Perhaps the most mysterious and rare post-World War II set was issued by Bowman in 1949. The Philadelphia-based company produced a 36-card set featuring Pacific Coast League players in the same style as their major league cards. Strangely, Bowman only in distributed the cards in Portland (Oregon), Seattle and Philadelphia. Thus, only a small number of cards ever made it into circulation. Only around 2000 cards are known to be in collections.
My “go to” source for information on vintage PCL collectibles is Mark Macrae, who is a collector, dealer and historian. Mark kindly sent me an article he co-authored with Ted Zanidakis titled, “1949 Bowman Pacific Coast League Set.” The article was published in the March/April 1997 edition of the “Vintage & Classic Baseball Collector.” Most of the information in this piece is derived from the article. By the way, Mark has a complete set of the Bowman PCL cards.
The limited distribution of the product is hard to understand. Bowman went to the trouble of designing and printing the cards only to limit their distribution on the West Coast to the Pacific Northwest. The Los Angeles area had two teams, as did the Bay Area. Why not introduce the cards in an area containing significantly more potential buyers? Additionally, its hard to see the logic behind distributing PCL cards in Philadelphia, even if it was Bowman’s home base.
Speaking of which, the cards released in the Philadelphia area were included in the major league Bowman packs. Based on the print font on the back and the use of pastel background colors, the PCL cards were most likely mixed in with the big leaguers in the middle series. Original collections of Bowman cards from the Philadelphia area average around 3-5% PCL cards.
The aforementioned article discusses the recollections of a Seattle collector named Frank Caruso. He remembers purchasing the cards in 5-card packs for a nickel. Mr. Caruso didn’t remember any special wrapper or promotional materials at the stores. The cards may have used the same wrapper as the major league Bowman cards but contained only PCL players.
Mr. Caruso’s recollection puts into doubt a long-held belief that the cards were never distributed in packs on the West Coast. The PCL cards from Portland and Seattle often appear to be hand cut, leading to the assumption that the cards were issued in uncut sheets. Indeed, some uncut sheets turned up in the Portland area in the 1980s. However, Bowman was known to send uncut sheets of major league cards to candy distributors for promotional displays, so this practice may have been replicated with the PCL version.
So, why do many of the PCL cards appear to be miscut? One explanation offered by Mr. Macrae is that Bowman was very lax with quality control. Collectors of the Major League cards have often noted the propensity for Bowman cards to be poorly cut.
As with the regular Bowman cards, the PCL backs included two premiums. Twenty-five cents and five wrappers got you a baseball game and bank. Three wrappers and fifteen cents resulted in a ring. Apparently, only rings for Seattle and Los Angeles have surfaced. The rings are as rare as the cards.
Bowman’s rationale for selecting which PCL players would be included is murky. They left out many of the star players from 1948. For example, Gus Zernial of Hollywood had 237 hits and 156 RBI but didn’t make the cut. Also, Gene Woodling didn’t get a card and he hit .385 for San Francisco! The availability of photos may have been the deciding factor in who got a card.
There are some familiar names in the PCL set-at least to most readers of this blog. Here is a sampling: Joyner “Jo-Jo” White, Charles “Red” Adams, Pete “Inky” Coscarart, Mickey Grasso, Jack “Suds” Brewer and Herman Besse.
Currently, the least expensive card on eBay is $149 in fair condition, but you can own the entire 1987 reprint set for $39.99.
In 1949, major league baseball was still nine years away from moving the Giants and Dodgers to the West Coast. Television was just starting to make have a negative impact on the attendance figures of minor league baseball. The PCL was “major league” to the fans in the eight member cities. Bowman’s half-hearted foray into the PCL market seems like a mistake. Most likely, the cards would have sold well if offered to kids in all the franchise locations.
A couple years ago now, someone was running a Twitter sale and posted a batch of 1955 Bowmans. I hadn’t quite made the jump into pursuing Giants Bowman cards at the time but I looked at the batch anyway and one card jumped out at me that I had to have. So I responded to the tweet and the following conversation ensued.
“I’ll take the Bowman.”
“Which one? They’re all Bowmans.”
“The Bowman Bowman.”
The card that jumped out at me and the first 1955 Bowman I ever purchased was Roger Bowman’s Rookie Card. I knew nothing about him as a player* but the silliness of having a Bowman Bowman card was irresistible.
*I would discover that he was a former Giant but by the time his Rookie Card was printed his career was basically over.
And so a collection theme was born. I don’t have all of the cards in this post but they’re on my radar. Sometimes we collect our favorite teams. Sometimes we collect our favorite players. And sometimes we collect cards where the player name describes the card itself.
On the theme of the Bowman Bowman we’ll start with a pair of Johnson Johnstons. As a Giants fan the Johnston Cookies issues aren’t exactly relevant to my interests. But getting an Ernie or Ben Johnson card of those? That’s something I can feel completely fine about adding to my searchlist.
Sadly there aren’t a lot of guys whose names match the card manufacturers. Hank Gowdy, despite playing through the 1930s, never appears on a Goudey card. Score never made a Herb Score card.
Thankfully the Ted Williams company produced Ted Williams cards in its early 1990s sets and the Conlon Collection included a Jocko Conlan card as well. And to bring us back to where we started, Matthew Bowman gives us the modern version of the Bowman Bowman card.
But it’s not just card manufacturers where this checklist is relevant. Player names can match team names whether it’s Dave Philley as a Phillie or Johnny Podres on the Padres. Jose Cardenal almost got aced out since his time with the Cardinals corresponds to when Topps calls them the “Cards”* but his Kellogg’s card, with no team name on the front but Cardinals on the back, doesn’t do this.
*Cards cards are an honorary member of this collection.
Unfortunately guys like Daryl Boston and Reggie Cleveland never played for Boston or Cleveland respectively.
First names can also match in this department. Like we’ve got Angel the Angel who sadly never pitched when the club called itself The Los Angeles Angels. There are plenty of other players named Angel on Baseball Reference but none appeared for the Angels.
Sticking with first names and moving to more thematic cards. We’ve got a Chase chase card and a Rookie Rookie Card. I went with Chase the batdog whose card is a short print in 2013 Topps Heritage Minors but there are also a few Chase Field cards that are numbered to various small numbers. Sadly, images of those are hard to come by.
The Rookie Rookie though I enjoy a lot. I usually hate the RC badge but in this case it really makes the card.
There are also a couple more thematic near misses. Cookie Lavagetto left the Oakland Oaks the year before Mothers Cookies started making its PCL sets in the 1950s and Cookie Rojas, despite managing for the Angels in the 1980s, was on the only West Coast team that did not get Mothers Cookies cards.
And finally, much to my dismay, the 1968 Topps Game Matty Alou Error Card does not contain an error. Although I do keep that card around as one of my favorite Error cards.
Any more suggestions? Please leave them in the comments!
A couple cards that came up in the comments the week after this posted.
First a Wally Post Post card which Tom Bowen suggested in the comments. Thanks Tom! And second a green tint* Pumpsie Green that I knew of an completely spaced on when I wrote this.
