Cards of Cards of Cards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m not aware of other cards of cards between the 1976 Father/Son cards and the Kmart set. However, cards of cards had a 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!

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

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

Positions, Positions, Positions

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.

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1972, the only Topps set between 1953 and 1986 not to indicate a position on the front.

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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Hmm.

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.

Cheap Treats (Not Tricks)

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).

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There were sets of historical worthiness, nicely put together, worthy, but monetarily worthless (1987 Donruss Rookies comes to mind).

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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).

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The floor is yours. I want to hear about your faves (which I will then buy for pocket change.)

UNCOMMON COMMON: Dave Hoskins

“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!

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!)

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

Prehistory of the Record Breakers

Introduction

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.

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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.

MVP subsets

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.

1974 Topps

Well there’s this guy of course!

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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.

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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.

1972-1974 Fleer

While newer collectors may imagine Fleer’s baseball origins date back only to 1981, there is an entire prehistory of Fleer baseball cards going back as far as 1923. Three sets in particular are of interest to us: Famous Feats (1972), Baseball’s Wildest Days and Plays (1973), and Baseball Firsts (1974). A card from each of these sets is shown here.

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1972 Laughlin Great Feats

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.

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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.

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1969-70 Bazooka All-Time Greats

Another fairly tough set is this 30-card issue from Bazooka, profiled in this 2012 article from Sports Collectors Daily. Boxes of bubble gum included player cards on a side panel and a “Baseball Extra” highlight on the back panel.

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1962 Topps

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!

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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.

1961 Topps

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.

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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.

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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.)

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1959 Topps

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

1948 Swell

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!)

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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.

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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!”

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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.)

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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.)

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Another notable in the T202 set is the “Lord Catches His Man” card, whose action shot was recently discovered to include Shoeless Joe. Anson Whaley tells the story of this card and its dramatic rise in value on his Prewar Cards blog.

Honorable Mentions

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.

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Conclusion

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.

Cha-Cha and the Circle K

Cepeda_1985 Circle K

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!

 

Super Topps, My Super Fave

I’m not a huge fan of Topps Heritage. For me, it doesn’t quite make the emotional connection I need. Like most of you, seeing the old designs is nice, but the repetitive nature of the pics (this year’s Red Sox cards are BORING! and it look like they’re repeating the background for next year) and the weird modernity of the photos is off-putting.

I am intrigued about the 2019 set. I saw that there will be Topps Supers as box loaders; after all these years I still don’t know what that means. For me it means nothing. The originals are irreplaceable.

The 1970 Topps Super set, sold separately, three cards for a dime, were a thrill to find at my local Canarsie candy store (Paulino’s, I think it was called, on Glenwood Ave.).  Paulino’s was on the walk to school and a frequent, if not daily, stop on the way home.

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As beautiful as the 1964 Topps Giants are, I like the Supers more. An obvious reason is that I was a sentient baseball fan by 1970. I wasn’t yet two years old when the ‘64’s came out. The 1970 Supers represent a coming of age year for me. Plus, there’s the heft of these cards.

The 1970 Supers are thick, so thick, certainly the thickest cards I’ve ever encountered. They’re thicker than even Post Cereal boxes, and that cardboard is protecting food! The weight, the rounded corners, make for idiot-proof great condition. It would take a lot of force and evil intent to crease these placards or bend their corners.

The photos are marvelous, with colors that pop, and are different from the base cards. At a time when there wasn’t much choice in the card world, this was very welcome. Backs are the same (though I haven’t read them closely. There may be differences in the text to denote trades, I don’t know.)

(Topps also made Football Supers that year).

Though the 1970 Supers proved to be less than popular, Topps returned with a baseball only version in 1971. Take this as my small sample size, but the 1971s seem to have many more miscuts, with hints of adjacent cards on the sheet visible. Who cares? They’re awesome.

They’re also not too expensive. Complete sets of all three (for you football fans) seem attainable in the $200-300 range. The checklists are crammed with Hall of Famers and, if you get some of these, you don’t have to be so dainty handling them. They’re tough, super tough.

Fox and Friends

In 1964 Topps tried to “pull a fast one” by putting Nellie Fox’s picture on the back of Roy McMillan’s 1964 “Giant.”  In this wonderful set, McMillan is on the Mets and Nellie is wrapping up his Hall-of-Fame career with the Colt ‘45s.

Mccmillan BackFox Back

Each “Giant” card has a black and white action photo on the back accompanying the text of a career highlight. A close examination of the grainy images-taken seconds apart-distinctly shows the “short and squat” body of Fox, along with his signature “chaw” of tobacco distending his cheek in both photos. The one on the McMillan card captures the Texas flag emblem and distinctive stirrup striping worn by Houston. Plus, Roy’s signature glasses are nowhere to be found. The .45s insignia and the Houston jersey script on the Fox card “seals the deal.” Finally, the photos must be from ’64 since Nellie was still playing for the White Sox in ’63.

As Mark Armour pointed out in his informative blog post on the ’64 large format cards, the series was not issued until late summer. This means the players’ photos are all up-to-date, and several of the photos on the back are from the ’64 season. The photos on the McMillan and Fox cards appear to be taken on August 1st at Shea Stadium.

