Editor’s note: We welcome SABR’s newest member, Brian Kritz, to the Baseball Cards blog. Brian is a longtime Dodger fan and collector who was gracious enough to share this remembrance of Tommy Lasorda literally minutes after joining SABR.
Most baseball-loving kids who grew up in Southern California in the 1970s and 1980s likely have a similar story. The day they met the ultimate Dodgers legend, Tommy Lasorda. Yes, the Tommy Lasorda of the career 0-4 record and a 6.48 ERA (or for the younger stat heads, a -1.3 career WAR).
But to a couple of generations of Southern California kids, Tommy was the biggest and most important Dodger of them all. Bigger than Garvey, Lopes, Russell, or Cey. Bigger than Dusty Baker, Reggie Smith and even bigger than Orel Hershiser and Fernando Valenzuela. When Kirk Gibson hit his game winning home run in Game One of the 1988 World Series, to whom did NBC pan? It was Tommy, trotting in joy out of the Dodgers dugout.
When I was 11 years old, I visited the Dodgers clubhouse before a game against the Atlanta Braves. After meeting and getting autographs from Dodgers greats such as Jerry Reuss and Bob Welch as well as obscure former Dodgers such as Terry Whitfield and Jack Fimple, I was taken to meet Tommy in his office. He was sitting behind his desk, larger than life, with pictures of him with Frank Sinatra and Ronald Reagan in the background.
He rose from his desk and made me feel like the most important person in the world when he told me to sit in his chair. I was floating on air and asked him to sign my copy of his 1982 Donruss card. He did, and then pulled out a postcard of himself from his desk and signed it To Brian, a future Dodger, Tom Lasorda.
Being a very literal kid, I pretty much figured that Tommy had just signed me to a contract and that I would play for the Dodgers some day. Tommy would see to it personally. He was Tommy Lasorda, he could do anything. Having collected baseball cards for the last forty years, and having turned my baseball card hobby into a business since eBay came along, I have seen probably three hundred signed Tommy Lasorda items with that same tag line, To [Fill In Your Name], a future Dodger, Tom Lasorda.
That was Tommy. He made you feel special, he made you feel like you could be a Dodger one day, he made you Bleed Dodger Blue. Rest in Peace, Tommy. Thank you for making us all feel special.
Last couple weeks ago Mark Armour and I had a brief conversation about markings on cards. In short, we disagree. Not a bad thing—we all collect differently and have distinct standards about what kind of condition we like—rather, like most good conversations, our discussion caused me to think more clearly about what my standards are.
The discussion Mark and I had was specifically about marked checklists. He avoids them while they don’t bother me in the least. Do I seek them out? No. But I’m also not going to pay a premium for an unmarked one.
Checklists were intended for kids to be able to keep track of their collections. Seeing one that’s marked up tells me about a kid who was keeping track of his collection and I enjoy seeing how his set progress was going, what good cards he had, and who he was missing.
They also remind me of my first year in the hobby when I dutifully marked all my checklists. As I remember it, I enjoyed the activity as a way to both gauge my progress and to see what cards I still needed. I don’t remember studying the checklist as much as looking through them and feeling like I just missed certain cards if they were near a card I was checking off.
What I realized when talking about the checklists is that I really just like seeing cards that have been used. For example, 1964 Topps has these cool rub-to-reveal backs. Some of mine have been rubbed, others have not. I can’t bring myself to rub the ones I get (same goes with marking checklists now) but the fact that some kid followed the instructions over 50 years ago is very cool. Heck I know I certainly would’ve if I were a kid.
Technically I guess this kind of thing is back damage. Practically though I treat it the same as a marked checklist where the subsequent handling qualifies as usage.
There’s a whole bunch of other cards in this kind of category where the intended usage results in wear and tear to the card. Pop-ups, whether it’s a 1937 O-Pee-Chee Batter Up or a junk wax Donruss All Star, are probably one of the best examples here. That the card has been punched out and folded and perhaps has even lost some of the pieces is immaterial.
The same thing goes with stamps and stickers that have been pasted into albums. I understand the desire for something to be nice and minty but there’s also something sad about it sitting in protective storage and never being used for its intended purpose.
My interest in usage though extends beyond the uses intended by card companies. I very much love annotations that reflect how fans have used cards to enjoy and enhance their baseball fandom. Things like the do-it-yourself traded cards which I’ve written about before demonstrate how people watch baseball through their cards.
For many people cards weren’t just something that you acquired and stored, they were references for when you had to look things up. Updating them each season with new teams and positions kept those references current and, when taken to extreme, results in something that documents a career better than a non-modified can ever hope to.
I also consider autographs to count as usage. They document experiences with players whether in-person or through the mail. Many times the choice of card is intentional whether it’s a favorite photo or a memorable season. And in all times the autograph is intended to complement the card as a way of enjoying the sport.
I love all of these things which indicate how a card was used by a previous owner. They tand in stark opposition to cards that have been abused or damaged though non-baseball-related activities. From drawn-onfacial hair to flipping and bicycle spoke damage there’s a whole range of modifications that are deal breakers to me.
