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.
My vote for the best baseball cards that came with a food product are the Stouffer’s cards from the overlooked Legends of Baseball set from 1995.
When my kids were in grade school in the 1990’s we tried every frozen pizza product available before settling on the Stouffer’s offering as the best of the bunch.
In 1995 we increased our consumption Stouffer’s pizza due to the inclusion of one of 5 different baseball cards in each package. It is worth noting that every card is a hall of famer. The checklist is as follows:
These cleverly designed and well manufactured cards were just about the same size as a standard card, but with much thicker cardboard. Just about every surface of these cards contains either a photo and / or information about the ball player.
The front of the card has an action photo of the player. The caps and the uniforms have been airbrushed so the team logos and names are not visible.
The back contains a head shot with biographical information and airbrushed caps.
By slightly bending the card to loosen up the die cut of the player and then pulling the tab the front image of the player pops up and also revels the players career major league stats and a Legendary Moments write up.
There have been other cards with unique designs such as the 1955 Topps Double Headers and the 1964 Topps Stand-Ups, but the 1995 Stouffer’s cards with multiple moving parts are the best engineered baseball cards that have been issued to date.
The most amazing thing about this set was that by sending in a number of proof-of-purchase seals (can’t remember how many) from the box packaging you could get an autographed card of one of the hall of famers in the set.
When I sent in my proof-of-purchase seals, Stouffer’s sent me back an autographed Yogi Berra card along with a Certificate of Authenticity.
By doing a little searching on eBay you can put together an entire set of these cards for under $20.
In January 1998, the Cubs hosted their 13th annual fan convention. The 1997 season ended with the Cubs in NL Central basement—16 games back of the Houston Astros—resulting in an appreciably thin retrospective “highlight” reel. As of 1998, Cubs fans canonized the 1969 team (a talented and personable team that had suffered a heinous September collapse), along with the 1984 and 1989 NL East championships. That was as much success as the franchise had enjoyed in over half a century. Outfielder Andy Pafko represented the 1945 squad at the 1998 convention, the last Cubs team to have appeared in a World Series at the time.
Each fan who attended the 1998 Cubs Convention was given a set of baseball cards packaged in a boxy envelope, sealed with a plain white sticker. Unlike the beautiful cards produced for the 11th Cubs Convention, this set incorporated a much less appealing design. At 30 cards, the set was three more than its 1996 counterpart; however, the card size shrunk to 3” x 4” and only 14 individuals were given a card of their own. The remaining 16 cards featured two players/broadcasters, with frustratingly tiny photos. Each card also incorporated a wholly unnecessary tan border on either vertical side.
Primarily designed for gathering autographs at the convention, the card backs included biographical information, lifetime statistics, career highlights, and the uniform number for active players. Nearly every Cubs celebrity appearing at the 1998 convention was represented in the set, save pitcher Scott Sanderson and general manager Ed Lynch, who had also pitched for the Cubs from 1986-87.
The fact checkers for this set were less then stellar. Glenn Beckert and Geremi Gonzalez had their names spelled incorrectly, and Jody Davis apparently enjoyed a Methuselah-like big league career spanning from 1081-1990. The designer also lazily used the same photo from 1996 for both Beckert and Randy Hundley. The Gary Matthews card features a slightly different photo from the same at-bat depicted in the 1996 set.
New acquisitions Jeff Blauser and Mickey Morandini shared a card sporting the caps of their former teams, conjuring the legitimate longing for a Topps airbrush artist of yore.
A perfectly wonderful card set for Cubs and individual player collectors, the set includes Hall of Famers Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Billy Williams and Andre Dawson. Ford Frick award winners Harry Caray and Jack Brickhouse were given cards of their own—Caray would pass away less a month after the convention and Brickhouse in August. Almost fittingly, this was the final Cubs Convention card set produced by the Cubs.
The 1998 Cubs would capture their first wildcard berth in 1998, only to fall unceremoniously to the Braves in the NLDS. A certain Cubs slugger featured in the set would go on to have an historic 1998 season at the plate, and a rookie pitcher would fan 20 Astros in a single contest on May 6. Cubs fans would celebrate the 1998 team at the 1999 convention and enjoy a much more robust highlight reel, despite the familiar disappointing end of the season.
