Different sizes, weird cards, one album

Only in Cooperstown can you go into a baseball card store and find inexpensive genuine autographed cards. Baseball Nostalgia, right next to Doubleday Field, is a frequent haunt of mine. They’ve been around for 40 years, were once the flagship of TCMA, and remain as the depository of awesome things. They have rows and rows of autographed cards, not only big stars but nobodies. Maybe nobodies is unfair; let’s say non-stars.

Last year I bought a handful of signed cards, but in the little pile of goodies were a few photos (Jim Bibby, Buddy Bradford) circa 1974 and a postcard of Jack Brohamer from 1975. Why would anybody buy a signed Jack Brohamer postcard? Readers of this blog know the answer to that.

The Brohamer card is pretty sweet and, as I was researching for a new book proposal, I stumbled on the fact that Ken Berry (outfielder, not F Troop star) finished his career on the Indians. I didn’t recall that, Googled, and came across the one card of Berry in brilliant mid-‘70’s Cleveland garb. It was from the same postcard set as the Brohamer! It took time, but I finally got the full set last week, shipped in sheets.

I grabbed an album off the shelf that would be appropriate housing for this set. It’s an album of misfit cards – oddball sets, different shapes and sizes, in 2-pocket, 4-pocket and 9-pocket sheets. Besides the 1975 Cleveland Indians set (here’s a photo of one page, not with Brohamer but with Ed Crosby, Frank Duffy, John Ellis and Oscar Gamble, for Dan Epstein), the other sets are:

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1963 Pepsi-Cola Tulsa Oilers

12 panels, 2 cards per panel, 24 cards with a big loop above to hang on bottle tops – what more could you ask! The Pepper Martin card is the coolest, but for my card collecting age group (I’m 54), a minor league set with Jim Beauchamp, Tom Hilgendorf, Chuck Taylor and some batboys, is hard to resist. It’s not a very pricey set, I have no idea when I got it and how much I paid, but it’s way cool.

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1966 East Hills Pirates

There are a few great regional sets featuring the Pirates of the 1960’s – KDKA, Grenier Tires and East Hills. Produced and distributed by a big mall outside Pittsburgh, the East Hills set is very nice and essential for Al McBean completists. Sure, Clemente and Stargell are the highlights, but every Bucco picture is a gem. There’s something about Matty Alou that fascinates me. He seems a bit like an alien, if an alien could hit .342.

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1961 Nu-Card Baseball Scoops

Not odd in size, the Nu-Card cards are odd in content. Contemporary quasi-achievements are sprinkled amongst all-time moments. Was Roy Sievers’ 1957 American League Home Run title equivalent to Lou Gehrig’s streak or Willie Mays’ 1954 World Series catch? If you’ve got an 80 card set to fill, you bet it is!

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1966 St. Petersburg Cardinals

A bit larger than regular postcards (they peek out above a regular 4-pocket sleeve), this 20 card set was put out by Foremost Milk. Of course, nothing screams hot summer in Florida more than a glass of milk. Sparky Anderson’s card is the key, and here he is. You can’t tell me this dude was only 32 at the time.

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There’s something about these sets that resonate with me – there’s a romantic vision I have of suburban Pittsburgh 10-year olds bugging their Mom to take them to East Hills for a Gene Michael card, or some kid deciding to buy a pack of Nu-Cards instead of Topps and insisting that Nu-Cards were better. The very idea of seeing shelves of Pepsi bottles with Tulsa Oiler card hanging from the necks makes me light-headed.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1981 Topps Coca-Cola

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

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

1981 Topps Giant Photo Cards 

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

Tom Burgmeier never looked so good.

1981 Topps Scratchoffs

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

1981 Topps Stickers and Album

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

1981 Fleer Star Stickers

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

1981 Drake’s

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

 

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

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

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

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DEXTER PRESS/COCA-COLA CARDS 1966-68

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

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1967 Dexter Press

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

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

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1968 Dexter Press

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

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1967 Dexter Press

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

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

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Rocky Colavito

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

Jim Gentile
Jim Gentile

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

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

Alan Schmelz
Alan Schmelz

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

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Bruce Howard
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Nick Willhite

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

Joe Rudi
Joe Rudi