I like collecting autographs. In those years in the early 1990s when the hobby exploded and the number of available sets to purchase had jumped from three to at least seventeen, one of the things that kept me sane was collecting autographs.*
*I prospected at college games. Pursued minor league coaches and managers. Went to Spring Training. Hung over the rail at Candlestick. Sent out some through the mail requests. Hit a couple card shows.
In many ways my card collecting hobby transformed into a way for me to be able to pull a card of any player at any time. No this was not efficient, but in those pre-internet days it was better than betting on my local shop having a card of the player I was planning to get. Having a couple years of complete Topps sets was a great way to be sure I had cards of almost everyone who played in the majors.
Getting into autographs also meant that I had to make a decision about hobby orthodoxy. In those early 1990s there were a lot of rules. Rules about what cards to collect.* Rules about how to store them.** And rules about what condition to keep them in. Chief among the condition rules was that writing on a card was bad even if it was an autograph.
*Prospects, Rookies, Errors, and inserts.
**Rubber bands out. Binders OK. Toploaders better. Screwdown cases best.
It didn’t take me long to decide that rule was stupid but it’s also part of a larger debate that we still have in the hobby. For a lot of collectors, writing on a card does indeed ruin it. Even if it’s an autograph. For others like me, there are many cards which are enhanced by getting them signed. That there’s no one way of collecting is great but it feels like the autograph divide is one where neither group understands the other.
The appeal of cards as an autograph medium is pretty simple since it piggybacks on the same appeal as baseball cards themselves. They’re mass-produced photographs so they’re usually both the cheapest and easiest thing to find. They label who the subject is and have information about him on the back. They’re small enough to carry in a pocket or send through the mail in a regular envelope. And after they’re signed they’re easily stored and displayed.
But that doesn’t mean that just any card will do for an autograph. One of the fun things about talking autographs with other collectors is discussing what kinds of cards and designs we prefer to get signed.
First off, things we want to avoid. It’s inevitable that you’ll get cards where a player has signed on his face. Cards are small and there’s almost always a time crunch. Avoiding closely-cropped portraits and picking a card that doesn’t encourage face signing is an important factor to keep in mind.
Dark backgrounds are also dangerous. Especially if you’re sending a card out through the mail or otherwise can’t control the pen being used. When I was a kid my hands were tied because silver sharpies didn’t exist and I was limited in my card options. Now though I just assume that the dark backgrounds won’t work.
What I did end up liking? Simple photo-centric designs with the bare minimum of design elements. A name. A team. A border. Nothing else. These designs often underwhelmed me as cards* but I found that I really enjoyed them signed.
*As my photo and print literacy has improved I found myself appreciating the photos and design in many of these sets.
In many ways I got into the hobby at exactly the right time as the early 1990s were a heyday for these kind of designs. 1989–1993 Upper Deck and 1988–1993 (except 1990) Topps in particular were tailor-made for my autograph preferences and are still sets I return to when I can.
The rise of full-bleed photos also occurred during this time. I was scared of gloss as a kid but have started looking for these designs whenever I can now. They’re an even more extreme point in my “simple photo-centric design” preference but the key for me is that I like the ones which adhere to the simplicity.
A lot of the full-bleed designs are anything but simple with crazy graphics and other stuff going on. But the ones where the designs are essentially just typography? Beautiful. In the same way that many of the guys who don’t like signed cards prefer signed 8×10s, these function more as signed photos than anything else.
To be clear, I’m not against more colorful designs. They just require me to think extra hard about the way things will look. In addition to considering how the autograph will work with the image there’s the additional concern about how it will interact with the design.
These cases usually result in an autograph which isn’t as pronounced but ideally still combine a bright colorful design and a nicely signed image into a pleasant and presentable result.
With these less-simple designs there’s the possibility for the wonderful occurrence when everything works together perfectly and results in an even stronger look. Would these look better just as photos? Maybe. But for me the complete package of a strong design and a perfect signature/photo combination is something I especially enjoy.
And sometimes the point isn’t how things will look but just about getting a specific photo signed because it’s funny, important, or both. These are the requests I enjoy most because I can talk about the specific photo being one of my favorites and why I chose this specific card to get signed.
The key for me is to be as intentional as possible with my card choices. An important season. A specific team. A nice photo. A special event. A favorite design. Or just something silly like a picture of a player milking a cow.
Rather than imagine the Topps intern assigned to building the checklist simply whiffed on Joltin’ Joe (or that there even was a Topps intern with such a job!), I have to believe Topps simply lacked the rights to feature DiMaggio’s likeness on cardboard. A look at other postwar sets during and after DiMaggio’s career show his absence in 1961 was definitely the rule and not the exception.
1933-1941 (AKA “Prewar,” depending where you lived!)
During the early part of the Clipper’s career, while he was not in EVERY set, one can say he tended to appear in every major set you’d expect to see him in, and then some, including these two gems from the 1933-36 Zeenut set.
Knowing DiMaggio didn’t make his Yankee debut until 1936, it’s not a big surprise that he didn’t appear in the three major gum card releases of the mid-1930s: 1933 Goudey, 1934 Goudey, and 1934-36 Diamond Stars. That said, his appearance in 1933 Goudey wouldn’t have been completely out of the question since that set did include 15 minor leaguers, including a fellow Pacific Coast Leaguer, Pete Scott.
Meanwhile, the 1934 Goudey and 1934-36 Diamond Stars checklists did not include any minor leaguers, so there’s no reason DiMaggio would have even been up for consideration.
Now some of you may know about the 1937 Diamond Stars extension set and surmise that Joltin’ Joe might have cracked that checklist. Unfortunately, all that seems to have survived is a single sheet of 12 cards, which of course DiMaggio is not on. All we can say for sure then is that if National Chicle did have a Diamond Stars card planned it would have been a gem!
The two-year stretch from 1936-37 did see DiMaggio appear on several cards, now as a Yankee, though there is room for debate among the collecting orthodoxy as to which constitute his true rookie card. (Don’t ask me, I’d vote for his San Francisco Seals cards!)
These four from 1936 have the benefit of being a year earlier than the 1937 cards, hence score a few more rookie points for their date of issue. On the other hand, all are of the oversized premium variety, which not all collectors put in the same category as the smaller cardboard offerings that come from packs of gum or cigarettes.
In fact, DiMaggio did crack one (cataloged as) 1936 (but really 1936-37) set of gum cards, but the fact that the World Wide Gum were only issued in Canada gives pause to a good many of the Hobby’s arbiters of rookiehood. If nothing else, though, note the nickname on the back of the card. A bit harder to read but the bio would not pass muster today in its reference to Joe as “a giant Italian.”
One of DiMaggio’s most sought after cards, rookie or not, was another Canada-only release and came out the following year under the later-on-much-more-famous O-Pee-Chee name.
Back in the U.S., DiMaggio made it onto two cards in 1937, but as with the preceding year they were both of the larger premium variety. The Goudey offering (left) is not much (any?) different from its 1936 counterpart, while the Exhibits 4-in-1 is particularly notable in its pairing of the Yankee Clipper with Lou Gehrig. (Oh, and the other two guys are pretty good also.)
It is finally in 1938 that Joltin’ Joe receives his first ever, God honest American gum card as a Yankee, thanks to the 1938 Goudey “Heads Up” set. Like the other 23 players on the checklist, he in fact appears twice, once with a plain background (card #250) and once with a cartoon background (card #274).
