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 did this Indy Clowns Hank Aaron for me a while back!

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!

Player Collection Spotlight – Brooks Robinson

I was in Little League back in 1985, playing third base. I had a game where I made a few diving stops to rob some base hits. After the third one, the umpire said he’s going to start calling me Brooks Robinson. I had no idea who he was, so I just thanked him and went about my day.

In the days and weeks that followed, I started to do some research. During the rain delays on Brewer telecasts they used to show old World Series highlights. I watched the 1970 highlights, from Robinson robbing Lee May in Game 1 to gobbling up a ground ball from Pat Corrales for the final out in Game 5. I was sold.

Robinson is another of the great defenders that I admire, along with Ozzie Smith, Pudge Rodriguez, and to some extent Jim Gantner. He was signed by the Orioles in 1955 and played for 23 seasons. He was an 18-time All-Star and racked up 16 Gold Gloves, more than any other position player. His defensive prowess is legendary and he earned the nickname of Human Vacuum Cleaner.

For those who have been following my posts, you know that I collect Topps Flagship, Traded, and Update sets. Starting in December, I have added Fleer, Donruss, Upper Deck, and Score to my player collections. This has added just one card for my Brooks Robinson set, his 1963 Fleer #4.

That is one of four cards that are missing from my collection. The others are his rookie card, 1957 Topps #328, and cards #600 and #531 from 1967 Topps. His rookie card is out of my price range and the two from 1967 have been hard to find. The Fleer card is a new target for me, so I do not know much about it yet.

There are a total of 39 Brooks Robinson cards that fit my collecting criteria, 38 Topps and 1 Fleer. I have 35 of them. My favorite among them is 1973 #90. It appears that the picture was snapped right after a pitch, as he is in the process of standing up after being set for the pitch.

My next favorite is 1976 #95. Surprisingly, it is the only other base card that has him with his glove on. (For non-base, also see his 1971 #331 World Series highlight card.) I also like the Oriole hat with the white front panel and orange brim.

My least favorite is 1958 Topps #307. Don’t get me wrong, I still think it’s an awesome card. I just don’t like the face he’s making.

So here is my Brooks Robinson collection. I’m hoping to get at least one of the missing ones this year. Maybe I’ll use the next stimulus check on that 1957 rookie card.

Jim Abbott and Rookie Cards

During one of the never-ending discussions about rookie cards and what constitutes them I had a realization that when I was a kid there were four different completely-defensible Topps Rookie Card possibilities for a player to have. Those four are:

  1. A team USA card which is part of Flagship or Traded and features the player before he turned pro.
  2. A Flagship #1 Draft Pick card that features him as a brand-new professional who has yet to play professionally.
  3. A Topps Traded card that marks his MLB debut.
  4. A post-debut Flagship Topps card that marks his first appearance as a MLB player in a flagship set.

It’s worth noting here that, both personally and as one of the editors of this blog, I encourage everyone to decide what counts for you and treat neither the RC badge nor any price guide’s ruling as gospel. I’ve encountered collectors who choose every different option here and have seen plenty of Twitter chops busting (or worse) when differing opinions encounter each other.

Anyway I looked at these options and immediately began wondering if there were any players who had all four types of Rookie Cards. It turns out that there’s not a huge checklist to pick from.

Team USA cards are only part of 1985 Topps, 1988 Traded, 1991 Traded, 1992 Traded, and 1993 Traded. The 1985 predate the #1 Draft cards and of the rest, not all those guys who made it were actually #1 Draft Picks. While I did not click through everyone’s name, I did check  the obvious choices. Much to my surprise the only name I found that had all four cards was Jim Abbott.

His 1988 Topps Traded USA card is a classic. I remember watching Team USA practice at Sunken Diamond in Stanford back before the Olympics and not believing the people who were talking about a one-handed pitcher. Did. Not. Compute.

When I got the 1988 Traded set that winter though, finding the Team USA cards inside was a fantastic surprise. The stars and stripes twist on the team name was a lot of fun and the entire set gave me my first sense of the addiction of prospecting. Plus they had even won the gold medal this time.

