My time as a rabid collector lasted for approximately three years, 1986 through ’88. During those years, I blew nearly all my disposable income — mind you, I was a college student without a real job — on packs of baseball cards. Topps, Donruss, Score, Fleer, Sportflics… didn’t really matter. I was addicted, and spent an inordinate amount of time sorting my way to complete (or nearly complete) sets. I also had binders full of players like Cory Snyder and Tony Fernández. But that hoary old story is for another day!
This story’s about what I missed, by not starting earlier. No, not the outstanding 1984 Fleer set, which I’ve just recently come to love. That same year, Donruss produced their second Action All Stars set: 60 player cards + 1 checklist card; five cards per cello pack, plus a card consisting of three Ted Williams puzzle pieces.
Of course all the players were depicted in “action” photos, but what really distinguished these cards was their size. I like big cards. I mean, why would anyone not like big cards? The only downsides are a) you can’t stuff ’em in your pockets, and b) good luck finding the correct binder pages! But if the point of a baseball card is the image of the player, bigger is nearly always better (he said, overconfidently).
And these cards are 3.5 inches by 5 inches — essentially notecard size, or exactly the size of two lesser baseball cards.
I discovered the existence of this set just a few weeks ago, when searching eBay for “Topps big” or something (did I mention that I like big cards? I think I mentioned that). I really just wanted to hold one Action All Star, just to get a sense of the thing. But there was a good deal and … well, I wound up with eight five-card cello packs.
Look, I’m not stupid. I know I could have learned most of what I wanted to know by looking at images and reading stuff on the web. But not all.
All means holding a card in your hand, feeling its thickness and texture and turning it over and seeing what’s on the back. All means up close and personal.
Anyway, I opened all the packs. In retrospect, this was … okay, I am sorta stupid. For the money I spent on the packs, I could have picked up the complete set. With money left over. So buying the packs would have made sense only if I’d then sent some packs as gifts, or rationed the opening thrills for myself. But instead I did the other, stupider thing!
Oh well. Hardly the first time.
Anyway, the “action” images are really nice: well composed and framed, with a clean accompanying design (unlike too many cards in those pre-Stadium Club days). My research reveals that in both 1983 and ’85 (see below), Donruss went with two images on the front of their Action All Stars: action, and portrait … which only serves to detract from both.
Your mileage might well vary, but for my (not much) money the 1984 set is the only one of the three sets with real curb appeal.
Not that they’re perfect. In way too many of the images, the background is just sorta dark, or murky. Or murkily dark. Often the player is backlit. The overall effect is just … darkness. Which could be easily corrected today. On your cell phone.
Back then, though, they just went with the images they had, and we liked it. But among the 25 players I got, only a few — most notably, Dale Murphy — really pop the way you want them to. Just too many guys doing their actions in the shadows.
The backs of the cards could have been great, but are just passable. Using the top half for a head shot was a good idea, albeit still with too many shadows. The bottom half includes full name, biographical data, and a complete MLB statistical record. So far, so good. But then there are career highlights, with the combination of tiny black letters and dark red background almost impossible to read without a magnifying glass…
…which you could almost understand for the veterans with huge stat sections like Steve Carlton and Reggie Jackson. But Tony Peña’s got five stat lines, five lines of highlights … and a bunch of empty red space. Instead of using a bigger, actually readable font for the highlights, they just used the same teeny letters for everybody. Which I can barely read. Oh and by the way get off my damn lawn you meddling kids.
Overall, this is a good set that could have been great, with better lighting and some measure of design flexibility on the back. Well worth whatever they’re asking on eBay.
One of the underappreciated, yet voluminous, touchstones of the 1980’s – early 1990’s card boom (I try to resist “Junk Wax Era,” because there are a ton of wonderful cards that, though small in value, are high in aesthetics, i.e., not junk) was the mini-boxed set. If you had a chain store, you likely had a self-branded set, 33, maybe 44, cards in size. Ames had 20 Home Runs/20 Stolen Bases, Revco had Hottest Stars, KMart had AL and NL MVPs and many other titles. If I were so inclined to research how many of these sets there were, I’d be wading my way through stacks and stacks of them. I am not so inclined.
I can say, with some assurance, that Woolworth put out sets from 1985 – 1991, all made by Topps, all called Baseball Highlights (except the first two years, All-Time Record Holders and Super Stars, respectively), all 33 cards (except ATRH, which has 44).
I picked up the 1990 set (sans gum) for a buck at Yastrzemski Sports in Cooperstown, and it’s a glossy beaut.
The checklist is made up of players you’d expect to find circa 1990 – MVPs, Cy Young winners, ROYs and post-season heroes, but also MLBers who hit some milestones. It’s always swell to see a new Dewey Evans card.
As you’d expect, the set is overloaded with A’s and Giants, and that’s fine, but the highlights, for me, are in the Fisk, Murray, and Ryan cards. Especially that Murray card!
The tail end of the set is a run of World Series cards. Not a lot in the way of highlights, unless you’re an A’s fan, but excellent cards. Check out that Kevin Mitchell one. (I still believe that if there hadn’t been an earthquake, the Giants would have put up a better fight. That the A’s could go Stewart and Moore, then Stewart and Moore again after a long layoff, helped Oakland. The Giants may have had a hard time with Bob Welch, but I liked their chances against Storm Davis.)
The backs are simple, clear and uncluttered.
Granted, these boxes tend to blend into each other in checklist and shine. They’re not made of ticky tacky, but they do kinda all look the same. Still, I’m up to find more, but only at a dollar a piece. I do have my limits.
Rather than imagine the Topps intern assigned to building the checklist simply whiffed on Joltin’ Joe (or that there even was a Topps intern with such a job!), I have to believe Topps simply lacked the rights to feature DiMaggio’s likeness on cardboard. A look at other postwar sets during and after DiMaggio’s career show his absence in 1961 was definitely the rule and not the exception.
1933-1941 (AKA “Prewar,” depending where you lived!)
During the early part of the Clipper’s career, while he was not in EVERY set, one can say he tended to appear in every major set you’d expect to see him in, and then some, including these two gems from the 1933-36 Zeenut set.
Knowing DiMaggio didn’t make his Yankee debut until 1936, it’s not a big surprise that he didn’t appear in the three major gum card releases of the mid-1930s: 1933 Goudey, 1934 Goudey, and 1934-36 Diamond Stars. That said, his appearance in 1933 Goudey wouldn’t have been completely out of the question since that set did include 15 minor leaguers, including a fellow Pacific Coast Leaguer, Pete Scott.
Meanwhile, the 1934 Goudey and 1934-36 Diamond Stars checklists did not include any minor leaguers, so there’s no reason DiMaggio would have even been up for consideration.
Now some of you may know about the 1937 Diamond Stars extension set and surmise that Joltin’ Joe might have cracked that checklist. Unfortunately, all that seems to have survived is a single sheet of 12 cards, which of course DiMaggio is not on. All we can say for sure then is that if National Chicle did have a Diamond Stars card planned it would have been a gem!
The two-year stretch from 1936-37 did see DiMaggio appear on several cards, now as a Yankee, though there is room for debate among the collecting orthodoxy as to which constitute his true rookie card. (Don’t ask me, I’d vote for his San Francisco Seals cards!)
These four from 1936 have the benefit of being a year earlier than the 1937 cards, hence score a few more rookie points for their date of issue. On the other hand, all are of the oversized premium variety, which not all collectors put in the same category as the smaller cardboard offerings that come from packs of gum or cigarettes.
In fact, DiMaggio did crack one (cataloged as) 1936 (but really 1936-37) set of gum cards, but the fact that the World Wide Gum were only issued in Canada gives pause to a good many of the Hobby’s arbiters of rookiehood. If nothing else, though, note the nickname on the back of the card. A bit harder to read but the bio would not pass muster today in its reference to Joe as “a giant Italian.”