Here is the checklist for the set (numbers included are for reference only):
1. Ernie Banks
2. Ron Santo
3. Billy Williams
4. Mark Grace
5. Sammy Sosa
6. Terry Adams
7. Harry Caray
8. Scott Servais
9. Andre Dawson
10. Steve Trachsel
11. Jack Brickhouse
12. Kevin Orie
13. Jim Riggleman
14. Rick Sutcliffe
15. 89er’s – Mike Bielecki/Vance Law
16. Flame-Throwers – Kevin Foster/Mark Pisciotta
17. 1969 Infield – Glen (sic) Beckert/Don Kessinger
18. Booth Banter – Pat Hughes/Josh Lewis
19. Behind the Plate – Randy Hundley/Jody Davis
20. Mound Mates – Mark Clark/Jeremi (sic) Gonzalez
21. Outfield Greats – Andy Pafko/Gary Matthews
22. 1969 CUBS – Dick Selma/Willie Smith
23. Catching Corps – Mike Hubbard/Tyler Houston
24. Future Stars – Kerry Wood/Pat Cline
25. Hot Prospects – Robin Jennings/Rodney Myers
26. NEW CUBS – Jeff Blauser/Mickey Morandini
27. Alumni Club – Oscar Gamble/Larry Bowa
28. Alumni Club – Carmen Fanzone/Paul Reuschel
29. No-hit Hurlers – Milt Pappas/Don Cardwell
30. VETERAN HURLERS – Bob Patterson/Kevin Tapani
Self-proclaimed as the greatest off-season event in all of sports, the Cubs Convention was the brainchild of Cubs’ marketing director John McDonough (now president and CEO of the Chicago Blackhawks). The 2020 Cubs Convention will be the 35th such event to offer fans up-close panel discussions, autograph and photo opportunities, and just about any Cubs-related merch a Die-Hard Cubs Fan could ever desire.
The Cubs hosted their first-of-its-kind fan convention in 1986 and quickly established a tradition of creating special gifts for attendees such as hats, thermal mugs and team calendars. For their 11th annual convention in 1996, the Cubs introduced a set of baseball cards featuring the players, coaches and broadcasters who appeared at the weekend-long event.
The eclectic set of 28 cards was packaged in a boxy envelope, sealed impenetrably with a circular white sticker on the back. (If you are purchasing a sealed box, know that the cards can be removed from the box without disturbing the seal.) One set was given to each convention goer at registration.
The image on the front of the box depicts Brian McRae jumping atop an apparent walk-off celebration. Shawon Dunston and Mark Grace are easily identifiable, as well. (Dunston does not appear in the set, as he was granted free agency by the Cubs following the 1995 season.)
Measuring a robust 4” x 5½”, the sexy black-bordered cards are printed on a relatively thin stock. The top border is an homage to the famous Wrigley Field marquee and features the distinctive mid-1990s Cubs logo. Cards of active players included career statistics on the back. Retired players’ cards had highlights and career statistics on the rear. The cards are not numbered.
Most of the cards feature a single individual, like these Hall of Famers, including a bespectacled Ferguson Jenkins, the Cubs then pitching coach:
Six of cards combine multiple individuals:
The final card is an advertisement for the now-defunct Vineline magazine with Ernie Banks on the cover. A closer look at the card reveals a posthumous (but presumably misprinted) enticement for 1995 postseason tickets. (By the time of the 1996 Cubs Convention, the 1995 Cubs had already finished 3rd in the NL Central.)
The Cubs Convention is a bonanza for autograph collectors and these cards are perfect for that purpose, like this Andy Pafko signed for the author:
The Cubs have never disclosed convention attendance figures, so it is unclear how many of these sets were produced, although it is likely in the 10,000-25,000 range. If you are a Cubs fan or individual player collector, these are great oddball cards to add to your collection.
That 1996 Cubs Convention also included a special Donruss exhibit, where you could get custom card produced. This baby-faced slugger 1/1 is the rarest card in my collection:
Set checklist (numbers just for reference):
1. Terry Adams/Turk Wendell (Young Guns)
2. Ernie Banks
3. Ernie Banks (Vineline Ad)
4. Glenn Beckert
5. Larry Bowa
6. Jack Brickhouse/Vince Lloyd (Golden Voices)
7. Scott Bullett/Ozzie Timmons (Dynamic Duo)
8. Harry Caray
9. Jose Cardenal/Rick Monday (Sensational 70’s)
10. Frank Castillo
11. Jody Davis
12. Mark Grace
13. Richie Hebner/Keith Moreland (Wrigleyville Sluggers)
14. Randy Hundley
15. Fergie Jenkins
16. Don Kessinger
17. Gary Matthews
18. Brian McRae
19. Andy Pafko
20. Milt Pappas/Tim Stoddard (Flashback Favorites)
21. Jim Riggleman
22. Ryne Sandberg
23. Ron Santo
24. Scott Servais
25. Steve Stone
26. Rick Sutcliffe
27. Steve Trachsel
28. Billy Williams
Mark Armour (the “Founding Father” of our illustrious committee) and I recently consummated a transaction in which we exchanged autographed 8” x 10” photos. “Trader Mark” sent George “Boomer” Scott my way in exchange for Lou Brock. Although this trade may seem to be in the same vain as Brock for Broglio, we both had two autographed photos of the players in the trade. Mark tried to get Brock for Lee Stange, but I held out for more.
Acquiring the Scott photo reminded me of the blockbuster
deal that sent “Boomer” to the Brewers from the Red Sox before the 1972
season. Seattle Pilots General Manager,
Marvin Milkes, accompanied the club to Milwaukee in 1970. He was dismissed after the season and
surprisingly replaced by the legendary Frank “Trader” Lane, who lived up to his
In the 1950s, Lane was known for his multi-player trades
which often seemed to be done just to shake things up. Thus, Lane decided to shed some of the last
vestiges of the Pilots to remake the “Brew Crew.”
