Checklist release day is always a fun one, especially when it’s a Flagship related set like Update where I’m curious which players made it into the “permanent record.” Yesterday was such a day. I woke up, noticed that the checklist had been released, and proceeded to click on multiple preview posts hoping to find an HTML list instead of an XLSX one.
I eventually did so but it took me about four tries and on each page I saw the exact same sell sheet sample images. The sameness of the images wasn’t a surprise—Topps obviously sends the same sell sheet to everyone—but the presence of one image caught me on every page.
I didn’t recognize at first that all the previews were originally written and posted in May. And I totally understand how easy it is to just tack on the new information at the bottom of an already-existing article. But still just a quick scroll through the article is enough to make me shake my head and doing that multiple times made me really sad about the state of the hobby.
This was a high-profile case which resulted in a player being suspended in early July and having that suspension extended to encompass the entire season. I don’t feel like discussing the details of the case here (Google is your friend if you somehow missed it but suffice it to say that I was not expecting to have to have baseball prompt an in-depth discussion about consent and its limitations with my sons) but his suspension and the way that Major League Baseball and the Dodgers have pulled his merchandise says more than enough.
He’s completely non-viable as a marketable part of the league yet Topps, despite a three-month lead time, was not only unable to pull him from the product but wasn’t even able to update the sell sheet. This is massively irresponsible. The new sell sheet should’ve gone out in July instead of relying on card bloggers and writers to edit their old posts.
That so many hobby publications completely missed the problem is also completely dismaying. This hobby already already skews heavily male* so stuff that feels almost designed to make women feel uncomfortable is embarrassing. It shouldn’t be hard to catch something like this. **
*Including this blog. I think the closest we have to a post authored by a woman is Jason’s interview with Donna. And yes Jason and I are acutely aware that this is is a problem.
**By the end of the yesterday multiple sites had actually edited their previews and removed the image. I’m fully aware that I’m using that image on this blog but it’s not the image itself which is a problem but rather its usage as an advertisement for the set.
And yes it’s absolutely embarrassing. I got some crap on Twitter accusing me of being upset but my reaction to the initial posts was more just being appalled at how normalized this kind of thing is. I wish it made me angry* but the sad state of this country is that we’re so good at condoning and excusing violence against women that the most emotion I can muster is a facepalm and rueful headshake.
*The tweets I received did succeed in pissing me off.
Definitely not the buzz I wanted to feel about a new set. But the wake up call is worth listening to. The hobby has got to do better here. The same goes to us as men.
Three of my great loves in the Hobby—Fleer, Ted Williams, and crazy number patterns—all come together in the 1959 Fleer Ted Williams set, 80 cards that chronicle the life and times of the Splendid Splinter, both on and off the field.
The set’s cards are refreshingly affordable with the exception of card 68 in the set, “Ted Signs for 1959,” which was pulled due to its inclusion of Bucky Harris, for whom Fleer did not have rights. Because this single card (in like condition) is typically priced higher than the rest of the set combined, many collectors opt to settle for a “79/80” set and call it a day.
Something I’d wondered about but never researched was how Fleer’s production process changed once it became necessary to pull card 68. There seemed to be two strategies available:
Continue printing all 80 cards but remove card 68 prior to collation into packs.
Omit card 68 from all subsequent printing
The first of these approaches seemed bulky, though perhaps not unprecedented. (Goudey may have done similar in 1934 with its Lajoie card.)
The second of these approaches seemed much easier. Fleer could simply replace card 68 on its printing sheet with any other card from the set. While this would create a “double-print,” a card twice as numerous as others due to its dual placement on printing sheets, it would also, at least presumably, save Fleer all kinds of work.
Again, there was precedent in an older Goudey set, though it’s unknown to collectors whether Goudey doubled up on its Ruth 144 (second row, third and sixth cards) in 1933 to replace another card or simply to print more Ruth cards. (I’m probably in the minority who would vote for the former.)
I hoped to settle the question by finding an uncut sheet with a double-print. Instead, I stumbled upon this sheet that recently sold on eBay. No double-prints, but right there in the lower left corner was card 68!
The presence of card 68 on the sheet suggested one of two possibilities:
Fleer continued to print card 68, even if it meant having to pull it over and over before collating cards into packs.
The sheet pre-dated Fleer’s decision to pull card 68.
I won’t settle that question in this article, partly because I don’t think the answer is knowable but mostly because I’m so easily distracted by oddball numbering patterns.
Here are the card numbers from the back of the sheet.
One simple pattern and two less simple ones are evident.
The numbers decrease by two in going from the first to the second column.
The numbers increase by 13 or 15 in going from the second to the third column.
The numbers increase by 15 or 17 in going from one row to the next.
The first of these patterns suggested a way to extend the table to the left and right, stopping once a new column would generate repeated numbers. Here was the result.
Two small changes I’ll now introduce are the letters A-P to label the table’s sixteen columns and a vertical divider line between column H and column I to mark the break in the pattern. If nothing else, this table suggests a nomenclature for the original sheet: GHI.
In truth, all columns except GHI are hypothetical at this point, but you can imagine I’d hardly be writing this up if there wasn’t something more happening.
For example, here is another sheet, which corresponds exactly to columns KLM in the table.
And here are two 20-card sheets, corresponding exactly to ABCD and DEFG.
In other words, the hypothetical extension of the numbering scheme does reflect something real. Having now seen ABCD, DEFG, GHI, and KLM, can we find sheets with that include J, N, O, and P to complete our set?
Definitely! Here are two different sheets, HIJ and JKL, that include column J.
Finally, here is NOP to round things out.
You might wonder if all sheets from the Ted Williams set match the table as nicely as the ones I’ve shown. From what I can tell the answer is yes. You may also be familiar with the occasional 6-card panel that appears from time to time. Sure enough, even these panels have a home in the table.
Recognizing the wide, if not universal, applicability of the numbering scheme to the set, it’s fair to wonder where such a scheme could have come from. I won’t pretend that the information below reflects any intentional thinking from Fleer or their printing house, but I’ll nonetheless offer a simple three-step algorithm that generates the entire table and demystifies it in so doing.
STEP ONE: Start with the numbers from 1-80, arranged in a 16 x 5 table.
STEP TWO: Subdivide each row into its odd and even components.
STEP THREE: Rebuild the 16 x 5 table by adding the rows from the above table in a serpentine pattern.
In other words, however complicated the “Ted Williams code” might look, it is simply the result of arranging eight straightforward “strips” of cards in a relatively straightforward manner.
HOW WERE THE CARDS PRINTED?
When I first stumbled upon the sheet of 15 cards I was surprised not only by the presence of card 68 but also the number of cards on the sheet. After all, the only ways to get to 80 cards, fifteen at a time, seemed to involve excessive double-prints. For example, six sheets of 15 will get you the set but introduce 10 double-prints along the way.
It was comforting then to discover a 20-card sheet since it opened the door to two seemingly more likely possibilities.
The set was produced in four sheets of 20 cards, with any 15-card sheets (or smaller panels) being trimmed afterward from larger sheets.
The set was produced using four sheets of 15 and one sheet of 20.
