Lifers

One of the things I enjoy most about collecting cards is putting together checklists of things that interest me. Sometimes these become projects like the action cards or photographer cards that I try and collect. Other times just the exercise of figuring out the checklist and thinking about the theme is enough.

One such checklist I’ve been working on is about baseball lifers and trying to find cards that reflect the longest periods of time in organized baseball. Many of the cards on this list are unobtainable for various reasons but it’s been a fun project to research. I’ve limited to 45 or more years in the game but moving to 40+ would only add a few more guys like Clay Bryant. Also, before anyone questions my math, I’m counting inclusively.

Jimmie Reese

69 years
1925 Zeenut–1993 Mother’s Cookies

It’s fitting that Jimmie Reese’s first and last cards are both regional issues from the West Coast. I remember fascinated by him as the ancient Angels coach in the late 1980s and he was one of the few (if not the only) coaches who occasionally showed up in regular sets as well (he has cards in both 1991 Leaf Studio and 1991 Bowman).

Casey Stengel

56 years
1910 Old Mill Cigarettes–1965 Topps

Stengel was the obvious standout in this department. He benefits from the sheer number of card releases in the pre-World War 1 era. When I was researching this checklist there were a decent number of guys who debuted in pro ball between the wars but who didn’t get cards until after World War 2.

As with Reese, I really enjoy the difference between his first card and his last card. All the pre-war cards just feel like they’re from a completely different world.

Frank Robinson

50 years
1957 Topps–2006 Topps

Compared to Reese and Stengel, Robinson’s cards are much more familiar feeling. If anything, his 1957 card feels much more comfortable to me than that awkward 2006 design.

Felipe Alou

48 years
1959 Topps–2006 Topps

The first pair on this checklist that I can conceivably acquire. While a Frank Robinson rookie is also something that I could get, it’ll always be out of my price range. But these two, as a Giants collector, are pretty much already on my wantlist as it is.

As with the Robinsons, these both feel familiar although I appreciate how both of them are so of their time while also sharing the common Topps DNA.

Del Baker

47 years
1914 B18 Blankets–1960 Topps

Baker is actually the inspiration for this post. I found a 1917 Zeenut card of him at my grandmother’s house and subsequently acquired his 1954 Topps card. When someone else posted about a different 1954 Topps coach card we started talking about baseball lifers, Casey Stengel’s name came up, and then I started thinking about who else should be on the list.

Dusty Baker

Baker1971Topps

46 years
1971 Topps–2016 Topps Allen & Ginter Skippers minis

Dusty was actually the first name I thought of when the topic of baseball lifers came up. Sadly Topps doesn’t make manager cards in Flagship anymore. Nor do they appear to be in Heritage either. So Dusty’s last card as a manager is part of an Allen & Ginter mini set which is either so rare or so boring that the only images I can find online are the Topps promotional ones.

I miss manager cards and wish Topps would bring them back. Dusty also hasn’t retired yet so there’s a possibility he could move up this list if he gets another gig and Topps produces manager cards again.

Lou Piniella

46 years
1964 Topps–2009 Topps

Because of Ball Four I always associate Piniella as being a rookie in 1969. But as has been pointed out before, he was one of those multi-year rookie stars and his first rookie card from 1964 gets him into this checklist.

Leo Durocher

 

45 years
1929 Exhibits Four-in-One–1973 Topps

I’m glad I found one lifer whose last card is in the 1970s. As I mentioned earlier, the hardest part here is finding rookie cards in the 1920s and 30s. Which is too bad since the way that Topps includes coaches in 1973 and 1974 means that there was a possibility for more lifers to have last cards.

Anyway I’m sure I’ve missed some guys. I don’t have anyone whose last card was in the 1980s. Nor do I have anyone whose career started in the 30s or 40s. So I look forward to being corrected in the comments here.

Ponder This

I want to remind everyone that this blog is part of SABR’s Baseball Cards Committee.  I urge any of you slackers to join SABR , an organization filled with lots of great groups like this one, people who love to talk about (obsess over) biographies, records, the Negro Leagues, the 19th Century, statistics, poetry, board games, and dozens more.  You are free to join any or all of these groups, and you are free to start your own.  This group started last fall because Chris Dial and I said, “Hey, I wonder if anyone would be interested in a Baseball Cards committee?” Yes, in turns out.

