What’s my Mickey Mantle worth?

Freshly back from SABR50 in Baltimore a number of questions from attendees are fresh in my mind. Perhaps the question most frequently asked pertained to assessing the value of a collection. Sometimes I’d ask for a description of the collection in question, and a typical reply might be “several boxes of cards from the 50s and 60s including Mickey Mantle.”

I’ll use this article to acquaint readers, particularly those who aren’t active buyers and sellers, with the main variables at play in putting a price tag on, say, a 1950s Mickey Mantle.

Which Mantle?

Without a doubt, not all Mantles were created equal. Head and shoulders above all others, at least as far as his standard Topps and Bowman issues are concerned, is the 1952 Topps card.

Mantle’s 1951 Bowman card, which doubles as the Mick’s rookie card, also carries a substantial premium, though perhaps counterintuitively a much smaller one than the aforementioned Topps card.

In general, not as a hard and fast rule but as a trend, older cards are worth more, and rookie cards in particular are worth the most. Though we have already seen an exception, it’s true much more often than it’s not. The graph below illustrates this for a hypothetical star player whose first card was in 1960. Note the significant drop-off from 1960 to 1961 and the overall decreasing trend across the decade. You might also recognize a significant drop-off between 1961 and 1962. This too is a thing as second year cards tend to carry a premium, though not nearly as much as first year (or “rookie”) cards.

Now, here is an actual graph for Mickey Mantle’s 1950s baseball cards. As we will soon see, the condition of the card plays an outsized role in valuation, so at the moment we will pretend all cards in the graph are of equal condition. (For those keeping score at home I’ll assume PSA 5, but don’t worry if you don’t know what that is.)

One thing you’ll note right away are the two sets of bars used, one blue and one orange. These correspond to the two major producers of baseball cards in the 1950s, Bowman and Topps. Bowman produced cards of Mickey Mantle annually from his first card in 1951 through the company’s demise following the 1955 season. Topps, meanwhile, issued Mantle cards in 1952 and 1953 but was forced into a two-year hiatus by rival Bowman who had Mick locked into an exclusive deal for the 1954 and 1955 seasons.

If you glance at the graph, one color at a time, you see that each color follows the general trend of the hypothetical graph presented earlier. Whether blue or orange, a downward pattern is unmistakable, and significant premiums are attached to the first of the bars.

So what was the purpose of all this? Mainly, I wanted to reinforce the idea that the value of a Mantle depends a lot on which Mantle. This weekend a 1952 Topps Mantle may make headlines by selling in the neighborhood of $10 million. This will no doubt cause some to wonder if the box of cards in their attic might produce its own seven-digit payday. Of course, as the graph shows, most Mantle cards (all but one, really!) are worth nowhere near that.

Before heading into our promised discussion of condition, I’ll share three more bits of information on the which Mantle front.

  • Particularly for cards produced before 1974, you will sometimes see exceptions to the monotonicity of the Value vs Year graph due to a “high numbers” effect. In many older sets, the cards at the end of the set were sold in smaller quantities, hence have greater scarcity. A famous example is the 1967 Topps Brooks Robinson, which is worth far more than any of his other 1960s Topps standard issues. (And yes, in case you’re wondering, Mickey Mantle had a “high number” card in the 1952 Topps set.)
  • Some players, especially stars, can have more than one card in a set. For example, Mickey Mantle has all three of these cards in the 1958 Topps set (and some might add the Yankees team card as well). Nearly always, the base (regular) card is worth more than the extras, in this case a World Series card with Hank Aaron and an All-Star card.
  • I’ve limited discussion thus far to cards from the major producers. However, the baseball card ecosystem is typically far larger than that. In 1954 alone, Mickey Mantle also had a dog food card, a potato chips card, a wiener card, as well as a couple others. It’s difficult to attach a general rule to the pricing on such cards. On one hand, they are generally less sought after by most collectors. On the other hand, some can be quite scarce. Thus there is some tug on their value in both directions, reduced demand pulling prices downward and reduced supply pulling prices upward.

In What Condition?

Even when I was a young collector in the late 1970s I knew cards with sharp corners and no creases were more valuable than ones you could practically roll along a table. This didn’t stop me from keeping my favorite cards in my pants pockets, but then again was I ever planning to sell them?

At any rate, the same is true today, but the premium on “high grade” vintage cardboard has only increased, in my eyes past the point of absurdity. Nowadays, much of the dealings in the Hobby’s upper stratosphere transpires with cards that have been commercially (the implication being professionally and objectively) graded by companies like PSA, SGC, and Beckett. While these companies certainly have their share of misses, the logic is that a well trained third party grader is more trustworthy than the card’s owner, who naturally stands to profit (at least in the short term) by over-stating a card’s condition.

Most grading is done on a numerical scale from 1-10, but the scale is decidedly non-linear. For example, here is a graph showing the value of the 1959 Topps Mickey Mantle card across its range of conditions. (Source: PSA, August 24, 2022.)

There have been no recent sales of the card with a grade of 10 and in fact only one such card has ever been graded by PSA. As such, there is no bar on the graph at 10, but you might have some fun guessing what such a card might go for based on the graph as shown. Half a million?!

Before proceeding I’ll show the same graph for grades 1-8 only, since the current graph’s very tall bar at 9 tends to dwarf all else.

The reason I’ve shared these graphs is to show just how much grade impacts value. For this particular card, a card graded 9 is worth more than 500 times as much as a card graded 1. Let’s unpack this a bit more.

Perhaps a friend lets you know that he just sold one of his 1950s Mickey Mantles for $1000, and—lo and behold—you have that very same card. Your copy might be worth $100 or it might be worth $10,000, maybe even a lot more than that! The point is, condition doesn’t just attach a premium; right or wrong, it creates a 500x (or more) differential in value, even when we’re talking about the exact same card!

I just illustrated the non-linearity of condition with respect to value. Separate from any discussion of market value, I’ll add my opinion that condition is also non-linear with respect to appearance. This may sound contradictory at first since you may view condition and appearance as synonyms, i.e., how the card presents. Either way, let’s take a look.

Here is the 1959 Topps Mickey Mantle card in grades 9, 8, and 7 respectively. At first glance, you would not be wrong to imagine the three cards identical. If anything, you might even dock the “9” for what looks like a very small stain below the O in OUTFIELD as well as some faint discoloration above the mickey mantle name.

At any rate, if we presume no error or subjectivity in the grading, we can only assume that there are important distinctions not necessarily evident to the naked eye (or, in fairness, on the backs of the cards). Perhaps the “8” has some microscopic corner ding, for example. Still, the larger point is that a 7, 8, and 9 all look almost exactly the same. (Notably, the card on the left sold for more than 30 times the card on the right!)

While I’ve illustrated my point using three cards, to my own eye the top six slots on the grading scale, i.e., grades of 5-10, all look about the same. Don’t get me wrong. If you look hard enough, I bet you can figure out which of these Mantle cards is a “10” and which is a “5” but I’ll still paraphrase Maya Angelou and say they “are more alike, my friends, than they are unalike.”

Back to value for a second, one of the two cards pictured sold recently for $1600. The other, were it to hit the market today, would likely fetch upwards of $500,000. 🤷🏻‍♂️

Sometimes someone sends me a picture of a card they took with their phone and asks what I think it’s worth. I hope the two Mantle cards illustrate the difficulty of providing such an assessment, particularly when cards are in really nice shape, hence differences in grades reflect only tiny distinctions but gigantic pricing differences.

For completeness, I’ll illustrate the lower end of the scale, where distinctions are much more notable, though still not always evident.

Though I’ve used graded cards to illustrate the hypersensitivity of price to condition, there are again some notes to offer.

  • Some cards receive half-grades (e.g., 3.5). Pricing for half grades is about what you’d expect.
  • Many sellers, even when a third-party grade has been assigned, will hope to realize a nicer sale by claiming their card is “under-graded” or “the nicest 3 you’ll ever see.” I can definitely say that grades being equal, some cards look better than others. Ultimately though, the buyer should be the judge of this rather than simply take the seller’s claim at face value.
  • Some cards receive non-numerical grades, the most common being “Authentic,” which usually is not as good as it sounds, and the most dreaded being “Counterfeit!”

Last but not least, most cards bought and sold are not graded. (Sometimes the term “raw” is used.) Here there is a greater risk associated with fakes, but the good news is that most of the folks out there buying vintage collections are able to tell real from bogus. As such, if you’re thinking about selling your childhood collection of 1950s cardboard, you need not panic that the only way to get anything for it is to spend tens of thousands of dollars having it graded first.

That said, if you are selling online to someone who can’t handle the cards directly, you may well experience a lower sales price based on buyer uncertainty over authenticity. A return policy and clear images mitigate this, but many online buyers will still attach risk to your cards and lower their offers accordingly.

