When Brien Taylor Ruled The Hobby World

If you hear the name ‘Brien Taylor’ today, it’s probably in the way of some kind of cautionary tale. A lesson against getting too caught up in the hype surrounding amateur or minor league super-duper stars. A lesson that top draft picks, no matter how much of a sure thing, are never really a sure thing. For collectors, it’s a similar lesson, but one directed less at the athlete than at all the ephemera that athlete inspires. But while Taylor was never able to leave his mark on baseball, he certainly left a mark on the hobby. Brien Taylor made the hobby rethink its concept of rookie cards. He became the face of the hobby’s most venerable brand. His presence (or lack thereof) dictated when products were released and how they were (somewhat unscrupulously) dated. He revived a market for pre-Major League cards and store-branded specialty sets. He starred in what was, at the time, the most expensive factory set ever issued and was featured on what was, at the time, perhaps the most sought-after certified autograph ever released.

And within three years, it was all over.

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1992 Classic Best Promo #PR2

There are still those who swear Brien Taylor was the greatest amateur pitcher who ever lived. He was born in Beaufort, NC, the son of a stone mason and a crab-picker. Tall, lanky, and with a whip-fast left arm, he dominated as a high school pitcher. As a senior in 1991, the threw back-to-back no-hitters, struck out an obscene 213 batters in just 88 innings (nearly 2.5 Ks per inning) and posted a 0.61 ERA. He had a fastball in the high-90s, a dependable change-up, and a knee-buckling curveball.

Taylor had been nearly as good the year before, but had yet to break through into the baseball mainstream. Don Mattingly, however, was as mainstream as an athlete got in 1990. His break-out campaign in 1984, followed up by an MVP season in 1985, had both made put him in line to be the Next Great Yankee and helped to ramp up the rookie card craze among baseball card collectors and investors. Mattingly’s 1984 rookie issues stoked the fires of a building craze. People with money to spend on cards wanted Mattinglys, but even more so they wanted the next Mattinglys… the cards that could be picked up cheap, stocked away, and then sold for a profit. Mattingly was still a star in 1990 and the rookie card craze his sweet, lefty swing had inspired was still very much in bloom. But for the 1990 season, Mattingly stunk. He batted just .256 – 67 points below his career average entering the season – and his Yankees finished in dead-last place, losing 95 games. It was the worst Yankees team in 77 years.

By the summer of 1991, these three stars had aligned themselves: a once-in-a-generation talent, a booming baseball card marketplace, and an unprecedented bottoming-out of the most famed pro sports franchise that ever existed. In June 1991, the Yankees drafted Brien Taylor first overall in the amateur draft and card collectors saw nothing but dollar signs.

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1991 Classic Draft NNO

Of course, by 1991 collectors no longer had the patience to wait for a player to be wearing a big league uniform for start stockpiling cardboard. Trying to entice collectors with the hottest rookies as soon as possible, Fleer, Donruss, Score and the upstart Upper Deck had begun to include players in their base sets before their Big League debut. When one of those players, Ken Griffey Jr., became a hobby sensation, it was clear that the rookie card game had changed. Topps missed out on including Griffey in their 1989 flagship set, but did start a new trend that year with the inclusion of a ten card subset of “#1 Draft Picks,” players from the 1988 draft who were just making their pro debuts. When Jim Abbott jumped from the ’88 draft class to Major League stardom that year, the other cardmarkers had been scooped. Topps had him first and it was their card collectors were chasing. In 1990, Score followed suit and issued a 22-card draft pick subset and the revived Bowman brand issued a slew of recently drafted talent. The hobby hype was now following players into A ball instead of the Big Leagues.

Card collectors weren’t the only ones with money on the mind after the Yankees tabbed Taylor with the top pick in June. Taylor and his family had hired Scott Boras to represent the young man and felt insulted at the Yankees’ initial offer of a $300,000 contract. The top pitcher of the previous year’s draft, Todd Van Poppel, had gotten $1.3 million in guaranteed money from the Oakland A’s and the Taylors wanted nothing less.

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1991 Classic Baseball Draft Picks #1 – A collector told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1992 that he expected this card to sell for $100 once Taylor made the Major Leagues.

It took until late August for the Yankees and Taylor to agree on a $1.55 million pact, with Taylor signing the deal the day before he was set to begin junior college, and be lost to the Yankees. His professional status now meant that he was open to the cardmakers. Topps, Fleer, and Donruss had all hoped to include a Taylor card in their 1991 update sets, but had been stymied by his holdout. And when finally became fair game, it was The Scoreboard – maker of the Classic brand of board game cards and draft sets – that swooped in to the ink the super-prospect. Scoreboard paid Taylor $250,000 for his exclusive cardboard rights through the end of 1991 and his exclusive rights on minor league cards for a calendar year. Just months later, Classic released its 1991 Baseball Draft set, with Taylor at card #1. The company boasted that the entire run of the set sold out in six days and it was reported that the sets that included Taylor were expected to gross the company $30 million… thirty times what they’d made off their 1990 draft products.

That fall, Taylor reported to the Yankees’ fall instructional league team in Florida, where his stardom preceded him. He was featured in a 60 Minutes segment and signed autographs for members of the Green Bay Packers when they stayed at the same hotel that housed his team. He signed a lot of other autographs, too. Classic had cards of him in both the English and French language versions their four-sport draft picks set, including over 5,000 hand-signed cards inserted randomly into packs.