Rather than imagine the Topps intern assigned to building the checklist simply whiffed on Joltin’ Joe (or that there even was a Topps intern with such a job!), I have to believe Topps simply lacked the rights to feature DiMaggio’s likeness on cardboard. A look at other postwar sets during and after DiMaggio’s career show his absence in 1961 was definitely the rule and not the exception.
1933-1941 (AKA “Prewar,” depending where you lived!)
During the early part of the Clipper’s career, while he was not in EVERY set, one can say he tended to appear in every major set you’d expect to see him in, and then some, including these two gems from the 1933-36 Zeenut set.
Knowing DiMaggio didn’t make his Yankee debut until 1936, it’s not a big surprise that he didn’t appear in the three major gum card releases of the mid-1930s: 1933 Goudey, 1934 Goudey, and 1934-36 Diamond Stars. That said, his appearance in 1933 Goudey wouldn’t have been completely out of the question since that set did include 15 minor leaguers, including a fellow Pacific Coast Leaguer, Pete Scott.
Meanwhile, the 1934 Goudey and 1934-36 Diamond Stars checklists did not include any minor leaguers, so there’s no reason DiMaggio would have even been up for consideration.
Now some of you may know about the 1937 Diamond Stars extension set and surmise that Joltin’ Joe might have cracked that checklist. Unfortunately, all that seems to have survived is a single sheet of 12 cards, which of course DiMaggio is not on. All we can say for sure then is that if National Chicle did have a Diamond Stars card planned it would have been a gem!
The two-year stretch from 1936-37 did see DiMaggio appear on several cards, now as a Yankee, though there is room for debate among the collecting orthodoxy as to which constitute his true rookie card. (Don’t ask me, I’d vote for his San Francisco Seals cards!)
These four from 1936 have the benefit of being a year earlier than the 1937 cards, hence score a few more rookie points for their date of issue. On the other hand, all are of the oversized premium variety, which not all collectors put in the same category as the smaller cardboard offerings that come from packs of gum or cigarettes.
In fact, DiMaggio did crack one (cataloged as) 1936 (but really 1936-37) set of gum cards, but the fact that the World Wide Gum were only issued in Canada gives pause to a good many of the Hobby’s arbiters of rookiehood. If nothing else, though, note the nickname on the back of the card. A bit harder to read but the bio would not pass muster today in its reference to Joe as “a giant Italian.”
One of DiMaggio’s most sought after cards, rookie or not, was another Canada-only release and came out the following year under the later-on-much-more-famous O-Pee-Chee name.
Back in the U.S., DiMaggio made it onto two cards in 1937, but as with the preceding year they were both of the larger premium variety. The Goudey offering (left) is not much (any?) different from its 1936 counterpart, while the Exhibits 4-in-1 is particularly notable in its pairing of the Yankee Clipper with Lou Gehrig. (Oh, and the other two guys are pretty good also.)
It is finally in 1938 that Joltin’ Joe receives his first ever, God honest American gum card as a Yankee, thanks to the 1938 Goudey “Heads Up” set. Like the other 23 players on the checklist, he in fact appears twice, once with a plain background (card #250) and once with a cartoon background (card #274).
Finally, DiMaggio and Gehrig make it onto another 4-in-1 of Yankee legends, this time swapping out Tony Lazzeri for Bill Dickey.
To this point, just about every card I’ve shown, save the 1938 Goudey pair, has some level of oddball status attached. This was not the case from 1939-41 when Gum, Inc., hit the scene with its three year run of major bubble gum releases under the Play Ball name. Though the term is perhaps overused, I’ll throw DiMaggio’s 1941 card out there as one of the truly iconic cards of the Hobby.
The Play Ball cards weren’t DiMaggio’s only cards from that three-year stretch. He could also be found in the 1939-46 Exhibits “Salutations” set, yet another oversized offering…
And the 1941 Double Play set, where he was paired with his outfield neighbor, Charley Keller.
If there’s a theme to all of this, beyond just the opportunity to post a lot of incredible cards, it’s that Joe DiMaggio was no stranger to cardboard during the prewar portion of his career. On the contrary, he was in just about every major set there was, and then some!
These next ten years take us to the end of the Yankee Clipper’s career while also leading us through the wartime era where not a lot of card sets were being produced. DiMaggio cards didn’t simply follow the dip in overall card production but practically disappeared altogether.
Joe’s first card, post-1941, comes from the 1943 M.P. & Company card, a somewhat “off the radar” almost certainly unlicensed set, something we’ll see quite a bit more of as we proceed through this section of the article. (Side note: This set is screaming out for one of you to solve the remaining 21% of a mystery.)
Two notable aspects of the card are Joe’s position, right field (!), and the fact that his recent hitting streak is not mentioned.
The latter of these notables is addressed five years later in the 1948 Swell “Sport Thrills” set, which also happens to be the first gum card set of baseball highlights and a possible inspiration for the 1959 and 1961 cards Topps put out under a similar name.
First off, I’ll show the back of the card, which is everything you might expect to see in a card featuring The Streak.
However, the front of the card is more than a bit disappointing to DiMaggio collectors for obvious reasons. “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?” indeed!
What I read into this card is that Sport Thrills did not have permission from DiMaggio to use his likeness on the card. Yes, it’s possible the folks at Swell truly considered “stopping the streak” a greater achievement than the streak itself, but I kind of doubt it.
But then again, look who made it onto the set’s Ted Williams card, so who knows!
1948 was also the year that Gum, Inc., reappeared on the scene, beginning an eight-year stretch (1948-55) of baseball card sets under the Bowman name. the Bowman sets managed to include pretty much every big name of the era but one: Joe DiMaggio.
Personally I would have loved to see the Yankee Clipper in one of these early Bowman sets, but a “what if” we can consider as collectors is whether the rights to Joe D. would have left another Yankee centerfielder off the checklist in 1951.
You might not have expected any mention of Topps so soon, but it’s worth noting that Topps made its baseball debut not in 1952 or even 1951 but in 1948 with 19 of the 252 cards in its Magic Photos release featuring baseball players.
The first five cards pictured could lead you to believe the players were all retired greats, but in fact six of the cards in the set featured images of the 1948 World Champion Cleveland Indians. Well shoot, this was the one year from 1947-53 that the Yankee’s didn’t win the World Series! Crazy to think it, but perhaps if the Yankees and not the Indians had signed Paige and Doby, there would be a playing career Topps card of Joe DiMaggio!
One of the least known (in terms of origin, not familiarity) releases of the era was the 1948 Blue Tint set. DiMaggio has a card in the set but in what’s emerging as a common theme the card (and entire set!) are believed to be unlicensed.
Similar to the 1938 Goudey cards a decade earlier, the 1948 1949 Leaf set finally presents us with an unambiguously mainstream, all-American, picture-on-the-front, New York Yankees card of the Clipper. It even boasts #1 in what is one of the earliest examples of “hero numbering” in a baseball card set.
Astute collectors may now say, “A-ha! That’s why he wasn’t in Bowman. Leaf signed him first.” However, my own belief is that Leaf not only didn’t sign DiMaggio but didn’t sign anyone, making this card as well as the rest of the set unlicensed. (As always, I would love it if a reader with more information is able to confirm or correct this in the comments.)
