Of Life, Death and Dave Ricketts

I began collecting cards in 1968, which was the year Topps featured the 33-card, game insert set.  Our “Founding Father,” Mark Armour, detailed this wonderful set in a past post.  My older brother and I played the game using our regular issue cards to represent the lineup.  We would position the cards in the proper positions on defense and have the card of the batter next to the catcher.  If the player registered a hit when the game card was turned over, his card was moved to the correct base.  Of course, this movement damaged the cards, which is why I have replaced most of them over the years.

For my brother’s 30th birthday in 1987, I had a photo mat cut to represent the nine positions.  I had the frame shop insert the Cardinals’ starting line up using 1968 cards. This set up was like the card arrangement we used as kids. I even included manager Red Schoendienst, as if he were in the dugout directing his charges.

In side note, my brother could never get Tim McCarver in a pack, and Lou Brock was in the seventh series-which never made it to our small town.  Thus, his lineup always featured Dave Ricketts at catcher and Bobby Tolan in left field.

My brother was a lifelong Cardinals fan, probably the result of my family hailing from Missouri.  Of course, St. Louis beat Boston in the World Series in ’67 and won the NL pennant in ’68, losing to the Tigers in the fall classic.  The card collection represented two of my brother’s favorite Cardinals teams.

68 Celebrate

Honestly, I have always been disappointed in the appearance of the framed cards.  There is too much green space and the shortstop would have looked better not angled.  In any event, my brother liked and appreciated the gift.  Over the years, he added a team picture and the World Series celebration cards by taping them to the glass in hard sleeves.  (Pilot sighting! Joe Schultz’s bald head and smiling face is clearly visible on the “Cardinals Celebrate!” card.)

Picture 1

After my brother’s death in 2015, I inherited his vast memorabilia collection-including the framed ’68 Cardinals cards. Unfortunately, the glass broke during shipping, but the rest remained intact.  Since I have a curator’s soul and a hoarder’s mindset, I was compelled to fill in the unused green space.  Using mostly the original cards from ’68 and ’69, I added most the players who appeared on the ’67 World Championship team.  A $0.79 Larry Jaster card was the only one I had to acquire.

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Also, note that the two Cardinals from the game insert are included as well.  Orlando Cepeda is from the deck we used to play the game, back in the day.

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Since I have maxed out the available wall space in my memorabilia room, I do not have a place for this piece. It sits in the card closet and serves as a frequent reminder of my brother.  We didn’t connect on many levels, but we could always find common ground with sports, memorabilia and most importantly, cards.

Splitting Hairs

Last week I Tweeted this:

  • 2001 Upper Deck Decade 1970s. Always liked these. Bought the 75 I needed to complete the set via @Sportlots. Even with postage it was about .25 per card. @SABRbbcards

To which, Rob Neyer replied, “Aren’t you the guy who doesn’t like Heritage?” (I paraphrase.)

Yes, that is me, the guy who doesn’t like Heritage, for reasons stated here. Why do I like Upper Deck’s version of a classic Topps design? It got me thinking.

I’m not anti-nostalgia, which I think people assume goes hand in hand with my disdain for Heritage. Collecting cards is, by definition, a nostalgic enterprise and even buying new packs and sets is an attempt to recreate an old, warm feeling.

What I like about the Upper Deck set is that it isn’t marketing itself as some kind of replica product, updated, which has always been a false claim of any Heritage set. The differences between Heritage and the originals are deep, as I posted about, and mar the effort for me. They don’t feel the same; they come across as less than accurate knockoffs. They’re replicants and their flaws come out.

Upper Deck doesn’t try to mimic the past. Rather the Decade set is an homage, stealing a design as close to 1975 Topps as likely legal. The pictures are nearly all great (some black and white photos negatively affect the overall look) and the set evokes the era nicely.

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The subsets are swell, a mini-history of the ten years. All in all, there’s a lot crammed into a 180 card base set.

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As Tweeted, I had more than half the set and, at .18 per card (pre-postage), it was more than worth my while to finish the whole thing. I got a big stack of cards and a complete set.

