The Gould Collection: What Johnny Left Behind

Just a few days before the opening of “Home Base,” my exhibition about the history of baseball in New York City, I received an email from a woman who had been steered my way by the esteemed official historian of Major League Baseball, John Thorn. The content of the email was, mostly, something I have seen before. A family had inherited a baseball card collection. They believed it had some value but were looking for assistance as to which way to best navigate a sale.

In the few years I have been assisting people in selling their collections, I am, at best, usually approached with cards from the 1970s. Often, it’s even more recent and pretty worthless. I’ve disappointed many a soul when I told them that the five Wade Boggs rookie cards they hoarded as a kid weren’t going to make them a millionaire. I’ve reached a point where I understand that such collections aren’t worth the many hours that go into what it takes to inventory, organize and sell a collection, and I pass on the opportunity.

But, this email had two distinctive features. The first was the recommendation from John, who has the wisdom to know if something is the real deal. The second was that this family had already done a considerable amount of inventorying and research in the eight months since their uncle died. They sent me a series of handwritten lists they had created, which told me which sets they had and which cards were missing from each. It was intriguing enough that last week I decided to meet with them to see it in person.

I met the three sisters, Karen, Lynn, and Mary, and their mother, Gertrude. They made me a splendid breakfast and regaled me with stories of their uncle, Johnny Gould. Johnny (the handsome fellow whose picture is at the top of this blog) was born in 1940, was single for most of his life, and was living in the home that belonged to his parents when he died. He was remembered by his family as one who was both “salty and sweet,” a kind soul who was a bit of a reclusive loner. He was also a sports fanatic. All sports. He was a Redskins fan who was the quarterback in many a neighborhood pickup game. He liked basketball and was an avid watcher of golf. But, the true passion of his life was baseball.

Because Whalen only served as a scout for the Indians between 1953-’56, Johnny was clearly already on the radar of major league teams when he was a boy no older than 16.

As a youth, he pursued a professional career. Among the things he left behind in his collection were an interest letter from the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the business cards of John Whalen and Walter Youse, scouts for the Indians and Orioles, respectively. He signed with the Indians, as a pitcher, and was in their minor league system when an arm injury derailed his fledgling career. After his dreams of major league glory were dashed, he continued to channel his love of the game into collecting. It was an intense romance that resulted in a collection that has brought me to pen this little missive.

I am in the middle of inventorying the first five fifty-gallon storage tubs, and those represent just a portion of the collection. The cataloging process will likely take me several more weeks and as a result, I can’t accurately represent the sheer enormity of it, not just yet. However, I have seen enough that a story is starting to emerge.

Robinson’s 1950 Bowman image was based on a photograph taken by Barney Stein, the Dodgers official team photographer.

Johnny began collecting baseball cards in 1950, when he was a ten-year-old boy. His timing was synchronous with the explosion of the hobby, which had been mostly dormant during World War II. Johnny began with Bowman, the only real game in town at that point. That 1950 offering included what we now think of as key cards for Jackie Robinson, Ted Williams, and Yogi Berra. The nickels that Johnny paid for a pack of five cards (or one-card packs for a penny), resulted in him having multiple copies of those legendary players, and more, in this relatively affordable vintage set.

After he experienced the photo-based, lushly painted wonder of the 1950 Bowmans, he clearly became hooked. For the next 13 years he purchased every set that Bowman and Topps produced, with the seeming exception of 1960. The quantities he bought would vary, year to year. He was missing fewer than 50 cards that were produced by Bowman from 1950-1955. From Topps, he had a complete set of 1957, was missing only one (ironically inexpensive) card from the 1956 set, and was only a couple dozen cards shy of completing the sets from 1952-55.

Among the many, many cards that Johnny collected in his teens are some of the most iconic ones in the hobby. He not only owned the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle, perhaps second only to the famed T-206 Wagner in terms of desirability by collectors, but he had two 1951 Mantle Bowmans. There are multiple rookie cards for all of the biggest names of baseball’s golden age: Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Willie Mays, Eddie Mathews, Al Kaline, and Sandy Koufax are all represented, just to name a few. Johnny also, at one point in his life, started collecting pre-war cards, too. There are 1934-36 Batter Ups and Diamond Stars, 1935 Goudey 4-in-1s, 1933 Eclipse Imports and a fair sprinkling of 1939 Play Balls, including both the Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio rookie cards.

One of two Bowman ’51 Mantles in Johnny’s collection. The other one has much nicer corners, but I chose to use this image for the blog because the other is in a yellow Card Saver, making an ugly scan. Since I don’t want to touch them any more than is necessary, I chose to not pull it out just yet.
The 1939 Play Ball of Ted Williams is one of the most recognized rookie cards in the hobby, and one of the most frequently sought after, even when suffering from water damage.

The conditions of the cards vary. At some point he trimmed the ’52 Mantle so he could fit it into his wallet, according to the sisters. Most of the wear is more traditional. It’s clear from the ones dating back to the early years that Johnny loved his cards with a little boy’s enthusiasm. But, as he matured, he started to take better care of his collection. The borders of the 1962 Topps, with their dark faux woodgrain, are remarkably sharp and unchipped.

One habit superseded any desire he may have had to keep his cards pristine. Johnny went through a phase in the mid-’50s where he wanted to learn how to sign an autograph, just like his idols. What better arena in which to learn than on the cards themselves, where manufacturers frequently provided a facsimile signature? Johnny had nine copies of Hank Aaron’s 1956 Topps. Five of them feature what I believe are the sixteen-year-old’s florid attempts at replicating the tight signature of Hammerin’ Hank.

The creative autograph stylings of teenage Johnny Gould. Of these, I believe only the faded example on the top right is even potentially legitimate.

His habit of copying signatures almost made me miss a group of 1953 Bowmans that contain, what I now believe to be, legitimate autographs. At first I was working under the premise that they were also fakes, largely because the Mantle autograph looked so different from his more familiar style, with the half-moon M at the front of both parts of his alliterative moniker. Then, I took a second look. On the cards that were obvious forgeries, Johnny’s youthful attempts at copying the signatures weren’t very good. Not only did they look nothing like the real thing, but they were all obviously written in the same hand. The ’53 Bowmans not only seemed to be by different hands, but the cards themselves do not contain a facsimile to inspire his practice. That realization then triggered the memory that Mantle’s signature, like so many others, evolved over the years. With the help of sportscollectorsdigest.com I found a version of Mantle’s autograph from a similar era. I leave the comparison to you.

Top image: Johnny’s 1953 Bowman. Bottom image: Mantle’s 1954 Yankees contract.

Gertrude confirmed that Johnny started taking the bus to Griffith Stadium when he was thirteen. All of the signatures on the ’53 Bowmans, seven in total, were guys who played on American League teams, four of them Yankees. As such, there would have been an opportunity for Johnny to connect with each of them. I’m firmly convinced these signatures are real and will be keeping an eye open for even more examples as I inventory the rest of the collection.