The trade involved nine major league players and one minor leaguer. The Red Sox sent Scott, Ken Brett, Joe Lahoud, Dan Pavletich, Billy Conigliaro, and Jim Lonborg to the Brewers in return for Tommy Harper, Marty Pattin, Lew Krausse and AAA player Patrick Skrable.
In the 1972 card set, Topps responded to the deal in two ways: upturned head shots and airbrushed logos. Apparently, Topps had a stash of Red Sox photos featuring players looking skyward. Only Jim Lonborg received an airbrushed Brewers cap. On the other hand, the three players sent to Boston have airbrushed cap insignia.
The crack airbrush team at Topps did an excellent job on
Marty Pattin. His cap is either navy
blue or black with the Boston “B” rendered expertly. Of course, you must ignore the royal blue
seats at Tempe Diablo Stadium in the background.
Tommy Harper’s photo, taken at Tiger Stadium, is less convincing. The powder blue uniform and cap just don’t scream Bosox.
Lew Krausse has some strange stuff going on around his
collar. Odds are, he had on a
Pilots/Brewers warm up jacket with gold piping.
Thus, he gets a blue and grey combo to cover up the gold.
Though his 1967 season is immortalized in the hearts and
minds of all Red Sox fans, Jim Lonborg’s 1972 card will not be remember as
fondly. The sideways turn of the head
complicated the formation of the “M” logo.
One “leg” appears shorter than the other.
As mentioned earlier, the airbrush was put away for the rest
of new Brewers in favor of the “nostril” shot.
George Scott’s gaze into the Winter Haven sun or the Fenway press box is
not a thing of beauty. His cap is tilted
so far back that the #5 inked on to the bill is visible.
Billy Conigliaro and Ken Brett both suffered the misfortune of having brothers who were better players. Billy probably welcomed a chance to shed Tony’s shadow in Boston. This trade would start Brett on a vagabond odyssey that would produce some true airbrushed gems. Here is a link to a previous post on this topic.
With the leather-lined padding exposed under his batting
helmet and a slight smile, Joe Lahoud’s card is a bit more interesting than the
others. Perhaps Joe is smiling over the
prospect of more playing time outside of Beantown.
By far, the worst photo is that of journeyman catcher Don Pavletich. He was apparently very surly at the prospect of another trade, having been dispatched by the Reds to the White Sox in 1969 and on to the Red Sox in 1970.
I would be remiss if I didn’t show a card (postcard with the Reading Phillies) of Patrick Skrable, the veteran minor league player the Brewers tossed into the trade mix. Although Pat never made it to the big leagues, he was a master of placing the “Q” on a triple-letter space.
Which team came out on top of this deal? Harper had good years with Boston, but George Scott developed into one of the most feared power hitters in the American League. Plus, when the Red Sox reacquired him from Milwaukee, they gave up Cecil Cooper. So, advantage Brewers.
In the world of sports and pop culture there are stars, heroes, and models—and then there are superstars, superheroes, and supermodels. Similarly, the baseball card collecting world has both collectors and super collectors.
I used to think I had a pretty sweet collection of Wade Boggs cards, but oh how does my Boggs binder pale in comparison to the astonishing collections of Richard Davis and John Reichard, undisputed Olympians of Wade Boggs super collectors. In the spirit of fake Bill Murray’s sentimentality above, I shall be your Cavia porcellus, here merely for reference.
Richard Davis (45) is a physician assistant from the Joliet, Illinois area and was introduced to the Chicago Cubs as a young boy. Some of his earliest childhood memories include watching Bill Buckner and the 1982 Cubs on WGN with his 82-year-old great-grandmother. Not unlike the author, his love affair with the Cubs—and first broken heart—began with the 1984 team. Davis has been hooked on baseball ever since.
On Christmas morning 1985, Davis received a card collector’s kit containing an unopened 1983 Donruss pack, in which a Wade Boggs rookie card was fortuitously found. He knew it was a “hot” card and was thrilled to have it, despite not really knowing much about Boggs at that point. He began to follow Boggs’ career and collected all the Boggs items he could find. In fact, Davis has now accumulated over 200 copies of that Donruss rookie and is closing in on a staggering 600 copies of Boggs’ 1983 Topps rookie card.
John Reichard (47) is a loan officer from central Pennsylvania whose love affair with baseball coincided with the launch of his Little League career in 1978. Despite growing up far from Fenway Park, he rooted for the Red Sox because his mom was originally from Massachusetts. He was first turned on to card collecting when hunting for the infamous 1979 Topps Bump Wills (Blue Jays) error card became a bit of a sensation. His first collecting focus was on building sets, but as new manufacturers inundated the industry, trying to piece together all the issues simply became too daunting.
