The greatest year in baseball card history

I’ll get quick to the point. It’s 1954. Hands down…

Topps had a set.

1954 Topps #32 Duke Snider Front

Bowman had a set.

1954 Bowman #170 Duke Snider Front

Red Man had a set.

1954 Red Man #NL16 Duke Snider Front

Red Heart had a set.

1954 Red Heart Dog Food #NNO Duke Snider Front

Dan-Dee had a set.

1954 Dan-Dee Potato Chips (Reprint) #NNO Duke Snider Front

Stahl-Meyer had a set.

1954 Stahl-Meyer Franks #12 Duke Snider Front

The New York Journal-American had a set.

1954 New York Journal-American #NNO Duke Snider Front

And those were just the ones with Duke Snider!

Dixie had a set.

Wilson Franks had a set.

1954 Wilson Franks #5 Bob Feller   Front

And let’s not forget the single-team issues out there, of which there were many.

1954 Johnston Cookies #NNO Hank Aaron Front

And minor league issues too!

1954 Seattle Rainiers Popcorn #NNO Leo Thomas Front

Popcorn, cookies, hot dogs, ice cream, newspapers, potato chips, dog food (DOG FOOD!), chewing tobacco, chewing gum…you name it! Wait, did I forget the syrup?

Willie Mays and Alaga | Willie mays, Vintage baseball, Baseball

Of course, it’s not just about quantity, else just about any year from the Junk Wax era would beat 1954 hands down. But unlike the macaroni, hardware, and toilet paper cards of the late eighties, these 1954 releases also happen to be fantastic sets! They also marked a turning point.

Just one year later, apart from Topps and Bowman, there were only two baseball card sets other than single-team releases: Red Man and the Robert Gould All-Stars, though we’re be remiss not to mention Armour Coins and Wilson Franks Baseball Books. Just two years later, in 1956, there were none. And there wasn’t even Bowman!

In that sense, 1954 was not only the greatest year to be a collector but also the end of a certain Golden Age of cards. For collectors interested in taking a closer look at this magical year, I’ve compiled a checklist of the Hall of Famers (and Minnie, who belongs!) featured in each of the multi-team sets, with a notes column capturing all single-team releases. (A more readable version is here, which you can also sort in ways other than most cards to least.)

As a window shopper who loves flipping through sets in Trading Card Database or just admiring the collections of others, there is no better year for me than 1954. On the other hand, as a player collectors whose focus includes Hank Aaron, Roy Campanella, and Jackie Robinson, I will confess to often cursing the fact that certain sets exist. Then again, I suppose I’m still more likely to get the two 1954 Campy cards on my want list before the Shohei Ohtani completists get anywhere near the 2722 cards Trading Card Database lists for him in 2018 alone!

How about you? What’s your pick for greatest year in baseball card history? And if you’re a player collector, is it a good thing or a bad thing when the want list is a mile long?

And for more SABR Baseball Cards posts on 1954–

A most valuable discovery

As a kid I used to dream about finding my way into some ancient attic and unearthing boxes and boxes full of old baseball cards. For whatever reason, I imagined I’d need to be on the East Coast somewhere, which made the fantasy all the less attainable coming from my West Coast mind, but it was still fun to picture thumbing through these old stacks of cards and finding Ted Williams, Stan Musial, and Joe DiMaggio if not Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and Honus Wagner.

While this dream of mine never did come true, I did have the pleasure of meeting a fellow collector this year whose real life experience came awfully close.

David grew up in the Kansas City area but lives in Phoenix these days. Like me, he fell for card collecting hook, line, and sinker from the moment he was introduced to his first baseball cards, despite the fact he barely knew a thing about baseball or any of the players. While my love affair with cards and baseball began with 1978 Topps, David got going five years earlier and still remembers the thrill of pulling a 1973 Topps Hank Aaron card.

David was mainly a Hank Aaron and Kansas City Royals collector early on and started a paper route to feed his fix for packs. Once Hank Aaron retired, David branched out into the older stuff, mainly pursuing pre-1973 Hank Aaron cards and other stars he’d heard about from his dad. David was even lucky enough to have a teacher at school who would trade old 1950s cards for contemporary stars. While these swaps usually worked in David’s favor, he harbors at least some regret over a 1975 Gary Carter RC for 1955 Topps Tom Hurd swap.

Fast forward a bit and David eventually headed off to college. Like so many other collectors he left his cards at home–Hank Aaron, George Brett, Tom Hurd, and all. With David away at school his parents downsized and moved most of his stuff into storage. After his father passed away, David’s mother forgot about the storage unit, whose contents were ultimately sold off to the highest bidder.