Finally, DiMaggio and Gehrig make it onto another 4-in-1 of Yankee legends, this time swapping out Tony Lazzeri for Bill Dickey.
To this point, just about every card I’ve shown, save the 1938 Goudey pair, has some level of oddball status attached. This was not the case from 1939-41 when Gum, Inc., hit the scene with its three year run of major bubble gum releases under the Play Ball name. Though the term is perhaps overused, I’ll throw DiMaggio’s 1941 card out there as one of the truly iconic cards of the Hobby.
The Play Ball cards weren’t DiMaggio’s only cards from that three-year stretch. He could also be found in the 1939-46 Exhibits “Salutations” set, yet another oversized offering…
And the 1941 Double Play set, where he was paired with his outfield neighbor, Charley Keller.
If there’s a theme to all of this, beyond just the opportunity to post a lot of incredible cards, it’s that Joe DiMaggio was no stranger to cardboard during the prewar portion of his career. On the contrary, he was in just about every major set there was, and then some!
These next ten years take us to the end of the Yankee Clipper’s career while also leading us through the wartime era where not a lot of card sets were being produced. DiMaggio cards didn’t simply follow the dip in overall card production but practically disappeared altogether.
Joe’s first card, post-1941, comes from the 1943 M.P. & Company card, a somewhat “off the radar” almost certainly unlicensed set, something we’ll see quite a bit more of as we proceed through this section of the article. (Side note: This set is screaming out for one of you to solve the remaining 21% of a mystery.)
Two notable aspects of the card are Joe’s position, right field (!), and the fact that his recent hitting streak is not mentioned.
The latter of these notables is addressed five years later in the 1948 Swell “Sport Thrills” set, which also happens to be the first gum card set of baseball highlights and a possible inspiration for the 1959 and 1961 cards Topps put out under a similar name.
First off, I’ll show the back of the card, which is everything you might expect to see in a card featuring The Streak.
However, the front of the card is more than a bit disappointing to DiMaggio collectors for obvious reasons. “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?” indeed!
What I read into this card is that Sport Thrills did not have permission from DiMaggio to use his likeness on the card. Yes, it’s possible the folks at Swell truly considered “stopping the streak” a greater achievement than the streak itself, but I kind of doubt it.
But then again, look who made it onto the set’s Ted Williams card, so who knows!
1948 was also the year that Gum, Inc., reappeared on the scene, beginning an eight-year stretch (1948-55) of baseball card sets under the Bowman name. the Bowman sets managed to include pretty much every big name of the era but one: Joe DiMaggio.
Personally I would have loved to see the Yankee Clipper in one of these early Bowman sets, but a “what if” we can consider as collectors is whether the rights to Joe D. would have left another Yankee centerfielder off the checklist in 1951.
You might not have expected any mention of Topps so soon, but it’s worth noting that Topps made its baseball debut not in 1952 or even 1951 but in 1948 with 19 of the 252 cards in its Magic Photos release featuring baseball players.
The first five cards pictured could lead you to believe the players were all retired greats, but in fact six of the cards in the set featured images of the 1948 World Champion Cleveland Indians. Well shoot, this was the one year from 1947-53 that the Yankee’s didn’t win the World Series! Crazy to think it, but perhaps if the Yankees and not the Indians had signed Paige and Doby, there would be a playing career Topps card of Joe DiMaggio!
One of the least known (in terms of origin, not familiarity) releases of the era was the 1948 Blue Tint set. DiMaggio has a card in the set but in what’s emerging as a common theme the card (and entire set!) are believed to be unlicensed.
Similar to the 1938 Goudey cards a decade earlier, the 1948 1949 Leaf set finally presents us with an unambiguously mainstream, all-American, picture-on-the-front, New York Yankees card of the Clipper. It even boasts #1 in what is one of the earliest examples of “hero numbering” in a baseball card set.
Astute collectors may now say, “A-ha! That’s why he wasn’t in Bowman. Leaf signed him first.” However, my own belief is that Leaf not only didn’t sign DiMaggio but didn’t sign anyone, making this card as well as the rest of the set unlicensed. (As always, I would love it if a reader with more information is able to confirm or correct this in the comments.)
The next same year M.P. & Company was back with what I wrote about last year as the laziest set ever, adding to our tally of unlicensed Clipper cards. I rather like the blue added to Joe’s uniform since the 1943 release, but I don’t love the bio remaining unchanged even six years later.
In 1951 Topps hit the shelves in earnest with five different baseball offerings, a number that now feels small but was huge for its time. Though DiMaggio had already achieved all-time great status, there was no reason to expect him in the Connie Mack’s All-Stars set, in which the most modern player was Lou Gehrig.
However, there was reason to expect DiMaggio in the Current All-Stars set, which featured 11 participants from the 1950 All-Star Game. While DiMaggio wouldn’t consider the contest among his career highlights, having gone 0-3 and grounded into a double play, his presence at Comiskey that day at least qualified him for this tough Topps release.
Two other closely related Topps issues from 1951 were the Red Backs and Blue Backs. Though nobody would confuse their checklists for the top 104 stars of the era, it seems reasonable to think Topps would have gone with DiMaggio if they could have.
The final Topps offering of 1951 is one that seemed almost assured to include DiMaggio but didn’t. Topps Teams featured complete team photos of every team on the checklist, but there was only one problem. The checklist did not include the Yankees!
We close out the 1942-1951 stretch with the 1951 Berk Ross set, one that did in fact include a Joe DiMaggio card. In fact, there were two cards if we count his two-player panel with Granny Hamner as separate.
While not a lot is known about these Berk Ross cards, the one thing most collectors believe is that these cards, much like the other DiMaggio cards of the era, were unlicensed.
As much as some collectors, then and now, would have loved to see a 1952 Topps card of the Yankee Clipper, we of course know he did not crack the set’s 407-card checklist, nor should he have been expected to. While “career capper” cards are the norm today, the tradition at Topps for many years was to focus its flagship set on the players expected to play in the current season.
DiMaggio did find himself with an unlicensed career capper in the 1952 follow-up from Berk Ross
Beyond 1952 we are clearly in post-career territory, meaning DiMaggio cards would mainly rely on three types of issues: all-time greats, highlights, and reprints.
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.
This next ten-year stretch is one that was fairly thin on tribute cards, so there were few sets produced were a DiMaggio would have made sense.
The 1962 Topps set included its ten-card “Babe Ruth Special” subset, no doubt timed with the falling of Babe’s single-season home run record the year before. It was a fun set but not one that Joe DiMaggio would have belonged in.
DiMaggio did make an appearance in a 1967 set that might cause some collectors to say, “Hey, he finally got a Topps card!” The card came in the “Retirado” subset of the 1967 Venezuelan issue often referred to as Topps Venezuelan. However, the set was almost certainly not produced by Topps, and was more than likely a…you guessed it…unlicensed issue. (A future SABR Baseball Cards article will cover this topic in more detail.)
Bazooka issued an all-time greats set in 1969-70 that included small cards of baseball’s immortals and larger cards of baseball’s greatest achievements. In this case, DiMaggio might have fit either but ended up in neither.
Topps again featured amazing achievements in its 1971 “Greatest Moments” set. However, with all moments coming from current players, there would have been no place for Joe D.
As in the previous ten years it would be up to the smaller players to keep Joe DiMaggio’s cardboard legacy alive. One such player was Robert Laughlin, later affiliated with various Fleer sets of the 1970s. His cult classic World Series set (original version) from 1967 featured DiMaggio as the broom swinger of the 1939 Fall Classic.
