Split Season sets (or, how writing a book invariably led to more cards)

The split season of 1981, the year of Fernandomania, the Bronx Zoo and the strike that saved baseball, was Year One in the explosion in card collecting that marked the next decade and more. All of a sudden, there were a lot of choices for collectors.

An important historical note recounted in my book, Split Season: 1981,Fernandomania, The Bronx Zoo and the Strike that Saved Baseball (see how I subtly introduced the title in the opening sentence?) is the lawsuit that ended the Topps monopoly. Here are the relevant paragraphs:

In spring, millions turned to a time honored system of information gathering – baseball cards. The turmoil in baseball, the interweaving of business and sport, of tradition and progress, was mirrored in the collectible world. Topps, the only card company that generations had grown up on, had competition for the first time in 25 years. Like free agency, the decision came from an outside arbiter.

Cards were big business, 500 million traded, collected and clothes-pinned on bicycle spokes every year, generating $10 million in revenue. It was no wonder others wanted in.  When Fleer first challenged Topps in 1959, Topps had nearly every player under an exclusive deal. In 1975, the same year the first free agent, “Catfish” Hunter, was pushed out into an open market, Fleer filed a $13.6 mil suit against the Topps monopoly.

It took almost six years to end. On June 30, 1980, it was ruled that Topps and the players’ association had violated the Sherman Antitrust Act, restraining trade in the card market violation of.  The players’ association, much to Miller’s shock, were sued as well because, they had only licensed Topps. Miller disagreed with Topps’ assertion of exclusivity, but by not granting other companies the same right, the union had helped Topps remain the only cardboard in town. The players’ association was thrilled, for once, to lose. They saw more licensing money on the horizon.

For all of Fleer’s work in the courts, it was a Memphis concern, Donruss, which jumped in first. Fleer, seeing the normal calendar compress, released its full set before the Super Bowl, rather than the customary mid-February date. Statistical errors were numerous, with Bobby Bonds credited with 936 career home runs. The cards came out too early to picture the recent crop of free agents in fresh garb. Winfield as a Padre, Fisk and Lynn as a Red Sox, made the new cards outdated on arrival. Each company had a hard time completely covering the expected top rookies. Topps featured Tim Raines in a triptych of future Expos stars. Fernando Valenzuela got the same treatment. Donruss offered a full, more in focus, solo card of an incredibly young looking Raines, his big Afro pushing his cap skywards, an empty Wrigley Field lower level in the background.  Fleer had the only Valenzuela card, though he was labeled “Fernand” Valenzuela.

The flood of new product, giving every purchaser a free choice, would lead to an explosion of the hobby. By year-end, three times the number of cards were collected. The union garnered an additional $600,000 in revenue. An open market was good for paper images of the players; why not for the real thing?

In those moments during research and writing, while my mind wandered, and needed to, I searched EBay for 1981 sets I didn’t have. Of course, I had the three big base sets, and the Topps Traded set, but there were plenty of new offerings.

1981 Topps Coca-Cola

Topps produced 12 card sets, for 11 MLB teams. (They produced a Yankee set but that was never issued. Only three players are out there – Goose Gossage, Reggie Jackson and Rick Cerone.).

Rather than buy sets team by team, I held out for the full run of 132 cards. It was well worth it. They are very nice and, in some instances, have different pictures than the regular 1981 cards. The Sutton card is the missing link between his base card and his Traded card.

1981 Topps Giant Photo Cards 

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Perhaps in the Top 5 (at least Top 10) of most beautiful card sets, these 5” X 7” borderless glossies are a dream. Again, Topps issued team sets, or geographic sets, but the key for me was getting the whole set, all 102 oversized pics. I had a few of these when they came out but 1) only Yankees and Mets were sold in New York and, 2) who has the time to buy one card packs? This is the perfect set for Rob Neyer, who wrote recently for the blog about how much he likes borderless cards.

Tom Burgmeier never looked so good.