One of three containers filled with hundreds of envelopes. Because he requested autographs for many years, one can observe the evolution of the signatures of players who replied to him more than once.

Autographs became very important to Johnny, ultimately overcoming his collection of baseball cards. While he appears to have mostly stopped buying cards around 1962, that year also marks the beginning of when he started a new hobby. Included in the collection are three boxes of envelopes, with approximately 150 envelopes per box. The dates on the postmarks span the years 1962-’97, and come from around the United States. It seems that Johnny wrote the ballclubs (and later in life, professional golfers), and sent them a SASE filled with blank index cards. The teams returned them, signed, with mixed results in terms of player participation. Often, only one player responded, signing multiple cards. Anyone in need of 12 copies of Charlie Spikes’s autograph?

Some of the envelopes, however, have taken my breath away. One postmarked from San Francisco in 1965 contained the autographs of six Hall of Famers, including Orlando Cepeda, Juan Marichal, Willie McCovey, Gaylord Perry, Warren Spahn and Willie Mays. Another contained almost the entire starting squad of the 1969 Mets, including Tom Seaver. A third featured many of the 1969 Pirates, including one signed by Roberto Clemente. I had never touched anything that was also once held by Clemente, a personal idol, and the experience left me shaken.

Johnny’s index card from 1969, bearing the signature of The Great One, Roberto Clemente.

The contents of the card collection itself are a rare experience for many hobbyists. A chance to dive into so many of these legendary pieces of cardboard is a precious opportunity indeed, and I expected to be moved by my discoveries along the way. But, I’m normally not an autograph guy. Even as a child, I found something awkward in asking a player to sign something for me. It felt like an invasion of their space, like I was a thief trying to steal their names. So, it is with no small amount of irony that I find myself most captivated by this collection of envelopes. The sisters did not have time to inventory their contents, so each is a surprise to me, and some of the names I am stumbling across are humbling.

The envelopes have also given me a chance to better understand Johnny Gould, the man. It is one thing for a ten (or twenty) year-old boy to spend a few dimes on packs of baseball cards. But to practice a habit for thirty-five years, carrying it through until well past middle-age, speaks to a particular mind. Lynn pointed out that while many of the cards were stored in literal shoeboxes, the envelopes lived in the top drawer of his dresser, always close at hand. Each one of those envelopes, all of them containing the same D.C. return address written in the same, neat, steady hand, is a testament to a passion I readily recognize. For Johnny, those index cards were transformed from simple squares of paper to direct links to the game that he gave his life to, in his most singular way. I, and likely most of you reading this post on this particular blog, can certainly relate.

Once I’m done cataloging all the index cards, I should probably go back and check on the value of the almost 500 stamps that he attached to his requests. The FDR stamp was a part of the USPS “Prominent Americans” series, issued between 1965-’78.

I am excited for what the next few weeks hold. There are still plenty of treasures to discover as I prepare to help the family sell their uncle’s legacy. There’s more I’ve already uncovered that I didn’t even mention this time around. Maybe I’ll have to write more about it as I journey down the path. In the meantime, if any of you might be interested in purchasing items from the Gould Collection, feel free to drop me a line at carhartcards@gmail.com. I’ll be over here, touching history.

Simulacra

Dave

Central among my beliefs is that the 1987 Topps set is the finest collection of baseball cards ever produced. There are no hard facts to support this claim, only my personal zealotry, and though I understand that my love is highly subjective, and the product of timing and circumstance as much as it is of accomplishment in design, I’m unshakable: this is the set, this is the year.

Arguments can and frequently are made for the 1952 Topps set, with its bold primary colours, its painterly portraits, and its Mickey Mantle rookie card, and had I been born a generation earlier I’d likely agree. If I’d been alive to see it first, I’d have been aware that the ‘87s owed much to the 1962 Topps, and so might’ve fallen in love with that set to the exclusion of all others. On the other hand the 1915 Cracker Jack set is iconic for good reason, and our impressions of the white border tobacco card set issued from 1909 to 1911 are necessarily favorable both for the design’s simplicity as well as for its inclusion of the famed Honus Wagner card.

But give me ’87.

Each card presents a photo, either action or posed, with the player’s team’s logo in a roundel in the upper-left corner, and the player’s name in a colored rectangular box with a black border in the lower right, the name rendered in an all-caps font that appears to be a kissing cousin to comic sans. But the background is what distinguishes: faux wood, the unstained grain of a Louisville Slugger running top to bottom, with enough subtle variance from card to card to suggest that real wood was used, or at least consulted, at some point during the design process. The overall effect places the cards adjacent to something real, something natural: wood bats swung through thick summer air, connecting with genuine horsehide balls, which are sent skidding across dirt and grass before settling into the soft, worn pockets of leather mitts.

Career stats—often including minor league numbers, if the player in question has only a year or two of big league experience, and so speaking offhandedly of Kinston, North Carolina, or Syracuse, New York, or Visalia, California—listed on the reverse in blue against a highlighter-yellow background, overtop an unbleached cardboard stock.

Beautiful.

In Canada they were branded O-Pee-Chee, and featured what felt like a token effort toward bilingualism, the player’s position in both French and English, as well as the small biographic fun facts, and yet with statistical categories listed only in English. They were otherwise virtually identical to the American originals.

I bought them from convenience stores—Becker’s on Youville Drive, or Mac’s on St. Joseph Boulevard—for thirty-five cents for a wax pack of 17 cards. If my father was sent out in the evening for a liter of milk, sometimes he’d come home with one in hand. My friends collected them, too, and we traded, with an eye toward amassing our favorites. We were not yet victims of the belief that these rectangles of paper would make us rich. This was a couple of years before the hobby became an industry, at least in my part of the world, characterized by conventions and trade shows where children were elbowed aside by grown men with dollar signs where their eyes ought to have been. The card and comic shop down the hill on St. Joseph hadn’t yet opened.

Joe Posnanski has said that baseball is never as beautiful as it is when you’re ten years old. I guess I’m testifying to that—or anyway, to that general time in my life between about eight and twelve. I watched the NBC Game of the Week, scattered Blue Jays games on CBC, TSN, and CTV, and a weekly digest show on CTV called Blue Jays Banter. When a Jays game wasn’t on TV, which was the norm, I listened to the broadcast on AM radio, CFRA or W-1310, on a transistor unit next to my bed.

Around the time that the Blue Jays reported to Dunedin for Spring Training, 1987, I would have started collecting the cards in question, noticing with great interest when the display box appeared on store counters. This was mere months after Boston’s historic Game 6 collapse (“It gets through Buckner!”) and the Mets’ subsequent title; it was two seasons after 1985’s painful memories, which saw Toronto enter the postseason for the first time in their existence, only to lose the ALCS in heartbreaking fashion to the Royals (I have yet to forgive George Brett). Kansas City then defeated their cross-state rivals, the Cardinals, in seven games to earn their first title. Stacked together, along with what would eventually transpire at the end of the ’87 season—Frank Viola and the Twins besting the Cardinals to win their first Series—that might represent the most thrilling three-year run in the game’s history, with three consecutive seven-gamers that’d be hard to imagine if they hadn’t actually happened. It was, I mean to say, a wonderful time to be a baseball-loving kid, and a great time to collect cards.

