Héroes de Cartón: A Cuban Collection

When I first traveled to Cuba in 2015, I had hoped to bring home some cards of the stars I would be seeing while I was on my baseball tour. Still naive about the differences between Cuban baseball and the major leagues, I believed that there would be such a thing. I knew the stadium amenities weren’t going to be luxurious (they weren’t) and the food at the park was bound to be lousy (it often was, though the pulled pork sliders I bought outside of Estadio 26 de Julio in Aretmisa remain vividly delicious in my memory). Still, surely an enterprising soul, or the government, had managed to publish a few sets of baseball cards. I was quickly corrected by none other than fellow traveler and Cuban baseball expert Peter Bjarkman. He informed me there were no modern cards in Cuba. There was one set published in 1994 which included pre-MLB cards for the Hernández brothers, Liván and Orlando. The one before that was sold in the 1950s.

I had never given much thought of what it would be like to be a youthful fan who could not regularly experience baseball cards. I loved the cards long before I truly loved the game. In the days before the internet and daily airings on team-owned networks, they were my most direct connection. I thrilled with each new pack and the treasures I found inside.

That same passion, this time on the faces of a gaggle of Cuban children, was on display whenever a member of our group pulled out a pack of Topps at one of the five Serie Nacional contests I attended. They would swarm, a collective that would consume any gleaming picture of a hero-in-action they could get their hands on. Bonus points if it was Yasiel Puig or Aroldis Chapman. At one point I pulled out a business card to give to a local sportswriter and a child’s eager hands immediately reached out to me. Just the image of a baseball on my card was enough to ignite their imaginations.

Jorge Soler’s rookie card appears in the Topps 2015 set, the year I began the collection.

All of this got me thinking about the Cuban stars of the past, and whether they had baseball cards. I had learned that generations of Serie Nacional heroes have never had one. But, what about the hundreds of Cubans who played in the major leagues? Surely many of them must have cards. I first considered starting a collection of all of the cards featuring Cuban-born players. I quickly realized that a complete collection of Cubans was going to necessitate far too much energy and money pursuing just José Canseco. There are roughly 3000 distinct cards of the tainted slugger. I decided that maybe the best way to approach this new whim would be to just get the rookie cards. The set would become relatively finite and definitely more achievable.

Many of them have rookie cards, but certainly not all. Some never had a card issued at all, at least none that my current research has revealed. Others have cards, but not ones that modern collectors consider “rookies.” Cards from a player’s minor league days do not qualify. Neither do cards from foreign leagues, such as the pre-revolution Cuban Winter League.

Tony Taylor’s 1958 Topps rookie card. Taylor is tied with Bert Campaneris for career triples by a Cuban-born player.

Such is the case of the Acosta brothers, José and Merito. The two appeared on Clark Griffith’s Cuban-laden Washington Senators of the 1910s and 20s. However, neither made enough of a mark to appear on a card during World War I and the lean years of the hobby that followed. Cards were produced in smaller sets, thus players like Merito, who appeared in 180 games in the outfield over five seasons, and José, who pitched in 55 games over three years, often fell through the cracks.

However, while playing for the 1923/24 Marianao squad of the Cuban League, they both appeared in a set that was issued in their homeland by Billiken. Like their American counterpart, these cards could be found in packs of cigarettes. In addition to Cubans, they also featured American Negro League legends like Oscar Charleston and Andy Cooper. Per the definitions set by modern collectors, these do not qualify as “rookie cards.” I decided that because so many of the pre-revolution members of the fraternity fell into this category, I was expanding my criteria to include first-known cards, as well.

The most respected Cuban-born player in his homeland is Martín Dihigo, whose 1945/6 Caramelo Deportivo is not a part of the collection because the color line kept him out of the majors.

As of this writing, there have been 208 Cuban-born men who have played or managed in the majors. So far, and research is ongoing, there appear to be 194 cards in the set I have designed. I had four at the outset, just by culling from my own collection: a 1990 issue of Tony Fossas, a 1989 Orestes Destrade, a 1987 Rafael Palmeiro and, from a pack bought in the interest of the project, a 2015 Jorge Soler. All of them happened to be Topps. There are numerous other publishers in this set, including Bowman, Upper Deck and Fleer. Going back before World War II, there are Zeenuts, T207s, an E135, and multiple cards from the candy manufacturer Caramelo Deportivo.

Palmeiro holds most of the offensive records for Cuban-born players, even outshining Hall of Famer Tony Perez. If not for his involvement with PEDs, he’d likely be a Hall of Famer, himself.

The day after I finished the first draft of the checklist for the set, I paid a visit to a comic book store in New Paltz, New York. My ex-wife and I meet there sometimes when we exchange our daughter. B is a fan of comics and I like to encourage my kid to become a nerd, just like her old man. While not a large shop, the collection is extensive and a fan of the genre is certain to leave satisfied.

What it does not have, however, is very many baseball cards for sale. The two collectibles will often appear together at small retail shops like this, though such stores usually lean more heavily in one direction. No one would ever think of this place as a local card shop. But, it does sell packs of the current sets and that day had about 50 individual cards up for grabs. Of those singles, the inventory was split between medium value cards of current players, a sprinkling of stars from 1970s, 80s and 90s, and a few lesser known players from the 60s.

