Fahrenheit .407

Listen: Ichiro is the Guy Montag of George Sisler.

Like many students, I read Ray Bradbury’s dystopian classic, Fahrenheit 451, in middle school. Several of its ideas stuck with me for years afterward and I picked up a personal copy not long ago, to keep them fresh.

Near its climax, protagonist Guy Montag joins a clan of exiles who protect the written word from state-organized destruction. They memorize whole manuscripts as hedge against an American society locked in fiery struggle against its own texts. Guy’s recall of a portion of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes becomes his torch to carry.

Whatever your religious background, many SABR readers also know some Ecclesiastes, thanks to Pete Seeger’s adaptation of its third chapter into the 1960s folk-rock hit “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There is a Season),” intersecting with antiwar themes from Bradbury’s 1953 novel.

This cultureball matters to me now because of the link between Ichiro, one of our greatest 21st century players, and George Sisler, his parallel from a century ago.

I used to know just table scraps about the onomatopoeically “hot” Sisler. I remember lots of other stuff, like how Dave Philley spent three years as a Phillie (1958-60) and Johnny Podres finished his career with the Padres (1969). Yet…diddly about “the greatest player in St. Louis Browns history.”

Just a handful of significant facts came to mind when I started this article: he hit over .400 twice, they called him “Gorgeous George” (predating the pro wrestler), and Ichiro broke Sisler’s single-season hits record. Oh, and he appeared in the 1972 Kellogg’s All-Time Greats set.

Sisler retired in 1930, explaining why I find him so unfindable. Despite writing about cards for years at the Number 5 Type Collection, almost all of my card research follows Goudey Gum’s 1933 baseball debut, making earlier players a crapshoot. Even my deep dive into a trivial question, “Who’s E.T. Cox and why’d he appear on a card in 1927?” stands out for what didn’t happen, not what did.

I give Ichiro full marks for breaking an 84-year-old record when he notched 262 hits in 2004. Yet hitting isn’t their sole connection. Let’s catch up with George, circa 1920.

Kids could buy this artful W514, trimmed from a strip of five, out of arcade vending machines during Sisler’s mammoth performance for an otherwise fair-t0-middling 1920 Browns squad.

  • .407 average, 1.082 OPS, 182 OPS+
  • MLB record-setting 257 hits, in 154 game era
  • 49 doubles, 18 triples, 19 homers, 42 SB

Zero other seasons in MLB history include that balance of speed and power. None! Ichiro came close as a base runner, stealing 40+ bases five times, turning ground ball singles into scoring threats. As frosting to his power cake, George Sisler led the AL in steals four times.

Even if you drop stolen bases as criteria, just one other season in history, Lou Gehrig’s 1927, includes at least 49 doubles, 18 triples, and 19 homers. The Iron Horse, of course, enjoyed Murderers’ Row as “protection” for his spot in the lineup. St. Louis, however, depended on George’s stealing prowess just to get more guys in scoring position.

This photo from Sisler’s other 1920 card, part of the scarce Holsum bread issue, hearkens back to his younger days as a southpaw pitcher. (Read George’s SABR bio for those details.)

While pitching had moved to his back burner by 1920, George nonetheless closed out St. Louis’s final game on October 3 from the hill (box score), perhaps to help home fans enjoy one last bit of that remarkable year. Although he notched a .420 average two years later, OPS+ rates 1920 “better,” as Sisler hit fewer homers in 1922 (career stats).

Two of Sisler’s sons, Dick and Dave, went on to their own baseball careers. The former intersected with Ichiro’s future home as 1960 manager of the Pacific Coast League’s Seattle Rainiers.

While we’re visiting the past, let’s pretend we’re 12 years old again and snicker at how Dick Sisler appears on a Skinless Wiener trading card. (Players came one to a package.) Cross your legs and fire up the grill!

When Ichiro’s torrid pace projected to break the hits record in 2004, he also connected with still-living Dave Sisler, who enjoyed renewed interest in George’s past achievements and some of the Sisler family traveled to Seattle to see Ichiro break the record in person. (Topps mentioned that moment on Ichiro’s Season Highlights card.)

As noted in that 2013 New York Times article, Ichiro spent a Cooperstown trip examining Sisler’s bats, comparing their construction and “sound” to his own modern models. Five years later, he brought flowers to George’s St. Louis grave during the All-Star Break.

While I’m not surprised a guy with 3089 hits proved a student of hitting, it stands out that he’s a student of Sisler. Should this whole Internet thing burn to the ground, echoing the fiery urban chaos of Fahrenheit 451, I bet Ichiro can teach us plenty about George’s tools and talent.

Héroes de Cartón: When is a Card not a Card?

A few months ago I attended the Frederick Ivor-Campbell 19th Century Conference at the Baseball Hall of Fame. The Fred is my favorite of all of the SABR conferences because of the intimacy, the subject, the location and the camaraderie. One of the presentations that weekend was entitled “The Birth of Baseball Cards.” The panel was moderated by MLB historian John Thorn and featured the SABR Baseball Card blog’s very own Jeff Katz, Hall of Fame curator Tom Shieber and author Peter Devereuax. Devereaux’s book, Game Faces, is an inside look at many of the early baseball cards that constitute the Benjamin K. Edwards Collection at the Library of Congress and served as a jumping off point for the panel. Game Faces should be on the reading list of everyone in this group.

Over the course of the panel the question was brought up of just what it is that defines a “card.” It is a question that is often addressed in the hobby; has, in fact, been addressed in this blog by Mr. Katz. It is also a question with no definitive answers, although Shieber, who was one of the driving forces behind the Hall’s new permanent baseball card exhibit entitled “Shoebox Treasures,” listed a few personal criteria. To be clear, Tom does not espouse to be the final voice on this subject, but much of what he said rang true to me. To him, the item in question should be: intended as a collectible, part of a set, directly related to baseball, and there should be a “cardyness” about it. That last one is admittedly vague, though for most of the folks reading this, the idea is likely akin to the old adage coined by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart about pornography. We know it when we see it.

