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–

The Wieners the World Forgot (Part 3)

Kids all over Seattle shouted “hot diggity dog” when they discovered that Seattle Rainiers wiener cards were back in 1963. Garbage can raiding and dumpster diving would once again be the norm in alleys across the city.  Kids “dogged” their mothers to not “wienie out” and buy the cheap franks.  Frankly, they would only settle for the “card-carrying” brand: “Milwaukee Sausage Company.”

For those of you who were able to “digest” my previous “all-meat” offerings, you remember that Hygrade and Henry House were the companies who included cards in wiener packages.  If Seattle was the norm, minor league teams must have frequently changed official hot dog providers.  Looking through Rainiers programs from the late 1940s to mid-1960s, I count six different companies who claimed top dog status at Sicks’ Seattle Stadium.

As a side note, I see an omen in the fact that “Milwaukee” was the name of the company.  Of course, the Wisconsin city would soon play a part in dashing the Northwest’s claim of big-league status.  I will now remove my tin foil hat made of discarded hot dog wrappers.

The Milwaukee Sausage cards measure 4-1/4” square, feature a larger photo, and have less biographical information than the previous two iterations.  A total of 11 cards comprise the set. As with the other wiener brands’ cards, the black and white photos are the same as those issued on the popcorn cards for that season.  

To illustrate the rarity of finding cards today, a Paul Smith card-in fair condition-is currently offered on eBay for $1,899.  The seller does allow for installment payments-if you are salivating at prospect of owning one of these “puppies.”

In 1963, the Rainiers were affiliated with Boston.  The eleven cards in the set include a few players who saw limited action in Boston.  The biggest name-by far-is the manager, legendary Red Sox hurler Mel Parnell.

Pete Smith sipped some coffee at Fenway in 1962 and 1963.  He started in his first game at Detroit on 9/13/62.  He lasted 3 and 2/3 innings giving up 8 runs, all earned.

Although I couldn’t find Milwaukee Sausage cards for Pete Jernigan, Bill Spanswick and Archie Skeen, each made it onto a Topps Rookie Stars cards. Spanswick has the distinction of being the other guy on Tony Conigliaro’s rookie card. By the way, Skeen never played in a major league game.

Other featured players with big league experience with other organizations include coach Elmer Singleton, Billy Harrell (13 games with Sox), George Spencer, and the aforementioned Paul Smith.

Well, after force feeding you more hot dogs than Joey Chestnut eats on Independence Day, it’s time to put away the mustard and sauerkraut.  Hopefully, you have come to realize that America is a better place for having had a photo of Mel Parnell enclosed in a package of wieners.

Mid-90s Pop-ups

I read the post about Stouffer’s pop-up cards with a lot of interest because it’s always fun to find out about new sets and I love gimmicky things like pop-ups. However the assertion that those were the “best engineered baseball cards that have been issued to date” made me pause.

I have no argument with the best-engineered part since the pop-up mechanism is super nifty. It was the to-date that got me thinking. Why? Because there were a lot of similar pop-up cards in the mid-1990s.

Quickly referencing my collection and googling for images that show some of the different mechanisms in action turned up at least four other sets. There’s the 1994 Oscar Mayer Superstar Discs,* and each year from 1993 to 1995 Kraft issued a set of pop-up cards as well.

*A full write-up of these is over at Angels in Order

Unlike the 5-card Stouffers checklist, all four sets here involve 30-card checklists. Oscar Mayer is cool in that it includes one player per team. Kraft on the other hand is a more generic top-30 players approach. I much prefer the one-per-team  checklists. Yes some big names end up missing but there’s so much more to a season than just the names. Plus as a team collector it’s always a downer when a cool-looking set doesn’t offer a logical entry point for my collection.

Anyway, the most-interesting thing for me to find out is that these sets all appear to use slightly different mechanisms for either the pop-up effect or the card manufacturing. Some are folded and glued from one sheet of cardboard. Others look like multiple sheets. The Discs are obviously more complicated than that. The 1995 Kraft set pops up from the end of the card rather than the middle.

