A Quixotic Quest

Recent trends in the baseball card world have caused me to step aside for the time being. Vintage cards, at least the years I might be interested in targeting, have become too expensive, and recent cards no longer cater to the childlike fun that drew me to the hobby as a youngster. I concede that Vincent Van Gogh would have made fine artwork if asked to use a 2.5 x 3.5 inch canvas, maybe even a classic “card” of Jackie Robinson, but (a) why would we ask him to do this, and (b) how would that help 10-year-olds to fall in love with the game?

So now what?

In recent years I have been very slowly working on completing various oddball sets from my childhood, especially Topps inserts or standalone offerings. The first inserts I remember encountering were the 1968 game cards, which Topps included in 3rd series packs. I’ve written about these cards before. They were fun and attractive, but very much treated as an “extra” in the pack, more important than the gum, but less important than the five included base cards. No one traded their “real” Willie Mays card for his game card.

In 1969 Topps produced two very popular inserts, one a black-and-white deckle edged card, and the other a color decal (which could be peeled off and affixed to another surface). Both very fun extras.

In 1970 Topps replaced their long-standard 5-cards-for-a-nickel packs with 10-cards-for-a-dime. This might seem a trivial difference, but for those of us with a 25 cents/week allowance, it required complex budgeting.

Perhaps feeling somewhat guilty, Topps placed three different inserts into packs throughout the summer. Although there may have been regional scheduling variations, in my neck of the woods Topps used posters in series 1/2, scratch offs in series 3/4/5, and story booklets in series 6/7. I hope to write about all of them in more detail soon, but for today I will focus on the scratch offs.

The 1970 Topps scratch off set consisted of 24 cards, picturing a player from each of the 24 teams.

When folded, the photo of Yaz is the “front”, the scoreboard and rules are the “back”. When unfolded, the game is revealed.

If you follow the rules your card might look like this around the sixth inning.

Truth be told, there are *lot* of problems here.

  1. If you actually play the game, your hands will be blackened by the third inning. Even as a nine-year-old, this was annoying. What if you had to touch your “real” cards?
  2. Once the game is played once, the card is useless. With the 1968 game cards you could collect a big stack (doubles are useful), and play the game over and over.
  3. The scratched “card” looks awful. (This point might be up for debate. I know that @vossbrink, for example, likes checklist cards that have been used for their intended purpose. This is a respectable point of view, and might apply here.)
  4. Even fresh out of the pack, the row on the seam (see picture) was difficult to scratch and read.
  5. Not that kids cared at the time, but the cards were often misaligned or poorly cut.

Although I said above that the players represented each of the 24 teams, the team name is not actually listed–this is just something you would figure out if you placed them with their real team. Presumably “Red Sox” is not specified because Yaz is supposed to be the captain of *your* team. Nonetheless, the players chosen are clearly supposed to stand for the 24 major league teams.

McCarver and Allen played for the Cardinals and Phillies, respectively, in 1969, but were traded for each other (along with several others) in October. Since they appear hatless, and since they both appeared on cards labeled with their new teams in the flagship set, we can assume that these are cards for the Phillies (McCarver) and Cardinals (Allen).

Mike Hegan shows up wearing a Seattle Pilots hat, consistent with Topps use of the Pilots team throughout the summer (though they moved to Milwaukee prior to the season). For Yastrzemski and the other 20 cards the real-life team is obvious.

A discerning observer in 1970 (which, if we are being completely honest, I was not) would have recognized the scratch off set as an uninspired, even lazy, effort by Topps.

But … things would soon get *less* inspired.

In 1971, Topps was fresh out of ideas and chose to use the scratch offs as an insert again. Not just the concept — they used exactly the same players, with identical fronts and backs. The only difference is that the background color on the inside is red instead of white. (One wonders why they even bothered to change the inside?)

There were real-life player shifts that upended Topps’ team symmetry. Dick Allen had been traded to the Dodgers and Luis Aparicio to the Red Sox (changes reflected in the flagship set), which gave each of those teams two “captains” in the 1971 scratch off set. Mike Hegan still donned his Pilots cap, now more than a year after the team’s demise.

Of course, the team names were not listed on the “card”, there was no checklist, and the one-card-per-team rule was not stated anywhere. So, says Topps, “where is the lie?”

But, you might be thinking, “who cares if every team gets a card?”

For one, Topps very clearly cared. In all of their insert sets in the late 1960s and early 1970s they made sure to have least one card for every team. I assume that the people at Topps thought that kids in Cleveland would like seeing one of their heroes on a 1968 game card (Steve Hargan!), and that Seattle tots would get a kick out of seeing a Pilot on a 1969 deckle-edged card (Tommy Davis!). For kids who rooted for other teams, it gave these little sets a bit of character. The lesson we learned, in cards and in life: not every player, or person, is a Hall of Famer.

In 1970, Topps’ took this honorable stance one step further. For the three 1970 inserts sets I mention above, there were 24 cards in each set, one per team, and Topps used 72 different players.