Because Reichard was already a Red Sox fan, Wade Boggs was an easy choice when he shifted his focus to collecting cards of a certain player. Not only was Boggs a phenomenal player, but there was already a good variety of different cards to collect. Reichard picked up a 1998 Topps Gold Label Class 2 One to One Red 1/1 card and was off to the races. Enamored (rightly so) with the 1984 Topps Boggs, Reichard has now amassed over 1000 copies of the card.
As for me—if anyone is still interested in my tale of mundane—the 1980s Cubs and Red Sox had such parallel, curse-hardened fandoms such that I was naturally drawn to Boston baseball as I sought an American League team to follow. Wade Boggs was a lefty batter (like me!) who hammered balls off the Green Monster (just like I dreamed of doing!). When Topps first italicized the league leaders on the backs of its 1986 base cards, Boggs’ incredible 1985 campaign (240 hits and a .368 batting average) just came to life. It was impossible not to idolize him.
For measuring stick purposes, my collection includes a lone Donruss rookie card, two 1983 Topps copies (one signed), a handful of 1984 Topps, and over nine copies of his 1985 Topps!
Author’s Boggs rookie cards
Look at all of those 1985 Topps Boggs cards
If we must count, however, John Reichard has nearly 10,000 total Wade Boggs cards, including 4900 different cards—enough to stuff a monster box. He has 165 1/1s and over 500 serial numbered cards numbered between 2 and 10, along with over 700 autographed cards.
Among his favorite cards are a 2014 Topps Triple Threads handprint jumbo relic and autograph card (numbered 6/10), a 1992 Donruss Super Diamond Kings, and a 2012 Topps Tier One Bat Knob 1/1 card. His memorabilia collection includes a game-used Red Sox bat from the early 1990s, a pair of game-used Yankees batting gloves, a game-used Red Sox batting glove, and a pair of game-used Yankees cleats, along with a number of signed jerseys and bats.
2014 Topps handprint jumbo relic 6/10
1992 Donruss Super Diamond Kings
Reichard’s loaded bat rack
Richard Davis’s collection is so massive, he can only estimate the number of Boggs cards he has—knowing that it runs well into the thousands. At his last count he had over 550 autographed items. He recently added his 30th copy of Boggs’ 1981 TCMA Pawtucket Red Sox issue. Showing about 75% of his collection in his very own “Boggs Tavern,” Davis has another seven storage bins full of items that he has not yet displayed.
His favorite item is probably a three-foot tall bobblehead autographed by Wade Boggs. Only 26 were made and Boggs, himself, confirmed that this was the only one he had ever signed. The strangest items Davis owns are pairs of shower shoes—both Red Sox and Yankees’ versions—used and autographed. Davis’s mission is simple, “If Wade’s likeness or image is on it then I want it.”
Behind the bar
At the bottom of the stairs
You may think that these mega collectors are bitter rivals, locked in an eternal struggle to outbid each other. Turns out, however, that John and Richard have become great friends who work together to help find items for each other. In fact, Reichard and Davis run joint Twitter and Facebook accounts to showcase their collections. On the Twitter account, they post a new Boggs card every day—chronologically by year of issue. Having missed only a day or two since November 2014, the Twitter posts are only up to 1996. Reichard expects that they can continue unabated for “another eight years without having to post a duplicate.”
I met Wade Boggs at a card show in the late 1980s and I have no recollection, whatsoever, of the encounter other than being starstruck as he signed by 8×10. That photo and a signed ball I later received a gift comprise the Wade Boggs items on display in my basement mancave:
The museum-quality displays constructed by Davis and Reichard, on the other hand, are simply mind boggling.
Davis and Reichard have each met Boggs several times and he now knows them by name. Wade Boggs even knows Davis’s son by name, “the little kid collector and fan inside cannot help but get giddy over this fact.” Boggs follows both their personal and joint Twitter accounts. For Davis, this is the pinnacle of super collecting.
Whether serious or not, Boggs has told Davis he would like to see Boggs Tavern for himself. “The bar fridge will be stocked with Miller Lites if he does.” Reichard invited Boggs to his wedding, but Wade politely declined—despite a stuffed chicken breast entrée—since he was going to be in Alaska celebrating his birthday at the time.
Both Reichard and Davis average two to three Boggs “mail days” per week. Reichard suffers “withdrawal if he goes more than three days without something” new arriving. Davis is still looking for a game used fielder’s glove. Reichard is on the lookout for a home Red Sox jersey and game worn cap. Luckily, their wives are supportive—if not fully understanding of the passion.
Richard Davis’s pipe dream is for the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown to open a wing dedicated to baseball super collectors, where perhaps he could get a plaque in the “Hall of Collectors” alongside John Reichard and other Boggs super collectors Kevin McInnis, David Boggs (no relation), John Hall, Jeremy Weikel, Robert Howell, Nathan Flemming, James Miles and Chris Thrane.