Something was obviously going on so I wandered over to the patent library and did a quick search. There are a lot of patents for pop-up cards in the late 80s and early 90s. So many that I can’t figure out which ones correspond to what cards.

A quick sample. US patents 5259133, 5450680, and 5746689 all look superficially the same as the Stouffers, Oscar Mayer, and 1993 Kraft cards (I’ve been unable to find one that looks like the 1995 Kraft cards). They’re mainly just assembled differently. I wish the cards or packaging had a patent number listed.

What’s amazing to me is that many of the patents are explicitly for baseball cards. In two of the images I’ve chosen here the illustration clearly features a baseball player.

Patents are usually written somewhat broadly so that they can apply to multiple applications beyond the original intent of the application. But in the artwork here the inventor’s inspiration comes through. The mid-90s explosion of card-related technologies* resulted in multiple patents about baseball cards and in this case multiple patents to achieve the same effect.

*Other patents are in my previous patent dive post but relics, foil stamping, holograms, die cuts, chrome, dufex, etc. all exploded that decade.

The Wieners the World Forgot (Part 2)

Author’s note: Before “biting” into part two of the Seattle Rainiers wiener cards series, I have new information about the Hygrade wieners cards in part one. The Standard Catalog of Vintage Baseball Cards stated that only 11 of the 22 cards have ever been cataloged.  However, Seattle area collector Charles Kapner informed me that he has 13 different cards and knows of two more.  Thus, it is possible that—as the back of each card states—there are really 22 different cards.

Three years after Hygrade wieners were first put on the rotating warmer at the local bowling alley and the cards tossed in the dumpster with the discarded Desenex aerosol cans, Henry House meat products included a new set of Seattle Rainiers cards in their wiener packages.

The 1960 Henry House set is comprised of 18 cards and have several similarities to the Hygrade version from 1957.  For instance, the cards are printed with red ink and include a small player photo accompanied by a short biography. This time, though, the cards are vertically oriented and feature a detachable mail in coupon. Kids could send in two coupons plus 25 cents and receive a nifty Rainiers uniform patch.

The cards are “skip numbered” using the players’ uniform numbers. As with the Hygrade cards, the Henry House photos are the same ones found on the popcorn cards. 

The 1960 Rainiers were affiliated with the Cincinnati Reds and managed by Dick Sisler.  The roster was comprised mostly of veterans with some major league experience. A few prospects were sprinkled in as well. Some of the familiar names include Gordy Coleman, Erv Palica, Dave Stenhouse, Jerry Zimmerman, Ray Ripplemeyer, Charlie Beamon, and Hal Bevan.

Another veteran is Seattle University basketball and baseball legend Johnny O’Brien. The former Pirate and Brave finished up his career with Seattle in 1960. 

Don Rudolph, former White Sox pitcher and manager of his exotic dancer wife, shows up in the set as well.

Remember, there is still one more installment to come in this “dog” of a series. Until the next post, I am off to the West Seattle Lanes to eat a Hygrade or Henry House wiener that has been rotating on the warmer for the last 60 years.

The Wieners the World Forgot (Part 1)

Since it has been awhile since I irritated (I mean enlightened) you with a multi-part post, I have decided to ring in the new year with a really “meaty” series. This time I’m offering a “frank” discussion of the three iterations of the Seattle Rainiers’ “wiener” cards.

In 1957, the United States was flexing its muscles on the world stage and producing large amounts of processed foods that would set the “baby boomers” on a lifetime course of obesity and heart disease. The pristine environment of the Pacific Northwest–with its healthy outdoorsy types–was no exception. The Carstens Meat Products company produced Hygrade brand wieners to ensure that all boys and girls literally internalized the patriotic fervor (flavor) of the All-American hot dog.

Of course, hot dogs and baseball are inextricably linked, thus coupling the two in marketing campaigns made perfect sense. So, on a regional basis, major league and minor league players’ picture cards found their way into wiener packages.

