Faux Cards

I first started collecting baseball cards, at age 6, in 1967. As I have written elsewhere, this was before I knew anything about the real players and teams. The cards were my baseball school. Although my family was all Red Sox fans, I have no memory of the fabled 1967 season. Did I watch the World Series? I don’t know.

I became a real fan — watching games, following the standings — sometime during the 1968 season. I again collected cards, probably from the start of the season, and gradually learned what was up. The 1968 Red Sox were my first “team”.

Carl Yastrzemski was the big star, the most famous person in New England, but several Yaz teammates had excellent seasons. Ken Harrelson led the league in RBI and Ray Culp and Dick Ellsworth won 16 games each, decades before we learned that those stats were bullshit.

I might not have been bright enough to tell you that my heroes were wearing the uniforms of the Senators, Cubs and Phillies, respectively, and certainly not enough to have told you why. The reason, since you asked, is that all three men were recent acquisitions — the two pitchers joining up in the off-season, and Hawk the previous August. The photo boycott killed whatever chance Harrelson might have had to be donning Hub togs.

All of these guys were sorted with my Red Sox, and when I made batting order and pitching rotations I had to deal with all of this. Honestly, how I didn’t turn to a life of crime is a mystery.

Looking ahead to the 1969 season, baseball had become a full-blown obsession. I bought all the preview magazines I could, and even wrote my own essays about all the Red Sox players that forecast their seasonal statistics. (Spoiler: they were very bullish.)

Because of the MLBPA Topps photo boycott (of which I knew nothing), I still did not get Red Sox photos of my heroes. Topps provided some variety by using a different previous team for two of the three players. Complicating things further, a week into the season Harrelson and Ellsworth were traded to the Indians — Ellsworth’s late-series card reflected this change, so that his Cubs uniform was actually *three* teams ago by the time the card hit the shelves.

Culp remained in Boston for a few years, but Harrelson (an extremely popular player) and Ellsworth never did get a Topps photo showing their Red Sox days. I am not blaming Topps here, just illustrating that this was a frustration that kids used to go through, especially during the 1968-69 years.

As I will always believe you should “play with” your baseball cards, in the same way you should “play” your record collection and not just leave it sitting alphabetically on the shelf, I still keep my cards by team. So this issue remains.

In recent years, a number of people have been creating what I call “faux cards”. The card at the top of this post is a faux 1967 card of Rod Carew.

The late Bob Lemke was one of the first to make these seriously — he called them “Cards That Never Were” — creating fronts and backs and selling them on his web site. I am unaware of anyone today doing faux cards with both a front and a back, although I could be wrong. Today you can find a lot of people selling “front-only” faux cards, with blank backs. There are also a lot of great artists creating electronic versions of the cards, so you can create your own with a good printer and paper cutter.

Here are a few.

I am fairly certain that I would have had a happier childhood, and a happier adulthood for that matter, had I pulled these cards out of my wax packs in 1968.

Of late I have been dabbling in these faux cards, and it has reminded me of why I fell in love with cards in the first place. It wasn’t to find a VG-EX card of someone who played before I was born; it was to find a great photo (with accompanying cartoon/quiz/stats) of Dick Ellsworth, or Julian Javier, or Roy White.

I should mention here that I have certain criteria for what makes a good faux card. These are rules for me, so you can feel free to make your own rules. (Including: they are all bad. You be you.)

  • Players who, for whatever reason, did not have a Topps card that year. When I was creating imaginary games involving the 1968 Oakland Athletics, I got tired of pretending that Reggie Jackson had the flu.
  • Players who were on Topps’s multi-player “rookie cards”, always inadequate but especially when you are one of the key players on the team. This Thurman card would have been badass. I should mention here that I also want the photo to have been taken either during or prior to the relevant season. This faux 1968 card of Bench (which Lemke made) shows a photo from 1969 which is a mistake in my view.
  • When you have a Topps card, but it shows you on the wrong team. This is not Topps’s fault, you got traded too late, but Alex Johnson won the 1970 batting title for the Angels so it is nice to see him in his correct livery.
  • When Topps gave you a card with the right team, but because of a recent trade or franchise move you are shown without your proper uniform.

