All “sorts” of fun in ’61

Committee note: This piece was submitted by SABR member Jamie Selko.

Back when I first started collecting, I kept my collection rubberbanded in the proverbial shoebox. I even, oh wretched child that I was, fastened some few of them to my bike frame with clothespins so that when the spokes would hit ‘em the bike would “sound” like I was riding a motorcycle. Alas, now that I am an aged and wretched recluse, I realize that even eight flapping baseball cards, while indeed somewhat louder than a non-carded bike (though not anywhere near as loud as a bike armed with fresh playing cards, which kept were much stiffer and kept their integrity much longer) is far (to the eighth order of magnitude) from the real thing (and , if you are riding a Harley, at least two orders of magnitude farther).

    Anyways, like many readers, I was not content to let my cards linger in dark boxy solitude, oh no. I felt a strange compulsion to arrange them into more orderly sets than the seemingly haphazard way they appeared when I opened a nickel pack of these rectangular beauties, and arrange them I did. Or, rather, rearrange them. I mean, sure, you could be content with the staunchly traditional and conservative yet quotidian “numerical order”. Or, you could put them in a much more reasonable, cosmically systematic order based not on a mere, random number, but rather on more rational and compelling qualities, qualities with a more real-world justification.

    So, back when my entire collection amounted to a little more than two hundred cards, I set out to make sense of my new microverse. First, of course, I stacked the cards in teams, the most natural of all rearrangements. Next, also of course, I reorganized them by position, the second most natural of assignments. Then, if I remember correctly, I arranged them by age, then by height, position by height, position by weight, then circled back to position by age.  And I would do this each time I got a new pack of cards. (Of course, the constant reshuffling of my cards meant that they drifted farther and farther away from the now Holy Grail-like “mint”, but I didn’t (and wouldn’t have, even if I knew what was coming) give two hoots about that. Rearranging the cards (and the very cards themselves) filled me with a strange sense of joy and wonder. The joy remained until cards stopped being issued in series (although by then I was a certified baseball nut) but I kept on collecting them, basically because I thought it was somewhat more than a wonder that a 2.5 x 3.5 rectangle could not only tell us a person’s life story in a nutshell, but it also had a photo of the person in question and cartoons to boot.  How cool was that?

    My own life might have been becoming more and more filled with errata, miscues, faux pas, disappointments, false starts, dead ends, passionate but unrequited crushes, insults, injuries and worse, but the cards never let me down. The first crinkle when I opened a fresh pack, the quick punch of the somewhat vaguely sarcophagal yet redolent bouquet of that pink bubble- gumly slab, the piquant, almost stinging taste of the way-too-sweet yet pleasantly biting first  explosive release of the compound sugars on my tongue (unsullied as they were by the later evils of high fructose corn syrup and aspartame) followed by the almost as rapid disappearance of any flavor at all and then the minutes spent working a quickly congealing gob with a consistency somewhere between Silly Putty® and sinusitic mucilage until your jaws got tired . . .  Man, kids of today just don’t know what they’re missin’.

Cardboard Typos and Gripe-o’s—Part 1

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

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

  • Lefty Gomez was born on November 26, 1908. This is according to the Baseball Hall of Fame, his SABR biography, Baseball Reference, and his own daughter, via her excellent biography of Gomez. Yet virtually all of Lefty’s cards, including his 1933 and 1936 Goudey, 1940 and ’41 Play Ball, 1941 Double Play, and 1961 Fleer, denote Lefty’s birthdate as November 26, 1910. Obviously, an erroneous year of birth circulated in an official capacity for a long time.
  • 1952 Topps Mickey Vernon (#106): In the penultimate line of Mickey’s bio, “Assists” is botched as “Asists.” This is especially shoddy work considering that the same word is correctly spelled just three words to the left.
  • 1958 Bob Lemon (#2): The right-hand cartoon states that Bob won “200” games in seven different seasons. Well, I’m pretty certain Bob would not have had to wait 13 years and 14 elections to make the Hall of Fame had he A) won 200 games in a season, and B) racked up more than 1400 victories in his career. (However, just as mathematician Edward Kasner, through his young nephew, gave the world the unit known as the googol (10100), I suggest that Major League Baseball follow Topps’ inadvertent suggestion that a 200-win season be coined a Zeeeeeeeringg!—regardless of today’s reliance on the bullpen.)
  • 1933 Goudey John (Jack) Ogden (#176): Similarly to Lefty Gomez, this card states than Ogden was born November 5, 1898, when, in actuality, Ogden was born on this date in 1897.
  • 1961 Topps Billy Loes (#237): In the cartoon on the right, “Dodgers” is misspelled as “Dogers.” I’ve no idea if this was an extremely early attempt at a crypto-baseball card…
  • 1960 Nu-Card Baseball Scoops Merkle Pulls Boner (#17): This one must be well known—at least it should be thanks to its egregiousness. The year is embarrassingly incorrect in the byline—Fred Merkle’s infamous failure to touch second base in that “semi-fateful” tie between the Giants and Cubs took place in 1908, not 1928. (I say “semi-fateful” because the outcome was blown out of proportion by the media and saddled poor Fred with an unfair albatross for the rest of his life—New York beat Chicago the following day and moved into first place.) Nu-Card does have it correct on the reverse. However, to add insult to injury, it repeated the error on the Merkle card in the 1961 set (#417).
  • 1955 Bowman Jim Piersall (#16): Across the first and second lines, Bowman botched the spelling of “American.” If an American company can’t spell “American,” it’s not going to be around much longer, eh Bowman?

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

Where has your “k” gone, Dom DiMaggio

Topps rationed you one, then finally got a clue

Woo, woo, woo

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

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

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

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

On the alluring promise of an unopened pack

I took the kids out the other day to hit some balls. It’s been a bit of a frustrating summer in terms of weather—stifling humidity, or thunderstorms with leveling winds and torrential downpours—but we hit a sweet stretch of sunny, high-skied days, so we grabbed one by the lapels and the four of us headed out shortly after breakfast. We had four gloves, nine balls, and four bats: two aluminum, my old ash Slugger with Junior’s signature burned into it, and a bamboo Mizuno I picked up this spring. We had one batting helmet to pass between us. We also found a half-finished pouch of Big League Chew in the bottom of the old gym bag we use to carry our stuff. All signs pointed to this being a good day.

We do this pretty often. In this house taking the kids to a diamond to play catch, field grounders, shag flies, and thwack balls on hot summer days is as non-negotiable an aspect of the season as eating fresh cherries, sleeping with the windows open, and canoeing across smooth water to take a cooling dip in the buggy, violet dusk.

On this particular day I was wearing a Pirates tee with the old grinning pirate logo—the one that looks like a lobby card for a swashbuckler starring Dean Martin—and my son’s cast off Peterborough Tigers house league cap, mesh and adjustable, which he abandoned the moment he made the rep team, whereupon I swooped in to claim it. I finished off the ensemble with cut-off Levi’s and a pair of shabby running shoes. The kids all pretty much follow my sartorial lead, though given that they’re fifteen (my daughter) and eleven (her twin brothers), it doesn’t read for them like the cry for help it probably is for me. Among the hard lessons of adulthood is that what plays when you’re a kid doesn’t necessarily retain its currency as you age. I still haven’t fully internalized that one, as evidenced by my eBay search history.

