As a baseball fan/researcher, one thing I believe is that every player in MLB history is the answer to at least one trivia question. It’s my goal (however unachievable it is) to find that piece of trivia for every player. As a card collector, I dream of having at least one card of every player ever.
Certainly, I’ll most likely never own a card of George Noftsker of the 1884 Altoona Mountain City club of the Union Association, and it’s equally doubtful that a cardboard issue of 1876 Chicago White Stocking rightfielder Oscar Bielaski will ever end up in my possession. Regardless, it would be great to fill that never ending binder as much as possible.
It’s that dream that compelled me one night to enter the name Louis Sockalexis into the search field on eBay. I don’t know why. Perhaps I was reading a book on him at the time; I do own a biography on him and have read it a few times. Maybe that’s it. Maybe not. But regardless, I stumbled across a 2010 Obak Tristar Sockalexis card! Naturally, after looking at the names in the set I was intrigued enough to purchase the set right away.
This set is an homage to the original Obak sets from 1909-11. Those originals were inserted into Obak cigarette packages. They feature players primarily from the Pacific Coast League and were 1 ½” by 2 5/8” in size, much like the infamous t206 set. These were later classified as T212. If you ever were curious about where those Letter-Number classifications originated, look no further than card 66 in the 2010 Tristar Obak set! Because that card is of Jefferson Burdick, the man who created the American Card Catalog.
In any event, the 2010 Tristar Obak set is the more traditional card size (although there are mini parallel inserts), and as an unlicensed product there are no logos or team names on them. These cards are very quirky and are probably an acquired taste. But I love them for two main reasons.
They’re very simple. White border with blue letters at the bottom. Last name in larger print followed by a brief description in smaller print. And by description, it varies. Some descriptions are teams, some are a brief reason why the depicted person is in the set in the first place.
Most of the images used of the people on the cards are black & white (as many of them are from the 19th century and early 20th century). And those backgrounds! Bright, colorful scenery! Tommie Aaron stretching to receive a throw over a bright yellow sunset? Absolutely. David Clyde going into his windup over a cloudy purple backdrop? Yes, please! Maurice Van Robays in front of a barn? I wouldn’t have it any other way. Yes, they’re a bit gaudy, but I think they’re damn charming… and fun!
What I like perhaps the most about this set is that it makes me flip over the cards to figure out why they’re in the set! And in some cases, to find out exactly who these people are.
The set is divided up into several subsets: History in the Making (top minor league prospects), History’s Greatest Legends (baseball greats), Heroes and Legends (players known for various feats or tall tales), #1 Overall Draft Picks, Minor Leagues Best, MiLB Players of the Year, Can You Believe (players with amazing stories), Game Changers (innovators in baseball and beyond), Future Stars, Multi-Sport, Pop Icons, Historic Names, Pacific Coast League, and U.S. Presidents.
Highlighting the Historic Names subset are two cards of Sherry Magee of T206 Rushmore fame, though the Obak set’s Magie variation brings much less today on the open market than its predecessor from a century earlier.
The cards at the end of the set are all over the place. Card number 106, for example, is pro wrestler Hulk Hogan.
What steals the show for me is the Game Changers subset. By far the largest chunk of the set. Where else can the founders of Coke & Pepsi be on the same team?
I had mentioned Heinz, and since I’m from Chicago I make sure his card is nowhere near Harry Stevens’ card, as he’s widely known as the catering wizard who introduced hot dogs to baseball games.
There’s a card of John Sherman, whose Act does not apply to baseball. (Editor’s note: stay tuned.) And Frederick Thayer, who is largely given credit for inventing the catcher’s mask.
Jim Bouton has a card, but neither his MLB career with the Yankees nor Ball Four is mentioned on the back of the card. Instead, he shares this card with Robert Nelson, his teammate with the Portland Mavericks of the Northwest League because they created Big League Chew bubble gum!
That’s just a sampling of 2010 Tristar Obak. I have yet to get my hands on the 2009 or 2011 editions. Those 2011s are particularly enticing; I love collecting cards of 19th century players, and since I can’t afford those 1887 Allen & Ginters, these will have to do.
Old Hoss Radbourn, Lee Richmond, Joe Start, Doug Allison, Ross Barnes (even if the image on the card isn’t Barnes) and even Bob Addy (!?!) make the 2011 checklist, but that one will be particularly pricey.
Last week I received a surprise mailing of pre-war cards from Anson Whaley, the proprietor of prewarcards.com who many of us turn to whenever we have questions an anything pre-war. I treat these mailings as an opportunity to google the subjects of the cards and hopefully come across an interesting Wikipedia page that leads me down a rabbit hole.
In this case, it wasn’t a Wikipedia rabbit hole I fell in to but rather a Google Books one. Anson sent me a dozen 1901–02 Ogden’s Cigarettes General Interest cards. A couple sporting subjects but mostly non-sports miscellany—actors, politicians, ships, etc.
At first I thought this must be a different Richard George Knowles but I figured it was worth flipping through the book just to make sure. Lo and behold on page 65 I found an author photo. To my eyes it looks like the same face (no comment on the hairstyle).
This is pretty cool. My general interest card just turned into a baseball card. So I went back and downloaded the PDF from Google so I could take a deeper look at the book. It’s basically a baseball primer for an English audience more familiar with Rounders and Cricket but is also a great snapshot of the state of the game in the mid-1890s on both sides of the Atlantic.
The player lives in a world limited to three bases, a home plate, and two foul lines, and, for a couple of hours or so, finds relief from business cares, and snatches a holiday for his brain.
The first chapter is about baseball in general. It starts off building baseball up as a game of intelligence where draws are impossible, skills are required in all facets of the game, and failure can be minimized due to the number of repeated chances a batter gets. Much of this reads as an implicit comparison to Cricket which doesn’t feature baserunning and a batter only gets to bat twice a match.
It then goes into describing how to lay out a baseball field. It’s impossible for me to state how much I love this section so I’ll just paste the full text in here in case anyone wants to lay out their own baseball field.
