Followers of this blog and our Facebook and Twitter accounts have been a bit TCMA obsessed since several of us gathered in Cooperstown for the opening of the Hall of Fame’s Shoebox Treasures exhibit in May. A chance run in with Andrew Aronstein, son of TCMA founder Mike, touched off a bit of TCMA frenzy. (I’ve known Andrew and Mike for a few years, so I’m glad others in our card world are getting to know them).
My own recent TCMA interests have circled around the big baseball decades sets (and the football, basketball and hockey sets). Not all of them, actually, only the 1950’s and 1960’s sets. These are all beautiful, simple cards, with magnificent photos, as you’d expect. I picked up the entire 1950’s set at Baseball Nostalgia in Cooperstown (where else?), which started over 40 years ago as the TCMA flagship store.
The cards are wonderful, the checklist is wide ranging and they look wonderful signed. Released in 1979, the 291 card set is a must have.
With that set safely acquired, I marched forward to get both 1960’s sets, but was warned at Baseball Nostalgia that they’re harder to find than the ‘50’s set, and pricier. This proved to be true. The first set, released in 1978 with 293 cards was easier to spot, but I didn’t want to buy that series without the more difficult second series attached. (I learned this lesson when I picked up a cheap TCMA football base set and still find myself struggling to get the 12 card update at a reasonable price. I’d have been better off waiting to buy both sets.)
The 1981 (yay Split Season!) series 2 has 189 cards, but the problem is that about 1/3 were printed compared to series 1 (according to the Standard Catalog). Whenever that series would appear, it was too pricey for me.
Well, as of last night, my long waiting is over. I got both sets for a good price and they’re on their way! I can’t wait. Like the 1950’s cards, the 1960’s sets have fantastic variety of names, from superstars to non-stars to Jim McKnight.
The 1934-36 Diamond Stars set from National Chicle is a personal favorite thanks to its bright colors, its creative backgrounds, and the overall personality of its artwork. It’s also a set that makes for interesting study due to a variety of quirks and even a possible mystery.
10. NO Ruth or Gehrig
Though the Diamond Stars checklist is stacked with Hall of Fame talent, the set does not include the era’s two biggest stars, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Other notable absences include Dizzy Dean and Chuck Klein. While the omissions detract from the set in the eyes of many collectors, they may prove a blessing in disguise to set collectors on more modest budgets.
The back of each Diamond Stars card features a novel biographical format that doubles as a baseball instruction manual and scouting report tailored to the featured player. The byline on this content is Austen Lake of the Boston American.
Lake himself has an interesting bio, having at one time tried out as a catcher with the Yankees, played football professionally, and rose to prominence as a war correspondent during World War II. Of course, some vintage collectors might know the name (and even most of the bio!) from another set of 1930s trading cards.
8. what year are the cards?
As the name suggests, the 1934-36 Diamond Stars were indeed released over a three year period. However, that is not to say that each of the cards was available all three years. More detail is provided in an excellent article Kevin Glew wrote for PSA, but a basic summary of the 108-card release is as follows.
For example, this Luke Appling card (#95) would have only been available to collectors in 1936 whereas the Lefty Grove card (#1) shown earlier would have been available in 1934 or 1935. (As you’ll see in the next section, this isn’t 100% true, but we’ll call it “true for now.”)
7. what year are the cards…really?
For cards spanning more than one year, such as the Lefty Grove, a different version of the card was issued each year. The most telltale feature for distinguishing the variations is the line of stats at the bottom of each card back. If you scroll up a bit, you’ll see the Grove card that led off this article featured stats for 1933, hence was part of the 1934 series, whereas this Grove card features stats for 1934, hence was part of the 1935 series.
6. color change
Card backs featured green ink in 1934, blue ink in 1936, and a mix of the tw0—at least for cards 73-86—in 1935. As such, a set collector hoping to collect all possible variations would need three of each card from 73-86: a green 1935, a blue 1935, and a blue 1936.
5. other variations
Two well front variations in the set are the Hank Greenberg and Ernie Lombardi cards, originally misspelled as Hank Greenburg and Earnie Lombardi. Less known are five cards in the set where the player uniform changes due to a transaction between one series and another. I have a more comprehensive article on this subject here, but here are images of the five.
In other cases, such as with Johnny Vergez, card fronts stay the same but card backs note team changes.
4. more ambitious set planned?
Similar to the 1933 Goudey set, the bottom of each card back advertised a set of “240 major league players.” Despite that, the set included only 108 cards and only 96 different players.