One of DiMaggio’s most sought after cards, rookie or not, was another Canada-only release and came out the following year under the later-on-much-more-famous O-Pee-Chee name.
Back in the U.S., DiMaggio made it onto two cards in 1937, but as with the preceding year they were both of the larger premium variety. The Goudey offering (left) is not much (any?) different from its 1936 counterpart, while the Exhibits 4-in-1 is particularly notable in its pairing of the Yankee Clipper with Lou Gehrig. (Oh, and the other two guys are pretty good also.)
It is finally in 1938 that Joltin’ Joe receives his first ever, God honest American gum card as a Yankee, thanks to the 1938 Goudey “Heads Up” set. Like the other 23 players on the checklist, he in fact appears twice, once with a plain background (card #250) and once with a cartoon background (card #274).
Finally, DiMaggio and Gehrig make it onto another 4-in-1 of Yankee legends, this time swapping out Tony Lazzeri for Bill Dickey.
To this point, just about every card I’ve shown, save the 1938 Goudey pair, has some level of oddball status attached. This was not the case from 1939-41 when Gum, Inc., hit the scene with its three year run of major bubble gum releases under the Play Ball name. Though the term is perhaps overused, I’ll throw DiMaggio’s 1941 card out there as one of the truly iconic cards of the Hobby.
The Play Ball cards weren’t DiMaggio’s only cards from that three-year stretch. He could also be found in the 1939-46 Exhibits “Salutations” set, yet another oversized offering…
And the 1941 Double Play set, where he was paired with his outfield neighbor, Charley Keller.
If there’s a theme to all of this, beyond just the opportunity to post a lot of incredible cards, it’s that Joe DiMaggio was no stranger to cardboard during the prewar portion of his career. On the contrary, he was in just about every major set there was, and then some!
These next ten years take us to the end of the Yankee Clipper’s career while also leading us through the wartime era where not a lot of card sets were being produced. DiMaggio cards didn’t simply follow the dip in overall card production but practically disappeared altogether.
Joe’s first card, post-1941, comes from the 1943 M.P. & Company card, a somewhat “off the radar” almost certainly unlicensed set, something we’ll see quite a bit more of as we proceed through this section of the article. (Side note: This set is screaming out for one of you to solve the remaining 21% of a mystery.)
Two notable aspects of the card are Joe’s position, right field (!), and the fact that his recent hitting streak is not mentioned.
The latter of these notables is addressed five years later in the 1948 Swell “Sport Thrills” set, which also happens to be the first gum card set of baseball highlights and a possible inspiration for the 1959 and 1961 cards Topps put out under a similar name.
First off, I’ll show the back of the card, which is everything you might expect to see in a card featuring The Streak.
However, the front of the card is more than a bit disappointing to DiMaggio collectors for obvious reasons. “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?” indeed!
What I read into this card is that Sport Thrills did not have permission from DiMaggio to use his likeness on the card. Yes, it’s possible the folks at Swell truly considered “stopping the streak” a greater achievement than the streak itself, but I kind of doubt it.
But then again, look who made it onto the set’s Ted Williams card, so who knows!
1948 was also the year that Gum, Inc., reappeared on the scene, beginning an eight-year stretch (1948-55) of baseball card sets under the Bowman name. the Bowman sets managed to include pretty much every big name of the era but one: Joe DiMaggio.
Personally I would have loved to see the Yankee Clipper in one of these early Bowman sets, but a “what if” we can consider as collectors is whether the rights to Joe D. would have left another Yankee centerfielder off the checklist in 1951.
You might not have expected any mention of Topps so soon, but it’s worth noting that Topps made its baseball debut not in 1952 or even 1951 but in 1948 with 19 of the 252 cards in its Magic Photos release featuring baseball players.
The first five cards pictured could lead you to believe the players were all retired greats, but in fact six of the cards in the set featured images of the 1948 World Champion Cleveland Indians. Well shoot, this was the one year from 1947-53 that the Yankee’s didn’t win the World Series! Crazy to think it, but perhaps if the Yankees and not the Indians had signed Paige and Doby, there would be a playing career Topps card of Joe DiMaggio!
One of the least known (in terms of origin, not familiarity) releases of the era was the 1948 Blue Tint set. DiMaggio has a card in the set but in what’s emerging as a common theme the card (and entire set!) are believed to be unlicensed.
Similar to the 1938 Goudey cards a decade earlier, the 1948 1949 Leaf set finally presents us with an unambiguously mainstream, all-American, picture-on-the-front, New York Yankees card of the Clipper. It even boasts #1 in what is one of the earliest examples of “hero numbering” in a baseball card set.
Astute collectors may now say, “A-ha! That’s why he wasn’t in Bowman. Leaf signed him first.” However, my own belief is that Leaf not only didn’t sign DiMaggio but didn’t sign anyone, making this card as well as the rest of the set unlicensed. (As always, I would love it if a reader with more information is able to confirm or correct this in the comments.)
The next same year M.P. & Company was back with what I wrote about last year as the laziest set ever, adding to our tally of unlicensed Clipper cards. I rather like the blue added to Joe’s uniform since the 1943 release, but I don’t love the bio remaining unchanged even six years later.
In 1951 Topps hit the shelves in earnest with five different baseball offerings, a number that now feels small but was huge for its time. Though DiMaggio had already achieved all-time great status, there was no reason to expect him in the Connie Mack’s All-Stars set, in which the most modern player was Lou Gehrig.
However, there was reason to expect DiMaggio in the Current All-Stars set, which featured 11 participants from the 1950 All-Star Game. While DiMaggio wouldn’t consider the contest among his career highlights, having gone 0-3 and grounded into a double play, his presence at Comiskey that day at least qualified him for this tough Topps release.
Two other closely related Topps issues from 1951 were the Red Backs and Blue Backs. Though nobody would confuse their checklists for the top 104 stars of the era, it seems reasonable to think Topps would have gone with DiMaggio if they could have.
The final Topps offering of 1951 is one that seemed almost assured to include DiMaggio but didn’t. Topps Teams featured complete team photos of every team on the checklist, but there was only one problem. The checklist did not include the Yankees!
We close out the 1942-1951 stretch with the 1951 Berk Ross set, one that did in fact include a Joe DiMaggio card. In fact, there were two cards if we count his two-player panel with Granny Hamner as separate.
While not a lot is known about these Berk Ross cards, the one thing most collectors believe is that these cards, much like the other DiMaggio cards of the era, were unlicensed.
As much as some collectors, then and now, would have loved to see a 1952 Topps card of the Yankee Clipper, we of course know he did not crack the set’s 407-card checklist, nor should he have been expected to. While “career capper” cards are the norm today, the tradition at Topps for many years was to focus its flagship set on the players expected to play in the current season.
DiMaggio did find himself with an unlicensed career capper in the 1952 follow-up from Berk Ross
Beyond 1952 we are clearly in post-career territory, meaning DiMaggio cards would mainly rely on three types of issues: all-time greats, highlights, and reprints.
Of course that’s if we’re talking about the cards themselves. Joltin’ Joe was in fact the frontman for the 1953 Bowman set, his likeness and endorsement appearing on the boxes and the wrappers.
Side note: Topps liked the idea enough to try their own version of this in 1954.
The first opportunity for a post-career DiMaggio card came from Topps in 1954. If you’re confused, the set I’m talking about isn’t the 1954 Topps baseball set of Hank Aaron RC fame but a 1954 Topps set that mainly consisted of cards like this.
The 1954 Topps Scoop set captured 156 notable moments in our history, and four of them came from the world of baseball.
DiMaggio and his famous Streak would have been right at home in the set, but their absence was hardly conspicuous either given the primarily non-sports focus of the set.
The next opportunity for a DiMaggio card came in 1959 when Topps issued a ten-card Baseball Thrills subset as part of its main release. However, Topps focused all ten of the cards on current players.