Topps deserves a great deal of credit for doing this, for balancing the top-flight stars between these three sets, but also for serving children across the land. Isn’t that, I asked plaintively, the point of all this? Future Giants collectors hardly needed another version of three Hall-of-Famers to be, but look at those Angels, or those Brewers, or those Padres. Well done, Topps.

The actual point of all of this is to celebrate that I recently completed my 1970 and 1971 scratch off sets (my final card was the 1971 Stargell). This was more challenging than you would think because most dealers have no idea what the difference is between the two sets, so if you order something listed as a 1971 Aaron you might end up with the 1970 Aaron when the mail comes. Also, eBay listings will not reveal that the inside has been scratched so you really need to see an image for both the inside and outside, and dealers are occasionally annoyed when you ask for this. One person asked, in obvious exasperation , “does it really matter?”

Then once you get all the cards, you might put them in nine-pocket sheets and discover the two sets now look identical. Are you really going to pull out the card, unfold it, and stare lovingly at the black-on-red or black-on-white insides? Call me unromantic if you must, but I suggest that you are not going to do this.

Frankly, there is no good reason to collect either set, let alone both.

Except this. These “cards” were placed in packs in 1970 and 1971, packs that I opened, packs that I loved, packs that made my day on more than one occasion. They remind me of being 9 years old, when baseball cards were everything to me, and when Topps seemed for all the world to be focused on the needs and desires of me and fellow 9 year olds throughout the land. That version of me is gone, and so is that version of Topps.

But with these silly little scratch off cards, 48 in all, I can pretend that we are both alive and well.

And for that reason alone, I have no regrets.

Did Fleer hate the Dodgers?

I probably spent more on packs in 1985 than any other year, and the reason was simple: Dr. K.

Topps, Fleer, Donruss, Leaf, O-Pee-Chee, Donruss Action All-Stars…if Doc was in it I was buying it, and I wasn’t just after one of each card. I was an absolute hoarder that year. In the case of Donruss, it meant I could put together the Lou Gehrig puzzle many times over, and in the case of Fleer it meant I had a ridiculous number of these.

The Fleer team sticker insert had been a fixture in packs since 1982 and even pre-dated Fleer’s (modern) re-entry into the baseball card market, serving as a standalone product in 1980 and on and off years prior to that. Team stickers were even a part of Fleer’s 1960 and 1961 Baseball Greats sets.

What made the 1985 inserts unique was not just that they featured fairly authentic looking team jerseys but also that some of the jerseys bore the uniform numbers of star players, for example Frank Robinson and Johnny Bench.

Here are two others you can quickly identify.

And two others unlikely to give you any trouble.

In all, fourteen team jerseys had uniform numbers, the other twelve being blank like the Red Sox one that opened this post. That five of the jerseys would belong to Hall of Famers, three being the face of the franchise, and another would belong to presumed top shelf Hall of Famer Pete Rose suggests at least some intentionality in selecting these numbers.

One might even add to these “chosen six” this more recent Hall of Fame inductee from the Cardinals and the only MVP (to that point) in Texas Rangers history.

After that, the number assignments become more perplexing. How I would have loaded up on Mets stickers had they featured Doc’s 16 or even Darryl’s 18. Instead, Fleer packs gave us either Joe Torre or Little League me!

Where I would have loved to see Rod Carew and Dave Parker, Fleer delivered Dan Ford and John Candelaria.

In place of Alvin Davis and Andre Dawson, we got Jerry Narron (or A-Rod pre-rookie!) and Doug Flynn.

By far the strangest jersey belonged to my hometown Dodgers, where I would have killed for a 6, 34, or 42. Instead Fleer threw the ultimate curve ball and went with…

80??

Apart from Spring Training, this is a number no Dodger has ever worn. To date, it’s a number that’s only appeared twice in MLB, once with the Twins and once with the Pirates. Current Dodger stars Kenley Jansen (74) and Dustin May (85) are somewhat nearby, though neither was even born when the sticker came out. Curiously, Hall of Famer Ducky Medwick wore 77 with Brooklyn in 1940 and 1941.

So why 80?

To this day I still have no idea how the Dodger sticker ended up with such a strange number. Even if Fleer had someone choosing numbers at random, I imagine the range would have been 1-50 or so. Could it be a nod to the ’80 All-Star Game hosted at Dodger Stadium? Could it be a tribute to the final year of Fleer’s sticker-only packs?

Both theories seem extremely unlikely. At this point, I have to wonder if someone at Philly-based Fleer carried a grudge from the 1977 and 1978 NLCS all the way to the sticker factory.

“Take that, Dodger fans, no Garvey jersey for you! You get an 80 LOL. Oh, and who won the World Series that year? We did, that’s who! We did!”

It’s a paranoid theory, but what else you got? Philly sports fans…God bless ‘em!

Author’s note: If you don’t already know the story of Upper Deck hating the Dodgers, check which team got card 666 in their first five sets!