The end. Right?

Not quite. I’ll let David’s twitter bio take over from here.

“Recently found my entire card collection I thought was long lost. Sharing my find w/twitter…”

While I grew up dreaming of finding boxes and boxes full of incredible cards, David actually did it. The twist, of course, is that the boxes he found were his own!

Evidently, David’s dad didn’t want to put the cards in storage and had a friend of his hang onto them instead. David remained in contact with this family friend, who one day, decades later, remembered he had a bunch of boxes somewhere with David’s name on them.

David’s first few twitter posts as “Cigarbox Cards” definitely got my attention!

The first card David posted was a well loved 1956 Topps card of Mr. Cub. The next day David posted a video of himself rifling through stacks of cards including early Topps issues of Gary Carter (but not the 1975!) and Dennis Eckersley while a 1949 Leaf Ted Williams sat untouched in the distance.

An autographed Yaz rookie was next, followed by a Red Man Willie Mays. In the days that followed David posted a Brett RC mini, a 1954 Bowman Mickey Mantle, and a 1974 Topps Tom Seaver. I always enjoyed the way David juxtaposed his featured finds with background elements that enhanced their presentation. This is a theme we’ll come back to shortly when I show you what David’s up to now.

Most of the online replies consisted of emojis like 😱 and 🔥 🔥 🔥 but I suspect certain collectors were wondering if David’s cigar box finds included any really good cards.

Then David dropped the Hammer.

And even more Hammer! (Click blue arrow twice to activate.)

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Though the cards are not mine, I still feel a thrill each time David posts an amazing card from his original collection. To think how close these cards came to being lost forever and then to see them pop up in my twitter feed is downright magical. It’s like flipping through my own personal attic find, even if the cards aren’t mine to keep–just like the dreams I had as a kid right down to waking up in the morning with the same collection I had before!

Beyond showing off some great cards David introduced some fun interactive features to his posts, among them his “Out or Hit” series…

…or his “In Action” baseball card gifs.

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Of course it was only a matter of time before this happened.

The cards kept coming and coming, almost obscenely so, but what really caught the eye of many collectors was the creative ways David was finding to display his cards, something many of us spend undue time considering.

Here’s another one that really caught my eye with bonus points for the bunting!

And if you’re wondering what the most creative use for a yellow drinking straw in a baseball card collection is…

Or for the Yankee fans…

I could go on and on, but you’d probably have more fun scrolling through all David’s posts yourself. Other than of course SABR Baseball Cards 🤣, it’s hard to think of another baseball card account as consistently awesome as his.

As I consider his collecting story I come back once again to my own and that of so many other collectors. How many of us dreamed of that elusive find, those boxes and boxes of cards filled with stars of yesteryear? If you’re like me, not only did that imagined cardboard haul never arrive but even the cards you did have were nowhere to be found by the time you realized you missed them.

What I didn’t know when I shuffled through my 1978-80 Topps cards as a kid was that the boxes right in front of me would someday be more valuable than any cards I might find elsewhere. Even today the memories of those cards mean more to me than the actual cards I’ve purchased since.

This post (below, right) from David makes the point well and was ultimately the catalyst for my writing this article.

Let’s face it. You can dream all you want about things you don’t have, but few fantasies or realities will ever come close to that of your first love, whether lost, lasting, or in David’s case both.

Author’s note: For another SABR Baseball Cards article inspired by collectors’ online posts, see “Fathers and Sons.”

1954: The Year of the Regional

1954 was a very eventful year in the USA. The Baby Boom was in full swing. Commercial sale of color television sets (15”!) began. The Army-Senator Joseph McCarthy hearings captivated the nation and ultimately led to his censure in December.   Ohio State and UCLA were co-national champions in college football, and Wisconsin’s Alan Ameche galloped off with the Heisman Trophy. In baseball the St. Louis Browns migrated east to become the Baltimore Orioles.   And ‘’The Catch’’ by Willie Mays in game 1 of the World Series etched its way into baseball lore.

1954 was also a significant year in the world of baseball cards. The two major companies manufactured extensive sets (Topps with 250 cards, Bowman with 224). In addition a wide array of regional issues dotted the collecting landscape.   This article will highlight several of the more prominent and unique local offerings, with emphasis on sets that include major league players.