My paper-thin 1946/47 Propagandas Montiel Los Reyes del Deporte card for Nap Reyes, purchased on a visit to Cuba. Reyes has an earlier card, a 1945/46 Caramelo Deportivo, but it was only issued to collectors who had completed the rest of the set, thus making it rare and one of the most expensive cards of a Cuban ever issued.

This panel was the highlight of the weekend for me, not just because it was dedicated to one of my favorite subjects, but more so because I have wrestled recently with this very question. As I mentioned in my last post, in my quest to complete a collection of the rookie cards of every Cuban who has appeared in a major league game, I have had to stretch certain standardly-accepted definitions, beginning with the idea of a what constitutes a “rookie card.” In the interest of finding at least one card for every player, I have had to not only step outside of some of the accepted definitions within the hobby, but I have been confronted numerous times with the issue of whether or not an item I am looking at even counts as a “card.”

Such is the case with the 1943 set issued by the Havana-based, cracker, candy and chocolate manufacturer, La Ambrosia. As with major league baseball, the arrival of World War II created a vacuum of talent in the Cuban professional league. The league had already been struggling financially since the political upheaval of the overthrow of President Gerardo Machado, in the early 1930s. When the war began, it stemmed the flow of top-tier American talent, the quality of play suffered, and the league found itself at a low point. The silver lining of this nadir was the maturation of the Cuban amateur leagues.

The La Ambrosia card for Rogelio “Roy” Valdés. He had a single plate appearance with the Senators in 1944, although Valdés stuck around in the Washington minor league system for another four years after that.

With no minor league system in place, Cuban clubs would find their promising young talent on the sugarmill teams that dotted the countryside. Similar to the American company teams that would produce exciting local baseball that filled the void before the advent of radio and television broadcasts, the sugarmill teams were a loose collection of business-based semi-pro clubs. One of those clubs was sponsored by La Ambrosia, and would feature the likes of such luminaries as future Cuban batting champ Claro Duany and Orestes “Minnie” Miñoso.

The candy giant capitalized on their sponsorship of the club by publishing a set of 240 images that were released as “stamps.” Collectors were encouraged to get all of the stamps and then stick them inside an album, similar to the more ubiquitous Cuban release issued by Caramelo Deportivo during the 1945/46 and 1946/47 seasons. Printed on thin paper that most closely resembles magazine stock, the La Ambrosia stamps featured the largest single published collection of Cuban amateurs that I have found.

The album that La Ambrosia issued, with the intention of the stamps being pasted inside. The cross promotion with the Wilson sporting goods company is an interesting insight into how intrinsically American business was intertwined with Cuban interests at the time.

Unlike the Deportivos, in which the images are black and white and often grainy, the La Ambrosias are in color. They have the distinctive look of the tones being both vibrant and muted, as though the photos had been tinted with watercolors. The images look especially bright when mounted on the yellowed pages of their original album. It is those albums which resulted in the Deportivos and the La Ambrosias sharing another unfortunate trait. There are few remaining of either issue that do not have serious flaws, including backs that were damaged by adhesives.

For many, including the auction houses that sell these sets, the descriptions of these issues have evolved from “stamps” to “cards.” They certainly fit with Shieber’s first three criteria. But what about “cardyness?” They are not published on what we think of as a card stock. But does that matter? What is that quintessential piece that makes a card a card? Does an item need ALL of Shieber’s (self-proclaimed arbitrary) criteria? Are three sufficient? What about two? Or one?

The La Ambrosia cards feature a large number of pencil-thin mustaches, a popular fashion choice in Cuba at the time. Rogelio Martinez, who would not make his lone appearance with the Senators until 1950, sports a rather thick example of the style.

The “cards” I have included in the collection for the Aragóns, Ángel and his son Jack, are a perfect example of this latter question. Their short major league careers, as well as the fact that they played during war years (Ángel appeared in 32 games with the Yankees during World War I and Jack’s lone major league appearance was in 1941), led to neither of them having what would be thought of, traditionally, as a card. I have not even had any luck by expanding my search to include cards that portray them in foreign leagues, although Jack’s extensive minor league career gives me hope that I may discover him in an obscure set someday. At the moment, though, they just don’t seem to exist.

However, while trolling through ebay, I came across a seller who was offering images of both Ángel and Jack. He had come into possession of a number of old periodicals, including a 1914 Spalding Guide and a 1949 publication called, “Historia del Base Ball Profesional de Cuba,” written by Raul Diez Muro. The seller, scissors in hand, cut up both periodicals into a series of head shots for the players that appeared in the two collections. The Spalding Guide offered a number of publicity photos of minor league players, including Ángel. Jack appeared in the book by Muro.

Ángel played for the minor league Long Branch Cubans in 1913 and 1914 before being called up to the Yankees. Unlike some other teams named “Cuban,” the Long Branch squad was made up almost entirely of actual island-born ballplayers.

I have decided to include these hand cut bits of newsprint in lieu of “cards” because there aren’t any other options for these players and they do have the advantage of originally being printed concurrent with the player’s career. They pass virtually none of Shieber’s criteria. While the publications themselves could be considered collectible, they certainly became less desirable after the scissors were taken to them. The subjects are definitely baseball related, but they are not part of an intended set, nor do they feel very “cardy” to me. I have blurred the line considerably in the interest of completing my checklist.

I am now at the point where I need to decide if, since I have expanded my definitions for the Aragóns, do I do the same with the remaining Cubans who were never issued a card? Are pictures cut from newspapers enough to check that box, especially if I hold true to the criteria of the images being published during their careers? I know it’s my set, and I can do with it as I damn well please, but I’m not a fan of cheating. I suppose the best answer would be for me to wait to make a similar discovery of a player who is cardless, and decide when I see the actual item. Because, like Stewart’s porn, I believe I’ll know it when I see it.

Author’s note: I thought some of you might be interested in seeing the collection as it develops. I have created a flickr album that you can access here. The cards appear in the album not by the year in which they were issued, but rather in the order in which the player made their major league debut. Thus, even though the card for Esteban Bellán wasn’t produced until 2014, he is the first one in the set.

