If They Can Make it There

I am currently curating an exhibition at Queens College, in Flushing, which will be on display throughout February and March. While I don’t yet have a title for my little experiment (the show marks the first time I have ever done such a thing), the theme of the event centers on the history of baseball in New York City, from its inception to the present day, told through art and artifacts. I am indebted to a number of individuals who are either loaning me pieces from their private collections, or are submitting original work to help me craft the story I am trying to tell.

The gorgeous artwork of Jesse Loving at Ars Longa

Of course, baseball cards are a part of the event. I have long known that I wanted Jesse Loving, creator of the beautiful Ars Longa cards, to be a part of this. Although he had gone on a bit of a hiatus, he kindly agreed to fire up the engines again and is providing me with roughly 80 cards that cover the game in the Big Apple from William Wheaton and Doc Adams, to Rube Marquard and Casey Stengel, a span of roughly eighty years. I am giddy at the idea of creating a wall of his lush, vibrant images, and eagerly await the arrival of the package.

With one or two exceptions, I was intending for Jesse’s work to be the only cards in the show. There are lots of ways to tell the history of the game that have nothing to do with our favorite hobby and I wanted the beautiful creations of Ars Longa to exist in a vacuum. Then, I learned last week that one of the individuals who was contributing some truly exciting pieces from the 19th Century had decided to withdraw from the exhibition. I had to come up with something to fill the holes on the walls of the gallery left by his exit.

I am not a fine artist, nor do I have a particularly extensive collection of artifacts and memorabilia laying about. So, what to do? While the pieces I lost were from the 19th Century, I actually have some of Jesse’s cards, as well as uniforms and equipment loaned to me by Eric Miklich, that are already assisting me in telling that part of the story. I also have quite a few items that represent the Golden Age of baseball in New York, the halcyon days of Willie, Mickey, and the Duke. What the show was really lacking was a nod to the more modern incarnation of the game. The best way for me to benefit my show, and fill the unexpected void, was to focus on that gap.

That’s when it struck me that, while I don’t really have a lot of personal memorabilia at hand, there was a way I could tackle my problem at very little expense. Any exhibit on the history of New York City, (especially one taking place in the most ethnically diverse borough, on a campus that hears over 110 languages spoken every single day) needs to explore the beautiful multiculturalism that makes this City what it is. That was when I came up with my plan, a work I am calling, “If They Can Make it There.”

In the long history of professional baseball, there have been men who were born in over fifty countries besides the United States that have made the incredible and unlikely journey to the Major Leagues. While the Dominican Republic and Venezuela have provided an outsized portion of these ballplayers, countries as far-flung as Belize, the Czech Republic and Australia have also chipped in. Many of those foreign-born athletes got their professional starts in New York City. In fact, twenty-one different countries, not counting the U.S. and its territories, have generated players who made their Major League debut with the Yankees or the Mets. My plan to fill in my unexpected vacancy is to honor these men, and what better way to do it than through the beauty of baseball cards.

I am putting together a collection of these itinerant dreamers which will feature each of them in the uniform of either the Yankees or the Mets. Why just those teams and not also the Giants, Dodgers, and the multiple early squads? Two reasons. The first I already mentioned. The goal was to try and examine the impact of the game in the present day. By focusing on just the Yankees and Mets, it reinforces that point by design. The other reason is economics. Now, I can complete this set, mostly, with inexpensive cards from the last thirty or forty years.

Beyond the player appearing in a New York uniform, I decided to lay down a few other guidelines to make this creation have a little more form, and not just be a random mishmash of cards thrown up on the wall. First of all, no reprints. While the exhibition will feature some reproductions (uniforms, mostly), I have been trying to limit their influence all along. No need to further water down this project by including “fake” versions of the cards. Besides, very few of the cards I needed were particularly valuable, so why resort to knock-offs? I also wanted, if at all possible, for the card to have been issued at the time the player was employed by that team.

Jim Cockman’s .105 average may explain why the 1905 season was his lone chance at the big leagues.

