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.

Donruss – Originals?

There are a lot of sets that I’ve bought that I’ve forgotten about. Some bring back memories; others I can’t believe actually exist (or that I have).

The 2002 Donruss Originals set came as a complete surprise to me when I saw it written on the end of a storage box. I pulled it out of the pile to investigate, had no idea what lurked within, and ended up surprised at how much fun it was.

The gimmick is simple, and now done ad nauseum – bring back old designs with contemporary players. Donruss went back into their 20+ year history and came up with four looks they felt worthy of tribute – 1982, 1984, 1986 and 1988. Classic cardboard? Not for me to decide, but the set does work.

The 400 card issue is not evenly divided between the four years: 1982-1986 get 115 cards each, 1988 gets 55. Perhaps Donruss themselves knew that 1988 was pushing it in terms of historic sets.

What’s weirdly interesting about this set is the repetition. Donruss chose to feature many of the same players in all four designs, so the checklist isn’t 400 individual people. Let’s ask Miguel Tejada, as 2002 a guy as I can think of, to demonstrate:

1982

1533-293594Fr1533-293594Bk

1984

1533-293650Fr1533-293650Bk

1986

1533-293765Fr1533-293765Bk

1988

1533-293912Fr1533-293912Bk

Odd, but compelling, almost hypnotic, but nothing’s wrong with having a set that’s .75% Corey Pattersons?

Positions, Positions, Positions

Name, Team, Position. Those are the three most standard pieces of information conveyed on the obverse of a baseball card. Of the three, position is the one that is most often left out. While it is certainly isn’t hard to find examples of cards not bearing the name or team on the frontside, position is the only piece of this trio that feels kind of optional. Player positions were included on many of the earliest cards sets ever issued and remained a staple of card design until the fabled T206 set – which listed a player’s name and team home city only – seemed to put the designation out of style. Over the next few decades, many of the most iconic sets – Goudey, Cracker Jack, Leaf – ignored the position as an element of design. Bowman hit the scene in 1948 and went even more minimalist, rarely going so far as to even include the player’s name on the front of the card.

72-280Fr
1972, the only Topps set between 1953 and 1986 not to indicate a position on the front.

But then Topps took over, aside from their 1951 and 1952 issues, included a position on the front of each of their sets until 1972, and again for each set between 1973 and 1986. The indicator vanished between 1987 and 1990 and was an on-and-off feature until 2014, when it returned for seven straight sets (including 2020) – Topps’ longest run of position-indicating since the 1980s. Donruss included a position on every one of its designs until 1998 and Fleer did the same, using the indicator on every flagship set the brand issued. Upper Deck ignored the position on just two of its flagship sets (1992 and 2004).

8670-487137Fr

This is not information that most collectors would have at the ready. Most collectors probably take the position bug for granted. I know I usually do. But being so ubiquitous (even in its absence), an unusual position indicator can make for a pretty memorable card. Herb Washington’s 1975 “Pinch Run.” is probably the most famous of these. But there are others that I recall standing out to me as a kid – Pete Rose cards where he was listed an “MGR-1B” seemed other-worldly, the 1990 Score John Olerud listed him as an “OF-P” (all while shown playing first base) made him seem like some kind of top-secret government project, and the 1989 Topps Kirk Gibson All Star that listed him as a “PH” was as jarring as it was confusing (this was done, I assume to give the NL team a DH player without using the league-inappropriate term).

A particular player’s position listing can also convey some emotion. Robin Yount listed as a shortstop or George Brett as a third baseman make them seem as though they’ll be young forever. But finding Reggie Jackson or Henry Aaron or Dave Winfield listed as a DH will bring a note of sadness that the end is near.

But of all the weird positional quirks that have happened over the years, there is nothing so fascinating to me as what happened with Paul Molitor in 1991. That was the year the versatile Brewer was listed at FIVE different positions on various cards and appeared with SEVEN different position indicators. This is, I believe, the greatest positional variety for a player in a single year ever (ignoring THIS, of course). So what happened here?

