Tattoo Me

On one of my frequent trips to Baseball Nostalgia, my favorite go-to card shop in Cooperstown, I was telling long-time collector, owner and friend Pete Henrici that I was going to try and complete the 1933 Tattoo Orbit set.

“Oh, you like ugly cards,” he said.

I kinda get it. Unlike, say, the 1933 DeLongs or, going further back, T205s, the Tattoo Orbits look a bit amateurish, a tad half-assed. They’re not particularly artful. Still, there’s something I like about the slightly colorized photos superimposed on the bright, generic backgrounds.

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But let’s be real, aesthetics aside, it’s a set I can complete because there are only 60 of them, I already have 23 and commons can be had relatively cheaply. I’m looking for VG cards, though most of the cards I have are more EX. Actually, I’m looking for VG prices. For commons, I can usually nab a nice example for 1/3 to ½ of book. I’ve been pretty nimble at picking off stray bargains.

I’ve got a bunch of stars, though I still need Jimmie Foxx, Dizzy Dean, a few short printed cards and a handful of middle of the road Hall of Famers of the Chick Hafey variety. This one will take a while to finish, due to both availability and price. There’s no way I can get eBay type deals at card shows, so it’s going to take some time.

Making it even harder is my desire for raw cards. That cuts two ways, both badly. Cards of this vintage are almost always graded, regardless of condition, which sucks and limits the supply. However, I am a “price first” person, so if the graded card is attainable at the level I’m willing to pay, so be it. I have a few sets that are all in albums, save one or two graded cards. I don’t like it, but having is better than not having.

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Raw cards carry their own risks. Trimming, miscuts, and other problems, come with the territory and scans alone don’t reveal all the flaws. I recently got a beautiful Smead Jolley card, but, though it had all the characteristics of a regular Tattoo Orbit – shiny feel, thin paper stock – something felt off. I compared it to all of the other cards I had and it’s either trimmed or miscut. The seller was very understanding and we arranged a suitable solution, but the uncertainty I fell around that card tapped into some fears I have about old raw cards.

 

Over the last two years I’ve been pretty quick on finishing sets. Either I was working on Topps or other hugely available cards or I was lucky enough to have such a head start on harder sets that what I needed I could grab. This Tattoo Orbit set is definitely going to be an exercise in patience (and, to my memory, I’ve never spent as much on a single card as I’ll need to spend on Foxx and Dean). It took me 18 years to finish the 2000-01 Topps Heritage Basketball set with all its short prints. The 1933 Tattoo Orbit set may take as long, but it’s bound to be much more rewarding to have.

Getting Down with Upgrades

A few months before the glorious reinvigorating of the SABR Baseball Cards Committee, I was easing my way back into the hobby. I realized that I was about 50 cards shy of a complete 1971 Topps set. What always stopped me from finishing it was the condition; on the whole what I had was VGEX on average (or at best), well below my normal standards. When it dawned on me that consistency of condition within the set was key, I was freed from my bonds. I could get a Nolan Ryan in EX and not break the bank. This is all very good justification.

I finished that set and then, as we all do, looked for what was next. I was further away from a full 1970 Topps set, but the overall condition of those cards was better than my 1971s. A couple of big gifts from friends put me in line for a set in EX.

Still, happy as I was with competed sets, I knew there were some real dogs in each. When I went through them both recently, again looking for some kind of uniform condition, I counted up about 55-60 cards per set in need of serious upgrading.

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This Yankees Team card from 1970 is so awful – worn, creased, with the soft pliability of a wet paper towel. Even within a sheet (and we know sheets provide some cover for imperfections), it looks like shit. Only Jim Bunning has the nerve to look in its direction. Up close it’s like the Phantom of the Opera, mask off. It clearly is not welcome and things need to change.

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What to do? I whittled a little off the list with two trades (here’s a good example of a before and after from 1971)

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and, shockingly, to me, I had doubles that were in better condition than the cards I had in my set. (Remember to always check your doubles!). When the dust cleared I was down to about 30 cards needed per set.