I try very hard not be generation based, and avoid at all costs the “everything was better when I was a kid” mentality (it wasn’t). One of the things I enjoy about this Committee, and the Twitter baseball card world, is that collectors younger than I have the same feeling about 1989 Topps as I have about 1971 Topps and that’s as it should be. Cards are like music – what you love as a kid stays your truest love. There’s a reason that John Lennon always preferred Chuck Berry. Lennon was a kid when he first heard him.

And maybe that’s at the root of my Heritage problem. I don’t need to see today’s players framed as if they were players then. Baseball is the only sport whose fans insist that the players of today are lesser than the players of their youth. “Clayton Kershaw isn’t half the pitcher Jim Bunning was. You know Bunning used to throw 300 innings a year?” We’ve all heard variations of this insipid argument. Spare me.

So let today’s players have their own design and let the ‘70’s players have theirs, or something close.

 

There is only one Willie Mays

Here is a card, like most cards, with a story to it. You might expect it’s a story about Willie Mays. In fact, it’s a story about everyone not Willie Mays.

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1959 Topps “Baseball Thrills” #464

At least a few of us remember the play like it was yesterday. The hitter has some power, but the centerfielder chooses to play him shallow. Even before bat meets ball, the fielder knows one of two things is about to happen: extra bases or the greatest catch of his life.

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1961 Nu-Card Scoops #427

He quickly turns and by the time the crack of the bat is heard he is in a dead sprint only stealing a quick glance back to ensure the ball’s trajectory matches the path in his head.

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1993 Upper Deck “Baseball Heroes” #47

Winning a race of man against ball is not an easy thing—the laws of physics might even suggest it’s impossible—but after what feels like he’s run a city block the fielder reaches up with his glove, still with his back to the plate, and somehow snatches the bullet of a baseball from the air. They say seeing is believing, but almost nobody watching even believes what they just witnessed. Of course, the play was not even over.

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1994 Upper Deck “All-Time Heroes” #17

Still in full stride, the fielder brings his glove arm down toward his body where in an event nearly as improbable as the grab itself his right knee hits his right elbow full force and pops the ball from glove to ground.

Snodgrass

I was 16 and had been planning, waiting, and training years for the perfect fly ball—playing everyone shallow to up the odds—and it finally came, for the last and only time of my life. My friend Robert and fate itself had gotten the better of me.

Some of our cards are just cards, but others are memories. This past week I finally picked up a card I’d always wanted. When I opened the envelope I was no longer in my office at my desk. I was at Palisades Park young, fast, free, and for a brief 6-7 seconds the great Willie Howard Mays, that instant before I learned for damn sure there could be only one.

with card

P.S. In a bit of cardboard clairvoyance, THREE of Willie’s 1954 baseball cards (Bowman, Red Man, Topps) referenced a web gem nearly identical to “The Catch!”

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P.P.S. Fans of the “Say Hey Kid” will also enjoy this set of posts from SABR President Mark Armour.

Trying to Stamp Out a Mystery

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I don’t remember where I got this 1970 Sports Stars baseball stamp album, but I can’t remember ever not having it. (Dave McNally has always had that mustache drawn on his face). It’s always been around, somehow never quite making it into the card collection, always somewhere adjacent.

It’s a weird collection. I can’t quite figure out how this assembly of stickers came together. I have all the National League stamps, though for some reason Johnny Bench and Cookie Rojas are gone.

I have some American League, but I’m missing three Angels. After a solid start, the pages go bare.

I have only Denny McLain from the Tigers, no Royals, only Harmon Killebrew from the Twins, all the Yankees except Curt Blefary, no A’s or Pilots or Senators, except Frank Howard.

There are so many mysteries. Most stamps are logo-less, which makes sense since it’s a Players’ Association issue, but then why do some photos have logos? I’m puzzled.

How was it sold? Were there different starter sets in different geographic areas? Unlikely, since that kind of distribution doesn’t follow the holes in my collection.

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I was going to do a little digging, but the crew over at Net54 already had done the work for me. There were two issues of these stamps. The 1969 one of 216 were sans logo. The following year, the same 216 were printed (probably leftovers) and 75 more stamps were put out with logos, plus a 12 stamp sheet of All-Stars (which explains the random McLain, Killebrew and others.)There are also variations that have to do with dotted lines, some back text, and other minutiae. You can read more here.