Well, Paul Molitor had historically been a trick player to pin down position-wise. He came up as a shortstop, getting his first change in the bigs when Robin Yount left the Brewers during Spring Training 1978. He only played 33 games at short that season, but it was enough to have him listed as a pure SS on his 1979 card. He played 10 games at short in 1979 and 12 in 1980, but maintained a dual listed as an “SS-2B” on Topps 1980 and 1981 issues. After spending all of 1981 in the outfield, Topps gave him the rare “2B-SS-OF” listing on his 1982 card. Molly moved to third base in 1982, and played there primarily for most of the next five years. Topps reacted in kind and listed his as either a 3B or 3B/DH through the end of the decade.

Donruss and Fleer, entering the market in 1981, both listed him as a 2B in their debut sets. Fleer gave him a pure (and accurate) OF tag in 1982, whereas Donruss went with the very broad “OF/IF” brand. Both brands followed suit with Topps and used 3B and DH marks exclusively through 1990. Upper Deck and Score did the same.

But Molitor had returned to his utility player roots by the late 1980s. He appeared in 19 games at second base in 1987 and 16 in 1989. Late in 1989, regular second-sacker Jim Gantner suffered a devastating knee injury on a wipe-out slide by the Yankees Marcus Lawton and Molitor took over regular duty at the position until Gantner was able to return mid-way through the 1990 season. Molitor, who suffered a number of injuries of his own that season, ended up playing 60 games at second base in ‘90, 37 at first base (the first time he’d manned that spot), and a handful at third and as a DH. Gantner ended the season as the regular second baseman and Molitor at prime man at first. After the season, the Brewers traded Dave Parker, who had been an All Star for them in 1990, opening the door for the now-34 year old Molitor to become the team’s regular  DH for the first time.

So, the long-time third baseman who had been playing second but was also being used at first, where he was now expected to see more time when he wasn’t DHing. Got all that? Card makers sure did.

8712-505430Fr

By my count, Molitor appeared on 21 different base cards in 1991 (I’m ignoring sets like Topps Micro and OPC here that merely reproduce other sets). All but Classic listed a position on their cards. He was most commonly listed at 3B, a dubious claim considering he’d only played two games there in 1990. But strong is the power of tradition. Topps listed him there, using that mark on the Bowman, Stadium Club, and OPC Premium sets as well. Fleer also considered him a 3B, as they had at least in part since 1983. Even Score listed him at the position, despite taking the rather bold stance of being the only card maker to declare him a pure DH on a 1980s issue (1988). Those two games in ’90 got a lot of mileage, I guess.

73994-5307134Fr

Five cards listed him at 1B, a nice compromise between his audition there in 1990 and his projected role in 1991. Magazine cards were fond of this mark, as Baseball Cards Magazine, Sports Collectors Digest, and Sports Illustrated for Kids all used it on their in-mag cards, as did Donruss and (curiously) Fleer Ultra, which ran against the flagship’s opinion that Molitor was still a 3B.

Three cards gave him a generic IF designation: two Brewers-issued sets (which used the frustrating device of considering anyone who played in the infield an IF) and the Score Superstars stand-alone set, which also broke with its parent brand and made its own positional distinction.

192-238Fr

A pair of sets were forward-looking enough to list Molitor as a pure DH, Leaf and Studio. I recall these as later-year issues and were probably a reaction to Molitor’s role early on the 1991 season, in which he only appeared in the field once before late May.

Then, we have some true outliers. Upper Deck, showing that rebel streak that remade the hobby, boldly listed Molitor as a 2B in their set, and even used a photo of him playing the position. The semi-obscure Petro Canada Standup set also listed him as a 2B, but you had to actually stand the card up to discover this fact. Panini, in its sticker set, was the only brand to use a hybrid mark, listing Molitor was a “1B-2B,” his only 1991 card to accurately reflect upon his 1990 season.