Jackson

The exact game can be pinpointed based on the identity of the sliding runner, who’s wearing number 15 on his pinstriped uniform. The Mets, Cubs and Phillies were the only NL clubs to wear pinstripes in ’64. This is not a Phillies player, since they had extra-large numbers in that era. Leo Burke wore 15 for the Cubs, but was not involved in a play at second with Fox. Thus, the runner must be Mets pitcher Al Jackson.

In the third inning of a day game on Saturday, August 1, Jackson singled off Hal Brown and was subsequently erased at second on double play ball hit by Bobby Klaus. The two photos show Fox turning the “twin killing.”

By the way, the Mets beat the Colt .45’s 3 to 2 with Jackson tossing a complete game. McMillan started at shortstop for the Mets, so the photographer had multiple opportunities to snap a photo of Roy.

It is conceivable that the photos are from a ’64 spring training game. Until proven otherwise, I’m going with the “tilt” played at the brand new “Big Shea.”

 

Man Without Portfolio

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Fifty years ago, Topps produced its largest product in scale: the 9-3/4” X 18-1/8” baseball posters. It was very unusual for non-base card products to find their way to my small hometown in Washington State. The various “test issues,” stickers, tattoos etc. were all distributed in larger markets. So, I pounced on the opportunity to collect the posters.

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Since most of you are familiar this product, I will just refresh your memory on a few points. The set is comprised of 24 posters with each team represented. Boston, St. Louis, Houston and Minnesota have two players each. The posters were sold in individual wax packs — folded four times — with a stick of gum-for a nickel.

Due to the large, irregular size of the posters, displaying and storing them is problematic. Binder sleeves don’t exist in this large of a size and standard photo albums are too small as well. At card shows, I’ve seen the posters “shrink wrapped” to cardboard, but this is not a great solution for storage.

Portfolio

Until last week, my posters remained folded and stored in a box. Then, my wife purchased an art portfolio for some photographs. The label listed the various dimensions offered by the company. So, I purchased a 13’ X 19,” 24-page portfolio, which is perfect for the posters.

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As you can see, the sleeves come with a black paper in each. Since the posters have blank backs, a total of 48 items can be displayed.

Mantle

Many of you may have experienced the posters tearing along the fold lines. This is very difficult to prevent, particularly if the poster has remained folded for 50 years.

Rose-Robinson

As a kid, I took the slogan on the wrapper to heart and hung some of them on the wall. The Mantle and Frank Robinson are not in the best shape.

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The Jim Lonborg poster may be my favorite. The reigning Cy Young award winner is shown at Fenway Park. Perhaps the photo was taken during the same session held before the game in which Tony Conigliaro was beaned by Jack Hamilton.

The poster series is a who’s who of baseball of the era. Twelve Hall-of-Famers and Pete Rose are present as well as outstanding players such as Richie (Dick) Allen and Rusty Staub. Only Ron Swoboda and Max Alvis don’t make the star grade.

72 Mays-Jenkins

Topps reprised the standalone poster in ’72, with a slightly smaller version. I have 12 of the 24 posters, which I achieved in the portfolio as well. Of course, now I’m inspired to complete the set- Yastrzemski and Rick Wise are on the way.

I’ll end with a rumination. Half of a century has passed since I first collected the posters. It’s very pleasing to me that I finally figured out how to display and store them properly. But, damn! I’m getting old.

Another Discovery: The 1985 Woolworth’s Card Set

Woolworth cards

Since the end of the summer, I’ve been going through the treasure trove of gifted shoeboxes filled with various baseball cards.  I’ve written a bit about my discoveries, and the most recent find is a 1985 Topps 44-card boxed set from Woolworth’s, the old five-and-dime store.

This set is touted as a limited edition All-Time Record Holders Collectors Series, featuring players from Hank Aaron to Walter Johnson, and Tris Speaker to Ernie Banks. The cards, measuring 2 1/2″ x 3 1/2″ are in color as well as black and white. The checklist can be found on the box in alphabetical order by player’s name.

This was the first year that Woolworth’s put out such a set, with subsequent cards that followed until 1991.  Though after its initial run, the card set dropped from 44 cards to 33 cards, and only depicted current stars.

Hoping to leverage the craze of the baseball card collecting mania of the time, a number of retail outlets from Woolworth’s to K-Mart to Kay-Bee Toys released their own card sets.  A shopper could find these boxed sets next to the cash register as impulse items.  The box I have has a price tag of $1.99.

Thanks to my recent experience with the Conlon Collection, I found myself paying more attention to the black and white images.  That is, I carefully examined the photos of the men, their expressions, their uniforms, and what they might have been thinking when the photo was taken.  Sam Crawford, for example, is sporting a 1916 uniform with a plain script “D” rather than the Old English “D” that we are accustomed to seeing on the Detroit Tigers jersey.  Hub Leonard of the Boston Red Sox is depicted with his cap askew, looking a bit worried, if not determined.  And Rogers Hornsby of the St. Louis Cardinals, meanwhile, sports a devil-may-care smile with a confident expression.

Did you know that Rudy York set a major league record with 18 home runs in August 1937?  I did not.  Did you know that Stan Musial set the National League record by leading the league in triples five times.  I did not.  Did you know that Willie Wilson set a major league record with 705 at-bats in 1980.  I did not.  I’m not much on the baseball trivia aspect as my fellow SABR brethren, but I can certainly appreciate the intrinsic value and essence of this 1985 Woolworth’s boxed set.  It was another treasured discovery found in an old shoebox.