Dodger-Giant double agents

Author’s note: I originally planned this article in two parts, the first of which was published earlier in the week. I’ve since decided it works better combined into a single article, so here it is all in once place. J.A.S.

In the nearly 120 years of the great Dodger-Giant rivalry, more than 200 players have suited up for both sides, either as a player or manager, including 22 Hall of Famers. For most of these men it is an easy undertaking to find cards of them as Dodgers and as Giants.

Most often their Dodger and Giant cards come from different years or different sets, as in the case of the two Frank Robinson cards pictured, eleven years apart. However, it is sometimes possible to find these Dodger-Giant pairings within a single set.

When this happens, the player (or manager) achieves true “double agent” status, turns from hero to villain (or vice versa) among the team faithful, earns the double-takes of many a collector, and most importantly attains immortality with a spot in this article.

In the sections that follow, I will present a chronological list of the nearly two dozen Dodger-Giant double agents I could track down in my research. Please let me know in the comments if I missed anyone.

1903-04

Source: The Evening World (New York, New York), December 14, 1903

On December 12, 1903, the Brooklyn Superbas sent Bill Dahlen to New York for Charlie Babb and Jack Cronin. As a result, Dahlen can be found with both squads in the 1903-04 Breisch-Williams (E107) set and has the honor of being the first ever Dodger-Giant double agent.

1914-15

Here is one that really doesn’t count for several reasons but is interesting enough to include nonetheless. On August 31, 1915, the Brooklyn Robins claimed Hall of Fame hurler Rube Marquard off waivers following his release by the Giants. As such, Marquard has cards with both New York and Brooklyn in the Cracker Jack sets of 1914-15.

Rendering true double agent status doubtful, however, are (at least) three key details.

  • Most collectors consider the 1914 and 1915 Cracker Jack sets to be two separate sets, disqualifying Marquard as a true double agent.
  • Both cards show Marquard in his NYG uniform, which by itself isn’t a disqualification but still detracts from the visual contrast we deserve in our Dodger-Giant duos.
  • Finally, Marquard’s second card does not even place him with the right Brooklyn team. Instead, he is erroneously placed on the Brooklyn Tip Tops, the Federal League squad that shared a borough with the Robins/Dodgers National League team Marquard actually pitched for.

1933

On June 16, 1933, the Giants traded Sam Leslie to the Dodgers for Watty Clark and Lefty O’Doul. Clark had only a single 1933 Goudey card, which depicted him as a Dodger, while Leslie had no 1933 cards at all. O’Doul, on the other hand, had two cards in the Goudey set: one as a Dodger and one as a Giant.

The first card came early in the year as part of the set’s third sheet while his second card, along with those of numerous other Giants and Senators, was something of a bonus card as part of the set’s World Series (sheet 10) release.

1948

In July 1948 Brooklyn general manager Branch Rickey and New York owner Horace Stoneham came to an agreement that allowed Brooklyn manager Leo Durocher to take over the Giants. The 1948 R346 “Blue Tint” set noted the update and may well have inspired future Topps airbrushers with its treatment of Durocher’s cap.

1982

A part of my childhood was destroyed when Reggie Smith left the Dodgers and signed as a free agent with San Francisco on February 27, 1982. A giant (okay, pun intended) setback in my grieving process came when Topps pushed out its Traded set for the year and documented the move in cardboard. But alas, at least we still had Dusty!

As a side note, the Traded card presents an interesting blend of numbers for the man who formerly wore #8 with the Dodgers and would wear #14 with the Giants. His jersey shows him as #60 while his bat has a 30 on it, which I take to mean it belonged to teammate Chili Davis.

1984

No-o-o-o-o-o-o-o! They got Dusty too?! Sadly it was no April Fools joke when the Giants signed fan favorite Dusty Baker as a free agent on April 1, 1984, and this two Traded/Update sets were there to ratify the trauma.

1985

A rare trade between the Dodgers and Giants on December 11, 1985 produced two more double agents. The first was fan favorite Candy Maldonado, who like Baker before him made both the Topps and Fleer sets.

And on the back end of that same trade…

Oddly, neither Trevino nor Maldonado cracked the 660-card 1986 Donruss checklist despite the set including 21 different Giants and 24 different Dodgers. In Trevino’s case, he was San Francisco’s primary back-up catcher behind Bob Brenley played in 57 games. As for Maldonado, he played in 123 games, leading all reserve players and ranking eighth overall on the team.

1991

Fast forward to 1991 and the number of baseball card sets had reached absurd levels. Therefore, it should be no surprise that when free agent superstar Gary Carter signed with the Dodgers on March 26, 1991, he would set new records for cardboard double agency.