If putting cardboard under the juicy, salt and nitrate laden sausage tubes seems counter-intuitive, you are not accounting for good old American ingenuity. Mid-century America was offering up one innovation after another. So, putting a waxed or plastic coating over the photo of baseball players and adding them to meat packaging was just another example of the prevailing “can do” attitude.

But what seems like a good idea doesn’t always stand the test of time or–in this case–briny juice. The cards were often juice stained and bent from the shrink wrapping of the dogs. Therefore, finding cards in excellent condition is rare. You may remember that the most famous wiener cards, Kahn’s, changed tactics and had kids mail order the cards.

The Hygrade cards use the same photos as found on the popcorn cards which were distributed at Sicks’ Stadium inside bags of popcorn. Here are links to my posts on that subject.

Although the back states that there are 22 cards, only 12 have ever been catalogued. The small photo is juxtaposed with biographical information under the banner: “Meet the Rainiers.”

The most interesting feature is “Kewpie’s Korner.” A small drawing of the former player and radio color commentator, “Kewpie” Dick Barrett, accompanies text exhorting the collector to eat plenty of Hygrade wieners.

Barrett was a legend in the Pacific Coast League. Pitching mostly for the Rainiers, Dick amassed 234 PCL wins, as stated on the cards. His major league career took place primarily during the war years. Barrett’s cherubic face resembled a popular doll known as “kewpie,” hence the nickname. The short, roly-poly Barrett did not fit the bill of a star athlete, but he was much beloved by the “Suds” fans.

“Kewpie’s Korner” stated that the cards could be traded in for 8” X 10” photos, just like the popcorn cards. However, I was unable to discover where kids made the transaction. The 1957 program has an ad for Hygrade, but it doesn’t mention the cards.

To find a card any condition is extremely rare and very expensive. Poor condition cards go for over $100. I don’t own one but have seen them in the possession of Northwest sports memorabilia collectors. The wiener cards coincided with the only season as Rainiers for legends Maury Wills and manager Lefty O’Doul.

Another notable is Larry Jansen, who was once the ace of the New York Giants staff. He won 23 games in 1951 for the pennant winning Giants.

Also, the first Filipino-American to play Major League Baseball, Bobby Balcena, is in the set.

I will leave you with these sage words: “Hygrade on the package means Quality on the plate.”

These Ain’t The First Rodeo Cards

When my first book, The Kansas City A’s and the Wrong Half of the Yankees, came out in 2007, I wasn’t as focused on getting book-related cards as I would be for Split Season 1981. In all fairness, it was easy pickings to find sets from 1981 that I didn’t have – Topps Foldouts, Scratch-offs, Coca-Cola, Stickers, Giant Photo Cards, Drake’s, Squirt, Kellogg’s. (Here’s the post).  Not as easy for the A’s book.

As I often do, I found myself at Baseball Nostalgia in Cooperstown and came across a 1955 Rodeo Meats reprint set, a 1976 issue. Affordable ($4) and filled with guys I had been researching and writing about. The back of the header card explains the originals better than I can:

It’s not that exciting a set, but fun to have:

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78293724_10218417240016751_7759082119300644864_n

78041059_10218417240816771_6943431107819864064_n

The backs are plain and informative:

78392207_10218417241656792_3897432171123572736_n

But, hold on:

fa92966f52c630a8c3f7e269f407c344

HarmlessWhoppingBluetickcoonhound-mobile

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The originals are in glorious ’50’s color!

The 1955 set, coinciding with the A’s arrival from Philadelphia, has 38 different players with one error – Bobby Shantz’, one spelled “Schantz,” the other “Shantz.” There are players with two backgrounds – Cloyd Boyer (blue and pink), Joe DeMaestri (pea and light greens), Arnie Portocarrero (pink and yellow), Bill Renna (dark and light pinks), Wilmer Shantz (orange and purple. Why couldn’t they get those Shantz brothers done correctly?), Elmer Valo (yellow and purple) and Bill Wilson (yellow and purple). All in all there are 47 cards.