Héroes de Cartón: A Cuban Collection

When I first traveled to Cuba in 2015, I had hoped to bring home some cards of the stars I would be seeing while I was on my baseball tour. Still naive about the differences between Cuban baseball and the major leagues, I believed that there would be such a thing. I knew the stadium amenities weren’t going to be luxurious (they weren’t) and the food at the park was bound to be lousy (it often was, though the pulled pork sliders I bought outside of Estadio 26 de Julio in Aretmisa remain vividly delicious in my memory). Still, surely an enterprising soul, or the government, had managed to publish a few sets of baseball cards. I was quickly corrected by none other than fellow traveler and Cuban baseball expert Peter Bjarkman. He informed me there were no modern cards in Cuba. There was one set published in 1994 which included pre-MLB cards for the Hernández brothers, Liván and Orlando. The one before that was sold in the 1950s.

I had never given much thought of what it would be like to be a youthful fan who could not regularly experience baseball cards. I loved the cards long before I truly loved the game. In the days before the internet and daily airings on team-owned networks, they were my most direct connection. I thrilled with each new pack and the treasures I found inside.

That same passion, this time on the faces of a gaggle of Cuban children, was on display whenever a member of our group pulled out a pack of Topps at one of the five Serie Nacional contests I attended. They would swarm, a collective that would consume any gleaming picture of a hero-in-action they could get their hands on. Bonus points if it was Yasiel Puig or Aroldis Chapman. At one point I pulled out a business card to give to a local sportswriter and a child’s eager hands immediately reached out to me. Just the image of a baseball on my card was enough to ignite their imaginations.

Jorge Soler’s rookie card appears in the Topps 2015 set, the year I began the collection.

All of this got me thinking about the Cuban stars of the past, and whether they had baseball cards. I had learned that generations of Serie Nacional heroes have never had one. But, what about the hundreds of Cubans who played in the major leagues? Surely many of them must have cards. I first considered starting a collection of all of the cards featuring Cuban-born players. I quickly realized that a complete collection of Cubans was going to necessitate far too much energy and money pursuing just José Canseco. There are roughly 3000 distinct cards of the tainted slugger. I decided that maybe the best way to approach this new whim would be to just get the rookie cards. The set would become relatively finite and definitely more achievable.

Many of them have rookie cards, but certainly not all. Some never had a card issued at all, at least none that my current research has revealed. Others have cards, but not ones that modern collectors consider “rookies.” Cards from a player’s minor league days do not qualify. Neither do cards from foreign leagues, such as the pre-revolution Cuban Winter League.

Tony Taylor’s 1958 Topps rookie card. Taylor is tied with Bert Campaneris for career triples by a Cuban-born player.

Such is the case of the Acosta brothers, José and Merito. The two appeared on Clark Griffith’s Cuban-laden Washington Senators of the 1910s and 20s. However, neither made enough of a mark to appear on a card during World War I and the lean years of the hobby that followed. Cards were produced in smaller sets, thus players like Merito, who appeared in 180 games in the outfield over five seasons, and José, who pitched in 55 games over three years, often fell through the cracks.

However, while playing for the 1923/24 Marianao squad of the Cuban League, they both appeared in a set that was issued in their homeland by Billiken. Like their American counterpart, these cards could be found in packs of cigarettes. In addition to Cubans, they also featured American Negro League legends like Oscar Charleston and Andy Cooper. Per the definitions set by modern collectors, these do not qualify as “rookie cards.” I decided that because so many of the pre-revolution members of the fraternity fell into this category, I was expanding my criteria to include first-known cards, as well.

The most respected Cuban-born player in his homeland is Martín Dihigo, whose 1945/6 Caramelo Deportivo is not a part of the collection because the color line kept him out of the majors.

As of this writing, there have been 208 Cuban-born men who have played or managed in the majors. So far, and research is ongoing, there appear to be 194 cards in the set I have designed. I had four at the outset, just by culling from my own collection: a 1990 issue of Tony Fossas, a 1989 Orestes Destrade, a 1987 Rafael Palmeiro and, from a pack bought in the interest of the project, a 2015 Jorge Soler. All of them happened to be Topps. There are numerous other publishers in this set, including Bowman, Upper Deck and Fleer. Going back before World War II, there are Zeenuts, T207s, an E135, and multiple cards from the candy manufacturer Caramelo Deportivo.

Palmeiro holds most of the offensive records for Cuban-born players, even outshining Hall of Famer Tony Perez. If not for his involvement with PEDs, he’d likely be a Hall of Famer, himself.

The day after I finished the first draft of the checklist for the set, I paid a visit to a comic book store in New Paltz, New York. My ex-wife and I meet there sometimes when we exchange our daughter. B is a fan of comics and I like to encourage my kid to become a nerd, just like her old man. While not a large shop, the collection is extensive and a fan of the genre is certain to leave satisfied.

What it does not have, however, is very many baseball cards for sale. The two collectibles will often appear together at small retail shops like this, though such stores usually lean more heavily in one direction. No one would ever think of this place as a local card shop. But, it does sell packs of the current sets and that day had about 50 individual cards up for grabs. Of those singles, the inventory was split between medium value cards of current players, a sprinkling of stars from 1970s, 80s and 90s, and a few lesser known players from the 60s.

One of those latter cards was from the Topps 1965 set, number 201. Minnesota Twins rookie stars César Tovar and Sandy Valdespino share the honors. Tovar, a native of Venezuela, had a fine twelve-year career with the Twins, Phillies, Rangers, A’s and Yankees. He finished in the top twenty-five in MVP voting every year from 1967-1971 and led the league in doubles and triples in 1970. The Trading Card Database has identified 56 unique cards manufactured for Tovar.

Hilario “Sandy” Valdespino lasted for seven seasons with the Twins, Braves, Astros, Pilots, Brewers and Royals. He did not share the same success as his card-mate, though he did get eleven at bats in the 1965 World Series, contributing a double and a run. Valdespino was born in San Jose de las Lajas in Mayabeque and became the 106th Cuban to appear in the majors when he made his debut on April 12, 1965. Number 201 is his official rookie card, one of only nineteen different identified cards of the outfielder ever produced.

A cardboard miracle.