We drove to a nearby diamond hemmed by a pair of busy roads and a construction site. A crane towered over centerfield. But the outfield grass was a thick, brilliant green—all that rain—and the freshly-raked dirt of the infield promised true bounces. Taking the first step onto that groomed and untrodden earth felt a lot like tearing open a brand new pack of cards. Maybe that’s why I hesitated.

Unopened packs are some powerful stuff, psychically, spiritually, precisely because you just don’t know what’s inside. I mean, you know what’s inside in broad terms—the packaging tells you, if it’s doing its job. But the specifics elude you, and that’s when the imagination takes over, making room for hope and anticipation. The box of 2021 Topps Series 2 that sits on my shelf tantalizes by virtue of its newness and the possibilities it represents, and that’s why, though I love opening cards with my kids, taking turns drafting until all the cards are gone, I also relish holding off on even telling them that I’ve picked up a new box or pack. Part of that is the joy of surprise, but the bulk of it is that hope, ephemeral and addictive. Maybe Tatis, Jr. waits to be taken, or Soto. There might be an Ohtani. There might even be a Vlad, Jr. In our house, that’d be the first card chosen. We’re a little crazy about Vlad.

Less exciting for the kids, by virtue of simple math, is the hanger pack of 1990 Donruss that I’ve been holding on to for a couple of years. It’s funny that I should be so reverent of that set, which I collected, but did not love, in its year of issue, with its funky and immodest Memphis Milano design cues, and the fact that I was at the time primarily obsessed with Upper Deck’s offerings. But I found this cellophaned relic in a junk shop a few years ago, where it was underpriced, sitting next to NASCAR models and board games marked “MISSING PIECES,” so I brought it home, and it has rested within arm’s reach of my desk ever since, waiting for a day that seemed to beckon toward the finality of tearing open its brittle envelope and revealing its contents.

That those contents might underwhelm is both a statistical probability and a compelling argument for leaving the packaging untroubled, and the mystery it cradles intact. Already there are indications that the cache could disappoint; the three cards visible through the clear wrapper are Jose Uribe (SFG), Clint Zavaras (SEA), and Brian Holton (BAL). I mean no disrespect to any of those men, but short of family has anyone ever longed to see those names when they crack open a fresh pack? You’re looking for Griffey, Bo Jackson, Barry Bonds, a Larry Walker rookie card, not commons and filler.

Hope for one outcome and the suspicion that another is all that awaits; this is the fine tension that fuels the excitement of an unopened pack of baseball cards. The only thing preserving this delicate balance is the packaging, be it waxed paper sealed with glue, a foil pouch, rectilinear cardboard, or clear plastic. Once breached, the mystery—and the promise—evaporates. Maybe Vladdy’s in there, maybe he isn’t, but knowing he is, or knowing he isn’t, isn’t as interesting as not knowing that he is, or isn’t. Ignorance is bliss, while hope is divine.

The kids didn’t hesitate to step onto the dirt, of course. Theirs were the first footprints on the unspoiled infield. They charged ahead and I followed, and we lay all our stuff at the foot of the chain-link backstop. We put on our gloves and started tossing a ball around. When the ball hit the dirt it left round impact craters and, from rollers, long runnels like sandworm tracks. Before long we’d collaborated on an original work, an abstract in dirt, a study in forms.

Then the bats came out. I walked to the mound and lay down a cluster of balls, most of which were worn and scuffed—last year’s crop, from the box I ordered to give us something to replace all the balls we were losing over the backyard fence during early pandemic games of catch. Of that batch of a dozen there are now six left untouched, gleaming and beautiful in their box, other iterations of promise, threats of diminishment. On this day I brought two of those fresh pearls, smooth and white, because there’s nothing like hitting a new ball. My son stepped in, waggled his bat, and I began serving up fat cookies right over the heart of the plate, which he hacked and whacked all over the field, leaving more craters and lines. His siblings fielded the balls and tossed them back in.

The kids took turns at bat and sullied the new balls, and it was glorious. Dribblers, stingers, high pop flies. The orbs picked up grass, dirt, scratches in their soft hides. They’re still brighter than the other balls, but a little less clean, and in time they’ll show evidence of heavy use, which is as it should be. An unused baseball is, I think, a tiny crime against the universe.

The cards, too, will eventually be opened. Let’s face it, I lack the willpower to hold out forever. The balance will tilt until it overwhelms me, and I’ll succumb to a moment of high-grade hope, and maybe there will be a gem or two buried within. Vlad, or Larry Walker, or Andre Dawson. And if no superstar appears, no Hall of Famer, or member of the Hall of Very Good—or even the Annex of Guys Who You Know Aren’t Very Good, But You Root For Them Anyway—the disappointment will dissolve nearly as soon as it sets in. There are no real stakes in this, and that’s what’s so wonderful about it.

Player Collection Spotlight: Representing the 772 (or 561 or 407 or 305)

Our collecting habits are almost certainly influenced by time and place, and my own certainly are. The players I collect were primarily active in the 1980s and 1990s, the team I collect was on top of the baseball world in 1986 with their spring training site moving about two miles away from my house, and, with my formative collecting years being the late 1980s and early 1990s, I find having a single card producing company with a full MLB license maddening.

At some point, probably in the early 2000s, I began collecting “cards” of players from the area in which I grew up. “Cards” is in parentheses because I have other items of the non-card variety, including Starting Lineup figures for the few who had them as well as other assorted card-like items. While the definition of a card varies by individual, my own definition of a “card” is broad.

Port St. Lucie was small when I lived there – the title of the post shows how much the area codes changed due to population growth over the span of about 15 years. There was not actually a high school in the city of Port St. Lucie until 1989 (I was in the second class that could possibly have attended the school all four years) – so I branched out a little into the rest of St. Lucie County as well as neighboring Martin and Indian River counties. But despite its size there were a few players who made it to the show.

The most famous player from the area is almost certainly Rick Ankiel. A highly touted pitching prospect who likely would have gone higher in the draft if he didn’t have Scott Boras as his agent, he finished second in Rookie of the Year voting to Rafael Furcal then proceeded to struggle with control against the Braves and Mets in the playoffs. He of course made it back to the majors as an outfielder, which, according to his book, may not have happened had he not had Boras as his agent. It’s that story which likely elevates him to the most famous player from the area.

Charles Johnson went to Fort Pierce Westwood and was drafted in the first round twice – once out of high school and once out of the University of Miami. I believe his dad was the baseball coach at Westwood for many years. He is probably the best player (at least according to WAR) to come out of the area, or at least he was until Michael Brantley came along. Again, there are dividing lines for a collection – I don’t collect Brantley because I had left the area before he became a local player. He was in the right place just at the wrong time. Brantley’s time in that area did overlap perhaps an even more famous individual from the area – you may have seen Megan Fox in a movie or two.

There are other players from the area, more minor players in the history of the game. Ed Hearn, who was born in Stuart and went to Fort Pierce Central, was a favorite of my best friend’s mom. He also happened to play for the 1986 Mets, which is good enough for me. Like Charles Johnson, Terry McGriff is a catcher out of Westwood and is actually Charles Johnson’s uncle. He’s also a cousin to Fred McGriff (who I also collect in a limited fashion though that has nothing to do with location – it has everything to do with time). A friend of mine in elementary school got Terry McGriff’s autograph when Terry visited my friend’s elementary school. Eventually that card ended up in my collection through a trade of some sort.