One of those latter cards was from the Topps 1965 set, number 201. Minnesota Twins rookie stars César Tovar and Sandy Valdespino share the honors. Tovar, a native of Venezuela, had a fine twelve-year career with the Twins, Phillies, Rangers, A’s and Yankees. He finished in the top twenty-five in MVP voting every year from 1967-1971 and led the league in doubles and triples in 1970. The Trading Card Database has identified 56 unique cards manufactured for Tovar.

Hilario “Sandy” Valdespino lasted for seven seasons with the Twins, Braves, Astros, Pilots, Brewers and Royals. He did not share the same success as his card-mate, though he did get eleven at bats in the 1965 World Series, contributing a double and a run. Valdespino was born in San Jose de las Lajas in Mayabeque and became the 106th Cuban to appear in the majors when he made his debut on April 12, 1965. Number 201 is his official rookie card, one of only nineteen different identified cards of the outfielder ever produced.

A cardboard miracle.

The odds of finding that card, in that place, just days after I decided to pursue this quest, cannot be calculated. It was a divine intervention, a gift sent by the baseball gods in the form of a fifty-year-old piece of cardboard.

Today I have 115 of the cards from the set. The latest pickup, a W514 of Dolf Luque, is a real beauty. The corners are a little rounded and there are some minor markings on the surface, but it is crease free and remarkably sturdy for something that was printed a century ago. Luque, the first Cuban superstar, is an underappreciated name from yesteryear and a personal favorite. Finally acquiring his card inspired me to tell this story.

Among Cubans, only Luis Tiant put up better career pitching numbers than Dolf Luque. The W514s began production in 1919, the year Luque’s Cincinnati Reds defeated the Black Stockings in the World Series.

As always, the final cards of this set are the most challenging and, of course, the most expensive. It is also a set that is always expanding. Despite the recent short-sighted pronouncements of the current presidential administration, Cubans will continue to find a way to travel those ninety miles to American shores to play the game. Last year, six more made their major league debut. Three of them have rookie cards, so far, and the recent call up by the Yankees of Nestor Cortes, Jr., who had a less-than-impressive debut with Baltimore last March, increases the chances of him getting one at some point this season. When he does, I’ll be there.

Don’t think Trice, it’s alright (Part Two)

Author’s note: A previous post here examined the largely dismissive portrayal of the Negro Leagues by Topps in the early 1950s. This sequel simply expands the focus to other card makers of the era.

1949 Leaf

For hobbyists who regard the Leaf issue as 1948 or 1948-1949, this set would unequivocally be the first major U.S. release to feature ex-Negro Leaguers. For my part, I regard it as tied with 1949 Bowman. Either way, the Leaf issue included cards of three black players with Negro League resumes.

Card 8 in the set featured the legendary Satchel Paige. The card back, which among other things notes Satchel’s prior team as the Kansas City Monarchs, is pretty amazing.

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First we’ll note that Satchel is assigned an age, 40 years old, which should make just about everything else in the bio seem like fiction. Second, the praise for Satchel is through the roof! Though it’s possible one could assign a negative connotation to “most picturesque player in baseball,” the words that follow cast doubt on such a reading. Satchel is billed as a “high-powered talent” with “fabulous gate-appeal” who is expected to “sizzle into his old stride” in 1949. The folks at Leaf seemed to get it that Satchel was the real deal.

The next black player in the set was Jackie Robinson, and his card bio leads off with the historic line, “First Negro player in modern organized baseball.”

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As was the case with early Topps cards, the direct implication here is that the Kansas City Monarchs and the Negro Leagues were not “organized baseball.” On the flip side, the phrase “modern organized baseball” pays homage to 19th century black players whose histories were often erased in telling the Jackie Robinson story. This 1980 Laughlin card serves to illustrate the point, as do Robinson’s 1960 and 1961 Nu-Card releases.

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The final Negro Leagues alum in the set was Larry Doby, identified as the “first Negro player to enter the American League.” The last line of the bio is notable in that Doby is not simply described as a speedy base-stealer but a smart one as well. This strikes me as enlightened writing for its time.

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For legal reasons, if not financial ones as well, Leaf would not offer another baseball set until 1960. We will see shortly how the set handled the Negro League origins of pitcher Sam Jones.

1949 Bowman

The 1949 Bowman set featured the same three black players from the Leaf set plus one more, Roy Campanella. The Robinson card notes that “he became the first Negro to enter the ranks of pro ball.” At once this phrase dismisses the Negro Leagues as less than professional while ignoring nineteenth century pioneers like Moses Fleetwood Walker.

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The Roy Campanella card in the set describes “an exhibition game with Negro All-Stars at Ebbets Field.” This game, part of a five-game series against Major Leaguers, took place in 1945 and prompted Charlie Dressen to recommend Campy to Branch Rickey.

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To my knowledge, the Bowman card of Satchel contains the earliest use of the phrase “Negro Leagues” on a baseball card.