The media followed Taylor to Florida. Their reporting was complimentary. They noted his humble nature, that he mostly stayed in at night, always addressed his elders as “sir” or “ma’am” and that he did his own laundry. They talked about the Mustang he’d purchased with his bonus money, but also that he bought the car from the dealership where his bother worked as a detailer and that he had gotten a nice discount on the purchase. His biggest purchase, the papers noted, was a house for his parents, allowing them to move out of the trailer where Taylor had grown up. But there was a theme to the stories that made it clear that these were older, white reporters looking for a young, black athlete that didn’t push challenge any of their notions about how a ballplayer should act. They never said it, but it was clear that they wanted to hold Taylor up as an antidote to the Deions and Rickeys of the sporting world. Case in point: several articles mentioned with flattering intent that Taylor wore no gold chains. Neither did Todd Van Poppel, but no one was waiting to judge him by his neckware.

Near the end of 1991, Topps pulled a major coup and signed Taylor to another exclusive contract, making them the only cardmaker permitted to produce his Major League cards until he reached the Bigs, at which time he would, under the player’s union contract, be available to all companies with an MLBPA license. The deal scooped Upper Deck, who had been so optimistic about their chances of landing Taylor that they actually included his name in the preliminary checklists for their 1992 flagship set. As Topps promoted their upcoming set as the only one that feature Taylor in pinstripes, Upper Deck quietly remade their checklist.

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1992 Topps #6 – Topps had hopes for this card becoming their version of the iconic ’89 UD Ken Griffey, Jr.

With Classic’s deal still in effect until December 31, Topps seems to have actually pushed back the release of their 1992 set in order to include Taylor. But the result was a minor masterpiece. Finding their brand getting lost in the flood of newer and shinier released in the early 1990s, Topps had responded with a classic re-tooling for its 1991 flagship release and the introduction of its premium Stadium Club brand. Stadium Club was a smash and the company’s 1992 flagship reflected the changing tastes in the marketplace. Using beaming white stock for the first time in decades and featuring a clean, modern design, the set put Taylor front and center. In what might have been an homage to the 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. #1 that had already become that company’s trademark card, Topps gave Taylor #6 in 1992 set, the first regular player card after the traditional Record Breaker opening subset. The card featured Taylor in Yankee pinstripes, the first time Topps had shown a draft pick in their Major League uniform. The kid is just into delivery: left arm ready to cock, right foot dangling over the red box containing his name, eyes trained at whatever lay ahead of him.

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1992 ToppsGold #793 – A forgotten icon of the Junk Wax Era.

1992 was also the year Topps introduced the first true parallel set with ToppsGold. The concept was stunning for its time – an alternate version of the classic flagship set, outfit with an etched gold foil nameplate. The cards would be found roughly one per wax box, making it an unimaginable task to complete a full set. But in the midst of the hype over this idea, Topps offered an alternative: a Gold Factory set, complete with a stunning card #793 – an exclusive Brien Taylor card, done in the standard veteran design, gold-plated and hand-signed by the young Phenom. The set, which retailed for around $250, was quickly selling on the secondary market for $4-500. The signed card itself was moving quickly for $100 and up. Taylor’s gold rookie – found one per 28,500 packs – was bringing $40-80 and his regular base card was a mover at $5.

But… were these really rookie cards?

As they had in 1990 with uber-prospects Chipper Jones and Todd Van Poppel, Classic had gotten the jump on the more mainstream brands by including Taylor in their Draft Picks set in the same calendar year in which he was drafted. The big companies had always waited until the year after the draft to debut these players. Topps and others had tried to produce a true Taylor RC – a 1991 release featuring him in his Big League dress, but were scooped by his holdout and then his deal with Classic. So, Topps decided to turn back the clock.

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1992 Stadium Club Skydome #184 – Unable to get Taylor into a 1991 set, Topps tried to pass this set off as being a year older than it was.

The result was the 1991 Stadium Club Dome set. Or was it 1992? Well, the set used the 1991 Stadium Club design and was issued inside a plastic reproduction of Skydome, home of the 1991 MLB All-Star Game. Each card featured a 1991 copyright line. Which made it outwardly appear as a 1991 release and its handsome card of Taylor (along with dozens of other 1991 draft choices) as a stunning “true rookie” of the biggest name in the hobby. Not so fast, said collectors. It was clear that Topps was back-dating the set to try to force a 1991 Taylor card. The set was not released until the spring of 1992 and it seems highly unlikely that Topps would have gone ahead with printing the set in ’91 while Taylor was under exclusive contract with another brand and then waited several months into 1992 before finally releasing it. Even if collectors didn’t fall for Topps’ scheme, they fell all over themselves for the set, which was going for $75 and the Taylor for $15 before the 1992 season had even opened.

Oh, right, the 1992 season. In which Brien Taylor would actually be playing professional baseball. After being the toast of the Yankees’ training camp, Taylor reported to the Fort Lauderdale Yankees of the high-A Florida State League. Just 20 years old, he posted some tantalizing numbers – 10.4 Ks per 9 innings, a 1.159 WHIP, a 2.57 ERA, and just three homers allowed in 161 innings.

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1992 Upper Deck Minor League Promo #1 – After being forced to pull Taylor from its 1992 MLB set, Upper Deck got into the Minor League card business. This promotional card, given away at Minor League ballparks, promotes Taylor as the primary attraction in the set.

