The hottest rookie card of 1935

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 Wolf tells 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.

The numbers don’t lie.

“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—

“dID i dO gOoD?!”

“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.)

Blanton with three George Canales

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:

  • 1934: Cards 1-24
  • 1935: Cards 1-84
  • 1936: Cards 2, 4, 5, 8, 9, 10, 12, 16, 22, 26, 30, 31, and 73-108

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.

MORE DIAMOND STARS ARTICLES HERE ON THE BLOG

The best baseball card set of 2021?

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.

Josh Gibson card from Montreal artist Josée Tellier with JGF COA

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.

Judges from tournament Arts and Entertainment division

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.”

Forty-Year-Old Versions of our Ten-Year-Old Selves is another relative newcomer “honored to be part of the campaign, even if I’m just playing a tiny part in the grand scheme of it all.”

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.”

Josh Gibson card by DINK

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.

Reverse of card 1/50 by John Racanelli

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!)

Card #ArtistRelease Date
1Mr. ShakeMonday, May 10
2Cheaha CardworksTuesday, May 11
3Andrew Woolley / MillburgWednesday, May 12
4Heavy J Studios/JasonThursday, May 13
5LunchmadeFriday May 14th
6Woody’s Cards/ Mike MottoleseMonday, May 17
7zetaw cardsTuesday, May 18
8Ice CatWednesday, May 19
9Matthew BurkeThursday, May 20
10Gummy ArtsFriday, May 21
11Craig LeshenFriday, May 21
12Josée TellierTuesday, May 25
13Monarch RoyaltyTuesday, May 25
14MIghty LarkWednesday, May 26
15Daniel Kearsey / Sixty First StreetWednesday, May 26
16Stockyard CardsThursday, May 27
17Robb ScottFriday, May 28
18Philip WoodwardMonday, May 31
19JabroniMonday, May 31
20Offbeatallstars / BryanTuesday, June 1
21GullD3CardArt- Don GullicksTuesday, June 1
22Tom PaintsWednesday, June 2
23Optimus VoltsWednesday, June 2
24JCP CardsThursday, June 3
25Charles LaBongeFriday, June 4
26Biggens Card ArtFriday, June 4
27The Card CarverMonday, June 7
28MIchael EllingsonMonday, June 7
29RP BaileyTuesday, June 8
30Noah StokesTuesday, June 8
31Mike JamesWednesday, June 9
32Garcia StudiosWednesday, June 9
33JR_WAVYThursday, June 10
34Hit By Pitch CardsThursday, June 10
35Eric Kittelberger/Triple Play DesignFriday, June 11
36Baseball’s Greatest Player PlayoffFriday June 11
37Bullies Card ArtMonday, June 14
38Aaron McIsaacMonday, June 14
39Adam DarowskiTuesday, June 15
40Kevin GreeneTuesday, June 15
41Todd RadomWednesday, June 16
42Kevin GustWednesday, June 16
43DINKThursday, June 17
44Andy BrownThursday, June 17
45Joel HofmannFriday, June 18
46Jamie ThomasFriday, June 18
47Adam KorengoldMonday, June 21
48Josh TroutMonday, June 21
49John RacanelliTuesday, June 22
50Gumstick StudiosTuesday, June 22
51From the Lens of Donna MuscarellaWednesday, June 23
52Southside SharpieWednesday, June 23
53Scott HodgesThursday, June 24
54Roger NusbaumThursday, June 24
55Third Dan ArtFriday, June 25
56Luke the CardistFriday, June 25
57Mr. FMonday, June 28
58Michael AugustineMonday, June 28
59Seth WardMonday, June 28
60Derek PerezMonday, June 28
61Lost Ballparks/Mike KoserTuesday, June 29
6240-Year-Old VersionsTuesday, June 29
63Blender of ZombieTuesday, June 29
64Kevin EspinaWednesday, June 30
65Slayton Evans Wednesday, June 30
66Cheng Sue VangWednesday, June 30
67Bad Boys of Summer Card ArtWednesday, June 30
68McCardThursday, July 1
69Mike GyamfiThursday, July 1
70JengThursday, July 1
71Pixel Hall of FameFriday, July 2
72Sergio SantosFriday, July 2
73JT RaeFriday, July 2
74Jason DrumhellerFriday, July 2
75Anika OrrockFriday, July 2

Collecting your favorite player’s baseball cards

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:

  1. Give up.
  2. 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?

Flagship Add-Ons

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:

  • All-Star cards
  • 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.