1981 Topps Scratchoffs

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Perhaps in the Bottom 5 (at least Bottom 10) of ugliest and pointless Topps sets. Three game cards to a card, perforated, the pictures small, players looking at, or averting their eyes from, the 24 black dots as if they were the plague. Not worth the time or money (small though it is at around $10.)

1981 Topps Stickers and Album

1981-stickers

Topps obviously decided that the best way to counter the Donruss and Fleer cards that now cluttered the market was to flood the market with more Topps sets. These are kinda nice, kinda silly, this big set of 262 flimsy little stickers features enough fine photography to make it interesting. Plus, it’s ridiculously cheap, less than a ten spot. I bought the album as well but there’s no sticking in my future.

1981 Fleer Star Stickers

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Maybe not as nice as the Topps sticker set, a bit more cluttered in design, a bit smaller set (128) but bigger cards. Plus, a loose-leaf binder is virtually naked without a Bake McBride sticker on the front.

1981 Drake’s

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The first Drake’s set since 1950 (the awesome “TV Baseball Series” cards), this 32 card gem was made in conjunction with Topps and is sweet, with great action shots of the “Big Hitters” of the day – and Joe Charboneau.

 

There were a few other sets I picked up – Kellogg’s 3-D (oddly, I had stopped buying those sets in 1980), the O-Pee-Chee Expos/Blue Jays poster set – and I had a few others – the Dodgers Police set and about 22% of all the minor league sets put out in 1981. I have no desire to pursue any more minor league sets, but I will make note of perhaps the best card of 1981. The TCMA Albuquerque Dukes set at first had a Sandy Koufax card, and then didn’t. Koufax was coaching in the Dodger chain that year.

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As for what’s left, there are some Police sets that don’t grab me (Braves, Royals, Mariners) and MSA/Peter Pan/Sunbeam discs that are bland beyond belief. When I bought the Towne Club disc set in 1976, discs of logo-less players seemed cool. Not by 1981, not now.

I may go after the Granny Goose A’s set, though searching for the short print Dave Revering card feels like an empty hunt. The only set remaining in my sights is the Squirt set. It’s not that big, not that expensive and I feel that not having anything in my collection labelled “Squirt” is a big void.

1981-squirt

Mother’s Cookies Were Cool

When I was in grade school in the mid 1980s, I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area. Sunnyvale, California to be precise. Back then, the Silicon Valley moniker was still in its infancy and really wasn’t all that well known outside of California. Before Apple, its claim to fame was the place Matthew Broderick tried to pirate video games from in the movie WarGames. Besides computers though, another hot craze in the area was baseball cards. That was driven by two real good teams, the Oakland A’s and the San Francisco Giants, and young rookie stars on each team to root for. If you were a Giant fan, Will Clark and Robby Thompson were at the top of your list. If you were a fan of the green and gold, those were the days it was cool to love Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire. But for many kid fans in the area, the rookie cards weren’t in the Topps, Fleer or Donruss sets. The “true rookies” were the Mother’s Cookies cards. Almost an equivalent to the rookie cards in the “Topps Traded” sets, Mother’s Cookies cards were available before the major companies main sets had been distributed.

cardfrontThe cards had a unique look to them. They had a glossy, sleek finish at a time before Upper Deck existed. They also had distinctive rounded corners which, to a kid’s imagination, made them even more cool. They also were thinner than normal baseball card stock, which gave it that extra amount of “I have to be careful with this, so it must be valuable” vibe.

The backs of each card, curiously, didn’t have baseball statistics on them. However, underneath the miniature biography of each player, there was a line marked “Autograph”. We thought that was a neat way to provide player space to sign without messing up that nice glossy finish.

Not only did those cards look great and were truer “rookie” cards, but they were all the more epic because us kids weren’t quite sure how to get them. I mean, you didn’t just go to the local 7-Eleven and buy a pack. They weren’t even listed in baseball card guides like Beckett’s. Though rumors of their release would start early in the season, there was an air of mystery on if they actually existed, what they would look like once they came out, and who would be in the set.

cardbackI traded for two cards, the Will Clark and Robby Thompson rookie cards from the 1986 set. Before and after games, there was a lot of baseball card trading as we waited for autographs.