Yes I have some abused cards in my collection too but they’re the kind of cards I’ll always be wanting to upgrade. It’s the rare doodle that stands out as being clever to me, the rest I can’t help but see as mindless destruction.
When I look at a card that’s been damaged intentionally, the use or abuse question turns out to be the first thing I think of. I just hadn’t quite realized that that was actually the question I was asking.
Baseball is a game which traditionally (if not stereotypically) is passed down from fathers to sons. My story is a little different. While I certainly have baseball memories shared with my dad, it was primarily my mom who passed the game on to me.
When I was six or seven years old, it was Mom who often threw me ground balls and pop ups in the back yard, just far enough from me that I had to dive to catch them—just like I wanted!
It was also Mom who took me to games at Busch Stadium in our home town of St. Louis. She had grown up watching the great Cardinals teams of the 60s, and her favorite player was Lou Brock. Naturally, he quickly became mine as well, even though he was, at that time in the late 70s, in the twilight of his career.
When we went to a game, Mom would always pack us lunches, and we’d make sure to get to Busch hours before game time. Seating in the bleachers in those days was done on a first-come, first served basis, and we wanted to make sure we would get to sit in the front row in left field, as close to our idol as possible. No doubt, countless Cardinals fans had done the same over the years, because we all agreed: Lou was the greatest!
While playing at Southern University, he had been discovered by the legendary Buck O’Neil, and signed to a contract with the Chicago Cubs, joining their St. Cloud team in the Class C Northern League. After just one season in the minors, Brock was a September call-up in 1961.
That leads us to the summer of 1962, the summer, coincidentally, portrayed in the movie The Sandlot. I mention this because Lou (kind of) makes an appearance in the film. You see, the kids in the movie were apparently as prescient as they were precocious. When they covered the walls of their treehouse with their favorite baseball cards, they included the rookie card of a certain Cubs outfielder who had yet to accomplish much of anything in the big leagues.
Though the kids from The Sandlot apparently started collecting Lou’s cards right from the beginning of his career, I didn’t get started until much later. Granted, you can’t really blame me—I wouldn’t be born for almost a decade after that rookie card came out! Unfortunately, that meant I couldn’t collect Lou until the end of his Hall of Fame career.
In the years that followed though, I picked up a Brock card here and a Brock card there, either buying them at a card show or during trips to my local baseball card store. I didn’t have a big budget for my collection (still true today!), but I was able to acquire most of Lou’s cards, especially if I wasn’t too picky about them being in perfect condition. Of course, I always wanted to get that Lou Brock rookie card from 1962, and eventually I found one that was in mediocre enough condition that I could actually afford it.
After collecting throughout my childhood, I stayed involved in the hobby for a few years after college, actually thinking at one point that I might pursue a career in the industry. Things went other directions—both in terms of career and collecting—and my cards largely sat boxed in the basement for a couple decades. A few years ago though, I decided to get back into the hobby.
One of the first things I did was bust out my Lou Brock cards, and though I thought I’d already acquired all of Lou’s Topps cards from his playing days, in looking through them, I came to the realization that I was missing two: 1963 & 1967.
I scanned eBay to see if there were any good deals on these cards, and stumbled upon an auction for 1963 cards of a pair of all-time greats who both wore the number 20. I was thrilled to win the auction, and add not only one of the two Brocks that I needed, but also a vintage Frank Robinson!
Perhaps even more typical of Lou than having a bat in his hands though, is him having a smile on his face. Lou ALWAYS seemed to be smiling, even over the last decade of his life as he faced numerous health issues. His warmth and his likeability as a person marked his life just as much as his great ability on the diamond. Sportswriter Tim Kurkijan put it well this past week, writing, “I will remember Lou Brock as one of the kindest, sweetest, gentlest men I have ever met.”
In the wake of his death, the outpouring of tributes on Twitter from players, media and fans alike have echoed Kurkijan’s sentiments:
Lou Brock was one of the finest men I have ever known. Coming into this league as a 21-year-old kid, Lou Brock was one of the first Hall-of-Fame players I had the privilege to meet. He told me I belonged here in the big-leagues. He was always willing to help and to share his unlimited knowledge of hitting and the game of baseball with me as a young player. Most importantly, he showed us all how to live our lives on and off the field with character and integrity. 1975 winner of the Roberto Clemente Award, Lou always understood his role in giving back to his community. He was a Godly man who lead his family with Christian principals and love. He was a dear friend to me. I loved him very much.
Lou Brock was the first person from the @Cardinals organization that I met. I walked into the spring training clubhouse put my stuff down, turn around, and here comes Lou… walking right towards me. He hands me a ball and says, “Will you sign this for me?” I say, “Hi Mr Brock…I think you have that backwards.” He responds, “No I don’t. You’re going to be special and I want your autograph.” Lou always amazed me with how cool and calm and professional he was at all times. He was one of the best encouragers I’ve ever met. He was one of the main ones setting the example for all the Cardinals who came after him in how to play and how to live. I will forever be grateful for the times I got to listen to Mr Lou tell stories in that smooth voice he had. RIP Mr Lou…we love you and will miss you.