On thinking about what makes a card a card

One of the few editorial positions we have on this blog is a very catholic stance toward what counts as a baseball card. We’ve published posts about photos, toys, games, stamps, coins, etcetera, all of which serve to flesh out and describe the way that we collected cards. We’re not interested in being gatekeepers for what cards are. We’re interested in use and how cards relate to our fandom and interest in the game itself.

All that said, the discussion about what constitutes a card is one that comes up periodically on Twitter or on here.* It’s a fun discussion to have since we all have very different ideas** which in turn impact our collections and interests. I enjoy taking part in these discussions but I really love just watching them since the criteria people bring up have turned out to all over the map.

*Probably also in the Facebook group but as I’m no longer part of that website I’m unable to confirm as much.

**Quite similar to the “what constitutes a complete set” discussion we had earlier on this blog.

We all, of course, have significant agreement on what a card is. But there are so many variables where an item can deviate from being a card™  that I found myself creating a taxonomy of card attributes. Looking at cards with these attributes in mind is something I’ve found helps me understand why my gut reacts to different products the way it does.

This post will explain my thinking and hopefully help other people put words to things their guts have already intuited. Again, this is in no way intended to be a gatekeeping thing. We all have different reactions to which attributes we care about and where on the spectrum something stops being a card. But if the Twitter conversations have taught me anything it’s that being our most interesting conversations are when we’re being positive about our definitions rather than negative about someone else’s.

Material

We’ll start with the obvious and discuss the material of the card. Obviously the expectation is that they be made of cardboard. They are called “cards” after all.

But cards have never been limited to just that. From the silks and blankets in the pre-war era to the plastic, metal, and wood releases of the modern era we’ve always had cards that weren’t made of cardboard. We’ve had stamps, stickers (some made of cloth), rub-offs, rub-downs, and decals as well.

Even in the cardboard/paper realm there’s also a discussion with having about the thickness of the paperstock. We’ve had posts on the blog about cards printed on newsprint and cards which are almost a quarter of an inch thick.

Size

In general tobacco-sized to 3.5″×5″ seems to have a consensus as being a card. But what about 5″×7″ or 8.5″×11″? What about minis and micros that are smaller than tobacco cards? What about posters and pin-ups?

A lot of this comes back to storage concerns and the way many of us use binders and binder pages to organize our collections. But it’s more than that too. For most of us, “card” indicates something from the business card to postcard size and anything beyond that becomes something else. Too small and the card starts to feel insignificant. Too large and it becomes something else—a photo, a poster, a flyer.

Form

This is sort of related to size but refers to non-rectangular items like discs and diecuts but also encompasses folders, booklets, and pop-ups as well as  coins, poker chips, and buttons. Many of these are binderable. Just as many lose what makes them distinct and interesting as soon as they get bindered.

The items which aren’t binderable at all are especially interesting here. Things like the 1957 Swift Meats diecut paper dolls or those Topps 3-D Baseball Stars from the 1980s are clearly intended to be like cards but do not fit into any standard card storage or presentation systems.

Content

The question of what makes a card a card is more than just the physical description of what it’s made of and what shape it is. What it actually depicts is also important. Yes, picture on the front, stats/bio on the back is the expectation. But there are a lot of cards out there which don’t do this.

We’re not just talking about blank backs either although those are definitely relevant to this category. Backs that are advertising, common designs, or just a player name are all part of this. The same goes with fronts that depict a generic player instead of someone specific.

And for my money, all the more-recent relic, autograph, or online cards with backs that are functionally blank fit in here as well. I’ve seen way too many people refer to them as “half a card” to not mention them.

Release

No images for this section because it’s not something that can really be depicted visually. Traditionally, cards are part of a set and are released in either packs or complete sets. Cards that exist by themselves without the context of a set or the lottery of a pack stray into a grey area. This is something that’s really been pushed into new territory with online releases and the way Topps has in many ways optimized its distribution around selling and creating individual items on demand, but the idea of one-off card releases has been around a long time.

There’s also the discussion here about what connotes a set—both in terms of size and how things are numbered. At what point does a release of cards become a “set”? If something is unnumbered or only has a weird alphanumeric code on the back does that mean that it was intended to be collected by itself?

Case Studies

Why do I bother thinking and categorizing different attributes? Because as I watch the discussions it seems that most of us tolerate a certain amount of variance in one or two categories as long as the others remain “standard.” So let’s dig in.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Let’s start with 1969 Topps Deckle Edge. These are pretty clearly cards but they serve as an example of something that sort of fails one of the categories because the backs are non-existent. But as you move from card size to 5″x7″ to 8″x10″, more and more people switch from treating them as cards to treating them as photos.

Or look at Broders. They’re generally “backless” but they also start to deviate from the expected release method.* They consist of small checklists and were generally not released the same way most cards are. Art cards and customs fit in this area as well. Move up a size in this area and we have things like team photo postcards. Change the paper stock and we end up in Jay Publishing land. At some point things stop being a card for a lot of people**

*There’s also something to be said about the licensing stuff but I’ve not heard anyone claim that Panini or other unlicensed logoless cards aren’t even cards.

