Héroes de Cartón: A Cuban Collection

When I first traveled to Cuba in 2015, I had hoped to bring home some cards of the stars I would be seeing while I was on my baseball tour. Still naive about the differences between Cuban baseball and the major leagues, I believed that there would be such a thing. I knew the stadium amenities weren’t going to be luxurious (they weren’t) and the food at the park was bound to be lousy (it often was, though the pulled pork sliders I bought outside of Estadio 26 de Julio in Aretmisa remain vividly delicious in my memory). Still, surely an enterprising soul, or the government, had managed to publish a few sets of baseball cards. I was quickly corrected by none other than fellow traveler and Cuban baseball expert Peter Bjarkman. He informed me there were no modern cards in Cuba. There was one set published in 1994 which included pre-MLB cards for the Hernández brothers, Liván and Orlando. The one before that was sold in the 1950s.

I had never given much thought of what it would be like to be a youthful fan who could not regularly experience baseball cards. I loved the cards long before I truly loved the game. In the days before the internet and daily airings on team-owned networks, they were my most direct connection. I thrilled with each new pack and the treasures I found inside.

That same passion, this time on the faces of a gaggle of Cuban children, was on display whenever a member of our group pulled out a pack of Topps at one of the five Serie Nacional contests I attended. They would swarm, a collective that would consume any gleaming picture of a hero-in-action they could get their hands on. Bonus points if it was Yasiel Puig or Aroldis Chapman. At one point I pulled out a business card to give to a local sportswriter and a child’s eager hands immediately reached out to me. Just the image of a baseball on my card was enough to ignite their imaginations.

Jorge Soler’s rookie card appears in the Topps 2015 set, the year I began the collection.

All of this got me thinking about the Cuban stars of the past, and whether they had baseball cards. I had learned that generations of Serie Nacional heroes have never had one. But, what about the hundreds of Cubans who played in the major leagues? Surely many of them must have cards. I first considered starting a collection of all of the cards featuring Cuban-born players. I quickly realized that a complete collection of Cubans was going to necessitate far too much energy and money pursuing just José Canseco. There are roughly 3000 distinct cards of the tainted slugger. I decided that maybe the best way to approach this new whim would be to just get the rookie cards. The set would become relatively finite and definitely more achievable.

Many of them have rookie cards, but certainly not all. Some never had a card issued at all, at least none that my current research has revealed. Others have cards, but not ones that modern collectors consider “rookies.” Cards from a player’s minor league days do not qualify. Neither do cards from foreign leagues, such as the pre-revolution Cuban Winter League.

Tony Taylor’s 1958 Topps rookie card. Taylor is tied with Bert Campaneris for career triples by a Cuban-born player.

Such is the case of the Acosta brothers, José and Merito. The two appeared on Clark Griffith’s Cuban-laden Washington Senators of the 1910s and 20s. However, neither made enough of a mark to appear on a card during World War I and the lean years of the hobby that followed. Cards were produced in smaller sets, thus players like Merito, who appeared in 180 games in the outfield over five seasons, and José, who pitched in 55 games over three years, often fell through the cracks.

However, while playing for the 1923/24 Marianao squad of the Cuban League, they both appeared in a set that was issued in their homeland by Billiken. Like their American counterpart, these cards could be found in packs of cigarettes. In addition to Cubans, they also featured American Negro League legends like Oscar Charleston and Andy Cooper. Per the definitions set by modern collectors, these do not qualify as “rookie cards.” I decided that because so many of the pre-revolution members of the fraternity fell into this category, I was expanding my criteria to include first-known cards, as well.

The most respected Cuban-born player in his homeland is Martín Dihigo, whose 1945/6 Caramelo Deportivo is not a part of the collection because the color line kept him out of the majors.

As of this writing, there have been 208 Cuban-born men who have played or managed in the majors. So far, and research is ongoing, there appear to be 194 cards in the set I have designed. I had four at the outset, just by culling from my own collection: a 1990 issue of Tony Fossas, a 1989 Orestes Destrade, a 1987 Rafael Palmeiro and, from a pack bought in the interest of the project, a 2015 Jorge Soler. All of them happened to be Topps. There are numerous other publishers in this set, including Bowman, Upper Deck and Fleer. Going back before World War II, there are Zeenuts, T207s, an E135, and multiple cards from the candy manufacturer Caramelo Deportivo.