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The idea that Satchel “traveled around” the Negro Leagues may be taken one of two ways. On one hand, he did play for several teams. On the other hand, it may suggest a lack of seriousness and organization to the Negro Leagues themselves.

As with the Leaf card, we see the word “fabulous” used to describe Paige. New to the Bowman card is the treatment of Satchel’s age. While a precise birthday is offered (September 11, 1908), the bio makes it clear that “his exact age is not known!”

Larry Doby is the final Negro Leaguer featured in the set, and his card describes him as “one of the few Negroes in the American League.” Depending when in 1949 the card was produced, in addition to Doby and Paige, the description might have been referring to Minnie Minoso (April 19, 1949) and/or Luke Easter (August 11, 1949).

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1950 Bowman

Four cards in the next Bowman release referred to the Negro Leagues tenure of its players. Card 22 of Jackie Robinson is similar to its 1949 predecessor in referring to Jackie as the “first Negro to enter organized baseball.”

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The Larry Doby card similarly draws on its previous bio, again recognizing Doby as “one of the few Negroes in the American League.”

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Ditto for Roy Campanella whose role with the “all-star Negro team” first brought him to the attention of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

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The Hank Thompson (SABR bio) card highlights his role in a famous first of the integration era, “the first time in major league history that a Negro batter was up before a Negro pitcher.” The card also identifies Thompson’s pre-MLB tenure with the Kansas City Monarchs.

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1951 Bowman

Three cards in the next Bowman offering are relevant to the topic of the Negro Leagues and the integration of MLB.

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The Campanella card recycles Campy’s exhibition game origin story for a third time, though this time there is no reference to the makeup of his team. Meanwhile, the Easter card follows a familiar tradition of discounting Negro League service in its statement that Easter “entered organized baseball in 1949.” Finally, the Ray Noble card, which does an awesome job teaching kids the right way to say his name, makes reference to his time with the “New York Cubans of the Negro National League.”

1952 Bowman

An interesting evolution in the 1952 Bowman set occurs with the Luke Easter card.

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Having previously “entered organized baseball in 1949,” we learn now that Easter “began in baseball in 1949.” What an odd statement if we take it literally! (By the way, the use of terms like “professional baseball,” “organized baseball,” and “baseball” to refer specifically to MLB/MiLB is still commonplace today. I would love to see baseball writers move away from this practice.)

1952 Num Num Foods

This potato chips set is one I only learned of in doing research for this article. The regional food issue features 20 players, all Cleveland Indians, including four black players: Luke Easter, Harry Simpson, Larry Doby, and Sam Jones. Apart from single-player sets such as the 1947 Bond Bread Jackie Robinson issue, this set has the largest proportion of African American players of any I’ve seen from the era.

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The Easter card notes that he “played softball for several years before entering [the] Negro National League” and even referenced Luke’s support role with the Harlem Globetrotters. A couple funny stories are shared as well before ending on the down note of a fractured knee cap.

The Harry “Suitcase” Simpson card picks up where Easter’s leaves off, recognizing Simpson’s daunting role of having to fill in for an injured Luke Easter. Then again it’s hard to imagine anyone more qualified to fill large shoes than Simpson, who according to at least some stories got his nickname “Suitcase” from the size of his feet!

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The back of Larry Doby’s card is injury-themed as well. However, rather than add insult to injury, the writer actually defends Doby against any insult that he was a disappointment. The paragraph ending almost reads as a (very dated) math story problem and left me ready to set up an equation.

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The Sam Jones card closes with a phrase that posed a road block to the careers of at least three very talented black pitchers: Dave Hoskins, Mudcat Grant, and Sam Jones himself. The “Tribe’s already formidable big 4” were of course Hall of Fame hurlers Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, and Early Wynn, along with all-star Mike Garcia. Even as Cleveland brought up tremendous black hurlers, two of whom would eventually become “Black Aces,” there was simply nowhere in the starting rotation to put them.

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1954 Bowman

I didn’t run across any interesting cards in my review of the 1953 Bowman sets, so I’ll skip ahead to 1954. Card number 118 of Bob Boyd (SABR bio) references his start in the Negro National League while (as usual) recognizing his start in “organized ball” coming afterward. As a side note, Boyd’s Negro League team, the Memphis Red Sox, played in the Negro American League. As another side note, the trivia question matches that of Hank Aaron’s Topps card, again recalling (and ingoring/discounting) a famous Negro League feat attributed to Josh Gibson.

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Hank Thompson’s bio is a funny one for reasons unrelated to his Negro League lineage. For whatever reason, the Bowman folks felt the need to clarify what was meant by “a quiet fellow.” It’s also a rare thing to see a baseball card bio so critical of a player’s weight! In a less humorous vein, as was the case four years earlier, Thompson’s card identifies his tenure with the Kansas City Monarchs.

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1954 Dan Dee

A notable card in the 1954 Dan Dee (potato chips) baseball set is that of Pittsburgh Pirates infielder and one-time Kansas City Monarch Curt Roberts (SABR bio needed).