**Although we still collect them and cover them on this blog.

The one that’s sort of stumped me in my own collection are the Upper Deck Heroes of Baseball stadium giveaways from the early 1990s. Despite being letter-sized and blank-backed, because they’re cardboard and manufactured by Upper Deck they physically feel more like cards than a lot of the posters that Topps has folded up and inserted in packs over the years.

At the same time, since they were distributed via stadium giveaway and do not function as part of a set. They’re also functionally distinct from those late-60s, early-70s posters that were issued in packs and formed part of a distinct set.

But I could go on and on. As stated initially, the point of this post isn’t to provide a definitive answer or even an official opinion. Instead I hope that organizing my thoughts about the different ways we evaluate cardness is helpful to other people as I’ve found it to be for my own thinking.

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.

Juan’s Double Prints

In several previous posts (too many for most of you!), I have highlighted Topps’ tendency to recycle photos.  The Major League Baseball Players Association boycott of Topps in 1967-68 exacerbated this practice, but earlier examples abound.  My latest obsession is focused on the 1960s cards of Juan Marichal.

In either 1960 or 1961, a photo session took place in San Francisco at Candlestick Park, which opened in 1960.  The photographer captured three different poses of Marichal.  The photos are distinctive due to Juan’s white undershirt.

Since the undergarment does not have a collar, it appears to be a rubberized jacket seen frequently on vintage cards whose photos were taken in spring training.  The shirt was designed to help “burn off” fat accumulated over the winter. However, in this instance, the slender Dominican is undoubtedly using it for insulation, to ward off the Arctic like conditions at Candlestick Park. Also, it is a good bet that Marichal was not starting that evening.  The white sleeves would have been deceptive to the hitters.

The first use of the white sleeve photos shows up on Juan’s 1962 card. He is shown with his arms above his head.  1963 has Juan in a slightly turned stretch position.  The small black and white photo on the 1963 card reuses the 1962 picture.

In 1964, the third pose is used.  This straight on shot turns up on Juan’s “Stand Up” card as well.  The 1962 image makes a comeback on the Pitching Leaders card, while the 1963 Topps pose is used on the Wheaties Stamp.

Topps was far from done using the photos.  The 1964 image turns up on the 1968 checklist as well as Juan’s Bazooka cards from 1965 and 1968. Meanwhile the 1963 Topps pose turns up on the 1967 checklist and 1965 Pitching Leaders card.

We are not done yet.  The 1962 photo spans the decades and appears on the 1970 Pitching Leaders card.

Sometime prior to 1965, Topps snapped three additional photos, probably in spring training.  Although it is hard to prove definitively, the pictures were probably taken at the same time, due to the mock turtleneck undershirt in all three.

Topps will recycle two of the three portraits.  Juan’s partially turned headshot is found on the 1965 card, the 1966 ERA Leaders, the 1967 ERA and Pitching Leaders cards, and the 1967 poster insert. The same image returns on the Deckle Edge insert in 1969.

The second photo, depicting Marichal holding a ball, is used on the 1964 coin insert and the 1966 Bazooka.

The third image may be the best of all.  The 1964 “Giant” shows a smiling Juan.  I could not find another instance of this one being reused.

Topps put out the recycling again, using a newer photo taken a Candlestick.  It is used on the 1967 and 1968 cards, the 1969 Pitching Leaders and the 1969 and 1970 Transogram.

Of course, Juan Marichal is not unique in having reused images.  The League Leader cards have many duplicate images of star players.  I still find it interesting that an image can show up eight years after it first appeared.

Dick Allen: A Chicagoan Remembers

In the late 1980s, Dick Allen took part in an old-timer’s day event in St. Louis that featured such greats as Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Curt Flood, and others, including Negro League immortal Cool Papa Bell. Afterward, Allen excitedly related a conversation that he had with Bell. “He said I could have been one of them,” Allen recalled. “He said I had power and I could run, the two most important requirements in Negro League baseball. It’s funny. Back in their day, the Negro League players all wanted to be big leaguers. They felt deprived because they could never get in. And there I was, in my day, a big leaguer who felt like he lost out because he never got a chance to play in the Negro Leagues.” Dick Allen, Negro League immortal? It’s easy to imagine. If Allen had spent his career in the Negro Leagues—playing in a league full of people who could relate to the sort of trials Allen hadexperienced since birth—Dick’s life might have been quite a bit less stressful. But the rest of us would be the poorer for it.        

When the Chicago White Sox acquired Dick Allen from the Los Angeles Dodgers in December of 1971 (for Tommy John, an outstanding pitcher, and scrub infielder Steve Huntz), I was one of many excited—and apprehensive—Sox fans. Allen was well-known for his prodigious talent with the bat, but the White Sox would be his fourth team in the last four seasons. Bill James described Allen as “the second-most controversial player in baseball history, behind Rogers Hornsby,” and it’s an apt comparison. While continuing to excel on the field, Hornsby had been shuffled from the Cardinals to the Giants to the Braves and then to the Cubs between 1926 and 1929. For Allen, it was from the Phillies—where he had been the first Black star for a franchise with an ugly racial history—to the Cardinals, the Dodgers, and finally the White Sox.