Darrell

We’d lived on Rivermill Crescent in suburban Ottawa since the late summer of 1984, when we’d arrived to find our newly built house surrounded by mounds of dirt, open foundations, and unpaved driveways. Across the street, behind the houses under construction, was a great thick forest, a ravine treed with mostly deciduous species—beech and birch and maple—and hatched with trails. In the middle of it wended a silty creek cut deep into banks of mud.

As the neighborhood rose around us, the houses filled with families who presented a tribute to the nascent diversity of Canada’s capital. My new friends’ families came from Hong Kong and Pakistan, the boys my age first generation kids who loved Michael Jordan and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. My friend Wil lived across the street. He was a Giants fan—Will Clark, Kevin Mitchell—though what it meant to be a fan of a team on the West Coast, or really of a team from anywhere other than the nearest major market, was not what it means today. Before the internet the scarcity of information, the lack of regular televised games, and the lag between when a thing happened and when it appeared in the newspaper’s sports section, all conspired to illustrate how far away everything was on this enormous continent. Chicago was the moon; San Francisco, and all the West Coast, was Mars. You saw those players in color on rare Game of the Week appearances and then during the playoffs, if you were lucky; otherwise you contented yourself with deciphering box scores, cutting their photos out of glossy magazines, and collecting their cards.

As I preoccupied myself with all this, my older brother and sister wandered the thickets of adolescence, almost completely obscured from my view. Peter is six years older than I am; Robyn seven. For a long time the differences in our ages meant we had very little to do with one another. I sat alone in the backseat on family road trips while Robyn and Peter stayed home and hung out with friends, threw parties, waded neck-deep into teenage dramas.

Robyn had a boyfriend from across the Ottawa River named Yvon. He was dark-haired, stubbly, smoked cigarettes, and spoke with a Quebecois accent. He was always kind to me. Took me fishing once. Yvon drove a 1976 Dodge Colt in a swampy shade of green that had originally been my grandmother’s, but which came into my parents’ possession, which they then sold to Yvon for a few hundred dollars. I remember him paying my father cash, handing over what was to that point the largest sum of money I’d ever seen in my life, thinking that this was the adult world; this was what it was to transact business, to be connected to commerce.

Yvon didn’t know baseball, but he treated me like something other than a child, and he listened to me with patience. On a night in late summer or early fall, he parked the Colt between the street lights on Rivermill, across from the forest, and we lay atop the hood watching the Aurora play across the face of the night. It was astonishing, but what should have made the heavens feel proximate instead made me aware of the terrifying size of the sky under which we huddled.

Juan

I had thought, until quite recently, that I had a complete set of the 1987 O-Pee-Chees, but if I ever did I don’t now. The whole set comprises almost 800 cards; I might have a third of that. My stack seemed so large to my young eyes, but now it looks almost pathetically small. This, I take it, is an example of how things from that point in our lives come to assume outsize proportions. We build our own legends and then accept them as facts.

There are complete sets kicking around on eBay, on Amazon, and it’s tempting to go all in, to fork over a relatively small sum in order to capture in adulthood what tantalized and inspired wonder in childhood. But I guess it wouldn’t be the same. Something about this set tells me I could never actually complete it, not in the most important sense. Maybe the trick, or the lesson, is to be happy with what I already have.

There are cards in this set that I can sketch with my eyes closed, so iconic are they for me, so emblematic of that time. For some, they are in fact what flashes into my mind when a name is mentioned.

Texas catcher Darrell Porter in a pair of ridiculously large eyeglasses that may or may not be back in style now, depending on when you’re reading this.

Jack Morris, in Detroit’s home whites, having just released a pitch, his limbs in unnatural degrees of torque, his face a grimace of effort.

Fernando Valenzuela, fresh off a 21-win campaign, in Dodger roads, his plant leg rigid as while he lunges forward to send a screwball toward whatever unfortunate National Leaguer has dug in sixty and one-half feet away.

The Giants’ Juan Berenguer, a workhorse righty, looking imperiously over his left shoulder, above the camera, beyond the photographer, toward the horizon.

The luxuriously mustachioed Keith Hernandez, recent World Series champion, looking light and pleased with life, on a practice field somewhere in Florida.

Sturdy Floyd Bannister in the White Sox’ beach blanket home uniforms, his shoulders wide, his right leg just slightly recessed at the beginning of his motion.

Marty Barrett, the Boston second baseman, whose name in Vin Scully’s mouth during that ’86 Series is a sound indelibly linked to my childhood—Mah-ahty Bawrhit, Scully sang/spoke, inserting diphthongs and pauses where most of us wouldn’t dream of putting them—and whose ’87 card depicts him in bright sunshine acting as the pivot in a double play in what can only be Spring Training, for why else would there be a basketball hoop immediately beyond the wall just barely visible over Barrett’s shoulder?

A trio of A’s captured by a photographer during the same road game, in Tiger Stadium, I think, wearing Oakland’s ’86 green tops, and bathed in similar light: glowering Dave Stewart, in his windup, staring holes through a hitter, who is out of frame; reliever, and possessor of an all-time great baseball name, Moose Haas, warming up along the first base side, the rows of seats beyond him out of focus, receding into the darkness of the ballpark’s overhang; and still-skinny Mark McGwire, depicted during his ’86 cup of coffee, with no way of knowing all that lay before him.

Dave Stieb looking so uncannily like an old gym teacher of mine—same winged haircut, same mustache—who used to lead us in laps around the gym, playing Beach Boys records on a portable turntable perched on the gym’s stage, and who would reward us at the end of class by walking on his hands around the middle of the floor, finally flopping back down, his face red and bulging.

Ernie Whitt, the avuncular and soft-seeming catcher, whose name still causes my father to reminisce over one of Whitt’s late-career stolen bases, an event so implausible that it warranted a headline in the next day’s write-up, or so recalls my father.

Willie Upshaw who, with apologies to Fred McGriff and, even later, John Olerud, and even Carlos Delgado, remains my favorite Jays first-sacker, for reasons that are spongy and unscientific, but which owe much to this very card, with Upshaw’s pose of readiness, crouched, that huge trapper open and waiting near his right knee, and the lingering scent of bubblegum still borne by the cardboard.

A shoebox full of these, many more forming untidy stacks on my desk, and on the bookshelf to my right as I type this. Still others used as bookmarks. The Marty Barrett card pinned to the wall above my workspace.