Mr. Brock had amazing baseball talent, but he was a truly great man. Lou was Humble, gracious, gentle & God fearing. He always made time for others. He cared about people. I am blessed to have known him. He will be missed. What a legacy. Prayers for Jackie & family. #RIPLouBrock
Deeply saddened by the passing of Lou Brock, one of the greatest people I’ve ever known. Toughest Cardinal ever. And the most gentle human being you’d ever meet. Lou loved people, loved the fans. He is everything you’d want an all-time player to be. I love you, Lou.
—KMOX Radio’s Tom Ackerman
There was a light inside of Lou Brock that brightened every place and space he entered. A light that warmed every person he encountered. Grace. Dignity. Class. Joy. His generosity of spirit touched so many. I’ve never known a finer man. #RIPLou … Long may you run.
—St. Louis sportswriter Bernie Miklasz
Lou Brock was my first favorite ballplayer as a kid. I had several chances to meet him and talk to him in life, and he could not have been more gracious, humble, and kind. A true gentleman and a great Cardinal. This one hits hard.
—Cardinals fan John Rabe
RIP to one of the best Cardinals ever. A true gentleman and a revolutionary player. The game of baseball is better because of guys like Lou. Met him several times as a kid and I remember he was always smiling. Always. Rest easy to one of my heroes #20
—Cardinals fan RMcardsfan
Given the way that he is remembered by those who knew him well or had even met him, it’s only appropriate that throughout the heart of Lou’s career, he so commonly was pictured smiling.
As I mentioned before, almost Lou’s entire career took place before I started collecting. The first year I actually collected cards was 1978. I was six years old, and I can still remember when my grandfather bought me that first pack. It only makes sense that the ’78 card was the first Lou in my collection.
In 1980, with Brock having retired, Topps didn’t include a base card for him. But card #1 of that year’s set was a “1979 Highlights” card that spotlighted the fact that Lou Brock and Carl Yastrzemski (star left fielders for their respective teams and the two leading hitters from the 1967 World Series) had become the 14th and 15th players to enter the 3,000-Hit Club.
I was actually present at Busch Stadium the day BEFORE Brock would get his milestone hit of Cubs hurler Dennis Lamp. Twenty years later, I would pull off the same accomplishment with Tony Gwynn, missing his 3000th hit by a day as well!
Since Lou’s retirement, card companies have continued to produce Brock cards to the point that the majority of Lou Brock cards produced were probably made AFTER his career. I’ve been working my way through acquiring many of those cards, a few dollars at a time throughout this past year or so.
One of these cards stands out as deserving special notice. Graig Kreindler has for some time been my favorite artist. His portraits of old baseball players do an amazing job of bringing players to life who have long been dead. Recognizing his unique talents, Topps commissioned him to produce 20 portraits for their 150 Years of Baseball series.
Topps released these limited edition cards online one at a time, and I would invariably wait in anxious anticipation every few weeks until the next card was revealed. Imagine my joyful surprise when the 20th and final card ended up being Lou!
There’s one last story I’d like to share that isn’t really card-related. A couple decades ago when I was working for Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Lou rented a van from us. I knew he was going to be coming in, so I when I came to work that morning, I brought a red Sharpie and the newspaper I had kept from when he stole his record setting 893rd base. When I asked him to add his autograph to it, his eyes lit up, that familiar smile spread across his face, and he acted as if I was doing him a favor by having him sign it. He genuinely got a kick out of the fact that I had held onto the paper all those years. I ended up meeting with him a couple other times as well, and each time he was nicer than the last.
I’ve heard it said that as an adult, you should never meet your childhood ideals because they’ll only disappoint you. Whoever it was that said that obviously didn’t have the same childhood idol I did. Rest in peace, Base Burglar.
Cards from 2000 are old enough to legally drive and vote, and almost old enough to legally drink. I want that to sink in – they are 20 years old. I think that qualifies them as vintage according to some definitions of the word. To a 10-year-old collector starting today, they are as old as 1966 Topps cards were to me when I “seriously” began collecting in 1986 (meaning I had a binder and some 9-pocket pages). Yes, production and collecting has changed over time, but I didn’t have a lot of cards from 1966 as a 10-year-old.
Pack inserted autographs have been available since 1990, when Upper Deck inserted Reggie Jackson autographs into its product. Perhaps the “signature” product is 1996 Leaf Signature, with its one autograph per pack insertion rate. There are great topical subsets, like the 1997 and 1998 Donruss Significant Signatures, which are essentially all HOFers … and Don Mattingly. And of course, there are “vintage” autograph sets, like the Topps Stars run of rookie reprint autographs in the late 1990s. There have been a few posts on autographs on the blog but I think only Jeff has a similar type of post on pack inserted autographs with the Sports Illustrated Covers Autographs.
I want to focus specifically on the 2000 Skybox Autographics set. In an earlier post on master set building I mentioned that 2000 Skybox Dominion was one of the first master sets I attempted to put together. Some of these cards were part of that master set building process. However, the Autographics set was a multi-product set, with only a subset of players available in Skybox Dominion. Others were available in E-X, Impact, Metal, and Skybox. Some players were available in multiple products. Eventually the master set building of Skybox Dominion morphed into trying to build the complete Autographics set (Jeter and Pedro being the pricey remaining autographs to that quest).