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The first line of his bio identifies Roberts as the “first Negro player ever to be placed on Pittsburgh club’s roster.” This contention has received scrutiny over the years since it overlooks Carlos Bernier (SABR bio), a black Puerto Rican player who preceded Roberts by a year.

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1954 Red Man

While the 50-card set also includes cards of Negro League vets Roy Campanella, Jim Gilliam, and Willie Mays, the Monte Irvin card is the only one whose bio can be considered relevant to his Negro League service.

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As usual, we see that he “began in organized baseball” once he started playing on white teams. Something new I did learn from the card was that—at least here—the AAA Jersey City Giants were known as the “Little Giants.” How’s that for an oxymoron!

1954 Red Heart

Whether a gum chewer, chip cruncher, dip wadder, or dog feeder, it’s hard to imagine a better year to be a card collector than 1954. Packaged with Red Heart, “The Big League Dog Food,” that year was this card of Dodgers infielder Jim Gilliam.

 

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A quaint aspect of the card is the blank entries for all of Gilliam’s career numbers. The bio area of the card explains why this is so. “As a rookie in 1953, he has no life record…”

Regarding his Negro League lineage and role in MLB integration, the opening of the bio tells us that Gilliam “was the youngest member of the Baltimore Elite Giants” and that “he is one of the fine negro ballplayers that have been taken into organized baseball during the past decade.”

1955 Bowman

In what must by now feel like a tired theme, here is Hank Aaron’s 1955 Bowman card citing 1954 as Aaron’s “third season in organized baseball,” omitting his season with the Indianapolis Clowns.

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1955 Red Man

The sequel to Red Man’s 1954 issue included five black stars: Larry Doby, Minnie Minoso, Brooks Lawrence, Willie Mays, and Hank Thompson. The Thompson card as usual notes that he “began in organized baseball in 1947, which was the year he jumped straight from the Kansas City Monarchs to the St. Louis Browns.

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1958 Hires Root Beer

The Hires Root Beer card of Bob Boyd is similar to his 1954 Bowman card in recognizing him as a “product of the Negro National League” instead of the Negro American League.

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1960 Leaf

After an eleven-year hiatus, the Leaf set is back, and its card number 14 is of MLB’s second Black Ace, Sam Jones (SABR bio).

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Toward the end of the bio, we learn that Jones “started his pro career with Wilkes-Barre in 1950…” though he pitched professionally for the Cleveland Buckeyes (and possibly Homestead Grays) of the Negro Leagues as early as 1947 (or possibly 1946).

1979 TCMA Baseball History Series “The 50s”

First off, what a great set! When I first came across this Hank Thompson card I initially assumed it was a slightly undersized reprint of his 1953 Bowman card. Then I realized he had no 1953 Bowman card! Of course the back of the card provided plenty of other clues that this was in fact a more original offering.

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The card bio includes some information about Thompson’s Negro Leagues resume as well as how he became a New York Giant.

“Thompson, who spent much of his playing career in the old Negro Leagues, got his first chance in the majors with the St. Louis Browns in 1947. But for some unknown reason the Browns let him slip away to the Giants two year later…”

The reality behind the “unknown” reason is that Thompson (along with teammate Willard Brown) was signed by St. Louis to a short-term deal whose extension would require additional payment to the Kansas City Monarchs who held his rights. While Thompson was one of the better players on the Browns, he was neither Jackie Robinson nor Babe Ruth. It goes without saying that a black player needed to be a lot better than  “better than average” to find a home on a Major League roster in 1947!

End notes

Either in conjunction with the Topps article or on its own, there was of course a “beating a dead horse” element to this post. We get it; we get it…the baseball cards back then did not regard the Negro Leagues as organized, professional, or even Baseball. While modern writers and historians do recognize the Negro Leagues as all three, the stubbornness of language is such that even today these terms and their meanings persist nearly unchanged. Until we change them.

Seals on the Homefront

All Cards

I recently purchased a 2017 San Francisco Seals set commemorating the players from the WWII era. The 73-card set was produced by the artist, Carl Aldana, who often used historical images of the PCL in his paintings.

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Aldana worked in Hollywood as a storyboard illustrator and in other art related capacities. He contributed to movies ranging from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” to “Halloween 3.” In a sad note, Mr. Aldana passed away on February 8, 2019.

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The most appealing part of the Seals set is that Aldana used the early ‘50s PCL “Mother’s Cookies” template. The cards have rounded corners and feature solid pastel background. Mr. Aldana colorized the black and white photos. The backs feature a check list with the cards arrange by background color.

Big Names

Many of the players do not fall into the “household names” category, but several players with major league pedigree are in the set. Of course, the legendary manager of the Seals, Lefty O’Doul has a card. Tony Lazzeri, who played for the Seals during the war is featured as well. Ferris Fain would go on to win two batting titles with the Philadelphia A’s. Larry Janson joined the NY Giants in ‘47 and won 23 games in ’51, helping the Giants win the pennant…the Giants win the pennant!

Uniforms  Shield Logos

The Aldana retro-cards provide a good look at the various uniforms worn by the Seals during the ‘30s and ‘40s. During the war years, the club wore a patriotic shield for a cap emblem and arm patch.