Let’s start with the first of these. Taking a look at the top edge of KLM from earlier, it feels safe to conclude that this sheet used to be at least a little larger. What’s inconclusive is whether only the border was cut off or if there used to be a fourth row of cards. In other words, we don’t know if we are looking at 99% of KLM or three-fourths of KLMN.
These next two 15-card sheets, both NOP, don’t show any evident trimming through each has thin enough edge that it’s fair to wonder if they simply reflect a much cleaner cutting job than in the previous example. If trimmed from 20-card sheets, the first would have come from MNOP, but the second presents a challenge to my numbering scheme, which doesn’t anticipate any columns after “P.”
Still, let’s assume all 15-card sheets in existence came from 20-card sheets. The simplest configuration would be ABCD, EFGH, IJKL, and MNOP shown below. Any departure would either require more than four sheets (and introduce significant double-printing) or conflict with the numbering scheme that has so far been consistent with all known examples.
Yet having already seen sheet DEFG, we know this was not how the cards were printed! Therefore, at least based on the sheets known to exist, I think we’re back to schemes involving combinations of 15 and 20 card sheets.
Assuming the cards were printed as four sheets of 15 and one sheet of 20, there are only five ways to do this that don’t leave stray remnants of 5 or 10 cards.
Here are the five solutions, represented in list form.
While the typical question to ask would be which one did Fleer use, the existence of ABCD and DEFG tell us the answer would have to be at least the first two solutions. Additionally, the existence of JKL, unique to the final entry on the list, adds a third solution to our solution set.
Okay, but isn’t this a rather crazy way to produce the cards? YES! But when I compare the known data (shown in red) with the sheets predicted by such a scheme, I have to admit the coverage is pretty strong: 9 out of 13.
Just as compelling to me are the sheets such an approach predicts would not exist:
Sure enough, none of these fourteen sheets are currently known.
My takeaway, therefore, is that Fleer most likely used combinations of 15 and 20-card sheets to produce the set and hardly adopted the simplest possible approach. Rather, of the five sensible solutions available, Fleer at various times or locations used at least three and potentially all five of them!
Admittedly, my entire chain of reasoning draws from a rather small sample size: eleven different sheets (and some duplicates) in all. A CDEF discovered in the wild is all it would take to derail half this article, and a CDEG in the wild would derail the entire article. Meanwhile, EFG, GHIJ, JKLM, or MNOP would lend even greater support to my hypothesis. As such, I hope you’ll let me know in the comments if you’re aware of sheets I’ve overlooked in my research.
Either way, can we at least agree that Ted Williams was the best &@#%! hitter who ever lived? Great! Now can anyone help me crack the code to find out what &@#%! means?
Covering the Bases (CTB) is a feature where we take a deep dive into a single card. With his Cooperstown Hall of Fame induction imminent we are taking a look at Derek Jeter’s 1997 Topps Card.
1997 Topps #13 Derek Jeter
Folks that folllow our columns likely suspect the draw of this card to me is the rookie cup. Derek Jeter was the 1996 AL Rookie of the year and the star of the years Topps All-Star Rookie Squad. Although I must mention that the 1996 AL Rookie WAR leader was not Jeter…
Jose Rosado was also snubbed for the All-Star Rookie squad in favor of reliever Billy Wagner, who received a grand total of ZERO ROY (NL) votes. Rosado spent the entirety of his five year MLB career with the Royals. He made a pair all-star teams including sharing the field with Jeter in 1999.
The 1997T is simple and functional. My only complaint is that the player position is not present on the card front.
One thing I do like is that the card borders are league specific, AL Players are in red while the Senior Circuit is green
1997 Topps #177 Todd Hollandsworth
Jeter’s NL rookie of the year counterpart was Todd Hollandsworth, here with the green NL Border. I am pretty sure that the league borders is a nod to the red and green books of the past.
At some point I had a couple of green books, but they appear to have escaped from the phungo museum. Unfortunately Red/Green books ceased publication in 2008.
Also noticed the change in orientation, Most 1997T are in portrait format like Hollandsworth.
Guess the Game
When possible Guess the Game is a prominent tenet of a CTB feature, and today’s Derek Jeter card is indeed traceable. However it is the guest Chris Snopek that is the key to the research.
Prior to the issuance of this card in 1997 Snopek played four games at Yankee Stadium, May 4-5 and August 6-7 1996. It appears that in only one of those games is there a play at 2nd base involving Snopek and Jeter. The play occurred in the 6th inning the game that occurred on May the 4th (Star Wars Day!). This is the front end of an inning ending 4-6-3 double play induced by Bob Wickman.
The twin killing may have quelled the Chicago rally, but in the end the White Sox won the game 11-5 .
It was Derek Jeter’s 41st career game. A double in the 6th inning was his 35th career hit. 3430 more hits would follow. Defensively the play on the card was among the 4 assists and 2 putouts recorded by Jeter.
The games big star was the White Sox Harold Baines, who collected 5 RBIs despite not entering the game until the 8th inning. His big blow was a 9th inning grand slam off of Jim Mecir.
But wait there’s more…
1997 Topps #137 Chis Snopek
Chris Snopek’s 1997T is a sort of Jeter mirror. It is also a keystone play at Yankee Stadium. Only this play features the White Sox on defense.
Quickly we can tell it is not the same game, note on this card Snopek is sleeveless while on the Jeter offering he is wearing an undershirt
The game was played on May 5th 1996, Snopek was playing career game 32. In the game he tallied his 7th career double and scored the White Sox lone run.
We also notice this image features Yankees star Bernie Williams on an attempted steal of 2nd base…
Safe or Out
This play appears to have occurred during the 7th inning of game on an attempted steal by Bernie Williams.
On the play Bernie Williams was…
He next went to third on a wild pitch and scored on a sacrifice fly by Joe Girardi. Nice trip around the diamond for Bernie, The Yankees went on to win the game 7-1.
1997 Topps #13 Derek Jeter
Returning to our original subject, On the card back we now see Jeter’s position prominently at the top, also kudos to Topps for making the card # large enough to be read easily.
The card back element that jumps out me most is the text. Here we are at the beginning of Jeter’s career and he is already being compared to Don Mattingly. This is an incredible legacy to approach and Amazingly not only does Jeter carry the torch of “Most Popular Yankee”, I think most folks would agree he surpassed Mattingly.
This will be a short post but I just received a copy of the 2021 Stadium Club Will Clark reprint. It’s a striking portrait of The Thrill. In 1992 Topps treated Clark, Matt Williams, and Kevin Mitchell all very similarly. Black jackets and a black background with just enough light to expose their faces and one other feature—glove, ball, etc.—while everything else receded into shadow.
They’re striking cards and I figured it would be fun to compare the Clark reprint with the original card that I have in my collection.
Starting off with a side-by-side pair of scans. I scanned and processed these together before splitting them into different images so the differences in color reflect actual differences between the two and not anything I introduced in post-processing the scan. In this pair, and the other pairs of images in this post, the original 1992 card is on the left and the 2021 reprint is on the right.
Two obvious differences. 1992 is a bit darker and yellower. 2021 has lower contrast and better shadow detail. First off, the yellowness extends to the white point of the paper and is very likely an effect of aging. Maybe the paper is getting old. Maybe the UV coating* is yellowing slightly. The contrast and shadow detail differences though suggest that a lot more is going on.