And then there is 1991 US Playing Card set. In here, Molitor (as the Eight of Hearts) is listed as a centerfielder.

73197-8HFr

Hmm.

At this time, Molitor hadn’t played the outfield since a handful of games in 1986 and hadn’t been in center since 1981. Were they boldly expecting Molitor to take over in center for Robin Yount in 1991? My guess is that this is probably just an outright error. None of the other outfielder cards in the deck are given a specific OF spot (LF, CF, RF), and I can’t find anything that indicated they were acting on some of weird rumor of an unexpected position change. But nonetheless, the card exists and only adds to the positional confusion.

Oddly enough, all this positioning and repositioning for Molitor quickly became a moot point. Following the end of the 1990 season, Molitor would play first base and DH exclusively. His cards reflected this. For the most part. For 1992, Topps again branded him at a 3B across most of its sets despite his not having played there regularly since 1989. And, not to be outdone by their 1991 goof, the US Playing Card company issued two decks with Molitor cards in 1992 – one listing him at 2B and the other at SS – where Molitor hadn’t appeared since 1982 (his 1993 USPC card has him mercifully listed as an IF). At least it’s a consistent decade-long lag time, right? For 1993, only the Post Cereal Company still listed him at 3B. Card makers had finally accepted him for what had become – a DH and part-time 1B.

For his career, Molitor was listed on cards as a 1B, 2B, SS, 3B, IF, OF, CF, DH, 1B/DH, 2B/SS/OF, 2B/SS, SS/2B, 3B/DH, OF/IF, DH/1B, and DH/3B – not to mention post-career cards as a coach and manager. That’s 18 different listings (and perhaps more that I have missed) to describe a single remarkable career.

The #Apollo50 All-Time Team

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Moon Landing, the SABR Baseball Cards blog is pleased to announce the “Apollo 50 All-Time Team!”

Pitchers

Our right-handed starter is John “Blue Moon” Odom, and our lefty is Bill “Spaceman” Lee. Coming out of the pen are Mike “Moon Man” Marshall and Greg “Moonie” Minton. Sadly, a failed drug test kept a certain fireballer with a space travel-themed nickname on the outside looking in. Finally, in keeping with tradition, Tony “Apollo of the Box” Mullane was intentionally overlooked.

Catcher

Behind the plate is Fernando Lunar, who enjoyed a cup of Tang with the Braves before assuming backup duties for Baltimore in the early 2000s.

First base

While primarily an outfielder, Wally Moon will man first base and provide some power from the left side of the plate with his prodigious moonshots.

Second Base

Ford “Moon” Mullen won the first ever NCAA Men’s Basketball title as a member of the 1939 University of Oregon Webfoots five years before he made his Major League debut with the Phillies in 1944. Owing to the dearth of baseball card sets at that time, his only playing era cardboard comes from the 1943 Centennial Flour Seattle Rainiers set.

Third Base

Mike “Moonman” Shannon had a solid nine-year career with the Cardinals, highlighted by titles in 1964 and 1967 and a 1968 season that included a pennant to go with his seventh-place finish in an unusual MVP race where four of the top seven finishers were teammates.

Shortstop

“Houston, we have a problem. Our shortstop has a .185 career batting average!” Can the Flying Dutchman be modified for space travel?

Outfielders

“The Rocket,” Lou Brock, is our leftfielder; “The Gray Eagle,” Tris Speaker, plays a shallow center, and patrolling rightfield is Steve “Orbit” Hovley.

Pinch-hitter

Looking for his first ever Big League at-bat is Archibald “Moonlight” Graham.

utility man

Without this man, would there even have been an Apollo program?

manager

Though he never suited up in the Bigs, we’ll gladly take a guy named Crater who managed the Rockets.

Mascot

And speaking of guys named Crater!

But seeing as this Crater is a volcanic crater rather than an impact crater, we will double-dip by adding the inimitable Orbit!