His performance was all the more impressive considering all the hype that still surrounded him. He was a shy kid, away from home for the first time, and everyone wanted a piece of him. And everyone wanted his autograph. He had signed more than 12,000 cards for the ToppsGold sets, and another 8,000 for 1992 Classic products and hundreds of baseball for teammate opponents and everyone else with clubhouse access. And he was asked to sign even more each day by fans that stalked him at every turn. “They think you’re supposed to sign everything they throw in your face,” Taylor told a reporter during the 1992 season. He was knocked down by autograph hounds more than once. After a game in Port St. Lucie, so many fans gathered outside the clubhouse doors that the team was briefly trapped inside. “People know the autograph is going to be worth money. That’s the only way I see it,” he said. “As far as dealing with people, life will never be the same. The bigger I get, the harder it will get. I know I’ll probably never be able to sit at a movie and relax.” As for his trading cards, Taylor admitted he didn’t even own one. “They must know something I don’t,” he said of the people shelling out for his latest issues.

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1992 Fort Lauderdale Yankees NNO – Taylor’s A-ball team had already wrapped up the 1992 season, and were in the process of relocating, but still wanted to cash in on his stardom by releasing this team set, available via mail order.

And as his debut season wound to a close, there would be many more options for Taylor collectors. With his exclusive non-MLB deal with Classic coming to an end, Upper Deck, Fleer, and Skybox announced plans to get in on the suddenly booming Minor League card market. Upper Deck promoted their set at Minor League parks late in the season, handing out thousands of promo cards of Taylor and Twins prospect Frankie Rodriguez. The Upper Deck set released in September and Fleer Excel dropped in December (oddly branded as 1992-93 Fleer Excel, another example of Taylor forcing cardmakers to get creative with their dating). The Fort Lauderdale Yankees even waited out the Classic contract to release their team-issued set of cards – which remarkably was not available until after the season had ended, as speculation abounded that the team would relocate for the 1993 season (it indeed would move). The market for Taylor was so intense that a franchise delayed the release of its annual team set until after it had played its last-ever game. The set was available by mail order and seemed to sell quite well. That fall, Topps also included Taylor in the company’s first-ever random insert set, a trio of cards featuring #1 overall draft choices found one in every 72 packs of 1992 Stadium Club Series 3. It instantly became a $25 item.

By the end of 1992, Taylor had been featured on (by my count) 48 different licensed trading cards and a handful of oddball, unlicensed, and magazine-issue cards. It was a staggering number for its time, especially for a player who had pitched in just 27 games professionally. By 1993, a bit of Taylor-fatigue began to appear. His card prices stabilized and, while his presence in the hobby held steady, it stopped being news. Searching the hobby columns that used to be regular features in newspapers across the nation, he was a regular item throughout 1991 and 1992. But by 1993, he faded away into the mass of other can’t-miss-kids making hobby news. He was still a Phenom to be sure, but he was a very familiar Phenom.

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1992 Stadium Club #1 Draft Picks of the ’90s #2 – The first-ever insert set produced by Topps.

In 1993, Taylor made steady progress, racking up 150 Ks and a 3.48 ERA for the AA Albany-Colonie Yankees. It was progress, but collectors and the Yankee brass had visions of Taylor dominating the American League in 1993, not holding his own in the Eastern League. And then in December came baseball’s most infamous after-hours brawl since Mickey Mantle, Billy Martin, and company roughed up a boozy bowling team captain at the Copa. Back home in North Carolina, Taylor got into a melee trying to defend his brother and blew out his shoulder in the process. While the team tried to downplay the injury, Dr. Frank Jobe, who performed Taylor’s reconstructive surgery, called it “one of the worst shoulder injuries [he’d] ever seen.”

Collectors began to dump Taylor’s cards and, as Taylor sat out the entire 1994 season, he appeared in just a handful of sets. Many of his 1994 cards mentioned the injury. “He will miss the entire 1994 season and only time will tell whether or not he can regain his top prospect status,” his Ted Williams Card Company release opined. By 1995, time had told.

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1995 Bowman # 17 – Only one 1995 release had room for Taylor on its checklist.

Demoted to the Yankees’ Rookie League team, Taylor struggled through 40 innings, walking 54 and allowing 37 runs. His fastball stalled and his curve had flattened. With the card market struggling to recover from the strike, companies downsized their releases. In 1995, just a few years removed from being such a force in the marketplace that his mere presence seemed to dictate time itself, he appeared on just one trading card – Bowman #17. He is pictured in a Yankees jersey cap, seating on a picnic table, wearing shorts and sneakers. He’s dressed like a fan or a training camp gofer. The backside mentions an “off the field mishap” and talks about hopes for a return to form that would never happen. Although he would hang around for parts of four more professional seasons, topping out at 27 innings (with an ERA over 14.00) in 1997, he appeared on just two more cards. He’s just 24 years old on his 1996 Best Greensboro Bats card, but he looks older. He looks tired. In 2000, he was featured in a team-issue set for the A-level Columbus Red Stixx. The only evidence the card exists is a listing on tradingcarddb.com. No image of it can be found.

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1996 Best Greensboro Bats #27 – Well into the ‘what if?’ years.

