Sometime last year I picked up the last card I needed for my 1980 Topps set, placed it into its nine-pocket, and then took my well earned victory flip through the binder of majestic completed pages…only to find a page with a missing card. Dewey defeats Truman. Defeat from the jaws of victory. Bird steals the inbound pass.
Completing a set without actually completing a set is just one of the many cardboard errors I’ve made lately. Here are three more.
My largest player collection (by about 600) is the 700+ playing era cards I have of Dwight Gooden. For whatever reason, I decided a couple years back that the card at the very top of my Dr. K want list was Doc’s 1986 Meadow Gold milk carton “sketch” card.
I’d seen the card on eBay in the $10 range for a while, but you don’t amass 700+ cards of a guy by paying $10 each. At last one turned up for more like $3 and I couldn’t hit “Buy It Now” fast enough. When the card arrived I was genuinely excited to add it to my binder, only to find…
…I already had the card!
Just two weeks later, I “doubled” down by adding a card I thought I needed for my 1972 Fleer Laughlin Famous Feats set.
On the bright side, it’s not like these cards cost me real money. I’d never make the same mistake adding this Kaiser Wilhelm to my T206 Brooklyn team set, right?
Oops. Think again.
Of course what Hobbyist hasn’t accidentally added the occasional double or two…or three? Probably most, but how many could pull off the feat three times in one month?
In the corporate world, bosses would be calling for a root cause analysis and demanding corrective action. Am I simply getting old? Do I have too many different collections going? Have I gotten lazy at updating my want lists? In truth, probably yes to all three.
As a kid, and I think this was true of most die-hard collectors, I could open a pack and instantly know which cards I needed and which were doubles. I could do the same at card shows, looking through a dealer binder or display case. When it came to cards I had total recall. Evidently such cardboard lucidity is long gone, and it’s probably not a stretch to assume the same degradations have spread to various areas of adulting.
On the other hand, it’s also true that my purchases had much more riding on them back then. For one thing, every nickel, dime, and quarter were precious. Spending $0.50 on a 1963 Topps Ernie Banks (ah, the good old days!) when your entire card show budget (i.e., life savings) was $3.80 “borrowed” from various sources around the house was high finance. Add to that baseball cards being the only thing I thought or cared about, and it makes sense that I always batted a thousand.
An eternal optimist, it’s just not my nature to brand my “triple double” as what some collectors might bill a #HobbyFail. Rather, I’ll take solace in the adage errare humanum est and remember that it’s not the mistakes we make but how we respond to them that defines our true character. As a kid I would have sulked for weeks having committed even one of these blunders. Today I can laugh (and write) about them. Call these senior moments if you will, but isn’t”growing up” just a bit more pleasing to the ear?
Now does anyone wanna trade me a T205 Wilhelm for a T206?
UPDATE: The Wilhelm is no longer available for trade! About an hour after publishing this post the seller contacted me to let me know he’d accidentally sold it to someone else already. I guess I’m not the only one losing track of his cards these days! 😊
This article, however, will look at the first widely available baseball cards produced in the United States to showcase Negro Leaguers as Negro Leaguers. In other words, a card of Satchel Paige as a Cleveland Indian (1949 Bowman, 1949 Leaf) or St. Louis Brown (1953 Topps) would not qualify while a card of Satchel Paige as a Kansas City Monarch most definitely would. Should a working definition of “widely available” prove helpful, take it to mean there is nearly always at least one card from the set available on eBay.
Hall of Fame postcards (1971 to present)
I’ll leave it to readers individually to decide whether to count postcards as baseball cards. If you are in the “no” camp, feel free to skip this first entry. If you are in the “yes” camp then we’ll kick things off with the postcards issued and updated annually by the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
While one could quibble that more than half the text on the Paige card, first issued in July 1971, relates to his post-Negro Leagues career, I’ve chosen to count this postcard because A) Paige was selected by a special committee on the Negro Leagues, and B) he is not shown in an Indians, Browns, or Athletics uniform. The Gibson postcard, which carries no such ambiguity, was first issued in July 1972, as was a similar postcard of teammate Buck Leonard.
1974Laughlin Old-Time Black Stars
Bob Laughlin, also known for several collaborations with Fleer, independently produced this 36-card set in 1974. At time of issue, Satchel Paige (1971), Josh Gibson (1972), and Buck Leonard (1972) were the only Hall of Famers in the set. (Cool Papa Bell was inducted in 1974 but after the set was released.) Now an impressive 22 of the 36 cards in the set depict Hall of Famers, with all 14 of the remaining presenting compelling cases for enshrinement.
1975-76 Great Plains Greats
Thanks to Ted Chastain in the reader comments for identifying this 42-card set. Per the Standard Catalog the cards were produced by the Great Plains Sports Collectors Association. Cards 1-24, which includes Cool Papa Bell, were produced in 1975 and sponsored by Sheraton Inns. Cards 25-42 were produced the following year and sponsored by Nu-Sash Corp.
1976 D&S Enterprises Cool Papa Bell
In 1976 John Douglas of D&S Enterprises issued a 13-card set in conjunction with and James “Cool Papa” Bell, who was the subject of the set.
Interestingly, one of the cards in the set is a “card of a card” featuring Bell’s 1974 Laughlin card, updated with facsimile autograph.
1976 Laughlin Indianapolis Clowns
A second Laughlin set of note is his 42-card 1976 Indianapolis Clowns issue, mostly coveted by collectors today for its card of a young Henry Aaron.
In 1975 pizza chain Shakey’s issued a small 18-card set of Hall of Famers, followed up in 1976 by a much larger set featuring all 157 members of the Hall (and a second Robin Roberts card) in order of their induction. The latter set therefore included several Negro League stars: Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Monte Irvin (New York Giants photo), Cool Papa Bell, Judy Johnson, and Oscar Charleston.
Not counting the Hall of Fame’s own postcards, which may or may not be regarded as baseball cards by some collectors, I believe this Shakey’s set is the very first to feature both “traditional” (i.e., white) major leaguers and Negro Leaguers on its checklist.
1978Laughlin Long-Ago Black Stars
Four years after his initial Negro Leagues set, Laughlin produced a sequel, employing a similar design. Aside from a brand new checklist of 36 cards, the most evident updates were the replacement of “Old-Time” with “Long-Ago” and a greenish rather than brownish tint.
1978 Grand Slam
This 200-card set may have been produced with autographs in mind as (I believe) all 200 of the early baseball stars it featured were still living at the time the set was planned. While nearly one-fourth of the set featured current or future Hall of Famers, there was no shortage of lesser stars such as Bibb Falk and Ed Lopat. The set even included an outfielder with a lifetime OPS of .182.
More to the point, the set included cards of Negro Leaguers Buck Leonard, Judy Johnson, and Cool Papa Bell.
1980-87 SSPC Baseball Immortals
When initially issued in 1980, this SSPC set included all 173 Hall of Famers, i.e., the Shakey’s Pizza roster plus the 16 players inducted between 1977 and 1980. As such, it included the same Negro Leaguers as the Shakey’s set but also added Martin Dihigo (1977) and Pop Lloyd (1977).