Conclusion

Though it seems ridiculous, the value of a 1950s Mickey Mantle can be anywhere from about $10 to $10 million. Two factors that make a very, very big difference are which card you have an what condition it’s in. These certainly aren’t the only factors, but they more than suffice to make the point, which is that it is exceedingly difficult to assess the value of a vintage card or collection without spending some real time with it.

So what’s the value of that box of 1950s and 60s baseball cards from your childhood, the one you’re positive has a Mantle or two? There’s only one real answer, and it’s an incredibly unsatisfying one: it depends…and almost comically so!

Player collection spotlight – Dave Hoskins

I featured Dave Hoskins on SABR Baseball Cards a few years ago as the first player in my Uncommon Common series. Since then my collection has grown from a handful of readily available cards (1954 Topps, 1955 Topps, 1955 Topps Double Header) to a state player collectors only rarely proclaim: done?!

In this post I’ll highlight the five most unique pieces in the collection, along with some tips and tricks that might help other player collectors track down tough pieces.

1955 ALL AMERICAN SPORTS CLUB

This “card” is part of a set of 500 subjects across multiple sports, hand-cut from 9″ x 12″ sheets of glossy paper stock. As Hoskins cards go, it has a lot going against it: a low quality image, its small size (similar to a postage stamp), a blank back, and the obscurity of the issue. Still, there are so few playing era cards of Hoskins that I still treat the card as an essential.

I was able to add this card to my collection thanks to a rather broad eBay search I’d set up that was essentially “DAVE HOSKINS -TOPPS.” My goal in this search was to turn up any and all Dave Hoskins collectibles not produced by Topps. (Nothing against Topps here; it’s just that I already had all three of their playing era issues and didn’t want to clutter up my search results with more of the same.)

Lessons for player collectors: Trading Card Database is a great resource for identifying cards you might not know about. If searching on eBay for less common items, use the minus operator to de-clutter search results.

2017 MAGALLANES BASEBALL CLUB CENTENNIAL ISSUE

The same search (“DAVE HOSKINS -TOPPS”) added another card to my collection just last week. It was not only a card I never knew existed but even portrayed Hoskins with a team (and country!) I never knew was part of his résumé.

The card (or sticker, to be precise) was one of 200+ issued by the Magallanes Baseball Club (Venezuela) as part of its 100th anniversary. Other notables in the set include Dave Parker, Barry Bonds, Willie Horton, and local legend Nestor Chavez.

While I am not a “completist” when it comes to post-career issues, I make an exception when there are no playing era cards of a player on a certain team. That, and the fact that I might never see this one again, made the card a must have, even with the price tag being a good ten times what I would have expected.

Side note: This card led me to a very cool site for Venezuelan Winter League stats from which I learned Hoskins played for Magallanes in the 1951-52 season and also the Pampero team during the 1959-60 campaign.

Lesson for player collectors: In this case the card came from a US seller. However, it’s worth knowing that eBay assigns a default location to your searches that may cause you to miss items being sold from other countries. Edit the Item Location option to Worldwide to ensure the most comprehensive search.

1950s NOKONA DAVE HOSKINS MODEL GLOVE

Again that same “HOSKINS -TOPPS” search gets the credit for this rather unexpected find, a Dave Hoskins signature model glove.

Until this item arrived, I suspected it might even be game used, simply because I didn’t imagine Hoskins was a popular enough player to support store models. Once I had it in hand (and on hand!) I decided it was too small to have been sported by the player himself and was in fact a store model sized for kids.

A second surprise came my way after having the item refurbished by Jimmy Lonetti, whose nice work I’d seen several times on Twitter. Unreadable beforehand, the glove bore a name and date stamped into the leather. Some searching turned up a person of that name, unfortunately deceased, whose birthday around age 10 corresponded to the date on the glove. What’s more the person seemed to have grown up around Cleveland when Hoskins was a pitcher for the Indians. His family now has the glove, which makes me very happy.

Lesson for player collectors: If you are open to balls, gloves, bats, and other items appearing in your search results, be sure you haven’t “over-filtered” to where only Trading Cards are shown.

1952 DALLAS EAGLES SIGNED BASEBALL

If there is one item in my entire collection–Dave Hoskins or otherwise–that might belong in a museum, it’s this one: an official Texas League baseball signed by nearly the entire 1952 Dallas Eagles team.

I never would have found this ball using my “HOSKINS -TOPPS” search since the seller didn’t feature Hoskins at all in the listing. Fortunately, I had also set up a 1952 Dallas Eagles search, which generally turns up football items (e.g., Philadelphia Eagles vs Dallas Texans ticket stubs) but at least this one time turned up gold.

Lesson for player collectors: Particularly if the player you collect isn’t a big name, recognize that their name may not appear in item listings/descriptions, which of course eliminates those items from your search results.

1952 GLOBE PRINTING DALLAS EAGLES CARD

The term Holy Grail is probably overused in card collecting, but in the small universe of Dave Hoskins collecting I do believe it’s apt for this particular card.

This article from April 13, 1952, coincidentally the day of Hoskins’ first start, provides some information on the set and seems to indicate that the Hoskins card would have been given out only one night of the year.

A complete checklist for the set remains unknown, though there are currently at least 22 known players.

In the three years I’ve been collecting Dave Hoskins, this is a card I’d never once seen available and was only aware of due to its entry on Trading Card Database where it is one of only five cards from the set with an image uploaded. How the heck did I end up with one then?

A nice feature of Trading Card Database is that each card image includes metadata on who uploaded the scan. Another nice feature is that members can message each other. Well, figuring my chances of success were somewhere south of 1%, I contacted the member who had uploaded the image. As it turned out, he was very open to a deal! He even supplied a bit of provenance:

I got it years ago in a box of old items from a relative here in Dallas back in the 80’s.

Lesson for player collectors: Take advantage of Trading Card Database as, among other things, a buy/sell/trade platform. Though I got the card I wanted by contacting the user who uploaded its image, you are also able to bring up a list of ALL users who have cards from a set in their TCDB collection. For instance, here is the complete list of members with 1952 Globe Dallas Eagles cards, including a collector with an impressive 21 of the cards.

WHAT NOW?

I mentioned at the top of this article that my collection is now complete. However, if there’s a lesson from that Magallanes sticker, it’s that I can never rule out the discovery of something new. As such, I definitely won’t be deleting my “saved searches” on eBay just yet.

There are still a handful of items that I consider more bonus than essential. Topping this list is the August 1952 issue of Negro Achievements magazine, which features a familiar photo of Hoskins on the cover.

There have been four eBay sales of this item since 2011, most recently in March 2019. As is often the case for unusual pieces without a lot of comps, prices have varied widely, though condition was certainly also a factor:

  • May 2011: $127.50
  • July 2013: $14.37
  • June 2014: $29.95
  • March 2019: $48.47

Another “nice to have” is the Dave Hoskins photo from the 1954 Cleveland Indians team issued photo pack.

The final two items on the “maybe someday” list are ticket stubs or game programs from the two Dave Hoskins Nights held in 1952, one in Fort Worth and one in Dallas. The first of these also corresponds to Hoskins’ 20th win of the season and (hopefully) and upcoming SABR Games story.

Lesson for player collectors: Though I don’t have the photo pack card or the ticket stubs I’ve definitely noticed numerous listings, if not the majority, that use non-specific titles like “1950s Cleveland Indians photo pack” or “1950’s Dallas Eagles ticket stubs.” This makes particular sense for the photo packs cards since they are undated and repeat many players/photos across multiple years. Therefore, adding a search for “(1950s, 1950’s) INDIANS PHOTO PACK” may be useful. I’ll also note that sellers with partial sets typically list only the top stars like Feller and Doby, hence fly under the radar of a Dave Hoskins-specific search.

While the Dave Hoskins shelf is now full and includes all the essentials, I’ll keep looking for more cool stuff. If you have any leads, definitely let me know, and whatever you do, don’t outbid me!

“¡Yo la tengo!” – Fact Check

Topps 1960 Card #543

Elio Chacón

If you are not familiar with former major leaguer Elio Chacón welcome to the club. I was not aware that Elio played a total of 228 games in the majors from 1960 to 1962 with the Reds and Mets until very recently.

Topps only issued two mainstream cards of Elio. Card number #543 in 1960 when he was a rookie with the Reds and card number #256 in 1962 when he was with the Mets. The 1962 card is an airbrushed, no cap, Reds photo that features Hall of Famer Frank Robinson in the background. If you do a search on eBay you will also find a 1967 “Venezuelan Topps” card, a Venezuela Sport Gráfico Ovenca card produced in 1970, and a Venezuelan Show card with the same photo Topps used in 1962.