The odds of finding that card, in that place, just days after I decided to pursue this quest, cannot be calculated. It was a divine intervention, a gift sent by the baseball gods in the form of a fifty-year-old piece of cardboard.

Today I have 115 of the cards from the set. The latest pickup, a W514 of Dolf Luque, is a real beauty. The corners are a little rounded and there are some minor markings on the surface, but it is crease free and remarkably sturdy for something that was printed a century ago. Luque, the first Cuban superstar, is an underappreciated name from yesteryear and a personal favorite. Finally acquiring his card inspired me to tell this story.

Among Cubans, only Luis Tiant put up better career pitching numbers than Dolf Luque. The W514s began production in 1919, the year Luque’s Cincinnati Reds defeated the Black Stockings in the World Series.

As always, the final cards of this set are the most challenging and, of course, the most expensive. It is also a set that is always expanding. Despite the recent short-sighted pronouncements of the current presidential administration, Cubans will continue to find a way to travel those ninety miles to American shores to play the game. Last year, six more made their major league debut. Three of them have rookie cards, so far, and the recent call up by the Yankees of Nestor Cortes, Jr., who had a less-than-impressive debut with Baltimore last March, increases the chances of him getting one at some point this season. When he does, I’ll be there.

Extra! Extra! Read all about the prehistory of 1981 Donruss!

If you bought packs in 1981 try to remember the first thing about 1981 Donruss that jumped out at you. The paper thin stock? The occasional typo? The cards sticking together? This mismatched uniforms and team names?

Okay, come to think of it those were all salient features of the debut baseball set from Donruss. Still, the one I was hoping you’d say is the multiple cards of can’t-miss Hall of Famers like Pete Rose!

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As a young collector I’d certainly seen multiple cards of the same player before. The Topps Record Breakers  and 1972 Topps “In Action” cards were prime examples. However, what distinguished the Donruss cards was that nearly all of the extras looked just like the base cards, at least from the front.

As I learned more about collecting, thanks to some local shows and my first Sport Americana price guide, I began to realize the Donruss extras had ancestors in the hobby. What follows here are the sets I learned about in the order I learned about them.

1933-1934 Goudey

There are numerous examples in the 1933 set, particularly given the 18 repeated players on the set’s final “World Series” sheet. However, the first one I encountered was the most famous of them all: cards 53, 144, 149, and 181 of the Sultan of Swat.

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It would have been around that same time that I also learned of the two Lou Gehrig cards (37, 61) in Goudey’s 1934 follow-up release.

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My eleven-year-old self resolved almost immediately to eventually owning each of these Ruth and Gehrig cards. (Spoiler alert: 38 years later I’m still at zero.) In the meantime, the multiple cards of Rose, Yaz, Stargell, and others from my 1981 Donruss shoebox would have to do.

1954 Topps

Ever since I got my 1976 Topps “All-Time All-Star” Ted Williams, I decided he was my favorite retired player. As I flipped through my price guide looking for older Ted Williams cards I might be able to afford, I at first thought I found a typo. How could the Splendid Splinter be the first card and the last card in the 1954 Topps set?

There was no internet, and I certainly had no friends with either of these cards. I was simply left to wonder. Were there really two cards? Did they look the same or different? It took visiting a card show to finally learn the answer. Cardboard gold.

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It was much later that I learned Topps had been unable to make cards of the Kid in their 1951-1953 offerings. As such, his Topps debut in 1954 was long overdue and something to be celebrated. Perhaps that’s how he ended up bookending the set on both sides. Or maybe it’s just that he was Ted Freaking Williams.

1909-1911 T206

The tobacco areas of the Sport Americana were a bit intimidating to me as a kid. I recall parenthetical notes next to some of the names (e.g., “bat on shoulder”), but the checklist was dizzying enough that the notes went in one eye and out the other. Again it took a card show for me to see that these cards were my great-grandfather’s Donruss.

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1887 Old Judge

Fast forward about ten years, and I received a gigantic book for my birthday with pictures of thousands of really old cards. It was here that I first learned about “Old Judge” cards, including the fact that some players had more than one card.

Old Judge

As an aside, that second Radbourn card looks more like a crime scene from Clue than an action pose, but okay.

1971 O-Pee-Chee

“1971 OPC? That was unexpected,” you may be saying to yourself. Wouldn’t the OPC cards match the 1971 Topps set, which had no duplicate players at all? I thought the same thing too until I ran across this pair.

Staub

The card on the left, number 289 in the set, is known to high-end collectors as “Staub, bat on shoulder” while the card on the right, number 560, is known as “Staub, bat off shoulder.”

Exhibit postcards

More for convenience than accuracy, I’ll lump various “Exhibits” issues under a single umbrella. Perhaps because these cards were issued across more than four decades and seemingly included zillions of players, it seemed unremarkable to me initially that the same player might have multiple cards in these sets. I’d known this fact for years, but it wasn’t until I reached the “gosh, what am I missing” part of this post that I made the connection between these cards and their Donruss descendants.

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As an aside, I just love that second one of the Splinter. As Anson Whaley notes on his Pre-War Cards site, these sets provide some of the most affordable vintage cards of top-shelf Hall of Famers. On my office wall side-by-side right now are Exhibit cards of Williams and DiMaggio that I paid about $25 apiece for. Along with these Life magazines from 1939 and 1941, the cards really hold the room together.

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1952 Wheaties

It’s at this point in the post when I have nothing left in my own head and have to rev up the research engines. Time thumbing through the cards “gallery” of great players is never a waste of time, whether or not I find what I’m looking for, but here is a great pair I ran across in my review of Stan the Man.

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A quick look at the set checklist indicates that not just Musial but all thirty subjects in the series had both a portrait and an action shot. Can you imagine if Donruss had done the same in 1981? Consider the boldness of crashing the baseball card world as an utter newcomer and not just competing with Topps but unleashing a 1,100+ card behemoth of a set with multiple cards of every single player!

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No joke! Many was the day I pulled two Cliff Johnson cards from the same pack, but unfortunately they were the same Cliff Johnson cards. This portrait-action pair, on the other hand, would have taking the situation from blown penny to blown mind!