One explanation for the smaller set is that player contracts with Goudey greatly reduced the number of players available. Another explanation is the 1937 bankruptcy of National Chicle. That said, at the established pace of only 32 new players (or 36 new cards) per year, it would have taken a good 7+ years to make it to 240.
3. DOUBLED dozen
While the first 96 cards in the checklist represent 96 distinct players, the final 12 cards in the set are all repeats. For example, Bill Dickey has card 11 (1934, 1935) and card 103 (1936) in the set. A possible explanation for the repeated twelve cards will come at the end of this article.
2. mystery uncut sheet
An uncut sheet of Diamond Stars was discovered in the 1980s by the family member of a former National Chicle printer. While other uncut Diamond Stars sheets are known to exist, what made this one particularly unique was that none of its 12 cards appear anywhere on the Diamond Stars checklist! (See Ryan Cracknell article for more info.)
In addition to blank-backed cards of Hall of Famers Goose Goslin and Lefty Gomez, the sheet also includes a particularly noteworthy card pairing Browns teammates Jim Bottomley and Rogers Hornsby.
Original artwork for the Bottomley/Hornsby card sold at auction in 2012, and good news…the owner is evidently actively entertaining offers!
In addition, the press photo, taken at 1936 Spring Training, that the artwork and card were based on has also made the rounds.
1. connection between uncut sheet and doubled dozen?
I have seen some speculation that the twelve repeated cards (97-108) on the Diamond Stars checklist might have taken the place of the twelve cards on this uncut and unreleased sheet. I have also seen the Bottomley/Hornsby card at its neighbors proposed as part of an unrealized 1937 extension to the original set.
As with most 80+ year old mysteries, any definitive answer is likely lost to history. At least some clues that suggest the sheet was produced along with the rest of the 1936 series are the cards for Jim Bottomley, Roger Cramer, and Gene Moore, all of which show teams they joined in early 1936, and Benny Frey, Rip Collins, Linus Frey, and Lon Warneke, still shown on teams they were no longer with in 1937.
When I first saw this unreleased sheet, what jumped out at me were the zanier more geometric backgrounds versus the more traditional (but still colorful) stadium and cityscape backgrounds of the original 108 cards. Perhaps this mismatch prompted a National Chicle exec to kill the sheet and a panicking product manager to replace it with the fastest thing he could throw together: repeats of earlier cards.
BONUS KAWhi leonard tie-in
As Kawhi Leonard contemplates whether to remain in Toronto or join forces with LeBron and A.D. to form the greatest Big Three in NBA history, I thought I’d call out my favorite Cardboard Big Three ever. I defy you to top it, even if I spot you a Ruth and a Gehrig!
I asked people to send me their “junk wax” faves at the end of this post on Fleer Classic Miniatures and I got a lot of solid suggestions. The 1985 Fun Foods set was one, and I took it to heart. I am now the proud owner of a complete 133 button set.
I was not unaware of the Fun Foods set; I’ve always had a soft spot for it. I’ve had the Seaver button, and only the Seaver button, for decades.
The beauty of this little item was not lost on me, but I never went for the whole set. Not a cost issue, the set should run $20 tops, more of a storage issue. Where would I put 133 buttons – in a box? In sheets? I really couldn’t figure it out, so I passed.
When I started pursuing the 1964 and 1971 Topps coins sets, I ended up with some coin sheets whose pockets were too small. Too small for the coins, but perfect for the buttons! (Never throw anything out!). Here’s how they display:
It’s a super attractive set – the colors are vibrant, the photos are sharp, the checklist is terrifically 1984/1985.
They’re thick enough that my binder won’t close now, but I’m not worried. It’s a binder full of metal discs, not cardboard. No bent corners here!
I won’t claim to doing much looking into this issue: they were sold as complete sets and in packs of three, though I never saw those packs in the wild. As to Fun Foods, I have no idea what they did, or made, or how much fun their product may or may not have been. Maybe all they made were the buttons, maybe the buttons were meant to be eaten. I have no idea (though don’t do that.)
Whatever business Fun Foods was in is of no matter to me. They made cool buttons, I now have them all, and that’s enough for me.
A few months ago I attended the Frederick Ivor-Campbell 19th Century Conference at the Baseball Hall of Fame. The Fred is my favorite of all of the SABR conferences because of the intimacy, the subject, the location and the camaraderie. One of the presentations that weekend was entitled “The Birth of Baseball Cards.” The panel was moderated by MLB historian John Thorn and featured the SABR Baseball Card blog’s very own Jeff Katz, Hall of Fame curator Tom Shieber and author Peter Devereuax. Devereaux’s book, Game Faces, is an inside look at many of the early baseball cards that constitute the Benjamin K. Edwards Collection at the Library of Congress and served as a jumping off point for the panel. Game Faces should be on the reading list of everyone in this group.
