An oddball addition to the Henry Aaron collection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Page 19…

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

ANSWERS TO PICTURE CHALLENGES

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

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

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

Vida Blue, 1971

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

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

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

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

1970 Topps #21

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

1969 Topps #189

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(AP Photo)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1971 Topps #2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1971 #551

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll never forget it.

1971 Doug McWilliams Postcard

The Many Faces of the “Topps” 1954 Mickey Mantle

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

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

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

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

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

Upper Deck 1994 – All-Time Heroes Card

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

Upper Deck 1994 All-Time Heroes – Mickey Mantle Card

Topps 1954 Style Mickey Mantle Cards

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

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

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

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

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

The Topps Project70 1954 style Mantle was created by CES.

Topps Project70 1954 Style Mickey Mantle by CES

Bob Lemke – 1954 Topps-style Mantle Card

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

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

1954 Sports Illustrated Mickey Mantle

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

Foldout of Yankees Cars from 1954 Sports Illustrated Issue #2

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

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

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

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

The card that still haunts me

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

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

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

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

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

Hank Greenberg
1129 Miradero Road
Beverly Hills, CA 90210

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

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

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

Of course what happened next was unthinkable yet entirely predictable.

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

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

The Survivors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then it happened.

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

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

The beautiful cardboard of Hall of Famer Gil Hodges

What an unexpected thrill for me to see Gil Hodges finally “get the call” from Cooperstown. Among other things, his recent election provides the perfect occasion to showcase some of his most beautiful baseball cards.

FIFTH PLACE

1957 Topps “Dodgers’ Sluggers”

If there is a single card to represent 1950s baseball, this might be it. Four beloved “Bums” in a classic baseball pose with the Ebbets Field outfield wall behind them in all its advertising glory.

FOURTH PLACE

1960 Topps World Series

The very first Topps World Series subset (if you don’t count 1948) is in my opinion the best. Obviously my love of the Dodgers plays a role here, but it’s really the look of the cards that grabs me. The Hodges card, in particular, is a true masterpiece of its time.

THIRD PLACE

1957 Topps

For many players, a card this beautiful would take first place without question. In truth, I’m not sure any other player of the era has a third place card even close to this one. I suspect it’s possible to look at it and see only a rather overused batting pose with a not particularly crisp stadium backdrop. Equally, however, it’s possible to look at it and see something more: perfection.

SECOND PLACE

1952 Topps

I know not all will agree here, but I regard Gil’s 1952 Topps card as the prettiest in the entire 407-card set. I love everything about it: the peach background, the landscape format, the shadows, the pose, the expression, the shoulder patch, the cut of the sleeves, the timeless Dodgers logo.

Though far more attention today goes to the pseudo-rookie cards of Mantle and Mays, I have to imagine this card when it came out was instantly one of the two or three most popular among the 12-and-under division of New York’s gum chewing elite.

FIRST PLACE

1954 Dan-Dee

What can I say? I’m a sucker for skies. For whatever reason the white and purple clouds and baby blue sky create not only a three-dimensional look to the card but practically trick my eyes into thinking the actual Gil Hodges (1954 version, not 2021) is looking right at me. It’s an illusion I normally only get from Graig Kreindler paintings. Note that this same image haunts the 1953-55 Stahl-Meyer Franks and 1953-54 Briggs Meats cards. Ditto for 1958 Bell Brand but in black and white.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Three other Gil Hodges cards that could have easily occupied any spot on this list are his 1950, 1952, and 1953 Bowman cards. I lack the image editing skills to do so, but I daresay adding some flourish to the bald sky of his 1953 card probably takes it straight to number one. Did I mention I’m a sucker for skies?

Finally, I would be remiss in ending this article without a single Mets card. After all, his time at the helm of the Miracle Mets may well have factored into his Hall of Fame nod nearly as much as his years as Dodger first baseman. In truth, I don’t think any of Gil’s Mets cards can compete aesthetically with his Dodger cardboard, but his 1972 O-Pee-Chee, noting his (then) recent death, is what I’ll end on.

1972 O-Pee-Chee

Side note: I have to imagine a lot of Canadian youth asking their moms and dads what “deceased” meant and then getting really sad.