Palmeiro holds most of the offensive records for Cuban-born players, even outshining Hall of Famer Tony Perez. If not for his involvement with PEDs, he’d likely be a Hall of Famer, himself.

The day after I finished the first draft of the checklist for the set, I paid a visit to a comic book store in New Paltz, New York. My ex-wife and I meet there sometimes when we exchange our daughter. B is a fan of comics and I like to encourage my kid to become a nerd, just like her old man. While not a large shop, the collection is extensive and a fan of the genre is certain to leave satisfied.

What it does not have, however, is very many baseball cards for sale. The two collectibles will often appear together at small retail shops like this, though such stores usually lean more heavily in one direction. No one would ever think of this place as a local card shop. But, it does sell packs of the current sets and that day had about 50 individual cards up for grabs. Of those singles, the inventory was split between medium value cards of current players, a sprinkling of stars from 1970s, 80s and 90s, and a few lesser known players from the 60s.

One of those latter cards was from the Topps 1965 set, number 201. Minnesota Twins rookie stars César Tovar and Sandy Valdespino share the honors. Tovar, a native of Venezuela, had a fine twelve-year career with the Twins, Phillies, Rangers, A’s and Yankees. He finished in the top twenty-five in MVP voting every year from 1967-1971 and led the league in doubles and triples in 1970. The Trading Card Database has identified 56 unique cards manufactured for Tovar.

Hilario “Sandy” Valdespino lasted for seven seasons with the Twins, Braves, Astros, Pilots, Brewers and Royals. He did not share the same success as his card-mate, though he did get eleven at bats in the 1965 World Series, contributing a double and a run. Valdespino was born in San Jose de las Lajas in Mayabeque and became the 106th Cuban to appear in the majors when he made his debut on April 12, 1965. Number 201 is his official rookie card, one of only nineteen different identified cards of the outfielder ever produced.

A cardboard miracle.

The odds of finding that card, in that place, just days after I decided to pursue this quest, cannot be calculated. It was a divine intervention, a gift sent by the baseball gods in the form of a fifty-year-old piece of cardboard.

Today I have 115 of the cards from the set. The latest pickup, a W514 of Dolf Luque, is a real beauty. The corners are a little rounded and there are some minor markings on the surface, but it is crease free and remarkably sturdy for something that was printed a century ago. Luque, the first Cuban superstar, is an underappreciated name from yesteryear and a personal favorite. Finally acquiring his card inspired me to tell this story.

Among Cubans, only Luis Tiant put up better career pitching numbers than Dolf Luque. The W514s began production in 1919, the year Luque’s Cincinnati Reds defeated the Black Stockings in the World Series.

As always, the final cards of this set are the most challenging and, of course, the most expensive. It is also a set that is always expanding. Despite the recent short-sighted pronouncements of the current presidential administration, Cubans will continue to find a way to travel those ninety miles to American shores to play the game. Last year, six more made their major league debut. Three of them have rookie cards, so far, and the recent call up by the Yankees of Nestor Cortes, Jr., who had a less-than-impressive debut with Baltimore last March, increases the chances of him getting one at some point this season. When he does, I’ll be there.

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.

 

Jewels in the Dross

Soon after we moved to Cooperstown, a neighbor, now knowing I liked cards (or assuming Joey, then 8, liked cards), gave me (or us) boxes of mid-1990’s basketball cards. The neighbor’s son clearly saw gold in them thar hills, loading up on Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf cards, but, as we know, all that came crashing down.

I hadn’t looked at those cards since, other than to combine them into as few boxes as possible. A couple of days ago I dragged them out. Nothing of monetary value there, but, I have to say, I was struck by how nice nearly all the different sets and subsets were. The 1997-98 Fleer homage to 1934 Goudey is so nice that I pulled it out of the pile.

Tucked into the scads of hoop cards were some other sports. Very little baseball though, but I stumbled across these two, both Eddie Murray.

They’re from the 1997 Donruss Limited set, a fancy 200 card series that were $4.99 a pack twenty years ago! (And you only got five cards.) Some thoughts:

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  1. I was struck by how incredibly wonderful the Murray/Jefferson card is. It’s super-glossy on the front, without being as noisy as a lot of refractory cards tended to be. They feel good too, not overly slick.
  2. The “Exposure – Double Team” card is also very nice, though less so. Simple, not as shiny, but solid.
  3. Eddie Murray as an Anaheim Angel in the Disney togs is something I’d forgotten long ago. Seeing him in that vest, which I kinda love, is a surprising treat.
  4. In various blog posts/Tweets/Facebook comments, we’ve engaged in the idea of “junk wax.” I, like others, deplore the name. They are fairly worthless dollar-wise, but the cards of that era (maybe 1986ish-2000? I don’t’ know that anyone has bracketed the period in detail) are almost always beautiful, in all sports. In a highly competitive market, innovation in design was a must. Some fell flat, others soared, but because they aren’t sellable, fantastic looking cards have been left behind. I don’t believe I have ever seen a 1997 Donruss Limited card until now.