Over the course of the panel the question was brought up of just what it is that defines a “card.” It is a question that is often addressed in the hobby; has, in fact, been addressed in this blog by Mr. Katz. It is also a question with no definitive answers, although Shieber, who was one of the driving forces behind the Hall’s new permanent baseball card exhibit entitled “Shoebox Treasures,” listed a few personal criteria. To be clear, Tom does not espouse to be the final voice on this subject, but much of what he said rang true to me. To him, the item in question should be: intended as a collectible, part of a set, directly related to baseball, and there should be a “cardyness” about it. That last one is admittedly vague, though for most of the folks reading this, the idea is likely akin to the old adage coined by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart about pornography. We know it when we see it.
This panel was the highlight of the weekend for me, not just
because it was dedicated to one of my favorite subjects, but more so because I
have wrestled recently with this very question. As I mentioned in my last post,
in my quest to complete a collection of the rookie cards of every Cuban who has
appeared in a major league game, I have had to stretch certain
standardly-accepted definitions, beginning with the idea of a what constitutes a
“rookie card.” In the interest of finding at least one card for every player, I
have had to not only step outside of some of the accepted definitions within
the hobby, but I have been confronted numerous times with the issue of whether
or not an item I am looking at even counts as a “card.”
Such is the case with the 1943 set issued by the Havana-based, cracker, candy and chocolate manufacturer, La Ambrosia. As with major league baseball, the arrival of World War II created a vacuum of talent in the Cuban professional league. The league had already been struggling financially since the political upheaval of the overthrow of President Gerardo Machado, in the early 1930s. When the war began, it stemmed the flow of top-tier American talent, the quality of play suffered, and the league found itself at a low point. The silver lining of this nadir was the maturation of the Cuban amateur leagues.
With no minor league system in place, Cuban clubs would find
their promising young talent on the sugarmill teams that dotted the countryside.
Similar to the American company teams that would produce exciting local
baseball that filled the void before the advent of radio and television broadcasts,
the sugarmill teams were a loose collection of business-based semi-pro clubs.
One of those clubs was sponsored by La Ambrosia, and would feature the likes of
such luminaries as future Cuban batting champ Claro Duany and Orestes “Minnie”
The candy giant capitalized on their sponsorship of the club by publishing a set of 240 images that were released as “stamps.” Collectors were encouraged to get all of the stamps and then stick them inside an album, similar to the more ubiquitous Cuban release issued by Caramelo Deportivo during the 1945/46 and 1946/47 seasons. Printed on thin paper that most closely resembles magazine stock, the La Ambrosia stamps featured the largest single published collection of Cuban amateurs that I have found.
Unlike the Deportivos, in which the images are black and white and often grainy, the La Ambrosias are in color. They have the distinctive look of the tones being both vibrant and muted, as though the photos had been tinted with watercolors. The images look especially bright when mounted on the yellowed pages of their original album. It is those albums which resulted in the Deportivos and the La Ambrosias sharing another unfortunate trait. There are few remaining of either issue that do not have serious flaws, including backs that were damaged by adhesives.
For many, including the auction houses that sell these sets, the descriptions of these issues have evolved from “stamps” to “cards.” They certainly fit with Shieber’s first three criteria. But what about “cardyness?” They are not published on what we think of as a card stock. But does that matter? What is that quintessential piece that makes a card a card? Does an item need ALL of Shieber’s (self-proclaimed arbitrary) criteria? Are three sufficient? What about two? Or one?
The “cards” I have included in the collection for the Aragóns, Ángel and his son Jack, are a perfect example of this latter question. Their short major league careers, as well as the fact that they played during war years (Ángel appeared in 32 games with the Yankees during World War I and Jack’s lone major league appearance was in 1941), led to neither of them having what would be thought of, traditionally, as a card. I have not even had any luck by expanding my search to include cards that portray them in foreign leagues, although Jack’s extensive minor league career gives me hope that I may discover him in an obscure set someday. At the moment, though, they just don’t seem to exist.
However, while trolling through ebay, I came across a seller
who was offering images of both Ángel and Jack. He had come into possession of
a number of old periodicals, including a 1914 Spalding Guide and a 1949
publication called, “Historia del Base Ball Profesional de Cuba,” written by
Raul Diez Muro. The seller, scissors in hand, cut up both periodicals into a series
of head shots for the players that appeared in the two collections. The Spalding
Guide offered a number of publicity photos of minor league players, including Ángel.
