Set building equates to putting back in order what has purposely been randomized and that is my best definition of what baseball card collecting is all about. Surely it’s what Woody Gelman of Topps had in mind all those years ago in Brooklyn. Why else would he have cataloged his own work that way, right? You break away from Mom in the local drug store, Otto Drugs in my 1974 case, to hit the candy isle and see this red wrapper with a baseball on it with a tag line saying “ALL 660 CARDS IN ONE SERIES!”. Then I had no idea what a series meant in that usage nor had any inkling of the heartache and heartburn it would cause me in my later years as I discovered short prints, double prints, variations, errors, regional test releases and scarcities but my soon to turn nine year old self knew it meant something needed to be completed. Hammerin’ Hank was just becoming the new Home Run King and what was viewed as our local team in Louisville, Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine, was churning up and waiting for Sparky to put Foster in the starting lineup during the following season – it was a glorious time. These were all on the shelf.
But returning our focus to Baseball Card set building I’d like to give a few best practices obtained over the last few years since returning to the hobby that I have found to make the process as efficient as possible. For practical purposes this list works off the assumption of a couple of things: Topps/Bowman era to present and that you know your budgetary constraints.
Educate yourself – fully about the set you have interest in. Know not just who the rookie and obvious star cards are but review for any high number series that may be more difficult to obtain and learn if short printed cards are involved. This will help with the sticker shock of why a 1963 Harmon Killebrew with a far less appealing photo than its 1962 older brother runs three times the price.
Although you will still shake your head in disbelief as you pay more for a 2014 Topps Heritage common short print than you did for an actual 1965 in the same category. Variations and error cards can also be a deep hole you find yourself in and can greatly affect your budget if not considered before diving in. Base set and Master set are not really a new thing to the Hobby. 1956 Topps for example has six team cards that have three versions each, did I know that going in? Nope, but I did choose to track them all down? Oh yes, those team cards are just flat out cool. Did I then choose to also fill the binder up with all the white or grey back and color line variations? Oh noooo, one Mickey Mantle with that odd looking grin is enough thank you. But you see the point, 200 plus extra cards to compile a 1956 Master Set is far less appealing to me than the 18 extra cards needed to “master” all of the 1974 magnificence. Again that budget precursor is a biggie. Then we have those printing errors and defects that Topps’ printers have given an unending supply of “how’d they let that out?!?” over the decades for a print guy like me who walks grocery store isles looking for bad print and color variation.
Stay focused on condition – Graded, not graded, high mid low grade, targeted graded, there’s a lot going here and it is all, again, related to the budget question. A collector can be in the rarefied air that is breathed in on PSA’s Set Registry site or just happy to have a particular card and anywhere in between.
I recommend sticking to whatever your comfort level is and knowing what your plan is for the set once completed by answering the Graded/Non Graded question. The first set I wanted to work on upon returning to the hobby was my birth year set of 1965 Topps. Once completed and without focus I have Graded and Non Graded Hall of Famers and the same with common cards as well, it’s all over the place and it feels like that great pennant design is having an existential crisis akin to an El Camino, unsure as to if it’s a car or a truck. Targeted Graded can be an option as well if you want to focus on professionally graded cards of just the HOF’ers in the set, or a certain team, etc. The 1963 Topps set fits this approach well for me as the big names in set have iconic photos that look amazing with many showing fantastic views of now gone ballparks in the background and vintage uniforms.
As opposed to many of the commons that have loads of boring head shots cap less and airbrushed as Topps was beginning to get lazy in it’s monopoly.
Starter Sets and Lots – Ah yeah! Starter isn’t just reserved for sweet throwback satin jackets, it’s also how you get your jump out of the gate when you decide to start a set. Now short of being able to say any of the following: “Well, I already have the Mantle”, or sub in “Clemente, Rose, Seaver or Ryan rookie”, then you are going to need a Starter Set. Maybe it’s a holdover from your childhood recently rediscovered, a yard sale find, a dealer offering to dump a box of 70’s to you for a $20 because he doesn’t want to lug it back to the car or maybe and best of all you find a deal on eBay thumbing through auctions ending soon during the fourth Hallmark Channel movie you have sat through this week while your better half remains teary eyed over the plot line in this new quarantined world.
Bold and in italics for a reason auctions ending soonis part of eBay’s search functions that you should make yourself highly acquainted with. Favorite search topics can be saved so you receive notices when newly listed auctions with your keywords are listed. As a compulsive set builder I will also just search for “starter set”, “card lot”, etc by era under Baseball Cards and Ending Soonest just to see what is out there. Don’t get too locked into era though because at times you will find deals where sellers have not listed correctly and that buried treasure will appear.
Since you have previously educated yourself you will have an idea of how much you want to pay for a card on average until you reach a point where buying in quantity no longer has an upside. Depending upon the size of the set you may want to acquire multiple starter sets or lots to combine and give you potential condition upgrades. I am currently working on 1959 Topps and purchased six lots ranging from 4 to 205 cards over a four month period. My goal was to spend 75 cents a card on average up to this point and the reality cost is 85 cents a card has got me to 56% of the set completed with a large chunk of the mighty mighties already knocked off the list. These starter sets and lots are where you will find most of the value on star cards in my opinion. Especially if your condition tolerance is more mid grade raw cards. At this point you can separate the wheat from chafe, the keepers from the doubles and create THE LIST! Those doubles from your starter sets and lots can be sold or traded to help flesh out the remaining cards needed.
THE LIST! Once you have obtained around 60% of the set it’s time to create a list of the remaining cards and the search becomes more pointed. This list will also have the running tally of dollar expense so you know where you are in relation to your budget. I am a collector first and usually do not flip out sets once they are completed but the opportunity has presented itself to sell a few times and having the info stored away is helpful in parting ways with a finished work. Here is where your local card shop, if your area is fortunate enough to still have one, and websites like Sportlots and COMC come in quite handy. Both of the latter of these will allow you to select the cards you need at fair prices in large quantities. Each is different in that Sportlots is more geared to working with an individual seller who has cards in their possession while COMC has a massive inventory built from thousands of sellers who have sent their cards in for COMC to store and ship. Great success has been had with Sportlots by knocking down lists for sets ranging from the 1950’s to modern day Topps Heritage. COMC is great for harder to find sets or series where individuals may not have much inventory but having access to many different sellers you can save on shipping costs.
This all leads to what has become the best part of the Hobby I’ve experienced over the last couple of years – Twitter Trading. Yes, within that cesspool of keyboard warriors that Twitter has spiraled down into, there is a group of fantastic folks I have been able to complete trades with just like back in 1974. We exchange lists, send pics of the cards we are offering and accepting in trade and then ship them out. Once received we post our completed trades as they are received back on Twitter and the cycle continues. I was initiated into this process by a great ambassador of this trading world, fellow SABR Baseball Card Blogger Mark Del Franco, @delspacefranco, who is very active in trading of this type. This provides great conversation about cards and sets and really returns what, I’m sure, is the beginning reason for collecting in the first place – it’s just fun!
Hopefully this has provided some best practices for you put into action and provides some help as you build. Some sets can be completed in short order while you may wait months to years to add to a truly scarce set, let me tell you about my 1968 Topps Action All-Stars sometime. That’s when you find out about the last second eBay bid snipers who are always watching like the Eye of Mordor! Happy Building, enjoy the journey!
I don’t recall exactly why I walked into Joe’s Department Store on that blustery Saturday afternoon in November 1961. I probably had a dime that was burning a hole in my pocket. But I remember very clearly leaving Joe’s with two very different packs of football cards in my hand—the first packs of cards that I ever owned.
I leaned against the brick façade of the building facing Fenkell Avenue and tried to block the wind while I opened the packs. The first pack I opened was exciting! I still remember three cards from that pack—Minnesota Vikings quarterback George Shaw, who would soon be supplanted by Fran Tarkenton; Detroit Lions running back Nick Pietrosante, one of my father’s favorite players; and Jimmy Brown, the Cleveland Browns’ outstanding running back who even I, at age six, knew was a star player. That card was magnificent! Brown looked like he had been dropped in against a sky-blue background, just having taken a handoff and ready to run. I knew my dad would be impressed!
I shoved these cards—which I discovered later were manufactured by Topps—in my jacket pocket and opened the second pack, which had a completely different design on the wax wrapper. The cards themselves were also very different from the first pack; rather than players posing against a solid background, these cards depicted players on a gridiron that looked like it was on the edge of a forest, with trees and shrubbery in the background. The linemen were depicted charging toward some off-camera target, and the running backs all seemed to be heading straight toward the photographer. I still remember a few of the cards from this pack—San Diego Chargers lineman Ron Mix, Dallas Texans lineman Bill Krisher, and New York Titans running back Pete Hart.
(How, you might ask, can I remember what cards I got in packs that I bought nearly sixty years ago? That’s easy to answer. Those packs were the only ones I bought all year, and I was so enthralled with the pictures that I looked at them every day and read their backs so often that I memorized their stats and details. It was clear that I was hooked on cards within those first two packs.)
I quickly jammed the second pack of cards—which I later realized were made by Fleer—in my other pocket and closed my hands in the pockets so they wouldn’t blow away in the wind on my three-block trip home. (I have no recollection of whether or not I chewed the gum.) When I got home, I quickly showed the cards to my father. As I expected, he was impressed with the Pietrosante card, and upon seeing the Jimmy Brown card, he said approvingly, “He’s a good one!” But when he looked at the cards from the second pack, a puzzled expression came across his face. “Dallas Texans? The Dallas team is called the Cowboys!” “New York Titans? I only know the New York Giants!” I shrugged my shoulders as my dad suggested that maybe these pictures were of college players. Clearly the American Football League had not made an impact on anyone at the house on Patton Avenue in Detroit by the fall of 1961.