The 1956 set was reduced to 13 cards. The backs are different too. Here’s a 1955 back, featuring a scrapbook offer):

78281244_10218417243776845_6862988234381590528_n

And 1956:

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If you’re thinking that these are real beauties and that you’d like to pick a few up, beware! They are super pricey. As a result, I’ll settle for my black and whites.

Disappointing, sure, but not as disappointing as being a KC A’s fan and watching them trade all your favorite players to the Yankees, or, worse, parking them until New York called them back.

Intrigued? Read the book.

 

Fahrenheit .407

Listen: Ichiro is the Guy Montag of George Sisler.

Like many students, I read Ray Bradbury’s dystopian classic, Fahrenheit 451, in middle school. Several of its ideas stuck with me for years afterward and I picked up a personal copy not long ago, to keep them fresh.

Near its climax, protagonist Guy Montag joins a clan of exiles who protect the written word from state-organized destruction. They memorize whole manuscripts as hedge against an American society locked in fiery struggle against its own texts. Guy’s recall of a portion of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes becomes his torch to carry.

Whatever your religious background, many SABR readers also know some Ecclesiastes, thanks to Pete Seeger’s adaptation of its third chapter into the 1960s folk-rock hit “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There is a Season),” intersecting with antiwar themes from Bradbury’s 1953 novel.

This cultureball matters to me now because of the link between Ichiro, one of our greatest 21st century players, and George Sisler, his parallel from a century ago.

I used to know just table scraps about the onomatopoeically “hot” Sisler. I remember lots of other stuff, like how Dave Philley spent three years as a Phillie (1958-60) and Johnny Podres finished his career with the Padres (1969). Yet…diddly about “the greatest player in St. Louis Browns history.”

Just a handful of significant facts came to mind when I started this article: he hit over .400 twice, they called him “Gorgeous George” (predating the pro wrestler), and Ichiro broke Sisler’s single-season hits record. Oh, and he appeared in the 1972 Kellogg’s All-Time Greats set.

Sisler retired in 1930, explaining why I find him so unfindable. Despite writing about cards for years at the Number 5 Type Collection, almost all of my card research follows Goudey Gum’s 1933 baseball debut, making earlier players a crapshoot. Even my deep dive into a trivial question, “Who’s E.T. Cox and why’d he appear on a card in 1927?” stands out for what didn’t happen, not what did.

I give Ichiro full marks for breaking an 84-year-old record when he notched 262 hits in 2004. Yet hitting isn’t their sole connection. Let’s catch up with George, circa 1920.

Kids could buy this artful W514, trimmed from a strip of five, out of arcade vending machines during Sisler’s mammoth performance for an otherwise fair-t0-middling 1920 Browns squad.

  • .407 average, 1.082 OPS, 182 OPS+
  • MLB record-setting 257 hits, in 154 game era
  • 49 doubles, 18 triples, 19 homers, 42 SB

Zero other seasons in MLB history include that balance of speed and power. None! Ichiro came close as a base runner, stealing 40+ bases five times, turning ground ball singles into scoring threats. As frosting to his power cake, George Sisler led the AL in steals four times.

Even if you drop stolen bases as criteria, just one other season in history, Lou Gehrig’s 1927, includes at least 49 doubles, 18 triples, and 19 homers. The Iron Horse, of course, enjoyed Murderers’ Row as “protection” for his spot in the lineup. St. Louis, however, depended on George’s stealing prowess just to get more guys in scoring position.

This photo from Sisler’s other 1920 card, part of the scarce Holsum bread issue, hearkens back to his younger days as a southpaw pitcher. (Read George’s SABR bio for those details.)

While pitching had moved to his back burner by 1920, George nonetheless closed out St. Louis’s final game on October 3 from the hill (box score), perhaps to help home fans enjoy one last bit of that remarkable year. Although he notched a .420 average two years later, OPS+ rates 1920 “better,” as Sisler hit fewer homers in 1922 (career stats).