This is not always feasible. A number of players who fit this criteria, including cups of coffee like Jim Cockman (born in Canada) and Harry Kingman (China), both of whom made brief appearances with the Yankees years before Jacob Ruppert signed Babe Ruth, never had any card issued, nonetheless one of them wearing the proper uniform. There are even holes for more durable players from recent years, like Stan Javier (Dominican Republic), who enjoyed a seventeen-year career that ended in 2001. During his first big league season, in 1984, he appeared in seven early-season games for the Yankees before being shipped back to Nashville and Columbus for more seasoning. He would later appear on the roster of seven other major league teams, but he never played another game for the Yankees. The Trading Card Database claims he has 289 cards out there, but none of them were issued in 1984 or ’85 featuring Javier in pinstripes.

There are missing pieces of the puzzle for the Mets, too. Utility man José Moreno (Dominican Republic) and shortstop Brian Ostrosser (Canada) never got a card of themselves in blue and orange, at least not while actively playing for the team. I have decided that in their cases, as well as that of Javier, to bend the rules and use one of the cards that came with the sets issued by the NYC-based appliance retailer, The Wiz, in the early nineties. While most of the hundreds who appear in this ubiquitous set were no longer active members of the roster at the time the cards were issued, at least they are dressed properly. I am also considering getting an Aceo Art card of Frank Estrada (Mexico), whose two lifetime plate appearances were insufficient to ever make Topps take notice.

The sets issued by The Wiz were originally released in 15-card sheets.

Most of the collection, though, will be the real deal. There are cards from almost all of the big name publishers of the modern era, including Topps, Bowman, Fleer and Donruss. There will be plenty of Junk Era wax, as well as the slick chromes that have come to represent the current state of the industry. The bulk of the exhibit will include roughly 130 cards (purchased via COMC or already in my collection) that cost me a combined total of $45.76. Most exciting to me, however, is that there will be a small handful of pre-war cards thrown in there, too. I decided to reward my clever thriftiness by investing in some slightly pricier goodies.

Arndt Jorgens played for the Yankees his entire career, serving as Bill Dickey’s backup.

I’ve already picked up a 1934 Goudey Arndt Jorgens (Norway), a 1934-36 Diamond Stars George Selkirk (Canada), and a 1911 T205 Jimmy Austin (United Kingdom). I also have my eye on two T206s, a Jack Quinn (Slovakia) and a Russ Ford (Canada). Assuming the Ebay gods favor me and I get the latter two, they will represent the first cards I’ve owned from that hobby-defining set. These bits of old paper not only give the exhibit a little more gravitas as a whole, but when it’s all over I will have some gems to add to my personal collection.

The exhibit also gives me a chance to show off a little bit of my beloved collection of Cubans who made the leap to the majors. There have been eight Cubans who began their major league career as Yankees, most recently Amauri Sanit in 2011. The Mets have birthed the careers of four citizens of the forbidden island, the most notable of which was Rey Ordoñez. While Ordoñez was famously weak at the plate, rarely hitting more than a single home run in a season, he was a defensive mastermind at shortstop in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, when the Amazin’s had one of the most exciting infields in baseball history. His partner in the middle of the diamond, Edgardo Alfonzo (Venezuela), will also be featured.

The players mentioned here really are just the tip of the iceberg. The exhibit will also include some of the brightest stars of today, including Gleyber Torres (Venezuela) and Miguel Andujar (Dominican Republic). Ron Gardenhire (Germany) makes an appearance, as do the Mastuis (Japan), Hideki and the less-successful Kazuo. There is even one Hall of Famer who is featured, buried in the dozens of other more obscure names. The quickest among you will figure out who that is almost instantly. The rest of you, well, I guess you’ll just have to stop by the college and find out. My currently unnamed exhibition opens February 18. I hope to see you there.

ATM Cards? Who Needs ’Em!

Paul Simon tells the story about how pissed off Joe DiMaggio was at him about “Mrs. Robinson.” Simon says he’d heard that Joltin’ Joe was bothered by the song, maybe even to the point of legal action.

“What I don’t understand,” DiMag said, “is why you ask where I’ve gone? I haven’t gone anywhere.”

Maybe it was that sense of being forgotten, if even symbolically that pushed Joe into hawking product. Nationally, in 1973, The Yankee Clipper became Mr. Coffee.