For me, I don’t really have any need for a 1975 Mickey Mantle card, or the like. I am not passing judgment, it’s just not my thing. Similarly, I don’t need a faux card of Willie Mays in 1970 — Topps already made a perfectly good Mays card, I don’t need a new pose. The vast majority of Topps cards need no improvement.

I realize that most people don’t get the same joy out of using the 1970 Topps cards as a conduit to the 1970 baseball season, that they think of the cards as mere checklists to be completed. And that’s cool. The faux cards that work for me complement the Topps cards, and are a similar nostalgic teleport.

At the moment, I am considering taking that faux 1968 Aparicio and putting it in a sleeve with the Topps Aparicio “back” to create the perfect card that this wonderful player deserves. I have not done this yet. I am awaiting the right moment.

Collect-A-Books

As Mark noted in his post about Jim Bouton, his cards are collectable because of his position in the history of the game. For me and my generation of card collectors,* this influence extends beyond just Ball Four as Bouton is a big part of a few other products we remember fondly.

*Junk wax aficionados who came of age in the late 80s and early 90s.

Big League Chew of course is the big name here but I also grew up with Collect-A-Books and owned them before I’d even had a chance to read Ball Four. It was cool to read the book, learn about his life as an inventor in Ball Six, and realize that all those Collect-A-Books I owned were in fact a product that Bouton actually invented and owns the patent for.*

*Bouton has one other patent for something which he calls “Collect-A-Bats” in his book but which were actually produced by Good Humor under a different name and which you can come across on occasion on Ebay if you feel like buying something that a random seller may have sucked on thirty years ago.

While I liked them as a kid for being different, I found myself really appreciating them as objects once I revisited my collection as an adult. As a print and design geek these are super nifty.

Bouton’s patent is for a method of creating booklets through just folding and gluing. No staples or traditional binding, instead the sheets are printed, folded, glued and then you have a strip of booklets that just needs to be trimmed on the tops and bottoms. The covers are double-thick compared to the inside pages and the end result is just about perfect.

It feels like a baseball-card sized book without any of the worry about staples keeping the pages together. Nor do they feel any worse for wear after three decades in storage. Slides out of the pocket easily and even the glue is still holding.

Many of my magazines have rusty staples and pages that are pulling out even though I haven’t abused them. No such worries here. It handles like a card and flips through like a book and I don’t have to treat it with kid gloves.

Flipping through the booklets is a lot of fun. Not the best design but an interesting thought experiment about what you could include on a baseball card if you had seven times as much back space. So we’ve got a page of stats, a page of biography, a page of career highlights, an inspiration quote and facsimile signature, a cartoon caricature, a page of vital information, and four additional photos.

In some ways this is almost too much space and after putting literally everything that’s usually on the backs of cards things still feel nowhere nearly as information dense as they should be.

I had three sets of twelve booklets from 1990* and very much enjoyed them. Looking at the checklist now is a wonderful who’s who of the big names of the day—both stars and hot rookies—as well as a nice sample of nine all-time greats. The most-interesting thing about these 36 cards though is how few of the players were notable for multiple teams since this suggests something that would’ve been very fun for the insides.

*I never saw the 1991 ones.

All that space and all those photos offer a great way to show guys playing for different teams and at various stages in their careers. Unfortunately there’s precious little of this. There’s one photo of Nolan Ryan as a Met and Warren Spahn’s card depicts him in a Boston uniform as well as a Mets uniform. No Rickey Henderson as a Yankee. No Hank Aaron with Milwaukee. Bob Feller and Ted Williams are old in all their photos.

But that’s all minor stuff. The real issue for me is that I want to display these better moving forward. 9-pocket pages are obviously insufficient. Instead I’m going to switch to 4-pockets and pick which inside spread I want to show on the other side. These deserve better than to be encased all closed up with only 25% of their content visible.

Back Story: Bowman Bows Out (on Color Television!)

Note: This is Part IV oa series focusing primarily on the material featured on the backs of baseball cards (previous articles featured the 1956 Topps1960 Topps, and 1954 Topps/Bowman sets). 

By 1955, the battle for baseball-card supremacy between Bowman and Topps had been going on for several years. And though Topps was making some inroads, Bowman still had the edge when it came to established stars signed to exclusive contracts. Frankly, it wasn’t even close. Here’s a comparison of the number of players named to the American and National League teams for the 1954 All-Star Game who were featured in each company’s 1955 card set. 