Procure a heavy cord one hundred and eighty feet in length. Tie three knots in it, one at sixty feet five inches, one at ninety feet, and the other at one hundred and twenty-seven feet four inches.
Then, at the outer point of the home plate, drive a peg in the ground, and attach the line to it. Extend the line straight out to the third knot, and at that limit mark the second base. The knot is the centre of the base. Care must be taken that the cord be kept taut, and absolutely straight from the peg at the home plate to the centre of the second base, for the first knot, at sixty feet five inches, must now be taken to indicate the centre of the pitcher’s plate. When this has been duly marked, have one end of the hundred and eighty feet line held at the centre of second base, and keep the other end secured at the home plate as before. Then take hold of the second knot, at ninety feet, which is, of course, in the exact centre of the cord, and walk out with it to the corner of the diamond which is to mark the first base. Keep walking until the line is taut on both sides, and, at that point, mark the first base. Repeat this in the opposite direction, and mark the third base. The diamond is then complete.
That R.G. Knowles goes on to say that when he was a kid he used to carry a ball of string with the requisite knots in it just in case he needed to create a diamond for other kids is just wonderful. Do I think he’s telling the truth? Of course not. (since when have kids cared about proper dimensions when playing a game) But I love the sentiment.
The man who evinces a quick grasp and comprehension of the points of play, and who is also gifted with the capacity of being witty, is a very desirable person for the post.
The second chapter describes each position, including the “coachers” and umpire. Not much to say about the players except to note that second base is treated as the key position on the diamond. The umpire is similarly familiar in how he’s charged with being in control of the game. The coaches though are specifically the first and third base coaches and get a lot more description than any of the fielders. Aside from coaching the baserunners one of their jobs is to distract the fielders with banter.
Chapter three is the rules of the game. I didn’t read this one thoroughly since it appears to be mostly the same as current rules. I did notice however that things like the 18″ “pine tar” rule as well as the 3-foot running lane to first base already exist.
The next chapter though is great since it’s all about keeping score. Seeing different scoring methods is one of my favorite things and this section’s method is one of the most distinct ones I’ve come across. While it looks superficially like modern scorekeeping it’s vasty different.
To start off, shortstop is position #5 and thirdbase is #6. But everything else is different too. Instead of being a progression around the diamond each square is read left to right.
We also don’t have the now-standard abbreviations that I learned as a kid and which I’ve taught my kids. Take for example the following progression.
This represents a single, stolen base, advancing to third on an error (wild throw), and scoring on a passed ball. The only thing recognizable about this is putting an X or coloring int he diamond when someone scores.
Outs are a lot more familiar. This represents a ground out to the shortstop for the first out of the inning. Aside from the difference in position numbering this is pretty much the same thing I do today.
The rest of the chapter includes a bunch more examples of dealing with other possibilities available during a game. S–O are strikeouts. TI means advancing on a throw. S–H is a sacrifice. FF is a foul out. Very much the same kinds of things that happen in today‘s game and definitely sets baseball apart as a game which has always been obsessed with detail and replaying the events of games past.
The last four chapters of the book discuss the state of the game in 1895. Two chapters each devoted to Baseball in England and Baseball in America.
Among the people present at this christening of the game in London were: Buffalo Bill, General B. Williams (U.S. Army), Colonel Ochiltree, Mrs. Mackay, Mrs. Henry Labouchere, Mrs. T. P. O’Connor, Mrs. Alice Shaw, Dr. Maitland Coffin, Miss Blanche Rooseveldt, Mr. and Mrs. Tyars, Miss Hallett, Miss Helen Dauvray, Mrs. Conover, and Mr. W. Chapman. As a pressman summed it up, it was an audience of society folk, mummers and Mexicans, Cowboys and Cossacks, Gauchos and Indians.
The England chapter starts off listing a few exhibitions by American teams that failed to make any impressions before getting into a description of an exhibition between the Clapham Common nine—a team of Americans living in London who also appear to be members of the London Thespians—and a team of the Cowboys attached to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show at Earl’s Court. The game took place on July 13 1892 and Knowles includes an absolutely wonderful box score.
Where our author is batting third and playing second base in the scorecard, in the box score he’s batting fifth and playing second base (and pitcher) for the London Thespians Club.* This means that not only is my Ogden a card of a baseball writer, it’s of an actual nineteenth-century baseball player. Also the descriptions of the day jobs of the Wild West club players are something I could never in my wildest dreams have dreamed up.
*Especially appropriate given how Knowles is identified on his Ogden as a comedian.
Clearly fielding was not a strong suit for either team though I find it noteworthy that the concept of earned runs is prominent enough to be mentioned as a team stat. I also notice that the Wild West pitcher struck out 14 Thespians and that those putouts appear to be credited to the pitcher instead of the catcher. Oh and despite a cumulative 34 errors the game only lasted just over two hours.
The rest of the England chapters describe the growth of the league over the following years, the difficulty in finding good umpires, additional visits from American teams, hybrid baseball vs cricket exhibitions, and descriptions of a half-dozen baseball grounds.
The following chapter is all biographies of men associated with baseball in England from the President of the London Baseball Association Thomas Dewar to representative English players and representative American players in England.
The greatest interest centres in the professional teams that bear the names of such cities as Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Brooklyn, St. Louis, Washington, Louisville, and Cleveland.
This takes us to the final two chapters which detail the state of baseball in America in 1895. America seems baseball mad with an insatiable appetite for the results of games in progress. The growth of the professional game from individual teams to multiple leagues is markedly different than the amateur struggles Knowles describes in England.
Instead of detailing individual games like he does with the England summary, the 1895 season is described as a pennant race where the standing for a given day are reported instead of the game results until Baltimore clinched the pennant for the second year in a row. Burkett, Delehanty, and Keeler are listed as the top batsmen with Hawley, Rusie, and Young being the best pitchers.