Hodges died suddenly at the very young age of 47. His 1972 baseball card is a reminder that none of us really know the days we have left, whether for ourselves, our loved ones, or our heroes. About all we can do, though it’s not a small thing, is to make the most of the time we have, living our lives with purpose and gratitude and making the world a little better where we can.

Author’s note: This post is dedicated to SABR member Donna Muscarella and the memory of her father, a Gil Hodges fan without equal.

“Hello, do you have Michael Jordan in a can?”

At the tail end of the “junk wax” era in 1995, Upper Deck—in tandem with a company called Metallic Impressions—produced a set that exemplifies the excess and weirdness of the era.  Taking advantage of the hoopla surrounding Michael Jordan’s attempt to become a baseball player, Upper Deck released a set of five Jordan “cards” on steel stock.  The five-card set is contained in a metal box with a detachable lid.

The “Michael Jordan Tribute Set” is rather conventional in design. Paper fronts and backs are adhered to the gold embossed steel. Action photos grace the fronts, with narratives of Michael’s baseball odyssey contained on the back along with another photo.  The cards are numbered MJ1-MJ5.

 The first card features a Little League photo of Michael Jordan, with the back providing the inspiration and rationale for retiring from basketball and trying a sport he last played in high school.

Card MJ2 is about the White Sox sending Michael to the Arizona Fall League after the Birmingham Barons AA season ended in September of 1994.  By the way, he got off to a fine start at bat and finishing with a respectable .252 average.

The final three cards are devoted to hitting, baserunning and fielding.  The text details Jordan’s hard work and continued improvement.

Of course, Jordon decided to end his pursuit of a baseball career in 1995 and the bottom fell out of the baseball card market.  The set I have is from the markdown section at Target, where my wife or I purchased it for my son in the late 1990s. Last summer, I rediscovered the set buried within a storage bin.

This set is an example of the prevailing philosophy of the “junk wax” era; throw stuff at the wall and hope something sticks.  In the case of the “Michael Jordan Tribute Set,” it fell clanking to the floor.

“You better let Michael out of the can before he suffocates to death!”

Facepalm

Checklist release day is always a fun one, especially when it’s a Flagship related set like Update where I’m curious which players made it into the “permanent record.” Yesterday was such a day. I woke up, noticed that the checklist had been released, and proceeded to click on multiple preview posts hoping to find an HTML list instead of an XLSX one.

I eventually did so but it took me about four tries and on each page I saw the exact same sell sheet sample images. The sameness of the images wasn’t a surprise—Topps obviously sends the same sell sheet to everyone—but the presence of one image caught me on every page.


Yeah.

I didn’t recognize at first that all the previews were originally written and posted in May. And I totally understand how easy it is to just tack on the new information at the bottom of an already-existing article. But still just a quick scroll through the article is enough to make me shake my head and doing that multiple times made me really sad about the state of the hobby.

This was a high-profile case which resulted in a player being suspended in early July and having that suspension extended to encompass the entire season. I don’t feel like discussing the details of the case here (Google is your friend if you somehow missed it but suffice it to say that I was not expecting to have to have baseball prompt an in-depth discussion about consent and its limitations with my sons) but his suspension and the way that Major League Baseball and the Dodgers have pulled his merchandise says more than enough.

He’s completely non-viable as a marketable part of the league yet Topps, despite a three-month lead time, was not only unable to pull him from the product but wasn’t even able to update the sell sheet. This is massively irresponsible. The new sell sheet should’ve gone out in July instead of relying on card bloggers and writers to edit their old posts.

That so many hobby publications completely missed the problem is also completely dismaying. This hobby already already skews heavily male* so stuff that feels almost designed to make women feel uncomfortable is embarrassing. It shouldn’t be hard to catch something like this. **

*Including this blog. I think the closest we have to a post authored by a woman is Jason’s interview with Donna. And yes Jason and I are acutely aware that this is is a problem.

**By the end of the yesterday multiple sites had actually edited their previews and removed the image. I’m fully aware that I’m using that image on this blog but it’s not the image itself which is a problem but rather its usage as an advertisement for the set. 

And yes it’s absolutely embarrassing. I got some crap on Twitter accusing me of being upset but my reaction to the initial posts was more just being appalled at how normalized this kind of thing is. I wish it made me angry* but the sad state of this country is that we’re so good at condoning and excusing violence against women that the most emotion I can muster is a facepalm and rueful headshake.