The same year, Fleer issued its 80-card Ted Williams set. As the set’s name indicated, all the cards were of Ted Williams. At the same time, many of the cards included cameos of other players and personalities. As linked as the careers of Williams and DiMaggio were, a card of the pair would have fit the set perfectly.
The very next year, Fleer issued the first of its two “Baseball Greats” sets. The checklist boasted 78 retired greats and one active player (an eyesore of a Ted Williams card) but no Joe DiMaggio.
The checklist nearly doubled to 154 cards in 1961, leaving plenty of room for Joltin’ Joe. Of course, he was nowhere to be found.
Another player highlighting the history of the game in 1960 and 1961 was Nu-Cards. Their 1960 “Hi-Lites” set of 72 postcard sized cards was at the time the largest set of its kind ever issued. Two of the set’s cards featured DiMaggio, ending his decade-long exile from cardboard.
The 1961 Nu-Card “Scoops” set, one of my favorites, added 80 cards, now standard sized, but numbered as if the set were much larger. Again, DiMaggio makes the set twice.
As already mentioned, Topps was also back in 1961 with “Baseball Thrills,” but this time they departed from the 1959 version by including mostly retired stars. Still no Joe.
Nostalgia was evidently in the air in 1961 as yet another player entered the scene with an all-time greats offering. Golden Press produced a booklet of 33 cards that I rate among the best looking ever made.
I don’t know enough about the Nu-cards and Golden Press sets to know if DiMaggio’s image was used with his permission or if perhaps different rules might have applied when cards were issued in book form, as was the case with Golden Press. What I will say is that his absence from the biggies (Topps, Fleer), particularly on the 20th anniversary of the Streak, was more than just accidental.
This next ten-year stretch is one that was fairly thin on tribute cards, so there were few sets produced were a DiMaggio would have made sense.
The 1962 Topps set included its ten-card “Babe Ruth Special” subset, no doubt timed with the falling of Babe’s single-season home run record the year before. It was a fun set but not one that Joe DiMaggio would have belonged in.
DiMaggio did make an appearance in a 1967 set that might cause some collectors to say, “Hey, he finally got a Topps card!” The card came in the “Retirado” subset of the 1967 Venezuelan issue often referred to as Topps Venezuelan. However, the set was almost certainly not produced by Topps, and was more than likely a…you guessed it…unlicensed issue. (A future SABR Baseball Cards article will cover this topic in more detail.)
Bazooka issued an all-time greats set in 1969-70 that included small cards of baseball’s immortals and larger cards of baseball’s greatest achievements. In this case, DiMaggio might have fit either but ended up in neither.
Topps again featured amazing achievements in its 1971 “Greatest Moments” set. However, with all moments coming from current players, there would have been no place for Joe D.
As in the previous ten years it would be up to the smaller players to keep Joe DiMaggio’s cardboard legacy alive. One such player was Robert Laughlin, later affiliated with various Fleer sets of the 1970s. His cult classic World Series set (original version) from 1967 featured DiMaggio as the broom swinger of the 1939 Fall Classic.
With production of these Laughlin cards limited to 300 sets, collectors were forced to head to Oakland area Jack in the Box restaurants to feed their appetite for the Clipper, though it’s possible the younger burger eaters would have been even happier to land a different Yankee slugger.
The birth of TCMA in 1972 almost single-handedly accounted for the rapid spike in DiMaggio cards over the next decade, with Robert Laughlin and Shakey’s Pizza doing their part as well.
Two Robert Laughlin offerings that included DiMaggio were the 1972 “Great Feats” set and the 1974 “All-Star Games” set.
The “Great Feats” set, with mostly minor changes, became Fleer’s 1973 “Baseball’s Greatest Feats” set. One major change, however, was that DiMaggio’s card was dropped, almost certainly out of legal fears by Fleer.
TCMA’s first DiMaggio card was part of a beautiful set dedicated to the All-Time New York Yankee Team.
As were the Laughlin cards, TCMA cards were unlicensed and sold direct to hobbyists by mail order. Lawsuits would eventually hit TCMA, but at least for the time being they were able to issue cards of the Clipper with impunity. I can certainly see their “1930s League Leaders” card (left) from 1973 escaping the notice of Joe and his legal team, though was sufficiently under the radar, but I wonder if their 1973-74 “Autograph Series,” designed for signature by the players, might have been pushing things just a bit.
Among TCMA’s other DiMaggio offerings around this time were these postcards pairing the Yankee Clipper with other top-shelf Hall of Famers.
TCMA’s 1936-39 Yankees Dynasty set, issued in 1974, produced another two cards of Joe DiMaggio.
And if you couldn’t get enough DiMaggio/Williams cards, TCMA had your back in 1974 with its “1940s League Leaders” set.
I know a lot of collectors knock the unlicensed stuff, but I’m personally thrilled that TCMA was out there creating the cards that needed to be created. Topps had more than 20 years to figure out a way to pair Joe D. and Teddy Ballgame, and it never happened. This card needed to happen, and I’m glad it did.
We’ll take a quick intermission from TCMA cards to present a three-year run (1975-77) of DiMaggio cards from Shakey’s Pizza.
And now we’re back with more TCMA, this time a 1975 reboot of their All-Time Yankees set featuring all new photos.
Reprint cards and sets hit the hobby mainstream in 1977, including these two cards of DiMaggio, both originally from 1938. The first came from Bert Randolph Sugar’s book of “Dover Reprints” and the second came from Jim Rowe. (DiMaggio’s 1941 Play Ball card would come out as a Dover Reprint the following year.)
1977 was also the year that Renata Galasso began her 270-card magnum opus known alternately as “Decade Greats” and “Glossy Greats.” The first series of 45 cards, issued in 1977 in partnership with TCMA, assigned its very first card to Joe DiMaggio. (DiMaggio returned to the set in the 1984 Series 6 release.)
Evidently it was very much in vogue to lead off a set’s checklist with the Yankee Clipper as we see it happen two more times in 1979 TCMA issues, their 1953 Bowman-like “Stars of the 1950s” and their lesser known “Diamond Greats” set.
Before heading to 1980, I’ll just note that we’ve made it to 1979 with not a single Topps card of DiMaggio and possibly not a single licensed card from any company since either 1941 or 1948.
The Me Decade kicked off with a beautiful Perez-Steele postcard of the Clipper. Dick Perez was not yet associated with Donruss, but Dick would soon lend his artwork to multiple all-time greats sets produced by Donruss over the next few years. You can probably guess whether or not those sets would include Joe DiMaggio. (Interestingly, there was no DiMaggio in the 108 “Great Moments” postcards released by Perez-Steele from 1985-1997. Ditto for the 44-card Perez-Steele “Celebration” series in 1989.)
DiMaggio was in an 30-card unlicensed set of “Baseball Legends” produced by Cramer Sports Promotions, the company that would soon become Pacific Trading Cards.
While other card makers joined the party, TCMA was still king in the early 1980s when it came to the all-time greats. Their third go-round of an All-Time Yankees set presented collectors with an early version of a “rainbow” nearly 40 years after Goudey did the same.
This same year, TCMA also included DiMaggio in its “Baseball Immortals” issued under their SSPC brand.
These 1980 “Superstars” are sometimes listed as TCMA and sometimes listed under the Seckeli name. (Andrew Aronstein, son of TCMA co-founder Mike Aronstein, believes the cards were sold by TCMA but not produced by TCMA. The Standard Catalog notes the cards were probably produced by Card Collectors Closet in Springfield, MA.) The set included 45 cards in all and five of DiMaggio.
A second series of 45 cards followed in 1982, this time with some non-baseball cards in the checklist and only a single DiMaggio.
The same year, Baseball Card News put out a set of 20 cards, including two with DiMaggio, one solo and one alongside Bob Feller.
1982 also saw three more TCMA sets with DiMaggio cards. Baseball’s Greatest Hitters and Baseball’s Greatest Sluggers featured standard sized baseball cards, and “Stars of the 50s” featured larger postcard-sized cards.