The next same year M.P. & Company was back with what I wrote about last year as the laziest set ever, adding to our tally of unlicensed Clipper cards. I rather like the blue added to Joe’s uniform since the 1943 release, but I don’t love the bio remaining unchanged even six years later.
In 1951 Topps hit the shelves in earnest with five different baseball offerings, a number that now feels small but was huge for its time. Though DiMaggio had already achieved all-time great status, there was no reason to expect him in the Connie Mack’s All-Stars set, in which the most modern player was Lou Gehrig.
However, there was reason to expect DiMaggio in the Current All-Stars set, which featured 11 participants from the 1950 All-Star Game. While DiMaggio wouldn’t consider the contest among his career highlights, having gone 0-3 and grounded into a double play, his presence at Comiskey that day at least qualified him for this tough Topps release.
Two other closely related Topps issues from 1951 were the Red Backs and Blue Backs. Though nobody would confuse their checklists for the top 104 stars of the era, it seems reasonable to think Topps would have gone with DiMaggio if they could have.
The final Topps offering of 1951 is one that seemed almost assured to include DiMaggio but didn’t. Topps Teams featured complete team photos of every team on the checklist, but there was only one problem. The checklist did not include the Yankees!
We close out the 1942-1951 stretch with the 1951 Berk Ross set, one that did in fact include a Joe DiMaggio card. In fact, there were two cards if we count his two-player panel with Granny Hamner as separate.
While not a lot is known about these Berk Ross cards, the one thing most collectors believe is that these cards, much like the other DiMaggio cards of the era, were unlicensed.
As much as some collectors, then and now, would have loved to see a 1952 Topps card of the Yankee Clipper, we of course know he did not crack the set’s 407-card checklist, nor should he have been expected to. While “career capper” cards are the norm today, the tradition at Topps for many years was to focus its flagship set on the players expected to play in the current season.
DiMaggio did find himself with an unlicensed career capper in the 1952 follow-up from Berk Ross
Beyond 1952 we are clearly in post-career territory, meaning DiMaggio cards would mainly rely on three types of issues: all-time greats, highlights, and reprints.
Of course that’s if we’re talking about the cards themselves. Joltin’ Joe was in fact the frontman for the 1953 Bowman set, his likeness and endorsement appearing on the boxes and the wrappers.
Side note: Topps liked the idea enough to try their own version of this in 1954.
The first opportunity for a post-career DiMaggio card came from Topps in 1954. If you’re confused, the set I’m talking about isn’t the 1954 Topps baseball set of Hank Aaron RC fame but a 1954 Topps set that mainly consisted of cards like this.
The 1954 Topps Scoop set captured 156 notable moments in our history, and four of them came from the world of baseball.
DiMaggio and his famous Streak would have been right at home in the set, but their absence was hardly conspicuous either given the primarily non-sports focus of the set.
The next opportunity for a DiMaggio card came in 1959 when Topps issued a ten-card Baseball Thrills subset as part of its main release. However, Topps focused all ten of the cards on current players.
The same year, Fleer issued its 80-card Ted Williams set. As the set’s name indicated, all the cards were of Ted Williams. At the same time, many of the cards included cameos of other players and personalities. As linked as the careers of Williams and DiMaggio were, a card of the pair would have fit the set perfectly.
The very next year, Fleer issued the first of its two “Baseball Greats” sets. The checklist boasted 78 retired greats and one active player (an eyesore of a Ted Williams card) but no Joe DiMaggio.
The checklist nearly doubled to 154 cards in 1961, leaving plenty of room for Joltin’ Joe. Of course, he was nowhere to be found.
Another player highlighting the history of the game in 1960 and 1961 was Nu-Cards. Their 1960 “Hi-Lites” set of 72 postcard sized cards was at the time the largest set of its kind ever issued. Two of the set’s cards featured DiMaggio, ending his decade-long exile from cardboard.
The 1961 Nu-Card “Scoops” set, one of my favorites, added 80 cards, now standard sized, but numbered as if the set were much larger. Again, DiMaggio makes the set twice.
As already mentioned, Topps was also back in 1961 with “Baseball Thrills,” but this time they departed from the 1959 version by including mostly retired stars. Still no Joe.
Nostalgia was evidently in the air in 1961 as yet another player entered the scene with an all-time greats offering. Golden Press produced a booklet of 33 cards that I rate among the best looking ever made.
I don’t know enough about the Nu-cards and Golden Press sets to know if DiMaggio’s image was used with his permission or if perhaps different rules might have applied when cards were issued in book form, as was the case with Golden Press. What I will say is that his absence from the biggies (Topps, Fleer), particularly on the 20th anniversary of the Streak, was more than just accidental.
This next ten-year stretch is one that was fairly thin on tribute cards, so there were few sets produced were a DiMaggio would have made sense.
The 1962 Topps set included its ten-card “Babe Ruth Special” subset, no doubt timed with the falling of Babe’s single-season home run record the year before. It was a fun set but not one that Joe DiMaggio would have belonged in.
DiMaggio did make an appearance in a 1967 set that might cause some collectors to say, “Hey, he finally got a Topps card!” The card came in the “Retirado” subset of the 1967 Venezuelan issue often referred to as Topps Venezuelan. However, the set was almost certainly not produced by Topps, and was more than likely a…you guessed it…unlicensed issue. (A future SABR Baseball Cards article will cover this topic in more detail.)
Bazooka issued an all-time greats set in 1969-70 that included small cards of baseball’s immortals and larger cards of baseball’s greatest achievements. In this case, DiMaggio might have fit either but ended up in neither.
Topps again featured amazing achievements in its 1971 “Greatest Moments” set. However, with all moments coming from current players, there would have been no place for Joe D.
As in the previous ten years it would be up to the smaller players to keep Joe DiMaggio’s cardboard legacy alive. One such player was Robert Laughlin, later affiliated with various Fleer sets of the 1970s. His cult classic World Series set (original version) from 1967 featured DiMaggio as the broom swinger of the 1939 Fall Classic.
With production of these Laughlin cards limited to 300 sets, collectors were forced to head to Oakland area Jack in the Box restaurants to feed their appetite for the Clipper, though it’s possible the younger burger eaters would have been even happier to land a different Yankee slugger.
The birth of TCMA in 1972 almost single-handedly accounted for the rapid spike in DiMaggio cards over the next decade, with Robert Laughlin and Shakey’s Pizza doing their part as well.
Two Robert Laughlin offerings that included DiMaggio were the 1972 “Great Feats” set and the 1974 “All-Star Games” set.
The “Great Feats” set, with mostly minor changes, became Fleer’s 1973 “Baseball’s Greatest Feats” set. One major change, however, was that DiMaggio’s card was dropped, almost certainly out of legal fears by Fleer.
TCMA’s first DiMaggio card was part of a beautiful set dedicated to the All-Time New York Yankee Team.
As were the Laughlin cards, TCMA cards were unlicensed and sold direct to hobbyists by mail order. Lawsuits would eventually hit TCMA, but at least for the time being they were able to issue cards of the Clipper with impunity. I can certainly see their “1930s League Leaders” card (left) from 1973 escaping the notice of Joe and his legal team, though was sufficiently under the radar, but I wonder if their 1973-74 “Autograph Series,” designed for signature by the players, might have been pushing things just a bit.