He allowed 11 runs in just 2.2 innings for the Red Stixx that year. It was the last time he pitched. He went back home to North Carolina with his five daughters and worked as a package handler for UPS, then for a beer distributor, and later as a bricklayer with his father. He ran into legal troubles and, in 2012, was arrested on charges of trafficking cocaine. Facing forty years, he pled guilty and served just over three. “Life will never be the same,” Taylor said in 1992. “The only way it would be the same would be if I dropped out today. Then everybody would forget me.”

Scratch ‘n Play

The 2019 Topps Heritage set is based on the 1970 design.  As with past sets, there are limited number of bonus products that match the wax pack inserts from the featured year.  Thus, collectors might find a poster, a story booklet or a scratch-off, baseball game folio. The “Scratch-Offs” are one of Topps most unique inserts. Since you are itching to find out more, here is the balm for your “Scratch-Off fever.”

The 1970 Scratch-Offs are 2-1/2” × 3-3/8” bi-folds with a small “Team Captain” headshot on the front, 44 black scratch boxes in the middle, and the rules and a scoreboard on the back. When unfolded, the cards measure 3-3/8” × 5”. Teams names were not printed in conjunction with the players’ photos.  The fronts were printed in blue, yellow or red, but each player only has one color.

The game is played by scratching off the black surface with a coin, revealing hits or outs.  My recollection is that you never had enough boxes to complete nine innings.

By 1970, most teams did not designate a player to be the team captain.  Therefore, Topps simply selected a player for each of the 24 teams to be the “captain.”  By the way, Topps selected a different player for each of its three insert sets, all of which came in sets of 24.  (If memory serves me, posters were issued first, Scratch-Offs second, and finally the story books. If this is not the case, please let me know.)

Some of Topps “captain” selections are curious.  For example, Richie Allen and Tim McCarver, who were traded for one another prior to the 1969 World Series, show up as captains. Most likely, McCarver was originally selected as the Cardinals representative and Allen as the Phillies.  Based on the drama surrounding Richie Allen at the time, there is some irony in labeling him team captain.  

The most interesting of the small headshots is that of Boog Powell.  The negative is flipped, which is made obvious by the comic Oriole emblem facing the opposite direction.  Also, the reverse image makes Boog look as if he is ready to “toss his cookies.”

Most collectors remember that Topps didn’t attempt, even in the later series, to relabel the Seattle Pilots cards as Milwaukee Brewers.  The franchise shift (sob!) occurred a week before the season started, meaning that most of the cards, posters etc. were already printed. This means that Mike Hegan is depicted wearing a Pilots cap from spring training of 1969.

Fresh off his American League Rookie of the Year award in 1969, Lou Piniella got the nod to be the Royals team captain.  However, Topps didn’t reward him with a new picture.  No, “Sweet Lou” is saddled with the same squinty-eyed photo used on his 1968 and 1969 Rookie Stars cards.

Nine Hall of Famers are included in the set: Henry Aaron, Harmon Killebrew, Yastrzemski, Tom Seaver, Luis Aparicio, Juan Marichal, Willie Stargell, Al Kaline, and Tony Perez.

Strangely, Topps reissued the same 24 Scratch-Off cards in 1971 but with a significant difference; the scratch off sections are printed in red instead of white. They were distributed with the later series after the coin inserts. Thus, the Mike Hegan Scratch-Off means the Pilots lasted in “Topps World” until 1971.  Also, Richie Allen was traded to the Dodgers, resulting in a dual captainship with Claude Osteen and no Cardinals captain.

Checklists and dealer offerings don’t always make a distinction between the two issues.  Completing sets can be difficult if the description does not include the booklet’s interior color.

Surprisingly, to me at least, the Scratch-Offs were also issued in packs as a stand-alone product at the end of year in 1970 and 1971 in order to get rid of excess inventory.  I couldn’t find information on the number of cards per pack, price or distribution.

So, if you get the itch to scratch off a game, pick up a Mack Jones, grab a penny and go to it.  This game was cutting edge technology back in “my day.” We didn’t need no stinkin’ video games!

Sources:

http://www.oldbaseball.com/refs/topps.html

A Little Gem

COMC has been a great resource for me as I plug away at older sets. These days, I’m filling the gaps on some football sets that I didn’t have – 1968-1971 Topps. COMC dealers usually have good prices, predictably liftable offers (that’s the old options trader in me – bids get hit, offers get lifted/taken). All in all I’ve been very happy with COMC, especially since they feed my occasional need for cheap autographed cards.

While searching for a 1968 Jack Kemp, a card I have that is in need of upgrading, I came across this:

Matt-Kemp

Wow! Frequent readers know I’m all over Kellogg’s 3-D cards, and while I don’t have any 1968 Topps 3-D cards, with no intentions of getting any based on prices, I quickly discovered that this was an insert set of 15 cards from the 2012 Topps Archives issue and pretty cheap. I bought all the cards on COMC for around $15 a little less expensive than I saw on eBay.

They’re wonderful cards, sized the same as the 1968’s, though not blank backed.

Matt-Kemp

Like Topps Archives, the checklist is a nice mix of current stars and all-time greats.

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Go grab some. I’ve been looking at them over and over again.

One last football note: Topps missed out politically, by not having 1968 cards of these two:

 

Profiles in Profiles

Profile Preface

Thumb through a stack of 1964 Topps cards and you’ll see a host of classic Topps poses, whether it’s the manager (or head coach!) barking out instructions…

Pitchers at the top of their wind-ups…

Or unprotected catchers in a crouch.