 

And then, I got them autographed.

These days, because of the internet, there are blogs such as cardjunk to help clear up some of the mystery. There’s even a Wikipedia page that lets us glean a few more facts about them. The first two sets had been produced in 1952 and 1953, featuring only Pacific Coast League Players. That was it until the 1983 Mother’s Cookies Giants set came out. Other teams were added over the next decade until sets were being produced for the A’s, Angels, Astros, Dodgers, Giants, Mariners, Rangers and Padres. They also ran some commemorative sets for Nolan Ryan. They were distributed as occasional inserts in Mother’s Cookies or as giveaways at baseball games. The last baseball card set was in 1998 and apparently, Mother’s Cookies went out of business in 2008.

It’s ironic looking it up online decades after the cards were released. Even with modern technology, there are people still struggling to complete their sets. Nonetheless, though they’re still hard to find, they’re still as cool as they were when I was young.

Death & Baseball Cards

The year was 1964. I was six years old.

The black baseball card in my hands contained the haunting image of a somber fellow wearing a Cubs batting helmet.

hubbsfront“In Memoriam — Ken Hubbs”.

He looked so sad. All the other baseball cards I’d seen were bright and colorful, with the players gaily swinging bats, smiling at their good fortune. I turned the Hubbs card over and learned “the private plane he was piloting went down in a snowstorm near Provo, Utah”. I would later learn that Ken Hubbs was deemed a special player: 1962 Rookie of the Year, and the first ROY to win a gold glove. Set a fielding record the same year: 78 consecutive games and 418 chances without making an error. He played in the Little League World Series as a kid, was recruited to play quarterback for Notre Dame and UCLA to shoot hoops for John Wooden. If there ever was an All-American boy, Hubbs fits the profile. He even died trying to conquer his greatest fear.

hubbsbackFor many of us card junkies, we recall the day we held that black shroud in our hands and felt a small hunk of our innocence ripped away. The real world had intruded into the special place where I’d always felt safe, and, for the first time in my young life, felt vulnerable (I was too young to grasp the enormity of the events of November 22, 1963).

And there was more death on the way.

The Houston Colt .45s had a seductive name and logo, even if they weren’t very good. There was something different about the back of the card of one of their pitchers, Jim Umbricht. It said he was 6’4”, 215 pounds and 389-jim-umbrichtwas “one of the NL’s top relievers in ’63…”. The card also contained an epilogue I’d not seen on any other cards, settling under his stats, where lively cartoons usually appeared if you scratched the surface with a coin:

“Jim Umbricht passed away on Wednesday, April 8, 1964.”

What?! Another player died in the same year? Is this some kind of epidemic?

389-jim-umbricht-backThen came the questions that had no answers: why did he die? How did he die? The card didn’t say (Hubbs died 2/13/64, giving time to make the special card). That was more unsettling, not knowing what took the life of one of the NL’s top relievers. In adulthood, I would learn Umbricht was diagnosed with malignant melanoma in his right leg in March of 1963. His comeback from surgery made national headlines and he had arguably his best season pitching in agonizing pain. Dead at age 33, his ashes were spread over the construction site of the Astrodome.(1)

If my technicolor baseball gods were not impervious to the rigors of life on earth, what chance did the rest of us have? Some spend a lifetime looking for such answers.

One of the problems with mythologizing athletes who die young is getting at the truth about that person: who were they, what did they mean to their friends, family and community, and, most importantly to me, what kind of a person were they?

