My Favorite Common

On the heels of Nick’s suggestion, I thought I’d take a stab as well. If you’re one of the blog’s more avid readers you may recall I’ve already done two pieces on “Uncommon Commons,” the first on Ohtanian Texas League pioneer Dave Hoskins and the second on football player-artist Ernie Barnes. At present my cards of Hoskins reign supreme over the tens of thousands of commons in my collection, so much so that they get their own shelf in my memorabilia room.

Neither Hoskins nor Barnes will be the subject of this post, however. More in line with the spirit of the “Favorite Common” series, I’ll highlight a favorite common or two from my formative years as a collector, long before I had ever heard the names Dave Hoskins and Ernie Barnes.

Having come of age as a collector and fan in late-1970s Los Angeles, I went to bed each night with the transistor radio glued to my ear, faithfully tuned to the play calling and commentary of Vin Scully, Ross Porter, and Jerry Doggett on KABC 790. You’d be forgiven for not noticing from the outside, but inside Dodgerland there was a great chase afoot as dramatic and legacy defining as Mantle, Maris, or Aaron’s pursuit of Ruth.

The great Manuel Rafael Mota Geronimo (SABR bi0), whose full name was sometimes used by Scully out of reverence, was on the verge of becoming baseball’s all-time Pinch-Hit King! With every plate appearance came the question of whether he’d pull one hit closer to the immortal (or at least centuries old sounding) Smoky Burgess.

Many fans today know Scully’s famous call of Kirk Gibson’s pinch-hit home run in the 1988 World Series. From my memory, perhaps faulty but not wholly unreliable, that radio call was every Manny Mota at-bat in the year of our Lord 1979 as well as half the times Manny could have come up and didn’t.

So yes, your VCPs, Standard Catalogs, and Beckett Monthlies might regard Mr. Mota as a common, but I am here to correct the record. In Greek mythology some gods assumed common form, but this was 1979 Los Angeles, not 2000 B.C. Athens, and Mr. Mota’s assault on immortality made his 1978 and 1979 Topps cards anything but common in my collection.

Mota had entered the 1979 season with 132 pinch hits, a dozen short of the record. With roughly six months of baseball to play, barring whatever type of injuries befell pinch-hitters, Manny would need to average two hits per month to tie Burgess and of course just a hair over that to claim the crown for his own. Sure Ty Cobb once banged out 67 hits in a single month, but old Ty had the advantage of everyday play and competed against inferior talent. Let’s call it a wash, shall we?

Sure enough, Manny Mota began the season on perfect pace to match Burgess. Two hits in April followed by two hits in May. One one occasion each month, Mota drew a dreaded base on balls, the record chasing equivalent of a prom date with your cousin. Forgive us for we did not yet know walks would someday be hallowed above even RBIs among baseball savants, meaning at the time that the only response our amygdalas could produce was, “Pitch to the man, you bum!”

I don’t normally use this blog to shame anyone, but here are the bums in question. A pox on both your houses, Frank Riccelli and Mike Tomlin!

With two months of the season in the books, Mota’s average was a “Peachy” .364, but then came his dreaded June swoon and a slowing of Manny’s assault on Burgess. Only one hit in five at-bats prompted the question: Like Aaron in ’73, would Mota fall just short of the mark and be forced to carry its full burden into the off-season?

As it turns out, not a chance! Channeling Kobe’s final game, it seemed every time a Dodger hitter stepped to the plate in July it was Mota. I remember his plate appearances that month as 100 though the record books now tell me they numbered a mere dozen. Perhaps I’m counting all the times Scully wondered aloud whether Mota might be making his way to the bat rack.

“And look who’s coming up…”

Still, 12 at bats for a pinch-hitter is like a million for anyone else. Mota made the most of his trips to the plate, connecting for four hits and closing out the month with 141 pinch-hits. With two full months remaining, there was little doubt Mota would soon claim the crown.

Hinting at the role Fate had played in his career, Number 11 came to the plate 11 times in August. His first four times up resulted in three singles against only one out. He was now batting .375 on the season. More importantly, his career total for pinch-hits was now 144. The man was Ty Cobb meets Tie Burgess.

As was the way in ancient Sparta, there were now two kings. This we expected. What we didn’t expect was that the diarchy would drag on as long as it did.

As hot as August began, a rash of cool summer nights followed:

  • August 9: ground out
  • August 12: ground out
  • August 16: sacrifice bunt
  • August 20: ground ball double play
  • August 24: line out
  • August 25: fly out
  • August 28: strikeout

The wear of the season had caught up with Mota. While everyday hitters could match Manny’s hitless streak and barely blink an eye, they also cycle through seven plate appearances every two games. For Mota, the drought represented a full one eighth of the baseball season, which is quite an o-fer for a .375 hitter!

The Dodgers gave Mota the rest of the month off and didn’t call his number again until the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, at home against the Cubs. Leading off the bottom of the eighth inning on September 2, 1979, Manny Mota replaced Ken Brett in the Dodger lineup. On the mound for the visiting Cubs was card-in-every-pack northpaw Lynn McGlothen, who held a 1-2 count on Mota.

On the next pitch…history was made, or in the immortal words of Topps, “Basehit to Rightfield Does It!”

The king is dead. Long live the king! Let the history books (or at least the SABR Baseball Cards blog) show that this common was no common common but a common who one day ruled them all.

Epilogue

A couple years back I was staying with a friend in the Bay Area, and he brought out his old baseball cards. Seeing my reaction to his 1970 Manny Mota card, he was kind enough to give it to me. The front featured a beautiful image of Mota waiting his turn at bat, ready to deliver his trademark single to right. His gaze seemed affixed beyond the mound or batter’s box, almost heavenward, as if to let the baseball gods know, “Yeah, I got this.”

Flip the card over, however, and I’m actually thankful that I didn’t have it back in 1979.

“Considered by many to be the best #4 outfielder in the NL, Manny proved his value to the Dodgers in 1969 with timely hitting.”

As a kid who listened to Vin Scully more than his own parents and teachers, I saw Mota as a superstar. It had never once crossed my mind that Mota might have simply been the fourth best outfielder for a lot longer than most players, many of whom eventually became the third, second, or even first best. I was cheering a prize for bench warmers all those games, all the while thinking I was witnessing the toppling of the Bambino.

Who was Manny Mota then? Was he an immortal carving out his own slice of baseball’s record book or was he a glorified bench warmer? I prefer to remember him as the former, not just because it’s how I experienced him at the time but because such a portrait inspires me in my own life.

In so many parts of life, we are not the stars, the best, or even in the top three. We are the helpers, the ones who wait their turns, and the ones who much rejoice in small victories. We fail more than we succeed, and we don’t always know when our next opportunity will come, if at all.

We aren’t Hank Aaron or Mike Trout (unless one of them is reading this column…HOLY SMOKES!!!), and nobody will ever collect our baseball cards. Still from our benches there are glories and gratitude as we aspire humbly not to be heroes to millions but on a good day, to those around us, a Favorite Common.

Author’s note: Manny Mota fans and baseball fans in general might enjoy W.P. Kinsella’s short story, “The Night Manny Mota Tied the Record.” It’s in “The Essential W.P. Kinsella,” among other places.

