When Topps covers politics

One of the elements of Topps Heritage that routinely catches my eyes are the Heritage News Flashbacks. For a small insert set which is purportedly about the heritage year’s news highlights, I’ve found it to be an interesting window into what kind of things Topps considers mass-market newsworthy.

Given Topps’s coverage of the 1950s–1970s we have a lot of civil rights firsts,* a lot of space exploration, and a lot of Vietnam War related events. All things which are conceivably politically neutral. In many years though Topps also commemorates legislation and other political achievements. These were clearly highly political at the time but also frequently remain political even today. When I look through the insert checklists it’s these cards that catch my eye in the way that they have one foot in both “this is something worth commemorating” territory and “this is what people say we shouldn’t talk about in the hobby” territory.

*The number of “first black” or “first woman” events Topps chose to celebrate is both refreshing to see and an indictment of who has been traditionally allowed to succeed in our society.

Not only do these legislative inserts catch my eye but they frequently have an interesting context outside of the just the card. This 2009 card commemorating the 1960 Civil Rights Act for example came out the same year that Barrack Obama became the first Black President and the year that Congress authorized the Civil Rights History project to collect oral histories from people who were active in the struggle during the 1950s and 1960s.

The thing with these news flashbacks cards though is that they also tend to frame history as a series of accomplishments rather than a continuing struggle and discussion. Looking at this card gives the impression that we’ve achieved equality at the polls and that no further work needs to be done to maintain things let alone improve on them further.

In 2010 we have acknowledgment of how Washingon DC residents were disenfranchised through the 1960 election with a card the commemorates the ratification of the 23rd Amendment. It’s definitely a good thing that their presidential votes count now but the struggle for DC statehood and representation continued after this amendment.

In terms of the context of this 2010 card it’s important to mention DC’s statehood has been endorsed by multiple Presidents now and that there was a referendum in 2016 in which 86% of DC voters expressed a desire for statehood.

Skipping to 2012 and we find a card commemorating the US Government forcing the University of Alabama to integrate in 1963. This isn’t a legislative card but it positions the Federal Government overruling a state government both in the courts and via the National Guard as an inherently good thing.

In 2013 we pick up where 2009 left off with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As with the 2009 card this states plainly that segregation is outlawed as well as discrimination against ethnic, racial, and religious minorities plus women. This card doesn’t note how the Civil Right Act of 1964 is what prompted Southern Democrats to switch parties and drastically rearrange the political geography of the United States.

Coming out in 2013 is kind of some amazing immediate context too. Between the Trayvon Martin murder which spawned the Black Lives Matter movement and the Fisher v U of Texas case that threatened to roll back Affirmative Action the discussion about how relevant the Civil Rights Act of 1964 still was and whether its protections were still needed make this card anything but politically neutral.

The 2014 card which commemorates the Voting Rights act of 1965 is the card which prompted this post. For Topps to publish this the year after Shelby v Holder feels almost like an intentional political comment. With a headline about securing voting equality despite the mechanisms for actually keeping voting equality having just been ripped out of the act this card reads almost as a eulogy for what was rather than a milestone that was reached.

The ensuing decade has confirmed my sense of it being a eulogy as we’ve seen increased attacks on voting access nationwide.

We’ll skip a few more years and land in 2017 with yet another Civil Rights Act, in this case 1968’s, which was in the news a bit that year. This act contains within it the Fair Housing Act which prohibits discrimination in both renting and sales. The list of protected categories started off as including just race, religion, and national origin but has expanded to include sex, disabilities, and children. In 2017 sexual orientation and gender identity were added to this list via the judicial system (but never got anywhere in Congress).

This act also included some anti-riot language which made it a crime to travel between states in order to participate in a riot. It was notably used on the Chicago Seven and came up again in the aftermath of the Unite the Right rally in 2017 in which the courts ruled that its language was over-broad.

While this isn’t a legislative card I’ve included the 2018 card of the 1969 Stonewall Riots because of how much of a lighting rod it would be in today’s political landscape. This is history—both from a Gay Rights point of view and the fact that Marsha P. Johnson was a black transgender woman—which is currently being actively legislated against in multiple states nationwide and Topps just had it as a card only four years ago.

This card also came out in the aftermath of the 2015 Obergefell decision which legalized gay marriage and resulted in years of stories of workers and businesses who refused to acknowledge those rights and insisted that their rights to discriminate were more important.

After having maybe one political card per year, Topps went a bit nuts in 2019 and released four of cards of  things the government did in 1970. Some of these like expanding voting access to 18 year olds don’t require much comment. Others like the PBS card are noteworthy in the timing of how free educational television was moving to streaming services with shows like Sesame Street only releasing new episodes through HBO Max.

The Earth Day and creation of the EPA cards though are fascinating to see in an age of runaway climate change, the complete abdication by the US Government to do anything about it, and the shortsighted focus on immediate profits over a sustainable world.

Way back in 1970 the government realized it had to do something about air and water pollution. But in 2019, in addition to global climate change, the Flint Water Crisis was entering its fifth year and China had stopped taking all of our recycling and there was zero political will to do anything about any of it.

Back to only one card in 2021 but it’s a doozy for a year which was threatening to roll back many of the protections that women fought for in the 1970s as Covid had a greater impact on women’s jobs and abortion is getting outlawed nationwide.

In many ways that the Equal Rights Amendment was even put up for ratification in 1972 is something that surprises me. At the same time, in 2021 the House voted to remove the ratification deadline and the Senate version of that bill has 52 cosponsors.

Which brings us to this year and the commemoration of the 1973 Endangered Species Act. I haven’t seen anything specific about it in the news this year but it does seem like we’ve spent the past decade opening up public lands for development at the expense of habitat and wildlife needs.

In any case it’s pretty clear at this point that the biggest habitat threat is climate change and while the explicit protections and goals of the Endangered Species Act are laudable a larger, more-global, solution will be required moving forward.

And that’s the list. When looked at together it’s easy to reach a conclusion that Topps thinks that discrimination based on race, nationality, and gender is bad, that protecting the environment is good, and that voting should be accessible to all citizens. But it’s also easy to reach a conclusion that Topps considers that all of that has been accomplished already and something we can look back upon and celebrate much in the same way the Major League Baseball commemorates Jackie Robinson as a way of ignoring its current track record on racial equity.

42 in ’47: The Baseball Cards of Jackie Robinson’s Dodger Debut

Author’s Note: This article is part of a larger SABR Century Committee effort commemorating the 75th Anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s historic 1947 season. Head here for the full series.

When Jackie Robinson trotted out to first base on April 15, 1947, his steps were no less historic than those of Neil Armstrong just over two decades later. Baseball’s senseless and shameful Color Barrier had at last been breached and with it the customs and traditions of Jim Crow America itself were on notice. This is not to say equality had come to Baseball. Far from it as even the Dodgers merely tiptoed into integration while several other teams waited a decade or more to add their first Black player. As for managers, eleven more men after Armstrong would leave footprints on the Moon before a single Black man would take the reins of a Major League team.

Even today, as Jackie’s legacy is rightfully celebrated, it’s fair to wonder whether a modern Jackie Robinson would even choose Baseball, just as it’s fair to wonder whether any teams would notice him and sign him if he did. Were he living in the Dominican Republic, absolutely, but in his birthplace of Cairo, Georgia, or his childhood hometown of Pasadena, California, who’s to say? While a modern Jackie could win games for a general manager of any color, there are none in front offices today who look like him.

