A few months ago I attended the Frederick Ivor-Campbell 19th Century Conference at the Baseball Hall of Fame. The Fred is my favorite of all of the SABR conferences because of the intimacy, the subject, the location and the camaraderie. One of the presentations that weekend was entitled “The Birth of Baseball Cards.” The panel was moderated by MLB historian John Thorn and featured the SABR Baseball Card blog’s very own Jeff Katz, Hall of Fame curator Tom Shieber and author Peter Devereuax. Devereaux’s book, Game Faces, is an inside look at many of the early baseball cards that constitute the Benjamin K. Edwards Collection at the Library of Congress and served as a jumping off point for the panel. Game Faces should be on the reading list of everyone in this group.
Over the course of the panel the question was brought up of just what it is that defines a “card.” It is a question that is often addressed in the hobby; has, in fact, been addressed in this blog by Mr. Katz. It is also a question with no definitive answers, although Shieber, who was one of the driving forces behind the Hall’s new permanent baseball card exhibit entitled “Shoebox Treasures,” listed a few personal criteria. To be clear, Tom does not espouse to be the final voice on this subject, but much of what he said rang true to me. To him, the item in question should be: intended as a collectible, part of a set, directly related to baseball, and there should be a “cardyness” about it. That last one is admittedly vague, though for most of the folks reading this, the idea is likely akin to the old adage coined by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart about pornography. We know it when we see it.
This panel was the highlight of the weekend for me, not just because it was dedicated to one of my favorite subjects, but more so because I have wrestled recently with this very question. As I mentioned in my last post, in my quest to complete a collection of the rookie cards of every Cuban who has appeared in a major league game, I have had to stretch certain standardly-accepted definitions, beginning with the idea of a what constitutes a “rookie card.” In the interest of finding at least one card for every player, I have had to not only step outside of some of the accepted definitions within the hobby, but I have been confronted numerous times with the issue of whether or not an item I am looking at even counts as a “card.”
Such is the case with the 1943 set issued by the Havana-based, cracker, candy and chocolate manufacturer, La Ambrosia. As with major league baseball, the arrival of World War II created a vacuum of talent in the Cuban professional league. The league had already been struggling financially since the political upheaval of the overthrow of President Gerardo Machado, in the early 1930s. When the war began, it stemmed the flow of top-tier American talent, the quality of play suffered, and the league found itself at a low point. The silver lining of this nadir was the maturation of the Cuban amateur leagues.
With no minor league system in place, Cuban clubs would find their promising young talent on the sugarmill teams that dotted the countryside. Similar to the American company teams that would produce exciting local baseball that filled the void before the advent of radio and television broadcasts, the sugarmill teams were a loose collection of business-based semi-pro clubs. One of those clubs was sponsored by La Ambrosia, and would feature the likes of such luminaries as future Cuban batting champ Claro Duany and Orestes “Minnie” Miñoso.
The candy giant capitalized on their sponsorship of the club by publishing a set of 240 images that were released as “stamps.” Collectors were encouraged to get all of the stamps and then stick them inside an album, similar to the more ubiquitous Cuban release issued by Caramelo Deportivo during the 1945/46 and 1946/47 seasons. Printed on thin paper that most closely resembles magazine stock, the La Ambrosia stamps featured the largest single published collection of Cuban amateurs that I have found.
Unlike the Deportivos, in which the images are black and white and often grainy, the La Ambrosias are in color. They have the distinctive look of the tones being both vibrant and muted, as though the photos had been tinted with watercolors. The images look especially bright when mounted on the yellowed pages of their original album. It is those albums which resulted in the Deportivos and the La Ambrosias sharing another unfortunate trait. There are few remaining of either issue that do not have serious flaws, including backs that were damaged by adhesives.
For many, including the auction houses that sell these sets, the descriptions of these issues have evolved from “stamps” to “cards.” They certainly fit with Shieber’s first three criteria. But what about “cardyness?” They are not published on what we think of as a card stock. But does that matter? What is that quintessential piece that makes a card a card? Does an item need ALL of Shieber’s (self-proclaimed arbitrary) criteria? Are three sufficient? What about two? Or one?
The “cards” I have included in the collection for the Aragóns, Ángel and his son Jack, are a perfect example of this latter question. Their short major league careers, as well as the fact that they played during war years (Ángel appeared in 32 games with the Yankees during World War I and Jack’s lone major league appearance was in 1941), led to neither of them having what would be thought of, traditionally, as a card. I have not even had any luck by expanding my search to include cards that portray them in foreign leagues, although Jack’s extensive minor league career gives me hope that I may discover him in an obscure set someday. At the moment, though, they just don’t seem to exist.
However, while trolling through ebay, I came across a seller who was offering images of both Ángel and Jack. He had come into possession of a number of old periodicals, including a 1914 Spalding Guide and a 1949 publication called, “Historia del Base Ball Profesional de Cuba,” written by Raul Diez Muro. The seller, scissors in hand, cut up both periodicals into a series of head shots for the players that appeared in the two collections. The Spalding Guide offered a number of publicity photos of minor league players, including Ángel. Jack appeared in the book by Muro.
I have decided to include these hand cut bits of newsprint in lieu of “cards” because there aren’t any other options for these players and they do have the advantage of originally being printed concurrent with the player’s career. They pass virtually none of Shieber’s criteria. While the publications themselves could be considered collectible, they certainly became less desirable after the scissors were taken to them. The subjects are definitely baseball related, but they are not part of an intended set, nor do they feel very “cardy” to me. I have blurred the line considerably in the interest of completing my checklist.
I am now at the point where I need to decide if, since I have expanded my definitions for the Aragóns, do I do the same with the remaining Cubans who were never issued a card? Are pictures cut from newspapers enough to check that box, especially if I hold true to the criteria of the images being published during their careers? I know it’s my set, and I can do with it as I damn well please, but I’m not a fan of cheating. I suppose the best answer would be for me to wait to make a similar discovery of a player who is cardless, and decide when I see the actual item. Because, like Stewart’s porn, I believe I’ll know it when I see it.
Author’s note: I thought some of you might be interested in seeing the collection as it develops. I have created a flickr album that you can access here. The cards appear in the album not by the year in which they were issued, but rather in the order in which the player made their major league debut. Thus, even though the card for Esteban Bellán wasn’t produced until 2014, he is the first one in the set.