Cardboard Typos and Gripe-o’s—Part 2

For nearly 30 years, editing has brought home my bacon. It wasn’t my desired profession; I fell into it like an open manhole—and I’m still trying to climb my way out. The grammatical, punctuational, and syntactic boo-boos I fix have been mostly in the medical and pharmaceutical fields, but they’ve been pretty easy to spot in my spare time as well—which means, to a degree, on the backs, and sometimes fronts, of baseball cards.

Years ago, I began jotting down factual errors and spelling typos (punctuation issues and lack of hyphenation are so rampant that chronicling them would be a never-ending and pointless task). I do not keep abreast of baseball card commentary as vigilantly as I once did, so at least one of the following errors has been posted elsewhere, which means that others—maybe many—in this simple and hardly comprehensive multi-part list might also have been documented in that long interim.

Here, Part 2 continues this absolutely uncomprehensive, and extremely random, list of baseball card errors (see Part 1 here).

  • 1911 T201 Mecca Double Folder Lefty Leifield (backed with Mike Simon): Unlike other pitchers in the set, the stats for this talented Pirates southpaw feature batting and fielding records—Lefty’s pitching ledger for the previous season has been mysteriously replaced by his work with the glove. Yet it’s not even Lefty’s statistics. Card-mate and battery mate Mike Simon—whose statistics are completely absent under his own name—appears at first glance to have his statistics erroneously replacing Leifield’s field work (note the inclusion of passed balls). However, the lack of quality control on Mecca’s part is even more out of control than this: Beyond problematic typesetting, the statistics listed are wildly incongruent with Simon’s (as well as all other NL catchers’) performance in 1910—none more so than his alleged .536 fielding percentage—a number that couldn’t keep a catcher on a sandlot field. Just as egregious is his 64 passed balls. In actuality, Simon was not charged with either a single error or passed ball during the previous season. Who knows how these numbers were conjured—the lowest fielding percentage registered by any catcher in the majors in 1910 was .875, and after the rule changes of the 1890s, no catcher had let more than 27 balls past him since the turn of the century. If some supercentenarian is still manning the phones at Mecca Cigarettes, somebody should call to get the lowdown—pronto.
  • 1912 T207 Germany Schaefer: It’s common knowledge that Jim Delahanty’s T207 contains multiple misspellings of his surname (“Delehanty”) on the back (though the front is correct), but that spelling miscue also appears on the back of Germany Schaefer’s T207 (the two were swapped for each other, along with Red Killefer, in 1909, accounting for the mutual mentions). Schaefer’s bio also contains a more personal blunder, stating that, “Since arriving at the Capital he has played first, second, short and third….” However, the utilitarian Schaefer never took the field as a shortstop after his days in Detroit. As a macabre aside, Schaefer, a renowned baseball prankster, died of tuberculosis in the same New York village where Christy Mathewson succumbed to the disease six years later. (It may have even been the same sanatorium; I’m not certain.)
  • 1954 Topps Vern Law (#235): Vern’s “Year” line denotes that he spent the previous season “IN MILITARY SERVICE,” yet “IN” is missing the “I.” I’m not familiar with an Idaho accent, but perhaps Topps was writing in Vern’s native vernacular. (I’ve largely avoided minor points in these lists, but to spotlight Topps’ sloppiness, in the right-hand cartoon mentioning Bing Crosby, “Pirate’s” is incorrectly singular possessive; it doesn’t need an apostrophe at all, but if one is used, it should follow the “s” to be plural possessive. Misuse of the apostrophe is one of the most pervasive marks of ignorance found in print.)
  • 1933 Goudey Tony Lazzeri (#31): Goudey took “Poosh ‘Em Up”’s games played in 1932 and pooshed ‘em down, stating that he played 141 games—Lazzeri actually suited up for 142 games in 1932. Perhaps unfairly, his bio begins that “coming to the bat in his first world series with bases filled, struck out.” This is a necessarily incomplete, almost Twitter-like, reference to Lazzeri’s inning-ending whiff at the hands of Grover Cleveland Alexander in Game 7 of the 1926 World Series, of course. To be fair, it was actually the fourth time in the Series that Lazzeri came to the plate with the bases full. Twice, he delivered important sacrifice flies, including the eventual game-winning run in the top of the 10th in Game 5—without which the Series might never have gone to a seventh game and given baseball that gilded moment.  
  • 1933 Goudey Burleigh Grimes (#64): Burleigh’s bio declares that he “[b]roke into baseball in 1913 with Ottumwa in the Central Association.” With apologies to Radar O’Reilly, who was born right about the time that this card hit the shelves in his native Ottumwa, Burleigh was no rookie in 1913, having pitched in 9 games for the Class D Eau Claire Commissioners of the Minnesota-Wisconsin League in 1912. Had Radar been old enough to watch Ol’ Stubblebeard on the mound, he might have remarked, “Uh-oh, spitters!”
  • 1933 Goudey Earl Averill (#194): More inaccuracy than error—and much like Lefty Gomez’s cards mentioned in Part 1—virtually all of Earl Averill’s cards denote his birth year as 1903, whereas all official sources, including his headstone, report it as 1902.
  • 1949 Bowman Bob Lemon (#238): Bob was anything but a lemon as a pitcher, seven times reaching the 20-win circle and earning a place in the Hall of Fame; however, his cards are a strange and recurring saga of geographical ineptitude on the part of multiple manufacturers. Beginning with his rookie card, Bowman misspelled his birthplace of San Bernardino, California, as “San Bernadino.” (Incorporated in 1869, the city’s spelling had been officially established for 80 years by the time Bowman inked Lemon to a contract.) For most of Bowman’s existence, it repeated this error. One might attribute this to the same biographical information being used rotely over the next 6 years—except that Bowman got the spelling correct in 1951 and 1952, then inexplicably reverted to the original error for the remainder of its run. So, defying any semblance of logic, Bowman printed “Bernadino” in 1949 and 1950, changed correctly to “Bernardino” in 1951 and 1952, and then went back to its mistake in 1953, 1954, and 1955. If that weren’t bizarre enough, all three of Lemon’s Red Man Tobacco cards (1953-’55) also misspelled his birthplace as “Bernadino.” (I don’t know if Red Man, which had long been only a tobacco company, made some kind of deal with Bowman for its baseball information when deciding to issue its own cards—some of their bios read similarly in places—but blame would still fall on Red Man Tobacco for not at least proofreading its product.) In contrast, none of Topps’ cards that list a birthplace erred on this spelling, and Lemon’s 1954 Red Heart and Dan-Dee cards also are correct.
  • 1960 Leaf Jim Coates (#35): A double-dip for Jim. “Binghampton” is a misspelling. Hold the “p,” Leaf. A bigger blooper is that Leaf was under the impression that Coates had never pitched in the majors before 1959—his “Past Year” totals are identical to his “Lifetime” totals. However, Jim appeared in 2 games for the Pinstripes way back in 1956, making the majority of those lifetime statistics incorrect.
  • 1960 Leaf Al Spangler (#38): Al’s home is listed as “Maple Glenn, Pa.” Leaf apparently turned over a new leaf and gave Spangler’s home an extra “n”—the town is spelled Maple Glen. To my knowledge, it never went by “Glenn.”

Rife with typos, Topps’ 1964 Giants subset contains more than its share. Among them:

  • 1964 Topps Giants Orlando Cepeda (#55): Cepeda is denoted as having laced 38 triples as a rookie in 1958. This is diamond hogwash. Did Topps think third-base coach Herman Franks waved a red cape every time Cepeda rounded first so that the Baby Bull came raging uncontrollably into third? Owen Wilson’s 36 triples in 1912 has never been bested, and, in fact, no player has legged out more than 26 ever since. Cepeda, of course, ripped 38 doubles, not 38 triples.
  • 1964 Topps Giants Billy Williams (#52): Topps really shortchanged Billy by stating that he clubbed “20 two-baggers” for the Ponca City Cubs in 1957. The sweet-swinging Williams swatted twice that many in pacing the Sooner State League in doubles.
  • 1964 Topps Giants Carl Yastrzemski (#48): In the right-hand column, Carl was cited to have “wrecked havoc” on opposing pitchers. This is a malaprop—the term is, of course, “wreaked havoc.” At least Topps spelled his surname correctly.
  • 1964 Topps Giants Harmon Killebrew (#38): Deceptive text, even if inadvertent, is a no-no to an editor, so I’m calling out Topps for Killer’s headline, KILLEBREW WINS 2ND HOMER CROWN. As evidenced early in his bio, “For the second consecutive season, the Minnesota Twins’ slugger was the American League home run champion.” This is certainly accurate, Harmon having claimed the crown in 1962 and ’63. However, the headline implies very strongly that these were his only two homer titles to that point—yet Killebrew had also topped the AL in 1959, meaning, of course, that he’d nabbed his third homer crown in 1963, not his second. If I didn’t call this out, I’d be negligent in my long-time occupation as an editor.

If the 1964 Topps Giants subset is something of an editor’s treasure trove, the 1960 and 1961 Fleer sets are a gold rush. Some of the most problematic assemblages of cards out there, they have often caused me to wonder if the company headquartered in my hometown ever employed a fact checker or proofreader. Many’s the time I fantasized about going back in time to be hired as Fleer’s text editor. With a primo job like that, how could a young Ann-Margret not date me?

  • 1960 Fleer Christy Mathewson (#2): Fleer failed to list that Christy also pitched for Cincinnati. Some may say “Big deal—he pitched only 1 game for the Reds.” Well, it was a big deal. That final game—a victory—ultimately allowed Mathewson to tie Grover Cleveland Alexander for most victories by a National League pitcher (even though his true victory total wasn’t discovered until many years after his death). Fleer rectified this oversight—sort of—in its 1961 set, stating that he pitched all of his games “except one” for New York, without specifying that other team. However, Fleer did picture Matty in a Cincinnati uniform—although neither is this definitely, because Christy was better known in red as Cincinnati’s manager for several seasons, which Fleer references.
  • 1960 Fleer Joe Medwick (#22): Fleer anointed Medwick with an RBI total of 1949—which, at that time, would have put Ducky fourth on the all-time list, a handful ahead of Ty Cobb. Now, Medwick was an excellent run producer and, in fact, stands as one of the few National Leaguers to top the Senior Circuit in RBI for 3 consecutive seasons, but the actual total of runs he drove across the plate was a far less robust 1383. Remarkably, Fleer repeated this huge blunder on Joe’s 1961 card (#61).
  • 1961 Fleer Rogers Hornsby (#43): The Rajah’s home run total is incorrectly listed as 302 (he hit 301); his triples total is also inaccurate: 168, though he actually hit 169. His hit total is correct, so I wonder, if among all of the other revisions to old-timers’ statistics, one of Hornsby’s round-trippers was downgraded to a three-base hit. (301 was, as long as I can recall, his established home run total, as can be seen on his 1976 Topps All-Time All-Star card—which is almost certainly from where I first learned the total.)
  • 1961 Fleer Ty Cobb (#14): One of the biggest statistical oversights I’ve seen occurs in Cobb’s bio, as Fleer denotes Ty as having led the AL six times in hitting. As any moderately informed baseball fan knows, Cobb snared an incredible 11 batting crowns (or 12, depending on which source you consult—the Hall of Fame still claims the latter). Regardless of which you consider the true count, Cobb’s run of double-digit batting crowns was, even then, long regarded as one of the most amazing feats in sports annals—and an inexcusable gaffe by Fleer, especially considering that his 1960 Fleer card denotes Cobb as capturing 12 batting titles.

