A 1943 mini-mystery 79% solved

In a previous article I detailed the 1949 M.P. & Company baseball set and paired up each of its 24 cards with their recycled artwork from the original 1943 issue. For example, the Del Ennis below comes from the 1949 set and reuses the same art, Giants uniform and all, as the Carl Hubbell from the 1943 set.

A question I only barely touched on, largely because I had no answer, was where the artwork for the 1943 cards came from. The closest I came was in speculating that Vander Meer’s artwork may have been based on a 1938 press photo due to his wearing number 57 on the card.

The Standard Catalog is equally mum on the artwork’s origins, noting only that “the cards feature crude color drawings that have little resemblance to the player named,” a sentiment echoed by the minds at PSA:

“The cards were produced as crudely drawn cartoons presented in bold colors, but show little resemblance to the players themselves.”

Perhaps I would have dug deeper someday but chances are I would have gone to my grave believing a cartoonist somewhere simply drew generic baseball men and attached the names of famous players to them. Then I got an email from fellow collector Jack Q. Spooner.

Jack’s message immediately grabbed my attention with this photo of Johnny Vander Meer.

Not only did the picture include Vander Meer’s 1938 uniform number, but EVERYTHING in this Charles Conlon (!) photograph matched up to Vandy’s 1943 M.P. & Pressner card.

Contrary to my press photo guess, Jack identified the Vander Meer photo as a Baseball Magazine Player Poster, designated M114 by Jefferson Burdick and released in 1938.

Had Jack’s email stopped there it would have already been one of the highlights of my inbox this year, but it kept right on going. Here is what Jack sent me for Mel Ott.

Not only did Jack match the Ott card to his M114, this one from 1933, but he even showed a match to Ott’s subsequent 1946-47 Propagandas Montiel card.

Then I opened the attachment Jack included with his message. You can probably guess where this is going.

Sure enough, Jack had supplied M114 matches for 19 of the 24 cards in the 1943 set. The only players missing from the match were Bill Dickey, Stan Hack, Tommy Henrich, Lou Novikoff, and Pee Wee Reese.

While there are other possibilities I now picture that the M.P. & Company artist had these posters in front of him (or her) when sketching the 1943 card set. Only one fact makes this seem improbable, at least at first. The Vander Meer poster was five years old, and the Ott poster was ten years old. Unless someone was a collector, where would all these posters come from?

The answer is that while the Baseball Magazine M114 issue was released more or less continuously from 1910 to 1957, nearly all posters remained available until sold out. In other words, anyone with about two dollars to spend could have ordered all 19 of the posters shown just about anytime, for example in late 1942 or early 1943.

For fun we’ll take a look at when each of the posters in this article were first released. I’ll also include the non-matches in yellow for completeness. (For reasons I’ll save for the Comments if asked, there is some uncertainty to the entire exercise but not enough to worry about unduly.)

Before proceeding I’ll note the asterisk for Johnny Mize is that the Standard Catalog, at least my Fifth Edition (2015), lists his only M114 posters as from 1937 and 1946. However, since his “match” poster shows him with the Giants, we know it can’t be from 1937. Likewise, since the M.P. & Company set came out in 1943, we know the source poster can’t be from 1946. Because the M114 checklist is known to be incomplete and because Mize joined the Giants in 1942, I feel confident his source poster was issued that year.

When I got through Jack’s email it was KILLING me that five of the 24 M.P. & Company cards were left unmatched. In his message, Jack had indicated to me that he had already checked the M114 posters for four of them and confirmed the non-matches. Thanks to the unbelievable online gallery hosted by Doug Goodman, I was able to track down the fifth one (Novikoff) as well. Here they are next to their 1943 cardboard.

At the moment, then, the mystery of where the 1943 M.P. & Company artwork came from appears to be 79% solved. I would love it if any of you can solve the rest of the mystery by tracking down the source photos for these final cards. That said, 79% isn’t a bad place to be considering I was at 0% yesterday!

Quick note: The original version of this article included speculation that the M114 posters of other players could have been the source for the five “missing” players. That was before I found Doug Goodman’s flickr site and reviewed all 961 posters from his collection. None matched the missing five.

TWENTY-FOUR HOURS LATER

I still haven’t found photo matches for the missing five players, though I’ve gone down than more than my share of rabbit holes in the 24 hours since this article was first published. While I came up completely empty in terms of photo sources I did find some images that at least came close in some instances.

While you might imagine bottomless searches through the archives of the Sporting News or newspapers.com, it turns out that these images were right in front of my nose the whole time. I know these aren’t really correct, but they sure looked good to me through the eyes of desperation!

And while we’re at it, who’s that guy batting behind Pee Wee Reese? He sure looks a lot like Hank Greenberg! 😄

SI GOTG

I like autographs. During the 1970’s, I wrote a lot of letters, to athletes, movie stars, politicians, everyone I liked.

I love cards. No need to explain that at this point.