“Allen was labeled baseball’s biggest outlaw,” wrote Tim Whitaker, who collaborated with Dick on Allen’s wonderful autobiography, Crash: The Life and Times of Dick Allen. “He was undisciplined and outspoken, a free spirit who abided by no rules. He was accused of missing curfews, skipping spring training, drinking on the job, getting high, fighting with teammates, having managers fired, and even doodling cryptic messages on the infield dirt. He never did want to be bothered with sportswriters. He was as enigmatic as he was recalcitrant.”

Some of those accusations were true; many were not. As for Allen’s problems with sportswriters, how would you feel about people who refused to address you by the name his family had called you since birth? “Don’t call me Richie,” he would say. “My name is Dick.” But until he got to Chicago, he was “Richie Allen,” or sometimes “Rich” to writers and team officials and even on his baseball cards. (“Bob” Clemente could undoubtedly relate to this.) With the White Sox, Allen was finally referred to as Dick… at least by most people. Jerome Holtzman, the dean of Chicago sportswriters and future official MLB historian, was among the Allen antagonists who continued to call him “Richie.”

Whatever people called him—“Richie” being the mildest of insults hurled at this strong, unflinching Black man—we in Chicago quickly learned that Allen could play. In 1972, his first season with the White Sox, Allen led the American league in on-base percentage, slugging, home runs (a then-team record 37), and runs batted in while winning the league MVP award. In 1973, he was again among the league leaders when he suffered a broken leg in midseason; even this was steeped in controversy, as a White Sox physician insisted Allen could have returned. In 1974, Allen was again leading the league in home runs when he abruptly left the team in early September, announcing his retirement a few days later. He was so far ahead in the home run race that he still led the league, despite not playing a game after September 8.

There were wondrous moments, like a three-run pinch-hit home run in the bottom of the ninth in June of 1972 to defeat the Yankees, 5-4 (I still have an audiotape of that game). There was the game against the Twins a month later that featured two inside-the-park home runs from Allen—a reminder of what a fearsome baserunner Dick Allen was. There was Allen’s 460-foot home run into Comiskey Park’s center-field bleachers—a drive that nearly hit Sox broadcaster Harry Caray, who was doing the game from the bleachers that day. The ball was caught by young Mark Liptak, who later would become a leading White Sox historian.

But Allen being Allen, there were plenty of controversies as well. There was the special treatment—constantly harped upon by the Chicago press—given to Allen by Sox manager Chuck Tanner, who allowed Allen to skip batting practice and come late to the ballpark. Allen sometimes took advantage of that treatment. On at least one occasion, he missed the start of a game, with the White Sox covering his tracks by saying he was sick. There was the controversy over the extent of his injury in 1973 (Allen did attempt to return for one game, but was shut down after limping noticeably). His final year with the White Sox featured a season-long feud with new teammate Ron Santo; “I felt confused, disoriented, but mostly depressed,” Allen recalled about the 1974 season. Even Harry Caray, an early Allen supporter during their White Sox years together, turned on him, referring to Allen with the name that Dick hated. “Every time I try to compare Richie Allen to Stan Musial, I want to vomit,” Caray said. In those days when you lost Harry Caray, you lost Chicago.

Given an opportunity to return to his first team, the Phillies, under more positive circumstances, Allen reconsidered the retirement and finally met his goal of reaching the postseason in 1976. But his skills had diminished, he was bothered by injuries, and the second Philadelphia tenure ended unhappily as well, as did a brief finale with Charlie Finley’s Oakland A’s (Dick Allen and Charlie Finley did not get along? Amazing!)

Allen is gone now, and the outpouring of love he received from former teammates after his December 7 passing make it clear that a lot of the things that people said about Dick Allen were clearly wrong. Prima donna? Bad teammate? Killer of clubhouse morale? Not according to guys like Mike Schmidt and Goose Gossage and Larry Bowa and Jim Kaat and Steve Stone. All of these major stars not only respected Dick Allen; they revered him.

“I wonder how good I could have been,” Dick Allen said in perhaps his most famous quote. “It could have been a joy, a celebration. Instead, I played angry. In baseball, if a couple of things go wrong for you, and those things get misperceived, or distorted, you get a label. After a while, the label becomes you, and you become the label, whether that’s really you or not. I was labeled an outlaw, and after a while that’s what I became.”

Damn the labels. Richard Anthony Allen was a proud Black man in a sport, and a country, that has never felt comfortable with what Geoffrey C. Ward, biographer of the great boxer Jack Johnson, called “unforgivable blackness.” If Allen “played angry,” he had plenty of reason for doing so. He is at peace now, and remembered by many of us with deep affection. I felt privileged to watch a few years in the life of Dick Allen, and I mourn his passing.

On Becoming Complete: A Spiritual Journey

What is complete? Who decides that? How do we know when we get there?

