The Grand TCMA Decade Sets (Some of them anyway)

Followers of this blog and our Facebook and Twitter accounts have been a bit TCMA obsessed since several of us gathered in Cooperstown for the opening of the Hall of Fame’s Shoebox Treasures exhibit in May. A chance run in with Andrew Aronstein, son of TCMA founder Mike, touched off a bit of TCMA frenzy. (I’ve known Andrew and Mike for a few years, so I’m glad others in our card world are getting to know them).

My own recent TCMA interests have circled around the big baseball decades sets (and the football, basketball and hockey sets). Not all of them, actually, only the 1950’s and 1960’s sets. These are all beautiful, simple cards, with magnificent photos, as you’d expect. I picked up the entire 1950’s set at Baseball Nostalgia in Cooperstown (where else?), which started over 40 years ago as the TCMA flagship store.

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The cards are wonderful, the checklist is wide ranging and they look wonderful signed. Released in 1979, the 291 card set is a must have.

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With that set safely acquired, I marched forward to get both 1960’s sets, but was warned at Baseball Nostalgia that they’re harder to find than the ‘50’s set, and pricier. This proved to be true. The first set, released in 1978 with 293 cards was easier to spot, but I didn’t want to buy that series without the more difficult second series attached. (I learned this lesson when I picked up a cheap TCMA football base set and still find myself struggling to get the 12 card update at a reasonable price. I’d have been better off waiting to buy both sets.)

The 1981 (yay Split Season!) series 2 has 189 cards, but the problem is that about 1/3 were printed compared to series 1 (according to the Standard Catalog). Whenever that series would appear, it was too pricey for me.

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Well, as of last night, my long waiting is over. I got both sets for a good price and they’re on their way! I can’t wait. Like the 1950’s cards, the 1960’s sets have fantastic variety of names, from superstars to non-stars to Jim McKnight.

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And they look wonderful signed.

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A Trip Down Memory Lane (Field)

With SABR 49 about to unfold in beautiful San Diego, I offer a look at Padres’ cards from the Pacific Coast League era, which ends with the formation of the Major League Padres in 1969.

The original Hollywood Stars moved to San Diego in 1936. The city fathers constructed a wooden ballpark, Lane Field, near the train station on the water front.  From there, the team would move into the Mission Valley in 1958 to play at Westgate Park and, finally, San Diego Stadium in 1968.

According to PCL historian, collector and dealer Mark MacRae, the first set of Padres collectibles were team issued photos in 1947.  However, this set does not show up in the Standard Catalog of Vintage Baseball Cards.  This publicity photo of manager “Ripper” Collins from 1947 may be an example, but I’m by no means certain.

Two years later, Bowman issues a PCL set in the same format as their MLB cards.  The small, square cards were issued in packs with a total of 32 in the set.  The five Padres players are Xavier Rescigno (pictured), John Jensen, Pete Coscavart, Lee Handley and Tom Seats.  The cards were issued as reprint set in 1987 by the Card Collectors Company.  The reprints are distinguished by wider, white borders.

Bowman wasn’t the only company to issue PCL cards in 1949.  The Hage’s Dairy company begins a three- year run with a 107-card set-with at least 26 different Padres.  This initial set and the subsequent issues are filled with variation cards.  Some players have up to four different poses. They were distributed in boxes of popcorn at Lane Field.  Cards were added or removed when the rosters changed. The 1951 cards come in four different tones: sepia, blue, green and black-and-white.  This set includes Luke Easter, manager Bucky Harris and John Ritchey, who broke the PCL color barrier in 1948.

Incidentally, the Bowman cards used many of the same photographs as Hage’s.  For example, Bowman simply cropped this photo of John Jensen. 

Hage’s comes back in 1950 with a 122-card set that has at least 28 Padres. This time, all the cards are black-and-white. Also, Hage’s ice cream is advertised on the back.  This set has manager Jimmy Reese as well as two variations of Orestes “Minnie” Minoso.  Among other recognizable names are: Al Smith (famous for having beer poured on his head by fan in ’59 World Series), Harry “Suitcase” Simpson, and Tom Tresh’s dad, Mike.

In 1951, Hage’s produces a much reduced 54-card set, with all but 12 of them being Padres. The other cards are comprised of seven Cleveland Indians and five Hollywood Stars. They were printed in the following tints: blue, green, burgundy, gold, gray and sepia.  Harry Malmberg is an example of the many photo variations.  The two cards above are both from 1951.  Some familiar names in this set are Ray Boone, Luke Easter and “Sad” Sam Jones.