With production of these Laughlin cards limited to 300 sets, collectors were forced to head to Oakland area Jack in the Box restaurants to feed their appetite for the Clipper, though it’s possible the younger burger eaters would have been even happier to land a different Yankee slugger.
The birth of TCMA in 1972 almost single-handedly accounted for the rapid spike in DiMaggio cards over the next decade, with Robert Laughlin and Shakey’s Pizza doing their part as well.
Two Robert Laughlin offerings that included DiMaggio were the 1972 “Great Feats” set and the 1974 “All-Star Games” set.
The “Great Feats” set, with mostly minor changes, became Fleer’s 1973 “Baseball’s Greatest Feats” set. One major change, however, was that DiMaggio’s card was dropped, almost certainly out of legal fears by Fleer.
TCMA’s first DiMaggio card was part of a beautiful set dedicated to the All-Time New York Yankee Team.
As were the Laughlin cards, TCMA cards were unlicensed and sold direct to hobbyists by mail order. Lawsuits would eventually hit TCMA, but at least for the time being they were able to issue cards of the Clipper with impunity. I can certainly see their “1930s League Leaders” card (left) from 1973 escaping the notice of Joe and his legal team, though was sufficiently under the radar, but I wonder if their 1973-74 “Autograph Series,” designed for signature by the players, might have been pushing things just a bit.
Among TCMA’s other DiMaggio offerings around this time were these postcards pairing the Yankee Clipper with other top-shelf Hall of Famers.
TCMA’s 1936-39 Yankees Dynasty set, issued in 1974, produced another two cards of Joe DiMaggio.
And if you couldn’t get enough DiMaggio/Williams cards, TCMA had your back in 1974 with its “1940s League Leaders” set.
I know a lot of collectors knock the unlicensed stuff, but I’m personally thrilled that TCMA was out there creating the cards that needed to be created. Topps had more than 20 years to figure out a way to pair Joe D. and Teddy Ballgame, and it never happened. This card needed to happen, and I’m glad it did.
We’ll take a quick intermission from TCMA cards to present a three-year run (1975-77) of DiMaggio cards from Shakey’s Pizza.
And now we’re back with more TCMA, this time a 1975 reboot of their All-Time Yankees set featuring all new photos.
Reprint cards and sets hit the hobby mainstream in 1977, including these two cards of DiMaggio, both originally from 1938. The first came from Bert Randolph Sugar’s book of “Dover Reprints” and the second came from Jim Rowe. (DiMaggio’s 1941 Play Ball card would come out as a Dover Reprint the following year.)
1977 was also the year that Renata Galasso began her 270-card magnum opus known alternately as “Decade Greats” and “Glossy Greats.” The first series of 45 cards, issued in 1977 in partnership with TCMA, assigned its very first card to Joe DiMaggio. (DiMaggio returned to the set in the 1984 Series 6 release.)
Evidently it was very much in vogue to lead off a set’s checklist with the Yankee Clipper as we see it happen two more times in 1979 TCMA issues, their 1953 Bowman-like “Stars of the 1950s” and their lesser known “Diamond Greats” set.
Before heading to 1980, I’ll just note that we’ve made it to 1979 with not a single Topps card of DiMaggio and possibly not a single licensed card from any company since either 1941 or 1948.
The Me Decade kicked off with a beautiful Perez-Steele postcard of the Clipper. Dick Perez was not yet associated with Donruss, but Dick would soon lend his artwork to multiple all-time greats sets produced by Donruss over the next few years. You can probably guess whether or not those sets would include Joe DiMaggio. (Interestingly, there was no DiMaggio in the 108 “Great Moments” postcards released by Perez-Steele from 1985-1997. Ditto for the 44-card Perez-Steele “Celebration” series in 1989.)
DiMaggio was in an 30-card unlicensed set of “Baseball Legends” produced by Cramer Sports Promotions, the company that would soon become Pacific Trading Cards.
While other card makers joined the party, TCMA was still king in the early 1980s when it came to the all-time greats. Their third go-round of an All-Time Yankees set presented collectors with an early version of a “rainbow” nearly 40 years after Goudey did the same.
This same year, TCMA also included DiMaggio in its “Baseball Immortals” issued under their SSPC brand.
These 1980 “Superstars” are sometimes listed as TCMA and sometimes listed under the Seckeli name. (Andrew Aronstein, son of TCMA co-founder Mike Aronstein, believes the cards were sold by TCMA but not produced by TCMA. The Standard Catalog notes the cards were probably produced by Card Collectors Closet in Springfield, MA.) The set included 45 cards in all and five of DiMaggio.
A second series of 45 cards followed in 1982, this time with some non-baseball cards in the checklist and only a single DiMaggio.
The same year, Baseball Card News put out a set of 20 cards, including two with DiMaggio, one solo and one alongside Bob Feller.
1982 also saw three more TCMA sets with DiMaggio cards. Baseball’s Greatest Hitters and Baseball’s Greatest Sluggers featured standard sized baseball cards, and “Stars of the 50s” featured larger postcard-sized cards.
The streak of (probably) unlicensed DiMaggio cards finally met its end following the release of one last (probably) unlicensed DiMaggio card from the Big League Collectibles “Diamond Classics” set.
Before presenting the licensed DiMaggio issue, we’ll take one quick detour to highlight a set DiMaggio should have been in but wasn’t. The 1983 Donruss “Hall of Fame Heroes”set of 44 cards presented a terrific opportunity for DiMaggio to make his “big three” debut. (Donruss continued to put out all-time greats sets in 1984 and 1985 but neither included Joe D.)
Instead, DiMaggio signed on with Authentic Sports Autographs (ASA) for a twelve-card, limited edition set consisting entirely of DiMaggio cards.
I suspect “The Joe DiMaggio Story” by ASA represented the first time the Yankee Clipper got paid for his likeness on a baseball card in 42 years.
Rather than continue set by set, I’ll refer readers to an article from Night Owl Cards on DiMaggio’s more modern issues (or lack thereof) and simply close with some highlights.
DiMaggio’s next appearance with a major baseball card maker, which for now I’ll define as holding an MLB/MLBPA license, came in 1986 as part of the Sportflics “Decade Greats” set.
I can’t say for certain, but I think this was the first DiMaggio card to come out of a pack since 1961’s Nu-Card Scoops set.
I hate to bill this next one as “major card maker,” but it fits the definition I offered earlier. So here it is, 1989 Starting Lineup Baseball Greats.
The next major card maker to score a deal with Joe was, well, Score, in 1992. Several different cards, most very nice looking, were inserts either in packs or factory sets. The relationship would migrate to Score’s Pinnacle brand in 1993.
DiMaggio finally made his Fleer debut in 1998, though it was in a somewhat unusual way. The card was part of Fleer’s tribute to the Sports Collectors Digest hobby publication and showed DiMaggio signing cards for Pinnacle in 1993. How many times do you see one brand of baseball cards featured on another?
It was only a matter of time before Upper Deck got into the DiMaggio derby, though it would have to be posthumously. The relationship would continue until more or less the baseball (mostly) death of the company in 2010.
And what about Topps? The “baseball card company of record” at long last issued its first Joe DiMaggio card in 2001 as part of the “Before There Was Topps” subset. (For all those Mantle collectors who regard the 1952 Topps as Mantle’s rookie due to its being his first Topps card, I present to you your DiMaggio rookie!)
