DiMaggio's really long streak

I ended my previous post with the teaser that neither the 1961 Topps “Baseball Thrills” subset nor its 2010 reboot, much less its 1959 precursor, included what I had grown up understanding to be the most incredible baseball feat of them all.

Rather than imagine the Topps intern assigned to building the checklist simply whiffed on Joltin’ Joe (or that there even was a Topps intern with such a job!), I have to believe Topps simply lacked the rights to feature DiMaggio’s likeness on cardboard. A look at other postwar sets during and after DiMaggio’s career show his absence in 1961 was definitely the rule and not the exception.

1933-1941 (AKA “Prewar,” depending where you lived!)

During the early part of the Clipper’s career, while he was not in EVERY set, one can say he tended to appear in every major set you’d expect to see him in, and then some, including these two gems from the 1933-36 Zeenut set.

Knowing DiMaggio didn’t make his Yankee debut until 1936, it’s not a big surprise that he didn’t appear in the three major gum card releases of the mid-1930s: 1933 Goudey, 1934 Goudey, and 1934-36 Diamond Stars. That said, his appearance in 1933 Goudey wouldn’t have been completely out of the question since that set did include 15 minor leaguers, including a fellow Pacific Coast Leaguer, Pete Scott.

Meanwhile, the 1934 Goudey and 1934-36 Diamond Stars checklists did not include any minor leaguers, so there’s no reason DiMaggio would have even been up for consideration.

Now some of you may know about the 1937 Diamond Stars extension set and surmise that Joltin’ Joe might have cracked that checklist. Unfortunately, all that seems to have survived is a single sheet of 12 cards, which of course DiMaggio is not on. All we can say for sure then is that if National Chicle did have a Diamond Stars card planned it would have been a gem!

The two-year stretch from 1936-37 did see DiMaggio appear on several cards, now as a Yankee, though there is room for debate among the collecting orthodoxy as to which constitute his true rookie card. (Don’t ask me, I’d vote for his San Francisco Seals cards!)

These four from 1936 have the benefit of being a year earlier than the 1937 cards, hence score a few more rookie points for their date of issue. On the other hand, all are of the oversized premium variety, which not all collectors put in the same category as the smaller cardboard offerings that come from packs of gum or cigarettes.

In fact, DiMaggio did crack one (cataloged as) 1936 (but really 1936-37) set of gum cards, but the fact that the World Wide Gum were only issued in Canada gives pause to a good many of the Hobby’s arbiters of rookiehood. If nothing else, though, note the nickname on the back of the card. A bit harder to read but the bio would not pass muster today in its reference to Joe as “a giant Italian.”

One of DiMaggio’s most sought after cards, rookie or not, was another Canada-only release and came out the following year under the later-on-much-more-famous O-Pee-Chee name.

Back in the U.S., DiMaggio made it onto two cards in 1937, but as with the preceding year they were both of the larger premium variety. The Goudey offering (left) is not much (any?) different from its 1936 counterpart, while the Exhibits 4-in-1 is particularly notable in its pairing of the Yankee Clipper with Lou Gehrig. (Oh, and the other two guys are pretty good also.)

It is finally in 1938 that Joltin’ Joe receives his first ever, God honest American gum card as a Yankee, thanks to the 1938 Goudey “Heads Up” set. Like the other 23 players on the checklist, he in fact appears twice, once with a plain background (card #250) and once with a cartoon background (card #274).

Finally, DiMaggio and Gehrig make it onto another 4-in-1 of Yankee legends, this time swapping out Tony Lazzeri for Bill Dickey.

To this point, just about every card I’ve shown, save the 1938 Goudey pair, has some level of oddball status attached. This was not the case from 1939-41 when Gum, Inc., hit the scene with its three year run of major bubble gum releases under the Play Ball name. Though the term is perhaps overused, I’ll throw DiMaggio’s 1941 card out there as one of the truly iconic cards of the Hobby.

The Play Ball cards weren’t DiMaggio’s only cards from that three-year stretch. He could also be found in the 1939-46 Exhibits “Salutations” set, yet another oversized offering…

And the 1941 Double Play set, where he was paired with his outfield neighbor, Charley Keller.

If there’s a theme to all of this, beyond just the opportunity to post a lot of incredible cards, it’s that Joe DiMaggio was no stranger to cardboard during the prewar portion of his career. On the contrary, he was in just about every major set there was, and then some!