Looking over them all now, deep in the pre-Opening Day trough of winter, interspersed with other baseball cards that span a forty-year period, what first strikes me is how unique the ’87s are. Shuffle together a deck of assorted cards—O-Pee-Chees or Topps from 1979, or 1983, with some from 2003, or 2013, and some Bowman cards from any given year, a handful of Upper Decks from the early nineties, a few Donruss, a Leaf or two—and then rifle through the stack.

Most every card is bordered in white, but the ’87s stand out immediately. They’re so unlike virtually any other issue. The second thing which occurs to me about them has to do with that wood grain. I notice not how evocative of natural materials it is; rather what I see is how the wood grain is perfectly in tune with the era’s penchant for simulacra. That faux-wood border, veneered furniture, wood panelling, canned sitcom laughter, drum machines, artificial turf—all suggestive of something real but in their deficiencies creating further space between the manufactured and the real. I see not the proximity to realness, but the distance between the actual and the representational. I see the desire to simulate, to contain, to miniaturize. I see the need to recreate something random and unruly using something inexpensive, convenient, safe.

Fernando

When we weren’t collecting, trading, or memorizing baseball cards, or playing road hockey, G.I. Joe, or DOS-based video games in Wil’s unfinished basement, we were in the forest. We played war there, hiding behind trunks, laying down amid the ferns, using sticks as machine guns. We rode our bikes on some of the trails. We caught frogs and threw rocks into the creek. Gradually, we pushed at the borders of what we knew of the forest, pressing further and further into it, adding clearings and swales to our mental maps, wondering what still lay beyond.

We’d heard of some kids who’d found cattle bones in our woods, and others who’d pushed all the way through to Orleans Boulevard; the edge of the known world. There was a sandpit, somebody told us, where teenagers rode dirtbikes and held bush parties.

Wil and I found a fence one day, or the remains of one. A farmer’s partition, toppled, regularly spaced logs slumping out of their ancient post holes, and strung with rusted barbed wire. I had trouble incorporating this into my understanding of time and space, this echo of a time removed from 1987, the suggestion of a world beyond my own.

Above, nailed to a tree, a sign: NO TRESPASSING, it beckoned.

Floyd

Editor’s Note: For more of Andrew’s award-winning writing, visit his website. Of particular note is his book of baseball essays, “The Utility of Boredom.”

My Favorite Commons

My parents come from large families. My mom is the second oldest of seven children and my dad the youngest of seven. Hordes of grandparents, great aunts, great uncles, aunts, uncles, and cousins made for wonderfully chaotic family parties and holidays in my youth. But it is with my mom’s younger sister Debbie that I share a unique bond.

As a kindergartner in 1978, Aunt Debbie took me to the Cubs’ home opener, my first ever baseball game. At five years old, I was generally aware of Cubs baseball and had watched ballgames on WGN; however, my parents were not particularly avid sports fans (we prefer to bond over pizza) and with three kids under six, a trip to Wrigley Field was not necessarily on their radar.

I wore my red coat with race cars on it. I held her hand as we navigated the crowd, climbing the winding ramps up to the bleachers. And just like so many others, my first view of the field was absolutely mind-blowing—it was impossibly green and vivid and huge—so unlike the dark, grainy broadcasts of the day. I had a hot chocolate and she bought me a Cubs helmet and the Cubs won the game on a walk-off home run by Larry Biittner in the ninth. I was hooked. It is my Aunt Debbie I thank for my lifelong love of baseball.

In the summer of 1979, Debbie and her good friend Judy spent their summer at Wrigley Field, taking in close to 30 games in the $2.00 bleachers (roughly $7.00 today and considerably less than that same ticket would cost you today). They would take the bus up Austin from Oak Park and transfer over to the Addison bus that would take them right to Wrigley Field’s doorstep. After grabbing a doughnut and coffee at Yum Yum Donuts, they would get in line for the (general admission) bleachers to enjoy the sunshine and cheer on her favorite, Cubs’ slugger Dave Kingman, in left field.

Over the years, she took me to several games, including a “Crosstown Classic” match-up at a time the White Sox and Cubs used to play an exhibition game or two against each other in the early 1980s and another home opener with her then-boyfriend, who later became my Uncle Dan. It is one game, however, that led to my obsession with baseball card collecting.

81 topps fernando

In 1981, Dodgers’ pitcher Fernando Valenzuela took the nation by storm with a hot start that included an 8-0 record after his first eight starts, with five shutouts and eight complete games. Perhaps you recall Fernandomania? When Aunt Debbie called to see if I was interested in going to the Cubs game with her on Saturday, June 6—in front row seats along the first base line—I was thrilled. When I later learned it was going to be a Valenzuela start, I was over the moon.

As Fernando warmed up in the visitor’s bullpen, we stood along the wall and watched. As much as I loved the Cubs at that point, seeing him in person was tantamount to witnessing Babe Ruth in the flesh. Valenzuela might be the greatest pitcher of all-time! When Aunt Debbie took me to the souvenir stand, my allegiance wavered, and I insisted on a Dodgers’ helmet. (Hey, I was eight, swept up in Fernandomania, and simply had not realized how silly it was to ever root for the Dodgers.)

I received some praise from a smattering of Dodgers fans as I proudly wore my new helmet. The game got off to a good start for Los Angeles, who knocked Cubs’ starter Bill Caudill of the game in the first. After the top of the second, the Dodgers led 4-0. In the bottom of the inning, Hector Cruz took Valenzuela deep for the Cubs’ first run.

The score remained 4-1 as the Cubs came to bat in the bottom of the fourth. Jerry Morales began with a triple off Valenzuela, Cruz walked, and Carlos Lezcano singled home Morales. Ken Reitz flew out and Jody Davis singled, scoring Cruz. Light-hitting infielder Mike Tyson hit a three-run bomb off Valenzuela. After a walk to Ivan DeJesus, Valenzuela was lifted in favor of Bobby Castillo. Steve Dillard flew out. Bill Buckner, my favorite player at the time, doubled to drive in DeJesus. Morales, batting for the second time in the inning, grounded out. The Cubs led 7-4. And Valenzuela was mortal. I was no longer interested in donning Dodger blue.

As I took the helmet off and placed it under my seat, Aunt Debbie asked me what was wrong. I expressed regret for my impulsive helmet purchase. She graciously offered to take me back to the souvenir stand to replace the helmet with a Cubs item. We went back to the stand and after looking over the items, I decided on the 1981 Topps team set. (Geez, I acted like a spoiled punk!)

1981 topps cards

Now back at our seats, I rifled through the cards looking for all the players I had seen so far in the game. Bill Buckner! Mike Tyson! Ivan DeJesus! While it seemed that only half of the starting lineup from that game was represented in the team set, there was something downright magical about looking down at a baseball card and then up at that player on the field. (It was probably telling that the only two All-Stars in the set—Kingman and Bruce Sutter—were no longer on the team.)