Topps would really jump into the DiMaggio game in 2007 and to this day remains your most likely source for future DiMaggio cards, even if Topps does not have an agreement in place at the moment. Overall though, Topps produced baseball cards from 1948-2000, a span of 53 years, with no Joe DiMaggio. Topps didn’t quite match 56, who who the hell ever will?
So all of this was my really long way of saying that it makes sense there was no Streak card in the 1961 Topps Baseball Thrills subset. Too bad though, it would have been a helluva card!
Author’s note: I originally planned this article in two parts, the first of which was published earlier in the week. I’ve since decided it works better combined into a single article, so here it is all in once place. – J.A.S.
In the nearly 120 years of the great Dodger-Giant rivalry, more than 200 players have suited up for both sides, either as a player or manager, including 22 Hall of Famers. For most of these men it is an easy undertaking to find cards of them as Dodgers and as Giants.
Most often their Dodger and Giant cards come from different years or different sets, as in the case of the two Frank Robinson cards pictured, eleven years apart. However, it is sometimes possible to find these Dodger-Giant pairings within a single set.
When this happens, the player (or manager) achieves true “double agent” status, turns from hero to villain (or vice versa) among the team faithful, earns the double-takes of many a collector, and most importantly attains immortality with a spot in this article.
In the sections that follow, I will present a chronological list of the nearly two dozen Dodger-Giant double agents I could track down in my research. Please let me know in the comments if I missed anyone.
On December 12, 1903, the Brooklyn Superbas sent Bill Dahlen to New York for Charlie Babb and Jack Cronin. As a result, Dahlen can be found with both squads in the 1903-04 Breisch-Williams (E107) set and has the honor of being the first ever Dodger-Giant double agent.
Here is one that really doesn’t count but is interesting enough to include nonetheless. On August 31, 1915, the Brooklyn Robins claimed Hall of Fame hurler Rube Marquard off waivers following his release by the Giants. Look close, however, and you’ll see Marquard’s 1915 card puts him with the other Brooklyn team, the Tip Tops of the Federal League!
I originally thought the fine folks at Cracker Jack had simply erred until Ralph Carhart helped explain things.
As Ralph noted, Rube’s “Tip Top flip flop” may offer us a clue to the Cracker Jack production calendar. I’ll further offer that the NYG still on Marquard’s uniform could signal that “the drama was playing out” after it was too late to change art but not too late to change type.
On June 16, 1933, the Giants traded Sam Leslie to the Dodgers for Watty Clark and Lefty O’Doul. Clark had only a single 1933 Goudey card, which depicted him as a Dodger, while Leslie had no 1933 cards at all. O’Doul, on the other hand, had two cards in the Goudey set: one as a Dodger and one as a Giant.
The first card came early in the year as part of the set’s third sheet while his second card, along with those of numerous other Giants and Senators, was something of a bonus card as part of the set’s World Series (sheet 10) release.
In July 1948 Brooklyn general manager Branch Rickey and New York owner Horace Stoneham came to an agreement that allowed Brooklyn manager Leo Durocher to take over the Giants. The 1948 R346 “Blue Tint” set noted the update and may well have inspired future Topps airbrushers with its treatment of Durocher’s cap.
A part of my childhood was destroyed when Reggie Smith left the Dodgers and signed as a free agent with San Francisco on February 27, 1982. A giant (okay, pun intended) setback in my grieving process came when Topps pushed out its Traded set for the year and documented the move in cardboard. But alas, at least we still had Dusty!
As a side note, the Traded card presents an interesting blend of numbers for the man who formerly wore #8 with the Dodgers and would wear #14 with the Giants. His jersey shows him as #60 while his bat has a 30 on it, which I take to mean it belonged to teammate Chili Davis.
No-o-o-o-o-o-o-o! They got Dusty too?! Sadly it was no April Fools joke when the Giants signed fan favorite Dusty Baker as a free agent on April 1, 1984, and this two Traded/Update sets were there to ratify the trauma.
A rare trade between the Dodgers and Giants on December 11, 1985 produced two more double agents. The first was fan favorite Candy Maldonado, who like Baker before him made both the Topps and Fleer sets.
And on the back end of that same trade…
Oddly, neither Trevino nor Maldonado cracked the 660-card 1986 Donruss checklist despite the set including 21 different Giants and 24 different Dodgers. In Trevino’s case, he was San Francisco’s primary back-up catcher behind Bob Brenley played in 57 games. As for Maldonado, he played in 123 games, leading all reserve players and ranking eighth overall on the team.
Fast forward to 1991 and the number of baseball card sets had reached absurd levels. Therefore, it should be no surprise that when free agent superstar Gary Carter signed with the Dodgers on March 26, 1991, he would set new records for cardboard double agency.
First here’s Topps.
Next up are the Kid’s two Fleer cards. Warning: Sunglasses may be required.
Upper Deck was of course also in the act by now.
And finally, Score put out two Carter cards as well, ridiculously similar to each other to the point of almost seeming impossible.
A similar octet of cards belonged to Brett Butler this same year, with Bugsy landing in Los Angeles via free agency on December 14, 1990.
Dave Anderson signed with the Dodgers as a free agent on January 28, 1992, but this time only one company, Score, seemed to take notice.
It was Fleer and only Fleer on the job when Todd Benzinger headed north to San Francisco as a free agent on January 13, 1993.
Meanwhile, Cory Snyder got three times the cardboard love when he took his talents to L.A. on December 5, 1992. Score Select was particularly ambitious, dropping Snyder out of an airplane for their photo shoot.
On June 19, 1994, following his release from the Dodgers, the Giants signed Darryl Strawberry to a cup of coffee. Little used by both teams in 1994, Darryl hit double agent status with only a single cardmaker, Fleer.
On December 8, 1997, infielder Jose Vizcaino signed with the Dodgers as a free agent after playing the regular season with the Giants. However, the baseball card production process was by this time so fast that nearly all of Vizcaino’s base cards already had him as a Dodger. As a result, his double agency was limited to the 1998 Fleer Tradition set only.
On January 11, 2000, F.P. Santangelo signed with the Dodgers as a free agent. While very few companies even had a single card of the oft abbreviated Frank-Paul, Upper Deck came through with cards on both sides of the cardboard rivalry.
The Giants signed Gold Glove centerfielder Marquis Grissom as a free agency on December 7, 2002, leading to a pair of Fleer Tradition cards based on Fleer’s sharp 1963 design.
Curiously, the Fleer Tradition Update cards (not just Grissom’s) omitted the city from team names. If there’s any story to it, let me know in the comments.
On January 3, 2006, pitcher Brett Tomko signed a free agent deal with the Dodgers. If nothing else, the move gave Topps a chance to show off how far they’d come since their drunken airbrush days. Scary good if you ask me.
Tomko’s Dodger card above came from a Dodger-specific team set, but he also earned a card in the Topps Updates and Highlights set for good measure.
When the Dodgers signed all-star right-hander Jason Schmidt on December 6, 2006, no two companies went the same route. First up, Fleer simply turned back the clock to the days of 1981 Donruss.
Meanwhile Topps ventured back to 1983 and the Fleer Joel Youngblood card or Eddie Murphy movie with this special insert…
…while also going full Tomko across their Pepsi and Opening Day releases.
Upper Deck came through with a nice pair of landscape Schmidt cards, though neither is a true Giants card since both go with Dodgers in the header.