First, let’s clear up some confusion. Here are fronts and backs from three different years (1999, 2000, and 2001) of autographics cards:
The 2000 set is the one in the middle. The 1999 copyright date on the back is the source of confusion, as is the 2000 copyright date on the back of the 2001 card. That was the time period when companies would sometimes release next year’s products this year (a 2000 product would be released in 1999), sometimes last year’s product this year (a 2000 product would be released in 2001), and sometimes, if a product had multiple series, one series would be released in one year and the other in the next year.
To me, the 2000 set is the best looking. The big block “Skybox” running diagonally across the 1999 cards detracts from the photo, and the smaller photo on the 2001 cards, likely to leave more space to focus on the autograph, minimizes the focus on the player. Also, I’m a bigger fan of vertical cards than horizontal cards. The 2000 set is borderless, with bright color backgrounds which generally match a primary color of the player’s team (orange for Orioles, blue for Dodgers, etc. – I have no idea if inspiration for these colorful backgrounds came from T206s). There are a variety of shots: some action, some posed, and some in-game shots that I wouldn’t really call “action” shots. The shadows also add a nice effect. There’s some white space for the on-card autograph, which tends to be preferred to sticker autographs. There’s also an embossed Skybox logo that stays fairly well hidden on most of the cards. Granted, the backs of the 2000 and 2001 cards are weaker than that of the 1999 cards, but I’ll trade off a weaker card back to remove that big block diagonal logo from the front.
The set is 132 cards with players ranging from Hall of Famers to prospects who never made the majors. The checklist is reasonably deep, particularly when one considers everyone was either active or potentially active that year.
Hall of Famers (or likely HOFers): Beltre, Boggs, Vladimir Guerrero, Gwynn, Hoffman, Jeter, Randy Johnson, Maddux, Edgar Martinez, Pedro Martinez, Mussina, Ripken, Thomas
Guys with HOF numbers: Bonds, Palmeiro, A-Rod, Beltran (I would have had him as a likely HOFer but who knows how the Astros sign stealing scandal will affect his candidacy – does anyone remember the sign stealing scandal with everything else that has happened in the past few months?)
Stars/Semistars/Minor Stars: Abreu, Alou, Berkman, Mike Cameron, Carpenter, Eric Chavez, Will Clark, Damon, Carlos Delgado, J.D. Drew, Jason Giambi (and Jeremy too), Helton, Tim Hudson, Andruw Jones, Kendall, Konerko, Lankford, Magglio Ordonez, Rolen, Rollins, Salmon, Soriano, Tejada, Billy Wagner, and probably a few others I’m missing.
Of course, there’s also Glen Barker (197 plate appearances), Orber Moreno (50.2 IP), and Angel Pena (206 plate appearances), who wound up with limited MLB action. And Norm Hutchins, Cesar King, and Aaron McNeal, who wound up with no MLB action. And Matt Riley – if you don’t remember him, look up his minor league numbers early in his career. But that’s what makes this set interesting – an autograph set of all HOFers (or almost HOFers) like 1997 Donruss Significant Signatures is great, but the variety of players in this set is more representative of the game.
The semistars also add to the appeal of the set. Ray Lankford was a really good baseball player, yet he only has 10 different autograph cards from manufacturers (that is counting the three versions of his 1997 Donruss Signature autograph as three distinct cards and his two versions of the 2000 Skybox Autographics as two distinct cards – more on that in the next paragraph). Tim Salmon has 110 different autograph cards, and many of those have small print runs (under 100). Lest you think that is a lot, Wade Boggs has at least 1,400 different autographed cards; Cal Ripken has at least 3,700 (these numbers are probably outdated at the time of the post – they are taken from Beckett’s online guide). Lankford has fewer cards than Boggs has autographed cards; Salmon has fewer cards than Ripken has autographed cards.
In addition to the regular version of the card, there is also a purple foil version numbered to 50. The words Skybox Autographics running along the side of the card are the text that is in purple foil. I have seen Purple Foil cards without the numbering, which I believe were back-ups to be used as replacement cards. My understanding is that those cards made their way into the hobby through some liquidation sale, but I’m not sure how credible that story is. I have seen other cards (2002 Fleer Triple Crown parallels) without some of the numbering that are claimed to have entered the hobby the same way. I have also seen some numbered versions without the purple foil. I am more skeptical of those – I think they are just the regular cards that someone numbered after the fact. The numbers on the purple foil versions are hand-numbered, which allows that to happen. As always, education is the key.
Overall, the set appeals to me from both its look as well as its player selection. The design was also used in basketball and football sets around the same time and has been used in “retro” sets in 2012 for those sports.
I don’t chase shortprints but I enjoy looking through them every new release. Very often the photographs there are more interesting and remind me of the variety that we saw in the 1990s. Plus the old players are always an interesting reflection of the kinds of players who still resonate today.
When Series 2 dropped, I did my usual look through. The Andrew McCutchen is awesome but what stopped me was the Al Kaline. I’m looking for good/interesting photos in the short prints. I’m not expecting to see a photo showing the wrong player.
Yup. That’s not Kaline in the photo. How do I know? Because I made this exact mistake with this exact photo only nine months earlier.
