Book Review: "Hall of Name" by D.B. Firstman

Having already written about my Wall of Fame, the Hall of Fame, and even the Hall of Game I suppose it was only natural that I write today about the Hall of Name. (Note that a different blogger already covered the Hall of Same.) Specifically, I’m referring to “Hall of Name: Baseball’s Most Magnificent Monikers from ‘The Only Nolan’ to ‘Van Lingle Mungo’ and More,” which is the brand new book (Amazon | Barnes & Noble) from Casey Stengel chapter member D.B. Firstman.

Baseball fans and card collectors alike have always had a special place in our hearts for the players with the funny names. Before I even knew who the players were or which players were stars (apart from the Topps all-star shield telling me so), I knew I found something special in my pack when I landed one of these guys!

I also was fortunate to have friends more mature and sophisticated than I was who were able to educate me on the downright naughtiness of other pulls.

Fast forward to high school when I opened packs with friends. There were two kinds of players worthy of call-outs: the superstars and…you guessed it, the guys with the funny names! (See below for simulated pack opening with subtitles.)

In “Hall of Name,” D.B. Firstman goes beyond the pack and quick smirk to bring us a complete (pending volume two) log of “magnificent monikers” across all of baseball history and a level of depth previously unseen if even imagined.

Opening to a random page (90-91), for example, we find Milton Obelle Bradley, gamely described by D.B. as having a “Life” that’s been nothing but “Trouble.” (Well played, DB!) We get not only a fairly detailed biography of the player, but a number of bonus features including his full name’s etymology (though even D.B. came up empty on Obelle), his case for “Hall of Name” membership, his best day in baseball, a list of various people, places, and things not to confuse the player with, and some fun anagrams. Many of my friends who are Cubs fans will find Bradley’s anagram particularly fitting!

Boldly intolerable me!

Finally, D.B. ends each write-up with an “Ephemera” section. Usually this section houses the fun off-the-field tidbits that didn’t quite fit a baseball bio. In Bradley’s case, however, the tidbits are distinctly not fun.

Firstman’s book is organized into four sections. Were the Hall of Name an actual museum, you might imagine each section as a wing. The first wing, “Baseball Poets and Men of Few (Different) Letters” is rich in alliteration and mostly made up of players whose names simply sound good: Coco Crisp, Ferris Fain (whose side hustle was news to me!), Ed Head, and the like.

The second wing is the one many readers might just skip to: “Dirty Names Done Dirt Cheap.” The aforementioned Mr. LaCock resides in this section alongside other coquettish (ahem!) choices as Johnny Dickshot, Charlie Manlove, and Tony Suck. I’d continue, but this is a family blog.

Next up are the “Sounds Good to Me” players. In this wing we find Rocky Cherry, Quinton McCracken, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and the like. My 1978 Topps name-crushes, Sixto Lezcano and Biff Pocoroba, make it into this section as well.

Finally, D.B. closes the book with “No Focus Group Convened,” a catch-all of the 40+ players from Atz to Zdeb whose exclusion would have led many readers to cancel their Hall of Name memberships. “What, no Harry Colliflower?! No Mark Lemongello?! What’s the freaking point then?”Among the other players enshrined in this wing are Calvin Coolidge Julius Caesar Tuskahoma McLish, Bris Lord, and Ivey Wingo.

“Hall of Name” isn’t explicitly a baseball card book, even if there is some occasional baseball card content. For instance, the “Ephemera” section of the Callix Crabbe write-up notes the mix-up that led to Carlos Guevara’s appearance on Crabbe’s 2008 Topps card.

However, the first thing most of us took notice of (1953 Bowman collectors aside) when we rifled through our first packs of cards was the player’s name. Good chance most of us still do it today. What is the magic of opening a pack, after all, if not to reveal who’s inside!

Plus, if not for the name, would you really have any idea this was a Pete Alonso card or even a baseball card at all? (Then again, is it?!)

In this sense then, “Hall of Name,” while clearly a baseball book, is also a baseball card book that focuses on one very specific feature—perhaps the most important feature—of our cards: the names of the players.

Through D.B.’s enjoyable book, we are not only reminded of (or introduced to) the very best baseball names, past and present, but we further see each name turn into a story, and with it, each card in our collections escape its two-dimensional trappings to become something fuller, richer, and (dare I say) human, if not positively Devine!

Author’s note: “Hall of Name” is now available for pre-order through Amazon and (last I checked even cheaper at) Barnes & Noble.

Cards and Autographing

I like collecting autographs. In those years in the early 1990s when the hobby exploded and the number of available sets to purchase had jumped from three to at least seventeen, one of the things that kept me sane was collecting autographs.*

*I prospected at college games. Pursued minor league coaches and managers. Went to Spring Training. Hung over the rail at Candlestick. Sent out some through the mail requests. Hit a couple card shows.

In many ways my card collecting hobby transformed into a way for me to be able to pull a card of any player at any time. No this was not efficient, but in those pre-internet days it was better than betting on my local shop having a card of the player I was planning to get. Having a couple years of complete Topps sets was a great way to be sure I had cards of almost everyone who played in the majors.

Getting into autographs also meant that I had to make a decision about hobby orthodoxy. In those early 1990s there were a lot of rules. Rules about what cards to collect.* Rules about how to store them.** And rules about what condition to keep them in. Chief among the condition rules was that writing on a card was bad even if it was an autograph.

*Prospects, Rookies, Errors, and inserts.

**Rubber bands out. Binders OK. Toploaders better. Screwdown cases best.

It didn’t take me long to decide that rule was stupid but it’s also part of a larger debate that we still have in the hobby. For a lot of collectors, writing on a card does indeed ruin it. Even if it’s an autograph. For others like me, there are many cards which are enhanced by getting them signed. That there’s no one way of collecting is great but it feels like the autograph divide is one where neither group understands the other.

The appeal of cards as an autograph medium is pretty simple since it piggybacks on the same appeal as baseball cards themselves. They’re mass-produced photographs so they’re usually both the cheapest and easiest thing to find. They label who the subject is and have information about him on the back. They’re small enough to carry in a pocket or send through the mail in a regular envelope. And after they’re signed they’re easily stored and displayed.

But that doesn’t mean that just any card will do for an autograph. One of the fun things about talking autographs with other collectors is discussing what kinds of cards and designs we prefer to get signed.

First off, things we want to avoid. It’s inevitable that you’ll get cards where a player has signed on his face. Cards are small and there’s almost always a time crunch. Avoiding closely-cropped portraits and picking a card that doesn’t encourage face signing is an important factor to keep in mind.

Dark backgrounds are also dangerous. Especially if you’re sending a card out through the mail or otherwise can’t control the pen being used. When I was a kid my hands were tied because silver sharpies didn’t exist and I was limited in my card options. Now though I just assume that the dark backgrounds won’t work.

What I did end up liking? Simple photo-centric designs with the bare minimum of design elements. A name. A team. A border. Nothing else. These designs often underwhelmed me as cards* but I found that I really enjoyed them signed.

*As my photo and print literacy has improved I found myself appreciating the photos and design in many of these sets.

In many ways I got into the hobby at exactly the right time as the early 1990s were a heyday for these kind of designs. 1989–1993 Upper Deck and 1988–1993 (except 1990) Topps in particular were tailor-made for my autograph preferences and are still sets I return to when I can.

The rise of full-bleed photos also occurred during this time. I was scared of gloss as a kid but have started looking for these designs whenever I can now. They’re an even more extreme point in my “simple photo-centric design” preference but the key for me is that I like the ones which adhere to the simplicity.

A lot of the full-bleed designs are anything but simple with crazy graphics and other stuff going on. But the ones where the designs are essentially just typography? Beautiful. In the same way that many of the guys who don’t like signed cards prefer signed 8×10s, these function more as signed photos than anything else.

To be clear, I’m not against more colorful designs. They just require me to think extra hard about the way things will look. In addition to considering how the autograph will work with the image there’s the additional concern about how it will interact with the design.

These cases usually result in an autograph which isn’t as pronounced but ideally still combine a bright colorful design and a nicely signed image into a pleasant and presentable result.

With these less-simple designs there’s the possibility for the wonderful occurrence when everything works together perfectly and results in an even stronger look. Would these look better just as photos? Maybe. But for me the complete package of a strong design and a perfect signature/photo combination is something I especially enjoy.

And sometimes the point isn’t how things will look but just about getting a specific photo signed because it’s funny, important, or both. These are the requests I enjoy most because I can talk about the specific photo being one of my favorites and why I chose this specific card to get signed.