  • 1961 Fleer Grover Cleveland Alexander (#2): Fleer goofs again, misspelling “immortal” in the opening line of Alex’s bio (and fails to include a period as well).
  • 1961 Fleer George Sisler (#78): George’s bio is almost cruelly ironic in its boast that he “played in six World Series.” Sisler, of course, is renowned among the game’s greats who never played in the Fall Classic. (George worked for Brooklyn and Pittsburgh as a scout and batting instructor in later years, but this certainly does not equate with playing in a World Series, and his attachment to pennant-winning teams in either of these capacities fell far short of six anyway.) How could such a false statement be written—and, worse, approved? Perhaps more than any other card in Fleer’s 1960 and ’61 sets, this colossal blunder indicates a shameful lack of commitment to its product and the consumer.

  • 1975 TCMA Red Russell: Typos among “quasi-professional” sets such as TCMA are plentiful. One example is from TCMA’s 1975 issue spotlighting the 1919 White Sox squad. Breaking in with the Southsiders in 1913, Russell crafted one of the best—and most overlooked—rookie seasons by a pitcher, winning 22 games for the 5th-place Sox. By 1919, his arm was gone, facing just 2 batters all season, in a June loss to Boston, which ended his pitching career at a fine 80-59 mark. Soon after this final appearance, Russell went to the Double-A Minneapolis Millers and reinvented himself as an outfielder. He returned to the majors in 1922 and put in a pair of partial seasons for the Pirates, thwacking 21 home runs in 511 at-bats. TCMA’s goof lay in labeling him “Red” Russell. Born in postbellum Mississippi and raised in Texas, he was well known as “Reb” Russell for his obvious Southern heritage. Even so, mild kudos to TCMA for including in the set the member who played least on the roster during the season (there are a few White Sox who played more than Russell yet were not included).
  • 1954 Red Heart Stan Musial: Stan’s bio claims that he has played in “9 All Star games as a Cardinal outfielder.” Through the end of the 1953 campaign, Musial had played in 10 All-Star Games. Yet even if this statement is taken literally—that is, counting his participation only as an outfielder, regardless of how silly it would be for Red Heart to ignore his other appearances in the Midsummer Classic—Musial had, to that time, participated once as a first baseman and once as a pinch-hitter, so the count strictly as an outfielder was 8—which still did not jibe with Red Heart’s claim. It’s also interesting to note that Red Heart, as late as 1954, referred to the Fall Classic as the “World’s Series”—an antiquated spelling that had essentially died out by the 1930s.

And just for good measure, I’m throwing in several hockey card errors:

  • 1957-58 Topps Jean Guy Gendron (#52): Between this entry and the following one, you will see that Gendron appears to have been the target of a systematic process of sloppiness and inconsistency, the likes of which the sports card industry has never seen. In the English bio of this, Gendron’s rookie card, Topps heretically refers to the Montreal club as the “Canadians.” Frankly, Topps should consider itself lucky that Montreal fans didn’t fly into a bleu, blanc, et rage, bus down to Brooklyn, and burn the plant to the ground. Despite being Gendron’s official rookie card, this also establishes a long and winding road of instability concerning his first name. Gendron’s first name appears to officially have been spelled with a hyphen, “Jean-Guy,” as evidenced by several official sources as well as the back of his true rookie card, the 1952 Juniors Blue Tint. Yet from 1957 to 1963, Topps always denoted him simply as Guy Gendron (although, as you can see, the reverse of his rookie card is “Jean G.” Gendron). He then became “Jean Guy” on his 1968 card (shown for a different reason in the following entry), was amended to “Jean-Guy” in 1969, then was stripped of the hyphen in 1970 and 1971, and enjoyed a restored hyphen for his final card, in 1972. (Gendron’s 1970 Dad’s Cookies card and 1970 Esso stamp also feature the hyphen.)

  • 1968 OPC Jean Guy Gendron (#185): The statistical record claims that Gendron was “Not in N.H.L.” during the 1967-68 season. Although the long-time NHL veteran had been dispatched to the AHL’s Quebec Aces in 1964 and remained there for 4 seasons, Gendron did suit up for 1 game with the phledgling Philadelphia Flyers—even picking up an assist—during his final year with Quebec. (Gendron would go on to play 4 seasons with the Orange and Black, becoming one of the team’s best forwards in its early years.) Furthermore, though not an outright error, Gendron’s bio begins that he, Andre Lacroix, and Simon Nolet “are counted heavily on this year by Coach Courtney.” This is a strange reference to Philadelphia’s inaugural head coach, Keith Allen, whose given name was Courtney. I’m inclined to believe that OPC mistook “Courtney” as his surname, because it’s difficult to believe that OPC was on an overly casual first-name basis with the little-known skipper of a barely established expansion club.

  • 1979 OPC J. Bob Kelly (#306): This is likely well known to all except the young’uns. Rather obviously—at least it should be—the player depicted is not J. Bob Kelly—better known in rinks as “Battleship” Kelly—but long-time Broad Street Bully, Bob “the Hound” Kelly. (The pictured Bob Kelly has his own OPC and Topps cards that year; J. Bob Kelly has no Topps counterpart.) As an aside (though not an error itself), OPC denotes that Kelly was “Now with Oilers”; however, Kelly’s last skate in the NHL occurred during the previous season’s quarterfinals as the New York Islanders swept Kelly’s Chicago Black Hawks. Battleship did split 4 games between the Cincinnati Stingers and the Houston Apollos of the Central Hockey League during the 1979-80 season, but he never played for Edmonton, despite the Oilers drafting Kelly from Chicago in the 1979 NHL Expansion Draft.
  • 1969-70 Topps (#59) and OPC (#59) Carl Brewer: Perhaps it’s something of an honor to be incorrect in two countries, as both Topps and OPC were in listing Carl’s home of Muskegon, Michigan, which is misspelled as “Muskegan” on both cards.  
  • 1971-72 OPC (#156) and 1972-73 OPC (#100) Rogatien Vachon: Errors north of the border get a little more complex with this pair of Rogie Vachon cards. Each errantly refers to Vachon as “Roggie”—the first card twice in the bio and the latter card in the cartoon. OPC then wised up and never again made this misspelling (the reverse of Topps/OPC 1978-79 cards, which feature the player’s autograph, confirm the spelling in Vachon’s own hand, as if confirmation were needed). OPC dropped the puck a second time on his 1972-73 card, botching Vachon’s first name as “Ragatien.” (Topps got the spelling right but featured the same erroneous cartoon.) A former coworker who is a cousin of Vachon responded to my request for Rogie’s comments on this with, “Jesus, Randy, I’m busy. Leave me alone!”

Death and Taxes and Baseball Card Litigation [Part I]

A Very Brief History of the Right of Privacy

Although perhaps difficult to believe, individuals were once without legal recourse if their names or likenesses were used commercially without permission. The “right of privacy” was essentially without basis at common law in the United States before 1902. Emerging privacy rights, however, would eventually become a central battleground as trading card makers fought to secure the pocket change of (mostly) American boys after World War II. The resulting litigation would shape the baseball card industry and provide Topps with nearly unassailable baseball card dominance by the 1960s. The story starts, however, at the turn of the twentieth century with a teenaged girl’s surprising discovery in a Vermont tavern.

As an 18-year-old from Rochester, New York, Abigail Roberson visited an “out-of-the-way tavern” in Vermont while on vacation. There she discovered an advertisement for Franklin Mills flour prominently featuring her photograph. The shocking discovery made Roberson physically ill—Franklin Mills had used the photograph without her knowledge or consent and refused to disclose how they obtained the image.

Franklin Mills advertisement featuring photograph of Abigail Roberson

Roberson was humiliated by use of the photo (although admittedly flattering) and learned that some 25,000 copies of the advertisement had been distributed to stores, warehouses, saloons, and other public places. She sued to prevent the further distribution of the poster and asked for $15,000 in damages (approximately $475,0000 today). The trial court found in Roberson’s favor and the appellate division affirmed.

The case went up to New York’s highest court, however, where Chief Judge Alton Parker wrote for the 4-3 majority that Roberson had failed to state a cause of action because her complaint did not allege defendants acted maliciously or published a defamatory photo. They held that Franklin Mills was lawfully able to use Roberson’s photograph for its advertising without having to ask or compensate her.

Not surprisingly, a wave of public outrage followed Roberson’s loss. In the wake, the New York legislature enacted laws to codify the right of privacy, which allowed an aggrieved party to seek court intervention to enjoin use and sue for monetary damages if a photograph was used intentionally without consent. 

A Bat Fight: Hanna Manufacturing Company v. Hillerich & Bradsby Co.

The baseball world would first see a battle over privacy rights in 1935, when Louisville Slugger sued the Hanna Manufacturing Company alleging Hanna was infringing on its trademarks by selling bats bearing the names of players under exclusive contract to Louisville Slugger, such as Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.

The bats at issue retailed “for as much as $2.50 each” (approximately $28.00 today) and were bought by customers who were “careful and well-informed.” Louisville Slugger took pride in crafting bats of the size, shape, and balance that each major league player preferred and for a small (undisclosed) consideration, these players gave Louisville Slugger the exclusive right to use the player’s name, autograph, and photograph in connection with the sales of baseball bats for a lengthy term, typically 20 to 25 years. The contract signed by the players did not require them to use Louisville Slugger bats, however. In fact, Lou Gehrig had used Hanna bats for two years despite having signed with Louisville Slugger.

Hanna promotional material

Hanna countered that the bats it sold bearing the names of “Babe Ruth” and “Lou Gehrig” were not sold based on the player’s name having been stamped on the bat, but because the purchasers (often college teams) wanted bats of that player’s particular shape and style. The district court found for Louisville Slugger, “baseball players, like any other individuals, have a property right to their names that has been assigned by certain players to Louisville Slugger, and Louisville Slugger used and advertised such right and has such right exclusively, irrespective of any trademark or unfair competition law.”  

The appellate court reversed, however, remarking that there were some “interesting discussions as to a ‘right of privacy’” ongoing but that a “public man waives his right so that the public becomes entitled to his likeness.” The court continued, “fame is not merchandise. It would help neither sportsmanship nor business to uphold the sale of a famous name to the highest bidder as property.” [Wow is this shortsighted when viewed in the modern athlete endorsement landscape!]

The court was further convinced that the “name on the bat” was commonly understood to refer only to the model or style of the bat and implied no endorsement by the player. The court specifically ruled that Hanna could market bats bearing players’ names as long as the descriptive mark included the words “style” or “shape” conspicuously, such that a Hanna bat marked “Babe Ruth style” would be acceptable. Ultimately, those Louisville Slugger contracts operated only to prevent the ballplayers from objecting to Louisville Sluggers’ use of their names and likenesses.

“No matter what may be said about the habits and nature of ball players, they are not naïve.” It would not be long before “right of privacy” claims would invade the baseball card industry.

The Big Cat Takes a Swipe

On August 26, 1941, Johnny Mize went 4-for-8 with a double and home run as his Cardinals split a Tuesday doubleheader against the Dodgers at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. That same day, Mize’s attorneys filed a right of privacy lawsuit against Gum Products, Inc. in Cambridge, Massachusetts alleging that it had used photos of Mize in its Double Play Gum baseball card set without his permission.

Double Play cards featuring Johnny Mize

In what appears to be the first baseball card-related lawsuit, Mize asked the court for a restraining order and damages commensurate with his appearance on some 140,000 cards issued by Gum Products. On September 5, the court issued a temporary injunction that prevented Gum Products from using Mize’s name or picture further in connection with the sale of gum. Mize’s “right of privacy” victory was short lived, however.

At a subsequent hearing on June 25, 1942, Gum Products admitted it had not directly obtained Mize’s permission, but had done so through the purchase of the picture from an agency. The defense also argued that as “a leading ballplayer of the country,” Mize had no right of privacy in connection to the publication of his name or photograph. On June 28, Judge Francis Good dismissed the case “without comment.” Despite their ultimate victory, Gum Products never produced another set of baseball trading cards.