Danny Klassen, who went to John Carroll High School, is the closest in age to me, and while I didn’t play baseball with him (I was on the north side of Port St. Lucie and played at Sportsman’s Park; he was playing on the south side at Lyngate Park) I know many people who played on teams with him in Little League and Legion Ball. I believe he has a World Series ring with his time on the Diamondbacks. Wonderful Terrific Monds was a player I didn’t know much about, but (1) a good friend of mine’s parents couldn’t stop talking about how good he was and (2) his name is awesome. He never made it to the majors, but he has minor league cards and a handful of cards from mainstream sets due to being in the minors at the right time (a prospect in the early 1990s).

I should probably have a Jon Coutlangus collection, but alas, I think he was a year too late. At one point I identified Joe Randa as the best MLB player to attend Indian River Community College (which is now Indian River State College), so I started a Randa collection, though I don’t remember much about his IRCC career.

The more prominent players (Ankiel, Johnson, and Randa) have some game-used and autographed cards; most have parallel cards in one product or another. Okay, Ankiel has over 100 different autographed cards and over 50 memorabilia cards according to Beckett; he was a hot prospect at a time when there were multiple fully-licensed producers. He’s also popular enough that he has autographed cards in recent Topps issues, well after his retirement from baseball. Hearn, McGriff, Monds, and Klassen only have a handful (or what I would call a handful – less than 75) of cards. It’s usually easier to find the rarer cards of the bigger names because sellers will list them, with the cards of the less popular players coming up occasionally.

While the cards of these players aren’t going to set records at an auction or allow me to buy an island, the collection provides a tie to my formative baseball playing and baseball card collecting years. For me, those types of connections are why I collect.

Collecting your favorite player’s baseball cards

There are so many different ways to collect baseball cards, and no single way is the right way. On the contrary, “collect what you like!” is the advice most commonly given to new collectors who ask. I’m not here to discredit such advice, but I am here to augment it. After all, part of collecting what you like involves knowing what’s out there and what the options are.

My focus in this article is on what is known in the Hobby these days as “player collecting,” i.e., collecting cards of specific players. Our blog already includes Player Collection Spotlights on Tim Jordan, Jim Gantner, Brooks Robinson, Keith Hernandez, and Ozzie Smith, and I’m hopeful that other SABR members who collect specific players will submit additional articles.

Before jumping into the state of the modern Hobby, I’ll back up a bit to around 1981 when things were much simpler but card shows were frequent enough that I was able to collect far more than what was on the shelves of my local 7-Eleven. Favorite players at the time were Steve Garvey, Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, and George Brett, all of whom were well represented in contemporary sets but also had cards that pre-dated my own entry into the Hobby.

The way I approached collecting these players matches what I’ve found to be the understanding of others around my age who have recently re-entered the Hobby. For example, someone hoping to start a Roberto Clemente collection might initially presume a checklist of 19 Topps cards, one per year from 1955-1973. Perhaps they’d also remember that the Great One might have graced some All-Star or League Leader cards–maybe even a food issue or two. What they wouldn’t expect would be the nearly 6000 (!) cards they’d see when looking up Clemente on Trading Card Database.

Yikes!! How the Hobby has changed since 1981! And with these changes, two questions arise?

  • Is it even possible to collect all of my favorite player’s card?
  • Is there any point to collecting my favorite player’s cards?

Assuming the favorite player is a popular Hall of Famer, the answer to the first question is almost always no. Taking Clemente as an example, he had 20 different 1/1 (“one of one,” meaning only one such card was ever produced) cards from last year’s Topps Project 2020 alone. Were you lucky enough to find one, good chance its price tag would be several thousand dollars or more. Good luck picking up all twenty!

I am fortunate in that Hank Aaron “only” has 5,335 cards, but of course this number goes up (by a lot!) every single year. Do I plan to do what the old boxes and wrappers said and “COLLECT THEM ALL?” Not a chance, and I call myself a Hank Aaron collector?!

Still, as collectors there is something in our DNA that compels us to complete sets. Were we to acquire the aforementioned Roberto Clemente Topps run of 1955-1973 with the exception of a single card, we’d spend more time agonizing over the missing than enjoying the 18 in front of us. We are programmed to be “completists,” meaning there are only two ways to go when we figure out we can’t be:

  1. Give up.
  2. Make a new plan.

I’ll focus on the second of these strategies.

Keep it Simple?

In the face of an overwhelming and seemingly infinite checklist, an approach many collectors take is to focus solely on Topps base cards from each year’s main (“flagship”) set. This is the approach Dave wrote about when he first shared his Jim Gantner collection with us. Of course most of us in the Comments completely lost our sh*t: “Only Topps?! What? Not even Fleer and Donruss????”

Really, though, this is a fantastic option for collectors. Not only is it (typically) easiest on the wallet but it also provides (for most players of the Topps era) a year-by-year record of the player’s career that collectively tells the story of the player in baseball card form. What teams did he play for? How did he look when he was young? How did he look when he was old? What position was he most known for each year?

Flagship Add-Ons

Barring an expensive rookie card (e.g., Clemente) or demands for gem mint, the above approach is generally tenable, which is a good thing until it isn’t. For weeks, maybe months, or maybe even years, the mission was to collect the whole set, and now all of a sudden it sucks to be done! Psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar calls this the Arrival Fallacy, the belief that when we attain a certain goal we’ll be happy when in reality we feel let down and lost.

Fortunately, there are often some simple ways to extend a player collection without (yet!) sliding down the slippery slope to completism. One of the most standard ways is to stay within Topps flagship but add other cards that feature the player prominently:

  • All-Star cards
  • Record Breaker or Highlights cards

In the case of Hank Aaron, cards like this become additions to the checklist.

Another Topps flagship card many star players–particularly from the 1950s and 1960s–might have is what Trading Card Database calls a CPC (“combination player card”). In the case of Aaron, there are several. Here are two of my favorites.

Other simple extensions to the player collection focus, still within Topps flagship, are League Leader cards and Team Cards. Personally, I don’t chase these cards for my Aaron collection, but many player collectors do.

An extreme case I’ve been asked about but not encountered personally is collecting the generic set checklists within flagship, provided the player’s name appears. Does this really look like a Hank Aaron card to you? (But if it does, go for it!)

Up to now I’ve covered most (but still not all) of the ways one might define a player collection within Topps flagship. While my example has been Hank Aaron, the picture isn’t tremendously different for other Hall of Famers of the Topps era.

Sticking with Topps

Most years, Topps issued more than just its popular flagship set. Examples that showcase the variety of such offerings are 1955 Topps Double Headers, 1965 Topps Embossed, 1975 Topps Minis, and 1985 Topps Traded. Go much later than the 1980s and be prepared to encounter an absolutely seismic increase in number.

Of the non-flagship offerings, I consider Traded/Update sets to be the most essential. This doesn’t impact my Hank Aaron collection, but it does, for example, demand that the 1984 Topps Traded Dwight Gooden card be part of my Gooden collection. My standard temptation in this realm is to want everything. However, many of the Topps releases were “test issues” with very limited production and distribution, hence very pricey.

Two such examples in my Hank Aaron collection are the 1969 Topps Super test issue and the 1974 Topps Deckle Edge test issue. I am glad I have these cards today, but I’m not glad enough to pursue other Aaron test issues such as his 1974 Topps Puzzle. My advice to collectors here is first to learn what’s out there, which is easy to do thanks to the PSA Registry or Trading Card Database, and then next to get a sense of prices. From there you can decide whether you want all, some, or none. “Some” is of course a spot most collectors hate. All I can say is it’s my current spot, and I’m learning to live with it more and more.