The streak of (probably) unlicensed DiMaggio cards finally met its end following the release of one last (probably) unlicensed DiMaggio card from the Big League Collectibles “Diamond Classics” set.
Before presenting the licensed DiMaggio issue, we’ll take one quick detour to highlight a set DiMaggio should have been in but wasn’t. The 1983 Donruss “Hall of Fame Heroes”set of 44 cards presented a terrific opportunity for DiMaggio to make his “big three” debut. (Donruss continued to put out all-time greats sets in 1984 and 1985 but neither included Joe D.)
Instead, DiMaggio signed on with Authentic Sports Autographs (ASA) for a twelve-card, limited edition set consisting entirely of DiMaggio cards.
I suspect “The Joe DiMaggio Story” by ASA represented the first time the Yankee Clipper got paid for his likeness on a baseball card in 42 years.
Rather than continue set by set, I’ll refer readers to an article from Night Owl Cards on DiMaggio’s more modern issues (or lack thereof) and simply close with some highlights.
DiMaggio’s next appearance with a major baseball card maker, which for now I’ll define as holding an MLB/MLBPA license, came in 1986 as part of the Sportflics “Decade Greats” set.
I can’t say for certain, but I think this was the first DiMaggio card to come out of a pack since 1961’s Nu-Card Scoops set.
I hate to bill this next one as “major card maker,” but it fits the definition I offered earlier. So here it is, 1989 Starting Lineup Baseball Greats.
The next major card maker to score a deal with Joe was, well, Score, in 1992. Several different cards, most very nice looking, were inserts either in packs or factory sets. The relationship would migrate to Score’s Pinnacle brand in 1993.
DiMaggio finally made his Fleer debut in 1998, though it was in a somewhat unusual way. The card was part of Fleer’s tribute to the Sports Collectors Digest hobby publication and showed DiMaggio signing cards for Pinnacle in 1993. How many times do you see one brand of baseball cards featured on another?
It was only a matter of time before Upper Deck got into the DiMaggio derby, though it would have to be posthumously. The relationship would continue until more or less the baseball (mostly) death of the company in 2010.
And what about Topps? The “baseball card company of record” at long last issued its first Joe DiMaggio card in 2001 as part of the “Before There Was Topps” subset. (For all those Mantle collectors who regard the 1952 Topps as Mantle’s rookie due to its being his first Topps card, I present to you your DiMaggio rookie!)
Topps would really jump into the DiMaggio game in 2007 and to this day remains your most likely source for future DiMaggio cards, even if Topps does not have an agreement in place at the moment. Overall though, Topps produced baseball cards from 1948-2000, a span of 53 years, with no Joe DiMaggio. Topps didn’t quite match 56, who who the hell ever will?
So all of this was my really long way of saying that it makes sense there was no Streak card in the 1961 Topps Baseball Thrills subset. Too bad though, it would have been a helluva card!
I’m a sucker for 3-D cards. Not all (except when it comes to Kellogg’s), but most. I have, in addition to Kellogg’s, a smattering of Sportflics, Topps inserts and other oddballs. Sometimes the effect works, usually through some weird angle – under an armpit, between a bat and a head. You’ve got to pick your spots.
The 1995 Topps DIII set, 59 cards featuring “infinite depth perception,” held great promise, but, like Everlasting Gobstoppers and The Neverending Story, only delivered the falsest of false advertising. The 59 cards, uber thick with heavy laminate, are a blurry mess with no discernible movement.
I was going to post a video of the cards in motion, but there’s really no point. Unlike even the worst Sportflics cards, the DIIIs don’t budge.
Still, I like them. They’re heavy to hold, and, though ineffective, kind of nice.
The backs are a cube design, though Star Wars scrolls come to mind,
and the checklist is firmly mid-1990’s, when Orlando Merced and Mike Piazza could make the same set of name players.
DIIIs are not as terrible as the pit of man’s fears, and they may not represent the summit of his knowledge, but you can get a set for around $15, which is a pretty nice zone.
As a kid few things sucked more than being dragged to Kmart by my mom. All that changed one day in 1982 when I saw these on the shelves by checkout.
I don’t recall the price, but it was damn low for a set that included Mantle, Mays, and Aaron, and it was even low enough for me to somehow twist my mom’s arm into adding it to our cart. On top of that, these were no ordinary cards. These were a Limited Edition!
Opening the box on the way to the car, I was pretty thrilled with the look of the cards, the first 41 of which featured images of earlier Topps baseball cards. At least that’s what I thought.
In fact, the set not only included cards of cards but also cards of cards that never were.
The set also gave me my first Topps Traded card since the designers smartly eschewed the 1981 Rollie Fingers base card in favor of his Brewers update.
However, the most intriguing cards in the set were these five. Even as a Dodger fan, I had to love the idea that these were cards of cards of Cards!
Thanks to some trades and card show visits, I already had some cards of cards from 1975 in my collection.
Three cards in the 1975 Topps MVP subset even included cards that never were.
The Wills card appears to be the same one used seven years later by Kmart, which leads me to wonder if a “real” 1962 Topps Maury Wills was created but never released or if someone in 1982 simply said, “Hey, wait a minute! No need to make a fake Wills. We still have that one from ’75.”
The 1951-style Campanella seems to work well, but the 1955 is a bit of an eyesore. Not only did Topps aberrantly go black and white on the head shot but they “capped off” the anachronism by placing Campanella in L.A. three years early. (Collectors of the 1958 or 1962 Jay Publishing sets may recognize the source of the 1955 Campy fauxtaux.)
But I digress. What you really want to know is were there cards of cards of Cards, and of course the answer is YES! As the set’s theme was identical to the Kmart set and the time frame wasn’t too different either, we see the same cards of cards of Cards as Kmart, minus Keith Hernandez who of course hadn’t won his MVP award yet.
And just the year before that Topps recapped the entire cardboard career of the Hammer with its five-card “Hank Aaron Special” subset.
North of the border, the same subset was issued but with some twists I never understood until reading Matthew Glidden’s terrific article on the subject. While the first and last cards are largely the same as the U.S. issue, the middle three cards were split into six.
On the heels of their 1974 and 1975 successes, Topps created another “cards of cards” subset for 1976. Though there were no cards of cards of Cards, the “Father & Son” cards featured five (then) current players along with the 1953 or 1954 Topps cards of their Big League dads.
That same year, a lesser known set featured a card of a card. Were it not for baseball’s Color Barrier, it might have even been a card of a card of a Card since its subject spent ten years with the St. Louis Stars.
The card itself is from a 13-card set dedicated to the life and career of Cool Papa Bell, and the card it depicts is from a 1974 Laughlin set.
Cards of cards had a particularly strong run from 1985-1990 thanks to another Father/Son series, featuring (yes!) a card of a card of a Card…
…and the five-year reboot of a classic Topps subset that debuted in 1977.
Where the 1977 subset used ordinary (or sometimes extraordinary) photos, these later sets adopted a Kmartesque cards of cards design. There were five cards in the 1986 subset, but none were cards of cards of Cards, nor were there even cards of cards that never were. The closest we come to a novelty is the use of Fernando Valenzuela’s 1981 Topps Traded card.
The 1987 subset again featured five cards but sadly no cards of cards of Cards. What it did include was the by now familiar Maury Wills card that never was.
Finally in 1988 were are rewarded with two cards of cards of Cards, and these weren’t just any old Cards but two of the greatest ever to wear the uniform.
The 1989 subset had just about everything under the sun: a card that never was of Tony Oliva, a card of a card of a Card, and a card of my cardboard crush, the Topps XRC of Dr. K. Oh, and Hank Aaron and Gil Hodges are in there too!
Following the subset into 1990, equipped with airplane bag to stomach its design, we find no cards of cards of Cards, but we do see a tighter cropping of the Kmart Fred Lynn, more closely matching his actual RC, and a card reminding Cards fans of recent postseason agony.