Then we have essentially a biography of Harry Wright, the “Father of Professional Baseball,” as written by Henry Chadwick to close out the book. There’s a glossary, some more rules, an index, and a whole bunch of great advertisements which are too good not to share.
The first Topps World Series card I pulled from a pack was bittersweet. On one hand it was Reggie, the biggest star in the game; on the other hand, it memorialized his merciless dismantling, five homers and all, of my hometown Dodgers. Though I wasn’t yet enough of a fan in 1977 to have watched the Series, I remember the gloominess and despair that took over the faces of my classmates. Tears were shed.
Most collectors already know that 1978 was just one of many years that Topps included a postseason subset. For a complete catalog from 1958-1981, see this excellent post from Adam Hughes of Wax Pack Gods.
My goal here is to connect these Topps World Series cards to their long ancestry across the hobby’s history. Rather than jump straight in to the years before 1958, I’ll set the table by beginning at 1960, the year of the first true Topps World Series subset.
Though Topps would include single cards connected to the World Series in each of the prior years, the 1960 release marked the first year of an actual multi-card subset. The subset spanned cards 385-391, including the only Maury Wills card Topps would issue before 1967.
There was no World Series subset in the 1959 Topps issue. However, the Hank Aaron card in its “Baseball Thrills” subset was dedicated to the Hammer’s game 4 home run and overall awesome performance in the 1957 Fall Classic.
As we consider the ancestry of the World Series subsets, this card presents us with two “mutations” from the classic subsets that would follow.
It is the only postseason card in the set (and in fact from an entirely different subset)
It does not feature the prior year’s Fall Classic, instead reaching two seasons back.
As we go further back in time, most of the cards we look at will share these or other departures from the classic Topps World Series subsets of later decades. As usual, were we not to bend the rules a bit, there would be very little article to write!
1959 Fleer Ted Williams
I have featured this set in every one of my prehistory articles to date with the exception of Traded Cards. (And who the hell would even think of trading Ted Williams, right?) Sadly, it is impossible to tell the story of the Splendid Splinter without bringing up the heartbreak of the 1946 World Series, memorialized by card 31 in the set.
As an aside, the 1959 Fleer Ted Williams set comes across largely as a (justified) hagiography of the greatest freaking hitter who ever lived. It is odd then that their “Sox Lose the Series” card makes no mention of the fact that Williams played the series injured and instead attributes the Kid’s disappointing performance to a slump.
It is the Hammer once again in the 1958 Topps set, and this time he brought a friend. Okay, a foe! (As an aside, it would be fun to trace the use of the word “foe” on baseball cards over the years. We used to see it a lot more, and I worry we are lesser today for its absence.)
Oddly the card’s reverse makes no reference to the World Series but simply finds (quite easily) nice things to say about each of the featured players.
1948 Topps Magic Photos
Though off the radar (and out of the price range) of casual collectors, the very first Topps baseball cards came four years before the iconic 1952 set. The majority of the set’s baseball checklist was devoted to all-time greats such as Ruth, Cobb, and Wagner. However, 5 of the 19 cards were dedicated to the 1948 World Champion Cleveland Indians. These cards are light on detail, but the two cards known as “Cleveland Indians 4-1” and “Cleveland Indians 4-3” reference games 2 and 7 respectively.
1948 Swell “Sport Thrills”
Sorry, Dodger fans. Here comes another heart breaker. Mickey Owen’s dropped third strike from the 1941 Fall Classic was one of eight cards in this 20-card set to feature World Series highlights.
The Sport Thrills set wasn’t the only baseball set that Swell issued in 1948. They also issued a 28-card “Babe Ruth Story” set to go along with the movie of the same name. While the Bambino did appear on some of the cards, he was more often portrayed by William Bendix, the actor who starred in the film. Card 15 features Babe Ruth’s (okay, William Bendix’s) “called shot” home run from the 1932 World Series.
1940 Play Ball
For a brief stretch from 1939-1941 Play Ball cards sat atop the cardboard universe. The 1940 Play Ball release is known mostly for the cardboard return of Shoeless Joe. A less ballyhooed aspect of the set was the pennant flags adorning the cards of the Yankees and Reds players. (Oddly, the managers and coaches received no such decoration.)
Unlike the majority of the cards discussed so far, these “Pennant” cards also doubled as the main (only) card of each player in the set. An interesting comparison will be the 1933 Goudey set, where this is true for some but not all of the players.
1936 R312 National Chicle Pastels
My favorite thing about writing these articles is discovering cards I didn’t know about originally. In this case, the prize goes to these beautiful premiums from National Chicle. The full set contains 50 unnumbered cards with significant star power, including (arguably) a Joe DiMaggio rookie card. There are also a large number of multi-player cards, such as this one of Arky Vaughan receiving playing tips from the great Honus Wagner.
Most relevant to our topic, however, are several cards that explicitly reference the 1935 World Series between the Tigers and the Cubs.
First, here is Gabby Hartnett after his World Series home run in game 4.
Next, here is Schoolboy Rowe drawing a crowd, even in enemy territory. No wonder they call it the “Friendly Confines!”
And finally, although Tommy Bridges pitched the Tigers to a 4-3 complete game victory in the clincher, here is Alvin Crowder looking very much like he just won it all for the Tigers. In fact, the “General” is shown here following his own complete game to take game 4.
Finally, there are four other cards, a disproportionate number for the set, that include multiple Cubs or Tigers. The photo sleuths among us might let me know if these photos are from the World Series or just “random” shots from during the season.
1936 R313 National Chicle Fine Pen Premiums
Collectors had choices when it came to the 1935 Fall Classic. Among the 120 cards included in this 1936 release was at least one World Series card, #120, showing the throw from Lon Warneke to Phil Cavaretta arriving ahead of Goose Goslin.
As with R312, there are also some multi-player cards that may or may not be connected to the World Series. Card 116, showcasing the “Fence Busters” on the Chicago squad, is one of a few examples.
1934 Gold Medal Foods (R313A)
First a tip of the hat to Net54 member PowderedH2O for alerting me to these cards.