*The tweets I received did succeed in pissing me off.

Definitely not the buzz I wanted to feel about a new set. But the wake up call is worth listening to. The hobby has got to do better here. The same goes to us as men.

The Ted Williams code

Three of my great loves in the Hobby—Fleer, Ted Williams, and crazy number patterns—all come together in the 1959 Fleer Ted Williams set, 80 cards that chronicle the life and times of the Splendid Splinter, both on and off the field.

The set’s cards are refreshingly affordable with the exception of card 68 in the set, “Ted Signs for 1959,” which was pulled due to its inclusion of Bucky Harris, for whom Fleer did not have rights. Because this single card (in like condition) is typically priced higher than the rest of the set combined, many collectors opt to settle for a “79/80” set and call it a day.

Something I’d wondered about but never researched was how Fleer’s production process changed once it became necessary to pull card 68. There seemed to be two strategies available:

  • Continue printing all 80 cards but remove card 68 prior to collation into packs.
  • Omit card 68 from all subsequent printing

The first of these approaches seemed bulky, though perhaps not unprecedented. (Goudey may have done similar in 1934 with its Lajoie card.)

1934 Goudey series four uncut sheet

The second of these approaches seemed much easier. Fleer could simply replace card 68 on its printing sheet with any other card from the set. While this would create a “double-print,” a card twice as numerous as others due to its dual placement on printing sheets, it would also, at least presumably, save Fleer all kinds of work.

Again, there was precedent in an older Goudey set, though it’s unknown to collectors whether Goudey doubled up on its Ruth 144 (second row, third and sixth cards) in 1933 to replace another card or simply to print more Ruth cards. (I’m probably in the minority who would vote for the former.)

1933 Goudey series six uncut sheet

I hoped to settle the question by finding an uncut sheet with a double-print. Instead, I stumbled upon this sheet that recently sold on eBay. No double-prints, but right there in the lower left corner was card 68!

The presence of card 68 on the sheet suggested one of two possibilities:

  • Fleer continued to print card 68, even if it meant having to pull it over and over before collating cards into packs.
  • The sheet pre-dated Fleer’s decision to pull card 68.

I won’t settle that question in this article, partly because I don’t think the answer is knowable but mostly because I’m so easily distracted by oddball numbering patterns.

Here are the card numbers from the back of the sheet.

One simple pattern and two less simple ones are evident.

  • The numbers decrease by two in going from the first to the second column.
  • The numbers increase by 13 or 15 in going from the second to the third column.
  • The numbers increase by 15 or 17 in going from one row to the next.

The first of these patterns suggested a way to extend the table to the left and right, stopping once a new column would generate repeated numbers. Here was the result.

Two small changes I’ll now introduce are the letters A-P to label the table’s sixteen columns and a vertical divider line between column H and column I to mark the break in the pattern. If nothing else, this table suggests a nomenclature for the original sheet: GHI.

In truth, all columns except GHI are hypothetical at this point, but you can imagine I’d hardly be writing this up if there wasn’t something more happening.

For example, here is another sheet, which corresponds exactly to columns KLM in the table.

And here are two 20-card sheets, corresponding exactly to ABCD and DEFG.

In other words, the hypothetical extension of the numbering scheme does reflect something real. Having now seen ABCD, DEFG, GHI, and KLM, can we find sheets with that include J, N, O, and P to complete our set?

Definitely! Here are two different sheets, HIJ and JKL, that include column J.

Finally, here is NOP to round things out.

You might wonder if all sheets from the Ted Williams set match the table as nicely as the ones I’ve shown. From what I can tell the answer is yes. You may also be familiar with the occasional 6-card panel that appears from time to time. Sure enough, even these panels have a home in the table.

Recognizing the wide, if not universal, applicability of the numbering scheme to the set, it’s fair to wonder where such a scheme could have come from. I won’t pretend that the information below reflects any intentional thinking from Fleer or their printing house, but I’ll nonetheless offer a simple three-step algorithm that generates the entire table and demystifies it in so doing.

STEP ONE: Start with the numbers from 1-80, arranged in a 16 x 5 table.

STEP TWO: Subdivide each row into its odd and even components.