Would I be remiss if I didn’t report that the first of the two Schmidt cards is also available in Gold, Predictor Green, and First Edition? Take your pick I guess!
Brad Penny signed as a free agent with the Giants on August 31, 2009, following half a season with the Red Sox and a longer stint before that with L.A. This landed Penny cards on three teams in 2009, including double agent status with Topps Heritage.
The final player (as of 2019) with a Dodger and Giant card from the same set is Brian Wilson, who signed as a free agent with the Dodgers mid-season on July 30, 2013. Lucky for you, Topps was there to document the before and after in pretty much every possible color!
On one hand, Dodger-Giant double agents reflect an oddball phenomenon of at best passing interest to fans of either of the two teams. However, their distinctly non-random occurrences over the years also point to important changes in the game and the hobby.
Just looking at the graph, it is possible to see all of the following:
Prevalence of multi-year issues in the early days of the hobby
Increased player movement with the advent of free agency
Introduction of Traded/Update sets
Increase in the number of companies issuing sets (1981-2008)
Reduction in the number of companies issuing sets (2009-present)
I will leave it to others to identify the cardboard double-agents of baseball’s other great rivalries (e.g., Yankees-Red Sox), but I’ll hazard a guess already that a graph of the data would look very much like mine.
Name, Team, Position. Those are the three most standard pieces of information conveyed on the obverse of a baseball card. Of the three, position is the one that is most often left out. While it is certainly isn’t hard to find examples of cards not bearing the name or team on the frontside, position is the only piece of this trio that feels kind of optional. Player positions were included on many of the earliest cards sets ever issued and remained a staple of card design until the fabled T206 set – which listed a player’s name and team home city only – seemed to put the designation out of style. Over the next few decades, many of the most iconic sets – Goudey, Cracker Jack, Leaf – ignored the position as an element of design. Bowman hit the scene in 1948 and went even more minimalist, rarely going so far as to even include the player’s name on the front of the card.
But then Topps took over, aside from their 1951 and 1952 issues, included a position on the front of each of their sets until 1972, and again for each set between 1973 and 1986. The indicator vanished between 1987 and 1990 and was an on-and-off feature until 2014, when it returned for seven straight sets (including 2020) – Topps’ longest run of position-indicating since the 1980s. Donruss included a position on every one of its designs until 1998 and Fleer did the same, using the indicator on every flagship set the brand issued. Upper Deck ignored the position on just two of its flagship sets (1992 and 2004).
This is not information that most collectors would have at the ready. Most collectors probably take the position bug for granted. I know I usually do. But being so ubiquitous (even in its absence), an unusual position indicator can make for a pretty memorable card. Herb Washington’s 1975 “Pinch Run.” is probably the most famous of these. But there are others that I recall standing out to me as a kid – Pete Rose cards where he was listed an “MGR-1B” seemed other-worldly, the 1990 Score John Olerud listed him as an “OF-P” (all while shown playing first base) made him seem like some kind of top-secret government project, and the 1989 Topps Kirk Gibson All Star that listed him as a “PH” was as jarring as it was confusing (this was done, I assume to give the NL team a DH player without using the league-inappropriate term).
A particular player’s position listing can also convey some emotion. Robin Yount listed as a shortstop or George Brett as a third baseman make them seem as though they’ll be young forever. But finding Reggie Jackson or Henry Aaron or Dave Winfield listed as a DH will bring a note of sadness that the end is near.
But of all the weird positional quirks that have happened over the years, there is nothing so fascinating to me as what happened with Paul Molitor in 1991. That was the year the versatile Brewer was listed at FIVE different positions on various cards and appeared with SEVEN different position indicators. This is, I believe, the greatest positional variety for a player in a single year ever (ignoring THIS, of course). So what happened here?
Well, Paul Molitor had historically been a trick player to pin down position-wise. He came up as a shortstop, getting his first change in the bigs when Robin Yount left the Brewers during Spring Training 1978. He only played 33 games at short that season, but it was enough to have him listed as a pure SS on his 1979 card. He played 10 games at short in 1979 and 12 in 1980, but maintained a dual listed as an “SS-2B” on Topps 1980 and 1981 issues. After spending all of 1981 in the outfield, Topps gave him the rare “2B-SS-OF” listing on his 1982 card. Molly moved to third base in 1982, and played there primarily for most of the next five years. Topps reacted in kind and listed his as either a 3B or 3B/DH through the end of the decade.
Donruss and Fleer, entering the market in 1981, both listed him as a 2B in their debut sets. Fleer gave him a pure (and accurate) OF tag in 1982, whereas Donruss went with the very broad “OF/IF” brand. Both brands followed suit with Topps and used 3B and DH marks exclusively through 1990. Upper Deck and Score did the same.
But Molitor had returned to his utility player roots by the late 1980s. He appeared in 19 games at second base in 1987 and 16 in 1989. Late in 1989, regular second-sacker Jim Gantner suffered a devastating knee injury on a wipe-out slide by the Yankees Marcus Lawton and Molitor took over regular duty at the position until Gantner was able to return mid-way through the 1990 season. Molitor, who suffered a number of injuries of his own that season, ended up playing 60 games at second base in ‘90, 37 at first base (the first time he’d manned that spot), and a handful at third and as a DH. Gantner ended the season as the regular second baseman and Molitor at prime man at first. After the season, the Brewers traded Dave Parker, who had been an All Star for them in 1990, opening the door for the now-34 year old Molitor to become the team’s regular DH for the first time.
So, the long-time third baseman who had been playing second but was also being used at first, where he was now expected to see more time when he wasn’t DHing. Got all that? Card makers sure did.
By my count, Molitor appeared on 21 different base cards in 1991 (I’m ignoring sets like Topps Micro and OPC here that merely reproduce other sets). All but Classic listed a position on their cards. He was most commonly listed at 3B, a dubious claim considering he’d only played two games there in 1990. But strong is the power of tradition. Topps listed him there, using that mark on the Bowman, Stadium Club, and OPC Premium sets as well. Fleer also considered him a 3B, as they had at least in part since 1983. Even Score listed him at the position, despite taking the rather bold stance of being the only card maker to declare him a pure DH on a 1980s issue (1988). Those two games in ’90 got a lot of mileage, I guess.
Five cards listed him at 1B, a nice compromise between his audition there in 1990 and his projected role in 1991. Magazine cards were fond of this mark, as Baseball Cards Magazine, Sports Collectors Digest, and Sports Illustrated for Kids all used it on their in-mag cards, as did Donruss and (curiously) Fleer Ultra, which ran against the flagship’s opinion that Molitor was still a 3B.
Three cards gave him a generic IF designation: two Brewers-issued sets (which used the frustrating device of considering anyone who played in the infield an IF) and the Score Superstars stand-alone set, which also broke with its parent brand and made its own positional distinction.
A pair of sets were forward-looking enough to list Molitor as a pure DH, Leaf and Studio. I recall these as later-year issues and were probably a reaction to Molitor’s role early on the 1991 season, in which he only appeared in the field once before late May.
Then, we have some true outliers. Upper Deck, showing that rebel streak that remade the hobby, boldly listed Molitor as a 2B in their set, and even used a photo of him playing the position. The semi-obscure Petro Canada Standup set also listed him as a 2B, but you had to actually stand the card up to discover this fact. Panini, in its sticker set, was the only brand to use a hybrid mark, listing Molitor was a “1B-2B,” his only 1991 card to accurately reflect upon his 1990 season.