1942-1951

These next ten years take us to the end of the Yankee Clipper’s career while also leading us through the wartime era where not a lot of card sets were being produced. DiMaggio cards didn’t simply follow the dip in overall card production but practically disappeared altogether.

Joe’s first card, post-1941, comes from the 1943 M.P. & Company card, a somewhat “off the radar” almost certainly unlicensed set, something we’ll see quite a bit more of as we proceed through this section of the article. (Side note: This set is screaming out for one of you to solve the remaining 21% of a mystery.)

Two notable aspects of the card are Joe’s position, right field (!), and the fact that his recent hitting streak is not mentioned.

The latter of these notables is addressed five years later in the 1948 Swell “Sport Thrills” set, which also happens to be the first gum card set of baseball highlights and a possible inspiration for the 1959 and 1961 cards Topps put out under a similar name.

First off, I’ll show the back of the card, which is everything you might expect to see in a card featuring The Streak.

However, the front of the card is more than a bit disappointing to DiMaggio collectors for obvious reasons. “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?” indeed!

What I read into this card is that Sport Thrills did not have permission from DiMaggio to use his likeness on the card. Yes, it’s possible the folks at Swell truly considered “stopping the streak” a greater achievement than the streak itself, but I kind of doubt it.

But then again, look who made it onto the set’s Ted Williams card, so who knows!

1948 was also the year that Gum, Inc., reappeared on the scene, beginning an eight-year stretch (1948-55) of baseball card sets under the Bowman name. the Bowman sets managed to include pretty much every big name of the era but one: Joe DiMaggio.

Personally I would have loved to see the Yankee Clipper in one of these early Bowman sets, but a “what if” we can consider as collectors is whether the rights to Joe D. would have left another Yankee centerfielder off the checklist in 1951.

You might not have expected any mention of Topps so soon, but it’s worth noting that Topps made its baseball debut not in 1952 or even 1951 but in 1948 with 19 of the 252 cards in its Magic Photos release featuring baseball players.

The first five cards pictured could lead you to believe the players were all retired greats, but in fact six of the cards in the set featured images of the 1948 World Champion Cleveland Indians. Well shoot, this was the one year from 1947-53 that the Yankee’s didn’t win the World Series! Crazy to think it, but perhaps if the Yankees and not the Indians had signed Paige and Doby, there would be a playing career Topps card of Joe DiMaggio!

One of the least known (in terms of origin, not familiarity) releases of the era was the 1948 Blue Tint set. DiMaggio has a card in the set but in what’s emerging as a common theme the card (and entire set!) are believed to be unlicensed.

Similar to the 1938 Goudey cards a decade earlier, the 1948 1949 Leaf set finally presents us with an unambiguously mainstream, all-American, picture-on-the-front, New York Yankees card of the Clipper. It even boasts #1 in what is one of the earliest examples of “hero numbering” in a baseball card set.

Astute collectors may now say, “A-ha! That’s why he wasn’t in Bowman. Leaf signed him first.” However, my own belief is that Leaf not only didn’t sign DiMaggio but didn’t sign anyone, making this card as well as the rest of the set unlicensed. (As always, I would love it if a reader with more information is able to confirm or correct this in the comments.)

The next same year M.P. & Company was back with what I wrote about last year as the laziest set ever, adding to our tally of unlicensed Clipper cards. I rather like the blue added to Joe’s uniform since the 1943 release, but I don’t love the bio remaining unchanged even six years later.

In 1951 Topps hit the shelves in earnest with five different baseball offerings, a number that now feels small but was huge for its time. Though DiMaggio had already achieved all-time great status, there was no reason to expect him in the Connie Mack’s All-Stars set, in which the most modern player was Lou Gehrig.

However, there was reason to expect DiMaggio in the Current All-Stars set, which featured 11 participants from the 1950 All-Star Game. While DiMaggio wouldn’t consider the contest among his career highlights, having gone 0-3 and grounded into a double play, his presence at Comiskey that day at least qualified him for this tough Topps release.

Two other closely related Topps issues from 1951 were the Red Backs and Blue Backs. Though nobody would confuse their checklists for the top 104 stars of the era, it seems reasonable to think Topps would have gone with DiMaggio if they could have.