In 1989, the #1 Draft Picks cards were a similar breath of fresh air to me. Yes, both the USA and Draft Picks cards are ideas that can be found in 1985 Topps but the 1989 version is also a prospecting thing.* Seeing the college uniforms was fun but the real appeal was the sense of promise that this was the guy your team had decided to bet its future on.

*A couple years later I would realize that I should take these cards to Minor League games and try to get them signed.

That this subset was coincidental to Scott Boras sort of breaking Draft Pick signing bonuses also explains why it resonated so much with me. Draft Picks were big news. So not just the future of the club but also part of the big signing contract buzz as well.

Abbott ended up being one of those guys who stormed through the minors and made it to to the show super-fast. That his Traded “MLB debut” card* is the same season as his #1 Draft Pick card is impressive as hell. I like the fact that this would normally be an XRC but he already has two “Rookie” cards which pre-date it.

*I call this an MLB debut card because cards of rookies who debuted in MLB that year has always been half of what Traded is about. Topps did release its first official MLB debut set in 1989 as well. This is a confusing set since it’s listed as 1989 but uses the 1990 design. Also I’ve not come across any collectors who treat any of those cards as rookie cards whether they were release in the MLB Debut set or as part of Update. But yes Abbott has a card in that set as well.

It’s worth noting here that Abbott has cards from other late-season sets like Bowman, Fleer Update, Score Traded, and Upper Deck Extended. This suggests that the Topps Traded card has the most-logical claim as the definitive Topps Rookie Card since that’s where the manufacturer consensus is.

But for people like me who prefer the base flagship cards, Abbott’s 1990 Topps card, complete with Rookie Cup, is the old-school choice. A card you can pull from packs and on which, when you turn it over, you find a single line of Major League stats.

For a lot of players this is the best they could ever hope to get as their rookie card. For Abbott though it probably comes in a distant fourth when ranking which of his cards people consider to be his rookie card. It’s neither his first flagship card nor his first card as a Major League player. And it definitely wouldn’t qualify for the RC badge in today’s hobby.

Hollywood Stars Were in the Cards: Part 1

A decade of tumult, the 1930s saw the United States, and the world, in flux. Numerous European economies continued their struggle to survive in the wake of the Great War—a struggle that finally reached America’s shores in October 1929, as the Wall Street Crash heralded the Great Depression. The map of the world, itself, was in flux, as newly minted despots gobbled up sovereign states to add to their burgeoning empires, while their demagoguery inspired millions to visit the darkest depths of the human soul.

In short, there was little in the 1930s on which to depend. Even names were in flux.

Warren Ogden, a descendant of Ogdens who had crossed the Atlantic with William Penn and whose surname became the eponym of the Pennsylvania town in which Warren was born, pitched for the Philadelphia Athletics and Washington Senators in the mid-1920s. (Warren’s older brother, Jack, also pitched in the majors, though his yo-yo career up and down from the bushes spanned 1918 to 1932.) Not much of an asset to Connie Mack, Warren was put on waivers in May 1924, eventually being picked up by Washington. His 9-5 record and excellent 2.58 ERA over the remainder of the season helped Washington clinch its first pennant. A surprise starter in Game 7 of the World Series, Ogden struck out leadoff hitter Freddie Lindstrom, walked Frankie Frisch, and then was pulled for southpaw George Mogridge, in a successful ploy by manager Bucky Harris to lure John McGraw into altering his batting order to the right-handed Ogden. (Washington won in the bottom of the 12th inning to claim its only World Series championship.) Ogden remained with the Senators through July 1926, his major league record set at 18-19.

But we’re talking about the tumultuous, undependable 1930s, aren’t we? So, why bring up Warren Ogden, whose major league career ended well before that decade arrived? Because Goudey, well known for including minor leaguers in its 1933 set, did just that: Card No. 174 shows Warren as a Montréal Royal. (Ditto for big-brother Jack [“John”] Ogden, whose major league career ended in 1932 but received a card as a Baltimore Oriole in 1933. On a weird side note, the only other vintage card on which either brother apparently appeared, the 1928 W461 Exhibit, is a card of John yet shows a several-year-old photo of Warren, in his Senators uniform.)