Locally, the year before, DiMaggio started doing TV for the Bowery Savings Bank in New York City.

Smartly, the Bowery issued a baseball card, just one. Simple front, 1971 Topps knockoff design (in pink!) on the back.

I’d always wanted this card, never got it, forgot about it, but was jolted (yup, I’m using that word) back in time when I saw it at a show last year. Since then I’ve been looking for it. It’s not too hard to find, but the prices run from a reasonable $10ish to unreasonable factors of 10.

At the big Shriner’s Show this past weekend, I was going through a stack of 1955 Bowman Football, and, immediately after paying, saw a scattered stack of cards. There it was! And for $5!

The 1972 DiMaggio Bowery card has always been my favorite bank card. And, while it doesn’t get money, it didn’t take much either.

A True Value or hardware disorder?

In 1986, one could head to the local True Value hardware store to buy a box of nails or a toilet plunger and emerge with a folded, sealed, four-card panel featuring three players from the “True Value Super Stars Collector Series.”

The oddly packaged set features a fourth card on the panel that serves as a sweepstakes entry form with a picture of a True Value product on the opposite side. This advertisement card forms the back of the pack while one of the player cards comprises the front.

The cards are perforated to allow for each card to be individually detached. Of course, the panel could be kept intact, but one of the cards would be separated by the advertisement.  Furthermore, the panel size is too big for a three-pocket, Hostess style page. An obsessive purist could leave the cards sealed, content in knowing two more cards reside inside, but the most logical thing to do is detach the cards.

This is exactly what I did this summer after purchasing the 10 different card folios at a local card shop.  After 33 years, the adhesive beneath the back flaps was firmly set.  I needed to use a putty knife to detach the flaps.  Once opened, the 2-1/2″ x 3-1/2″ cards had to be carefully separated to prevent tears. The front card must be at least 1/32 of an inch wider than the cards from the inside, since it fits very snugly in a standard 9-pocket page.

It goes without saying that once you have the 30 cards separated you are left with a crappy set.  These cards were produced by Michael Schechter Associates (MSA), who only had a MLBPA licensing agreement.  If MSA sounds familiar to you, you may know the name from these ubiquitous discs of the mid-1970s.

The lack of an MLB license results in mostly “head and shoulder” shots without cap logos. (Andre Dawson is shown from the waist up.)  The same images are used on numerous odd ball sets of the era.  The photos are small and the red, white and blue framing is overwrought.

The set does contain many all-time greats. There are 15 Hall of Famers including Tom Seaver on the White Sox, Reggie Jackson on the Angels, and Gary Carter with the Mets (but wearing an Expos cap). Fans of the Indians, Rangers, and Giants will not find a home team hero in the set. 

My collection of “junk wax” era, odd ball sets continues to grow, which begs the question: Why do I continue to add these unattractive cards with recycled images?  Perhaps I’m genetically predisposed to own every known image of “Mr. Mariner,” Alvin Davis.  Or, perhaps my essential cheapness won’t let me turn down bargain priced cards.  Both could be true, but I believe the answer lies in my slow but steady descent into hoarding syndrome. 

Origins of the laziest baseball card set ever

At first glance the 1949 MP & Company baseball set is simply…how shall I say this? Ugly.

And lest you think the card designers were saving all their mojo for the backs of the cards, let me disabuse you of that notion before we go any further.

Still, ugly ≠ lazy, and even if it did I suspect many of you could find uglier sets out there somewhere. (See any set with “metal” in the name.)

To understand the 1949 MP & Company baseball set as the laziest set ever, it’s important to know it had a predecessor six years earlier. Here are two cards from the 1943 release.

I know some of you still aren’t convinced. After all, other sets have reused prior card designs and fared quite well in the minds of collectors. It’s just that the 1949 MP & Company cards took recycling to a whole new level. For instance, here are the 1943 cards of Danning and Medwick.

Scroll up the page and you’ll note more than just a passing resemblance to the 1949 cards of Berra and Pesky. In fact, every one of the 24 cards in the 1949 set is a retread of a card issued six years earlier. Here are each of the 1949 cards (yellow rows), a few at a time, matched to their corresponding 1943 versions (red rows).