The parent company of Wheaties, Minneapolis-based Gold Medal Foods, issued a set of postcard-sized cards to commemorate the 1934 World Series between the Detroit Tigers and the “Gas House Gang” St. Louis Cardinals.
The “Standard Catalog” lists only 12 players while PSA lists 19 while indicating the set has 22. This suggests to me there may yet to be cards discovered here, either to the delight or chagrin of Hank Greenberg supercollectors.
Forgive Goudey for its numbering antics, but sure enough cards 107-114, 121-127, and 232-240 were created specifically to highlight the participants in the 1933 World Series. Those not as familiar with the set might wonder if 1933 was a typo. After all, this is 83 BTN (before “Topps Now”) we’re talking about. “Are you sure you don’t mean THIS World Series?”
Sure enough, the folks at Goudey were hard at work in late 1933 pushing out the tenth and final release of their iconic baseball debut. The sheet featured twelve participants from each of the pennant winners (New York Giants, Washington Senators) and even included records and results from the Series, as evidenced by this card of Master Melvin.
Something important to consider in assessing the place of these cards in our prehistory is that they weren’t merely cards issued late enough in the season to include tidbits about the Series in the bios. Rather, they reflected an explicit World Series issue, and a 24-card one at that! Quite remarkable really.
As a final note, nine of the Giants and nine of the Senators already had “base” cards in the set, meaning the World Series cards could be thought of as dedicated postseason extras for these 18 players. However, for six of the players, the World Series card reflected their only representation in the set.
1928 Fro-Joy Ice Cream Babe Ruth
Among the six cards in this 1928 set entirely devoted to Babe Ruth is this one, highlighting the first of his two home runs in the 1927 World Series against the Pirates.
1919-1920 Cincinnati Reds postcards
Black Sox Scandal completists will want to collect this 24-card set of postcards featuring players from the 1919 World Champion Cincinnati Reds team. There are two variations of each card. Later printings include the caption “World’s Champions” whereas early printings include only “Champions of National League.”
As an aside, Anson Whaley of Pre-War Cards just published an excellent five-part series on the baseball card legacy of the Black Sox Scandal. Part one is here.
1921 Koesters Bread (D383)
Hat tip to Net54 member brianp-beme for this one. This 52-card set uses the same card fronts as the 1921 American Caramel (E121) set but has different backs and restricts its checklist to only Yankees and Giants, the two participants in the first Subway Series.
If you have a minute, you may want to look at the fantastic card of Hall of Fame hurler Waite Hoyt.
1912 Technical Book Publishing postcards
Not for the budget collector, but these postcards were sold at the World Series itself and doubled as scorecards on the back. The card on the left shows the Boston Americans, and the one on the right shows the New York Giants.
1911 Philadelphia Athletics (E104-I and D359)
I’ll take some liberty here and merge what pre-war collectors would normally regard as two or three different sets. Certainly they will look more alike than different to the casual collector. In each case, I am a huge fan of the World Champions designator.
The first card, Frank “Home Run Baker,” comes from the 1910 E104-I (sometimes seen as E104-1) Nadja Caramels issue. Variations abound, including cards without the “World’s Champions 1910” banner. The next two cards, Charles “Chief” Bender and Harry Davis, could be construed as Baker cards as well, in that they come from the 1910 D359 Rochester Baking and Williams Baking issues respectively.
For any of the card displayers or binder folks out there, I have to imagine the variety of background colors would make these cards look incredible arranged as a group.
1910 Tip Top Bread Pittsburgh Pirates
It’s funny how life works sometimes. Just as I’d reached the end of my personal knowledge, augmented by the easier digital searches available to me, I did what I always do: reach for my Standard Catalog of Vintage Baseball Cards. But this time I didn’t even have to open it. Here was the 1910 Tip Top Bread Honus Wagner right on the cover, with the caption “WAGNER, World’s Champions.”
Indeed, this was a 25-card set honoring the 1909 World Champion Pirates team that bested Cobb’s Tigers four games to three. Here is team president Barney Dreyfuss from the same series.
1910 American Caramel Pirates (E90-2)
This tough regional release of American Caramel focused exclusively on the 1909 World Champion Pirates team. Unlike the Tip Top set of the same year, the cards themselves do not refer to the championship. (Hat tip to Net 54 member steve B for this one!)
1907 Geo. W. Hull Chicago White Sox postcards
These 16 postcards honor the 1907 World Champion Chicago White Sox, as noted by the “World’s Champions” caption below the player name. You might imagine the “Every One A Pennant Winner” title above the lines of hanging white stockings is another standard feature of the postcards in this set. However, that is just one of many titles used. Others include “A String of World Beaters” and “A String of Game Fish — No Bull Heads,” whatever that means!
1905-06 Lincoln Publishing Am. League Champs
The Philadelphia Athletics lost the 1905 World Series to the New York Giants, but they did not come up empty on the cardboard side of the ledger. All 20 postcards in this set were devoted to the American League champs and featured the achievement prominently in the card design.
1902-1911 Sporting Life Team Composites (W601)
For ten years, Sporting Life offered readers the chance to be individual team cards or the complete set as a bound volume. In addition to these very large poster-cards (13″ x 14″), postcard-size team composites were also offered some years. Pennant winners and World Series winners were specially noted below the team name.
Readers may be puzzled by the “1904 National League Champions” marker here since the Pirates finished the 1904 season in fourth place, 19 games behind the Giants. One thing to note is that the “National League” portion of the marker simply indicates the Pirates were a National League team. This can be seen by comparing the Pirates composite against others in the series. Finally, the “Champions” portion of the marker should be read as “defending champs,” which is how the 1904 Pirates began their season, fresh off the first ever World Series of the modern era.
At this point you might imagine we’re done. You can’t get much earlier than the first World Series, right? Not so fast…if you’ve read my other posts you know I love to go WAY back, even if it means bending the rules a bit, kind of like how a biologist might spend 58 minutes of the lecture talking about man’s descent from apes and the final 2 connecting us to amoebas or something.
