The Rogers Hornsby hiding in your 1978 Topps set

The year of hitting dangerously

If you’re my age you remember the season well. It seemed like everywhere you looked there was a 12-10 score, balls were flying out of the park, and entire teams were flirting with .400. No, this wasn’t the steroid era, the early 1930s, or 1894, though it could have been. It was 1978, I was eight years old, and the game was Play Ball, Played by Two—just as often “played by one” in my house.

Well start with the right way to play, even if it wasn’t the way most kids wanted it to work. The rules of the game were printed on 30 of the 726 card backs in the set.

1978 Topps #173 Robin Yount Back

PLAY BALL.” Played by two. PLAYER HAS 50 PLAYER CARDS. TOSS COIN FOR WHO GOES FIRST. FIRST PLAYERS TURNS CARDS OVER ONE AT A TIME, ATTEMPTING TO SCORE RUNS UNTIL 3 OUTS HAVE BEEN MADE. AFTER 3 OUTS, SECOND PLAYER BEGINS GAME. GAME IS PLAYED WITH 9 INNINGS. IN CASE OF TIE, PLAY EXTRA INNINGS.”

As much as my friends and I would have preferred a Dodgers-Yankees World Series rematch, there was of course a problem in abandoning the Topps rules to play the match-up of your choice. It wasn’t just that Steve Garvey would come to bat in the first inning with two on, two out, and end the inning with a ground out. It was Steve Garvey could do nothing but ground out all season long.

1978 Topps #350 Steve Garvey Back

Sure, Steve Garvey, Ron Cey, Dusty Baker, and Reggie Smith had just made history in 1977 by all hitting 30+ home runs. When it came to Play Ball, they would go a combined 0 for 2400 on the year. Topps either hated the Dodgers, or they really wanted you to play the game right.

But what the heck does any of this have to do with Rogers Hornsby?

If you did play the game right, it was a completely different story. Of the 726 cards in the 1978 Topps set, 610 had Play Ball outcomes:

  • 134 SINGLES
  • 29 DOUBLES
  • 13 TRIPLES
  • 39 HOME RUNS
  • 68 BASES ON BALLS
  • 102 GROUND OUTS
  • 135 FLY OUTS
  • 40 FOUL OUTS
  • 49 STRIKEOUTS
  • 1 STRIKE UT 😉

1978 Topps #298 Tony Armas Back

Provided each player’s Play Ball stack is randomly chosen from the Topps set, the result is a lineup where the average hitter’s stat line was quite remarkable. (Phone readers, consider landscape for these stat lines.)

Stat Line

Believe it or not, the typical Play Ball player saw even better offense than this! After all, how many Play Ballers drew their lineups from complete sets of 726? More often, Play Ballers simply grabbed unsorted stacks from their collections or the cards from their last 3-4 packs. As such, the 51 double-printed cards in the 1978 set with Play Ball outcomes exerted twice the normal impact on the Play Ball probability space, leading to this DP-adjusted set of outcomes.

Stat Line with DP

If that .398 average with 43 home runs looks crazy, it should. MLB’s .390/40 club doesn’t have a lot of members. The most recent member is Babe Ruth, whose 1923 season (.393 average, 41 HR) earned him a spot. Of course, the Bambino drew nearly 100 more walks than our Play Ball composite. The .390/40 club has another member though, and he joined the club the year before.

Rogers Hornsby won the National League Triple Crown in 1922 with an eye-popping .401 batting average, 42 home runs, and 152 runs batted in. The Rajah had 148 singles that year. Play Ball had 146. The Rajah had 14 triples that year. So did Play Ball. The home runs of course differed by 1, and none of the four elements of the Rajah’s .401/.459/.722/1.181 slash line differed from Play Ball by more than half a percent. Within just a smidgen of round-off error, Play Ball was 1922 Rogers Hornsby.

Hornsby sketchpad

So yes, Topps really wanted you to follow the rules. Break the rules, and your four best hitters go 0 for 2400. Follow the rules, and your lineup is nine Rajahs!