Another point I’ll add that may factor into which cards the player collector chooses to pursue is that many non-flagship sets are unusually sized, either much larger, smaller, or rounder than standard baseball cards. If an important goal for your player collection is to display it, size and shape can be important considerations. Of my tougher Aaron cards, I love that my 1958 Hires Root Beer, 1960 Lake to Lake Dairy, and 1969 Topps Super cards all fit my 50-card Pennzoni display case. Conversely, I hate that my 1974 Deckle Edge is much too large for it.

Defining the Era

If your player collection involves a retired player, one of the most important decisions to make is whether you’re interested in cards from any year or solely from his playing (and/or managing/coaching) career. My approach tends toward the latter, though it’s still occasionally fun for me to pick up a low priced modern card of the retired players I collect.

For example, I am thrilled to have this 1961 Topps card of Roy Campanella and this 2021 Topps card of Hank Aaron. What I’m not looking to do is chase every post-career card of these players that comes out. There are a few reasons.

On one hand, it’s the post-career cards of most retired greats that multiply their player collector checklists tenfold if not more. Second, so many of the cards are extraordinarily expensive due to their manufactured scarcity–e.g., intentional print runs of 1 or 5 or 10. Finally, when you produce dozens if not hundreds of Hank Aaron cards each year, it’s just basic math that a whole bunch will be ugly.

Beyond Topps

Collecting more than just Topps cards is a decision I’d encourage for most player collectors. However, the numbers do multiply quickly, particularly once you hit the late 1980s when it seems like everybody and their cousin were issuing baseball card sets.

Keeping my focus on the Topps era (1951-present), I’ll offer that most non-Topps cards thru about 1990 fell into these convenient categories–

  • Bowman (1951-55 and…shoot, if you insist…1989-1990)
  • Leaf (1960)
  • Fleer (1963 and 1981-1990)
  • Donruss (1981-1990)
  • Score (1988-1990)
  • Leaf* (1990)
  • Foreign issues (e.g., Venezuelan Topps, O-Pee-Chee, 1985 Donruss Leaf)
  • Oddballs

*Referring here to the premium U.S. issue, not the Canadian Donruss releases of the mid-1980s

That last category is extraordinarily large and some would argue it’s where the most fun is. However, from a completeness perspective, I tend to view it as less essential than the first six categories. For example, Hank Aaron’s 1955 Bowman card was a “must have” for me, as would have been the case were there cards of him in 1960 Leaf or 1963 Fleer. Though I do have several O-Pee-Chee Aaron cards and many, many oddballs, I’m not sure I’d regard any as essential to my collection.

Again, my advice is to learn what’s out there, get a sense of prices, and choose accordingly. For the top players, the oddball category proves too large to collect everything. Of course, there are so many great cards in it that collecting nothing doesn’t feel very good either.

Order from Chaos

Though it’s where I’ve landed with my own player collections, I’ll be the first to admit there’s something icky about pursuing a largely amorphous checklist. How satisfying it would be to say “I’m collecting all of Hank Aaron’s cards” or even “I’m collecting all of Hank Aaron’s cards from his playing career” as opposed to “I’m collecting Hank Aaron’s Topps/Bowman flagship playing career base cards, most of his Topps playing career non-base cards, some of his playing career Topps non-flagship, some of his playing career oddballs, and a pretty random mix of his modern stuff.” Of course, the cost of a simpler sentence might be triple, and there is little chance the joy of collecting would be commensurate.

The important thing, again going back to collector DNA, is not so much what’s on your list but that you have a list, even if it ultimately evolves. Your list may defy any simple explanation beyond “the cards of Player X that I want.” Though it’s subjective and won’t necessarily match the list of any other collector, it’s still a list that enables you to pursue a goal, check things off, and someday “collect them all!”

It’s also where I believe we are forced in the modern Hobby, where new offerings are too plentiful to keep up with and older cards quickly leave many collectors priced out.

Overall then, my guide to player collecting is simple:

  • Learn what’s out there
  • Get a sense of prices if not sizes
  • Create your own checklist, in stages if you like
  • Modify as needed, but be thoughtful

Before wrapping up, I’ll elaborate on that final point. Once you complete your checklist, of course you’ll want to add more cards to it. Almost always, the cards you add in latter phases aren’t as “must have” as the ones from earlier phases, but they often cost just as much if not more. As I grapple with adding on to my Hank Aaron collection, I’m very conscious of the fact that what I spend for the 110th through 120th Hank Aaron cards I want could probably fund an entire Topps run of Frank Robinson or Ernie Banks!

My final advice is to look beyond the what and why of your player collection to the how. Whatever cards you collect will almost certainly be more enjoyable if they build relationships in the Hobby. Share your goals with the collecting community, post the occasional pickup, and be willing to spend a couple bucks more if it means buying from a “real person” as opposed to an anonymous eBay seller. In the end, the collection is just cardboard, but the relationships and memories can be gold.

Were the All Star FanFest Cards from 1994-2000 the Precursor for Topps Project 2020?

As a baseball card collector and enthusiast, I feel that I am living through the Renaissance era of baseball card art. My Twitter feed is filled daily with spectacular images of cards from many artists that are working with a variety of mediums to produce their own interpretations of what cards of past and present players should look like. A number of these artists are also using their artwork to support charitable causes.

There was certainly an undercurrent of fine baseball card artwork being produced long before 2020, but the Topps Project 2020 brought to the surface a tidal wave of beautiful cards from a wide variety of artists.

Was Project 2020 an original idea or was it a variation on a project from the Junk Wax era? A case can be made that Project 2020 can be linked back to the All Star FanFest Cards from 1994 to 2000.

The two projects are similar in that they have multiple artists and designers coming up with unique cards of a single player and they also share some common player subjects – Roberto Clemente (1994 – Pittsburgh FanFest), Nolan Ryan (1995 – Dallas FanFest), and Jackie Robinson (1997- Cleveland FanFest).

The other player subjects for the All Star FanFest sets were Steve Carlton (1996 – Philadelphia FanFest), Lou Brock (1998 – St. Louis FanFest), Carl Yastrzemski (1999 – Boston FanFest), and Henry Aaron (2000 – Atlanta FanFest).

Ray Schulte was responsible for the All Star FanFest cards from 1994 to 2000. At the time he was working as an event consultant for MLB Properties, and cajoled some of the major baseball card producers of the 90’s to design and distribute unique cards of an iconic player from the city that was hosting the All Star Game. To obtain the cards a fan had to redeem 5 pack wrappers of any baseball product of the manufacturer at their FanFest booth.

I was introduced to the cards when I attended the All Star FanFest event held at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston in 1999. I attended the event with my family and upon learning about the cards from a Fleer representative sent my two kids on a mission to purchase 5 packs of cards produced by each of the four manufacturers from dealers at the event so we could exchange the wrappers for the Carl Yastrzemski cards designed just for the 1999 FanFest.

Now let’s take a closer look at the All Star FanFest sets which feature players that overlap with the Topps 2020 Project.

1994 All Star FanFest Set – Roberto Clemente

1994 was the first year that FanFest cards were issued and with Pittsburgh hosting the All Star Game the player subject was Roberto Clemente. Topps, Fleer, Upper Deck, Donruss, and Pinnacle issued cards for the event.