A card show will take care of most of these, but, with some time to spare last night, I visited COMC. I’ve ordered only once from them and I didn’t love the experience beyond getting the final card of a set I’d been working on for 17 years (2000-01 Topps Heritage Basketball). I spent too much that time, $3.99 postage for one card that I should’ve gotten for a little less.

One of the nice things about our card community is the sharing of information (and cards) and I was tipped off to the trick of COMC. You can load up a cart and qualify for the same $3.99 payment. I ended up finding 35 cards at good prices, the scans showing exactly the condition I’m seeking. I’m still a bit nervous to see what they’re like in person, but I feel tentatively good about it.

Kind of. I’m down to needing 31 cards for both sets to be in a state I can accept, with a few superstars in the mix (1971 Clemente is the priciest). Is this money well spent? I don’t know. For what it’ll end up costing me to upgrade, I could buy all the 1956 commons I need in EX. The reality is one spend doesn’t preclude another spend. I’ll end up buying all the upgrades I need, sort of as an extracurricular project, not exactly counting it when I tally up my card costs. That’s seriously flawed justification, but I’m coming to terms with it.

Purity of Essence (Or, How I Learned to Start Analyzing What Is and Isn’t a Baseball Card)

I’ve been working on completing a 1936 Goudey Wide Pen set, Type 1 of course, and, I’m pleased to say, I’m in the homestretch.  I’ve got 106 of the 120 AND the two keys – Joes DiMaggio/McCarthy rookie (which I basically traded, even up, for a 1976 Walter Payton rookie card) and Hank Greenberg.  I had a pretty good jumpstart on this set; I bought 80 or so back in the early ‘90’s for, what I can only assume, was a steal.

I was showing my friend Jimmy the album with my Wide Pens and he said, “They’re not really cards, are they?”  “Sure they are,” I said, not even understanding the question, but since that day I’ve been mulling over the existential point he was trying to make – “What is a baseball card?”

The Type 1 Wide Pens were in-store premiums (not sure what the method was to acquire them – were they free? Did you have to buy a certain amount of Goudey gum products?), 3 ¼” X 5 ½” black and white portraits or posed action shots with thick facsimile autographs. Overall they’re pretty fascinating, a mix of Conlon-type close ups and various pitchers in windups, swinging hitters and, on rare occasion, a real game photo. The backs are blank. (The player selection is odd and worth a post of its own).

 

So how could this not be immediately perceived as a card? Is it only a photograph? In the corner each Type 1 says “LITHO IN U.S.A.,” so maybe they see themselves as photos.  The 1964 Topps Giants measure 3 1/8” X 5 ¼”, slightly smaller than the Goudeys, but no one would claim they aren’t cards. Is it because they’re Topps? Because they were sold in stores? Have backs?

The 1981 Topps Giant Photo Cards are huge, 4 7/8” X 6 7/8” and were sold in stores. They have something on the back, but not very much. Is this a card? Topps’ own schizophrenia on the issue – “Photo” “Cards” – makes it unclear.

This is a card?

I don’t know the answer to the question but, since Jimmy raised the point, it’s been on my mind. What is and isn’t a card? It can’t be the maker that gives it identity, because the card world has had innumerable manufacturers. Is it distribution? Can’t be. Cards have been delivered in a lot of different ways. In store premiums are not much different than box toppers or mail away offers. Is the back having content or not a dividing line? Plenty of issues have minimal to zero text on the reverse.

Give it some thought, for me.

My 50-year chase to complete the 1964 Topps Coin Set

64ToppsBoxCling!

Oh, what a lovely sound.

A special coin just fell out of a 1964 Topps wax pack and into my dreams.

These were the greatest Topps inserts of all time. Color images of baseball heroes leaping off a metallic coin. 120 standard coins, 44 all-star coins. I read in 2014 that “a decent condition set will cost you $500-$1,000.”

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The photography on the standard coins ranges from headshots (no one is capless, btw) to batting stances (Pete Rose, #82, and Hank Aaron, #83, look fabulous). The rear of the coin featured the all-important info such as height, weight, which side a player threw or hit from, along with a brief info nugget. Coin #92 tells us Jim Hickman of the Mets was an ex-Cardinal. Your day is now complete.