While my pedestrian Wade Boggs collection will never measure up to those of super collectors Richard Davis or John Reichard, at least I have two items I know they do not have!
Author’s c. 1987 freshman English class poem
Author’s c. 1988 drawing, complete with snazzy 1980s graphics
*Footnote: I cannot draw feet.
Interviews with John Reichard and Richard Davis.
Photos courtesy of John Reichard, Richard Davis and author.
If you hear the name ‘Brien Taylor’ today, it’s probably in the way of some kind of cautionary tale. A lesson against getting too caught up in the hype surrounding amateur or minor league super-duper stars. A lesson that top draft picks, no matter how much of a sure thing, are never really a sure thing. For collectors, it’s a similar lesson, but one directed less at the athlete than at all the ephemera that athlete inspires. But while Taylor was never able to leave his mark on baseball, he certainly left a mark on the hobby. Brien Taylor made the hobby rethink its concept of rookie cards. He became the face of the hobby’s most venerable brand. His presence (or lack thereof) dictated when products were released and how they were (somewhat unscrupulously) dated. He revived a market for pre-Major League cards and store-branded specialty sets. He starred in what was, at the time, the most expensive factory set ever issued and was featured on what was, at the time, perhaps the most sought-after certified autograph ever released.
And within three years, it was all over.
There are still those who swear Brien Taylor was the greatest amateur pitcher who ever lived. He was born in Beaufort, NC, the son of a stone mason and a crab-picker. Tall, lanky, and with a whip-fast left arm, he dominated as a high school pitcher. As a senior in 1991, the threw back-to-back no-hitters, struck out an obscene 213 batters in just 88 innings (nearly 2.5 Ks per inning) and posted a 0.61 ERA. He had a fastball in the high-90s, a dependable change-up, and a knee-buckling curveball.
Taylor had been nearly as good the year before, but had yet to break through into the baseball mainstream. Don Mattingly, however, was as mainstream as an athlete got in 1990. His break-out campaign in 1984, followed up by an MVP season in 1985, had both made put him in line to be the Next Great Yankee and helped to ramp up the rookie card craze among baseball card collectors and investors. Mattingly’s 1984 rookie issues stoked the fires of a building craze. People with money to spend on cards wanted Mattinglys, but even more so they wanted the next Mattinglys… the cards that could be picked up cheap, stocked away, and then sold for a profit. Mattingly was still a star in 1990 and the rookie card craze his sweet, lefty swing had inspired was still very much in bloom. But for the 1990 season, Mattingly stunk. He batted just .256 – 67 points below his career average entering the season – and his Yankees finished in dead-last place, losing 95 games. It was the worst Yankees team in 77 years.
By the summer of 1991, these three stars had aligned themselves: a once-in-a-generation talent, a booming baseball card marketplace, and an unprecedented bottoming-out of the most famed pro sports franchise that ever existed. In June 1991, the Yankees drafted Brien Taylor first overall in the amateur draft and card collectors saw nothing but dollar signs.
Of course, by 1991 collectors no longer had the patience to wait for a player to be wearing a big league uniform for start stockpiling cardboard. Trying to entice collectors with the hottest rookies as soon as possible, Fleer, Donruss, Score and the upstart Upper Deck had begun to include players in their base sets before their Big League debut. When one of those players, Ken Griffey Jr., became a hobby sensation, it was clear that the rookie card game had changed. Topps missed out on including Griffey in their 1989 flagship set, but did start a new trend that year with the inclusion of a ten card subset of “#1 Draft Picks,” players from the 1988 draft who were just making their pro debuts. When Jim Abbott jumped from the ’88 draft class to Major League stardom that year, the other cardmarkers had been scooped. Topps had him first and it was their card collectors were chasing. In 1990, Score followed suit and issued a 22-card draft pick subset and the revived Bowman brand issued a slew of recently drafted talent. The hobby hype was now following players into A ball instead of the Big Leagues.
Card collectors weren’t the only ones with money on the mind after the Yankees tabbed Taylor with the top pick in June. Taylor and his family had hired Scott Boras to represent the young man and felt insulted at the Yankees’ initial offer of a $300,000 contract. The top pitcher of the previous year’s draft, Todd Van Poppel, had gotten $1.3 million in guaranteed money from the Oakland A’s and the Taylors wanted nothing less.
It took until late August for the Yankees and Taylor to agree on a $1.55 million pact, with Taylor signing the deal the day before he was set to begin junior college, and be lost to the Yankees. His professional status now meant that he was open to the cardmakers. Topps, Fleer, and Donruss had all hoped to include a Taylor card in their 1991 update sets, but had been stymied by his holdout. And when finally became fair game, it was The Scoreboard – maker of the Classic brand of board game cards and draft sets – that swooped in to the ink the super-prospect. Scoreboard paid Taylor $250,000 for his exclusive cardboard rights through the end of 1991 and his exclusive rights on minor league cards for a calendar year. Just months later, Classic released its 1991 Baseball Draft set, with Taylor at card #1. The company boasted that the entire run of the set sold out in six days and it was reported that the sets that included Taylor were expected to gross the company $30 million… thirty times what they’d made off their 1990 draft products.
