My 1887 Old Judge…not!

Just so everybody here doesn’t think that as a defender of card grading, I’m a shill for PSA, I’ll share a weird experience I had a few years ago with an amazing goof on a card I sent to be graded.

I needed a graded card of Hall of Fame umpire Hank O’Day to add to my “unrestricted” set of Hall of Fame cards. “Unrestricted” means any card of any year, even if it’s long after a person played or lived, including graded Hall of Fame plaque postcards or Dick Perez portrait postcards. Generally, people create such sets with cards they already have from other more standard issues, but obviously folks like me buy other PSA graded cards to fill holes in these kind of sets. To each, his own. It’s how collecting works.

Yes, I know. I don’t consider these postcards really standard baseball cards but – rationalization here – some HoF members have very few real cards, and the one or two that exist are outrageously expensive in any form. So sometimes, I have settle for HOF postcards (which, proudly, I bought at the HOF gift shop in Cooperstown. The clerk was interested to know why I was buying these obscure players’ and execs’ postcards.)

Well, I sent PSA a Conlon card (early 1990s. obviously) of Hank O’Day to be graded. Silly me, I thought it looked pretty good and might rate a PSA 7 grade. Duh. It came back as a 5.5; pretty much worthless in graded form for a card from this set. (I eventually added it anyway as a Conlon to my set.)

Remarkably, PSA had somehow encapsulated this Conlon card as an 1887 N172 Old Judge. Gosh, I wish that had been what it really was! At that point, it was in the PSA registry as if the company had graded a 1887 Old Judge 5.5, which would be quite a find.

hank O'Day goof_NEW

I posted this card for sale with the scanned image on eBay, clearly pointing out that it was NOT an 1887 Old Judge. Since I had another raw O’Day card, I was hoping to recoup the grading cost and mailing fee (both quite steep, as those who submit cards to PSA know well). Normally when I list a nice card on Ebay, I might get half a dozen bids and maybe two dozen page views. If I recall, this card got more than 15,000 views in a day.

Immediately, the administrative assistant to PSA’s CEO contacted me, asking that I take down the listing and send the card back to be re-slabbed. Well, I wasn’t born yesterday (literally). PSA does correct what it calls mechanical errors free of charge, and I have taken advantage of this a couple of times, much to my benefit. Player’s names or years sometimes are incorrect on PSA cards out there. Mistakes happen.

But this Old Judge snafu seemed especially egregious, and I wasn’t inclined to send this card back to PSA just to get something pretty much worthless in return. I asked for a couple of free gradings, which were agreed to (though l still had to pay shipping) in addition to the corrected holder for my 5.5 Conlon card back. I probably could have driven a better deal, but I wasn’t looking to cheat or hurt anyone.

I do not share this experience to knock PSA. I understand the grading critieria. I pay to be a Collectors Club member, and I enjoy reading the monthly magazine articles about different sets, many of which are written by SABR member Kevin Glew, a journalist who is a major Canadian baseball authority (and who I have encouraged to post here). I enjoy and appreciate the Set Registry, which is free to participate in.

PSA told me the mistake happened after the card itself was graded. I accept that, but my gosh, I hope a better final checking process is now in place. I’m sure thousands of images of this card were downloaded when it was up for sale on Ebay, so I don’t hesitate to post it here.

1977 Topps Cloth Stickers and Bill Madlock’s Subtle Badassery

Looking through an album of Cubs teams sets recently, I came across the Topps cloth stickers of Bill Madlock and Jose Cardenal. As you may know, Topps issued a test set of these stickers with the same front design as their regular set in 1977. The disposable peel-off backs of the cards were different than the regular issue, however, swapping a full complement of statistics for select career highlights for each of the 55 players featured in the selective set. One of those sticker-back highlights on Madlock’s cloth card conceals a pretty cool story.

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1977 Topps Ken Griffey, #320

Following the action on Saturday, October 2, 1976 Reds right fielder Ken Griffey was atop the NL leaderboard with a .338 batting average, poised to win his first batting title. After an oh-for-four on October 2, Bill Madlock was sitting at .333.