The key for me is to be as intentional as possible with my card choices. An important season. A specific team. A nice photo. A special event. A favorite design. Or just something silly like a picture of a player milking a cow.

My Favorite Commons

My parents come from large families. My mom is the second oldest of seven children and my dad the youngest of seven. Hordes of grandparents, great aunts, great uncles, aunts, uncles, and cousins made for wonderfully chaotic family parties and holidays in my youth. But it is with my mom’s younger sister Debbie that I share a unique bond.

As a kindergartner in 1978, Aunt Debbie took me to the Cubs’ home opener, my first ever baseball game. At five years old, I was generally aware of Cubs baseball and had watched ballgames on WGN; however, my parents were not particularly avid sports fans (we prefer to bond over pizza) and with three kids under six, a trip to Wrigley Field was not necessarily on their radar.

I wore my red coat with race cars on it. I held her hand as we navigated the crowd, climbing the winding ramps up to the bleachers. And just like so many others, my first view of the field was absolutely mind-blowing—it was impossibly green and vivid and huge—so unlike the dark, grainy broadcasts of the day. I had a hot chocolate and she bought me a Cubs helmet and the Cubs won the game on a walk-off home run by Larry Biittner in the ninth. I was hooked. It is my Aunt Debbie I thank for my lifelong love of baseball.

In the summer of 1979, Debbie and her good friend Judy spent their summer at Wrigley Field, taking in close to 30 games in the $2.00 bleachers (roughly $7.00 today and considerably less than that same ticket would cost you today). They would take the bus up Austin from Oak Park and transfer over to the Addison bus that would take them right to Wrigley Field’s doorstep. After grabbing a doughnut and coffee at Yum Yum Donuts, they would get in line for the (general admission) bleachers to enjoy the sunshine and cheer on her favorite, Cubs’ slugger Dave Kingman, in left field.

Over the years, she took me to several games, including a “Crosstown Classic” match-up at a time the White Sox and Cubs used to play an exhibition game or two against each other in the early 1980s and another home opener with her then-boyfriend, who later became my Uncle Dan. It is one game, however, that led to my obsession with baseball card collecting.

81 topps fernando

In 1981, Dodgers’ pitcher Fernando Valenzuela took the nation by storm with a hot start that included an 8-0 record after his first eight starts, with five shutouts and eight complete games. Perhaps you recall Fernandomania? When Aunt Debbie called to see if I was interested in going to the Cubs game with her on Saturday, June 6—in front row seats along the first base line—I was thrilled. When I later learned it was going to be a Valenzuela start, I was over the moon.

As Fernando warmed up in the visitor’s bullpen, we stood along the wall and watched. As much as I loved the Cubs at that point, seeing him in person was tantamount to witnessing Babe Ruth in the flesh. Valenzuela might be the greatest pitcher of all-time! When Aunt Debbie took me to the souvenir stand, my allegiance wavered, and I insisted on a Dodgers’ helmet. (Hey, I was eight, swept up in Fernandomania, and simply had not realized how silly it was to ever root for the Dodgers.)

I received some praise from a smattering of Dodgers fans as I proudly wore my new helmet. The game got off to a good start for Los Angeles, who knocked Cubs’ starter Bill Caudill of the game in the first. After the top of the second, the Dodgers led 4-0. In the bottom of the inning, Hector Cruz took Valenzuela deep for the Cubs’ first run.

The score remained 4-1 as the Cubs came to bat in the bottom of the fourth. Jerry Morales began with a triple off Valenzuela, Cruz walked, and Carlos Lezcano singled home Morales. Ken Reitz flew out and Jody Davis singled, scoring Cruz. Light-hitting infielder Mike Tyson hit a three-run bomb off Valenzuela. After a walk to Ivan DeJesus, Valenzuela was lifted in favor of Bobby Castillo. Steve Dillard flew out. Bill Buckner, my favorite player at the time, doubled to drive in DeJesus. Morales, batting for the second time in the inning, grounded out. The Cubs led 7-4. And Valenzuela was mortal. I was no longer interested in donning Dodger blue.

As I took the helmet off and placed it under my seat, Aunt Debbie asked me what was wrong. I expressed regret for my impulsive helmet purchase. She graciously offered to take me back to the souvenir stand to replace the helmet with a Cubs item. We went back to the stand and after looking over the items, I decided on the 1981 Topps team set. (Geez, I acted like a spoiled punk!)

1981 topps cards

Now back at our seats, I rifled through the cards looking for all the players I had seen so far in the game. Bill Buckner! Mike Tyson! Ivan DeJesus! While it seemed that only half of the starting lineup from that game was represented in the team set, there was something downright magical about looking down at a baseball card and then up at that player on the field. (It was probably telling that the only two All-Stars in the set—Kingman and Bruce Sutter—were no longer on the team.)

The Cubs won the game 11-5 and hung seven earned runs on Valenzuela, causing his ERA to swell from 1.90 to 2.45. Mike Tyson would never hit another Major League home run. Just a week after this game, the players went on strike. I was blissfully unaware of the labor strife or how awful the 1981 Cubs team was. I took those cards everywhere with me.

That Dodgers helmet was imposed on opponents in backyard Wiffle Ball games for years to come. I still have it, along with a good portion of the cards from that original team set. I have no idea whatever happened to my Cliff Johnson or George Riley cards from that set, but the ones I still have symbolize the formation of my baseball allegiances, represent the starting point for my love of baseball cards, and are a tangible reminder of the special bond I have with my Aunt Debbie.

Time flies. Debbie is now retired and has raised four children of her own. She remains a passionate fan and even got to throw out the first pitch before a Cubs game in 2004 (jealous). We had quite a time celebrating the Cubs’ championship over Thanksgiving dinner in 2016. And catching up recently about those games of the 1970s and 1980s has been a blast. Thanks Aunt Debbie for my favorite commons!

One Man's Journey to Slay The Monster

*This is the first of hopefully many posts about my journey collecting the T206 set, aka “The Monster”. Many have tried, most have failed. Wish me luck!*

My introduction to the T206 set came last spring during a meetup with a local card collector. He was selling a Roberto Clemente rookie card to me because it didn’t fit with his “collection.” He proceeded to tell me that he primarily collected T206, which he referred to as “The Monster.” I recall being awed by the size (524 cards) and volume of Hall of Famers (76 cards in the subset, including the famous Honus Wagner card). As I was leaving, he smiled and said, “Once you go down this rabbit hole, there is no turning back.”

Fast forward to this past July. I’m at The Chantilly Show (a prominent card show in the DC area) and I run into that same collector who has some of his T206s on display and available. While I didn’t recognize many of the names on these beautiful cards, I did recognize a few: Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson. One card in particular caught my eye, a stunning portrait of Hall of Fame second baseman, Eddie Collins.

A gentleman who I had been chatting with noticed my eyes wander towards the Collins and remarked, “That’s a nice one. A Hall of Fame portrait with an off-back would make for a great start.” I turn the card over and see “Sovereign Cigarettes Fit For A King” in a pleasing forest green font. I was sold. After a little negotiating, I secured my first T206 card, one of a legendary player, nonetheless (pics below). Little did I know at the time, but I had just plunged into the rabbit hole.

Considering that I’m far from an expert and there is already so much great material available about the set (much of which I’ll reference and link in later posts) this blog will have more of a personal spin. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, befriending, and learning of many others in the very active T206 community, and I’m hopeful that I can weave in tales of their journeys and insights, as well.

While my T206 collecting journey is no longer in its infancy, it’s still very much in the early stages. My monster number currently sits at 52, which puts me at exactly 10% complete (not counting the Big Four) – far enough in to have learned a few things but still just a beginner. With the road to completion stretching further ahead in the future then I can see, I’m looking forward to everyone joining me on this ride.

Tommy’s walkabout

In reaction to a post on the SABR Baseball Card Committee Facebook page, someone commented that Tommy Davis was depicted on a different team for seven years in a row starting in 1966. This is quite an “achievement,” and will be explored in detail. Tommy’s walkabout through the major leagues ran head long into the MLBPA boycott of Topps, resulting in the repeated use of the same image on his cards and inserts. But even before Tommy left the Dodgers, his image was often recycled. Let us now ogle some wonderful cardboard from a player for whom serious injury may have derailed a Hall of Fame-worthy career.

1960 marks Davis Topps debut featuring is a colorized version of Dodgers team issue from 1960 produced by concessionaire extraordinaire Danny Goodman.