Following the initial release, SSPC updated the checklist multiple times through 1987 to include the Hall’s more recent inductees. As such, cards of Negro Leaguers Rube Foster (1981) and Ray Dandridge (1987) were subsequently added to the set.
P.S. No, I don’t really know what’s happening on that Foster card, and don’t even get me started on the Josh Gibson!
1982 “TCMA” Baseball Superstars
Two different “Baseball Superstars” sets were produced in 1980 and 1982 that may or may not have been produced by TCMA. (Andrew Aronstein, son of TCMA co-founder Mike Aronstein, believes the cards were sold by TCMA but not produced by TCMA. The Standard Catalog notes the cards were probably produced by Card Collectors Closet in Springfield, MA.) The second of these sets included a lone Satchel Paige card on its 45-card multi-sport checklist.
1983 Sporting News 1933 All-Star Game 50th Anniversary
This 60-card set was released by Marketcom to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first All-Star Game, and it’s first 48 cards featured the 32 players from the American and National League All-Star rosters plus various other players of the era such as Johnny Hodapp and Chick Fullis. Likely in recognition of the first East-West Game, also in 1933, the final dozen cards in the set consisted of Negro League greats selected by the Sporting News.
These same twelve Negro Leaguers would be reappear in their own 1933 All-Star tribute set in 1988.
1983 ASA Bob Feller
ASA was a big name in the early 1980s when it came to single player tribute sets, with Bob Feller the subject of one of its 1983 offerings. Card 5 in the twelve-card set includes a cameo by future teammate Satchel Paige in his Kansas City Monarchs uniform.
Note that a “red parallel” of the card (and entire set) exists as well.
1983 Donruss Hall of Fame Heroes
In 1983, Donruss augmented its slate of Hobby offerings to include a 44-card “Hall of Fame Heroes” set. While the majority of the set featured National and American League stars, it was notable at the time for being the first “mainstream” card set to include Negro League legends.
Cool Papa Bell and Josh Gibson are the two unambiguous Negro Leaguers in the set, and I would further count Satchel Paige in spite of his St. Louis Browns uniform.
Collectors hoping to get even more of artist Dick Perez’s talents applied to the Negro Leagues would be in luck the following year.
1980-2001 Perez-Steele Postcards(sorted in this article as 1984)
Beginning in 1980, the Perez-Steele Galleries issued a set of 245 postcards over the course of 22 years. The first of the releases to include Negro Leaguers was Series Five in 1984, which included Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Cool Papa Bell, and Judy Johnson. (The same series also included Satchel Paige as a Cleveland Indian and Monte Irvin as a New York Giant.)
1984 Decathlon Negro League Baseball Stars
Apart from the copyright line, this set is identical to its far more plentiful reproduction in 1986 by Larry Fritsch.
Consisting of 119 cards, it would take nearly four decades for a set to provide more Negro Leagues firepower than this one.
1985 Decathlon Ultimate Baseball Card Set
Decathlon returned the following year with a 15-card set of baseball legends, highlighted by Josh Gibson.
In addition thirteen white players, the set also included a “second year” card of Moses Fleetwood Walker.
If the artwork looks familiar, it was done by Gerry Dvorak of 1953 Topps fame.
1986 Larry Fritsch Negro Leagues Baseball Stars
Here is the aforementioned reissue of Decathlon’s 1984 offering, still available from Larry Fritsch Cards. I believe you can also pick up a set in person at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum gift shop.
1987 Dixon’s Negro Baseball Greats
Salute to historian, author, and Negro Leagues Baseball Museum co-founder Phil Dixon, whose 45-card set was the first ever set of baseball cards produced by an African American.
Phil also worked with the Ted Williams Card Company on its Negro Leagues subsets in 1993 and 1994.
In addition to Charles Conlon photographs of five white major leaguers, this six-card set also included a card of Cool Papa Bell.
Though the small print on the Bell’s card suggests a Conlon photograph, it should be noted that Charles Conlon passed away in 1945 while Bell did not become the manager of the Monarchs until 1948.
1988 Pittsburgh Negro League Stars
This 20-card set, highlighted on the SABR Baseball Cards blog in 2020, was given to fans by the Pittsburgh Pirates on September 10, 1988. Biographical information on the card backs comes from historian Rob Ruck.
Befitting a Pittsburgh-themed set, nearly all subjects are Crawfords or Grays, though there are some exceptions such as Monte Irvin.
1988 World Wide Sports 1933 Negro League All Stars
This 12-card set features the same twelve Negro Leaguers as the 1983 Marketcom set and also shares a common theme, that of the inaugural All-Star Game (or East-West Game). Additionally, many of the cards use identifcal source images apart from differences in cropping. However, this set is a standalone Negro Leagues set whereas the 1983 set included 48 players from the white major leagues.
The Negro Leagues set itself wasn’t scandal-free as it managed to confuse its two best players!
Counting the Hall of Fame postcards that began this article, we’ve now looked 20 years of Negro League baseball cards. Though the numbers of cards and sets may have been more than you imagined for this period from 1971-90, it’s fair to say that nearly all such sets might warrant the “oddball” label. Notably, we saw nothing at all from the biggest name in all of baseball cards, Topps.
The omission of Negro Leaguers by Topps could certainly be seen as a sign that Topps deemed these players unworthy of their precious cardboard. To an extent I buy the argument, but I’ll also counter with the fact that Topps operated “by the book” when it came to licensing, permissions, etc. I suspect many of the sets profiled in this article provided no financial compensation to the players or estates involved, meaning their honoring of the Negro Leagues may have been part celebration but also part exploitation. If so, perhaps Topps deserves kudos for not following suit.
Though I may have overlooked a card or set somewhere, I believe the first Topps Negro League cards appeared in 2001, most prominently as part of a “What Could Have Been” series.
Though unintentional, the set led off with a “what could have been” to top them all: Josh on the Kansas City Monarchs. Such would surely end all greatest team ever debates right here and now!
I started this amazing project last September. The first purchase was a Billy Parker card on 9/2/20, and on 7/8/21 I found the Larry Doby card I wanted to complete it all. I had so much fun assembling this mix of well known cards, as well as some I never knew existed.
Sixteen players out of the 86 did not have an MLB card produced, which made things very interesting. I had to dig for autographs, Minor League cards, original photos, and even game cards. The back stories of these great players were so interesting: the journey, the struggle, the closed doors eventually pushed wide open.
I learned so much about the players and their families, the Negro League and its origins. I’m a bit bummed it has come to an end but happy I was able to share it with all of you. Thanks to SABR Baseball Cards and the whole SABR team for giving me their platform to share it. So here we go, it’s the bottom of 9th, time for a walk-off!
George Crowe 1953 Topps. As you know I love the ’53 Topps set. So ahead of its time. Big George with the frames as a member of the Boston Braves. Crowe was an outstanding basketball player, and enjoyed the game better than baseball. He was smart enough to know there was more money in baseball back then. In 1947 he joined the New York Black Yankees where he hit .305 in 141 at bats. In ’52 he made his debut with the Braves. He played 11 years in MLB, in ’57 he had his best season smashing 31 dingers along with 92 ribbies for Cincinnati.