Two of Sisler’s sons, Dick and Dave, went on to their own baseball careers. The former intersected with Ichiro’s future home as 1960 manager of the Pacific Coast League’s Seattle Rainiers.

While we’re visiting the past, let’s pretend we’re 12 years old again and snicker at how Dick Sisler appears on a Skinless Wiener trading card. (Players came one to a package.) Cross your legs and fire up the grill!

When Ichiro’s torrid pace projected to break the hits record in 2004, he also connected with still-living Dave Sisler, who enjoyed renewed interest in George’s past achievements and some of the Sisler family traveled to Seattle to see Ichiro break the record in person. (Topps mentioned that moment on Ichiro’s Season Highlights card.)

As noted in that 2013 New York Times article, Ichiro spent a Cooperstown trip examining Sisler’s bats, comparing their construction and “sound” to his own modern models. Five years later, he brought flowers to George’s St. Louis grave during the All-Star Break.

While I’m not surprised a guy with 3089 hits proved a student of hitting, it stands out that he’s a student of Sisler. Should this whole Internet thing burn to the ground, echoing the fiery urban chaos of Fahrenheit 451, I bet Ichiro can teach us plenty about George’s tools and talent.

Learning to hit from a baseball card

Not all of us are lucky enough to get personalized batting tips from Jesse Barfield or have worked on our swing with these guys.

gurus

Fortunately, there is no shortage of cardboard we can turn to when our hitting falls below the Mendoza line. Here are a nice assortment of cards and sets to get you through your batting slump. And of course we begin with “the greatest [insert optional expletive] hitter who ever lived!”

1978 Post Cereal Steve Garvey Baseball Tips

What? You were expecting Ted Williams? No worries, we’ll get to him soon enough. But first the face of Dodger baseball in Los Angeles when I first fell in love with the game. Show me a single kid in L.A. who would have said no to Raisin Bran the year these box panels were out. There were twelve in all, with four addressing hitting. (Note to younger fans. Though they are no longer used at the Major League level, “bunting” and “hitting to the opposite field” used to be essential parts of the game.)

1979 post steve garvey 2 bunting.jpg

1962-1963 Sugardale Weiners

A regional food release spanning two years, the 1962 release included 19 players on the Indians or Pirates while the 1963 release included 31. Star power was not immense, but sometimes all it takes is one!

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1959 Fleer Ted Williams

If only all you had to do was read the backs of four baseball cards to hit like the Splinter! Still, any advice from Teddy Ballgame is welcome. While the other 76 cards in the set provide information about Ted’s life and playing career, cards 71-74 provide advice for collectors to bring with them to the batter’s box.

Ted.jpg

1952 Coca Cola Playing Tips

This ten-player set hearkens back to the days when six packs came in cardboard carrying cases rather than the plastic rings now filling up our oceans. The front of each six-pack insert featured a player from a New York team (sorry, no Mantle), along with that team’s schedule, while the back featured tips to help aspiring ballplayers.

Bobby Thomson front.jpg

1939 Goudey Premiums

This 48-card set known as R303-A (or 24-card set known as R303-B) is the first of several 1930s sets to include batting tips. There is a simplicity to the instructions on the back of the Foxx card that almost makes you forget this is the hardest thing in all of sports.

1939 Goudey.jpg

Canadian collectors will also find these same cards and tips as part of the parallel 1939 World Wide Gum (V351) release.

1936 National Chicle Rabbit Maranville “How To”

In case hitting advice from the Beast is too daunting, this 1936 set provides a full array of baseball tips (including how to umpire!) all from a decidedly less intimidating player, Hall of Fame shortstop Rabbit Maranville. Card 11 (How to Bat) and card 13 (How to Bunt) address the offensive parts of the game.

Maranville.jpg

1935-1941 Wheaties

The backs of Wheaties boxes during this period featured a multitude of designs across a number of different years and series. Really, any box of Wheaties will help a young hitter on nutrition alone, but Series 5 (1936), Series 6 (1937), and Series 12 (1939) would have provided an extra boost.