1922 American Caramel (E121)

Similar to 1952 Wheaties this is another set that features multiple cards of numerous players, such as this Max Carey pair.

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I got a bit of a laugh from Trading Card Database when I saw the names given to each of the variations. The first card, not surprisingly, is referred to to “batting.” The second card is referred to as…so okay, back in high school I was getting ready to take the SAT. I wasn’t much of a reader back then, and I knew the test would include a lot of words I didn’t know. A few evenings before my testing date, I set out to memorize the entire dictionary. Naturally, this proved to be a bigger job than I could really tackle so I finally gave up after the word “akimbo.”

I only once in my life after that–and definitely not on my SAT–encountered the word in print, and I took pride in not having to look it up. And then this morning, more than 30 years after memorizing the dictionary from aardvark to akimbo, here is is again.

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If you don’t know the word perhaps you can guess it from the card: it simply means hands on hips. And for any young readers preparing for their own SATs, nothing helps you remember a word more than having a mnemonic, so here you go: Mutombo akimbo.

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But back to our main topic…

1941 Double Play

A tip of the hat from Red Sox collector extraordinaire Mark Hoyle for sharing this one with me. The 1941 Double Play set includes 150 cards (or 75 if you didn’t rip the pairs apart). Most of the images are portraits, but the set includes 10 (or 20) action shots that provide extra cards in the set for many of the game’s top stars such as Burgess Whitehead–okay, Mel Ott.

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But yes, Whitehead does have two cards as well.

1934-1936 Batter-Up

Thanks again to Mark Hoyle for this one! As this 192-card set was issued over three years, I suspect but don’t know for certain that the repeated players in the set were released at different times. As the two Gehringer cards below show, there are also small differences between the earlier and later cards including where the card number is located and how wide the cards are.

Batter Up

1934-1936 Diamond Stars

I’ll close with one of my favorite sets ever. Perhaps because I never managed to own more than 6-7 cards from this set, I never paid any attention to an oddity of its checklist. The last dozen cards, numbered 97-108, are all repeats of earlier cards in the set. Here is a listing of the players and their card numbers.

Diamond Stars

And here is an example of the cards themselves.

Dickey

The card fronts appear to be identical, while the backs differ in not only the card numbering but also the ink color and the stat line. In particular, the first Dickey card provides his batting average for 1934 and the second provides his average from 1935. (Read this post if you’re interested in more significant variations.)

Wrap-up

Aside from my Dwight Gooden collection, my collection tops out at 1993. However, as I see other collectors show off the more modern stuff, it’s clear that extra cards of star players are practically a fixture in today’s hobby.

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As the examples in this post illustrate, 1981 Donruss was by no means the first set to include extra base cards of star players. However, we can definitely credit Donruss with being the first major modern set to re-introduce this great feature into the hobby. And you thought the only thing that stuck from that set was its cards to each other!

Author’s note: I’d love it if you used the Comments area to plug other pre-1981 sets with extra base cards of the big stars. Some categories I’m intentionally ignoring are errors/variations/updates, single player sets (e.g., 1959 Fleer Ted Williams), team issues, and sets focused more on events than players (e.g., 1961 Nu-Card Baseball Scoops). Thanks, Jason

Prehistory of the Topps World Series cards

The first Topps World Series card I pulled from a pack was bittersweet. On one hand it was Reggie, the biggest star in the game; on the other hand, it memorialized his merciless dismantling, five homers and all, of my hometown Dodgers. Though I wasn’t yet enough of a fan in 1977 to have watched the Series, I remember the gloominess and despair that took over the faces of my classmates. Tears were shed.

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Most collectors already know that 1978 was just one of many years that Topps included a postseason subset. For a complete catalog from 1958-1981, see this excellent post from Adam Hughes of Wax Pack Gods.

My goal here is to connect these Topps World Series cards to their long ancestry across the hobby’s history. Rather than jump straight in to the years before 1958, I’ll set the table by beginning at 1960, the year of the first true Topps World Series subset.

1960 Topps

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Though Topps would include single cards connected to the World Series in each of the prior years, the 1960 release marked the first year of an actual multi-card subset. The subset spanned cards 385-391, including the only Maury Wills card Topps would issue before 1967.

1959 Topps

There was no World Series subset in the 1959 Topps issue. However, the Hank Aaron card in its “Baseball Thrills” subset was dedicated to the Hammer’s game 4 home run and overall awesome performance in the 1957 Fall Classic.

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As we consider the ancestry of the World Series subsets, this card presents us with two “mutations” from the classic subsets that would follow.

  • It is the only postseason card in the set (and in fact from an entirely different subset)
  • It does not feature the prior year’s Fall Classic, instead reaching two seasons back.

As we go further back in time, most of the cards we look at will share these or other departures from the classic Topps World Series subsets of later decades. As usual, were we not to bend the rules a bit, there would be very little article to write!

1959 Fleer Ted Williams

I have featured this set in every one of my prehistory articles to date with the exception of Traded Cards. (And who the hell would even think of trading Ted Williams, right?) Sadly, it is impossible to tell the story of the Splendid Splinter without bringing up the heartbreak of the 1946 World Series, memorialized by card 31 in the set.

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As an aside, the 1959 Fleer Ted Williams set comes across largely as a (justified) hagiography of the greatest freaking hitter who ever lived. It is odd then that their “Sox Lose the Series” card makes no mention of the fact that Williams played the series injured and instead attributes the Kid’s disappointing performance to a slump.

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1958 Topps

It is the Hammer once again in the 1958 Topps set, and this time he brought a friend. Okay, a foe! (As an aside, it would be fun to trace the use of the word “foe” on baseball cards over the years. We used to see it a lot more, and I worry we are lesser today for its absence.)

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Oddly the card’s reverse makes no reference to the World Series but simply finds (quite easily) nice things to say about each of the featured players.