That fall, Taylor reported to the Yankees’ fall instructional league team in Florida, where his stardom preceded him. He was featured in a 60 Minutes segment and signed autographs for members of the Green Bay Packers when they stayed at the same hotel that housed his team. He signed a lot of other autographs, too. Classic had cards of him in both the English and French language versions their four-sport draft picks set, including over 5,000 hand-signed cards inserted randomly into packs.
The media followed Taylor to Florida. Their reporting was complimentary. They noted his humble nature, that he mostly stayed in at night, always addressed his elders as “sir” or “ma’am” and that he did his own laundry. They talked about the Mustang he’d purchased with his bonus money, but also that he bought the car from the dealership where his bother worked as a detailer and that he had gotten a nice discount on the purchase. His biggest purchase, the papers noted, was a house for his parents, allowing them to move out of the trailer where Taylor had grown up. But there was a theme to the stories that made it clear that these were older, white reporters looking for a young, black athlete that didn’t push challenge any of their notions about how a ballplayer should act. They never said it, but it was clear that they wanted to hold Taylor up as an antidote to the Deions and Rickeys of the sporting world. Case in point: several articles mentioned with flattering intent that Taylor wore no gold chains. Neither did Todd Van Poppel, but no one was waiting to judge him by his neckware.
Near the end of 1991, Topps pulled a major coup and signed Taylor to another exclusive contract, making them the only cardmaker permitted to produce his Major League cards until he reached the Bigs, at which time he would, under the player’s union contract, be available to all companies with an MLBPA license. The deal scooped Upper Deck, who had been so optimistic about their chances of landing Taylor that they actually included his name in the preliminary checklists for their 1992 flagship set. As Topps promoted their upcoming set as the only one that feature Taylor in pinstripes, Upper Deck quietly remade their checklist.
With Classic’s deal still in effect until December 31, Topps seems to have actually pushed back the release of their 1992 set in order to include Taylor. But the result was a minor masterpiece. Finding their brand getting lost in the flood of newer and shinier released in the early 1990s, Topps had responded with a classic re-tooling for its 1991 flagship release and the introduction of its premium Stadium Club brand. Stadium Club was a smash and the company’s 1992 flagship reflected the changing tastes in the marketplace. Using beaming white stock for the first time in decades and featuring a clean, modern design, the set put Taylor front and center. In what might have been an homage to the 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. #1 that had already become that company’s trademark card, Topps gave Taylor #6 in 1992 set, the first regular player card after the traditional Record Breaker opening subset. The card featured Taylor in Yankee pinstripes, the first time Topps had shown a draft pick in their Major League uniform. The kid is just into delivery: left arm ready to cock, right foot dangling over the red box containing his name, eyes trained at whatever lay ahead of him.
1992 was also the year Topps introduced the first true parallel set with ToppsGold. The concept was stunning for its time – an alternate version of the classic flagship set, outfit with an etched gold foil nameplate. The cards would be found roughly one per wax box, making it an unimaginable task to complete a full set. But in the midst of the hype over this idea, Topps offered an alternative: a Gold Factory set, complete with a stunning card #793 – an exclusive Brien Taylor card, done in the standard veteran design, gold-plated and hand-signed by the young Phenom. The set, which retailed for around $250, was quickly selling on the secondary market for $4-500. The signed card itself was moving quickly for $100 and up. Taylor’s gold rookie – found one per 28,500 packs – was bringing $40-80 and his regular base card was a mover at $5.
But… were these really rookie cards?
As they had in 1990 with uber-prospects Chipper Jones and Todd Van Poppel, Classic had gotten the jump on the more mainstream brands by including Taylor in their Draft Picks set in the same calendar year in which he was drafted. The big companies had always waited until the year after the draft to debut these players. Topps and others had tried to produce a true Taylor RC – a 1991 release featuring him in his Big League dress, but were scooped by his holdout and then his deal with Classic. So, Topps decided to turn back the clock.
The result was the 1991 Stadium Club Dome set. Or was it 1992? Well, the set used the 1991 Stadium Club design and was issued inside a plastic reproduction of Skydome, home of the 1991 MLB All-Star Game. Each card featured a 1991 copyright line. Which made it outwardly appear as a 1991 release and its handsome card of Taylor (along with dozens of other 1991 draft choices) as a stunning “true rookie” of the biggest name in the hobby. Not so fast, said collectors. It was clear that Topps was back-dating the set to try to force a 1991 Taylor card. The set was not released until the spring of 1992 and it seems highly unlikely that Topps would have gone ahead with printing the set in ’91 while Taylor was under exclusive contract with another brand and then waited several months into 1992 before finally releasing it. Even if collectors didn’t fall for Topps’ scheme, they fell all over themselves for the set, which was going for $75 and the Taylor for $15 before the 1992 season had even opened.