The final Topps offering of 1951 is one that seemed almost assured to include DiMaggio but didn’t. Topps Teams featured complete team photos of every team on the checklist, but there was only one problem. The checklist did not include the Yankees!

We close out the 1942-1951 stretch with the 1951 Berk Ross set, one that did in fact include a Joe DiMaggio card. In fact, there were two cards if we count his two-player panel with Granny Hamner as separate.

While not a lot is known about these Berk Ross cards, the one thing most collectors believe is that these cards, much like the other DiMaggio cards of the era, were unlicensed.

1952-1961

As much as some collectors, then and now, would have loved to see a 1952 Topps card of the Yankee Clipper, we of course know he did not crack the set’s 407-card checklist, nor should he have been expected to. While “career capper” cards are the norm today, the tradition at Topps for many years was to focus its flagship set on the players expected to play in the current season.

DiMaggio did find himself with an unlicensed career capper in the 1952 follow-up from Berk Ross

Beyond 1952 we are clearly in post-career territory, meaning DiMaggio cards would mainly rely on three types of issues: all-time greats, highlights, and reprints.

The first opportunity for a post-career DiMaggio came from Topps in 1954. If you’re confused, the set I’m talking about isn’t the 1954 Topps baseball set of Hank Aaron RC fame but a 1954 Topps set that mainly consisted of cards like this.

The 1954 Topps Scoop set captured 156 notable moments in our history, and four of them came from the world of baseball.

DiMaggio and his famous Streak would have been right at home in the set, but their absence was hardly conspicuous either given the primarily non-sports focus of the set.

The next opportunity for a DiMaggio card came in 1959 when Topps issued a ten-card Baseball Thrills subset as part of its main release. However, Topps focused all ten of the cards on current players.

The same year, Fleer issued its 80-card Ted Williams set. As the set’s name indicated, all the cards were of Ted Williams. At the same time, many of the cards included cameos of other players and personalities. As linked as the careers of Williams and DiMaggio were, a card of the pair would have fit the set perfectly.

The very next year, Fleer issued the first of its two “Baseball Greats” sets. The checklist boasted 78 retired greats and one active player (an eyesore of a Ted Williams card) but no Joe DiMaggio.

The checklist nearly doubled to 154 cards in 1961, leaving plenty of room for Joltin’ Joe. Of course, he was nowhere to be found.

Another player highlighting the history of the game in 1960 and 1961 was Nu-Cards. Their 1960 “Hi-Lites” set of 72 postcard sized cards was at the time the largest set of its kind ever issued. Two of the set’s cards featured DiMaggio, ending his decade-long exile from cardboard.

The 1961 Nu-Card “Scoops” set, one of my favorites, added 80 cards, now standard sized, but numbered as if the set were much larger. Again, DiMaggio makes the set twice.

As already mentioned, Topps was also back in 1961 with “Baseball Thrills,” but this time they departed from the 1959 version by including mostly retired stars. Still no Joe.

Nostalgia was evidently in the air in 1961 as yet another player entered the scene with an all-time greats offering. Golden Press produced a booklet of 33 cards that I rate among the best looking ever made.

I don’t know enough about the Nu-cards and Golden Press sets to know if DiMaggio’s image was used with his permission or if perhaps different rules might have applied when cards were issued in book form, as was the case with Golden Press. What I will say is that his absence from the biggies (Topps, Fleer), particularly on the 20th anniversary of the Streak, was more than just accidental.

1962-1971

This next ten-year stretch is one that was fairly thin on tribute cards, so there were few sets produced were a DiMaggio would have made sense.

The 1962 Topps set included its ten-card “Babe Ruth Special” subset, no doubt timed with the falling of Babe’s single-season home run record the year before. It was a fun set but not one that Joe DiMaggio would have belonged in.

DiMaggio did make an appearance in a 1967 set that might cause some collectors to say, “Hey, he finally got a Topps card!” The card came in the “Retirado” subset of the 1967 Venezuelan issue often referred to as Topps Venezuelan. However, the set was almost certainly not produced by Topps, and was more than likely a…you guessed it…unlicensed issue. (A future SABR Baseball Cards article will cover this topic in more detail.)