1948 Topps Magic Photos

Though off the radar (and out of the price range) of casual collectors, the very first Topps baseball cards came four years before the iconic 1952 set. The majority of the set’s baseball checklist was devoted to all-time greats such as Ruth, Cobb, and Wagner. However, 5 of the 19 cards were dedicated to the 1948 World Champion Cleveland Indians. These cards are light on detail, but the two cards known as “Cleveland Indians 4-1” and “Cleveland Indians 4-3” reference games 2 and 7 respectively.

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1948 Swell “Sport Thrills”

Sorry, Dodger fans. Here comes another heart breaker. Mickey Owen’s dropped third strike from the 1941 Fall Classic was one of eight cards in this 20-card set to feature World Series highlights.

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The earliest World Series highlight featured is Grover Cleveland Alexander’s bases loaded strikeout of Tony Lazzeri to end the 1926 Series, and the most recent is the “Greatest Catch” by Al Gionfriddo in the 1947 Series. The other World Series years featured in the set were 1932, 1935, 1936, 1941, and 1943 (twice).

1948 Swell “Babe Ruth Story”

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. While the Bambino did appear on some of the cards, he was more often portrayed by William Bendix, the actor who starred in the film. Card 15 features Babe Ruth’s (okay, William Bendix’s) “called shot” home run from the 1932 World Series.

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1940 Play Ball

For a brief stretch from 1939-1941 Play Ball cards sat atop the cardboard universe. The 1940 Play Ball release is known mostly for the cardboard return of Shoeless Joe. A less ballyhooed aspect of the set was the pennant flags adorning the cards of the Yankees and Reds players. (Oddly, the managers and coaches received no such decoration.)

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Unlike the majority of the cards discussed so far, these “Pennant” cards also doubled as the main (only) card of each player in the set. An interesting comparison will be the 1933 Goudey set, where this is true for some but not all of the players.

1936 R312 National Chicle Pastels

My favorite thing about writing these articles is discovering cards I didn’t know about originally. In this case, the prize goes to these beautiful premiums from National Chicle. The full set contains 50 unnumbered cards with significant star power, including (arguably) a Joe DiMaggio rookie card. There are also a large number of multi-player cards, such as this one of Arky Vaughan receiving playing tips from the great Honus Wagner.

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Most relevant to our topic, however, are several cards that explicitly reference the 1935 World Series between the Tigers and the Cubs.

First, here is Gabby Hartnett after his World Series home run in game 4.

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Next, here is Schoolboy Rowe drawing a crowd, even in enemy territory. No wonder they call it the “Friendly Confines!”

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And finally, although Tommy Bridges pitched the Tigers to a 4-3 complete game victory in the clincher, here is Alvin Crowder looking very much like he just won it all for the Tigers. In fact,  the “General” is shown here following his own complete game to take game 4.

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Finally, there are four other cards, a disproportionate number for the set, that include multiple Cubs or Tigers. The photo sleuths among us might let me know if these photos are from the World Series or just “random” shots from during the season.

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1936 R313 National Chicle Fine Pen Premiums

Collectors had choices when it came to the 1935 Fall Classic. Among the 120 cards included in this 1936 release was at least one World Series card, #120, showing the throw from Lon Warneke to Phil Cavaretta arriving ahead of Goose Goslin.

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As with R312, there are also some multi-player cards that may or may not be connected to the World Series. Card 116, showcasing the “Fence Busters” on the Chicago squad, is one of a few examples.

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1934 Gold Medal Foods (R313A)

First a tip of the hat to Net54 member PowderedH2O for alerting me to these cards.

The parent company of Wheaties, Minneapolis-based Gold Medal Foods, issued a set of postcard-sized cards to commemorate the 1934 World Series between the Detroit Tigers and the “Gas House Gang” St. Louis Cardinals.

The “Standard Catalog” lists only 12 players while PSA lists 19 while indicating the set has 22. This suggests to me there may yet to be cards discovered here, either to the delight or chagrin of Hank Greenberg supercollectors.

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1933 Goudey

Forgive Goudey for its numbering antics, but sure enough cards 107-114, 121-127, and 232-240 were created specifically to highlight the participants in the 1933 World Series. Those not as familiar with the set might wonder if 1933 was a typo. After all, this is 83 BTN (before “Topps Now”) we’re talking about. “Are you sure you don’t mean THIS World Series?”

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Sure enough, the folks at Goudey were hard at work in late 1933 pushing out the tenth and final release of their iconic baseball debut. The sheet featured twelve participants from each of the pennant winners (New York Giants, Washington Senators) and even included records and results from the Series, as evidenced by this card of Master Melvin.

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Something important to consider in assessing the place of these cards in our prehistory is that they weren’t merely cards issued late enough in the season to include tidbits about the Series in the bios. Rather, they reflected an explicit World Series issue, and a 24-card one at that! Quite remarkable really.

As a final note, nine of the Giants and nine of the Senators already had “base” cards in the set, meaning the World Series cards could be thought of as dedicated postseason extras for these 18 players. However, for six of the players, the World Series card reflected their only representation in the set.

1928 Fro-Joy Ice Cream Babe Ruth

Among the six cards in this 1928 set entirely devoted to Babe Ruth is this one, highlighting the first of his two home runs in the 1927 World Series against the Pirates.

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1919-1920 Cincinnati Reds postcards

Black Sox Scandal completists will want to collect this 24-card set of postcards featuring players from the 1919 World Champion Cincinnati Reds team. There are two variations of each card. Later printings include the caption “World’s Champions” whereas early printings include only “Champions of National League.”

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As an aside, Anson Whaley of Pre-War Cards just published an excellent five-part series on the baseball card legacy of the Black Sox Scandal. Part one is here.

1921 Koesters Bread (D383)

Hat tip to Net54 member brianp-beme for this one. This 52-card set uses the same card fronts as the 1921 American Caramel (E121) set but has different backs and restricts its checklist to only Yankees and Giants, the two participants in the first Subway Series.

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If you have a minute, you may want to look at the fantastic card of Hall of Fame hurler Waite Hoyt.

1912 Technical Book Publishing postcards

Not for the budget collector, but these postcards were sold at the World Series itself and doubled as scorecards on the back. The card on the left shows the Boston Americans, and the one on the right shows the New York Giants.