Topps 1962 Card #256

Born in Caracas, Venezuela, Elio is remembered in Cincinnati for hitting a single off Ralph Terry in Game 2 of the 1961 World Series and then scoring the winning run in the Reds only victory in the Series. In New York, fans remember Elio for getting into a base-brawl with Willie Mays and the “Yo la tengo” incident.

Here is recap of the “Yo la tengo” incident from Elio’s Wikipedia bio. You will also find similar descriptions of the incident in these two books – Richie Ashburn Remembered by Fran Zimniuch – and Richie Ashburn…Why the Hall Not? by Bruce E. Mowday and Jim Donahue.

During the 1962 season, New York Mets center fielder Richie Ashburn and Chacón frequently found themselves colliding in the outfield. When Ashburn went for a catch, he would scream, “I got it! I got it!” only to run into the 160-pound Chacón, who spoke only Spanish. Ashburn learned to yell, “¡La tengo! ¡La tengo!” which is “I’ve got it” in Spanish. In a later game, Ashburn happily saw Chacón backing off. He relaxed, positioned himself to catch the ball, and was instead run over by 200-pound left fielder Frank Thomas, who understood no Spanish and had missed a team meeting that proposed using the words “¡La tengo!” as a way to avoid outfield collisions. After getting up, Thomas asked Ashburn, “What the hell is a Yellow Tango?”. The band, Yo La Tengo, gets its name from this baseball anecdote.

Topps 1963 Richie Ashburn #135 and Topps 1964 Frank Thomas #345

The above story fits in seamlessly with the other hilarious stories from the first year Mets who were managed by Casey Stengel and finished the 1962 season with only 40 wins – but did it actually happen?

Pittsburgh Road Trip

In early July, I went on a road trip from my home near Boston to Pittsburgh. I had planned out a baseball heavy vacation with my two travelling partners – my daughter and her boyfriend. We toured the Clemente Museum, took in a game at PNC Park, snapped pictures in front of the remaining sections of the Forbes Field wall, and pretended we were Smokey Burgess at the site that marks where home plate was at Forbes Field.

Meeting with Frank Thomas

The highlight of my baseball vacation was an in-person meeting with Frank Thomas “The Original One” at his home in Pittsburgh on July 4th. Frank and I have been trading letters back and forth since 2019. We also have had a couple of phone conversations. I told Frank shortly after his 93rd birthday that I was coming to Pittsburgh and would like to see him. He was fine with an in-person meeting. I was expecting the visit to be no more than 20 minutes. My daughter and I had a wonderful time speaking with Frank about his playing days and our families for 90 minutes. He let me record the conversation so I could some of the baseball stories.

My first question was – “Tell me about the Yo la tengo story?”

Frank’s answer – “It never happened. Richie made it up. I couldn’t catch them. Richie played centerfield. I played left field. Chacon played shortstop. I never even came close to them. When he was an announcer in Philadelphia, he made up stories that’s all. Like all great announcers do. All fictitious.”

During our visit Frank mentioned that the Mets called him up and wanted his measurements for a uniform for the Old Timers game on August 27th. “The Original One” is going to be at Citi Field on the 60th anniversary of the 1962 original Mets. I told him I would be there. I already have my tickets.

Modern Love

My time with SABR Baseball Cards has seen me evolve (or devolve if you like) from someone with zero interest in modern cards to someone who just completed the 2022 Topps Series One set from packs and trades, has more than 700 different Dwight Gooden cards, and now occupies 72nd 64th place among Clayton Kershaw collectors in Trading Card Database. (View my collection.)

The first question I’ll address is how I got here, or, if you like, who to blame. As with much in life, I’d say there was no single cause but rather a succession of nudges that brought me into my present circumstance.

  • A few years back, my friend and Hobby legend Anson Whaley, the collector behind the fantastic Pre-War Cards website and Twitter account, uncharacteristically announced his own plunge into Gooden super-collecting, and I found myself unexpectedly envious. Had he done similar with Jose Canseco, Bo Jackson, or just about any other junk wax superstar, I wouldn’t have blinked an eye, but Dr. K was a different story. His cards and box scores were absolute obsessions of mine in 1985, and the nostalgia was too much to resist. Once Anson agreed to sell off his 500+ doubles, I was off to the races.
  • Shortly after, I found myself at a card shop in Portland with SABR president Mark Armour. While my prize purchase was a 1971 Topps Dick Allen card, we each spent the $6 or so on a single pack of the year’s current Topps cards. While the cards inside were rather pedestrian, the experience of opening a pack brought back all kinds of fun memories.
  • Around that time some of my SABR Chicago buddies and I started holding Junk Wax nights, which reinforced the pleasure of packs with friends, whether or not anything pulled would ever represent a significant addition to my collection in any way other than volume.
  • During the 2020 postseason, I somehow became possessed by the notion that I needed to buy Clayton Kershaw and Mookie Betts rookie cards in order for the Dodgers to win the title. (Judge me if you like, but it worked!) This same year I had also enjoyed many of the cards and artists of Topps Project 2020 and subsequently (if you count it) bought the Topps Now card of Mike Pence with the fly on his forehead.

Perhaps most importantly of all, the vintage cards I’d been after for so many years had seemingly tripled in price during this stretch, limiting my options as a collector to buying modern or buying nothing at all. With rookie card in hand then, why not collect my favorite player’s entire career? Well, actually there were…11,682 reasons?!

Yes, this is Clayton’s 15th year in the league, but 11,000-plus cards to collect? That’s insane! On the other hand, the notion of a virtually unattainable set is only limiting when regarded as something to complete. Another way to look at it is that there are literally thousands of different cards of Clayton Kershaw to choose from, and the good news is that most are extremely affordable.

In a recent lot I purchased, the average price per Kersh was a mere 31 cents.

Still, my collector DNA doesn’t allow me to stockpile cheap Clayton Kershaw cards with no plan or checklist to the hunt. Therefore, I’ve begun to develop some goals around the collection.

Clayton’s flagship Topps card each year

This is probably the minimum any modern player collector goes after. I still have some I need (2012, 2013, 2014, 2016), but none will be pricey or difficult to find.

At least one “pre-rookie” card for each team Clayton was on

As many of us enjoy the notion of our player collections telling the story of a career, why not have cards of Clayton pitching for the Junior National Team, the Scots (Highland Park High School), and the Great Lakes Loons (Midwest League)?

Cards that look super cool (but are still cheap)

Here are five of my favorite Clayton Kershaw cards. Total spent was about $3, with three of the cards coming my way for free thru the NGT Collectibles Sunday Giveaway thread or my SABR Chicago collecting cadre.

Do I think this sort of thing is for everybody? Not necessarily. All I can say is that for me the burgeoning Kershaw collection has been a rewarding and inexpensive way to remain an active collector, find cards I want/need at card shows, and even occasionally pull something from a pack that goes into my binder. Plus, I really do like his cards, and that has to count for something!

Just promise me, readers, you’ll stage an intervention the day I start adding cards of cartoon Clayton playing hallway hockey with Matthew Stafford to my once proud collection of Aaron, Campy, Jackie, and the like.

42 in ’47: The Baseball Cards of Jackie Robinson’s Dodger Debut

Author’s Note: This article is part of a larger SABR Century Committee effort commemorating the 75th Anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s historic 1947 season. Head here for the full series.

When Jackie Robinson trotted out to first base on April 15, 1947, his steps were no less historic than those of Neil Armstrong just over two decades later. Baseball’s senseless and shameful Color Barrier had at last been breached and with it the customs and traditions of Jim Crow America itself were on notice. This is not to say equality had come to Baseball. Far from it as even the Dodgers merely tiptoed into integration while several other teams waited a decade or more to add their first Black player. As for managers, eleven more men after Armstrong would leave footprints on the Moon before a single Black man would take the reins of a Major League team.

Even today, as Jackie’s legacy is rightfully celebrated, it’s fair to wonder whether a modern Jackie Robinson would even choose Baseball, just as it’s fair to wonder whether any teams would notice him and sign him if he did. Were he living in the Dominican Republic, absolutely, but in his birthplace of Cairo, Georgia, or his childhood hometown of Pasadena, California, who’s to say? While a modern Jackie could win games for a general manager of any color, there are none in front offices today who look like him.

The same could be said for domestic baseball card issues prior to 1947, only one of which featured a Black player. While it would be easy to discount the utter lack of Black faces as merely reflective of the times, such an explanation fails to account for the many Black boxers who made their way onto trading cards, going back to at least 1909. Ultimately, the whiteness of baseball cards was due solely to the whiteness of what was then perceived (and enforced) as Organized Baseball. Jack Johnson, Joe Jeannette, and Joe Gans were professional boxers. The Philadelphia Stars, Newark Eagles and Homestead Grays meanwhile? These were semi-pro.