My Favorite Common, Mor-a-les

My mother used to throw out my cards.

Trite, right? Here’s the twist: I let her. Every year, or maybe more sporadically than that, my mother would ask if I wanted my cards. I told her no. It’s crazy looking back at it.

That all ended for me at the close of 1971. What remained was a small stack, part of that year’s baseball set, and all of my football, basketball and hockey cards. I kept everything from that moment on.

As the ‘70’s wore on, and my local reputation was built on, or ruined by, my penchant for cards, friends would give me their collections as they grew out of them and I remained stuck. My 1971 baseball cards piled up, but, as they were not my originals and cared for as such, condition was a hodgepodge.

Rich Morales, #276 in the set, #1 in my heart, always stuck out as a reminder of the grief I suffered by not keeping my own cards and the joy I incurred by getting everyone else’s.

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What a wreck. If a card has anti-gloss, this is it. You can almost feel the texture by looking at it – rough, grainy, dirty, as if a card had driven over it multiple times. Creases, paper loss, a real PSA -7. The back is less gross, but not very nice.

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When I discovered a few years back that I was pretty close to finishing a 1971 set, I decided to complete it in somewhat consistent condition, somewhere between VG and EX. I got it done and am pretty pleased with it. All of a sudden, this Morales card was less comfortable in its surroundings. With some mixed feeling, I upgraded.

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In the past year I’ve completed my 1968-70 football sets. As I’ve done so, I’ve sold my crappy cards in bulk from those years. Weirdly, there’s a market for poor condition cards.

Those can go. In fact, so can my extra baseball cards of that era, and I’ve moved over 1,000 to a Facebook collector. Rich Morales is safe though. I’ll never get rid of him.

My Favorite Common

One of the most-rewarding things about being the co-chair of this committee is seeing people come out of the woodwork to not only join the community we have here but contribute to it. Every new voice on the blog is wonderful and Jason and I have thoroughly enjoyed our role in encouraging new posters.

Some of you come bursting out of the gate with fantastic posts already formed and polished. Others of you have felt the desire to post but have needed some assistance in coming up with a good topic or angle of approach. As I’ve watched new posters try to find their voice or figure out what to do after they’ve exhausted their opening salvo of posts it’s occurred to me that it might be nice to have essentially an internal blog bat-around where we each address the same topic as a way of introducing ourselves and our relationship to baseball cards.

This isn’t a capital-A Assignment. But if you’ve run out of post ideas and want something to write about or if you’ve been lurking here for years and haven’t figured out what you feel comfortable adding, here’s a free post idea that I hope we return to for many years.

Mark Armour started this committee off on the right foot so it’s only fitting that his My Favorite Common post provides the blueprint. Please write about your favorite common card. No stars. No Hall of Famers. No errors. No in-demand rookies. No cards where the primary interest is how much it’s worth. We all know what common cards are; what’s of interest to the committee is you. Why it’s your favorite. How it relates to your baseball fandom.

For example, I’ll select my 1985 Fleer Dave Dravecky card for this exercise. I got this card before I even became a baseball fan or attended my first game in September 1986. My friend gave it to me before soccer practice and, not having any pockets, I shoved it behind my shinguard to “keep it safe.”

When I got home, it lived in my desk drawer, semi-forgotten even after I started collecting cards. Then in 1987 two things happened. The first was that the Giants and Padres made a blockbuster trade where the Giants got Kevin Mitchell, Craig Lefferts, and Dravecky in exchange for Chris Brown, Keith Comstock, Mark Davis and Mark Grant. The second is that Eric Show hit Andre Dawson in the face.

I’m not sure what it says about me that the Show/Dawson incident is what made dig through my drawer but yeah I had remembered that I had a Padre pitcher and so I went digging. Instead I found that I now had a Giants card.

Over the 1987 season Dravecky was usually good and occasionally great with multiple shutouts including a gem in the playoffs. Then the next year they found cancer in his pitching arm. His comeback game in 1989 remains the single most exciting sporting event I’ve ever been to. There was an electricity in the crowd with every pitch that I’ve never felt since. Playoff and World Series games are intense but this was much more than that.

This card has remained a sentimental favorite ever since but it also represents a lot of things that I like about baseball cards in general. Cards with colorful borders that correspond to the team colors. Cards with simple but professional headshots that also offer a glimpse at the stadiums. And Dravecky himself is poised and confident while also offering a bit a smile.

I love the way the yellow border is actually the same color as the Padres yellow and the way it works perfectly with the brown pullover jersey. The colors in general work really well together here with the red plastic seats and green artificial turf offering just enough contrast to keep the card from looking too much like a Reeses Pieces advertisement. It’s just a good-looking basic card.

The background details though are what I like best since they’re emblematic of the state of the game when I fell in love with it. I never thought I’d miss multipurpose stadiums with their barely-filled outfield stands revealing row-upon-row of brightly-colored plastic seats but here we are. Those donuts weren’t great but you could always walk up to the ticket window and expect something to be available.

Nine cards for #9

The great Minnie Miñoso would’ve turned 94 today. Or judging from some of his baseball cards either 95, 96 or 97.

But regardless of how old he really was, he was a very important player in baseball history, worthy of the Hall of Fame for his tremendous career as well as his role as a pioneer for black Latinos. So let’s celebrate the Cuban Comet with nine of my favorite Miñoso cards.

1945-46 Caramelo Deportivo [Sporting Caramels] Cuban League

This is my baseball card Holy Grail; the one Miñoso card in this post which I do not yet own. They do pop up once in a while, though with a price tag in the $350-$500 range even for something in the 2-3 grade range. Either way, these 1-7/8″ by 2-5/8″ black & white cards were printed on a very thin stock and were intended to be pasted into a collector album. So even when you find one of these, there will likely be a chunk of the back gouged out (this won’t be the first time you read about this here).

On the front of the card, there’s a thin white border with a photo and a small circled number. That’s so you knew where to paste the card in the album. Fun fact about these: the Caramelo Deportivo sets are the only cards I’ve seen of Minnie (Miñoso was featured in the 1945-46, 1946-47 & 1947-48 sets) where he’s sporting a mustache, though a thin one at that.

1952 Topps

The first installment of its “flagship” set, Topps has what is considered Minnie’s “Rookie Card” even though he has earlier cardboard appearances (see above). The front of the card lists his name as Orestes, as does his facsimile autograph. Missing here is the trademark straight-edge under the signature, as was his custom years later.

The back of the card does refer to him as “Minnie” even here for 1952.

1952 Red Man Tobacco

From 1952-55, Red Man Tobacco issued these colorful 3-1/2″ square cards (they originally came with another half-inch tab at the bottom), bringing cards and tobacco products back together again as they were with the 19th century & early 20th century sets. Everything you want is on the front here. The back of the card is just an advertisement of the set itself with an offer to collect 50 of the tabs and send them in for a baseball cap. Apparently, that’s what the original owner of my card did.