Oh, right, the 1992 season. In which Brien Taylor would actually be playing professional baseball. After being the toast of the Yankees’ training camp, Taylor reported to the Fort Lauderdale Yankees of the high-A Florida State League. Just 20 years old, he posted some tantalizing numbers – 10.4 Ks per 9 innings, a 1.159 WHIP, a 2.57 ERA, and just three homers allowed in 161 innings.
His performance was all the more impressive considering all the hype that still surrounded him. He was a shy kid, away from home for the first time, and everyone wanted a piece of him. And everyone wanted his autograph. He had signed more than 12,000 cards for the ToppsGold sets, and another 8,000 for 1992 Classic products and hundreds of baseball for teammate opponents and everyone else with clubhouse access. And he was asked to sign even more each day by fans that stalked him at every turn. “They think you’re supposed to sign everything they throw in your face,” Taylor told a reporter during the 1992 season. He was knocked down by autograph hounds more than once. After a game in Port St. Lucie, so many fans gathered outside the clubhouse doors that the team was briefly trapped inside. “People know the autograph is going to be worth money. That’s the only way I see it,” he said. “As far as dealing with people, life will never be the same. The bigger I get, the harder it will get. I know I’ll probably never be able to sit at a movie and relax.” As for his trading cards, Taylor admitted he didn’t even own one. “They must know something I don’t,” he said of the people shelling out for his latest issues.
And as his debut season wound to a close, there would be many more options for Taylor collectors. With his exclusive non-MLB deal with Classic coming to an end, Upper Deck, Fleer, and Skybox announced plans to get in on the suddenly booming Minor League card market. Upper Deck promoted their set at Minor League parks late in the season, handing out thousands of promo cards of Taylor and Twins prospect Frankie Rodriguez. The Upper Deck set released in September and Fleer Excel dropped in December (oddly branded as 1992-93 Fleer Excel, another example of Taylor forcing cardmakers to get creative with their dating). The Fort Lauderdale Yankees even waited out the Classic contract to release their team-issued set of cards – which remarkably was not available until after the season had ended, as speculation abounded that the team would relocate for the 1993 season (it indeed would move). The market for Taylor was so intense that a franchise delayed the release of its annual team set until after it had played its last-ever game. The set was available by mail order and seemed to sell quite well. That fall, Topps also included Taylor in the company’s first-ever random insert set, a trio of cards featuring #1 overall draft choices found one in every 72 packs of 1992 Stadium Club Series 3. It instantly became a $25 item.
By the end of 1992, Taylor had been featured on (by my count) 48 different licensed trading cards and a handful of oddball, unlicensed, and magazine-issue cards. It was a staggering number for its time, especially for a player who had pitched in just 27 games professionally. By 1993, a bit of Taylor-fatigue began to appear. His card prices stabilized and, while his presence in the hobby held steady, it stopped being news. Searching the hobby columns that used to be regular features in newspapers across the nation, he was a regular item throughout 1991 and 1992. But by 1993, he faded away into the mass of other can’t-miss-kids making hobby news. He was still a Phenom to be sure, but he was a very familiar Phenom.
In 1993, Taylor made steady progress, racking up 150 Ks and a 3.48 ERA for the AA Albany-Colonie Yankees. It was progress, but collectors and the Yankee brass had visions of Taylor dominating the American League in 1993, not holding his own in the Eastern League. And then in December came baseball’s most infamous after-hours brawl since Mickey Mantle, Billy Martin, and company roughed up a boozy bowling team captain at the Copa. Back home in North Carolina, Taylor got into a melee trying to defend his brother and blew out his shoulder in the process. While the team tried to downplay the injury, Dr. Frank Jobe, who performed Taylor’s reconstructive surgery, called it “one of the worst shoulder injuries [he’d] ever seen.”
Collectors began to dump Taylor’s cards and, as Taylor sat out the entire 1994 season, he appeared in just a handful of sets. Many of his 1994 cards mentioned the injury. “He will miss the entire 1994 season and only time will tell whether or not he can regain his top prospect status,” his Ted Williams Card Company release opined. By 1995, time had told.
Demoted to the Yankees’ Rookie League team, Taylor struggled through 40 innings, walking 54 and allowing 37 runs. His fastball stalled and his curve had flattened. With the card market struggling to recover from the strike, companies downsized their releases. In 1995, just a few years removed from being such a force in the marketplace that his mere presence seemed to dictate time itself, he appeared on just one trading card – Bowman #17. He is pictured in a Yankees jersey cap, seating on a picnic table, wearing shorts and sneakers. He’s dressed like a fan or a training camp gofer. The backside mentions an “off the field mishap” and talks about hopes for a return to form that would never happen. Although he would hang around for parts of four more professional seasons, topping out at 27 innings (with an ERA over 14.00) in 1997, he appeared on just two more cards. He’s just 24 years old on his 1996 Best Greensboro Bats card, but he looks older. He looks tired. In 2000, he was featured in a team-issue set for the A-level Columbus Red Stixx. The only evidence the card exists is a listing on tradingcarddb.com. No image of it can be found.