Thus the 1947 season brought with it not only the integration of Baseball but (several rungs down the ladder of importance) the opportunity to integrate baseball cards as well. All that was missing were the baseball cards themselves!

While today we take it for granted that a new baseball card set (if not dozens of different ones) will come out every year, such was not the case in the 1940s. Following the three-year run of Gum, Inc., and its Play Ball sets from 1939-41, the War and other national priorities left American baseball without a major set to chronicle its players until 1948, when Gum, Inc., baseball cards returned to shelves, this time under the Bowman name.

In the meantime, where baseball cards were produced at all, they most often took the form of smaller regional issues, often connected to food or other household products, cards that today many collectors classify under the umbrella of “oddball.” As such, this review of Jackie Robinson baseball cards from 1947 will feature bread, slacks, and even cigarettes but not a single stick of gum.

1947 BOND BREAD

Bond Bread will feature in this article twice. This first instance is to highlight a 48-card release comprised of four boxers and 44 baseball stars. The selection of baseball stars included Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, and Stan Musial but most notably a baseball card of Brooklyn Dodgers rookie Jackie Robinson.

Cards were packaged in loaves of Bond Bread, and at least one theory for their rounded corners is that the cards were less susceptible to damage that way. Importantly for collectors today, the rounded corners help distinguish these cards from near-identical versions that emerged as a standalone product sold as “Sport Star Subjects” in 1949. The square cornered versions are far less collectible, though widespread misidentification, including by a prominent grading company, has created sufficient confusion to elevate prices among uninformed buyers.

While both the Bond Bread and Sport Star Subjects cards have blank backs, a third version of the Robinson card features a back that’s anything but blank.

“1947” ELGEE PRODUCTS

Precise dating for this issue is unknown and may well be after 1947. A mix of baseball and movie star photos, the baseball images match those of the Bond Bread issue but are easily distinguished in at least two ways. One, they are perforated. Two, their backs include other cards from the set or, in some cases, advertising. The Robinson card, for example, features actor James Cagney on the reverse.

As with the Sport Star Subjects, these cards are also frequently misidentified as Bond Bread cards, even by third party grading companies and auction houses. Post 391 in this Net54 Baseball Forum thread shows the front and back of an uncut sheet, including the ELGEE branding. Post 386 in the same thread provides additional background on the company.

1947-50 BOND BREAD JACKIE ROBINSON

In addition to the 48-card set above, Bond Bread also released a second set of 13 cards dedicated entirely to Jackie Robinson. The set is catalogued as a 1947 issue. However, independent research by collectors Mike Knapp, Shaun Fyffe, and Michael Fried, which I’ll attempt to summarize here, has produced a broader timetable for the cards while also providing information on distribution.

The set began 1947 with a single card featuring a signed portrait of Jackie, a brief bio, and a product testimonial. This card was not distributed in packaged loaves but rather was given out by store owners (with free slices of bread!) to promote Bond Bread among African American consumers. (Post 49 in this Net54 Baseball Forum thread includes an article from the New York Amsterdam News detailing the marketing strategy.)

From there, it’s unclear whether any of the set’s remaining twelve cards dates to 1947. The aforementioned collector-researchers speculate subsequent releases of three or six cards at a time taking place sometime between 1947 and 1950, though I lean more toward the cards being issued one at a time. Either way, a clue that helps group the cards is the advertising on the back.

These six cards, assumed to be the earlier of the twelve, exhort consumers to eat the same bread as Jackie. Fielding poses show a first baseman’s mitt, which Jackie would have used primarily in 1947.

Before proceeding to the second group of six, I want to highlight two photos in particular, one of which may be very familiar to non-collectors. Though the background has been removed and Jackie has even changed teams, the card of Jackie waving with his glove draws its image from this iconic photograph.

A second card among the six does some early “photoshopping” of a Montreal photo as well.

Much later in this article we will see yet another occasion where a Montreal photo is doctored for use on a Brooklyn card. For now, we will return to the other six cards in the set. Note here that all fielding poses show a standard infielder’s glove.

The “smoking gun” that places these cards (or at least one of them) after 1947 comes from the image on the last card, believed to source to a photograph taken just after this one. (Note Jackie’s cap has fallen a bit farther on the card and his body has separated more from his trailing arm.) If so, the card could not have been issued any earlier than July 2, 1949, the date the photograph was taken.

With the set no longer confined entirely to 1947, we arrive at several possibilities for its overall release schedule. Barring further information, I’d be inclined to settle on the first group of six cards coming out across the six months of the 1948 baseball season and the second group of six following suit in 1949.

“1948” OLD GOLD CIGARETTES

The situation with Jackie’s Old Gold cards is precisely the opposite as here collectors regard what may be two cards from 1947 as if they came out the following year.

As Anson Whaley notes in his article for Sports Collectors Daily, two clues on the card backs suggest a 1947 release.

  • Robinson is listed as 28 year old, which was only his age through January 30, 1948
  • His 1947 Rookie of the Year Award (announced September 19, 1947) is not listed among his career highlights

Certainly each of these clues could merely point to bios written ahead of time, hence do not point definitively to a 1947 release of the actual cards. Still, absent any information affirming a 1948 release, the clues are at least intriguing.

1947″ PLEETWOOD SLACKS

Continuing the theme of uncertain dates is this rare 5″ x 8″ promotional issue from Pleetwood Slacks. While catalogued as a 1947 issue, I am unable to find any source that provides independent corroboration. Notably, the Standard Catalog of Vintage Baseball Cards indicates that “the [1947] date of issue cited is conjectural.”

When I do find “hits” on Pleetwood Slacks, never mind Jackie, they only come in the Black press of late 1948, specifically October through December. Here is a typical example.

Alabama Citizen, December 18, 1948

Perhaps information is out there somewhere establishing the Pleetwood Slacks card as a 1947 issue. In the meantime I’d just as soon date it to late 1948 where timing it’s would better match the print advertising campaign for the brand.

1947 CHAMP HATS

Collector and Hobby historian Bob Lemke (1941-2017) featured this 8 x 10 “card” as a new find on his blog in 2015.

As detailed on Bob’s blog, both Bob and the previously mentioned Sean Fyffe regarded 1947 as the most likely year for this piece.

1947 DODGERS TEAM PHOTO PACK

Many teams sold photo packs of their players and other personnel, going back to at least the 1930s. The 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers photo pack consisted of 25 photos, 6” x 9” in size, including this one of Jackie Robinson.

The image is a sharper and cleaner version of the ones used on his Bond and faux Bond issues and a reminder that many cards of the era used photos provided by the teams or their photographers. Furthermore, the presence and identical placement of Jackie’s signature on the Bond and pseudo-Bond cards leads me to wonder if those cards didn’t originate from the original photograph but from this photo pack card. Either way, I suspect the photo pack Jackie is the earliest of his various 1947 issues.

1947-66 EXHIBIT SUPPLY COMPANY

One of the most common and (formerly!) affordable early baseball cards of Jackie Robinson is his 1947-66 Exhibit Supply Company (Chicago, IL) postcard-sized issue. However, despite “1947” right there in the naming of the set, there is no evidence that Jackie’s exhibit cards date back that far.

Rather, the “1947-66” label simply means that the overall set of 300+ different cards spanned 20 years. The presence of later stars such as Aaron, Banks, and Kaline suffice to show that “1947” hardly applies to all players.

The Keyman Collectibles site provides a guide for the precise dating of Exhibit cards. Having reviewed more than a dozen so far, I have not yet run across a Robinson any earlier than 1948.

Side note: A 1948 release would have left plenty of time to find pictures of Jackie as a Dodger. However, the photograph used on the Exhibit card, as was the case with two of the Bond Bread cards, dates to 1946, as evidenced by Jackie’s Montreal uniform.

SUMMARY: THE JACKIE ROBINSON CARDS OF 1947

All told I’ve reviewed 22 different Jackie Robinson cards correctly or incorrectly associated with his Barrier Breaking debut season in Brooklyn. From this number, there are only three where I believe the 1947 dating is firmly established:

  • 1947 Bond Bread multi-player set
  • 1947 Bond Bread Jackie Robinson set – portrait with facsimile autograph
  • 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers photo pack

For the reader only reasonably acquainted with the world of collectibles, it might seem a tame question to then ask which of these cards is Jackie Robinson’s rookie card. Could it really be that the answer is none of them!

EPILOGUE: JACKIE’S ROOKIE CARD

Modern collectors focus heavily (if not obsessively!) over the notion of a rookie card, particularly when the player concerned is a Hall of Famer. In a simpler world, a player would have one card for each year of his career, and the first such card would be his rookie card. In the real world, however, the situation is far murkier, complicated by any number of wrinkles, depending on the collector.

For example, any of the following may be treated as a disqualifying when it comes to rookie card status.