1952 Berk Ross

At only 2″ by 3″ this qualifies as a Mini Miñoso. There’s not much to it; the back of the card boasts “Hit Parade of Champions” with a brief bio and a few statistics. These cards have a sort of primitive charm to them. The printing is a little off, the centering also not quite right, and there’s little nubs on each edge as if they were part of a perforated strip. I got this card at a good price probably because somebody’s name is stamped on the back.

1954 Dixie Lids


65 years ago, somebody enjoyed a cup of ice cream and when they removed the lid, there was “Minny” Miñoso. If there’s another card of him listed as Minny, I’m not aware of it. These lids advertise the Dixie Lid 3-D Starviewer; all you need to do is send 25 cents, this lid, name and address to the company. Personally, I’d much rather have this lid than the Starviewer, even if it looks like quite a contraption.

1962 Topps Baseball Bucks

Minnie Miñoso played only 39 games for the St. Louis Cardinals, but it was long enough to get his face on a one-dollar 4-1/8 inch by 1-3/4 inch “Baseball Buck.” Sure, Henry Aaron and Roberto Clemente were on $5 bills and Willie Mays & Mickey Mantle were on $10 bills, but there’s nothing wrong with being on a $1. George Washington is on the $1 and that’s good enough for me.

1967 Venezuelan Retirado


These are TOUGH to find, particularly in good condition, because just like the Caramelo Deportivo cards I mentioned earlier, these were glued (or stuck in some way) inside collector albums, evidenced by the chunk of the back of my card that was torn off. Other than that, this might be my favorite Minnie card.

First of all, I had never even heard of this set before stumbling upon it. It’s pretty rare and it came from another country. I love the beautiful shade of blue as a plain background for the player image, which might not be a surprise to those who read my post on the 2010 Tristar Obak cards.

Editor’s note: This subset of 49 retired baseball players and one who would still be active in 1980 😃 was part of a larger Venezuelan release popularly known as 1967 Topps Venezuelan. However, there is some reason to believe these cards were not produced by Topps at all.

1984 True Value White Sox, 1986-89 Coca-Cola White Sox

I’m counting these five team issue cards as one card, since I make the rules. The first from the 1984 True Value team set, which Jason will certainly find more appealing than the 1986 Coca-Cola card (even though it’s the same photo used) because of the large BORDER. The Blue-bordered 1987 Coca-Cola card also shows the same photo as the red-bordered 1988 Coca-Cola card. Then there’s the obnoxiously-bordered 1989 card.

What’s my point? Well, the White Sox were still including Minnie Miñoso in team-issue sets even though he last played in 1980 (even though there were attempts to get him into a game in 1990 as well as 1993). And that means something. He’s Mr. White Sox. An iconic player in franchise history, as well as baseball history.

2015 White Sox tribute

This card was given out to attendees of Minnie’s memorial service at Holy Family Church in March 2015. It’s nicely done in the 1964 Topps style with red lettering instead of the light blue used in the original set. Plus, the #9 memorial logo is shown in the upper left corner.

Nine (okay, thirteen) cards of one man, spanning over 70 years. An amazing man. An amazing life. And about one year from now, we’ll hopefully be celebrating his election to the Hall of Fame on the Golden Era ballot.

Editor’s note: Chris delivered a terrific presentation on Minnie’s Hall of Fame case at a 2019 SABR Chicago chapter meeting. His presentation begins around the 19:00 mark of this video.

It’s a Bird! It’s a plane! It’s a Super Collector!

(L-R) Richard Davis, Wade Boggs, John Reichard

A thought-provoking notion:

In the world of sports and pop culture there are stars, heroes, and models—and then there are superstars, superheroes, and supermodels. Similarly, the baseball card collecting world has both collectors and super collectors.

I used to think I had a pretty sweet collection of Wade Boggs cards, but oh how does my Boggs binder pale in comparison to the astonishing collections of Richard Davis and John Reichard, undisputed Olympians of Wade Boggs super collectors. In the spirit of fake Bill Murray’s sentimentality above, I shall be your Cavia porcellus, here merely for reference.

Richard Davis (45) is a physician assistant from the Joliet, Illinois area and was introduced to the Chicago Cubs as a young boy. Some of his earliest childhood memories include watching Bill Buckner and the 1982 Cubs on WGN with his 82-year-old great-grandmother. Not unlike the author, his love affair with the Cubs—and first broken heart—began with the 1984 team. Davis has been hooked on baseball ever since.

On Christmas morning 1985, Davis received a card collector’s kit containing an unopened 1983 Donruss pack, in which a Wade Boggs rookie card was fortuitously found. He knew it was a “hot” card and was thrilled to have it, despite not really knowing much about Boggs at that point. He began to follow Boggs’ career and collected all the Boggs items he could find. In fact, Davis has now accumulated over 200 copies of that Donruss rookie and is closing in on a staggering 600 copies of Boggs’ 1983 Topps rookie card.

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Richard Davis’s rookie card display

John Reichard (47) is a loan officer from central Pennsylvania whose love affair with baseball coincided with the launch of his Little League career in 1978. Despite growing up far from Fenway Park, he rooted for the Red Sox because his mom was originally from Massachusetts. He was first turned on to card collecting when hunting for the infamous 1979 Topps Bump Wills (Blue Jays) error card became a bit of a sensation. His first collecting focus was on building sets, but as new manufacturers inundated the industry, trying to piece together all the issues simply became too daunting.

Because Reichard was already a Red Sox fan, Wade Boggs was an easy choice when he shifted his focus to collecting cards of a certain player. Not only was Boggs a phenomenal player, but there was already a good variety of different cards to collect. Reichard picked up a 1998 Topps Gold Label Class 2 One to One Red 1/1 card and was off to the races. Enamored (rightly so) with the 1984 Topps Boggs, Reichard has now amassed over 1000 copies of the card.

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John Reichard’s card storage drawers

As for me—if anyone is still interested in my tale of mundane—the 1980s Cubs and Red Sox had such parallel, curse-hardened fandoms such that I was naturally drawn to Boston baseball as I sought an American League team to follow. Wade Boggs was a lefty batter (like me!) who hammered balls off the Green Monster (just like I dreamed of doing!). When Topps first italicized the league leaders on the backs of its 1986 base cards, Boggs’ incredible 1985 campaign (240 hits and a .368 batting average) just came to life. It was impossible not to idolize him.

For measuring stick purposes, my collection includes a lone Donruss rookie card, two 1983 Topps copies (one signed), a handful of 1984 Topps, and over nine copies of his 1985 Topps!

Super Collections

If we must count, however, John Reichard has nearly 10,000 total Wade Boggs cards, including 4900 different cards—enough to stuff a monster box. He has 165 1/1s and over 500 serial numbered cards numbered between 2 and 10, along with over 700 autographed cards.

Among his favorite cards are a 2014 Topps Triple Threads handprint jumbo relic and autograph card (numbered 6/10), a 1992 Donruss Super Diamond Kings, and a 2012 Topps Tier One Bat Knob 1/1 card. His memorabilia collection includes a game-used Red Sox bat from the early 1990s, a pair of game-used Yankees batting gloves, a game-used Red Sox batting glove, and a pair of game-used Yankees cleats, along with a number of signed jerseys and bats.