He allowed 11 runs in just 2.2 innings for the Red Stixx that year. It was the last time he pitched. He went back home to North Carolina with his five daughters and worked as a package handler for UPS, then for a beer distributor, and later as a bricklayer with his father. He ran into legal troubles and, in 2012, was arrested on charges of trafficking cocaine. Facing forty years, he pled guilty and served just over three. “Life will never be the same,” Taylor said in 1992. “The only way it would be the same would be if I dropped out today. Then everybody would forget me.”
I like autographs. During the 1970’s, I wrote a lot of letters, to athletes, movie stars, politicians, everyone I liked.
I love cards. No need to explain that at this point.
Autographed cards? I more than like, less than love. I have hundreds and hundreds, but I don’t pursue them with any kind of passion or goal, except…..
From 1997-1999, Fleer partnered with Sports Illustrated for base sets and inserts. Of course, signed cards were key. The 1997 set had a 6-card “autographed mini-cover” insert set with a stellar checklist – ARod, Ripken, Puckett, Mays, Frank Robinson, Aaron – but it’s the 1999 Greats of the Game autographed cards that piqued my interest.
The 80 card GOTG is a great smattering if superstars, stars, and cult heroes, and they’re wonderful. Actually, not all of them stand out. The basic look does nothing for me:
The cards that feature Sports Illustrated covers do it all. The white signature strip on the bottom, part of all the GOTG cards, stands out against the cover photo above. I went after this type hard, ending up with all of them (though there is one variation – Reggie has a “Mr. October” and an “HOF 93”). From Mays to McDowell, Ryan to Wynn, the players that constitute this smaller group tell the story, through SI, of the game from the 50’s through the 80’s.
For the autographed cards, the backs doubled as certificates of authenticity.
Prices are as wide ranging as the player quality, and, as some guys have died, formerly cheaper cards have popped. “The Bird” was once less than $10. Not anymore. However, the Campaneris, under the 1973 World Series cover, is out there for less than $10.
I do have some of the full bleed covers, as you can see here, but they don’t tug at me as much, though arguably aesthetically more pleasing. Some are from 1997, some from other years. All have an embossed stamp of authenticity, which adds to the overall look.
I loved these so much that I went after the football issue as well. I still need a few of those – Starr, Bradshaw and Montana – but they’re a bit pricey. If they were baseball, I‘d grab them, but I don’t care much about Joe Montana and never quite have the urge to pay $150-200 for the pleasure of having his autograph.
I wanted to take the time to write a post about a collector. This man has helped improve my PC and has helped inspire me as a collector and a person. All this, and I never even met Mr. James Grant MacAlister!
I’m currently working on a set of the 1960 Topps Boston Red Sox. When working on my set I decided I wanted to have at least one autograph. The auto I picked up is a PSA Authenticated Ike Delock #336. On the flip it notes that this card was from the MacAlister Collection.
SABR member #22, James MacAlister was from Philadelphia and a fan of the Phillies, he was also a serious fan of autographs. James had a longtime goal of trying to obtain the autograph of every player who has ever played in the major leagues.
Of course in trying to amass a vast collection of this pedigree you might think you’d have to hold on to everything you managed to get your hands on. Well according to SABR Founder Tom Hufford and his post on NET54, that couldn’t be further from the true character of James MacAlister. In fact there are a couple individuals in that single post alone attesting to the generosity, openness, and helpful nature of Mr. MacAlister.
This man who put together one of the finest collections in our hobby, did it while attempting to be one of the finest gentlemen possible.
That is what I find simply so inspiring. James MacAlister chose to reach for his goals while treating other collectors with kindness and generosity. In doing so, he left a lasting legacy that will forever be noted by generations of collectors. For me I can’t imagine a better role model to lookup to within the hobby.
Tip of the old ball cap to James Grant MacAlister.
There is something magical to me about Ralph Garr. He had some stellar years, hitting .300 and above when that was valued, and stealing some bases, when that mattered too. WAR isn’t kind to him, though he did have 5+ WAR in 1971 and 1974 (when he led the NL in BA). And he wore White Sox shorts.
I liked Ralph Garr, enough to send him a letter almost a half-century ago (!), and enough to make my first purchase from Signatures for Soldiers, a 501(c3) that raises money for disabled vets. I know of them via Twitter – @Sig4Soldiers – and watch their Tweets, but it was “The Roadrunner” that made me take the plunge with my first order. It won’t be my last. Check them out.
They had lots of Garrs, from different years and manufacturers, but I went for a 1973 Topps. I am in awe of those of you out there who collect signed complete sets. I can’t quite imagine the effort that takes. I have a small, slowly growing, collection of 1973 signed cards, so ol’ Ralph fit right in.
I may keep adding to this little group of 13, if I find more and the price is right, but I’ll never go for a complete set and, really, there can’t be one. If you ever see an autographed copy of this card, run!