Hornsby would crack the 1979 Topps checklist in earnest, just as he had in 1961 and 1976, and each of these cards no doubt gave kids a thrill out of the pack. However, 1978 is without a doubt the season that the Rajah most made his presence felt. Even without a card in the set, his 1922 season haunted every living room, bedroom, classroom, and school bus ride where Play Ball was played.

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More on Play Ball

As the Garvey example illustrates, there was no effort on the part of Topps to associate the best outcomes with the best hitters. Of the 39 “Home Run” cards, the most prolific slugger in the bunch was Rick Monday, though Bombo Rivera at least possessed a great slugger name. Other notable home run Play Ballers included Nolan Ryan, Jim Palmer, and a man who caught baseball’s most famous home run.

1978 Topps #643 Tom House Back

Now I know most readers of this site like to play things fair and square, but let’s just say you really, really needed to win at Play Ball. Don’t say I told you, but yes, there are ways to make it happen.

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  • STEP ONE: Grab the Topps Super Sports Card Locker where I know you keep your set.
  • STEP TWO: Say to your friend, “Hey, I know you love the Big Red Machine. How about if you take the Reds and Braves, and I’ll take the Angels and Rangers. (This should be enough to net around 50 cards each, but if your set is short add the Giants or Twins to your friend’s stack, and add the Orioles or Jays to yours.)
  • STEP THREE: Play Ball!

The key to this approach is how unbalanced the Play Ball outcomes are by team. Here is a comparison of the Reds/Braves and Angels/Rangers.

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A variant on this strategy that’s perhaps less suspicious but still effective is to take American Leaguers over National Leaguers whenever you have a choice. Or you could just play fair and square. That’s fun too.

I could spend all day providing insights and analysis on the Play Ball card backs of 1978 Topps. However, knowing I am in the company of a number of fellow researchers I thought I’d do something different here.

For the first time in the history of the internet, I am publishing full Play Ball data and making it available to all readers of this blog—no paywall or anything. Enjoy, and I look forward to the varied and interesting research that will come from this treasure trove of data.

CLICK HERE FOR COMPLETE 1978 TOPPS PLAY BALL DATA

 

One of My Favorite Things

As a child who grew up in the heyday of Topps Traded, Donruss Traded, Fleer Update, Score Rookies and Traded, and Upper Deck Extended, the idea that companies would issue cards whenever players changed teams was something I just took for granted. I didn’t even have to wait for the following year, odds were that I could find multiple updated cards the same season of the team change.

This kind of thing didn’t exist in previous decades. As I’ve gotten into vintage cards, especially in the lower grade realm where my budget lies, I’ve started running into evidence of how differently kids in the previous generation collected cards. Mark’s touched a bit on this in how he kept his cards sorted based on current team and it shouldn’t surprise me at all that the generation of kids that truly used cards versus storing them would take things into their own hands and modify cards to keep them current.

I don’t seek out these modified cards but they’re quietly becoming one of my favorite things to encounter when I thumb through a pile of low-grade vintage. In addition to just being fun reminders of how different collecting used to be, they serve as indications of the player’s future beyond the back information.

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The first such card in my collection was this 1958 Willie Kirkland. As a player about whom I was wholly unfamiliar, seeing the two corrected teams encouraged me to actually look up his career information.

I was kind of shocked to see that the previous owner had updated this card twice over 7 seasons to reflect his 1961 move to Cleveland and his 1964 move to Baltimore. I was also a little confused that the owner updated the Baltimore affiliation at the beginning of 1964 but didn’t update it again that summer when Kirkland moved to the Senators.

Still, the annotations suggest the wonderful concept of a child so enamored by baseball that all their cards are updated each season to reflect current teams. It’s not enough to just sort them to be in the correct teams, the cards themselves have to track the transactions.

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My 1964 Jose Pagan is an interesting case where rather than updating the team only the position has been changed. As a Giants fan, I don’t associate Pagan with Third Base at all (for good reason since he only played around 20 games there compared to close to 500 at shortstop). But he did switch to playing a lot more at Third when he was traded to the Pirates in 1965.

That the team name isn’t updated makes me wonder if this card was instead used for some other purpose. I’m imagining a game of some sort where kids would create a lineup out of cards they owned.