I enjoy writing Through the Mail autograph requests but I also refuse to send things through the mail which I don’t want to risk losing—say, for example, a vintage card of Al Kaline. Even though he was such a great signer (typically turning things around under 20 days and often closer to 10) I just refuse to tempt fate with the USPS like that. Instead I created a custom card by searching around around the web for photos I liked and dropping them into a template I had created.
Last November I sent a couple custom cards off to Al with a note asking him to keep the extras and hoping he enjoyed them. A week and a half later they came back to me. I was not expecting the result.
At first I was mortified. This is the most embarrassing kind of mistake to make when autograph hunting. Then I double-checked Getty* and confirmed that I’d done my homework. Did I make a mistake. Yes. But it wasn’t through either lack of caring or lack of effort on my part. I hadn’t just grabbed a photo, I’d made sure that multiple places including a somewhat authoritative source had identified the player.
*Note: As of July 17, 2020 Getty has corrected its database to reflect that the photo is actually of Don Demeter.
Many people—including many Tigers fans—confirmed that they’d always thought this was Kaline as well. Only after realizing that it wasn’t him did the hive mind quickly nominate Don Demeter. Similar build and swing. Same time period. He certainly seemed like the most-likely suspect.
Thankfully, Demeter is great responding to autograph requests as well. I acquired a card of him, wrote a letter explaining the screw up, included one of the customs, and asked him if he could confirm that the photo was indeed him.
While getting the card signed was fun, this was one of the rare autograph returns where the autograph request was always going to be less important than the response to my question. Much to my pleasure and satisfaction, Demeter answered my question and confirmed that it was him.
His response was actually this sketch. It’s pretty conclusive to me and makes a fantastic companion piece to the Kaline and Demeter cards in my autograph binder. I just wish there were a way to submit this to Getty so they can update their database.
As a custom card maker, it’s always somewhat flattering to see Topps select a photo that I’ve already used on a custom. In this case though, as soon as I saw the Kaline short print I started laughing. I recognized the photo instantly and knew exactly what had happened. While I’ve already made peace with my mistake, seeing someone else fall for the same thing just makes me feel even better about it.
While I’m sad that this is sort of a RIP Kaline card for Topps, I’m glad that he didn’t have to deal with being asked to sign it. I would however be thrilled to see someone ask Don Demeter to sign it. That would be awesome.
When I first started collecting autographs back in the 1960’s I had ballplayers sign pictures or pieces of paper. In those days it was quite common for ballplayers to add “Best Wishes” to their autograph without any prompting.
More recently I have had ballplayers add a number of interesting things along-side of their signatures, again with no prompting.
Dock Ellis added the date of his LSD no-hitter on the sweet spot of a baseball under his signature.
Steve Lyons added his nickname “Psycho” under his signature on a bat with autographs of other members of the 1986 Red Sox team. I do have to admit that I was going to ask him to add his nickname, but I thought he would be offended.
Several ballplayers have added a Bible reference alongside their signatures on baseball cards. Not being a Bible scholar, these always cause me to look up the reference.
Tim Foli card with Bible reference.
But the biggest surprise was when I got my first Manny Sanguillen autograph and he added “God Bless”.
Manny’s career overlapped with Johnny Bench, so he did not get the recognition that he deserves. Manny compiled a .296 lifetime batting average over 13 seasons in the majors. He has two World Series rings and played in three All Star games. He was also involved in one of the most interesting baseball trades of the 1970’s when the Pirates traded Manny in 1977 to the Oakland Athletics for then A’s manager Chuck Tanner. After one year in Oakland Manny was reacquired by the Bucs.
Even now, 40 years after his last at bat in the majors Manny is a fan favorite. He is a goodwill ambassador for the Pittsburgh Pirates appearing at Fantasy Camps, PirateFest, and team signing events. And if you are lucky you can also find him at some ball games holding court at Manny’s BBQ at PNC Park.
Over the last 15 years I have collected six signatures of Manny on baseball cards. He added “God Bless” to 4 of them.
I would be interested in hearing about unprompted additions to autographs on baseball cards from others. If you have an interesting addition, please share it by way of a comment.
Just a few days before the opening of “Home Base,” my exhibition about the history of baseball in New York City, I received an email from a woman who had been steered my way by the esteemed official historian of Major League Baseball, John Thorn. The content of the email was, mostly, something I have seen before. A family had inherited a baseball card collection. They believed it had some value but were looking for assistance as to which way to best navigate a sale.
In the few years I have been assisting people in selling their collections, I am, at best, usually approached with cards from the 1970s. Often, it’s even more recent and pretty worthless. I’ve disappointed many a soul when I told them that the five Wade Boggs rookie cards they hoarded as a kid weren’t going to make them a millionaire. I’ve reached a point where I understand that such collections aren’t worth the many hours that go into what it takes to inventory, organize and sell a collection, and I pass on the opportunity.
But, this email had two distinctive features. The first was the recommendation from John, who has the wisdom to know if something is the real deal. The second was that this family had already done a considerable amount of inventorying and research in the eight months since their uncle died. They sent me a series of handwritten lists they had created, which told me which sets they had and which cards were missing from each. It was intriguing enough that last week I decided to meet with them to see it in person.
