Confessions of a Baseball Card Thief

I have a confession to make. My first addiction was to baseball cards. Like all good miscreants, I’ve found someone else to blame: my brothers, Tim and Steve.

The year was 1964, and I was an impressionable lad of six. My brothers brought home colorful wax packages containing treasure: cardboard gods swinging their weapons of destruction bathed in Technicolor glory. Each pack came with a special collector’s coin of a player. The whiff of gum ran up my tiny nostrils, grabbed hold of my brain, and I was officially hooked.

armour-part05-1964-floodcurtOnce the hook had been inserted, I became a demon obsessed. I wanted to collect every damn card, but there was a problem. Topps released the cards in series from March through September, and many retailers would see baseball cards moving sluggishly through the end of summer and start of school, so they wouldn’t place further orders. Which left crazed fools like me in the lurch, with incomplete sets.

Crazed doesn’t begin to describe my mania. Raised as a good Roman Catholic boy, all the religious teaching went out the window when my allowance money dried up and a new series of cards had hit the stores. Theft was the answer. While my mother was out of the house, I’d rifle through her purse collection, scooping up what change had been left behind. Whilst visiting my pal Kevin Farley’s house, I stole a pile of cards while he went to get me a popsicle. I was a terrible person, but this is why God created confession, right?

My Dad was (and still is) a great guy. He kept a Mercury head silver dollar from the year he was born, 1924, on his dresser. One day I was on the prowl for card money, and I’d sucked up all the loose change I could filch around the house. A new series was out, and I was behind the other neighborhood kids in collecting. The 1924 coin slid into my pants pocket and a bee-line was made for Ray’s Toy Village in nearby West Portal.

I stormed into the toy store, grabbed a fistful of cards and slammed them onto the counter with the coin from 1924. The nice lady behind the register pawed the relic and examined it closely. “Oh, my! Are you sure you want to use this wonderful old coin to make this purchase?” Now I was getting irritated. She was standing between an addict and his drug. I nodded quickly and she shook her head in bewilderment as I snatched the bag like Smeagol clutching the almighty ring to his breast. All that was missing was a sinister cackle.

There was a kid on the block who was wise to other kids stealing cards from him, so he took a pen and colored the left corner of the card. He’d found a place to purchase cards from the 1969 sets 6th and 7th series, of which I had precious few. A mission was launched to his house under the pretense of a playdate, and the cards were stolen. I cut the left hand corner of the cards to issue my own statement of ownership, wiping out his previous brand. He accused me of theft and I was no longer welcome in his house, but that was secondary. I had the cards!

As I grew into adulthood, I realized some of the cards in my vast collection were obtained by ill-gotten means. It was time to right some wrongs. I ran into my pal Kevin Farley at our 20th grammar school reunion, admitted I’d stolen the cards 25 years previous, and made arrangements to return them to him. This was in 1992, and the cards were vintage baseball and football cards from the mid 1950s and early 60s. He was shocked and thrilled at getting the cards back after all this time, which represented probably $100-$200 dollars in value.

My children had an interest in coin collecting, and we began putting numismatic books together. We turned a page, and there it was: a Mercury head dollar. Guilt poured into my head and I seized a teachable moment. It was nearly Thanksgiving, and we were going to visit my Dad for the holidays. I took my kids to a coin shop, told them the story of how I stole that dollar from my Dad, and purchased a 1924 Mercury head coin for him. I presented it to my father on Thanksgiving, told him the terrible story and how sorry I was for being a rotten kid. He smiled and laughed, “I always wondered what happened to that coin!”.

Flash forward to today, and I’ve purged most of the cards in our collection, save for the Mantle, Mays, Aaron and other star cards. The bulk of the collection went to a good home: the Baseball Reliquary, and are used in a variety of exhibit displays. None of my three children took much interest in baseball cards, but my mania remains, abetted by technology. I found a sub-culture of baseball card geeks on YouTube and began trading for cards from the 50s and 60s with other guys. Once you get established in the group, people send you “just because” packages of cards they think you’ll appreciate. The levels of generosity are astonishing.

s-l225I have to thank my mother, for she never threw out the cards of my youth. She knew how incredibly important they were to my brothers and I. Oldest brother Steve gets an assist, because while I was away at college, he took possession of the cards and moved them to his home, possibly sparing them from a terrible death.