Cards 100-102

While Boudreau and Williams are repeated from set to set, we see that Yankees pitcher Ernie Bonham becomes Giants shortstop Buddy Kerr.

CARDS 103, 105, 106

The next three cards in the sets are pure repeats of their earlier issues, though Joe DiMaggio’s cap and sleeves, along with the fielder’s garb, appear to have changed from white to light blue.

Cards 107-109

All three players are different in this next grouping. Hank Greenberg’s playing days were over by 1949, so he instead becomes Ferris Fain. That they batted with opposite hands was not a detail that would trouble the set designers. Turning Lou Novikoff into Andy Pafko required little effort and made good use of the Cubs uniform already there. The change from Hubbell to Ennis was a bit more gauche as it not only got the glove hand wrong but also put the Phillies star in a Giants uniform.

Cards 110-112

First up is a slugger-for-slugger trade that works well as both are righties and the uniforms are fairly generic. Next up are the two brothers and battery mates from the Cardinals. Pitcher Mort becomes shortstop Nippy Jones while catcher Walker morphs into fellow catcher Del Rice. As Jones and Rice were both Cardinals, the uniforms are good as is.

Cards 113-115

Mize to Sauer is another example of a lefty turning righty while Reiser to Coan works just fine. Small liberties are taken in shortstop Joost inheriting a classic pitcher’s pose from Ruffing.

Cards 116, 117, and 119

The Alvin Dark card is worth attention and not just because nobody expected this Giant to be the second coming of Mel Ott! Unless the 1949 release has been incorrectly catalogued all these years, we have our first instance of “Cardboard Clairvoyance” since Dark did not move from the Braves to the Giants until December 14, 1949, a date presumed to be later than the set’s release.

Berra from Danning is one we’ve already seen, and it generally works, apart from looking nothing like Yogi Berra. Of course, collectors wanting more lifelike images were welcome to buy Bowman instead.

Meanwhile, Lemon from Hack is another with a story. Stan Hack played his entire career as a Cub, so the Chicago uniform makes sense, just not when it goes onto Bob Lemon, who played his entire career with Cleveland. Though the MP & Company sets don’t scream “quality control” when you look at them, high ranking execs found this error too great to let stand, leading to the only major variation in the 1949 set.

No word on why Bob’s face turned blue in the process unless to show he’d been screaming for the corrected jersey till he was…oh, never mind.

Cards 121-123

The left-handed hitting Johnny Pesky inherits a right-handed stance from Joe Medwick while Cronin-for-Sain works out even if the “Boston” on their uniforms were from two different teams. As with the Pesky-Medwick pairing, Hoot Evers is forced to bat wrong-handed thanks to inheriting his artwork form Dolph Camilli.

Card 124 and un-numbered cards

The last numbered card in the 1949 set is card 124, Larry Doby, who is shown throwing with the wrong hand thanks to the recycled Johnny Vander Meer artwork his card was based on. You’ll also notice both players wearing uniform number 57.

While Vander Meer wore number 33 from 1939-1949, he did in fact wear 57 in 1938 when he threw his consecutive no-hitters. Though much of the artwork in the 1943 set feels very generic, we can at least wonder if the artist may have been looking at a 1938 press photo when drawing Vander Meer’s MP & Company card. Either way, neither 33 nor 57 would have been a match for Doby, who wore either 14 or 37 at the time his card was produced.

Following Vander Meer is Tommy Henrich, a repeated player from the 1943 set. While none of the 1943 cards were numbered, Henrich’s 1949 card is one of only three un-numbered cards in the 1949 set. A second un-numbered card is that of second baseman Al Kozar, who must have struggled mightily to play his position in full catcher’s gear!

The last un-numbered card in the 1949 set is Jimmie Foxx. As his final season was 1945, I don’t have any theory for how Foxx cracked the 1949 set. His presence is particularly puzzling in that he gives the set 25 cards, despite numerous accounts that the set was released as three strips of eight cards each. (See this auction listing for an example of a 1943 uncut strip.)

Noting the very low population counts on the 1949 Foxx, I wonder if the card was released somewhat by accident (“Oh, shoot! He retired? Seriously?”) and then replaced by another player.