As you can see, Goudey parenthetically included Warren’s nickname, “Curley.” However, the common spelling of said nickname has always been “Curly.” In fact, his name is sans “e” in virtually all resources, including Baseball Reference, SABR, Baseball Almanac, and MLB.com.

One might be inclined to think this was a Goudey thing—after all, the company wasn’t spelled Goudy.

However, as stated above, such inconsistency seems to have been symptomatic of the chaotic 1930s, where it clearly plagued the Three Stooges as well.

Yet whereas Columbia Pictures seems to have permanently abandoned the “e” by late in the decade, the sheer paucity of vintage Warren Ogden cards allowed this oversight to go unaddressed until 1975—long after Warren Ogden’s death—when TCMA’s team set honoring the 1924-1925 Senators finally conformed the spelling of his nickname to standard.

Every baseball player thrills to seeing himself on a baseball card for the first time, so God only knows how many times over the years his 1933 Goudey caused Ogden to wipe his hands vertically across his face in Curly Howard–like exasperation or maniacally spin himself 360° while lying on the floor knowing that he’d likely take “Curley” to the grave.

Alas, like his more famous namesake, Curly Ogden was a victim of soycumstance.

Don Sutton, 1945-2021

If you avidly collected baseball cards in the 80s, like I did, Don Sutton was a constant presence. From his last couple of Dodgers issues in 1980 and 1981, through his years with the Astros, Brewers, A’s, Angels and eventual return to the Dodgers in 1988, you never cracked a box of wax packs without getting a Don Sutton. The only thing that seemed to change was the color of his trademarked tight-knit and voluminous puff of curly hair. Steel grey for 1980 Topps to stark white in 1988 Score. Don Sutton always showed up and you were happy to have him.

Similarly, Don Sutton was always there for his team when called upon. In fact, in his 23 years in the Major Leagues, he never missed a start due to injury. Think about that amazing feat. He answered the bell through the presidencies of LBJ, Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan without missing a single start. Also, Don Sutton did not just show up every four days, he excelled every four days. 324 wins, 3,574 strikeouts, a 3.26 career ERA and a 1.14 WHIP. An amazing feat, especially for someone who pitched in the shadows of other legends like Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan and Steve Carlton.

Perhaps the most amazing fact about Don Sutton is that he is the only Dodgers Hall of Famer who never played for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Duke, Sandy and Pee Wee all played at Ebbets Field and Mike Piazza dons a Mets cap on his plaque in Cooperstown.

So, there he is, Don Sutton, standing alone as the only Los Angeles Dodgers Hall of Famer, at least until he is eventually joined by Clayton Kershaw. So, tonight after work, go on eBay and buy a box of mid-80s junk wax. When you get a Don Sutton card, and you will get a Don Sutton card, don’t rush by it to search for a bigger star. Turn over that Sutton card, check out his stats for yourself, and just appreciate his consistency and excellence.

Magnifying glass not included

Rest In Peace, Don Sutton.

Hank Aaron, 1934-2021

“We still have Henry.”

As we lost Hall of Famer after Hall of Famer last year, this was my mantra. As the calendar turned to 2021, which we might now more correctly call “2020 Update,” and we lost Lasorda, then Sutton, “We still have Henry.” There were mornings I’d wake up and check espn.com for one sole purpose: to make sure Henry Aaron was still with us.

And now, of course, he isn’t.

It would be impossible for me to put into words the excellent life he lived or the greatness of his career. The best you’ll find all in one place is the outstanding biography, “The Last Hero,” by Howard Bryant.

Instead I’ll share a couple stories and some collection highlights as a personal tribute to my favorite player of all-time.

Don’t meet your idols?

When an event sells out in all of about ten seconds there’s no need to publicize it much. Such was the case with the “Chasing the Dream” benefit put on by the Milwaukee Brewers Community Foundation off and on over the past decade or so.

An afternoon hanging out with Hank Aaron at the ballpark? Yes, please! The first year I’d heard about the event it was of course too late. No tickets left. Try again next year. I did, and I was right about to enter my credit card info when I realized I had a business trip I couldn’t reschedule. Strike two. Still, like the Hammer, I knew to keep swinging.