So here I sit, a reformed baseball card thief. My latest mania is to collect all 165 coins from that 1964 set, allowing me to recapture that moment when I first I held a red all-star coin featuring Ken Boyer of the St. Louis Cardinals, swinging a bat. Thanks to eBay, I rounded up all but 20 of them, but ran out of money. Now, where is my wife’s purse?

 

Whither the Astros?

One of the unresolved (to me, at least) mysteries from collecting baseball cards from the late 1960s was how Topps handled the Houston Astros. As you likely know, the Houston expansion team was known as the Colt .45s for its first three seasons (1962-64) before becoming the Astros in 1965, coinciding with their move into the brand new Astrodome that April. Houston tried grass for a year, before contracting with Monsanto to install artificial turf (soon known as “Astroturf”) in 1966. That much we know.

armour-part04-1966-robinsonfrankTopps made a point in this period of trying to never show a player in the “wrong” uniform; if a guy was traded from the Reds to the Orioles early enough in the off-season, Topps could correctly move him to the Orioles but would not yet have a photo of him with his new uniform. Instead they would use a headshot with no hat, or with the hat logo blackened out, or some other solution that would protect young kids from the horror seeing Frank in his old Reds togs. Of course kids could usually tell, but at least they tried. In the 1960s this was a particular problem, because there were 8 expansion teams and 5 franchise moves between 1961 and 1971. This led to a lot of blackened or missing hats.

Which brings us back to the Houston Astros.

In 1965, Topps did not react to the Houston name change right away, referring to the team as “Houston” in the early series (and showing the old .45s hats) and “Houston Astros” (with no visible old logo) thereafter.

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But for the next two years (1966 and 1967) Topps put out two great sets and treated the Astros with dignity — the correct name, the correct hats and uniforms. Problem over?

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Not so fast.

In 1968, suddenly the name Astros was not used on either the front or back of any of the cards, nor were the hats or uniforms shown. (The cards for the other 19 teams used the team nickname, not the city.) I was 7 at the time and an avid collector, but I did not really take notice of the missing Astros name until a few years ago. I spent some time tryi86d0f5e8620b13e1f37a5a5ae38ee092ng to figure out why this happened, contacting Topps, former Topps employees, the Astros historian, Rusty Staub, and several knowledgeable bloggers. The most common reaction was. “I can’t believe I never noticed that.”

The most plausible explanation I have heard is that Monsanto was in a dispute with the Astros over the use of the name — though the baseball team used the name first, it was Monsanto that actually trademarked it (says the theory). Topps, seemingly uninvolved, took the cautious approach and decided to avoid using the name.

When this was going on I was already a rabid card collector — especially the cards of my beloved Red Sox. If I had grown up in Houston following the Astros, collecting an entire team’s worth of bland hatless logoless cards like this Jim Wynn card, might I have turned to other pursuits? Maybe 166083become a productive citizen?

The Astros did not stop using the name, nor the logo, nor did they or Major League Baseball stop authorizing the use of the logo to other entities. Dexter Press came out with a beautiful set of postcard-sized cards in 1968 and had several gorgeous Astros photos (like this one of Joe Morgan). If I was a kid in Houston, I would have found these a better option.

In 1969 Topps again avoided the name Astros, and avoided the uniform in the first three series. Starting with Series Four, sometime around June, the uniform finally returned (though not the name). The dispute, whatever it was, had been resolved, but Topps likely decided to keep the team name consistent throughout the set.

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Topps finally restored the Astros to full citizenship in 1970, giving many of us our first good look at the Astros uniform, especially these gorgeous home unis, in several years. It was great for me, but for the kids of Houston, Texas, it must have been glorious.

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Hatless photos in 1963 Topps

Topps had used the technique of using photos of traded players without their baseball caps in earlier years, but the use of small silhouetted action photos on the 1963 cards posed new problems. Topps designers tried to disguise the old uniform with airbrushing and some creative artwork. The results were often laughable.