Profile Prototypes

But there’s one classic Topps pose you won’t see at all until the following year, and even then not until the fifth (Johnson) and seventh (Banks) series…

…not withstanding the shiny pack inserts, which relied 90% on profiles. (If you can’t picture any exceptions, here’s a link to Koufax.)

Side note for vintage collectors like me that bemoan all the “shiny stuff” in the hobby these days. It ain’t so new!

Profligate Profile Proliferation

Fast forward 13 years to my rookie season collecting, and Topps had so much “facial profiling” you’d think Rudy Giuliani was in charge!

Profile Pro forma

For at least two Boston superstars, the side shot had evidently become the pose de rigueur.

Baker’s Recipe

Look carefully at the gallery of 1978 Topps profiles and you’ll notice several, Yaz among them, that go beyond the standard side view and add an upward gaze as well. These “look up there” profiles can be seen as hybrids of standard side-views and the “look up there” front or three-quarter views Topps used on way too many cards in the 1960s and 70s.

For whatever reason, these “look up there” profiles were among my favorite cards as a kid.

SIDELINED SIDE VIEWS

While Topps struck gold with their Baker alchemy, not all their experiments led to success. For example, Topps introduced a “look down there” variation with one player each in 1976 and 1977, but the approach was not carried forward to 1978.

Profile Prehistory

If there’s one thing readers of this blog know well it’s that nothing in baseball cards is truly new. Goudey flirted with the idea in 1933 and Bowman went all the way there in 1948, and I suspect readers can cite many earlier examples.

PROFILE PROGNOSTICATION

It’s hard to imagine profile pics making a big comeback. They seem a bit dull when compared with the kinds of card photos now available.

That isn’t to say that you’ll never see another profile again, and I proffer this Profar as proof.

At some point (2027 if I’m doing this right), Topps will release the Heritage version of 1978 Topps. Though the younger collectors of the future will wonder why so many of the pictures suck, I sure hope to see a ton of “look up there” big sideways heads of the game’s top stars. If that won’t make me feel young again, nothing will. And Oddibe young again, right?

Little Black Rectangles (Or, In the Eye of the Beholder)

In my quest for sets to complete, manageable sets, not too expensive for a one-time purchase, I’ve begun to look, in earnest, at old Topps inserts. I’ve got my share – 1969 Deckle and Decals (see last post), a random assortment of others – but there’s always room for more.

I’d like to grab some 1968 and 1972 posters.

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I don’t have any of them and they’re pretty nice, much nicer than the 1970 posters I do have

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(though not as nice as the 1967 pinups). But, since I have none, will I really put together a set? I’m pretty doubtful. Still, I’ll occasionally look for a lot and, if I do end up snatching some, we’ll see what happens.

What’s been grabbing me are the 1970 and 1971 Topps Scratch-Offs. Why? Not because of looks. These are the most unattractive inserts that Topps ever produced. Ugly little head shots on the front, a centerfold of black rectangles and a back that clearly didn’t take too long to design, all housed on rough cardboard (that’s how I remember them).

s-l300

It’s in the remembering that the scratch offs live.  They’re inserts I had, unlike the posters which I never did, so don’t have any feelings about one way or the other. I have a connection to these scratch offs that is real and, though they repulse me in most ways, they attract me in others.

Interestingly, I don’t recall them in 1971 packs, only in 1970. Turns out there is a distinguishing mark to tell the two apart – 1970’s are white inside, 1971’s red.

70-71T-Scratchoffs-backs

Both sets are 24 cards, both should be pretty reasonable to buy unscratched (though a NM 1970 set recently sold for $117.50, way more than I’d consider.)  I’m thinking $65 for 1970, $75-80 for 1971, harder to come by, which is why I don’t remember them.

I’ve also been slightly obsessed with the 1970 Topps Football Glossy inserts, but that’s for another blog.

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The Making (Actually, Building) of a Complete Set

It’s a daunting task to start collecting a full vintage set from zero. I only did it once, about 25 years ago or so, an old set of over 200 cards. In those pre-eBay days, it wasn’t quite clear what a complete set really went for in the open market. All you could go on was price guide prices and, since they were usually higher than actual, going for a set from scratch wasn’t necessarily an economic mistake.

It would be now. There’s no way you can put together a vintage set for a better price than buying it straight out, unless you either have a good critical mass of cards to start from or you can trade. Or, and herein lies this post, it’s a small enough set that prices won’t get out of hand.

Until a few months ago, I didn’t have a single 1969 Topps Decal in my collection. Why? Who knows. Never interested me, my 1969s weren’t my original cards from packs so I didn’t have the inserts, and so on. They’re interesting items, small and glossy with plain white paper backgrounds, the photos almost the same as the regular issue cards. They ain’t no Deckle Edges, I can tell you! (By the way, can anyone tell me which series the Deckles were inserted in, and which series had the Decals? I’d like to know that.)

Earlier this year, Mark Armour and I, hot off a huge trade of 1970’s basketball for 1968 and 1969 baseball, bandied about what we may still have to swap. It came down to Hostess, Kellogg’s, Fleer Cloth patches (from me) and other oddballs for some Post Cereal and, when I saw them calling out to me, 1969 Decals.