I met the three sisters, Karen, Lynn, and Mary, and their mother, Gertrude. They made me a splendid breakfast and regaled me with stories of their uncle, Johnny Gould. Johnny (the handsome fellow whose picture is at the top of this blog) was born in 1940, was single for most of his life, and was living in the home that belonged to his parents when he died. He was remembered by his family as one who was both “salty and sweet,” a kind soul who was a bit of a reclusive loner. He was also a sports fanatic. All sports. He was a Redskins fan who was the quarterback in many a neighborhood pickup game. He liked basketball and was an avid watcher of golf. But, the true passion of his life was baseball.
As a youth, he pursued a professional career. Among the things he left behind in his collection were an interest letter from the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the business cards of John Whalen and Walter Youse, scouts for the Indians and Orioles, respectively. He signed with the Indians, as a pitcher, and was in their minor league system when an arm injury derailed his fledgling career. After his dreams of major league glory were dashed, he continued to channel his love of the game into collecting. It was an intense romance that resulted in a collection that has brought me to pen this little missive.
I am in the middle of inventorying the first five fifty-gallon storage tubs, and those represent just a portion of the collection. The cataloging process will likely take me several more weeks and as a result, I can’t accurately represent the sheer enormity of it, not just yet. However, I have seen enough that a story is starting to emerge.
Johnny began collecting baseball cards in 1950, when he was a ten-year-old boy. His timing was synchronous with the explosion of the hobby, which had been mostly dormant during World War II. Johnny began with Bowman, the only real game in town at that point. That 1950 offering included what we now think of as key cards for Jackie Robinson, Ted Williams, and Yogi Berra. The nickels that Johnny paid for a pack of five cards (or one-card packs for a penny), resulted in him having multiple copies of those legendary players, and more, in this relatively affordable vintage set.
After he experienced the photo-based, lushly painted wonder of the 1950 Bowmans, he clearly became hooked. For the next 13 years he purchased every set that Bowman and Topps produced, with the seeming exception of 1960. The quantities he bought would vary, year to year. He was missing fewer than 50 cards that were produced by Bowman from 1950-1955. From Topps, he had a complete set of 1957, was missing only one (ironically inexpensive) card from the 1956 set, and was only a couple dozen cards shy of completing the sets from 1952-55.
Among the many, many cards that Johnny collected in his teens are some of the most iconic ones in the hobby. He not only owned the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle, perhaps second only to the famed T-206 Wagner in terms of desirability by collectors, but he had two 1951 Mantle Bowmans. There are multiple rookie cards for all of the biggest names of baseball’s golden age: Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Willie Mays, Eddie Mathews, Al Kaline, and Sandy Koufax are all represented, just to name a few. Johnny also, at one point in his life, started collecting pre-war cards, too. There are 1934-36 Batter Ups and Diamond Stars, 1935 Goudey 4-in-1s, 1933 Eclipse Imports and a fair sprinkling of 1939 Play Balls, including both the Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio rookie cards.
The conditions of the cards vary. At some point he trimmed the ’52 Mantle so he could fit it into his wallet, according to the sisters. Most of the wear is more traditional. It’s clear from the ones dating back to the early years that Johnny loved his cards with a little boy’s enthusiasm. But, as he matured, he started to take better care of his collection. The borders of the 1962 Topps, with their dark faux woodgrain, are remarkably sharp and unchipped.
One habit superseded any desire he may have had to keep his cards pristine. Johnny went through a phase in the mid-’50s where he wanted to learn how to sign an autograph, just like his idols. What better arena in which to learn than on the cards themselves, where manufacturers frequently provided a facsimile signature? Johnny had nine copies of Hank Aaron’s 1956 Topps. Five of them feature what I believe are the sixteen-year-old’s florid attempts at replicating the tight signature of Hammerin’ Hank.
His habit of copying signatures almost made me miss a group of 1953 Bowmans that contain, what I now believe to be, legitimate autographs. At first I was working under the premise that they were also fakes, largely because the Mantle autograph looked so different from his more familiar style, with the half-moon M at the front of both parts of his alliterative moniker. Then, I took a second look. On the cards that were obvious forgeries, Johnny’s youthful attempts at copying the signatures weren’t very good. Not only did they look nothing like the real thing, but they were all obviously written in the same hand. The ’53 Bowmans not only seemed to be by different hands, but the cards themselves do not contain a facsimile to inspire his practice. That realization then triggered the memory that Mantle’s signature, like so many others, evolved over the years. With the help of sportscollectorsdigest.com I found a version of Mantle’s autograph from a similar era. I leave the comparison to you.
Gertrude confirmed that Johnny started taking the bus to Griffith Stadium when he was thirteen. All of the signatures on the ’53 Bowmans, seven in total, were guys who played on American League teams, four of them Yankees. As such, there would have been an opportunity for Johnny to connect with each of them. I’m firmly convinced these signatures are real and will be keeping an eye open for even more examples as I inventory the rest of the collection.