First here’s Topps.

Next up are the Kid’s two Fleer cards. Warning: Sunglasses may be required.

Upper Deck was of course also in the act by now.

And finally, Score put out two Carter cards as well, ridiculously similar to each other to the point of almost seeming impossible.

A similar octet of cards belonged to Brett Butler this same year, with Bugsy landing in Los Angeles via free agency on December 14, 1990.

1992

Dave Anderson signed with the Dodgers as a free agent on January 28, 1992, but this time only one company, Score, seemed to take notice.

1993

It was Fleer and only Fleer on the job when Todd Benzinger headed north to San Francisco as a free agent on January 13, 1993.

Meanwhile, Cory Snyder got three times the cardboard love when he took his talents to L.A. on December 5, 1992. Score Select was particularly ambitious, dropping Snyder out of an airplane for their photo shoot.

1994

On June 19, 1994, following his release from the Dodgers, the Giants signed Darryl Strawberry to a cup of coffee. Little used by both teams in 1994, Darryl hit double agent status with only a single cardmaker, Fleer.

1998

On December 8, 1997, infielder Jose Vizcaino signed with the Dodgers as a free agent after playing the regular season with the Giants. However, the baseball card production process was by this time so fast that nearly all of Vizcaino’s base cards already had him as a Dodger. As a result, his double agency was limited to the 1998 Fleer Tradition set only.

2000

On January 11, 2000, F.P. Santangelo signed with the Dodgers as a free agent. While very few companies even had a single card of the oft abbreviated Frank-Paul, Upper Deck came through with cards on both sides of the cardboard rivalry.

2003

The Giants signed Gold Glove centerfielder Marquis Grissom as a free agency on December 7, 2002, leading to a pair of Fleer Tradition cards based on Fleer’s sharp 1963 design.

Curiously, the Fleer Tradition Update cards (not just Grissom’s) omitted the city from team names. If there’s any story to it, let me know in the comments.

2006

On January 3, 2006, pitcher Brett Tomko signed a free agent deal with the Dodgers. If nothing else, the move gave Topps a chance to show off how far they’d come since their drunken airbrush days. Scary good if you ask me.

Tomko’s Dodger card above came from a Dodger-specific team set, but he also earned a card in the Topps Updates and Highlights set for good measure.

2007

When the Dodgers signed all-star right-hander Jason Schmidt on December 6, 2006, no two companies went the same route. First up, Fleer simply turned back the clock to the days of 1981 Donruss.

Meanwhile Topps ventured back to 1983 and the Fleer Joel Youngblood card or Eddie Murphy movie with this special insert…

…while also going full Tomko across their Pepsi and Opening Day releases.

Upper Deck came through with a nice pair of landscape Schmidt cards, though neither is a true Giants card since both go with Dodgers in the header.

Would I be remiss if I didn’t report that the first of the two Schmidt cards is also available in Gold, Predictor Green, and First Edition? Take your pick I guess!

2009

Brad Penny signed as a free agent with the Giants on August 31, 2009, following half a season with the Red Sox and a longer stint before that with L.A. This landed Penny cards on three teams in 2009, including double agent status with Topps Heritage.

2013

The final player (as of 2019) with a Dodger and Giant card from the same set is Brian Wilson, who signed as a free agent with the Dodgers mid-season on July 30, 2013. Lucky for you, Topps was there to document the before and after in pretty much every possible color!

analysis

On one hand, Dodger-Giant double agents reflect an oddball phenomenon of at best passing interest to fans of either of the two teams. However, their distinctly non-random occurrences over the years also point to important changes in the game and the hobby.

Just looking at the graph, it is possible to see all of the following:

  • Prevalence of multi-year issues in the early days of the hobby
  • Increased player movement with the advent of free agency
  • Introduction of Traded/Update sets
  • Increase in the number of companies issuing sets (1981-2008)
  • Reduction in the number of companies issuing sets (2009-present)

I will leave it to others to identify the cardboard double-agents of baseball’s other great rivalries (e.g., Yankees-Red Sox), but I’ll hazard a guess already that a graph of the data would look very much like mine.

Feats Don’t Fail Me

Last year (a year and a month to be exact), I posted about my Laughlin regrets, how I missed my chance 40 years ago to buy those wonderful card sets of the ‘70’s. While I did finish my 1972 Fleer Famous Feats set, that seemed to be the end of it. No way I was going to get any of the other sets I wanted, prices being what they are. [NOTE: COMC lists the Fleer set as 1973. I think it may have been both years, based on shaky memories of buying them in candy stores and ice cream trucks.]