And then there is 1991 US Playing Card set. In here, Molitor (as the Eight of Hearts) is listed as a centerfielder.
At this time, Molitor hadn’t played the outfield since a handful of games in 1986 and hadn’t been in center since 1981. Were they boldly expecting Molitor to take over in center for Robin Yount in 1991? My guess is that this is probably just an outright error. None of the other outfielder cards in the deck are given a specific OF spot (LF, CF, RF), and I can’t find anything that indicated they were acting on some of weird rumor of an unexpected position change. But nonetheless, the card exists and only adds to the positional confusion.
Oddly enough, all this positioning and repositioning for Molitor quickly became a moot point. Following the end of the 1990 season, Molitor would play first base and DH exclusively. His cards reflected this. For the most part. For 1992, Topps again branded him at a 3B across most of its sets despite his not having played there regularly since 1989. And, not to be outdone by their 1991 goof, the US Playing Card company issued two decks with Molitor cards in 1992 – one listing him at 2B and the other at SS – where Molitor hadn’t appeared since 1982 (his 1993 USPC card has him mercifully listed as an IF). At least it’s a consistent decade-long lag time, right? For 1993, only the Post Cereal Company still listed him at 3B. Card makers had finally accepted him for what had become – a DH and part-time 1B.
For his career, Molitor was listed on cards as a 1B, 2B, SS, 3B, IF, OF, CF, DH, 1B/DH, 2B/SS/OF, 2B/SS, SS/2B, 3B/DH, OF/IF, DH/1B, and DH/3B – not to mention post-career cards as a coach and manager. That’s 18 different listings (and perhaps more that I have missed) to describe a single remarkable career.
Jerry Morales was—at least anecdotally—a slick-fielding outfielder known for his unorthodox habit of catching routine fly balls below his waist and out in front of him. He led PCL outfielders in fielding percentage in 1970 and 1971 and was a top defensive NL outfielder in 1975 and 1976 by standard metrics – including assists, range factor, double plays, and fielding percentage. Morales was also known for his sweet mustache, ranked here as the 12th best in Cubs history.
In his 15-year Major League career, Morales amassed nearly 5000 plate appearances and displayed decent power, belting double-digit home runs in five seasons. Morales was an All-Star in 1977 with the Chicago Cubs and was hit by a Sparky Lyle pitch in his only All-Star plate appearance. He would end the regular season .290/.348/.447, with 11 home runs and 69 knocked in. Advanced metrics have not been kind to Morales as a defensive outfielder, however. According to Baseball-Reference, Morales was worth -0.7 WAR in his 1977 All-Star season and finished his career with a -2.0 WAR, including a lifetime dWAR of -12.4.
On the other hand, center fielder Ken Griffey Jr. was a perennial Gold Glove recipient, winning ten consecutive awards from 1990-99 with the Seattle Mariners. Although the second half of his career, mostly with Cincinnati, was marred by injuries and declining defensive value, Griffey finished his Hall of Fame career with a lifetime 2.2 dWAR, upstaged by his offensive prowess and a trophy case overstuffed with Gold Gloves. Griffey appeared in 13 All-Star Games and compiled a .440/.464/.640 slash line in 25 at-bats, with a home run and seven driven in.
Junior was also known for wearing his baseball cap backwards, although his reason for doing so began of necessity, not style. “My dad had a ‘fro, and I didn’t, so I wore his hat and it always hit me in the face, so I just turned it around and it just stuck. It wasn’t like I was trying to be a tough guy or change the way that baseball is played. It was just that my dad wore a size 7 1/2, and I had a 6 1/4. It was just too big.” Griffey participated in 1993 Home Run Derby with his cap on backwards and concluded his 2016 Hall of Fame induction speech by donning his hat in that oh-so-familiar way.
So why all the fuss about Jerry Morales? Well, as it turns out, he was the first non-catcher to ever appear on a Topps baseball card with his hat on backwards, years before Ken Griffey Jr. became associated with the style. On his 1981 Topps card, Morales is pictured hanging out at the batting cage with his New York Mets cap on backwards.
Sure, catchers were often depicted on cards with their caps on backwards, but mainly because they wore them that way under their masks.
1968 Topps #251
1956 Topps #131
1952 Topps #230
The last catcher to be pictured on a card with his hat on backwards was Rick Dempsey in this 1991 Score edition.
But Jerry Morales will always be a fashion pioneer.
Bogovich, Richard. “Jerry Morales.” In Maxwell Kates (Author, Editor), Warren Corbett (Author), Gregory Wolf (Author), Leslie Heaphy (Author), Rory Costello (Author), Rob Neyer (Author), Bill Nowlin (Editor), Len Levin (Editor), Carl Riechers (Editor), Time for Expansion Baseball, Phoenix: Society for American Baseball Research, 2018, 215-22.
Slocum, Frank, “Topps Baseball Cards: The Complete Picture Collection” (New York: Warner Books; 1st Edition, 1985)
Author’s note: I really enjoyed two posts from fellow SABR Baseball Cards Committee writer Jon Leonoudakis (jongree). His “Death Comes for Active Baseball Players” and “Death & Baseball Cards” inspired me to attempt a catalog of all 20th century baseball cards honoring the fallen. As the boundaries can sometimes be blurry in this work, I limited my scope to cards that came out within a year or two of the player’s death.
Okay, friends, here come the cards that really put the “rip” in ripping wax, the cards that turn requiescat in pace into requiescat in pack, and the cards you should never buy autographed on eBay. Among their numbers you’ll see Hall of Famers and guys you might not have ever heard of. You’ll see some familiar sets, and you’ll see some obscure ones. And you’ll even see some hockey guys. There really is no greater equalizer than death.
1994 Conlon Collection
These cards don’t count in the same way as the others featured in this post as the players honored had retired many decades earlier. Still, I thought they warranted inclusion, if for no other reason than to show how blessed we were to have these great players still among us not that long ago. Plus, when’s the last time a Charles Conlon photo ruined a page?
1992-1993 Conlon Collection
Similar to the above, the 1993 Conlon set included In Memoriam cards for Joe Sewell and Billy Herman. The 1992 set included an In Memoriam card for Luke Appling, though they got the Latin a bit wrong.
1990 Bart Giamatti cards – various
Topps, Donruss, Score, and O-Pee-Chee all paid tribute to baseball’s poet-commissioner, A. Bartlett Giamatti, who passed away on October 1, 1989. The card fronts make no mention of his passing, though his very inclusion in these sets would have been unusual otherwise. Card backs include his date of death.
1978 Frisz Minnesota Twins Danny Thompson
Danny Thompson died from leukemia on December 10, 1976. While he did not appear in any 1977 sets, he was given card 46 in a regional Twins release. The card back includes his date of death and changes “bats and throws righthanded” to the past tense.
1977 Topps Danny Thompson
Hat tip to fellow SABR Baseball Cards blogger Keith Olbermann (you may know him from other stuff too) for this one, including the image.
As the Reggie card probably alerted you, these are Topps proof cards. The Thompson card is particularly unique in that he had no card at all when the 1977 set was finalized. Topps essentially acknowledged his passing by erasing him from the set. I’m not sure what stage of grief this suggests Topps was in. Denial?
1972 O-Pee-Chee Gil Hodges
At first glance the 1972 Topps and OPC issues for Gil Hodges look pretty much alike, at least until you read the fine print. “Deceased April 2, 1972.” I have to imagine the card prompted a number of Canadian youngsters to ask their parents what “deceased” meant. Overall a classy move by O-Pee-Chee and one I wish they repeated the following year for Mr. Clemente.