Autographed cards? I more than like, less than love. I have hundreds and hundreds, but I don’t pursue them with any kind of passion or goal, except…..

From 1997-1999, Fleer partnered with Sports Illustrated for base sets and inserts. Of course, signed cards were key. The 1997 set had a 6-card “autographed mini-cover” insert set with a stellar checklist – ARod, Ripken, Puckett, Mays, Frank Robinson, Aaron – but it’s the 1999 Greats of the Game autographed cards that piqued my interest.

The 80 card GOTG is a great smattering if superstars, stars, and cult heroes, and they’re wonderful. Actually, not all of them stand out. The basic look does nothing for me:

 

The cards that feature Sports Illustrated covers do it all. The white signature strip on the bottom, part of all the GOTG cards, stands out against the cover photo above. I went after this type hard, ending up with all of them (though there is one variation – Reggie has a “Mr. October” and an “HOF 93”). From Mays to McDowell, Ryan to Wynn, the players that constitute this smaller group tell the story, through SI, of the game from the 50’s through the 80’s.

For the autographed cards, the backs doubled as certificates of authenticity.

Prices are as wide ranging as the player quality, and, as some guys have died, formerly cheaper cards have popped.  “The Bird” was once less than $10. Not anymore. However, the Campaneris, under the 1973 World Series cover, is out there for less than $10.

I do have some of the full bleed covers, as you can see here, but they don’t tug at me as much, though arguably aesthetically more pleasing. Some are from 1997, some from other years. All have an embossed stamp of authenticity, which adds to the overall look.

I loved these so much that I went after the football issue as well. I still need a few of those – Starr, Bradshaw and Montana – but they’re a bit pricey. If they were baseball, I‘d grab them, but I don’t care much about Joe Montana and never quite have the urge to pay $150-200 for the pleasure of having his autograph.

Positions, Positions, Positions

Name, Team, Position. Those are the three most standard pieces of information conveyed on the obverse of a baseball card. Of the three, position is the one that is most often left out. While it is certainly isn’t hard to find examples of cards not bearing the name or team on the frontside, position is the only piece of this trio that feels kind of optional. Player positions were included on many of the earliest cards sets ever issued and remained a staple of card design until the fabled T206 set – which listed a player’s name and team home city only – seemed to put the designation out of style. Over the next few decades, many of the most iconic sets – Goudey, Cracker Jack, Leaf – ignored the position as an element of design. Bowman hit the scene in 1948 and went even more minimalist, rarely going so far as to even include the player’s name on the front of the card.

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1972, the only Topps set between 1953 and 1986 not to indicate a position on the front.

But then Topps took over, aside from their 1951 and 1952 issues, included a position on the front of each of their sets until 1972, and again for each set between 1973 and 1986. The indicator vanished between 1987 and 1990 and was an on-and-off feature until 2014, when it returned for seven straight sets (including 2020) – Topps’ longest run of position-indicating since the 1980s. Donruss included a position on every one of its designs until 1998 and Fleer did the same, using the indicator on every flagship set the brand issued. Upper Deck ignored the position on just two of its flagship sets (1992 and 2004).

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This is not information that most collectors would have at the ready. Most collectors probably take the position bug for granted. I know I usually do. But being so ubiquitous (even in its absence), an unusual position indicator can make for a pretty memorable card. Herb Washington’s 1975 “Pinch Run.” is probably the most famous of these. But there are others that I recall standing out to me as a kid – Pete Rose cards where he was listed an “MGR-1B” seemed other-worldly, the 1990 Score John Olerud listed him as an “OF-P” (all while shown playing first base) made him seem like some kind of top-secret government project, and the 1989 Topps Kirk Gibson All Star that listed him as a “PH” was as jarring as it was confusing (this was done, I assume to give the NL team a DH player without using the league-inappropriate term).

A particular player’s position listing can also convey some emotion. Robin Yount listed as a shortstop or George Brett as a third baseman make them seem as though they’ll be young forever. But finding Reggie Jackson or Henry Aaron or Dave Winfield listed as a DH will bring a note of sadness that the end is near.

But of all the weird positional quirks that have happened over the years, there is nothing so fascinating to me as what happened with Paul Molitor in 1991. That was the year the versatile Brewer was listed at FIVE different positions on various cards and appeared with SEVEN different position indicators. This is, I believe, the greatest positional variety for a player in a single year ever (ignoring THIS, of course). So what happened here?

Well, Paul Molitor had historically been a trick player to pin down position-wise. He came up as a shortstop, getting his first change in the bigs when Robin Yount left the Brewers during Spring Training 1978. He only played 33 games at short that season, but it was enough to have him listed as a pure SS on his 1979 card. He played 10 games at short in 1979 and 12 in 1980, but maintained a dual listed as an “SS-2B” on Topps 1980 and 1981 issues. After spending all of 1981 in the outfield, Topps gave him the rare “2B-SS-OF” listing on his 1982 card. Molly moved to third base in 1982, and played there primarily for most of the next five years. Topps reacted in kind and listed his as either a 3B or 3B/DH through the end of the decade.