*UV coating is the high-gloss finish that Topps started using in 1991 Stadium Club and which took over the hobby in the 1990s. It’s called UV because it’s cured with ultraviolet light. It can yellow with age and, as many of us have found, can stick to other UV coated items as well.
Yup. Time to look closer. The print screens shows that Topps recreated the original cards and that they have, someplace, the original images that they used in 1992. How can I tell? The two different cards use different line frequencies—1992 is around 125 LPI, 2021 is around 170 LPI—and there’s no evidence of rescreening.*
*Poorly done reprints often scan and rescreen on top of the older screen and the result is often a mess.
LPI stands for lines per inch and refers to how many rows of dots occur in each inch of printing. A higher number means you have the ability to show more detail in the image but also requires better quality paper and a better press to hold that detail. Printing too fine a line screen can actually produce a darker image than expected if done incorrectly since the dots are closer together and can “plug” if the paper or press is wrong.* In the 1980s and 1990s, anything over 120 LPI was high quality. Nowadays things are routinely printed around 170 or higher.
* It’s my opinion that 1989 Upper Deck suffered a bit from this as it would completely explain why so many of the images are darker than they should be.
More importantly though, I can see in the blacks that the screen on the 2021 card is a lot more open. At the top of this pair of images, the 1992 version is almost solid black. There are occasional dots of color but it’s mostly plugged with ink. The 2021 version though is clearly a mix of inks. Not only is the linescreen much finer, Topps kept it from plugging up with ink. As a result, there’s a lot more visible detail in the cap, jacket, and even the background texture.
There’s also a lot less yellow being printed in 2021. Looking at Clark’s eye shows that even if the UV coating in the 1992 is yellowing, there’s actually a lot of yellow being printed as well. I see way fewer yellow dots in the 2021 card.
This pair of images shows off the difference in detail that we can see in the glove but what caught my eye is the way the Stadium Club logo is printed. This wasn’t clocked by most people in 1991 but in addition to the full-bleed images, glossy finish, and foil stamping, Topps also used a spot-color ink* for the first time on the front of its cards.** This continued in 1992 and in the scans here the difference between the pink stadium seats is pretty obvious.
*I’m not going to explain spot colors in much depth here since I’ve already done so elsewhere on the blog but in short, full-color printing uses four process inks (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) and any additional ink that’s not one of those four colors is a spot ink.
**1991 Stadium Club is the first full-color plus spot color I can think of for Topps. 1990 Leaf with the silver ink if the first full-color plus spot color I can think of in general. Adding a spot ink to the four process inks was a serious premium step up in production.
No screening at all in 1992. Clear magenta and yellow screen patterns and even some slight misregistration in 2021. I can’t show this in images but the 1992 spot ink fluoresces under a black light as well.
I know why Topps chose not to use a spot color in 2021 since that would be a lot of extra production for an insert set that no one was really excited about anyway.* At the same time, that they didn’t strikes me as being as wrong as if they’d replaced the foil stamping with a gold color ink mix.
*Seriously, does anyone like Stadium Club inserts? I’m pretty sure we all just get Stadium Club because the base card photography is so great.
Still, it was fun to do a dive into the printing differences so I can’t complain too much. While things like Heritage or Archives often play a bit loose with adapting old designs to modern usage, a reprint is supposed to be the same and when it’s not I’m glad the differences give us a look in to how Topps’s production quality has changed and, for the most part, improved.
Imagine yourself a young card collector in early 1935. Okay, fine. I’ll help you.
“What’s the point? Maybe I’ll just throw all these away…” you think to yourself as you rifle through the sack of Goudey cards you dutifully collected over the last couple years. Let’s face it, the 1935 four-in-one design just isn’t doing it for you. Compared to the cards of years past, the (often recycled) pictures are tiny, you loathe the extra work of cutting them yourself, and the puzzle backs don’t even seem to go together!
A couple friends in the neighborhood tried to get you into National Chicle Diamond Stars in 1934, but you declared yourself a Goudey loyalist, at least outwardly. The truth is you just didn’t have the spare change to start collecting multiple sets. And even if you did, why chance where that slippery slope could lead?
Still, you had to admit the cards were attractive….and the baseball tips just might help your game, which wasn’t exactly attracting the attention of Pittsburgh brass!
It was a small set too. Only 24 cards in 1934, with Lloyd Waner the only Pirate. Maybe you should have made the move from Goudey. Then again, the Diamond Stars set appears to have been a one-and-done in your part of town. You try asking the man behind the counter if the new Diamond Stars are in only to receive a blank star in return.
So yes, what’s the point of even collecting anymore? You hate the four-in-ones, but they appear to be the only game in town. Shouldn’t it be possible to follow your hometown Pirates without the need for a stack of cards at your side? Plus, you’d read their Goudey card backs so many times you pretty much had them memorized. Arky Vaughan? Bats left handed but throws right. Weighs 175 pounds. Bill Swift? “One of the main reasons why the Pirates win ball games!”
And then Blanton-mania struck. As SABR biographer Gregory Wolftells it, “Cy Blanton broke in with the Pittsburgh Pirates in a blaze of glory.” What kind of blaze? Think Jake deGrom. And no, I’m not talking about rookie deGrom. I’m talking about present day deGrom.
Jake deGrom (thru July 1): 14 starts, 1 CG, 85 IP, 0.95 ERA
“The hard-throwing right-hander with an array of screwballs, curves, and sinkers” (SABR Bio) became your new obsession, completely surpassing your love for Big Poison and Little Poison. When pops fished out his T206 Wagner, declaring Hans the greatest Pirate of them all, you muttered “…until Blanton” under your breath before puzzling for a moment as to why a grown man would even own a baseball card.
Plus, if baseball cards were so great, why was there no Blanton card?
The thought was interrupted by the screech of bike tires followed by banging on the front door. Was someone dying? Was the world coming to an end? Why such urgency from little Jackie who was usually quite reserved?
“Look who I got! Look who I got!”
“Wait, what?!” There really is a Blanton card? But how could that be? He didn’t even play last year, did he? [Author’s note: He did, but just one game.]
“Lemme see! Lemme see!” you demand, practically ripping the card out of Jackie’s hand to admire it. That quick, your love of cards not only returned to you but completely consumed you. You need this card more than you need air and water. If we’re being honest, you need this card more than you need your friend Jackie, am I right?
After offering your entire collection, which included all four 1933 Goudey Babe Ruth cards, for the Blanton, a deal Jackie refuses due to A) Blanton-mania, and B) brand loyalty, you beg, borrow, and steal from your folks until you have more money in your pocket than you’ve ever had in your entire life: nine cents.
Eight packs in, you have a mouthful of gum but little else to show for the small fortune you arrived with: Stan Hack, Billy Urbanski, Cliff Bolton, Buck Jordan, Glenn Myatt, Billy Werber, Fred Frankhouse, and an oddball card of Jimmie Foxx as a catcher! But then, like a pre-Hobbsian Roy Hobbs (movie version, not book), you come through with a monster rip in the ninth.