Of the lee-wall-63-topps576 cards in the ’63 set, 70 players are pictured without hats. Most but not all had been traded in the off-season. The majority of the 70 cards feature the player in the uniform of his previous team — the piping is usually the giveaway — along with a crude attempt at obliterating the old team name on the small action shot and by drawing the new team’s letter or logo on the cap.
The first base card in set (following the 10 cards of 1962 league leaders) is one of the hatless 70 — Lee Walls. Although he had played with the Dodgers in 1962, his color head shot shows him in a Cubs uniform. with whom he last played in 1959. His small action shot has the team name airbrushed out and a Dodgers interlocking “LA” drawn on his cap. Perhaps someone knows why Topps began its set with a player for whom they did not have any recent pete-burnside-63-topps-19photos.

Being an old Senators fan, one of my favorite cards represents one of the most obviously
botched cards in the set: lefty Pete Burnside’s #14. He is shown following through on a pitch in a full Senators home uniform, even though he is properly identified as a pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles. (He had been traded to the Orioles in December 1962, a few months before this first series card hit store shelves.) Compounding matters, his small action shot shows him with the team name on his old Tigers’ jersey (back in 1959 or 1960) airbrushed out and a crude “W” drawn on his cap.

The only other player in the set shown wearing his previous team’s hat is pitcher Stan Williams (#42). He has on his Dodgers hat in the large photo, but the Topps artists vainly tried to draw the Yankees’ interlocking “NY” on his action photo cap.

Six traded players — including Dick Groat, Bob Turley and Don Zimmer — are pictured in their color photo wearing caps that have the previous team’s logo airbrushed off. The new team’s letter or logo is drawn on the action photo’s cap.

luis-aparicio-69-toppsFive players who had been traded to the Orioles posed a real challenge for Topps. The Orioles players wore caps with a relatively wide horizontal bird on them. Results of the attempts to draw an oriole on the five action photo hats were mixed, to be charitable. Attempts to recreate the Tigers’ old English “D” also proved difficult.

In most cases, the airbrushing did little to hide the identity of the player’s previous team and, given the crude results, you have to wonder why Topps bothered.

Nonetheless, the ’63 set is highly regarded by collectors for its overall design and sharp color photos. The bright, orange on white-stock, backs of the cards were far more readable than those of previous years.

Natalie Wood and Ron Swoboda

I have shared this story before, but not yet with this group. People who know me know that I love movies and I love baseball. For the most part these interests do not overlap — One day I’ll watch a movie, and the next day I’ll watch a baseball game, but rarely can I do both at the same time.

About a year ago I was watching Penelope, a delightful madcap romp from 1966 starring Natalie Wood, one of my favorite actresses from the past. I had never seen the movie before.  And then, this scene, with Wood and Peter Falk, happened.

 

You can see enough of the wrapper (time 0:45 to 0:55) and the card backs (1:33 to 1:45) to confirm that this was a pack of 1966 Topps cards. This was also the first year that Ron Swoboda got a card to himself.

The entire movie is fun, but this scene alone is priceless. This is the card that Penelope found at the top of her pack.

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Yeah, Topps Supers really are

clementeExcept for a fairly brief period in my life, when it comes to baseball cards I’ve always been little more than an interested observer. Oh, I’ve purchased a pack (or two or three) of cards in most years since the early 1980s, I guess. But my “collection” is mundane and I spent only three or four years somewhat insanely buying box after box of cards (with money I didn’t really have) in the pursuit of a complete Topps set. Or Donruss or Fleer or even Score set (which should give you a pretty good idea of when I was in the grips of this particular mania).

But that’s a story for another day (if ever). The above is just a long-winded way of saying there’s a great deal about baseball/bubble-gum cards I’ve never learned, because I’ve never really invested much time or money in the pursuit. And so, somehow I didn’t discover until almost just this moment the splendid delights of Topps’s 1971 Supers.

Now, there are a couple of obvious reasons why I’d never even heard of the Supers, which were actually produced in 1971 and ’70. The first is that I wasn’t even in kindergarten yet; I don’t remember seeing any cards until a few years later. The second is that the Supers just weren’t popular (as you’d expect, considering their short run in the marketplace). Maybe more to the point, they’ve never become popular. There was never anyone saying, “Rob, you should covet these bits of cardboard.”