59-174frI decided to spend some time getting to know Ken Hubbs further. I contacted the Ken Hubbs Foundation in Hemet, CA, and spoke with it’s leader, Ron Doty. The Foundation’s mission is to honor athletes selected from high schools in the area, selecting boys and girls “who display not only outstanding athletic abilities on the field of plays, but also achievements in the classroom, community, in leadership and in community service.” I ordered a DVD of the mini-documentary made about Ken during his playing days, “A Glimpse of Greatness”. It lionized Hubbs further, but it shared perspectives of him growing up in the town of Colton as someone who was a leader and roundly admired. Ron told me of the annual ceremony and invited me to attend, which I plan to do as one of the stories for my new baseball documentary series.

I did more reading on updates of the Hubbs story. The guy was like a cross between a saint and Knute Rockne. Didn’t drink or smoke, had to be dragged off not just playing fields, but PRACTICE fields in his never-ending quest for perfection (Alan Iverson, take note). He was a legend unnamedbefore he became pro, with stories of him hitting a half-court shot to end the first half over a rival high school team AND nailing a buzzer-beating jumper to send the game into OT, eventually leading his Colton squad to victory. Another high school story has him breaking his foot before a big football game, stuffing the casted foot into a size 14-shoe and playing the entire game. (2) If I didn’t know better, Ken Hubbs crawled out of a John R. Tunis story.

But there is something about his death that gnaws. Was it the irony of his search for conquering his fear that led to his demise? After taking flying lessons, Hubbs fell in love with it and bought a Cessna 172. Brother Keith recalls watching his Ken make touch-and-go landings in 1963, with his father asking him to talk Hubbs out of flying. He was supposed to fly with Ken and a friend to Provo to play in a charity basketball game, but his schedule changed. The morning of his death, a storm moved in that Hubbs thought he could outrace. It was less than ten degrees and the visibility was terrible when he took off. Hubbs tried to turn back to the airport shortly after taking off, but the die had been cast. He had only 71 hours of flying experience and wasn’t qualified to fly by instruments and lost his bearing. The plane went into a death spiral, crashing into a Utah lake, leaving a ten-foot crater. It took divers two days to recover the bodies. (2)

Right about now is when one starts to hear refrains of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”…”does anyone know where the love of God goes when…”

Hall of Famer Ron Santo was so unsettled by Hubbs’ passing, he had to see a priest. Ken’s brother, Keith, had recurring nightmares so bad he didn’t want to shut his eyes. He had one final dream that snapped him out of it. In that dream, Ken told him, “I want you to stop worrying about me. It was quick and there was no pain. And I’m happy where I’m at.”(2)

Cessnas in the air mingling with snowflakes. A cancer victim blazing a final path of glory. Both spirits refusing to go gently into that dark night. Maybe that is the lessons of the Ken Hubbs’s and Jim Umbrichts’s: play hard, fight through the challenges and maybe then, and only then, we’ll be happy where we’re at.

 

Footnotes:

1 – “Jim Umbricht” – SABR bio project, by Thomas Ayers.

2 – “Fifty Years later, memories of Ken Hubbs still glowing”, 2/13/14 foxsports.com

 

DEXTER PRESS/COCA-COLA CARDS 1966-68

Despite half a century of improvements in photography and printing — and just as many years’ worth of raised bars for what collectors consider ‘high end’ and what they’re willing to pay for it — it can still be argued that the Dexter Press baseball card sets of 1966-68 are the highest quality baseball cards ever printed. And just to make the set a little more interesting, about 400 unused negatives of photos the company took but never used on cards have just turned up.

1967clementereal
1967 Dexter Press

Dexter is best known for 228 (or by one definition, 229) 5-1/2” x 7” premiums it produced for Coca-Cola in 1967. Collectors opened bottles of Coke, Fanta, Fresca, Sprite or Tab to find black and white head shots of their local players or one of 25 All-Stars on the underside of the bottle caps, then glued them  into matching spaces on a “cap-saver sheet.” When your 35-cap sheet was finished you could trade it in for one set of 12 Dexter photos of your local team, or in non-major league areas, 12 All-Star photos. Even though some of us had enterprising fathers who figured out that the discarded caps from Coke bottles bought from vending machines were collected in a receptacle inside the machine (and that a dollar could get your corner store owner to stash a summer’s worth for you), the promotion still enabled a lot of cavities among eight-year olds (I had seven by September).