The same could be said for domestic baseball card issues prior to 1947, only one of which featured a Black player. While it would be easy to discount the utter lack of Black faces as merely reflective of the times, such an explanation fails to account for the many Black boxers who made their way onto trading cards, going back to at least 1909. Ultimately, the whiteness of baseball cards was due solely to the whiteness of what was then perceived (and enforced) as Organized Baseball. Jack Johnson, Joe Jeannette, and Joe Gans were professional boxers. The Philadelphia Stars, Newark Eagles and Homestead Grays meanwhile? These were semi-pro.

Thus the 1947 season brought with it not only the integration of Baseball but (several rungs down the ladder of importance) the opportunity to integrate baseball cards as well. All that was missing were the baseball cards themselves!

While today we take it for granted that a new baseball card set (if not dozens of different ones) will come out every year, such was not the case in the 1940s. Following the three-year run of Gum, Inc., and its Play Ball sets from 1939-41, the War and other national priorities left American baseball without a major set to chronicle its players until 1948, when Gum, Inc., baseball cards returned to shelves, this time under the Bowman name.

In the meantime, where baseball cards were produced at all, they most often took the form of smaller regional issues, often connected to food or other household products, cards that today many collectors classify under the umbrella of “oddball.” As such, this review of Jackie Robinson baseball cards from 1947 will feature bread, slacks, and even cigarettes but not a single stick of gum.

1947 BOND BREAD

Bond Bread will feature in this article twice. This first instance is to highlight a 48-card release comprised of four boxers and 44 baseball stars. The selection of baseball stars included Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, and Stan Musial but most notably a baseball card of Brooklyn Dodgers rookie Jackie Robinson.

Cards were packaged in loaves of Bond Bread, and at least one theory for their rounded corners is that the cards were less susceptible to damage that way. Importantly for collectors today, the rounded corners help distinguish these cards from near-identical versions that emerged as a standalone product sold as “Sport Star Subjects” in 1949. The square cornered versions are far less collectible, though widespread misidentification, including by a prominent grading company, has created sufficient confusion to elevate prices among uninformed buyers.

While both the Bond Bread and Sport Star Subjects cards have blank backs, a third version of the Robinson card features a back that’s anything but blank.

“1947” ELGEE PRODUCTS

Precise dating for this issue is unknown and may well be after 1947. A mix of baseball and movie star photos, the baseball images match those of the Bond Bread issue but are easily distinguished in at least two ways. One, they are perforated. Two, their backs include other cards from the set or, in some cases, advertising. The Robinson card, for example, features actor James Cagney on the reverse.

As with the Sport Star Subjects, these cards are also frequently misidentified as Bond Bread cards, even by third party grading companies and auction houses. Post 391 in this Net54 Baseball Forum thread shows the front and back of an uncut sheet, including the ELGEE branding. Post 386 in the same thread provides additional background on the company.

1947-50 BOND BREAD JACKIE ROBINSON

In addition to the 48-card set above, Bond Bread also released a second set of 13 cards dedicated entirely to Jackie Robinson. The set is catalogued as a 1947 issue. However, independent research by collectors Mike Knapp, Shaun Fyffe, and Michael Fried, which I’ll attempt to summarize here, has produced a broader timetable for the cards while also providing information on distribution.

The set began 1947 with a single card featuring a signed portrait of Jackie, a brief bio, and a product testimonial. This card was not distributed in packaged loaves but rather was given out by store owners (with free slices of bread!) to promote Bond Bread among African American consumers. (Post 49 in this Net54 Baseball Forum thread includes an article from the New York Amsterdam News detailing the marketing strategy.)

From there, it’s unclear whether any of the set’s remaining twelve cards dates to 1947. The aforementioned collector-researchers speculate subsequent releases of three or six cards at a time taking place sometime between 1947 and 1950, though I lean more toward the cards being issued one at a time. Either way, a clue that helps group the cards is the advertising on the back.

These six cards, assumed to be the earlier of the twelve, exhort consumers to eat the same bread as Jackie. Fielding poses show a first baseman’s mitt, which Jackie would have used primarily in 1947.

Before proceeding to the second group of six, I want to highlight two photos in particular, one of which may be very familiar to non-collectors. Though the background has been removed and Jackie has even changed teams, the card of Jackie waving with his glove draws its image from this iconic photograph.

A second card among the six does some early “photoshopping” of a Montreal photo as well.

Much later in this article we will see yet another occasion where a Montreal photo is doctored for use on a Brooklyn card. For now, we will return to the other six cards in the set. Note here that all fielding poses show a standard infielder’s glove.

The “smoking gun” that places these cards (or at least one of them) after 1947 comes from the image on the last card, believed to source to a photograph taken just after this one. (Note Jackie’s cap has fallen a bit farther on the card and his body has separated more from his trailing arm.) If so, the card could not have been issued any earlier than July 2, 1949, the date the photograph was taken.

With the set no longer confined entirely to 1947, we arrive at several possibilities for its overall release schedule. Barring further information, I’d be inclined to settle on the first group of six cards coming out across the six months of the 1948 baseball season and the second group of six following suit in 1949.

“1948” OLD GOLD CIGARETTES

The situation with Jackie’s Old Gold cards is precisely the opposite as here collectors regard what may be two cards from 1947 as if they came out the following year.

As Anson Whaley notes in his article for Sports Collectors Daily, two clues on the card backs suggest a 1947 release.

  • Robinson is listed as 28 year old, which was only his age through January 30, 1948
  • His 1947 Rookie of the Year Award (announced September 19, 1947) is not listed among his career highlights

Certainly each of these clues could merely point to bios written ahead of time, hence do not point definitively to a 1947 release of the actual cards. Still, absent any information affirming a 1948 release, the clues are at least intriguing.

1947″ PLEETWOOD SLACKS

Continuing the theme of uncertain dates is this rare 5″ x 8″ promotional issue from Pleetwood Slacks. While catalogued as a 1947 issue, I am unable to find any source that provides independent corroboration. Notably, the Standard Catalog of Vintage Baseball Cards indicates that “the [1947] date of issue cited is conjectural.”

When I do find “hits” on Pleetwood Slacks, never mind Jackie, they only come in the Black press of late 1948, specifically October through December. Here is a typical example.

Alabama Citizen, December 18, 1948

Perhaps information is out there somewhere establishing the Pleetwood Slacks card as a 1947 issue. In the meantime I’d just as soon date it to late 1948 where timing it’s would better match the print advertising campaign for the brand.

1947 CHAMP HATS

Collector and Hobby historian Bob Lemke (1941-2017) featured this 8 x 10 “card” as a new find on his blog in 2015.

As detailed on Bob’s blog, both Bob and the previously mentioned Sean Fyffe regarded 1947 as the most likely year for this piece.

1947 DODGERS TEAM PHOTO PACK

Many teams sold photo packs of their players and other personnel, going back to at least the 1930s. The 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers photo pack consisted of 25 photos, 6” x 9” in size, including this one of Jackie Robinson.

The image is a sharper and cleaner version of the ones used on his Bond and faux Bond issues and a reminder that many cards of the era used photos provided by the teams or their photographers. Furthermore, the presence and identical placement of Jackie’s signature on the Bond and pseudo-Bond cards leads me to wonder if those cards didn’t originate from the original photograph but from this photo pack card. Either way, I suspect the photo pack Jackie is the earliest of his various 1947 issues.

1947-66 EXHIBIT SUPPLY COMPANY

One of the most common and (formerly!) affordable early baseball cards of Jackie Robinson is his 1947-66 Exhibit Supply Company (Chicago, IL) postcard-sized issue. However, despite “1947” right there in the naming of the set, there is no evidence that Jackie’s exhibit cards date back that far.