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1911 Philadelphia Athletics (E104-I and D359)

I’ll take some liberty here and merge what pre-war collectors would normally regard as two or three different sets. Certainly they will look more alike than different to the casual collector. In each case, I am a huge fan of the World Champions designator.

The first card, Frank “Home Run Baker,” comes from the 1910 E104-I (sometimes seen as E104-1) Nadja Caramels issue. Variations abound, including cards without the “World’s Champions 1910” banner. The next two cards, Charles “Chief” Bender and Harry Davis, could be construed as Baker cards as well, in that they come from the 1910 D359 Rochester Baking and Williams Baking issues respectively.

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For any of the card displayers or binder folks out there, I have to imagine the variety of background colors would make these cards look incredible arranged as a group.

1910 Tip Top Bread Pittsburgh Pirates

It’s funny how life works sometimes. Just as I’d reached the end of my personal knowledge, augmented by the easier digital searches available to me, I did what I always do: reach for my Standard Catalog of Vintage Baseball Cards. But this time I didn’t even have to open it. Here was the 1910 Tip Top Bread Honus Wagner right on the cover, with the caption “WAGNER, World’s Champions.”

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Indeed, this was a 25-card set honoring the 1909 World Champion Pirates team that bested Cobb’s Tigers four games to three. Here is team president Barney Dreyfuss from the same series.

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1910 American Caramel Pirates (E90-2)

This tough regional release of American Caramel focused exclusively on the 1909 World Champion Pirates team. Unlike the Tip Top set of the same year, the cards themselves do not refer to the championship. (Hat tip to Net 54 member steve B for this one!)

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1907 Geo. W. Hull Chicago White Sox postcards

These 16 postcards honor the 1907 World Champion Chicago White Sox, as noted by the “World’s Champions” caption below the player name. You might imagine the “Every One A Pennant Winner” title above the lines of hanging white stockings is another standard feature of the postcards in this set. However, that is just one of many titles used. Others include “A String of World Beaters” and “A String of Game Fish — No Bull Heads,” whatever that means!

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1905-06 Lincoln Publishing Am. League Champs

The Philadelphia Athletics lost the 1905 World Series to the New York Giants, but they did not come up empty on the cardboard side of the ledger. All 20 postcards in this set were devoted to the American League champs and featured the achievement prominently in the card design.

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1902-1911 Sporting Life Team Composites (W601)

For ten years, Sporting Life offered readers the chance to be individual team cards or the complete set as a bound volume. In addition to these very large poster-cards (13″ x 14″), postcard-size team composites were also offered some years.  Pennant winners and World Series winners were specially noted below the team name.

Readers may be puzzled by the “1904 National League Champions” marker here since the Pirates finished the 1904 season in fourth place, 19 games behind the Giants. One thing to note is that the “National League” portion of the marker simply indicates the Pirates were a National League team. This can be seen by comparing the Pirates composite against others in the series. Finally, the “Champions” portion of the marker should be read as “defending champs,” which is how the 1904 Pirates began their season, fresh off the first ever World Series of the modern era.

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At this point you might imagine we’re done. You can’t get much earlier than the first World Series, right? Not so fast…if you’ve read my other posts you know I love to go WAY back, even if it means bending the rules a bit, kind of like how a biologist might spend 58 minutes of the lecture talking about man’s descent from apes and the final 2 connecting us to amoebas or something.

1888 H.D. Smith and Company (formerly known as Scrapp’s Tobacco) die-cuts

Some recent detective work has added to our knowledge of this ridiculously old set and its origins. At first, you might just see too old-time ballplayers with caps you wished you owned.

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However, these aren’t just any players, though that had been my first guess. Thanks to the 1976 SSPC reboot, I now know these are the participants from the 1887 World Series between the St. Louis Browns and Detroit Wolverines! Here is a look at one of the 1976 cards. Kudos to SSPC for their work on this beautiful reissue, which admittedly is almost harder to track down than the 1888 original!

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Source: http://www.number5typecollection.com

1887 Tomlinson Studio Cabinets

If 1888 just isn’t old enough for you, you may be in luck. Even the “Standard Catalog” is stumped in terms of the reach of this set and the extent of the checklist, but here is at least one.

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1887 Old Judge Browns Champions

And for those of you saying, “Hey, was that even a baseball card?” I’ve got an even better one for you! (Hat tip to Net54 member Gonzo for this one.)

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It is at this point in the tour that the bus finally runs out of gas. As always though, I hope the result is an appreciation of some older cards you might not have known about and further reinforcement of the adage that “what’s new is old,” at least when it comes to the baseball card “innovations” of our youth.

As always, additions and corrections are welcome.

Appendix – Ancestry Report

Something I’ve toyed with and was encouraged to dig into more deeply based on a reader comment is an “ancestry report” that evaluates each entry against the key traits of the standard Topps World Series subsets. I won’t belabor the coding scheme or column headers unless asked, other than to acknowledge that blue represents mutations that go beyond the Topps standard. (In this case, I used blue for cards that feature the current-year World Series rather than the prior year.)

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Anyone wanting to play with the raw data can find it here. Let me know if it’s useful at all. If so, I can do similar for Record Breakers and other prehistory work I’ve done.

Learning to hit from a baseball card

Not all of us are lucky enough to get personalized batting tips from Jesse Barfield or have worked on our swing with these guys.

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Fortunately, there is no shortage of cardboard we can turn to when our hitting falls below the Mendoza line. Here are a nice assortment of cards and sets to get you through your batting slump. And of course we begin with “the greatest [insert optional expletive] hitter who ever lived!”

1978 Post Cereal Steve Garvey Baseball Tips

What? You were expecting Ted Williams? No worries, we’ll get to him soon enough. But first the face of Dodger baseball in Los Angeles when I first fell in love with the game. Show me a single kid in L.A. who would have said no to Raisin Bran the year these box panels were out. There were twelve in all, with four addressing hitting. (Note to younger fans. Though they are no longer used at the Major League level, “bunting” and “hitting to the opposite field” used to be essential parts of the game.)

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1962-1963 Sugardale Weiners

A regional food release spanning two years, the 1962 release included 19 players on the Indians or Pirates while the 1963 release included 31. Star power was not immense, but sometimes all it takes is one!