  • cards that pre-date a player’s major league status (e.g., a minor league card)
  • cards from minor, regional, unlicensed, or non-US releases
  • cards that aren’t really baseball cards (e.g., a postcard, mini-poster, or bobblehead)
  • cards with uncertain release dates

In the case of Jackie Robinson, all four of these come into play. While I did not feature it in this article due to its 1946 issue date, there is a highly sought after Parade Sportive newspaper insert featuring Jackie Robinson, which checks off each of the first three bullets above.

As for Jackie’s Bond Bread cards, many collectors regard the releases as too minor to warrant rookie card status. Add to that for many of them an uncertain release date as well. Ditto for Elgee Products, Old Gold Cigarettes, Pleetwood Slacks, and Champs Hats, with the latter two having only questionable baseball card status as well.

The Brooklyn photo pack card, which may well be first of Jackie as a Dodger, also challenges the most rigid definitions of “baseball card” while adding the potential disqualifier of a regional release. Finally, the Exhibit card is not quite a real baseball card to many collectors while also carrying uncertainty as to dating.

Also lacking card status to most collectors are the various Jackie Robinson buttons and pins that were popular among fans in the late 1940s. I omitted lengthier treatment in this article but will show six of them here.

Source: Robert Edward Auctions

The result of all this is that many collectors would not consider any of the Jackie Robinson cards profiled so far to be Jackie’s rookie card. Instead, the coveted label is most often applied to Jackie’s card from the set known popularly in the Hobby as 1948 Leaf.

“This is the only true rookie card of baseball’s first African-American representative and hero to all,” according to PSA, the Hobby’s largest grader and authenticator of trading cards.

Though my revenue, Hobby or otherwise, is a far cry from that of PSA, I nonetheless challenge this assertion. For one thing, despite the typical designation of the set as “1948 Leaf” (or sometimes 1948-49 Leaf), there are compelling reasons to believe the Robinson card (if not the entire set) dates to 1949.

  • 1949 copyright date on the back of the card
  • Reference to Jackie’s 1948 statistics as “last season” on the back of the card
  • Standard Catalog entry indicating the set was “produced by Chicago’s Leaf Gum Co. for issue in 1949”
  • Hall of Fame and Beckett cataloguing of card as 1949

Erroneous dating aside, I’ll also note that the Leaf cards, at least of some players, were unlicensed, which can often be a rookie card disqualifier. That said, collectors tend to give the set a free pass on this point.

At any rate, if we regard the Leaf card as a rookie card, we should then confer rookie status on Jackie’s other significant release of the same year, issued as part of the 1949 Bowman set of 240 cards.

Alternatively, we might turn our attention to a card that genuinely does date to 1948, Jackie’s Sport Thrills card from Swell Bubble Gum.

From a rookie card perspective, this card beats Leaf and Bowman by a year, has unambiguous baseball card status as opposed to some of the other 1947-48 contenders, and originates from a more major release than its contemporaries and predecessors. At the same time, not all collectors treat the Sport Thrills set as major enough, and its focus on highlights rather than players equally reduces the appeal.

Ultimately, the question of Jackie’s true rookie card is a complicated one, confounded by the uncertain or erroneous dating of his early cardboard and curiously subjective notions like “major release” and “baseball card.” On one hand the lack of a definitive rookie card opens the door for individual collectors to apply their own criteria and judgment. On the other hand, the same fuzziness creates opportunities, intentional or accidental, to misrepresent and misinform. In the end, perhaps the only truism when it comes to Jackie’s rookie cards is this: If you have to ask, you can’t afford it!

Tony C.

1967 Red Sox team-isssed

As many of you (fellow old people) know, 1967 is the year that changed everything for the Boston Red Sox, when black and white turned to color, the duckling turned into a swan, a team captured the heart of a region and never let go. 54 years and counting.

The fly in the 1967 ointment, and it’s a helluva fly, is the career-altering beaning of Tony Conigliaro on August 18. I came to the Impossible Dream a year or so later, age 7, when Tony C. was out of baseball, and the more I learned about him the more I struggled to wholly buy into the feel-good nature of 1967. How can the most “fun” season in team history be the one when the most popular player on the team got hit in the face and had his career and life derailed? While perhaps not quite at the “Mrs. Lincoln, how’d you like the play?” level, it is in the same area code.

1968 Topps

Although I started collecting cards in 1967, I became a baseball fan, a real day-to-day, listen-to-the-radio, check-the-boxscores baseball fan, in 1968. When I pulled Tony C’s Topps card (above) that spring I didn’t know that much about him, though I might have had his 1967 card as well. He never seemed to be in the lineup. Was he just not good enough?

The back of this card offers a clue: “Boston fans are hoping for a complete recovery for Tony in 1968.” I sought out a friend, three years older than me and a Yankee fan, for an explanation. “He was really good, but he didn’t make it back. He’s through,” he informed me.

So that was that. Whatever he was, I apparently had missed it.

I had missed a lot.

Conigliaro had grown up in Revere, East Boston, and Swampscott, Massachusetts all within a few miles of each other just outside Boston. I knew this area well–my parents both grew up in Lynn, right in the middle of these towns, and my grandparents and most of my extended family were still there. Conigliaro went to to St. Mary’s High, a parochial school in Lynn. For the rest of his life, all of these towns claimed him as one of their own.

So, let’s get to his cards.

1964 Topps

In retrospect, it is impressive that Topps chose to place Conigliaro on this card in 1964. Topps made a TON of “Rookie Stars” cards every year in the 1960s, stretching the notion of “star” considerably. In fact, they had two others that year for the Red Sox.

Of these six “Stars,” Jones had the second best career, lasting nine seasons mainly as a platoon or reserve infielder. Still, Topps’s one-for-six here is actually pretty good and they deserve credit for Tony C.

Conigliaro had played one minor league season, with Wellsville in the Single-A New York-Penn League, hitting .363 with 24 home runs in 83 games. Obviously a top prospect, but it was the low minors and he was just 18. Most observers were surprised he made the team, but Topps was ready with this card in the 3rd series.

And Tony hit right way. A home run in his first at bat at Fenway, he ended up at .290 with 24 home runs despite missing five weeks with a broken arm. Conigliaro began his career as a center fielder, but after a month manager Johnny Pesky moved him to left field and Carl Yastrzemski to center for the rest of 1964, a piece of trivia that may surprise many modern Red Sox fans.

It was a great year for rookies, and Tony Oliva fully deserved his Rookie of the Year award. But Conigliaro snagged a Topps trophy on his first solo baseball card.

1965 Topps #55

In 1965, the 20-year-old Conigliaro hit a league-leading 32 home runs. Before you scoff, understand that the 1960s were an extremely challenging time for hitters. The Red Sox were lousy in the mid-1960s, but the emergence of Conigliaro meant that they now had at least two good players (he and Yaz). It was a start.

Conigliaro was tremendously popular in Boston, especially with young people, more especially with young women. He “dated” a lot of these women, a pursuit which caused him to miss a few curfews and draw a few fines from his managers. He also dug rock ‘n roll records, and made several himself.

Early Conigliaro recordings

His musical tastes ran towards soft rock, which was surely part of zeitgeist in 1965. He didn’t write music or play any instruments (at least not for recording or on stage), but if you were looking for a Tom Jones who could also hit 30 homers, he was your guy.

There were rumblings among some of the older fans, people who told their own kids to turn down their Beatles records, that Conigliaro was a little too brash, a little too focused on his life outside of baseball, a little too-big-too-fast. But he was the most popular player on the team throughout the region. The generation gap was beginning to be an issue in the culture, and surely applied here.

And his popularity was beginning to expand beyond Boston.

1965 magazines

Conigliaro’s parents and two younger brothers, who lived right up the road, went to all the games and were around the team daily. On a couple of occasions Tony got in hot water for missing curfews, so his father took Tony in to speak with the manager–just as he would have when Tony was 12.

In 1965 baseball held its first-ever amateur draft, and the Red Sox’ first round pick was Swampscott High outfield star Billy Conigliaro. Younger brother Richie’s Little League team was presumably being scouted.

Heading into the 1966 season, Conigliaro was an established baseball star with a record contract, and still just 21 years old.

1966 Topps
1966 Topps
1966 Bazooka

The 1966 season was more of the same — 28 home runs, 93 RBI. The team had added Rico Petrocelli, George Scott and Jim Lonborg; still a ninth place team, but if you squinted you might have begun to see the start of something.

1967 Topps

Conigliaro was photogenic in the extreme and there are hundreds of great photos of him from this period, but there is a sameness to his Topps baseball cards. His 1965 card is the only flagship card where he is not simply posing with a bat, and only the 1969 card can be said to feature the bare makings of a smile. Considering the degree of his popularity, and his obvious charm, its too bad Topps never got a great photo.

