Unpacking the Mystery Box from Uncle Dan: 1990 Kmart Topps set

At least once or twice a year, my wife visits her uncle and comes back with a box of mystery for me.  Usually, the boxes of mystery hold a wide assortment of baseball cards or bobbleheads, or something to that effect.  My wife’s uncle is in the antique business and operates a number of estate sales, which means he visits homes where the occupants are looking to unload various merchandise for said estate sales.  The uncle, every so kind to me, keeps an eye out for baseball stuff.  He finds cards, and bobbleheads, and assorted things as I mentioned.  Kinda wished he’d come across gloves and bats, too!  That’d be fun! 

Recently he gave me a huge box of 1980s/1990s basketball cards and football cards.  Those things are a complete mystery to me, which means the box is sitting on a shelf waiting for me to trade them somewhere.  It’s funny to have such a distain for those, but an absolute worship for baseball cards. 

Anyway, the uncle’s current box of mystery held quite a few intriguing surprises.  One of the more interesting things included a 1990 Kmart Topps box of 33 baseball cards.  The box reads: “Collectors’ Edition Baseball Superstars Photo Cards” [that include] 33 super gloss photo cards with bubble gum.”    The set includes:

NATIONAL LEAGUE SUPERSTARS

1. Will Clark

2. Ryne Sandberg

3. Howard Johnson

4. Ozzie Smith

5. Tony Gwynn

6. Kevin Mitchell

7. Jerome Walton

8. Craig Biggio

9. Mike Scott

10. Dwight Gooden

11. Sid Fernandez

12. Joe Magrane

13. Jay Howell

14. Mark Davis

15. Pedro Guerrero

16. Glenn Davis

AMERICAN LEAGUE SUPERSTARS

17. Don Mattingly

18. Julio Franco

19. Wade Boggs

20. Cal Ripken, Jr.

21. Jose Canseco

22. Kirby Puckett

23. Rickey Henderson

24. Mickey Tettleton

25. Nolan Ryan

26. Bret Saberhagen

27. Jeff Ballard

28. Chuck Finley

29. Dennis Eckersley

30. Dan Plesac

31. Fred McGriff

32. Mark Mc  Gwire

SUPERSTAR TEAM MANAGERS

33. Tony LaRussa / Roger Craig 

For a bit of background, sets likes these are produced by the Topps Trading Company, and distributed through the Kmart department stores.  Each card features a masthead with the Kmart logo on the upper left side, with the designation of the year and the player’s league on the top right side.  The SUPERSTARS logo is imposed in the middle of the masthead with the player’s name and position imprinted on the third line.  The player photo and Topps logo comprise the majority of the card with a blue thin border.  A simple presentation of player stats with a fast fact are included on the reverse side with a red background.

The cards themselves are still glossy with sharp corners, and overall in very good shape.  Near mint, I would say.  I wasn’t paying much attention to baseball in 1989, save for the World Series, as I struggled through graduate school, so flipping through the cards was a bit educational.  Great to see Will “The Thrill” Clark (card #1).  A favorite from my hometown Giants.  It’s always weird to see Pedro Guerrero (card #15) in a Cardinal uniform, still thinking of him as a Dodger.  I had to flip the card over to see when he changed team.  Oh, about 60 games into that season.  That’s right, recollecting to myself.  And Fred McGriff, “Crime Dog” (card #31)!  He was with the Blue Jays before his days with the Braves.  That’s right, nodding my head.  The funny about these recollections is that you want to stop what you’re doing and open a browser to run a quick search on that player of interest.  Thank goodness for high-speed Internet and Baseball-Reference.com! 

I think the fun thing about these box sets is the discovery, itself.  Cracking open the box, flipping through the cards, and wondering about the players.  It’s a treasure chest!  I’m looking forward to rummaging through that box from Uncle Dan and finding my next discovery.    

Dick Allen and the Very, Very, Very Useful Photo

In the summer of 1985, Pete Rose was inching closer by the day to breaking Ty Cobb’s all-time hit record of 4191. My friends and I made a five-dollar bet, the winner of which would be whomever among the three of us could compile the most different Pete Rose cards by the time he broke the record. 

1982 Topps Kmart Pete Rose card nos. 24 and 44.

A few years earlier, Kmart issued a small boxed set that reprinted the Topps card for each player who was awarded a league MVP award from 1962 through 1981, in honor of the store’s 20th anniversary. The set was one that had collected dust on card dealers’ tables for years, eschewed by collectors (especially me) who viewed the set as a box of reprint trash. 

For purposes of winning a bet, however, the Kmart set was golden (especially in the days when there were not 500 different cards of every star player printed each year). I knew that Rose would have a Kmart card for his 1973 MVP award and was pleasantly surprised to find the set also included a highlight card, which commemorated Rose having eclipsed Stan Musial’s all-time National League hit record on August 10, 1981. These two Rose cards helped push me over the top. That we were betting on Pete Rose at the same time he was betting on baseball is just a fun coincidence.