After less than four months of work, this is our 100th post — a pretty fine output for a bunch of part-timers. I want to stress that this blog does not take an editorial position on what people should collect, or how people should collect.  I have my likes and dislikes, and I am one of the more active posters, but the only thing keeping your favorite sets (or your favorite collecting habits) from getting their due is that you aren’t writing about it.

So step right up!

If you are a frequent blog reader, you might have noticed an annoying tendency to write disrespectfully about high-end collecting: extreme grade-sensitive cards, using grading services, and storing cards in lifeless albums and blocks of plastic.  Qui, moi?

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If I am guilty of anything, it is that I want to spread the message that high-end collecting is not the only game in town.  I would suggest that the rise of grading services and condition-sensitive collecting drove a lot of people, people that didn’t want to spend $125 for this Jim Davenport card, out of the hobby.  One of the reasons I was motivated to start this committee and blog was to show people that you don’t have to be rich to collect and enjoy your childhood hobby.  (I have heard from many of these people in the past few months.)

Put away the price guide for a second and find out what cards you actually like, and how you enjoy your cards.  That’s what we want to blog about.  (You can buy a perfectly excellent 1965 Davenport for $5, and for $10 you can get one that would require a magnifying glass to find its flaws.)  If you like collecting high-end graded cards, great, write a post about it and we’ll run it.

Thought of the day: “Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ would be such a cool painting, but two of the frame corners are chipped, so meh.”

So: if you want to want to build a set of 1961 Topps, all Near Mint, knock yourself out. If you don’t have 100 grand laying around, there is still a place for you in the hobby.

The card below would run you about $50 because (oh, the horror) it is only in “EX-MT” condition.  The Davenport above, I remind you, is $125.

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Ponder this question.  If you woke up tomorrow and every baseball card in the world was suddenly worth 10% of what it is worth today, would this make you happy?  Your collection just lost 90% of its value — that is horrible!

Despite a sizeable collection of vintage cards, I would be thrilled.  I like getting more and different cards, and in this alternative universe I would be able to afford a lot cards that I can’t afford now.  This would be wonderful.

I have read blog posts that “review” old card sets, and I am struck by how often I read: “A fine attractive set filled with stars, but the lack of a tough high number series drags the set down a bit for most collectors.”  In other words, the set is less popular because the cards aren’t expensive enough.  Pardon my French, but WTF?

My message is: if you like baseball cards, there is a place for you.  Collect the cards you like.  And for God’s sake, play with them.

 

 

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.

A Card Too Far

The vast majority of my collection consists of either (a) complete sets, or (b) sets I am working on. I completed 1968 through 1971 in the 1980s, and in the past 30 years I have managed to push it all the way back to … 1964.

I do not work on one set a time — I work (slowly and randomly) on a bunch of things, which gives me more flexibility when I see an affordable lot. I might go months without buying anything, and then see some 1954 Topps commons that look great. I have no timetable. I would be content not finishing another set. We shall see.

Here is where I stand at the moment on my 1952-63 Topps sets.

Year Total Have Need %
1952 407 33 374 8%
1953 274 42 232 15%
1954 250 56 194 22%
1955 206 46 160 22%
1956 340 207 133 61%
1957 407 243 164 60%
1958 495 300 195 61%
1959 572 360 212 63%
1960 572 348 224 61%
1961 587 472 115 80%
1962 598 508 90 85%
1963 576 543 33 94%

I have 23 1952 cards, and I have 543 1963 cards.

Logically, 1963 seems like the next set that I should finish — look how close I am! But it’s just not gonna happen.

One of the cards I need is #537.

169887

I have nothing against Pete Rose. Or, for that matter, Ken McMullen, Al Weis, and Pedro Gonzalez. Heck, I liked Pete Rose as a player, and I wish we had a player like him around today. He gambled a bit? Zzzzz.