Feel free to use the Comments section to air your snubs (“What? No ‘Death to Flying Things’ Ferguson?”) and note your Pilots sightings (Hi, Tim!). We’ll radio our guy in the Command Module and be sure your thoughts receive all due consideration.

1986 Donruss “The Rookies:” A Cautionary Tale

Though 1978 was the year I fell in love with baseball cards, 1985 was the year I lost all control. The rookie crop that year was ridiculous, and I had an utterly insatiable appetite for Dwight Gooden, Roger Clemens, Orel Hershiser, Eric Davis, and Jeff Stone. (If that last one surprises you, check out the stats on the back of his card!)

The effect of my season-long bender was that I entered 1986 with a monster hangover not even Jose Canseco could cure. I saw the new cards hit the shelves, I saw the constant barrage of up arrows in the Beckett, and I saw the local card shop get more crowded than ever, but I just wasn’t feeling the itch. Nothing in 1986 could match the thrill of pulling a Dr. K rookie, so why bother. For the first time since I started collecting, I found myself in the cardboard doldrums.

And then the earthquake came.

Here it was, the box set to end all box sets. Not since the 1951 Topps Connie Mack All-Stars had a set ever been more packed with can’t miss, first ballot Hall of Famers.

Just a sampling of the names on the set’s checklist included (and yes, all caps are appropriate here!) BARRY BONDS, WILL CLARK, BO JACKSON, and JOSE CANSECO—practically the Mount Rushmore of the Junk Wax era—Junk Waxmore if you will.

Within a couple months, the set had TEN players listing at triple digits in the Beckett’s high column, not to mention Bobby Bonilla, Todd Worrell, and Andres Galarraga.

Source: January/February 1987 Beckett

At my card shop I think the price on these sets started around $10 but quickly bolted up to $20, that is, if there were even any left on the shelves. The 1985 version of me would have bought one (if not more) in a heartbeat, but the 1986 version of me somehow went without. As the years went on and the players from this set became bigger and bigger stars, I regretted this hole in my collection more and more.

What I never would have guessed in 1986 or the decade that followed was that the set’s megastar-studded 56-player checklist would fail to produce a single Hall of Famer. From a set that screamed “Cooperstown or bust,” we got no Cooperstown, all bust.

There is an obvious lesson here for collectors spending excessive amounts of money on today’s young stars. No player is a can’t miss. Every player is gamble. You may win a few, but the House always wins more. You can even go 0 for 56.

However much this sucked for collectors paying $4 for Jose Canseco or $2.25 for Pete Incaviglia in early 1987, I have to imagine the hangover will be even worse for collectors spending hundreds if not thousands of dollars on today’s equivalent of “The Rookies.”

Sample of eBay sold listings pulled July 12, 2019

However good today’s rookies and prospects look right now, the 1986 crop looked even better, which they may well prove to be. Buyer beware.

I’ll end this article with a puzzle. I just reported (accurately) that the 1986 Donruss “The Rookies” checklist didn’t manage a single Hall of Famer. Nonetheless, were you to buy this set today (going rate: about $10), you would indeed find a Hall of Famer in the box. Stumped? Scroll down for the answer.

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Junk Wax for the win!

Okay, I admit it. I’m kind of a collecting snob. As a vintage collector I tend to thumb my nose at modern and recoil instantly at anything that shines, refracts, redeems, rainbows, or retails for more than 30 cents a pack. So what was I doing this past weekend up to my ears in junk wax?!

Card collecting at its best…REALLY!

The plan hatched innocently enough. Following my baseball card presentation at our last SABR Chicago meeting, a few of the attendees and I were in the parking lot chatting about cards. One of the members, Rich, mentioned that he had a lot of unopened 1989 Fleer from the early (uncensored F*Face) print runs and would happy donate a cello box to the right occasion.

Meanwhile, one of my best buddies from high school, a guy I opened thousands of packs with back in the day, was up from Los Angeles on a work assignment. Abe no longer collected cards, but I knew there would be plenty of room for at least one evening of waxing nostalgic.