The Cubs won the game 11-5 and hung seven earned runs on Valenzuela, causing his ERA to swell from 1.90 to 2.45. Mike Tyson would never hit another Major League home run. Just a week after this game, the players went on strike. I was blissfully unaware of the labor strife or how awful the 1981 Cubs team was. I took those cards everywhere with me.

That Dodgers helmet was imposed on opponents in backyard Wiffle Ball games for years to come. I still have it, along with a good portion of the cards from that original team set. I have no idea whatever happened to my Cliff Johnson or George Riley cards from that set, but the ones I still have symbolize the formation of my baseball allegiances, represent the starting point for my love of baseball cards, and are a tangible reminder of the special bond I have with my Aunt Debbie.

Time flies. Debbie is now retired and has raised four children of her own. She remains a passionate fan and even got to throw out the first pitch before a Cubs game in 2004 (jealous). We had quite a time celebrating the Cubs’ championship over Thanksgiving dinner in 2016. And catching up recently about those games of the 1970s and 1980s has been a blast. Thanks Aunt Debbie for my favorite commons!

The Story Behind the Card – “The Hawk” 1968 (Chapter 1)

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.

Still have the The Impossible Dream Album.

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.

Hawk and his 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.

Determination does pay off! The autographed 1966 Topps card.

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 favorite common

Editor’s note: We normally reject any “Favorite Common” submission featuring a Hall of Famer, kindly of course, but when we saw the condition of the card…well…see for yourself! 🙂 Plus, it’s Pudge’s birthday!

I still have this damn card.

97 or 98 percent of it, at least. Some of it has disintegrated. God knows where that black mark in the lower right edge came from. If you hold it at a certain angle, the creases either look like lightning bolts or rivers on a map.

It’s the first Carlton Fisk card that came into my possession. The first of 2,000 or so (I really need to get an exact count) Carlton Fisk cards in my collection.

Carlton Fisk is my all-time favorite player. This card had something to do with that. Did anyone wear catcher’s gear with such authority? No. Nobody ever looked better with the chest protector and backwards helmet. Carlton Fisk was the best. Still is. Has a cool name. Wore number 72! Who the hell wore 72?

He was a star player on my favorite team. His cards had several lines of stats on the back. His career went back to the 1960s! I was fascinated by cards with many lines of stats. So many that they had to make the print smaller.

The 1983 White Sox are my all-time favorite team. Even if I don’t remember anything about the games of that season. But you see, that doesn’t matter.

I had a plush “Ribbie.” And a hat signed by “Roobarb” (and Rudy Law).

And a pin that says “Winnin’ Ugly.”

And White Sox Pizza Hut placemats (okay, those were from 1984).

And the 1983 White Sox Yearbook.

And a bunch of 1983 Topps* White Sox cards. My mom says I learned to read with these cards – at age three.

Including this 1983 Carlton Fisk All-Star #393.

I have at least 20 additional copies of this card (including the O-Pee Chee version). But I will never get rid of this card. If I were to send it in to PSA to get graded, they’d suspect me of pulling a prank (or laugh at me, or both), but there is no card in my collection with more nostalgic value.

*The greatest card set ever produced

My Favorite Common

On the heels of Nick’s suggestion, I thought I’d take a stab as well. If you’re one of the blog’s more avid readers you may recall I’ve already done two pieces on “Uncommon Commons,” the first on Ohtanian Texas League pioneer Dave Hoskins and the second on football player-artist Ernie Barnes. At present my cards of Hoskins reign supreme over the tens of thousands of commons in my collection, so much so that they get their own shelf in my memorabilia room.

Neither Hoskins nor Barnes will be the subject of this post, however. More in line with the spirit of the “Favorite Common” series, I’ll highlight a favorite common or two from my formative years as a collector, long before I had ever heard the names Dave Hoskins and Ernie Barnes.

Having come of age as a collector and fan in late-1970s Los Angeles, I went to bed each night with the transistor radio glued to my ear, faithfully tuned to the play calling and commentary of Vin Scully, Ross Porter, and Jerry Doggett on KABC 790. You’d be forgiven for not noticing from the outside, but inside Dodgerland there was a great chase afoot as dramatic and legacy defining as Mantle, Maris, or Aaron’s pursuit of Ruth.

The great Manuel Rafael Mota Geronimo (SABR bi0), whose full name was sometimes used by Scully out of reverence, was on the verge of becoming baseball’s all-time Pinch-Hit King! With every plate appearance came the question of whether he’d pull one hit closer to the immortal (or at least centuries old sounding) Smoky Burgess.

Many fans today know Scully’s famous call of Kirk Gibson’s pinch-hit home run in the 1988 World Series. From my memory, perhaps faulty but not wholly unreliable, that radio call was every Manny Mota at-bat in the year of our Lord 1979 as well as half the times Manny could have come up and didn’t.

So yes, your VCPs, Standard Catalogs, and Beckett Monthlies might regard Mr. Mota as a common, but I am here to correct the record. In Greek mythology some gods assumed common form, but this was 1979 Los Angeles, not 2000 B.C. Athens, and Mr. Mota’s assault on immortality made his 1978 and 1979 Topps cards anything but common in my collection.

Mota had entered the 1979 season with 132 pinch hits, a dozen short of the record. With roughly six months of baseball to play, barring whatever type of injuries befell pinch-hitters, Manny would need to average two hits per month to tie Burgess and of course just a hair over that to claim the crown for his own. Sure Ty Cobb once banged out 67 hits in a single month, but old Ty had the advantage of everyday play and competed against inferior talent. Let’s call it a wash, shall we?

Sure enough, Manny Mota began the season on perfect pace to match Burgess. Two hits in April followed by two hits in May. One one occasion each month, Mota drew a dreaded base on balls, the record chasing equivalent of a prom date with your cousin. Forgive us for we did not yet know walks would someday be hallowed above even RBIs among baseball savants, meaning at the time that the only response our amygdalas could produce was, “Pitch to the man, you bum!”

I don’t normally use this blog to shame anyone, but here are the bums in question. A pox on both your houses, Frank Riccelli and Mike Tomlin!

With two months of the season in the books, Mota’s average was a “Peachy” .364, but then came his dreaded June swoon and a slowing of Manny’s assault on Burgess. Only one hit in five at-bats prompted the question: Like Aaron in ’73, would Mota fall just short of the mark and be forced to carry its full burden into the off-season?

As it turns out, not a chance! Channeling Kobe’s final game, it seemed every time a Dodger hitter stepped to the plate in July it was Mota. I remember his plate appearances that month as 100 though the record books now tell me they numbered a mere dozen. Perhaps I’m counting all the times Scully wondered aloud whether Mota might be making his way to the bat rack.

“And look who’s coming up…”

Still, 12 at bats for a pinch-hitter is like a million for anyone else. Mota made the most of his trips to the plate, connecting for four hits and closing out the month with 141 pinch-hits. With two full months remaining, there was little doubt Mota would soon claim the crown.