But I consider this a rather ordinary card, perhaps even a bit ugly. I like the 1963 base design quite a bit, but I gotta be blunt here: the rookies and leaders subsets, both of which employ the “floating heads” technique, are pretty lame. (Do people disagree? Anyone?)

If I am patient enough, and compromise a bit on condition, I might be able to find this card for $500. We all have our budgets, but I just can’t see myself spending $500 for this. Its probably worth $5-10 to me as a card, and perhaps as much as $50 as a “I must complete this set!” card.

But if I have $500 laying around (spoiler: I really don’t), I could instead buy all of these 1955 cards (also “needed”) in the same condition.

Oh, and I’d have about $250 left over. Not really a difficult call for me.

I first heard of the concept of the “rookie card” almost 40 years ago, when a dealer explained to me why some of his cards seemed to be oddly priced. I thought, and still think, the whole thing is contrived. There was no increased demand for a Rose rookie card until dealers jacked the price up.

Dealers: “This card is scarce and desirable.”

Collectors: “OK, I must buy this card.”

Dealers: “Cool, its now actually a bit scarce.”

Its a not a card anyone would otherwise care about.

wpeE2

But even if there is additional demand for the first Pete Rose card, wouldn’t this be a better choice? For my money, this is actually Pete Rose’s first real card. Isn’t this, objectively, 10 times the card of the 1963 … thing? This is one heck of nice card, to be honest. And it is less than 20% of the price.

I like the multi-person rookie cards that came along later in the decade. They are a fun subset, like the World Series cards or the league leaders cards. But the “demand” for them is way overblown and makes set collecting unnecessarily expensive.

The Nolan Ryan rookie card is a cute little addition to the 1968 set. But the Bob Gibson (the best player in baseball at the time) is absolute magic.

 

 

 

It Falls Between the Lines

68 Lines Front68 Lines Back

All collectors have experienced the disappointment of opening a pack and finding mostly cards you already possess. The joyous anticipation of peeling open a wax pack or tearing the Mylar wrapper is quickly extinguished when only duplicates appear. Equally frustrating is getting numerous cards of the same player. Of course I only have anecdotal evidence, but occasionally it seems the random sorting process goes awry and the same player ends up in most of the packs.

70 Syd O'Brien

In 1970, I remember getting five Syd O’Brien cards out of six or seven packs I purchased. I can still see him with his arms spread in a mock infielders pose. But the multiple “Syds” pale in comparison to the deluge of Dick Lines cards I received in ’68.

1968 was my first year collecting which probably explains why I vividly remember opening pack after pack containing the Senators reliever. After acquiring a few more from my brother and friends, I ended up with 10. I must have derived some pleasure from hording the Washington southpaw. The card left such an impression on me that I still remember that the answer to the cartoon trivia question on the back is Darold Knowles. Dick’s pitching follow though pose at Yankee Stadium may be more familiar to me than memories of my wedding or birth of my son!

Ironically, Lines didn’t even pitch for the Senators in ’68 and never appeared in the majors again. He did have a great year in ’66, appearing in 53 games, winning five and losing two, with a 2.28 ERA and three saves. Dick’s two year major league totals include: seven wins, seven losses and a 2.83 ERA. He spent 11 seasons in the minors, retiring after the ’69 season. 1967 is the only other year a card was produced for Dick.

Lines 67

According to Baseball Reference, Dick was born in Montreal and is still living at the age of 78. Perhaps I should contact him and let him know what an outsized impact he’s had on me. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that Dick’s short, mediocre career may have contributed, psychologically, to my own general mediocrity. Perhaps at six years of age, Dick Lines’ career line on the card’s back convinced me of life’s limitations. If only Henry Aaron had been in all those packs, I might be rich and famous. Curse you, Dick Lines!

 

What’s in a base set?

All together, the first 66 Topps base sets (1951-2016) included 41,892 cards (not counting variations), of which 35,911 (86%) are base player cards, and 5981 I have categorized as “something else.”