Recently, Mark Armour (co-founder of this blog and current SABR President), Tweeted the good news that he snagged a 1956 Yankees Team Card and his 1956 Topps set was finished. But was it?

56

One Tweeter threw out a picture of the unnumbered checklists

Checks

and Jason (our current blog co-chair) said, “yeah, you need those to be complete.” This lead to a series of comments on what makes a whole set whole. Do you need the 24 blue team checklists inserted in 1973 packs, but not numbered, to have a complete set of that year? How about 1974, where you’d need the red team checklists, the Traded set and all Washington variations to be done.

I do think about this a lot. I’m now 3 away from a complete 1961 Post set, having bought a nice Clemente. There are 200 numbered cards in that set and having one of each number is what I’m shooting for. BUT, with all variations (company issue vs. box issue, Minneapolis vs. Minnesota Twins, players with more than one team, transaction notations, and so on), the set runs to 357! That’s almost 180% of the base numbering. Will I be complete at 200? I’m saying yes.

If you need unnumbered inserts to be complete. Do you need all unnumbered inserts? That would be absurd.

Jose-Canseco-(Mini

If you narrow that down to checklist inserts, my thoughts turn to the 2004 Cracker Jack set, which had two separately numbered checklists, which were not made of the same card stock.

Cracker Jack

And, while I don’t know how the 1963 Fleer checklists were distributed, that card is unnumbered.

s-l1600

Furthermore, does being an insert in and of itself make it part of the whole set? Can’t be, right? These were inserted in 1971 packs, but nobody (at least nobody I know) considers a 1971 Topps set incomplete if you don’t also have a complete set of these.

1971 Topps Coins 5

There has to be a right answer, and this is it:

A set is complete when you have all the numbered cards. Master sets are complete when you have all variations, non-numbered cards, etc.

Getting back to 1956 Topps, if you’re not complete without the checklists, then you’re also not complete unless you have all white and gray back variations and the different team card versions. In fact, they’re called variations for a reason; those cards are “a different or distinct form or version of something.” I would argue, in fact I am arguing, that the checklists are also variations – they are different from all the other 1956 because THEY HAVE NO NUMBER and, without a number, they are outside the set as presented.

Obviously, to each his own on this, but there must be a clear standard. Perhaps we all know what it is, and that’s why complete sets tend to be sold by the definition above, and, when variations, unnumbered checklists, etc. are part of the listing, they are given a separate shoutout.

I’m sure there are many thoughts on this, and maybe I want to hear them. I’m not sure. I imagine I will anyway.

 

Stadium Club before Stadium Club

I just finished a book called “Ballpark: Baseball in the American City” by Paul Goldberger, which is just wonderful. The pictures alone make me stop for a minute to take in all the magic, but there’s more! There’s backstory on the ballparks – why the locations were chosen, who the architects were and why the parks were built at that particular time, just to name a few aspects of the book. I have been taken on a journey of the evolution of ballparks, and I love it.

This isn’t a book review. I want to talk about ballparks. Maybe I just really want to be AT a ballpark right now, but I can’t. Whatever the reason, let’s discuss 1988 Fleer logo stickers. The fronts feature either:    

  1. a team logo inside of a baseball sitting on a trophy stand OR
  2. two small logos with team names printed in all caps. The team names printed in all caps are dreadful. It’s not even in a team wordmark.

When I originally opened packs of 1988 Fleer, I wanted the cards! I’d hang on to the stickers because they come in handy for various projects, but I’d just stash them away in a pile in my closet or somewhere I could forget about them. But lately, going through a box of old cards I found a stash of Fleer stickers and I found myself locked in on the wonderful ballparks featured on the backs of those logo stickers. All of a sudden I was shuffling through wondering if I had a complete 26-ballpark set (no Marlins, Rockies, Diamondbacks or Rays just yet). I did!

Each card has a black & white photo of a ballpark with red stripe across the top & bottom, and a blue stripe right above the bottom red stripe, which noted the capacity, first game & dimensions.

Of the 26 ballparks:

  • 6 are still standing and in use as MLB ballparks – Fenway Park. Wrigley Field, Dodger Stadium, Angel Stadium (“Anaheim Stadium”), Oakland-Alameda County Stadium & Kauffman Stadium (“Royals Stadium”)
  • 3 others are still standing and NOT in use as MLB ballparks – Astrodome, Olympic Stadium & SDCCU Stadium (“Jack Murphy Stadium”)

I’ve seen a game at 13 of the 26 – the six current parks, Olympic Stadium, Comiskey Park, Metrodome, Yankee Stadium, Busch Stadium, Shea Stadium & Milwaukee County Stadium (which I don’t remember at all, but my parents insist they took me there).

One thing that would definitely stand out to fans today are the names.