1888 H.D. Smith and Company (formerly known as Scrapp’s Tobacco) die-cuts
Some recent detective work has added to our knowledge of this ridiculously old set and its origins. At first, you might just see too old-time ballplayers with caps you wished you owned.
However, these aren’t just any players, though that had been my first guess. Thanks to the 1976 SSPC reboot, I now know these are the participants from the 1887 World Series between the St. Louis Browns and Detroit Wolverines! Here is a look at one of the 1976 cards. Kudos to SSPC for their work on this beautiful reissue, which admittedly is almost harder to track down than the 1888 original!
1887 Tomlinson Studio Cabinets
If 1888 just isn’t old enough for you, you may be in luck. Even the “Standard Catalog” is stumped in terms of the reach of this set and the extent of the checklist, but here is at least one.
1887 Old Judge Browns Champions
And for those of you saying, “Hey, was that even a baseball card?” I’ve got an even better one for you! (Hat tip to Net54 member Gonzo for this one.)
It is at this point in the tour that the bus finally runs out of gas. As always though, I hope the result is an appreciation of some older cards you might not have known about and further reinforcement of the adage that “what’s new is old,” at least when it comes to the baseball card “innovations” of our youth.
As always, additions and corrections are welcome.
Appendix – Ancestry Report
Something I’ve toyed with and was encouraged to dig into more deeply based on a reader comment is an “ancestry report” that evaluates each entry against the key traits of the standard Topps World Series subsets. I won’t belabor the coding scheme or column headers unless asked, other than to acknowledge that blue represents mutations that go beyond the Topps standard. (In this case, I used blue for cards that feature the current-year World Series rather than the prior year.)
Anyone wanting to play with the raw data can find it here. Let me know if it’s useful at all. If so, I can do similar for Record Breakers and other prehistory work I’ve done.
One of my favorite posts on the SABR Baseball Cards blog is Matthew Prigge‘s “Like a Broken Record” (March 2017), in which he detailed the progression of the Topps Highlights and Record Breaker cards from their respective origins in the 1975 and 1976 sets. In what I hope will be my first of many posts for this blog, I will go backward instead and focus on the ancestry of these cards, following a prehistory that goes back to more than a century ago.
Before jumping in, I’ll give a few examples of cards I will not include, along with my rationale for omission, as sometimes the best way to define one’s scope is to identify what falls just outside it
World Series cards
The first Topps World Series multi-card subset was in 1960, consisting of seven absolutely beautiful cards that told the story of the 1959 Fall Classic between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago White Sox.
If we consider single card subsets as a thing, then the very first Topps World Series subset came two years earlier with the 1958 Topps World Series Batting Foes (Mantle/Aaron) card. Because Topps would continue to push out World Series subsets with regularity, even in years with Record Breaker/Highlight cards, we will exclude World Series cards from our study. True, they feature highlights from the prior season, but they are a large enough sub-genre to warrant separate treatment.
The same logic will apply to the 1961 Topps (cards 471-486) and 1975 Topps (cards 189-212) MVP subsets. While MVP cards lacked the perennial quality of the World Series cards, they still feel more like their own category of cards than exemplars of the Record Breakers/Highlights category.
All-Stars, All-Star Rookies, etc.
Finally, while one could consider being named an All-Star or All-Star Rookie a highlight—at least very broadly—we will exclude these subsets for the same reasons as each of the others.
Pre-1975 Highlights and Record Breaker cards
Having identified what doesn’t make the cut, we are now ready to begin our journey, starting off where Matthew’s original article left off. As I like to do, we’ll proceed in reverse chronological order, though the article should accommodate a bottom-to-top if you prefer it that way.
Well there’s this guy of course!
1974 Bob Parker 2nd Best
It’s fitting that the second set we encounter on the way to the Topps run of Highlights and Record Breakers is a set honoring players who came in second! In addition to providing budget collectors with a shot at “Shoeless Joe,” the Vic Power card is a must have for “cards that say robust on the front” supercollectors.
A major differentiator between these cards and the Record Breaker/Highlights cards Matthew profiles are that these cards reach back across the vast history of the game whereas the more modern cards focus on the season immediately prior. Were we to treat this distinction as fatal, this article would be very short indeed, so we’ll continue under the assumption that cards such as these are allowed into the ancestry.
In addition to the various Fleer sets he worked on, artist R.G. Laughlin also put out his own set of cards in 1972. There were 51 cards in all, along with multiple color variations.
1971 Topps Greatest Moments
This 55-card release from Topps is without a doubt one of the toughest of the 1970s, and unfortunately for player collectors on a budget one that is filthy with Hall of Famers. Unlike the Fleer sets of the early 1970s the checklist consists entirely of (then) current players, but again the feats themselves span multiple years.
The nine cards from 311-319 in the 1962 Topps set are commonly referred to as “In Action” cards. Many of the cards, such as “Ford Tosses a Curve,” would strike only the most easily impressed baseball fans as highlights; however, this same subset does feature the biggest record to be broken in at least 20 years. In a move we might today regard as trolling, Topps chose this same year to dedicate a full ten cards to the previous record holder!
As with the “In Action” cards, the “Babe Ruth Special” cards were a mix of Record Breaker and non-RB cards. Ruth’s card 144 (no, not THAT 144), titled “Farewell Speech,” is particularly relevant to this post in that the front featured a career-capping highlight–the speech–while the back listed Babe Ruth’s various records.
The 1961 set marked second time in three years that Topps put out a “Baseball Thrills” subset in its main release. There were ten cards in all, including a mix of current (Larsen, Mantle, Haddix) and retired players.
1961 Nu-Card Baseball Scoops
While the Topps set offered the opportunity to beef up ones knowledge of baseball’s greatest achievements, the go-to set that year for history buffs was put out by Nu-Card. Numbered 401-480 for reasons unknown to me, these 80 cards presented collectors with nearly the complete canon of baseball feats. Even to this day, if you could choose just one set to learn the history of baseball from, I believe this would be it.