STEP THREE: Rebuild the 16 x 5 table by adding the rows from the above table in a serpentine pattern.

In other words, however complicated the “Ted Williams code” might look, it is simply the result of arranging eight straightforward “strips” of cards in a relatively straightforward manner.

HOW WERE THE CARDS PRINTED?

When I first stumbled upon the sheet of 15 cards I was surprised not only by the presence of card 68 but also the number of cards on the sheet. After all, the only ways to get to 80 cards, fifteen at a time, seemed to involve excessive double-prints. For example, six sheets of 15 will get you the set but introduce 10 double-prints along the way.

It was comforting then to discover a 20-card sheet since it opened the door to two seemingly more likely possibilities.

  • The set was produced in four sheets of 20 cards, with any 15-card sheets (or smaller panels) being trimmed afterward from larger sheets.
  • The set was produced using four sheets of 15 and one sheet of 20.

Let’s start with the first of these. Taking a look at the top edge of KLM from earlier, it feels safe to conclude that this sheet used to be at least a little larger. What’s inconclusive is whether only the border was cut off or if there used to be a fourth row of cards. In other words, we don’t know if we are looking at 99% of KLM or three-fourths of KLMN.

These next two 15-card sheets, both NOP, don’t show any evident trimming through each has thin enough edge that it’s fair to wonder if they simply reflect a much cleaner cutting job than in the previous example. If trimmed from 20-card sheets, the first would have come from MNOP, but the second presents a challenge to my numbering scheme, which doesn’t anticipate any columns after “P.”

Still, let’s assume all 15-card sheets in existence came from 20-card sheets. The simplest configuration would be ABCD, EFGH, IJKL, and MNOP shown below. Any departure would either require more than four sheets (and introduce significant double-printing) or conflict with the numbering scheme that has so far been consistent with all known examples.

Yet having already seen sheet DEFG, we know this was not how the cards were printed! Therefore, at least based on the sheets known to exist, I think we’re back to schemes involving combinations of 15 and 20 card sheets.

Assuming the cards were printed as four sheets of 15 and one sheet of 20, there are only five ways to do this that don’t leave stray remnants of 5 or 10 cards.

Here are the five solutions, represented in list form.

  • ABCD-EFG-HIJ-KLM-NOP
  • ABC-DEFG-HIJ-KLM-NOP
  • ABC-DEF-GHIJ-KLM-NOP
  • ABC-DEF-GHI-JKLM-NOP
  • ABC-DEF-GHI-JKL-MNOP

While the typical question to ask would be which one did Fleer use, the existence of ABCD and DEFG tell us the answer would have to be at least the first two solutions. Additionally, the existence of JKL, unique to the final entry on the list, adds a third solution to our solution set.

Okay, but isn’t this a rather crazy way to produce the cards? YES! But when I compare the known data (shown in red) with the sheets predicted by such a scheme, I have to admit the coverage is pretty strong: 9 out of 13.

  • ABCD-EFG-HIJKLMNOP
  • ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOP
  • ABCDEF-GHIJ-KLMNOP
  • ABCDEFGHIJKLM-NOP
  • ABCDEFGHIJKL-MNOP

Just as compelling to me are the sheets such an approach predicts would not exist:

  • Impossible 15 card sheets: BCD, CDE, FGH, IJK, LMN, MNO
  • Impossible 20 card sheets: BCDE, CDEF, EFGH, FGHI, HIJK, IJKL, KLMN, LMNO

Sure enough, none of these fourteen sheets are currently known.

My takeaway, therefore, is that Fleer most likely used combinations of 15 and 20-card sheets to produce the set and hardly adopted the simplest possible approach. Rather, of the five sensible solutions available, Fleer at various times or locations used at least three and potentially all five of them!

Admittedly, my entire chain of reasoning draws from a rather small sample size: eleven different sheets (and some duplicates) in all. A CDEF discovered in the wild is all it would take to derail half this article, and a CDEG in the wild would derail the entire article. Meanwhile, EFG, GHIJ, JKLM, or MNOP would lend even greater support to my hypothesis. As such, I hope you’ll let me know in the comments if you’re aware of sheets I’ve overlooked in my research.

Either way, can we at least agree that Ted Williams was the best &@#%! hitter who ever lived? Great! Now can anyone help me crack the code to find out what &@#%! means?