🐐fact: “Crowe was the most articulate and far-sighted Negro then in the majors. Young Negroes turned to him for advice.” – Jackie Robinson
Joe Black 2001 Fleer Stitches in Time Autograph. Figured I would go the auto route with Joe, it’s a super clean signature, and a card I have never seen before. Black pitched for 3 MLB teams over 6 years. His best season was his rookie year playing with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He finished 41 games, sported a 15-4 record with a 2.15 era, 15 saves, and took home NL ROY as a 28 year-old. Joe played for the Baltimore Elite Giants of the Negro League.
🐐fact: Along with Jackie Robinson, Joe pushed for a pension plan for Negro League players. After his retirement from baseball, he remained affiliated with the Commissioner’s Office where he consulted players about career choices.
Quincy Trouppe 1978 Laughlin BVG 8.5. This card was from a set of 36 cards by sport artist R.G. Laughlin honoring outstanding black players from the past. Quincy was one of the players in this project who was never featured on a MLB card. He only appeared in 6 games with Cleveland as a 39 year-old. That was his MLB career, but Quincy was a legend in the Negro Leagues! He was a big switch-hitting catcher, 6′ 2″ and 225 pounds. Excelled as a player, manager, and scout. Trouppe was a baseball lifer who did many great things for the game.
🐐fact: In 1977 Quincy self-published a book entitled, “20 Years Too Soon”. He also had a vast collection of photographs, and supplied Ken Burns with most of the Negro League video footage for his legendary documentary.
Hector Rodriguez 1953 Bowman RC. Hector played one year for the Chicago White Sox in 1952. He was a natural shortstop, and a native of Cuba. A member of the New York Cubans in the Negro League. Even though he only played a short time in MLB, he was a fixture in the International League for the Toronto Maple Leafs. As you can see on this awesome Bowman card with Yankee Stadium in the background, he’s about to sling that ball sidearm. He was known for his underhand flip throws from deep in the hole just like someone I enjoyed watching growing up, Tony Fernandez.
🐐fact: Hector sported a great eye at the plate. In 1952 with the White Sox, he struck out only 22 times in 462 plate appearances!
Frank Barnes 1960 Topps RC. This is a really sharp card, not centered well, but great condition. Barnes played in 1957, 1958 and 1960 for the Cardinals, he pitched in only 15 career MLB games. If you notice, Frank is a member of the White Sox on his baseball card, but he would never appear in a game for them. Barnes played for the Kansas City Monarchs, he was later sold to the Yankees along with Elston Howard.
🐐fact: Barnes continued to pitch professionally in the minor leagues and Mexico until age 40 in 1967.
Joe Durham 1958 Topps PSA 7 RC. Joe had his first taste of the big leagues in 1954 as a 22 year-old OF with the Baltimore Orioles. He missed the ’55 and ’56 seasons due to military service. He returned to the O’s in ’57, then finished his career with the Cards in ’59. Durham started his professional career with the Chicago American Giants of the Negro League. After his playing career was over he became the O’s batting practice pitcher, and then moved into the front office. He was a member of the Orioles organization for over 40 years.
🐐fact: “I was in the Negro American League because I couldn’t play in anything else. People talk about racism in Mississippi and Alabama. Mississippi was bad, and Alabama was bad, but Chicago was just as bad as any of them.” – Joe Durham.
George Altman 1958 Topps RC / 1964 Topps Autograph. This is a really crisp rookie card, obviously not centered well, but an overall nice card. The Altman autograph came from Ryans Vintage Cards, a really cool Instagram account that sells random vintage cards in re-packs. George played 9 years in MLB as an OF and 1B. He was a 2x All-Star with the Cubs. In ’61 he led the league with 12 triples, batting .303 with 27 HR and 96 RBI. He started his pro ball with the Kansas City Monarchs, mentored by the great Buck O’Neil who taught him how to play 1B. The Cubs signed George, as well as Lou Johnson and J.C. Hartman all from Buck’s word.
🐐fact: After his time in MLB, Altman went on to play ball in Japan, amassing 205 HR until he retired at the age of 42.
Lino Donoso 1956 Topps Pirates Team Card. Donoso was one of the toughest players to find anything on. It took me months to realize he was on the Pirates ’56 team card. It’s Clemente’s second year, so it’s not a cheap card even in poor condition. Lino was a lefty pitcher, a Cuban native who started his professional career in 1947 with the New York Cubans of the Negro National League. He made his MLB debut in 1955, and played a few games for Pittsburgh in ’56 as well. He had a long career in the Mexican League, and was elected to their Hall of Fame in 1988.
🐐fact: Donoso was a teammate of Minnie Miñoso for the New York Cubans in ’47. He sported a 5-2 2.18 ERA as a 24 year-old.
Editor’s Note: You can enjoy the rest of this series right here on the SABR Baseball Cards blog.
My name is Joe Genovese, curator and founder of the popular @GoatJerseys Twitter handle. I fell in love with jerseys as a kid in the late 70s and early 80s. The uniforms back then were full of wonderful colors, stirrups, and neatly fitted pants and jerseys.
My mother was a huge Yankees fan, and started buying me baseball cards in 1978 when I was a little over four years old. I’m thankful she introduced me to a hobby I would enjoy for many years. As High School set in, hanging out with girls and friends became more important than buying packs and trading cards. I stopped collecting.
Fast forward to March 2020, the pandemic hit and I was home like most Americans in our country. I was trying to keep myself busy so I went into the attic and stumbled onto my childhood card collection. As I looked through all the sneaker boxes full of sets and cards from 1978 to 1990, it brought back great memories. Like every kid in the 80s I thought my 1985 Topps set, Don Mattingly, Tony Gwynn, and Mark McGwire rookies would make me rich one day. I was always super OCD with my my cards and kept them in great condition, so I was happy to see they how they looked after so many years. Especially my 1988-1989 Jordan cards which were in protected sleeves, definitely gradable!
My then five year-old daughter started helping me sort through the boxes, and just like that she was hooked! We started buying some packs from Target and Walmart, and soon after I found an LCS that was close by. I had a card partner just like the old days, we traded, we sorted, and we drove the wife nuts! It really made me love the hobby again after all these years.
In saying all that, I decided to come up with a project that would keep me busy, but also one that was very informative. I’ve always been an aficionado of the Negro Leagues. The history, the players, stats, fields, and their remarkable stories. I had the pleasure of interviewing the great Bob Kendrick, President of the Negro League Baseball Museum. I knew if I had any questions or inquiries on players I could reach out. So I decided to start a project called, “From the Negro League to MLB.”
Notwithstanding the December 2020 MLB announcement, there were 87 players who played in the Negro Leagues and in Major League Baseball. Harry Chappas was a white ballplayer and he was signed to play in the Negro Leagues for the Indianapolis Clowns who were barnstorming in those days, sort of like the Harlem Globetrotters of baseball. I know some other players did the same, but Harry didn’t have to go through what they had, so I’m not counting him. So here’s the deal, my goal is to collect a graded card, or an authenticated photo, and/or a piece of memorabilia from the other 86 players.