Beyond Topps

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)
  • Leaf (1960)
  • Fleer (1963 and 1981-1990)
  • Donruss (1981-1990)
  • Score (1988-1990)
  • Leaf* (1990)
  • Foreign issues (e.g., Venezuelan Topps, O-Pee-Chee, 1985 Donruss Leaf)
  • Oddballs

*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.

Hollywood Stars Were in the Cards: Part 4

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…

Mr. Blue Jay

“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.

Otis Nixon Wore Many Hats

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.

1980 Topps #618 depicts helmetless Montgomery

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.

1981 Topps Valentine #445, Roenicke #37

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.

Photo credit: Associate Press, 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:

1987 Fleer #255

Nixon also used a single-flap helmet with the Expos:

1990 Donruss #456

As a switch-hitter, Nixon subsequently joined the double-flap helmet trend:

1992 Leaf #255

And with his appearance for Minnesota following the broken jaw incident, here is Nixon donning the helmet with protective face gear:

1999 Fleer Ultra #44

Unlike facial bones, Nixon’s sartorial record appears unbreakable.

Sources:

Retrosheet.org

Baseball-Reference.com

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.

Hollywood Stars Were in the Cards: Part 3

Gen. George S. Patton believed fervently in reincarnation—a passion that served as an integral theme in the 1970 Academy Award–winning biopic about him. Often, Patton would declare to colleagues that he had participated in some renowned battle waged centuries before his birth.

Portraying the blustery general in that beloved biopic was, of course, George C. Scott. Few roles have so defined an actor as “Gen. Patton” did Scott—and have so defined a historical figure in the public consciousness (despite its inaccuracies). Scott’s steely-eyed, soldier-slapping performance earned him the Oscar for Best Actor (although he refused to accept it, due to his longstanding scorn for the craft of acting turned into a competition).

Six months after George C. Scott won, and left unclaimed, his Best Actor statuette at the 43rd Academy Awards, the Boston Red Sox consummated a ten-player trade with the Milwaukee Brewers that included first baseman George Scott. Not exactly the reincarnation of Gen. Patton, George Scott was something of a doppelgänger to the actor who so recently portrayed Patton. Known as “Boomer” because of his prodigious power, George Scott’s middle name also began with “C” (Charles). Stranger still, incoming to Boston was right-handed hurler, Marty Pattin. The trade included several other big-name players, among them Jim Lonborg and Tommy Harper, but the headlines in each town could have proclaimed GEORGE C. SCOTT SWAPPED FOR PATTIN. (Pattin, incidentally, began his career wth the California Angels, whose stadium in Anaheim sits about 30 miles from Gen. Patton’s birthplace of San Gabriel.)

Adding a touch of the ephemeral, George Scott’s birthday of March 23 comes one day after that of esteemed actor, Karl Malden, who, of course, portrayed Patton’s real-life colleague and onscreen foil, Gen. Omar Bradley. 

With such “cinematic pedigree,” George Scott would have been fully validated in choosing as walk-up music for his at-bats Patton’s trademark echoing of trumpet triplets.

And “Old Blood and Guts” certainly would have appreciated the brutish bravado of George Scott’s infamous necklace made of “second-basemen’s teeth,” not to mention that Scott’s penchant for donning a helmet in the field would have passed muster with the by-the-book general who demanded that his soldiers wear their helmet practically at all times.

George Scott enjoyed several of his best seasons while in Brewer blue, twice topping the American League in total bases and claiming the home run and RBI crowns in 1975. Similarly, Marty Pattin found instant success in Fenway Park, winning a career high 17 games in his first of two seasons with the Bosox, before Boston abruptly shipped him to Kansas City after the 1973 season. (Scott and Pattin briefly marshalled what remained of their diminishing talents for the 1979 Royals.)