Bazooka issued an all-time greats set in 1969-70 that included small cards of baseball’s immortals and larger cards of baseball’s greatest achievements. In this case, DiMaggio might have fit either but ended up in neither.

Topps again featured amazing achievements in its 1971 “Greatest Moments” set. However, with all moments coming from current players, there would have been no place for Joe D.

As in the previous ten years it would be up to the smaller players to keep Joe DiMaggio’s cardboard legacy alive. One such player was Robert Laughlin, later affiliated with various Fleer sets of the 1970s. His cult classic World Series set (original version) from 1967 featured DiMaggio as the broom swinger of the 1939 Fall Classic.

With production of these Laughlin cards limited to 300 sets, collectors were forced to head to Oakland area Jack in the Box restaurants to feed their appetite for the Clipper, though it’s possible the younger burger eaters would have been even happier to land a different Yankee slugger.

1972-1979

The birth of TCMA in 1972 almost single-handedly accounted for the rapid spike in DiMaggio cards over the next decade, with Robert Laughlin and Shakey’s Pizza doing their part as well.

Two Robert Laughlin offerings that included DiMaggio were the 1972 “Great Feats” set and the 1974 “All-Star Games” set.

The “Great Feats” set, with mostly minor changes, became Fleer’s 1973 “Baseball’s Greatest Feats” set. One major change, however, was that DiMaggio’s card was dropped, almost certainly out of legal fears by Fleer.

TCMA’s first DiMaggio card was part of a beautiful set dedicated to the All-Time New York Yankee Team.

As were the Laughlin cards, TCMA cards were unlicensed and sold direct to hobbyists by mail order. Lawsuits would eventually hit TCMA, but at least for the time being they were able to issue cards of the Clipper with impunity. I can certainly see their “1930s League Leaders” card (left) from 1973 escaping the notice of Joe and his legal team, though was sufficiently under the radar, but I wonder if their 1973-74 “Autograph Series,” designed for signature by the players, might have been pushing things just a bit.

Among TCMA’s other DiMaggio offerings around this time were these postcards pairing the Yankee Clipper with other top-shelf Hall of Famers.

TCMA’s 1936-39 Yankees Dynasty set, issued in 1974, produced another two cards of Joe DiMaggio.

And if you couldn’t get enough DiMaggio/Williams cards, TCMA had your back in 1974 with its “1940s League Leaders” set.

I know a lot of collectors knock the unlicensed stuff, but I’m personally thrilled that TCMA was out there creating the cards that needed to be created. Topps had more than 20 years to figure out a way to pair Joe D. and Teddy Ballgame, and it never happened. This card needed to happen, and I’m glad it did.

We’ll take a quick intermission from TCMA cards to present a three-year run (1975-77) of DiMaggio cards from Shakey’s Pizza.

And now we’re back with more TCMA, this time a 1975 reboot of their All-Time Yankees set featuring all new photos.

Reprint cards and sets hit the hobby mainstream in 1977, including these two cards of DiMaggio, both originally from 1938. The first came from Bert Randolph Sugar’s book of “Dover Reprints” and the second came from Jim Rowe. (DiMaggio’s 1941 Play Ball card would come out as a Dover Reprint the following year.)

1977 was also the year that Renata Galasso began her 270-card magnum opus known alternately as “Decade Greats” and “Glossy Greats.” The first series of 45 cards, issued in 1977 in partnership with TCMA, assigned its very first card to Joe DiMaggio. (DiMaggio returned to the set in the 1984 Series 6 release.)

Evidently it was very much in vogue to lead off a set’s checklist with the Yankee Clipper as we see it happen two more times in 1979 TCMA issues, their 1953 Bowman-like “Stars of the 1950s” and their lesser known “Diamond Greats” set.

Before heading to 1980, I’ll just note that we’ve made it to 1979 with not a single Topps card of DiMaggio and possibly not a single licensed card from any company since either 1941 or 1948.

1980-present

The Me Decade kicked off with a beautiful Perez-Steele postcard of the Clipper. Dick Perez was not yet associated with Donruss, but Dick would soon lend his artwork to multiple all-time greats sets produced by Donruss over the next few years. You can probably guess whether or not those sets would include Joe DiMaggio. (Interestingly, there was no DiMaggio in the 108 “Great Moments” postcards released by Perez-Steele from 1985-1997. Ditto for the 44-card Perez-Steele “Celebration” series in 1989.)