That explains some of it. I still don’t know exactly how I got the stamps I have. Clearly the 12 stamp set came with the album, and now I know that there were four series, one for each division. Series 1 had Oakland, Minnesota, Chicago, Kansas City, Seattle and California, and that almost mirrors what I don’t have, but not quite. So I have still have some gaps in the story. Maybe one of you know the answers.

I do like them though, regardless of how they came about. The colors are radiant, the stock is thin but glossy and the player selection is fun. They’re not as nice as the 1971 Dell Stamps, but do make for a solid lead in for those.

I’d like to finish the set, but I’m not seeing many out there. You’d think to get hand cut stamps as crappily scissored as mine would only run about $.20 per item. I can’t imagine people have doubles of these. We’ll see how it plays out.

Did I mention there’s also a football set?

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The Rogers Hornsby hiding in your 1978 Topps set

The year of hitting dangerously

If you’re my age you remember the season well. It seemed like everywhere you looked there was a 12-10 score, balls were flying out of the park, and entire teams were flirting with .400. No, this wasn’t the steroid era, the early 1930s, or 1894, though it could have been. It was 1978, I was eight years old, and the game was Play Ball, Played by Two—just as often “played by one” in my house.

Well start with the right way to play, even if it wasn’t the way most kids wanted it to work. The rules of the game were printed on 30 of the 726 card backs in the set.

1978 Topps #173 Robin Yount Back

PLAY BALL.” Played by two. PLAYER HAS 50 PLAYER CARDS. TOSS COIN FOR WHO GOES FIRST. FIRST PLAYERS TURNS CARDS OVER ONE AT A TIME, ATTEMPTING TO SCORE RUNS UNTIL 3 OUTS HAVE BEEN MADE. AFTER 3 OUTS, SECOND PLAYER BEGINS GAME. GAME IS PLAYED WITH 9 INNINGS. IN CASE OF TIE, PLAY EXTRA INNINGS.”

As much as my friends and I would have preferred a Dodgers-Yankees World Series rematch, there was of course a problem in abandoning the Topps rules to play the match-up of your choice. It wasn’t just that Steve Garvey would come to bat in the first inning with two on, two out, and end the inning with a ground out. It was Steve Garvey could do nothing but ground out all season long.

1978 Topps #350 Steve Garvey Back

Sure, Steve Garvey, Ron Cey, Dusty Baker, and Reggie Smith had just made history in 1977 by all hitting 30+ home runs. When it came to Play Ball, they would go a combined 0 for 2400 on the year. Topps either hated the Dodgers, or they really wanted you to play the game right.

But what the heck does any of this have to do with Rogers Hornsby?

If you did play the game right, it was a completely different story. Of the 726 cards in the 1978 Topps set, 610 had Play Ball outcomes:

  • 134 SINGLES
  • 29 DOUBLES
  • 13 TRIPLES
  • 39 HOME RUNS
  • 68 BASES ON BALLS
  • 102 GROUND OUTS
  • 135 FLY OUTS
  • 40 FOUL OUTS
  • 49 STRIKEOUTS
  • 1 STRIKE UT 😉

1978 Topps #298 Tony Armas Back

Provided each player’s Play Ball stack is randomly chosen from the Topps set, the result is a lineup where the average hitter’s stat line was quite remarkable. (Phone readers, consider landscape for these stat lines.)

Stat Line

Believe it or not, the typical Play Ball player saw even better offense than this! After all, how many Play Ballers drew their lineups from complete sets of 726? More often, Play Ballers simply grabbed unsorted stacks from their collections or the cards from their last 3-4 packs. As such, the 51 double-printed cards in the 1978 set with Play Ball outcomes exerted twice the normal impact on the Play Ball probability space, leading to this DP-adjusted set of outcomes.

Stat Line with DP

If that .398 average with 43 home runs looks crazy, it should. MLB’s .390/40 club doesn’t have a lot of members. The most recent member is Babe Ruth, whose 1923 season (.393 average, 41 HR) earned him a spot. Of course, the Bambino drew nearly 100 more walks than our Play Ball composite. The .390/40 club has another member though, and he joined the club the year before.