Rather, the “1947-66” label simply means that the overall set of 300+ different cards spanned 20 years. The presence of later stars such as Aaron, Banks, and Kaline suffice to show that “1947” hardly applies to all players.

The Keyman Collectibles site provides a guide for the precise dating of Exhibit cards. Having reviewed more than a dozen so far, I have not yet run across a Robinson any earlier than 1948.

Side note: A 1948 release would have left plenty of time to find pictures of Jackie as a Dodger. However, the photograph used on the Exhibit card, as was the case with two of the Bond Bread cards, dates to 1946, as evidenced by Jackie’s Montreal uniform.

SUMMARY: THE JACKIE ROBINSON CARDS OF 1947

All told I’ve reviewed 22 different Jackie Robinson cards correctly or incorrectly associated with his Barrier Breaking debut season in Brooklyn. From this number, there are only three where I believe the 1947 dating is firmly established:

  • 1947 Bond Bread multi-player set
  • 1947 Bond Bread Jackie Robinson set – portrait with facsimile autograph
  • 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers photo pack

For the reader only reasonably acquainted with the world of collectibles, it might seem a tame question to then ask which of these cards is Jackie Robinson’s rookie card. Could it really be that the answer is none of them!

EPILOGUE: JACKIE’S ROOKIE CARD

Modern collectors focus heavily (if not obsessively!) over the notion of a rookie card, particularly when the player concerned is a Hall of Famer. In a simpler world, a player would have one card for each year of his career, and the first such card would be his rookie card. In the real world, however, the situation is far murkier, complicated by any number of wrinkles, depending on the collector.

For example, any of the following may be treated as a disqualifying when it comes to rookie card status.

  • cards that pre-date a player’s major league status (e.g., a minor league card)
  • cards from minor, regional, unlicensed, or non-US releases
  • cards that aren’t really baseball cards (e.g., a postcard, mini-poster, or bobblehead)
  • cards with uncertain release dates

In the case of Jackie Robinson, all four of these come into play. While I did not feature it in this article due to its 1946 issue date, there is a highly sought after Parade Sportive newspaper insert featuring Jackie Robinson, which checks off each of the first three bullets above.

As for Jackie’s Bond Bread cards, many collectors regard the releases as too minor to warrant rookie card status. Add to that for many of them an uncertain release date as well. Ditto for Elgee Products, Old Gold Cigarettes, Pleetwood Slacks, and Champs Hats, with the latter two having only questionable baseball card status as well.

The Brooklyn photo pack card, which may well be first of Jackie as a Dodger, also challenges the most rigid definitions of “baseball card” while adding the potential disqualifier of a regional release. Finally, the Exhibit card is not quite a real baseball card to many collectors while also carrying uncertainty as to dating.

Also lacking card status to most collectors are the various Jackie Robinson buttons and pins that were popular among fans in the late 1940s. I omitted lengthier treatment in this article but will show six of them here.

Source: Robert Edward Auctions

The result of all this is that many collectors would not consider any of the Jackie Robinson cards profiled so far to be Jackie’s rookie card. Instead, the coveted label is most often applied to Jackie’s card from the set known popularly in the Hobby as 1948 Leaf.

“This is the only true rookie card of baseball’s first African-American representative and hero to all,” according to PSA, the Hobby’s largest grader and authenticator of trading cards.

Though my revenue, Hobby or otherwise, is a far cry from that of PSA, I nonetheless challenge this assertion. For one thing, despite the typical designation of the set as “1948 Leaf” (or sometimes 1948-49 Leaf), there are compelling reasons to believe the Robinson card (if not the entire set) dates to 1949.

  • 1949 copyright date on the back of the card
  • Reference to Jackie’s 1948 statistics as “last season” on the back of the card
  • Standard Catalog entry indicating the set was “produced by Chicago’s Leaf Gum Co. for issue in 1949”
  • Hall of Fame and Beckett cataloguing of card as 1949

Erroneous dating aside, I’ll also note that the Leaf cards, at least of some players, were unlicensed, which can often be a rookie card disqualifier. That said, collectors tend to give the set a free pass on this point.

At any rate, if we regard the Leaf card as a rookie card, we should then confer rookie status on Jackie’s other significant release of the same year, issued as part of the 1949 Bowman set of 240 cards.

Alternatively, we might turn our attention to a card that genuinely does date to 1948, Jackie’s Sport Thrills card from Swell Bubble Gum.

From a rookie card perspective, this card beats Leaf and Bowman by a year, has unambiguous baseball card status as opposed to some of the other 1947-48 contenders, and originates from a more major release than its contemporaries and predecessors. At the same time, not all collectors treat the Sport Thrills set as major enough, and its focus on highlights rather than players equally reduces the appeal.

Ultimately, the question of Jackie’s true rookie card is a complicated one, confounded by the uncertain or erroneous dating of his early cardboard and curiously subjective notions like “major release” and “baseball card.” On one hand the lack of a definitive rookie card opens the door for individual collectors to apply their own criteria and judgment. On the other hand, the same fuzziness creates opportunities, intentional or accidental, to misrepresent and misinform. In the end, perhaps the only truism when it comes to Jackie’s rookie cards is this: If you have to ask, you can’t afford it!

Junk Wax Rainbows

I’ve had a running joke on Twitter about how “when I was your age rainbows looked like this” where “this” refers to the multiple different colors of the late 80s and early 90s Donruss releases. From 1985 to 1992 Donruss released smaller—often 56-card—box sets around certain themes like Highlights, Rookies, Opening Day, All Stars, or the more-generic “Baseball’s Best.”

These sets are fun both because they’re often super-focused thematically and because they always presented a color variation on the base Donruss design. Highlights were orange in 1985 and 1986. Rookies were green from 1987–1992 except in 1991. The other themes had no consistent colors.

Occasionally players would appear in all the different sets in a year. The result of this is that you can collect something that appears similar to the modern parallel rainbow collecting where you can see what the base design looks like with different border colors. The only one of these I have in my collection is Pete Stanicek’s 1988 rainbow* but it occurred to me that it would be fun to go through and see how many guys had a proper rainbow each year.

*Yeah he’s one of my PC guys.

For the purposes of this post I’m only looking a years where there are at least three different sets available. This rules out 1985, 1991, and 1992 since 1985 only has a set of Highlights while 1991 and 1992 only have a Rookies set. I’m also not counting small sets like the Grand Slammers or any of the inserted bonus cards. Nor am I looking at sets which use a different design whether it’s the oversized Action All Stars or the close-but-not-quite 1988 All Stars.

1986

There aren’t a lot of rookies in the Highlights set but since two of the Highlights cards each year are the Rookie of the Year winners, those are the two most-likely ones to have rainbows. In 1986 both of these winners also had cards in the base Donruss set (and Worrell even had two Highlights to choose from).

I actually really like the Highlights set concept with all the monthly and yearly awards, other records broken or unique achievements reached, and Hall of Fame inductees. Is a very nice quick summary of that season of baseball and I really wish it had lasted more than just from 1985–1987.

1987

Just a single rainbow available. With four sets in 1987 I wasn’t sure there’d even be one. As it is, Kevin Seitzer is in all three box sets but for some reason doesn’t have a base Donruss card and Mark McGwire apparently wasn’t an Opening Day Starter.

It’s worth noting here that while in 1985 Donruss kept the black borders and changed the red stripe to be orange for highlights, in 1987 Donruss is doing the full border color swap.

Opening Day is one of my favorite sets of all time. The idea of having a set of just the Opening Day starting lineups is absolutely wonderful. It bookends highlights as a “state of the league in the beginning of the season” marker and is the kind of hyper-specific checklist which I’d love to see more of.

