Jim Bouton, 1939–2019

Jim Bouton died last Wednesday after a long battle with the effects of a 2012 stroke. He was 80.

As you have likely read over the past week, Bouton meant a lot to a lot of people. I was one. Our paths crossed a few times, but his importance is always going to be about his book.

My first run-in with Jim Bouton was with his 1968 Topps card, pictured up top. I was seven that summer and my card collection was limited by my meager finances. But when the final series came out in August I must have had nickels bursting out of my pockets, because I ended up with dozens (says my memory) of this card (#562).

I had no interest in doubles even then (I would have gladly traded you my extra Henry Aaron if you had Dick Dietz), but, let’s be real, who was Jim Bouton anyway? I knew nothing of baseball prior to … maybe a year earlier? He was not in the Yankee box scores or in the Yankee games I was able to watch — because (I later learned) in June he had been demoted to the minor leagues (which might as well have been Mars). He was a minor leaguer?

Bouton had been a star a few years before, but whatever. I remember watching Eddie Mathews pinch hit in the 1968 World Series and being flabbergasted that the announcers claimed he used to be a good player. This guy?

So anyway, I suspect that one or two of the 1968 Bouton cards ended up in my bicycle spokes at some point. He would never appear on a Topps card again.

The next year Topps — who gave absolutely everyone a card — did not give one to Bouton, who in March was a non-roster invitee by the expansion Seattle Pilots.

Topps gave a card to Fred Newman, who had not pitched in the majors in 1968 and threw just six innings in 1967. He was a spring training invite for the Red Sox, and quickly released, but Topps gave him a Red Sox card anyway. He never pitched in the majors again.

Let me be clear: none of this is meant to criticize Topps. Card selection was a tricky business, with multiple series allowing for delaying identifying the last series or two until April. What I love about Topps cards in this era is that they tried to include everyone, even guys who (with the benefit of hindsight) seem like extreme long shots to play, so it looks wrong when someone is missing. Most of the 1969 set was printed before the Pilots even got to camp, and Topps made an educated guess that of the dozens of available options Bouton did not warrant a late series card. His brief demotion to Triple-A in April might have sealed the deal.

In 1969 Bouton pitched for the expansion Pilots and then the Astros. I watched a handful of Red Sox – Pilots games, and I am sure I saw Bouton a few times. But he was just a guy in the bullpen, the guy whose 1968 cards were spread all over my room. I gave him little thought.

Although Bouton pitched essentially the entire season in the majors in 1969, he again did not get a Topps card in 1970. This case seems particularly odd, and makes one wonder if he had an issue with Topps. He was a strong union guy, but the union had settled their Topps dispute in late 1968, which is why the 1970 set is so spectacular. A mystery, to me at least.

He pitched briefly (and mostly poorly) that year before again being exiled to the minors, but 1970 ended up being the most pivotal year of his life. His book — Ball Four — came out and caused quite a stir, and his cards would never be commons again. Forgive me, 1968 Bouton card — I didn’t mean it!

I was an early devotee of his book, reading it age 10 and then reading it continually thereafter. The baseball, the humor, the writing, the politics, the self-doubt — there is something on every page. But enough self-examination …

I didn’t really start buying older cards (cards issued prior to my collecting) until I was in high school and especially college. I picked up a few Bouton cards when I ran into them. And I kept up on all things Bouton — his other books, his occasional magazine article, his comebacks in the minors (and briefly, the Braves). You can read all about it in other places, I am sure.

Early in my sophomore year, Bouton came to my college (Rensselear, in Troy NY) to speak. I had not packed Ball Four with me that year (I would never make that mistake again), but I did have a few of his cards in my dorm room. Bouton signed my 1964 card, and it remains the only baseball card I have ever asked anyone to sign. (I have received a few signed cards over the years from friends.)

It has been said that once a player’s career is over and time fades, he is judged by his statistical record. This is not true of Bouton, who finished 62–63 (albeit with great seasons, World Series heroics, and historic comebacks mixed in) but who retained his fame and remained newsworthy until the very end of his life.