Among TCMA’s other DiMaggio offerings around this time were these postcards pairing the Yankee Clipper with other top-shelf Hall of Famers.
TCMA’s 1936-39 Yankees Dynasty set, issued in 1974, produced another two cards of Joe DiMaggio.
And if you couldn’t get enough DiMaggio/Williams cards, TCMA had your back in 1974 with its “1940s League Leaders” set.
I know a lot of collectors knock the unlicensed stuff, but I’m personally thrilled that TCMA was out there creating the cards that needed to be created. Topps had more than 20 years to figure out a way to pair Joe D. and Teddy Ballgame, and it never happened. This card needed to happen, and I’m glad it did.
We’ll take a quick intermission from TCMA cards to present a three-year run (1975-77) of DiMaggio cards from Shakey’s Pizza.
And now we’re back with more TCMA, this time a 1975 reboot of their All-Time Yankees set featuring all new photos.
Reprint cards and sets hit the hobby mainstream in 1977, including these two cards of DiMaggio, both originally from 1938. The first came from Bert Randolph Sugar’s book of “Dover Reprints” and the second came from Jim Rowe. (DiMaggio’s 1941 Play Ball card would come out as a Dover Reprint the following year.)
1977 was also the year that Renata Galasso began her 270-card magnum opus known alternately as “Decade Greats” and “Glossy Greats.” The first series of 45 cards, issued in 1977 in partnership with TCMA, assigned its very first card to Joe DiMaggio. (DiMaggio returned to the set in the 1984 Series 6 release.)
Evidently it was very much in vogue to lead off a set’s checklist with the Yankee Clipper as we see it happen two more times in 1979 TCMA issues, their 1953 Bowman-like “Stars of the 1950s” and their lesser known “Diamond Greats” set.
Before heading to 1980, I’ll just note that we’ve made it to 1979 with not a single Topps card of DiMaggio and possibly not a single licensed card from any company since either 1941 or 1948.
The Me Decade kicked off with a beautiful Perez-Steele postcard of the Clipper. Dick Perez was not yet associated with Donruss, but Dick would soon lend his artwork to multiple all-time greats sets produced by Donruss over the next few years. You can probably guess whether or not those sets would include Joe DiMaggio. (Interestingly, there was no DiMaggio in the 108 “Great Moments” postcards released by Perez-Steele from 1985-1997. Ditto for the 44-card Perez-Steele “Celebration” series in 1989.)
DiMaggio was in an 30-card unlicensed set of “Baseball Legends” produced by Cramer Sports Promotions, the company that would soon become Pacific Trading Cards.
While other card makers joined the party, TCMA was still king in the early 1980s when it came to the all-time greats. Their third go-round of an All-Time Yankees set presented collectors with an early version of a “rainbow” nearly 40 years after Goudey did the same.
This same year, TCMA also included DiMaggio in its “Baseball Immortals” issued under their SSPC brand.
These 1980 “Superstars” are sometimes listed as TCMA and sometimes listed under the Seckeli name. (Andrew Aronstein, son of TCMA co-founder Mike Aronstein, believes the cards were sold by TCMA but not produced by TCMA. The Standard Catalog notes the cards were probably produced by Card Collectors Closet in Springfield, MA.) The set included 45 cards in all and five of DiMaggio.
A second series of 45 cards followed in 1982, this time with some non-baseball cards in the checklist and only a single DiMaggio.
The same year, Baseball Card News put out a set of 20 cards, including two with DiMaggio, one solo and one alongside Bob Feller.
1982 also saw three more TCMA sets with DiMaggio cards. Baseball’s Greatest Hitters and Baseball’s Greatest Sluggers featured standard sized baseball cards, and “Stars of the 50s” featured larger postcard-sized cards.
The streak of (probably) unlicensed DiMaggio cards finally met its end following the release of one last (probably) unlicensed DiMaggio card from the Big League Collectibles “Diamond Classics” set.
Before presenting the licensed DiMaggio issue, we’ll take one quick detour to highlight a set DiMaggio should have been in but wasn’t. The 1983 Donruss “Hall of Fame Heroes”set of 44 cards presented a terrific opportunity for DiMaggio to make his “big three” debut. (Donruss continued to put out all-time greats sets in 1984 and 1985 but neither included Joe D.)
Instead, DiMaggio signed on with Authentic Sports Autographs (ASA) for a twelve-card, limited edition set consisting entirely of DiMaggio cards.
I suspect “The Joe DiMaggio Story” by ASA represented the first time the Yankee Clipper got paid for his likeness on a baseball card in 42 years.
Rather than continue set by set, I’ll refer readers to an article from Night Owl Cards on DiMaggio’s more modern issues (or lack thereof) and simply close with some highlights.
DiMaggio’s next appearance with a major baseball card maker, which for now I’ll define as holding an MLB/MLBPA license, came in 1986 as part of the Sportflics “Decade Greats” set.
I can’t say for certain, but I think this was the first DiMaggio card to come out of a pack since 1961’s Nu-Card Scoops set.
I hate to bill this next one as “major card maker,” but it fits the definition I offered earlier. So here it is, 1989 Starting Lineup Baseball Greats.
The next major card maker to score a deal with Joe was, well, Score, in 1992. Several different cards, most very nice looking, were inserts either in packs or factory sets. The relationship would migrate to Score’s Pinnacle brand in 1993.
DiMaggio finally made his Fleer debut in 1998, though it was in a somewhat unusual way. The card was part of Fleer’s tribute to the Sports Collectors Digest hobby publication and showed DiMaggio signing cards for Pinnacle in 1993. How many times do you see one brand of baseball cards featured on another?
It was only a matter of time before Upper Deck got into the DiMaggio derby, though it would have to be posthumously. The relationship would continue until more or less the baseball (mostly) death of the company in 2010.
And what about Topps? The “baseball card company of record” at long last issued its first Joe DiMaggio card in 2001 as part of the “Before There Was Topps” subset. (For all those Mantle collectors who regard the 1952 Topps as Mantle’s rookie due to its being his first Topps card, I present to you your DiMaggio rookie!)
Topps would really jump into the DiMaggio game in 2007 and to this day remains your most likely source for future DiMaggio cards, even if Topps does not have an agreement in place at the moment. Overall though, Topps produced baseball cards from 1948-2000, a span of 53 years, with no Joe DiMaggio. Topps didn’t quite match 56, who who the hell ever will?
So all of this was my really long way of saying that it makes sense there was no Streak card in the 1961 Topps Baseball Thrills subset. Too bad though, it would have been a helluva card!
Kids all over Seattle shouted “hot diggity dog” when they discovered that Seattle Rainiers wiener cards were back in 1963. Garbage can raiding and dumpster diving would once again be the norm in alleys across the city. Kids “dogged” their mothers to not “wienie out” and buy the cheap franks. Frankly, they would only settle for the “card-carrying” brand: “Milwaukee Sausage Company.”
For those of you who were able to “digest” my previous “all-meat” offerings, you remember that Hygrade and Henry House were the companies who included cards in wiener packages. If Seattle was the norm, minor league teams must have frequently changed official hot dog providers. Looking through Rainiers programs from the late 1940s to mid-1960s, I count six different companies who claimed top dog status at Sicks’ Seattle Stadium.