On the final day of that Bicentennial season, October 3, Madlock started at third base for the Cubs at Wrigley Field in a game against the Montreal Expos. “Mad Dog” would knock singles in the first, third, fourth and sixth innings, off of three different pitchers, driving his season batting average up to .3385—just enough to eclipse Griffey when rounded up to .339. When Madlock’s spot in the order came up in the bottom the eighth, he was lifted for pinch hitter Rob Sperring (who also singled).

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1977 Topps Bill Madlock, #250

Meanwhile in Cincinnati, Mike Lum started in right field in place of Griffey, as the Reds played their final regular season game against the Braves. This was a meaningless contest in that Cincinnati had cruised to the NL West division championship, with the team looking ahead to facing Philadelphia in the NLCS.

Presumably after getting word that Madlock had just done the unthinkable in Chicago—raising his average six points in a single game!—Griffey entered the game in Cincinnati as a pinch hitter in the seventh inning. After a Pete Rose single, Griffey struck out. Uh-oh. Griffey’s average had just dropped to .337.

By the bottom the eighth inning, the Reds were leading 4-0 and Griffey was due up sixth, in need of a miracle. Even if Griffey were to hit safely in this at-bat, his average would still fall short of Madlock’s .339. But…if he were to get a hit and the Braves forced extras, it would still be possible for Griffey to tie Madlock with a 2-for-3.

In that eighth, Lum singled, Dave Concepcion singled, Doug Flynn singled, Bob Bailey singled and Rose walked. Ken Griffey got to the plate in the eighth, but whiffed. The dream was over for Griffey, as the Reds tacked on seven runs in the bottom of the eighth to put the game out of reach for the Braves.

Griffey would go on to win his second consecutive championship with the Big Red Machine in 1976, but that season’s NL batting title race was one for the ages.

The back of the cloth Bill Madlock boasts that he went 4-for-4 on the final day of the 1976 season to lead the NL in batting. True, but this tidbit obfuscates the absolute badassery Bill Madlock displayed on October 3, 1976 to take his second consecutive batting crown.

Madlock was featured in the 1977 Topps cloth sticker set, Ken Griffey was not.

Sources:

http://www.baseball-reference.com

http://www.retrosheet.org

Angel in Cooperstown

Induction Weekend in Cooperstown is the best. If you’ve never been here for it, work on it! Before I moved to Cooperstown I’d never been to Induction. Now, I’d never miss it.

From Friday to Monday, there are events, vendors, signings, player sightings, a baseball fans dream. (Where else can you see Tony Oliva walking down the street, unaccosted?). On Saturday, Main Street is closed and becomes the best baseball block party in the country.

Last month, I worked the Cooperstown Rotary Club tent, selling raffles for an autographed baseball. I loved doing that, standing on Main St., gabbing about baseball with people who do and don’t know me. I have a very small level of fame, so I do get to meet some social media pals in real life. This year, I had an expected treat.

Three men stopped by the tent and one, Angel Colon, was a gift. He’s involved with SABR in Puerto Rico and we talked at length. Angel is involved in many things – using different braches from various trees felled during the devastating hurricane and turning them into baseball bats, creating a book about major leaguers who have played in Puerto Rico –

but the one that grabbed me the most, and fits our little world, is the 40 card set he created of Puerto Rican


League stars.

With work from the great Gary Cieradkowski, the set is tobacco card sized and portrays Major, Negro and Puerto Rican legends. It’s spectacular. The more we talked about the cards, the book, baseball, and Puerto Rico, the more I realized that Angel needed a bigger audience.