After my father handed the cards back to me, I asked him if baseball cards were also sold. Dad said he didn’t know but suspected that some company made them. He said we would have to see when the spring rolled around. I had something exiting to anticipate!
In late March 1962, I was thrilled to discover that Joe’s Department Store and Checker Drugs—just three storefronts down from Joe’s—both carried baseball cards. I loved that 1962 set, and I still do. From the faux woodgrain border to the photo with the lower right corner curled up to reveal the player’s name, team, and position, I thought those cards were perfect. I didn’t have a lot of them, but my parents were generous with their nickels and dimes, and I couldn’t wait to walk down to the store to pick up one or two of those green-wrappered packs of cards. I regularly volunteered to go to Checker’s with a note from my father allowing me to pick up a pack of Pall Malls for him—and to pick up a pack of cards for myself. (Thankfully, my dad quit smoking a few years later. I had to find other excuses to go to the store to buy baseball cards.) I probably had four or five dozen cards from the first and second series—not a lot, but enough to whet my appetite for more. And while I loved the pictures, I also studied the backs of the cards. I enjoyed reading about Roger Maris’ record-setting exploits in 1961, learning that Marv Breeding was the victim of the “sophomore jinx” in ’61 (although I had no idea what that was), and trying to figure out how to pronounce the name of Cleveland utility infielder Mike de la Hoz.
That spring I would go outside after dinner to throw a rubber ball against the steps of my parents’ front porch. I soon discovered that the Brooks brothers three doors down would play catch on the sidewalk in front of their home almost every night. I would wander down and strike up a conversation with Billy, who was in fourth of fifth grade, and Bobby, who was in junior high. They didn’t seem to mind having a little kid talk to them and watch them, and in fact they encouraged it by asking me to play “running bases,” a glorified game of “pickle” where I would start in the middle between them and they had to try to get as close to me as possible and tag me without dropping the ball. Invariably we would all collapse in laughter on the cool front lawn of the Brooks home. Those were wonderful, precious times.
I soon discovered that Billy and Bobby collected baseball cards, just like I did. They collected their cards together and had a lot of the first couple of series of Topps cards in 1962. I did, however, have a few cards that they were missing, and they told me that they would give me three of their doubles for every card I had that they needed. I think I had six cards they wanted, so I got eighteen cards in exchange. That was a nice way to increase my collection. I told Billy that I also collected the cards from the backs of Post cereal boxes and the coins that were in Salada Tea (which my grandmother drank) and Junket desserts. Billy collected the Post cards too but didn’t know anything about the coins. I showed him my burgeoning collection and he looked at them with curiosity, saying he had never heard of Junket. “Really?” I exclaimed. “You haven’t seen the television commercials? ‘Junket rennet custard/The growing up dessert! Helps you grow up, not out!’ Billy stood back from me, eyed me up and down, and said with a grin, “Doesn’t seem to be doing a good job with you.” At first, I thought he was making a cruel joke about my weight, but he nudged me with his elbow and told me he was kidding. We both laughed about it—no harm, no foul.
Once school let out for the summer, the Brooks brothers went on vacation with their parents, and I didn’t see them much once they got back home, but they were my first trading partners and thus had a strong influence on me. I knew that there were other people out there who loved card collecting as much as I did. So thanks, Billy and Bobby, for your friendship and savvy trades all those years ago.
I collected baseball cards throughout the summer of 1962. I probably had about two hundred different cards—a pretty good collection, but not even half of the 598 cards in the set. The cards were issued in seven series, and I never saw any packs of sixth or seventh series cards at Joe’s or Checker’s. I bought one pack of seventh series cards at a drug store my mother visited for a special prescription; those were the only seventh series cards I bought at a store.
By mid-August, baseball cards were supplanted by the new Topps football card set, and I bought those, too. I liked the dark borders but wasn’t thrilled with the small black-and-white action photos that accompanied the larger color still shots. Still, they were cards, and I bought as many as I could.
That fall, my parents bowled in my dad’s Detroit Edison league, so every Friday they would take my older sister and me to my grandmother’s apartment. She would ply us with chocolate pudding and orange slices and let us watch such television programs as “William Tell,” “I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster,” “The Flintstones,” and “The Hathaways.” My grandma lived in a second-story apartment above a convenience store, and each visit also included a trip to the store. I discovered that the store sold football cards, too—a product issued by Fleer that depicted stars from the American Football League (about which I had read over the previous year). I probably had half of the small set of those cards and enjoyed the variety between them and the Topps issue.
When spring 1963 rolled around, and the new Topps baseball set was issued, I was excited, but I was a little let down by the cards themselves. They 1963 cards were colorful, but I liked the 1962 set so much that I was disappointed with this year’s design. I can’t quite put my finger on why, but no matter—I still bought as many as I could. And once again, I never saw any packs of sixth or seventh series cards. All that aside, however, I had an experience that has lived with me ever since and which I wish I could revisit and try to do differently.
One afternoon in June 1963, just after school had let out for the summer, my mother asked me if I wanted to go grocery shopping with her. I liked going because I could look at the baseball cards on the backs of Post cereal boxes and Bazooka bubble gum boxes and shake the Junket boxes to hear the coin bouncing around inside. My mom and I headed to the local Packer grocery store “(Packer’s got the meat/Packer’s got the price/That’s why Packer is twice . . . as . . . nice!”). I soon left my mom to shop on her own while I visited the cereal and candy aisles. I saw what I wanted to see and was heading back down the main aisle when something caught my eye and caused me to halt all movement and gasp for breath. There, hanging from the end of the aisle on a metal bar, were rack packs of Topps baseball cards—three stacks of cards wrapped in cellophane and there for the taking. And not just any baseball cards—they were my favorites, 1962 Topps! And not just any 1962 Topps, but as I discovered by looking at the cards on the top and the bottom of the rack pack, they were the elusive seventh series cards, of which I only had five!!!
I quickly put the rack pack back on the metal stake and hustled off to find my mother. When I saw her, I was out of breath.
“Mom!!! They have baseball cards here!!!!! Please come with me!”
My mother looked at me suspiciously but followed me to the display on the main aisle. I took down a rack pack and handed it to her.
“Can I get this, Mom? Please???”
She looked at the package and asked, “Are these from this year?”
“No,” I replied, “But—”
“No,” my mother said forcefully. I’m not buying you old cards.”
“But Mom, I don’t have ANY of these cards!”
“No, I’m not buying you old cards.”
“Stop, Danny. Put them back.”
I thought about throwing a tantrum right then and there, but I figured it wouldn’t be dignified for an eight-year-old to be so immature. So instead, I decided not to talk to my mom at all for the rest of the day. That would show her!
That incident has stayed with me all these years. I sometimes wonder how valuable those cards would be today, when common seventh series cards can sell for almost $100 apiece in nice condition. Of course, in my hands, they probably wouldn’t have stayed in mint condition, and almost certainly those rack packs would have been quickly ripped open, but still, it’s nice to speculate on their value.
Once again, by mid-August, football cards were on sale, and I bought a lot of those cards. I really liked that set—they were very colorful and had strong visual appeal, plus a lot of my friends also bought them and I could trade with them. I remember, though, that some cards seemed almost impossible to come by—particularly the Philadelphia Eagles cards, which nobody seemed to have. Of course, at that time I knew nothing about short prints, but I would soon find out about them. My parents bowled in the Edison league again that fall, and once again the convenience store below my grandmother’s apartment sold Fleer AFC cards, so I had a lot of football cards to look at. The last time I bought cards there was Friday, November 15; a week later, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and while my parents still bowled that night, the convenience store was closed, and I don’t remember ever seeing Fleer football cards there again after that.
During March 1964, I began to visit Joe’s and Checker’s to look for the new baseball cards. I was surprised to discover, however, that neither store had them. Late March turned to early April, and still no cards were on sale. Rather than coming home from school and then going to the stores, I started to go right from school. I was desperate for my baseball card fix!
The baseball season started on April 13 in 1964, and a couple of days before that, I went to Checker’s and asked for some baseball cards. The woman behind the counter said they didn’t have them yet. She must have seen my disappointment because she leaned forward on the counter and said, conspiratorially, “Do you want to know why there are no baseball cards?”
I moved close to the counter and didn’t say anything but was shocked and stunned when she said, “It’s because of the Beatles.”
I looked at her like she had lobsters crawling out of her ears. “THE BEATLES??? What do you mean?” How could a show business phenomenon have such an effect on my baseball card mania?
The woman explained to me that the Beatles were such a big box office draw that Topps put together an offer to sell bubble gum cards of the band. Those cards sold even better than baseball cards and led to a second series, which sold just as well. She said that Topps was in the process of developing a third series and that the baseball cards would be issued after that third series of Beatles cards was released.
I was dumbfounded. I didn’t know whether to believe her or not, but it seemed logical, and later research proved that she had the details pretty much correct. I went home crestfallen, wondering when the baseball cards would arrive in the stores and cursing the Beatles for making me wait for my fix. Of course, I had loved watching the Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show” that February, and I had even begun combing my hair over my forehead, like 90% of the boys in my class at school, so I couldn’t stay mad at them for too long. They were on the radio constantly, and my sister collected their cards (she eventually had complete sets of all six series), so once the baseball cards came out, all was forgiven.