1988

In 1988 Donruss stopped making a Highlights set and switched to a larger, 336-card set called “Baseball’s Best.” This was more of a star-based set and the larger checklist combined with the looser specification meant that instead of looking for the on or two rainbows we have fifteen of them. This is more than 25% of the Rookies checklist. Heck, almost half of these guys didn’t even qualify as Rated Rookies.

1989

Like 1987, 1989 features three extra sets in the same design as the base cards. With the rainbow already existing as part of the base design it would’ve been unlikely to be able to build a real rainbow of parallels. The All Star design however did use a completely different color scheme compared to the base cards (not so much Baseball’s Best or The Rookies). Unfortunately there are no Rookies in he All Star set and so there’s no possibility for a proper rainbow.*

*It is however worth noting that every card in the Grand Slammers set this year comes in all five color options available in the base set.

1990

This is the last year where a rainbow is possible and is very much the same as 1988. Twelve of the Rookies are also in one of the two Best sets* though at least most of them are Rated this year.

*For the purposes of this post I’m combining “Best of the AL” and “Best of the NL” into one set since hey share the same color and by being league-specific have no overlap.

One of the fun things about looking at the Donruss rainbows is how they reveal different directions the base design could have gone. A lot of base Donruss designs are very much things you either love or hate and the color choice is a huge part of that reaction. I’m not going to pass judgement on any of the options other than to say that as a Giants fan I prefer the orange versions of 1986 and 1988.

Error cards

Sometime last year I picked up the last card I needed for my 1980 Topps set, placed it into its nine-pocket, and then took my well earned victory flip through the binder of majestic completed pages…only to find a page with a missing card. Dewey defeats Truman. Defeat from the jaws of victory. Bird steals the inbound pass.

Completing a set without actually completing a set is just one of the many cardboard errors I’ve made lately. Here are three more.

My largest player collection (by about 600) is the 700+ playing era cards I have of Dwight Gooden. For whatever reason, I decided a couple years back that the card at the very top of my Dr. K want list was Doc’s 1986 Meadow Gold milk carton “sketch” card.

I’d seen the card on eBay in the $10 range for a while, but you don’t amass 700+ cards of a guy by paying $10 each. At last one turned up for more like $3 and I couldn’t hit “Buy It Now” fast enough. When the card arrived I was genuinely excited to add it to my binder, only to find…

…I already had the card!

Just two weeks later, I “doubled” down by adding a card I thought I needed for my 1972 Fleer Laughlin Famous Feats set.

And again…

On the bright side, it’s not like these cards cost me real money. I’d never make the same mistake adding this Kaiser Wilhelm to my T206 Brooklyn team set, right?

Oops. Think again.

Of course what Hobbyist hasn’t accidentally added the occasional double or two…or three? Probably most, but how many could pull off the feat three times in one month?

In the corporate world, bosses would be calling for a root cause analysis and demanding corrective action. Am I simply getting old? Do I have too many different collections going? Have I gotten lazy at updating my want lists? In truth, probably yes to all three.

As a kid, and I think this was true of most die-hard collectors, I could open a pack and instantly know which cards I needed and which were doubles. I could do the same at card shows, looking through a dealer binder or display case. When it came to cards I had total recall. Evidently such cardboard lucidity is long gone, and it’s probably not a stretch to assume the same degradations have spread to various areas of adulting.

On the other hand, it’s also true that my purchases had much more riding on them back then. For one thing, every nickel, dime, and quarter were precious. Spending $0.50 on a 1963 Topps Ernie Banks (ah, the good old days!) when your entire card show budget (i.e., life savings) was $3.80 “borrowed” from various sources around the house was high finance. Add to that baseball cards being the only thing I thought or cared about, and it makes sense that I always batted a thousand.

An eternal optimist, it’s just not my nature to brand my “triple double” as what some collectors might bill a #HobbyFail. Rather, I’ll take solace in the adage errare humanum est and remember that it’s not the mistakes we make but how we respond to them that defines our true character. As a kid I would have sulked for weeks having committed even one of these blunders. Today I can laugh (and write) about them. Call these senior moments if you will, but isn’t”growing up” just a bit more pleasing to the ear?

Now does anyone wanna trade me a T205 Wilhelm for a T206?

UPDATE: The Wilhelm is no longer available for trade! About an hour after publishing this post the seller contacted me to let me know he’d accidentally sold it to someone else already. I guess I’m not the only one losing track of his cards these days! 😊

CTB: 1994 Ted Williams #112 Toni Stone

In this edition of Covering The Bases (CTB) we are discussing one of the few cards that have been produced of Toni Stone, subject of the February 9th Google Doodle.

1994 Ted Williams #112 Toni Stone

There are not many Toni Stone Cards, This is from the 1994 Ted Williams Set. The picture is one of the most commonly used photos of Stone, and also serves as the anchor image for the Google doodle.

The photo overlays another image of Toni Stone – this one is a 1954 publicity photo of her with the Kansas City Monarchs.

Likely an appeal to show the feminine side of Toni Stone, the Monarchs photographed her applying makeup.

B-Side

The flipside of the card gives a synopsis of Stone’s career concluding with a line summarizing her NAL stats.

1994 Ted Williams

The 1994 Ted Williams is a 162 historical card set largely composed of Hall of Famers and prospects, including a minor league Derek Jeter.

In a nod to Williams Hall of Fame speech advocating for the induction of Negro League players the set contains a 17-card subset of Negro Leaguers, produced with the assistance of noted author and historian Phil Dixon:

While all the players listed are highlights of the set, some names that jump out at me beyond Stone include Bud Fowler, Double Duty Radcliffe, and Leon Day.

Cards On Stage

in 2019 Team Phungo got to see the stage play “Toni Stone” loosely based on the life of Stone. There was a small but well curated exhibit in the lobby, among the items displayed was today’s card:

It was displayed in a glass case like a T206 Wagner. All cards should get this treatment!!

Here is an installation view of the case with a couple of pennants that represent Stone’s Career.

Baseball Cards also factored into the script of “Toni Stone.”

I believe the card Stone (portrayed by April Matthis) is looking at is 1934 Goudey #61 Lou Gehrig – although I am guessing this is a reprint or prop card.

I have no guesses on the other cards. If there is a card sleuth out there they can try and see more in this montage from the play – The cards show up shortly after the 35 second mark.

Editor’s note: Also shown are 1941 Play Ball cards of Arky Vaughan and Mel Ott as well as a 1935 Diamond Stars Hank Greenberg.

There you go, Today’s covering the bases takes us from Toni Stone to Ted Williams to Lou Gehrig.

Monique Wray

Google documents background on many of their doodles which includes information on the artist. The Toni Stone doodle was created by illustrator/ animator Monique Wray.

In the interview Wray had a couple of key observations:

Q. Why was this topic meaningful to you personally?

A: Toni was a trailblazer, a Black woman doing things she’s not expected to do, whether the world likes it or not, speaks to me.

Q. What message do you hope people take away from your Doodle?

A: Inspiration to persevere. Toni played with men, a lot of whom did not want her there. But almost every photo I see of her, she has a massive smile. She lived her life through adversity and did what she wanted to do.

The interview also contains a display of Wrays sketches for the doodle.

The Google synopsis includes a link for more info at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum

Sources and Links

The Collecting Gene

The Cambridge Dictionary defines a collector as someone who collects objects because they are beautiful, valuable, or interesting.  While all of that is true, I argue that an alternate definition is someone who collects objects because of an inherited trait, specifically the collecting gene.

