learned that he had sustained a fractured jaw. When Nixon returned to the lineup on April 9, he utilized a batting helmet fitted with a full football facemask to protect his jaw and with hopes he would not need to undergo a surgical repair. This unfortunate injury, however, offered Nixon the opportunity to don the widest variety of protective headgear ever depicted on baseball cards by a single player.

Otis Nixon was not eligible to use a flapless helmet because he first appeared in the Major Leagues in 1983; however, here he is while with Cleveland:

1987 Fleer #255

Nixon also used a single-flap helmet with the Expos:

1990 Donruss #456

As a switch-hitter, Nixon subsequently joined the double-flap helmet trend:

1992 Leaf #255

And with his appearance for Minnesota following the broken jaw incident, here is Nixon donning the helmet with protective face gear:

1999 Fleer Ultra #44

Unlike facial bones, Nixon’s sartorial record appears unbreakable.

Sources:

Retrosheet.org

Baseball-Reference.com

Bill Nowlin, “Bob Montgomery,” SABR Bio Project

Paul Lukas, “Giancarlo Stanton’s Mask Not a First,” http://www.ESPN.com, March 4, 2015, accessed April 5, 2021.

“Interference Rule Amended,” Cincinnati Enquirer, December 2, 1970.

“Parker returns to lineup and Pirates win pair,” The Morning Call (Allentown, Pennsylvania), July 17, 1978.

“Quick Kick,” Kansas City Star, April 5, 1998.

Mike Klingaman, “Catching Up With … former Oriole Gary Roenicke,” Baltimore Sun, July 7, 2009.

More from Uncle Dan’s Mystery Box of Baseball: A Real Jambalaya

Inside the big box was a smaller box.  A crooked smile crossed my face in curious wonder as I reached for some unknown treasure.  I had just sorted through several things in Uncle Dan’s mystery box of baseball when I came across the familiar white cardboard baseball card box.  Slowly I unpacked the contents as my curious wonder intensified.  The cards I pulled out were just a random hodge-podge.  I was flipping through cards from Score, Fleer, Upper Deck, Donruss, several Bowmans and only a few of my favorite, Topps.  The majority of the cards were 1989s and 1990s.  A few 1988s, and 1991s, as well.  Interesting enough, I found a stack of 1990 Upper Deck hologram logo stickers, too.

Being somewhat compulsive with a need for order, I sorted this jambalaya of cards into stacks that made sense to me: by manufacturer and by year.  I’ll sort them by number later.  With a little bit of hope, I sorted through the 1989 Upper Decks, looking for “The Kid.”  Hoping, maybe, maybeee … Nope, no Junior.  Oh well.  I knew it was too much to hope for.  Regardless, there are some good names in the stack.  I turned to the Donruss pile.  A couple of good things, including a Bart Giamatti card.  I don’t recall if I had ever seen a card for the commissioner of baseball before, but it was good to see.  I like Giamatti, and for a moment I reflected on the scenes from the Ken Burn “Baseball” documentary, wondering what his tenure would have been like had he lived to serve a full term in office. 

In the 1990 Donruss stack, I also found something cool: the Juan Gonzalez (#33) reverse-image card.  The card manufacturer erred when they reversed the image of this Ranger “Rated Rookie” so that we see him batting in what appears to be on the left side of the plate, and of course, his uniform number 19 appears reversed.  Fortunately, the correct image card is among the stack, as well.  

The short stack of 1990 Fleers included #635 “Super Star Specials” called ‘Human Dynamos” picturing Kirby Puckett and Bo Jackson.  I’m guessing since both players are sporting their home jerseys, the photo was probably taken at the 1989 All-Star Game, which was played at Anaheim Stadium (where Jackson was the game’s MVP).  It’s an educated guess, but I would love to hear confirmation from someone.  

I was a little more intrigued with the small pile of 1990 Bowman cards, which warranted a little research.  As it so happened, by 1990 Bowman scaled down the size of their card, to a more standard dimension.  A couple of things piqued my interest.  First, this stack of cards featured a cool Art Card insert by Craig Pursely.  My stack featured Kevin Mitchell.  The reverse side gave a little blurb on the player, while the card also doubled as a sweepstakes entry.  This Art Card insert set included 11 cards.     