Maybe it was because it took so long for them to arrive, but I really liked the 1964 Topps cards., I still remember the first card that I saw in my first pack that year—Milt Pappas, the Orioles pitcher who hailed from the Detroit area. But yet again the sixth and seventh series were nowhere to be found in my local stores, and in mid-August I was surprised to see that Topps was issuing AFL cards rather than their usual National Football League product. In late August, a new company, Philadelphia Gum, began to distribute NFL cards. I liked the Topps cards but LOVED the Philly product—the pictures looked like they had all been taken around the same time in the same location, and I liked the offensive plays that were diagrammed on certain cards. My friends and I spent a lot of time trading cards from both sets but particularly the Philadelphia set. I think I came about forty cards short of a set, which is about the best I had done with any card set up until that time.
There was no such drama when Topps released their baseball cards in late March of 1965. These cards were beautiful! They were bold and colorful, and I loved having the team name inside a waving pennant near the bottom left of the card. I loved these cards, and I wanted to get as many of them as I could.
I bought most of my 1965 early series cards at Joe’s Department Store. Unlike Checker Drugs, where the cards were behind a counter and the druggist had to get them for me, at Joe’s I could grab the packs myself from a box in a candy aisle. If nobody was looking, I was sometimes able to slide down the bottom of the wax pack and see what card was on the top of the pack, thus assuring that I would get a card I didn’t have. I tried not to abuse that privilege, however, because the proprietor was such a nice man.
Joe reminded me of Wimpy from the Popeye cartoons—short, round, balding, with a bristly mustache. He always had a glint in his eye and a smile on his face; he would see me walk into his store and exclaim, “Hello, young man! What can I do for you today?” He always knew that I wanted to buy a pack or two of baseball cards. Joe’s was called a department store, but it was very different from Sears, Montgomery Ward, or J.L. Hudson. It was more like a small warehouse; it encompassed two storefronts and contained men’s and women’s clothing and various other items but was more like a thrift shop than what passed for a department store back in those days. But it was a neighborhood store, and while I don’t remember buying anything besides candy or cards there, I know that a lot of my neighbors regularly visited the store.
Joe and I got to know each other pretty well that spring—so well, in fact, that Joe and his female assistant granted me special favors. The big privilege was that Joe took a box of baseball cards and put them behind the counter so that he would always have some available for me when I came in the store—even if the packs were sold out in the candy aisle. Maybe Joe just didn’t want me to try to open the packs in the aisle, but I thought it was really cool of him to treat me that way. It also gave rise to an idea that served me well for the rest of the year.
One day in late April, I told my mother that I wanted to discuss something with her and my dad over dinner. She seemed surprised that her nine-year-old son would have some deep thought that needed airing and asked if I was in trouble at school. I told her no; this wasn’t a bad thing. So at dinner, I brought up my idea. I received twenty-five cents a week for an allowance, and I spent virtually all of that, plus a penny sales tax, for five packs of baseball cards. I asked my parents if I could instead get $1.25 per month—a 20% increase—if I did more chores around the house. I said that I would cut the grass and rake the leaves in the fall and handle some of the housecleaning that my mother was constantly doing.
My dad was always reluctant to spend more money than he had to. He grew up during the Great Depression, and I think his attitude toward money was a result of those tough times. He rarely enjoyed spending extra money on my sister or me, and even my mom hesitated to ask for certain necessary things because she didn’t want to make him angry. As a family, we never wanted to anything, but we didn’t live a life of luxury, either. We were solidly in the middle class.
My mother asked me why I wanted more money, and I explained my reasoning.
“With $1.25 per month, I could buy a full box of baseball cards each month.”
My dad didn’t even look up from his dinner. “You get a quarter a week” is all he said.
But my mom asked some other questions.
“how many packs are in a box?”
“At five cents apiece?”
“So that’s $1.20. Plus five cents tax, for $1.25. That works out nicely.”
“What do you think, Mom?”
Dad didn’t even look at me. “You get a quarter a week.”
My mother knew how important this was to me, though, and she said, “Let me discuss this with your dad.” Only then did my dad lift his head from his dinner; he looked at both of us and repeated, “He gets a quarter a week.” The look my mom gave me, however, implied that the decision was not yet final.
A few days later, when there hadn’t been any obvious discussion about it, I asked my mother where things stood. She said that she would talk to my dad about it that night.
The following day, when I got home from school but before my father arrived home from work, my mom took me aside and said, “Dad and I have discussed your idea and we have agreed to try it.” I must have been grinning from ear to ear because my mom quickly said, “On three conditions: One, that you do some more chores around the house; two, that you don’t ask for extra money for individual packs; and three, YOU DON’T CHEW THE GUM!” I laughed and quickly agreed to all those conditions. In fact, I told my mother that I would cut the lawn right then. “That can wait until tomorrow,” Mom said. “First, let’s go to Joe’s and get your box of cards.”
When I walked into the store, Joe saw me and started to say, “Hello young man–.” But then he saw my mother behind me and quickly changed his tone to sound more professional. “Hello madam, welcome to Joe’s. What can I do for you today?” My mom looked down at me, and I said to Joe, “I would like to buy a box of baseball cards.”
“Certainly, young man. How many packs would you like?” Joe headed back behind the counter to grab some packs from my special box.
“I would like the entire box, Joe. All twenty-four packs.”
Joe looked confused and glanced at my mother, who smiled and nodded her head. Joe then cocked his head to the side, as if to say, “This is different!” He told me to wait a moment while he went in the stock room to get a full box. When he came back, he opened the box and began shoveling the packs into a bag for easy carrying. I quickly stopped him and asked if he would leave the cards in the box and let me take the box with me as a souvenir. He smiled and said, “Of course!” He also complimented my mother on raising such a polite young man. My mother and I both smiled broadly. I thanked Joe and told him that I would be back for another box when the second series was released. Joe looked a little surprised and said, “I hope you’ll be back before then, even if you’re not buying baseball cards!” That man was a total sweetheart.
When we got home, my mother reminded me not to chew the gum and told me to have fun as she left my bedroom. I then proceeded to open all twenty-four packs and put the cards in numerical order as I opened them to extend the excitement as much as possible. For me opening those packs was like Christmas morning—new pleasures with each pack. As I reached the end of the box, however, it felt even more like the end of Christmas morning, when a kid realizes that he didn’t get everything on his list. I noticed toward the end of the box that I was getting a lot of duplicate cards, and in fact I was about two dozen cards short of the entire series when I was done opening the packs. But I had lots of friends at school who collected cards—Chuck and Rusty in my class, in particular—and I had lots of doubles to trade, so over the next few days I traded for the cards I was missing. Buying cards by the box was really going to pay off!
I relied on Rusty and Chuck to tell me when succeeding series of cards were released, and when that occurred my mother and I would walk or drive to Joe’s for a fresh box. The next few series were smaller in number than the first series, so I was missing substantially fewer cards after opening the boxes, and I was able to trade for everything I needed. Through the first four series, I had the entire set of 1965 Topps cards, and I had a good start on the fifth series when I bought a box of those cards. After trades, I was missing only one card—number 424, Gary Bell, a Cleveland pitcher. None of my friends had this card, and they didn’t know anyone who had it. My mom even broke her own rule and let me buy a few individual packs to try to find it, to no avail. I was stumped.
Then my mom had a suggestion. “Why not write a letter to the Topps company asking them to send you the card? I’ll give you a dime that you can attach to a letter explaining that you have tried hard to find the card but have been unsuccessful.” I thought this was as good an idea as anything I could imagine, and I sat down to write. I don’t remember my exact wording, but it went something g like this:
I am a ten-year-old card collector who has been assembling the 1965 Topps baseball set. I have every card in the first five series except number 424, Gary Bell. I can’t find it anywhere, and none of my friends have it. Could you please send this card to me? I have enclosed ten cents for your trouble and have also enclosed a stamped, self-addressed envelope. Thank you in advance for your attention to my letter. Sincerely, Danny Marowski
A couple of weeks later, my mother came into my room with a large envelope and said with a smile, “You have mail!” My jaw dropped when she handed me the envelope that had the Topps Chewing Gum address in the top left. I carefully unsealed the envelope and discovered three life-changing things inside.
First, I saw the Gary Bell card. They had sent it!!! I was ecstatic and yelled out to my mom, “They sent me the card!!!” She was very happy, too. Next, I pulled out a short letter from someone at Topps. I wish I had kept the letter, but I pretty much remember what it said.
Thank you for your letter. While we don’t sell cards to collectors, we were very impressed by your letter and are happy to help you complete your collection of 1965 Topps baseball cards. We have also returned your SASE and your ten cents and have enclosed a catalog for The Card Collectors’ Company. You can buy cards from them for this year and previous years’ sets at reasonable prices. Feel free to contact them for all your collecting needs. Good luck in your pursuit of the full 1965 Topps set, and keep collecting!
I quickly looked at the catalog, and I caught my breath as I realized that I could fill in my sets from the past few years for pennies per card. I ran out to show my mother the catalog—actually, more like a small bifold pamphlet—and said that I wanted to try to complete my older sets through The Card Collectors’ Company of Franklin Square, New York. My mother reminded me that I was spending all of my allowance on current baseball cards, but I noted that the season was almost over and that I probably wouldn’t be able to find sixth or seventh series cards in stores, so I would save my allowance in the fall and order cards through the catalog. Little did I realize the impact that catalog would have on my collection over the next few years.