Early last year I finally finished the 1967 Topps Red Sox sticker set, with the “Tony Conigliaro Is My Hero” being my 33rd and final card. It is not the most attractive set in the world, or even particularly desirable unless you are a collector of a certain age who grew up in New England. Topps put out two “test” sticker sets that season, for the Red Sox and Pirates, and they share a simple design. I assume they “failed” their test, since Topps never marketed stickers like this again, but they are popular today because (a) the Pirates set has two Roberto Clemente stickers, and (b) the Red Sox team became Boston’s most beloved of the 20th century and arguably beyond.

When Conigliaro was beaned, the Red Sox were in their first pennant race in 17 years and Conigliaro might have been on his way to his best season. He had missed time because of military duty but still started the All-Star game (he played all 15 innings–it was a different time), and was hitting .287 with power when he got hurt. He missed the rest of the pennant race and the World Series. He might have helped.

1968 Sports Illustrated Poster

Tony C showed up to Winter Haven in February 1968 fully expecting to play. He hit well for a couple of weeks, but struggled late in March and went to back to Boston to see an eye specialist. The news was stunning: he had lost most of the vision in his left eye, and his career was likely over.

A few months later is when I came in, as I began my own crazy baseball fan journey and wondered who this Conigliaro guy was.

Throughout the summer and fall there was occasional news. Maybe his eye would get better, maybe he’d become a pitcher, maybe he’d just manage his swingin’ night club, maybe he’d be a rock ‘n roller full time. His replacement in right field–Ken Harrelson — hit 35 home runs and led the league in RBI. We missed Tony, but had we found his statistical twin?

1969 Topps

The next spring, my first experience anticipating a season as a full-time fan, Conigliaro came back. Which was, I assure you, absolutely bonkers. This was the biggest baseball story of my childhood, full stop. Still immensely popular–he lived nearby, his brother was a hot prospect, his family was in the paper every day–his eyesight had apparently recovered, at least enough to hit. He was back in the lineup.

1969 Boston Herald Traveler newspaper

He hit a home run on opening day in Baltimore, on his way to several Comeback Player of the Year awards. A couple of weeks into the season, the Red Sox traded Ken Harrelson to Cleveland–feeling they had more than enough power now.

I attended my first big league game on June 22, an extra-inning loss that featured back-to-back homers by Petrocelli and Tony C. For me, this was no longer a tragic story–he was a baseball hero, hitting home runs.

Tony was a big national story, likely even bigger than he had been before he was beaned. He wrote a book, and he was back on newsstands.

As a young Red Sox fan, I can’t overstate how amazing and thrilling this all was. His season (20 homers, .255) was a bit down from his pre-injury form, but he was still just 24 years old and the sky once again seemed to be the limit.

1970 Topps
1970 Team Issued

The best Sporting News cover in history:

April 11 1970 Sporting News

This magazine cover hung on my wall in 1970, and, not gonna lie, it’s still there.

Tony appeared to come all the way back in 1970, hitting a career-high 36 home runs and driving in a career-high 116 runs (second in the league). If that weren’t enough, brother Billy took over left field in mid-summer, moving Carl Yastrzemski to first base. The Conigliaros hit 54 home runs between them, setting a new record for teammate brothers.

1971 Topps

All of this turned out to be a mirage. We later learned that the sight in Tony’s left eye had not really come all the way back, and in fact it was occasionally quite poor. He was playing with one good eye.

In October of 1970, the Red Sox made a six-player deal with the California Angels that sent Tony out west. (Did they know something?) I was just about to turn 10, and this was a devastating gut punch, as big as I have ever received not counting, well, … never mind about that.

Topps had plenty of time to ruin their spring training baseball photograph with a blackened hat.

1971 Topps

As this is supposed to be a baseball cards blog, and the above is Tony’s final flagship card, I am going to end my narrative here. For Tony C, there was a lot of heartache to come, setbacks atop setbacks, so if you are up for it you can check out SABR’s biography. He was dealt many tough hands.

Needless to say, Conigliaro has remained an extremely important figure in Red Sox history. There is an active movement to retire his #25, a movement I support. For fans who came along later, his story begins with the record book, with Conigliaro’s modest 166 home runs and 12.4 WAR. I don’t really have an answer for that, other than to promise you that he was a big f**king deal, whose career and life never recovered from August 18, 1967.

Conigliaro pinbacks

An oddball addition to the Henry Aaron collection

I’ve shared pieces of my Aaron collection here before. It includes bobbleheads, magazines, milestone home run “I was there” certificates, postcards, and of course the obvious: baseball cards.

For the most part, the collection had felt complete (or at least done) over the last year or so given that the only items on my checklist are way out of my price range. A typical example is Aaron’s 1972 Topps Cloth Sticker test issue, a recent copy of which just sold for about $600.

Of course that was before I came across a Brewers Spring Training program from 1975.

In truth, I tend to limit my magazine/program collecting tends to what Mark Armour would call “primary subject” covers. With this particular program, taxonomy is a bit complicated in that Aaron is the only named player but his image is much smaller than that of the batter and catcher shown, to whom we’ll now turn our attention.

At first glance these two players appear to be generic ballplayers reminiscent of the generic athletes that donned our ubiquitous Pee Chee (not to be confused with O-Pee-Chee) folders in elementary school.

However, there was no question who served as the model for at least the catcher.

It would be fair to ask if the similarity here is simply coincidental or if the match is exact. For this it is useful to overlay the two images. Rather than use the Bowman card, which crops away portions of Campy I’ll use the original photo upon which the Bowman image was based.

Since I am not only an Aaron collector but a Campanella collector as well, this discovery promoted the program from mere curiosity to must have, particularly given the very reasonable $5 price tag involved.

Through no lack of attempts I was ultimately unable to determine who the program’s batter (“Bento”) might have been. The name and uniform number made me think of Johnny Bench, though the handedness was a problem.

Perusing Getty Images I found shots of Rose, Maris, Yaz, and others that were similar but never exact. Still, as they say on the “X Files,” I do suspect the truth is out there.

Barring a miracle find from one of our readers, the one person who does (probably) know is the artist, whose last name is clearly Broadway but whose first name is less evident (Lonn? Ronn? Tom?).

Leaving the mystery of the batter unsolved for the moment, we can at last turn our attention to the Home Run King.

A keen-eyed Twitter user had no trouble finding the source photograph for Aaron himself.

From there it’s easy to imagine the graphic designer (perhaps Mr. Broadway himself) cutting out a Brewers hat logo (or just a capital M) from another photograph and gluing it over the Braves logo. One source I can rule out is the 1974 Topps Brewers team set where the closest match would require reversing the image of Bobby Mitchell’s card 497.

Is the result rather amateur? Absolutely, but in fairness there may not have been any photographs of Aaron in a Brewers cap at the time the program went to press, right? Oh but wait, what’s this on page 6 of this very program?!

Aaron is also featured (but with no photo) in the brief 1975 season preview on page 4 of the program. As the writer notes–

The addition of the all-time home run king Hank Aaron fills the designated hitter spot of the Brewers, a spot that last year produced only 14 home runs, 62 runs batted in, and a .222 batting average.

Almost on cue, Aaron’s 1975 slash line was .234/12/60.

Were I to rank my Top 100 Henry Aaron collectibles, this Spring Training program would fall far below even the bottom of the list. At the same time, were I to rank them by their oddity or mystery it probably makes the top five. After all, even if you solve the riddle of Bento, I now challenge you to identify the players on page 16…

Page 19…

And most importantly…what the heck is going on with dad’s hair on page 5? All I’ve been able to figure out so far is that the artist went on to work for Fleer in 1989. 😊

ANSWERS TO PICTURE CHALLENGES

Congratulations to Don Sherman who was the first to identify the page 16 artwork as coming from the 1946 National League playoff between the Dodgers and Cardinals.

Umpire is Babe Pinelli, catcher is Bruce Edwards, and batter is Red Schoendienst.

Multiple readers correctly identified the two most prominent figures on page 19 as Yogi Berra and Don Larsen following the final out of Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series. However, the jury is still out on which other players are “going for the gusto” in the image.

Vida Blue, 1971

It has often been said, in the sense that I have often said it, that there is nothing more enjoyable for a baseball fan than the emergence of a great young starting pitcher. Depending on how old you are, you might recall 1984 Dwight Gooden, or 1981 Fernando Valenzuela, or 1976 Mark Fidrych. It has become much less common of late, because young starters are generally not allowed to pitch a lot of innings.

For me, 1971 is the year, and Vida Blue is the pitcher.

The Athletics drafted Blue as a 17-year-old pitcher out of Mansfield, LA, and he sped through the minors to reach the big leagues in July 1969. After an uninspiring trial with Oakland, the 20-year-old set Triple-A ablaze in 1970, finishing 12-3, 2.17 with 164 strikeouts in 133 innings. He only pitched once a week because he had military obligations in Oakland every Sunday through Tuesday.