As a side note, I see an omen in the fact that “Milwaukee” was the name of the company. Of course, the Wisconsin city would soon play a part in dashing the Northwest’s claim of big-league status. I will now remove my tin foil hat made of discarded hot dog wrappers.
The Milwaukee Sausage cards measure 4-1/4” square, feature a larger photo, and have less biographical information than the previous two iterations. A total of 11 cards comprise the set. As with the other wiener brands’ cards, the black and white photos are the same as those issued on the popcorn cards for that season.
To illustrate the rarity of finding cards today, a Paul Smith card-in fair condition-is currently offered on eBay for $1,899. The seller does allow for installment payments-if you are salivating at prospect of owning one of these “puppies.”
In 1963, the Rainiers were affiliated with Boston. The eleven cards in the set include a few players who saw limited action in Boston. The biggest name-by far-is the manager, legendary Red Sox hurler Mel Parnell.
Pete Smith sipped some coffee at Fenway in 1962 and 1963. He started in his first game at Detroit on 9/13/62. He lasted 3 and 2/3 innings giving up 8 runs, all earned.
Although I couldn’t find Milwaukee Sausage cards for Pete Jernigan, Bill Spanswick and Archie Skeen, each made it onto a Topps Rookie Stars cards. Spanswick has the distinction of being the other guy on Tony Conigliaro’s rookie card. By the way, Skeen never played in a major league game.
Other featured players with big league experience with other organizations include coach Elmer Singleton, Billy Harrell (13 games with Sox), George Spencer, and the aforementioned Paul Smith.
Well, after force feeding you more hot dogs than Joey Chestnut eats on Independence Day, it’s time to put away the mustard and sauerkraut. Hopefully, you have come to realize that America is a better place for having had a photo of Mel Parnell enclosed in a package of wieners.
Author’s note: Before “biting” into part two of the Seattle Rainiers wiener cards series, I have new information about the Hygrade wieners cards in part one. The Standard Catalog of Vintage Baseball Cards stated that only 11 of the 22 cards have ever been cataloged. However, Seattle area collector Charles Kapner informed me that he has 13 different cards and knows of two more. Thus, it is possible that—as the back of each card states—there are really 22 different cards.
Three years after Hygrade wieners were first put on the rotating warmer at the local bowling alley and the cards tossed in the dumpster with the discarded Desenex aerosol cans, Henry House meat products included a new set of Seattle Rainiers cards in their wiener packages.
The 1960 Henry House set is comprised of 18 cards and have several similarities to the Hygrade version from 1957. For instance, the cards are printed with red ink and include a small player photo accompanied by a short biography. This time, though, the cards are vertically oriented and feature a detachable mail in coupon. Kids could send in two coupons plus 25 cents and receive a nifty Rainiers uniform patch.
The cards are “skip numbered” using the players’ uniform numbers. As with the Hygrade cards, the Henry House photos are the same ones found on the popcorn cards.
The 1960 Rainiers were affiliated with the Cincinnati Reds and managed by Dick Sisler. The roster was comprised mostly of veterans with some major league experience. A few prospects were sprinkled in as well. Some of the familiar names include Gordy Coleman, Erv Palica, Dave Stenhouse, Jerry Zimmerman, Ray Ripplemeyer, Charlie Beamon, and Hal Bevan.
Another veteran is Seattle University basketball and baseball legend Johnny O’Brien. The former Pirate and Brave finished up his career with Seattle in 1960.
Don Rudolph, former White Sox pitcher and manager of his exotic dancer wife, shows up in the set as well.
Remember, there is still one more installment to come in this “dog” of a series. Until the next post, I am off to the West Seattle Lanes to eat a Hygrade or Henry House wiener that has been rotating on the warmer for the last 60 years.
Since it has been awhile since I irritated (I mean enlightened) you with a multi-part post, I have decided to ring in the new year with a really “meaty” series. This time I’m offering a “frank” discussion of the three iterations of the Seattle Rainiers’ “wiener” cards.
In 1957, the United States was flexing its muscles on the world stage and producing large amounts of processed foods that would set the “baby boomers” on a lifetime course of obesity and heart disease. The pristine environment of the Pacific Northwest–with its healthy outdoorsy types–was no exception. The Carstens Meat Products company produced Hygrade brand wieners to ensure that all boys and girls literally internalized the patriotic fervor (flavor) of the All-American hot dog.
Of course, hot dogs and baseball are inextricably linked, thus coupling the two in marketing campaigns made perfect sense. So, on a regional basis, major league and minor league players’ picture cards found their way into wiener packages.
If putting cardboard under the juicy, salt and nitrate laden sausage tubes seems counter-intuitive, you are not accounting for good old American ingenuity. Mid-century America was offering up one innovation after another. So, putting a waxed or plastic coating over the photo of baseball players and adding them to meat packaging was just another example of the prevailing “can do” attitude.
But what seems like a good idea doesn’t always stand the test of time or–in this case–briny juice. The cards were often juice stained and bent from the shrink wrapping of the dogs. Therefore, finding cards in excellent condition is rare. You may remember that the most famous wiener cards, Kahn’s, changed tactics and had kids mail order the cards.
The Hygrade cards use the same photos as found on the popcorn cards which were distributed at Sicks’ Stadium inside bags of popcorn. Here are links to my posts on that subject.
Although the back states that there are 22 cards, only 12 have ever been catalogued. The small photo is juxtaposed with biographical information under the banner: “Meet the Rainiers.”
The most interesting feature is “Kewpie’s Korner.” A small drawing of the former player and radio color commentator, “Kewpie” Dick Barrett, accompanies text exhorting the collector to eat plenty of Hygrade wieners.
Barrett was a legend in the Pacific Coast League. Pitching mostly for the Rainiers, Dick amassed 234 PCL wins, as stated on the cards. His major league career took place primarily during the war years. Barrett’s cherubic face resembled a popular doll known as “kewpie,” hence the nickname. The short, roly-poly Barrett did not fit the bill of a star athlete, but he was much beloved by the “Suds” fans.
“Kewpie’s Korner” stated that the cards could be traded in for 8” X 10” photos, just like the popcorn cards. However, I was unable to discover where kids made the transaction. The 1957 program has an ad for Hygrade, but it doesn’t mention the cards.
To find a card any condition is extremely rare and very expensive. Poor condition cards go for over $100. I don’t own one but have seen them in the possession of Northwest sports memorabilia collectors. The wiener cards coincided with the only season as Rainiers for legends Maury Wills and manager Lefty O’Doul.
Another notable is Larry Jansen, who was once the ace of the New York Giants staff. He won 23 games in 1951 for the pennant winning Giants.
Also, the first Filipino-American to play Major League Baseball, Bobby Balcena, is in the set.
I will leave you with these sage words: “Hygrade on the package means Quality on the plate.”
While recently looking through my 1975 Topps binder, I was drawn to an “uncommon” common- the one and only Topps card of Bruce Ellingsen. His cherubic face and pompadour do not match the prevailing 1970s style of long, unkept hair, mutton chop sideburns and mustaches-though his sideburns are creeping down. Intrigued by the photo, I was compelled to find out more about Bruce and this ultimate common.