Over the past year or so I have been working on a spreadsheet to help me categorize all of the Topps sets. When I wrote my recent post on Topps multiplayer cards, I was able to identify these cards pretty quickly. If I want to know what years Topps had Turn Back the Clock cards (1977, and 1986-90), or Boyhood photos (1972-73), I have that information. What year did Topps have the highest number of non-base cards? 1972, with 206 out of a 787 card set.

1972-Fregosi-BP-214x300

The next time I want to impress the woman sitting at the bar, I will tell her that Topps has had 417 cards focused on the post-season, starting with 1960. (Fortunately, I am happily married.)

My information is a bit weaker (meaning: there may be errors) in the past 20 years or so. I only have a handful of the sets, and Topps has gotten a trickier with their non-base cards. You might see Mike Trout on a checklist, when it is really the Angels team card or something. It occurred to me recently that I might try to find some help (a) categorizing the post-1994 Topps sets, and (b) expanding the study to cover other brands. It might be fun to see how many sets we could break down.

If people are interested I would post the spreadsheet on Google, and people could help me update it.

What year did Topps put out the most “base player cards” per team? 1959, with 29.8 (477 cards for 16 teams). What about the least (not counting pre-1956, when they did not have all the rights)? 1999, with 12.6. That’s quite a spread.

BASE CARD
NOT A BASE CARD

I should be clear on what base player cards are. These are cards that have the standard front and back for that year — one card per player. No managers, coaches, executives. No Jackie Robinson in 1997. If the card has a trophy on the front, or a star, or text that says “Rated Rookie” that’s still a base card. The Carew above is a base card.

If the card has a completely different design — like the 1985 Olympic cards, or all the 1990s Draft Picks, those are not base cards and are categorized separately. There are grey areas to this, and I suppose I could be talked out of some of it.

Anyhow, here is a graph.

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It is possible that a more discerning look at the recent sets will dig into those totals a bit, but things have gotten better since the dreary mid-late 1990s.

Note: I do not wish to imply that the base player cards are the only cards that matter. Absolutely not. Only that if you make a spreadsheet of the set, you can pull out the teams and the managers and the league leaders, and give them their own columns.  The player cards are what is left — the cards you sort by teams and make rosters out of.

If this is of interest, let me know what else we can do with it.

 

Is It the Cards, or Is It the Baseball?

“Beatle cards, Beatle cards!”

Beatles

I was a late talker, but somewhere between two- and three-years old, I got it. My Great Aunt used to tell me that I would howl about Beatles’ cards from my crib (Are two-year olds still in cribs?). The love of cards was strong with this one from early on.

Yes, this is a baseball card blog and, partially, this is a baseball card post, but it’s clear from what I gather of my own personal history that my love of cards began with Topps’ Fab Four, not ’64 baseball, cards.

Baseball cards are absolutely the vast majority of my cards. The sets are bigger, I’ve been buying them longer and continuously and, when I became the recipient of the card collections of friends, their shoeboxes were always dominated by baseball cards.

So what came first, the baseball or the card? That I’ve always bought lots of cards, of all sports and some non-sports, means that, for me, it’s always been the cards first, the baseball second.  Cards are talismans, direct memories of the past, but they can also be indirectly evocative. When Munsters’ cards came out in 1996 and 1998, I bought them. When Twilight Zone cards came out from 1999-2002, I bought those sets too. Same for the 2001 Planet of the Apes cards. Though not the original issues ( the 1964 Leaf Munsters and the 1967 Topps Planet of the Apes cards are a tad pricey), the recent sets were good fun, brought back great TV and movie memories, not so much from the time like a 1972 Gary Gentry would, but looking backward. They were definitely as much fun as those year’s baseball cards. The ’96 Grandpa Munster cards were as good, if not better, than the ’96 Derek Jeters.

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Is this off topic? Kinda, but I’d like to know what is at the core of the card collector. How many readers of this blog only collect baseball cards? How many collect other sports? How many collect non-sports? I want to know who’s harboring a secret Partridge Family set.

These days I am fully immersed in baseball cards, but that doesn’t mean I’m averse to picking up the occasional 1959 Fleer Three Stooges card, if the price is right.

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