And yet, now I do covet them, and recently picked up a dozen or so on eBay (for cheap).

gibsonThe cards are massive: 16.4 square inches, compared to 8.75 square inches for a standard card of that (and today’s) era. But even that understates the difference. The Supers are all image, zero border. Meanwhile, the oft-beloved ’71 regular set, with its black borders, winds up with an image of just 6.2 square inches, meaning the Supers actually give you 264 percent more player per card.

How do you turn down 264 percent more major leaguer?

Well, I can guess why the kids in 1971 turned it down. For one thing, there were only 63 Super cards, compared to a whopping 752 in the regular Topps set. For another, a regular pack cost you a dime and got you eight cards; your same 10 cents got you only two Supers. And finally … kids in 1971 had small hands! Those regular cards probably seemed plenty big enough!

Come to think of it, kids today probably still have small hands. Baseball cards were designed for baseball fans with small hands and sharp eyes. But my hands are big and my eyes … well, I’m getting fitted for bifocals this week.

mccoveyI can’t be eight years old again. What I am is fifty years old with a few of the enthusiasms, or at least the capacity for enthusiasm, of an eight-year-old. And I gotta tell you, right now there are few things that bring me more joy than holding 16.4 square inches of rigidly thick, vividly colored cardboard featuring Willie McCovey’s young, smiling, handsome, BIG face.

The Supers lasted for just those two years, and I understand why it was only two years. Doesn’t mean I have to agree with it.

One Man’s Garbage

If you’re reading this post you’ve probably bought at least 1 pack of baseball cards, if not 100’s of packs of baseball cards, in your life. Well, my experience was just a little bit different.

As a child growing up in the 60’s and early 70’s, Topps baseball cards were the gold standard, and for four years they were all mine. Every card and every insert were mine for the taking, and I do mean taking.

I grew up just six blocks from a Topps manufacturing plant and from 1967 to 1971 I got every single card for free. During that time, before the baseball card boom of the 80’s it was the practice of Topps to toss any cards that hit the floor into the garbage. At 5 or 10 cents a pack they weren’t worth much, and were treated as nothing more than litter. By pure luck I happened to live only a couple of blocks from the private garbage hauler that had the contract to take away Topps’s garbage. They picked up the garbage every Friday, and they wouldn’t take the trucks to the dump until Monday, so the trucks would be parked for the weekend loaded with Topps baseball cards, packs and packs of unopened cards. Every Saturday morning myself and a couple of friends would go “shopping”. It was dirty work, but when you’re 10 years old, it wasn’t much dirtier than a typical summer’s day.

Each week would yield anywhere from 75-100 packs of cards. Baseball card nirvana. Mantle, Mays, Aaron, Clemente, Rose, all mine for the taking. Rookie cards of Reggie Jackson, Johnny Bench, Nolan Ryan, and Thurman Munson. I had dozens of them.

After 4 years it was all over. Topps must have changed to another garbage hauler, because no more cards showed up on Saturday morning. It sucked at the time, but hey, I had several thousand baseball cards, in near-mint condition that I got for free, and in 15 years those cards would be worth thousands of dollars…….if I had only held on to them.

All the cards were faithfully placed into boxes, every set complete, from 1968 to 1971, along with 100’s of doubles. Being a Yankee fan I had a bunch of Yankee cards including at least ten 1968 Mantles. All “safely” tucked away in my closet.

High School, girls, college, girls, work, and girls took up a lot of my time and when I moved out in 1981 after I got married, I failed to take my cards with me. It never crossed my mind to do so.

A couple of years later the baseball card industry exploded, and I realized that I had a small fortune “safely” tucked away in a closet. As you can probably guess, the cards were not “safely” tucked away. My Mother had “thrown them out years ago.” No Mantle, no Mays, no Clemente, not even a Danny Cater. All gone, no small fortune, no new car, no Hawaiian vacation…..nothing…nada….zip…..or so I thought.