Fleer and Topps decided not to mess with perfection and produced cards that were essentially reprints of Clemente’s 1955 Topps rookie card and his 1963 Fleer card with 1994 All Star logos. Upper Deck issued a metallic looking card of Clemente that contains career stats and accomplishments on the front. Upper Deck would utilize the “metallic look” design for player subjects for the next 6 years. As you would expect, an image of a Dick Perez painting of Clemente is on the front of the Donruss Diamond King card.

1995 All Star FanFest Set – Nolan Ryan

With the 1995 All Star Game being held in the home park of the Texas Rangers the logical choice for the player subject for the FanFest cards was Nolan Ryan who retired in 1993.

The 5 card manufacturers who designed cards for the 1994 All Star FanFest also produced cards for 1995 All Star FanFest event held in Dallas.

Topps produced a re-imagined 1967 Rookie card of by eliminating the Jerry Koosman photo and enlarging the Nolan Ryan image to fill the front of the card. In microscopic print, Nolan’s complete major league pitching record is on the back of the card. Steve Carlton got the same treatment a year later when Topps enlarged his airbrushed 1965 photo to produce a new version of his Rookie card. Fleer issued an Ultra Gold Medallion version of a Ryan card. Upper Deck continued with its metallic design for a Ryan card. The Pinnacle card featured a Nolan Ryan painting and Donruss produced a Tribute card.

Get out the magnifying glass. Back of Topps 1995 Nolan Ryan All Star FanFest card.

1997 All Star FanFest Set – Jackie Robinson

With the All Star Game 1997 marking the 50th year of his major league debut, Jackie Robinson was the correct selection for the player subject for the 1997 set.

Topps released a reprint of his 1952 card with a All Star logo on the front and his complete major league batting record on the back. Leaf distributed a reprint of Jackie’s 1948 “rookie” card with small All Star Game logo in the upper right-hand corner. Fleer choose a nice posed photo of Jackie looking like he is going to tag out the runner for its Ultra card. On the back of its Tribute card, Pinnacle included a great action shot of Robinson coming in head-first at home plate with the catcher about to make a tag. The photo leaves you wondering – Which way did the call go? Upper Deck once again used a metallic design for its Jackie Robinson FanFest card.

Other All Star FanFest Cards

1997 All Star FanFest Larry Doby Cards

Depending on your definition of a complete set, collectors should be aware that Fleer and Pinnacle released Larry Doby cards to coincide with the All Star game being held in Cleveland. Included below are photos of the Fleer Ultra card and the Pinnacle 3-D Denny’s card.

2000 Henry Aaron FanFest Error Card

For some reason Topps decided not to make a reprint of Aaron’s 1954 Rookie card part of the official 2000 All Star FanFest set. Instead, Topps designed a unique card that featured a spectacular color photo of Aaron in a posed batting stance. Topps did however print some of the 1954 Rookie reprints with an All Star Game logo. These Aaron Rookie reprints are considered “error” cards.

Costs

Almost all the All Star FanFest sets can be purchased for under $12 on eBay. The exception is the 1994 Roberto Clemente All Star FanFest set. Each manufacturer produced 15,000 cards for the event. Less than 10,000 of each card were distributed at FanFest. The rest of the cards were destroyed. A Clemente set will set you back about $60.

That’s amore.

“There are two laws of the universe – gravity, and everyone likes Italian food.” – Neil Simon, supposedly.

The photos on baseball cards have the power to fire imaginations. A player fresh up from Evansville with four big-league games under his belt can convince a young collector (OK, grown-ups too) that he’s a future Hall of Famer, just from the tilt of his cap and the confident look in his eye. A lad so strapping and foursquare must have The Right Stuff, no?

Another example: Every team on an old-fashioned team card looks like a well-oiled machine. Looking at those orderly rows of players in their clean uniforms, it’s tough to imagine them running into each other, or watching a fly ball drop uncaught, or air-mailing a throw to the cutoff man.

What’s shown in the background of cards can also get the imagination going. I recently noticed a recurring sign in the Montreal Expos’ long-ago spring-training ballpark in Daytona Beach … one of those things you don’t stop seeing once you’ve picked up on it.

And ever since I noticed it, I’ve been craving Italian food.

75ErnieMcAnally

It shows up most clearly behind Ernie McAnally’s left shoulder in 1975, next to the crudely painted sign where the “Cola” tilts askew from the “Coca.” See it? PAESANO.

76OPCFryman

Either Topps used an old pic in ’76 or the sign was still there at City Island Park a year later, because it shows up pretty clearly on Woodie Fryman’s card. PAESANO.

75SteveRenko

Going back to ’75, it’s not quite as clear on Steve Renko’s card. But once you’ve seen it elsewhere, you know it’s the same sign. PAESANO.

75BalorMoore

Like the melody of a lonesome accordion trickling in through an open window, it’s only hinted at on Balor Moore’s ’75 card. But again, once you’ve seen it, you recognize it. PAESANO. (The ’75 Don DeMola cheats us cruelly of a fifth PAESANO, though it surely gladdened the heart of your neighborhood Coca-Cola bottler at the time.)

Other bloggers have pointed out that Topps seems to have intentionally obscured outfield signs on several 1977 Expos cards. Perhaps if they had done the same thing here, I would not currently be dreaming about a dimly lit old-school ristorante at which mammoth plates of spaghetti are accompanied by bottles of affordable yet forthright red wine.

(This is a key part of my PAESANO fantasy. In my head, it’s not just an Italian place; it’s a Seventies Italian place, like my grandparents might have known. There’s vinyl involved, and those wrapped Chianti bottles, and Chevy Impalas like the one my grandfather owned parked outside.)

I’ve devoted entirely too much time to researching this on Newspapers dot com over the past few days … and of course I know nothing more than I did when I started. I don’t even know for absolute certain that PAESANO was a restaurant. It could have been an ad for Richie Paesano & Sons 24-Hour Towing.

I’ve found old print references to at least two Florida restaurants called Paesano or Paesano’s, though, as I recall, neither of them were in Daytona Beach nor tremendously close.

Intriguingly, back issues of the Montreal Gazette indicate that a restaurant called Paesano — complete with distinctive typeface — was a mainstay of that city’s formal dining scene in the early to mid-1970s. (The ad below ran in the Gazette on March 18, 1974.)

Expos spring training reportedly attracted a flood of Quebeckers each year, and it would have been a slick trick for a Montreal business to take advantage of their mal du pays and promote something they could enjoy when they got back home. That seems like a little bit of a stretch to me, though.

paead

I’ve scoured the Gazette and the Orlando Sentinel in search of a clear, unencumbered photo of the sign, to no avail.

The Sentinel used to write up the games of the Daytona Beach Dodgers, who played in the same park, but they never seemed to send a photographer. The Gazette cared enough to send a lensman to Expos spring training each year — but they only ran one of his photos each day, perhaps because they ate up space that could be devoted to the Montreal Canadiens’ latest playoff run.

The only view I’ve found so far is in a photo that ran February 28, 1975. Five Expos pitchers are hamming it up, giving the cameraman the ol’ prosciutto, and peeking out between two of them is just a hint of PAESANO.

feb281975

Of course this view raises more questions than it answers. The partial word “ANCA” is visible between Chip Lang and Dan Warthen at far left. I can only think of one food-related word in English that involves the letters “ANCA,” and it’s “pancakes” … not exactly the kind of food you find at a fancy-night Italian place. (Might PAESANO have been a diner instead?)

I might never know the full story of PAESANO. But it doesn’t really matter.