I waited patiently for Joe’s to have the sixth series of baseball cards, but as in previous years they never arrived, so I figured it would be football card season soon anyway and gave up my pursuit of the Topps baseball set. Imagine my surprise, then, when Chuck told me that a store near him was selling sixth series cards! I quickly hopped on my bike and rode the eight blocks to Chuck’s house, then walked down the street to a small convenience store named Connie’s Corner. Connie was indeed the proprietor, and she welcomed us with a broad smile. Chuck asked for a couple packs of cards and opened them right then and there. Sure enough, they were from the sixth series! We went back to Chuck’s house, and I called my mother to let her know that a new series was out. She told me that we would have to wait until the next day to buy the box, and I worried all night that they would be out of stock by then. My worries were unfounded, however; I bought a box and completed the entire sixth series without needing to trade with Chuck or anyone else. My pursuit of a complete set was still alive!
I never expected to find seventh series cards anywhere in my neighborhood, so I figured that I would have to mail away for them through the CCC catalog. A couple of weeks before school started that fall, however, I began visiting another classmate. Jon was different from most of my other male friends. He wasn’t into sports, concentrating instead on fascinating electronics and oddball devices. His parents were older, and his father worked either in the government or in some science-based position. Their house was full of things I had never seen before, and they were clearly wealthier than most of my friends’ parents. Also, their house was north of Grand River Avenue, a main artery in Detroit that separated middle class residences from old, moneyed families. While most of my friends and I would attend public high school in a few years, Jon attended Assumption, a private academy in Windsor, Ontario. Jon’s world was very different from mine.
I must have visited Jon at his home three or four times over a ten-day period. To get to his house, I had to cross the massive Grand River Avenue, and to do that I crossed at a street that had a traffic signal. On the southwest corner of that street was a drug store named Schnellbach’s. I had never gone in there before because it was a Rexall drug store—noted by the orange sign above the door—and they were notoriously kid-unfriendly, at least in my neighborhood. But after one visit to Jon’s home, I was parched, so I stopped in to Schnellbach’s to get a bottle of orange soda. Before I got my drink, however, I noticed behind the counter a box of baseball cards. I also noticed a small banner on the front of the box that stopped me in my tracks. The banner read, “FINAL SERIES.” There it was! The elusive seventh series!!! I forgot about the soda and rode home as quickly as possible, exploding though the back door to tell my mom that we needed to go to the drug store to get the cards. Mom was making dinner and told me that she would take me after we ate. That night I probably ate my dinner faster than I ever had before.
As my mom a I prepared to go out, my dad asked where we were going. Mom said that she was running an errand with me. My dad looked puzzled and asked if he needed to come along, and my mom told him no, it wasn’t necessary. It hadn’t dawned on me until right then that my dad didn’t have any idea that I was buying baseball cards by the box! On the way to Schnellbach’s I asked my mom if dad knew what was going on. She smiled, said no, and said she wanted to make this decision herself. I gained newfound respect for Mom that day but also wished I could share my excitement with my dad.
When we got to Schnellbach’s and I asked for a full box of baseball cards, the salesperson gave me a box without the banner on it. I pointed to the box behind the counter and asked, “Do you have any boxes with the Final Series banner?” She checked the back room and came out with one such box. “Last one!”
When I got home, I opened the packs and found myself three cards short of a complete set. Oddly enough, two of those cards were of my hometown Detroit Tigers—Jake Wood and Joe Sparma. But Rusty told me that he had found seventh series cards at Connie’s Corner and that I could have his. That left me one card short—I was missing Howie Reed, number 544, a Dodgers pitcher. Neither Rusty nor Chuck had the card, but Chuck told me that a friend of a friend had it, and a connection was soon made. The boy with the Reed card came to Chuck’s, and I told him he could have as many of my doubles as he wanted in exchange for Howie Reed. I think he took a couple of dozen cards away with him, but I didn’t care—I had Howie Reed, and I had the entire 1965 Topps baseball set!!!
That was a red-letter day in my life. I was excited; my mom was happy for me; my friends were thrilled as well. Even my dad found out that I had completed the set and was impressed—although I think he thought I had traded for the majority of my cards. What this did for me personally was give me a hunger for completing future sets and going back and completing older sets as well, first through services like the Card Collectors’ Company and later through hobby magazines and conventions. I remember attending national shows in Troy, Michigan, in the early 1970s and picking up amazing deals on older cards for prices that couldn’t be touched today. Those sets have stayed with me all these years; I have a complete run of Topps sets from 1955-1990, Bowman 1948 and 1954-55, and Fleer 1960-63, plus most Topps football sets from 1955-1990, Fleer football 1960-63, Philadelphia football 1964-67, and my favorite, a Post cereal football set from 1962, as well as hockey and basketball card sets. I took quite a few years off from collecting to pursue work and raise a family, but I’m happy to be scratching the collecting itch again and trying to fill some older sets, including 1950 Bowman baseball and 1961 and 1963 Post cereal baseball.
1965 was the final year that I collected cards though packs. During 1966, I discovered that another Checker Drugs a few miles away sold cards in a vending machine—six cards (or more—sometimes as many as eight) for a nickel. My mom would drive me to the store with a dollar’s worth of nickels, and I would spend them all on the machine. My 1966 and 1967 sets were completed like this; beginning in 1968, I ordered the complete set from the Card Collectors Company, and I kept up that method for many years.
I lost touch with Jon and Rusty over the next couple of years, but I just recently reconnected with Chuck after more than forty years. Unfortunately, we have very little in common anymore. That said, I think back often to those wonderful days when our only worries were whether we could complete a baseball card set. Would that our lives could be like that again!
I’d been sitting on the idea of this article for a while, and I finally decided to “check it off” when I saw an exchange between fellow SABR Baseball Cards blogger Matt Prigge and prewar savant Anson Whaley (with a guest appearance by Jeff Smith) on the first numbered baseball cards.
Interesting question. The N48 cards are generally cited as being from 1886. These featured women as baseball players and since those are some of the earliest baseball card sets in general, I’m thinking those could be it. No guarantees. Just a guess. https://t.co/5uO0MlW67B
Today the idea of numbered cards goes hand in hand with that of a (contemporaneously published) checklist. However, that was not always the case. While numerous examples abound, one famous numbered set with no checklist was 1933 Goudey. Likewise, we will encounter sets that had checklists but no numbered cards. This article will not be exhaustive, so don’t use it as a checklist. Rather, it will just highlight some of the variety attached to what in my collecting heyday was considered the most boring card in the pack.
Had I written this article a year ago, I might have assumed erroneously that on-card checklists were a hobby dinosaur. After all, why waste a card in the set when it’s easy enough to post a checklist online? However, the lone pack of 2019 Topps update I bought last fall included a surprise on the back of my Albert Pujols highlights card.
Though I have to imagine the past three decades of baseball cards have more of a story to tell, I’m going to quickly jump all the way back to what otherwise was the last time I remember pulling a checklist from a pack.
The very last packs of cards I bought before entering my long “real life took over” hiatus were in 1992. I don’t recall buying any mainstream sets that year, but I liked the Conlons and their close cousins, the Megacards Babe Ruth set, of which I somehow still have the box and three unopened packs.
The Ruth set had no checklist, but the Conlon issue had several, much in the style of the Topps cards of my youth, right down to the checkboxes.
While there’s something to be said for the familiar, I was an even bigger fan of the checklists I pulled from packs of 1990 Leaf.
Checklists adorned with superstar players was new to my own pack opening experience. However, as with most “innovations” in the Hobby, it wasn’t truly new, as we’ll soon see.
This was my absolute pack-buying heyday, and it was a great time to be a checklist collector, assuming there is such a thing. Yes, we had the standard checklist cards each of those years…
…but we also got team checklists, either on the backs of manager cards…
…or on the back of team cards.
As a quick aside, I’ll note that EVERY collector I knew in 1978 sorted his cards by team and used the team card to mark progress, making the set checklists (e.g., 1-121) completely superfluous.
Though I’m skipping most years, I’ll make a quick stop at 1974 to highlight two features in particular. In addition to the standard checklists AND team photo cards without checklists, the 1974 Topps set used unnumbered team signature cards as team checklists. (Aside: Though unnumbered cards had a mile-long history in the Hobby and are hardly extinct today, I rarely ran across them as a kid apart from the 1981 Donruss checklists or the 1981 Fleer “Triple Threat” error card.)
A final note on these team checklists: they did not include late additions from the Traded set (e.g., Santo on White Sox), so a separate “Trades Checklist” was provided also.
If I had to declare a G.O.A.T. checklist it would come from 1967-69 Topps, all possible inspirations for the 1990 Leaf card I showed earlier. (In fairness, 1984 Fleer might have played a role.)
At first glance I mistakenly thought these checklists brought more than just a bonus superstar to the mix. Take a look at entry 582 on the back of card below.
Could it be? Were we looking at the pinnacle of 1960s artificial intelligence technology: checklists with the self-awareness to check themselves off? Sadly, no. We were just looking at an abbreviation for “Checklist – 7th Series.” After all, this “smart checklist” was card 504 in the set and the ostensibly checked off card was a completely different card.
While our friends at Topps were having a ho-hum year, checklist-wise, as if there’s any other kind of year to have, checklist-wise, I do want to provide recognition to the efforts at Fleer. Haters of the Keith Shore #Project 2020 designs will probably not be fans, but I’m a sucker for this cartoony, colorful approach to checklists.
Even the title, “Player Roster,” is a nice twist, don’t you think?
The first appearance of numbered checklist-only cards from Topps came in 1961. Each checklist featured a baseball action scene on both the front and back of the card, and collectors can have fun trying to identify the players. (Side note: I believe these are the first ever game-action photos ever used by Topps.)