My point, and I have a point: collect his cards. They are fairly inexpensive for 50-year-old cards, and it’s Jim Bouton for heaven’s sake. If you collect cards from the 1960s, by all means you should look for Mays, Clemente, Aaron, Mantle, Koufax, just like everyone else, but save a few dollars for The Bulldog. (And Curt Flood.)

My collection is 100% about the history, and very few people are a more important part of the baseball story than James Alan Bouton. There will be never be another like him.

The Grand TCMA Decade Sets (Some of them anyway)

Followers of this blog and our Facebook and Twitter accounts have been a bit TCMA obsessed since several of us gathered in Cooperstown for the opening of the Hall of Fame’s Shoebox Treasures exhibit in May. A chance run in with Andrew Aronstein, son of TCMA founder Mike, touched off a bit of TCMA frenzy. (I’ve known Andrew and Mike for a few years, so I’m glad others in our card world are getting to know them).

My own recent TCMA interests have circled around the big baseball decades sets (and the football, basketball and hockey sets). Not all of them, actually, only the 1950’s and 1960’s sets. These are all beautiful, simple cards, with magnificent photos, as you’d expect. I picked up the entire 1950’s set at Baseball Nostalgia in Cooperstown (where else?), which started over 40 years ago as the TCMA flagship store.

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The cards are wonderful, the checklist is wide ranging and they look wonderful signed. Released in 1979, the 291 card set is a must have.

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With that set safely acquired, I marched forward to get both 1960’s sets, but was warned at Baseball Nostalgia that they’re harder to find than the ‘50’s set, and pricier. This proved to be true. The first set, released in 1978 with 293 cards was easier to spot, but I didn’t want to buy that series without the more difficult second series attached. (I learned this lesson when I picked up a cheap TCMA football base set and still find myself struggling to get the 12 card update at a reasonable price. I’d have been better off waiting to buy both sets.)

The 1981 (yay Split Season!) series 2 has 189 cards, but the problem is that about 1/3 were printed compared to series 1 (according to the Standard Catalog). Whenever that series would appear, it was too pricey for me.

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Well, as of last night, my long waiting is over. I got both sets for a good price and they’re on their way! I can’t wait. Like the 1950’s cards, the 1960’s sets have fantastic variety of names, from superstars to non-stars to Jim McKnight.

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And they look wonderful signed.

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Blink of an eye

This year I enrolled my sons in the Trenton Thunder’s Boomer’s Kids Club. It’s a great deal. Tickets to eleven games for the three of us plus fun activities and a tshirt* for $45. I knew we wouldn’t be able to make the games in July and August because of summer plans but even just going to the games through June it would be worth it.

*Shirt and activities for kids only.

We’ve now been to seven games this season (six with the kids club plus a Little League fundraiser night) and it’s been awesome. The boys have gotten two shirts, a jersey, a frisbee, and a pennant. They’ve had a chance to throw out the first pitch, walk around the field, be part of a high-five tunnel for the players, and watch The Sandlot on the outfield after a game. We’ve even been tossed five baseballs. Oh yeah and the games have been good. The Thunder are a decent team and it’s been a lot of fun to watch the boys learn the players and really get into following the season.

They’re also completely hooked on the hobby—especially autograph collecting. This is all me and my interests rubbing off on them. They’ve seen me write TTM requests and get cards signed at Trenton Thunder games and they want to join me. So I indulge them.

Not too much. I supply cards and pens (for now) but they have to do the requesting. I’m not going to flag a player down for them or ask on their behalf. I’ll help spot guys but the boys need to learn how to approach players, make the request, and say thank you. We’ve started off pretty simple by just focusing on the Trenton players and visiting coaches. As a result their autograph binders are pretty eclectic.

My youngest’s binder is organized alphabetically by first name. His idea. It’s a wonderfully random bunch of cards.* Seven Thunder players. Five coaches. And one card that Marc Brubaker mailed to him. I find myself wondering how much a first grader even cares about people like Joe Oliver, Brian Harper, or Matt LeCroy. These aren’t guys he knows. Some, like LeCroy, aren’t even guys I’d really talk to them about.** But they’re in the binder and he’s super-excited to show them off.

*Unless you make the Eastern League connection.