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Reichard’s loaded bat rack

Richard Davis’s collection is so massive, he can only estimate the number of Boggs cards he has—knowing that it runs well into the thousands. At his last count he had over 550 autographed items. He recently added his 30th copy of Boggs’ 1981 TCMA Pawtucket Red Sox issue. Showing about 75% of his collection in his very own “Boggs Tavern,” Davis has another seven storage bins full of items that he has not yet displayed.

His favorite item is probably a three-foot tall bobblehead autographed by Wade Boggs. Only 26 were made and Boggs, himself, confirmed that this was the only one he had ever signed. The strangest items Davis owns are pairs of shower shoes—both Red Sox and Yankees’ versions—used and autographed. Davis’s mission is simple, “If Wade’s likeness or image is on it then I want it.”

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Davis’s cards on display

You may think that these mega collectors are bitter rivals, locked in an eternal struggle to outbid each other. Turns out, however, that John and Richard have become great friends who work together to help find items for each other. In fact, Reichard and Davis run joint Twitter and Facebook accounts to showcase their collections. On the Twitter account, they post a new Boggs card every day—chronologically by year of issue. Having missed only a day or two since November 2014, the Twitter posts are only up to 1996. Reichard expects that they can continue unabated for “another eight years without having to post a duplicate.”

The Displays

I met Wade Boggs at a card show in the late 1980s and I have no recollection, whatsoever, of the encounter other than being starstruck as he signed by 8×10. That photo and a signed ball I later received a gift comprise the Wade Boggs items on display in my basement mancave:

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The author’s Boggs collection on display

The museum-quality displays constructed by Davis and Reichard, on the other hand, are simply mind boggling.

Richard Davis:

John Reichard:

Davis and Reichard have each met Boggs several times and he now knows them by name. Wade Boggs even knows Davis’s son by name, “the little kid collector and fan inside cannot help but get giddy over this fact.” Boggs follows both their personal and joint Twitter accounts. For Davis, this is the pinnacle of super collecting.

Whether serious or not, Boggs has told Davis he would like to see Boggs Tavern for himself. “The bar fridge will be stocked with Miller Lites if he does.” Reichard invited Boggs to his wedding, but Wade politely declined—despite a stuffed chicken breast entrée—since he was going to be in Alaska celebrating his birthday at the time.

Both Reichard and Davis average two to three Boggs “mail days” per week. Reichard suffers “withdrawal if he goes more than three days without something” new arriving. Davis is still looking for a game used fielder’s glove. Reichard is on the lookout for a home Red Sox jersey and game worn cap. Luckily, their wives are supportive—if not fully understanding of the passion.

The Dream

Richard Davis’s pipe dream is for the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown to open a wing dedicated to baseball super collectors, where perhaps he could get a plaque in the “Hall of Collectors” alongside John Reichard and other Boggs super collectors Kevin McInnis, David Boggs (no relation), John Hall, Jeremy Weikel, Robert Howell, Nathan Flemming, James Miles and Chris Thrane.

While my pedestrian Wade Boggs collection will never measure up to those of super collectors Richard Davis or John Reichard, at least I have two items I know they do not have!

*Footnote: I cannot draw feet.

Sources:

Interviews with John Reichard and Richard Davis.

Photos courtesy of John Reichard, Richard Davis and author.

When Brien Taylor Ruled The Hobby World

If you hear the name ‘Brien Taylor’ today, it’s probably in the way of some kind of cautionary tale. A lesson against getting too caught up in the hype surrounding amateur or minor league super-duper stars. A lesson that top draft picks, no matter how much of a sure thing, are never really a sure thing. For collectors, it’s a similar lesson, but one directed less at the athlete than at all the ephemera that athlete inspires. But while Taylor was never able to leave his mark on baseball, he certainly left a mark on the hobby. Brien Taylor made the hobby rethink its concept of rookie cards. He became the face of the hobby’s most venerable brand. His presence (or lack thereof) dictated when products were released and how they were (somewhat unscrupulously) dated. He revived a market for pre-Major League cards and store-branded specialty sets. He starred in what was, at the time, the most expensive factory set ever issued and was featured on what was, at the time, perhaps the most sought-after certified autograph ever released.

And within three years, it was all over.

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1992 Classic Best Promo #PR2

There are still those who swear Brien Taylor was the greatest amateur pitcher who ever lived. He was born in Beaufort, NC, the son of a stone mason and a crab-picker. Tall, lanky, and with a whip-fast left arm, he dominated as a high school pitcher. As a senior in 1991, the threw back-to-back no-hitters, struck out an obscene 213 batters in just 88 innings (nearly 2.5 Ks per inning) and posted a 0.61 ERA. He had a fastball in the high-90s, a dependable change-up, and a knee-buckling curveball.

Taylor had been nearly as good the year before, but had yet to break through into the baseball mainstream. Don Mattingly, however, was as mainstream as an athlete got in 1990. His break-out campaign in 1984, followed up by an MVP season in 1985, had both made put him in line to be the Next Great Yankee and helped to ramp up the rookie card craze among baseball card collectors and investors. Mattingly’s 1984 rookie issues stoked the fires of a building craze. People with money to spend on cards wanted Mattinglys, but even more so they wanted the next Mattinglys… the cards that could be picked up cheap, stocked away, and then sold for a profit. Mattingly was still a star in 1990 and the rookie card craze his sweet, lefty swing had inspired was still very much in bloom. But for the 1990 season, Mattingly stunk. He batted just .256 – 67 points below his career average entering the season – and his Yankees finished in dead-last place, losing 95 games. It was the worst Yankees team in 77 years.

By the summer of 1991, these three stars had aligned themselves: a once-in-a-generation talent, a booming baseball card marketplace, and an unprecedented bottoming-out of the most famed pro sports franchise that ever existed. In June 1991, the Yankees drafted Brien Taylor first overall in the amateur draft and card collectors saw nothing but dollar signs.

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1991 Classic Draft NNO

Of course, by 1991 collectors no longer had the patience to wait for a player to be wearing a big league uniform for start stockpiling cardboard. Trying to entice collectors with the hottest rookies as soon as possible, Fleer, Donruss, Score and the upstart Upper Deck had begun to include players in their base sets before their Big League debut. When one of those players, Ken Griffey Jr., became a hobby sensation, it was clear that the rookie card game had changed. Topps missed out on including Griffey in their 1989 flagship set, but did start a new trend that year with the inclusion of a ten card subset of “#1 Draft Picks,” players from the 1988 draft who were just making their pro debuts. When Jim Abbott jumped from the ’88 draft class to Major League stardom that year, the other cardmarkers had been scooped. Topps had him first and it was their card collectors were chasing. In 1990, Score followed suit and issued a 22-card draft pick subset and the revived Bowman brand issued a slew of recently drafted talent. The hobby hype was now following players into A ball instead of the Big Leagues.

Card collectors weren’t the only ones with money on the mind after the Yankees tabbed Taylor with the top pick in June. Taylor and his family had hired Scott Boras to represent the young man and felt insulted at the Yankees’ initial offer of a $300,000 contract. The top pitcher of the previous year’s draft, Todd Van Poppel, had gotten $1.3 million in guaranteed money from the Oakland A’s and the Taylors wanted nothing less.