The 1986 Topps set also doubled down on the Hank Aaron Special design to honor Pete Rose’s breaking of Ty Cobb’s career hits record.
Where Topps had already turned the multiplayer RC of Fred Lynn into a solo card for Kmart (and would do similar for Oliva and Lynn again), Topps left Rose’s iconic 1963 rookie card in its original format. Also breaking with card on card tradition, Topps ran with Rose’s main 1984 issue rather than his update card on the Expos. In retrospect we might regard this as the beginning of the end for Montreal baseball.
Before closing the article, I want to highlight one more card on card that depending on the release date may in fact be the first of its kind. The same year Topps issued the Hank Aaron Specials, Fleer and Bob Laughlin blessed the baseball world with a 42-card set of Baseball Firsts. Card 12 in the set describes the first baseball cards and the front depicts a tobacco-style card that never was of Beaneater hurler (pardon the visual!) Kid Madden (SABR bio).
Oh how I would have loved it had Madden been a Cardinal so I could end with a card of a card of a Card. About the closest I can come is to note that the James O’Neill mentioned on the back of the card did spend seven years in St. Louis, but of course his team was the Browns.
I’m curious to know if you’re aware of any cards of cards earlier than 1974 or know whether the Fleer set beat Topps to the shelves (or mail order catalogs). For those of us trying to collect the baseball card’s rookie card, if not the master set, this kind of thing matters a lot!
From our readers
Thanks to @DonSherm for supplying us this “cards on card” card a year before the Hank Aaron Specials and the Fleer Kid Madden.
The card back shows several cards, though it’s impossible to know whether any are cards of Cards or even cards of cards of Cards!
UPDATE: In the spirit of the 1973 Jack Hiatt but one year earlier many of the Topps “In Action” card backs advertised the makeup of the set. While the card images bore little resemblance to actual cards in the set I’ll note that the actual NL Pitching Leaders card included Steve Carlton, meaning just maybe we have a card of a card of a Card!
Now going way back, I’m reminded that some very early non-baseball cards of cards were issued in 1906 (!).
Name, Team, Position. Those are the three most standard pieces of information conveyed on the obverse of a baseball card. Of the three, position is the one that is most often left out. While it is certainly isn’t hard to find examples of cards not bearing the name or team on the frontside, position is the only piece of this trio that feels kind of optional. Player positions were included on many of the earliest cards sets ever issued and remained a staple of card design until the fabled T206 set – which listed a player’s name and team home city only – seemed to put the designation out of style. Over the next few decades, many of the most iconic sets – Goudey, Cracker Jack, Leaf – ignored the position as an element of design. Bowman hit the scene in 1948 and went even more minimalist, rarely going so far as to even include the player’s name on the front of the card.
But then Topps took over, aside from their 1951 and 1952 issues, included a position on the front of each of their sets until 1972, and again for each set between 1973 and 1986. The indicator vanished between 1987 and 1990 and was an on-and-off feature until 2014, when it returned for seven straight sets (including 2020) – Topps’ longest run of position-indicating since the 1980s. Donruss included a position on every one of its designs until 1998 and Fleer did the same, using the indicator on every flagship set the brand issued. Upper Deck ignored the position on just two of its flagship sets (1992 and 2004).
This is not information that most collectors would have at the ready. Most collectors probably take the position bug for granted. I know I usually do. But being so ubiquitous (even in its absence), an unusual position indicator can make for a pretty memorable card. Herb Washington’s 1975 “Pinch Run.” is probably the most famous of these. But there are others that I recall standing out to me as a kid – Pete Rose cards where he was listed an “MGR-1B” seemed other-worldly, the 1990 Score John Olerud listed him as an “OF-P” (all while shown playing first base) made him seem like some kind of top-secret government project, and the 1989 Topps Kirk Gibson All Star that listed him as a “PH” was as jarring as it was confusing (this was done, I assume to give the NL team a DH player without using the league-inappropriate term).
A particular player’s position listing can also convey some emotion. Robin Yount listed as a shortstop or George Brett as a third baseman make them seem as though they’ll be young forever. But finding Reggie Jackson or Henry Aaron or Dave Winfield listed as a DH will bring a note of sadness that the end is near.
But of all the weird positional quirks that have happened over the years, there is nothing so fascinating to me as what happened with Paul Molitor in 1991. That was the year the versatile Brewer was listed at FIVE different positions on various cards and appeared with SEVEN different position indicators. This is, I believe, the greatest positional variety for a player in a single year ever (ignoring THIS, of course). So what happened here?
Well, Paul Molitor had historically been a trick player to pin down position-wise. He came up as a shortstop, getting his first change in the bigs when Robin Yount left the Brewers during Spring Training 1978. He only played 33 games at short that season, but it was enough to have him listed as a pure SS on his 1979 card. He played 10 games at short in 1979 and 12 in 1980, but maintained a dual listed as an “SS-2B” on Topps 1980 and 1981 issues. After spending all of 1981 in the outfield, Topps gave him the rare “2B-SS-OF” listing on his 1982 card. Molly moved to third base in 1982, and played there primarily for most of the next five years. Topps reacted in kind and listed his as either a 3B or 3B/DH through the end of the decade.
Donruss and Fleer, entering the market in 1981, both listed him as a 2B in their debut sets. Fleer gave him a pure (and accurate) OF tag in 1982, whereas Donruss went with the very broad “OF/IF” brand. Both brands followed suit with Topps and used 3B and DH marks exclusively through 1990. Upper Deck and Score did the same.
But Molitor had returned to his utility player roots by the late 1980s. He appeared in 19 games at second base in 1987 and 16 in 1989. Late in 1989, regular second-sacker Jim Gantner suffered a devastating knee injury on a wipe-out slide by the Yankees Marcus Lawton and Molitor took over regular duty at the position until Gantner was able to return mid-way through the 1990 season. Molitor, who suffered a number of injuries of his own that season, ended up playing 60 games at second base in ‘90, 37 at first base (the first time he’d manned that spot), and a handful at third and as a DH. Gantner ended the season as the regular second baseman and Molitor at prime man at first. After the season, the Brewers traded Dave Parker, who had been an All Star for them in 1990, opening the door for the now-34 year old Molitor to become the team’s regular DH for the first time.
So, the long-time third baseman who had been playing second but was also being used at first, where he was now expected to see more time when he wasn’t DHing. Got all that? Card makers sure did.
By my count, Molitor appeared on 21 different base cards in 1991 (I’m ignoring sets like Topps Micro and OPC here that merely reproduce other sets). All but Classic listed a position on their cards. He was most commonly listed at 3B, a dubious claim considering he’d only played two games there in 1990. But strong is the power of tradition. Topps listed him there, using that mark on the Bowman, Stadium Club, and OPC Premium sets as well. Fleer also considered him a 3B, as they had at least in part since 1983. Even Score listed him at the position, despite taking the rather bold stance of being the only card maker to declare him a pure DH on a 1980s issue (1988). Those two games in ’90 got a lot of mileage, I guess.
Five cards listed him at 1B, a nice compromise between his audition there in 1990 and his projected role in 1991. Magazine cards were fond of this mark, as Baseball Cards Magazine, Sports Collectors Digest, and Sports Illustrated for Kids all used it on their in-mag cards, as did Donruss and (curiously) Fleer Ultra, which ran against the flagship’s opinion that Molitor was still a 3B.
Three cards gave him a generic IF designation: two Brewers-issued sets (which used the frustrating device of considering anyone who played in the infield an IF) and the Score Superstars stand-alone set, which also broke with its parent brand and made its own positional distinction.
A pair of sets were forward-looking enough to list Molitor as a pure DH, Leaf and Studio. I recall these as later-year issues and were probably a reaction to Molitor’s role early on the 1991 season, in which he only appeared in the field once before late May.