**Even though the Frank Robinson story is pretty touching

Can he tell you about the players? Only what he knows by turning the cards over. But he’s into this as a hobby even though he’s, so far, just tagging along with me.

His brother’s binder is pretty similar except that his one TTM return is in there and there are a couple 1991 Topps cards that he pulled from his own binder because he got the set for Christmas last year. As a result he has a bit more of a connection to guys like Harper and Oliver but LeCroy, Mark Johnson, and Mike Rabelo are all ciphers to him.

As the season’s progressed I’ve been questioning what it means to collect autographs of guys you’ve never heard of and second-guessing the importance of what I’ve gotten my kids into. Are they excited only because I’m excited? Am I pushing them to do something that only means something to me?

I jumped into the hobby in 1987. I bailed in 1994. Not a long period of time but it felt like forever. And in a way it was. Not only did those years represent half my lifetime by the time I stopped, they covered most of my years in school—pretty much my entire youth.

Now, 25 years later as a father, I’m seeing things from the other side. What was a lifetime when I was a kid is already flashing by in the blink of an eye. I know I only have a handful of years where my sons will legitimately share my interests. Yes legitimately. At the end of the day I’ve realized that it doesn’t matter why they’re interested in the hobby, the fact that they are and that we’re able to share it is what matters.

My two boys love collecting and everything it entails. Getting cards. Sorting cards.* Re-sorting cards.** Showing me their cards. Asking for new cards. Etc. Etc. It’s great. It reminds me of being a kid and it inspires me to document their adventures so that in a decade or two when they look back at their collection they’ll have my thoughts and memories to go with their memories of those years when the three of us were enjoying baseball together.

*On the floor as God intended.

**One day will be by number, the next by team, the next by last name, the next by first name.

I get to experience what I put my mom through, how patient she was, and how much she enjoyed seeing me get excited by the hobby. She kept a journal which I eventually turned into a book so that we could all have copies. I still enjoy rereading her essays and I’m looking forward to my boys reading them too.

Instead of journalling I’m blogging about our adventures and putting together summaries of events we’ve gone too. Like when we went to the Thunder Open House I took photos of their baseballs and printed out a letter-sized sheet for their binders. I’ll do the same thing with their haul of autographed cards for the season since I know they’ll re-sort them multiple times in the future.

It’ll always be important to have the biographical breakdown of their collection. As my sons get older, their cards and autographs will increasingly become markers for their memories rather than just objects to collect and hoard. The memories they’re attached to is what makes them special. It’s why I collect and why I hope they keep collecting.

In fact, I’ve been inspired to start doing the same thing for my cards and autographs. I know I’m going to be passing  everything on to my sons. I also know that “all dad’s stuff’ will be nowhere near as memorable as having an introduction to a given collection or set which explains who I was when I got these and why the set was important to me. This is a big project but I’m looking forward to it.

Moskau Memories

Jason Schwartz, one of the new co-chairs of our Committee, does a little game on our Facebook page. He takes little sections of four different cards and we’re supposed to guess who the player is.  Here’s a “Cardboard Detective” from May 15:

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Immediately I knew it was Paul Moskau. For reasons unknown, his 1978 Topps cards is indelibly burned in my brain. I’m not quite clear why Paul Moskau holds a secure place in my memory, but I have some theories.

Not that I didn’t have a keen eye on the Big Red Machine, but after Tom Seaver was traded to Cincinnati mid-1977, I was more attentive. Moskau was, as far as I recall, heralded as part of the new wave of Reds starters. He, along with Mike LaCoss, Bill Bonham, Mario Soto, and Frank Pastore were the pitching staff that would continue where Don Gullett, Jack Billingham and Clay Carroll left off.

Not sure why, at least where it comes to Moskau.  He had success in the low minors, but was clearly mediocre in AA. He didn’t get better in the big leagues.

Seaver was definitely the entry point, but I was hooked on these Reds pitchers. Moskau was my favorite, and I think a lot has to do with his 1978 card. It’s a solid picture, making him instantly known. I assume I saw him pitch, either at Shea Stadium or on TV, but, really, my knowledge of Paul Moskau’s look is through his cards. The cards, as they often did, came first.