Once again — has it happened a thousand times since I was a boy? Ten thousand? — I’ve been reeled in by the image on a baseball card. My brain has locked in and started sparking, setting scenes, telling stories. I relish that feeling. It’s part of what keeps me buying cards, and paging through binders, and picking up cards and holding them in my hand. Without that connection, it’s all just piles of cardboard.

Push the crushed red pepper flakes a little closer, won’t you?

A “most valuable” Josh Gibson card

The formula for Topps Project 70 is a seemingly simple one. An artist, typically from outside the sports card world, chooses a player, chooses a design from among the “70 Years of Topps,” and combines the two, adding in their own artistic style and spin.

The Brittney Palmer card of A-Rod (1980 design) and Jonas Never card of Justin Turner (1982 design) are good examples of the concept in action.

Occasionally, however, an artist adds a third dimension. In the case of DJ Skee, it’s a curated Spotify playlist of music and storytelling. In the case of Alex Pardee, there’s an epic comic book-like plot unfolding, and in the case of Eric Friedensohn, (better known as Efdot), there is that complex but omnipresent realm many collectors only begrudgingly stomach: real life.

We profiled a couple of Efdot’s cards last year when he was part of the Topps Project 2020 lineup. His Jackie Robinson card was influenced by the protests and national reckoning following George Floyd’s senseless murder, and his masked Dwight Gooden card, a nod to the worldwide COVID pandemic, not only made a real doc out of “Doc” but made our “SABR 50 at 50” list as the defining card of 2020.

This year, readers of Apple News were treated to a sneak preview of yet another Efdot card that is meeting the moment.

On May 24 (TODAY!), Topps is releasing the first (but hopefully not only) Josh Gibson card of Project 70, which not only pays tribute to the legendary Negro Leagues slugger but also calls attention to an effort underway to name Baseball’s MVP trophies in Josh’s honor.

The card will only be available thru May 27 at noon ET, after which point no additional cards will be released. (Pro tip: Do NOT show up at 11:59 on the last day. Allow for at least a few minutes of captcha hell before Topps.com lets you complete your purchase.)

There’s a lot to unpack, but let’s start with the choice of Josh Gibson, a player Topps did not initially make available to Project 70 artists. For insights into the card and the story behind it, I checked in with Efdot, the card’s artist, and Sean Gibson, the executive director of the Josh Gibson Foundation, not to mention the great-grandson of the Hall of Fame slugger.

UPDATE: You can also tune in to Beckett Live Presents for a live discussion with Efdot and Sean. (If you miss it, the same link will take you to the recording.)

Jason: Eric, your earlier cards in the set were of Mike Schmidt, Ozzie Smith, Ronald Acuña, and Wade Boggs. What led you to choose Josh Gibson?

Efdot: Leading up to Project70, getting to choose my own players was incredible. I knew I wanted to illustrate a diverse group of both retired and young current players. I had not seen many cards representing Negro League players, and knew they deserved more recognition for their contributions to baseball. 

I had done extensive research on Jackie Robinson last year for Project2020 and learned more about the athletes that were forced to play only in Negro Leagues, never making it to the Major Leagues. I dug deeper and got inspired by Josh Gibson’s images, his story and the positive, engaged community around the Josh Gibson Foundation.

Jason: Once you knew you wanted to do a card of Josh, what was the process to make that happen?

Efdot: I worked with my friend, writer/editor Matt Castello, to help me finalize my player selections. Topps told me I could request players outside of the given list. Josh Gibson was at the top of my list for players that I wanted to illustrate, so I asked Topps if they could make it happen. I’m not sure what negotiations happened between Topps and the Josh Gibson Foundation/Estate, but after a few weeks, Topps informed me that I was able to make the first Josh Gibson card for Project70.

Jason: Sean, what did it mean to you to have an artist select Josh Gibson for this project?

Sean Gibson: I’d like to answer here not just for myself but on behalf of the entire Gibson family. Number one, it’s always exciting to see Josh Gibson on a baseball card. In addition, it’s particularly exciting for the card to be done by Efdot. I’m a big fan of his work, and I’ve really enjoyed the cards he’s done in the past. So yes, having a Josh Gibson card from Efdot is very special.

Jason: Eric, you had your choice of designs from seven decades of Topps baseball cards. What motivated you to choose 1972 for this card?

Efdot: I was initially interested in 1972 Topps from a design perspective, because it seemed like it would work well with my style. I found out that the 1972 set’s informal nickname among collectors is “the psychedelic tombstone set,” which is a reference to the design’s outer border and how each picture is presented within an arch. 

The way the team name is written across the top of the card, almost looking like a marquee sign shining bright. I recognized the font from comic books and art deco-style buildings that I’ve seen in Midtown Manhattan. (I had also created multiple lettering pieces in the past, referencing this same type style.)

Once I learned that Josh Gibson’s Hall of Fame induction happened in 1972, I decided it was the perfect pairing.

Author’s note: The 1972 design also proved fortuitous when Topps let Eric know much more recently that they wanted to add a “chase card” to the Josh Gibson release. Here is “Josh Gibson MVP…In Action!”

Jason: Eric, many of your cards feature small “Easter eggs” that help tell a broader story when found by the collector. On this card, the letters “MVP” are too prominent to qualify as an Easter egg, but there is still a story to them. You’re specifically referencing the Josh Gibson MVP Award campaign that’s underway right now, correct?

Efdot: Yes. I don’t recall exactly when I found out about the Josh Gibson MVP campaign, but it was something I resonated with immediately. Right away, I had the idea to change that marquee sign to say GIBSON MVP, loud and proud, instead of the team name. I wanted it to line up with the #JG20MVP campaign as a powerful combination of messaging and design.

Josh Gibson is such an important player with a rich and unrecognized history of accomplishment in home runs, batting average, and sheer power that deserves to serve as the standard across the league.

I believe the naming of the MVP award should be given to someone not only who represents the accomplishments in sports through their performance on the field, but also a good role model for young athletes and current players alike.

Jason: Sean, you had a peek at the card early. Tell me what it was like to see your great-grandfather brought to life by Eric’s artwork?

Sean Gibson: When I first saw the card I thought it was amazing. Now the most important part of the card is the lettering that reads “MVP.” When I first spoke with Efdot about the Josh Gibson MVP campaign he was the one who suggested putting MVP right on the card.

After that, I love the colors and the details. I particularly like the glove and how Efdot has the addreess of 2217 Bedford Avenue. For the readers who might not know, 2217 Bedford is the location where Josh first started playing baseball for the Pittsburgh Crawfords sandlot team. The field there is known today as Josh Gibson Field.

Jason: Eric, how does it feel to have created this special card, and what place do you hope it has in the Hobby?

Eric: I knew from the start that working on this card wouldn’t be like any other. I was so grateful for the opportunity to work with the Josh Gibson Foundation and Sean Gibson directly to help me truly understand the importance of Josh’s legacy and to help create a piece of work that will hopefully be used to celebrate that legacy for years to come.

Jason: And finally, Sean, what would it mean to your family and the families of other Negro League legends to have baseball’s MVP trophies renamed for Josh?

Sean Gibson: I would say this. The Hall of Fame is Josh’s biggest accomplishment. That said, I was three years old when Josh was inducted, so I have no recollection of the experience. For the younger generations and the rest of the Gibson family, this would be the most significant accomplishment of our lifetimes with respect to Josh.