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1991 Classic Baseball Draft Picks #1 – A collector told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1992 that he expected this card to sell for $100 once Taylor made the Major Leagues.

It took until late August for the Yankees and Taylor to agree on a $1.55 million pact, with Taylor signing the deal the day before he was set to begin junior college, and be lost to the Yankees. His professional status now meant that he was open to the cardmakers. Topps, Fleer, and Donruss had all hoped to include a Taylor card in their 1991 update sets, but had been stymied by his holdout. And when finally became fair game, it was The Scoreboard – maker of the Classic brand of board game cards and draft sets – that swooped in to the ink the super-prospect. Scoreboard paid Taylor $250,000 for his exclusive cardboard rights through the end of 1991 and his exclusive rights on minor league cards for a calendar year. Just months later, Classic released its 1991 Baseball Draft set, with Taylor at card #1. The company boasted that the entire run of the set sold out in six days and it was reported that the sets that included Taylor were expected to gross the company $30 million… thirty times what they’d made off their 1990 draft products.

That fall, Taylor reported to the Yankees’ fall instructional league team in Florida, where his stardom preceded him. He was featured in a 60 Minutes segment and signed autographs for members of the Green Bay Packers when they stayed at the same hotel that housed his team. He signed a lot of other autographs, too. Classic had cards of him in both the English and French language versions their four-sport draft picks set, including over 5,000 hand-signed cards inserted randomly into packs.

The media followed Taylor to Florida. Their reporting was complimentary. They noted his humble nature, that he mostly stayed in at night, always addressed his elders as “sir” or “ma’am” and that he did his own laundry. They talked about the Mustang he’d purchased with his bonus money, but also that he bought the car from the dealership where his bother worked as a detailer and that he had gotten a nice discount on the purchase. His biggest purchase, the papers noted, was a house for his parents, allowing them to move out of the trailer where Taylor had grown up. But there was a theme to the stories that made it clear that these were older, white reporters looking for a young, black athlete that didn’t push challenge any of their notions about how a ballplayer should act. They never said it, but it was clear that they wanted to hold Taylor up as an antidote to the Deions and Rickeys of the sporting world. Case in point: several articles mentioned with flattering intent that Taylor wore no gold chains. Neither did Todd Van Poppel, but no one was waiting to judge him by his neckware.

Near the end of 1991, Topps pulled a major coup and signed Taylor to another exclusive contract, making them the only cardmaker permitted to produce his Major League cards until he reached the Bigs, at which time he would, under the player’s union contract, be available to all companies with an MLBPA license. The deal scooped Upper Deck, who had been so optimistic about their chances of landing Taylor that they actually included his name in the preliminary checklists for their 1992 flagship set. As Topps promoted their upcoming set as the only one that feature Taylor in pinstripes, Upper Deck quietly remade their checklist.

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1992 Topps #6 – Topps had hopes for this card becoming their version of the iconic ’89 UD Ken Griffey, Jr.

With Classic’s deal still in effect until December 31, Topps seems to have actually pushed back the release of their 1992 set in order to include Taylor. But the result was a minor masterpiece. Finding their brand getting lost in the flood of newer and shinier released in the early 1990s, Topps had responded with a classic re-tooling for its 1991 flagship release and the introduction of its premium Stadium Club brand. Stadium Club was a smash and the company’s 1992 flagship reflected the changing tastes in the marketplace. Using beaming white stock for the first time in decades and featuring a clean, modern design, the set put Taylor front and center. In what might have been an homage to the 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. #1 that had already become that company’s trademark card, Topps gave Taylor #6 in 1992 set, the first regular player card after the traditional Record Breaker opening subset. The card featured Taylor in Yankee pinstripes, the first time Topps had shown a draft pick in their Major League uniform. The kid is just into delivery: left arm ready to cock, right foot dangling over the red box containing his name, eyes trained at whatever lay ahead of him.

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1992 ToppsGold #793 – A forgotten icon of the Junk Wax Era.

1992 was also the year Topps introduced the first true parallel set with ToppsGold. The concept was stunning for its time – an alternate version of the classic flagship set, outfit with an etched gold foil nameplate. The cards would be found roughly one per wax box, making it an unimaginable task to complete a full set. But in the midst of the hype over this idea, Topps offered an alternative: a Gold Factory set, complete with a stunning card #793 – an exclusive Brien Taylor card, done in the standard veteran design, gold-plated and hand-signed by the young Phenom. The set, which retailed for around $250, was quickly selling on the secondary market for $4-500. The signed card itself was moving quickly for $100 and up. Taylor’s gold rookie – found one per 28,500 packs – was bringing $40-80 and his regular base card was a mover at $5.

But… were these really rookie cards?

As they had in 1990 with uber-prospects Chipper Jones and Todd Van Poppel, Classic had gotten the jump on the more mainstream brands by including Taylor in their Draft Picks set in the same calendar year in which he was drafted. The big companies had always waited until the year after the draft to debut these players. Topps and others had tried to produce a true Taylor RC – a 1991 release featuring him in his Big League dress, but were scooped by his holdout and then his deal with Classic. So, Topps decided to turn back the clock.

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1992 Stadium Club Skydome #184 – Unable to get Taylor into a 1991 set, Topps tried to pass this set off as being a year older than it was.

The result was the 1991 Stadium Club Dome set. Or was it 1992? Well, the set used the 1991 Stadium Club design and was issued inside a plastic reproduction of Skydome, home of the 1991 MLB All-Star Game. Each card featured a 1991 copyright line. Which made it outwardly appear as a 1991 release and its handsome card of Taylor (along with dozens of other 1991 draft choices) as a stunning “true rookie” of the biggest name in the hobby. Not so fast, said collectors. It was clear that Topps was back-dating the set to try to force a 1991 Taylor card. The set was not released until the spring of 1992 and it seems highly unlikely that Topps would have gone ahead with printing the set in ’91 while Taylor was under exclusive contract with another brand and then waited several months into 1992 before finally releasing it. Even if collectors didn’t fall for Topps’ scheme, they fell all over themselves for the set, which was going for $75 and the Taylor for $15 before the 1992 season had even opened.

Oh, right, the 1992 season. In which Brien Taylor would actually be playing professional baseball. After being the toast of the Yankees’ training camp, Taylor reported to the Fort Lauderdale Yankees of the high-A Florida State League. Just 20 years old, he posted some tantalizing numbers – 10.4 Ks per 9 innings, a 1.159 WHIP, a 2.57 ERA, and just three homers allowed in 161 innings.

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1992 Upper Deck Minor League Promo #1 – After being forced to pull Taylor from its 1992 MLB set, Upper Deck got into the Minor League card business. This promotional card, given away at Minor League ballparks, promotes Taylor as the primary attraction in the set.