Leaf: Blown Away

In 1949, Bowman Gum Company and a number of individual players, including Warren Spahn, sued Chicago-based Leaf Brands, Inc. and several east coast gum wholesalers for distributing cards featuring pictures of ballplayers under contract with Bowman. The lawsuit was filed in Philadelphia, where Bowman was based, and a friendly hometown judge issued a temporary restraining order that prohibited Leaf from selling cards with its gum anywhere in the United States (straining the bounds of enforceability). 

1949 Leaf cards of individual ballplayers who, along with Bowman sued Leaf

Leaf took the defeat seriously and reached a settlement with Bowman in which Leaf agreed to withdraw from the baseball card business until at least 1951. Leaf tried in vain to work out arrangements with Topps to share printing rights, but Topps was not interested.

Bowman v. Topps: Birth of the Right of Privacy

Topps first dipped its toe in the baseball card market with its Magic Cards release in 1948. The 19-card baseball series was part of a much larger modern Allen & Ginter-like set that also included cards of football players, boxers, movie stars, famous explorers, and dogs. The tiny cards (roughly 1” x 1½”) featured sepia-toned photos that would appear on the card when exposed to sunlight. The baseball checklist consisted of highlight cards from the 1948 Cleveland-Boston World Series and individual cards of Indians player/manager Lou Boudreau and Braves 3B Bob Elliott. The balance of the baseball checklist was comprised of retired greats such as Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, Rogers Hornsby, and Joe Tinker/Johnny Evers.  

In 1951, Topps issued a set of baseball cards featuring current players in direct competition with Bowman, who had produced “Play Ball” sets from 1939-1941 and their own branded sets starting in 1948. To create their set (commonly referred to as “red backs”), Topps licensed rights to the players’ names, photos, and biographical information from a third-party company, Players Enterprises, Inc. This initial set of 52 cards was designed like a deck of cards and was intended to be played as a game. The cards were distributed in a rather nondescript box of “’Doubles’ Baseball Playing Cards” that identified Topps cryptically (and perhaps by design) only by “T.C.G. Brooklyn 32, N.Y.” on the bottom of the box and wrappers. When Players Enterprises merged with Russell Publishing Company in April 1951, Topps was given an additional stable of players under contract that allowed them to distribute a second series of 52 cards (“blue backs”) sold in a redesigned box as “Baseball Trading Card Candy.”

1951 Topps box and cards

Unhappy with the competition, Bowman sued Topps following their release of the red/blue back cards claiming trademark infringement, unfair competition, and impairment of contract rights. They sought to prevent Topps from selling any product having the appearance of gum with the word “baseball” connected to it.

Topps argued that they had lawfully obtained rights from Players Enterprises to use the names, pictures, and biographical data shown on the cards; denied there was any confusion with Bowman’s products; and  claimed that the contracts Topps had with the players constituted a waiver of the player’s right to privacy—but conveyed no rights on Bowman to sue Topps. Topps also argued that it had not infringed on Bowman’s contracts with players because it had inserted a caramel candy—not gum—with its cards.

The evidence established that Bowman had contracted with 340 baseball players through Art Flynn Associates for the right to use the name, signature, photograph, and descriptive biological sketch of each. In exchange, Bowman paid $100 and provided a wristwatch to each player for 1951. (The 1951 contract included the word “confections” for the first time, which seemingly presaged knowledge Topps was intending to issue a baseball card set with candy.) The players were also eligible to complete for the Jack Singer Annual Good Sportsmanship awards sponsored by Bowman.

Topps proved it had contracts with 248 active major league players through the rights acquired by Players Enterprises and Russell. These contracts gave Topps the right to use players’ names, pictures, and biographical data in connection with the sale of candy in 1951 and candy and chewing gum for 1952.

Following a bench trial, Judge Clarence Galston ruled in Topps’ favor and dismissed the case. He found it significant that there was no player biographical data on the reverse side of the 1951 Topps cards; the packaging between Bowman and Topps was different; and there was no record of any confusion between purchasers of the two products.

More importantly, the court (in reliance on § 51 of New York’s Civil Rights Law enacted in the wake of Roberson) held that the contracts Bowman made with the players conveyed no rights on Bowman to sue a third-party, such as Topps. Accordingly, only the individual ballplayer would have a cause of action for an injury to his person. No “right of privacy” was applicable to a business.  

Bowman v. Topps: The Appeal and Establishment of the “Right of Publicity”

Bowman took the matter up on appeal to the Second Circuit claiming their contracts were exclusive for use in connection with the sale of gum and that Topps deliberately induced the ballplayers to sign contracts giving Topps the same rights. Topps continued to argue that even if Bowman proved its case, there was no actionable wrong because any contract between Bowman and a ballplayer did not convey any right on Bowman to enforce those rights as to third parties.

Just prior to the start of the 1953 season, the appellate court formally established the “right of publicity” by way of recognizing an enforceable property right in each player’s name and likeness. This was huge. Accordingly, the ballplayers could grant exclusive rights to their pictures that could be enforced by third parties, such as Bowman. “For it is common knowledge that many prominent persons (especially actors and ballplayers), far from having their feelings bruised through public exposure of their likenesses, would feel sorely deprived if they no longer received money for authorizing advertisements, popularizing their countenances, displayed in newspapers, magazines, busses, trains and subways. This right of publicity would usually yield them no money unless it could be made the subject of an exclusive grant which barred any other advertiser from using their pictures.” That the appellate court recognized the right of publicity was an unprecedented hallmark for ballplayers’ ability to control (and cash in) on their names and likenesses.

The case was sent back to Judge Galston to determine  if Topps had knowingly used photographs of players under contract with Bowman. This was a complicated case-by-case task in that up to six separate contracts were now at issue for players who appeared in any of the 1951, 1952 and 1953 sets issued by Bowman and Topps.

Billy Pierce was 1 of just 24 players to appear in each set issued by Bowman and Topps 1951-1953

By May 1953, both Topps and Bowman had continued to issue sets of fluctuating sizes as their competition to ink players to contracts intensified. In fact, Topps pulled six cards from its 1953 set due to the ongoing litigation. The court also required Topps to remove the cards of players it was enjoined from using from stacks of cards printed but not yet wrapped, which allowed Topps to distribute any offending cards that had already been packaged. (Unfortunately, identification of these particular cards is not immediately discernable from the published decision.)

Bowman v. Topps: The Aftermath

The litigation continued, however, and on May 10, 1955 Judge Galston remanded the case to the New York state courts. This litigation was expensive for Bowman, which spent in excess of $110,000 in legal fees ($1.12 million today); it cost Topps only slightly less. Bowman had been losing money each year since 1952, culminating with a net loss in 1954 of $224,000 (approximately $2.3 million today).

In April 1955, Bowman was merged into cardboard box manufacturer Connelly Container Corporation. Connelly’s stewardship of the Bowman gum and trading card brand was fleeting, however, as it looked to shed the gum/baseball card line, which had averaged between 15% to 30% of total sales. On January 20, 1956, Topps settled the litigation with Connelly by acquiring Bowman’s gum-producing facilities, baseball player picture rights, and an agreement on the part of Connelly not to manufacture gum or picture card products for five years in exchange for $200,000 (approximately $2 million today). [Connelly was apparently much more interested in Bowman’s other business pursuits at the time of the merger, including an all-nylon squeeze bottle in development.]

All the while, Leaf wanted to get back into the baseball card business. After the Bowman litigation settled, Leaf again approached Topps with a proposal to share player rights. With main competitor Bowman eliminated, Topps had no interest in making any arrangement with Leaf. In fact, Topps sent a letter to the player representative of each ballclub on August 14, 1956, indicating it was not going to be sharing its baseball card picture rights with any other companies.

By 1959, Topps was the largest manufacturer of bubblegum in the United States with total sales of $14 million annually (approximately $133 million today). Leaf would eventually get back into the baseball card business in 1960 when it produced a black and white 144-card set that was sold with marbles.

Fleer Stirs the Pot

At the end of 1958, the Frank H. Fleer Corporation launched an offensive against Topps for control of the baseball card market by offering ballplayers contracts that would become effective upon the expiration any existing contracts with Topps. This started with a mail solicitation in December and followed up with visits at training camps in 1959 by ten of its sales and marketing personnel. Fleer was even able to enlist representatives who were active players on teams such as Charlie Lau and Chuck Cottier.

The Fleer contracts paid players $5 as initial consideration and $125 upon reaching the major leagues. Further, Fleer offered a monetary gift or reward for players who provided Fleer with copies of their Topps contracts. After learning of this practice, Topps stopped sending copies of its contracts to the players (but would provide information regarding the terms of the contract upon request). Topps was flooded with requests once they started offering $75 for the players to sign extensions.

Fleer successfully lured Ted Williams and produced an 80-card set of the mercurial slugger in 1959. The Williams set accounted for $250,000 in sales (approximately $2.4 million today), which was just a fraction of the $3.8 million (approximately $36 million today) worth of Topps baseball cards sold in 1959.

During the 1960 and 1961 seasons, Fleer issued sets featuring “Baseball Greats,” each of which featured Ted Williams and a cast of retired Hall of Famers and stars. Sales of these sets again paled in comparison to Topps’ baseball offerings. Leaf also issued a small set of current player cards in 1960, sold along with marbles. The 1960 Leaf contract paid the players $50 and provided for rights when distributed in combination with “marbles or other non-edible novelties such as charms made of plastic or metal.”

Fleer cards from 1959 Ted Williams set and 1961 Baseball Greats set

The Federal Trade Commission filed a complaint against Topps on January 30, 1962—with Fleer’s enthusiastic support—alleging that Topps violated § 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act, which made illegal “unfair methods of competition in commerce and unfair or deceptive acts or practices in commerce.” This section also outlawed business practices that were “unscrupulous, oppressive, exploitative, or otherwise indefensible.” The FTC alleged further that Topps created a monopoly in the manufacture and distribution of baseball picture cards “contrary to public policy” and “to the detriment of free and open competition.” The Hearing Examiner made sure to emphasize that “[m]onopoly is condemned without qualification,” somewhat ironic considering that Major League Baseball enjoys the protections of a legally sanctioned monopoly.  

At the heart of the complaint was the allegation Topps had completely foreclosed Fleer from the baseball card market by entering exclusive contracts with almost all major league baseball players and practically all minor league players with major league potential. It was further alleged that Topps had the power to impose tie-in requirements and imposed retail price control on vendors because it “wanted to know about anybody who was not selling the cards at six for a nickel.” On the heels of the FTC filing, Fleer bombarded college coaches with correspondence attacking Topps’ contracts and accusing Topps of monopolistic practices that were under investigation by the FTC.

Page 1 of the 98-page FTC decision

Taking a page from their prior battle with Bowman, Topps began drafting their contracts to give themselves broader rights and further restrict the players from contracting with others. In 1957, the Topps contract gave exclusive rights to cards associated with gum and candy; in 1958, Topps added “confections” to the list; in 1959, the Topps’ contract extended to cards sold without gum in bulk vending boxes (despite the fact that vending boxes were an exceedingly small part of its total sales); and in 1960, the Topps contract included an agreement by the player not to enter into any other contracts while under contract with Topps. By May 1961, Fleer had contracted with only five major league ballplayers who had not contracted with Topps.

At the time the FTC got involved, Topps had exclusive rights with 95% of major league baseball players and contracts with more than 6500 ballplayers in both the major leagues in minor leagues. Topps first approached players in the minor leagues with a payment of $5 to sign a contract that would pay the player $125 per year for five years if he were promoted to Major League Baseball. Those players who reached the big leagues were paid regardless of whether Topps issued a card of the individual. (Topps would not have to pay if it decided not to market a complete series of cards, except they had to pay the Yankees either way.) Topps’ network included “agents” such as scouts, managers and players who were compensated as much as $100 a year, plus five dollars for each ballplayer signed, or other “gifts, tips or small payments” upon delivery of signed contracts.