My introduction to baseball came at a very young age.  I attended my first ballgame at age 2 ½ and suspect I would have gone sooner if not for my father being in the service.  But my first visit to Yankee Stadium was not my introduction to the greatest sport on earth.  The broadcast of a Yankees game would often be heard coming from a radio in our Brooklyn apartment.  And the rare treat of a televised game shone on our wood-encased television set.

Once my father was sure I was hooked on baseball, he introduced me to baseball cards.  I was immediately smitten.  There was no “What’s the point?” or fleeting attraction, only “When can I have more, Dad?”  That question wasn’t asked in a greedy or spoiled-child kind of way.  Neither would have been tolerated.  I was simply a five-year-old fascinated by those beautiful 3.5” x 2.5” pieces of cardboard!  They were a window into the larger world of baseball.  The photos, the statistics, the player facts – all helped tell the story of the game with which I had fallen in love.  Dad was thrilled that my interest in baseball extended beyond the stimulating sights and sounds of a game.  He told me that we’d add to my collection a little at a time.

My first storage box

In those early collecting days, before any baseball chatter tied to newly acquired cards, there was always a lesson about the importance of treating my cards with respect and keeping them safe.  I didn’t even hear of flipping or putting cards in bicycle spokes until my family moved to a new neighborhood and I met friends with older brothers.  And of course, I was horrified by both practices.  By the time I was six, we were examining Hostess boxes to find one with cards I didn’t already have.  Even earlier than that came the blind hunt for Kellogg’s cereal cards.  New packs were always the most fun, though.  Whether they were picked out during a trip to buy the Sunday newspaper on the way home from church, or left by the Easter Bunny or Santa, packs were (and still are) bundles of wonder waiting to be unwrapped.  Dad and I would open them together and discuss.  The conversations ranged from interesting facts about the players or a ballpark or a team’s history to math lessons using the stats on the card backs.

Some of my early acquisitions
(Yes, the Winfield rookie is signed.  There’s a funny story about that encounter here.)

Dad would often springboard from discussing a current player to a story about someone he saw play when he was my age.  So, it was inevitable that an inquisitive child like me would eventually ask “Dad, where are your baseball cards?”  His face changed.  My father explained to me that he kept his cards in excellent condition with each set neatly arranged.  All were organized in shoe boxes – no rubber bands, no miscellaneous junk – and they were always put away safely on the shelf in his closet.  He left them there when he left with his newlywed bride for Puerto Rico to serve in the United States Navy.  When he and my mom returned three years later with a toddler daughter in tow (me), they temporarily moved in with my paternal grandmother.  As Dad was unpacking he noticed the empty shelf in his closet.  He didn’t panic at first.  He thought that my grandmother had relocated his treasured baseball card collection to make room in the closet for some of my mom’s things.  (You know what’s coming, right?)  Sadly, he was wrong.  My grandmother put the entire collection out with the trash because she didn’t think that a grown man with a family would still be interested in his childhood toys.  My heart sank.

I’m certain that Dad would have introduced me to baseball cards even if his collection had survived.  And I don’t think I could love baseball cards any more than I already do.  But I wonder if I might love them differently had I been able to hold Dad’s ’51 Topps Monte Irvin or ’50 Bowman Gil Hodges or ’52 Topps Mickey Mantle.  I’ll never know.

What I do know is that I spent many memorable hours with my father building my baseball card collection.  Whether it was searching for a team set at a minor league ballpark or sorting cards at the dining room table, there was always joy in baseball cards.  Some of my most memorable card-hunting experiences are tied to the plethora of card shows my dad and I attended in the 1980s and early 1990s.  Not only were there players to meet (from Hall of Famers to current stars), but these were my first chances to see the cards from my father’s childhood in person.  I still get goosebumps when I’m in the presence of 1950s cardboard.

Last year I started building a 1950s baseball card collection of my own.  My first three acquisitions were Gil Hodges cards.  Hodges was my father’s first favorite ballplayer and I could think of no more fitting way to start my vintage collection.  (It’s difficult for me to identify cards I obtained new as a child as “vintage!”)  I still love my Topps Allen & Ginter and my annual factory set and Heritage Minors and so many other modern cards, but I’ve learned that no baseball cardboard can give me the same warm fuzzies as the cards that were ultimately responsible for my collecting gene’s orders being followed exactly as they were.  Here’s to my dad and to my new vintage baseball card adventure!

A Most Conventional Set III

After pouring over the wildly popular articles detailing the special baseball card sets produced for the Cubs Conventions held in 1996 and 1998, you may have wondered whether the Cubs have ever issued any other cards for distribution to conventiongoers.  The 2020 Cubs Convention is the most recent incarnation of the event, held just months before COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns were mandated in Illinois.  Much in the same way Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour waited 22 years to issue his solo follow-up to About Face, the Cubs issued cards at the 2020 Convention for the first time since 1998.   

While there is always some fun discourse regarding what constitutes a “card,” this three-card set offers an odd size (2 ⅞ x 4 ¾), a full-bleed lenticular front, and a back that contains only the Cubs Twitter handle.  The cards are not numbered, and no biographical information or stats are provided.  In fact, the players depicted on the obverse are not even identified.

2020 Cubs Convention card back

The cards were given away (along with emoji-like keychains) in the Cubs’ Social Media room, placed individually on a table for anyone to grab for free.  The set’s checklist is small: Yu Darvish, Javy Báez, and a combo featuring Jon Lester and Anthony Rizzo.  

Javy Báez emoji keychain

Manipulation of the cards offered instant familiarity: each card depicted a memeified moment from the 2019 season that had been shared millions of times via social media (nice job @Cubs social media team!).  Minimal research was needed to identify the game where each depiction originated.

Yu Darvish

2020 Cubs Convention Yu Darvish Card

Presented chronologically, the Yu Darvish card was taken from a reaction by Darvish that occurred during the Cubs’ game at Miami on Jackie Robinson Day, April 15, 2019, a 7-2 victory for Darvish and the Cubs.  (The first clue to determine the date of this game was quite easy to decipher because the top portions of the “42” on Darvish’s jersey were apparent.)

Although it is not clear precisely when this reaction by Darvish occurred during the game, it was turned into a WTF-style GIF used to represent disbelief:

GIF by MLB - Find & Share on GIPHY

Javy Báez

2020 Cubs Convention Javy Báez card

The second card is Javy Báez sliding into third base on May 9, 2019, during a game against the Marlins at Wrigley Field—another win for the Cubs, 4-1.  In the bottom of the first, Báez drew a (rare) base on balls and went from first to third on a single by Kyle Schwarber, where “El Mago” made this smooth-as-silk slide into the bag.

Jon Lester/Anthony Rizzo

2020 Cubs Convention Jon Lester/Anthony Rizzo card

The final card is interesting in that it depicts opposite angles of a celebratory hug between Anthony Rizzo and Jon Lester, which occurred after Rizzo’s third-inning grand slam in the Cubs’ rout over the Pirates 17-8 on September 13, 2019.  The two-out blast came off Steven Brault and scored David Bote, Albert Almora, and Lester, who was waiting at the plate for Rizzo.  (The card also shows Nick Castellanos and Kris Bryant in the background during the celebration.)

These cards are an awful lot of fun, especially because the action depicted on each can be traced to a specific game/event in the 2019 season.  Hopefully, the Cubs will continue issuing similar cards once the Cubs Convention is cleared to resume!  

Cards in Action

Notes:

“Wildly popular” has been used liberally in the article, above.

Baseball cards of the Negro Leagues

There are many directions that one could go with this topic, two of which have already been well covered by SABR Baseball Cards authors and two of which would be very welcome here.