Come 2016 I had my Google Alerts set up and started “hammering” the Brewers event staff any way I could with calls, emails, calls to see if they got my emails, emails to see if they got my calls, etc. Had the blocked my number and put me on their spammer list, the only fair question would have been “What took you so long?” Instead, one day I got an email from an employee that read something to the effect of, “Jason, I think you are the person who keeps calling us about the Hank Aaron event. Tickets are going on sale tomorrow. Or if it’s easier for you, just let me know how many you need.”

Fast forward to the morning of the event and I’m up at the crack of dawn sorting through my Hank Aaron collection for just the right item to get autographed. Since my wife (then girlfriend) Jodee was joining me, I’d no doubt bring a second item she could have signed. Of course I couldn’t decide so we hit the car with 5-6 articles and, me being me, I worried the whole drive that maybe I left something even better behind.

“Wait, if the event is at 3, why are we leaving here at 11?”

Fair question.

“I want to make sure we’re not late.”

Milwaukee was about 90 minutes from where I lived, so I’d added another hour in case of traffic, thirty minutes in case we needed to stop somewhere, and another thirty minutes for making our way through the stadium. Oh, and another half hour just in case.

“In case of what?”

“I don’t know. Just in case we need it.”

We didn’t.

Not only were we the first car to arrive at the stadium, but the parking lot itself was not yet even open. I would have asked someone why the gates were locked, but we were so early there was not even anyone to ask.

About 45 minutes later another car pulled up behind us, and this was vindicating to me. “Yep, good thing we left when we did.”

Once the gates opened I parked as close as I could to the gate where our event paperwork directed us.

“Why are you running?” I heard a woman call out some distance behind me. It was Jodee. I slowed down.

“We need to hurry so we can get good seats.”

We compromised by speed-walking the rest of the way. There was only one problem. I had no idea where I was going. Most of the directions we were able to get from the handful of employees already working were of the “Hmm, not sure. Maybe up a couple more levels” variety.

Finally we came to a cozy, mid-sized room filled with tables, chairs, a stage, trays of meats and cheeses, and walls covered with Hank Aaron décor. Somehow we were too early. Nobody was here yet but us, meaning there wasn’t even anyone who could help us figure out our table.

When someone did come in, I was a little worried she was there to kick us out. Maybe this was some sort of VIP room, and the actual event I had tickets to was in a different part of the stadium. Damn.

“Are you here for the Hank Aaron event?”

“Yes, is this the right place?” I asked, hoping my Hank Aaron Milwaukee Braves throwback jersey would make me seem a little more VIP than I really was.

“Yes, you’re a little early, but feel free to have a seat.”

“Okay, do you know where?”

“You two are first, so anywhere you like.”

And yes I was gonna be that guy who grabs the table right in front of the stage where he’ll be literally three feet from Hank Aaron the entire time. I had better seats than Billye Aaron, and perhaps I should have offered to trade. Then again, it’s not like she didn’t see Hank Aaron all the time.

The event was unbelievable. Hank Aaron telling stories and taking questions from the crowd for over an hour, about as up close and personal as can be. The ten pounds of cheese and roast beef I ate were awesome too, but that’s another story. I sat there mesmerized the entire time, in the presence of baseball royalty. A true American hero in literal spitting distance from Jodee and me.

At the event’s conclusion there was time for each attendee to shake hands and get their picture taken with the Hammer. Mr. Aaron complimented me on my jersey, which I thought was funny. I had imagined that morning that half the crowd would be reppin’ #44, but it turned out I was the only one not in some variation of Dockers and a dress shirt. How Jodee predicted this I have no idea!

The collection

Hank Aaron had been an idol of mine since I first learned, around the age of 9, that he was the Home Run King. I had a book that included various leaderboards, and there was Hank Aaron’s name above even that of Babe Ruth. Little distracted by sabermetric nuance at that time, I simply figured things this way: Home runs are the best hit you can get, and Aaron has the most home runs. Ergo…

I practically shat myself in 1979 when I opened a pack of Topps cards and pulled a Hank Aaron. A friend at school had Aaron’s 1976 Topps but he would have sooner traded his whole house and family than let go of that card, so an Aaron of my own seemed impossible. And then it wasn’t.