For reasons unknown, even later in life, your mind raced to an exciting World of Tomorrow where humans could not only propel themselves to the moon but digital currencies as well, and card collectors communicated with each other by electromagnet technology so small it could fit in their pockets. Without understanding the means or the mechanism, you imagined yourself “sharing” your pull with friends even two or three towns away, along with the rhetorical, unorthodoxly capitalized, and interrobanged phrase that would unwittingly become standard only 85 years later—
“I’ve never had a kid faint from a pack of baseball cards. You’re lucky I had my smelling salts handy.” [Author’s note: I too fainted from a pack of baseball cards. 1981 Fleer, “C” Nettles error.]
Yeah, fainting was weird, but you didn’t have time to dwell. The Blanton! Where’s the Blanton!
Grabbing it off the floor you turn it over to read the back, a feat made difficult by lingering dizziness.
Eventually, the card comes into focus.
It was official. May 29, 1935, was the best day of your entire life. No less and authority than Austen Lake, right there on the back of your Blanton card, told you to “save your best stuff for the pinches” and you did. Ninth pack, Darrell E. Blanton, ’nuff said.
Little did you know that this phenom hurler was about to surrender 16 earned runs across his next four games, more than doubling his ERA from 1.00 to 2.01. He would still finish the season with a league-topping 2.58 to go with 18 victories, but like many phenoms he would pursue the shadow of his rookie campaign unsuccessfully for the rest of his career. Even still, your Blanton hording only grew, particularly when word hit the neighborhood that he had a Goudey also! (If memory serves, you traded your dad’s prized Wagner card for it.)
When the 1940 season began sans Blanton [Author’s note: He joined the Phils in May], you looked back at your paper-clipped stacks of his rookie card, shaking your head in much the same way 1990s collectors looked back on their screw-down holders of Kevin Maas and Todd Van Poppel or modern collectors may someday view their PSA slabbed cards (if they ever ship) of Akil Baddoo and Wander Franco.
Of course the thing about baseball cards is that it may not matter what a card is worth later on. What matters most is that immediate and magical feeling of thinking you have something really special and therefore are something really special. There may be healthier and more sustainable paths to self worth, but for nine cents…this is a helluva deal!
* * * * * * * * *
In other news, happy birthday to Cy Blanton, who would be 113 today were he still around. And for the Diamond Star junkies out there, here is what may be an interesting tidbit from the back of his card.
You may already know that the Diamond Stars set was issued over three years, according to this release schedule:
The Blanton card, numbered 57 in the set, was part of the 1935 release. The above decoder ring aside, you can note his complete 1934 (International League) record at the bottom of the bio, along with a 1935 copyright date.
However, the portion of the bio I’ve highlighted in red tells us that this card would not have been out at the start of the season. I would imagine it would have been at least early May before anyone would seriously include Blanton among “the most effective pitchers in the major leagues.” Add however long it takes to print, slice, pack, and truck the cards to retailers, and I can’t imagine this card hitting the shelves before June 1935.
Was this the case with the entire 1935 issue, only the new additions (25-84), or some even smaller subset? For those who enjoy these things, I suspect there is some fun to be had in checking the backs of all the 1935—if not 1934 and 1936—Diamond Stars for clues. This is something I did earlier this year ad (hopefully not yours) nauseam with the 1933 and 1934 Goudey sets, so perhaps it’s something I’ll take on with Diamond Stars. In the meantime here is some additional reading on the set.
This summer I’ve been fortunate to be part of—okay, co-organizer along with Mr. Shake of—the very cool Josh Gibson MVP “Card Art” tournament. The tournament includes more than 70 artists from five countries and was created to help make the case for naming MLB’s (nameless since 2020) MVP trophies after Josh.
Many of this blog’s readers no doubt roll their eyes at the concept of “Card Art” and prefer to stick to “real cards” thank you very much, but here’s the thing. These are real cards. I don’t mean this in any philosophical sense either. The majority of the cards in the tournament are being produced with the support the Josh Gibson Foundation, which not only approves the cards but has provided certificates of authenticity.
The result is that Josh Gibson, whose sky-high profile among baseball’s pantheon received a serious boost last week from Baseball-Reference, now has several dozen new, independently produced, licensed trading cards, many of which are downright stunning, to go along with the recent Topps Project 70 offerings from artists Efdot and Chuck Styles.
The tournament, hosted by the Negro Leagues Baseball Marketplace, began May 10 and is expected to run through July 12. The first phase of the tournament consisted of a series of weekly competitions, with weekly winners determined by a combination of Twitter engagement and website voting. (Feel free to follow the tournament at the NLB Marketplace twitter account.)
Ultimately the overall winner will be selected through a Tournament of Champions, itself consisting of two phases. The first will be an NCAA Tournament-like bracket to determine the Final Four. From there, a panel of celebrity judges ranging from MLB All-Star Al Oliver to Dodger EVP Janet Marie Smith to a who’s who panel of top artists and entertainers will crown a champion.
As a participant in the tournament, a practitioner and collector of Card Art, and a super-fan of Josh Gibson, yes, I’m biased, but I tend to think the Josh Gibson MVP Card Art set is hands down the set of the year. One could quibble with whether the 70+ cards truly form a set since every card has a different design and has been produced by a different artist/studio. Additionally, I should note that a few of the cards are not being released in physical form, such as this 1988 Score-inspired, HTML/CSS-generated rainbow from Baseball-Reference savant Adam Darowski, making the full tournament set an impossibility to complete.
For cards that have been made available to collectors, distribution has generally ranged from 10-50 cards per artist, based on agreements between individual artists and the Josh Gibson Foundation. To my knowledge the card with the highest production run, 100, is card #12 from Montreal-based artist Josée Tellier. Notwithstanding print runs of zero, the lowest print runs are attached to various handcrafted 1/1 cards such as this stained glass piece from Indiana artist Joel Hofmann.
…and this original pencil drawing (!) from Manitoba-based artist Robb Scott.
The set’s most recent weekly winner, from accomplished Topps artist Josh Trout, will be another very challenging card for collectors to add. It will only be available as a 1/1 card as part of the 2021 Topps Canvas Collection.
The tournament was open to all interested artists, and some used the Tournament to make their (at least public) debut into the world of Card Art.
“Having a seat at the table of trying to incorporate Negro League history into the baseball mainstream,” is what motivated Arizona-based Roger Nusbaum to join the tournament, citing his participation in the Josh Gibson MVP campaign as “an honor and a purposeful endeavor, a chance to try to achieve something important.”
Other artists, such as SABR member Mike Bryan (aka Obi-Wan Jabroni) of Tallahassee, connected with the Josh Gibson MVP campaign on an even more personal level, cherishing the “opportunity to be involved in such a worthy movement and show my own interracial daughter that for every crazy look she gets when we’re out in public, there is someone willing to stand up and fight for what’s right.”
Mike is far from the only SABR member with a card in the set. Andrew Wooley of Millburg Trading Cards, who was also the official card artist of the late Dick Allen, put out this fantastic card week one.
SABR Chicago member John Racanelli has one of the few cards released through the first seven weeks that is not already sold out. (In case you’re wondering a $10 donation to the Josh Gibson Foundation is all it takes to add this card to your collection, while supplies last.)
That same week of the tournament also featured SABR members Adam Korengold, who paints directly onto existing baseball cards, and Donna Muscarella, who combines cut Allen & Ginter cards with her own original photography.