MP & Company gets even lazier!

Thus far we have focused solely on the fronts of the cards. Now let’s take a look at the card backs of each player who had cards in both 1943 and 1949. First here is Lou Boudreau, fresh off managing the Cleveland Indians to the 1948 World Series title. Easy as it might be to note that accomplishment, the 1949 card simply repeats the 1943 card back verbatim.

Next up is the Splendid Splinter. There are some subtle wording differences between the two bios but nothing substantive. Oddly, the most significant update is changing the spelling of Francis to Frances. Of course, Ted’s middle name was Samuel, but what the heck! (For whatever reason, you will find Theodore Francis Williams in several other contemporary sources including his 1940 Play Ball card. Also head to post #21 in this Net54 thread for even more Williams misspellings/variations in the MP & Company sets.)

Next up is Bob Feller, and you probably think you know the drill by now. Still, even I was surprised to see the on both cards that “Feller is 24 years old.”

Batting clean-up is the Yankee Clipper, centerfielder…I mean rightfielder (?!)…for the New York Yankees. Again, the 1949 bio is stuck in 1943. (Technically, both bios are current through the end of the 1942 regular season since they ignore New York’s loss to St. Louis in the 1942 World Series.)

Pee Wee Reese is next. His 1949 bio shows the biggest change thus far, omitting the opening line about being with the Dodgers for three years. Still, I bet Pee Wee would have preferred to see a revision to his batting average instead since his 1949 card still had his career mark at at very pee wee .244 when in fact he had raised it to .265.

Next to last of the repeated players is Tommy Henrich. While some of his bio has been removed, nothing new has been added.

The final repeated player in the set is Jimmie Foxx. Again, part of the bio has been omitted but nothing new has been added.

Cardboard ancestry OF the 1949 set

As has been shown in great detail, the immediate ancestor of the 1949 set is the 1943 set, right down to the reuse of all 24 player images. However, as amateur as the cards look, you’d be wrong to conclude that they represented a one-off (sorry, two-off) effort that just showed up in 1943 out of thin air.

Just one year earlier, MP & Company issued its “War Scenes” set, a collection of 48 cards numbered 101-148 and featuring similar comic book style art to the baseball issues.

Between the “War Scenes” set and a “War Gum” set from Gum, Inc., the makers of the 1939-41 Play Ball (and later Bowman) sets, 1942 was a great year for Admiral Nimitz supercollectors.

Interestingly the 1942 set was not the only time MP & Company had the same idea as Gum, Inc. Here is a card from the 1935-37 Gum, Inc., set known as “G-Men and Heroes of the Law.”

And here is a card from a 1936 set known as “Government Agents vs Public Enemies.” The copyright line on the card back identifies “M. Pressner & Co.,” which is simply a long form of MP & Company.

Interestingly, the earliest collectibles produced by MP & Company are hardly knock-offs at all but at least in my opinion nearly 20 years ahead of their time.

Yes, these Ruth and Gehrig photos fall somewhere short of striking, but good chance they were developed by a ten-year-0ld kid! That’s right, MP & Company’s first collectible I could track down is a 1930 set of eight “Ray-O-Print” photos that kids produced themselves from a kit that included negatives and photo paper.

Though the technology would differ, I believe the next time kids could develop their own baseball photos from a pack would be 1948 in a set that would quietly mark the baseball card debut of the small company that would soon come to be synonymous (if not hegemonic) with baseball cards.

1948 Topps “Magic Photos”

Another ancestor I’ll offer, though not blood related, is the 1933 Eclipse Import baseball set. Between the artwork, the card backs, and even the oddball numbering scheme, this set seems to have everything in common with the 1943/1949 MP & Company sets. What’s more, the two companies were only a block apart!

The final ancestor of the MP & Company cards is the American Caramel E91 series. As Anson Whaley details on his Prewar Cards website, each piece of player art is used for up to three different players across the three-year issue’s 99 cards. If you know your deadball era hurlers well, you might also notice another detail reminiscent of MP & Company: Rube Marquard has his glove on the wrong hand.

In truth, the E91 cards from American Caramel make a credible run at laziest set ever, but I still give the nod to 1949 MP & Company since at least the American Caramel cards batted 1.000 on updating teams and uniforms whereas the MP & Company cards barely even bothered.