DiMaggio was in an 30-card unlicensed set of “Baseball Legends” produced by Cramer Sports Promotions, the company that would soon become Pacific Trading Cards.

While other card makers joined the party, TCMA was still king in the early 1980s when it came to the all-time greats. Their third go-round of an All-Time Yankees set presented collectors with an early version of a “rainbow” nearly 40 years after Goudey did the same.

This same year, TCMA also included DiMaggio in its “Baseball Immortals” issued under their SSPC brand.

These 1980 “Superstars” are sometimes listed as TCMA and sometimes listed under the Seckeli name. (Andrew Aronstein, son of TCMA co-founder Mike Aronstein, believes the cards were sold by TCMA but not produced by TCMA. The Standard Catalog notes the cards were probably produced by Card Collectors Closet in Springfield, MA.) The set included 45 cards in all and five of DiMaggio.

A second series of 45 cards followed in 1982, this time with some non-baseball cards in the checklist and only a single DiMaggio.

The same year, Baseball Card News put out a set of 20 cards, including two with DiMaggio, one solo and one alongside Bob Feller.

1982 also saw three more TCMA sets with DiMaggio cards. Baseball’s Greatest Hitters and Baseball’s Greatest Sluggers featured standard sized baseball cards, and “Stars of the 50s” featured larger postcard-sized cards.

The streak of (probably) unlicensed DiMaggio cards finally met its end following the release of one last (probably) unlicensed DiMaggio card from the Big League Collectibles “Diamond Classics” set.

Before presenting the licensed DiMaggio issue, we’ll take one quick detour to highlight a set DiMaggio should have been in but wasn’t. The 1983 Donruss “Hall of Fame Heroes”set of 44 cards presented a terrific opportunity for DiMaggio to make his “big three” debut. (Donruss continued to put out all-time greats sets in 1984 and 1985 but neither included Joe D.)

Instead, DiMaggio signed on with Authentic Sports Autographs (ASA) for a twelve-card, limited edition set consisting entirely of DiMaggio cards.

I suspect “The Joe DiMaggio Story” by ASA represented the first time the Yankee Clipper got paid for his likeness on a baseball card in 42 years.

Rather than continue set by set, I’ll refer readers to an article from Night Owl Cards on DiMaggio’s more modern issues (or lack thereof) and simply close with some highlights.

DiMaggio’s next appearance with a major baseball card maker, which for now I’ll define as holding an MLB/MLBPA license, came in 1986 as part of the Sportflics “Decade Greats” set.

I can’t say for certain, but I think this was the first DiMaggio card to come out of a pack since 1961’s Nu-Card Scoops set.

I hate to bill this next one as “major card maker,” but it fits the definition I offered earlier. So here it is, 1989 Starting Lineup Baseball Greats.

The next major card maker to score a deal with Joe was, well, Score, in 1992. Several different cards, most very nice looking, were inserts either in packs or factory sets. The relationship would migrate to Score’s Pinnacle brand in 1993.

DiMaggio finally made his Fleer debut in 1998, though it was in a somewhat unusual way. The card was part of Fleer’s tribute to the Sports Collectors Digest hobby publication and showed DiMaggio signing cards for Pinnacle in 1993. How many times do you see one brand of baseball cards featured on another?

It was only a matter of time before Upper Deck got into the DiMaggio derby, though it would have to be posthumously. The relationship would continue until more or less the baseball (mostly) death of the company in 2010.

And what about Topps? The “baseball card company of record” at long last issued its first Joe DiMaggio card in 2001 as part of the “Before There Was Topps” subset. (For all those Mantle collectors who regard the 1952 Topps as Mantle’s rookie due to its being his first Topps card, I present to you your DiMaggio rookie!)

Topps would really jump into the DiMaggio game in 2007 and to this day remains your most likely source for future DiMaggio cards, even if Topps does not have an agreement in place at the moment. Overall though, Topps produced baseball cards from 1948-2000, a span of 53 years, with no Joe DiMaggio. Topps didn’t quite match 56, who who the hell ever will?

So all of this was my really long way of saying that it makes sense there was no Streak card in the 1961 Topps Baseball Thrills subset. Too bad though, it would have been a helluva card!

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.