This article, however, will look at the first widely available baseball cards produced in the United States to showcase Negro Leaguers as Negro Leaguers. In other words, a card of Satchel Paige as a Cleveland Indian (1949 Bowman, 1949 Leaf) or St. Louis Brown (1953 Topps) would not qualify while a card of Satchel Paige as a Kansas City Monarch most definitely would. Should a working definition of “widely available” prove helpful, take it to mean there is nearly always at least one card from the set available on eBay.

Hall of Fame postcards (1971 to present)

I’ll leave it to readers individually to decide whether to count postcards as baseball cards. If you are in the “no” camp, feel free to skip this first entry. If you are in the “yes” camp then we’ll kick things off with the postcards issued and updated annually by the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

While one could quibble that more than half the text on the Paige card, first issued in July 1971, relates to his post-Negro Leagues career, I’ve chosen to count this postcard because A) Paige was selected by a special committee on the Negro Leagues, and B) he is not shown in an Indians, Browns, or Athletics uniform. The Gibson postcard, which carries no such ambiguity, was first issued in July 1972, as was a similar postcard of teammate Buck Leonard.

1974 Laughlin Old-Time Black Stars

Bob Laughlin, also known for several collaborations with Fleer, independently produced this 36-card set in 1974. At time of issue, Satchel Paige (1971), Josh Gibson (1972), and Buck Leonard (1972) were the only Hall of Famers in the set. (Cool Papa Bell was inducted in 1974 but after the set was released.) Now an impressive 22 of the 36 cards in the set depict Hall of Famers, with all 14 of the remaining presenting compelling cases for enshrinement.

1975-76 Great Plains Greats

Thanks to Ted Chastain in the reader comments for identifying this 42-card set. Per the Standard Catalog the cards were produced by the Great Plains Sports Collectors Association. Cards 1-24, which includes Cool Papa Bell, were produced in 1975 and sponsored by Sheraton Inns. Cards 25-42 were produced the following year and sponsored by Nu-Sash Corp.

1976 D&S Enterprises Cool Papa Bell

In 1976 John Douglas of D&S Enterprises issued a 13-card set in conjunction with and James “Cool Papa” Bell, who was the subject of the set.

Interestingly, one of the cards in the set is a “card of a card” featuring Bell’s 1974 Laughlin card, updated with facsimile autograph.

1976 Laughlin Indianapolis Clowns

A second Laughlin set of note is his 42-card 1976 Indianapolis Clowns issue, mostly coveted by collectors today for its card of a young Henry Aaron.

Other notables in the set include Satchel Paige, Oscar Charleston, and basketball legend Goose Tatum.

1976 Shakey’s Pizza

In 1975 pizza chain Shakey’s issued a small 18-card set of Hall of Famers, followed up in 1976 by a much larger set featuring all 157 members of the Hall (and a second Robin Roberts card) in order of their induction. The latter set therefore included several Negro League stars: Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Monte Irvin (New York Giants photo), Cool Papa Bell, Judy Johnson, and Oscar Charleston.

Not counting the Hall of Fame’s own postcards, which may or may not be regarded as baseball cards by some collectors, I believe this Shakey’s set is the very first to feature both “traditional” (i.e., white) major leaguers and Negro Leaguers on its checklist.

1978 Laughlin Long-Ago Black Stars

Four years after his initial Negro Leagues set, Laughlin produced a sequel, employing a similar design. Aside from a brand new checklist of 36 cards, the most evident updates were the replacement of “Old-Time” with “Long-Ago” and a greenish rather than brownish tint.

1978 Grand Slam

This 200-card set may have been produced with autographs in mind as (I believe) all 200 of the early baseball stars it featured were still living at the time the set was planned. While nearly one-fourth of the set featured current or future Hall of Famers, there was no shortage of lesser stars such as Bibb Falk and Ed Lopat. The set even included an outfielder with a lifetime OPS of .182.

More to the point, the set included cards of Negro Leaguers Buck Leonard, Judy Johnson, and Cool Papa Bell.

1980-87 SSPC Baseball Immortals

When initially issued in 1980, this SSPC set included all 173 Hall of Famers, i.e., the Shakey’s Pizza roster plus the 16 players inducted between 1977 and 1980. As such, it included the same Negro Leaguers as the Shakey’s set but also added Martin Dihigo (1977) and Pop Lloyd (1977).

Following the initial release, SSPC updated the checklist multiple times through 1987 to include the Hall’s more recent inductees. As such, cards of Negro Leaguers Rube Foster (1981) and Ray Dandridge (1987) were subsequently added to the set.

P.S. No, I don’t really know what’s happening on that Foster card, and don’t even get me started on the Josh Gibson!

1982 “TCMA” Baseball Superstars

Two different “Baseball Superstars” sets were produced in 1980 and 1982 that may or may not have been produced by TCMA. (Andrew Aronstein, son of TCMA co-founder Mike Aronstein, believes the cards were sold by TCMA but not produced by TCMA. The Standard Catalog notes the cards were probably produced by Card Collectors Closet in Springfield, MA.) The second of these sets included a lone Satchel Paige card on its 45-card multi-sport checklist.

1983 Sporting News 1933 All-Star Game 50th Anniversary

This 60-card set was released by Marketcom to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first All-Star Game, and it’s first 48 cards featured the 32 players from the American and National League All-Star rosters plus various other players of the era such as Johnny Hodapp and Chick Fullis. Likely in recognition of the first East-West Game, also in 1933, the final dozen cards in the set consisted of Negro League greats selected by the Sporting News.

These same twelve Negro Leaguers would be reappear in their own 1933 All-Star tribute set in 1988.

1983 ASA Bob Feller

ASA was a big name in the early 1980s when it came to single player tribute sets, with Bob Feller the subject of one of its 1983 offerings. Card 5 in the twelve-card set includes a cameo by future teammate Satchel Paige in his Kansas City Monarchs uniform.

Note that a “red parallel” of the card (and entire set) exists as well.

1983 Donruss Hall of Fame Heroes

In 1983, Donruss augmented its slate of Hobby offerings to include a 44-card “Hall of Fame Heroes” set. While the majority of the set featured National and American League stars, it was notable at the time for being the first “mainstream” card set to include Negro League legends.

Cool Papa Bell and Josh Gibson are the two unambiguous Negro Leaguers in the set, and I would further count Satchel Paige in spite of his St. Louis Browns uniform.

Collectors hoping to get even more of artist Dick Perez’s talents applied to the Negro Leagues would be in luck the following year.

1980-2001 Perez-Steele Postcards (sorted in this article as 1984)

Beginning in 1980, the Perez-Steele Galleries issued a set of 245 postcards over the course of 22 years. The first of the releases to include Negro Leaguers was Series Five in 1984, which included Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Cool Papa Bell, and Judy Johnson. (The same series also included Satchel Paige as a Cleveland Indian and Monte Irvin as a New York Giant.)

1984 Decathlon Negro League Baseball Stars

Apart from the copyright line, this set is identical to its far more plentiful reproduction in 1986 by Larry Fritsch.

Consisting of 119 cards, it would take nearly four decades for a set to provide more Negro Leagues firepower than this one.

1985 Decathlon Ultimate Baseball Card Set

Decathlon returned the following year with a 15-card set of baseball legends, highlighted by Josh Gibson.

In addition thirteen white players, the set also included a “second year” card of Moses Fleetwood Walker.

If the artwork looks familiar, it was done by Gerry Dvorak of 1953 Topps fame.