Rogers Hornsby won the National League Triple Crown in 1922 with an eye-popping .401 batting average, 42 home runs, and 152 runs batted in. The Rajah had 148 singles that year. Play Ball had 146. The Rajah had 14 triples that year. So did Play Ball. The home runs of course differed by 1, and none of the four elements of the Rajah’s .401/.459/.722/1.181 slash line differed from Play Ball by more than half a percent. Within just a smidgen of round-off error, Play Ball was 1922 Rogers Hornsby.

Hornsby sketchpad

So yes, Topps really wanted you to follow the rules. Break the rules, and your four best hitters go 0 for 2400. Follow the rules, and your lineup is nine Rajahs!

Hornsby would crack the 1979 Topps checklist in earnest, just as he had in 1961 and 1976, and each of these cards no doubt gave kids a thrill out of the pack. However, 1978 is without a doubt the season that the Rajah most made his presence felt. Even without a card in the set, his 1922 season haunted every living room, bedroom, classroom, and school bus ride where Play Ball was played.

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More on Play Ball

As the Garvey example illustrates, there was no effort on the part of Topps to associate the best outcomes with the best hitters. Of the 39 “Home Run” cards, the most prolific slugger in the bunch was Rick Monday, though Bombo Rivera at least possessed a great slugger name. Other notable home run Play Ballers included Nolan Ryan, Jim Palmer, and a man who caught baseball’s most famous home run.

1978 Topps #643 Tom House Back

Now I know most readers of this site like to play things fair and square, but let’s just say you really, really needed to win at Play Ball. Don’t say I told you, but yes, there are ways to make it happen.

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  • STEP ONE: Grab the Topps Super Sports Card Locker where I know you keep your set.
  • STEP TWO: Say to your friend, “Hey, I know you love the Big Red Machine. How about if you take the Reds and Braves, and I’ll take the Angels and Rangers. (This should be enough to net around 50 cards each, but if your set is short add the Giants or Twins to your friend’s stack, and add the Orioles or Jays to yours.)
  • STEP THREE: Play Ball!

The key to this approach is how unbalanced the Play Ball outcomes are by team. Here is a comparison of the Reds/Braves and Angels/Rangers.

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A variant on this strategy that’s perhaps less suspicious but still effective is to take American Leaguers over National Leaguers whenever you have a choice. Or you could just play fair and square. That’s fun too.

I could spend all day providing insights and analysis on the Play Ball card backs of 1978 Topps. However, knowing I am in the company of a number of fellow researchers I thought I’d do something different here.

For the first time in the history of the internet, I am publishing full Play Ball data and making it available to all readers of this blog—no paywall or anything. Enjoy, and I look forward to the varied and interesting research that will come from this treasure trove of data.

CLICK HERE FOR COMPLETE 1978 TOPPS PLAY BALL DATA

 

Fathers and sons

“Baseball is continuous, like nothing else among American things, an endless game of repeated summers, joining the long generations of all the fathers and all the sons.” — Donald Hall, “Fathers Playing Catch with Sons”

Though its checklist boasts only 64 cards, the 1953 Bowman black and white set connects fathers and sons like no other. This much is clear from the very first card, but that’s only the beginning.

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Like their color counterparts from the same year, the Bowman black-and-whites have no names or other markings on the front, so you may not immediately recognize the player. Ditto for cards 10, 30, 34, 52, 56, and 59. Either way, here they are.

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You may not be able to identify all the players, but I guarantee these two men would recognize their sons, Duane Pillette (bottom right) and Dick Sisler (top left).

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And certainly these three men would recognize their fathers: Gus Bell (first card in set), Roy Smalley (bottom middle), and Ebba St. Claire (top right).

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And no doubt these two men would recognize their famous fathers-in-law: Walker Cooper (top middle) and Ralph Branca (bottom left).

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“Baseball is fathers and sons. Football is brothers beating each other up in the backyard.” — Donald Hall

Another father, James Stork, Sr., had a connection to this set, but he was not a big league baseball player. He was a nine-year-old kid in 1953, his first of many years as a card collector and a magical time for the hobby and the sport.

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Ralph Kiner was coming off seven straight National League home run crowns. Mickey Mantle was picking up where Joe DiMaggio (if not Babe Ruth) had left off in New York. And a new source of talent, black players, was taking the game to new heights.