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Oh, those all-star coins! The vibrant colors! The simple but perfect graphic design. The sparkling photography. The A.L. coins were blue, the N.L. red. The color printing on the all-star coins was astonishingly brilliant and wears well to this day. The image registration is razor sharp. The beard stubble on Ken Boyer’s face could sand hardwood floors (#145). Roberto Clemente’s arm cocked, hand grasping a baseball, ready to mow someone down at the plate (#150). Chuck Hinton’s glower as he grips the bat (#162). Even the Washington Senators could look badass in this all-star set.

 

I was six years old when my brothers introduced me to baseball cards for the first time. The 1964 set and the accompanying coins planted the seed of a drug that has held me rapt for lo these 53 years.

We didn’t have many of those coins. Some were lost to the ravages of time, neighborhood thieves, and play rooms cleaned by a fastidious mother.

Decades passed. I started going to card shows. Technology evolved. I found people who gave or traded me coins for doubles of my cards. The grace of eBay arrived, backed by a celestial choir. There they were, gobs of the 1964 coins, separate or in lots, with plenty available. The ones in primo condition sold at crazy prices. I’m a possession collector, so I don’t care what condition they’re in, and I buy low.

1964 All-Star coins (Santo, Spahn, Killebrew, B Robinson)

In 2012, I put my hand on a rock and proclaimed I’d reclaim this special part of my childhood. I wanted every coin in the set. And, no, I did not need the error/variation coins of Chuck Hinton (#162A), and Wayne Causey (#161A)—Topps mistakenly made them as NL all-stars (I have no idea how many were made before corrected, nor do I care).

The first eBay pile came from a lady that found a bucket of coins in her attic, some partially corroded by moisture. Fine! Bring it! More lots followed, and I went down the checklist, ticking off stragglers.

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By 2014, I only needed 8 to complete the set. The last coin I needed, #100, Al Kaline, taunted me. I would not pay a king’s ransom for it. I finally saw it on eBay for a very reasonable price, and Nirvana was achieved!

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I must admit to a moment of sadness when I’d finally completed the set. The chase was over. The thrill of the hunt was gone. But I finally had them all and could move on to the next phase: obtaining the sleeved pages, final presentation, and endless ogling.

I take the magical binder out once in a while to luxuriate in the glow of my metallic beauties. I close my eyes, and it’s 1964. Triples go to die in Willie Mays’ glove. Frank Howard is still on the Dodgers, and Billy O’Dell still has that weird thing on his upper lip.

I have my doubles in a beat-up baggie that I sometimes bring to baseball-related meetings and conferences to give to others I know will enjoy them. I recently had lunch with Rich Kee, former photographer for the Dodgers in the 70s and 80s. I offered him any coin from the stack of doubles. No dummy he, Rich snapped up coin #106, Sandy Koufax. Who knows? Maybe if you’re nice to me, I’ll slip you one the next time I see you!

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The Bono View of Cards

I feel I’ve been gone a long time since the last post. I’ve been buried under boxes of cards, in the midst of a full search and seizure of sellable doubles and triples (or how about five extra 1975 Topps Pete Maravich cards in NM condition?) in my collection.

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Before I dove into that colossal project, I ordered my 2017 Topps set. I always get my factory set at the end of the year. I used to not be able to wait that long and, in the 1980’s and 1990’s, I ordered all the sets – Donruss, Fleer, Score, Upper Deck, Topps – as early as they were released.

Two Wednesdays ago I put my factory set in numerical order (it drives me crazy that they are not already that way, but it does give me a couple of hours to go through each one, the longest time I’m ever likely to spend with any recent set). At the same time, well, not exactly at the same time but on the same day, I put away some new 1968’s and 1969’s, and a 1960 Don Zimmer, in sheets. The contrast between new new and old new was striking.

The differences, and what I like and dislike are not really in the designs. The 2017 Topps is nice enough and I’ve always found the 1969 set atrociously boring. The differences are in the times we live in, how we all process information and what we require in stimulation.