Overall, it would be the second greatest accomplishment of Josh’s career, with the Hall of Fame being the first. However, this award would not only honor Josh but acknowledge and recognize the other 3400 men who were denied the chance to play Major League Baseball solely due to the color of their skin. Josh would be carrying all of these players on his shoulders.

Jason: Gentlemen, my genuine thanks to both of you for taking the time to talk to SABR Baseball Cards. Best of luck with the card and of course the MVP campaign! Finally, on a personal note, now that Josh finally has an official MVP card I can stop making my own! (But I probably won’t.)

ON THE WEB:

ON SOCIAL

2021 Heritage Geek Out

I’ve been looking forward to 2021 Heritage for a couple years now. This is partially because 1972 was the first set which stood out as the oldest cards in my childhood collection, but the main reason is because it’s just an incredibly challenging design to reproduce. Up to 1972, Topps’s designs are pretty restrained. Nothing complex is going on with the fonts and even the colorful sets feature solid blocks of color.

1972 though. Hoo boy. Custom type for the team names. Bright and colorful with different-colored borders. I could see the potential for a major trainwreck and I was split between hoping for such a wreck and hoping that Topps instead got it all right.

The reality of course lies between those two extremes. For the most part 2021 Heritage looks about right and the differences aren’t really worth complaining about. Those differences though are however the kind of thing I happen to find really interesting.

So let’s start out just comparing a bunch of 1972 Topps cards with their 2021 Heritage equivalents. Not a whole lot worth noting. Some color differences but most are really just shifts in darkness. Only the change from magenta to red on the Indians and Cubs cards is particularly noteworthy.*

*Side comment here but I’ve yet to see anyone post a tribute to the Billy Cowan card and that seems a massive missed opportunity. I am however not at all surprised that there’s no tribute to the Billy Martin card.

Zooming in though shows the usual interesting (to me at least) comparisons between printing technology in the 1970s and today. Or in the case with most of the Heritage cards, they show how the design workflow is different.

So let’s look at some details. 1972 on the left, 2021 on the right. I’m not going to look at the pairs in order, instead I’m grouping them based on how they differ colorwise.

Or, as is the case with this first group, how they don’t differ. The red, yellow, and greens are all solid. These all feature 100% yellow ink. The red also features 100% magenta and the green features 100% cyan. The difference in color between the two greens is a reflection of how heavy the cyan ink was printed.

In the borders and text sections you can see how the trapping and registration differs between 1972 and 2021. This is especially obvious on the 1972 red card since the black plate is a bit misregistered and doesn’t cover up the transitions between yellow, orange, and red.

And in the white text on the 2021 green card you can just make out the faint yellow screen that Topps printed to warm up the white card stock.

There’s also some weird stuff on a couple of the 2021 cards—a yellow edge in the S on the yellow card and a white edge between the green solid and black hairline—a which suggests that something else is going on. Since this oddness continues in the other examples I’ll wait until the end to address it.

The oranges are also pretty close. Still 100% yellow but now you can see the magenta screen. 2021 Heritage uses a much much finer line screen which could account for some of the color shifting.* The blues are completely different but we’ll cover those later.

*Also the bottom of the S on the Tigers card is yellow instead of white but I think this is just a mistake.

The oddness in the blacks—both the S and the hairline borders—in the 2021 cards continues here. The edges of the black components of the design just aren’t crisp. This is similar to the black edges in 2020 Heritage but has a very different shape in the way that the edge is screened.

The blue cards show the most-serious changes since they’ve gone from being just cyan ink to being a mix of all the inks. In 1972 the dark blue is 100% cyan and the light blue is like 40% cyan. In 2021 you can see multi-color halftone rosettes.*

*These changes can also be seen in the green and blue details on the Angels cards I showed in the previous orange section.

Nothing new to note in the blacks except that to my eyes the edges on the blue are even rougher.

To the last two pairs. Not much to say about Topps changing pink to red except to wonder if they had the same problem printing magenta-only that they had printing cyan-only and in the same way hat the blue cards ended up being a richer blue, maybe the pinks became more reddish until someone decided they should just be all red.

What’s weirder is that the In Action cards do not feature solid inks and instead the Magenta ink is screened. This is the definitive tell of a computer trying to match a target color instead of printing the input color* but the fact it only appears on this one color mix could just be a fluke.

*Back in the days before computer-generated print screens, it wasn’t just easier to print colors as solids, that was how the entire workflow went. For most things you picked the simple screen mix you wanted and what came off the press is what you got. With computers, the process is reversed. The designer picks the final desired color and then the computer decides what physical screen mix will achieve that.

Instead, I need to point out the difference in the black edges between the “In Action” text and the player name since this highlights how differently Topps created each element

If I had to guess I would say that Topps created the design of this set as continuous-tone artwork instead of linework. Continuous tone art consists of individually colored pixels such as you’d have in photographs or other Photoshop creations. They don’t scale well and the transitions between colors often end up being dithered and fuzzy instead of clean and crisp. Linework is also known as vector graphics and consists of shapes—whether simple like a box or complicated like a font—which the computer draws via a formula. Such shapes can be scaled and maintain crisp edges at multiple sizes.

The edges of the blacks in the team names, as well as the way that the ™ and ® symbols are fuzzy, suggests that Topps produced the borders in Photoshop instead of Illustrator.* This isn’t the way I’d want to design these since the flexibility of linework would allow for much better printing in terms of the crispness of the edges, control of the color, and trapping along the color transitions.

*They also provide an example of one of the first things to look for with counterfeited cards. Those kind of fuzzy edges are an obvious sign that something has been scanned and reprinted.

While I’m pretty sure that  Topps produced the artwork  using Photoshop, I’m a bit confused at how they created the text in the team names. While the type in the 22 team names that existed in the 1972 set* looks correct, the type in the eight new names** is a disaster.

*There were 24 teams in 1972 but the Expos became the Nationals and the A’s became the Athletics.

**Six expansion teams plus the Nationals and Athletics.

The arch effect in 1972 is simple vertically-arched lettering.* All the vertical lines are supposed to remain vertical and only the horizontals follow the curve. The 1972 font highlights this by having the engraved lines which should all be parallel. None of the eight new team names are able to do this however.

*For you custom card makers out there, in Illustrator, using “Type On Path” with the “skew” option instead of “rainbow” will do this with zero effort. And yes I’m assuming Topps has the font for this.

The least offensive is the Rays where only the stem of the Y really shows how things are going bad. The others have multiple letters (or in the case of the Marlins and Blue Jays, all of the letters) tilted incorrectly.  On top of this, some letters—all the Es for example—are bizarrely malformed and there’s also the backwards first A in Diamondbacks to contend with.

This all feels like some one tried to warp things in Photoshop and failed miserably and the end result shows off all the worst things about Heritage. A shame since there’s a lot of good stuff going on otherwise and I do like the 1972 design.

Oh and the postseason card is included here because the choice to mix italics into the arched lettering is such a bad choice that it ends up looking like the same kind of warping weirdness that bedevils the team names.

Moving to the backs. Yes there are legitimate problems with the font size Topps used on some of the cards. But that’s a basic choice (or lack of caring) and isn’t that interesting. What I did find interesting is how Topps is printing the backs using 4-color process instead of just black and orange ink and how the actual paper “color” is now a printed design element.

This faked grey card stock thing is why the back colors are different card-to-card. Keeping that kind of color consistent is really hard. A slight deviation in any one of the ink densities throws the whole color slightly warm or cool.