Like an ice cream bar left in the warm California sun, Hage’s Dairy cards melted away in 1952, leaving Globe Printing as the card producer for the Padres.  This 18-card, black-and-white set features manager Lefty O’Doul, coach Jimmy Reese, Memo Luna and Herb Gorman.  I’m not sure how the cards were distributed.

1952 is a big PCL card year-due to the introduction of the fabulous Mother’s Cookies set.  The 64-card set was distributed in packages of cookies on the West Coast.  Padres’ manager, Lefty O’Doul, has on a beautiful satin jacket in his photo.  Some of the recognizable players include Memo Luna, “Whitey” Wietlemann and “Red” Embree.

Mother’s Cookies returns with a 63-card set in 1954.  Of the seven Padres in the set, the most interesting is Tom Alston.  He would integrate the St. Louis Cardinals in 1954 after being purchased for $100,000. Unfortunately, mental illness ended his promising career in 1957. Also, Lefty O’Doul is back, and former MLB player Earl Rapp has a card.

I was unable to locate any evidence of Padres cards from 1953-60, but in 1961 the fantastic Union Oil set showed up at West Coast 76 stations. The sepia tone cards measure 3”X 4” and featured 12 Padres. Among the players available are: Herb Score, Harry “Suitcase” Simpson, Mike Hershberger and Dick Lines.

The Major League Padres arrive in 1969, but cards from the PCL era would emerge in retrospective sets. In 1974, PCL historian and fan, Ed Broder, self-produced a 253-card set, modeled after the Seattle Rainiers popcorn cards. He used players from 1957-58.  There are 31 Padres cards in the set, including future Seattle Pilot, Gary “Ding Dong” Bell, Bob Dipietro, and Jim “Mudcat” Grant.

Another retro set was produced by TCMA in 1975.  The 18-card set has PCL players from the mid-1950s, one of which is Padre Cal McLish. The cards are “tallboy” size-like early 1970s Topps basketball.

In recent years, the late Carl Aldana self-produced several Padres cards in the Mother’s Cookies format.  The players he chose are: Ted Williams, Luke Easter, Max West, Al Smith and Jack Graham.

Please let me know if there are other years that PCL Padres cards were produced or if you have a 1947 team issued photo. 

SABR convention goers will assemble at glitzy Petco Park for a Padres game against the Cardinals. Not too far away, a humbler structure once stood, Lane Field.  Though small and termite infested, it was “big time” to fans in a simpler era with limited entertainment options.

At the game, I plan to buy a box of popcorn to see if a Hage’s Dairy Memo Luna card was magically inserted amongst the kernels.

There is only one Willie Mays

Here is a card, like most cards, with a story to it. You might expect it’s a story about Willie Mays. In fact, it’s a story about everyone not Willie Mays.

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1959 Topps “Baseball Thrills” #464

At least a few of us remember the play like it was yesterday. The hitter has some power, but the centerfielder chooses to play him shallow. Even before bat meets ball, the fielder knows one of two things is about to happen: extra bases or the greatest catch of his life.

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1961 Nu-Card Scoops #427

He quickly turns and by the time the crack of the bat is heard he is in a dead sprint only stealing a quick glance back to ensure the ball’s trajectory matches the path in his head.

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1993 Upper Deck “Baseball Heroes” #47

Winning a race of man against ball is not an easy thing—the laws of physics might even suggest it’s impossible—but after what feels like he’s run a city block the fielder reaches up with his glove, still with his back to the plate, and somehow snatches the bullet of a baseball from the air. They say seeing is believing, but almost nobody watching even believes what they just witnessed. Of course, the play was not even over.

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1994 Upper Deck “All-Time Heroes” #17

Still in full stride, the fielder brings his glove arm down toward his body where in an event nearly as improbable as the grab itself his right knee hits his right elbow full force and pops the ball from glove to ground.

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I was 16 and had been planning, waiting, and training years for the perfect fly ball—playing everyone shallow to up the odds—and it finally came, for the last and only time of my life. My friend Robert and fate itself had gotten the better of me.