An unintended consequence of buying the Kmart set, however, was actually enjoying the remainder of the cards. One that struck me in particular was the 1972 Dick (“Rich”) Allen card because it was, quite frankly, a strange profile view so unlike the standard poses and action shots that Topps typically used. I knew this was a real card I needed to have.

1982 Topps Kmart no. 21; 1972 Topps no. 240.

The oddity of the photo used on the 1972 card was highlighted when researching the appearance of mustaches on baseball cards, which culminated in this ground-breaking SABR Baseball Cards Committee article. Allen was identified as having been the first ballplayer to appear on a Topps issue sporting a mustache in his 1971 high-number Dodgers card. 

Which one of these is not like the other? 1971 Topps no. 650; 1972 Topps no. 240, 1973 Topps no. 310.

As a member of the White Sox in 1972, Allen slashed .308/.420/.603; led the American League with 37 home runs, 113 runs batted in, and 99 walks; and led all of baseball in facial hair with his trademark mustache and pork chop sideburns. Curiously, however, the 1972 Topps card depicts a youthful, clean-shaven Allen. The 1973 issue corrected the incongruity and featured Allen’s hirsute silhouette, still discernible despite his face having been obscured by shadows.             

As Tim Jenkins will attest, Topps made a habit in the 1960s and 1970s of using the same photograph of a player across different issues. The 1972 Dick Allen is no exception in that the same photograph was used for his 1970 issue, while Allen was a member of the Cardinals.

1970 Topps no. 40; 1972 Topps no. 240.

Thanks to some airbrush magic, the photo was purposefully vague in its identification of a particular team, but was happily consistent with Cardinal red and the White Sox color scheme of the time.

It appears, however, that this photo was actually taken while Allen was a member of the Phillies. The clean-cut photo of Allen used in 1970 and 1972 also appears to have been used as the basis for the 1965 Topps Embossed Dick Allen card, which would date the photo to 1965, or earlier, and confirms it was used by Topps to depict Allen on three different teams across eight different seasons.  

These all appear to be the same photo. 1965 Topps Embossed no. 36; 1970 Topps no. 40; 1972 Topps no. 240.
1965 Topps Embossed superimposed on 1972 Topps. Nearly a perfect match but for the length of the bill.

Dick Allen and Pete Rose may never have been teammates but they certainly share a sacred bond as members of the Kmart boxed set.

Postscript

The 1965 Ernie Banks Topps flagship card featured a profile pose. Similarly, it appears that this same photo was used as the basis for Banks’ 1965 Topps Embossed issue and helps to document that the Topps embossing process included trimming the length of the ballcap’s bill so the image would fit more comfortably onto the more slender card.  

1965 Topps Embossed no. 58; 1965 Topps no. 510.
1965 Topps Embossed superimposed on 1965 Topps. Again, nearly a perfect match but for the length of the bill.

Player Collection Spotlight – Keith Hernandez

The year was 1986. The Mets were on top of the baseball world and, perhaps more importantly, moving their spring training site to Port St. Lucie in short order. WWOR-TV out of Secaucus, NJ would broadcast what seemed like a zillion games over the next few years in that part of Florida. And baseball cards were collected by every kid in the neighborhood. Topps, Donruss, Fleer, packs, boxed sets, oversize cards, mini cards, stickers – someone had them.

How and why Keith Hernandez rather than Gooden or Strawberry or Carter or anyone else? Two reasons: Gooden and Strawberry were too expensive for a 10-year-old, and I kept pulling this Hernandez guy’s cards out of packs. I have a Gooden and a Strawberry player collection, but they are nowhere near as complete as the Hernandez collection. I have plenty of Carter, Orosco, Dykstra, Teufel, Mookie, Darling, Fernandez, McDowell, and everyone else from that Mets team as well as other Mets teams.

Unlike DJ, I lack … discipline, restraint, or whatever you want to call it (perhaps sanity) that allows him to limit himself to Topps cards of his players and team. I want to go on eBay, buy a lot of Jim Gantner cards, and send them to him (DJ, not Gantner) because I can’t imagine not having as many different Hernandez cards as possible. But then I also don’t want to upset his balance and turn him into … me. As a kid I would always try to swap for Hernandez cards with my friends. The first Hernandez rookie I ever owned came via a trade for a handful of football cards. Supposedly there was a Steve Largent rookie in there, but as I didn’t know who he was at the time it didn’t matter to me – I had the 1975 Topps Hernandez and three other guys. Also as a kid, I created my own alphabetical checklist of his cards, flipping through pages of a late 1980s Beckett Almanac scanning sets for his cards. At some point I tossed that out because I had created an electronic list, though I kind of wish I had kept the hand created list to see how close I had gotten to a complete checklist. I never got his autograph during spring training, though a friend of mine did give me an autographed 8×10.