CTB: 1997 Topps #13 Derek Jeter (with guest Chris Snopek)

Covering the Bases (CTB) is a feature where we take a deep dive into a single card. With his Cooperstown Hall of Fame induction imminent we are taking a look at Derek Jeter’s 1997 Topps Card.

1997 Topps #13 Derek Jeter

Folks that folllow our columns likely suspect the draw of this card to me is the rookie cup. Derek Jeter was the 1996 AL Rookie of the year and the star of the years Topps All-Star Rookie Squad. Although I must mention that the 1996 AL Rookie WAR leader was not Jeter…

Jose Rosado was also snubbed for the All-Star Rookie squad in favor of reliever Billy Wagner, who received a grand total of ZERO ROY (NL) votes. Rosado spent the entirety of his five year MLB career with the Royals. He made a pair all-star teams including sharing the field with Jeter in 1999.

1997 Topps

The 1997T is simple and functional. My only complaint is that the player position is not present on the card front.

One thing I do like is that the card borders are league specific, AL Players are in red while the Senior Circuit is green

1997 Topps #177 Todd Hollandsworth

Jeter’s NL rookie of the year counterpart was Todd Hollandsworth, here with the green NL Border. I am pretty sure that the league borders is a nod to the red and green books of the past.

At some point I had a couple of green books, but they appear to have escaped from the phungo museum. Unfortunately Red/Green books ceased publication in 2008.

Also noticed the change in orientation, Most 1997T are in portrait format like Hollandsworth.

Guess the Game

When possible Guess the Game is a prominent tenet of a CTB feature, and today’s Derek Jeter card is indeed traceable. However it is the guest Chris Snopek that is the key to the research.

Prior to the issuance of this card in 1997 Snopek played four games at Yankee Stadium, May 4-5 and August 6-7 1996. It appears that in only one of those games is there a play at 2nd base involving Snopek and Jeter. The play occurred in the 6th inning the game that occurred on May the 4th (Star Wars Day!). This is the front end of an inning ending 4-6-3 double play induced by Bob Wickman.

The twin killing may have quelled the Chicago rally, but in the end the White Sox won the game 11-5 .

It was Derek Jeter’s 41st career game. A double in the 6th inning was his 35th career hit. 3430 more hits would follow. Defensively the play on the card was among the 4 assists and 2 putouts recorded by Jeter.

The games big star was the White Sox Harold Baines, who collected 5 RBIs despite not entering the game until the 8th inning. His big blow was a 9th inning grand slam off of Jim Mecir.

But wait there’s more…

1997 Topps #137 Chis Snopek

Chris Snopek’s 1997T is a sort of Jeter mirror. It is also a keystone play at Yankee Stadium. Only this play features the White Sox on defense.

Quickly we can tell it is not the same game, note on this card Snopek is sleeveless while on the Jeter offering he is wearing an undershirt

The game was played on May 5th 1996, Snopek was playing career game 32. In the game he tallied his 7th career double and scored the White Sox lone run.

We also notice this image features Yankees star Bernie Williams on an attempted steal of 2nd base…

Safe or Out

This play appears to have occurred during the 7th inning of game on an attempted steal by Bernie Williams.

On the play Bernie Williams was…

SAFE!

He next went to third on a wild pitch and scored on a sacrifice fly by Joe Girardi. Nice trip around the diamond for Bernie, The Yankees went on to win the game 7-1.

Flip

1997 Topps #13 Derek Jeter

Returning to our original subject, On the card back we now see Jeter’s position prominently at the top, also kudos to Topps for making the card # large enough to be read easily.

The card back element that jumps out me most is the text. Here we are at the beginning of Jeter’s career and he is already being compared to Don Mattingly. This is an incredible legacy to approach and Amazingly not only does Jeter carry the torch of “Most Popular Yankee”, I think most folks would agree he surpassed Mattingly.

Sources and Links

Lifetime Topps Project

Sports Collectors Daily

Baseball-ref

amazon

ebay

Phungo 1996 Topps All-Star Rookie Team

Phungo Derek Jeter Index

Anatomy of a Reprint

This will be a short post but I just received a copy of the 2021 Stadium Club Will Clark reprint. It’s a striking portrait of The Thrill. In 1992 Topps treated  Clark, Matt Williams, and Kevin Mitchell all very similarly. Black jackets and a black background with just enough light to expose their faces and one other feature—glove, ball, etc.—while everything else receded into shadow.