1954 MLB All-Stars in 1955 Bowman & Topps Baseball Card Sets 

Only Bowman              32 players 

Only Topps                   16 players 

Both Sets                         4 players 

The All-Stars who appeared in both sets were Yogi Berra, Gil Hodges, Sherm Lollar and Willie Mays. (Somewhat mysteriously, three 1954 All-Stars had cards in neither 1955 set: Larry Doby, Don Mueller, and Stan Musial). Bowman also boasted four future Hall of Famers who didn’t make the 1954 All-Star teams: Richie Ashburn, Bob Feller, Ralph Kiner, and Early Wynn; Topps only had a well-past-his-prime Hal Newhouser. (Non-1954 All-Star but future Hall of Famer Phil Rizzuto had cards in both sets.)  

Yet despite Bowman’s edge in overall star power, Topps had been beating Bowman pretty handily in the marketplace. Kids just seemed to prefer the innovative, attractive design of the Topps cards, a credit to the work of Topps’ master card designer, Sy Berger. 

So in 1955, Bowman pulled out all the stops in their card design, on both the fronts and the backs. While my primary focus continues to be the material on the backs of the cards, the fronts of the 1955 Bowman and Topps sets deserve a look as well. That year, both Bowman and Topps used a horizontal (or landscape) design on their card fronts for the first time. The Topps cards featured both a head shot and a small “action pose” of each subject, set against a solid colored background. This was essentially the same design that Topps had used in 1954; the main difference was that the head shot and action pose had been in vertical (or portrait) mode in ’54. For players who had cards in both its 1954 and 1955 sets, Topps often used the same head shot in both sets (and continued to use the same head shot in 1956). 

The 1955 Bowman cards, by contrast, were completely new and daring. Color television was brand-new in 1955—the first color TV sets had only become available to the mass market in 1954, and there were next to no actual color broadcasts available—but Bowman put the new medium into the hands of card collectors by featuring each subject on the screen of a wood-grained color TV. Pretty “hep,” as we cool cats used to say back in ’55. 

But did the new design work? Before moving on to the backs of the 1955 Topps and Bowman cards, let’s compare the card fronts of a few players featured in both sets that year. Here’s Ernie Banks, a young star who would have his first big season in 1955. 

I have to say that, then and now, I preferred Ernie’s dreamy-eyed look on his Bowman card to the blank expression featured on both his Topps head shot and action pose. (He looks like he’s saying, “Let’s play none today!”) Even so, there is one problem with the Bowman design that was apparent even to a kid unconcerned with the future value of his cards: with no white border on the edge of the cards, those Bowman TV sets could often start to look pretty beat up. 

Like Banks, Al Kaline had his breakthrough season in 1955, and I like the fronts of both his Bowman and Topps cards: relaxed and confident on the Bowman, determined kid on the Topps. Two nice cards. 

Steve Bilko’s Bowman card shows him staring off in the distance… maybe toward the Pacfic Coast League, where he was about to become a legend as a slugger with the minor league Los Angeles Angels. Bilko’s Topps card isn’t exactly beautiful, but the head shot gives you a better glimpse of him, and the corkscrew swing and Cubbie logo are nice touches.  

Give Bowman points for innovation; its 320-card set featured not only the TV-set design, but 31 cards devoted to major-league umpires (including one for American League umpire supervisor Cal Hubbard, a future member of both the baseball and pro football Halls of Fame)—certainly a unique touch. 

Bowman continued the innovations on its card backs: about one-fourth of the Bowman cards had articles supposedly written by the player on subjects such as “My Biggest Thrill in Baseball,” “My Childhood Hero,” “The Best Hitter I’ve Ever Seen,” and “My Advice to Youngsters.” I’m sure that seemed like a promising idea to Bowman, but the result was usually pedestrian and sometimes outright comical. Let’s look at a few examples. 

Typical of the genre were “The Most Important Part of Baseball” by Don Hoak and “My Advice to Youngsters” by Rip Repulski.  “As far as I’m concerned, ‘Hustle’ is the most important part of baseball,” writes Don. “Never give up,” says Rip. Good advice, to be sure, but it makes for pretty dull reading. Heck, when Don Hoak was in the minors, he was one of four members of the Fort Worth Cats who were married at home plate (by four different ministers) before the start of the game. Wouldn’t that have made a good “Greatest Thrill” article? 