1960 Nu-Card Baseball Hi-Lites
This 72-card offering is similar in many ways to the set that followed it one year later, the most salient difference being their postcard size. Many highlights were reused from one set to another, as shown by the “Aaron’s bat…” cards in each set. (I believe the image on the 1960 card incorrectly shows Aaron’s pennant-clinching home run against the Cardinals, a problem which could have been solved by interchanging this images on his two cards in the set.)
While the 1961 Topps subset included long retired greats of the game, the 1959 “Baseball Thrills” cards exclusively featured active players. Between the immense star power of the players and the fantastic artwork, these cards crack my top two all-time for greatest vintage subset ever.
1959 Fleer Ted Williams
This 80-card set really covers the gamut as far as Ted Williams highlights are concerned, including highlights from his time in the military and his off-season hobbies of hunting and fishing. As an aside, you can see many of the photographs these cards were based on in Ted’s 2018 PBS documentary.
1954 Topps Scoop
A beautiful set off the radar of many baseball card collectors is the 1954 Topps Scoop set, which features 154 historical events, including a handful from the sporting world. The four baseball subjects are Bob Feller’s 18 strikeouts in a game, Babe Ruth’s 60 home runs in a season, the Braves move to Milwaukee, and a very long game between Brooklyn and Boston.
As a quick spoiler alert, if you have not already seen the Broadway musical “Hamilton,” avoid purchasing this set. Card 82 completely gives away the ending.
Though the name of the “Sport Thrills” set suggests other sports beyond baseball (and one card is even titled “Football Block”), all 20 cards in this set feature baseball highlights and records. A notable is the Jackie Robinson card, which I believe to be the earliest card front to refer to a player’s rookie season. (And if I’m wrong about that, it’s still a Jackie Robinson card from 1948!)
The Sport Thrills set wasn’t the only baseball set that Swell issued in 1948. They also issued a 28-card “Babe Ruth Story” set to go along with the movie of the same name. Naturally, as this is the Bambino we’re talking about, the set includes several highlights. While some of cards include Ruth himself, it should be noted that the most common “Ruth” on the cards is William Bendix, who played Ruth in the movie. An example is card 15, which shows Ruth…I mean Bendix…calling his shot in the 1932 World Series.
1938 Wheaties “Biggest Thrills in Baseball” (Series 10)
The back panel of Wheaties boxes featured a player from each major league team along with a highlight from the player’s career. While I didn’t include it here, the Wheaties “100 Years of Baseball” set from the following year could be said to feature highlights as well, though a typical example is “Crowd Boos First Baseball Glove!”
1925 Turf Cigarettes (UK)
In 1925 London tobacco manufacturer Alexander Boguslavsky Ltd issued a set of 50 “Sports Records” cards. The very last card in the set featured American baseball and George Sisler’s recent batting record. (I’m not sure why they wouldn’t have gone with Hornsby’s record, but perhaps news traveled slow back then.)
1912 T202 Hassan Triple Folders
I often end pieces like this with a wild card entry, one that may not meet the criteria applied to other sets but scores bonus points for its age. The middle panel of each T202 card features a great action shot, which is then described further on the card’s reverse. Most of these cards simply focus on a single play–exciting or not–that fails to rise to the level of a Record Breaker or Highlight.
However, the set does include some cards with narratives that do in fact rise to the level of a Highlight. An example of this is the Bergen/Barger “A Great Batsman” card, which on the back describes Napoleon Lajoie’s 227 hits in 1910 as breaking the American League record, even if today we no longer believe it! (At the time Lajoie’s 1901 hit total was thought to be 220, but he is now credited with either 229 or 232 hits, depending who you ask.)
A handful of other sets are worth mention here, even if they didn’t earn top billing. The 1972 Topps “In Action” cards and 1964 Topps Giants cards both featured highlights on the backs of the cards. Meanwhile, the very rare 1914 E&S Publishing postcard set includes background cartoons with captions that in some cases rise to the level of significant highlights or records.
The 1975 Topps set marked an important innovation in the history of the hobby in that it was the first major release to dedicate baseball cards, specifically its “Highlights” subset, to the most important historical feats of the prior season. However, like all innovations, this one did not appear out of a vacuum. Rather, it drew–intentionally or by happenstance–on a long and rich legacy of cardboard that came before it.
I hope this article allowed you to enjoy the cards and sets profiled not only as fantastic in their own right but also as important evolutionary stops along the way toward the Highlights and Record Breaker cards so many of us collected in our youth, if not the Topps Now cards many collectors still collect today.
Jason joined SABR in January 2019. Collecting interests include Hank Aaron, Dwight Gooden, and Sir Isaac Newton. You can find him on Twitter as @HeavyJ28 or on the Web here and here. He lives in the Chicago area but originally hails from Los Angeles.
Note: most of the information for this article was supplied by Baseball Research.com and the SABR Bio Project. The latter is noted (as well as other sources) for each specific use.
On September 17, 1910, something terrible happened in Baltimore.
Former first baseman and manager Bob Unglaub of the Boston Americans was crushed in a railroad pit when he was struck by a locomotive.
Seattle Pilots pitcher Miguel Fuentes was murdered by a man who thought Fuentes had been urinating on his car (he hadn’t) during the 1969 off-season in Puerto Rico.
Greg Halman of the Mariners died in 2011 of a stab wound over a dispute of music being played too loudly.
They all died while active players or managers. A different kind of Turk came for them, be they Hall of Famers like Roberto Clemente or cup-of-coffee guys like Herman Hill of the Twins.
One of my baseball card collector pals, Kevin Crane, told me his brother’s quirk was “collecting cards of guys who died during their playing careers. He’d line ‘em up on his window sill.”
This sent me down a fascinating and macabre rabbit hole.
Players fell off bridges, slashed their own throats, were shot chasing burglars, stabbed trying to break up bar fights, died of cancer, and by a variety of other means.