Now that I’ve seen these cards, I’m not sure what to do. As a die-hard set collector, it’s all or nothing for me. Usually. Sure, I poked around eBay to see if I could find a set, but nothing is listed right now. I saw a complete set of 200 sold for somewhere less than $100.

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Maybe it’s that I don’t feel like having to store another late-‘90’s box, or that, perhaps, the glow I have from the two cards won’t hold through 200. Or, maybe, I’ve fallen victim to the “junk wax” tag and have a subconscious resistance to buying any set from the time, unless it’s $5-10.

Regardless, nothing will get in the way of enjoying these two cards. I like them so much I haven’t put them away yet, keeping them close by to sneak an occasional peek.

Yay Team?

I see a lot of team collectors out there – Orioles, Pilots, Red Sox obsessives (an endless number of Red Sox obsessives). It’s not my thing. I’ve been a man without a team for 40 years. Some of you know the story.

I was a die-hard Mets fan.  Like the team, my first season was 1962 (though I was a mid-September call up). It couldn’t have been any better – World Series win at age 7, another World Series appearance at age 11, and Tom Seaver, always Tom Seaver. Until….

When the Mets traded Tom Terrific on June 15, 1977, it broke my heart and I realized I loved Tom Seaver way more than I loved the Mets. I was liberated from team based rooting, appreciated the game without the emotional swings that are the fun, and the noise, of being franchise bound in one’s reactions. I instantly had a player-centric point of view that created a straight line that led to the writing of Split Season:1981. Better still, I got to tell both Nancy and Tom Seaver my story and how his trade changed my whole outlook on the game. They both approved.

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Still, there are teams that pique my interest. The Indians always seemed to need fans, so I kept an eye on them, starting in the late ‘70’s. I always had a soft spot for the Giants and Dodgers.  But there are some clubs that never make me feel much of anything. So how did I end up with their cards?

Here are a few sets you may not know about. I don’t know why I know about them, and it’s even more confusing why I have them.

1970 McDonald Brewer panels

If you’ve ever beheld the gorgeousness of Volpe prints, then this set isn’t for you. Like the hastily repurposed Pilots uniforms made Milwaukee when the team moved, this 6-panel set is a cut rate job.

It’s pretty damned ugly, though certainly worth having. The whole thing is easily gotten for less than $20. If you have first year Brewer sentiment, or one year Pilot grief, these cards serve a purpose.  Not so much for me, though I do love a good Max Alvis card.

 

1970 Washington Senators Traffic Safety

Distributed by the D.C. DMV, this is one of the first police sets. The pictures are black and white, basic enough, but come in two tints. Pink, used in the first run, is much harder to get than yellow, used for the second and third printings. Of course, I have yellow

While the cards are 2 ½” X 3 7/8”, my set is an uncut sheet, not a particular area of interest for me. (In fact, I’m looking to unload a beautiful uncut sheet of Michael Jordan cards from 1994). It’s not a very attractive group of cards, and the checklist is what you’d think, though it would be a bit more exciting if Manager Ted Williams were included. (Then I would’ve been fending off those Red Sox maniacs).

 

1977 San Diego Padres Schedule cards

I still firmly believe that Mike Champion and Billy Almon are the double play combo of the future, just not in this dimension. In this chaotic set, they get a lot of attention.

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A team issue, this set contains 89 cards, some with promo information on the back, some with blank backs. I’m sure I bought it because, back then, there weren’t too many card issues in a given year. I thought I had the whole set, but I learned that maybe I don’t, and now I’m annoyed.

Several Winfields make it desirable, and there’s a Dave Friesleben card in a Washington uni years after this was a dead story, but it’s quirky, in a way the Padres have always been quirky – in a dull, frustrating kind of way.

I have other team sets that are inexplicable to me. I’ve got no interest in the team or the players on the team, and the designs are lackluster. Still, you know, they’re cards. What are you gonna do?

