I expect fellow author-collector Dylan has really started something with his post on the subject a couple weeks back. The topic is one just begging for the pen of each of our members, even as the idea of choosing “just four?!” often feels impossible.
1934-36 Diamond stars
I’ll lead off with a set that Dylan included on his Mt. Rushmore, the “Diamond Stars” issued by National Chicle from 1934-36. Like Dylan, it’s the look of the cards that hooks me in.
The color palette jumps off the cardboard like ink off a comic book page, but I am also a big fan of the baseball scenes depicted in so many of the card backgrounds. I’ve already written about these scenes coming more from the imaginations of the artists than real life, but for me that’s a feature, not a bug.
From a purely visual standpoint, Diamond Stars is my favorite set of the 1930s and perhaps my favorite set of all-time. Where it falls short with many collectors is in its player selection. Conspicuously absent from the set are Yankee greats Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. For the budget set collector, this is yet another bug-turned-feature.
If you’ve read a few of my pieces already, you also know I enjoy sets with some novelty and mystery. Diamond Stars definitely fits the bill, not only for its various quirks but also offers early instances (though by no means the earliest) of “Traded” cards.
If I had to choose one thing I dislike about this set, it’s the repetition of 12 players at the end of the set’s 108-card checklist. Particularly as these final cards are more scarce than the first 96, the duplication introduces disproportionate pain for set collectors forced to pay a premium for cards they already have.
Here is another set I’ve written about quite a bit and the set under whose shadow all other sets of the era reside.
While the set’s iconic status goes hand in hand with its trademark “Big League Chewing Gum” banner along so many of the card bottoms, my favorite cards come from the set’s final three releases (e.g., Morrissey, Root, and Herman above).
Where Diamond Stars lacked Ruth and Gehrig, Goudey brought these players on steroids, combining for six cards across the set’s 240-card checklist. Counting the Napoleon Lajoie card issued the following year, the set includes 66 cards of Hall of Famers and all but two players who competed in the season’s inaugural All-Star Game.
Were I to find fault with this set, it would be in a flaw common to all other baseball sets issued in the United States around this time. The set included players from the National League, American League, Pacific Coast League, International League, Southern Association, and American Association but no players from the Negro National League or other Black baseball leagues.
Kudos to my bud Scott Hodges who is filling some big holes in the 1933 Goudey set and others with his own digital card creations.
I’ve attempted similar in analog fashion though I’ve been less faithful to the history. Here is Buck Leonard on the Grays a year before he joined the team.
I will definitely treat the absence of Black stars as a bug, not a feature, but if there’s a silver lining it’s that there is no chance I could afford a 1933 Goudey Josh Gibson, and its absence from my collection would absolutely torment me daily.
1911 T205 Gold Borders
Like Dylan I had to include a tobacco set on my list. The T206 set, which initially did little for me, has grown on me immensely over the past couple years. Still, it would have to gain a lot more ground to surpass its gilded sequel.
The set features three different designs: one for National Leaguers, one for American Leaguers, and one for Minor Leaguers.
I absolutely love the NL and Minor League designs and am somewhat ho hum about the AL one, so I’m fortunate to be a Brooklyn collector.
As brilliant as the card fronts are, the T205 card backs are not to be ignored. While some feature brief biographies and one of several tobacco brands, others include…stats!
As with the two sets covered thus far, you will not find a single Black player in this set. You might suppose no card set from 1911 included Black athletes, but this was not the case. For example, here is Jack Johnson from the 1911 Turkey Red Cabinets (mostly baseball) set.
Once again then there is the knowledge in collecting T205 that you’re not collecting the very best players of the era. But again, did I mention I was a Brooklyn collector?!
Here’s where it always gets tough. I probably have ten or more sets I’m considering, but the rules are that I can only choose one. Though I love the cardboard of the 1930s (and earlier!) so much, my favorite era of baseball is the early 1950s. Though integration was slow, it was at least happening, and the mix of new talent and old talent was simply off the charts.
That said, the number of baseball card sets that managed to include all the top stars of the period was practically zero. Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, and Jackie Robinson in the same (playing era) set? Your choices are already fairly limited:
1947 Bond Bread
1948 Blue Tint
1950 All-Star Pinups
1950 R423 Strip Cards
1952 Berk Ross
Add Stan Musial and Bob Feller and the list shrinks further:
1947 Bond Bread
1950 R423 Strip Cards
1952 Berk Ross
Add Mantle and Mays and the list boils down to one: 1952 Berk Ross.
With a selection of players that also includes Roy Campanella, Yogi Berra, Larry Doby, Duke Snider, Monte Irvin, and an awesome Johnny Mize “in action” card, could this set be the winner?
As much as I love the checklist, the answer has to be no. Most of the images are too dark, too light, or too weird for my taste, and the simple design borders on the boring. Still, what could have been!
The key then is to find a set with beautiful cards and almost all these same players, and–if we add a few more years–Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente, and Ernie Banks.
As much as it pains me to give up Joe DiMaggio and Stan Musial, it’s hard for me not to land on 1956 Topps. The beautiful portraits, the Kreindleresque action shots, and the awesome cartoon backs offer my favorite overall design of the Golden Age of Baseball, and the absence of Bowman meant nearly every active star was included in the set.
Unlike 1952 Berk Ross, with only 72 cards, 1956 Topps included 342 cards (counting un-numbered checklists), hence was large enough to assign a card to nearly everyone, not just a couple stars per team.
If I have any bitterness toward this set, it’s only the sour grapes of waiting way too long to collect it. If there’s a lesson here, it’s that sometimes to collect your Rushmore you need to…rush more! Luckily, I do have all 24 Brooklyn cards from the set, and hey, did I mention I’m a Brooklyn collector?
How about you? Which vintage (or modern!) sets make your Mt Rushmore? We look forward to your article!
As collectors we all have our favorite sets—the sets that stood out and caught our attention the second we laid our eyes on them. In this article I’m going to be discussing the four sets that are at the top of my list and form my personal Mount Rushmore of vintage baseball sets.