Red Heart Dog Food was produced by John Morrell & Company of Cincinnati.  Dubbed the ‘’Big League Dog Food” it issued a 33-card set in ’54. Divided into three 11-card series (with background of red, blue, or green), each group could be obtained via a mail-in offer (10 cents plus 2 can labels).  In contrast to most regional issues “Red Hearts” featured players from a majority (14) of the 16 MLB teams. Eleven HOFers grace the set. Not surprisingly Mickey Mantle and Stan Musial are the most valuable; neither was included in that year’s Topps set.  Centering can be problematic, with this Bob Lemon card an example. Overall this set is quite reasonable in cost.

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Wilson and Company (Chicago, Illinois) enclosed individual cards in packages of hotdogs. 20 players comprise this ‘’Wilson Franks’’ set, including HOFers Bob Feller, Ted Williams, Enos Slaughter, Nellie Fox, Roy Campanella, and Red Schoendienst.   Six representatives of the Windy City are featured, among them managers Stan Hack (Cubs) and Paul Richards (White Sox).  Condition sensitivity is a major concern; grease stains from the frankfurters often mar card surfaces.   The relative scarcity of these cards makes Wilson Franks very pricey, with a near-mint condition Williams fetching upwards of $10,000.   (enter Wilson S. White here)

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The New York Journal American was the result of the merger of two NYC newspapers owned by William Randolph Hearst. It was published from 1937-66. In 1954, during the heyday of baseball in Gotham, the Journal American offered a 59-card set. Featuring only Dodgers, Giants, and Yankees, individual cards were distributed at newsstands with the purchase of a paper. Card fronts bear player photographs (quite grainy in quality) and advertise a contest offering cash prizes.   The reverse displays the ’54 home schedule of the player’s team.   Common cards are comparable in price to those of the Topps issue.

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Turning to the Great Lakes, the Dan Dee Pretzel and Potato Chip Company was a family-operated snack food business for over 70 years throughout Ohio, West Virginia, and western Pennsylvania.   Founded near Pittsburgh in 1913 the company relocated to Cleveland in 1916.   The 1954 “Dan Dees” are nearly as uncommon as the Wilson Franks.   The cards were placed in boxes of potato chips; despite being wax-coated they frequently became stained with chip residue. This 29-card issue features 14 Cleveland and eight Pittsburgh athletes. Three Yankees, two Dodgers, one Giant, and one Cardinal round out the roster. Short prints (Cooper, Smith, & Thomas) are notable, but by far the key to the set is the Mickey Mantle pasteboard.

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Speaking of Dan Dees photos of its New York players were also used in two other regional issues. Stahl-Meyer Franks (of NYC) offered cards from 1953-55. The ’54 version was a 12-card set featuring athletes from the Big Apple.   This set is very rare and expensive, with the HOFers (Mays, Mantle, Irvin, Snider, & Rizzuto) setting the price pace.   Similarly Briggs Meats issued sets in 1953-54.   28 Washington Senators and 12 New York players comprise the ’54 group.   With the slogan ‘’save these cards, collect them!, trade them!” two-card panels were issued in hotdog packages and distributed solely in the Washington, DC area. These are quite difficult to locate, and intact panels are very scarce.   Thus, these cards are big ticket items. In addition to Mays and Mantle, the short prints of Gil Coan and Newton Grasso are lavishly priced.

Several other regional issues deserve a brief mention. Esskay Hot Dogs Orioles celebrated the arrival of the new Baltimore AL franchise with a 34-card collection.   2-card panels were placed in packs of franks. These cards currently carry very high prices, reflective of their scarcity and significant condition-sensitivity.   Hunters Wieners Cardinals were manufactured from 1953-55. The ’54 set was unique: each 2-card panel included one with a player photo, the other with that player’s statistics.   HOFers Musial, Slaughter, & Schoendienst highlight this 30-card Redbird group.   Johnston Cookies headquarters was located near Milwaukee’s County Stadium. Johnston Cookies Braves were available from 1953-55, with a card inserted in each confection package. The ’54 series of 35 cards includes Braves assistant trainers (Joseph Taylor and Dr. Charles Lacks).   These cards are much less pricey than their Esskay and Hunters counterparts.

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One can easily argue that 1954 was truly a golden year for card collecting.   Topps and Bowman competed bitterly, and these rivals failed to secure signed contracts from several key players (notably Stanley Frank Musial).   Regional issues helped to fill the void. Today’s vintage collector can enjoy the local flavor and pursuit of these fascinating collections.

 

Arbiters of authenticity

BVG_MantleWatching baseball card twitter over the past month or so has involved seeing a number of stories pop up which increasingly remind me of the art market. Many of these stories in particular involve grading companies and their increasingly prominent role as arbiters of “authenticity.”