Just who are these guys?

The MP in “MP & Company” stands for Michael Pressner. The name suggests the proprietor would be a person named Michael Pressner, but I’ve personally come up short in my attempts to find such a person beyond this bowling team photo from 1895…

…and a skin care consultant in Virginia! I can see some resemblance between the two, but that’s not to say either has any link to MP & Company.

What is known is that MP & Company was a producer of carnival supplies. No, not Ferris wheels and bumper cars but the sorts of trinkets you might win at Skee Ball. This ad from 1927 gives you the general idea…

And this 1974 catalog shows the firm was still in business a good quarter century after their 1949 baseball release.

In fact this notice of product recall shows MP & Company alive and well as late as 1995!

Finally, I suspect MP & Company had some relation to Pressner’s Carnival Mart, a 1960s version of “Party City” just outside New Orleans. If you’re thinking Mardi Gras beads, you’d be correct, as we learn from this January 1969 article.

This could go on a ways, but you can see we’re drifted pretty far from baseball cards already. I’ll just close by noting that I wrote most of this post over Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and that for many of us the New Year is a time of hope and renewal. At the same time, what many of us find is that our “new” years look a lot like our old years, save some occasional new names and faces around us.

In the world of baseball cards, 1949 was one such year. There were some goodbyes. There were some hellos. But when you put that set together it looked exactly the one before it. Lazy and ugly, yes, but also familiar, which we sometimes need just as much as newness and beauty. And besides, spring was just around the corner.

The Express Expressed Exponentially

When conditions are optimal, a perfect storm may form. Three decades ago, the collision of an athlete at his peak and the excesses of the “Junk Wax” card era resulted in a “Texas tornado” cutting a swath across the cardboard landscape.

The legendary, laconic Texan, Nolan Ryan, was at the height of fame from the early eighties to the end of his career in ’93. (I attended his final game, played at the Kingdome.) This coincided with the emergence of new card companies in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, all of which needed product lines. Ryan was the perfect subject for numerous “odd ball” and promotional card sets. Over 30 different sets featuring the “Express” would find their way into the hobby

Star

The first company to cash in on the Ryan phenomenon was Star, who introduced a 24-card set in ’86. They follow up with 11 card sets in ’89 and ’90. The cards have simple designs with white backs featuring stats and highlights. Only one card out of the three sets show Nolan on the Mets.

Postcard

Next in the “shoot” are two postcard sets consisting of 12 cards each in ’90 and ’91. The postcards were distributed under the name “Historic Limited Edition” and all featured original art work from Susan Rini. Since the company produced 10,000 sets each year, their definition of limited is questionable.

Mother's

In my humble opinion, the best of the lot was produced by Mother’s Cookies, which included four different cards in the cookie bags in ’90 and four more in ’91. They returned with a eight card “No-Hitters” set in ’92 and culminated with 10 cards in ’93. The design follows the Mother’s template: simple design, excellent photography and a glossy finish. I have a few of these from each series

Coke

Donruss teamed up with Coca-Cola in ’92 to issue a 26-card career retrospective set distributed in 12-packs of Coke products. I collected these at the time and have 12 different cards.

Classic

Classic cards chimed in with a 10-card set in ‘91 that resembles all of their “crap” cards of the era.

Barry Colla

Other Ryan sets were issued by Spectrum, Barry Colla, Whataburger, Bleachers 23K. ‘95 MLB All-Star Fan Fest and Classic Metal Impressions. Also, Upper Deck produced a mini-set within the “Heroes” issue in ’91.

 

By any definition, this number of sets is excessive. But one company, Pacific Trading Cards, ‘jumped the shark.” The Seattle area company produced a 222 card, two series set in ’91. Add to that, a ’93 Nolan Ryan Limited regular and gold issues, plus a special 30 card box set called: “Texas Express.” But wait, there’s more. Pacific teamed with Advil — for whom Ryan was a spokesman — to produce a set in ’96.

Horse

Producing hundreds of cards for the same player results in mind-numbing repetitiveness. Even throwing in cards depicting Nolan on a horse, with other animals and his family doesn’t break up the monotony.