Topps uses the same photo in 1961 but adds the fantastic Topps All-Star Rookie trophy image. Plus, Davis’ cropped head from the photo shows up on the 1961 Topps stamp.

But wait, there’s more! The head shot is used by Salada for the 1962 and 1963 coins.

Tommy has a spectacular 1962 season with a league leading .346 average and an amazing 153 RBI. Fittingly, the emerging star gets two cards in 1963, since Fleer burst on the scene as Topps short lived rival.

In my humble opinion, the 1964 Topps Giant is the best of all Davis’ cards. The “in action” pose, glasses, and jacket under the jersey add up to produce a beauty. Topps liked it too. Tommy’s cropped head is used on the All-Star version of the coin inserts in 1964.

In May of 1965, an awkward slide at second against the Giants resulted in Davis suffering a severely broken and dislocated ankle. His slow recovery dimmed his star status. Tommy was hobbled in field and on the base paths and his batting stroke suffered as well. Topps produces a card featuring Tommy’s profile in 1965. This unattractive shot was used again in 1966.

Tommy’s vagabond years starts in 1967 when the Dodgers decided to part ways and ship him to the Mets. This results in a classic, traded head shot. After one productive year at Shea, the Mets sent Davis packing to the White Sox for Tommy Agee and Al Weis. A different head shot graces his 1968 card but the 1967 is repurposed for the game insert (see top of article).

The odyssey continues in 1969 when the White Sox leave Tommy unprotected in the expansion draft, and he is selected by the Seattle Pilots. Tommy is arguably the Pilots’ best hitter, forever holding the RBI record with 63. As a big- name player on an expansion team, Topps offers up several Davis products. His base card uses the same picture as 1967, the stamp brings back the 1966 image and the Super test issue card recycles the 1968 image. Airbrushed Dodger photos show up on the Deckle Edge and Decal inserts.

In addition to Topps, 1969 and 1970 saw Milton Bradley produce game cards which used an image of Tommy from the 1968 White Sox team issue photos.

The Pilots dealt Tommy to Houston in August of 1969, which launches him on the next stage of his “Cook’s Tour.” The 1970 Astros card features an airbrushed cap and “nostril shot,” probably taken while with the Dodgers. His stay in Houston was short as the Astros sent Tommy on to Oakland who in turn sold him to the Cubs late in 1970. Finally, in 1971, Tommy has a photo wearing in the team’s uniform for the first time since 1966.

It goes without saying that Tommy’s windy city stint was more of a “blow over.” “The Drifter” catches a freight bound for Oakland during the 1971 season. This results in a nice base card and a classic “In Action” photo of Tommy holding Horace Clarke on first at Yankee Stadium in the 1972 set.

Though Tommy was productive in Oakland, a dispute with owner Charlie Finley results in his release in March of 1972. Tommy will re-sign with the Cubs in July and eventually be traded to the Orioles. Tommy’s release may have factored into Topps not issuing a Davis card in 1973. His streak of cards on different teams ends at seven years.

But fortune shines on Tommy in the form of the Designated Hitter being implemented in the American League in 1973. The mobility challenged Davis is inserted into the potent Orioles lineup in the DH role. Tommy will have a career renaissance, helping Baltimore to two East Division championships in 1973-74.

The Orioles part ways after 1975. Tommy latches on with the Yankees, who release him at the end of spring training. The Angels sign him in July of 1976, but the nomadic Davis shuffles off to Kansas City in September- which is the team he is depicted on in his cardboard swan song as a player in 1977.

However, there is a career-capper of sorts found in the 1982 Donruss set. Tommy received a card, while serving as the Mariners’ batting coach.
Davis’ trek results in cards on 10 different teams, one more than Ken Brett, as I chronicled in a previous post.

If you know of another player with more teams, let us know. In any event: “Tommy Davis has been everywhere, man/He’s been everywhere, man/He’s crossed Chavez Ravine, man/He’s breathed the Seattle air, man/Baltimore crab cakes he’s eaten his share, man/Tommy’s been everywhere……”

I highly encourage everyone to read the SABR Bio Project Tommy Davis biography by Mark Stewart and Paul Hirsch.

1969 Mike Andersen postcard

Fleer breaks the Hall of Fame

Before jumping in let’s set the stage a little. It’s June 12, 1939, and baseball royalty has gathered in upstate New York.

Eleven of the game’s greatest are in Cooperstown for the first ever Hall of Fame induction ceremony, honoring the classes of 1936-39.

Not coincidentally, at least in my opinion, the next year’s Play Ball set did something that was at the time most unusual if not unprecedented. More than an eighth of the cards, 31 out of 240, on the 1940 Play Ball checklist featured retired all-time greats.

As the Hall of Fame had only 26 members to this point, the set necessarily included several players not yet (or ever?) enshrined in Cooperstown, most notably Shoeless Joe Jackson.

The chart below shows the Hall of Fame status of the 31 retired greats in the set, as well as two other pre-1940 Hall of Famers (orange rows) who were included in the Play Ball set outside the retired greats subset.

There were also several pre-1940 Hall of Famers not included in the set at all. Most had pioneer or executive status, but I’m sure you will recognize at least a few very, very good players on this list.

The 1940 Play Ball set, therefore, was not a perfect reflection of baseball’s Hall of Fame to this point, but it still gave young gum chewers their best chance to own a decent piece of Cooperstown in their card collections.

Ten years later another set came along that scored a direct hit on the Baseball Hall. In 1950, Chicago-based publisher B.E. Callahan released a box set that consisted all 60 Hall of Famers to that point (plus two cards of the building itself). According to the Standard Catalog, the box set and supplemental cards were sold at the Hall of Fame itself and major league ballparks.

The set was updated annually to remain current through 1956, providing collectors with cards of baseball’s first 80 Hall of Famers.

The next major set rich in retired baseball greats, short of the Hall of Fame postcards themselves, once again came ten years later, this time with the release of Fleer’s 1960 Baseball Greats set.

The set included 79 players (80 if you count the unreleased Pepper Martin backs), all retired with the exception of Ted Williams. By my count, 47 of the cards, including the first ten on the checklist, portrayed subjects who were already Hall of Famers. (As of 2020, the total is up to 74.) Here are the five cards in the set that do not have corresponding busts in Cooperstown.

Fleer’s 1960 set was (perhaps surprisingly) successful enough not just to warrant a repeat but a near doubling of the set in 1961. The 1961 Baseball Greats set boasted 154 cards, including two checklists, making it by far the largest all-time greats set to date, a distinction it would retain (subjectively) for 20 years. That said, a closer look at the set’s checklist raises valid questions as to just how many of the “Baseball Greats” were actual…baseball greats. Had baseball even had 150+ greats to this point?

Author’s collection in progress

The series one checklist largely reprises the 1960 offering, with 57 of the 88 cards having counterparts the year before. Another 18 subjects from 1960 would crack the series two checklist. That left only 4 cards from the 1960 set with no sequel in 1961.

Excluding the two checklist cards and the 75 repeated subjects from 1960, Fleer had 77 slots to fill with all new cardboard. Naturally, some number would go to true greats who didn’t quite make it the first time around (i.e., 1960), but our focus here will be on players that make you say “Huh?”

Cards 80 and 82 feature two very much better than average twirlers who combined to post a 317-239 win-loss record. I recognized but couldn’t place the names when I first saw their cards.

As it turns out the two starters had squared off in one of baseball history’s greatest pitching duels, combining for 19 innings of no-hit ball.

Another unexpected entrant to a set of “Baseball Greats” was Nick Altrock. Though he posted a couple very nice seasons with the 1905-06 White Sox, his card back suggests it was his clown status that made him a Fleer immortal.

Dennis Galehouse and Bump Hadley were two other pitchers I can’t say I knew well.

Their card backs indicate that their postseason success was responsible for placing them on the same checklist as Ruth, Cobb, and Wagner. That said, the two won a combined three World Series games in 31 seasons.

My favorite card in the set, however, belongs to Joe Hauser, a respectable but hardly standout hitter for the Philadelphia A’s teams of the 1920s, certainly overshadowed by the Hall of Fame roster surrounding him.

Of course, some readers will recognize Hauser’s place in baseball history has less to do with his major league record as what he accomplished after his big league days were through: an unthinkable 132 home runs in two seasons!