The afore-mentioned Steve Bilko’s card has an article entitled “My Favorite Memories in Baseball.” His biggest thrill was the day he hit four home runs in one game, but he doesn’t mention when or where it happened; it definitely was not in the major leagues, and I’ve yet to track down a four-home game by Bilko in his minor-league career, either. When and where it happened would have been pretty nice to know. Bilko picks Willie Mays’ great catch in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series as the best catch he’s ever seen, but as he was neither a member of the Giants nor the Indians, he likely only saw the catch on film or on (black and white) television. He picks picks Stan Musial as baseball’s best hitter and Robin Roberts as the best pitcher. Not exactly scintillating stuff. 

“The Most Exciting Game in Which I’ve Played” by White Sox catcher Sherm Lollar recounts a 1953 game in which the Sox—trailing 3-1 with the bases loaded and two outs in the top of the ninth—beat the Yankees with a pinch-hit, grand-slam home run by Tommy Byrne. But Lollar gets some of the details wrong, and doesn’t mention the fact that Byrne was a pitcher, the main reason why the homer was so memorable. Even more strangely, Byrne had a card in the ’55 Bowman set, but the Bow-men did not select Tommy for one of those “Greatest Thrill” first-person articles, opting instead for a boilerplate rundown of his career. 

Then there is “My Biggest Thrill in Baseball,” by Eddie Waitkus. “In 1949, I was shot by a deranged girl,” it begins, recounting the bizarre incident in which a female fan who was obsessed with Waitkus invited him to her hotel room and then shot him in the chest. (The incident was later fictionalized in The Natural by Bernard Malamud.) The article recounts Waitkus’s recovery, with the help of the woman who became his wife, and it’s a heck of a story, but… getting shot… that’s your “greatest thrill”? 

The backs of the 1955 Topps cards avoided such histrionics, instead opting for a prose rundown of the player’s career, his 1954 and lifetime stats, and a cartoon Q&A that was very similar to the “Dugout Quiz” featured on the backs of the Topps 1953 set. Here are three examples, using players who also had Bowman cards that year. 

To summarize, the Bowman 1955 cards were very creative on both sides of the card, while the Topps cards recycled formats they had used previously, down to even using the same head shots from 1954. Bowman also had a bigger set—320 cards versus 206 for Topps (the Topps set was supposed to have 210 cards, but they had to pull four players who turned out to have exclusive contracts with Bowman)—along with more star players. Yet Topps dominated the marketplace once again.  Why was that? Here are a few reasons: 

  • As card dealer and author Dean Hanley has pointed out, Topps countered Bowman’s edge in overall star power with a stronger first series. That included baseball’s biggest star of the day—Ted Williams (who had shifted from Bowman to Topps in 1954), along with Jackie Robinson and Warren Spahn. Additionally, the Topps first series included rising stars Banks, Kaline, and Hank Aaron; all three players appeared in the Bowman set as well, but only Kaline was part of Bowman’s first series. Topps was faster out of the gate. (Topps did similar in 1954 as well.)
  • Hanley also notes that Topps’ last series included the likes of Yogi Berra, Gil Hodges, Willie Mays, and Duke Snider, while Bowman was countering with a series full of lesser lights and umpires. Topps had Bowman coming and going. 
  • The Bowman set included some quality control issues, like blurry photos; mixing up the card fronts and backs for Milt and Frank Bolling and Ernie and Don Johnson; and misspelling Harvey Kuenn’s last name. Bowman issued corrected cards for the Bolling, Johnson and Kuenn gaffes, but the damage was done. 
  • With the TV-set design taking up a large part of the borders of the Bowman cards, the player photos were smaller by necessity. That was a major contrast to the large head shots on the Topps cards, and an obvious disadvantage. Here’s Hanley again, from his excellent book The Bubble Gum Card War: The Great Bowman & Topps Sets from 1948 to 1955: “There is too much wasted canvas space [in the Bowman set]. Most of the pictures of the players are standing upright, resulting in smaller pictures and a lot of empty background. The design of the 1955 Topps set did a much better job of filling the canvas and creating a more attractive product.” Amen to that!