Groups

There are several group cards in the set, including a “wacky” pose by the “Pitching Prospects.”

Posed Action

The intensity is palpable in these posed action shots.

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Mr. Aldana never attempted to “airbrush” logos if he couldn’t find a photo of the player in a Seals uniform. This results in some cards featuring players in MLB uniforms or on other minor league teams.

This “seals the deal” for now, but in a follow up post I will look at Aldana’s other PCL cards done in the Mother’s Cookies style. There are several ’57 Seals cards that will interest the Red Sox fans amongst us, since San Francisco was a Bosox affiliate.

 

An Open, and a Shut, Case

Two mysteries this week, one unsolved, one quickly wrapped up.

The Battle of Battle Creek – Kellogg’s vs. the Atlanta Braves

I love my 3-D sets and look at them often. I’ve always wondered why, in the first two years, there were no Atlanta Braves. This is especially odd in 1970, when Kellogg’s crammed the set with the biggest names in the game (and Tim Cullen). Where was Hank Aaron? Orlando Cepeda? Phil Niekro?

Another shutout for Atlanta in 1971 and, then, in 1972, Ralph Garr makes his Brave debut. Or does he? The Roadrunner appears with a blacked out cap on the front and, even weirder, a non-existent Braves logo on the reverse. Kellogg’s clearly had a licensing deal with both the Players’ Association and MLB (both are prominent displayed on the card back), so use of logos should not have been a problem. These are not issued as MLBPA licensed only, which would have led to a lack of official team insignias and such.

What’s the deal here? Why would the Braves not be part of the overall licensing agreement? They had to be. I’d love to research this but really don’t even know where to start – Kellogg’s, MLB, MLBPA, Braves?

Help me out on this. I’d love to get an answer on the why Garr looks like a Little Leaguer and why  Kellogg’s was not the Home of the Braves in those early years.

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Play Ball! (Or Something Close)

I had a nice day trip yesterday to visit some friends. One of the reasons for the drive was to help dig into his card collection, recently reclaimed when his Mom moved. Like many of us of similar age, he had a nice group of mid-‘60’s to mid-‘70’s cards, but, like fewer of us, he was in a position as a kid to have the opportunity to buy some vintage, pre-war cards.

Lots of cool stuff, but one card that caught my eye was his 1939 Play Ball Joe DiMaggio. I’d never had one in hand, so took it out of its display. As many of you know, I’m not big on card backs. If they were so important, why aren’t they the fronts???? However, I can be proven wrong and I was excited to see this:

 

I’m not an expert on these cards, but have seen Topps seller samples online. The DiMag was authentic, no doubt, so I assumed these were legit samples. I didn’t know for sure though, so put it out that I was looking for some guidance. A few people thought they might be fakes, but that didn’t feel right.

As soon as I got home I figured I’d start searching in the Standard Catalog and, boom, there they were. A heap of the first 115 cards of the 162 card set were stamped, in red, as sample cards. The text is great, as you can read yourself. The samples are a bit harder to come by and do command a premium. I was pretty jazzed to find this out and relay that information.

It’s a remarkable thing to look at the same item over and over again and then see it for the first time. The Garr card seemed new to me, though I’d looked at it multiple times. Interesting how other collectors were unaware of the lack of Braves in the first two Kellogg’s sets. Finding fresh secrets, both easy and hard to unravel, is part of the joy, something like discovering new friends.

Extra! Extra! Read all about the prehistory of 1981 Donruss!

If you bought packs in 1981 try to remember the first thing about 1981 Donruss that jumped out at you. The paper thin stock? The occasional typo? The cards sticking together? This mismatched uniforms and team names?

Okay, come to think of it those were all salient features of the debut baseball set from Donruss. Still, the one I was hoping you’d say is the multiple cards of can’t-miss Hall of Famers like Pete Rose!

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As a young collector I’d certainly seen multiple cards of the same player before. The Topps Record Breakers  and 1972 Topps “In Action” cards were prime examples. However, what distinguished the Donruss cards was that nearly all of the extras looked just like the base cards, at least from the front.

As I learned more about collecting, thanks to some local shows and my first Sport Americana price guide, I began to realize the Donruss extras had ancestors in the hobby. What follows here are the sets I learned about in the order I learned about them.

1933-1934 Goudey

There are numerous examples in the 1933 set, particularly given the 18 repeated players on the set’s final “World Series” sheet. However, the first one I encountered was the most famous of them all: cards 53, 144, 149, and 181 of the Sultan of Swat.

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It would have been around that same time that I also learned of the two Lou Gehrig cards (37, 61) in Goudey’s 1934 follow-up release.

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My eleven-year-old self resolved almost immediately to eventually owning each of these Ruth and Gehrig cards. (Spoiler alert: 38 years later I’m still at zero.) In the meantime, the multiple cards of Rose, Yaz, Stargell, and others from my 1981 Donruss shoebox would have to do.