SABR member and water color artist Michael Lewis (aka Mighty Lark) had an entry back in week three of the tournament.
This will be a big week for the Josh Gibson MVP Card Art set as nearly 20 new cards will drop, setting the table for next week’s Tournament of Champions. Winning the tournament will undoubtedly mean a lot to whichever artist takes home the trophy, but a common theme among the artists is that they are much more teammates than rivals. The real prize, if it happens, will be seeing Josh Gibson’s name on Baseball’s MVP trophies.
“I can be quite competitive, but to be honest, its been nothing but an honor to be a part of this tournament,” says Daniel Kearsey of Sixty-First Street Cards. “I was up against some amazing artists the week I submitted my art. It was so awesome to see everyone’s work. It didn’t matter if I won or lost. What mattered is getting Josh the recognition he deserves.”
As Dom Czepiga (aka DINK), a card artist who has collaborated with Orioles star Trey Mancini puts it, “My vision was for a highly respectful simple yet regal feel befitting one of the best baseball players in the history of the sport. It had to be exceptional as it will take its place in history as part of the campaign to rename the MVP Award the Josh Gibson Memorial MVP Award.”
The card art entry from Atlanta-based pop artist Scott Hodges, produced one of the tournament’s most memorable images, one of Josh the Basher “breaking through the barriers of the past” as a Joker-like Commissioner Landis looks on.
However, the last word on the MVP campaign goes to Sean Gibson, whose hand-signed statement accompanies the back of John Racanelli’s special edition card 1/50. This, more than anything else, is the goal of the set and the tournament.
Here is the Project #JG20MVP set’s complete checklist of 75 cards, not including SP and SSP variants, along with a pic of the cards I’ve managed to collect so far. (UPDATE: You can now see all 75 cards thanks to this video!)
There are so many different ways to collect baseball cards, and no single way is the right way. On the contrary, “collect what you like!” is the advice most commonly given to new collectors who ask. I’m not here to discredit such advice, but I am here to augment it. After all, part of collecting what you like involves knowing what’s out there and what the options are.
My focus in this article is on what is known in the Hobby these days as “player collecting,” i.e., collecting cards of specific players. Our blog already includes Player Collection Spotlights on Tim Jordan, Jim Gantner, Brooks Robinson, Keith Hernandez, and Ozzie Smith, and I’m hopeful that other SABR members who collect specific players will submit additional articles.
Before jumping into the state of the modern Hobby, I’ll back up a bit to around 1981 when things were much simpler but card shows were frequent enough that I was able to collect far more than what was on the shelves of my local 7-Eleven. Favorite players at the time were Steve Garvey, Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, and George Brett, all of whom were well represented in contemporary sets but also had cards that pre-dated my own entry into the Hobby.
The way I approached collecting these players matches what I’ve found to be the understanding of others around my age who have recently re-entered the Hobby. For example, someone hoping to start a Roberto Clemente collection might initially presume a checklist of 19 Topps cards, one per year from 1955-1973. Perhaps they’d also remember that the Great One might have graced some All-Star or League Leader cards–maybe even a food issue or two. What they wouldn’t expect would be the nearly 6000 (!) cards they’d see when looking up Clemente on Trading Card Database.
Yikes!! How the Hobby has changed since 1981! And with these changes, two questions arise?
Is it even possible to collect all of my favorite player’s card?
Is there any point to collecting my favorite player’s cards?
Assuming the favorite player is a popular Hall of Famer, the answer to the first question is almost always no. Taking Clemente as an example, he had 20 different 1/1 (“one of one,” meaning only one such card was ever produced) cards from last year’s Topps Project 2020 alone. Were you lucky enough to find one, good chance its price tag would be several thousand dollars or more. Good luck picking up all twenty!
I am fortunate in that Hank Aaron “only” has 5,335 cards, but of course this number goes up (by a lot!) every single year. Do I plan to do what the old boxes and wrappers said and “COLLECT THEM ALL?” Not a chance, and I call myself a Hank Aaron collector?!
Still, as collectors there is something in our DNA that compels us to complete sets. Were we to acquire the aforementioned Roberto Clemente Topps run of 1955-1973 with the exception of a single card, we’d spend more time agonizing over the missing than enjoying the 18 in front of us. We are programmed to be “completists,” meaning there are only two ways to go when we figure out we can’t be:
Make a new plan.
I’ll focus on the second of these strategies.
Keep it Simple?
In the face of an overwhelming and seemingly infinite checklist, an approach many collectors take is to focus solely on Topps base cards from each year’s main (“flagship”) set. This is the approach Dave wrote about when he first shared his Jim Gantner collection with us. Of course most of us in the Comments completely lost our sh*t: “Only Topps?! What? Not even Fleer and Donruss????”
Really, though, this is a fantastic option for collectors. Not only is it (typically) easiest on the wallet but it also provides (for most players of the Topps era) a year-by-year record of the player’s career that collectively tells the story of the player in baseball card form. What teams did he play for? How did he look when he was young? How did he look when he was old? What position was he most known for each year?
Barring an expensive rookie card (e.g., Clemente) or demands for gem mint, the above approach is generally tenable, which is a good thing until it isn’t. For weeks, maybe months, or maybe even years, the mission was to collect the whole set, and now all of a sudden it sucks to be done! Psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar calls this the Arrival Fallacy, the belief that when we attain a certain goal we’ll be happy when in reality we feel let down and lost.
Fortunately, there are often some simple ways to extend a player collection without (yet!) sliding down the slippery slope to completism. One of the most standard ways is to stay within Topps flagship but add other cards that feature the player prominently:
Record Breaker or Highlights cards
In the case of Hank Aaron, cards like this become additions to the checklist.
Another Topps flagship card many star players–particularly from the 1950s and 1960s–might have is what Trading Card Database calls a CPC (“combination player card”). In the case of Aaron, there are several. Here are two of my favorites.
Other simple extensions to the player collection focus, still within Topps flagship, are League Leader cards and Team Cards. Personally, I don’t chase these cards for my Aaron collection, but many player collectors do.
An extreme case I’ve been asked about but not encountered personally is collecting the generic set checklists within flagship, provided the player’s name appears. Does this really look like a Hank Aaron card to you? (But if it does, go for it!)
Up to now I’ve covered most (but still not all) of the ways one might define a player collection within Topps flagship. While my example has been Hank Aaron, the picture isn’t tremendously different for other Hall of Famers of the Topps era.
Sticking with Topps
Most years, Topps issued more than just its popular flagship set. Examples that showcase the variety of such offerings are 1955 Topps Double Headers, 1965 Topps Embossed, 1975 Topps Minis, and 1985 Topps Traded. Go much later than the 1980s and be prepared to encounter an absolutely seismic increase in number.
Of the non-flagship offerings, I consider Traded/Update sets to be the most essential. This doesn’t impact my Hank Aaron collection, but it does, for example, demand that the 1984 Topps Traded Dwight Gooden card be part of my Gooden collection. My standard temptation in this realm is to want everything. However, many of the Topps releases were “test issues” with very limited production and distribution, hence very pricey.