Still, I never gave up, keeping a futile eBay search alive for Laughlin sets. Last week, I finally succeeded, with the 1972 Laughlin Great Feats set for less than $50. I assume these came out before the Fleer ones though I’m not sure [Editor’s note: Correct!], and I was fascinated by both the slight differences in the cards that appear in both sets, and the fantastic drawings of players/events that I’d never seen before.

First of all, there are two versions of this set. One is in red, with simple black and white drawings. The other, in blue, has flesh tones colored in. Here’s the different looks (yes, my blue Mize is signed.)

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The cards common to both the Laughlin and Fleer sets are identical, save for color. At first I thought there were cropping differences, but it was an optical illusion brought on by the Fleers being oversized. The art space seems the same size.

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Some of the feats in the Laughlin set are obvious, and, in retrospect, it’s hard to believe DiMaggio’s hit streak and VanderMeer’s two no-hitters didn’t make the Fleer issue.

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Others are of lesser renown, though the all-time pinch-hit record used to be a big deal. Smoky’s record has long since been surpassed (I had to look up who’s first – Lenny Harris with 212), but Burgess is still fourth on the list. Glad he topped the record book in 1972, because this card rocks.

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These three are spectacular as well…

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…and prove that Laughlin would have made an excellent Simpsons animator (check out Casey’s hand).

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I was struck by the Mantle card. It’s wonderful, for sure, but it stands out as being the only card signed by the artist. I wonder why? Did he need to make his mark on one card to stake his claim, or was he a big Mantle fan and wanted to be associated with The Mick? Perhaps Mike Aronstein or Pete Henrici at Baseball Nostalgia know. I’ll have to check.

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The last six cards of the set, all unseen in the Fleer issue, stand out. They make for a perfect page.

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There are other Feats sets: a 40-card Fleer set from 1980 with blank backs and a 22-card Fleer set from 1986 with logo/sticker backs. A good idea is hard to leave behind.

Editor’s note: More history on the connection between the Laughlin set and the Fleer set is available here, including this Laughlin ad that explains how his first Great Feats set came to be self-produced.

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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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!

Number 400 on Your Checklist, Number One in Your Heart

Mickey Mantle was the quintessential “baby boomer” icon in post-war America.  His good looks, athleticism and strength personified the American concept of exceptionalism.  “The Mick” was the ultimate hero for the white American male, who controlled all the levers of power.  It is not a stretch to state that Don Drysdale was the pitcher who complemented the slugger.

 To commemorate the SABR Baseball Committee’s 400th blog post, members were tasked with coming up with a post that tied in the number 400.  In 1969, Topps assigned Drysdale card number 400 in the set. Many of you know that Topps gave superstar players the “hundred” numbers.  The card turned out to be Don’s last regular issue card.  This post celebrates our blog’s milestone by examining the Big D’s cardboard legacy.

Most of you remember that 1968 was a record-breaking year for Don-while 1969 had a tragic ending. 1968 saw him set the record for consecutive scoreless innings with 58-2/3 (since broken by Orel Hershiser with 59 in 1988).  Unfortunately, starting 35 or more games for nine straight seasons finally caught up to Drysdale.  Ongoing shoulder issues culminated with a diagnosis of a torn rotator cuff.  After 12 starts in 1969, Don was forced to retire.

Standing 6’3’ and weighing 190, Don was a prime physical specimen and the epitome of the sun-splashed, California athlete.  Being handsome, well-spoken and playing in Los Angeles resulted in advertisement opportunities and TV appearances. People of a certain age remember the Big D as a guest on “The Donna Reed Show,” “Leave it to Beaver,” “Beverly Hillbillies” and the “Brady Bunch.” The alliteration of the double D’s in his name contributed his recognition in and out of baseball.

My favorite Drysdale card was issued in 1967.  The posed, follow through shot at Shea Stadium exudes confidence and command.  Don had mid-century America by the horns, and he knew it.

The early cards depict a young man still developing into a prime athlete.  Drysdale’s first Topps card in 1957 shows him with the Brooklyn “B” in the “Bums” last season in Ebbets Field.  The shift to LA in 1958 results in an airbrushed “LA” on the cap.  The Hires Root Beer card from that year makes him look rather cherubic.

1959 and 1960 are great, mostly due to the backdrop of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.  The massive football stadium-turned ballpark is certainly distinctive.

 Drysdale shows up on specialty cards as well. In 1959, Don joins teammates Johnny Podres and Clem Labine on a cool, multi-player card captioned: “Hitters Foes.” Podres is back in 1963, but this time Drysdale’s fellow superstar teammate, Sandy Koufax, joins him on the card titled: “Dodgers Big Three.”  Additionally, Drysdale has 1960 and 1962 All-Star cards and is on numerous league leaders.