Turning Over the 1960 Leaf Set (or, Am I Losing My Marbles?)

If you don’t know the 1960 Leaf set, let me be your guide.

First, they are beautiful, regular size cards featuring black and white portraits with a photo quality gloss and superior card stock. Second, it has a weird checklist, with very few big names, and even the big names aren’t that big (no Mantle, Mays, Aaron, Koufax, etc.) I like offbeat checklists (see my multiple posts on the 1936 Goudey Wide Pens Type 1 set). Third, the full set has only 144 cards, though the second series is way tougher than the first. Fourth, there aren’t too many variations and only one variation is pricey.

Let’s go deeper.

Before the real set hit candy stores and five and dimes, Leaf made eight cards in pre-production, similar to the final design, but not exactly the same. These “Big Heads” are expensive, like, in the thousands per card expensive. Luis Aparicio, usually a lower level Hall of Famer in demand and price, is the Babe Ruth/Mickey Mantle in this smattering of players.

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The actual cards, though referenced as Leaf, were copyrighted to Sports Novelties, Inc. in Chicago. (Leaf was a Chicago based company, so there may be a connection between the two.) To avoid the Topps gum monopoly, the cards were issued with a marble. The first series is pretty attainable, relatively cheap. Lots can get you nice cards for less than a couple of bucks each.

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The second series is the tough one. Commons (I’m hoping) can be snagged in the $5-6 range.  According to my beloved 2009 Standard Catalog, an influx of over 4,000 high numbers hit the hobby in the late 1990’s which helps. I’m starting to snoop around for bargains.

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The variations are few, but fun.

There’s this one:

Real Brooks Lawrence (not a variation)

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Real Jim Grant (variation)

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Brooks Lawrence as Jim Grant

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Why is Brooks Lawrence so much happier when he’s Jim Grant?

The Hal Smith card has three different backs, for those of you who care about that. The back information on these cards is like a short story, way too much for me.

Regular

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No team

no name

Blacked out team, which will run you in the hundreds of dollars

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Not a variation at all, but credit to Leaf for addressing the 1960 Hal Smith issue.

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The second series has two errors (not variations), for a total of four players.

Obviously not Chuck Tanner (it’s Ken Kuhn)

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Stover McIlwain (it’s actually Jim McAnany, but who would ever know)

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It’s a lovely group of cards, with the higher priced names still reasonable – Aparicio (regular sized head, of course), Brooks Robinson (another Brooks entry), Duke Snider, Sparky Anderson, Orlando Cepeda and Jim Bunning.  You can come for the Hall of Famers. I’m in it for the Stover McIlwains.

Put your focus on the first series. I don’t need any competition as I search for low budget high numbers.

Thanksgiving-Time Gluttony

If you’re lucky enough on Thanksgiving, your plate is overflowing. Sometimes too much is good, sometimes it’s, well, too much.

I’m a pretty linear thinker, the “shortest distance between two points is a line” kind of guy, but I find myself taking on more sets to complete than I’m usually comfortable with. I’m a good multi-tasker, but the key to that is keeping the multis- to a minimum. There are different reasons I’m not sticking to this way of living in my card world, but I find myself working on 10! sets, two more if you count variations. Here’s are those different reasons:

1 – These are gonna take some time and have a price component:

I’m halfway through my 1933 Tattoo Orbit set, (31 of 60) and, though I’ve been getting commons in VG, VGEX and EX for around $30-40 each, there are some Hall of Famers I need that’ll run me around $100 per, and a few – Dean, Foxx and Grove, that’ll cost far more. Getting what remains in the condition I want, at a price that makes sense, is going to be a long long process.

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I’m down to the last card I need for my 1956 Topps set and, as planned, it’s Mantle. Can I get a nice enough, raw, Mickey for around $400? Seems so, based on sold listings. It won’t be easy, but it’s doable, and it’s going to take patience. If I waited to get this card and wrap up this set before tackling the next set, I’d be stuck. So I continue.

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2 – These are gonna take some time but don’t have a price problem:

You all know my undying love for 1936 Goudey Wide Pens, Type 1 (of course). The finish line is in sight, with only three to go – Cavaretta, Galan and Hartnett (what’s with the Cubs? Short prints?). Price won’t be an issue. Gabby will likely run me $25-30, the other two, $15-20. Problem is they haven’t been coming up. There was a nice Augie Galan, though with a pin hole, that I was outbid on.