First up we have my all-time favorite set, 1933 DeLong gum cards. These cards never fail to amaze me. From the first time I laid my eyes on the set, I fell in love. This 24-card set featuring 15 Hall of Famers is brought to life by a bright and colorful background. The players appear to be larger than life as they stand or slide (i.e., Pepper Martin) on the diamond.
One very unique part about these cards is that the players are printed in black and white but certain parts of their uniforms like their hats, socks and jersey-lettering show some color. One more small detail that I’ve always loved is the much smaller ball players that appear behind the main player pictured on the card.
Going beyond the front of the card, the backs are also perfectly done, each card eloquently offering tips on fielding, throwing, hitting, running, etc., written by Austen Lake, a columnist for the Boston Transcript. Lake was no stranger to the game of baseball, having tried out for the Yankees before going overseas to serve in World War I.
The uniqueness of these cards, front and back, are what gives this set a slight edge over the next set that I will discuss.
1934-36 Diamond Stars
Second on my Mount Rushmore—my Thomas Jefferson—is the Diamond Stars set produced between 1934 through 1936. This entire set is nothing short of a work of art, the Salvador Dali of baseball cards, if you will. This set is truly one of a kind, it will catch your eye instantly, and will keep your attention the more you look through each and every card.
This set produced 108 beautiful cards, with the final twelve repeated players from earlier in the set. The first 96 cards are all unique in their own way. You can look through all 96 and you won’t find any card quite like another, which is what makes this set so fun.
This may be the only set where the background of the card, using its Art Deco style, can often be every bit as captivating as the player the card features. From the wide use of colors from purple, to red, to blue, to yellow, to green, this set was truly the first of its kind and maybe the last of its kind.
One of a few things this set has in common with the previously discussed 1933 DeLong set is that the backs of the cards are also written by Austen Lake, who again does an incredible job. Not only does Lake add tips on fielding, batting and pitching in this set but certain cards also feature a player bio.
Next up we have what can arguably be considered the most popular baseball set of all time. This set is massive, especially for its time, consisting of 524 cards including over 100 minor league ball players. Numerous players have multiple cards in the set, often a combination of portraits and “action shots”.
This set from start to finish is absolutely stunning. Every single card in this set could be blown up and hung in an art museum and would not look out of place in the slightest. Though the player images are incredibly well done, the backgrounds of the cards are what captivates me the most.
Not only do the bright blue skies suck you in, but the spectacular blend of orange and yellow skies truly capture the essence of a time period when the most honest form of work was working in mines, in a factory, or some sort of construction or road work, when smoke filled the sky in almost every city in America at the turn of the century.
Going beyond the front of the cards, another special feature of the set is the 16 different variations of the backs of the cards, from the simplicity of the Piedmont and Sweet Corporal backs to the more elegant and rare backs like Carolina Brights, Cycle Cigarettes, and my personal favorite, Polar Bear.
To wrap up my Mount Rushmore I’m going with an iconic set that features some truly iconic cards, most notably the legendary Mickey Mantle card, Eddie Mathews’ rookie card, and Willie Mays’ second year card.
It was a close call between this set and the 1953 Topps set that from the following year. I’m not sure there’s exactly a wrong answer between the two but I personally have always loved the 1952 set since I was first introduced to it.
This set does an incredible job of mixing simplicity with outstanding photography. The legendary stadiums that appear in the background of the cards and the various colors used as the backdrops for some of my personal favorites (Clem Labine, Roy Campanella, Bob Feller, Jackie Robinson, Johnny Sain) are nothing short of mesmerizing.
Going beyond the players on the card and the backgrounds, the star studded borders that go around the nameplate with the player’s facsimile autograph and the old time team logos add the perfect touch on the perfect set to summarize 1950’s baseball.
Editor’s note: Do you have a player you collect? We’d love to hear about it. All SABR members are eligible to write for the blog!
I’ve written about Tim Jordan once already for the blog, and it was exactly that piece that led to this one. You see, back in March I had become fascinated with Tim Jordan but had exactly zero of his cards. For that matter I had exactly zero cards from any set he was in, not even the 1990 Target Dodgers set!
It’s hard to say when exactly you go from some cards of a guy to a full-fledged “player collection,” but I’m pretty sure it requires having at least one card. That changed about a month later when I landed one of the two Tim Jordan poses in the T206 set.
The card held tremendous appeal for me aside from simply being my first ever T206 and my first Tim Jordan. For one thing, there is the sunset. It was after all the American Caramel sunset that first captured my attention. This one wasn’t nearly as spectacular, but I still loved it.
Second, the position of the hands and body. Huh? In my scouring of various newspaper articles on Jordan I learned that his swing featured the same leg lift popularized by more famous hitters such as Mel Ott and Sadaharu Oh. If you look for it on the card, you can see it.
Well that was that for a while, though I managed to pick up several other T206 Brooklyn cards of other players in the several months since. I desperately wanted the T206 Jordan portrait card and the American Caramel, only I wasn’t quite desperate enough to pay the prices asked for the very small number of cards on the market.
Uncharacteristically (but not regrettably) I added a double of my same Jordan, only with a different back (Polar Bear), simply because the price was right and the Jordan cards I really wanted just weren’t popping up. I realize it’s a stretch but one could argue this is the first card ever to feature two rookie home run champs: Tim Jordan on the front and Pete Alonso on the back.
Then the floodgates burst and I was able to add this beauty to my collection.
Granted, running the table on T206 Jordan poses doesn’t quite match the achievement of collecting all four Cobbs or–let’s face it–any two of most players, but for a collector who began the year with a Monster Number of zero it was still a huge achievement. It also took me from Tim Jordan card-haver to Tim Jordan collector.
That said, I wouldn’t be typing this post (yet) if not for the package that arrived this morning. THE Tim Jordan card that began my fascination with the Dodger slugger.
The corners are so rounded the card can practically roll, and there’s also a bit of a diamond cut to it. Still, I somehow managed a crease-free, (hopefully) unaltered Jordan for about the same price I almost paid for much, much worse looking specimens. Ah, and it’s also my first card ever from an American Caramel set.
Not counting my Polar Bear back variation, my Tim Jordan collection is now up to a whopping three cards, which puts it about 700 cards behind my Dr. K collection but on the bright side requires far less storage space.