The 1960 cards confidently deliver simplicity – a portrait, a posed action shot, some stats, long or short, and a cartoon. The mix of colors and varied detail, like the L.A. Coliseum behind Zim’s giant noggin, give an OK set a lot of character. If 1960 is simple, 1969 is atavistic. It is beyond basic, and that would be OK if the pictures weren’t so mind-numbingly uninteresting. How many 33-year-olds who look 70 do we really need?

1969 Clay Dalrymple (f2)

The 2017 cards are a bombardment of foreground and background, bright constantly changing colors and a flurry of things to take in. They represent their time as much as some capless ancient did almost 50 years ago. This card gives me a headache, and many others left me feeling seasick.

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There are nice cards for sure, like this Puig,

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and I’m glad to have the set to keep my consecutive year streak alive. Still, I was left feeling that there is a happy middle out there for Topps, photo-wise. What makes the 1971-1990’s set so fulfilling is the mix of still life and action. Now you have to buy two different sets to capture the blend that was standard back then.

I don’t have any real conclusion to make. As I march toward completing the 1969 set I’m not overly enthused by the cards, though happy about getting close to the finish line. And now that my 2017 set is filed away, it’s unlikely I’ll refer back to it much. I buy out of obligation. I still haven’t found what I’m looking for in a contemporary card set. Maybe that’s why I’m having so much fun going through stacks of doubles from 40+ years ago. Beyond the nostalgia, those cards bring a more interesting and enjoyable viewing experience.

 

An Unsettled Set Strategy

I fancy myself as a frugal guy. Maybe not frugal, not anymore. I used to be pretty tight with money, which was fine when I was on my own, a bit more problematic once I got married. Over time I’ve become somewhat more profligate, maybe not profligate, but I no longer spend money as if I was still a kid without a job or had an entire career behind me. Still, I don’t love the act of spending, so I still try to maximize my dollars. If I’m going to spend dough, then I want it to be as little as possible within the confines of market rates.

When I started working on various sets, I had two general situations – 1) I had more than enough of the set that it was way less costly to finish off the checklist and 2) that, for other sets, it would be cheaper to buy the whole set and sell off what I already had from said set. I was more than aware of that, but there’s little fun in buying the whole all at once. Building a set over time is more enjoyable. And yet…

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I had about 30 1964 Topps coins and a solid amount of those were high end guys in EX condition. I figured with Koufax, Clemente, one of the Mantle All-Stars and plenty of other Hall of Famers, I’d be able to finish off the rest for less than the cost of a complete set. I was wrong, and I was wrong in a couple of ways.

The first way I was wrong was that, regardless of book value, there’s a definite floor on prices for commons. Could I get them for less than $1.75-2? Not really. Oddly, I can’t seem to sell my doubles for more than $2, about $1.50 after fees. It’s not a great spread.

The second way I was wrong was in gauging opportunity. I didn’t expect to go back to a card show, which I did, wrote about, and that led to 48 coins in one shot. I didn’t expect a friend to have another 35 he was willing to sell at a fair price.

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That’s it. I’m done. I have the entire set, not counting the Wayne Causey and Chuck Hinton wrong back All-Stars (they say “N.L” when they should say “A.L.”). I’ll likely pick them up over time, though there’s a difference between a complete set and a complete master set with all errors. (I do have both Mantle All-Stars. Less a mistake than a conscious and clever effort by Topps, there are AS coins of The Mick batting right-handed and left-handed).

Even with the 30+ head start, I ended up paying more to finish the set than had I bought it outright. How much more? Maybe $25 bucks, maybe $45 bucks with the error coins. Was that worth it? I’m not sure. I had expected that it would take me a good year or so to cobble together all the coins I needed. Had that been the case it would have been worth the extra money to work slowly and enjoy the gradual build.

But was it worth it for what ended up being about 3 months’ worth of collecting? I’m still not sure. I get an inordinate amount of joy looking at them, but maybe that would have been the case had they all arrived at once.