While the image on the back persisted across the set, the images on the front differed with each card. For example, here is Mr. Cub on the front of the second checklist. (Banks also appears prominently on the fifth checklist!)
Meanwhile in Philadelphia, Fleer introduced its first ever checklist cards.
The series one checklist featured Home Run Baker, Ty Cobb, and Zach Wheat well past their playing days, while series two did the same for George Sisler and Pie Traynor.
Incidentally, a similar approach was used 15 years later by Mike Aronstein in the 1976 SSPC set.
While Fleer had baseball sets in 1959 and 1960 as well, neither used checklist cards. However, this was not because the concept had not yet dawned on them. On the contrary, here’s a card from one of their more notable non-sport issues way back in 1959!
Note that the card pictured is #63. Cards 16 and 64 in the set are also known to have “checklist back” variations. However, the much more common versions of these same cards simply feature humorous descriptions or jokes.
I referred to the 1961 Topps cards as checklist-only because there were in fact numbered checklist cards issued in the 1960 set. The 1960 cards were the perfect (or anti-perfect) hybrid of set checklists and team cards, perhaps offering a glimpse of the “why not both!” direction Topps would ultimately adopt.
Shown below is the Braves team card, but the back is not a Braves checklist. Rather, it’s the checklist for the set’s entire fifth series!
But wait, how does that even work? The set only had seven series but there were 16 teams, right? Yes, somewhat inelegantly Topps repeated checklists on the back of multiple team cards. For example, the A’s and Pirates each had sixth series backs.
Ditto 1959 Topps…
We have to go all the way back to 1957 to see checklist-only cards. Aside from being unnumbered and landscape oriented, these cards check off all the boxes of the staid checklist cards I grew up with.
The 1956 set did the same but with an unusual turn, and not just the 90-degree reorientation. While the 1957 card shown includes the first and second series, the 1956 cards included non-adjacent series. The card below is for the first and third series, while a second card has series two and four.
The 1956 checklists also featured the first (that I could find) appearance of checkboxes. As such, it wouldn’t be wrong to regard (or disregard!) all predecessors as mere lists, unworthy of the checklist title.
The crumbiest card in the set?
It may have looked like Topps was blazing new trails with their checklist cards in 1956 and 1957, but take a close look at the second card in this uncut strip from the Johnston’s Cookies set, series one.
You may need to be the judge as to whether this qualifies as an actual card in the set vs a non-card that just happens to be the same size as the other cards.
On one hand, why not? On the other, how many collectors would consider the “How to Order Trading Cards” end panel a card?
When is a checklist not a checklist?
In 1950, Chicago-based publisher B.E. Callahan released a box set featuring all 60 Hall of Famers. The set was updated annually and included 80 Hall of Famers by 1956, the last year it was issued. At the very end of the set was what appeared to be a checklist for the set, but was it?
As it turns out, the card back wasn’t so much a checklist as it was a listing of all Hall of Famers. Were it intended as a checklist, it presumably would have also listed this Hall of Fame Exterior card and perhaps even itself!
Simple logic might also suggest that a checklist would have been particularly superfluous for cards already sold as an intact set; then again, stranger things have happened.
No checklist but the next best thing?
Prior to 1956 Topps a common way to assist set collectors, though a far cry from an actual checklist, was by indicating the total number cards in the set right on the cards, as with this 1949 Bowman card. Note the top line on the card’s reverse indicates “No. 24 of a Series of 240.”
Though this was the only Bowman set to cue size, Gum, Inc., took the same approach with its Play Ball set a decade earlier. The advertised number of cards in the set proved incorrect, however, as the set was limited to 161 cards rather than 250.
Goudey too overestimated the size of its own set the year before. The first series of 24 cards seemed to suggest 288 cards total…
…while the second series indicated 312!
Add them up and you have a set of 48 cards evidently advertised as having more than six times that number. In fact, some collectors have speculated, based among other things on the similarity of card backs, that the 1938 issue was a continuation of the 1933 (!) issue. Add the new 48 to the 240 from 1933 and you get 288. Perhaps, though the number 312 remains mysterious either way.
Tobacco card collectors are no stranger to the advertised set size being way off. Consider the 1911 T205 Gold Borders set for starters. “Base Ball Series 400 Designs” implies a set nearly twice the size of the 208 cards known to collectors and perhaps hints at original plans to include Joe Jackson, Honus Wagner, and many other stars excluded from the set.
As for its even more famous cousin, the 1909-11 T206 set. How many cards are there? 150 subjects? 350 subjects? 350-460?
The return of set checklists
While I’ve just highlighted several non-examples of checklists, there are several, probably dozens, of sets pre-1956 Topps that include checklists. The most common variety involved printing the entire set’s checklist on the back of every card in the set, as with the 1933 George C. Miller card of Mel Ott shown here.
As evidenced not only by Ott’s name but also brief biographical information unique to Master Melvin, the Miller set provided a unique card back per player in the set. As we travel further back in time to examine earlier checklisting, you’ll see that a far more common approach involved applying the same card back to multiple players in the set, often by team, by series, or across the set’s entirety.
The return of team checklists
It’s been a while since we’ve seen team checklists, but some great early examples come our way from the 240-card 1922 American Caramel set.
As the small print indicates, the set included 15 players apiece from each of the 16 teams, leading to an even 240 cards. As the Ruth back suggests, all Yankees in the set had identical backs, as was the case for all team subsets within the set. Rival caramel maker Oxford Confectionary produced a much smaller set (E253) the year before and was able to fit the set’s entire 20-card roster on the back of each card.
The golden age of checklists
Though neither the T205 nor T206 sets included checklist cards, many other sets of the era did. A fun one, checklist or no checklist, is the 1912 Boston Garters set. Note the back side (of the card, not the player!) lists the 16 cards in the set. (These are VERY expensive cards by the way. For example, the card shown is easily the priciest Mathewson among his various cards without pants.)
Another such set was the 1911 Turkey Red set where, as with the 1922 American Caramel cards, every card was a checklist card (subject to back variations). Low numbered cards had a checklist for cards 1-75 or 1-76, and high numbered cards had a checklist for cards 51-126.
The 1910 Tip Top Bread set provided collectors a much kneaded set checklist and team checklist for their hard-earned dough. Of course, this was by default since all the subjects in the set were all on the same team. While the checklist suggests numbered cards, individual cards have do not include a card number as part of the design.
The 1908-1910 American Caramel E91 cards similarly provided a checklist for each year’s set and the three teams that comprised it. For example the 1910 set (E91-C) listed Pittsburg, Washington, and Boston players.
And just to show these sets weren’t flukes, there are the 1909 Philadelphia Caramel (E95), 1909 E102, 1909-1910 C.A. Briggs (E97), 1910 Standard Caramel (E93), 1910 E98, 1911 George Close Candy (E94), and 1913 Voskamp’s Coffee Pittsburgh Pirates, and various minor league issues of the era.
Size isn’t everything
Another early approach to checklists is illustrated by the 1909-1913 Sporting News supplements.
The picture backs were blank, but sales ads provided collectors with the full list of players available.
By the way, the highlighting of “SENT IN A TUBE” provides a hint that collectors even more than a century ago cared at least a little bit about condition.
Obak took this approach a step further in 1913 by including a complete checklist in every cigarette box.
Though not technically a card, one could make some argument that this Obak insert represents the very first standalone checklist packaged with cards.
I don’t know enough about this 1889 (!) checklist of Old Judge cabinet photo premiums to say whether it was inserted with the cigarettes and cards as was the Obak or lived somewhere else entirely as did the Sporting News ad.
Either way, it won’t be our oldest example of a checklist.
Where it all began…almost
There aren’t many baseball card sets older than the 1888 Goodwin Champions and 1887 Allen & Ginter World Champions issues. Ditto 1887 W.S. Kimball Champions (not pictured). Take a look at the card backs, and it becomes evident that checklists are almost as old as baseball cards themselves.
And while most of the card backs I’ve seen from these issues are rather dull, here is one specimen that makes me smile.
It’s not the easiest thing to see, but I do believe the collector crossed Kelly off the checklist…
…before running out of money, running out of ink, or just moving on like any good player collector.
As my examples demonstrate, baseball card checklists have taken on many forms, and the question of which baseball card checklist was first is one that depends on your definition of a checklist and perhaps even your definition of a baseball card.
Though it’s risky to infer motives from men long since dead, it seems reasonable that the creation and publication of baseball card checklists indicates a recognition that the cards themselves were not simply throwaway novelties but items to be collected and saved. What’s more, this was evidently the case as far back as 1887!
Note also that these checklists weren’t simply offered as courtesies. They reflected the at least an implicit assumption that set checklists were more valuable (to the seller!) than other forms of advertising that would otherwise occupy the same real estate whether the product was bread, tobacco, or candy. A standard Hobby 101 education teaches us that cards were long used to help sell the products they were packaged with. What we see here is that the allure wasn’t simply a baseball player or his likeness on cardboard but also the set of such likenesses that kept the pennies and nickels coming.
I started this article with a question. Are checklist cards the most boring cards in the set? By and large, yes, I think they are. However, that’s only true most of the time.
For with every checklist, at least those put to purpose, there is that one moment of glory, of sweetness, and of triumph when the checklist—formerly mocked and yawned at—informs collectors young and old that their springs and summers were not spent in vain but rather in pursuit of the heroic, the noble, and the—holy smokes, it’s about damn time!—DONE!