Hinting at the role Fate had played in his career, Number 11 came to the plate 11 times in August. His first four times up resulted in three singles against only one out. He was now batting .375 on the season. More importantly, his career total for pinch-hits was now 144. The man was Ty Cobb meets Tie Burgess.

As was the way in ancient Sparta, there were now two kings. This we expected. What we didn’t expect was that the diarchy would drag on as long as it did.

As hot as August began, a rash of cool summer nights followed:

  • August 9: ground out
  • August 12: ground out
  • August 16: sacrifice bunt
  • August 20: ground ball double play
  • August 24: line out
  • August 25: fly out
  • August 28: strikeout

The wear of the season had caught up with Mota. While everyday hitters could match Manny’s hitless streak and barely blink an eye, they also cycle through seven plate appearances every two games. For Mota, the drought represented a full one eighth of the baseball season, which is quite an o-fer for a .375 hitter!

The Dodgers gave Mota the rest of the month off and didn’t call his number again until the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, at home against the Cubs. Leading off the bottom of the eighth inning on September 2, 1979, Manny Mota replaced Ken Brett in the Dodger lineup. On the mound for the visiting Cubs was card-in-every-pack northpaw Lynn McGlothen, who held a 1-2 count on Mota.

On the next pitch…history was made, or in the immortal words of Topps, “Basehit to Rightfield Does It!”

The king is dead. Long live the king! Let the history books (or at least the SABR Baseball Cards blog) show that this common was no common common but a common who one day ruled them all.

Epilogue

A couple years back I was staying with a friend in the Bay Area, and he brought out his old baseball cards. Seeing my reaction to his 1970 Manny Mota card, he was kind enough to give it to me. The front featured a beautiful image of Mota waiting his turn at bat, ready to deliver his trademark single to right. His gaze seemed affixed beyond the mound or batter’s box, almost heavenward, as if to let the baseball gods know, “Yeah, I got this.”

Flip the card over, however, and I’m actually thankful that I didn’t have it back in 1979.

“Considered by many to be the best #4 outfielder in the NL, Manny proved his value to the Dodgers in 1969 with timely hitting.”

As a kid who listened to Vin Scully more than his own parents and teachers, I saw Mota as a superstar. It had never once crossed my mind that Mota might have simply been the fourth best outfielder for a lot longer than most players, many of whom eventually became the third, second, or even first best. I was cheering a prize for bench warmers all those games, all the while thinking I was witnessing the toppling of the Bambino.

Who was Manny Mota then? Was he an immortal carving out his own slice of baseball’s record book or was he a glorified bench warmer? I prefer to remember him as the former, not just because it’s how I experienced him at the time but because such a portrait inspires me in my own life.

In so many parts of life, we are not the stars, the best, or even in the top three. We are the helpers, the ones who wait their turns, and the ones who much rejoice in small victories. We fail more than we succeed, and we don’t always know when our next opportunity will come, if at all.

We aren’t Hank Aaron or Mike Trout (unless one of them is reading this column…HOLY SMOKES!!!), and nobody will ever collect our baseball cards. Still from our benches there are glories and gratitude as we aspire humbly not to be heroes to millions but on a good day, to those around us, a Favorite Common.

Author’s note: Manny Mota fans and baseball fans in general might enjoy W.P. Kinsella’s short story, “The Night Manny Mota Tied the Record.” It’s in “The Essential W.P. Kinsella,” among other places.

My Favorite Common, Mor-a-les

My mother used to throw out my cards.

Trite, right? Here’s the twist: I let her. Every year, or maybe more sporadically than that, my mother would ask if I wanted my cards. I told her no. It’s crazy looking back at it.

That all ended for me at the close of 1971. What remained was a small stack, part of that year’s baseball set, and all of my football, basketball and hockey cards. I kept everything from that moment on.

As the ‘70’s wore on, and my local reputation was built on, or ruined by, my penchant for cards, friends would give me their collections as they grew out of them and I remained stuck. My 1971 baseball cards piled up, but, as they were not my originals and cared for as such, condition was a hodgepodge.

Rich Morales, #276 in the set, #1 in my heart, always stuck out as a reminder of the grief I suffered by not keeping my own cards and the joy I incurred by getting everyone else’s.

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What a wreck. If a card has anti-gloss, this is it. You can almost feel the texture by looking at it – rough, grainy, dirty, as if a card had driven over it multiple times. Creases, paper loss, a real PSA -7. The back is less gross, but not very nice.

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When I discovered a few years back that I was pretty close to finishing a 1971 set, I decided to complete it in somewhat consistent condition, somewhere between VG and EX. I got it done and am pretty pleased with it. All of a sudden, this Morales card was less comfortable in its surroundings. With some mixed feeling, I upgraded.

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In the past year I’ve completed my 1968-70 football sets. As I’ve done so, I’ve sold my crappy cards in bulk from those years. Weirdly, there’s a market for poor condition cards.

Those can go. In fact, so can my extra baseball cards of that era, and I’ve moved over 1,000 to a Facebook collector. Rich Morales is safe though. I’ll never get rid of him.

My Favorite Common

One of the most-rewarding things about being the co-chair of this committee is seeing people come out of the woodwork to not only join the community we have here but contribute to it. Every new voice on the blog is wonderful and Jason and I have thoroughly enjoyed our role in encouraging new posters.

Some of you come bursting out of the gate with fantastic posts already formed and polished. Others of you have felt the desire to post but have needed some assistance in coming up with a good topic or angle of approach. As I’ve watched new posters try to find their voice or figure out what to do after they’ve exhausted their opening salvo of posts it’s occurred to me that it might be nice to have essentially an internal blog bat-around where we each address the same topic as a way of introducing ourselves and our relationship to baseball cards.

This isn’t a capital-A Assignment. But if you’ve run out of post ideas and want something to write about or if you’ve been lurking here for years and haven’t figured out what you feel comfortable adding, here’s a free post idea that I hope we return to for many years.

Mark Armour started this committee off on the right foot so it’s only fitting that his My Favorite Common post provides the blueprint. Please write about your favorite common card. No stars. No Hall of Famers. No errors. No in-demand rookies. No cards where the primary interest is how much it’s worth. We all know what common cards are; what’s of interest to the committee is you. Why it’s your favorite. How it relates to your baseball fandom.

For example, I’ll select my 1985 Fleer Dave Dravecky card for this exercise. I got this card before I even became a baseball fan or attended my first game in September 1986. My friend gave it to me before soccer practice and, not having any pockets, I shoved it behind my shinguard to “keep it safe.”

When I got home, it lived in my desk drawer, semi-forgotten even after I started collecting cards. Then in 1987 two things happened. The first was that the Giants and Padres made a blockbuster trade where the Giants got Kevin Mitchell, Craig Lefferts, and Dravecky in exchange for Chris Brown, Keith Comstock, Mark Davis and Mark Grant. The second is that Eric Show hit Andre Dawson in the face.