This past September I started my research, about two hours a day on eBay, Google, PSA, Beckett, and any website or forum where I could find information. Out of the 86 players, 16 did not have a MLB card. Lino Donoso was only featured on a 1956 Topps Pittsburgh Pirates team card, and John Kennedy only appeared on the 1958 Topps Philadelphia Phillies team card. 6 players only appeared on one MLB card. As I searched more in-depth, I started to see that many of these players were connected from the Negro Leagues, to Minor League ball, and even to the Mexican League. So many of these talented ballplayers, not only African-Americans, but Panamanians, Puerto Ricans, and Cubans didn’t get their shot in MLB until way after their prime.
This project has become an addicting hobby, and I really wanted to share my journey with the masses. I hope you all enjoy it as much as I have.
Billy Parker 1972 Topps Rookie Stars. I started off buying some of the cheaper graded cards that were available and easy to purchase. Parker was my first, he was the last Negro Leaguer to play in MLB. Billy played for the Indianapolis Clowns in 1961, and like I said above by this time they were more of a barnstorming team, so technically Ike Brown (below) is the last to play. Parker played sparingly for the Angels from 1971-1973 as a backup IF and OF.
🐐fact: Like many back then, Parker passed himself off as five years younger than he actually was.
Ike Brown 1974 Topps. Check out the frames, mustache, and sweet Tigers road uni’s. (The background is from my old Pursue the Pennant board game from the 80s.) He played 6 years in MLB, all with the Detroit Tigers. Brown spent 9 years in the Minor Leagues, as well as time in the Negro Leagues with the Kansas City Monarchs.
🐐fact: Ike was a jack of all trades, played every position except CF and catcher. He was also nicknamed, “Showboat” for his slow HR trot, and aggresive approach at the plate.
Paul Casanova 1975 Topps MINI. Huge fan of the ’75 Topps set, and the mini’s are pretty cool. Love those Braves hats from that era. It was also Brown’s last MLB card. Casanova was born in Cuba, an excellent defensive catcher, played for the Washington Senators from 1965-1971, and with the Braves from 1972-1974. Paul also played with the Indianapolis Clowns during their later years as Billy Parker did.
🐐fact: Casanova caught Phil Neikro’s lone no-hitter. “After the game, I raised him up on my shoulder. We drank a 12-pack of beer and Phil gave me $1,000.”
John “Blue Moon” Odom 1972 Topps IA. Great shot of John in those beautiful Oakland uni’s from the 70s. The “In Action” shot made this card an easy choice. John had a 13 year career in MLB, 12 of them with the A’s. In 1968-1969 he earned back to back All-Star nods, going 16-10 2.45 and 15-6 2.92 respectively.
🐐fact: Odom played for the Raleigh Tigers in the late stages of the Negro American League. He was paid mainly “meal money” per day by cheapskate owner Arthur Dove.
Bobby Prescott 1960 National Bank Tacoma Giants. This is pretty rare (POP4 PSA), Prescott was one of the players who did not have a MLB card. He played in only 10 games, all in 1961 for the Kansas City Athletics. He was a legendary Minor League Home Run hitter, smashing 398 over his 20 plus years in baseball.
🐐fact: Prescott was born in Panama, played for the little known Jacksonville Eagles of the Southern Negro League. He also won a HR title in the Panamanian League in 1951.
Clarence “Choo-Choo” Coleman 1961 Topps Rookie Card. Really cool shot of Clarence in his catching stance. I’m always a sucker for the old rookie cards with the star in the corner, plus that catchers mitt and the clean Phils threads. Another player who joined up with the Indianapolis Clowns in the late 50s. Coleman played in only 4 MLB seasons, 1 with the Phillies, and 3 with the New York Mets.
🐐fact: Coleman was a catcher for the expansion Mets in their inaugural season. The legend Casey Stengel said about Choo-Choo, “I’ve never seen a catcher so fast at retrieving passed balls.”
Hal Jones 1962 Topps Rookie Card. Loved that “C” the Indians used back then. Hal played two years in the majors, 17 total games, all with Cleveland. He spent 9 years in the Minor Leagues playing mainly 1B.
🐐fact: Hal played for the Kansas City Monarchs in 1956, appearing in the East-West All-Star classic.
Ernie Banks 1980 Laughlin PSA 10. Another very rare card (POP7 PSA10). Not an expensive card, but I really love the look of this one. Robert Laughlin used cartoons to illustrate some really cool cards. Banks was a 14x All-Star, 2x MVP, and smashed 512 HR. I wish Ernie had a chance to show his stuff in the postseason.
🐐fact: Cool Papa Bell saw Banks playing in a semi-pro game and signed him to the Kansas City Monarchs. Played for KC in ’50, hit .250, left to the army for the next two years, came back in ’53 and raked .347!
John Kennedy 1958 Topps Philadelphia Phillies team. John never had his own MLB card, so this was an easy choice. I could not find anything on John for a long time until I came across his name in a forum while I was doing research. There I found out he was featured in ‘58 team card since he was in Spring Training with the Phillies in ’57. He played a few games in April and May of ’58 before being sent down. The more you dig, the more you find! Kennedy was an IF, and the first black player in Phillies history.
🐐fact: Kennedy played in the Negro Leagues for the Birmingham Black Barons and the Kansas City Monarchs where he hit .385 with 17 HR before signing with the Phillies.
Monte Irvin 1954 Red Man Tobacco. I love this card, one of my favorite in the collection. The Red Man cards are tough to find in good condition. It has great color, and it captures an awesome expression on Monte’s face. A lot of the Red Man cards do not have the bottom attached to it since that was the part you would tear off to get a free “Big League Style Hat” after you collected 50 stubs. Monte was a super talented OF who played with and mentored Willie Mays in the spacious Polo Grounds. During his time with the New York Giants Irvin hit over .300 3 times (.299 in ’50). Irvin didn’t make it to MLB until he was a 30 year-old. He played 8 years, 7 with the Giants, and his last year in Wrigley.
🐐fact: “Monte was the choice of all Negro National and American League club owners to serve as the No. 1 player to join a white major league team.” – Hall of Famer Effa Manley, owner of the Newark Eagles.
I hope you all enjoyed the 1st inning of “From the Negro Leagues to MLB.” 2nd inning will be up soon!
Forty-five years after purchasing a pack, I finally completed the 1974 Fleer “Baseball’s Wildest Days and Plays” set. This is one of several sets in which artist Robert Laughlin used cartoons to illustrate some aspect of baseball history. This set is often listed as having been issued in 1973-which is printed on the backs as the copyright date-but the packs didn’t appear in stores until 1974.
The cards are of the “tall boy” style, measuring 2-1/2” x 4”. The set is comprised of 42 cards, which were distributed five cards to a pack, along with a slab of gum. Interestingly, Laughlin had a mail order business in which he “hawked his wares,” as evidenced by this advertisement in a 1974 “The Trader Speaks.” This ad clearly shows that the “Baseball’s Wildest Days and Plays” cards were new for 1974.
Card #1 in the numerical sequence provides a feel for Laughlin’s concept and art style. A cartoon is used to symbolize the event. The accompanying tagline helps set the stage and provides context. Finally, the narrative on the back fleshes out the whole story. Essentially, each card offers a baseball history lesson.