I scanned these two cards together so that the color differences came form the cards and not my scanning. Zooming in shows no discernible difference in the screening so the final color differences are just printing variations. These zooms also show how all three colors (the only black in appears to be in the text and lines) are also present in the orange portions of the design.

This is something I’m used to on Archives but it’s a bit of a disappointment to see shortcuts like this in Heritage. Especially when it results in visibly highlight printing differences in a stack of cards.

Hollywood Stars Were in the Cards: Part 4

One of baseball’s enduring little mysteries arose the day I opened a pack of Topps in 1979 and pulled out a Rick Honeycutt: “Is Rick Honeycutt the son of Korean War veteran, Capt. B.J. Hunnicutt, U.S. Army Reserve?” I mused. It was, after all, just the sort of question an 11-year-old experiencing a sugar high from an alarmingly excessive amount of Topps bubble gum would ask himself on a warm spring day. The immediate and obvious answer, thanks to the spelling of the surname, is no. However, such variation in relations is not unheard of, nor are baseball cards free from error, so I decided to delve deeper once I got some free time—which I’d hoped would arrive before the summer of ’79’s conclusion but, unfortunately, didn’t present itself until last Tuesday.

As is well known—or should be, considering the Korean War is little taught in schools, sadly contributing to its lamentable sobriquet, “the Forgotten War”—the armistice declaring a permanent ceasefire (officially known as the Korean Armistice Agreement) was signed 27 July 1953. Although many American troops remained in South Korea until 1954 due to this fragile peace, Capt. Hunnicutt, a surgeon stationed at the 4077th MASH at the time of the ceasefire, was, like many officers, rapidly returned to the United States. (Being an officer, he almost certainly traveled by aircraft. Remember: in the waning days of the conflict, Capt. Hunnicutt got as far as Guam before his erroneous orders to rotate home were rescinded and he was sent back to the 4077th—all in a time frame possible only by air travel.) This means that Hunnicutt would have arrived home in Mill Valley, California, within the first days of August—to the great delight of his wife, Peg, and his young daughter, Erin. (Even had he been shipped home by sea, Hunnicutt still would have walked in his front door before the end of August.)

Rick Honeycutt was born 29 June 1954, in Chattanooga, Tennessee—which means that he was conceived in late September 1953. Baby booms are commonplace in the first weeks and months after wartime, as overjoyed and undersexed servicemen return to their wives or sweethearts. So, Rick Honeycutt’s conception falls right when we’d expect it to occur.

But why would Rick Honeycutt be born in Chattanooga if B.J. and Peg were living just north of San Francisco? One possible reason could be that, sometime in 1954, B.J. decided to honor his parting promise to Swamp-mate, Capt. B.F. Pierce, that they’d see each other back in the States, so he and Peg set out for the East Coast—surely with a stopover in Quapaw, Oklahoma, through which the major highway of the day, Route 66, conveniently passes, to visit Peg’s parents. Yet because this predated construction of the Interstate Highway System, travel by car was significantly slower than by standards of the late 1950s, causing the pregnant Peg Hunnicutt to unanticipatedly give birth to Rick in Chattanooga, either on the way to, or returning from, their easterly destination.

But that is a scenario fraught with geographic variables, and I believe the case to be much more along the lines of B.J. Hunnicutt attending a medical convention at Chattanooga State Community College—possibly traveling there on the yellow 1932 NSU 501 TS motorcycle on which he departed the 4077th (B.J. easily could have bribed an airman to stow it on the cargo plane taking him home). While at the convention, he had a fling with a local woman—a precedent had been set between the supposedly true-blue Hunnicutt and an on-the-rebound 4077th nurse, 1LT Carrie Donovan—and this latter affair produced a son, whose mother, either out of shame or ignorance of spelling, named the boy Rick Honeycutt. If this is the case, then it’s entirely possible that B.J. never knew of the existence of Rick.

As if additional evidence were needed, the 6’1” Rick Honeycutt apparently inherited the 6’3” B.J. Hunnicutt’s height and lean frame. (His 1979 Topps card also displays an extremely high crown to his cap, indicating that Rick likewise inherited his father’s abnormally spacious forehead.)

Honeycutt attended high school in nearby Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, so, at some point, his mother up and left Rick’s birthplace, taking her son from the disapproving eyes of Chattanoogans and across the state line, where her sordid past might not be the talk of the town.

After returning to Tennessee for his collegiate years, where Rick developed into a crackerjack first baseman and pitcher, Honeycutt was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates. Pitching well in AA ball, he became the “player to be named later” in an earlier trade with the expansion Mariners, making his major league debut for Seattle in August 1977. This must have pleased Capt. Hunnicutt, a keen baseball fan who, during his time in Korea, had predicted big things from a little-known rookie named Mays, helped fabricate a radio broadcast of a Yankees-Indians game, and whooped it up to Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World.”

Rick’s years in Seattle, however, proved no better than the stalemate in Korea, as poor teams kept him on the losing end despite an ERA near league average. His frustration piqued during a start in Kansas City on September 30, 1980, as Honeycutt resorted to taping a thumbtack to the middle finger of his glove hand in an effort to covertly cut the baseball. But his ploy was spotted in the bottom of the third inning—as was the gash on his forehead after absent-mindedly wiping his face with his glove hand—resulting in immediate ejection from the game. Honeycutt quickly incurred a ten-game suspension and a $250 fine for his transgression.

Such unscrupulousness lends support to the theory that Rick was a product of an extramarital affair, because Dr. Hunnicutt would not have been around to imbue Rick with the strong moral foundation that would keep him from, ironically enough, doctoring a baseball.  

Whether the thumbtack incident hastened Honeycutt’s end in Seattle is debatable, but an 11-player swap just 10½ weeks later deputized him as a Texas Ranger, where, except for a disastrous 1982, his fortune improved.

Soon after the 30th anniversary of the armistice that brought Capt. Hunnicutt back to the United States, Texas packed off Rick to the Los Angeles Dodgers, despite Honeycutt owning the lowest ERA in the league (which would hold up after the trade, giving Rick the American League crown at season’s end despite now wearing a National League uniform).

The 1980s also, presumably, meant that B.J. now could follow Rick’s sojourn through the majors thanks to the newfangled gizmo known as cable television—a predilection that might have intrigued Peg and Rick’s half-sister, Erin, to see B.J. watching, or eagerly waiting for scores about, Rangers and Dodgers games rather than the hometown Giants.

Honeycutt experienced a homecoming of sorts when Los Angeles dealt him to the Oakland A’s in August 1987. Now just across San Francisco Bay from Mill Valley, Rick could reside close to his parents, or, if the scenario involving an illicit affair were, indeed, the cause of his birth, B.J. could clandestinely attend Athletics games and spend time with his son afterward—either of which made all the sweeter by Rick’s impending appearance in three consecutive World Series (including a championship against the Giants, though I have yet to discover a press photo of a champagne-soaked Rick celebrating with B.J.—perhaps Capt. Hunnicutt found San Francisco’s loss too dispiriting to celebrate and could not bring himself to join Rick in the clubhouse).

Some of this evidence might seem inconclusive, even far-fetched. However, what, for me, cements Rick Honeycutt’s lineage to Capt. Hunnicutt is the message he left the world after his final game, when Rick pitched an inning of mop-up for St. Louis at Shea Stadium in May 1997—a message in rosin bags that conclusively demonstrated Rick to be his father’s son…