The next time you curse the Aaron Judge card explosion, remember how Ryan’s “heater” caused a “junk wax” era meltdown.

 

Barajitas estadounidenses: ’78 Zest

A while back I received a package of Tampa Bay football cards. One of the cards in it was a 1991 Spanish-language ProSet card and it got me wondering why I had never seen any Spanish-language baseball card issues. I grew up in the Bay Area and even as a 6th grader realized that learning to speak Spanish would be an  important skill to have. I even occasionally listened to Tito Fuentes broadcasting Giants games in Spanish on KLOK but I never saw any of that creep into my baseball card hobby. So I resolved to start looking for non-English cards and Spanish-language cards in particular.

The only non-English cards I remembered were the French/English O Pee Chee and Leaf cards from Canada. Those were cool but very clearly weren’t intended for the US market and as I’ve thought about the novelty of the 1991 Spanish ProSet card, I realized that it was the idea of releasing Spanish-language cards explicitly for the US market which most interested me here. So while I learned about of the Venezuelan Topps cards,* they weren’t what I was looking for.

*Which are very cool and also up my alley.

After asking the Twitter hive mind and searching through the Standard Catalog I started to put a list together of sets and things to look for. Some of the cards (or card-related ephemera) like the 1972 Esso Coins or 1989 Bimbo Discs are from Puerto Rico and, like many other things Puerto Rican, fall into a grey area where they’re both part of and completely distinct from the US. That these two sets are also either impossible to find or ridiculously expensive when they do pop up encouraged me to further limit my search to cards released just in the continental US.

So I consulted the Twitter hive mind and searched the online Standard Catalog and have a list, of sorts, that I’m pursuing now. There aren’t many sets and there were only two which came out when I was actively collecting as a kid so I’m no longer surprised that I hadn’t encountered any of these. Anyway, the list which I currently have is as follows.*

  • 1978 Topps Zest
  • 1991 Kelloggs Leyendas
  • 1993–2001 Pacific, Pacific Crown, etc.
  • 1994 Topps Spanish
  • 2002–2004 Donruss Estrellas

*There are also a few Topps Now Spanish-language cards from the 2017 World Baseball Classic. They’re neat but are Spanish-language variants of specific cards rather than a general Spanish-language release. So those are more akin to the occasional per-player Japanese-language variant releases for me.

I’m sure there’s more. I’m pretty also sure that I didn’t miss much. I’ve been going down this search list and grabbing cards which also fit my other projects since I don’t want or need complete sets of everything. And in the process I’m enjoying seeing how the companies are creating and designing cards for a segment of the US market which obviously doesn’t get a lot of cards marketed specifically for it.

I also plan on posting about the different sets on here. There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on and through both their target demographics and the way so many of the sets fall into that post-strike period of baseball history a lot of these sets don’t appear to be that well known.

DSC_0018
DSC_0019
The Topps Zest is in many ways the perfect way to start this series. It’s a small five-card set which predates the rest of the sets by a dozen years but it covers many of the things that I’m noticing in the other sets.

But first, some background. This was a promotion aimed at the Spanish-speaking market with a mail-in coupon which was completely in Spanish. Mailing Proctor & Gamble the redemption certificate along with the wrappers from two bars of Zest bath soap got you the set of five cards in return. It was a short promo too—August 1 to November 1—so you only had three months to take advantage of this.

The front of the cards are mostly indistinguishable from their 1978 Topps base cards. Eagle-eyed readers who know their 1978 cards will recognize that Topps updated Willie Montañez’s card with both a new photo and team to reflect that he was traded from the Braves to the Mets. My eye caught instead how Topps didn’t change the position abbreviations. Joaquin Andujar is a Pitcher instead of a Lanzador and Manny Mota is an OutFielder instead of a Jardinero.

montanez1978zest

The backs are where things get interesting because of how Topps made them bilingual. Again it’s Montañez’s card which deserves the most attention because of how Topps added the tilde to his last name* in addition to the other translations. I also can’t help but look at the statistic headers to see how the different stats got translated—or how in the case of Batting Average Topps still used .AVG.