1954 Topps

Ever since I got my 1976 Topps “All-Time All-Star” Ted Williams, I decided he was my favorite retired player. As I flipped through my price guide looking for older Ted Williams cards I might be able to afford, I at first thought I found a typo. How could the Splendid Splinter be the first card and the last card in the 1954 Topps set?

There was no internet, and I certainly had no friends with either of these cards. I was simply left to wonder. Were there really two cards? Did they look the same or different? It took visiting a card show to finally learn the answer. Cardboard gold.

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It was much later that I learned Topps had been unable to make cards of the Kid in their 1951-1953 offerings. As such, his Topps debut in 1954 was long overdue and something to be celebrated. Perhaps that’s how he ended up bookending the set on both sides. Or maybe it’s just that he was Ted Freaking Williams.

1909-1911 T206

The tobacco areas of the Sport Americana were a bit intimidating to me as a kid. I recall parenthetical notes next to some of the names (e.g., “bat on shoulder”), but the checklist was dizzying enough that the notes went in one eye and out the other. Again it took a card show for me to see that these cards were my great-grandfather’s Donruss.

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1887 Old Judge

Fast forward about ten years, and I received a gigantic book for my birthday with pictures of thousands of really old cards. It was here that I first learned about “Old Judge” cards, including the fact that some players had more than one card.

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As an aside, that second Radbourn card looks more like a crime scene from Clue than an action pose, but okay.

1971 O-Pee-Chee

“1971 OPC? That was unexpected,” you may be saying to yourself. Wouldn’t the OPC cards match the 1971 Topps set, which had no duplicate players at all? I thought the same thing too until I ran across this pair.

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The card on the left, number 289 in the set, is known to high-end collectors as “Staub, bat on shoulder” while the card on the right, number 560, is known as “Staub, bat off shoulder.”

Exhibit postcards

More for convenience than accuracy, I’ll lump various “Exhibits” issues under a single umbrella. Perhaps because these cards were issued across more than four decades and seemingly included zillions of players, it seemed unremarkable to me initially that the same player might have multiple cards in these sets. I’d known this fact for years, but it wasn’t until I reached the “gosh, what am I missing” part of this post that I made the connection between these cards and their Donruss descendants.

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As an aside, I just love that second one of the Splinter. As Anson Whaley notes on his Pre-War Cards site, these sets provide some of the most affordable vintage cards of top-shelf Hall of Famers. On my office wall side-by-side right now are Exhibit cards of Williams and DiMaggio that I paid about $25 apiece for. Along with these Life magazines from 1939 and 1941, the cards really hold the room together.

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1952 Wheaties

It’s at this point in the post when I have nothing left in my own head and have to rev up the research engines. Time thumbing through the cards “gallery” of great players is never a waste of time, whether or not I find what I’m looking for, but here is a great pair I ran across in my review of Stan the Man.

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A quick look at the set checklist indicates that not just Musial but all thirty subjects in the series had both a portrait and an action shot. Can you imagine if Donruss had done the same in 1981? Consider the boldness of crashing the baseball card world as an utter newcomer and not just competing with Topps but unleashing a 1,100+ card behemoth of a set with multiple cards of every single player!

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No joke! Many was the day I pulled two Cliff Johnson cards from the same pack, but unfortunately they were the same Cliff Johnson cards. This portrait-action pair, on the other hand, would have taking the situation from blown penny to blown mind!

1922 American Caramel (E121)

Similar to 1952 Wheaties this is another set that features multiple cards of numerous players, such as this Max Carey pair.

Carey.jpg

I got a bit of a laugh from Trading Card Database when I saw the names given to each of the variations. The first card, not surprisingly, is referred to to “batting.” The second card is referred to as…so okay, back in high school I was getting ready to take the SAT. I wasn’t much of a reader back then, and I knew the test would include a lot of words I didn’t know. A few evenings before my testing date, I set out to memorize the entire dictionary. Naturally, this proved to be a bigger job than I could really tackle so I finally gave up after the word “akimbo.”

I only once in my life after that–and definitely not on my SAT–encountered the word in print, and I took pride in not having to look it up. And then this morning, more than 30 years after memorizing the dictionary from aardvark to akimbo, here is is again.

akimbo.JPG

If you don’t know the word perhaps you can guess it from the card: it simply means hands on hips. And for any young readers preparing for their own SATs, nothing helps you remember a word more than having a mnemonic, so here you go: Mutombo akimbo.

Mutombo.jpg

But back to our main topic…

1941 Double Play

A tip of the hat from Red Sox collector extraordinaire Mark Hoyle for sharing this one with me. The 1941 Double Play set includes 150 cards (or 75 if you didn’t rip the pairs apart). Most of the images are portraits, but the set includes 10 (or 20) action shots that provide extra cards in the set for many of the game’s top stars such as Burgess Whitehead–okay, Mel Ott.

Ott.jpg

But yes, Whitehead does have two cards as well.

1934-1936 Batter-Up

Thanks again to Mark Hoyle for this one! As this 192-card set was issued over three years, I suspect but don’t know for certain that the repeated players in the set were released at different times. As the two Gehringer cards below show, there are also small differences between the earlier and later cards including where the card number is located and how wide the cards are.