1986 Larry Fritsch Negro Leagues Baseball Stars

Here is the aforementioned reissue of Decathlon’s 1984 offering, still available from Larry Fritsch Cards. I believe you can also pick up a set in person at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum gift shop.

1987 Dixon’s Negro Baseball Greats

Salute to historian, author, and Negro Leagues Baseball Museum co-founder Phil Dixon, whose 45-card set was the first ever set of baseball cards produced by an African American.

Phil also worked with the Ted Williams Card Company on its Negro Leagues subsets in 1993 and 1994.

1988 Hardee’s

In addition to Charles Conlon photographs of five white major leaguers, this six-card set also included a card of Cool Papa Bell.

Though the small print on the Bell’s card suggests a Conlon photograph, it should be noted that Charles Conlon passed away in 1945 while Bell did not become the manager of the Monarchs until 1948.

1988 Pittsburgh Negro League Stars

This 20-card set, highlighted on the SABR Baseball Cards blog in 2020, was given to fans by the Pittsburgh Pirates on September 10, 1988. Biographical information on the card backs comes from historian Rob Ruck.

Befitting a Pittsburgh-themed set, nearly all subjects are Crawfords or Grays, though there are some exceptions such as Monte Irvin.

1988 World Wide Sports 1933 Negro League All Stars

This 12-card set features the same twelve Negro Leaguers as the 1983 Marketcom set and also shares a common theme, that of the inaugural All-Star Game (or East-West Game). Additionally, many of the cards use identifcal source images apart from differences in cropping. However, this set is a standalone Negro Leagues set whereas the 1983 set included 48 players from the white major leagues.

1989 Historic Limited Edition Negro Leagues Postcards

This set of 12 postcards features the artwork of Susan Rini. Total production was 5000 sets.

1989 Sportflics

The 225-card set from Sportflics did not include any Negro Leaguers, focusing instead on contemporary players and prospects.

However, each pack included one of 153 small inserts known as “The Unforgetables” and featuring a Hall of Famer.

Among the players included in this insert set were Josh Gibson, Pop Lloyd, Buck Leonard, Rube Foster, Martin Dihigo, Oscar Charleston, Cool Papa Bell, Satchel Paige, and Monte Irvin.

1990 Eclipse Stars of the Negro Leagues

I’ll finish the article with this attractive 36-card mini-box set from Eclipse, whose other offerings included the Iran-Contra Scandal, the Drug Wars, and the Savings and Loan Scandal.

The Negro Leagues set itself wasn’t scandal-free as it managed to confuse its two best players!

POSTSCRIPT

Counting the Hall of Fame postcards that began this article, we’ve now looked 20 years of Negro League baseball cards. Though the numbers of cards and sets may have been more than you imagined for this period from 1971-90, it’s fair to say that nearly all such sets might warrant the “oddball” label. Notably, we saw nothing at all from the biggest name in all of baseball cards, Topps.

The omission of Negro Leaguers by Topps could certainly be seen as a sign that Topps deemed these players unworthy of their precious cardboard. To an extent I buy the argument, but I’ll also counter with the fact that Topps operated “by the book” when it came to licensing, permissions, etc. I suspect many of the sets profiled in this article provided no financial compensation to the players or estates involved, meaning their honoring of the Negro Leagues may have been part celebration but also part exploitation. If so, perhaps Topps deserves kudos for not following suit.

Though I may have overlooked a card or set somewhere, I believe the first Topps Negro League cards appeared in 2001, most prominently as part of a “What Could Have Been” series.

Though unintentional, the set led off with a “what could have been” to top them all: Josh on the Kansas City Monarchs. Such would surely end all greatest team ever debates right here and now!

Tony C.

1967 Red Sox team-isssed

As many of you (fellow old people) know, 1967 is the year that changed everything for the Boston Red Sox, when black and white turned to color, the duckling turned into a swan, a team captured the heart of a region and never let go. 54 years and counting.

The fly in the 1967 ointment, and it’s a helluva fly, is the career-altering beaning of Tony Conigliaro on August 18. I came to the Impossible Dream a year or so later, age 7, when Tony C. was out of baseball, and the more I learned about him the more I struggled to wholly buy into the feel-good nature of 1967. How can the most “fun” season in team history be the one when the most popular player on the team got hit in the face and had his career and life derailed? While perhaps not quite at the “Mrs. Lincoln, how’d you like the play?” level, it is in the same area code.

1968 Topps

Although I started collecting cards in 1967, I became a baseball fan, a real day-to-day, listen-to-the-radio, check-the-boxscores baseball fan, in 1968. When I pulled Tony C’s Topps card (above) that spring I didn’t know that much about him, though I might have had his 1967 card as well. He never seemed to be in the lineup. Was he just not good enough?

The back of this card offers a clue: “Boston fans are hoping for a complete recovery for Tony in 1968.” I sought out a friend, three years older than me and a Yankee fan, for an explanation. “He was really good, but he didn’t make it back. He’s through,” he informed me.

So that was that. Whatever he was, I apparently had missed it.

I had missed a lot.

Conigliaro had grown up in Revere, East Boston, and Swampscott, Massachusetts all within a few miles of each other just outside Boston. I knew this area well–my parents both grew up in Lynn, right in the middle of these towns, and my grandparents and most of my extended family were still there. Conigliaro went to to St. Mary’s High, a parochial school in Lynn. For the rest of his life, all of these towns claimed him as one of their own.

So, let’s get to his cards.

1964 Topps

In retrospect, it is impressive that Topps chose to place Conigliaro on this card in 1964. Topps made a TON of “Rookie Stars” cards every year in the 1960s, stretching the notion of “star” considerably. In fact, they had two others that year for the Red Sox.

Of these six “Stars,” Jones had the second best career, lasting nine seasons mainly as a platoon or reserve infielder. Still, Topps’s one-for-six here is actually pretty good and they deserve credit for Tony C.

Conigliaro had played one minor league season, with Wellsville in the Single-A New York-Penn League, hitting .363 with 24 home runs in 83 games. Obviously a top prospect, but it was the low minors and he was just 18. Most observers were surprised he made the team, but Topps was ready with this card in the 3rd series.

And Tony hit right way. A home run in his first at bat at Fenway, he ended up at .290 with 24 home runs despite missing five weeks with a broken arm. Conigliaro began his career as a center fielder, but after a month manager Johnny Pesky moved him to left field and Carl Yastrzemski to center for the rest of 1964, a piece of trivia that may surprise many modern Red Sox fans.

It was a great year for rookies, and Tony Oliva fully deserved his Rookie of the Year award. But Conigliaro snagged a Topps trophy on his first solo baseball card.

1965 Topps #55

In 1965, the 20-year-old Conigliaro hit a league-leading 32 home runs. Before you scoff, understand that the 1960s were an extremely challenging time for hitters. The Red Sox were lousy in the mid-1960s, but the emergence of Conigliaro meant that they now had at least two good players (he and Yaz). It was a start.

Conigliaro was tremendously popular in Boston, especially with young people, more especially with young women. He “dated” a lot of these women, a pursuit which caused him to miss a few curfews and draw a few fines from his managers. He also dug rock ‘n roll records, and made several himself.

Early Conigliaro recordings

His musical tastes ran towards soft rock, which was surely part of zeitgeist in 1965. He didn’t write music or play any instruments (at least not for recording or on stage), but if you were looking for a Tom Jones who could also hit 30 homers, he was your guy.

There were rumblings among some of the older fans, people who told their own kids to turn down their Beatles records, that Conigliaro was a little too brash, a little too focused on his life outside of baseball, a little too-big-too-fast. But he was the most popular player on the team throughout the region. The generation gap was beginning to be an issue in the culture, and surely applied here.