Over the next few years, some friends and I made it to enough card shows and did enough trades that at various times I might have enough Hank Aaron cards to keep one in each of my pockets. This obviously did little for the condition and value of the cards but did wonders for my self-esteem.

With a series of unfortunate events nearly biblical in proportion, my Hank Aaron collection (along with my entire collection) would ultimately dwindle down to zero by high school, only to be rebuilt around my junior year of college when I figured out I could buy some top notch cardboard if only I stopped spending my work-study checks on overpriced textbooks. I proved to be worse at bookless school than I thought I’d be, but my (generous) C in Mathematical Analysis and F in Quantum Mechanics were a small price to pay for the Hank Aaron rookie card that remains in my collection to this day.

Over the next few years I continued to add to my collection through card shows and the Kit Young catalog. Hank Aaron wasn’t my sole focus, but I was slowly working toward a goal of collecting his entire career. This was pre-internet, so I had no idea just how many cards this would entail.

Fast forward more than two decades and I’m 44 (!) years old, sitting on a beat up couch in a small rental where for the first time in forever I open a box containing about 100 cards in yellowed top loaders. Along with my guitar and a coffee mug, this was the only thing I took with me when I separated from my ex-wife. There were some great cards in the box: Ted Williams, Jimmie Foxx, Hack Wilson, … but the cards that brought back the fondest memories were the Aaron cards. After making it once through the stack, I went back through it again to pull and sort the Aarons. I had 12 cards from his Topps base run, roughly half his career. Instantly I had a goal.

Hobby Rip Van Winkle that I’d become, my first thought was to look for a card show heading to town. A few web searches later I discovered that cards were really, really easy to buy nowadays. I found eBay too intimidating and ended up at Dean’s Cards where the selection was ample and the searches didn’t turn up tons of reprints and fakes.

It was a very tough stretch in my life but one made far better by the Dean’s shipment that hit my mailbox every week or so. Once I had my base run, I moved on to All-Star cards, off brands, combination player cards, etc. As the want list got smaller but exponentially pricier, I diversified my collecting to include magazines, bobbleheads, artwork, and other Hank Aaron collectibles.

Hell, I even ran Hank Aaron 5Ks!

With the arrival of Hammer’s elusive 1960 Lake to Lake Dairy card last week and his 1969 Topps Super last year, I have finally reached the point where my Hank Aaron collection may well be complete, give or take a handful of League Leader cards. Either way, my love and admiration for Hank Aaron will never fade.

It was a somber thing today to walk through our basement bedroom, affectionately dubbed the Hank Aaron Suite. What was once my Tribute is now my Memorial to the Hammer.

The great Hank Aaron who survived so many other baseball legends in 2020 and early 2021 has now joined them. Henry Aaron is still with us, but only in our hearts, our memories, and our record books.

The King is dead. Long live the King.

UPDATE: Watch Jason’s SABR presentation, “The History of Baseball Cards as Told by Hank Aaron.”

Dick Allen and the Very, Very, Very Useful Photo

In the summer of 1985, Pete Rose was inching closer by the day to breaking Ty Cobb’s all-time hit record of 4191. My friends and I made a five-dollar bet, the winner of which would be whomever among the three of us could compile the most different Pete Rose cards by the time he broke the record. 

1982 Topps Kmart Pete Rose card nos. 24 and 44.

A few years earlier, Kmart issued a small boxed set that reprinted the Topps card for each player who was awarded a league MVP award from 1962 through 1981, in honor of the store’s 20th anniversary. The set was one that had collected dust on card dealers’ tables for years, eschewed by collectors (especially me) who viewed the set as a box of reprint trash. 