Donruss and Fleer, entering the market in 1981, both listed him as a 2B in their debut sets. Fleer gave him a pure (and accurate) OF tag in 1982, whereas Donruss went with the very broad “OF/IF” brand. Both brands followed suit with Topps and used 3B and DH marks exclusively through 1990. Upper Deck and Score did the same.

But Molitor had returned to his utility player roots by the late 1980s. He appeared in 19 games at second base in 1987 and 16 in 1989. Late in 1989, regular second-sacker Jim Gantner suffered a devastating knee injury on a wipe-out slide by the Yankees Marcus Lawton and Molitor took over regular duty at the position until Gantner was able to return mid-way through the 1990 season. Molitor, who suffered a number of injuries of his own that season, ended up playing 60 games at second base in ‘90, 37 at first base (the first time he’d manned that spot), and a handful at third and as a DH. Gantner ended the season as the regular second baseman and Molitor at prime man at first. After the season, the Brewers traded Dave Parker, who had been an All Star for them in 1990, opening the door for the now-34 year old Molitor to become the team’s regular  DH for the first time.

So, the long-time third baseman who had been playing second but was also being used at first, where he was now expected to see more time when he wasn’t DHing. Got all that? Card makers sure did.

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By my count, Molitor appeared on 21 different base cards in 1991 (I’m ignoring sets like Topps Micro and OPC here that merely reproduce other sets). All but Classic listed a position on their cards. He was most commonly listed at 3B, a dubious claim considering he’d only played two games there in 1990. But strong is the power of tradition. Topps listed him there, using that mark on the Bowman, Stadium Club, and OPC Premium sets as well. Fleer also considered him a 3B, as they had at least in part since 1983. Even Score listed him at the position, despite taking the rather bold stance of being the only card maker to declare him a pure DH on a 1980s issue (1988). Those two games in ’90 got a lot of mileage, I guess.

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Five cards listed him at 1B, a nice compromise between his audition there in 1990 and his projected role in 1991. Magazine cards were fond of this mark, as Baseball Cards Magazine, Sports Collectors Digest, and Sports Illustrated for Kids all used it on their in-mag cards, as did Donruss and (curiously) Fleer Ultra, which ran against the flagship’s opinion that Molitor was still a 3B.

Three cards gave him a generic IF designation: two Brewers-issued sets (which used the frustrating device of considering anyone who played in the infield an IF) and the Score Superstars stand-alone set, which also broke with its parent brand and made its own positional distinction.

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A pair of sets were forward-looking enough to list Molitor as a pure DH, Leaf and Studio. I recall these as later-year issues and were probably a reaction to Molitor’s role early on the 1991 season, in which he only appeared in the field once before late May.

Then, we have some true outliers. Upper Deck, showing that rebel streak that remade the hobby, boldly listed Molitor as a 2B in their set, and even used a photo of him playing the position. The semi-obscure Petro Canada Standup set also listed him as a 2B, but you had to actually stand the card up to discover this fact. Panini, in its sticker set, was the only brand to use a hybrid mark, listing Molitor was a “1B-2B,” his only 1991 card to accurately reflect upon his 1990 season.

And then there is 1991 US Playing Card set. In here, Molitor (as the Eight of Hearts) is listed as a centerfielder.

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Hmm.

At this time, Molitor hadn’t played the outfield since a handful of games in 1986 and hadn’t been in center since 1981. Were they boldly expecting Molitor to take over in center for Robin Yount in 1991? My guess is that this is probably just an outright error. None of the other outfielder cards in the deck are given a specific OF spot (LF, CF, RF), and I can’t find anything that indicated they were acting on some of weird rumor of an unexpected position change. But nonetheless, the card exists and only adds to the positional confusion.

Oddly enough, all this positioning and repositioning for Molitor quickly became a moot point. Following the end of the 1990 season, Molitor would play first base and DH exclusively. His cards reflected this. For the most part. For 1992, Topps again branded him at a 3B across most of its sets despite his not having played there regularly since 1989. And, not to be outdone by their 1991 goof, the US Playing Card company issued two decks with Molitor cards in 1992 – one listing him at 2B and the other at SS – where Molitor hadn’t appeared since 1982 (his 1993 USPC card has him mercifully listed as an IF). At least it’s a consistent decade-long lag time, right? For 1993, only the Post Cereal Company still listed him at 3B. Card makers had finally accepted him for what had become – a DH and part-time 1B.

For his career, Molitor was listed on cards as a 1B, 2B, SS, 3B, IF, OF, CF, DH, 1B/DH, 2B/SS/OF, 2B/SS, SS/2B, 3B/DH, OF/IF, DH/1B, and DH/3B – not to mention post-career cards as a coach and manager. That’s 18 different listings (and perhaps more that I have missed) to describe a single remarkable career.