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I was on my way. From zero to 10, in one swoop, 20% of the way to the end. All I needed was a good, cheap lot, ideally with a bunch of stars. That came my way soon after.

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The nice thing about this lot was that now I had doubles to sell, which I did. Oddly, I couldn’t buy commons for less than $2-2.50 and couldn’t sell them for more than about $1.75. Still, selling extras helped me whittle down my cost (I still have a nice Hoyt Wilhelm, if anyone is interested).  I even sold the backless Pete Rose for over $4 and bought a super nice one for $10.

With Joey Foy now in hand, I’m down to one, Reggie Jackson. I want to pay $10-15, EX or better, but it’s likely to run me $15-20. Weird, because there’s no way there are more of these out there than Reggie’s rookie card, which goes for way more. The Decals are definitely a lowish supply, lower demand kind of issue.

As to the price? I’ll have ended up spending around $150 for the complete set in overall EX (some VGEX, some EXMT, hard to know with Decals) and sold listings show most sets in this condition going for $200-300. Not that I’m selling, but it’s nice to know that, after the dust settles, I ended up with a bargain.

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“Ersatz Irks Katz” OR “Topps Baits Boomers”

Kaline

At the risk of further alienating the esteemed collectors who look askance at the ersatz nature of Topps Heritage, I will examine the 1968 inspired posters found in the 2017 Heritage set. This ties directly to my last post on the original, large posters. Incidentally, Mark Armour noted that I was wrong in asserting that the 9-3/4” X 18-1/8” ’68 posters were Topps largest product. The ’69 team posters have this distinction at 11-1/4” x 19-3/4”.

Harper

The 40 different 2017 Heritage posters were released as “Box Toppers.” There are 20 posters in both the base and high number sets. 50 copies were produced for each poster and randomly placed in Hobby Boxes. Thus, the posters are rare, which is reflected by the current prices on eBay and COMC.

My favorite aspect of this retro release are the vintage players. Twelve prominent players from 50 years ago are found amongst mix of modern stars. Frank Robinson, Carl Yastrzemski, Al Kaline and Henry Aaron- who appear in the ’68 set — are reprised in 2017. The 1968 NL Rookie of the Year, Johnny Bench, as well as defending World Champions Lou Brock and Steve Carlton are included as well.

The modern player posters follow the lead of the Heritage cards by mimicking the vintage Topps’ posed, portrait style. The lineup includes many of today’s greats including: Lindor, Cory Seager, Bryce Harper, Joey Votto and Yoenis Cespedes.

Like many of the Heritage inserts and subsets, Topps did not include a poster for each team, as they did in ’68. For instance, my Seattle Mariners got “hosed” again. Obviously, Cano, Cruz and Hernandez are not as worthy of inclusion as players from “back east” or “Tinsel Town.” As Howard Cosell once said: “I’m not bittah.” I’m simply sticking up for “my boys.”

69 Angels Poster

2018 Topps Heritage Hobby Boxes include modern versions of the ’69 team posters. I’ve yet to see a Mariners, but if one appears, I may drink the Topps “nostalgia Kool-Aid.”

 

 

 

Cahiers des Cartes

 

The Conlon Project reminded me that despite being in many ways about photography, baseball cards almost never credit the photographer who took the photo. While we can often figure out which cards were shot by the same photographer based on the location, putting a name to that photographer often required putting the pieces together from other media.

We know that Richard Noble’s portrait of Bo Jackson was used in 1990 Score because of his lawsuit against Nike. And we know that Ronald Modra shot the photo of Benito Santiago in 1991 Topps because Sports Illustrated used a different photo from that session on its cover. But there’s no credit on the cards themselves even though anyone can see that they’re above the usual standard of baseball card photography.

Where we did have photographer credits is in the Broder card realm. I don’t just mean Rob Broder’s sets either. There were a number of photographers at this time creating their own unlicensed sets—all of which are known in the hobby as Broder cards.And there are even some licensed photographers like Barry Colla whose sets have the same “Broder” look and feel. On the surface these cards look very similar to each other and remind me of Mother’s Cookies* with their emphasis on the photo and the plain Helvetica text.

*I’ve been led to understand that Colla shot a lot of the Mother’s photos.

Often the photo is more of a function of someone who has access to a telephoto lens and a field-level press pass. It’s nice to see these photos but most of them aren’t anything portfolio-worthy. Sometimes though they’re clearly part of a portrait session and those are much more fun to see. Even if they’re standard baseball poses the portrait session is a more accurate gauge of the photographer’s abilities.

The backs remind me of the backs of mass-produced 8×10 photos. Name and numbering and not much else.* So they’re more like 2.5″×3.5″ photos rather than baseball cards. In many ways this makes them a wonderful artifact of the 1980s/90s freelance photography hustle where self-publishing was a feasible approach amidst the junk wax boom. The Barry Colla cards at least have some more information but the overall design still feels like an afterthought.

*That this is so close to my self-designed backs suggests I shouldn’t give my nine-year-old self such a hard time.

All of these sets—if you can call these packets of a dozen or so cards sets—were very much created to capitalize on whoever was rising on the Beckett hot list. Multiple cards of the same star player. Hot rookies. I’d snark more but it cuts very close to what I’ve seen going on with cards today where Topps is releasing an uncountable number of cards for Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger.