As I think about the future of my Jordan collection, let me put it out there right now that I’ve never really been a “completist.” The three cards I have already are by far my favorite cards of his, and I have a feeling most future Jordan acquisitions, 1990 Target aside, would involve spending a lot more for cards I like a lot less.
Still, I’ll highlight four-ish cards that will at least warrant saved searches on eBay just in case. The first two are from the 1911 Turkey Red Cabinets set. If I add either, there will be display challenges due to their 5-3/4″ X 8″ size. Still, I’ve always wanted a card from this beautiful set, and I suspect I could figure something out.
UPDATE: Hey, it was my birthday! What can I say?
The final card holding an unrealistic spot on my want list is this 1912 C46 Imperial Tobacco card. Though I’m not a true “type collector” I do like the idea of adding a card from a set I don’t yet have, not to mention a very early Canadian issue. The card also feels important to my Tim Jordan collection in that Jordan enjoyed quite a career resurgence with the Maple Leafs under manager Joe Kelley (no, not him!).
UPDATE: One of my SABR Chicago buds read this post and just happened to have an extra one of these! 😱 Check one more off the list!
Ah, and did I mention that MLB Historian John Thorn was kind enough to send me an old business card featuring…
You guessed it…Tim Jordan!
And shoot, I knew window shopping can be a dangerous sport. Just added another Jordan (or Jordon if you prefer)!
Returning to the cards I still don’t have, there are two Jordan cards in the 1910-11 Sporting Life set. I wouldn’t turn down either but the Dodger/Superba fan in me certainly prefers the blue background. (The other is catalogued as “pastel background.”)
With all the cards I’ve just shown, you might be wondering what’s not on my Tim Jordan want list. Okay, not much, but you can see a fairly comprehensive list of his cards at Trading Card Database. Where some listings lack images you can usually pull them up with a Bing or Google search. Among them was one that I’ll declare a “best of.” It combined a sunset, the leg lift, his Brooklyn days, and his Toronto days all onto a single card. Why, such a card seems worthy of a museum, you might say. And indeed, that’s where you’ll find it!
How about you? Who is a player you collect, perhaps one a bit off most other collectors’ radars? How far along are you? What cards are you still looking for, and which are you willing to live without? If you haven’t written for the SABR Baseball Cards blog yet, highlighting your player collection might be a friendly way to get things started.
We’ve had a few articles on the blog recently dealing with set completion. Three that come to mind are the one from Jeff on which cards do and don’t constitute a complete set, one from Artie on building modern master sets, and “Set Building 101” from Jim.
As I prepare to dispense my questionable advice on our SABR readership, I’m reminded of the opening line to the Neil Young song “Hippie Dream.” (I have to imagine you all know the song by heart, but in case you’re having a moment, I’ll remind you: “Take my advice. Don’t listen to me…!”)
A set I’m collecting (or perhaps am done collecting) is somewhat typical of the almost aggressively anti-information approach I take to collecting, despite being someone who at times reads and writes almost manically about cards. Heal thyself, physician, as they say!
Some of you have seen from previous posts here or on Twitter/Facebook that I went from having no pre-1933 baseball cards (I have to say “baseball” here since my son and I have about 80 pre-1933 Sir Isaac Newton cards) to taking on the 1911 T205 Gold Borders Brooklyn team set. Here is a pic I posted back in March, with my dozen cards framed nicely by the Cigarbox Cards display.
Go ahead, ask me what I knew about the set before I started collecting it. Glad you asked! I knew the card were pretty, the only Hall of Famer was Zack Wheat, and almost all the other players were terrible. Of course I’m not an idiot, so I also did a quick eBay search and saw that “some guy” on the team could be had in reasonable shape (imagine the raw equivalent of a PSA 2.5) for $40. Okay, cool, I’m in.
Well, that picture from March is still my picture in August. Little did I know going in that three-time 20-game loser Kaiser Wilhelm is practically Walter Johnson in terms of price tag. Good chance I could take all twelve cards in my display–and even throw in the display!–and try to trade them for a Wilhelm in worse shape than all of them…and be refused.
So how bad do I want the card? I’ll answer my own question with a question. How bad do I want the team set? (And yes, I realize the completists out there are already wondering why I only have one of the two Barger poses.)
Whatever words I might offer in the affirmative, the facts of the case speak for themselves. I’ve been one player short for 6 months–the whole pandemic so far–and I’ve done nothing about it. I don’t even click when my saved eBay search turns up a hit. I don’t love being stuck at 12 players out of 13, but I love even less spending my (hopefully someday) 1960 Lake to Lake Dairy Hank Aaron money on a Kaiser Wilhelm. It’s a common limbo I find myself in often, a purgatory without the purgation. Done but not done.
True, it might be totally acceptable to go 79/80 on Fleer Ted Williams or 239/240 on 1933 Goudey. God knows plenty of otherwise respectable collectors are willing to set the remarkably pedestrian goal of 520/524 for T206, just as many modern collectors are able to settle for only the /5, /10, /25, /50, /99, /199, /400, /999, and /2020 Vertigo Refractor Rainbow Dazzle Tiffany versions of Jasson Dominguez “Move Over, Henry Aaron” Transcendent Museum Edition (Retail), foregoing the 1/1 in a last-ditch effort to avoid mortgage foreclosure.
Hobby orthodoxy permits those collectors to declare victory. Not so for a Kaiser-less Superba set. In fact, many collectors would insist I need two, and let’s not even get started about the factory numbers or tobacco brands!
The rational part of my brain recognizes it would have been prudent to do my homework before jumping in with both feet. Then I never would have gotten started on a set I couldn’t finish. I might have chosen something else, something I could do.
Then again, I wouldn’t have these cards, which are without a doubt among the dozen most beautiful in my entire collection. Yes, it was a dumb thing to do, to go in blind. Every now and then, however, you can be so dumb you’re smart.
So no regrets, that’s where I’m at. None at all. The set collector in me may be “suffe ing” 😃 but the card collector in me is doing just fine. In fact, he just picked up his fourth T206 Brooklyn card! Can the complete set be far behind?