Fleer claimed their representatives were physically excluded or intimidated from soliciting players at the Los Angeles Dodgers’ and Detroit Tigers’ training camps “by goon or similar methods.” In the face of Topps’ established network, Fleer had signed only 20 major league players by 1962 and 27 by 1963. Undeterred, Fleer issued a 66-card set (plus an unnumbered checklist) of active major league players in 1963, dwarfed by the 576-card set issued by Topps that year.

The FTC hearing examiner also considered evidence that Topps actively sought to impose market restrictions on other food and beverage manufacturers who used baseball picture cards as promotional devices. General Foods included baseball cards on packages of Post Cereal from 1961 to 1963 and Jell-O from 1962 to 1963. Topps took issue with the Post Cereal promotion that offered a sheet of ten cards (not attached to a cereal box) for two box tops and ten cents, alleging this was an infringement on their rights to sell cards individually. Topps subsequently entered into agreement that Post would pay a license and royalty fees in connection with its distribution of cards alone under the offer. Topps also objected to the set issued in 1958 by Hires Root Beer. Ultimately, Hires made a deal that allowed them to use photos of the players without having to pay Topps, but never issued another set.

The Topps “Monopoly”

Generally speaking, a monopoly is the control of “an economically meaningful market.” In the FTC matter, all that needed to be established was that baseball cards were economically meaningful, and that Topps controlled the market. There was no need to establish that Topps intended to monopolize; nor was it necessary to show Topps exercised its monopoly power.

Hearing Examiner Herman Tocker issued his initial decision on August 7, 1964, after a full evidentiary hearing. He found that Topps had “monopolized the sale of current baseball card picture cards both as separate articles of commerce and as a promotional device for the sale of confectionery products,” in violation of § 5 of the Federal Trade Commission act—even though Topps’ exclusive contracts and other practices were not unfair when viewed separately. Although it had not actually done so, Topps could have controlled the baseball trading card market and “had the power to increase or decrease at will the price when sold alone or when in packages of gum and cards.” Tocker found further that Topps was in violation of § 2 of the Sherman Antitrust Act—a misdemeanor punishable by a fine up to $50,000 or imprisonment.

Topps was ordered to cease and desist from entering or extending exclusive contacts with ballplayers, coaches, and managers for terms in excess of two years and enforcing any contracts in effect after October 31, 1966, along with an order to provide copies of the contracts to the ballplayers. Tocker also opined “[o]bviously, a single picture card, in and of itself, has little value” and “last year’s cards without current statistical content are about as valuable as yesterday’s newspaper,” observations that have not aged well.

The FTC Appeal

Both sides appealed the Hearing Examiner’s decision and order. FTC Commissioner Philip Elman thoroughly reviewed the evidence on record and reversed, holding Topps did not have a monopoly in the production of baseball cards because they lacked economic significance and alone were not “meaningful in terms of trade realities.”

Elman specifically decided that Topps’ control over baseball picture cards used to promote confectioneries was not detrimental to fair competition and that baseball cards were not so unique and indispensable a promotional technique that other bubblegum manufacturers could not compete on fair and equal terms with Topps. Elman cited several examples of successful promotional trading card series such as football players, retired baseball players, and non-sport sets featuring the Beatles and “Spook Theatre.” Moreover, but for the fact that Topps was the largest seller of bubblegum, there was no proof of any correlation between its superior market share and the sale of baseball picture cards.

Ultimately, Topps’ business model—tirelessly signing as many minor-league players as possible with hopes they would become big leaguers—was not an unfair or monopolistic practice. Because no monopoly was proven, the complaint was dismissed on appeal.

Fleer in the late 1960s

Despite its failure to break Topps’ hold over “current baseball picture cards,” Fleer remained the second largest manufacturer of bubblegum in the United States. Before the 1966 season started, Fleer announced it would be issuing a 66-card set dedicated to Dodgers pitcher Don Drysdale and had a representative, Bob Quinn, continuing to visit Florida training camps looking to sign players to contracts.

The “Drysdale set” Fleer issued in 1966, however, was actually the “All Star Match Baseball” game, with each of the game cards including a black and white puzzle piece of Drysdale on the reverse, such that all 66 cards were necessary to complete the puzzle.

1966 Fleer All Star Match card F35 (front/back) and wrapper

Fleer had also tried to get the jump on Topps by sending contracts and $25 checks to all players chosen in the newly implemented draft, which upset some college coaches who feared their players could jeopardize their amateur status by cashing those checks.

Despite Fleer’s continued efforts to erode Topps’ market stranglehold, Fleer ultimately acquiesced and subsequently sold all of its baseball contracts to Topps in 1966 for $385,000 (approximately $3.4 million today). This would not be the last we would hear from Fleer at the courthouse, however.

To be continued…

SOURCES/NOTES:

Websites

www.baseball-reference.com

www.retrosheet.org

www.tcdb.com

Cases

  • Roberson v. Rochester Folding Box Co., 171 N. Y. 538, 541, 64 N. E. 442 (N.Y. 1902).
  • Federal Base Ball Club of Baltimore v. National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs, 259 U.S. 200, 42 S.Ct. 465, 66 L.Ed. 898, 26 A.L.R. 357 (1922). Major League Baseball has a legal monopoly, “[t]he business is giving exhibitions of baseball, which are purely state affairs. It is true that in order to attain for these exhibitions the great popularity that they have achieved, competitions must be arranged between clubs from different cities and States. But the fact that in order to give the exhibitions the Leagues must induce free persons to cross state lines and must arrange and pay for their doing so is not enough to change the character of the business.”
  • Hanna Mfg. Co. v. Hillerich & Bradsby Co., 101 A.L.R. 484, 78 F.2d 763 (5th Cir. 1935). Defendant Hillerich & Bradsby Co. will be referred to as “Louisville Slugger,” its more widely used tradename today.
  • Bowman Gum, Inc. v. Topps Chewing Gum, Inc. 103 F. Supp. 944 (E.D.N.Y. 1952). Topps also issued 9-card set of team photos in 1951 (Boston Red Sox, Brooklyn Dodgers, Chicago White Sox, Cincinnati Reds, New York Giants, Philadelphia Athletics, Philadelphia Phillies, St. Louis Cardinals, Washington Senators) and Major League All-Stars/Connie Mack All-Stars. These sets do not appear to have been subject of the litigation between Topps and Bowman.
  • Haelan Laboratories v. Topps Chewing Gum, 202 F.2d 866 (2nd Cir. 1953). In April 1952, Bowman Gum shareholders approved the change of the company name to Haelan Laboratories. Philadelphia Inquirer, April 9, 1952: 4. Accordingly, the ensuing litigation lists Haelan—and not Bowman—as a party.
  • Haelan Laboratories v. Topps Chewing Gum Co., 112 F.Supp. 904 (E.D.N.Y. 1953)
  • Haelan Laboratories v. Topps Chewing Gum, 131 F. Supp. 262 (E.D.N.Y. 1955).
  • In re Topps Chewing Gum, Inc. 67 F.T.C. 744 (1965). Baseball card sales in 1960: Topps $3,638,000 (approx. $34 million today), Fleer $300,000 (approx. $2.8 million today), and Leaf $100,000 (approx. $934,000 today); in 1961: Topps $3,475,000 (approx. $32 million today) and Fleer $355,506 (approx. $3.3 million today).  The second series of Fleer’s 1961 Baseball Greats accounted for an additional $85,000 in sales (approx. $778,000 today) for 1962.  Though distributed under the company name “Sports Novelties Inc.,” the 1960 Leaf issue is referred to in the hobby as “Leaf” and is referred to similarly herein. The FTC hearing examiner described the Beatles as “a group of singing troubadours imported from England”. Additionally, for football cards, the contract was made with the league and not the individual players. The players received no direct compensation—all money was channeled to league pension funds.

Articles

  • “The Week in a Busy World,” Atlanta Constitution, May 5, 1901: 42.
  • “Chewing Gum Stuck with Suit by Mize,” Daily News (New York), August 27, 1941: 284.
  • “Johnny Mize Asks Damages from Cambridge Gum Firm,” Boston Globe, June 25, 1942: 11. Mize appeared on two cards in the set: Nos. 39/40 with Enos Slaughter and Nos. 99/100 with Dan Litwhiler. It is unclear how many of each comprised the total.
  • “Mize of Cardinals Wins Court Test on Use of Name,” Boston Globe, September 5, 1941: 23.
  • “Mize Suit Against Gum Firm Dismissed,” Des Moines Register, June 28, 1942: 16.
  • “Spahn, Five Others Take Action in Gum Distribution Controversy, Boston Globe, May 4, 1949: 23. Although this case attracted little press, that Warren Spahn was involved is not surprising based on the battle he would have in the future regarding the publication of the “Warren Spahn Story,” which he contended painted him in a false (but positive) light and was published without his consent.
  • “A’s Stars Get Writ to Bar Use of Pictures on Gum,” Philadelphia Inquirer, May 7, 1949: 16.
  • “Haelan Merged into Connelly,” Philadelphia Inquirer, April 28, 1955: 30.
  • Bob Rathgeber, “Young Bob Quinn: Bubble Gum Exec,” Bradenton (Florida) Herald, March 17, 1966: 14.
  • Wayne Shufelt, “’Gummed’ Up,” Tampa Times, April 2, 1966: 10.
  • Paul Bedard, “Bubble May Burst in Baseball Card Suit,” Washington Post, June 20, 1979.
  • Rich Mueller, “1953 Topps Missing Numbers Revealed,” Sports Collectors Daily, July 29, 2014, https://www.sportscollectorsdaily.com/1953-topps-missing-numbers-revealed/, last accessed December 3, 2021. Numbers 253, 261, 267, 268, 271 and 275 were reportedly supposed to be cards for Joe Tipton, Ken Wood, Hoot Evers, Harry Brecheen, Billy Cox, and Pete Castiglione.

Special Thanks

Special thanks to Jason Schwartz for reviewing this article and offering many helpful suggestions.


Cardboard Famous

A reply to a recent SABR Baseball Cards social media post led me to think about the baseball players more famous for their baseball cards than for any of their on or off the field exploits. Here are ten who I believe fit the bill.

BILLY RIPKEN

Ripken lasted twelve years in the big leagues as an infielder, including an all-star caliber season in 1990. Today he is a frequent co-host on MLB Network. His brother is baseball’s ultimate Iron Man and one of the greatest shortstops in history. And still, say the name Billy Ripken and card collectors think only of one thing: his 1989 Fleer F*ck Face card.

BUMP WILLS

His career on the diamond lasted only half as long as Billy Ripken’s but he spent six years as the regular second baseman for the Rangers and Cubs, topping 30 steals four times while batting a respectable .266. Like Ripken, baseball also ran in his family. Of course any kid who collected baseball cards in 1979 will know him best for this seemingly impossible cardboard trickery.

BRANDON PUFFER AND JUNG BONG

Puffer played four years in the big leagues, appearing in 85 games for the Astros, Padres, and Giants. Jung Bong played one fewer season, appearing in 48 games for the Braves and Reds. The two pitchers combined for a WAR of -1.2. Though never teammates, the duo shared Future Stars cardboard in the 2003 Topps set on card #331, known to collectors (and chronicled by David Roth) as the “Bong Puffer card.”

OSCAR GAMBLE

Legitimately one of the best hitters of his time, scouted by the legendary Buck O’Neil, and the man behind the classic line, “They don’t think it be like it is, but it do,” Oscar Gamble would be remembered fondly even if he had no baseball cards at all. Fortunately that’s a hypothetical we need not ponder long when this pure cardboard gold is right in front of us.

SHERRY MAGEE AND JOE DOYLE

Magee built a borderline Hall of Fame career from 1904-1919 that included more than 2000 hits, four RBI titles, and 59.4 WAR. Even with those credentials I suspect many readers can only hazard a guess whether his name is pronounced Maggie, McGee, or Madgee.