Moskau floundered in the majors, his best ERA+ coming in the 1977 season, when he was slightly below average (98). He bottomed out at 57 with the Cubs in 1983 and was gone.

The Cubs? I had no idea he was with Chicago, and with the Pirates the year before? No way. If you had asked me about Paul Moskau’s career, and there’s no reason why you would have, I would have bet that he was a lifelong Red. Why? BECAUSE THERE ARE NO CARDS OF HIM ON ANY OTHER TEAM! I read a lot of books and magazines about baseball back then, and watched a lot of games, but it was in the cards that I relied on where players played and how they appeared.

I’m glad I recently discovered this about Moskau. I still have a fond spot for him in my baseball memories. Here’s something I have, picked up in Cooperstown for a couple of bucks.

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Dealing from the Bottom

I once read that good collectors sell the bottom of their collection to pay for what they need. That seemed very shrewd and made me realize I was not a good collector, at least by this standard. It’s only in recent years that I’ve sold the bottom, or some of the bottom (doubles, triples, stuff I don’t want) to subsidize my new needs.

In the early ‘90’s, my interest in cards and my income were equally high, and I thought I’d begin to pursue one card of every Hall of Famer from when they were active. Of course I was covered from the 1950’s on (not counting Negro Leaguers, 19th Century guys and other similar cases), but I started in somewhat earnest. Within a few years that goal disappeared. I don’t think in a way that makes a personal collection of random cards, from various years, interesting to me. I don’t like things so open-ended and the failure of this effort underscored my collecting, and psychological, MO.

But I did get some nice pre-war cards, including two from the 1928 George Ruth Candy Company set of six. Thinking on it recently, I concluded that I don’t need two Ruth cards. One is plenty and selling the other would help me with my current needs. I listed it on eBay, ungraded, but I’ll likely get it slabbed by SGC. My gut tells me I’ll get $1250-1500, but who knows. I can’t even remember what I paid for it, though I know I bought both at once and I never spent a ton on anything.

Ruth front

Ruth back

So is a 90-year- old Babe Ruth card in the bottom of my collection? Can’t be, right, but I’m not so sure. It’s an extra, though not a double. I’m never going to finish that set (nor do I want to) and, the more I think about it, the more I WANT to sell it. And that, realizing that a card could be a one of a kind in my collection yet still be disposable, is liberating.

About 15 years ago, I decided I really wanted autographed cards of ARod and Jeter. I’ve always like Rodriguez, still do, but never cared one way or the other about Jeter. I got a good deal on a signed 1993 Jeter Upper Deck rookie, with LOA. I think it cost around $75. Noodling around on eBay I saw that one sold in the neighborhood of $300 (listed there, best offer accepted). Once I saw that I was intrigued. (Thought you’d guys would like to see the page Jeet is on.)

If someone walked into my house and said they’d trade me a 1956 Mantle in EX for the Jeter auto card and a couple hundred bucks, I’d take the deal (after saying “What the hell are you doing in my house?”). I know that to be true. Yet I’m having a harder time listing the card, getting the dough first, and then searching for the Mantle in the $450-500 range.

The jury’s still out on this. If I do list the Jeter, it’s going to open up the floodgates and I’ll look at what I have in a different light. There’s a lot in my collection that would qualify as “this is really nice, but I’d rather have that.”

Is that the bottom? I don’t know. I’ll let you know if I get there.

Christmas Cards

The week before Christmas has been a good one for cards. That’s too bold; the week before Christmas has been a good one for me getting cards. I have no idea how cards in general are doing. A few random stories:

Though a long time collector, my re-immersion into the hobby the past year and a half has come with some re-education. I am consistently surprised by the variations in pricing and how, with patience, there’s always an opportunity to get what I need at a price I can bear.

My pursuit of a 1956 Topps set has been slow in comparison to the pedal to the metal pace of my 1960, 1968 and 1969 set building. I’ve gotten lots on eBay of cards in EX or better for less than $3 a card, low numbers and high, but there are usually too many cards in those lots that I already have. I never end up selling my doubles for more than $2 per card.