By all rights, the following confession should get me drummed out of SABR. Until I acquired this card a few weeks ago, I was unaware of the “Unglaub Arc.” In 1907, Red Sox first baseman Bob Unglaub proposed a rule designed to increase scoring. He advocated for an arc to be painted in the outfield 240 feet from home plate. The outfielders had to stay to the infield side of the arc before the ball was hit. Thus, the sluggers of the day would have a better chance of reaching base. Of course, today’s speedy athletes routinely play at a shallow depth and run back once the ball is airborne.
Action on the diamond isn’t the only subject matter. Senators catcher Gabby Street’s famous catch of a ball dropped from the Washington Monument in 1908 is an example. After several attempts, Gabby was able to snag a ball dropped from the height of 555 feet. According to the SABR Bio Project piece by Joseph Wancho, the ball fell with 300 pounds of force. Although Street is depicted in uniform, he was in street clothes when he made the “monumental” snag.
The murky legends of baseball get a turn with William “Dummy” Hoy and the origin of umpire signals. According to esteemed SABR researcher Bill Deane in a July 24, 2010 New York Times article, no contemporaneous evidence exists of hand signals being added by umpires to communicate balls and strikes to the deaf Hoy. As with many baseball innovations, the evolution is nuanced and not centered on a definitive moment in history.
My favorite “Wildest Days and Plays” cards use the actual
likenesses instead of just a generic player.
An excellent rendering of Jimmie Foxx is used to tell the story of the
“Beast” being walked six consecutive times in a game. Also, a very recognizable Babe Ruth was drawn
by Laughlin for another card.
The card for the Eddie Gaedel stunt is an excellent example
of Laughlin using imagery to enhance the story.
A little guy perched on a giant baseball automatically conveys Gaedel’ s
Likewise, a towering Jim Thorpe conveys the outsized status
of the great athlete. Besides, hitting
home runs in three different states in the same game is an “outsized”
Even owners show up in this set. Pirates mogul, Barney Dreyfuss, is depicted firing Bill Abstein for striking out 10 times in the 1909 World Series.
I will exit with the card that tells the tale of the rise and fall of Joe Borden. In 1875, Borden (playing under the name Josephs) recorded the first no-hitter in professional baseball history with Philadelphia of the National Association. In 1876 he joined the newly formed National League with Boston where he proceeded to win the first game in league history. Sadly, Joe’s status as a “phenom” came crashing down with each subsequent, poor performance. By the end of 1876 season, Borden was fulfilling his contract by serving as the Red Caps groundskeeper. Charlie Weatherby’s SABR Bio Project entry provides the full scoop on “Flash-in-the-Pan” Borden.
Baseball artist and prolific direct-to-collector publisher Robert Laughlin printed a set honoring three of the sport’s “big numbers” (300 wins/.400 average/500 homers) in 1980. If you know Laughlin’s other self-made and Fleer-published sets, its cartoonish take on legendary players fits his style.
The significance of those 300/400/500 achievements also means Laughlin’s set contains just one guy not enshrined in Cooperstown, #13 Joe Jackson, banned from baseball following Chicago’s Black Sox scandal a century ago.
One Yankee legend garnered his “500 homers” card via a statistical side door — a route we’ll take again later.
Laughlin self-published this set not long before ’80s-90s power hitting took off. As of today (2019), a tranche of modern 500+ homer guys qualify. Trading friend and many-credentialed writer George Vrechek pointed out during a recent swap session that while no new players batted .400 since 1980, our other groups added 25 or 26 members, depending how you count.
Our modern lament for these 300/400/500 candidates: steroids. Do we know how many of those 26* hitters and pitchers bulked up (and improved recovery) using things borrowed from the iron-pumping world of Mr. Universe? And who cares more, baseball collectors or baseball historians? (I’m about 80% collector and 20% historian in that regard.)
1970s muscle-builder Brian Downing, shown with his like-minded hero, brought a weight-training mentality to baseball that many others followed, some with chemical help.
Aside on Brian Downing: Back in my mid-80s salad days, I hated Downing’s pounding of Seattle pitching. Over 156 career games versus my Mariners, he hit a blistering .920 OPS. If you count those 156 games as a “season,” just five players registered better one-year numbers in the same era: Eddie Murray three times, Reggie Smith twice, Ken Singleton twice, Tim Raines once, and Howard Johnson once. (I do my best to impress on others how good Downing was to spread that searing, nostalgic pain around.)
But settle down! Let’s not get too serious about performance-enhancers today. Can a wholesome law-enforcement cartoon keep us in the “just enjoy our hobby” mindset?
If we extend Laughlin’s 300/400/500 set into today, I start with this cartoon head on our cartoon body. No reason to waste nicknames like “Crime Dog!”
Who else should we add to an extended checklist? Using just the aforementioned 10 pitchers and 16 sluggers gives me pause, because of our complete zero at .400. Just two modern guys came close, George Brett (.390 in 1980) and Tony Gwynn (.394 in 1994).
Laughlin set a 20th century cutoff for his 1980 set. What if we turn back time and net 19th century stars like Kid Nichols, Wee Willie Keeler, and Hughie Jennings? Given how few power hitters that era produced, I like this option better than going without adding any .400 hitters at all.
Potential old-school .400 members
According to Baseball-Reference.com, 23 batting seasons reached .400+ (and qualified for the batting title) in the pre-World Series era, 1871-1902. Some guys did so multiple times.
Billy Hamilton (1894)
Cal McVey (1871)
Cap Anson (1872)
Davy Force (1872)
Ed Delahanty (1894, 1895, 1899)
Fred Dunlap (1884)
Hugh Duffy (1894)
Hughie Jennings (1896)
Jesse Burkett (1895-96)
Levi Meyerle (1871)
Nap Lajoie (1901)
Pete Browning (1887)
Ross Barnes (1871-73, 1876)
Sam Thompson (1894)
Tip O’Neill (1887)
Tuck Turner (1894)
Wee Willie Keeler (1897)
Italicized seasons played less than 100 games, so sit below the stature of other 300/400/500 candidates. Let’s strike those.
Furthermore, Laughlin’s 300/400/500 contains Lajoie at #9. We can trim those 17 guys to ten “significant” 19th century 400 hitters not already in the original.
Billy Hamilton (1894)
Ed Delahanty (1894, 1895, 1899)
Fred Dunlap (1884)
Hugh Duffy (1894)
Hughie Jennings (1896)
Jesse Burkett (1895-96)
Pete Browning (1887)
Sam Thompson (1894)
Tip O’Neill (1887)
Wee Willie Keeler (1897)
Newspaper and ballcard photos exist for all ten, making it straightforward to create head-on-cartoon versions. While they played in a different era of hitting rules and equipment quality, modern analysis also diminished batting average overall. Fewer 21st century guys hallow it as a statistic that needs rigid defense. Loosening our lasso to pull in 19th century players gives historical depth to a list that already carries PED baggage.
Proposed 300/400/500 Extended checklist
Greg Maddux (300 game winners)
Billy Hamilton (.400 hitters)
Hughie “Eeyah!” Jennings
Alex Rodriguez (500 HR sluggers)
Ken Griffey, Jr.