And his popularity was beginning to expand beyond Boston.

1965 magazines

Conigliaro’s parents and two younger brothers, who lived right up the road, went to all the games and were around the team daily. On a couple of occasions Tony got in hot water for missing curfews, so his father took Tony in to speak with the manager–just as he would have when Tony was 12.

In 1965 baseball held its first-ever amateur draft, and the Red Sox’ first round pick was Swampscott High outfield star Billy Conigliaro. Younger brother Richie’s Little League team was presumably being scouted.

Heading into the 1966 season, Conigliaro was an established baseball star with a record contract, and still just 21 years old.

1966 Topps
1966 Topps
1966 Bazooka

The 1966 season was more of the same — 28 home runs, 93 RBI. The team had added Rico Petrocelli, George Scott and Jim Lonborg; still a ninth place team, but if you squinted you might have begun to see the start of something.

1967 Topps

Conigliaro was photogenic in the extreme and there are hundreds of great photos of him from this period, but there is a sameness to his Topps baseball cards. His 1965 card is the only flagship card where he is not simply posing with a bat, and only the 1969 card can be said to feature the bare makings of a smile. Considering the degree of his popularity, and his obvious charm, its too bad Topps never got a great photo.

Early last year I finally finished the 1967 Topps Red Sox sticker set, with the “Tony Conigliaro Is My Hero” being my 33rd and final card. It is not the most attractive set in the world, or even particularly desirable unless you are a collector of a certain age who grew up in New England. Topps put out two “test” sticker sets that season, for the Red Sox and Pirates, and they share a simple design. I assume they “failed” their test, since Topps never marketed stickers like this again, but they are popular today because (a) the Pirates set has two Roberto Clemente stickers, and (b) the Red Sox team became Boston’s most beloved of the 20th century and arguably beyond.

When Conigliaro was beaned, the Red Sox were in their first pennant race in 17 years and Conigliaro might have been on his way to his best season. He had missed time because of military duty but still started the All-Star game (he played all 15 innings–it was a different time), and was hitting .287 with power when he got hurt. He missed the rest of the pennant race and the World Series. He might have helped.

1968 Sports Illustrated Poster

Tony C showed up to Winter Haven in February 1968 fully expecting to play. He hit well for a couple of weeks, but struggled late in March and went to back to Boston to see an eye specialist. The news was stunning: he had lost most of the vision in his left eye, and his career was likely over.

A few months later is when I came in, as I began my own crazy baseball fan journey and wondered who this Conigliaro guy was.

Throughout the summer and fall there was occasional news. Maybe his eye would get better, maybe he’d become a pitcher, maybe he’d just manage his swingin’ night club, maybe he’d be a rock ‘n roller full time. His replacement in right field–Ken Harrelson — hit 35 home runs and led the league in RBI. We missed Tony, but had we found his statistical twin?

1969 Topps

The next spring, my first experience anticipating a season as a full-time fan, Conigliaro came back. Which was, I assure you, absolutely bonkers. This was the biggest baseball story of my childhood, full stop. Still immensely popular–he lived nearby, his brother was a hot prospect, his family was in the paper every day–his eyesight had apparently recovered, at least enough to hit. He was back in the lineup.

1969 Boston Herald Traveler newspaper

He hit a home run on opening day in Baltimore, on his way to several Comeback Player of the Year awards. A couple of weeks into the season, the Red Sox traded Ken Harrelson to Cleveland–feeling they had more than enough power now.

I attended my first big league game on June 22, an extra-inning loss that featured back-to-back homers by Petrocelli and Tony C. For me, this was no longer a tragic story–he was a baseball hero, hitting home runs.

Tony was a big national story, likely even bigger than he had been before he was beaned. He wrote a book, and he was back on newsstands.

As a young Red Sox fan, I can’t overstate how amazing and thrilling this all was. His season (20 homers, .255) was a bit down from his pre-injury form, but he was still just 24 years old and the sky once again seemed to be the limit.

1970 Topps
1970 Team Issued

The best Sporting News cover in history:

April 11 1970 Sporting News

This magazine cover hung on my wall in 1970, and, not gonna lie, it’s still there.

Tony appeared to come all the way back in 1970, hitting a career-high 36 home runs and driving in a career-high 116 runs (second in the league). If that weren’t enough, brother Billy took over left field in mid-summer, moving Carl Yastrzemski to first base. The Conigliaros hit 54 home runs between them, setting a new record for teammate brothers.

1971 Topps

All of this turned out to be a mirage. We later learned that the sight in Tony’s left eye had not really come all the way back, and in fact it was occasionally quite poor. He was playing with one good eye.

In October of 1970, the Red Sox made a six-player deal with the California Angels that sent Tony out west. (Did they know something?) I was just about to turn 10, and this was a devastating gut punch, as big as I have ever received not counting, well, … never mind about that.

Topps had plenty of time to ruin their spring training baseball photograph with a blackened hat.

1971 Topps

As this is supposed to be a baseball cards blog, and the above is Tony’s final flagship card, I am going to end my narrative here. For Tony C, there was a lot of heartache to come, setbacks atop setbacks, so if you are up for it you can check out SABR’s biography. He was dealt many tough hands.

Needless to say, Conigliaro has remained an extremely important figure in Red Sox history. There is an active movement to retire his #25, a movement I support. For fans who came along later, his story begins with the record book, with Conigliaro’s modest 166 home runs and 12.4 WAR. I don’t really have an answer for that, other than to promise you that he was a big f**king deal, whose career and life never recovered from August 18, 1967.

Conigliaro pinbacks

Stand Up and Don’t Deliver

The 1967 Topps Stand-Up set is one of the several test issues that never found its way into distribution. (Other examples include the 1973 Pin-ups and the 1971 All-Star Rookies.)  The Stand-Ups are similar in concept to the 1964 die-cut cards only in a larger format (3-1/8” x 5-1/4”).  Another difference is the 1967 version uses floating heads instead of full body photos. Both were designed to have the die-cut portion popped out and placed in a punch-out base to allow the photo to stand up.

Though the set is described in the Standard Catalog of Vintage Baseball Cards as being earmarked for distribution in 1967, a 1968 release seems more likely.  The first clue is the Jim Hunter card, which shows him on the Oakland A’s.  Of course, the A’s moved to Oakland for the 1968 season. Another indication is the fact that Rusty Staub and Jimmy Wynn have their Astros’ cap logos blacked out and no mention of the Astros on the card. The Astros refusal to grant Topps the right to use their logo was only an issue in 1968-69. 

Topps may have scrapped the Stand-Ups in favor of a poster set instead. The same 24 players in the Stand-Up set were used in a 1968 poster set.

As with the other never issued sets, the few rare proofs that survive must have been set aside by Topps employees.  In the case of the Stand-Ups, there are both proofs printed on thin paper without the die- cuts and die-cut ones on card stock.  Only a handful exists and are rarely seen on the market.  When cards do emerge, the prices are exorbitant. Mantle’s card in mint condition is valued at $15,500 by the Standard Catalog of Vintage Baseball Cards.

The floating head concept always seemed odd and a bit creepy. Yet, Topps used it on cards for league leaders, coaches and rookies.  The creepiest card in the Stand-Up set is Orlando Cepeda. His bug-eyed look is disturbing.

Floating heads may not be the best look, but you can’t go wrong with cards of Aaron, Mays, Mantle and Clemente.  There are 12 Hall-of-Famers in all along with Rose and Dick Allen.

By the way, Topps didn’t completely give up on this concept.  In 1968, they made football Stand-Ups that were inserted in second series packs.