Batter Up

1934-1936 Diamond Stars

I’ll close with one of my favorite sets ever. Perhaps because I never managed to own more than 6-7 cards from this set, I never paid any attention to an oddity of its checklist. The last dozen cards, numbered 97-108, are all repeats of earlier cards in the set. Here is a listing of the players and their card numbers.

Diamond Stars

And here is an example of the cards themselves.

Dickey

The card fronts appear to be identical, while the backs differ in not only the card numbering but also the ink color and the stat line. In particular, the first Dickey card provides his batting average for 1934 and the second provides his average from 1935. (Read this post if you’re interested in more significant variations.)

Wrap-up

Aside from my Dwight Gooden collection, my collection tops out at 1993. However, as I see other collectors show off the more modern stuff, it’s clear that extra cards of star players are practically a fixture in today’s hobby.

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As the examples in this post illustrate, 1981 Donruss was by no means the first set to include extra base cards of star players. However, we can definitely credit Donruss with being the first major modern set to re-introduce this great feature into the hobby. And you thought the only thing that stuck from that set was its cards to each other!

Author’s note: I’d love it if you used the Comments area to plug other pre-1981 sets with extra base cards of the big stars. Some categories I’m intentionally ignoring are errors/variations/updates, single player sets (e.g., 1959 Fleer Ted Williams), team issues, and sets focused more on events than players (e.g., 1961 Nu-Card Baseball Scoops). Thanks, Jason

The Babe Ruth of the Palm Tree Division

Many of us derive pleasure from collecting the cards of our favorite player. Often, the player was childhood hero and/or a superstar like Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski or Willie Mays. However, this doesn’t explain my decision to collect Steve Bilko cards.

My fascination with Steve began after attending a Bilko presentation by author Gaylon White at a NWSABR chapter meeting. Subsequently, I purchased White’s biography, The Bilko Athletic Club, which chronicles Bilko’s struggles to establish himself as a productive Major League player, his PCL “halcyon days” and his many legendary drinking feats.

“Big” Steve developed an almost cult-like following in Los Angeles during the mid-50s, when he was racking up 50+ home run years for the PCL Angels at LA’s Wrigley Field. The bandbox ballpark featured absurdly friendly dimensions in left field, thus helping the “Slugging Seraph” cement his status as a long ball legend. Since the Angels’ games were telecast throughout Southern California, Steve’s power exploits made him as famous as a movie or TV star with the local populace.

Silvers-Bilko

Speaking of TV stars, most of you are familiar with the fact that Phil Silvers’ character in the mid-50s sitcom, “Sergeant Bilko,” derived his name from portly power hitter. The writers wanted to honor the man who had captivated Los Angeles.

51 Bowman

The Cardinals originally signed Bilko in ’45–at the tender age of 16–and he made his major league debut in ’49. Steve’s first card appeared in the ’51 Bowman set. The colorized photo provides a good looked at his powerful physique. Also, Bowman includes Steve in the beautiful ’53 color photography set and in the toned down ‘54s.

52 Topps

55 Double Header

Bilko’s gets his first Topps card in ’52 and continuing uninterrupted through ’55. In addition, he is paired with Bob Milliken on the strange Double Header set issued by Topps in ’55.

55 Bowman

The Cardinals’ “brain trust” was concerned with Bilko’s ever-growing waistline and his penchant for striking out, resulting in his trade to Cubs in ’54. The classic “color tv” design of Bowman’s ’55 set seems to barely accommodate Steve’s girth. Unfortunately, Steve’s poor performance got him shipped to the AAA Los Angeles Angels, a Cubs’ affiliate

During Bilko’s three-year (’55-’57) stint as “the Babe Ruth of the Palm Tree Division,” no regional cards were issued for the PCL Angels. According to PCL historian Mark McCrae, a memorabilia collector and dealer, a ’57 team issued card set exists. I was unable to find an example.

58 Topps

After walloping 148 home runs in three years with the PCL “Seraphs”, the Reds decided to give Steve another shot at the majors. With George Crowe and Ted Kluszewski ahead of him, Steve was once again unable to break in as a regular. Topps brought Bilko back-after a two year absence-and produced a classic, airbrushed uniform photo on his ’58 card.

59 Topps

Midway in the ’58 season, the newly transplanted LA Dodgers acquire Steve-primarily to drum up fan interest for their fading ball club. Steve provides a thrill for his devoted fans by smashing a three-run homer in his first at bat in the Coliseum. He then settles into a part-time role with limited success. The ’59 Topps card shows a corpulent specimen swinging the bat at the Coliseum.

60 Topps

60 Leaf

The Dodgers optioned Steve to AAA Spokane after the ’59 season, but he was picked up by the Tigers in the minor league draft. Bilko spends most of ’60 in Detroit, platooning with a young Norm Cash. This results in ’60 Topps card with a headshot taken at the LA Coliseum and an “action” photo on the Reds. Also, Steve shows up in the ’60 black and white Leaf Portrait set, which was recently examined in a post by Jeff Katz.