Then, we have some true outliers. Upper Deck, showing that rebel streak that remade the hobby, boldly listed Molitor as a 2B in their set, and even used a photo of him playing the position. The semi-obscure Petro Canada Standup set also listed him as a 2B, but you had to actually stand the card up to discover this fact. Panini, in its sticker set, was the only brand to use a hybrid mark, listing Molitor was a “1B-2B,” his only 1991 card to accurately reflect upon his 1990 season.
And then there is 1991 US Playing Card set. In here, Molitor (as the Eight of Hearts) is listed as a centerfielder.
At this time, Molitor hadn’t played the outfield since a handful of games in 1986 and hadn’t been in center since 1981. Were they boldly expecting Molitor to take over in center for Robin Yount in 1991? My guess is that this is probably just an outright error. None of the other outfielder cards in the deck are given a specific OF spot (LF, CF, RF), and I can’t find anything that indicated they were acting on some of weird rumor of an unexpected position change. But nonetheless, the card exists and only adds to the positional confusion.
Oddly enough, all this positioning and repositioning for Molitor quickly became a moot point. Following the end of the 1990 season, Molitor would play first base and DH exclusively. His cards reflected this. For the most part. For 1992, Topps again branded him at a 3B across most of its sets despite his not having played there regularly since 1989. And, not to be outdone by their 1991 goof, the US Playing Card company issued two decks with Molitor cards in 1992 – one listing him at 2B and the other at SS – where Molitor hadn’t appeared since 1982 (his 1993 USPC card has him mercifully listed as an IF). At least it’s a consistent decade-long lag time, right? For 1993, only the Post Cereal Company still listed him at 3B. Card makers had finally accepted him for what had become – a DH and part-time 1B.
For his career, Molitor was listed on cards as a 1B, 2B, SS, 3B, IF, OF, CF, DH, 1B/DH, 2B/SS/OF, 2B/SS, SS/2B, 3B/DH, OF/IF, DH/1B, and DH/3B – not to mention post-career cards as a coach and manager. That’s 18 different listings (and perhaps more that I have missed) to describe a single remarkable career.
During the height of the baseball card frenzy, there were a lot of sets. Many many sets. Too many sets. There were incredibly crappy and pointless sets (I’m talking about you, 1990 Topps Doubleheaders).
There were sets of historical worthiness, nicely put together, worthy, but monetarily worthless (1987 Donruss Rookies comes to mind).
Plenty of other sets came and went with a Why? These are ugly! Haven’t I seen something like this a million times over? (Presenting the KayBee Team Leaders box.)
Then there are sets that are really nice, worth the time, and, though forgotten, lots of fun.
Sitting on a shelf with a bunch of Topps Updates, Donruss Rookies and assorted others, sits my 1986 Fleer Classic Miniature set, 120 small cards in a tiny box. The ’86 Fleer set is simple and solid, and, though the minis are in the same design – THEY ARE DIFFERENT PHOTOS! Good ones too.
Here’s Dwight Gooden (mini on left, regular issue on right).
Here’s Tom Seaver (same order):
And Eddie Murray:
I was so taken by this set, that I hadn’t looked at in decades, that I went searching for the others – 1987 and 1988. I found a guy on eBay who was selling both (perfect!). He wanted $10 plus shipping. A little quick research showed that there are listings for bulk lots that end up with the sets at about a buck each, and sold listings topped out at $3. I offered $5 for both sets and got them.
Picking up these stray complete sets that I don’t have and are appealing is a great little sideline for me as I stall in completing some older, slightly more difficult sets to wrap up. The price is right, the cards are beautiful, and, though unfortunately lumped into the “junk wax”/baseball card bubble period, are worth having.
I’m sure there are tons of low priced sets that people love and I don’t know about. (I recently picked up a set of 1983 Topps Foldouts that I had never heard of and now adore).
The floor is yours. I want to hear about your faves (which I will then buy for pocket change.)
“Uncommon Common” is a new series that I hope other authors will continue. What are the cards out there that have stories far exceeding their price tags?
Trust me on this one. If you don’t know the name Dave Hoskins (SABR bio) you owe it to the man, to yourself, and to Baseball to learn it. Today’s post certainly isn’t the most authoritative or encyclopedic account of this incredible ballplayer, but it should at least get you started.
My introduction to Dave Hoskins came from reading the book “Black Aces” by Jim “Mudcat” Grant. Hoskins was one of the ten “Early Aces,” along with Satchel Paige, Rube Foster, Smokey Joe Williams and other Negro League greats, selected by Grant as pitchers who would have been MLB 20-game winners if not for Baseball’s color barrier.
As a baseball card collector, it was inevitable that the book immediately prompted a quest to pick up cards of each of the Aces, early or otherwise. And yes, that is a Gummy Arts ORIGINAL of Chet Brewer!
Some of you know I am turning these cards into a gift for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. I should have a finished product to show off in a couple months.
1954 Topps Dave Hoskins RC #81
When it came time to choose a Dave Hoskins card for the collection I was pleasantly surprised to learn that cards existed from his playing days. His 1954 Topps rookie card really called my name since it brought to mind visually and historically the more famous rookie cards of Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks from that same set. It was a thrill for me when the card arrived last month and also a reminder never to sleep on the card back.
“INSIDE BASEBALL: When Dave was with Dallas on June 9, ’52, he got 2 letters threatening his life if he pitched that day. But Dave wouldn’t be frightened. He hurled the game and won! And that year chalked up 22 wins.”
The cartoon really brought to life something I heard Negro Leagues Baseball Museum president and national treasure Bob Kendrick say when I was lucky enough to tour the museum with 2018 Hall of Game inductees Eddie Freaking Murray, Dick Freaking Allen, Kenny Freaking Lofton, and J.R. Freaking Richard—
“The story of the Negro Leagues is not adversity. The story of the Negro Leagues is triumph in the face of adversity.”
If a man’s response to death threats is to go out and win 22 games I’d say that qualifies big time as triumph in the face of adversity.
“If I’m going to die, I’m going to die throwing a fastball 90 miles per hour. That’s the way you thought…” — Mudcat Grant on the approach Hoskins, himself, and other black pitching pioneers followed.
If I didn’t type another word I think you’d agree that Dave Hoskins would already qualify as a first ballot Black Ace, unbelievable bad-ass, and decidedly uncommon common. Of course, I’ve only scratched the surface. Let’s back up a decade.
Yes, you are indeed looking at one of the most fearsome lineups in baseball history: Sam Bankhead, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Dave Hoskins, and Jerry Benjamin. Cool Papa Bell was on this same squad but was so fast he posed for the picture, went home, changed into his street clothes, and had a sandwich before the photographer could open the shutter. (For the entire lineup, including Cool Papa, go here!)
You may notice the caption under Dave’s picture has him as a rightfielder rather than pitcher. This is no mistake. While the man could definitely pitch, his batting and fielding abilities were what first drew the attention of the baseball world. His first professional contract came at the age of 17 (or 24) when he signed with the Ethiopian Clowns in 1942. Two years later the legendary Homestead Grays came calling. He joined the club in 1944 and proceeded to hit .355.
As speculation grew as to which black player had the best shot at breaking the Color Barrier, his combination of youth, versatility, and talent earned Hoskins frequent mention. You may already know about the sham tryout the Boston Red Sox offered Jackie Robinson in 1945. Hoskins was originally to be there too, but the Grays would not release him to attend.
Hoskins would continue to star for the Grays, both as a pitcher and a hitter, but it was only a matter of time before white teams came calling. Hoskins joined the Grand Rapids Jets (Class A, Central League) in 1948 where his .393 batting average proved he could compete against the “superior talent” of white clubs. After a one-year return to the Negro Leagues (Louisville Buckeyes), Dave spent 1950 with the Dayton Indians (Class A, Central League). It was there that he made his decision to pursue pitching in earnest. (There’s a story to it, but I’ll let you read it in Mudcat’s book.)