  • Five are named after the team: Yankee Stadium, Dodger Stadium, Tiger Stadium, Royals Stadium & The Astrodome.
  • Three are named after an owner: Busch Stadium, Wrigley Field & Comiskey Park – kind of. Today, Anheuser-Busch pays for naming rights in St. Louis. As a matter of fact, Gussie Busch wanted to name Sportsman’s Park (which was the original Busch Stadium; this card is the second incarnation) Budweiser Stadium, but rules at the time prohibited him from naming a park after an alcoholic beverage, so he named it after himself and then created a beer named Busch. Take that, Major League Baseball!
  • Three are named after other people – William A. Shea Municipal Stadium was named after the lawyer who helped bring National League baseball back to New York. Jack Murphy Stadium was named after a popular sportswriter for the San Diego Union. The Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome was named after a former Vice President.
  • Two – the two in Canada – are named after a function – Exhibition Stadium in Toronto was on the Canadian National Exhibition Grounds and was a multi-purpose venue used for many different things. Olympic Stadium was built for the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal.
  • Three named after the city – Anaheim Stadium, Arlington Stadium & Cleveland Stadium
  • Four named after the county – Oakland-Alameda County Stadium, Milwaukee County Stadium, Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium & The Kingdome (King County, Washington).
  • Four names inspired by the area – Fenway Park (in an area called The Fens), Riverfront Stadium (self-explanatory), Candlestick Park (built at a location called Candlestick Point) & Three Rivers Stadium (by the confluence of the Allegheny, Monongahela & Ohio rivers).
  • The final two ballparks had honorary names – Veterans Stadium & Memorial Stadium.

It’s quite a difference from today, where ballparks names are determined by whoever offers the most money in naming rights.

Each card has the “first game” played at the park – except for one. The Kingdome card says “christened March 1976” and I’ll assume that’s because while the Mariners didn’t play there until April 6, 1977, the actual first event there was a grand opening ceremony which took place on March 27, 1976. And besides, the first sporting event there was a NASL (North American Soccer League) exhibition between Pele and the New York Cosmos and the Seattle Sounders on April 9, 1976. The Seattle Seahawks played there later that season.

HOWEVER, why not just print the date of the first Mariners game at the Kingdome? That’s what they did in the case of Wrigley Field. On the Wrigley Field card, the date of the first game is listed as 4/20/16. That’s the first Cubs game there, however the first game was 4/23/14 for the Chicago Federals. Also, the San Diego Chargers & San Diego State Aztecs both played at Jack Murphy Stadium prior to 4/5/1968. Anyway, the Mariners “christening” seems odd.

Two additional cards don’t have a specific date, but the month of the first game instead. Anaheim Stadium (first game: 4/66) & Oakland-Alameda County Stadium (first game: 4/68). In the case of the Angels, they moved over from Dodger Stadium for 1966 and Fleer could’ve easily just pulled up baseball-reference and found that the first game was 4/19/1966 (I kid). As for the A’s, they had just moved to Oakland from Kansas City for 1968 and their first regular season contest at the Coliseum was 4/17/1968.

The oldest date printed on these cards is 4/25/01 for Tiger Stadium. And that’s incorrect. While the Tigers played at the same location continuously from their first game in 1901 through 1999, and while Bennett Park opened in 1896 on the same site, Tiger Stadium opened in 1912 and the first game should be listed as 4/20/12 – the same date as Fenway Park’s first contest. The most recently opened park of these cards is the Metrodome, which is already demolished; its first game was 4/6/82.

The capacities range from 33,583 (Fenway Park) to 74,208 (The Mistake by the Lake in Cleveland). The top of Cleveland Stadium looks like a toilet seat, no offense to fans of the Tribe who cherish memories of that building.

Four of the fields are not visible – because they’re domes – the Astrodome, Metrodome, Kingdome & Olympic Stadium (that card is a bit of a disappointment because the tower is cut off in the picture).

On two of the cards, you can see another venue, or at least a part of it – Royals Stadium (Arrowhead Stadium) & Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum (Oracle Arena).

A few more random observations:

  • After looking at some of these cards, I feel like rolling out cookie dough and cutting cookies for some reason. Or eating donuts.
  • The Shea Stadium picture isn’t close enough to make out the 300 auto part shops lined up next to each other.
  • I miss Comiskey Park. I still can’t watch footage or see pictures of the demolition because it makes me cry. I’m serious.
  • There appears to be a game going on in 10 of the 26 cards, but it’s tough to tell in some of them.
  • Exhibition Stadium looks like an awful place to watch a game.
  • The Wrigley Field shot looks like it was taken a really long time ago. The little bits of rooftops visible seem empty.
  • Arlington Stadium looks like it’s in the center of a crop circle.

I’m extremely glad I hung onto these. They didn’t mean much to me when I was growing up, but today I feel that the ballparks are every bit as worthy of having their own cards as the players who competed in them.

Tommy’s walkabout

In reaction to a post on the SABR Baseball Card Committee Facebook page, someone commented that Tommy Davis was depicted on a different team for seven years in a row starting in 1966. This is quite an “achievement,” and will be explored in detail. Tommy’s walkabout through the major leagues ran head long into the MLBPA boycott of Topps, resulting in the repeated use of the same image on his cards and inserts. But even before Tommy left the Dodgers, his image was often recycled. Let us now ogle some wonderful cardboard from a player for whom serious injury may have derailed a Hall of Fame-worthy career.