The next day, a few hours after Induction, is our annual Cliff Kachline Chapter meeting. It’s our biggest of the year, bringing in SABR members from all over the country. We had a huge lineup – Jane Leavy, Erik Sherman, Jay Jaffe and….me. I was going to talk about Friends of Doubleday, the 501c3 (I’m President) which raises money for Doubleday Field improvements (contact me for more info. There’s cool stuff happening) and the coming Doubleday renovations. It seemed clear to me that Angel was more interesting. I asked him to speak in my place and, though he’d never spoken to a group in public, he accepted. Of course, he killed.

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On top of this, Angel gifted me a copy of the SABR Puerto Rico book and, to my shock and joy, the complete card set! It’s a wondrous series of cards and you should get one too.  Angel’s contact info is here. Reach out. You won’t regret it.

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A wholly needless analysis of the 1987 Kraft “Home Plate Heroes” numbering scheme

Introduction

In a recent post Tim Jenkins covered the 1987 Kraft “Home Plate Heroes” baseball card set. One detail of the set he addressed was the multiple player combo variations. Specifically, each of the 48 players in the set was paired with five other players. The ex-mathematician in me found this aspect of the set intriguing enough to (depending on your taste) promise or threaten to make it the subject of my next post, in hopes that some elegant mathematical structure would underlie the 120-panel master set.

A quick look at some of tim’s cards

Borrowing an example and some graphics from Tim’s original post, here is Don Mattingly paired with Fernando Valenzuela and Steve Garvey. Other Mattingly panels include Hubie Brooks, Mike Scott, and Mike Schmidt.

Since my analysis is more about numbering than the players themselves, here are the card numbers of Mattingly’s five partners.

  • #4 – Mike Scott
  • #20 – Steve Garvey
  • #30 – Mike Schmidt
  • #32 – Fernando Valenzuela
  • #42 – Hubie Brooks

Were you to look for a single rule or relationship behind these numbers, you’d probably come up empty, even as you might jot down a handful of properties.

  • All the Mattingly partners have even numbers
  • There are two instances where the numbers are 10 apart (20/30 and 32/42). Furthermore, because the set ends at 48, even the 42 and 4 can be considered 10 apart, modulo the size of the set. (Don’t panic if that last bit means nothing to you.)
  • Finally, as Tim already noted in his article, one of the numbers (30) is one greater than the Mattingly card (29).

A fair question at this point is whether these properties are unique to the Mattingly panels or hold more generally across the set.

Are they steady, eddie?

The first card in the Kraft set is this Eddie Murray card.

Without too much trouble, I was able to find the five players paired with Murray on uncut panels:

  • #2 – Dale Murphy
  • #4 – Mike Scott
  • #22 – John Tudor
  • #24 – Von Hayes
  • #48 – Nolan Ryan

Returning to our Mattingly observations we see the first and third still hold, but the “10 apart” property no longer applies to any of the card numbers. Were we to quit now, we might conclude the logic to the set was simply this:

  • Odd numbers on the left, even numbers on the right
  • For any player on the left, one of five panels should include the next number in the set
  • The other four panels should include (perhaps) randomly chosen even numbered cards

For most sets of baseball cards, it would not surprise me at all (even if it would disappoint me) to learn that little thought went into a set’s checklist or numbering. After all, chaos is usually easier than order. However, in the case of the Kraft set, I found such an outcome difficult to accept, simply because it is actually a hard and time-consuming exercise to arrive at five panels per player through randomness or luck.

What would Albert Einstein do?

This quote, probably never uttered by Albert Einstein, comes to mind.

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At least in theory, developing a rule to generate a 120-panel master set with five pairings per player should take far less time than throwing darts and attempting a checklist willy-nilly.

Building a checklist

If I were to make it any farther with this set I knew I would need a complete checklist of all 120 panels. Failing to find one anywhere online, I was able to build my own, which (drum roll please…) I’ll be sharing for your research or collecting pleasure at the end of this article. (And yes, I did see that the PSA Card Facts page for this set lists panels; however, it had numerous problems that made it unreliable as a sole source. For instance, it lists 129 panels, frequently swaps the left/right pairings, picks a bad year to not tell us which Davis, and fails to number any of the cards.)