Ultimately Topps outsold Bowman again in 1955, as it had for the previous few years; kids just liked the Topps cards better. As a Chicago-area youngster who was just beginning to collect baseball cards in the spring and summer of 1955, I can attest to that: I and most of my friends preferred the look and feel of the Topps cards, with their large head shots and team logos on the card front, and the clever cartoons on a clear white background on the back.  

By the time the 1956 baseball season rolled around, Bowman was out of the trading card business (the final nail in Bowman’s coffin came when Topps issued its first football card set in the fall of 1955, an all-time college All-American set that logged better sales than Bowman’s NFL cards). This was a major loss for collectors: whether or not they sold as well as Topps, the Bowman cards were always great, and continue to be a worthy part of anyone’s collection. 

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.

Junk Wax for the win!

Okay, I admit it. I’m kind of a collecting snob. As a vintage collector I tend to thumb my nose at modern and recoil instantly at anything that shines, refracts, redeems, rainbows, or retails for more than 30 cents a pack. So what was I doing this past weekend up to my ears in junk wax?!

Card collecting at its best…REALLY!

The plan hatched innocently enough. Following my baseball card presentation at our last SABR Chicago meeting, a few of the attendees and I were in the parking lot chatting about cards. One of the members, Rich, mentioned that he had a lot of unopened 1989 Fleer from the early (uncensored F*Face) print runs and would happy donate a cello box to the right occasion.

Meanwhile, one of my best buddies from high school, a guy I opened thousands of packs with back in the day, was up from Los Angeles on a work assignment. Abe no longer collected cards, but I knew there would be plenty of room for at least one evening of waxing nostalgic.

Abe on a more typical evening

Also joining the fun were Bill, whose chapter newsletters must be the best in all of SABR, and John, who writes on here as Baseball Law Reporter and is also the man behind the incredibly ambitious and useful Baseball Sites Project.

After some pizza and a few innings of Astros-Yankees on the main floor, we headed down to the basement, and Rich brought out the 1989 Fleer. How he had resisted opening the packs all this time was a mystery to me, but it worked out well for us. Or more specifically, it worked out VERY well for Abe, who managed to land all three of these gems!

Inside joke but Abe himself was the “Luckmaster” this past weekend!

As for my own stack of 1989 Fleer, it’s possible not a single card is worth more than a quarter (if even!), but it didn’t stop me from being excited any time I pulled a good player. Eddie Murray, Kirk Gibson, Dave Parker…the hits just piled up. As much as I love cards of the 1930s, the truth is it was THESE cards where I knew all the players, saw many of them play, and remembered the feeling of finding them in packs. Junk or not, nostalgia is in the memories, never the value.

From there we went on to 1981 Fleer, which brought back my age 11 memory of pulling the “C” Nettles at a card show and literally fainting! Riding his earlier hot streak, Abe (of course!) was the one to pull a Nettles, but it was the corrected Graig Nettles version. Of course he still managed the best hit of the box, the Fernand [sic] Valenzuela rookie card. Yes, I know the card is available on eBay for $1, but I still couldn’t help being insanely jealous of the pull.

You had ONE job, 1981 Fleer typesetter!

One thing that caught our eye with the 1981 Fleer box to retailers informing them of the two free packs (hence 60 cents extra profit!) contained in each box. And sure enough, there were those two extra packs, crammed sideways between the main stacks of wax. As card-obsessed as I was as a kid, this was wholly uninteresting to me back in 1981 but today reveals an important marketing strategy Fleer used to establish a foothold in the newly competitive baseball card retail space.

We also had some fun opening my 20 or so assorted 1988 Score packs and a box of 1988 Donruss. Every 20 minutes or so, one of us would run up to see if my 1981 Donruss box had been delivered, but sadly it never did arrive on time. Still, opening packs was only half the fun we had planned for the night.

At least partly to troll John for his recent article on the worst baseball card set ever, I brought out my never-been-played, had-to-empty-my-TV-remotes-for-batteries 1989 Main Street Baseball game. Of course there was no way we were using the ugly cards that came with the game, not when we had heaps and heaps of 1980s wax sitting right in front of us!

John, I hope it’s cool I stole your photo!