If you want the stats, I have over 1,000 different listed items in Beckett’s database and many more that aren’t listed. The exact number could change by the time this post is public. For his pre-2004 cards I am only missing a handful that are listed in Beckett, some of which I don’t think actually exist. His number of cards exploded in 2004-2005 (he has over 600 cards from those two years alone due to parallels). Staying at home allowed me to scan the items I have, and the Beckett listed items all have front and back pictures (unless it’s a blank back team issue) if you scroll a little down this page to the links at the bottom. I have over 10,000 total Hernandez cards. How do I know? I always thought it would look cool to have the fronts of a single card displayed in all 18-pockets of two pages (back-to-front) in a binder. I have 689 of those pages, including 57 pages of his 1988 Topps card. You can get a sense of what that looks like below. Plus those thousand or so different cards. Plus about two binders of standard sized cards that don’t have 18 copies of a card yet. Plus oversized and mini cards. And extra game-used and autographed cards.

I didn’t do graded cards – until I got a really good deal on a lot. As one might imagine given my lack of restraint, I’ve pretty much climbed that mountain. I’ve grown less interested in the “master set” as listed by PSA because it now includes team picture cards from the 1970s. As someone once wrote here, you need to define a master set for yourself, even if it differs from the definition someone else uses.

While I don’t get too much into custom cards (unless it’s a Heavy J Studios rainbow dazzle purple refractor 1/1), I’m always looking for oddball items that I don’t have. Sometimes it’s an ad or a magazine with Hernandez on the cover or if he’s featured in an interview. Bobbleheads and figurines are also in there, as are drinking cups, posters, cello/rack packs with his cards on top – pretty much anything. I have about 100 ticket stubs from his MLB games, back when ticket stubs were actual stubs. Here’s a display with a variety of items:

Keith Hernandez shelf

With the increasing number of 1/1s and other low-numbered cards I’ve mellowed over the years and don’t worry too much about not getting every card. I’m usually a player in the market, though sometimes I marvel at how much they sell for. I admit that I get slightly annoyed when I make an offer on a card, have it turned down, and then a few days later see it sold for less than I offered. The economist in me doesn’t understand leaving $20 bills lying on the ground.

I don’t dabble much in game-used jerseys or other equipment because I’m not educated enough on those items to have confidence in my purchases. However, I have purchased a number of Topps Vault items. I think the most interesting piece I have is his original Topps contract, with his signature, his dad’s signature (the younger Hernandez was a minor at the time), and Sy Berger’s signature. And the Hernandez authored pop-up book First-Base Hero:

Keith Hernandez contract

It has been a fun endeavor for over 30+ years and somehow I’m always finding something I haven’t seen before (like a 3×5 miniature version of a poster that I just got in a lot last week). I have other player collections, and more different cards of other players (Ripken, Gwynn, and Piazza) but they all have vastly more cards than Hernandez. I have a higher percentage of cards for other players (like Jose Lind – a story for a different day), but Hernandez tends to be a balance of popular enough to be included in some new issues (I’m guessing that appearing on Seinfeld didn’t hurt his popularity – and yes, there is at least one bobblehead commemorating his Seinfeld appearance), but not so popular that he appears in a lot of new issues.

Cards of Cards of Cards

As a kid few things sucked more than being dragged to Kmart by my mom. All that changed one day in 1982 when I saw these on the shelves by checkout.

I don’t recall the price, but it was damn low for a set that included Mantle, Mays, and Aaron, and it was even low enough for me to somehow twist my mom’s arm into adding it to our cart. On top of that, these were no ordinary cards. These were a Limited Edition!

Opening the box on the way to the car, I was pretty thrilled with the look of the cards, the first 41 of which featured images of earlier Topps baseball cards. At least that’s what I thought.

In fact, the set not only included cards of cards but also cards of cards that never were.

The set also gave me my first Topps Traded card since the designers smartly eschewed the 1981 Rollie Fingers base card in favor of his Brewers update.

However, the most intriguing cards in the set were these five. Even as a Dodger fan, I had to love the idea that these were cards of cards of Cards!

Thanks to some trades and card show visits, I already had some cards of cards from 1975 in my collection.

Three cards in the 1975 Topps MVP subset even included cards that never were.

The Wills card appears to be the same one used seven years later by Kmart, which leads me to wonder if a “real” 1962 Topps Maury Wills was created but never released or if someone in 1982 simply said, “Hey, wait a minute! No need to make a fake Wills. We still have that one from ’75.”