The Conlon cards exist in that same late-80s, early-90s ecosystem as the Broder cards. The earlier releases are very much in the same vein of treating the cards as photographs first and cards second. I very much appreciate how they’re printed as duotones* and it’s charming how the text is an afterthought and no one thought to even provide numbering.

*Yes there’s a post with more information than you ever wanted about printing. And much to my surprise many of the cards Topps released in 2017 are actually duotones or use spot colors for the black and white images.

By the early 90s the set has been redone as proper cards. More stats. More design. Set numbering. A large set count. In many ways they’re not really about the photo anymore.

Which is a shame since one of the things I did as part of the Conlon Project was check out Baseball’s Golden Age from the library. Where the Conlon cards have somewhat generic player information and stats on the backs, the book includes some of Conlon’s stories about photographing the players. These stories—such as Lefty Grove refusing to let Conlon see how he gripped the ball or how in that famous Ty Cobb photo Conlon was more worried about the well being of the third baseman than whether or not he got the shot—are fantastic and suggest another approach that these photographer-based cards could’ve gone.

Thankfully Upper Deck did exactly this in 1993 with its Walter Iooss collection and again in 1996 with its V.J. Lovero collection. These cards are great in how they’re so clearly photo-focused* but also allow us to see how the photographer approaches the game and his subjects.

*Something that mid-1990s Upper Deck excelled at in general.

The Iooss cards are also a wonderful demonstration of what makes Iooss’s work so distinct. The lighting relies on off-camera flash and underexposes the background. But unlike the “every sky must be dark and rainy” look that dominated Topps in 1985 and 1986, the Iooss photos balance the light temperatures well. The skies aren’t that weird grey blue color and the players all have a wonderful warm glow.

And the stories are great. Most of them are interesting—Albert Belle’s refusal to pose and Iooss’s subsequent having to take an action photo stands out—but I like the comparison of Paul Molitor and Will Clark.

Lovero’s photos don‘t have a clearly-defined look the way Iooss’s do. If anything it’s that they have a tendency to be shot extremely tight—similar to Topps’s current approach in Flagship except that I think Lovero shot this way and Topps just crops things this way.

What I like about the Lovero cards is that their backs often get into the technical side of the photography. The Caminiti card talks specifically about how to shoot tight action. There are others that talk about trying different angles for shooting. Reading them you get a real sense of how Lovero approaches photographing baseball action.

His stories about the posed shoots are closer to the Iooss stories except that they’re often about the context of the shoot rather than the player himself. Combined though, both the Lovero and Iooss sets offer a wonderful look at how a professional had to approach sports photography in the 1990s and offer a lot of pointers to anyone who’s interested in shooting sports action now.

Lights, Camera, Action!

snider1959

mccormick1962

While baseball cards often depict action, I’ve become interested in the ones which try to depict moving action. In both 1959 and 1962 Topps released a couple of multiple-image cards which showed frame-by-frame action. Some of these were devoted to special plays like Mays’s catch in 1954 but a lot of them feel like their just trying to show action in an age where closely cropped action shots were impossible.

Williams1959_2

Williams1959_1

The 1959 Fleer Ted Williams set also has a number of these cards. I especially like the overhead angle on the batting shot but the 4-panel landscape card is also pretty cool.

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Fleer did much the same again in 1985. This makes sense as there wasn’t any other way to do this and the only major difference between these and their counterparts 23 years earlier is in the quality and sharpness of the photos.* The Fleer cards however do make for interesting comparisons between different hitters and how they swing the bat.

*I’ve asked around on Twitter and the like and no one seems to remember anything similar except for the 1968 Bazooka box panels. Those panels, while relevant to the discussion, aren’t really the same thing.

Valenzuela_Sportflics

In the late 1980s though Sportflics came on the scene. We’d had lenticular printing on cards before with the Topps 3D and Kelloggs All Stars which used the lenticular effect for three-dimensional purposes. And we’d had other oddballs like the mid-1980s 7/11 discs which used it to flip between multiple images.

Sportflics though realized that this kind of thing could reanimate the still images on the Fleer cards. The resulting three-frame animation of baseball action very quickly became one of my favorite things. Despite being always 🔽 in the Beckett hot list Sportflics was always 🔼 in my heart. I recently showed them to my kids and they thought they were super cool too.

It’s also worth noting that Sportflics realized that it could animate the text as well. One box of text on the card front could display twice as much information and give us a larger picture as a result.

ryan1989 blyleven90

In 1989 Upper Deck came around with some very-cool multiple exposure cards. These were crisper images than what you could see in Sportflics and there was something about the multiple images which told the story of a standard motion—typically pitching—in the way that Doc Edgerton’s photos do where the resulting layered images become their own beautiful thing.

Upper Deck had these for a lot of years and even played with the form a bit with their Deion Sanders card which took the action thing and turned it into a transformation.

lofton1993

Sandberg1994

By 1994 other brands had started doing similar multiple exposure cards. Donruss’s Spirit of the Game inserts in 1993 had a bunch of these and Topps flagship went the Upper Deck route and just used this effect on select base cards. Because of my age I tend to see all these as copying Upper Deck but it was also interesting to see the approach get more diverse in the different ways that the multiple exposures were layered.

At the same time Upper Deck launched there was also a product called Flipp Tipps which, while not exactly baseball cards, totally deserves to be mentioned here since they’re collectible flipbooks. Lots of frames and I like the concept of making them somewhat educational as a way of breaking down how Brett Butler bunts or Will Clark swings.