I’m not sure what it says about me that the Show/Dawson incident is what made dig through my drawer but yeah I had remembered that I had a Padre pitcher and so I went digging. Instead I found that I now had a Giants card.

Over the 1987 season Dravecky was usually good and occasionally great with multiple shutouts including a gem in the playoffs. Then the next year they found cancer in his pitching arm. His comeback game in 1989 remains the single most exciting sporting event I’ve ever been to. There was an electricity in the crowd with every pitch that I’ve never felt since. Playoff and World Series games are intense but this was much more than that.

This card has remained a sentimental favorite ever since but it also represents a lot of things that I like about baseball cards in general. Cards with colorful borders that correspond to the team colors. Cards with simple but professional headshots that also offer a glimpse at the stadiums. And Dravecky himself is poised and confident while also offering a bit a smile.

I love the way the yellow border is actually the same color as the Padres yellow and the way it works perfectly with the brown pullover jersey. The colors in general work really well together here with the red plastic seats and green artificial turf offering just enough contrast to keep the card from looking too much like a Reeses Pieces advertisement. It’s just a good-looking basic card.

The background details though are what I like best since they’re emblematic of the state of the game when I fell in love with it. I never thought I’d miss multipurpose stadiums with their barely-filled outfield stands revealing row-upon-row of brightly-colored plastic seats but here we are. Those donuts weren’t great but you could always walk up to the ticket window and expect something to be available.

Succumbing to the Siren’s Song of the Topps Heritage Collection: a 1970 journey

Let’s just say that I was Topps Heritage collection-curious.  Oh, I’ve seen the sets depicting contemporary players in designs from 1969, 1968, and others, looking all sleek and alluring, like a siren’s song calling to me and my debit card.  Shaking my head quickly, I tell myself, no, no — that’s is all a marketing trick, don’t fall for it. Don’t give in.  I knew that once I bought a pack, I wouldn’t be able to stop!

Well, there I was, at the Greenwood Fred Meyers waiting in line to make my purchases, and there they were, off to the right in the racks calling out their familiar song.  Sigh.  Okay, maybe just one.  I can do it.  Just one, and that’s it.  It’ll be fun.  I know other guys are doing it, right?  And hey – look – there are 20 cards.  More value, the package read!  Okay … just one.  Here I go…

The high number plastic pack I opened included 19 cards and a candy lid. Curiously I flipped through the pack, looking at the design, both front and back, checking out the team names, and making notes of the words and drawings on reverse side in blue, white and yellow.  Going through the names and faces now, I was pleased to discover Vladimir Guerrero, Jr (#504); Yasiel Puig (#541); Michael Pineda (#662); and David Freese (#691), among others.  The candy lid (available only at Target, but purchased at Fred Meyer) was Rhys Hoskins (#29 of 30).

Being reasonably satisfied with the purchase and the design of the cards, I turned to my binder of 1970 cards, my handy-dandy copy of “Topps Baseball Cards: The Complete Picture Collection, a 35 Year History: 1951-1985,” and the “Official Baseball Card Price Guide: 1990, Collector’s Edition” to compare designs.

From this point, I stepped a toe onto memory lane and wandered through the 1970 collection.  The Topps book’s 1970 introduction made much to do about the saga of the Seattle Pilots and their heart-breaking move to Milwaukee before the season began.  The complete set itself totaled 720 cards, the first time that the card set exceeded 700, measuring 2 ½ x 3 ½ inches.

The cards themselves are unremarkable.  They feature a blue and yellow printing on white card board with yearly stats, brief bio, and a cartoon on the backside with the front side showing crisp color photos with team name in upper corner, and the player name in script in the lower gray border.

1970 Sparky AndersonI mean unremarkable in that the photos include players in pitching or batting poses, close-ups with caps, without caps, and some with very, very bad airbrushed caps.  I’m looking at you Sparky Anderson (#181); Curt Blefory (#297); Tom Shopay (#363); and Bob Heise (#478), among others.  Poor Fred Norman (#427).  He looks like his LA Dodgers insignia was ironed on his ballcap, with a somewhat noticeable Spokane Indians pictured.1970 Fred Norman

Some of the more interesting cards included the NL and AL Championships (#195 – 202), another first for Topps.  One fun-filled card, was Lowell Palmer (#252) of the Philadelphia Phillies, who was the only one to sporting sunglasses.  In keeping with the true essence of the Topps Heritage collection, Philadelphia Phillies Pat Neshek paid homage to Palmer’s card by wearing sunglasses and sporting the card number 252, as well.

1970 sunglassesTopps has done an outstanding job with these Heritage sets.  I don’t know if I will make another purchase.  Maybe next year, I guess.  Perhaps those 2020 cards will incorporate the 1971 card design.  Those would be interesting to see!  But, then again, I’m hoping to keep my impulse control in check.  These things can be addictive!

Editors’ Note: Jeff Katz has previously written about reaching the exact opposite opinion of 2019 Heritage and Nick Vossbrink has more a more detailed description of how Topps changed the printing between 1970 and 2019.

Heritage before Heritage

I reached a collecting milestone last week by completing one of my all-time favorite sets. It’s a set that’s off the radar of most collectors (until now!) and has few cards, if any, worth more than a dollar. Its value to me is purely sentimental but still sky high in that it’s the set that started my lifelong love affair with baseball’s all-time greats.

Before getting into the set itself, I’ll start with a card not in it.

You may recognize this as the 1960 Leaf card of Brooks Robinson. The first time I saw it 10-year-old-me took the glow around Robinson’s head for a halo and suspected only I could see it. (UPDATE: Rob Neyer also saw the halo!)

To other collectors (but not our own Jeff Katz) the set is perhaps a bit more boring, despite the fact that it has to be the most exciting set ever to come with marbles instead of gum! (And did I mention the packs had cards of “Your Favorite Major League Star?”)

Marbles aside, we are looking at a black and white set produced long past the era of black and white sets, whether to you the Grayscale Age of Baseball Cards was the 1920s or the 1880s. “Your Favorite Major League Player” notwithstanding, the Leaf checklist strikes many collectors as lackluster, with the Human Vacuum Cleaner and Duke Snider perhaps the only top shelf Hall of Famers.

Various articles note design similarities between the 1960 Leaf set and its predecessor 11 years prior. My own opinion is that the two sets aren’t that close, but I’ll let you judge for yourself.

I chose Elmer Valo to compare these sets because his placement in the 1960 set comes with a little bit of a story. As reported in the May 4, 1949, Boston Globe, Valo was one of six ballplayers to sue Leaf for using their likeness in the 1949 set. The fact that he found himself back on the checklist in 1960 says something about the ability to forgive or forget, whether on the part of Leaf, Valo, or both.