For purposes of winning a bet, however, the Kmart set was golden (especially in the days when there were not 500 different cards of every star player printed each year). I knew that Rose would have a Kmart card for his 1973 MVP award and was pleasantly surprised to find the set also included a highlight card, which commemorated Rose having eclipsed Stan Musial’s all-time National League hit record on August 10, 1981. These two Rose cards helped push me over the top. That we were betting on Pete Rose at the same time he was betting on baseball is just a fun coincidence.

An unintended consequence of buying the Kmart set, however, was actually enjoying the remainder of the cards. One that struck me in particular was the 1972 Dick (“Rich”) Allen card because it was, quite frankly, a strange profile view so unlike the standard poses and action shots that Topps typically used. I knew this was a real card I needed to have.

1982 Topps Kmart no. 21; 1972 Topps no. 240.

The oddity of the photo used on the 1972 card was highlighted when researching the appearance of mustaches on baseball cards, which culminated in this ground-breaking SABR Baseball Cards Committee article. Allen was identified as having been the first ballplayer to appear on a Topps issue sporting a mustache in his 1971 high-number Dodgers card. 

Which one of these is not like the other? 1971 Topps no. 650; 1972 Topps no. 240, 1973 Topps no. 310.

As a member of the White Sox in 1972, Allen slashed .308/.420/.603; led the American League with 37 home runs, 113 runs batted in, and 99 walks; and led all of baseball in facial hair with his trademark mustache and pork chop sideburns. Curiously, however, the 1972 Topps card depicts a youthful, clean-shaven Allen. The 1973 issue corrected the incongruity and featured Allen’s hirsute silhouette, still discernible despite his face having been obscured by shadows.             

As Tim Jenkins will attest, Topps made a habit in the 1960s and 1970s of using the same photograph of a player across different issues. The 1972 Dick Allen is no exception in that the same photograph was used for his 1970 issue, while Allen was a member of the Cardinals.

1970 Topps no. 40; 1972 Topps no. 240.

Thanks to some airbrush magic, the photo was purposefully vague in its identification of a particular team, but was happily consistent with Cardinal red and the White Sox color scheme of the time.

It appears, however, that this photo was actually taken while Allen was a member of the Phillies. The clean-cut photo of Allen used in 1970 and 1972 also appears to have been used as the basis for the 1965 Topps Embossed Dick Allen card, which would date the photo to 1965, or earlier, and confirms it was used by Topps to depict Allen on three different teams across eight different seasons.  

These all appear to be the same photo. 1965 Topps Embossed no. 36; 1970 Topps no. 40; 1972 Topps no. 240.
1965 Topps Embossed superimposed on 1972 Topps. Nearly a perfect match but for the length of the bill.

Dick Allen and Pete Rose may never have been teammates but they certainly share a sacred bond as members of the Kmart boxed set.

Postscript

The 1965 Ernie Banks Topps flagship card featured a profile pose. Similarly, it appears that this same photo was used as the basis for Banks’ 1965 Topps Embossed issue and helps to document that the Topps embossing process included trimming the length of the ballcap’s bill so the image would fit more comfortably onto the more slender card.  

1965 Topps Embossed no. 58; 1965 Topps no. 510.
1965 Topps Embossed superimposed on 1965 Topps. Again, nearly a perfect match but for the length of the bill.

Juan’s Double Prints

In several previous posts (too many for most of you!), I have highlighted Topps’ tendency to recycle photos.  The Major League Baseball Players Association boycott of Topps in 1967-68 exacerbated this practice, but earlier examples abound.  My latest obsession is focused on the 1960s cards of Juan Marichal.

In either 1960 or 1961, a photo session took place in San Francisco at Candlestick Park, which opened in 1960.  The photographer captured three different poses of Marichal.  The photos are distinctive due to Juan’s white undershirt.

Since the undergarment does not have a collar, it appears to be a rubberized jacket seen frequently on vintage cards whose photos were taken in spring training.  The shirt was designed to help “burn off” fat accumulated over the winter. However, in this instance, the slender Dominican is undoubtedly using it for insulation, to ward off the Arctic like conditions at Candlestick Park. Also, it is a good bet that Marichal was not starting that evening.  The white sleeves would have been deceptive to the hitters.