Back in February, I posted my first entry chronicling the beginning of my T206 journey. Fast forward a few months, thanks to an abundance of downtime and a seemingly unquenchable thirst, my monster number has doubled from 52 to 104, putting me at exactly 20% complete of the basic set, minus “The Big 4.” The milestone was achieved courtesy of a beautiful fire engine red Ginger Beaumont portrait, won via a last second eBay buzzer beater (it’s nice to be on the other side of this for once.)
Reflecting on my adventure to date, which has been wildly fun, maddening, and educational all in one, I’ve compiled some observations, which I believe would be especially beneficial to those thinking about dabbling (or plunging like myself) into the set. Please note that I’m by no means an expert, and you should supplement these thoughts with your own research.
While eBay is a great platform to buy and sell T206 cards, there are other options. Net54, Facebook groups and Auction Houses are the three other main avenues T206s are bought, sold and traded. Paying attention to these avenues is crucial, especially if you want to add the occasional big card to your set! Auction Houses in particular tend to be a good bet for those looking for exotic backs and/or high graded specimens.
There are certain poses that shouldn’t be hard to find but in actuality are really difficult! What I mean by this is that there is research to validate that these poses shouldn’t be challenging but for a myriad of reasons are. Pre-War Cards touched on this subject a few years ago, but I thought it would make sense to revisit briefly. In my nine or so months hunting, surprisingly difficult subjects include Doc Adkins, Del Howard and Ray Ryan, amongst others. As I’ve learned via word of mouth, a few subjects are hoarded by certain collectors, so if you see one of these subjects at a decent price, don’t hesitate to pounce.
While there are hundreds if not into the thousands of active T206 collectors out there, you quickly realize it’s a fairly small community. What I’m getting at, as any experienced baseball card collector knows, is you ultimately run into the same people over and over. Building relationships and building a reputation as someone people can trust is of the utmost importance in the T206 world. Not only can these relationships can help land you cards that you never thought were possible (see below) but they can also help expand your knowledge immensely. My advice? Ask questions to fellow collectors, read through and when you’re ready, engage in conversations and discussions on message boards. The great majority of people in the community are happy to chat and share their wisdom. I know I’ve learned a ton by doing this. Ultimately, who knows what you might learn or who you might meet.
The first house that an old high school buddy and his wife owned was built in 1850. Adjacent to the house was a carriage house that had been converted into a garage. Shortly after moving into the house in 1979 it was apparent that some of the support beams in the carriage house needed to be replaced.
To get at the support beams the walls in the carriage house needed to come down. Much to the surprise of my friend, behind the sparse insulation and the horse-hair was a mishmash of early 1900s Americana that included advertising signs, newspapers, pins, and tobacco cards that were also being used as insulation.
Some of the historical artifacts were carted off to the dump along with the debris from the construction. Some items, like the “Modern Women Use Crisco Instead of Whale Blubber” sign, were tossed in 2012 due to mold build up. However, for some reason my friend decided to keep the tobacco cards and the pins that he found behind the walls.
The tobacco cards and pins remained tucked away in a drawer for over 40 years until last month when he posted a couple of group shots of the items on Facebook. In the post he asked – “Does anyone know if they are worth anything?”
I immediately called him and gave him some information about the cards, pricing guides, and grading services. I also emailed him links to online sources of information that included checklists.
It was impossible to determine which tobacco cards he had from the group shots, so I asked him to email me individual photos of the front and backs of each card.
From the photos I determined that he had T205, T206, and E91 baseball cards and T-218 Champions and Prize Fighters cards.
Behind the Walls Checklist
I have listed below the cards by set that my friend found behind the walls. I have also included the photos of the individual cards that my friend sent me organized by set.
My friend also saved some assorted pins that he found, including a President McKinley pin.
My friend and his wife sold the house in 1982. When I asked my friend if he had taken down all of the garage walls. He replied – “I am not sure. It might have been only two walls.” My follow up question was – “Did you take down any of the walls in the house?” He said – “No. We just wallpapered over the walls in the house.”
My buddy and I are now planning a road trip to see the current owners of his first house. We want to see if they would be interested in some free wall demolition work on the condition that we do a 3-way split on the proceeds of any T206 Honus Wagner cards that might be found during the wall removal process.
I’d been sitting on the idea of this article for a while, and I finally decided to “check it off” when I saw an exchange between fellow SABR Baseball Cards blogger Matt Prigge and prewar savant Anson Whaley (with a guest appearance by Jeff Smith) on the first numbered baseball cards.
Interesting question. The N48 cards are generally cited as being from 1886. These featured women as baseball players and since those are some of the earliest baseball card sets in general, I’m thinking those could be it. No guarantees. Just a guess. https://t.co/5uO0MlW67B
Today the idea of numbered cards goes hand in hand with that of a (contemporaneously published) checklist. However, that was not always the case. While numerous examples abound, one famous numbered set with no checklist was 1933 Goudey. Likewise, we will encounter sets that had checklists but no numbered cards. This article will not be exhaustive, so don’t use it as a checklist. Rather, it will just highlight some of the variety attached to what in my collecting heyday was considered the most boring card in the pack.
Had I written this article a year ago, I might have assumed erroneously that on-card checklists were a hobby dinosaur. After all, why waste a card in the set when it’s easy enough to post a checklist online? However, the lone pack of 2019 Topps update I bought last fall included a surprise on the back of my Albert Pujols highlights card.
Though I have to imagine the past three decades of baseball cards have more of a story to tell, I’m going to quickly jump all the way back to what otherwise was the last time I remember pulling a checklist from a pack.
The very last packs of cards I bought before entering my long “real life took over” hiatus were in 1992. I don’t recall buying any mainstream sets that year, but I liked the Conlons and their close cousins, the Megacards Babe Ruth set, of which I somehow still have the box and three unopened packs.
The Ruth set had no checklist, but the Conlon issue had several, much in the style of the Topps cards of my youth, right down to the checkboxes.
While there’s something to be said for the familiar, I was an even bigger fan of the checklists I pulled from packs of 1990 Leaf.
Checklists adorned with superstar players was new to my own pack opening experience. However, as with most “innovations” in the Hobby, it wasn’t truly new, as we’ll soon see.