Doyle, on the other hand, had a completely undistinguished career, seeing limited action on the mound over five seasons at roughly replacement level.

Whatever their on-field exploits, each of these players will forever be cardboard legends, with their error cards comprising half of the T206 set’s “Big Four.”

BENNY BENGOUGH AND ANDY PAKFO

Bengough was a career backup catcher who compiled 0.3 WAR over his ten seasons in the big leagues. When the 1933 Goudey set came out, he was already out of baseball.

Pafko, on the other hand, was a four-time all-star who batted .285 over 13 seasons with a career OPS+ of 117. His 1952 season (.287/19/85) was uncannily similar to his lifetime per 162 slash line of .285/19/85, and his midseason move from the Cubs to the Dodgers the prior year was one of the season’s biggest trades.

While neither player would top any list of all-time greats, each player topped many stacks of baseball cards, thanks to being numbered one in the 1933 Goudey and 1952 Topps sets respectively. Until the Upper Deck Ken Griffey, Jr., rookie card came along in 1989, I suspect these two players were the Hobby’s most famous set starters. Certainly both cards, in reasonable shape, carried a premium comparable to lesser Hall of Famers due to rubber banding, spills, and the myriad other ways stack toppers suffered disproportionate damage in collections prior to the advent of plastic sheets.

HONUS WAGNER

I’ll end the article with what may be my most contentious selection. Without a doubt, Wagner is a top shelf baseball immortal, considered by many to be the greatest shortstop of all-time if not the single greatest player of the Deadball Era. (In both cases, Pop Lloyd deserves consideration as well.) To an audience well versed in baseball history, therefore, Wagner is most famous for his tremendous playing career, even if most fans still pronounce his name wrong.

Yet whatever his accomplishments on the diamond, I suspect the Flying Dutchman is best known today, whether in the collecting world or the general public, for a single, transcendently pricey cardboard rectangle, our Hobby’s Mona Lisa.

Who else would you nominate for this elite club where ERR trumps WAR and even backup catchers can be number one? Sound off in the Comments!

The Case of the Missing Cubs

When researching the 1934-36 National Chicle “Batter Up” set I came across the curious fact the set’s first series, cards 1-80, included no Chicago Cubs. At first this seemed like a quirk unique to the set. However, further research revealed that the lack of Cubs was fairly common among the gum and candy cards of the era. Here is a chronology of the major sets from 1933-49 along with the status of their Cubs cards or lack thereof.

GOUDEY GUM

The 240-card set in 1933 included 17 Cubs cards, including at least one in each of its first 9 series, which is about what you’d expect. I’ve mainly included this set because A) it’s THE gum set of the 1930s, and B) it’s the last set before things got weird.

The 96-card follow-up set in 1934 included 6 Cubs cards, which by itself doesn’t suggest anything anomalous. However, the distribution of Cubs in the set is worth a quick note. Series one included three Cubs, but all were repeated from the 1933 set, artwork and all. (This was true of all 24 cards in 1934 series one.)

When the set did issue its first series of new players, none were Cubs. It wasn’t until the set’s third series that new Cubs (Lynn Nelson, Lyle Tinning) finally appeared. (The fourth series brought back another Cub, Kiki Cuyler, from the 1933 set but with new artwork. And as Matthew notes in the comments, the twelve “Chuck Klein says” cards also add to the Cubs fourth series presence.)

The 1935 Goudey set primarily relied on recycled artwork and players from their 1933 and 1934 releases. Of the 144 “cards” (really, quarters of cards) in the set, there are only 11 new players. None are Cubs. Overall, the Cubs are tied with the Phillies for fewest cards in the set: either one or four, depending how you choose to count.

The small 25-card set in 1936 included one Cubs player, Chuck Klein.

Subsequent Goudey sets seemed to be fairly normal with respect to Cubs players.

NATIONAL CHICLE

National Chicle debuted two significant multi-year sets in 1934. One was the Batter Up set, whose 80 cards that year have already been noted to have avoided the Cubs entirely. The other set, Diamond Stars, was equally devoid of Cubs among its 24-card offering that year.

Diamond Stars continued in 1935 with 60 new players, and this time there were three Cubs, two of whom were repeated with identical artwork in the 1936 release.

Meanwhile, series two of Batter Up, which I place entirely in 1936, exploded from zero to 11 Cubs among the final 112 cards in the set.

GUM, INC.

Gum, Inc., is best known to collectors for two different offerings: Play Ball (1939-41) and Bowman (1948-55). The three years of Play Ball cards included 473 different cards. Believe it or not, none were active Cubs players! The 161-card 1939 set and 72-card 1941 set included no Cubs at all while the 240-card 1940 set included three retired greats and one coach card.

The Gum, Inc., shutout continued into their debut Bowman offering that included 48 cards but no Cubs. Beginning in 1949, however, the Bowman sets had about the number of Cubs cards one would expect.

OTHER BRANDS

1934 Butterfinger Premiums

This set included 65 cards. None were Cubs.

1937 O-Pee-Chee Batter Up

This 40-card set had no Cubs, but it’s a bit of a special case as only American League teams were represented.

1941 Double Play

This set had 75 cards (150 if cut in half) including five (or ten) Cubs cards, among them the first card (or two cards) in the set.

1948 Swell “Sport Thrills”

This highlights set included only 20 cards, none of which were Cubs. Then again, there were five other teams that didn’t make the checklist either. Still, you’re gonna tell me this was a bigger thrill than the Homer in the Gloamin?’

1949 Leaf

Chicago-based Leaf Candy introduced a 98-card set (likely intended to be larger) in 1949, and 11 of the cards were Cubs.

* * * * *

I posted some key elements of this article to the SABR Baseball Cards readers on Twitter as well as the collectors on the Net54 Baseball forum. Leading theories on the omission or delayed inclusion of Cubs in the various sets tended to relate to the Cubs being owned by the Wrigley family. Why help the competition, right?

Of course Cubs did ultimately crack the checklists, even if it took ten years in the case of Gum, Inc. One wonders, therefore, what made the difference. Did the rival gum and candy makers make P.K. Wrigley an offer he couldn’t refuse? Did the players break from official or unofficial team policy to sign with rival confectioneries? Did Wrigley ultimately decide that Cub-less baseball card sets would hurt the popularity of his franchise?

Whatever prompted the return of Cubs cards, I can’t even imagine being a Cubs fan from 1939-41, buying pack after pack of Play Ball, and not pulling a single Cubs player. I guess the closest I can come is being a Dodger fan in 2021 and not finding packs to open at all.

Cardboard Detective: 1936-37 WWG Zeke Bonura

White Sox slugger Zeke Bonura has one of the more unusual baseball cards of the 1930s, courtesy of the 1936-37 World Wide Gum (V355) set sometimes known as Canadian Goudey.

Notably, the dapper Bonura is sporting a tie and vest ensemble rather than any baseball-related garb. (Oddly enough, the very next card on the checklist is of a fellow White Sox infielder, dressed almost identically.)

One might initially assume the two teammates were photographed at the same event, perhaps a banquet or the opera. Or might they have joined this man, dressed to conduct an orchestra or star in a Dracula movie, for a simple night on the town?

No? Okay, any chance Bonura, if not all three of these debonair gentlemen, were en route to this September 1935 watermelon eating contest?

Source: Chicago History Museum

Getting warmer but that’s still not it. If we’re gonna solve this mystery we’ll need one very important clue.

Source: Chicago History Museum

When Zeke wasn’t playing ball with the White Sox, he was often back home in New Orleans where according to this January 20, 1935, article (Nebraska State Journal) he “wrestles crates of produce, takes orders and makes himself generally handy around his father’s produce store.”

As it turns out, Bonura not only spent his winter months neck deep in fruits and vegetables but many springs as well. “Mentioning that Bonura is a holdout is about the same as saying that the sun will rise in the East tomorrow morning,” observed the Sporting News (January 14, 1937). Two years earlier, the same publication had Bonura “[speaking] up from the recesses of his father’s market in New Orleans” regarding his 1935 contract holdout. Bonura’s SABR bio has him holding out four straight years from 1935-38.

My understanding is that the fruitless negotiations went something like this:

SOX: “Hey, Zeke, are you gonna PRODUCE RUNS or RUN PRODUCE!”
ZEKE: “Either way I’m gonna get my cabbage!”
SOX: “…or just upset the apple cart.”
ZEKE: “You really think I give a fig?”
SOX: “How’d we end up with such a lemon?”
ZEKE: “Actually the nickname’s Banana Nose.”
SOX: “More like gone bananas! You’re really gonna turn down a plum job…”
ZEKE: “I have a plum job!”
SOX: “Apples and oranges.”
ZEKE: “That too!”
SOX: “What is this, Who’s On First?
ZEKE: “Anyone but me if you don’t pay up!”

But lettuce at last return to the baseball card that began this article. If you haven’t guessed it already, it’s this other job—Bonura as fruit merchant—that the card depicts. Look carefully at the backdrop behind Bonura and you’ll spot various crates of produce. To the left of his forehead are the letters “TAIN,” which I suspect come from one of the many fruit crates of the period with “MOUNTAIN” on the label. Similarly, the “ON U.S.” by his chin is likely a fragment of “WASHINGTON U.S.A.” or “OREGON U.S.A.,” two states known for their produce. Look closely and you may recognize other words as well.

Though it’s possible the World Wide Gum card’s photograph was taken during the winter months, my sense is it’s more likely to be a spring photo since that’s when Zeke as fruit merchant would have been more newsworthy. If so, I have to imagine the 1936-37 WWG Bonura card is the first (and probably only) baseball card of a player actively holding out for more money.

How do you like them apples? 😊

The Clarksdale (MS) Press Register, March 17, 1936

Author’s Note: I believe the site of the baseball card and newspaper photos would have been at Bonura Wholesale Produce (and/or John Bonura & Company), located at 200 Poydras Street in the New Orleans French Quarter. While the business no longer stands today, there is a Gordon Biersch brewery and restaurant where you can raise a glass (or enjoy some seasonal vegetables!) in Zeke’s honor.

The Tampa (FL) Tribune, April 16, 1922

Hollywood Stars Were in the Cards: Part 5

George Costanza is woven deep into the fabric of America’s national pastime. Assiduously converting a nebulous, unrealistic desire to become either the general manager of a baseball team or a sports announcer while holding no experience in either endeavor, he eventually rose to assistant to the traveling secretary of baseball’s most prestigious franchise, the New York Yankees. So versatile was Costanza in this capacity that, in addition to his expert booking of the team in Ramada hotels during road trips, he imparted invaluable batting tips to Bernie Williams and Derek Jeter before the 1997 season. It’s no coincidence that Williams, a .305 hitter in 1996, saw his batting average jump to .328 after Costanza’s unraveling of hitting’s simple physics (velocity/[trajectory × gravity]), then earn the American League batting crown in 1998 with a .339 mark.

By 1999, both Williams and Jeter pumped their averages into the .340s—making Costanza probably the best de facto hitting coach the franchise ever had.

And as for Jeter’s fragile defense that the Bronx Bombers had just won the 1996 World Series and thus didn’t warrant Costanza’s unsolicited batting tutelage, it’s even less of a coincidence that New York proceeded to sweep the 1998 and 1999 World Series and lose only one game in the 2000 Fall Classic—thus dropping a lone contest over three Costanza-influenced World Series championships.

So much for winning in six, Derek.

An ardent Yankees supporter long before he joined the payroll, Costanza introduced the revolutionary concept of naming a newborn after the uniform number of one’s favorite player—in George’s case, Mickey Mantle. Alas, this electrifying idea was stolen by his fiancé’s cousin, but George can be proud that somewhere walks a young man or woman with the wonderfully novel appellation of “Seven”—a name with cachet up the yin-yang!