His performance was all the more impressive considering all the hype that still surrounded him. He was a shy kid, away from home for the first time, and everyone wanted a piece of him. And everyone wanted his autograph. He had signed more than 12,000 cards for the ToppsGold sets, and another 8,000 for 1992 Classic products and hundreds of baseball for teammate opponents and everyone else with clubhouse access. And he was asked to sign even more each day by fans that stalked him at every turn. “They think you’re supposed to sign everything they throw in your face,” Taylor told a reporter during the 1992 season. He was knocked down by autograph hounds more than once. After a game in Port St. Lucie, so many fans gathered outside the clubhouse doors that the team was briefly trapped inside. “People know the autograph is going to be worth money. That’s the only way I see it,” he said. “As far as dealing with people, life will never be the same. The bigger I get, the harder it will get. I know I’ll probably never be able to sit at a movie and relax.” As for his trading cards, Taylor admitted he didn’t even own one. “They must know something I don’t,” he said of the people shelling out for his latest issues.

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1992 Fort Lauderdale Yankees NNO – Taylor’s A-ball team had already wrapped up the 1992 season, and were in the process of relocating, but still wanted to cash in on his stardom by releasing this team set, available via mail order.

And as his debut season wound to a close, there would be many more options for Taylor collectors. With his exclusive non-MLB deal with Classic coming to an end, Upper Deck, Fleer, and Skybox announced plans to get in on the suddenly booming Minor League card market. Upper Deck promoted their set at Minor League parks late in the season, handing out thousands of promo cards of Taylor and Twins prospect Frankie Rodriguez. The Upper Deck set released in September and Fleer Excel dropped in December (oddly branded as 1992-93 Fleer Excel, another example of Taylor forcing cardmakers to get creative with their dating). The Fort Lauderdale Yankees even waited out the Classic contract to release their team-issued set of cards – which remarkably was not available until after the season had ended, as speculation abounded that the team would relocate for the 1993 season (it indeed would move). The market for Taylor was so intense that a franchise delayed the release of its annual team set until after it had played its last-ever game. The set was available by mail order and seemed to sell quite well. That fall, Topps also included Taylor in the company’s first-ever random insert set, a trio of cards featuring #1 overall draft choices found one in every 72 packs of 1992 Stadium Club Series 3. It instantly became a $25 item.

By the end of 1992, Taylor had been featured on (by my count) 48 different licensed trading cards and a handful of oddball, unlicensed, and magazine-issue cards. It was a staggering number for its time, especially for a player who had pitched in just 27 games professionally. By 1993, a bit of Taylor-fatigue began to appear. His card prices stabilized and, while his presence in the hobby held steady, it stopped being news. Searching the hobby columns that used to be regular features in newspapers across the nation, he was a regular item throughout 1991 and 1992. But by 1993, he faded away into the mass of other can’t-miss-kids making hobby news. He was still a Phenom to be sure, but he was a very familiar Phenom.

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1992 Stadium Club #1 Draft Picks of the ’90s #2 – The first-ever insert set produced by Topps.

In 1993, Taylor made steady progress, racking up 150 Ks and a 3.48 ERA for the AA Albany-Colonie Yankees. It was progress, but collectors and the Yankee brass had visions of Taylor dominating the American League in 1993, not holding his own in the Eastern League. And then in December came baseball’s most infamous after-hours brawl since Mickey Mantle, Billy Martin, and company roughed up a boozy bowling team captain at the Copa. Back home in North Carolina, Taylor got into a melee trying to defend his brother and blew out his shoulder in the process. While the team tried to downplay the injury, Dr. Frank Jobe, who performed Taylor’s reconstructive surgery, called it “one of the worst shoulder injuries [he’d] ever seen.”

Collectors began to dump Taylor’s cards and, as Taylor sat out the entire 1994 season, he appeared in just a handful of sets. Many of his 1994 cards mentioned the injury. “He will miss the entire 1994 season and only time will tell whether or not he can regain his top prospect status,” his Ted Williams Card Company release opined. By 1995, time had told.

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1995 Bowman # 17 – Only one 1995 release had room for Taylor on its checklist.

Demoted to the Yankees’ Rookie League team, Taylor struggled through 40 innings, walking 54 and allowing 37 runs. His fastball stalled and his curve had flattened. With the card market struggling to recover from the strike, companies downsized their releases. In 1995, just a few years removed from being such a force in the marketplace that his mere presence seemed to dictate time itself, he appeared on just one trading card – Bowman #17. He is pictured in a Yankees jersey cap, seating on a picnic table, wearing shorts and sneakers. He’s dressed like a fan or a training camp gofer. The backside mentions an “off the field mishap” and talks about hopes for a return to form that would never happen. Although he would hang around for parts of four more professional seasons, topping out at 27 innings (with an ERA over 14.00) in 1997, he appeared on just two more cards. He’s just 24 years old on his 1996 Best Greensboro Bats card, but he looks older. He looks tired. In 2000, he was featured in a team-issue set for the A-level Columbus Red Stixx. The only evidence the card exists is a listing on tradingcarddb.com. No image of it can be found.

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1996 Best Greensboro Bats #27 – Well into the ‘what if?’ years.

He allowed 11 runs in just 2.2 innings for the Red Stixx that year. It was the last time he pitched. He went back home to North Carolina with his five daughters and worked as a package handler for UPS, then for a beer distributor, and later as a bricklayer with his father. He ran into legal troubles and, in 2012, was arrested on charges of trafficking cocaine. Facing forty years, he pled guilty and served just over three. “Life will never be the same,” Taylor said in 1992. “The only way it would be the same would be if I dropped out today. Then everybody would forget me.”

ATM Cards? Who Needs ’Em!

Paul Simon tells the story about how pissed off Joe DiMaggio was at him about “Mrs. Robinson.” Simon says he’d heard that Joltin’ Joe was bothered by the song, maybe even to the point of legal action.

“What I don’t understand,” DiMag said, “is why you ask where I’ve gone? I haven’t gone anywhere.”

Maybe it was that sense of being forgotten, if even symbolically that pushed Joe into hawking product. Nationally, in 1973, The Yankee Clipper became Mr. Coffee.

Locally, the year before, DiMaggio started doing TV for the Bowery Savings Bank in New York City.

Smartly, the Bowery issued a baseball card, just one. Simple front, 1971 Topps knockoff design (in pink!) on the back.

I’d always wanted this card, never got it, forgot about it, but was jolted (yup, I’m using that word) back in time when I saw it at a show last year. Since then I’ve been looking for it. It’s not too hard to find, but the prices run from a reasonable $10ish to unreasonable factors of 10.

At the big Shriner’s Show this past weekend, I was going through a stack of 1955 Bowman Football, and, immediately after paying, saw a scattered stack of cards. There it was! And for $5!

The 1972 DiMaggio Bowery card has always been my favorite bank card. And, while it doesn’t get money, it didn’t take much either.

R.G. Knowles 1901–02 Ogden’s Tabs

Last week I received a surprise mailing of pre-war cards from Anson Whaley, the proprietor of prewarcards.com who many of us turn to whenever we have questions an anything pre-war. I treat these mailings as an opportunity to google the subjects of the cards and hopefully come across an interesting Wikipedia page that leads me down a rabbit hole.

In this case, it wasn’t a Wikipedia rabbit hole I fell in to but rather a Google Books one. Anson sent me a dozen 1901–02 Ogden’s Cigarettes General Interest cards. A couple sporting subjects but mostly non-sports miscellany—actors, politicians, ships, etc.