This was my absolute pack-buying heyday, and it was a great time to be a checklist collector, assuming there is such a thing. Yes, we had the standard checklist cards each of those years…
…but we also got team checklists, either on the backs of manager cards…
…or on the back of team cards.
As a quick aside, I’ll note that EVERY collector I knew in 1978 sorted his cards by team and used the team card to mark progress, making the set checklists (e.g., 1-121) completely superfluous.
Though I’m skipping most years, I’ll make a quick stop at 1974 to highlight two features in particular. In addition to the standard checklists AND team photo cards without checklists, the 1974 Topps set used unnumbered team signature cards as team checklists. (Aside: Though unnumbered cards had a mile-long history in the Hobby and are hardly extinct today, I rarely ran across them as a kid apart from the 1981 Donruss checklists or the 1981 Fleer “Triple Threat” error card.)
A final note on these team checklists: they did not include late additions from the Traded set (e.g., Santo on White Sox), so a separate “Trades Checklist” was provided also.
If I had to declare a G.O.A.T. checklist it would come from 1967-69 Topps, all possible inspirations for the 1990 Leaf card I showed earlier. (In fairness, 1984 Fleer might have played a role.)
At first glance I mistakenly thought these checklists brought more than just a bonus superstar to the mix. Take a look at entry 582 on the back of card below.
Could it be? Were we looking at the pinnacle of 1960s artificial intelligence technology: checklists with the self-awareness to check themselves off? Sadly, no. We were just looking at an abbreviation for “Checklist – 7th Series.” After all, this “smart checklist” was card 504 in the set and the ostensibly checked off card was a completely different card.
While our friends at Topps were having a ho-hum year, checklist-wise, as if there’s any other kind of year to have, checklist-wise, I do want to provide recognition to the efforts at Fleer. Haters of the Keith Shore #Project 2020 designs will probably not be fans, but I’m a sucker for this cartoony, colorful approach to checklists.
Even the title, “Player Roster,” is a nice twist, don’t you think?
The first appearance of numbered checklist-only cards from Topps came in 1961. Each checklist featured a baseball action scene on both the front and back of the card, and collectors can have fun trying to identify the players. (Side note: I believe these are the first ever game-action photos ever used by Topps.)
While the image on the back persisted across the set, the images on the front differed with each card. For example, here is Mr. Cub on the front of the second checklist. (Banks also appears prominently on the fifth checklist!)
Meanwhile in Philadelphia, Fleer introduced its first ever checklist cards.
The series one checklist featured Home Run Baker, Ty Cobb, and Zach Wheat well past their playing days, while series two did the same for George Sisler and Pie Traynor.
Incidentally, a similar approach was used 15 years later by Mike Aronstein in the 1976 SSPC set.
While Fleer had baseball sets in 1959 and 1960 as well, neither used checklist cards. However, this was not because the concept had not yet dawned on them. On the contrary, here’s a card from one of their more notable non-sport issues way back in 1959!
Note that the card pictured is #63. Cards 16 and 64 in the set are also known to have “checklist back” variations. However, the much more common versions of these same cards simply feature humorous descriptions or jokes.
I referred to the 1961 Topps cards as checklist-only because there were in fact numbered checklist cards issued in the 1960 set. The 1960 cards were the perfect (or anti-perfect) hybrid of set checklists and team cards, perhaps offering a glimpse of the “why not both!” direction Topps would ultimately adopt.
Shown below is the Braves team card, but the back is not a Braves checklist. Rather, it’s the checklist for the set’s entire fifth series!
But wait, how does that even work? The set only had seven series but there were 16 teams, right? Yes, somewhat inelegantly Topps repeated checklists on the back of multiple team cards. For example, the A’s and Pirates each had sixth series backs.
Ditto 1959 Topps…
We have to go all the way back to 1957 to see checklist-only cards. Aside from being unnumbered and landscape oriented, these cards check off all the boxes of the staid checklist cards I grew up with.
The 1956 set did the same but with an unusual turn, and not just the 90-degree reorientation. While the 1957 card shown includes the first and second series, the 1956 cards included non-adjacent series. The card below is for the first and third series, while a second card has series two and four.
The 1956 checklists also featured the first (that I could find) appearance of checkboxes. As such, it wouldn’t be wrong to regard (or disregard!) all predecessors as mere lists, unworthy of the checklist title.
The crumbiest card in the set?
It may have looked like Topps was blazing new trails with their checklist cards in 1956 and 1957, but take a close look at the second card in this uncut strip from the Johnston’s Cookies set, series one.
You may need to be the judge as to whether this qualifies as an actual card in the set vs a non-card that just happens to be the same size as the other cards.
On one hand, why not? On the other, how many collectors would consider the “How to Order Trading Cards” end panel a card?
When is a checklist not a checklist?
In 1950, Chicago-based publisher B.E. Callahan released a box set featuring all 60 Hall of Famers. The set was updated annually and included 80 Hall of Famers by 1956, the last year it was issued. At the very end of the set was what appeared to be a checklist for the set, but was it?
As it turns out, the card back wasn’t so much a checklist as it was a listing of all Hall of Famers. Were it intended as a checklist, it presumably would have also listed this Hall of Fame Exterior card and perhaps even itself!
Simple logic might also suggest that a checklist would have been particularly superfluous for cards already sold as an intact set; then again, stranger things have happened.
No checklist but the next best thing?
Prior to 1956 Topps a common way to assist set collectors, though a far cry from an actual checklist, was by indicating the total number cards in the set right on the cards, as with this 1949 Bowman card. Note the top line on the card’s reverse indicates “No. 24 of a Series of 240.”
Though this was the only Bowman set to cue size, Gum, Inc., took the same approach with its Play Ball set a decade earlier. The advertised number of cards in the set proved incorrect, however, as the set was limited to 161 cards rather than 250.
Goudey too overestimated the size of its own set the year before. The first series of 24 cards seemed to suggest 288 cards total…
…while the second series indicated 312!