Two such examples in my Hank Aaron collection are the 1969 Topps Super test issue and the 1974 Topps Deckle Edge test issue. I am glad I have these cards today, but I’m not glad enough to pursue other Aaron test issues such as his 1974 Topps Puzzle. My advice to collectors here is first to learn what’s out there, which is easy to do thanks to the PSA Registry or Trading Card Database, and then next to get a sense of prices. From there you can decide whether you want all, some, or none. “Some” is of course a spot most collectors hate. All I can say is it’s my current spot, and I’m learning to live with it more and more.
Another point I’ll add that may factor into which cards the player collector chooses to pursue is that many non-flagship sets are unusually sized, either much larger, smaller, or rounder than standard baseball cards. If an important goal for your player collection is to display it, size and shape can be important considerations. Of my tougher Aaron cards, I love that my 1958 Hires Root Beer, 1960 Lake to Lake Dairy, and 1969 Topps Super cards all fit my 50-card Pennzoni display case. Conversely, I hate that my 1974 Deckle Edge is much too large for it.
Defining the Era
If your player collection involves a retired player, one of the most important decisions to make is whether you’re interested in cards from any year or solely from his playing (and/or managing/coaching) career. My approach tends toward the latter, though it’s still occasionally fun for me to pick up a low priced modern card of the retired players I collect.
For example, I am thrilled to have this 1961 Topps card of Roy Campanella and this 2021 Topps card of Hank Aaron. What I’m not looking to do is chase every post-career card of these players that comes out. There are a few reasons.
On one hand, it’s the post-career cards of most retired greats that multiply their player collector checklists tenfold if not more. Second, so many of the cards are extraordinarily expensive due to their manufactured scarcity–e.g., intentional print runs of 1 or 5 or 10. Finally, when you produce dozens if not hundreds of Hank Aaron cards each year, it’s just basic math that a whole bunch will be ugly.
Collecting more than just Topps cards is a decision I’d encourage for most player collectors. However, the numbers do multiply quickly, particularly once you hit the late 1980s when it seems like everybody and their cousin were issuing baseball card sets.
Keeping my focus on the Topps era (1951-present), I’ll offer that most non-Topps cards thru about 1990 fell into these convenient categories–
Bowman (1951-55 and…shoot, if you insist…1989-1990)
*Referring here to the premium U.S. issue, not the Canadian Donruss releases of the mid-1980s
That last category is extraordinarily large and some would argue it’s where the most fun is. However, from a completeness perspective, I tend to view it as less essential than the first six categories. For example, Hank Aaron’s 1955 Bowman card was a “must have” for me, as would have been the case were there cards of him in 1960 Leaf or 1963 Fleer. Though I do have several O-Pee-Chee Aaron cards and many, many oddballs, I’m not sure I’d regard any as essential to my collection.
Again, my advice is to learn what’s out there, get a sense of prices, and choose accordingly. For the top players, the oddball category proves too large to collect everything. Of course, there are so many great cards in it that collecting nothing doesn’t feel very good either.
Order from Chaos
Though it’s where I’ve landed with my own player collections, I’ll be the first to admit there’s something icky about pursuing a largely amorphous checklist. How satisfying it would be to say “I’m collecting all of Hank Aaron’s cards” or even “I’m collecting all of Hank Aaron’s cards from his playing career” as opposed to “I’m collecting Hank Aaron’s Topps/Bowman flagship playing career base cards, most of his Topps playing career non-base cards, some of his playing career Topps non-flagship, some of his playing career oddballs, and a pretty random mix of his modern stuff.” Of course, the cost of a simpler sentence might be triple, and there is little chance the joy of collecting would be commensurate.
The important thing, again going back to collector DNA, is not so much what’s on your list but that you have a list, even if it ultimately evolves. Your list may defy any simple explanation beyond “the cards of Player X that I want.” Though it’s subjective and won’t necessarily match the list of any other collector, it’s still a list that enables you to pursue a goal, check things off, and someday “collect them all!”
It’s also where I believe we are forced in the modern Hobby, where new offerings are too plentiful to keep up with and older cards quickly leave many collectors priced out.
Overall then, my guide to player collecting is simple:
Learn what’s out there
Get a sense of prices if not sizes
Create your own checklist, in stages if you like
Modify as needed, but be thoughtful
Before wrapping up, I’ll elaborate on that final point. Once you complete your checklist, of course you’ll want to add more cards to it. Almost always, the cards you add in latter phases aren’t as “must have” as the ones from earlier phases, but they often cost just as much if not more. As I grapple with adding on to my Hank Aaron collection, I’m very conscious of the fact that what I spend for the 110th through 120th Hank Aaron cards I want could probably fund an entire Topps run of Frank Robinson or Ernie Banks!
My final advice is to look beyond the what and why of your player collection to the how. Whatever cards you collect will almost certainly be more enjoyable if they build relationships in the Hobby. Share your goals with the collecting community, post the occasional pickup, and be willing to spend a couple bucks more if it means buying from a “real person” as opposed to an anonymous eBay seller. In the end, the collection is just cardboard, but the relationships and memories can be gold.
One of baseball’s enduring little mysteries arose the day I opened a pack of Topps in 1979 and pulled out a Rick Honeycutt: “Is Rick Honeycutt the son of Korean War veteran, Capt. B.J. Hunnicutt, U.S. Army Reserve?” I mused. It was, after all, just the sort of question an 11-year-old experiencing a sugar high from an alarmingly excessive amount of Topps bubble gum would ask himself on a warm spring day. The immediate and obvious answer, thanks to the spelling of the surname, is no. However, such variation in relations is not unheard of, nor are baseball cards free from error, so I decided to delve deeper once I got some free time—which I’d hoped would arrive before the summer of ’79’s conclusion but, unfortunately, didn’t present itself until last Tuesday.
As is well known—or should be, considering the Korean War is little taught in schools, sadly contributing to its lamentable sobriquet, “the Forgotten War”—the armistice declaring a permanent ceasefire (officially known as the Korean Armistice Agreement) was signed 27 July 1953. Although many American troops remained in South Korea until 1954 due to this fragile peace, Capt. Hunnicutt, a surgeon stationed at the 4077th MASH at the time of the ceasefire, was, like many officers, rapidly returned to the United States. (Being an officer, he almost certainly traveled by aircraft. Remember: in the waning days of the conflict, Capt. Hunnicutt got as far as Guam before his erroneous orders to rotate home were rescinded and he was sent back to the 4077th—all in a time frame possible only by air travel.) This means that Hunnicutt would have arrived home in Mill Valley, California, within the first days of August—to the great delight of his wife, Peg, and his young daughter, Erin. (Even had he been shipped home by sea, Hunnicutt still would have walked in his front door before the end of August.)
Rick Honeycutt was born 29 June 1954, in Chattanooga, Tennessee—which means that he was conceived in late September 1953. Baby booms are commonplace in the first weeks and months after wartime, as overjoyed and undersexed servicemen return to their wives or sweethearts. So, Rick Honeycutt’s conception falls right when we’d expect it to occur.