Ken Hubbs died so young that this card’s almost hard to look at. Still, Topps really went the extra mile in modifying their card design to honor the Cubs infielder.
As noted by jongree in both of his posts, Hubbs was not the only baseball death in 1964. Houston pitcher Jim Ulbricht died on April 8 from a malignant melanoma at the age of 33. Topps noted his passing on the bottom of his card back.
1956 Gum Inc. Adventure (R749) Harry Agganis
I type this one with a lump in my throat as I nearly died in 2016 from the same thing that killed Harry Agganis. The 26-year-old Red Sox first baseman died suddenly from a pulmonary embolism on June 27, 1955. A rather oddball trading card set whose subjects ranged from porcupines to sunburns included Agganis, Boston’s Golden Greek, as card 55.
Honorable Mention: 1955 Bowman and 1952 Topps
While there is fortunately no death to report, hence the mere honorable mention status, the 1955 Bowman Eddie Waitkus card back must be one of the most unique in the history of the hobby, right down to his story’s final sentence. His 1952 Topps also makes mention of his near-death experience, which inspired the Bernard Malamud novel “The Natural.”
1949 Leaf Babe Ruth
First off, yeah, I’m one of those annoying guys that refuses to say 1948 Leaf or even 1948-1949 Leaf. The Ruth card in this set makes no mention of his August 16, 1948, death. However, there are reasons to at least view this card as Leaf paying their respects.
Ruth is the only retired player in the set.
The set would have been planned right around the time of his passing.
Leaf even gave him card number 3, his famous uniform number with the Yankees.
Now read the back. It’s hard not to read it as an epitaph. RIP Sultan.
1941 Harry Hartman set
Following a late season slump, Reds backstop Willard Hershberger took his own life on August 3, 1940 and to this day remains the last active player to have committed suicide. His card back is rather unique in that it relays to us the emotional impact of his death on his Cincinnati teammates. (Thank you to Chuck Ailsworth for alerting me to this card that was 100% off my radar!)
1937-1938 World Wide Gum V356 Hockey
I know, I know…this is the BASEBALL card blog. But shoot, this one was too good to not include. And the card design is a complete clone of the V355 baseball release so what the heck. The first thing to know is that a Montreal Canadiens player named Howie Morenz died on March 8, 1937. His card back acknowledges as much.
If that was all the World Wide Gum set did, I wouldn’t have included it. However, the set took a particularly unique move that I think gives it an important place in any write-up of in memoriam cards.
The first time I saw this card while digging through a mixed baseball/hockey stack at a card show I assumed it was just a baby-faced player from back in the day. I had no idea it was a nine-year-old kid until I flipped it over. If I wrote blog posts back then I would have written about it, so here you go!
1911 T205 Gold Border Addie Joss
Addie Joss had the shortest life of any MLB Hall of Famer, dying from meningitis at the age of 31. Though he pitched in a very different era, his 1.89 ERA is nothing to shake a stick at. And if you did try that, you’d probably miss anyhow.
All the cards in the Gold Border set are works of art, but Addie’s takes on a special poignancy given the tragedy of his recent passing, noted in the lead sentence of the card’s reverse. The final paragraph of the bio is worth a read as well.
“He was a faithful player, liked by the team mates and respected by the public, many thousands of whom attended his funeral.”
1910 Doc Powers Day postcard
From the “Standard Catalog of Vintage Baseball Cards…”
“To announce to fans the forthcoming Doc Powers Day benefit game, the Philadelphia A’s produced this standard sized (5-1/2″ x 3-1/2″) black-and-white postcard. Front has a photo of the late A’s catcher and information about the special events to be held June 30. On back is a message over the facsimile autograph of Connie Mack asking fans to remember the widow and children of their fallen star.”
Quick aside: The great-granddaughter of Doc Powers is hoping to nab this card on the extremely slim chance you have doubles.
This article is dedicated to young Simon Tocher. Cause of death: Collecting. Source: Boston Globe, August 25, 1910. RIP, young lad. You’re among friends here. I promise.
Still can’t get enough?
If the real cards profiled in this post leave you wanting more, the “When Topps Had (Base) Balls blog has you covered. Click here to visit its “In Memoriam” gallery, which features a mix of custom cards in the style of the ones here along with other tributes to baseball personalities who have passed away over the years.
A tip of the hat to you, Gio, for all the great work you do keeping this hobby fun and filling in the essential holes in our collections!
While baseball cards often depict action, I’ve become interested in the ones which try to depict moving action. In both 1959 and 1962 Topps released a couple of multiple-image cards which showed frame-by-frame action. Some of these were devoted to special plays like Mays’s catch in 1954 but a lot of them feel like their just trying to show action in an age where closely cropped action shots were impossible.
The 1959 Fleer Ted Williams set also has a number of these cards. I especially like the overhead angle on the batting shot but the 4-panel landscape card is also pretty cool.
Fleer did much the same again in 1985. This makes sense as there wasn’t any other way to do this and the only major difference between these and their counterparts 23 years earlier is in the quality and sharpness of the photos.* The Fleer cards however do make for interesting comparisons between different hitters and how they swing the bat.
*I’ve asked around on Twitter and the like and no one seems to remember anything similar except for the 1968 Bazooka box panels. Those panels, while relevant to the discussion, aren’t really the same thing.
In the late 1980s though Sportflics came on the scene. We’d had lenticular printing on cards before with the Topps 3D and Kelloggs All Stars which used the lenticular effect for three-dimensional purposes. And we’d had other oddballs like the mid-1980s 7/11 discs which used it to flip between multiple images.
Sportflics though realized that this kind of thing could reanimate the still images on the Fleer cards. The resulting three-frame animation of baseball action very quickly became one of my favorite things. Despite being always 🔽 in the Beckett hot list Sportflics was always 🔼 in my heart. I recently showed them to my kids and they thought they were super cool too.
It’s also worth noting that Sportflics realized that it could animate the text as well. One box of text on the card front could display twice as much information and give us a larger picture as a result.
In 1989 Upper Deck came around with some very-cool multiple exposure cards. These were crisper images than what you could see in Sportflics and there was something about the multiple images which told the story of a standard motion—typically pitching—in the way that Doc Edgerton’s photos dowhere the resulting layered images become their own beautiful thing.
Upper Deck had these for a lot of years and even played with the form a bit with their Deion Sanders card which took the action thing and turned it into a transformation.
By 1994 other brands had started doing similar multiple exposure cards. Donruss’s Spirit of the Game inserts in 1993 had a bunch of these and Topps flagship went the Upper Deck route and just used this effect on select base cards. Because of my age I tend to see all these as copying Upper Deck but it was also interesting to see the approach get more diverse in the different ways that the multiple exposures were layered.
At the same time Upper Deck launched there was also a product called Flipp Tipps which, while not exactly baseball cards, totally deserves to be mentioned here since they’re collectible flipbooks. Lots of frames and I like the concept of making them somewhat educational as a way of breaking down how Brett Butler bunts or Will Clark swings.
Sportflics meanwhile found its gimmick to be outdated in the mid-90s once motion holograms were invented. These showed up on Denny’s 1996 Pinnacle Holograms and have the benefit of many more frames to animate motion. Unfortunately they’re even harder to see than that Sportflics. The light has to be perfect and there’s no cue as to what direction you have to tilt the card.