One of them was a Mr. R.G. Knowles. The first round of googling confirmed his short bio. He was indeed a comedian who styled himself as “The Peculiar American.” But I also learned that his full name was “Richard George Knowles” so I decided to try googling that too. The result? A link to a book called Baseball written in 1896 in England.

At first I thought this must be a different Richard George Knowles but I figured it was worth flipping through the book just to make sure. Lo and behold on page 65 I found an author photo. To my eyes it looks like the same face (no comment on the hairstyle).

This is pretty cool. My general interest card just turned into a baseball card. So I went back and downloaded the PDF from Google so I could take a deeper look at the book. It’s basically a baseball primer for an English audience more familiar with Rounders and Cricket but is also a great snapshot of the state of the game in the mid-1890s on both sides of the Atlantic.

The player lives in a world limited to three bases, a home plate, and two foul lines, and, for a couple of hours or so, finds relief from business cares, and snatches a holiday for his brain.

The first chapter is about baseball in general. It starts off building baseball up as a game of intelligence where draws are impossible, skills are required in all facets of the game, and failure can be minimized due to the number of repeated chances a batter gets. Much of this reads as an implicit comparison to Cricket which doesn’t feature baserunning and a batter only gets to bat twice a match.

It then goes into describing how to lay out a baseball field. It’s impossible for me to state how much I love this section so I’ll just paste the full text in here in case anyone wants to lay out their own baseball field.

Procure a heavy cord one hundred and eighty feet in length. Tie three knots in it, one at sixty feet five inches, one at ninety feet, and the other at one hundred and twenty-seven feet four inches.

Then, at the outer point of the home plate, drive a peg in the ground, and attach the line to it. Extend the line straight out to the third knot, and at that limit mark the second base. The knot is the centre of the base. Care must be taken that the cord be kept taut, and absolutely straight from the peg at the home plate to the centre of the second base, for the first knot, at sixty feet five inches, must now be taken to indicate the centre of the pitcher’s plate. When this has been duly marked, have one end of the hundred and eighty feet line held at the centre of second base, and keep the other end secured at the home plate as before. Then take hold of the second knot, at ninety feet, which is, of course, in the exact centre of the cord, and walk out with it to the corner of the diamond which is to mark the first base. Keep walking until the line is taut on both sides, and, at that point, mark the first base. Repeat this in the opposite direction, and mark the third base. The diamond is then complete.

That R.G. Knowles goes on to say that when he was a kid he used to carry a ball of string with the requisite knots in it just in case he needed to create a diamond for other kids is just wonderful. Do I think he’s telling the truth? Of course not. (since when have kids cared about proper dimensions when playing a game) But I love the sentiment.

The man who evinces a quick grasp and comprehension of the points of play, and who is also gifted with the capacity of being witty, is a very desirable person for the post.

The second chapter describes each position, including the “coachers” and umpire. Not much to say about the players except to note that second base is treated as the key position on the diamond. The umpire is similarly familiar in how he’s charged with being in control of the game.  The coaches though are specifically the first and third base coaches and get a lot more description than any of the fielders. Aside from coaching the baserunners one of their jobs is to distract the fielders with banter.

Chapter three is the rules of the game. I didn’t read this one thoroughly since it appears to be mostly the same as current rules. I did notice however that things like the 18″ “pine tar” rule as well as the 3-foot running lane to first base already exist.

The next chapter though is great since it’s all about keeping score. Seeing different scoring methods is one of my favorite things and this section’s method is one of the most distinct ones I’ve come across. While it looks superficially like modern scorekeeping it’s vasty different.

To start off, shortstop is position #5 and thirdbase is #6. But everything else is different too. Instead of being a progression around the diamond each square is read left to right.

We also don’t have the now-standard abbreviations that I learned as a kid and which I’ve taught my kids. Take for example the following progression.

This represents a single, stolen base, advancing to third on an error (wild throw), and scoring on a passed ball. The only thing recognizable about this is putting an X or coloring int he diamond when someone scores.

Outs are a lot more familiar. This represents a ground out to the shortstop for the first out of the inning. Aside from the difference in position numbering this is pretty much the same thing I do today.

The rest of the chapter includes a bunch more examples of dealing with other possibilities available during a game. S–O are strikeouts. TI means advancing on a throw. S–H is a sacrifice. FF is a foul out. Very much the same kinds of things that happen in today‘s game and definitely sets baseball apart as a game which has always been obsessed with detail and replaying the events of games past.

The last four chapters of the book discuss the state of the game in 1895. Two chapters each devoted to Baseball in England and Baseball in America.

Among the people present at this christening of the game in London were: Buffalo Bill, General B. Williams (U.S. Army), Colonel Ochiltree, Mrs. Mackay, Mrs. Henry Labouchere, Mrs. T. P. O’Connor, Mrs. Alice Shaw, Dr. Maitland Coffin, Miss Blanche Rooseveldt, Mr. and Mrs. Tyars, Miss Hallett, Miss Helen Dauvray, Mrs. Conover, and Mr. W. Chapman. As a pressman summed it up, it was an audience of society folk, mummers and Mexicans, Cowboys and Cossacks, Gauchos and Indians.

The England chapter starts off listing a few exhibitions by American teams that failed to make any impressions before getting into a description of an exhibition between the Clapham Common nine—a team of Americans living in London who also appear to be members of the London Thespians—and a team of the Cowboys attached to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show at Earl’s Court. The game took place on July 13 1892 and Knowles includes an absolutely wonderful box score.

Where our author is batting third and playing second base in the scorecard, in the box score he’s batting fifth and playing second base (and pitcher) for the London Thespians Club.* This means that not only is my Ogden a card of a baseball writer, it’s of an actual nineteenth-century baseball player. Also the descriptions of the day jobs of the Wild West club players are something I could never in my wildest dreams have dreamed up.

*Especially appropriate given how Knowles is identified on his Ogden as a comedian.

Clearly fielding was not a strong suit for either team though I find it noteworthy that the concept of earned runs is prominent enough to be mentioned as a team stat. I also notice that the Wild West pitcher struck out 14 Thespians and that those putouts appear to be credited to the pitcher instead of the catcher. Oh and despite a cumulative 34 errors the game only lasted just over two hours.

The rest of the England chapters describe the growth of the league over the following years, the difficulty in finding good umpires, additional visits from American teams, hybrid baseball vs cricket exhibitions, and descriptions of a half-dozen baseball grounds.

The following chapter is all biographies of men associated with baseball in England from the President of the London Baseball Association Thomas Dewar to representative English players and representative American players in England.

The greatest interest centres in the professional teams that bear the names of such cities as Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Brooklyn, St. Louis, Washington, Louisville, and Cleveland.

This takes us to the final two chapters which detail the state of baseball in America in 1895. America seems baseball mad with an insatiable appetite for the results of games in progress. The growth of the professional game from individual teams to multiple leagues is markedly different than the amateur struggles Knowles describes in England.

Instead of detailing individual games like he does with the England summary, the 1895 season is described as a pennant race where the standing for a given day are reported instead of the game results until Baltimore clinched the pennant for the second year in a row. Burkett, Delehanty, and Keeler are listed as the top batsmen with Hawley, Rusie, and Young being the best pitchers.