Boomer eventually was reincarnated as a Red Sock, returning to Fenway in the deal that made Milwaukee famous to Cecil Cooper (and vice-versa). In Boston, Scott enjoyed his last big season, slamming 33 home runs and scoring 103 in 1977. He wasn’t able to help Boston shrug off New York in its epic collapse of 1978, hitting .163 once the calendar turned September and the erosion of Boston’s lead over the Bronx Bombers accelerated (although Scott did go 2-4 in the pennant-deciding finale and was twice stranded in scoring position when his run would have proved crucial).

In a bit of a final irony, Boomer moved south of the border when no suitors called on him during free agency, spending four seasons in the Mexican League. Somewhat conversely, Lieutenant Patton, on the way up in his military career, spent nearly a year in Mexico attempting to track down the revolutionary, Pancho Villa, not long before the United States’ entry into World War I would shape his destiny.

Sadly, George Scott lived only until age 69; George C. Scott died when he was 71; and Gen. George S. Patton, of course, succumbed at age 60, two weeks after an automobile accident.

All glory is fleeting…

Covering the Bases: 1986 Topps #85 Tony Perez (w/ guest Eric Davis)

To me the best baseball cards tell a story. One of those cards is Topps final offering for Tony Perez.

1986 Topps #85 Tony Perez

The story here is obvious, The featured player is Tony Perez one of the key members to the 1970s era Big Red Machine which won a pair of World Championships. He is greeted at the plate by teammate Eric Davis whose promising career is just beginning. Davis would go on to be a key member of the Reds next World Championship in 1990. The scene is a torch passing between the franchises two most recent championship squads.

Clearing the Bases

CTB is a feature where we take a deep dive into a single card. Since this Photo appears to be game footage one of the fun directions to go is “Guess the Game”.

Couple of easily discerned facts on this image. We need a game in the Perez/Davis crossover, Both players are wearing their road greys, and they appear to be celebrating a Perez Home Run.

Checking Baseball-Ref we find Tony Perez and Eric Davis were teammates for two seasons 1984-85. During that time Tony hit 8 of his 379 career Home Runs. However of those eight only TWO were hit on the road. May 21 1985 at Wrigley Field and October 6th 1985 at Dodger Stadium.

Checking the boxes of those two games is easy enough, May 21 was a Reds 5-2 victory over the Cubs. Perez Home Run was a solo shot off starter Ray Fotenot in the fourth inning. And the on-Deck Hitter was (…Drum Roll…) Eric Davis!

So we have a candidate, but we must check box #2

October 6 1985, Another W for the Reds 6-5 vs the Dodgers. In this game Tony Homered in the 3rd inning – also a solo shot. We check who is on-deck and find….. Nick Esasky! No Eric Davis. In Fact Davis was nowhere near the circle as he batted earlier that inning. Interestingly he had also homered – two batters in front of Perez.

There you have it, the game featured on Hall of Famer Tony Perez’s final card was a Reds 5-2 Win over the Cuibs at Wrigley Field in a game played on May 21 1985.

But Wait there’s more

The 1985 Reds season was chronicled by the prolific author Pete Rose who has “written” roughly a dozen autobiographies. “Countdown to Cobb” is Rose’s account of the season in which he broke Ty Cobb’s all-time hit record. In addition to being a player Rose was also the teams manager. On the field he played first base in a platoon with, You got it, today’s hero Tony Perez.

And fortunately Perez’s Home Run was significant enough to make Rose’s 1985 Diary.

It’s only three sentences in two short paragraphs but it gives us some background into the Home Run featured on Perez’s final card. Despite being in pursuit of the All-Time hit record, and being a Switch-Hitter Rose often sat himself versus Left Handed pitching.

Fortunately for Perez, Rose and the Reds starting Perez paid off and baseball fans who enjoy digging into the minutia of trading cards have another card with a story to collect.

This concludes this edition of Covering the Bases, thanks for humoring me while we played guess the game and took a deep dive into a single baseball card.

Sources Links

Baseball-Reference

Countdown to Cobb (Pete Rose/Hal Bodley)

Phungo Tony Perez HOF Index

Collecting Glenn Burke

I spent last weekend reading the new Andrew Maraniss book “Singled Out,” which tells the story of Dodgers/Athletics outfielder Glenn Burke (SABR bio forthcoming). Of course, Burke was much more than the player suggested by his stat line, as the book’s cover reminds us. He is of historical and cultural importance for two firsts, one of which has become ubiquitous in the sport and another that remains largely invisible.