Back with the Athletics in September, Blue made six starts, which included a one-hitter and no-hitter. He was 21 years old, and obviously one of the best prospects in baseball.

1970 Topps #21

Topps had put Blue on a Rookies Stars card in their 1970 first series but even as a 9-year-old kid I would not have considered that a harbinger of success. After all, my team had put John Thibdeau on such a card a year earlier and I had not heard from him since. There was a big difference between being a Rookie Star and being a rookie star. There were no prospect blogs back then, so most fans just had to wait to see what happened next.

1969 Topps #189

Moreover, no one would have considered that 1970 Topps card to have been a real Vida Blue card. It was a Rookie Stars card–there was no Vida Blue card in 1970. Years later, someone (presumably just a bunch of dealers) invented the “rookie card” as a way to inflate prices for a player’s first card, and, oddly, decided that the all these multi-player cards would count. Sigh.

In 1971, the cardless Vida Blue was a bloody sensation, the biggest story in baseball. By late May, he was 10-1, including five shutouts, and the star of this breathtaking cover of Sports Illustrated.

Following baseball in 1971 meant that you followed Vida Blue. All his game stories were highlighted in my hometown newspaper 3000 miles from Oakland, and on the local nightly news. Vida Blue in 1971 was like Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998, like Roger Maris in 1961, a dominant daily sports story.

Vida Blue’s name was on everyone’s lips. (And what a name!) One day in May, as Oriole pitcher Dave McNally was headed to the ballpark for a start, his wife encouraged him by saying, “pretend you’re Vida Blue.” Thus inspired, McNally tossed a four-hitter to beat the Angels.

The fly in the ointment, at least for me, was that Vida Blue still did not have a baseball card. Every month or so Topps would release a checklist for the next series, and I would scour it to see if Vida Blue was coming up. The answer for the first series, and the second series, was no.

So why did America, this kid included, fall in love with Vida Blue? He did not have the goofy quirkiness of Fidrych or the lovable body and motion of Valenzuela, two pitchers who would have great breakout seasons in the years ahead.

Blue was simply beautiful. He was movie-star handsome, and he had a perfect motion, bringing to mind the wondrous delivery of Sandy Koufax.

(AP Photo)

He had one of the best names in baseball history. Team owner Charles O. Finley made a habit of foisting nicknames on his players–Catfish Hunter, Blue Moon Odom–and he soon told Vida that he wanted him to be known as “True” Blue. Vida’s comeback: “Why don’t you just call yourself True O. Finley.” But honestly, how can you improve on “Vida Blue”?

Blue was a breath of fresh air–the media loved him, fans loved him. He was hard-working, shy, modest. (His role model, he informed us, was Brooks Robinson.) He ran out to the mound, and ran back to the dugout when the inning was over. He also ran to the batter’s box when it was his turn to hit.

He was on the CBS Evening News, with Roger Mudd and Heywood Hale Broun.

He was on The Dick Cavett Show. I dare you to watch this and not fall in love with the guy.

On June 25, Blue shut out the Royals to reach 16-2 with a 1.37 ERA. (I will wait while you reread the previous sentence.) The team had played just 70 games, putting Blue on a pace to finish 37-4. Denny McLain had won 31 games just three years earlier, and tracking Blue against McLain was another regular part of his coverage.

He was phenomenally popular around the league. His first start in Boston (May 28) resulted in the highest Fenway Park attendance (over 35,000) in three years, with thousands in the street unable to get in. His start in Washington on June 6 drew 40,246, compared with 6,221 the day before for Catfish Hunter. And on and on.

But still, no card in the third series. Or the fourth.

Blue was named to start the All-Star game in Tiger Stadium, facing off against Pirates star Dock Ellis. A week earlier Ellis had suggested that he would not get the start because baseball would no allow two “brothers” in these prominent roles. (Aside: it is hard to imagine a game in which Dock Ellis was not the “coolest” starting pitcher, but this one was at least a close call.)

1971 Topps #2

Blue and the AL won the game, though it is most famous for all the home run (including two surrendered by Vida to Johnny Bench and Hank Aaron).

After beating the Tigers on July 25, his record was 19-3 with a 1.37 ERA. (No really, that was his record.). He had a couple of memorable no-decisions in July, including an 11-inning, no-run, 17-strikeout effort that the A’s finally won 1-0 in 20 innings.

On August 17 President Nixon invited the A’s to the White House–there was no reason for this, Nixon just loved baseball players. He made a habit of having a specific greeting for everyone, making it clear that he knew who everyone was. When he got to Vida he said “You are the most underpaid player in baseball.” Nixon was not wrong–Blue’s salary was $14,500.

Blue’s quest for 30 wins slowed down, though he kept pitching well. He won #20 with a 5-hit shutout on August 7, but later in the month he dropped two consecutive 1-0 games to fall to 22-6 which ended any hope of 30 wins.

He did, however, make the cover of Police Gazette.

(Note: Blue is pictured on the lower left.)

Blue closed out his season at 24-8, 1.92, with 301 strikeouts, winning the Cy Young Award and MVP for a team that won its first division title.

Topps finally issued his 1971 card (#551) in the fifth series, meaning it probably got on store shelves in July, maybe August. I never got it, and I did not even lay my eyes on the card for a few years. It is beautiful, with Blue looking like he had the greatest life on earth. He probably did.

1971 #551

The first Blue card I ever saw was in 1972, when Topps issued his real card and an IN ACTION card in its second series.

The Blue story would never again be quite the feel-good tale it was in 1971, thanks in large part to his “owner”, Charlie Finley.

Despite his polite and shy disposition, Blue was a proud man who believed he deserved a lot more money. After his wonderful season Blue asked for $115,000, the going rate for top starters at the time. Finley offered $50,000 and never moved.

A lot of people write about Finley today like he was a colorful kook, and he was that, but he was also petty, cruel, and generally despised by everyone. He screamed at secretaries, managers, commissioners, players. Blue called him “Massa Charlie”, and I am in no position to doubt Blue’s intimations of racism, but Finley treated everyone badly. He would hand out gifts to players when he felt like it, but it was always on his terms. His most publicly disgraceful act — the shaming and firing of Mike Andrews in the middle of the 1973 World Series — was still ahead, but Finley treated people like crap every day.

Heading to 1972, Vida Blue was the biggest star in the game, and everyone was excited to see what he was going to do next.

But Blue was nowhere to be found–he held out all spring while Finley ridiculed his ungrateful pitcher in the press. With no leverage and no hope, Blue finally signed a few weeks into the season, for a small bonus and Finley’s original $50,000 offer. (When doling out credit for players later attaining limited free agency, from Curt Flood to Marvin Miller to Andy Messersmith, don’t forget about Finley, whose players became increasingly militant in the face of his abhorrent treatment.)

For those of us who fell in love with Vida in 1971, it is difficult to sufficiently convey how much Finley cost us, cost baseball. Blue had a fine career — 209 wins, six All-Star teams, three World Series titles — but the funny quips, the running, the joy, all seemed to be gone. Blue has repeatedly said that Finley took all the fun out of the game for him. When Finley got all his players to wear mustaches in 1972, another form of paternalism, Vida refused.

Years later, like many players of his generation, Blue got messed up with cocaine and likely cost himself a few more years.

I hope Vida lives forever and has much happiness, that he can look back fondly on a career filled with successes. But make no mistake: Vida Blue deserves a statue in Oakland for 1971 alone.

I’ll never forget it.

1971 Doug McWilliams Postcard

The Many Faces of the “Topps” 1954 Mickey Mantle

The steady stream of Mantle Topps Project70 card creations, along with the release of the Topps 2021 Mickey Mantle Collection card set, and the recent works of art from Lauren Taylor, MissTellier, and Daniel Jacob Horine have brought to the surface several memories of baseball games involving my childhood hero.

The good memories include attending my first major league game at a packed Fenway Park on September 24, 1961, with my father hoping to see Roger Maris hit home run number 60 to tie Ruth. I also got to see Mantle play at Yankee Stadium when my aunt and uncle took me to a daytime double header in 1963. As good as those memories are, the one that I can recall most vividly is from a close encounter with Mick at the end of his career in 1968. On that day Mantle, only an arm’s length away, sat behind a closed window on the team bus outside Fenway Park and ignored my pleas for an autograph.

Besides the trip down memory lane, the recent uptick in Mantle activity also caused me to splurge on a piece of Mantle memorabilia from 1954 with a Topps tie-in that I have had my eye on for some time.

Since this piece of memorabilia involves baseball cards, I did some research on interpretations of Topps 1954 cards (With Bowman having signed Mantle to exclusive card contracts in 1954 and 1955 kids had to wait until 1956 for number 7 to appear on a Topps card again).