Coke and Dexter made sets of caps and photos for 18 of the 20 major league teams. The 1967 Angels and Cardinals were skipped for whatever reason, which is odd given that Dexter had gotten into the baseball card business the year before with a series of different-sized sets of Angels players. The best-known were slightly larger than a standard postcard (4” x 5-7/8”) and included 16 players plus a shot of brand new Anaheim Stadium, but Dexter also made smaller and larger versions of the player photos for sale inside the ballpark and in other unknown ways. At least one 1966 Angel, Paul Schaal, was produced in exactly the same size that would be used nationally a year later and is usually included in the 1967 checklist as a 229th card, although technically it’s debatable as to why it would belong with the ’67 set.

1968-dexter-press-frank-robinson
1968 Dexter Press

The company also made a 4” x 5-7/8” set for the 1967 Yankees, duplicating 10 players and images from the Coke set, which I can remember seeing on sale individually at the souvenir stands at the old Yankee Stadium. Dexter would also reprise the premium role for Coke in 1968, but with smaller (3-1/2 x 5-1/2), fewer (77), and less attractively-published postcards featuring a dozen players from each of six teams and five other players scattered among four teams.

1967morganreal
1967 Dexter Press

The quality of the 1966-67 printing is so good that the cards almost glow. This was evident even to us collectors of 50 years ago. You kept the Topps cards in boxes. You kept the glossy, shiny, richly colorful Coke cards displayed on a shelf or a bulletin board. It would later prove that this was Dexter’s selling point. Mention the company name to collectors of souvenirs from the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair and you’ll get nods of appreciation: Dexter was the official postcard supplier to the Fair, and those cards also glisten. Do an eBay search for “Dexter postcard” and you’ll find that the company based in the New York suburbs did high-quality work for restaurants and stores and businesses of all sort around the country, and came back in 1971 with another Yankees set and, later, the official postcards for the Baseball Hall of Fame.

As to 1967, counting the All-Stars there are cards of 32 Hall-of-Famers and many more greats of the era. One of the only complaints you could make is that all the poses are the same: portraits to the waist with the player’s hands at his sides or seemingly crossed near the belt, and his autograph superimposed over his head. Even that monotony earns style points when you see all of the cards together. Then as now, the repetition of the poses somehow made the photos look official.

1968-rocky-colavito
Rocky Colavito

The other complaint would have been that even if you lived somewhere where geographical definitions overlapped — say in New Jersey — and had access to trading in the right 140 bottle caps to get the sets of the Yankees, Mets, Phillies, and All-Stars, you would still have only 48 different cards compared to the 609 Topps would make that year. It bothered me then and it bothers me now and it made an item in a recent auction even more appealing to me: a collection of production materials from the Dexter sets, including dozens of the actual player autographs used (and many not used)

Jim Gentile
Jim Gentile

on the cards, still more autographs transferred onto clear plastic overlays, and what turned out to be about 500 negatives, around 400 of which showed players not included in the various Dexter sets.

In the last few days I’ve tweeted about a dozen of the rarer finds for the sake of other hobbyists like me who hunt the arcane combinations of obscure players

Alan Schmelz
Alan Schmelz

with teams they only spent a little time with: Rocky Colavito with the White Sox, Jim Gentile with the Phillies (he was cut during Spring Training) and the like. There are literally dozens of these, plus just as many minor leaguers who got no closer to the big leagues than spring training and the Dexter photographer. The company probably grabbed everybody who would agree to stand still for them, and so the image of Arizona State star and two-game Mets pitcher Alan Schmelz comes complete with a couple of Alan Schmelz autographs on ordinary note paper.

fullsizerender-4
Bruce Howard
1967-nick-willhite
Nick Willhite

And as always when the production materials for any card set are revealed there are inexplicable and/or rewarding quirks discovered. For instance, a Dexter negative showing Nick Willhite with the 1967 Angels implies that even though the company didn’t make a set of the Halos that year, they were seemingly prepared to. The variety of images from 1968 suggests that the second Coke Premium set was supposed to be much bigger: Dexter shot players from the A’s, Mets, Phillies, Reds, Senators, White Sox, and Yankees — and made no cards for any of those teams. And perhaps best of all, photo after photo shows why so many players look like they’re clasping their hands at their stomachs. They are holding ID slates with their own names on them!