But why would Rick Honeycutt be born in Chattanooga if B.J. and Peg were living just north of San Francisco? One possible reason could be that, sometime in 1954, B.J. decided to honor his parting promise to Swamp-mate, Capt. B.F. Pierce, that they’d see each other back in the States, so he and Peg set out for the East Coast—surely with a stopover in Quapaw, Oklahoma, through which the major highway of the day, Route 66, conveniently passes, to visit Peg’s parents. Yet because this predated construction of the Interstate Highway System, travel by car was significantly slower than by standards of the late 1950s, causing the pregnant Peg Hunnicutt to unanticipatedly give birth to Rick in Chattanooga, either on the way to, or returning from, their easterly destination.
But that is a scenario fraught with geographic variables, and I believe the case to be much more along the lines of B.J. Hunnicutt attending a medical convention at Chattanooga State Community College—possibly traveling there on the yellow 1932 NSU 501 TS motorcycle on which he departed the 4077th (B.J. easily could have bribed an airman to stow it on the cargo plane taking him home). While at the convention, he had a fling with a local woman—a precedent had been set between the supposedly true-blue Hunnicutt and an on-the-rebound 4077th nurse, 1LT Carrie Donovan—and this latter affair produced a son, whose mother, either out of shame or ignorance of spelling, named the boy Rick Honeycutt. If this is the case, then it’s entirely possible that B.J. never knew of the existence of Rick.
As if additional evidence were needed, the 6’1” Rick Honeycutt apparently inherited the 6’3” B.J. Hunnicutt’s height and lean frame. (His 1979 Topps card also displays an extremely high crown to his cap, indicating that Rick likewise inherited his father’s abnormally spacious forehead.)
Honeycutt attended high school in nearby Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, so, at some point, his mother up and left Rick’s birthplace, taking her son from the disapproving eyes of Chattanoogans and across the state line, where her sordid past might not be the talk of the town.
After returning to Tennessee for his collegiate years, where Rick developed into a crackerjack first baseman and pitcher, Honeycutt was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates. Pitching well in AA ball, he became the “player to be named later” in an earlier trade with the expansion Mariners, making his major league debut for Seattle in August 1977. This must have pleased Capt. Hunnicutt, a keen baseball fan who, during his time in Korea, had predicted big things from a little-known rookie named Mays, helped fabricate a radio broadcast of a Yankees-Indians game, and whooped it up to Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World.”
Rick’s years in Seattle, however, proved no better than the stalemate in Korea, as poor teams kept him on the losing end despite an ERA near league average. His frustration piqued during a start in Kansas City on September 30, 1980, as Honeycutt resorted to taping a thumbtack to the middle finger of his glove hand in an effort to covertly cut the baseball. But his ploy was spotted in the bottom of the third inning—as was the gash on his forehead after absent-mindedly wiping his face with his glove hand—resulting in immediate ejection from the game. Honeycutt quickly incurred a ten-game suspension and a $250 fine for his transgression.
Such unscrupulousness lends support to the theory that Rick was a product of an extramarital affair, because Dr. Hunnicutt would not have been around to imbue Rick with the strong moral foundation that would keep him from, ironically enough, doctoring a baseball.
Whether the thumbtack incident hastened Honeycutt’s end in Seattle is debatable, but an 11-player swap just 10½ weeks later deputized him as a Texas Ranger, where, except for a disastrous 1982, his fortune improved.
Soon after the 30th anniversary of the armistice that brought Capt. Hunnicutt back to the United States, Texas packed off Rick to the Los Angeles Dodgers, despite Honeycutt owning the lowest ERA in the league (which would hold up after the trade, giving Rick the American League crown at season’s end despite now wearing a National League uniform).
The 1980s also, presumably, meant that B.J. now could follow Rick’s sojourn through the majors thanks to the newfangled gizmo known as cable television—a predilection that might have intrigued Peg and Rick’s half-sister, Erin, to see B.J. watching, or eagerly waiting for scores about, Rangers and Dodgers games rather than the hometown Giants.
Honeycutt experienced a homecoming of sorts when Los Angeles dealt him to the Oakland A’s in August 1987. Now just across San Francisco Bay from Mill Valley, Rick could reside close to his parents, or, if the scenario involving an illicit affair were, indeed, the cause of his birth, B.J. could clandestinely attend Athletics games and spend time with his son afterward—either of which made all the sweeter by Rick’s impending appearance in three consecutive World Series (including a championship against the Giants, though I have yet to discover a press photo of a champagne-soaked Rick celebrating with B.J.—perhaps Capt. Hunnicutt found San Francisco’s loss too dispiriting to celebrate and could not bring himself to join Rick in the clubhouse).
Some of this evidence might seem inconclusive, even far-fetched. However, what, for me, cements Rick Honeycutt’s lineage to Capt. Hunnicutt is the message he left the world after his final game, when Rick pitched an inning of mop-up for St. Louis at Shea Stadium in May 1997—a message in rosin bags that conclusively demonstrated Rick to be his father’s son…
“Tony Fernandez,” opines the back of his 1988 Donruss Diamond Kings card, “is the AL’s answer to Ozzie Smith.” For a complex stew of reasons that statement played like music in the ears of Blue Jays fans. In brief, Canadians—some Canadians—this Canadian—feel the contradictory pull of a sense of superiority vis-à-vis the United States (mostly because we don’t risk insolvency if we break a leg, and we don’t tend to carry sidearms), and a crushing inferiority complex (because America is America, and we’re not). (Note that this didn’t apply to Expos fans, or at least not Francophone Expos fans, who constituted a unique presence, a “distinct society,” within Canadian culture; they weren’t really interested in Americans’ view of them one way or another.)
That lowkey but badgering sense of inferiority was the active ingredient in the fizzy feeling we’d get when Americans deigned to notice the Blue Jays. Comparing Tony Fernández to the Wizard of Oz was like saying that Toronto is bigger than Philadelphia: not immediately obvious to most people, even if evidence backs up the claim.
To love a ball team is to ingest its unique cocktail of announcers’ voices, sponsors’ jingles, silly promotions, subpar graphics, poor economic strategies, uninformed personnel moves, and bad uniforms—a boatload of decisions made by people qualified to do what they do only because they’re already doing it. Canadians reflexively assume our own provincialism, and while the Jays, beginning on a snowy afternoon in 1977, were by definition “big league,” we weren’t sure they looked the part to the outside observer. The team’s record in the early going was predictably awful. Exhibition Stadium was laughably rinky-dink, a pair of single-tiered embankments annoyingly offset from one another, bracketing the saddest expanse of artificial turf you ever saw. The park hosted both the American League and the Canadian Football League, but it was suited for neither. As for the uniforms, we loved them even while suspecting they looked goofy in a specifically Canadian way to anyone but us.
Tony Fernández’ ascension coincided with the Jays’ rise, but it was no coincidence. He was lanky and janky, hunched at the shoulders, calm of demeanor, a pair of flip-downs frequently protruding from his brow. An elite defender who was also a fantastic switch hitter, Fernández was among the first through the pipeline of talent out of San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic, “The Cradle of Shortstops.” He inherited the starting job in Toronto from fellow Dominican Alfredo Griffin when the latter was traded with Dave Collins and an envelope full of cash to Oakland for bullpen righty Bill Caudill. Fernández became a fixture at short, hoovering up balls hit into the hole and flipping them to second, or heaving them parabolically with a submarine fling to first, an altogether unnatural motion that he made look cool, easy. Imitating that throwing style as a child almost certainly played a part in the clicking twinge I still feel in my right shoulder when I play catch with my kids.