Prehistory of the Record Breakers

Introduction

One of my favorite posts on the SABR Baseball Cards blog is Matthew Prigge‘s “Like a Broken Record” (March 2017), in which he detailed the progression of the Topps Highlights and Record Breaker cards from their respective origins in the 1975 and 1976 sets. In what I hope will be my first of many posts for this blog, I will go backward instead and focus on the ancestry of these cards, following a prehistory that goes back to more than a century ago.

Before jumping in, I’ll give a few examples of cards I will not include, along with my rationale for omission, as sometimes the best way to define one’s scope is to identify what falls just outside it

World Series cards

The first Topps World Series multi-card subset was in 1960, consisting of seven absolutely beautiful cards that told the story of the 1959 Fall Classic between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago White Sox.

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If we consider single card subsets as a thing, then the very first Topps World Series subset came two years earlier with the 1958 Topps World Series  Batting Foes (Mantle/Aaron) card. Because Topps would continue to push out World Series subsets with regularity, even in years with Record Breaker/Highlight cards, we will exclude World Series cards from our study. True, they feature highlights from the prior season, but they are a large enough sub-genre to warrant separate treatment.

MVP subsets

The same logic will apply to the 1961 Topps (cards 471-486) and 1975 Topps (cards 189-212) MVP subsets. While MVP cards lacked the perennial quality of the World Series cards, they still feel more like their own category of cards than exemplars of the Record Breakers/Highlights category.

All-Stars, All-Star Rookies, etc.

Finally, while one could consider being named an All-Star or All-Star Rookie a highlight—at least very broadly—we will exclude these subsets for the same reasons as each of the others.

Pre-1975 Highlights and Record Breaker cards

Having identified what doesn’t make the cut, we are now ready to begin our journey, starting off where Matthew’s original article left off. As I like to do, we’ll proceed in reverse chronological order, though the article should accommodate a bottom-to-top if you prefer it that way.

1974 Topps

Well there’s this guy of course!

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1974 Bob Parker 2nd Best

It’s fitting that the second set we encounter on the way to the Topps run of Highlights and Record Breakers is a set honoring players who came in second! In addition to providing budget collectors with a shot at “Shoeless Joe,” the Vic Power card is a must have for “cards that say robust on the front” supercollectors.

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A major differentiator between these cards and the Record Breaker/Highlights cards Matthew profiles are that these cards reach back across the vast history of the game whereas the more modern cards focus on the season immediately prior. Were we to treat this distinction as fatal, this article would be very short indeed, so we’ll continue under the assumption that cards such as these are allowed into the ancestry.

1972-1974 Fleer

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

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1972 Laughlin Great Feats

In addition to the various Fleer sets he worked on, artist R.G. Laughlin also put out his own set of cards in 1972. There were 51 cards in all, along with multiple color variations.

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1971 Topps Greatest Moments

This 55-card release from Topps is without a doubt one of the toughest of the 1970s, and unfortunately for player collectors on a budget one that is filthy with Hall of Famers. Unlike the Fleer sets of the early 1970s the checklist consists entirely of (then) current players, but again the feats themselves span multiple years.

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1969-70 Bazooka All-Time Greats

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

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1962 Topps

The nine cards from 311-319 in the 1962 Topps set are commonly referred to as “In Action” cards. Many of the cards, such as “Ford Tosses a Curve,” would strike only the most easily impressed baseball fans as highlights; however, this same subset does feature the biggest record to be broken in at least 20 years. In a move we might today regard as trolling, Topps chose this same year to dedicate a full ten cards to the previous record holder!

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As with the “In Action” cards, the “Babe Ruth Special” cards were a mix of Record Breaker and non-RB cards. Ruth’s card 144 (no, not THAT 144), titled “Farewell Speech,” is particularly relevant to this post in that the front featured a career-capping highlight–the speech–while the back listed Babe Ruth’s various records.

1961 Topps

The 1961 set marked second time in three years that Topps put out a “Baseball Thrills” subset in its main release. There were ten cards in all, including a mix of current (Larsen, Mantle, Haddix) and retired players.

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1961 Nu-Card Baseball Scoops

While the Topps set offered the opportunity to beef up ones knowledge of baseball’s greatest achievements, the go-to set that year for history buffs was put out by Nu-Card. Numbered 401-480 for reasons unknown to me, these 80 cards presented collectors with nearly the complete canon of baseball feats. Even to this day, if you could choose just one set to learn the history of baseball from, I believe this would be it.