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1935 Schutter-Johnson

This 50-card set resides beneath the radar of many collectors; however, it is an outstanding set for aspiring ballplayers. Each card features one of baseball’s biggest stars sharing a “Major League Secret.” While the tip is alluded to on the card front, the card back supplies significant detail and makes it clear that the advice is directly from the player.

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Modern fans of launch angle may cringe at the Frisch card until they learn he is instructing kids on the chop bunt. Then again, fans of launch angle probably aren’t fans of bunting either and may prefer simply to collect 49 of the 50 cards.

A final interesting tidbit about this set comes from the artist signature on the cards. This is the same Al Demaree who pitched from 1912 and 1919, winning 80 games (combined) for four different National League teams.

demaree.jpg

1934-1936 Diamond Stars

The mid-1930s were a magical year when it came to cardboard-based batting instruction. As part of the multi-year Diamond Stars release, Al Simmons and Joe Vosmik explain the importance of a good follow-through, Max Bishop warns against hitting bad balls (and has the .423 career OBP to prove it!), and Dixie Walker urges hitters to be relaxed at the plate–and that’s all from the first twelve cards in this 108-card set!

In case you struggle to picture all these players sending their tips to National Chicle, they were in fact written by Austen Lake, whose signature appears in the credits at the bottom of the card back. The level of detail in the tips is impressive, as illustrated by the Pie Traynor card’s advice on where to stand.

diamond stars

“…Study your needs and find the spot that best suits your style. Long armed boys should stand back farther than those with short arms, because of the difference in reach. In recent years, since free swinging from the end of the handle has become usual, major leaguers have tended to stand well in the rear of the box and back from the plate. Remember, the ball must cross some of the plate to be a strike. Hence stand where you can stretch your bat at arm’s length and cover the plate. Study “Pie” Traynor, Pirate manager for the correct batting style.”

1933 DeLong

I don’t want to typecast the anything-but-one-dimensional Austen Lake, but maybe you can guess what he contributed to the 1933 DeLong set. You guessed it…baseball tips! Here is some advice on batting stance courtesy of Mr. Lake and the set’s Al Simmons card.

Simmons

1928 Fro-Joy Ice Cream

Card number 5 in this six-card set, no longer authenticated by PSA or SGC due to prevalent forgeries, provides collectors with an up-close look at how the Bambino gripped his bat. Just as Hack Wilson let us know in 1935, long-ball hitters do not choke up!

babe

Though his career turned out just fine, it’s too bad a young Henry Aaron didn’t own this card as he was figuring out his own grip!

Q.

Is it true that at first you batted cross-handed, holding your left hand over your right on the bat handle?

A.

Yes. One day, I batted that way during batting practice before a game in Buffalo, and the Braves had sent a scout to watch me. The scout walked over to me, told me to take my right hand and put it over my left. I did it and hit two home runs that day and I never looked back.

Source: New York Times interview with Henry Aaron, published March 19, 2011.

1909 Nadja Caramels

I always like to close with the really old stuff, so here goes. Hitting a baseball is a VERY difficult act to master. We can’t all be .400 hitters or even .100 hitters, but no matter. I think this Al Bridwell (of Merkle Boner fame) card offers the best advice of all. Find yourself a beautiful day and a nice patch of grass, play ball, and eat caramels! A bad day doing that is better than a good day doing just about anything else.

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Author’s note: These same sets (exception Fro-Joy, Ted Williams) provide tips on other parts of the game as well: pitching, fielding, running, umping, and even setting up the field! I just chose batting so I could focus and cut down on distraction, another great batting tip by the way!

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.

 

Sandy Koufax Regional Issue: 1959-1961 Morrell Meats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1959 Morrell Meats Sandy Koufax

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

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

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1960 Morrell Meats Sandy Koufax

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

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1961 Morrell Meats Sandy Koufax

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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