To date, there have been 98 players who passed away while still active.
28 died in car crashes
3 in boating accidents
7 in plane crashes
10 of heart attacks
4 by suicide
The rest run the gamut: Phillies catcher Walt Lerian was hit by a runaway truck in 1929; Phils hurler Cy Blanton died of internal hemorrhages and cirrhosis in September of 1945; Woody Crowson of the A’s met his maker in 1947 due to a bus collision with a truck (he was the only person injured), and Otis Johnson of the NY Highlanders was shot in a hunting accident in 1915.
A number of players fell to the Reaper’s scythe by being born too early to benefit from advances in medical science, from Bright’s Disease (kidneys), smallpox, pneumonia, typhoid, influenza, tuberculosis, meningitis, and complications from malaria (1872-1918). Conversely, others died due to progress in industrial technology, perishing in plane and car accidents.
Ken Hubbs’ 1964 Topps#550 was the first eulogy on the back of a baseball card.
Youngsters got a double dose of death with the Topps 1964 set, as Houston’s Jim Umbricht’s card #389 attests.
ODD & DISTURBING DEATHS
Catcher Marty Bergen of the Boston Beaneaters had held a record of 38 passed balls in one season, 1898. Reports of mental problems surfaced, stating he was combative with teammates. In one of baseball’s most horrific stories, Bergen slit his throat in 1900, but not before murdering his wife and two children with an ax.
Cubs pitcher Jeremi Gonzalez was struck by lightning in 2006 in Venezuela.
Len Koenecke was released by Brooklyn during a road trip. On the first leg of a flight home to New York, he got hammered, harassed passengers and belted a stewardess. American Airlines dumped him on a chair in a Detroit airport, where he chartered a small plane in the wee hours of the night. Once airborne, things went sideways, and Koenecke began harassing the pilot. The ballplayer supposedly was trying to get at the plane’s controls, and a life-or-death struggle ensued. The pilot and a friend who had joined him for the flight fought bitterly with the ball player and fended Koenecke off with a fire extinguisher. From all accounts, they caved in the outfielder’s head, and the pilot made a desperate landing on a racetrack in Toronto. (source: Studio GaryC.com)
Perhaps as a precursor to Koenecke’s troubles as a passenger, Hall of Famer Ed Delahanty got into trouble as a train passenger. He was said to be drunk, brandishing a straight razor and threatening passengers. Delahanty was kicked off the train in Ontario near the International Bridge by Niagara Falls. Questions about whether he fell or jumped remain (accounts said he’d been yelling about death that night) and he was swept over the falls, dead at age 35.
Chris Hartje was a catcher with the Dodgers in 1939. He was sent to the minors, and while on a bus with the Spokane team traveling at dusk in drizzling rain, the driver veered to avoid an approaching car and smashed through the guardrail. The bus caught fire as it fell 350 feet down a rocky mountainside. Eight players died instantly, and Hartje sustained burns that would take his life two days later. The accident is considered one of the worst in sports history.
Reds catcher Willard Hershberger sliced his jugular vein in the shower at the team hotel. He was a child of suicide, as his father had shot himself with a shotgun. Hershberger backed up Ernie Lombardi in 1940 and was forced into action amid a pennant race when Lombardi was injured. Hershberger battled lingering depression from his father’s death and would blame himself for losing a game July 31. A few days later he became the only big leaguer to end his career by committing suicide during the season. In a bitter twist of fate, the Reds would go on to capture the flag and a world championship that season.
Another Reds backup catcher, Gus Sandberg, died from burns he suffered when his car’s gas tank blew up while he was trying to siphon gasoline in 1924.
Tony Boeckel, a third baseman for the Boston Braves, was involved in a collision with a truck. After leaving his vehicle, he was hit by a passing car and died the next day. He was the first active major leaguer to die in a car accident (1924).
While 7 Major Leaguers lost their lives in plane crashes, Senators pitcher Marv Goodwin was the first, 22 years after the Wright brothers’ first flight, in 1925.
Perhaps the best nickname of active players to perish was “Pickles” Dillhoefer, a catcher for the Cardinals who died of typhoid fever a few weeks after his wedding in 1922.
Red Sox pitcher George Craig discovered a burglar in his hotel room in 1911 and chased him down the hall. The perp produced a handgun and blasted Craig in the stomach. He died 40 hours later, but not before he gave info to the cops, who were never able to find the assailant.
HoFer Addie Joss died at age 30 when he contracted tubercular meningitis. His first baseball card was a 1903 E107 Breisch Williams.
SUICIDES & MURDER MYSTERIES
NY Giants Pitcher Dan McGann had a tortured family history: “in 1909, one of his brothers had taken his own life. The previous New Year’s Eve, another brother had died due to an infection resulting from an accidental shooting. McGann’s sister committed suicide in 1890 following the death of their mother.” His death was by a bullet to the chest. The coroner ruled his death by suicide, but his sisters believed he’d been murdered. An expensive piece of jewelry was missing, but a diamond pin, $37 in cash and other valuables were still on his body. (info via SABR Bio by Don Jensen).
Chick Stahl was one of the best outfielders of his day (1897-1906) who also suffered from depression. He briefly managed the Boston team in 1906 on an interim basis. His player-managership did not go well (5-13), and he resigned. Chick was asked to stay on until a successor could be found. The night before an exhibition game, he drank a glass of carbolic acid, a medication used to treat a sore on his foot. Fifteen minutes later, he was dead. The suicide puzzled many, as he was a very popular player, recently married, and relieved to shrug off the yoke of managing to concentrate on playing.
On February 28, 1894, pitcher Edgar McNabb met a woman in a hotel room. An argument arose, and McNabb shot her. He then turned the gun on himself.
Finally, catcher Frank Ringo became baseball’s first suicide in 1898, when he died of a morphine overdose. He was reported to enjoy “the sauce,” and Sporting Life noted he was “a good, hard-hitting catcher.”