There are plenty of roll your own “Topps” 1954 Mantle cards available, some with interesting backstories, and the number continues to grow with two additions in 2021.

Upper Deck 1994 – All-Time Heroes Card

In 1994 Topps released the 1954 Archives set that included nice reprints of the original ’54 cards on thick glossy card stock along with “new” cards of players that did not appear in the original set. Topps did not release a “new” Mantle card in 1994, but Upper Deck did release one as part of its All-Time Heroes set since it had an exclusive contract with Mickey. The Upper Deck ’54 is considered a “short print” and current prices on eBay range from $40 – ungraded to $149.99 – graded.

Upper Deck 1994 All-Time Heroes – Mickey Mantle Card

Topps 1954 Style Mickey Mantle Cards

Topps issued 1954 style Mantle cards in 2007, 2011 and 2012. This year they have also released two more 1954 style cards. One as part of the Project70 series and the other as part of the 2021 Mickey Mantle Collection set.

The image on the front of the card Topps 1954 style Mantle for the 2021 Mickey Mantle Collection set is derived from the William Jacobellis black and white photo of Mantle from the 1951 season. This photo was also the starting point for the front of 1952 Bowman Mantle card.

Topps 1954 Style Mantle Card from the 2021 Mickey Mantle Collection set – Front

Unfortunately, the Topps research staff were asleep at the switch and the back of the cards display Mantle’s 1955 stats instead of his 1953 stats. Does this make it an “error” card?

Topps 1954 Style Mantle Card from the 2021 Mickey Mantle Collection set – Back

The Topps Project70 1954 style Mantle was created by CES.

Topps Project70 1954 Style Mickey Mantle by CES

Bob Lemke – 1954 Topps-style Mantle Card

My favorite 1954 Topps-style Mantle card is the one designed by Bob Lemke, the founding editor for the Standard Catalog of Baseball Cards, who passed away in 2017.

In one of his blog posts that can be found here, Bob provides details on the origins of all the elements used in his Mantle card.

1954 Sports Illustrated Mickey Mantle

I have been looking for a reasonably priced – Sports Illustrated – second issue – in good condition for some time and recently found one on eBay. I knew that the second issue contained a foldout section with a “missing” 1954 Mickey Mantle card.

Foldout of Yankees Cars from 1954 Sports Illustrated Issue #2

Sports Illustrated used a beautiful black and white photo taken by George Silk for the card. The same photo was also used by Sports Illustrated for the cover of its August 21, 1995, issue that was published days after Mantle passed away. Weakened by the onslaught of new Mantle material released in 2021, I clicked on the Buy It Now button and purchased the 1954 Sports Illustrated issue.

1954 Sports Illustrated Mickey Mantle Card – Front
1954 Sports Illustrated Mickey Mantle – Back

Since they don’t teach this style of writing in journalism classes anymore, I will close with an excerpt from the Sports Illustrated article that accompanied the foldout of the cards.

“Topps Chewing Gum, Inc., one of the leading gum-and-card concerns, issues an average of 15 cards per team, and this average holds for the Yankees. The 15 Yankee cards in Topps’s 1954 series are reproduced front and back on color on the following foldout. They are, of course, prize items. But SPORTS ILLUSTRATED has added prize items of its own to fill out the Yankee squad to full strength: black-and-white “cards,” front and back, of those Yankees for whom Topps – for one good reason or another – did not print cards. The result is a collector’s dream: 27 Yankees, a collection almost beyond the highest hopes of the most avid gum-chewing, card-collecting boy.”

The card that still haunts me

Stay in this Hobby long enough and you’ll have your share of heartbreak. Carry your favorite cards to school in your pants pockets, and you’re bound to put some through the wash. Sell a prized card when you need the money, and of course the value triples before you can buy it back. Stock up on your favorite phenom only to have his numbers plummet right in sync with your retirement plans. These tragedies happen. The only question is whether we have the resilience and perspective to weather them. I know I didn’t.

It was 1983 and I was thirteen. Cards were my whole world. I’m not saying that to brag. To put things another way, except for cards, I had no life, which is why this book had so much power over me. (In truth, mine was the second edition, but I couldn’t find a picture.)

It was this book that could turn an ordinary (and below average in most ways if we’re being honest) kid into a first-rate autograph collector. Sure I had some autographs in my collection already: Mickey Klutts, who signed at a show, and Nolan Ryan who I wrote to through the Astros, but Hall of Famers?! I wouldn’t have believed it except for the fact that it happened.

I don’t know how it’s done today but back then it was important to me to write each player a personal letter, praising their career and letting them know why their autograph would mean so much to me. I wish I could say my motivation was mere kindness. Sadly, I believe the only reason I did it was to up my chance of a return. “Flattery will get you everywhere,” as they say. Either way, I spent the weekend writing about 20 letters by hand, which I sent off (with SASE and accompanying baseball cards of course) all at once.

Any question about whether anyone would write back was answered quickly. I believe the exact time elapsed was four days, and the return address has remained in my head all these decades later.

Hank Greenberg
1129 Miradero Road
Beverly Hills, CA 90210

I don’t recall any note inside. Instead there was only a blank slip of paper folded to protect what was now the most amazing card in my collection.

Right in front of me was a 1983 Donruss Hall of Fame Heroes card of Hank Greenberg, signed in blue Sharpie, with an absolutely Hall of Fame quality autograph across the beautiful Dick Perez artwork. I stared at it for hours the day it came and then did the same just about every day after.

My second Hall of Fame autograph arrived a couple weeks later—I believe it was from Al Kaline—and from there it seemed every week another envelope would arrive: Stan Musial, Duke Snider, Charlie Gehringer, and so on. Even as the collection grew, the Greenberg still stood alone: first, best, and perfect.

Of course what happened next was unthinkable yet entirely predictable.

For the third time in as many years, I came home to find my mom had thrown out my entire collection, Greenberg and all. To be clear, this wasn’t one of those “mom threw them out” stories about a kid off to college or interested in cars and girls. No, baseball cards were my whole life. That’s exactly what it felt like too, like my whole life had been thrown out.

Over the next couple weeks, almost cruelly, signed cards continued to arrive. I should have been thrilled to land autographs from Ted Williams, Yogi Berra, and Eddie Mathews, but instead I just dwelled on what I didn’t have. It would be too mild to say I experienced anger or sadness. Rather, it was the feeling of hating my life. I know that sounds extreme, but how would you feel if baseball cards were the only thing you cared about?

The Survivors

I did resume my card collecting almost immediately. What else was I going to do with my time? However, even as autographs kept trickling in, I just couldn’t get myself to care. Despite having barely even started, I was done as an autograph collector. This I knew.

Haunted day and night for months by my lost Greenberg, I now hated autographs. And then one day the obvious occurred to me. Why not write to him again?

Sure enough, there was an envelope from Miradero Road waiting for me no more than a week later. There was only one problem. My card was returned unsigned. Along with it was a typewritten note letting me know Mr. Greenberg required that a $5 check payable to the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (or maybe it was the Humane Society) now accompany all autograph requests. Like I even had a checkbook!

A couple years later, I saw the news that Hank Greenberg had passed away. I wish I could say my first reaction was sympathy for his loved ones or the legions of baseball fans who had lost a true giant of a man. Instead I was consumed by the thought that I’d blown my chance at an autograph. And yes, feel free to judge. Baseball cards were still my whole world.

About five years into my return to the Hobby, around 2019, I set up a saved search on eBay for a single autographed card: the 1983 Donruss Hall of Fame Heroes Hank Greenberg card. It had been 30+ years, for God’s sake! I thought I might be ready.

Only rarely did anything ever come up and most of the time when something did it proved to be an unsigned copy, misclassified by the seller or considered close enough by the eBay search engine. As it turns out, the bad results were a blessing. In contrast, it’s the truly autographed search results that strike me like daggers to the heart. Nonetheless, some self-destructive impulse, some bad mutation upon my collector DNA, compels me to retain this search, to keep looking.

Thankfully, the signatures on these cards are always black, not blue, ensuring at least some distance between the cards on the screen and the card I once had. Blue, that would probably kill me.

And then it happened.

A card came up last week that looked exactly like the one I had, the one I stared at for hours on end. Its blue Sharpie signature so uncannily matched the image burned in my head all these years that I now wonder if my mom really did throw away my cards or simply sold them to someone who sold them to someone who is now selling at least the best of them on eBay.

You might think I’d have already jumped at the chance to buy the card like some modern Ahab having at last cornered his White Whale. In truth, that would be confusing the hunter with the hunted. My journey back into the Hobby has been less about nostalgia than redemption, about rebuilding my collection without reliving its memories. Until now I have looked to the cards I buy to right, not revisit, my past. What happens then when one has the power to bring it all back?