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The last of these cards I’ve come across is probably the best one in that it captures the 1966 Orlando Cepeda trade on a 1966 card. This is one transaction and career trajectory I was very familiar with. Yes I know that trading Cepeda sort of unleashed McCovey but it still pains me to be reminded that the Giants had to let him go.

I see this being an annotation done in 1966 so as to make that year’s set correct. Cepeda was traded in May and this is card number 132. Topps had no chance. And I’m sure Mark has this card paged with the Cardinals too.

As I stated previously, I’m not actively seeking these out. I just love coming across them and will totally set them aside when I do.

Baseball Americana

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Over Thanksgiving I took a trip to go see the Baseball Americana exhibition at the Library of Congress. It’s a single gallery, doable in an hour, and I highly recommend visiting if you’re in DC before it closes. While I’ve already written about the general show on my own blog, for the purposes of this committee I feel like it’s worth highlighting the specific role baseball cards play in the exhibition.

Being part of the Library of Congress means that ephemera like cards are emphasized a lot more than equipment and artifacts. One of the key points this show makes is not only has baseball existed for 150 years years, it’s been recognizable that entire time; the existence of baseball cards—the earliest being a carte de visite from 1865 — is a key feature of this consistency. As long as we’ve had a game, we’ve been making pieces of cardboard featuring players’ pictures and trading and collecting the results.

Does a modern card (well, 1994 Bowman) with 4-color offset lithography, gloss UV, and foilstamping compare at all to a 130-year-old Goodwin & Co single-color uncoated photographic print? Not at all from a production point of view but seeing them next to each other in the same case and even my 6-year-old recognizes them as part and parcel of the same concept. Heck, even some of the poses are exactly the same.

The show continues with a display of a number of cards of stars of the pre-integration period. These are wonderful to see (and lust over) but the emphasis of this part of the exhibition is in who’s playing baseball and the cards are contrasted with photos of African-American ballplayers.

The clear takeaway to me is that while cards have always existed, their role in defining who real ballplayers are cannot be ignored. Seeing who we’ve chosen to make cards of is a powerful statement about who counts and who doesn’t in the sport.* I half-jokingly refer to Topps Flagship as the “card of record” but there’s a kernel of truth in there. Cards chronicle the history of the game and collecting them connects us to that history.

*Note, my takeaway isn’t just a race thing. When we see collectors express concerns about companies only focusing on rookies or stars or large-market teams it’s because of the way that cards function as a record of who matters.

Cards were my entrée into baseball history. They served a similar function for my kids. As much as my eldest hits Wikipedia, Baseball-Reference, and Retrosheet on the iPad, cards are why he knows who he knows and what sustain his interest and connection to the sport.

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Later on, a sample of Japanese cards shows how the sport has transcended the United States and become more global. This is exactly right and, while I haven’t gotten into international cards,* I can’t deny that it’s really interesting to see how an American thing goes global and how baseball cards end up fitting into other country’s card-collecting traditions.

*My forays into Spanish-language issues are more of a language-based interest.

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The only miss card-wise for me is that in the section that shows the increase of statistics in both scouting and the appreciation of the game. There’s a comparison of card backs and the nature of the statistical information that we’ve felt is appropriate over the years. Unfortunately we don’t actually get to see the backs and they’re merely described to us.

Plus there’s so much more that could be here. I would’ve loved to see a comparison of backs drawing a line from T205’s slashline of G/AVG/Fielding to the traditional slash lines of the 1960s, the whole range of proto-SABRmetric backs in the 1990s, and finally today’s inclusion of stats like WAR that I can’t even explain to my kids how to calculate. It’s not just that stats exist, it’s what stats we care about and how that impacts our understanding of the game.

Mother’s Cookies

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From 1983 to 1998, Mother’s Cookies released baseball cards both in their cookie packaging and as stadium giveaways. I, as any kid would, believed the these were universal but discussing on Twitter this summer has shown that they’re anything but. This was a distinctly West Coast release of a West Coast brand* which made cards from San Diego to Seattle and East as far as Houston and Minneapolis.