Fleer attempted to break the Topps monopoly in 1963.  Topps successfully sued to stop future production, but Fleer managed to put out at least a portion of its set.  Don plays in “both ends of a double dip,” showing up in both sets.

Topps chose Don to represent the Dodgers in the 1967 poster insert and the 1968 large posters, which were sold individually, one per pack.  Both are excellent photos and the designs are superb in their simplicity.

As one of baseball’s top stars, Don is featured in every Topps insert or test issue set.  He shows up on Bazooka boxes, Post Cereal, Salada coins and many other oddball sets.

Receiving a “hundred” number in a Topps series in 1960s was to be recognized as a true icon.  Don is a man certainly worthy of our 400th post.  I’ll leave you with a photo of my Drysdale shrine in my memorabilia room.

To learn all there is to know about Don Drysdale, I highly recommend Joseph Wancho’s BioProject entry.

A Ted Williams mini-mystery…solved?

The hobby is full of secrets, mysteries, and a lore often built on hearsay, self-interest, imperfect memory, and conjecture. Of course sometimes there is actual evidence.

Today’s baseball card mystery is the mythical “Ted Signs for 1959” card #68 that has prompted many a collector to declare 79/80 good enough on the 1959 Fleer Ted Williams set.

About the card

Before plunging into the unknown, here is what’s known.

  • The card is significantly rarer than the other 79 cards in the set.
  • The card was pulled from production due to the exclusive contract Topps held with Bucky Harris. (Random aside: The first ever Topps card of Bucky Harris was in 1952 1953 1954 1955 1956 1991!)
  • The card was sent to collectors who contacted Fleer about its absence from the set.
  • And of course the card was and still is frequently counterfeited.

What remains a mystery, or at least lacking consensus, some 60 years later is just how early the card was pulled from production. Specifically, did card 68 ever make it into packs?

Ask the experts

Here is a fairly extensive literature review on the subject. While all sources agree the card was pulled early, none offer any specificity as to just how early “early” really was.

  • According to the Standard Catalog of Vintage Baseball Cards (5th Ed.), “card #68 was withdrawn from the set early in production and is scarce.”
  • The PSA Card Facts for the set note only that “The set’s most scarce and therefore prized piece is Card #68 (“Ted Signs for 1959”), which Fleer withdrew from the collection early in production.”
  • A more detailed PSA write-up on the card itself notes only that the “card was pulled from production early due to an alleged contract dispute with Buck [sic] Harris (the other man depicted on the card), resulting in a higher degree of scarcity.”
  • An article on Cardboard Connection is equally mum: “As a result, the card had to be pulled from production, pushing values up.”
  • A listing at Dean’s cards indicates that “Fleer was forced to remove the #68 card from distribution, due to the legal issues of using Harris’ image without his permission.”
  • An article on the set from Sports Collectors Digest refers to card 68 as “a single card that ended up being pulled off the presses…”. 
  • From Sports Collectors Daily (2012): “During the production process, the card was yanked from the set, creating a rarity that has driven set builders crazy for years.”
  • From Sports Collectors Daily (2016): “Fewer copies exist of that one compared to the other cards in the set because printing of it ceased early when the set was being created. It seems Red Sox GM Bucky Harris was under contract to Topps and thus, couldn’t appear in a Fleer set.  Fleer stopped the presses and pulled #68 but not before some of them had already been printed.”
  • From Tuff Stuff: “Fleer was forced to pull the card early from production.”
  • From Robert Edward Auctions: “This card was withdrawn from production due to legal issues relating to Fleer’s unauthorized use of Harris’ image.”
  • From Heritage Auctions: “[The card] is known for being difficult due to being pulled from circulation since Bucky Harris (who appears on this card) was under contract with Topps.”
  • From Leland’s: “The key to the 1959 Fleer Ted Williams Set. The Ted Signs for 1959 card #68 was pulled from production early making it a bit scarcer than the rest of the set. “
  • From KeyMan Collectibles: “Topps had Bucky Harris under exclusive contract and Fleer had to stop production of card 68 ‘Ted Signs for 1959’ making it a rare short print. Only a few made it out to the public.”

Equivocating on the issue one final time is this Heritage listing for an unopened box, which suggests the card shouldn’t be in the packs but might be.

“We can only speculate if card #68 ‘Jan 23, 1959 – Ted Signs for 1959’ can be found within. History says it should not as the card was not supposed to be sold.”

Heritage Auctions listing #80171

If it were well known or provable that card 68 did in fact make it into at least some packs, I have to imagine the Heritage catalog would have played up that fact in its listing. As it is, my read of the listing is much more a “probably not” than a “maybe.”