Texas Leaguer (noun) – a pop fly that falls to the ground between the infield and the outfield. Also see blooper.
Come 1952, a year BEFORE Hank Aaron, Horace Garner, and Felix Mantilla integrated the Southern Atlantic League, Hoskins became the Texas League’s first black player. His early reception there was every bit as horrific as expected. Less expected was that Hoskins would quickly become the league’s top gate attraction, leading his Dallas Eagles not only to the pennant but to new attendance records, black fans, and integrated seating.
All told, Hoskins played pretty well in 1952. As the league’s top pitcher by a mile, he went 22-10 with a 2.12 ERA. Meanwhile, he still made enough trips to the plate to finish third in the batting race with a .328 average. He was a Cleveland Indian the very next year.
As a 27-year old (or 34-year-old) rookie, Hoskins posted an impressive 9-3 record in limited action, having both the fortune and misfortune to be paired with arguably the greatest four-man rotation in MLB history. His .259 average at the plate showed he could also hit at the Major League level. With such a promising MLB debut, it would be easy to imagine that Hoskins would have been given even greater opportunities the following year. However, his innings were cut from 112.2 to a paltry 26.2 in what would prove to be Hoskins’ final season as a big leaguer.
1955 Topps Dave Hoskins #133
Just as his Topps card from 1954 told a story, the Hoskins card from the 1955 Topps set does too. There are enough mirror images in the cartoon quiz to make one dizzy.
Babe Ruth was a pitcher before he was an outfielder. Dave Hoskins was an outfielder before he was a pitcher. Babe Ruth was given the chance to do both at the major league level. Dave Hoskins was given the chance to do neither. Babe Ruth ushered in the “live ball” era and received a hero’s welcome everywhere he went. Dave Hoskins ushered in integrated baseball and received death threats. Babe Ruth of course went on to become the most famous baseball player of all time. Dave Hoskins remains largely anonymous.
1955 Topps Double Header Dave Hoskins/Ed McGhee #77/78
The final Topps card of Hoskins to tell a story is his 1955 Topps Double Header card, in which he shares the stage with White Sox outfielder Ed McGhee.
As was the approach for much of the release, the Hoskins artwork mimics the action shot from his 1955 base card but enlarges the image significantly, expands on the artistry of the original colorization, and adds the puzzle-piece stadium background that any collector is amazed to learn about for the very first time.
However, my focus with this card is on another notable feature of the Double Header set. When folded just right, the “half card” on the back became whole. This Ernie Banks illustrates the finished product. (And by the way, could there be a more fitting card in the Double Header set than Mr. Let’s Play Two!)
Let’s take the Hoskins card and fold it so our outfielder-turned-pitcher turns into an outfielder once again. We get Ed McGhee of the Chicago White Sox.
Really this is not Ed McGhee or even a white ballplayer at all, at least not fully. From the knees down this is still Dave Hoskins. The trick of the card is that it doesn’t matter.
1986 Larry Fritsch Negro League Baseball Stars #81
Here is the final baseball card of Dave Hoskins I’ll feature, his 1986 Larry Fritsch “Negro League Baseball Stars” card, which coincidentally reprises its #81 from his Topps RC. The key phrase on the back of the card is “8-year career.”
I ordered this set in high school, and like most collectors, immediately flipped to the cards of Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige, and Josh Gibson. I had no interest at that time in the various “no names” sprinkled into the set. When I was gathering up cards of Black Aces for my Museum project, I didn’t even realize I had a Dave Hoskins card already.
Meanwhile, imagine if there had been no Jackie. Imagine if the integration of MLB had taken ten more years. Imagine if Dave Hoskins had had an eighteen year career in the Negro Leagues. It is not a stretch to think that the name Dave Hoskins would be up there with more familiar names like Leon Day, Bullet Joe Rogan, Judy Johnson, and Mule Suttles if not the immortals such as Satchel, Josh, Oscar, and Cool Papa. I would even suggest that it’s extremely likely Hoskins would have a plaque in Cooperstown.
Instead, Dave Hoskins is what the Standard Catalog and most collectors refer to as a “common player.” Negro League and Texas League historians aside, Dave Hoskins is a player most collectors have never heard of, a man whose anonymity was not due to talent but timing, the difference of a decade.
Had baseball integrated ten years earlier, Hoskins might have been one of the greatest Major Leaguers ever. Had baseball integrated ten years later, Hoskins could have been one of the greatest Negro Leaguers ever. Instead, his is a little known name suspended between two worlds, belonging to neither but connecting the two, a fateful Texas Leaguer landing in that singular spot between the players going out and the players coming in.
I can almost hear the ghost of the great Buck O’Neil saying it right now with a smile.
For anyone thinking about adding a Dave Hoskins card to their collection, I have good news. When I said uncommon common, I wasn’t kidding. According to the Standard Catalog all three Topps cards I featured, even his RC, are “Common Players.” Double Headers are never cheap for any player, but I managed to grab the 1954 RC in pretty good shape for $8 including shipping.
One of my favorite posts on the SABR Baseball Cards blog is Matthew Prigge‘s “Like a Broken Record” (March 2017), in which he detailed the progression of the Topps Highlights and Record Breaker cards from their respective origins in the 1975 and 1976 sets. In what I hope will be my first of many posts for this blog, I will go backward instead and focus on the ancestry of these cards, following a prehistory that goes back to more than a century ago.
Before jumping in, I’ll give a few examples of cards I will not include, along with my rationale for omission, as sometimes the best way to define one’s scope is to identify what falls just outside it
World Series cards
The first Topps World Series multi-card subset was in 1960, consisting of seven absolutely beautiful cards that told the story of the 1959 Fall Classic between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago White Sox.
If we consider single card subsets as a thing, then the very first Topps World Series subset came two years earlier with the 1958 Topps World Series Batting Foes (Mantle/Aaron) card. Because Topps would continue to push out World Series subsets with regularity, even in years with Record Breaker/Highlight cards, we will exclude World Series cards from our study. True, they feature highlights from the prior season, but they are a large enough sub-genre to warrant separate treatment.
The same logic will apply to the 1961 Topps (cards 471-486) and 1975 Topps (cards 189-212) MVP subsets. While MVP cards lacked the perennial quality of the World Series cards, they still feel more like their own category of cards than exemplars of the Record Breakers/Highlights category.
All-Stars, All-Star Rookies, etc.
Finally, while one could consider being named an All-Star or All-Star Rookie a highlight—at least very broadly—we will exclude these subsets for the same reasons as each of the others.
Pre-1975 Highlights and Record Breaker cards
Having identified what doesn’t make the cut, we are now ready to begin our journey, starting off where Matthew’s original article left off. As I like to do, we’ll proceed in reverse chronological order, though the article should accommodate a bottom-to-top if you prefer it that way.
Well there’s this guy of course!
1974 Bob Parker 2nd Best
It’s fitting that the second set we encounter on the way to the Topps run of Highlights and Record Breakers is a set honoring players who came in second! In addition to providing budget collectors with a shot at “Shoeless Joe,” the Vic Power card is a must have for “cards that say robust on the front” supercollectors.
A major differentiator between these cards and the Record Breaker/Highlights cards Matthew profiles are that these cards reach back across the vast history of the game whereas the more modern cards focus on the season immediately prior. Were we to treat this distinction as fatal, this article would be very short indeed, so we’ll continue under the assumption that cards such as these are allowed into the ancestry.
In addition to the various Fleer sets he worked on, artist R.G. Laughlin also put out his own set of cards in 1972. There were 51 cards in all, along with multiple color variations.
1971 Topps Greatest Moments
This 55-card release from Topps is without a doubt one of the toughest of the 1970s, and unfortunately for player collectors on a budget one that is filthy with Hall of Famers. Unlike the Fleer sets of the early 1970s the checklist consists entirely of (then) current players, but again the feats themselves span multiple years.