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1960 Nu-Card Baseball Hi-Lites

This 72-card offering is similar in many ways to the set that followed it one year later, the most salient difference being their postcard size. Many highlights were reused from one set to another, as shown by the “Aaron’s bat…” cards in each set. (I believe the image on the 1960 card incorrectly shows Aaron’s pennant-clinching home run against the Cardinals, a problem which could have been solved by interchanging this images on his two cards in the set.)

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1959 Topps

While the 1961 Topps subset included long retired greats of the game, the 1959 “Baseball Thrills” cards exclusively featured active players. Between the immense star power of the players and the fantastic artwork, these cards crack my top two all-time for greatest vintage subset ever.

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1959 Fleer Ted Williams

This 80-card set really covers the gamut as far as Ted Williams highlights are concerned, including highlights from his time in the military and his off-season hobbies of hunting and fishing. As an aside, you can see many of the photographs these cards were based on in Ted’s 2018 PBS documentary.

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1954 Topps Scoop

A beautiful set off the radar of many baseball card collectors is the 1954 Topps Scoop set, which features 154 historical events, including a handful from the sporting world. The four baseball subjects are Bob Feller’s 18 strikeouts in a game, Babe Ruth’s 60 home runs in a season, the Braves move to Milwaukee, and a very long game between Brooklyn and Boston.

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As a quick spoiler alert, if you have not already seen the Broadway musical “Hamilton,” avoid purchasing this set. Card 82 completely gives away the ending.

1948 Swell

Though the name of the “Sport Thrills” set suggests other sports beyond baseball (and one card is even titled “Football Block”), all 20 cards in this set feature baseball highlights and records. A notable is the Jackie Robinson card, which I believe to be the earliest card front to refer to a player’s rookie season. (And if I’m wrong about that, it’s still a Jackie Robinson card from 1948!)

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The Sport Thrills set wasn’t the only baseball set that Swell issued in 1948. They also issued a 28-card “Babe Ruth Story” set to go along with the movie of the same name. Naturally, as this is the Bambino we’re talking about, the set includes several highlights. While some of cards include Ruth himself, it should be noted that the most common “Ruth” on the cards is William Bendix, who played Ruth in the movie. An example is card 15, which shows Ruth…I mean Bendix…calling his shot in the 1932 World Series.

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1938 Wheaties “Biggest Thrills in Baseball” (Series 10)

The back panel of Wheaties boxes featured a player from each major league team along with a highlight from the player’s career. While I didn’t include it here, the Wheaties “100 Years of Baseball” set from the following year could be said to feature highlights as well, though a typical example is “Crowd Boos First Baseball Glove!”

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1925 Turf Cigarettes (UK)

In 1925 London tobacco manufacturer Alexander Boguslavsky Ltd issued a set of 50 “Sports Records” cards. The very last card in the set featured American baseball and George Sisler’s recent batting record. (I’m not sure why they wouldn’t have gone with Hornsby’s record, but perhaps news traveled slow back then.)

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1912 T202 Hassan Triple Folders

I often end pieces like this with a wild card entry, one that may not meet the criteria applied to other sets but scores bonus points for its age. The middle panel of each T202 card features a great action shot, which is then described further on the card’s reverse. Most of these cards simply focus on a single play–exciting or not–that fails to rise to the level of a Record Breaker or Highlight.

However, the set does include some cards with narratives that do in fact rise to the level of a Highlight. An example of this is the Bergen/Barger “A Great Batsman” card, which on the back describes Napoleon Lajoie’s 227 hits in 1910 as breaking the American League record, even if today we no longer believe it! (At the time Lajoie’s 1901 hit total was thought to be 220, but he is now credited with either 229 or 232 hits, depending who you ask.)

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

Honorable Mentions

A handful of other sets are worth mention here, even if they didn’t earn top billing. The 1972 Topps “In Action” cards and 1964 Topps Giants cards both featured highlights on the backs of the cards. Meanwhile, the very rare 1914 E&S Publishing postcard set includes background cartoons with captions that in some cases rise to the level of significant highlights or records.