On store shelves Topps was back with its second major baseball release. (I’m not counting the pre-1952 stuff.) Reflecting the influx of black talent, here are cards 1, 2, and 3 in the classic 1953 Topps set.

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Meanwhile, in their two-series color offering, Bowman offered young gum chewers what many collectors today consider the most beautiful card set ever produced. I am in love with too many of the cards to even want to choose, but here are the three I have in my personal collection: Monte Irvin, Stan Musial, and Minnie Minoso.

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Finally, while a bit lower on the radar for most collectors, Bowman finished the year with its black and white issue, presumed to be a lower-budget (and renumbered) third series continuation of the color issue.

With all these card sets to choose from, the young James Stork, Sr., made the best choice of all. He collected all three! And then he did something most collectors of the era did not do. He kept his cards! Bravo, Mr. Stork.

Fast forward 45 years to 1998. James Stork, Sr., now in his fifties, was at his local card shop to make a purchase. It was a 1953 Bowman black and white he still needed for his collection. As the card shop landed more and more of the Bowman black and whites over the years, the owner would call Mr. Stork who would come in and buy any cards he still needed.

James Stork, Sr., passed away in January of 2010 from cancer of the esophagus. He did not complete his set. Another collector did.

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I was able to interview the younger Mr. Stork about the cards and memories that went along with completing his father’s set. Here are some of the stories attached to the collection.

JASON: How long have you been a collector?

“I started collecting in 1980 at the age of 5. My dad brought home a box of Topps. He opened the packs, I got the gum. Fair trade in the day. The very first card I remember was 1980 Topps Ben Oglivie. I was hooked from there on out.”

JASON: How did your father get into baseball cards?

“My dad grew up on a farm in rural VA, and baseball was something that he and his friends would play all the time. When my grandfather would go to town my dad would go with him and my grandfather would get my dad a pack or two for a nickel a piece I think is what my dad said.”

JASON: Do you know which cards were your dad’s favorites?

“My dad loved Nellie Fox and Billy Martin. Out of all of his cards, I think he cherished those the most. Probably because my dad was short like them, and he loved how passionate Billy Martin was. He also loved his Mantle and Mays cards.”

JASON: What is a favorite memory of your dad as an adult collecting cards?

“My dad loved his old cards, and when I brought home a Beckett in 1989 my dad found out his cards were worth something, he was blown away. I remember going with him to a local card shop and getting card holders for them. He loved showing them off to anyone and everyone who would listen.”

JASON: Are there cards you and your dad collected together?

“Dad and I would always get the Topps set each year when it came out. We have 1978-2009 from when he was alive, and now I have them through 2018. One day they will be my son’s.

JASON: How about a favorite baseball memory involving the two of you?

“I lived in a small town in Virginia after college, which was the same town that Tracy Stallard lived in. So for Christmas one year, I wanted to get a card autographed for my dad from Tracy. I went to his house and this giant of a man answered the door. I politely told Mr. Stallard who I was and what I was doing there, and he then invited me into his house and told me he had something even better. He signed a poster to my dad with him on the mound and Maris in the background after number 61. I gave that and the card to my dad for Christmas and he was over the moon thrilled. He had it professionally framed and hung in his house.

About 2 years later, my dad found out he had cancer, literally right after he retired. I was thinking to myself, what can I do for him to keep up his spirits as he fought this while I lived 4 hours away. I found a site that had through-the-mail autograph addresses, and I began to write almost on a daily basis. I never told my dad about it.

About a week later I got a call from my dad, he was so excited, he got letters from Stan Musial, Bobby Doerr and Robin Roberts in the same day’s mail. I filled him in on what I was doing for him, from that day on, for the next 4 years, if I wasn’t at home visiting him, I was on the phone with him, asking who he got in the mail that day. I would also ask the players about their career, and what they did after baseball. He loved getting those letters in the mail and reading what they would answer. I have those letters now, and they are my pride and joy besides my dad’s cards in my collection.”

Here, take this for a second.

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JASON: Besides the 1953 Bowman black and whites, do you plan to complete any other sets from your father’s collection?