The nine cards from 311-319 in the 1962 Topps set are commonly referred to as “In Action” cards. Many of the cards, such as “Ford Tosses a Curve,” would strike only the most easily impressed baseball fans as highlights; however, this same subset does feature the biggest record to be broken in at least 20 years. In a move we might today regard as trolling, Topps chose this same year to dedicate a full ten cards to the previous record holder!
As with the “In Action” cards, the “Babe Ruth Special” cards were a mix of Record Breaker and non-RB cards. Ruth’s card 144 (no, not THAT 144), titled “Farewell Speech,” is particularly relevant to this post in that the front featured a career-capping highlight–the speech–while the back listed Babe Ruth’s various records.
The 1961 set marked second time in three years that Topps put out a “Baseball Thrills” subset in its main release. There were ten cards in all, including a mix of current (Larsen, Mantle, Haddix) and retired players.
1961 Nu-Card Baseball Scoops
While the Topps set offered the opportunity to beef up ones knowledge of baseball’s greatest achievements, the go-to set that year for history buffs was put out by Nu-Card. Numbered 401-480 for reasons unknown to me, these 80 cards presented collectors with nearly the complete canon of baseball feats. Even to this day, if you could choose just one set to learn the history of baseball from, I believe this would be it.
1960 Nu-Card Baseball Hi-Lites
This 72-card offering is similar in many ways to the set that followed it one year later, the most salient difference being their postcard size. Many highlights were reused from one set to another, as shown by the “Aaron’s bat…” cards in each set. (I believe the image on the 1960 card incorrectly shows Aaron’s pennant-clinching home run against the Cardinals, a problem which could have been solved by interchanging this images on his two cards in the set.)
While the 1961 Topps subset included long retired greats of the game, the 1959 “Baseball Thrills” cards exclusively featured active players. Between the immense star power of the players and the fantastic artwork, these cards crack my top two all-time for greatest vintage subset ever.
1959 Fleer Ted Williams
This 80-card set really covers the gamut as far as Ted Williams highlights are concerned, including highlights from his time in the military and his off-season hobbies of hunting and fishing. As an aside, you can see many of the photographs these cards were based on in Ted’s 2018 PBS documentary.
1954 Topps Scoop
A beautiful set off the radar of many baseball card collectors is the 1954 Topps Scoop set, which features 154 historical events, including a handful from the sporting world. The four baseball subjects are Bob Feller’s 18 strikeouts in a game, Babe Ruth’s 60 home runs in a season, the Braves move to Milwaukee, and a very long game between Brooklyn and Boston.
As a quick spoiler alert, if you have not already seen the Broadway musical “Hamilton,” avoid purchasing this set. Card 82 completely gives away the ending.
Though the name of the “Sport Thrills” set suggests other sports beyond baseball (and one card is even titled “Football Block”), all 20 cards in this set feature baseball highlights and records. A notable is the Jackie Robinson card, which I believe to be the earliest card front to refer to a player’s rookie season. (And if I’m wrong about that, it’s still a Jackie Robinson card from 1948!)
The Sport Thrills set wasn’t the only baseball set that Swell issued in 1948. They also issued a 28-card “Babe Ruth Story” set to go along with the movie of the same name. Naturally, as this is the Bambino we’re talking about, the set includes several highlights. While some of cards include Ruth himself, it should be noted that the most common “Ruth” on the cards is William Bendix, who played Ruth in the movie. An example is card 15, which shows Ruth…I mean Bendix…calling his shot in the 1932 World Series.
1938 Wheaties “Biggest Thrills in Baseball” (Series 10)
The back panel of Wheaties boxes featured a player from each major league team along with a highlight from the player’s career. While I didn’t include it here, the Wheaties “100 Years of Baseball” set from the following year could be said to feature highlights as well, though a typical example is “Crowd Boos First Baseball Glove!”
1925 Turf Cigarettes (UK)
In 1925 London tobacco manufacturer Alexander Boguslavsky Ltd issued a set of 50 “Sports Records” cards. The very last card in the set featured American baseball and George Sisler’s recent batting record. (I’m not sure why they wouldn’t have gone with Hornsby’s record, but perhaps news traveled slow back then.)
1912 T202 Hassan Triple Folders
I often end pieces like this with a wild card entry, one that may not meet the criteria applied to other sets but scores bonus points for its age. The middle panel of each T202 card features a great action shot, which is then described further on the card’s reverse. Most of these cards simply focus on a single play–exciting or not–that fails to rise to the level of a Record Breaker or Highlight.
However, the set does include some cards with narratives that do in fact rise to the level of a Highlight. An example of this is the Bergen/Barger “A Great Batsman” card, which on the back describes Napoleon Lajoie’s 227 hits in 1910 as breaking the American League record, even if today we no longer believe it! (At the time Lajoie’s 1901 hit total was thought to be 220, but he is now credited with either 229 or 232 hits, depending who you ask.)
A handful of other sets are worth mention here, even if they didn’t earn top billing. The 1972 Topps “In Action” cards and 1964 Topps Giants cards both featured highlights on the backs of the cards. Meanwhile, the very rare 1914 E&S Publishing postcard set includes background cartoons with captions that in some cases rise to the level of significant highlights or records.
The 1975 Topps set marked an important innovation in the history of the hobby in that it was the first major release to dedicate baseball cards, specifically its “Highlights” subset, to the most important historical feats of the prior season. However, like all innovations, this one did not appear out of a vacuum. Rather, it drew–intentionally or by happenstance–on a long and rich legacy of cardboard that came before it.
I hope this article allowed you to enjoy the cards and sets profiled not only as fantastic in their own right but also as important evolutionary stops along the way toward the Highlights and Record Breaker cards so many of us collected in our youth, if not the Topps Now cards many collectors still collect today.
Jason joined SABR in January 2019. Collecting interests include Hank Aaron, Dwight Gooden, and Sir Isaac Newton. You can find him on Twitter as @HeavyJ28 or on the Web here and here. He lives in the Chicago area but originally hails from Los Angeles.
You know how it goes. For me it was several years ago — I think it was at the Long Beach SABR event — when I came across a baseball card bearing the image of Orlando Cepeda, one of my favorite players. The card was not your typical Topps product, but I didn’t care. I thought it looked interesting, so I bought it for a few of bucks. I tucked it away in a book that I had just bought as well, and promptly forgot about it. It happens!
Not too long ago, I was sorting through a few baseball books and came across the Cepeda card. “Oh yeah,” I said to myself, renewing my interest, now with a little more clarity and frame of mind. I wondered a bit more about the card. Here’s what I got:
The Cepeda card is #24 of a 33-card Topps set distributed in 1985 exclusively by Circle K, the convenience store chain. The set reminded me of the Woolworth set I wrote about last year. This series featured all-time home run hitters, with Hank Aaron occupying the top spot, of course. Other players include Willie Mays (#3), Billy Williams (#18), Mike Schmidt (#19), and Norm Cash (#25). Interestingly, because Topps could not come to an agreement with Joe DiMaggio, who was 31st on the all-time home run list in 1985, his card was omitted from the set. Consequently, the series list skips #31, going from #30 to #32.
Aside from his photo, the card indicates Cepeda’s name and nothing else. No position, no cute graphic. Just a serious, albeit young-looking, Cepeda photo, probably in the early stages of his career with the San Francisco Giants. The reverse side of the card in blue and red ink, features a run down of his MLB career with a highlight noting his Rookie of the Year Award in 1958, and 1967 NL MVP Award. The Circle K logo is featured prominently in the upper left side, with the Topps logo and card number to the upper right.
I don’t have a lot of specialty cards such as this, so I’ll just keep this one displayed somewhere on a shelf. It will remind me of when Cha-Cha ruled the City by the Bay. And maybe if something else catches my eye at a SABR conference, I won’t forget about it for years at a time!