For what must have been the next 90 minutes, we proceeded to dig through our stacks of freshly opened cards, trying to find actual baseball cards of each of the players on our team. One fantastic attribute of junk wax became immediately apparent as readily handed off our Nolan Ryan, Tony Gwynn, and George Brett cards to whichever guy had the adhesive stat strip for the player. WE COULD GIVE THESE CARDS AWAY FOR FREE AND NOT CARE AT ALL!

This would have been unthinkable back in the 1980s!

Yes, the fact that many cards in our collections are worth money can feel like a positive sometimes, and the fact that we can probably flip a $80 card for at least $75 down the road makes us feel a little less crazy spending nice-dinner-out-with-the-family money on a little square of cardboard.

But let’s face it; the value of our cards is also the single greatest barrier to enjoyment. When your cards are worth money, it’s hard to give them away, it’s hard to even make trades, you’re not going to flip them, they won’t go near a bicycle tire, and you might not even want to touch them! What kind of hobby is this?!

Meanwhile, here we were with our junk wax not only sharing them freely (except Billy Ripken!) but even…YES!…putting stickers on them! (Side note: Did Puckett’s 1988 Score bio really say, “Sporting a shaved head and a chunky body shaved like a bowling ball…?” YES!)

Hoping my son can crack the code and build me a secret weapon player who homers every at-bat!

I’d say the game was anti-climactic after all the fun we had finding the cards we needed and affixing bar codes, but would that really do justice to a 4-3 thriller featuring a lead-off homer from Rickey, 8 strong innings from Orel Hershiser, and an oh-so-close ninth inning rally that left the tying run on third and winning run on second?

Sure the graphics were little red blips and the game seemed to skip an inning on us randomly, but the truth was this 1989 electronic baseball technology was far superior to anything I actually played as a kid!

The simple, intuitive interface inspired Steve Jobs as he was creating the iPod

Back to the cards, though, here is what the evening brought home to my snobby collecting self. There is a place in EVERY collection for worthless cards, the kind you can trade, give away, keep in your wallet, put stickers on, or—as Rich did at one point in the evening—use as a beverage coaster. There really is a certain kind of fun you can only have with worthless cards.

Junk wax connects us to the purity of the hobby in a way that no other cards can. It allows us to know the feeling of opening a pack of 1933 Goudey or 1952 Topps. Yes, the players are different, but more importantly the experience is the same. Like our hobby ancestors, here we are opening packs of cards for no other reason than a love for little pieces of cardboard with baseball players on them. That, my friends, is winning!

It Was 47 Years Ago Today (Give or Take)

I’ve been spending a lot of time in 1972 the last week, the first year I completed the full Topps set (and the last year that brand new, very old Mets’ pitching coach Phil Regan had his LAST card as a player.)

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The week began with a little Father’s Day present to myself – a binder and box of sheets. I tend not to put complete baseball sets I already have in binders. I reserve that for sets I’m building. It’s so much easier to put a recently acquired card or two in a binder than pull out a box that is, invariably, in a logistically hard to get place. However, in the interests of maximally efficient storage, a binder for the ‘72s was necessary.

It’s a set I love more for what it reminds me of than how it looks (though I like how it looks). We had moved to the middle of Suffolk County, Long Island (Lake Grove to be exact) in December 1971. It was a hard move to make, going from Brooklyn in 1971 to LI stuck in 1961. By spring and summer of 1972 it was getting better for me, but the baseball cards of that year were my best medicine. I can see myself on the concrete pad outside our front door opening a full box of packs, my greatest youthful extravagance, $2.40 of cobbled together loose change brought much joy.

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Looking at the sets 9-card pages at a time, brought to mind a constant question of mine. Why is the last series so much brighter looking?

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One Twitterer commented that he thought “The later series were much clearer images than many found in the first few. It looks like there is a blue filter on many of the earlier 1972 cards. This photography was done in spring training.” Here’s #130, Bill Freehan.

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Another collector thought, maybe, that Topps used different card stock at the end of the baseball line, as they turned to football. They don’t feel any different, but I don’t know.

It seemed like the 6th series never made it to me (similar to the 1972 3rd Series Football, though less extreme). I bought tons of packs back then, so there’s no reason I can think of why I have only three doubles. I ended up buying the whole series after the season ended and, weirdly, the toughest series is my best condition one.