Besides introducing young collectors in 1961 (and guys like me in 2020) to some lost greats, the 1961 Fleer set (and to some extent its 1960 predecessor) was also a bit maverick in its choice of photos. Many of the top stars in the set are depicted with teams you’d hardly expect. (For what it’s worth the cities starting with “C” seemed to gain the most players.)

The more I got to know this set the more it reminded me of the baseball books I used to read as a kid. Yes, there were chapters on the true immortals, but there were also stories about baseball’s greatest personalities, baseball’s most unusual games, the little guys who came up big when it counted, and the big guys who came up big when it didn’t count. It took all these players to tell the story of baseball in a way that fused history, drama, and comedy into one grand game rich not only in tradition but personality.

The 1961 Fleer set is not so much a study in putting the Hall of Fame into packs but a blueprint for a different Hall altogether, one where a great story or great moment is as good as a great career…and for the guys with great careers, one where we at least give them a funny hat!

I know some readers would be aghast to even consider such a Hall, so it’s to them I ask this question: what’s the point of reading a plaque if you already know who the guy was!

Extra for Experts

A few odds and ends related to the 1960-61 Fleer Baseball Greats sets that didn’t quite fit the article.

The 1960 checklist (1-79) is in more or less random order. However, there is a simple pattern to the color schemes used. Cards 1-20 use blue with white lettering, cards 21-40 use yellow with red lettering, cards 41-60 use green with yellow lettering, and cards 61-79 use red with white lettering.

The 1961 checklist is alphabetical by series, but the background colors (red, orange, yellow, green, and blue) appear more or less random.

Both sets include a card of Ed Walsh. However, the 1960 set erroneously uses a photo of Ed Walsh, Jr. Perhaps to clear up any confusion the following year Fleer made darn sure collectors knew they were looking at Big Ed Walsh this time around.

Photos on the 1960 cards are credited to World Wide Photo. No similar credits are noted on the back of the 1961 cards.

Just When I Thought I Was Out, They Pull Me Back In!

One of my personal favorite sets, from the relatively barren late ‘70’s when there wasn’t a ton of product, was the 1977 Padres team issued set of schedule cards. It’s a weird little set of a bad little team, 49 cards total.

Of those cards, 40 have schedules on the back and a line “One in A Series of 40 Player Photos.”

Some greats:

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Some not so greats:

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One had, what for me will always be the DP combo of the future:

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The other 9 had blank backs:

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Weird that in a 1977 issue, there’s a McCovey card (he was already back on the Giants by way of the A’s) and a Washington card (that franchise move a dead issue by ’77).

A nice group of cards, filed away, complete, at least until I stumbled on this post a few years ago – https://clydes-stalecards.blogspot.com/2013/07/1977-san-diego-padres-schedule-cards.html  *

It turned out that I only had slightly more than half the set, what are referred to as Type 1 (those 40 cards) and Type 3 (the blank backs). Of course, the Type 2s are harder to come by.

Type 2s also total 40 cards, with the same info as Type 1s on the back, EXCEPT there’s no “One in A Series….” line. There are also two types of fonts used for the fronts, a thin player name and a bold one.  It’s also got a slew of players not contained in either of the other types (Miller and Norman are thin font, Beckert is thick font):

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And this guy (who looks suspiciously like Rollie Fingers!):

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While all of this seems haphazard, there’s a good (though bad) reason for the confusion. Andy Strasberg, former head of PR and VP for the Padres can explain:

I created the set with each card having a Padres sepia photo on the front and a calendar of promotional game dates on the reverse. A few different cards were given away for free for each home game at Padres program stands.

Unfortunately the credibility of the cards flew out the window when a couple of local collectors replicated the format with different photos and flooded the collectors market to undermine the validity of the true Padres team issue card set.

The team issued cards are the Type 1s. All other types are ripoffs of Strasberg’s original idea.

Frustrating to find out about, and, seemingly an impossible group to find, I set out on a mission to find the Type 2 subset. Not a very exhaustive mission; I created an eBay search. Last week, after years, it finally happened! A full Type 2 set was listed, not marked as such, but the pics showed that to be the case. I was the only bidder. There were even some doubles, which I’ll list.

It’s a strange feeling, to know for sure that you’ve got every card, only to find out you’ve been mistaken for over 40 years. Thankfully, it’s not the biggest mistake I’ve made since 1977 and one that was relatively painless to fix.

*NOTE: Clyde’s post states the Jones/Kuhn card isn’t a blank back, but the one I have is. Not sure if that means there are two versions, but I doubt it.

DiMaggio's really long streak

I ended my previous post with the teaser that neither the 1961 Topps “Baseball Thrills” subset nor its 2010 reboot, much less its 1959 precursor, included what I had grown up understanding to be the most incredible baseball feat of them all.

Rather than imagine the Topps intern assigned to building the checklist simply whiffed on Joltin’ Joe (or that there even was a Topps intern with such a job!), I have to believe Topps simply lacked the rights to feature DiMaggio’s likeness on cardboard. A look at other postwar sets during and after DiMaggio’s career show his absence in 1961 was definitely the rule and not the exception.

1933-1941 (AKA “Prewar,” depending where you lived!)

During the early part of the Clipper’s career, while he was not in EVERY set, one can say he tended to appear in every major set you’d expect to see him in, and then some, including these two gems from the 1933-36 Zeenut set.

Knowing DiMaggio didn’t make his Yankee debut until 1936, it’s not a big surprise that he didn’t appear in the three major gum card releases of the mid-1930s: 1933 Goudey, 1934 Goudey, and 1934-36 Diamond Stars. That said, his appearance in 1933 Goudey wouldn’t have been completely out of the question since that set did include 15 minor leaguers, including a fellow Pacific Coast Leaguer, Pete Scott.

Meanwhile, the 1934 Goudey and 1934-36 Diamond Stars checklists did not include any minor leaguers, so there’s no reason DiMaggio would have even been up for consideration.

Now some of you may know about the 1937 Diamond Stars extension set and surmise that Joltin’ Joe might have cracked that checklist. Unfortunately, all that seems to have survived is a single sheet of 12 cards, which of course DiMaggio is not on. All we can say for sure then is that if National Chicle did have a Diamond Stars card planned it would have been a gem!

The two-year stretch from 1936-37 did see DiMaggio appear on several cards, now as a Yankee, though there is room for debate among the collecting orthodoxy as to which constitute his true rookie card. (Don’t ask me, I’d vote for his San Francisco Seals cards!)

These four from 1936 have the benefit of being a year earlier than the 1937 cards, hence score a few more rookie points for their date of issue. On the other hand, all are of the oversized premium variety, which not all collectors put in the same category as the smaller cardboard offerings that come from packs of gum or cigarettes.

In fact, DiMaggio did crack one (cataloged as) 1936 (but really 1936-37) set of gum cards, but the fact that the World Wide Gum were only issued in Canada gives pause to a good many of the Hobby’s arbiters of rookiehood. If nothing else, though, note the nickname on the back of the card. A bit harder to read but the bio would not pass muster today in its reference to Joe as “a giant Italian.”

One of DiMaggio’s most sought after cards, rookie or not, was another Canada-only release and came out the following year under the later-on-much-more-famous O-Pee-Chee name.

Back in the U.S., DiMaggio made it onto two cards in 1937, but as with the preceding year they were both of the larger premium variety. The Goudey offering (left) is not much (any?) different from its 1936 counterpart, while the Exhibits 4-in-1 is particularly notable in its pairing of the Yankee Clipper with Lou Gehrig. (Oh, and the other two guys are pretty good also.)

It is finally in 1938 that Joltin’ Joe receives his first ever, God honest American gum card as a Yankee, thanks to the 1938 Goudey “Heads Up” set. Like the other 23 players on the checklist, he in fact appears twice, once with a plain background (card #250) and once with a cartoon background (card #274).

Finally, DiMaggio and Gehrig make it onto another 4-in-1 of Yankee legends, this time swapping out Tony Lazzeri for Bill Dickey.

To this point, just about every card I’ve shown, save the 1938 Goudey pair, has some level of oddball status attached. This was not the case from 1939-41 when Gum, Inc., hit the scene with its three year run of major bubble gum releases under the Play Ball name. Though the term is perhaps overused, I’ll throw DiMaggio’s 1941 card out there as one of the truly iconic cards of the Hobby.

The Play Ball cards weren’t DiMaggio’s only cards from that three-year stretch. He could also be found in the 1939-46 Exhibits “Salutations” set, yet another oversized offering…

And the 1941 Double Play set, where he was paired with his outfield neighbor, Charley Keller.