The other thing that piqued my interest is how the player’s information is presented on the reverse side.  In this instance, only one year of data given, but the analytics are compiled by competitor.  That is, the rows include the player stats, while the columns feature the specific teams.  For example, the Red Sox first baseman/outfield Danny Heep played in 113 games in 1989: 8 vs Orioles; 9 vs Angels; 7 vs White Sox; 8 vs Indians; and so on.  It’s a squirrelly way to present the data, if you ask me.  I feel bad for the person that had to put all that together for all 500+ cards. 

A couple of interesting things that stood out was a 1990 Score Tombstone Pizza Kirby Puckett card (number 25 of 30), a 1992 mini-set of three “Special Edition Combo Series” cards from French’s Mustard.  The three in my set include: Julio Franco/Terry Pendleton (#3), Don Mattingly/Will Clark (#11) and Cal Ripken Jr/Ozzie Smith (#13).  Brief information on each player (bio, stats, two-sentence blurb) is found on the card’s reverse side.  The 1992 Combo Series featured 18 cards with 32 players.  That is a lot of mustard to buy!     

I’m still struck by this unusual collection of cards, and wonder about the original collector’s motivation and frame of mind.  Such a wide assortment.  It also makes me want to read up again on this era of cards, when it seems like the wild west of cardboard and baseball players, with everyone and his brother looking to cash in on the collecting craze of the late 1980s/early 1990s.

Uncle Dan’s mystery box of baseball cards continues to provide an ongoing sense of wonder, if not source of amusement.  But wait, there’s more …

Use vs Abuse

Last couple weeks ago Mark Armour and I had a brief conversation about markings on cards. In short, we disagree. Not a bad thing—we all collect differently and have distinct standards about what kind of condition we like—rather, like most good conversations, our discussion caused me to think more clearly about what my standards are.

The discussion Mark and I had was specifically about marked checklists. He avoids them while they don’t bother me in the least. Do I seek them out? No. But I’m also not going to pay a premium for an unmarked one.

Checklists were intended for kids to be able to keep track of their collections. Seeing one that’s marked up tells me about a kid who was keeping track of his collection and I enjoy seeing how his set progress was going, what good cards he had, and who he was missing.

They also remind me of my first year in the hobby when I dutifully marked all my checklists. As I remember it, I enjoyed the activity as a way to both gauge my progress and to see what cards I still needed. I don’t remember studying the checklist as much as looking through them and feeling like I just missed certain cards if they were near a card I was checking off.

What I realized when talking about the checklists is that I really just like seeing cards that have been used. For example, 1964 Topps has these cool rub-to-reveal backs. Some of mine have been rubbed, others have not. I can’t bring myself to rub the ones I get (same goes with marking checklists now) but the fact that some kid followed the instructions over 50 years ago is very cool. Heck I know I certainly would’ve if I were a kid.

Technically I guess this kind of thing is back damage. Practically though I treat it the same as a marked checklist where the subsequent handling qualifies as usage.

There’s a whole bunch of other cards in this kind of category where the intended usage results in wear and tear to the card. Pop-ups, whether it’s a 1937 O-Pee-Chee Batter Up or a junk wax Donruss All Star, are probably one of the best examples here. That the card has been punched out and folded and perhaps has even lost some of the pieces is immaterial.

The same thing goes with stamps and stickers that have been pasted into albums. I understand the desire for something to be nice and minty but there’s also something sad about it sitting in protective storage and never being used for its intended purpose.

My interest in usage though extends beyond the uses intended by card companies. I very much love annotations that reflect how fans have used cards to enjoy and enhance their baseball fandom. Things like the do-it-yourself traded cards which I’ve written about before demonstrate how people watch baseball through their cards.

For many people cards weren’t just something that you acquired and stored, they were references for when you had to look things up. Updating them each season with new teams and positions kept those references current and, when taken to extreme, results in something that documents a career better than a non-modified can ever hope to.

I also consider autographs to count as usage. They document experiences with players whether in-person or through the mail. Many times the choice of card is intentional whether it’s a favorite photo or a memorable season. And in all times the autograph is intended to complement the card as a way of enjoying the sport.

I love all of these things which indicate how a card was used by a previous owner. They tand in stark opposition to cards that have been abused or damaged though non-baseball-related activities. From drawn-on facial hair to flipping and bicycle spoke damage there’s a whole range of modifications that are deal breakers to me.

Yes I have some abused cards in my collection too but they’re the kind of cards I’ll always be wanting to upgrade. It’s the rare doodle that stands out as being clever to me, the rest I can’t help but see as mindless destruction.

When I look at a card that’s been damaged intentionally, the use or abuse question turns out to be the first thing I think of. I just hadn’t quite realized that that was actually the question I was asking.

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?