Some of our cards are just cards, but others are memories. This past week I finally picked up a card I’d always wanted. When I opened the envelope I was no longer in my office at my desk. I was at Palisades Park young, fast, free, and for a brief 6-7 seconds the great Willie Howard Mays, that instant before I learned for damn sure there could be only one.

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P.S. In a bit of cardboard clairvoyance, THREE of Willie’s 1954 baseball cards (Bowman, Red Man, Topps) referenced a web gem nearly identical to “The Catch!”

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P.P.S. Fans of the “Say Hey Kid” will also enjoy this set of posts from SABR President Mark Armour.

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.

Hoskins 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.”

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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.

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.

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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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Now imagine for a minute that it’s 1955. This is 8 years after Jackie, but 6-8 months before Rosa Parks would refuse to take that back seat, 8 years before MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech, a decade before the Voting Rights act, and two decades before Frank Robinson would become baseball’s first black manager. Our country is still peak Jim Crow.

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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And yet this is not Ed McGhee, at least not fully. His legs are not his legs. They are the legs of a black man. They are the legs of Dave Hoskins.

This is a puzzle that could have worked nowhere in Jim Crow’s America other than right here and perhaps the US Army. It works because these men (at last) could wear the same uniforms and play on the same diamonds. And it works precisely because you barely knew who Dave Hoskins was.

I’ll explain.

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.

Cardboard Crosswalk: 1991-95 Conlon Collection and 1933-34 Goudey

Author’s note: This is the first in what may be a series of “Cardboard Crosswalk” posts comparing cards across sets. Use the Comments to let me know if you’d like to see more articles like this one.

Introduction

A fun exercise when I flip through my Conlon Collection binder is to match up the classic Charles Conlon photographs on the cards with some of the older baseball cards that used the same images. My focus for this article will be the connection between these Conlon cards and the iconic 1933-34 Goudey sets.

While one normally wouldn’t expect cards issued six decades later to help shed light on sets from the 1930s, I hope we’ll see exactly that by the end of the this post. If not, boy was this a lot of work for nothing!

Defining the sets

Though there are numerous Conlon sets, I’m restricting my focus to the consecutively numbered 1430 cards issued from 1991-1995. Aside from occasional banners and badges on the cards, nearly all of them look quite a bit like this Hank Greenberg from the 1995 grouping.

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The 1933 Goudey set, meanwhile, has 240 cards, with the bulk of the set using the “Big League Chewing Gum” banner design of this Rabbit Maranville and just under a third of the cards forgoing the banner, as is the case with this Joe Morrissey card.

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Finally, the 1934 Goudey set follows two main designs with 84 of the 96 cards bearing a blue “Lou Gehrig says” banner and 12 cards from the high number series bearing a red “Chuck Klein says” banner.

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Comparing the 1933 Goudey images against the Conlon cards

As Charles Conlon was the preeminent baseball photographer of his day, a great many of the images used in pre-war sets derive from his work. Thirty-five of the 240 cards in the 1933 Goudey set show this directly, starting with the very first card in the set.

Bengough

In some cases, a single Conlon photo supported multiple cards. The most prominent example is the photo shown on card 888 from the Conlon set, which supported Goudey cards 53, 144, and 149 of the Bambino.

Ruth

In case there is any doubt that this photo was the source for the yellow and red Ruth cards above, here is the same photo cropped and resized. Perfect match.

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The most typical application of the Conlon photos involved the small amount of cropping necessary to adjust for the Goudey proportions, a masking of background elements, and of course colorization. The Bengough cards already shown and the Marty McManus cards below show all three of these modifications.

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While the yellow and red Ruth cards show the most extreme cropping/zooming, several other cards nonetheless employ cropping and zooming beyond the minimal level needed to fit the Goudey dimensions.

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Lou Gehrig on the decline?

The most unusual alteration to a Conlon photo involves this Lou Gehrig card, of which there are two in the set. Something that had always bothered me with these cards was the sense Gehrig was batting down a hill.

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We will see this is exactly the case by examining card 529 in the Conlon set.

Conlon Gehrig

As the tallness of the original photo was not compatible with the Goudey dimensions, the two simplest modifications, aside from choosing a new photo, would have been to crop or shrink the image. Examples of each approach are shown below.

Gehrig option 1

However, the less aesthetic, more clever option that at least appeals to the ex-mathematician and Pythagoras fanboy in me is to rotate the original image. Sure enough that is exactly what Goudey did. The good news is the card has “more Gehrig” than otherwise; the bad news is we get the “batting down a hill” posture you may never again un-see.