Jack appeared in the book by Muro.
I have decided to include these hand cut bits of newsprint in lieu of “cards” because there aren’t any other options for these players and they do have the advantage of originally being printed concurrent with the player’s career. They pass virtually none of Shieber’s criteria. While the publications themselves could be considered collectible, they certainly became less desirable after the scissors were taken to them. The subjects are definitely baseball related, but they are not part of an intended set, nor do they feel very “cardy” to me. I have blurred the line considerably in the interest of completing my checklist.
I am now at the point where I need to decide if, since I have expanded my definitions for the Aragóns, do I do the same with the remaining Cubans who were never issued a card? Are pictures cut from newspapers enough to check that box, especially if I hold true to the criteria of the images being published during their careers? I know it’s my set, and I can do with it as I damn well please, but I’m not a fan of cheating. I suppose the best answer would be for me to wait to make a similar discovery of a player who is cardless, and decide when I see the actual item. Because, like Stewart’s porn, I believe I’ll know it when I see it.
Author’s note: I thought some of you might be interested in seeing the collection as it develops. I have created a flickr album that you can access here. The cards appear in the album not by the year in which they were issued, but rather in the order in which the player made their major league debut. Thus, even though the card for Esteban Bellán wasn’t produced until 2014, he is the first one in the set.
During the height of the baseball card frenzy, there were a lot of sets. Many many sets. Too many sets. There were incredibly crappy and pointless sets (I’m talking about you, 1990 Topps Doubleheaders).
There were sets of historical worthiness, nicely put together, worthy, but monetarily worthless (1987 Donruss Rookies comes to mind).
Plenty of other sets came and went with a Why? These are ugly! Haven’t I seen something like this a million times over? (Presenting the KayBee Team Leaders box.)
Then there are sets that are really nice, worth the time, and, though forgotten, lots of fun.
Sitting on a shelf with a bunch of Topps Updates, Donruss Rookies and assorted others, sits my 1986 Fleer Classic Miniature set, 120 small cards in a tiny box. The ’86 Fleer set is simple and solid, and, though the minis are in the same design – THEY ARE DIFFERENT PHOTOS! Good ones too.
Here’s Dwight Gooden (mini on left, regular issue on right).
Here’s Tom Seaver (same order):
And Eddie Murray:
I was so taken by this set, that I hadn’t looked at in decades, that I went searching for the others – 1987 and 1988. I found a guy on eBay who was selling both (perfect!). He wanted $10 plus shipping. A little quick research showed that there are listings for bulk lots that end up with the sets at about a buck each, and sold listings topped out at $3. I offered $5 for both sets and got them.
Picking up these stray complete sets that I don’t have and are appealing is a great little sideline for me as I stall in completing some older, slightly more difficult sets to wrap up. The price is right, the cards are beautiful, and, though unfortunately lumped into the “junk wax”/baseball card bubble period, are worth having.
I’m sure there are tons of low priced sets that people love and I don’t know about. (I recently picked up a set of 1983 Topps Foldouts that I had never heard of and now adore).
The floor is yours. I want to hear about your faves (which I will then buy for pocket change.)
I have 15 of 66 cards from the 1965 Topps Soupy Sales set. I’m not there.
I have 6 of 88 1957 Topps Hit Stars. Not yet.
I have 6 of 24 1968 Topps Posters, off condition donated by friends. I’m uncommitted.
1960 Leaf second series. I’m all in.
I wrote about the 1960 Leaf set in December. Soon after I posted, I grabbed a Harry Brecheen.
Then I picked up Henry Mason and Earl Torgeson in a COMC order. I told myself I was casually working on the set. That’s even in my name for the spreadsheet I created.
But am I? I bought a Faye Throneberry at COMC (not in hand yet), and then five from one eBay seller.
Now I’m 1/8 of the way there and going for it. (By the way, all the cards are standard shiny white. Not sure why they photographed so dingy. They’re nice, though not as nice as my first series.)
At less than $9 per card in EX to EXMT, I could happily acquire more commons, though this condition at that price is a challenge. The second series cards are out there, but tend to be listed for more. I’ve been lucky so far. Some cards will set me back – Sparky Anderson, Orlando Cepeda, Jim Bunning, the two Hal Smiths (one card), maybe Curt Flood.
I’m happy to be swept in by these cards. It’s a good, manageable project that crept up on me and, all of a sudden, I was in for keeps.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.