Once my checklist was built and sorted appropriately, new patterns were evident just from looking at the first three entries. It turns out the key to finding patterns wasn’t to look across but look down.

Where panel pairings looked nearly random previously, there were now simple patterns like 2, 4, 6, … and 48, 46, 44, … that were clearly intentional and seemed to decode the entire master set checklist.

But…

At first glance, such a numbering scheme appears to be a slick and elegant way to generate the master set. There is only one problem. Because the numbering in the columns goes both forward (Var 1, Var 2, Var 4) and backward (Var 3, Var 5), there is risk of the different columns ultimately “crashing” into each other and landing on the same number at the same time. (Crashing is not actually guaranteed but also depends on the starting point of each pattern. In a simpler non-card example, the patterns 1, 2, 3, … and 3, 2, 1, … both have the same middle number, but the patterns 1, 2, 3, 4, … and 4, 3, 2, 1, … have no terms in common.)

For better or worse, we indeed encounter a collision when we hit Ozzie Guillen’s card #11. Without further adjustment, this would translate into only four distinct Guillen variations, with panel 11/12 (Guillen/Pena) double-printed.

Continuing each pattern down the rest of the checklist, a total of five collisions result.

One option for Kraft would have been to declare “good enough” and apply this scheme unaltered for the master set. The result would be 115 different panels instead of 120, with five of them double-printed. In the grand scheme of things I think most collectors would have either not noticed or not complained. After all, how many collectors were really looking to buy 120 boxes of macaroni in the first place?

Of course that’s not what happened. Kraft did in fact issue 120 distinct panels. To do so, Kraft had to resolve each of the five collisions without creating new ones. Their primary strategy for addressing collisions was a clever one: simply to swap unwanted duplicates with the next number in the sequence. This is exactly what was done in the first instance, where Guillen’s second Pena (12) was traded for the Eric Davis (10) that would have gone with Harold Baines.

Such a strategy, if exploited fully, could have been used to resolve all but one conflict on the checklist. The lone exception would have been the #23 Yount (23) row, where flipping either 26 would cause duplication in the Hrbek (25) row.

Still, why let perfect get in the way of good? Perhaps a 119-panel master set would have set off a macaroni buying frenzy among collectors determined to find the modern day equivalent of a 1933 Goudey Nap Lajoie! (Yes, I’m kidding. Based on the set’s packaging, shoppers could easily tell what cards were on the boxes just by flipping them over.)

Yet another solution available, largely in the spirit of prior interventions, would have been to swap Yount’s second 26 (var 5) with the number immediately above it. Ultimately, however, Kraft took a different path with Yount as well as a couple of the earlier checklist crashes.

Unleash the cheese!

Rather than fully exploit down-flip or up-flip strategies to resolve all five conflicts on the checklist, Kraft applied such flips only three times (rows 11/13, 35/37, 37/29). For the #13 Baines and #23 Yount rows, the adjustments seemed more oddball. As the yellow cells in the table show, Kraft replaced Baines’ extra 36 with a 22 and Yount’s extra 26 with a 2! Huh?!

In reality the mysterious choices of 22 and 2 aren’t so mysterious. Take a look at the very end of the checklist, and you’ll see that the final two entries should have been…you guessed it…22 and 2! It’s not terribly elegant, but neither is it random. And of course it worked!

The result, for the dining and collecting pleasure, of many of us was a fun 48-card set that included five different ways to collect each player (my favorite: Kirk Gibson/Steve Garvey), based on a handful of simple rules for checklist design and two resolution techniques for the conflicts these rules produced.

Extra for experts

As a final note, perhaps for someone else to tackle, I mentioned a few times that crashes in the checklist would have led to double-printing of some panels and the absence of others. In fact, it’s still possible that double-printing did occur and that the fixes were added as extras rather than replacements. Population counts for panels are currently too low to get much of a sense of things, but then again this was 1987. What does double-printing even mean when you print a billion of everything? 😄

Appendix: Master set checklist

I have posted a complete checklist of panels as a Google Sheet. Here is the link. And if you have an extra Kirk Gibson/Steve Garvey panel somewhere, give me a holler!