Gehrig rotation

I had a little fun in MS Paint trying to reconstruct what this Gehrig card would have looked like if Goudey hadn’t been so darn clever. I prefer the crop and shrink options considerably over the rotation, though I will put one I like even better at the end of this post.

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Okay, enough of the Gehrig card already? Almost.

In hindsight, even without the Conlon photo, there is a clue on the Gehrig that serious hijinks were afoot. Take a look at the third card again, the real Gehrig. See it yet? Okay, here it is.

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Yep, that’s the tip of Lou’s bat spilling over onto the border. Had this occurred with any of the other 334 cards in the two Goudey sets, we might just assume some sloppiness or artistic license. However, the Gehrig cards provide the only two examples of this, suggesting the unique approach taken with the photo was the likely culprit.

Complete inventory of 1933 Goudey-Conlon pairs

This post would get very, very long if I added pictures of all thirty-five 1933 Goudey-Conlon pairs, but here is the complete crosswalk for the two sets. (Feel free to contact me if you’d like a document that includes all the card images.)

I’ll preface the listing by acknowledging that there are pairs not on this list where the images were close but in my opinion not the same. There is subjectivity in image matching, and it’s possible a different collector might arrive at a slightly different list.

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Analysis

There is something in our collector DNA that simply loves putting similar cards side by side, whether the Blue Jays/Rangers Bump Wills cards from 1979 or a seven-year run of Steve Garvey all-star cards.

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To that end, if all this post does is help you put your 1933 Goudey cards next to their Conlon ancestors (or descendants) or dig up your Garvey cards, then good deal! 

On the other hand, if you’re interested in learning more about the Goudey sets from the Conlon crosswalk, definitely read on! There is only one quick preliminary you’ll need to know first. 

The 1933 Goudey cards were printed on ten different sheets, with each sheet (or sometimes pairs) having its own release schedule. For example, cards from Sheet 1 were released around the beginning of the season, and cards from Sheet 10 were released after the World Series.

Conlon phase-out

Referring back to the inventory of Conlon-Goudey pairs, we can count up the number of Conlon photos per sheet, graph the data, and quickly spot a pattern.

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Even noting that Conlon had thousands of photographs beyond the 1530 that appeared in the 1991-1995 Conlon Collection, the graph very clearly shows Goudey’s decreasing use of Conlon photos as the year progressed. I believe what we are seeing in the graph is the shift from Charles Conlon to George Burke as the main source of photographs for the set.

Just to reinforce the point that the Conlon Collection cards reflect only a fraction of Conlon’s photography, here is a Tony Lazzeri photo of his that did not appear in the Conlon Collection. Based on the graph, you might presume Tony Lazzeri’s card came from a low-numbered sheet in the Goudey set, and you’d be correct: Sheet 1.

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And while we’re at it, another Conlon photo not in the Conlon Collection set with a corresponding Goudey card off Sheet 4.

Hornsby

Does this photo make me look younger?

There is another bit of information we can learn about the Goudey set from the Conlon card matches. You may have noticed the Conlon cards pictured in this post all have a year on the front. In most cases the year indicates when the picture was taken, though in some cases it may also/instead indicate the year of a particular feat described on the card. The graph below shows the year distribution of the photos matching the Goudey set.

Graph 2

The main takeaway, which I suspect many of you already knew, is that the images in the Goudey set are hardly confined to the preceding twelve months as we’ve become accustomed to with modern sets. Instead these photos span an entire decade. Combining this information with the earlier graph yields this (at least approximate) picture of the 1933 set.

  • Began from largely older photos from Conlon
  • Grew through (probably) newer/current photos from Burke

We can also use the wide range of image dates to better understand a distinction between Ruth’s card 181 (greenish one) and the other three Ruth cards in the set.

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If you ever imagined that the “green” Ruth (card 181) looked a lot older than the Ruth on the set’s other three cards, it may be because he is! We know from Conlon card 888 that cards 53, 144, and 149 of Ruth are based on a 1927 photo. Meanwhile, the photograph behind card 181 was most likely taken in 1932 or 1933, a good 5-6 years later in people years or 15-18 years later in Ruth years.

Action too good to be true

I’ll close out the 1933 crosswalk with one last tidbit, again probably not surprising to most collectors: the action shots in the 1933 set are faked!