When I moved out I did take my books with me, mostly baseball books, but many classics as well. Catcher In The Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, All Quiet On The Western Front, among others. A couple of years after what I like to refer to as, “Baseball Armageddon”, I watched Fahrenheit 451 on TV, and decided to reread the Ray Bradbury classic. This happened to be one of the books I brought with me when I had moved out 10 years before and when I opened the book out popped this 1971 Thurman Munson card. I had used it as a bookmark over 20 years before when I first read the book.

munson

It reminded me of all that I had lost, but it also reminded me of some of the best times I’ve ever had. 4 summers of baseball card heaven, 4 summers of playing non stop baseball, 4 summers of childhood innocence and joy.

I’ve continued to use this card as a bookmark for the last 20 years. It’s creased and bent in 15 different places, and not worth a nickel.

Check that, ……it’s priceless, and every time I look at it, it makes me smile.

The Other Mike Cameron: A 2009 Topps Mini-Mystery Sorta Solved

Like many card collectors, I have a touch of what R. Crumb called “compulsive series syndrome.” That is, the need to create a collection that is not only complete, but organized in a specific way. As a Milwaukee Brewers collector, that means lining up the flagship team set every year – base cards arranged by last name followed by subsets by number, then the traded or update series organized in the same fashion – in nine-pocket bindered pages. It’s a nice way to capture a season, but the last decade or so of Topps flagship sets has often been frustrating. Series one usually contains  handful of guys no longer with the team while series two begins to roll out off-season additions. Unlike the clean single-series sets of yore, it leaves a sort-of two-season amalgamation of players. It also resulted in one of the true quirks of my flagship Topps Brewers collection – the twin 2009 base cards for Mike Cameron that sit side-by-side in my “2004-Present” binder.

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Before the 2008 season, the Brewers signed Cameron to a 1-year deal with an option for a second. Cam was to take over in center field for an over-matched Bill Hall and, after serving a 25 suspension for amphetamines, was one of leaders of a team that won 90 games and broke a quarter-century playoff drought for the Brewers. Cameron had a good season, but he wasn’t an all-star, got no MVP votes, and led the league in nothing. He was certainly significant enough to get a spot in the upcoming Topps set… but two? So far as I know, the only other player honored with TWO base cards with the same team in a single set was Ted Williams, who was both the first and last cards in the 1954 set. (I need to make clear here, there may be other examples of this… I just don’t know of or know how to search for them. If you know of others, please mention them)

cam2

So what gives? Well, the series one Cameron card is unremarkable. But the series two card offers a clue. While the series one entry correctly states that Cam was acquired as a free agent on 1-11-08, the second series card says “ACQ: TRADE WITH BREWERS, 12-15-08.” On December 11, 2008, it was reported that the Brewers were very near to a deal to send Cameron to the Yankees for Melky Cabrera. The Brewers had just picked up Cameron’s option year, but were looking at cheaper alternatives in center. Meanwhile, the Yankees were seeking a veteran upgrade from the 23-year old Cabrera. The deal was nearly official before the Yankees asked the Brewers to help pay part of Cameron’s salary. By December 17, it was reported that the deal was dead.

Piecing all this together, we can assume that Topps was finalizing its series two checklist right around the time of the rumored trade and prepared a Cameron-as-Yankee card. When the deal fell apart, they inexplicably kept Cam on the checklist as a Brewer, forgetting to change the ‘how acquired’ line. Why he wasn’t replaced altogether on the checklist remains a mystery. Several players who changed teams around the same time Cameron nearly did appear in series two in their new uniforms, so it’s not as though Topps did not have the time to make significant alterations to the series. And then there is the matter of CC Sabathia, who, like Cameron, was featured in the first series as a Brewer. Sabathia was the that off-season’s top free agent prize, and signed with the Yankees on Dec. 20. While Topps included a number of players who changed teams after Dec. 20 with their new clubs, they ignored the Sabathia signing – and any other player in series one who changed teams – until the update series. So, again, we’re left with to wonder what was so special about Mike Cameron.

So, in my quest to learn why my perfectly-aligned 9-pocket page had two Mike Cameron cards right next to each other, I ended up with as many questions as answers. Can anyone think of other two-base card players in Topps history? Does anyone have any similar petty-yet-maddening card mysteries?

Follow me on Twitter, @mjpmke and check out my blog on Brewers history.