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Conclusion

The 1975 Topps set marked an important innovation in the history of the hobby in that it was the first major release to dedicate baseball cards, specifically its “Highlights” subset, to the most important historical feats of the prior season. However, like all innovations, this one did not appear out of a vacuum. Rather, it drew–intentionally or by happenstance–on a long and rich legacy of cardboard that came before it.

I hope this article allowed you to enjoy the cards and sets profiled not only as fantastic in their own right but also as important evolutionary stops along the way toward the Highlights and Record Breaker cards so many of us collected in our youth, if not the Topps Now cards many collectors still collect today.

Jason joined SABR in January 2019. Collecting interests include Hank Aaron, Dwight Gooden, and Sir Isaac Newton. You can find him on Twitter as @HeavyJ28 or on the Web here and here. He lives in the Chicago area but originally hails from Los Angeles.

Different sizes, weird cards, one album

Only in Cooperstown can you go into a baseball card store and find inexpensive genuine autographed cards. Baseball Nostalgia, right next to Doubleday Field, is a frequent haunt of mine. They’ve been around for 40 years, were once the flagship of TCMA, and remain as the depository of awesome things. They have rows and rows of autographed cards, not only big stars but nobodies. Maybe nobodies is unfair; let’s say non-stars.

Last year I bought a handful of signed cards, but in the little pile of goodies were a few photos (Jim Bibby, Buddy Bradford) circa 1974 and a postcard of Jack Brohamer from 1975. Why would anybody buy a signed Jack Brohamer postcard? Readers of this blog know the answer to that.

The Brohamer card is pretty sweet and, as I was researching for a new book proposal, I stumbled on the fact that Ken Berry (outfielder, not F Troop star) finished his career on the Indians. I didn’t recall that, Googled, and came across the one card of Berry in brilliant mid-‘70’s Cleveland garb. It was from the same postcard set as the Brohamer! It took time, but I finally got the full set last week, shipped in sheets.

I grabbed an album off the shelf that would be appropriate housing for this set. It’s an album of misfit cards – oddball sets, different shapes and sizes, in 2-pocket, 4-pocket and 9-pocket sheets. Besides the 1975 Cleveland Indians set (here’s a photo of one page, not with Brohamer but with Ed Crosby, Frank Duffy, John Ellis and Oscar Gamble, for Dan Epstein), the other sets are:

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1963 Pepsi-Cola Tulsa Oilers

12 panels, 2 cards per panel, 24 cards with a big loop above to hang on bottle tops – what more could you ask! The Pepper Martin card is the coolest, but for my card collecting age group (I’m 54), a minor league set with Jim Beauchamp, Tom Hilgendorf, Chuck Taylor and some batboys, is hard to resist. It’s not a very pricey set, I have no idea when I got it and how much I paid, but it’s way cool.

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1966 East Hills Pirates

There are a few great regional sets featuring the Pirates of the 1960’s – KDKA, Grenier Tires and East Hills. Produced and distributed by a big mall outside Pittsburgh, the East Hills set is very nice and essential for Al McBean completists. Sure, Clemente and Stargell are the highlights, but every Bucco picture is a gem. There’s something about Matty Alou that fascinates me. He seems a bit like an alien, if an alien could hit .342.

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1961 Nu-Card Baseball Scoops

Not odd in size, the Nu-Card cards are odd in content. Contemporary quasi-achievements are sprinkled amongst all-time moments. Was Roy Sievers’ 1957 American League Home Run title equivalent to Lou Gehrig’s streak or Willie Mays’ 1954 World Series catch? If you’ve got an 80 card set to fill, you bet it is!

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1966 St. Petersburg Cardinals

A bit larger than regular postcards (they peek out above a regular 4-pocket sleeve), this 20 card set was put out by Foremost Milk. Of course, nothing screams hot summer in Florida more than a glass of milk. Sparky Anderson’s card is the key, and here he is. You can’t tell me this dude was only 32 at the time.

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There’s something about these sets that resonate with me – there’s a romantic vision I have of suburban Pittsburgh 10-year olds bugging their Mom to take them to East Hills for a Gene Michael card, or some kid deciding to buy a pack of Nu-Cards instead of Topps and insisting that Nu-Cards were better. The very idea of seeing shelves of Pepsi bottles with Tulsa Oiler card hanging from the necks makes me light-headed.