Add them up and you have a set of 48 cards evidently advertised as having more than six times that number. In fact, some collectors have speculated, based among other things on the similarity of card backs, that the 1938 issue was a continuation of the 1933 (!) issue. Add the new 48 to the 240 from 1933 and you get 288. Perhaps, though the number 312 remains mysterious either way.
Tobacco card collectors are no stranger to the advertised set size being way off. Consider the 1911 T205 Gold Borders set for starters. “Base Ball Series 400 Designs” implies a set nearly twice the size of the 208 cards known to collectors and perhaps hints at original plans to include Joe Jackson, Honus Wagner, and many other stars excluded from the set.
As for its even more famous cousin, the 1909-11 T206 set. How many cards are there? 150 subjects? 350 subjects? 350-460?
The return of set checklists
While I’ve just highlighted several non-examples of checklists, there are several, probably dozens, of sets pre-1956 Topps that include checklists. The most common variety involved printing the entire set’s checklist on the back of every card in the set, as with the 1933 George C. Miller card of Mel Ott shown here.
As evidenced not only by Ott’s name but also brief biographical information unique to Master Melvin, the Miller set provided a unique card back per player in the set. As we travel further back in time to examine earlier checklisting, you’ll see that a far more common approach involved applying the same card back to multiple players in the set, often by team, by series, or across the set’s entirety.
The return of team checklists
It’s been a while since we’ve seen team checklists, but some great early examples come our way from the 240-card 1922 American Caramel set.
As the small print indicates, the set included 15 players apiece from each of the 16 teams, leading to an even 240 cards. As the Ruth back suggests, all Yankees in the set had identical backs, as was the case for all team subsets within the set. Rival caramel maker Oxford Confectionary produced a much smaller set (E253) the year before and was able to fit the set’s entire 20-card roster on the back of each card.
The golden age of checklists
Though neither the T205 nor T206 sets included checklist cards, many other sets of the era did. A fun one, checklist or no checklist, is the 1912 Boston Garters set. Note the back side (of the card, not the player!) lists the 16 cards in the set. (These are VERY expensive cards by the way. For example, the card shown is easily the priciest Mathewson among his various cards without pants.)
Another such set was the 1911 Turkey Red set where, as with the 1922 American Caramel cards, every card was a checklist card (subject to back variations). Low numbered cards had a checklist for cards 1-75 or 1-76, and high numbered cards had a checklist for cards 51-126.
The 1910 Tip Top Bread set provided collectors a much kneaded set checklist and team checklist for their hard-earned dough. Of course, this was by default since all the subjects in the set were all on the same team. While the checklist suggests numbered cards, individual cards have do not include a card number as part of the design.
The 1908-1910 American Caramel E91 cards similarly provided a checklist for each year’s set and the three teams that comprised it. For example the 1910 set (E91-C) listed Pittsburg, Washington, and Boston players.
And just to show these sets weren’t flukes, there are the 1909 Philadelphia Caramel (E95), 1909 E102, 1909-1910 C.A. Briggs (E97), 1910 Standard Caramel (E93), 1910 E98, 1911 George Close Candy (E94), and 1913 Voskamp’s Coffee Pittsburgh Pirates, and various minor league issues of the era.
Size isn’t everything
Another early approach to checklists is illustrated by the 1909-1913 Sporting News supplements.
The picture backs were blank, but sales ads provided collectors with the full list of players available.
By the way, the highlighting of “SENT IN A TUBE” provides a hint that collectors even more than a century ago cared at least a little bit about condition.
Obak took this approach a step further in 1913 by including a complete checklist in every cigarette box.
Though not technically a card, one could make some argument that this Obak insert represents the very first standalone checklist packaged with cards.
I don’t know enough about this 1889 (!) checklist of Old Judge cabinet photo premiums to say whether it was inserted with the cigarettes and cards as was the Obak or lived somewhere else entirely as did the Sporting News ad.
Either way, it won’t be our oldest example of a checklist.
Where it all began…almost
There aren’t many baseball card sets older than the 1888 Goodwin Champions and 1887 Allen & Ginter World Champions issues. Ditto 1887 W.S. Kimball Champions (not pictured). Take a look at the card backs, and it becomes evident that checklists are almost as old as baseball cards themselves.
And while most of the card backs I’ve seen from these issues are rather dull, here is one specimen that makes me smile.
It’s not the easiest thing to see, but I do believe the collector crossed Kelly off the checklist…
…before running out of money, running out of ink, or just moving on like any good player collector.
As my examples demonstrate, baseball card checklists have taken on many forms, and the question of which baseball card checklist was first is one that depends on your definition of a checklist and perhaps even your definition of a baseball card.
Though it’s risky to infer motives from men long since dead, it seems reasonable that the creation and publication of baseball card checklists indicates a recognition that the cards themselves were not simply throwaway novelties but items to be collected and saved. What’s more, this was evidently the case as far back as 1887!
Note also that these checklists weren’t simply offered as courtesies. They reflected the at least an implicit assumption that set checklists were more valuable (to the seller!) than other forms of advertising that would otherwise occupy the same real estate whether the product was bread, tobacco, or candy. A standard Hobby 101 education teaches us that cards were long used to help sell the products they were packaged with. What we see here is that the allure wasn’t simply a baseball player or his likeness on cardboard but also the set of such likenesses that kept the pennies and nickels coming.
I started this article with a question. Are checklist cards the most boring cards in the set? By and large, yes, I think they are. However, that’s only true most of the time.
For with every checklist, at least those put to purpose, there is that one moment of glory, of sweetness, and of triumph when the checklist—formerly mocked and yawned at—informs collectors young and old that their springs and summers were not spent in vain but rather in pursuit of the heroic, the noble, and the—holy smokes, it’s about damn time!—DONE!
That’s a pretty obvious way to start this, right? Pretty much anyone who has spent time in the baseball card hobby knows how that digit and that name go together, that Andy Pakfo, as a Brooklyn Dodger, was card #1 in the landmark 1952 Topps baseball card set.