I won’t use this space to retell Burke’s story, though I will offer that Andrew’s book does an excellent job adding detail and humanity to what many fans might know only at the level of a basic plotline. Rather, I’ll focus on collecting.

I’m probably like many of you in that the more I learn about a particular player the more I want to add some of their cards to my collection. (I’ve avoided Jane Leavy’s outstanding Babe Ruth book thus far for just this reason!) What then are the “must have” Glenn Burke cards and collectibles out there?

Owing to the brevity of Glenn’s MLB career, he has only two Topps cards from his playing days, one with the Dodgers and one with the A’s.

For some collectors, that right there would be the end of the line. Others might add Burke’s 1979 O-Pee-Chee card, whose front differs from the Topps issue only by the company logo featured on the baseball.

As a huge fan of all things Aronstein (even his kid!), I also consider the 1978 SSPC Glenn Burke a must-have. (Unlike the 1976 SSPC set, these cards were only found as “All Star Gallery” magazine inserts and appear a bit less plentiful.)

Andrew’s book devotes quite a bit of time to Glenn’s journey through the minors, including one heckuva brawl that broke out between Glenn’s Waterbury Dodgers and the Quebec Carnavals. What better way to memorialize the incident, in which Glenn played a starring role, than with Glenn’s 1975 TCMA “pre-rookie” card?

Counting the OPC, we’re now up to five cards in all, or just over half a plastic sheet. To expand our card collecting further, we’ll need to look at Burke’s post-career cardboard.

Thanks to the tour de force known as the 1990 Target Dodgers set (more than 1000 cards in all!), we can add this card to our Burke page.

While other collectors might add it to their lists, I’m neither compulsive nor completist enough to bother with Burke’s 2016 Topps “Buyback,” which is simply his 1979 Topps card stamped with a red 65th anniversary emblem.

Beyond these catalogued releases, Mike Noren included Burke in his 2020 Gummy Arts set. The card fills a gap in Burke’s Topps run by utilizing the 1977 flagship design and furthermore memorializes Burke’s place in “high five” history (though readers of Andrew’s book will recognize that its image is not the first Burke/Baker high five).

I, myself, have added to the world of Glenn Burke collectibles, sending my own “card art” to fellow Burke fans.

Perhaps we will even see one of the Topps Project70 artists produce a Glenn Burke card before set’s end. Definitely at least a few of the artists are pretty big Dodger fans.

Either way, the universe of Glenn Burke baseball cards remains extremely limited at present. On the other hand, why stop at cards? There were three other items I ran across in Andrew’s book that I believe are worthwhile items for Burke collectors.

The first is this Dodger yearbook from 1981, whose cover features a Baker/
Garvey high five in place of Burke/Baker but nonetheless speaks to the rapid spread and ascension of the high five across the sporting world, if not society at large.

Another collectible in magazine form is the October 1982 “Inside Sports” that featured Burke’s coming out story, “The Double Life of a Gay Dodger.”

A final Burke collectible is one I never would have known about if not for Andrew’s book. As a nine-year-old kid in 1961, Glenn sang backup on the Limeliters album “Through Children’s Eyes,” released by RCA Victor in 1962. I wouldn’t be my life, but I believe Burke is the first kid in the row second from the top.

At the moment, give or take autographs that could potentially adorn all but the most recent of these items and excluding truly unique items, I’ll call this the almost full set of Glenn Burke collectibles.

A final category I find intriguing and perhaps undervalued is ticket stubs, in which case the following items would likely be of greatest interest.

  • MLB debut – April 9, 1976 Dodgers at Giants
  • First high five (and first MLB HR) – October 2, 1977 Astros at Dodgers
  • Pride Night feat. ceremonial first pitch from brother Sydney Burke – June 17, 2015 Padres at A’s

It also wouldn’t surprise me to see the Dodgers, A’s, or the Bobblehead Hall of Fame issue a Glenn Burke bobblehead one of these days. And in the meantime, there’s always Patrick’s Custom Painting, who fashioned this Starting Lineup figure for “Hall of Very Good” podcast co-host Lou Olsen and has applied his talents to bobbleheads as well.