Honorary: Fred McGriff
Big thanks to Nick Vossbrink for this sharp and stylish custom Barry Bonds, befitting our modern 300/400/500 motif.
Now there’s just the matter of designing and printing our other 36 cards and engaging a lawyer to deflect “unlicensed photo depiction” civil claims! What do you think, does this checklist meet the bar set by its predecessor?
Interesting that Jason, our Committee co-chair, should highlight this card in his recent post of cards on cards.
Interesting, because the post hit right as I was acquiring two lots to get close to finishing the set. It’s the 1974 Fleer Baseball Firsts set, a 42-card issue of R. G. Laughlin’s great work.
I’ve written before about Laughlin sets. I’ve been able to complete some that I had a head start on (1972 Famous Feats, 1973 Wildest Days and Plays). Others I had – 1971 World Series and 1974 Pioneers of Baseball. One I picked up super cheaply – 1972 Great Feats (red). Still more are pricey as hell, but I’m playing a long game.
I knew I had some of the Baseball Firsts cards from buying packs. I dug them out and found I only had 17 of 42. Not enough to really work with, but I started checking out some lots. I found one with 7 cards I needed and, in a co-bid with Mark Armour, picked up 37 of 42. (20 are headed to Mark, 17 stayed with me).
Here they are (sorry for the sheet glare):
I find it amazing that, in 1974, the earliest days of intense labor strife in major league baseball, Fleer would issue a Players’ Association card. Brave, and maybe a big middle finger to MLB and Topps, who kept Fleer at bay (and would for 7 more years).
The Carl Mays card is creepy AF, capturing Mays’ delivery, shrouded in black, with the Grim Reaper peeking out behind the pitcher’s mound. On a lighter note, the Helmet card seems to feature scrubbing bubbles.
None of these cards should really run more than $1-2, and having a somewhat anonymous Jackie Robinson helps. I have no doubt that if the front of the card had his name, it would cost $10.
The Farm System card looks like a scene from Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The empty spot on this page is reserved for Landis, on reserve at COMC.
The one I need, #6, is this:
If anyone has it, or an extra, let me know. I’ve got its final resting place already prepared:
As a kid few things sucked more than being dragged to Kmart by my mom. All that changed one day in 1982 when I saw these on the shelves by checkout.
I don’t recall the price, but it was damn low for a set that included Mantle, Mays, and Aaron, and it was even low enough for me to somehow twist my mom’s arm into adding it to our cart. On top of that, these were no ordinary cards. These were a Limited Edition!
Opening the box on the way to the car, I was pretty thrilled with the look of the cards, the first 41 of which featured images of earlier Topps baseball cards. At least that’s what I thought.
In fact, the set not only included cards of cards but also cards of cards that never were.
The set also gave me my first Topps Traded card since the designers smartly eschewed the 1981 Rollie Fingers base card in favor of his Brewers update.
However, the most intriguing cards in the set were these five. Even as a Dodger fan, I had to love the idea that these were cards of cards of Cards!
Thanks to some trades and card show visits, I already had some cards of cards from 1975 in my collection.
Three cards in the 1975 Topps MVP subset even included cards that never were.
The Wills card appears to be the same one used seven years later by Kmart, which leads me to wonder if a “real” 1962 Topps Maury Wills was created but never released or if someone in 1982 simply said, “Hey, wait a minute! No need to make a fake Wills. We still have that one from ’75.”
The 1951-style Campanella seems to work well, but the 1955 is a bit of an eyesore. Not only did Topps aberrantly go black and white on the head shot but they “capped off” the anachronism by placing Campanella in L.A. three years early. (Collectors of the 1958 or 1962 Jay Publishing sets may recognize the source of the 1955 Campy fauxtaux.)
But I digress. What you really want to know is were there cards of cards of Cards, and of course the answer is YES! As the set’s theme was identical to the Kmart set and the time frame wasn’t too different either, we see the same cards of cards of Cards as Kmart, minus Keith Hernandez who of course hadn’t won his MVP award yet.
And just the year before that Topps recapped the entire cardboard career of the Hammer with its five-card “Hank Aaron Special” subset.
North of the border, the same subset was issued but with some twists I never understood until reading Matthew Glidden’s terrific article on the subject. While the first and last cards are largely the same as the U.S. issue, the middle three cards were split into six.
On the heels of their 1974 and 1975 successes, Topps created another “cards of cards” subset for 1976. Though there were no cards of cards of Cards, the “Father & Son” cards featured five (then) current players along with the 1953 or 1954 Topps cards of their Big League dads.
That same year, a lesser known set featured a card of a card. Were it not for baseball’s Color Barrier, it might have even been a card of a card of a Card since its subject spent ten years with the St. Louis Stars.
The card itself is from a 13-card set dedicated to the life and career of Cool Papa Bell, and the card it depicts is from a 1974 Laughlin set.
Cards of cards had a particularly strong run from 1985-1990 thanks to another Father/Son series, featuring (yes!) a card of a card of a Card…
…and the five-year reboot of a classic Topps subset that debuted in 1977.
Where the 1977 subset used ordinary (or sometimes extraordinary) photos, these later sets adopted a Kmartesque cards of cards design. There were five cards in the 1986 subset, but none were cards of cards of Cards. The most interesting arc in the subset features a “card that never was” of Fernando Valenzuela, curiously used instead of his 1981 Traded/Update card image.
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, we find no cards of cards of Cards, but we do see a tighter cropping of the Kmart Fred Lynn, more closely matching his actual RC, and a card reminding Cards fans of recent postseason agony.
The 1986 Topps set also doubled down on the Hank Aaron Special design to honor Pete Rose’s breaking of Ty Cobb’s career hits record.
Where Topps had already turned the multiplayer RC of Fred Lynn into a solo card for Kmart (and would do similar for Oliva and Lynn again), Topps left Rose’s iconic 1963 rookie card in its original format. Also breaking with card on card tradition, Topps ran with Rose’s main 1984 issue rather than his update card on the Expos. In retrospect we might regard this as the beginning of the end for Montreal baseball.
Before closing the article, I want to highlight one more card on card that depending on the release date may in fact be the first of its kind. The same year Topps issued the Hank Aaron Specials, Fleer and Bob Laughlin blessed the baseball world with a 42-card set of Baseball Firsts. Card 12 in the set describes the first baseball cards and the front depicts a tobacco-style card that never was of Beaneater hurler (pardon the visual!) Kid Madden (SABR bio).
Oh how I would have loved it had Madden been a Cardinal so I could end with a card of a card of a Card. About the closest I can come is to note that the James O’Neill mentioned on the back of the card did spend seven years in St. Louis, but of course his team was the Browns.
I’m curious to know if you’re aware of any cards of cards earlier than 1974 or know whether the Fleer set beat Topps to the shelves (or mail order catalogs). For those of us trying to collect the baseball card’s rookie card, if not the master set, this kind of thing matters a lot!
From our readers
Thanks to @DonSherm for supplying us this “cards on card” card a year before the Hank Aaron Specials and the Fleer Kid Madden.
The card back shows several cards, though it’s impossible to know whether any are cards of Cards or even cards of cards of Cards!