If there’s a theme to all of this, beyond just the opportunity to post a lot of incredible cards, it’s that Joe DiMaggio was no stranger to cardboard during the prewar portion of his career. On the contrary, he was in just about every major set there was, and then some!

1942-1951

These next ten years take us to the end of the Yankee Clipper’s career while also leading us through the wartime era where not a lot of card sets were being produced. DiMaggio cards didn’t simply follow the dip in overall card production but practically disappeared altogether.

Joe’s first card, post-1941, comes from the 1943 M.P. & Company card, a somewhat “off the radar” almost certainly unlicensed set, something we’ll see quite a bit more of as we proceed through this section of the article. (Side note: This set is screaming out for one of you to solve the remaining 21% of a mystery.)

Two notable aspects of the card are Joe’s position, right field (!), and the fact that his recent hitting streak is not mentioned.

The latter of these notables is addressed five years later in the 1948 Swell “Sport Thrills” set, which also happens to be the first gum card set of baseball highlights and a possible inspiration for the 1959 and 1961 cards Topps put out under a similar name.

First off, I’ll show the back of the card, which is everything you might expect to see in a card featuring The Streak.

However, the front of the card is more than a bit disappointing to DiMaggio collectors for obvious reasons. “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?” indeed!

What I read into this card is that Sport Thrills did not have permission from DiMaggio to use his likeness on the card. Yes, it’s possible the folks at Swell truly considered “stopping the streak” a greater achievement than the streak itself, but I kind of doubt it.

But then again, look who made it onto the set’s Ted Williams card, so who knows!

1948 was also the year that Gum, Inc., reappeared on the scene, beginning an eight-year stretch (1948-55) of baseball card sets under the Bowman name. the Bowman sets managed to include pretty much every big name of the era but one: Joe DiMaggio.

Personally I would have loved to see the Yankee Clipper in one of these early Bowman sets, but a “what if” we can consider as collectors is whether the rights to Joe D. would have left another Yankee centerfielder off the checklist in 1951.

You might not have expected any mention of Topps so soon, but it’s worth noting that Topps made its baseball debut not in 1952 or even 1951 but in 1948 with 19 of the 252 cards in its Magic Photos release featuring baseball players.

The first five cards pictured could lead you to believe the players were all retired greats, but in fact six of the cards in the set featured images of the 1948 World Champion Cleveland Indians. Well shoot, this was the one year from 1947-53 that the Yankee’s didn’t win the World Series! Crazy to think it, but perhaps if the Yankees and not the Indians had signed Paige and Doby, there would be a playing career Topps card of Joe DiMaggio!

One of the least known (in terms of origin, not familiarity) releases of the era was the 1948 Blue Tint set. DiMaggio has a card in the set but in what’s emerging as a common theme the card (and entire set!) are believed to be unlicensed.

Similar to the 1938 Goudey cards a decade earlier, the 1948 1949 Leaf set finally presents us with an unambiguously mainstream, all-American, picture-on-the-front, New York Yankees card of the Clipper. It even boasts #1 in what is one of the earliest examples of “hero numbering” in a baseball card set.

Astute collectors may now say, “A-ha! That’s why he wasn’t in Bowman. Leaf signed him first.” However, my own belief is that Leaf not only didn’t sign DiMaggio but didn’t sign anyone, making this card as well as the rest of the set unlicensed. (As always, I would love it if a reader with more information is able to confirm or correct this in the comments.)

The next same year M.P. & Company was back with what I wrote about last year as the laziest set ever, adding to our tally of unlicensed Clipper cards. I rather like the blue added to Joe’s uniform since the 1943 release, but I don’t love the bio remaining unchanged even six years later.

In 1951 Topps hit the shelves in earnest with five different baseball offerings, a number that now feels small but was huge for its time. Though DiMaggio had already achieved all-time great status, there was no reason to expect him in the Connie Mack’s All-Stars set, in which the most modern player was Lou Gehrig.

However, there was reason to expect DiMaggio in the Current All-Stars set, which featured 11 participants from the 1950 All-Star Game. While DiMaggio wouldn’t consider the contest among his career highlights, having gone 0-3 and grounded into a double play, his presence at Comiskey that day at least qualified him for this tough Topps release.

Two other closely related Topps issues from 1951 were the Red Backs and Blue Backs. Though nobody would confuse their checklists for the top 104 stars of the era, it seems reasonable to think Topps would have gone with DiMaggio if they could have.

The final Topps offering of 1951 is one that seemed almost assured to include DiMaggio but didn’t. Topps Teams featured complete team photos of every team on the checklist, but there was only one problem. The checklist did not include the Yankees!

We close out the 1942-1951 stretch with the 1951 Berk Ross set, one that did in fact include a Joe DiMaggio card. In fact, there were two cards if we count his two-player panel with Granny Hamner as separate.

While not a lot is known about these Berk Ross cards, the one thing most collectors believe is that these cards, much like the other DiMaggio cards of the era, were unlicensed.

1952-1961

As much as some collectors, then and now, would have loved to see a 1952 Topps card of the Yankee Clipper, we of course know he did not crack the set’s 407-card checklist, nor should he have been expected to. While “career capper” cards are the norm today, the tradition at Topps for many years was to focus its flagship set on the players expected to play in the current season.

DiMaggio did find himself with an unlicensed career capper in the 1952 follow-up from Berk Ross

Beyond 1952 we are clearly in post-career territory, meaning DiMaggio cards would mainly rely on three types of issues: all-time greats, highlights, and reprints.

The first opportunity for a post-career DiMaggio came from Topps in 1954. If you’re confused, the set I’m talking about isn’t the 1954 Topps baseball set of Hank Aaron RC fame but a 1954 Topps set that mainly consisted of cards like this.

The 1954 Topps Scoop set captured 156 notable moments in our history, and four of them came from the world of baseball.

DiMaggio and his famous Streak would have been right at home in the set, but their absence was hardly conspicuous either given the primarily non-sports focus of the set.

The next opportunity for a DiMaggio card came in 1959 when Topps issued a ten-card Baseball Thrills subset as part of its main release. However, Topps focused all ten of the cards on current players.

The same year, Fleer issued its 80-card Ted Williams set. As the set’s name indicated, all the cards were of Ted Williams. At the same time, many of the cards included cameos of other players and personalities. As linked as the careers of Williams and DiMaggio were, a card of the pair would have fit the set perfectly.

The very next year, Fleer issued the first of its two “Baseball Greats” sets. The checklist boasted 78 retired greats and one active player (an eyesore of a Ted Williams card) but no Joe DiMaggio.

The checklist nearly doubled to 154 cards in 1961, leaving plenty of room for Joltin’ Joe. Of course, he was nowhere to be found.

Another player highlighting the history of the game in 1960 and 1961 was Nu-Cards. Their 1960 “Hi-Lites” set of 72 postcard sized cards was at the time the largest set of its kind ever issued. Two of the set’s cards featured DiMaggio, ending his decade-long exile from cardboard.

The 1961 Nu-Card “Scoops” set, one of my favorites, added 80 cards, now standard sized, but numbered as if the set were much larger. Again, DiMaggio makes the set twice.

As already mentioned, Topps was also back in 1961 with “Baseball Thrills,” but this time they departed from the 1959 version by including mostly retired stars. Still no Joe.

Nostalgia was evidently in the air in 1961 as yet another player entered the scene with an all-time greats offering. Golden Press produced a booklet of 33 cards that I rate among the best looking ever made.

I don’t know enough about the Nu-cards and Golden Press sets to know if DiMaggio’s image was used with his permission or if perhaps different rules might have applied when cards were issued in book form, as was the case with Golden Press. What I will say is that his absence from the biggies (Topps, Fleer), particularly on the 20th anniversary of the Streak, was more than just accidental.

1962-1971

This next ten-year stretch is one that was fairly thin on tribute cards, so there were few sets produced were a DiMaggio would have made sense.

The 1962 Topps set included its ten-card “Babe Ruth Special” subset, no doubt timed with the falling of Babe’s single-season home run record the year before. It was a fun set but not one that Joe DiMaggio would have belonged in.

DiMaggio did make an appearance in a 1967 set that might cause some collectors to say, “Hey, he finally got a Topps card!” The card came in the “Retirado” subset of the 1967 Venezuelan issue often referred to as Topps Venezuelan. However, the set was almost certainly not produced by Topps, and was more than likely a…you guessed it…unlicensed issue. (A future SABR Baseball Cards article will cover this topic in more detail.)