Abe on a more typical evening

Also joining the fun were Bill, whose chapter newsletters must be the best in all of SABR, and John, who writes on here as Baseball Law Reporter and is also the man behind the incredibly ambitious and useful Baseball Sites Project.

After some pizza and a few innings of Astros-Yankees on the main floor, we headed down to the basement, and Rich brought out the 1989 Fleer. How he had resisted opening the packs all this time was a mystery to me, but it worked out well for us. Or more specifically, it worked out VERY well for Abe, who managed to land all three of these gems!

Inside joke but Abe himself was the “Luckmaster” this past weekend!

As for my own stack of 1989 Fleer, it’s possible not a single card is worth more than a quarter (if even!), but it didn’t stop me from being excited any time I pulled a good player. Eddie Murray, Kirk Gibson, Dave Parker…the hits just piled up. As much as I love cards of the 1930s, the truth is it was THESE cards where I knew all the players, saw many of them play, and remembered the feeling of finding them in packs. Junk or not, nostalgia is in the memories, never the value.

From there we went on to 1981 Fleer, which brought back my age 11 memory of pulling the “C” Nettles at a card show and literally fainting! Riding his earlier hot streak, Abe (of course!) was the one to pull a Nettles, but it was the corrected Graig Nettles version. Of course he still managed the best hit of the box, the Fernand [sic] Valenzuela rookie card. Yes, I know the card is available on eBay for $1, but I still couldn’t help being insanely jealous of the pull.

You had ONE job, 1981 Fleer typesetter!

One thing that caught our eye with the 1981 Fleer box to retailers informing them of the two free packs (hence 60 cents extra profit!) contained in each box. And sure enough, there were those two extra packs, crammed sideways between the main stacks of wax. As card-obsessed as I was as a kid, this was wholly uninteresting to me back in 1981 but today reveals an important marketing strategy Fleer used to establish a foothold in the newly competitive baseball card retail space.

We also had some fun opening my 20 or so assorted 1988 Score packs and a box of 1988 Donruss. Every 20 minutes or so, one of us would run up to see if my 1981 Donruss box had been delivered, but sadly it never did arrive on time. Still, opening packs was only half the fun we had planned for the night.

At least partly to troll John for his recent article on the worst baseball card set ever, I brought out my never-been-played, had-to-empty-my-TV-remotes-for-batteries 1989 Main Street Baseball game. Of course there was no way we were using the ugly cards that came with the game, not when we had heaps and heaps of 1980s wax sitting right in front of us!

John, I hope it’s cool I stole your photo!

For what must have been the next 90 minutes, we proceeded to dig through our stacks of freshly opened cards, trying to find actual baseball cards of each of the players on our team. One fantastic attribute of junk wax became immediately apparent as readily handed off our Nolan Ryan, Tony Gwynn, and George Brett cards to whichever guy had the adhesive stat strip for the player. WE COULD GIVE THESE CARDS AWAY FOR FREE AND NOT CARE AT ALL!

This would have been unthinkable back in the 1980s!

Yes, the fact that many cards in our collections are worth money can feel like a positive sometimes, and the fact that we can probably flip a $80 card for at least $75 down the road makes us feel a little less crazy spending nice-dinner-out-with-the-family money on a little square of cardboard.

But let’s face it; the value of our cards is also the single greatest barrier to enjoyment. When your cards are worth money, it’s hard to give them away, it’s hard to even make trades, you’re not going to flip them, they won’t go near a bicycle tire, and you might not even want to touch them! What kind of hobby is this?!

Meanwhile, here we were with our junk wax not only sharing them freely (except Billy Ripken!) but even…YES!…putting stickers on them! (Side note: Did Puckett’s 1988 Score bio really say, “Sporting a shaved head and a chunky body shaved like a bowling ball…?” YES!)