The photo was only three years old when the card was issued. In November of 1971, the Angels plucked Bruce from the Dodgers in the Rule 5 draft. Based on the red and navy jersey piping, he is with the Angels when the photo was taken. In April of 1972, California returned Bruce to the Dodgers-which is required by Rule 5 if the player doesn’t make the major league roster. So, the photo had to be taken in the spring of 1972.
Topps had at least one photo of Ellingsen on the Dodgers in case he ever made his LA debut.
The Dodgers selected Ellingsen in the 1967 amateur draft in the 63rd round. Though he put up some descent numbers, he was apparently blocked by the Dodgers quality, big league staff. After the Angels sent him back to the Dodgers, he toiled for two more years in AAA Albuquerque. For some reason, Bruce did make it to Dodger Stadium and suited up, since there is photographic evidence. Perhaps, it was the annual exhibition series with the Angels.
Bruce’s big break come prior to the 1974 season when the Dodgers shipped him to Cleveland for a raw, untested minor leaguer named Pedro Guerrero. Yes, this is the same Pedro Guerrero who will become an All-Star.
Ellingsen didn’t make the Indians roster out of spring training, so it was back to AAA-this time with the Oklahoma City Eighty-Niners. However, the Tribe made his big-league dream come true with a July call up. Bruce proceeded to post a 1-1 record in 16 games. He was with the Cleveland long enough to get a team issued postcard.
Anticipating a possible long term stay at the “mistake by the lake,” Topps issues Ellingsen’s only card in 1975. Alas, he never saw a big-league mound in 1975 or ever again. Bruce returned to Oklahoma City for two seasons, retiring after the 1976 season in which he went 4-12 with a 6.43 ERA.
If Bruce had stuck with Cleveland beyond 1975, Topps had a photo ready to go for 1976-as this custom card clearly shows.
I discovered a few other things about Mr. Ellingsen. First, his nickname was “Little Pod,” though I’m not sure why. Too bad someone didn’t nickname him Duke, when he played for the Albuquerque Dukes. “Duke Ellingsen” would have been a real “jazzy” nickname. Also, Bruce played winter ball for Hermosillo in the Mexican Pacific League-where he wore the cool jacket in this photo.
Bruce Ellingsen’s card is the epitome of a common. Yet, there is something satisfying about knowing that his dream of playing baseball came true, and he has a card to prove it.
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.
As a baseball fan/researcher, one thing I believe is that every player in MLB history is the answer to at least one trivia question. It’s my goal (however unachievable it is) to find that piece of trivia for every player. As a card collector, I dream of having at least one card of every player ever.
Certainly, I’ll most likely never own a card of George Noftsker of the 1884 Altoona Mountain City club of the Union Association, and it’s equally doubtful that a cardboard issue of 1876 Chicago White Stocking rightfielder Oscar Bielaski will ever end up in my possession. Regardless, it would be great to fill that never ending binder as much as possible.
It’s that dream that compelled me one night to enter the name Louis Sockalexis into the search field on eBay. I don’t know why. Perhaps I was reading a book on him at the time; I do own a biography on him and have read it a few times. Maybe that’s it. Maybe not. But regardless, I stumbled across a 2010 Obak Tristar Sockalexis card! Naturally, after looking at the names in the set I was intrigued enough to purchase the set right away.
This set is an homage to the original Obak sets from 1909-11. Those originals were inserted into Obak cigarette packages. They feature players primarily from the Pacific Coast League and were 1 ½” by 2 5/8” in size, much like the infamous t206 set. These were later classified as T212. If you ever were curious about where those Letter-Number classifications originated, look no further than card 66 in the 2010 Tristar Obak set! Because that card is of Jefferson Burdick, the man who created the American Card Catalog.
In any event, the 2010 Tristar Obak set is the more traditional card size (although there are mini parallel inserts), and as an unlicensed product there are no logos or team names on them. These cards are very quirky and are probably an acquired taste. But I love them for two main reasons.
They’re very simple. White border with blue letters at the bottom. Last name in larger print followed by a brief description in smaller print. And by description, it varies. Some descriptions are teams, some are a brief reason why the depicted person is in the set in the first place.
Most of the images used of the people on the cards are black & white (as many of them are from the 19th century and early 20th century). And those backgrounds! Bright, colorful scenery! Tommie Aaron stretching to receive a throw over a bright yellow sunset? Absolutely. David Clyde going into his windup over a cloudy purple backdrop? Yes, please! Maurice Van Robays in front of a barn? I wouldn’t have it any other way. Yes, they’re a bit gaudy, but I think they’re damn charming… and fun!
What I like perhaps the most about this set is that it makes me flip over the cards to figure out why they’re in the set! And in some cases, to find out exactly who these people are.
The set is divided up into several subsets: History in the Making (top minor league prospects), History’s Greatest Legends (baseball greats), Heroes and Legends (players known for various feats or tall tales), #1 Overall Draft Picks, Minor Leagues Best, MiLB Players of the Year, Can You Believe (players with amazing stories), Game Changers (innovators in baseball and beyond), Future Stars, Multi-Sport, Pop Icons, Historic Names, Pacific Coast League, and U.S. Presidents.
Highlighting the Historic Names subset are two cards of Sherry Magee of T206 Rushmore fame, though the Obak set’s Magie variation brings much less today on the open market than its predecessor from a century earlier.
The cards at the end of the set are all over the place. Card number 106, for example, is pro wrestler Hulk Hogan.
What steals the show for me is the Game Changers subset. By far the largest chunk of the set. Where else can the founders of Coke & Pepsi be on the same team?
I had mentioned Heinz, and since I’m from Chicago I make sure his card is nowhere near Harry Stevens’ card, as he’s widely known as the catering wizard who introduced hot dogs to baseball games.
There’s a card of John Sherman, whose Act does not apply to baseball. (Editor’s note: stay tuned.) And Frederick Thayer, who is largely given credit for inventing the catcher’s mask.
Jim Bouton has a card, but neither his MLB career with the Yankees nor Ball Four is mentioned on the back of the card. Instead, he shares this card with Robert Nelson, his teammate with the Portland Mavericks of the Northwest League because they created Big League Chew bubble gum!
That’s just a sampling of 2010 Tristar Obak. I have yet to get my hands on the 2009 or 2011 editions. Those 2011s are particularly enticing; I love collecting cards of 19th century players, and since I can’t afford those 1887 Allen & Ginters, these will have to do.
Old Hoss Radbourn, Lee Richmond, Joe Start, Doug Allison, Ross Barnes (even if the image on the card isn’t Barnes) and even Bob Addy (!?!) make the 2011 checklist, but that one will be particularly pricey.
If you hear the name ‘Brien Taylor’ today, it’s probably in the way of some kind of cautionary tale. A lesson against getting too caught up in the hype surrounding amateur or minor league super-duper stars. A lesson that top draft picks, no matter how much of a sure thing, are never really a sure thing. For collectors, it’s a similar lesson, but one directed less at the athlete than at all the ephemera that athlete inspires. But while Taylor was never able to leave his mark on baseball, he certainly left a mark on the hobby. Brien Taylor made the hobby rethink its concept of rookie cards. He became the face of the hobby’s most venerable brand. His presence (or lack thereof) dictated when products were released and how they were (somewhat unscrupulously) dated. He revived a market for pre-Major League cards and store-branded specialty sets. He starred in what was, at the time, the most expensive factory set ever issued and was featured on what was, at the time, perhaps the most sought-after certified autograph ever released.