On Monday an eBay seller, justcollectcards, had a big 40% off sale. I was almost late for a lunch appointment because I went through all their EX listings. It was worth it though. I got 60 cards, including Minnie Minoso and a couple of teams, for $2.75 each. That put a huge dent in my checklist. Now I know I’m not going to get the big dollar cards for any discount from book, but if I keep getting the rest of the set for about 1/3 of stated value, I should have enough savings to make the Mantle and Ted Williams somewhat easier to swallow.

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Cooperstown definitely needs more general interest stores, but that’s a difficult hurdle to jump with a year round population of around 1,800, slightly more if you add the surrounding area. Are there too many baseball stores? Sure. Do I want there to be no baseball stores? Absolutely not.

I’m not a binder and sheets person by nature but it has definitely been easier to put sets together when I can add a few cards into pages, rather than pull out boxes and sort through all the cards to put the new ones in their proper numerical place every time I get two new cards.

Yesterday Joey met me at Yastrzemski Sports on Main St., where I usually buy my supplies. I decided I’d put my 1967 set in sheets, since all my pre-1970 sets seem to have ended up stored that way. Joey needed sheets for his hoped for misprinted, psychedelic card collection.  

We got what we needed plus I found a 1988 Pacific Eight Men Out set for $5! Any set with four Studs Terkel cards is worth having.

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From there we headed to Baseball Nostalgia by Doubleday Field. I’m sure I’ve written how BN is my favorite store, filled with cards, cheap autographs, yearbooks and more. It’s been in Cooperstown, in a few different forms, since the mid-1970’s. Pete at the store had read the post I wrote about Joey’s quest for cards with messed up printing and he emailed me to say that he had a bunch of 1976 SSPC misprints. (Baseball Nostalgia began as a TCMA flagship.)

Boy, did he have misprints! Joey bit the bullet and bought all 140 of them, each a trippy nightmare of color mistakes. The Bruce Bochte card (left) looks like a still from a Peter Fonda movie and our buddy John D’Acquisto (right) seems to have two sets of eyes. Freaky stuff.

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A signed Jose Cardenal baseball Legends card caught my eye. You can’t beat the price!

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And so, that’s how my card year is ending. The 1956s are on their way, as are 4 more 1936 Goudey Wide Pens.

I’ll wrap things up as I did last year, with great thanks to Mark Armour and Chris Dial for not only restarting the SABR Baseball Cards Committee, but dragging me, quite willingly, into participating in a big way. That’s been the best gift of all.

Pat Neshek, Card Collector

61nefYpg0RL._SY445_I’ve had a few opportunities to be in the Colorado Rockies clubhouse and to ask players about memorabilia they collect. Those who do collect are few and far between, though Mark Reynolds has a pretty extensive Hall of Fame autograph collection.

Pat Neshek, who was acquired this past July by the Rockies from the Philadelphia Phillies for their wild card push, is a bit of a throwback in that regard. He loves collecting baseball cards and autographs. His passion comes across in the many interviews he gives on card collecting, how he interacts with his fans on Twitter and his eagerness to autograph any cards he receives. Not only does he collect cards about himself, but he approaches collecting with a professional eye as he cultivates cards that improve his 1970 Topps set which in 2014 was ranked third best in quality in the world. He’s since improved that to the best set in the world. Recently I got the chance to talk to him and ask him about his favorite cards and his collecting beliefs.

Richard Bergstrom (RB): Do you remember the process for getting pictured on your first card?

Pat Neshek (PN): The first card you get is when you are in the minors, when you will get one with your team. It was in 2002 with my first team, the Elizabethon Twins. But my first Topps card was a 2006 Box Topper.

You had to buy a case of cards, then if you opened the case the Box Topper is the one on the top. They weren’t even in pack, but that was my first card. There were 50 different box toppers so your chance of getting it was 1 in 50 so it was really hard to get. They made 600 of my Box Topper and then they made a refractor of that. Twenty-five of those — it was pretty cool that Topps did that but I had to rely on eBay to get those. Once, I actually did buy four cases and I did pull a couple of mine but I didn’t get one of the refractors. Still eBay is a great source.

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RB: What’s been your favorite baseball card of yourself?

PN:They made a short print card in 2007. I don’t know what quantity was released but it’s kind of a hard card to find. It was in Topps Heritage. I just don’t see many of them. People send autographs in and I maybe get two or three of them a year in the mail, so it’s pretty rare.