Autographs became very important to Johnny, ultimately overcoming his collection of baseball cards. While he appears to have mostly stopped buying cards around 1962, that year also marks the beginning of when he started a new hobby. Included in the collection are three boxes of envelopes, with approximately 150 envelopes per box. The dates on the postmarks span the years 1962-’97, and come from around the United States. It seems that Johnny wrote the ballclubs (and later in life, professional golfers), and sent them a SASE filled with blank index cards. The teams returned them, signed, with mixed results in terms of player participation. Often, only one player responded, signing multiple cards. Anyone in need of 12 copies of Charlie Spikes’s autograph?
Some of the envelopes, however, have taken my breath away. One postmarked from San Francisco in 1965 contained the autographs of six Hall of Famers, including Orlando Cepeda, Juan Marichal, Willie McCovey, Gaylord Perry, Warren Spahn and Willie Mays. Another contained almost the entire starting squad of the 1969 Mets, including Tom Seaver. A third featured many of the 1969 Pirates, including one signed by Roberto Clemente. I had never touched anything that was also once held by Clemente, a personal idol, and the experience left me shaken.
The contents of the card collection itself are a rare experience for many hobbyists. A chance to dive into so many of these legendary pieces of cardboard is a precious opportunity indeed, and I expected to be moved by my discoveries along the way. But, I’m normally not an autograph guy. Even as a child, I found something awkward in asking a player to sign something for me. It felt like an invasion of their space, like I was a thief trying to steal their names. So, it is with no small amount of irony that I find myself most captivated by this collection of envelopes. The sisters did not have time to inventory their contents, so each is a surprise to me, and some of the names I am stumbling across are humbling.
The envelopes have also given me a chance to better understand Johnny Gould, the man. It is one thing for a ten (or twenty) year-old boy to spend a few dimes on packs of baseball cards. But to practice a habit for thirty-five years, carrying it through until well past middle-age, speaks to a particular mind. Lynn pointed out that while many of the cards were stored in literal shoeboxes, the envelopes lived in the top drawer of his dresser, always close at hand. Each one of those envelopes, all of them containing the same D.C. return address written in the same, neat, steady hand, is a testament to a passion I readily recognize. For Johnny, those index cards were transformed from simple squares of paper to direct links to the game that he gave his life to, in his most singular way. I, and likely most of you reading this post on this particular blog, can certainly relate.
I am excited for what the next few weeks hold. There are still plenty of treasures to discover as I prepare to help the family sell their uncle’s legacy. There’s more I’ve already uncovered that I didn’t even mention this time around. Maybe I’ll have to write more about it as I journey down the path. In the meantime, if any of you might be interested in purchasing items from the Gould Collection, feel free to drop me a line at email@example.com. I’ll be over here, touching history.
For my birthday last October my son gave me a wood number supposedly from the old Forbes Field scoreboard. My son obtained it from a business colleague who said that his grandfather got it directly from the Pittsburgh Pirates sometime in the 1970s. There was no documentation with the number. Being a huge Pirates fan and having gone to a number of games at Forbes Field I was thrilled with the gift.
A few hours after my birthday party ended, I started a journey to authenticate the number. I scoured the internet for images of the Forbes Field scoreboard. What I found was encouraging. Although there were no close-up shots of individual numbers, the images of the scoreboard with a 2 did seem to match the sharp angles of the 2 that was gifted to me. I also searched on eBay to see if there were any Forbes Field scoreboard numbers for sale, but I came up empty.
My journey then took me to Hunts Auctions in Exton, PA. They are very knowledgeable when it comes to Pirates memorabilia and even have a stand at PNC Park. I emailed them some photos of the number from different angles. One of their experts got back to me with some disappointing news. The scoreboard numbers that he has come across “have been made of thin (but heavy) sheet metal.” He did state to “not give up hope, since there are always anomalies, and this could be number a number used a different part of the stadium.”
Soon afterwards I reached out to the Pirates directly. They put me in touch with their unofficial Forbes Field historian. He actually had a metal Forbes Field scoreboard number which he emailed me pictures of. He was not aware of any wooden scoreboard numbers but did post the pictures of my number to the Forbes Field Facebook page. No one in the group posted any comments about encountering any wooden numbers. However, this exchange did result in a positive outcome. The dimensions of my wooden number were almost identical to the dimensions of the metal number. The unofficial historian also thought that the colors on my number looked correct.
In the article Jeff states that – “They hung from the scoreboard with one hand while flinging the wooden numerals through the air like Frisbees.”
Things were now looking up and it was time to kick it up a notch.
I attended the SABR 2018 Annual Convention in Pittsburgh and remembered that Frank Thomas “The Original One” was a panel member for the “Branch Rickey: The Pittsburgh Pirates Years” session. Frank was a last-minute substitute for Dick Groat who was sick that day. Frank had some stories about dealing with Branch Rickey at contract time that were brutally honest and very entertaining. I also remember him talking about some charities that he was involved with.
Frank came up with the Pirates in 1951 and for the next 4 years played exclusively in the outfield. After being traded by the Pirates 1959 he continued to play for National League teams before retiring in 1966. Frank was definitely someone who was familiar with the Forbes Field scoreboard.