Bazooka issued an all-time greats set in 1969-70 that included small cards of baseball’s immortals and larger cards of baseball’s greatest achievements. In this case, DiMaggio might have fit either but ended up in neither.

Topps again featured amazing achievements in its 1971 “Greatest Moments” set. However, with all moments coming from current players, there would have been no place for Joe D.

As in the previous ten years it would be up to the smaller players to keep Joe DiMaggio’s cardboard legacy alive. One such player was Robert Laughlin, later affiliated with various Fleer sets of the 1970s. His cult classic World Series set (original version) from 1967 featured DiMaggio as the broom swinger of the 1939 Fall Classic.

With production of these Laughlin cards limited to 300 sets, collectors were forced to head to Oakland area Jack in the Box restaurants to feed their appetite for the Clipper, though it’s possible the younger burger eaters would have been even happier to land a different Yankee slugger.

1972-1979

The birth of TCMA in 1972 almost single-handedly accounted for the rapid spike in DiMaggio cards over the next decade, with Robert Laughlin and Shakey’s Pizza doing their part as well.

Two Robert Laughlin offerings that included DiMaggio were the 1972 “Great Feats” set and the 1974 “All-Star Games” set.

The “Great Feats” set, with mostly minor changes, became Fleer’s 1973 “Baseball’s Greatest Feats” set. One major change, however, was that DiMaggio’s card was dropped, almost certainly out of legal fears by Fleer.

TCMA’s first DiMaggio card was part of a beautiful set dedicated to the All-Time New York Yankee Team.

As were the Laughlin cards, TCMA cards were unlicensed and sold direct to hobbyists by mail order. Lawsuits would eventually hit TCMA, but at least for the time being they were able to issue cards of the Clipper with impunity. I can certainly see their “1930s League Leaders” card (left) from 1973 escaping the notice of Joe and his legal team, though was sufficiently under the radar, but I wonder if their 1973-74 “Autograph Series,” designed for signature by the players, might have been pushing things just a bit.

Among TCMA’s other DiMaggio offerings around this time were these postcards pairing the Yankee Clipper with other top-shelf Hall of Famers.

TCMA’s 1936-39 Yankees Dynasty set, issued in 1974, produced another two cards of Joe DiMaggio.

And if you couldn’t get enough DiMaggio/Williams cards, TCMA had your back in 1974 with its “1940s League Leaders” set.

I know a lot of collectors knock the unlicensed stuff, but I’m personally thrilled that TCMA was out there creating the cards that needed to be created. Topps had more than 20 years to figure out a way to pair Joe D. and Teddy Ballgame, and it never happened. This card needed to happen, and I’m glad it did.

We’ll take a quick intermission from TCMA cards to present a three-year run (1975-77) of DiMaggio cards from Shakey’s Pizza.

And now we’re back with more TCMA, this time a 1975 reboot of their All-Time Yankees set featuring all new photos.

Reprint cards and sets hit the hobby mainstream in 1977, including these two cards of DiMaggio, both originally from 1938. The first came from Bert Randolph Sugar’s book of “Dover Reprints” and the second came from Jim Rowe. (DiMaggio’s 1941 Play Ball card would come out as a Dover Reprint the following year.)

1977 was also the year that Renata Galasso began her 270-card magnum opus known alternately as “Decade Greats” and “Glossy Greats.” The first series of 45 cards, issued in 1977 in partnership with TCMA, assigned its very first card to Joe DiMaggio. (DiMaggio returned to the set in the 1984 Series 6 release.)

Evidently it was very much in vogue to lead off a set’s checklist with the Yankee Clipper as we see it happen two more times in 1979 TCMA issues, their 1953 Bowman-like “Stars of the 1950s” and their lesser known “Diamond Greats” set.

Before heading to 1980, I’ll just note that we’ve made it to 1979 with not a single Topps card of DiMaggio and possibly not a single licensed card from any company since either 1941 or 1948.

1980-present

The Me Decade kicked off with a beautiful Perez-Steele postcard of the Clipper. Dick Perez was not yet associated with Donruss, but Dick would soon lend his artwork to multiple all-time greats sets produced by Donruss over the next few years. You can probably guess whether or not those sets would include Joe DiMaggio. (Interestingly, there was no DiMaggio in the 108 “Great Moments” postcards released by Perez-Steele from 1985-1997. Ditto for the 44-card Perez-Steele “Celebration” series in 1989.)

DiMaggio was in an 30-card unlicensed set of “Baseball Legends” produced by Cramer Sports Promotions, the company that would soon become Pacific Trading Cards.

While other card makers joined the party, TCMA was still king in the early 1980s when it came to the all-time greats. Their third go-round of an All-Time Yankees set presented collectors with an early version of a “rainbow” nearly 40 years after Goudey did the same.

This same year, TCMA also included DiMaggio in its “Baseball Immortals” issued under their SSPC brand.

These 1980 “Superstars” are sometimes listed as TCMA and sometimes listed under the Seckeli name. (Andrew Aronstein, son of TCMA co-founder Mike Aronstein, believes the cards were sold by TCMA but not produced by TCMA. The Standard Catalog notes the cards were probably produced by Card Collectors Closet in Springfield, MA.) The set included 45 cards in all and five of DiMaggio.

A second series of 45 cards followed in 1982, this time with some non-baseball cards in the checklist and only a single DiMaggio.

The same year, Baseball Card News put out a set of 20 cards, including two with DiMaggio, one solo and one alongside Bob Feller.

1982 also saw three more TCMA sets with DiMaggio cards. Baseball’s Greatest Hitters and Baseball’s Greatest Sluggers featured standard sized baseball cards, and “Stars of the 50s” featured larger postcard-sized cards.

The streak of (probably) unlicensed DiMaggio cards finally met its end following the release of one last (probably) unlicensed DiMaggio card from the Big League Collectibles “Diamond Classics” set.

Before presenting the licensed DiMaggio issue, we’ll take one quick detour to highlight a set DiMaggio should have been in but wasn’t. The 1983 Donruss “Hall of Fame Heroes”set of 44 cards presented a terrific opportunity for DiMaggio to make his “big three” debut. (Donruss continued to put out all-time greats sets in 1984 and 1985 but neither included Joe D.)

Instead, DiMaggio signed on with Authentic Sports Autographs (ASA) for a twelve-card, limited edition set consisting entirely of DiMaggio cards.

I suspect “The Joe DiMaggio Story” by ASA represented the first time the Yankee Clipper got paid for his likeness on a baseball card in 42 years.

Rather than continue set by set, I’ll refer readers to an article from Night Owl Cards on DiMaggio’s more modern issues (or lack thereof) and simply close with some highlights.

DiMaggio’s next appearance with a major baseball card maker, which for now I’ll define as holding an MLB/MLBPA license, came in 1986 as part of the Sportflics “Decade Greats” set.

I can’t say for certain, but I think this was the first DiMaggio card to come out of a pack since 1961’s Nu-Card Scoops set.

I hate to bill this next one as “major card maker,” but it fits the definition I offered earlier. So here it is, 1989 Starting Lineup Baseball Greats.

The next major card maker to score a deal with Joe was, well, Score, in 1992. Several different cards, most very nice looking, were inserts either in packs or factory sets. The relationship would migrate to Score’s Pinnacle brand in 1993.

DiMaggio finally made his Fleer debut in 1998, though it was in a somewhat unusual way. The card was part of Fleer’s tribute to the Sports Collectors Digest hobby publication and showed DiMaggio signing cards for Pinnacle in 1993. How many times do you see one brand of baseball cards featured on another?

It was only a matter of time before Upper Deck got into the DiMaggio derby, though it would have to be posthumously. The relationship would continue until more or less the baseball (mostly) death of the company in 2010.

And what about Topps? The “baseball card company of record” at long last issued its first Joe DiMaggio card in 2001 as part of the “Before There Was Topps” subset. (For all those Mantle collectors who regard the 1952 Topps as Mantle’s rookie due to its being his first Topps card, I present to you your DiMaggio rookie!)

Topps would really jump into the DiMaggio game in 2007 and to this day remains your most likely source for future DiMaggio cards, even if Topps does not have an agreement in place at the moment. Overall though, Topps produced baseball cards from 1948-2000, a span of 53 years, with no Joe DiMaggio. Topps didn’t quite match 56, who who the hell ever will?

So all of this was my really long way of saying that it makes sense there was no Streak card in the 1961 Topps Baseball Thrills subset. Too bad though, it would have been a helluva card!