Whether George was freeing the New York Yankees from the shackles of the past by wearing Babe Ruth’s priceless uniform while eating syrupy strawberries or dragging its hard-won World Series trophy around the parking lot to free himself from the shackles of the Yankees so he could accept an offer to become the New York Mets head scout, George Costanza proved himself an integral element of baseball—even if 1979 National League co-MVP Keith Hernandez thinks he’s a chucker.

If George owns a regrettable moment during his baseball career, it’s his brief, star-crossed encounter while doing volunteer work with senior citizens. While Elaine Benes devoted time to Mrs. Oliver, the goitered ex-lover of Mahatma Gandhi, and Jerry attempted to provide companionship for the irascible Mr. Fields while simultaneously allowing Kramer and Newman to loot the old man’s valuable record collection, George found himself partnered with the carefree Ben Cantwell, as they attempted to enjoy a lunch together.

Though this lunch occurred previous to his employment with the Yankees, it is curious that an ardent baseball fan such as George failed to realize that the man sitting opposite him in the booth of the coffee shop may well have been former major league pitcher, Ben Cantwell, a man who was a teammate of Babe Ruth, himself. True, Mr. Cantwell claimed to be 85 years old, which would make his birth year either 1907 or 1908, whereas all official sources list the Boston Braves hurler as having been born in 1902. However, birth records from such remote years have been known to be inaccurate; as well, people, in their vanity, have been known to shave years off their birthdate either to feel younger or keep themselves relevant. Ben Cantwell might simply have been the Joan Rivers of the major leagues.

George’s potential knowledge of Cantwell’s history surely would have provided for a more amiable and rewarding conversation. What stories Mr. Cantwell could have spun: playing with and against the titans of the 1920s and ‘30s; being a 20-game winner in 1933; being a member of the worst National League squad of the 20th century; recollections of the Babe. Mr. Cantwell was a veritable treasure trove of baseball history waiting to be gleaned.

Rather than pecking obsessively at the fact that the wizened Cantwell could meet his maker at any moment, George could have discussed how Cantwell dealt with going a horrid 4-25 for the inept Boston Braves in 1935. Judging by Mr. Cantwell’s insouciance about his advanced age, it’s a good bet he comported himself in the same graceful manner while his teammates barely lifted a bat to help him—a life lesson that would have well served the anxiety-plagued, hypochondriacal George.

Instead, George insists on pressing the issue of Ben Cantwell’s ostensible nearness to oblivion, eventually driving away his elderly company. A precious opportunity lost (after which, George adds insult to injury by crassly expecting this sufferer of the Great Depression to pay for the soup).

Okay, it might be a little much to expect George to have recognized a man who may have been a semi-obscure pitcher six decades earlier. But considering George’s extensive interest in baseball, as well as growing up under the yoke of a father who also possesses a passion for the sport—as evidenced by Frank Costanza’s grilling of George Steinbrenner both for the Boss’s lamentable trade of Jay Buhner and a $12 million contract handed to Hideki Irabu*—one is left wondering how George could have no inkling of his lunch guest’s possible identity.

* For the Irabu comment, see transcripts from the Fourth District County Court, Latham, Massachusetts v. Seinfeld et al; Article 223-7 of the Latham County Penal Code (the Good Samaritan Law); Honorable Judge Arthur Vandelay presiding.

Still, getting fired from a volunteer job may have been a moot point: George Costanza was, by his own admission, a great quitter who came from a long line of quitters. He was raised to give up—making his termination as Ben Cantwell’s youthful companion inevitable one way or the other. In essence, George Costanza was the 1935 Boston Braves of caring for senior citizens.  

Ah, that’s a shame…

Cardboard Typos and Gripe-o’s—Part 1

For nearly 30 years, editing has brought home my bacon. It wasn’t my desired profession; I fell into it like an open manhole—and I’m still trying to climb my way out. The grammatical, punctuational, and syntactic boo-boos I fix have been mostly in the medical and pharmaceutical fields, but they’ve been pretty easy to spot in my spare time as well—which means, to a degree, on the backs, and sometimes fronts, of baseball cards.

Years ago, I began jotting down factual errors and spelling typos (punctuation issues and lack of hyphenation are so rampant that chronicling them would be a never-ending and pointless task). I do not keep abreast of baseball card commentary as vigilantly as I once did, so at least one of the following errors has been posted elsewhere, which means that others—maybe many—in this simple and hardly comprehensive multi-part list might also have been documented in that long interim.

  • 1958 Bob Lemon (#2): The right-hand cartoon states that Bob won “200” games in seven different seasons. Well, I’m pretty certain Bob would not have had to wait 13 years and 14 elections to make the Hall of Fame had he A) won 200 games in a season, and B) racked up more than 1400 victories in his career. (However, just as mathematician Edward Kasner, through his young nephew, gave the world the unit known as the googol (10100), I suggest that Major League Baseball follow Topps’ inadvertent suggestion that a 200-win season be coined a Zeeeeeeeringg!—regardless of today’s reliance on the bullpen.)
  • 1952 Topps Mickey Vernon (#106): In the penultimate line of Mickey’s bio, “Assists” is botched as “Asists.” This is especially shoddy work considering that the same word is correctly spelled just three words to the left.
  • 1933 Goudey John (Jack) Ogden (#176): Similarly to Lefty Gomez, this card states than Ogden was born November 5, 1898, when, in actuality, Ogden was born on this date in 1897.
  • 1961 Topps Billy Loes (#237): In the cartoon on the right, “Dodgers” is misspelled as “Dogers.” I’ve no idea if this was an extremely early attempt at a crypto-baseball card…
  • 1955 Bowman Jim Piersall (#16): Across the first and second lines, Bowman botched the spelling of “American.” If an American company can’t spell “American,” it’s not going to be around much longer, eh Bowman?
  • 1960 Nu-Card Baseball Scoops Merkle Pulls Boner (#17): This one must be well known—at least it should be thanks to its egregiousness. The year is embarrassingly incorrect in the byline—Fred Merkle’s infamous failure to touch second base in that “semi-fateful” tie between the Giants and Cubs took place in 1908, not 1928. (I say “semi-fateful” because the outcome was blown out of proportion by the media and saddled poor Fred with an unfair albatross for the rest of his life—New York beat Chicago the following day and moved into first place.) Nu-Card does have it correct on the reverse. However, to add insult to injury, it repeated the error on the Merkle card in the 1961 set (#417).

  • 1951 Topps Dom DiMaggio (#20): Dominic’s name incorrectly possesses a “k” at the end. Topps rectified this in 1952.

Where has your “k” gone, Dom DiMaggio

Topps rationed you one, then finally got a clue

Woo, woo, woo

  • Lefty Gomez was born on November 26, 1908. This is according to the Baseball Hall of Fame, his SABR biography, Baseball Reference, and his own daughter, via her excellent biography of Gomez. Yet virtually all of Lefty’s cards, including his 1933 and 1936 Goudey, 1940 and ’41 Play Ball, 1941 Double Play, and 1961 Fleer, denote Lefty’s birthdate as November 26, 1910. Obviously, an erroneous year of birth circulated in an official capacity for a long time.

The 1963 Bazooka All-Time Greats set contains its share of miscues.

  • Nap Lajoie (#8): The final sentence refers to Nap as “the lefty swinger,” even though the famous Frenchman was one of the most celebrated right-handed hitters of his era. As well, his bio fails to mention overtly that Nap’s epochal .422 season in 1901 occurred with the Philadelphia Athletics, not the Phillies. (Additionally, his career totals of batting average and home runs, as well as his 1901 batting mark, are erroneous; however, these stem from his career totals having been revised through extended research since the card’s issuance—an unremarkable fact that likely pertains to many other vintage cards.)
  • Al Simmons (#22): Simmons’ bio opens, “Al played with six different major league ballteams…” and concludes by listing them. Unfortunately, the Bazooka folks failed to count his half-season with the 1939 Boston Bees, making a total of 7 teams on his major league resume. Of course, no one wants their time with the Boston Bees to be remembered, but we’ve got to own up to it…
  • Johnny Evers (#21): That Johnny was a part of “the famous double-play combination of Evers to Tinker to Chance” stands as technically accurate—certainly, many of those celebrated twin-kills went 4-6-3—but this description flies in the face of Franklin P. Adams’ famous poem that made household names of Evers and his Cubs compatriots. Thanks to “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon” (originally published as “That Double Play Again”), the refrain “Tinker to Evers to Chance” literally entered baseball’s lexicon and has always been known in that specific order. Perhaps it’s fortunate that Adams did not live to see his most celebrated work inexplicably altered—not only does “Evers to Tinker to Chance” not possess the geometric simplicity and aesthetic superiority of Adams’ original refrain, but tinkering with classic literature is a no-no of the first magnitude. After all, mighty Casey didn’t pop up…
  • Mel Ott (#36): Okay, this one is very nitpicky—but it’s precisely an editor’s task to split hairs. Mel’s bio states that he “acted as playing-manager from 1942 through 1948.” Although it’s accurate that Ott piloted the Giants from right field beginning in 1942, he last performed this dual role during the 1947 season, as he put in 4 pinch-hitting appearances; Mel was New York’s manager solely from the dugout during the 1948 season (replaced after 75 games by Leo Durocher).
  • Walter Johnson (#12): Many totals of pre-war players have been modified by Major League Baseball over the years, so I have refrained from mentioning totals on older cards that do not jibe with present-day totals. However, Walter Johnson’s shutout record of 110 has long been celebrated and its quantity never really in doubt. Yet his 1963 Bazooka mentions that he threw 114. A shutout is not something readily miscalculated from old days to new. Even if Bazooka was including his post-season shutouts—which upped Walter’s total only to 111—it was still significantly off the mark. 
  • Christy Mathewson (#4): Bazooka boasts that Christy won 374 games and tossed 83 shutouts. Bazooka blundered on both counts. I’m not sure how you can miscount shutouts—a pitcher either pitches the entire game or he doesn’t, and he either permits at least 1 run or he doesn’t. Neither of these conditions is subject to revision at a later date like an RBI total being amended thanks to an overlooked sacrifice fly. So, I must assume that Bazooka was including his World Series work, because Christy hurled 79 shutouts in the regular season—and it’s impossible to imagine that the text’s author was off by 4 shutouts. More significantly, 374 victories is disconcerting statistically because Christy’s official total when he retired was 372. It became a significant issue when Grover Cleveland Alexander surpassed it in August 1929, snatching the all-time National League lead from Christy. During the 1940s, an extra win was discovered that was added to Mathewson’s total, lifting him into a permanent tie with Alexander (to Ol’ Pete’s chagrin). Both have famously remained atop the NL heap ever since, at 373. Bazooka cannot be counting postseason victories here, because Christy won 5 in the Fall Classic, including the 3 shutouts in 1905 that it mentions in his bio—so “374” is pure sloppiness. Would Bazooka include World Series totals for shutouts but not for victories in the same sentence? It’s baffling. Bazooka Joe was not cut out for this job…
  • 1928 W502 Strip Card Paul Waner (#45): I’ve never seen anyone mention this error—but I cannot be the first to realize that the player depicted is irrefutably not “Big Poison”; it’s teammate Clyde Barnhart. This same photo was used for multiple 1928 F50 issues, including Tharp’s Ice Cream, Yuengling’s Ice Cream, Harrington’s Ice Cream, and Sweetman—making the seeming dearth of awareness of this incorrect photo all the more curious.  

  • 1948 Bowman Bobby Thomson (#47): Well before Bobby became a byword for the home run, Bowman was confounding home run totals of Thomson’s former minor league team, the Jersey City Giants. Bobby’s bio declares that his 26 round-trippers in 1946 eclipsed the previous team record of 18, set in 1938. Although Thomson’s mark did, in fact, set a new team record, the mark he broke had not been 18—belted by former major league star Babe Herman that season—but by Herman’s teammate, Tom Winsett, who clubbed 20. (Additionally, Al Glossop poked 19 the following season, making Bowman’s account of the fallen record even “more” false.) Bobby’s 1949 Bowman card (#18) reiterates the same mistake, making it something of a twice-told tale.
  • 1977 TCMA–Renata Galasso Carl Furillo (#11): As any Ebbets field denizen could tell you, the Reading Rifle was a right-handed shot. Carl must have been deliberately trying to fool the photographer, because it’s clearly not a case of the negative being reversed as Carl does his best Koufax.