Frank O’Rourke’s Inherent Dignity

I’m not a collector.

           I have a few cards, some that are worth slightly more than the cardboard they’re printed on, and many more that hold a good deal of sentimental value to me and nobody else. But in the context of the readers of this blog, I don’t merit the use of the term. I’ve never completed a set, never paid more than pocket money for a card, never gone to any remarkable lengths to acquire anything rare, or valuable, or particularly noteworthy. I still have all the cards I amassed as a kid, and I buy new hanger packs when I see them, and on the rare occasion that a wax pack drifts into my field of vision, I snap it up. I’ve made a habit of buying packs for my kids, and we make a little ceremony of opening them together. On Opening Day, or the first day of pitchers and catchers reporting, I sneak packs into their school lunches, and they come home and tell me what players they found inside.

           But I haven’t done any of those things I identify as serious collector behavior. I’ve bought maybe a half-dozen cards on eBay, for example, and I haven’t attended a show since I was about fourteen years old. I’ll never own a Mantle, Ruth, Mays, Clemente, or Aaron.

           Baseball cards are, for me, not an investment, and not an abiding obsession, but something adjacent to baseball that I love for that proximity. They remind me of the game. Their look, and feel, and smell are memory triggers, and for that reason I treasure them.

           And yet, with all that said, I recently bought a 1934 Frank O’Rourke card. It’s No. 43 in the Canadian-printed World Wide Gum Co. series, which reused the 1933 Goudey design, updating the salient facts for 1934, and repeating the biographical info on the back in French. In keeping with my longstanding tightfisted ethos, I paid more in shipping than I did for the card itself. It’s ungraded, with soft, smushed corners where crisp, sharp edges should be. There are minor creases. This card is anything but pristine.

            Frank O’Rourke was a nobody. Well, that’s not quite fair. He’s in the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, after all. Born in Hamilton, Ontario in 1891, he was an infielder who eked out fourteen seasons of big-league ball for Boston’s NL club, the Robins, Senators, Red Sox, Tigers, and Browns. By the time his portrait was rendered for the ’33 Goudey set he’d seen his last major league action, hanging on with the American Association’s Milwaukee Brewers. The ’34 card that I now own dates to his single season with the Montreal Royals of the IL. He dropped down a few rungs to the Piedmont League in ’35, then held on for four seasons as a player-manager for the El Dorado (AR) Lions of the class ‘C’ Cotton States League. He later managed one more year in the Gulf Coast League, and in retirement he served as a scout for the Yankees.

            As a big-league player, O’Rourke managed a career bWAR of -2.0 and amassed a .254/.315/.333 slash line, and a .947 combined fielding percentage at third, short, and second (with a handful of games at first, and a couple patrolling the grass). As a minor-league manager he piled up a lifetime record of 551-580 across four levels of pro ball. Add all of that up and you get a slightly below-average baseball long-hauler, which is not to say there was nothing quietly heroic about Frank O’Rourke; longevity requires its own superpowers.

            But unlike some of its in-set brethren, selling this card wouldn’t allow me to pay off the mortgage, or retire to somewhere hot, sandy, and tax-free. Instead, my appreciation for this card is twofold: the first is purely and unapologetically aesthetic; the second is its implicit historical value.

            The Goudey cards are notoriously easy on the eyes, rendered with a stab at artistry that’s not generally present in modern cards. Holding a Goudey next to a 2021 Topps card makes for a stark contrast. The latter assaults with hyper-sharp photography and whizbang graphics that are intended, I can only guess, to suggest futurity, and motion, and, I don’t know, the internet? The Goudeys are Renaissance paintings on discrete panels of olive wood meant to be inlaid in elaborate polyptychs framing alters in out-of-the-way country churches, reverent celebrations of the beauty and purity of God’s favorite game. The backgrounds are solid fields of color—green in O’Rourke’s case, but elsewhere blue (as in Gehrig), yellow (Jimmie Foxx), red (Dazzy Vance). All the better to focus on the player. O’Rourke’s depicted from the chest up, like a Roman bust, in classic baseball togs: a white (or off-white) cap, logo-free, and a matching jersey with sun collar and orange-brown soutache piping. The pose is adapted from a photo of him in a St. Louis Browns uniform, from 1931 at the latest, that the Goudey (or World Wide Gum) people didn’t bother to retouch, though they were clear to indicate that he was, by 1934, a member of the Montreal Royals and thus in the habit of donning a blue-trimmed uniform.