1991 Topps Cracker Jack 4-in-1 panel decoder ring

DR K. Ten Most Wanted

One of the coolest cards on my Dr. K “Ten Most Wanted” list as of last week was his 1991 Topps Cracker Jack 4-in-1 panel. (And please get in touch if you can help with any of the others!)

As a student of the master, I try hard not to pay more than a buck or two for any of the cards in my Gooden collection, but I finally bit the bullet and threw real money at this Cracker Jack panel.

I was particularly swayed by Doc’s co-stars, three of my favorite players of the era: Tony Gwynn, Eric Davis, and Ken Griffey, Jr.

Variations

As is the case with many panel-based sets there were in fact multiple panel variations featuring different player combinations.

It didn’t seem to take co-chair Nick more than a minute to figure out that there was something very not random about these player combinations. And sure enough, they all point to a larger sheet with exactly this neighborhood around Gooden.

Before going too much further into sheets or panels I should pause and provide more background on the individual cards themselves.

Like the regular cards but smaller

The 1991 Topps flagship set had the era-typical 792 cards and nearly as many spin-offs as Happy Days. Think Topps Desert Shield for example. Two of them featured tiny cards: the 792-card Micro set and the 72-card Cracker Jack set that itself was divided into a Series One and Series Two, each numbered 1-36. The Cracker Jacks are occasionally referred to as Micro cards with different backs, but this isn’t quite correct since card size differs as well.

Speaking of backs, here is what the Cracker Jack card backs look like. Series One is on the left, and Series two is on the right.

Apart from the different colors used, you’ll notice the second card also has “2nd Series” in the top left corner whereas the first card does not indicate any series at all. This suggests Cracker Jack (or Borden for you corporate types) originally planned only a single series of 36 cards and then added another due to the popularity of the initial offering. The star power of the first series checklist vs the second also seems to point in this direction.

Population report

The popularity of the promotion is borne out by a highly informative (if occasionally inaccurate) business article on the Borden-Topps partnership that even includes sales figures for each series:

  • Series One: 75 million boxes
  • Series Two: 60 million boxes

Based on the size of the set, this translates into about 2.1 million of each first series card and 1.7 million of each second series card. Back in 1991 we would regard this as “limited edition” with the second serious “extra scarce.”

SOURCE OF 4-in-1 PANELS

Though I’m sure the truth is out there, I can find no definitive documentation on the source of the 4-in-1 panels. Theories I’ve run across include–

  • Distributed to dealers or show attendees as promos
  • “Handmade” from full sheets of 1991 Topps Cracker Jack
  • Part of a mail-in offer

I’ll regard the first two as most viable at the moment. Mail-in seems less likely since Cracker Jack already had an offer in place for mini-binders.

I’ll offer one other very weak clue that works against both the mail-in and promo theories: the size of the borders.

On the left is an actual 4-in-1 panel. You’ll notice the interior borders are about twice the thickness of the outside borders. The card really doesn’t look bad, but I would think if you were designing the card intentionally as a 4-in-1 you might even out the borders to achieve a cleaner look. (And yes, I did say “very weak” clue.)

Regardless, the most fun option is to assume the four-in-one panels were produced on the secondary market from uncut sheets. Of course when I say “fun,” I don’t mean “normal people fun.” I mean mathematically fun!

Anyway you slice it

For the moment let’s assume that uncut sheets simply cycle through the 36 cards in the set over and over again in the same order until the end of the sheet is reached. Let’s also assume that our sheet cutter doesn’t just cut any old 2 x 2 array from the sheet but proceeds methodically from the beginning of the sheet and works his way left to right, up to down. Finally, let’s assume cards are sequenced in numerical order.

Here is what this might look like for a sheet that is 18 cards across and 10 cards down the side. What you’ll notice, as in the highlighted blocks of 5-6-23-24 panels, is that there are no variations produced by the method. If card 5 were Dwight Gooden for example, he would always have the same three co-stars.

Without breaking out any fancy number theory, you might correctly surmise that the rather ho-hum result has something to do with the sheet repeating every two rows, which only happens because we conveniently matched the number of columns to exactly half the set length.

Now let’s run the same cut against a sheet that’s only 16 cards across. It stands to reason that at least something more interesting should happen here. Sure enough, the new configuration produces two Gooden panels: 5-6-21-22 and 25-26-5-6.

While two variations is nice, it’s not four. If you think about it, one of the things limiting our variations here is that we always see 6 paired with 5, which is another way of saying we never see 4 paired with 5. (Alternatively, we can say that 5 is always on the left and never on the right.)

So long as we have an even number of columns, this sort of thing will always be true. Therefore, our only hope at hitting four variations would seem to be having an odd number of columns. The example below uses 15 and sure enough pairs 4 with 5 some of the time. Unfortunately, we still failed to reach the theoretical maximum of four variations.

Is it possible we just got unlucky with our odd number? Maybe so. Let’s try this one more time and go with lucky 13.

Alas, we remain stuck at only two variations. Is it possible that there’s simply no solution involving methodical cuts and that achieving more variations will require something more like this?

The good news is we have our four variations. The bad news is we end up with a lot more waste.

Is there a Methodical solution?

Let’s take one more quick look at the actual Gooden panels that started this post. In case you missed it the first time, notice that Doc finds himself in a different quadrant on each of the panels. For example, he’s in the upper left position on the Gooden-Boggs-Griffey-McGwire panel, and he’s in the upper right position on the Gwynn-Gooden-Davis-Griffey panel.

Under our assumptions about how uncut sheets should be constructed, the problem of a methodical cut yielding four variations is equivalent to the problem of a methodical cut putting Doc in each of the four panel quadrants.

Looking back at our earlier examples, we can see that our first time through Doc was only in the upper left, which is why we had only a single variation. The next time, Doc was upper left and lower left only. Finally, in our last two methodical efforts, Doc was only upper left or lower right.

What would our sheet need to look like for Doc to end up in all four panel quadrants? We can attempt to solve the problem by examining one quadrant at a time, starting with the upper left quadrant.

For card 5 to end up in an upper left position, we need two things to happen.

  • 5 needs to be in an odd numbered row since these rows correspond to upper halves of panels.
  • 5 needs to be in an odd numbered column since these columns correspond to left sides of panels.

It was an otherwise boring example, but you can check these properties against the first table we looked at.

What we need then is a formula or rule that helps us determine which rows and columns 5 will end up in based on the number of columns in the sheet. WARNING: This part will get a little complicated and mathy. Feel free to skip to the section titled “DARN IT!” if the math gets too distasteful for you.

Let’s assume our sheet is N cards across and has M rows of cards. Then somewhat generally our sheet looks like this. Almost.

I say almost because we haven’t yet accounted for our numbering restarting every time we reach 36. For example, when N = 18 and M = 10, we don’t want to see our sheet numbered 1-180. Exactly as in our first example, we want to see our sheet numbered 1-36 five times in a row.

A mathematical trick that will get us what we need is called modulus (or sometimes “clock arithmetic”). In this case, we just need to replace each sheet entry with its equivalent, modulo 36. (Technically, this still isn’t quite right since it would replace 36 with 0, but we can simply keep that oddity in our back pocket for now.)

Therefore, our new generalized sheet looks like this:

Now that doesn’t look awful, does it? Okay fine, don’t answer that! And of course, I’m about to make things even a little more complicated since I can’t do a heckuva lot with all those dot-dot-dots taking up most of the sheet. I’d rather have variables, even if it means going from two letters (M and N) to four.

For example, if I am in row j and column k, I want to be able to say the number in that spot is [(j – 1)*N + k] mod 36. That way, if I want to know if the card is of Dr. K, I just need to check to see if [(j – 1)*N + k] mod 36 = 5! Simple, right?

Now let’s go back to the two conditions necessary for Dr. K to occupy an upper left panel position: odd row and odd column, which algebraically just means j and k are odd.

Of course (!) when j and k are odd, then [(j – 1)*N + k] is also odd regardless of the value on N, so there is at least hope we will have solutions for correctly chosen values of j and k no matter the width of the sheet.

What about if we want Doc to appear in the upper right, which I’ll note we have not yet seen in any of our examples? The conditions for this are–

  • 5 needs to be in an odd numbered row since these rows correspond to upper halves of panels.
  • 5 needs to be in an even numbered column since these columns correspond to right sides of panels.