Joe Rudi
Joe Rudi

Don Mincher on the Pilots

A recent posting of Bruce Markusen’s Card Corner featured the 1968 Topps Don Mincher card and provided an excellent overview of his career. The article mentioned that Mincher was selected by the Seattle Pilots in the 1969 expansion draft. Although Mincher was not a superstar, he was a well-known, productive player and as such stood out amongst the rag-tag group assembled on the Pilots roster.

This resulted in Mincher being featured in both 1969 and 1970 by Topps, Milton Bradley, Kellogg and other manufacturers as the Pilots’ representative on specialty cards, posters, stamps and inserts.  What follows is a look at Don’s cards and related collectibles during the brief existence of the one-and-done Pilots.

Topps 1969 Regular Issue and Decal Insert

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1969 Topps
69-decal
1969 Topps Decal

As with most cards for expansion teams, Topps airbrushed out the cap insignia from the players previous team. Based on the batting cage in the background, these pictures were taken during the same photo session. Obviously, the photographer wanted one with Don’s glasses on and one without. Also note that Topps didn’t stick with the same color designations on the decals as the cards. The light green ball on the decal was the designated color on cards for the Astros and Orioles.

The decals measure 1 ¾ X 2 1/8. There are 48 stickers in the set which featured many of the superstar players of the era. My memory is of them being distributed in the later series. The cellophane like decal peeled off from the white, waxy background paper. Over time, the adhesive tends to fail and the decal will separate from the backing. I can attest to this having a backless Mantle and Clemente in my collection.

1969 Topps Super

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1969 Topps Super 

Apparently the Topps photographer believed Don photographed best while gazing into the upper deck at Yankee Stadium. The image on the Super card is exactly the same pose as the 1968 regular issue card sans hat. The Super cards are on thick stock with rounded edges and measure 2 ¼ X 3 ¼. They were sold three to a pack. The backs are the same as the deckle edge inserts found in the early series of the regular issue packs. One of Topps test issues, Supers were only distributed in Michigan, making the 66 card set extremely rare. Even non-stars are valuable. Tommy Davis is the other Pilots player found in this set.

1969 Topps Team Poster

69-poster
1969 Topps Team Poster

Once again Don is gazing skyward but in the opposite direction and without a bat on his shoulder. The team poster measures 11 ¼ X 19 ¾ and came one per pack for a dime. The dimensions are bigger than the 1968 player posters that were also sold one per pack.   The team posters had a wider distribution than the Super cards but didn’t reach all regions.

1969 Topps Stamps

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1969 Topps Stamp
stamp-album-1
1969 Topps Stamp Album

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Topps repurposed the 1968 card picture for Don’s stamp. The stamps came 12 to a sheet and each pack contained one album. There are 240 stamps in the set and they have the same thickness as a postage stamp.

1969 Globe Imports Playing Cards

69-globe-imports
1969 Globe Imports
1969 Sports Illustrated poster
1968 Sports Illustrated poster

Arguable the worst card set in history, these 1-5/8 X 2 black and white cards were printed on flimsy paper stock with blank backs. Each of the 55 cards represents a standard playing card. Mincher’s card is the same image as found on a 1968 Sports Illustrated poster. The SI promotional poster catalog featured a small version of each poster (image on the right). This may have been the source for the grainy pictures. It would be interesting to know if Global Imports bought the rights or simply pirated the images. Apparently, the cards were sold or given away at gas stations in the south. I found a set in the 1970s at a liquidation store in Yakima, WA.