*Formed in Oakland in 1914. My grandfather used to tell stories about being able to go to the factory and fill a pillowcase with broken, unsuitable for retail, cookies for a quarter. By the 1990s it was no longer owned locally although production was still in Oakland until it got subsumed by Kellogg’s and wiped out by the financial crisis in the 2000s (RIP Flaky Flix, my personal favorite). In the 1950s Mother’s also made PCL baseball cards—a completely different beast and project than the 1980s/90s cards in this post. They also released a Presidents set in 1992.

The cards were quite nice. Some of the early Giants releases in 1983 and 1984 were different but, until 1997, the basic design was simple and elegant. A nice glossy full-bleed photograph—sometimes action but most of the time a classic baseball pose showing off the stadium in the background. Crisp white card stock with rounded corners—probably the most distinct design element. Just the player name and team in small Helvetica Bold text. The early cards often used the team logotype—a really nice design touch I wish Mother’s had kept—instead of Helvetica and 1986 had script lettering instead, but starting in 1987 the design was unchanged for a complete decade. And for good reason; it was pretty much perfect.

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Aside from the stadium giveaways you could find single cards in cookie packages. I seem to recall them only in the bags of Iced Animal Crackers but that might only be what I managed to convince my mom to buy. These cards were typically part of four or eight card player-specific sets. Until the early 1990s I only found either Giants or A’s cards—suggesting that Mother’s produced their inserts to cater to the region the cookies would be sold in. In the early 90s Mother’s must’ve simplified their production and I started to find cards of the Griffeys, Nolan Ryan (three different sets for 5000Ks, Seven No-hitters, and 300 wins), and even Tim Salmon instead of local stars.

But it’s the stadium giveaways which I liked best. It was originally for kids only and I made sure to get to Candlestick HOURS early to ensure that I receive my packet of 20 cards. The sets are 28 cards and in the 80s you received a coupon you could redeem for eight more cards in the mail. Eight cards which you’d cross your fingers and hope for the correct ones to come back, It never worked out like that for me. I always got a random extra no-name or two—thankfully the stars were guaranteed in the 20 you got at the park—and all my early sets have a few holes where I’m missing someone like Mark Wasinger or the trainers.

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That’s right, card 28 (and in some years, 27) might include all the coaches or the trainers or the broadcasters. Which was awesome since you never saw them on cards but they were important parts of the team too.

Then, in the early 90s Mother’s changed everything. It was wonderful. Instead of the frustration of the coupon you now received 28 cards in your pack. Not a complete set though. You got the base set of 20 plus eight copies of the same fringe player (or coaches or trainers, etc.). And right there on the outside of the package were instructions to go trade for your missing seven cards.

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So for the hour or so before the game, the stands were crawling with kids calling out who they had and and who they needed. Young kids who were petrified of strangers suddenly came out of their shells. Older kids could coordinate more-complicated trades. The first year this happened I had to walk two very young kids through a three-way swap which completed all three of our sets. I don’t think they fully realized what I did until their sets were suddenly complete.

After the 1994 strike killed my card collecting habit the only set of cards I still collected were the Mother’s Cookies giveaway sets. Going to the games was fun. Trading with other kids—and eventually other adults once the kids-only aspect of the giveaway got dropped—was fantastic. It’s the rare giveaway which not only encourages fan interaction but also manages to capture the soul of the freebie. As I look at the current set of National Baseball Card Day promotions, it appears that the trading card day is not longer about actually trading cards. And that makes me sad.

Rolling my own

1987 was my first full year as a baseball fan. After attending my first Giants game in 1986, despite the ridiculousness of the game—16-innings including the Giants using pitchers as outfielders and switching them between left and right field depending on the batters’ platoon splits—I ended up a hard core Giants fan the following year. That the Giants were actually good for the first time in anyone’s memory certainly helped. As did the fact that 1987 was also the year I got bitten bigtime by the baseball card bug.

That fall when the Giants won the Western Division* my local paper, The San Jose Mercury News, celebrated by printing cartoony baseball “cards” of the entire team on the back page of the sports section. It was a pretty silly thing. Cheap newsprint. The card backs were just whatever was on the previous page of the newspaper. But I was undeterred.