Still, the Ozzie Smith backflip card beyond cool. Instead of being standard baseball action they’ve captured one of Ozzie’s trademarks. That this set also includes Hideo Nomo’s windup and Gary Sheffield’s menacing swing shows that the designers really thought about which players had distinctive movements which were worthy of motion capture.
Topps also released its own version of these with Stadium Club instavision in 1997. It’s a smaller hologram but much easier to see. These cards were about specific highlights instead of capturing a general sense of the player.
It’s also worth noting that in 1997 Topps also went back to lenticular motion with Screenplays. Unlike Sportflics these had 24 frames of animation. Unfortunately I don’t have one of these available to GIF.
The ultimate action card though has to go to 2000 Upper Deck Powerdeck. Rather than being a motion card this was a baseball-card-sized CD-ROM with effectively a miniature website on it when you inserted it into your computer. Anyway the YouTube video speaks for itself. It’s a neat idea though sadly one which is already obsolete and unviewable while the 1959 Topps Baseball Thrills cards are as interesting as ever.
If there was a single athlete who personified the so-called “junk wax” era of trading cards, it was Bo Jackson. Bo was a force unlike anything the sporting world had ever known when he burst onto the scene in the late 1980s. As was the idea of grown men taking over a hobby once deemed the realm of children, the idea that a single freak of athletic nature could be the most exciting player in both baseball and football seemed ridiculous. And, just as with the hobby that promised to turn a stack of Todd Van Poppels into a college fund, Bo Jackson vanished from the scene before his potential could truly be realized. And in the summer of 1990, the forces that were Bo Jackson and the riding-high trading card hobby melded into what might be the definitive card of the junk wax era… 1990 Score baseball #697.
In 1988, Major League Marketing, the company that had given the world Sportsflics, introduced Score. The brand was a more mainstream play on the Sportsflics concept, which was largely defined by the gimmick of their plastic-coated changing-image obverses. Score was a more tradition cardboard issue, but utilized the underappreciated back-of-the-card features of Sportsflics – color photos and extensive biographical information – to create something truly revolutionary. A year ahead of Upper Deck and a year and a half of Pro Set, 1988 Score was a slick, premium trading card that brought collectors closer to the players than anything else on the market.
By 1990, with Upper Deck having enter the fray, the baseball market was more competitive than ever and brands were looking to differentiate themselves. For their third year of baseball, Score issued their most colorful and rookie-loaded set to date. They introduced draft pick cards – something pioneered by Topps the year before – and robbed Upper Deck of the illustrated card idea with their “Dream Team” subset. They also brought back an old-school concept with a playoff subset, highlighting the League Championship Series and the World Series.
But with card 697, they did something somewhat unprecedented in the hobby. There had been special, one-off cards of players before – honoring accomplishments, recognizing retirements, and the like – but card 697 was a tribute to nothing more than the sheer force that was Bo Jackson. The card itself, even devoid of context, is pretty remarkable. The front featured a black and white, horizontal image of Jackson in shoulder pads, hands draped over a baseball bat resting behind his neck. The photo was taken from a Nike Air poster titled “The Ballplayer” that had been issued the previous year. The image was framed by a white border and inset with the Score logo. The card’s minimalism, the subtle tones of the artful image, Jackson’s effortless pose and impressive physique all melded to form one of the most beautiful baseball cards yet issued. On the card’s reverse side, inside a green border and above the requisite branding and licensing bugs were just two letters – BO – done in black and blue (Raiders and Royals). To anyone who was a sports fan or a collector in 1990, those were the only two letters necessary to convey the power of the card. If you didn’t know BO, you might as well just put down the baseball cards and start collecting stamps.
1990 Score baseball hit the store in January, right around the time Bo Jackson was finishing up an 11-game NFL season in which he ran for 950 yards on just 173 carries – which itself followed up a baseball season in which he hit 32 homers, made the all-star team, and placed 10th in the MVP voting. It was, perhaps, the height of Bo-mania both in the sporting and pop culture realms. 1990 was also near the peak of card-mania and, laughable as it seems today, adults were tearing through fifty-cent packages of Topps, Upper Deck, Score, Fleer, and Donruss baseball – carefully setting aside Ben McDonalds, Pat Combes, and Steve Hosesys with the honest belief that they were something akin to blue chip stocks.
Card 697 was the perfect combination of subject and timing. The oddity of it (I can’t think of any truly comparable card that had been issued to that date) and the hobby obsession with Jackson soon became the card of the season. By February, it was selling for a respectable sixty cents – about the same as the base cards of superstar players. By March, it was going for $4 – an unheard of sum for a new issue card that was not an error or rookie. By April, it had reached $8 and was drawing interest from the media outside of the hobby. Just weeks into the baseball season, with Jackson off to a blistering start, the Chicago Tribune reported that area card shops were selling packs of Score baseball for a dollar each – twice their retail price – and limiting customers to ten packs per day. Rumors flew that the entire 1990 Score set had been short-printed because of the brand’s newly expanded football line. Other whispers had it that card 697 was about to be pulled from production because of a Nike lawsuit. Score denied all the rumors (indeed, the 1990 set was just as overproduced as anything of the era), but that could not stop the furor over the card. In late April, 25-year veteran National League umpire Bob Engle was arrested for shoplifting seven boxes of 1990 Score from a Bakersfield, CA store. He was suspended by the league for the incident and later retired after being convicted and receiving probation. Bo-mania was officially causing strange behavior.
By June, even with Jackson having cooled off at the plate, the card was selling for $15 and Beckett Baseball Card Monthly ran the full-length Bo-in-shoulder-pads image on its cover. That same month, a spree of counterfeit 697s began to appear in Mississippi, Chicago, and New Jersey. They were strictly low-end knock-offs, given away by their lack of color on the reverse (some shady dealers were hocking them as Score “press proofs”). The Associated Press picked up on the story and newspaper coast-to-coast ran the story of the fake cards.
As the season wore on, the card began to cool off. In September, it hit its Beckett price guide peak of $12, and was down to $9 by December. This was due in part, no doubt, to overkill. Only Nolan Ryan had more baseball cards in 1990 than Jackson and, by the season’s end, the market was flooded with Jackson football cards as well. Then came the January 13, 1991 divisional playoff game between Jackson’s Raiders and the Cincinnati Bengals, when a tackle dislocated Jackson’s hip and effectively ended his days as the nation’s most captivating athlete. Many thought his professional careers were over and, the following March, the Royals released him. That summer, as Jackson worked towards his comeback, Beckett listed the card at $4.50 – more of a novelty than an investment (more on that here). I recall that for years afterward, as it remained above common card status, the card was listed as “697 Bo Jackson (FB/BB)…” in price books. And still, everyone knew what it meant.
Today, the card can be had for a few dollars online and can probably be found in dollar binders at card shows across the nation on any given weekend. Certainly a hard fall from the summer of 1990, but it remains a remarkably sought-after card. Take a look on eBay and you will inevitably find a few copies (ungraded) listed at outrageous prices given the marketplace – $10, $20, $30 (the complete 1990 Score set can be had for about $15). It’s easy to mock people who list junk wax era stuff for such prices as ignorant of the hobby, but with card 697, it feels just a little different. I’ve still got my copy of the card, still encased in the top-loader that my shaky little 8-year-old hands slipped it into a quarter century ago. I understand that I could only get a few bucks for it if I ever tried to sell it. But I also know it’s worth a lot more than that.