Algebraically then, we know j is odd but k is now even. Going back to our complicated looking expression, that makes [(j – 1)*N + k] even no matter what value of N we choose, and this guarantees we will never have [(j – 1)*N + k] mod 36 = 5.

In case your eyes are glazing over, this means Doc will never end up in the desired position, which in turn means we will never get our four variations no matter what size sheet we go with. We could still look at the two lower quadrants but after suffering such a fatal setback one might justly wonder what the point would be.

Darn it!

Well imagine that! No matter what size we make our sheet, there’s no way to arrive at four Doc variations following a methodical cutting strategy. Two is as good as it gets. And yet, I started this article by showing you four actual examples. So what gives?

There are really only two options, assuming we’re still in the “panels produced from uncut sheets” camp.

  1. The cutters didn’t follow a methodical approach, instead just cutting up sheets willy-nilly to achieve desired results.
  2. The sheets didn’t follow the same rules we did.

The first option is hard for me to swallow, but the second one is equally baffling. Yes, one could imagine laying out the sheets so that we didn’t simply have the complete set repeated over and over. For example, we might imagine the insertion of a double-prints within the set.

The problem is that even the insertion of a double print doesn’t generate new solutions unless it were only sometimes inserted. (For example, imagine the first instance of the set on the sheet included two card 10s, but none of the other instances did. Possible but weird, right?)

Cheating, PArt ONE

Okay, what the heck. Let’s just look at an uncut sheet, shall we? Perfect, let me just get out my microscope!

Kidding aside, the sheet has everything we needed to know. First off, it’s 20 cards across and 22 rows down for a total of 440 cards, which is enough to hold 12 complete sets with 8 cards left over. We can also (barely) see that the sheet doesn’t even come close to following the logical layout originally assumed and later dismissed. I’ll highlight this by placing a thick red border around every Nolan Ryan card since his card is both easy to spot and card #1 in the set.

Sure enough, there are 12 Ryans, but their appearances on the sheet become more and more irregular as we progress down the sheet. Life gets more sane once we add nine more rectangles.

Each of these 6 x 6 blocks is itself a complete set, always following a consistent sequence. For what it’s worth, that sequence is:

32-21-08-30-33-04
10-07-25-19-22-02
05-34-26-28-29-13
17-06-16-36-27-12
23-35-09-18-20-24
01-14-31-03-11-15

We can further simplify the sheet by making three more rectangles. The upper orange rectangle houses the first two columns of a set, the middle orange rectangle houses the middle two columns, and the bottom orange rectangle houses the last two columns. Collectively they add up to the tenth complete set in the diagram.

All that remains then is to understand the last four rows of the sheet.

Each of the green blocks at the bottom represents the upper four rows of a complete set, which the two yellow rectangles then complete perfectly. Finally, the pink rectangle gives us our eight leftover cards, which match up with what we might call the upper left corner of the set.

That’s all well and good, but of course what we really want to see is whether this sheet layout produces all four Dr. K variations. At least that’s what I’m here for!

One thing we can say without a doubt is that the actual sheet layout is nothing like our original assumptions. With all the cockamamie patchwork we might justifiably exclaim, “Aha! THAT’s the crazy kind of layout you need to get all those variations!”

But guess what?

Cutting the sheet methodically into 2 x 2 panels, we find only all twelve Dr. K panels yield only a single variation (see yellow stars), the exact one I bought.

Go figure!

Cheating, part two

The only thing for me to do was ask the seller, who specializes in oddball cards and has always been a great guy to do business with. While his answer may not hold for all 4-in-1 panels like mine, he let me know, sure enough, that the particular panels in his own inventory came from uncut sheets.

I then asked if he did the cutting personally since I’m still surprised someone would resort to the unorthodox method it would require to produce all variations. He let me know he was not the cutter and had received his rather extensive lot as part of a larger purchase he made.

Perhaps one of my two readers who’s made it this far has direct knowledge in this area, in which case I hope they share that knowledge in the comments. In the meantime, I’m left believing that somebody somewhere wanted variations so badly that they were willing to live with a little waste.

Either that or…

what really happened

So I was thinking about the easiest way to produce all variations for all players with a minimum of waste. Taking Doc as an example, we know he only appears in the upper right quadrant when methodical cutting is applied. However, moving him from top to bottom just requires skipping a row. Similarly, moving him from right to left just requires skipping a column.

Treating the blacked out portion of the sheet below as throwaway, a methodical cutting of the remaining sheet portions will generate a complete master set of all 36 x 4 = 144 panels. I’ve highlighted one of each Gooden panel to illustrated this. (Note also that my black lines could have been just about anywhere and still done the trick. They only requirement is that each quadrant remain large enough to generate a panel of the desired player.)

So yes, I do believe that’s what happened, and the only question that remains for me is whether the cutter planned all this or just stumbled upon it by accident. As for that I’ll offer that many uncut sheets end up with a bad row or two due to creasing. I’ll also offer that bad cuts here and there are possible when chopping up an entire sheet. What this suggests to me is there are at least two ways the original cutter may have unwittingly generated a master set all my math told me was impossible!

An Exhaustive List of the One-Off Team-Issued Commemorative Baseball Cards of Which the Author is Aware

Ryne Sandberg (1997)

On Saturday, September 20, 1997 the Cubs held Ryne Sandberg Day in honor of the future Hall of Famer’s official—and this time permanent—retirement as a player. [You may recall he had walked away from the game following the 1994 season and did not play in 1995. Ryno returned to play in 1996 and 1997.] The Cubs produced a special commemorative program for the occasion that included “The Sandberg Collection” on the inside back cover—an eclectic mix of baseball cards representing each of the seasons he played in Chicago.

Sunday, September 21 was the Cubs’ final home game of the year and a merciful end to an abysmal season on Chicago’s north side. In the first inning, Sandberg put the Cubs up 1-0 with a ringing double off Phillies’ starter Curt Schilling. After he singled off Schilling in the fifth, Sandberg was lifted for a pinch runner. As he jogged off the playing surface at Wrigley Field for a final time, Ryno paused and tipped his helmet to the crowd. A raucous, goosebumps-inducing standing ovation followed. The Cubs went on to win the game 11-3.

A9AD02A6-ECC7-4969-993B-0993AC127E6B
Author’s photo

To mark the occasion of Ryne Sandberg’s final home game, the Cubs issued a single commemorative baseball card for the September 21 contest. Sponsored by LaSalle Bank, the card was produced in a standard 2½ x 3½ size, and included a list of career accomplishments on the back, along with Sandberg’s Major League and Cubs career statistics, up-to-date through September 14, 1997. (The slight discrepancies attributable to six plate appearances for the 1981 Phillies.)

Jim Thome (2007)

On September 16, 2007, White Sox DH Jim Thome appeared in his 2000th MLB game at U.S. Cellular Field. Thome broke a 7-7 tie in the bottom of the ninth inning by smacking his 500th career home run off of Angels twirler Dustin Moseley, becoming the 23rd member of the 500 home run club and the first ever to do so in walk-off fashion. The Sox won 9-7.

After Thome’s historic blast, ballpark ushers came down the aisles to hand out large (4 x 6) cards in celebration of accomplishment. I was not there for this game, but my neighbor was—and she knew I collected cards. She saved hers especially for me.

Fittingly, the man voted nicest player in baseball used the back of the card to thank the fans, endorsed with a large facsimile signature.

The White Sox later commemorated a pair of Thome blasts hit in 2008 with a bronze plaque—but not cards—highlighting the first two baseballs ever to reach the Fan Deck at the ballpark, hit on June 4 and September 30, the latter of which accounting for the only run scored in game 163 against the Twins, giving the White Sox the 2008 Central Division championship.

Thome plaque
Throughout the years, team-produced card sets were staple giveaway items. These Sandberg and Thome cards, however, were one-offs specially commissioned by the Cubs and White Sox to celebrate a retirement and momentous career milestone, respectively.

No reliable information regarding the quantity of each card produced has been found, and because the cards were simply handed to fans in an unprotected state, the number of cards that survived in top condition is presumably limited. Further, because these cards do not really have an official name, searching for them on eBay or otherwise proves problematic.

What Other Cards Are Out There?

Are you aware of any other occasions on which teams issued similar one-off baseball cards to celebrate a single player’s retirement, accomplishment, or otherwise?

At the very least, it appears the Philadelphia Athletics produced a picture card for Doc Powers Day in June 1910, in an effort to raise funds for his widow. Powers had died following an on-field injury suffered in 1909.

Sources:
Baseball-Reference.com
Retrosheet.org