What I do know is that this is probably the only instance of doubt I’ve had on my process. I’ve been able to make enough good deals (and offset a percentage of costs with eBay sales) on the other sets I’ve worked on that it’s been better to piece them together. At least I’ve managed to stretch those sets out longer in a way that doesn’t give me pause.

And, So, I Return

I railed against card shows in a February post, extolling the virtues of eBay and espousing the problems of shows. No matter – last weekend was the East Coast National in White Plains. My friend Greg and I have been trying to coordinate going to a show together and, finally, our schedules lined up.

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Though I always used to go to shows on Sunday – seemed like dealers were more likely to haggle rather than schlep all of their inventory home – Saturday was the only day that worked for both of us. Replacing my last day strategy took some thinking, but I hit on something of a plan. I’d knock off as many commons from my want lists, mostly 1960 Topps, because I’m down to so few commons that going the eBay route is less worthwhile. If I could cross off enough of my checklists, I’d be happy. It’s much easier to find bargains on stars online. That’s been my experience.

Good approach, but that initial strategy of loading on commons was immediately derailed when I saw the Clean Sweep Auctions table. I used to order a lot from Steve Verkman. What I thought were random 1960’s turned out to be stars at 40% off. The discount brought them to book prices or slightly less. I’ve been having a hard time getting cards like Yogi Berra in EX or better for book or less. I ended up with 5 cards – Master and Mentor (Mays and Rigney), Berra, Snider, Brooks Robinson and the Pirates team card (with unmarked checklist) – one-third of my budget spent and a whole room to hit. So be it for the best plans. Mine gang aft agley.

 

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I assumed I’d hit the familiar tables with binders and binders of commons and, with a turn of a corner, I did. A dealer named Jeffrey Schenker had a nice group of EX or better cards, even giving me a good deal on some high numbers. I got 17 cards, a solid dent into the list, and I was back on track.

By this time I had gotten into the habit of telling people I was Mayor of Cooperstown. I didn’t think it would get me any better deals (and it didn’t) but this was the perfect audience to tell. Most had been to Cooperstown, and pretty recently, and it was nice to spread the word of the village to a group eager to listen.

As I walked past tables, I was surprised by how few dealers had varied offerings. It was Topps and Bowman, one after the other (outside the tables I couldn’t care less about – new cards, autographs, game used stuff, and so on). I was convinced I’d be able to get some 1971 Kellogg’s 3-Ds and 1964 Topps coins, but I was getting a bad feeling about it.

Then I found Stan’s Vintage Sports Cards and a small stack of Kellogg’s. I asked to see them and he pulled out one, two, three, four, five stacks! I hadn’t even noticed them all, so happy to see the one. I got three cards – Agee, Menke and Horton – but I only needed 8. I figured while I was there I’d ask if he had 1964 Coins. He did and what passes for hard work began.

 

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We laid some price ground rules early. I told him I wouldn’t pay much more than $2 per common. I went page by page, hunched over, a little sweaty, but it was worth it. I ended up with 37 coins at exactly the price I was looking for. A couple of tables over there was another guy with coins and I picked up 11 more. Big success.

 

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I’m so out of card show shape that I was exhausted, physically and (almost) financially. Greg and I met up again and, while we were chatting, I glanced over to a table with some 1960’s. I figured I’d give it one last go and picked up two more – Herb Score and the Tigers team.

Interestingly, this guy had a Jim Kaat rookie for $8. Way too cheap but seemingly nice, I took it out of the top holder and a PSA grading strip fell out. It said the card was “altered.” Now the dealer wasn’t trying to hide anything – he’d left that info in – but I couldn’t quite figure out what was wrong with it. It measured up in size to the other cards and had no discernible problems. He thought I should get it, of course, and I wondered if I should. “No one will know it’s altered, if it’s just going in a binder,” he said. Yeah, but I’d know and, while I might never figure out what was tampered with, I’d be nagged by the fact that somehow I had a bad card.

That was it. I’d spent most of my budget, was tired but happy, and my entire recent attitude on shows had changed. There are still pleasant dealers, engaged collectors who are happy to chat (I got into a long talk about Goudey Wide Pens) and certain purchases that can only be best made at shows.

I’m back!