He was so reliable—161 games played in ’85, and 163 in ’86—that it was fitting, when George Bell sank to his knees after recording the out that secured Toronto’s first AL East title in October, 1985, that Fernández was the first to reach him, trotting out from his post to high five the jubilant left fielder.
Heartbreakingly, Fernández was traded after the 1990 season, shipped to the Padres along with Fred McGriff for Joe Carter and Robbie Alomar, an exchange we had no way of recognizing at the time as the medicine necessary to bring a World Series title to Canada. Fernández wandered around the National League a bit after that, but in ’93 the Jays welcomed him back via midseason trade with the Mets, and he was instrumental in the push for a second straight pennant. Fernández started at shortstop in all six games of the Fall Classic, batting .326 with a series-high 9 RBI.
Then he was gone again, into his second great period of itinerance, to Cincinnati, to the Bronx, to Cleveland, before coming back again, to those middling end-of-century Blue Jays teams for whom third place seemed the natural state of things. He found himself in Japan in 2000, then Milwaukee to begin the 2001 season. When the Brewers released him that summer, there was really only one place it made sense for him to land.
In all he left Toronto three times before he departed baseball for good, but over time it came to seem that he’d always wind up back in a Blue Jays uniform. We never wanted to be rid of him; his departures were only nods to the churning, heartless marketplace of baseball. When he died in February 2020 at just 57 years of age I said, “Oh god, Tony Fernández died.” My son asked me who Tony Fernández was. “He’s Mr. Blue Jay,” I said, as though that explained everything, or anything, but that’s how I’ve long thought of him. He was a part of so many different eras of Blue Jays baseball—the rising team of the mid-’80s, the championship team in ’93, the largely characterless squads of the late-’90s, leading into the Buck Martinez-led team of 2001—that I can’t think of anyone more deserving of the name. I could have said that he was the Jays’ leader in games played, or that he collected more hits in a Toronto uniform than any other player, but I didn’t. I just said “He’s Mr. Blue Jay.”
In those early years—of his career, but also of the franchise’s very existence—Tony Fernández bestowed on our quaint little team something invaluable, something that an ageing Rico Carty or a past-his-prime John Mayberry couldn’t give them, something a pre-NBA Danny Ainge couldn’t will into being: he gave them legitimacy. And as they were our team, that said something about us, too.
The Jays’ standing rose on through him and that ’85 crown (we don’t talk about the ALCS loss to KC), to Bell’s 1987 MVP award, and upward until the grand affirmation of two World Series trophies. But the statement on the back of Fernández’ 1988 Diamond Kings card announced something to the rest of the baseball world, and confirmed for us, that he—and so Toronto, and so all of Canada—was a part of the game, the real game, the big show, the Majors. It was a badge of glossy cardstock, a certificate of authenticity.
And lest you think the comparison with Ozzie Smith unfounded, I’ll just point out their identical career fielding percentages (.978), and Fernández’ superior offensive numbers (a .746 OPS to Smith’s .666, more doubles, triples, and homers, and a higher lifetime average). Tony didn’t do backflips, but you couldn’t watch him long without concluding that he was a wizard, too.
When I collected cards as a kid I loved them all, every single last one of them, but my real favorites were Blue Jays: Bell, Barfield, Moseby. Ernie Whitt and Dave Stieb. Willie Upshaw, who gave way to Fred McGriff at first. Fernández. On the faces of the Topps, O-Pee-Chee, Score, Donruss, and Upper Deck cards in my binders and boxes the entire baseball universe was flattened to two dimensions, arrayed like a map of the Milky Way, so that the whole true cosmography was evident. I spread them out on the floor and marveled at the sight: stars among stars, vast and awesome, their brilliance undimmed by familiarity.
Baseball formally required all batters to wear helmets in 1970. Red Sox catcher Bob Montgomery was the last player to bat in a Major League contest without a helmet in 1979. Then in 1983, it became mandatory for all professional players to use a helmet with at least one earflap, although anyone with Major League service time in 1982 or earlier could opt for a flapless helmet like Ozzie Smith, Dave Winfield, Tim Raines, and several others. Raines would be the last player to use a flapless helmet.
On April 7, 1979 Orioles outfielder Gary Roenicke was hit in the face by a pitch, causing a laceration that required 25 stitches to close. Roenicke returned to the lineup on April 15 at Milwaukee and went 3-3 using a helmet with a modified football facemask attached. Expos outfielder Ellis Valentine had his cheekbone fractured when he was hit by a pitch on May 30, 1980 at St. Louis. Valentine also returned to the lineup donning a similarly designed batting helmet equipped with a sawn-off football facemask. Folks who opened packs of Topps baseball cards in 1981 could find a pair of cards depicting each of these unique batting helmets.
Although no such picture appeared on any cards issued during his playing career, it is generally accepted that the first player to experiment with protective face gear was Dave Parker. Parker sustained facial fractures in a collision at home plate with Mets catcher John Stearns on June 30, 1978. Upon his return to the lineup July 16, Parker experimented with a (downright terrifying) hockey goalie mask and other football facemask designs. Despite his injury, Parker would win the batting title (.334) and be named National League MVP in 1978.
Most recently, Giancarlo Stanton made news when he returned to the Marlins in 2015 using a helmet fitted with a custom facemask that cleverly incorporated a “G” into the protective design. Stanton had been hit in the face by the Brewers’ Mike Fiers on September 11, 2014 resulting in fractures that ended his season. No longer newsworthy, facial protection is now commonplace with an ever-increasing number of MLB players opting for jaw guards incorporated into their batting helmets.
On April 4, 1998 Twins outfielder Otis Nixon coaxed a first-inning walk but was soon forced out at second. During the play at the bag, Royals shortstop Félix Martínez kicked Nixon in the face. Nixon stayed in the game but later learned that he had sustained a fractured jaw. When Nixon returned to the lineup on April 9, he utilized a batting helmet fitted with a full football facemask to protect his jaw and with hopes he would not need to undergo a surgical repair. This unfortunate injury, however, offered Nixon the opportunity to don the widest variety of protective headgear ever depicted on baseball cards by a single player.
Otis Nixon was not eligible to use a flapless helmet because he first appeared in the Major Leagues in 1983; however, here he is while with Cleveland:
Nixon also used a single-flap helmet with the Expos:
As a switch-hitter, Nixon subsequently joined the double-flap helmet trend:
And with his appearance for Minnesota following the broken jaw incident, here is Nixon donning the helmet with protective face gear:
Unlike facial bones, Nixon’s sartorial record appears unbreakable.
Bill Nowlin, “Bob Montgomery,” SABR Bio Project
Paul Lukas, “Giancarlo Stanton’s Mask Not a First,” http://www.ESPN.com, March 4, 2015, accessed April 5, 2021.
“Interference Rule Amended,” Cincinnati Enquirer, December 2, 1970.
“Parker returns to lineup and Pirates win pair,” The Morning Call (Allentown, Pennsylvania), July 17, 1978.
“Quick Kick,” Kansas City Star, April 5, 1998.
Mike Klingaman, “Catching Up With … former Oriole Gary Roenicke,” Baltimore Sun, July 7, 2009.