Accessorizing with Tony Horton

Recently, Jeff Katz revealed on the blog how he stores the 1984 Fun Foods pin set by using pocket pages designed for stamps.  In a vain attempt to keep up with the “Katzes,” I completed my set and used tobacco card pocket pages to store mine. The pin subject reminded me that I have around 20 pins from the 1969 MLBPA pin (photo button) set.

This set consists of 60 pins measuring approximately 7/8”. There are 30 players for each league, with the American League featuring red borders and the National League blue.  The photos are all “floating heads” in black and white without cap emblems. The unnumbered pins were distributed in vending machines for 10 cents apiece.

Included in the set are most of the greats and near greats of the era. The set does not include players from the four expansion teams that began play in 1969-alas, no Seattle Pilots!  However, there is a George Brunet on the Angels which sort of counts.

Printed along the bottom is the following: “1969 MLBPA MFG. R.R. Winona, MINN.”  The reason I point this out is that a similar version of the pins was released by persons unknown in 1983.

The unauthorized pins are easy to spot. 

  • The photo and the pin themselves are smaller.
  • Players from either league show up in blue or red.
  • The player’s name appears above the photo and team name below-just the opposite of the originals.
  • Some hats include team logos whereas no 1969 hats do.
  • There is no manufacturer printed on the pin. “1969 MLBPA USA” does appear, but the issue was not sanctioned by the union.

The make up of the “bootleg” set is quite different.  Only 13 of the 60 players from the original issue show up in this 36-pin set.  The remaining 23 pins are all time greats including Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, and Satchel Paige. I found no reference to how the pins were distributed, but the gumball machine method seems logical.

A complete set of the originals in excellent condition is quite pricey.  On the other hand, you can pick up off grade singles at a reasonable price.

Since this set is not exactly aesthetically pleasing, I’m hoping this scintillating post doesn’t spur Jeff Katz to put the set together.  I don’t want to become mired in a “cold war” pin race. Meanwhile, I will make a fashion statement by pinning Tony Horton to the lapel of my leisure suit.

Mac ‘n cards

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, baseball cards could be found in or on the packages of numerous food and other consumer products. In 1987, the budget minded gravitated to the prepared food isle where Kraft Macaroni and Cheese boxes featured two card panels.  The “crafty” Kraft folks-utilizing a pun- called the series, “Home Plate Heroes.”

For the past 32 years, ten intact boxes have languished in my collection, generally taking up space.  Recently, I made an executive decision to separate the panels form the boxes. The panels fit perfectly in four-pocket pages. I kept two boxes intact, since they were duplicates.

This process piqued my curiosity as to the number of panel combinations and total cards in the set.  It turns out that 48 different players appear on panels in five different combinations each. As you can see, Mattingly had multiple partners in the hedonistic 1980s.

The last Mattingly panel pairs him with Mike Schmidt.  Notice that the two cards are in numerical sequence.  Each player in the set has a combination panel like this. This means collectors could put a set of 24 panels together to form the complete set of 48 players.  Hobbyists didn’t have to cut out the cards-individually-to order the set by number.

If you are the obsessive type who believes that a complete set is possessing all the panel variations, it will require the accumulation of 120 separate panels.

After cutting the boxes, I checked eBay to see if a complete set existed. There was a 24-panel set in numerical sequence for around $6 with postage, which I bought.

As far as oddball sets go, this one is not bad.  It harkens back to the Post cards of the 1960s. However, not gaining MLB rights to show logos is a strike against them. Still, there are numerous Hall-of-Fame members and notables from the era.

The macaroni in the box still looks good and the cheese powder is perfectly preserved by salt and chemicals.  I plan to cook up a box and eat it all while pondering the majesty of Eddie Murray.

Feats Don’t Fail Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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These three are spectacular as well…

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

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

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

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

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