When the insider information Mark was hoping for didn’t arrive, I decided to make a day of delving deep into the Donruss checklist. Best case scenario, I’d have answers to all Mark’s questions. Worst case scenario, you’d get an article that at least brought back some of the nostalgia and fondness of the company’s debut baseball offering.
Apropos to Mark’s questions, let’s take a closer look at the cards that open the set.
Much like some of the early Bowman sets or even 1940 Play Ball, the set’s numerical checklist (cards 1-17 shown below, including both Duffy Dyer variations) includes small team runs. As already noted by Mark, cards 1-4 above are San Diego Padres and cards 5-10 are Detroit Tigers.
Were the pattern to continue throughout the set, no deep study or article would be warranted. However, the Mike Schmidt card is our first of many hints that the organization of the set is hardly as simple as your binder’s opening sheet might have suggested.
Was Schmidt’s presence simply a mistake? After all, like the Fleer set of the same year, the set did include several errors and variations. A look at the next two pages in the binder might shed some light.
Things start out simple enough: Astros, Astros, Astros, Astros, but then what’s this? Another lone Phil, this time Manny Trillo, appearing out of nowhere, before the run of Astros continues. Next up, a run of Rangers cards, a run of Blue Jays, and then…you guessed it! Another Phillie, this time Steve Carlton, pops in.
Were we forced to describe the structure of the set based only on what we’ve seen so far, I suppose the description would go something like this: groupings of 4-6 teammates, punctuated by the occasionally lone Phil.
This schematic of the set’s first hundred cards (excluding variations) illustrates that our description continues to hold, at least mostly, well past the cards we’ve seen so far. The only deviation comes from our lone Phils ultimately giving way to lone Braves.
The schematic also shows us that the placement of the lone Phils/Braves cards is not random. Geometrically, they form a perfect diagonal down the grid, meaning numerically they differ by exactly eleven. Specifically the cards are numbered 11, 22, 33, 44, 55, 66, 77, 88, and 99.
You might wonder if the numeric pattern extends further down the checklist. It does, at least sort of, but not for long. The next number in the pattern, 110, does correspond to a player all by himself, amidst a larger Yankees run. However, he’s an Oakland A’s player rather than a Phillie or a Brave.
Phillies? Braves? A’s? What does it matter, as long as these loners keep popping up every eleven cards. That’s the real pattern we care about, right? Well, I have bad news. Card 121 in the set, Dave Cash, is hardly a loner but instead the leader of a run of four Padres. Drat!
Are we done then? Not a chance! Inserted between a run of Tigers and Pirates is card 131, Pete Rose, another lone Phil! Then at 142, eleven cards later, Larry Bowa, another lone Phil! Card 153? Another lone Phil—
Does the pattern continue even further? As the signs used to say at Veteran’s stadium in 1980, DEL-IVERS! Card 164 is another lone Phil, Del Unser! Poppycock, you say? I think you mean Bull! Yes, Greg Luzinski does keep the Phillies solo parade going with card 175.
The loners continue every eleven cards like clockwork (if clocks had eleven numbers), just not with Phillies. As before, the team run interrupter baton is passed to Atlanta before (again!) having an Oakland player crash the party.
186 – Brian Asselstine (Braves)
197 – Rick Camp (Braves)
208 – Bruce Benedict (Braves)
219 – Chris Chambliss (Braves)
230 – Jeff Cox (A’s)
I wish I could say card 241 was another lone Phil or Brave or even Athletic, but I can’t—as before, the Oakland A’s player proved a harbinger of discontinuity. All we get at card 241 is Gene Tenace (first sheet, second card) initiating a run of four Padres.
Well talk about deja vu all over again! Again, Pete Rose restarts the pattern of lone Phils, this time with his second card in the set, number 251. (Recall Donruss included multiple cards of many top stars in 1981.)
Do a host of lone Phillies again follow the Hit King at intervals of eleven? You bet!
262 – Bob Boone (Phillies)
273 – Tug McGraw (Phillies)
284 – Sparky Lyle (Phillies)
295 – Lonnie Smith (Phillies)
And if you guessed some Braves would come after that, you are on a roll!
306 – Gary Matthews (Braves)
317 – Rick Matula (Braves)
328 – Phil Niekro (Braves)
339 – Jerry Royster (Braves)
And if you’ve really been paying attention, you can probably guess the next two things that will happen. (Bonus points if you can guess the next three!)
Yes, an Oakland A’s player shows up at 350.
Yes, nothing special happens at 361. We just get Bill Fahey kicking off a four-card run of Padres (first sheet, third card below).
“But what’s number three,” you ask!
It’s Pete Rose once again, with his third card in the set (371), serving as Grand Marshal of the solo parade:
382 – Keith Moreland (Phillies)
393 – Bob Walk (Phillies)
404 – Bake McBride (Phillies)
415 – Dallas Green (Phillies)
426 – Bobby Cox (Braves)
437 – Dale Murphy (Braves)
448 – Doyle Alexander (Braves)
459 – Glenn Hubbard (Braves)
480 – Mike Davis (A’s)
We’ve now made it through 80% of the set, ignoring the five unnumbered checklists, and we have seen a remarkably consistent if not perfect pattern all the way through. You may think you know the ending then: more of the same. Unfortunately (unless you like chaos), things get much more complicated in our final 20%, so much so that I’ll pause here and “solve the riddle” before unleashing the cacophony of the set’s final 100+ cards.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. In our case, that picture is an uncut sheet of the first 121 cards (sort of) in the set. (Like Topps at that time, the Donruss set used 11 x 11 printing sheets.)
Read from left to right and the sequencing appears random, but read top to bottom and you see that the sheet in fact runs in numerical order. Head down the first column and we have cards 1-11: our four Padres, six Tigers, and Mike Schmidt. Head down the next column and we see the run of Pirates and the start of an Astros run, interrupted briefly by Manny Trillo of the Phillies.
As for those darn Phils and Braves, we now see that they too are part of consecutive team runs, only horizontally rather than vertically down the sheet. But what about Mickey Klutts, or for that matter any of the A’s streak-breakers who seemingly crashed the parties solo? Mickey isn’t so much alone but simply nudged aside one slot by the first unnumbered checklist in the set. (That checklist is why I said the sheet “sort of” showed the set’s first 121 cards. From a numbering perspective, you are really seeing 1-120 plus an unnumbered card.) Swap Mickey with the checklist, and he’d fit right in with a nice vertical strip of A’s teammates.
The second uncut sheet in the set (cards 121-240 plus another unnumbered checklist) follows EXACTLY the same pattern, right down to the A’s player nudged by the sheet’s checklist.
Ditto for the third sheet, featuring cards 241-360 and the third unnumbered checklist.
And finally, sheet four, featuring cards 361-480 and the fourth unnumbered checklist.
While these sheets don’t answer every question about the set’s quirky checklist, they do provide a nice visual context for not only the patterns but the breaks in the patterns previously noted.
The “every eleven” patterns of lone Phils, Braves, and sometimes A’s corresponded exactly to the bottom rows of each sheet.
The breaks in our “every eleven” patterns (cards 121, 241, 361) were caused by the insertion of an unnumbered checklist at the end of each sheet.
As for Pete and Re-Pete (sorry, wrong brand!) and Re-Re-Pete re-starting the pattern each time, his (honorific?) spot in the bottom left corner of sheets 2, 3, and 4 are what make it work. (For what it’s worth, the first sheet also had a Phils great, Mike Schmidt, in the lower left corner.)
With the sheets in front of us, we can add two more observations to our list.
The order of the teams on each sheet is identical: Padres, Tigers, Pirates, Astros, Rangers, Blue Jays, Mets, White Sox, Mariners, Angels, Dodgers, Reds, Cardinals, Giants, Indians, Brewers, Expos, Red Sox, Royals, Yankees, Orioles, and A’s (with Phils and Braves along the bottom).
Two teams are nowhere to be found: Cubs and Twins.
Now that you know just about everything about the set’s first 480 (or 484 counting checklists) cards, we are ready for the final sheet. Just be sure you’re sitting down…or standing on your head.
Again, we have a Phillies great, Mike Schmidt, in the lower left hand corner and a checklist in the lower right. Next, notice…oh gosh, you’re not gonna let me do this to you, are you? Okay, fine, let’s try this again.
As promised, chaos. But not total chaos. I’ll illustrate the order by using thick red borders to identify contiguous team groupings (horizontal or vertical) and use big black “T” markings to identify cards like these.
A hallmark of the 1981 Donruss set is the subset of cards where player uniforms mismatch their team names. While Topps would have gotten out the airbrushes, Donruss left player photos intact, using only the team designation to reflect updates. If we include these players with their former (uniform) teams, we end up with twelve mini-team runs. Not surprisingly, half are Cubs and half are Twins.
The fact that Donruss placed all 17 of the “T” cards on the final sheet surprised me at first but perhaps isn’t surprising at all. I’ll illustrate this with two examples.
Ron LeFlore, photographed as an Expo, was granted free agency on October 28, 1980, but not signed by the White Sox until November 26. If we assume Donruss was in the homestretch of card-making for most players come November, then it makes sense that LeFlore would be moved to the back of the line while his team status was in limbo. (Note LeFlore’s bio opens with his signing by the Sox.)
On the other hand, what about Larry Milbourne, who was traded from the Mariners to the Yankees on November 18? While his team status changed, there was no prolonged limbo period attached. I can’t say what happened for sure, but there are a couple possibilities that seem viable.