I’ve often wondered why Andy Pafko, of all people, got the fabled #1 spot in that set. But did it matter in 1952 that he was card #1? When it card #1 start mattering? The earliest example of a card set with a clear numbering system was the 1909 Philadelphia Carmel set. The cards aren’t individually numbered, but rather featured a numbered listing on the back for the 25-card set, with Honus Wagner is the #1 spot. Wagner was (and is) a huge name in the sport, but given that 10 of the 25 subjects of the set are Hall-of-Famers, it’s likely that Wagner was listed first, well, just because he was listed first. The 1910 Philadelphia Carmel set had the same numbering system, this time with Athletics’ first basemen Harry Davis is the #1 spot, with the checklist arranged by team and Davis in the top spot for no obvious reason.
The first true #1 seems to be Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown in the 1911 Turkey Red Cabinets set. This set, too, features a list of all subjects in the set on the backside of each card, but each card is also numbered, with “No. 1” gracing the backside of Brown’s card. The number system had a purpose – smokers could collect coupons from certain Turkey Red products and exchange them for the cards, instructed to “order by number only.” As for Brown’s place in the #1 spot, it isn’t clear whether not is was supposed to mean anything. There’s a haphazard alphabetical ordering to the set, but many of the names are out of place, including Brown’s. And while Brown was one of the biggest names in the sport at the time, the set is loaded with similarly famous names. The 1914 and 1915 Cracker Jack sets were also numbered, with no clear system to their assignment. The #1 card in each (the 1915 set re-issued most of the 1914 set) was Otto Knabe of the Baltimore Terrapins of the Federal League. Knabe had a few good years with the Phillies of the National League, but was hardly a star in Baltimore and was out of baseball by the end of the 1916 season. Again, we find a #1 with no obvious reason behind it.
The 1933 Goudey set is a landmark in hobby history, but no one cared to memorialize this occasion with it’s opening card. The spot went to Benny Benough, a career back-up catcher who had played his final season in 1932. But in the 1934 Goudey set, Jimmie Foxx – winner of the AL MVP award in both of the previous seasons – was given the lead-off spot. This is the first obvious example of the #1 used as an honorarium. And it would be the last until 1940, when the Play Ball set devoted the first 12 spots in its 240 card checklist to the four-time defending champion New York Yankees, with the #1 spot going to reigning MVP Joe DiMaggio. But in 1941, Play Ball went with Eddie Miller as card #1. Miller was an all-star the year before but, as a member of the moribund Boston Bees, was hardly a household name.
The first two major post-war releases honored a pair of reigning MVPs with their #1 spots – 1948-49 Leaf with Joe DiMaggio and 1948 Bowman with Bob Elliot. But Bowman got a little more obscure with their 1949 #1, picking Boston Braves rookie Vern Bickford – a member of a pennant-winning club, but hardly a national stand-out. Bowman’s 1950 #1 was Mel Parnell, an all-star and a sensation on the mound in ’49, and in 1951 they opened with rookie Whitey Ford, who’d helped lead the Yankees to another World Series win. Both were stand-out players and names collectors would have known, but neither are as convincing as purposeful picks for #1 as Foxx, DiMaggio, or Elliot. For Topps’ 1951 Game release, there were a pair of #1s (for both the blue and red back sets) – Yogi Berra and Eddie Yost – who, like Parnell and Ford, don’t really indicate any obvious attempt to use the number as an honor, particularly given the small size of 1951 issue.
So that brings us to “Handy” Andy Pafko. And tells us… well, not much. Sometimes the top spot was used to pay tribute and sometimes it was just used and sometimes it’s kind of stuck in between. But after Pafko, Topps would use the #1 spot for a variety of purposes, some honorific, others utilitarian. The 1950s were a mixed bag: a jumble of superstars (Jackie Robinson in 1953, Ted Williams in 1954, 1957, and 1958), executives (AL President William Harridge in 1956 and commissioner Ford Frick in 1959), and a postseason hero (Dusty Rhodes in 1955). The 1960s featured award winners from the year before (Early Wynn in 1960, Dick Groat in 1961, Roger Maris in 1962, and Willie Mays in 1966), mixed in multi-player league leader cards and a tribute to the 1966 Baltimore Orioles World Series win. Between 1970 and 1972, the #1 card honored the World Series winner with a team photo. 1973-1976’s top spots went to Hank Aaron, honoring his chase and breaking of Babe Ruth’s home run and RBI records. But this run of #1s could have been little more than a coincidence. After Aaron’s 1974 card (which is actually his base card, the front given a unique design to commemorate the home run records that he hadn’t actually set yet) was a pure #1 honor spot. But the ones that followed fit into a pattern that Topps would mostly use for the next decade – opening the set with either Record Breakers or Highlights and ordering those cards alphabetically. A fellow named “Aaron” setting records and making highlights was bound to take those top spots. (You can find Beckett’s visual guide to Topps #1s here)
Despite an boom in card production, the 1980s would see dark times for #1 cards. Fleer and Donruss joined Topps in the baseball card market in 1981 and both companies put player base cards in their #1 spots. Fleer honored the veteran Pete Rose and Donruss led off with young shortstop Ozzie Smith, a decision that – in the context of the great work on the ’81 Donruss set by Jason in a recent post here – seems to not have been much of a decision at all, leaving their brand’s Hall of Fame leadoff man more of a coincidence than a tribute. But by 1982, all three companies had locked themselves into numbering formulas that left little room for creativity at the top. Topps went with Record Breakers or Highlights, bottoming out in the #1 game in 1983 when Tony Armas took the honors with a card commemorating him fielding 11 fly balls in a single game, breaking a five-year-old record. Donruss debuted its famed ‘Diamond Kings’ subset in 1982 and opened each set of the 1980s with it, leading to some big names at the top, but never really lining up the assignment with any big event from the prior year (only Ryne Sandberg’s #1 card in 1985 followed up on a major award win). Fleer, arranging its checklist by team, opened up each set with the previous year’s World Series winner. But with the players within each team arranged alphabetically, their #1s went to guys like Doug Blair and Keith Anderson as often as they went to stars. What’s more, Fleer goofed in 1989 and opened the set with the Oakland A’s (Don Baylor at #1), even though the Dodgers won the World Series in 1988. And just two years later, Fleer would make the same mistake, handing the A’s a premature crown for the 1990 season by leading off with catcher Troy Afenir, who had 14 at bats the year before and hadn’t played at all in the postseason. Their habit of honoring (or at least attempting to honor) the World Champions at the open of their set was dropped after that year.