1969 and 1970 Milton Bradley Official Baseball

1969 Milton Bradley
1969 Milton Bradley
70-mb
1970 Milton Bradley 

The 1969 game is composed of 296 2X3 cards which came on perforated sheets requiring detachment before playing. The backs contain a list of outcomes (ground out, single etc.). Oddly, there are not enough cards to form a lineup for each team.

In 1970 Milton Bradley issued a simplified version of the 1969 game. The 24 cards in the set measure 2 3/16 X 3 ½ with rounded edges.

1970 Topps Regular Issue and Poster

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1970 Topps
1970 Topps Poster
1970 Topps Poster

Don was traded to Oakland in January of 1970 but not before Topps produced the early series cards and poster inserts. There are 24 posters, one player for each team, and measure 8 11/16 x 9 5/8. Note that the black and white “action” picture is actually Carl Yastrzemski.

1970 Kellogg’s 3-D

1970 Kelloggs
1970 Kelloggs

The 2 ¼ X 3 ½ 3-D cards were made by Xograph and issued one per box of Corn Flakes. Interestingly, Rich Mueller of Sports Collectors Daily mentions that the cards were also distributed in six card packs with an iron on transfer. Don is #75 of the 75 card set. He is depicted in his Pilots regular season home uniform. The background appears to be RFK stadium where the All-Star game was held in 1969 and Don was the Pilots representative. However, Xograph did superimpose players in front of backgrounds unrelated to the location of the photo. Furthermore, the photo appears to be identical to a publicity shot taken at Sicks’ Stadium in September of 1969.

 

The Mac Brothers – Willie and Big

I started going to card shows in 1973. There weren’t that many back then, two a year in Manhattan. I’d go with $100, saved up from a birthday or Hanukkah. That money had to be spent wisely and usually was. I stockpiled favorite players (Koufax, for one), bought the occasional Mantle or Mays, but my heart was always with complete sets, especially ones I’d padres-baseballsnever seen before. When I saw the 1974 McDonald’s Padres Discs in their plastic baseball holder, it was love at first sight.

Even if it didn’t contain a complete set of 15 Pads, the cheapo plastic baseball on its McDonald’s logoed stand would have been worth the price. It was the perfect marriage of Ray Kroc properties. Kroc, owner of both McDonald’s and the Padres, found padres-trioperfect synergy in card form. The set is a ‘70’s baseball fans dream – Matty Alou, Nate Colbert, Bobby Tolan, etc. It’s got a beautiful card of Willie McCovey in his new Padres brown and yellow uni, a worthier picture of the original Big Mac than his heinously airbrushed 1974 Topps card. There’s also a Dave Winfield rookie card.

padres-baseballs-openIt was only recently that I came upon the original plastic holder and five player starter set. This type (with a run of 60,000) was given away on at Jack Murphy Stadium July 30, an 8-0 drubbing at the hands of the Dodgers. The cards were great (that’s adorable and terrible Enzo Hernandez in the front of my starter set), the team not so much. They’d lose 102 games.

The ’74 Padres McDonald’s Disc set is a quirky little thing, reasonably priced, and worthy of your time. Where else are you gonna find a Ronald McDonald card, in action no less? And it comes in its own unique container, just like a McDLT.mcdlt-w-ad

Sandy Koufax Regional Issue: 1959-1961 Morrell Meats

When you think of Sandy Koufax cards, which one comes to mind?

Most hobbyists would likely quickly envision his 1955 Topps rookie card. After all, that issue is iconic and one of the most valuable baseball cards in the entire hobby.

As a diehard Koufax collector, though, I tend to really enjoy some of his lesser-known cards. They’re harder to find. And they’re more challenging to find in high grade. So, for me, that gives them a boost in appeal.

Take his 1959-1961 Morrell Meats issues, for example. These cards are fairly rare–specifically the 1959.