That’s enough for Part 1. Part 2 will largely target several especially sloppy sets and subsets.

The hottest rookie card of 1935

Imagine yourself a young card collector in early 1935. Okay, fine. I’ll help you.

“What’s the point? Maybe I’ll just throw all these away…” you think to yourself as you rifle through the sack of Goudey cards you dutifully collected over the last couple years. Let’s face it, the 1935 four-in-one design just isn’t doing it for you. Compared to the cards of years past, the (often recycled) pictures are tiny, you loathe the extra work of cutting them yourself, and the puzzle backs don’t even seem to go together!

A couple friends in the neighborhood tried to get you into National Chicle Diamond Stars in 1934, but you declared yourself a Goudey loyalist, at least outwardly. The truth is you just didn’t have the spare change to start collecting multiple sets. And even if you did, why chance where that slippery slope could lead?

Still, you had to admit the cards were attractive….and the baseball tips just might help your game, which wasn’t exactly attracting the attention of Pittsburgh brass!

It was a small set too. Only 24 cards in 1934, with Lloyd Waner the only Pirate. Maybe you should have made the move from Goudey. Then again, the Diamond Stars set appears to have been a one-and-done in your part of town. You try asking the man behind the counter if the new Diamond Stars are in only to receive a blank star in return.

So yes, what’s the point of even collecting anymore? You hate the four-in-ones, but they appear to be the only game in town. Shouldn’t it be possible to follow your hometown Pirates without the need for a stack of cards at your side? Plus, you’d read their Goudey card backs so many times you pretty much had them memorized. Arky Vaughan? Bats left handed but throws right. Weighs 175 pounds. Bill Swift? “One of the main reasons why the Pirates win ball games!”

And then Blanton-mania struck. As SABR biographer Gregory Wolf tells it, “Cy Blanton broke in with the Pittsburgh Pirates in a blaze of glory.” What kind of blaze? Think Jake deGrom. And no, I’m not talking about rookie deGrom. I’m talking about present day deGrom.

The numbers don’t lie.

“The hard-throwing right-hander with an array of screwballs, curves, and sinkers” (SABR Bio) became your new obsession, completely surpassing your love for Big Poison and Little Poison. When pops fished out his T206 Wagner, declaring Hans the greatest Pirate of them all, you muttered “…until Blanton” under your breath before puzzling for a moment as to why a grown man would even own a baseball card.

Plus, if baseball cards were so great, why was there no Blanton card?

The thought was interrupted by the screech of bike tires followed by banging on the front door. Was someone dying? Was the world coming to an end? Why such urgency from little Jackie who was usually quite reserved?

“Look who I got! Look who I got!”

“Wait, what?!” There really is a Blanton card? But how could that be? He didn’t even play last year, did he? [Author’s note: He did, but just one game.]

“Lemme see! Lemme see!” you demand, practically ripping the card out of Jackie’s hand to admire it. That quick, your love of cards not only returned to you but completely consumed you. You need this card more than you need air and water. If we’re being honest, you need this card more than you need your friend Jackie, am I right?

After offering your entire collection, which included all four 1933 Goudey Babe Ruth cards, for the Blanton, a deal Jackie refuses due to A) Blanton-mania, and B) brand loyalty, you beg, borrow, and steal from your folks until you have more money in your pocket than you’ve ever had in your entire life: nine cents.

Eight packs in, you have a mouthful of gum but little else to show for the small fortune you arrived with: Stan Hack, Billy Urbanski, Cliff Bolton, Buck Jordan, Glenn Myatt, Billy Werber, Fred Frankhouse, and an oddball card of Jimmie Foxx as a catcher! But then, like a pre-Hobbsian Roy Hobbs (movie version, not book), you come through with a monster rip in the ninth.

For reasons unknown, even later in life, your mind raced to an exciting World of Tomorrow where humans could not only propel themselves to the moon but digital currencies as well, and card collectors communicated with each other by electromagnet technology so small it could fit in their pockets. Without understanding the means or the mechanism, you imagined yourself “sharing” your pull with friends even two or three towns away, along with the rhetorical, unorthodoxly capitalized, and interrobanged phrase that would unwittingly become standard only 85 years later—

“dID i dO gOoD?!”

“I’ve never had a kid faint from a pack of baseball cards. You’re lucky I had my smelling salts handy.” [Author’s note: I too fainted from a pack of baseball cards. 1981 Fleer, “C” Nettles error.]

Yeah, fainting was weird, but you didn’t have time to dwell. The Blanton! Where’s the Blanton!

Grabbing it off the floor you turn it over to read the back, a feat made difficult by lingering dizziness.

Eventually, the card comes into focus.

It was official. May 29, 1935, was the best day of your entire life. No less and authority than Austen Lake, right there on the back of your Blanton card, told you to “save your best stuff for the pinches” and you did. Ninth pack, Darrell E. Blanton, ’nuff said.

Little did you know that this phenom hurler was about to surrender 16 earned runs across his next four games, more than doubling his ERA from 1.00 to 2.01. He would still finish the season with a league-topping 2.58 to go with 18 victories, but like many phenoms he would pursue the shadow of his rookie campaign unsuccessfully for the rest of his career. Even still, your Blanton hording only grew, particularly when word hit the neighborhood that he had a Goudey also! (If memory serves, you traded your dad’s prized Wagner card for it.)

Blanton with three George Canales

When the 1940 season began sans Blanton [Author’s note: He joined the Phils in May], you looked back at your paper-clipped stacks of his rookie card, shaking your head in much the same way 1990s collectors looked back on their screw-down holders of Kevin Maas and Todd Van Poppel or modern collectors may someday view their PSA slabbed cards (if they ever ship) of Akil Baddoo and Wander Franco.

Of course the thing about baseball cards is that it may not matter what a card is worth later on. What matters most is that immediate and magical feeling of thinking you have something really special and therefore are something really special. There may be healthier and more sustainable paths to self worth, but for nine cents…this is a helluva deal!

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  * 

In other news, happy birthday to Cy Blanton, who would be 113 today were he still around. And for the Diamond Star junkies out there, here is what may be an interesting tidbit from the back of his card.

You may already know that the Diamond Stars set was issued over three years, according to this release schedule:

  • 1934: Cards 1-24
  • 1935: Cards 1-84
  • 1936: Cards 2, 4, 5, 8, 9, 10, 12, 16, 22, 26, 30, 31, and 73-108

The Blanton card, numbered 57 in the set, was part of the 1935 release. The above decoder ring aside, you can note his complete 1934 (International League) record at the bottom of the bio, along with a 1935 copyright date.

However, the portion of the bio I’ve highlighted in red tells us that this card would not have been out at the start of the season. I would imagine it would have been at least early May before anyone would seriously include Blanton among “the most effective pitchers in the major leagues.” Add however long it takes to print, slice, pack, and truck the cards to retailers, and I can’t imagine this card hitting the shelves before June 1935.

Was this the case with the entire 1935 issue, only the new additions (25-84), or some even smaller subset? For those who enjoy these things, I suspect there is some fun to be had in checking the backs of all the 1935—if not 1934 and 1936—Diamond Stars for clues. This is something I did earlier this year ad (hopefully not yours) nauseam with the 1933 and 1934 Goudey sets, so perhaps it’s something I’ll take on with Diamond Stars. In the meantime here is some additional reading on the set.

MORE DIAMOND STARS ARTICLES HERE ON THE BLOG

Collecting the 100 HR Club in Four Iconic Sets

Here is a collecting goal virtually nobody has, whether because the club includes some ridiculously expensive cards or because it includes so many players of near zero interest to the modern fan. At the time I type these words, the club currently has 925 players plus one active player, Jackie Bradley, Jr., sitting on 99. [UPDATE: He did it!]

Of course, that’s if we’re talking about today’s collector in 2021. How would the 100 HR Club look to a collectors from days of yore?

T206 and the 100 HR Club

We’ll start in 1911, which is the final year of the famous 1909-11 America Tobacco Company “monster” known as T206. We were still firmly in the Deadball era, but the 100 HR Club already had eight members.

Interestingly, none of the players were still active during the span of the set’s release. Fortunately, the 100 HR Club collector wouldn’t strike out entirely, thanks to Hugh Duffy’s inclusion as White Sox manager in the set.

Even better, you as the reader now know the answer to a trivia question that will stump your friends: “Which of the subjects in the T206 set had the most career home runs at the time of the set’s release?”

1933 Goudey and the 100 HR Club

Time travel back to 1933, and the club becomes much more interesting. By season’s end, the club has swelled to 48 members, more than half (26) still active at the time of the set’s release.

Ignoring the fact that the set included multiple cards of certain players, let’s take a look at which 100 HR Club members a 1933 Goudey collector could attain that year.

Of the top 11 names on the list, all nine active players were present in the 1933 Goudey set. The only absences were Cy and Ken Williams, who were a few years removed from their Major League playing careers.

Making our way through slots 12-25 on the list, only five of the players were still active in 1933. Of these, four had cards in the set: Ott, Hartnett, Herman, and Terry. Chick Hafey was not only still active but an (inaugural) All-Star that year. Still, he did not appear in a Goudey set until 1934. (If you’re looking for more trivia, he and Oral Hildebrand are the only 1933 All-Stars not present in 1933 Goudey.)

The next four players on the HR list, Tillie Walker, Jimmy Ryan, Ty Cobb, and Tris Speaker were all retired for either 5, 10, or 20 years. However, Speaker landed a card in the Goudey set as a part owner of the American Association’s Kansas City Blues. (And of course die-hard Goudey fans could nab the Cobb from the Sport Kings set.)

Following Speaker, the next seven players in the 100 HR Club were all active in 1933. However, Don Hurst would have to wait until the 1934 set for a Goudey card.

Continuing down the list we hit a streak of old-timers (Brouthers, Meusel, Duffy, Tiernan) before landing on a run of three straight 1933 Goudey cards.

Of the final five members of the 100 HR Club, the two still active in 1933 each had cards in the set.

By the way, can I right now declare Berger’s 1933 Tattoo Orbit card a work of art?

Adding an angle I’ll develop more fully in my treatment of 1952 Topps, I’ll note that there were five Negro League players with 100+ home runs by 1933: Oscar Charleston, Turkey Stearnes, Mule Suttles, Willie Wells, and John Beckwith. All five were still active in 1933, but none appear in the Goudey set.

1952 Topps and the 100 HR Club

By 1952 the home run was most definitely “a thing” so it’s not surprising that the 100 HR club more than doubled it ranks from 48 members less than two decades earlier to a robust 116. Here are the 27 who were still active in 1952.

Collectors with knowledge of the 1952 Topps set will recognize right away at least a couple of players who definitely were not in the set: Ted Williams and Stan Musial. The same would be true of Ralph Kiner and Charlie Keller, leaving the Topps set with 23 of the 27 players listed.

However, the 1952 Topps set also included 6 managers and 11 coaches, two of whom (sort of) were 100 HR Club members.

The more famous 100 HR Club member-coach in the set, 30th on the list with 202 home runs, was Bill Dickey of the Yankees.

Then it’s up to you if you want to count the other. Checking in at 39th on the list is Sam Chapman, with 180 home runs. Strictly speaking, he does not make the set’s checklist. However, his photograph was the source of Cincinnati coach Ben Chapman’s card. (And if the name is familiar, Ben Chapman was the manager that was a total a-hole to Jackie Robinson in 42, not to mention real life.)