They’re striking cards and I figured it would be fun to compare the Clark reprint with the original card that I have in my collection.

Starting off with a side-by-side pair of scans. I scanned and processed these together before splitting them into different images so the differences in color reflect actual differences between the two and not anything I introduced in post-processing the scan. In this pair, and the other pairs of images in this post, the original 1992 card is on the left and the 2021 reprint is on the right.

Two obvious differences. 1992 is a bit darker and yellower. 2021 has lower contrast and better shadow detail. First off, the yellowness extends to the white point of the paper and is very likely an effect of aging. Maybe the paper is getting old. Maybe the UV coating* is yellowing slightly. The contrast and shadow detail differences though suggest that a lot more is going on.

*UV coating is the high-gloss finish that Topps started using in 1991 Stadium Club and which took over the hobby in the 1990s. It’s called UV because it’s cured with ultraviolet light. It can yellow with age and, as many of us have found, can stick to other UV coated items as well.

Yup. Time to look closer. The print screens shows that Topps recreated the original cards and that they have, someplace, the original images that they used in 1992. How can I tell? The two different cards use different line frequencies—1992 is around 125 LPI, 2021 is around 170 LPI—and there’s no evidence of rescreening.*

*Poorly done reprints often scan and rescreen on top of the older screen and the result is often a mess.

LPI stands for lines per inch and refers to how many rows of dots occur in each inch of printing. A higher number means you have the ability to show more detail in the image but also requires better quality paper and a better press to hold that detail. Printing too fine a line screen can actually produce a darker image than expected if done incorrectly since the dots are closer together and can “plug” if the paper or press is wrong.* In the 1980s and 1990s, anything over 120 LPI was high quality. Nowadays things are routinely printed around 170 or higher.

* It’s my opinion that 1989 Upper Deck suffered a bit from this as it would completely explain why so many of the images are darker than they should be.

More importantly though, I can see in the blacks that the screen on the 2021 card is a lot more open. At the top of this pair of images, the 1992 version is almost solid black. There are occasional dots of color but it’s mostly plugged with ink. The 2021 version though is clearly a mix of inks. Not only is the linescreen much finer, Topps kept it from plugging up with ink. As a result, there’s a lot more visible detail in the cap, jacket, and even the background texture.

There’s also a lot less yellow being printed in 2021. Looking at Clark’s eye shows that even if the UV coating in the 1992 is yellowing, there’s actually a lot of yellow being printed as well. I see way fewer yellow dots in the 2021 card.

This pair of images shows off the difference in detail that we can see in the glove but what caught my eye is the way the Stadium Club logo is printed. This wasn’t clocked by most people in 1991 but in addition to the full-bleed images, glossy finish, and foil stamping, Topps also used a spot-color ink* for the first time on the front of its cards.** This continued in 1992 and in the scans here the difference between the pink stadium seats is pretty obvious.

*I’m not going to explain spot colors in much depth here since I’ve already done so elsewhere on the blog but in short, full-color printing uses four process inks (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) and any additional ink that’s not one of those four colors is a spot ink.

**1991 Stadium Club is the first full-color plus spot color I can think of for Topps. 1990 Leaf with the silver ink  if the first full-color plus spot color I can think of in general. Adding a spot ink to the four process inks was a serious premium step up in production.

No screening at all in 1992. Clear magenta and yellow screen patterns and even some slight misregistration in 2021. I can’t show this in images but the 1992 spot ink fluoresces under a black light as well.

I know why Topps chose not to use a spot color in 2021 since that would be a lot of extra production for an insert set that no one was really excited about anyway.* At the same time, that they didn’t strikes me as being as wrong as if they’d replaced the foil stamping with a gold color ink mix.

*Seriously, does anyone like Stadium Club inserts? I’m pretty sure we all just get Stadium Club because the base card photography is so great.

Still, it was fun to do a dive into the printing differences so I can’t complain too much. While things like Heritage or Archives often play a bit loose with adapting old designs to modern usage, a reprint is supposed to be the same and when it’s not I’m glad the differences give us a look in to how Topps’s production quality has changed and, for the most part, improved.