UPDATE: In the spirit of the 1973 Jack Hiatt but one year earlier many of the Topps “In Action” card backs advertised the makeup of the set. While the card images bore little resemblance to actual cards in the set I’ll note that the actual NL Pitching Leaders card included Steve Carlton, meaning just maybe we have a card of a card of a Card!
A similar approach was taken with the 1968 Topps Series 3 checklist, though once again the card pictured is generic. (If you’re wondering the “singles” in the 1968 Topps insert set belong to Yaz, Mantle, and Aaron.)
Now going way back, I’m reminded that some very early non-baseball cards of cards were issued in 1906 (!).
Last year (a year and a month to be exact), I posted about my Laughlin regrets, how I missed my chance 40 years ago to buy those wonderful card sets of the ‘70’s. While I did finish my 1972 Fleer Famous Feats set, that seemed to be the end of it. No way I was going to get any of the other sets I wanted, prices being what they are. [NOTE: COMC lists the Fleer set as 1973. I think it may have been both years, based on shaky memories of buying them in candy stores and ice cream trucks.]
Still, I never gave up, keeping a futile eBay search alive for Laughlin sets. Last week, I finally succeeded, with the 1972 Laughlin Great Feats set for less than $50. I assume these came out before the Fleer ones though I’m not sure [Editor’s note: Correct!], and I was fascinated by both the slight differences in the cards that appear in both sets, and the fantastic drawings of players/events that I’d never seen before.
First of all, there are two versions of this set. One is in red, with simple black and white drawings. The other, in blue, has flesh tones colored in. Here’s the different looks (yes, my blue Mize is signed.)
The cards common to both the Laughlin and Fleer sets are identical, save for color. At first I thought there were cropping differences, but it was an optical illusion brought on by the Fleers being oversized. The art space seems the same size.
Some of the feats in the Laughlin set are obvious, and, in retrospect, it’s hard to believe DiMaggio’s hit streak and VanderMeer’s two no-hitters didn’t make the Fleer issue.
Others are of lesser renown, though the all-time pinch-hit record used to be a big deal. Smoky’s record has long since been surpassed (I had to look up who’s first – Lenny Harris with 212), but Burgess is still fourth on the list. Glad he topped the record book in 1972, because this card rocks.
These three are spectacular as well…
…and prove that Laughlin would have made an excellent Simpsons animator (check out Casey’s hand).
I was struck by the Mantle card. It’s wonderful, for sure, but it stands out as being the only card signed by the artist. I wonder why? Did he need to make his mark on one card to stake his claim, or was he a big Mantle fan and wanted to be associated with The Mick? Perhaps Mike Aronstein or Pete Henrici at Baseball Nostalgia know. I’ll have to check.
The last six cards of the set, all unseen in the Fleer issue, stand out. They make for a perfect page.
There are other Feats sets: a 40-card Fleer set from 1980 with blank backs and a 22-card Fleer set from 1986 with logo/sticker backs. A good idea is hard to leave behind.
Editor’s note: More history on the connection between the Laughlin set and the Fleer set is available here, including this Laughlin ad that explains how his first Great Feats set came to be self-produced.
Author’s note: A previous post here examined the largely dismissive portrayal of the Negro Leagues by Topps in the early 1950s. This sequel simply expands the focus to other card makers of the era.
For hobbyists who regard the Leaf issue as 1948 or 1948-1949, this set would unequivocally be the first major U.S. release to feature ex-Negro Leaguers. For my part, I regard it as tied with 1949 Bowman. Either way, the Leaf issue included cards of three black players with Negro League resumes.
Card 8 in the set featured the legendary Satchel Paige. The card back, which among other things notes Satchel’s prior team as the Kansas City Monarchs, is pretty amazing.
First we’ll note that Satchel is assigned an age, 40 years old, which should make just about everything else in the bio seem like fiction. Second, the praise for Satchel is through the roof! Though it’s possible one could assign a negative connotation to “most picturesque player in baseball,” the words that follow cast doubt on such a reading. Satchel is billed as a “high-powered talent” with “fabulous gate-appeal” who is expected to “sizzle into his old stride” in 1949. The folks at Leaf seemed to get it that Satchel was the real deal.
The next black player in the set was Jackie Robinson, and his card bio leads off with the historic line, “First Negro player in modern organized baseball.”
As was the case with early Topps cards, the direct implication here is that the Kansas City Monarchs and the Negro Leagues were not “organized baseball.” On the flip side, the phrase “modern organized baseball” pays homage to 19th century black players whose histories were often erased in telling the Jackie Robinson story. This 1980 Laughlin card serves to illustrate the point, as do Robinson’s 1960 and 1961 Nu-Card releases.
The final Negro Leagues alum in the set was Larry Doby, identified as the “first Negro player to enter the American League.” The last line of the bio is notable in that Doby is not simply described as a speedy base-stealer but a smart one as well. This strikes me as enlightened writing for its time.
For legal reasons, if not financial ones as well, Leaf would not offer another baseball set until 1960. We will see shortly how the set handled the Negro League origins of pitcher Sam Jones.
The 1949 Bowman set featured the same three black players from the Leaf set plus one more, Roy Campanella. The Robinson card notes that “he became the first Negro to enter the ranks of pro ball.” At once this phrase dismisses the Negro Leagues as less than professional while ignoring nineteenth century pioneers like Moses Fleetwood Walker.
The Roy Campanella card in the set describes “an exhibition game with Negro All-Stars at Ebbets Field.” This game, part of a five-game series against Major Leaguers, took place in 1945 and prompted Charlie Dressen to recommend Campy to Branch Rickey.
To my knowledge, the Bowman card of Satchel contains the earliest use of the phrase “Negro Leagues” on a baseball card.
The idea that Satchel “traveled around” the Negro Leagues may be taken one of two ways. On one hand, he did play for several teams. On the other hand, it may suggest a lack of seriousness and organization to the Negro Leagues themselves.
As with the Leaf card, we see the word “fabulous” used to describe Paige. New to the Bowman card is the treatment of Satchel’s age. While a precise birthday is offered (September 11, 1908), the bio makes it clear that “his exact age is not known!”
Larry Doby is the final Negro Leaguer featured in the set, and his card describes him as “one of the few Negroes in the American League.” Depending when in 1949 the card was produced, in addition to Doby and Paige, the description might have been referring to Minnie Minoso (April 19, 1949) and/or Luke Easter (August 11, 1949).
Four cards in the next Bowman release referred to the Negro Leagues tenure of its players. Card 22 of Jackie Robinson is similar to its 1949 predecessor in referring to Jackie as the “first Negro to enter organized baseball.”
The Larry Doby card similarly draws on its previous bio, again recognizing Doby as “one of the few Negroes in the American League.”
Ditto for Roy Campanella whose role with the “all-star Negro team” first brought him to the attention of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
The Hank Thompson (SABR bio) card highlights his role in a famous first of the integration era, “the first time in major league history that a Negro batter was up before a Negro pitcher.” The card also identifies Thompson’s pre-MLB tenure with the Kansas City Monarchs.
Three cards in the next Bowman offering are relevant to the topic of the Negro Leagues and the integration of MLB.