THE COST OF DRINK
Pete Dowling pitched for the Milwaukee Brewers and had a taste for “the creature.” Connie Mack, who’d signed Dowling, dropped him from the team for disciplinary reasons. Dowling had previously had troubles with drinking too much. He’d also been a bit of a local hero in Sacramento, where he saved three men from drowning. On the night of June 30, 1905, he missed the train to take him to a game in La Grande, Oregon. While walking along the tracks, he was struck by a train. He was killed instantly, and the impact severed his head. In his passing Dowling’s former manager John McCloskey said, “when he was sober, there wasn’t a more decent chap.” (SABR Bio by John F. Green)
The wrong sort of drink took another player down. Utilityman Tom O’Brien of the Giants and Pirates was told to drink seawater on a voyage to Cuba for a series of exhibition games. It was supposed to be a remedy that would cure sea-sickness. He and teammate Kid Gleason became violently ill, but O’Brien did not recover. He was dead at age 28 from bad advice.
LAST LICKS & ANALYSIS
Pitcher Cliff Young died in a car crash in 1993, becoming the third Cleveland Indian to die in an accident in the same year.
Pirates pitcher Bob Moose also perished in a car accident, which occurred on his 29th birthday in 1976.
On March 3, 1932, Red Sox pitcher “Big Ed” Morris (a noted boozer) got stabbed twice at a fish fry/peanut boil in his honor. The assailant was a gas station operator. The cause for the confrontation ranged from Morris urinating in the community pot of boiled peanuts to Morris making a pass at the station man’s wife. Accounts vary from Morris as instigator to innocent bystander. (info from SABR BIO by Rick Swaine)
Outside of the US, (4) players died in or on their way to Venezuela, in the Dominican Republic (4), and Puerto Rico (3).
A player died every 20 years of drowning, from 1872-1979.
Luis Valbuena and Jose Castillo died in the same auto accident December 6, 2018.
Automobile deaths spiked/doubled from 2000-2018, with 10.
More than 20 players died in 2000-2018 and 1920-1939, respectively.
1960-1979 was the worst 20 years for plane crashes with (4). All were private aircraft, with three being small or light planes.
When considering accidents as cause of death, 49, or half of all of the fatalities were chalked up to human error. Alcohol surfaced as a common denominator in many accidents and murders.
Cory Lidle and his instructor died when their plane crashed into an NYC apartment building on October 11, 2006. A gusty wind blew their aircraft into the structure during a 180-degree turn.
A striking statistic showed that PITCHERS accounted for almost HALF (48 or 98) of those who perished while active. Moundsmen’s deaths accounted for more than two times of other position players.
Perhaps the saddest stories were those of rookies like the Cardinals’ Charley Peete, cut down before they could share their talents with the world.
The 1887 Kalamazoo Bats card set contains somewhere around 60 cards consisting of team photos, portrait style photos, outdoor photos, sliding, trees, and more sliding and trees. Since we don’t see a lot of 19th cards getting that much exposure here, I thought I’d introduce you to some of my favorite Kalamazoo Bats.
Outfielder Harry Lyons is getting checked out by the trainer. What other card set would have the trainer get equal billing? Billy Taylor was probably the local vet just back from delivering a litter of puppies. “Your paw…..I mean …..your hand looks fine, probably just one broken bone. Now get out there and play.”
This is Metropolitan pitcher Al Mays. There are several sit down portrait studio type cards in this set. All players have the same proud look on their face, and many are wearing ties. None, however are leaning into a mirror while worshiping their reflection, a la A-Rod.
Lou Bierbauer tags out a player that might be Jim Gallagher. He is the only Gallagher, that I could find, that played baseball around 1886/1887 listed in the Baseball Encyclopedia. He played just one game with Washington, getting 1 hit, in 1886. If it is in fact Jim Gallagher he is buried in Hyde Park Cemetery in Scranton, Pa. just 3 miles from where I sit. Like many of the Kalamazoo cards, this one featured sliding, and was taken outdoors with a canvas backdrop that included trees, lots of trees.
More sliding, but where are the trees? I need more trees in here!!!. Charlie Bastian puts the tag on Harry Lyons. And, as in all the Kalamazoo Bats cards, the runner is clearly out. Although the umpire in the background is totally out of position to make the right call.
Ed Andrews goes up there hacking. Baseball, apple pie, and……. suspenders.
Hey, this is 1887, there’s no gloves in baseball! By 1887 catchers were regularly using some type of glove to protect their hands. And yes, this hard throwing lefty was a catcher. Jack Clements caught in 1076 games, and was the last regular southpaw catcher in the game. Clements throwing style is reminiscent of my attempts to throw left-handed. Uncoordinated. His complete lack of athletic style may be the reason lefties no longer catch.
Hmm?……there’s something wrong with this card. I can’t quite put my finger on it……oh…..I know……..Henry Larkin has his name misspelled……..No……that’s not it……..there’s not enough trees……..no…….what could it be? Jocko Milligan and Henry Larkin are clearly giving their all to sell this very close play at the plate, but the photographer has gone a different way, both artistically and mentally. The wooden beams supporting the canvas, and the concrete wall in the background, at least from my perspective, do not add to the overall baseball ambience. I wonder what Jocko and Henry said when they saw this disaster. This card has sold at auction for over $17,000.00. So maybe the photographer actually knew what he was doing.
Do these pants make my ass look fat? This card features Jocko Milligan at catcher and Harry Stovey hitting. This photograph was obviously taken by the same photographer of the previous card. I can hear him now, “Trust me Jocko, you won’t look stupid, I am an artiste.” Harry’s just waiting for the ball to come busting through the background canvas at any second.
Al Maul is clearly tagged out by Arthur Irwin. Irwin seems to be signaling Maul safe, while Maul has that look on his face that seems to say, “Can I be safe just one time?!”
What a great card of a great Baseball Pioneer. I wish I owned this one.
Most of the Kalamazoo Bats cards push for you to “Smoke Kalamazoo Bats”. I’m sure the kids did just that.