Donruss had already completed Milbourne’s Mariners card prior to the trade and then bumped him to the back of the line for correction once the trade took place.
Donruss was aware of the trade when Milbourne’s card was being worked on, but they had not yet reached a decision on how to handle team changes. Would they ignore them? Would they go the airbrushing route? Would they race to Spring Training for a new photo? Or would they simply update the team name while leaving everything else the same? Again, back of the line makes sense pending a design decision.
You’ll notice the sheet has several other special cards not yet mentioned: a “Best Hitters” card featuring George Brett and Rod Carew, two MVP cards (Brett/Schmidt), and two Cy Young Award cards (Stone/Carlton).
We can add all of these cards to the “seems logical to have them here” pile, and we end up with 63 cards on the final sheet making sense. There may be a story to the remaining 58 (e.g., other pending free agents who stayed with their prior teams, rookies identified late in the process), but most are probably players who simply didn’t fit on the first four sheets.
To illustrate that there really are cards in this last category, consider Steve Howe (card 511). He was the reigning National League Rookie of the Year and had completely unambiguous team status as a Dodger. As such, Howe would have been an absolute lock for the set from the beginning but was nonetheless part of this final sheet.
UPDATE: From Keith Olbermann…
I have info. Donruss contacted me late in production for photos of ~15 guys. I believe I had taken 14 of them. 9 of these – Minton, Gross, Rivers, Oberkfell, Kaat, Hassler, Stapleton, Boggs, Perkins – are on the last sheet. I suspect card numbers correlate to photo availability.
I’m not sure my work here directly answers any of Mark’s original questions. At best I can say Ozzie Smith has card #1 because he is a Padre and the Padres lead off every sheet. Still, why Ozzie as opposed to other Padres, including bigger stars like Dave Winfield and Rollie Fingers? And why are the Padres with their last place finish in the top spot at all?
About all I can do is (maybe) add some rationale for the organization of the set into mini-team runs as opposed to complete team runs such as Fleer used that same year. I’ll start with a wrong answer but one that in some small way may inform a right answer.
At the very beginning of this article I mentioned the use of mini-team runs in 1940 Play Ball. For example, the New York Giants cards in this set occur at numbers 83-93, 154-159, 209-215. (There are also some “retired greats” cards at other checklist locations, but I’ll keep my focus on the active roster.) The Play Ball set was released in series, meaning had all 24 Giants cards been together on the checklist (e.g., cards 1-24), one series would have been jam-packed with Giants while the remaining series would have had none at all.
Of course 1981 Donruss was not released in series. All 605 cards came out all at once. As such, nothing terrible would have happened if the Padres simply opened the set with cards 1-18 rather than 1-4, 121-124, 241-244, 361-364, 525, and 595. On the other hand, let’s say that Donruss lacked whatever machinery Topps had in place for randomizing and collating cards into packs and boxes, something their past experience with non-baseball sets might have made clear to them going into the enterprise. If we assume that cards from the same sheet would have had a much higher than chance probability of going into the same packs, it’s easy to see that sheets with complete rosters would lead to collation issues more evident to consumers than sheets covering 24 different teams.
Personally, my own pack opening experience with 1981 Donruss (some as recently as last year) was that I still managed to open a great many packs with runs of 10-12 of the 18 cards spread across only two teams (e.g., Expos/Red Sox only). While this undoubtedly reflects poor collation, the fact is it could have been even worse. Had Donruss grouped entire team rosters together, those same packs might have yielded all Expos or all Red Sox.
Perhaps to address collation issues, the next year Donruss not only moved away from team runs entirely but also made several updates to their uncut sheets.
Among the other changes identifiable on this 1982 Donruss sheet are—
New size of 11 x 12 (132 cards), with five sheets again building the complete set, this time of 5 x 132 = 660 cards.
Change from vertical to horizontal sequencing of cards. For example, the top row run of Cal Ripken to Ray Burris covers cards 407-417 consecutively.
Insertion of Diamond Kings every 26th card.
Sheets covering a more complicated range of numbers. For example, the first six rows of the sheet shown (excluding Diamond Kings) cover cards 405-467 consecutively while the next six rows cover cards 279-341. (If you must know, the six Diamond Kings on the sheet are 16-18 followed by 11-13.)
Rather than go down the rabbit hole of 1982 any deeper, I’ll just close with some fond recollections of the 1981 set, some foggy and some vivid. I was 11 when the set came out, a perfect age for believing cardboard was magic while also being old enough to have more than a few cents in my pocket. We won’t talk about where the money came from, but I somehow “found” enough to ride my bike to 7-Eleven just about every day from March to October, often more than once.
I didn’t think in terms of monopolies and competition back then. In my world, more cards was a good thing, case closed. There was a lot for a kid to like about 1981 Donruss. More cards per pack, for one thing, and super colorful cards for another. Yes, there were plenty of errors, but boy were they fun to discover.
We had no internet back then to look this stuff up. (There were hobby mags, but I didn’t have subscribe yet.) It was just kids comparing notes at school: Steve Rodgers with a “d,” that’s not right! And then imagine the thrill of pulling a Rogers (no d) later that same year! Of course, some of the errors were funny too, like Bobby Bonds and his 986 home runs (giving father and son 1748 homers combined, by the way)!
Most of all though, I loved that some of my favorite players had extra cards in the set for no reason. Sure Topps might give a guy two cards if he was a Record Breaker, but here was Donruss with two Steve Garvey cards just because. Ditto Yaz. Tritto Pete Rose.
How about you? If you were a kid in 1981 what memories do you have of the set? And as you look back on it today, do you love it any more or any less?
I’ve written about my pursuit of the 1936 Goudey Wide Pen Type 1 set a few times (the most detailed is here). The Type 1 set (there are five types) has 120 cards and a weird, diverse checklist. When I last posted about them, a little over two years ago, I was getting close to the end. I had a good jump on this set. Somewhere along the way I had gotten 80 of them. On March 7, 2018, I was 11 shy of done.
It wasn’t easy finding those last cards. It seems that Yankees and Cubs are the hardest to find. I thought I’d find Bill Dickey and Earl Combs for $15-25 each, and I did. Each cost me $20.79, though in VG condition. That’s the lower end on what was shaping up to be a VG/EX to EX (and some EX/MT) set. Walters (not a Yankee or a Cub), Crosetti and Cavaretta set me back well more than the $5-10 per card I had counted on: $18.50, $16 and $22.29! Augie Galan, another of those defending NL Champ Cubbies, also was more costly than I expected – $17.50.
Last, and seemingly never appearing, was Gabby Harnett. I originally assumed he’d set me back $15-25, like Dickey and Combs, but man was I off. Was I destined to stay one card short of the set for years? That was a distinctly unpleasant possibility. Day after day my eBay search turned up nothing.
Well, there was one guy. He wants $249.99, for one in SGC 60 (EX). Why? It’s rare, he told me, it has “Litho in U.S.A.” in the bottom corner. I told him that all Type 1s have that (except the Lloyd Waner’s card, which comes with and without the tagline). Still, he said, it’s harder to come by. He’s right, but not $250 right.
I put out a request on Net54 and there was a guy who had one in VG for $60. It wasn’t a bad card, but not for that much and I still thought I could get it for $35ish.
Then, a couple of weeks ago, the little dot near my search title was on. There’s always a thrill of excitement that comes with that, immediately followed by crushing sadness when it’s either the wrong card or a ridiculous price. Not so this time. Greg Morris, one of the best eBay dealers, had one in VG/VGEX! He had another in VG/VGEX, though creased! Two possibilities and strategizing began.
I wanted the uncreased one and hoped I could get it for $60. I wasn’t thrilled with that idea, but my stopgap was the Net54 card (assuming he still had it) and, at this point, I was tired of needing the card. In a last bit of desperation, I hiked my bid to $90. Why? Pure panic.
If I didn’t get the card at $90, then all bets were off for the creased one. I’d go as high as I needed to.
Like all (or at least most) panics, it was pointless. The auction popped to $49.80 a few days before the end, and it stayed there. (The creased one went for $15.50). Here’s Gabby in his new home.
So that’s the end of the story, and a pretty happy one. No more gloomin’ over an unfinished set.
Perhaps the most mysterious and rare post-World War II set was issued by Bowman in 1949. The Philadelphia-based company produced a 36-card set featuring Pacific Coast League players in the same style as their major league cards. Strangely, Bowman only in distributed the cards in Portland (Oregon), Seattle and Philadelphia. Thus, only a small number of cards ever made it into circulation. Only around 2000 cards are known to be in collections.
My “go to” source for information on vintage PCL collectibles is Mark Macrae, who is a collector, dealer and historian. Mark kindly sent me an article he co-authored with Ted Zanidakis titled, “1949 Bowman Pacific Coast League Set.” The article was published in the March/April 1997 edition of the “Vintage & Classic Baseball Collector.” Most of the information in this piece is derived from the article. By the way, Mark has a complete set of the Bowman PCL cards.
The limited distribution of the product is hard to understand. Bowman went to the trouble of designing and printing the cards only to limit their distribution on the West Coast to the Pacific Northwest. The Los Angeles area had two teams, as did the Bay Area. Why not introduce the cards in an area containing significantly more potential buyers? Additionally, its hard to see the logic behind distributing PCL cards in Philadelphia, even if it was Bowman’s home base.
Speaking of which, the cards released in the Philadelphia area were included in the major league Bowman packs. Based on the print font on the back and the use of pastel background colors, the PCL cards were most likely mixed in with the big leaguers in the middle series. Original collections of Bowman cards from the Philadelphia area average around 3-5% PCL cards.