The first story involves the newly-discovered 1950s Mickey Mantle. This is and extremely cool story and it’s always great to be reminded of how many things about baseball cards we all don’t know. They can always be another regional or oddball out there just waiting to be discovered and those discoveries are the stuff I’m sure all of us dream of. The thread on Net54 documenting the discovery is especially interesting as the community there came together to figure out what these were.

Buried in that story is the news that PSA refused to grade the newly-found cards. It seems that without a checklist, PSA doesn’t want to touch them. This strikes me as very weird if the grading companies are concerned with describing circulating cards. It is however totally consistent if the point of grading is to treat cards as part of a known catalog of works—in which case anything not in that catalog is inherently suspect.

SalvatorMundiIn the art world there was a lot of news this past year about the newly-attributed Leonardo da Vinci painting Salvator Mundi. Much of the news involved the enormous price that it sold for but a lot of the discussion was about attribution and whether it should be considered part of the Leonardo catalogue raisonné. While a significant number of experts attest that it is a Leonardo, many remain skeptical and from what I can tell the jury is still out.

The newly-discovered Mickey Mantle card is not comparable to an ostensibly-new Leonardo—especially in terms of how attribution in baseball cards is less about who made the card and is instead about who’s pictured. But I found myself noticing a number of similarities in the objects and how the discussion about getting an imprimatur which would allow them to be sold at auction became as important to the objects’ stories as their actual provenance. In short, without becoming part of the catalog these items weren’t “valuable.”

In the case of the Mantle card, Beckett ended up doing the legwork to add it to the catalog and get it graded. And I found myself wondering about what it means when one authority won’t touch a card when another one will. In the art market this kind of disagreement produces controversy and is a big warning flag to the buyer. In the card market though as long as someone has graded the card it seems like people are okay with it.

ToppsBeckett

Which brings us to the other grading-related story that caught my attention. In brief, Topps mistakenly inserted cards into Bowman Draft which weren’t supposed to leave the factory. This is clearly an error and Topps has supposedly admitted as much. The most interesting thing about this SNAFU is that Beckett refused to grade those cards and initially blamed Topps for telling them not to. This resulted in a decent amount of outrage about collusion—especially given Beckett’s subsequent walking back of that note.

The idea that Topps would request that grading companies not grade these makes total sense to me. Mistakes like this could just as easily be backdoored out of a printing facility and that kind of shenanigan is something I can see Topps wanting to explicitly discourage. That said, in my opinion, that principle goes out the window once the card gets pulled out of a circulating pack.

CowboysMilkingWhat I’m fascinated by though is the concept that Topps could disavow a card which was released by mistake—removing it from the catalog by corporate fiat. This is similar to something that has come up in the art world, most famously wth Cady Noland whose disavowal of Cowboys Milking resulted in a number of lawsuits as people tried to recoup invested money and find a way to sell what had become “worthless” overnight. As with the Mantle and Leonardo, the discussion again is one of whether or not an item belongs in the catalog and who’s responsible for maintaining that catalog.

Now I’m not suggesting that the Visual Artists Rights Act applies to baseball cards. I am however noting that between the card companies and the card graders, there’s a real possibility for there to be a similar amount of control in the market for card makers to effectively render some cards as worthless—or at least ungradable—if they were released to the public by mistake.

That getting a card graded is the current standard of authenticity for much of the card market means that explicitly rejecting a card from grading rules it as “inauthentic.” As someone who primarily conceived of card grading as a way of certifying condition and chasing confirmed great-condition cards, this realization shook me. It’s not that I no longer trust graders themselves but rather I’ve found myself questioning our collective trust in them as the arbiters of authenticity—especially given the recent news which makes me wonder how things get into the baseball card catalog.

It’s one thing for us to have a Potter Stewart level discussion about what makes a baseball card a baseball card. It’s another when it appears that two of the most-prominent authorities in the business of authenticating cards demonstrate that they both maintain an official catalog of what counts as a baseball card and that those catalogs can disagree with each other.

So I can’t stop wondering now about what it means when grading companies disagree on an item’s authenticity? Does this stuff get tracked? If another company grades the Topps mistakes does it matter that Topps may have disavowed the cards initially? And what other kinds of production mistakes which shouldn’t have been released could cause a grading rejection?

I don’t know the answers to any of those but it’s where my mind—even though I’m not into card grading—has gone over the past month. I can only imagine how the people who swear by it are thinking.