“Dad was also about halfway through the 1958 and 1959 Topps sets, just from his buying packs as a kid. These weren’t sets he was working on completing as an adult. When I got his cards from my mom after he passed, I started working on the 1959 set, and I am just 28 cards away from being done. Hoping to be done by Jan 2020. I will work on the 1958 set sometime, but I may wait until my son is a little older so he and I can do it together.”

I led off this post with the teaser that the 1953 Bowman black and white set connected fathers to sons like no other. You probably thought I was talking about these guys.

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But I was really talking about two other guys.

Stork family

Rest in peace, James Stork, Sr. (1944-2010). Your son is doing you proud!

Author’s note: My thanks to James Stork not only for sharing his time and memories with me for this post but also for completing one of MY sets. A couple months back I received an envelope with the final two cards I needed for my 1986 Topps set. It was from James. Nothing in return was asked or accepted. 

Food for Thought

Now that I’m (mostly) past the flu, my thoughts turn back to food, and food issues. I’ve realized that, though I think I pursued every sort of card in the 1970’s, the reality is that, when it came to cards, what I ate, and how I ate it, was the leading indicator.

I’ve written about 1961 Post (though it predates me), 1970’s Kellogg’s 3-D (right in my wheelhouse) and, of course, Hostess, the pinnacle of my taste and card preferences. Here are five other issues of the ‘70’s, and how I approached them.

1971 Bazooka (but really all Bazooka)

All of the Bazooka cards, starting in 1959, are nice enough, but I never, never, collected them, even when my gum chewing days began (let’s guess 1967). Why? Because I we didn’t conceive of buying gum by the box! Gum was an impulse purchase, and impulse easily satisfied for a penny.

That being said, I used to see those full boxes of Bazooka at the supermarket and they were glorious. Imagine, and entire box of gum, at home! It was too much to process and I don’t recall asking for it.

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1971 Milk Duds

I have never met a single child who had Milk Duds at the top of their candy list. Even in 1971, they seemed like the preferred candy of the 1940’s. I’ll assume adding cards to the back of nickel boxes was an attempt to entice kids away from better candy, but I can assure you that it didn’t work on me. I have never bought Milk Duds voluntarily. They end up always being part of a Halloween assortment bag, and I eat them when there’s no better alternative. To be fair, they are worlds better than Tootsie Rolls, which is the Devil’s candy.

Looking at them now, I find it hard to believe I never bought a single box, even if it meant tossing the candy and keeping the card.

 

 

1972-1975(?) Slurpee Cups

When we moved from Brooklyn to Long Island in December 1971, there were innumerable culture shocks. It felt like I time-traveled from 1971, long-haired and fringe-jacketed, to 1961, crew-cutted, Gentile, and mean. There were good things to come, some took time, others were immediate. 7-Eleven was immediate.

I’d never seen or heard of 7-Eleven before moving to the middle of Suffolk County, but it was a looming presence out there, and the Slurpee ruled. Not only were they the best icy drinks (Coca-Cola Slurpees are the pinnacle of man’s inventions), but Slurpees cups had baseball, football and basketball players, even Hall of Fame baseball cups (which portrayed players as old men. Weird.)

Not only did they let me pick the cup I wanted (thereby avoiding doubles), but they’d sell empty cups. Maybe they were a quarter? I ended up with towers of Slurpee cups.

 

 

1974-75 Sugar Daddy

Though not a baseball player to be found, these cards do tip their cap to the 1938 Goudey “Heads Up” cards. Both years have 25 card sets, with a mix of football, basketball and hockey. The ‘74’s are pretty simple looking; the ‘75’s have a shield as background and are commonly referred to as “All-Stars.”

In those two years, I ate 7 Sugar Daddys. I know this because that’s how many of the cards I have. Funny, I’ve grown to love Sugar Daddys, but, back then, they were only a slightly better option than Milk Duds.

 

1977-79 Burger King Yankees

All of the above deserve a main course. The BK Yankee cards were great. Most mirrored the regular issue Topps sets, but often there was a new picture of another Yankee free agent signing. Those cards made the sets extra special.

For some reason, I didn’t get any 1977s, but the 1978s and 1979s were plentiful and, if memory serves, you could get extra packs at checkout. Maybe they charged, maybe not. Either way, it was easy to put a set together. (And, there was even a poster in 1978!)