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Ignoring the lack of a catcher and umpire, that Goudey card of Jimmy Dykes sure looks like he just took a mighty swing. Was it a homer? A hard liner into the gap? A searing line drive just over the third baseman’s head? None of the above, of course! It was just a warm-up swing near the dugout.

Very brief look at 1934 Goudey

You may have noticed that I have said nothing about the 1934 Goudey set since the introduction to this post. There is a good reason for that. True, there are three cards from the set that have partners in the Conlon Collection, but…

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All three of these cards (numbers 1, 11, and 14) come from the first of the four 1934 sheets, in which all 24 cards reused images from the 1933 set. In other words, there’s nothing new here.

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However, I do at least want to update a graph from the previous section. I’ll use the labels 11-14 for the four sheets that made up the 1934 Goudey set. Even more clearly than before, we can see the phasing out of Conlon images, presumably in favor of Burke.

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Conclusion

I won’t lie. It was a tedious exercise to compare nearly 2000 cards. As I own only a handful of the Goudey cards, I didn’t even get the thrill of laying actual cardboard side-by-side. Still, it was a fun bit of work to compare the sets, and I felt like a successful person every time I found a match. I was also particularly gratified to solve the mystery of the downhill Gehrig.

And finally, here is the the new and improved Gehrig I promised. Just don’t look too closely. I hardly do this for a living!

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Waxing elegiac: a century of cards in memoriam

Author’s note: I really enjoyed two posts from fellow SABR Baseball Cards Committee writer Jon Leonoudakis (jongree). His “Death Comes for Active Baseball Players” and “Death & Baseball Cards” inspired me to attempt a catalog of all 20th century baseball cards honoring the fallen. As the boundaries can sometimes be blurry in this work, I limited my scope to cards that came out within a year or two of the player’s death.

Okay, friends, here come the cards that really put the “rip” in ripping wax, the cards that turn requiescat in pace into requiescat in pack, and the cards you should never buy autographed on eBay. Among their numbers you’ll see Hall of Famers and guys you might not have ever heard of. You’ll see some familiar sets, and you’ll see some obscure ones. And you’ll even see some hockey guys. There really is no greater equalizer than death.

1994 Conlon Collection

These cards don’t count in the same way as the others featured in this post as the players honored had retired many decades earlier. Still, I thought they warranted inclusion, if for no other reason than to show how blessed we were to have these great players still among us not that long ago. Plus, when’s the last time a Charles Conlon photo ruined a page?

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1992-1993 Conlon Collection

Similar to the above, the 1993 Conlon set included In Memoriam cards for Joe Sewell and Billy Herman. The 1992 set included an In Memoriam card for Luke Appling, though they got the Latin a bit wrong.

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1990 Bart Giamatti cards – various

Topps, Donruss, Score, and O-Pee-Chee all paid tribute to baseball’s poet-commissioner, A. Bartlett Giamatti, who passed away on October 1, 1989. The card fronts make no mention of his passing, though his very inclusion in these sets would have been unusual otherwise. Card backs include his date of death.

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1978 Frisz Minnesota Twins Danny Thompson

Danny Thompson died from leukemia on December 10, 1976. While he did not appear in any 1977 sets, he was given card 46 in a regional Twins release. The card back includes his date of death and changes “bats and throws righthanded” to the past tense.

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1977 Topps Danny Thompson

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Hat tip to fellow SABR Baseball Cards blogger Keith Olbermann (you may know him from other stuff too) for this one, including the image.

As the Reggie card probably alerted you, these are Topps proof cards. The Thompson card is particularly unique in that he had no card at all when the 1977 set was finalized. Topps essentially acknowledged his passing by erasing him from the set. I’m not sure what stage of grief this suggests Topps was in. Denial?

1972 O-Pee-Chee Gil Hodges

At first glance the 1972 Topps and OPC issues for Gil Hodges look pretty much alike, at least until you read the fine print. “Deceased April 2, 1972.” I have to imagine the card prompted a number of Canadian youngsters to ask their parents what “deceased” meant. Overall a classy move by O-Pee-Chee and one I wish they repeated the following year for Mr. Clemente.

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1964 Topps

Ken Hubbs died so young that this card’s almost hard to look at. Still, Topps really went the extra mile in modifying their card design to honor the Cubs infielder.