And, speaking of doubles, I sold 492 cards this morning to a friend who only recently found out I collected cards. As my wife said afterwards, collecting is so intrinsic to who I am, it’s amazing everyone doesn’t know. Funny, you all do, but many people who I know well don’t. That says something about me, though I’m not sure what.

I have been selling cards lately, but there’s something extra nice of getting them to someone who really wants or needs them. My friend now has a nice running start on a set in EX or EXMT condition, and he got to pick from multiples for the card he liked best.

I don’t think almost 10 year old me would have liked parting with those cards, but almost 57 year old me approves.

Worst Baseball Card Set Ever

Main Street Toy Company was a 10-person outfit that was formed in the wake of Coleco’s demise. Main Street’s founder, Gene Murtha, was a former vice president of marketing for Coleco.  He assembled a small team of executives to run a new toy company poised to “learn[] lessons from Coleco’s mistakes.”

Main Street found quick success with Slap Wraps, a plastic-coated steel strip that would automatically curl around the wrist when slapped on one’s arm. The company sold upwards of $4 million worth of Slap Wraps in 1990. Unfortunately, this was the only successful product in its lineup and by 1991, Main Street had been gobbled up by a competitor and dissolved.

But, what does all of this have to do with baseball cards you ask?

Well, Main Street Toy Company marketed the worst baseball card set ever in 1989. Patented by video game stalwart Eric Bromley and assigned to the fledgling company, Main Street Baseball was an electronic game that used statistics for individual MLB players to help determine game play outcomes. According to the box, you could “Steal a base like Vince Coleman” or “Pinch hit like Kirk Gibson.” Wow!

Player information was embedded in bar codes that were printed onto small stickers designed to be affixed to the back of that player’s baseball card. In theory, this was not a bad idea at all. In practice, however, the kids who wanted to play Main Street Baseball were encouraged to deface baseball cards of their favorite players and then slide them through a slot to scan the bar code. Oh, the humanity!

Main street bar codes

The game included bar codes that contained the 1988 statistics for over 100 players, along with an offer to purchase bar code stickers for each of the 26 teams in MLB at the time. And have I mentioned that the Main Street Baseball game was packaged with the worst baseball card set ever?

Officially licensed by the MLBPA, Main Street was authorized to use the names and statistics for the superstars of the day and produced a 24-card set that featured standard-sized cards. The complete set includes:

NL players: Bobby Bonilla, Will Clark, Andre Dawson, Kirk Gibson, Dwight Gooden, Orel Hershiser, Tim Raines, Nolan Ryan, Ryne Sandberg, Benny Santiago, Ozzie Smith and Darryl Strawberry.

AL players: Wade Boggs, George Brett, Jose Canseco, Roger Clemens, Dennis Eckersley, Carlton Fisk, Don Mattingly, Paul Molitor, Kirby Puckett, Alan Trammell, Frank Viola and Dave Winfield.

The backs of the cards are unnumbered and list only biographical information and rudimentary statistics from each player’s 1988 campaign— batting average, home runs and stolen bases for position player and won-loss record, ERA and strikeouts for pitchers. And, of course, a spot was designated for the bar code sticker.

Main street back

Although the production run is unknown, these cards can be difficult to find. So why would a difficult-to-find set comprised of half Hall of Famers be so brutal, you may be asking?

Well, the cards do not include photos or illustrations of the players.

Main street al front

What? Wait a second. A set of cards that was licensed by the MLBPA does not include any player photos? Not even pictures with the team logos airbrushed out?

Nope.

Main street nl card fronts

Strictly for completionists, the Main Street Baseball cards are the worst ever—unless you have a thing for wholly generic baseball art and a dearth of statistical information. As for the game—who knows. I was never willing to destroy my cards to play it.

Sources:

Anthony Ramirez, “Turning Profits Hand Over Wrist,” New York Times, October 27, 1990.

Pamela Klein, “Fad Wanes, But Marketers, Creators Still Feud,” Hartford Courant, September 2, 1991.

“Canadian Firm Gets Main Street Toy Lines,” Hartford Courant, November 27, 1991.

United States Patent Number 5,026,058, issued June 25, 1991.

http://electronicbaseball.blogspot.com/2014/06/main-street-toy-company-main-street.html (Note: Author’s blog with further information and photos)