*Copyrighted 1989 but given how they include Kevin Mitchell’s barehanded catch I’m inclined to say they came out in early 1990.

Smith_Dennys

Sportflics meanwhile found its gimmick to be outdated in the mid-90s once motion holograms were invented. These showed up on Denny’s 1996 Pinnacle Holograms and have the benefit of many more frames to animate motion. Unfortunately they’re even harder to see than that Sportflics. The light has to be perfect and there’s no cue as to what direction you have to tilt the card.

Still, the Ozzie Smith backflip card beyond cool. Instead of being standard baseball action they’ve captured one of Ozzie’s trademarks.  That this set also includes Hideo Nomo’s windup and Gary Sheffield’s menacing swing shows that the designers really thought about which players had distinctive movements which were worthy of motion capture.

Bonds_Instavision

Topps also released its own version of these with Stadium Club instavision in 1997. It’s a smaller hologram but much easier to see. These cards were about specific highlights instead of capturing a general sense of the player.

It’s also worth noting that in 1997 Topps also went back to lenticular motion with Screenplays. Unlike Sportflics these had 24 frames of animation. Unfortunately I don’t have one of these available to GIF.

The ultimate action card though has to go to 2000 Upper Deck Powerdeck. Rather than being a motion card this was a baseball-card-sized CD-ROM with effectively a miniature website on it when you inserted it into your computer. Anyway the YouTube video speaks for itself. It’s a neat idea though sadly one which is already obsolete and unviewable while the 1959 Topps Baseball Thrills cards are as interesting as ever.

You Can Put It On The Cardboard…..Yes!

Love him or hate him, Ken “Hawk” Harrelson has been an outsized character in baseball for six decades. From his battles with Charlie Finley in Kansas City to his “mod” wardrobe featuring “Nehru” jackets, he was a distinctive individual within the staid baseball world of the ‘60s. As a player, the Hawk had one exceptional season for Boston during the “Year of the Pitcher” in ’68. Injuries and desire to be a professional golfer prematurely ended his career in ’71. Of course, he would go on to be a broadcaster, most notably with the White Sox. His zealous support for the White Sox grates on many people, creating a love/hate dichotomy.

During Harrelson’s relatively brief career, he had some beautiful cards. The green and gold A’s combo and classic Indians vest uniform created great visual appeal. In addition the Topps photographers captured Hawk in some classic poses. On the flip side, the player boycott resulted in some duds as well. So button up your “Nehru” jacket, “grab some bench” and get ready to view some great cardboard. Mercy!

64 Hawk  65 Hawk

Hawk’s ’64 and ’65 cards are routine spring training shots, but the navy and red accented, vest uniforms-worn briefly by KC in the early ’60s-provides a novelty factor.

66 Hawk

The ’66 card is a personal favorite. The classic first baseman’s “stretch” pose coupled with the green and gold trimmed uniform combines to make a classic. The Yankee fan heckling Hawk during the photo shoot is a great example of backgrounds making cards more interesting.

67 Hawk

Harrelson’s conflicts with A’s owner, Charlie Finley, resulted in Hawk’s departure to Washington during the ’66 Season. Topps’ photographers took multiple shots of Ken in a Senators uniform in 67 spring training and early in the season at Yankee Stadium. The latter resulted in another wonderful card. Hawk looks down at his bat as if assessing its weight and worthiness. Topps often used this shot for “sluggers.”

Charley Finley was notorious for having “trader’s remorse” and would reacquire players he previously jettisoned. Hawk comes back to the A’s in mid-season of ‘67 only to become embroiled in a controversy surrounding Finley’s firing of Manager Al Dark, resulting in his release. After losing Tony Conigliaro the Red Sox need a power bat, so they pick up Hawk for the stretch run and World Series.

68 Hawk

However, the players’ boycott of Topps resulted in Ken never being pictured in a Red Sox uniform.  A “nostril” shot is used in ’68, which clearly defines why Ken was nick-named Hawk. The red piping on the hat is a clear indication of his time with the Senators. His “League Leader” photos are also from his Senators stay.

69 Hawk  69 All Star Hawk

The ’69 regular card and All-Star card has him sans cap with his A’s green and gold uniform.

69 Deckle Hawk

The “deckle edge” also has him on the A’s but with a not too convincing Boston “B” drawn on the cap.

69 decal

Topps reverts back to a Senators photo for the decal insert.

70 Hawk

Much to the consternation of Red Sox fans, Hawk is dealt to the Indians early in ’69, which results in a ’70 card that is truly a wonderful creation. The colorful uniform, Yankee Stadium location and the “two bats on the shoulder” pose all add up to perfection. Note the golf gloves for batting. Hawk is often credited with popularized the use of batting gloves, although others had used them before Ken. Also, Hawk appears to have taped his wrists.

71 Hawk

Since “he gone” from baseball at the end of the season, ’71 marks Ken’s final card  This “candid” shot shows him in mid-laugh under a shock of shaggy hair.

What all these cards have in common is a uniqueness that, in my humble opinion, has been missing from Topps regular issue cards over the past 20 years. The Heritage cards are an improvement, but the staging eliminates oddities in the background.

If you can, track down “Don’t Knock the Hawk” (a novelty song from ’68). And read his BioProject article written by Alexander Edelman.