The first use of the white sleeve photos shows up on Juan’s 1962 card. He is shown with his arms above his head.  1963 has Juan in a slightly turned stretch position.  The small black and white photo on the 1963 card reuses the 1962 picture.

In 1964, the third pose is used.  This straight on shot turns up on Juan’s “Stand Up” card as well.  The 1962 image makes a comeback on the Pitching Leaders card, while the 1963 Topps pose is used on the Wheaties Stamp.

Topps was far from done using the photos.  The 1964 image turns up on the 1968 checklist as well as Juan’s Bazooka cards from 1965 and 1968. Meanwhile the 1963 Topps pose turns up on the 1967 checklist and 1965 Pitching Leaders card.

We are not done yet.  The 1962 photo spans the decades and appears on the 1970 Pitching Leaders card.

Sometime prior to 1965, Topps snapped three additional photos, probably in spring training.  Although it is hard to prove definitively, the pictures were probably taken at the same time, due to the mock turtleneck undershirt in all three.

Topps will recycle two of the three portraits.  Juan’s partially turned headshot is found on the 1965 card, the 1966 ERA Leaders, the 1967 ERA and Pitching Leaders cards, and the 1967 poster insert. The same image returns on the Deckle Edge insert in 1969.

The second photo, depicting Marichal holding a ball, is used on the 1964 coin insert and the 1966 Bazooka.

The third image may be the best of all.  The 1964 “Giant” shows a smiling Juan.  I could not find another instance of this one being reused.

Topps put out the recycling again, using a newer photo taken a Candlestick.  It is used on the 1967 and 1968 cards, the 1969 Pitching Leaders and the 1969 and 1970 Transogram.

Of course, Juan Marichal is not unique in having reused images.  The League Leader cards have many duplicate images of star players.  I still find it interesting that an image can show up eight years after it first appeared.

RIP Tommy Lasorda (1927-2021)

Editor’s note: We welcome SABR’s newest member, Brian Kritz, to the Baseball Cards blog. Brian is a longtime Dodger fan and collector who was gracious enough to share this remembrance of Tommy Lasorda literally minutes after joining SABR.

Most baseball-loving kids who grew up in Southern California in the 1970s and 1980s likely have a similar story. The day they met the ultimate Dodgers legend, Tommy Lasorda. Yes, the Tommy Lasorda of the career 0-4 record and a 6.48 ERA (or for the younger stat heads, a -1.3 career WAR).

But to a couple of generations of Southern California kids, Tommy was the biggest and most important Dodger of them all. Bigger than Garvey, Lopes, Russell, or Cey. Bigger than Dusty Baker, Reggie Smith and even bigger than Orel Hershiser and Fernando Valenzuela. When Kirk Gibson hit his game winning home run in Game One of the 1988 World Series, to whom did NBC pan? It was Tommy, trotting in joy out of the Dodgers dugout.

When I was 11 years old, I visited the Dodgers clubhouse before a game against the Atlanta Braves. After meeting and getting autographs from Dodgers greats such as Jerry Reuss and Bob Welch as well as obscure former Dodgers such as Terry Whitfield and Jack Fimple, I was taken to meet Tommy in his office. He was sitting behind his desk, larger than life, with pictures of him with Frank Sinatra and Ronald Reagan in the background.

He rose from his desk and made me feel like the most important person in the world when he told me to sit in his chair. I was floating on air and asked him to sign my copy of his 1982 Donruss card. He did, and then pulled out a postcard of himself from his desk and signed it To Brian, a future Dodger, Tom Lasorda.

Being a very literal kid, I pretty much figured that Tommy had just signed me to a contract and that I would play for the Dodgers some day. Tommy would see to it personally. He was Tommy Lasorda, he could do anything. Having collected baseball cards for the last forty years, and having turned my baseball card hobby into a business since eBay came along, I have seen probably three hundred signed Tommy Lasorda items with that same tag line, To [Fill In Your Name], a future Dodger, Tom Lasorda.

That was Tommy. He made you feel special, he made you feel like you could be a Dodger one day, he made you Bleed Dodger Blue. Rest in Peace, Tommy. Thank you for making us all feel special.