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Ah, the 1953 Bowman Television and Radio Stars of NBC, much-loved topic of my last post. I’m in the home stretch here and will need to wait it out. Who knows how long it will take to get a nice Dennis Day?

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The 1963 Bazooka All Time Greats are a nice diversion and I’m about 50% of the way through this 41 card set. Ruth and Gehrig will set me back around $30-40 each, but I’m hoping to get the others, all commons, though all HOFers, for $5-6 each. Definitely going to take a while.

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I’m whittling away at the 1972 Fleer Famous Feats set, drawn by Laughlin. I should have to spend more than $1.50-2 for each card, and that stubbornness is going to add years to this pursuit. I can buy all six that I need for less than $20 on COMC, but I can’t bring myself to do that. Full sets can be gotten for $25-35. And so I wait.

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3- These shouldn’t take too long or cost too much:

I glommed on to the 1961 Post set because, actually I don’t know why. I had 30, got another 85, and all of a sudden I was on my way. What I want to pay for commons may hold me back, but no too much. The real issue is the short prints – Shaw, Estrada, Stobbs and McMillan, which will set me back $50 or so but don’t appear too often (this is what is meant by short prints).

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1975 Hostess is the only year I cut them out of the boxes, which bugged me for decades but now I see as a blessing. Decent hand cuts are cheap and, though I need 36 to complete, my grand total shouldn’t be more than $25. I just need to find them.

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Announcing the two most recent additions to the set quest – 1970 Topps Super Glossy Football and 1971 Topps Football. I’ll admit these are simply time killers, though I’m waiting for a lot of Glossys that’ll put me with in 10 of the end.  These cards have notoriously bad cuts, which doesn’t bother me much. The 1971s I have put me close enough, in a condition good enough, to get them all at a reasonable price.

4 – The variations:

1964 Wayne Causey All-Star, NL back. Bidding on one now, another is listed as a Buy It Now. $20 is about the going rate, but there’s satisfaction in getting it for $15. Silly, I know. I got the Chuck Hinton NL back for $6, so that became my new price goal, though there’s no way I’ll luck out twice.

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There are two 1973 Johnny Pro Orioles Jim Palmers. I need the windup variation. A lot of five Palmers, three windup and two follow through, was up recently, but it went for more than I was willing to pay, even having an Oriole collector on board to split the cost. Oh well.

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I’m very curious about how you approach set building. Is it the norm to tackle a lot of sets, or is the one or two at a time method most common? If you take a very long time to finish a set, how do you keep it on your radar so it doesn’t get lost?

With that, Happy Thanksgiving. Hope you have a lot of things to be thankful for and that your card pursuits have been gratifying. As we know, that’s what’s really important.

Post Post

Until early this year, I had one Post card – a 1961 Tony Kubek. Why? I have no idea. I’m pretty sure I bought it at an early ‘70’s card show, when I collected in a more aimless way and picked up stray cards that struck my fancy, at least for a moment.

Then Mark Armour and I did a second trade (the one that set me on the path to working on the 1969 Topps Decals set), and, boom, now I had 30. Not really enough to start working on a 200 card set, but enough to get me thinking.

Thinking turned into action last week when I bought a reasonably priced lot on eBay, 85 cards in varying condition, but good enough for me. I’m not going to be too worried about condition on this one. I’ll be OK as long as they’re decently cut and not creased (or not too creased). Backing up those words with deeds, 22 of the cards I got had a little bit of writing on them, stat updates that, at first, passed me by. The seller was good enough to refund the amount of these cards. I won’t go about replacing them. They’ll do; not my preference, but fine.

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Fine, in more ways than one. Fine, because I’m going to have to put together a full set from an assortment of variations and not be a stickler about anything. There are cards cut from boxes – thick stock – and cards issued by the company on perforated sheets – thinner stock with, at times, tabs visible.

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Ultimately, my set will be put together with the cheapest variations I can find, a mix of box and company, Minneapolis and Minnesota (both in the first year of the Twins existence), with and without “sold to” or “traded to” lines, big or small headed Gene Conley, etc. There are some short prints, company only issue of Chuck Estrada, box versions of Roy McMillan and that type. I’m hoping that the big stars I don’t have can come relatively affordable since condition is not a focus. I’m by no means an expert in Post cards, but I’ve already learned a lot.

Though I intended to dive into Nabisco Team Flakes, I still haven’t found a lot to start with yet. The 1961 Post cards have taken their place, for now. I’m already close to some completed pages. Wish me luck.

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