The American League’s expansion Los Angeles Angels couldn’t pass up an opportunity to bring Steve back to Wrigley Field (LA) in hopes of rekindling his PCL magic. He hit 11 home runs at Wrigley with a total of 20 for the season. The ’61 card is a typical expansion team one, with a bare-headed Bilko wearing a Tigers uniform.

62 Topps

In ’62, Steve moved with the Angels to Dodger Stadium (Chavez Ravine) where he managed to hit only two dingers. However, his card was a “grand slam.” Taken during training, Steve sports the classic Angels jersey and cap. His image is that of a man who could hit the ball a “country mile.”

63 Post

Also, during his time with the MLB Angels, Post Cereal produced cards for Steve in ’62 and ’63. The ‘63 was a career “capper,” since he didn’t play in the majors after ‘62. Additionally, a Bilko card could be found on JELL-O boxes in ’62 and ‘63.

Bilko is included in various oddball issues throughout his career. An Exhibit card exists from the early ’50s, picturing Steve on the Cardinals. He is in the regional Hunter Wieners sets in ’53 and ’54. Jay Publishing issues several Bilko photos in the early 60’s as did the Angeles concessionaire, Sports Services. Manny’s Baseball Land even issues a photo in ’61. Finally, in ’62, Steve can be found on Salada and Shirriff coins and in Topps’ stamp set.

Steve is the definition of the “cult” ballplayer. His notoriety and fan loyalty far outstripped his ability. It goes without saying that a man who can drink a case of beer without showing any signs of intoxication deserves a place in the cult section of baseball lore.

I highly encourage you to check out Warren Corbett’s BioProject piece on Bilko.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Food for Thought

Now that I’m (mostly) past the flu, my thoughts turn back to food, and food issues. I’ve realized that, though I think I pursued every sort of card in the 1970’s, the reality is that, when it came to cards, what I ate, and how I ate it, was the leading indicator.

I’ve written about 1961 Post (though it predates me), 1970’s Kellogg’s 3-D (right in my wheelhouse) and, of course, Hostess, the pinnacle of my taste and card preferences. Here are five other issues of the ‘70’s, and how I approached them.

1971 Bazooka (but really all Bazooka)

All of the Bazooka cards, starting in 1959, are nice enough, but I never, never, collected them, even when my gum chewing days began (let’s guess 1967). Why? Because I we didn’t conceive of buying gum by the box! Gum was an impulse purchase, and impulse easily satisfied for a penny.

That being said, I used to see those full boxes of Bazooka at the supermarket and they were glorious. Imagine, and entire box of gum, at home! It was too much to process and I don’t recall asking for it.

1600

1971 Milk Duds

I have never met a single child who had Milk Duds at the top of their candy list. Even in 1971, they seemed like the preferred candy of the 1940’s. I’ll assume adding cards to the back of nickel boxes was an attempt to entice kids away from better candy, but I can assure you that it didn’t work on me. I have never bought Milk Duds voluntarily. They end up always being part of a Halloween assortment bag, and I eat them when there’s no better alternative. To be fair, they are worlds better than Tootsie Rolls, which is the Devil’s candy.

Looking at them now, I find it hard to believe I never bought a single box, even if it meant tossing the candy and keeping the card.

 

 

1972-1975(?) Slurpee Cups

When we moved from Brooklyn to Long Island in December 1971, there were innumerable culture shocks. It felt like I time-traveled from 1971, long-haired and fringe-jacketed, to 1961, crew-cutted, Gentile, and mean. There were good things to come, some took time, others were immediate. 7-Eleven was immediate.

I’d never seen or heard of 7-Eleven before moving to the middle of Suffolk County, but it was a looming presence out there, and the Slurpee ruled. Not only were they the best icy drinks (Coca-Cola Slurpees are the pinnacle of man’s inventions), but Slurpees cups had baseball, football and basketball players, even Hall of Fame baseball cups (which portrayed players as old men. Weird.)

Not only did they let me pick the cup I wanted (thereby avoiding doubles), but they’d sell empty cups. Maybe they were a quarter? I ended up with towers of Slurpee cups.

 

 

1974-75 Sugar Daddy

Though not a baseball player to be found, these cards do tip their cap to the 1938 Goudey “Heads Up” cards. Both years have 25 card sets, with a mix of football, basketball and hockey. The ‘74’s are pretty simple looking; the ‘75’s have a shield as background and are commonly referred to as “All-Stars.”

In those two years, I ate 7 Sugar Daddys. I know this because that’s how many of the cards I have. Funny, I’ve grown to love Sugar Daddys, but, back then, they were only a slightly better option than Milk Duds.

 

1977-79 Burger King Yankees

All of the above deserve a main course. The BK Yankee cards were great. Most mirrored the regular issue Topps sets, but often there was a new picture of another Yankee free agent signing. Those cards made the sets extra special.

For some reason, I didn’t get any 1977s, but the 1978s and 1979s were plentiful and, if memory serves, you could get extra packs at checkout. Maybe they charged, maybe not. Either way, it was easy to put a set together. (And, there was even a poster in 1978!)