Hoping my son can crack the code and build me a secret weapon player who homers every at-bat!

I’d say the game was anti-climactic after all the fun we had finding the cards we needed and affixing bar codes, but would that really do justice to a 4-3 thriller featuring a lead-off homer from Rickey, 8 strong innings from Orel Hershiser, and an oh-so-close ninth inning rally that left the tying run on third and winning run on second?

Sure the graphics were little red blips and the game seemed to skip an inning on us randomly, but the truth was this 1989 electronic baseball technology was far superior to anything I actually played as a kid!

The simple, intuitive interface inspired Steve Jobs as he was creating the iPod

Back to the cards, though, here is what the evening brought home to my snobby collecting self. There is a place in EVERY collection for worthless cards, the kind you can trade, give away, keep in your wallet, put stickers on, or—as Rich did at one point in the evening—use as a beverage coaster. There really is a certain kind of fun you can only have with worthless cards.

Junk wax connects us to the purity of the hobby in a way that no other cards can. It allows us to know the feeling of opening a pack of 1933 Goudey or 1952 Topps. Yes, the players are different, but more importantly the experience is the same. Like our hobby ancestors, here we are opening packs of cards for no other reason than a love for little pieces of cardboard with baseball players on them. That, my friends, is winning!

Blink of an eye

This year I enrolled my sons in the Trenton Thunder’s Boomer’s Kids Club. It’s a great deal. Tickets to eleven games for the three of us plus fun activities and a tshirt* for $45. I knew we wouldn’t be able to make the games in July and August because of summer plans but even just going to the games through June it would be worth it.

*Shirt and activities for kids only.

We’ve now been to seven games this season (six with the kids club plus a Little League fundraiser night) and it’s been awesome. The boys have gotten two shirts, a jersey, a frisbee, and a pennant. They’ve had a chance to throw out the first pitch, walk around the field, be part of a high-five tunnel for the players, and watch The Sandlot on the outfield after a game. We’ve even been tossed five baseballs. Oh yeah and the games have been good. The Thunder are a decent team and it’s been a lot of fun to watch the boys learn the players and really get into following the season.

They’re also completely hooked on the hobby—especially autograph collecting. This is all me and my interests rubbing off on them. They’ve seen me write TTM requests and get cards signed at Trenton Thunder games and they want to join me. So I indulge them.

Not too much. I supply cards and pens (for now) but they have to do the requesting. I’m not going to flag a player down for them or ask on their behalf. I’ll help spot guys but the boys need to learn how to approach players, make the request, and say thank you. We’ve started off pretty simple by just focusing on the Trenton players and visiting coaches. As a result their autograph binders are pretty eclectic.

My youngest’s binder is organized alphabetically by first name. His idea. It’s a wonderfully random bunch of cards.* Seven Thunder players. Five coaches. And one card that Marc Brubaker mailed to him. I find myself wondering how much a first grader even cares about people like Joe Oliver, Brian Harper, or Matt LeCroy. These aren’t guys he knows. Some, like LeCroy, aren’t even guys I’d really talk to them about.** But they’re in the binder and he’s super-excited to show them off.

*Unless you make the Eastern League connection.

**Even though the Frank Robinson story is pretty touching

Can he tell you about the players? Only what he knows by turning the cards over. But he’s into this as a hobby even though he’s, so far, just tagging along with me.

His brother’s binder is pretty similar except that his one TTM return is in there and there are a couple 1991 Topps cards that he pulled from his own binder because he got the set for Christmas last year. As a result he has a bit more of a connection to guys like Harper and Oliver but LeCroy, Mark Johnson, and Mike Rabelo are all ciphers to him.

As the season’s progressed I’ve been questioning what it means to collect autographs of guys you’ve never heard of and second-guessing the importance of what I’ve gotten my kids into. Are they excited only because I’m excited? Am I pushing them to do something that only means something to me?