The Campanella card recycles Campy’s exhibition game origin story for a third time, though this time there is no reference to the makeup of his team. Meanwhile, the Easter card follows a familiar tradition of discounting Negro League service in its statement that Easter “entered organized baseball in 1949.” Finally, the Ray Noble card, which does an awesome job teaching kids the right way to say his name, makes reference to his time with the “New York Cubans of the Negro National League.”
An interesting evolution in the 1952 Bowman set occurs with the Luke Easter card.
Having previously “entered organized baseball in 1949,” we learn now that Easter “began in baseball in 1949.” What an odd statement if we take it literally! (By the way, the use of terms like “professional baseball,” “organized baseball,” and “baseball” to refer specifically to MLB/MiLB is still commonplace today. I would love to see baseball writers move away from this practice.)
1952 Num Num Foods
This potato chips set is one I only learned of in doing research for this article. The regional food issue features 20 players, all Cleveland Indians, including four black players: Luke Easter, Harry Simpson, Larry Doby, and Sam Jones. Apart from single-player sets such as the 1947 Bond Bread Jackie Robinson issue, this set has the largest proportion of African American players of any I’ve seen from the era.
The Easter card notes that he “played softball for several years before entering [the] Negro National League” and even referenced Luke’s support role with the Harlem Globetrotters. A couple funny stories are shared as well before ending on the down note of a fractured knee cap.
The Harry “Suitcase” Simpson card picks up where Easter’s leaves off, recognizing Simpson’s daunting role of having to fill in for an injured Luke Easter. Then again it’s hard to imagine anyone more qualified to fill large shoes than Simpson, who according to at least some stories got his nickname “Suitcase” from the size of his feet!
The back of Larry Doby’s card is injury-themed as well. However, rather than add insult to injury, the writer actually defends Doby against any insult that he was a disappointment. The paragraph ending almost reads as a (very dated) math story problem and left me ready to set up an equation.
The Sam Jones card closes with a phrase that posed a road block to the careers of at least three very talented black pitchers: Dave Hoskins, Mudcat Grant, and Sam Jones himself. The “Tribe’s already formidable big 4” were of course Hall of Fame hurlers Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, and Early Wynn, along with all-star Mike Garcia. Even as Cleveland brought up tremendous black hurlers, two of whom would eventually become “Black Aces,” there was simply nowhere in the starting rotation to put them.
I didn’t run across any interesting cards in my review of the 1953 Bowman sets, so I’ll skip ahead to 1954. Card number 118 of Bob Boyd (SABR bio) references his start in the Negro National League while (as usual) recognizing his start in “organized ball” coming afterward. As a side note, Boyd’s Negro League team, the Memphis Red Sox, played in the Negro American League. As another side note, the trivia question matches that of Hank Aaron’s Topps card, again recalling (and ingoring/discounting) a famous Negro League feat attributed to Josh Gibson.
Hank Thompson’s bio is a funny one for reasons unrelated to his Negro League lineage. For whatever reason, the Bowman folks felt the need to clarify what was meant by “a quiet fellow.” It’s also a rare thing to see a baseball card bio so critical of a player’s weight! In a less humorous vein, as was the case four years earlier, Thompson’s card identifies his tenure with the Kansas City Monarchs.
1954 Dan Dee
A notable card in the 1954 Dan Dee (potato chips) baseball set is that of Pittsburgh Pirates infielder and one-time Kansas City Monarch Curt Roberts (SABR bio needed).
The first line of his bio identifies Roberts as the “first Negro player ever to be placed on Pittsburgh club’s roster.” This contention has received scrutiny over the years since it overlooks Carlos Bernier (SABR bio), a black Puerto Rican player who preceded Roberts by a year.
1954 Red Man
While the 50-card set also includes cards of Negro League vets Roy Campanella, Jim Gilliam, and Willie Mays, the Monte Irvin card is the only one whose bio can be considered relevant to his Negro League service.
As usual, we see that he “began in organized baseball” once he started playing on white teams. Something new I did learn from the card was that—at least here—the AAA Jersey City Giants were known as the “Little Giants.” How’s that for an oxymoron!
1954 Red Heart
Whether a gum chewer, chip cruncher, dip wadder, or dog feeder, it’s hard to imagine a better year to be a card collector than 1954. Packaged with Red Heart, “The Big League Dog Food,” that year was this card of Dodgers infielder Jim Gilliam.
A quaint aspect of the card is the blank entries for all of Gilliam’s career numbers. The bio area of the card explains why this is so. “As a rookie in 1953, he has no life record…”
Regarding his Negro League lineage and role in MLB integration, the opening of the bio tells us that Gilliam “was the youngest member of the Baltimore Elite Giants” and that “he is one of the fine negro ballplayers that have been taken into organized baseball during the past decade.”
In what must by now feel like a tired theme, here is Hank Aaron’s 1955 Bowman card citing 1954 as Aaron’s “third season in organized baseball,” omitting his season with the Indianapolis Clowns.
1955 Red Man
The sequel to Red Man’s 1954 issue included five black stars: Larry Doby, Minnie Minoso, Brooks Lawrence, Willie Mays, and Hank Thompson. The Thompson card as usual notes that he “began in organized baseball in 1947, which was the year he jumped straight from the Kansas City Monarchs to the St. Louis Browns.
1958 Hires Root Beer
The Hires Root Beer card of Bob Boyd is similar to his 1954 Bowman card in recognizing him as a “product of the Negro National League” instead of the Negro American League.
After an eleven-year hiatus, the Leaf set is back, and its card number 14 is of MLB’s second Black Ace, Sam Jones (SABR bio).
Toward the end of the bio, we learn that Jones “started his pro career with Wilkes-Barre in 1950…” though he pitched professionally for the Cleveland Buckeyes (and possibly Homestead Grays) of the Negro Leagues as early as 1947 (or possibly 1946).
1979 TCMA Baseball History Series “The 50s”
First off, what a great set! When I first came across this Hank Thompson card I initially assumed it was a slightly undersized reprint of his 1953 Bowman card. Then I realized he had no 1953 Bowman card! Of course the back of the card provided plenty of other clues that this was in fact a more original offering.
The card bio includes some information about Thompson’s Negro Leagues resume as well as how he became a New York Giant.
“Thompson, who spent much of his playing career in the old Negro Leagues, got his first chance in the majors with the St. Louis Browns in 1947. But for some unknown reason the Browns let him slip away to the Giants two year later…”
The reality behind the “unknown” reason is that Thompson (along with teammate Willard Brown) was signed by St. Louis to a short-term deal whose extension would require additional payment to the Kansas City Monarchs who held his rights. While Thompson was one of the better players on the Browns, he was neither Jackie Robinson nor Babe Ruth. It goes without saying that a black player needed to be a lot better than “better than average” to find a home on a Major League roster in 1947!
Either in conjunction with the Topps article or on its own, there was of course a “beating a dead horse” element to this post. We get it; we get it…the baseball cards back then did not regard the Negro Leagues as organized, professional, or even Baseball. While modern writers and historians do recognize the Negro Leagues as all three, the stubbornness of language is such that even today these terms and their meanings persist nearly unchanged. Until we change them.