Then we have essentially a biography of Harry Wright, the “Father of Professional Baseball,” as written by Henry Chadwick to close out the book. There’s a glossary, some more rules, an index, and a whole bunch of great advertisements which are too good not to share.

A Curmudgeon’s Guide to the New Millennium

Starting in the late 1980s, I can no longer remember the year of Topps base card sets from simply eyeballing the design.  For the most part, I can only give you a ballpark estimation of the year based on the player.  This stems from buying the factory sets, sorting, putting them in binders, and immediately archiving them in the card closet.

Contributing to this “one and done” approach to collecting modern cards is my curmudgeonly insistence that current designs are either lame or too similar from one year to the next.  To try and break from my “old school” mindset, I took a fresh look at each of the sets from the first decade of the 2000s.  What follows is one old curmudgeon’s ranking of the cards based solely on design.

Bringing up the rear of the decade rankings is 2007.  This one falls in my pet peeve wheelhouse by using foil lettering. The letters are very difficult to read, due to insufficient contrast, which renders the whole purpose of identifying players and teams moot.  Also, what is with the corner dots?  They remind me of the test pattern from the field of vision test I routinely take as part of my glaucoma treatment. The black borders are acceptable but not the “day-glow” green statistics box on the back.  The entirety of design is a complete “excrement show.”

2001 falls into awful category as well.  First off, this is the 50th Anniversary year for Topps. A design that paid homage to Topps past glories seems like a logical approach.  Instead we get teal borders and gold foil lettering!  Teal?  You’ve got to be kidding me!  Sy Berger would have turned over in his grave had he been dead at the time.

At number eight I present 2002 in all its “puke” gold glory.  This is not an attractive color.  It reminds me of the color of my first car, a 1972 four-door Plymouth Valiant with a black vinyl top. Also, are the ribbons supposed to be “gonfalons” floating in the stadium breeze?  Well, the gonfalon bubble burst, and the design is weighty with nothing but trouble. “Stinky (Davis)-to-Stanky-to-Sauer”

2000 and 2006 both suffer from the foil legibility issue, but 2006 gets props for including a cartoon on the back instead of a photo.  Do we really need photos on the back?  This generally means fewer statistics and limited or no biographical information.  How are kids supposed to who led the Sally League in triples in 1998?

Topps stepped up its game in 2005 by introducing white borders and team names, utilizing team word marks. But, why did they put only the player’s last name in bold letters at the top? The vertical placement of the players position is weird as well.  Kudos for having lengthy biographical material.

2009 has some positive elements such white borders and logo placement, but the hard to read foil “foils” the overall aesthetic.

Because it harkens back to past sets, I like the 2003 set with the picture-in-picture look.  If only Topps had used black and white photos with poorly airbrushed logos like 1963, it would be the winner.  The back has most of the good elements, apart from a cartoon.

I must admit that 2004 is a great look.  The team name in foil is very visible against the white background.  I love the drawing of a player representing the position of the person on the card.

As nice as the design is in 2004, it must take runner up status to the “Curmudgeon Cup” winning 2008 design.  The alternating color balls at the top-forming the team name-is simultaneously innovative and retro.  The white borders help draw the eye to the team name as well.  Also, the facsimile signature warms the soil of the vintage collector.  The biggest downside is the lack of the player’s position on the front.

Before you fill up the comments section with vitriol and torch me on Twitter, there is a strong “tongue-in-check” element to this post.  I am not inclined to defend my choices, since I have no strong attachment to this era’s cards.  I will leave you with this though: “Get off my lawn, Topps, and bring back burlap and wood paneled borders!”

Six days in September

I unexpectedly added this 1974 Topps Deckle Edge card of Hank Aaron to my collection last week.

Before getting into my main story I’ll answer a couple quick questions about the card itself.

What is it?

Many collectors are familiar with a Topps Deckle Edge issue from five years earlier, either through the original 1969 set or through more recent Topps Archives reboots.

The 1974 cards, however, are ones that many collectors have never seen, original or otherwise. They were part of a “test issue” limited to the New England area and considerably more scarce than their 1969 predecessors. For example, PSA has graded only 46 Hank Aaron cards from the 1974 set, and even this number is probably inflated by all the “crack and resub” collectors out there.

Where are the deckles?

As the Yaz and Ichiro pics show, a key feature–sorry, THE key feature–of the Deckle Edge cards is…well…deckled edges. Meanwhile, the Aaron pic I showed appears to be perfectly straight. This is the case with the even more scarce proof cards from the set. PSA populations for these proofs range between 1 and 4 per card, and no numerical grades have been issued. As such, were I ever forced to sell my “PSA Authentic” Aaron, I could legitimately do one of those eBay listings that says, “NONE GRADED HIGHER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” right down to the dozens of exclamation marks.

The setting

Unlike the 1969 Deckle Edge cards, which have barely more than the player’s name on the back, these 1974 cards really go the extra mile.

From the information on the back we see Aaron was at Candlestick on September 1 to play the Giants. A bit of quick research also tells us Aaron had 706 career home runs at the time, just eight fewer than the Babe. Having averaged a home run every three games thus far (33 HR in the 100 games he’d played), Aaron was on pace to break the record by season’s end, but only on one condition: he play in every one of Atlanta’s 26 remaining games.

The pursuit of Ruth had been excruciating for the Hammer: death threats, sleepless nights, and constant media attention were so great that Aaron simply wanted to be done. He was less after a crown on his head than a weight off his shoulders. When he finally did break the record, the feeling was not elation but relief.

The decision

Here is the box score from that night’s game.

Plenty of familiar names in the line up but no Hammer, not even when the Braves, down by a single run in the ninth, looked to pinch-hit for Niekro. Five more times in that final month the box score would be similar: no Hammer.

Six days in September

In taking the six days off, the die was cast. The record would wait until 1974. With his team 18 games behind the first place Dodgers, I sometimes wonder why Aaron didn’t just push through and play these games. I have to imagine his fans and teammates would have forgiven a little less hustle in the field and on the bases if it meant another 25-30 trips to the plate.

I don’t know the actual circumstances and decision making behind these six missed games, just that they followed a pattern of off days throughout the season. I can only imagine that Aaron didn’t see himself as able to give 100%.

Were you to scan the Braves roster you might quickly conclude that 80% from Hank Aaron would still be better than 110% from anyone on the Atlanta bench, particularly knowing the best manager Eddie Mathews could put out there in his place would be these two players.

So yeah, these numbers might surprise you.

  • .455 batting average
  • .520 on-base percentage
  • .727 slugging percentage
  • 1.247 OPS

Babe who??

King Henry

The photograph on the Deckle Edge card shows a man who had a choice. What he would do that day and in all for six fateful days in September would determine whether he would enter a much needed offseason with the crown or let the strain and anguish of the chase drag on him another six months.

That would be an easy choice for most of us, and perhaps it was an easy one for the Hammer as well. Carrying his own burdens, that he could live with. Placing burden on his teammates, that just wasn’t in his DNA.

Though he finished the season with “only” 713 home runs, Topps provided Aaron with an early cardboard coronation. His was a royalty that needed no crown. All hail the Home Run King!