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As noted by jongree in both of his posts, Hubbs was not the only baseball death in 1964. Houston pitcher Jim Ulbricht died on April 8 from a malignant melanoma at the age of 33. Topps noted his passing on the bottom of his card back.

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1956 Gum Inc. Adventure (R749) Harry Agganis

I type this one with a lump in my throat as I nearly died in 2016 from the same thing that killed Harry Agganis. The 26-year-old Red Sox first baseman died suddenly from a pulmonary embolism on June 27, 1955. A rather oddball trading card set whose subjects ranged from porcupines to sunburns included Agganis, Boston’s Golden Greek, as card 55.

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Honorable Mention: 1955 Bowman and 1952 Topps

While there is fortunately no death to report, hence the mere honorable mention status, the 1955 Bowman Eddie Waitkus card back must be one of the most unique in the history of the hobby, right down to his story’s final sentence. His 1952 Topps also makes mention of his near-death experience, which inspired the Bernard Malamud novel “The Natural.”

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1949 Leaf Babe Ruth

First off, yeah, I’m one of those annoying guys that refuses to say 1948 Leaf or even 1948-1949 Leaf. The Ruth card in this set makes no mention of his August 16, 1948, death. However, there are reasons to at least view this card as Leaf paying their respects.

  • Ruth is the only retired player in the set.
  • The set would have been planned right around the time of his passing.
  • Leaf even gave him card number 3, his famous uniform number with the Yankees.

Now read the back. It’s hard not to read it as an epitaph. RIP Sultan.

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1941 Harry Hartman set

Following a late season slump, Reds backstop Willard Hershberger took his own life on August 3, 1940 and to this day remains the last active player to have committed suicide. His card back is rather unique in that it relays to us the emotional impact of his death on his Cincinnati teammates. (Thank you to Chuck Ailsworth for alerting me to this card that was 100% off my radar!)

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1937-1938 World Wide Gum V356 Hockey

I know, I know…this is the BASEBALL card blog. But shoot, this one was too good to not include. And the card design is a complete clone of the V355 baseball release so what the heck. The first thing to know is that a Montreal Canadiens player named Howie Morenz died on March 8, 1937. His card back acknowledges as much.

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If that was all the World Wide Gum set did, I wouldn’t have included it. However, the set took a particularly unique move that I think gives it an important place in any write-up of in memoriam cards.

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The first time I saw this card while digging through a mixed baseball/hockey stack at a card show I assumed it was just a baby-faced player from back in the day. I had no idea it was a nine-year-old kid until I flipped it over. If I wrote blog posts back then I would have written about it, so here you go!

1911 T205 Gold Border Addie Joss

Addie Joss had the shortest life of any MLB Hall of Famer, dying from meningitis at the age of 31. Though he pitched in a very different era, his 1.89 ERA is nothing to shake a stick at. And if you did try that, you’d probably miss anyhow.

All the cards in the Gold Border set are works of art, but Addie’s takes on a special poignancy given the tragedy of his recent passing, noted in the lead sentence of the card’s reverse. The final paragraph of the bio is worth a read as well.

“He was a faithful player, liked by the team mates and respected by the public, many thousands of whom attended his funeral.”

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1910 Doc Powers Day postcard

From the “Standard Catalog of Vintage Baseball Cards…”

“To announce to fans the forthcoming Doc Powers Day benefit game, the Philadelphia A’s produced this standard sized (5-1/2″ x 3-1/2″) black-and-white postcard. Front has a photo of the late A’s catcher and information about the special events to be held June 30. On back is a message over the facsimile autograph of Connie Mack asking fans to remember the widow and children of their fallen star.”

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Quick aside: The great-granddaughter of Doc Powers is hoping to nab this card on the extremely slim chance you have doubles.

Dedication

This article is dedicated to young Simon Tocher. Cause of death: Collecting. Source: Boston Globe, August 25, 1910. RIP, young lad. You’re among friends here. I promise.

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Still can’t get enough?

If the real cards profiled in this post leave you wanting more, the “When Topps Had (Base) Balls blog has you covered. Click here to visit its “In Memoriam” gallery, which features a mix of custom cards in the style of the ones here along with other tributes to baseball personalities who have passed away over the years.

A tip of the hat to you, Gio, for all the great work you do keeping this hobby fun and filling in the essential holes in our collections!

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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 Bob Parker 2nd Best

It’s fitting that the first 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.