*Some early #PonleAcento action and the reason why I’ve been writing his name as Montañez in this post.

One of the nice things about a statistically-heavy back is that since numbers don’t have to be translated, fitting everything in isn’t too bad. When there’s more text on the back like with Ed Figueroa’s card, the designer has to figure out how to avoid things getting too confusing. This appears to have involved working with the translator to create text which is about the same size in both languages as well. I found it especially interesting that while none of the team names were translated anywhere else on the cards that Red Sox did get translated as Medias Rojas on Figueroa’s.

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.

 

1950s/1960s Oddballs: Spic and Span Milwaukee Braves

When the Milwaukee Braves moved to the midwest from Boston for the 1953 season, the local populace was ecstatic. From 1947 through 1952, thanks to the Milwaukee Brewers serving as the Triple-A affiliate for the Braves, the locals had already had the opportunity to learn the names of many of the Braves prior to their promotion to Boston. The move was an immediate financial success for the club — attendance went from 281,278 in Boston in 1952 to 1,826,397 in Milwaukee in 1953. It didn’t hurt that the Braves went from doormat to a second place finish.

As that attendance jump shows, the Braves captured the hearts of Milwaukee immediately that initial season. As detailed in the September 16, 1953 issue of The Sporting News, the players themselves received outpourings of monetary support from the fans. Wisconsin native Andy Pafko, for example, was quoted saying:

We never knew a player could have it so good. You know, the only thing we have to buy in the way of food is meat. The rest we get free–milk, cheese, butter, eggs, frozen vegetables, cookies and even bread.

These people just can’t do enough for you. The other day the fellow at the parking lot where I leave my car overnight came over and said: ‘I understand you’re Andy Pafko of the Braves. Park here any time you want to and it won’t cost you anything. I’m sorry I didn’t know who you were sooner.

It should come as no surprise, then, that multiple local companies sought to capitalize on the good feelings engendered by the team. One of those companies was Spic and Span Dry Cleaners. As checklisted in the 2011 Standard Catalog of Baseball Cards, edited by the late Bob Lemke, Spic and Span issued multiple sets of photos and cards featuring the hometown Braves beginning in 1953 and ending in 1960. Included in this cavalcade of items were cards, photos, and postcards of various sizes and shapes. Here is a list of those issues:

1953 to about 1955: 3-1/4″ x 5-1/2″ cards, 29 total issued

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1953 Eddie Mathews, Courtesy of Bob Lemke’s Blog dated May 5, 2011

1953 to 1957: 7″ x 10″ black and white photos, 14 total issued

1954: 5-1/2″ x 8-1/2″ set of 13 cards

1954 to 1956: 4″ x 6″ postcards, 18 issued

1955: 7-1/2″ x 7″ die cut standups (the rarest set) of 18 total players

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1955 Die Cut Lew Burdette, from an auction on the Mears Auction Website, where a complete set sold in 2015 for $7,243

1957: 4 ” x 5″ cards with a total of 20 cards issued

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1957 Hank Aaron, from an auction in 2015 on the Greg Bussineau Sports & Rarities Website

1960: 2-3/4″ x 3-1/8″with a total of 26 cards issued

In addition to these cards, Spic and Span also used Braves players on other ephemera around their business. Specifically, in 2013, a paper dry cleaning bag came up for auction at Mears Auctions, and it sold for $92.

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As the Braves started their decline in the 1960s before they bolted for Atlanta, Spic and Span and other local retailers lost their taste for being involved with the team. Though Milwaukee spent just four seasons without a major league team of its own — really two years if you count the games in 1968 and 1969 that the Chicago White Sox (with help from eventual Brewers owner and Commissioner Bud Selig) played in Milwaukee — Spic and Span was pretty much done with the baseball endorsement business.

As a postscript, despite being a national dry cleaning chain into the 1970s, Spic and Span barely exists with that name today. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cracked down on the dry cleaning industry because of its pollution of groundwater. The solvents that dry cleaners used were loaded with trichloroethylene and tetrachloroethylene — known, potent carcinogens that dry cleaners often just dumped out the back door. Today, Spic and Span is nearly gone, but its legacy lives on both in baseball memorabilia and far less exemplary areas.