On December 19th I wrote a letter to Frank Thomas that walked him through my authentication journey and asked him if was aware of the scoreboard numbers ever being wood or some wood numbers being used in other areas of Forbes Field. I enclosed a donation for his charities and a self-addressed stamped envelope. I was hoping to get back a short reply. Just a yes or no answer.
The day after Christmas I received a large envelope from Frank. Inside the envelope was a two-page hand-written letter from Frank, along with an autographed picture of when he was with the Milwaukee Braves. Also included was a custom Christmas card with a picture of Frank as a Pittsburgh Pirate with Forbes Field in the background.
In the letter Frank thanked me for the donation and provided me information on his charities. He also gave me a run-down of the historic game on June 8, 1961, when four home runs were hit in succession in the same inning by four different players (first and only time in major league history). The four players were Eddie Matthews, Hank Aaron, Joe Adcock, and Frank. All four are in the autographed picture.
As far as my scoreboard number goes, he did say – “To your question – I have no idea. All I know that when playing left field all the numbers I have ever seen, even when I would go into the scoreboard, have always been metal. If SABR can’t help you I have no idea who might be able to help you. I’m sorry.”
This past Christmas season there were definitely some positive Frank Thomas vibes out there. On December 26th Sports Collectors Daily published an article about Frank and the work that he does to help kids with cancer. If you are interested in writing to Frank the article contains his address. There was also an article on Frank’s chartable work that appeared in the Crux on December 25th.
In early January I sent Frank a Thank You note for taking the time to write back to me and sending me the photo and Christmas card. I enclosed another small donation.
Much to my surprise I received another large envelope from Frank. Included in the envelope was a short note thanking me for the donation and an autographed photo of all Frank’s baseball cards. Also included was an autographed 2001 Topps Archives card.
For the moment I have hit the pause button on my authentication journey. If anyone has any suggestions for my next destination point please provide directions by way of a comment.
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.
In case you missed it because of the holidays, the Hall of Fame announced last month that Ken “The Hawk” Harrelson, the former major league ballplayer and professional golfer, was selected as the recipient of the 2020 Ford C. Frick Award. The Award is given out annually for excellence in broadcasting.
The flamboyant Harrleson started his broadcasting career with the Boston Red Sox back in 1975. He left the Boston booth after six years and joined the Chicago White Sox broadcasting team in 1981. He was a fixture in the White Sox booth for 33 years. However, those years were not continuous as he did a couple of short stints as the White Sox general manager (end of 1985 to 1986) and then a broadcaster for the Evil Empire (1987). He retired at the end of the 2018 season.
The announcement on December 11th brought back memories of my brief encounter with “The Hawk” back in the summer of 1968.
In August of 1967 a bidding war for the Hawk ensued after he was placed on irrevocable waivers by Charlie “Cheapskate” Finley for calling the impulsive A’s owner “a disgrace to baseball” after Charlie O fired Alvin Dark, the A’s manager. The boneheaded move by Finley turned Hawk into a free agent. After mulling over multiple offers, he agreed to join the Red Sox for $150,000 (he was making $12,000 at the time).
Harrelson, the first major leaguer to don a batting glove (it was actually a golf glove), officially joined the Red Sox “Impossible Dream” team on August 28, 1967. The Sox were in a very tight pennant race and needed a big bat and outfield help after the beloved Tony Conigliaro was almost killed by an errant Jack Hamilton fastball on August 18th.
Hawk Harrelson soared in Boston, and with the fans and media behind him, helped the 1967 team capture the AL flag in what has been called the greatest pennant race in the history of baseball.
In the summer of 1968, the Hawk was in full flight mode and having a spectacular year. One in which he socked a carrier high 35 home runs and led the league in RBIs with 109. The Fenway faithful cheered him on the field, and we dug his Nehru jackets and dune buggy.
The Card and the Story
I briefly met “The Hawk” after a game in the summer of 1968. I was a chartered member of the Hawk fan club and desperately wanted his autograph.
The best place to get autographs after a home game was on the Van Ness Street side of Fenway Park along the chain link fence that outlined the area where the players parked their cars. That summer day the area was jam packed with kids trying to get autographs.
Hawk came out, signed some autographs, got into his car, and left. Determined to come away with his autograph I decided to run after his car and hope that he would have to stop at an intersection. Luckily, he took a right on Jersey Street which meant he would have to stop when he came to Brookline Avenue. I was a pretty fast runner back in ’68 and caught up to the car at the intersection. I tapped on the passenger window which startled the Hawk. He smiled, leaned over and rolled down the window. I asked him to please sign my baseball card. I handed him my 1966 Topps card which featured him as player on the Kansas City A’s and a ballpoint pen. I was embarrassed that I did not have current Red Sox card of him and said – “I am sorry about the card, but it is the only one I have.” He said that was OK and signed my card. I thanked him and he drove off.
In this excellent post back in 2017, Tim runs down all of the Hawk’s cards and points out that that Topps NEVER issued a card of the “The Hawk” in a Red Sox uniform!
Two weeks into the 1969 season the Red Sox broke my heart and traded the Hawk to the Cleveland Indians. I am still not over it.
Something else you may have missed since it did not get the promotion it deserved is Ken’s very informative and entertaining autobiography titled –Hawk I Did It My Way that was published in 2018. I highly recommend it.