The truest honorary #1 spot from the big three in the 1980s was the 1986 Topps Pete Rose. His base card – a “pure” card – was given top billing and followed by a series of career retrospective cards to commemorate his breaking of the all-time hits records in 1985. It was the first time since Willie Mays in 1965 that a player’s pure base card was given #1. 1986 also saw the debut of Sportflics, a gimmicky set, but one that took its #1 seriously. George Brett led off the set and, for the next four years, the set would always open not just with a star, but with a player sought after in the hobby. In 1988, the Major League Marketing, parent company of Sportflics, debuted the more standard Score set, which opened with Don Mattingly at #1, continuing the trend set by Sportflics and bringing it into the collecting mainstream.
1989, of course, would be the year Upper Deck changed the hobby forever, in no small part to opening up their debut set with – for the first time ever in a major release – a player who has yet to make his Major League debut. This card, of course, was the iconic Ken Griffey Jr. rookie. It would become one of the hobby’s most recognizable cards and would join the Pafko as a famed #1. But oddly enough, it didn’t really change the trajectory of #1s. In fact, Upper Deck, who owed so much to that one card, didn’t even bother putting a player in the #1 spot in 1990 or 1991 – using that spot instead for checklists. The next big deal rookie to get a #1 spot from any brand was Mark Wohlers in the 1992 Donruss set. And who remembers that?
The heart of the junk wax era saw some interesting uses of #1. In 1990 and 1991, Donruss’s new Leaf Set – among the first line of upscale releases – didn’t even have a card #1, instead opening with unnumbered card with the Leaf logo. The 1991 Bowman set opened with a tribute to Rod Carew. Intended as a fun set for kids, Donruss’s 1992 Triple Play set opened with a card of Skydome. And to showcase the classiness of its first upscale set, Topps put Dave Stewart at the 1 slot for its debut Stadium Club set – dressed in a tuxedo and a baseball cap. There were a few true head-scratchers from this era as well, such as 1993 Donruss opening with journeyman reliever Craig Lefferts. Or Bowman giving its #1 in 1993 to Glenn Davis, who was 30 games away from the end of his career (it was actually Davis’ third straight year getting a #1, as he got the spot in 1991’s Studio set and 1992’s Fleer Ultra due being the first alphabetical player for the Baltimore Orioles, the first alphabetical American League team).
By the mid-1990s, nearly all major releases – save for Fleer, who clung to their team-based numbering system that gave no attention to #1 – had taken up the practice putting a base card of a star player with hobby appeal in the top spot. That trend continues today, with Topps offering an online vote to determine who gets #1 each year, and the winning players – Aaron Judge, Mike Trout, Ronald Acuna, very much fitting that mold. So it ended up not being the legacy of Andy Pafko or Ken Griffey Jr. or Diamond Kings or broken records or hot rookies that live on as #1 in our binders today, but that of Sportflics and Score, who made things no more complicated than taking a player both talented and popular and putting him at the top of stack.
Editor’s note: For the #StayHomeWithSABR video presentation of this article, click here!
The SABR Baseball Cards Research Committee is working with tobacco card enthusiast Matt Haynes of Alton, IL, to assemble the most complete (virtual) collection of T206 source images available.
A graphic designer by trade, Matt’s inspiration in beginning this project was the simple beauty and artistry of the T206 cards themselves. Like many of our readers, Matt was an avid collector in his youth but took a long hiatus from the Hobby when “real life” took over. It was the proximity of a local card shop to a new job that lured Matt back into collecting, first focusing on top-shelf superstars of the 1950s but now exclusively on the 524-card set known as the Monster.
Starting from more than 40 images already cataloged at the T206 Resource photo gallery, adding the finds of several other hobbyists from card forums such as Net54 Baseball and Tobacco Row, and adding images from his own research, Matt was able to assemble 86 card-image pairs for this initial post, already the most available anywhere on the Web. Now we are asking you, our readers, for your help in finding more. (See contact info at end of post.)
Please excuse some wonky formatting as Jason makes updates to the table, including the addition of more unmatched T206 cards to speed up your photo hunts.
*This is the first of hopefully many posts about my journey collecting the T206 set, aka “The Monster”. Many have tried, most have failed. Wish me luck!*
My introduction to the T206 set came last spring during a meetup with a local card collector. He was selling a Roberto Clemente rookie card to me because it didn’t fit with his “collection.” He proceeded to tell me that he primarily collected T206, which he referred to as “The Monster.” I recall being awed by the size (524 cards) and volume of Hall of Famers (76 cards in the subset, including the famous Honus Wagner card). As I was leaving, he smiled and said, “Once you go down this rabbit hole, there is no turning back.”
Fast forward to this past July. I’m at The Chantilly Show (a prominent card show in the DC area) and I run into that same collector who has some of his T206s on display and available. While I didn’t recognize many of the names on these beautiful cards, I did recognize a few: Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson. One card in particular caught my eye, a stunning portrait of Hall of Fame second baseman, Eddie Collins.
A gentleman who I had been chatting with noticed my eyes wander towards the Collins and remarked, “That’s a nice one. A Hall of Fame portrait with an off-back would make for a great start.” I turn the card over and see “Sovereign Cigarettes Fit For A King” in a pleasing forest green font. I was sold. After a little negotiating, I secured my first T206 card, one of a legendary player, nonetheless (pics below). Little did I know at the time, but I had just plunged into the rabbit hole.
Considering that I’m far from an expert and there is already so much great material available about the set (much of which I’ll reference and link in later posts) this blog will have more of a personal spin. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, befriending, and learning of many others in the very active T206 community, and I’m hopeful that I can weave in tales of their journeys and insights, as well.
While my T206 collecting journey is no longer in its infancy, it’s still very much in the early stages. My monster number currently sits at 52, which puts me at exactly 10% complete (not counting the Big Four) – far enough in to have learned a few things but still just a beginner. With the road to completion stretching further ahead in the future then I can see, I’m looking forward to everyone joining me on this ride.