Part of a three-year run as promotional cards released by the Morrell Meats company they were generally only available in the Southern California area. They were also served exclusively at Dodgers games at the Coliseum in during their pre-Chavez Ravine days.

Along with his Bell Brand Potato Chip cards (which I’ll write about separately in the future), they’re arguably his most recognizable regional issues.

Condition-sensitive doesn’t begin to describe these cards. If the full-color, borderless photos on the front weren’t fragile enough, the fact that the cards were packaged with hot dogs and sausage left them even more vulnerable to wear and tear.

Let’s take a look at each one and see what makes them different from each other:

1959 Morrell Meats Sandy Koufax

The 1959 Morrell Meats series included 12 players in total with Koufax being the most important card in the set (the same can be said for the ’60 and ’61 issues). Koufax is pictured in his legendary #32 uniform posing as if he’s delivering another one of his famously terrifying fastballs. At the time, though, his fastball wasn’t exactly as terrifying as it was known for seeing as how he only struck out 173 that season and really didn’t become dominant until the 1961 season. As you’ll see in a bit, the photo used in the 1959 issue is the same as the 1961 issue, so the back is the easiest way to tell the difference between the two. The 1959 back doesn’t contain any statistics at all. It does, however, give a clue as to which products the cards came with:

  • Wieners
  • Cheesefurters (what’s a cheesefurter?)
  • Smokees
  • Polish Sausages

1959-morrell-meats-sandy-koufax

1960 Morrell Meats Sandy Koufax

Another 12-card set, the 1960 Morell Meats cards were identical in size to the 1959 set, each measuring 2-1/2″ by 3-1/2″. But, as you can see, the photo of Koufax was different than the year before. A nice full-color image of Koufax is shown right where opposing hitters liked to see him: smiling and nowhere near a pitcher’s mound. Morrell included his statistics on the reverse, below his team, his name and personal information (height, weight, etc.). A 1960 Morrell Meats Koufax graded in PSA 9 mint condition sold for over $30k in 2007. An incredible price. Who knows what it would sell for today?

1960-morrell-meats-sandy-koufax

1961 Morrell Meats Sandy Koufax

As mentioned previously, Morrell went with the same photo on its 1961 issue as it had used on the 1959 card. Again, the back is the key to telling the difference between the 1959 and 1961 issues. The layout of the 1961 back is almost identical to that of the 1960 issue except:

  • his personal information is missing
  • the coloration is different
  • there is a symbol instead of the word “Japan” in the corner
  • and 1959 World Series stats are included

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So just how rare are all three of these cards? This should give you some perspective:

As of this writing, according to PSA’s pop report, the following number of each card are currently in the grading company’s population:

  • 1959: 9 copies (yes, only nine)
  • 1960: 79 copies
  • 1961: 93 copies

By comparison, PSA has graded 5,436 of his 1955 Topps rookie cards.

So, obviously Morrell Meats cards don’t pop up too often. And when they do, you better jump on them. Take my word for it.

I own both his 1960 and 1961 Morrell issues in PSA 8 condition. But the 1959 issue continues to elude me…

Earlier this year, Heritage Auctions auctioned off a copy of the 1959 Morrell Meats Koufax in PSA 5 condition…the highest grade currently in their population. So this was big news in the Koufax collecting community.

Too bad I found out about the auction in July. I am still kicking myself for not paying closer attention to each auction house’s schedules. (Side note: if you don’t know about Auction Report, their website can solve this problem for you. They do a great job at listing out most every major auction house’s schedules so you don’t make the same mistake I did and have a card you need slip by you).

Ugh…I’m still kicking myself over missing out on that ’59 Morrell Meats Koufax auction. I’ve been searching for this card for years. It ended up selling for $4,063 with buyer’s premium, though, so I guess I don’t feel too bad. There is no chance I would’ve been able to go that high.

Oh well, the search continues. Which is one of the best parts about this hobby in my opinion.