And within three years, it was all over.
There are still those who swear Brien Taylor was the greatest amateur pitcher who ever lived. He was born in Beaufort, NC, the son of a stone mason and a crab-picker. Tall, lanky, and with a whip-fast left arm, he dominated as a high school pitcher. As a senior in 1991, the threw back-to-back no-hitters, struck out an obscene 213 batters in just 88 innings (nearly 2.5 Ks per inning) and posted a 0.61 ERA. He had a fastball in the high-90s, a dependable change-up, and a knee-buckling curveball.
Taylor had been nearly as good the year before, but had yet to break through into the baseball mainstream. Don Mattingly, however, was as mainstream as an athlete got in 1990. His break-out campaign in 1984, followed up by an MVP season in 1985, had both made put him in line to be the Next Great Yankee and helped to ramp up the rookie card craze among baseball card collectors and investors. Mattingly’s 1984 rookie issues stoked the fires of a building craze. People with money to spend on cards wanted Mattinglys, but even more so they wanted the next Mattinglys… the cards that could be picked up cheap, stocked away, and then sold for a profit. Mattingly was still a star in 1990 and the rookie card craze his sweet, lefty swing had inspired was still very much in bloom. But for the 1990 season, Mattingly stunk. He batted just .256 – 67 points below his career average entering the season – and his Yankees finished in dead-last place, losing 95 games. It was the worst Yankees team in 77 years.
By the summer of 1991, these three stars had aligned themselves: a once-in-a-generation talent, a booming baseball card marketplace, and an unprecedented bottoming-out of the most famed pro sports franchise that ever existed. In June 1991, the Yankees drafted Brien Taylor first overall in the amateur draft and card collectors saw nothing but dollar signs.
Of course, by 1991 collectors no longer had the patience to wait for a player to be wearing a big league uniform for start stockpiling cardboard. Trying to entice collectors with the hottest rookies as soon as possible, Fleer, Donruss, Score and the upstart Upper Deck had begun to include players in their base sets before their Big League debut. When one of those players, Ken Griffey Jr., became a hobby sensation, it was clear that the rookie card game had changed. Topps missed out on including Griffey in their 1989 flagship set, but did start a new trend that year with the inclusion of a ten card subset of “#1 Draft Picks,” players from the 1988 draft who were just making their pro debuts. When Jim Abbott jumped from the ’88 draft class to Major League stardom that year, the other cardmarkers had been scooped. Topps had him first and it was their card collectors were chasing. In 1990, Score followed suit and issued a 22-card draft pick subset and the revived Bowman brand issued a slew of recently drafted talent. The hobby hype was now following players into A ball instead of the Big Leagues.
Card collectors weren’t the only ones with money on the mind after the Yankees tabbed Taylor with the top pick in June. Taylor and his family had hired Scott Boras to represent the young man and felt insulted at the Yankees’ initial offer of a $300,000 contract. The top pitcher of the previous year’s draft, Todd Van Poppel, had gotten $1.3 million in guaranteed money from the Oakland A’s and the Taylors wanted nothing less.
It took until late August for the Yankees and Taylor to agree on a $1.55 million pact, with Taylor signing the deal the day before he was set to begin junior college, and be lost to the Yankees. His professional status now meant that he was open to the cardmakers. Topps, Fleer, and Donruss had all hoped to include a Taylor card in their 1991 update sets, but had been stymied by his holdout. And when finally became fair game, it was The Scoreboard – maker of the Classic brand of board game cards and draft sets – that swooped in to the ink the super-prospect. Scoreboard paid Taylor $250,000 for his exclusive cardboard rights through the end of 1991 and his exclusive rights on minor league cards for a calendar year. Just months later, Classic released its 1991 Baseball Draft set, with Taylor at card #1. The company boasted that the entire run of the set sold out in six days and it was reported that the sets that included Taylor were expected to gross the company $30 million… thirty times what they’d made off their 1990 draft products.
That fall, Taylor reported to the Yankees’ fall instructional league team in Florida, where his stardom preceded him. He was featured in a 60 Minutes segment and signed autographs for members of the Green Bay Packers when they stayed at the same hotel that housed his team. He signed a lot of other autographs, too. Classic had cards of him in both the English and French language versions their four-sport draft picks set, including over 5,000 hand-signed cards inserted randomly into packs.
The media followed Taylor to Florida. Their reporting was complimentary. They noted his humble nature, that he mostly stayed in at night, always addressed his elders as “sir” or “ma’am” and that he did his own laundry. They talked about the Mustang he’d purchased with his bonus money, but also that he bought the car from the dealership where his bother worked as a detailer and that he had gotten a nice discount on the purchase. His biggest purchase, the papers noted, was a house for his parents, allowing them to move out of the trailer where Taylor had grown up. But there was a theme to the stories that made it clear that these were older, white reporters looking for a young, black athlete that didn’t push challenge any of their notions about how a ballplayer should act. They never said it, but it was clear that they wanted to hold Taylor up as an antidote to the Deions and Rickeys of the sporting world. Case in point: several articles mentioned with flattering intent that Taylor wore no gold chains. Neither did Todd Van Poppel, but no one was waiting to judge him by his neckware.
Near the end of 1991, Topps pulled a major coup and signed Taylor to another exclusive contract, making them the only cardmaker permitted to produce his Major League cards until he reached the Bigs, at which time he would, under the player’s union contract, be available to all companies with an MLBPA license. The deal scooped Upper Deck, who had been so optimistic about their chances of landing Taylor that they actually included his name in the preliminary checklists for their 1992 flagship set. As Topps promoted their upcoming set as the only one that feature Taylor in pinstripes, Upper Deck quietly remade their checklist.
With Classic’s deal still in effect until December 31, Topps seems to have actually pushed back the release of their 1992 set in order to include Taylor. But the result was a minor masterpiece. Finding their brand getting lost in the flood of newer and shinier released in the early 1990s, Topps had responded with a classic re-tooling for its 1991 flagship release and the introduction of its premium Stadium Club brand. Stadium Club was a smash and the company’s 1992 flagship reflected the changing tastes in the marketplace. Using beaming white stock for the first time in decades and featuring a clean, modern design, the set put Taylor front and center. In what might have been an homage to the 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. #1 that had already become that company’s trademark card, Topps gave Taylor #6 in 1992 set, the first regular player card after the traditional Record Breaker opening subset. The card featured Taylor in Yankee pinstripes, the first time Topps had shown a draft pick in their Major League uniform. The kid is just into delivery: left arm ready to cock, right foot dangling over the red box containing his name, eyes trained at whatever lay ahead of him.
1992 was also the year Topps introduced the first true parallel set with ToppsGold. The concept was stunning for its time – an alternate version of the classic flagship set, outfit with an etched gold foil nameplate. The cards would be found roughly one per wax box, making it an unimaginable task to complete a full set. But in the midst of the hype over this idea, Topps offered an alternative: a Gold Factory set, complete with a stunning card #793 – an exclusive Brien Taylor card, done in the standard veteran design, gold-plated and hand-signed by the young Phenom. The set, which retailed for around $250, was quickly selling on the secondary market for $4-500. The signed card itself was moving quickly for $100 and up. Taylor’s gold rookie – found one per 28,500 packs – was bringing $40-80 and his regular base card was a mover at $5.