*30 years later I still instinctually think of the Reds, Astros, and Braves as the Giants’ rivals even though they’re no longer in the same division nor, in the Astos’ case, the same league.

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I scrounged some old vertical file folders from my parents, brushed on glue, and carefully laid the newspaper onto cardstock. I still remember carefully brushing the bubbles out before the glue dried. Later in the day once the glue had dried, I busted out my scissors and turned that cheap newsprint into real cards.

30 years later and I’m a bit surprised that these are in as good shape as are. Yes, of course I kept these in binders. But newsprint isn’t the most archival of materials and there was no guarantee I’d selected an appropriate glue. I probably just grabbed a bottle of Elmer’s but it’s not like I knew what I was doing when I was nine.

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The best part of these cards is the backs though. Besides being woefully uncreative—I had, after all, only been collecting cards for under a year—it’s an interesting snapshot into what I felt was important on a card back at the time. Yes, I also remember being fascinated with all the statistics but that would’ve been outside of my lettering ability at the time. But I felt very strongly about knowing a player’s position and recording the team/year information that the card represents.

It’s also very clear that I believed that a baseball card should be part of a numbered set. I have no idea how I chose to number these, but not only did I number them, that’s the order I sleeved them in my album.

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I was apparently not the only burgeoning baseball card collector who received The Merc at home. These cards got such a reception that a few days later they reappeared on the back of the sports page—this time in color and with proper backs. Or, well, sort of proper backs. It looks like something produced by a newspaper whose priorities are creating readable copy using the existing house style. I do however love the optimism of including a line for autographs. Even today I don’t know what pen I’d choose for that task.

Anyway, I went ahead and turned the new series into cards too. Same method only I had to both procure a second copy of the paper and figure out how to register the two sides for gluing.

I wish I could remember how I accomplished the registration.

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The following year when the A’s won their first pennant in over a decade The Merc celebrated the same way. This time though the cards were oversize—closer to the pre-1957 Topps size—and, while they were printed in color the first time around, they never got any backs.

So, as someone whose first exposure to cards the late 1980s with backs that stayed the same year after year, I went ahead and used the same template for my hand-pencilled backs that I’d used the previous year.

Productionwise though I no longer used vertical files. My parents encouraged me to find a cheaper source of card stock so these are, I think, on reclaimed cereal boxes. This resulted in way thicker cards and produced the nice side benefit of encouraging me to use a paper cutter instead of scissors. Where the 1987 cards have all janky hand-cut edges, these 1988s are nice and square.

Alas, The Mercury News never made any more cards. The following year’s Bay Bridge Series had plenty of other things for them to print commemorative back pages of and by the time the Giants returned to the World Series in 2002 the baseball card bubble had imploded. But I’m happy these were around right at the beginning of my collecting and I love rediscovering them both in how they’ve survived and how they suggest possible projects for my sons to try as they flirt with the hobby.

Orlando Cepeda Made Me a Criminal

Does one crime make you a criminal? Does a momentary act of desperation make you a bad person?

There’s the literary case of Jean Valjean, stealing bread to feed his sister’s children. The theft marked him for life, first with imprisonment, then with non-stop running from the grasp of the relentless Javert. A lifetime of suffering for satisfying an urgent need.

If you’ve ever tried to complete a set from packs, you know how horrible it feels as you get towards the end. Pack after pack, dollar after dollar, wading through card after card looking for that final one. In 1973, I was Valjean and Orlando Cepeda was my full loaf.

I needed a few cards to finish my set, the first set I’d assembled only from packs. I know I needed Dave Lemonds, probably a couple of others from the dreaded last series, but, really, the now rare high numbered cards were plentiful and available. (Not like the third series of 1972 Topps football, which I don’t think ever made it to Suffolk County. If they had, I would have bought them and I don’t have any!).

Orlando Cepeda was impossible to find. Orland friggin’ Cepeda, on the final leg of his career, was more sought after by an almost 11-year old kid than he was by any big league team when his card was made. By the end of ’73, when the last series emerged, “The Baby Bull” was finishing up a big comeback season as a Red Sox DH in Year One of the experiment. His Topps card though had him as an Oakland A. Did I know that yet? No.1973toppsbox

I bought pack after pack, scouring the front of cello packs – the one and three window varieties – looking at the fronts and backs in a mad search for “Cha Cha.” No luck.