RB: What’s your favorite thing about that Heritage card??

PN: It’s scarcity. I tried to get a print run of them but they never gave it out. Whenever I see them, I usually buy them. You can usually get them for like three, four or five bucks. Sometimes you have to pay eight or nine. But there was like a hundred and ten short prints that year. I just don’t see the card so it’s a card I collect of myself.

RB: So Topps didn’t send you one directly?

PN: No, they never do. That’s the thing. People think we get boxes of them. No, you don’t get any. They’ll give you a check in spring training for $500 bucks for using your image. But no, we don’t get any from them. I have to buy my own usually or people will send them to me and I’ll give them out.

RB: How did you get into collecting?

PN: Like a lot of kids in the 80s, that was the cool thing to do. Then I kind of got away from it. But when I went to college, my roommate, he used to collect autographs a lot at hotels and after Triple A baseball games so I kind of tagged along a few nights and I thought it was really fun so I started getting into it a little bit. A lot of good stories, that’s what I enjoyed the most.

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RB: It doesn’t seem like many players collect cards anymore.

PN: It’s weird. Certain guys collect certain things. I know with the Phillies, Howie Kendrick did a lot of bobbleheads from the 60s. A few guys did balls, some guys did jerseys. But not many guys collect. There’s a few guys who do cards. Brad Ziegler does it. Chris Perez did for a little bit. You kind of got to get to know each guy. I think a lot of guys do collect but they just don’t let it be known.

RB: It seems harder to get autographs from players than it used to be.

PN: It does. That’s why I started building a lot of these Topps sets to get signed. I think a lot of these guys are making a lot of money and it’s not worth their time to do a signing for $500 bucks and a lot of guys don’t do their mail so I don’t think it’ll be as easy as it was in the 70s and 80s with the fan interaction.

RB: What are your favorite sets?

PN: I love the old cardboard. I don’t like the new stuff with the gloss. I really like the Topps Heritage design. They’ll take it back 49 years so they’re doing 1968 this year. I’m looking forward to [2019 when] the 1970 set with the gray border comes out. I got the best PSA graded (original 1970 Topps) set in the world. I’ve been doing that for 11 years now. It’s hard. I always look for upgrades but they’re not out there. I’ll look forward to it in two years when they make that Heritage set.

RB: Do you have any favorite statistics on the back of cards?

PN: I liked it when I was a kid a lot because it helped you understand math and you could compute averages and make sure your work was right. The set building you get to know, I was born in 1980 but when I work on my 1970s sets I know a lot of who was on that team that year, where that guy’s been, what kind of hitter he was. And they had really cool cartoons back then. Some of the heritage do have good cartoons this year.

RB: Do you still chew the old gum?

PN: I did buy a box of Garbage Pail, built a really cool set of Garbage Pail Kids like eight years ago. I tried some of that gum… it was disgusting! Yeah, I bought like six boxes so when I got done. I think I put a picture on Twitter. It was pretty nasty. Some of it had brown stains on the gum. If you go back to the cellophane packs from the 1970, that gum is completely white. It can’t get any worse than that. It just turns into this candy cigarette chalk.

RB: When I was a kid, I’d buy packs, then boxes, then I’d skip and just buy the set. How do you collect sets these days?

PN: It depends. Like, if I’m in it, I’ll try to buy some of the boxes just to see what I crack open. It’s hard to pull some real nice stuff in some of those boxes. I’ve come to the point now where I’m relying on eBay and I’ll just wait for that card to come up. There’s a lot of really cool local sets. Especially in the 1950s, the dog food ones. It seems every restaurant had a local team set.

RB: If you could bring back one thing that was done on older baseball cards, what would that be?

PN: I want cardboard. Just real cardboard. I think that would change a lot of stuff for me. Maybe make the printing process not as good as it is. Some cards are off-center so it really makes it tough but fun to find nice gem mint cards. I like the gum in there. They tried that with Topps Heritage a few years ago but I think that’s more of a logistics thing where they try to ship so much and for such a cost that the gum kind of screws everything up. But I’d really like to see the cardboard come back.

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