            The portrait is so classically, absurdly, tragically handsome that if you hold it up to your ear it sings Protestant hymns interspersed with staticky ’30s radio calls of games won with moxie and heart. Even if you aren’t up to speed on his biography, the portrait makes clear that this is a baseball lifer, a man rolled in chalk and infield dirt and baked beneath a thousand midday suns.

            Since I first gazed on O’Rourke’s cardboard face I’ve gone looking for baseball card corollaries, but I came up short until I widened my scope, and then I found Piero della Francesca’s portrait of an Augustinian friar (possibly St. Leonard). Consider the similarities: the subtle intimations of age around the eyes and mouth, the weariness, and yet the slight bemusement, the wry off-center stare. Neither the friar nor Frank are too jaded to enjoy a good joke. Though separated by half a millennium, you get the sense they’d find some common ground. But beneath it all there’s something unmistakably ecclesiastical about both men’s depictions, the not-quite-visible result of a lifetime’s devotion to their respective callings. It’s behind the eyes, I think, or maybe just below the skin. Wherever it is, Piero managed to capture it, as did Elmer E. Crowell, the man responsible for O’Rourke’s likeness.

            The second half of my appreciation for this card has to do with its age: almost ninety years have passed since it was printed. I haven’t handled enough really old cards for the wonder of that to have diminished. Eighty-six years ago someone—a child, a nostalgic adult—bought a pack of gum and out tumbled this card.

            The US domestic GDP was in recovery after the New Deal slammed the brakes on negative growth and pumped cash into the economy. Hitler was chancellor of Germany, already in the process of consolidating his power and assuming the title of Führer. The first camps opened. The Prime Minister of Canada was RB Bennett, a safety match magnate who bungled the response to the Depression but had the foresight to establish the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. In China, where my grandfather was a brakeman on a streetcar in Shanghai, tensions with Japan were ratcheting up in the wake of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and the uneasy resolution to the “January 28th Incident.” The globe, inexorably, marched toward war.

            In the Bronx, Ruth was in his last season as a Yankee, and Gehrig, five years from retiring in the face of the rapid advance of his illness, was assuming outright leadership of the team. The Gashouse Gang took the Tigers in seven games in that fall’s Series. Detroit’s Mickey Cochrane was voted the AL’s best player, and in Commerce, Oklahoma, zinc miner Mutt Mantle’s kid, named for Cochrane, turned three years old.

            Frank O’Rourke was not directly connected to any of this as he toiled away in Montreal, and his card—a 2-3/8″ by 2-7/8″ piece of thick paper—has nothing whatsoever to do with those events. It was not present for any of them; it was not in all likelihood possessed or handled by any of the players in the aforementioned dramas. But it is for me touched by a temporal proximity, sprinkled with a residue which, though slight, constitutes enough of a reason for me to own it.

            If a Ruth Goudey—or a Sweet Caporal Wagner, or a ’52 Topps Mantle—is the seventh game of the World Series, then my Frank O’Rourke World Wide Gum is a non-consequential Thursday afternoon getaway game played before an announced crowd of twelve thousand. And while I love the screw-tightening intensity of a big game, what I treasure most about baseball is the sweet everydayness of it, the companionship of the radio announcer’s familiar voice for six months, the long, comforting trough of a regular season. And for all the superstars, the game’s lifeblood is its rank and file, guys like O’Rourke, doing the yeoman work of showing up every single day and taking his cuts, scooping up ground balls, and making throws across the diamond from whichever position he’s assigned.

            In that way, this O’Rourke card is perfectly emblematic both of Frank’s life and career, and most of ours. I won’t be in any literal or figurative Hall of Fame, and chances are neither will you. That’s okay. Something as beautiful as this Frank O’Rourke card exists to quietly and stubbornly insist that regardless of that, there’s still a hell of a lot of dignity inherent in our efforts, and the legacies thereof.

Editor’s note: Andrew’s newest book is now available for pre-order. If you can judge a book by it’s cover, this one will not disappoint!