For completeness, I also checked to ensure that 100 HR Club members who retired in 1950 or 1951 (e.g., Joe DiMaggio) did not somehow eke out a spot in the set, which they did not.

As I eagerly await the inclusion of Negro League records and statistics into the MLB record book, I’ll simply note that Seamheads currently shows nine players with 100+ home runs from 1920-48, the period MLB will be recognizing. I haven’t done the extra work to examine whether or not all of these home runs “will count.” That said, none of these nine players were included in the 1952 Topps set.

Nonetheless, the inclusion of Negro League records does appear to add a player. By the end of the 1952 season, Monte Irvin had 43 National League homers and (per Seamheads) 61 Negro League homers for a total of 104.

There are also two players who come very close. Luke Easter lands at 97, counting 11 Negro League roundtrippers, and Jackie Robinson lands at 96, counting 4 taters from his days as a Monarch.

1989 Upper Deck and the 100 HR Club

Though it sometimes feels wrong to type, I regard the 1989 Upper Deck set as the fourth iconic baseball card set of the 20th century, so this is where I’ll conduct my final analysis.

The 100 HR Club has now swelled to 442 (!) members, a gigantic number compared to 1952 but still less than half the club’s size today. Of this number, 56 were active in 1989. As the Upper Deck set, counting its high series, had 800 cards, I will simply assume for now that all 56 of these players were represented in the set. (Let me know in the comments if you know of any exceptions.)

Still, this would not be the whole story for the 1989 Upper Deck set. For example, Dave Winfield did not play in 1989 but nonetheless registered a card. Fittingly, the card shows him just chillin’.

“Career cappers” were also in vogue by 1989, so I also took a look at player’s who retired following the 1988 season. One such player in the set was Don Baylor, whose card back appears provides a fitting farewell to a great career.

Ditto Larry Parrish who seems to be handing over the reins to new 100 HR Club member Mark McGwire.

And finally, Ted Simmons and Bob Horner, who are each shown on the team more commonly associated with the other.

Summary

Of the four sets profiled, the 1933 Goudey set featured the largest percentage of 100 HR Club members. Officially (at the time I type this), it included 25 of 48 100 HR clubbers, or 52%. Including Negro League records (though my data may not ultimately match what MLB recognizes), the numbers change to 25 out of 53, or 47%.

Naturally, the question crossed my mind whether this figure–either one–represented a pinnacle across all sets. In a very boring way the answer is no, since a cabinet set from 1890 included a Harry Stovey when he was the sole member of the club. As such, that set included 100% of all 100 HR Club members. To allow for more interesting answers I’ll re-ask the question but use the “Modern Era” as a qualifier. I’ll also restrict the sets in question to ones mainly featuring active players as opposed to all-time greats tribute sets.

Either way, for the moment I do not know the answer but expect it will still be circa 1933, probably a tad earlier. (The 1931 W517 set is a strong candidate.)

Forgetting about baseball cards at the moment and not yet incorporating Negro League data, it’s easy using Stathead to look at the percentage of active 100 HR Club members over time. I’ve done this from 1900 to 2020, in 10 year increments and the results seem to confirm 1930 or so as when the greatest percentage of 100 HR Club members were active.

One thing clear from the data is the percentage of active 100 HR clubbers is only trending downward at this point. Were I to compute the data year by year rather than in ten year increments, we might see the occasional upward blip, but what’s certain is the days of a new release capturing anywhere near 50% of baseball’s “elite” 100 HR club are completely behind us. At this point, even 5% may live entirely in Baseball’s rear-view mirror.

Sources:

  • Trading Card Database for checklists and card images
  • Stathead for 100 HR Club data
  • Seamheads for Negro League HR totals

Frank O’Rourke’s Inherent Dignity

I’m not a collector.

           I have a few cards, some that are worth slightly more than the cardboard they’re printed on, and many more that hold a good deal of sentimental value to me and nobody else. But in the context of the readers of this blog, I don’t merit the use of the term. I’ve never completed a set, never paid more than pocket money for a card, never gone to any remarkable lengths to acquire anything rare, or valuable, or particularly noteworthy. I still have all the cards I amassed as a kid, and I buy new hanger packs when I see them, and on the rare occasion that a wax pack drifts into my field of vision, I snap it up. I’ve made a habit of buying packs for my kids, and we make a little ceremony of opening them together. On Opening Day, or the first day of pitchers and catchers reporting, I sneak packs into their school lunches, and they come home and tell me what players they found inside.

           But I haven’t done any of those things I identify as serious collector behavior. I’ve bought maybe a half-dozen cards on eBay, for example, and I haven’t attended a show since I was about fourteen years old. I’ll never own a Mantle, Ruth, Mays, Clemente, or Aaron.

           Baseball cards are, for me, not an investment, and not an abiding obsession, but something adjacent to baseball that I love for that proximity. They remind me of the game. Their look, and feel, and smell are memory triggers, and for that reason I treasure them.

           And yet, with all that said, I recently bought a 1934 Frank O’Rourke card. It’s No. 43 in the Canadian-printed World Wide Gum Co. series, which reused the 1933 Goudey design, updating the salient facts for 1934, and repeating the biographical info on the back in French. In keeping with my longstanding tightfisted ethos, I paid more in shipping than I did for the card itself. It’s ungraded, with soft, smushed corners where crisp, sharp edges should be. There are minor creases. This card is anything but pristine.

            Frank O’Rourke was a nobody. Well, that’s not quite fair. He’s in the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, after all. Born in Hamilton, Ontario in 1891, he was an infielder who eked out fourteen seasons of big-league ball for Boston’s NL club, the Robins, Senators, Red Sox, Tigers, and Browns. By the time his portrait was rendered for the ’33 Goudey set he’d seen his last major league action, hanging on with the American Association’s Milwaukee Brewers. The ’34 card that I now own dates to his single season with the Montreal Royals of the IL. He dropped down a few rungs to the Piedmont League in ’35, then held on for four seasons as a player-manager for the El Dorado (AR) Lions of the class ‘C’ Cotton States League. He later managed one more year in the Gulf Coast League, and in retirement he served as a scout for the Yankees.

            As a big-league player, O’Rourke managed a career bWAR of -2.0 and amassed a .254/.315/.333 slash line, and a .947 combined fielding percentage at third, short, and second (with a handful of games at first, and a couple patrolling the grass). As a minor-league manager he piled up a lifetime record of 551-580 across four levels of pro ball. Add all of that up and you get a slightly below-average baseball long-hauler, which is not to say there was nothing quietly heroic about Frank O’Rourke; longevity requires its own superpowers.

            But unlike some of its in-set brethren, selling this card wouldn’t allow me to pay off the mortgage, or retire to somewhere hot, sandy, and tax-free. Instead, my appreciation for this card is twofold: the first is purely and unapologetically aesthetic; the second is its implicit historical value.

            The Goudey cards are notoriously easy on the eyes, rendered with a stab at artistry that’s not generally present in modern cards. Holding a Goudey next to a 2021 Topps card makes for a stark contrast. The latter assaults with hyper-sharp photography and whizbang graphics that are intended, I can only guess, to suggest futurity, and motion, and, I don’t know, the internet? The Goudeys are Renaissance paintings on discrete panels of olive wood meant to be inlaid in elaborate polyptychs framing alters in out-of-the-way country churches, reverent celebrations of the beauty and purity of God’s favorite game. The backgrounds are solid fields of color—green in O’Rourke’s case, but elsewhere blue (as in Gehrig), yellow (Jimmie Foxx), red (Dazzy Vance). All the better to focus on the player. O’Rourke’s depicted from the chest up, like a Roman bust, in classic baseball togs: a white (or off-white) cap, logo-free, and a matching jersey with sun collar and orange-brown soutache piping. The pose is adapted from a photo of him in a St. Louis Browns uniform, from 1931 at the latest, that the Goudey (or World Wide Gum) people didn’t bother to retouch, though they were clear to indicate that he was, by 1934, a member of the Montreal Royals and thus in the habit of donning a blue-trimmed uniform.

            The portrait is so classically, absurdly, tragically handsome that if you hold it up to your ear it sings Protestant hymns interspersed with staticky ’30s radio calls of games won with moxie and heart. Even if you aren’t up to speed on his biography, the portrait makes clear that this is a baseball lifer, a man rolled in chalk and infield dirt and baked beneath a thousand midday suns.

            Since I first gazed on O’Rourke’s cardboard face I’ve gone looking for baseball card corollaries, but I came up short until I widened my scope, and then I found Piero della Francesca’s portrait of an Augustinian friar (possibly St. Leonard). Consider the similarities: the subtle intimations of age around the eyes and mouth, the weariness, and yet the slight bemusement, the wry off-center stare. Neither the friar nor Frank are too jaded to enjoy a good joke. Though separated by half a millennium, you get the sense they’d find some common ground. But beneath it all there’s something unmistakably ecclesiastical about both men’s depictions, the not-quite-visible result of a lifetime’s devotion to their respective callings. It’s behind the eyes, I think, or maybe just below the skin. Wherever it is, Piero managed to capture it, as did Elmer E. Crowell, the man responsible for O’Rourke’s likeness.

            The second half of my appreciation for this card has to do with its age: almost ninety years have passed since it was printed. I haven’t handled enough really old cards for the wonder of that to have diminished. Eighty-six years ago someone—a child, a nostalgic adult—bought a pack of gum and out tumbled this card.

            The US domestic GDP was in recovery after the New Deal slammed the brakes on negative growth and pumped cash into the economy. Hitler was chancellor of Germany, already in the process of consolidating his power and assuming the title of Führer. The first camps opened. The Prime Minister of Canada was RB Bennett, a safety match magnate who bungled the response to the Depression but had the foresight to establish the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. In China, where my grandfather was a brakeman on a streetcar in Shanghai, tensions with Japan were ratcheting up in the wake of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and the uneasy resolution to the “January 28th Incident.” The globe, inexorably, marched toward war.

            In the Bronx, Ruth was in his last season as a Yankee, and Gehrig, five years from retiring in the face of the rapid advance of his illness, was assuming outright leadership of the team. The Gashouse Gang took the Tigers in seven games in that fall’s Series. Detroit’s Mickey Cochrane was voted the AL’s best player, and in Commerce, Oklahoma, zinc miner Mutt Mantle’s kid, named for Cochrane, turned three years old.

            Frank O’Rourke was not directly connected to any of this as he toiled away in Montreal, and his card—a 2-3/8″ by 2-7/8″ piece of thick paper—has nothing whatsoever to do with those events. It was not present for any of them; it was not in all likelihood possessed or handled by any of the players in the aforementioned dramas. But it is for me touched by a temporal proximity, sprinkled with a residue which, though slight, constitutes enough of a reason for me to own it.

            If a Ruth Goudey—or a Sweet Caporal Wagner, or a ’52 Topps Mantle—is the seventh game of the World Series, then my Frank O’Rourke World Wide Gum is a non-consequential Thursday afternoon getaway game played before an announced crowd of twelve thousand. And while I love the screw-tightening intensity of a big game, what I treasure most about baseball is the sweet everydayness of it, the companionship of the radio announcer’s familiar voice for six months, the long, comforting trough of a regular season. And for all the superstars, the game’s lifeblood is its rank and file, guys like O’Rourke, doing the yeoman work of showing up every single day and taking his cuts, scooping up ground balls, and making throws across the diamond from whichever position he’s assigned.

            In that way, this O’Rourke card is perfectly emblematic both of Frank’s life and career, and most of ours. I won’t be in any literal or figurative Hall of Fame, and chances are neither will you. That’s okay. Something as beautiful as this Frank O’Rourke card exists to quietly and stubbornly insist that regardless of that, there’s still a hell of a lot of dignity inherent in our efforts, and the legacies thereof.

Editor’s note: Andrew’s newest book is now available for pre-order. If you can judge a book by it’s cover, this one will not disappoint!