Now fast forward to 1977 and one of the nation’s best known mail order dealers is planning a set of 45 cards as her very first entrée into the card making business. The next 10+ years would see her company produce dozens more sets including…

A 1983 tribute to the 1969 Seattle Pilots…

A 1984 “Art Card Series” featuring acclaimed baseball artist Ron Lewis of Negro Leagues postcard fame…

And six single-player sets from 1984-86 of several big name ballplayers and cult leaders! (Wait, that’s Pete Rose? Are you sure?)

While these later sets drew on new designs, the last few of which just scream 1980s, her very first set, much like Topps Heritage does today, mimicked a set from the past. T206? Nope! 1933 Goudey? Nope! 1952 Topps? Nope again. As you’ve no doubt guessed already, that set was 1960 Leaf!

Here is card #5, Roy Campanella, from Renata Galasso’s debut set, “Decade Greats,” featuring top stars from the 1950s.

Perhaps Ms. Galasso had a sentimental attachment to 1960 Leaf or maybe she just held a special admiration for her fellow challengers of the Topps monopoly. More than likely, her reasons for copying the Leaf set were more pedestrian. Black and white was cheaper than color, and it would have been tough to get too close to Topps without getting even closer to their lawyers. Finally, a collection of 1950s players made more sense in a decade-capping 1960 set than, for example, 1922 American Caramel.

Particularly for her rookie offering, Renata Galasso did a fantastic job capturing the look and feel of the 1960 set. Put the cards side-by-side and you’ll spot some differences, most notably the missing halo, but to paraphrase Maya Angelou the cards are much more alike than unalike.

As the small print on the back of the Campanella card shows, Renata Galasso received an assist from Mike Aronstein’s company, TCMA, which had already been making its own cards since 1972.

The 45-card set was evidently popular enough to engender a sequel two years later, this time numbered 46-90. While you might have expected this continuation set to focus on the 1960s, TCMA had already beat Galasso to the punch the year before with a stunning color issue (left) reminiscent of 1953 Bowman (right) in yet another case of Heritage before Heritage.

TCMA had similarly put out a 1930s set five years earlier, but the half decade gap left enough breathing room for Galasso to put her own “1960 Leaf” touch on the decade.

Where I had previously seen sharp photos of Aaron, Mays, Mantle, and other 1950s stars in my reading books, this 1930s set was the first time I had ever seen such vivid images of earlier stars. To a certain extent, Galasso’s set transformed these 1930s heroes from cartoon characters into men, which somehow made their records and feats all the more impressive. As the card footer shows, TCMA was again a partner in the effort.

Renata Galasso extended her set once again the following year, issuing Series Three in 1980. This time her decade of choice was the 1920s. This was around the time I started taking the bus to card shows, and the Galasso cards were a frequent purchase for me out of bargain bins. While I regret turning down a T206 Cobb for $14, I have no regrets about scooping this one up for a dime.

Once again, TCMA was in the mix, and once again the cards looked fantastic. In my view, all they needed was stats on the back instead of that humongous logo and they would have been perfect.

Series Four, numbered 136-180, came the very next year and featured stars of the 1910s. You don’t even have to look at the rest of the checklist to know the key card in this series is the Cobb, with its iconic Conlon photo.

In a move that foreshadowed the later work of SABR, you’ll notice that Cobb’s hit total was reduced between his 1980 and 1981 card backs. I’ll also credit Galasso (or TCMA) with splurging for a brand new bio where other card makers might have simply recycled the back from the previous series.

The Decade Greats set, now up to 225 cards, would continue in 1983 with a 45-card series, sometimes numbered 181-223 (plus two unnumbered cards), commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1933 All-Star Game.

I say “sometimes numbered” because the same 45 cards are also numbered 1-43 (plus two unnumbered), reflecting either a clever marketing move to co-brand this series as a standalone or just an oops by someone who forgot numbers 1-180 were already spoken for.

On top of that, the sequencing of the 43 numbered cards comes in the exact opposite order of their 181-223 counterparts. For example, here is my version of the Hubbell card, numbered 16 instead of 208, which of course is the 16th number counting backward from 223.

Card footers no longer mention TCMA, which I take to mean Renata Galasso was either producing these cards solo or experimenting with new vendors. Perhaps connected to the absence of TCMA, the quality of the cards drops off some with centering/miscut issues and minor typos being the main culprits.

The sixth and final series was released in 1984 and commemorated highlights and records. One of my favorite cards in the set provides a much sharper image of Jackie Robinson than his 1948 Sport Thrills card, even as both cards drew from the same George Burke photo.

As with the fifth series, quality falls short of the first four series. Look closely at the Robinson card, and you’ll see the name and caption are poorly centered relative to his portrait. This proves to be the case for the majority of the cards. This final series also includes a “BILL MAZEROWSKI” UER and the awkward Koufax caption “PITCHES 4TH NO HITTERS.”

There are also some really bad looking photos, especially compared to the earlier cards. For example, compare the elegant Mays from Series One to the practically reptilian Mantle of Series Six.

Finally, there is notable drift from the original 1960 Leaf design that inspired the set. Photos now are more squared off, the big letters have gotten smaller, and the small letters have gotten bigger. The resemblance is still there though perhaps more amateur.

The final two series are the hardest to find, a sign of declining production and sales. That no Series Seven or Eight was ever produced affirms the reduced interest in sets of this kind. We had reached the mid-1980s after all. Collectors now preferred future Hall of Famers to actual Hall of Famers, but why not! What could King Carl do to make his cards go up in value? Certainly not win 400 games like Dwight Gooden would!

Even where some collectors still wanted old-time stars for pocket change, there was no shortage of color offerings to choose from, including a gorgeous Dick Perez collaboration from Donruss in 1983 and various other Perez-Steele offerings that had gained popularity with autograph hounds.

Regardless of its flaws, its waning popularity, and its uselessness in funding my retirement (I just picked up the “tough” Series Five for $0.99 plus shipping), the 270-card “Decade Greats” set, also called “Glossy Greats,” will always be a favorite of mine.

It is a set that might have seemed lazy at the time, an unimaginative reboot of a set from two decades earlier. What we didn’t know then is just how ahead of its time that was…Heritage before Heritage if you ask me!

Extra for experts

The 1977-84 Renata Galasso Decade Greats set is a relatively early example of “Heritage before Heritage,” but it’s certainly not the only example or even the first. Go back six years and Allstate Insurance (of course!) put together a small set evoking the 1933 Goudey design. Here is the Ted Williams card from the set.

One could perhaps even consider the 1955 Topps Double Header issue a reboot of the 1911 Mecca Double Folders (T201) design, even as the cards differ in many ways visually.

There is also enough similarity across many tobacco issues that perhaps one could regard just about any of the sets Heritage-style remake of some other from a couple years earlier, though I would argue here that this is less about paying homage and more about paying less!

I’m curious what your examples are of early Heritage before Heritage. Ideally the visual match would be strong and the difference between the sets would be a good decade or more. Let me know in the Comments, either here or on Twitter.