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1959 Fleer Ted Williams

If only all you had to do was read the backs of four baseball cards to hit like the Splinter! Still, any advice from Teddy Ballgame is welcome. While the other 76 cards in the set provide information about Ted’s life and playing career, cards 71-74 provide advice for collectors to bring with them to the batter’s box.

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1952 Coca Cola Playing Tips

This ten-player set hearkens back to the days when six packs came in cardboard carrying cases rather than the plastic rings now filling up our oceans. The front of each six-pack insert featured a player from a New York team (sorry, no Mantle), along with that team’s schedule, while the back featured tips to help aspiring ballplayers.

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1939 Goudey Premiums

This 48-card set known as R303-A (or 24-card set known as R303-B) is the first of several 1930s sets to include batting tips. There is a simplicity to the instructions on the back of the Foxx card that almost makes you forget this is the hardest thing in all of sports.

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Canadian collectors will also find these same cards and tips as part of the parallel 1939 World Wide Gum (V351) release.

1936 National Chicle Rabbit Maranville “How To”

In case hitting advice from the Beast is too daunting, this 1936 set provides a full array of baseball tips (including how to umpire!) all from a decidedly less intimidating player, Hall of Fame shortstop Rabbit Maranville. Card 11 (How to Bat) and card 13 (How to Bunt) address the offensive parts of the game.

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1935-1941 Wheaties

The backs of Wheaties boxes during this period featured a multitude of designs across a number of different years and series. Really, any box of Wheaties will help a young hitter on nutrition alone, but Series 5 (1936), Series 6 (1937), and Series 12 (1939) would have provided an extra boost.

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1935 Schutter-Johnson

This 50-card set resides beneath the radar of many collectors; however, it is an outstanding set for aspiring ballplayers. Each card features one of baseball’s biggest stars sharing a “Major League Secret.” While the tip is alluded to on the card front, the card back supplies significant detail and makes it clear that the advice is directly from the player.

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Modern fans of launch angle may cringe at the Frisch card until they learn he is instructing kids on the chop bunt. Then again, fans of launch angle probably aren’t fans of bunting either and may prefer simply to collect 49 of the 50 cards.

A final interesting tidbit about this set comes from the artist signature on the cards. This is the same Al Demaree who pitched from 1912 and 1919, winning 80 games (combined) for four different National League teams.

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1934-1936 Diamond Stars

The mid-1930s were a magical year when it came to cardboard-based batting instruction. As part of the multi-year Diamond Stars release, Al Simmons and Joe Vosmik explain the importance of a good follow-through, Max Bishop warns against hitting bad balls (and has the .423 career OBP to prove it!), and Dixie Walker urges hitters to be relaxed at the plate–and that’s all from the first twelve cards in this 108-card set!

In case you struggle to picture all these players sending their tips to National Chicle, they were in fact written by Austen Lake, whose signature appears in the credits at the bottom of the card back. The level of detail in the tips is impressive, as illustrated by the Pie Traynor card’s advice on where to stand.

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“…Study your needs and find the spot that best suits your style. Long armed boys should stand back farther than those with short arms, because of the difference in reach. In recent years, since free swinging from the end of the handle has become usual, major leaguers have tended to stand well in the rear of the box and back from the plate. Remember, the ball must cross some of the plate to be a strike. Hence stand where you can stretch your bat at arm’s length and cover the plate. Study “Pie” Traynor, Pirate manager for the correct batting style.”

1933 DeLong

I don’t want to typecast the anything-but-one-dimensional Austen Lake, but maybe you can guess what he contributed to the 1933 DeLong set. You guessed it…baseball tips! Here is some advice on batting stance courtesy of Mr. Lake and the set’s Al Simmons card.

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1928 Fro-Joy Ice Cream

Card number 5 in this six-card set, no longer authenticated by PSA or SGC due to prevalent forgeries, provides collectors with an up-close look at how the Bambino gripped his bat. Just as Hack Wilson let us know in 1935, long-ball hitters do not choke up!

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Though his career turned out just fine, it’s too bad a young Henry Aaron didn’t own this card as he was figuring out his own grip!

Q.

Is it true that at first you batted cross-handed, holding your left hand over your right on the bat handle?

A.

Yes. One day, I batted that way during batting practice before a game in Buffalo, and the Braves had sent a scout to watch me. The scout walked over to me, told me to take my right hand and put it over my left. I did it and hit two home runs that day and I never looked back.

Source: New York Times interview with Henry Aaron, published March 19, 2011.

1909 Nadja Caramels

I always like to close with the really old stuff, so here goes. Hitting a baseball is a VERY difficult act to master. We can’t all be .400 hitters or even .100 hitters, but no matter. I think this Al Bridwell (of Merkle Boner fame) card offers the best advice of all. Find yourself a beautiful day and a nice patch of grass, play ball, and eat caramels! A bad day doing that is better than a good day doing just about anything else.

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Author’s note: These same sets (exception Fro-Joy, Ted Williams) provide tips on other parts of the game as well: pitching, fielding, running, umping, and even setting up the field! I just chose batting so I could focus and cut down on distraction, another great batting tip by the way!

Prehistory of the Record Breakers

Introduction

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

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

World Series cards

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

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

MVP subsets

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

All-Stars, All-Star Rookies, etc.

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

Pre-1975 Highlights and Record Breaker cards

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

1974 Bob Parker 2nd Best

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

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

1972-1974 Fleer

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

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1972 Laughlin Great Feats

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

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1971 Topps Greatest Moments

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

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1969-70 Bazooka All-Time Greats

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

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1962 Topps

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

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

1961 Topps

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

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1961 Nu-Card Baseball Scoops

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

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1960 Nu-Card Baseball Hi-Lites

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

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1959 Topps

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

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1959 Fleer Ted Williams

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

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1954 Topps Scoop

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

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

1948 Swell

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

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

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

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

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1925 Turf Cigarettes (UK)

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

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1912 T202 Hassan Triple Folders

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

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

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

Honorable Mentions

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

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Conclusion

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

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

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