1960 marks Davis Topps debut featuring is a colorized version of Dodgers team issue from 1960 produced by concessionaire extraordinaire Danny Goodman.

Topps uses the same photo in 1961 but adds the fantastic Topps All-Star Rookie trophy image. Plus, Davis’ cropped head from the photo shows up on the 1961 Topps stamp.

But wait, there’s more! The head shot is used by Salada for the 1962 and 1963 coins.

Tommy has a spectacular 1962 season with a league leading .346 average and an amazing 153 RBI. Fittingly, the emerging star gets two cards in 1963, since Fleer burst on the scene as Topps short lived rival.

In my humble opinion, the 1964 Topps Giant is the best of all Davis’ cards. The “in action” pose, glasses, and jacket under the jersey add up to produce a beauty. Topps liked it too. Tommy’s cropped head is used on the All-Star version of the coin inserts in 1964.

In May of 1965, an awkward slide at second against the Giants resulted in Davis suffering a severely broken and dislocated ankle. His slow recovery dimmed his star status. Tommy was hobbled in field and on the base paths and his batting stroke suffered as well. Topps produces a card featuring Tommy’s profile in 1965. This unattractive shot was used again in 1966.

Tommy’s vagabond years starts in 1967 when the Dodgers decided to part ways and ship him to the Mets. This results in a classic, traded head shot. After one productive year at Shea, the Mets sent Davis packing to the White Sox for Tommy Agee and Al Weis. A different head shot graces his 1968 card but the 1967 is repurposed for the game insert (see top of article).

The odyssey continues in 1969 when the White Sox leave Tommy unprotected in the expansion draft, and he is selected by the Seattle Pilots. Tommy is arguably the Pilots’ best hitter, forever holding the RBI record with 63. As a big- name player on an expansion team, Topps offers up several Davis products. His base card uses the same picture as 1967, the stamp brings back the 1966 image and the Super test issue card recycles the 1968 image. Airbrushed Dodger photos show up on the Deckle Edge and Decal inserts.

In addition to Topps, 1969 and 1970 saw Milton Bradley produce game cards which used an image of Tommy from the 1968 White Sox team issue photos.

The Pilots dealt Tommy to Houston in August of 1969, which launches him on the next stage of his “Cook’s Tour.” The 1970 Astros card features an airbrushed cap and “nostril shot,” probably taken while with the Dodgers. His stay in Houston was short as the Astros sent Tommy on to Oakland who in turn sold him to the Cubs late in 1970. Finally, in 1971, Tommy has a photo wearing in the team’s uniform for the first time since 1966.

It goes without saying that Tommy’s windy city stint was more of a “blow over.” “The Drifter” catches a freight bound for Oakland during the 1971 season. This results in a nice base card and a classic “In Action” photo of Tommy holding Horace Clarke on first at Yankee Stadium in the 1972 set.

Though Tommy was productive in Oakland, a dispute with owner Charlie Finley results in his release in March of 1972. Tommy will re-sign with the Cubs in July and eventually be traded to the Orioles. Tommy’s release may have factored into Topps not issuing a Davis card in 1973. His streak of cards on different teams ends at seven years.

But fortune shines on Tommy in the form of the Designated Hitter being implemented in the American League in 1973. The mobility challenged Davis is inserted into the potent Orioles lineup in the DH role. Tommy will have a career renaissance, helping Baltimore to two East Division championships in 1973-74.

The Orioles part ways after 1975. Tommy latches on with the Yankees, who release him at the end of spring training. The Angels sign him in July of 1976, but the nomadic Davis shuffles off to Kansas City in September- which is the team he is depicted on in his cardboard swan song as a player in 1977.

However, there is a career-capper of sorts found in the 1982 Donruss set. Tommy received a card, while serving as the Mariners’ batting coach.
Davis’ trek results in cards on 10 different teams, one more than Ken Brett, as I chronicled in a previous post.

If you know of another player with more teams, let us know. In any event: “Tommy Davis has been everywhere, man/He’s been everywhere, man/He’s crossed Chavez Ravine, man/He’s breathed the Seattle air, man/Baltimore crab cakes he’s eaten his share, man/Tommy’s been everywhere……”

I highly encourage everyone to read the SABR Bio Project Tommy Davis biography by Mark Stewart and Paul Hirsch.

1969 Mike Andersen postcard

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.

Photo Nov 11, 6 03 49 PM
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.

Photo Nov 11, 6 03 28 PM
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.

Photo Nov 11, 6 03 03 PM
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.

Photo Nov 11, 6 05 34 PM
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.

Photo Nov 11, 6 06 01 PM
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.

Photo Nov 11, 6 05 08 PM
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.

Photo Nov 11, 6 06 25 PM
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.

Photo Nov 11, 6 04 51 PM
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.

Photo Nov 11, 6 05 22 PM
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.

Photo Nov 11, 6 08 29 PM
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.

Photo Nov 11, 6 08 48 PM
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.”