I jumped into the hobby in 1987. I bailed in 1994. Not a long period of time but it felt like forever. And in a way it was. Not only did those years represent half my lifetime by the time I stopped, they covered most of my years in school—pretty much my entire youth.

Now, 25 years later as a father, I’m seeing things from the other side. What was a lifetime when I was a kid is already flashing by in the blink of an eye. I know I only have a handful of years where my sons will legitimately share my interests. Yes legitimately. At the end of the day I’ve realized that it doesn’t matter why they’re interested in the hobby, the fact that they are and that we’re able to share it is what matters.

My two boys love collecting and everything it entails. Getting cards. Sorting cards.* Re-sorting cards.** Showing me their cards. Asking for new cards. Etc. Etc. It’s great. It reminds me of being a kid and it inspires me to document their adventures so that in a decade or two when they look back at their collection they’ll have my thoughts and memories to go with their memories of those years when the three of us were enjoying baseball together.

*On the floor as God intended.

**One day will be by number, the next by team, the next by last name, the next by first name.

I get to experience what I put my mom through, how patient she was, and how much she enjoyed seeing me get excited by the hobby. She kept a journal which I eventually turned into a book so that we could all have copies. I still enjoy rereading her essays and I’m looking forward to my boys reading them too.

Instead of journalling I’m blogging about our adventures and putting together summaries of events we’ve gone too. Like when we went to the Thunder Open House I took photos of their baseballs and printed out a letter-sized sheet for their binders. I’ll do the same thing with their haul of autographed cards for the season since I know they’ll re-sort them multiple times in the future.

It’ll always be important to have the biographical breakdown of their collection. As my sons get older, their cards and autographs will increasingly become markers for their memories rather than just objects to collect and hoard. The memories they’re attached to is what makes them special. It’s why I collect and why I hope they keep collecting.

In fact, I’ve been inspired to start doing the same thing for my cards and autographs. I know I’m going to be passing  everything on to my sons. I also know that “all dad’s stuff’ will be nowhere near as memorable as having an introduction to a given collection or set which explains who I was when I got these and why the set was important to me. This is a big project but I’m looking forward to it.

Cheap Treats (Not Tricks)

During the height of the baseball card frenzy, there were a lot of sets. Many many sets. Too many sets. There were incredibly crappy and pointless sets (I’m talking about you, 1990 Topps Doubleheaders).

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There were sets of historical worthiness, nicely put together, worthy, but monetarily worthless (1987 Donruss Rookies comes to mind).

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Plenty of other sets came and went with a Why? These are ugly! Haven’t I seen something like this a million times over? (Presenting the KayBee Team Leaders box.)

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Then there are sets that are really nice, worth the time, and, though forgotten, lots of fun.

Sitting on a shelf with a bunch of Topps Updates, Donruss Rookies and assorted others, sits my 1986 Fleer Classic Miniature set, 120 small cards in a tiny box. The ’86 Fleer set is simple and solid, and, though the minis are in the same design – THEY ARE DIFFERENT PHOTOS! Good ones too.

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Here’s Dwight Gooden (mini on left, regular issue on right).

Here’s Tom Seaver (same order):

And Eddie Murray:

I was so taken by this set, that I hadn’t looked at in decades, that I went searching for the others – 1987 and 1988. I found a guy on eBay who was selling both (perfect!).  He wanted $10 plus shipping. A little quick research showed that there are listings for bulk lots that end up with the sets at about a buck each, and sold listings topped out at $3. I offered $5 for both sets and got them.

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Picking up these stray complete sets that I don’t have and are appealing is a great little sideline for me as I stall in completing some older, slightly more difficult sets to wrap up. The price is right, the cards are beautiful, and, though unfortunately lumped into the “junk wax”/baseball card bubble period, are worth having.

I’m sure there are tons of low priced sets that people love and I don’t know about. (I recently picked up a set of 1983 Topps Foldouts that I had never heard of and now adore).

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The floor is yours. I want to hear about your faves (which I will then buy for pocket change.)