Primary sources

Of course, if I learned anything at all from my History teacher, primary sources are always best. As such, let’s see what the Frank H. Fleer Corporation had to say about the card back in August 1959.

A full transcript of the letter is here, but the key lines are these:

Due to the possibility of legal overtones, card #68 of the Ted Williams series was not put on the market for sale.  However, it was made and we have been able to send several to people such as you who have inquired.

So there you have it, right? Straight from Art Wolfe at Fleer, we see that card 68 was not put on the market for sale, i.e., did not make it into packs.

The ultimate primary source

However, where baseball cards are concerned, there are sources even more reliable than the Assistant Promotion Managers of the companies that make them. The best authority on card 68 and the only source truly worthy of the label “primary” is of course card 68 itself!

As luck would have it, I finally picked one of after all these years. I think you’ll agree it’s not a bad looking “2.”

I have to imagine the grade was based more on the card’s reverse, which has a prominent wax stain and a crease that shows up the right lighting makes evident.

Wait a minute! Did somebody say wax stain?!?! Let’s crack that card out of its plastic prison and get a better look.

Sure enough, it’s a wax stain. MYSTERY SOLVED! And lest you think this one card managed to sneak through quality control, here’s another…

And another…

This is also a good spot to thank reader “athomeatfenway” for the tip to check out page 212 of the Ted Williams bio “In Pursuit of Perfection” by Bill Nowlin and Jim Prime. Here, dealer Irv Lerner recounts an incredible story of the 1959 Fleer set along with his recollection of card 68 specifically.

“The initial run did have the number 68s in it. Two or three months afterward, they damaged that part of the plate so they could pull it out.”

Estimating rarity

Incidentally, the wax stains do more than confirm that card 68 made it into wax packs, albeit very early ones. The stains may also provide a rough means of estimating how many of these cards were issued in packs versus through direct correspondence with Fleer.

Imagine that one had access to front/back scans of a large sample of the card, for example, all 1200 or so PSA/SGC graded examples of card 68. Now assume 30 of the cards exhibited wax stains. Since the cards were issued in packs of 6 or 8 cards apiece, we might infer from the 30 stained cards that between 30 x 6 = 180 and 30 x 8 = 240 of the 1200 cards (about 15-20%) came from packs.

Postscript

One of our readers, Derek, provided this information via email.

Most sure these [wax-stained “Ted Signs” cards] came from 8-card packs as those were the first production line. They did not make 8-card packs after they pulled #68. That is another reason they are extremely rare to find.

Bonus info

In doing my research for this piece, I ran across some information outside the main storyline that nonetheless felt worth sharing.

First up, here is a 1958 photograph of Art Wolfe, the Fleer employee who signed letters to collectors in 1959. Source: October 12, 1958, Press and Sun-Bulletin (Binghamton, NY).

By March 1959, Mr. Wolfe had joined Fleer and was in Clearwater, Florida, doing his best to sign ballplayers. Source: March 21, 1959, News Journal (Wilmington, DE).

The following week the Fort Lauderdale News (March 25, 1959) covered the signing of Ted Williams by Fleer as an early sign of the cardboard apocalypse.

And a week after that, the April 2 (subscription required) Press and Sun-Bulletin (Binghamton, NY) covered Mr. Wolfe from Fleer in the middle of his “Just say no to Topps” campaign.

You might be surprised to see all this coverage of the baseball cards wars long before the financial side of the hobby exploded. Still, this stuff really did matter to kids back then! Here is the May 22, 1961, edition of the Miami News.

Fleer took a break from the baseball card business between 1963 and 1968, so it’s not surprising that Art Wolfe would return to his sportscasting roots, eventually becoming sports director for WPEN, known today as “97.5 The Fanatic.” Here is an ad from the July 13, 1965, Philadelphia Daily News.

Following his tenure with WPEN, Wolfe went on to become a sports reporter and anchor for Philadelphia’s KYW. This letter from a young reader in June 1986 stands as proof not only that Philly sports fans are the worst but that they start young! 😄

Clare R. “Art” Wolfe passed away in 2008, having spent most of his life a radio and TV man doing sports. However unappreciated his work may have been by an eighth grade Gregory Popowski, many of us—but not quite all of us—with complete 1959 Fleer Ted Williams sets owe Mr. Wolfe a debt of gratitude for putting those cards in the mail.

Committee note: Tomorrow the SABR Baseball Cards blog will be celebrating 400 posts with a specially themed article revolving around the number 400. Any guesses? Fitting though it might have been, you can probably already rule out Ted Williams!

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.