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Living in Lake Grove in the early 1970’s was interesting for a boy from Brooklyn. It felt like the 1950’s still, except for the Smith Haven Mall. The mall was uber modern, very exciting in its own way. Less exciting was McCrory’s, a pretty nondescript budget department store, but McCrory’s had cards and I bought a lot of them there. Near the candy section was a three-tiered rotating wire rack of dangling three-pack cellos. On yet another trip to kill suburban time, I headed to the mall with a friend to hang out and stopped to continue my card quest.

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Spinning, spinning, top section, second section, third section, nothing – wait! Spinning in reverse to focus my eyes on what I’d seen and missed in my first go around, there he was! Cepeda, right in the front, right in the middle.

“What if I want it more than the person who has it?” Rocket Raccoon was still a few years from his debut but he summed up my situation best. I wanted, I needed, that card. I can’t remember if I had any money on me, probably not, because if I had I wouldn’t have stolen it.

I’d never stolen anything before, and didn’t quite know how it worked. I positioned my friend in front of me as I got to work. Now I didn’t take the whole three-pack, which would have been easier. Why? Because I didn’t need the three-pack, I needed the middle pack. See, I wasn’t really a thief, because I only was going to take what I needed. I tore the bottom pack off, tossed it under the display, and tore off the middle and skedaddled. Fast.

Whenever I see that Cepeda card I cringe a bit.  I have a few now, even one listed on eBay, but it’s not that one. That one is safely tucked between Von Joshua and Jim York in my set. Still, it hurts a little to know what I did, and confession is good for the soul, but only slightly. The 1973 Topps Orlando Cepeda card, number 545, is my bread and my conscience is my Javert.

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The Johnny Lindell Mystery

Baseball cards are touchstones; evoking childhood memories and pleasurable collecting experiences. A favorite player’s exploits or a key acquisition to complete a set can be conjured up with just a glance. Also certain cards can take you to a specific time and place. The 1949 Leaf Johnny Lindell is such a card.

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The Lindell card transports me back to the early ‘70s. My best friend at school told me a story about exploring an abandoned house. The old man who lived there had recently died. Of course he made it sound as the gentleman had died in the house, resulting in the certainty of it being haunted.  I subsequently learned that the man died in a nursing home.

The friend stated that the contents left in the dwelling were strewn about-probably by him-with most of the stuff dumped on the floor. There, in a cardboard box, he found, amongst other things, the Johnny Lindell card. Applying the “finders keepers” rule, my buddy laid claim to the card.

It goes without saying that my “collector’s gene” kicked in immediately. I negotiated a trade giving the friend some current cards in exchange. The card was nowhere near mint condition, but it was by far my oldest card. From that day forward, I’ve often pondered why it was in the house.

“Kids living in the house” is the most logical explanation for the card ending up on the shack’s floor. This ramshackle place undoubtedly saw many migrant families come-and-go. Central Washington has experienced waves of immigrants and emigrants trying to escape poverty by taking advantage of plentiful agriculture jobs. My parents and grandparents were part of the “Ozark Diaspora” in the ‘40s and ‘50s. The child collector theory is plausible, but the card was at least 22 years old at the time and apparently no other cards were present in the house.

It is possible that the old man had a special affinity for Johnny Lindell. After all he was a hero of the 1947 World Series in which he batted .500. Maybe the man remembered Johnny as a “war era” star since his deferment kept him playing through ’44 against weak competition.

How a ’49 Leaf Johnny Lindell ending up in crumbling house in Selah, Washington will always remain a mystery. However, it serves as a great example of the memories a single card can evoke. The accompanying photo is the actual card.

The ’49 Leaf cards measure 2 3/8 x 2 7/8 with 98 in the set. The background features bright colors with a colorized photo. This colorization process is primitive with a limited blue and red uniform pallet. The player’s face is painted with flesh tones.

To learn more about Johnny Lindell’s career, check out Rob Neyer’s BioProject biography.