The aforementioned article discusses the recollections of a Seattle collector named Frank Caruso. He remembers purchasing the cards in 5-card packs for a nickel. Mr. Caruso didn’t remember any special wrapper or promotional materials at the stores. The cards may have used the same wrapper as the major league Bowman cards but contained only PCL players.
Mr. Caruso’s recollection puts into doubt a long-held belief that the cards were never distributed in packs on the West Coast. The PCL cards from Portland and Seattle often appear to be hand cut, leading to the assumption that the cards were issued in uncut sheets. Indeed, some uncut sheets turned up in the Portland area in the 1980s. However, Bowman was known to send uncut sheets of major league cards to candy distributors for promotional displays, so this practice may have been replicated with the PCL version.
So, why do many of the PCL cards appear to be miscut? One explanation offered by Mr. Macrae is that Bowman was very lax with quality control. Collectors of the Major League cards have often noted the propensity for Bowman cards to be poorly cut.
As with the regular Bowman cards, the PCL backs included two premiums. Twenty-five cents and five wrappers got you a baseball game and bank. Three wrappers and fifteen cents resulted in a ring. Apparently, only rings for Seattle and Los Angeles have surfaced. The rings are as rare as the cards.
Bowman’s rationale for selecting which PCL players would be included is murky. They left out many of the star players from 1948. For example, Gus Zernial of Hollywood had 237 hits and 156 RBI but didn’t make the cut. Also, Gene Woodling didn’t get a card and he hit .385 for San Francisco! The availability of photos may have been the deciding factor in who got a card.
There are some familiar names in the PCL set-at least to most readers of this blog. Here is a sampling: Joyner “Jo-Jo” White, Charles “Red” Adams, Pete “Inky” Coscarart, Mickey Grasso, Jack “Suds” Brewer and Herman Besse.
Currently, the least expensive card on eBay is $149 in fair condition, but you can own the entire 1987 reprint set for $39.99.
In 1949, major league baseball was still nine years away from moving the Giants and Dodgers to the West Coast. Television was just starting to make have a negative impact on the attendance figures of minor league baseball. The PCL was “major league” to the fans in the eight member cities. Bowman’s half-hearted foray into the PCL market seems like a mistake. Most likely, the cards would have sold well if offered to kids in all the franchise locations.
The Topps “Bunt 20” smartphone app for digital/electronic baseball cards is here, replacing “Bunt 19.”
I am a latecomer to Bunt. Even though it has been around since 2012, I didn’t even know of the app’s existence until December 2019, when I read a posting about it by Nick Vossbrink here on the SABR Baseball Cards Blog (and a write-up by Jenny Miller that Nick linked to).
Once I joined in December 2019, though, I became a regular user. I initially was going on daily, as one received gold coins—the free currency for acquiring cards—every day, plus bonus amounts for activity every seven consecutive days. Once my gold-coin total started exceeding 100,000 and my card collection approached 2,000, however, I cut back to going on every two or three days.
Like Jenny, I have not spent any of my own money on Bunt, relying on gold coins. Diamonds, which can be exchanged for apparently more ritzy products, carry a fee. I have simple tastes, enjoying the sharp photograph quality of Bunt cards and the process of collecting by team. Other than trying a couple of trades (which failed), I have not gotten into any of the more elaborate aspects of Bunt, such as its fantasy-type games.
Anyway, I started wondering recently when (and how) the transition from Bunt 19 to Bunt 20 would occur. Last Friday, March 13, it happened. When I tapped the Bunt 19 app on my phone, it said the Bunt 20 reader was ready for download.
Bunt 20 features some changes compared to Bunt 19. Users can claim gold coins not only immediately upon entering the app, but also after waiting periods (e.g., 10 minutes or 1 hour). One can also claim a “Mystery Box” upon entering, which basically just seems to be a small number of cards. I’m sure there are additional differences between Bunt 20 and 19, which I’ll notice after additional use.
One thing that took me a while to get used to when I first started using Bunt is the probabilistic nature of some of the special deals in the “store.” You’ll see a feature advertised, such as cards with photos from Players’ Weekend or historical greats, but when you buy a packet, there may be one or none of the thematic cards.
My least favorite aspect of Bunt is the large amount of duplicate cards you get. They clutter up your team-by-team collections (if you choose to organize your digital cards that way) and, unless you want to use them for trading, they serve no useful purpose. I am not aware of any way to delete duplicate cards.
Ultimately, for its cost—which is nothing, unless one wants to purchase diamonds and fancier cards—Bunt is definitely a fun way to fill some down time.
You may recall from an earlier post that I’m now collecting the 1961 Fleer “Baseball Greats” set. At the time I wrote the article I had maybe 30-40 of the 154 cards in the set. Now, just a month later, I am now at 140/154, just 14 cards short of the set. Awesome, right?
Ah, but did I mention I have over 100 doubles?! Here’s the thing. Rather than just buy the set (boring, and too big a hit all at once to the pocketbook) or buy only the singles I need, I’ve to this point focused almost entirely on “lots,” as in listings of 10-40 “random” cards at at time. (And just to avoid confusion with other meanings of the word, I’ll capitalize “Lot” from here on out.)
Early on that was a great way to go. For this particular set, I might find a Lot of 30 cards in VG-EX and pick it up at right around a dollar a card, i.e., even less than what collectors pay today for many of today’s brand new 2019 and 2020 offerings.
When my Lots arrived, good times ensued-
It was fun to thumb through the cards and see who I got. (Yes, I tried hard NOT to look at the listing details specifically so I could be surprised later.)
It was REALLY FUN to find cards I needed for my set, and early on this was most of the Lot.
It was REALLY FUN to occasionally come across a “high end” player (e.g., Lou Gehrig) I didn’t expect to see thrown into a Lot. (In today’s jargon, this would be known as a “hit,” and I would be expected to post a pic to social media with the caption “DiD I dO gOoD?”)
All told, buying Lots brought back all the fun of buying packs, which, sometimes we forget, is about the funnest thing in the world you can do with baseball cards. (No kidding, I have a group of guys I get together with each month (COVID-19 Update: on hold!), and we have a blast opening packs of junk wax, even packs we don’t care about at all. Most of the time we don’t even take the cards home.)
Of course, all pack openers know what happens when you get closer and closer to completing your set. Doubles galore! Now back in the day, that meant spending 30 cents and ending up with 15 doubles. At the high-stakes poker table that is 1961 Fleer, it may mean spending $20 for 15 doubles and only a single common I need for my set. (By the way, the notion of a common Baseball Great is one of my favorite oxymorons, even if it fits this particular set to a tee.)
I’ll add here that the situation with ordinary packs or Lots is amplified with a set like 1961 Fleer that has a decidedly more scarce high number series. Unless you’re buying a specifically advertised “high number Lot” you almost certainly end up with somewhere between 95-100% low numbers. Still, I was determined not to give in and complete my set “the boring way,” which I’ll define here as any method that’s fast, cheap, or efficient. I was in this one for the fun of it, and any extra I was paying would simply be the “cost of fun.”
Fortunately, two things happened to me that helped me a lot (lowercase, ordinary meaning) with my set.
A collector got in touch with me and made a big trade.
In each case, there were no doubles involved, and in the case of the Ruth I got one of the cards that would never come my way buying low-cost Lots. I was now breaking my own rules right and left, but I was okay with it since trading and making deals with “real people” (vs. anonymous eBay sellers) is almost as fun as opening packs. Finally, with a Want List that’s now exclusively megastars and high numbers, buying more and more Lots seems like an exercise in total futility.
Most collectors I meet feel an internal tug of war between wanting to build their collections on a budget while also wanting to enjoy the chase. Giving in to the former generally means buying the set all at once (BORING!), while giving in to the latter generally means Lots and singles (EXPENSIVE!). (And singles get particularly expensive when each $3 card adds $3 in shipping.)
Ultimately, how you collect comes down to what your budget is and what value you put on the fun. For every collector the answer will be as unique as their fingerprints, but in general I would encourage all collectors to at least consider fun in the equation.
Too often as collectors, we forget about the fun side of the Hobby, worrying instead about whether or not we got a good deal or found the lowest price. In reality though, not knowing who you’re gonna get, getting one of the cards you really wanted, creating your Want List, making up dumb games with your doubles, having a Want List when someone asks you if you have a Want List, trading, checking things off, completing a sheet of nine in your binder, having a set you’re working on…often (and if we’re honest with ourselves…ALWAYS!) these things are more satisfying than actually having the set.
As such, if you pay a little extra to take the fun route, it’s maybe not so dumb after all; it might even be really smart. At the very, very worst, we’ll say it’s a fun dumb, which maybe–just maybe–is the best an adult blowing hard-earned cash on little cardboard baseball men can ever hope for. God knows I’ll take it!
Back to those hundred or so doubles. It’s not normally my thing, but I did manage to sell a small stack of them. More germane to this post, however, is that I found a way to turn them into tons of fun.
A fellow Chicago chapter member is having a baby soon, and he’d told me once he might get into this set. (I didn’t break it to him that he’d soon have zero time for hobbies, sleep, or anything else.) Well, boy did I have a blast printing fake wrappers off the internet and creating 1961 Fleer “repacks” as a dad-to-be gift for him.
Of course, now he’s the guy with almost all low numbers, hardly any big stars, and a bunch of doubles, but guess what…
He’s also the King of Fun when it comes to opening packs. Click here to see who he got in his first pack, and I bet you’ll learn something new about every single player!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll be over here, touching history.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”