But… were these really rookie cards?
As they had in 1990 with uber-prospects Chipper Jones and Todd Van Poppel, Classic had gotten the jump on the more mainstream brands by including Taylor in their Draft Picks set in the same calendar year in which he was drafted. The big companies had always waited until the year after the draft to debut these players. Topps and others had tried to produce a true Taylor RC – a 1991 release featuring him in his Big League dress, but were scooped by his holdout and then his deal with Classic. So, Topps decided to turn back the clock.
The result was the 1991 Stadium Club Dome set. Or was it 1992? Well, the set used the 1991 Stadium Club design and was issued inside a plastic reproduction of Skydome, home of the 1991 MLB All-Star Game. Each card featured a 1991 copyright line. Which made it outwardly appear as a 1991 release and its handsome card of Taylor (along with dozens of other 1991 draft choices) as a stunning “true rookie” of the biggest name in the hobby. Not so fast, said collectors. It was clear that Topps was back-dating the set to try to force a 1991 Taylor card. The set was not released until the spring of 1992 and it seems highly unlikely that Topps would have gone ahead with printing the set in ’91 while Taylor was under exclusive contract with another brand and then waited several months into 1992 before finally releasing it. Even if collectors didn’t fall for Topps’ scheme, they fell all over themselves for the set, which was going for $75 and the Taylor for $15 before the 1992 season had even opened.
Oh, right, the 1992 season. In which Brien Taylor would actually be playing professional baseball. After being the toast of the Yankees’ training camp, Taylor reported to the Fort Lauderdale Yankees of the high-A Florida State League. Just 20 years old, he posted some tantalizing numbers – 10.4 Ks per 9 innings, a 1.159 WHIP, a 2.57 ERA, and just three homers allowed in 161 innings.
His performance was all the more impressive considering all the hype that still surrounded him. He was a shy kid, away from home for the first time, and everyone wanted a piece of him. And everyone wanted his autograph. He had signed more than 12,000 cards for the ToppsGold sets, and another 8,000 for 1992 Classic products and hundreds of baseball for teammate opponents and everyone else with clubhouse access. And he was asked to sign even more each day by fans that stalked him at every turn. “They think you’re supposed to sign everything they throw in your face,” Taylor told a reporter during the 1992 season. He was knocked down by autograph hounds more than once. After a game in Port St. Lucie, so many fans gathered outside the clubhouse doors that the team was briefly trapped inside. “People know the autograph is going to be worth money. That’s the only way I see it,” he said. “As far as dealing with people, life will never be the same. The bigger I get, the harder it will get. I know I’ll probably never be able to sit at a movie and relax.” As for his trading cards, Taylor admitted he didn’t even own one. “They must know something I don’t,” he said of the people shelling out for his latest issues.
And as his debut season wound to a close, there would be many more options for Taylor collectors. With his exclusive non-MLB deal with Classic coming to an end, Upper Deck, Fleer, and Skybox announced plans to get in on the suddenly booming Minor League card market. Upper Deck promoted their set at Minor League parks late in the season, handing out thousands of promo cards of Taylor and Twins prospect Frankie Rodriguez. The Upper Deck set released in September and Fleer Excel dropped in December (oddly branded as 1992-93 Fleer Excel, another example of Taylor forcing cardmakers to get creative with their dating). The Fort Lauderdale Yankees even waited out the Classic contract to release their team-issued set of cards – which remarkably was not available until after the season had ended, as speculation abounded that the team would relocate for the 1993 season (it indeed would move). The market for Taylor was so intense that a franchise delayed the release of its annual team set until after it had played its last-ever game. The set was available by mail order and seemed to sell quite well. That fall, Topps also included Taylor in the company’s first-ever random insert set, a trio of cards featuring #1 overall draft choices found one in every 72 packs of 1992 Stadium Club Series 3. It instantly became a $25 item.
By the end of 1992, Taylor had been featured on (by my count) 48 different licensed trading cards and a handful of oddball, unlicensed, and magazine-issue cards. It was a staggering number for its time, especially for a player who had pitched in just 27 games professionally. By 1993, a bit of Taylor-fatigue began to appear. His card prices stabilized and, while his presence in the hobby held steady, it stopped being news. Searching the hobby columns that used to be regular features in newspapers across the nation, he was a regular item throughout 1991 and 1992. But by 1993, he faded away into the mass of other can’t-miss-kids making hobby news. He was still a Phenom to be sure, but he was a very familiar Phenom.
In 1993, Taylor made steady progress, racking up 150 Ks and a 3.48 ERA for the AA Albany-Colonie Yankees. It was progress, but collectors and the Yankee brass had visions of Taylor dominating the American League in 1993, not holding his own in the Eastern League. And then in December came baseball’s most infamous after-hours brawl since Mickey Mantle, Billy Martin, and company roughed up a boozy bowling team captain at the Copa. Back home in North Carolina, Taylor got into a melee trying to defend his brother and blew out his shoulder in the process. While the team tried to downplay the injury, Dr. Frank Jobe, who performed Taylor’s reconstructive surgery, called it “one of the worst shoulder injuries [he’d] ever seen.”
Collectors began to dump Taylor’s cards and, as Taylor sat out the entire 1994 season, he appeared in just a handful of sets. Many of his 1994 cards mentioned the injury. “He will miss the entire 1994 season and only time will tell whether or not he can regain his top prospect status,” his Ted Williams Card Company release opined. By 1995, time had told.
Demoted to the Yankees’ Rookie League team, Taylor struggled through 40 innings, walking 54 and allowing 37 runs. His fastball stalled and his curve had flattened. With the card market struggling to recover from the strike, companies downsized their releases. In 1995, just a few years removed from being such a force in the marketplace that his mere presence seemed to dictate time itself, he appeared on just one trading card – Bowman #17. He is pictured in a Yankees jersey cap, seating on a picnic table, wearing shorts and sneakers. He’s dressed like a fan or a training camp gofer. The backside mentions an “off the field mishap” and talks about hopes for a return to form that would never happen. Although he would hang around for parts of four more professional seasons, topping out at 27 innings (with an ERA over 14.00) in 1997, he appeared on just two more cards. He’s just 24 years old on his 1996 Best Greensboro Bats card, but he looks older. He looks tired. In 2000, he was featured in a team-issue set for the A-level Columbus Red Stixx. The only evidence the card exists is a listing on tradingcarddb.com. No image of it can be found.
He allowed 11 runs in just 2.2 innings for the Red Stixx that year. It was the last time he pitched. He went back home to North Carolina with his five daughters and worked as a package handler for UPS, then for a beer distributor, and later as a bricklayer with his father. He ran into legal troubles and, in 2012, was arrested on charges of trafficking cocaine. Facing forty years, he pled guilty and served just over three. “Life will never be the same,” Taylor said in 1992. “The only way it would be the same would be if I dropped out today. Then everybody would forget me.”