The 1951-style Campanella seems to work well, but the 1955 is a bit of an eyesore. Not only did Topps aberrantly go black and white on the head shot but they “capped off” the anachronism by placing Campanella in L.A. three years early. (Collectors of the 1958 or 1962 Jay Publishing sets may recognize the source of the 1955 Campy fauxtaux.)

But I digress. What you really want to know is were there cards of cards of Cards, and of course the answer is YES! As the set’s theme was identical to the Kmart set and the time frame wasn’t too different either, we see the same cards of cards of Cards as Kmart, minus Keith Hernandez who of course hadn’t won his MVP award yet.

And just the year before that Topps recapped the entire cardboard career of the Hammer with its five-card “Hank Aaron Special” subset.

North of the border, the same subset was issued but with some twists I never understood until reading Matthew Glidden’s terrific article on the subject. While the first and last cards are largely the same as the U.S. issue, the middle three cards were split into six.

On the heels of their 1974 and 1975 successes, Topps created another “cards of cards” subset for 1976. Though there were no cards of cards of Cards, the “Father & Son” cards featured five (then) current players along with the 1953 or 1954 Topps cards of their Big League dads.

That same year, a lesser known set featured a card of a card. Were it not for baseball’s Color Barrier, it might have even been a card of a card of a Card since its subject spent ten years with the St. Louis Stars.

The card itself is from a 13-card set dedicated to the life and career of Cool Papa Bell, and the card it depicts is from a 1974 Laughlin set.

Cards of cards had a particularly strong run from 1985-1990 thanks to another Father/Son series, featuring (yes!) a card of a card of a Card…

…and the five-year reboot of a classic Topps subset that debuted in 1977.

Where the 1977 subset used ordinary (or sometimes extraordinary) photos, these later sets adopted a Kmartesque cards of cards design. There were five cards in the 1986 subset, but none were cards of cards of Cards, nor were there even cards of cards that never were. The closest we come to a novelty is the use of Fernando Valenzuela’s 1981 Topps Traded card.

The 1987 subset again featured five cards but sadly no cards of cards of Cards. What it did include was the by now familiar Maury Wills card that never was.

Finally in 1988 were are rewarded with two cards of cards of Cards, and these weren’t just any old Cards but two of the greatest ever to wear the uniform.

The 1989 subset had just about everything under the sun: a card that never was of Tony Oliva, a card of a card of a Card, and a card of my cardboard crush, the Topps XRC of Dr. K. Oh, and Hank Aaron and Gil Hodges are in there too!

Following the subset into 1990, equipped with airplane bag to stomach its design, we find no cards of cards of Cards, but we do see a tighter cropping of the Kmart Fred Lynn, more closely matching his actual RC, and a card reminding Cards fans of recent postseason agony.

The 1986 Topps set also doubled down on the Hank Aaron Special design to honor Pete Rose’s breaking of Ty Cobb’s career hits record.

Where Topps had already turned the multiplayer RC of Fred Lynn into a solo card for Kmart (and would do similar for Oliva and Lynn again), Topps left Rose’s iconic 1963 rookie card in its original format. Also breaking with card on card tradition, Topps ran with Rose’s main 1984 issue rather than his update card on the Expos. In retrospect we might regard this as the beginning of the end for Montreal baseball.

Before closing the article, I want to highlight one more card on card that depending on the release date may in fact be the first of its kind. The same year Topps issued the Hank Aaron Specials, Fleer and Bob Laughlin blessed the baseball world with a 42-card set of Baseball Firsts. Card 12 in the set describes the first baseball cards and the front depicts a tobacco-style card that never was of Beaneater hurler (pardon the visual!) Kid Madden (SABR bio).

Oh how I would have loved it had Madden been a Cardinal so I could end with a card of a card of a Card. About the closest I can come is to note that the James O’Neill mentioned on the back of the card did spend seven years in St. Louis, but of course his team was the Browns.

I’m curious to know if you’re aware of any cards of cards earlier than 1974 or know whether the Fleer set beat Topps to the shelves (or mail order catalogs). For those of us trying to collect the baseball card’s rookie card, if not the master set, this kind of thing matters a lot!

From our readers

Thanks to @DonSherm for supplying us this “cards on card” card a year before the Hank Aaron Specials and the Fleer Kid Madden.

The card back shows several cards, though it’s impossible to know whether any are cards of Cards or even cards of cards of Cards!

UPDATE: In the spirit of the 1973 Jack Hiatt but one year earlier many of the Topps “In Action” card backs advertised the makeup of the set. While the card images bore little resemblance to actual cards in the set I’ll note that the actual NL Pitching Leaders card included Steve Carlton, meaning just maybe we have a card of a card of a Card!

Now going way back, I’m reminded that some very early non-baseball cards of cards were issued in 1906 (!).

I’ll let you read about this fantastic six-car set over on my co-chair’s blog.